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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.”

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النظر إلى علي عبادة

“Looking at ‘Ali is worship.” (al-Mustadrak)

 

It is the night of the 19th of the month of Ramadan, a blessed night.

The shaykh had us collectively ask God for forgiveness, and my heart burned as I thought of how little I follow the example of Imam ‘Ali b. Abi Talib, upon him peace. Afterward, I read my poem “The Eyes of Ali” to all those gathered. We heard stories of the generosity of the Commander of the Faithful. How he served a widow in need and showed compassion to her orphans. How he has been called “The Voice of Human Justice” even by those who are not Muslim. And how he walked the streets of Kufa in the hot sun looking for people to feed.

I was struck by that story, for it was said that he looked to the heavens and proclaimed, “God, bear witness that I did everything I could to make sure the people were fed.” He went out of his way to address the needs of others and make sure people received their rights. No wonder those who make light of injustice fear the constant mention of Abu al-Hasan.

I was reminded of this hadith of his great great grandson Imam al-Sadiq, upon him peace:

Allah, the Most Powerful and High, certainly made in the wealth of the rich an adequate share for the poor, and if it was not so He would certainly make their share greater. If they are needy, it is because some of the rich refuse to give them their share.

For earlier today, I was talking with a friend about her various health care needs. We talked about how hard it is when one loses physical and mental capacity while not having the financial resources to receive quality care. In the process I quoted the following hadith qudsi of the Prophet, upon him and his family blessings and peace:

Allah said, “If I deprive my slave of his two beloved things (i.e., his eyes) and he remains patient, I will let him enter Paradise in compensation for them.”

I said that I fear losing my eyesight, as I love my eyes very deeply. I know viscerally that there is nothing I can do to show true gratitude for the blessing of my eyes that I have enjoyed all my life. And yet, if Allah were to take my sight away from me, I know it would not be an injustice done to me, as much as it would be greater than any tribulation I have faced so far in my life.

Then, later in the night after the gathering for Imam ‘Ali was concluded, I saw another friend who is studying optometry. I recounted the story of my conversation during the day. She replied by saying something that shook me to the core. She said, “it is so heartbreaking to see the injustice though, of poor people who know they are going to go blind from glaucoma because they cannot afford the eye drops they need.” While she works in one of the richest cities on Earth, there are people that have to face preventable blindness. She said they give them as many free samples as possible, but after that do not know what to do.

When I left to walk to home, all of this rattled around in my head and heart, and I found myself hearing the voice of God within.

What are you going to do about it, David?

For there are so many times when we face a problem, and we don’t know what to do. We know we don’t have the time, or the money, or the skills. But in this instance, as hard as it may be, I know that it is not impossible. It is not impossible to ensure that nobody in the United States of America goes blind from glaucoma simply because they cannot afford eye drops. If the Commander of the Faithful can walk in the hot sun to make sure no one goes hungry, then the least I can do is try in some small way to follow in his footsteps. Insha’Allah.

Sometimes, the signs are just too many to ignore. I wrote this out to remind myself that a hujja (moral proof) has been established in my heart and I cannot turn away.

Please pray for me, that Allah accepts this intention, and grants me the facilitation (tawfiq) to achieve this goal, and grants ease and recovery to all those suffering from conditions that could be treated if we were people who truly gave their share.

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Muhammad is only a messenger before whom many messengers have been and gone. If he died or was killed, would you revert to your old ways? If anyone did so, he would not harm God in the least. God will reward the grateful. (3.144)

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Dear Messenger of God

May the peace and blessings of God be upon you and your family

I am longing for you

In this night my heart sinks at the memory of how far away I am from you

It is not that I want to revert to my old ways

As there is so much for which to be grateful

But is it okay to simply say that I wish I could see you

I wish I could hear you

I wish I could walk beside you

For when my friend spoke of you

He spoke of the love that is both a means and an end

And every day I take the means that you called us to take

Like fasting

Like prayer

Like avoiding the forbidden

But there is a place in my heart whose end is simply your face

The face of the man who has changed my life more than any other

The face that God chose for you

And I yearn to see that face

for no other reason than my love for you

My Messenger

My Prophet

My Master

The Qur’an is about change. It is a testimony of the myriad changes that the prophetic community went through from 610-632. I have been thinking a lot recently about one line:

وَمَا كَانَ اللَّهُ لِيُضِيعَ إِيمَانَكُمْ

This is translated by Taqi Usmani as “Allah will not allow your faith go to waste.” This comes in the context of the change of qibla (direction of prayer) from Jerusalem to Makkah. God is letting the faithful know that their old ritual prayers facing north (from Madinah) are not invalidated, even though now they have to face south towards the Ka’ba for their prayers to count.

For we don’t only change from one religion to another, as I did. We also change within a single religion. Individuals who once promoted the exoteric delve into the esoteric. Communities that once adhered to one school of thought switch to another. Orthodoxies become heterodoxies and vice versa. In short, maybe you pray north for awhile, but then you realize you have to pray south from now on.

I myself have gone through numerous changes in the almost 18 years I have been a Muslim. Some have been very personal and intimate, others have been related to my sense of connection to the global Ummah. Some have been doctrinal and others have been practical. But along the way I have been guided by a feeling at the heart of my faith:

God is fair and understands I’m trying

If what I am doing now is different from what I was doing 10 years ago, that is okay because God was watching me then and God is still watching me today. I am not the same, nor is the world the same. If I change what I think, it is (hopefully) because I am trying to get closer to the Truth. In that regard, each day is a new adventure.

Many years ago I had a choice to make and didn’t know which one was the right one. But I knew that it wasn’t the choice that mattered; rather, it was the change I was hoping to bring forth in my life that was foremost in my mind. I looked for something to help me find clarity, and stumbled serendipitously across the following page:

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It said everything I wanted to say, and I have been saying it ever since.

This prayer is all about change. But why do we usually change? For material success? For a lover? For fun? As far as I can tell, the greatest changes of our lives are the ones we make on the road back home to God, and this prayer points the way. Change in our religious life is most central, but so is having a sound material life through which we can live religiously. Death ultimately is the greatest change, and each change we make while we are still alive is movement towards embracing that final end.

I highlight this prayer because we don’t just face life’s challenges by ourselves and for ourselves. We are not alone, so we do it with God in our corner. It is a shared process where we recognize the human condition and the necessity of choosing, but we simultaneously ask God to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. Only God can “make my life a source of increase in all good, and make my death a refuge from every evil.”

Ultimately, there is no guarantee we get it right most of the time, and we still live between hope and fear. But at the end of the day, the God to whom we are praying for help is the Most Merciful of those who show mercy (arham al-rahimin).

I don’t know anything else in this universe that I can rely upon more than that.

 

On Fasting

People long ago, their bodies now disintegrated, fasted for the sake of God. They did not have the same variety and access to foodstuffs that we do today, yet still they restrained from eating and drinking in order to cultivate their spirits. Why?

It states in a book by Fayd Kashani: “It has been said that were there no benefit to fasting except ascension from the low point of the animalistic soul to the spiritual summit like the angels, this would have been enough of a virtue and merit for fasting.” (Spiritual Mysteries and Ethical Secrets, p. 535) God created us with bodily needs and desires, and fulfilling them is what makes the world go around. All of human civilization is built upon having a surplus of calories and successful reproduction. In short, without food and sex, the traces of humanity would long ago have disappeared from the Earth.

It is the same for animals. It is part of the warp and woof of biological life. But lions do not voluntarily choose to set aside sacred time in order to refrain from these urges. That is a unique characteristic of homo sapiens. Fasting helps us connect with a facet of our humanity that remains dormant if we only mimic nature.

As part of our theology, angels represent the opposite of the animal realm. Unconcerned with fulfilling their own desires, they are perfectly obedient (despite centuries of incorrect beliefs about “fallen” angels). They represent the texture of an unseen world more real than the one we currently inhabit, a reality indispensable to our theistic cosmology.

And so we exist currently between the two: matter and spirit, desire (nafs) and intellect (‘aql), animal and angel, Earth and Heaven. Thus it is perfectly understandable that fasting has always served as part of the path taken by those longing for that which is beyond.

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O you who believe, fasting is prescribed for you, just as it was prescribed for those who came before you, so that perhaps remembering God will alter your behavior

(Surah al-Baqarah, verse 183, my translation)

Fasting helps us to let go of that which is lower for that which is higher. By the simple choice to abstain from desires fundamental to our constitution, we can enter into a state where simply existing becomes a spiritual act. It is narrated that Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq عليه السلام stated: “The sleep of a fasting individual is worship, his silence is glorification of Allah, his deeds are accepted, and his supplication is answered.” (Spiritual Mysteries, p. 535) There is no need to perform elaborate rituals – just being has meaning enough.

Fasting helps us to connect our embodied selves to the universe around us. As we (ideally) diminish concern for consuming the myriad blessings on the ground, we orient our souls to the skies. The moon, pure in its obedience to the Creator of gravity, tells us when the sacred rite begins. The setting sun announces the permissibility of tasting the water sent down from laden clouds encircling our globe, water that also nourishes the date palms whose fruit we cherish. The month of Ramadan helps us grasp reality – not the one we construct in adulthood, but the reality into which we emerged in the wombs of our mothers. It is to submit to things as they are, voluntarily, even though we have the choice to pursue a million other things that suit our fancy. It is a temporary respite from the desire-propelled drama of life, and a herald of things yet to come.

As a human being who was born into the Christian tradition, the rites of the month of Ramadan at first felt foreign and exotic. It was difficult, both to adhere to the rules and to fit it into my cultural framework (especially since my first experiences coincided with family Christmas vacations). But over the years, the month-long fast has become an existential blessing, where the intervention of God in 7th century Arabia has meaning specifically for me in New York City circa 2017. I have come to feel very deeply that it is part of the human heritage, and do not consider it an accident that every year the world witnesses app. 1 billion people and app. 50 nation states transform their daily schedules.

No other religious tradition on Earth can command that sort of public loyalty, where whole societies alter their behavior for an entire month because of God. Of course, those changes are not always noble, such as the nighttime overeating that afflicts many. But the fact that we still adhere to the basic tenets of fasting communally is a manifestation of being witnesses over humanity. Witnesses that God has appointed this month as a source of guidance for all, and that a large percentage of the population still avails themselves of this spiritual gift from our Creator. It is neither a Sunni nor a Shi’i thing, neither Sufi nor Salafi. It is a Muslim thing, and the whole world knows it.

All who currently inhabit the Earth will one day become like the people of the past, memories or not even that. Our earthly presence will fade, and dust we will become. But faith teaches us that what we do in the month of Ramadan will remain for all eternity.

May al-Rafi’ bless us to ascend, ameen.

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Dear Reader

بسم الله

السلام عليكم

Dear Reader,

I have decided that how many people read what I write does not matter. What matters is having readers that care for me as I care for them. That we be of those who counsel each other to truth and perseverance in an age when a million voices tell us to give up. That we push each other to reach higher, until with God’s grace that which is far becomes near.

I have completed reviewing all the posts on this blog. I have deleted approximately 20 old posts that did not sit right with me for varying reasons. As far as I am able to discern, I believe the posts that remain are beneficial, and I hope God will bless me for keeping them in the public domain. I invite you to look over old posts and provide any feedback. We are mirrors unto one another, and perhaps there is something I have missed that you will catch.

As a writer, the only thing that is important to me is the hope that what I do could be pleasing to the Creator of all reality. The One who gifted us with language and taught us by the pen. The One who reminded us to speak well or remain silent. Yet, there are whispers of what God thinks in what you think. We are a community of souls, after all, sharing a journey into eternity. You listen to me when you read my words, and I benefit from listening to you as well. I look forward to continuing this journey together insha’Allah.

It is the 3rd of the month of Sha‘bān, often commemorated as the birthday of Imam Husayn. One can only imagine the joy the Prophet of Mercy felt upon seeing his newly born grandson so many years ago, صلى​ الله عليه و آله و سلم. I wish you all the best on this happy day.

Best,

R. David Coolidge

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I don’t know enough about Islam to have a public role as a leader in any capacity. My exploration of the Sunni-Shi’i divide over the last few years has made that clear to me, as the complexity of the formation of the Islamic tradition has overwhelmed my ability to provide definitive answers to many disputed questions, and I have found a dearth of scholars who are competent in both traditions (Sunni and Shi’i) to provide ready made answers for me.

I have known this for a long time. In my first two years of graduate school at Princeton, this became apparent to me, and so the resolution I had to deal with it then is the resolution I have now:

I am bound by taklif to every day try to do my best. To take care of my son. To be a good husband. To say my prayers. To remember God. To say salawat. To try to read or take a class to improve my knowledge. To try to attend gatherings of other Muslims that seem beneficial. To try to follow shari’a as best as I can understand it. To not ignore the injustices of the world, whether done by Muslims or people of other worldviews, whether in the present of the past.

But only God knows if my efforts will be enough. No one I have ever met has been able to guarantee me that my actions are pleasing to God.

And I am not required to be a leader.

A leader should be a real leader. Not someone like me who is just trying to make sense of 1400 years of Islamic history and thought, and figure out what it means for me as white guy living in New York City in 2017. I have already pulled back my responsibilities a lot. But it has become apparent to me that I need to retreat further.

God will question each and every one of us about our private lives. Any public responsibilities we have only add to the burden.

And so I am going to stop posting on this blog until further notice, and delete my Twitter account.

If there is a way I can serve you,  just email me at rdavidcoolidge@gmail.com

As your Muslim brother, it is your right over me that I share with you whatever I can of whatever it is that God has given me. But at this point in time, I don’t really know what to say other than to prepare for death and prepare to be questioned. If you don’t know what that means, this is how I advised myself and others in a previous post. Act on what you know, and trust that by doing so, God will give you knowledge of what you do not know.

May God be merciful to us, and overlook our imperfections, but it is God’s right to question us about everything. Everything we say and everything we do.

I don’t know how long I will be gone. At this point, the only real answer seems: however long it takes.

Dear God, please accept this from me, and bless all my brothers and sisters who have listened to me over the years. Save them from the evil that comes from me, and increase them in the good that comes only from You.

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