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In my first semester in college (Fall 1997), I took an Ancient Philosophy course. I hardly remember it, but the other day I discovered a paper I wrote for it. I was shocked at how the thoughts I was thinking then mirror so much of what I think about these days, 22 years later. I don’t know if anyone will read this, but since my blog is very much an archive of my grapplings, I wanted to post it here with only a few minor edits. I may critique my younger self’s writing style and grasp of the source material, but I was thinking clearly about one of life’s great questions.

***

In the course of our lives, we are constantly forced to make moral decisions and quite often, we choose courses of action that do not embody moral excellence. Very often we are attracted to carnal desires, or even practicality, and they steer us away from choosing solely what we believe to be right and good. However, every so often we learn about a personality who embodies moral excellence; a person that we cannot help but think of as a great soul. One such person was Gandhi. He lived for unselfishness; for the hope of the suffering; for so much that we believe to be right and good. And had Aristotle, the great ancient philosopher, known of Gandhi’s life, he would have praised him for achieving moral excellence, a subject that was of considerable importance in his timeless philosophical work, the Nicomachean Ethics.

In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle argues that pleasure and pain are the main factors that affect moral excellence; he states in Book II, chapter 3, “moral excellence is concerned with pleasures and pains.” However, it seems strange to associate the concepts of pleasure and pain, in terms of how they influence moral excellence, with the lives and actions of people like Gandhi. Don’t we usually think of people like Gandhi as personalities that have transcended the mundane world of pleasure and pain; personalities that have chosen to live for a higher ideal; personalities that are concerned more with others than themselves?

There is more, however, to Aristotle’s position. He states, “[Given that “moral excellence is concerned with pleasures and pains”] we ought to have been brought up in a particular way from our very youth, as Plato says, so as to both delight in and to be pained by the things that we ought.” In short, he believes that we should be taught to love what is good, and it follows from that that what is good brings us pleasure, because what we love undoubtedly brings us pleasure. However, Aristotle also believes that it is a necessary condition for excellent action to “choose acts for their own sakes.” It follows from that that for one to be morally excellent, one must choose actions of a moral basis solely because one believes them to be simply what is good and right. This creates quite a situation. At the same time Aristotle believes that the morally excellent person will find pleasure in what is good, but that same person must, in order to actually be morally excellent, choose the actions not because it will bring them pleasure, but simply because they are good.

I will argue that there is a refinement of Aristotle’s belief that avoids the conflict that his view faces, as well as fits better with our assumptions about the nature of morally excellent people, such as Gandhi. As I mentioned before, it seems strange to associate the concepts of pleasure and pain with embodiments of moral excellence, such as Gandhi. Aristotle undoubtedly believes that “excellence, then, is concerned with pleasures and pains…-let this be taken as said,” but, because of his belief in choosing the action for his own sake, he is in a bind. I believe that there is another factor, and I call that factor awareness of right action. Awareness of right action makes us want to choose what we believe is right, regardless of how it affects us. In other words, it makes us want to choose an action for its own sake; its own moral value. In Aristotle’s view, pleasure and pain were the only motivating factors in regards to moral excellence, but in my refinement, awareness of right action is also a motivating factor. What Aristotle believed to be a necessary condition for excellent action, I am now turning into an actual motivating factor within us.

One should liken these motivating factors (pleasure/pain, and awareness of right action) to three different voices in one’s head. One voice, pleasure/pain, says, “How will this action affect me? Will it give me pleasure? Will it give me pain?” As one listens to the voice, one may be aware of the way one was raised, and how that upbringing may predispose them towards morally superior action, but that is not what is important according to pleasure/pain. What is salient is simply how that action will affect the doer, and naturally, one will want to choose the actions that give one the most pleasure. However, the other voice, that of awareness of right action, says, “How will this action affect others? Is it right? Is it the most elevated action I can choose, based on my moral sentiment?” This voice also is aware that the doer may be naturally disposed towards morally superior action, and that those actions consequently may be pleasurable, but that is not what is salient. What is salient is simply how that action will affect others, and what is morally superior. Then, in order to decide what action they will perform, one must decide between the two voices, or arrive at a compromise.

The decision that one arrives at can both determine and illustrate the moral excellence of the doer. Gandhi undoubtedly had one voice that said, “If you dedicate your life to these high ideals and the service of humanity, you will surely have some pleasure, but there are many other options that are a lot more pleasurable.” The other voice said, “This is the highest form of unselfishness you can achieve. You can do so much good by pursuing this course.” So he had to weigh those two voices, and obviously, the latter came out on top. Pleasure was going to be present in his life, but he consciously chose to put awareness of right action over pleasure. He made it his priority, and therein lies his moral excellence. It was not that his moral excellence was determined by his choosing his actions for their own sake.

One might object that it is impossible for one to truly have awareness of right action, that it is actually pleasure. Aristotle believes that we should be raised in a way that makes us actually desire good actions, and derive pleasure from them. If this is true, then what we believe to be good could actually become pleasure itself, and therefore one could in no way distinguish the goodness of an action from the pleasure derived from that action. Therefore, there would only be one voice in our head, pleasure/pain. Sometimes, I am sure that the two voices meld into one, such as when we give a quarter to a homeless person. We want to for moral reasons, and it is completely pleasurable because it makes us feel charitable and it is insignificant amount of money for us. However, many times we do actually have to weigh pleasure and morality when we make decisions. When people are offered veal, they many times explicitly have to confront the two voices: “Veal tastes really good and I am really hungry” vs. “I do not want to eat veal because of moral reasons”. Then, pleasure/pain are quite distinct from awareness of right action.

The other objection that may be raised is one of an epistemological basis: how can we actually know if we are choosing actions for their own sake or if we are choosing them for our own pleasure? However, I am interested in the practical, and I therefore have to assume that what we think we know is justified and accurate. Other wise, there can be no further talk of practical moral excellence, and we are then no closer to understanding how to be morally excellent than when we started. If one truly believes that a certain action is morally superior to another action, and one decides to choose that action because of his moral sentiment, then he must go with that, even though his decision may be epistemologically ungrounded.

By refining Aristotle’s view, the nature of moral excellence has become clearer, but, in the end, what most matters is the actual real life pursuit of moral excellence. Almost everybody has the option of dedicating themselves to the homeless, but most do not. Why is this so? There are still many questions left to explore, and many issues left to tackle with but keep in mind that this is not like mathematics, especially when explored on a practical level. The real value of asking these questions lies not in its pinpoint accuracy, but its ability to motivate elevated action, for actions really do speak louder than words. Just look at Gandhi.

[All Aristotle quotes taken from: A New Aristotle Reader, ed. J.L. Ackrill (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1987) pp. 378-380]

01/00/1998. File pictures of Mahatma Gandhi

 

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Now that we are approaching the middle of the month of Ramadan, it is a good time to candidly reflect.

Shaytan hasn’t whispered in our ear for almost two weeks, and our nafs ‘ammārah (selfishness) is weakened by the rigors of fasting. In the last third of the month, many of us like to disconnect and find more privacy, but before we do that, it is a good time to take stock of ourselves in relation to the wider community of which we are a part. If we can’t speak purely and clearly and honestly at this time of the year, then perhaps we should all live lives of silence.

For this reflection, I want to highlight the disunity of the Muslim community and one of its primary causes. Many otherwise pious Muslims have isolated themselves within imagined communities of sanctity and grace. Whether it is the Sufi who is at home in Istanbul and Abu Dhabi, or the Shi’i who shuttles between Qum and Karbala, or the Salafi who only finds comfort in Makkah and Madinah, we create boxes of who is “in” and who is “out” and only spend time with those we believe are “in.” We speak about how pious so and so is, how Shaykh such and such wrote some great text, and refuse, either through silence or avoidance or just plain ignorance, to engage the Other.

I have benefitted from Shaykh ibn Uthaymeen (one of the most respected Salafi scholars of the 20th century), from Shaykh Habib Ahmad Mashhur al-Haddad (one of the most respected Sufis of the 20th century), and Ayatollah Khomeini (one of the most respected Shi’is of the 20th century). More than that, I have benefitted from Thomas Merton (a famous Catholic monk of the 20th century), A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami (a famous Hindu monk of the 20th century), and Carl Sagan (a famous atheist astrophysicist of the 20th century). They are all “my teachers,” one way or another, and for their role in my life I am grateful, even though I never had the opportunity to meet any of them.

Deep down, I may have some sort of imagined hierarchy in my mind about who is “closest” and who is “farthest” from The Creator (al-Khāliq), The Originator (al-Bāri’), The Fashioner (al-Muṣawwir). But when I get real with God, I know that I don’t know. All I know with certainty is that God created them and us, and will perfectly assign all of us our next-worldly situations. All I know is that they are human beings who live on the planet Earth, I am a human being who lives on the same planet, and we are all going to die just like they already have. I have met good people who are absolutely convinced that one of them, or a group of them, are certainly better than the others. So much so that it would actually cause a type of physical discomfort to imagine that they might be wrong, and the person they see as misguided is actually the closest to God.

The fact of the matter is that each of us are bound by material conditions to act. And that imagined hierarchy is what determines, to a certain extent, how we choose to act. So if I think that so and so is the highest, I will try to emulate them, and if I think such and such is the lowest, I will avoid them. That is something we are bound to do, and The Merciful Benefactor (al-Rahmān) is not going to judge us for it. But we err when we unjustifiably make claims about “our teachers” that give them a status in eternity that they may not have. And we compound that error when we use that claim to set ourselves off from others in the belief that we are “in.”

I say this because I have seen really good people do it. As far as I can tell, it is a spiritual challenge especially for those who have committed themselves to serious study and practice of Islam. It often comes from people who, in the next breath, will say that they know nothing and everyone is better than them. But their actions speak louder than their words. It is very clear who they think is the salt of the earth, and that they are honored by their connections to them.

It is better to simply do our best and leave the rest to Allah. If you believe following Habib ‘Umar (a contemporary Sufi leader) is necessary for you to prepare for the Last Day, then Allah bless you and guide you. If you believe that following Ayatollah Sistani (a contemporary Shi’i leader) is the best way to emulate the Sunnah, then Allah bless you and guide you. If you believe that following Shaykh Salman al-Ouda (a contemporary Salafi leader) is the safest way to Allah, then Allah bless you and guide you. If you believe that Seyyed Hossein Nasr (a contemporary Perennialist leader) has it all figured out, then Allah bless you and guide you.

But just please please please don’t highlight your personally necessary choice of teachers in communal settings where it is not necessary. And please please please be willing to try something different. Try studying with someone else’s teacher. Read someone else’s books. Go on someone else’s pilgrimage tour. Speak in someone else’s masjid or summer program.

And if you are fearful of the repercussions of this, both in terms of income and reputation, ask yourself this – “Am I sincere enough with God that if I lost this position and no one listens to me anymore and I make no income from it, I will still carry on because I am doing it for God?”

If the answer is yes, then you have nothing to fear.

If the answer is no, then you shouldn’t be opening your mouth to teach Islam in the first place. Go get another job, and figure out your heart before you die.

When Musa came back from the mountain and grilled Harun for allowing the community to build the golden calf while he was absent, Harun said:

“I was afraid you would say, ‘You have caused division among the children of Israel!'” (20.93)

If a prophet himself was afraid of breaking up the community over idol worship, then what exactly are we afraid of by increasing our engagement with those Muslims who have different teachers than us as their sanad (link) to the Prophet Muhammad and wasīla (means) to understanding the Holy Qur’an?

اللهم صل على محمد و آل محمد

PlanetOrbits

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One of the first religious texts that helped me express my longing for God was the song “Saranagati” by the band Shelter, released in 1992. I read the lyrics recently to one of my friends whose body is failing due to ALS, and it made me think that it might be beneficial to share with the wider world:

 

people in this world try to claim they possess

land and sky and water, but they try to forget

that everything that they build and everything that they kill

was handed to them by Your free will

 

second hand gods, that’s all we are

not creating, manipulating, and leaving the scars

robbing from the earth and stealing from the trees

not out of need but greed and false prestige

 

but it’s all yours, what can we own

not family, property, it’s all on loan

but our miserly minds of “I”, “ME”, and “MINE”

fight in wars for what’s not ours so here’s my plea for

 

saranagati, surrender

 

i’m trying to understand you’re the Supreme Friend

You’re beside me and You guide me like no one else can

help me see You in everything and everything in You

when will I appreciate all that You do

 

even pain in this world is to help us see

the reality of material misery

please help me transcend, i want it to end

happiness apart from You, I can just pretend

 

and ’cause You’re so kind, You give us a mind

to choose to love You or leave you behind

forgetting reality, we create this duality

i’m sick of this fallacy

 

saranagati, surrender

 

You’re the roots of creation and we’re just some leaves

by fufilling Your desire, we find our relief

enjoyment apart from You creates just more grief

these leaves become dry, we cry, and drop with the breeze

 

i’ve tried to gratify my senses, but what have I gained

this so-called pleasure is just a cessation of pain

fooled myself with love, again and again

attracted by romance and smashed in the end

 

surrounded by people, but left all alone

and even amongst friends, i felt far from home

we’re one with each other, but You’re different from me

Like a drop from the sea, if we want to be free

 

saranagati, surrender

65-og

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Khomeini describes the beginning of the journey as such:

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

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

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

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

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

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

As another Ayatollah states (this one from Iraq),

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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My favorite gospel is the Gospel of Matthew. I think it is beautifully composed and spiritually moving. Of course, I do not believe that Jesus, upon him peace, was God incarnate. I can appreciate the Jesus of Matthew without confessing the doctrine of the Trinity.

I still cherish the copy of the Bible I was gifted by my childhood church in 1988. In honor of the commemoration of the birth of Jesus, upon him peace, I wanted to share with you selections from the famous Sermon on the Mount. It is recounted in the Gospel of Matthew, as rendered in this particular Bible (RSV), and it is full of wisdom for Muslims.

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Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

Bless are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.

Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you…

Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished…

…You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell…

…Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven…when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who is in secret will reward you.

And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you…

…And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also…

…Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O men of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.

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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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