2021 June 20 – JJ – female 33 – Class on Father’s Day
If your father died tomorrow, would you be content with how you treated him? For those who have fathers who have already passed, do you have any regrets? This is one of the topics we discussed at today’s class since it was Father’s Day. Yet there were also many other topics, such as meditation, Juneteenth/slavery, making the world a better place, homosexuality, dating, spiritual bucks, parts of the prayer and Hell. Clearly there were a lot of hot topics on the table.
When I showed up for class, I started out with two rakats (cycles) of prayer like I did last class, followed by fifteen minutes of meditation. Despite the fact there were other conversations going on in the room, I did a better job meditating this time than I did when I tried to meditate last week. Last week I was very distracted. This time I was slightly distracted, but able to feel some peace as I repeated the following mantra in my head: la illah ila allah (there is no God but God). I don’t know why I did better this time. Maybe more practice. Later, we had a discussion about why some people can fall into a trance easier than others. My teacher had a theory that perhaps people who have had negative life experiences or have done more bad deeds may have a more difficult time reaching that pure state of meditation, because perhaps these life experiences distract the mind. Though that was just his theory, and he admitted that he wasn’t entirely sure. I think his theory is interesting and I wouldn’t be surprised if that was the case.
After meditation, I went over my salat (prayer) with the teacher. He had me practice Surah Al Fatiha (the opening chapter of the Quran) very fast. He would then ask me for the first line, then the fourth, then the third, eighth and so on. I had never approached Al Fatiha like this before, instead just focusing on how beautiful I can make it sound when I say it. But I suppose the purpose of this approach is to ensure that I know the opening chapter of the Quran forward, backward, sideways, and inside out. My teacher did the same with Surah Al Ikhlas (the sincerity), which is the 112th chapter of the Quran and is only four lines long. Yet even though it is short, Al Ikhlas is important because in Hadith it is said to be equal to a third of the whole Quran (Sahih Al-Bukhari).
After working on our prayer, the class began a discussion of Father’s Day. Our teacher had us write a letter to our father. In my letter, I expressed gratitude to my father for encouraging me to think for myself and to work hard. I’m also glad my dad loved technology when I was a kid—which gave our family a technological edge. Our family had a personal computer before it was common. This was back in the early 90s when computers were basically just thirty-pound calculators that took so long to turn on you could watch half an episode of Ninja Turtles before the thing was loaded up. But to all my friends this thirty-pound calculator with all four of its colors was a technological wonder to behold (I can feel all the 20 something year olds in the class laughing at me right now.)
Though things were not always great with my dad. Our family had many conflicts that resulted in my dad bringing us all through three divorces. So, we’ve had our ups and downs to put it mildly. Many people in the class had ups and downs with their fathers, such as fathers that were distant for various reasons. But as our teacher discussed, there is no guidebook to being a parent. No instruction manual. We think our dads know how to parent us, but they don’t always know what they’re doing. Sometimes we have to teach them how to parent us. Maintaining a positive relationship with one’s parents is paramount in Islam as is expressing gratitude. “And your Lord has decreed that you not worship except Him, and to parents, good treatment. Whether one or both of them reach old age (while) with you, say not to them (so much as), “uff”, and do not repel them but speak to them a noble world.” (QS. Al-Isra : 23)
Even though my own dad wasn’t perfect, I know he tried very hard in his own way to be a good parent and that I should try to be more grateful for his efforts. I also think of the fact that I should be grateful he is still alive to give me his wisdom and advice, while other people don’t have the same luxury. When I sent my dad my Father’s Day letter on Facebook messenger (later that day). He was very happy because I don’t usually open up to him about emotional stuff. I’m glad the class motivated me to do a good deed.
After talking about Father’s Day, we discussed the holiday of Juneteenth and the history of slavery in America. Juneteenth is a federal holiday in the United States commemorating the emancipation of enslaved African Americans. We discussed this because our class took place the day after Juneteenth. Our teacher brought up the fact that many of the slaves that were sold to America from Africa were Muslims who were forcefully converted to Christianity by their masters. Yet he also brought up the controversial fact that the people who initially sold the African slaves were other Africans (as well as other Muslims). And that the Arabs unfortunately played a very large role in the history of the African slave trade (starting all the way back in the 7th century). This was a fact that a few students in our class did not know. He brought it up to show that issues are not always so black and white, but that there are shades of grey. Muslims can oppress other Muslims and Africans can oppress other Africans. This tendency of human beings to oppress each other seems universal, unfortunately.
This topic brings me to a homework assignment that our teacher assigned us. He asked the question, “Why don’t Muslims focus on making the world a better place when that’s what the Quran tells us to do?” First of all, I think that’s a rather black and white question. There are many Muslims out there making the world a better place, such as the Turkish Muslim couple behind the Covid Pfizer vaccine, or the social justice inspired by Malcolm X, or the strength inspired by Muhammad Ali, or the comedy and valuable social commentary provided by Dave Chappelle or the valuable theological lessons of a scholar like Hamza Yusuf. But I do get the point that the Muslim majority countries of the world today are behind in terms of technological and social progress. And the oil-rich Muslim gulf states are not doing nearly enough to use all their “black gold” help the world’s oppressed people: like the Palestinians, Uyghurs, Yezidis and so on.
I think the reason why the Muslim majority countries are lagging behind to put it broadly are multifold. There is no size fits all answer. During the Golden Age of Islam (the Middle Ages) the Muslim countries were first and foremost in scientific thought and were fairly progressive for their time. While religious minorities like Jews and Christians did live as second-class citizens paying the Jaziyah Tax, they weren’t being outright killed or tortured like religious minorities commonly were in other parts of the world. Women also had more rights in the Muslim societies than the Hindu, Christian, Confucianist and Pagan societies at the time. Much of the science used by Western scientists like Galileo and Copernicus was originally pioneered by Muslim scientists during the Middle Ages.
Yet there were various reasons that potentially led to the decline of the Muslim world after the Middle Ages. Perhaps they got too powerful and became opulent and hedonistic (the beginning of the end for most empires)? Perhaps the Mongol Invasions of the 13th century put an end to progress. Perhaps as people added more weird cultural norms onto the Deen (the religion), people forgot what Islam was all about in the first place and just followed a bunch of cultural practices instead of the Quran. Whatever the reason, there was a stagnation period until the Christian Europeans came in and took over. Once the Europeans took over (around the 18th and 19th centuries), many Muslims felt like they were being punished for getting too lax in their Deen. So you saw the rise of extremist movements like Wahabism/Salafism, which is an extremist interpretation of Islam. Once the Wahabbis got oil money in Saudi Arabia (thanks to the British), they used their trillions to export an extremist version of Islam around the globe for power and profit (our teacher says the three causes of evil in the world are power, poverty and passion). Add that on top of wars for oil, puppet dictators and a general distrust of any ideas from the West (whether good or bad), and you get an extreme situation. So that’s my long and rambling answer to why the Muslim Majority countries are not doing enough to make the world better.
The next topic was spiritual bucks. Our teacher loves to talk about spiritual bucks. I can understand why. It is very apt metaphor for earning a spiritual reward for good deeds. A key point our teacher likes to make is that people who are higher up on the morality ladder have to work harder to earn spiritual bucks because they are being judged more harshly (because they have more potential). I think our teacher also mentioned people can use their spiritual bucks to give weight to their prayers. A person who is pious and does good deeds and prays most of the time is more likely to have spiritual credit than a person who isn’t thinking about God in the slightest.
This brings us to the topic of the parts of the prayer. Let’s look at Al Fatiha. The first part of this prayer is all praise for God. God is gracious and merciful. All praises are due to God. Lord of all the Worlds. Master of the Day of Judgement. These things are said to praise God and to make a connection with God. After we praise God, we ask him to direct us. We ask him to guide us on the straight path, the path of those who have earned God’s pleasure, not of those who have earned God’s displeasure or those who have gone astray. I think the point here is that when one prays, first they should praise God and make a connection, then they should ask for the thing that they need. It’s much like when one is talking to a family member. You don’t just straight up ask your uncle for 20 bucks. You say, “Hey Uncle So and So. I was just thinking about you and all the great times we’ve had tomorrow. How are you feeling? I’m glad you’re feeling okay. By the way, I need 20 dollars for lunch today. Is that okay?”
One student asked if people could use their spiritual bucks to help prevent people from going to Hell. I was a little confused about the answer. But the basic gist of the answer is that an individual can use their spiritual bucks to help another person while both parties are still alive. But once a person is dead, no one can use their spiritual bucks to help them.
I hope I can earn as much spiritual bucks in this lifetime as I can. And I hope God can forgive me for being so distant from my parents all these years. What is nice is lately while I’ve been somewhat improving my relationship with my dad, I’ve also been improving his view on Islam. He used to dislike Islam because of a bad experience he had when he got stuck in one of the Gulf countries for having a mistake on his passport. But because my dad was always the one I had deep conversations with as a kid, he’s now the one I have deep conversations with about Islam. And more than any of my other immediate family members, he has been interested in learning about what Islam has taught me and how it is changing me.