Interview with Salem, Zena and Dina Mikdadi
- Islam shares a lot with Judaism. The word ‘rabbi’ is a Hebrew word –that is similar to Aramaic. I suspect that the word ‘rabbi’ is related to the word ‘rab,’ which means God in Arabic. So, in Hebrew ‘rabbi’ is the word for a man who specializes in Godly matters.
- …religions themselves are harmonious and, in a way, complimentary to one another. What’s not harmonious is that the followers of these religions use them for other means and misguide the people—who are supposedly Christians, Muslims and Jews-into hating one another. When, in fact, the true essence of religion is to show humans the right path. I believe that there are similarities in every religion. Throughout history, religions evolved and were perceived as inharmonious at certain times—simply because of the politics or the circumstances of the times.
- So if one follows the true essence of any religion, then these religions will evolve harmoniously and can co-exist peacefully. But everything is subject to interpretation. When religions are misinterpreted, conflicts result.
- The way you conduct your life with others, will ultimately creep up in the way you behave within your family. Whether you like it or not, consciously or subconsciously, you’ll be affected. So, it’s hypocritical to say, “I can go to church, or mosque, or synagogue and be a devout, religious person, but in my everyday daily life I can do things as I wish.”
- You have to connect. I mean, not everyone who prays five times a day is connected. If you have a good heart, and do good deeds, you will feel the spirits come to you, and you will feel the humbleness of God while you are standing there. It is a quiet place, and it is a time when you put your forehead to the ground four times—four times during each prayer. And you do feel that connection.
- Religion is not a vehicle by which you can get things from God. It’s not a commercial enterprise. So I feel I get pleasure by giving, and I get even more pleasure by thanking, because in thanking we are realizing the true essence of religion. Without even really being religious, because, you see, being thankful is a part of human behavior.
- I was invited to give a speech about Islam at the Unitarian Church in Mt. Kisco last Sunday. I tried my best to explain it, in the most objective way. The subject of religion, regardless of what religion—is so huge, that you can’t really even explain it in a few words, but one has to try. There is always a beginning, and I think that might be the first step.
Ann: Salem, which Spiritual tradition were you raised in?
Salem: I was raised as a Muslim. I did not take any religious studies, or go with my family to a mosque to pray—I never was taught how to pray. I was born into the faith, and I still believe in it, because it is based on ethics.
Ann: Okay, Zena, how about you?
Zena: I was born and raised as a Muslim. My family was moderate—they were a basic Muslim family. My siblings and I learned the true essence of Islam, and I believed in it so much, and I used it—especially when I left home at age seventeen to go for my education. That’s when it clicked for me, all the things that my parents had taught me.
Ann: What country were you raised in?
Zena: I was raised in Jordan.
Ann: Salem, how about you?
Salem: I was born in Kuwait, I spent my childhood in Jerusalem, and I came to the United States at age nineteen.
Ann: How about you Dina? You’re eighteen right? Have you been raised as a Muslim since birth?
Ann: And you’ve lived all over, and you’ve done a tremendous amount of traveling. So, you’re already an international person.
Dina: I guess you could say that, yes.
Ann: Do you speak many languages?
Dina: I speak Arabic fluently. I used to speak a little bit of Greek, because we lived in Greece for a while, but I’ve forgotten it all.
Ann: The next question is, how many years have you followed it? So, may I ask how old you all are?
Salem: I am forty-nine years old.
Zena: And I’m forty-four.
Ann: And as we said, Dina, you are eighteen, so we’ve got quite a span. My next question is, Have any of you ever lost faith with your tradition?
Salem: I’ve never lost faith in my tradition—I live in my tradition, because I look at a tradition as a way of life. What is so unique about Islam is that it is a way of life, as well as a religion. However, I might be labeled a secularist, because I am not a practicing Muslim in the sense of praying five times a day. But I believe in the tradition, even in the religious aspect. I participate in the religious holidays—for instance, during the month of Ramadan, we fast. I’ve never departed from the tradition, but I can’t describe myself as a truly devout Muslim in the sense of practicing or executing the religion. But I really believe that in my own actions, I am being religious. If I do good deeds and if I have high morals and high ethics, then I am being religious in my own way.
Ann: What about you Zena?
Zena: I’ve never lost faith. It was always there; I was brought up with it. I’ve questioned it; I question a lot. I used to sit with my Dad and have great debates about it, but I never lost it. I am a practicing Muslim. In Islam you each do your own thing. You know, how you connect to God is your way of connecting.
Ann: And, do you go to mosque? Do you go to a mosque every day?
Zena: In Islam, a woman doesn’t have to go to mosque.
Ann: Oh really? I didn’t know that.
Zena: There is a reason—it’s not because the woman is a second-class citizen. First, the woman should really look after her children and her home. So, the Koran said if you’d like to go to mosque, that’s fine, go. But your priority is first to your children and your home. The men have to go regularly to the mosque every Friday, and the women have a choice; I don’t go there every Friday. Some people may disagree with my decision. I find that home is my comfort, and that is where I pray.
Ann: How about you Dina?
Dina: I’ve never lost faith, either, because, like my Mom said, it’s always been there for me. As a kid, you don’t understand what it is. I’ve just clung to the tradition because it seemed spiritual, I guess. I have great memories of family getting together to break the fast during Ramadan. It’s funny how you see it differently as you grow up—at first, it seems like a fun thing, and you go along with it. Then, you grow up and begin to understand it, and then you begin to really appreciate it. I think I’m at the stage now where I’m realizing exactly what it is and appreciating it.
Ann: All right, so we’ll go on to the next question. Salem, have you ever studied any other spiritual paths?
Salem: Well, I went to an Anglican missionary school in Jerusalem, so I learned to recite “Our Father Who Art in Heaven” at a very young age. Over the years, I began to understand it a little bit. So, living in Jerusalem, by default, you really get to know the other religions. I wouldn’t say I’m really quite conversant in Christianity, but I’ve been well exposed to what Christianity is all about. But right now I have a keen interest in understanding Judaism, and I would like to learn more about the Talmud—especially the Babylonian Talmud—and understand the Jewish faith. As a Palestinian American, it might give me a better understanding of the conflict that we have right now.
Ann: And you Zena, have you studied other paths?
Zena: I had more or less the same upbringing as Salem—although he’s been to a boarding school and I went to a day school—but it was also a Missionary school. It was a British Christian Missionary school. There was tolerance between us, we never felt any different from one another. The only difference was, because we were in a Muslim country, the school said, “Well don’t let the Muslim girls go into the Christian prayers.” Of course, as a little kid, you always want to know what’s going on. We wanted to know what they did inside? How did they pray? So, I was exposed to Christianity and I learned a lot from them about what they do and how they do it and their beliefs, as well. I wanted to know how we were different. They believe in Jesus and Mary (mother of Jesus), as we do, but then I learned that they don’t they believe in Mohammed. And I thought, “Oh, that is a major catastrophic difference!” So that was my only exposure to other faiths. I don’t know much about Judaism, but I am learning along with Salem.
Ann: So much of Christianity really comes from Judaism. That’s a fun study in and of itself, to see how the two religions intertwine.
Zena: And again, I learned that in Judaism, they don’t admit that there was Jesus.
Ann: Well, they admit that he was a man and a teacher, but not that he was not the Son of God.
Salem: Well, this is where there are similarities between Judaism and Islam. We look at Jesus as one of the prophets, but we do not personify God in Jesus. Very much as the Jews do, we believe that God is a higher entity and is not human. The Christians have the Trinity concept. So, that’s a difference there, between the religions.
You know, Islam shares a lot with Judaism. The word ‘rabbi’ is a Hebrew word –that is similar to Aramaic. I suspect that the word ‘rabbi’ is related to the word ‘rab,’ which means God in Arabic. So, in Hebrew ‘rabbi’ is the word for a man who specializes in Godly matters. That’s another thing I want to know—I want to learn Hebrew, because when I understand Hebrew, I can read about Judaism in the proper language. I think it makes a big difference.
Ann: And how about you Dina? Have you investigated any other spiritual paths?
Dina: Again, I was exposed to two forms of Christianity. When I was in California, I went to an Episcopalian school for two years. We would go to chapel every morning, and I learned how about their faith. When I was living in Jordan, I went to a private school, and one of my good friends was an Orthodox Christian. When it came time for religion class, they separated the Christians and Muslims, and so I asked, “Why are you going into the other room? What is the deal with that?” So, she started explaining to me about Lent. I would listen to her and see her perspective on how they believed.
She made it very simple, she said, “Well, it’s kind of like your Ramadan, only we don’t fast completely.” So, that’s mainly how I got acquainted with other religions.
Ann: Do you see all of these religions as harmonious? Salem, what do you think?
Salem: I think that the religions themselves are harmonious and, in a way, complimentary to one another. What’s not harmonious is that the followers of these religions use them for other means and misguide the people—who are supposedly Christians, Muslims and Jews-into hating one another. When, in fact, the true essence of religion is to show humans the right path. I believe that there are similarities in every religion. Throughout history, religions evolved and were perceived as inharmonious at certain times—simply because of the politics or the circumstances of the times.
The Crusaders used violent, non-Christian means to invade Jerusalem, for instance. And many Muslims preach violent things in the name of Islam and jihad—things that have nothing to do with Islam and jihad. So if one follows the true essence of any religion, then these religions will evolve harmoniously and can co-exist peacefully. But everything is subject to interpretation. When religions are misinterpreted, conflicts result.
In the Islamic faith, we believe that Mohammed came as a Messenger to spread the word of God, thus complementing the last of Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam). By being complementary, Islam therefore recognizes the previous prophets. It was revealed because some people deviated from the rightful path, or the straight path. People go off the right path, for many reasons, and that’s why religions are there to guide them. So in our tradition, we believe that Mohammed is the last prophet.
Ann: Zena, how about you—do you see harmony between the religions?
Zena: Harmony comes to me through the people I associate with. You know, I never thought, “This is a bad religion; this is a good religion.” I was looking at people, especially when I was growing up. I thought, “My best friend is Christian, and so this must be a really good faith.” So I was more into people. I never looked at the religion as a whole picture. I was looking at the religion through the people.
In the Middle East I didn’t have any contacts with Jews. The first Jewish person I had contact with was at my University, and she was a fabulous person. We never talked about religion or politics, and it was wonderful and harmonious. I mean, coming from the Middle East, and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, you’d think that we were going to clash, but we were fine. It was a really nice relationship—a good, harmonious relationship. The next thing that I experienced was when I was living in California and Dena was a baby. My next-door neighbor had twins, and she came running along with the twins and said they were curious about their neighbors. The little girls saw that I had a baby, and they started coming and going, until one day, the two little girls said to me, “Oh, but our mother told us we can’t visit you, anymore.”
And I said, “Why?”
And the children said, “Oh, our mommy is really insisting on just being with Jewish friends and neighbors, and you’re not Jewish.” I was so hurt. This woman didn’t even know me. And that’s when I said, “Oh my God, there are people like this?” I mean, before that, I was looking at the person, not at his faith. I was looking at people, because they are just human beings. I never questioned whether a person was Buddhist, Christian or whatever. If I like a person, I like the person, and that is the end of that. But that was my first encounter with someone who didn’t think the same way I did. Those are two extremes—you know, these two women were from the same religion, the same faith, yet one told her daughters, “Don’t associate with this new neighbor,” and the other one became my friend. But I always look at the harmony of religions through people, because I think people are the best representatives of their faith.
Ann: Dina, do you see harmony between the people that you’ve met?
Dina: Yes, in a general sense I think there are a lot of common links between one religion and another. Especially Judaism and Christianity and Islam. Of course, there are differences, but there are also quite a few common links. But, in my personal life, I do see a harmony. I told you about the one Christian friend I had. When I was in Jordan, we had Israeli kids from the embassy in our school, and one of them was on the basketball team with me. So, I got exposed to her Jewish traditions, and I got along with her fine. You know, again, we didn’t talk about religion, or politics, or anything, but we did get along fine.
Ann: We’re going to shift a little bit. Who have been your spiritual heroes, or heroines? It can be somebody that you’ve met or something that you’ve read, or even a piece of music.
Salem: Well, I don’t really have someone I’ve interacted with directly who I would call a spiritual leader. A lot of my thinking has been influenced by Gandhi.
Zena: Besides my parents, Mohammed, our Prophet, Peace Be Upon Him (PBUH), had a great influence on me. I read about his wise life and the way he used to conduct himself. I’d say that if every single human being lived or tried to adapt those beliefs and those ways of living, we would all live in peace and harmony. Because it was just such a peaceful, non-violent way. I mean, even when he was spreading Islam, he asked the believers never to spread the religion through force. You always have to open your hand—whoever wants to jump on the wagon, that’s fine. Whoever doesn’t wish to, that is their wish. You leave them alone. You never force your religion down the throat of anyone. Not even your kids—you’re supposed to educate them about the way of life, and Islam, but even then you have to be really peaceful about it. The Prophet(Mohammad), peace be upon him, was the great spiritual leader, as far as the way he was conducting his life. What he was doing, the essence, the stories behind it—there was meaning in every action he was doing and the way he was living. There was an essence and a storyline to teach so human beings could follow it. Of course, human beings, being short sighted, often don’t see it, and nowadays when people explain the Koran, they say, “Oh, but Prophet Mohammed, (PBUH) didn’t do this.” But all the time, you have to go back to the basics. Mohammed (PBUH) was a human being, after all. He wasn’t God. When he knew something, he explained it. When he didn’t know, he didn’t try to explain. He was so humble. He is my hero.
Salem: What I admire about Islam is its universality, its simplicity, and the equality. It really does not differentiate between ethnic groups. Historically, Islam rendered special treatment to the People of the Book.
Zena: That comes from the way Mohammed (PBUH) treated people. If only the Muslim world would follow Prophet Mohammed’s example of how he used to treat the non-believers—let alone the People of the Book— the world would be a peaceful place.
Ann: The term, “the People of the Book.” Can you explain that to me?
Zena: The People of the Book means Jews or Christians.
Salem: They are referred to as the People of the Book because they’re really followers of the same Abrahamic message that Muslims also follow. I don’t think that our Prophet was exposed that much to the Eastern religions. Had he been exposed to them, he would probably have recognized them as legitimate religions.
Zena: He was dealing with people who used to worship nothing. They had no religion whatsoever. But he did not persecute them. He did not fight with them. That’s why they say the way to spread Islam is by conducting yourself well, being an example. If you are a Muslim, if you are a good person, regardless of who your neighbor is, if you do a good deed for your community, then people automatically want to be like you. You set a good example.
Salem: I think that’s very important to know, because the people who claim to be religious don’t even follow these simple rules.
Zena: Very simple—the most basic of the basic.
Salem: And they say, “Well what I do at work is different from what I do at home.” Or, “What I do here has a different book.” It’s hypocrisy. The way you conduct your life with others, will ultimately creep up in the way you behave within your family. Whether you like it or not, consciously or subconsciously, you’ll be affected. So, it’s hypocritical to say, “I can go to church, or mosque, or synagogue and be a devout, religious person, but in my everyday daily life I can do things as I wish.” Our children are smart enough to see through us, and they monitor the consistency of our behavior.
Ann: Oh, absolutely. But you see, people who have an advanced knowledge of any religion say exactly what you are saying. It’s not about the letter of the law; it’s about the spirit of the law. Your presence, your whole being, is your statement about how you’re connected to the Divine Force (God).
Zena: Exactly. Our Prophet (PBUH) had a sound reputation throughout the Arabian Desert, and that’s how Islam came to be spread, because people knew that he didn’t say anything except the truth. People used to go to him for advice, because they knew that he would say the truth.
Salem: He was honest before he realized that he was a Muslim. Because of his honesty, he was basically an arbitrator for opposing parties that were trying to resolve their differences. People went to him because he was honest, because he would say the right thing. That’s what they call “al-sadeq,” meaning “the righteous.” So this was something in him that was really very highly regarded, even before Islam.
Ann: Have you ever seen the special on PBS (public television) about Islam where they said they had the first banking system, and it was based just on trust? So, they had something like checks, but it was really just agreements.
Salem: That was at the time of Moorish Spain. It was so far away from Uzbekistan and Central Asia, and people used to trade among the countries of the Islamic Empire. The word saq, which is the Arabic word for check, is a promissory note written on a piece of paper.
Ann: How about your spiritual heroes or heroines, Dina?
Dina: Well, like my Mum, I’d have to say I’m inspired by the Prophet (PBUH). But, in this life, I’d have to say my Grandma. I remember going to Jordan every summer, because that’s where she used to live. I used to see her pray, and I was very young at the time. Seeing her pray struck a chord in me. I thought, “Okay my grandma is a good person, so if she’s praying, that must be a good thing too.” Until this day, when I bow and pray, I remember how she used to pray, and how I used to watch her.
Ann: Have you had any profound spiritual experiences around birth, or sickness, or death? Some time when you felt God at work, a presence?
Zena: Yes, I felt that when Dina was born. There was magnificence to this human being coming out of me. The second time I felt that was when my two parents passed away. My Dad passed away when I was in California, and I got a phone call telling me that he’d passed away. That was shocking. He was ill, but it was as if I wasn’t prepared, and I was so angry. I remember it took me sixteen or seventeen hours to get from San Francisco to Jordan. And in the Muslim tradition, they hold the funeral very quickly. They don’t wait for anyone.
Salem: Just like the Jews.
Zena: After someone is dead, they’re buried within twenty-four hours—you don’t wait for relatives or anybody to arrive. So, when I arrived, they had already made arrangements, and he was buried. I was so upset. You know I kept thinking, “At least you could have waited. I wanted to say my goodbyes.” I just could not sleep. I kept waking up and hearing sounds inside me saying that I hadn’t said my final goodbye, and he was around me. I felt very connected to his spirit, and I demanded to visit his graveyard. So I visited his graveyard, only to find that he was buried wrong, because, as Muslims, we’re supposed to face Mecca (Muslim holy city in Saudi Arabia). You face Mecca when you’re alive and praying, and you face Mecca even when you die. And my father was facing the wrong way. Can you imagine? It’s a Muslim country, and here I am coming from the States! I was so upset.
And my brother had been intolerant with me because he could not see what was so urgent. “Why is it so urgent to go and see him? The grave is not even built. We’ve only just buried him.”
And I stood there, and I looked around and saw the mosque, and I said, “Is that Mecca over there?”
And my brother said, “What are you talking about?”
I said, “Why is Dad like this? Why is he not facing the way he’s supposed to be?” To cut the story short, it took about forty-eight hours, from the day of my arrival until I visited him in the graveyard. Forty-eight hours that I did not sleep, I did not eat. I was hearing sounds in my head. And, sure enough, they had to get a permit from the government—from the Imam, from the high authority of Islam—they had to go all the way to the top. There was a man who was buried wrong, and they had to dig the grave up and bury him again.
To this day, my brother says, “Who buries their Dad twice, except us?”
And the third experience I had was when my mother was dying. I was at her bedside, and I will never forget the spirit that was in there. Spiritually, we knew that she was going. So, it was only a matter of days, though we didn’t know when. The final hours came, and the nurse called me and I rushed into the hospital. She was gone, or she couldn’t focus her eyes. I don’t think she was with me. It gave me the goose bumps. I was holding her hand and reciting some Koran for her. Even before her heart was stopped—I mean, you see all the monitors and everything, and her heart was still kicking—I saw in her eyes, I saw in her body that she was no longer with us. I knew it, and I said, “She’s gone.” But her heart was still beating.
Ann: But her spirit was gone. I know just what you mean. The essence of who she was wasn’t there.
Zena: I saw it right in her eyes. She had these big, beautiful blue eyes, and I was looking right at them, you know.
Ann: There is a sense of the special beingness of the person. I lived up in the country when my father died in Scarsdale, and I knew the moment that he died. I said, “Something’s wrong.”
And I called, and my mother said, “Your father has just died.” So, I totally understand what you’re saying.
Zena: Both of my parents died natural deaths. My mother was only sixty-four when she died, so she was relatively young. In Jordan they said, “Oh she is old.”
But I said, “No, she’s not. She’s still young.” Everybody was expecting it, but I wasn’t. Maybe I wasn’t ready for it. I was reciting the Koran, thinking, “What is happening here?” and I saw that she was gone.
Ann: Prayers absolutely help people make the transition.
How about you Dina?
Dina: I don’t have any experiences like the ones my Mom has. But I guess I have two. One was when my Granny died—my Mom’s mother. I remember Mom was picking me up from school that day, and I can remember exactly how the weather was. It was a very depressing day. It was raining. Terrible weather. I was approaching the car, and I saw her through the window. I didn’t see that she was wearing black, but I saw through the window and I just kind of sensed that something really bad had happened.
I also remember what happened when my Grandpa died. My Mom got the phone call and even before she started crying, I thought I knew what they were going to say.
I guess the more traumatic spiritual realization for me was on September eleventh, because my Mom was traveling that day to San Francisco. She was on the flight that departed right after the one that hit the twin towers. When she was at the airport—I didn’t know this at the time—but she was really considering going on the earlier flight, the one that crashed in Pennsylvania.
I was at school, and when I first heard the news I was in Math class. I thought it was a freak accident. Then we got the official message from the principal that something had hit the twin towers and, slowly, step-by-step, we learned that it was an airplane. And I thought, “My Mom is supposed to be traveling today.” Everyone in the class just left immediately to make phone calls because they have friends in the city, or parents who work in the city, and I got really panicky. I was totally numb, and it took me a while to phone my Dad, because the phones were all jammed. I finally found out that she was okay, and that she hadn’t taken the earlier flight. I still get goose bumps thinking about it. It’s just too real.
Salem: My wife had told me the night before, “I’m not going to get up early just so you don’t miss an hour or two of work,” because I was going to drop her off at the airport. So, she told me to book her on the 9:20 flight, not the 8:20 flight. I had been planning to book her on the 8:20 flight, and that’s the one that crashed in Pennsylvania. But she didn’t want to get up early and she said, “It’s okay if you go to work late.”
Zena: Because he was debating with me and saying, “I hate to be late at work.”
I said, “You can drop me without being late, but if I’m there for the 8:20 flight, you’re going to get me to the airport at 5:00. I’d rather be there at 6:00 or 7:00.” Sure enough, he did drop me in the airport by 7:00. So, I saw the passengers boarding that 8:20 plane, and I did have the thought that I could still make that flight. But it was one hundred dollars to change!
So, I thought, “Oh, is it worth it? My friend in San Francisco won’t even know I am on the earlier flight. So, why wait in the airport there? What’s the point? I’ll wait here.” That’s what saved my life.
Salem: In my case, I think there are two events. One was a long period of disbelief at the death of my father. I was in boarding school. He was a known person, so people read in the newspaper that he’d passed away, and it was the kids who told me that my father passed away, and I didn’t believe them. Nobody from my family told me that my father died. It was not until the Christmas break, when I went to Kuwait to spend the holidays with my family. And for ten or fifteen years after that, maybe longer, I dreamed that my father was still alive.
My other spiritual experience was, of course, when my daughter was born. I went crazy. It was a wonderful, wonderful feeling.
Ann: That’s another kind of experience—creation. And you know that you really didn’t do it. You’re just the holder of the energy for a period of time. I’ve actually been in the birthing room when four of my grandchildren were born. That was so, so special. But it was scary too, because it was life and death. When that baby comes, at any moment, it can be over for either the mother or the baby. But it was beautiful to watch.
Zena: I remember my mother told me—because she came and saw my children being born—the nurse would say to her, “Would you like to come down here?”
And she said, “I’m fine here, right by her head, praying for her.” She was reciting Koran for me, and I could see the tears in her eyes when the babies came out. The three of them; it is a miracle.
Okay, now this might be in the same realm. Have you felt spirit with you when you were in despair? At the time of your Mother’s passing or your Father’s passing? Any experiences where you felt protected, even by using prayer? Many people say that just praying can be very enriching. Do you have any experiences like that?
Zena: Definitely. I felt that much more strongly at my mother’s death. My father’s death, maybe not, because I wasn’t there; I came twenty-four hours later. But obviously, there was something that led me to the graveyard. But I did not connect spiritually, that’s what it was. But definitely with my mother. I was there every single day, and I saw her slowly, definitely withering away. I was there by her bedside, day and night. I did not leave that bed. You know, even the nurses were saying to me, “Aren’t you going to have some rest?”
And I said, “I can rest later,” because I knew. My kids were young at that time, and I thought well, God will forgive me. My attention was only for my Mother.
I did pray a lot with her before she began to go in and out of consciousness. She didn’t go into a coma, it was a deep, deep sleep. Every time she opened her eyes, I said, “Do you want us to pray?” and she said, “Yes.” I used to sit down next to her, and sometimes my brother would join us as well. We all used to sit around her and pray. So, yes, I did feel calmer and stronger when I was with my Mother. Maybe because I was a little bit older, and I had also experienced it once, so I knew what it was.
Ann: Did you have a sense of despair after she was gone?
Zena: Grief—I didn’t go into despair or doubting. It was just the heartache and the pain that you go through. And not many people feel it. I didn’t realize that. I thought everybody who loses a Mom or a Dad, would feel that, but I didn’t realize that not everybody feels that. Some people have a different way of connecting. That’s when I realized that it is a different degree of spiritual connecting. Definitely my prayers and my reciting Koran helped me through that time.
And we were surrounded with family and relatives, and there were also traditions to be followed. Everybody hears about the death, and everybody is at your house. You don’t invite people, there’s just an open house policy, and everybody who knew the person who died has to drop by and introduce themselves and say, “I used to be her neighbor at such and such a house…” At that moment, you want to be left alone, but again, I relied on the Koran. Listening to the Koran’s recital has helped through the period of grief.
Ann: Do people come and help you? Is there food prepared?
Zena: Oh, you don’t prepare anything. People bring food or they order catering. You don’t have to do anything, and you’re cared for. Whoever wants to stay for lunch or for dinner stays? It is an open house policy. People come and go, that’s the tradition. This is part of being courteous to your fellow Muslim. The beauty of this tradition in Jordan, is that we do it whether someone is Christian or Muslim. We do the same thing for the Christian community.
Ann: It sounds very similar to the Jewish tradition of sitting shiva for a certain number of days. It seems the religions are very similar.
Zena: Very similar. That’s the open door policy; if you hear that somebody has died, that is what you will do.
Salem: Usually there is an announcement in the newspaper. People will open the obituaries to see who died that day. Then it is our responsibility to go and offer our condolences.
Zena: And you feel the spirit strongly. I really felt it throughout those three days after my mother died. It was as if things were floating around—even the spirit of my mother. I felt it.
Ann: You really do feel it. Many other people say the same thing, it doesn’t matter the religion. As the person makes the transition, they’re around for a while. Three days, five days—and then the spirit begins to move off, and it can come back at certain times too.
Zena: They do. We believe there is something significant about the fortieth day.
Salem: The grieving period is forty days.
Zena: In Islam you don’t mourn over someone more than three days. Three days, and you move on with your life. You can’t just sit still and do nothing for forty days, but there is something significant about the fortieth day. I don’t know what it is. I don’t know if that marks the final transition, the final end. I have no idea, but we pray and recite Koran on the fortieth day.
When a woman gives birth, the first forty days are considered crucial as well. It’s very important. The woman has to rest; she isn’t to move, to get up, to prepare food—nothing for forty days. So, I wonder why they say forty? There has to be some reason for forty. Of course, with a baby, I can see why, because it is a living thing, and you are overwhelmed and in pain. You cannot get up and prepare food. But that forty days is quite something, it’s quite long. And I don’t know if this is based in the religion or in tradition. It could be tradition.
Ann: Salem, do you have any stories about spirit coming to you when you’re in despair?
Salem: Well, I do go through moments of helplessness or despair. Maybe it sounds funny, but I’m my own shrink.
Ann: So, you just take care of your own mind, right?
Salem: Yes, and try to resolve problems on my own. But since I got married, sharing my problems with my wife has definitely been very helpful.
Zena: I would say we’re spiritually connected.
Salem: But before I got married, I had to do it on my own. I do not believe that reciting verses would have a direct impact on resolving the moments of despair that I have. I don’t usually feel it’s relevant to the particular problem that I’m facing. I needed something specific, or someone who could help me point to the problem in order to get me out of my desperate situation. Today, I can’t say that I am against reciting Koranic verses. However, the practice is not therapeutic for me. Listening to music sometimes gives me more relief. Some people need the vehicle in which they find salvation, and sometimes reciting verses from religious books is helpful. Some people can achieve the same purpose in different ways. I think my wife is listening to me say this for the first time!
Zena: You are entitled to feel this way.
Ann: But, the heart connection, to me, is a spiritual connection. So when you share your problems with her, and she loves you and helps you, that’s Divine.
Salem: That is wonderful. I really find that is one of the biggest benefits of marriage, sharing my problems and my moments of happiness with my wife. That’s the best part.
Ann: I think that is what marriage is about. It’s very, very important.
How about you Dina? Any experiences of spirit or the Divine (God) when you’re troubled?
Dina: I don’t know. When I was a kid and I was, my Grandma used to say Koran for me. If I was in bed or in pain, it was soothing. I don’t know why. I guess I’m really used to it, now, just hearing it. It really calms me down. Even sometimes still, if I get sick with bronchitis or something, my Mom does the same thing. It really makes me feel better. Sometimes it really just puts me to sleep.
Ann: I believe your mother’s heart is connected to the Divine, plus you know the words so well. So it’s a mixture of things, all very important.
Is meditation part of the practice of Islam?
Dina: Well, praying is kind of like a meditation. Prayer is a kind of ritual, and there are some times when you are you are just silent. You’re repeating stuff in your head because you’re alone, but around you it’s silent. In that way, you can kind of compare it.
Zena: You have to connect. I mean, not everyone who prays five times a day is connected. If you have a good heart, and do good deeds, you will feel the spirits come to you, and you will feel the humbleness of God while you are standing there. It is a quiet place, and it is a time when you put your forehead to the ground four times—four times during each prayer. And you do feel that connection. Now, if you have something else on your mind that feeling, that humbleness won’t come. You won’t feel it. You have to have a pure mind going in to prayer. Nothing else should be on your mind. Whatever I need to take care of, whoever I need to call, whatever I need to do—I just have to switch that off. So it is more or less meditating.
Salem: Yes, I think when you come into it with this kind of mentality, you will be really focused in the prayer. Then you do the movements of prayer, and sometimes it is an effort, but when you’re really into it, you don’t feel the effort and the fact that the blood is circulating in your body makes it even more spiritual, you see. And it goes through your brain, and it even makes your body tremble sometimes, because that’s when you’re really in a spiritual mode. It is some sort of meditation. And at the end of the prayer, we have a period of silence that we call a du’aa.
Zena: It’s a period when you can ask for forgiveness or make other requests, but it is done individually.
Salem: So I would say that daily prayer is a form of meditation.
Ann: I agree with you; as a healer, I believe this movement during prayer is exceptionally important. In some religions, you’re asked to be rigid and still, and I think that blocks the spirit. I’ve heard that putting your forehead to the floor, really touching Mother Earth, opens you to the spirit. It lets us see as God sees. That’s the spot that’s often known as the third eye—it allows us to see beyond what we see with our normal eyes. The next question was about whether we can hear the Divine, and I think we covered that, in the sense that you’ve all said you’ve felt a presence and direction. Just to go a little bit deeper, if you ask God for something, how can you tell that the answer is from God, and not from, say, ego?
Zena: You know when you think, “Why me? Why is this happening to me?”
There’s a verse from the Koran, which is, “Don’t resent something that happens to you—something good might come out of the bad”.
Salem: Right. And then we also say, “The day of his death has been prescribed from the day he was born.” So, going back to what you asked, if I can add my part of it, it’s very important for me to thank God before I ask God. Religion is not a vehicle by which you can get things from God. It’s not a commercial enterprise. So I feel I get pleasure by giving, and I get even more pleasure by thanking, because in thanking we are realizing the true essence of religion. Without even really being religious, because, you see, being thankful is a part of human behavior. I remember one time, I felt so thankful for something that happened to me that, in my mind, I automatically thanked God. So, to answer your question, how do I know that my request is being answered? My answer would be, one has only to make one’s request and then accept fate and accept life as it comes.
Ann: We’ve talked about saying prayers and feeling essence and presence. Do you think God answers our requests in concrete, specific ways?
Zena: Something specific is—well, looking around at what I’ve been blessed with. That is the answer for me, that I have been blessed with beautiful children. That is a part of my request to God—that I always have good children and good health, and I do thank God. So that is the answer to my prayers.
Ann: What does the Koran say about our place in the world, as human beings? Are we special? Are we above animals?
Zena: To my knowledge, the Koran says that we are special. We are above all other creatures because God gave us a brain. That is what distinguished us from all God’s creatures on this earth. The gift that God gave us was the brain. And that’s why God wants us to use it. And even in our Koran, we are asked to use it. We are told that, “Good people are those who seek knowledge. Those are my good people.” So, the more you seek knowledge, the closer you are becoming to God.
The devil, which we call a beast in our Koran, was asked by God to kneel before Adam with all the other angels. All the angels followed the command except the devil. The devil said, “How can I kneel to someone You’ve just created from the earth? You created me from fire. I’m not going to do that.”
The devil was very, very upset with God, and God threw the devil out. And the devil challenged God by telling God that he would always be in Adam’s life, always trying to take Adam away from God. So, I truly believe that is the struggle. It is up to us –which path we want to follow. That is why God gave us brains, so that we can distinguish. You can use your common sense—you know, you want to follow the path of the devil, because the devil is always there. Even during prayer. Even during silent moments when you are trying to meditate, or concentrate, the devil will come to your thoughts and try to take you away.
Ann: But although the devil is always there, God is always there, too. So we have that choice.
Zena: Exactly. Moment by moment, action by action, deed by deed. It’s your choice who you want to follow—the devil or God, who is the creator of both the devil and human beings.
Ann: What do you believe happens when someone dies? Is there life after death? Is there heaven? Is there hell?
Zena: Yes, I believe in that—and in Judgment Day (final day of life).
Ann: So it’s very close to Christianity and Judaism.
Zena: Yes, in our Muslim world, we do believe in Judgment Day. There is a place mentioned in the Koran, Barzakh. It is where all the souls go to wait for that Judgment Day. Then on that day, all human beings will rise from the dead, and we will all be judged according to our deeds. So, yes, we do believe greatly in that.
Salem: I believe, and I know other people believe in reincarnation, or a transformation.
I think a true believer need not be threatened that they will go to hell if they do so and so. If I teach my kids, “You do it this way, or else,” then they are really going about their life in the wrong way. Although I sometimes subconsciously do that with my boys. I really believe that we should live our life in an ethical and moral way without the fear, not to fear what comes after life. Maybe fear is what God has instilled in people so they can stay on the right path! In most of the religious books that I have read, there’s the connotation that if you don’t do it this way, or if you don’t go on this right path, then you will burn in hell. I am not going to live my life under such prescribed confinement. This is because there is no conviction if I ever comply with such ruling. You see, I have to live my life with true conviction that what I am doing is correct, without any regard for what happens after death.
Zena: And we do believe, as Muslims, that the one who has the true faith, the true believer, will not be afraid of death. Death can strike you at any time. You don’t know when it will happen, and you should not be afraid. And the true believer welcomes death with open arms, and it’s not something to be afraid of.
Ann: Is it important to have a spiritual community?
Zena: Human beings cannot live alone. A human being needs other human beings. Now, whether I would say, “Oh, I just need my Muslim community and I will be happy…” Personally, I don’t believe that. I should be active in all communities. The community I live in—I live among Jews and Christians and I should be active in the community I live in. But the Muslim community will help me as a support on my dark days, when I’m trying so hard to be a good Muslim, when people are looking at me. Especially after 9/11, when people say, “What a weird religion you have. What a weird thing you do.” You know, people lack knowledge. I mean, I don’t blame them. You try to educate some who have no earthly idea what this religion is all about. All they see is that we bow to the earth. They say, “Oh, you worship the earth? Why do you do it like this? Why do you do it?” You try to explain that it goes beyond kneeling to God. The symbolism of it is that we are standing in front of God—whether you’re red, white, black, yellow—whoever you are, your shoulder is connected to the next shoulder, and you’re all standing before God at the same time. I think that’s the beauty of it, that you’re really humbling yourself in front of the Creator. And you try to explain this, over and over and over again. Then someone will say, “Your Ramadan—you fast all day, without a drink of water?”
After a while, you get a little bit down because everybody is doubting you, everybody is questioning you. That is where my Muslim community can be a support. Well, they understand. They know why I am doing this, why I am fasting, why I am kneeling, why I am praying. Yes, that is a moral support.
Salem: I think religious communities act as an affirmation of their beliefs. However, my concern is that some of the Muslim communities here live exclusively in that box. They live exclusively in a Muslim world.
Zena: Yes, but what about Christians? I mean they can be in that little box and not want to know more about anybody else.
Salem: That’s true, but my opinion is that since we made the decision to come to this country we should act as ambassadors of our faith. Like we are doing by sitting here and talking now. This is more important even than what a Muslim does in his or her own community, or in his or her native country. Because now I am really sitting here and talking to you about a faith that may be completely different from your faith, and I am trying to establish some common ground between us. And maybe, after this, you will leave with some better understanding of who the Muslims really are. At the beginning of this discussion, before it was taped, I told you that Islam means different things to different people, even to Muslims themselves, simply because Islam is a way of life. It can easily be misunderstood as a religion when in many circumstances what is experienced or witnessed are traditions and cultures. So I think being part of the Muslim community is important, and when we came here, we really tried to find the Muslim community. We found that there is a Muslim community here, but that they have different traditions and customs.
Zena: But that is the beauty of Islam.
Salem: But that’s fine. They have different traditions from us, but that’s okay. But, we noticed also that some of them, like in Judaism and Christianity, feel that they should restrict their life to their own community, and I think that is a mistake, especially for the newly arrived immigrants. They do the worst harm to their cause and to their religion by being introverts. I think they should go out and talk to the community.
Zena: Yes, but that’s fear. You have to excuse them that.
Salem: Yes, that true, but this was even before 9/11.
Zena: Because even before, they feared that they were different.
Ann: Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could all share our experiences? I mean, the stories that you’ve told me are not that different from the stories of other religions. They’re all about integrity and honesty and support, and really trying to be in alignment with God. If we can build these bridges, and understand that we are all trying our best to live at the highest level—that’s what religion should do.
Salem: I think that’s true, but when Jews first arrived here, they had to assimilate and even change their names because of persecution, and that took time. You know, maybe we’re going through the same experience that our Jewish brothers had to. Maybe it will take some time before we really come forward and talk about our own traditions and faith. Really, I think it’s wonderful that we have shared this experience. And we share other things. Even though we come from different backgrounds and different faiths, we have issues of morality and ethics that are congruent. I think that’s wonderful. And one of these days, I am sure our Muslim community will come forward and talk more about the subject.
Ann: Well, I hope that the Christian and Jewish communities will make them feel more comfortable, because it is all of us working together that make the difference.
Salem: I was invited to give a speech about Islam at the Unitarian Church in Mt. Kisco last Sunday. I tried my best to explain it, in the most objective way. The subject of religion, regardless of what religion—is so huge, that you can’t really even explain it in a few words, but one has to try. There is always a beginning, and I think that might be the first step.
Ann: That’s right. There is a beginning and, then also it’s important to show people the path to go deeper if they want to.
Zena: The most important thing is to accept each other and not to try to convert one another. There is no such thing as wrong or right—it’s not necessary to say, “My religion is superior to your religion,” or “I have a one-way ticket to heaven.” The important thing is just accepting each other’s beliefs.
Salem: That’s a big stumbling block.
Ann: That’s a great stumbling block. But if I sit with you, and I see your family and your life and there is great richness in you, then I have to honor the fact that you’ve got some very good things going for you! And if you come to my family and have that same comfort, then we have to find a way to share, we have to find the common ground.