Wednesday, January 23, 2013


Dear Readers, please join our conversation by commenting on Yasmina's explanation of this verse of Quran, written in honor of the birthday of the Prophet Muhammed [Peace and Blessings be upon him]. Tziporah & Grace will be responding in the coming weeks.

We sent thee [O Muhammad] not but as a Mercy to all creatures.” (al-Anbiya 21:107)

Not bound by time, not limited to a group, not restricted to humans; this short verse describes the prophet of Islam [Peace and Blessings be upon him] as a Mercy that is manifested in the Book he was given and in his example, which Muslims seek to emulate.  The occasion of his day of birth more than 1,400 years ago is an opportunity to contemplate the meanings of that mercy.  Misunderstood by many today, his teachings challenged the modes of conduct fourteen centuries ago; but the issues he condemned and the actions he praised are still relevant today. Among these issues are the treatment of women and stewardship of the environment. From the beginning, he stressed to the men of his time that “The best among you is the one who is best to his wife1 and reinforced the need for stewardship of the earth through the teachings of the Quran. When asked, “Messenger of God, will we have a reward on account of animals? He answered: “There is a reward on account of every living thing.”2 Most of all, his emphasis was on the importance of good character, clearly indicating that dealing with people in an honorable manner is a means for acquiring the Mercy of God: “God will not show mercy to a person who does not show mercy to other people.”3

1 Muslim: Hadith 3466
2 Bukhari: Hadith 378
3 Bukhari: Hadith 375

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The New Year

Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him. (Psalms 37:7)

Having just celebrated New Year’s Day on the Gregorian calendar, I am mindful of the variety of New Year’s observances in different cultures and religious traditions. Most mark the New Year in a particularly momentous way, whether solemn or festive. Interestingly, this is not the case for Christians who follow the liturgical Church calendar of the West and observe the religious New Year on the first Sunday of Advent, four weeks prior to Christmas. Neither a fast day nor a feast day, the first Sunday of Advent introduces a new cycle of readings from Scripture, ensuring that the complete Old and New Testaments, the Psalms, and the Gospels, will be read in weekly worship over the course of three years. At Advent, church vestments mark the New Year with the color blue; one of four candles on an Advent wreath may be lit during the worship service, and hymns anticipating the coming of Christ, such as “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” are sung. No fireworks on this day; not even great ceremony. The New Year comes quietly, as pondering hearts open to prepare Him room.

What special meanings and rituals are associated with the New Year in your faith tradition?

The New Hijri Year[1] also comes quietly with no celebrations or rituals associated with it. As a matter of fact, the concept of the Hijri calendar was introduced years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad [Peace and Blessings be upon Him]. However, the end of one year and the beginning of another one remind Muslims that they should treat every day as an opportunity for reviewing their words and actions. It is also an occasion to remember that time is a gift one should treat with wise care, as illustrated by the Hadith: “Take advantage of five matters before the passing of five others; your youth before become old; your health before you become sick; your wealth before you become poor; your free time before you get preoccupied, and your life before your death.”[2] This is an appeal to us to take action and give thanks as long as we still can. For this reason, turning the page on another calendar year is seen not as a cause for celebration, but more as a chance for contemplation followed by righteous action.

Both the verse in Psalms and the Hadith evoke the solemnity of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Like the Hijri calendar, the Jewish calendar we now follow is a later calculation of the early rabbis (1st century BCE-1st century CE), who also instituted many of the rituals of Rosh Hashanah—especially those involving reflection on one’s behavior and repentance of one’s sins during the previous year. Throughout the centuries, complex liturgical poems were added to the public prayers. Many of these poems describe the martyrs of previous generations, while others remind us that our lives hang in the balance as God judges our deeds. One example contains the haunting refrain, “On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed;” this refers to the fate of all those who will die in the coming year.  The month leading up to Rosh Hashanah through the ten days following it are known as the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, which end with a full day of fasting and repentance on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  At this time of the New Year, we wait in stillness for God’s decree.

[1] The first year of the Hijri calendar is the year the Prophet [Peace and Blessings be upon Him] and his followers migrated from Mecca to Medina. It corresponds to 622 CE in the Gregorian calendar.

[2] Narrated by Ibn Abbas in Musnad Imam Ahmad

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Increase the Light

“When a person lights one candle from another, neither flame is diminished.” 
(Bemidbar Rabbah 13)
My favorite night of Hanukkah is the last night, when each of us lights our favorite menorah. That’s 45 candles: 8, plus 1 server to light the others, times 5 family members, burning for at least 30 minutes.  My spouse usually remarks that our dining room resembles the nave of a cathedral, which conjures memories of my childhood visit to St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City.  In the text that I quoted, the early rabbis use the physical properties of a candle’s flame to focus on light as a metaphor for wisdom. This is one message of Hanukkah, the celebration of which involves adding candles each night to increase the light.  Many religions prescribe candle lighting and singing to dispel the darkness of the winter solstice. When we light a flame in our own homes and houses of worship, and we keep one another in our prayers, I have no doubt that we will increase the light in the world and the warmth in our hearts.  

Tziporah, your delightful family tradition on the last night of Hanukkah makes me smile as I imagine all that flame! It also brings to mind these words from a familiar song: “If everyone lit just one little candle, what a bright world this would be!” That same song makes the connection you make between the light of a candle and a prayer that brings light into dark places. How much we need to heed that call to prayer in our world today: Darkness and evil can never be eliminated, I think, but I also believe with people of every faith tradition that darkness cannot prevail where the light of God shines. A favorite verse of mine from Christian scripture affirms, “The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (The Gospel of John 1:5) In another account, Jesus speaks words that I see as applying to people of good will everywhere: “You are the light of the world.” (The Gospel of Matthew 5:14, emphasis mine) What an awesome calling to be light for one another!

Although the Islamic tradition does not call for physical lighting of candles, the notion of sharing and increasing the light brings to my mind many positive associations. I recall immediately the beginning of a Hadith that I have memorized. It is a Hadith about charity; the type of charity that is not limited to financial giving, but encompasses any form of voluntarily sharing one’s knowledge, time, advice and emotional support: “Charity does not in any way decrease the wealth.”* Many verses of the Quran and other Hadiths emphasize the superiority of light over darkness and the many forms in which each is manifested. Light is wisdom and blessings, and all that is of benefit to us. Light is also equated with prayer, guidance, knowledge, piety and righteousness; these noble qualities will all take the form of physical light on the Day of Judgment. There is one last, unique depiction of light that is visible to the angels and attracts them to visit its source: it is the light that emanates from houses where the remembrance of God is fundamental.

* Charity does not in any way decrease the wealth; and the servant who forgives, God adds to his respect; and the one who shows humility, God elevates him in the estimation of the people.” (Sahih Muslim, Book 32, Hadith 6264)