Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Shadia: Dishing over questions of faith

One of the reasons I enjoy a happy and fulfilling life is because of the people in it.

They are a people who fear God, lead by example and strive, in their own way, for a better world.

And last week, I was reminded once more how lucky I am when a few of them gathered for a Ramadan iftar/dinner at my home.

My mom, Shadia, who is an excellent cook (I say this with total objectivity), prepared our food, and among her creations was one of Egypt's most popular dishes: kushary.

If you haven't had kushary, which is a combination of rice, lentils, two different kinds of pasta, tomato sauce, caramelized onions and garbanzo beans, you need to finish reading this column first, then go find a place that serves kushary (but only my mom's is the most excellent).

I made baklava because I make the best baklava (there's some bias here).

While everyone enjoyed my mom's food, it was the gathering that made it so special for me.

My home was full of friends from all walks of life. They included Muslims, Christians and Jews, and everyone, even the Jews, got out safely.

This was not the first time I have held this dinner. I do it every year and have done it for the past five years or so and always look forward to it.

What made the gathering especially enjoyable for me was the end-of-night conversation some of my Muslim and Jewish friends engaged in.

Meesh and I often discuss the concept of believing in one God, what the Koran — the last of the three monotheistic religions — says about Christians and Jews, how we reconcile and navigate our differences, and what it all means at the end.

There's a great deal of joy that comes from our conversations, and because we're not experts in the field, we end up with questions. A lot of them. Sometimes the questions are important, and sometimes they are not.

So when we, especially me, get our hands on someone with knowledge of the three monotheistic religions, we unload our questions and demand intelligent answers.

Hussam Ayloush is usually the lucky one, and he was this time as well.

Hussam, the executive director of the Greater Los Angeles Area chapter of theCouncil on American-Islamic Relations, is blessed with abundant knowledge on Islam and also the teachings of Judaism and Christianity.

We started with some easy questions: If a child is born to a Muslim father, does that fact automatically make them Muslim? (You know who I'm talking about, don't you? Mmm-hmm.)

We had other questions involving technical and tedious theological matters, like what constitutes a Muslim, spiritually, theologically or both.

We talked about the Torah, the Bible, the Koran and our prophets, including Abraham and Moses. We talked about Jesus as well. We talked about St. Paul's trip from Jerusalem to Damascus and his vision of Jesus and the letters he wrote about it.

And throughout our conversation, there was a common theme: our common roots and belief in one God, all the while my friend's 2-year-old daughter was walking around with some high heels she found laying around.

None of us became angry with one another, nor began fighting like it is depicted sometimes on television. Instead, we shared good food, joked a lot and laughed so much, I was overjoyed.

I thought to myself: This is what it's all about, people. And that's really how the Middle Easterners do it, in my world.

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.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Shadia: Pursuing the 'night of power'

Something's been keeping me up at night.

I haven't had much beauty sleep in the last eight nights, and I'm not due for much more until the end of Ramadan, which is — sadly — on Saturday.

I've been up in search of "Laylat ul-Qadr," the night of power.

It lasts only for a few hours, from sunset to sunrise, but its significance and possibilities are so great that I cannot risk missing it.

It is a night tantamount to 1,000 months of contiguous worship.

It is the night when God first revealed the Koran to the Prophet Muhammad through the angel Gabriel more than 1,400 years ago.

It is the night when God continuously sends his angels, including Gabriel, to earth, so our planet is literally overflowing with the celestial beings.

The presence of angels is simultaneous with God's mercy, and so I cannot be asleep on such a night.

Many Islamic scholars believe the night of power falls on the 27th of Ramadan, but no one knows for sure.

What we know is that it falls on any one of the last 10 nights of Ramadan — likely rotating on those holiest days from one year to another — and there are signs in the atmosphere that indicate its presence.

Sounds grandiose, right?

It is.

The weather is even keel, not so hot and not so cold. The sky is also a bit brighter than usual, and when the sun rises, it's bright with no rays. There are also those — the most righteous among us — who tend to sense its presence.

Muslims believe that God offers this night as our chance to worship him beyond our capacity to live.

When the Prophet Muhammad became aware of the length of time people lived centuries ago, he wondered how Muslims could compete with that, Yasir Qadhi said in a recent sermon I watched online. Qadhi, who is working on his Ph.D in religious studies at Yale University, is the dean of academic affairs and instructor at AlMaghrib Institute, and a lecturer at Rhodes College's Department of Religious Studies.

Because we are not capable of living for hundreds of years, God provided this night for Muslims.

A thousand months of worship comes to about 83.3 years. And Muslims have the chance to do it every single year during the last 10 days of Ramadan in their lifetimes.

On that night, God also reveals to those angels their tasks on earth for the next year to come.

Qadhi said that each angel has a task, like those whose jobs it is to breathe life into the womb of mothers, or those whose duty is to increase someone's blessing, or even decrease it, among others, and on the night of power, each angel gets its schedule for the next year to come.

(I seriously cannot be sleeping on a night like this, not only because I'm a Muslim, but because I'm a very curious journalist).

When the prophet's wife, Aisha, asked him what would be the best thing to say if one was to catch the night of power, the prophet told her to say the following: "O God! Verily, you are the oft-pardoning, You love to pardon, so pardon me."

Because we don't know which night it is exactly, many Muslims stay up or get up early in the morning on each of the last 10 nights of Ramadan to make sure they don't miss it.

I'm not the only one who's been deprived of sleep in hopes of catching Laylat ul-Qadr this year; millions of devout Muslims — including my mom, Shadia, aunt Gannat, and Uncle Beautiful — are also on the hunt for this night, and we are each year, because one who worships God on this night is worthy of its blessings.

Most mosques have a night-long program on the 27th, which I attend with my mom and aunt and some friends each year.

There's much to gain on this night, and someday I'm hoping to sense its presence and recognize its signs when it arrives.

I can't really describe in words what it means for me to be able to catch this night or how I've been feeling these last few days.

But I can tell you that for as long as I live, I won't be asleep when this night is here.

And even if I fail to ever sense its presence or receive its blessings, pursuing it shall remain more than enough for me.

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.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Shadia: A time of faith and festivity too

Do you know how Christmas is supposed to be about faith?
That's what Ramadan is supposed to be about too — God.

But like Christmastime, Ramadan, for some, becomes a time for lavish dinner parties and uncontrollable spending.
For producers and television stations, it's time to make money from special soap operas (which come right out of Egypt, the Hollywood of the Middle East).

Ramadan is supposed to be the month of feeding — feeding those in need, feeding your soul. But for some people and cultures, it's the month of gorging after sunset and seeking entertainment.
It's restaurants and food retailers' chance to make the most money.

And like with Christmastime, certain foods and drinks are associated with Ramadan (definitely not honey-baked ham).
In Egypt, pastries are a big thing. At least, they were in my childhood, and they continue to be in my home here. (It's all my mom's fault. I'm not the one making it — I'm just eating it.)

It makes sense because fasting results in sugar cravings, but that's probably why the Prophet Muhammad used to break his fast with dates.
Breaking the day's fast with dates was recommended by the prophet. They were also a staple food during his time for their ability to be preserved, and withstand the harsh weather and travel conditions.

Most Muslims break their fast with dates, sometimes with a glass of milk.
For Arabs, one of the popular pastries associated with Ramadan is "attaief," a pancake-like dough stuffed with nuts or cheese, deep-fried then submerged in honey (yep, very fattening). There's also "kunafa," which is shredded dough that's also filled with nuts or cheese, baked and then covered with honey (not as fattening, just pretty fattening).

And instead of eggnog during Christmastime, Ramadan drinks include apricot juice mixed with dried fruits, such as figs and apricots.
There are also those who stay up all night during Ramadan and sleep for most of the day, which totally defeats the point of fasting.

You might not notice these cultural aspects of Ramadan in the United States as much as you would in, say, Egypt.
But if you are familiar with the area in Anaheim known as Little Arabia, you'll see some of these practices. Little Arabia is filled with restaurants that prepare buffets for iftar — the fast-breaking meal at sunset — with a variety of foods, and some provide entertainment afterward.

When I told a friend who is familiar with the scene in Anaheim that I was going to write about this, he used the term, "Ramadanian tents."
I hadn't heard that term before, but basically, because restaurants are busier than usual, the owners set up tents to provide extra seating. This practice is very popular during Ramadan in the Middle East.
After sunset, the tents house guests who are there for entertainment that includes hookah, tea and music.

In a way, even if you're a devout Muslim who frowns upon all the cultural practices and special foods, it's difficult to dissociate yourself from them all. I'm sure there are many Christians who celebrate Christmas for all the right reasons, but still probably take advantage of the sales, deals and festivities that come with the holiday.

I haven't been doing much since Ramadan started, other than working, fasting, praying, eating at sunset and going to the mosque for taraweh — the extra daily prayers — as often as I can.
So this past weekend, I decided to experience Ramadan from both the spiritual and cultural perspectives.

I attended Jumaa, Muslims' weekly Friday sermon, at my mosque. I hadn't attended Jumaa during Ramadan before. The sermon was about Islam's third pillar: Zakat, or alms in English. I also attended a community iftar at the mosque with my mom and aunt, staying to pray taraweh afterward.

Saturday, however, I took a different route and attended a concert and had suhoor, which is eating before dawn, at a restaurant.

Saturday happens to have been the day when Niyaz, a Persian mystic music group my friend Meesh and I love, was playing at Grand Performances in Los Angeles.
We attended, and to my surprise, the group had a Sufi whirling performer. Sufi whirling is a form of meditation originated by some Sufi Muslims and practiced during their religious ceremonies. The idea is that while one is whirling, he or she discards all worldly desires and focuses on a relationship with God.

I had never seen this dance live before, and it was interesting to watch it unfold so majestically.
I had planned on coming back to Orange County for suhoor with friends at 2:30 a.m. at a restaurant in Little Arabia, but instead we went to an Arabic restaurant for a late dinner, then met up with a couple other friends at another Arabic cafe.

And what did I learn from all of this?
It's that I'm getting old and should not be staying up and out too late, especially during Ramadan.

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: 'Taraweh' is Muslims' opera

The other night I struggled to come up with a simple way to describe the magnitude of "taraweh" — the extra prayers performed nightly during Ramadan.

And then an enigmatic Muslim poet I know compared it — perfectly — to opera.

There's standing in place in awe of the eloquence of God's words and their melody. There's simultaneous bowing. There's kneeling and prostrating in unison. There's dramatic begging, hands raised toward the sky. There are trembling voices, tears.
There are no instruments, but who needs them? The mesmerizing words of the recitation of the Koran is music enough.

Taraweh is said to wash the sins of those who perform it. It is based on one of the Prophet Muhammad's traditions during Ramadan. And it takes place at every mosque after "Isha," the last of the daily prayers.

Taraweh is not mandatory. One Ramadan, the prophet held taraweh for the first couple of nights and then didn't show up the next. When people later inquired about his absence, he said he didn't attend out of fear that his followers would believe it mandatory.

Unlike the usual five daily prayers, which take only a few minutes, taraweh lasts at least an hour, sometimes two or more.

There's usually a break in the middle, where the imam gives a three- to five-minute talk. There are also fundraising efforts during the break, either for the mosque's operation or to fund its charity programs.

One would think it's unbearable to do it for just a night, let alone 30. But there are those who never miss a beat.

Taraweh is what gets me to the mosque, and without it, Ramadan wouldn't be the same.

I only started attending taraweh about two Ramadans ago, and I don't remember exactly why, but I can barely imagine Ramadan without it now.

If my schedule allowed, I would do it every single night, but I wouldn't attend even a free opera show for 30 nights in a row.

Mosques go through rigorous preparation for taraweh, from ensuring daily security to providing extra parking and baby-sitting.

Reciting the Koran is at the heart of taraweh. Mosques usually recite the entire book during the 30 nights.

And for the imams, taraweh showcases their talents and abilities to recite the Koran. Some of the best reciters are flown across seas to recite the Koran during taraweh.

There's an art to reciting the Koran called tajweed, and learning it takes years. Its melody is inspiring, moving and like nothing else you've heard, even if you don't understand a single word.

It brings grown men to tears and to their knees.

Praying taraweh brings me immense joy and inner peace.

I choke up when Imam Mohammed Ibn Faqih's voice trembles as he recites the Koran during taraweh at my mosque, the Islamic Institute of Orange County in Anaheim.

And when he is clearly overcome with the power of the words, I feel as though my body is shrinking, humble before God.

I come from a culture stereotyped for its cold, chauvinistic men. But times like taraweh are when their true nature is revealed.

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.