Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Capitalism’ Category

I spend every day as an American the same way I spend every other day.

With the choice to obey God or not.

With the choice to believe in God or not.

With the choice to believe that Jesus died on the cross for my sins or not.

With the choice to believe whether Muhammad is a Messenger from God or not.

With the choice to believe whether Krishna is waiting for me in Goloka Vrindavan or not.

With the choice to believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster or not.

With the choice to believe that the world is flat and George Soros has funded the Great Reset and Q has exposed the Clintons or not.

Whether this is better or worse than the daily reality of other countries is a moot point, because if I truly believed that somewhere was better for me, then wouldn’t I be obliged to move my family there for the sake of Allah (like the Sufi Auntie who gave me the unsolicited advice to move my family to Istanbul and everything would take care of itself)?

America is my country by God’s Decree. God could have created me in the womb of a woman in Botswana or Indonesia, but that was not God’s choice.

I am simply trying to be where God has established me (كن حيث أقامك الله).

Over the years I have learned a lot from studying about and visiting Saudi, Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan, India, Kuwait, Turkey, Bangladesh, Spain, France, Iraq, Kenya, UK, Canada, Mexico, Panama, Sweden, Syria and Norway. There are places I have yet to visit that I believe it is important for me to learn more about, such as Iran, Vietnam, Afghanistan, South Korea, Chile, Japan, China, Philippines, Bahrain, Lebanon, Russia, Peru, and Brazil.

But none of them are my country.

I understand this sort of connection to a nation is not how some feel, but it is how I feel. It is my daily reality.

Islamic law is just another choice I face every day, and I choose to follow the best of what I have found, and that currently means I am a muqallid of Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Taqi al-Modarressi of Karbala. In that choice, I am in solidarity with other Americans, Britishers, South Africans, Iraqis and more.

But I can always change my mind. I used to be a Hanafi, and then a Maliki, and now I am a Ja’fari. With each choice, I feel I have moved closer to what God wants from me. But only God knows and only God can judge. May Allah accept from me the deeds I have done trying to be in conformity to Allah’s laws, ameen.

Life is a journey, and if there is anything I have learned, it is to expect the unexpected. I believe Allah constantly tests the sincerity of my belief, often in ways I never foresaw, and I have found Qur’anic proofs for that, such

“Do people think once they say, ‘We believe,’ that they will be left without being put to the test? We certainly tested those before them. And Allah will clearly distinguish between those who are truthful and those who are liars.” (29.2-3)

Whether or not you believe that about yourself is up to you to decide. May Allah make me from the truthful (الصادقون), ameen.

I share this because this is my reality. Every post you have ever read from me has been articulated against this socio-political backdrop. I recognize now very few of my readers share this experience, and often my readers expect me to articulate positions that mirror their realities. But I can’t do that. All I can do is be sensitive to the realities of others, and then act accordingly from the point in space and time in which I exist.

But it is also important that my readers are sensitive to my reality, and the inescapable conclusion that faith/belief/knowledge has always been a choice for me. No one put a Qur’an in my hand and said, “believe or perish!” I chose to read the Qur’an with my own freedom, to determine if I believed that God had spoken to humanity or not. At the same time I was first reading the Qur’an, I was reading the Baha’i scriptures for the same reason.

“Whenever Our Revelation is recited to them they say, ‘We have heard all this before – we could say something like this if we wanted – this is nothing but ancient fables.’ They also said, ‘God, if this really is the truth from You, then rain stones on us from the heavens, or send us some other painful punishment.’ But God would not send them punishment while you [Prophet] are in their midst, nor would He punish them if they sought forgiveness.” (8.31-3)

And so every day I invoke blessings upon the Prophet and seek forgiveness:

أستغفر الله وأتوب إليه

اللهم صل على محمد وآل محمد

It is my choice and my tongue, and I try to use it for the sake of the One who gave it me.

Not for my parents, whom I love dearly.

Not for my country, which is a part of me.

But for my Creator (الخالق), the One who made my existence possible (المحيي), the One from whom I seek benefit (النافع), the One in whom I seek protection from harm (الضآر), the One in whom I hope to the utmost extents of hope (الوهاب), the One who I fear more than coming to the end of my own existence (الجبار).

May my Lord accept from me, āmīn.

a book published 90 years ago about our family’s first 300 years in North America

Read Full Post »

Like many people, I enjoyed watching the shows of Anthony Bourdain. I can’t speak for others, but for me, I lived vicariously through his adventures. It would be nice to travel that much, and see the world Allah has created, and all of its people. It is not that I wasn’t blessed to have that possibility, but rather that I chose to focus on other things. But he was a reminder that, “dear humanity, we most certainly created all of you from a single male and a single female, and made you into peoples and tribes so that you may know one another.”

A darker side of me, left over from my days before Islam, subtly wished I could just eat and drink anything like he did. If a people’s food represents something of themselves, he was willing to try almost anything, and thus experience all of what humanity had to offer. I had been that way before Islam, but Islam put a number of restrictions on that process that I sometimes struggled to embrace. Late at night, when I was tired from another day of struggling to address my spiritual wounds, it was fun to fantasize about having “no reservations.”

And so I, like many others, was shocked and hurt by his suicide. How could someone who lived such an interesting life, who was appreciated by so many around the world, take his own life?! For a long time, it didn’t make any sense to me. From what I have read, it seemed that his search for something higher, as expressed through deep love for another human being, fell apart and the pain was just too much to bear.

In a way, the pre-Islamic version of myself feels like it can intuit what he was going through. Perhaps he really felt there was nothing left to live for – he had already done everything he could think to do, and the one thing that filled his heart with joy was being ripped away and there was no hope left and no refuge. But the version of my self that has been shaped by Islam recoils in horror at such a worldview, and thinks of the Qur’an stating, “and the Earth, despite its vastness, seemed to close in on you.”

I am reminded of him now, and my private grappling with his death for the last 4 years, after reading this passage tonight:

“The heart of a believer is like a garden. A believer has to face material difficulties in the world. But he is not aggrieved of these problems. These thorns only prick the body and are confined within the boundaries of the garden. However, the garden of the heart has no place for these thorns. Even in this material world the soul of the believer is safe from all calamities. ‘for such there shall be safety, and they are the rightly guided.

The sole desire of a believer in this world is that his Lord should be pleased with him. Such a person does not despair due to failures and material setbacks. He considers only Allah as his guardian and the guardian of others. He recognizes the power, wisdom and mercy of Allah. He considers Allah his Master and considers himself His slave. ‘That is because Allah is the Protector of those who believe, and because the unbelievers shall have no protector for them.’

Thus a believer does not become sorrowful and aggrieved by the difficulties of this worldly life. They do not even make him angry. Allah keeps the hearts of the believer peaceful in this world also. ‘He it is Who sent down tranquility into the hearts of the believers.’

A believer always faces adversity with determination. He does not stumble, nor do his feet tremble. He does not fall down on this path. He knows that behind every calamity is hidden wisdom and he alone shall be eligible for the benefit of this hidden wisdom. All that he hopes from Allah is that He removes this difficulty or in this way recompenses it so that even the physical pain does not remain for him. ‘If you suffer pain, then surely they too suffer pain as you suffer pain, yet you hope from Allah that which they do not hope in.’

That is, you hope for salvation from problems, forgiveness and rewards, but the unbelievers have no such hopes. They remain forever in the darkness of hopelessness.”

I suggest listening to the recitation of each verse, available through the links. It reached my heart, and it reminded me of how much hope Islam gives me in the face of so much sorrow on this Earth, even from the sorrows that have nothing to do with war, disease, poverty, and oppression.

This hope doesn’t erase the sadness I feel when I think about Anthony Bourdain, but it does clarify why I never took him as a role model. And more than that, it makes me realize that Islam can address the realities of all Americans. The person I was becoming before I became a Muslim was more like Anthony Bourdain than Malcolm X. In fact, with the exception of Islam, I identify far more with Anthony Bourdain than I do with Malcolm X. I was never in an actual prison, needing redemption. I didn’t grow up facing structural oppression that limited my life choices. I was, like so many other White American men, in the prison of my own self, in what another White American Male suicide David Foster Wallace calls a “tiny skull-sized kingdom, alone at the center of all creation.” And it was there that I heard the call of a caller calling towards faith in a Garden whose expanse is vaster than both the heavens and the Earth, and that has made all the difference.

So when all is said and done, thank You God for sending me the Qur’an to guide me out of darknesses and into light, and please provide hope to all those whose hearts feel heavy when they think of Anthony Bourdain.

Read Full Post »

There is a lot of passion out there right now.

White people ready to fight and die for “relatively civilized” people.

Palestinians/Rohingya/Kashmiris/etc. and their allies pointing out the hypocrisy that now all of a sudden “the West” pulls out all the stops.

Shi’is suffering yet another attack in a masjid killing dozens of people, and no one really cares.

And myriad other things going on that would just prove my point even further.

So what are we to do?

The same thing we are always called to do by the Qur’an: stand out for justice even if it is against our own selves.

It is wrong for the West to be so hypocritical and so Westerners need to have a more global perspective, stop invading countries and sending drones to blow their people up, and generally be less racist.

It is wrong to back the invasion of another country, the destruction of its infrastructure, and the killing of many civilians simply because it fits your foreign policy agenda, so show solidarity somehow with the Ukrainians who are fighting and dying.

It is wrong to turn a blind eye to Shi’i suffering because you think Shi’i theology is wrong or you just don’t have the time or whataboutism. So just do something – really anything is a good step in the right direction – to affirm that Shi’i Muslims are just as Muslim as Sunni Muslims and are your brothers and sisters in faith and/or humanity.

As a rule, just don’t listen to any government in the world all the time. Russia is sometimes right when they point out the militarism of the West, but that doesn’t make them right when they unilaterally choose to invade Ukraine. The USA is sometimes right when they point out Chinese mistreatment of the Uyghur people, but that doesn’t make them right when they sanction Iran over nuclear weapons that they do not have (but Israel has 200 of them). India is sometimes right when it speaks about the mistreatment of Hindus in neighboring countries, but that doesn’t make them right when they turn a blind eye to violence against Muslims within India and pass laws based on Islamophobic concepts like “Love Jihad.”

No government in the world is the source of perfect justice. They are all flawed institutions that are locked in a system of mutual cooperation and competition, and which seek their own interests in a way that often puts morality aside. In my opinion, this is why the Shi’i and and Sunni legal traditions have historically been skeptical of government service (for example, by serving as a qāḍī [judge] appointed by the ruler). Once you are part of the system, the system may force you to do something that is hard to justify, and no government takes kindly to dissent from its own employees (especially if you are in the military).

Of course, anarchism is not a solution either (just read about the atrocities committed by anarchists on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War from 1936-1939). Pure liberation from the system, at least as the last 100 years have proven, has meant just committing more immorality in the name of utopian liberation. So we are stuck where we are by God’s decree, but we still have to be the best we can be.

Since I am not Russian, I don’t have to make amends for the Russian invasion the way I have to for American invasions of Afghanistan, and Vietnam and so on. As a White American, I am morally obliged to grapple with the meaning of my own whiteness. I don’t know what you struggle with, but the point is that we have to look within and struggle. And not just as individuals, but as nations. I can speak to collective American spiritual problems since I am American. Russians will have to teach me what they need to do to correct their nation.

Of course, I and probably you have very little influence. The world moves without our consent and we just react. I may learn something new tomorrow that changes my perspective. But since God is just, God will not judge me based on something I do not yet know. I can only be judged based on what I know today, and this is the best I can do right now.

I hope it has been helpful for you in some way, and you are all welcome to share with me your insights on how to be better.

May Allah make us people who make this Earth a better place to live, and keep us from being people that contribute to injustices upon the land and sea, animals and humans, Muslims and all peoples, āmīn.

Read Full Post »

As anyone who actually knows me knows, I embrace the fact that I am an American, but am also very critical of the nation state called the United States of America.

One of my longest held criticisms has been the presence of military bases run by the USA throughout the world. I have spoken with my own father about this on many occasions. His father, my grandfather, served in the Navy during WWII on a battleship. I am proud of my grandfather’s service, but it has been over 85 years since that necessary but devastating struggle came to an end. We live in a different world.

Since high school, I have often wondered how Americans could pressure the USA to dismantle its bases. I have read books about it like the one whose picture comes at the end of this post. But now I realize that my thinking has been all wrong. It is the people in the countries with bases that need to dismantle them.

This has happened on multiple occasions.

The North Vietnamese defeated the USA, created the political structure of a contemporary unified Vietnam, and there have been no bases there since 1975.

In 1979, Iran had a revolution and made it impossible for the USA to maintain a military presence within its borders.

And now Afghanistan is free from bases controlled by the military of the USA.

The people of Vietnam, Iran, and Afghanistan have succeeded where the dissenting voices within the USA such as myself were completely ineffective.

The relative political/economic/cultural merits or dismerits of these countries is not the issue here. I am an American citizen, not a citizen of any of the aforementioned countries. In other countries, like South Korea, it seems like there is a great deal of public support for the American military presence. Each country should decide for themselves whether or not they want American soldiers on their soil. I have my hands full here, dealing with the myriad social, political, economic, and environmental responsibilities that come with being an American citizen.

I wish well for the people in all of those countries, and I hope to one day be able visit and learn a little about what it is actually like to live there. I would like to spend my money in all of those countries as a tourist, helping to support the local economy. I would like to atone for the ways in which I may have contributed to harming innocent civilians in all of those countries, through the tax dollars I am forced to pay every year. I would like to see the Other, face to face, as brothers and sisters in humanity. Because, let us to be clear, Americans would never allow Vietnamese, Iranians or Afghans to open a military base over here.

Until the time it is safe again to travel around the world regularly, I pray that God blesses the people of these countries, blesses the people of my country, and blesses the people of all the countries of Earth, amen.

Read Full Post »

This post originally appeared in 2015 in The Muslim Observer. It has been slightly modified herein.

American life is defined by the intersection of three institutional sectors: public, private, and non-profit. Public denotes governmental institutions, like the IRS through which we pay for federal institutions like the National Park Service. The private sector is dominated by for-profit corporations, such as Apple, which manufactured the laptop through which I am writing this post. Non-profits, the smallest sector of the three, consist of a whole range of entities, such as hospitals, universities, and religious organizations.

It is within this context that the Qur’anic teachings regarding charitable giving are implemented for Muslims in the United States. The root n-f-q, indicating spending, is used dozens of times in the Qur’an. For example, verse 254 of Surah al-Baqara states: “You who believe, give from what We have provided for you, before the Day comes when there is no bargaining, no friendship, and no intercession. It is the disbelievers who are wrong.”

The same verb is also found in the hadith literature, such as this hadith related in Muslim’s Sahih: “Of the dinar you spend as a contribution in Allah’s path, or to set free a slave, or as a sadaqa given to a needy, or to support your family, the one yielding the greatest reward is that which you spent on your family.” This hadith gives us a broad understanding of charitable giving in Islam. Buying a laptop from Apple for your child who is going off to college can be an act of worship, even though it has nothing to do with the non-profit sector. But for many Muslims in America, there is also the desire to effect social change through charitable giving. In fact, it is the socio-economic lifeblood of the American Muslim community, and the causes for which we give are myriad. There are approximately 6 broad categories of giving:

  • Islamic centers
  • Islamic schools
  • Development organizations (e.g. Islamic Relief USA)
  • Da’wah
  • Islamic Education for adults
  • Community advocacy organizations (e.g. CAIR)

We find ourselves donating to these organizations in a variety of settings. Sometimes it is at fundraising dinner. At other times, we might have some zakat or khums to pay, and write a check to the appropriate organization(s). On occasion, we may be moved by media coverage to donate to help those suffering in our country or around the world. In all situations, the socio-political reality is the same. We write a check/use our credit card/pull cash out of our wallet, and it goes into the bank account of a registered non-profit, and they send us a receipt and use the funds for whatever purpose they were designated.

But behind that material facade is something deeper, and ultimately more important. It is the internal spiritual attitude of the person giving the money, and their ascent towards sincerity (ikhlas). It is the metaphysics of charitable giving.

We can see this process in the Qur’an, which lays out at least three different attitudes towards charitable giving. In the case of the three sections that will be quoted, the immediate context is feeding the hungry. In the context of Islam in the United States, it is most likely that such an act would be accomplished by making a donation to organization that feeds the hungry in either the USA or another country,

At the lowest level is the attitude of those who mock faith openly. Verse 47 of Surah Ya Sin states: “and when they are told, ‘Give to others out of what God has provided for you,’ the disbelievers say to the believers, ‘Why should we feed those that God could feed if He wanted? You must be deeply misguided.’” Not only does a person at this level not give, they blame God for the misery that inspires people of faith to give. They twist the concept of an All-Powerful Deity to become an excuse for their own selfishness. The average Muslim is not so bold as to speak this way, but it is possible that this may be what they think in their hearts. In a very subtle way, they may whisper to themselves, “Why do I have to give up this money I have been saving for something I want?! If God is so powerful, why doesn’t He just feed them?!” In light of the massive scale of need amongst Syrians, Yemenis, and the Rohingya – in addition to many other worthy causes worldwide and at home – the possibility of slipping into this type of thinking is very real, even for someone who outwardly identifies as a Muslim and donates to Muslim community institutions. Right now, our world needs billions and billions of dollars to help people facing real difficulties. What that means for any individual is that even if we gave all the surplus we have, there will still be a need. In such a reality, it is very possible to slip into this type of thinking, and may God protect us from it, ameen.

At a better level are those described in Surah al-Ma’un: “[Prophet], have you considered the person who denies the Judgement? It is he who pushes aside the orphan and does not urge others to feed the needy. So woe to those who pray but are heedless of their prayer; those who are all show and forbid common kindnesses.” At this level, a person is a part of the Muslim community, most notably through attendance at communal worship. But their religiosity does not deeply effect them at the level of concern for humanity. There is a disconnect between their performance of religion, and the way they treat other human beings. At this level, one is not necessarily actively opposed to charitable giving, as in the case of the first level. Rather, one is veiled from such concerns by an obsession with the outward trappings of religiosity. One has left the utter contempt for religion characterized by the first level, which is undoubtedly a good thing. But while doing so, one has strayed by failing to see that Islam has two essential elements: worship of the Creator and service to the creation.

The first and second levels highlight the struggle between the inward and the outward. But the third and higher level is when the two become integrated. Verses 8-11 of Surah al-Insan states: “They give food to the poor, the orphan, and the captive, though they love it themselves, saying, ‘We feed you for the sake of God alone: We seek neither recompense nor thanks from you. We fear the Day of our Lord––a woefully grim Day.’ So God will save them from the woes of that Day, [and] give them radiance and gladness.” At this level, the one we should all aspire towards, giving is completely detached from any hope of worldly reward or benefit. It is only for God, whether it be $1 dollar or $1,000,000 dollars. No need to sit on a board of directors. No need to even receive a thank you card. This transforms charitable giving into a transcendental search for the Divine Pleasure (ridwan). It becomes a very tangible way in which a human being expresses their hope and fear in God alone, for Allah does not announce from the Heavens that He has accepted this effort. As we learn from another hadith: “Then a man will be brought forward whom Allah generously provided for, giving him various kinds of wealth, and Allah will recall to him the benefits given, and the man will acknowledge them, to which Allah will say, ‘And what have you done with them?’ The man will answer, ‘I have not left a single kind of expenditure You love to see made, except that I have spent on it for Your sake.’ Allah will say, ‘You lie. You did it so as to be called generous, and it has already been said.’ Then he will be sentenced and dragged away on his face to be flung into the fire.”

Giving is only the first step. Giving with sincerity is the more elusive goal. One never knows whether or not Allah has accepted one’s charitable giving. But we must still strive to purify ourselves of any ulterior motive, recognizing that whatever we have given was first given to us from al-Razzaq, and only One can reward us beyond our imaginations. The metaphysics of charitable giving is to take the most worldly thing possible – money – and turn it into an expression of our realization of the Oneness of God. Only then will be capable of realizing the promise in the Qur’an: “Those who spend their wealth in God’s cause are like grains of corn that produce seven ears, each bearing a hundred grains. God gives multiple increase to whoever He wishes: He is limitless and all knowing.”

Read Full Post »

I have a suspicion that Republicans are holding out on the election in hopes that they provoke the Left to take to the streets.

All they need is crowds of people in masks with raised fists to spin it that they are going to save America.

Stay home.

Make du’a.

Read Full Post »

We are already sacred.

When we think of the foundational ritual of our religion, it is the ṣalāt.

It is nothing but our bodies, the land and water.

The land upon which we live.

The water that we need to survive.

The bodies through which we have this human experience.

The ritual that our Creator call us to perform every day is rooted in the ever-present sacredness of us and our surroundings.

It requires nothing else but that which is already there as the foundations of human life on Earth.

We are already sacred, and the ṣalāt is a reminder of that reality.

We can forget.

We can temporarily unpurify our bodies, the ground and/or the water.

But daily connection with the sacred is intention–>water–>body–>land.

It is the foundational truth to which we return again and again.

The stark confrontation with the real.

Land. Water. Bodies.

الله الله الله

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

“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

f3ccdd27d2000e3f9255a7e3e2c48800_383

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: