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I have been thinking a lot lately about my deepest longings, and how it relates to how I spend my days and nights, and my future goals.

Nothing expresses it better than this, part of a larger poem:

This night will end, but I have this here to remind myself.

Always.

الله الله الله
اللهم صل على محمد و آل محمد

In Memory of Eric Garner

إنا لله و إنا إليه راجعون

Abraham Lincoln speculated in his second inaugural address that the Civil War was expiation for the sin of slavery. He said, “Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'” If he was correct in his political theology, then what does God have in store for everything that has happened since 1865? What is the expiation for Jim Crow, sharecropping, the prison-industrial complex, COINTELPRO directed at black communities, lynchings, police brutality, and so much more? What is the expiation for Eric Garner and the thousands upon thousands of others, both the names we know and the ones we do not? The calamity of the American Civil War befell all – hardly a household existed that did not taste grief and loss. In order to seek refuge in the Merciful from a similar calamity befalling our generation, or our children’s generation, we need to collectively turn toward our Creator and seek to redress the uncountable racial injustices of our society.

Khurram Murad wrote: “We should make our basic Islamic message relevant to the concerns and experiences of the average Westerner as well as of their societies…why should the Islamic message remain unconcerned with the questions of nuclear weapons, unemployment, old age…Prophet Noah’s message dealt with caste and class differences; that of Prophet Hud with imperialism, wastage of public resources and domination by tyrant rulers; that of Prophet Lot with permissiveness; that of Prophet Shu’ayb with injustice and economic maladies; that of Prophet Moses with the tyranny and oppression perpetrated by Pharaoh. In the same way our message must deal with the problems of our day.” May peace be upon all the noble Prophets of God, amen. The entirety of the 23-year mission of the Prophet Muhammad, blessings and peace upon him and his family, involved a systematic confrontation with the various problems of his society. Zaid Shakir reminds us that, “In the Qur’an, darkness is always mentioned in its plural form—dhulumat. This emphasizes that the varieties of darkness are many. Among them we could mention, idolatry, disbelief, oppression, lying, cheating, fornication, stealing, doubt, pornography, gluttony, etc.” True spirituality that follows the prophetic model necessitates individual and collective action to push back against the forces of darkness as much as possible, relying on Allah for victory against the oppressors within the self and in the larger society.

When we look in the Islamic spiritual tradition, we find confirmation of this need to engage with what is happening around us. Abdullah al-Haddad writes, elucidating the relationship between this awareness and our spiritual growth, “if you find in yourself…no loathing for the people of evil because of their evil, then know that your faith is weak.” In a hadith of Ja’far al-Sadiq, commenting on the possibility of complicity in evil, he warns: “He who commits an act of injustice, as well as he who aids him and he who endorses it, they are all equally held accountable for it.” ‘Ali Zayn al-‘Abidin turned to Allah in his confrontation with injustice – for he was under government surveillance his whole life – when he prayed, “O God, bless Muhammad and his Household, let the wrongdoer not find it easy to wrong me, give me good help against him, preserve me from the like of his acts, and place me not in the like of his situation! O God, bless Muhammad and his Household, and assist me with an immediate assistance that will heal my rage toward him, and redeem my fury toward him!” Faiyaz Jaffer summed it when he said, “the greatest Yazid of our time is our own self. Once we have defeated that, then nothing will stop us from making changes in community, in society.” Put simply, spirituality and activism are two sides of the same coin.

In the American context, the individual who has arguably had the greatest spiritual influence on the Muslim community is Malcolm X. He has been calling Americans back to Allah for multiple generations now, myself included. What does it mean that so many from radically different backgrounds were moved by his message? He was an ex-con, radical Black nationalist, and post-colonial revolutionary. He saw in Islam a way out for America: “But as racism leads America up the suicide path, I do believe, from the experiences that I have had with them, that the whites of the younger generation, in the colleges and universities, will see the handwriting on the walls and many of them will turn to the spiritual path of truth – the only way left to America to ward off the disaster that racism inevitably must lead to.” And some have heeded the call. But not enough. At least not yet.

In Malcolm’s last speech, given at Barnard College in Manhattan, he spoke of “living in an era of revolution” wherein the Blackamerican “must take any means necessary to secure his full rights as an individual human being.” This era is still ongoing. When you have seen the streets of Manhattan filled with protestors, and the traffic stopped in all direction, you know that what Malcolm warned us about is still ongoing. From 1965 until 2016 and beyond, the struggle continues. Prophetically warning us against a facile rhetoric of reconciliation, he also said in that speech, “the white man has long preached an empty doctrine of brotherhood which means little more than a passive acceptance of his fate by the Negro.” It is not the oppressor who gets to dictate the terms of when society has changed enough. As MLK said in his famous letter: “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”

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Millions March NYC, December 13th, 2014

Talking about the God of Mercy has become the default for many young Muslims in America, and rightly so. None of us are without desperate need for Divine Mercy, and we ask al-Rahman al-Raheem to be merciful to us, our families, our friends, our colleagues, our neighbors, and many more that we do not know. However, there is also the God of Justice, for there can be no mercy without justice. Part of the mercy of the Prophet Muhammad, blessings and peace be upon him and his family, came through his role as a warner. He warned of the eternal Fire so that human beings could avoid it. He warned of punishment in this world so that people could make choices that led away from it. This is a large part of the Qur’anic message. When the people of Hell say, “If only we had been listening or reasoning, we would not be among the companions of the Blaze,” (67.10) they are affirming the fact that they had a choice to listen and reflect, or to ignore and go on with business as usual. So we need to listen to what God is telling us – through the words of sacred texts, the outcries in society, and the conscience within – and encourage others to listen as well.

On the Last Day, God will give human beings the opportunity to seek retribution from those who did them wrong and usurped their rights. Muhammad Emir Er writes, “Part of judgement on the Day of Arising is concerned with harms done against others in this life, for which those harmed have the right to expect retribution.” [The Soul of Islam, p. 111] One wonders what Eric Garner might do to Daniel Pantaleo on that day, or what any of those innocent souls who were killed without right might do to those who took their life. But it is not just the killer who is on the hook. What role did we play in this state of affairs? Have we already forgotten about Eric Garner? In another hadith of Ja’far al-Sadiq he states, “Whoever aids the oppressor rather than the oppressed will continue to incur God’s wrath until he stops assisting the oppressor.”

The conversation centered on #BlackLivesMatter is not going away.  We can’t pretend like none of this happened. That we didn’t see video after video of unarmed black men and women shot and beaten up by police. That the streets of Manhattan and many other cities in America have not been filled with protests.

Americans in general are wary of “repent for the end is nigh!” talk, but just because something is a trope doesn’t mean it is not true. When and how God chooses to punish, we cannot say with certainty, but it is certain that God punishes. If we take Lincoln’s theological analysis seriously, we can say that perhaps if more people had fought harder against slavery, the devastation of war could have been averted.

Noam Chomsky has written: “As long as the general population is passive, apathetic, diverted to consumerism or hatred of the vulnerable, then the powerful can do as they please…” So let us each stand up and speak truth to the unjust tyrant in our own selves – the voice within that is trying to get us to do nothing. Oppose the unjustifiable thought that we are better than Eric Garner, and that if Eric Garner had been more like us, he would still be alive and with his family right now.

garner death

No. No human soul deserves to die like that. Eric Garner did not deserve what happened to him, neither in the balance of the shari’a, nor in the balance of the subtleties of mystical insight, nor in the balance of American law. It was a clear injustice, an injustice that repeats itself over and over. God is al-Mumit (The Causer of Death), but never wills injustice to His servants: “Never will I be unjust to the servants.” (50.29) And so when injustice occurs, and keeps occurring, the onus is on us.

We ask God to make us people who embody justice, heeding the advice of ‘Ali b. Abi Talib when he wrote to his governor Malik al-Ashtar:

“Do justice for Allah and do justice towards the people, as against yourself, your near ones and those of your subjects for whom you have a liking, because if you do not do so you will be oppressive, and when a person oppresses the creatures of Allah then, instead of His creatures, Allah becomes his opponent, and when Allah is the opponent of a person He tramples his plea; and he will remain in the position of being at war with Allah until he gives it up and repents. Nothing is more inducive of the reversal of Allah’s bounty or for the hastening of His retribution than continuance in oppression, because Allah hears the prayer of the oppressed and is on the look out for the oppressors.”

And God knows best.

the only refuge

i stand on the edge of a precipice

surrounded by blessings and ease

sometimes i forgot how close to falling in i am

until my Lord reminds me

it only takes a moment

and everything can be gone

so i seek refuge in

the One who can love me far more than a mother

provide for me far more than a father

protect me far more than a soldier

heal me far more than a doctor

 

my Lord, my Lord, my Lord

be gentle with me

my Lord, my Lord, my Lord

i viscerally fear certain trials

and it is only Your good grace which allows me to forget

so i thank You for all of that which You have diverted away from me

all that which I have not had to face do to Your gentleness

my Lord, my Lord, my Lord

i cannot find refuge in my intelligence

nor my goodness

nor my hard work

nor my diligence

nor my networks

nor my planning

nor my education

nor my wealth

nor even my good intention

there is but You

so i ask You

not by anything i have

but by everything You have

to save my son from every punishment meted out

in this world

the barzakh

the Last Day

or in eternity

O Most Merciful of those who show mercy

اللهم صل على محمد و آل محمد

Let’s review some historical facts, as best as I have been able to discern them:

  • A very small number of Muslims attended the burial of the Prophet Muhammad, blessings and peace be upon him and his family. ‘Ali led both the ghusl (washing) and the janaza (funeral prayer).
  • Fatima – the sole surviving offspring of the Prophet Muhammad, blessings and peace be upon him and his family – was upset with Abu Bakr and Umar, and distanced herself from the Muslim community. She was buried at night in an unmarked grave.
  • ‘Ali initially refused to pledge allegiance to Abu Bakr, and did not serve in any wars under the first three caliphs, despite playing a decisive role in many of the battles of the prophetic era.
  • ‘Ali refused, during the shura appointed by ‘Umar, to accept the precedents of Abu Bakr and ‘Umar as binding upon him if granted the caliphate. Due to his refusal, the caliphate was granted to ‘Uthman.
  • When ‘Ali was finally established as the caliph, he faced three separate rebellions from the Companions: Jamal, Siffin, and Nahrawan. He was eventually assassinated by one of those who opposed his rule.
  • After ‘Ali’s assassination, his son Hasan was forced to abdicate the caliphate due to Mu’awiyah’s continued armed opposition.
  • Husayn, the brother of Hasan and the son of ‘Ali, was beheaded by the Umayyad army at Karbala, along with other sons and grandsons of ‘Ali. The remaining family members were taken captive and forced to march hundreds of miles to Damascus, the seat of Umayyad power.
  • All of this happened within 50 years of the burial of the Prophet Muhammad, blessings and peace be upon him and his family.
  • According to narrations in both Sunni and Shi’i sources, these 5 personalities (Muhammad, ‘Ali, Fatima, Hasan, and Husayn) were an especially connected group beloved to God and known as the “People of the Cloak (ahl al-kisa’).”

Some people think the Shi’i narrative of early Islamic history is based on a “conspiracy theory,” but they must not know the meaning of the English word “conspiracy.” The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines it as “a secret plan” or “the act of secretly planning.” There is nothing secret about these historical facts. This is a clear record of open hostility towards ‘Ali and Fatima, and their two sons Hasan and Husayn. And it even manifests as a lack of concern for the Prophet Muhammad, blessings and peace be upon him and his family. The most plausible interpretation of why he remained unburied for a few days is because ‘Ali was waiting for the community to come together to collectively mourn his passing. But in over 18 years of studying the Islamic tradition, I have not come across any account of a large group of people coming together to say farewell.

It hurts me to write this. It hurts me to have to speak such a painful truth. I am not a negative person – it is the facts of history that have led me in this direction. On the one hand, we could just chalk this up to an unfortunate series of unrelated events. However, that is highly implausible. ‘Ali, Fatima, Hasan, and Husayn are universally-agreed upon as being from the most righteous and most knowledgeable. They must have known what they were doing. They must have maintained consistent and clear opposition to the status-quo of the early caliphate as a primary means of preserving Islam as they understood it to be.

Thus, one must accept that the Shi’i narrative of early Islamic history is well-grounded in the traditional sources. The famous medieval Sunni counter-rebuttals, such as those of Qadi Ibn ‘Arabi and Ibn Taymiyyah, rely primarily on Sunni hadith literature. That is a type of circular logic, plain and simple. It is like saying that Sunnism has the right interpretation of early Islamic history because Sunni sources show that they have the right interpretation of early Islamic history. That is not to say that these medieval texts are a priori incorrect – rather, it is to say that they have an inherent weakness in their arguments. By relying on the assumption that the reader has already bought into the accuracy of Sunni hadith methodology, which of course the Shi’a do not, these texts are a classic case of “preaching to the choir.”

Many, if not all, of the facts just mentioned are well-known to the average Shi’i. But they are often not known by the average Sunni. What does that say about how we collectively remember early Islamic history? Are we complicit in continuing a tradition of suppression? If we want to be a community who truly loves the Ahl al-Kisa, must we not speak plainly about the suffering they collectively endured? It is not enough to publish fada’il literature about how great they were, although that is admirable as long as it is not done with the intention of distracting from the details of their suffering. One has to analyze the lives they lived, who fought them, who cursed them, who abandoned them, and how they died and were buried.

I leave it up to you to ponder the implications of these facts, and how they may or may not relate to other facts. History is complicated, even though we often want it to be simple. I just wish someone had laid it out plainly for me like this many years ago. It would have saved me a lot of time reading.

اللهم صل على محمد و آل محمد

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Umm al-Banin

this morning i woke up with one goal

to worship God and care for my son

by isha time i was exhausted

relieved that my work was done

 

and then God reminded me of you

mother of 4 boys like mine

you raised them from when they were little

devoting all of your time

 

but they left you alone on this earth

for the love of their brother Husayn

as hard as I try to imagine

I can’t even imagine your pain

 

your faith is the type that moves mountains

and inspires men like me to climb

to prepare for the ascent to Heaven

and follow your lead until it is my time

 

so Umm al-Banin please teach me

how to raise up a son like yours

so that no matter what happens on Earth

forever with Husayn he will soar

اللهم صل على محمد و آل محمد

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Dear Lord,

You know everything. What You have granted of me of knowledge is very little.

I have a tendency to separate out discrete modalities of knowledge acquisition, but they have begun collapsing into one hermeneutic. For lack of something more sophisticated, I will call it, “Knowledge, Faith, Action.”

William James, in his book “Pragmatism,” describes how all human beings are engaged in the process of making sense out of the totality of reality. He touches on this when he states:

“The world of concrete personal experiences to which the street belongs is multitudinous beyond imagination, tangled, muddy, painful and perplexed. The world to which your philosophy-professor introduces you is simple, clean and noble. The contradictions of real life are absent from it. Its architecture is classic.”

Is not our daily life a process of knowledge acquisition? Is not my son an entity whose existence is filled with knowledge to be gained about epistemology, psychology, biology, spirituality, and so much more?! Is not the abstract, discursive field of my books and articles a concrete reality – they came from somewhere and were published by someone!

Yes, my Lord, we are all, always, as long as we have intellect (‘aql), engaged in the acquisition of knowledge. Hence the profundity of Shaykh al-Kulayni’s (d. 940) choice for the first hadith in his text:

“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.'” [translation by Shaykh Rizwan Arastu, p. 1]

The young are not bound by taklif, the moral and spiritual responsibility that is the basis of reward in al-Jannah and punishment in al-Nar. Nor are the insane, or the mental deficient. So I stand before You, my Lord, asking that You accept the inevitable imperfections in my worldview, knowing that I am bound by taklif due to the formation and preservation of my intellect by You!

And in this moment, I can take approximately 1/6th of my books, and organize them in a fashion that represents my emerging worldview. There is the “America since 1945 section,” which also includes CDs and DVDs that influenced our shared culture. There is the “Islam from 600-1000 ” section, modified heavily over the years since I took a comprehensive exam on the subject with Prof. Michael Cook (may You guide him). There is the “Whispers of the Transcendent” section, which reminds me most directly of the Unseen (al-ghayb) and the ultimate journey back to You. There is the “Eschatology, as represented by books by fallible men on Imam Mahdi” section, by means of which I ponder the relationship between Islamic theology and the future of human life on planet Earth. There is the “World before the Qur’an” section, which brings together topics as vast as the formation of the Milky Way galaxy and Roman political history. Soon I will add the “I don’t know anything about China and have never been there” section, whereby my deep ignorance about an entire civilization and billions of souls is revealed due to the paucity of titles. There are the books on spiritual wayfaring (suluk) scattered throughout.

To others, it looks just like some books on a shelf. But to me, it is the story of my life. The story of love of home, and hatred for injustice. The story of faith and doubt. The story of historiography and biology and sociology and theology and everything else, brought together as best I can. But most of all, it is the story of how little I know, how little I have seriously pondered, and thus my eternal need for Your Mercy.

I cannot crunch all the data, my Lord, and determine the best course of action in life. Only You know how all things fit together.

How Karbala in the 7th century meets New York City in the 21st.

How Iraq meets America.

How Arabic meets English.

How the Big Bang meets Adam.

How my love for my wife and son meets my love for You.

How the Earth meets Heaven.

Only You know how many more days I have left to breath. I seek your protection from the punishment of the grave, the accounting and trials of the Last Day, and the punishment of the Fire, O Most Merciful of those who show mercy! While I still breath, help me to choose the right books to read, the right time to read, the right way to read, and the right way to act on everything I have read. Make my life to be beneficial for others, and save others from being harmed by the inevitable mistakes I will make.

I thank You for providing me with a reliable babysitter this summer, so that I could spend a decent amount of time studying. Going into the fall, that time will diminish, but I accept that. Even a whole lifetime in the library would not be enough for the burning need in my heart to know. And besides, what I really want is the moon itself, not books about it.

“The whole moon’s always present”

May Your blessings and peace be upon Muhammad and his family

May my breaths be a continual service to my master ‘Ali b. Abi Talib

and

may my prayer, my sacrifice, my life and my death be all for You

Lord of all worlds

يا أرحم الراحمين

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Secular historians do not believe that Noah existed, upon him peace. There is no evidence for his existence other than the scriptures of the Abrahamic religions. As such, Hindus and Buddhists also have little reason to believe in him. But the Qur’an narrates his story on many occasions.

I used to think that historiography was about proof – hard, tangible proof. But I realize now that, as a Muslim, it is more about faith. I believe in Noah, upon him peace, and I hope to meet him in the next life, by the Mercy of God. That distinguishes me from many billions of human beings living now on the face of the Earth.

Of course, there are also Jews and Christians who still believe in Noah, due to his critical role in the Bible. But due to the quasi-historical format of the Bible, many from these communities have lost faith in Noah once they have come to believe that the Bible is a flawed document. If the Bible is the only basis to know Noah, then if the Bible cannot be trusted, then the story of Noah cannot be believed.

But faith in Noah based on the Qur’an is different. It is not a faith based on historical proofs, but simply trust that Muhammad was the Messenger of God, blessings and peace be upon him and his family. So if a man who lived in the 7th century preached that Noah was one of the Messengers who came before him, even if it was tens of thousands of years before, that is enough.

That fundamentally changes our understanding of how history works.

And what it is the story of Noah, upon him peace? At its base, is the story of the interplay of God’s Mercy and Justice. Unlike anyone else in the Qur’an, we hear of Noah’s unnaturally long life:

وَلَقَدْ أَرْسَلْنَا نُوحًا إِلَىٰ قَوْمِهِ فَلَبِثَ فِيهِمْ أَلْفَ سَنَةٍ إِلَّا خَمْسِينَ عَامًا فَأَخَذَهُمُ الطُّوفَانُ وَهُمْ ظَالِمُونَ

“We sent Noah to his people and he lived among them for fifty short of a thousand years; then the deluge overtook them, for they were wrongdoers.” (29.14, Wahiddudin Khan translation)

For so long, God put up with disbelief and disobedience. All they had to do was attach themselves to God’s Messenger:

قَالَ يَا قَوْمِ إِنِّي لَكُمْ نَذِيرٌ مُّبِينٌ أَنِ اعْبُدُوا اللَّهَ وَاتَّقُوهُ وَأَطِيعُونِ

“And so he said, ‘My people, I am here to warn you plainly. Worship Allah, and fear Him, and obey me.'” (71.23,  Abdel Haleem translation)

And yet they did not. So then God’s justice came, and only those who had stuck with Noah were saved. Even his own son was drowned for his unwillingness to heed his father’s advice.

This is a paradigmatic moment in human history that can only be perceived with faith. It was so central that the Qur’an made it a point to attach Abraham to it, peace be upon him, even though he was not directly connected to it historically.

وَإِنَّ مِن شِيعَتِهِ لَإِبْرَاهِيمَ

“and surely Abraham was one of [Noah’s] shi’a.” (37.83, my translation)

The word shi’a can justifiably be translated as “partisan,” “adherent,” or “follower.” It brings to mind the idea that Abraham was on the same path of guidance as Noah, upon them both peace. Although Abraham did not face the Flood, had he been there, he would have succeeded. In short, the spirit of “submission to God (al-Islam)” was the same, although the context differed.

And just as Abraham’s time was different from Noah’s, our time is different. But the spirit of al-Islam is the same. We have to be willing to attach ourselves wholeheartedly to guidance. For if we had faced the Flood, would we have succeeded had we been tested in that way? Would our hearts have been full of enough faith to board the Ark? Or would we have wanted to do things our own way, like the son of Noah?

But there was only one way – to be from the shi’a of Noah. When he said to board the Ark, one must board the ark. When he said to get off, one must get off.

When I reflect on that spiritual legacy today, I marvel at the Mercy of God that holds back the proverbial floodwaters that surround us, and I fear the inevitable manifestation of Divine Justice in this world and the next.

May God prepare us, despite our weaknesses and doubts, to board the Ark when we are commanded to do so.

To be from the shi’a of Noah, like Abraham before us, peace upon them both.

amen.

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