Archive for April, 2008

Seth Carney

He stood there, in a black trench coat, a black kufi, a black dress shirt, and a black tie. Whiter than me, it seemed, maybe because he was wearing black on black, or perhaps because, as I would find out later, he didn’t like being out in the sun because it hurt his eyes. An unexpected encounter, to say the least. Little did I know then that 9 years later I would be reliving it so vividly.

It was 1999, and his name was Seth Carney, but he introduced himself as ‘Abd al-Hakeem (“The Servant of the Wise”). I was really excited to meet him, another white convert to Islam. After that initial encounter, we would often spend long nights together, talking about Islam, politics, comparative religions, philosophy, and so much more. He used to show up outside my window at midnight, and we’d drive to Dunkin Donuts for a late night snack: sometimes donuts, sometimes an egg and cheese, and he usually drank apple juice. We’d go back to his apartment in East Providence. Books everywhere. Heidegger, al-Ghazali, and everything in between.

One night, he said I had to watch this movie called the Big Lebowski. He explained to me how there were all these references to his alma mater, Simon’s Rock (a sort of high school/college in the Berkshires), in the movie. I loved it, and have probably watched it 20 times since then. Every time it makes me think of him. Tonight I watched it again, for the first time since I learned about his death in 2007.

By the end of the movie, I had tears streaming down my face. The hardest part about loving people is the pain that we feel at their absence. The more we care, and the more open we are, the more it hurts. I wish I could see Seth again. If I had known that time I visited Chicago when he was in Wisconsin was the last time we could have met in this life, I would have driven out in the middle of the night to see him one last time. But I thought I had time. We always do.

As much as I have faith that God is real and that the life after death is real, death is a test. To know with absolute certainty that you will never see someone again in this life forces us to be honest with ourselves. Do we really think we could see them again? Do we really think we could see their face shining back at us, and throw our arms around them in an embrace that fills the void in our hearts? It is my hope, and it is my faith, but right now, loss is real.

This weekend began with so much happiness and fun I could hardly handle it, and it was the people that made it special. Such wonderful people. As the weekend progressed, I kept feeling a creeping sense of loneliness, as I palpably experienced the truism that all good things must come to an end. And now it ends with the remembrance of Seth.

It would have been easier to be cold. It would have been easier to not develop a friendship with him. It would have been easier not to share myself, and my dreams, and my fears. It would have been easier to say, “No thanks, I don’t want to go out with you in the middle of the night and eat donuts and discuss contemporary Islamic thought and stay up til fajr and then go to the masjid and then have you drive me home.” It would have been so much easier. But I would have missed so much. I wouldn’t trade those days for anything.

So, despite tonight’s outpouring of emotion, I’ll wake up tomorrow in that familiar way. With that feeling that I am strong, and that I have absorbed the pain into my being, and that it’s time to move forward. The bond that Seth and I shared was based on the fact that we both worshipped the Living One who does not die, and He has decreed that my story is not yet over. There is still something for me here.

But we own nothing, not even our selves. We can no more hold onto those we love than we can hold onto our own lives. On Fridays, we can be open to what the world may hold in store for us, and drink it in. ┬áBut on Sundays, on nights like tonight, we have to be willing to let it go. But we can at the very least, on nights like tonight, take the time to say to those who are in our hearts: “I love you. If I knew tonight was the last chance we had to see each other in this life, I’d drop everything and drive all night to get to you before sunrise.” May an angel of mercy carry my message to you as a gift from across the distance that separates us.

Hasbuna Allahu wa ni’ma al-wakeel (“God is sufficient for us and the best Disposer of Affairs”)

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The Allmighty…

…Dollar. As much as we hope to be above it, it consumes us. It is too palpable. Too real. Too much imbued, however weakly, with other things we want (power, sex, fame, influence, independence, etc.).

I hesitate to talk about this. I was taught from a very young age, both explicitly and implicitly, to not talk about money. But as I get older, it seems that I am almost always talking about it, even when I am not talking about it. Better just to lay it bare.

We need money. We need it for rent, car insurance, food, clothing, cable TV and internet access, and so much more. If I spend $2000 a month, then I need $2000 a month coming in. Hopefully, I have $2500 coming in, so that I have $500 left to save for the proverbial rainy day.

What is that rainy day? When I no longer can move my arms, or my lips, in order to bring in money through my labor. Or when all of a sudden, I need to spend $3000 a month, and I still only have $2000 coming in.

When we live paycheck to paycheck, we are constrained. We need that income to get by, and we fear its disappearance. So we hope for freedom from constraint. We imagine what it might be like to win the lottery. No more worries. Just an endless piggy bank which we can dip into whenever we so desire.

But one person’s freedom is another person’s constraint. What is a lot of money to me? A good number is $50 million. Why? Because I dream big. I’d want to be able to pay for all of my kids’ educations without even thinking about it. I’d like to be able to drop $500,000 for my favorite non-profits when they were working towards some really good goal (like the Tabari College at Zaytuna Institute, for instance). I’d like to own my dream home, which when I find reflections of it in the real world, is usually at least a couple mil.

But unless I completely change my life around and work my butt off for the next few decades in pursuit of this goal, or some unforeseen miracle happens, I’ll be unable to achieve any of these dreams. And to be honest, it probably wasn’t such a good idea to become Muslim if this is what my priorities were in life. But even more than that, it was a waste of time trying to be a “good” Muslim over the last 7 years since graduating from one of the most selective undergraduate institutions in the world.

Everyone has their own struggles with money, and that has been mine. The seemingly inescapable dichotomy of putting my energies into either being more loved by God or more wealthy. If I knew God would love me by becoming an investment banker, I would have called that guy at Merrill Lynch in a heartbeat. But I didn’t, and I don’t.

Every day, I try to focus on my goal of getting closer to what I believe God wants from me, and I’m so far from it. And everything I can think of to do to try to get there has nothing to do with income. Well, not everything. At least I have a part-time job that fits into my idiosyncratic religious worldview.

But where do I go from here? Will I always feel caught between the dollar and the Divine?

Something I always think about is how the Companions of the Prophet (may God be well pleased with them) would often times give up half of what they had, or even more, when the Prophet (may the peace and blessings of God be upon him) would ask them to spend in the way of Allah. And I guess that’s the answer. Nothing we have, even if it’s $50 million dollars, is ours, and even if we have it, we have to be willing to give it all up for something greater. That’s the implication of our aqida. The unseen provision of rizq is actually more real than our toiling hands.

Ibn Ata’illah, one of the most famous mystics in Islamic history, wrote, ” Your striving for what is absolutely guaranteed for you and your laxness in what is required of you are evidence that your inner eye is dull.” Every time I think about this dilemma, this comes to mind. And then I think about a conversation between a teacher and student which is relayed in the letters of Shaykh al-‘Arabi al-Darqawi: a student said to his teacher, “What about food?” to which his teacher replied, “God!” The student persisted and said, “But we absolutely have to have food,” to which his teacher retorted, “We absolutely have to have God!”

I feel, though, that these words would have more impact if I was a corporate lawyer or something. Then people would say, “Masha’Allah. He’s so successful and yet so pious. How can I argue with that?!” But after years of examining myself, I feel that is precisely the problem. I want to convince people of something I know in my heart is right by doing things for the sake of other people, which I know in my heart is wrong. If I became a corporate lawyer, or an investment banker, at this point in time (I’m always open to change), I’d be doing it for my wife, or my parents, or my friends, or maybe even for myself. But I wouldn’t be doing it for God.

My sister always told me that the thing that scares her about religion is that it is so complete. It is not a hypothesis which can be changed, or a path which can be modified. After years of struggling with it, and probing it’s depths, I have to agree. There is never a point I reach where I can just be like, “Ok, I’ve done enough. I’ve paid my dues. Now on to other things.” It demands everything and always will.

One of the scariest moments in my life happened in a weird way. One of the reasons I became religious is because I felt so blessed as a kid. I wanted to know to Whom, other than my parents and the United States, I should direct my thankfulness. And thankfulness became a prime way in which I manifested my religiosity. Then, one day, when I was feeling particularly thankful, I was listening to a lecture by Shaykh Nuh Ha Mim Keller, and he said, “shukr [thankfulness] is giving everything you have for Allah. Allah gets everything and the nafs gets nothing.”

It terrified me then, and it scares me to remember it now, but at this point in my life, I don’t see how it could be any other way. wa Allahu a’lam [i.e. this is my best guess, and only God really knows if hedge fund managers are actually his closest friends in this world]

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