Archive for January, 2018

Spending a week and a half volunteering at the Rohingya Culture Center (RCC) in Chicago has changed my perspective.

It is as if I can imagine this entire Earth, with all of its abundance flowing from Divine Generosity.

“who made the earth a bed, and the sky a canopy; and it is He who sends down rain from above for the growth of every kind of food for your sustenance…” (2.22)


And from those free gifts, we build societies. Without land and air and water and crops, there would be no skyscrapers and smartphones and hospitals and universities. As Bataille showed so many years ago, it is not scarcity that drives us – it is expenditure of the surplus. We create more and more because our basic needs are met.

But these possibilities are not equally spread across the globe. Building a skyscraper in Chicago is easier to do than in many other places, because there is a concentration of wealth and talent. But what is harder to see is that Chicago is also a place where it is easier to connect people to basic needs. If you can build a skyscraper, the infrastructure already exists to help people in terms of school, health, and work.

I sat with Rohingya kids trying really hard to do their math homework, even though those of us who grew up here would consider the institutions they attend as “bad schools.” But guess what – it is either the best school they have ever gone to or the ONLY school they have ever been allowed to attend. I saw Rohingya elders sit patiently listening to someone translate for them a letter explaining their government-supported health benefits. I listened to Rohingya young adults talk about working at Dunkin Donuts or O’hare airport with pride, because as undocumented refugees in Malaysia their only option would have been the shadow economy. School, health, and work are all available to them, and thus they are now perhaps some of the most privileged Rohingya globally. And they channel that relative privilege into doing everything they can for their friends, family, and community in other countries who are in much worse circumstances.

And in doing so I realized that I had made a mistake in considering something specific like treatable glaucoma to be where I needed to focus my efforts. Rather, there is a more fundamental issue at stake. Will those with access to the global surplus make the effort to help those who are struggling with basic needs? Matters of inequality need to be understood globally, and take into account everything from ecological systems to international refugee politics.

Let us be clear. After seeing how Chicago is handling 1,500 Rohingya refugees who came through Malaysia, I can say with absolute confidence that Saudi Arabia has the capacity to welcome at least 10,000 of the more than 59,000 Rohingya living in Malaysia. Easily. And yet, the Crown Prince boasts about wanting to spend $500 billion to build a new economic hub on the Red Sea.

I literally could not dream up a more grotesque example of injustice in the Ummah, but this is the reality of the world we live in. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya want a clean place to sleep, a simple meal a few times a day, an opportunity to work manual labor, a safe place to give their kids an elementary school education, and the ability to travel freely with a passport. The so-called “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques” not only does not provide that because he’d prefer to build skyscrapers in the desert, but then grants citizenship to a robot just to rub it in their face.

It is so sick. So so sick. Like, I can’t even believe that it is true. Like, I am literally writing these words and asking myself if I am dreaming because how could that possibly be real. How could I possibly live in a world like this, and how could a person like this possibly be in control of the most sacred places of worship in my faith??!!

And so the truth of what I wrote on October 30th, 2017 is even more clear now:

Now is the time when zuhd must become central to our lives. To give up our need for this world and what other people have, because there are so many who literally have nothing but memories of their loved ones’ brutal deaths. This world is already a dystopia, and the only way we make it livable is to be people of zuhd. The vast majority of Rohingya have nowhere to go simply because no one is willing to take them in and share with them what they have.

I cannot control the immigration policy of wealthy Muslim countries, but I can greet my Rohingya brothers and sisters in my hometown of Chicago as best I know how. My wife and I have donated money to the RCC and intend to give more insha’Allah. Over the last week and a half I got to know the board, the employees, the many volunteers, and most importantly, the kids. I truly hope that the little girls of the RCC like Lala and Zaynab, and the little boys like Yunus and Yusuf, will grow up safe in Chicago. They are far away from the horrific brutality of the Tatmadaw and the lack of welcome experienced by so many Rohingya around the world. May they always be protected, and may their lives be filled with Love and Light.

Insha’Allah, the RCC will bring great benefit to the Rohingya worldwide and also bring blessings to the city of Chicago. Almost every night, I came home before my parents went to sleep, and they asked me about it. Through me, they learned about the Rohingya and expressed their support and concern. If we had not had these exchanges, at best they would have read a newspaper article somewhere in between debates about the tax bill and the latest sports scores. But now their son knows one of those young Rohingya men from the articles, Abdul Samad, the youngest board member of the RCC. And so what was once just the name of an ethnic group from some faraway place is now transformed in our minds and hearts into real flesh and blood individuals who live only 25 minutes away from where I grew up skateboarding and playing in a band with Pete Wentz.

I feel like God had this all planned a long time ago. The Powerful (al-Qadir) created the conditions for me to make a choice, and The Witness (al-Shaheed) waited and watched as I figured it out over the last few months. As if it was stated, “I am going to turn the son of the former CEO of a Chicago-based investment bank into a Muslim in 1998, and then in 2012 I am going to start bringing Rohingya to Chicago, and then in 2017 I am going to make him aware of it and see what he chooses to do…”

“It is He who has made you successors on the earth, and raised some of you in rank above others so that He may test you in respect to what He has given you. Indeed your Lord is swift in retribution, and indeed He is all-forgiving, all-merciful.” (6.165)

I cannot force the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia to use his privilege in the right way. All I can do is use my much lesser privilege as best I know how. Each individual has to figure out how they can spiritually respond to the realities of systemic injustice. At the end of the day, both the Crown Prince and myself ultimately owe our social position to our fathers, and have never once worried about our basic needs. We will be judged justly by the Just (al-‘Adl). For the fundamental global issue is the same, and we both are on the proverbial hot seat. It is in our best interest to constantly remember the prayer attributed to the Prophet, blessings and peace upon him and his family:

Praise is due to Allah Who has fed us, provided us drink, satisfied us and gave us protection. Many are those who have no one to provide for them, or give them shelter.


The Board of the RCC (Allah grant them tawfiq and taysir, ameen!)

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there was once a woman named Zaynab

who was more important to God than i will ever be

and she witnessed things far worse than i have ever known

and yet she said

ما رأيت إلا جميلا


there is a Love that never ends

يا ودود

there is a Light that always shines

يا نور

beyond the sadness and darkness


the angels knew we were rapists and killers

but they couldn’t see the secret within

that could know all the Names


how do you know Love

how do you know Light

how can a woman see mutilated bodies

and say

ما رأيت إلا جميلا


“…The fact is that it is not the eyes that turn blind, but what turns blind are the hearts contained in the chests”


there are times when what my heart sees is more real than what is before my eyes


i asked the young Rohingya girl what her name was

“Zaynab,” she said

and she told me that her Play-Doh

was rice and some aloo and an onion

but all i could see

was Beauty


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God and Chicago

Driving around Chicago the other day and lost in my mind, I was struck by how the geography of this city is a living witness to my spiritual journey. For every doctrinaire pilgrimage to Makkah or desperate searching for a Western-toilet in Varanasi, there is a building in Chicagoland (the local term for the Chicago metropolitan area) where I have experienced global religious traditions. Baha’i, Gaudiya Vaishnava, Protestant, Catholic, Sunni, Shi’i, Thai Buddhist, and more all have a place here. Over the years, I have been blessed to encounter many of the hundreds of sacred spaces found in my hometown.

I am incapable of recounting every place and every meaningful moment, but here is a map of the ones that come to mind:

Screen Shot 2018-01-19 at 2.02.56 PM

There is Kenilworth Union Church, just down the street from my parents’ house. I was raised in this Protestant space, and it is where I formally rejected Confirmation when I was in junior high.

ISCKON Chicago on Lunt Avenue is where I first bought a copy of the Bhagavad Gita, the moment that launched me on the path of asking the deepest questions I know how to ask.

Islamic Foundation of Villa Park is the only mosque my parents’ have visited in the United States, once for my mother-in-law’s janazah (God have mercy on her), and another for an interfaith speech I delivered.

I spent 9 days studying at Baitul Ilm, a mosque in Streamwood, and try to go there when I can.

I helped (along with many others) establish Ta’leef Chicago on the Near South Side, and it is probably the space where I see the most people I know personally.

There are so many other places – these are just a few to sketch my path. But what really matters is that the Lord of Humanity, the King of Humanity, the God of Humanity” watches over it all. The Creator (al-Khaliq) who made Lake Michigan to provide us fresh water. The Just (al-‘Adl) who will judge past generations for what they did to the Natives who first lived here. The Benefactor (al-Nafi’) who brought 1500 Rohingya to the Devon area so that they can begin again.

I have exerted myself as much as I know how. I have traveled around the world to the best places I could find. And on this day, after all is said and done, I am writing this in the bedroom that has been mine since I was 1 year old. How did it ever turn out this way? Human beings plan, and God plans, and God is the best of planners.

May God grant to all the souls of Chicagoland good in this world, good in the next, and protection from the punishment of the Fire, ameen.

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I am sitting after prayer, wanting to reflect in writing. No need for polished prose or an attempt at well-constructed arguments. Just thoughts.

I feel more balanced right now than I have since August. Yesterday I was reminded of something very very deep in my relationship with God, something that I will never be able to fully convey to others. But that is how it should be – the intimacy (uns) of the bed is not meant for the chatter of the street.

And this morning I spent time centering my process of rectification (islah), both in terms of God’s Rights (huquq Allah) and the rights of God’s servants (huquq al-‘ibad). I know what I need to do and am doing it, and insha’Allah it will lead me to what I should do next.

In a conversation once with Michael Dann, he surmised that the following section of a verse in the Qur’an was a good summation of Islamic spirituality:

وَاتَّقُوا اللَّهَ وَيُعَلِّمُكُمُ اللَّهُ

Be aware of God such that it positively impacts your behavior, and God will teach you

I think that was a wise observation, masha’Allah, and pretty much sums up how I approach this process.

So then I had some space to just unwind. I read about the Korean War and Augustine. I looked up information about Vietnam, and wondered what it would be like to travel there. I didn’t realize that Vietnam is the 14th most populous country in the world, and has over 90,000,000 souls. Subhan Allah. May God grant them all good in this world, good in the Hereafter, and save them from the punishment of the Fire, ameen. I don’t know if I’ll ever met any of them, but I would like to insha’Allah.

I am truly grateful to be alive, and ask God for well-being (‘afiya) in my religion (din), my worldly life (dunya), and after death (‘akhira), ameen.

اللهم صل على محمد و آل محمد

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right now

right now

three billion souls are speaking to God

one invokes the name of Jesus

upon him peace

dreaming of Rome

another imagines Krishna in his mind

as she speaks her need

longing for Vrindavan

still another looks at his palms outstretched

as he invokes the Creator

yearning for the Kabah


an inhabitant of Earth


a sacred soul


believing they are heard


i worship the God Who Hears what i type

as well as the secret whispers within

Who Sees between the atoms of my liver

beyond the reach of scientific minds

Who Speaks to me through Arabic words

بَلَىٰ قَادِرِينَ عَلَىٰ أَن نُّسَوِّيَ بَنَانَهُ


the Lord of my fingerprints

in whose Hand is the cosmos

and everything beyond


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