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Dear Reader

بسم الله

السلام عليكم

Dear Reader,

I have decided that how many people read what I write does not matter. What matters is having readers that care for me as I care for them. That we be of those who counsel each other to truth and perseverance in an age when a million voices tell us to give up. That we push each other to reach higher, until with God’s grace that which is far becomes near.

I have completed reviewing all the posts on this blog. I have deleted approximately 20 old posts that did not sit right with me for varying reasons. As far as I am able to discern, I believe the posts that remain are beneficial, and I hope God will bless me for keeping them in the public domain. I invite you to look over old posts and provide any feedback. We are mirrors unto one another, and perhaps there is something I have missed that you will catch.

As a writer, the only thing that is important to me is the hope that what I do could be pleasing to the Creator of all reality. The One who gifted us with language and taught us by the pen. The One who reminded us to speak well or remain silent. Yet, there are whispers of what God thinks in what you think. We are a community of souls, after all, sharing a journey into eternity. You listen to me when you read my words, and I benefit from listening to you as well. I look forward to continuing this journey together insha’Allah.

It is the 3rd of the month of Sha‘bān, often commemorated as the birthday of Imam Husayn. One can only imagine the joy the Prophet of Mercy felt upon seeing his newly born grandson so many years ago, صلى​ الله عليه و آله و سلم. I wish you all the best on this happy day.

Best,

R. David Coolidge

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The stakes are too high to not give it our all.

One of the beautiful things about the biography of the Prophet (may God bless him and his family and grant them peace) is that it shows how the Prophet directly addressed the individual needs of his followers. For example, on numerous occasions, people came to him and asked which deeds were the best, and he gave multiple answers. Scholars of hadith tell us that this was because each answer was tailored to the questioner – what was best depended on the situation of the person. A person with two elderly parents might be told that respect and caring for parents is the best of deeds, while another without parents might be told that fighting in the path of God was best. The Prophet took context into consideration, as well as the psychological needs of the questioner. We can see this beautifully in the following hadith:

Ibn Hanbal recorded Abu Umamah saying that a young man came to the Prophet and said, “O Messenger of Allah! Give me permission to commit zina [sex outside of marriage].” The people surrounded him and rebuked him, saying, “Stop! Stop!” But the Prophet said, “Come close.” The young man came to him, and he said, “Sit down,” so he sat down.

The Prophet said, “Would you like it for your mother?” The young man said, “No, by Allah, may I be ransomed for you.” The Prophet said, “Neither do the people like it for their mothers.” The Prophet said, “Would you like it for your daughter?” He said, “No, by Allah, may I be ransomed for you.” The Prophet said, “Neither do the people like it for their daughters.” The Prophet said, “Would you like it for your sister?” He said, “No, by Allah, may I be ransomed for you.” The Prophet said, “Neither do the people like it for their sisters.” The Prophet said, “Would you like it for your paternal aunt?” He said, “No, by Allah, O Allah’s Messenger, may I be ransomed for you.” The Prophet said, “Neither do the people like it for their paternal aunts.” The Prophet said, “Would you like it for your maternal aunt?” He said, “No, by Allah, O Allah’s Messenger, may I be ransomed for you.” The Prophet said, “Neither do the people like it for their maternal aunts.”

Then the Prophet put his hand on him and said, “O Allah, forgive his sin, purify his heart and guard his chastity.” After that the young man never paid attention to anything of that nature.

The Prophet did not shy away from the spiritual and psychological needs of this young man, but addressed it clearly. He brought back to his mind the implications of what he was asking for, and how it relates to the general principle of loving for others what one loves for oneself. He made him confront the selfishness of his own desires, and helped him to see things from a wider perspective. Once he had made it clear in the young man’s mind that what he was requesting was deeply problematic, he also spiritually intervened on his behalf, by which he was healed from the disease of his heart.

Many scholars teach us that the refinement of our hearts is obligatory. It is something we must do, just like staying away from the haram and doing our obligatory worship. We should look for qualified teachers to help us do this, but if this is not available, then one should find a sincere brother or sister in faith to help and provide counsel on this path. For regardless of whether one has access to truly trustworthy helpers or not, one must confront the reality of their inner state. A statement attributed to Ja’far al-Sadiq states, “Whoever does not have a preacher within his or her own self will not benefit from the preaching of others.”

The Qur’an states:

 “God knows everything that is in the Heavens and Earth, and God knows everything that you conceal or declare, for God is knowing of that which is contained in the depths of your hearts.” (Surah al-Taghabun, verse 4)

God already knows everything about us, so what we have to do is admit it to ourselves and to God. This may sound easy and simple, but it is not, because it means we have to confront our deepest fears and struggles. In the case of the hadith mentioned before, perhaps we think that the young man just haphazardly asked the Prophet such a provocative question. But I think that is probably unlikely. It is much more likely that he struggled with it in private until he felt like he couldn’t control himself, and went to the Prophet in a state of deep confusion and turmoil. The fact that he was willing to speak openly about it indicates that he was probably at his wit’s end, didn’t know what else to do, and was looking for a way out as a last resort.

This internal struggle is a common feature of our human experience. Many of our life experiences are so painful and challenging, it is easier to bury them deep within – to lock them away as a means of survival, and try to forget about them. It is much harder to openly confront them and try to overcome them. But as we progress towards the Light of al-Nur, God will make us confront them whether we like it or not. This can be deeply painful, but we can take comfort in the words attributed to the Prophet: “Never is a believer stricken with a discomfort, an illness, an anxiety, a grief or mental worry or even the pricking of a thorn but God will expiate his or her sins on account of their patience.” The path of inward rectification requires that we overcome these obstacles by facing them head on, with both courage and trust in God.

The Prophet (may God bless him and his family and grant them peace) speaks of these sorts of realities in the following hadith, related in the book al-Adab al-Mufrad by al-Bukhari:

Jabir ibn ‘Abdullah said, “I heard the Messenger of Allah say, ‘If anyone has three of his children die young and resigns them to Allah, he will enter the Garden.’ We said, ‘Messenger of Allah, what about two?’ ‘And two,’ he said.” Mahmud ibn Labid said to Jabir, “By Allah, I think that if you had asked, ‘And one?’ he would have given a similar answer.” [Jabir] said, “By Allah, I think so too.”

For the mother and father who have lost a child at a young age – one of the greatest griefs possible – confronting the reality of loss with the light of faith becomes a means to Paradise. When God decreed that their children would die, there was nothing in the whole universe that could be done to prevent it, so the Prophet counseled the parents to “resign them to Allah.”

The examples given so far may seem somewhat extreme, or perhaps even arbitrary. But they compel us to see that Islam was given to us not so that we could live in some fantasy world, divorced from our real issues. It was given to us to provide the means by which we can confront the that which is contained in the depths of our hearts. Regret, fear, the pain of loss, despair, agony, envy, weakness, lust, humiliation and the desire to humiliate, greed, hopelessness – these are some of the things that reside in our hearts, and until we have unearthed them, and brought them out to be grappled with, we are avoiding what really matters.

What is so disturbing at this moment of human history is that people who could care less about such struggles are the most widely influential, wealthy, and powerful. There are very few people, for example, on the Forbes list of most powerful people that are in any way exemplars of this process in any way, shape or form. Which is precisely why making it a priority is a revolutionary act. If the whole world is going to go to Hell, at the lead of people who could care less about the diseases of their hearts, then choosing to delve into our hearts for the sake of God is an act of eternal resistance to the lies of this temporary world.

To be clear, doing the right thing is only part of the struggle – adopting the right attitude of heart can be far more challenging. As our life unfolds however it does, can we become those who truly trust in God, the mutawakkilun? When disappointments appear, can we become truly those who are patient, the sabirun. When our bodies yearn for something that is forbidden, can we truly control ourselves, and be considered from the muttaqun? Outwardly and publicly, we may still be fighting the good fight. But inwardly and privately, where is our heart with our Lord?

The pillars of something are like the foundation – they make everything else possible, but they are just the beginning. As a philosopher might say, “they are necessary but not sufficient.” In this way, the 5 pillars of Islam provide us with a context, but they do not answer the deeply personal questions which are at the core of our being. Someone told me, “I think Islam is very compelling, but I struggle to believe in God, because if God is real, then God is to blame for my suffering and the suffering of others, whereas if this is all just an accident, then no one is to blame, and I can just chalk it up to bad luck and move on.” This may have been one of the most honest theological statements I have ever heard from anyone. This is precisely where the theological meets the personal, and it is a dynamic that all of us intuit on some level.

Ultimately, the answers of Islam revolve around inspiration and hope in the face of the inevitability of pain, loss, and suffering. God is arham al-rahimin, The Most Merciful of those who show mercy. If we could think of the greatest possible situation in this world, going to the limits of our ability to dream of a good life, then God has already thought of something far better to give to those whom God chooses. This reality is evoked by the prophetic words:

“A man from the people of fire who was enjoying the best pleasures of this world will be brought and dipped once in Hell, and God will tell him: ‘O My slave, did you ever enjoy yourself in the worldly life?’ This person would respond: ‘No, I never enjoyed any pleasure.’ Then a man of the people of Paradise who was the most miserable of this world will be brought and dipped into Paradise once, then God will ask him, ‘O My slave, did you ever experience any misfortune in this worldly life?’ The person would reply: ‘No, I never experienced any unhappiness at all.’ [related in Sahih Muslim]

Belief in these realities is essential to self transformation – otherwise every loss in this world will increase us in frustration at the state of society and resentment towards the nature of the universe. The truth is, it is God who gives and takes away, not the world. The one you love will only love you back if al-Wadud, The Loving, puts love in his or her heart for you. The money that you crave will not reach your hand unless al-Razzaq, The Provider, decrees that the hiring supervisor chooses you over other qualified applicants. The power that you hope to wield will only be manifest if al-Qadir, the Powerful, blesses you with it. The child that you hope to have will never exist unless al-Khaliq, the Creator, places it in the womb of its mother. The oppressive ruler that you hope to restrain will only be restrained by al-Mani’, the Preventer. This is reality – this is la ilaha illa Allah.

For there are moments in life when good and beauty seem destroyed, and evil and ugliness reign. Anyone who has contemplated the events of Karbala knows this like they know the veins on the back of their hand. And if that was the fate of people far better than anyone reading this message – such as Imam Husayn and Lady Zaynab – then that means there is no guarantee for us of a nice life. The hardships that weigh humanity down may continue and increase, if it is God’s wisdom for that to be the case. People of evil may hoard more power and wealth for themselves, without any seeming check on their corruption of the Earth. But hope is always there, in the freedom we have to give our hearts to God.

I cannot see the future. I do not know if the hardships will increase or relief will come like rain, unexpected and joy producing. What I know is that I am free now to give my best to God. There is no crushing rock on my chest in the desert of the Arabian sun, with only the freedom of my tongue left to call out “Ahad! Ahad!” Rather, I can still write. I can still read. I can still be there for my family to the best of my ability. I can still teach. I can still pray. I can still fast. I can still give charity. I can still do so many things.

But what does God want most of me right now, and am I willing to do it? The freedom to give one’s heart to God is not like the intoxicating freedom that you feel on a Friday night when the work week is done. It is more somber, and sometimes it hurts more than anything. Because maybe what we really want is not what God wants for us. Or maybe what we want from God is not what God is giving us right now. And so we have to find that clarity, with God’s help, where we can say the words attributed to the Prophet:

O God, whatever You have blessed me with that I love, then make it give me strength to undertake that which You love

and whatever You have withheld from me of what I love, then make it a free space [in my heart] to be filled with what You love

Seek that clarity with everything you have, for the stakes are too high for anything less.

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It is narrated that once a man came to Imam ‘Ali and said:

“I seek God’s forgiveness (أَسْتَغْفِرُ اللهَ)”

to which the Commander of the Faithful replied:

“Do you know what asking God’s forgiveness is? Forgiveness is a word that stand on six supports:

  1. To repent over the past – النَّدَمُ عَلَى مَا مَضَى
  2. A firm determination never to revert to it – الْعَزْمُ عَلَى تَرْكِ الْعَوْدِ إِلَيْهِ أَبَداً
  3. To discharge all the rights of people so that you may meet God quite clean with nothing which to account for – أَنْ تُؤَدِّيَ إِلَى الْـمَخْلُوقِينَ حُقُوقَهُمْ حَتَّى تَلْقَى اللهَ عزّوجلّ أَمْلَسَ لَيْسَ عَلَيْكَ تَبِعَةٌ
  4. To fulfill every obligation which you ignored in the past so that you may now be just with it –  أَنْ تَعْمِدَ إِلَى كُلِّ فَرِيضَةٍ عَلَيْكَ ضَيَّعْتَهَا فَتُؤَدِّيَ حَقَّهَا
  5. To aim at the flesh grown as a result of unlawful earning so that you may melt it by grief of repentance till the skin touches the bone and a new flesh grows between – أَنْ تَعْمِدَ إِلَى اللَّحْمِ الَّذِي نَبَتَ عَلَى السُّحْتِ فَتُذِيبَهُ بالاْحْزَانِ، حَتَّى يَلْصِقَ الْجِلْدُ بِالْعَظْمِ، وَيَنْشَأَ بَيْنَهُمَا لَحْمٌ جَدِيدٌ
  6. To make the body taste the pain of obedience as you previously made it taste the sweetness of disobedience – أَنْ تُذِيقَ الْجِسْمَ أَلَمَ الطَّاعَةِ كَمَا أَذَقْتَهُ حَلاَوَةَ الْمَعْصِيَةِ

On such an occasion you may say, I seek God’s forgiveness.”

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“The provisions required for this spiritual journey consist of spiritual and ascetic practices to discipline the soul. Since relinquishing material attachments is very difficult, the traveler begins to cut the binding chains of attachment to the realm of multiplicity little by little and leaves the world of physical nature behind.

Hardly before the traveler recovers from the exhaustion of this journey, he enters the intermediate world, which is the world of psychic multiplicity. Here, he clearly realizes how precious are the treasures that material and external multiplicities have stored within his corporeal nature. These are the same imaginal psychic beings that come into being as a result of the traveler’s encounter with and interest in external multiplicities and are considered its outcome and by-products.

These thoughts and preoccupations hinder the travelers wayfaring and take away his serenity and peace of mind. When he wants to take repose in the remembrance of God for a short while, they besiege him like a deluge and threaten his whole being…

It is obvious that the pain and distress caused by psychic multiplicities are more powerful than multiplicities of the physical world. For one can willingly and deliberately retreat and isolate oneself and be saved from disturbance of and encounter with external multiplicities. But one certainly cannot free oneself from the disturbance of temptations and imaginations of the carnal soul, for those enticements always accompany one closely and intimately.

The traveler…is determined to leave behind the realm of temptations that is usually called the intermediate world. However, the traveler must be very alert and careful lest there remain any of those tempting thoughts in the corners of his heart. Because it is a characteristic of these imaginal elements to hide in the most obscured corners of the heart in such a way that the traveler is deceived when he wants to cast them out. He may be fooled to believe that he has freed himself of their evil presence and has been relieved of all remnants of the [the intermediate world]. But when the traveler reaches the spring of life and wants to quench his thirst from the fountains of wisdom, suddenly they attack him and finish him off…

The example of such a traveler is like that of a person who has filled a pool in his house with water but has not touched it for some time. Therefore, all the dirt and impurities of the water has settled down at the bottom of the pool and the water seems clean and clear to him. He assumes that the clarity and purity of the water is permanent. However, as soon as he wants to enter the pool or wishes to wash something in it, suddenly all that dirt and sediment contaminates the clear water again and spots of dirt reappear on the surface. Therefore, through persistent spiritual combat and ascetic practices the traveler must acquire such a degree of certitude and inward peace that imaginal psychic elements are subjugated and cannot disturb his mind when he turns attention to the Beloved Lord.

When the traveler passes through the realm of physical nature, and the intermediate world, he enter the world of spirit…”

‘Allamah Tabataba’i, Kernel of the Kernel, pp. 15-17

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“By Allah, I see myself between Heaven and the Fire.”

If you want to know the story of Hurr, you can read this basic historical background or this moving poem. I want to talk about something else: the metaphor of Hurr.

Imagine you have a moment when you are faced with a choice.

In one direction is truth and justice. In the other is falsehood and injustice.

In one direction is God, and in the other direction is anything other than God.

In one direction is eternal bliss, and in the other is never-ending punishment.

This was the decision Hurr faced on the day of ‘Ashura.

And it is decisions similar to this we encounter every day.

In the morning, when it is time to pray while we prefer to sleep, we are faced with it.

During the day, when we are called to be our best in the face of myriad challenges, we are faced with it.

In the evening, when we can sin in privacy, we are faced with it.

When the only world we can remember asks us to forget about a world we have never seen.

When another person asks us to compromise our ideals in order to earn their affection.

When we just want to give up.

But Hurr tells us that we have it in us.

That in each moment, we can choose what is true, what is right, and what is eternal.

And that these choices matter more than anything else.

I am like you. There are days when I just want to zone out in front of the TV. There are times when I just don’t know if I can take it anymore. But then I think of Hurr. I think of his flag flying in the wind over the blue sky of Karbala, lifting my soul towards Heaven. I think of the Ahl al-Bayt, upon them peace, and how they deserve my best effort.

Hurr was not a perfect human being. He probably had some good times with his friends. He probably had some romance, and some comforts. Perhaps there were things he really loved, and hoped for more of it as he grew older. But in the moment when he realized what life is really about, he knew with clarity:

“By Allah, I see myself between Heaven and the Fire.”

(Hurr’s words as related in Abu Mikhnaf)

And so he chose. He sought no fatwa, nor prayed an istikhara. There was only one choice.

Is the path back to our Creator anything but the hundreds of choices we make each day?! When we realize this, Hurr reminds us that we can always turn back. Even at the very end, on a day unlike any other day, we can turn back. Even if we find ourselves on the wrong side, we can choose the right side.

Sometimes it will be subtle, and the war will be raging within us, imperceptible to anyone other than All-Knowing. At other times, we will find ourselves in the midst of outward struggles, in search of true allies for truth and justice. But the goal is the same – choosing that which is right, even if it is difficult.

Hurr gives us the inspiration to make that choice.

Every morning.

Every daytime.

Every evening.

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The masjid of Hurr in Karbala.

 

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Last year I posted something about trying to understand the discourse surrounding the Mahdi. I have thought about it so much since then. I think about how it represents the socio-political ideals of humanity on Earth, as well as the idea of spiritual perfection. There are many people who have given up on one, the other, or both. So reflecting on this state of humanity made me realize the intimate relationship between belief and hope whenever Imam Mahdi is mentioned. It is a discourse of aspiration, inherently. Recently, I came across two passages written by ‘Allamah Tabataba’i that express this beautifully, and I keep coming back to them. I hope they mean something to you, for that is why I am sharing them.

on the socio-political ideals of humanity

“ever since he has inhabited the earth, man has had the wish to lead a social life filled with happiness in its true sense and has striven toward this end. If such a wish were not to have an objective existence, it would never have been imprinted upon man’s inner nature, in the same way that if there were no food, there would have been no hunger. Or if there were to be no water, there would be no thirst and if there were to be no reproduction, there would have been no sexual attraction between the sexes. Therefore, by reason of inner necessity and determination, the future will see a day when human society will be replete with justice and when all will live in peace and tranquility, when human beings will be fully possessed of virtue and perfection. The establishment of such a condition will occur through human hands but with Divine succor. And the leader of such a society, who will be the savior of man, is called in the language of the hadith, the Mahdi.”

on spiritual perfection

“[at this stage of spiritual realization, a human being] detaches himself from all things to attach himself solely to the One God. Before His Majesty and Grandeur, he does nothing but bow in humility. Only then does be become guided and directed by God so that whatever he knows he knows in God. Through Divine guidance, he becomes adorned with moral and spiritual virtue and pure actions which are the same as Islam itself, the submission to God, the religion that is the primordial nature of things. This is the highest degree of human perfection and the station of the perfect man (the Universal Man; insan kamil), namely, the Imam who has reached this rank through Divine grace. Furthermore, those who have reached this station through the practice of spiritual methods, with the different ranks and stations that they possess, are the true followers of the Imam. It becomes thus clear that the knowledge of God and of the Imam are inseparable in the same way that the knowledge of God is inextricably connected to the knowledge of oneself.”

[both passages taken from the book Shi’ah, trans. by S.H. Nasr (Qum, Ansariyan: 2009) pp. 241-248]

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sister and nephew

“There are some things that time cannot mend. Some hurts that go too deep, that have taken hold.”

I have this dull pain in my chest. At first, I thought it was just a vestige of the emotional intensity of the first 10 days of Muharram. And then an image appeared in my mind that gave form to what I was feeling: ‘Ali b. Husayn and Zaynab b. ‘Ali remaining after Karbala.

اللهم صل على محمد و آل محمد

How can I possibly imagine what they felt? After shedding a few tears in majalis, I spent a relaxing weekend with my wife and son. Whereas they had to endure with the vivid memory of what their own eyes had witnessed.

As a chaplain, I saw how people being abused in the name of Islam drove faith out of their hearts. But it is as if the pulsating hearts of Imam al-Sajjad and Zaynab echo through the centuries, as if I can feel their faith beating in my own heart. For they faced the entire ordeal with faith and by faith.

That is where I stop in complete awe.

For there was no earthly victory for the sister of Husayn and her nephew. No “Conquest of Makkah” when they marched into Damascus triumphantly. They simply remained, full of memories, overflowing with faith. When they left the world, their oppressors were still in power.

Their victory is otherworldly. Beyond the sadness and injustice of this world, there is light and beauty that never fades. Reflecting on the faith of these two individuals leads us there, by the grace of God.

“Full of darkness and danger they were, and sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy. How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad happened. But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer.”

This is a story that really matters.

The story of a sister and a nephew who remained.

For we remain too.

لا إله إلا الله محمد رسول الله

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