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Archive for July, 2021

As we all know, although we might not realize it, Islam is a religion of bodies and words. As we read in the Ziyara Jami’ah Kabira:

وَأَجْسَادُكُمْ فِي ٱلْأَجْسَادِ

Your bodies are amongst other bodies

So our biological selves, the fundamental basis by which we appear as creatures upon this Earth, is something we share with the Prophets and Imams, upon them peace. There is nothing overtly mystical about this, but the Qur’an calls out attention to the fact that the biological processes by which we become who we all are today, and by which our children will become the adults of tomorrow, is itself miraculous. As is states in Surah al-Nahl, verse 78:

وَاللَّهُ أَخْرَجَكُم مِّن بُطُونِ أُمَّهَاتِكُمْ لَا تَعْلَمُونَ شَيْئًا وَجَعَلَ لَكُمُ السَّمْعَ وَالْأَبْصَارَ وَالْأَفْئِدَةَ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَشْكُرُون

As Ali Quli Qarai has interpreted this verse in the English language:

Allah has brought you forth from the bellies of your mothers while you did not know anything. He made for you hearing, eyesight, and hearts so that you may give thanks

And the fact that our religion is a religion of words is brought home by the fact that I am speaking and quoting everything right now, so that we are not simply a collection of bodies in a physical space, but our filling this moment with meaning through words. So much so that all I have to do is say, “wa huwa ma’kum aynama kuntum,” and perhaps some of us have a moment where the created nature of all of this becomes apparent, and we remember (or perhaps see a little bit more clearly) the shining presence of Being (al-Wujud) by which all of us – and all of this – is. But for those who do not know Arabic, I have to translated those words and say that it means, “Allah is with you wherever you are,” for that meaning (the ma’na) to reach all selves in this room.

So this teaching tradition is nothing more than bodies (real, actual people) inheriting the words (in this case, Qur’an) that have come from before, and giving them meaning that is articulated within a particular cultural reality. And that meaning is not confined to simply what we say, but what we do with our bodies. ‘Allamah Tabataba’i (Allah have mercy on him), in a a number of different works, brilliantly articulated how every human being has a deen (what we often translate as religion). He pointed out the etymologically deen is related to dayn, which means a debt in Arabic. And so each of us has been given a body by a volition (a will) other than our own, and our deen is how we use it. We cannot but use it, and so we strive to understand the meaning of human existence so that we might use it in the best way.

So what does all of this have to do with the challenges that those young Muslims in college, or the workforce, or graduate school – those who are newly married, have small kids, or who are still single – face?

I would argue…everything.

Why?

Because in the 21st century the challenge of faith for us (maybe not for other, but for us) is not the maintenance of past cultural forms – whether they be articulated in Urdu, Farsi, Arabic – but rather the articulation of a universal truth that is also adaptable to different cultural forms.

Let me ask you a simple question.

Is Imam Mahdi just for us, or for the entirety of humanity, the animals, the trees, and the fish in the ocean?

Of course the answer is clear.

But many of our youth are not taught Islam that way.

They think Islam is their particular cultural heritage that they have to hold onto in the face of different articulations of the universal. For example, they may be watching the Olympics in Tokyo right now, and they get excited if they see an athlete in hijab. Why? Because they naturally, and understandably, want to see themselves represented in the global conversation. But what about all the other athletes? Are they not also human beings created by Allah who are looking for justice on Earth? Are they not all going to die one day and witness the process by which Allah, glorified and exalted, takes stock of how all human beings have lived their lives on Earth?

To limit Islam to the representation of Muslims in public spaces is a major error. It is a subtle acquiescence to the idea that Islam is simply a pre-modern religion that has to find its place in the modern world. It is submission to the idea that multiculturalism means that Islam is no different than Chinese culture or Sikhism, and so you get to wear your hijab at the Olympics, and he gets to wear his turban and she gets to wave her flag of the Chinese Communist Party.

Because when we teach kids Islam, we use words that imply it is for everyone. “The Messenger of Allah to humanity” is one particular phrase that I have heard many times before. So it that is true, then kids want to know: why should all peoples of the world stop eating pork? What is the point of that law? I have Chinese and White and Brazilian friends who eat pork chops, but they are good people that are contributing to humanity and the well-being of the Earth. So what do I do with that?

I am not giving the pork example because that is what a lot of young adults are struggling with, but because it helps to illustrate a point. If ‘Allamah Tabataba’i’s thesis about our bodies is true – that we know instinctually that we didn’t make them, and so we are in debt to whomever or whatever did make them – then we are stating that everyone is on the same playing field. Human beings have a particular existential reality that they face – this is a secular truth as well as a religious truth – and so let’s leave aside all distinctions between human beings as a starting point. We were created by a power other than our own, are given some power for a short period of time, and then it all goes away. So what do we do with it?

If this is the case, then why pork? Why does a universal truth include a seemingly random food prohibition? Well, as we all know, answering questions like this involve being willing to speculate, but also the humility to say that Allah knows best (wa Allahu a’lam). But as a student of history, I marvel at the way, for example, Spanish culture developed a public aspect to pork consumption such that if you travel to Spain today, you will literally see pigs legs hanging from windows inside shops off the street, and find porks in so many dishes. This is clearly leftover from the Reconquista, the Catholic reconquering of the Iberian peninsular from the Muslims, when they were trying to root out secret Muslims in newly reconquered territories. And so at least at the world historical scale, we can see that pork consumption is actually a discreet data point that indicates the spread of Islam as well as the strength of Islam in varying times and places. It may be that the prohibition of pork is not actually about you or me or anyone of us, but rather the collective Ummah as a whole. It may be that it serves as a clear dividing line in sociological terms between Muslims and others. This is made all the more poignant that, in my experience, eating pork is the very last thing to go when someone is on their way out of Islam. It is very common to find young Muslims who do not pray all 5 obligatory prayers every day, but would never intentionally miss a day of fasting in the month of Ramadan. But for those young Muslims who have given up on fasting, the prohibition on pork almost always remains. It is that one last piece of taqwa that they have left – that willingness to do what Allah has commanded and avoid what Allah has prohibited. And so whether or not that is meaningful in the next life is only for Allah to decide, but here on Earth it becomes meaningful in our collective communal expression of Islam. Put another way, Islam has been the most powerful force in human history for preventing the cultivation and consumption of pigs.

It is not very hard to make an environmental point about this. But that takes a mentality that sees Islam as capable of contributing to the well-being of all of humanity and all of the Earth. If Islam is simply my heritage – “well, I don’t eat pork and my parents don’t eat pork and my grandparents didn’t eat pork, so I don’t want my kids to eat pork” – then one isn’t even going to make the connection.

And so our articulations of Islam, at the individual and communal level, have to be oriented towards the universality of Islam for the younger generation to not feel like their greatest hope is simply representation. I don’t want it to be misunderstood that I somehow think greater representation is bad – not at all. Rather, what I am saying that is that Islam is different. Islam is not being Punjabi, or female, or a white American male like myself. Islam is not being an immigrant or an indigenous person. Islam is the help and the guidance and the mercy provided by the Creator of this Earth and this universe to help everyone, including Muslims!

This is one of the great and powerful insights of our Shi’i tradition. That we recognize that from very early on, Muslims failed to live Islam, and so failed to provide humanity with the beauty that it deserves. We are all constantly called to push ourselves to not fall into the same traps of Shaytan that our Muslim ancestors, whether Sunni or Shi’i or something else, fell into. We are constantly striving and hoping to do things right, while also having the humility to know that, just as people in the past failed and acuiesced and compromised, we too might run into the same deviations. But our Imams are always there for us. Our Prophets are always there for us. And Allah is always there for us, as we strive towards the future.

We may find it deeply meaningful to recount the tragedies of the Ahl al-Bayt, upon them peace, but we are a future-oriented people. We look back on the caliphate, and can speak plainly about its positives and negatives, and point out clearly that it only ever effected approximately 25% of the habitable land on Earth. So what about the other 75%? The Islamic history of North and South America has yet to be really be written! We are people of the future, because our Imam is the Imam of North and South America, as well as the whole world!

But again, we have to embrace that mentality ourselves if we are to pass that onto our children.

In my experience, very few Muslims immigrated to the USA thinking that they were going to bring the universal truth to all the bechara and bechari white folks like me. (For those of you who don’t know any Urdu – bechara and becahari is like saying, “oh that poor poor person” in English, someone to be pitied). But that is a truth we must embrace. I can directly trace my conversion to Islam to the work of Indian immigrants to Chicago who decided they needed to make some books for their kids in hopes they would retain Islam. They probably didn’t imagine they would have an impact on an investment bank CEOs son who went to an Ivy League university. But they did.

There was an early white convert to Islam in America who stated that he was not so arrogant to think that he had figured out a truth that no one else could, but nor did he think so lowly of himself to think that others wouldn’t follow in his footsteps. I reiterate that statement. I would not be here today if I did not think, that of all the different ways of looking at the meaning human existence, that Islam is not the clearest and most comprehensive. Truth is everywhere. Justice is to be found in all times and places in varying degrees. But Islam is the call for humanity to embrace the totality of truth and to embody the perfection of justice to the extent we are capable, leaving the outcome of all things up to the One who created us and everything else.

So our words must be translations of truth and justice, and our bodies must act out truth and justice, for our Islam to be what it is supposed to be. Easily the most beloved American figure to Muslims is Malcolm X. This love transcends the Sunni and Shi’i divide, and he is often quoted by both communities. By far my favorite Malcolm quote is, “I’m for truth, no matter who tells it. I’m for justice, no matter who it is for or against. I’m a human being first and foremost, and as such I’m for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole.” That is a great definition of Islam, as far as I am concerned, and people love Malcolm X (also known al-Hajj Malik al-Shabazz) because they see that this quote is consistent with how he lived his life.

So we too have to struggle for that. There are many narrations of the Imams, upon them peace, that state that the true Shi’i is the person whose life and actions demonstrate the beauty of the teachings of Islam. In one hadith of Imam al-Baqir, upon him peace, he states that we should be like:

رُهْـبَانٌ بِاللَّيْلِ أَسَدٌ بِالنَّهَارِ

Monks during the night, and lions during the day.

These words alone, for example, are indicative of one of the beautiful qualities of our faith, which is that it brings together both the worldly and otherworldly virtues. For example, pretty much everyone I know, with the exception of a few far-left activist types, uses Amazon.com. It is a remarkable service that I first used to order books in college, and now spans the globe. It is hard to not admire Jeff Bezos for building it. One might even call him “a lion of business.” But as far as we know, he has no otherworldly virtues. He has firmly planted his feet in the dunya, and his whole spaceship stunt is further evidence of the nature of his deen. But then we take some pious Muslim scholar who is renowned for their worship and detachment from worldly matters, and we are in awe of their otherworldly virtues, even though we would never trust them to run a complex worldly project like a global online retail service. But Islam has called us to aspire to excellence in both.

One of the ways that I have noticed young people go astray is because they lose this balance. This is especially true in regards to the politics of representation. Sometimes their personal deen – the way they live their lives – skews towards worldly accomplishment, and they think that if they can become a tenured professor at a prestigious university, or a partner at a respected law firm, or have a popular television show, then they have been the proverbial lions during the day that their faith calls them to be. But can they give up a millions of dollars from a major television network if they feel their artisitic vision is going to be comrpomised, the way the Muslim comedian Dave Chappelle walked away from Comedy Central? Are they enough of monks at night they they will not fall into open sin when a little piece of the dunya is dangled before their eyes?

Less common, but still problematic, are those who skew towards “being religious” at the expense of worldly accomplishment. They have talents and potentials that are undeveloped and misused because they think that as long as they are praying at the beginning of the time and making their regular adhkar, they are doing what a Muslim is supposed to do. But this world is big and complex and competitive, and it requires Muslims to be audacious, to live in a way that actually demonstrates their faith. I am reminded of the guidance provided by Sayyid Sistani to the fighters in Iraq in their battle against ISIS. Again, as a student of history, I felt this was the greatest treatise on the ethics of modern war I had ever read, regardless of whether I was Muslim or not. If Islam cannot confront our realities, then it will be overwhelmed by them, and will remain only as a refuge of the socially powerless.

As we hear in a hadith of Imam al-Rida, upon him peace,

لو عرف الناس محاسن كلامنا لاتبعونا

If people knew the beauty of our words, then they would follow us…

This is a conditional sentence. People need to know the beauty of the words of the Ahl al-Bayt, upon them peace. This involves translation work as well as the more formal process of teaching the tradition. But as we know, it is not just the words of the Ahl al-Bayt that is beautiful, it is also their embodiment, their lives, their actions. Yes, they were bodies in the world just like other bodies, but, in the words of the ziyara again:

وَفِعْلُكُمُ ٱلْخَيْرُ

وَعَادَتُكُمُ ٱلإِحْسَانُ

Your actions were the embodiment of good and your habits were excellence personified.

And so to must we strive to be.

We cannot wait for others to inspire the younger generations. We must try. We must try to be reflections of the beauty of Islam.

Young people ARE inspired by Muslims often, but often simply based on the politics of representation. So they get excited when they see Riz Ahmed in Star Wars, or watch We Are Lady Parts, a new NBC-Universal show about Muslim girls in London. They post on social media about the Brooklyn Nets basketball player who recently converted to Islam, and discuss and debate the relative merits of a Muslim being the campaign manager of Bernie Sanders’ last presidential campaign.

But – and let me be a little controversial here – none of that is particularly inspiring to non-Muslims. Yes, there may be times when one of those things plays a role in someone’s journey to Islam – for example, I recently had a conversation with a young man who wanted to know more about Islam because he had watched both seasons of the show on Hulu about the Muslim comedian Ramy Yousef. But let me be blunt – no one is going to become Muslim BECAUSE of that show. They are going to become Muslim because watching everyone prostrate in unison before the Ka’ba is a beautiful symbol of human diversity under the shade of Divine Unity. They are going to become Muslim because your family is ethical and charitable and generous, and you welcome them into your home and answer their questions. They are going to become Muslim because they read a beautifully published version of the biography of the Prophet Muhammad, blessings and peace upon him and his family. They are going to become Muslim because their innate quest for truth and justice aligns with what they have experienced of Islam. They will HEAR the beauty of the words of the leaders of our faith, at the forefront of which is the Qur’an itself, and they will follow.

One scholar once said that many of the fiqh questions these days are actually questions of kalam (Islamic theology). By this he meant that fiqh only makes sense when you have already bought in, wholeheartedly, to the idea of God (tawhid), Prophets (nubuwwah), and a life after death (akhira). If one has doubts about those things, it is not particularly relevant where you hold your hands during qiyam in the salat, or whether you wipe your feet or wash them during wudu. So our faith has to be rooted in theological universals. This is what I was saying earlier about how a young Muslim might look at the Tokyo Olympics. If Islam for them is nothing about outward symbolism, all they are going to see is the few women wearing hijab. But if Islam for them is an expression of the collective destiny of humanity, then they will see that everyone there is a reflection of the Creator (al-Khaliq al-Bari’ al-Musawwir). They will see that the Olympics represents human aspiration for one global community living in peace, which is precisely what Imam Mahdi is destined to bring about. And they will be reminded that the strength of the strong, the quickness of the quick, and the endurance of the enduring is nothing but a Divine gift that will be taken away in old age and death.

Our age is one of marveling at human excellence and ingenuity, and so we will not survive this age spiritually without remembering that everything that is human is built on the Divine. The great heresy of our age – the one that Muslims young and old, and in the East and the West all suffer from – is the age of:

أَن رَّآهُ اسْتَغْنَى

“they think themselves as self-sufficient” as Surah al-‘Alaq states.

From the very beginning of the revelation of the Qur’an, the idea that human beings were self-sufficient was put under attack. The Qur’an engaged in a constant polemic with its audience to get them to admit that everything they were was not an accident, but rather the outcome of a process whereby God wanted to place a being on Earth with greater potential than any other. This belief that human beings are islands unto themselves, alone in a meaningless creation meant to create meaning through their human imagination, was there in the 7th century. For the jahili Arabs, there was temporary comfort in wine and song and poetry, just as there has been for the nihilistic aesthetes of Euro-American colonial modernity for hundreds of years. But death is still there to be reckoned with:

كُلُّ نَفْسٍ ذَائِقَةُ الْمَوْتِ ثُمَّ إِلَيْنَا تُرْجَعُون

Every soul shall taste death. Then you shall be brought back to Us

I had met numerous young and attractive and intelligent and driven Muslims who have explained to me that the moment they really became serious about their faith was when someone close to them died, and all of a sudden they didn’t feel so invincible. It is only when we fully embrace the reality that we are going to die that Islam makes sense, so there are aspects to the journey that we cannot control. You can raise a Muslim to understand intellectually that God is real, and you can explain to them rationally how the Reward and Punishment are part and parcel of how the creation works and thus part of the next life as well, but until they have seen it with their own eyes, it just doesn’t sink in as deeply. These are the moments none of us can control, but which are part and parcel of how Allah directs our lives. As it states in Surah al-‘Ankabut, verse 2:

أَحَسِبَ النَّاسُ أَن يُتْرَكُوا أَن يَقُولُوا آمَنَّا وَهُمْ لَا يُفْتَنُون

Do the people suppose that they will be let off because they say, ‘We have faith,’ and they will not be tested

You can’t say, “I am a Muslim” and not be tested. Maybe that test won’t be like the Rohingya, who have faced a genocide at the hands of the military forces of Myanmar and yet held onto their faith. Maybe that test will be when one of our friends unexpectedly dies, and we have to really ask ourselves if we believe they are alive in the barzakh, because if they are, then every Thursday night it would be good for us to recite some Qur’an for them and give some sadaqa on their behalf, and not watch Netflix. Maybe that test will be a new set of opportunities and possibilities that are exciting and exhilarating, but they involve a series of significant compromises in our faith and practice? Maybe the test will be purely in our heads, and we will lives of ease and comfort, but struggle to see Islam as universal and Allah as real without taking the necessary time to strive to understand it with our best effort.

It is well established, through Qur’an and hadith, that Allah tests some people with prosperity and others with tribulation. In general, the tests we face are the tests of prosperity and ease. When I have spoken with young Muslims who are struggling with their faith, there is one clear theme that runs through it all – the desire to be free. The desire to be able to taste anything, touch anything, go anywhere, and be with anyone. Little do they know how much more they have tasted, touch, done and seen than the vast majority of human beings who have ever walked this Earth. They were not born in a village somewhere 800 years ago, destined to farm the same land their parents and grandparents farmed, never even knowing, let alone seeing, what was on the other side of the Earth. Rather, they live in Chicago, or New York, or San Jose, or Houston, and they have pleasures and delights and possibilities that most in history have never ever dreamed of. So when they read the Qur’anic verses about couches and gardens, they are unmoved. Why would I want a couch in Heaven when I already have big wrap around couch with a sectional in my parents living room, with a 50 inch flat screen on the wall streaming thousands of options?! Instead, when you ask them about Heaven, it is about travel and relationships and experiences that they feel they are being denied here on Earth.

And often the basis of that denial is somehow wrapped up in how they were taught to be Muslim. Don’t do this. Don’t do that. What would the community say if they knew. And so on and so forth.

And so they feel trapped. Trapped between an Islam of denial and a global world of possibility. But what if we reverse these ideas, and talk about Islam as the pathway to endless possibilities – not only a complete and fulfilling life here on Earth, but also never-ending expansion and journeys after we die – and the Earth as a place of denial. Denial of our hopes. Denial of our ideals. Denial of the full expression and potential of our humanity.

For we do not believe we are born to die, and end our story here on Earth. Our journey continues in the stars, and we do not need to spend billions on rocketships to get there. The same One who created the Andromeda galaxy created me, and that One can show me everything I have ever dreamed of, and far more that I could never even imagine, even if I lived for a thousand years.

This resolves the great heresy of self-sufficiency. This way of looking at Islam means that the 21st century is to embraced fully. There is no need to hide. There is no need to be afraid. We are the followers of the followers of the Imam destined to unite the globe, and all of us collectively are servants of the Creator of this planet and every other planet. That is what our faith is teaching us – that even though we are not the majority of humanity, and our beliefs are not reflected in the economic, political and cultural trends dominating the world right now – that we are in submission to the processes of history that will bring about the ultimate victory of Islam.

This is the truly audacious aspect of believing in Islam – to acknowledge your smallness on the Earth, but to truly believe, like Abraham (upon him peace) before us, that our individual journey to God has meaning even if everyone around us thinks it is ridiculous. Because that is what we often forget about the Qur’anic stories – that most of the people thought the Prophets and their followers were ridiculous and preposterous! The Qur’an itself anticipates this common psychological challenge to belief.

But being in community helps us to reaffirm our beliefs – wa tawasau bil-haqqi wa tawasau bis-sabr – when other people think we are ridiculous.

And so this is why we must think of Islam, for ourselves and in the way we convey it to not just young Muslims but all others, as a universal truth. As containing the fundamental answer to the mystery of human existence on Earth, and what our lives are meant to be lived for.

Do we think that the martyrs of Karbala lost something that day? Did they lose the opportunity to travel, to hold political office, to create art, to fly to space, to fall in love, to build a company, or any other human endeavor that people have striven for in history? Or did they gain everything because they sacrificed their lives for God, as embodiments of Surah al-Ahzab, verse 23:

مِّنَ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ رِجَالٌ صَدَقُوا مَا عَاهَدُوا اللَّهَ عَلَيْهِ فَمِنْهُم مَّن قَضَىٰ نَحْبَهُ وَمِنْهُم مَّن يَنتَظِرُ وَمَا بَدَّلُوا تَبْدِيلً

Among the faithful are men who fulfill what they have pledged to Allah. Of them are some who have fulfilled their pledge, and of them are some who still wait, and they have not changed in the least

So we are all those still waiting, hoping that we can draw inspiration from the martyrs of Karbala to face our own challenges. To know that whoever finds Allah has lost nothing, whereas those who have lost Allah have lost everything. To know that death is not to be feared, but rather the thousands of ways that the living forget. And to know that we are citizens of the entire Earth, because we serve the Malik al-Mulk (the Possessor of Sovereignty) who is sovereign over all nations.

اللهم صل على محمد و آل محمد و عجل فرجهم

This was originally a speech given at Baitul Ilm on July 24th, 2021. It has been slightly modified.

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Peace be upon you, Messenger of God

Peace be upon you, Spirit (rūḥ) of Allah

Peace be upon you, Son of Mary

Peace be upon you, Word (kalima) of the Divine

I bear witness that you completed your prayers and paid your charitable dues

and strove against those opposed to faith with firmness

You raised the dead, healed the sick, and corrected the deviations of those who misinterpreted God’s revelation

We await your return, at the side of Imam Mahdi

and are at peace with those with whom you are at peace

and oppose those whom you oppose

in accordance with the historical mission of all the prophets and messengers

may God bless them all

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