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Archive for August, 2017

I finished the book about the science of space travel mentioned in my previous post. The level of complexity involved in sending a person to Mars and back is staggering. If one wanted to create human habitations on Mars, the cost would be simply enormous.

But what struck me most was the obvious fact that one can never go outside. I live in Manhattan, one of the most urban environments on Earth. Sometimes, I feel so disconnected from nature that I just need to go for a walk in the park and see some trees. Sometimes I leave the city altogether just to re-center. In space, on the Moon, or on Mars, you can never do that. Instead, incredibly complex and costly human technologies need to surround you to keep you alive. You have to literally be plugged in all the time.

Through this reflection I have come to a greater appreciation for the natural systems that sustains us. The air we breath. The wind in our hair. Running water. It is on Earth, and nowhere else within our reach. It is in the middle of Manhattan, Cairo, or Tokyo just as much as any jungle, forest, or pristine tropical island.

When I was a kid, I saw the movie Total Recall and started fantasizing about the colonization of Mars. The book I read ended with a discussion of this possibility. Yet, the average temperature on Mars is only slightly less cold than the coldest temperature ever recorded on Earth! It would make a lot more sense and be a lot less costly to build habitations on Antarctica than in space. On Antarctica, you can breath the air and drink the water. But that doesn’t fit the secular faith in space as our destiny. Mars colonization is a dream born of the terrible secular fear that humanity may never leave Earth, and that the exhilarating drama of human exploration has limits.

I guess Manhattan is not so “divorced from nature” as I usually think. It is a far nicer than anything space has to offer. Alhamdulillah.

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End of Summer Reading

I just made a really important decision: the books I plan to bring with me during two weeks of travel insha’Allah.

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If you can’t read the titles in the photo, here they are:

  • The Fourteen Infallibles by Ammar Nakshawani: Contemporary reflections on Shi’i sacred history.
  • The Traveler’s Guide to Space by Neil Comins: Description of how space travel works and what to expect in the coming decades.
  • Augustine of Hippo by Peter Brown: Detailed biography of one of Christianity’s most revered saints.
  • The Origins and Early Development of Shi’a Islam by S. H. M. Jafri: Academic-devotional study of early Islamic history.
  • India: A Sacred Geography by Diana Eck:  Study of how the geography of India is an essential aspect of the Hindu tradition.

If you have read or are reading any of these texts, please send me your thoughts! While I am looking forward to a change of pace (traveling to Georgia, Texas, and Martha’s Vineyard back-to-back insha’Allah), I will miss my library. But at least I can make an attempt to find someone to engage with online in regards to my vacation bibliography!

In the meantime, an early Eid Mubarak to all of you!

!كل عام و أنتم بخير

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I have literally been pondering a question for at least 6 months, without finding anything in “the tradition” that elucidates the issue clearly and without ambiguity. Yesterday, I sat down on my couch, looked at my bookshelf, saw a book, and went and opened it. Without any effort, I found the answer.

The intellectual instinct only develops after the development of the carnal desires, anger, and other blameworthy characteristics which Satan uses as his medium to seduce people. The intellect only reaches perfection around the age of forty years. Its formative stage is only complete at adolescence, and its fundamentals only begin to appear after the age of seven. The carnal desires are the troops of Satan, while intellects are the troops of the angels. When the two meet, they inevitably fight since neither allows the other to persist. They are in opposition, antagonistic – like night and day, light and darkness; when one prevails, it necessarily irks the other. If the carnal desires develop fully in a child or youth before the intellect is perfected, the forces of Satan will have a head start. They will seize the grounds and descend upon the heart, which will incline to them. Without doubt, that person will habitually side with the carnal desires and be overpowered by them; uprooting them will be very difficult.

Then, the intellect – which is the legion of Allah, the saviour of His saints from the hands of His enemies – will appear bit by bit. If it does not develop to full strength, the kingdom of the heart will surrender to Satan, who will carry out what he swore when he said, “I will surely bring his descendants under my sway, all but a few” (17.62). But if the intellect develops to full strength, its first task will be to quell the troops of Satan by breaking the carnal desires, abandoning habits, and fighting inner inclinations so that worshipfulness will prevail…

In all of existence, there is no person whose intellect is not preceded by his carnal desires; the drive which serves as a tool of Satan precedes the drive which serves as a tool for the angels. Returning from that former state, which was reached with the aid of the carnal desires, is essential for every person…

This is from the book “Spiritual Mysteries and Ethical Secrets” by Mulla Muhsin Fayd Kashani (p. 573-4). It comes during a discussion of repentance (tawba). He shows how the intellect is the aspect of the human personality that takes repentance seriously. Its main enemy is a different aspect of the human personality based on desire, which he states in another passage as being founded fundamentally on our yearnings for food and sex (p. 114-5). As he states, “they are in opposition,” and the intellect only develops later in life, yet must fight hard against desires “to erase their traces which have been impressed on the heart” (p. 575).

This is a perfect description of my own experience of converting to Islam at the age of 19, and now continuing to struggle against my self at the age of 38. I literally feel myself grappling with elements of my self that I can clearly see existed within me at least as early as junior high in the early 90s. I am literally trying to become an adult who I have never actually been. Mind boggling.

For me, this is clear and unequivocal “wisdom of the tradition,” and I feel I found it at precisely the moment God intended me to find it. Of course, it is entirely possible that somewhere deep in my brain I knew where it was, since I read this book a year and half ago. But it felt like a “soft miracle” when I found it yesterday, explaining for me the reality of my spiritual journey (suluk). As they say, God works in mysterious ways that I still don’t fully understand. All I know is that I am in need, and God is the Provider.

But as I once reminded myself,

This is the most serious type of knowledge, because it demands that I bring all of myself to its doorstep. I must check my intention, for it demands sincerity. I must be committed to pushing my self, because it demands improvement. I must admit my inevitable limitations, for it demands that I read in the name of “the One who taught by the pen / taught humanity that which they did not know.” This type of knowledge is unique because it has no meaning unless it is embodied – one might read one line that takes years to implement in one’s life.

Indeed, what Fayd Kashani has described in a few paragraphs is the essence of the greatest challenge I have ever faced, unfolding over almost two decades. As I reflect on this, I wonder where I might be two decades hence, at the ripe old age of 58 insha’Allah. Better yet, where will I be 40 days from now, on September 20th? Perhaps with the help of your prayers, I will be better than I am, by God’s Grace.

So please pray for me. I need it, for even though the road has been long, I am still only in the middle of my journey.

حسبي الله

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