Monday, May 05, 2014

Nine reminders when performing my next ‘umrah


I recently performed the ‘umrah with my wife and 2 young boys. It was a very powerful experience which will remain with us forever. I can’t even begin to describe my experiences here, so I won’t try.

But - I was able to jot down some spiritual takeaways from that trip, and will probably split them up into a few pieces for it to be more digestible when I revisit them later in life.

This one is a general one on the things I tried to do during the trip, which are reminders for me when I next perform my ‘Umrah (or Hajj). I also thought that it might be beneficial to share this for those of us who may be thinking of going.

1.                  Be Crystal Clear in Your Intention

The thing that can potentially wipe out any spiritual benefits of performing an ‘umrah is firstly the reason why you're doing it. You will get what you reap. If you want to tour the area for a "feel" of the Makkah mukarramah and Medina munawwarah, and see what’s the place all about, then you will get the benefits of being a tourist. If you are performing it as a duty to fulfil because lots of people are pressurising you to do it, then you will get the benefit of pleasing others. If you are doing it because you have a longing to be near the Prophet s.a.w. and the Ka'bah and you are doing so for the sake of Allah alone, then you will get rewards for that, Insha Allah.

2.                  Humble Yourself

Once you get the intention right, pretty much you have set the right direction for yourself. Now you need to prepare for it by humbling yourself to face Allah's Rasul and His House. You have been invited by Him and it is only befitting that as His guest, you begin the journey by humbling yourself. You can do this by constantly thinking of the trip, and making do'a in your daily solah to make the journey easy for you and those traveling with you. Remind yourself that it is by His Will that you obtained such a thought to perform the ‘umrah, and that He provided you sufficiently to be able to afford the trip. Not everyone has the thought, the time or resources to make the trip, so count yourself extremely privileged and blessed.

3.                  Make Comprehensive Preparation for Umrah ‘ibadah (acts of worship)

Now, take time to find out the do'as, niyyats (intention) and other acts of ‘ibadah to ensure you obtain maximum spiritual benefit of doing certain acts. For example: At Masjid Nabawi in Medina, make it a point to perform 2 raka'h solah at the area known as the Raudhatul jannah, and personally say your Salam to Rasulullah s.a.w. in front of his resting place, along with Sayyidina Abu Bakr Siddique and Sayyidina 'Umar ibn Khattab. At Mecca, know the do'a to say when first seeing the Ka'bah and when performing the tawaf (circambulation).

Also, read up on the significance of all the places that you would be visiting. When was it built? Why? What major incidents happened there?

4.                  Know Your Limits

The common thinking during a stay at Mecca or Medinah is to throw yourself full-blown into various ‘ibadah, such as performing all your make-up and superogatory prayers, joining for all jema’a prayers at the masjidein (masjid al-Haram and An-Nabawi). However, it is also important to manage your time here as much as you do so in normal life and give your body rest. Give yourself ample down-time (at least 6-7 hours of sleep in view of the Arabian heat), do your ‘ibadah at the masjid or ka'bah at night when it is cooler, and drink lots of zam zam water.

5.                  Bring your children
Many people dissuade others from bringing their children aged 1 - 8. Common reasons are that it would be “too much” for the kids to take, too hot for the kids, too crowded and the kids might get lost etc. But guess what - it is really okay. Everyone brings their kids there and many perform their 'umrah with them.

We brought our 2 boys aged 4 and 6, and alhamdulillah, it was beautiful. Kids' hearts are pure, so it is likely that they fully experience the barakah and grace from and pleasure of Allah and His Rasulullah s.a.w., and insha Allah they yearn to visit these places again later in their lives. Our boys, masha Allah, really enjoyed the experience of performing the 'umrah and visiting all the mosques.

Vital here is the pre-trip explanation sessions to the kids on what they will be seeing and experiencing to give them a better idea of what to expect. As parents, during the trip we were also prepared to shorten our ‘ibadah and prioritise our care of the boys AS a form of ‘ibadah, in case they fell ill or were very tired. I carried my 4 year-old on my back using a baby carrier when doing my 'umrah and that helped. My wife and I also took turns visiting the ka'bah and performing tawaf and solah at night when the boys were asleep.

Allah makes things easy when you bring your children. We experienced it firsthand. I can't recount all our experiences here, as this is neither the proper mode or time for such sharing, but I will recount one such instance. We made our doa's for Him to make our 'Umrah easy and to be accepted. Our first sight of the area surrounding the Ka'bah made us believe that it was very, very crowded. But as we began our tawaf (circambulation around the Ka'bah) with the boys in tow, we realised that we were completing each round rather quickly. On hindsight, we realised that we had no serious difficulties in completing our tawaf as human traffic in front of us was always seemingly clear and we managed to complete our tawaf much sooner than we thought we would.

6.                  Resist the temptation to speak ill of things

Allah will test whoever performs the 'umrah, and the tests may come in any form: from the travel agent to your children's behavior to the food you eat, there will be tests. Resist the urge to scowl, chide or scold people or speak ill of them in front of them or behind them. Refrain from complaining about your condition (hotel room, transport, soggy rice, mosquito bites) for these will distract you from your mission. Always, always, tell yourself why you are here – to seek Allah’s rahmat and barakah at His House, and to be in the company of Rasulullah s.a.w. And in the process of doing all these things, forgive and forget all small inconveniences, have patience in all matters and be single-minded in your objective.

7.                  Ask for everything, and supplicate for everyone

We all have countless needs and wants. We all want the best for our children, our families, our ustads (teachers), our friends and to a certain extent, all of humanity. Supplicate for everyone during your acts of ‘ibadah, and leave nothing unmentioned. Now is not the time to be shy. Allah tells us to ask Him, because He is ready to give, for this will not diminish him an iota. So ask for forgiveness, seek His Blessings and barakah, and keep asking until you cannot think of anything else to ask. When you reach that point, still ask!

8.                  Drink Plenty of Zam Zam water

It is only at Mecca and Medinah that we can get Zam Zam free of charge and in abundance.

It is reported that Rasullulah said:
"Zamzam water is what one intends to drink it for. When one drinks it to be healed, Allah heals him; when one drinks it to be full, Allah makes him full; and when one drinks it to quench his thrist, Allah quenches it. " [From Ahmad, and Ibn Majah]

So every opportunity you get, just drink zam zam. Fill your bottles with it. Give your children plenty. Keep reciting the do’a when drinking it, facing the kibla.

9.      Reflect

Whenever you get the chance, reflect on your experiences during your ‘umrah. Why did this special thing happen to me? Why did we face this challenege? What is the message from this incident earlier this morning?

Importantly, reflect constantly everyday after the trip. Do not forget the feelings and spiritual energy which you experienced during the ‘Umrah, and seek to remain in this state everyday until Allah gives you a chance to see His House and His Beloved again, insha Allah.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Three Signs


It was the month of the maulid. “Maulid” (or “mawlid”), in this context, refers to the birth of the Prophet sallallahu alaihiwassalam (may peace and blessing be upon him). This happens on the 3rd month of the Islamic calendar, which is rabi’ul awal. I was, for lack of a better phrase, hell-bent to attend at least one maulid recitation session at one of the Indian Muslim mosques. This happens after the dusk prayer (maghrib), until the call for the night prayers (‘isha) is made. Indian Muslims usually recite the “subhanallah mawlid”, a collection of litanies that are a pastiche of historical accounts and praises of the Prophet s.a.w.

These litanies are only found in Arabic and where I reside, there was no English translation. I was on a mission to find a translation to improve my understanding of the maulid.

It was then I e-mailed one of my good Ustad friends, whether he knew of any translations.

He replied my email, and also without me asking, mentioned that he was going for ‘Umrah in March.

I read the line again. That was strange. He didn’t have to mention it. But he did. As he was also an awesome Ustad who spoke fluent English, he would be a brilliant spiritual guide for the trip. I replied that I was thinking of performing my ‘Umrah too.

He said that if I was considering going for the ‘Umrah, then it would be a most meaningful one if I brought the boys along.

I took this reply as a sign.

I said that I had considered the children, but that he just helped re-affirm my decision.

***

I was starting my gym sessions with a new trainer. He was the husband of my wife’s personal trainer, and since she had some idea about my fitness needs, she recommended that I engage him.

He was good. In fact, he was great. He knew his stuff, and was passionate about fitness.

He was also passionate about his faith. We discussed about our shared experiences and I found it his perspectives as a revert very eye-opening. One day, he suddenly mentioned his ‘Umrah trip in 2013 being a life-changing experience.

Hmm.

We spoke a lot about his journey, what he learned about life through that trip, and how it had changed his understanding of life completely. 

I went home and reflected on this. I decided that I met my trainer for a very specific reason, and that this was another clear sign. Why would anyone I barely knew, open up about his innermost spiritual journey?

***

I was driving home one day after a family outing, and while waiting in the jam that developed on the way to the MCE, I popped my wife the question – that I had been considering going for the ‘Umrah as a family, and what she thought about it.

There was a pause. I expected something along the lines of "it would be too taxing for the boys". The pause continued.

Then she nodded and said that it was a good idea to consider. 

My head took a double-take inside my head. 

We discussed and decided that it was indeed a good time to go to do the 'Umrah, with the boys in tow.

By now I was very convinced that the invitation had been given to me. Now the question was – what time was the appointment?

Time was running very short. Usually people booked ‘Umrah trips way in advance. I had about 2 months, and even then people said that this was “too last minute”. My ustad (the same ustad) had earlier informed me that he usually engaged a particular tour agency for his ‘Umrah trips, but that for his trip, there were plenty of people in the waitlist. I sighed and told myself that this might mean I might not be able to follow him.

Nevertheless, I called the tour agency and checked if my family and I would be able to go on a package tour in Mid-March, and the sister on the other end told me she would try, as I was quite "last-minute" (yes, I got the point) and there were plenty of people in the wait list. We decided that if we were meant to go this time, this was it - either we got this round or we didn't.

I waited. Meanwhile, we all went for a short trip to Bali for a holiday.


In Bali, I received a call from the tour agent, confirming that we had a slot and that my Ustad had pushed very hard for us to be included. What could I say? I prayed for my Ustad to be blessed by Allah without limit. Later, I learnt from him that my family obtained airline tickets even before his own daughters could do so…

And we were set for the journey to see the Beloved, and His Beloved.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Invitation



The cold stream from the air-con made me pull up my jacket. I looked at my notes. The lecturer was reading whatever was on the notes aloud, like we couldn’t read.

The module was on a beautiful subject – the seerah, or life, of the Prophet Muhammed (sallallahu alaihi wassalam – may peace and blessings be upon him). It is the epic story of God’s Message to his most beloved creation, one man’s struggle to bring the Message to his people, his trials and tribulations, his faith in Allah and his eventual victory. It is the story of humility in the face of glory, piety in the face of triumph, miracles in the face of complete disbelief and Truth in the face of falsehood. It is the story of a man whom I love without having seen, and whom I look forward to meeting within my life or after it.

But the lecturer was not giving the subject its due weight. He was reading off the slides. He spoke calmly. Calm doesn’t work for me. It makes me sleepy. It makes me think of what I want to do on Sunday morning and what I want to eat for lunch on Monday.

It also made me wonder about Arabia in the 600s. I was wondering about Mecca in the year 650. I wondered how the Ka’bah looked like, and how it looked like now. I wondered about the paths travelled by the Prophets Ibrahim alaihissalam, Musa (a.s.) and ‘Isa (a.s.).

Can I see them? I must see them. I must see the Ka’bah which Ibrahim (a.s.) built with his son Isma’il (a.s.). 

I want to visit the House of Allah. I must bring my boys so that Allah can bless them and their own kids. I must visit Sayidina Muhammad s.a.w. in Medinah. I must. Maybe we all could perform the ‘Umrah in March?

The thought overtook me. The more I thought the more it made sense. I am young. I am able. I have the finances now. I am possibly flying to the U.S. for a year. What better place to visit than Allah’s house before such a life-changing period?

I thought about it some more. Some doubts. Did I want to put my family through such a journey, which would admittedly entail some inconveniences and hardships? Was I biting off more than I can chew in view of a possible huge-ass packing exercise before the U.S. trip? Could this thought merely be a flight of fantasy during a unbearably uninspiring class?


I looked around. The lecture still went on. The aircon was still making me cold. Everything seemed the same. But I knew something within me changed. 

Let Go


Things are happening at full swing. Looks like I might actually get to go to the U.S. for studies.

The U.S. Embassy clarified that I should get some funding from my employer in order to secure my candidacy. Suddenly, I realised that things weren’t that bad, and that the Plan is still for me to go. A sliver of hope opened up, but another thing happened too.

I began to realise that my heart had become too attached in getting the Fulbright award. Unconsciously, I had made it the front, centre, side (and maybe even top) of everything I wanted in life. When I made the clarification with Fulbright, and when an explanation was given to me on the procedure, something inside me awoke and came to its senses. This thing wasn’t such a big deal at all. I had let it consume me.

I was clearer now. I adopted a “let’s try for it, but if I don’t get it, it’s okay” mindset, and it felt so good. It was like I had let go of some vile thing that was hanging on to me.

Some time after, my employer approved my funding and this has bolstered the case for flying to overseas in time to come.

What this whole episode reminded me is the need to let go. Let go.

And if that something was meant for you, it will come to you, no matter what.

Friday, August 02, 2013

A meaning beyond being discarded like mutton dalcha down the drain

I've been using this Ramadhan to slow things a bit and be more introspective about things. The biggest takeaway for me is that (a) you will never know why certain things did or did not happen, although you can jolly well postulate until the postman comes home, and (b) the reason why certain things did or did not happen was probably for your own good.

Take, for example, my Fulbright Scholarship application. I began in earnest in Feb 2013 applying for the scholarship, reputed to be one of the most sought-after and competitive for studying in the U.S. The application process was rigorous - I had to draft 3 essays that were succint, informative, within a strict word limit and which explained my professional and personal goals. Basically, my entire life story and why I should get the award had to be in those few pages. Not easy, my friends. It required plenty of drafts and comments from a variety of folks. Heck, the toughest part was starting to write the first line. But it got better soon after.

Then I had to do my TOEFL and GRE. TOEFL was easy, since we have all been writing and speaking in English since we started watching Sesame Street every Saturday at 12pm in the 1980s. The GRE, my friends, was not easy. Not. Easy. The English component was alright, but the Maths did not sit well with me. I practiced long and hard, doing past year questions. In the end I did okay, but not fantastic.

Then there was the interview. Never before had I ever been so seized by the thought of "failing" an interview. By Allah's Grace, I pulled through and was spared the tough questions (I think).

Then the result came. I did not get it. Instead, I was offered what they called "alternate candidacy", which meant I will get the scholarship if someone who really got it, pulled out for some unknown or known reason, or if there is a happy excess of funding by the U.S. Federal government. Both possibilities seemed unlikely, considering why anyone would give up their award (unless they have a major life issue) and the States' fiscal situation now.

So was all that effort for naught? Of course. It went down the bloody drain. Pooft. Like a bowl of mutton dalcha discarded after a joyous wedding.

But then I realised that a lot of things were going for me:
- I had come until the interview stage. Which means a whole bunch of other folks got knocked out in the process.
- They did not outright reject my application. Which means they would have liked to have me on board but due to some constraints, could not.
- I had gone through the entire application process, and I know exactly what to expect when applying to study in the U.S. Which means I can try again and share with other people what to expect.
- I probably didn't get it because it's better for me in some way, which I don't know about. Maybe I'm supposed to have another kid instead of taking a flight of fancy to study public policy?
- I probably didn't get it - yet - because I have to learn to be patient?

So all kinds of introspective injunctions flew inside my head. And heart. And at the end of the day, I just told myself that wa la how-la, wa la kuwwatha, illa billahil aliyil azim, which means - "There is no strength or power except with Allah, the Most High, the Greatest."

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Whoever feeds a fasting person...

This year, we had the fortune of being able to sponsor an iftar at a mosque AND help to pay for the construction of an annex to the mosque.

Malabar mosque is undergoing a major renovation as part of MUIS cyclical mosque renovation programme. Malabar mosque is taking this opportunity to enhance its facilities by building an extension, or to use a more cheem word, an annex, to make more space for mosque activities. Which is awesome because I think they need the space - they are doing some really good work for the community. They've got good religious classes, talks, and other funky things like health check-ups and legal clinics.

So this year, they had a call for donations for the building construction joined with the iftar. I got my brother, mom and sister to chip in and we managed to make the amount for the donations for that day.

Alhamdulillah, we are glad to have done it. The mosque was filled with people today. We dedicated the donation to my late dad and dad-in-law, and my late grandmothers and great-grandmother. The wonderful thing about this whole thing is that the barakah from the use of the facilities will continually reach these folks and the donors...

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Faith, unplugged.

I'm rekindling my faith.

Ever so often, I forget who I am and begin to think that I am someone else. I begin thinking that I am a smart, high-net worth individual who is able to steer the world in ways unimaginable to the "rest of the world". I think that I am born leader, able to charm other like-minded people into working for a collective good and enabling massive transformation in society, community, the works. I also think that I have talents so great that this world is not enough, my potential so great that most things pale in comparison.

All it takes is a few bitch-slaps on my face to tell me that I got it all wrong.

It is the simple hijacking of a meeting agenda that tells me that there are people with more persuasive powers than me.

It is the simple lack of response by a scholarship committee to tell me that I may not be the candidate they want.

It is the simple, sudden cut-off of contact by ex-friends (I coined that term, thanks!) to tell me that no, not everybody loves me.

These are the small things that stop you in your tracks and make you do a physical, mental and emotional double-take and realise that whatever you have, is a gift given by this Being that calls itself Allah, and that without Allah, you are nothing. Absolutely nothing.

I am rekindling my faith.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Post-India

It's been a different Ramadan.

Considering that I didn't even fast on the first day, it was pretty different.

It all began about 4 months ago when my France-based uncle invited me to his house-warming function in his native hometown in South India. My mother (my uncle's elder sister) had to wanted to go, but she had the unenviable option of going alone, as none of her  kids could tear away from work, or had no interest in going, or experienced a combination of both.

I hadn't been to India in 10 years, and certainly wasn't about to go now. Especially not with two young kids, where they'd have to deal with humidity and the hotter-than-hot sun, sand/dirt/lizards/huge-ass ants/flies/mosquitoes/tonnes of relatives.

But my uncle's phone call made me change my mind quickly. Maybe it was the thought of seeing my very old grandfather. Maybe it was the "this will be my ultimate, last, final trip ever. Yeah." thought. Maybe it was the unspoken desire to reconnect with who I really am and where I come from, which is a perpetual gut-turner in my life. I decided to go, much to the surprise of my wife, the joy of my mother and the indifference of my two babies who were thinking that, like most of their overseas trips involving planes and airports, this trip also involved a nice, cool, comfy hotel room which they christened "Nice Room". Little did those poor fellows anticipate what was about to come their way.

During all my previous visits to India, we had landed at Chennai and had taken a 6-8 hour car ride to my mother's hometown of Kollapuram. This car-ride would rival any Universal Studio thrill-ride. Roads then were uneven at some parts, and non-existent at many parts. Combine this with a good old ride in a Tata Ambassador (see below), you get a full-body massage with your innards in the wrong places after 6 hours.

The Ambassador - built to endure pain

This time, things were different. Tiger Airways flies to Thiruchirapalli (or "Trichy" like the ang mohs call it), and from here it would be a mere 3-hour journey to Kollapuram. We stayed at the very excellent Hotel Gardenia (no bread there, hur hur, corny corny) where we spent the night, and took an air-conditioned Toyota Innova the next morning through the East Coast Road, a "beachway" or a highway along the beaches of Tamil Nadu. It was a smooth and fantastic drive, a completely different from the previous trips through Chennai.

During the ride, I thought and felt many things. In the last ten years, many things had happened in both Singapore and in India that would have changed how I would see and feel about the people in India. Both my father and grandmother were no longer around - that alone would change the entire feel a fair bit. My grandfather's house was no more - after my grandmother passed away, he gave it to his youngest son (my uncle), who decided to demolish it and rebuild a new one in its place. It was for this new house that the house-warming was about to be conducted. The old house, though, held many wonderful memories for me. True, I had spent many days and nights mired in diarrhoea and other stomach disorders, but I could not forget the retro flooring, the green painted walls, the smell of cows and burnt don't-know-whats in the backyard ("kollaipakkam"), the festive feel of having my cousins and other relatives in the house, hanging out with my spritely grandfather doing random things, visiting random relatives and drinking tea, tea and more tea and eating Britannia Milk Bikis, and going for random wedding lunches with briyani on a sahaan platter - the list can go on. These things would not be the same for this visit, I thought. Heck, the old house wasn't even there.

We eventually reached Kollapuram at about noon on a Saturday. I got off the car, and was greeted by my grandfather and two young men I had not see before - my uncle's sons, Rizvan and Niaz. I had bever seen them, as they were based in France and our visits to India never coincided before. Rizvan is the same age as my younger sister, and was a beefy, bespectacled and smiley guy. Niaz was a thin, smiley but shy teenager who took more time to warm up.

West Street in Kollapuram

We went into the house, and man, it was different. Nothing was the same, expectedly. Of course, what the hell was I thinking. My uncle arrived, and we spent some time chatting. He introduced this little girl of about 8 years, looking fair and French. He asked me to guess who it was, and of course, the goondu that I was, I couldn't. He told me it was his daughter Athilla, whom I'd never seen before. Later in the days to come, Athilla and Talha were to become best buddies.

Talha was not feeling well when we arrived,and he didn't take well to seeing many people in the house, all of whom wanted to carry and cuddle and kiss him. He threw a hissy fit, and he didn't want to hang with (or on!) anyone but me or my wife. Zayed, on the other hand, was taking the experience in his stride and making friends quickly. His favourites were Aadhil, another teenage cousin of mine, Rizvan and Niaz. Zayed was freaked about by the billions of insects in the house and the toilet in our room, but he was pretty cool when it came to mixing with the men and acting like a grown-up.

Talha only relaxed a little after our wonderful trip to the Karaikkal beach and night market near the famous Karaikal Amman temple. It was the "Mangani" festival at the time we visited, so the night market was full of life and full of small trinkets and toys that the boys kept on asking to buy.

Karaikal Amman temple

Night market

The same night, I managed to watch Billa 2, a scrappy MTV-inspired senseless Tamil movie starring one of my favourite actors, Ajit. The cinema I went to was a Ajit-fan stronghold, so response for the scrappy movie was still quite high. (He really shouldn't have done Billa 2 after doing a decent first one).

My father's younger brother, whom I call sinnaththa, invited us over to his house for both lunch and dinner. Overkill, yes, but we accepted his warm invitation because he hadn't seen us in a while. We travelled to my father's hometown, which is technically also my hometown, known as Kiliyannur. His daughter, my cousin, cooked us mutton briyani and quail kurma. It was unforgettable in more ways than one. Apart from the excellent quality of the food, the copious amounts he made us eat was enough to last us a week without food.

He gave us a tour of his house, the mosques in the village, a random school, the lodge he owned in Mayavaram and his small apartment near his lodge. Meanwhile, his grandkids had become quite fond of Zayed and Talha. 

The view of Mayavaram from the roof of sinnaththa's lodge

Very quickly, 5 days had gone by. We had wanted to visit Pondicherry for about 2 days, and prepared for our trip there on the 6th day. We packed up, and prepared to leave Kollapuram. It was tough for me. I had seen my cousins, how they enjoyed the company of my kids and vice-versa. I had seen and spoken to my grandfather and my uncle, whom I rarely called while I was in Singapore. I had come back to the house which, although was brand-new, held many memories of my roots in India. When the time came to say goodbye to my grandfather, I couldn't speak - my throat was knotted. I knew the time I had spent there was too short, compared to the 3 weeks/1 month we usually spent there. But with young children and limited vacation leave, this was the best  I could do and I hoped that he understood.

Pondi was fun. We had a lot of good shopping and good food, plus some sight-seeing. The kids loved it because they had arived at their holy grail - the "Nice Room".

The streets of Pondicherry

So we ended up missing the first day of Ramadan because we were enroute to Singapore on that day, which we'll have to make up eventually. But the start of this Ramadan was the end of this very special, memorable trip to India. I know for sure that this experience will never be repeated - all I have are memories. But I do hope to return to see my grandfather as many times as possible, and to keep in touch with all my cousins and uncles.