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Archive for August, 2018

For the past year, I have been reading and watching everything I can find about the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh. Nothing prepared me for how massive they are. They seem to go on forever.

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The first camp I entered was the Ukhiya camp. It is not even the biggest one. As we walked around, I felt disoriented, as the sheer weight of human suffering and trauma was everywhere. There is nothing but hills and valleys of shacks hastily built to cope with the massive needs of over 700,000 individuals. I clutched my tasbih, seeking shelter in the remembrance of God as a coping mechanism.

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Everyone who shared their story with us had a horrific story to tell. Khalid has already written about one of them. But there were others. Down at the bottom of this hill, across the sewage and garbage-filled rice paddies, were shelters filled with similar stories. Brutal murder, villages completely erased from the Earth, systematic rape. Personal tales that correspond exactly to what every reputable news outlet and NGO on the planet has extensively documented.

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In those moments, there is no recourse other than du’a. To pray that after a life filled with suffering and brutality, loved ones can finally be reunited and experience peace and beauty that never ends. To believe in the Divine Promise that God will say:

يَا عِبَادِ لَا خَوْفٌ عَلَيْكُمُ الْيَوْمَ وَلَا أَنتُمْ تَحْزَنُونَ

My servants, there is no fear for you today, nor shall you grieve

In those moments, when I turn to my Lord, I ask for the resolution of that which seems impossible to resolve. I cannot bring her husband back from the dead. I cannot recreate his village which was burned to the ground. I cannot unrape thousands of girls. Only the Creator of all has that Power, as is reported from His Messenger صلى الله عليه و آله و سلم

then one of the people of Jannah who had experienced extreme misery in the life of this world will be dipped in Jannah. He will be asked: ‘O son of Adam! Did you ever experience any hardship?’ He will say: “By Allah, no, I never experienced any hardship.”

But when I turn to my rebellious self, and to our community that calls ourselves Muslims, I ask if we are doing enough for our Rohingya brothers and sisters. And my unequivocal answer is no, no, no. Absolutely not. Not even close.

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For my idealism is rooted in an understanding of reality. I understand the politics and economics that lead to people living in shacks made of bamboo on eroding mud cliffs, with 9 people living in a space that could barely fit my kitchen table. If you feel you must understand that larger context as well, you can read this book and/or this book, both of which I have reviewed on Amazon. But if you, like most people, neither have the desire nor the time to do the research, then just trust me. There is one fundamental spiritual response to this situation after making du’a and believing in the Last Day – giving of our wealth and time to assist the Rohingya.

At the time of writing this, the UN needs over $600,000,000 just to fund their response to this situation through the end of 2018. Unfortunately, we cannot change that, as we are people without much wealth, power and connections. But we must begin with our selves, our families, and the communities of which we are a part. I have already sent private appeals to both my wife’s extended family and my own, and now I am asking for my friends, colleagues, and the wider Muslim community to do more. I do not care what kind of Muslim you are, I care that you want to help. I do not decide whether or not my charity or your charity is accepted in the Divine Realm – that is between each one of us and our All-Knowing Lord. What is in my realm of responsibility is raising actual funds that can be used to assist the Rohingya.

Masha’Allah Khalid has already raised, at the time of this writing, about $114,000 in new funding for Islamic Relief USA projects meant to assist the Rohingya. As wonderful as this is, after seeing the camps myself, I know that what the Rohingya need from the Ummah is billions of dollars. It is simply that massive. Because the needs are so extensive, people like you and I will never be able to give enough.

The great great grandson of our Noble Messenger صلى الله عليه و آله و سلم, Imam Muhammad al-Baqir, is reported to have said:

The most regretful of people on the Day of Judgment are those who prescribe justice, yet do the opposite.

And so I begin with myself. I respect what Khalid is doing, and that is why I went with him to Bangladesh. I hope his fundraising project can break $200,000. So if we can break $150,000 in total donations, I will give $50,000 to bring the total to $200,000 insha’Allah. No need to inform me that you donated like last time, as it would be too difficult to keep track of. The crowdfunding platform makes it easy for me to know when we break $150,000.

Post this on social media, tell your parents about it, do what you can. If you need more inspiration to spend 5 minutes advocating for the Rohingya, then reflect on this story. Inside this bare-bones medical clinic, funded by Islamic Relief USA donations from a previous round of fundraising, is a young Bangladeshi doctor. Every morning, six days a week, she rises early to begin a two and a half hour journey to work here. All day long, in intense heat and humidity, she does what she can to help people, primarily women and children. I asked her why she does this, when she could be somewhere else making more money. She said that as long as it was economically possible for her to continue serving the Rohingya community, she would.

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She is a hero. In a world that does not care, she moved from Chittagong (a big city) to Cox’s Bazar (a town) to spend 5 hours a day traveling to and from a place that is the most tragic place I have ever been in my life. And in her patient answering of our questions I experienced a combination of dignity and humility that I have rarely seen. Without the funding that we can provide, it will not be possible for her to continue her work. We feel the struggle in the moment we choose to give more than we feel comfortable giving, and perhaps feel it occasionally later on when our balance is too low to afford something we want or think we need. But she is there six days a week putting in the hours, working with the Rohingya while many of us have the privilege to forget that they are even there. May God bless us to assist her in her work, and may we walk with her as she walks this path to her clinic, ameen.

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In less than 48 hours will be the Day of ‘Arafah. There are only two experiences in my life that have felt like a preview of the Day of Judgement: ‘Arafah and visiting the Rohingya refugee camps. Both places make you realize your absolute neediness before Allah سبحانه و تعالى, confront your own shortcomings, and resolve to make the most out of the life we have been given. A year from now, will I still be alive? A year from now, will I have more to give the Rohingya or less? A year from now, what will be the situation of the families we visited? I do not know the answer to any of those questions. All I know is that right now, in the blessed first ten days of Dhu’l-Hijja, I can write these words which cannot do justice to what the Rohingya are going through, make a commitment to give some money that is not enough to meet their needs, and turn to my Lord with tears in my eyes asking Him to do everything else I cannot.

يَا أَيُّهَا النَّاسُ أَنتُمُ الْفُقَرَاءُ إِلَى اللَّهِ وَاللَّهُ هُوَ الْغَنِيُّ الْحَمِيدُ

People, it is you who stand in need of God- God needs nothing and is worthy of all praise

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حسبنا الله و نعم الوكيل

In the fall of 1994, I left my parent’s home in Illinois to go to boarding school at Phillips Academy (often referred to as “Andover”) in Massachusetts. From that point up until I moved to our current apartment in Manhattan, I never lived in the same place for more than a couple years. But from December 2013 until August 2018, my wife and I (and subsequently our son) have had no other home except our place in Greenwich Village.

I write this in an empty apartment. The movers came the other day to take our stuff to Oakland, CA, where we will live at least for the next 2 years insha’Allah. My wife and son have gone to Cape Cod to vacation with her brothers. And I am about to board a plane to Bangladesh, to visit the Rohingya refugee camps outside Cox’s Bazar with my friend Khalid Latif. We will return to NYC for Eid, and then move out West.

I am leaving the first place that has truly felt like home in my adult life. It is impossible for me to describe the two-year process that led to this momentous change. There are clearly definable choices made for me, such as my wife’s rejection of my proposal that we move to Oman for a year so that I could become fluent in Arabic. There are structural issues, such as my realization that my career in higher education had to move outside the secular university (such as my past three employers – Dartmouth, Brown, and NYU). And there are audacious hopes, such as the belief that God is guiding me, and closed certain doors and opened others for reasons known only to God.

A friend’s blog said it better than I can, through quoting Imam ‘Ali عليه السلام:

“I attained realization of God, may He be glorified, by the dissolution of resolutions, and by the solution of complexities.”

My resolve has dissolved in the face of the much larger structural and historical complexities that I am a part of. I have inherited the story of “Muslims in the United States” and “Islam and Hinduism” and “the Rohingya Crisis” merely by the billion choices I have made in my life that led me to this moment in August 2018. All three of those phenomena existed before I was born, and I merely found my way to them as I freely explored this Universe to the extent that I have been able to. This is assuredly a matter of “destiny (qadr).” Yes, I chose my path, but my path has led me to confront my lack of agency in the face of realities beyond my ability to control. I may fly to Dhaka to continue working on behalf of my Rohingya brothers, I may move to California to study with Hindu scholars, my wife and I may buy a house together to continue building our American Muslim family, but what can I really accomplish in the long run? It is all so much bigger than me, and I am just one human being.

My friend writes:

Imam Ali (as) is talking about feeling of disorientation, of being pained and agitated – and yet moving. with grace that behind all these events is the face of God – shining beyond what feels like our faltering and collapsing. The trials Imam Ali (as) faced during his own life time were extremely difficult to digest – someone with fervor and love for Truth at heart, and yet a political and community leader that tried his best to preserve and unite the Muslim community, often despite himself. It takes an immensely liberated spirit to take on such roles, and basically – keep it together when so much around you falls apart. From losing your beloved role model, your wife, betrayals, violence and isolation and yet giving a helping hand and honoring unity above all else. Through all this, Imam Ali (as) says that it was through the adversities that he attained realization of God 

Is there any doubt that Imam ‘Ali عليه السلام would tackle these projects if he were here today? Of course he would yearn to liberate the Rohingya from their oppression, to respond to the theological challenges of Hinduism, and call to Islam throughout the United States. In addition, he would confront so many more problems that I cannot work on full-time: Yemen, Iraq, Palestinethe continued theological challenge of Christianity, and so on.

But whether one is Sunni or Shi’i, one accepts that one can never be as great as Imam ‘Ali عليه السلام, let alone the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه و آله و سلم. I felt that so vividly after my first ziyara in Najaf. I remember it so clearly, as it was one of the most transformative experiences of my life. I did my ziyara, prayed two rak’ahs, and just broke down in uncontrollable tears. The entirety of what I knew of Imam ‘Ali’s life came flooding into my heart. All the trials and tribulations and hardships. His loyalty and steadfastness and determination to continue doing what needed to be done, no matter how hard. And I knew then, and I remember now, that if I gave every breath I have in the paths of righteousness, it will be but a drop from the ocean of Abu Turab عليه السلام.

And so I keep moving forward. Where I will die is known only to my Lord. But while I am still blessed with the ability to do so, I set out to work on the challenges I believe Allah wants me to address as best I can.

Just another servant of the servants of the servants of ‘Ali.

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