Monday, May 14, 2018

Muslims Seek Common Ground with Fellow-Americans in Ramadan

You can also read the article here in the San Jose Mercury News

Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting from dawn to dusk (mid-May to mid-June this year), arrives at a difficult time for Muslim-Americans. Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center that tracks hate-crimes in America reports that faith and race-based attacks against Muslims, Jews, Blacks, Hispanics and immigrants have risen significantly since the election of Donald Trump. The Supreme Court’s decision to hold hearings on the president’s Muslim travel ban has given the anti-Muslim animus a boost, forcing many of us to rethink what it means to be an American these days. And with president Trump moving the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem that has already resulted in the death of at least 58 Palestinians, the move ‘blessed’ by a pastor who said in the past that “religions like ‘Mormonism, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism’ lead people “to an eternity of separation from God in Hell," the future looks grim indeed.

Despite these dark developments, Muslims will welcome Ramadan with hope, humility and optimism. This is what the month is about: Confidence that the clouds will disappear, and the sun will shine again as we strive to affirm God’s living presence among us and unite to serve the common good of the country, no matter how daunting the challenge.

What is it about fasting that inspires this confidence? The Quran explains: “Fasting is prescribed for you, as it was prescribed for those before you, so that you may learn self-restraint.”

Self-restraint has two parts: What it forbids and what it encourages. The former includes abstaining not only from food and drink (often the easier part, even if for fifteen hours or more) but more importantly, from such vices as anger, arrogance, backbiting, lying, schadenfreude, solipsism, religious chauvinism and money mania. The latter includes a combination of gratitude, magnanimity, empathy, humility and moderation but above all, patience. Patience is the key virtue, which is why sabr, the Arabic word for patience, occurs over 100 times in the Quran.

Living up to the moral and spiritual demands of fasting is a struggle, especially when we recognize that God has no use for our hunger and thirst if we don’t curb our wayward thoughts, bad habits and dark desires. For me, patience is the elusive goal. Even when alone, I sense the need for patience, as when I am tempted to speed through a yellow light about to turn red. This may seem a minor trespass (although a $500 fine for running a red light in San Jose is hardly minor!) but I find that being attentive to small things makes loftier goals more attainable. Patience gives me a keener sense of the value of time. Tolstoy was on to something when he said the two most powerful warriors were patience and time. Honoring time has helped me fast from the small screen and social media while gaining a deeper insight into ‘Memento Mori’: Remember, you will die.

If we claim that practicing self-restraint in Ramadan makes us better human beings, it must reflect in the way we interact with our families, communities and the larger society. Given the current political climate, meaningful engagement with our fellow-Americans from all walks of life and spanning all faiths is critical.

A day before Thanksgiving in 2016, our Evergreen Islamic Center received a hate mail warning about the “new sheriff in town – President Donald Trump” who will do to us “what Hitler did to the Jews. You Muslims would be wise to pack your bags and get out of Dodge.”

When word leaked out, we were overwhelmed by the support we received from our neighbors, activists, reporters, politicians and law-enforcement officials. Their support continued into the 2017 Ramadan months later when larger than usual number of them joined us for community Iftar (breaking the fast) at sundown on Sundays.

This year we expect to host even more Americans during the Sunday Iftars. We particularly hope those who have misgivings about us and want to ask the hard questions will join us. We don’t have all the answers. All we know is that discussing concerns honestly and openly in mutual respect can remove fear and prejudice.

If nothing else, we hope they will come just for the food, for one of the most heartening lessons of Ramadan has been that few things in life forge friendship more fiercely than food, spicy or not.

The million-dollar question, of course, is: How long do Ramadan’s virtuous practices last?

I wish I could say they last from one Ramadan to the next for me, but they don’t. My resolve to become a better human being begins to fray by the fourth or the fifth month. I hurry past an octogenarian on a wheelchair without pausing to greet or offering to help. I become judgmental. I use unkind words. Instead of smiling at people in the elevator, I stare at my shoe. I splurge on clothes even though I have plenty. At the traffic light, I begin to live at the edge of yellow bleeding into red.

Yet I know that without the reflection and the renewal I experience in Ramadan, I would lose my center, my purpose. Without purposeful fasting steadying my sail, my boat would be adrift on the sea of life.

Instead of attempting quantum leaps, I will seek incremental improvements in patience, compassion, charity and respect for a textured truth. I will strive to answer the question the Quran asks, “So, where are you going?” by separating the signal from the noise and nurturing the values that give my life meaning. And I will try to summon enough spiritual stamina to sustain the effect of Ramadan for a month or two more than in the past, before forgetfulness enters the heart and I risk becoming a captive to my cravings. If I sincerely work at being good, tempered by humor and humility, perhaps I will even glimpse the ineffable and the transcendent.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Student-led Rally Against Gun Violence in San Jose, CA

There were about 3.000 of us in the rain today, March 24, 2018, in the park by the Guadalupe River in downtown San Jose, rallying against gun violence in America. From babies in strollers to passionate, energized students to grandparents in flannels, the message delivered to elected officials was loud and clear: "Enough with gun violence. We, the students, are taking charge. You adults can follow us as we change gun laws in America once and for all. No more hiding behind the 2nd Amendment."

At one point during the rally we experienced a mild hailstorm. But we knew in our hearts that the real one would be coming during the next election when a student-driven hailstorm will eradicate the catastrophic effects of gun violence, bad governance and immoral behavior by some of the Trump-led elected officials of America. "What is easier to buy than a gun in America today? A Republican Politician." Indeed.

Let the pictures tell the life-affirming story of the "March for Our Lives" rally in San Jose and around the country today.

Friday, February 02, 2018

Time Freezes in ‎Punxsutawney on Groundhog Day

(“Groundhog Day,” starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell, was released a quarter-century ago today. On this Friday, the 2nd of February, 2018, the only celebrity groundhog of the universe, Punxsutawney Phil, has seen his shadow, predicting another six weeks of winter. But what accounts for the timeless appeal of the movie, for its enduring charm? I think the reason is clear: Time. The movie explores the mystery of time subtly yet forcefully, mixing humor with depth that forces the viewer – through the experience of the arrogant and narcissistic weatherman Phil Connors who is trapped in a time warp and finds himself living in the same Groundhog Day over and over again - to confront mortality, life, love, loss, priority, memory, leading ultimately to redemption and enlightenment. The sign of a timeless movie is not just that newer viewers also become fans but that repeat viewers find something new every time they see it again.)

What if there isn’t a tomorrow? There wasn’t one today!

Think of the myriad ways by which we describe time: time flies, time crawls, time stands still, time loops, time is finite, time is infinite, time is money, time dilates, the arrow of time, cyclical time, circular time, linear time, non-linear time, geological time, atomic time, fullness of time, texture of time, fleeting time, recursive time, in the nick of time, the gift of time, the labyrinth of time, and particularly in Silicon Valley, billable time.

Probably no metaphor is used more extensively to describe an entity in literature and science than time. Listen to the echo of time in “To Be Or Not To Be.” Proust spent decades “In Search of Lost Time.” For Muhammad Ali, “The man who views the world at 50 the same as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.” To Thoreau, “Time is but the stream I go
a-fishing in.” From Julia Abigail Fletcher Carney:  
So the little moments,/Humble though they be,/Make the mighty ages/Of Eternity. Rabindranath Tagore: "Floating on the sea of time, yet cannot grasp a drop of it!"

Physicist Richard Feynman: “A positron is an electron going backwards in time.” How about ‘forever and ever’ time? Physicists who won the 2017 physics Nobel Prize (Thorne, Weiss, Barish) were cited for “detecting gravity waves, predicted by Albert Einstein a hundred years ago, that came from a collision between two black holes. It took 1.3 billion years for the waves to arrive at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory detector in the United States. The LIGO registered the wave as a tone nicknamed the ‘cosmic chirp.’”

And if entanglement in space from quantum mechanics is not strange enough, how about entanglement in time?

So what do you want out of life?

The best way to honor the gift of life is to honor the gift of time …

The night sky is dense with stars. A new one seems to bloom every few minutes, making the dark domed garden even more inviting. But it is not the stars that hold me in their spell.
It is the trees.

I am in Chittagong, in the city of my birth by the Bay of Bengal in Bangladesh, almost eight thousand miles away from my ‘naturalized’ home in San Jose, California.

The mango and the betel nut saplings that my father had planted a half-century ago are now taller than the three-story building of my adolescent years. Rustling and dreamlike, they speak to me in a voice so real and with such urgency that I have to grip the railing from trembling.
“What have you done with your time?” they ask. “You saw us in our infancy Now the stars are within our reach. What have you done with the years gone by?”

I scan my life for an answer, memory guiding me down a path of light and shadow. Experienced life’s inevitable ebb and flow. Father passed away a decade ago after fighting diabetes for years. Children grow up, move out. Mother confined to a wheelchair as time takes its relentless toll on this irrepressible woman.

Wife and I continue working, retirement not in sight for economic reasons, even though we are advanced in years.

But ‘summing up’ isn’t what these animated trees are interested in. They want to know if I have used my time well. They are not interested in fame or wealth, neither of which I have, but whether I have honored time, given it the respect it deserved. They want to know if I was able to coax from it the ability to connect the dots that lay scattered about me, each a milestone of sorts in search of an elusive meaning.

So I really don’t know if I have used my time well in six decades. The truth and the tragedy are that I probably never will!

Do you ever have déjà vu, Mrs. Lancaster?
I don’t think so, but I could check with the kitchen.

Do you know what today is?
No, what?
Today is tomorrow. It happened.

What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every day was exactly the same,
 and nothing that you did mattered?
That about sums it up for me.

Do you ever have déjà vu?
Didn't you just ask me that?

Although it is winter, the night is mild and redolent of Bay of Bengal a few miles away. A preternatural silence has enveloped the bustling port city and the occasional tinkle of a rickshaw at the edge of my consciousness only deepens this silence. I find myself caught in a time warp that seems to extend beyond the Milky Way. My wife is asleep in the room where she slept as a bride over three decades ago, unaware of the ghosts of yesteryears crowding me. A breeze rustles the mango leaves and sways the betel nut trees and I hear their insistent question: “What have you done with the gift of time?”

At last I give up. “I don’t know,” I whisper.

Sometimes, people just die.
Not today.

How about you? What do you want?
What I really want is someone like you.

I think you're the kindest, sweetest, prettiest person I've ever met in my life. I've never seen anyone that's nicer to people than you are. The first time I saw you... something happened to me. I never told you but... I knew that I wanted to hold you as hard as I could. I don't deserve someone like you. But if I ever could, I swear I would love you for the rest of my life.

It's beautiful. I don't know what to say.
I do. Whatever happens tomorrow, or for the rest of my life, I'm happy now... because I love you.

It's so beautiful!... Let's live here.
We'll rent, to start.

Phil Connors gets caught in a time warp and finds himself slowly turning mad. He embraces death but the warp keeps delivering him to life’s shore. Slowly the scales of solipsism and arrogance fall from his eyes and by the time he comes free of the “same old, same old,” he has found the meaning and purpose of his life.

If only the rest of us are as lucky!