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Archive for the ‘The Struggle’ Category

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I don’t know enough about Islam to have a public role as a leader in any capacity. My exploration of the Sunni-Shi’i divide over the last few years has made that clear to me, as the complexity of the formation of the Islamic tradition has overwhelmed my ability to provide definitive answers to many disputed questions, and I have found a dearth of scholars who are competent in both traditions (Sunni and Shi’i) to provide ready made answers for me.

I have known this for a long time. In my first two years of graduate school at Princeton, this became apparent to me, and so the resolution I had to deal with it then is the resolution I have now:

I am bound by taklif to every day try to do my best. To take care of my son. To be a good husband. To say my prayers. To remember God. To say salawat. To try to read or take a class to improve my knowledge. To try to attend gatherings of other Muslims that seem beneficial. To try to follow shari’a as best as I can understand it. To not ignore the injustices of the world, whether done by Muslims or people of other worldviews, whether in the present of the past.

But only God knows if my efforts will be enough. No one I have ever met has been able to guarantee me that my actions are pleasing to God.

And I am not required to be a leader.

A leader should be a real leader. Not someone like me who is just trying to make sense of 1400 years of Islamic history and thought, and figure out what it means for me as white guy living in New York City in 2017. I have already pulled back my responsibilities a lot. But it has become apparent to me that I need to retreat further.

God will question each and every one of us about our private lives. Any public responsibilities we have only add to the burden.

And so I am going to stop posting on this blog until further notice, and delete my Twitter account.

If there is a way I can serve you,  just email me at rdavidcoolidge@gmail.com

As your Muslim brother, it is your right over me that I share with you whatever I can of whatever it is that God has given me. But at this point in time, I don’t really know what to say other than to prepare for death and prepare to be questioned. If you don’t know what that means, this is how I advised myself and others in a previous post. Act on what you know, and trust that by doing so, God will give you knowledge of what you do not know.

May God be merciful to us, and overlook our imperfections, but it is God’s right to question us about everything. Everything we say and everything we do.

I don’t know how long I will be gone. At this point, the only real answer seems: however long it takes.

Dear God, please accept this from me, and bless all my brothers and sisters who have listened to me over the years. Save them from the evil that comes from me, and increase them in the good that comes only from You.

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The stakes are too high to not give it our all.

One of the beautiful things about the biography of the Prophet (may God bless him and his family and grant them peace) is that it shows how the Prophet directly addressed the individual needs of his followers. For example, on numerous occasions, people came to him and asked which deeds were the best, and he gave multiple answers. Scholars of hadith tell us that this was because each answer was tailored to the questioner – what was best depended on the situation of the person. A person with two elderly parents might be told that respect and caring for parents is the best of deeds, while another without parents might be told that fighting in the path of God was best. The Prophet took context into consideration, as well as the psychological needs of the questioner. We can see this beautifully in the following hadith:

Ibn Hanbal recorded Abu Umamah saying that a young man came to the Prophet and said, “O Messenger of Allah! Give me permission to commit zina [sex outside of marriage].” The people surrounded him and rebuked him, saying, “Stop! Stop!” But the Prophet said, “Come close.” The young man came to him, and he said, “Sit down,” so he sat down.

The Prophet said, “Would you like it for your mother?” The young man said, “No, by Allah, may I be ransomed for you.” The Prophet said, “Neither do the people like it for their mothers.” The Prophet said, “Would you like it for your daughter?” He said, “No, by Allah, may I be ransomed for you.” The Prophet said, “Neither do the people like it for their daughters.” The Prophet said, “Would you like it for your sister?” He said, “No, by Allah, may I be ransomed for you.” The Prophet said, “Neither do the people like it for their sisters.” The Prophet said, “Would you like it for your paternal aunt?” He said, “No, by Allah, O Allah’s Messenger, may I be ransomed for you.” The Prophet said, “Neither do the people like it for their paternal aunts.” The Prophet said, “Would you like it for your maternal aunt?” He said, “No, by Allah, O Allah’s Messenger, may I be ransomed for you.” The Prophet said, “Neither do the people like it for their maternal aunts.”

Then the Prophet put his hand on him and said, “O Allah, forgive his sin, purify his heart and guard his chastity.” After that the young man never paid attention to anything of that nature.

The Prophet did not shy away from the spiritual and psychological needs of this young man, but addressed it clearly. He brought back to his mind the implications of what he was asking for, and how it relates to the general principle of loving for others what one loves for oneself. He made him confront the selfishness of his own desires, and helped him to see things from a wider perspective. Once he had made it clear in the young man’s mind that what he was requesting was deeply problematic, he also spiritually intervened on his behalf, by which he was healed from the disease of his heart.

Many scholars teach us that the refinement of our hearts is obligatory. It is something we must do, just like staying away from the haram and doing our obligatory worship. We should look for qualified teachers to help us do this, but if this is not available, then one should find a sincere brother or sister in faith to help and provide counsel on this path. For regardless of whether one has access to truly trustworthy helpers or not, one must confront the reality of their inner state. A statement attributed to Ja’far al-Sadiq states, “Whoever does not have a preacher within his or her own self will not benefit from the preaching of others.”

The Qur’an states:

 “God knows everything that is in the Heavens and Earth, and God knows everything that you conceal or declare, for God is knowing of that which is contained in the depths of your hearts.” (Surah al-Taghabun, verse 4)

God already knows everything about us, so what we have to do is admit it to ourselves and to God. This may sound easy and simple, but it is not, because it means we have to confront our deepest fears and struggles. In the case of the hadith mentioned before, perhaps we think that the young man just haphazardly asked the Prophet such a provocative question. But I think that is probably unlikely. It is much more likely that he struggled with it in private until he felt like he couldn’t control himself, and went to the Prophet in a state of deep confusion and turmoil. The fact that he was willing to speak openly about it indicates that he was probably at his wit’s end, didn’t know what else to do, and was looking for a way out as a last resort.

This internal struggle is a common feature of our human experience. Many of our life experiences are so painful and challenging, it is easier to bury them deep within – to lock them away as a means of survival, and try to forget about them. It is much harder to openly confront them and try to overcome them. But as we progress towards the Light of al-Nur, God will make us confront them whether we like it or not. This can be deeply painful, but we can take comfort in the words attributed to the Prophet: “Never is a believer stricken with a discomfort, an illness, an anxiety, a grief or mental worry or even the pricking of a thorn but God will expiate his or her sins on account of their patience.” The path of inward rectification requires that we overcome these obstacles by facing them head on, with both courage and trust in God.

The Prophet (may God bless him and his family and grant them peace) speaks of these sorts of realities in the following hadith, related in the book al-Adab al-Mufrad by al-Bukhari:

Jabir ibn ‘Abdullah said, “I heard the Messenger of Allah say, ‘If anyone has three of his children die young and resigns them to Allah, he will enter the Garden.’ We said, ‘Messenger of Allah, what about two?’ ‘And two,’ he said.” Mahmud ibn Labid said to Jabir, “By Allah, I think that if you had asked, ‘And one?’ he would have given a similar answer.” [Jabir] said, “By Allah, I think so too.”

For the mother and father who have lost a child at a young age – one of the greatest griefs possible – confronting the reality of loss with the light of faith becomes a means to Paradise. When God decreed that their children would die, there was nothing in the whole universe that could be done to prevent it, so the Prophet counseled the parents to “resign them to Allah.”

The examples given so far may seem somewhat extreme, or perhaps even arbitrary. But they compel us to see that Islam was given to us not so that we could live in some fantasy world, divorced from our real issues. It was given to us to provide the means by which we can confront the that which is contained in the depths of our hearts. Regret, fear, the pain of loss, despair, agony, envy, weakness, lust, humiliation and the desire to humiliate, greed, hopelessness – these are some of the things that reside in our hearts, and until we have unearthed them, and brought them out to be grappled with, we are avoiding what really matters.

What is so disturbing at this moment of human history is that people who could care less about such struggles are the most widely influential, wealthy, and powerful. There are very few people, for example, on the Forbes list of most powerful people that are in any way exemplars of this process in any way, shape or form. Which is precisely why making it a priority is a revolutionary act. If the whole world is going to go to Hell, at the lead of people who could care less about the diseases of their hearts, then choosing to delve into our hearts for the sake of God is an act of eternal resistance to the lies of this temporary world.

To be clear, doing the right thing is only part of the struggle – adopting the right attitude of heart can be far more challenging. As our life unfolds however it does, can we become those who truly trust in God, the mutawakkilun? When disappointments appear, can we become truly those who are patient, the sabirun. When our bodies yearn for something that is forbidden, can we truly control ourselves, and be considered from the muttaqun? Outwardly and publicly, we may still be fighting the good fight. But inwardly and privately, where is our heart with our Lord?

The pillars of something are like the foundation – they make everything else possible, but they are just the beginning. As a philosopher might say, “they are necessary but not sufficient.” In this way, the 5 pillars of Islam provide us with a context, but they do not answer the deeply personal questions which are at the core of our being. Someone told me, “I think Islam is very compelling, but I struggle to believe in God, because if God is real, then God is to blame for my suffering and the suffering of others, whereas if this is all just an accident, then no one is to blame, and I can just chalk it up to bad luck and move on.” This may have been one of the most honest theological statements I have ever heard from anyone. This is precisely where the theological meets the personal, and it is a dynamic that all of us intuit on some level.

Ultimately, the answers of Islam revolve around inspiration and hope in the face of the inevitability of pain, loss, and suffering. God is arham al-rahimin, The Most Merciful of those who show mercy. If we could think of the greatest possible situation in this world, going to the limits of our ability to dream of a good life, then God has already thought of something far better to give to those whom God chooses. This reality is evoked by the prophetic words:

“A man from the people of fire who was enjoying the best pleasures of this world will be brought and dipped once in Hell, and God will tell him: ‘O My slave, did you ever enjoy yourself in the worldly life?’ This person would respond: ‘No, I never enjoyed any pleasure.’ Then a man of the people of Paradise who was the most miserable of this world will be brought and dipped into Paradise once, then God will ask him, ‘O My slave, did you ever experience any misfortune in this worldly life?’ The person would reply: ‘No, I never experienced any unhappiness at all.’ [related in Sahih Muslim]

Belief in these realities is essential to self transformation – otherwise every loss in this world will increase us in frustration at the state of society and resentment towards the nature of the universe. The truth is, it is God who gives and takes away, not the world. The one you love will only love you back if al-Wadud, The Loving, puts love in his or her heart for you. The money that you crave will not reach your hand unless al-Razzaq, The Provider, decrees that the hiring supervisor chooses you over other qualified applicants. The power that you hope to wield will only be manifest if al-Qadir, the Powerful, blesses you with it. The child that you hope to have will never exist unless al-Khaliq, the Creator, places it in the womb of its mother. The oppressive ruler that you hope to restrain will only be restrained by al-Mani’, the Preventer. This is reality – this is la ilaha illa Allah.

For there are moments in life when good and beauty seem destroyed, and evil and ugliness reign. Anyone who has contemplated the events of Karbala knows this like they know the veins on the back of their hand. And if that was the fate of people far better than anyone reading this message – such as Imam Husayn and Lady Zaynab – then that means there is no guarantee for us of a nice life. The hardships that weigh humanity down may continue and increase, if it is God’s wisdom for that to be the case. People of evil may hoard more power and wealth for themselves, without any seeming check on their corruption of the Earth. But hope is always there, in the freedom we have to give our hearts to God.

I cannot see the future. I do not know if the hardships will increase or relief will come like rain, unexpected and joy producing. What I know is that I am free now to give my best to God. There is no crushing rock on my chest in the desert of the Arabian sun, with only the freedom of my tongue left to call out “Ahad! Ahad!” Rather, I can still write. I can still read. I can still be there for my family to the best of my ability. I can still teach. I can still pray. I can still fast. I can still give charity. I can still do so many things.

But what does God want most of me right now, and am I willing to do it? The freedom to give one’s heart to God is not like the intoxicating freedom that you feel on a Friday night when the work week is done. It is more somber, and sometimes it hurts more than anything. Because maybe what we really want is not what God wants for us. Or maybe what we want from God is not what God is giving us right now. And so we have to find that clarity, with God’s help, where we can say the words attributed to the Prophet:

O God, whatever You have blessed me with that I love, then make it give me strength to undertake that which You love

and whatever You have withheld from me of what I love, then make it a free space [in my heart] to be filled with what You love

Seek that clarity with everything you have, for the stakes are too high for anything less.

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It is narrated that once a man came to Imam ‘Ali and said:

“I seek God’s forgiveness (أَسْتَغْفِرُ اللهَ)”

to which the Commander of the Faithful replied:

“Do you know what asking God’s forgiveness is? Forgiveness is a word that stand on six supports:

  1. To repent over the past – النَّدَمُ عَلَى مَا مَضَى
  2. A firm determination never to revert to it – الْعَزْمُ عَلَى تَرْكِ الْعَوْدِ إِلَيْهِ أَبَداً
  3. To discharge all the rights of people so that you may meet God quite clean with nothing which to account for – أَنْ تُؤَدِّيَ إِلَى الْـمَخْلُوقِينَ حُقُوقَهُمْ حَتَّى تَلْقَى اللهَ عزّوجلّ أَمْلَسَ لَيْسَ عَلَيْكَ تَبِعَةٌ
  4. To fulfill every obligation which you ignored in the past so that you may now be just with it –  أَنْ تَعْمِدَ إِلَى كُلِّ فَرِيضَةٍ عَلَيْكَ ضَيَّعْتَهَا فَتُؤَدِّيَ حَقَّهَا
  5. To aim at the flesh grown as a result of unlawful earning so that you may melt it by grief of repentance till the skin touches the bone and a new flesh grows between – أَنْ تَعْمِدَ إِلَى اللَّحْمِ الَّذِي نَبَتَ عَلَى السُّحْتِ فَتُذِيبَهُ بالاْحْزَانِ، حَتَّى يَلْصِقَ الْجِلْدُ بِالْعَظْمِ، وَيَنْشَأَ بَيْنَهُمَا لَحْمٌ جَدِيدٌ
  6. To make the body taste the pain of obedience as you previously made it taste the sweetness of disobedience – أَنْ تُذِيقَ الْجِسْمَ أَلَمَ الطَّاعَةِ كَمَا أَذَقْتَهُ حَلاَوَةَ الْمَعْصِيَةِ

On such an occasion you may say, I seek God’s forgiveness.”

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“The provisions required for this spiritual journey consist of spiritual and ascetic practices to discipline the soul. Since relinquishing material attachments is very difficult, the traveler begins to cut the binding chains of attachment to the realm of multiplicity little by little and leaves the world of physical nature behind.

Hardly before the traveler recovers from the exhaustion of this journey, he enters the intermediate world, which is the world of psychic multiplicity. Here, he clearly realizes how precious are the treasures that material and external multiplicities have stored within his corporeal nature. These are the same imaginal psychic beings that come into being as a result of the traveler’s encounter with and interest in external multiplicities and are considered its outcome and by-products.

These thoughts and preoccupations hinder the travelers wayfaring and take away his serenity and peace of mind. When he wants to take repose in the remembrance of God for a short while, they besiege him like a deluge and threaten his whole being…

It is obvious that the pain and distress caused by psychic multiplicities are more powerful than multiplicities of the physical world. For one can willingly and deliberately retreat and isolate oneself and be saved from disturbance of and encounter with external multiplicities. But one certainly cannot free oneself from the disturbance of temptations and imaginations of the carnal soul, for those enticements always accompany one closely and intimately.

The traveler…is determined to leave behind the realm of temptations that is usually called the intermediate world. However, the traveler must be very alert and careful lest there remain any of those tempting thoughts in the corners of his heart. Because it is a characteristic of these imaginal elements to hide in the most obscured corners of the heart in such a way that the traveler is deceived when he wants to cast them out. He may be fooled to believe that he has freed himself of their evil presence and has been relieved of all remnants of the [the intermediate world]. But when the traveler reaches the spring of life and wants to quench his thirst from the fountains of wisdom, suddenly they attack him and finish him off…

The example of such a traveler is like that of a person who has filled a pool in his house with water but has not touched it for some time. Therefore, all the dirt and impurities of the water has settled down at the bottom of the pool and the water seems clean and clear to him. He assumes that the clarity and purity of the water is permanent. However, as soon as he wants to enter the pool or wishes to wash something in it, suddenly all that dirt and sediment contaminates the clear water again and spots of dirt reappear on the surface. Therefore, through persistent spiritual combat and ascetic practices the traveler must acquire such a degree of certitude and inward peace that imaginal psychic elements are subjugated and cannot disturb his mind when he turns attention to the Beloved Lord.

When the traveler passes through the realm of physical nature, and the intermediate world, he enter the world of spirit…”

‘Allamah Tabataba’i, Kernel of the Kernel, pp. 15-17

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The following is an address that I gave at Bryant University in Rhode Island back in 2013. Rereading it this morning, it seemed appropriate to share it in light of our current circumstances.

As someone trained in the academic study of religion, I could speak about the intersection of faith and citizenship in a very academic fashion. I could talk about the creation of the modern nation-state, the processes of secularization in modern Europe, the imposition of European colonial rule in Africa and Asia, and other historical forces which have determined the realities of our lives in the present. I could talk about the dwindling authority of the Catholic church, the rise of political fundamentalisms that infect many religious traditions, the dynamics of political parties seeking power, and many other things which scholars of religion, political science, public policy, sociology, and other disciplines dedicate their careers to understanding. All of this work, mostly done within our universities, is valuable, for the collective human attempt to understand the world in which we live is part of the enterprise of civilization. But a library full of books means nothing without human hearts ready to imbibe that knowledge and act upon it.

The Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, and Muslim traditions have produced many books. So too have the secular discourses emerging primarily from Europe and North America in the last few centuries. But we, as human beings, naturally gravitate to living examples of courage and resilience, wisdom and caring, love and compassion. We crave to know other human beings who make justice more than an abstract concept, but a real possibility in the here-and-now. We yearn to meet people who will stand with us in times of personal crisis, and help us find a way out. And it is here where the rubber meets the road, and where we must walk the walk. For either we are those people ourselves, or we should be striving to become like them, or we should be supporting them in their hard work.

Different people might imagine different inspiring examples: Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Mother Theresa, Gandhi, The Prophet Muhammad, The Prophet Jesus, The Prophet Moses, Swami A.C. Bhaktivedanta, St. Francis of Assisi, or whoever else might come to mind – your own mother or father perhaps, your grandfather, your local pastor, a close friend. Every one of us has an image in our heads of the highest states possible for human existence. And one of the most sacred duties of a government is to foster the conditions in which each and every one of us can dream that dream as widely as possible, and undertake our journeys in search of making those dreams a reality.

As a teenager, all of the aforementioned examples inspired me, and told me with words and deeds that I could be better than I was. That I could let go of selfishness, that perhaps God was real, that a single human life could make a profound difference in the lives of billions of other human beings, and that everything beautiful and profound on this small Earth was not a meaningless accident meant to fade away into nothingness at the edge of the Milky Way galaxy.

Eventually, the example of Muhammad, born in the city of Makkah in the year 570 of the Christian calendar, came to rule my heart and mind as the greatest example of human perfection. His was a life that should be the envy of both the sacred and secular discourses of Western civilization – perfect balance between Heaven and earth. Put simply, he is the most successful human being who ever lived. More people have memorized the book that he brought, the Qur’an, than any other book in the history of human civilization. Billions of times every day, people pray for God to bless him and his family, using the Arabic words, “Allahumma salli ‘ala Muhammad wa Al Muhammad.” He is the main reason that one of the official languages of the UN is Arabic, spoken by over 200 million people as their native tongue, and perhaps another billion as a second language. He founded one of the most enduring political entities in human history, which bridged East and West and fostered globalization before the English language even existed, let alone coined an anachronistic term like “globalization.” His descendants, traced through his daughter, include many men and women of scholarship and spirituality unlike any others I have met on this earth. And for Muslims, he is the last Messenger of God to humanity, the example to be followed until the end of time. He is the great intercessor, who will be granted the right to intercede for his followers when they stand before God on Judgement Day. He is the one who shows us that being with God also means being in the world. And he is the one who helps us begin to understand that Mercy and Justice are fundamental attributes of God, just as they are interwoven in the nature of this worldly life.

This is my personal faith, based on my reading of human history. And the greatest thing my citizenship has ever given me was the ability to discover this based on my own unique conscience and conviction, through study, reflection, and ultimately an intensity of prayer which defines who I am. Not once in my spiritual journey have American government officials told me that this cannot be my faith. Sure, I have been taken in the back at airports – they wanted to check a little deeper as to why I had stamps from Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Pakistan in my passport. But on the flip side, women and men in Rhode Island who spend day and night trying to keep our communities safe have given me and other Muslim religious leaders their personal cell numbers, just in case we ever find ourselves the target of unjustified government suspicion.

In this respect, citizenship is a gift to be cherished, for it means that we are free to be who we are called to be. This gift has not come to me because I am better than anyone else, or I deserve it more than any other human soul on this Earth – it is only because the United States is where God has placed me in the course of human history. But with gifts from our Creator and Sustainer comes the necessity of gratitude. Gratitude that moves beyond words, becomes actions, and ends in the manifestation of authentic humility, by God’s grace. Gratitude that remembers the desperate need of so many here in this country, and so many beyond these borders.

We are all interconnected, and if you do not believe it, then go the International Institute of Rhode Island, and meet the newly arriving refugees. Go to speak with the Orthodox priest in Pawtucket, and learn of how the conflict in Syria is affecting his community. Go meet with the congregants of the mosque in North Smithfield, one of Rhode Island’s 6 mosques, and hear heartbreaking stories of what their relatives in Pakistan are currently undergoing. And go to the West End of Providence and Olneyville, and see for yourself the way that the land of the free and the home of the brave is also the land of the broken souls and the home of people without anyone to care for them.

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. From the Islamic viewpoint, this is because, as the Qur’an states, “fa lillahi al-‘izzatu jami’a (all power and honor belongs to God alone).” When we try to rival God, we are in fact doing nothing but oppressing our own souls, or as one says in Arabic, “dhalimun li nafsihi.” Anytime we exercise power over ourselves or other human beings or over the natural world, we are running the risk of becoming an unjust oppressor. And the more power we have, the greater the risk. And so the person of faith takes the blessing of citizenship, which is a particular form of power, as a weighty responsibility to be just. To be just in our families. To be just in our dealings with others. To be just in our professional lives. To be just in our relations with those in other countries. To be just in our relationship with matters of ultimate concern.

The promise that America had on the world stage at the end of World War II, that made people from all over the world turn to this country, was because we seemed like a country that was more just than most. And the thing that has ruined that trust more than anything else has been our failure to live up to our own ideals, at home and abroad. But what is amazing about this country is that the story is not over. We are still capable of collective repentance for past injustices, and moving forward with an intention to rectify our situation on the basis of justice. We have yet to give up on the best version of our collective self, the one that we talk about in speeches but so often fail to emulate in our personal lives. The one that was embodied in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, which was a continuation of the prophetic words of President Lincoln when he said, at the twilight of the Civil War, “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in.” The America where you can be Pakistani, Moroccan, a white guy or the descendants of former slaves, and still find a world of possibility. One where a woman doesn’t have to flaunt her body to survive or get ahead, but is also free from the belittling and disempowering patriarchy which masquerades as “protecting women.” One where you might be desperately poor, but do not have to worry about whether or not you will get all that you need to be in the best of health. One where the defense budget is no longer equal to approximately the next 20 other countries’ defense budgets combined. One where we heed the words of one of our greatest presidents, Dwight Eisenhower, who said in 1953, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed.”

On the streets of Providence, people are afraid of hunger. They are afraid of cold. They are afraid of getting sick and not knowing where to go. At Brown University, people are afraid of depression. They are afraid of sadness. They are afraid of living in a world without meaning. And these needs can be met, but only if we abandon what we thought we knew about how the “real world” works, and instead give ourselves, as much as we can each day, to the highest vision of what we think a citizen can be, to being human beings in the fullest sense of what that means to each of us. To giving up our quest to be the one on top, and instead dedicating our lives to “firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right,” come what may of apparent victory or defeat. For as God says in the Qur’an, “inna Allaha yuhibb al-muqsitin (Truly, God loves those who are just).” And if we have God’s Love, then we need nothing else for all eternity.

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President Lincoln delivering his Second Inaugural Address

 

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The Qur’an states:

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Qur’an states elsewhere:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No human skill can warm that clay

Which the cold blast of death has froze

But God shall raise the lifeless form

His animating power disclose.

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

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

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bismillah al-Rahman al-Raheem

I have reached certain conclusions about politics.

One is that most people don’t actually understand it. Those who understand it have valid differences, but most people just have no clue. Politics is the ability to organize human beings to work together towards a tangible earthly goal. As such, militaries, schools, courts, legislatures, corporations, and other collective institutions are all “political” on some level.

My brother-in-law Muneeb, who studied political theory at Yale and Univ. of Chicago, always says that most of life can be boiled down to the dialectic between “autonomy versus solidarity.” I believe he is right. The basic unit of society is the individual – you can’t chop up a person into little bits. And from that foundation of individual autonomy all forms of solidarity are achieved. Walmart has approximately 2,300,000 employees, including Muneeb’s sister, my wife Sumaiya. They work together to bring thousands of products from around the globe to the shelves of almost 11,000 stores around the world. It is one of the most tangible forms of solidarity in the world.

If in economic terms Walmart gives us a form of solidarity, in terms of electoral politics it is political parties that express that solidarity. This graph shows us how the declining solidarity of the Democratic Party led directly to the Republican sweep of the 2016 elections:

i-made-a-chart-showing-the-popular-vote-turnout-in-2008-2012-and-2016-imgur

In 8 years, the Democratic Party lost the support of 10,000,000 voters. Trump won with less votes than both of the previous Republican candidates who lost! What caused that decline, I am not learned enough in American politics to know. But even though I am not a member of the Democratic Party, I voted Democrat in all three elections. Why? Because I know that my autonomy as an individual means very little when it comes to comes to electoral politics.

When I choose what to eat for breakfast, I have an enormous range of options. When I choose what to believe about the deeper metaphysical realities behind the events of human history, I can literally believe anything another human being has ever believed, or even make up something new. If I believe in something that others believe in, like the Qur’an, I have hundreds of non-profit organizations within NYC where I can worship alongside others who believe in the same thing. But when it comes to my NY Congressman, NY Senator, or President of the United States, I usually have two options, and there is only one winner.

When I choose to buy an organic, fair-trade coffee to drink for breakfast, it does not cause the maker of Folger’s (the J.M. Smucker Company) to go out of business. It does not cause Walmart to rethink their purchasing of Folger’s to stock on their shelves. Only if tens of millions of American consumers rethink their choice in coffee purchases will those corporations change. They have plenty of other consumers that in solidarity with them through their purchasing choices.

But there are currently only two political parties that really matter in the United States. Lack of solidarity towards one means greater strength for the other. Period. Full stop.

That is just how it is. That is the reality of this world we share.

And at the level of Muslims in America – the thing I know the most about – there is very little solidarity of significance. On the level of religion, the American system encourages division for the sake of ideological purity. If you want, you can create a religious organization to serve the needs of black gay Isma’ili women, get tax-exempt status, create a house of worship, publish books, and host annual conferences. But only 100 people will ever come, and that will be the limits of the solidarity you achieve. And that may be great for those 100 people, but it will do nothing for the approximately 324,000,000 American citizens who could care less.

Ayatollah Khomeini changed the structure of the Iranian government from a monarchy to a constitutional republic because the vast majority of the Iranian voters were in solidarity with him. The current generation of Iranians may debate the merits and dismerits of their system, but it was the solidarity of a previous generation that brought it into being. In the United States, we have not had a political revolution since 1865, when the Civil War brought about the end of the Secession. And all the states that seceded voted for Trump, with the exception of Virginia (the northernmost state). I do not think that is a coincidence, but representative of a deep and abiding political difference extending across generations.

So what is my point of explaining all of this? In short, it is to help everyone think more clearly about “autonomous ideals” and “the limits of solidarity.” When I am alone in my apartment reading books and praying, I can strive to determine my ideals to the furthest extant possible. When I leave to go to the supermarket, I can choose from 30 cereals that are made from grains grown around the world, and determine if any of them are “for” or “against” my ideals in some palpable way. Maybe I’ll find the perfect cereal. Maybe I won’t. But I have to choose something to eat, or else I will starve. Solidarity is only determined by the actual choices I can make as a consumer who does not grow his own food.

So when we come to realm of seeking explicitly political outcomes – the realm of domestic and foreign policy – we have to realize that the current system forces us to make choices. You can have ideological purity if you want. You can create a political party whose central goal is the return of all land taken from Native Americans in broken treaties. And your cause will be just, but you will actually achieve nothing of significance. Why? Because there are just not enough autonomous individuals at the national level that share your ideals.

For the believer, the complicating factor is accountability towards the Divine. If “opting out” feels right to you because of fear of Hellfire, then I am not going to critique you. But at least be cognizant of the fact that you are still part of the body politic, the capitalist world-system, and the American Muslim community at large. Your choices will continue to impact the rest of us. Because American citizenship is a form of involuntary solidarity that binds us together whether it reflects our ideals or not.

And God knows best.

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