Archive for August 6, 2012

How Can I Enjoy Listening to the Qur’an in Taraweeh When I Do Not Understand What is Being Recited?

By Maryam Amirebrahimi

During Ramadan, many of us attend taraweeh (night prayers) at the masjid. Some of us stay until the Imam leads us in witr (a final supplementary prayer). For many of us, this can amount to over two hours of prayer time and for many of us, we understand almost nothing.

Sometimes, during the recitation of the Qur’an we hear the people around us crying profusely and we wish we could understand what could be so powerful that those around us are reduced to such tears. We can sometimes make out a specific word, but within a moment, we are back to indistinguishable meanings and simply wishing we knew what was going on.

I used to have no idea what was going on in the prayer. I remember standing for lengthy time periods behind the Imam, trying to make my mind focus but finding it constantly drift off; it’s very, very hard to concentrate when the mind has nothing to contextualize. I eventually would settle on trying to think of anything for which I could possibly be grateful. But taraweeh prayers are long; without understanding, my heart would simply get bored and my limbs would always fidget. Thoughts of my day, my concerns, my hopes and my food cravings after a day of fasting would all filter through my conscious while I shifted around. It’s hard to keep still for that long when one is mentally checked out and physically disengaged.

However, Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala (exalted is He) guided me to an action which changed my life and revolutionized my prayer and du`a (supplication) experience ever since. It’s simple, but it takes long-term dedication. The results, for me, were powerful and transformational. The common-sense solution that worked miracles in my life by Allah’s blessings: reading a translation.

Every single day, for a number of years, I would sit and read five pages of the Qur’an in the English translation. I would do this while both reciting and listening to the Arabic recitation, allowing my ears to become accustomed to the Arabic words associated with the English.

After a few months of this practice, the first Ramadan came. In my hometown masjid, the Imam would lead twenty rakahs (units of prayer). So I would pray eight rakahs and then sit in the back and read the translation of the verses for the next twelve. I continued this throughout Ramadan and was extremely consistent with this practice for the next year. Soon, my awareness of Arabic words increased; I realized that the Qur’an uses many of the same words over and over and I was able to recognize them. I was also becoming more familiar with the surahs (chapters); I had an introductory understanding of what themes were being discussed in certain portions of the Qur’an due to keywords and a general awareness of what the surah entailed.

By the second Ramadan, I was praying with purpose. While I still had no idea what every word meant, I had begun to comprehend general meanings of many of the chapters and I was able to grasp the overarching messages of some of the verses. I kept up my practice of praying eight and reading the translation. I even had a few emotional moments. I started looking forward to certain verses that were my favorites. I was finally beginning to understand and I was actually enjoying it; the sweetness of the Qur’an had penetrated my heart and taken hold of my body. Praying taraweeh in Ramadan became a means of nourishment for my soul and tranquility for my limbs.

I also began memorizing the Qur’an and the more I memorized, the more my vocabulary expanded. After four years of reading the translation consistently and memorizing the Qur`an, I was enthralled with the idea of praying for hours behind the Imam. I could not wait for Ramadan; all year I waited for the last ten nights specifically, when the Imam would recite the Qur’an for an even longer period of time. My character, my life’s purpose, my Ramadan experience completely changed because I finally grasped a general understanding of the Qur’an.

Six years after I began reading the translation consistently and memorizing portions of the Qur’an, I moved to Egypt to learn Arabic. When I started, I took a practice test and was placed in an intermediary level. However, when I met my teacher for the first time, barely able to communicate a few sentences, she was shocked. “Your vocabulary is so expansive,” she told me, “but you clearly are a beginner!” Needless to say, I was re-placed as a beginner. Throughout our lessons, my Arabic teacher would express her surprise at my ability to understand certain words in depth simply because they appeared in the Qur’an, while others I struggled with at great lengths. Eventually, she told me that my Qur’anic preparation was what helped me actually grasp the language and is what had originally placed me at a level far higher than I really was.

Focusing on learning Arabic in Egypt, even at a basic level, allowed me to come to appreciate the incredible linguistic miracles of the Qur’an. The grammar, the syntax, the rhetoric, use of specific words—an appreciation for the deeper linguistic mechanisms did not happen simply because I had read the translation for an extended period of time. However, by Allah’s blessings, my self-training had laid the groundwork and with it, I was able to appreciate the Qur`an, prayer, and du`a’ at levels far beyond what I had even imagined before making the commitment to seek understanding.

The lesson in this personal experience is that taking time to learn Arabic as a language, studying the grammar, syntax and rhetoric are very important, but not absolutely necessary for a meaningful relationship with understanding the messages of the Qur’an. Studying Arabic can help create a more cumulative appreciation of the mind-blowing power of the Qur’an, but none of us needs to grasp onto a future hope or past failed attempts of being fluent in Arabic in order to emotionally and intellectually become attached to the Qur’an. Such a relationship can begin simply by dedicating oneself to understanding the general translation of the words of the Qur’an in our native languages, and that can take place at any place and time. It is one that requires commitment and time, but if a person is serious and dedicated, God willing, they will eventually see the benefits of their toil and they will begin to understand and fulfill their purpose with greater perfection and zeal.

Here is a suggested plan of action that should be fit to a person’s individual situation. This is what worked for me, and it will differ from one individual to another. If a person begins this Ramadan, taking advantage of the blessings of this month, with their own plan of action, insha’Allah (God willing) by next Ramadan, they will notice a marked difference in their taraweeh and Qur’anic experience. This is the month to make a commitment to act; this is the month of success.

Read the Qur`an in translation every single day. Choose a chunk to read in translation daily (ie: five pages) and couple it with reading it in Arabic and/or listening to it in Arabic.
During Ramadan specifically, choose to pray a certain number of rakahs for taraweeh, but also make it a point to sit down and follow the recitation with the English translation. What is of more benefit? Praying for hours without understanding and hoping to get rewards (insha’Allah) or sitting, reading and understanding, finding oneself captivated by the incredulous power of the Qur’an and actually feeling oneself coming closer to Allah (swt) and changing one’s life to maintain that relationship with Him? Long term, in this life and the next, insha’Allah there are rewards for both. But for the one who strives, there is much more reward for a person who actually lives the Qur’an instead of standing for a period of time, completely tuned out because of a lack of understanding.
For Ramadan especially, try to read the translation of the surah that will be covered in that night’s prayer. That way, even if one is not able understand what is recited specifically, one will know the general meaning of the verses and one’s mind can focus on those general lessons and messages.
Hone in on key words and use them to focus on salah (prayer). For example, when familiar with the different words which indicate “Paradise,” imagine Paradise. Imagine standing in Paradise, with its breathtaking beauty…and suddenly finding someone covering your vision with their hands! When you turn around, imagine who you would want to see most in that moment. Your mom? Your dad? Your grandparent? Your sibling? Your spouse? Your child? Your best friend? Imagine. You haven’t seen this person in possibly decades, centuries—you’ve gone through life without them or death came to you first and you had been in the grave for some time. Then you made it through the Day of Judgment. You finally have entered Paradise—you passed the test! And suddenly, you are with the person who you loved and missed the most. How would you feel in that moment? Allow your heart to FEEL the verses talking about Paradise as they apply to you. Use keywords to help your mind and heart interact with the Qur’an’s message to you.
Listen to the Qur’an and its translation constantly; while stuck in frustrating traffic, while cooking and cleaning, while walking from one end of campus to another; allow the recitation of the Qur’an to penetrate the soul and the translation of the Qur’an to crack the hardened heart. The more one listens to the Arabic recitation and translation, the more familiar one will become with understanding the Qur’an.
Study the meanings of Qur’anic words specifically over time. Here is a suggested resource to begin:
Throughout the year, work on tajweed (correct recitation of the Qur`an in Arabic) and memorization. Over time, this will significantly aid in a special working relationship with the Qur’an, God willing.
Many of us complain about our inability to understand what is being recited of the Qur’an and to maintain focus or enjoyment in prayer due to this reason. I know the feelings of boredom, frustration and helplessness. I know what it means to blame our lack of “experiencing” the “Ramadan feeling” on our lack of understanding of what is being recited.

However, we have the capability to revolutionize this experience, with Allah’s Help. We can become of those who truly understand, whose hearts are captivated and whose limbs are calmly in awe, whose minds are blown away at what we are listening to of the Qur’an. The methods are there and the tools are available. The real question is: Are we willing to make the time and dedicate the effort?

Many of us have tried different methods to wake our hearts up in Ramadan and help them focus on the prayer when we do not understand what is being said. What tips do you have which have worked in your life? Please share them so we all benefit.

(Originally posted on
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Proactive Women and the Prophet

A group of women from the tribe of Ghifar approached the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ (peace be upon him) to seek his permission to tend to the wounded during the battle of Khaybar. The Prophet ﷺ welcomed their request, giving them permission, stating, “By the blessings of God.”

With this group of women was a young girl named Umayyah bint Qays radi allahu `anhu (may God be pleased with her). She shares with us her own part of the story.

“Then we set out with him. I was a young girl. He made me sit on his she-camel behind the luggage. I saw the bag had got traces of blood from me. It was the first time I had a period. Then I sat forward on the camel [to hide it] and I was embarrassed. When the Messenger of God ﷺ saw what happened to me and the traces of blood, he said, “Perhaps you have had menstrual bleeding?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “Attend to yourself. Then, take a container of water, then put salt in it, then wash the affected part of the bag, then come back.” I did so. When God conquered Khaybar for us, the Prophet ﷺ took this necklace that you see on my neck and gave it to me and put it on my neck with his own hand. By God it will never be parted from me.” She wore the necklace her entire life and stipulated that she should be buried with it.1

Let us take a few lessons from this incredible narration. From it, we can take lessons on the perspectives and proactive attitudes of these female companions of the Prophet ﷺ. From it, we can also take incredible lessons in chivalry and beautiful interactions between the Prophet ﷺ and the women in his community.

Let us begin by considering the perspective of the women who came to offer their skills to the Prophet ﷺ. They didn’t say, “What’s up with Islam? Why aren’t women obligated to fight in this battle just like men?!”

These women understood the wisdom of Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala (exalted is He) in every ruling and situation. They knew they could participate and be rewarded if they did so (like Nusayba bint Kab who personally defended the Prophet ﷺ in the Battle of Uhud), but were not mandated to do so. They realized that there was mercy in the lifted obligation and they were of those who realized the wisdom in the fact that there were differences in obligations.

Nevertheless, simply because they were not mandated to participate in the battle did not stop them from doing their part, in whatever way they felt they could be most effective. They did not sit around complaining or waiting to be asked; they simply did. Perhaps we can take from their examples as Muslim women in our own communities.

How many of us complain about the men’s side of the prayer hall being vastly greater in size or in cleanliness? How many of us feel incredible frustration when we cannot hear the prayer because small children are screaming around us or because the microphone stops working? We have tangible issues to complain about, no doubt. However, what are we doing, as women, with the means that we already have? What are we doing in our current situation?

Are we talking throughout the khutbah (Friday sermon) when we know we are supposed to remain silent and listen attentively? When two of us cannot pray, are we speaking while everyone else is praying and potentially disturbing those struggling to concentrate in their prayers? Are we watching after our own children or helping other sisters watch after theirs? Are we bringing in food for ourselves or our children and leaving crumbs and spilled drinks on the once-clean prayer carpet, despite the specific signs which request that all food remain outside? Are we dumping our shoes in front of the shoe racks instead of on the shoe racks and creating potential blockages for the elderly and hazards in the case of emergencies? (I know of a masjid who had to call 911 because a child’s life was at risk and the firefighter could not access the child immediately because he tripped over a pile of women’s shoes!)

What are we doing with what we have, considering the situations that we are in? Look at these women. They proactively took a leadership position in offering to help in a battle and service the community. How can we also learn to follow their example in our own lives?

Additionally, let’s look at their approach and perspective. They didn’t say, “If we go out and offer to help in this battle, some men may be intimidated because we’re so aggressive.” They did not tie their responsibility to Allah (swt) and their community to the possibility of attracting or not attracting men. I am constantly approached by young women who are told by their parents or those in their communities that they should stop being involved with Islamic work because “men are scared by women who are assertive and passionate about activism.” In my personal role as the Muslim Student Association President, I was told more than once that men were intimidated by me because of my position in leadership. In some of our families and some of our communities, we sometimes focus on tying our sisters’ abilities to attracting or not attracting a potential spouse, instead of developing our sisters’ incredible skills and potentials for the sake of Allah (swt) and the benefit of the community.

On the other end, the women in this example also did not say, “We’re just going to sit around and once Prince Muslim comes along, then we’ll get involved and work on becoming better Muslimahs.” This might seem far-fetched, but how many of us have heard or said statements such as, “I want to get married because then my husband will wake me up for qiyam (late night prayer) and Fajr!” However, oftentimes, those of us who say things like this are not doing those actions on our own.

Getting married isn’t going to solve our inabilities to wake up for Fajr or get up for qiyam. We need to develop our own selves without expecting marriage to somehow magically change our lives. Marriage can be a great tool of self-improvement and can help us change for the best, with Allah’s will. Marriage is amongst the greatest blessings that Allah (swt) can bestow on a person; and the creation of a family, and taking care of that family, is amongst the greatest acts of worship. But if we are not personally working on ourselves now, how can we expect that it will be easier with the additional baggage of another individual who is also imperfect?

What we see in the example of these women is that they took action and sought to benefit the community through their work for the sake of Allah (swt). These women looked at their personal situations, considered their personal skill sets and realized that they could use the skills they had, in the time that they were needed, to benefit their society in a proactive manner. They did not dwell on how they could be perceived or make continuous excuses for why someone else should do it. How, too, can we follow their example?

Let us now look at the interaction of these women with the Prophet ﷺ and his conduct toward them. First, let’s address the incredible manhood of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. As “the walking Qur’an,” the Prophet ﷺ had such an incredible demeanor that the women knew they could easily approach him and offer their services to the community. The relationship he had built with women in his community was one of trust, empowerment, dignity and appreciation. This is evident, most specifically, in the way that he (peace and blessings of God be upon him) turned one of the most embarrassing moments Umayyah, the young girl, could have ever imagined into one of the fondest moments of her life.

When the Prophet ﷺ saw her blood, he did not embarrass her and shout, “Astaghfirillah! (I seek refuge in God!) Sister! Haraam! Now you are a fitna (trial)!” His first advice to her did not consist of ordering her to leave his presence now that she was an accountable young woman. Instead, he taught her purification in that moment. He showed her ease and naturalness in that moment. He gave her a necklace, which he personally placed on her with his blessed hands, and helped her feel honored and special in that moment.

How many young women do we know who are struggling with their self-esteem? What are we doing, as a community, to help build it up instead of tear it down? How many young women have we told, “Cover up,” because they are a temptation to men? Instead of linking hijab (modesty) to loving Allah, (swt), we have often linked it to protecting men from women within the Muslim community. How many men have made comments such as, “Fitna just walked in,” without realizing the painful consequences on a female’s psyche when the only frame of reference her Muslim brother has for her is that she’s temptation?

All of these experiences have happened to me personally within the Muslim community and also to many women that I know. The methodology in which women are made to feel that they are the ultimate fitna psychologically damages women’s understanding of Islam and their self-esteem. It cripples a natural, normative relationship in which men and women work together for the benefit of society and forces men and women to fear being around one another in unnatural ways. This is not from the Prophet ﷺ.

We take from the example of the Prophet ﷺ that he let people live comfortably around him so that even when something which could have turned into the most humiliating experience a woman could have ever imagined, that girl, in that moment, gained knowledge, nearness to Allah (swt), and love of being with the Prophet ﷺ in the Hereafter. In our communities too, we need to re-evaluate the ways through which men and women interact and the rhetoric we use to describe women.

Let us look at the rhetoric of the Prophet ﷺ when he was asked by the women if they could participate. In his interaction with them, he verbally encouraged them. He didn’t say, “No. The men might be distracted by you and be tempted to leave the battlefield.” Instead, he specifically gave them the blessings of God.

We need to begin truly exemplifying the incredible character of the Prophet ﷺ who didn’t imply that Umayyah (ra) and the women she was with would cause chaos in the battlefield if they were present. He knew his community; he had developed the men and women in his community. And the women in his community followed his example; they felt comfortable and confident approaching him (peace and blessings of God be upon him).

This is the type of respectful brotherhood and sisterhood we need to embody in our Islamic work, in our marriages, and in our lives. Their example teaches that men and women both have something to contribute and we need to be supportive of one another’s contributions when used for societal benefit. Allah (swt) tells us in Surat al-Tawbah, “The believing men and believing women are allies of one another. They enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong and establish prayer and give zakah [charity] and obey Allah and His Messenger. Those—Allah will have mercy upon them. Indeed, Allah is Exalted in Might and Wise.” (Qur’an 9:71)

The Prophet ﷺ taught us how to achieve natural, healthy, balanced and beneficial community relationships. He taught us how to teach people about Allah (swt) with mercy, humility and respect. How many more members of our communities are we going to lose before we follow his example?

The above narration is full of lessons for us as a community in the West especially. Transforming challenges into opportunities is the methodology of the Prophet ﷺ. The women in this example were empowered to take action because of the teacher who built them and taught them to do so. This is Islam; the liberating, societally-benefiting and revolutionary way of life which can transform even the most embarrassing experience into the fondest memory, cherished for life.

If this is Islam, if this is our religion, when will we put it into practice? When will we follow the example of these female companions of the Prophet ﷺ in our attitudes and our own lives? And even more urgently, is it not time that the beauty of the Prophet ﷺ began to touch those in our own communities through the virtue of our own actions?

Courtesy of Maryam Amirebrahimi and

Ramadan Reflection: Seek and Support.

Two young women and a young man reached out to me respectively this past week, none knowing the others, but all having gone through a similar experience as children. Each had been the victim of sexual abuse at a very young age, and none of them had really spoken about it for quite some time. All three had at some point tried to speak with the one or both of their parents about it (one spoke only to the mother as her father was the abuser) and none had received any support or validation of their concerns—one was even told it’s not a big deal. All three were told not to speak about it with anyone so each ended up holding it inside for quite some time.

Aside from these three, 108 unique individuals in the month of July have reached out to me on issues ranging from depression, anxiety, suicidal tendency, domestic violence, alcohol and drug addiction, sexual orientation, dealing with mental health disorders, marital issues, issues with parents, relationship issues, theological issues, and much more. They have corresponded in the form of emails, phone calls, and in-person meetings. These people are mostly from the NYC area, a good number from different parts of the United States, and the smallest demographic is from outside of the country. They are both male and female, diverse in age, ethnicity and socioeconomic background. All are looking for someone to talk to—most are finding a hard time in doing so.

In my opinion, there is nothing wrong with anyone seeing a counselor. I actually think it’s an important thing to have someone to talk to. The difficulty for the Muslim community is two-fold. Primarily, it’s hard for us at times to get the motivation and comfort needed to go seek a counselor and, secondly, in the instances that we do, it’s hard to find someone who actually understands what we are going through.

It’s not very common to find Muslims comfortable with the idea of speaking about what they have or are going through. Some think it somehow displays weakness of faith and is a form of questioning God, others come from cultures that don’t appreciate or encourage seeking out such help. Many think it’s wrong to “reveal sins” whether it be their own or those of others. Most have been in a place where when they have attempted to speak to someone about it, their attempts have immediately been shot down and it takes a long time before they can speak about it again or, unfortunately, they just don’t speak about it ever again.

In the instances where one actually does find someone to speak with, they run into a few different types of people:

An individual who is not trained to provide them the support that they need, but still attempts to do so
An individual who does have training and/or experience to provide the support that is being sought out, but doesn’t understand the diversity of Muslim experience, or anything about Muslim identity
An individual who is not trained to provide them the support that they need, recognizes this and refers them to someone who is
An individual who does have training and/or experience to provide the support that is being sought and, and does understand the diversity of Muslim experience and Muslim identity

Most will find themselves in a place where they meet someone from one of the first two categories and get discouraged with the process. Our goal should be to enable and empower more people who are in categories three and four so that we can ensure proper care and attention to those who need it. Why should we do this? Because there is a lot of unreconciled pain in many hearts out there and it’s not justifiable that we allow for that to continue. The number of tears that I have seen shed in front of me and the amount of frustration and anxiety that has been let out afterwards tells me that the Muslim community is not a happy community, and that’s in large part due to the fact that we are not healthy. It’s unjustifiable that I stand in a comfortable place while I am fully aware that the person sitting next to me is uncomfortable or struggling on the inside.

I don’t think the solution is simply in having more imams that are American-born, because that alone doesn’t mean that they will have the training or experience to counsel someone. A young man came to see me with his female cousin who was walking in the hallway of her high school one day in between classes when a boy grabbed her, pulled her into a stairwell, and raped her. This young woman worked up the courage to tell her parents, who, not knowing where else to go, then took her to their local mosque, where she was told by the imam that she deserved what happened to her because she goes to a mixed-gender school and doesn’t dress properly. Aside from recognizing the stupidity of this statement, why is this person even in a place where he would be dealing with circumstances like this? And what do we think it did to the young woman? She will take what this man has said as being what Islam says, which is not the case, and more importantly then that, she is going to hurt even more on the inside then when she had first come in.

Education is key, and training current religious leaders as well as mental health professionals, whether they are Muslim or not, on issues relevant to the Muslim community is essential. The stereotype that paints the Muslim community as monolithic is most problematic here because it keeps us from being in touch with how diversity plays a role in proper counseling. Not all Muslims are the same and dealing with them means understanding that one will be different from the next, even though they adhere to the same faith.

Despite this, there are many out there who are trained, attuned to the realities that Muslims are facing, and are great resources. If you find yourself in a place where there is something that you need closure on and feel like talking about, whether you are going through it now or went through it a long time ago, don’t let yourself think you have to go through it alone. It is not a weakness of faith to seek support from the people around you. The companions of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, sought support from him in this manner all of the time. Young and old, male and female, Arab and non-Arab all spoke to him about things that they had going on inside and he listened. He heard them out, helped them to make critical sense of it and set out on a path to reach their potential best. People who had addictions, bereavement issues, relationship issues, mental health issues, victims of domestic violence, people who had to deal with the realities that race, ethnicity, gender, and privilege all brought, and many others came to speak to him about what was going on in their respective lives, and he listened. He also turned to those around him at times when he needed counsel and advice. If we require religious legitimacy to seek support when we need it, undoubtedly Islam tells us we are allowed to and that we should.

You don’t have to speak to just anyone. Find someone you are comfortable with and will hear you out before simply telling you what you should do. Not every religious scholar will be able to play this role, nor should they be expected to be. It’s not a shortcoming on their part by any means. Professional help in the form a psychologist, psychiatrist or social worker is also important and should not be looked at as a bad thing. Just like a doctor is there to help us be be physically well, these individuals are there to help us be emotionally well, which in turn has the potential of aiding in our spiritual growth.

For those of you who are not in a place where you need this kind of help, be mindful that there are those who do. If you are speaking to an audience, understand that audience has many people in it that have lived lives that may not have had the best of experiences. Not everyone has good parents, not everyone has Muslims in their families, not everything is a test from God, forgiveness is not always the easiest thing to do, and it is not a weakness of faith to try to understand why you have gone through what you have gone through.

This has gotten somewhat long but I have more thoughts on it and will probably write on it again before the month is over.

Courtesy of Khalid Latif and