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Archive for December, 2015

Tomorrow is Christmas. Many Christians believe that the day Jesus was born, upon him peace, all of existence was fundamentally altered. Everything was a lead up to this day, and after it happened, everything was different. Salvation was only possible through the atonement of the Son of God, who only came once to Earth.

Islam is different. In Islam, God is continuously calling humanity back to Heaven, from the time of Adam, upon him peace, until the present day. A few days ago was the traditional celebration of the Mawlid, the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad, upon him peace. It is believed by many to have happened on the 12th of the Islamic lunar month, Rabi’ al-Awwal. The Mawlid is important in Islamic culture, but not nearly as important as Christmas is to Christians. I believe that the central reason is because Islam has a different relationship to history than Christianity.

The Qur’an is not like the Bible structurally, and does not have a beginning, a middle, and an end. It calls itself, “a revelation from the One who created the Earth and the highest heavens,” and if that is so, it is telling that God avoids sweeping narrative. The only complete story in the Qur’an is the chapter of Joseph, and it is about one individual’s life. The first major work of universal history in Islamic civilization didn’t come until the time of al-Tabari (d. 923), 300 years after the Qur’an. It was so scholarly that the author provided all his sources, and so long that it filled many many volumes. It was a massive intellectual undertaking, but al-Tabari never said his views could not be challenged. It was simply an attempt to collate all the data available to him and fashion a type of “Big History.” It is far longer and more detailed than the Bible, or any other historical text in early Christianity, and yet does not have the same status theologically. It can be questioned, and has been debated for 1000 years.

One of the implications of this difference is how the two religious traditions deal with the rise of materialistic science over the last few hundred years. In the West, the story of science is often portrayed as the story of human beings using reason to reject a close-minded faith that kept people from properly understanding the universe in which we live. This is embedded within the intellectual history of Christianity in Europe, even though it is presented as a universal narrative speaking for all peoples and cultures of Earth. The narrative mythology of the Bible ruled the Euro-American historical imagination for over 1500 years. Early Christian religious authorities decided that creating a book with a beginning (Genesis), a climax (4 Gospels), and an epic conclusion (Revelation) was the proper way to frame Truth. In the elaboration of science in Euro-American history, a counter-narrative was formed, framed as a “Coming of Age in the Milky Way.” Old dogmatic truths were demolished and reason prevailed. Many scientists argued that we were finally discovering our true history, and that the scientific narrative of the universe proved the traditional Christian narrative wrong, and replaced it. Jesus was not the focal point of all history, for the Bible only told a very limited story, and much of it was inaccurate besides.

Narratives of understanding the history of the universe, our planet, and human beings from within Islamicate civilization are not the same as European narratives. In classical Islamic thought, science would be categorized as a type of hukm ‘adi, which are intellectual judgements based on observing the way the world works. For example, we see that fire burns when we put our hands into it, and so we learn through pattern recognition that fire burns. But pattern recognition is only one modality of reason. Another type of reason is known as a hukm shar’i, which are intellectual judgements based on proper interpretation of texts of revelation. For example, determining the method of prayer, which is based on interpretation of the Qur’an and other texts, is a hukm shar’i. It has rules of logic and linguistics that govern proper interpretation, as well-articulated by Professor John Walbridge in his book “God and Logic in Islam.” A third modality of reason is known as the hukm ‘aqli, which are intellectual judgements that are self-evident, thus not in need of validation from either scientific observation nor exegesis of revelation. For example, the truth of 2+2=4 is not based on the scientific method, nor the Qur’an. It is just known by itself.

These are three distinctive types of “reason,” and each are valid in their own spheres of influence. This picture of the processes of the human intellect is more complicated than the usual trope of “reason versus faith.” While there are undoubtedly many things that science has taught us about ourselves and the universe around us, we do a disservice to the complexity of human history and the many manifestations of human thought when we allow this Euro-American vision of history to pass as some sort of universal narrative of truth. Different cultures and religions have had different ways of understanding the universe.

To be honest, I prefer the Islamic approach to history. I dislike materialists who spew dogmas about the history of the universe just as much as I dislike Evangelical Christians who try to convince people that the Earth is 6000 years old based on their reading of the Bible. Both are “easy answers” that do not do justice to the complexity of historical interpretation. I find comfort in the idea that God hid from us the details of history in the Qur’an, and instead wanted us to figure it out on our own as best we can. That gives me a lot more room for error in my understanding of history, and a lot more room for science.

I am thankful for the days on which Jesus and Muhammad were born, peace be upon them both, but the fact of the matter is that even those dates are debated. It is not clearly known. Despite that lack of historical certainty, God is manifest in every moment, for the Qur’an states: “To God belongs both the East and the West, so wherever you turn, there is the Face of God.” (2.115) And God is constantly watching me in my moments, and so reminds me about the past: “that is a nation that has passed away; they will have what they earned and you will have what you earned, and you will not be asked about what they did.” (2.134) So I know that as important as the past is, the writing of it is always the product of fallible human minds who have different modalities of reason.

Perhaps the stars shone brighter on the day Jesus was born. Perhaps there were heavenly lights manifest on the day Muhammad was born. Unfortunately, I witnessed neither. I live in the 21st century, and all I have are texts compiled by fallible authors, such as the Sunni al-Bukhari, the Shi’i al-Kulayni, and the Judaeo-Christian writers of the Gospels. I am thankful for what God has preserved for me in human history, but I do not believe that any of these authors were immune from error. They are, in the final analysis, historians, and I too am a student of history who is obliged to think seriously about what can and cannot be known about the past.

As Carl Sagan once said, “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” But in order to properly understand the cosmos, we need to properly understand how we have understood the cosmos. Muslims, Christians, and Materialists have all produced literature attempting to explain the story of the universe, the planet Earth, and human beings in different ways. Each of them emphasizes different things in different ways. As for me, my greatest hope does not lie in books nor articles. Rather, I hope that when I die, I will see Jesus and Muhammad face-to-face, as opposed to now, when I see them through a glass, darkly. Commemorating their births is simply a means to increase my longing for them in my death. Unfortunately, for the rest of you, if I do meet them in the world beyond, I won’t be able to blog about it. But when I die, perhaps you can look back at this short piece of writing and smile, knowing that I have finally arrived to the Reality that Jesus and Muhammad already know, may peace be upon them both.maxresdefault

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The Eyes of ‘Ali

do not speak to me of Abu Hanifa nor al-Shafi’i

neither al-Shadhili nor al-Jilani

I am lost in the ocean of ‘Ali

through whose young eyes he saw his cousin become a Prophet

upon him and his family be blessings and peace

 

do not speak to me of al-Ash’ari nor al-Maturidi

neither al-Dhahabi nor Ibn Hajar

I am standing at the gate of ‘Ali

through whose middle-aged eyes he saw his Prophet laid to rest

upon him and his family be blessings and peace

 

do not speak to me of al-Kulayni nor al-Saduq

neither al-Tusi nor al-Mufid

I yearn for the mawla of all believers

through whose dying eyes he saw the rule of the Prophet disappear

upon him and his family be blessings and peace

 

None can claim to see what he saw

from the warmth of Khadija’s home

to the blood of the Khawarij

for half a century he was there

always faithful from beginning ’til end

 

may my life be sacrificed for those eyes

 

Our unity is ‘Ali

our division comes from elsewhere

so do not speak to me of anyone but ‘Ali

without whom I could not envision my Prophet

upon him and his family be blessings and peace

 

I have felt the weight of al-thaqalayn upon my heart

and I am changed

and can never go back

so may my eyes see them return to the Prophet at the Pool

upon him and his family be blessings and peace

 

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Silence is Complicity

Dear Muslim b. ‘Aqil,

May peace be upon you. I am sorry it has taken me so long to write. No one ever taught me about you. I have heard other names over and over and over again, but I had to find your story in a book I purchased out of my own desire to know. What an awful story! Did they really throw you from the rooftops and drag you through the streets of Kufa? You, the son of the cousin of the Best of Creation, the personal representative of one of the Masters of Heaven?! Ya Lateef.

In our times, they say that silence in the face of injustice is a form of complicity. Insha’Allah the angels will translate what that means for you. I don’t want to be silent. I don’t want your blood on my hands. I want to be on your side, without qualification.

Perhaps one of the small wisdoms of your martyrdom is that so many years later, your story would move me. Move me to realize the level of treachery that Husayn and his lovers faced. Move me to understand what level of sacrifice is required to follow Husayn. Blessings and peace be upon Muhammad and the family of Muhammad!

May the Muharram gatherings all around this Earth be a further reminder to the world that your sacrifice was not in vain, and may we blessed to visit you in Kufa,

by the mercy of the Most Merciful, ameen!

Your admirer,

R. David Coolidge

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not because i am going on hajj
not because i just found out i have only a short time to live
not because i want leadership
not because i am predisposed to feeling guilty
not because i am obsessed with the performative
not because i fear American right-wing nationalism
not because of you
or because of me
but because of God
and Paradise
and Hell
and because it is the right thing to do
i ask you for your advice on how i can be better
and if there is anything i need to do to rectify the connection between us
due to my own ignorance and selfishness
and if there is nothing you can think of
please at least make a prayer for me
thank you

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a letter to a friend

In a previous post, I wrote about a friend I lost a number of years ago. This past Ramadan, I wrote him a letter:

Bismillah al-Rahman al-Raheem

ya Seth

al-salam ‘alaykum wa rahma Allah!

I hope Allah grants permission for you to hear and/or see this in the barzakh. It has been almost 8 years since you died, and 7 since I wrote [the] tribute to our friendship. It is strange how often you come to mind. What is it like where you are now? I ask the One whom I ask for everything to make it a garden from the gardens of Paradise. I ask the One to make it filled with beauty beyond description and pleasure beyond comprehension.

Fayd Kashani said something remarkable. He said that the pleasure of knowing the One contains every pleasure in existence, for every pleasure in existence emanates from the One. So I ask the One to give you that.

Sometimes it feels like so much of what I do is in order to figure out the answers to the questions that you raised. Not just because you are smart, masha’Allah, but because you burned with a passion to know, just like me. A passion that meant crossing lines that people like you and I don’t normally cross. I saw the documentary about Arba’een where you wanted to do ziyara, but couldn’t because of the security situation. I hope to make ziyara whenever the One opens the doors of facilitation, and I pray that you will be with me, somehow, someway. One of my teachers, Umar Abd-Allah, said while we were doing ziyara in Syria that the souls of the righteous are freed at death, and Sayyid Sabiq discusses some of the abilities of the souls to travel in the earth. I pray that the One grants you the ability to be with me in Najaf when, if God wills, I make it there.

There are so many in this world that think what I am writing right now is just a projection of my subjectivity. Maybe even our own parents think that, may Allah bless them forever. But I believe that we were friends for a purpose, in the wisdom of the Decree of the One. And so these words are not just empty musings emerging from my particular collection of neurons. No – I believe that you still live, even though we can’t speak directly. And I pray that we will see each other again, and visit Imam Husayn together, and with him go visit his grandfather – may blessings and peace be upon him and his family – by the Love and Mercy of the One who brought us together in this life.

How may books we read and discussed! I read somewhere recently that you were studying some medieval Isma’ili texts towards the end of your life. Only the One knows what you were up to, but what I knew of you is what I know of myself – the irresistible urge to pass beyond the confines of human history and its collected artifacts of manuscripts and ruins, to arrive into the company of the eternal souls of the saints, the fellowship of the angels, and ultimately to approach the Divine. To drink from whatever we can fathom of “qaba qawsayn” for eternity.

What is this life but this letter? This letter of faith – words typed on a screen like a billion other screens in this world, but meant to travel beyond what I can see to a world that is “khayr wa abqa.” This letter from one white kid to another, who decided to risk everything for the sake of the One who gave us everything. This letter that I am writing in my life after your death. This letter that represents what I actually care about. This letter that I am writing when I could be doing a million other things. A million other things that matter less than this letter for this faqir. This letter that I am writing, in part, because I want millions to pray for you.

Sometimes I am so sick of this world. Sometimes all I can see is oppression and selfishness and the nihilistic pursuit of entertainment. Even studying feels like that much of the time – the joy of the text, and the thrill of discovery and the power of feeling like you are the one who really knows. I seek refuge in the One from all of that! Even religious gatherings sometimes feel like that, especially when those gathered think they are the elite (khass) who are beyond reproach and beyond questioning. How many times we got in trouble for asking hard questions! But if the Truth is the Truth, then it can handle a couple hard questions! One thing you taught me better than anyone is to not stop. You never stopped. If the Truth is the Truth, it will last. So even when we disagreed, we were united by la ilaha ill Allah Muhammad rasul Allah.

I seek refuge in the One who caused you to die and caused me to live. Because you are gone, I can never forget that I am one step away from death. Because of you, I always know that books are not enough – it is the journey of the soul that matters most. There is no reading that you can do that can help you now, but if I and anyone who reads this recites al-Fatiha for you, then that – that is something real! That is something beautiful! To know that a sincere heart, somewhere out in the world, can say words for you that go beyond time and space and receive acceptance in the realm of pure Being, an acceptance which increases you in Mercy wherever you are. Allah! And again, Allah! Allah Allah Allah! Forever and ever, Allah!

“wa ma sahibukum bi majnun” I know that some thought you were a little crazy. You were so much like me – crazy for answers, crazy for knowledge, crazy for the Source. And that is why I cried so hard when I learned of your death. And that is why when I pray for you, like I am doing now, it is from the deepest place within me. The place that wishes it could reach out and tear away the veil of this world, and make the unseen seen. The place that wishes it could reach pure Objectivity, so that we are not lost in this world of rival claims to represent the unseen.

I have been writing this letter for almost two hours. I have poured my soul into it. I have done so because I wish we could talk. There is so much to talk about. It is Ramadan now, as I assume you know, and maybe that is why I am feeling it so deeply. This Month of Mercy always puts me in touch with death in the most palpable ways, which is a particular type of mercy. I imagine Ramadan has its own mercies in the barzakh, so may you experience all of the mercies that are given to every Prophet of God, from Adam to Muhammad, upon them all peace. That seems like a presumptuous prayer, but it is the one that the All-Knowing inspired in my heart to make for you. Maybe, if the One grants you permission, visit me in my dreams. It would be great to see you again, and know that you are doing well. Maybe you have some advice for me as to how best to prepare for my inevitable journey to where you are already are.

with love, from your brother in the fellowship of following Muhammad,

David

Seth’s grave

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اللهم صل على محمد و آل محمد

In a previous post, I spoke of longing to know more about Imam ‘Ali b. Muhammad al-Naqi, upon him peace. In my subsequent reading, I found much wisdom, and thought I should share some of it.

  • On the Nature of God: “O my Lord, thoughts of thinkers went astray, sights of seers fell short, descriptions of describers dissipated, sayings of fabricators vanished before the wonders of Your affair, or the reach to Your highness, for You are in the unreachable place, and no eye can fall upon You with a glance or expression. How far, and how far! O You the First, the Only, the Unique!…” [taken from a hadith of Imam al-Naqi related in Kitab al-Tawhid of al-Shaykh al-Saduq]
  • On Sin: “Allah the Almighty says: ‘O son of Adam, you are not fair to Me. I endear Myself to you through blessings and you make yourself hated through sins. My good comes down to you and your evil comes up to Me. Every day and night an honorable angel comes to Me bringing ugly deeds from you. O son of Adam, if you hear your description from other than you, while you do not know who the described one is, you will soon hate him…” [taken from a hadith of Imam al-Naqi related in al-Amali of al-Tusi]
  • On Spiritual Loneliness: “Amir al-Mu’minin (upon him peace) said, ‘He who busies himself thinking of the afterlife, will be rich with no money, feel at ease with no family, and feel mighty with no fellows.'” [taken from a hadith narrated by Imam al-Naqi and related in al-Amali of al-Tusi]
  • On Muslim Unity: “The nation has agreed unanimously with no disagreement between them that the Qur’an is the truth that has no doubt in it for Muslims of all sects. Their agreement is the proof of the Book and that they are right and guided due to the saying of the messenger of Allah (peace be upon him and on his progeny), ‘My nation does not agree on deviation.’ He told that what the entire nation agreed on is truth when no group disagrees with another. The Qur’an is the truth that there is no difference between them (Muslims) in its revelation and truthfulness. So when the Qur’an witnesses the truthfulness of some news but a group of the nation denies it, they should acknowledge it as a necessity, for basically the nation has agreed unanimously on the truthfulness of the Qur’an, and if they deny, this requires them to be out of the (Muslim) nation. The first news that is proved, witnessed, and confirmed by the Book is the saying of the messenger of Allah, ‘I leave to you the two weighty things; the Book of Allah and my household. You shall not go astray as long as you keep to them. They shall not separate until they shall come to me at the pond (in Paradise).’ We found the evidences of this tradition in the Book of Allah where Allah said, ‘Only Allah is your wali and His Messenger and those who believe, those who keep up prayers and pay the poor-rate while they bow. And whoever takes Allah and His messenger and those who believe for a guardian, then surely the party of Allah are they that shall be triumphant.’ All Muslim sects narrated traditions that Amir al- Mu’minin (upon him peace) had given his ring as charity while he was bowing in prayer and Allah praised him for that and revealed this verse. We found the messenger of Allah saying, ‘whoever I was his guardian, ‘Ali is to be his guardian’ and (addressing Imam ‘Ali), ‘you are to me as was Aaron to Moses but there will be no prophet after me’…” [taken from a letter of Imam al-Naqi to the people of Ahvaz, a city in Iran]
  • On Death: “…It was said to Imam al-Sadiq (upon him peace), ‘Some people say that death is bitterer than sawing, cutting with scissors, stoning, and turning of millstones on the pupils of eyes.’ Imam as-Sadiq said, ‘Yes, it is so for some unbelievers and sinners. Do you not see that some of them suffer these severities? What they will meet after that will be much more severe. It is the torment of the afterlife which will be much more severe than the torment in this life.’ It was said to him, ‘Then, why do we see some unbelievers die easily while talking and laughing, and some believers too, and we see some believers and unbelievers suffer much when dying?’ He replied, ‘The easy death of a believer is an early reward for him, and when he suffers at death, he is purified from his sins in order to be pure and then to deserve the eternal reward in the afterlife. The easy death of some unbelievers is that they are given the reward of their good deeds in this world and in the afterworld they will have torment. And if some unbelievers suffer at death, it is the beginning of the torment of Allah on them. Allah is just and He does not wrong.'” [taken from a hadith narrated by Imam al-Naqi as related in ‘Uyun Akhbar al-Rida of al-Shaykh al-Saduq]

اللهم صل على محمد و آل محمد

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