2021 June 13 – CM – male age 48 – Class Notes
This past Sunday I arrived a bit late and most everyone was already there. After my 2 cycles of prayer, I came back to the class and teacherji asked me to help one of the new sisters with learning Al-Fatiha in English, but I must have been going too slow, so I was reassigned to pick and learn a new Surah. I chose Al-Ma’un since I had already learned the English for it the previous week.
When reviewing the English translation I had learned with teacherji, we discovered that it didn’t quite convey the stress on the values that Gisla is trying to teach. Specifically, the last few ayat in the translation I learned (by Abdel Haleem, which is in spite of this example a very good, down-to-earth translation) are:
“So woe to those who pray
but are heedless of their prayer;
those who are all show
and forbid common kindnesses.”
In contrast, the translation below (by Yusuf Ali):
“So woe to the worshippers
Who are neglectful of their prayers,
Those who (want but) to be seen (of men),
But refuse (to supply) (even) neighbourly needs.”
While the first one may be clearer and more direct in its formulation, the last line fails to truly spell out in detail what the kindnesses are for. That is, God is warning us that standing and prostrating in prayer just for all to see means nothing if we neglect the basic needs of our neighbors, be it food, housing, clothing, or common dignity. While I believe “ma’un” does translate to “kindness” (I’m not an Arabic expert so I could be wrong), that term doesn’t imply the same urgency and duty for us as “need”. In addition, the concept of “neighbor” helps to highlight that we’re duty bound to help those close to us, not just in the abstract.
My understanding of the Gisla program and what we’re trying to learn is that this is the first duty for us as believers: make the world a better place. This starts from the inside out, in concentric circles (Hierocles’ circles of concern for other philosophy nerds). I start by improving myself and my relationship to God, asking Him to remove those defects of character that prevent me from getting closer to Him, and asking Him to increase in me those features that help bring me closer to Him. At the same time, I move into serving others around me in the way that is most appropriate. For example, to bring as much love, compassion, and kindness into my relationship with my children and provide guidance for them in the choices they make as they grow up and break further and further away from me. Or providing different levels of assistance to those around me who need it, either elderly folk I know, friends who just need help with different tasks, volunteer organizations, etc. Love and service.
So, I had a good grasp of the Arabic for Surah Al-Ma’un (first half at least) but then forgot it as the classroom discussion took a different turn and we all did our best to provide understanding and comfort to another student who is going through some difficult personal trials. In fact, this raised a very good question: what behavior is expected of us in romantic relationships? What is acceptable and unacceptable? And how can we treat everyone involved in the relationship (including ourselves) with love and compassion?
This can probably be a whole other discussion on its own, but in the short-term, suffice to say that society, religion, and culture all play a part in the expectations we are trying to live up to. Yet all three of these often provide contradictory answers. For example, the modern Western society that we live in (here in America) has a set of expectations on what kind of behavior a woman should tolerate from a man that are sometimes different from the expectations of a traditional south Asian or middle eastern culture. Furthermore, the religion of the parties involved is often used to justify the expectations of both, yet in most cases is just being distorted to fit the wants of the dominant group in the society or culture involved. In the end, it requires us to know ourselves as well as possible to understand what our boundaries are and what we each individually judge to be acceptable. Islam, as described to us in the Quran, provides a framework of love and compassion and justice that helps us come to these conclusions and participate in healthy relationships.
The conversation with the new sister also tied into our discussion regarding the jinn and Satan and how they try to distance us from God. Modern psychology, for example in cognitive behavioral therapy, commonly talks about the “voice” inside us that tells us we’re not good enough, that we’re bad, or too fat/ugly/old/loud. That we should feel shame over how someone else has told us they think we are. Who’s to say that this voice is not Satan messing with us, just as the Quran describes? The modern Western-educated person would laugh this off as mere superstition, but the explanation of modern psychology does not provide a better answer for the source of that voice, either, only what to do about it when it appears. And the end result of that shame and fear the inner voice is urging on us is, in fact, disconnection from God as the source of love and compassion that we need in our lives, for ourselves and for those around us. Isn’t that exactly what Satan set out to prove that he could do to us?
The intersection of society, religion, and culture and how it confuses us on the path to God is another topic that I would like to explore in a separate essay. In particular, how we can counter that and how the Gisla program that we’re in can be a force for putting us on the right path.