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I just made a really important decision: the books I plan to bring with me during two weeks of travel insha’Allah.

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If you can’t read the titles in the photo, here they are:

  • The Fourteen Infallibles by Ammar Nakshawani: Contemporary reflections on Shi’i sacred history.
  • The Traveler’s Guide to Space by Neil Comins: Description of how space travel works and what to expect in the coming decades.
  • Augustine of Hippo by Peter Brown: Detailed biography of one of Christianity’s most revered saints.
  • The Origins and Early Development of Shi’a Islam by S. H. M. Jafri: Academic-devotional study of early Islamic history.
  • India: A Sacred Geography by Diana Eck:  Study of how the geography of India is an essential aspect of the Hindu tradition.

If you have read or are reading any of these texts, please send me your thoughts! While I am looking forward to a change of pace (traveling to Georgia, Texas, and Martha’s Vineyard back-to-back insha’Allah), I will miss my library. But at least I can make an attempt to find someone to engage with online in regards to my vacation bibliography!

In the meantime, an early Eid Mubarak to all of you!

!كل عام و أنتم بخير

the long road

I have literally been pondering a question for at least 6 months, without finding anything in “the tradition” that elucidates the issue clearly and without ambiguity. Yesterday, I sat down on my couch, looked at my bookshelf, saw a book, and went and opened it. Without any effort, I found the answer.

The intellectual instinct only develops after the development of the carnal desires, anger, and other blameworthy characteristics which Satan uses as his medium to seduce people. The intellect only reaches perfection around the age of forty years. Its formative stage is only complete at adolescence, and its fundamentals only begin to appear after the age of seven. The carnal desires are the troops of Satan, while intellects are the troops of the angels. When the two meet, they inevitably fight since neither allows the other to persist. They are in opposition, antagonistic – like night and day, light and darkness; when one prevails, it necessarily irks the other. If the carnal desires develop fully in a child or youth before the intellect is perfected, the forces of Satan will have a head start. They will seize the grounds and descend upon the heart, which will incline to them. Without doubt, that person will habitually side with the carnal desires and be overpowered by them; uprooting them will be very difficult.

Then, the intellect – which is the legion of Allah, the saviour of His saints from the hands of His enemies – will appear bit by bit. If it does not develop to full strength, the kingdom of the heart will surrender to Satan, who will carry out what he swore when he said, “I will surely bring his descendants under my sway, all but a few” (17.62). But if the intellect develops to full strength, its first task will be to quell the troops of Satan by breaking the carnal desires, abandoning habits, and fighting inner inclinations so that worshipfulness will prevail…

In all of existence, there is no person whose intellect is not preceded by his carnal desires; the drive which serves as a tool of Satan precedes the drive which serves as a tool for the angels. Returning from that former state, which was reached with the aid of the carnal desires, is essential for every person…

This is from the book “Spiritual Mysteries and Ethical Secrets” by Mulla Muhsin Fayd Kashani (p. 573-4). It comes during a discussion of repentance (tawba). He shows how the intellect is the aspect of the human personality that takes repentance seriously. Its main enemy is a different aspect of the human personality based on desire, which he states in another passage as being founded fundamentally on our yearnings for food and sex (p. 114-5). As he states, “they are in opposition,” and the intellect only develops later in life, yet must fight hard against desires “to erase their traces which have been impressed on the heart” (p. 575).

This is a perfect description of my own experience of converting to Islam at the age of 19, and now continuing to struggle against my self at the age of 38. I literally feel myself grappling with elements of my self that I can clearly see existed within me at least as early as junior high in the early 90s. I am literally trying to become an adult who I have never actually been. Mind boggling.

For me, this is clear and unequivocal “wisdom of the tradition,” and I feel I found it at precisely the moment God intended me to find it. Of course, it is entirely possible that somewhere deep in my brain I knew where it was, since I read this book a year and half ago. But it felt like a “soft miracle” when I found it yesterday, explaining for me the reality of my spiritual journey (suluk). As they say, God works in mysterious ways that I still don’t fully understand. All I know is that I am in need, and God is the Provider.

But as I once reminded myself,

This is the most serious type of knowledge, because it demands that I bring all of myself to its doorstep. I must check my intention, for it demands sincerity. I must be committed to pushing my self, because it demands improvement. I must admit my inevitable limitations, for it demands that I read in the name of “the One who taught by the pen / taught humanity that which they did not know.” This type of knowledge is unique because it has no meaning unless it is embodied – one might read one line that takes years to implement in one’s life.

Indeed, what Fayd Kashani has described in a few paragraphs is the essence of the greatest challenge I have ever faced, unfolding over almost two decades. As I reflect on this, I wonder where I might be two decades hence, at the ripe old age of 58 insha’Allah. Better yet, where will I be 40 days from now, on September 20th? Perhaps with the help of your prayers, I will be better than I am, by God’s Grace.

So please pray for me. I need it, for even though the road has been long, I am still only in the middle of my journey.

حسبي الله

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وَأَمَّا بِنِعْمَةِ رَبِّكَ فَحَدِّثْ

and as for your Lord’s blessing, proclaim it! (93.11)

I exist. Is there anything more remarkable than that?! That in the approximately 14,000,000,000 years that this Universe has been developing, at this moment it has given rise to me right now?!

Has there been for man a period of time when he was not anything worthy of mention? (76.1)

Subhan Allah! سبحان الله

Ya Musawwir (O Fashioner)! يا مصور

It is literally impossible for my mind to encompass the entirety of the material processes through which I have come to exist, and sit typing these words.

If you enumerate Allah’s blessings, you will not be able to count them. Indeed Allah is all-forgiving, all-merciful. (16.18)

Of all that could have been created, I am one of the possible existents that has form. What a joy that You have made me exist, my Lord, and blessed me to worship You! I wish I could bottle this feeling. I wish I could let every single human being know that they are an expression of Love. That their fingers were chosen specifically by the Creator of all that has ever existed.

Yes indeed, We are able to proportion [even] his fingertips! (75.4)

Ya Wadud (O Loving)! يا ودود

You made me! You opened my eyes to the wonders of the world You created! You gave me a tongue through which I can taste every marvelous miracle You have invented! You make the heart beat in my chest every day so that I can walk around this planet that You have spread out for us!

O You who gave rise to my creation, to the remembrance of me, to the nurture of me, to goodness toward me and to nourishment on me, Bestow upon me for the sake of Your having given rise [to me] with generosity and Your previous goodness to me! (Du’a Kumayl)

How could anyone be described with generosity in light of Your generosity! You share with us something of Being that is inherent to You alone, and by that gift everything we have ever known is made possible! Every lover’s love! Every dreamers dream! Every hopers hope! It is all with You, by You, through You!!!

…Surely it is said of a thing that was not, and then was, ‘When was it?’ But my Lord-blessed is He and high exalted – was ever-living without ‘how’ and had no ‘was’. His Being had no ‘how’, nor had it any ‘where’. He was not in anything, nor was He on anything. He did not bring into existence a place for His Being. He increased not in strength after bringing things into being, nor was He weak before bringing things into being. And He was not lonely before creating things. He resembles nothing brought into being…His Being has no ‘how’, nor has it any ‘where’, nor has it any limit. He is not known through anything resembling Him. He ages not through the duration of His subsistence…He was the First, without ‘how’, and He will be the Last, without ‘where’. And “All things perish, except His Face” (28.88). “His are the creation and the command. Blessed be God, the Lord of all beings!” (7.54)… (narrated from Imam al-Baqir, upon him peace)

Allah Allah Allah! الله الله الله

In this moment, my Lord, I beseech You to grant the best of this life and the next to all living human beings! Those I know and those I do not and those I never will! For You know them all, because You created them!!! Thank you, thank you, thank you for the gift of life!

Ya Hayy (O Living) Ya Muhyi (O Giver of Life)! يا حي يا محيي

I have no words left. There is nothing I can say that even begins to express these truths. So let me end with Your Words.

O people! If you are in doubt about the resurrection, [consider that] We indeed created you from dust, then from a drop of [seminal] fluid, then from a clinging mass, then from a fleshy tissue, partly formed and partly unformed, so that We may manifest [Our power] to you. We establish in the wombs whatever We wish for a specified term, then We bring you forth as infants, then [We rear you] so that you may come of age. [Then] there are some of you who are taken away, and there are some of you who are relegated to the nethermost age, so that he knows nothing after [having possessed] some knowledge. And you see the earth torpid, yet when We send down water upon it, it stirs and swells, and grows every delightful kind [of plant]. That is because Allah is the Reality and it is He who revives the dead, and He has power over all things (22.5-6)

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These words are written as advice for my own intellect. If you have something to share in regards to the same theme, I would very much like to benefit from you!

***

There are 4 verses in the Qur’an where the word “the trusting (al-mutawakkilun)” is used.

It is by Allah’s mercy that you are gentle to them; and had you been harsh and hardhearted, surely they would have scattered from around you. So excuse them, and plead for forgiveness for them, and consult them in the affairs, and once you are resolved, put your trust in Allah. Indeed Allah loves those who trust in Him. (3.159)

Commentators say this verse refers to the aftermath of the Battle of Uhud.

And he said, ‘My sons, do not enter by one gate, but enter by separate gates, though I cannot avail you anything against Allah. Sovereignty belongs only to Allah. In Him I have put my trust; and in Him let all the trusting put their trust.’ (12.67)

Commentators say that Jacob’s advice, upon him peace, to enter by separate gates was meant to protect his sons from those who might intend to do them harm.

And why should we not put our trust in Allah, seeing that He has guided us in our ways? Surely, we will put up patiently with whatever torment you may inflict upon us, and in Allah let all the trusting put their trust.’ (14.12)

The surrounding verses indicate that these are words of previous prophets, upon them peace, in response to the dismissals and threats of their people.

If you ask them, ‘Who created the heavens and the earth?’ they will surely say, ‘Allah.’ Say, ‘Have you considered what you invoke besides Allah? Should Allah desire some distress for me, can they remove the distress visited by Him? Or should He desire some mercy for me, can they withhold His mercy?’ Say, ‘Allah is sufficient for me. In Him let all the trusting put their trust.’  (39.38)

The surrounding verses indicate that this conversation happened between the Prophet, blessings and peace upon him and his family, and his people in regards to their polytheistic culture.

In all of these verses, the exemplars of “the trusting (al-mutawakkilun)” are the prophets, upon them peace. When we reflect on their lives and missions, what they were able to confront is remarkable. In regards to the first verse, the context is warfare and politics. In the second, we witness an elderly man worried about the fate of his children as they travel to a foreign land in response to a famine. In the third, social weakness is a reality and threats from those with power are real. Finally, the fourth verse reminds us that the Prophet, upon him and his family peace, was tasked with changing the fundamental basis of an entire culture.

Needless to say, the challenges that I face are not comparable. But the anxiety that I feel about them is real nonetheless. Listening to the words of the Qur’an reminds me that “Allah is sufficient for me” and is the One in whom I should place my trust.

Reflecting on how I got to this moment deepens my awareness of God’s arrangement of the Universe, and increases my trust in God in regards to the unknown future. As stated by a writer from long ago:

Satisfaction with that which God does and causes to happen is attained by reflecting on one’s past condition, when He brought one into existence when one knew nothing. Then He fashioned numerous signs of His wisdom in his creation, so much so that one would not be able to know one out of a thousand of them in a lifetime. Then, without any prior request, He brought him up taking care of everything related to his inward and outward aspects, wherewith he can survive and grow from deficiency to perfection. [Were one to reflect upon these facts], he would know that whatever will happen in the future also will not be without His providence and will. Thence he would trust Him, the Exalted, and would not worry regarding the remaining matters…

How true this is!

May God make us from amongst those who trust in God!

اللهم اجعلنا من المتوكلين

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i hate my self

I don’t want to write this, but I think I should.

This blog goes back to 2008. In the last 9 years, I could have written this post probably a hundred times or more.

This is about failure, weakness, and the desire to give up.

I don’t have anything profound to say, just the admission that there are moments when I feel empty. I usually write about trying to change my self and the world at the same time. That is where I invest my time and money. But alongside that narrative are incongruous moments, times when I just want to stop everything and embrace my self and the world as we are, warts and all.

I have written about specific personal struggles, the overwhelmingness of earthly injustice, hope for liberation, imperfect foundations, being overwhelmed by darkness, and so much more. What I have never mentioned is flirting with the final abdication.

It is not the Eternal Sovereign who can abdicate. Only we can do that. It comes from listening to the whispers of the egotistical self (nafs):

Stop trying to change.

Be who you are.

God does not need you to be perfect.

God is the Most Forgiving.

Do something you love.

Be happy.

For the self only says these words in order to get what it wants, whether it be halal or haram. To feel free from the demands of submitting to commands and prohibitions it finds distasteful. To live life on its own terms.

Revelation does not address the self, but the intellect (‘aql).

لَقَدْ أَنزَلْنَا إِلَيْكُمْ كِتَابًا فِيهِ ذِكْرُكُمْ أَفَلَا تَعْقِلُونَ

And now We have sent down to you [people] a Scripture to remind you. Will you not use your reason [ta’qilun]? (21.10)

The intellect comprehends ethical obligation (taklif) and responds accordingly. As the first hadith in al-Kafi states:

When God created intellect, he gave it the faculty of language and said, ‘Come forward,’ whereupon it came forward. Then he said to it, ‘Go back,’ whereupon it went back. Then he said, ‘By my might and my majesty, I have not created a creature more beloved to me than you, and I have not perfected you except in whom I love. Let it be known! You alone do I command, and you alone do I forbid. [According to you] alone do I punish, and [according] to you alone do I confer reward.” [trans. by Rizwan Arastu]

And so when the intellect is in control, one’s life is focused on obedience to God and the hope for eternal reward. One strives to attain servanthood (‘ubudiya) and submission (taslim).

But the self hates servanthood and submission. It hates it so so much. It hates it more than anything else. And so it rebels any way it can. And sometimes, the rebellion goes so well that the self rules for a time. It deploys time, health, wealth, and everything else at its command to get more of what it wants.

If the intellect does not regain its throne, disaster is inevitable. But it is not always easy to rouse its armies. Pleasure feels better than pain. Freedom is more enjoyable than enslavement. Experiencing something is usually more fun than sacrificing it. Peace is preferred to struggle. The possibilities of the material now are more intoxicating than promises for a metaphysical future. And so moments of discord and disunity emerge within our own being.

Right now, I am not going to tell you that my intellect has a plan to extinguish the rebellion. Rather, I am writing this at a moment when the intellect wants to give the self control of a province.

I am so tired of this seemingly endless war.

But I know the self, intimately. It is satisfied with nothing less than complete victory. It wants to live in a world where even God is a projection of its own desires. And so peace is impossible, even though at this moment I want more than anything to believe that God will forgive me even if I stop trying.

“Fight your self so that it obeys God, just as an enemy would fight an enemy. Overcome the self just as opponent would overcome an opponent. For surely the most powerful person is the one who has power over their self.” – Imam ‘Ali عليه السلام

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I just completed re-reading the Qur’an translation I had been using in the months before I converted to Islam in 1998. I formulated this personal goal in response to a question that consumes me: how does God guide people?

When I face reality as clearly as I can see it, I accept that I was not guided to Islam by a Muslim with beautiful clothing and impeccable manners. I did not travel abroad and experience a “traditional” culture. There were no scholars who had spent decades studying at the feet of bearded masters, nor mystics performing miracles and serving the downtrodden. Rather, there was a book in my hand as I sat in the Canadian wilderness. Surrounded by myriad signs of the Creator, this one book made me feel that The Author of the universe has a Voice.

And ever since then, I have listened for that Voice as best I can. I am not a scholar of the Qur’an by any standard, but I have read and pondered it far more than anything else in my time on Earth. While there is much that I desire to learn and experience, the Qur’an always triumphs in the long term, like a deep love from the past that can never be replaced. We were meant for each other, from time immemorial and for time everlasting.

For what is faith but a feeling you have when you hold a book in your hand?

Allah has (now) revealed the fairest of statements, a Scripture consistent, (wherein promises of reward are) paired (with threats of punishment), whereat does tremble the skins of those who fear their Lord, then their skins and their hearts soften to Allah’s reminder. Such is Allah’s guidance, wherewith He guides whom He will. And him whom Allah sends astray, for him there is no guide.*

When God tells us about a place of everlasting beauty where all sadness will disappear like a dream, do we feel motivation in our hearts to change our lives for it?

And vie one with another for forgiveness from your Lord, and for a Paradise as wide as are the heavens and the earth, prepared for those who ward off (evil)

When a place of just retribution filled with pain and suffering is described, do our eyes shed tears at the possibility we and our loved ones may end up there?

O you who believe! Ward off from yourselves and your families a Fire whereof the fuel is men and stones, over which are set angels strong, severe, who resist not Allah in that which He commands them, but do that which they are commanded

When the fact that we once did not exist is mentioned to prove that we will live again after we die, can we taste that certain truth?

How disbelieve you in Allah when you were dead and He gave life to you! then he will give you death, then life again, and then unto Him you will return

When stories of men and women from ancient civilizations are brought forth to show us the sacrifice it takes to succeed, are we inspired to walk in their footsteps?

In their history verily there is a lesson for men of understanding. It is no invented story but a confirmation of the existing (Scripture) and a detailed explanation of everything, and a guidance and a mercy for folk who believe

In 1998, I was probably sitting in a cafe at some point reading these same pages, and feeling the whisper of faith enter my heart. It is now 2017, and I again sit in a cafe feeling the reality of God. Human history is coming to an end. Final Judgement is real. July 16th, 2017 is just a moment, and then it will be gone. But our intentions, choices, and deeds will remain. Forever.

When Earth is shaken with her (final) earthquake

And Earth yields up her burdens,

and man said: What ails her?

That day she will relate her chronicles,

Because your Lord inspires her.

That day mankind will issue forth in scattered groups to be shown their deeds.

And who does good an atom’s weight will see it then,

And who does ill an atom’s weight will see it then.

The Qur’an confounds our humanly-constructed notions of time and space. Pre-creation, the distant past, the present, and the eternal future are all weaved together. God knows everything there is to know, and what we understand is so little.

And with Him are the keys of the invisible. None but He knows them. And He knows what is in the land and the sea. Not a leaf falls but He knows it, not a grain amid the darkness of the earth, nothing of wet or dry but (it is noted) in a clear record.

It is not my intention to tell you what the Qur’an means. I have but one goal: to encourage you to pick up the Qur’an again for yourself. To embrace it into your being as best you can. It is meant for you in a unique way that I will never know. What verses will cause your heart to burn inside your chest and your body to shake are not up to me. As far as I can tell, that is God’s domain alone.

He it is Who sends down clear revelations unto His slave, that He may bring you forth from darkness unto light; and lo! for you, Allah is full of Pity, Merciful

May the Author of the universe and the Qur’an bring us from darkness unto light.

*all translations of Qur’anic verses from the text in the picture

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Signs

I had to fill in this afternoon for a friend’s pre-iftar halaqa. I chose as my topic Surah al-Taghabun. In commenting on the second ayah – “[Allah] created you and from you are disbelievers and from you are believers” – I remarked that all of us living today have to look for signs that we may be true believers (mu’minun). It is not the case that we have access to an infallible leader who tells us exactly what to do, like how the Prophet (blessings and peace be upon him and his family) told the archers at Uhud not to abandon their posts. Those of previous generations had to struggle to live up to the demands of following an infallible (ma’sum) directly. Part of our unique struggle is holding onto faith in the face of so many fallible leaders who cannot answer our questions, let alone deliver trustworthy commands. But we are not off the hook, because we still know without a doubt that we must, for example, fast during the month of Ramadan. So when we gather together to reflect on Allah’s Book right before breaking our fast, we can take it as a good sign.

Later on, while reflecting on a portion of the third ayah – “and [Allah] formed you and perfected your forms” – I spent some time reflecting on the physicality of the Garden (al-Jannah). Contrary to other religious traditions, both Sunni and Shi’i theology affirms that our bodies will be recreated in a more exalted form than our current body. Pleasure will be more pleasurable. We will be more beautiful. Our capacities to experience the blessings of God will be far beyond what we are currently capable of. And in reflecting on that, I mentioned that the joy we get when we break our fast is a reminder of the joy we will experience, by God’s Grace (rahma), when we break our fast from this world. For it is normal and natural to want to experience things with our bodies. Food, drink, spending time with friends and family, romantic encounters filled with desire – these are all part of how Allah created us as embodied entities. Our faith teaches us that God’s Bounty (fadl) has no limit, and that what we must avoid in this world is not to make us depressed, but rather to prepare us for eternal enjoyments that our minds literally cannot fathom.

And so when we closed with a du’a, right before breaking our fast, we asked God to grant us all those things. Things that will make us know so deeply and eternally that with God there is no real loss. For the believer there is only gain upon gain.

And so my heart trembled when I opened the Qur’an on this blessed night and read the following words:

Those who were mindful of God are in Gardens and in bliss, rejoicing in their Lord’s gifts: He has saved them from the torment of the Blaze, ‘Eat and drink with healthy enjoyment as a reward for what you have done.’ They are comfortably seated on couches arranged in rows; We pair them with beautiful-eyed maidens; We unite the believers with their offspring who followed them in faith––We do not deny them any of the rewards for their deeds: each person is in pledge for his own deeds––We provide them with any fruit or meat they desire. They pass around a cup which does not lead to any idle talk or sin. Devoted youths like hidden pearls wait on them. They turn to one another and say, ‘When we were still with our families [on earth] we used to live in fear–– God has been gracious to us and saved us from the torment of intense heat- We used to pray to Him: He is the Good, the Merciful One.’ (al-Tur, 17-28)

We look for signs, and when we receive them, we are grateful for the God who reminds us that our prayers are heard. I am not sure I can think of a more vivid and concise portion of the Qur’an that expresses what I was speaking about earlier tonight. For I had even mentioned that fear – the feeling that how can things truly work out when in human history so many righteous people suffer and so many tyrants prosper. And so I reflected for a bit on the example of Imam Husayn, upon him peace. He reminds us that even if you have to watch most of your family die at the hands of other Muslims shouting out “Allahu akbar” – a tragically common occurrence these days – there is nothing that can keep us from the promise of Allah. If someone is prevented by their oppressors even from the simple joy of drinking water, know that the Divine banquet on the other side of the veil has neither limit nor end. If a cruel and callous world cannot find the money to keep millions from starving to death while the overlords of Makkah and Madinah spend billions on weapons, then surely the God of Justice will provide whatever food and drink people longed for that they were denied in this world by the injustice of humanity.

These signs are essential, but they are no guarantee. The road ahead may be long, so we must continue to strive as best we can. But we hope and pray on this blessed 27th night of Ramadan that we can join Imam Husayn by Allah’s Mercy. That even though there are times when we don’t feel strong enough to be like Hurr, a wind of Divine mercy will blow at our backs and carry us, despite our weakness, to the joyful triumph. For then fear and sadness will be no more, and we can be those who look back and say: “We used to pray to Him: He is the Good, the Merciful One.”

ala-ina-awliya-Allah

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