Mercy

  Winter is truly upon us here in Cape Town. After many months of anxiety and panic about our prolonged drought, we finally have rain. In recent weeks, we’ve been counting down to “Day Zero” – a point some 60-odd … Continue reading

Beyond Hajj: Reflections 3 years later

Sunset on Arafah - Hajj 2012 (Picture courtesy of Shaykh Muhammad Al-Shareef)

Sunset on Arafah – Hajj 2012 (Picture courtesy of Shaykh Muhammad Al-Shareef)

Three years ago, I experienced my first magical moments in Madinah. It was the opening destination on my first and only Hajj, and I was awe-struck and honoured to be in so blessed and peaceful a place…a little piece of Jannah.

As the days passed, Madinah’s glow wore off, and I moved on to Makkah, where, despite being initially underwhelmed, the place soon grew on me. In particular, one special night in the haram stood out – wherein I finally found what my heart was seeking – what I would need, internally, for the upcoming 5 days of Hajj.

Lethargy and laziness followed – my biggest regrets about Makkah – before moving onto Aziziah, which was to be our final stop before the days of Hajj began. There – free of the luxuries of Makkah – I managed to get back on track, preparing for the biggest five days of my life – with the Day of Arafah being the most critical of them all.

Hajj itself was a mixed bag, with incredible experiences on Mina, Arafah, and a misadventure on the way to Muzdalifah (and beyond); but some disappointment on the days of tashreeq that followed: once the intensity had departed after Eid, that spirit of striving was clearly gone – both in myself and in the others on the journey.

At the end of it all, what I was left with was:

  • A (hopefully) clean and pure heart, forgiven from my lifetime of sins and spiritual dirt.
  • Beautiful memories of 6 weeks on this different, separate planet (because it’s a different world, divorced from the realities of life at home).
  • Spiritual ambitions. Intentions for change. Desire for self-improvement. A mission…a lifelong mission to’live’ my Hajj for the rest of my life.

Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?

Crashing back to Earth

Like everything in life, Hajj had to come to an end. The beauty of the Holy Lands, the spiritual purity felt after Arafah, and the general goodness of dedicating a portion of your time to this mission – free of worldly work and responsibilities…all of it couldn’t last forever, no matter how much I wanted it to.

The differences between Planet Hajj and the rest of the world were brought firmly into focus as soon as we arrived at our next stop – waiting in transit at Cairo’s airport. Whereas Madinah and Makkah were (relatively) spiritually clean – free of sexually-driven advertising, indecent music, and other vices of the outside world, in Cairo’s airport, these things came flooding back into consciousness – sensorial assaults from the sick, degenerated, fitra-robbed environment that I knew all too well from life in South Africa and other Western-influenced societies.

Over the next week, as we spent time in Palestine and then Cairo again, the euphoria of Hajj continued to fade at a sadly rapid rate. When we got back to South Africa, the world felt even more different, and I braced myself for reintegration into the society I’d known and lived in my whole life.

Gone were the days of building an entire schedule around time in the masjid. Gone was the time to spend in self-reflection and writing. There would be no further long stretches of dua on a consistent basis. And I would no longer have the chance to undertake night-time excursions to the Kabah.

From that point on, the external environment would no longer drive my spiritual ambitions. On the contrary, conditions on the outside would now chip away at my spirituality; so I faced a harder fight to simply maintain focus – let alone build something greater than the state I was in after Arafah.

Hanging on

The first few weeks back home were relatively good. I tried very hard to maintain my levels of spirituality – despite being plunged back into the working world and the rigours of fatherhood (we had a 2 year old daughter). I used the still-fresh emotions of my journey to keep some level of momentum going, with taqwa, dhikr, dua and self-reflection as my companions.

In terms of work, I faced a potential crisis when – a few weeks after my return – news came that the company was at the very real risk of going under, and much of the workforce would have to be cut if they were to survive. I tried to put a positive spin on it for those who I could make some kind of impact on – urging them (and myself) to see the bigger picture, and always have hope that Allah would take care of them.

In the end, I ended up keeping my job – though I knew that it was time to start looking elsewhere. 6 months later, I was on my way to a new challenge – a job that brought intellectual stimulation and variety back to my working life – which had, in my previous job, been largely stagnant.

The years that followed found me getting more and more entrenched in my work – which was a demand of my new position, while conversely, my spirituality sank more and more (as realised in Ramadan 2013).

But there were still good points, with the first year or so being extremely fruitful in terms of my personal writing, and some good habits becoming more entrenched. Subsequent Hajj periods (the months of Dhul Qada and Dhul Hijjah) were also amazing, because following the Hajj via TV and social media always reminded me of my own experience, and helped rekindle the yearning to go back.

Those Hajj periods, in particular, helped to remind me that while the emotion and nostalgia was so strong, and the desire to go back was heightened, I needed to convert those feelings into practical actions. I needed to strive, once more, to ‘live’ my Hajj. To show my gratitude via action, for if I am grateful, insha-Allah I will be blessed with another chance.

Game over?

A little over a year ago, my life changed significantly once more, with the birth of our second child – another little girl who immediately captured my heart, attention, and time.

By then, I had already slipped far from the standard I’d hoped to live after Hajj – in terms of personal character and behavioural changes I’d wanted to implement. Old habits die hard, and in the absence of immense striving, my habits were resurrected, dusted themselves off, and made themselves comfortable in my life once more.

And if I thought I had hope of making a comeback to the standard I’d aspired to, the demands of fatherhood quickly shattered those illusions. Along with the new baby, there was also the older child to see to – with her adjustment to being a big sister (and no longer the centre of attention) being relatively difficult.

When things let up a bit, I fell into an old addiction of mine. Nothing haraam, of course, but something very time-consuming which – I first rationalised – I needed as a means of de-stressing from the burdens upon my shoulders. A new, potent enemy which I’ve been fighting – on and off – for the last year.

My problem is that I’m extreme in indulgence. I don’t know how to be moderate; balanced. It’s a quality that can be very beneficial if used in productive pursuits, but detrimental when applied to self-satisfying, otherwise-useless initiatives.

We also went through an extremely traumatic period earlier this year, which really drained us and for me – personally – strengthened me internally, but also knocked out my hope of an internal revival. That may seem a contradictory statement, and because I’m being deliberately vague here (since I won’t explain the details publically), it might not make sense.

Essentially, it strengthened my imaan – so there was spiritual growth; but at the same time, it took its toll mentally and psychologically – such that I felt like I was in too weak a state to build up again, to strive for the lofty ambitions I’d held after Hajj. Like I was now too far away from those days of Hajj – both in time and inner purity – to seriously think that it was possible to achieve what I wanted to achieve.

And on top of that, my life was dramatically different now as compared to those days after Hajj. There was the more hectic job, for one. But there were also the challenges and demands of two young kids now: a baby and a school-going child….instead of just one toddler (which was the case when we got back from Hajj).

Thinking of all of this, it seemed hopeless.

What’s next?

But was it, really? Does it mean I have given up all hope? That ‘living my Hajj’ is now just a distant, beautiful-sounding dream that was just a foolish ambition of my younger self?

I hope not. Because if that was the case, I would be throwing away much of what I gained from the journey.

I can’t just confine my Hajj to good memories and long-gone spiritual achievements.

So, what I needed to realize – and it took me a long time to figure it out, despite it being SO obvious – is that I can no longer see my life through the lens that I’d envisioned it three years ago. I can’t look at myself and my life in the same way, because my life has shifted. So I have to shift my gaze too.

Now, three years later and in very changed circumstances, I need to start my post-Hajj mission again. I need to start fresh:

  1. Analyse what I want, in my overall vision of my life (both worldly and beyond).
  2. Look at the demands and challenges I face now and in the coming years.
  3. Redraw that list of ambitions, pulling it into a realistic, measurable plan of how I will get from here to there.

And even if I don’t succeed in some or even all of those plans, the most important quality I need to apply is persistence. For so long, I’ve let myself be deceived by the idea that if I can’t achieve success in a plan, or if I can’t at least be consistent in a certain initiative, then it’s not worth even bothering with that initiative.

Perhaps that attitude is a reflection of my perfectionist tendencies. Or perhaps it’s from the whisperings of the devil – who doesn’t miss an opportunity to try to impede my spiritual growth and success.

Whatever the case, I need to change that mindset. I need to consciously realize that such thinking is false and actually counter-productive.

I need to just keep trying, because all that I’m responsible for is intention and action. The results are in Allah’s hands.

So now, as I sit here three years later, with this year’s Hajj due to begin tomorrow insha-Allah, I feel a renewed sense of purpose. A re-commitment to the mission I accepted, and was so excited about, all that time back.

I ask that you, my dear reader, please make dua for me in this road ahead; as I make dua for you too.

JazakAllah

Yacoob

When death speaks to you

Sometimes, we live moments that feel unreal. Emotional. Out of normal reality. This evening was like that.

To put this into context: by the time I got to high school, I felt like I’d seen more than my fair share of death. In junior school, I lost 3 grandparents, a young uncle, and – hardest for me (while I was 8 years old) – a beloved baby cousin. The day before my 18th birthday, another uncle passed, and my auntie (his wife) went a few years later. Them aside, I haven’t really faced many deaths in my family – or to those close to me – in my adult life. Especially since my life changed.

This afternoon, I got the message that my wife’s cousin was in a very bad state. Touch and go. We were to go to the hospital that evening. He’d struggled with cancer for much of this year, and chemo hadn’t helped. A week ago, he had a bone marrow operation – a very risky op, which was a long shot. It didn’t turn out well. He’d withered away to almost nothing over these last few months. His immune system was non-existant, hence he was in isolation. His 2 small kids – a 5 year old boy and a 2 year old girl – had to see him through glass, with tubes in his nose. His wife was still amazingly strong, through this. We saw her and the kids a week ago, at a children’s birthday party.

We got to the hospital half an hour before Maghrib tonight, and the room outside his room was very full. People were spilled out into the space outside the building. Everyone was somber. Some read Quran. Many were crying. About 15 minutes before Maghrib, I went back in with my older daughter (I was keeping her company outside, since she didn’t want to be contained inside). The mood was devastating. Everyone was crying. Shattered. He had passed on.

It was incredibly sad. Most of my wife’s family was there, and everyone had just broken down. I’d never, in my adult life, been around death. Been so close to it. And here it was – right with me.

The most devastation I remember is a vague memory: when i was 8 and my grandmother died. My eldest aunty was hysterical and inconsolable. I think they had to give her a tranquiliser or sedative to calm her down.

Now, at the age of 33 (almost 34), I was in a room – right next door to a young man, 6 months older than me – who had just died. Just like me, he had 2 young kids. Though I didn’t really speak to him much, he was always around at the family functìons. He was my age. He was in my situation in terms of marriage and kids. And he was taken from this dunya.

‘Shattered’ is the word that describes the scene best. They all were shattered. It was incredibly sad for me too, though not as strongly as everyone else since I had only seen him on rare occassions over the last 7 years, and not known him a lifetime.

My eldest daughter (who is 5 years old) didn’t know what was happening, and despite my telling her, I don’t think she understood. She was still wanting to be a little wild and uncontained. My youngest daughter was surprisingly calm – for her 13.5 months – when she’s usually so active.

The cousin who passed – his sisters – were broken. His father was devastated, but – by the mercy of Allah – he managed to regain composure and strength a while later. I didn’t see his mother. I can’t imagine how awful it was for her. His younger brother didn’t want to leave his side, so I didn’t see him either.

His grandmother – now in her 80s – was crushed. She’s faced so much tragedy in recent years – an array of family crises – and now this. Allah must really give a special level of sabr and strength to the elderly when they can see their family members go through such trauma, and yet they still go on.

I didn’t know him well. But, like many times before when I experienced a funeral, I felt the closeness to him. I felt the desperation. The feeling of his time being up. That now, the angels were taking his soul up. And soon they will send it back to earth, and it will enter his grave. His companions will cover him with dirt. He will hear the footsteps as they depart. His grave will constrict, squeezing his body. Munkar and Nakir will make their entrance. He will be questioned. And his answers will come not from intellect, studying, or wisdom. It will come purely from the way he lived.

And I feel for him. I feel so close to that experience – the sheer desperation, most of all. He has no more chances to prepare for these monumental events. His Qiyamah has begun.

And I made dua for him. Deep, sincere dua which connected me to his situation right this moment. Because I will be in that position one day. And when I think of it, and know that – at this very moment – he’s going through it; it connects me to death. It connects me to reality.

I remember what awaits. I truly, truly, truly know that all the frivolous pursuits of this life – the time spent ‘destressing’, the pleasures of food and entertainment, the lack of adequate effort in spiritual striving….I truly feel and know that those things are worthless. Because when I’m in his position, it will all count for nothing. It will count against me, if I went too far in them without balancing them out with enough good deeds.

And I never know when I will be him. When I will be in his position. Lying there, lifeless. Unable to speak, breathe, communicate with my grieving loved ones. Yet my soul being alive. Seeing them all. Worrying about how they will go on without me – my final worldly concerns as I’m about to embark on my journey to Eternity.

‘Remember frequently the destroyer of pleasures’….

If only I could take these feelings, internalise them so deeply, and make them last for as long as I will live beyond this moment. I so want this experience to permanently change me. I so NEED it to change me. But I faced the same 3 years ago, in Madinah on my first and only visit to Jannatul Baqi. And I was so confident and hopeful then – that that experience would solidify this reminder forever…and yet it faded so quickly.

I make dua that this experience stays permanently imprinted in my heart, soul and mind. That the feelings I feel right now will make a lasting change – even when the intensity and memory fades.

And I make dua that for him, his months of suffering have purified him; and that he embarks on his journey in a state as clean and beautiful as the day he was born. And that this tremendous, devastating loss serves as a motivational force – a catalyst – for his family, loved ones, and all whose lives he touched…a means by which they will all come even closer to Allah. A means by which they…WE…can all remember the reality, the impermanence, of this life.

To Allah we belong, and to Allah is our return.

May we all make that return in the best possible state.

Baqi grave

Let it flow (part 1)

River-Long-exposure_photography_2

With poetic inspiration returning to me at the end of last year, I thought it would be a good time to look back at some of the more creative posts on this blog over its history.

Since there’s nearly 7 years to cover, I’ve split the selection over more than one post – hoping to not pack too much in each time. This one covers almost 2 years: from 2006 to mid-2008:

Though the blog started back in June 2006, it took me more than 4 months to actually publish my first poem (A bird’s eye view) – an ode to my favourite hangout spot, which I’d often go to, to escape the rigours of everyday life. World-view was a rant against the consumerist, information-flooding tone of society, and that was followed by One year on – which reflects much of my perspective towards the youth – and their future – at the university I was working at during that period.

Reliance is – by far – my favourite piece ever, because it perfectly encapsulates the multi-year struggle I went through in my quest for love and marriage. I hope the message is timeless, and hope that it can continue to inspire all those single people that are still trying to find their other halves. The sequel, Dedication, came 5 months later – when I was on the verge of marriage – hence ending the most emotionally-difficult period of my life. Childhood also came in that period – a reflection on how innocence was corrupted, yet hope remains for the next generation.

Rise was inspired by my time watching sunrises from outside my home – a beautiful, peaceful habit that unfortunately has become a thing of the past. Rooftops was a pleasant surprise, coming to me in a few minutes I had to wait in the car for someone; while You suck! was in the same vein as World-view  –  in that it was a rant, though this time against the news industry.

The inspiration doesn’t come much anymore, but with this post, I just wanted to highlight what’s come to me in the past. Hopefully, by reading these pieces, it’ll inspire you to express yourself in whatever way is best for you (while also perhaps reminding me of the ability that was once so central in my life).

Feel free to give your feedback either in this post or in the individual pieces linked from here.

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Summer Daze

summer-sky-wallpapers_33758_2560x1600

The last day of the year, in the heart of a South African summer.
I’m at work now (sadly), but this time of year brings back fleeting memories of childhood summers gone by:

Hours and hours in the back yard playing soccer and cricket;
Still more hours and hours on the tennis courts,
pushing ourselves to the limits in best-of-5-set matches –
always with the end reward being an ice cold cooldrink
plus chocolate treats to accompany.

Sunny Durban days are the enduring memory of my past life;
Those school holidays where responsibilities were non-existent,
and pleasures were all we lived for:
Movies, video games, staying up late,
Not a care in the world
until the looming dread of the new school year crept back into our thoughts.

Stationery and uniforms,
Haircuts and shining those shoes for the first day back…

Oh, the horrors of educational imprisonment –
early morning rising to get to school on time,
assemblies and new timetables,
finding out whose class we’d be in –
wishing to be with our friends,
who shared the struggle with us –
making the torturous daylight hours more bearable.

Science lessons and Maths tests
(the latter of which still haunts my dreams),
academic pressures and extra-curricular bothers…

School was never a ‘home away from home’ for me,
yet those years –
while stifling my freedom within the system –
gave rise to the foundations of adult life,
and provided the best memories.

And now
as my own child approaches her first year of ‘back to school’,
I feel the dread for her;
I know the anxiety she’ll face over the years,
Yet somehow, some way
I’ll need to put a bright face on it all;
so that she can be more positive than I,
and enjoy her coming occupation in ways I never did.

For just as she’ll face the seemingly never-ending grind of school life –
year after year –
so too will these years be her platform for her future,
and her treasure chest of precious childhood memories.

School doesn’t last forever,
nor does childhood;
But while we’re young,
we live through both –
a microcosm of life,
perhaps,
good and bad – all mixed together.

So, my child,
appreciate both sides,
take it all in,
and then move on to the adulthood that awaits beyond these endless summers of youth.

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