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

With the choice to obey God or not.

With the choice to believe in God or not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But none of them are my country.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

أستغفر الله وأتوب إليه

اللهم صل على محمد وآل محمد

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

Not for my parents, whom I love dearly.

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

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

May my Lord accept from me, āmīn.

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

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Hail, Maryam, full of grace,

peace be upon thee.

Blessed art thou amongst women

and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, ʿĪsā.

Holy Maryam, Servant of God,

pray for us sinners,

now and at the hour of our death,

ameen.

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i thought i had something then

but i didn’t have you

i thought i was something then

but where were you

our Lord’s Mercy made it possible

so i could enjoy for many years

the hero of my own story

then i was told of Karbala

and my heroics were washed away

in blood and tears

nothing but a child i was

lost in his own fantasy world

dreaming of courage and insight

better to be nothing more

than a dying body riddled with arrows

to keep you safe

noble grandson of humanity’s peak

blessings and peace upon you both

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There is a lot of passion out there right now.

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

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

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

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

So what are we to do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dear God

i guess You created me in a time where writing on a computer would be the way that I speak to You so often

it would be so much more romantic if i had a quill and inkwell, sitting by candlelight, as i wrote my munājāt in beautiful calligraphy

would You like me more if i sat cross legged on the floor as i do this?

would it be more authentic?

or is it okay that i am sitting on the couch?

i have to believe that You are more interested in the substance than the form

all i have to give You is my faqr

that raw, sheer need for You

that aching desperation that only You know

and i am nothing

i hate being responsible for myself

i hate having to be the one who has to decide

i just want You to lay it out for me

“write your dissertation about this topic!”

ok, if You say so

“follow this historical intellectual tradition!”

sure, good to know that is the one You prefer

“raise your children this way!”

allright, let’s do it

but instead it is me, with my books, and my blog posts, and my searching out critical discourse

listening to other fuqarāʾ like me

hoping for an insight

seeking the way

but how can i actually complain to You

how can i not feel like You have answered my prayers

that seems like the height of ingratitude

but am i never not in desperate need of You

no

there will never come a time

no matter how learned my mind becomes

no matter how pious my body can be

no matter how sincere my heart is

where i am still not a beggar after Your Mercy

You are my mother

no

You are so much my refuge

that i seek refuge in You for the wellbeing of my own mother

the one who nursed me

the one who has shown me love my whole life

only You i beseech to give her eternal happiness

and only You can grant it

there is no god but You, transcendent You are, surely i am from the oppressors

there is no where to turn, except You are there

and so i turn once again

seeking everything i have always sought

willing to change for You

over and over again

i know i can change for You

i have left that which i have loved

i have left those whom i have loved

i have come to Your doorstep because

how can i do otherwise

the one who has caught a glimpse of You

tasted one drop of the nectar of Your ḥamd

reached the mental point of ḥayra

and understood a bit of You as al-Ghanī al-Mughnī

how can there be any going back

but there is one thing i do ask of You

i ask what your Prophet reportedly asked

do not leave me to myself

for i know i am not the authority

You are

and i cannot find my way

if You do not guide me to You

yā Ḥayyu yā Qayyūm

bi raḥmatika astaghīth

wa min ʿadhābika astajīr

aṣliḥnī shaʾnī kullah

wa lā takilnī ilā nafsī wa lā ilā aḥadin min khalqika

tarfata ʿayn

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One of the unique aspects of the place where I am commemorating Muharram is that it is surrounded by other houses of worship.

Right behind us is a Protestant Church for Taiwanese-Americans.

A few doors down is a Protestant Church for Korean-Americans.

Across the street is a Vaiṣṇava Hindu temple rooted in the Puṣti-marg school of Vallabhācārya, serving an Indian-American community.

Next to that is a large multi-ethnic Evangelical megachurch.

A little farther down the street is another Hindu temple for Indian-Americans, this one focused on a more Advaitic approach connected to Śaivism.

I am not sure how aware of each other these communities are, but I appreciate that they all exist in a shared space in San Jose. Given that I moved to California to reflect on the reality of human diversity, it is all the more poignant. It helps me connect my academic work of studying the Hindu tradition with my lived reality as a Muslim seeking to practice his faith to the fullest extent possible.

Our center is multi-ethnic too. Arabs, South Asians, Iranians, and a smattering of other folks such as myself, gather each night to express our love for the Prophet Muhammad and his family, may blessings and peace be upon them. We use English, Arabic, Urdu and Farsi to convey our thoughts and feelings. It is a beautiful experience of unity in diversity.

But at a deeper level, the reality is that every prayer that is made by everyone in all these houses of worship is heard by the same All-Hearing (al-Samīʿ) All-Seeing (al-Baṣīr) Lord. What our Lord chooses to do with all of our prayers is up to the Lord who created all of us.

If the people from these other communities would ever like me to come share with them my faith perspective, I would be more than happy to do so.

But even if we never meet, I would like them all to know that I wish them good in this world and good in the next, and pray that they are all covered in the mercy of the Most Merciful Lord.

برحمتك يا أرحم الراحمين

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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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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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