Archive for October, 2016

Last year I posted something about trying to understand the discourse surrounding the Mahdi. I have thought about it so much since then. I think about how it represents the socio-political ideals of humanity on Earth, as well as the idea of spiritual perfection. There are many people who have given up on one, the other, or both. So reflecting on this state of humanity made me realize the intimate relationship between belief and hope whenever Imam Mahdi is mentioned. It is a discourse of aspiration, inherently. Recently, I came across two passages written by ‘Allamah Tabataba’i that express this beautifully, and I keep coming back to them. I hope they mean something to you, for that is why I am sharing them.

on the socio-political ideals of humanity

“ever since he has inhabited the earth, man has had the wish to lead a social life filled with happiness in its true sense and has striven toward this end. If such a wish were not to have an objective existence, it would never have been imprinted upon man’s inner nature, in the same way that if there were no food, there would have been no hunger. Or if there were to be no water, there would be no thirst and if there were to be no reproduction, there would have been no sexual attraction between the sexes. Therefore, by reason of inner necessity and determination, the future will see a day when human society will be replete with justice and when all will live in peace and tranquility, when human beings will be fully possessed of virtue and perfection. The establishment of such a condition will occur through human hands but with Divine succor. And the leader of such a society, who will be the savior of man, is called in the language of the hadith, the Mahdi.”

on spiritual perfection

“[at this stage of spiritual realization, a human being] detaches himself from all things to attach himself solely to the One God. Before His Majesty and Grandeur, he does nothing but bow in humility. Only then does be become guided and directed by God so that whatever he knows he knows in God. Through Divine guidance, he becomes adorned with moral and spiritual virtue and pure actions which are the same as Islam itself, the submission to God, the religion that is the primordial nature of things. This is the highest degree of human perfection and the station of the perfect man (the Universal Man; insan kamil), namely, the Imam who has reached this rank through Divine grace. Furthermore, those who have reached this station through the practice of spiritual methods, with the different ranks and stations that they possess, are the true followers of the Imam. It becomes thus clear that the knowledge of God and of the Imam are inseparable in the same way that the knowledge of God is inextricably connected to the knowledge of oneself.”

[both passages taken from the book Shi’ah, trans. by S.H. Nasr (Qum, Ansariyan: 2009) pp. 241-248]



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sister and nephew

“There are some things that time cannot mend. Some hurts that go too deep, that have taken hold.”

I have this dull pain in my chest. At first, I thought it was just a vestige of the emotional intensity of the first 10 days of Muharram. And then an image appeared in my mind that gave form to what I was feeling: ‘Ali b. Husayn and Zaynab b. ‘Ali remaining after Karbala.

اللهم صل على محمد و آل محمد

How can I possibly imagine what they felt? After shedding a few tears in majalis, I spent a relaxing weekend with my wife and son. Whereas they had to endure with the vivid memory of what their own eyes had witnessed.

As a chaplain, I saw how people being abused in the name of Islam drove faith out of their hearts. But it is as if the pulsating hearts of Imam al-Sajjad and Zaynab echo through the centuries, as if I can feel their faith beating in my own heart. For they faced the entire ordeal with faith and by faith.

That is where I stop in complete awe.

For there was no earthly victory for the sister of Husayn and her nephew. No “Conquest of Makkah” when they marched into Damascus triumphantly. They simply remained, full of memories, overflowing with faith. When they left the world, their oppressors were still in power.

Their victory is otherworldly. Beyond the sadness and injustice of this world, there is light and beauty that never fades. Reflecting on the faith of these two individuals leads us there, by the grace of God.

“Full of darkness and danger they were, and sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy. How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad happened. But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer.”

This is a story that really matters.

The story of a sister and a nephew who remained.

For we remain too.

لا إله إلا الله محمد رسول الله


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i am what i am

a boy of 19 years old

in the body of a man many years later


i remember now

who i used to be

and how i longed to fight in Your name

but since forgotten


i do not fear death

i fear the thousand ways the living forget


so today

i have no room left for grief

in this pulsating heart

i only yearn to raise a sword

against the enemies of God

wherever they may be

even within


perhaps i am not who i should be

surely, i can be critiqued

but today

i am where i am

staying up all night

by your side

to watch the dawn emerge


i cannot find the words

except as transmitted through my master’s servant Kumayl


My Lord! My Lord! My Lord!
I ask You by Your Truth and Your Holiness
And the greatest of Your Attributes and Names,
That You make my times in the night and the day inhabited by Your remembrance,
And joined to Your service
And my works acceptable to You
So that my works and my litanies may all be a single litany
And my occupation with Your service everlasting.
My Master! O He upon whom I depend!
O He to whom I complain about my states!
My Lord! My Lord! My Lord!
Strengthen my bodily members in Your service,
And fortify my ribs in determination
And bestow upon me earnestness in my fear of You
And continuity in my being joined to Your service
So that I may move easily toward You in the battlefields of the foremost


For if I cannot die in Your way today, my Lord

I can offer up the rest of my life as recompense

A seeker who is sought

A servant who is seeking

Sword brought down upon illusion

Slaying the demons within

Opposed to the whispers from without

Decimating the glittering distractions


Where has fear gone?

Where has weakness gone?

Where has tiredness fled to?


There are only two concerns

Outward obedience to my Commander’s orders

Inward struggle to make my movements sincere


So you can have your religion of peace

Mine is a religion of war

And my bones are still strong

my blood still pumps in my veins

and there is a fire in my heart


beware world

you cannot pacify me

for I would rather die than live

and since I live

by my Lord’s decree

be prepared for battle


there are only two options

victory or death

and so as long as I still have a breath

I seek conquest

in the combat of life


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nominalism vs. essentialism

there is a debate

between nominalism and essentialism

are words just words or do they point to realities

is Islam a word or is it a reality


Husayn’s deeds

speak realities that human words can never fully convey

your mind cannot encompass it

which is why the tears flow through your body like waves

slowly ripping you from this world

as soul is teared from body

dying before you die

as the most essential part of you fights with everything it has

to be free from all of this

free from all these words


it is enough to know that the son of Husayn died at Karbala

enough to bring you through every disappointment, trial and confusion

enough to make you bow down in fear-laced gratitude

for if such a precious human being can be slaughtered

than anything is possible

in the name of Islam


every ugliness, cruelty, deception, and lie

can be clothed in the garb of Arabic words

but none of it can stain

the deeds of the Moon of Banu Hashim

as if the falling water

washes away anything impure


before any book other than the Qur’an was written down

these deeds blazed in history

eternal testimonies


each yearning for the Pool


so i say again

before the final moment of ‘Ashura comes

that my body is yours

Husayn, ‘Abbas, and ‘Ali al-Akbar

i don’t want it anymore

it is for you

and please forgive me for spending so many years

thinking i deserve better than you

accept me into your army like Hurr


my masters, if I could see you tonight


i would not write these words

but i cannot

and so i sacrifice something of my eyes and fingertips

something of my time

for your honor

for your continued memory


i intend it as nothing other than a manifestation of

ذَٰلِكَ وَمَن يُعَظِّمْ شَعَائِرَ اللَّهِ فَإِنَّهَا مِن تَقْوَى الْقُلُوبِ

please pray that our Lord accepts it from me


that this will not be just another string of words

but emerge as eternally felicitous realities

يا أرحم الراحمين

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I like to think that…

I would have given my life for God under the leadership of the Messenger of God at the battle of Badr

I would have given my life for God under the leadership of the Messenger of God at the Battle of Uhud

I would have given my life for God under the leadership of the Messenger of God at the Battle of Khandaq

I would have given my life for God under the leadership of the Messenger of God at the Battle of Khaybar

I would have given my life for God under the leadership of the Messenger of God at the Battle of Hunayn

I would have given my life for God under the leadership of the Commander of the Faithful ‘Ali b. Abi Talib at the Battle of Jamal

I would have given my life for God under the leadership of the Commander of the Faithful ‘Ali b. Abi Talib at the Battle of Siffin

I would have given my life for God under the leadership of the Commander of the Faithful ‘Ali b. Abi Talib at the Battle of Nahrawan

I would have given my life for God under the leadership of the Master of Martyrs Husayn b. ‘Ali at the Battle of Karbala

Dear God, please accept my intention and rectify my state so that all of my self can be for You, for there is no me but what You have given me

اللهم صل على محمد و آل محمد


The golden dome of the shrine of “al-‘abd al-salih (the righteous servant)” ‘Abbas son of ‘Ali, the flag bearer of the army of Imam Husayn

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of bodies and blood

in my words i can be

anything i want

and so tonight

i want a spear to tear through my chest for you

ya ‘Ali al-Akbar!



only means anything

if you would give up love for it

if you would give up life for it

if you would give up everything for it

and so tonight

i want my arms to be cut off for you

ya ‘Abbas!


we scare ourselves

and try to tame what is within

avoiding the wild places of our heart

which lead us down the road to Karbala

in perfect trust

and so tonight

i want my severed head to be raised on a lance for you

ya Husayn!


your bodies are more precious than my own

your blood is more sacred than mine

لا إله إلا الله




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It was the middle of the ninth century. Men on horseback carried orders from Iraq, the center of the Muslim empire. Baghdad had only existed for a hundred years, built specifically to be the capital of one of the richest and most powerful dynasties of that era. Claiming descent from Abbas, one of the uncles of the Prophet Muhammad, blessings upon him and his family, the Abbasid caliphs laid claim to Islam itself.[1] The holy war (jihad) was carried out under their orders. The pilgrimage to Makkah (hajj) was symbolically led by the caliph. They appointed judges to administer sacred law (shari’ah),[2] and doled out patronage to scholars writing books on everything from the prophetic biography (sirah)[3] to Greek philosophy (falsafa). Indeed, it is not an exaggeration to say that the impact the Abbasids had on human history is still felt today.

But there were also some people subjected to Abbasid persecution who remain influential, despite their marginalization in the ninth century. One of them is the subject of this writing, ‘Ali b. Muhammad b. ‘Ali b. Musa b. Ja’far b. Muhammad b. ‘Ali b. Husayn b. ‘Ali b. Abu Talib.[4] Often known as Imam al-Naqi,[5] he is believed by approximately 200,000,000 Muslims today to be the 10th leader of the Muslim community after the Prophet Muhammad, blessings upon him and his family.[6] His leadership was not based on number of followers nor military strength; rather, according to the perspective of Twelver Shi’i theology, his leadership was Divinely conferred.


Linage of Imam al-Naqi

So it is no surprise to those who see themselves as faithful to his legacy that, in the year 848,[7] the Abbasid caliph Mutawakkil ordered Imam al-Naqi to leave his home in the city of Madinah and move to the city of Samarra, north of Baghdad, where the caliphs held court at the time. Under the close watch of Abbasid guards and spies, Imam al-Naqi remained in Samarra in a state of house arrest until he was buried there in 868 – twenty years a prisoner. During this time, Mutawakkil ordered the destruction of the tombs of Imam al-Naqi’s forefathers, as well as the public cursing (la’an) of their progenitor, ‘Ali b. Abi Talib.[8] These were symbolic acts intimately tied to one another – the attempt to suppress the sacred dead and the sacred living simultaneously.


Interpreting these caliphal policies is easy: Imam al-Naqi and the lineage he represented was a threat to the Abbasids and the system they administered. Imam al-Naqi, even while confined to Samarra, collected and distributed a Qur’anic tax that the caliphs considered their sole right as leaders of the Muslim armies. Once collected by the Prophet himself, blessings upon him and his family, the khums[9] was a tax of 20% on various categories of profit and income.[10] This system of private sacred taxation represented Imam al-Naqi’s base of support throughout Abbasid society, [11] and represented a significant deviation from mainstream jurisprudence, a difference maintained by the Twelver Shi’i community until this day.

Imam al-Naqi’s grandfather had been named heir apparent to the caliphate by Mutawakkil’s uncle, Ma’mun, but was eventually poisoned and buried in a remote part of the empire.[12] His only surviving son, Imam al-Naqi’s father, was married to Ma’mun’s daughter, but Imam al-Naqi’s mother was not the Abbasid princess. His mother, as was the case with many of his forefathers, was a slave woman.[13] As such, Mutawakkil’s actions were an attempt to erase this past and restore sole predominance to the Abbasids.


During this time, many scholars traveled the Muslim world, studying and teaching Islam as best they knew how. Perhaps the most famous of them was al-Bukhari, who died two years after Imam al-Naqi in 870.[14] Al-Bukhari was able to travel to many cities freely, and study with its scholars, collecting historical reports about the early generations of Muslims. His book, Sahih al-Bukhari, went on to become one of the most famous in the history of Islamic scholarship. Al-Bukhari was no threat to the established order, and as such his life unfolded in remarkably different ways from his contemporary, Imam al-Naqi. Al-Bukhari’s family had only become Muslim a few generations back, and he was from a politically marginal region the empire. Imam al-Naqi, on the other hand, was the living legacy of prophetic blood, and so it was not enough to simply stop his teaching in Madinah. His very physical presence was considered problematic.

Despite all of this, there still remain some teachings transmitted from Imam al-Naqi. Undoubtedly this is due to those faithful who believed in him, and weathered the storm along with him. Most prominent among them is a text known as al-ziyara al-jami’ah al-kabira.[15] In this text, the Twelver Shi’i doctrine of Imamate (imamah) is given full explication in ritual form. It makes sense that this text would emerge in a time of persecution, when access to Imam al-Naqi was restricted, and the faithful needed a way to reaffirm their loyalty. The khums was a way of expressing allegiance in jurisprudence (fiqh), and al-ziyara al-jami’ah al-kabira was a text that could be read for the sake of affirming a theology (‘aqida) that was under assault. In addition, the text was a means of spiritually connecting with the lineage itself, despite the caliphal destruction of their burial sites.

Taken together, this information makes it clear that Imam al-Naqi was a Shi’i Imam. Whether one believes in his Imamate is a separate matter, and concerns faith (iman) and not necessarily history (ta’rikh). But some contemporary descendants of Imam al-Naqi’s forefathers, most notably some of the progeny of his great great uncle ‘Ali al-‘Uraydi, maintain that Imam al-Naqi was a Sunni. However, the historical evidence tells a different story. For some, this may be inconsequential, as the great historiographical debates between Sunnis and Shi’is are usually held in regards to earlier figures such as ‘Ali b. Abi Talib. But if the Sunni community can accept that the Twelver Shi’is of today take their understanding of Islam directly from a contemporary of al-Bukhari, then we can see each other more fairly. For the conviction of many Sunnis lies in their belief that al-Bukhari is a direct link (sanad) to the Prophet, blessings upon him and his family, which is precisely what Twelver Shi’is see in Imam al-Naqi and his forefathers. And if Sunnis can embrace that the history of the persecution of the Ahl al-Bayt has historical precedent in the rule of Mutawakkil, then perhaps we can move forward a small degree towards greater sympathy regarding continued persecution today. In 2006, Imam al-Naqi’s burial site was decimated by an extremist suicide bomber, and its renovation is ongoing.

But if we maintain, without any historical evidence, that the Imams were all Sunnis in jurisprudence (fiqh) and theology (‘aqida), then we run the risk of perpetuating the attempted erasure of the legacy of Ahl al-Bayt that Mutawakkil tried so hard to complete.


Imam al-Naqi’s burial site in early 2016

[1] For a readable history of the Abbasids, see Kennedy, Hugh; When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World: The Rise and Fall of Islam’s Greatest Dynasty (De Capo Press, 2006)

[2] For brief biographies of two early Muslim legal scholars who held the position of “chief justice (qadi al-qudat)” under the Abbasids, see Yusuf, Hamza; The Creed of Imam al-Tahawi (Zaytuna Institute, 2007) pp. 85-7

[3] For brief remarks regarding Abbasid influence on the formation of prophetic biography, see Brown, Jonathan A.C.; Muhammad: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2011) pp. 86-8

[4] The “b.” refers to the Arabic bin, which means “son of.”

[5] I have chosen to refer to him by his title al-Naqi (The Pure), because that is the title through which I feel the most affection for him. Why that is so is explained here: https://amercycase.com/2015/11/19/secrets/

[6] Writing in 2006, based on published data from 2003, Vali Nasr gives an estimated Twelver Shi’i population of between 130-195 million. Due to population growth in the last decade, it is fair to assume that the upper range of that estimate is now well beyond 200 million. See Nasr, Vali; The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape The Future (W.W. Norton, 2006) p. 34

[7] Modarressi, Hossein; Crisis and Consolidation in the Formative Period of Shi’ite Islam (The Darwin Press: 1993) p. 15

[8] Kennedy, Hugh; The Prophet and the Age of the Caliphates, 2nd ed. (Pearson, 2004) p. 167

[9] I will leave “khums” untranslated, as that it is the standard in English-speaking Twelver Shi’i communities.

[10] For a brief insight into the way the caliphs would normally regard the khums as solely “the spoils of battle,” see Keller, Nuh Ha Mim; Reliance of the Traveller (Amana Publications, 1999) p. 606

[11] See Modarressi, pp. 14-7, for details regarding Imam al-Naqi’s khums system.

[12] Kennedy, pp. 152-3

[13] For a contemporary Twelver Shi’i interpretation of these historical details, see Nakhshawani, Dr. Sayed Ammar; The Fourteen Infallibles (The Universal Muslim Association of America, 2014) pp. 217-22

[14] For a brief biography of al-Bukhari, see Brown, Jonathan; The Canonization of al-Bukhari and Muslim: The Formation and Function of the Sunni Hadith Canon (Brill, 2007) pp. 65-8

[15] Baqir Sharif al-Qarashi maintains that this text is most certainly authentically attributed to Imam al-Naqi. See his book, Ḥayāt al-Imām ‘Alī al-Hādī, ed. Mahdī Bāqir al-Qarashī (Mu’assasat al-Imām al-Ḥasan, 2013) p. 170

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