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Archive for the ‘Ahl al-Sunna’ Category

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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bismillah al-Rahman al-Raheem

Dear Messenger of Allah,

al-salam ‘alaykum wa rahma Allah. May Allah send blessings and peace upon you and your family.

Perhaps you already know everything I am about to say. Perhaps Allah has informed you of my situation, and you are already making du’a on my behalf. But I want to talk to you directly, and so I am writing you this letter. I hope that it reaches you, with Allah’s permission.

I believe in you, even though I have never met you. For over 17 years, I have called myself a “Muslim” because I believe that you and your followers called yourselves Muslims. In Ramadan, I fast because I believe that you told us that God wanted us to do it. Every day I pray facing the Ka’ba in Makkah because I believe you told us that doing so would connect us to the Truth. My parents think it is all a bit strange, and mostly a waste of time and energy, but they ultimately respect my decision. Please pray to Allah to grant them faith. It seems impossible to me – that they would believe in you the way that I do – but I know that Allah can do all things, and guides whomsoever Allah wills. Alhamdulillah, I have been blessed with a Muslim wife, Sumaiya, and we have a son Zayn. My intention is for us to raise him up as a great follower of you, insha’Allah. Please make du’a that we are granted tawfiq as Muslim parents.

I know that you are aware that there is a lot that the Muslims who are living now disagree about, and they often kill each other because of those disagreements. I hate this, Messenger of Allah, I really do. I don’t want to kill any human being without right. How could I want that, when you taught us so emphatically that a life can only be taken “rightfully (illa bi’l-haqq)”?! Yet today, I fear for my life in the company of many Muslims – indeed, I am sure that there are many who would judge me worthy of death for simply writing this letter to you! Even when I visit you in Madinah, they stare at us as if we are hovering between faith and disbelief. They are just waiting to pounce on us for calling out to you. At the head of them is the group that calls themselves “the Islamic State.” I believe that you want us to fight them. It is not just my understanding, it is the understanding of two of the most respected living scholars of your message, both of whom are from your descendants: Shaykh Muhammad al-Yaqoubi of Syria, and Ayatollah al-Sistani of Iraq.

Ya Rasul Allah, this is my belief. I do not want to fight other Muslims, but in my heart of hearts, I believe ISIS must be fought in accordance with the Qur’anic command: “fight the one which aggresses until it returns to Allah’s command.” When I look at the example of the one whom you and Khadija helped raise, Ali b. Abi Talib, I see that he fought the Khawarij even though they were Muslim. It is his example that helps me see your teachings in the midst of confusion. I know of not one example where ‘Ali did something to displease you, and so it is inconceivable to me that he would displease you by laying waste to the rebels of Nahrawan.

I try to focus on you, may Allah grant you and your family blessings and peace. You are the one who changed my life, ya Habeeb Allah! You are the one who made a critical intervention in human history that led to me fasting and praying 1400 years later in a country called the United States, ya Mustafa! But I also cannot see you without also seeing your family, may blessings and peace be upon you and your family. If there is any statement that is attributed to you that I believe with absolute certainty you said, it is hadith al-thaqalayn.

“O people! Indeed, I have left among you, that which if you hold fast to it, you shall not go astray: the book of Allah and my family, the people of my house.”

This hadith is agreed upon by both the Sunni and the Shi’i hadith scholars. As such, it is not a surprise to me that both Sunni and Shi’i ‘ulama who are descended from you through ‘Ali and Fatima agree that ISIS should be fought. It is not a coincidence to me that an ‘alim from my country must rely upon a statement attributed to ‘Ali to enlighten us regarding the “Crisis of ISIS.” And we know from ISIS’ behavior already that they would love to destroy the maqam of ‘Ali in Najaf and that of your grandson in Karbala, and spill the blood of whoever makes ziyara there. And yet, many who claim to represent your teachings hesitate or remain silent about the fight against ISIS. This makes no sense to me, and seems like a grave injustice masquerading as a false claim of mercy.

This weighs on me, my master, and that is why I am writing to you. I understand intellectually many of the differences in usul al-fiqh, ‘ulum al-hadith, and tafsir that undergird the differing perspectives of those who interpret your teachings. And I understand a lot of the historical, cultural, and political reasons Muslims have split apart into competing traditions. But none of that seems like a justification at this point. Do those who do not advocate fighting think ISIS is just going to lay down their arms? I am simply trying to follow you so that the Lord who sent you will love me and forgive me my sins. I am nothing but a Muslim who is interested in what will benefit me in this world and the next, wherever it is found. But in doing so, I believe in a position that others turn away from. And so I appeal directly to you, out of the fear that I would be spilling blood unjustly. Usually, I find solace in matters that virtually your entire Ummah agrees upon, such as Husayn being one of the masters of Heaven. But in this case, there is real dissension in the Ummah. From what I understand, there are those who believe we must fight (such as al-Yaqoubi and al-Sistani), those who believe in pacifism until the time of al-Mahdi (such as the Ba ‘Alawi sayyids), those who are not pacifists but do not publicly advocate for this particular fight (many Sunni ‘ulama), and those who are actually attracted to the evil of ISIS. I am firmly with the first group, believing that if you were here, you would mobilize your entire Ummah to crush ISIS.

Please pray for my forgiveness, O Messenger of Allah, and ask your Lord to guide me to being a true follower of you, inwardly and outwardly, publicly and privately, in knowledge, deed, and state. If I have erred in my understanding of what it means to obey you, then correct me through the means that Allah has put at your disposal. It is upon Allah that I rely in all of my affairs, but Allah has turned the direction of my heart in your direction, teaching me that obedience to you is the same as obedience to Allah. And how can I obey you if I do not know you? How can I know you if I cannot communicate with you? How badly I want you to come and sit with me and console me in this time of fitna! But our Lord has decreed that I would live in a time when you were not here in the flesh to settle the differences between the Muslims – a time when everyone would invoke your name on behalf of their opinion, including me – and I cannot but embrace our Lord’s decree. You are our leader – the one who was sent to bring us out of darknesses into Light! – and so I sit at home with my family, praying for victory over ISIS, believing that you have commanded it, upon orders from the Most Merciful of those who show mercy.

one of your billions of followers,

R. David Coolidge

2nd Rabi’ al-Thani, 1437

New York City

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The usual combination of saying subhan Allah and alhumdulillah and Allahu akbar has a meaning that many overlook.

Subhan Allah means that Allah is completely different from the material creation. It is often translated simply as “Glorified is Allah.” Theologically, it is connected to tanzih, which is to make a thorough distinction between Allah and the creation. Allah is exalted above any comparison to the creation.

On the other hand, alhamdulillah – often translated as “all praise is due to Allah” – is theologically related to the opposite of tanzih, which is tashbihTashbih is to compare Allah to the creation for the sake of understanding something about Allah. For example, we talk about the “mercy” of a mother and the “Mercy” of Allah, and we say that Allah’s mercy is far greater than the mercy of mother (as is stated in many hadith). So when we have a good meal, we say alhamdulillah because we recognize that ultimately it is Allah who has given it to us. In some way, it is from Allah and so we attribute its praiseworthiness to its Owner.

Tashbih and tanzih form a dialectic, a back and forth that creates mental and emotional movement. We know that Allah is not the deliciousness of food nor the beauty of a sunset, and yet we enjoy food and sunsets as reflections of Allah in some way. When we recognize that Allah is distinct from the world, we say subhan Allah and when we see Allah’s presence in something we say alhamdulillah.

Allahu akbar breaks the dialectic – it affirms that Allah is greater than both tanzih and tashbih. Allah is beyond all dialectics and dualities. The Reality of the Real (al-Haqq) is greater than any conception we can form of Reality. Allah is both intimately connected to and transcendentally disconnected from that which is not Allah in the greatest of ways. Allahu akbar.

All three are true, and saying them together complements each other and leads one closer to that which all three phrases have in common: الله

سبحان الله الحمد لله الله أكبر

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اللهم صل على سيدنا محمد و آله و سلم

27th Ramaḍān, 1436 AH

Indeed, We sent [the Qur’ān] down during the Night of Decree.
And what can make you know what is the Night of Decree?
The Night of Decree is better than a thousand months.
The angels and the Spirit descend therein by permission of their Lord for every matter.
Peace it is until the emergence of dawn.

I have never met an angel, never felt an angel’s presence, nor do I think I truly understand their importance – but I believe in them nonetheless, because Allah and the Messenger of Allah (blessings and peace be upon him and his family) have informed me of their existence.

Those who lived in the Prophetic era didn’t see them in their angelic forms either – even though Muhammad’s prophethood was predicated on his claim that he was regularly meeting with the archangel Gabriel (Jibrīl) – so I don’t take my not seeing them as a bad sign. As the Qur’ān states:

“O you who believe, remember Allah‘s favor to you, when the forces (of the disbelievers) came upon you, and We sent upon them a wind, and the forces (of angels) you did not see. Allah is watchful of whatever you do.” (Qur’ān, 33.9)

Contrast that with verses where they are seen by normal human beings:

“Those who do not fear to meet Us say, ‘Why are the angels not sent down to us?’ or ‘Why can we not see our Lord?’ They are too proud of themselves and too insolent. There will be no good news for the guilty on the Day they see the angels. The angels will say, ‘You cannot cross the forbidden barrier,’ and We shall turn to the deeds they have done and scatter them like dust.” (21.23)

So I recognize that not seeing them is a test of faith, however much that must enrage the pure materialist. There is no empirical means to access the angelic realm – at no point in human history will a brilliant PhD from Oxford discover a mathematical proof for the existence of angels that leads a research team with billions of dollars in funding to develop a piece of technology that allows humans to observe angels at work. Such a storyline might work in Hollywood, but it is impossible in the real world. But as the Qur’an states,

“…If you could only see the wicked in their death agonies, as the angels stretch out their hands [to them], saying, ‘Give up your souls. Today you will be repaid with a humiliating punishment for saying false things about God and for arrogantly rejecting His revelations.’” (6.93)

So maybe the skeptical mind should not be too quick to see an angel – they might not like what they see staring back at them.

The inclusion of belief in angels in the following verse, which has been a personal source of guidance for many years, is enough to prove their importance to me:

“Goodness does not consist in turning your face towards East or West. The truly good are those who believe in God and the Last Day, in the angels, the Scripture, and the prophets; who give away some of their wealth, however much they cherish it, to their relatives, to orphans, the needy, travellers and beggars, and to liberate those in bondage; those who keep up the prayer and pay the prescribed alms; who keep pledges whenever they make them; who are steadfast in misfortune, adversity, and times of danger. These are the ones who are true, and it is they who are aware of God.” (Qur’ān 2.177)

God has mentioned the angels along with other obvious fundamentals of sound faith and righteous action, and so we do not deny them. But how can we get a better understanding of angels?

Perhaps we can reflect on two verses of the Qur’ān:

“Say [Prophet], ‘If anyone is an enemy of Gabriel – who by God’s leave brought down the Quran to your heart confirming previous scriptures as a guide and good news for the faithful – if anyone is an enemy of God, His angels and His messengers, of Gabriel and Michael, then God is certainly the enemy of such disbelievers.'” (2.97-8)

God speaks of the enemies of the angels. Some scholarly commentaries on the Qur’ān mention incidents that happened in the time of the Prophet (blessings and peace be upon him and his family), but let us first explore some general meanings. First, to actively disbelieve in the angels likely means to be their enemy. Secondly, to deny the role that they have played in the revelations from God to humanity is likely to take them as an enemy. Thirdly, to interpret them away as some force of nature, and not as the created beings whom God has named quite explicitly as Gabriel and Michael (Mīkāl) is more likely to take them as enemies. Lastly, to believe that the angel is your enemy is to take them as an enemy, which was actually the story behind the verse. There were people in the Prophetic era who considered Gabriel to be their enemy. The following story is related in the classical Qur’an commentary Asbāb al-Nuzūl by al-Wāḥidī (d. 1075):

“The Jews came to the Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace, and said: ‘O Abu’l-Qasim! We would like to ask you about a few things; we shall follow you if you answer them. Who, among the angels, comes to you? For there is not a single prophet except that an angel comes to him with a message and revelation from his Lord, glorified and majestic, so who is the angel who comes to you?’ He said: ‘it is Gabriel’. They said: ‘That is the one who comes down with war and fighting. He is our enemy. If you had said: Michael, who comes down with rain and mercy, we would have followed you’.”

Angels were part of the beliefs of the followers of Moses (upon him peace) and Jesus (upon him peace), and they show up repeatedly in the Bible. Islam affirmed that general teaching, but also clarified various misconceptions. For example, in Islam, there is no concept of a “Fallen Angel,” for angels by their very nature cannot disobey God. And just as angels supported previous prophets, such as the angels that rescued the Prophet Lot (upon him peace) from Sodom and Gomorrah, so too did angels play an important role in the mission of Muhammad (blessings and peace be upon him and his family). For example, they fought with the Muslims at the Battle of Badr:

“God helped you at Badr when you were very weak. Be mindful of God, so that you may be grateful. Remember when you said to the believers, ‘Will you be satisfied if your Lord reinforces you by sending down three thousand angels? Well, if you are steadfast and mindful of God, your Lord will reinforce you with five thousand swooping angels if the enemy should suddenly attack you!’ and God arranged it so.” (3.123-5)

Importantly, there is no indication that angelic support has been removed from the Islamic community, so many centuries later. Our natural spiritual desire is to want knowledge about angelic support that we can rely upon. So when we look at the narrations from the Messenger of Allah (blessings and peace be upon him and his family), we see various situations when the angels come to help and pray for those who believe in them:

  1. Seeking beneficial knowledge
  2. Sitting and waiting for prayer while in a state of ritual purity
  3. Fasting while others are eating nearby
  4. Visiting those who are sick
  5. Making du’a for someone who is absent
  6. Gathering to remember Allah

The reality is that the angels are there to support and comfort us on the path towards the Truth. Struggling for the sake of what is right can often feel like a lonely road, but if one remembers that the angels surround the person struggling for good, then one finds a sense of tranquility. The following verses reminds us of the angels’ concern for us:

“Those [angels] who carry the Throne and those around it exalt [Allah] with praise of their Lord and believe in Him and ask forgiveness for those who have believed: ‘Our Lord, You have encompassed all things in mercy and knowledge, so forgive those who have repented and followed Your way and protect them from the punishment of Hellfire. Our Lord, admit them to gardens of perpetual residence which You have promised them and whoever was righteous among their fathers, their spouses and their offspring. Indeed, it is You Who is the Exalted in Might, the Wise. And protect them from the evil consequences [of their deeds]. And he whom You protect from evil consequences that Day – You will have given him mercy. And that is the great attainment.'” (40.7-9)

Angels are Allah’s creation, and they obey the command of their Lord. And yet, the angels would seem like “demigods” to the masses of humanity. Their power and influence in the world, the reported nature of their size and appearance – all of these, if truly grasped, strike awe in the heart of the human being. People worship, serve and sacrifice to imaginary beings that are far less majestic than angels, and yet it is a remarkable testimony to the Muslim understanding of monotheism (tawḥīd) that we never consider angels as anything other than God’s loyal servants. There are some in human history who have worshipped the angels, believing that their immense power means that they have the inherent power to benefit or harm us. But the reality is that they do only what they are commanded. They have no inherent power, but rather all power and might and glory belongs to Allah alone, Who is the Creator of the angels. When we remember that, we feel the brotherhood of creation with the angels. They are different from us, and yet we serve the same Master.

The recitation of the Qur’ān reminds us of the centrality of the angels, for it is Gabriel “who by God’s leave brought down the Quran to [Muhammad’s] heart confirming previous scriptures as a guide and good news for the faithful.” We believe that the Angel Gabriel came in Ramadan to review the Qur’an with the Messenger of Allah (blessings and peace be upon him and his family), acting not simply as medium of revelation, but also a teacher.

“The Prophet was the most generous of all the people, and he used to become more generous in Ramadan when Gabriel met him. Gabriel used to meet him every night during Ramadan to revise the Qur’an with him. Allah’s Messenger then used to be more generous than a free flowing wind.”

When the Messenger of Allah (blessings and peace be upon him and his family) was absorbed in the Qur’ān, the delights of this world were nothing and could be easily given away as an additional act of worship. This is profound, especially when we remember that another fundamental act of worship tied to the prophetic reality, the salawat, also leads us to the same realization. As the Qur’ān states:

“Allah and His angels send blessings on the Prophet: O you that believe! Send blessings on him, and salute him with all respect.” (33.56)

After that, we send blessings upon the Prophet, and in turn the angels ask for blessings on us, as the hadith states:

“There is no person who sends blessings on me, but the angels send blessings on him so long as he sends blessings on me. So let a person do a little of that or a lot.”

It is a cycle of blessing, and another manifestation of the mercy of Allah that is built into the world. The Messenger is mercy, and recitation of the Qur’ān and sending salawat increases us in that connection with mercy!

Even though we have not met the angels face to face in this world, we will meet them in the next life without a doubt. There are many different angels that Allah and His Messenger (blessings and peace be upon him and his family) have informed us about, but perhaps the most important to mention at the end of this writing are the two angels who will meet us at our end: Munkar and Nakīr. Both Sunnī and Shi‘ī theologians state that everyone who dies is questioned in their grave by these two angels. It is reported that they ask three questions:

Who is your Lord?

What is your religion?

What do you say about the messenger that was sent to you?

So in closing, I remind myself and anyone who reads this to should remember these three questions whenever we hear talk of angels, and think about how we will respond to these questions when Munkar and Nakīr come to meet us in our graves. If our lives are filled with faith and good deeds, we hope that Allah will give us to the strength to sincerely reply:

Allah is my Lord (Allāhu rabbī)

Islam is my religion (al-Islāmu dīnī)

Muhammad is my Prophet! (Muhammadun nabīyī)

اللهم صل على سيدنا محمد و آله و سلم

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