Free at Last

In 2008, my wife and I had the opportunity to perform our pilgrimage of Hajj.  Like many other people, I found it to be a transformative experience.  Despite the crowds and the complex logistics they necessitate, my overwhelming memory is one of peaceful tranquility, unity, and brotherhood with the rest of the Muslim Ummah.  Most people have similar transformative experiences, the most notable of which was that of Malcom X, whose Hajj induced transformation led to the complete spiritual recalibration of an entire movement.  Many Americans attending this year, unfortunately, will have an incredibly different experience.mecca

The details of this year’s horrific Hajj violence are still, slowly, being revealed.  The basics seem to be that a group of Salafis broke into the American camp at Minah (a small tent city outside of Mecca where Muslims on Hajj stay in minimalist conditions), and after confirming that they were Americans and Shi’ites, proceeded to attack and attempt to kill them.  Grave statements were made, with threats of rape, beheading, and cannibalism directed at the Shi’ites.  Police stood by in tacit, and at times active support with their co-religionist attackers.

Salafism is a particularly radical movement within Wahabbist Sunni Islam, the official religion of the Saudi regime.  It is perhaps best known because of its adherence by Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and Osama Bin Laden.  It is based on a purely historical approach to religion, with wistful longings of yesteryear and absolute disavowance of any progression in thought or action, combined with an “ends justifies the means” approach to halt such progression.  As the “purest” of the Wahabbis, Salafists enjoy the support of the Saudi regime, both actively when convenient and tacitly when expedient.  During my trip to Hajj, the Salafists displayed their disdain for Shi’ites by barring my wife from the prophet’s mosque, defacing my prayer rug, shouting insults at me, and confiscating my prayer books.  These seemed egregious affronts at the time, but are downright trivial compared to the life-threatening attacks they have been emboldened to attempt this year.

If there is a silver lining here, it is that this event (if it gets the press it deserves, which is so far doubtful) will serve to highlight in stark relief just how different the branches of Islam are, and how far removed from terrorists most Muslims are.  Most of my friends find it incredible when I try to explain to them that if an Al-Qaeda terrorist had me and a non-Muslim in his sites and only one bullet, it would be used on me.    This is not hyperbole, unfortunately, but a Salafist truism.  In Salafi eyes, as a Shi’ite I am a Mushrik (one who ascribes to others the greatness reserved for God), a much greater sin than being a non-Muslim.

When Muslims try to convince others that they eschew and condemn terrorism in the strongest possible terms, their pleas are often met with an undercurrent of skepticism.  However, this event and its ramifications should erase any doubt of that fact.  These Salafi terrorists have, by their very actions, at once shown themselves as irreverent of the basic teachings of Islam, and declared mainstream Muslims as enemies.

The world has been locked in a struggle with Islamic terrorism dating back many years before the 9/11 attacks–a hazy war of attrition, where recently lines have been blurred and allegiances have been sometimes unclear.  While Muslims have long argued that the terrorists did not represent the ideals of Islam, the terrorists’ profligate use of Islamic symbols planted seeds of doubt in even the most ardent observers’ minds.  However, these latest acts of terrorism brazenly flaunt even the most basic traditions of Islam and of the Prophet (SA) himself, leaving no doubt as to their true allegiance (or more accurately, lack thereof).   Through their overreach, these Salafis have effectively surrendered their Muslim identity completely.  If seen for the opportunity this represents, this event potentially frees the Muslim community from being held hostage by this fanatic fringe once and for all.

And so we shall once again condemn these acts of violence categorically, this time with the surety of innocent victims of terrorism.  We, the Muslim Ummah, have nothing in common with these barbarians, who would attack Hajjis in Mecca, and threaten cannibalism and rape.  Though they may use our symbols, they do not share our beliefs.  It has finally become clear to the world that they do not follow the teachings of Islam, and that they wish absolutely no goodwill for us, nor us for them.  Though mainstream Islam has been attacked, it is through this attack that we may have found our freedom, at last.


Ramadan Kareem?

Ramadan-Kareem-ramadan-kareem-1280x960Tonight marks the first night of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting and prayer.  Though this is one of the most important nights of the year for Muslims, and Islam is (by some accounts) America’s second largest religion, this fact will likely go completely unnoticed by most of the American population.

The American people take rightful pride in possessing a working knowledge of other cultures in our midst, especially those which attract a significant number of adherents.  Note the acceptance of Jewish traditions in the American culture.  Though by most estimates the numbers of Jews in the United States is lower than that of Muslims, the acceptance and knowledge of Jewish traditions and holidays is much better permeated into the American psyche than that of Muslims.  For instance, schools are often closed for “staff development days,” which happen to fall on the major Jewish holidays Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and city sponsored banners advertise good wishes for Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish new year).  In juxtaposition is our shared experience of constantly having to answer and explain what Ramadan is, how long the fast is for, and what Eid is.

The roots of this problem are varied and complex.  They lie in political, economic, and social realms, all of which cannot be dealt with here.  But at least partial blame is to be placed at the feet of one of the least likely of suspects: The Muslim (Hijri) Calendar.

The debate surrounding the Hijri Calendar embodies and symbolizes many of the obstacles that are faced by Muslims attempting to gain acceptance in Western society.  It breeds discord among different branches of Islam, preventing us from presenting a unified front; it appears rooted in antiquity, with dependance on physical moon sightings; and it seems to beg for non-integration with the west, with its rotational nature.

It is important and vital that if Muslims ever want to gain acceptance in the greater realm of Western Society, they present a unified basis which Westerners can learn about.  As it is, how can we expect non-Muslims to take the trouble to learn about more than a hundred different traditions within Islam, when we persist with petty differences over major issues?  That is, how can we expect a national observance for Eid-al-Fitr when we can’t even agree when Eid-al-Fitr should be?

A fixed calendar based on the lunar cycle is possible in today’s society and is the first step towards Muslim reconciliation and acceptance.  Many sects already follow a fixed lunar calendar and find that agreement with traditional moon sightings is excellent (such as the Fatemi branch of Shia Islam, of which I am a follower and which has followed a fixed calendar for millenia).  In contrast, the practice of actual moonsighting leads to vast disagreement among Muslims, all sorts of variations of interpretation vis a vis modern technology, and serves to make Islam the unfortunate butt of many jokes.

Such a movement has gained momentum among pragmatists and even the Saudi Arabian government (who fancy themselves the leaders of the faith, but have yet to convince many others of that position).  It is still greeted with scorn by many traditionalists, however.  It is interesting that these “traditionalists” have no problem using digital atomic clocks to determine prayer times, or complicated spherical geometry algorithms to determine prayer direction, and yet they persist in their opposition to using astronomical calculations to determine moon phases.
We Muslims also face another major challenge.  Our lunar calendar (as with most Lunar calendars) is shorter than the Gregorian calendar by 11 days a year, so that every three years or so, the Muslim year is shifted backwards approximately a month compared to the Gregorian year.  This keeps the calendar in excellent concordance with the moon, but in total discordance with the seasons.  This also keeps non Muslims in total ignorance as to when our holidays occur and prevents any sort of institutionalized acceptance of our observances.

Our Jewish brethren, who faced similar problems about a thousand years ago, solved this discordance through intercalation.  In short, a thirteenth lunar month was added every three years or so to keep the calendar “luni-solar”, ie in concordance with both the lunar cycles and the solar seasons.  This has allowed Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur to reliably occur in the early fall, with Passover reliably occurring in the early Spring, and has helped all of these observances gain greater acceptance in Western Society (though this was not obviously the initial goal of this change).

Intercalation was actually tried with the Arabic/Hijri Calendar in the pre-Islamic era and the early Islamic era, in a practice called “Nasi”.  Though there was no intercalated month, per se, there was a rotating cycle where every three years, one of the months would be twice as long as the others.  On the first year of the cycle, this extended month would be Muharram (the first month), three years later it would be Safar (the second month), etc.  The term Nasi actually refers to the now defunct pre-Islamic first month of the Hijri calendar, occurring before Muharram, but later outlawed by religious proclamation.

The process of Nasi was eventually outlawed, seemingly because during the phases of the cycle, extensions were eventually added to the four sacred months (Rajab, Dhul-Qaad, Dhul-Hajj, Muharram).  A fixed intercalation (such as the periodic lengthening of Safar), would circumvent this issue as well as maintain the Quranic proclomation that the year should only be limited to twelve months (though granted this seems suspiciously like a loophole).

Changing and modifications of calendars has tremendous precedent, and when a concerted effort to do so is undertaken dissenters rarely persist due to the sheer confusion involved.  Moreover, the new calendar often totally erases memory of the old calendar.  The transition from Julian to Gregorian calendars is an excellent historical example.  Initial peasant revolts quickly died out, and today there is no mention among Christians that Christmas (for example) might not “really” be Christmas due to changes in Western calendars.

I am not advocating a return to pre-Islamic practices of Nasi or any other intercalation. This would require a paradigm shift with tremendous ramifications which would shake the core of Muslim identity.  But if we are ever to garner any credence as a culture to be respected, we must at the very least put our own house in order.  The entire Muslim Ummah must agree on a fixed calendar so that we may present a unified set of basic beliefs to those wishing to learn more about us.

Behind the Veil


(not actually my wife)

(not actually my wife)

Recently, my wife of fourteen years informed me of her decision to start wearing a rida most of the time.  For those who don’t know, a rida is an Islamic garment of modesty, consisting of a long skirt and an upper “pardi” which covers the head, hair, torso, and arms while leaving the face open.  It’s an issue that I know she has been struggling with for quite some time, and one that is complicated by tremendous peer pressure from both sides of the issue.

Her husband hasn’t helped too much either.  In fact, I have made no bones about my opposition to this decision throughout the years.  Personally, I am not yet comfortable with overt displays of Islamic culture in the United States due to significant pervasive Islamophobia in our society.  My personal experience is rife with acquaintances who delude themselves into thinking that their garment and/or grooming choices have not held them back in any way from advancement professionally or personally.  I also remain steadfastly opposed to choices dictated by guilt or a misplaced optimism about acceptance in society.  Further, and perhaps just as important, I feel my wife’s choice will significantly hamper the outdoor lifestyle we have grown to love in Southern California–wither our rough and tumble hikes, sojourns to the beach, or Christmas break ski trips?

In the end however, I hearken back to my first sentence.  My wife informed me.  The decision was entirely hers (and then some).  I did make the effort to ensure that she is not motivated by guilt, nor bowing to the ever-present peer pressure (wasn’t that supposed to disappear after high school?).  She is clearly attuned to the limitations these choices will impose on her professionally and socially.  It is just that she simply, remarkably, does not care.  She has decided that pursuing her acceptance of herself is much more important than seeking the acceptance of the myriad of people of varying importance in her life.  She has even decided that her comfort level with her choices is more important than my comfort level with them.  While this last point upset me considerably at first, it is emblematic of a supreme self-confidence that I cannot help but admire.    It displays a confidence in who she is, what she wants, and how strong our relationship is that I can only marvel at.

For those in the United States who continue to insist on portraying Islamic headcoverings as evidence the subjugation of women, I wish they could be privy to our conversations–A muslim woman arguing to wear a veil against a man pleading for her to dress less traditionally.  This is not the Islam the media loves to portray, but the real Islam practiced by real people.

There is a saying “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”  An analogous comment could easily be made about the objectification of women– “clothes don’t objectify women, society objectifies women”.  A woman parading around in a bikini on a beach is at just as much risk for being wrongfully treated as a sex object (one to be lusted after and ogled) as a woman wearing a hijab (one to be owned and subjugated).  Just as a woman’s swimsuit can be seen as anything from a piece of athletic apparel to a tool for sexual objectification; so too can a hijab vary from a willful choice to a tool for subjugation (as it is too often portrayed and used).  In the end, it is up to us as a society how we treat women regardless of how they dress.  Just as it is crass, rude, and wrong to say a woman “deserved” sexual misconduct because of her titillating clothing, it would be equally wrong to imply a woman “deserved” to be treated as a second-class citizen (or worse yet, pitied) because of her Islamic dress.  The fact is, a woman has a right to be treated with the appropriate respect for her character, not for her fashion choices.

In the case of my wife, her choice to wear a rida is the polar opposite of an act of subjugation or domestication.  It is an act of supreme self-confidence and pride in her culture, a recognition of her priorities, and a challenge to the rest of society (and to her husband) to show her the dignity she knows she deserves.  It is not an act of defeat, it is an act of victory.  Because I know this, I cannot help but respect and support her decision, though I continue to disagree with it.  After all, this independence, confidence, and intelligence is what has always been what is most alluring about her–not her fashion choices one way or the other.

Open House, Open Mind

LA Masjid

Our new masjid… Just part of the Mohammedi Center Complex

Friday, May 5th 2012 was a red letter day for the Dawoodi Bohra Community of Los Angeles–my religious community.  Our new masjid (mosque), under planning and construction for over a decade, had finally been finished.  On Friday, we hosted multiple civic, interfaith, and community leaders to visit with a reception, tour, and a lunch.  After that program, we opened up the masjid complex for the entire local community and neighbors by way of an open house, and guided tours.

To understand the significance of this event, consider this: I am forty years old and have been a Muslim all of my life.  This will be the first masjid I have ever belonged to as a member.

The event was also important in that it was out of the ordinary for the Bohra community.  We tend, for better or for worse (and I feel, mostly for worse), to be a tremendously private and introverted community.  The upside to this is that we do not concern ourselves about what others do or say about us, manifesting a communal self confidence that belies our small numbers and minority opinions.  The downside of this is that we are also unconcerned with spreading the  goings-on within our community to the outside world.  I am not talking about proselytizing, I am talking about simple neighborly sharing.  While we have nothing to hide, it becomes the natural perception that we do.   And there is little more frightening in America than a Muslim with something to hide.  This event went a long way towards changing that introverted attitude within our community as a whole, and our leadership in particular.

Time will be the only true arbiter of whether opening up our community to outside scrutiny was truly a beneficial decision.  After all, increased visibility can be a double edged sword.  But if the outpouring of support and positive media coverage we received are any indication, the favorable ramifications promise to be manifold.

From a personal perspective, this was a vitally important day as well.  As a physician, I live largely in the public eye; interacting with a large swathe of the local population from all occupations, socioeconomic classes, creeds, cultures, and races.  I live locally, and as such my personal lives and professional lives often intertwine (ie: hypertension advice in the bread aisle at Pavilions).  As my mosque is also local, it was inevitable that my religious life (a large component of my personal life) would eventually intersect with my professional life.  I was long dreading that day, however, and working hard to avoid it.  Perhaps I was partly motivated by insecurity over my clothing and customs; but mostly I was pessimistic about the non-Muslim population’s ability to accept Muslims as anything other than crazy nut-job terrorists as their default opinion.

The experience I had in this regard pleasantly surprised me.  Multiple people from my professional life, including patients, hospital administrators, colleagues, referring doctors, and sales representatives attended our function.  In interacting with them, though dressed in my traditional Muslim outfit, I was able to easily summon the professional confidence that I project in any other situation.  Far from the embarrassment I predicted I would feel, I felt comfortable and able to be taken seriously and treated with respect.

Likewise, the implicit distrust and default skepticism which I thought would greet us in the countenance of our visitors never materialized.  Their support for our community was clearly genuine, and not just the thin veneer of politeness I expected.  Their joy at our successful accomplishment, their welcoming of us as part of the local community, and their willingness to learn about Muslims and Bohras with a truly open mind was evident.  Obviously, there is a clear selection bias at work, as those who harbor fear or resentment of us were unlikely to attend our event.  But the number of people who did attend, and who were genuinely encouraging clearly indicated that my previous pessimism was at least over-rated (though unfortunately probably not totally unfounded).

Last Friday represented a “coming out party” for our community as a whole; as well as for me as an individual.  Both were long overdue.  In a sense nothing concrete has changed, however.  Those who hate us or fear us still will, this event did not involve them by their own choice.  Those predisposed to an open mind may have developed a positive attitude towards us.  I am not planning to start going to work wearing my traditional topi and kurta or otherwise advertising my personal beliefs.  The only thing that has palpably evolved is perceptions– ours, theirs, and mine.  Perhaps that means everything has changed after all.

Calling a Spade a Spade

Recently, a US soldier in Afghanistan left his base at about 3 AM.  He walked about half a mile to a nearby village, entered three different homes, and shot dead at least 16 Afghani civilians (at least twelve of whom were women and children).  In the first home, where eleven of the victims were located, he gathered the bodies to burn them.  He then returned to base and turned himself in to authorities.  At the current time, his motives are unclear.  Much information about the killings and the killer has not yet been released.  What is known is that many of the victims were asleep at the time of the killings.

The US Government has issued a necessary but predictable statement of remorse, assuring that an investigation will soon be undertaken, and appropriate legal actions will be pursued (US soldiers in Afghanistan fall under US legal jurisdiction).  The question remains, exactly what crime was committed here?  Was this act part of the “fog of war” and thus representative of collateral damage?  Perhaps the shooter is not guilty by reason of insanity, due to PTSD and a possible history of previous brain trauma?  The killing may represent first degree murder (based on the premeditation inherent in walking a mile to the nearest town).  But, intriguingly, the news media has yet to use the word “terrorism”.

The first two, more lenient, possibilities also seem the least likely to be successful.  The shooter clearly had not been engaged actively by an enemy at the time of the shooting, and collateral damage can only be claimed if he had targeted a real or perceived enemy.  The insanity defense is very likely to be used and is already being used in the media, where all sorts of excuses (ranging from stress to alcohol to a bad marriage) are being floated for his actions.  It is interesting that these same excuses would be considered absolutely inadequate if the killings had occurred against an American town on American soil.  However, this strategy is unlikely to succeed legally and politically, as the shooter clearly knew what he did was wrong (he immediately turned himself over to authorities), and because the government will want to show swift and severe judgment in order to avoid unrest and backlash.

The question then becomes, is this  US soldier a terrorist?  Here is a person who has targeted innocent civilians and killed them in cold blood.  If his motivations were motivated by pure psychopathy then he is nothing more than a deranged cold blooded mass-murderer.   If, however, his motivations included any element of religious or political ideology, then his actions must be considered an act of terrorism.

When Major Nidal Hasan (also a member of the US Military) opened fire at Fort Hood, he was immediately branded a terrorist.  He had, after all, murdered innocents (sort of–members of the military industrial complex are considered reasonable targets by the Geneva Convention) and was motivated by political ideology.  But, when Joseph Stack flew his plane into the IRS building (sound familiar?), clearly motivated by a political ideology, he was branded a deranged anti-government crusader and some Americans even considered him a hero.  In fact, in an official statement “government officials were quick to rule out any involvement of terrorism in the incident.”

Let us hope that we have not devolved so much as a society as to believe that the definition of terrorism is inherently related to one’s own religion, or the nationality of the victims.  While this seems clearly to be the case with the news media,  the FBI official definition of terrorism includes no such reference:

“the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives” (28 C.F.R. Section 0.85)

While it is a major tenet of US law that the accused is innocent until proven guilty, it is a painful fact that if in fact our soldier was motivated by any religious or political objective then he has committed an act of terrorism.  If we are to maintain consistency with our rule of law, not to mention any semblance of credibility in the global community, then we must have the strength to call a spade a spade.

RELATED: The Daily Beast editorial board had a very interesting internal discussion on what they should call terrorism, related to the Joseph Stack incident.  They also had the courage to post it online in its entirety.  It is worth a read.

Compromise, and Other Four Letter Words

A firestorm of debate has opened recently about the Obama administration’s handling of an interesting conundrum regarding birth control.  The debate purportedly posits the rights of free practice of religion with the rights of women to make choices regarding their health.  An interesting by-product of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA, Obamacare) is a provision which would have forced employers to provide (purchase) health insurance for their employees which covered the costs of contraception, including “emergency contraception” (felt by many to be abortion-inducing pills).  Many faith-based employers took umbrage at their being forced to directly subsidize actions which they feel are morally reprehensible; however many of their own employees demand the right to make those choices for themselves rather than have them made by their employer.  While the shrill tones of the debate have been amplified by the current election year politics, the crux of the debate is made all the more interesting by the issues and cogent arguments it raises.

Many on the religious right, particularly in the Catholic church, see this issue as one of religious freedom.  Their religion takes a strict line on contraception, especially “emergency contraception”; though this strict stance is seldom shared by their adherents.  As such, they consider enabling such action through direct subsidy or purchase to be as morally unacceptable as engaging in the practice itself.  This is a point that I, for one, can understand.  Islam has similar rules regarding paying for, storing, gifting, or otherwise enabling the use of alcohol; and I would be just as dismayed if the federal government mandated that I had to participate in such tasks.  Clearly, the people in these institutions have a right to abide by their religion and stay true to their faith.

There is, however, another side to this story.  Each employee of each of these institutions (and every person in general) has a right to make personal decisions about their own healthcare, regardless of their faith or the faith of their employer.  This right is as close to sacrosanct in American culture as can be.   Decisions regarding contraception, even emergency contraception (by virtue of its status as a legal and accepted form of medical practice), should be left to an individual alone and availability of these culturally accepted healthcare options should not be determined by a persons employer, this is a central provision of PPACA (providing guidelines for acceptable basic health coverage).  Clearly, these individuals have a right to personal liberty in their healthcare choices.

The challenge of America is to reconcile these rights and freedoms which are seemingly in direct opposition to one another.  This has been the root of America’s greatness as well.  However, it will be impossible to do so without compromise.  Lately, compromise has unfortunately been related in political spheres to weakness, but truly the ability to compromise to find solutions for a such a vastly diverse nation is essential, and is a source of strength.  The unwillingness to compromise leads to an unwillingness to tolerate diversity, and this is a trend which leads to various forms of xenophobia which are evident in today’s political culture.

The PPACA was put into place partially to assure that employers were providing a certain degree of basic health insurance for their employees (the merits and drawbacks of the act can be debated ad nauseum, but we will currently consider it as it stands).  This basic insurance must include contraceptive care, as oral contraceptives have multiple potential uses besides the prevention of pregnancy (use in dysmenorrhea, endometriosis, and even as chemical castration for sex offenders).  So, if we take the PPACA at face value, how shall we endeavor to provide such care for employees of Catholic institutions, regardless of their religious affiliation?  A reasonable compromise must be obtained.

In order to prevent these institutions from disturbing their moral sensitivities, a compromise solution was arrived at, whereupon such care would be covered free of charge by the insurance companies (thus nominally not being subsidized or enabled by said employers) for employees of these institutions.   Obviously, the costs need to be borne somewhere; the one thing all Americans can agree on is that health insurers are not in the business of charity.  This cost would then be spread over the pool of employers, increasing the incremental cost of each customer of that insurance company slightly but equally.  Yes, this small increase spread over all customers can be considered indirectly subsidizing (to a much lesser extent) such care.  No, it is not perfect.  However it is an imminently reasonable attempt to compromise, and to find comfortable ground for both employees/patients and those financing their insurance premiums.

Those shrieking dismay at this latest attempt at compromise by the Obama administration are motivated at least as much by election year politics as by true concern for religious freedom.  After all, if freedom was truly their main concern, they would be concerned about freedom of those on both sides of the equation.  It is time to remove this issue from the grotesque distortions of the kaleidoscope of election year politics and view it as calm, rational adults.  Doing so would soon reveal that while Obama’s compromise is not perfect for all parties, no compromise ever is–by definition.  His attempts, however, are laudable and imminently reasonable.

A Sharia By Any Other Name…

“We have civil laws, but our civil laws have to comport with a higher law– God’s law.  As long as there is discordance between the two, there will be agitation. [And] Not just any god, but the God of [our prophets]”

A quick multiple choice for the reader.  The words above were spoken by:

A) Osama bin Laden

B) Aiman al-Zawahiri

C) Mullah Omar

D) Rick Santorum

For those of you who answered Rick Santorum, you are correct.  And these are not just words from many years ago spoken by a young, brash idealist who didn’t know he’d someday be running for president, these words were spoken by him on Thanksgiving Day 2011, in the heat of a presidential campaign.  (for the sake of accuracy, the words “Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” were what he said instead of “our prophet”, I left that part out for suspense)

Mr. Santorum has mounted a suprisingly successful bid for the presidency of our nation.  However, his underlying themes are contradictory.  Like most insurgent bids, his message preys on our basest instincts instead of the “better angels of our nature.”

Mr. Santorum is evidently blind to the hypocrisy that his candidacy entails.  He fights tirelessly against the implementation of Sharia law (something that he has yet to produce the slightest shred of evidence as actually occurring), because “Sharia law is not just a religious code. It is also a governmental code. It happens to be both religious in nature an origin, but it is a civil code.” (March 2011) In his view, thus, the separation of church and state is imperative as long as it does not include his church, which should be the basis for the state’s laws (otherwise uprising would be warranted in his view).

This fundamental hypocrisy is evident through other veins of his campaign as well.  Mr. Santorum is a major supporter of individual liberty, especially berating governmental efforts to interfere with an individual’s choice to purchase healthcare or not (does that make him “pro-choice”?).  He argues, at least credibly, that the government has no right to interfere with the choices an individual makes about how to spend money.  He then turns around and supports a ban on individuals who are receiving welfare from going to strip clubs.  While he rails about government involvement in individual healthcare decisions, he was one of the first to sign on to the contemptible actions of Congress in intervening in the Terri Schiavo case, and to limit contraception and abortion choices to women.

I highlight Mr. Santorum, not because he has a realistic path to the presidency, but as a particularly egregious example of the culture wars that the Republicans have chosen to base their 2012 campaign upon.  None of the current or past candidates are immune, though Mr. Romney and Mr. Paul have fallen less into demagoguery than some of their peers in this regard.  While the economic policies of the current Republican party focus on smaller government with less government intrusion into one’s private life and choices, their social policies almost completely focus on morality legislation, with missives against contraception, abortion, gay marriage (actually, often sodomy in general), pornography and Muslims.

The Republican candidates need to take a moment from their (necessary) base-pandering to understand a fundamental truth (one they should hold dear being in charge of congress).  Since every government action involves expenditure of money, it is fundamentally impossible for the government to be larger morally, but smaller fiscally.  To a large extent, morality stems from religion in American (we are unique in that regard), so it is fundamentally un-American to legislate morality, as it is impossible to do so without legislating religion.

Over the past decade or more, the Republican party has sought out the support of Christian Fundamentalists/Extremists as a necessary voting bloc.  Perhaps this made sense in the short term (running against a tremendously popular but morally questionable president).  However, their long term interests may have been better served by adopting a strict secularist, governmental-minimalist stance as a foil to the traditionally over-reaching Democrats.  At least this way, the voters would have a real choice.  As it stands, the American public is forced between two ideologies which both want to intrude on our lives tremendously, albeit in different ways.

‘Tis The Season To Be Jolly…

I love this time of year.  There is a crisp chill in the air (Los Angeles gets just cold enough so we can enjoy the cold, not cold enough that we grow to hate it).  People are humming, stores are buzzing with excitement.  Consumer thoughts are directed towards what others might like, instead of ones’ self.  Kids are emerging from their self-imposed homework holes for winter break.  Let’s face it… Christmas is in the air, and I’m excited!

That may sound strange to some, coming from a devout and practicing Dawoodi Bohra Muslim.  And yet, it’s entirely true. When I was growing up in an Indian-Muslim immigrant family in the 1970s Midwest, diversity was not as celebrated or as recognized as it is today.  My parents saw no harm in a certain degree of assimilation, and this included celebrating Christmas, albeit in a muted way.  Lights were put on the house, a cheap plastic christmas tree in the living room, and token gifts were exchanged on December 25th.

Now, here I am as a parent of my own two girls, and struggling with similar issues with our kids.  As Christmas is celebrated alongside Hannukkah and Kwanzaa, my children have no holiday to celebrate (aside: I am convinced that those holidays are celebrated out of proportion to their religious/cultural significance simply because of their proximity to Christmas).  Eid is our closest equivalent, but being based on a lunar calendar, Eid has no seasonal affiliation and currently falls in the summer months.

So, our family has decided to do what my parents did, and we celebrate Christmas (for the record, we make it a point to celebrate Eid more heartily, however).  While Muslims also believe in Jesus; to claim that that is the reason we celebrate Christmas would be disingenuous and misleading.  Rather, we celebrate a cultural Christmas.  White lights on the house to mimic icicles which may have formed if we lived elsewhere, but not the green and red of Christmas or the blue of Hannukah (actually more popular in our neighborhood).  A gift exchange on December 25th, with gifts limited to one gift per adult to each child (no gifts for the adults, unfortunately).  A special re-dedication to charitable work.  A dedicated day on December 25th to spend time at home with family and no distractions.  We used to do a cheap plastic tree as well, but we have weaned the kids off of that with time.

Some people may call this celebration misguided, and I can see how this would be their first reaction.  However, it makes perfect sense to me.  To begin with, the true religious significance of Christmas has long been called into question, as historians have revised their estimate for Jesus’ birthdate.  The true origins of Christmas likely lie closer to ancient Roman pagan holidays than any actual event in Jesus’ life.  Thus devoid of any Christian historical relevance, Christmas becomes an essentially cultural holiday anyway.

Secondly, the values extolled during Christmas are universal to most, if not all, belief systems including Islam.  Being thankful for the season during the worst weather of the year reminds us to appreciate God’s gifts, even when they seem most rare.  Charitable works are universally considered virtuous.  And while it is sad that we rely on an excuse like Christmas to show those we value in our lives how much they mean to us, Christmas reminds us to do so regularly.  The day itself is the one day in the calendar where most merchants close their doors, and detractors from uninterrupted family time are minimal.

It is for these reasons that I celebrate Christmas, and do so as a proud Muslim.  Some have termed this de-christianizing of Christmas to be a “war on Christmas.”  If that is indeed the case, then my wish this holiday season is that all wars follow its example… A war fought entirely through enthusiastic embrace.

To Err is Human…

Few religious events from any faith evoke such a visceral emotional response as the observance of Ashura does for Shia Muslims.

Historically Ashura (literally “tenth”) commemorates the Battle of Karbala, where the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed (sa), Husain ibn Ali (as) was slaughtered along with his family upon orders from the Ummaiyad Caliph. The tale is rife with heart wrenching sub-stories of cruelty, barbarism, torture, and the cold-blooded murder of innocents. However, one of the tales that grips me most and resonates loudest is not one of cruelty or torture, nor one of valiant battle; but rather one of forgiveness, humility, and redemption.

Hur (as) was an officer and commander in the Umaiyyad army. When Husain’s caravan reached Karbala, Hur was the person responsible for stopping them from proceeding further to Kufa (their destination). He did so within sight of the Euphrates River, a major source of fresh water in the arid desert. But he would not allow them to reach the river to replenish the coffers– a major taboo unheard of among the Arab cultures. By the tenth day of the year, Ashura, Husain’s family had been out of water for three days when open hostilities were declared.

Hur participated in this torture of innocents both actively and tacitly. Before the declaration of hostilities, Husain asked for a bit of time so he could lead his men in a prayer. Importantly, he asked Hur to do the same for his own men.

Immediately touched by Husain’s unshakeable faith and devotion in the face of overwhelming suffering and thirst, Hur realized that he did not want to be associated with the torture and murder of such noble people. Although a major commander in Ummaiyad army, Hur defected and begged for forgiveness from Husain and from God.

Husain forgave Hur and immediately granted him permission to join his army. He even granted him the great honor of being first to go to battle, where Hur was eventually killed by his former comrades. Though this may seem a dubious distinction in today’s world, in the ancient Arab culture there was no greater honor.

Today, when the story of Husain is told, Hur’s story is always told first. Here is a man who committed perhaps one of the worst atrocities imaginable in this scenario–stopping Husain and his family at the place of their massacre, and withholding water from all (women and children included) in the desert heat. It was only in the very last moments of his life that he realized his mistake and sought forgiveness with a clean heart. Even so, this genuine repentance earned him a tremendous honor. Now, 1400 years later, he is still remembered–not for his evil deeds, but for his noble one.

Who among us has wronged or been wronged so severely that forgiveness and redemption seem out of reach? Surely, none more so than Hur. At those times, he reminds us that God lives in each of our hearts– and with God, all things are possible.

The Trip of a Lifetime

The Muslim month of Zil-Hajj has begun, and that means that millions of Muslims from around the world have congregated in the holy city of Mecca for the annual pilgrimage of the Hajj.  I had the distinct honor and opportunity of participating in this pilgrimage (required once in a lifetime for every Muslim who has the means) in 2008.  Every year since then around this time, I reflect on that life-changing experience, and think of my friends who may be there now making experiences of their own.

Shortly after my return, I was asked to blog about my experience at City of Brass, a blog run by my dear friend (and celebrity blogger) Aziz Poonawala.  After the benefit of years of reflection, I believe my initial account still rings true, and can help Muslims and non-Muslims alike understand the undeniable but unfathomable allure of Hajj.  I have reproduced my initial post below:

Hajj: A Near Death Experience

Having recently returned from Hajj, I am bombarded by that well meaning question by all of my friends and loved ones… “How was it?”  Unfortunately, all I can answer is an inadequate “fine”, or even “great”.   Why?  Words can’t really describe the experience, especially hastily chosen words in a usually hurried  conversation.

How was Hajj?  Was it awesome?  Was it a life changing experience?  Was it spiritually fulfilling? Was it physically rigorous?  Yes.  All that for sure… But even that seems to leave something out.  Not in the level of superlative, but in the level of quality.

To me, Hajj was best described as a journey through death and back.  How would you describe that?  You simply can’t.

The first thing you learn, even before you leave, is that your Hajj is your own, and no one else’s.  Your experiences, your hardships, your prayers, your choices are all unique to you alone.  So it makes sense that this interpretation of Hajj is mine alone, and may not be the experience of others.  It may not even be ‘correct’ in the sense that I have not gleaned it (to the best of my knowledge) from any sabaq or sanctioned text.  Yet to me, it is as plain as day.

Hajj, in many ways like death, is a pinnacle, a climax of a Muslim’s life.  Something to be looked at with equal parts excitement, respect, and trepidation, mixed with a healthy dose of downright fear.  And yet you realize that though you may fear it, your life is marching inevitably towards it as a fard (required) act.  For me, I felt a call, so clear it was almost physical, that this was my year to go.  And when that hit, there really was no choice but for me to make the trek this year.

The first true act of Hajj is putting on Ehram clothes.  For men, two simple pieces of unsewn, unadorned cloth, wrapped around your body in much the same way as a traditional burial shroud.  You shed every accoutrement and accessory of this world.  Everyone looks the same.  The cardiologist from Los Angeles was sitting next to the street sweeper from Bangladesh (really!), and nobody could tell one from the other.  This was a powerful moment, saying goodbye to the worldly station you have worked so hard to achieve.

The trip to Arafat is the climax of the act of Hajj.  You stand before the sun and pray.  Much like Muslim beliefs of qiyamat (the day of judgement), you stand before Allah and you pray.  You pray with an intensity you have never before experienced.  The most fitting description I have read (but cannot take credit for) is that you stand before your God naked.  Stripped naked of every crutch or protection you have come to rely on.  There are no worldly accessories.  It doesn’t matter how much you make, or what you own.  It doesn’t matter who your dad is, or your mom.  You may stand next to your spouse, but you are utterly and completely alone.  Standing there in your burial shroud, praying before God, with only your Iman (faith) and your Amal (works) to speak on your behalf, stripped of every conceivable comfort or connection of the world.  This is an accurate description of Arafat day, but it is also an accurate description of what Muslims are taught will happen to each of us when we are called to account after death.

Arafat day is the most exhausting of Hajj.  Though it is not the most rigorous day, the trip down from the mountain of Arafat is a mixture of feeble jubilation with intense spiritual, psychological, and emotional fatigue.  Your trip through death is over.  Your accounts have been settled.  You have been cleansed of sin.  But you have been left with nothing in this world, you sleep under the stars, exposed to the elements.    It is time for rebirth.

On your return, you shave your head, just as we do for newly born babies.  You begin your new life with a tawaaf (a trip to the kaabah), hopefully beginning things on the right foot.  What better way to start off your new life than with an act of total obedience and submission to God’s will?  You return home, and remove your (by now dusty and dirty) Ehram clothes to begin your life anew.

When I finished, my number one feeling was one of traversing the plains of death, facing its trials and tribulations, and returning reborn.

How do you sum that up in a hallway when a colleague asks “How was your trip?” There’s only one realistic answer.  “Fine, thanks”.