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don’t give money to the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh

don’t give money so that people can have latrines

don’t give money so that people can eat rice

don’t give money for anything

especially not schools with a basic education

or trauma care for women who were gang raped

it’s not important

you’ll never meet these people

and they’ll never call you out

for forgetting about them

or siding with their oppressors

no one is going to say you are a bad person

if you just pass this off to the government of Bangladesh

so don’t waste your money

on people who don’t matter

According to the UN, it requires app. $900 million to run the refugee camps in 2019. Less than $400 million has been raised.

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I want to be honest with you: I normally find Op-ed columnists trite. They make a very good living out of usually banal observations, simply because they are packaged nicely and have the imprimatur of a major media outlet. Whether they are on the Right or the Left does not matter, as they both feed people digestible insights that have little do with real knowledge or substantive virtue.

But every once in awhile, one of them surprises me. My wife sent me a clip of David Brooks giving a Ted Talk (basically the spoken version of an Op-ed piece). In it he speaks about the difference between “resumé virtues” and “eulogy virtues”:

Some of what he said is not particularly interesting. But what he did do is summarize a fundamental moral reality better than anyone I have yet seen/read/heard. He states,

You go into yourself, you find the sin, which you’ve committed over and again in your life, your signature sin, out of which the others emerge, and you fight that sin and you wrestle with that sin, and out of that wrestling, that suffering, then a depth of character is constructed. And we’re often not taught to recognize the sin in our selves, in that we’re not taught in this culture how to wrestle with it, how to confront it, and how to combat it.

What Mr. Brooks is describing is jihad. Not the false jihad proclaimed by groups like ISIS, but the jihad within known as jihad al-nafs (jihad of the self). When Ayatollah Khomeini discusses this moral struggle, he quotes a story,

Verily on seeing the returning armies from the battlefront, the Prophet (S) of God said, “Blessed are those who have performed the minor jihad, and have yet to perform the major one.” When asked, what is the major jihad? the Prophet replied, “the jihad of the self” (struggle against self).

Presumably, Brooks would not want to be lumped together with Khomeini. Far less risky for him to offer quotes from an American Rabbi as well as a Protestant Theologian to make his point. But that is precisely the problem, for Op-ed analysis is not meant to go to the depth of a problem. What Brooks has described is not a secondary issue, to be contemplated occasionally between board meetings and discussed glibly during dinners at fancy restaurants. It is the fundamental challenge that every adult faces as their career, family life, and relationship with God unfolds.

Khomeini describes the beginning of the journey as such:

The first and foremost condition for one’s strife with his own self, and hence his movement towards God essentially means introspection and self-reflection…Here introspection is used in the sense of devoting some time, however insignificant it is, contemplating about our duties towards our Master and Creator, Who has brought us into this world, and Who has bestowed upon us all the means of pleasure and joys of life, Who has equipped us with a sound body and faultless faculties and senses, each of whom serves a specific purpose of its own, and whose functioning bewilders human intellect. In addition to all these endowments and graces, He has sent so many prophets and His Holy Book for our guidance and invited us to receive His blessings.

Whether all these things have been granted to us by the Master and Emperor of all kings merely to serve this animal existence and to satisfy our appetites and instincts, which we share with other animals, or whether there is some higher aim? Whether all the prophets of God, great sages, thinkers and scholars of every nation have invited the people to follow certain rational principles and Divine legislation, and asked the people to abstain from all animal tendencies and detach themselves from this mortal and perishable habitation were their enemies, or they had conceived an entirely different idea of salvation, which we ordinary human creatures, blindly obeying the dictates of lust, could not conceive?

If we reflect in a rational manner for a moment, we shall realize that the aim of imparting to us all these graces and endowments is something else, superior to and higher than what is visible. This world is a stage of action and its aim is a higher and more sublime sphere of existence. This lower and animal existence is not an end in itself…

Thou should be regretful before God for thy past deeds, and commence a new journey in the direction of His prescribed goal, the journey that leads to the life of eternity and perpetual bliss. Thou should not bargain short-lived transitory joys, which are hard to obtain for eternal bliss and felicity.

Ayatollah Khomeini (d. 1989) whose book “Forty Hadiths” is central to my understanding of moral struggle

This struggle is both theological and moral. The greatest sin according to Jews, Christians and Muslims is polytheism — to worship other than the Creator of all that is, often referred to as the “God of Abraham.” It is the “sin” from which emerge all other sins, for the first commandment is “Thou shall have no other gods before Me.” Simultaneously, God is the goal that lies beyond sin — the Source of Existence to whom all are inevitably journeying and for whom all are inexpressibly longing.

As another Ayatollah states (this one from Iraq),

We cannot escape the darkness of polytheism it we do not first escape the prison of the soul, which is held captive by the inclinations of the self. If you reflect seriously, you will see that the root of every kind of disbelief, polytheism, and sinfulness is love of the self and its desires. Even those who worshipped idols or false gods only worshipped their own desires in the form of these false gods, and their own lusts in the shape of idols. So when you escape the love of your own self, and leave the darkness of desire, you find yourself in the vastness of Divine Unity by Allah’s leave, with no chains and no limitations. (“Laws of Islam,” p. 12)

Of course, no mainstream American Op-ed writer is going to quote Ayatollahs from Iran and Iraq in the same breath as Soloveitchik and Niebuhr. The former have no place in the American status quo, whereas the latter are revered figures from 20th century American religious history. Brooks does not want to veer too far from the left-leaning worldview of the average reader of the New York Times. So he also understandably avoids a clear contemporary American voice on this struggle like Evangelical preacher John Piper.

When Brooks speaks of “a common response through history” to the moral struggle, he is saying the same thing as Khomeini when he mentions “all the prophets of God, great sages, thinkers and scholars of every nation [who] have invited the people to follow certain rational principles and Divine legislation, and asked the people to abstain from all animal tendencies and detach themselves from this mortal and perishable habitation.” Brooks unfortunately leaves out many voices for the sake of brevity and market appeal. But what he described is true — we must go to the root of our problem to begin to solve it. I really like the phrase he uses — “your signature sin.” Perhaps for some it is a love of status/influence that leads to moral compromise. For others it is a love of wealth that leads to arrogance. Perhaps for many it is a love of sexual desire which leads to disregarding the rights of others.

Both Brooks and I are Americans. He reads and quotes Soloveitchik and Neibuhr, and I read and quote Khomeini and al-Modarressi. But when you strip away the externals, we are struggling with the same basic question and dealing with the same basic context. It is something that concerns Jews-Christians-Muslims, as well as many Americans of other worldviews. It is part of being human, and may take many long and hard years of effort before we taste some victory.

We have our own individual struggles, which Brooks is highlighting, but we also have a collective struggle as a nation. His mention of our cultural preference for“resumé virtues” mirrors what I wrote elsewhere,

As a born and bred American who loves his country, I am still not quite sure what it is about the United States that makes so much good possible, but also so much neglect. What is it about the American experience that allows us to turn with such callous hearts towards those who have undergone trials and sufferings that would break us? It may seem trite, but my insights so far come from an ad I saw on an airplane, which read “to the victor goes everything.” From reality shows to professional sports to the behavior of American military and diplomats, the message is drilled home day in and day out that victory is the only thing that matters. That if you become a member of the American or global elite, you have worth, but if you live your life as a janitor or working in Walmart, somehow you are inherently a loser. That life is about the quest to be on top — on top of a corporation, on top of a government, on top of your enemies, on top of everyone else, because I just don’t want to be the one on the bottom anymore. I want to be the one on top. I want to be the one calling the shots. This is a sickness of the human heart, and as far as I know, all of the major religious traditions agree on this point. And it is a sickness that infects American culture from the bottom to the top. This sickness destroys us, even as we think it is empowering us.

Perhaps Brooks would not agree with my view of our collective “signature sin.” But that is a matter of public debate, and I mention it here for your consideration and even criticism. I can diagnose the diseases of my self far better than I can diagnose the sickness of our entire nation.

But the upshot of Brooks’ insight is that we can never give up. He has only shown us the beginning of the journey. There is always a higher level to achieve, a perfection that is still in the distance. As long as we breath, there is more work to do.

I wonder if Brooks knows that perhaps the greatest eulogy in human history is the ongoing eulogy for Imam Husayn that reverberates around the world every year? His was a life of moral struggle until the final, climactic moment. A moment that is relived in the hearts of hundreds of millions over and over again. A well that seemingly never runs dry.

If learning to live a life worthy of a good eulogy is important, as Brooks advocates, then perhaps in Imam Husayn we have found one of our best teachers.

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“A conscious glance at what happens in the wider world around us calls us to believe in life after death. There are many people who live with us, who live and die as good people – in their hearts and actions – and who spare no effort in offering humanitarian aid to other people like themselves, without desiring any reward or gratitude in return. They worship their Lord, remember him night and day, and yet you find them oppressed and defeated, their lives harsh, their sorrows many, their difficulties never-ending.

Additionally, you find others enjoy wealth and power beyond imagination, and yet – contrary to what you might expect – they continue to oppress and exploit others, violating every sacred thing, commit every sin, and most of them dying without ever receiving their just desserts in this world.

Many of the first group are the best people imaginable, like the prophets, the righteous, and the lovers of truth. They number thousands upon thousands. Many of the second group sink ever deeper into evil deeds; they kill millions and commit crimes against humanity.

But Allah is the All-wise, and we see the effects of His wisdom in the heavens and the earth. He did not create anything without purpose, nor did he need any amusement or diversion – He is exalted above that! Allah is the All-powerful, and we find the signs of His power in us and all around us without limit. How can He not recompense these two groups of people? Did He create this second group without purpose? Did He create them so that the strong could oppress the weak for no reason? Or did he wish to cause harm to the harmless thereby? Or is He incapable of rewarding the good and punishing the wicked for their deeds? The answer to all of these questions is no.

Allah is the All-wise and the All-needless, who is glorified above creating anything without purpose, glorified above being incapable of recompensing them, or resurrecting them when He created them the first time!

All the signs we see in the universe guide us to the fact that everything in it is at our disposal (or is created for our sake). Whether it is the sun, the moon, or the stars; they work day and night to perpetuate life. Everything the universe contains is at our disposal by virtue of the intellect, power, and freedom with which Allah endowed us. If everything is there for us, then for what are we here? Were we created merely to enjoy this world? Who amongst us can find true happiness in this world, whether they are young or old, master or servant, leader or follower? There is no one in this world who can taste true happiness – so why are we here?

There can only be two possible answers to this question:

The first is that Allah wanted to play, so He made us for His amusement. But this does not accord with the signs of His wisdom that we see throughout the universe, or that to which our intellects guide us regarding our Lord’s perfection – He is perfect without flaw!

The second is that we were created for another world, and whatever good we find in this world is meant to guide us to something better and more perfect than it in the Hereafter, while whatever is evil here is supposed to serve as an example of something worse and longer-lasting than itself in the Hereafter. We taste both of these experiences in different times, and then learn from His messengers how we can attain the first and avoid the latter.

This is the reason why everything exists.”

– Grand Āyatullah Sayyid M. Taqī al-Ḥusaynī al-Modarresī, The Laws of Islam, pp. 42-3

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The New York Times has reported how Facebook contributed to the genocidal assault by the Myanmar military that drove 700,000 Rohingya into Bangladesh a year ago. I visited the camps housing the refugees in August, and I think about the people I met all the time. Recently the Executive Director of BRAC, one of the most respected humanitarian organizations in the world, said that they don’t have enough funds to address the needs in the camps. Specifically he stated:

“Let me speak of our situation. We began work with a plan for 50 health centres. We later reduced this to 30. We are currently working to manage the costs for 11 clinics. We have even dipped into our own funds. We cannot halt this work.”

Specifically, the article states that through the end of 2018, BRAC needs $56.4 million but only $33.4 million has been raised. Facebook currently makes billions of dollars of profit every 3 months. I am writing this with the audacious goal of convincing Facebook’s leadership to fill the funding gap of BRAC for the end of 2018. Give BRAC $20,000,000 before the end of 2018, meant to support the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.

$20,000,000 does not absolve Facebook of its responsibilities to the Rohingya people. But making a public donation to a humanitarian organization that is serving those whose lives were destroyed by the Myanmar military is a step in the right direction. But most importantly, it will make a real difference in the lives of people who desperately need the world to care. When I was there, I saw how much $500,000 or $1,000,000 can do for so many. If I had $20,000,000 to give to BRAC, I would. But I don’t.

Please share this widely. The only way we could ever convince Facebook to do this is if it gets enough traction. I know this is idealistic, but what else am I supposed to do? Sit back and forget about all the suffering people I have seen with my own eyes?! I will not. The Rohingya are still there in the camps, and in need of our assistance. I will keep trying, praying to the One who removes all obstacles for success in this small effort. بسم الله

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Balukhali Camp, Bangladesh, August 2018

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Spending a week and a half volunteering at the Rohingya Culture Center (RCC) in Chicago has changed my perspective.

It is as if I can imagine this entire Earth, with all of its abundance flowing from Divine Generosity.

“who made the earth a bed, and the sky a canopy; and it is He who sends down rain from above for the growth of every kind of food for your sustenance…” (2.22)

planet-1348079_1920

And from those free gifts, we build societies. Without land and air and water and crops, there would be no skyscrapers and smartphones and hospitals and universities. As Bataille showed so many years ago, it is not scarcity that drives us – it is expenditure of the surplus. We create more and more because our basic needs are met.

But these possibilities are not equally spread across the globe. Building a skyscraper in Chicago is easier to do than in many other places, because there is a concentration of wealth and talent. But what is harder to see is that Chicago is also a place where it is easier to connect people to basic needs. If you can build a skyscraper, the infrastructure already exists to help people in terms of school, health, and work.

I sat with Rohingya kids trying really hard to do their math homework, even though those of us who grew up here would consider the institutions they attend as “bad schools.” But guess what – it is either the best school they have ever gone to or the ONLY school they have ever been allowed to attend. I saw Rohingya elders sit patiently listening to someone translate for them a letter explaining their government-supported health benefits. I listened to Rohingya young adults talk about working at Dunkin Donuts or O’hare airport with pride, because as undocumented refugees in Malaysia their only option would have been the shadow economy. School, health, and work are all available to them, and thus they are now perhaps some of the most privileged Rohingya globally. And they channel that relative privilege into doing everything they can for their friends, family, and community in other countries who are in much worse circumstances.

And in doing so I realized that I had made a mistake in considering something specific like treatable glaucoma to be where I needed to focus my efforts. Rather, there is a more fundamental issue at stake. Will those with access to the global surplus make the effort to help those who are struggling with basic needs? Matters of inequality need to be understood globally, and take into account everything from ecological systems to international refugee politics.

Let us be clear. After seeing how Chicago is handling 1,500 Rohingya refugees who came through Malaysia, I can say with absolute confidence that Saudi Arabia has the capacity to welcome at least 10,000 of the more than 59,000 Rohingya living in Malaysia. Easily. And yet, the Crown Prince boasts about wanting to spend $500 billion to build a new economic hub on the Red Sea.

I literally could not dream up a more grotesque example of injustice in the Ummah, but this is the reality of the world we live in. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya want a clean place to sleep, a simple meal a few times a day, an opportunity to work manual labor, a safe place to give their kids an elementary school education, and the ability to travel freely with a passport. The so-called “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques” not only does not provide that because he’d prefer to build skyscrapers in the desert, but then grants citizenship to a robot just to rub it in their face.

It is so sick. So so sick. Like, I can’t even believe that it is true. Like, I am literally writing these words and asking myself if I am dreaming because how could that possibly be real. How could I possibly live in a world like this, and how could a person like this possibly be in control of the most sacred places of worship in my faith??!!

And so the truth of what I wrote on October 30th, 2017 is even more clear now:

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.

I cannot control the immigration policy of wealthy Muslim countries, but I can greet my Rohingya brothers and sisters in my hometown of Chicago as best I know how. My wife and I have donated money to the RCC and intend to give more insha’Allah. Over the last week and a half I got to know the board, the employees, the many volunteers, and most importantly, the kids. I truly hope that the little girls of the RCC like Lala and Zaynab, and the little boys like Yunus and Yusuf, will grow up safe in Chicago. They are far away from the horrific brutality of the Tatmadaw and the lack of welcome experienced by so many Rohingya around the world. May they always be protected, and may their lives be filled with Love and Light.

Insha’Allah, the RCC will bring great benefit to the Rohingya worldwide and also bring blessings to the city of Chicago. Almost every night, I came home before my parents went to sleep, and they asked me about it. Through me, they learned about the Rohingya and expressed their support and concern. If we had not had these exchanges, at best they would have read a newspaper article somewhere in between debates about the tax bill and the latest sports scores. But now their son knows one of those young Rohingya men from the articles, Abdul Samad, the youngest board member of the RCC. And so what was once just the name of an ethnic group from some faraway place is now transformed in our minds and hearts into real flesh and blood individuals who live only 25 minutes away from where I grew up skateboarding and playing in a band with Pete Wentz.

I feel like God had this all planned a long time ago. The Powerful (al-Qadir) created the conditions for me to make a choice, and The Witness (al-Shaheed) waited and watched as I figured it out over the last few months. As if it was stated, “I am going to turn the son of the former CEO of a Chicago-based investment bank into a Muslim in 1998, and then in 2012 I am going to start bringing Rohingya to Chicago, and then in 2017 I am going to make him aware of it and see what he chooses to do…”

“It is He who has made you successors on the earth, and raised some of you in rank above others so that He may test you in respect to what He has given you. Indeed your Lord is swift in retribution, and indeed He is all-forgiving, all-merciful.” (6.165)

I cannot force the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia to use his privilege in the right way. All I can do is use my much lesser privilege as best I know how. Each individual has to figure out how they can spiritually respond to the realities of systemic injustice. At the end of the day, both the Crown Prince and myself ultimately owe our social position to our fathers, and have never once worried about our basic needs. We will be judged justly by the Just (al-‘Adl). For the fundamental global issue is the same, and we both are on the proverbial hot seat. It is in our best interest to constantly remember the prayer attributed to the Prophet, blessings and peace upon him and his family:

Praise is due to Allah Who has fed us, provided us drink, satisfied us and gave us protection. Many are those who have no one to provide for them, or give them shelter.

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The Board of the RCC (Allah grant them tawfiq and taysir, ameen!)

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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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النظر إلى علي عبادة

“Looking at ‘Ali is worship.” (al-Mustadrak)

 

It is the night of the 19th of the month of Ramadan, a blessed night.

The shaykh had us collectively ask God for forgiveness, and my heart burned as I thought of how little I follow the example of Imam ‘Ali b. Abi Talib, upon him peace. Afterward, I read my poem “The Eyes of Ali” to all those gathered. We heard stories of the generosity of the Commander of the Faithful. How he served a widow in need and showed compassion to her orphans. How he has been called “The Voice of Human Justice” even by those who are not Muslim. And how he walked the streets of Kufa in the hot sun looking for people to feed.

I was struck by that story, for it was said that he looked to the heavens and proclaimed, “God, bear witness that I did everything I could to make sure the people were fed.” He went out of his way to address the needs of others and make sure people received their rights. No wonder those who make light of injustice fear the constant mention of Abu al-Hasan.

I was reminded of this hadith of his great great grandson Imam al-Sadiq, upon him peace:

Allah, the Most Powerful and High, certainly made in the wealth of the rich an adequate share for the poor, and if it was not so He would certainly make their share greater. If they are needy, it is because some of the rich refuse to give them their share.

For earlier today, I was talking with a friend about her various health care needs. We talked about how hard it is when one loses physical and mental capacity while not having the financial resources to receive quality care. In the process I quoted the following hadith qudsi of the Prophet, upon him and his family blessings and peace:

Allah said, “If I deprive my slave of his two beloved things (i.e., his eyes) and he remains patient, I will let him enter Paradise in compensation for them.”

I said that I fear losing my eyesight, as I love my eyes very deeply. I know viscerally that there is nothing I can do to show true gratitude for the blessing of my eyes that I have enjoyed all my life. And yet, if Allah were to take my sight away from me, I know it would not be an injustice done to me, as much as it would be greater than any tribulation I have faced so far in my life.

Then, later in the night after the gathering for Imam ‘Ali was concluded, I saw another friend who is studying optometry. I recounted the story of my conversation during the day. She replied by saying something that shook me to the core. She said, “it is so heartbreaking to see the injustice though, of poor people who know they are going to go blind from glaucoma because they cannot afford the eye drops they need.” While she works in one of the richest cities on Earth, there are people that have to face preventable blindness. She said they give them as many free samples as possible, but after that do not know what to do.

When I left to walk to home, all of this rattled around in my head and heart, and I found myself hearing the voice of God within.

What are you going to do about it, David?

For there are so many times when we face a problem, and we don’t know what to do. We know we don’t have the time, or the money, or the skills. But in this instance, as hard as it may be, I know that it is not impossible. It is not impossible to ensure that nobody in the United States of America goes blind from glaucoma simply because they cannot afford eye drops. If the Commander of the Faithful can walk in the hot sun to make sure no one goes hungry, then the least I can do is try in some small way to follow in his footsteps. Insha’Allah.

Sometimes, the signs are just too many to ignore. I wrote this out to remind myself that a hujja (moral proof) has been established in my heart and I cannot turn away.

Please pray for me, that Allah accepts this intention, and grants me the facilitation (tawfiq) to achieve this goal, and grants ease and recovery to all those suffering from conditions that could be treated if we were people who truly gave their share.

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