our faith, our feelings, our hearts

When you think of eemaan (faith), think of “heart-sense.” The foundation of our emaan begins in the heart–with the speech of the heart, and the actions of the heart. The speech of the heart is it’s acknowledgement and affirmation that there is none worthy of worship but Allah. The action of the heart is the next step–it is when the heart overflows with submission, love, hope, and fear of Allah. From this starting point, when our tongue speaks or our body acts, they do so with this “heart sense” already in place.


So many times we live our lives on the surface level only. Our tongues speak, our limbs act, and yet the heart is silent and still. We do this with our friends and family, when we interact with them absent-minded and distracted. We do this with our lord, when we stand and bow like empty shells, lacking any sense of heart during our worship. We weren’t created this way. On the contrary, we were created with hearts that were pure and full of instinctive connection with Allah and with others around us. We came into this world truly feeling and embodying every moment from the depths of our heart. We quickly learn to shut down that heart-sense and create a shell of insincerity around us.

Here’s the amazing thing about kids, though: they are still pure and so their heart-sense radiates forth in everything they do. When they gaze with wonder at the heavens, their heart knows that this is the mark of their Creator. When they put their arms around you, those are not only arms holding you; it is a clasp that starts out from the depths of their hearts.

I realize this when my kids settle in for bed every night. I’m worn down and wanting to shut the light, offer a half-hearted “Love you!” and be done with it. I’m old and jaded, and my body is used to acting on auto-pilot without the heart-sense to guide it. Not for the kids.

When Abdullah hugs me, it’s with a hug so deep and an “I love you mama, sooooo much” that is so earnest it can’t be faked. And on cue, Zaynab calls out from her bed and there is always a catch in her voice, a crack. “I love you, Mama.” It’s a feeling so big she doesn’t know what to do with it, so her body shows her heart on it’s sleeve with that tremble in the voice as she speaks it.

I think about this now. How often do I ask my kids to betray their heart-sense and live inauthentically? It might be the time they are upset at something seemingly trivial and my response is to distract and deny: “Oh, come on, that’s not something to worry about; let’s do this instead.”

What if instead, I responded by going deep down to the heart-sense? “That really upset you. You are shaking. You must have been really hurt by what your friends did.”

If we abandon engaging the heart-sense with our children, it becomes harder for us to engage them in issues of faith. Over time, as we push away real feelings and anything that seems uncomfortable or awkward, our kids become jaded just like us. You see this when they start to not show the same enthusiasm that they did when they were younger, preferring instead to give a shrug and nod of the head. When you try to talk about virtues like courage and love, empathy and eeman, they are often hesitant and out of touch with these feelings. Often times, children don’t have the words to describe how they feel, because they haven’t been given ample opportunity to name and identify feelings in a non-judgmental way.

Eemaan is deeply tied in with emotion and feeling–in fact, true eemaan is rooted in a deep love for Allah, a fear of his punishment, and a hope for his reward. You can’t choose to ignore the heart-sense in some areas of life and then expect it to blossom in others. We need to encourage a heart-sense in both areas of life: in our dealings with our Lord, and in our dealings with our fellow humans.

Questions to ask ourselves would be:

“Am I focusing on outward appearances here, or on the khushoo’ (humility) of the heart?”

“Is my tongue the only thing moving, or is my heart being moved?”

“Am I comfortable talking about my inner life?” This includes eemaan, love, hope, and fear of Allah, as well as the myriad human emotions that we experience regularly.

You see, when you shut down any discussion on internal feelings with your children due to your discomfort, it becomes hard to discuss eemaan and taqwa. These things are deeply personal aspects of us that require great trust and courage to be vulnerable enough to share this inner life with others. If you are consistently brushing off, invalidating, and shutting down the conversation regarding feelings in your home, you simply can’t expect to have an open discussion regarding faith.

Fruits of Fasting

What do we gain from fasting? If you thought the answer was “taqwa,” you are correct–but there are other benefits the Qur’an mentions. This is a translation of Sh. Kehlan Abdullah Salman’s discussion of these benefits. The original Arabic can be found at the end of the post.


In the Qur’an, Allah mentions three benefits of fasting:

Taqwa (piety)  (لَعَلَّكُمْ تَتَّقُونَ)

Shukr (gratitude)  (لَعَلَّكُمْ تَشْكُرُونَ)

Rushd (guidance)  (لَعَلَّهُمْ يَرْشُدُونَ)

The First Benefit: Taqwa “So that you may attain piety.” (لَعَلَّكُمْ تَتَّقُونَ)

These are the levels of taqwa–various ways we erect a protection between ourselves and undesirable outcomes:

Level 1: Barrier against kufr (disbelief). All Muslims have this characteristic.

Level 2: Barrier against shahawaat (base desires), for these lead to fisq (disobedience) and transgression.

Level 3: Barrier against shubuhaat (doubts), for these lead to innovations.

Level 4: Barrier against permissible actions that are not necessities–this is the level of those who practice zuhd (asceticism, abstaining from unnecessary pleasure).

Level 5: Barrier against anything that distracts you from Allah, and this is the level of the saabiqoon (the “high-level believers”–those foremost in the worship of Allah)

The Second Benefit: Shukr (gratitude). “So that you may be grateful.” (وَلَعَلَّكُمْ تَشْكُرُونَ)

Shukr can be in word, or in deed.

Allah says, “Work, O family of David, in gratitude [towards Me].”

In the verses of siyam, Allah mentions both types of gratitude. He says, “that you may magnify Allah because He has guided you” (i.e. shukr via speech), and then, “and so that you may be grateful” (i.e. shukr via action).

One of the fruits of gratitude is that Allah increases your blessings. Allah says: (وَإِذْ تَأَذَّنَ رَبُّكُمْ لَئِن شَكَرْتُمْ لَأَزِيدَنَّكُمْ) “And [remember] when your Lord proclaimed: ‘If you are grateful, I will increase you.’”

However, sometimes an increase in one’s worldly blessings can lead a person to become arrogantly disobedient. That is why a person needs rushd (guidance) as well. This leads to the next benefit of fasting:

The Third Benefit: Rushd (guidance, integrity). “That you may be guided.” لَعَلَّهُمْ يَرْشُدُونَ

One of the meanings of rushd is integrity of conduct; good dealings with others. So if a person has taqwa and shukr, and makes du’a to his Lord while his heart and soul are pure, Allah will grant him rushd.

This integrity of conduct (rushd) is something that is expected of every person: leaders, teachers, officials, spouses, and others.

Through this a person will reach true happiness in this world and the Hereafter, whereas if he is thoughtless and reckless, he will ruin his life in this world, and utterly fail in the Hereafter.

And Allah knows best.

من ثمار الصيام

ذكر الله تعالى في آيات الصيام ثلاث ثمرات “لَعَلَّكُمْ تَتَّقُونَ” و “لَعَلَّكُمْ تَشْكُرُونَ” و “لَعَلَّهُمْ يَرْشُدُونَ”.

لَعَلَّكُمْ تَتَّقُونَ

من مراتب التقوى:

  1. اتقاء الكفر، وهذه مرتبة يشترك فيها كل المسلمين.
  2. اتقاء الشهوات، لأنها تؤدي إلى الفسق، والعدوان.
  3. اتقاء الشبهات لأنها تقود إلى البدع.
  4. اتقاء فضول المباحات، وهذه درجة الزهاد.
  5. اتقاء كل ما يشغلك عن الله، وهذه درجة السابقين.

وَلَعَلَّكُمْ تَشْكُرُونَ

الشكر قد يكون بالقول، وقد يكون بالعمل، قال تعالى “اعْمَلُوا آلَ دَاوُودَ شُكْرًا”.

وقد جمع الله بين نوعي الشكر في آيات الصيام فقال “وَلِتُكَبِّرُوا اللَّهَ عَلَىٰ مَا هَدَاكُمْ” فهذا شكر بالقول، وقال “وَلَعَلَّكُمْ تَشْكُرُونَ” وهذا شكر بالعمل وغيره.

ومن ثمار الشكر الزيادة في الخير، قال تعالى “وَإِذْ تَأَذَّنَ رَبُّكُمْ لَئِن شَكَرْتُمْ لَأَزِيدَنَّكُمْ”. وزيادة الخير قد تطغي صاحبها، فيحتاج معها إلى الرشد.

لَعَلَّهُمْ يَرْشُدُونَ

والرشد من معانيه حُسن التصرف، فكأن العبد إذا اتقى، وشكر، ودعا ربه، ووافق ذلك صفاء في القلب والروح، رزقه الله الرشد.

والرشد مطلوب من الجميع، من الحاكم، والمعلم، والموظف، والزوجين وغيرهم. وفِي هذا سعادة الدنيا والآخرة، كما أن في الطيش خراب الدنيا وخسارة الآخرة.

والله أعلم

the pain of a fast-free Ramadan

Not everyone can fast, but Ramadan is for everyone.

Those of us unable to fast sometimes feel shy about Ramadan–like we are outsiders looking in. Please know, dear friends, that Ramadan’s arms are open wide for us as well.

It’s painful to be left out of the excitement of fasting. Sometimes you feel like a fraud at iftar time, when everyone is passing you a date. And those quiet tears when no one is looking burn when you think about the fact that this one of the five pillars and you can’t do it.

It’s been almost a decade since I have been unable to fast and while it has become easier to come to terms with it, I’m not going to lie. It still hurts.

Surely you have heard the discussions about how fasting takes away the body’s food and drink so that you can nourish the soul.

Think about it this way: illness has already stripped away the comforts of our body to the point that we cannot endure the hardship of also taking away food and drink. Therefore, our souls are already primed to be nourished during this month.

Our challenge while not fasting is to create a deep sense of spiritual awareness throughout the day.

Start with your sense of sorrow over not fasting. This is a spiritual opportunity being presented to you. Take it, ride the tails of that feeling and indulge in the sorrow with the point of feeling closer to Allah.

Take care to turn this sorrow towards a sense of poverty, humility, and weakness in front of Allah. Do not fall into the trap of turning into despair and thinking “I can’t possibly benefit from this month without fasting.” This line of thinking is a trap that only immobilizes your spiritual growth. It’s a type of hopelessness in the mercy of Allah.

Instead, use that sadness to infuse emotion into your Qur’an recitation and du’aa. Let it comfort you to know that Allah has given you the tawfeeq to care so much about Ramadan.

And lastly, make the Qur’an your best friend this month. After all, Ramadan has been honored by the revelation of the Qur’an. The verse that obligates fasting starts off by saying that Ramadan is the month in which the Qur’an has been revealed.

This is our lifeline this month. We may not be fasting, but we will cling on to this Book like the drowning one clings to a rope. We may not be fasting, but we will read and read and read this book to give blessed food and drink to our souls. Our bodies may be broken, but our souls still thrive. Let it be so this month, Ya Allah. Aameen.

Tarbiyah vs. Ta’leem

Sh. Salman al-Odah was asked, “How do you get your kids to love the salah?”

The first thing he said was, “Have them love you.”

Learn this life lesson: tarbiyah is founded upon relationship.

Tarbiyah is the raising up and education of a child such that she can reach her full potential as a human and a Muslim. It is different than ta’leem, which refers to fact-based education.

baby hand

We often confuse the two, giving our children ta’leem when they need tarbiyah.

Ta’leem is teaching our children the how-to of the prayer. Memorizing the duas, learning

the positions.

Tarbiyah is the cuddling after the prayer when we ask each other, “What did you ask for in sajdah?”

Ta’leem is memorizing ahadeeth and verses.

Tarbiyah is the dinner-table banter where we talk current events and other issues on our mind.

Ta’leem is studying fiqh.

Tarbiyah is the loving conversation we have about an incident that happened at school.

Ta’leem is studying seerah by memorizing dates and events or preparing for a quiz bowl.

Tarbiyah is snuggling in bed and telling stories of brave heroes of the past.

When we were at Umrah, Ustadh Abu Eesa stressed this point a great deal and it has caused a seismic shift in my own approach to teaching my children. I had asked him if he had a suggested program of study for school-aged children. He responded by saying that he was no expert on education and he would leave that to the experienced teachers to develop such a program. He directed us instead to focus our efforts on building relationships with our children as our tarbiyah.

“Tarbiyah,” he explained, “is an emotional, not a physical exercise.”

He went on to explain that in the Qur’an, we are taught the dua for the parents as follows: “O Allah, have mercy on them, as they rabbayaani when I was young.” In other words, have mercy on them because they did tarbiyah for me when I was young. It doesn’t continue the theme of mercy and say “have mercy on them as they had mercy on me,” rather, it says “have mercy on them because they did tarbiyah for me.” It is this tarbiyah that a parent does for their child that brings the mercy of Allah upon them.

Long after facts have come and gone, what a child will remember are the memories she has cuddling on the couch, laughing at stories, and warmly basking in the glow of a parent’s attention and love. This relationship is what builds the person up, not the facts and pieces of knowledge imparted.

This does not mean we do not teach facts and knowledge! Those who follow my work know that I do indeed spend time on this ta’leem. You need to discern the difference between the two themes of ta’leem and tarbiyah though, so that you give adequate time to each.
Most importantly, you must understand that you, dear parents, are indispensable. You CANNOT outsource tarbiyah. You can send your child to classes and masjid programs for ta’leem but this can never replace tarbiyah. The cuddling on the couch, the lively discussions around the table, the one-on-one chats before bed….these are the things that only a parent can do. And these are the things that build the foundation of the Islamic akhlaq and adab (morals and manners).

Note: an earlier version of this post incorrectly explained the dua of mercy for the parents. The post has been updated with the correct explanation.

Qur’anic Literacy

Our Arabic teacher in Jordan used to say about our class that we had a good “thaqaafah Qur’aaniyyah,” or “Qur’anic Literacy.” In other words, when discussing an issue, we were able to pull a Qur’anic verse as reference for the subject at hand. He said that he found that this was a rare skill for Muslims from Western countries.
 
20170522_133430.jpgI’m working on this with the kids right now, and I’ll share this as an example of some of the verses we go through. I am going through notes from a class I took many years ago with a teacher where we went through basic Islamic principles with their proofs. As I go through it with the kids, I go over the Qur’anic verses associated with each concept and they copy them in their class notes.
 
Then, they copy them separately in their Arabic notebooks as copywork for several days to allow the verses to sink in.
 
So in this example, the first verse was discussed in the context of subtle forms of shirk. The second verse was when we discussed major shirk, and the third verse was in the context of love of Allah as a condition of the shahadah.
 
Children need to learn these “anchor points” for their Islamic knowledge so that they are practicing their faith based on a reference point from Allah or his Messenger (sallAllahu alayhi wa sallam). It’s no longer just “this stuff my parents said,” but a living, breathing relationship with the Divine speech.
 
I cannot stress this Qur’anic literacy enough. I see so many children who have memorized pages and pages of Qur’an but you see in their eyes the complete lack of understanding when it comes to basic points of the deen. We cannot afford to have them treat the Qur’an as a mystical song with no meaning or value for their every day life.
 
If they can memorize Juz Amma, they can memorize a handful of verses that will give them a grounding in their deen. It will also serve to help them learn Arabic.
 
Adults can do this as well! I have a Qur’an commonplace book as well as a note system. I’ll be doing some videos on this soon so stay tuned. This was how I built up my own Qur’anic literacy over the years. Ramadan is a perfect time to start this. Start interacting with the text and marking important verses, and see if you too can improve your own thaqaafah Qur’aaniyyah.

real talk about mental illness

Let’s have some real talk about medications, specifically for “taboo” issues like mental illness. Medication does not mean that you are weak. Medication means that you were smart enough, brave enough, and strong enough to get help for a disease that you have no control over.

I get the hesitation; I really do. You see, I used to be one complaining about how “Big Pharma” doesn’t offer cures, but only creates customers. Or how everyone is “overmedicated” and “overdiagnosed.” You might feel like you are so enlightened and not following the mindless crowd to say these things, but the danger is that when you truly need medication, you will be blind.

I have medications for sleep, depression/anxiety, panic attacks, muscle pain, multiple sclerosis, dysautonomia, asthma, and allergies. Is my Zoloft (for mood) somehow more shameful than my injections for MS? Is it weak for me to carry Ativan everywhere I go in case I have a panic attack, while it’s okay for me to carry an inhaler for my asthma?

Point Blur_May192017_233301.jpg

You can pry my Zoloft out of my cold, dead hands.


I’m sharing this with you to break the stigma. I’m sharing this with you so that if you ever feel like you need to see a therapist, or a psychiatrist, you know that regular people like myself rely on these tools and therapies to live amazing lives.

I considered myself to be so enlightened about mental illness. I have a minor in psychology and I used to read books about mental illnesses to understand them better and develop empathy for those with them. And yet it took me five years to accept that I needed to do something about my own mental health.

I am now medicated and proud of it. The strongest moments in my life were when I decided to seek therapy and start medication, and I will never have any shame about it. I am here for support and help if anyone needs help making the leap.

“Self-Esteem”: an Epiphany

Forget the term “self-esteem” for a moment. Think of it as “esteeming oneself.”

I just had an epiphany regarding the concept of self-esteem. This was the trigger:

“A child increasingly needs to achieve tasks for his own sake, and gradually, his self-esteem becomes more important than the esteem he gets from others. He can begin to develop personal values and mental skills that support sustained effort, tolerance of frustration, and resilience when his initial efforts do not work. Sometimes the child’s values develop into a desire for prestige, status, reputation, fame, or even dominance of others” (Webb, et. al, “A Parent’s Guide to Gifted Children”).

We think of self-esteem as the overinflated ego that results from a child getting one too many participation trophies or needless pats on the back, to the point that it’s become a distasteful term. Re-read the quote and see how this concept of esteeming oneself is best understood vis a vis the idea of seeking esteem through others.

We all crave for others to esteem us: to value, respect, and honor us and our accomplishments. To a certain degree this is normal; it’s when it becomes the sole motivator that problems occur. A person with self-esteem is one who is intrinsically motivated: she respects and values herself and believes in her inherent competence and self-worth. She doesn’t need to rely on the approbation of others, and therefore she is self-motivated and driven to achieve.

The person who holds their own self in esteem believes firmly:

  • I am an individual that has value in the eyes of my creator.
  • I am competent.
  • I respect and honor myself.
  • I recognize my own strengths.

Self-esteem is fundamentally a personal value by which a person chooses to put the seeking of external validation below the seeking of personal achievement and fulfilment. It is the self-respect that leads a person to eschew prestige and popularity in favor of relying on his internal moral compass.

In the secular worldview, this concept of self-respect and self-esteem does not take into account a creator. For us, respect of oneself comes vis a vis respecting one’s creator. Think of it this way: instead of seeking external esteem, we direct our esteem to the creator. His primary directive for us is submission. When we submit, this is the only way to honor ourself and esteem ourselves. All “self-esteem” must come from this fundamental self-to-creator relationship.

An example: When one of my kids misuses something, I remind them, “You are not respecting that object.”

Invariably they will say, “How can you respect an object?”

I reply, “By using it in the manner in which it was intended to be used.”

Allah tells us, “Wa maa khalaqtul-jinna wal insa illaa liya’budoon.” :  “I have not created jinn or men except to worship me.”

When we ignore this, it’s like a person using a vase as a hammer or a book as a step-stool: it’s disrespecting the purpose of the object. Likewise, if we do not live our lives in submission to Allah, by definition this cannot be self-esteem. We are misusing our bodies and abusing the gift of our creator. If we live beholden to the seeking of others’ esteem, we are also disrespecting the purpose of our life: it’s His approval that we crave, not others.

In the early days of Islam in Makkah, the value of esteeming oneself meant that the Muslims had to forego their desire for others’ esteem and instead, value and honor their own souls as believers. They respected their own selves too much to seek the honor and prestige of the Quraysh’s social system of idolatry. This is why Umar ibn al-Khattab famously said that when we seek honor and prestige in other than Allah, he will humiliate us.

In Jordan, my neighbor would discipline her son by saying, “Ihtarim nafsak”: literally, “respect yourself.” Self-esteem dictates that you do the right thing because it’s a form of respect and value to your own self, not because you want others to think highly of you.

Do you see now why external rewards, participation trophies, and over-the-top praise can actually damage the concept of esteeming oneself? Can you also see why riyaa’ (doing good deeds to be seen or to show off) is such a great sin?

O Allah, let us seek honor in obeying you. Let us honor our souls by driving them towards the purpose of their creation. Let us not be distracted by following the whims of others, and let us be those fearless believers who “laa yakhaafoona lawmata laa’im”, who fear not the blame of the blamers, but rather stand strong and tall for what they believe in.