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Archive for the ‘Ahl al-Sunna’ Category

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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Tonight is the 27th of Rajab. It is considered a holy night for a number of different reasons, all of them centered around the spirituality of the Prophet Muhammad, may Allah bless him and his family and grant them peace.

It is cause for me to reflect on why I try to align myself with the historical mission of the Prophet Muhammad. What does it mean for me to be a Muslim, to declare that “Muhammad is the Messenger of God (محمد رسول الله)”? On this night, and tomorrow in the day, what will I do because of this belief? In 21st century America, in the midst of a global pandemic, why is this important?

I have never met the Prophet Muhammad, may Allah bless him and his family and grant them peace. As much as I have prayed for it, I have never seen him in my dreams, to answer my questions or give me specific directives for my life. But he is at the center of my life regardless. Is it not strange that someone whose face I have never seen has so much influence over me?

Growing up Christian, it was normal to imagine what Jesus, upon him peace, looked like. When I look at this picture, I am 100% certain that I am looking at Jesus:

Lord-Jesus

Sure, I get it that he was Jewish and that this picture is perhaps too light skinned, but I still know that I am looking at Jesus. No doubt. But show me any reverential painting or Persian miniature or caricature of the Prophet Muhammad, and I will not accept that it is him. It is just an image that exists in someone’s imagination. The only thing that is acceptable to me is his actual face. I trust I will know it when I see it. I really do not like listening to hadith descriptions of him, because it reminds me that I have never seen him. It is a literature of absence.

And yet, this man has more say over my life than anyone.

I never get to sleep in, ever, because he said to wake up at a certain time to pray.

I never get to drink Jack Daniels, ever, because he said to stop doing that.

I don’t get to just do what I want – I have to do what he has told me to do.

Before I was confined to my house by the orders of the governor, my egotistical self was confined by prophetic orders.

He wants me to honor the old people in my life, and be merciful to the youngsters. He told me to give my money away for the sake of others who need it more. He expects a lot, and sometimes it is really hard.

In short, he is like a father to me.

He is larger than life, and better than I can ever be.

He has made such a difference in so many people’s lives, so I sometimes wonder what I mean to him and where I fit in his life.

And for the last 20 years, I have tried as best I can to make him proud of me.

And so on this night I want to say to him that I hope you are proud of me, yā Rasūl Allāh.

I know that I have screwed up a lot, and that I am not as strong as I should be, but I am trying.

And tomorrow I will keep on trying.

I will wake up early to pray just like you want me to.

I will try to put others before myself as you have taught me.

I will remember that Allah has everything in control, just as Allah did at Khandaq when you were surrounded.

And I will carry on.

For every 27th of Rajab to come, I will carry your flag as best I can.

So when I can no longer walk with these legs

and my arms cannot carry your flag anymore

at the moment my days come to an end

please be there to carry me home

no matter how well I performed in comparison to others who love you too

for you will always be like a father to me

and I will always seek the safety of your embrace

hb_1998.268

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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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Now that we are approaching the middle of the month of Ramadan, it is a good time to candidly reflect.

Shaytan hasn’t whispered in our ear for almost two weeks, and our nafs ‘ammārah (selfishness) is weakened by the rigors of fasting. In the last third of the month, many of us like to disconnect and find more privacy, but before we do that, it is a good time to take stock of ourselves in relation to the wider community of which we are a part. If we can’t speak purely and clearly and honestly at this time of the year, then perhaps we should all live lives of silence.

For this reflection, I want to highlight the disunity of the Muslim community and one of its primary causes. Many otherwise pious Muslims have isolated themselves within imagined communities of sanctity and grace. Whether it is the Sufi who is at home in Istanbul and Abu Dhabi, or the Shi’i who shuttles between Qum and Karbala, or the Salafi who only finds comfort in Makkah and Madinah, we create boxes of who is “in” and who is “out” and only spend time with those we believe are “in.” We speak about how pious so and so is, how Shaykh such and such wrote some great text, and refuse, either through silence or avoidance or just plain ignorance, to engage the Other.

I have benefitted from Shaykh ibn Uthaymeen (one of the most respected Salafi scholars of the 20th century), from Shaykh Habib Ahmad Mashhur al-Haddad (one of the most respected Sufis of the 20th century), and Ayatollah Khomeini (one of the most respected Shi’is of the 20th century). More than that, I have benefitted from Thomas Merton (a famous Catholic monk of the 20th century), A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami (a famous Hindu monk of the 20th century), and Carl Sagan (a famous atheist astrophysicist of the 20th century). They are all “my teachers,” one way or another, and for their role in my life I am grateful, even though I never had the opportunity to meet any of them.

Deep down, I may have some sort of imagined hierarchy in my mind about who is “closest” and who is “farthest” from The Creator (al-Khāliq), The Originator (al-Bāri’), The Fashioner (al-Muṣawwir). But when I get real with God, I know that I don’t know. All I know with certainty is that God created them and us, and will perfectly assign all of us our next-worldly situations. All I know is that they are human beings who live on the planet Earth, I am a human being who lives on the same planet, and we are all going to die just like they already have. I have met good people who are absolutely convinced that one of them, or a group of them, are certainly better than the others. So much so that it would actually cause a type of physical discomfort to imagine that they might be wrong, and the person they see as misguided is actually the closest to God.

The fact of the matter is that each of us are bound by material conditions to act. And that imagined hierarchy is what determines, to a certain extent, how we choose to act. So if I think that so and so is the highest, I will try to emulate them, and if I think such and such is the lowest, I will avoid them. That is something we are bound to do, and The Merciful Benefactor (al-Rahmān) is not going to judge us for it. But we err when we unjustifiably make claims about “our teachers” that give them a status in eternity that they may not have. And we compound that error when we use that claim to set ourselves off from others in the belief that we are “in.”

I say this because I have seen really good people do it. As far as I can tell, it is a spiritual challenge especially for those who have committed themselves to serious study and practice of Islam. It often comes from people who, in the next breath, will say that they know nothing and everyone is better than them. But their actions speak louder than their words. It is very clear who they think is the salt of the earth, and that they are honored by their connections to them.

It is better to simply do our best and leave the rest to Allah. If you believe following Habib ‘Umar (a contemporary Sufi leader) is necessary for you to prepare for the Last Day, then Allah bless you and guide you. If you believe that following Ayatollah Sistani (a contemporary Shi’i leader) is the best way to emulate the Sunnah, then Allah bless you and guide you. If you believe that following Shaykh Salman al-Ouda (a contemporary Salafi leader) is the safest way to Allah, then Allah bless you and guide you. If you believe that Seyyed Hossein Nasr (a contemporary Perennialist leader) has it all figured out, then Allah bless you and guide you.

But just please please please don’t highlight your personally necessary choice of teachers in communal settings where it is not necessary. And please please please be willing to try something different. Try studying with someone else’s teacher. Read someone else’s books. Go on someone else’s pilgrimage tour. Speak in someone else’s masjid or summer program.

And if you are fearful of the repercussions of this, both in terms of income and reputation, ask yourself this – “Am I sincere enough with God that if I lost this position and no one listens to me anymore and I make no income from it, I will still carry on because I am doing it for God?”

If the answer is yes, then you have nothing to fear.

If the answer is no, then you shouldn’t be opening your mouth to teach Islam in the first place. Go get another job, and figure out your heart before you die.

When Musa came back from the mountain and grilled Harun for allowing the community to build the golden calf while he was absent, Harun said:

“I was afraid you would say, ‘You have caused division among the children of Israel!'” (20.93)

If a prophet himself was afraid of breaking up the community over idol worship, then what exactly are we afraid of by increasing our engagement with those Muslims who have different teachers than us as their sanad (link) to the Prophet Muhammad and wasīla (means) to understanding the Holy Qur’an?

اللهم صل على محمد و آل محمد

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Written for the 2nd Annual ICNYU Grand Mawlid

***

بسم الله الرحمان الرحيم

اللهم صل على محمد وآل محمد

السلام عليك يا رسول الله

my dear beloved Prophet

ّI was asked to write something for your birthday

how can a man like me speak about a man like you

the day you were born the heavens rejoiced

‘here is the greatest of creation

the culmination of all prophetic realities

after whom there will be no other’

whereas the day our mothers bore us

was just a day amidst other days

 

it is my honor to speak to you

to address you as our Prophet

may blessings and peace be upon you and your family

even though we have never seen you

for the last time we gathered here

one of your servants spoke of love

a love that comes spontaneously

because of the perfection of the beloved

and for a moment

he asked us to imagine that you walked into the room

 

my Lord!

 

all my life would not be equal

to the first moment my eyes were graced with beholding you

 

yā Rasūl Allāh

yā Ḥabīb Allāh

yā Muḥammad al-Muṣṭafā

 

I pray that blessings be showered upon you and your family

to the number of all things that Allah has created

from the first moment that time began throughout all contingent eternity

in every moment that you are denigrated by those who do not believe in you

and every moment you are disrespected by those who are not humble before you

and every moment you are forgotten by those who obey you

and in every moment of reverence filling the hearts of those who love you

 

our Prophet

pray for our forgiveness!

وَمَا أَرْسَلْنَا مِن رَّسُولٍ إِلَّا لِيُطَاعَ بِإِذْنِ اللَّهِ وَلَوْ أَنَّهُمْ إِذ ظَّلَمُوا أَنفُسَهُمْ جَاءُوكَ فَاسْتَغْفَرُوا اللَّهَ وَاسْتَغْفَرَ لَهُمُ الرَّسُولُ لَوَجَدُوا اللَّهَ تَوَّابًا رَّحِيمًا

We did not send any apostle but to be obeyed by Allah’s leave. Had they, when they wronged themselves, come to you and pleaded to Allah for forgiveness, and the Apostle had pleaded for forgiveness for them, they would have surely found Allah all-clement, all-merciful.

we are all in need of forgiveness

every single one of us!

and sin is nothing other than falling short of your perfection

as a worshipper of God

and a servant to God’s creation

and so who better to lift us up towards a higher state

than you

 

from sin to obedience

from obedience to cautiousness

from cautiousness to detachment

from detachment to never forgetting our Lord

 

steps and stairs and stations

pathways of ascent

to drops from oceans

gathered in you

 

your perfection is not increased by our obedience

it was there before we were born

and will remain after we are buried in the ground

so come to us

in our graves

if the darkness of our hearts should make us fear there

then by the light of your presence give us hope

for every prayer we make in New York City

every fast we undertake during 2017

every American dollar we give as zakat, khums, and sadaqa

every turning away from something haram

every attempt to understand and act upon ethical ideals

every whispered prayer of longing hope to our Creator

is nothing but us collectively expressing

that we want to be like you

 

and so we gather to remember you

to talk to you

to speak about you

and to imagine what it would be like

if you walked in the door

and the tears began to pour

and our hearts burst inside our chests

as we became lost in a love

greater than what we feel for our parents

our spouses

our children

and even our own selves

اللهم صل على محمد وآل محمد

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I am afraid to write these words. Words mean very little. Realities are what matter. I know I can write the words, but can I live the reality?

According to the world population clock, there are currently over 7.5 billion human souls in bodies on Earth. That number increases every day. The world population is divided up amongst the 193 member nations of the UN. Almost 1.4 billions souls in the People’s Republic of China. A little over 323 million in my own country, the United States of America.

And yet, there are approximately 10,000,000 who are not given a home within this system.

I would not have faced this reality without the current media coverage about the genocide of the Rohingya. Where are hundreds of thousands of people going to go after being gang raped, watching their family members shot before their eyes, and losing everything as the Burmese military burns entire villages to the ground? The People’s Republic of Bangladesh, The Kingdom of Thailand, and The Federation of Malaysia – three nearby nations with significant Rohingya refugee populations – have not offered to make them citizens. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran have not offered them asylum, even as they vie to be “leaders” of the Muslim world.

Alhamdulillah, for all of my country’s flaws, over 5000 have been welcomed here. They have even established a small community organization in Chicago, my hometown, where they are mobilizing on behalf of those abroad. Insha’Allah, more of them will come in the years ahead. It is my duty to be of service to them in whatever way I can. Those who have made it here are best poised to help their friends and relatives, whom they will never forget for the rest of their lives, long after the world forgets them. I cannot change the world, but I can intend to change my self for the sake of Allah by committing to assist them.

It is reported in Sunni hadith collections that the Prophet, blessings and peace be upon him and his family, said:

ازْهَدْ فِي الدُّنْيَا يُحِبَّك اللهُ، وَازْهَدْ فِيمَا عِنْدَ النَّاسِ يُحِبَّك النَّاسُ

Be unattached to the world and Allah will love you. Be unattached to what other people have, and people will love you.

And it is reported in Shi’i sources something similar:

إِرْغَبْ فِيمَا عِنْدَ اللٌّهِ يُحِبُّكَ اللٌّهُ، وَ ازْهَدْ مَا فِي أَيْدِي النَّاسِ يُحِبُّكَ النَّاسُ

Actively seek that which is in the presence of Allah so that Allah will love you; keep away from that which is in the hands of the people so that the people will have love for you.

The word that is translated as “being unattached” or “keeping away from” is zuhd (زهد). Now is the time when zuhd must become central to our lives. To give up our need for this world and what other people have, because there are so many who literally have nothing but memories of their loved ones’ brutal deaths. This world is already a dystopia, and the only way we make it livable is to be people of zuhd. The vast majority of Rohingya have nowhere to go simply because no one is willing to take them in and share with them what they have. The Qur’an speaks directly of this spiritual challenge in Surah al-Balad:

فَلَا اقْتَحَمَ الْعَقَبَةَ

وَمَا أَدْرَاكَ مَا الْعَقَبَةُ

فَكُّ رَقَبَةٍ

أَوْ إِطْعَامٌ فِي يَوْمٍ ذِي مَسْغَبَةٍ

يَتِيمًا ذَا مَقْرَبَةٍ

أَوْ مِسْكِينًا ذَا مَتْرَبَةٍ

Yet he has not embarked upon the uphill task. And what will show you what is the uphill task? [It is] the freeing of a slave, or feeding [the needy] on a day of starvation, or an orphan among relatives, or a needy man in desolation,

If it is a “day of starvation,” most likely you are hungry too. It is not easy to share what you have in such a situation. But that is what we must do. It is not a false ideal – it is a Qur’anic description of the righteous.

I have met no scholar nor activist nor mystic yet who is more worthy of the decent life they are already living than the Rohingya that are mentioned in the news stories. This includes myself – God may ask me at any moment about the luxury that I drown in every day. The only way forward is to do something – to recognize that whoever you are, God may ask you about the Rohingya and what you did once you knew. As Imam Khalid Latif said the other night at NYU after returning from Bangladesh, “The world is killing these people. We are killing these people.” I know Khalid personally, and I know that he traveled halfway across the world to raise money for relief aid because it deeply pains him that this tragedy can happen. Ali Yusufali from the Orlando area has been there multiple times, and his organization Comfort Aid International is taking responsibility for 100 orphans for the next two years in addition to providing emergency aid. I learned that an old friend, Dr. Imran Akbar, has already been working with the Rohingya in Chicago, and even traveled to Bangladesh to set up a medical clinic and connect with some of the relatives there of those who have made it to Chicago.

This is the inspiration we all need – to know that serving other people that you never knew before on the other side of the world is not only possible, but something we must do. To use one’s privileges in the service of others, as opposed to the service of one’s self. To give up our worries about what my job will be, who my spouse will be, who my friends are, where will live, and every other manifestation of the ego that keeps us from reaching states and stations more like our spiritual exemplars, upon them peace. Could we imagine Musa, upon him peace, going on with his life while this is happening? Could we imagine ‘Isa, upon him peace, saying that it was acceptable to just give a few dollars and then go back to thinking that the world is okay?

Sure, we all want things. I want so much, I could live “a thousand lives” on this Earth before getting bored. I even dream about lives in space. But maybe in a world where a storefront community center is trying to stop the genocide of hundreds of thousands, we need to stop thinking about what we want and instead reorient our lives to think about what we can give. That is how we might attain something of zuhd, as an attempt at an adequate response to a world that abandons so many.

The Generous has granted us so much. The Earth is full of land and resources. But our short-sighted selfishness has turned it into a nightmare for millions.

ظَهَرَ الْفَسَادُ فِي الْبَرِّ وَالْبَحْرِ بِمَا كَسَبَتْ أَيْدِي النَّاسِ لِيُذِيقَهُم بَعْضَ الَّذِي عَمِلُوا لَعَلَّهُمْ يَرْجِعُونَ

Corruption has flourished on land and sea as a result of people’s actions and He will make them taste the consequences of some of their own actions so that they may turn back

Knowing what is happening is a catalyst for repentance. If it hurts you to look at the pictures and hear the stories of the Rohingya, then imagine how much harder it is to endure what is actually happening. Consider Rajuma. The journalist who interviewed her stated, “So I started thinking: If we don’t cover this, that’s even worse. That would be a further injustice, a further insult to the Rohingya’s humanity. It would be like telling Rajuma that the world couldn’t be bothered about what she suffered.” And this was how he described his encounter with her:

But as she reached the end of her horrible testimony, Rajuma broke down.

“I can’t explain how hard it hurts,” she said, tears rolling off her cheeks, “to no longer hear my son call me ma.”

She hunched over on a plastic stool in another family’s hut, covered her mouth with a red veil and started sobbing so hard she could barely breathe.

Every thing I have ever learned in my life about empathy, both personally and professionally as a chaplain, is being put to the test. Every word I have written on this blog is coming to the fore.  The sincerity of my search to be on the side of the Just and Merciful is on the line, and my standing before the Judge is right before my eyes. But the whole point is that it is not about me. It is about Rajuma. It is about Nasir. It is about the tens of thousands of Rohingya living in Karachi without official recognition. It is about all the unique souls with a name and story, most of which I will never know.

But I want to know. And I want to help. I am taking steps, and maybe these words are just a small step that will lead to something greater. Maybe I will be able to live these realities as opposed to just talking about them. So that maybe, just maybe, the Divine Justice that is in wait for allowing this corruption to flourish will spare me because I “turned back.” And perhaps, the Guide will connect me with those about whom these verses were revealed:

وَيُطْعِمُونَ الطَّعَامَ عَلَىٰ حُبِّهِ مِسْكِينًا وَيَتِيمًا وَأَسِيرًا

إِنَّمَا نُطْعِمُكُمْ لِوَجْهِ اللَّهِ لَا نُرِيدُ مِنكُمْ جَزَاءً وَلَا شُكُورًا

إِنَّا نَخَافُ مِن رَّبِّنَا يَوْمًا عَبُوسًا قَمْطَرِيرًا

فَوَقَاهُمُ اللَّهُ شَرَّ ذَ‌ٰلِكَ الْيَوْمِ وَلَقَّاهُمْ نَضْرَةً وَسُرُورًا

They give food, for the love of Him, to the needy, the orphan and the prisoner saying, ‘We feed you only for the sake of Allah. We do not want any reward from you nor any thanks. Indeed we fear from our Lord a day, frowning and fateful.’ So Allah saved them from the ills of that day, and granted them freshness and joy.

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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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You are the One who created my grandfather Adam and brought him to Earth

You drowned all the unbelievers of Noah’s time

You made fire cool for Abraham

You split the sea for Moses

You revived the dead for Jesus

and You gave victory to Muhammad over the entire Arabian peninsula

and spread Your Book through him to every corner of the world

Dearest God!

I am one of the believers in You

and in Your prophets

peace be upon them all

and in the Life that You have promised after our earthly death

make me from the people of the Garden

in the company of the Prophets of days gone past

and save me from the Fire

which most of humanity takes for a joke

we bear witness to this

publicly and privately

and strive to implement it as best we understand

please forgive us our ignorance and doubts and confusions and misunderstandings

please wipe away the sins from our records and protect us from ever returning to them

please inspire faith in the hearts of all of our families and friends

for we are all Your servants

created by You

manifested into this cosmos by a Will other than our own will

subject to ups and downs by a Wisdom other than our own wisdom

and we submit to You in Islam

following Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad

may Your peace be upon them all

always

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For the Sunni, to question the Sahaba is to question the transmission of Islam to the following generations.

For the Imami Shi’i, to question the Imams is to question the transmission of Islam to the following generations.

Each community is passionately concerned about the preservation of the religion of Muhammad, blessings and peace be upon him and his family. But each has a different historiographical vision of how that happened.

For the Sunni, the political consolidation of the nascent empire under Abu Bakr/’Umar/’Uthman, the introduction of unified communal Ramadan prayers by ‘Umar, the codification of the Qur’an by ‘Uthman, and other such events are crucial to ensuring Islam’s survival.

For the Shi’i, each one of those situations is a slip away from prophetic guidance. ‘Ali was the best to lead in political matters. ‘Ali rejected ‘Umar’s innovation in matters of worship. ‘Ali was the most learned in the Qur’an and engaged in his own process of ensuring the integrity of the Qur’anic text, and so on.

The Shi’i hadith literature puts all guidance in the mouths and actions of the Imams. The role of the Sahaba and later generations is simply to support and learn from the Imam of their time. The Sunni hadith literature puts all guidance in the mouths of the Sahaba, as transmitters of the words/actions/approvals of the Prophet, upon him and his family be blessings and peace. As such, the Imams are just a few of the many righteous teachers from the early generations.

Later scholarly attempts to systematize the religion are built on this foundation. In Sunnism, something of the law is taken from this route, something of theology is taken from another route, and something of spirituality is taken from yet another route. For Imami Shi’ism, everything is taken from the Imams – law, theology, and spirituality.

Until one understands this, one can never begin to understand the Other.

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In the Name of Allah, the All-Merciful, The Mercy Giving
All praise is due to Allah, the Lord of all realms
And may blessings and peace be upon the Messenger of Allah and his family

How likely is it that an Ivy League student who is the son of a former CEO of an investment bank converts to Islam and studies regularly in an inner-city masjid with an African-American Imam who studied Islam for many years in Karachi, Pakistan? Not likely, but that is what happened.

Imam Abdul Hameed was my first teacher of Islam, and my first role model of a good Muslim. He was the Imam of Masjid al-Kareem in Providence, Rhode Island, as well as the state’s only full-time Muslim prison chaplain. He taught me how to read the Qur’anic text, the foundations of Arabic, basic fiqh of purity and prayer, and much more. He passed away on July 25th, 2015.

This short work is meant to benefit him in the barzakh – the intermediate stage of existence between the life we are living in now and the Day of Judgement. From hadith we learn that those in the barzakh can still benefit spiritually from the actions of those who are still on Earth. The spread of beneficial knowledge is specifically mentioned in that regard. Because Imam Abdul Hameed was my first teacher and role model, it is not far-fetched to think that this post can be beneficial knowledge that he has spread, since everything I learned subsequently rested on the foundation that he laid, by Allah’s permission.

But even more than that, I have chosen what I have chosen because before I left to attend his janaza, I thought, “I want to read a book that will be true to what he taught me in word and deed, so that his teaching can extend beyond his death.” And the book that came to my mind was a short collection of hadith entitled “The Reality of Worldly Life.” All of the hadith mentioned here are from that book, which was published in Pakistan, where Imam Abdul Hameed had studied for many years.

Up until his death, Imam Abdul Hameed was always there for me when I needed him to be, starting from my very first few days as a Muslim. I want to be there for him now. May the Most Generous Lord, who rewards us for the little that we do, accept this as a sadaqa jariya that benefits Imam Abdul Hameed from now until the Day he is raised again, ameen. Ya Jami’ (The One who brings together), You brought us together, and You caused us to part, and so bring us together again in the company of the one whose teachings we studied and implemented together, may Your blessings and peace be upon him and his family, ameen.

R. David Coolidge and Imam Abdul Hameed at Masjid al-Kareem (2013)

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Contentment

“The successful person is the one who enters Islam, is given that which is sufficient, and is content with that which s/he has been given.”

Reflection

Imam Abdul Hameed was a simple man. He prayed, read Qur’an, taught the inmates at the prison, led the Friday congregation at Masjid al-Kareem, and served the Muslims of Rhode Island. He lived in various small apartments with his wife and two sons. He always seemed to me to be perfectly content with his role in the world.

I, on the other hand, had an upbringing that was characterized by wealth, and an overabundance of opportunities. What do I want to do with my life? Who am I? What is my identity? How do I make sense out of the complexity of the Islamic tradition? So many questions, many born of a privileged lifestyle, and not a lot of action.

When I reflect on why Allah decreed Imam Abdul Hameed to be my first teacher, and I think this hadith gets right to it. With what he was given, he was content, because he was simply interested in striving to be a good Muslim. Every memory I have of him is filled with dhikr and obedience to the shari’ah. When I was graduating from Brown University, one of the most elite higher education institutions in the world, I would daydream about staying in Providence and worshipping my Lord under the leadership of Imam Abdul Hameed. That did not work out, and I subsequently learned that I have to follow my own path. I cannot be Imam Abdul Hameed, for I am not a black man from Brooklyn who studied for many years in a Deobandi madrasa in Pakistan and led an inner-city masjid. I am a white man who grew up in the suburbs of Chicago who got an MA in Islamic Studies and was a chaplain at Ivy League universities. But Imam Abdul Hameed’s example was universal – worship your Lord the best you can with what you have been given, and leave the rest up to Allah.

 

What Really Matters

“Three things follow a dead body to the grave: two go away, and one stays. One’s family, wealth, and actions follow; family and wealth go away, but the actions stay.”

Reflection

I attended Imam Abdul Hameed’s janaza prayer and burial. It was a beautiful experience. Hundreds of people who had been positively impacted by him were there, making du’a. His actions and words guided so many people, including myself. Indeed, the gathering was a witness to all the good he did.

He did not have a large family, nor abundant wealth, but that did not hinder his success. How much fasting he did! How much recitation of Qur’an he did! How many people he taught to pray! It is hard for me to imagine him receiving anything but enormous blessings from Allah. Compared to him, many of the elites of our country are truly impoverished and without opportunity.

 

True Freedom

“Son of Adam! Free yourself for My worship, and I will fill your heart with freedom from want, and protect you from poverty. If you do not, I will keep you busy working and not protect you from poverty.”

Reflection

When I think of Imam Abdul Hameed, I think of him sitting in the masjid, reading Qur’an before the prayer. I think of him showing me Nayl al-Awtar by Imam al-Shawkani from off his bookshelf. I think of him making du’a regularly to be saved from the punishment of the grave. I think of him as a man at ease in the constant worship of his Lord. He had no need for anything else, other than what he needed to take care of his family and improve the community.

 

Priorities

“All spending on the sustenance of one’s life is like spending in the way of Allah, except building things in which there is no good”

Reflection

I think Imam Abdul Hameed put more effort into maintaining, improving and expanding Masjid al-Kareem than he did his own personal comforts. He had a palpable happiness when we talked about all the improvements that they were able to make, and never expressed to me discomfort due to the endless need to fundraise. All he wanted was for people to give so that everyone could benefit. And we did benefit, enormously.

 

The Fullness of Love

“Be unattached to the world, and Allah will love you. Be unattached to what people have, and people will love you.”

Reflection

Imam Abdul Hameed was beloved by many, and I think it was because he was free from needing others to be something for him. He wanted them to give to the masjid, to contribute to the community, and encouraged them to follow Islam. But if they didn’t, he was still there in the masjid, doing what he did. People came and went, and sometimes we would reminisce about a brother who was around for a while, and then disappeared. But it didn’t bother him. He led by example, and it was up to everyone’s conscience to decide if they were going to follow or not.

He didn’t like it when people fought with each other, and we had many conversations about this. He wanted to bring people to together, but didn’t want to force it either. He once remarked to me that he believed that being involved in the affairs of the community, despite the drama that it entails, was more beloved to Allah than isolating himself for spiritual reasons. This conversation happened at a time of particularly intense intra-community drama. So it was no wonder to me how so many people were there to pray over him and lower him into his grave.

We often think about our love for Allah, but this hadith talks about Allah’s love for us. Imam Abdul Hameed’s only concern was living and teaching Islam. He once spoke fondly of being in Makkah when he was younger and sleeping on rooftops under the stars. This world was not his home – it was just a place he was passing through on the way to what he really wanted. May Allah grant it to him by His Mercy, ameen!

The grave of Imam Abdul Hameed, 2015

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