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Archive for November, 2019

The Qur’an describes the Last Day as so intense that you cannot expect individuals to behave the way you have seen them behaving in this life.

on the Day you see it, every nursing mother will think no more of her baby, every pregnant female will miscarry, you will think people are drunk when they are not, so severe will be God’s torment. (22.2)

When the Deafening Blast comes––the Day man will flee from his own brother, his mother, his father, his wife, his children: each of them will be absorbed in concerns of their own on that Day (80.33-37)

We have warned you of imminent torment, on the Day when every person will see what their own hands have sent ahead for them, when the disbeliever will say, ‘If only I were dust!’ (78.40)

This world (dunyā) has relatively set patterns according to the Qur’an. People live and die. Nations rise and fall. Hardship is mixed with ease. But the Last Day does not conform to what we witness historically, sociologically and anthropologically in human society. There is no way that we can really extrapolate what we have witnessed here to what will happen there.

For example, we might admire one of our teachers because of their piety, knowledge, and self-restraint. But their knowledge of the Last Day is still primarily theoretical, their self-restraint has only been in regards to the relatively minor pleasures of this life, and all we really know of their piety is that which is outwardly visible. In truth, when faced with the realities of the Last Day, we do not know how they will respond.

In every mystical tradition, one finds stories about people in this world who have achieved the supposed end of the spiritual journey: the walī in Islam, the saint in Christianity, the boddhisatva in Buddhism, and the jīvamukta in Hinduism. But how can the end be achieved when the Qur’an describes the Last Day in terms that completely demolish the patterns we see in this world? If someone is peaceful, compassionate, knowledgeable and pious, those achievements are only in relation to this tiny part of creation. Only God knows what they will manifest on the Last Day.

Ayatollah Mutahhari wrote some words that help to elucidate this:

As a matter of principle, the status of individuals is in the hands of God; no one has the right to express an opinion with certainty about whether someone will go to Heaven or Hell. If we were to be asked, “Is Shaykh Murtadhā al-Anṣārī, in view of his known asceticism, piety, faith, and deeds, definitely among the inhabitants of Heaven?” Our answer would be, “From what we know of the man, in his intellectual and practical affairs we haven’t heard of anything bad. What we know of him is virtue and goodness. But as to say with absolute certainty whether he will go to Heaven or Hell, that isn’t our prerogative. It is God who knows the intentions of all people, and He knows the secrets and hidden things of all souls; and the account of all people’s actions is also with Him.

What is important to understand about the individual he is using to make his point is that in the middle of the 19th century, he was the primary marja‘ for the global Shi’i community. That means that millions upon millions of people relied upon his religious scholarship to properly practice their faith. As the online publication al-Sidrah put it:

al-Shaykh Murtaḍā al-Dizfūlī al-Anṣārī (1214-1281 A.H./1781-1864 C.E.) was the foremost marjiʿ of his time, completely transforming the fields of Shiʿi law and legal theory of his time. He is widely recognized as both an exemplary scholar, a pious sage, and a teacher of the greatest scholars of succeeding generations. His effect on modern Shiʿi intellectual and religious history can hardly be overemphasized.

Obviously, he was also deeply pious, and there are many saintly stories about him. But even so, we are still looking at it from the vantage point of this world. Only God can see from the vantage point of the Last Day.

In a very real way, when we start thinking that we can arbitrate who is a saint and who is not based on our this-worldly experience, we are making claims about the ultimate status of another individual based on an extremely limited grasp of Reality. If I am veiled from my own fate, then how could I have insight into the fate of another? If I am veiled from the acceptance or rejection of my own deeds, then how could I know the spiritual status of another individual’s actions?

Every religious tradition speculates about who is the real cream of the crop. Augustine for Catholics, Antony for Coptics, Ghazali for Sunnis, Shankara for Advaita Vedantins, Visvanatha Chakravarti for Gaudiya Vaishnavas – to each person embedded within their tradition, there is a clear superstar whose piety, knowledge, and character are proofs of their exalted status with the Divine. In the Roman Catholic tradition, the Magisterium of the Church can declare someone to be a saint, and thus their exalted status in eternity is known definitively while we are still in this world. But the Islamic tradition has no equivalent authority, so Muslims should be more cautious and thoughtful when they speak about “saints.”

I am willing to be proven wrong on this point, as this short writing is simply meant to articulate how I think and feel at this point in my spiritual journey. I do not mean to denigrate the exceptional piety or profound scholarship of any specific individual. Nor do I intend to push people away from aspiring towards perfection. I, for example, hold up certain individuals as exemplars of piety, selflessness, and spiritual insight. But I simultaneously uphold that I might be wrong about them, as only God knows their true selves. I will not be judged for trying my best to find spiritual role models and struggling to live up to their example – but I may be judged for usurping God’s sole right to determine their eternal fate by prematurely declaring them to be from amongst the spiritual elite (awliyā Allāh).

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This post was written during the month of Ramadan 1440 AH.

As a white American, I have gone through a decades-long process of unlearning the white supremacy that was engrained in me in the formative years of my life. The pillars of that unlearning have been:

1) developing substantive encounters with non-white people
2) listening to non-white narratives with as much empathy as I can
3) being in non-white spaces even when I wasn’t fully comfortable
4) having real-life role models who were not white

There is no doubt in my mind that the ways of engaging with others that I have struggled to embrace by this ongoing experience have had a central role to play in my unlearning the dominant Sunni narratives of Islamic history, thought, and practice. Even though I read about Shi’ism fairly soon after converting, it wasn’t a real thing to me. It took going through the same 4 pillars of unlearning for me to experience Shi’ism as real. I even remember asking Najam Haider and Tariq al-Jamil for book recommendations when I first got to Princeton in 2002. In the course of the exchange, they said, “Give it 10 years, and you’ll become Shi’i.” I thought they were totally wrong, but more than 10 years later I was sitting in Najam’s office admitting that they had been right. It was one of the hardest things, to admit that for years I just couldn’t see it.

I was frustrated with God when this process began, because it began with simply wanting to rectify my state with God. And I thought that meant I was going to be led deeper into the study and practice of the Maliki madhhab and the suhba of Shadhili and Qadiri shaykhs with whom I already had a close relationship. But instead it led me to the majalis of Imam Husayn, which completely upended my life. I made new Shi’i friends, listened to alternative Shi’i narratives, was uncomfortable at times in Shi’i spaces, and started to embrace Shi’i role models. At times, I worried that Shaytan had me in his grasp, and began praying for protection from Shaytan more fervently than I ever had done. And almost every single du’a I uttered became about guidance. “O Allah, just guide me to what You want. I don’t care what it is anymore, because You know best.”

And over and over again, this process led me away from what had once seemed perfectly natural and normal. But because it had happened once before with whiteness, it wasn’t a complete shock. The only difference was that I had explicitly chosen Sunnism whereas I was born into whiteness. But over time I realized that wasn’t quite true. I had chosen Islam, and the only real option at the time to learn and practice it was through a Sunni modality.

For me, a real turning point was fajr prayer in Kadhimayn in Baghdad. The night before I had visited the 7th and 9th Imams buried there, along with many notable Shi’i scholars. The shaykh leading the prayer was an old and knowledgeable scholar, the congregation was probably 1000 people, and the masjid was large and beautiful. And I remember thinking, “Oh my God, if this was what I was introduced to as Islam when I first converted, I never would have questioned it!” I think it was the first real moment in my life where I saw Shi’ism as just plain Islam, the same way I had thought about Sunnism for many years.

When you grow up white, you never talk about people or things as “white,” although you qualify many other things with ethnic adjectives like “Black people” or “Indian food.” Similarly, my experience of Sunnism was where we rarely talked about things as Sunni, and instead used the word “Islam,” “Islamic,” or “Muslim.” So “Islamic literacy” really just meant “Sunni literacy,” and “Islamic law” really just meant Sunni law. But we rarely saw it that way.

The privileging of a dominant category is perhaps an unavoidable part of life. By privileging the Twelver-Shi’i narrative of Shi’ism, for example, one underplays the narratives of Isma’ili communities. However, what is not unavoidable is being completely blind to them. Just as I expect my own white sisters and brothers in humanity to open their eyes to whiteness, I expect my own Sunni sisters and brothers in faith to open their eyes to the dominant Sunni narrative of speaking about Islam.

At the end of the day, we are all going to die. Today we have to act on what we believe pleases Allah, manifesting the balance between hope and fear. But tomorrow we might revise what we believe pleases Allah most, and thus we will act differently. As Shaykh Rizwan Arastu taught me, we are not held accountable today for what we will find out tomorrow. Each day we try to do our best with what we currently have. Life is a continual process of change, and we hope that change leads to positive growth.

But the past is always with us. I am still white, and I am still culturally Sunni in many respects. I don’t know what day during Muharram Pakistanis talk about which figures from the Karbala narrative (is it ‘Ali al-Akbar day or Qasim day?), nor do I understand the reasons why some Shi’is seem to dislike other Shi’is so much. When I lead people in prayer, I have had to learn how to pray according to Ja’fari fiqh in a way that doesn’t alienate Sunnis who aren’t used to praying behind Shi’is. After 40 years of being white in America, and 17 or so years of being Sunni in the Ummah, I can never have the social experience of a Shi’i kid growing up in LA or NYC. And that is okay.

When I look back, the only real reason I became Muslim was to prepare for death. It was only the Qur’an that convinced me that I would live after my death, and have to face Perfect Judgement. That is the main motivating factor for trying to neutralize my contributions to white supremacy. And maybe that is the secret of the Shi’i tradition for me – that it is the most hopeful of all narratives. That even if one is of the greatest people who ever walked this Earth

that even when one’s mother and father were from the greatest people to walk this earth

that even when one’s grandfather was the greatest person to walk this earth

that the people who claim to practice the same religion as you

that the people who claim to honor the same prophet as you

that the people who memorize the same book as you

that they can still chop your head off, alone in the desert, surrounded by the bodies of your family and friends who died defending you

and it can still all be okay

in some miraculous and completely radical way

it can still work out beautifully in the end

if we are of those who stand with Husayn

even when the Ummah is united against him

actively and through tacit consent

that we can look death and evil and oppression squarely in the face

even when it is done by the Salaf

and see nothing but Beauty

because we know what Islam really is

by the Mercy of the Most Merciful

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