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a beautiful death

Taken from the autobiography of Fadhlalla Haeri, who was born in the Iraqi city of Karbala in 1937. In this section he is describing his childhood home adjacent to the Shrine of Imam Hussein, and the various occupants:

“Nana Hussein was the most devout and eldest member of the household, wise and frail. She ate little and prayed a lot, her black rosary always handy. Whenever one of us complained or expressed discontent, she would answer, khair, khair (it is only goodness), then she would produce some biscuits, raisins or nuts to give to us. It was only years later that I realized that the wise see goodness and Divine mercy in every situation and event.

My Mercy encompasses everything (Qur’an, 7.156)

During summer nights, I would regularly be woken up at dawn by the sound of Nana Hussein unlocking the doors of my aunt’s house to go to the Shrine. The doors to the houses had large steel tong-like keys which would jangle loudly as they turned the three or four times necessary before the door opened. My father once overheard me complaining about the annoyance of the early morning noise. He told me, ‘it will take you the best part of forty years to realise that the sound you dislike represents for Nana Hussein the opening of the gates of heaven.’ I was perhaps seven years old. The sound of my father’s teaching still resonates with me, and the peaceful, happy face of Nana Hussein appears vividly before me in my mind’s eye.

It was some years later, whilst I was studying in England, that Nana Hussein passed away. My mother wrote to me about how one day Nana Hussein had come to her and cheerfully announced that she will die tomorrow. She was therefore requesting that my mother come and spend the night in her room. ‘How do you know you will die tomorrow?’ my mother enquired. Nana Hussein explained that the night before she had a dream in which she was taken into a vast garden. In this garden were many beautiful homes and palaces, tendrils of scented flowers cascading over ornate pavilions. She was then directed towards a house and was told that this was her new home. She told her angelic guide that she could not stay there because it had no roof. He answered that ‘the roof will be made tomorrow.’ From this, she concluded with certainty, she would depart from this world the following day.

Nana Hussein showed my mother all that she had in her possession. Everything was prepared – a few bags of rice, barley and other grains were to be cooked and distributed to the poor for three days following her death and she gave my mother her small pouch containing the sacred dust from Imam Hussein’s burial ground. A few drops of the dust would be prescribed for any ailment, mixed in water or placed on the tongue. Throughout her life Nana Hussein kept this small healing pouch next to her pillow. Through her life my mother too kept and sparingly used the dust from this pouch.

My mother spent that night in Nana Hussein’s room reading the Qur’an until just before dawn. At that time, Nana Hussein turn over towards my mother thankfully and closed her eyes forever. She was buried mid-morning in our family mausoleum, next to the tomb of Imam Hussein, a great and unexpected honour.”

al-Fatiha for Nana Hussein

In the Name of Allah, the All-Merciful, The Mercy Giving
All praise is due to Allah, the Lord of all realms
And may blessings and peace be upon the Messenger of Allah and his family

How likely is it that an Ivy League student who is the son of a former CEO of an investment bank converts to Islam and studies regularly in an inner-city masjid with an African-American Imam who studied Islam for many years in Karachi, Pakistan? Not likely, but that is what happened.

Imam Abdul Hameed was my first teacher of Islam, and my first role model of a good Muslim. He was the Imam of Masjid al-Kareem in Providence, Rhode Island, as well as the state’s only full-time Muslim prison chaplain. He taught me how to read the Qur’anic text, the foundations of Arabic, basic fiqh of purity and prayer, and much more. He passed away on July 25th, 2015.

This short work is meant to benefit him in the barzakh – the intermediate stage of existence between the life we are living in now and the Day of Judgement. From hadith we learn that those in the barzakh can still benefit spiritually from the actions of those who are still on Earth. The spread of beneficial knowledge is specifically mentioned in that regard. Because Imam Abdul Hameed was my first teacher and role model, it is not far-fetched to think that this post can be beneficial knowledge that he has spread, since everything I learned subsequently rested on the foundation that he laid, by Allah’s permission.

But even more than that, I have chosen what I have chosen because before I left to attend his janaza, I thought, “I want to read a book that will be true to what he taught me in word and deed, so that his teaching can extend beyond his death.” And the book that came to my mind was a short collection of hadith entitled “The Reality of Worldly Life.” All of the hadith mentioned here are from that book, which was published in Pakistan, where Imam Abdul Hameed had studied for many years.

Up until his death, Imam Abdul Hameed was always there for me when I needed him to be, starting from my very first few days as a Muslim. I want to be there for him now. May the Most Generous Lord, who rewards us for the little that we do, accept this as a sadaqa jariya that benefits Imam Abdul Hameed from now until the Day he is raised again, ameen. Ya Jami’ (The One who brings together), You brought us together, and You caused us to part, and so bring us together again in the company of the one whose teachings we studied and implemented together, may Your blessings and peace be upon him and his family, ameen.

R. David Coolidge and Imam Abdul Hameed at Masjid al-Kareem (2013)

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Contentment

“The successful person is the one who enters Islam, is given that which is sufficient, and is content with that which s/he has been given.”

Reflection

Imam Abdul Hameed was a simple man. He prayed, read Qur’an, taught the inmates at the prison, led the Friday congregation at Masjid al-Kareem, and served the Muslims of Rhode Island. He lived in various small apartments with his wife and two sons. He always seemed to me to be perfectly content with his role in the world.

I, on the other hand, had an upbringing that was characterized by wealth, and an overabundance of opportunities. What do I want to do with my life? Who am I? What is my identity? How do I make sense out of the complexity of the Islamic tradition? So many questions, many born of a privileged lifestyle, and not a lot of action.

When I reflect on why Allah decreed Imam Abdul Hameed to be my first teacher, and I think this hadith gets right to it. With what he was given, he was content, because he was simply interested in striving to be a good Muslim. Every memory I have of him is filled with dhikr and obedience to the shari’ah. When I was graduating from Brown University, one of the most elite higher education institutions in the world, I would daydream about staying in Providence and worshipping my Lord under the leadership of Imam Abdul Hameed. That did not work out, and I subsequently learned that I have to follow my own path. I cannot be Imam Abdul Hameed, for I am not a black man from Brooklyn who studied for many years in a Deobandi madrasa in Pakistan and led an inner-city masjid. I am a white man who grew up in the suburbs of Chicago who got an MA in Islamic Studies and was a chaplain at Ivy League universities. But Imam Abdul Hameed’s example was universal – worship your Lord the best you can with what you have been given, and leave the rest up to Allah.

 

What Really Matters

“Three things follow a dead body to the grave: two go away, and one stays. One’s family, wealth, and actions follow; family and wealth go away, but the actions stay.”

Reflection

I attended Imam Abdul Hameed’s janaza prayer and burial. It was a beautiful experience. Hundreds of people who had been positively impacted by him were there, making du’a. His actions and words guided so many people, including myself. Indeed, the gathering was a witness to all the good he did.

He did not have a large family, nor abundant wealth, but that did not hinder his success. How much fasting he did! How much recitation of Qur’an he did! How many people he taught to pray! It is hard for me to imagine him receiving anything but enormous blessings from Allah. Compared to him, many of the elites of our country are truly impoverished and without opportunity.

 

True Freedom

“Son of Adam! Free yourself for My worship, and I will fill your heart with freedom from want, and protect you from poverty. If you do not, I will keep you busy working and not protect you from poverty.”

Reflection

When I think of Imam Abdul Hameed, I think of him sitting in the masjid, reading Qur’an before the prayer. I think of him showing me Nayl al-Awtar by Imam al-Shawkani from off his bookshelf. I think of him making du’a regularly to be saved from the punishment of the grave. I think of him as a man at ease in the constant worship of his Lord. He had no need for anything else, other than what he needed to take care of his family and improve the community.

 

Priorities

“All spending on the sustenance of one’s life is like spending in the way of Allah, except building things in which there is no good”

Reflection

I think Imam Abdul Hameed put more effort into maintaining, improving and expanding Masjid al-Kareem than he did his own personal comforts. He had a palpable happiness when we talked about all the improvements that they were able to make, and never expressed to me discomfort due to the endless need to fundraise. All he wanted was for people to give so that everyone could benefit. And we did benefit, enormously.

 

The Fullness of Love

“Be unattached to the world, and Allah will love you. Be unattached to what people have, and people will love you.”

Reflection

Imam Abdul Hameed was beloved by many, and I think it was because he was free from needing others to be something for him. He wanted them to give to the masjid, to contribute to the community, and encouraged them to follow Islam. But if they didn’t, he was still there in the masjid, doing what he did. People came and went, and sometimes we would reminisce about a brother who was around for a while, and then disappeared. But it didn’t bother him. He led by example, and it was up to everyone’s conscience to decide if they were going to follow or not.

He didn’t like it when people fought with each other, and we had many conversations about this. He wanted to bring people to together, but didn’t want to force it either. He once remarked to me that he believed that being involved in the affairs of the community, despite the drama that it entails, was more beloved to Allah than isolating himself for spiritual reasons. This conversation happened at a time of particularly intense intra-community drama. So it was no wonder to me how so many people were there to pray over him and lower him into his grave.

We often think about our love for Allah, but this hadith talks about Allah’s love for us. Imam Abdul Hameed’s only concern was living and teaching Islam. He once spoke fondly of being in Makkah when he was younger and sleeping on rooftops under the stars. This world was not his home – it was just a place he was passing through on the way to what he really wanted. May Allah grant it to him by His Mercy, ameen!

The grave of Imam Abdul Hameed, 2015

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bismillah al-Rahman al-Raheem

Dear Messenger of Allah,

al-salam ‘alaykum wa rahma Allah. May Allah send blessings and peace upon you and your family.

Perhaps you already know everything I am about to say. Perhaps Allah has informed you of my situation, and you are already making du’a on my behalf. But I want to talk to you directly, and so I am writing you this letter. I hope that it reaches you, with Allah’s permission.

I believe in you, even though I have never met you. For over 17 years, I have called myself a “Muslim” because I believe that you and your followers called yourselves Muslims. In Ramadan, I fast because I believe that you told us that God wanted us to do it. Every day I pray facing the Ka’ba in Makkah because I believe you told us that doing so would connect us to the Truth. My parents think it is all a bit strange, and mostly a waste of time and energy, but they ultimately respect my decision. Please pray to Allah to grant them faith. It seems impossible to me – that they would believe in you the way that I do – but I know that Allah can do all things, and guides whomsoever Allah wills. Alhamdulillah, I have been blessed with a Muslim wife, Sumaiya, and we have a son Zayn. My intention is for us to raise him up as a great follower of you, insha’Allah. Please make du’a that we are granted tawfiq as Muslim parents.

I know that you are aware that there is a lot that the Muslims who are living now disagree about, and they often kill each other because of those disagreements. I hate this, Messenger of Allah, I really do. I don’t want to kill any human being without right. How could I want that, when you taught us so emphatically that a life can only be taken “rightfully (illa bi’l-haqq)”?! Yet today, I fear for my life in the company of many Muslims – indeed, I am sure that there are many who would judge me worthy of death for simply writing this letter to you! Even when I visit you in Madinah, they stare at us as if we are hovering between faith and disbelief. They are just waiting to pounce on us for calling out to you. At the head of them is the group that calls themselves “the Islamic State.” I believe that you want us to fight them. It is not just my understanding, it is the understanding of two of the most respected living scholars of your message, both of whom are from your descendants: Shaykh Muhammad al-Yaqoubi of Syria, and Ayatollah al-Sistani of Iraq.

Ya Rasul Allah, this is my belief. I do not want to fight other Muslims, but in my heart of hearts, I believe ISIS must be fought in accordance with the Qur’anic command: “fight the one which aggresses until it returns to Allah’s command.” When I look at the example of the one whom you and Khadija helped raise, Ali b. Abi Talib, I see that he fought the Khawarij even though they were Muslim. It is his example that helps me see your teachings in the midst of confusion. I know of not one example where ‘Ali did something to displease you, and so it is inconceivable to me that he would displease you by laying waste to the rebels of Nahrawan.

I try to focus on you, may Allah grant you and your family blessings and peace. You are the one who changed my life, ya Habeeb Allah! You are the one who made a critical intervention in human history that led to me fasting and praying 1400 years later in a country called the United States, ya Mustafa! But I also cannot see you without also seeing your family, may blessings and peace be upon you and your family. If there is any statement that is attributed to you that I believe with absolute certainty you said, it is hadith al-thaqalayn.

“O people! Indeed, I have left among you, that which if you hold fast to it, you shall not go astray: the book of Allah and my family, the people of my house.”

This hadith is agreed upon by both the Sunni and the Shi’i hadith scholars. As such, it is not a surprise to me that both Sunni and Shi’i ‘ulama who are descended from you through ‘Ali and Fatima agree that ISIS should be fought. It is not a coincidence to me that an ‘alim from my country must rely upon a statement attributed to ‘Ali to enlighten us regarding the “Crisis of ISIS.” And we know from ISIS’ behavior already that they would love to destroy the maqam of ‘Ali in Najaf and that of your grandson in Karbala, and spill the blood of whoever makes ziyara there. And yet, many who claim to represent your teachings hesitate or remain silent about the fight against ISIS. This makes no sense to me, and seems like a grave injustice masquerading as a false claim of mercy.

This weighs on me, my master, and that is why I am writing to you. I understand intellectually many of the differences in usul al-fiqh, ‘ulum al-hadith, and tafsir that undergird the differing perspectives of those who interpret your teachings. And I understand a lot of the historical, cultural, and political reasons Muslims have split apart into competing traditions. But none of that seems like a justification at this point. Do those who do not advocate fighting think ISIS is just going to lay down their arms? I am simply trying to follow you so that the Lord who sent you will love me and forgive me my sins. I am nothing but a Muslim who is interested in what will benefit me in this world and the next, wherever it is found. But in doing so, I believe in a position that others turn away from. And so I appeal directly to you, out of the fear that I would be spilling blood unjustly. Usually, I find solace in matters that virtually your entire Ummah agrees upon, such as Husayn being one of the masters of Heaven. But in this case, there is real dissension in the Ummah. From what I understand, there are those who believe we must fight (such as al-Yaqoubi and al-Sistani), those who believe in pacifism until the time of al-Mahdi (such as the Ba ‘Alawi sayyids), those who are not pacifists but do not publicly advocate for this particular fight (many Sunni ‘ulama), and those who are actually attracted to the evil of ISIS. I am firmly with the first group, believing that if you were here, you would mobilize your entire Ummah to crush ISIS.

Please pray for my forgiveness, O Messenger of Allah, and ask your Lord to guide me to being a true follower of you, inwardly and outwardly, publicly and privately, in knowledge, deed, and state. If I have erred in my understanding of what it means to obey you, then correct me through the means that Allah has put at your disposal. It is upon Allah that I rely in all of my affairs, but Allah has turned the direction of my heart in your direction, teaching me that obedience to you is the same as obedience to Allah. And how can I obey you if I do not know you? How can I know you if I cannot communicate with you? How badly I want you to come and sit with me and console me in this time of fitna! But our Lord has decreed that I would live in a time when you were not here in the flesh to settle the differences between the Muslims – a time when everyone would invoke your name on behalf of their opinion, including me – and I cannot but embrace our Lord’s decree. You are our leader – the one who was sent to bring us out of darknesses into Light! – and so I sit at home with my family, praying for victory over ISIS, believing that you have commanded it, upon orders from the Most Merciful of those who show mercy.

one of your billions of followers,

R. David Coolidge

2nd Rabi’ al-Thani, 1437

New York City

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Realizations

I don’t want these realizations to fade:

  • How many have served and suffered for ‘Ali and Husayn?! What have you done in comparison? Nothing. And yet you expect to be given ma’rifah of these exalted souls. Work harder.
  • How many sins were written for you in 2015?! Were the Judge to take you to task for your record in the past year, it would be a scary trial. Remember that in 2016 anytime you are about to sin.
  • 2016 is capital. Every breath is a coin to spend for the sake of the One. Rejoice at this opportunity that exists for the next 365 days, should you be blessed to live until 2017.
  • When you feel your fortitude fading, read this again.
  • When you feel uninspired, look at the picture below.

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Tomorrow is Christmas. Many Christians believe that the day Jesus was born, upon him peace, all of existence was fundamentally altered. Everything was a lead up to this day, and after it happened, everything was different. Salvation was only possible through the atonement of the Son of God, who only came once to Earth.

Islam is different. In Islam, God is continuously calling humanity back to Heaven, from the time of Adam, upon him peace, until the present day. A few days ago was the traditional celebration of the Mawlid, the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad, upon him peace. It is believed by many to have happened on the 12th of the Islamic lunar month, Rabi’ al-Awwal. The Mawlid is important in Islamic culture, but not nearly as important as Christmas is to Christians. I believe that the central reason is because Islam has a different relationship to history than Christianity.

The Qur’an is not like the Bible structurally, and does not have a beginning, a middle, and an end. It calls itself, “a revelation from the One who created the Earth and the highest heavens,” and if that is so, it is telling that God avoids sweeping narrative. The only complete story in the Qur’an is the chapter of Joseph, and it is about one individual’s life. The first major work of universal history in Islamic civilization didn’t come until the time of al-Tabari (d. 923), 300 years after the Qur’an. It was so scholarly that the author provided all his sources, and so long that it filled many many volumes. It was a massive intellectual undertaking, but al-Tabari never said his views could not be challenged. It was simply an attempt to collate all the data available to him and fashion a type of “Big History.” It is far longer and more detailed than the Bible, or any other historical text in early Christianity, and yet does not have the same status theologically. It can be questioned, and has been debated for 1000 years.

One of the implications of this difference is how the two religious traditions deal with the rise of materialistic science over the last few hundred years. In the West, the story of science is often portrayed as the story of human beings using reason to reject a close-minded faith that kept people from properly understanding the universe in which we live. This is embedded within the intellectual history of Christianity in Europe, even though it is presented as a universal narrative speaking for all peoples and cultures of Earth. The narrative mythology of the Bible ruled the Euro-American historical imagination for over 1500 years. Early Christian religious authorities decided that creating a book with a beginning (Genesis), a climax (4 Gospels), and an epic conclusion (Revelation) was the proper way to frame Truth. In the elaboration of science in Euro-American history, a counter-narrative was formed, framed as a “Coming of Age in the Milky Way.” Old dogmatic truths were demolished and reason prevailed. Many scientists argued that we were finally discovering our true history, and that the scientific narrative of the universe proved the traditional Christian narrative wrong, and replaced it. Jesus was not the focal point of all history, for the Bible only told a very limited story, and much of it was inaccurate besides.

Narratives of understanding the history of the universe, our planet, and human beings from within Islamicate civilization are not the same as European narratives. In classical Islamic thought, science would be categorized as a type of hukm ‘adi, which are intellectual judgements based on observing the way the world works. For example, we see that fire burns when we put our hands into it, and so we learn through pattern recognition that fire burns. But pattern recognition is only one modality of reason. Another type of reason is known as a hukm shar’i, which are intellectual judgements based on proper interpretation of texts of revelation. For example, determining the method of prayer, which is based on interpretation of the Qur’an and other texts, is a hukm shar’i. It has rules of logic and linguistics that govern proper interpretation, as well-articulated by Professor John Walbridge in his book “God and Logic in Islam.” A third modality of reason is known as the hukm ‘aqli, which are intellectual judgements that are self-evident, thus not in need of validation from either scientific observation nor exegesis of revelation. For example, the truth of 2+2=4 is not based on the scientific method, nor the Qur’an. It is just known by itself.

These are three distinctive types of “reason,” and each are valid in their own spheres of influence. This picture of the processes of the human intellect is more complicated than the usual trope of “reason versus faith.” While there are undoubtedly many things that science has taught us about ourselves and the universe around us, we do a disservice to the complexity of human history and the many manifestations of human thought when we allow this Euro-American vision of history to pass as some sort of universal narrative of truth. Different cultures and religions have had different ways of understanding the universe.

To be honest, I prefer the Islamic approach to history. I dislike materialists who spew dogmas about the history of the universe just as much as I dislike Evangelical Christians who try to convince people that the Earth is 6000 years old based on their reading of the Bible. Both are “easy answers” that do not do justice to the complexity of historical interpretation. I find comfort in the idea that God hid from us the details of history in the Qur’an, and instead wanted us to figure it out on our own as best we can. That gives me a lot more room for error in my understanding of history, and a lot more room for science.

I am thankful for the days on which Jesus and Muhammad were born, peace be upon them both, but the fact of the matter is that even those dates are debated. It is not clearly known. Despite that lack of historical certainty, God is manifest in every moment, for the Qur’an states: “To God belongs both the East and the West, so wherever you turn, there is the Face of God.” (2.115) And God is constantly watching me in my moments, and so reminds me about the past: “that is a nation that has passed away; they will have what they earned and you will have what you earned, and you will not be asked about what they did.” (2.134) So I know that as important as the past is, the writing of it is always the product of fallible human minds who have different modalities of reason.

Perhaps the stars shone brighter on the day Jesus was born. Perhaps there were heavenly lights manifest on the day Muhammad was born. Unfortunately, I witnessed neither. I live in the 21st century, and all I have are texts compiled by fallible authors, such as the Sunni al-Bukhari, the Shi’i al-Kulayni, and the Judaeo-Christian writers of the Gospels. I am thankful for what God has preserved for me in human history, but I do not believe that any of these authors were immune from error. They are, in the final analysis, historians, and I too am a student of history who is obliged to think seriously about what can and cannot be known about the past.

As Carl Sagan once said, “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” But in order to properly understand the cosmos, we need to properly understand how we have understood the cosmos. Muslims, Christians, and Materialists have all produced literature attempting to explain the story of the universe, the planet Earth, and human beings in different ways. Each of them emphasizes different things in different ways. As for me, my greatest hope does not lie in books nor articles. Rather, I hope that when I die, I will see Jesus and Muhammad face-to-face, as opposed to now, when I see them through a glass, darkly. Commemorating their births is simply a means to increase my longing for them in my death. Unfortunately, for the rest of you, if I do meet them in the world beyond, I won’t be able to blog about it. But when I die, perhaps you can look back at this short piece of writing and smile, knowing that I have finally arrived to the Reality that Jesus and Muhammad already know, may peace be upon them both.maxresdefault

The Eyes of ‘Ali

do not speak to me of Abu Hanifa nor al-Shafi’i

neither al-Shadhili nor al-Jilani

I am lost in the ocean of ‘Ali

through whose young eyes he saw his cousin become a Prophet

upon him and his family be blessings and peace

 

do not speak to me of al-Ash’ari nor al-Maturidi

neither al-Dhahabi nor Ibn Hajar

I am standing at the gate of ‘Ali

through whose middle-aged eyes he saw his Prophet laid to rest

upon him and his family be blessings and peace

 

do not speak to me of al-Kulayni nor al-Saduq

neither al-Tusi nor al-Mufid

I yearn for the mawla of all believers

through whose dying eyes he saw the rule of the Prophet disappear

upon him and his family be blessings and peace

 

None can claim to see what he saw

from the warmth of Khadija’s home

to the blood of the Khawarij

for half a century he was there

always faithful from beginning ’til end

 

may my life be sacrificed for those eyes

 

Our unity is ‘Ali

our division comes from elsewhere

so do not speak to me of anyone but ‘Ali

without whom I could not envision my Prophet

upon him and his family be blessings and peace

 

I have felt the weight of al-thaqalayn upon my heart

and I am changed

and can never go back

so may my eyes see them return to the Prophet at the Pool

upon him and his family be blessings and peace

 

Silence is Complicity

Dear Muslim b. ‘Aqil,

May peace be upon you. I am sorry it has taken me so long to write. No one ever taught me about you. I have heard other names over and over and over again, but I had to find your story in a book I purchased out of my own desire to know. What an awful story! Did they really throw you from the rooftops and drag you through the streets of Kufa? You, the son of the cousin of the Best of Creation, the personal representative of one of the Masters of Heaven?! Ya Lateef.

In our times, they say that silence in the face of injustice is a form of complicity. Insha’Allah the angels will translate what that means for you. I don’t want to be silent. I don’t want your blood on my hands. I want to be on your side, without qualification.

Perhaps one of the small wisdoms of your martyrdom is that so many years later, your story would move me. Move me to realize the level of treachery that Husayn and his lovers faced. Move me to understand what level of sacrifice is required to follow Husayn. Blessings and peace be upon Muhammad and the family of Muhammad!

May the Muharram gatherings all around this Earth be a further reminder to the world that your sacrifice was not in vain, and may we blessed to visit you in Kufa,

by the mercy of the Most Merciful, ameen!

Your admirer,

R. David Coolidge

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