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This post was written during the month of Ramadan 1440 AH.

As a white American, I have gone through a decades-long process of unlearning the white supremacy that was engrained in me in the formative years of my life. The pillars of that unlearning have been:

1) developing substantive encounters with non-white people
2) listening to non-white narratives with as much empathy as I can
3) being in non-white spaces even when I wasn’t fully comfortable
4) having real-life role models who were not white

There is no doubt in my mind that the ways of engaging with others that I have struggled to embrace by this ongoing experience have had a central role to play in my unlearning the dominant Sunni narratives of Islamic history, thought, and practice. Even though I read about Shi’ism fairly soon after converting, it wasn’t a real thing to me. It took going through the same 4 pillars of unlearning for me to experience Shi’ism as real. I even remember asking Najam Haider and Tariq al-Jamil for book recommendations when I first got to Princeton in 2002. In the course of the exchange, they said, “Give it 10 years, and you’ll become Shi’i.” I thought they were totally wrong, but more than 10 years later I was sitting in Najam’s office admitting that they had been right. It was one of the hardest things, to admit that for years I just couldn’t see it.

I was frustrated with God when this process began, because it began with simply wanting to rectify my state with God. And I thought that meant I was going to be led deeper into the study and practice of the Maliki madhhab and the suhba of Shadhili and Qadiri shaykhs with whom I already had a close relationship. But instead it led me to the majalis of Imam Husayn, which completely upended my life. I made new Shi’i friends, listened to alternative Shi’i narratives, was uncomfortable at times in Shi’i spaces, and started to embrace Shi’i role models. At times, I worried that Shaytan had me in his grasp, and began praying for protection from Shaytan more fervently than I ever had done. And almost every single du’a I uttered became about guidance. “O Allah, just guide me to what You want. I don’t care what it is anymore, because You know best.”

And over and over again, this process led me away from what had once seemed perfectly natural and normal. But because it had happened once before with whiteness, it wasn’t a complete shock. The only difference was that I had explicitly chosen Sunnism whereas I was born into whiteness. But over time I realized that wasn’t quite true. I had chosen Islam, and the only real option at the time to learn and practice it was through a Sunni modality.

For me, a real turning point was fajr prayer in Kadhimayn in Baghdad. The night before I had visited the 7th and 9th Imams buried there, along with many notable Shi’i scholars. The shaykh leading the prayer was an old and knowledgeable scholar, the congregation was probably 1000 people, and the masjid was large and beautiful. And I remember thinking, “Oh my God, if this was what I was introduced to as Islam when I first converted, I never would have questioned it!” I think it was the first real moment in my life where I saw Shi’ism as just plain Islam, the same way I had thought about Sunnism for many years.

When you grow up white, you never talk about people or things as “white,” although you qualify many other things with ethnic adjectives like “Black people” or “Indian food.” Similarly, my experience of Sunnism was where we rarely talked about things as Sunni, and instead used the word “Islam,” “Islamic,” or “Muslim.” So “Islamic literacy” really just meant “Sunni literacy,” and “Islamic law” really just meant Sunni law. But we rarely saw it that way.

The privileging of a dominant category is perhaps an unavoidable part of life. By privileging the Twelver-Shi’i narrative of Shi’ism, for example, one underplays the narratives of Isma’ili communities. However, what is not unavoidable is being completely blind to them. Just as I expect my own white sisters and brothers in humanity to open their eyes to whiteness, I expect my own Sunni sisters and brothers in faith to open their eyes to the dominant Sunni narrative of speaking about Islam.

At the end of the day, we are all going to die. Today we have to act on what we believe pleases Allah, manifesting the balance between hope and fear. But tomorrow we might revise what we believe pleases Allah most, and thus we will act differently. As Shaykh Rizwan Arastu taught me, we are not held accountable today for what we will find out tomorrow. Each day we try to do our best with what we currently have. Life is a continual process of change, and we hope that change leads to positive growth.

But the past is always with us. I am still white, and I am still culturally Sunni in many respects. I don’t know what day during Muharram Pakistanis talk about which figures from the Karbala narrative (is it ‘Ali al-Akbar day or Qasim day?), nor do I understand the reasons why some Shi’is seem to dislike other Shi’is so much. When I lead people in prayer, I have had to learn how to pray according to Ja’fari fiqh in a way that doesn’t alienate Sunnis who aren’t used to praying behind Shi’is. After 40 years of being white in America, and 17 or so years of being Sunni in the Ummah, I can never have the social experience of a Shi’i kid growing up in LA or NYC. And that is okay.

When I look back, the only real reason I became Muslim was to prepare for death. It was only the Qur’an that convinced me that I would live after my death, and have to face Perfect Judgement. That is the main motivating factor for trying to neutralize my contributions to white supremacy. And maybe that is the secret of the Shi’i tradition for me – that it is the most hopeful of all narratives. That even if one is of the greatest people who ever walked this Earth

that even when one’s mother and father were from the greatest people to walk this earth

that even when one’s grandfather was the greatest person to walk this earth

that the people who claim to practice the same religion as you

that the people who claim to honor the same prophet as you

that the people who memorize the same book as you

that they can still chop your head off, alone in the desert, surrounded by the bodies of your family and friends who died defending you

and it can still all be okay

in some miraculous and completely radical way

it can still work out beautifully in the end

if we are of those who stand with Husayn

even when the Ummah is united against him

actively and through tacit consent

that we can look death and evil and oppression squarely in the face

even when it is done by the Salaf

and see nothing but Beauty

because we know what Islam really is

by the Mercy of the Most Merciful

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i am spiraling out of control

i need you

please please don’t leave me

how am i to make it through these tests

without your name on my lips

and your love in my heart

how am i to survive in a world of lotus eaters

if you are not calling me back to Ithaca

it sounds so nice to eat

and forget

and get lost in a dream

but i need you to wake me up

i need you to pull me back to the ship

even if i am kicking and screaming

even if i

in a moment of forgetfulness

scream at you and say that you are not my commander

please forgive me

and overlook

and pardon

i was not in my right mind

and i take shelter in your wisdom and strength

because at my best

i am just one of your men

so whatever it takes

just

don’t

leave

me

just don’t let me be anything other than yours

so that my life is not more precious than your life

my dreams are not more worthy than your commands

and my today is not more valuable than your eternity

for i am with you

i am with you

and i am not with those who struggle against you

فَمَعَكُمْ مَعَكُمْ لا مَعَ عَدُوِّكُمْ

but i can’t do it alone

so please please don’t leave me

but fasten me securely to your ship

and row me away from this land forever

ya Husayn

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In my first semester in college (Fall 1997), I took an Ancient Philosophy course. I hardly remember it, but the other day I discovered a paper I wrote for it. I was shocked at how the thoughts I was thinking then mirror so much of what I think about these days, 22 years later. I don’t know if anyone will read this, but since my blog is very much an archive of my grapplings, I wanted to post it here with only a few minor edits. I may critique my younger self’s writing style and grasp of the source material, but I was thinking clearly about one of life’s great questions.

***

In the course of our lives, we are constantly forced to make moral decisions and quite often, we choose courses of action that do not embody moral excellence. Very often we are attracted to carnal desires, or even practicality, and they steer us away from choosing solely what we believe to be right and good. However, every so often we learn about a personality who embodies moral excellence; a person that we cannot help but think of as a great soul. One such person was Gandhi. He lived for unselfishness; for the hope of the suffering; for so much that we believe to be right and good. And had Aristotle, the great ancient philosopher, known of Gandhi’s life, he would have praised him for achieving moral excellence, a subject that was of considerable importance in his timeless philosophical work, the Nicomachean Ethics.

In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle argues that pleasure and pain are the main factors that affect moral excellence; he states in Book II, chapter 3, “moral excellence is concerned with pleasures and pains.” However, it seems strange to associate the concepts of pleasure and pain, in terms of how they influence moral excellence, with the lives and actions of people like Gandhi. Don’t we usually think of people like Gandhi as personalities that have transcended the mundane world of pleasure and pain; personalities that have chosen to live for a higher ideal; personalities that are concerned more with others than themselves?

There is more, however, to Aristotle’s position. He states, “[Given that “moral excellence is concerned with pleasures and pains”] we ought to have been brought up in a particular way from our very youth, as Plato says, so as to both delight in and to be pained by the things that we ought.” In short, he believes that we should be taught to love what is good, and it follows from that that what is good brings us pleasure, because what we love undoubtedly brings us pleasure. However, Aristotle also believes that it is a necessary condition for excellent action to “choose acts for their own sakes.” It follows from that that for one to be morally excellent, one must choose actions of a moral basis solely because one believes them to be simply what is good and right. This creates quite a situation. At the same time Aristotle believes that the morally excellent person will find pleasure in what is good, but that same person must, in order to actually be morally excellent, choose the actions not because it will bring them pleasure, but simply because they are good.

I will argue that there is a refinement of Aristotle’s belief that avoids the conflict that his view faces, as well as fits better with our assumptions about the nature of morally excellent people, such as Gandhi. As I mentioned before, it seems strange to associate the concepts of pleasure and pain with embodiments of moral excellence, such as Gandhi. Aristotle undoubtedly believes that “excellence, then, is concerned with pleasures and pains…-let this be taken as said,” but, because of his belief in choosing the action for his own sake, he is in a bind. I believe that there is another factor, and I call that factor awareness of right action. Awareness of right action makes us want to choose what we believe is right, regardless of how it affects us. In other words, it makes us want to choose an action for its own sake; its own moral value. In Aristotle’s view, pleasure and pain were the only motivating factors in regards to moral excellence, but in my refinement, awareness of right action is also a motivating factor. What Aristotle believed to be a necessary condition for excellent action, I am now turning into an actual motivating factor within us.

One should liken these motivating factors (pleasure/pain, and awareness of right action) to three different voices in one’s head. One voice, pleasure/pain, says, “How will this action affect me? Will it give me pleasure? Will it give me pain?” As one listens to the voice, one may be aware of the way one was raised, and how that upbringing may predispose them towards morally superior action, but that is not what is important according to pleasure/pain. What is salient is simply how that action will affect the doer, and naturally, one will want to choose the actions that give one the most pleasure. However, the other voice, that of awareness of right action, says, “How will this action affect others? Is it right? Is it the most elevated action I can choose, based on my moral sentiment?” This voice also is aware that the doer may be naturally disposed towards morally superior action, and that those actions consequently may be pleasurable, but that is not what is salient. What is salient is simply how that action will affect others, and what is morally superior. Then, in order to decide what action they will perform, one must decide between the two voices, or arrive at a compromise.

The decision that one arrives at can both determine and illustrate the moral excellence of the doer. Gandhi undoubtedly had one voice that said, “If you dedicate your life to these high ideals and the service of humanity, you will surely have some pleasure, but there are many other options that are a lot more pleasurable.” The other voice said, “This is the highest form of unselfishness you can achieve. You can do so much good by pursuing this course.” So he had to weigh those two voices, and obviously, the latter came out on top. Pleasure was going to be present in his life, but he consciously chose to put awareness of right action over pleasure. He made it his priority, and therein lies his moral excellence. It was not that his moral excellence was determined by his choosing his actions for their own sake.

One might object that it is impossible for one to truly have awareness of right action, that it is actually pleasure. Aristotle believes that we should be raised in a way that makes us actually desire good actions, and derive pleasure from them. If this is true, then what we believe to be good could actually become pleasure itself, and therefore one could in no way distinguish the goodness of an action from the pleasure derived from that action. Therefore, there would only be one voice in our head, pleasure/pain. Sometimes, I am sure that the two voices meld into one, such as when we give a quarter to a homeless person. We want to for moral reasons, and it is completely pleasurable because it makes us feel charitable and it is insignificant amount of money for us. However, many times we do actually have to weigh pleasure and morality when we make decisions. When people are offered veal, they many times explicitly have to confront the two voices: “Veal tastes really good and I am really hungry” vs. “I do not want to eat veal because of moral reasons”. Then, pleasure/pain are quite distinct from awareness of right action.

The other objection that may be raised is one of an epistemological basis: how can we actually know if we are choosing actions for their own sake or if we are choosing them for our own pleasure? However, I am interested in the practical, and I therefore have to assume that what we think we know is justified and accurate. Other wise, there can be no further talk of practical moral excellence, and we are then no closer to understanding how to be morally excellent than when we started. If one truly believes that a certain action is morally superior to another action, and one decides to choose that action because of his moral sentiment, then he must go with that, even though his decision may be epistemologically ungrounded.

By refining Aristotle’s view, the nature of moral excellence has become clearer, but, in the end, what most matters is the actual real life pursuit of moral excellence. Almost everybody has the option of dedicating themselves to the homeless, but most do not. Why is this so? There are still many questions left to explore, and many issues left to tackle with but keep in mind that this is not like mathematics, especially when explored on a practical level. The real value of asking these questions lies not in its pinpoint accuracy, but its ability to motivate elevated action, for actions really do speak louder than words. Just look at Gandhi.

[All Aristotle quotes taken from: A New Aristotle Reader, ed. J.L. Ackrill (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1987) pp. 378-380]

01/00/1998. File pictures of Mahatma Gandhi

 

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don’t give money to the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh

don’t give money so that people can have latrines

don’t give money so that people can eat rice

don’t give money for anything

especially not schools with a basic education

or trauma care for women who were gang raped

it’s not important

you’ll never meet these people

and they’ll never call you out

for forgetting about them

or siding with their oppressors

no one is going to say you are a bad person

if you just pass this off to the government of Bangladesh

so don’t waste your money

on people who don’t matter

According to the UN, it requires app. $900 million to run the refugee camps in 2019. Less than $400 million has been raised.

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because of you

i can see the light in the darkness

when a people are surrounded by their oppressor

when a loved one’s body is wasting away from disease

when the wrongdoer goes free and the patient suffer

when a tragedy wipes away the happiness of a family

 

when death finally comes

as it always does

 

in all situations

my Imam

i see you

i see your headless body on the ground

i see your sister crying over you

i see your son carried away in chains

and i know

that your Lord hears all prayers

and is always with us

forever

 

because of you

hope can never die

ya Husayn

Imam_hussein-Ashura-Karbala_(30)

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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

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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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