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what religion is

It has been about 24 years since I began reflecting on the religious aspects of human civilization. This is the definition of “religion” that I find most compelling. It wasn’t a sociologist nor an anthropologist nor a comparativist nor a structuralist nor a post-structuralist nor an anti-essentialist who won in the market place of ideas. It was an Iranian philosopher and exegete of the Qur’an who passed away in 1981, may God have mercy upon him.

“There is no doubt that each member of the human race is naturally drawn to his fellow-men and that in his life in society he acts in ways which are interrelated and interconnected. His eating, drinking, sleeping, keeping awake, talking, listening, sitting, walking, his social intercourse and meetings, at the same time that they are formally and externally distinct, are invariably connected with each other. One cannot perform just any act in any place or after any other act. There is an order which must be observed.

There is, therefore, an order which governs the actions man performs in the journey of this life, an order against which his actions cannot rebel. In reality, these acts all originate from a distinct source. That source is man’s desire to possess a felicitous life, a life in which he can react to the greatest extent possible the objects of his desire, and be gratified. Or, one could say that man wishes to provide in a more complete way for his needs in order to continue his existence.

This is why man continually conforms his actions to rules and laws either devised by himself or accepted from others, and why he selects a particular way of life for himself among all the other existing possibilities. He works in order to provide for his means of livelihood and expects his activities to be guided by laws and regulations that must be followed. In order to satisfy his sense of taste and overcome hunger and thirst, he eats and drinks, for he considers eating and drinking necessary for the continuation of his own happy existence. This rule could be multiplied by many other instances.

The rules and laws that govern human existence depend for their acceptance on the basic beliefs that man has concerning the nature of universal existence, of which he himself is a part, and also upon his judgment and evaluation of that existence. That the principles governing man’s actions depend on his conception of being as a whole becomes clear if one meditates a moment on the different conceptions that people hold as to the nature of the world and of man.

Those who consider the Universe to be confined only to this material, sensible world, and man himself to be completely material and therefore subject to annihilation when the breath of life leaves him at the moment of death, follow a way of life designed to provide for their material desires and transient mundane pleasures. They strive solely on this path, seeking to bring under their control the natural conditions and factors of life.

Similarly, there are those who, like the common people among idol-worshipers, consider the world of nature to be created by a god above nature who has created the world specially for man and his goodness. Such men organize their lives so as to attract the pleasure of the god and not invite his anger. They believe that if they please the god he will multiply his bounty and make it lasting and if they anger him he will take his bounty away from them.

On the other hand, such men as Zoroastrians, Jews, Christians, and Muslims follow the “high path” in this life for they believe in God and in man’s eternal life, and consider man to be responsible for his good and evil acts. As a result they accept as proven the existence of a day of judgment (qiyamat) and follow a path that leads to felicity in both this world and the next.

The totality of these fundamental beliefs concerning the nature of man and the Universe, and regulations in conformity with them which are applied to human life, is called religion (din). If there are divergences in these fundamental beliefs and regulations, they are called schools such as the Sunni and the Shi’ite schools in Islam and the Nestorian in Christianity. We can therefore say that man, even if he does not believe in the Deity, can never be without religion if we recognize religion as a program for life based on firm belief. Religion can never be separated from life and is not simply a matter of ceremonial acts.”

“Shi’ite Islam” by ‘Allamah Tabataba’i, pp. 29-30

Of course, this perspective overlaps with some critical insights within the Western intellectual tradition. In particular, Tabataba’i’s conception reminds me of aspects of the work of Pierre Bourdieu and William James. But ultimately, Tabataba’i is speaking of something so fundamental to the human condition, that once grasped, it is hard to think and live in a way that does not continuously affirm the truth of what he says.

and God knows best.

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speechless

I am so shook by something my friend Trent posted on his blog, I felt I had to share it here:

[A man] once said,

“It is thirty years that I have been seeking forgiveness for one phrase, ‘Praise be God’s’, that I allowed to pass my lips.”

When asked to explain he replied,

“One night the marketplace caught fire, and I left my house to see if the fire had reached my shop. When I heard that my shop was safe, I said, ‘Praise be God’s’. Instantly I was brought to my senses with the realization that, granted my shop was unharmed, should I not have been thinking about others’?

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I finished the book about the science of space travel mentioned in my previous post. The level of complexity involved in sending a person to Mars and back is staggering. If one wanted to create human habitations on Mars, the cost would be simply enormous.

But what struck me most was the obvious fact that one can never go outside. I live in Manhattan, one of the most urban environments on Earth. Sometimes, I feel so disconnected from nature that I just need to go for a walk in the park and see some trees. Sometimes I leave the city altogether just to re-center. In space, on the Moon, or on Mars, you can never do that. Instead, incredibly complex and costly human technologies need to surround you to keep you alive. You have to literally be plugged in all the time.

Through this reflection I have come to a greater appreciation for the natural systems that sustains us. The air we breath. The wind in our hair. Running water. It is on Earth, and nowhere else within our reach. It is in the middle of Manhattan, Cairo, or Tokyo just as much as any jungle, forest, or pristine tropical island.

When I was a kid, I saw the movie Total Recall and started fantasizing about the colonization of Mars. The book I read ended with a discussion of this possibility. Yet, the average temperature on Mars is only slightly less cold than the coldest temperature ever recorded on Earth! It would make a lot more sense and be a lot less costly to build habitations on Antarctica than in space. On Antarctica, you can breath the air and drink the water. But that doesn’t fit the secular faith in space as our destiny. Mars colonization is a dream born of the terrible secular fear that humanity may never leave Earth, and that the exhilarating drama of human exploration has limits.

I guess Manhattan is not so “divorced from nature” as I usually think. It is a far nicer than anything space has to offer. Alhamdulillah.

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I just made a really important decision: the books I plan to bring with me during two weeks of travel insha’Allah.

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If you can’t read the titles in the photo, here they are:

  • The Fourteen Infallibles by Ammar Nakshawani: Contemporary reflections on Shi’i sacred history.
  • The Traveler’s Guide to Space by Neil Comins: Description of how space travel works and what to expect in the coming decades.
  • Augustine of Hippo by Peter Brown: Detailed biography of one of Christianity’s most revered saints.
  • The Origins and Early Development of Shi’a Islam by S. H. M. Jafri: Academic-devotional study of early Islamic history.
  • India: A Sacred Geography by Diana Eck:  Study of how the geography of India is an essential aspect of the Hindu tradition.

If you have read or are reading any of these texts, please send me your thoughts! While I am looking forward to a change of pace (traveling to Georgia, Texas, and Martha’s Vineyard back-to-back insha’Allah), I will miss my library. But at least I can make an attempt to find someone to engage with online in regards to my vacation bibliography!

In the meantime, an early Eid Mubarak to all of you!

!كل عام و أنتم بخير

the long road

I have literally been pondering a question for at least 6 months, without finding anything in “the tradition” that elucidates the issue clearly and without ambiguity. Yesterday, I sat down on my couch, looked at my bookshelf, saw a book, and went and opened it. Without any effort, I found the answer.

The intellectual instinct only develops after the development of the carnal desires, anger, and other blameworthy characteristics which Satan uses as his medium to seduce people. The intellect only reaches perfection around the age of forty years. Its formative stage is only complete at adolescence, and its fundamentals only begin to appear after the age of seven. The carnal desires are the troops of Satan, while intellects are the troops of the angels. When the two meet, they inevitably fight since neither allows the other to persist. They are in opposition, antagonistic – like night and day, light and darkness; when one prevails, it necessarily irks the other. If the carnal desires develop fully in a child or youth before the intellect is perfected, the forces of Satan will have a head start. They will seize the grounds and descend upon the heart, which will incline to them. Without doubt, that person will habitually side with the carnal desires and be overpowered by them; uprooting them will be very difficult.

Then, the intellect – which is the legion of Allah, the saviour of His saints from the hands of His enemies – will appear bit by bit. If it does not develop to full strength, the kingdom of the heart will surrender to Satan, who will carry out what he swore when he said, “I will surely bring his descendants under my sway, all but a few” (17.62). But if the intellect develops to full strength, its first task will be to quell the troops of Satan by breaking the carnal desires, abandoning habits, and fighting inner inclinations so that worshipfulness will prevail…

In all of existence, there is no person whose intellect is not preceded by his carnal desires; the drive which serves as a tool of Satan precedes the drive which serves as a tool for the angels. Returning from that former state, which was reached with the aid of the carnal desires, is essential for every person…

This is from the book “Spiritual Mysteries and Ethical Secrets” by Mulla Muhsin Fayd Kashani (p. 573-4). It comes during a discussion of repentance (tawba). He shows how the intellect is the aspect of the human personality that takes repentance seriously. Its main enemy is a different aspect of the human personality based on desire, which he states in another passage as being founded fundamentally on our yearnings for food and sex (p. 114-5). As he states, “they are in opposition,” and the intellect only develops later in life, yet must fight hard against desires “to erase their traces which have been impressed on the heart” (p. 575).

This is a perfect description of my own experience of converting to Islam at the age of 19, and now continuing to struggle against my self at the age of 38. I literally feel myself grappling with elements of my self that I can clearly see existed within me at least as early as junior high in the early 90s. I am literally trying to become an adult who I have never actually been. Mind boggling.

For me, this is clear and unequivocal “wisdom of the tradition,” and I feel I found it at precisely the moment God intended me to find it. Of course, it is entirely possible that somewhere deep in my brain I knew where it was, since I read this book a year and half ago. But it felt like a “soft miracle” when I found it yesterday, explaining for me the reality of my spiritual journey (suluk). As they say, God works in mysterious ways that I still don’t fully understand. All I know is that I am in need, and God is the Provider.

But as I once reminded myself,

This is the most serious type of knowledge, because it demands that I bring all of myself to its doorstep. I must check my intention, for it demands sincerity. I must be committed to pushing my self, because it demands improvement. I must admit my inevitable limitations, for it demands that I read in the name of “the One who taught by the pen / taught humanity that which they did not know.” This type of knowledge is unique because it has no meaning unless it is embodied – one might read one line that takes years to implement in one’s life.

Indeed, what Fayd Kashani has described in a few paragraphs is the essence of the greatest challenge I have ever faced, unfolding over almost two decades. As I reflect on this, I wonder where I might be two decades hence, at the ripe old age of 58 insha’Allah. Better yet, where will I be 40 days from now, on September 20th? Perhaps with the help of your prayers, I will be better than I am, by God’s Grace.

So please pray for me. I need it, for even though the road has been long, I am still only in the middle of my journey.

حسبي الله

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وَأَمَّا بِنِعْمَةِ رَبِّكَ فَحَدِّثْ

and as for your Lord’s blessing, proclaim it! (93.11)

I exist. Is there anything more remarkable than that?! That in the approximately 14,000,000,000 years that this Universe has been developing, at this moment it has given rise to me right now?!

Has there been for man a period of time when he was not anything worthy of mention? (76.1)

Subhan Allah! سبحان الله

Ya Musawwir (O Fashioner)! يا مصور

It is literally impossible for my mind to encompass the entirety of the material processes through which I have come to exist, and sit typing these words.

If you enumerate Allah’s blessings, you will not be able to count them. Indeed Allah is all-forgiving, all-merciful. (16.18)

Of all that could have been created, I am one of the possible existents that has form. What a joy that You have made me exist, my Lord, and blessed me to worship You! I wish I could bottle this feeling. I wish I could let every single human being know that they are an expression of Love. That their fingers were chosen specifically by the Creator of all that has ever existed.

Yes indeed, We are able to proportion [even] his fingertips! (75.4)

Ya Wadud (O Loving)! يا ودود

You made me! You opened my eyes to the wonders of the world You created! You gave me a tongue through which I can taste every marvelous miracle You have invented! You make the heart beat in my chest every day so that I can walk around this planet that You have spread out for us!

O You who gave rise to my creation, to the remembrance of me, to the nurture of me, to goodness toward me and to nourishment on me, Bestow upon me for the sake of Your having given rise [to me] with generosity and Your previous goodness to me! (Du’a Kumayl)

How could anyone be described with generosity in light of Your generosity! You share with us something of Being that is inherent to You alone, and by that gift everything we have ever known is made possible! Every lover’s love! Every dreamers dream! Every hopers hope! It is all with You, by You, through You!!!

…Surely it is said of a thing that was not, and then was, ‘When was it?’ But my Lord-blessed is He and high exalted – was ever-living without ‘how’ and had no ‘was’. His Being had no ‘how’, nor had it any ‘where’. He was not in anything, nor was He on anything. He did not bring into existence a place for His Being. He increased not in strength after bringing things into being, nor was He weak before bringing things into being. And He was not lonely before creating things. He resembles nothing brought into being…His Being has no ‘how’, nor has it any ‘where’, nor has it any limit. He is not known through anything resembling Him. He ages not through the duration of His subsistence…He was the First, without ‘how’, and He will be the Last, without ‘where’. And “All things perish, except His Face” (28.88). “His are the creation and the command. Blessed be God, the Lord of all beings!” (7.54)… (narrated from Imam al-Baqir, upon him peace)

Allah Allah Allah! الله الله الله

In this moment, my Lord, I beseech You to grant the best of this life and the next to all living human beings! Those I know and those I do not and those I never will! For You know them all, because You created them!!! Thank you, thank you, thank you for the gift of life!

Ya Hayy (O Living) Ya Muhyi (O Giver of Life)! يا حي يا محيي

I have no words left. There is nothing I can say that even begins to express these truths. So let me end with Your Words.

O people! If you are in doubt about the resurrection, [consider that] We indeed created you from dust, then from a drop of [seminal] fluid, then from a clinging mass, then from a fleshy tissue, partly formed and partly unformed, so that We may manifest [Our power] to you. We establish in the wombs whatever We wish for a specified term, then We bring you forth as infants, then [We rear you] so that you may come of age. [Then] there are some of you who are taken away, and there are some of you who are relegated to the nethermost age, so that he knows nothing after [having possessed] some knowledge. And you see the earth torpid, yet when We send down water upon it, it stirs and swells, and grows every delightful kind [of plant]. That is because Allah is the Reality and it is He who revives the dead, and He has power over all things (22.5-6)

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These words are written as advice for my own intellect. If you have something to share in regards to the same theme, I would very much like to benefit from you!

***

There are 4 verses in the Qur’an where the word “the trusting (al-mutawakkilun)” is used.

It is by Allah’s mercy that you are gentle to them; and had you been harsh and hardhearted, surely they would have scattered from around you. So excuse them, and plead for forgiveness for them, and consult them in the affairs, and once you are resolved, put your trust in Allah. Indeed Allah loves those who trust in Him. (3.159)

Commentators say this verse refers to the aftermath of the Battle of Uhud.

And he said, ‘My sons, do not enter by one gate, but enter by separate gates, though I cannot avail you anything against Allah. Sovereignty belongs only to Allah. In Him I have put my trust; and in Him let all the trusting put their trust.’ (12.67)

Commentators say that Jacob’s advice, upon him peace, to enter by separate gates was meant to protect his sons from those who might intend to do them harm.

And why should we not put our trust in Allah, seeing that He has guided us in our ways? Surely, we will put up patiently with whatever torment you may inflict upon us, and in Allah let all the trusting put their trust.’ (14.12)

The surrounding verses indicate that these are words of previous prophets, upon them peace, in response to the dismissals and threats of their people.

If you ask them, ‘Who created the heavens and the earth?’ they will surely say, ‘Allah.’ Say, ‘Have you considered what you invoke besides Allah? Should Allah desire some distress for me, can they remove the distress visited by Him? Or should He desire some mercy for me, can they withhold His mercy?’ Say, ‘Allah is sufficient for me. In Him let all the trusting put their trust.’  (39.38)

The surrounding verses indicate that this conversation happened between the Prophet, blessings and peace upon him and his family, and his people in regards to their polytheistic culture.

In all of these verses, the exemplars of “the trusting (al-mutawakkilun)” are the prophets, upon them peace. When we reflect on their lives and missions, what they were able to confront is remarkable. In regards to the first verse, the context is warfare and politics. In the second, we witness an elderly man worried about the fate of his children as they travel to a foreign land in response to a famine. In the third, social weakness is a reality and threats from those with power are real. Finally, the fourth verse reminds us that the Prophet, upon him and his family peace, was tasked with changing the fundamental basis of an entire culture.

Needless to say, the challenges that I face are not comparable. But the anxiety that I feel about them is real nonetheless. Listening to the words of the Qur’an reminds me that “Allah is sufficient for me” and is the One in whom I should place my trust.

Reflecting on how I got to this moment deepens my awareness of God’s arrangement of the Universe, and increases my trust in God in regards to the unknown future. As stated by a writer from long ago:

Satisfaction with that which God does and causes to happen is attained by reflecting on one’s past condition, when He brought one into existence when one knew nothing. Then He fashioned numerous signs of His wisdom in his creation, so much so that one would not be able to know one out of a thousand of them in a lifetime. Then, without any prior request, He brought him up taking care of everything related to his inward and outward aspects, wherewith he can survive and grow from deficiency to perfection. [Were one to reflect upon these facts], he would know that whatever will happen in the future also will not be without His providence and will. Thence he would trust Him, the Exalted, and would not worry regarding the remaining matters…

How true this is!

May God make us from amongst those who trust in God!

اللهم اجعلنا من المتوكلين

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