Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Walking with the Angels

Hajj, or “setting out with purpose,” is the fifth pillar of Islam. Known as the pilgrimage to Mecca, Hajj is a journey that millions of Muslims across the globe dream to take. The essence of Hajj is to be granted forgiveness from God; its meanings are countless and its benefits far reaching. In October, I was blessed with the opportunity to undertake Hajj and learn from this experience. One of the unforgettable lessons is the depth of purpose that was driving these millions of individuals, and the place where I felt it manifested the most was during the tawaf, or “circling the ka’ba,” the first house built for the worship of God. As I joined the thousands of worshippers in the tawaf, I felt a sense of calm, safety, peace and serenity that I had never felt before. While performing this ritual, each was busy with individual, silent prayers: praising God, asking for His forgiveness and guidance, offering supplications to heal the sick and invoking His mercy. Praying among millions, my sense of self was reduced as my soul yearned to connect with The Creator. I could not but think of the planets’ counter-clockwise motion as I walked in this manner; I could not help but remember that the angels are engaged in the same movement around a House of worship in heaven. It was as though we were diving—in silence and total submission—into a state of utter love and awe to The Most High. As we finished the seventh round of the tawaf, I emerged from the depths of that state to recognize Hajj as a quest for knowledge and better understanding of myself, the world around me and, most of all, God, The Truth.

I remember when I first read about the tawaf in a memoir by a British-Muslim physician who was working in Saudi Arabia and decided to journey to Mecca for Hajj. Like you, Yasmina, she wrote about feeling like a small part of a larger whole while walking the seven circuits around the ka’ba: “As I looked up and surveyed the multistranded circle of humanity adorning the Ka’aba, a giant, rich choker of pilgrim pearls, I found myself among them. In this diversity, finally I belonged. Islam was many-faceted and I was simply one.”[1] My own experiences with rituals that involve moving in circles have been similar. As a bride under the wedding canopy circling the groom, I felt a sense of serenity and solitude—despite the presence of many family and friends—and a deep conviction that I was not only joining my life to my spouse’s life but also that we were connecting to God. The physical movement of these rituals, coupled with the “music” emanating from the surrounding souls, transports us to another realm.

How transformative Hajj, Yasmina! While I have not had the privilege of participating in such a major pilgrimage, I do share both your and Tziporah’s regard for ritual that, in solitude and serenity, binds us to God and to one another. For that reason, I take periodic retreats to a Benedictine monastery, where I spend several days in total silence, enveloped, as you describe, in the peace of God’s abiding presence and love. Many Christians are now reclaiming an ancient religious practice of walking a spiritual labyrinth, whose singular, yet maze-like, circular path alternately narrows and expands as one moves slowly to its center. Perhaps in imitation of early Christian pilgrimages, walking the labyrinth reminds us of the recurring patterns in our life’s journey and brings fresh revelation about submission, guidance, trust, and promise. Some place a pebble somewhere along the labyrinth’s path as a symbol of a burden being released to God or as an offering of thanks to God for mercy and forgiveness.  Even this “pilgrimage in microcosm” helps readjust a skewed human compass!

[1] Ahmed, Qanta A., In the Land of Invisible Women: A Female Doctor’s Journey in the Saudi Kingdom, Chapter 14: The Million-Man Wheel, p. 149.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012


“…give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God…” (I Thessalonians 5:18a)

Particularly at Thanksgiving, St. Paul’s admonition to give thanks in all circumstances is readily affirmed by most Christians and persons of other faiths too.  However, the statement that giving thanks in all circumstances is God’s will may strike a particularly discordant note to one whose life is in tangles or to one who struggles with a serious illness or a deep hurt or grief. Once, when I was in a particularly awful situation, I found myself responding with anger to these words. I questioned how I could be expected to give thanks; perhaps I confused giving thanks in all circumstances with giving thanks for such a circumstance. Over time, I have seen how deeply my spiritual life has been shaped by attention to gratitude and thanks to God in every circumstance. In fact, it is in the most bitter of circumstances that my spirit is lifted when I realize just how many blessings abound, even in the midst of suffering. What has your own faith tradition taught you about thanksgiving?

Upon reading your reflections, I remembered how as a child I was taught that the etiquette for replying to someone’s “How are you?” is to say first Alhamdulillah, which means, All praise and thanks are due to God.  In fact, it is sometimes the only thing a Muslim answers, eliminating the need to give further details. As an adult, I have come to appreciate the five daily prayers—or seventeen cycles of prayer—I am commanded to perform every day because my preoccupation with daily life can divert my attention from “giving thanks in all circumstances.” Knowing that I have to plan my day according to the times during which I need to perform those prayers helps me to refocus, reflect, and transcend my worries and pain, as well as remember the bounties I have been blessed with. Muslims, who stop whatever they are doing to engage in the prescribed prayers to recite the opening sentence of each of the seventeen cycles, find themselves in a state of thanksgiving as they say these words: “Praise be to God the Cherisher and Sustainer of the worlds.” (al-Fatihah 1:2)

Grace, I am glad you raised this question and grateful for your emphasis on giving thanks in all circumstances.  I, too, have found myself in difficult circumstances struggling to recognize the blessings in my life.  According to Jewish tradition, a person is supposed to recite a blessing upon hearing bad news, in particular the news that someone has died. The prescribed blessing is “Praised is the True Judge.” I have often choked out these words, against my will, without the proper intention of praising God.  But I believe that it is appropriate to say the words of praise or thanks without truly feeling them and hope that feelings of praise and thanks will eventually follow. The early rabbis taught, “One is obligated to bless upon the bad as he would upon the good….” (Mishnah Berakhot 5:5) Perhaps Paul and the early rabbis were responding to a natural human tendency that they observed: While it is not easy for a person in pain to offer thanks to God, there are always things for which to be thankful; and it is a worthy endeavor to offer thanks even when it is difficult to do so.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

No Trick or Treat

“You shall not do as is done in the land of Egypt in which you lived, and you shall not do as is done in the land of Canaan to which I’m bringing you; and you shall not go by their laws. (Leviticus 18:3)

As a young girl, I always celebrated Halloween with my Jewish and non-Jewish friends. We would carve pumpkins and bob for apples at elaborate costume parties, and, of course, we would trick-or-treat in the neighborhood.  As an adult working in a Jewish day school, I learned that these Halloween rituals are not universally accepted among American Jews. Some school administrators considered the mere mention of Halloween taboo and encouraged teachers to assign the usual amount of homework on October 31st.  Unlike Thanksgiving and July 4th, Halloween causes discomfort among some Jews because of its pagan roots and Christian associations with the holiday, including the observance of All Hallows’ Eve and All Saints’ Day.  While they may also forego Valentine’s Day, I suspect these Jews are more uncomfortable with Halloween because of its association with death and its emphasis on ghouls, goblins, witches and sorcery.  Many Jewish festivals, most notably the fall harvest holiday of Sukkot, incorporate what were likely pagan rituals. The ancient rabbis recognized that people would be unwilling to give up their participation in seasonal celebrations, and so they Judaicized them—imbued them with Jewish religious meaning.  I wonder if modern rabbis would be willing to attempt a similar adaptation of Halloween.

Even though the name Halloween and its origin, All Hallows’ Eve, are associated with All Saints’ Day, I know of no Christian denomination in this country that observes Halloween as a religious holiday. All Saints’ Day, followed by All Souls’ Day, is indeed a sacred observance in Catholic tradition, but Halloween, as I know it, remains a secular holiday.  In recent years, some, primarily non-denominational, Christian churches have objected to Halloween as a glorification of witches and demons and the forces of darkness.  However, it occurs to me that Halloween could be seen from a religious perspective—actually in all faiths—as a mocking of the forces of darkness that the light of God inevitably overcomes. As Martin Luther’s famous hymn “A Mighty Fortress is our God” states: “And though this world with devils filled, should threaten to undo us/We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us.” Of course, when it comes to Halloween, I am personally a “scaredy cat,” so no trick-or-treat for me this year!

Request for our Muslim readers:
We are curious and would love to read about how American Muslims celebrate Halloween.  Please let us know in the comments section of the blog, or email your response to

Yasmina is on vacation this week.