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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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Bismillah

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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