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I have literally been pondering a question for at least 6 months, without finding anything in “the tradition” that elucidates the issue clearly and without ambiguity. Yesterday, I sat down on my couch, looked at my bookshelf, saw a book, and went and opened it. Without any effort, I found the answer.

The intellectual instinct only develops after the development of the carnal desires, anger, and other blameworthy characteristics which Satan uses as his medium to seduce people. The intellect only reaches perfection around the age of forty years. Its formative stage is only complete at adolescence, and its fundamentals only begin to appear after the age of seven. The carnal desires are the troops of Satan, while intellects are the troops of the angels. When the two meet, they inevitably fight since neither allows the other to persist. They are in opposition, antagonistic – like night and day, light and darkness; when one prevails, it necessarily irks the other. If the carnal desires develop fully in a child or youth before the intellect is perfected, the forces of Satan will have a head start. They will seize the grounds and descend upon the heart, which will incline to them. Without doubt, that person will habitually side with the carnal desires and be overpowered by them; uprooting them will be very difficult.

Then, the intellect – which is the legion of Allah, the saviour of His saints from the hands of His enemies – will appear bit by bit. If it does not develop to full strength, the kingdom of the heart will surrender to Satan, who will carry out what he swore when he said, “I will surely bring his descendants under my sway, all but a few” (17.62). But if the intellect develops to full strength, its first task will be to quell the troops of Satan by breaking the carnal desires, abandoning habits, and fighting inner inclinations so that worshipfulness will prevail…

In all of existence, there is no person whose intellect is not preceded by his carnal desires; the drive which serves as a tool of Satan precedes the drive which serves as a tool for the angels. Returning from that former state, which was reached with the aid of the carnal desires, is essential for every person…

This is from the book “Spiritual Mysteries and Ethical Secrets” by Mulla Muhsin Fayd Kashani (p. 573-4). It comes during a discussion of repentance (tawba). He shows how the intellect is the aspect of the human personality that takes repentance seriously. Its main enemy is a different aspect of the human personality based on desire, which he states in another passage as being founded fundamentally on our yearnings for food and sex (p. 114-5). As he states, “they are in opposition,” and the intellect only develops later in life, yet must fight hard against desires “to erase their traces which have been impressed on the heart” (p. 575).

This is a perfect description of my own experience of converting to Islam at the age of 19, and now continuing to struggle against my self at the age of 38. I literally feel myself grappling with elements of my self that I can clearly see existed within me at least as early as junior high in the early 90s. I am literally trying to become an adult who I have never actually been. Mind boggling.

For me, this is clear and unequivocal “wisdom of the tradition,” and I feel I found it at precisely the moment God intended me to find it. Of course, it is entirely possible that somewhere deep in my brain I knew where it was, since I read this book a year and half ago. But it felt like a “soft miracle” when I found it yesterday, explaining for me the reality of my spiritual journey (suluk). As they say, God works in mysterious ways that I still don’t fully understand. All I know is that I am in need, and God is the Provider.

But as I once reminded myself,

This is the most serious type of knowledge, because it demands that I bring all of myself to its doorstep. I must check my intention, for it demands sincerity. I must be committed to pushing my self, because it demands improvement. I must admit my inevitable limitations, for it demands that I read in the name of “the One who taught by the pen / taught humanity that which they did not know.” This type of knowledge is unique because it has no meaning unless it is embodied – one might read one line that takes years to implement in one’s life.

Indeed, what Fayd Kashani has described in a few paragraphs is the essence of the greatest challenge I have ever faced, unfolding over almost two decades. As I reflect on this, I wonder where I might be two decades hence, at the ripe old age of 58 insha’Allah. Better yet, where will I be 40 days from now, on September 20th? Perhaps with the help of your prayers, I will be better than I am, by God’s Grace.

So please pray for me. I need it, for even though the road has been long, I am still only in the middle of my journey.

حسبي الله

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These words are written as advice for my own intellect. If you have something to share in regards to the same theme, I would very much like to benefit from you!

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There are 4 verses in the Qur’an where the word “the trusting (al-mutawakkilun)” is used.

It is by Allah’s mercy that you are gentle to them; and had you been harsh and hardhearted, surely they would have scattered from around you. So excuse them, and plead for forgiveness for them, and consult them in the affairs, and once you are resolved, put your trust in Allah. Indeed Allah loves those who trust in Him. (3.159)

Commentators say this verse refers to the aftermath of the Battle of Uhud.

And he said, ‘My sons, do not enter by one gate, but enter by separate gates, though I cannot avail you anything against Allah. Sovereignty belongs only to Allah. In Him I have put my trust; and in Him let all the trusting put their trust.’ (12.67)

Commentators say that Jacob’s advice, upon him peace, to enter by separate gates was meant to protect his sons from those who might intend to do them harm.

And why should we not put our trust in Allah, seeing that He has guided us in our ways? Surely, we will put up patiently with whatever torment you may inflict upon us, and in Allah let all the trusting put their trust.’ (14.12)

The surrounding verses indicate that these are words of previous prophets, upon them peace, in response to the dismissals and threats of their people.

If you ask them, ‘Who created the heavens and the earth?’ they will surely say, ‘Allah.’ Say, ‘Have you considered what you invoke besides Allah? Should Allah desire some distress for me, can they remove the distress visited by Him? Or should He desire some mercy for me, can they withhold His mercy?’ Say, ‘Allah is sufficient for me. In Him let all the trusting put their trust.’  (39.38)

The surrounding verses indicate that this conversation happened between the Prophet, blessings and peace upon him and his family, and his people in regards to their polytheistic culture.

In all of these verses, the exemplars of “the trusting (al-mutawakkilun)” are the prophets, upon them peace. When we reflect on their lives and missions, what they were able to confront is remarkable. In regards to the first verse, the context is warfare and politics. In the second, we witness an elderly man worried about the fate of his children as they travel to a foreign land in response to a famine. In the third, social weakness is a reality and threats from those with power are real. Finally, the fourth verse reminds us that the Prophet, upon him and his family peace, was tasked with changing the fundamental basis of an entire culture.

Needless to say, the challenges that I face are not comparable. But the anxiety that I feel about them is real nonetheless. Listening to the words of the Qur’an reminds me that “Allah is sufficient for me” and is the One in whom I should place my trust.

Reflecting on how I got to this moment deepens my awareness of God’s arrangement of the Universe, and increases my trust in God in regards to the unknown future. As stated by a writer from long ago:

Satisfaction with that which God does and causes to happen is attained by reflecting on one’s past condition, when He brought one into existence when one knew nothing. Then He fashioned numerous signs of His wisdom in his creation, so much so that one would not be able to know one out of a thousand of them in a lifetime. Then, without any prior request, He brought him up taking care of everything related to his inward and outward aspects, wherewith he can survive and grow from deficiency to perfection. [Were one to reflect upon these facts], he would know that whatever will happen in the future also will not be without His providence and will. Thence he would trust Him, the Exalted, and would not worry regarding the remaining matters…

How true this is!

May God make us from amongst those who trust in God!

اللهم اجعلنا من المتوكلين

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I just completed re-reading the Qur’an translation I had been using in the months before I converted to Islam in 1998. I formulated this personal goal in response to a question that consumes me: how does God guide people?

When I face reality as clearly as I can see it, I accept that I was not guided to Islam by a Muslim with beautiful clothing and impeccable manners. I did not travel abroad and experience a “traditional” culture. There were no scholars who had spent decades studying at the feet of bearded masters, nor mystics performing miracles and serving the downtrodden. Rather, there was a book in my hand as I sat in the Canadian wilderness. Surrounded by myriad signs of the Creator, this one book made me feel that The Author of the universe has a Voice.

And ever since then, I have listened for that Voice as best I can. I am not a scholar of the Qur’an by any standard, but I have read and pondered it far more than anything else in my time on Earth. While there is much that I desire to learn and experience, the Qur’an always triumphs in the long term, like a deep love from the past that can never be replaced. We were meant for each other, from time immemorial and for time everlasting.

For what is faith but a feeling you have when you hold a book in your hand?

Allah has (now) revealed the fairest of statements, a Scripture consistent, (wherein promises of reward are) paired (with threats of punishment), whereat does tremble the skins of those who fear their Lord, then their skins and their hearts soften to Allah’s reminder. Such is Allah’s guidance, wherewith He guides whom He will. And him whom Allah sends astray, for him there is no guide.*

When God tells us about a place of everlasting beauty where all sadness will disappear like a dream, do we feel motivation in our hearts to change our lives for it?

And vie one with another for forgiveness from your Lord, and for a Paradise as wide as are the heavens and the earth, prepared for those who ward off (evil)

When a place of just retribution filled with pain and suffering is described, do our eyes shed tears at the possibility we and our loved ones may end up there?

O you who believe! Ward off from yourselves and your families a Fire whereof the fuel is men and stones, over which are set angels strong, severe, who resist not Allah in that which He commands them, but do that which they are commanded

When the fact that we once did not exist is mentioned to prove that we will live again after we die, can we taste that certain truth?

How disbelieve you in Allah when you were dead and He gave life to you! then he will give you death, then life again, and then unto Him you will return

When stories of men and women from ancient civilizations are brought forth to show us the sacrifice it takes to succeed, are we inspired to walk in their footsteps?

In their history verily there is a lesson for men of understanding. It is no invented story but a confirmation of the existing (Scripture) and a detailed explanation of everything, and a guidance and a mercy for folk who believe

In 1998, I was probably sitting in a cafe at some point reading these same pages, and feeling the whisper of faith enter my heart. It is now 2017, and I again sit in a cafe feeling the reality of God. Human history is coming to an end. Final Judgement is real. July 16th, 2017 is just a moment, and then it will be gone. But our intentions, choices, and deeds will remain. Forever.

When Earth is shaken with her (final) earthquake

And Earth yields up her burdens,

and man said: What ails her?

That day she will relate her chronicles,

Because your Lord inspires her.

That day mankind will issue forth in scattered groups to be shown their deeds.

And who does good an atom’s weight will see it then,

And who does ill an atom’s weight will see it then.

The Qur’an confounds our humanly-constructed notions of time and space. Pre-creation, the distant past, the present, and the eternal future are all weaved together. God knows everything there is to know, and what we understand is so little.

And with Him are the keys of the invisible. None but He knows them. And He knows what is in the land and the sea. Not a leaf falls but He knows it, not a grain amid the darkness of the earth, nothing of wet or dry but (it is noted) in a clear record.

It is not my intention to tell you what the Qur’an means. I have but one goal: to encourage you to pick up the Qur’an again for yourself. To embrace it into your being as best you can. It is meant for you in a unique way that I will never know. What verses will cause your heart to burn inside your chest and your body to shake are not up to me. As far as I can tell, that is God’s domain alone.

He it is Who sends down clear revelations unto His slave, that He may bring you forth from darkness unto light; and lo! for you, Allah is full of Pity, Merciful

May the Author of the universe and the Qur’an bring us from darkness unto light.

*all translations of Qur’anic verses from the text in the picture

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Muhammad is only a messenger before whom many messengers have been and gone. If he died or was killed, would you revert to your old ways? If anyone did so, he would not harm God in the least. God will reward the grateful. (3.144)

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Dear Messenger of God

May the peace and blessings of God be upon you and your family

I am longing for you

In this night my heart sinks at the memory of how far away I am from you

It is not that I want to revert to my old ways

As there is so much for which to be grateful

But is it okay to simply say that I wish I could see you

I wish I could hear you

I wish I could walk beside you

For when my friend spoke of you

He spoke of the love that is both a means and an end

And every day I take the means that you called us to take

Like fasting

Like prayer

Like avoiding the forbidden

But there is a place in my heart whose end is simply your face

The face of the man who has changed my life more than any other

The face that God chose for you

And I yearn to see that face

for no other reason than my love for you

My Messenger

My Prophet

My Master

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People long ago, their bodies now disintegrated, fasted for the sake of God. They did not have the same variety and access to foodstuffs that we do today, yet still they restrained from eating and drinking in order to cultivate their spirits. Why?

It states in a book by Fayd Kashani: “It has been said that were there no benefit to fasting except ascension from the low point of the animalistic soul to the spiritual summit like the angels, this would have been enough of a virtue and merit for fasting.” (Spiritual Mysteries and Ethical Secrets, p. 535) God created us with bodily needs and desires, and fulfilling them is what makes the world go around. All of human civilization is built upon having a surplus of calories and successful reproduction. In short, without food and sex, the traces of humanity would long ago have disappeared from the Earth.

It is the same for animals. It is part of the warp and woof of biological life. But lions do not voluntarily choose to set aside sacred time in order to refrain from these urges. That is a unique characteristic of homo sapiens. Fasting helps us connect with a facet of our humanity that remains dormant if we only mimic nature.

As part of our theology, angels represent the opposite of the animal realm. Unconcerned with fulfilling their own desires, they are perfectly obedient (despite centuries of incorrect beliefs about “fallen” angels). They represent the texture of an unseen world more real than the one we currently inhabit, a reality indispensable to our theistic cosmology.

And so we exist currently between the two: matter and spirit, desire (nafs) and intellect (‘aql), animal and angel, Earth and Heaven. Thus it is perfectly understandable that fasting has always served as part of the path taken by those longing for that which is beyond.

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O you who believe, fasting is prescribed for you, just as it was prescribed for those who came before you, so that perhaps remembering God will alter your behavior

(Surah al-Baqarah, verse 183, my translation)

Fasting helps us to let go of that which is lower for that which is higher. By the simple choice to abstain from desires fundamental to our constitution, we can enter into a state where simply existing becomes a spiritual act. It is narrated that Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq عليه السلام stated: “The sleep of a fasting individual is worship, his silence is glorification of Allah, his deeds are accepted, and his supplication is answered.” (Spiritual Mysteries, p. 535) There is no need to perform elaborate rituals – just being has meaning enough.

Fasting helps us to connect our embodied selves to the universe around us. As we (ideally) diminish concern for consuming the myriad blessings on the ground, we orient our souls to the skies. The moon, pure in its obedience to the Creator of gravity, tells us when the sacred rite begins. The setting sun announces the permissibility of tasting the water sent down from laden clouds encircling our globe, water that also nourishes the date palms whose fruit we cherish. The month of Ramadan helps us grasp reality – not the one we construct in adulthood, but the reality into which we emerged in the wombs of our mothers. It is to submit to things as they are, voluntarily, even though we have the choice to pursue a million other things that suit our fancy. It is a temporary respite from the desire-propelled drama of life, and a herald of things yet to come.

As a human being who was born into the Christian tradition, the rites of the month of Ramadan at first felt foreign and exotic. It was difficult, both to adhere to the rules and to fit it into my cultural framework (especially since my first experiences coincided with family Christmas vacations). But over the years, the month-long fast has become an existential blessing, where the intervention of God in 7th century Arabia has meaning specifically for me in New York City circa 2017. I have come to feel very deeply that it is part of the human heritage, and do not consider it an accident that every year the world witnesses app. 1 billion people and app. 50 nation states transform their daily schedules.

No other religious tradition on Earth can command that sort of public loyalty, where whole societies alter their behavior for an entire month because of God. Of course, those changes are not always noble, such as the nighttime overeating that afflicts many. But the fact that we still adhere to the basic tenets of fasting communally is a manifestation of being witnesses over humanity. Witnesses that God has appointed this month as a source of guidance for all, and that a large percentage of the population still avails themselves of this spiritual gift from our Creator. It is neither a Sunni nor a Shi’i thing, neither Sufi nor Salafi. It is a Muslim thing, and the whole world knows it.

All who currently inhabit the Earth will one day become like the people of the past, memories or not even that. Our earthly presence will fade, and dust we will become. But faith teaches us that what we do in the month of Ramadan will remain for all eternity.

May al-Rafi’ bless us to ascend, ameen.

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It is narrated that once a man came to Imam ‘Ali and said:

“I seek God’s forgiveness (أَسْتَغْفِرُ اللهَ)”

to which the Commander of the Faithful replied:

“Do you know what asking God’s forgiveness is? Forgiveness is a word that stand on six supports:

  1. To repent over the past – النَّدَمُ عَلَى مَا مَضَى
  2. A firm determination never to revert to it – الْعَزْمُ عَلَى تَرْكِ الْعَوْدِ إِلَيْهِ أَبَداً
  3. To discharge all the rights of people so that you may meet God quite clean with nothing which to account for – أَنْ تُؤَدِّيَ إِلَى الْـمَخْلُوقِينَ حُقُوقَهُمْ حَتَّى تَلْقَى اللهَ عزّوجلّ أَمْلَسَ لَيْسَ عَلَيْكَ تَبِعَةٌ
  4. To fulfill every obligation which you ignored in the past so that you may now be just with it –  أَنْ تَعْمِدَ إِلَى كُلِّ فَرِيضَةٍ عَلَيْكَ ضَيَّعْتَهَا فَتُؤَدِّيَ حَقَّهَا
  5. To aim at the flesh grown as a result of unlawful earning so that you may melt it by grief of repentance till the skin touches the bone and a new flesh grows between – أَنْ تَعْمِدَ إِلَى اللَّحْمِ الَّذِي نَبَتَ عَلَى السُّحْتِ فَتُذِيبَهُ بالاْحْزَانِ، حَتَّى يَلْصِقَ الْجِلْدُ بِالْعَظْمِ، وَيَنْشَأَ بَيْنَهُمَا لَحْمٌ جَدِيدٌ
  6. To make the body taste the pain of obedience as you previously made it taste the sweetness of disobedience – أَنْ تُذِيقَ الْجِسْمَ أَلَمَ الطَّاعَةِ كَمَا أَذَقْتَهُ حَلاَوَةَ الْمَعْصِيَةِ

On such an occasion you may say, I seek God’s forgiveness.”

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“The provisions required for this spiritual journey consist of spiritual and ascetic practices to discipline the soul. Since relinquishing material attachments is very difficult, the traveler begins to cut the binding chains of attachment to the realm of multiplicity little by little and leaves the world of physical nature behind.

Hardly before the traveler recovers from the exhaustion of this journey, he enters the intermediate world, which is the world of psychic multiplicity. Here, he clearly realizes how precious are the treasures that material and external multiplicities have stored within his corporeal nature. These are the same imaginal psychic beings that come into being as a result of the traveler’s encounter with and interest in external multiplicities and are considered its outcome and by-products.

These thoughts and preoccupations hinder the travelers wayfaring and take away his serenity and peace of mind. When he wants to take repose in the remembrance of God for a short while, they besiege him like a deluge and threaten his whole being…

It is obvious that the pain and distress caused by psychic multiplicities are more powerful than multiplicities of the physical world. For one can willingly and deliberately retreat and isolate oneself and be saved from disturbance of and encounter with external multiplicities. But one certainly cannot free oneself from the disturbance of temptations and imaginations of the carnal soul, for those enticements always accompany one closely and intimately.

The traveler…is determined to leave behind the realm of temptations that is usually called the intermediate world. However, the traveler must be very alert and careful lest there remain any of those tempting thoughts in the corners of his heart. Because it is a characteristic of these imaginal elements to hide in the most obscured corners of the heart in such a way that the traveler is deceived when he wants to cast them out. He may be fooled to believe that he has freed himself of their evil presence and has been relieved of all remnants of the [the intermediate world]. But when the traveler reaches the spring of life and wants to quench his thirst from the fountains of wisdom, suddenly they attack him and finish him off…

The example of such a traveler is like that of a person who has filled a pool in his house with water but has not touched it for some time. Therefore, all the dirt and impurities of the water has settled down at the bottom of the pool and the water seems clean and clear to him. He assumes that the clarity and purity of the water is permanent. However, as soon as he wants to enter the pool or wishes to wash something in it, suddenly all that dirt and sediment contaminates the clear water again and spots of dirt reappear on the surface. Therefore, through persistent spiritual combat and ascetic practices the traveler must acquire such a degree of certitude and inward peace that imaginal psychic elements are subjugated and cannot disturb his mind when he turns attention to the Beloved Lord.

When the traveler passes through the realm of physical nature, and the intermediate world, he enter the world of spirit…”

‘Allamah Tabataba’i, Kernel of the Kernel, pp. 15-17

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