You Are Powerful

Green bird with spread wings

By Wael Abdelgawad |

Never think that you are powerless. You, me, each of us is powerful beyond measure. Look at Allah’s creation. There are no helpless creatures. Even the smallest insect and the tiniest bird are capable of providing for themselves by Allah’s will, defending themselves from predators, finding shelter, and caring for their young. Every creature has its own power, its own talents and gifts, including you. If you have not perceived your own power yet then trust me, it’s there. You only need to find it.

The same is true for societies. If every creature has its own power, then societies – which are vast collections of creatures – must be especially powerful. What we have seen in recent days in Tunisia and Egypt is evidence of that. As I write this the situation in Egypt is unresolved, but what is clear is that the people have spoken and there is no going back.

Those who believe in conspiracy theories try to claim that mysterious enemies are orchestrating these events, or manipulating them for their own ends. Or they mutter that such protests are pointless, that we cannot change anything.

That’s nonsense. To believe in such things is to imagine that we are powerless, or that we are subhuman, and that other (more powerful) beings hold the reins of humanity’s future. That is the road to inaction and despair. That is the call of Shaytan, and I reject it.

Remember that old song, “Walk like an Egyptian?” I am Egyptian-American, and for years I was annoyed that Americans thought being Egyptian meant moving your hands in a funny way when you danced. Now look at the photos coming out of Egypt, photos of struggle and defiance, and tell me what it means to walk like an Egyptian. Tell me what it means to look in the face of oppression and say, “No more. You have the guns and tanks, but we are powerful. We reject this oppression and will not bear it silently for even one day more.” No matter the final outcome, this is heroism, and it will echo through history.

Allah created human beings to be His representatives on earth, and then He created this Ummah to be the guides and shepherds of humanity. We have sometimes succeeded in that mission, and sometimes failed miserably. But make no mistake, we have the capability to fulfill the mission if we choose. If we dedicate ourselves fee sabeel illah (in Allah’s path), if we purify our souls, if we return to the sweet spring of the Quran, if we take the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) as our guide, there is no limit to what we can do, by Allah’s will.

We say, “Laa hawla wa laa quwwata il-la bil-lah.” (There is no transformation and no strength except by Allah). Revolutionaries say, “Power to the people!” Which is true?

Both are true. The power of the people comes from Allah, who has apportioned to every creature its own share of might. Change and transformation can arise only through the awesome and glorious powers of Allah.

Power to the people. Power to you, brother. Power to you, sister. It’s there, inside you, I guarantee it.

You Are Not Alone

Lonely tree and sun rays

By Wael Abdelgawad |

Sometimes it seems like every person in this world of seven billion souls is living a quarantined, lonely experience. You take the subway to work and everyone reads her own novel, or rests his head against the seat, not meeting anyone else’s eyes. Each person is surrounded by an invisible sphere of seclusion. Or you walk down a crowded downtown street, with thousands of people intent on their own lives and errands, disengaged from all around them…

Every one of us is the center of our own universe, living within our own skulls, constrained by the limitations of our senses. None of us can ever truly know the inner thoughts and feelings of another. This awareness can be isolating and depressing.

But let me give you a different perspective:

First, there is Allah. He knows the innermost hopes and fears of each of us. He is with us, watching us, protecting us and guiding us at all times. He loves us and wants good for us. So in a very real sense, none of us is alone. Allah is the unifying factor, the Master of all, the One who created a universe that functions in harmony and symmetry; even the chaos of nature is part of a greater pattern, and serves Allah in its way.

In fact, check this out: Abu Huraira narrated, “The Prophet said, “If Allah loves a person, He calls Gabriel saying, ‘Allah loves so and-so; O Gabriel! Love him.’ Gabriel would love him and make an announcement amongst the inhabitants of the Heaven. ‘Allah loves so-and-so, therefore you should love him also,’ and so all the inhabitants of the Heaven would love him, and then he is granted the pleasure of the people on the earth.”
(Sahih Al-Bukhari, Volume 4, Book 54, Hadith 431)

Wow, subhanAllah. That is a lot of love being directed your way! That’s hardly congruous with the notion of an isolated existence.

Second, there is our noble Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Regardless of our nationalities, our schools of thought or “sects”, we are united in honoring and revering him. We study his life, repeat his words, and send blessings on him. We live our lives by his teachings. We look up to him and love him as we love ourselves.

Third, there is our great deen of Islam. At any given moment, at this very second, there are Muslims in the world standing shoulder to shoulder in prayer, all facing the same location on the earth. Islam has brought us together in a unique and unprecedented global brotherhood and sisterhood. Though we may be strangers to each other in a physical sense, spiritually we are connected. We care about each other, we feel each other’s joys and fears.

Yes, we are biological beings, each living within our own limited bodies. When you or I think, no other human hears us. When you eat, no one else tastes it. When your head hurts, no one else feels the pain. When you harbor private aspirations and terrors, no one else feels the beating of your heart.

But Allah is with you, my brother, my sister. Allah hears. Allah is always ready to comfort you, respond to your prayers, and bless you with His grace.

And the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) struggled so hard for you. Yes of course, he fought for you! You are a part of his Ummah. You are one of his flock. His mission was for you as much as anyone else. On the Day of Judgment he will intercede for his Ummah; he will claim us, and struggle for us just as he did in his earthly life.

Lastly, we Muslims all share a spiritual bond, a common understanding of the world. We are family (even if some of us don’t act like it).

When the loneliness of life feels heavy on your back, remember that the isolation of human existence is an illusion. You are not alone. You are surrounded by guidance, blessings, and caring. You are loved, even when you do not see it. You are not alone.

Sincerity is the Stairway to Heaven

How many of us are stumbling in the dark, or sitting quietly in despair, not knowing where to turn? How many of us have giant boulders blocking our progress, preventing us from living happy lives? How many of us are stuck, trapped, immobilized like fish in a huge net? Sometimes we get so frustrated at our situations that we don’t see that our problems themselves are a test and opportunity given by Allah.

By Wael Abdelgawad for

Rainbow over mountain foothills

I’ve made terrible mistakes that have had serious, life-altering consequences. Other blunders have caused me shame or embarrassment, or contributed to the loss of important relationships. I have sometimes misjudged people and been hurt, and I have sometimes hurt other people.

I’ve had the awful experience of being betrayed by a friend, a man I trusted completely. It is the most heart-wrenching feeling in the world. I’ve never betrayed anyone in that way, but I have certainly let people down.

My marriage came to an end in part because of mistakes that I made. I was never unfaithful, violent or cruel, but I did not enter the marriage with full dedication in my heart, and I failed to reciprocate the level of love and trust that I was offered. Looking back, I can see that Allah gave me opportunities to advance the marriage to a place of mutual love and faith, and I failed to embrace them.

A few years ago, a woman revealed something deeply personal to me. She spoke of a trauma in her past, and her fears for the future. I listened silently, but internally I grew increasingly agitated as I filtered her words through my own insecurities, thinking of how her thoughts impacted me. I ended up walking out on her. That shameful moment is etched in my mind in black ink. I apologized hours later, but some things cannot be undone.

I know that many of you have similar stories.

These mistakes, and others I made I when I was younger, have caused me to feel distress, regret, bitterness, doubt, and confusion. And yet, I thank Allah for my missteps. I’m not happy that I have hurt others. I have asked their forgiveness when possible, and I ask Allah’s forgiveness. But I recognize that because of my foolish actions, and their sometimes awful consequences, I have grown as a Muslim, a father, a potential husband, a martial artist, a writer and a human being, in ways that I would not have thought possible. I feel that Allah is shaping me, molding me into a man with a softer heart and a harder body; nurturing my spirit, calling my soul down the road it needs to walk.

Pain is a catalyst to growth

If we look back at the lives of the Sahabah, and the great scholars and leaders of Islam, and the noble Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) himself, the times in their lives when they made the greatest leaps forward were times of crisis. When the Prophethood came to Muhammad (pbuh), when Jibreel visited him in the cave and hugged him painfully and commanded him to “Recite!”, he was fearful. It was the greatest moment of change in his life, but also the most frightening.

An ancient illuminated manuscript of the Quran

The great Companion ‘Umar ibn Al-Khattab (ra) came to Islam after a terrible fight with his sister, when he caught her and her husband Zaid reciting Quran, and he flew into a terrible rage and beat them both. Then he felt shame and regret; he demanded to see the manuscript they had been reading. Upon reading it, he was deeply shaken by its beauty, and the nobility of its call. He went straight to Al-Safa, where the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was meeting with his companions. He asked permission to enter, then declared his conversion in front of the holy Prophet (pbuh). ‘Umar went on to become one of the Prophet’s closest and companions, and then the second Khalifah of the Muslim world after the death of the Prophet (pbuh).

Many of the Sahabah went through terrible hardships in the name of Islam. Many were tortured. One, Salman Al-Farisi, left behind a life of comfort and nobility in order to search the world for the truth, finally ending up as a slave before the word came to him of the Prophet that he had sought for so long.

My point is not to say that they suffered, so be patient. This has been said voluminously. My point is that their suffering led them to astonishing places spiritually. Because they were sincere and pure of heart, their suffering purified them, and raised them to a kind of generational nobility unseen in human history. Materially, they literally became the masters of the world, but only because they first proved that they did not desire it. Even from their position as rulers they were humble as the dust, like ‘Umar, who, as commander of the second largest empire in the world, ate bread made from coarse flour, and wore patched clothes.

There is a story told by the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) in a saheeh hadith:

“Three persons from the tribe of Bani Israel got together and started out on a journey. On the way, clouds gathered above them and it started to pour with rain and so they sought shelter in a nearby cave.

Suddenly, a large boulder slipped and blocked the entrance to the cave, trapping the three inside and transforming the day into a dark night for them. They had no other alternative except to turn to Allahn (SWT) for help.

“Let us use our sincere deeds as a means to obtain deliverance from this predicament,” suggested one of them. All the others agreed with the suggestion.

One of them said, “O’ Lord! You are aware that I have an extremely attractive cousin and that I was infatuated and obsessed with her. One day, finding her alone, I took hold of her and wanted to satisfy my carnal desires, when she spoke out to me saying: O’ My cousin! Fear Allah (SWT) and do not harm my chastity. Hearing this, I crushed my lustful tendencies and decided against the evil act. O’ Lord! If that deed of mine had been out of absolute sincerity and only for the purpose of acquiring Your pleasure, deliver us from grief and perdition.”

Suddenly they witnessed that the huge boulder had moved away a little, faintly brightening up the interior of the cave.

The second person spoke out, “O’ Lord! You know that I had a father and a mother, so old that their bodies had bent over due to their excessive age, and that I used to tend to them regularly. One night, having brought them their food, I observed that both of them were asleep. I passed the entire night near them, the food in hand, without waking them up for fear of disturbing them. O’ Lord! If this deed of mine had been only for the sake of Your pleasure and happiness, open up a way for us and grant us salvation.”

As he completed his speech, the group noticed that the boulder had moved aside a little more.

The third person supplicated, “O’ Knower of every hidden and manifest! You know Yourself that I had a worker who used to work for me. When his term had reached its termination, I handed over to him his wages, but he was not pleased and desired more and, in a state of dissatisfaction and displeasure, he went away. I used his wage to purchase a sheep, which I looked after separately and very soon I had a flock in my possession. After a period of time, the worker again approached me for his wage and I pointed towards the flock of animals. Initially, he thought I was ridiculing him, but later, realizing my seriousness, took the entire flock and left. O’ Lord! If this act had been prompted by sincerity and had only been for Your pleasure, deliver us from this quandary.”

At this point the entire boulder moved aside from the mouth of the cave and all three emerged from it, joyous and ecstatic, and continued their journey.

We’re not Prophets or Sahabah, but the principles of human nature hold true. Think about the amazing symbolism of the story above. The three men were trapped in the dark, facing the possibility of death by thirst or starvation. Allah saved them only because of the power contained within their sincere deeds, done solely for His pleasure.

Boulder blocking the road

How many of us are stumbling in the dark, or sitting quietly in despair, not knowing where to turn? How many have giant boulders blocking our progress, preventing us from living happy lives? How many are stuck, immobilized like fish in a net? Sometimes we are so frustrated at our situations that we don’t see that our problems themselves are tests and opportunities given by Allah.

To develop as human beings, to become better people and move closer to Allah, we must experience hardship. That is a fundamental principle of our creation. Those are the rules. They are no different for us, sitting here in the year 2011/1432 Hijri, than for the Prophets and great mortals of the past.

“Or do you think that you will enter Paradise while such [trial] has not yet come to you as came to those who passed on before you? They were touched by poverty and hardship and were shaken until [even their] messenger and those who believed with him said, ‘When is the help of Allah?’ Unquestionably, the help of Allah is near.” (Quran, Al-Baqarah, 2:214)

In hardship lies opportunity. Adversity is the soil in which we grow. The challenge is to recognize that, and to know that Allah is very near, guiding us all along.

Stairway to heaven

One remarkable lesson I’ve learned in the last few years is that for a mu’min (believer), and for someone who truly wants to advance spiritually, sincerity is the key. I’m talking about sincerity in its own right, even when it is not reciprocated, and not seeking anything in return,  but only as a philosophy of living and a personal discipline.

“He is the Living (One): There is no god but He: Call upon Him, giving Him sincere devotion. Praise be to God, Lord of the Worlds!” (Quran, Ghafir 40:65)

I have come to recognize that the process of being sincere with Allah, with others, and with myself – and that is the most grueling of all- is tremendously difficult, but that it leads to important and amazing places that can’t be reached any other way. There is a stairway to heaven, and the only way to get a leg up on it, and then to climb, is to practice sincerity. That includes purity of intention (niyyah), and purity of worship.

I’ve even come to believe that a person, after seeing the value of sincerity as the only path to growth; and after setting out on that steep path for that reason; must then deliberately forget the reason, practicing sincerity alone, because part of being sincere is not demanding or expecting an outcome, but doing it for its own sake, fee-sabeel-illah, period.

There’s a story of a boy who came to a martial arts master and said,
“How long will it take me to become a master in your art?”
The master replied, “Ten years.”
“Ten years?” the boy said. “That’s a long time. What if I train twice as hard as your current students, how long will it take?”
“Twenty years,” said the master.
“What if,” said the boy, “I train day and night, dedicating all my energy? How long will it take?”
“Thirty years,” said the master.
“What?” exclaimed the boy? How come every time I say I will train harder, you say it will take longer?
“Because,” said the master, “With your eyes fixed on your goal, you have no eyes to see the way.”

The same is true for the deen, and the deen is life. You can’t climb a stairway to heaven if you’re looking up at the sky, or staring into the distance at some pretty thing, or wishing for recognition, or craving hedonistic pleasure. You have to keep your eyes on the path, so you don’t fall. Experience the moment. Cherish what you have and be grateful. Bring all your love, compassion and determination to bear with each passing hour. Purify your heart, and trust Allah with the destination.

A surprising change

The last few years have been difficult for me, but they’ve brought about a surprising and marvelous change. It’s been a time of monumental growth, and I don’t mean my waistband, which fortunately has shrunk a bit. I’ve grown as a Muslim. I have blossomed as a writer, expressing ideas that have percolated inside me for decades. I have improved tremendously as a martial artist, finally coming to a place (after decades of practice) where I can create combinations spontaneously, and apply martial principles effectively on the fly. I have become such a better father to my daughter Salma. I never thought I could be as comfortable, patient and loving with her as I am now. All I can say is, Alhamdulillah!

A key element in that process of change has been facing the uncomfortable fact that I have not always been sincere, and then embarking on this path of earnestness and honesty as an approach to life. It’s not easy in the least.

Most of us lie to ourselves. It’s enormously difficult to take responsibility for our failings, even the partial responsibility that, realistically, is usually ours. It’s much easier to shift blame to others, or to external factors. But then the same lapses and misjudgments get repeated over and over again, until we start to say, “Why me?”, all the while knowing in our hearts that we ultimately bear responsibility, but still being unwilling to face that truth.

When we’re ready

We have to learn to trust that Allah will bring us what we need when we are ready. That doesn’t mean that we don’t labor. Of course we do, in fact we are an Ummah of aspirations, an Ummah that reaches for excellence. But we do it fee-sabeel-illah, purely in Allah’s cause. We should never let selfishness, base desire or greed take over, because when we do we guarantee failure.

We strive, pursuing our dreams but never trying to force the outcomes, and we constantly check and re-check the purity of our intentions. We focus on serving Allah and being the best Abdullah, Fatimah, Leyla or Fuad that we can be. Then we have certitude that Allah will give us what is proper.

To take one example, I often feel acutely the absence of a woman in my life. I love to laugh, have fun, be affectionate and discuss ideas, and I miss sharing my life with that special someone. I also want more for Salma. I believe – I hope – that I am a good father to her, but she needs the guidance of a Muslim woman. I teach her about Allah and Islam, but she needs someone to teach her how to be a Muslimah.

I have placed profiles on a few matrimonial sites, and I am not shy about putting the word out, or contacting someone who seems interesting. However, nothing has come of it, and I accept that. I’m not trying to force anything artificial. My focus is on improving my ibaadah (worship). Increasing my knowledge. Strengthening my body. Becoming a better and better father. Reconciling with my past, forgiving myself, being gentle with myself and others, finding new ways to express love in my life, all with sincerity, not craving any material outcome.

When I’ve set myself on that stairway with my eyes aglow and my heart beating softly, when I have reached the level of purity that Allah expects, when He sees that I am ready – then I trust that He will bring the right woman into my life.

A way of being

Sometimes when I reach out to a friend in need or a stranger in pain, I sense their worry that I might have a hidden agenda. Not because there’s anything oily about me, but because they are not used to anyone behaving unselfishly, so they assume there must be a catch. They mistake a way of being, a conscious way of behaving in the world, for manipulation or ambition. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said,

“The Most Merciful (God) shows mercy to those who have mercy on others. Show mercy to those on earth, and the One above the heaven will show mercy to you.”

Stairway to heaven

I choose to try be the kind of person I aspire to, the person I see as the ideal “Wael”. Making that effort has nothing to do with how others behave. It doesn’t matter if others are merciful. It doesn’t matter if they are kind, or even polite.

Jesus (pbuh) says in the Bible, “If you love only those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?”

I have adopted this approach as a direct result of the hardship I’ve experienced. I could easily have gone the other way, toward cynicism and bitterness. Many do. But that’s a dark road. It’s not a life I want to live, and not what I want to teach my daughter.

I look back at the mistakes I’ve made in life, and I see that every screwup carried within it the seed of a powerful lesson, and I thank Allah with every sinew of my being that He allowed me to recognize that, and to cultivate those seeds, rather than suffering in vain.

I regret the pain I have caused others; but I regret none of the pain I have suffered, because without it I would be weaker; more vain; less compassionate; less trusting of Allah; and less grateful. I would not be on even the lowest rung of the stairway to heaven.

So Alhamdulillah, Who loves us enough to test us, so that we can be purified, become strong, and become sincere.

Be All About Allah

Mountains above a beautiful valley with flowers

By Wael Abdelgawad for

Be all about Allah and your connection with Him, no matter what’s happening around you. On Yawm Al-Qiyamah (the Day of Resurrection) it will be you standing before Allah. No one will step in to take your place. No one will dispute truth or promote falsehood. No bigot will harm you, and no lover will help. Only your relationship with Allah will matter, while all else will be irrelevant, so don’t wait until it’s too late. Let it be all about you and Allah, right now.

Represent your faith. Live your deen with courage. With a single verse of the Quran you could light up a city. With the Shahadah (the testimony of faith) you could build a nation and part the sea, and I’m not speaking of the Red Sea, but of the sea of chaos, suffering and war that covers the world.

Be yourself, speak your truth, express love in your daily actions and speech no matter what anyone else says or does. They are responsible for their own souls, and you for yours. You will not be asked about them, nor they about you. You will be asked what you did for Allah, for truth, for humanity; but that is about you, not them. The end is with Allah.

Don’t give up on yourself. You have far yet to go, Insha’Allah. Never hate yourself or harm yourself. You are more precious than the crescent moon.

Follow the path of your dream like a bloodhound. Be the ideal you, the you that shines in your imagination, the you that is brave and strong. That image of the “ideal you” that you have in your head, that is not a silly daydream, that is in fact who you are meant to be! Be that person, step out of your chrysalis, emerge from the shadows, hold your head up, and don’t worry what anyone thinks, because as Dr. Seuss famously said, those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter won’t mind.

A Million Acts of Kindness

Beautiful lake and forest in Canada

Corner Brook, Canada

By Wael Abdelgawad for

TV news will have you believe that that the world is nothing but crime, tragedy and disasters. Don’t believe it. For every evil there are a million kindnesses.

A single day on this planet witnesses so many acts of human kindness that they could not be counted. They don’t make the news because they are neither glamorous nor shocking. There are everyday kindnesses, like a mother feeding her child, a father working hard to put food on the table, a teacher who strives to help children learn, or one friend who sits down with another, makes her a cup of tea and says, “You seem a little down, tell me what’s going on.” These common mercies may not be newsworthy, but they are profound nonetheless.

One time my daughter, who is four years old now, saw a two-year old girl in her preschool looking a little confused at clean-up time. She took the girl’s hand and led her around, showing her how to do clean-up. She explained everything to the little girl very carefully, showing her how to choose a clean-up task from the chart, and how to use the broom and dustpan. Another time one of the kids was a little sick, so my daughter went out to the yard, collected a few leaves and blades of grass, put them on a plate, then went to the sick child and said, “I made you a salad to help you get better.”

Silly, I know, but these are pure and innocent acts of kindness.

Some people say that human  beings are born with the burden of original sin, and with a predisposition to wickedness. Don’t believe it. Compassion is engraved on the human heart from birth. Everyday acts of kindness are repeated a billion times a day, ten billion times a day, from Sweden to Swaziland.

Even animals have a degree of inherent kindness that goes beyond the instinctive compassion of a mother for her young. Check out this story of a dolphin that saved two stranded whales by leading them back to the open sea. This is an amazing example of an animal showing empathy and compassion for others that are not even of its own species. SubhanAllah!

Beyond kindness, there is heroism. There are people who travel to far-off countries to work in disaster relief, to help the locals learn how to farm sustainably or prevent the spread of disease. There are journalists and human rights workers who persist in their work in spite of extreme dangers (I am reminded of people like Dr. Eyad Sarraj of Palestine, Natalia Estemirova and Anna Politkovskaya). There are doctors and aid workers who go into frightening war zones to treat victims of brutality and starvation.

Once again, these acts of heroism are seen even among animals.  Take a look at this amazing series of photos, showing a mother squirrel confronting a large dog in order to save her baby.

Don’t give up on this world, this beautiful ball spinning in the ink of space. This planet of wonders and miracles.

Don’t give up on the human race. Though we can be abominable beyond belief, we also produce Prophets, martyrs and heroes. We have far yet to go, by Allah’s will, and no one knows what the future will bring.

Don’t give up on yourself. You were created on fitrah (the natural, pure way); you have a striving spirit and a good heart. You have unique gifts and talents that the world needs. Your presence here is not an accident. Your life has meaning and purpose, as much as the mountains, the sea and the stars.

Don’t give up on Allah. He wants only good for us. He gives us life, guides us, helps us, answers our prayers, and waits for our repentance. He is a Merciful and Compassionate God. Have faith in Him, as He has faith in you.

Stop trying to control others, and change yourself instead

Man and his camel before the sunset

By Wael Abdelgawad |

“Indeed, Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves.” (Quran 13:11)

Brothers and sisters, each of us must accept that we can only change ourselves. That is the key to changing our situations in life. We can’t control anyone else’s feelings or actions. We cannot make anyone love us, treat us better, respect us even when we deserve it, accept us even when we are right, befriend us even when we are sweet, or believe in us even when we’re true.

Dua’ is not a magic spell that allows you to control other human beings.

Neither will Allah coerce anyone to love us or accept us. Of course He can – He has power over all things – but it is not His way. Allah created us with free will, the ability to choose our own paths in life, and He does not take that away by controlling our emotions or compelling us down predetermined roads. Yes, everything is written, but that does not mean it’s forced, only that the outcome is known to Allah in advance.

I am thinking specifically of people who imagine that there is some special dua’ (prayer) they can say to make someone love them, or stop abusing them and treat them kindly instead. There is not, to my knowledge, and Allah knows best. And the same principle extends to all human interactions: dua’ is not a charm or potion that you can use to control others.

This is true even in very important matters such as guiding people to the truth and bringing them to the worship of Allah. We can certainly pray for Allah to guide someone, but we must understand that Allah’s guidance consists of showing clear signs, no more. It’s up to the individual to make the choice to believe or not. Allah does not force the outcome.

“And if there was any Quran by which the mountains would be removed or the earth would be broken apart or the dead would be made to speak, [it would be this Quran], but to Allah belongs the affair entirely. Then have those who believed not accepted that had Allah willed, He would have guided the people, all of them?” (Quran 13:31)

In other words Allah could certainly force everyone into submission if He willed, or He could manifest miraculous and powerful signs – such as the earth splitting or the dead speaking – that would compel all human beings to submit in fear and awe, as He said:

“If We willed We could send down a sign from heaven to them, and then their necks would be lowered to it in subjection.” (Quran 26:4).

For that matter, Allah could have created us all in submission from the start. He chose not to.

If Allah chose to leave such critical issues within the realm of our free will – vital issues such as acknowledging the truth of Allah’s power, worshiping Him or serving false gods, following the Prophets or rejecting them (and some even killed their Prophets!) – if He chose to leave these all-important issues within the realm of our agency, and under the dominion of our discretion, do you think He is going to violate the principle of free will in order to force your boyfriend or girlfriend to love you and come back to you?

I’m sorry, but this is what it seems to come down to for some people. They actually speak of committing suicide if the boyfriend/girlfriend does not return (ignoring the fact that this relationship is Islamically unlawful in the first place), then they want a dua’ that will force the object of their desire to fall in love, as if dua’ is some kind of magic potion from a fairy tale.

Nor is dua’ going to force your husband to stop abusing you and become kind and loving. Nor will it change occupiers into happy campers so that they quit their occupation, or turn tyrants into hippies who wear flowers in their hair and open the political prisons. I’m not belittling these oppressive situations – they have haunted me for most of my life, and I consider myself a human rights activist. And I’m not saying that dua’ is not effective against oppression – actually the Prophet (pbuh) has told us that the dua’ of the oppressed is one of those categories of dua’ that is guaranteed a response.

Narrated Abu Ma’bad, that the Prophet said, “… and be afraid of the curse of an oppressed person because there is no screen between his invocation and Allah.” Sahih Bukhari: Volume 2, Book 24, Number 573.

But the response is not going to be forcing someone else to change heart, or become loving, kind or peaceful. That is an artificial expectation and it doesn’t work that way.

What, then? Is it all hopeless? No, far from it! The hope does not lie in changing someone else, it lies in changing yourself. That’s the whole point. Your free will and power do not extend over others, but they do encompass yourself. When you make a sincere choice to change your own life, when you purge yourself of blind desire, bitterness, self-pity, addiction and sin, when you work at it like your life depends on it, and when you make sincere and pure dua’ to Allah, then Allah’s help comes. New doors open, maybe not the solutions that you thought you wanted, but something better.

“And those who struggle in Our cause, We shall certainly guide them to our paths. For verily Allah is with those who do right.” (Quran 29:69)

A steep road, but not an impossible one

Sometimes there’s serious internal work that must be done before we can change. I’ve said that we cannot control others, we can only control our own choices, but some of us are out of control. We keep making the wrong choices over and over again, and we don’t know why, so we seek to blame our situations on others, and we imagine that they are the ones who need to change, not us.

How did we get to be this way? It usually traces back to the way we were raised. Parents are supposed to be loving and supportive, and most of them are, Alhamdulillah. But there are many rotten parents out there as well, dysfunctional people who turn their homes into environments of confusion and suffering. These parents might be alcohol or drug addicts, violent towards spouses and children, or verbally demeaning.

I remember one family I knew well when I was young. The parents were Muslim converts, and they had five children. The mother was German, and the father Arab. They used to scream at each other daily, in front of the children. The mother would shout, “Arab savage!” And the father would shout back, “German barbarian!” The father would sometimes strike the mother or throw things. I remember one time when he picked up a vacuum cleaner and held it over his head like a war club, shouting. It sounds comical, but the effect on the children was not so funny. Both parents often yelled at the children and insulted them. The children were under nourished, partly because the family was always short of money (the father never held a steady job), and partly because the environment was so chaotic that mealtimes were neglected. In their teens, the two eldest children had not learned to read and write.

This family was active in the masjid, their friends were all Muslim, they attended Muslim youth camps in summer… an outsider would never guess at the insanity that existed inside the home.

Those children are all adults now. One married a non-Muslim abuser who beat her while she was pregnant. She became an alcoholic and drug user before she finally returned to Islam many years later. One left Islam and became a Hindu. One is chronically ill and has never married. He’s bitter and expresses many racist ideas toward Arabs in particular. One married an Algerian man who beats her badly enough to put her in the hospital, yet she refuses to leave him. Only the eldest has what you would consider a healthy and normal Muslim family, though he expresses an unexplainable sense of deep sadness that has persisted inside him for years. The parents themselves have been divorced for many years, and each lives alone in their home countries.

Parents like these can do a number on you for life. They can knuckle your self-esteem into the ground, crush your sense of self-worth, and give you a skewed picture of what a family is supposed to be. If you grew up in such a home then you may have been thoroughly indoctrinated into believing that all the abuse heaped on you is your own darn fault.

As a result some of us have uncontrollable tempers, or a lack of will to resist abuse, or a lack of faith in our own talents and dreams. And so the cycle of broken spirits and bad parenting is perpetuated into another generation.

If any of that sounds like you, then you have a steep road to climb, but not an impossible one. You must find a way to break out of the ruinous mold that you’ve been forced into and emerge a new human being, light and free, or at least on your way to becoming free. It’s not an easy process; in fact it can be enormously difficult because it requires self-candor. It’s hard to look at ourselves honestly, with none of the self-deception that we normally employ like a crutch, and say, “I’m messed up inside. Regardless of how I got to be this way, I’m an adult now and I’m responsible for my own actions. I can’t keep blaming my problems on others, or on external circumstances. If I want a better life, I have to start by changing myself.”

That’s very hard. It requires prayer, dua’, study and introspection, and maybe therapy as well. It’s rigorous work, and it’s important, and it takes time. But it can be done.

The same is true for failed relationships, by the way. People say, “My husband/wife betrayed me and broke my heart. Now I can never trust anyone again.”

I’m very sorry that someone hurt you, but you must recognize that the choice not to trust anyone in the future is exactly that, a choice. Of course there’s going to be a period of mourning after a failed relationship, but if you let it affect you forever then that is something you are doing to yourself, not something the other person did to you. There comes a point when you must take responsibility for your own choices and acknowledge your own power. You can choose to love again, to trust again, to be happy again. It’s not necessarily easy, in fact it can be quite frightening, but it is certainly possible. And if you choose loneliness over the risk of being hurt again, then admit that it is your own choice, not some tragic doom that has been forced upon you.

You can make better choices, by Allah’s will.

You can make better choices, or at least different ones. You can wake up in the morning and be a better human being than you were yesterday. You can strengthen your relationship with Allah, pray at night, purify your spirit, exercise your body, eat your veggies and healthy proteins, study and work hard, love your family like a steady summer breeze, treat people with compassion, help someone who is suffering, speak the truth even when it’s not easy, and be a living example of taqwa.

And yes, have fun too, and pursue your dreams. Look within yourself to find your own God-given gifts, your own special treasure chest, and develop them. Bring something meaningful into the world. Be crazy if you have to – good crazy, not bad crazy. A shot of good craziness is sometimes exactly what the world needs.

If you make these changes sincerely, expecting nothing, doing it all to please Allah and to be the best you that you can possibly be, you’ll find the world changing around you in response. And yes, dua’ is an important part of this process, for dua’ is the essence of worship. But you won’t need to plead with Allah to make someone else do something, or be something, or feel something. Your duas will focus on other things, healthy things that have to do with your relationship with Allah, your struggle in His path, your destination in the aakhirah, relieving hardship in your life, helping your family and supporting the Ummah and all who are oppressed and in need.

You will have moved to a place of positively charged energy, a place of health and vitality, and you’ll find that what you need in life will come to you like a cat to catnip.

Choose love and peace will follow

Statue of Lady Justice

Statue of Lady Justice in London

By Wael Abdelgawad for

There is a saying: ““Choose love and peace will follow. Choose peace and love will follow.”

As Muslims we also understand that justice and fairness are vital, and I think this is one of the distinguishing factors of our deen (our Islamic way of life). Other religions speak of love, but do not emphasize justice. But when people are brutalized and oppressed, what does it mean to speak of love or peace? When a man has his boot on another man’s neck, while he loots his home and hurts his family, does it mean anything to tell the victim to be peaceful?

No, without justice you can never have peace. That’s why Lady Justice carries a sword in one hand and a balance in the other. The sword represents the authority of law to enforce peace and punish criminals. But the sword would be meaningless without the balance, which indicates the principles of fairness on which laws must be built. This representation of justice is common, and in some versions the lady is blindfolded, indicating the justice should be applied equally to all regardless of race or social status.

War, bigotry and hatred are not the original human condition. They are not inevitable. They don’t represent the natural state of the human heart.

  1. War is almost always a product of greed and selfishness.
  2. Bigotry is not a natural human trait, but is usually bred and whipped up by cynical leaders looking to exploit people’s ignorance for personal aggrandizement. People like Hitler, or Slobodan Milosevic, or the politicians and radio hosts who whipped up genocidal hatred in Rwanda, or even the USA’s new crop of radical right-wing fanatics like Sarah Palin. These people exploit ignorance, and not only cater to it but feed it for political gain.
  3. Hatred is not the original human condition, but a product of oppression and suffering.

Treat people fairly, be honest, and do not covet what is not yours, and there will be no war. Peace is not an elusive dream, or a mysterious goal at the end of some obscure path. The road to peace is obvious, but it takes unerring honesty, and total justice.

So I would amend the saying to, “Act justly and peace will follow. Choose peace and love will follow.”

Had Allah willed, He would have made you one Ummah

Mountain field with wild flowers

By Wael Abdelgawad for

Allah says in the Quran, Surat Al-Maaidah (5:48):

To each of you We prescribed a law and a method. Had Allah willed, He would have made you one nation [united in religion], but [He intended] to test you in what He has given you; so race to [all that is] good. To Allah is your return all together, and He will [then] inform you concerning that over which you used to differ.

The differences between us, differences of religion, ethnicity and nationality, are a test and a blessing. They are a part of Allah’s plan. If He had willed it, He could have made us all one single Ummah, with no disagreements and no variations, homogeneous like a field of grass, all blending together so that the eye could rest on any one person and he would look no different from any other. Allah could have made us all with the same language, same faces, eyes and hair, same customs and traditions, same cuisines, same art and architecture… But that doesn’t sound like a very interesting or exciting world, does it?

The religious differences among us are a test. The other differences are blessings.

Never let the vast variety of human tongues and traditions become a source of hostility, suspicion or despair. Never let the physical distances between us become a source of frustration. Be grateful for the beauty of a Tibetan monastery high in the Himalayas, or the tang of Thai curry, or the beating of the drum at an Indonesian wedding, or the great variety of cultures found in your own hometown. Be glad for the opportunity to be exposed to something different, and to let your mind open like a flower.

If the differences between people present a challenge, then welcome the challenge; Allah has given you that challenge for a reason, so look for the opportunity to learn. It is there.

Shared happiness, happiness doubled

Double rainbow and bluebird

By Wael Abdelgawad for

‘Delad glädje, dubbel glädje: delad sorg, halv sorg.’ – Swedish proverb.

Oh, you don’t speak Swedish? Not to worry, neither do I. This proverb literally means, “Shared happiness, happiness doubled; shared sadness, sadness halved.” It’s about friendship, and how sharing your happiness with friends makes it so much more special; and sharing your sadness makes it much less painful.

Here are a few of my favorite quotations about friendship:

‘”And the believers, men and women, are protecting friends of one another; they enjoin the right and forbid the wrong.” (Quran 9:71)

Narrated AbuHurayrah: Allah’s Apostle (peace_be_upon_him) said: “Verily, Allah would say on the Day of Resurrection: ‘Where are those who have mutual love for My Glory’s sake? Today I shall shelter them in My shadow when there is no other shadow but the shadow of Mine.'” – Sahih Muslim

“The poor man is the one who has no friends.” – Ali ibn Abi Talib (ra)

“A real friend is one who walks in when the rest of the world walks out.” – Anonymous

“Friendship is always a sweet responsibility, never an opportunity.” – Edgar Watson Howe

“When a friend is in trouble, don’t annoy him by asking if there is anything you can do. Think up something appropriate and do it.” – Charles Caleb Colton

“When the character of a man is not clear to you, look at his friends.” – Japanese Proverb

“A true friend is someone who thinks that you are a good egg even though he knows that you are slightly cracked.” – Bernard Meltzer.

I’m Still Me

Check out this classic Sesame Street episode from the 1970’s. I watched it with my daughter last week.

I am the person I know myself to be, no matter what anyone else thinks or says.

“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” – Eleanor Roosevelt, ‘This Is My Story,’ 1937

Other people may try to define me negatively; they may call me names, or put me down, or say that I’m not good enough for this or that… but I know who I am. I believe in myself and in my abilities, even though others may not.

I trust the path that I am on. I trust my guidance from Allah and my connection to Allah.

I trust in my decision making capacity, which has been molded in the burning crucible of 45 years of happiness, suffering, grief, love and loss. Whatever little bit of wisdom I have, I have paid for dearly.

So I know who I am. And no matter what anyone may say about me, I’m still me, Alhamdulillah.

And so too, dear reader, you are still you. You are the unique, gifted, miraculous being that Allah created. Believe it.

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Pieces of a Dream