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Archive for April, 2019

my Lord

there are things i want to tell the world

but they are secrets between You and i

buried within the pages of my life

weaved into the fabric of my self

but You are closer than my jugular

which if cut

would spill what i am

pouring out for all to see

and so i keep it close

protected

but You are closer

so this is nothing but a love letter to You

to say

that even though at times it has hurt so much

i am happy that i have made it this far

arriving at a place

where i have somehow unwound

some knots within

by a tawfīq that comes

from none but You

and i am becoming more

of what You want me to be

even though i have lost some

of who i thought i was

because i will change for You

i may be slow in process

i may be stubborn to start

but i can change

as long as i live

even when i am old and grey

let me always be ready

to change for You

so that what is taken away from me

of what i love so dearly

becomes an empty space in my heart

to be filled by that which You love most

empty-heart

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sometimes

at the end of the day

while I listen to my son breathing

fast asleep

I thank God

for peace

for joy

for love

but sometimes

I think of a father better than me

and a son better than mine

and my heart trembles

and I ask God for strength

to be loyal

to persevere

to trust

even if your son breathes his last

under Karbala’s weeping skies

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I want to be honest with you: I normally find Op-ed columnists trite. They make a very good living out of usually banal observations, simply because they are packaged nicely and have the imprimatur of a major media outlet. Whether they are on the Right or the Left does not matter, as they both feed people digestible insights that have little do with real knowledge or substantive virtue.

But every once in awhile, one of them surprises me. My wife sent me a clip of David Brooks giving a Ted Talk (basically the spoken version of an Op-ed piece). In it he speaks about the difference between “resumé virtues” and “eulogy virtues”:

Some of what he said is not particularly interesting. But what he did do is summarize a fundamental moral reality better than anyone I have yet seen/read/heard. He states,

You go into yourself, you find the sin, which you’ve committed over and again in your life, your signature sin, out of which the others emerge, and you fight that sin and you wrestle with that sin, and out of that wrestling, that suffering, then a depth of character is constructed. And we’re often not taught to recognize the sin in our selves, in that we’re not taught in this culture how to wrestle with it, how to confront it, and how to combat it.

What Mr. Brooks is describing is jihad. Not the false jihad proclaimed by groups like ISIS, but the jihad within known as jihad al-nafs (jihad of the self). When Ayatollah Khomeini discusses this moral struggle, he quotes a story,

Verily on seeing the returning armies from the battlefront, the Prophet (S) of God said, “Blessed are those who have performed the minor jihad, and have yet to perform the major one.” When asked, what is the major jihad? the Prophet replied, “the jihad of the self” (struggle against self).

Presumably, Brooks would not want to be lumped together with Khomeini. Far less risky for him to offer quotes from an American Rabbi as well as a Protestant Theologian to make his point. But that is precisely the problem, for Op-ed analysis is not meant to go to the depth of a problem. What Brooks has described is not a secondary issue, to be contemplated occasionally between board meetings and discussed glibly during dinners at fancy restaurants. It is the fundamental challenge that every adult faces as their career, family life, and relationship with God unfolds.

Khomeini describes the beginning of the journey as such:

The first and foremost condition for one’s strife with his own self, and hence his movement towards God essentially means introspection and self-reflection…Here introspection is used in the sense of devoting some time, however insignificant it is, contemplating about our duties towards our Master and Creator, Who has brought us into this world, and Who has bestowed upon us all the means of pleasure and joys of life, Who has equipped us with a sound body and faultless faculties and senses, each of whom serves a specific purpose of its own, and whose functioning bewilders human intellect. In addition to all these endowments and graces, He has sent so many prophets and His Holy Book for our guidance and invited us to receive His blessings.

Whether all these things have been granted to us by the Master and Emperor of all kings merely to serve this animal existence and to satisfy our appetites and instincts, which we share with other animals, or whether there is some higher aim? Whether all the prophets of God, great sages, thinkers and scholars of every nation have invited the people to follow certain rational principles and Divine legislation, and asked the people to abstain from all animal tendencies and detach themselves from this mortal and perishable habitation were their enemies, or they had conceived an entirely different idea of salvation, which we ordinary human creatures, blindly obeying the dictates of lust, could not conceive?

If we reflect in a rational manner for a moment, we shall realize that the aim of imparting to us all these graces and endowments is something else, superior to and higher than what is visible. This world is a stage of action and its aim is a higher and more sublime sphere of existence. This lower and animal existence is not an end in itself…

Thou should be regretful before God for thy past deeds, and commence a new journey in the direction of His prescribed goal, the journey that leads to the life of eternity and perpetual bliss. Thou should not bargain short-lived transitory joys, which are hard to obtain for eternal bliss and felicity.

Ayatollah Khomeini (d. 1989) whose book “Forty Hadiths” is central to my understanding of moral struggle

This struggle is both theological and moral. The greatest sin according to Jews, Christians and Muslims is polytheism — to worship other than the Creator of all that is, often referred to as the “God of Abraham.” It is the “sin” from which emerge all other sins, for the first commandment is “Thou shall have no other gods before Me.” Simultaneously, God is the goal that lies beyond sin — the Source of Existence to whom all are inevitably journeying and for whom all are inexpressibly longing.

As another Ayatollah states (this one from Iraq),

We cannot escape the darkness of polytheism it we do not first escape the prison of the soul, which is held captive by the inclinations of the self. If you reflect seriously, you will see that the root of every kind of disbelief, polytheism, and sinfulness is love of the self and its desires. Even those who worshipped idols or false gods only worshipped their own desires in the form of these false gods, and their own lusts in the shape of idols. So when you escape the love of your own self, and leave the darkness of desire, you find yourself in the vastness of Divine Unity by Allah’s leave, with no chains and no limitations. (“Laws of Islam,” p. 12)

Of course, no mainstream American Op-ed writer is going to quote Ayatollahs from Iran and Iraq in the same breath as Soloveitchik and Niebuhr. The former have no place in the American status quo, whereas the latter are revered figures from 20th century American religious history. Brooks does not want to veer too far from the left-leaning worldview of the average reader of the New York Times. So he also understandably avoids a clear contemporary American voice on this struggle like Evangelical preacher John Piper.

When Brooks speaks of “a common response through history” to the moral struggle, he is saying the same thing as Khomeini when he mentions “all the prophets of God, great sages, thinkers and scholars of every nation [who] have invited the people to follow certain rational principles and Divine legislation, and asked the people to abstain from all animal tendencies and detach themselves from this mortal and perishable habitation.” Brooks unfortunately leaves out many voices for the sake of brevity and market appeal. But what he described is true — we must go to the root of our problem to begin to solve it. I really like the phrase he uses — “your signature sin.” Perhaps for some it is a love of status/influence that leads to moral compromise. For others it is a love of wealth that leads to arrogance. Perhaps for many it is a love of sexual desire which leads to disregarding the rights of others.

Both Brooks and I are Americans. He reads and quotes Soloveitchik and Neibuhr, and I read and quote Khomeini and al-Modarressi. But when you strip away the externals, we are struggling with the same basic question and dealing with the same basic context. It is something that concerns Jews-Christians-Muslims, as well as many Americans of other worldviews. It is part of being human, and may take many long and hard years of effort before we taste some victory.

We have our own individual struggles, which Brooks is highlighting, but we also have a collective struggle as a nation. His mention of our cultural preference for“resumé virtues” mirrors what I wrote elsewhere,

As a born and bred American who loves his country, I am still not quite sure what it is about the United States that makes so much good possible, but also so much neglect. What is it about the American experience that allows us to turn with such callous hearts towards those who have undergone trials and sufferings that would break us? It may seem trite, but my insights so far come from an ad I saw on an airplane, which read “to the victor goes everything.” From reality shows to professional sports to the behavior of American military and diplomats, the message is drilled home day in and day out that victory is the only thing that matters. That if you become a member of the American or global elite, you have worth, but if you live your life as a janitor or working in Walmart, somehow you are inherently a loser. That life is about the quest to be on top — on top of a corporation, on top of a government, on top of your enemies, on top of everyone else, because I just don’t want to be the one on the bottom anymore. I want to be the one on top. I want to be the one calling the shots. This is a sickness of the human heart, and as far as I know, all of the major religious traditions agree on this point. And it is a sickness that infects American culture from the bottom to the top. This sickness destroys us, even as we think it is empowering us.

Perhaps Brooks would not agree with my view of our collective “signature sin.” But that is a matter of public debate, and I mention it here for your consideration and even criticism. I can diagnose the diseases of my self far better than I can diagnose the sickness of our entire nation.

But the upshot of Brooks’ insight is that we can never give up. He has only shown us the beginning of the journey. There is always a higher level to achieve, a perfection that is still in the distance. As long as we breath, there is more work to do.

I wonder if Brooks knows that perhaps the greatest eulogy in human history is the ongoing eulogy for Imam Husayn that reverberates around the world every year? His was a life of moral struggle until the final, climactic moment. A moment that is relived in the hearts of hundreds of millions over and over again. A well that seemingly never runs dry.

If learning to live a life worthy of a good eulogy is important, as Brooks advocates, then perhaps in Imam Husayn we have found one of our best teachers.

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