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ya Husayn

we lost our friend this week

and our grief is real

but we know it will pass

and the world will return to what it was

الله

he died at home

surrounded by family

and a whole community mourned him

and raised money for his legacy

الله

but where was the outpouring when you died

O Master of the Martyrs*

where was the community when your head was raised on a lance

and paraded through the streets of Kufa and Damascus

where were the donations to take care of Zaynab and Sakina

when your unburied body lay on the sands of Karbala

who was there to lament the deaths of Qasim and Ali al-Akbar

who couldn’t bear to see you hurt and betrayed

ya Aba Abdillah*

الله

for we loved our friend

and respected our friend

but he was not you

he was not the grandson of the Messenger of Allah

blessings and peace upon him and his family

he was not the Lamp of Guidance*

and the Ark of Salvation*

he was not Husayn ibn Ali

nor are any of us

الله

and he was not killed in the name of “Islam”

as a punishment for wanting to rectify the community of his grandfather

as a warning to any who would pledge allegiance to the children of Fatima

set upon by a darkening mass

of cowards and hypocrites and yes men of the caliphs

no

our friend was simply taken back

by natural means

at the time that Allah decreed while he was still in the womb of his mother

in peace and security

and yet

we feel what we feel

الله

so we know

perhaps now more than ever

ya Husayn

that our grief for you will never end

it is not lessened by knowing that you exist in peace and bliss

a guarantee our friend does not have

so may Allah’s Mercy be upon him

but flows from the awareness that recognition of your sacrifice

and your beauty

and your guidance

and your truth

is still fought against

is still reviled

is still obfuscated

is still ignored

by the same community that you loved so much

as to lay before it not only your own life

but also the lives of your children

and your nephews

and your friends

and your own brother and sister

without any doubt in your heart

to let us know how much we strayed

from the Sunnah

and still do

الله

But that sad legacy was not our friend’s

for when I turned to you

ya Husayn

our friend listened patiently

and never threw shade

and in a few years

allowed your name to be honored

at the school which had such an impact

on both our lives

and allowed me to share a message to those in his community

and invited alums who are dedicated to you

to share your story

during the Muharram nights which we hold so dear

الله

in time

I had hoped he would have more opportunities

to learn about that which he had never been taught

but that cannot happen now in this dunya

so I leave it up to you now

ya Husayn

in the barzakh

to take my friend by the hand

and lead him home

O Master of the Youth of Paradise*

for he was only 40

and so had yet to know

the fullness of adulthood

by Allah’s Decree

اللهم صل على محمد و آل محمد

*Names of Imam Husayn mentioned in hadith: Sayyid al-Shuhadāʾ, Abū ʿAbd-Allāh, Miṣbāḥ al-Hudā, Safīnat al-Najāt, Sayyid Shabāb Ahl al-Jannah

“People are asleep. When they die, they awaken.”

Back in 2009, when I started working at Brown University, there were only three full-time Muslim chaplains in the Ivy League: myself, Omer Bajwa at Yale, and Sohaib Sultan at Princeton. The three of us worked together and coordinated many things, recognizing the privilege and responsibility our positions entailed. We each hosted an annual gathering of university Muslim chaplains at our respective campuses. Sohaib hosted a retreat for our students at a summer camp style facility that Princeton owned (picture below, where Sohaib was doing something silly – telling a jinn story? – and I had to capture it on camera). Omer hosted the Ivy League Muslims conference and Sohaib drove his students from the West and I drove my students from the East to converge on New Haven. It was a beautiful experience of starting something new, something that I had never experienced as both a Muslim undergrad at Brown and graduate student at Princeton.


I left my position at the end of 2013 right before our son was born, as my wife had a job in New Jersey at the time. Both Omer and Sohaib stayed in their positions, and as long as they were still working together I felt a sense of nostalgia and connection to “the old days.” But now I know those days are over forever. When I look back at it, it truly feels like a dream. When I look through my old pictures, I hardly feel like it was real.


And strangely enough, that is what gives my heart the most comfort at all. To hope that I will wake up in the next life, and Sohaib, Omer and I will be together in the company of the men and women we each tried to emulate and serve to the best of our ability. And we’ll think about our short time in this dunya and laugh at the beautiful dream it was, as we awaken to eternal possibilities in gardens underneath which rivers flow.

Our Lord! Admit them into the Gardens of Eternity which You have promised them, along with the righteous among their parents, spouses, and descendants. You are truly the Almighty, All-Wise. (40.8)

This post originally appeared in 2015 in The Muslim Observer. It has been slightly modified herein.

American life is defined by the intersection of three institutional sectors: public, private, and non-profit. Public denotes governmental institutions, like the IRS through which we pay for federal institutions like the National Park Service. The private sector is dominated by for-profit corporations, such as Apple, which manufactured the laptop through which I am writing this post. Non-profits, the smallest sector of the three, consist of a whole range of entities, such as hospitals, universities, and religious organizations.

It is within this context that the Qur’anic teachings regarding charitable giving are implemented for Muslims in the United States. The root n-f-q, indicating spending, is used dozens of times in the Qur’an. For example, verse 254 of Surah al-Baqara states: “You who believe, give from what We have provided for you, before the Day comes when there is no bargaining, no friendship, and no intercession. It is the disbelievers who are wrong.”

The same verb is also found in the hadith literature, such as this hadith related in Muslim’s Sahih: “Of the dinar you spend as a contribution in Allah’s path, or to set free a slave, or as a sadaqa given to a needy, or to support your family, the one yielding the greatest reward is that which you spent on your family.” This hadith gives us a broad understanding of charitable giving in Islam. Buying a laptop from Apple for your child who is going off to college can be an act of worship, even though it has nothing to do with the non-profit sector. But for many Muslims in America, there is also the desire to effect social change through charitable giving. In fact, it is the socio-economic lifeblood of the American Muslim community, and the causes for which we give are myriad. There are approximately 6 broad categories of giving:

  • Islamic centers
  • Islamic schools
  • Development organizations (e.g. Islamic Relief USA)
  • Da’wah
  • Islamic Education for adults
  • Community advocacy organizations (e.g. CAIR)

We find ourselves donating to these organizations in a variety of settings. Sometimes it is at fundraising dinner. At other times, we might have some zakat or khums to pay, and write a check to the appropriate organization(s). On occasion, we may be moved by media coverage to donate to help those suffering in our country or around the world. In all situations, the socio-political reality is the same. We write a check/use our credit card/pull cash out of our wallet, and it goes into the bank account of a registered non-profit, and they send us a receipt and use the funds for whatever purpose they were designated.

But behind that material facade is something deeper, and ultimately more important. It is the internal spiritual attitude of the person giving the money, and their ascent towards sincerity (ikhlas). It is the metaphysics of charitable giving.

We can see this process in the Qur’an, which lays out at least three different attitudes towards charitable giving. In the case of the three sections that will be quoted, the immediate context is feeding the hungry. In the context of Islam in the United States, it is most likely that such an act would be accomplished by making a donation to organization that feeds the hungry in either the USA or another country,

At the lowest level is the attitude of those who mock faith openly. Verse 47 of Surah Ya Sin states: “and when they are told, ‘Give to others out of what God has provided for you,’ the disbelievers say to the believers, ‘Why should we feed those that God could feed if He wanted? You must be deeply misguided.’” Not only does a person at this level not give, they blame God for the misery that inspires people of faith to give. They twist the concept of an All-Powerful Deity to become an excuse for their own selfishness. The average Muslim is not so bold as to speak this way, but it is possible that this may be what they think in their hearts. In a very subtle way, they may whisper to themselves, “Why do I have to give up this money I have been saving for something I want?! If God is so powerful, why doesn’t He just feed them?!” In light of the massive scale of need amongst Syrians, Yemenis, and the Rohingya – in addition to many other worthy causes worldwide and at home – the possibility of slipping into this type of thinking is very real, even for someone who outwardly identifies as a Muslim and donates to Muslim community institutions. Right now, our world needs billions and billions of dollars to help people facing real difficulties. What that means for any individual is that even if we gave all the surplus we have, there will still be a need. In such a reality, it is very possible to slip into this type of thinking, and may God protect us from it, ameen.

At a better level are those described in Surah al-Ma’un: “[Prophet], have you considered the person who denies the Judgement? It is he who pushes aside the orphan and does not urge others to feed the needy. So woe to those who pray but are heedless of their prayer; those who are all show and forbid common kindnesses.” At this level, a person is a part of the Muslim community, most notably through attendance at communal worship. But their religiosity does not deeply effect them at the level of concern for humanity. There is a disconnect between their performance of religion, and the way they treat other human beings. At this level, one is not necessarily actively opposed to charitable giving, as in the case of the first level. Rather, one is veiled from such concerns by an obsession with the outward trappings of religiosity. One has left the utter contempt for religion characterized by the first level, which is undoubtedly a good thing. But while doing so, one has strayed by failing to see that Islam has two essential elements: worship of the Creator and service to the creation.

The first and second levels highlight the struggle between the inward and the outward. But the third and higher level is when the two become integrated. Verses 8-11 of Surah al-Insan states: “They give food to the poor, the orphan, and the captive, though they love it themselves, saying, ‘We feed you for the sake of God alone: We seek neither recompense nor thanks from you. We fear the Day of our Lord––a woefully grim Day.’ So God will save them from the woes of that Day, [and] give them radiance and gladness.” At this level, the one we should all aspire towards, giving is completely detached from any hope of worldly reward or benefit. It is only for God, whether it be $1 dollar or $1,000,000 dollars. No need to sit on a board of directors. No need to even receive a thank you card. This transforms charitable giving into a transcendental search for the Divine Pleasure (ridwan). It becomes a very tangible way in which a human being expresses their hope and fear in God alone, for Allah does not announce from the Heavens that He has accepted this effort. As we learn from another hadith: “Then a man will be brought forward whom Allah generously provided for, giving him various kinds of wealth, and Allah will recall to him the benefits given, and the man will acknowledge them, to which Allah will say, ‘And what have you done with them?’ The man will answer, ‘I have not left a single kind of expenditure You love to see made, except that I have spent on it for Your sake.’ Allah will say, ‘You lie. You did it so as to be called generous, and it has already been said.’ Then he will be sentenced and dragged away on his face to be flung into the fire.”

Giving is only the first step. Giving with sincerity is the more elusive goal. One never knows whether or not Allah has accepted one’s charitable giving. But we must still strive to purify ourselves of any ulterior motive, recognizing that whatever we have given was first given to us from al-Razzaq, and only One can reward us beyond our imaginations. The metaphysics of charitable giving is to take the most worldly thing possible – money – and turn it into an expression of our realization of the Oneness of God. Only then will be capable of realizing the promise in the Qur’an: “Those who spend their wealth in God’s cause are like grains of corn that produce seven ears, each bearing a hundred grains. God gives multiple increase to whoever He wishes: He is limitless and all knowing.”

This sermon of Imam ‘Alī really spoke to me this day of Friday. It is originally found here but I have made some edits:

Divine orders descend from heaven to earth like drops of rain, bringing to everyone what is destined for them whether increase or loss.

So if any one of you sees your brother [or sister] with children or wealth or abundance in their own person, then do not make a big deal out of it. So long as a Muslim does not commit such a deed that, if it were made known, they would be humbled if it were mentioned or lowly people would feel emboldened by hearing of it, that person is like a gambler who expects that the first draw of his arrow would secure him gain and also cover up the previous loss.

أمَّا بَعْدُ، فَإِنَّ الاْمْرَ يَنْزِلُ مِنَ السَّماءِ إِلَى الاْرْضِ كَقَطر المَطَرِ إِلَى كُلِّ نَفْسٍ بِمَا قُسِمَ لَهَا مِنْ زِيَادَةٍ أَوْ نُقْصَانٍ، فإذا رَأَى أَحَدُكُمْ لاِخِيهِ غَفِيرَةً في أَهْلٍ أَوْ مَالٍ أَوْ نَفْسٍ فَلاَ تَكُونَنَّ لَهُ فِتْنَةً، فَإِنَّ المَرْءَ المُسْلِمَ مَا لَمْ يَغْشَ دَنَاءَةً تَظْهَرُ فَيَخْشَعُ لَهَا إِذَا ذُكِرَتْ، وَيُغْرَى بهَا لِئَامُ النَّاسِ، كانَ كَالفَالِجِ اليَاسِرِشة الَّذِي يَنْتَظِرُ أَوَّلَ فَوْزَةٍ مِنْ قِدَاحِهِ تُوجِبُ لَهُ المَغْنَمَ، وَيُرْفَعُ عَنْهُ بهاالمَغْرَمُ.

Similarly, the Muslim who is free from deception expects one of two good things, either responding to the call of Allah – and what is with Allah is better for him – or sustenance from Allah. They already have children and property, as well as their religion and honor. Wealth and children are the gains of this world, whereas virtuous deed are the gains of the next. For some people, Allah joins them both together.

كَذْلِكَ المَرْءُ المُسْلِمُ البَرِيءُ مِنَ الخِيَانَةِ يَنْتَظِرُ مِنَ اللهِ إِحْدَى الحُسْنَيَيْنِ: إِمَّا دَاعِيَ اللهِ فَمَا عِنْدَ اللهِ خَيْرٌ لَهُ، وَإِمَّا رِزْقَ اللهِ فَإِذَا هُوَ ذُو أَهْلٍ وَمَالٍ، وَمَعَهُ دِينُهُ وَحَسَبُهُ. إِنَّ المَالَ وَالبَنِينَ حَرْثُ الدُّنْيَا، والعَمَلَ الصَّالِحَ حَرْثُ الاْخِرَةِ، وَقَدْ يَجْمَعُهُمَا اللهُ لاِقْوَامٍ،

Be wary of Allah regarding what Allah has told you to be wary of, and hold Allah in such esteem that no lame excuses will be necessary.

Do good works without showing off or need for them to be known by others. For if someone does a good deed for other than Allah, then Allah leaves them to the one for whom they did that deed.

And we ask Allah to bless us with the ranks of the martyrs, the company of the blissful, and the friendship of the Prophets.

فَاحْذَرُوا مِنَ اللهِ مَا حَذَّرَكُمْ مِنْ نَفْسِهِ، وَاخْشَوْهُ خَشْيَةً لَيْسَتُ بَتَعْذِيرٍ وَاعْمَلُوا في غَيْرِ رِيَاءٍ وَلاَ سُمْعَةٍ؛ فَإِنَّهُ مَنْ يَعْمَلْ لِغَيْرِ اللهِ يَكِلْهُ اللهُ إِلَى مَنْ عَمِلَ لَهُ. نَسْأَلُ اللهَ مَنَازِلَ الشُّهَدَاءِ، وَمُعَايَشَةَ السُّعَدَاءِ، وَمُرَافَقَةَ الاْنْبِيَاءِ.

I don’t know you

and I am not worthy of you

but my worthiness is not the standard by which I will reach you

rather

it is your nobility and generosity

upon which I rely

sitting here

across the sea

it seems impossible that I would get there

but I once thought it impossible

to stand in front of Husayn

and then it was real

so I know that I can find myself in front of you

should God bestow upon me a mercy I do not deserve

yet again

as-salāmu ‘alayka yā Imām al-Riḍā!

I remember

sitting in a majlis

and hearing a story

that someone thought you were a servant

and asked for a massage

you did not scold him

but rather fulfilled his request

until another indicated to him who you were

I wonder if he asked you because your skin was black

and thus assumed you could not be the leader of the Muslims

beloved by God

abundant of knowledge

excellent in conduct

he saw you as fit to be his servant

when in fact the mountains and stars praised your name

as-salāmu ‘alayka yā Imām al-Riḍā!

I pray that God grants me life enough

and strength enough

and wealth enough

to find myself in your courtyard

to renew a relationship

meant for eternity

as-salāmu ‘alayka yā Imām al-Riḍā!

After all the studies of fiqh manuals and pilgrimages overseas.

After all the tazkiya al-nafs and reading of commentaries on ‘aqida texts.

After all the discussions about schools of thought and attempts to understand 1400 years of Islamic history.

After all the work building out masjids and schools and third spaces.

I am writing this from the same kitchen table where I sat eating ham as a 17 year old kid who just wanted to skateboard with my friends and go out with my girlfriend.

What was it all for?

The only compelling answer is that I have changed on the inside.

The body that sat here at age 17 wasn’t sure if God was real and was definitely not convinced of the resurrection.

But the 40+ year old man knows that whatever I am is nothing but what God has blessed me to utilize for a short time, and that just as I once came from nothing into this world, so too can God give me life again in whatever place God chooses.

My heart sends salawat and salam upon the Best of Creation and his purified progeny, the leaders of humanity, through whom I understand who God is and how best to serve God in my little way.

I understand my religion in both its historical development and its contemporary relevance, and live it each day and am willing to teach it to others.

My fingers hope to please God by writing this message, as a reminder that if I can find Islam, then any 17-year old American kid who is thinking about nothing but the dunya right now can also find the answers to the meaning of life within the Islamic tradition.

I have no idea how many years I have left on this Earth, but I am thankful for the life I have lived and the future laid out in front of me.

Human beings plan and Allah plans and Allah is the best of planners.

The Greater Islam

I need to let go.

I need to say to myself, “You have taken into consideration the myriad issues at play in the interpretation of the religious history of humanity, and you have done your spiritual due diligence (muḥāsaba) in regards to your own obligations to God and humanity vis-a-vis the Islamic tradition.”

And then just rely on God.

That unmediated, natural sense of dependence on the Creator.

Because I don’t know how to move beyond the spiritual state that I have been in.

I sent an email to a teacher. And then followed up weeks later when I didn’t hear anything. Still nothing.

But I have to remember that the teacher has no power of his own.

God holds all the keys and created all the doors.

لَهُ مَقَالِيدُ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ يَبْسُطُ الرِّزْقَ لِمَن يَشَاءُ وَيَقْدِرُ إِنَّهُ بِكُلِّ شَيْءٍ عَلِيم

“To Him belong the keys of the heavens and the earth: He expands the provision for whomever He wishes, and tightens it for whomever He wishes. Indeed He has knowledge of all things.” (42.12)

If I need a teacher, God will provide me one.

‘Allamah Tabataba’i states:

Islām-i akbar consists of total submission and absolute surrender before God, that is to say, renunciation of all complaints and objections before Him, Almighty and Glorious is He. It also connotes the recognition of the fact that anything that exists, or any event that takes place, is destined by God and, therefore, good; and that which does not occur is not in one’s best interest. In short, Islām-i akbar calls for total abstinence from questioning and complaining in regard to the Almighty Lord.” (Kernel of the Kernel, pp. 45-6)

Is not today exactly as it should be?

Is not God capable of all things?

Has not God shown me favor and answered my entreaties countless times before?

And so I need to let go of any resentment, frustration, and confusion.

And just rely on God.

Stay home. Make du’a.

I have a suspicion that Republicans are holding out on the election in hopes that they provoke the Left to take to the streets.

All they need is crowds of people in masks with raised fists to spin it that they are going to save America.

Stay home.

Make du’a.

We are already sacred.

When we think of the foundational ritual of our religion, it is the ṣalāt.

It is nothing but our bodies, the land and water.

The land upon which we live.

The water that we need to survive.

The bodies through which we have this human experience.

The ritual that our Creator call us to perform every day is rooted in the ever-present sacredness of us and our surroundings.

It requires nothing else but that which is already there as the foundations of human life on Earth.

We are already sacred, and the ṣalāt is a reminder of that reality.

We can forget.

We can temporarily unpurify our bodies, the ground and/or the water.

But daily connection with the sacred is intention–>water–>body–>land.

It is the foundational truth to which we return again and again.

The stark confrontation with the real.

Land. Water. Bodies.

الله الله الله

the mercy of the veil

We were sitting in the New York University prayer room, overlooking Washington Square Park.

Across from the fountain and arch, there are large apartment buildings that we could see from our 5th floor view.

Our teacher that day, Shaykh Khalil, had a message for us that I will never forget.

“One of the mercies that we do not always perceive is the mercy of the veil.”

What was he getting at?

“There are so many thing happening around us all the time, and we do not even know, but Allah knows. You see that apartment building across the park? Perhaps someone is being raped in there right now. Perhaps a child is being abused. Perhaps a murder is taking place. And we are veiled from all of it.”

I felt my heart sink. It was true. In a city like New York, beneath the veneer of nice restaurants and quirky street performers lay something sinister. One could feel it.

“But Allah does not ask you to confront all of it. Because you can’t handle it.”

***

I think about that day a lot. The cruelty of the world overwhelms me, what little of it I can comprehend. I have witnessed things that have changed me forever. But I still have hope in eternal meanings that help me to reconcile it all.

I don’t know what the future holds. Like many, I am sometimes filled with anxiety and worry. But I am thankful for the fact that Allah is gentle with me. I am still a recipient of the mercy of the veil.

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