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Archive for the ‘Spiritual Stations’ Category

I want to be honest with you: I normally find Op-ed columnists trite. They make a very good living out of usually banal observations, simply because they are packaged nicely and have the imprimatur of a major media outlet. Whether they are on the Right or the Left does not matter, as they both feed people digestible insights that have little do with real knowledge or substantive virtue.

But every once in awhile, one of them surprises me. My wife sent me a clip of David Brooks giving a Ted Talk (basically the spoken version of an Op-ed piece). In it he speaks about the difference between “resumé virtues” and “eulogy virtues”:

Some of what he said is not particularly interesting. But what he did do is summarize a fundamental moral reality better than anyone I have yet seen/read/heard. He states,

You go into yourself, you find the sin, which you’ve committed over and again in your life, your signature sin, out of which the others emerge, and you fight that sin and you wrestle with that sin, and out of that wrestling, that suffering, then a depth of character is constructed. And we’re often not taught to recognize the sin in our selves, in that we’re not taught in this culture how to wrestle with it, how to confront it, and how to combat it.

What Mr. Brooks is describing is jihad. Not the false jihad proclaimed by groups like ISIS, but the jihad within known as jihad al-nafs (jihad of the self). When Ayatollah Khomeini discusses this moral struggle, he quotes a story,

Verily on seeing the returning armies from the battlefront, the Prophet (S) of God said, “Blessed are those who have performed the minor jihad, and have yet to perform the major one.” When asked, what is the major jihad? the Prophet replied, “the jihad of the self” (struggle against self).

Presumably, Brooks would not want to be lumped together with Khomeini. Far less risky for him to offer quotes from an American Rabbi as well as a Protestant Theologian to make his point. But that is precisely the problem, for Op-ed analysis is not meant to go to the depth of a problem. What Brooks has described is not a secondary issue, to be contemplated occasionally between board meetings and discussed glibly during dinners at fancy restaurants. It is the fundamental challenge that every adult faces as their career, family life, and relationship with God unfolds.

Khomeini describes the beginning of the journey as such:

The first and foremost condition for one’s strife with his own self, and hence his movement towards God essentially means introspection and self-reflection…Here introspection is used in the sense of devoting some time, however insignificant it is, contemplating about our duties towards our Master and Creator, Who has brought us into this world, and Who has bestowed upon us all the means of pleasure and joys of life, Who has equipped us with a sound body and faultless faculties and senses, each of whom serves a specific purpose of its own, and whose functioning bewilders human intellect. In addition to all these endowments and graces, He has sent so many prophets and His Holy Book for our guidance and invited us to receive His blessings.

Whether all these things have been granted to us by the Master and Emperor of all kings merely to serve this animal existence and to satisfy our appetites and instincts, which we share with other animals, or whether there is some higher aim? Whether all the prophets of God, great sages, thinkers and scholars of every nation have invited the people to follow certain rational principles and Divine legislation, and asked the people to abstain from all animal tendencies and detach themselves from this mortal and perishable habitation were their enemies, or they had conceived an entirely different idea of salvation, which we ordinary human creatures, blindly obeying the dictates of lust, could not conceive?

If we reflect in a rational manner for a moment, we shall realize that the aim of imparting to us all these graces and endowments is something else, superior to and higher than what is visible. This world is a stage of action and its aim is a higher and more sublime sphere of existence. This lower and animal existence is not an end in itself…

Thou should be regretful before God for thy past deeds, and commence a new journey in the direction of His prescribed goal, the journey that leads to the life of eternity and perpetual bliss. Thou should not bargain short-lived transitory joys, which are hard to obtain for eternal bliss and felicity.

Ayatollah Khomeini (d. 1989) whose book “Forty Hadiths” is central to my understanding of moral struggle

This struggle is both theological and moral. The greatest sin according to Jews, Christians and Muslims is polytheism — to worship other than the Creator of all that is, often referred to as the “God of Abraham.” It is the “sin” from which emerge all other sins, for the first commandment is “Thou shall have no other gods before Me.” Simultaneously, God is the goal that lies beyond sin — the Source of Existence to whom all are inevitably journeying and for whom all are inexpressibly longing.

As another Ayatollah states (this one from Iraq),

We cannot escape the darkness of polytheism it we do not first escape the prison of the soul, which is held captive by the inclinations of the self. If you reflect seriously, you will see that the root of every kind of disbelief, polytheism, and sinfulness is love of the self and its desires. Even those who worshipped idols or false gods only worshipped their own desires in the form of these false gods, and their own lusts in the shape of idols. So when you escape the love of your own self, and leave the darkness of desire, you find yourself in the vastness of Divine Unity by Allah’s leave, with no chains and no limitations. (“Laws of Islam,” p. 12)

Of course, no mainstream American Op-ed writer is going to quote Ayatollahs from Iran and Iraq in the same breath as Soloveitchik and Niebuhr. The former have no place in the American status quo, whereas the latter are revered figures from 20th century American religious history. Brooks does not want to veer too far from the left-leaning worldview of the average reader of the New York Times. So he also understandably avoids a clear contemporary American voice on this struggle like Evangelical preacher John Piper.

When Brooks speaks of “a common response through history” to the moral struggle, he is saying the same thing as Khomeini when he mentions “all the prophets of God, great sages, thinkers and scholars of every nation [who] have invited the people to follow certain rational principles and Divine legislation, and asked the people to abstain from all animal tendencies and detach themselves from this mortal and perishable habitation.” Brooks unfortunately leaves out many voices for the sake of brevity and market appeal. But what he described is true — we must go to the root of our problem to begin to solve it. I really like the phrase he uses — “your signature sin.” Perhaps for some it is a love of status/influence that leads to moral compromise. For others it is a love of wealth that leads to arrogance. Perhaps for many it is a love of sexual desire which leads to disregarding the rights of others.

Both Brooks and I are Americans. He reads and quotes Soloveitchik and Neibuhr, and I read and quote Khomeini and al-Modarressi. But when you strip away the externals, we are struggling with the same basic question and dealing with the same basic context. It is something that concerns Jews-Christians-Muslims, as well as many Americans of other worldviews. It is part of being human, and may take many long and hard years of effort before we taste some victory.

We have our own individual struggles, which Brooks is highlighting, but we also have a collective struggle as a nation. His mention of our cultural preference for“resumé virtues” mirrors what I wrote elsewhere,

As a born and bred American who loves his country, I am still not quite sure what it is about the United States that makes so much good possible, but also so much neglect. What is it about the American experience that allows us to turn with such callous hearts towards those who have undergone trials and sufferings that would break us? It may seem trite, but my insights so far come from an ad I saw on an airplane, which read “to the victor goes everything.” From reality shows to professional sports to the behavior of American military and diplomats, the message is drilled home day in and day out that victory is the only thing that matters. That if you become a member of the American or global elite, you have worth, but if you live your life as a janitor or working in Walmart, somehow you are inherently a loser. That life is about the quest to be on top — on top of a corporation, on top of a government, on top of your enemies, on top of everyone else, because I just don’t want to be the one on the bottom anymore. I want to be the one on top. I want to be the one calling the shots. This is a sickness of the human heart, and as far as I know, all of the major religious traditions agree on this point. And it is a sickness that infects American culture from the bottom to the top. This sickness destroys us, even as we think it is empowering us.

Perhaps Brooks would not agree with my view of our collective “signature sin.” But that is a matter of public debate, and I mention it here for your consideration and even criticism. I can diagnose the diseases of my self far better than I can diagnose the sickness of our entire nation.

But the upshot of Brooks’ insight is that we can never give up. He has only shown us the beginning of the journey. There is always a higher level to achieve, a perfection that is still in the distance. As long as we breath, there is more work to do.

I wonder if Brooks knows that perhaps the greatest eulogy in human history is the ongoing eulogy for Imam Husayn that reverberates around the world every year? His was a life of moral struggle until the final, climactic moment. A moment that is relived in the hearts of hundreds of millions over and over again. A well that seemingly never runs dry.

If learning to live a life worthy of a good eulogy is important, as Brooks advocates, then perhaps in Imam Husayn we have found one of our best teachers.

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Generosity

i affirm that You are the source of everything

One

Unique

Singular

الصمد

You have always been as You always were

and will always be

Manifest and Hidden

Outward and Inward

الظاهر الباطن

Unfolder of time and space

Giver of bodies

Breather of spirits

الخالق البارئ المصور

this realm is supported by You alone

these words manifest with Your decree

and i am accountable

الغفور الغفار الرحمان الرحيم

You gave me these hands

You gave me these eyes

You gave me this computer

You gave me this floor

You gave me this desk

You gave me this security

You gave me this health

You gave me this reality

i can never pay you back

“The most thankful of Your servants has not the capacity to thank You”

الكريم الوهاب النافع الهادي الباسط

my good deeds add nothing to Your Perfection

and my bad deeds stain no one but me

i seek refuge in Your Eternal Generosity

by which all that i have ever known is

and by which i am

and through which i will live again

after a period where the world goes on without me

just as it went on for so long before i was born

as You have promised

so may Your Beginningless Endless Blessings and Peace

be upon Muhammad and his family

يا أرحم الراحمين

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perspective

“My dear, you have not seen anything except yourself, and whatever you have seen you did not compare it with the world around you. Compare whatever you possess, from your life to the worldly treasures in your possession, with your city, your city with your country, and your country with all the hundreds of the countries of the world, whose names you might not have even heard of, and all those countries with the whole solar system and its vast spheres which are not more than tiny fragments of the sun, and the whole solar system with the Milky Way, of which our sun along with its planets is one of millions of other stars and a part of the huge galaxy, and there are several million of such galaxies like the Milky Way. All these are a part of the physical world, whose vastness is not known to anyone except its Creator and the discoveries of the discoverers have succeeded in revealing only a small fraction of it. Yet this physical world has no significance whatsoever as compared to the supra-physical world, whose realms lie beyond the powers of imagination of the human intellect. In the light of this, let us reexamine the extent and scope of our lives and the share of our fortune in the realm of existence.”

-Sayyid Khumayni رحمة الله عليه

 

Within Reach

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i know now that in the past i was deluded

i know that i thought i had done enough to earn a reward

i thought that i was going to be compensated for my struggles with something that i wanted

and i thought it was all a sign that i was blessed

 

but was i really worshipping God for the sake of God

or was i just doing things to get something better than what i had left

the worship of a capitalist

but my capital is nothing but hope

ارْحَم مَّن رَّأْسُ مَاِلهِ الرَّجَاءُ

 

remember Ayyub عليه السلام

remember Husayn عليه السلام

and know that God is being gentle with me because i am weak

they were better than me in the Heavens

and received worse than me on this earth

 

yes, my Lord, i am weak

i stand before You on this day knowing how weak i am

and i admit that i have not persevered enough in opposing what You do not like

nor have i persevered enough in doing what You like

nor have i persevered enough in accepting what You have decreed

nor have i attained real sincerity in doing that for Your sake alone

 

all i have is the hope that You are the Most Merciful of those who show mercy

and where i am weak, You are Strong

where i am sinful, You are Forgiving

لا إله إلا أنت سبحانك إني كنت من الظالمين

 

and Thank You for bringing me to this day

to realize it is a mercy that i am still alive

so that i have some hope to remove these evils from within

before I end up carrying them with me into the barzakh

 

وَمَا تَوْفِيقِي إِلَّا بِاللَّهِ عَلَيْهِ تَوَكَّلْتُ وَإِلَيْهِ أُنِيبُ

 

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My favorite gospel is the Gospel of Matthew. I think it is beautifully composed and spiritually moving. Of course, I do not believe that Jesus, upon him peace, was God incarnate. I can appreciate the Jesus of Matthew without confessing the doctrine of the Trinity.

I still cherish the copy of the Bible I was gifted by my childhood church in 1988. In honor of the commemoration of the birth of Jesus, upon him peace, I wanted to share with you selections from the famous Sermon on the Mount. It is recounted in the Gospel of Matthew, as rendered in this particular Bible (RSV), and it is full of wisdom for Muslims.

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Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

Bless are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.

Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you…

Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished…

…You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell…

…Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven…when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who is in secret will reward you.

And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you…

…And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also…

…Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O men of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.

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the sun sits low in the west

and the shadows lengthen

yet our lips still hymn Your praise

for it is You who gave us life

and it is You who calls us home

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may God send blessings and peace upon the Prophet Muhammad and his family

It is hard to explain the beauty of Azadari (recalling the injustices inflicted upon the family of the Prophet Muhammad, blessings and peace be upon him). It is something that needs to be tasted to be understood. Unfortunately, there seem to be so many cultural and theological barriers to tasting the truths conveyed through the various mediums through which Azadari culture is expressed. I hope that this brief reflection can help break through those barriers, and convey to the reader some of what is felt in the heart.

A year ago, a young Pakistani-American poet named Aqeela Naqvi wrote an Azadari poem in memory of al-Qāsim b. al-Ḥasan, one of the great-grandsons of the Prophet Muhammad killed at Karbala. She entitled it “sweeter than honey,” a reference to God sending comfort in the midst of tragedy for those who die “in the way of God (fī sabīl Allāh).” A few years before that, Iranian artist Hassan Roholamin posted a painting he did of the same story and described it using the same words: “sweeter than honey.”

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Between text and image, a moment in historical and sacred time is shared with the world. One artist living in the United States, speaking in English. Another artist living in Iran, speaking through images. Both Azadari. Both exquisite.

These artistic renditions capture both the personal and communal tragedy of ‘Ashura. The love of an uncle for his nephew. The bitter pain of betrayal when Muslim soldiers kill a young Muslim man who is nothing less than the great-grandson of the man they claim to follow. And yet, the hope in God that shines through the darkness.

This art speaks directly to our times of confusion, when people ask how can Islam be beautiful when Muslims have done so much evil. But that question was asked long before “the West” started asking it, and the answer lies with people like al-Qāsim b. al-Ḥasan. Azadari is a light that was started by the family of the Prophet, and history has shown that nothing can extinguish it. And for hearts who have tasted that light, it is sweeter than honey.

 

sweeter than honey

by Aqeela Naqvi

the meeting of swords, the clashing of souls
brought by dawn after silence of night
thousands who fight for darkness to prevail—
less than one hundred warriors of the light

the tenth of Muharram on Karbala’s sands
a battle this morning has bloodily raged
a few hours the length of centuries seems
a grief by which young children are aged

from the first arrow released by the enemy
Imam Hussain’s companions for him have bled
while there is strength remaining in their bones
not a drop of the Prophet’s blood will be shed

men continue to leave, bodies continue to return
as a bloody scene in a weeping desert unfurls
until finally none of these brave souls remains
each companion valiantly departs from this world

yet still, Yazeed’s army continues to advance
Imam Hussain’s family now must enter the fray
brothers and nephews and sons never to return
on burning sands their bodies now lay

of Karbala’s youth there is a brave soul
who has come now to ask his Uncle a question
to take up his sword and to enter the battle
he has come to seek his Imam’s permission

how can Hussain look upon this young face
and let him go knowing the enemy’s plans
that they will not rest until piercing his skin
until his blood flows like rivers in the sands

he refuses but his nephew Qasim is insistent
he kisses his uncle’s hands with this request
to allow him to defend the message of Islam
until then the blood in his veins will not rest

his requests are delivered with such earnest
that Imam Hussain can deny him no longer
he kisses his face and allows him to leave
his face so much like the face of his brother

in youth, wealth or beauty or power or fame
anything we dream of our horizon may hold
our bones are now strong and our blood is fresh
thoughts of death come when we’re frail and old

when it comes to religion, we still have time
when we’re older we’ll learn more of Islam
when we’re older will come the light of our faith
when we’re older will we understand our Qur’an

right now all that matters is being young
all is enjoyment from each dusk to dawn
is that how it is? is this age and youth?
or have we understood living all wrong?

when we see Karbala, we see there are youth
many who are not quite much older than us
there is Qasim and there is Muhammad and Aun
who at such an age put in Allah their trust

youth who come to the aid of their Imam
with no thought to the length of their years
ready to stand for the purity of their beliefs
even if it means facing the enemy’s spears

Hazrat Qasim enters the battle with such valor
the cub no less than his father, the lion, Hassan
a young boy striking fear into soldier’s hearts
showing them how the battle of the soul is won

eager to defend Islam and his Imam Hussain
he does not hesitate in setting off on the plains
the enemy hopes to strike fear in his heart—
forgetting which bloodline runs through his veins

this is the son of Hamza and Haydar!
the son of Abu Talib and Hassan al-Mujtaba!
his is a lineage more radiant than the stars
this is the grandson of Muhammad al-Mustafa!

yet the cruelty of the charge, the cutting of his bones
the army surrounds him – imagine the scene
men racing forward on horses, and his spilling blood
amidst snarling wolves, a young child’s screams…

a soldier coming forward and striking his head
and Hazrat Qasim falling down on the plains
with wounds kissing his skin, this final farewell
“O dear Uncle, come to my aid!”

like a wild falcon, Hussain enters the battle
the enemy from his force scatters and flees
he cradles this young child’s head to his chest
as Qasim’s soul from this world slowly leaves

“By Allah! It is difficult for your Uncle
that he could not come to your aid…”
as he holds him in his arms, these tender words
the master of Martyrs to a young boy says…

in death, Hazrat Qasim’s face holds a smile
and in it the night’s memory comes to mind
an image of a young face in a tent full of men
who knew with dawn, all present would die

of the boy who realized his youth may be at stake
who tomorrow, may life for death have to barter
yet with passion in his voice he had asked his Imam
“Uncle, am I, too, included in the list of martyrs?”

Imam Hussain had responded, “O my dear son!
How do you consider death (in the way of Allah)?”
and Hazrat Qasim had smiled such a sweet smile
and in his answer, this shining lesson history saw

that the human’s true price is greater than this world
that the only thing worth it is eternity

that no oppressor or tyrant can shackle your soul
when God Himself has created you free

that to enter the fray with your honor and die on your feet
is better than living life on your knees

for such death dying for truth
can only be as he said:

for Qasim, such death,
sweeter than honey

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