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Archive for the ‘Rohingya’ Category

حسبنا الله و نعم الوكيل

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

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

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

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

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

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

My friend writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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If God wants there to be a caliphate, then the Muslim Ummah is in a state of sin because it does not exist.

If God does not want there to be a caliphate, then the early Muslim community innovated something in the religion that was not part of it.

If God alone has the right to appoint the leader of the Muslim community, then that leader is the leader whether or not they are recognized by the Muslim community.

The leader has always been the axis of Muslim unity, the expression of Islam’s universal claims over the Earth, and the focal point of the prophetic legacy. As such, I renew my allegiance to Imam Mahdi. There is no one else who can lead a billion Muslims. There is no one else who can unite over 50 nations. There is no one else who can truly change history.

هُوَ الَّذِي أَرْسَلَ رَسُولَهُ بِالْهُدَىٰ وَدِينِ الْحَقِّ لِيُظْهِرَهُ عَلَى الدِّينِ كُلِّهِ وَلَوْ كَرِهَ الْمُشْرِكُونَ

It is He who has sent His Apostle with the guidance and the religion of truth, that He may make it prevail over all religions, though the polytheists should be averse. (9.33)

This has clearly not come to pass.

So when and how?

The only clear answer in our tradition I have ever found is Imam Mahdi. Left to our own devices, we are miserably failing. How many decent, good Muslims have been killed in violent conflicts over the last 10 years? How many decent, good Muslims are living in exile from their lands? How many decent, good Muslims have no recourse in this world to anything even resembling justice?

Muslim unity is a farce. Muslim power is gone. If a second-rate army, like that of Myanmar, wants to push a million of us out of our homes, then they face no resistance. If they want to gang rape hundreds, if not thousands, of Muslim women, they face no resistance. If they want to burn masjids, they face no resistance.

Spiritually, it should make us sick to our stomachs. It should fill us with righteous anger. It should make us weep for the suffering of our sisters and our brothers, and our own shortcomings in assisting them. And it should drive us closer to Imam Mahdi, for only someone appointed by God can lead this Ummah.

In the meantime, there is more work to do than we have the power to accomplish. There is more injustice than we can ever hope to overcome. There is more struggle to undertake than we can bring our selves to endure.

اَللَّهُمَّ ٱكْشِفْ هٰذِهِ ٱلْغُمَّةَ عَنْ هٰذِهِ ٱلامَّةِ بِحُضُورِهِ

وَعَجِّلْ لَنَا ظُهُورَهُ

«إِنَّهُمْ يَرَوْنَهُ بَعِيداً وَنَرَاهُ قَرِيباً»

بِرَحْمَتِكَ يَا ارْحَمَ ٱلرَّاحِمِينَ

O Allah, relieve this community from grief through presenting him

and expedite his advent for us:

“Surely, they think it to be far off, and We see it nigh.”

In the name of Your mercy; O most merciful of all those who show mercy.

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THANK YOU!!!

I would like to thank the 32 donors who contributed a total of $10,548.47 to the Rohingya matching challenge! May Allah reward you all abundantly. I have completed my end of the bargain.Screen Shot 2018-06-04 at 4.22.35 PM

 

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I remember the days after the lunar month of Ramadan in the solar year 2013. My eyes were glued to my computer as I watched the massacre of civilians in Cairo. It was the moment I began to realize that something was horribly wrong with the Muslim community.

We do not choose the moments when God lifts the veils from our eyes. One could justly critique me for not realizing this sooner. I pray that God does not judge me for years spent in hopeful ignorance.

From that moment on, the best way to describe my spiritual state was repeated experiences of the tajalliyat (manifestations) of Justice. God is the Most Merciful of those who show mercy, but God is also al-‘Adl (Justice). God has created this entire world for everyone to enjoy, and God loves to shower blessings on the creation in this life and even more so in the next, but God has also created Hellfire for those who oppress others and oppress their own selves.

Many Muslims are vexed by the tide of social injustices in our time. They witness the repeated murders of black people in the United States without any real accountability for the murderers, the millions of Syrian refugees struggling to survive, the starvation of Yemen, the lynching of Muslims in India, the denial of the right to worship by Uyghurs in China, and so much more. It is hard for any Muslim to not have the veil ripped off from their eyes today.

But I believe that one situation in particular is the greatest sign of the current moral failing of the Ummah of Muhammad, blessings and peace be upon him and his family. Keep in mind there are no incontrovertible proofs for this claim – at the end of the day, it is simply my reasoned opinion (ijtihad) in regards to complex matters of social justice. And in no way does it detract from the importance of everything else that is going on. But we need to have priorities, and above all we need to care about what is happening to the Rohingya people.

I have written about this issue here and here if you need more context.

Know this: were you to give everything you have to help the Rohingya, it would not be enough. You could be the most selfless and giving person in the world, and it would still be a drop in the ocean of righting the wrongs that the Rohingya have faced. There is nothing you can really do to solve this problem. It will only be solved in its fullness on the Day of Judgement.

But this is also true: God will ask you about what you did once you knew. Once you knew about all the gang rapes, all the slit throats, all the bullets holes in the forehead, all the burned villages, all the refugee camps, all the denial of aid, all the IDP prisons, all the sorrow, all the tears, all the pain, all the utter devastation. Once you saw evil manifest before your very eyes, did you doubt God’s Promise or did you doubt your own humanity?

One Rohingya told me, “They took everything from us, and then they tried to take Allah from us, and we would not let them.” Don’t worry about the faith of the Rohingya – what would crush your faith the Rohingya have endured 100 times over. Worry about your own standing before Allah and being asked about all the blessings you take for granted everyday.

What has happened to the Rohingya has only happened because we have let it happen. We have allowed and continue to allow so many to endure so much. So much. Truly unspeakable things.

And so, as a mean to motivate you and myself, I am pledging to donate up to $10,000 in matching funds for Khalid Latif’s fundraising campaign for the Rohingya. If all you can give is $5, then do so, and it will become $10. If you can give $100, then give $100 and it will become $200. Post a comment on this blog with your donation information, or send me a private message at rdavidcoolidge@gmail.com, and I will match the total up to $10,000 insha’Allah.

Why? Because let’s be real. You are not going to go the refugee camps in Bangladesh in person to help out. You are not going to go to Chicago to volunteer with the Rohingya Culture Center. You are not going to devote yourself to lobbying Congress or convincing multinational corporations to punish the Myanmar military for their crimes. There are people who do these things, but you are not them. The best you can do is give some money (when so much more than you could ever give is needed) and post this to Facebook.

And that is something real, and perhaps something that can save you from being judged justly. For if it is truly the case that there is so much you can’t do, than Allah will bless you in what you can do. You can make du’a. You can give a small amount of money. You can spread the word. Allah does not judge you for what is out of your control. You cannot liberate the Rohingya people from their oppressors. You cannot grant them citizenship with the wave of a hand. You cannot build them all sturdy dwellings to make it through the upcoming monsoons.

But you can do something, so do it.

If it is not this, then do something that you think is better.

May God save you and I from the Fire.

Bismillah.

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Spending a week and a half volunteering at the Rohingya Culture Center (RCC) in Chicago has changed my perspective.

It is as if I can imagine this entire Earth, with all of its abundance flowing from Divine Generosity.

“who made the earth a bed, and the sky a canopy; and it is He who sends down rain from above for the growth of every kind of food for your sustenance…” (2.22)

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And from those free gifts, we build societies. Without land and air and water and crops, there would be no skyscrapers and smartphones and hospitals and universities. As Bataille showed so many years ago, it is not scarcity that drives us – it is expenditure of the surplus. We create more and more because our basic needs are met.

But these possibilities are not equally spread across the globe. Building a skyscraper in Chicago is easier to do than in many other places, because there is a concentration of wealth and talent. But what is harder to see is that Chicago is also a place where it is easier to connect people to basic needs. If you can build a skyscraper, the infrastructure already exists to help people in terms of school, health, and work.

I sat with Rohingya kids trying really hard to do their math homework, even though those of us who grew up here would consider the institutions they attend as “bad schools.” But guess what – it is either the best school they have ever gone to or the ONLY school they have ever been allowed to attend. I saw Rohingya elders sit patiently listening to someone translate for them a letter explaining their government-supported health benefits. I listened to Rohingya young adults talk about working at Dunkin Donuts or O’hare airport with pride, because as undocumented refugees in Malaysia their only option would have been the shadow economy. School, health, and work are all available to them, and thus they are now perhaps some of the most privileged Rohingya globally. And they channel that relative privilege into doing everything they can for their friends, family, and community in other countries who are in much worse circumstances.

And in doing so I realized that I had made a mistake in considering something specific like treatable glaucoma to be where I needed to focus my efforts. Rather, there is a more fundamental issue at stake. Will those with access to the global surplus make the effort to help those who are struggling with basic needs? Matters of inequality need to be understood globally, and take into account everything from ecological systems to international refugee politics.

Let us be clear. After seeing how Chicago is handling 1,500 Rohingya refugees who came through Malaysia, I can say with absolute confidence that Saudi Arabia has the capacity to welcome at least 10,000 of the more than 59,000 Rohingya living in Malaysia. Easily. And yet, the Crown Prince boasts about wanting to spend $500 billion to build a new economic hub on the Red Sea.

I literally could not dream up a more grotesque example of injustice in the Ummah, but this is the reality of the world we live in. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya want a clean place to sleep, a simple meal a few times a day, an opportunity to work manual labor, a safe place to give their kids an elementary school education, and the ability to travel freely with a passport. The so-called “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques” not only does not provide that because he’d prefer to build skyscrapers in the desert, but then grants citizenship to a robot just to rub it in their face.

It is so sick. So so sick. Like, I can’t even believe that it is true. Like, I am literally writing these words and asking myself if I am dreaming because how could that possibly be real. How could I possibly live in a world like this, and how could a person like this possibly be in control of the most sacred places of worship in my faith??!!

And so the truth of what I wrote on October 30th, 2017 is even more clear now:

Now is the time when zuhd must become central to our lives. To give up our need for this world and what other people have, because there are so many who literally have nothing but memories of their loved ones’ brutal deaths. This world is already a dystopia, and the only way we make it livable is to be people of zuhd. The vast majority of Rohingya have nowhere to go simply because no one is willing to take them in and share with them what they have.

I cannot control the immigration policy of wealthy Muslim countries, but I can greet my Rohingya brothers and sisters in my hometown of Chicago as best I know how. My wife and I have donated money to the RCC and intend to give more insha’Allah. Over the last week and a half I got to know the board, the employees, the many volunteers, and most importantly, the kids. I truly hope that the little girls of the RCC like Lala and Zaynab, and the little boys like Yunus and Yusuf, will grow up safe in Chicago. They are far away from the horrific brutality of the Tatmadaw and the lack of welcome experienced by so many Rohingya around the world. May they always be protected, and may their lives be filled with Love and Light.

Insha’Allah, the RCC will bring great benefit to the Rohingya worldwide and also bring blessings to the city of Chicago. Almost every night, I came home before my parents went to sleep, and they asked me about it. Through me, they learned about the Rohingya and expressed their support and concern. If we had not had these exchanges, at best they would have read a newspaper article somewhere in between debates about the tax bill and the latest sports scores. But now their son knows one of those young Rohingya men from the articles, Abdul Samad, the youngest board member of the RCC. And so what was once just the name of an ethnic group from some faraway place is now transformed in our minds and hearts into real flesh and blood individuals who live only 25 minutes away from where I grew up skateboarding and playing in a band with Pete Wentz.

I feel like God had this all planned a long time ago. The Powerful (al-Qadir) created the conditions for me to make a choice, and The Witness (al-Shaheed) waited and watched as I figured it out over the last few months. As if it was stated, “I am going to turn the son of the former CEO of a Chicago-based investment bank into a Muslim in 1998, and then in 2012 I am going to start bringing Rohingya to Chicago, and then in 2017 I am going to make him aware of it and see what he chooses to do…”

“It is He who has made you successors on the earth, and raised some of you in rank above others so that He may test you in respect to what He has given you. Indeed your Lord is swift in retribution, and indeed He is all-forgiving, all-merciful.” (6.165)

I cannot force the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia to use his privilege in the right way. All I can do is use my much lesser privilege as best I know how. Each individual has to figure out how they can spiritually respond to the realities of systemic injustice. At the end of the day, both the Crown Prince and myself ultimately owe our social position to our fathers, and have never once worried about our basic needs. We will be judged justly by the Just (al-‘Adl). For the fundamental global issue is the same, and we both are on the proverbial hot seat. It is in our best interest to constantly remember the prayer attributed to the Prophet, blessings and peace upon him and his family:

Praise is due to Allah Who has fed us, provided us drink, satisfied us and gave us protection. Many are those who have no one to provide for them, or give them shelter.

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The Board of the RCC (Allah grant them tawfiq and taysir, ameen!)

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there was once a woman named Zaynab

who was more important to God than i will ever be

and she witnessed things far worse than i have ever known

and yet she said

ما رأيت إلا جميلا

 

there is a Love that never ends

يا ودود

there is a Light that always shines

يا نور

beyond the sadness and darkness

 

the angels knew we were rapists and killers

but they couldn’t see the secret within

that could know all the Names

 

how do you know Love

how do you know Light

how can a woman see mutilated bodies

and say

ما رأيت إلا جميلا

 

“…The fact is that it is not the eyes that turn blind, but what turns blind are the hearts contained in the chests”

 

there are times when what my heart sees is more real than what is before my eyes

 

i asked the young Rohingya girl what her name was

“Zaynab,” she said

and she told me that her Play-Doh

was rice and some aloo and an onion

but all i could see

was Beauty

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God and Chicago

Driving around Chicago the other day and lost in my mind, I was struck by how the geography of this city is a living witness to my spiritual journey. For every doctrinaire pilgrimage to Makkah or desperate searching for a Western-toilet in Varanasi, there is a building in Chicagoland (the local term for the Chicago metropolitan area) where I have experienced global religious traditions. Baha’i, Gaudiya Vaishnava, Protestant, Catholic, Sunni, Shi’i, Thai Buddhist, and more all have a place here. Over the years, I have been blessed to encounter many of the hundreds of sacred spaces found in my hometown.

I am incapable of recounting every place and every meaningful moment, but here is a map of the ones that come to mind:

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There is Kenilworth Union Church, just down the street from my parents’ house. I was raised in this Protestant space, and it is where I formally rejected Confirmation when I was in junior high.

ISCKON Chicago on Lunt Avenue is where I first bought a copy of the Bhagavad Gita, the moment that launched me on the path of asking the deepest questions I know how to ask.

Islamic Foundation of Villa Park is the only mosque my parents’ have visited in the United States, once for my mother-in-law’s janazah (God have mercy on her), and another for an interfaith speech I delivered.

I spent 9 days studying at Baitul Ilm, a mosque in Streamwood, and try to go there when I can.

I helped (along with many others) establish Ta’leef Chicago on the Near South Side, and it is probably the space where I see the most people I know personally.

There are so many other places – these are just a few to sketch my path. But what really matters is that the Lord of Humanity, the King of Humanity, the God of Humanity” watches over it all. The Creator (al-Khaliq) who made Lake Michigan to provide us fresh water. The Just (al-‘Adl) who will judge past generations for what they did to the Natives who first lived here. The Benefactor (al-Nafi’) who brought 1500 Rohingya to the Devon area so that they can begin again.

I have exerted myself as much as I know how. I have traveled around the world to the best places I could find. And on this day, after all is said and done, I am writing this in the bedroom that has been mine since I was 1 year old. How did it ever turn out this way? Human beings plan, and God plans, and God is the best of planners.

May God grant to all the souls of Chicagoland good in this world, good in the next, and protection from the punishment of the Fire, ameen.

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