Archive for the ‘Spiritual Stations’ Category

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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I write because I must. It is an urge that wells from within, and I have written far more than I have ever shared publicly. The fact that I have readers still amazes me.

But I have realized that there is a certain selfishness to my writing. I do most of the talking in this relationship, and you patiently listen. Perhaps you are even gracious enough to still keep reading after I say something that really bugs you.

But in this time of increasing disconnection and mistrust, I want to say that I appreciate each of my blog followers, and all those who end up reading a post here or there. I need to do a better job of serving you, as fellow human beings.

There is so much that is unreal about our lives, and our online presence only increases it. How many of us actually know something substantive about those with whom we passionately disagree or agree with? We shout out at the world, but how often do we really listen. We want accountability for others, but how often do we make ourselves accountable to others?

And so I just wanted to say that you are welcome to tell me what you think really matters. To tell me how I might better serve you, through my writing or some other means.

I might be able to benefit you, by Allah’s permission, and I might not. But at least I can stop for a moment with my perspective, my concerns, and my passions, and reorient my writing to think about you. Unique and irreplaceable you.

Maybe there is nothing you need from me. That is quite all right. But at the very least, know that right now I am praying for you to receive everything that you hope for and more.

We are both servants of a Lord whose treasures are never exhausted.


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The Qur’an states:

“But you prefer the life of this world, whereas the next life is better and more lasting.” (87.16-7)

I have always loved these two verses, because they do not negate the value of this life. This world too is created by Allah, and reflects God’s Beauty and Majesty. It is through this world that we come to know the Creator, Fashioner, and Sustainer of this world. This world is full of signs (ayat) which point to the existence of One through whom the world is. But this world is not all there is. There is another world that is even better than this world, and it is place where loss is not possible.

This is the power of the concept of the Last Day. It is a transition from a beautiful world filled with difficulty to a far more beautiful world without difficulty. And the path to get there is not a passive one. In fact, it demands vigorous activity and opposition to the selfishness which is the root cause of the suffering inherent in this world. In the same chapter of the Qur’an it states:

“Truly successful is the one who purifies [their self]” (Qur’an, 87.14)

This self purification (tazkiya) is a prerequisite for experiencing the beauty of the next world because it is those who are selfless who help us to understand how selfishness mires us in suffering. Hamza Yusuf writes in the introduction to his book “Purification of the Heart”:

If we examine the trials and tribulations all over the earth, we’ll find they are rooted in human hearts. Covetousness, the desire to aggress and exploit, the longing to pilfer natural resources, the inordinate love of wealth, and other maladies are manifestations of diseases found nowhere but in the heart. Every criminal, miser, abuser, scoffer, embezzler, and hateful person does what he or she does because of a diseased heart. So if you want to change our world, do not begin by rectifying the outward. Instead, change the condition of the inward. It is from the unseen world that the phenomenal world emerges, and it is from the unseen realm of our hearts that all actions spring…We of the modern world are reluctant to ask ourselves, when we look at the terrible things happening, “Why do they occur?” And if we ask that with sincerity, the answer will come back in no uncertain terms: all of this is from our own selves. In so many ways, we have brought this upon ourselves. This is the only empowering position that we can take.

The Qur’an states elsewhere:

“On the day when neither wealth nor children will be of any benefit – rather [will benefit] the one who brought to Allah a sound heart” (Qur’an, 26.88-9)

It is reported that the Prophet Jesus (peace be upon him) said, “blessed are the pure at heart, for they shall see Allah.” The window of the heart is the window to the Hereafter, the Last Day, yawm al-qiyama, the afterlife. If the heart is sullied, one cannot see anything but the sweat, mud, and tears of this world. But when the heart is polished, it reflects the light of Allah and illuminates the true nature of this world.

When one of the Companions of the Prophet was asked by a ruler why he had come, he responded:

God sent us, and He brought us here in order to lead whom He wills from the worship of man to the worship of God alone; from the narrowness and oppression of this world to the space and abundance of the hereafter; and from the injustice of other religions to the justice of Islam. He has sent us with His religion of His creation, to call them to Him.

Our Lord has created that which no eye has ever seen, that which no ear has ever heard, and that which no human heart has ever imagined – but Allah has kept it back as a reward for those who take up the path of righteousness and piety.

“And no soul knows what has been hidden for them of the eye’s delight as a reward for what they used to do.” (32.17)

People sometimes wonder if they will get bored in Paradise (al-Jannah). But that is impossible, because Allah will always outstrip the human being’s ability to receive the blessings of Allah. Satiation of the self will continue for eternity, because Allah is always akbar – always greater. Allah is not just greater than this world – Allah is greater than the next as well.

We find ourselves in this life with questions and longings. As much as we fill ourselves with experiences, people, places, ideas – there is always the thought, “now what,” or “what else,” or “where do I go from here?” The answer is that this life is about opportunity cost – we only have so much time to do so many things, and so what will we choose to do? We don’t have time to waste, so we choose that which seems most valuable. When the belief in the Last Day takes hold in our heart, the world becomes vast but small at the same time. It is a huge place, but what is happening on the planet Jupiter, for example, is of no concern to me, because at the end of the day, Jupiter too must perish. Jupiter, despite its massiveness and complexities, is really not that amazing, because what concerns me is what my Lord has in store for me at death, which is far greater. The One who created Jupiter can create far greater. And so I live my life in search of the beauty and majesty and power and awe-inspiring wonder of creation, but I have no need to hold on to it, because is it is all perishing before my very eyes. Rather, I am interested in that which is better and more lasting.

When one looks at the teaching of the Prophet (may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him and his family), one sees that he was a very practical man. His Companions usually asked him practical questions, but the few times that they asked him theoretical questions, he turned it back on them. “When will the Last Day come?” they asked. “What have you prepared for it?” was the immediate response. This is the wisdom of our Prophet: he came to teach us how to live in this world so that we might reach that which is better and more lasting. Time was of the essence, because at every moment, the clock is ticking down. Each breath takes us towards the only certain thing in life – our death.

“Worship your Lord until certainty comes to you!” (15.99)

Religion must answer the question of what happens after death, or else it will never satisfy the most basic need of human beings. Our Prophet (peace be upon him) told his family and friends that Allah would resurrect human beings after their deaths, to which many of them responded, “How can Allah bring us back when our bones have become dust?!” They had the same response that we have now – a sense of disbelief that such a thing is possible. But Allah said in no uncertain terms:

“Say [O Muhammad]: The One who created [the bones] in the first place will give them life again, for He is well-versed in all manners of creation.” (Qur’an, 36.79)

And that is our belief. That just as we live now, and just as our grandparents once lived, and just as our forefathers once lived – so shall we live again, by the awesome power of Allah.

My forefathers came to this continent from England in 1630. Many of them are buried in a cemetery in Watertown, Massachusetts. I once went to visit these distant ancestors, and on one of the graves was written the following poem:

No human skill can warm that clay

Which the cold blast of death has froze

But God shall raise the lifeless form

His animating power disclose.

This is our part of our creed (‘aqida), and it gives hope to the human heart that all of the struggle for the right, for the greater good – all of the sacrifice of selfish desire – has a purpose, and will be rewarded to an unfathomable degree through Allah’s mercy.

History is not an accident – it is all a purposeful journey towards the Last Day.


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the only refuge

i stand on the edge of a precipice

surrounded by blessings and ease

sometimes i forgot how close to falling in i am

until my Lord reminds me

it only takes a moment

and everything can be gone

so i seek refuge in

the One who can love me far more than a mother

provide for me far more than a father

protect me far more than a soldier

heal me far more than a doctor


my Lord, my Lord, my Lord

be gentle with me

my Lord, my Lord, my Lord

i viscerally fear certain trials

and it is only Your good grace which allows me to forget

so i thank You for all of that which You have diverted away from me

all that which I have not had to face do to Your gentleness

my Lord, my Lord, my Lord

i cannot find refuge in my intelligence

nor my goodness

nor my hard work

nor my diligence

nor my networks

nor my planning

nor my education

nor my wealth

nor even my good intention

there is but You

so i ask You

not by anything i have

but by everything You have

to save my son from every punishment meted out

in this world

the barzakh

the Last Day

or in eternity

O Most Merciful of those who show mercy

اللهم صل على محمد و آل محمد

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Dear Lord,

You know everything. What You have granted of me of knowledge is very little.

I have a tendency to separate out discrete modalities of knowledge acquisition, but they have begun collapsing into one hermeneutic. For lack of something more sophisticated, I will call it, “Knowledge, Faith, Action.”

William James, in his book “Pragmatism,” describes how all human beings are engaged in the process of making sense out of the totality of reality. He touches on this when he states:

“The world of concrete personal experiences to which the street belongs is multitudinous beyond imagination, tangled, muddy, painful and perplexed. The world to which your philosophy-professor introduces you is simple, clean and noble. The contradictions of real life are absent from it. Its architecture is classic.”

Is not our daily life a process of knowledge acquisition? Is not my son an entity whose existence is filled with knowledge to be gained about epistemology, psychology, biology, spirituality, and so much more?! Is not the abstract, discursive field of my books and articles a concrete reality – they came from somewhere and were published by someone!

Yes, my Lord, we are all, always, as long as we have intellect (‘aql), engaged in the acquisition of knowledge. Hence the profundity of Shaykh al-Kulayni’s (d. 940) choice for the first hadith in his text:

“When God created intellect, he gave it the faculty of language and said, ‘Come forward,’ whereupon it came forward. Then he said to it, ‘Go back,’ whereupon it went back. Then he said, ‘By my might and my majesty, I have not created a creature more beloved to me than you, and I have not perfected you except in whom I love. Let it be known! You alone do I command, and you alone do I forbid. [According to] you alone do I punish, and [according] to you alone do I confer reward.'” [translation by Shaykh Rizwan Arastu, p. 1]

The young are not bound by taklif, the moral and spiritual responsibility that is the basis of reward in al-Jannah and punishment in al-Nar. Nor are the insane, or the mental deficient. So I stand before You, my Lord, asking that You accept the inevitable imperfections in my worldview, knowing that I am bound by taklif due to the formation and preservation of my intellect by You!

And in this moment, I can take approximately 1/6th of my books, and organize them in a fashion that represents my emerging worldview. There is the “America since 1945 section,” which also includes CDs and DVDs that influenced our shared culture. There is the “Islam from 600-1000 ” section, modified heavily over the years since I took a comprehensive exam on the subject with Prof. Michael Cook (may You guide him). There is the “Whispers of the Transcendent” section, which reminds me most directly of the Unseen (al-ghayb) and the ultimate journey back to You. There is the “Eschatology, as represented by books by fallible men on Imam Mahdi” section, by means of which I ponder the relationship between Islamic theology and the future of human life on planet Earth. There is the “World before the Qur’an” section, which brings together topics as vast as the formation of the Milky Way galaxy and Roman political history. Soon I will add the “I don’t know anything about China and have never been there” section, whereby my deep ignorance about an entire civilization and billions of souls is revealed due to the paucity of titles. There are the books on spiritual wayfaring (suluk) scattered throughout.

To others, it looks just like some books on a shelf. But to me, it is the story of my life. The story of love of home, and hatred for injustice. The story of faith and doubt. The story of historiography and biology and sociology and theology and everything else, brought together as best I can. But most of all, it is the story of how little I know, how little I have seriously pondered, and thus my eternal need for Your Mercy.

I cannot crunch all the data, my Lord, and determine the best course of action in life. Only You know how all things fit together.

How Karbala in the 7th century meets New York City in the 21st.

How Iraq meets America.

How Arabic meets English.

How the Big Bang meets Adam.

How my love for my wife and son meets my love for You.

How the Earth meets Heaven.

Only You know how many more days I have left to breath. I seek your protection from the punishment of the grave, the accounting and trials of the Last Day, and the punishment of the Fire, O Most Merciful of those who show mercy! While I still breath, help me to choose the right books to read, the right time to read, the right way to read, and the right way to act on everything I have read. Make my life to be beneficial for others, and save others from being harmed by the inevitable mistakes I will make.

I thank You for providing me with a reliable babysitter this summer, so that I could spend a decent amount of time studying. Going into the fall, that time will diminish, but I accept that. Even a whole lifetime in the library would not be enough for the burning need in my heart to know. And besides, what I really want is the moon itself, not books about it.

“The whole moon’s always present”

May Your blessings and peace be upon Muhammad and his family

May my breaths be a continual service to my master ‘Ali b. Abi Talib


may my prayer, my sacrifice, my life and my death be all for You

Lord of all worlds

يا أرحم الراحمين


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there you are, moon

i see you with my own eyes

filling the dark with light

“and by the moon as it follows it” (91.2)

“by the moon when it becomes full” (84.18)

“and has made the moon a light therein” (71.16)

you are surely one of the great signs of God

and by you we determine two pillars of worship

My Lord!

I have made pilgrimage to Your House in Makkah.

“The first House [of worship] to be established for people was the one at Mecca. It is a blessed place; a source of guidance for all people” (3.96)

I had no authority here on Earth to determine the time of the Hajj. Others who control Makkah determine when the Hajj began, and so I went to fulfill my obligation and left aside that which I had no control over. But You placed the moon in the sky to determine its beginning!

“They ask you [Prophet] about crescent moons. Say, ‘They show the times appointed for people, and for the pilgrimage.’” (2.189)

Please accept from me my worship! I am ignorant and sinful, but You are the Most Merciful of those who show mercy! I tried my best to fulfill my obligation – please accept, my Lord!

And I fast during the month of Ramadan! And it is the moon that determined its beginning.

“…So those of you who witness the month must fast in it….” (2.185)

My Lord!

I am so sick of the words of human beings, even my own. I wish I did not have to write this. But I find no other vehicle to express myself other than these words. But it is not words that I want. It is what the words point to.

I want the moon.

How many conferences of human beings are filled with words about the moon?! How much contention and wrangling in human hearts is manifested in speech about that which You have created beautiful and pristine?!

“We gave them clear proof in matters [of religion]. They differed among themselves out of mutual rivalry, only after knowledge came to them: on the Day of Resurrection your Lord will judge between them regarding their differences.” (45.17)

My Lord!

No one controls the moon but You. Those with the most billions to spend cannot stop its phases. Someone who has published 200 books cannot make it rise in the horizons other than where You have decreed it to be.

I want the moon.

I want the sign in the heaven that speaks to me with the pure voice of Your Oneness. Far away from the prattle of nervous minds and bookish tendencies.

Yes, my Lord, the moon is not You. It is created.

“And when he saw the moon rising he said, ‘This is my Lord,’ but when it too set, he said, ‘If my Lord does not guide me, I shall be one of those who go astray.’” (6.77)

But it rises high above this world, where our folly has yet to touch, reminding us to fast for You in the month of Ramadan, and to travel to Makkah for You in the month of Dhu’l-Hijja.

I am a Muslim, my Lord, because I believe in You, and want the way back to You.

“This is a reminder. Let whoever wishes, take the way to his Lord.” (76.29)

I am searching for those things that are beyond doubt to lead me on that way, my Lord.

Muhammad looked to the same moon.

‘Ali looked to the same moon.

Husayn looked to the same moon.

And that gives comfort to my broken heart.

اللهم صل على محمد و آل محمد


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