Archive for October, 2022

Like many people, I enjoyed watching the shows of Anthony Bourdain. I can’t speak for others, but for me, I lived vicariously through his adventures. It would be nice to travel that much, and see the world Allah has created, and all of its people. It is not that I wasn’t blessed to have that possibility, but rather that I chose to focus on other things. But he was a reminder that, “dear humanity, we most certainly created all of you from a single male and a single female, and made you into peoples and tribes so that you may know one another.”

A darker side of me, left over from my days before Islam, subtly wished I could just eat and drink anything like he did. If a people’s food represents something of themselves, he was willing to try almost anything, and thus experience all of what humanity had to offer. I had been that way before Islam, but Islam put a number of restrictions on that process that I sometimes struggled to embrace. Late at night, when I was tired from another day of struggling to address my spiritual wounds, it was fun to fantasize about having “no reservations.”

And so I, like many others, was shocked and hurt by his suicide. How could someone who lived such an interesting life, who was appreciated by so many around the world, take his own life?! For a long time, it didn’t make any sense to me. From what I have read, it seemed that his search for something higher, as expressed through deep love for another human being, fell apart and the pain was just too much to bear.

In a way, the pre-Islamic version of myself feels like it can intuit what he was going through. Perhaps he really felt there was nothing left to live for – he had already done everything he could think to do, and the one thing that filled his heart with joy was being ripped away and there was no hope left and no refuge. But the version of my self that has been shaped by Islam recoils in horror at such a worldview, and thinks of the Qur’an stating, “and the Earth, despite its vastness, seemed to close in on you.”

I am reminded of him now, and my private grappling with his death for the last 4 years, after reading this passage tonight:

“The heart of a believer is like a garden. A believer has to face material difficulties in the world. But he is not aggrieved of these problems. These thorns only prick the body and are confined within the boundaries of the garden. However, the garden of the heart has no place for these thorns. Even in this material world the soul of the believer is safe from all calamities. ‘for such there shall be safety, and they are the rightly guided.

The sole desire of a believer in this world is that his Lord should be pleased with him. Such a person does not despair due to failures and material setbacks. He considers only Allah as his guardian and the guardian of others. He recognizes the power, wisdom and mercy of Allah. He considers Allah his Master and considers himself His slave. ‘That is because Allah is the Protector of those who believe, and because the unbelievers shall have no protector for them.’

Thus a believer does not become sorrowful and aggrieved by the difficulties of this worldly life. They do not even make him angry. Allah keeps the hearts of the believer peaceful in this world also. ‘He it is Who sent down tranquility into the hearts of the believers.’

A believer always faces adversity with determination. He does not stumble, nor do his feet tremble. He does not fall down on this path. He knows that behind every calamity is hidden wisdom and he alone shall be eligible for the benefit of this hidden wisdom. All that he hopes from Allah is that He removes this difficulty or in this way recompenses it so that even the physical pain does not remain for him. ‘If you suffer pain, then surely they too suffer pain as you suffer pain, yet you hope from Allah that which they do not hope in.’

That is, you hope for salvation from problems, forgiveness and rewards, but the unbelievers have no such hopes. They remain forever in the darkness of hopelessness.”

I suggest listening to the recitation of each verse, available through the links. It reached my heart, and it reminded me of how much hope Islam gives me in the face of so much sorrow on this Earth, even from the sorrows that have nothing to do with war, disease, poverty, and oppression.

This hope doesn’t erase the sadness I feel when I think about Anthony Bourdain, but it does clarify why I never took him as a role model. And more than that, it makes me realize that Islam can address the realities of all Americans. The person I was becoming before I became a Muslim was more like Anthony Bourdain than Malcolm X. In fact, with the exception of Islam, I identify far more with Anthony Bourdain than I do with Malcolm X. I was never in an actual prison, needing redemption. I didn’t grow up facing structural oppression that limited my life choices. I was, like so many other White American men, in the prison of my own self, in what another White American Male suicide David Foster Wallace calls a “tiny skull-sized kingdom, alone at the center of all creation.” And it was there that I heard the call of a caller calling towards faith in a Garden whose expanse is vaster than both the heavens and the Earth, and that has made all the difference.

So when all is said and done, thank You God for sending me the Qur’an to guide me out of darknesses and into light, and please provide hope to all those whose hearts feel heavy when they think of Anthony Bourdain.

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After 24 years of being a Muslim, what do I consider the central challenge of being Muslim in the 21st century?

The tension between the local and the global.

On the one hand, Islam is supposed to be universal. In theory, some Muslim in Malaysia or Peru and I are part of the same “community.”

But on the other hand, no human being can be both in the USA and Malaysia and Peru at the same time.

Muslim communities function the same way that all human communities function – with the assumption that one person has one body that can only be located in one place on the planet Earth at any given time.

This leads to the intellectual challenge commonly known as postmodernism. “Postmodernism” is a catch-all term for the trend in human intellectual culture to focus on the ways an individual makes sense of reality. Postmodernism highlights the worldview of a single individual in history, and from that basis tries to build up a sense of the aggregate formations of human culture that are built on those individualistic building blocks.

So, for example, what does that Muslim in Peru think about the USA? What do I think about Malaysia? What does the Muslim in Malaysia think about Peru? All three places are created by God, and all three people were placed there by God (according to the most basic and universal Islamic theological concepts). But the fact of the matter is that all three of us might know nothing about the other two! Even though we are all 1) human beings, 2) Muslims, and 3) inhabitants of the planet Earth, we really are living in a state of fundamental ignorance about each other.

My entire adult life has been dedicated to overcoming this problem, and I realize that it has been part of my struggles with Facebook for the last 4 years. I am here to say that even though I have been blessed to study more than most and to travel more than most, the problem is truly daunting. I have met no single Muslim individual anywhere on Earth who is not bound by their individual limitations of study, travel, experience, and global positioning. The more I learn, the more I realize how much I do not know.

I am posting this online because the internet is by far the most accessible international medium that I have access to. But even it has limitations, due to WordPress being based in the USA, and governed by American laws. And I too am an American, governed by American laws and American standards. Because Allah decided that I would be born in the USA, and not Malaysia or Peru or anywhere else, and that I would have white skin, and that my father would be the CEO of an investment bank – all of that means I am who I am. I cannot be other than who I am, but I want to be in a state of submission to the Lord of all the worlds.

I have been to Makkah and Madinah three times to worship my Lord, but each time I have returned here to my homeland. 500 years ago, there was not a single person born on this side of the Earth (North and South America) that had ever visited Makkah even once. But still everyday myself, and the Muslims of Malaysia and Peru, face in that direction for prayer.

Put simply, the Islamic tradition that existed for the first 1000 years of the Ummah never had to deal with a truly global world. At its best, such as in the famous story of Ibn Battuta رحمة الله عليه, the conversation reached from West Africa to China (but importantly did not yet include Japan, the Philippines, Australia, and New Zealand, let alone North and South America). In an era of manuscripts and travel by camel or ship, it took a long time for ideas to travel throughout those parts of Earth.

So what is the point of me saying all this?

Let’s be a little more charitable with each other, and less quick to rush to judgement. I have been guilty of this in the past, without a doubt. But I realize now how deeply complex things are, and how few are willing to face it. I am trying to sincerely grapple with it, and I am always looking for other intellects who feel that they are trying as well.

If you don’t want to face it, that is your choice. Maybe you just want to retreat to your little corner of the world where you are certain about what is right and wrong, and true and false. Maybe it is just easier to say these are the good guys/gals and those are the bad guys/gals, and besides, I have more important things to worry about like my job and my family and my health and so on.

But if that is the case, then please don’t listen to me, because what I say is just going to frustrate you, and your comments are going to frustrate me too. You are going to want me to just reaffirm what you already know to be true, and be pissed off when I deviate from the script. In every single instance where I feel that I was dismissed by another Muslim, it was because of this – because they already knew the right way of thinking and acting, and didn’t see any value in what I am trying to do.

I truly appreciate those who have engaged me online, and I want to continue that. But I want to use the internet in the best way possible, and I am realizing now that means that I need readers that understand I am an American who lives in America. I am one body and one mind, and I am located in one particular place on Earth. Perhaps if I was Lebanese and lived in Beirut, I would think differently about a number of different issues. But that’s postmodernism for you – I cannot see the world but through these 21st Century White American Male Upper Class Heterosexual Muslim eyes.

As much as I have tried to see the world through the eyes of others, and to arrive at the unadulterated universal truth and the unmediated command of the Lord, I cannot but be who I am.

Anyone who took the time to read through all the posts since 2008 could see that very clearly. I could even write a postmodern academic article about myself: “Desperately Seeking Objectivity: Epistemological Nostalgia in White American Conversion Performance” or something like that.

May al-Ḥaqq al-Ghanī accept from this faqīr, āmīn yā arḥam al-rāḥimīn!

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