Imam Khalid Latif is blogging his reflections during the month of Ramadan for the third year in a row, featured daily on HuffPost Religion. For a complete record of his previous posts, click over to the Islamic Center at New York University or visit his author page, and to follow along with the rest of his reflections, sign up for an author email alert above, visit his Facebook page or follow him on Twitter.
The Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessing of God be upon him, once told his companions "Indeed God has vessels amongst the people of the Earth, and the vessels of your Lord are the hearts of His righteous servants. The most beloved to Him are those which are most delicate and tender."
There is a strong emphasis in the Islamic tradition about taking care of one's heart and ensuring that it maintains the level of cultivation that it is due. The heart's function is to love and it will love that which we put in its presence, so a certain mindfulness is needed in order to avoid allowing for it to be an abode of things that are neither healthy for it or for us.
In the latter part of this particular narration, the Prophet Muhammad is highlighting two characteristics that if possessed by a heart enables that heart to stand out amongst others when he says "Ahabuhaa alyanuhaa wa araquhaa" -- "the most beloved to Him are those which are most delicate and tender."
The Arabic language is so rich and beautiful and meanings can easily get lost in translation. I'd like to focus on the the word alyanuhaa and perhaps at a later time visit the rest. Coming from the Arabic word leen, it denotes a delicateness that at times is lost upon us. This delicateness is such that the possessor of it is willing and welcoming of guidance and advice as opposed to becoming argumentative and taking things as overt and unnecessary criticism.
Especially as we get older, our tolerance for taking advice from those around us wanes substantially. It is definitely hard to fit into religious communities, and there are those who should never be giving advice or counsel as they seem to bear no wisdom and focused more in merely conveying than thinking out how to actually convey. I'm sure all of us can recount numerous instances when we were left in awe as to the way someone talked to us or treated us under the guise of religious authority. But our respective growth cannot be stifled because of a bitterness that turns into an unwillingness to take from the perspective of others.
I remember once a few years ago an elderly man in our congregation approached me after our Friday prayer service. He was an immigrant with a deep south asian accent and was wearing a shalwar kameez. He had a long beard and covered his head. He asked me to speak for a moment and told me that he enjoys listening to my sermons and it's always nice to be around our center. After a few more formalities he then looked at my jeans, torn at the ankles and folding beneath my feet, and asked me "Don't you think it's important for you to roll up your pant legs, as was the custom of the Prophet Muhammad, rather than have them drag on the floor?"
In our tradition, it's recommended for one to not have their garments dragging on the ground. My initial reaction was to defend myself. Thoughts popped into my head that question the validity of this man's assumption that he could even criticize me. In mere moments, I played out numerous ideas that made easy for me to roll my eyes and be dismissive of him. Everything inside of me was saying, "Who does he think he is?" But one thought was able to permeate through and after taking a breath and thinking, I looked to him and said, "Thank you, uncle. You're right." There wasn't really any disputing that.
Ramadan is about self-recognition and purifying one's heart. It's about not just fighting against but defeating the ego and moving away from a self-centered worldview towards one that is beyond one's self in aspiration of becoming God-centric. When the advice comes, even if poorly given, try to focus more on what is being said rather than how it is being said or who is saying it. At the end of the assessment you'll either fine that their point of view is valid or you'll be more reinforced in your point of view because it is valid -- in both there is benefit. But if we rely solely on ourselves to determine where we can improve, the growth will hardly come and our movement to obtaining our full potential will be that much harder of a process.