Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘The Struggle’ Category

there is nothing i can say here

that you don’t already know

i was always honest with you

up until the last

even when it meant being harsh

because that is what it means

to be a friend for the sake of Allah

not a friend just to have fun with

although we had plenty of that

not a friend just to worship with

although we did plenty of that

but a friend to push each other

to be better

to rectify wrongs

and live up to ideals

until the inevitable end

but a friend cannot choose for another

the path they will walk

all they can do

is share what they think is best

and leave the rest up to Allah

because you are you

and i am me

so now that you are gone

just know what you will take your place

in my list of those in the barzakh

to be prayed for on thursday nights

and other special times

because our friendship isn’t over

and i hope you receive the gifts i send you

by the mercy of our Lord

and they make you laugh

just as we did so often

back here on Earth

Read Full Post »

Dear God

i guess You created me in a time where writing on a computer would be the way that I speak to You so often

it would be so much more romantic if i had a quill and inkwell, sitting by candlelight, as i wrote my munājāt in beautiful calligraphy

would You like me more if i sat cross legged on the floor as i do this?

would it be more authentic?

or is it okay that i am sitting on the couch?

i have to believe that You are more interested in the substance than the form

all i have to give You is my faqr

that raw, sheer need for You

that aching desperation that only You know

and i am nothing

i hate being responsible for myself

i hate having to be the one who has to decide

i just want You to lay it out for me

“write your dissertation about this topic!”

ok, if You say so

“follow this historical intellectual tradition!”

sure, good to know that is the one You prefer

“raise your children this way!”

allright, let’s do it

but instead it is me, with my books, and my blog posts, and my searching out critical discourse

listening to other fuqarāʾ like me

hoping for an insight

seeking the way

but how can i actually complain to You

how can i not feel like You have answered my prayers

that seems like the height of ingratitude

but am i never not in desperate need of You

no

there will never come a time

no matter how learned my mind becomes

no matter how pious my body can be

no matter how sincere my heart is

where i am still not a beggar after Your Mercy

You are my mother

no

You are so much my refuge

that i seek refuge in You for the wellbeing of my own mother

the one who nursed me

the one who has shown me love my whole life

only You i beseech to give her eternal happiness

and only You can grant it

there is no god but You, transcendent You are, surely i am from the oppressors

there is no where to turn, except You are there

and so i turn once again

seeking everything i have always sought

willing to change for You

over and over again

i know i can change for You

i have left that which i have loved

i have left those whom i have loved

i have come to Your doorstep because

how can i do otherwise

the one who has caught a glimpse of You

tasted one drop of the nectar of Your ḥamd

reached the mental point of ḥayra

and understood a bit of You as al-Ghanī al-Mughnī

how can there be any going back

but there is one thing i do ask of You

i ask what your Prophet reportedly asked

do not leave me to myself

for i know i am not the authority

You are

and i cannot find my way

if You do not guide me to You

yā Ḥayyu yā Qayyūm

bi raḥmatika astaghīth

wa min ʿadhābika astajīr

aṣliḥnī shaʾnī kullah

wa lā takilnī ilā nafsī wa lā ilā aḥadin min khalqika

tarfata ʿayn

Read Full Post »

The genocide of Native Americans.

The enslavement of Africans.

The dropping of atomic bombs on Japan.

The genocide of the Rohingya.

The Holocaust.

The reigns of Saddam Hussein/Idi Amin/Joseph Stalin/etc.

The Settler-Colonialism of Zionism.

The destruction of the Amazon rainforest.

The plastic that fills the oceans.

The decimation of biodiversity.

The unreported rapes.

The unconvicted murders.

The unaccounted for detentions and unknown torture.

These are some of the things that I carry with me into Muharram,

ya Husayn.

On March 8, 1782, a group of Pennsylvania militiamen slaughtered some 90 unarmed Native Americans at the Moravian mission settlement of Gnadenhutten, Ohio. Although the militiamen claimed they were seeking revenge for Indian raids on their frontier settlements, the Indians they murdered had played no role in any attack.

Read Full Post »

As we all know, although we might not realize it, Islam is a religion of bodies and words. As we read in the Ziyara Jami’ah Kabira:

وَأَجْسَادُكُمْ فِي ٱلْأَجْسَادِ

Your bodies are amongst other bodies

So our biological selves, the fundamental basis by which we appear as creatures upon this Earth, is something we share with the Prophets and Imams, upon them peace. There is nothing overtly mystical about this, but the Qur’an calls out attention to the fact that the biological processes by which we become who we all are today, and by which our children will become the adults of tomorrow, is itself miraculous. As is states in Surah al-Nahl, verse 78:

وَاللَّهُ أَخْرَجَكُم مِّن بُطُونِ أُمَّهَاتِكُمْ لَا تَعْلَمُونَ شَيْئًا وَجَعَلَ لَكُمُ السَّمْعَ وَالْأَبْصَارَ وَالْأَفْئِدَةَ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَشْكُرُون

As Ali Quli Qarai has interpreted this verse in the English language:

Allah has brought you forth from the bellies of your mothers while you did not know anything. He made for you hearing, eyesight, and hearts so that you may give thanks

And the fact that our religion is a religion of words is brought home by the fact that I am speaking and quoting everything right now, so that we are not simply a collection of bodies in a physical space, but our filling this moment with meaning through words. So much so that all I have to do is say, “wa huwa ma’kum aynama kuntum,” and perhaps some of us have a moment where the created nature of all of this becomes apparent, and we remember (or perhaps see a little bit more clearly) the shining presence of Being (al-Wujud) by which all of us – and all of this – is. But for those who do not know Arabic, I have to translated those words and say that it means, “Allah is with you wherever you are,” for that meaning (the ma’na) to reach all selves in this room.

So this teaching tradition is nothing more than bodies (real, actual people) inheriting the words (in this case, Qur’an) that have come from before, and giving them meaning that is articulated within a particular cultural reality. And that meaning is not confined to simply what we say, but what we do with our bodies. ‘Allamah Tabataba’i (Allah have mercy on him), in a a number of different works, brilliantly articulated how every human being has a deen (what we often translate as religion). He pointed out the etymologically deen is related to dayn, which means a debt in Arabic. And so each of us has been given a body by a volition (a will) other than our own, and our deen is how we use it. We cannot but use it, and so we strive to understand the meaning of human existence so that we might use it in the best way.

So what does all of this have to do with the challenges that those young Muslims in college, or the workforce, or graduate school – those who are newly married, have small kids, or who are still single – face?

I would argue…everything.

Why?

Because in the 21st century the challenge of faith for us (maybe not for other, but for us) is not the maintenance of past cultural forms – whether they be articulated in Urdu, Farsi, Arabic – but rather the articulation of a universal truth that is also adaptable to different cultural forms.

Let me ask you a simple question.

Is Imam Mahdi just for us, or for the entirety of humanity, the animals, the trees, and the fish in the ocean?

Of course the answer is clear.

But many of our youth are not taught Islam that way.

They think Islam is their particular cultural heritage that they have to hold onto in the face of different articulations of the universal. For example, they may be watching the Olympics in Tokyo right now, and they get excited if they see an athlete in hijab. Why? Because they naturally, and understandably, want to see themselves represented in the global conversation. But what about all the other athletes? Are they not also human beings created by Allah who are looking for justice on Earth? Are they not all going to die one day and witness the process by which Allah, glorified and exalted, takes stock of how all human beings have lived their lives on Earth?

To limit Islam to the representation of Muslims in public spaces is a major error. It is a subtle acquiescence to the idea that Islam is simply a pre-modern religion that has to find its place in the modern world. It is submission to the idea that multiculturalism means that Islam is no different than Chinese culture or Sikhism, and so you get to wear your hijab at the Olympics, and he gets to wear his turban and she gets to wave her flag of the Chinese Communist Party.

Because when we teach kids Islam, we use words that imply it is for everyone. “The Messenger of Allah to humanity” is one particular phrase that I have heard many times before. So it that is true, then kids want to know: why should all peoples of the world stop eating pork? What is the point of that law? I have Chinese and White and Brazilian friends who eat pork chops, but they are good people that are contributing to humanity and the well-being of the Earth. So what do I do with that?

I am not giving the pork example because that is what a lot of young adults are struggling with, but because it helps to illustrate a point. If ‘Allamah Tabataba’i’s thesis about our bodies is true – that we know instinctually that we didn’t make them, and so we are in debt to whomever or whatever did make them – then we are stating that everyone is on the same playing field. Human beings have a particular existential reality that they face – this is a secular truth as well as a religious truth – and so let’s leave aside all distinctions between human beings as a starting point. We were created by a power other than our own, are given some power for a short period of time, and then it all goes away. So what do we do with it?

If this is the case, then why pork? Why does a universal truth include a seemingly random food prohibition? Well, as we all know, answering questions like this involve being willing to speculate, but also the humility to say that Allah knows best (wa Allahu a’lam). But as a student of history, I marvel at the way, for example, Spanish culture developed a public aspect to pork consumption such that if you travel to Spain today, you will literally see pigs legs hanging from windows inside shops off the street, and find porks in so many dishes. This is clearly leftover from the Reconquista, the Catholic reconquering of the Iberian peninsular from the Muslims, when they were trying to root out secret Muslims in newly reconquered territories. And so at least at the world historical scale, we can see that pork consumption is actually a discreet data point that indicates the spread of Islam as well as the strength of Islam in varying times and places. It may be that the prohibition of pork is not actually about you or me or anyone of us, but rather the collective Ummah as a whole. It may be that it serves as a clear dividing line in sociological terms between Muslims and others. This is made all the more poignant that, in my experience, eating pork is the very last thing to go when someone is on their way out of Islam. It is very common to find young Muslims who do not pray all 5 obligatory prayers every day, but would never intentionally miss a day of fasting in the month of Ramadan. But for those young Muslims who have given up on fasting, the prohibition on pork almost always remains. It is that one last piece of taqwa that they have left – that willingness to do what Allah has commanded and avoid what Allah has prohibited. And so whether or not that is meaningful in the next life is only for Allah to decide, but here on Earth it becomes meaningful in our collective communal expression of Islam. Put another way, Islam has been the most powerful force in human history for preventing the cultivation and consumption of pigs.

It is not very hard to make an environmental point about this. But that takes a mentality that sees Islam as capable of contributing to the well-being of all of humanity and all of the Earth. If Islam is simply my heritage – “well, I don’t eat pork and my parents don’t eat pork and my grandparents didn’t eat pork, so I don’t want my kids to eat pork” – then one isn’t even going to make the connection.

And so our articulations of Islam, at the individual and communal level, have to be oriented towards the universality of Islam for the younger generation to not feel like their greatest hope is simply representation. I don’t want it to be misunderstood that I somehow think greater representation is bad – not at all. Rather, what I am saying that is that Islam is different. Islam is not being Punjabi, or female, or a white American male like myself. Islam is not being an immigrant or an indigenous person. Islam is the help and the guidance and the mercy provided by the Creator of this Earth and this universe to help everyone, including Muslims!

This is one of the great and powerful insights of our Shi’i tradition. That we recognize that from very early on, Muslims failed to live Islam, and so failed to provide humanity with the beauty that it deserves. We are all constantly called to push ourselves to not fall into the same traps of Shaytan that our Muslim ancestors, whether Sunni or Shi’i or something else, fell into. We are constantly striving and hoping to do things right, while also having the humility to know that, just as people in the past failed and acuiesced and compromised, we too might run into the same deviations. But our Imams are always there for us. Our Prophets are always there for us. And Allah is always there for us, as we strive towards the future.

We may find it deeply meaningful to recount the tragedies of the Ahl al-Bayt, upon them peace, but we are a future-oriented people. We look back on the caliphate, and can speak plainly about its positives and negatives, and point out clearly that it only ever effected approximately 25% of the habitable land on Earth. So what about the other 75%? The Islamic history of North and South America has yet to be really be written! We are people of the future, because our Imam is the Imam of North and South America, as well as the whole world!

But again, we have to embrace that mentality ourselves if we are to pass that onto our children.

In my experience, very few Muslims immigrated to the USA thinking that they were going to bring the universal truth to all the bechara and bechari white folks like me. (For those of you who don’t know any Urdu – bechara and becahari is like saying, “oh that poor poor person” in English, someone to be pitied). But that is a truth we must embrace. I can directly trace my conversion to Islam to the work of Indian immigrants to Chicago who decided they needed to make some books for their kids in hopes they would retain Islam. They probably didn’t imagine they would have an impact on an investment bank CEOs son who went to an Ivy League university. But they did.

There was an early white convert to Islam in America who stated that he was not so arrogant to think that he had figured out a truth that no one else could, but nor did he think so lowly of himself to think that others wouldn’t follow in his footsteps. I reiterate that statement. I would not be here today if I did not think, that of all the different ways of looking at the meaning human existence, that Islam is not the clearest and most comprehensive. Truth is everywhere. Justice is to be found in all times and places in varying degrees. But Islam is the call for humanity to embrace the totality of truth and to embody the perfection of justice to the extent we are capable, leaving the outcome of all things up to the One who created us and everything else.

So our words must be translations of truth and justice, and our bodies must act out truth and justice, for our Islam to be what it is supposed to be. Easily the most beloved American figure to Muslims is Malcolm X. This love transcends the Sunni and Shi’i divide, and he is often quoted by both communities. By far my favorite Malcolm quote is, “I’m for truth, no matter who tells it. I’m for justice, no matter who it is for or against. I’m a human being first and foremost, and as such I’m for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole.” That is a great definition of Islam, as far as I am concerned, and people love Malcolm X (also known al-Hajj Malik al-Shabazz) because they see that this quote is consistent with how he lived his life.

So we too have to struggle for that. There are many narrations of the Imams, upon them peace, that state that the true Shi’i is the person whose life and actions demonstrate the beauty of the teachings of Islam. In one hadith of Imam al-Baqir, upon him peace, he states that we should be like:

رُهْـبَانٌ بِاللَّيْلِ أَسَدٌ بِالنَّهَارِ

Monks during the night, and lions during the day.

These words alone, for example, are indicative of one of the beautiful qualities of our faith, which is that it brings together both the worldly and otherworldly virtues. For example, pretty much everyone I know, with the exception of a few far-left activist types, uses Amazon.com. It is a remarkable service that I first used to order books in college, and now spans the globe. It is hard to not admire Jeff Bezos for building it. One might even call him “a lion of business.” But as far as we know, he has no otherworldly virtues. He has firmly planted his feet in the dunya, and his whole spaceship stunt is further evidence of the nature of his deen. But then we take some pious Muslim scholar who is renowned for their worship and detachment from worldly matters, and we are in awe of their otherworldly virtues, even though we would never trust them to run a complex worldly project like a global online retail service. But Islam has called us to aspire to excellence in both.

One of the ways that I have noticed young people go astray is because they lose this balance. This is especially true in regards to the politics of representation. Sometimes their personal deen – the way they live their lives – skews towards worldly accomplishment, and they think that if they can become a tenured professor at a prestigious university, or a partner at a respected law firm, or have a popular television show, then they have been the proverbial lions during the day that their faith calls them to be. But can they give up a millions of dollars from a major television network if they feel their artisitic vision is going to be comrpomised, the way the Muslim comedian Dave Chappelle walked away from Comedy Central? Are they enough of monks at night they they will not fall into open sin when a little piece of the dunya is dangled before their eyes?

Less common, but still problematic, are those who skew towards “being religious” at the expense of worldly accomplishment. They have talents and potentials that are undeveloped and misused because they think that as long as they are praying at the beginning of the time and making their regular adhkar, they are doing what a Muslim is supposed to do. But this world is big and complex and competitive, and it requires Muslims to be audacious, to live in a way that actually demonstrates their faith. I am reminded of the guidance provided by Sayyid Sistani to the fighters in Iraq in their battle against ISIS. Again, as a student of history, I felt this was the greatest treatise on the ethics of modern war I had ever read, regardless of whether I was Muslim or not. If Islam cannot confront our realities, then it will be overwhelmed by them, and will remain only as a refuge of the socially powerless.

As we hear in a hadith of Imam al-Rida, upon him peace,

لو عرف الناس محاسن كلامنا لاتبعونا

If people knew the beauty of our words, then they would follow us…

This is a conditional sentence. People need to know the beauty of the words of the Ahl al-Bayt, upon them peace. This involves translation work as well as the more formal process of teaching the tradition. But as we know, it is not just the words of the Ahl al-Bayt that is beautiful, it is also their embodiment, their lives, their actions. Yes, they were bodies in the world just like other bodies, but, in the words of the ziyara again:

وَفِعْلُكُمُ ٱلْخَيْرُ

وَعَادَتُكُمُ ٱلإِحْسَانُ

Your actions were the embodiment of good and your habits were excellence personified.

And so to must we strive to be.

We cannot wait for others to inspire the younger generations. We must try. We must try to be reflections of the beauty of Islam.

Young people ARE inspired by Muslims often, but often simply based on the politics of representation. So they get excited when they see Riz Ahmed in Star Wars, or watch We Are Lady Parts, a new NBC-Universal show about Muslim girls in London. They post on social media about the Brooklyn Nets basketball player who recently converted to Islam, and discuss and debate the relative merits of a Muslim being the campaign manager of Bernie Sanders’ last presidential campaign.

But – and let me be a little controversial here – none of that is particularly inspiring to non-Muslims. Yes, there may be times when one of those things plays a role in someone’s journey to Islam – for example, I recently had a conversation with a young man who wanted to know more about Islam because he had watched both seasons of the show on Hulu about the Muslim comedian Ramy Yousef. But let me be blunt – no one is going to become Muslim BECAUSE of that show. They are going to become Muslim because watching everyone prostrate in unison before the Ka’ba is a beautiful symbol of human diversity under the shade of Divine Unity. They are going to become Muslim because your family is ethical and charitable and generous, and you welcome them into your home and answer their questions. They are going to become Muslim because they read a beautifully published version of the biography of the Prophet Muhammad, blessings and peace upon him and his family. They are going to become Muslim because their innate quest for truth and justice aligns with what they have experienced of Islam. They will HEAR the beauty of the words of the leaders of our faith, at the forefront of which is the Qur’an itself, and they will follow.

One scholar once said that many of the fiqh questions these days are actually questions of kalam (Islamic theology). By this he meant that fiqh only makes sense when you have already bought in, wholeheartedly, to the idea of God (tawhid), Prophets (nubuwwah), and a life after death (akhira). If one has doubts about those things, it is not particularly relevant where you hold your hands during qiyam in the salat, or whether you wipe your feet or wash them during wudu. So our faith has to be rooted in theological universals. This is what I was saying earlier about how a young Muslim might look at the Tokyo Olympics. If Islam for them is nothing about outward symbolism, all they are going to see is the few women wearing hijab. But if Islam for them is an expression of the collective destiny of humanity, then they will see that everyone there is a reflection of the Creator (al-Khaliq al-Bari’ al-Musawwir). They will see that the Olympics represents human aspiration for one global community living in peace, which is precisely what Imam Mahdi is destined to bring about. And they will be reminded that the strength of the strong, the quickness of the quick, and the endurance of the enduring is nothing but a Divine gift that will be taken away in old age and death.

Our age is one of marveling at human excellence and ingenuity, and so we will not survive this age spiritually without remembering that everything that is human is built on the Divine. The great heresy of our age – the one that Muslims young and old, and in the East and the West all suffer from – is the age of:

أَن رَّآهُ اسْتَغْنَى

“they think themselves as self-sufficient” as Surah al-‘Alaq states.

From the very beginning of the revelation of the Qur’an, the idea that human beings were self-sufficient was put under attack. The Qur’an engaged in a constant polemic with its audience to get them to admit that everything they were was not an accident, but rather the outcome of a process whereby God wanted to place a being on Earth with greater potential than any other. This belief that human beings are islands unto themselves, alone in a meaningless creation meant to create meaning through their human imagination, was there in the 7th century. For the jahili Arabs, there was temporary comfort in wine and song and poetry, just as there has been for the nihilistic aesthetes of Euro-American colonial modernity for hundreds of years. But death is still there to be reckoned with:

كُلُّ نَفْسٍ ذَائِقَةُ الْمَوْتِ ثُمَّ إِلَيْنَا تُرْجَعُون

Every soul shall taste death. Then you shall be brought back to Us

I had met numerous young and attractive and intelligent and driven Muslims who have explained to me that the moment they really became serious about their faith was when someone close to them died, and all of a sudden they didn’t feel so invincible. It is only when we fully embrace the reality that we are going to die that Islam makes sense, so there are aspects to the journey that we cannot control. You can raise a Muslim to understand intellectually that God is real, and you can explain to them rationally how the Reward and Punishment are part and parcel of how the creation works and thus part of the next life as well, but until they have seen it with their own eyes, it just doesn’t sink in as deeply. These are the moments none of us can control, but which are part and parcel of how Allah directs our lives. As it states in Surah al-‘Ankabut, verse 2:

أَحَسِبَ النَّاسُ أَن يُتْرَكُوا أَن يَقُولُوا آمَنَّا وَهُمْ لَا يُفْتَنُون

Do the people suppose that they will be let off because they say, ‘We have faith,’ and they will not be tested

You can’t say, “I am a Muslim” and not be tested. Maybe that test won’t be like the Rohingya, who have faced a genocide at the hands of the military forces of Myanmar and yet held onto their faith. Maybe that test will be when one of our friends unexpectedly dies, and we have to really ask ourselves if we believe they are alive in the barzakh, because if they are, then every Thursday night it would be good for us to recite some Qur’an for them and give some sadaqa on their behalf, and not watch Netflix. Maybe that test will be a new set of opportunities and possibilities that are exciting and exhilarating, but they involve a series of significant compromises in our faith and practice? Maybe the test will be purely in our heads, and we will lives of ease and comfort, but struggle to see Islam as universal and Allah as real without taking the necessary time to strive to understand it with our best effort.

It is well established, through Qur’an and hadith, that Allah tests some people with prosperity and others with tribulation. In general, the tests we face are the tests of prosperity and ease. When I have spoken with young Muslims who are struggling with their faith, there is one clear theme that runs through it all – the desire to be free. The desire to be able to taste anything, touch anything, go anywhere, and be with anyone. Little do they know how much more they have tasted, touch, done and seen than the vast majority of human beings who have ever walked this Earth. They were not born in a village somewhere 800 years ago, destined to farm the same land their parents and grandparents farmed, never even knowing, let alone seeing, what was on the other side of the Earth. Rather, they live in Chicago, or New York, or San Jose, or Houston, and they have pleasures and delights and possibilities that most in history have never ever dreamed of. So when they read the Qur’anic verses about couches and gardens, they are unmoved. Why would I want a couch in Heaven when I already have big wrap around couch with a sectional in my parents living room, with a 50 inch flat screen on the wall streaming thousands of options?! Instead, when you ask them about Heaven, it is about travel and relationships and experiences that they feel they are being denied here on Earth.

And often the basis of that denial is somehow wrapped up in how they were taught to be Muslim. Don’t do this. Don’t do that. What would the community say if they knew. And so on and so forth.

And so they feel trapped. Trapped between an Islam of denial and a global world of possibility. But what if we reverse these ideas, and talk about Islam as the pathway to endless possibilities – not only a complete and fulfilling life here on Earth, but also never-ending expansion and journeys after we die – and the Earth as a place of denial. Denial of our hopes. Denial of our ideals. Denial of the full expression and potential of our humanity.

For we do not believe we are born to die, and end our story here on Earth. Our journey continues in the stars, and we do not need to spend billions on rocketships to get there. The same One who created the Andromeda galaxy created me, and that One can show me everything I have ever dreamed of, and far more that I could never even imagine, even if I lived for a thousand years.

This resolves the great heresy of self-sufficiency. This way of looking at Islam means that the 21st century is to embraced fully. There is no need to hide. There is no need to be afraid. We are the followers of the followers of the Imam destined to unite the globe, and all of us collectively are servants of the Creator of this planet and every other planet. That is what our faith is teaching us – that even though we are not the majority of humanity, and our beliefs are not reflected in the economic, political and cultural trends dominating the world right now – that we are in submission to the processes of history that will bring about the ultimate victory of Islam.

This is the truly audacious aspect of believing in Islam – to acknowledge your smallness on the Earth, but to truly believe, like Abraham (upon him peace) before us, that our individual journey to God has meaning even if everyone around us thinks it is ridiculous. Because that is what we often forget about the Qur’anic stories – that most of the people thought the Prophets and their followers were ridiculous and preposterous! The Qur’an itself anticipates this common psychological challenge to belief.

But being in community helps us to reaffirm our beliefs – wa tawasau bil-haqqi wa tawasau bis-sabr – when other people think we are ridiculous.

And so this is why we must think of Islam, for ourselves and in the way we convey it to not just young Muslims but all others, as a universal truth. As containing the fundamental answer to the mystery of human existence on Earth, and what our lives are meant to be lived for.

Do we think that the martyrs of Karbala lost something that day? Did they lose the opportunity to travel, to hold political office, to create art, to fly to space, to fall in love, to build a company, or any other human endeavor that people have striven for in history? Or did they gain everything because they sacrificed their lives for God, as embodiments of Surah al-Ahzab, verse 23:

مِّنَ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ رِجَالٌ صَدَقُوا مَا عَاهَدُوا اللَّهَ عَلَيْهِ فَمِنْهُم مَّن قَضَىٰ نَحْبَهُ وَمِنْهُم مَّن يَنتَظِرُ وَمَا بَدَّلُوا تَبْدِيلً

Among the faithful are men who fulfill what they have pledged to Allah. Of them are some who have fulfilled their pledge, and of them are some who still wait, and they have not changed in the least

So we are all those still waiting, hoping that we can draw inspiration from the martyrs of Karbala to face our own challenges. To know that whoever finds Allah has lost nothing, whereas those who have lost Allah have lost everything. To know that death is not to be feared, but rather the thousands of ways that the living forget. And to know that we are citizens of the entire Earth, because we serve the Malik al-Mulk (the Possessor of Sovereignty) who is sovereign over all nations.

اللهم صل على محمد و آل محمد و عجل فرجهم

This was originally a speech given at Baitul Ilm on July 24th, 2021. It has been slightly modified.

Read Full Post »

What follows as an abridged and edited presentation of ʿAllāmah Ṭabāṭabāʾī’s exegesis of the opening section of Sūrah al-Muʾminūn, the 23rd chapter of the Qur’an. For those interested in the 18 page original, it can be found here.

Sūrah al-Muʾminūn (The Believers) was revealed in Mecca and consists of 118 verses. This chapter calls to believing in God and in the Last Day. It distinguishes the believers from the disbelievers by presenting the beautiful manifestations of servitude in the former, against the moral vices and evil deeds of the latter. The chapter then gives glad tidings to the believers, and warnings to the disbelievers.

قَدْ أَفْلَحَ الْمُؤْمِنُون

Successful (aflaḥa, from falḥ) indeed are the believers (al-muʾminūn, from īmān).

Falāḥ means “victory, success, achieving one’s goal.” There are two types of falāḥ: worldly and otherworldly. Worldly falāḥ is gaining what helps, facilitates and enhances one’s life in this world, such as health, wealth and honor. Otherworldly falāḥ consists of four things: life without death, wealth without need, honor without humiliation, and knowledge without ignorance. That is why it has been said, “There is no [real] pleasure except that of the hereafter.” Success is called falāḥ (lit. “splitting”) because it splits the barriers and cracks open one’s intended objective. Īmān (belief, faith) is “to admit and confirm a statement and abide by its implications.” In Qur’anic terminology, īmān means: to accept God’s Oneness, His messengers and their teachings, and the reality of the Last Day, accompanied by obedience [to God and His religion] in general. That is why we see that whenever the Qur’an praises a positive quality of the believers, or describes one of their loſty rewards in the hereafter, it couples belief with righteous deeds. For example: Whoever does good, whether male or female, and he is a believer, will most certainly make him live a good life (16:97), and [As for] those who believe and do good, a good final state shall be theirs and a goodly return (13:29), and numerous other verses. Merely acknowledging something is not considered having īmān in it, until the acknowledgement is accompanied by observing its requirements and implications in practice. This is because there are two elements in īmān: (1) knowing about something; and (2) having conviction and confidence toward it. Having conviction toward something necessitates abidance by its implications, unlike having knowledge of something, which can be devoid of conviction and observance. For example, many individuals are addicted to evil deeds or harmful habits, and whereas they admit the evil or harm in their actions, they do not quit, using the excuse of addiction. Similarly, God says [about the Pharaoh and his people’s denial of God’s clear signs]: And they denied them unjustly and proudly while their soul had been convinced of them (27:14). Having said that, it is possible for īmān to be accompanied by disobedience toward some of its requirements due to personal impediments and/or pleasant attractions. However, īmān cannot be completely devoid of obedience and its implication.

الَّذِينَ هُمْ فِي صَلَاتِهِمْ خَاشِعُون

Who are humble (khāshiʿūn, from khushūʿ) in their prayer.

Khushūʿ is a specific emotional state of a person who is dominated and defeated by a mighty being, such that it disconnects the person from everything else and directs his attention only to that mighty being. Khushūʿ is apparently a state of the heart, but based on some viewpoints, it is also ascribed to other organs and members. This extension of the meaning of khushūʿ is seen in the Prophetic narration about a person who was playing with his beard in prayer: “Had his heart been humble (khashaʿa), his limbs would have also been humble.” Another example is the verse: And the voices shall be low (khashaʿat) before the Beneficent God (20:108). The above is a comprehensive definition of humility which incorporates all other suggested meanings of the term by other exegetes, such as:(1) a feeling of awe accompanied by serenity of limbs; (2) lowering one’s gaze and being humble in behavior; (3) bowing one’s head [in humility];(4) being focused and not turning right or left; (5) glorifying God’s position and focusing one’s attention on Him; (6) demonstrating one’s subservience.

These eight verses [23:2-23:9] describe the qualities of the believers that are necessary outcomes of their belief being alive and active. It is such faith that will bring about what is meant for īmān to bring about salvation. Prayer is when one who has nothing but need and humiliation turns one’s attention toward the Threshold of Magnificence and Greatness, and toward the Source of Might and Glory: God. A person who is conscious of God’s position will necessarily be impressed by it, as he finds himself immersed in a feeling of humiliation and abasement before His Lord. This will sever his heart from any attachment or engagement that is of no significance in what he is facing [that is, his eternal life]. If one’s belief is genuine, then it will concentrate his focus on one thing alone whenever he turns to his Lord. He will not be distracted by anything else, as he is completely absorbed by his Lord. Aſter all, how does a beggar react when he faces a rich person whose wealth cannot be measured? And how does a helpless person behave when he faces the Absolute Might that can never be tainted by humility and humiliation? This idea [of faith having outward effects] is seen in a tradition where the Prophet says to Ḥārithah b. al-Nuʿmān, “Surely there is a sign for every truth, and there is a light for every right.”

As we have pointed out more than once, religion is a social institution that shapes a person’s social life in this world. Social institutions are accompanied by practices that are based on beliefs concerning the reality of the world of existence, a part of which is humankind. The differences between various social institutions are typically because of their different views concerning these matters. For instance: Suppose the people in a society believe that the universe has a Lord by Whom it has been created and to Whom it will return to, and that humankind has an eternal life which is untouched by death or destruction. Then, the daily actions and interactions of these people will incorporate a consideration of eternal life and everlasting otherworldly pleasures. But suppose the people in a society believe that the universe has one or multiple gods that conduct its affairs according to their satisfaction or dissatisfaction, but they do not believe in returning to their lord(s) [in the herefter]. Life in this society will be directed at seeking nearness to these gods and pleasing them, in order to benefit from material wellbeing and gain. Then, suppose the people in a society neither believe in God, nor in the eternal life of humankind, such as the materialists and others with the same mindset. Then the social rules and customs of this society will be based on maximizing material pleasure in the life of this world, which ends by death. As we see, religion is a practical tradition that is founded on a set of principles and worldviews (ʿaqīdah, iʿtiqād), including an understanding of humankind as a part of the world. The principles and worldviews in religion are not purely in the form of theoretical knowledge about the universe and humankind, because theoretical knowledge does not necessitate any practice by itself, even though practice hinges on theory. Rather, a religious worldview is the knowledge and realization that one should follow the practical implications of a certain theory. In other words, it is when one decides to follow and abide by the practical implications of some theoretical knowledge. This is called practical knowledge (al-ʿilm al-ʿamalī). One example of such a decision is to say: It is incumbent upon humankind to worship God, and to observe the practices that ensure human happiness in both this world and the herefter. Now, what does it mean to have īmān (faith, belief) in a religion? Given that religion is a practical tradition based on a certain worldview and cosmology, when a religious call promotes īmān it is promoting commitment to the practical implications of true belief in God, His messengers and their teachings, and the Last Day. Hence, īmān is a form of practical knowledge. Practical knowledge can either be strong or weak in terms of intensity, according to the strength or weakness of its incentives and motivations. We never perform an act unless there is an incentive or disincentive: to gain a benefit or to avoid a loss. It sometimes happens that one incentive pulls us toward a certain act, but then we are diverted from the act due to another incentive that is stronger and more influential than the first. For example, one feels the necessity to eat food in order to satiate his hunger, but sometimes he would not do so—if he realizes that the food is not good for his health. In this case, the second incentive qualifies and constrains the unconditionality of the first incentive. It can be explained more simply as follows: eating to fulfill one’s hunger is not absolutely necessary under all circumstances whatsoever, but it is necessary only when it does not harm one’s health. Similarly, the belief (īmān) in God will have its effects—such as righteous deeds and splendid moral traits like awe, humility and sincerity—only if it is not overcome by wrong incentives and devilish deceptions. In other words, belief will be effective if it is not conditional or circumstantial, as God says: And among men is he who serves Allah (standing) on the edge (22:11). Hence, a believer will only be an absolute and unconditional believer when his actions are in accordance to the implications of his belief. Some of these implications are humility in worship, abstinence from vanity, and so on.

وَالَّذِينَ هُمْ عَنِ اللَّغْوِ مُعْرِضُون

And who keep aloof (muʿriḍūna, from iʿrāḍ) from what is vain (al-laghw).

An action is called vain (laghw) if there is no benefit in it. This can differ according to the different types of benefit. For example, an act might be vain in one respect, but beneficial and useful in another. From the point of view of religion, vain acts are permissible acts that: (1) have no benefit in the hereafter, and (2) have no benefit in this world in a way that would continue to the hereafter. An example of such acts would be eating and drinking for the pleasure of it, as opposed to eating and drinking to gain strength to serve God. Therefore, if an action neither benefits one in the herefter nor in this world such that it somehow results in a benefit in the hereafter, then it is vain. To be more precise, a vain act is any action other than the obligatory and recommended acts (wājibāt and mustaḥabbāt). The verb used in this verse is iʿrāḍ (to turn away, to keep aloof), as opposed to tark (to avoid, to quit, to desert). God does not say that the believers “avoid” vain acts in an absolute sense, because aſter all, humankind is always subject to slip and mistake, and God pardons the lesser sins as long as they avoid the major ones: If you shun the great sins which you are forbidden, We will do away with your [lesser] evil deeds (4:31). Instead, He has described the believers as those who “turn away” from vanity, which means that their overall direction is not toward vanity. Iʿrāḍ (turning away, keeping aloof) is an active decision, where one is being pulled toward an action, but he turns his face away from it because he does not care about it and does not see it significant. This means that the person elevates his soul above base acts. He prefers to strive for greater objectives and more significant affairs, instead of simply engaging in matters that are contrary to nobility and goodness. It is indeed most befitting of īmān (belief, faith) to inspire one toward such nobility, because it connects one to the Origin of Magnificence and Grandeur, and the Source of Nobility and Honor: God. A believer in this sense would not be concerned with anything except achieving an everlasting, timeless and happy life. Thus he would not engage himself in anything other than what God deems to be great, and would not have a high regard for what ignorant and ignoble people care about. And when the ignorant address them, they say: Peace (25:63); And when they pass by what is vain, they pass by nobly (25:72). These verses show that their description as “those who keep aloof from vanity” is a way of describing the loftiness of their determination and the nobility of their souls.

وَالَّذِينَ هُمْ لِلزَّكَاةِ فَاعِلُون

And who are doers of charity (al-zakāh).

Given the mention of prayer (ṣalāh) above [in verse 23:2], what is meant by zakāh here is also a ritual. Therefore, zakāh here is meant in its financial sense, which is paying the poor-rate or almsgiving, as opposed to zakāh in the sense of self-purification from moral vices. Meanwhile, it should be noted that this chapter was revealed in Mecca, while zakāh as a financial duty in Islam was legislated later in Medina. That was when zakāh gradually became a specific term, meaning the amount of money that one pays, and this specific meaning dominated the other meanings of the word. Therefore, it is more likely that zakāh here is meant as a verbal noun (maṣdar), meaning the act of purifying one’s wealth by spending part of it in God’s way, as opposed to the actual amount that is paid. Given this sense of zakāh—as the act of charity and almsgiving—it makes sense to say that they are “doers” (fāʿilūn) of zakāh, as the verse does. It means that they are active in helping the poor financially. However, if zakāh is interpreted as the actual money that is paid, then one cannot say that they are doers of it, because money is not an action to be ascribed to a “doer.” Saying that they are “doers” (fāʿilūn) of charity shows their special attention to this act, as opposed to saying that they are “fulfillers” or “payers” of charity. For example, when someone asks a person to drink water: if the person says, “I will be a doer,” it conveys a higher degree of attention and determination to performing the act than if he says, “I will be a drinker.” Belief in God is such that it calls one to financial charity. One cannot achieve total happiness unless one lives in a felicitous society where each person receives their due rights. And a society is not felicitous unless its classes are close to one another in terms of standard of living and quality of life. Giving financial charity to the poor and the less fortunate is one of the most effective ways of achieving this objective of equity.

وَالَّذِينَ هُمْ لِفُرُوجِهِمْ حَافِظُون

And who guard their private parts (li-furūjihim).

إِلَّا عَلَىٰ أَزْوَاجِهِمْ أَوْ مَا مَلَكَتْ أَيْمَانُهُمْ فَإِنَّهُمْ غَيْرُ مَلُومِين

Except before their mates (azwājihim) or those whom their right hands possess, for they surely are not blameable.

“Guarding one’s private part” means abstaining from sexual intercourse, which includes adultery, sodomy, intercourse with animals, and other such forms. The second verse mentions an exception to guarding the private parts. Azwāj means lawful wives. The believers are not blameworthy in sleeping with their lawful wives. Although this verse primarily describes believing men, the entire verses are about all believers, both male and female. Therefore, it can be inferred that the same standard holds for believing women: they do not sleep with any man who is unlawful to them.

What leads the people to establish certain laws in the society and induces them to abide by them is their realization that they have certain needs in life that can only be fulfilled by setting and practicing these laws. The more primary a need is and the closer it is to the simple human nature, the more urgent it will be to fulfill it, and the more detrimental it will be to neglect it. For example, the need to indulge in various types of foods and fruits comes nowhere close to the need for food in general. The same hierarchy holds for other needs. One of these primary needs in human beings is the need of each of the two genders—the male and the female—to one another for sexual intercourse. Clearly from the point of view of the Creator [or creation], the purpose of this need is that the human race may continue. Thus He has endowed humankind with a sexual instinct in order to reach this objective. That is why we find marriage and the formation of households as a universal institution in all human societies that we see [today] or hear about [in past]. This has been the case since very ancient times, showing that the survival of the human race up to this point has depended on marriage. You may object that the above view is not true because in the modern civilization, marriage is based on partnership in life, not based on procreation or satisfaction of the sexual need. The answer to this objection is that such partnership is not natural. Why not? Because if it were really a matter of partnership in life [and not sexual need], then these societies should have equally led to life partners of the same sex at a large scale. This has not occurred exactly because of its opposition to what human nature calls for. In short, marriage is a natural custom that has always existed in human societies. The only [main] obstacle in the way of this natural custom is zinā (adultery, fornication), for it is the greatest barrier against family formation, which comes with heavy burdens to bear. The satisfaction of the sexual instinct through extramarital sex results in the destruction of families and the discontinuation of the human race. That is why religious societies—in line with the pristine human nature—count adultery as a reprehensible act and an abominable indecency, and try to prevent it through any possible means. This can be seen even in modern societies: although they do not ban it completely and do not show the same opposition to it, they do not count it as something commendable either, because they can see its profound opposition to the formation of families, population growth and the subsistence of humankind. They try to minimize such relationships, and promote marriage and procreation through subtle ways like bonuses, child support, recognition and other incentives. Nevertheless, we find in all countries, whether big or small, that some people turn to this act [adultery]—which is destructive to the foundation of the society—either openly or secretly, depending on the laws and customs of that society. This tendency exists despite the facts mentioned above, that: (1) permanent marriage is a legal institution which is accepted in all human societies in the world; (2) the governments encourage it; and (3) they discourage adultery and especially try to keep the youth away from it. This is the strongest evidence that the practice of permanent marriage is not sufficient to satisfy the sexual instinct of humankind. It leaves a deficiency that must be fulfilled for humanity. Thus, it is mandatory for those who are in charge of legislation to ease and facilitate the matter of marriage further. This is why the Legislator of Islam has complemented permanent marriage by temporary marriage—in order to facilitate this matter. There are certain conditions for temporary marriage that prevent the unwanted consequences of adultery, such as the mixing of waters, destruction of the household, discontinuity of the human species, and problems concerning lineage, ascription and inheritance. These conditions are: (1) the wife exclusively belongs to her husband [during the marriage period]; (2) she must hold ʿiddah (a waiting period) after they part with one another; (3) the children count as legitimate children of the parents; (4) she is entitled to any conditions that she sets in marriage; and (5) the man does not have to carry the burdens and responsibilities of permanent marriage. By the Truth, this is something to be proud of in Islam’s simple and lenient code of law (shariah), just as many other Islamic laws like divorce and polygamy. But alas, for the signs and warners do not avail a people who cannot hear [10:101] to the point that some people say, “I prefer to commit adultery and fornication than to do temporary marriage.”

فَمَنِ ابْتَغَىٰ وَرَاءَ ذَٰلِكَ فَأُولَٰئِكَ هُمُ الْعَادُون

But whoever (fa-man) seeks to go beyond that, these are they that exceed the limits.

This verse is mentioned as a consequence and conclusion that builds on the exception in the previous verse, as indicated by the letter fāʾ(lit. “so, then, therefore”; translated as “but” here). That is, belief necessitates the absolute guarding of their private parts except with two groups of women: wives and bondswomen. Then, those who seek to go beyond that—that is, those who seek to have intercourse with anyone who is not among the lawful ones—they are transgressors and violators of the limit that God has defined for them. We already presented a discussion on how adultery (zinā) destroys and ruins the human species under the verse: And go not nigh to fornication; surely it is an indecency and an evil way (17:32).

وَالَّذِينَ هُمْ لِأَمَانَاتِهِمْ وَعَهْدِهِمْ رَاعُون

And those who are keepers (rāʿūn, from riʿāyah) of their trusts (li-amānātihim) and their covenant (ʿahdihim).

Amānah is originally a verbal noun (meaning the act of “entrustment”), but sometimes it refers to the thing that is entrusted to someone, such as money. This second sense is meant in this verse. Amānāt is in plural form in this verse, apparently referring to the different types of trust among the people. Some have suggested that it includes not only entrustment between the people, such as entrusting each other with wealth and possession, but also God’s trust to human beings, which includes: (1) God’s covenants and rules that people must follow; and(2) the body parts, organs and faculties that one should use in a way that pleases God. However, this interpretation is an unlikely possibility given the primary meaning of the words, although it is true once we analyze and generalize the meaning. In the shariah, ʿahd (covenant) is when one commits to something by uttering a prescribed formula. It stands parallel to nadhr (vow) and yamīn (oath). However, ʿahd could also include any duty that has been laid upon a believer. This usage can be seen in the verses: Is it not that whenever they made a covenant, a party of them would cast it away? (2:100), and: And certainly they had made a covenant with Allah before, that they would not turn (their) backs; and Allah’s covenant shall be inquired of (33:15). In these verses and other similar verses, the words covenant (ʿahd) and contract (mīthāq) refer to having a belief that is coupled with observance of the practical duties prescribed by God. Perhaps the singular form of ʿahd [in the current verse] implies this very meaning [of God’s covenant with humankind]: all religious duties are included in a single covenant which is that of īmān (belief, faith). Riʿāyah means ḥifẓ (to preserve, to maintain). Some have said: The root word raʿy originally means “to protect an animal,” either by giving it the food that it needs to survive or by defending it against its enemies. However, in terms of usage, the root raʿy is used for any kind of protection and maintenance. The opposite is arguably more plausible. Either way, the verse describes the believers as those who preserve their trusts from being breached, and keep their covenants from being broken. Indeed īmān( belief, faith) calls for such attitude, because it involves a sense of composure, confidence and security. When one shows trust in a believer by leaving one’s possession with him, or shows confidence in the person by making a contract with him, then that possession or contract will remain stable with him, and will be secure from loss and damage due to a breach of trust or a break of contract.

وَالَّذِينَ هُمْ عَلَىٰ صَلَوَاتِهِمْ يُحَافِظُون

And those who keep a guard on their prayers(ṣalawātihim).

Ṣalawāt is the plural of ṣalāh (prayer). The verse talks about keeping a guard on the prayers, which means maintaining their number and order. That is, they are careful not to miss any of the obligatory prayers, and are constantly mindful of them. Again, this is a necessary consequence of īmān. The verse says “prayers” in plural, while earlier we read “prayer” in singular: Who are humble in their prayer (23:2). This is because humbleness (khushūʿ) is a quality that equally applies to any prayer. Therefore, the singular form of “prayer” in that verse indicates genus (jins), which effectively includes all prayers.

أُولَٰئِكَ هُمُ الْوَارِثُون

These are they who are the heirs

الَّذِينَ يَرِثُونَ الْفِرْدَوْسَ هُمْ فِيهَا خَالِدُون

who shall inherit the Paradise; they shall abide therein.

Paradise (al-firdaws) is the highest of the heavenly gardens. “Inheriting” Paradise is meant in the following sense: initially, anyone can earn and enter Paradise, but some people fail to do so. Thus they forfeit their potential share and chance, and instead, the believers become heirs to them. According to the narrations, each person initially has a place in heaven and in hell. If a person dies and enters hell, then the people of heaven will “inherit” his place in heaven.

Read Full Post »

there is a Love that never ends

there is a Beauty that never fades

there is a Peace that can never be broken

الله

yet to enter it you must travel through zaynab’s tears

and weather al-sajjad’s trials

الله

for this earth is too small

and this life too short

to contain all the dreams dreamt

in the heart of a single boy

الله

somewhere beyond

grasping with hope

trusting in You

i will follow You to the end

my King

الله

Read Full Post »

Bismillah

I am really writing this for myself. I pray that those who read it find benefit, and if they notice something off, let me know.

But I want to write it down so I don’t forget. The first Ramaḍān with two kids has made it harder to maintain focus on matters of the mind, so I hope that by writing down my thoughts they may reach deeper into my heart. I will refrain from detailed references in the interest of time.

First, the tafsīr of Sūrah al-ʾAʿla mentioned that one of the ways we honor (sabbih) the Name (ismi) of our Lord (Rabbika) is by not denigrating the names of other gods. This teaching comes straight from another Qur’anic verse. Muslims who mock Gaṇeśa, Rāma, Kṛṣṇa and other Hindu deities are going against the Qur’anic verse which reminds the Muslims that such behavior may lead others to not take Allah seriously or even mock Allah, al-Raḥmān, al-Raḥīm, and so on.

Secondly, Sūrah al-Zumar directly describes gratitude (shukr) as faith. That feeling I have had since my youth – that gratitude towards parents, community and ultimately Allah is the foundation of Islam – is made clear in this verse.

Thirdly, the “illā mā shāʾ Allāh (except what Allah wills)” verse in Sūrah al-ʾAlaʿ was meant to remind the Prophet (blessings and peace upon him and his family) that even something that was promised to him was contingent on the Divine Will. This produced deeper hope and fear in his heart for his Lord. The mufassir connects this to another verse that uses the same phrase in regards the Hereafter. This is an answer to my question about contingent eternity – that if we are too rooted in the awareness that we exist forever, we may come to disregard our status as ultimately utterly dependent upon Allah for everything. I think this can be seen in the less theistic Hindu philosophical systems (darśana-s) that accept the eternity of the soul as a fact without the need to ascribe the existence of that soul as utterly dependent upon the Lord (īśvara). So if even the Prophet Muhammad (blessings and peace upon him and his family) can feel increased spiritual hope and fear at the reminder that all of the promises he is given are contingent, then of course so do we. It is a subtle point, to be sure, but I think deeply important for reflection.

Lastly, the immense joy at the guilty verdict in the George Floyd case was a powerful reminder of the fiṭrī human love for justice on Earth, as opposed to in the Hereafter. I felt like all my Sunnī and non-Muslim friends were implicitly chanting, “Labbayka yā Mahdī!” yesterday. In particular, Attorney General Ellison’s remarks about accountability leading to the “restoration” in which true justice is rooted was just so striking.

Subḥān Allāh, even in the past few minutes I have written this, I feel like there are a few more realizations that I cannot recall. But as the verse in Sūrah al-ʾAlaʿ says, “and you shall not forget, except what Allah wills!”

May Allah allow beneficial truths to penetrate my being such that I carry them with me wherever I go and embody them in my behaviors in all situations, āmīn yā Walī al-Tawfīq!

Read Full Post »

“People are asleep. When they die, they awaken.”

Back in 2009, when I started working at Brown University, there were only three full-time Muslim chaplains in the Ivy League: myself, Omer Bajwa at Yale, and Sohaib Sultan at Princeton. The three of us worked together and coordinated many things, recognizing the privilege and responsibility our positions entailed. We each hosted an annual gathering of university Muslim chaplains at our respective campuses. Sohaib hosted a retreat for our students at a summer camp style facility that Princeton owned (picture below, where Sohaib was doing something silly – telling a jinn story? – and I had to capture it on camera). Omer hosted the Ivy League Muslims conference and Sohaib drove his students from the West and I drove my students from the East to converge on New Haven. It was a beautiful experience of starting something new, something that I had never experienced as both a Muslim undergrad at Brown and graduate student at Princeton.


I left my position at the end of 2013 right before our son was born, as my wife had a job in New Jersey at the time. Both Omer and Sohaib stayed in their positions, and as long as they were still working together I felt a sense of nostalgia and connection to “the old days.” But now I know those days are over forever. When I look back at it, it truly feels like a dream. When I look through my old pictures, I hardly feel like it was real.


And strangely enough, that is what gives my heart the most comfort at all. To hope that I will wake up in the next life, and Sohaib, Omer and I will be together in the company of the men and women we each tried to emulate and serve to the best of our ability. And we’ll think about our short time in this dunya and laugh at the beautiful dream it was, as we awaken to eternal possibilities in gardens underneath which rivers flow.

Our Lord! Admit them into the Gardens of Eternity which You have promised them, along with the righteous among their parents, spouses, and descendants. You are truly the Almighty, All-Wise. (40.8)

Read Full Post »

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.”

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: