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As we all know, although we might not realize it, Islam is a religion of bodies and words. As we read in the Ziyara Jami’ah Kabira:

وَأَجْسَادُكُمْ فِي ٱلْأَجْسَادِ

Your bodies are amongst other bodies

So our biological selves, the fundamental basis by which we appear as creatures upon this Earth, is something we share with the Prophets and Imams, upon them peace. There is nothing overtly mystical about this, but the Qur’an calls out attention to the fact that the biological processes by which we become who we all are today, and by which our children will become the adults of tomorrow, is itself miraculous. As is states in Surah al-Nahl, verse 78:

وَاللَّهُ أَخْرَجَكُم مِّن بُطُونِ أُمَّهَاتِكُمْ لَا تَعْلَمُونَ شَيْئًا وَجَعَلَ لَكُمُ السَّمْعَ وَالْأَبْصَارَ وَالْأَفْئِدَةَ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَشْكُرُون

As Ali Quli Qarai has interpreted this verse in the English language:

Allah has brought you forth from the bellies of your mothers while you did not know anything. He made for you hearing, eyesight, and hearts so that you may give thanks

And the fact that our religion is a religion of words is brought home by the fact that I am speaking and quoting everything right now, so that we are not simply a collection of bodies in a physical space, but our filling this moment with meaning through words. So much so that all I have to do is say, “wa huwa ma’kum aynama kuntum,” and perhaps some of us have a moment where the created nature of all of this becomes apparent, and we remember (or perhaps see a little bit more clearly) the shining presence of Being (al-Wujud) by which all of us – and all of this – is. But for those who do not know Arabic, I have to translated those words and say that it means, “Allah is with you wherever you are,” for that meaning (the ma’na) to reach all selves in this room.

So this teaching tradition is nothing more than bodies (real, actual people) inheriting the words (in this case, Qur’an) that have come from before, and giving them meaning that is articulated within a particular cultural reality. And that meaning is not confined to simply what we say, but what we do with our bodies. ‘Allamah Tabataba’i (Allah have mercy on him), in a a number of different works, brilliantly articulated how every human being has a deen (what we often translate as religion). He pointed out the etymologically deen is related to dayn, which means a debt in Arabic. And so each of us has been given a body by a volition (a will) other than our own, and our deen is how we use it. We cannot but use it, and so we strive to understand the meaning of human existence so that we might use it in the best way.

So what does all of this have to do with the challenges that those young Muslims in college, or the workforce, or graduate school – those who are newly married, have small kids, or who are still single – face?

I would argue…everything.

Why?

Because in the 21st century the challenge of faith for us (maybe not for other, but for us) is not the maintenance of past cultural forms – whether they be articulated in Urdu, Farsi, Arabic – but rather the articulation of a universal truth that is also adaptable to different cultural forms.

Let me ask you a simple question.

Is Imam Mahdi just for us, or for the entirety of humanity, the animals, the trees, and the fish in the ocean?

Of course the answer is clear.

But many of our youth are not taught Islam that way.

They think Islam is their particular cultural heritage that they have to hold onto in the face of different articulations of the universal. For example, they may be watching the Olympics in Tokyo right now, and they get excited if they see an athlete in hijab. Why? Because they naturally, and understandably, want to see themselves represented in the global conversation. But what about all the other athletes? Are they not also human beings created by Allah who are looking for justice on Earth? Are they not all going to die one day and witness the process by which Allah, glorified and exalted, takes stock of how all human beings have lived their lives on Earth?

To limit Islam to the representation of Muslims in public spaces is a major error. It is a subtle acquiescence to the idea that Islam is simply a pre-modern religion that has to find its place in the modern world. It is submission to the idea that multiculturalism means that Islam is no different than Chinese culture or Sikhism, and so you get to wear your hijab at the Olympics, and he gets to wear his turban and she gets to wave her flag of the Chinese Communist Party.

Because when we teach kids Islam, we use words that imply it is for everyone. “The Messenger of Allah to humanity” is one particular phrase that I have heard many times before. So it that is true, then kids want to know: why should all peoples of the world stop eating pork? What is the point of that law? I have Chinese and White and Brazilian friends who eat pork chops, but they are good people that are contributing to humanity and the well-being of the Earth. So what do I do with that?

I am not giving the pork example because that is what a lot of young adults are struggling with, but because it helps to illustrate a point. If ‘Allamah Tabataba’i’s thesis about our bodies is true – that we know instinctually that we didn’t make them, and so we are in debt to whomever or whatever did make them – then we are stating that everyone is on the same playing field. Human beings have a particular existential reality that they face – this is a secular truth as well as a religious truth – and so let’s leave aside all distinctions between human beings as a starting point. We were created by a power other than our own, are given some power for a short period of time, and then it all goes away. So what do we do with it?

If this is the case, then why pork? Why does a universal truth include a seemingly random food prohibition? Well, as we all know, answering questions like this involve being willing to speculate, but also the humility to say that Allah knows best (wa Allahu a’lam). But as a student of history, I marvel at the way, for example, Spanish culture developed a public aspect to pork consumption such that if you travel to Spain today, you will literally see pigs legs hanging from windows inside shops off the street, and find porks in so many dishes. This is clearly leftover from the Reconquista, the Catholic reconquering of the Iberian peninsular from the Muslims, when they were trying to root out secret Muslims in newly reconquered territories. And so at least at the world historical scale, we can see that pork consumption is actually a discreet data point that indicates the spread of Islam as well as the strength of Islam in varying times and places. It may be that the prohibition of pork is not actually about you or me or anyone of us, but rather the collective Ummah as a whole. It may be that it serves as a clear dividing line in sociological terms between Muslims and others. This is made all the more poignant that, in my experience, eating pork is the very last thing to go when someone is on their way out of Islam. It is very common to find young Muslims who do not pray all 5 obligatory prayers every day, but would never intentionally miss a day of fasting in the month of Ramadan. But for those young Muslims who have given up on fasting, the prohibition on pork almost always remains. It is that one last piece of taqwa that they have left – that willingness to do what Allah has commanded and avoid what Allah has prohibited. And so whether or not that is meaningful in the next life is only for Allah to decide, but here on Earth it becomes meaningful in our collective communal expression of Islam. Put another way, Islam has been the most powerful force in human history for preventing the cultivation and consumption of pigs.

It is not very hard to make an environmental point about this. But that takes a mentality that sees Islam as capable of contributing to the well-being of all of humanity and all of the Earth. If Islam is simply my heritage – “well, I don’t eat pork and my parents don’t eat pork and my grandparents didn’t eat pork, so I don’t want my kids to eat pork” – then one isn’t even going to make the connection.

And so our articulations of Islam, at the individual and communal level, have to be oriented towards the universality of Islam for the younger generation to not feel like their greatest hope is simply representation. I don’t want it to be misunderstood that I somehow think greater representation is bad – not at all. Rather, what I am saying that is that Islam is different. Islam is not being Punjabi, or female, or a white American male like myself. Islam is not being an immigrant or an indigenous person. Islam is the help and the guidance and the mercy provided by the Creator of this Earth and this universe to help everyone, including Muslims!

This is one of the great and powerful insights of our Shi’i tradition. That we recognize that from very early on, Muslims failed to live Islam, and so failed to provide humanity with the beauty that it deserves. We are all constantly called to push ourselves to not fall into the same traps of Shaytan that our Muslim ancestors, whether Sunni or Shi’i or something else, fell into. We are constantly striving and hoping to do things right, while also having the humility to know that, just as people in the past failed and acuiesced and compromised, we too might run into the same deviations. But our Imams are always there for us. Our Prophets are always there for us. And Allah is always there for us, as we strive towards the future.

We may find it deeply meaningful to recount the tragedies of the Ahl al-Bayt, upon them peace, but we are a future-oriented people. We look back on the caliphate, and can speak plainly about its positives and negatives, and point out clearly that it only ever effected approximately 25% of the habitable land on Earth. So what about the other 75%? The Islamic history of North and South America has yet to be really be written! We are people of the future, because our Imam is the Imam of North and South America, as well as the whole world!

But again, we have to embrace that mentality ourselves if we are to pass that onto our children.

In my experience, very few Muslims immigrated to the USA thinking that they were going to bring the universal truth to all the bechara and bechari white folks like me. (For those of you who don’t know any Urdu – bechara and becahari is like saying, “oh that poor poor person” in English, someone to be pitied). But that is a truth we must embrace. I can directly trace my conversion to Islam to the work of Indian immigrants to Chicago who decided they needed to make some books for their kids in hopes they would retain Islam. They probably didn’t imagine they would have an impact on an investment bank CEOs son who went to an Ivy League university. But they did.

There was an early white convert to Islam in America who stated that he was not so arrogant to think that he had figured out a truth that no one else could, but nor did he think so lowly of himself to think that others wouldn’t follow in his footsteps. I reiterate that statement. I would not be here today if I did not think, that of all the different ways of looking at the meaning human existence, that Islam is not the clearest and most comprehensive. Truth is everywhere. Justice is to be found in all times and places in varying degrees. But Islam is the call for humanity to embrace the totality of truth and to embody the perfection of justice to the extent we are capable, leaving the outcome of all things up to the One who created us and everything else.

So our words must be translations of truth and justice, and our bodies must act out truth and justice, for our Islam to be what it is supposed to be. Easily the most beloved American figure to Muslims is Malcolm X. This love transcends the Sunni and Shi’i divide, and he is often quoted by both communities. By far my favorite Malcolm quote is, “I’m for truth, no matter who tells it. I’m for justice, no matter who it is for or against. I’m a human being first and foremost, and as such I’m for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole.” That is a great definition of Islam, as far as I am concerned, and people love Malcolm X (also known al-Hajj Malik al-Shabazz) because they see that this quote is consistent with how he lived his life.

So we too have to struggle for that. There are many narrations of the Imams, upon them peace, that state that the true Shi’i is the person whose life and actions demonstrate the beauty of the teachings of Islam. In one hadith of Imam al-Baqir, upon him peace, he states that we should be like:

رُهْـبَانٌ بِاللَّيْلِ أَسَدٌ بِالنَّهَارِ

Monks during the night, and lions during the day.

These words alone, for example, are indicative of one of the beautiful qualities of our faith, which is that it brings together both the worldly and otherworldly virtues. For example, pretty much everyone I know, with the exception of a few far-left activist types, uses Amazon.com. It is a remarkable service that I first used to order books in college, and now spans the globe. It is hard to not admire Jeff Bezos for building it. One might even call him “a lion of business.” But as far as we know, he has no otherworldly virtues. He has firmly planted his feet in the dunya, and his whole spaceship stunt is further evidence of the nature of his deen. But then we take some pious Muslim scholar who is renowned for their worship and detachment from worldly matters, and we are in awe of their otherworldly virtues, even though we would never trust them to run a complex worldly project like a global online retail service. But Islam has called us to aspire to excellence in both.

One of the ways that I have noticed young people go astray is because they lose this balance. This is especially true in regards to the politics of representation. Sometimes their personal deen – the way they live their lives – skews towards worldly accomplishment, and they think that if they can become a tenured professor at a prestigious university, or a partner at a respected law firm, or have a popular television show, then they have been the proverbial lions during the day that their faith calls them to be. But can they give up a millions of dollars from a major television network if they feel their artisitic vision is going to be comrpomised, the way the Muslim comedian Dave Chappelle walked away from Comedy Central? Are they enough of monks at night they they will not fall into open sin when a little piece of the dunya is dangled before their eyes?

Less common, but still problematic, are those who skew towards “being religious” at the expense of worldly accomplishment. They have talents and potentials that are undeveloped and misused because they think that as long as they are praying at the beginning of the time and making their regular adhkar, they are doing what a Muslim is supposed to do. But this world is big and complex and competitive, and it requires Muslims to be audacious, to live in a way that actually demonstrates their faith. I am reminded of the guidance provided by Sayyid Sistani to the fighters in Iraq in their battle against ISIS. Again, as a student of history, I felt this was the greatest treatise on the ethics of modern war I had ever read, regardless of whether I was Muslim or not. If Islam cannot confront our realities, then it will be overwhelmed by them, and will remain only as a refuge of the socially powerless.

As we hear in a hadith of Imam al-Rida, upon him peace,

لو عرف الناس محاسن كلامنا لاتبعونا

If people knew the beauty of our words, then they would follow us…

This is a conditional sentence. People need to know the beauty of the words of the Ahl al-Bayt, upon them peace. This involves translation work as well as the more formal process of teaching the tradition. But as we know, it is not just the words of the Ahl al-Bayt that is beautiful, it is also their embodiment, their lives, their actions. Yes, they were bodies in the world just like other bodies, but, in the words of the ziyara again:

وَفِعْلُكُمُ ٱلْخَيْرُ

وَعَادَتُكُمُ ٱلإِحْسَانُ

Your actions were the embodiment of good and your habits were excellence personified.

And so to must we strive to be.

We cannot wait for others to inspire the younger generations. We must try. We must try to be reflections of the beauty of Islam.

Young people ARE inspired by Muslims often, but often simply based on the politics of representation. So they get excited when they see Riz Ahmed in Star Wars, or watch We Are Lady Parts, a new NBC-Universal show about Muslim girls in London. They post on social media about the Brooklyn Nets basketball player who recently converted to Islam, and discuss and debate the relative merits of a Muslim being the campaign manager of Bernie Sanders’ last presidential campaign.

But – and let me be a little controversial here – none of that is particularly inspiring to non-Muslims. Yes, there may be times when one of those things plays a role in someone’s journey to Islam – for example, I recently had a conversation with a young man who wanted to know more about Islam because he had watched both seasons of the show on Hulu about the Muslim comedian Ramy Yousef. But let me be blunt – no one is going to become Muslim BECAUSE of that show. They are going to become Muslim because watching everyone prostrate in unison before the Ka’ba is a beautiful symbol of human diversity under the shade of Divine Unity. They are going to become Muslim because your family is ethical and charitable and generous, and you welcome them into your home and answer their questions. They are going to become Muslim because they read a beautifully published version of the biography of the Prophet Muhammad, blessings and peace upon him and his family. They are going to become Muslim because their innate quest for truth and justice aligns with what they have experienced of Islam. They will HEAR the beauty of the words of the leaders of our faith, at the forefront of which is the Qur’an itself, and they will follow.

One scholar once said that many of the fiqh questions these days are actually questions of kalam (Islamic theology). By this he meant that fiqh only makes sense when you have already bought in, wholeheartedly, to the idea of God (tawhid), Prophets (nubuwwah), and a life after death (akhira). If one has doubts about those things, it is not particularly relevant where you hold your hands during qiyam in the salat, or whether you wipe your feet or wash them during wudu. So our faith has to be rooted in theological universals. This is what I was saying earlier about how a young Muslim might look at the Tokyo Olympics. If Islam for them is nothing about outward symbolism, all they are going to see is the few women wearing hijab. But if Islam for them is an expression of the collective destiny of humanity, then they will see that everyone there is a reflection of the Creator (al-Khaliq al-Bari’ al-Musawwir). They will see that the Olympics represents human aspiration for one global community living in peace, which is precisely what Imam Mahdi is destined to bring about. And they will be reminded that the strength of the strong, the quickness of the quick, and the endurance of the enduring is nothing but a Divine gift that will be taken away in old age and death.

Our age is one of marveling at human excellence and ingenuity, and so we will not survive this age spiritually without remembering that everything that is human is built on the Divine. The great heresy of our age – the one that Muslims young and old, and in the East and the West all suffer from – is the age of:

أَن رَّآهُ اسْتَغْنَى

“they think themselves as self-sufficient” as Surah al-‘Alaq states.

From the very beginning of the revelation of the Qur’an, the idea that human beings were self-sufficient was put under attack. The Qur’an engaged in a constant polemic with its audience to get them to admit that everything they were was not an accident, but rather the outcome of a process whereby God wanted to place a being on Earth with greater potential than any other. This belief that human beings are islands unto themselves, alone in a meaningless creation meant to create meaning through their human imagination, was there in the 7th century. For the jahili Arabs, there was temporary comfort in wine and song and poetry, just as there has been for the nihilistic aesthetes of Euro-American colonial modernity for hundreds of years. But death is still there to be reckoned with:

كُلُّ نَفْسٍ ذَائِقَةُ الْمَوْتِ ثُمَّ إِلَيْنَا تُرْجَعُون

Every soul shall taste death. Then you shall be brought back to Us

I had met numerous young and attractive and intelligent and driven Muslims who have explained to me that the moment they really became serious about their faith was when someone close to them died, and all of a sudden they didn’t feel so invincible. It is only when we fully embrace the reality that we are going to die that Islam makes sense, so there are aspects to the journey that we cannot control. You can raise a Muslim to understand intellectually that God is real, and you can explain to them rationally how the Reward and Punishment are part and parcel of how the creation works and thus part of the next life as well, but until they have seen it with their own eyes, it just doesn’t sink in as deeply. These are the moments none of us can control, but which are part and parcel of how Allah directs our lives. As it states in Surah al-‘Ankabut, verse 2:

أَحَسِبَ النَّاسُ أَن يُتْرَكُوا أَن يَقُولُوا آمَنَّا وَهُمْ لَا يُفْتَنُون

Do the people suppose that they will be let off because they say, ‘We have faith,’ and they will not be tested

You can’t say, “I am a Muslim” and not be tested. Maybe that test won’t be like the Rohingya, who have faced a genocide at the hands of the military forces of Myanmar and yet held onto their faith. Maybe that test will be when one of our friends unexpectedly dies, and we have to really ask ourselves if we believe they are alive in the barzakh, because if they are, then every Thursday night it would be good for us to recite some Qur’an for them and give some sadaqa on their behalf, and not watch Netflix. Maybe that test will be a new set of opportunities and possibilities that are exciting and exhilarating, but they involve a series of significant compromises in our faith and practice? Maybe the test will be purely in our heads, and we will lives of ease and comfort, but struggle to see Islam as universal and Allah as real without taking the necessary time to strive to understand it with our best effort.

It is well established, through Qur’an and hadith, that Allah tests some people with prosperity and others with tribulation. In general, the tests we face are the tests of prosperity and ease. When I have spoken with young Muslims who are struggling with their faith, there is one clear theme that runs through it all – the desire to be free. The desire to be able to taste anything, touch anything, go anywhere, and be with anyone. Little do they know how much more they have tasted, touch, done and seen than the vast majority of human beings who have ever walked this Earth. They were not born in a village somewhere 800 years ago, destined to farm the same land their parents and grandparents farmed, never even knowing, let alone seeing, what was on the other side of the Earth. Rather, they live in Chicago, or New York, or San Jose, or Houston, and they have pleasures and delights and possibilities that most in history have never ever dreamed of. So when they read the Qur’anic verses about couches and gardens, they are unmoved. Why would I want a couch in Heaven when I already have big wrap around couch with a sectional in my parents living room, with a 50 inch flat screen on the wall streaming thousands of options?! Instead, when you ask them about Heaven, it is about travel and relationships and experiences that they feel they are being denied here on Earth.

And often the basis of that denial is somehow wrapped up in how they were taught to be Muslim. Don’t do this. Don’t do that. What would the community say if they knew. And so on and so forth.

And so they feel trapped. Trapped between an Islam of denial and a global world of possibility. But what if we reverse these ideas, and talk about Islam as the pathway to endless possibilities – not only a complete and fulfilling life here on Earth, but also never-ending expansion and journeys after we die – and the Earth as a place of denial. Denial of our hopes. Denial of our ideals. Denial of the full expression and potential of our humanity.

For we do not believe we are born to die, and end our story here on Earth. Our journey continues in the stars, and we do not need to spend billions on rocketships to get there. The same One who created the Andromeda galaxy created me, and that One can show me everything I have ever dreamed of, and far more that I could never even imagine, even if I lived for a thousand years.

This resolves the great heresy of self-sufficiency. This way of looking at Islam means that the 21st century is to embraced fully. There is no need to hide. There is no need to be afraid. We are the followers of the followers of the Imam destined to unite the globe, and all of us collectively are servants of the Creator of this planet and every other planet. That is what our faith is teaching us – that even though we are not the majority of humanity, and our beliefs are not reflected in the economic, political and cultural trends dominating the world right now – that we are in submission to the processes of history that will bring about the ultimate victory of Islam.

This is the truly audacious aspect of believing in Islam – to acknowledge your smallness on the Earth, but to truly believe, like Abraham (upon him peace) before us, that our individual journey to God has meaning even if everyone around us thinks it is ridiculous. Because that is what we often forget about the Qur’anic stories – that most of the people thought the Prophets and their followers were ridiculous and preposterous! The Qur’an itself anticipates this common psychological challenge to belief.

But being in community helps us to reaffirm our beliefs – wa tawasau bil-haqqi wa tawasau bis-sabr – when other people think we are ridiculous.

And so this is why we must think of Islam, for ourselves and in the way we convey it to not just young Muslims but all others, as a universal truth. As containing the fundamental answer to the mystery of human existence on Earth, and what our lives are meant to be lived for.

Do we think that the martyrs of Karbala lost something that day? Did they lose the opportunity to travel, to hold political office, to create art, to fly to space, to fall in love, to build a company, or any other human endeavor that people have striven for in history? Or did they gain everything because they sacrificed their lives for God, as embodiments of Surah al-Ahzab, verse 23:

مِّنَ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ رِجَالٌ صَدَقُوا مَا عَاهَدُوا اللَّهَ عَلَيْهِ فَمِنْهُم مَّن قَضَىٰ نَحْبَهُ وَمِنْهُم مَّن يَنتَظِرُ وَمَا بَدَّلُوا تَبْدِيلً

Among the faithful are men who fulfill what they have pledged to Allah. Of them are some who have fulfilled their pledge, and of them are some who still wait, and they have not changed in the least

So we are all those still waiting, hoping that we can draw inspiration from the martyrs of Karbala to face our own challenges. To know that whoever finds Allah has lost nothing, whereas those who have lost Allah have lost everything. To know that death is not to be feared, but rather the thousands of ways that the living forget. And to know that we are citizens of the entire Earth, because we serve the Malik al-Mulk (the Possessor of Sovereignty) who is sovereign over all nations.

اللهم صل على محمد و آل محمد و عجل فرجهم

This was originally a speech given at Baitul Ilm on July 24th, 2021. It has been slightly modified.

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Peace be upon you, Messenger of God

Peace be upon you, Spirit (rūḥ) of Allah

Peace be upon you, Son of Mary

Peace be upon you, Word (kalima) of the Divine

I bear witness that you completed your prayers and paid your charitable dues

and strove against those opposed to faith with firmness

You raised the dead, healed the sick, and corrected the deviations of those who misinterpreted God’s revelation

We await your return, at the side of Imam Mahdi

and are at peace with those with whom you are at peace

and oppose those whom you oppose

in accordance with the historical mission of all the prophets and messengers

may God bless them all

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Bismillah

I am really writing this for myself. I pray that those who read it find benefit, and if they notice something off, let me know.

But I want to write it down so I don’t forget. The first Ramaḍān with two kids has made it harder to maintain focus on matters of the mind, so I hope that by writing down my thoughts they may reach deeper into my heart. I will refrain from detailed references in the interest of time.

First, the tafsīr of Sūrah al-ʾAʿla mentioned that one of the ways we honor (sabbih) the Name (ismi) of our Lord (Rabbika) is by not denigrating the names of other gods. This teaching comes straight from another Qur’anic verse. Muslims who mock Gaṇeśa, Rāma, Kṛṣṇa and other Hindu deities are going against the Qur’anic verse which reminds the Muslims that such behavior may lead others to not take Allah seriously or even mock Allah, al-Raḥmān, al-Raḥīm, and so on.

Secondly, Sūrah al-Zumar directly describes gratitude (shukr) as faith. That feeling I have had since my youth – that gratitude towards parents, community and ultimately Allah is the foundation of Islam – is made clear in this verse.

Thirdly, the “illā mā shāʾ Allāh (except what Allah wills)” verse in Sūrah al-ʾAlaʿ was meant to remind the Prophet (blessings and peace upon him and his family) that even something that was promised to him was contingent on the Divine Will. This produced deeper hope and fear in his heart for his Lord. The mufassir connects this to another verse that uses the same phrase in regards the Hereafter. This is an answer to my question about contingent eternity – that if we are too rooted in the awareness that we exist forever, we may come to disregard our status as ultimately utterly dependent upon Allah for everything. I think this can be seen in the less theistic Hindu philosophical systems (darśana-s) that accept the eternity of the soul as a fact without the need to ascribe the existence of that soul as utterly dependent upon the Lord (īśvara). So if even the Prophet Muhammad (blessings and peace upon him and his family) can feel increased spiritual hope and fear at the reminder that all of the promises he is given are contingent, then of course so do we. It is a subtle point, to be sure, but I think deeply important for reflection.

Lastly, the immense joy at the guilty verdict in the George Floyd case was a powerful reminder of the fiṭrī human love for justice on Earth, as opposed to in the Hereafter. I felt like all my Sunnī and non-Muslim friends were implicitly chanting, “Labbayka yā Mahdī!” yesterday. In particular, Attorney General Ellison’s remarks about accountability leading to the “restoration” in which true justice is rooted was just so striking.

Subḥān Allāh, even in the past few minutes I have written this, I feel like there are a few more realizations that I cannot recall. But as the verse in Sūrah al-ʾAlaʿ says, “and you shall not forget, except what Allah wills!”

May Allah allow beneficial truths to penetrate my being such that I carry them with me wherever I go and embody them in my behaviors in all situations, āmīn yā Walī al-Tawfīq!

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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

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So happy to announce that my first academic article on the Hindu tradition has been published masha’Allah. It is entitled “Dharma of Bhakti, Dharma of Mlecchas: Muslim Engagement with Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism as a Living Tradition” and is available in the latest issue of the Journal of Dharma Studies. For those interested in academic articles, you can get it through your university library, from my academia.edu page, or I can send you the pdf.

Here is the basic argument: Beginning with al-Birūnī (a classical Muslim scholar who died around the year 1048), Muslims have written studies of the Hindu tradition. However, they have not covered all Hindu schools of thought, and contemporary Muslim scholars must continue to engage with these schools of thought as living traditions. One such tradition that has not received enough scholarly attention is the Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava tradition, which emerged in Bengal app. 500 years ago. Muslims were the political rulers at the time, and the Gauḍīya tradition incorporated Muslims into their theological framework. For example, the image on this post is of the famous encounter between Caitanya (the “founder” of the Gauḍīya tradition), and the local Muslim judge who is known in their sacred literature as “Chand Kazi.” In addition, Caitanya opened his movement to all peoples, including those who were Muslim by birth. Due to the preaching efforts of a traditional guru from this tradition, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, the Gauḍīya tradition became a global tradition in the latter half of the 20th century. As such, 21st century Muslims need to understand Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism as a global religious tradition that aspires to universality just as the Islamic and Christian traditions do. Other points are made as well, particularly in regards to the methodology of interreligious scholarship, but I will leave that for those who want to read the full article.

Feel free to ask any questions, I will try my best to respond in a timely fashion insha’Allah. May Allah accept. āmīn.

unnamed

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Muhammad_Husayn_Tabataba'i_-_1940s

The first thing that a spiritual traveler has to do is to inquire into various religions as far as possible so that he may become conversant with the unity and guidance of Allah. He should try to acquire at least as much knowledge as to be enough for practical purposes.

Having carried out this kind of investigation into the unity of Allah and the Prophethood of the Holy Prophet he will come out of the domain of infidelity and enter that of minor Islam and minor faith.

This is the knowledge about which there is unanimity of opinion among the jurists that its acquisition is essential for every obligated person for the purpose of acknowledging the fundamental beliefs on the basis of proofs and arguments.

If a person cannot get the required degree of satisfaction despite his best efforts he should not lose heart and should pray for obtaining it with humility and submissiveness. This is the method that is reported to have been followed by the Prophet Idris and his followers.

The prayer with humility means that the spiritual traveler should admit his weakness, and earnestly seek guidance from Allah who always helps those who seek the truth earnestly. The Qur’an says:

Those who strive in Us, We will surely guide them to our path.

…chanting of some appropriate verses of the Qur’an repeatedly will [also] be very useful. The Qur’an says:

Remember that with the remembrance of Allah, the hearts are satisfied.

…Having successfully completed this stage the spiritual traveler should strive for attaining to major Islam and major faith. In this connection the first thing to do is to know the rules of Islamic law. This knowledge should be acquired from some competent jurist.

Next to acquiring the knowledge of law comes the turn of practicing it. It is very necessary to always act according to Islamic law, for knowledge is the best incentive to action, and action produces conviction. If a person is certain about the veracity of his knowledge, he is bound to act according to it. If he does not, that means that he is not convinced of the correctness of what he knows, and that his knowledge and belief are no more than a sort of mental impression.

For example, if somebody is sure of Allah’s absolute providence, he will never desperately try to earn money at all costs. He will be satisfied with what the Islamic injunctions allow him and will try to earn with tranquil happiness what is necessary for him and his family. But if a man is always worried about his livelihood, that means that he does not believe in the absolute providence of Allah or thinks that it is conditional on his trying hard, or he believes that providence is limited to earning cash or salary.

That is what is meant when it is said that knowledge is an incentive to action. The following similitude shows how action enhances knowledge. When a person says from the core of his heart: “Glory and praise be to my exalted Lord”, he acknowledges his helplessness and humbleness. Naturally, power and glory cannot be conceived without there being a conception of humbleness and helplessness.

Conversely no one can be powerless without there being a powerful. Therefore the mind of the person saying: “Glory and praise be to my exalted Lord” while prostrating himself in prayers, is naturally diverted to the absolute power and glory of Allah. This is what is meant by saying that action promotes knowledge. The Qur’anic verse:

and He elevates righteous conduct

also refers to this fact. It is necessary for the spiritual traveler to do his best to abide by all that is obligatory and to refrain from all that is forbidden, for doing anything against Islamic injunctions is absolutely contrary to the spirit of his spiritual journey. It is no use to perform commendable deeds and spiritual exercises if the heart and soul are polluted, just as it serves no useful purpose to apply cosmetics if the body is dirty.

Besides being very particular about performing what is obligatory and abstaining from what is forbidden, it is also imperative for the spiritual traveler to take interest in performing commendable deeds and avoiding obnoxious ones, for attaining to major Islam and major faith depends on doing that.

It is to be remembered that every deed has a corresponding effect and contributes to the completion of faith. The following tradition reported by Muhammad bin Muslim refers to this point: “Faith depends on the deeds for the deeds are essential part of faith. Faith cannot be firmly established without good deeds.”

Therefore the spiritual traveler must perform every commendable act at least once so that he may attain that part of faith also which depends on the performance of that particular act. Imam Ali has said that it is deeds that produce perfect faith.

Hence it is necessary for the spiritual traveler not to overlook commendable deeds while advancing towards the stage of major faith, for his faith will be incomplete in proportion to his lack of interest in the performance of good deeds. If a devotee purified his tongue and his other organs but at the time of spending money was negligent of his duty, his faith would not be perfect. Every bodily organ must get that part of faith which is related to it.

The heart which is the chief of all organs should be kept busy with remembering the Names and Attributes of Allah and pondering over the Divine signs in men and the universe. That is the way how man’s heart imbibes the spirit of faith. When every organ has obtained its due share of faith, the devotee should intensify his spiritual effort and enter the domain of certainty and conviction by completing the stages of major Islam and major faith. The Qur’an says:

Those who believe and obscure not their belief by wrong doing, theirs is safety; and they are rightly guided.

As a result of doing spiritual exercises the spiritual traveler will not only be placed on the right path, but will also become safe from the assaults of Satan. The Qur’an says:

Remember that no fear shall come upon the friends of Allah, nor shall they grieve.

Fear means apprehension of impending danger or evil that causes worry and alarm. Grief means mental distress and sorrow caused by the occurrence of something evil and unpleasant. The spiritual traveler has no apprehension nor sorrow, for he entrusts all his affairs to Allah. He has no objective other than Allah.

Such people as they enter the domain of certainty have been described by Allah as His friends. Imam Ali hinted at this stage when he said: “He sees Allah’s path, walks on His way, knows His signs and crosses the obstacles. He is at such a stage of certainty that it seems as if he was seeing everything by the light of the sun”.

Imam Ali has also said: “Knowledge has given them real insight; they have imbibed the spirit of conviction; they consider easy what the people living in ease and luxury consider difficult; they are familiar with what the ignorant have aversion to; their bodies are in the world but their souls are in high heaven.”

At this stage the doors of vision and inspiration are opened before the spiritual traveler.

Evidently there is no inconsistency between passing through these stages and the spiritual traveler’s being busy with his basic necessities in the world. His inner experience has nothing to do with his external activities such as his marriage, earning his livelihood and being engaged in trade or cultivation.

The spiritual traveler lives bodily in this mundane world and takes part in worldly activities, but his soul goes round the angelic world and talks with its inmates. He is like a bereaved person whose some close relative has died recently. Such a person lives among the people, talks to them, walks to various places, eats and sleeps, but his heart is always lamenting over the memory of his relative.

Whoever looked at him, could understand that he was in a wretched state of mind. Similarly a spiritual traveler despite his being engaged in fulfilling his natural needs, maintains his contact with Allah. A fire of love is always burning in his heart. The pain of separation keeps him restless, but no one except Allah knows his inner condition, though the onlookers also can in general discern that love for Allah and for truth has befallen him.

It is clear from this explanation that the wailing, weeping and prayer of the Imams were not fake, nor were the supplications which have come down from them purely for instructional purposes. Such a notion is based on the ignorance of facts. It is below the dignity of the Imams to say anything unrealistic or to call people to Allah by means of fake prayers.

Will it be proper to say that the heart-rending wailings of Imam Ali and Imam Zaynul ‘Abidin were fake and had no reality or they were for teaching purpose only? Not at all. This group of the leaders of religion have attained to the stage of passing away from self and abiding in Allah after completing all the stages of spiritual journey and hence combine in themselves the qualities relating to the world of unity as well as the world of plurality. They receive Divine light in every walk of life and are required to maintain their attention to the higher world and not to violate any rule relating to that world even slightly.

When the spiritual traveler has traversed all the above mentioned worlds successfully and overcome Satan, he enters the world of victory and conquest. At that time he will have passed the material world and entered the world of souls. Hence forward his great journey will be through the angelic world and the spiritual world and ultimately he will succeed in reaching the world of Divinity.

[extracted from ‘Allamah Tabataba’i’s section in “Light Within Me”, with some minor edits]

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on the Last Day

they will all be there

the Aztec and Inca

the Cherokee and Cree

the Englishmen and Spaniards

the Frenchmen and Portuguese

their story has already been told

flowing forth from and returning to

the Infinite Knowledge of God

historians state

that humans first came here

about 14,000 years ago

perhaps it was longer

it doesn’t really matter

the point is that

God was watching

and is still watching

the story of the Americas

who are the allies (awliyā’) of God?

and who are the allies of Satan?

we have neither the assurances nor the certainty

of Catholics or Protestants that trampled across these lands

we are more humble in our determinations

and leave their affair to God

the past is never past

it is the continual unfurling of God’s Decree

as Judgement looms closer and closer

on that Day

the tale will be told with perfect clarity

and Justice will reign

and Mercy will envelop

some will be brought high

and others reduced to the lowest of the low

and then

only then

will the story of the Americas

come to an end

لا إله إلا الله

North and South America, satellite image

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The Qur’an describes the Last Day as so intense that you cannot expect individuals to behave the way you have seen them behaving in this life.

on the Day you see it, every nursing mother will think no more of her baby, every pregnant female will miscarry, you will think people are drunk when they are not, so severe will be God’s torment. (22.2)

When the Deafening Blast comes––the Day man will flee from his own brother, his mother, his father, his wife, his children: each of them will be absorbed in concerns of their own on that Day (80.33-37)

We have warned you of imminent torment, on the Day when every person will see what their own hands have sent ahead for them, when the disbeliever will say, ‘If only I were dust!’ (78.40)

This world (dunyā) has relatively set patterns according to the Qur’an. People live and die. Nations rise and fall. Hardship is mixed with ease. But the Last Day does not conform to what we witness historically, sociologically and anthropologically in human society. There is no way that we can really extrapolate what we have witnessed here to what will happen there.

For example, we might admire one of our teachers because of their piety, knowledge, and self-restraint. But their knowledge of the Last Day is still primarily theoretical, their self-restraint has only been in regards to the relatively minor pleasures of this life, and all we really know of their piety is that which is outwardly visible. In truth, when faced with the realities of the Last Day, we do not know how they will respond.

In every mystical tradition, one finds stories about people in this world who have achieved the supposed end of the spiritual journey: the walī in Islam, the saint in Christianity, the boddhisatva in Buddhism, and the jīvamukta in Hinduism. But how can the end be achieved when the Qur’an describes the Last Day in terms that completely demolish the patterns we see in this world? If someone is peaceful, compassionate, knowledgeable and pious, those achievements are only in relation to this tiny part of creation. Only God knows what they will manifest on the Last Day.

Ayatollah Mutahhari wrote some words that help to elucidate this:

As a matter of principle, the status of individuals is in the hands of God; no one has the right to express an opinion with certainty about whether someone will go to Heaven or Hell. If we were to be asked, “Is Shaykh Murtadhā al-Anṣārī, in view of his known asceticism, piety, faith, and deeds, definitely among the inhabitants of Heaven?” Our answer would be, “From what we know of the man, in his intellectual and practical affairs we haven’t heard of anything bad. What we know of him is virtue and goodness. But as to say with absolute certainty whether he will go to Heaven or Hell, that isn’t our prerogative. It is God who knows the intentions of all people, and He knows the secrets and hidden things of all souls; and the account of all people’s actions is also with Him.

What is important to understand about the individual he is using to make his point is that in the middle of the 19th century, he was the primary marja‘ for the global Shi’i community. That means that millions upon millions of people relied upon his religious scholarship to properly practice their faith. As the online publication al-Sidrah put it:

al-Shaykh Murtaḍā al-Dizfūlī al-Anṣārī (1214-1281 A.H./1781-1864 C.E.) was the foremost marjiʿ of his time, completely transforming the fields of Shiʿi law and legal theory of his time. He is widely recognized as both an exemplary scholar, a pious sage, and a teacher of the greatest scholars of succeeding generations. His effect on modern Shiʿi intellectual and religious history can hardly be overemphasized.

Obviously, he was also deeply pious, and there are many saintly stories about him. But even so, we are still looking at it from the vantage point of this world. Only God can see from the vantage point of the Last Day.

In a very real way, when we start thinking that we can arbitrate who is a saint and who is not based on our this-worldly experience, we are making claims about the ultimate status of another individual based on an extremely limited grasp of Reality. If I am veiled from my own fate, then how could I have insight into the fate of another? If I am veiled from the acceptance or rejection of my own deeds, then how could I know the spiritual status of another individual’s actions?

Every religious tradition speculates about who is the real cream of the crop. Augustine for Catholics, Antony for Coptics, Ghazali for Sunnis, Shankara for Advaita Vedantins, Visvanatha Chakravarti for Gaudiya Vaishnavas – to each person embedded within their tradition, there is a clear superstar whose piety, knowledge, and character are proofs of their exalted status with the Divine. In the Roman Catholic tradition, the Magisterium of the Church can declare someone to be a saint, and thus their exalted status in eternity is known definitively while we are still in this world. But the Islamic tradition has no equivalent authority, so Muslims should be more cautious and thoughtful when they speak about “saints.”

I am willing to be proven wrong on this point, as this short writing is simply meant to articulate how I think and feel at this point in my spiritual journey. I do not mean to denigrate the exceptional piety or profound scholarship of any specific individual. Nor do I intend to push people away from aspiring towards perfection. I, for example, hold up certain individuals as exemplars of piety, selflessness, and spiritual insight. But I simultaneously uphold that I might be wrong about them, as only God knows their true selves. I will not be judged for trying my best to find spiritual role models and struggling to live up to their example – but I may be judged for usurping God’s sole right to determine their eternal fate by prematurely declaring them to be from amongst the spiritual elite (awliyā Allāh).

sheykhe-ansari

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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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