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This post originally appeared in 2015 in The Muslim Observer. It has been slightly modified herein.

American life is defined by the intersection of three institutional sectors: public, private, and non-profit. Public denotes governmental institutions, like the IRS through which we pay for federal institutions like the National Park Service. The private sector is dominated by for-profit corporations, such as Apple, which manufactured the laptop through which I am writing this post. Non-profits, the smallest sector of the three, consist of a whole range of entities, such as hospitals, universities, and religious organizations.

It is within this context that the Qur’anic teachings regarding charitable giving are implemented for Muslims in the United States. The root n-f-q, indicating spending, is used dozens of times in the Qur’an. For example, verse 254 of Surah al-Baqara states: “You who believe, give from what We have provided for you, before the Day comes when there is no bargaining, no friendship, and no intercession. It is the disbelievers who are wrong.”

The same verb is also found in the hadith literature, such as this hadith related in Muslim’s Sahih: “Of the dinar you spend as a contribution in Allah’s path, or to set free a slave, or as a sadaqa given to a needy, or to support your family, the one yielding the greatest reward is that which you spent on your family.” This hadith gives us a broad understanding of charitable giving in Islam. Buying a laptop from Apple for your child who is going off to college can be an act of worship, even though it has nothing to do with the non-profit sector. But for many Muslims in America, there is also the desire to effect social change through charitable giving. In fact, it is the socio-economic lifeblood of the American Muslim community, and the causes for which we give are myriad. There are approximately 6 broad categories of giving:

  • Islamic centers
  • Islamic schools
  • Development organizations (e.g. Islamic Relief USA)
  • Da’wah
  • Islamic Education for adults
  • Community advocacy organizations (e.g. CAIR)

We find ourselves donating to these organizations in a variety of settings. Sometimes it is at fundraising dinner. At other times, we might have some zakat or khums to pay, and write a check to the appropriate organization(s). On occasion, we may be moved by media coverage to donate to help those suffering in our country or around the world. In all situations, the socio-political reality is the same. We write a check/use our credit card/pull cash out of our wallet, and it goes into the bank account of a registered non-profit, and they send us a receipt and use the funds for whatever purpose they were designated.

But behind that material facade is something deeper, and ultimately more important. It is the internal spiritual attitude of the person giving the money, and their ascent towards sincerity (ikhlas). It is the metaphysics of charitable giving.

We can see this process in the Qur’an, which lays out at least three different attitudes towards charitable giving. In the case of the three sections that will be quoted, the immediate context is feeding the hungry. In the context of Islam in the United States, it is most likely that such an act would be accomplished by making a donation to organization that feeds the hungry in either the USA or another country,

At the lowest level is the attitude of those who mock faith openly. Verse 47 of Surah Ya Sin states: “and when they are told, ‘Give to others out of what God has provided for you,’ the disbelievers say to the believers, ‘Why should we feed those that God could feed if He wanted? You must be deeply misguided.’” Not only does a person at this level not give, they blame God for the misery that inspires people of faith to give. They twist the concept of an All-Powerful Deity to become an excuse for their own selfishness. The average Muslim is not so bold as to speak this way, but it is possible that this may be what they think in their hearts. In a very subtle way, they may whisper to themselves, “Why do I have to give up this money I have been saving for something I want?! If God is so powerful, why doesn’t He just feed them?!” In light of the massive scale of need amongst Syrians, Yemenis, and the Rohingya – in addition to many other worthy causes worldwide and at home – the possibility of slipping into this type of thinking is very real, even for someone who outwardly identifies as a Muslim and donates to Muslim community institutions. Right now, our world needs billions and billions of dollars to help people facing real difficulties. What that means for any individual is that even if we gave all the surplus we have, there will still be a need. In such a reality, it is very possible to slip into this type of thinking, and may God protect us from it, ameen.

At a better level are those described in Surah al-Ma’un: “[Prophet], have you considered the person who denies the Judgement? It is he who pushes aside the orphan and does not urge others to feed the needy. So woe to those who pray but are heedless of their prayer; those who are all show and forbid common kindnesses.” At this level, a person is a part of the Muslim community, most notably through attendance at communal worship. But their religiosity does not deeply effect them at the level of concern for humanity. There is a disconnect between their performance of religion, and the way they treat other human beings. At this level, one is not necessarily actively opposed to charitable giving, as in the case of the first level. Rather, one is veiled from such concerns by an obsession with the outward trappings of religiosity. One has left the utter contempt for religion characterized by the first level, which is undoubtedly a good thing. But while doing so, one has strayed by failing to see that Islam has two essential elements: worship of the Creator and service to the creation.

The first and second levels highlight the struggle between the inward and the outward. But the third and higher level is when the two become integrated. Verses 8-11 of Surah al-Insan states: “They give food to the poor, the orphan, and the captive, though they love it themselves, saying, ‘We feed you for the sake of God alone: We seek neither recompense nor thanks from you. We fear the Day of our Lord––a woefully grim Day.’ So God will save them from the woes of that Day, [and] give them radiance and gladness.” At this level, the one we should all aspire towards, giving is completely detached from any hope of worldly reward or benefit. It is only for God, whether it be $1 dollar or $1,000,000 dollars. No need to sit on a board of directors. No need to even receive a thank you card. This transforms charitable giving into a transcendental search for the Divine Pleasure (ridwan). It becomes a very tangible way in which a human being expresses their hope and fear in God alone, for Allah does not announce from the Heavens that He has accepted this effort. As we learn from another hadith: “Then a man will be brought forward whom Allah generously provided for, giving him various kinds of wealth, and Allah will recall to him the benefits given, and the man will acknowledge them, to which Allah will say, ‘And what have you done with them?’ The man will answer, ‘I have not left a single kind of expenditure You love to see made, except that I have spent on it for Your sake.’ Allah will say, ‘You lie. You did it so as to be called generous, and it has already been said.’ Then he will be sentenced and dragged away on his face to be flung into the fire.”

Giving is only the first step. Giving with sincerity is the more elusive goal. One never knows whether or not Allah has accepted one’s charitable giving. But we must still strive to purify ourselves of any ulterior motive, recognizing that whatever we have given was first given to us from al-Razzaq, and only One can reward us beyond our imaginations. The metaphysics of charitable giving is to take the most worldly thing possible – money – and turn it into an expression of our realization of the Oneness of God. Only then will be capable of realizing the promise in the Qur’an: “Those who spend their wealth in God’s cause are like grains of corn that produce seven ears, each bearing a hundred grains. God gives multiple increase to whoever He wishes: He is limitless and all knowing.”

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This sermon of Imam ‘Alī really spoke to me this day of Friday. It is originally found here but I have made some edits:

Divine orders descend from heaven to earth like drops of rain, bringing to everyone what is destined for them whether increase or loss.

So if any one of you sees your brother [or sister] with children or wealth or abundance in their own person, then do not make a big deal out of it. So long as a Muslim does not commit such a deed that, if it were made known, they would be humbled if it were mentioned or lowly people would feel emboldened by hearing of it, that person is like a gambler who expects that the first draw of his arrow would secure him gain and also cover up the previous loss.

أمَّا بَعْدُ، فَإِنَّ الاْمْرَ يَنْزِلُ مِنَ السَّماءِ إِلَى الاْرْضِ كَقَطر المَطَرِ إِلَى كُلِّ نَفْسٍ بِمَا قُسِمَ لَهَا مِنْ زِيَادَةٍ أَوْ نُقْصَانٍ، فإذا رَأَى أَحَدُكُمْ لاِخِيهِ غَفِيرَةً في أَهْلٍ أَوْ مَالٍ أَوْ نَفْسٍ فَلاَ تَكُونَنَّ لَهُ فِتْنَةً، فَإِنَّ المَرْءَ المُسْلِمَ مَا لَمْ يَغْشَ دَنَاءَةً تَظْهَرُ فَيَخْشَعُ لَهَا إِذَا ذُكِرَتْ، وَيُغْرَى بهَا لِئَامُ النَّاسِ، كانَ كَالفَالِجِ اليَاسِرِشة الَّذِي يَنْتَظِرُ أَوَّلَ فَوْزَةٍ مِنْ قِدَاحِهِ تُوجِبُ لَهُ المَغْنَمَ، وَيُرْفَعُ عَنْهُ بهاالمَغْرَمُ.

Similarly, the Muslim who is free from deception expects one of two good things, either responding to the call of Allah – and what is with Allah is better for him – or sustenance from Allah. They already have children and property, as well as their religion and honor. Wealth and children are the gains of this world, whereas virtuous deed are the gains of the next. For some people, Allah joins them both together.

كَذْلِكَ المَرْءُ المُسْلِمُ البَرِيءُ مِنَ الخِيَانَةِ يَنْتَظِرُ مِنَ اللهِ إِحْدَى الحُسْنَيَيْنِ: إِمَّا دَاعِيَ اللهِ فَمَا عِنْدَ اللهِ خَيْرٌ لَهُ، وَإِمَّا رِزْقَ اللهِ فَإِذَا هُوَ ذُو أَهْلٍ وَمَالٍ، وَمَعَهُ دِينُهُ وَحَسَبُهُ. إِنَّ المَالَ وَالبَنِينَ حَرْثُ الدُّنْيَا، والعَمَلَ الصَّالِحَ حَرْثُ الاْخِرَةِ، وَقَدْ يَجْمَعُهُمَا اللهُ لاِقْوَامٍ،

Be wary of Allah regarding what Allah has told you to be wary of, and hold Allah in such esteem that no lame excuses will be necessary.

Do good works without showing off or need for them to be known by others. For if someone does a good deed for other than Allah, then Allah leaves them to the one for whom they did that deed.

And we ask Allah to bless us with the ranks of the martyrs, the company of the blissful, and the friendship of the Prophets.

فَاحْذَرُوا مِنَ اللهِ مَا حَذَّرَكُمْ مِنْ نَفْسِهِ، وَاخْشَوْهُ خَشْيَةً لَيْسَتُ بَتَعْذِيرٍ وَاعْمَلُوا في غَيْرِ رِيَاءٍ وَلاَ سُمْعَةٍ؛ فَإِنَّهُ مَنْ يَعْمَلْ لِغَيْرِ اللهِ يَكِلْهُ اللهُ إِلَى مَنْ عَمِلَ لَهُ. نَسْأَلُ اللهَ مَنَازِلَ الشُّهَدَاءِ، وَمُعَايَشَةَ السُّعَدَاءِ، وَمُرَافَقَةَ الاْنْبِيَاءِ.

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I don’t know you

and I am not worthy of you

but my worthiness is not the standard by which I will reach you

rather

it is your nobility and generosity

upon which I rely

sitting here

across the sea

it seems impossible that I would get there

but I once thought it impossible

to stand in front of Husayn

and then it was real

so I know that I can find myself in front of you

should God bestow upon me a mercy I do not deserve

yet again

as-salāmu ‘alayka yā Imām al-Riḍā!

I remember

sitting in a majlis

and hearing a story

that someone thought you were a servant

and asked for a massage

you did not scold him

but rather fulfilled his request

until another indicated to him who you were

I wonder if he asked you because your skin was black

and thus assumed you could not be the leader of the Muslims

beloved by God

abundant of knowledge

excellent in conduct

he saw you as fit to be his servant

when in fact the mountains and stars praised your name

as-salāmu ‘alayka yā Imām al-Riḍā!

I pray that God grants me life enough

and strength enough

and wealth enough

to find myself in your courtyard

to renew a relationship

meant for eternity

as-salāmu ‘alayka yā Imām al-Riḍā!

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After all the studies of fiqh manuals and pilgrimages overseas.

After all the tazkiya al-nafs and reading of commentaries on ‘aqida texts.

After all the discussions about schools of thought and attempts to understand 1400 years of Islamic history.

After all the work building out masjids and schools and third spaces.

I am writing this from the same kitchen table where I sat eating ham as a 17 year old kid who just wanted to skateboard with my friends and go out with my girlfriend.

What was it all for?

The only compelling answer is that I have changed on the inside.

The body that sat here at age 17 wasn’t sure if God was real and was definitely not convinced of the resurrection.

But the 40+ year old man knows that whatever I am is nothing but what God has blessed me to utilize for a short time, and that just as I once came from nothing into this world, so too can God give me life again in whatever place God chooses.

My heart sends salawat and salam upon the Best of Creation and his purified progeny, the leaders of humanity, through whom I understand who God is and how best to serve God in my little way.

I understand my religion in both its historical development and its contemporary relevance, and live it each day and am willing to teach it to others.

My fingers hope to please God by writing this message, as a reminder that if I can find Islam, then any 17-year old American kid who is thinking about nothing but the dunya right now can also find the answers to the meaning of life within the Islamic tradition.

I have no idea how many years I have left on this Earth, but I am thankful for the life I have lived and the future laid out in front of me.

Human beings plan and Allah plans and Allah is the best of planners.

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The Greater Islam

I need to let go.

I need to say to myself, “You have taken into consideration the myriad issues at play in the interpretation of the religious history of humanity, and you have done your spiritual due diligence (muḥāsaba) in regards to your own obligations to God and humanity vis-a-vis the Islamic tradition.”

And then just rely on God.

That unmediated, natural sense of dependence on the Creator.

Because I don’t know how to move beyond the spiritual state that I have been in.

I sent an email to a teacher. And then followed up weeks later when I didn’t hear anything. Still nothing.

But I have to remember that the teacher has no power of his own.

God holds all the keys and created all the doors.

لَهُ مَقَالِيدُ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ يَبْسُطُ الرِّزْقَ لِمَن يَشَاءُ وَيَقْدِرُ إِنَّهُ بِكُلِّ شَيْءٍ عَلِيم

“To Him belong the keys of the heavens and the earth: He expands the provision for whomever He wishes, and tightens it for whomever He wishes. Indeed He has knowledge of all things.” (42.12)

If I need a teacher, God will provide me one.

‘Allamah Tabataba’i states:

Islām-i akbar consists of total submission and absolute surrender before God, that is to say, renunciation of all complaints and objections before Him, Almighty and Glorious is He. It also connotes the recognition of the fact that anything that exists, or any event that takes place, is destined by God and, therefore, good; and that which does not occur is not in one’s best interest. In short, Islām-i akbar calls for total abstinence from questioning and complaining in regard to the Almighty Lord.” (Kernel of the Kernel, pp. 45-6)

Is not today exactly as it should be?

Is not God capable of all things?

Has not God shown me favor and answered my entreaties countless times before?

And so I need to let go of any resentment, frustration, and confusion.

And just rely on God.

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We are already sacred.

When we think of the foundational ritual of our religion, it is the ṣalāt.

It is nothing but our bodies, the land and water.

The land upon which we live.

The water that we need to survive.

The bodies through which we have this human experience.

The ritual that our Creator call us to perform every day is rooted in the ever-present sacredness of us and our surroundings.

It requires nothing else but that which is already there as the foundations of human life on Earth.

We are already sacred, and the ṣalāt is a reminder of that reality.

We can forget.

We can temporarily unpurify our bodies, the ground and/or the water.

But daily connection with the sacred is intention–>water–>body–>land.

It is the foundational truth to which we return again and again.

The stark confrontation with the real.

Land. Water. Bodies.

الله الله الله

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We were sitting in the New York University prayer room, overlooking Washington Square Park.

Across from the fountain and arch, there are large apartment buildings that we could see from our 5th floor view.

Our teacher that day, Shaykh Khalil, had a message for us that I will never forget.

“One of the mercies that we do not always perceive is the mercy of the veil.”

What was he getting at?

“There are so many thing happening around us all the time, and we do not even know, but Allah knows. You see that apartment building across the park? Perhaps someone is being raped in there right now. Perhaps a child is being abused. Perhaps a murder is taking place. And we are veiled from all of it.”

I felt my heart sink. It was true. In a city like New York, beneath the veneer of nice restaurants and quirky street performers lay something sinister. One could feel it.

“But Allah does not ask you to confront all of it. Because you can’t handle it.”

***

I think about that day a lot. The cruelty of the world overwhelms me, what little of it I can comprehend. I have witnessed things that have changed me forever. But I still have hope in eternal meanings that help me to reconcile it all.

I don’t know what the future holds. Like many, I am sometimes filled with anxiety and worry. But I am thankful for the fact that Allah is gentle with me. I am still a recipient of the mercy of the veil.

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I want to remember these two moments clearly.

First moment:

I have been wanting to go to Mashhad in Iran, so that I can make the ziyāra of Imām al-Riḍā عليه السلام. I was speaking with a shaykh in the winter about going this past summer, but it obviously was not possible due to COVID. I try to do things to keep this intention fresh, because it is important to me. But at times I feel despondent, partially because of COVID and partially because of the Trump administration’s belligerent stance towards Iran. At times I have felt overwhelmed and trapped when thinking about this.

Then I was reading in a book about an Iranian shaykh wanting to visit his Iraqi teacher. In telling the story of how they met up in Syria, he casually mentioned that due to Iraq’s belligerence towards Iran in the aftermath of the Revolution, he wasn’t able to go for ziyāra in Iraq for sixteen years!!! At that moment, I knew that my intention has to stay fresh at least for the next 15 years (2035).

Second moment:

At times, I want so badly to see the blessed people of the past, it hurts. I want to see with my own eyes the people to whom we give our allegiance – the same people about whom we debate endlessly. I just want to break through all those words to the people that those words are about. At times, it feels like I just go on waiting and waiting, and it will never happen.

Then I was reading in a book, and a story was told about a man who prayed for 30 years for something. One day, the man meets up with the Prophet Ibrahīm عليه السلام but does not know who he is, and they walk together. Eventually he tells the prophet that he has been praying for something for 30 years and it still hasn’t come to fruition. The prophet replies that, “when Allah holds a creature dear, He delays the acceptance of his prayers so that he may continue to plead and supplicate Him.” So the prophet asks him what he has been praying for, and the man reveals that he has been praying to see Prophet Ibrahīm عليه السلام. The prophet replies, “Now your prayer has been answered. I am that Ibrahīm.”

I knew in that moment that I have only been yearning for maybe 5 years, so I at least have to be prepared to wait another 25 (2045).

The signs are there, even when we aren’t looking for them.

yā Allāh, as long as I can still move about on this Earth, I will want to go to Mashhad, and as long as I still have eyes I will want to see my beloveds. I will ask this of You today and tomorrow as a matter of worship, and will await Your decision with patience. You have taught me in these two moments that I have no right to feel overwhelmed by either of these things.

You have reminded me that things happen in due time

according to Your decision

not mine.

اللهم صل على محمد و آل محمد

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240px-Sayyid_'Abd_al-Ḥusayn_Dastghiyb

Dear Shaykh Sayyid ‘Abd al-Ḥusayn Dastghaib Shīrāzī,

السلام عليكم و ر حمة الله

I do not know that much about you, but I know that you were assassinated on the way to prayer. And I know your book about sin. I have been reading it as a form of muḥāsaba (taking account of one’s praiseworthy and blameworthy actions and inward states). It is very challenging for me. It reminds me of all the times I failed to obey Allah, and all the inward characteristics that have made me prefer what I want to what Allah wants. Honestly, at an earlier point in my journey, I am not sure I would have been able to handle it. I read it slowly, when I am up for it, so that I can take it as seriously as possible.

But I want to take the time to thank you for writing it. You were writing it for a context very different than my own, but I have benefitted from it. You probably never thought someone like me would end up reading it, but we plan and Allah plans and Allah is the best of planners. May Allah reward you for writing it, and may these rewards comfort you in the barzakh.

I don’t know what your life is like right now. But I think the best about you, because everything that I know about you indicates that you wanted to please Allah and the Messenger of Allah, may blessings and peace be upon him and his family. One day I hope to be able to visit your grave in Shiraz. And I hope to be given the tawfīq (Divinely-granted success) of finishing your book and implementing it, as well as reading more of your works translated into English. Insha’Allah.

If Allah gives you the ability, please pray to Allah for me. Ask Allah to make me someone who never intentionally chooses the ḥarām (that which has been categorically forbidden for Muslims to do), and to forgive me completely for every time I did in the past. That I become someone who does not look at the smallness of the sin that I am inclined towards, but the greatness of the One whom I am turning away from.

The struggle is hard. Long hopes and the pleasures of the world whisper to us who are still here. But where you are, the Truth is laid bare. To be honest, I cannot even imagine it. I know that one day I will be there too, but it still seems so unreal. Maybe that is why I am writing this letter – to remind myself that I am ultimately on my way to visit you.

Perhaps one day you and I will be sitting together in the company of Imam Ḥusayn, upon him peace…just thinking of the possibility makes me want to be there right now.

But I do not get to choose how long this road goes on. All I can choose is what to do with the time that has been given me. And so I am taking the time to write this letter, which I had been thinking about for the last week. Thank you for reading this letter – I trust that the angels will translate its contents if necessary.

If there is any more advice or help you can provide to this weary traveler, please do so. I really need it.

your student,

R. David Coolidge

Tomb_of_Ayatollah_Dastghayb

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basmala2

Dear God

It is Sunday night here in Oakland

I know that You already know that

but I just want to set the scene

I am here because of a thousands of decisions I have made in the past

and a few in the present

but most of all because of Covid-19

Because if there was not a global pandemic

There are a variety of possible places I could be

Let me start with Mashhad

I feel that You are calling me to make ziyāra to Mashhad

and I was taking the steps to go there

but the pandemic took that option off the table

c’est la vie

one might say

but I prefer

qaddar Allāha wa mā shā’a fa‘al (God decrees and does what God wills)

I mean

let’s be real

if anyone is responsible for Covid-19

it is You

I don’t say that to challenge You

-in fact, please keep me and my family healthy!-

but this is a really really palpable experience of Your Decree

Like hundreds of millions of us, if not billions of us

had summer plans

and now we are just hanging out at home

-thank You for our home!-

plans over. full stop.

so this prayer is for the week ahead

my wife will do her remote work during the days

and our son and I will hang out together

-there are no summer camps! I tried!-

and so I ask You to bless us in it

I don’t really know what that blessing looks like

rather, it is just that I know what the three of us are going to be doing

and so please bless us in the doing of that

make it as positive as possible for all of us

for You are the Source of All Benefit (al-Nāfi‛)

and please forgive me if You don’t like it

when I speak to You through my fingertips

it’s just hard for me to figure out what to say

when my hands are raised

and instead I just say the same Arabic prayers

that I am used to praying all the time

not that there is anything wrong with that

-in fact, they express what I want to say so succinctly and deeply!-

but tonight I want to use my own words

and it is easier to articulate myself to You in writing

and so here I am, in our house

looking ahead at days and nights that unfold pretty much the same

as the last few weeks

but let me say this

You know I have wanted to fight for You

You know that I have struggled to be on the side of Your friends

and far from the company of Your enemies

to be from the people of Earth who end up in al-Jannah

and not from the people of Earth who end up in al-Nār

and when I first started on this path

I didn’t think weeks like this coming week

or last week

were going to be part of it

I had been thinking more battles would be involved

more sitting on the floor

learning from dudes with beards and turbans

that’s more my speed

but at least for the coming weeks

I am here

now

and it is in the here and the now that I have to submit to You

the Islam of making lunch, practicing reading, and Nerf battles

so from this state of utter ineffectuality

in the world of power and struggle

I ask that You

the Possessor of Sovereignty (Mālik al-Mulk)

before whom the armies of the world can be vanquished with one shout

consider me as one of Your soldiers

that even though my outward is engaged

with the rights of my family

accept my inward intention

to be in the frontline of struggle in Your way

and let my utter lack of power give way

to an ever-increasing awareness of Your Power

for “Power belongs entirely to Allah”

and I am nothing but a vessel

for Your will

and this week that means being a Dad

66454-fathers-sons-karan-johar-in-conversation-with-sadhguru

salawat-calligraphy

 

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