What About Hamas?

It’s not just the Israelis whom we Muslims should be focusing on. I have received email after email giving notice of planned protests, denunciations, etc. and quite frankly I have to admit I’m a little disappointed to put it mildly. Why is it that every time something happens in Gaza we Muslims can’t see the 800 pound Gorilla in the room?

Allah (swt) knows that I am not denying the brutal onslaught on the Palestinians committed by the Israeli government, but Allah (swt) also commands me to use my reason and to be patient before I react in pure unadulterated emotion as some of us are.

Many innocent civilians have been killed in the latest flare up. Over 300 dead and over 1000 wounded Palestinians at this point, and I think at most 5 Israelis have been killed or injured. So of course the disproportionate nature of victims prove that this is a heavy handed response, but the keyword that we fail to acknowledge as we condemn Israel is the word response.

What are the Israeli’s responding to? That is the question we Muslims never ask. We love to deal exclusively in the effects of a situation but rarely engage in the causes behind them.

We have to call Hamas to account here. They are not the victims. They refuse to deal in a manner in which is honorable, peaceful, and justified. They fired rockets in Israel, they broke the cease-fire, and the cowards purposefully ensure that they do so from civilian compounds so that when the Israelis respond the amount of civilians that are killed are maximized.

Let’s be realistic, if Israel had in mind that they wanted to kill Palestinians indiscriminately they would just do it. They obviously have the capability and the so-called Muslim world wouldn’t do anything about it. It’s all a game these countries play. No one actually cares about the Palestinians or Muslims around the world suffering until Israel does something big enough to give them a stage for political posturing.

If we really wanted to pontificate in a meaningful way we would reign in Hamas and call them to account for the role they played in the deaths of all the innocents on both sides. These thugs who claim to represent a noble cause are anything but. If they were really warriors or Mujahadeen as they play on TV they would face the Israeli Army in battle directly and not involve civilians. The same goes for all the other so-called clerics and groups that have issues with the West and Israel. No true Muslim would purposefully target civilians and other non-combatants, but that’s not how these thugs act is it?

So here we go again another round of Muslims not speaking out and against the right thing. Yet we wonder why non-Muslims think we are all terrorists or terrorist sympathizers. What should they think when we never protest against these groups who are the number one reason for the violence against the civilians that are being killed?

I will not allow myself to be caught up in the blind finger pointing. In war there will always be collateral damage and it is unfortunate, however we have to critically look at this people, would the level of deaths be so high if Hamas didn’t use civilian dwellings as bases of operation? If you fire a rocket from an apartment building for example and are fired upon in return obviously everyone in the building is now in danger and at risk of dying too.

This is the major problem that we fail to acknowledge, protest against, and pontificate against. Hamas, Hezbollah, and all the other groups do this on purpose. We are all pawns in their game. They are the true murderers, they set our people up so they can be killed. They use Mosques, homes, schools, etc. to draw fire against the innocent and to them the blame for the dead should be placed.

So today and the days to come we will continue to look like a group of backward idiots as our leaders, clerics, Imams, etc. go to their various podiums and condemn the evil Israeli’s with no condemnation for Hamas and any other group who would use the innocent as a shield and a tool with the sole hopes that they would be murdered and in return increase support for their cause that by the way has gotten the Muslims nothing but more death, poverty, and isolation.

I can’t stress this enough, Muslims wake up, wake up you sleeping giant! We will never advance any goal or ideal as long as we are blind to those who do us harm within our midst. It is perfectly normal, virtuous, and right to mourn the dead Palestinians and call Israel to account for their heavy handed response to the thugs called Hamas, but it is not normal, virtuous, or right to continue to be silent about the Israeli civilians who are killed and live in a state of fear also. It is not normal, virtuous, or right to continue to be silent about how Hamas set the Palestinians in Gaza up to be killed, these deaths were intentional on their part, and if we really cared about justice in the Middle East we would acknowledge their role in the bloodshed as well.

Don’t allow yourselves to be tools Muslims enjoin what is good and forbid what is evil. We must rid ourselves of those who set up the deaths of innocent civilians to advance agenda, propaganda, and monetary support.

I for one, will perfectly understand why as a bloc, Muslims are looked at as backward, just turn on the TV, not one Muslim who speaks for other Muslims regardless of the size of the group will mention how Hamas caused, planned, and set up the deaths of the Palestinians by attacking Israel in hopes they would respond this way.

Just watch how foolish and cowardly they look not speaking the plain unbiased truth of the matter.

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President Barack Obama: A Blessing in Disguise?

I have wanted to blog on this subject for quite sometime now and I couldn’t decide if it should be one posting or two.  Since the audiences I want to target are similar I decided in the end to just do one. J There you have it, an unnecessary preface to a blog posting!

 

Is Barack Obama a blessing in disguise?  I certainly believe so for a myriad of reasons including that his name just happens to mean blessing in Arabic!

 

Here it is a little over two months since the conclusion of a historic election cycle and as I reflect on these years’ events I have to look back in awe and with great pride and respect in my country and her people.

 

As a member of two of the groups I want to address today, it has taken a month plus to come up with the words, and it’s probably going to taken several more to grasp the lingering effects further.

 

To my dear Black, Muslim, or both brothers in sisters here and abroad, I believe we really have to sit back and analyze this election and what it means in the context of our history as well as our future.

 

Many of us in the beginning believed it would never happen, many more still never believed it would happen without incident, but surprise, surprise, it did happen and in a way that none of us collectively would have believed.

 

Think about it for a minute:  In the United States of America also known as the Great Satan in some Muslim countries, also known as a racist, hold the black man down system by the man country here in America, we elected democratically (this part is important) a mixed-race (also known as black) guy with an Arabic name, with a black wife, from Chicago, who was raised by his grandparents and a single mother because his dad abandoned him when he was two!

 

If anyone had said this a few years ago they would have been laughed at!

 

A year ago few people believed this way possible, whether we openly said it or not there were various reasons for this belief and those who visited the black barbershops, salons, and or Mosques know what I’m talking about.

 

America with her history of race relations that saw centuries of slavery, Jim Crow, and systemic racism, prejudice, and discrimination shocked us all.  America with her 9/11 inspired anti-Islam/Muslim rhetoric and actions in the Middle East that angered many Muslims shocked us all.

 

The irony of it all is that the majority of his supporters fit the demographic that neither group would have expected it to come from:  White People.  There I said it.

 

The two groups who should have been his strongest supporters initially were his harshest critics and many remained skeptical until the end:  Black People and Muslims.  Glad I got that off my chest.

 

It was not White people asking was he “black enough” or throwing out conspiracy comments like “whitey is trying to set us up” nope it was black people.  It was only a year ago that Hillary Clinton had the majority of the Black vote for this very reason in my opinion.

 

Muslims we didn’t know what to think about this whole thing.  Is he or isn’t he was the refrain.  Our relationship was up and down at points, primarily because Obama didn’t visit Mosques or the infamous situation with the sisters in hijab at a campaign event, and you know what:  I don’t blame him.  Nevertheless, up until election day many a Muslim will tell you that there were still Muslims out there who were stating openly that it was haram to vote for Obama or vote in general.

 

But back to the topic at hand…

 

My point in this abridged history is to remind us where we are and how far we have come in such a short period of time. 

 

There were no race or religious riots as some thought or hoped for, not fires, attacks, etc.  Sure there were angry people and some minor incidents, but that would have happened regardless, as nobody likes to see their guy or gal lose you betcha! J  In truth, had Obama lost, we may have seen those very things materialize.

 

Instead what we have witnessed is a sort of tranquil calm of people from all perspectives waking up to the reality that whether or not you voted or supported him, with all our problems we need to rally behind him in some fashion and hope and pray for the best.

 

Which is where I want to direct my commentary.

 

Given the absence of all that we thought would but didn’t are we as Black, Muslim, or both people willing to acknowledge that we may have just been wrong all along in our hyper sensitivity about America?

 

I mean I in no way am suggesting that America’s history isn’t what it is, but this whole Obama thing adds a largely difference perspective and narrative on America than it did a year or two ago.

 

For instance, Black people in general will never be able to look at their kids and feel secretly that they are lying when we tell them they can be anything they want to be.  When my five boys look in the mirror everyday now and then look at the TV they will be able to see a President of the US that looks like them.  I almost cried a week or two ago because my two year old saw an Obama sign and said “Obama” yet he cannot read.  Even at two years old Obama has had such a reach that a two year old recognizes the branding of his campaign.

 

Muslims will we be ever to seriously say that there is a bias against Arabic names?  I mean come on, Barack Hussein is the President!  Many a Muslim unfortunately has changed their names from Ali to Al or Muhammad to Moe, trying to hide their identities to get ahead in this country.

 

The list is too numerous to fully describe the impact and dare I say blessing of Barack’s election.

 

His election to me as a guy who was raised by his grandparents with no mother or father, who grew up in the inner city, means that yes young black men, you too can make it.  Even with all the challenges life has from welfare, to absentee fathers, etc.  you too can work hard, get an education, and be President of the United States.

 

To the Muslim world currently abuzz with the shoe toss heard around the world, this election means that even with all her faults, America a country that did elect our current POTUS GW Bush, can eight years later elect to represent her DEMOCRATICALLY one from among her minority population and an alleged member of another.

 

For all that has been done by American citizens in the past that we shouldn’t be proud of, all of which remains discussion and fodder for her deepest and fervent critics, with the election of Barack Hussein Obama we have shown that we are still the greatest country on the Earth in my proud, humble, opinion.

 

Even with all her faults, name me another country that would elect a black first family when not even 40 years ago in the same country Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and fire hoses and dogs were still used against black people?  In less than a generation America went from that to this, think about it.

 

So my dear Black, Muslim, or both brothers and sisters, we have to reflect and think about this thing called America, believe or not it is ours too.  Furthermore, when we look at White people and you know we did it, we should look at them a little differently than we did a year or two ago, because to their credit not that they had to prove anything, they sure showed us!  I remember telling my wife after my first Obama canvassing how even at the age of 27 I was shocked to see elderly Whites stopping in to help volunteer for Obama.  I called my grandfather just to make what I felt was a surprise announcement, for him it truly was.  See many Blacks don’t like to admit we have our prejudices too.

 

What I would hope to see for my communities in the years ahead after this blessing I feel we have gotten is that we focus more on the internal and less on the external.  I pray that we stop pointing the finger at whitey or the US Government so much (not that racism or institutionalized acts are magically gone) and start looking at our communities and the work we have to do and the responsibility for our own actions.  Maybe just maybe we won’t make the excuse as much for the gangbanger, knocked up teen, as much as we did because daddy wasn’t home and you know how the system is.  Maybe just maybe we stop pointing our finger at the West, Great Satan, and Zionists so much and start focusing on the human rights abuses of those currently in power and the local leaders who would keep our people illiterate and stuck in the past with no freedom of thought or expression.

 

Maybe just maybe if we look at the transformative example that the American people as a whole displayed with a simple vote in an improbable election, with a guy with the Audacity to believe, that we in turn will be able to use this as a catalyst to reform, repair, and heal our communities.

 

Insha’Allah

 

How should Muslims feel?

Courtesy of ” (TAM) The American Muslim

Evangelical Christian missionaries embedded with American combat troops in Afghanistan

by Mikey Weinstein

Missionaries shown distributing New Testament in Arabic to Afghani civilians

“Travel the Road”, a popular Christian reality TV series produced by the Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), follows the travels of Will Decker and Tim Scott, two “extreme” missionaries, as they circle the world fulfilling their mission—“Preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth and encourage the church to be active in the Great Commission.”

Season 2 of this series ended with three episodes filmed in Afghanistan—Journey to the Line: Afghanistan: Part 1, Terrors of the Night: Afghanistan: Part 2, and Fog of War: Afghanistan: Part 3. For these episodes, the missionaries were completely embedded and, thus, actually permitted to stay on U.S. military bases, travel with a public affairs unit, and accompany and film troops on patrols, all for the purpose of evangelizing Afghanis and producing a television show promoting the Christian religion.

go to the site for the complete article…

As an American Muslim Veteran, I don’t know what aspect of my background makes me angrier about this news.    The only though in my mind is the imaging of the reaction had this been another religion say for instance Muslims doing this,  there would be an uproar.  Surely there are many violations committed in just the production and and continued attempts by these groups, troops, etc.   but what really ticks me off is the hypocrisy of it all.

We often hear the allegations by non-Muslims in the West about how Muslims are supposedly trying to “Islamicize” the West as if they can actually recall an incident where Muslims knocked on their doors, bought and produced complete cable channels solely to propragate, or left flyers on their vehicles, etc. 

We are also told that Muslims are false in their allegations or beliefs about the intentions of Christians as it relates to their dealings with Muslim countries.  We are categorically told it’s a fallacy to suggest or think for a minute that there are religious intentions or Christians using the military incursions to their own advantage, yet here we are again.

While this is not an isolated event or series of events, it just happens to be another article that happened to surface that highlights the very real event and events surrounding the actions of some Christians who daily use the US Military’s position of power in Muslim countries as a tool to exploit the people and propagate their faith.

It’s despicable, shameful, and disgusting.  I can blame many people, chiefly the US Government for allowing this, the Military for violating dozens of rules, but also both these Christian groups and Muslims in general.

Now many of the above are easily discerned and why, but  inclusion of the Muslims as part of the blame may not be.

I was taught as a young Corporal that it’s easy to point out whats wrong but harder to provide solutions, therefore in keeping with that tradition I highlighted the Muslim role as a means to produce a solution.

Our lack of unity, vigilance, and concern for fellow Muslims allow the opportunity for explotation to exist.

If Muslim Countries would step up to the plate especially the very wealthy ones, and decided that the people in war ravagedn Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, etc. were more important that building resort islands, fancy hotels, or indoor ski resorts, we wouldn’t have half of these problems.

What if ordinary Muslims ran for office, joined the military, worked for aid agencies, or was just as brazen to be missionaries in Muslim countries (yes, even Muslims need to be reminded about Islam), imagine what could happen if our voice was heard when it comes to making decisions?

Do you think for one minute that if the company commander of unit were Muslim he/she would allow Evangelicals to hijack his/her unit o propragate their religion to these Muslims?

With all this said, how should Muslims feel?  In my opinion, we make too much noise about the small things and ignore the big things.  Personally, I believe this is much larger than whether or not someone draws a cartoon.

Let Michelle be Michelle

Today I read and interesting commentary on CNN in which the author made a compelling argument and opened up what I believe is a necessary dialog concerning our future First Lady and the perceptions surrounding her as the first black First Lady.

What seems to be missing from the national dialog on race is where have we gone thus far since the Obama win on race relations?

I plan to write a reflective post concerning Race and Obama chronicalizing what I believe is a pivotal shift in race relations, however I’m a little busy at the moment, and can’t believe I even have time to write these few words. 🙂

Either way, what I believe we should evaluate in particular is the contrast in the reactions to Barack versus Michelle.    I have a gut feeling that as it relates to race and stereotypes, Barack is accepted more by non-blacks due to his mixed ethnicity and exotic background, whereas Michelle is not.  Or could it be the concept that being black and a woman is just a little more difficult than being black and a man?

Which ever way the debate goes, there is a lot of discussion to be had as it relates to sexism, racism, and “role” of a First Lady.  I believe this commentary did a great job in opening up that discussion and I pray that I will have time in the near future to comment a little more in depth.

Related Article:

Commentary: Let Michelle Obama’s real self shine

A Journal of Hajj: A Jewish cemetery and a battlefield

A Journal of Hajj:  A Jewish cemetery and a battlefield

by Kamran Pasha

Today was our last day in Medina, the city of the Prophet, before we head to Mecca, the center of the Islamic world.  My mother has adjusted well and is beginning to overcome her phobia of crowds.  We have had the good fortune of meeting friendly Muslim women who have taken my mom under their wing and eased her into the hectic experience of the holy city.  They have taken her to the mosque with them every day, as I can only accompany her part of the way, to the entrance of the women’s section.

The fact that men and women pray separately in Islam often troubles non-Muslims, so I will try to explain its purpose.  First, Islam is not unique in this regard.  In Orthodox Judaism, men and women also pray separately, as can be seen every day at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.  This is very much an ancient Semitic practice that comes right out of the Bible, and is not foreign to the Jewish or Christian experience.  But how does one respond to modern complaints by Westerners that this practice is inherently sexist?

The Muslim response is simple – prayer is a time for inner reflection and contemplation, a period when the natural sexual energy between men and women should not serve as a distraction.  This is particularly a concern due to the intimate nature of worship in Islam, where formal prayer consists of ritual bowing and prostration.  Muslim women like my mother tell me that they appreciate the separation of the sexes at these times, as they would feel self-conscious and vulnerable bowing with men’s faces peering at their rear ends from behind.  And any man who is being honest and not “politically correct” would admit that the sight of a woman kneeling in such a position would arouse him sexually. 

Islam is a religion that accepts human nature as it is, rather than pretending that it is something else based on idealism or wishful thinking.  In Islam, the sexual urge is recognized as a natural part of human experience, a blessing from God when channeled properly, but one that can debase human dignity if left to the whims of human lust.  While many Westerners would disagree based on modern political indoctrination, I would counter that human experience speaks for itself.  Whatever ideal the West wishes to impose on the male-female dynamic, the truth of sexual attraction remains stark and undeniable in day-to-day human experience.  And Islam’s purpose is to take human beings as they actually are and inspire them to be better, rather than preach empty words that no one actually follows in real life.  In that way, Islam establishes a practical way of living, rather than exhorting ideals to be honored with lip service and ignored in daily life.

In any event, my mother has found the company of other believing women as a boon during this journey, and their support has given her the strength and courage to face the daily rush and unimaginable crowding at the Prophet’s mosque.  And for that I am thankful.

During our last day in Medina, we did a tour of the city and visited some of its remarkable historical sites.  Our first trip was to the Quba Mosque at the southern borders of the city.  Quba was the first mosque built by Prophet Muhammad when he left Mecca and journeyed to Medina to establish a safe haven for his persecuted followers.  Before entering the city proper, the Prophet stopped at Quba where he built the mosque with his own hands, carrying stones on his back and climbing into the dirt to lay its foundations.  To me, that story has always served to remind me of his visionary leadership.  Revered by his followers as God’s messenger, he could have simply given orders and sat back watching people do the dirty work on his behalf.  But the Prophet understood that a true leader gets into the trenches with his community and does the hard lifting.  It was small acts like this that endeared him to his followers and showed his natural talent as a statesman.

One of the most surprising things about the Quba Mosque is the presence of a Jewish cemetery next door.  It is an ancient site that has stood undisturbed since the early days of Islam.  Despite the current tensions in the Middle East due to the Arab-Israeli conflict, history shows that Jews and Muslims got along reasonably well over the centuries.  Jews were better treated in Muslim lands than they were under Christian rulers.  And in Spain in particular, Muslim and Jews enjoyed a rich and friendly relationship.  When the golden age of al-Andalus was brought to an end by the Inquisition, the Jews of Spain fled Christian persecution and turned to Muslim countries for protection.  Many Jews settled in the Ottoman Empire, where they thrived alongside their Muslim neighbors, and Jews even rose to the position of top government ministers under the sultans of Turkey.

As I looked out at the ancient Jewish graves, many better preserved than those of Muslims in the devastated ruins of Jannat al-Baqi, I felt both a moment of sadness and hope.  Sadness that their remains so much mistrust and fear between Jews and Muslims today.  And sadness that some of our Jewish brethren in Israel do not afford Muslim graves the same respect.  There is currently a huge controversy in Israel about plans to destroy an ancient Muslim graveyard so that the ironically named “Museum of Tolerance” can be built on its site.  But many Jews in Israel have joined their Muslim countrymen to protest the planned desecration of the graveyard as a violation of Jewish tenets respecting the dead.  And it is the fact that Muslims and Jews are standing together to protest this injustice that gives me hope.  History shows that our communities are brothers, sons of Abraham through Ishmael and Isaac.  And I hope that we can overcome the poison of the past century to inaugurate a new golden age where our communities can be even better friends than they were in the not-too-distant path.

From the Quba Mosque and the Jewish cemetery, we went by bus to Mount Uhud, the site of one of the most pivotal battles of early Islam – a battle that I detail extensively in my novel.

On March 23, 625 AD, the Meccan idolaters launched an invasion of Medina after suffering a humiliating defeat at the hands of the puny Muslim army a year before at the wells of Badr.  At Uhud, the Muslim forces were outnumbered 700 to 3,000, but they had faced similar odds a year before at Badr and had utterly defeated the Meccans.  And like their miraculous victory at Badr, the Muslims initially trounced the Meccan forces and forced them into retreat.  But a group of Muslim archers, positioned by the Prophet on the mountainside to protect its rear passes, became anxious that they would lose out on the war booty left behind by the retreating Meccans.  So the archers violated the Prophet’s orders and abandoned their posts.  At that moment, the brilliant Meccan general Khalid ibn al-Waleed broke through the undefended pass and attacked the Muslims from behind.  The Muslims went from impending victory to shocking defeat, and many of the Prophet’s followers were killed, including his beloved uncle Hamza. 

The Meccan victory at Uhud was due primarily to the leadership of Khalid, one of the most remarkable military commanders of all time.  The irony of Uhud is that Khalid would later turn against his Meccan masters and embrace Islam.  When he later took charge of the Muslim armies, Khalid swept the forces of Islam to stunning victories against the Persian and Byzantine Empires. His military genius led to the conquest of Persia, Iraq, Syria and Jerusalem, within only a few years after the Prophet’s death.  Khalid’s victories transformed Islam from a small and irrelevant desert religion into a global civilization.  The irony of Uhud is that Khalid, the man who led the forces that killed the Prophet’s uncle, would one day become one of the Prophet’s greatest followers and earn the title “The Sword of God.”

Standing on the barren plain under the shadow of Uhud, I was struck by how influential that small skirmish was to the history of mankind.  The mountain was overflowing with crowds who had come to commemorate those who gave their lives on this field 1,383 years ago so that the community that produced my mother and I could survive.  The crowds were too great to go out into the section of the battlefield where the martyrs of Uhud were buried.  I was disappointed that I could not come close to the grave of Hamza as I had the tombs of the Prophet and his followers in Medina.  But I said a prayer for Hamza and the martyrs of Uhud from the distance, knowing that the angels would carry my blessings on the wind.

As looked out at the bleak landscape that had seen so much bloodshed, I remembered the story I recounted in my novel about the barbarism of the Meccan forces.  When the Muslims were forced to retreat from Uhud, a Meccan woman named Hind came out among the dead.  She was the wife of the Meccan leader Abu Sufyan and is a major character in my novel.  Hind was looking for the body of Hamza, the man who had killed her father at the battle of Badr a year before.  She had hired an assassin, an Abyssinian slave named Wahsi, to seek out Hamza and kill him at Uhud.  Wahsi was an expert with a javelin, and his aim had proved deadly true.  When Hind found Hamza’s corpse, she desecrated the body, cutting off his nose and ears and tearing out his liver.  In a scene vividly described in my novel, Hind descended into the ultimate barbarism – cannibalism.  She proudly ate Hamza’s liver in front of the horrified Muslims.

When Mecca fell to Muslim forces a few years later, one of the most remarkable examples of the Prophet’s compassion was that he pardoned Hind for her horrible crime against his uncle Hamza, who had been like a brother to him all his life.  By then, Prophet Muhammad had become the absolute ruler of all of Arabia.  He could exact any revenge he wished without fear of consequence.  But, when he had the chance to punish her crimes, the Prophet instead chose to forgive Hind.

That, to me, is the sign of true power.

As these thoughts went through my mind, our guide called us back into the bus.  It was time to go and make preparations for our journey to Mecca.  I looked out at the battlefield, which had seen the best and worst of mankind locked in an epic clash, and I smiled thinking that the men who died here did not do so in vain.  They had given their lives hoping that a future generation could one day visit Mecca, the holy city from which they had been expelled.

It was because of their sacrifice that my mother and I finally could.

Kamran Pasha is the author of Mother of Mother of the Believers: A Novel of the Birth of Islam which will be available from Atria books in April of 2009. http://www.kamranpasha.com

The Grave of Aisha

The Grave of Aisha

by Kamran Pasha

This morning we joined several hundred thousand worshippers at the Prophet’s Mosque to pray Fajr – the pre-dawn prayer.  It was a remarkable experience, the deep silence of the early morning broken only by the beautiful recitation of the Qur’an by the imam.  And when he finished reciting the Fatiha – the opening chapter of the Muslim holy book – the ancient stones of the city reverberated with the thunder of a hundred thousand voices crying out “Amen.”

Still exhausted and jet-lagged from the journey, I managed to get a few hours of sleep before returning to the Mosque for more prayer services in the day.  And at the end of the Asr or mid-afternoon prayer, the Saudi religious police who keep order in the city opened the gates of Jannat al-Baqi – the ancient graveyard of Medina where many of the Prophet’s family members and Companions are buried.

I slipped through the huge throngs at the entrance to al-Baqi and stepped bare foot onto the hot desert floor of the graveyard.  My sandals had unfortunately been lost earlier that day when I had removed them to pray and someone else had taken them.  But I didn’t mind.  The intense heat of the desert sand was hardly on my mind.  My focus was on finding the tomb of the woman who had fascinated me and had caused me to write a novel dramatizing her courageous life.

I was looking for the grave of Aisha, daughter of Abu Bakr, the Prophet’s most beloved wife among the Mothers of the Believers.  The heroine of my book, a woman who had advised rulers and led armies.  A fiery, passionate woman who had single-handedly changed the course of history.  Aisha was buried somewhere in al-Baqi, and I walked reverentially among the ancient graves in search of her tomb.

It was a challenge, as the graveyard is little more than a vast, flat plain covered in craggy rocks.  The Saudi religious conservatives believe that adorning graves is a sin that leads to people worshipping the dead.  This is an unusual idea that is rejected by most mainstream Muslims.  The Taj Mahal is a living symbol of the kind of beautiful tombs that Muslims have historically erected to commemorate the dead and pay respect to the legacy of their lives.  When the Saudis took control of Medina in the early 20th century, they destroyed all the intricately built tombs in al-Baqi and tuned this sacred site into a dry wasteland.  They even destroyed the grave markers, erasing the names of those interred in the field, the most famous heroes of Islam reduced to anonymity in death.  As I walked among the barren graves filled with the remains of Islam’s finest generation, I felt a deep sorrow that I did not even know the names of those whose tombs I was passing.  Remarkable men and women who had given their lives to turn the tiny movement of Islam into a global religion were now cast away and forgotten by their descendants.

Finding Aisha’s grave in the midst of this stark and empty field would have normally been impossible.  But the wonders of the Internet came to my aid.  Old maps of al-Baqi, preserved by the Turks who once ruled the holy city, were available on the web.  Not having access to a printer in Medina, I hand-copied a map of the graves off the Internet and was able to determine where many of the great figures of Islam – and characters in my novel – were buried.

I found the tombs of the Prophet’s daughters Zaynab, Ruqayya and Umm Kulthum, as well as the tiny grave of Ibrahim, the Prophet’s infant son who died shortly after the Muslims conquered Mecca and unified Arabia under Islam.  As I recount in my novel, the day that Ibrahim died, the sun was eclipsed and many Muslims thought that the heavens were weeping for him.  But the Prophet, who was heartbroken at the loss of his son, stepped out among them and said that the sun and the moon were not eclipsed for the death any human being, not even his own child.  Even in the midst of his grief, he would not let his people fall into superstition.  I stood before Ibrahim’s grave and remembered how his father had knelt down and softly patted and smoothed the burial mound as a final act of tenderness toward his little boy.  The same burial mound that I now stood next to 14 centuries later, looking much as it did that day so long ago.

Deeper inside al-Baqi, I found the grave of Uthman ibn Affan, the third Caliph of Islam.  Uthman was the Prophet’s son-in-law, having married his daughter Ruqayya and, when she passed away, her sister Umm Kulthum.  Uthman will forever be honored in Islamic history as the man who served to preserve the Qur’an and insure its authenticity.  As Caliph, Uthman ordered that copies of the Qur’an be sent to cities all over the rapidly expanding empire to prevent Muslims from changing its text.  As a result of his efforts, there is consensus between both Muslim and non-Muslim historians that the Qur’an is exactly as Prophet Muhammad left it, without corruptions, alterations or later accretions.  Of all the holy scriptures in the world, only the Qur’an can proudly make this claim and retain the support of skeptical modern scholarship.

Uthman was a gentle and generous man, but his reign was poisoned by the political machinations of different groups who were seeking to influence the Caliph’s policies.  Uthman was unfairly tainted by the actions of corrupt governors who came from his tribe, and when rebellion broke out in the empire, Uthman was brutally assassinated.  The rebels murdered the gentle Uthman as he calmly read the Qur’an and refused to raise a sword to defend himself.  The Caliph’s murder led to the first Islamic civil war, which I detail in my novel, and in which Aisha played a pivotal role, much to her later regret.

Having paid my respects to Uthman, I returned near the entrance of the graveyard, where the crowd had finally begun to thin.  And then I was able to approach the grave of my heroine, Aisha, the Mother of the Believers.  She had been buried in a small plot of earth, surrounded by rough stones, along with the other wives of the Prophet, including Safiya, a Jewish chieftain’s daughter who embraced Islam and played a crucial role in both Islamic history and my novel.

Standing there, at long last, before the tomb of a woman who had captivated my imagination, I was at a loss for words.  I greeted her and her fellow Mothers, as I had the Prophet in his tomb the day before.  And then I recited the Fatiha, the opening chapter of the Qur’an, and asked God to send blessings to Aisha and the other wives of the Prophet.

As I stood there, I wondered whether her soul was aware of me, as I knew the Prophet’s soul was conscious of my presence.  I wondered if Aisha knew that 1,330 years after her death, she remained one of the most fascinating and intriguing women in human history.  I wondered if she could know of the book I had written to honor her memory and resurrect her voice for a new generation.  And if she did, I hope she approved.

The sun was low on the horizon and the guards began guiding people out of the graveyard.  I looked down one last time at this simple mound of earth that housed the remains of this remarkable woman who had changed the world.

And then I turned and left, leaving Aisha and the other residents of Jannat al-Baqi to their eternal rest.

Kamran Pasha is the author of Mother of Mother of the Believers: A Novel of the Birth of Islam which will be available from Atria books in April of 2009. http://www.kamranpasha.com

A Journal of Hajj: Recreating Genesis at the House of God

Recreating Genesis at the House of God

by Kamran Pasha

Today we arrived at the most important place on earth for Muslims – the holy city of Mecca.  Before we left the Prophet’s mosque in Medina, I changed from my usual clothes into the special garb of pilgrims – the Ihram, a garment made of two pieces of unstitched white cloth.  One cloth is wrapped around the shoulders, and the second around the waste.  In this way, all pilgrims are dressed exactly the same, eliminating differences of race, culture and economic status.  Whether we are kings or paupers, whether we wear suits and ties or dashikis in the world we left behind, we are all the same now – human beings standing equally before our Creator, devoid of manmade distinctions.

Dressed in my simple Ihram, I said a final prayer at the Medina mosque and bid farewell to Prophet Muhammad.  And then my mother and I climbed on to a plane to Jeddah, from where we took a bus to Mecca.  As we approached the holy city, the pilgrims began to chant in unison the sacred words of greeting which begin the journey to Islam’s heart: “Labbayk Allahumma labbayk” – “I answer your call, O God, I answer your call.” The reference is to origin of the Pilgrimage itself, in the days of Abraham,

According to the Qur’an, the Pilgrimage was instituted 3,500 years ago by Abraham when he went to visit his son Ishmael and his wife Hagar.  Ishmael and Hagar had settled in the valley of Mecca after leaving the Holy Land upon God’s command.  Islamic tradition states that God ordered Abraham to climb a mountain and call out to mankind, inviting every human being to come and worship at the stone temple – the Holy Kaaba – that he had built with Ishmael in the desert.  Abraham was confused.  There was no one around for miles except for his family.  Who was going to answer his call?  God responded by telling Abraham to make the call and let Him do the rest.  And so it is that Pilgrims today begin the great Hajj by answering Abraham’s call. 

Labbayk Allahuma labbayk.

We continued to chant the sacred response, some loudly and others in whispered voices, as we drove to Mecca.  As we entered the outskirts of the sacred city, I noticed how different Mecca was from Medina.  The city where the Prophet is buried is a verdant oasis, a sea of rich palm trees set amidst the black volcanic hills.  But Mecca is stark and rocky, with little natural flora to bring color to the mountains of grey stone that ring its perimeter.  It is a remote and forbidding place and I am not surprised that it is known as Al-Haram – the Forbidden.  It is hard to imagine how anyone could have lived here alone, as Ishmael and Hagar did when Abraham was commanded by God to send them into the desert.  It is even harder to imagine that this empty valley would one day become the most crowded repose for humanity the world has ever seen.

As we passed through the boundaries of the holy city, I remembered the other reason that it is known as Al-Haram, the Forbidden, for there are very specific rules that govern behavior within the city walls that set it apart from any other place in the world.  First, it is the only place in the Islamic world where non-Muslims are prohibited from entering.  People of other faiths have always been permitted in Medina, which as the ancient capital of Islamic Caliphate was the home of many foreign emissaries and visitors from all over the world.  But only Muslims may enter Mecca.

Some of my non-Muslims friends have asked why that should be, suggesting that it was unfair that they should be excluded from the site.  But the Islamic response is that Mecca is not like any other city.  It is a living bridge between Heaven and Earth where normal commerce and social interaction is eclipsed by direct contact with the Divine.  It is a site where only those who appreciate its purpose and embrace its transformative power are able to enter.  Again, the tradition of sacred sites reserved only for believers comes right out of the Bible.  The inner sanctum of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem was similarly forbidden to unbelievers, and the idea that there should be special places that serve as an exclusive sanctuary of faith is an ancient Semitic and Biblical practice.

Inside of Mecca, it is also forbidden to hunt animals or shed blood, or to touch an object dropped or lost by another (only the rightful owners may reclaim their own property).  When Pilgrims are wearing Ihram, they are considered to be in a state of ritual purity and are forbidden to cut their hair or nails, or have sexual intercourse.  Again, why all the prohibitions?  For the simple reason that the word “NO” is extremely powerful in every language.  The prohibitions force people to be conscious that they are in a different place from any other in the world, a special site where the mundane experiences of normal life are exchanged for something sacred.  Without “the forbidden,” the special character of the city never enters the human consciousness.  It is by recognizing these distinctions, these rules, that the human mind senses that something remarkable is happening when the boundaries of Mecca are crossed.

After arriving inside Mecca, we stopped at our hotel, the Grand Zam Zam, which is situated right next to the Al-Masjid Al-Haram, the Grand Mosque, the center of the Islamic world.  My mother and I dropped off our luggage and performed ablutions, before joining our group and stepping into the majestic mosque with minarets that tower hundreds of feet above its polished marble floor.  The building itself looks like a giant human hand with fingers raised upward, crying out to God in supplication.

We entered the Grand Mosque in trepidation.  I felt like Moses, stepping on to Mount Sinai in anticipation of a direct encounter with God.  The mosque was filled with thousands of believers of every race, color and age, streaming steadily toward the center – the great courtyard which contained the Holy Kaaba, the House of God built by Abraham himself.

My heart pounded as we drew nearer, and I could see people all about me kneeling on the ground, tears streaming from their faces.  And then I saw the object of their veneration – the Kaaba, a fifty-foot tall cubical structure draped in a black cloth covered in gold calligraphy of verses from the Qur’an.  It was a building whose image had been branded on my mind since childhood.  Every Muslim household has pictures of the Kaaba hung proudly on its walls, and it is toward this simple stone building that a billion Muslims all over the world pray five times a day.  This is the House that had been built by Abraham and Ishmael three millennia before.  A House that had once been contaminated with 360 idols and graven images, but had been cleansed by the Prophet Muhammad and restored the worship of the One God.  For Muslims, this place is the center of the entire universe, and it is believed that the Kaaba exists in two dimensions simultaneously.  Both as a physical building on this planet, as well as a spiritualized replica that exists in Paradise beneath the Throne of God.

As I looked upon the Kaaba with my own eyes for the first time, I felt both awe and wonder.  And a deep sense of warmth and familiarity.  It felt like I had come home after a long journey and been reunited with an old friend.

My mother and I followed our group into the courtyard to perform one of the most imporant rites of the Pilgrimage – the tawaf, or circumabulation, of the Kaaba.  Circumabulation – walking in a circle around a sacred object or site – is a ritual that exists in many religions and cultures throughout the world.  Versions of this rite exist in Buddhism and Hinduism, and was practiced at the ancient Jewish Temple when believers would circumambulate the altar during the holiday of Sukkot.  It is recorded in the Bible (Joushua 6:1-20) when the priests of Israel circumambulated the city of Jericho for seven days before the fall of the city.  In modern mystical traditions, there are accounts of Freemasons using circumambulation as a means of spiritual initiation.  And on a purely secular level, the practice lives on college fields today, where students joyfully race around bonfires at Homecoming, as I did during my undergrad days at Dartmouth.

Why is circumambulation such a popular and widespread ritual?  I am of the view that on a deep unconscious level, that is how we experience the universe.  Even before Copernicus and Galileo, human beings intuitively knew that the cosmos was revolving around a center.  When we look up into the sky, we see the apparent circumambulation of the heavenly bodies around the earth.  And with our modern understanding, we know that that the earth circumambulates the sun, which itself circumambulates the center of the galaxy.  It is by emulating this cosmic circumambulation that we experience flowing around something that is bigger than us.  Something more ancient and meaningful.  It is by revolving around the center that we find our place in the universe and go with the flow of life, not against it.

The rite of circumambulation around the Kaaba requires seven circuits around the sacred House, beginning at its most ancient and mysterious element — the Black Stone set in the eastern corner of the building.  The Black Stone is said to have fallen from Heaven, and many assume it is an ancient meteorite.  Islamic tradition states that it was discovered by Abraham in the desert of Mecca and placed as the foundation stone of the original Kaaba built by the Patriarch.  The Kaaba has been rebuilt since then many times after being damaged by floods and, sadly, wars.  Of the original structure, the only thing that remains unchanged from the days of Abraham is the Black Stone, and when a Muslim touches it, he is transported in time and faith to that wondrous moment when Abraham himself placed it inside the walls of God’s House.

Due to the immense crowding around the Kaaba, it was impossible for my mother or I to get close and touch the sacred object, the one remnant of Paradise still on earth.  But in acordiance with Islamic ritual, we raised our hand in greeting to God’s stone and began our circuits around the Kaaba. Participating in a rite that has continued uninterrupted every single day for over 1400 years.

My mother was nervous of the fast moving crowd, and there was inevitable shoving and jostling when thousands of people are moving together in such a fashion.  But the Pilgrims made their best efforts to give space to the elderly and the weak (some circumambulating on wheelchairs).  We held each other tight in the sea of mankind circling around the Kaaba, the Holy of Holies of Islam, and continued around the structure seven times. 

We passed the Golden Doors of the Kaaba, locked and opened rarely in modern times, as well as a beautiful gold and glass receptacle known as the Station of Abraham, which is mentioned in the Qura’an.  The Station marks the spot where Abraham prayed after dedicating the Kaaba to the One God.  I managed to get close enough to the gold receptacle and kissed it reverently, honoring the father of Ishmael and Isaac who is the father of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  And through the glass I could see the famed miracle that was preserved within – the Sacred Footprints.  According to Islamic belief, when Abraham prayed on a rock facing the Kaaba, his feet sank miraculously into the stone and left permanent imprints.  I looked down in wonder and saw for myself the deep impressions on the stone, shaped perfectly like human footprints.  They looked like they were naturally part of the rock and sunk deep into the stone.  Of course, the cynical mind would say that the footprints were carved into the stone by human hands.  But to the eye of faith, they stand out as a clear miracle – the one lasting mark left by Abraham himself.

We continued carefully around the Kaaba.  I held my mother’s hand and smiled at her in encouragement.  She suffers from osteoporosis and is deathly afraid of falling down and shattering her fragile bones.  But she showed remarkable courage and determination and plowed forward like a warrior rushing into battle.  She had been summoned here by God Himself, and she would not let her own fears stop her from answering the Call of Abraham.

As we passed the Station of Abraham, we approached a semi-circular wall that is known as Hijr Ismail.  Islamic tradition records that this was the personal prayer niche of Abraham’s son Ishmael and his mother Hagar, and serves as their tomb.  It is also the sacred site where the famous Night Journey of Prophet Muhammad began.  The Prophet was sleeping inside the wall when the angel Gabriel woke him up and took him on miraculous journey in one night to Jerusalem, where he prayed behind the spirits of Abraham, Moses and Jesus at the ruins of the Temple of Solomon, the site known in the Quran as Al-Masjid Al-Aqsa – the Farthest Mosque.  And from a prominent rock at Al-Aqsa, where the Dome of the Rock now stands, the Prophet then rose to Heaven and traveled through the cosmos until he bowed alone before the Throne of God.  And then the Prophet returned to the Hijr Ismail, having crossed the distance of a thousand lifetimes in only one night.

The crowd swarmed around the Hijr Ismail and it was impossible to come close.  But I smiled as we passed by, sending greetings to Ishmael and his mother Hagar, whose perilous journey into the Arabian desert would one day give birth to the civilization of Islam.

After what seemed like a joyous eternity, we completed the seven circuits around the Kaaba and then withdrew to a less crowded part of the Mosque near to the Station of Abraham, and prayed in honor of the Patriarch who had founded the Kaaba.  My mother and I then turned our attention to a small stone hill named Safa at the edge of the courtyard.  It was here that we would re-enact a remarkable miracle that is recounted in the Book of Genesis in the Bible – the story of Hagar, Ishmael and the well:

Here is the account in Genesis 21 (14-20) that tells what happened to Hagar and Ishmael after God commanded Abraham to take them away from their home in Canaan and leave them in the wilderness:

“14 And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and took bread, and a bottle of water, and gave it unto Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, and the child, and sent her away: and she departed, and wandered in the wilderness of Beersheba.

15 And the water was spent in the bottle, and she cast the child under one of the shrubs.

16 And she went, and sat her down over against him a good way off, as it were a bow shot: for she said, Let me not see the death of the child. And she sat over against him, and lift up her voice, and wept.

17 And God heard the voice of the lad; and the angel of God called to Hagar out of heaven, and said unto her, What aileth thee, Hagar? Fear not; for God hath heard the voice of the lad where he is.

18 Arise, lift up the lad, and hold him in thine hand; for I will make him a great nation.

19 And God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water; and she went, and filled the bottle with water, and gave the lad drink.

20 And God was with the lad; and he grew, and dwelt in the wilderness, and became an archer.”

According to Islam, the miracle of the well took place right here, in the valley of Mecca.  One of the most important rites of the Pilgrimage is to recreate these events and honor Hagar’s frantic search for water in the empty desert, which God himself resolved.  Muslims believe that two hills near the Kaaba – Safa and Marwa – were the exact locations of this Biblical drama.

As Ishmael lay dying from dehydration, his desperate mother climbed Safa and looked out for any sign of water, or a passing caravan that could save them.  When she saw nothing in the barren wastes, she ran across to hill of Marwa and looked out again from that vantage point.  Still nothing but sand and rock all around.  Despairing, Hagar ran between Safa and Marwa seven times crying out to God to save her son.  And then Gabriel appeared and told her to have Ishmael strike the rock with his foot.  And lo! A well erupted beneath the boy’s heel and they were saved.

It is a central Muslim belief that the well of Genesis still exists today at Mecca, which is utterly barren and dry except for one inexplicable water source near the Kaaba – the Well of Zamzam.  The water from the well is considered holy and Muslims believe that it contains healing properties for those who imbibe it.  The well has been in continuous use for thousands of years and has never run dry, despite the fact that millions of people pull water from its source every single day.  Even if one is a nonbeliever, it remains a remarkable wonder of geology that the Well of Zamzam continues unabated after all these years, and the water remains naturally pure and unfiltered in a region with notoriously unsanitary water sources.

My mother and I pushed through the long lines at the Well of Zamzam, and drank from the holy water in plastic cups.  I had tasted Zamzam before from water bottles brought back by Pilgrims and immediately recognized its distinct flavor.  Clean, cold and carrying a hint of mysterious minerals from deep underground.  It is unlike any water I have ever tasted and yet I could not describe why.  Describing Zamzam to someone who has not tried it is like describing colors to the blind.

After imbibing the holy water, we turned to perform the rite of Sai – the running between Safa and Marwa.  In commemoration of Hagar’s desperate search for water, we joined thousands of other believers trotting at a brisk pace between the hills.  Each time we reached one of the hilltops, we stopped and faced the Kaaba and supplicated God for his mercy and forgiveness.  My mother was particularly fascinated by the cold, hard rock at the peaks of the twin hills.  Even though the path between them and up the hillsides is now covered by a beautiful air-conditioned corridor, the hilltops stand exposed as they did in Hagar’s days.  My mother placed her bare foot on the sharp, craggy surface and winced from the harsh stone cutting into her flesh.  She wondered aloud at Hagar’s remarkable determination, as her feet would likely have been torn bloody by her race between the hills. 

But then my mother turned to me and smiled.  She understood Hagar, she said.  Every mother would have done the same.

I hugged my mother lovingly and helped her complete the seven circuits between the hills.

Kamran Pasha is the author of Mother of Mother of the Believers: A Novel of the Birth of Islam which will be available from Atria books in April of 2009. http://www.kamranpasha.com