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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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People talk way too much about what they are against, or about what people shouldn’t do. That strikes me as a weird way to be, whether from a secular or religious perspective. Life is short, so it seems better to make the most of what we are given. With that in mind, here is my list of the top 20 things to do before we die!

  1. Read the Qur’an
  2. Read the biography of the Prophet, blessings and peace upon him and his family
  3. Pray 5 times a day
  4. Fast Ramadan
  5. Pay Zakat
  6. Make Hajj
  7. Say Subhan Allah regularly
  8. Say Alhamdulillah regularly
  9. Say La ilaha ill Allah regularly
  10. Say Allahu akbar regularly
  11. Say salawat on the Prophet and his family regularly, blessings and peace upon them
  12. Make istighfar regularly
  13. Pray some extra prayers
  14. Fast some extra fasts
  15. Give some sadaqa
  16. Make umrah
  17. Do something nice for your parents, grandparents, children, aunts/uncles, siblings, cousins, and nieces/nephews
  18. Do something you have to do and know to be right, even if it is hard and causes you pain in the process
  19. Make regular du’a for people you will never meet and never benefit from in this life (all the citizens of El Salvador, for example)
  20. Ask God to make you from those who are sincere (mukhlisun), and to accept whatever you did of #1-19 by means of Divine Mercy.

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yā Zayn al-‘Ābidīn

I believe you are alive in the barzakh

and perhaps Allah will permit you to know these words

I am approaching you through two books

one conveys words of prayer attributed to you

the other conveys a wealth of information about you

I am not learned enough to judge the authenticity of anything attributed to you

I am dependent on Dr. Chittick and Shaykh al-Qarashī (Allah grant them entrance into Jannah!)

but it is the best I have access to right now

it is the means that Allah has given me to know something about you

and through them I feel myself falling in love with you

What would I pay to be able to see you inside the tent at Karbalā’ with my own eyes?!

What would I give to hear you speak in the court of Yazīd with my own ears?!

What would I do in order to be present at your return to Madīna with my own body?!

But I cannot

Even if I had all the wealth of the Earth

I am trapped in this time – 1436

I am trapped in this place – New York City

and all I have is my God-given imagination to form an image of you

and the blessing of my mind to perceive the beauty of the words attributed to you

and the secret of my heart to tremble at the thought of sitting next to you

learning from you

asking for your du‘ā

serving you for the love of your father

your grandfather

and your great grandfather (O Allah, bless him and his family!)

so that through you

I might know my Lord better

just as your collected prayers have taught me so much already

you are the light in the darkness for all those who have suffered

those who have witnessed tragedies

the Imam of the degraded

the one who lets us know through station, deed and word

that nothing in this world can strip us of the dignity that Allah placed within us

and get between us and the Most Merciful

the One who rules beyond time

and through time

and in time

and after time

and before time

and has prepared that which no eye has ever seen

no ear has ever heard

and nothing that we have ever conceived

to wipe away every tear

console every heart

uplift every soul

with manifestations of Mercy untold

so let me be one of your students and servants

let me be somehow

someway

connected to you in the most real of ways

by the permission of the Lord for whom I feel what I feel

the Lord who permitted me a glimpse of who you are

the Lord who decrees all things

such as this moment of longing and patience

at the barrier between my self and your majlis

yā Fattāḥ I can do nothing but what You decree

and am seeking You with the means that You have given me

so please bless Muhammad and his family

and forgive this simple boy with his books

for the lack of adab in his dreams

āmīn

I humbly request the reader to make a du’a for me

that Allah bless me with a true connection for His sake

to al-Sajjād ‘Alī b. al-Ḥusayn Zayn al-‘Ābidīn

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fathers and sons

yā Allāh yā Qahhār yā Jabbār yā Qawī

I am terrified at this moment.

You know that I have been a Muslim for 16 years

and I have tried to prepare myself to be a father

who could raise a righteous child.

I thought I was ready

but now I am not so sure.

For if Mu‘āwiya b. Abī Ṣufyān

and S‘ad b. Abī Waqqāṣ

were not able to raise their sons Yazīd b. Mu‘āwiya and ‘Umar b. S‘ad

to stay their hands from shedding so much sacred blood

then what hope is there for me?!

I want my son to love and honor al-Ḥusayn b. ‘Alī

the beloved of Your beloved

and his son ‘Alī al-Akbar

so where shall I find that tawfīq?!

I can only come as a beggar to Your Door

weeping and pleading

for You to grant my son what You granted to al-Ḥurr al-Riyāḥī

for through his story I now know more deeply

that You alone guide whom You will.

yā Hādī yā Karīm yā Wadūd yā Allāh

Obliterate the misguidance that comes from me

and replace it with the Guidance that comes only from You

and save my son and I from the punishment of the Fire.

Allāhumma ṣalli ‘alā Muhammadin wa ālihi wa sallim

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how can i find the words to express what i feel

my road to Muhammad goes through Husayn

it can be no other way

Karbala is Madina

Madina is Karbala

 

how can i sleep

for when i wake

something may distract me

from thinking of you

all i have is these moments

with aching legs

wishing to walk to you

and bloodshot eyes

longing to see you

 

in my heart

i can imagine the scene

one foot on earth

the other in Heaven

but i can only see a glimpse

of the beauty revealed

to Zaynab

 

i ultimately care not

for centuries of discourse

nor cultural continuity and contestation

they are only a means

so may this poem be obliterated to history

if it is nothing more

than a paragraph in someone’s dry essay

about 21st-century English lamentation poetry

 

what matters only

is if there is any sincerity

– a secret known only to al-Khabir

behind the tears welling in my eyes

and the burning in my chest

as i dream of standing before your palace in Heaven

my fist about to knock on your door

a long journey’s end

 

what would i do at that moment

when you opened it

would i throw my arms around you

and sob on your shoulder

or lower my head in awe

unable to move

until you tell me what to do

 

i am nothing compared to you

nor will i ever be

but hope in Mercy

means it is all possible

 

please

whatever happens

and however my life unfolds

and in whatever state i die

i simply ask that you overlook my manifest faults

and take me by the hand

to introduce me

to your grandfather

 

i can no longer imagine visiting him for the first time

without you

 

“…Husayn is from me and I am from Husayn…”

 

Allahumma salli ‘ala Muhammad wa ali Muhammad

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41_33

And who is better in speech than the one who calls to God, and does righteous deeds, and says, “I am most assuredly one of the Muslims.” (41.33)

There is a group of Muslims who claim to represent all of us. They call themselves “The Islamic State (al-dawla al-islāmīya)” and they ask us to pledge our allegiance to the person they consider their leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

On this blessed day of jumu‘ah, in the blessed month of Shawwāl, in the Hijrī year of 1435, I firmly reject the pledge of allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. I do so out of fear of the Lord of the worlds, Who will ask me about what I did on this day. I do so out of love for the Messenger of Allah, upon him and his family be blessings and peace, who I long to sit with in the next life. I do so out of hope for Jannah, in which the utmost limits of my dreams reside. I do so out of my joy at being a member of the vast and diverse Ummah of Muhammad, upon him and his family be blessings and peace, which includes Sunnis and Shi’is, Sufis and Salafis.

And I call all humanity to study the teachings of the Messenger of Allah, upon him and his family be blessings and peace. He was sent by Allah to all of us, white and black, male and female, American and people who are citizens of other nations – without exception. All of humanity is welcome to freely accept Islam if it moves their heart, and simultaneously reject the tyranny, ignorance, and brutality that is done by those who have pledged their allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

I am prepared to meet my Lord with this statement in my book of deeds, and I ask the Eternal and Everlasting Refuge (al-Ṣamad) to accept it as one of the best of my deeds. I invoke the Protector (al-Ḥafīdh) alone to protect me and those I love. I do not need armies, nor intelligence services, nor police forces for our protection – all I need is our Lord, in whose holy Name I have written these words onto my heart. hasbunā Allāh wa ni‘ma al-wakīl.

R. David Coolidge

New York City

26th Shawwāl, 1435 AH

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