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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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bismillah al-Rahman al-Raheem

I have reached certain conclusions about politics.

One is that most people don’t actually understand it. Those who understand it have valid differences, but most people just have no clue. Politics is the ability to organize human beings to work together towards a tangible earthly goal. As such, militaries, schools, courts, legislatures, corporations, and other collective institutions are all “political” on some level.

My brother-in-law Muneeb, who studied political theory at Yale and Univ. of Chicago, always says that most of life can be boiled down to the dialectic between “autonomy versus solidarity.” I believe he is right. The basic unit of society is the individual – you can’t chop up a person into little bits. And from that foundation of individual autonomy all forms of solidarity are achieved. Walmart has approximately 2,300,000 employees, including Muneeb’s sister, my wife Sumaiya. They work together to bring thousands of products from around the globe to the shelves of almost 11,000 stores around the world. It is one of the most tangible forms of solidarity in the world.

If in economic terms Walmart gives us a form of solidarity, in terms of electoral politics it is political parties that express that solidarity. This graph shows us how the declining solidarity of the Democratic Party led directly to the Republican sweep of the 2016 elections:

i-made-a-chart-showing-the-popular-vote-turnout-in-2008-2012-and-2016-imgur

In 8 years, the Democratic Party lost the support of 10,000,000 voters. Trump won with less votes than both of the previous Republican candidates who lost! What caused that decline, I am not learned enough in American politics to know. But even though I am not a member of the Democratic Party, I voted Democrat in all three elections. Why? Because I know that my autonomy as an individual means very little when it comes to comes to electoral politics.

When I choose what to eat for breakfast, I have an enormous range of options. When I choose what to believe about the deeper metaphysical realities behind the events of human history, I can literally believe anything another human being has ever believed, or even make up something new. If I believe in something that others believe in, like the Qur’an, I have hundreds of non-profit organizations within NYC where I can worship alongside others who believe in the same thing. But when it comes to my NY Congressman, NY Senator, or President of the United States, I usually have two options, and there is only one winner.

When I choose to buy an organic, fair-trade coffee to drink for breakfast, it does not cause the maker of Folger’s (the J.M. Smucker Company) to go out of business. It does not cause Walmart to rethink their purchasing of Folger’s to stock on their shelves. Only if tens of millions of American consumers rethink their choice in coffee purchases will those corporations change. They have plenty of other consumers that in solidarity with them through their purchasing choices.

But there are currently only two political parties that really matter in the United States. Lack of solidarity towards one means greater strength for the other. Period. Full stop.

That is just how it is. That is the reality of this world we share.

And at the level of Muslims in America – the thing I know the most about – there is very little solidarity of significance. On the level of religion, the American system encourages division for the sake of ideological purity. If you want, you can create a religious organization to serve the needs of black gay Isma’ili women, get tax-exempt status, create a house of worship, publish books, and host annual conferences. But only 100 people will ever come, and that will be the limits of the solidarity you achieve. And that may be great for those 100 people, but it will do nothing for the approximately 324,000,000 American citizens who could care less.

Ayatollah Khomeini changed the structure of the Iranian government from a monarchy to a constitutional republic because the vast majority of the Iranian voters were in solidarity with him. The current generation of Iranians may debate the merits and dismerits of their system, but it was the solidarity of a previous generation that brought it into being. In the United States, we have not had a political revolution since 1865, when the Civil War brought about the end of the Secession. And all the states that seceded voted for Trump, with the exception of Virginia (the northernmost state). I do not think that is a coincidence, but representative of a deep and abiding political difference extending across generations.

So what is my point of explaining all of this? In short, it is to help everyone think more clearly about “autonomous ideals” and “the limits of solidarity.” When I am alone in my apartment reading books and praying, I can strive to determine my ideals to the furthest extant possible. When I leave to go to the supermarket, I can choose from 30 cereals that are made from grains grown around the world, and determine if any of them are “for” or “against” my ideals in some palpable way. Maybe I’ll find the perfect cereal. Maybe I won’t. But I have to choose something to eat, or else I will starve. Solidarity is only determined by the actual choices I can make as a consumer who does not grow his own food.

So when we come to realm of seeking explicitly political outcomes – the realm of domestic and foreign policy – we have to realize that the current system forces us to make choices. You can have ideological purity if you want. You can create a political party whose central goal is the return of all land taken from Native Americans in broken treaties. And your cause will be just, but you will actually achieve nothing of significance. Why? Because there are just not enough autonomous individuals at the national level that share your ideals.

For the believer, the complicating factor is accountability towards the Divine. If “opting out” feels right to you because of fear of Hellfire, then I am not going to critique you. But at least be cognizant of the fact that you are still part of the body politic, the capitalist world-system, and the American Muslim community at large. Your choices will continue to impact the rest of us. Because American citizenship is a form of involuntary solidarity that binds us together whether it reflects our ideals or not.

And God knows best.

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It just hit me: orphan sponsorship is a serious spiritual practice. The aspirations of the spiritual path in Islam can be summarized in two goals. The first is being with the Prophet, may blessings and peace be upon him and his family. He is considered to be the best of creation, and mystics long to know him and be in his company. Obviously, walking this path involves saying salawat and other forms of devotion. But reflect on the meaning of this hadith: “‘I and the one who looks after an orphan will be like this in Paradise,’ showing his middle and index fingers and separating them.” (related in Sahih al-Bukhari) What more vivid illustration could the Messenger of Allah give us of the path leading to his companionship, may blessings and peace be upon him and his family!

The second goal is intimate experience of Allah directly. So reflect on this verse: “The one who gives from his wealth in order to purify himself, not giving for anyone who has done him a favor to be rewarded, but only seeking the countenance (wajh) of his Lord, Most High. He is going to be satisfied.” (92.18-21) The seeker wants to see the face (wajh) of God, and God is promising that the seeker will be satisfied. Orphan sponsorship involves giving to someone that the donor will probably never meet in this life, thus increasing the likelihood that one gives with a pure intention.

This is another reminder of the practical nature of Islamic spirituality, which flows from the balanced example of the Prophet Muhammad, may blessings and peace be upon him and his family. May Allah accept the orphan sponsorships of every Muslim in the United States, whether done through Helping Hand, Islamic Relief, Zakat Foundation, NuDay Syria, or any other institution which facilitates this act of worship, and may the facilitators be granted the same, and may the orphans all have long lives full of good deeds, ameen.

Organizations facilitating orphan sponsorships:

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It is tax day. The day when we are forced to show, in very real ways, that we are part of a national collective. On this day, we cannot avoid the fact that national debates about the military, health care, and scientific research are relevant to all of us who carry an American passport, regardless of our faith or worldview. However, we also need to keep things in perspective. One of the most famous sayings of the Prophet (may God bless him and his followers and grant them peace) is:

من حسن إسلام المرء تركه ما لا يعنيه

“From the perfection of one’s Islam is leaving that which does not concern them.” [Hadith #12 of Nawawi’s Forty Hadith]

One of the keys to spiritual sanity in the current climate is not letting the choices, beliefs and discourses of other human beings get us down. We need to look for where we can build what we think is good and true, or add to what has already been built in the best of ways. We all will have to answer for our choices, not the choices of others. And that awareness should preoccupy us from the choices that other people have to make.

Imam al-Ghazali said (to paraphrase) that we should consider ourselves fortunate if we even find one other human being who is a true helper and supporter on the path to Allah. An organization – whether a small non-profit, a corporation, or a nation-state – is made up of many people, so we should pause when we put too much faith in organizations. While that attitude can lead to a sense of loneliness, or a “me-against-the-world” attitude, it is really about knowing that Allah will always take care of the “big picture.” Allah wants us to take care of that which Allah has given us to concern ourselves with today, such as our worship, family, close friends, body/mind, job, and so on. As Allah states in the Qur’an:

005_105“O you who have believed, upon you is [responsibility for] yourselves. Those who have gone astray will not harm you when you have been guided. To Allah is your return all together; then He will inform you of what you used to do.” (Qur’an, Chapter 5, verse 105)

Imam Zaid says it like this in the Treatise for the Seekers of Guidance: “The Prophet, peace upon him, said, “From a person’s Islam being good is his leaving what does not concern him.” Our concern is the Hereafter, and the successful meeting with God. Our concern is working so that we can be amongst those experiencing the Beatific Vision. Whatever helps us towards these goals in this world we gladly engage in it. We leave all else.”

If my seeking of God leads me to becoming the President of the United States, you can expect some major changes to the federal budget. Otherwise, I will just do my best with the cards I have been dealt, and leave the rest up to Allah. That being said, I do recommend that people check out the National Priorities Project, whose focus is to make “our complex federal budget transparent so people can…influence how their tax dollars are spent.”

May Allah make it easy for me, you, and all those whom we care about, whatever the details of our lives may be, ameen!

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Immanuel Wallerstein writes in his book “World-Systems Analysis” that, “to the extent that we each analyze our social prisons, we liberate ourselves from their constraints to the extent that we can be liberated.”

I am a citizen of the United States, the most economically and militarily strong country in the contemporary world. I am a participant in global capitalism – everytime I go to the ATM or buy something at Whole Foods, I am linking up with organized firms that provide a service in pursuit of a profit. I am bound by the system of taxation, a unique confluence of political power and economic production, which means that whatever I have that is defined as “income” by the government of the United States can be taken from me, and used by people other than me.

Such economic and political forces (including many others not sketched out for the sake of brevity) were in place before I was born, and I participate in them because I have no other choice. The world-system is pervasive. As such, my real choices are bound by these social realities.

As a Muslim, I do not lament this characterization of the world, because I believe that God is ultimately in control of history. But it is upon me to analyze the world properly so that my choices within it can be justified before God after I die. To what extent am I required by God to struggle against this capitalist world-system? To what extent do my ethical choices as a Muslim contribute to acquiescence or resistance to the larger forces of wealth and power which deeply influence the lives of all living human beings?

In many respects, Islam provides a form of resistance to these realities. Ritual prayer, for example, is a central tenet of Islam, and a defining characteristic of Muslim cultural systems. Ideally, Muslim men (who historically have been the primary economic actors within the economies of Muslim societies) are supposed to be in the masjid five times a day. While this does not prevent economic activity from taking place, it does limit its scope in the social life of the Muslim. One can see this most clearly in the places where shops close at the time of prayer; in short, the pursuit of profit must stop repeatedly during the day in order to re-focus oneself on the pursuit of intangible spiritual rewards. Perhaps this is why economic imagery is so common in the Qur’an and hadith, for human beings in general are inclined towards productive economic activity, yet must learn to limit the amount of time and energy they devote to such concerns.

However, what this example does not take into account is a number of things. First, women are not required to be in the masjid, and so as capitalism seeks out people willing to devote their time and energy to economic pursuits, it will increasingly draw upon women to replace any man who refuses to subordinate their mosque-centered life of ritual prayer to a 12 hour workday in an office space. Secondly, as those who work within the capitalist system accumulate their own capital and thus increase their power in society, the mosque-going man becomes an increasingly peripheral social actor. He cannot abandon the capitalist system completely, and therefore often must rely on wage labor in order to make enough money to survive.

We see in Muslim socieities that the two most common groups of mosque-going men are peripheral laborers, and those who are wealthy enough that they can determine their own work schedules. This is not to say that others do not attend the mosque as regularly, but that these are the two most conspicuous social groups that are in the mosque five times a day around the world. Those in the middle, the cadre of professionals that keep the capitalist system functioning smoothly, are more beholden to the mores and attitudes required for maintainence or advancement of one’s position in the capitalist world-system. Academics, lawyers, business people, and technocrats are the most conspicuous of these groups. These people are either unable or unwilling to resist the demands of global capitalism at the risk of their own economic disenfranchisement, nor are they so wealthy that they can remain significant actors within the system while disavowing some of its claims to universality. Perhaps the most potent symbol of this are the pictures from the G-20 where the only leader dressed differently is King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. All the other leaders wear the dress of capitalism (the dark European suit), but King Abdullah wears his traditional clothing. The Saudi royal family can resist some of the cultural demands of global capitalism because it controls a quasi-monopoly on an essential good for the functioning of the global economy. The enormous income that the sale of oil produces means that Saudi Arabia has more room to negotiate the ways in which it deals with global capitalism without necessarily becoming more peripheral to the world-system. Part of the reason that Saudi Arabian society is able to control women so much more intensively is because their productivity is not necessary for the creation of surplus-value.

From this analysis, we can see that global capitalism has a way of eroding the social bases of daily congregational prayer for the most economically productive members of society. So what does this mean for me? It means knowing that capitalism as a social force is resistant to the formation of the day around congregational prayers in a mosque. A mosqued life is not obsolete, but it is threatened by the requirement that one’s productive activities be as economically productive as possible. Going to the mosque is like scheduling a meeting – it takes time and commitment, and means that there is less time in the rest of the day to do other things. As such, the usual compromise by practicing Muslim men who must compete within the rules of the system is to pray in their workplace or school, with the common exception of jumu’ah. After all, according to most interpretations it is not required for the Muslim man to be in the mosque for all five prayers. But what is undeniable is that it was the sunnah of the Prophet (may God bless him and his family and grant them peace) that was well established in the city-state of Madinah. The Madinans’ pursuit of capital accumulation was constrained by a belief system which encouraged them to devote considerable time and energy to activities which were primarily for their spiritual, not economic, benefit.

Muslims in the United States, almost all of whom have access to all their daruriyat (absolute necessities of life like clean water) and many hajiyat (beneficial things like access to transportation), need to resist the temptations and demands of global capitalism that might erode the social bases of their faith-system. The ritual prayer in congregation is one such example; the re-orientation of daily life during Ramadan is another. This resistance is not a direct challenge to the supremacy of global capitalism, but rather a personal and communal negotiation with its pervasive nature. But the more that people make these conscious choices, the easier it will be for more Muslim men (and women if they so choose) to make congregational prayer an important part of daily life. And as the hadith literature informs us, the spiritual rewards for doing so, are enormous. Put in terms a capitalist would understand, the return on one’s “life capital” is greater than 2000%!

wa Allah al-musta’an – and it is God’s help which is sought

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The Allmighty…

…Dollar. As much as we hope to be above it, it consumes us. It is too palpable. Too real. Too much imbued, however weakly, with other things we want (power, sex, fame, influence, independence, etc.).

I hesitate to talk about this. I was taught from a very young age, both explicitly and implicitly, to not talk about money. But as I get older, it seems that I am almost always talking about it, even when I am not talking about it. Better just to lay it bare.

We need money. We need it for rent, car insurance, food, clothing, cable TV and internet access, and so much more. If I spend $2000 a month, then I need $2000 a month coming in. Hopefully, I have $2500 coming in, so that I have $500 left to save for the proverbial rainy day.

What is that rainy day? When I no longer can move my arms, or my lips, in order to bring in money through my labor. Or when all of a sudden, I need to spend $3000 a month, and I still only have $2000 coming in.

When we live paycheck to paycheck, we are constrained. We need that income to get by, and we fear its disappearance. So we hope for freedom from constraint. We imagine what it might be like to win the lottery. No more worries. Just an endless piggy bank which we can dip into whenever we so desire.

But one person’s freedom is another person’s constraint. What is a lot of money to me? A good number is $50 million. Why? Because I dream big. I’d want to be able to pay for all of my kids’ educations without even thinking about it. I’d like to be able to drop $500,000 for my favorite non-profits when they were working towards some really good goal (like the Tabari College at Zaytuna Institute, for instance). I’d like to own my dream home, which when I find reflections of it in the real world, is usually at least a couple mil.

But unless I completely change my life around and work my butt off for the next few decades in pursuit of this goal, or some unforeseen miracle happens, I’ll be unable to achieve any of these dreams. And to be honest, it probably wasn’t such a good idea to become Muslim if this is what my priorities were in life. But even more than that, it was a waste of time trying to be a “good” Muslim over the last 7 years since graduating from one of the most selective undergraduate institutions in the world.

Everyone has their own struggles with money, and that has been mine. The seemingly inescapable dichotomy of putting my energies into either being more loved by God or more wealthy. If I knew God would love me by becoming an investment banker, I would have called that guy at Merrill Lynch in a heartbeat. But I didn’t, and I don’t.

Every day, I try to focus on my goal of getting closer to what I believe God wants from me, and I’m so far from it. And everything I can think of to do to try to get there has nothing to do with income. Well, not everything. At least I have a part-time job that fits into my idiosyncratic religious worldview.

But where do I go from here? Will I always feel caught between the dollar and the Divine?

Something I always think about is how the Companions of the Prophet (may God be well pleased with them) would often times give up half of what they had, or even more, when the Prophet (may the peace and blessings of God be upon him) would ask them to spend in the way of Allah. And I guess that’s the answer. Nothing we have, even if it’s $50 million dollars, is ours, and even if we have it, we have to be willing to give it all up for something greater. That’s the implication of our aqida. The unseen provision of rizq is actually more real than our toiling hands.

Ibn Ata’illah, one of the most famous mystics in Islamic history, wrote, ” Your striving for what is absolutely guaranteed for you and your laxness in what is required of you are evidence that your inner eye is dull.” Every time I think about this dilemma, this comes to mind. And then I think about a conversation between a teacher and student which is relayed in the letters of Shaykh al-‘Arabi al-Darqawi: a student said to his teacher, “What about food?” to which his teacher replied, “God!” The student persisted and said, “But we absolutely have to have food,” to which his teacher retorted, “We absolutely have to have God!”

I feel, though, that these words would have more impact if I was a corporate lawyer or something. Then people would say, “Masha’Allah. He’s so successful and yet so pious. How can I argue with that?!” But after years of examining myself, I feel that is precisely the problem. I want to convince people of something I know in my heart is right by doing things for the sake of other people, which I know in my heart is wrong. If I became a corporate lawyer, or an investment banker, at this point in time (I’m always open to change), I’d be doing it for my wife, or my parents, or my friends, or maybe even for myself. But I wouldn’t be doing it for God.

My sister always told me that the thing that scares her about religion is that it is so complete. It is not a hypothesis which can be changed, or a path which can be modified. After years of struggling with it, and probing it’s depths, I have to agree. There is never a point I reach where I can just be like, “Ok, I’ve done enough. I’ve paid my dues. Now on to other things.” It demands everything and always will.

One of the scariest moments in my life happened in a weird way. One of the reasons I became religious is because I felt so blessed as a kid. I wanted to know to Whom, other than my parents and the United States, I should direct my thankfulness. And thankfulness became a prime way in which I manifested my religiosity. Then, one day, when I was feeling particularly thankful, I was listening to a lecture by Shaykh Nuh Ha Mim Keller, and he said, “shukr [thankfulness] is giving everything you have for Allah. Allah gets everything and the nafs gets nothing.”

It terrified me then, and it scares me to remember it now, but at this point in my life, I don’t see how it could be any other way. wa Allahu a’lam [i.e. this is my best guess, and only God really knows if hedge fund managers are actually his closest friends in this world]

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