2021 July 11 – CM – male age 48 – Class Notes

Class began as usual, with 2 cycles of prayer followed by dhikr. My 2 cycles were to make up for missing Fajr earlier. I then started my dhikr, going with la ilaha ilAllah. I find it always works best if I can follow my breath with the words. I read somewhere (I think Kabir Helminski’s site) about silent dhikr, saying (in your head) “la ilaha” on the out breath and then “ilAllah” on the in breath. It wasn’t working as well for me this time, so I switched to a different one that teacherji mentioned right before we started: alternating “astaghfirAllah” (God forgive me) and “jazakAllah” (thank you, God). I did one on the in breath and the other on the out breath, and then I really started to sink into it, and yet I was still completely aware of my surroundings and everything else going on around me.

The first part of class is always testing and learning, so brother H worked with me to make sure I knew Surah Al-Ma’un (English and Arabic) and Ayat Al-Kursi (English and Arabic). We had a new student arrive, and I spent some time with her individually to give her an overview of the class and find out what she knew and what she didn’t know regarding prayers and suras. As she moved on to learning the next steps from the level she was at, I moved on to learning my next 3 ayat (verses) from the Manzil: Sura Baqara 284-286, the last 3 of that sura. I was supposed to have them memorized for this class but unfortunately did not get a chance to have that ready in time.

It was nice to see that teacherji was encouraging us to shake hands again. The tactile contact with other humans is something that I’ve missed during the Covid pandemic, so it’s good to see we’re coming back to this. As a man, the lesson was also to not immediately offer a handshake to a sister, to only do so in answer to her offer. I’m somewhat ambivalent about this, since I have to shake hands with non-muslim women all the time as part of working in a professional environment in a Western culture (at least pre-Covid), where we offer the same professional greeting to all people regardless of gender. I started to argue that perhaps I can be more judicious in this, that is, older sisters who obviously come from another culture would not have the same expectations as younger, American-raised sisters, but his point is that it is always best to err on the side of politeness and courtesy, and I guess I agree with that logic. I think this also helps on the spiritual side of our lives. I read somewhere else about what the Sufis call “spiritual courtesy”, which helps us to form respectful and compassionate connections with those around us, so this is probably one of those things where the outward behavior influences the inner state. Much like wudu (ablution) does for cleansing, I suppose.

We reviewed the number countdown from 6 and what each number meant in the Islamic tradition:

• SIX
o Core beliefs
▪ The Oneness of God (tawhid)
▪ God’s angels
▪ God’s scriptures
▪ God’s messengers
▪ The day of judgement
▪ Personal accountability for following God’s laws

• FIVE
o Pillars
▪ Profession of faith (shahada)
▪ Prayer (salah)
▪ Charity (zakat)
▪ Fasting during Ramadan (sawm?)
▪ Pilgrimage to Mecca if possible (Hajj)
o 5 daily prayers (fajr, dhuhr, asr, maghrib, isha)

• FOUR
o Rightly guided Caliphs (Abu Bakr, Uthman, Omar, Ali)
o 4 cycles in 3 of our daily prayers (dhuhr, asr, isha)

• THREE
o 3 cycles in one of our daily prayers (maghrib)
o The Prophet recommended doing things in 3s

• TWO
o 2 cycles in one of our daily prayers (fajr)

• ONE
o God is One (qul huwa Allahu ahad)

• (And a partridge in a pear tree.)

I’ll have to admit that once we started eating, I kind of lost track of what was going on. That chicken shawarma was outstanding, my brothers and sisters, and my inner fat kid totally took control. Luckily, I eat very fast, so I was able to regroup and follow the class once more.

We began discussing the origins of Eid al-Adha. The Quran tells us that in remote antiquity, Abraham saw in a dream that he was required to sacrifice his only son. Being completely submitted to his Lord, he collected his son and they set off to do what was asked. An angel came and stayed his hand at the last moment and pointed instead to a ram that was nearby, suggesting that this be offered in his son’s stead. Hence the origin of Qurbani as well. This is the practice of sacrificing an animal on the last day of Hajj, keeping one third for yourself, giving one third to your family and neighbors, and giving one third to the larger Muslim community to help the poor.

The most important part of this history lesson is the reaction Abraham’s son has to all of this. The Quran tells a different story from the one in the Hebrew Bible that I grew up reading as part of my own Catholic tradition. In the latter, Isaac (Abraham’s son referenced by name in the book of Genesis) is not asked anything, Abraham just takes him to the high place for sacrifice. In fact, when I was a child, my sister and I had this picture Bible that was a gift from my aunts in Spain. It had beautiful artwork, but I remember very vividly the drawing depicting this scene. It had a young boy tied to the top of a pile of wood and an old man holding a sharp knife up high, ready to stab down, but his forearm in the grip of a winged angel floating above him. The boy’s face was frozen in terror. It was very disturbing to me back then, and as an adult looking back I can understand why: my child brain was thinking “What if God tells my Dad it’s time to sacrifice me? That would suck!”

But the Quran adds a twist to this story. Abraham’s son (not mentioned by name) asks his father if this is what God wants, and when Abraham replies in the affirmative, he says something along the lines of “I hear and obey because it comes from my Lord so I know it is right.” He is a willing participant, trusting in God’s plan, knowing that as horrific as the whole thing sounds, it will somehow, by definition, be for the best. Both he AND his father agree to this command. This is particularly important, not only because it corrects the violent image that the Judeo-Christian tradition has carried in its collective psyche for three thousand years, but because it reinforces one of the central messages of the Quran: that God gives us free will and that we alone are then accountable for the choices that we make. This message comes up repeatedly, and I’m glad that it’s also one of the main themes of the Gisla program.

We also discussed other topics, like the purpose of praising God. The Quran tells us in a couple of places that God created jinn and men for the sole purpose of serving/worshipping Him. The question came up that, if we already serve God by giving in charity, giving of our time to help those less fortunate, treating our family and our friends with kindness and dignity, etc. what is the purpose of worship through salat, dua and dhikr? The answer teacherji gave was that it helps as an affirmation or a pledge, to continually confirm WHY and WHO we’re doing good for.

We discussed other topics as well but I’ve rambled long enough now for my tired readers, I’ve run out of asphalt on my essay runway.

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