published Tuesday, July 9th, 2013

Cook: Lessons from Islam

Starting tonight, here's the daily schedule for billions of Muslims around the world, including many here locally.

• Wake up early in the morning. Say, 4:30 or 5.

• Drink some water or tea. Eat a light breakfast, not some gravy-and-bacon blowout that inflates your stomach to the size of, roughly, a zeppelin.

• Then, for the next 16 hours, no food. No drink. Not a sip, not a nibble.

• Once the sun sets (at 8:57, to be precise), dinner together with family or friends.

• Repeat, each and every day, through Aug. 7.

"It is a spiritual cleansing," said local physician Azhar Sheikh.

Welcome to Ramadan, Islam's holiest month. From dawn until dusk, Muslims fast from food and drink, invoking the old formula that absence from bodily pleasures leads to spiritual growth.

When your stomach grumbles, or your head feels faint, or your throat goes dry, you detour your attention away from your body toward the divine.

Jesus did it in the wilderness. Same with Moses. Buddha, the story goes, went so long without food that if you put your finger to his stomach, you would simultaneously touch his spine.

Along with balking from food and drink, Muslims also (try to) avoid quarreling, gossip, lies, impure images, all things that constitute the junk food of the soul.

If you really want to know what someone believes, watch what they do. It's hard not to admire believers who fast 16 hours a day for a month, all while praying five times a day and reciting the Koran at night.

"To increase your God-consciousness," said Abdul-Baasit, the imam of the Islamic Center of Greater Chattanooga. (He's also a statistician at Blue Cross-BlueShield).

Near Gunbarrel Road, the center -- built one year ago this month -- is home to hundreds of local Muslims. Every Friday afternoon, they gather for prayer and khutbah, or sermon.

"Come and observe," invited Dr. Abdul Hafiz Eletr.

Last week, I did. We took off our shoes, placing them in one large cubbyhole just outside the main room. Men went to one room; women, to an adjoining one. I watched as the men (more than 150 came that day) greeted each other, then silently and reverently began the poetry of motions that mark Muslim prayer.

The face near the hands. The bending knees. The forehead to the floor.

The body pointed toward Mecca.

I was struck by the universality of it: all across the earth, men and women were praying in this exact same way.

They were young, old, in between. One wore a Hard Rock Cafe T-shirt (Las Vegas), another in traditional dress, most had on button-downs or golf shirts. Many stopped to shake hands and welcome me when the prayer ended.

I had wanted to recite the traditional Muslim greeting -- as-salamu alaykum, which means "peace be upon you" -- but practicing on the drive over, my tongue got a Charley-horse, so I just smiled and thanked them for having me.

(Quick story: recently, we Cooks vacationed at a water park up the road. The place was packed. Pounds of tattooed, sunburned flesh. Everywhere, bikinis and bathing suits, many about as big as bar napkins.

Among all these half-naked bodies stood one Muslim teen, waiting in line for the water slide. She wore tights down to her ankles, a one-piece bathing suit, a scarf around her head. Among such flesh, her modesty was softly and courageously endearing, like a rainbow after a flood).

After the prayer and sermon, a few of us sat together and talked. The men said how welcoming Chattanooga has been, especially the nearby Seventh-day Adventist community.

I asked them if there was anything they wished Chattanooga knew.

"You are sitting in a mosque. This is just a place of worship. No schemes are being hatched here, no plots," said Sheikh.

"I personally would like them to find out about Islam themselves rather than going on Fox or CNN," said Dr. Amjad Munir. "Islam is a peaceful religion."

And they all welcomed anyone in Chattanooga to come visit.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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davidcook said...

Thanks JonRoss. Great point.

July 9, 2013 at 9:50 a.m.
Rickaroo said...

When I was in my early 20s, back in the 70s, I experimented with most of the drugs that were on the scene and I especially had a liking for the psychoactive ones. My drug use was as much spiritual as it was recreational. Like most of my friends at the time - both hippie and straight - I sincerely believed that it was possible to expand one's consciousness with the use of such drugs. I also entertained a great deal of skepticism about Christianity and the monotheistic religions as I studied the Eastern religions. I didn't end up embracing any of them because I came to see them in pretty much the same light as Christianity, a mere by-product of one's upbringing and conditioning.

I also used to fast quite a bit, in order to increase my "God consciousness." I can't speak for every person who fasts, but I remember that, when fasting, what was uppermost in my mind was not "God" or things of the spirit. I was simply so damn hungry that I couldn't wait to eat again! I entertained some very elaborate detailed visions of what my next meal was going to be.

It is a good thing not to place so much importance or attach ourselves so much to material things, but consciously denying the things of this world in order to make yourself more aware of things of the "spirit" is a forced and artificial measure of spirituality. Furthermore, fasting alters the flow of blood to the brain and creates a chemical imbalance that is similar to what certain drugs can create. If one sees visions or hears voices when fasting they are no more real than anything one sees or hears while in a non-fasting state. Fasting can be a good thing in small doses but to fast to such an extent for an entire month is pretty extreme, and anyway it should be strictly an individual choice, not some exercise entered into out of some obligatory religious ritual.

Like I said, I can't speak for everybody who fasts, but fasting as a show of one's spirituality is not necessarily "spiritual" in itself. If there is a God, he/she/it is in all things, from the food we eat to the air we breathe, from the sky above to the ground beneath our feet, the pets we care for, the people we love, the people we hate, and from the tips of our fingers to the deepest part of our being. Awareness of that is the key, not fasting, not making a show of praying, and not clinging to religion, whether Islam or Christianity or Hinduism or whatever else. No matter how innocuous or positive one attempts to paint religion, it is still much more a divider than a unifier and it is actually more of a deterrent to true spirituality than it is a facilitator of it.

July 9, 2013 at noon
chattanoogan365 said...

It is refreshing to see an article which attempts to look at things from a different perspective. Articles like these are important, particularly in times like the ones we are living in now. Ultimately we are smart enough to figure out what is "right or wrong". If Muslims are part of our community, it is imperative that we also understand their values and beliefs. We might surprisingly find that they too strive to attain spiritually what people of other religions desire.

July 9, 2013 at 7:31 p.m.
John_II said...

Gee, David. Kind of an insensitive opening. Muslims never eat any pork products!

July 10, 2013 at 12:16 a.m.
jesse said...

David offers a Muslim a rasher of bacon they gonna send a suicide bomber around to look him up!!lol!

July 11, 2013 at 9:27 a.m.
rdl01 said...

David, can you name me one country in this world where these great peace loving Muslims are in control that allows freedom of religion for their other countrymen? Or how about equality for women and equal rights? It seems that once these nice peace loving people are in control of the entire country, suddenly they change their attitudes. It seems that freedom for individuals is lost and only their strict law is enforced. Just one country's name is all I am asking for where there is true justice and freedom for all regardless of sex, creed or political affiliation.

July 14, 2013 at 1:02 a.m.
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