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Archive for the ‘Family’ Category

the sun sits low in the west

and the shadows lengthen

yet our lips still hymn Your praise

for it is You who gave us life

and it is You who calls us home

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حسبنا الله و نعم الوكيل

In the fall of 1994, I left my parent’s home in Illinois to go to boarding school at Phillips Academy (often referred to as “Andover”) in Massachusetts. From that point up until I moved to our current apartment in Manhattan, I never lived in the same place for more than a couple years. But from December 2013 until August 2018, my wife and I (and subsequently our son) have had no other home except our place in Greenwich Village.

I write this in an empty apartment. The movers came the other day to take our stuff to Oakland, CA, where we will live at least for the next 2 years insha’Allah. My wife and son have gone to Cape Cod to vacation with her brothers. And I am about to board a plane to Bangladesh, to visit the Rohingya refugee camps outside Cox’s Bazar with my friend Khalid Latif. We will return to NYC for Eid, and then move out West.

I am leaving the first place that has truly felt like home in my adult life. It is impossible for me to describe the two-year process that led to this momentous change. There are clearly definable choices made for me, such as my wife’s rejection of my proposal that we move to Oman for a year so that I could become fluent in Arabic. There are structural issues, such as my realization that my career in higher education had to move outside the secular university (such as my past three employers – Dartmouth, Brown, and NYU). And there are audacious hopes, such as the belief that God is guiding me, and closed certain doors and opened others for reasons known only to God.

A friend’s blog said it better than I can, through quoting Imam ‘Ali عليه السلام:

“I attained realization of God, may He be glorified, by the dissolution of resolutions, and by the solution of complexities.”

My resolve has dissolved in the face of the much larger structural and historical complexities that I am a part of. I have inherited the story of “Muslims in the United States” and “Islam and Hinduism” and “the Rohingya Crisis” merely by the billion choices I have made in my life that led me to this moment in August 2018. All three of those phenomena existed before I was born, and I merely found my way to them as I freely explored this Universe to the extent that I have been able to. This is assuredly a matter of “destiny (qadr).” Yes, I chose my path, but my path has led me to confront my lack of agency in the face of realities beyond my ability to control. I may fly to Dhaka to continue working on behalf of my Rohingya brothers, I may move to California to study with Hindu scholars, my wife and I may buy a house together to continue building our American Muslim family, but what can I really accomplish in the long run? It is all so much bigger than me, and I am just one human being.

My friend writes:

Imam Ali (as) is talking about feeling of disorientation, of being pained and agitated – and yet moving. with grace that behind all these events is the face of God – shining beyond what feels like our faltering and collapsing. The trials Imam Ali (as) faced during his own life time were extremely difficult to digest – someone with fervor and love for Truth at heart, and yet a political and community leader that tried his best to preserve and unite the Muslim community, often despite himself. It takes an immensely liberated spirit to take on such roles, and basically – keep it together when so much around you falls apart. From losing your beloved role model, your wife, betrayals, violence and isolation and yet giving a helping hand and honoring unity above all else. Through all this, Imam Ali (as) says that it was through the adversities that he attained realization of God 

Is there any doubt that Imam ‘Ali عليه السلام would tackle these projects if he were here today? Of course he would yearn to liberate the Rohingya from their oppression, to respond to the theological challenges of Hinduism, and call to Islam throughout the United States. In addition, he would confront so many more problems that I cannot work on full-time: Yemen, Iraq, Palestinethe continued theological challenge of Christianity, and so on.

But whether one is Sunni or Shi’i, one accepts that one can never be as great as Imam ‘Ali عليه السلام, let alone the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه و آله و سلم. I felt that so vividly after my first ziyara in Najaf. I remember it so clearly, as it was one of the most transformative experiences of my life. I did my ziyara, prayed two rak’ahs, and just broke down in uncontrollable tears. The entirety of what I knew of Imam ‘Ali’s life came flooding into my heart. All the trials and tribulations and hardships. His loyalty and steadfastness and determination to continue doing what needed to be done, no matter how hard. And I knew then, and I remember now, that if I gave every breath I have in the paths of righteousness, it will be but a drop from the ocean of Abu Turab عليه السلام.

And so I keep moving forward. Where I will die is known only to my Lord. But while I am still blessed with the ability to do so, I set out to work on the challenges I believe Allah wants me to address as best I can.

Just another servant of the servants of the servants of ‘Ali.

Meshed_ali_usnavy_(PD)

 

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how can a son honor his father

it seems impossible so why even bother

 

but the truth of gratitude can only be found

through trying to count the blessings that abound

 

without him there would be no David standing here

neither I nor my son on this Earth would appear

 

so with that fact so clear we can see it is true

that every blessing that I have has flowed through you

 

but more than just biology you have engendered in me

there are the years spent teaching this man that you see

 

basketball and baseball, my father was there

leaving work early to show that he cares

 

striving to win but also accepting defeat

for strength and gentleness, in my father they meet

 

taking me to Colorado’s mountains and Kenya’s great plain

showing me the world instead of seeking more gain

 

he could have worked more and achieved a higher lot

but his family came first, something I never forgot

 

even when at Andover, or Princeton or Brown

I always knew he’d be there if I ever felt down

 

and when my life’s work took me places he did not know

he never stopped trying to help me grow

 

He taught me to do right and give it my best

but his actions spoke louder than all the rest

 

for I have never doubted he wants the best for me

and he has done right by us, for all to see

 

so on his birthday we honor our father and friend

and try to pay a little back on a debt that never will end

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My father, me, and my grandfather at my high school graduation.

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choices

Numerous choices are looming.

حسبنا الله و نعم الوكيل

God is sufficient for us and the best to act on our behalf

There is no way my mind can encompass all the myriad factors relevant to these choices. Past, present and future are lumped together, and I know next to nothing about them all. Better to let the All-Knowing (العليم) lead me.

The other day a friend gave me a dhikr to read, and said I would see the Prophet in my sleep.

صل الله عليه و آله و سلم

blessings and peace be upon him and his family

But I did not. I cannot describe the anticipation I felt lying in bed, and the concomitant disappoint when I awoke. I tried it two nights in a row. But it does not change my reliance (توكل) on Allah. Whether I am given access to the unseen or not does not absolve me of the moral responsibility (تكليف) to do my best. I have to choose – that is what religion is (دين).

I choose that which is best for my child in this world and the next. I choose that which will bring me closer to the pleasure (رضوان) of Allah. I choose that which is most beneficial for humanity, animals, the trees, the water, and the soil. I choose that which will express my gratitude (شكر) to the Creator for the miracle of existence.

The most striking thing I have read in the last few months comes from a commentary on the last 30th of the Qur’an by Shaykh Habib al-Kadhimi.

A person does not need, in order to realize the magnitude of Allah’s generosity, to travel to faraway lands or plumb the depths of their soul. It is sufficient that they consider the contents of their body, especially those incredible signs that Allah has deposited in their heads (“two eyes”) and their wonders. Not only are they organs of perception, but they are also a medium through which we can convey feelings and emotions, or even spiritual influence; “a tongue” that serves amazing purposes, whether in chewing, speaking, or swallowing; “two lips” that are essential for speech, for they are the final instrument for forming sounds after the throat and mouth cavity. It should be obvious that the act of speaking with one’s tongue and lips is one of the most complex processes in existence, as it involves taking thought, which exists beyond the senses, and expressing it in a sensible format. It is through these two processes of thought and expression that all forms of human learning and knowledge are ultimately transmitted. (pp. 188-9)

The fact of the matter is that our own existence is a miracle. Everything else is just details. Whether I am writing something profound or stupid is not nearly as amazing as the fact that I am writing at all. That I am this thing with 10 fingers and ideas in my head and feelings in my heart that manifest as squiggly lines on the computer screen in front of my eyes. And that somewhere out there is another thing with 10 fingers and two eyes who can hear in their head what I am thinking right now as I write this and they read this!

The Qur’an further elaborates this existential truth when it states:

أ أنتم أشد خلقاً أم السماء

Are you more difficult to create or the heavens?!

Just look around you. We are on a planet floating in space around a massive ball of fire surrounded by innumerable other realms.

woman-staring-at-night-sky

Work may cause you to forget it. Family life may cause you to forget it. The particularities of religion may even cause you to forget it. But it is the clear and present truth of existence.

يا حي يا قيوم

O Living! O Self-Subsisting!

And so I am grateful. I am grateful that I am. I am grateful that the Giver of Life (المحي) gave me life. I am grateful that I am surrounded by other beings who have been granted life and that we can communicate with each other. I am grateful that I exist. I am grateful that you exist.

And so I will choose. Imperfect me will choose the best I know how. I have been down this road before.

But there is something different now in this season of choosing – I have been blessed to learn some of the words of the Ahl al-Bayt, upon them peace. Words I didn’t know before when I made important choices about family and career.

لو عرفوا الناس محاسن كلامنا لآتبعونا

If humanity knew the beauty of our words, they would follow us

We are a people of words: Divine Speech, Prophetic Words, and the Wisdom of Wilayah. Without those words, how could I know myself? It is the beauty of those words that make me burn inside with yearning to see those who utter them. It is words that changed my life. And so I close with some of those words, trusting in theirs more than my own.

O God,

I ask from You the best in Your knowledge,

so bless Muhammad and his Household

and decree for me the best!

Inspire us with knowledge to chose the best

and make that a means to being pleased with what You have decreed for us

and submitting to what You have decided!

Banish from us the doubt of misgiving

and confirm us with the certainty of the sincere!

Visit us not with incapacity to know what You have chosen,

lest we despise Your measuring out,

dislike the place of Your good pleasure,

and incline toward that which is further from good outcome

and nearer to the opposite of well-being!

Make us love what we dislike in Your decree

and make easy for us what we find difficult in Your decision!

Inspire us to yield to that which You bring upon us by Your will,

lest we love the delay of what You have hastened

and the hastening of what You have delayed,

dislike what You love,

and choose what You dislike!

Seal us with that which is most praised in outcome

and most generous in issue!

Surely You give generous gain,

bestow the immense,

do what You will,

and You are powerful over everything.

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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)

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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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sister and nephew

“There are some things that time cannot mend. Some hurts that go too deep, that have taken hold.”

I have this dull pain in my chest. At first, I thought it was just a vestige of the emotional intensity of the first 10 days of Muharram. And then an image appeared in my mind that gave form to what I was feeling: ‘Ali b. Husayn and Zaynab b. ‘Ali remaining after Karbala.

اللهم صل على محمد و آل محمد

How can I possibly imagine what they felt? After shedding a few tears in majalis, I spent a relaxing weekend with my wife and son. Whereas they had to endure with the vivid memory of what their own eyes had witnessed.

As a chaplain, I saw how people being abused in the name of Islam drove faith out of their hearts. But it is as if the pulsating hearts of Imam al-Sajjad and Zaynab echo through the centuries, as if I can feel their faith beating in my own heart. For they faced the entire ordeal with faith and by faith.

That is where I stop in complete awe.

For there was no earthly victory for the sister of Husayn and her nephew. No “Conquest of Makkah” when they marched into Damascus triumphantly. They simply remained, full of memories, overflowing with faith. When they left the world, their oppressors were still in power.

Their victory is otherworldly. Beyond the sadness and injustice of this world, there is light and beauty that never fades. Reflecting on the faith of these two individuals leads us there, by the grace of God.

“Full of darkness and danger they were, and sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy. How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad happened. But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer.”

This is a story that really matters.

The story of a sister and a nephew who remained.

For we remain too.

لا إله إلا الله محمد رسول الله

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Umm al-Banin

this morning i woke up with one goal

to worship God and care for my son

by isha time i was exhausted

relieved that my work was done

 

and then God reminded me of you

mother of 4 boys like mine

you raised them from when they were little

devoting all of your time

 

but they left you alone on this earth

for the love of their brother Husayn

as hard as I try to imagine

I can’t even imagine your pain

 

your faith is the type that moves mountains

and inspires men like me to climb

to prepare for the ascent to Heaven

and follow your lead until it is my time

 

so Umm al-Banin please teach me

how to raise up a son like yours

so that no matter what happens on Earth

forever with Husayn he will soar

اللهم صل على محمد و آل محمد

ummul_baneen___the_symbol_of_patience_by_rizvigrafiks-d62uyi5

 

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