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Archive for December, 2011

The closing of 2011

Posted by Yacoob on December 23, 2011

And so we come to the end of another calendar year, which will predictably be accompanied by year-end reviews, personal reflections, and ‘best of’ lists. For me, it’s been a momentous year – with Hajj the biggest highlight of course (as you may have noticed from the content of posts for the past few months).

But there were also other significant happenings. For example, it was the year my physical attachment to the city of my birth finally came to an end. It was also the five year anniversary of my entry into the world of blogs – significant because of how important this platform has become to me as an outlet for self-expression. And Ramadan, of course, was one of the most special yet – not just because of the beauty of the month, but also because it served, partially, as a preparation for the most important journey of my life – Hajj.

Hajj itself was incredible – starting in the most amazing city of Madinah, then Makkah, and the actual days of Hajj, then the beautiful yet embattled land of Palestine afterwards (all of which are being chronicled). If you’ve been disappointed by the lack of variety on this blog in the last few months, you can blame it all on Hajj – because it’s a journey that’s so consumed me, not only during the period I was away, but even up to now. In addition to the series started on this blog, I’ve also begun the version for a multi-faith audience (which you can find here) – and I have big plans for that insha-Allah, and if you have a chance, please have a look – and direct your non-Muslim friends or family to it, if they’re interested in what the Hajj is.

Coming back home after seven weeks, I’ve gone through different phases of inspiration and deflation – highs and lows, but always yearning to retain the specialness of that experience; but knowing that I can’t hold onto it like I want to – for feelings fade, as will memories…but that’s why writing about it is so important to me; as a capturer of the experience that I hope to re-read for years to come, until – insha-Allah – I can go back and make some new memories.

The last couple of weeks have been tumultuous at work, with a sudden disaster that’s knocked half the company’s employees out of a job. Thankfully for me, I was one of the survivors – but I still recognise the instability of the situation, and know that I’ll need to get out of my comfort zone and start looking at other opportunities – in case the worst happens next year.

It really hit me this week, when all the members of my team said their goodbyes – leaving me the only one left, other than my team leader. Four years I’ve been at this company, and things have always been good. And then, in the space of a few days, everything shattered. Jobs were lost, families affected, some fortunate enough to keep a job were humbled by demotion due to downsizing – and the happy-go-lucky atmosphere that so often prevailed in that building turned to one of somberness and idleness, as many either didn’t have work to do, or didn’t have motivation to do the work they were still being paid to do.

It’s a lesson for everyone that we can never put our reliance on a company, boss, or other created being. God alone is the Provider, and He alone provides for us – with jobs and companies only the visible means we perceive.

And when a calamity like that hits, it serves as a wake-up call – a reminder of human fragility, and a means of drawing us closer to Him.

As I worked my last day of the year today and then left, I remembered the times of old – the other ‘last days’ of my life: the last days of the school year; the days of the final exam in a varsity year; the other last working days of the year in this current job.

And while I can go into this holiday relaxed, I know that it may be the last time I can do that for a while – because come this time next year, if I’m alive to see it, circumstances may be very different – and I might not be able to relax.

In any case, whatever must come will come; and from my end, all I need to do is my best – putting complete reliance in Allah, trusting that He’ll bring the best out of whatever my future holds, and being content with the outcomes – even if they look bleak at first.

It may seem like a depressing year end for me, but it isn’t. Personally, I’m in the best state that I’ve been in for all the year ends in my life; and I hope to keep the drive up and go on to greater things – in line with the personal ambitions which have now been defined for the rest of my life.

It feels good to know my purpose in life. Not just the general one that we as Muslims believe in (i.e. to worship Allah) – but a specific one, uniquely fitted to who I am, what I have, and what I can – insha-Allah – achieve in my remaining days on Earth.

So to close off this post (though not necessarily my last of 2011), I ask you – dear reader: what were your highlights of 2011? And, going forward, what significant things do you hope to achieve in the coming years?

Image source

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Hajj Chronicles: Part2: Beginnings

Posted by Yacoob on December 12, 2011

Previous parts: Introduction | Part 1

How it started
I’d wanted to go for Hajj for a long time – but had only planned to go two years ago, in 2009. Generally, that’s the wrong approach to take. You’re supposed to go as soon as you’re capable (physically, financially, etc.) – because it’s an obligation, and you may not live long enough to go when you think it’s your time. But I was immature and selfish, thinking that I knew best. I didn’t want to go until I was married – believing that I wasn’t ready until that time.

Once marriage came, that self-imposed barrier dissolved. But another one came up soon after. The year my wife and I had intended to go was the year that our daughter arrived – meaning we had to wait at least a few more years. In terms of timing, this taught me that Allah controls the schedules – not me. And that I need to submit to what Allah wants, and not what I think is best.

As new parents, life obviously became very hectic, and Hajj seemed something on the distant horizon – a hazy, faraway dream that would maybe come true… someday.

But the end of Ramadan 2010 brought it back into focus for me. The months of Hajj start immediately after Ramadan – and it was then that this immensely strong pull came over me; this deep desire to go – for all of the reasons mentioned in the previous post. And this feeling only intensified as the Hajj of 2010 got underway.

We took the first necessary step that November – SAHUC registration – and actually ended up registering just a few days after SAHUC opened up applications for the year 2011.That was my first sign that Hajj may become a reality for us – because the earlier you register, the better your chances of getting accreditation.

 

Being prepared
With most things in life, it’s important to be prepared. Hajj is no different. In fact, it’s even more important – because this is the most important journey of a Muslim’s life. We study so hard for exams, and prepare so much for job interviews and other things – yet when we compare those worldly events to Hajj, there’s almost no comparison in terms of what deserves our best preparations.

After registering, we faced at least a four month wait until accreditation would be announced. So we busied ourselves trying to learn about Hajj. There are plenty of books, articles, lectures, and videos you can use to prepare – but one of the most effective learning methods, for me at least, is attending classes. And that’s where the first test came for us.

The new year (2011) soon arrived, and things got extremely busy at home. The feelings for Hajj, which were once so strong, soon got buried under the burdens of day to day life. But still, I tried to keep up – eventually failing, and resigning myself to the fact that Hajj class would probably be the biggest motivator to keep going.

It was quite a struggle trying to find a Hajj class that suited us (both in terms of schedule and our being comfortable with the scholar who taught it) – one that I realise was one of our early tests on this journey. But – alhamdullilah – that part of the process fell into place eventually, and we got an awesome teacher; one who was a real character – animated, passionate, and very unique in his style of delivery.

In Cape Town, it seems we go overboard when it comes to Hajj preparation. I’m not a native Capetonian (though I’ve been here 12 years) – so I can’t speak from much experience, other than my own. But I use that term – ‘overboard’ (and not in a negative way here) – because we have Hajj classes for months before people actually leave for Hajj. In other parts of the country – like Durban and Joburg – all they get is a one day seminar, or a few classes on Hajj not long before it’s time to leave.

Part of the reason for this is that Hajj classes of this type teach you your religion again – the important aspects – so that you can assess your current state of Islam, make your changes on Hajj, and when you come back, be in a position to improve as well as make up for the things that you neglected in the past – such as salaahs or fasts you’d missed, lack of concentration in salaah, etc.

So we had six months of classes – which comprehensively covered more than just Hajj alone.

On the individual level, I’d made a plan of all the things I’d wanted to do personally to prepare. That preparation included an analysis of my current state of religious practice, life, and character; the ideal states I’d want those aspects to be in; and how I would improve myself to those levels.

It also included writing down a detailed dua list; that being the most important aspect, because as the hadith goes, dua is the essence of worship. It’s the heart of your connection to Allah – because it’s your speaking to Him, in your own words, asking for what you want and need…the most intimate of matters that involves no one other than you and your Maker. By communicating with Allah – through dua and otherwise – you strengthen that bond. And, as the hadith goes, when you take one step towards Allah, Allah takes ten steps towards you. The importance of dua cannot be overstated. And it’s not confined to Laylatul Qadr, or Ramadan, or Hajj only. That communication line is always there. And you don’t need to pay high cellphone costs either, because it’s absolutely free ;)

As it turned out, procrastination and time wasted on other things meant I ended up not doing most of the things I’d planned to do. And as time ran out, I feared I’d be boarding that plane unprepared. But Allah had mercy on me, and gave me a bout of sickness a few weeks before we left. The time off work was just what I needed. I did get some rest (as per doctor’s orders), but I didn’t have time to waste resting half the day. So I took the time I had alone to write and write and write – my duas for myself and my life, for other people, and just about everything I could think of.

Also, preparing a will is one of the things that we traditionally do before Hajj. Actually, Islam teaches us that it’s something we need to do regardless of whether we’re going for Hajj. Seeing the tragedies of family disputes over the estate of the deceased, it should become very clear why a will is essential (and a proper Shariah-compliant will at that). Anyway, so in thinking about my own death, I realised there was a lot that I wanted to tell the people closest to me – yet now in life, I didn’t have the courage. And if I died, I would want them to know those things. So I wrote letters to them, which I kept with my will. I adopted the mindset that if I die on Hajj, these would be my last words to them – the messages I want to leave them with. It was liberating to write those letters, because from my side, it helped me express all that I’d otherwise left unsaid, and tie up loose ends that were otherwise not dealt with.

Madhouse
In Cape Town, Hajj is treated with all the fervour of a wedding, or Eid. For the week before the Hajji leaves, the house is pretty much open to visitors at most times of the day (and late into the night too – even if you have young kids at home!). Family, friends, neighbours, and others all come to ‘greet’ you, wishing you well for your Hajj, asking you to make dua for them and convey greetings to the Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. in Madinah. They also give you some money (called a slavat) to help with the trip, and those who have been before share their Hajj stories with you and give advice.

The ‘greeting’ thing is a cultural custom – it’s not a sunnah or religious injunction. Culture often pollutes religion, and many cultural practices actually violate the laws and purposes of the Shariah (just look at the way many Muslim wedding receptions are conducted). Cultural practices are fine, as long as they don’t contradict Islam. And this particular custom is one that does have a lot of good in it – for the sense of community it builds, and the way it reminds people of the Hajj and Islam (which, unfortunately, is sometimes forgotten in the secular lives we sometimes live). Some people think that this greeting business is for show – to put on this event to show off that such and such a person is going for Hajj. I disagree with that. I would like to believe that this is just a misperception – and that no Hajji (or their organisers / family) actually has this intention in mind. Sincerity of intention is not something for us to judge – Allah alone judges.

Anyway, so while I see the good in this custom, sometimes it’s just overboard (and this time I use that term in a negative way). Some people pitch marquees in their yards to cater for all the expected visitors; and the amount of food, preparation, and spending that goes into this event in some cases is just excessive. It’s possible to cater for people without going so overboard, but for some (or many?), no expense is spared – which I think is very wrong, especially if the Hajji (who already spent so much to pay for Hajj) is the one that has to pay for all of this.

You’re supposed to be preparing for the most spiritual journey of life – one where you’ll learn sabr, forge close ties to Allah, and learn restraint. One where your personal preparation requires time alone to reflect and build spirituality and get your heart ready for this immense event.

Yet the preparations that go into the departure back home are ones of lavish spending on all kinds of foods, chaos and stress about logistics and catering, and just generally a period of time that is not peaceful at all. And even though you need to pack and get your travel logistics sorted out, you can forget about leaving all that to the last few days before you leave. When the people come, you need to be there with them – regardless of how much travel-related stuff you still need to do. (Which is why it’s best to get your packing and arrangements done early, if possible.)

For me, I didn’t want any of that. I was content to just get a few visitors here and there, and handle things in a more relaxed way – without all the markings of a wedding. Being a very private person, I didn’t want a lot of people in my house at one time; and being conscious of financial responsibility, I didn’t want money wasted unnecessarily.

I hated the fact that we were expected to follow this big local custom, having to focus on these things which diverted attention from where our real focus should have been. But, when you live in a place, you can’t dictate the cultural practice of its inhabitants – when the people will come to visit you, and what they’ll expect.

My wife’s family took control of the situation, and although I was upset at times, my frustration was not at them as individuals – but at our having to go through this custom in the first place. I think my wife also didn’t want it to be a big thing, but like me, she didn’t have much say. Indian families – particularly Indian mothers – are big on traditions, and as the mere ‘children’ in this situation, we weren’t strong enough to fight for the simplicity we wanted. And causing a fight at that time would have just turned things ugly – which is not something you want on the eve of your Hajj.

Still, we appreciate all their efforts, even if we didn’t agree with certain aspects of how things happened. And to be fair, we actually didn’t have it so bad – alhamdullilah. We didn’t need a marquee or caterers, and it was really only the weekend we left that was busy – not the entire week.

That said, it was a whirlwind few days, with little sleep and little food (the latter being ironic, given the amount of food catered). We left on a Sunday morning, and the craziest time was the night before we left. After maghrib, I came home to a jam-packed house full of people, and felt overwhelmed by it all. There wasn’t much space to even walk, and I don’t even know what the neighbours thought about all the noise (one of the neighbours was pregnant, and also had a toddler at home). It was exactly the kind of thing I didn’t want – and here it was, being presented before me – almost mockingly.

But then came Allah’s mercy. Almost simultaneously, my parents, uncle and auntie, and granny all arrived – and I was able to escape the madness for a little while and go out to the car with my parents, granny (who stayed in the car), and my (now two-year old) daughter. Taking her was the most important part  for me, because in all this chaos, I hardly got any time alone with her. I felt like this whole time she was being kept away from me – by all these people and activity, and I just needed to escape it all and go to my comfort zone; which was away from the crowd.

In those precious moments, things became calm for me again, and perhaps the most touching moment was my grandmother’s request – a specific dua she wanted me to make for her.

To me, that was really an important part of the whole greeting thing – when people ask you to make specific duas for them. It’s not that they can’t make those duas themselves, but – like Ramadan – you’re going to be in a very special state, and it’s very likely that your duas will be accepted. So to find out what things are so dear to them, and then have the opportunity to pray for them in the most sacred places, in the most sacred times, is something that really is a blessing of the process of going for Hajj.

Also very helpful was the spiritual experiences shared by those who had been before; as well as their advice – advice which was immensely important, such as how to make wudu and salaah on a plane when necessary. (Yes – you do have to do that. You can’t just skip salaah using the flight as an excuse.)

Anyway, so I only got about 3 or 4 hours of sleep that night, and the next morning was again hectic – but hardly any people this time (thankfully!).

Leaving the house, and at the airport, the goodbyes were very emotional, and our daughter sensed it – because she was quite passive for a while (which is very rare indeed), and seemed a bit sad. I got a lot of hugs and kisses in – without her fighting me – which I appreciate a lot :).

And so off we set. The two of us alone – finally away from everyone and everything else. The journey truly began. As we walked, my wife commented on how she felt it (ie. the drama of the preceding days) fading away – which I felt too.

Next up, insha-Allah: The beginning of the travels, and the tests faced early on.

Lessons:

  • Don’t delay Hajj. When you’re capable, go – because you never know whether you’ll live to see the day when you’re “ready”, or whether some calamity will strike to prevent you from going when you feel it’s your time.
  • As soon as you think it’s possible – whether you’re financially set or not – register to go with your local Hajj authority (SAHUC in our case). The earlier you register, the better your chance of being accredited – if you’re a first timer.
  • Don’t underestimate the importance of writing down duas and things that are important to you. For Hajj especially, your dua list – which includes not only your own duas, but also those that others ask you to make for them, is extremely important. You probably can’t store everything in your head, and when the times come to make those duas, you don’t want to be so overwhelmed by emotion, tiredness, or other factors, that you forget all the duas you intended to make.
  • If you don’t already have a will (an Islamic one), get it done immediately. You never know when your time to die will come, so don’t assume there’s always next month, or next year to do it. Be responsible now, so that you can avoid or minimise the hardship and strife for your family members.
  • If it’s in your control, try to be moderate about the pre-departure customs or rituals in your locality. There’s a difference between legitimate celebration and being excessive, and Islam teaches us moderation over extremity.
  • If you are expecting visitors before you leave, try to get your packing and arrangements done early, if possible. You should honour your guests by spending time with them – and you don’t want a list of 100 things to do on your mind while you’re with them.
  • For Hajj, but also for travel in general, learn about salaah of the traveller; including how to make wudu and salaah on a plane. Where possible, combine salaahs while you’re on the ground (before or after the flight), but recognise that this won’t always be possible – especially for Fajr. Find out about timings (e.g. fajr is about an hour before sunrise – wherever you are) and qibla direction, and do your best. You can’t skip salaah, or make it late, just because of travel. You have to try to make salaah on the plane.

Later parts: Part 3

Posted in Hajj Chronicles, Hajj-related | Leave a Comment »

Rebirth

Posted by Yacoob on December 6, 2011

First life
I was a latecomer to Islam. No – I didn’t convert into the religion. I was born a Muslim, but for most of my life growing up, I wasn’t really one – not the way I should have been, at least. I lacked the proper understanding, knowledge, and, most of all, commitment to the religion. As a result, much of my life was spent without real attachment to Islam – confined to merely ritualistic acts of worship I was expected to do, and not much interest beyond that.

As a child, I learnt Islam’s basics in madrassah, and my family acted as a good moral compass in guiding me through the racially and culturally diverse society that was South Africa in the 1980s and 1990s. I had plenty of exposure to other religions – Hindu family friends, where I’d see their prayer lamps and idols; a Christian junior school, where every morning’s assembly included the Lord’s prayer; and my Jewish high school, where Jewish Studies was a compulsory subject for a couple of years.

I always had a conscience about Islam, and what my Creator expected of me as a Muslim. But without practical action, conscience can’t lead you very far. In school holidays, for Friday prayers, and on other religious occasions, I’d attend Islamic religious services, and hear the religious advice given by the imams and moulanas. I’d sometimes be inspired to want to be a better Muslim, but the feeling would fade a few hours later, and I’d continue as normal – not really thinking about my purpose in life or how I could be better to my fellow human beings.

Turnaround
That changed ten years ago, when I reached a turning point – a ‘spiritual awakening’ that

changed my entire focus and orientation in life. Such events are common in any religion – not just Islam. Anything could act as a catalyst – from a near death experience, loss of a loved one, a period of desperation, or any other event. Different people have different experiences, yet all end with the same result: a movement from a state of heedlessness to one of consciousness.

Over time, I came to learn more about Islam, and firmly believe in its truth – understanding the wisdom behind its acts of worship and social values, and its timeless message of pure monotheism, which was the message of every prophet, including Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad (peace be upon them all). I came to understand how, as a comprehensive belief system, it links an individual to their Creator, without any intermediaries; guiding them to live in the way that would bring true happiness, inner peace, and success – both in life and in the realm beyond death.

Journey of a lifetime
A few weeks ago, I was honoured to perform the Islamic pilgrimage to Makkah – the Hajj. As far as mandatory religious activities go, it’s one of the most important acts in Islam. It’s a journey that re-enacts the life of Prophet Abraham and his family, and draws millions each year – promising great reward from the Creator; and immense liberation, such that the pilgrim returns from the journey completely forgiven from every sin – spiritually, like a newborn baby.

It’s a journey of sacrifice, self-purification, and great humility. Pilgrims leave their families and comfortable homes to go all the way to the Holy Land, spending days and nights in a simple, unflattering tent – where the only physical comforts are a mattress, blanket, and pillow. They leave behind the ease of cars for a journey involving walking for miles and miles on dirty, congested roads, in huge crowds that they’d normally run away from. They shed the adornments of plush clothing to wear nothing but two white, unstitched pieces of cloth – wherein they’ll look exactly like everyone else, with nothing to distinguish between a king and a beggar. They go out to a flat, empty plain – in the middle of a desert – to stand in the scorching sun for a few hours, reciting a few words, pleading with their Creator, and crying their hearts out. And they walk around an ancient building, the first house of worship dedicated to the Creator, praising Him and supplicating for all that they desire.

Second chance
The experiences and lessons of Hajj are numerous, but for me, the most important result was the liberation I spoke of earlier – a second chance at life. A person who survives a near-fatal accident may relate, as could a reformed convict who leaves prison as a ‘new’ person.

After repentance on Hajj, the feeling of being completely forgiven – for every single sin you’ve ever committed – is truly amazing, and beyond words. It’s like a lightness of the soul – like there’s no longer this burden on your shoulders, and you literally feel pure and clean. Your mind feels more free, your spirit feels light, and you feel so much closer to your Creator. It’s really the most awesome feeling imaginable.

And it’s also empowering, because you now have this ‘clean slate’ – this second chance to start your life again, from a state of purity. And with that feeling, you’re more sensitive to every wrong you do. You can recognize it more easily, and you feel the need to repent or make up for it immediately – because now that you’re ‘clean’, you want to stay that way, and never let any spiritual ‘dirt’ pollute your heart again.

Naturally, it isn’t possible to remain on such a high for a sustained period. And in the few weeks since Hajj, such feelings of spiritual euphoria have decreased. But the effects of those feelings, and that experience, remain with me, and have hopefully benefitted me as I returned to my normal environment and responsibilities.

In Muslim circles, it’s a common cliché to say that Hajj really begins once you get home – meaning that Hajj itself is not the main challenge. The main challenge is what becomes your life’s mission after Hajj: to ‘live’ that Hajj by taking forward what you’ve learnt, and being that better person you were inspired to be.

I thank you for allowing me to share this account with you, and I hope that – regardless of your religious persuasion or belief system – you can take some benefit from these words, and that you yourself will have an experience of such magnitude in your life, if you haven’t already.

Note: This piece is a deviation from the current Hajj Chronicles series (part 2 of which is due this weekend insha-Allah). This one is a separate article, written for a non-muslim audience, which I hope to publish elsewhere at the appropriate time. As always, comments are welcome.

Image source: http://stevelummer.wordpress.com/2010/02/27/life-cycles/

Posted in Events, Hajj-related, Life stories | 5 Comments »

 
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