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after all is said and done

after 20 years of effort and choices

the plain truth is

i have been given that which is uncountable

and so what i have done

is insignificant

as an expression of true gratitude

and what i should not have done

means i owe even more thanks

for the forgiveness without which i am lost

so whichever way i turn

there is the Generous starting back at me

and all i can do is bow down

offer inadequate praise

and submit

to the Lord of ‘Ali

اللهم صل على محمد و آل محمد

IMG_1615

 

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Now that we are approaching the middle of the month of Ramadan, it is a good time to candidly reflect.

Shaytan hasn’t whispered in our ear for almost two weeks, and our nafs ‘ammārah (selfishness) is weakened by the rigors of fasting. In the last third of the month, many of us like to disconnect and find more privacy, but before we do that, it is a good time to take stock of ourselves in relation to the wider community of which we are a part. If we can’t speak purely and clearly and honestly at this time of the year, then perhaps we should all live lives of silence.

For this reflection, I want to highlight the disunity of the Muslim community and one of its primary causes. Many otherwise pious Muslims have isolated themselves within imagined communities of sanctity and grace. Whether it is the Sufi who is at home in Istanbul and Abu Dhabi, or the Shi’i who shuttles between Qum and Karbala, or the Salafi who only finds comfort in Makkah and Madinah, we create boxes of who is “in” and who is “out” and only spend time with those we believe are “in.” We speak about how pious so and so is, how Shaykh such and such wrote some great text, and refuse, either through silence or avoidance or just plain ignorance, to engage the Other.

I have benefitted from Shaykh ibn Uthaymeen (one of the most respected Salafi scholars of the 20th century), from Shaykh Habib Ahmad Mashhur al-Haddad (one of the most respected Sufis of the 20th century), and Ayatollah Khomeini (one of the most respected Shi’is of the 20th century). More than that, I have benefitted from Thomas Merton (a famous Catholic monk of the 20th century), A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami (a famous Hindu monk of the 20th century), and Carl Sagan (a famous atheist astrophysicist of the 20th century). They are all “my teachers,” one way or another, and for their role in my life I am grateful, even though I never had the opportunity to meet any of them.

Deep down, I may have some sort of imagined hierarchy in my mind about who is “closest” and who is “farthest” from The Creator (al-Khāliq), The Originator (al-Bāri’), The Fashioner (al-Muṣawwir). But when I get real with God, I know that I don’t know. All I know with certainty is that God created them and us, and will perfectly assign all of us our next-worldly situations. All I know is that they are human beings who live on the planet Earth, I am a human being who lives on the same planet, and we are all going to die just like they already have. I have met good people who are absolutely convinced that one of them, or a group of them, are certainly better than the others. So much so that it would actually cause a type of physical discomfort to imagine that they might be wrong, and the person they see as misguided is actually the closest to God.

The fact of the matter is that each of us are bound by material conditions to act. And that imagined hierarchy is what determines, to a certain extent, how we choose to act. So if I think that so and so is the highest, I will try to emulate them, and if I think such and such is the lowest, I will avoid them. That is something we are bound to do, and The Merciful Benefactor (al-Rahmān) is not going to judge us for it. But we err when we unjustifiably make claims about “our teachers” that give them a status in eternity that they may not have. And we compound that error when we use that claim to set ourselves off from others in the belief that we are “in.”

I say this because I have seen really good people do it. As far as I can tell, it is a spiritual challenge especially for those who have committed themselves to serious study and practice of Islam. It often comes from people who, in the next breath, will say that they know nothing and everyone is better than them. But their actions speak louder than their words. It is very clear who they think is the salt of the earth, and that they are honored by their connections to them.

It is better to simply do our best and leave the rest to Allah. If you believe following Habib ‘Umar (a contemporary Sufi leader) is necessary for you to prepare for the Last Day, then Allah bless you and guide you. If you believe that following Ayatollah Sistani (a contemporary Shi’i leader) is the best way to emulate the Sunnah, then Allah bless you and guide you. If you believe that following Shaykh Salman al-Ouda (a contemporary Salafi leader) is the safest way to Allah, then Allah bless you and guide you. If you believe that Seyyed Hossein Nasr (a contemporary Perennialist leader) has it all figured out, then Allah bless you and guide you.

But just please please please don’t highlight your personally necessary choice of teachers in communal settings where it is not necessary. And please please please be willing to try something different. Try studying with someone else’s teacher. Read someone else’s books. Go on someone else’s pilgrimage tour. Speak in someone else’s masjid or summer program.

And if you are fearful of the repercussions of this, both in terms of income and reputation, ask yourself this – “Am I sincere enough with God that if I lost this position and no one listens to me anymore and I make no income from it, I will still carry on because I am doing it for God?”

If the answer is yes, then you have nothing to fear.

If the answer is no, then you shouldn’t be opening your mouth to teach Islam in the first place. Go get another job, and figure out your heart before you die.

When Musa came back from the mountain and grilled Harun for allowing the community to build the golden calf while he was absent, Harun said:

“I was afraid you would say, ‘You have caused division among the children of Israel!'” (20.93)

If a prophet himself was afraid of breaking up the community over idol worship, then what exactly are we afraid of by increasing our engagement with those Muslims who have different teachers than us as their sanad (link) to the Prophet Muhammad and wasīla (means) to understanding the Holy Qur’an?

اللهم صل على محمد و آل محمد

PlanetOrbits

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This poem follows in the wake of the poem “My Guide”  by Aqeela Naqvi.

al-Askari Shrine after

men with evil ways tried to bury you

but did not know that you were a seed

planted in my heart before i was born

to answer my deepest need

 

uncovering secrets unfolding in time

becoming who i am decreed to be

a servant of a servant of your servant

no higher place am i meant to see

 

confined to your house in Samarra

waiting for years and years on end

what fear drove men to hide you away

for your erasure how much did they spend

 

but God made you a shining light

before creation of heaven and earth

to manifest in your body and words

the nobility of the human’s worth

 

though they took you away from your blessed city

and surrounded you with spies all day

you only increased in love for your Lord

and in the depths of the nights would pray:

 

Your gifts overflow and Your door is swung wide

Your merciful glance is like rain

You encompass all things, we take refuge in You

for a safety that melts every pain

 

and so we walk, live, cry and fight in our times

to keep the darkest from filling our heart

and you are where we are

connections rooted in God will never part

 

so i ask you to grasp these hands that bleed

and hold them close in your sacred trust

and walk with us and show us the way

to a love beyond objects of lust

 

my Lord, so please bless Imam al-Naqi

my guide and the guide of my friend

and create a gathering place near rivers that flow

so we may be there when all things reach their end

 

اللهم صل على محمد و آل محمد

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One of the first religious texts that helped me express my longing for God was the song “Saranagati” by the band Shelter, released in 1992. I read the lyrics recently to one of my friends whose body is failing due to ALS, and it made me think that it might be beneficial to share with the wider world:

 

people in this world try to claim they possess

land and sky and water, but they try to forget

that everything that they build and everything that they kill

was handed to them by Your free will

 

second hand gods, that’s all we are

not creating, manipulating, and leaving the scars

robbing from the earth and stealing from the trees

not out of need but greed and false prestige

 

but it’s all yours, what can we own

not family, property, it’s all on loan

but our miserly minds of “I”, “ME”, and “MINE”

fight in wars for what’s not ours so here’s my plea for

 

saranagati, surrender

 

i’m trying to understand you’re the Supreme Friend

You’re beside me and You guide me like no one else can

help me see You in everything and everything in You

when will I appreciate all that You do

 

even pain in this world is to help us see

the reality of material misery

please help me transcend, i want it to end

happiness apart from You, I can just pretend

 

and ’cause You’re so kind, You give us a mind

to choose to love You or leave you behind

forgetting reality, we create this duality

i’m sick of this fallacy

 

saranagati, surrender

 

You’re the roots of creation and we’re just some leaves

by fufilling Your desire, we find our relief

enjoyment apart from You creates just more grief

these leaves become dry, we cry, and drop with the breeze

 

i’ve tried to gratify my senses, but what have I gained

this so-called pleasure is just a cessation of pain

fooled myself with love, again and again

attracted by romance and smashed in the end

 

surrounded by people, but left all alone

and even amongst friends, i felt far from home

we’re one with each other, but You’re different from me

Like a drop from the sea, if we want to be free

 

saranagati, surrender

65-og

 

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my Lord

there are things i want to tell the world

but they are secrets between You and i

buried within the pages of my life

weaved into the fabric of my self

but You are closer than my jugular

which if cut

would spill what i am

pouring out for all to see

and so i keep it close

protected

but You are closer

so this is nothing but a love letter to You

to say

that even though at times it has hurt so much

i am happy that i have made it this far

arriving at a place

where i have somehow unwound

some knots within

by a tawfīq that comes

from none but You

and i am becoming more

of what You want me to be

even though i have lost some

of who i thought i was

because i will change for You

i may be slow in process

i may be stubborn to start

but i can change

as long as i live

even when i am old and grey

let me always be ready

to change for You

so that what is taken away from me

of what i love so dearly

becomes an empty space in my heart

to be filled by that which You love most

empty-heart

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sometimes

at the end of the day

while I listen to my son breathing

fast asleep

I thank God

for peace

for joy

for love

but sometimes

I think of a father better than me

and a son better than mine

and my heart trembles

and I ask God for strength

to be loyal

to persevere

to trust

even if your son breathes his last

under Karbala’s weeping skies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Khomeini describes the beginning of the journey as such:

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

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

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

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

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

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

As another Ayatollah states (this one from Iraq),

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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