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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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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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