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Dear God,

I know You know everything I am going to say before I say it, so let me thank You for the opportunity to discover what I am going to say for myself.

Before the month of Ramadan came, I taught over ZOOM about the experience of praying to You. I described it as therapy. I even mentioned that if someone can’t find the right words while making du’a, they can always write a letter to You. So I am taking my own advice right now.

There is no way I can summarize everything that has led me to this point. Even though I have lived it and am the world’s foremost expert, explaining my autobiography involves a bit of selection from the mass of daily events that encompass my lived experience of walking the road back to You, in the world created by You, with the body You have given me, amidst the thoughts that only You and I know. You remember it all in perfect detail from every angle, so I guess recalling it is just for my own benefit.

Let me start on the day I prayed istikhara about going to the Philippines in the following week. It is something I really wanted to do. I had been thinking about it for a year. Now or never. And then I googled “Manila” and there was a volcano erupting. That’s a pretty clear istikhara. I focus on that moment because I knew there was a lot of my nafs in my desire to make that trip. The reason I made the ikstikhara is because I just couldn’t tease out where my nafs ended and more noble concerns began. It was all jumbled together. Would I be traveling to get a break from my wife and son, or to visit a country that my country formally oppressed? Would I be getting on a plane to reflect on a part of Your creation I have never seen, or was I simply looking for a little bit of adventure.

But it is what it is. That was such a clear moment, when I finally tipped into just leaving it up to You, and You gave me such a clear answer.

I think that is what frustrates me sometimes. Since I am thinking it I might as well say it – sometimes I wish You would just give me more of what I want.

But perhaps I am writing this letter to You to acknowledge that that time is over.

The idea of “I want” doesn’t mean what it used to mean. I can no longer see clearly what I want, because what I want has often had to be avoided, suppressed, given up, or even eradicated.

I think if a different sequence of events had led to this moment I would have been in a state of doubt. The fact that a fundamental part of my adult sense of self is withering away would have been too much to bear, and I would want to rise up and seize the situation. “No,” the hero says, “life is about living your dreams, and even though I am getting old I still have a lot of life left in me yet!’

But it is the month of Ramadan now, and the world out there feels like the world inside.

الدنيا سجن المؤمن

ُThe Earth is a prison for the believer.

Everyone in the Philippines is probably wearing a facemask right now, staying inside. There are no halal restaurants open in Manila to explore in the warm evening air. There is no “there” to go that is really different from “here.” Everywhere we might run, we have to face the truth.

ضَاقَتْ عَلَيْهِمُ الْأَرْضُ بِمَا رَحُبَتْ وَضَاقَتْ عَلَيْهِمْ أَنفُسُهُمْ وَظَنُّوا أَن لَّا مَلْجَأَ مِنَ اللَّهِ إِلَّا إِلَيْهِ

The earth has become narrow despite its expanse, and our own souls weigh heavily on us, and we know that there is no refuge from Allah except to Allah.

There is nowhere to flee to right now. All that my nafs wants exists merely in my own mind and heart, a tiny kingdom of selfish fantasy trying to defend against my mental jihad.

So I guess this brings me to my request.

I accept that this is where I have arrived at this moment.

I accept that despite the hurt inside, there is good in this.

So I am asking You to strengthen the ranks of my ‘aql, and give us victory in an onslaught against the nafs that seeks to break through a line of its defenses that have never fallen before.

Let me heed the words of Ayatollah Amini رحمة الله عليه when he wrote:

“If we address our self, we must say: You belong to the heavenly kingdom of knowledge, life, perfection, virtues, benevolence and blessings; you are God’s Vicegerent upon the earth; you are human and have been created for eternal life in the Next World and God’s Nearness; you are superior than animals and following animalistic passions is not worthy of your existence.”

Help me to believe that I can become someone whom I have never been.

You know me better than I know me.

You have brought me here, my Lord.

Now guide me on the next leg of the journey, because I don’t know where to go.

اللهم صل على محمد و آل محمد

1_9973eXI_e8CBgZS_mW550Q

Tonight is the 27th of Rajab. It is considered a holy night for a number of different reasons, all of them centered around the spirituality of the Prophet Muhammad, may Allah bless him and his family and grant them peace.

It is cause for me to reflect on why I try to align myself with the historical mission of the Prophet Muhammad. What does it mean for me to be a Muslim, to declare that “Muhammad is the Messenger of God (محمد رسول الله)”? On this night, and tomorrow in the day, what will I do because of this belief? In 21st century America, in the midst of a global pandemic, why is this important?

I have never met the Prophet Muhammad, may Allah bless him and his family and grant them peace. As much as I have prayed for it, I have never seen him in my dreams, to answer my questions or give me specific directives for my life. But he is at the center of my life regardless. Is it not strange that someone whose face I have never seen has so much influence over me?

Growing up Christian, it was normal to imagine what Jesus, upon him peace, looked like. When I look at this picture, I am 100% certain that I am looking at Jesus:

Lord-Jesus

Sure, I get it that he was Jewish and that this picture is perhaps too light skinned, but I still know that I am looking at Jesus. No doubt. But show me any reverential painting or Persian miniature or caricature of the Prophet Muhammad, and I will not accept that it is him. It is just an image that exists in someone’s imagination. The only thing that is acceptable to me is his actual face. I trust I will know it when I see it. I really do not like listening to hadith descriptions of him, because it reminds me that I have never seen him. It is a literature of absence.

And yet, this man has more say over my life than anyone.

I never get to sleep in, ever, because he said to wake up at a certain time to pray.

I never get to drink Jack Daniels, ever, because he said to stop doing that.

I don’t get to just do what I want – I have to do what he has told me to do.

Before I was confined to my house by the orders of the governor, my egotistical self was confined by prophetic orders.

He wants me to honor the old people in my life, and be merciful to the youngsters. He told me to give my money away for the sake of others who need it more. He expects a lot, and sometimes it is really hard.

In short, he is like a father to me.

He is larger than life, and better than I can ever be.

He has made such a difference in so many people’s lives, so I sometimes wonder what I mean to him and where I fit in his life.

And for the last 20 years, I have tried as best I can to make him proud of me.

And so on this night I want to say to him that I hope you are proud of me, yā Rasūl Allāh.

I know that I have screwed up a lot, and that I am not as strong as I should be, but I am trying.

And tomorrow I will keep on trying.

I will wake up early to pray just like you want me to.

I will try to put others before myself as you have taught me.

I will remember that Allah has everything in control, just as Allah did at Khandaq when you were surrounded.

And I will carry on.

For every 27th of Rajab to come, I will carry your flag as best I can.

So when I can no longer walk with these legs

and my arms cannot carry your flag anymore

at the moment my days come to an end

please be there to carry me home

no matter how well I performed in comparison to others who love you too

for you will always be like a father to me

and I will always seek the safety of your embrace

hb_1998.268

Muhammad_Husayn_Tabataba'i_-_1940s

The first thing that a spiritual traveler has to do is to inquire into various religions as far as possible so that he may become conversant with the unity and guidance of Allah. He should try to acquire at least as much knowledge as to be enough for practical purposes.

Having carried out this kind of investigation into the unity of Allah and the Prophethood of the Holy Prophet he will come out of the domain of infidelity and enter that of minor Islam and minor faith.

This is the knowledge about which there is unanimity of opinion among the jurists that its acquisition is essential for every obligated person for the purpose of acknowledging the fundamental beliefs on the basis of proofs and arguments.

If a person cannot get the required degree of satisfaction despite his best efforts he should not lose heart and should pray for obtaining it with humility and submissiveness. This is the method that is reported to have been followed by the Prophet Idris and his followers.

The prayer with humility means that the spiritual traveler should admit his weakness, and earnestly seek guidance from Allah who always helps those who seek the truth earnestly. The Qur’an says:

Those who strive in Us, We will surely guide them to our path.

…chanting of some appropriate verses of the Qur’an repeatedly will [also] be very useful. The Qur’an says:

Remember that with the remembrance of Allah, the hearts are satisfied.

…Having successfully completed this stage the spiritual traveler should strive for attaining to major Islam and major faith. In this connection the first thing to do is to know the rules of Islamic law. This knowledge should be acquired from some competent jurist.

Next to acquiring the knowledge of law comes the turn of practicing it. It is very necessary to always act according to Islamic law, for knowledge is the best incentive to action, and action produces conviction. If a person is certain about the veracity of his knowledge, he is bound to act according to it. If he does not, that means that he is not convinced of the correctness of what he knows, and that his knowledge and belief are no more than a sort of mental impression.

For example, if somebody is sure of Allah’s absolute providence, he will never desperately try to earn money at all costs. He will be satisfied with what the Islamic injunctions allow him and will try to earn with tranquil happiness what is necessary for him and his family. But if a man is always worried about his livelihood, that means that he does not believe in the absolute providence of Allah or thinks that it is conditional on his trying hard, or he believes that providence is limited to earning cash or salary.

That is what is meant when it is said that knowledge is an incentive to action. The following similitude shows how action enhances knowledge. When a person says from the core of his heart: “Glory and praise be to my exalted Lord”, he acknowledges his helplessness and humbleness. Naturally, power and glory cannot be conceived without there being a conception of humbleness and helplessness.

Conversely no one can be powerless without there being a powerful. Therefore the mind of the person saying: “Glory and praise be to my exalted Lord” while prostrating himself in prayers, is naturally diverted to the absolute power and glory of Allah. This is what is meant by saying that action promotes knowledge. The Qur’anic verse:

and He elevates righteous conduct

also refers to this fact. It is necessary for the spiritual traveler to do his best to abide by all that is obligatory and to refrain from all that is forbidden, for doing anything against Islamic injunctions is absolutely contrary to the spirit of his spiritual journey. It is no use to perform commendable deeds and spiritual exercises if the heart and soul are polluted, just as it serves no useful purpose to apply cosmetics if the body is dirty.

Besides being very particular about performing what is obligatory and abstaining from what is forbidden, it is also imperative for the spiritual traveler to take interest in performing commendable deeds and avoiding obnoxious ones, for attaining to major Islam and major faith depends on doing that.

It is to be remembered that every deed has a corresponding effect and contributes to the completion of faith. The following tradition reported by Muhammad bin Muslim refers to this point: “Faith depends on the deeds for the deeds are essential part of faith. Faith cannot be firmly established without good deeds.”

Therefore the spiritual traveler must perform every commendable act at least once so that he may attain that part of faith also which depends on the performance of that particular act. Imam Ali has said that it is deeds that produce perfect faith.

Hence it is necessary for the spiritual traveler not to overlook commendable deeds while advancing towards the stage of major faith, for his faith will be incomplete in proportion to his lack of interest in the performance of good deeds. If a devotee purified his tongue and his other organs but at the time of spending money was negligent of his duty, his faith would not be perfect. Every bodily organ must get that part of faith which is related to it.

The heart which is the chief of all organs should be kept busy with remembering the Names and Attributes of Allah and pondering over the Divine signs in men and the universe. That is the way how man’s heart imbibes the spirit of faith. When every organ has obtained its due share of faith, the devotee should intensify his spiritual effort and enter the domain of certainty and conviction by completing the stages of major Islam and major faith. The Qur’an says:

Those who believe and obscure not their belief by wrong doing, theirs is safety; and they are rightly guided.

As a result of doing spiritual exercises the spiritual traveler will not only be placed on the right path, but will also become safe from the assaults of Satan. The Qur’an says:

Remember that no fear shall come upon the friends of Allah, nor shall they grieve.

Fear means apprehension of impending danger or evil that causes worry and alarm. Grief means mental distress and sorrow caused by the occurrence of something evil and unpleasant. The spiritual traveler has no apprehension nor sorrow, for he entrusts all his affairs to Allah. He has no objective other than Allah.

Such people as they enter the domain of certainty have been described by Allah as His friends. Imam Ali hinted at this stage when he said: “He sees Allah’s path, walks on His way, knows His signs and crosses the obstacles. He is at such a stage of certainty that it seems as if he was seeing everything by the light of the sun”.

Imam Ali has also said: “Knowledge has given them real insight; they have imbibed the spirit of conviction; they consider easy what the people living in ease and luxury consider difficult; they are familiar with what the ignorant have aversion to; their bodies are in the world but their souls are in high heaven.”

At this stage the doors of vision and inspiration are opened before the spiritual traveler.

Evidently there is no inconsistency between passing through these stages and the spiritual traveler’s being busy with his basic necessities in the world. His inner experience has nothing to do with his external activities such as his marriage, earning his livelihood and being engaged in trade or cultivation.

The spiritual traveler lives bodily in this mundane world and takes part in worldly activities, but his soul goes round the angelic world and talks with its inmates. He is like a bereaved person whose some close relative has died recently. Such a person lives among the people, talks to them, walks to various places, eats and sleeps, but his heart is always lamenting over the memory of his relative.

Whoever looked at him, could understand that he was in a wretched state of mind. Similarly a spiritual traveler despite his being engaged in fulfilling his natural needs, maintains his contact with Allah. A fire of love is always burning in his heart. The pain of separation keeps him restless, but no one except Allah knows his inner condition, though the onlookers also can in general discern that love for Allah and for truth has befallen him.

It is clear from this explanation that the wailing, weeping and prayer of the Imams were not fake, nor were the supplications which have come down from them purely for instructional purposes. Such a notion is based on the ignorance of facts. It is below the dignity of the Imams to say anything unrealistic or to call people to Allah by means of fake prayers.

Will it be proper to say that the heart-rending wailings of Imam Ali and Imam Zaynul ‘Abidin were fake and had no reality or they were for teaching purpose only? Not at all. This group of the leaders of religion have attained to the stage of passing away from self and abiding in Allah after completing all the stages of spiritual journey and hence combine in themselves the qualities relating to the world of unity as well as the world of plurality. They receive Divine light in every walk of life and are required to maintain their attention to the higher world and not to violate any rule relating to that world even slightly.

When the spiritual traveler has traversed all the above mentioned worlds successfully and overcome Satan, he enters the world of victory and conquest. At that time he will have passed the material world and entered the world of souls. Hence forward his great journey will be through the angelic world and the spiritual world and ultimately he will succeed in reaching the world of Divinity.

[extracted from ‘Allamah Tabataba’i’s section in “Light Within Me”, with some minor edits]

the unnamed

how many lives lost to history

mass graves

desaparecidos

at the bottom of the ocean

bodies burnt to ash

and scattered to the wind

all known to Perfect Justice

the refuge of hope

from oppression’s decimation

so may Absolute Mercy be upon the unnamed

the ones no one knows

the children of the universe

forever in eternity’s embrace

ocean_thepacific2_site

 

Ayatollah Mutahhari was one of the most profound ‘ulama of the 20th century. Here follows a summary of some his views on knowledge. The numbers are references to page numbers in The Theory of Knowledge: An Islamic Perspective, trans. Mansoor Limba (published in 2011 by ICAS Press in London on behalf of an Iranian institution called “Institute for Humanities and Cultural Studies”).

Both individuals and groups have “worldviews,” and those worldviews give rise to “ideologies” about how individuals and groups should live. In classical terminology, these were referred to as “theoretical wisdom” and “practical wisdom.” [2-3] A worldview is built on knowledge, which is either correct or incorrect. [4] Various thinkers explored the limits of doubt, but the fact that one believes one can distinguish true versus false perceptions is proof enough that knowledge is possible. [5-11]

The Qur’an exalts knowledge in the story of Adam, and encourages humanity to seek deeper knowledge of all things. [12-21] Both the senses and the intellect are required to generate sound knowledge [28-32], and the Qur’an upholds this view. [32-37] The heart also plays a role, and this is acknowledged by the Qur’an. Each has their own sphere and proper functioning. [38-46]

Nature itself is a source of knowledge, and the senses are the tools to access it. The intellect and heart are also sources of knowledge, and philosophical thought and refinement of the self are the tools to access these sources respectively. [54-8] History is also a source of knowledge. [69-73] The Qur’an denies false distinctions between outward objective reality and inward subjective reality. [58-63]

There are varying views of the stages of knowledge, but the main point is that the senses take in particulars from nature, and the intellect derives more general insights from analysis of these particulars. In this regard there are two fundamental stages of knowledge: perception and analysis of those perceptions. [77-103] Attachment based on love and aversion based on hatred can color our perceptions of reality. [117-121] Knowledge itself is not experienced through direct perception. It exists as an immaterial symbolic reality, which pushes us toward greater awareness of the immaterial realm. [124-130]

The normal operations of the mind exist on the basis of the unconscious mind, which is far vaster. [134-140] The existence of the immaterial unconscious mind is analogous to the immaterial unseen realm upon which this universe is built. Abraham, upon him peace, followed this line of reasoning to its ultimate conclusion, that there was only One unseen Creator of all that is perceptible. [142-147]

Focusing on whether or not knowledge can be put into action – for example, the way an engineer uses her knowledge to make a smartphone – is only one criteria of validity. The answers to many questions, such as the origin of the universe, are not actionable, and therefore their validity is not determined by their usefulness. [157-166] The widespread acceptance of a view, even by the learned, is not a proof in and of itself. [173-8] For example, the widespread acceptance of a view, combined with the focus on putting knowledge into action, is not foolproof. Ptolemaic observers of the heavenly bodies could accurately predict solar and lunar eclipses, and their views were widely accepted. [189]

Leaving aside a quest for true knowledge turns knowledge into a tool for wielding power. [204] Even focusing on putting knowledge into action is a type of search for true knowledge and preferable to a political nihilism that sees knowledge as nothing more than an instrument of power. [205-7] Putting knowledge into action is the foundation of all higher knowledge, and thus has its own intrinsic value. [208]

ربي زدني علما

اللهم صل على محمد و آل محمد

mutahhari

on the Last Day

they will all be there

the Aztec and Inca

the Cherokee and Cree

the Englishmen and Spaniards

the Frenchmen and Portuguese

their story has already been told

flowing forth from and returning to

the Infinite Knowledge of God

historians state

that humans first came here

about 14,000 years ago

perhaps it was longer

it doesn’t really matter

the point is that

God was watching

and is still watching

the story of the Americas

who are the allies (awliyā’) of God?

and who are the allies of Satan?

we have neither the assurances nor the certainty

of Catholics or Protestants that trampled across these lands

we are more humble in our determinations

and leave their affair to God

the past is never past

it is the continual unfurling of God’s Decree

as Judgement looms closer and closer

on that Day

the tale will be told with perfect clarity

and Justice will reign

and Mercy will envelop

some will be brought high

and others reduced to the lowest of the low

and then

only then

will the story of the Americas

come to an end

لا إله إلا الله

North and South America, satellite image

The Qur’an describes the Last Day as so intense that you cannot expect individuals to behave the way you have seen them behaving in this life.

on the Day you see it, every nursing mother will think no more of her baby, every pregnant female will miscarry, you will think people are drunk when they are not, so severe will be God’s torment. (22.2)

When the Deafening Blast comes––the Day man will flee from his own brother, his mother, his father, his wife, his children: each of them will be absorbed in concerns of their own on that Day (80.33-37)

We have warned you of imminent torment, on the Day when every person will see what their own hands have sent ahead for them, when the disbeliever will say, ‘If only I were dust!’ (78.40)

This world (dunyā) has relatively set patterns according to the Qur’an. People live and die. Nations rise and fall. Hardship is mixed with ease. But the Last Day does not conform to what we witness historically, sociologically and anthropologically in human society. There is no way that we can really extrapolate what we have witnessed here to what will happen there.

For example, we might admire one of our teachers because of their piety, knowledge, and self-restraint. But their knowledge of the Last Day is still primarily theoretical, their self-restraint has only been in regards to the relatively minor pleasures of this life, and all we really know of their piety is that which is outwardly visible. In truth, when faced with the realities of the Last Day, we do not know how they will respond.

In every mystical tradition, one finds stories about people in this world who have achieved the supposed end of the spiritual journey: the walī in Islam, the saint in Christianity, the boddhisatva in Buddhism, and the jīvamukta in Hinduism. But how can the end be achieved when the Qur’an describes the Last Day in terms that completely demolish the patterns we see in this world? If someone is peaceful, compassionate, knowledgeable and pious, those achievements are only in relation to this tiny part of creation. Only God knows what they will manifest on the Last Day.

Ayatollah Mutahhari wrote some words that help to elucidate this:

As a matter of principle, the status of individuals is in the hands of God; no one has the right to express an opinion with certainty about whether someone will go to Heaven or Hell. If we were to be asked, “Is Shaykh Murtadhā al-Anṣārī, in view of his known asceticism, piety, faith, and deeds, definitely among the inhabitants of Heaven?” Our answer would be, “From what we know of the man, in his intellectual and practical affairs we haven’t heard of anything bad. What we know of him is virtue and goodness. But as to say with absolute certainty whether he will go to Heaven or Hell, that isn’t our prerogative. It is God who knows the intentions of all people, and He knows the secrets and hidden things of all souls; and the account of all people’s actions is also with Him.

What is important to understand about the individual he is using to make his point is that in the middle of the 19th century, he was the primary marja‘ for the global Shi’i community. That means that millions upon millions of people relied upon his religious scholarship to properly practice their faith. As the online publication al-Sidrah put it:

al-Shaykh Murtaḍā al-Dizfūlī al-Anṣārī (1214-1281 A.H./1781-1864 C.E.) was the foremost marjiʿ of his time, completely transforming the fields of Shiʿi law and legal theory of his time. He is widely recognized as both an exemplary scholar, a pious sage, and a teacher of the greatest scholars of succeeding generations. His effect on modern Shiʿi intellectual and religious history can hardly be overemphasized.

Obviously, he was also deeply pious, and there are many saintly stories about him. But even so, we are still looking at it from the vantage point of this world. Only God can see from the vantage point of the Last Day.

In a very real way, when we start thinking that we can arbitrate who is a saint and who is not based on our this-worldly experience, we are making claims about the ultimate status of another individual based on an extremely limited grasp of Reality. If I am veiled from my own fate, then how could I have insight into the fate of another? If I am veiled from the acceptance or rejection of my own deeds, then how could I know the spiritual status of another individual’s actions?

Every religious tradition speculates about who is the real cream of the crop. Augustine for Catholics, Antony for Coptics, Ghazali for Sunnis, Shankara for Advaita Vedantins, Visvanatha Chakravarti for Gaudiya Vaishnavas – to each person embedded within their tradition, there is a clear superstar whose piety, knowledge, and character are proofs of their exalted status with the Divine. In the Roman Catholic tradition, the Magisterium of the Church can declare someone to be a saint, and thus their exalted status in eternity is known definitively while we are still in this world. But the Islamic tradition has no equivalent authority, so Muslims should be more cautious and thoughtful when they speak about “saints.”

I am willing to be proven wrong on this point, as this short writing is simply meant to articulate how I think and feel at this point in my spiritual journey. I do not mean to denigrate the exceptional piety or profound scholarship of any specific individual. Nor do I intend to push people away from aspiring towards perfection. I, for example, hold up certain individuals as exemplars of piety, selflessness, and spiritual insight. But I simultaneously uphold that I might be wrong about them, as only God knows their true selves. I will not be judged for trying my best to find spiritual role models and struggling to live up to their example – but I may be judged for usurping God’s sole right to determine their eternal fate by prematurely declaring them to be from amongst the spiritual elite (awliyā Allāh).

sheykhe-ansari

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