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Considering Islam, terrorism and war

ISIS fighters rally in Iraq as they advance towards Baghdad.

ISIS fighters rally in Iraq as they advance towards Baghdad. This extremist Sunni group has announced plans to rule the territory it has carved out of Iraq and Syria in recent months.

Sam Dammam

During the past two years Sam has traveled to remote areas of Saudi Arabia, speaking with desert  Bedouins, city dwellers and government leaders. He has gained a remarkable understanding of Islam and the Saudi culture. (Click photos to enlarge.)

(Article last updated 22 July 2014, 9:47 am)

Recently I received several questions from American friends. They are questions that have also troubled me since moving to Saudi Arabia two-and-a-half years ago. The questions: “When will Sunni and Shia Muslims stop fighting each other?” and “How can Muslims commit such horrible atrocities?” and “Doesn’t the evil of terrorism discredit Islam?”

A view from the heart of Islam

I have lived in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for two-and-a-half years now. I’ve asked just about every difficult question that could possibly be asked, and I have actually been on the lookout for “extremists” to try to get a better understanding of what makes them think the way the do. So far I have found none.

The Muslims brothers and sisters I have here are rational men and women who dislike bigotry, hatred and war. They simply want a nation that has a sound economy. They want prosperous futures for their children and grandchildren. However, they are concerned about how others outside the Kingdom view their Muslim faith.

As I answer the above questions, I do not intend in any way to excuse some of the obvious hatred and bigotry among peoples and groups who refer to themselves as Muslims. But in living here in the Mecca Region, the very heart of Islam, I have gained what I believe to be a valid perspective, having completed the grueling difficulties of Hajj with friends from our local neighborhood mosque, and having visited Mecca on many occasions and Medina once.

Also, millions of Muslim pilgrims from all over the world travel in and out of Jeddah every year on their way to Mecca, just 35 miles down the road. I mingle with them as they come and go. I have also developed friendships with some of the migrant workers resident in Saudi Arabia—most who are Muslim.

Lest we forget our own Western “Christian” wars

The American Civil War found brother against brother and Christian against Christian to end slavery.

The American Civil War found brother fighting against brother and Christian fighting against Christian in a war to end slavery.

While we are astounded at what we see every night on television, I can imagine that many Muslims of the 19th and 20th century must have asked these same questions when observing wars in the West.

One might consider the American Civil War, that pit Southern Christians who supported slavery against northern Christians who, for the most part, opposed slavery. More than 620,000 American combatants died, and there were more than 450,000 casualties among American civilian men, women and children.

In reference to that War Between the States, President Abraham Lincoln stated in his second inaugural address: “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered.”

During the First World War and the Second World War “Christian nations” battled “Christian nations” for supremacy. It was a time when oligarchies made alliances with religious groups and political parties (fascism) for one political objective or another. Allied armies responded in force.

Even more recently we have had the Irish Republican Army (IRA) battling it out with the Presbyterian Orange Order of Northern Ireland. Countless kidnappings, murders, and bombings were carried out during the 1960s and 1970s. Homes were torched and innocent men, women and children were caught in the crossfire.

Today in South Sudan we find Christian militia battling Christian militia for power and control.

Islam–divisions and factions

Boko Haram militants battle for an independent Islamic state in northeastern Nigeria.

Boko Haram militants battle for an independent Islamic state in northeastern Nigeria. The name “Boko Haram” means “western education is sin.”

One cannot think simply of Islam as a united faith where all believers are in agreement. Islam has many divisions and factions.

Greater than eighty percent of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims are said to be Sunni. Among Sunnis are thousands of offshoots.

In recent years, some self-proclaimed Sunni leaders, like those of ISIS, have managed to organize radical militias, enlisting soldiers while amassing funding by pillaging towns, cities and homes as they pass through.

ISIS has a radical agenda of organizing a caliphate (an Islamic state) from parts of Syria and Iraq. Their leaders have ordered Iraqi Christians living within their proposed state to convert to Islam, pay taxes or die.

To say that these fanatical Muslims who lob grenades at each other shouting “Allah akbar!” (“God is great!”) are representative of all Islam would be like saying the IRA is a bona fide movement of the Catholic Church.

I don’t know a lot about ISIS, but I can honestly say that some Islamic hate groups are to Islam what the National Socialist White People’s Party (NWSPP) and Ku Klux Klan (KKK) are to Christianity. Fortunately, most Americans are keenly aware that the NWSPP and KKK are certainly not “Christian” in the traditional sense, but both racist groups do claim to represent “white, Christian America.”

Islam and illiteracy

It is unfortunate that millions of Muslims today cannot read or write.

While education of both girls and boys is promoted throughout the Muslim world, some Muslim populations have fallen under the influence of radical Islamists who have political objectives that are extra-Quranic. They forbid the education of girls and endorse only principled Islamic texts for educational purposes.

While many of those who are illiterate are able to recite long passages of the Qur’an, I was surprised to find that some have no idea what they are reciting. While the Arabic of the Qur’an is beautiful, flowing wonderfully with sounds and syllables, it is an ancient language that many who recite it don’t understand. It would be like a Catholic quoting from the Latin Vulgate Bible–not knowing the meaning or nuances of the Latin sentences and words.

It has been pointed out to me by men in my mosque that there are many who are born into Islam and refer to themselves as “Muslim,” but they actually have no idea what it means to truly be Muslim. They have little knowledge of who Mohammad was and the principles for which he stood.

War is hell, and horrible atrocities happen in all wars–even at the hands of western forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, when radical Muslims who are politically motivated present themselves to be acting on behalf of God, the consequences can be disastrous. One man commanding a group of disenfranchised, unlearned followers can wreak havoc on a nation (eg Boko Haram in Nigeria, Al Shabaab in Somalia, ISIS in Iraq, etc.).

The Sunni – Shia differences

Sunnis (about 80 per cent of Muslims) and Shiites (15- 20 per cent) have waged deadly sectarian wars.

Sunnis (about 80 per cent of Muslims) and Shiites (11 – 15 per cent) have waged deadly sectarian wars.

Now we come to the historic Sunni—Shia divide.

I do not pretend to know all there is to know about what caused the evolution of Shia Islam and the succeeding Sunni resentment that followed. I have met a few Shia Muslims and have spoken with my Sunni Muslim friends about the matter. It appears that the battle is over something that happened nearly 1400 years ago.

The Sunni branch of Islam believes that the first four caliphs (Mohammed’s successors) rightfully took his place as the leaders of Islam. They recognize the heirs of the first four caliphs as legitimate religious leaders. These heirs ruled continuously in the Arab world until the break-up of the Ottoman Empire following the end of the First World War.

Shia Islam, in contrast, teaches that only the heirs of the fourth caliph, Ali, are the legitimate successors of Mohammed. Shiites seem to be more mystical in nature—some paying homage and praying to Ali and his descendants.

In some Shia homes in Iran, one will find “icons” honoring Ali. Shiites make pilgrimages to what is believed to be Ali’s gravesite in Iraq. Some speak of the miracles Ali has performed on their behalf.

Sunnis compare such behavior to idolatry, and they believe that any form of idolatry is anathema and worthy of “hell fire.” Indeed, the Qur’an says that no one should worship idols or pay homage to humans or other created entities. Even pictures of the Prophet Mohammed are forbidden.

I have visited Mohammed’s tomb at the Nabawī Mosque (also known as the Prophet’s Mosque) in Medina. There are guards posted at Mohammad’s sepulcher to prevent Muslims from praying or paying homage to the Prophet.

I find the Sunni-Shia divide to bear similarities to the great debate that took place between Protestants and Catholics during the great Reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries. Protestants separated from Roman Catholics, debating similar issues. Reformation leaders like Martin Luther, John Calvin, Huldrych Zwingli and others sought to eliminate manyof the corruptions and accesses that were then present within Roman Catholicism.

Luther ignited the Reformation by posting his “Ninety-five Theses” on the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany. That church held one of Europe’s largest collections of holy relics. These religious relics had been gathered by Frederick III of Saxony. At that time, pious veneration of relics were said by Rome to give relief from temporal punishment for sins in “purgatory.” By 1520, Frederick had over 19,000 relics, purportedly “including vials of the milk from the Virgin Mary, straws from the manger of Jesus’ birth and the body of one of the innocents massacred by King Herod.”

ISIS is now destroying Shia, Sunni and Sufi mosques around Mosul. In this photo posted on a militant website that frequently carries official statements from the Islamic State extremist group, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, Shiite's Jawad Husseiniya mosque explodes in Tal Afar, Iraq.

ISIS is now destroying Shia, Sunni and Sufi shrines and mosques around Mosul. Iraq. In this photo posted on a militant website that frequently carries official ISIS statements, Shia’s Jawad Husseiniya mosque is demolished in Tal Afar.

As reformers allied themselves with kings and rulers vicious wars ensued between Catholics and Protestants. Horrible atrocities were committed. Many of the reformers were imprisoned, burned at the stake, beheaded, hanged or dismembered.

Conflicts between some Shia and Sunni Muslims continue today. ISIS is further advancing its radical religious agenda by destroying Shiite mosques and Islamic shrines around the ancient Iraqi city of Mosul, which they captured last month. Al Arabiya reported that the damage extends to at least four shrines to Sunni or Sufi figures, and six Shiite mosques in the northern province of Nineveh.

Pictures surfacing on social media showed the destruction, ISIS troops accomplished with explosives and bulldozers. They appeared on a militant website that was verified by the Associated Press as being an outlet  for official ISIS statements. The photos were posted under the headline, “Demolishing shrines and idols in the state of Nineveh.”

The vast majority of Shias and Sunnis live in friendship together side by side. They say it is security and stable economies their families need, not misguided extremists stirring up trouble.

I pray that peace and reconciliation between these two contending bodies of believers might be possible in the same way that eventual dialogue, appeasement and understanding have taken place between Protestants and Catholics during the past century. After all, Islam means to “voluntarily surrender” to the God of Abraham. It also implies “peace” and “safety.”

Current situation in Syria and Iraq

Millions of Syrian refugees have fled the civil war in search of safety, medical treatment, food and temporary housing.

Millions of Syrian refugees have fled the civil war in their homeland in search of safety, medical treatment, food and temporary housing.

I liken the present situation in Syria and Iraq to that of the former Yugoslavia.

Yugoslavia had come into existence as a result of treaties at the end of the First World War. Serbia (which then included the present-day Republic of Macedonia), Montenegro, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Croatia, and Slovenia were forcibly joined, and after the Second World War these Balkan states were brought under Josip Tito’s communist dictatorship as the Iron Curtain of atheistic socialism descended over Central Europe.

After Tito’s death in 1980 and the subsequent fall of communism in 1989, the nation of Yugoslavia descended into anarchy and civil war. Today, the former Yugoslavia has self-divided along religious beliefs and ethnicity.

Now there are predominantly Catholic Christian states, Orthodox Christian states and Muslims states. All are now living peaceably and have expanding economies.

Many of the Islamic states of the Middle East were also formed after the downfall of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War. Their borders were drawn up by colonial powers (England and France). The secretive Sykes–Picot Agreement, officially known as the Asia Minor Agreement, defined their proposed spheres of influence and control in the Middle East. Dictators were essentially appointed and supported by various foreign powers, including the United States.

What is now happening in Syria and Iraq is, I fear, inevitable. People yearn for freedom and stable economies–better futures. Today we are witnessing the breakup of these “forced” states along religious and ethnic lines. In the case of Syria and Iraq, Sunni, Shia and Kurds are vying to have dominant influence hoping to form their own independent states.

The challenge for Arab states

KSA Hotspots MapHow will these conflicts that currently surround the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Oman affect the stability of these nations?

As I write this article, CNN is broadcasting that that Al Qaeda and another group new to me is planning attacks on Arabian Peninsula airports and shopping malls.

There is growing concern about Islamic extremism here and elsewhere. As well-publicized bouts of violence, from civil war to suicide bombings, plague the Middle East, Africa and South Asia, concern about Islamic extremism is high among countries with substantial Muslim populations, according to a new survey by the Pew Research Center.

Lebanese, Tunisians, Egyptians, Jordanians and Turks are all more worried about the extremist threat than they were a year ago. Men and women living in Muslim states hold very negative opinions of well-known extremist groups, such as al Qaeda, Hamas and Hezbollah.

Last evening, Prince Turki al Faisal, former Saudi ambassador to the US and former Saudi intelligence chief, was interviewed by CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour. (See posted interview at the end of this article.)

Prince Turki believes ISIS is a threat to world peace. He argued that the the major powers must come together to confront ISIS.

“Look how many American young people, French, English and other misguided western youth are joining the ranks of ISIS,” he said. Prince Turki says this is a critical matter that needs to be dealt with by western governments as well as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council states.

The ISIS call for a Sunni Islamic caliphate has little support outside the ranks of the organization. Muslim scholars and movements from across the Sunni Islamic spectrum have rejected the caliphate declared by the group, with the fighters receiving scathing criticism from mainstream Muslim leaders. Most recently the chief imam of Turkey has pronounced the ISIS caliphate as illegitimate.

Prince Turki concluded his comments by saying, “The Muslim world basically wants to live in peace. The kind of terrorist tactics being espoused by ISIS is foreign to the faith of Islam.”

Murder and wanton slaughter of the innocent prohibited

The Qur'an is clear on matters of war and condemns terrorism as worthy of hell.

The Qur’an is clear on matters of war and condemns suicide bombers as worthy of hell fire. The Qur’an provides rules for faith and practice for all Muslims.

All the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) agree that acts of aggressive behavior, especially when it involves murder and massacres of innocent men, women and children, are evil. There is no place within any of these faiths for suicide bombers and acts of aggression.

Most believers today are of one of two opinions. Some seek to avoid conflict and war all together, declaring themselves pacifists or conscientious objectors, refusing to fight under any conditions.

The overwhelming majority consider “just war” appropriate when the enemy is invading, killing their fellow citizens and destroying their farmlands and homes.

In Islam, the Qur’an makes the  following clear:

Suicide is forbidden.  “O ye who believe!… [do not] kill yourselves, for truly God has been to you Most Merciful.  If any do that in rancour and injustice, soon shall We cast him into the Fire…” (Qur’an 4:29-30).

The taking of life is allowed only by way of justice (i.e. the death penalty for murder), but even then, forgiveness is encouraged.  “Nor take life – which God has made sacred – except for just cause…” (17:33).

In pre-Islamic Arabia, retaliation and mass murder was commonplace.  If someone was killed, the victim’s tribe would retaliate against the murderer’s entire tribe.  This practice was directly forbidden in the Qur’an (2:178-179). Following this statement of law, the Qur’an says, “After this, whoever exceeds the limits shall be in grave chastisement” (2:178).

No matter what wrong we perceive as being done against us, we may not lash out against an entire population of people. The Qur’an admonishes those who oppress others and transgress beyond the bounds of what is right and just.  “The blame is only against those who oppress men with wrongdoing and insolently transgress beyond bounds through the land, defying right and justice.  For such there will be a chastisement grievous (in the Hereafter)” (42:42).

Harming innocent bystanders, even in times of war, was forbidden by the Prophet Muhammad.  This includes women, children, noncombatant bystanders–even animals, trees and crops.  Nothing is to be harmed unless the aggressor is actively engaged in an assault against Muslims.

Listen to this interview conducted from Jeddah last evening by CNN’s Christiane Amanpour with Saudi Prince Turki al Faisal. (Click on photo below to be directed to the video interview.)

 

Sources: CNN, Arab News, wikipedia.org, Saudi Gazette, New York Times, The Huffington Post, Aljazeera Internatioanl News, National Post (Jordan), islamicity.com, answering-islam.org, Al Arabiya News

July 2, 2014 Posted by | Human Rights, Islam, Religious Reconciliation | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Happy Ramadan, everybody!

Colorful lanterns are often light to celebrate the month of Ramadan.

During Ramadan lanterns and lamps of various kinds, hues and degrees of brightness are often strung in homes and businesses.

A time of rejoicing, fasting and prayer

From Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Sam wishes all a very happy Ramadan!

From Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Sam wishes all his friends around the world a very happy Ramadan! (Click on photos to enlarge.)

Today, 29 June 2014, marks the first day of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which is the most important time of the year for Muslims worldwide.

This is my third year to join in the celebration of Ramadan in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, having moved to Jeddah in December 2011.

Ramadan is viewed by children as a wonderfully magical time. Neighborhood houses and businesses are often adorned with strings of colored, lighted lanterns. During Ramadan lanterns and lamps of various kinds, hues and degrees of brightness are often strung in homes and businesses. Many stories of their origins have been told. One legend has it that the Fatimid Caliph Al Hakim Bi-Amr Illah wanted to light the streets of Cairo during Ramadan nights, so he ordered all the sheikhs of mosques to hang Fawanees that could be illuminated by candles. As a result, the Fanoos became a custom that has never been abandoned.

Homes seem to be perfumed constantly with the mixed smells of food and burning incense—all serving as a constant reminder that this month is a very special time of the year.

The uninterrupted chanting of Qur’an verses emanating from nearby mosques indicate the absolute solemnity of Ramadan.

It is an intrinsically sacred time for all Muslims. It was during the month of Ramadan that the first revelations of the holy Qur’an were first revealed to the Prophet Mohammed by the Archangel Gabriel.

The Qur’an is the holy book of Muslims, being recited daily year-round through prayers and worship. It is the basis for reflection in guiding the lives of Muslim men, women and children.

A time of renewal, drawing closer to God

During Ramadan, Muslims will fast and engage in extra prayers and worship, as a means of drawing nearer to God.

Ramadan is the ninth Islamic month. The Islamic calendar is based on a lunar calendar, and the lunar calendar which is 10 days shorter than the Gregorian calendar. It, therefore, takes 30 years for the calendar to rotate full cycle.

Fasting and prayer are from dawn to dusk during Ramadan, which presents greater challenges to Muslims living in the far northern regions where they are expected to stick to the rules, no matter how long the fasting period may be. Fasting in northern Canada or the Nordic states of Norway, Sweden, and Finland is especially difficult, but the blessings of fulfilling the fast are even greater.

The Prophet Muhammad taught that “whoever does not give up lying or cursing during Ramadan, God has no need for that person to give up his food or drink” – which emphasizes that Ramadan is not just about avoiding food or drink, but also working on who one purports to be as a person.

As a spiritual support to achieve one’s goal, Muslims will attend their mosques more often. In the evenings there will be a special extended prayer time.

A Muslim family breaks the fast at sundown with Iftar.

A Muslim family breaks the fast at sundown with Iftar.

A month of empathy and gratitude

Ramadan is known as the “month of empathy.” Ramadan is an exercise in empathy for the more than 2 billion people in the world who live in poverty, but it’s also a lesson in gratitude.

During this 30-day period Muslims put themselves in the shoes of people who are in dire straits—people who are suffering deprivation of all kinds: thirst, hunger, homelessness, sickness, pain, etc.

This month at Tuqwa Mosque in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, as in all mosques around the world, the brothers and sisters gather five times a day for prayer, fellowship and encouragement while reflecting on the needs of others in their community and worldwide.

Collections are made for the poor. Individuals are encouraged to carry out distributions to the poor. It is common to find men, women and children on street corners distributing dates and water to passersby at sundown for the breaking of the fast.

The ultimate “anger management” course

Men and women seek to draw closer to God through prayer and reading the Qur'an.

Men and women seek to draw closer to God through increased prayer times and reading the Qur’an.

Along with learning and practicing empathy towards others, one is to learn patience.

For 30 consecutive days the faithful are put into a situation where they will face are going to be hungry, sugar levels are low, and the chances are that one is going to get a bit edgy and agitated, so either one develops a rather foul mood for the month of Ramadan or one deals with it successfully for 30 days.

Ramadan is likened by Dr Mansur Ali Jameel, lecturer in Islamic Studies at the Center for the Study of Islam at Cardiff University in the United Kingdom, as “the best possible anger management course.”

Muslims are advised to control and deny anger. If one feels anger rising within, one is encouraged to take refuge in God.

The Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) said, “If a man gets angry and says, ‘I seek refuge with God from the accursed Satan,’ his anger will go away.” Saying this, Muslims believe, will make it easier to control your anger, as it will remind you that it’s being increased by Satan’s whisperings and that he is rubbing his hands with glee at your rising temper!

Standing makes one feel strong, agressive and powerful and ready for fight. So if one gets angry while standing one is directed to follow the Prophet’s advice: “When one of you becomes angry while standing, he should sit down. If the anger leaves him, well and good; otherwise he should lie down” (Abu Dawud and Al Tirmidhi).

Remembering God and the coming judgment

Noor Khan helps load food bags for different charities that were picking up the donated food bags at the Al Hijra School in Windsor, Ontario, Canada. The food and cash donations were collected by the local Muslim community.

Noor Khan helps load food bags for different Canadian charities. The food and cash donations were collected by the local Windsor, Ontario, Muslim community.

All the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) teach that there will most definitely be a final day when all humankind will stand before God in Judgment. Jesus spoke of the Judgment Day when he walked among men. He said “Every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of’ Judgment” (Matthew 12:36). We’re told in Hadith Jibra’il, that one is: “…to worship God as though you are seeing Him, and while you see Him not yet—truly He sees you” (Al-Bukhari).

Such God-consciousness (tuqwa) is a good practice for all who claim to believe in the God of Abraham!

One should strive to live each moment, fully aware of God’s presence, living in the knowledge that He is watching everything done by humankind—that someday there will be an accounting for one’s behavior here on earth.

Ramadan is a great time to demonstrate repentance, seeking renewal in one’s relationship with God, to gain forgiveness and peace through increased reverence and worship and to prepare oneself for that final, great Judgment Day.

A firm faith in God is the beginning of that journey—but it must be proved that it is a genuine faith that leads to changed behavior while reflecting on the needs of others and exercising self-restraint; engendering greater love, dedication and service to our almighty God.

Eid al Fitr celebrations

Ramadan ends with the festival Eid al Fitr, which in 2014 occurs on July 28. Literally the “Festival of Breaking the Fast,” Eid al Fitr is one of the two most important Islamic celebrations (the other occurs after the Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca). At Eid al Fitr people dress in their finest clothes, adorn their homes with lights and decorations, give treats to children, and enjoy visits with friends and family.

A sense of generosity and gratitude colors these festivities. Although charity and good deeds are always important in Islam, they have special significance at the end of Ramadan. As the month draws to a close, Muslims are obligated to share their blessings by feeding the poor and making contributions to mosques and community nonprofit organizations.

In many parts of the world Ramadan is celebrated with spiritual music. Enjoy this Ramadan song by contemporary Muslim recording artist Maher Zain:

Sources: Arab News, Saudi Gazette, ramadan2014.net, The Windsor Star, Time Magazine

June 29, 2014 Posted by | Archeology, Islam | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Red Sea Coral Reefs–Amazing!

RS hi rez

The Red Sea’s colorful coral reefs are home to some of the world’s most amazing species of aquatic life.

Snorkeling south of Jeddah

Sam joined Saudi firends on a snorkeling trip along the coast of the Red Sea south of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. (Click on photos to enlarge.) Sam joined Saudi friends on a snorkeling trip off the coast of the Red Sea south of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. (Click on photos to enlarge.)

Sam and Saudi friends at the Red Sea coral reefs south of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. (Click on photos to enlarge.)

Yesterday I had the wonderful experience of accompanying some Saudi friends on a snorkeling adventure into the Red Sea, about 90 kilometers south of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.  My previous experience of exploring coral reefs had been in snorkeling around Virgin Gorda in the British Virgin Islands and scuba diving off the Gulf coasts of Belize and Mexico. However, what I witnessed beneath the waters of the Red Sea was equally incredible.

The Red Sea coral reefs are among the most beautiful of all the world’s marine habitats. This vast inlet of the Indian Ocean provides ideal conditions for corals and other countless forms of aquatic life. There are about 200 species of “stony corals” along the coast.

Most corals are reef builders. Each of these sea polyps builds a skeleton and the animal sits in a calcareous cup that it has secreted. The polyps are connected to each other by an extension of the body above the level of the skeleton. Thus the colony sits on the surface of the skeleton, feeding on algae and particles of food drifting along in the water.

The Red Sea coral reefs form an ecological environment in which creatures can take refuge from predators. Crustaceans, eels, starfish, turtles and thousands of varieties of fish–all benefit from this beautiful ecosystem. Fish that are found in these reefs include some very colorful species. One will find brilliant orange coral groupers, enormous gorgonian fan fish, moray eels and elaborate lionfish and majestic, swooping giant manta rays.  We even saw “Nemo” who was made famous by the film “Saving Nemo.”

In deeper waters there are such species as hammerhead sharks and barracudas and various varieties of jellyfishes which look attractive but can deliver their unpleasant stings.

Red Sea Hawksbill turtles are on the decline due to degradation of nesting habitats.

Red Sea Hawksbill turtles are on the decline due to degradation of nesting habitats.

Jacques Cousteau and these coral reefs

I am told that Jacques Cousteau chose this celebrated Red Sea reef system to first introduce the world to undersea life, and by the same token it is not by chance that so many people become diving and snorkeling fanatics during their visits to Saudi Arabia.

The exceptional richness of marine life in the Red Sea is due to an unusual combination of environmental factors. First, the Red Sea is comparatively sheltered and calm: its currents are gentle and regular, its tides almost non-existent, and its temperature warm and steady. While its waters run quite deep, they are warmed by volcanic heat emanating from the sea bed. The result of all these factors is an environment ideally suited to the complex and delicate ecosystem of coral reefs.

Considering all the world’s most celebrated reef systems, these of the Red Sea stand out for their unusual wealth of specific kinds of marine life–most notably, coral itself. The sheer abundance of corals, many of exceptional size and color, makes diving and snorkeling in the Red Sea an experience of almost magical intensity.

Today, one-third of shallow water, reef-building species are threatened with extinction, making them one of the most endangered animal groups on the planet. These reefs are suffering from many environmental impacts, including the effects of climate change, pollution, over-fishing of animals that live on the reefs, and removal of the reefs for use as home décor objects and curio and aquarium trade.

Watch this video produced by Saudi Aramco to learn more about the wonders of the seas bordering both sides of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia:

 

Sources: Scuba Travel Guide, redsea-online.com, wikipedia.com, youtube.com, Red Sea Reef Guide, Saudi Aramco

June 23, 2014 Posted by | Environment, Geography, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Amsterdam and Paris on my mind

Sam's reflection in the window of the Thalys high-speed train he took from The Netherlands to France.

Sam’s reflection in the window of the Thalys high-speed train he took from The Netherlands to France.

Always enjoyed seeing the world

As a high school student at Bob Jones Academy and later as a student at Shelton College, I had worked in Europe for four summers with the Evangelical Reformed Church and other Christian groups. So it was at the age of 18 I found myself bagging groceries, waiting tables in restaurants and scrubbing dormitory toilets in what would be an ongoing effort at getting airline tickets to Europe. As a young student of history, at the end of each summer of work I would take off on my own–travelling to see different parts of Europe. I got around by a Eurail Pass for trains or just hitchhiking on the German autobahns.

I have, on occasion through the years, returned to Europe, and it has been interesting to see changes gradually taking place throughout—especially Central and Eastern Europe after the fall of communism.

Now I was invited by a businessman from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to accompany him on a brief 8-day business trip to Amsterdam and Paris, and I got to have some time off in both cities to explore sights I had first seen some 48 years ago!

Amsterdam canal

Sam stands over one of Amsterdam’s many canals. (Click on photos to enlarge.)

A few days in The Netherlands

Amsterdam is considered the “greatest planned city of northern Europe.” It has always been a well-known name in world history and played a central role in the history of the Netherlands. In the 17th century Amsterdam was the center of world economy, and nowadays the city is known for its more tolerant character.

The period 1813-1940 is marked by economic recovery and, from 1870 onwards, by expansion. The increasing wealth brought about a rapid population growth. This development was primarily the result of the Industrial Revolution which triggered off a New Golden Age. The city now ventured into the area beyond the Singelgracht. Large poorly built working-class neighbourhoods were built. The period 1920-1940 was a time of economic recession. Therefore it is all the more remarkable that the so-called Ring 20-40 compares favourably to the 19th century jerry-building. This was also the period of large-scale damage to the historical city centre; canals were filled in and new traffic breakthroughs were realised.

After concluding business in the Netherlands, I boarded the hi-speed Thalys train from The Netherlands to Paris, France. The train ride, at nearly 300 kilometers per hour, would take a mere two-and-a-half hours compared to the 10 hours it used to take to get from Amsterdam to Paris!

Sam stood behind Notre Dame Cathedral some 48 years after he first visited Paris!

Sam stood behind Notre Dame Cathedral some 48 years after he first visited Paris!

Vive la France!

The history of ParisFrance, spans more than 10,000 years! During that time the city grew from a small mesolithic settlement to the France’s largest city and capital. Through the centuries Paris developed into a center of government, art, medicine, science, fashion, tourism, high culture and high finance, becoming one of the world’s most influential global cities.

Today, Paris is one of the major capitals of the world.  While many world capitals feed off the energy of modernity, Paris is loved because it represents an escape from it. So when most people visit the city, their agenda involves visiting monuments like the Louvre, the Hôtel de Ville and Notre Dame Cathedral. The “baby” of this grand group  is the Eiffel Tower, built in 1887.

Certainly, no visit to the “City of Lights” can be completed without visiting the Eiffel Tower time and time again. It was constructed as the focal point of the 1889 Paris Exhibition which highlighted the science and engineering achievements of the 19th century. Soaring 300m / 984 ft. (320.75m / 1,052 ft. including antenna) and weighing 7000 tons, the structure consists of two visibly distinct parts: a base composed of a platform resting on four separate supports (called pylons or bents) and, above this, a slender tower created by the latticework tapering upward.

It was almost torn down in 1909 at the expiration of its 20-year lease, but was saved because of its antenna — used for telegraphy at that time. Beginning in 1910 it became part of the International Time Service. French radio (since 1918), and French television (since 1957) have also made use of its stature. In the 1960s, it was the subject of a wonderful study by semiologist Roland Barthes. This unprecedented work, the tallest structure in the world until the Empire State Building was built about 40 years later.  It has earned its right as a major symbol of Paris. (For a tour of the Eiffel Tower watch the video at the end of this post.)

Around its Grande Arche and esplanade ("le Parvis"), La Défense contains many of the Paris urban area's tallest high-rises.

Around its Grande Arche and esplanade (“le Parvis”), La Défense contains many of the Paris urban area’s tallest high-rises.

Contemporary Paris

Paris might very well be one of the most well-preserved cities in the world – but it still has a lot of contemporary ‘features’ to offer. This comes in the form of hip and modern buildings, museums and other architectural wonders which will give you an idea about what contemporary Paris is all about.

The prime example of contemporary Prisian architecture is La Défense.  It is actually considered as an urban project for the 20th century which is made up of 30 high-rise towers standing in a vast square.  If you’re in the mood to seeing a film at one an IMAX theater which has one of the biggest screens in the world, this is definitely the place for you.,

Among the more notable modern buildings of La Défense is the famed square, hollow Grande Arche. La Defense is also home to Pompidou Center’s Piano and Rogers Building, considered one of the emblematic buildings of the 20th Century. Sometimes compared by critics to an oil refinery, the building which houses modern art was the subject of huge controversy throughout the 1970s, but now has won the hearts of Parisians.

I am grateful to have had this opportunity to visit these nations once again. Enjoy this video history and tour of Paris’s famous Eiffel Tower.

Sources: Paris by Day, A Short History of Paris, wikipedia.com, simplyparis.org, centrepompidou.fr

June 23, 2014 Posted by | Geography, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

The fascinating history of Arab men’s apparel

Loia wedding in Jeddah

Traditional thobeshemagh and egal worn by friends attending Abdulhadi’s recent engagement party in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

Dressing like a Saudi

Sam dressed in thobe and shemagh with egal at the national Saudi Janadriyah Festival.

Sam dressed in thobe and shemagh with egal at the Saudi National Janadriyah Festival.

I always wear the white Saudi thobe here in the Kingdom, and on very special occasions I wear the full Saudi attire. I don’t always get the shemagh positioned precisely correct, and sometimes I’m a bit embarrassed when my black egal falls off! (Hey! I have a great new idea! How about an egal with Velcro on the bottom to hold it in place?)

I recently wore this complete Saudi traditional outfit at the celebrated National Saudi Arabian Janadriyah Festival near Riyadh where I was the guest of the Kingdom’s Ministry of Defense. To my surprise, groups of Saudi young people recognized me as I walked through the grounds. Some would approach to practice their English and to shake my hand, and, on one occasion, there was a shout of appreciation in English, “Welcome, Uncle Sam! We love you!”

The white thobe

The thobe is a full-lenth garment commonly worn by men throughout the Arabian Peninsula. It is normally made of cotton, but heavier materials such as sheep’s wool can also be used, especially in the colder climates of Iraq and Syria. The most common color is pure white, but darker colors are sometimes worn during the cooler months.

The style of the thobe varies slightly from region to region. The long sleeves and the collar can be stiffened to give a more formal appearance.

Other names may be used for this garment. In Oman, dishdasha is the most common word used; in the UAE, the word kandura is used; in Jordan, it is called keffiyeh.

I always wear the thobe in Saudi Arabia. It fits the warm to very hot desert climate.

The shemagh head covering

In the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia a white thobe is most often worn with a white skull cap and a head covering called a shemagh. All is generally considered essential clothing in every Saudi man’s wardrobe. The thobe and shemagh are generally requisite dress when visiting government buildings, attending formal gatherings like state functions, weddings, funerals, dinners or the weekly Friday jumah worship service at one’s local mosque.

The customary wearing of the shemagh began with the Bedouin tribes of old. Designs and colors have varied through the centuries. Like Scottish tartans with designs and colors for the various Scottish clans, colors and designs of the shemagh have often represented the various Arabian tribes. In Saudi Arabia the predominant design today is a red, checkered effect while an alternative solid white is also fashionable.

Friday jumah service at Tukwa Mosque in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

Friday jumah service at Tukwa Mosque in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

The shemagh historically has served many purposes. It is used to shade one’s head and neck from the desert sun, but it also many other practical uses, as I discovered when overnighting in the Arabian desert with friends. On windy nights it can be used to conceal the face from blowing desert sand and dust. It can also be worn as a neck scarf to retain heat during cold weather or rolled and worn in a turban style to absorb sweat during hotter, sunny days.

According to the English language daily Saudi Gazette, the shemagh has evolved into a symbol of manhood, particularly among Saudi teenagers who are sometimes expected to wait until they graduate from high school to wear an egal with their shemagh.

Thobes and shemaghs today brandish such names as Armani, Cardin, Gucci and other leading fashion houses. The very best handmade outfits sell for thousands of dollars. But, a custom made thobe in the Al Balad (Old Town) of Jeddah can be purchased for $100 or less, depending on material and quality.

A crowning touch–the Egal

The egal is the black, woven camel or sheep wool cord that is doubled and used to hold the shemagh in place. It has an interesting history, as I learned recently from a close friend in Riyadh. When milking or grooming a camel, Bedouin tribesmen used this black cord to pin the she-camel’s front right leg in order to keep her from moving. What more convenient place to keep the egal than on one’s head!

Today, not wearing the egal is considered by some of the more pious Muslims as a sign of humility, especially those who are devoted observers of the religious teachings of the sunnah; however,  most Saudis overcome their humility with pride of Arab tradition. In the short video below, an American tourist is instructed by a Jordanian in the many varied ways to wear his new shemagh.  

Sources: The Saudi Gazette, wikipedia.com, A History of Saudi Arabia, Sam’s friend Sheikh Rayan

March 22, 2014 Posted by | Arab lifestyle, Arabian Desert, Jeddah History, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

History of our universe written in the Arabian Desert

Meteorites are found frequently in numerous parts of the Arabian Desert.

Black “space rocks,” or meteorites, are found in numerous parts of the Arabian Desert. Sam found a nice one just the other day.

 

History of our solar system 

Meteorite scientist

Florian Zurfluh, a doctoral student at the University of Bern, conducts an in-situ X-ray fluorescence analysis of the freshly found achondrite meteorite.

The oldest matter found on earth originates from outer space. This debris from far away worlds falls from the dark depths of space onto the ever-changing surface of planet Earth. These meteorites provide valuable information about the early history of our solar system.  

Scientists are now investigating unusual surface areas of the Arabian Peninsula where meteorites are found, often in dense concentrations.  In these black stones one learns about the early beginnings of  the birth and death of celestial bodies. Today, in almost every country there are scientists who work on decoding the hidden messages of this space debris.

Most meteorites are fragments of asteroids, some containing organic matter. Some preserve information on the chemical make-up of the solar system before the formation of planets. Other meteorites found in the Arabian Desert are known to be impact debris from the surfaces of the Moon and Mars. Martian and lunar meteorites, which are rare, are often fragments from the past, having been knocked off into space millions or even billions of years ago.

Mars literally in our hands

Meteorites provide the only samples from Mars that we have in hand to analyze in a laboratory. However, we do have material collected by astronauts from the Moon. Lunar meteorites provide clues to early processes in the Earth-Moon system, such as the a period known as the “late heavy bombardment.” That’s the period when huge numbers of meteorites pelted the Earth and Moon some 3.9 billion years ago, just when life may have started on our planet.

“Searching for meteorites is of paramount importance for astrobiology and planetary science,” according to Dr. Beda Hofmann, head of Earth Science at the Natural History Museum in Bern, Switzerland. Hofmann and Edwin Gnos of the Natural History Museum in Geneva, Switzerland are leaders in meteorite hunts taking place in Oman.

Hiking in the Arabian desert near Ryhah, Sam found this piece of space history.

Hiking in the Arabian desert near Rumah, Sam found this piece of space history.

 

Antarctica and desert hunting grounds

For 30 years, the frozen desert of Antarctica has been one of the richest sources of pristine meteorites. The black stones are easy to pick out from the white snow, and there are no rivers or other natural processes to carry the meteorites away.

More recently, the hot deserts of Africa and Australia also have produced new meteorite discoveries. The dry conditions in deserts tend to preserve stones, and the lack of rain means they are less likely to become eroded or be covered over by sediment.

In 1999, an incredible number of meteorites appeared on the market due to activity by private collectors and dealers.

Oman a big source of space rocks

Within the last ten years Oman has yielded almost one-fifth of the world’s meteorites, a huge cash of more than 5,000 fragments weighing greater than four tons. The Oman finds include one-third of all known lunar meteorites, and a handful of specimens from Mars.

Amateur collectors are cautioned to accurately document their finds, which will make life a bit easier for the scientists who might want to study the rocks. Amateurs found the first Mars meteorites in Oman; in fact it was the appearance (and sale) of those rocks and lunar meteorites that caught the attention of a group of Swiss researchers. They enlisted the support of the government of Oman, and on their first mission in 2001, the team recovered a Mars sample.

Dr. Beda Hofmann is proud that his team’s meteorite collection is conducted in collaboration with the Omani government. “So far we have obtained permission to take all samples necessary to Switzerland,” he says, “but the samples remain the property of the Sultanate of Oman.” Eventually representative samples will be displayed in the Natural History Museum of Muscat, the Omani capital.

Sam with Bedouin herder near the location on his meteor find.

Sam with Bedouin sheep herder near the location of his meteorite find.

 

Fossils from outerspace

Meteorites are the fossils from which geologists recover the history of our solar system, but most of the meteorites found in Oman did not fall on Earth recently. They have been lying in the desert for several thousand years. A major thrust of the Swiss research is to learn how the environment contaminates meteorites, and see how a meteorite might change its appearance and composition prior to discovery and conservation.

The deserts of Oman seem to be a rich source of unique meteorites, and the precious fragments can tell planetary scientists about conditions in the early solar system when stony objects first formed. These fragments subsequently were glued together by gravitational attraction to construct planets, moons and asteroids. By helping us reconstruct the early history of our solar system and our planet, meteorites bring us a step closer to understanding what conditions were necessary for the origin of life on our world.

Our past, present, future

While meteorites are important because they reveal the very source of life on Earth, they have also contributed to the development of our life-sustaining environment.

Meteorites provide not only a glimpse into the past but also a window to the future. They represent, in a very real sense, both birth and death; creation and destruction.

Today, they are being studied because of their significant threat to life on our planet.  With increasing regularity, we are discovering asteroids and comets with unusual orbits — ones that take them dangerously close to Earth and the Sun.

Though just a very few of these bodies are potential hazards to Earth, by understanding more about these “near earth objects” early on, we are better prepared to take appropriate measures to head off a collision with our planet in the future.

For sure, I am joining the hunt for these fascinating interplanetary objects. I have marked carefully the coordinates of where I found my meteorite and hope to return there in the near future.

The following brief video helps us better understand meteorites and to easily distinguish them from meteoroids and meteors.

Sources: NASA, wikipedia.com, Science Magazine, National Geographic, University of Bern archives, astrobio.net, Hossam Malallah

March 12, 2014 Posted by | Arabian Desert, Archeology, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

British duo cross Arabian Desert with cart in tow

Alastair Humphreys and Leon McCarron pull their cart

Alastair Humphreys and Leon McCarron pulling their cart

Cart tugging across “the Empty Quarter”

Humphreys and McCarron with their cart

Humphreys and McCarron with their cart

The pinkish-orange sand dunes of Saudi Arabia: a beautiful part of our earth’s biodiversity–challenge any who seek to cross its barren stretches. British adventurers Alastair Humphreys and Leon McCarron seek to better the camel in the Arabian desert. “The locals we met were the kindest, friendliest and most welcoming, but they thought what we were doing was completely crazy.”

Humphreys and McCarron crossed “the empty quarter.”  The Empty Quarter (in Arabic known as Rub’ al Khali) is the largest sand desert in the world. It encompasses just about all of the southern third of the Arabian Peninsula, including Saudi Arabia and areas of Oman, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. The desert covers some 650,000 square kilometres (250,000 sq mi). 

The goal of the two men was to retrace the footsteps of a great British legend–Wilfred Thesiger, who had made two separate desert explorations in the 1940s charting vast tracts of the Empty Quarter.

Truth be told!

Just as I, these two adventurers came to Saudi Arabia having received dire warnings of terrorists and impending danger. And, just as I, Humphreys and McCarron found themselves safe–safer than some places we might be in our home countries.

“It was very safe,” Humphreys said. “Before I went a lot of people were thinking  ‘Oh you’re going to the Middle East. You’ll definitely be killed by Islamic terrorists!’ but it was so much safer than even the United Kingdom.”

Read more about these adventurers at:  http://edition.cnn.com/2013/12/22/world/meast/modern-day-adventurers-desert-crossing/index.html?iref=allsearch

Or, watch this YouTube video describing their incredible desert adventure:

 

Sources: CNN, Wikipedia, YouTube, alastairhumphreys.com

February 4, 2014 Posted by | Arabian Desert, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Merry Christmas to you all!

"The angels said, 'O Mary, indeed God gives you good tidings of a word from Him, whose name will be the Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary - distinguished in this world and the Hereafter and among those brought near [to God ] (The Quran / Family of Imran 3:45).

“The angels said, ‘O Mary, indeed God gives you good tidings of a word from Him, whose name will be the Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary – distinguished in this world and the Hereafter and among those brought near to God'” (The Quran / Family of Imran 3:45).

Dear Friends,

I wish all who love and seek to honor Jesus a very merry Christmas!

While Jesus’ birth year is estimated among most modern historians to have actually been between 7 and 2 BC, the exact month and day of Jesus’ birth are unknown. Western Catholic and Protestant Christians have chosen to celebrate Jesus’ birth on December 25th while Eastern Orthodox Christians celebrate January 7th as Jesus’ birthday.

But did you know that the same story about Jesus’ miraculous virgin birth is also told in the Qur’an?

In fact, there are two chapters of the Qur’an which tell the story of Mary’s life and Jesus’ birth. One chapter is entitled “Mary,” and the second is entitled “The Family Imran” (or “Mary’s Family”).

Here one reads about the birth of Jesus (also known in the Qur’an as “the Christ”–“the Messiah of God”). Here there is detail about the life of the Virgin Mary and Jesus. One reads the same story about Jesus’ virgin birth that is allso told in the New Testament gospels of Matthew and Luke.

In the Qur’an one reads, “”The angels said, ‘O Mary, indeed God gives you good tidings of a word from Him, whose name will be the Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary – distinguished in this world and the Hereafter and among those brought near to God…’ She said, ‘O my Lord! How shall I have a son when no man has touched me?’ He (the Archangel Gabriel) said, ‘Even so: God creates what He wills. When He has decreed a plan, He only says to it, ‘Be!’ and it is'” (Qur’an / The Family of Imran 45-47).

During this season and the coming year 2014, may we all seek to honor Jesus’ words and teachings by loving God immensely and by loving others as much as we love ourselves!

Sam Shropshire

December 24, 2013 Posted by | Interfaith, Religious Reconciliation, The Quran, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off

Scaling the Mountain of Light to the Cave of Hira

(Last updated 11 December 2013…)

The difficult climb

Every year thousands of pilgrims make the difficult climb up the Mountain of Light to the Cave of Hira where the Archangel Gabriel delivered to Prophet Mohammad the first revelations of the Qur'an.

Every year thousands of pilgrims make the difficult climb up the Mountain of Light to the Cave of Hira where the Archangel Gabriel delivered to Prophet Mohammad the first revelations of the Qur’an.

As a dinner guest at the home of Dr. Safi and Eman Kaskas, I mentioned that I was interested in someday visiting the Cave of Hira, about 3 miles north of Mecca, a place known by Muslims as the place where the Prophet Mohammad received his first revelation of the holy Qur’an from God as delivered by the angel Gabriel (Jibril in Arabic).

Another dinner guest, renowned Saudi poet and writer Nimah Nawwab, immediately phoned a friend, and early the next morning found Dr. Safi, Eman, Nimah, Hisham, the muadhan (‘caller to prayer”) Shafik Zubir from our local neighborhood mosque and me in an SUV bound for Jabal al Nour (the Mountain of Light).

The Cave of Hira is a cave just below the back side of the peak of the mountain. It is about 3 miles (4.9 km) northeast of the holy city of Mecca, in Saudi Arabia. The cave itself is about 12 feet (3.7 m) in length and just over 5 feet (1.60 m) in width. One must climb 890 feet to the summit. That’s like climbing the stairs of a 90-story building—no small task for the older members of our adventurous troupe. I needed help and direction getting up much of the way and especially a lesson in contortion in order to squeeze through some of the smaller 8 to 10-inch crevices between the rocks surrounding the cave.

At 65 I found my legs and knees weaker. It was a difficult, difficult climb, but I was blessed to be able to complete it with the help of two men—one from Pakistan and the other from Kashmir.

The first revelations of the Qur’an

The oldest surviving biography of Prophet Muhammad is that of Ibn Hisham (833 CE), which is a freely edited version of Ibn Ishaq’s (ca. 704 – 767 CE). In this biography, Ibn Hisham tells us that before the revelation of the Qur’an Muhammad used to retreat for a month every year in a mountain called Hira in Mecca.

When the prophet would finish his seclusion he would return to circumbulate the Ka‘bah seven times before heading home.

One year, corresponding to 610 CE, the Prophet had retreated to Hira in the month of Ramadhan when he was visited by the Archangel Gabriel who read to him the first verses of the Qur’an to be revealed. According to Ibn Hisham, Gabriel appeared to Mohammad in his sleep, carrying a book. He commanded him to “read.” Mohammad refused the order twice before finally asking what he was supposed to read. Gabriel replied with following verses of the Qur’an: “Read in the name of your Lord who created, He created man from a clot. Read and your Lord is the most honorable who teaches by the pen, He taught man what he did not know” (Qur’an 96: 1-5). Mohammad then recited the verses in his sleep. When he woke up, he felt as if the words had been engraved on his heart. On his way down from the mountain, the Prophet heard a voice from heaven saying: “O Mohammad! You are the messenger of God, and I am Gabriel.”

Sam, Safi and Eman Kaskas on their way up the Mountain of Light.

Sam, Safi and Eman Kaskas begin the arduous trek up the Mountain of Light to the Cave of Hira. (Photo / Nimah Nawwab)

Another perspective of the event

Imam Muhammad Al Bukhari (810-870 CE), whose compilation of sayings and deeds of the Prophet Mohammad is highly regarded by Sunni Muslims, gives a slightly different account: The commencement of the divine inspiration to the Messenger of God was in the form of “good dreams which came true like bright day light.” It is then said that the prophet was endowed with a love of seclusion.

He would go to the Cave of Hira where he would worship God alone–continuously for many days before he would desire to see his family. He used to take with him a provision of food for the stay and then come back to his wife Khadija to take food for another stay, until suddenly the Truth descended upon him while he was in the Cave of Hira.

According to Al Bukhari,  Mohammad related, “The angel caught me forcefully and pressed me so hard that I could not bear it any more. He then released me and again asked me to read, and I replied, ‘I do not know how to read.’ So he caught me again and pressed me a second time till I could not bear it any more. He then released me and again asked me to read, but again I replied, ‘I do not know how to read.’ So he caught me for the third time and pressed me, and then released me and said: ‘Read in the name of your Lord who created. He created man from a clot. Read and your Lord is most honorable who teaches by the pen. He taught man what he did not know” (Qur’an 96:1-5).

Al Bukhari says Mohammad  returned greatly inspired “with his heart beating fast.” Then he went to his wife Khadija and said: “Cover me! Cover me!” They covered him with a cloth until his fear subsided. The prophet then told her everything that had happened, saying, “I fear that something may happen to me.”

Khadija replied: “Never! God will never disgrace you. You keep good relations with your family, carry the weak, help the poor, serve your guests generously, and assist those afflicted by calamity.”

Although the overwhelming majority of scholars believe the verses of chapter 96 above are the first to have been revealed, some others have disagreed. For instance, in his famous exegesis of the Qur’an, At Tabari quotes some who insist that the first verses of chapter 74 were the first to be revealed.

However, in addition to his citation of those who argue that it was the verses of chapter 96, Al Bukhari also quotes a number of transmitters of prophetic sayings who claim that those verses of chapter 74 were revealed first: [The Messenger of God] said: “I went to stay in Hira. After finishing my stay, and while I was coming down, I was called upon. I looked right, left, in front, and behind, but could not see anyone. But when I raised my head I saw something. I then came to Kadhija and said: ‘Cover me, and pour cold water on me!’”He said: ‘They covered me and poured cold water on me.” He said: “Then the following verses were revealed: ‘O you who are clothed! Arise and warn! And your Lord do magnify’” (Qur’an 74:1-3).

In Al Bukhari’s renowned exegetical work, Al Qurtubi he adds another two opinions–one of which claims that chapter 1, known as Al Fatiha, was the first to be revealed, and the other claims it was verse 6.151.

Prophet Mohammad’s mountain retreat

Muadhan Shafik Zubir and Sam inside the Cave of Hira.

Muadhan Shafik Zubir and Sam inside the Cave of Hira–once a place of sanctuary and meditation for the Prophet Mohammad.

Despite the conflicting accounts and the impossibility of finding out the exact details of the first revelation of the Qur’an, Muslim scholars and historians have not disputed the fact that the Prophet used to retreat to the Cave of Hira near the summit of the Mountain of Light for worship, and the overwhelming majority agree that it was during one of those seclusions that the first verses of the Qur’an were revealed.

The books of Prophetic sayings also mention at least two instances after the revelation of the Qur’an in which the Prophet “climbed up to Hira.” In one instance he was with a group of his companions when the mountain shook.

Prophets found solace in caves

Many prophets from the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) fled into a desert wilderness or hid in caves for safety or respite–seeking peace, emotional healing and protection while being alone with God.

Moses, Ezekiel, John the Baptist, Jesus, the Apostle John and many others found times in their lives where the road of life became so narrow that there was simply only room for God and them alone.

Indeed, obeying God is often difficult business, especially when you are confronted by an enemy that seeks to undo you emotionally and spiritually. In such times one embraces solitude in a desert or cave to be in solitude with the Almighty.

One reads in the Old Testament that “Ahab told (Queen) Jezebel everything (God’s prophet) Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the (queen’s false) prophets with the sword. So Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah to say, “May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them” (1 Kings 19:2). Further it is said that Elijah “was afraid and ran for his life.”  It is said that Elijah was directed by the Archangel Gabriel to get up and eat a cake of bread that lay by the prophet’s head and to drink water. Later, Gabriel “came back a second time and touched him and said, ‘Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” So he got up and ate and drank.

Strengthened by that food, Elijah traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God” (1 Kings 19:8). There, exhausted and trembling in fear and depression, Elijah hid in a cave until the “still, small voice” of God said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” God eventually relieved the prophet of his horrid depression; strengthening him and giving him hope for the future.

The prophet David, likewise, cried out to God from the cave of Adullam when he was fleeing King Saul. One of his cries for help is mentioned in the Old Testament Book of Psalms and is entitled “A Psalm From a Cave” (Psalm 57). He wrote:

“Have mercy on me, my God,
have mercy on me, for in you I take refuge.
I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings
until the disaster has passed.
I cry out to God Most High, to God, who vindicates me.
He sends from heaven and saves me,
rebuking those who hotly pursue me—
God sends forth his love and his faithfulness.
 
I am in the midst of lions;
I am forced to dwell among ravenous beasts—
men whose teeth are spears and arrows,
whose tongues are sharp swords.
 
Be exalted, O God, above the heavens;
let your glory be over all the earth.
They spread a net for my feet—
I was bowed down in distress.
They dug a pit in my path—
but they have fallen into it themselves.
My heart, O God, is steadfast,
my heart is steadfast;
 
I will sing and make music.
Awake, my soul! Awake, harp and lyre!
I will awaken the dawn.
I will praise you, Lord, among the nations;
I will sing of you among the peoples.
For great is your love, reaching to the heavens;
your faithfulness reaches to the skies.
 
Be exalted, O God, above the heavens;
let your glory be over all the earth.”

It was in what today is known as the “Cave of the Apocalypse” that the Apostle John received God’s “Great Revelation.” It describes end-time events, beginning with the words, “The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him, to make known to his servants the things which must shortly come to pass: and signified, sending by his angel to his servant John… The things which must shortly come… and again it is said, ‘The time is at hand…'” (Revelation 1:1-3). The Revelation describes end-time apocalyptic events that will come to pass shortly before Jesus’ prophesied return. (Both Christians and Muslims believe in the imminent return of Jesus the Messiah.)

Sami Yusuf sings about the Cave of Hira

Muslims over the centuries continued to climb to the top of this high desert Mountain of Light to visit the cave where the Qur’an was first revealed.During Ramadan and during the holy days of the annual Hajj, as many as five thousand pilgrims per day make the climb to the Cave of Hira. We are fortunate on our journey as our trail is not crowded. Once we have made the steep climb to the cave we find time there alone to think about life and the significant event that took place in this mountaintop grotto. Our thoughts are filled with praise and prayer for our families, friends and the world today. There is so much human need, misunderstanding, distrust, conflict, greed and war. “How, God,” we ask, “can we make a difference?”

Below, contemporary Muslim singer Sami Yusuf echoes our thoughts about the Cave of Hira and the first revelations of the Qur’an which began there. Take a few minutes to listen to Yusuf’s inspiring song and be encouraged!

Sources: National Geographic, wikipedia.org, The Hajj School, mecca.net

December 5, 2013 Posted by | Mecca, The Quran, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

All creatures of our God and King! Alleluia!

"Leila" the camel gets special attention from Sam and friends outside Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

“Leila” the camel shows kind affection to Sam and his colleagues in the desert near Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

Faith books and animal welfare

In Saudi Arabia, even the camels bow in prayer!

In Saudi Arabia, even the camels bow in prayer! (Click on photos to enlarge!)

All the Abrahamic holy books, including the Torah, the Zabur (The Psalms), the major and minor prophecies, and the Christian New Testament, the Qur’an—all strongly enjoin men and women to treat animals with compassion and not to abuse them.

At the time of the worldwide flood described in the Torah, the New Testament and the Qur’an, why do you think it was important for God to save the animals of the world? It’s because God loves his creatures, and because they serve an important purpose in his creation. For example, without the pollination of bees, we would not have flowers, and a lot of our fruits and vegetables would also become extinct! When examining each animal, one finds that each one has purpose.

Animals praise their Creator

Did you know that animals also praise God? They were created with a sense of God, their Creator, and, yes, they honor, praise and worship God! It may not be in a language that you or I understand, but it is an important part of their service to God.

In the Qur’an we read, “Don’t you see that it is all creatures in the heavens and on the earth celebrate (praise) God–even the birds of the air with wings outstretched? Each one has its own way (language) of prayer and praise, and God knows well all that they do” (Qur’an 24:41).

In the Old Testament Psalms of David, we read, “Praise the Lord from the earth…you great sea creatures, you wild animals and all grazing livestock, small creatures and flying birds…” (Old Testament / Psalm 148:7, 10).

St Francis, the Patron Saint of Animals.

St Francis, the Patron Saint of Animals.

Kindness taught by faith leaders

We should note that King Solomon in the Old Testament book of Proverbs expressed concern for animals. He said, “A righteous man cares for the needs of his animal” (Old Testament / Proverbs 12:10).

Jesus spoke of God’s love and care for His creatures. He pointed to God as our example, “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them” (New Testament / Matthew 6:26).

According to Prophet Mohammad, “Whoever is kind to the creatures of God, is kind to himself” (Wisdom of Prophet Mohammad in Muhammad Amin). He also said, “Whoever tills a field, and birds and beasts eat from it, it is an act of charity” (Holy Prophet in Musnad of Ahmad),

One cannot write an article about faith and animals without mentioning Saint Francis of Assisi. He was a Roman Catholic friar and the founder of the Order of Friars Minor, more commonly known as the Franciscans. He is known as the patron saint of animals, birds, the environment, and Italy, and it is customary for Catholic churches to hold ceremonies honoring animals around his feast day on October 4.

It was Saint Francis who penned the words to this great hymn sung today in so many houses of worship.

All creatures of our God and King
Lift up your voice and with us sing,
Alleluia! Alleluia!
Thou burning sun with golden beam,
Thou silver moon with softer gleam!

O praise Him! O praise Him!
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

Saint Francis’ devotion to God was expressed through his great love for all of God’s creation. He cared not only for the poor and sick; he preached sermons to animals, and praised all creatures as “brothers and sisters under God.”

Animal emotions

Animals express emotion. Fear is an emotion that generally produces observable behavior in animals. A field mouse will flee from the shadow of a hawk flying overhead. And we all are familiar with the term “scaredy cat”!

Jana Shropshire with the family pet Schnauzer "Kenny."

Jana Shropshire with the family pet Schnauzer “Kenny.”

Happiness can be discerned as one enters his home to be greeted by an excited, barking dog, with tail wagging uncontrollably! Our Schnauzer “Kenny” is one of the happiest dogs I know.

There are purring cats of all kinds, from house cats to huge lions, all purring out their feelings of contentment and happiness.

And we  have all, at one time or another, observed animals whining or crying.

The Prophet Muhammad is said to have voiced his concern for a “crying camel.” According to Anas bin Malik, one of Muhammad’s close companions, the prophet came across a camel tied to a post. The animal looked desperately malnourished. As Muhammad approached, the camel began to relay emotions to the prophet. It was, according to bin Malik, as though the animal were saying, “My master overburdens me. I’m never given sufficient food or water. When I am weak and barely able to walk, he beats me. I can hardly bear this difficult life.”

Bin Malik said the Prophet searched out the owner, and exhorted him, “Don’t you fear God because of your poor treatment of this camel?” The prophet explained that God had given the camel into the man’s care, and he had a duty to treat the camel well.

Humbly the owner accepted Muhammad’s rebuke and immediately repented, declaring loudly before all who were present, “I have done wrong. May Allah have mercy on me.” He promised the prophet that he would extend greater care to all his camels.

The Abrahamic holy books decry animal cruelty. In the Jewish Talmud one reads that a great rabbi who was insensitive to the fear of a calf being led to slaughter was punished with years of pain.

Several commandments demonstrate concern for the physical or psychological suffering of animals.  We may not plow a field using animals of different species, because this would be a hardship to the animals.  We are required to relieve an animal of its burden, even if we do not know its owner, or even if it is ownerless.

Prairie dog

Praiie dogs come out of their holes early after sunrise to lift their paws in seeming praise and worship of their Creator.

We are not permitted to kill an animal in the same day as its young, and are specifically commanded to send away a mother bird when taking her eggs, because of the psychological distress this would cause the animal. In fact, the Talmud specifically says that a person who sends away the mother bird will be rewarded with long life, precisely the same reward that is given for honoring one’s mother and father. This should give some indication of the importance of this law.

Faith group positions today

The Religious Society of Friends (the Quakers) have adopted a very strong statement on environmental stewardship. “We do not own the world, and its riches are not ours to dispose of at will. Show a loving consideration for all creatures and seek to maintain the beauty and variety of the world. Work to ensure that our increasing power over Nature is used responsibly, with reverence for life.” (Quaker Advices and Queries 42)

In Islam, mistreating an animal is considered a sin. The Qur’an and guidance from the Prophet Muhammad, as recorded in hadith, give many examples and directives about how Muslims should humanely treat animals.

In the Jewish Torah, Jacob, Moses, and David were all shepherds, people who cared for animals. The Talmud specifically states that Moses was chosen for his mission because of his skill in caring for animals.  “The Holy One, Blessed Be He, said ‘Since you (Moses) are merciful to the flock of a human being, you shall be the shepherd of My flock, Israel.'” We also note that Rebekah was chosen as a wife for Isaac because of her kindness to animals. When Abraham’s servant asked for water for himself, she volunteered to water his camels as well, and thereby proved herself a worthy wife.

Animal abuse lingers

Lions communicate with one another to keep social order. The dominant males are most apt to let a member of the pride know when he or she is out of order.

Lions communicate with one another to keep social order. The dominant males are most apt to let a member of the pride know when he or she is out of order.

Unfortunately, around the world, some people do not always follow the rules! There are those humans who mistakenly believe that since human needs take priority, animal rights are not an urgent issue.

That has been the case throughout the ages. The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus wrote in 97 AD about the hideous acts committed against animals and humans in Roman arenas in his Antiquities of the Jews: “Herod also got together a great quantity of wild beasts, and of lions in very great abundance, and of such other beasts as were either of uncommon strength or of such a sort as were rarely seen. These were trained either to fight one with another, or men who were condemned to death were to fight with them. And truly foreigners were greatly surprised and delighted at the vast expenses of the shows, and at the great danger of the spectacles, but to the Jews it was a palpable breaking up of those customs for which they had so great a veneration.”

Judaism and Islam have both recognized the link between the way a person treats animals and the way a person treats human beings. A person who is cruel to a defenseless animal will undoubtedly be cruel to defenseless people. St. Francis concurred, “If you have men who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men.” Modern psychology confirms this understanding, with many studies finding a relationship between childhood animal cruelty and adult criminal violence.

Some people find excuses to inflict deliberate harm on certain animals, such as dogs and roosters. These actions fly in the face of Jewish, Christian and Islamic teachings, and the best way to combat such ignorance is through education and by good example. Individuals, houses of worship and governments have an important role to play in educating the public about the proper care of our animal friends.

Poaching of endangered species and illegal markets for ivory, tiger oil, etc., breed corruption and lead to the extinction of certain animals like tigers, rhinos. and others.

Numerous organizations have been formed through the years to ensure animals’ rights and protection. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF), (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) are but a few. Such organizations are now found in every US state and in many foreign nations.

God’s heavenly pets!

God has awesome love and appreciation for his created animals. He even has animals around his throne in heaven! They are the “living creatures” we read about in the New Testament book of Revelation. The Greek word translated “living creatures” is zoon. It is the word from which the English word “zoo” is derived.

It is said that these heavenly animals were created for the express purpose of shouting out praises to God, saying, “Holy! Holy! Holy! The Lord God! The Almighty!”

Even though these creatures are highly intelligent and expressive, they’re still animals. That’s what the Bible calls them!

In writing this article I ran across this Muslim children’s song. Enjoy this music which celebrates God’s animals.

Postscript… And then came “Abra”!

Sam's tiny "miracle kitten" named "Abra"!

Sam’s tiny “miracle kitten” named “Abra”!

After I posted the above article, I walked out my front door in Jeddah, and started singing loudly,  “All creatures of our God and King! Life up your voice and with us sing!” As soon as those words came out of my mouth, an emaciated tiny, little kitten bounded across that busy street and fell down at my feet. It just lay their meowing! I leaned over, picked it up, and began looking for the mother. No other cats were in sight.

I took the kitten home. I mistakenly gave it solid food, and it got very sick. A veterinarian friend told me the kitten was only two weeks old,  too young for solid food. I was told to give it only a powdered animal milk, which I mixed with water and dished out  4 times a day. The kitten came alive–running, jumping! I promtly named the kitten “Abra” (Arabic, meaning “dedicated to God.”

But then in typical human fashion I began grumbling to God, “Why did you give me this needy 3-week-old kitten to take care of when You know I have to leave for the US in a few days! What am I going to do with this kitten?”

I kept looking for someone in Saudi Arabia to take my kitten. No one was willing to do so because Saudis don’t let animals in their homes. So I kept praying. Just a few hours before I had to leave for the airport I still had no one who would care for this kitten. Three hours before I had to leave for the airport, I ran to a meeting nearby where I am editing a photo album about Mecca. Khalid, the owner of the company, asked me if I had everything in order for my trip. I told him about the kitten to which he replied, “That isn’t anything I can do. Animals are not permitted in my home.”

I responded in despair with these exact words: “Khalid, please pray that I can find someone who loves cats.” We continued with our business meeting. About 30 minutes later a gentleman, a copywrite eidtor by the name of Hafeez, walked into the meeting. We continued with our discussion about the book, and that Hafeez’ phone rang. It wasn’t a normal ringing sound. His phone was going, “Meow! Meow! Meow!” We all laughed, and then this man said, totally unaware of what I had said to my friend just a few minutes earlier, “I love cats so much!”

Khalid and I stared at each other in amazement. Here was the man God had picked to love and care for this tiny kitten! Hafeez gladly went home with me to take charge “Abra.” This three-week-old kitten is, indeed, a miracle kitten.

I received a message just today from Hafeez who assures me the kitten is doing well and is in good hands. He says, “Welcome back to Saudi Arabia, Uncle Sam! ‘Abra’ is the star of our house. My mother and my sisters fell in love with her, and they are feeding her gourmet food!”

Truly, if God cares so much in providing for this poor, homeless kitten; how much more must He care for us!

October 28, 2013 Posted by | Animal Rights, Interfaith, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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