Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Shadia: From 50 prayers a day to five

This might hurt. But once it's over, we'll all feel better.

Jerusalem, the blessed city, the witness to heaven's miracles, the center of faith, hope and despair, is not just important to Jews and Christians.

It is significant to Muslims as well.

Muslims just celebrated the anniversary of the Prophet Muhammad's Night Journey and Ascension from Mecca to Jerusalem to heaven on June 17, which this year was the 27th day of the Islamic lunar calendar month, Rajab.

You almost don't want to believe it. I mean, how could you go from Mecca in Saudi Arabia, to Jerusalem to the seventh heaven and back to Mecca in one night?

But like the miraculous crossing of the sea by Moses and the birth of Jesus to the Virgin Mary, this story was also one of the first I learned about as a child.

The prophet had just lost his most beloved wife, Khadija, and his uncle, Abu Talib, who raised him and protected him, and had been enduring the cruelty and physical attacks of those who didn't believe him when God took him on the journey of the Isra and Mi'raj.

He led a prayer with the prophets of Islam, where the Dome of the Rock mosque, inside Haram al Sharif (or the Noble Sanctuary) in the Old City, now stands. Jerusalem is repeatedly referred to in the Koran as the sacred and blessed land. It is also the direction in which early Muslims used to pray.

That changed later when Muslims were instructed to pray toward Mecca, the same direction we believe Abraham used to pray.

After leading the prayer in Jerusalem during the Night Journey and Ascension, the prophet ascended from that point to heaven and came back with instructions for Muslims to pray five times a day. He couldn't have gotten to heaven from anywhere else.

With him at almost every step of the way was the angel Gabriel.

In the first heaven, the prophet met Adam.

In the second, he met Jesus and John the Baptist.

In the third, he met Joseph

In the fourth, he met Idris (Enoch).

In the fifth, he saw Aaron.

In the sixth, he saw Moses.

And in the seventh, he met our patriarch, Abraham.

The prophet was welcomed by Adam, Jesus, John the Baptist, Joseph, Idris, Aaron and Moses as their brother, and by Abraham as his son, and a deputy of God. (It's right about here in the story when I get goosebumps all over.)

This is where it becomes clear that our religion's root doesn't start with Muhammad, but begins with Adam and goes on from Abraham to Jesus and beyond. Dishonoring or disrespecting one of them is like disrespecting all of them.

OK. Back to the prophet's Night Journey and Ascension.

The prophet then continued on to what's called the Lote-Tree of the Farthest Limit, and it was then when Gabriel told him he'd have to go it alone.

There, the prophet spoke directly to God. He commanded him to instruct Muslims to pray 50 times a day. That's 50!

The prophet didn't question it.

But on his way back, Moses saved the day (he's famous for that).

He told Muhammad to go back and request that the number be decreased, that the burden is too high, that he'd experienced human nature with the Children of Israel, and 50 is just too much, and it isn't going to work.

The prophet went back and the number was lowered to 45. Moses again told him to return and request that the number be decreased.

The number was again lowered, but not by much, to 40.

Moses continued to send him back until the daily prayer was lowered from 50 to five.

At that point, Moses still wanted to send him back, but Muhammad told him he was too embarrassed to go again, and the number remained at five.

I would like to officially thank Moses for intervening to lower the number of daily prayers from 50 to five. Keeping up with five is tough enough.

Every single command given to Muslims came from heaven to Muhammad on earth through the angel Gabriel. But when it came to prayers, the prophet was ascended to heaven to retrieve it directly.

Praying is a Muslim's direct link to God. It's difficult to forget about God, to lie, steal, cheat or hurt when you're constantly going back for five times a day to connect with him, to thank him and ask for his strength.

It is like food for the soul. (I hear that eating small meals several times a day is a good way to stay healthy and keep your metabolism going.)

So when you see a Muslim praying, remember this story. Remember that more likely than not, that Muslim is feeding his or her soul.

And now, if you'll excuse me, I'm late for my second prayer.

MONA SHADIA is a reporter for Times Community News. An Egyptian American, she was born and raised in Cairo and now lives in Orange County. Her column includes various questions and issues facing Muslims in America. Follow her on Twitter @MonaShadia.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Shadia: A play on perceptions

Surprise, surprise.

I took a Jew to a mosque and no one got hurt.

My friend Meesh and I attended the celebration of the King Fahad-Templ Emanuel Fellowship in Los Angeles, where a group of Jews and Muslims partnered up for a few months and shared stories, food and traditions in hopes of melting down the misconceptions and myths we sometimes believe about each other.

"A Night to Inspire" was held at King Fahad Mosque and attracted Jews, Muslims and anyone else who was interested in the work of Newground, a nonprofit that works to foster relations between the two faiths.

Meesh, a Jew, and I, a Muslim, were curious about the fellowship and the experiences of those who participated. I also thought we should show them how a Jew and a Muslim form a lasting bond in real life.

Because the event was held at a mosque, the email instructed women to dress modestly and, preferably, cover their hair.

Like a hawk, I was on top of things (or so I thought). I brought head covers for Meesh and myself, wore a long skirt, put on my long cardigan and hijab in the car and waited for Meesh. On the phone, Meesh told me she was dressed like an Orthodox Jew going to temple. Perfect, I told her.

Meesh is a conservative Jew.

I was fixing my hijab when Meesh entered the mosque for the first time in her life. Because she's my friend, it was humbling for me to watch it happen. I felt excited and proud — though, rest assured, I'm not interested in converting Meesh to Islam.

(I'm not sure I'd like her as much if she were Muslim ... OK, stop gasping. I'm only kidding.)

I wanted to make sure Meesh had the best and most welcoming time at the mosque. I had no doubts she would, but to be honest, I was a little anxious because I know our people can be a bit too critical at times.

I didn't like it when, the minute she walked in, someone asked her to take off her shoes. (She wasn't even in the prayer hall yet. You see what I'm talking about now?) And I felt really annoyed when a young woman offered to get her a longer skirt to pull over her already Orthodox-acceptable one (the skirt stopped below her knees).

Meesh later told me that she asked if her skirt was too short, which led the woman to offer a longer one.

We stood in the restroom for a few minutes, chatting and laughing about nothing and covering our hair. Meesh, who is Persian, was about to tie the hijab the way Orthodox Jewish women often do it in America when she decided to do it the way many Middle Eastern women do.

And that confused people. Because Meesh looks Middle Eastern, there were those who weren't sure if she was Muslim or Jewish, and she enjoyed watching the uncertain looks on some faces.

Two fellowship members — a Muslim and a Jew who were assigned to each other for the duration of the fellowship — spoke of their experience.

When the Jewish fellow was speaking about his experience, Meesh seemed critical of him and at least once whispered, "That's not true" to something he said.

She later said, "I identify with his emphasis on Judaism as a cultural and a national identity, but I also feared that the tone of his statement would lead to a perception that faith and God does not play as important a role in Judaism."

I didn't get that perception.

At one point, the Muslim woman spoke about an experience she had after9/11when a group of people harassed her on a train. In describing the incident, she repeatedly stressed that there are bad people in the world, which I perceived as a veiled statement about Jews. I know that wasn't her intention, but given the many misconceptions some of us already have about each other, I was afraid it would lead to that understanding.

Meesh didn't think the woman was equating her bad experience with Jews and wasn't at all offended.

We were at an event that fosters relations between Jews and Muslims. The two obviously didn't share many misconceptions about the other's faith.

We found ourselves analyzing why we were critical of our own people.

Is it because we're just weird?

You might think so. But, the truth is it's because religion is very personal and very individualistic.

Each Muslim and Jew is not alike. The way I view God and interpret Islam is personal to me. The way Meesh views God and identifies with Judaism is also personal to her.

And because we care about our faiths, we wanted it presented in the perfect light — our standard of perfect, that is.

Lessons? We as humans shouldn't be judging one another. And on a larger scale, we certainly shouldn't be judging others' path in life.

Next, Meesh is taking me to a temple.

Should I be worried?

MONA SHADIA is a reporter for Times Community News. An Egyptian American, she was born and raised in Cairo and now lives in Orange County. Her column includes various questions and issues facing Muslims in America. Follow her on Twitter @MonaShadia.

Shadia: Your heart and actions matter, not your appearance

A group of people once brought a drunk man to the Prophet Muhammad, thinking that because alcohol is forbidden he would react harshly.

Instead, the prophet questioned their judgmental behavior and criticism, telling them that he knew the man loved him and God.

I'm telling you this because a few weeks ago I had a conversation with a local imam on what determines faith.

I told him that I believe Islam teaches that faith is between one person and God, that a person's appearance to outsiders doesn't determine his or her level of devotion.

I told him that not covering my hair, for example, doesn't make me less Muslim.

His response was that I should reconsider my position on the hijab, that, basically, my credibility and social standing are likely to be elevated if I start covering my hair.

I'm pretty sure I was rolling my eyes.

Here we go again, I thought.

My Uncle Beautiful first got me to cover my hair when I was about 6 years old. He couldn't get my strong-willed mom, Shadia, to do it. And so my sister and I walked fully covered in public next to our mom, while her hair flowed freely.

I despised the hijab and fought hard against wearing it.

I lost that battle.

But I got to choose for myself when I came to America.

My mom now covers her hair — her choice.

My sister, Marwa, and I don't — our choice.

Things between me and Uncle Beautiful are now fine, though it wasn't easy to get here. I'm comfortable with my choice of not covering.

But over time, and honestly because I'm probably more sensitive to the hijab, I've grown frustrated with many in my community who have collectively created this perception that somehow you're better, more faithful and more pious if you cover your locks.

That, I believe, is what led my uncle to make sure I covered. He believed then (as he does now) that a Muslim woman is commanded by God to cover her hair and dress modestly, but he mainly worried about the perception people would have had of me.

This is why he fought with my mom over it — not out of cruelty, but out of love, strange as it might sound.

Imam Yassir Fazaga, religious leader of the Orange County Islamic Foundation in Mission Viejo, said there is a difference between religious mandates and the value a society places on public expressions of those mandates.

Covering is one of the few visual expressions for Islamic women, Fazaga said. The same goes for faithful Muslim men, who often have beards.

These displays in Islam are similar to wearing crosses in Christianity, Fazaga said.

People in our culture have attached the hijab or beards to certain meanings: that the person is more pious or faithful.

But, ultimately, what you do on the surface shouldn't determine your faith or lack thereof, Fazaga said.

It is about what's in your heart.

You might think I'm being too critical of my community, but it is because I love my community that I challenge some of its members' unwillingness to sometimes see beyond the surface — hence, the imam who thinks simply covering my hair will get people to think highly of me.

It is because I love my uncle that I challenge him to accept that it's fine to disagree on the routes, even though we're seeking the same destination.

I believe wholeheartedly that Islam forbids people from judging others from the surface, and it is because of examples like the one about the drunk man I mentioned earlier.

The prophet also once said that God "does not look at your appearance or wealth, but rather He looks at your hearts and actions."

It dawns on me that the tendency to judge people based on their appearance or path in life isn't specific to Muslims.

We all do it and, in turn, we are all responsible for the rift it has created in our society, from the day-to-day pressures we place on women's appearances to religious groups that argue they're better than their counterparts or that ultimately their path to God is the only correct one.

If God is capable of giving you a unique mind, look and heart, is He not capable of understanding that uniqueness?

MONA SHADIA is a reporter for Times Community News. An Egyptian American, she was born and raised in Cairo and now lives in Orange County. Her column includes various questions and issues facing Muslims in America. Follow her on Twitter @MonaShadia.

Shadia: Standing alongside Syrians, if only in spirit

When I was growing up in Cairo, there was a rumor that the Egyptian secret service placed an informant in every neighborhood who knew every little move you made, your family history and what you said about the government.

Just one bad word about the regime, and you'd be snatched from your bed, never to be seen again.

Though I was young and didn't understand politics, the idea of an informant scared me.

I didn't really want to believe this rumor — unconfirmed as it was — about my neighbors, who were good and kind people.

There was a man whom people thought was the informant. He had a day job — a presumed cover, of course — but I heard he had a top position in the government.

And then there was an incident when a young man from my street disappeared. Neighbors said he was taken to prison and might never come back. He did came back, though, only different. He wasn't as social or as passionate, just changed.

Now that I'm older and understand more about how the Middle East works, I doubt that man in my neighborhood was the informant. Informants by definition do not easily stand out. They could be your teacher, your neighbor, even your brother.

Dictators use fear and retaliation to control the population. Systematic arrests, imprisonment, torture and execution crush citizens' spirits, keeping them silent. But usually just the idea that a neighbor could rat you out to the government was enough to keep people in check.

This idea that you can sit in a coffee shop with your friends and criticize your government or president, as we do here, was nonexistent where I grew up.

I thought things were bad in Egypt before the Arab Spring — that is, until I learned more about what is happening in Syria.

Not only has the Syrian government monitored its citizens for the last 40 years, the Assad regime controls every aspect of people's lives, from arts and entertainment to social norms and politics. It's not really a government; it's a mafia-like system, where torture and execution are common.

People are thought of as property. That's true of everyone, including women and children.

When I think of the way I felt about the informant, the man who disappeared for years, the torture in Syria and the ongoing killing of innocent children, it's clear why Arabs rarely have tried to rebel en masse until now.

That so many of them rose up at once is nothing short of a miracle from God above.

According to the Syrian American Council, more than 15,000 Syrians have been killed since the Syrian revolt that began in March. Among the dead are an estimated 1,000 children, 1,000 women and 600 people who died during torture.

Yet Syrians are continuing to risk their lives for ideals we sometimes take for granted: freedom, dignity, justice.

You might not be able to stop the injustice in Syria, but you may support its victims by staying aware, speaking out against human rights abuses and standing alongside them in spirit.

When you think of them, think of the life and freedom you would want for yourself, your family, friends and children. And remember, the Founding Fathers and their followers once fought for the freedom you have today.

MONA SHADIA is a reporter for Times Community News. An Egyptian American, she was born and raised in Cairo and now lives in Orange County. Her column includes various questions and issues facing Muslims in America. Follow her on Twitter @MonaShadia.

Shadia: Dreams are coming true in Egypt

Something amazing is happening.

Something I only dreamed about and thought it would always remain a dream.

For the first time in Egypt's thousands of years of existence — a history marked with glory and failures — its citizens are deciding who should lead them as president.

I used to think I'd see peace between the Palestinians and Israelis before I saw the birth of democracy in Egypt.

It wasn't because I didn't think Egyptians weren't capable. I knew all along that my people were brave, that they could break away from the shackles of dictatorship, that they knew they deserved better. I just felt that Egyptians were too kind, too forgiving, too accepting — even too thankful — of their conditions to demand something better.

When Egyptians took to Tahrir Square, I wasn't shocked, but excitement and pride took over my entire being. When Mubarak stepped down, I cried with relief.

When the first-ever presidential debate between the top two candidates was playing on Egyptian television two weeks ago — with people hovering over it in homes and hookah cafes like they do for soccer games — I was jumping in my chair at the office. And now, as they stand in miles-long lines to vote, my heart is beating with joy.

But then there are those Negative Nancys out there who say democracy in Egypt and the Arab world isn't gonna happen, because, you know, it's already been a year and a half and democracy and order hasn't taken over Egypt yet.

For those who think democracy happens overnight, that it's not a tedious and frustrating process, that each of its steps doesn't take hard work, failure, sweat and sacrifice, let me remind you of America's road to democracy.

Not every American wanted independence from the British. There wasn't just one unified military, but several groups, each with its own mission and agenda.

Even after independence, there were many failures leading up to the writing of the Constitution. And it took many fights and long nights to get it done for the majority of Americans to agree we should be the United States of America. Why would it be any different somewhere else?

But, of course, uncertainty is looming. That pathetic uncertainly! Always hanging around, taunting me, bursting my bubble!

I listened to the founder and president of theWashington, D.C.-based Arab American Institute, James Zogby, speak Thursday at the World Affairs Council of Orange County about Arab voices and what they're saying to us.

Zogby, an internationally acclaimed author and commentator, was critical of the U.S. government's attitude toward the Arab world, of how Americans place Arabs in one box and how Washington traditionally refuses to acknowledge its mistakes or learn from them.

But he said hope is on the horizon.

When I asked him what he predicted would happen in Egypt and how it would impact the rest of the Arab nations, he said something that made me smile and instilled more pride in my native Egypt. He said when Egyptians revolted, it was like a great play making it onto Broadway.

Great plays don't start on Broadway, Zogby said. They start somewhere else, like Connecticut. But then if they reach Broadway, you know they've made it onto the world's stage, bound for a lasting impact.

Tunisia, which started the Arab Spring, is like Connecticut, he said. But Egypt — Egypt is Broadway!

When Zogby compared Egypt to Broadway, I started picturing Broadway, its beauty, timelessness, drama and greatness, and how Egypt and its uprising resemble it in many ways. Then I got back to listening to Zogby's answer.

Zogby said we know for a fact that whoever gets elected president is not going to have the same power Mubarak had, and we don't know exactly how things will unfold, but that is in itself exciting.

Zogby didn't seem to worry about the kind of government Egypt will end up with as much as he worries about its economy. He said a public-private partnership to get Egyptians back on their feet is the way to go.

You must wonder what I think should be the role of Islam in a democratic Egypt. Like America's values, which are based on the traditions of the Abrahamic (mainly Christian) faiths, Egypt's principles should be based on Islamic values.

As far as I'm concerned, no government should tell me how to worship or who to worship. Faith and modesty don't come from the government, but from within. Egyptians will eventually catch up with that, but it takes time.

There's been a lot of talk about the status of Copts in the new Egypt, with some arguing that their rights will be minimized, but I refuse to think of them as a minority. In fact, I didn't know what minority meant until I came to the United States.

Egypt's Copts are not a minority — they are Egyptians. They should never feel threatened in their own home, and if they do, then shame on all the Egyptian Muslims for letting it happen.

Egyptians are a diverse group of people, but they are united in demand of a government that will let them live a dignified, free life. They are united for an Egypt filled with opportunities for their children and the generations to come, and if this next government doesn't give Egyptians what they want, I bet you they'll be back to Tahrir Square — because once you're on Broadway, there's no stepping down.

MONA SHADIA is a reporter for Times Community News. An Egyptian American, she was born and raised in Cairo and now lives in Orange County. Her column includes various questions and issues facing Muslims in America. Follow her on Twitter @MonaShadia.