A little over a year ago, I stepped into a gathering known as Muharram in Manhattan. I didn’t know what to expect, but I had contacted the organizer to get a sense of it. His name was Naqi.

Naqi has since become a friend for the sake of Allah. I am not sure I ever really understood what that phrase meant – friend for the sake of Allah – until I became friends with Naqi. From the very beginning of our connection, it was for Allah and by Allah, and I hope it has remained so. When he was run over by a car, I sent him a hadith from the Ahl al-Bayt reminding him to be thankful that it could have been worse, and that such a tribulation could serve as an expiation of his sins and drawing him closer to Allah. He did not problematize it nor question it. Instead he said thank you so much, and posted it on his Facebook. The fact that I felt comfortable responding to his suffering that way, and he responded the way he did, speaks volumes. It seems obvious to say, but before I walked into Muharram in Manhattan, I did not know that all of this would unfold.

Similarly, in one of the gatherings, a young woman got up to recite an original poem. In it, she said the following line:

I am entranced by these dead who still live, over me they hold sway

Pain renders me breathless when their bodies in front of me lay

I am torn to pieces, but they say, soothing the wounds of my mind:

“What did he lose who found God; who lost God, what did he find?”

In a few words, she captured beautifully and precisely something I had felt for years, whose meaning was unfolding in indescribable ways as I learned more and more about Karbala. The following year during the nights of Muharram, she would tell a story more touching than I have the words to express. Sometimes, words fail – only tears can speak for the heart.

These experiences, along with many others, have driven me to grapple more deeply with the Shi’i tradition. But sometimes, I have so many questions, I get overwhelmed. So in the middle of the day yesterday, I posted a prayer about ‘Ali b. Abi Talib I had written a few days earlier. I just felt completely at a loss to resolve the three images of him I have in my head: the Traditionalist Sunni version, the Twelver-Shi’i version, and the Secular Academic version. What many don’t know is that approximately a decade ago, when I was a graduate student in Islamic Studies at Princeton, I wanted to write about this topic for my dissertation. And so I beseeched the One who knows ‘Ali better than anyone to help me make sense of it all, and just figured I would take a break from my books for a bit.

But last night, a most peculiar thing happened. My heart became filled with a longing for a man I have never really thought about before. All it took was one word.

Jaddi means “my grandfather.” The twitterer of this tweet is the poetess of whom I spoke earlier. Her last name “Naqvi,” indicates that she is a descendant of a man who was known as al-Naqi (The Pure), the same man after whom my friend Naqi is named. It had never hit me until that moment that these two people who had come into my life shared names that contained the remembrance of ‘Ali b. Muhammad al-Naqi, may peace be upon him.

And so with an insatiable urge, and very limited time, I tried to learn about him. I read the following:








And watched the following speeches (majalis):

All of these sources painted a coherent picture of a pious, learned, and deeply spiritual man who frightened the political authorities of his time for no reason other than that he was who he was. Bukhari was free to roam the Ummah in this era, searching for hadith. Muhasibi was free to articulate his vision of spiritual refinement in the proto-Sufi circles of Baghdad. But Imam al-Naqi was put under house arrest in Samarra until the end of his life. What did they fear, and why did so many of his contemporaries ignore his plight?

As I pondered on this, I read and listened to a text attributed to Imam al-Naqi known as al-Ziyara al-Jami’a al-Kabira.


[the link above is what I read, but here is a clearer translation]

Never have I heard words that so beautifully encapsulate the human being’s longing for unassailable representatives of God on Earth who connect us to the Divine. As it states:

Verily, the truth is always with you, amid you, from you, and to you. You are the people and the core of it (i.e. the truth).

And again:

O my masters, I cannot count your merits and I cannot attain the utmost of praise of you and the utmost of the description of your actual value, since you are the light of the upright ones, the guides of the pious ones, and the arguments of the Supreme Lord

This must be what they feared – an articulation of spiritual authority in Islam that completely and utterly demolishes the ideological basis for the Abbasid caliphate. And that must be why they ignored – if these men are who Imam al-Naqi is saying they are, then they (including al-Naqi himself) render superfluous the attempt to seek knowledge elsewhere. In short, this text is a deeply powerful articulation of the Shi’i conception of the Imams, from a figure who is known primarily as the 10th Imam and not anything else.

But there was a line that bothered me personally – as opposed to a line that I might have a question/concern about doctrinally. It stated:

Because of our friendship with you Allah taught us the laws of our religion

It bothered me because my first thought was, “I didn’t even know you until now, so how could it be relevant to the past 17 years of me being a Muslim?” And then I had a thought that seemed so important, it led me to write all of this down as I just have.

If I am a person of Paradise (and I ask the Most Merciful of those who show mercy to make it so!), then what I will discover in Paradise is that which Allah knew all along. I will be surrounded by people who I discovered in the days of my life, but with whom I was already connected in eternity.

It is hard for us to imagine, as we are still in the middle of the book. We are still wondering what will happen tomorrow, and what is to be discovered around the next bend. But the Author of the book already knows the happy ending, an ending made all the more beautiful due to the justice meted out on the wicked. And as such, the All-Seeing is witnessing us now in our place in the eternal world, sitting amongst “whoever is righteous from among their forebears, their spouses, and their descendants” (13.23) Perhaps I am smiling in the presence of Imam al-Naqi, remembering the moment he first entered my heart through the words of his granddaughter: “Jaddi.” Perhaps he turns to her and tells her how proud she made him as he watched her life unfold. Perhaps Naqi is there too, beaming with joy as we recount the steps of the journey that Allah laid out for us in pre-eternity. Perhaps.

I have no idea how any of this will unfold. But who am I to discount the idea that Imam al-Naqi is a greater part of my life than I have yet to imagine. Do not the greatest love stories begin with a single glance at a previously unseen face? A year ago, I did not have a friend named Naqi nor Naqvi. But in a short time, I have learned so much, and am not the same person I was. They were secrets hidden in creation until the moment Allah decreed them to be revealed to me. And through them, I am starting to uncover the secrets of the one who gave both of them their names. And so when I read in the ziyara:

wherever you are there are blessings of Allah

the wisdom of Allah is deposited with you

the secrets of Allah have been put in your safekeeping

Who am I to deny it when I have yet to fully comprehend it? Why do I see it as so impossible that Imam al-Naqi has been with me for far longer than I realize? At the very least, I should be humble enough to say that maybe he knows something I don’t, and seek out whatever other secrets tomorrow might reveal.

But on this night, before I return to the state of helplessness in sleep, it seems best to ask the Author to write that Naqi, Naqvi, and I, along with “whoever is righteous from among their forebears, their spouses, and their descendants” visit al-Naqi in the highest stations of Paradise. If I can imagine it, surely You, ya Kareem, can manifest it, and far more besides.

By Your Mercy, O Most Merciful of those who show mercy!



in Your Name, ya Quddus ya Batin

with blessings and peace upon Your prophet and his family

i come to You as a traveler in need of water

lost in the desert

for over a decade

i no longer have power left to search

for life-giving drops

that will quench my thirst

and allow me to escape the pain of heat

searing unbearable heat

i just want to know what You know

and to do what You have ordered

to the best of my ability

so i ask You

did You tell Your prophet to appoint his cousin and son-in-law

to lead us after his passing

i just don’t know

it seems odd that a prophet who taught us how to use the bathroom

would not speak directly to his succession

it seems odd that You would talk over and over again in the Qur’an

about the disobedient followers of previous prophets, upon them peace

and then that information wouldn’t be relevant to our ummah

it seems odd that our prophet would say

“man kuntu mawlahu fa ‘ali mawlahu”

just because some of the soldiers returning from yemen were disgruntled

it seems odd that You would go to such lengths to grant us guidance

and help us with the support of angels

and then leave us to ourselves

to haggle and tussle at saqifa bani sa’ida

while the body of Your beloved lay unburied

upon him and his family be blessings and peace

it seems odd that the one who had stood by him since the beginning

the one who shuttled between the care of abu talib and khadija

would face the rebellions of jamal and siffin and nahrawan

was not the first sin the arrogance of denying adam’s superiority before You

was not the first murder the result of jealousy that You preferred abel

Your Book teaches that those of high spiritual rank face enormous resentment

and expounds on the history of those who have wanted to harm them

and ‘ali b. abi talib stands at the head of virtually every sufi turuq

and every shi’i imamate

so what sort of rank must his be

what sort of man did You create in ‘ali

that even those who dedicate their lives to him

claim to not know him

and even in the books of those who argue that You did not appoint him

it states the Your beloved said to him

“wherever you are, you are with the just and justice is with you!”

is that not what everyone is saying

with their tongues and their hearts

that they want to stand with justice

and so how can i not yearn to stand with him

and thus save my self from Your justice

but i was not there

and i do not know what transpired

i do not know exactly what ‘ali said when and where and how

all i have are books from centuries later

pieces of the puzzle

that i have been searching within for so long

looking for a way forward

and when they talk of the wisdom of the ‘ulama

i see it on both sides

but i also see

that none of them are ‘ali

not sistani, not al-yaqoubi, not khomeini, not habib ‘umar

they are rather ‘ali’s grandchildren

yet i know my sins

and my ignorance

and my weaknesses

and due to that

i hesitate to claim that i know better

than abu bakr and ‘umar and a’isha

when even al-kafi states

that ‘ali described the possessor of intellect thus:

“he believes in his heart that all people are better than he,

and that he is the worst of them.”

and so I seek refuge in Your Perfection from my imperfection

in Your Knowledge from my ignorance

in Your Justice from my injustice

in Your Mercy from my hard heartedness

in Your Guidance from my misguidance

and ask You alone to resolve this question for me

to let me drink from the pure waters of Your Truth

ya Haqq

unmediated by historians and muhaddiths

whom no one considers ma’sum

unfettered by attachments to living ‘ulama

who are all students at the gate to the city of knowledge

ya Allah ya Allah ya Allah

i believe in Your Book and however You intended it to be understood

i believe in Your Messenger and however You intended him to be followed

and i lay my agency before You

and ask You to save me

ya Samad

ya Arham al-rahimeen

la ilaha illa anta subhanaka inni kuntu min al-dhalimeen

i and you

share with me what you have seen

and i will share with you what i have seen

and together we will paint a beautiful corner

of a canvas with limitless borders

for we too are part of that canvas

our breaths

our faces

our experiences

Witnessed and witnessing

the infinite dance of Being

can you hear bilal’s cry?

“Ahad (One)!”

there is but One

One whom we worship

One in whom we exist

One who manifests that which shatters our little dreams

can you feel zaynab’s stance?

“ma ra’aytu illa jameela (i see nothing but Beauty)!”

all around us

ever present

hidden secrets

whispers of love

unveiled in a moment decreed

to mirror Heaven’s promise

“muttak’ina ‘alayha mutaqabilin (reclining upon couches, facing one another)”

for why would al-Dhahir

– the One manifest in everything –

want us to look at each other

in the highest places of bliss?

it is to this secret i dedicate my trust

for the sake of the One who created you

“ma khalaqta hadha batilan (You did not create this in vain)!”


love of guidance

There is a conversation going on in my head

Aqeela says: “the pain of separation is agonizing”

Rizwan says: “express your desire for death, if you are true”

I say: “God, take me now”

Rend the veil between me and ‘Ali

Let me embrace Husayn

Bless my eyes to see Zayn al-‘Abidin

If the choice was between another 50 years in this world, and those 3

there is no choice

my God would look after my son and wife

al-Razzaq al-Kareem al-Wahhab al-Hadi al-Raheem al-Qadir al-Muqtadir al-Muhyi

I do not cry out of discontent with Your decree

I cry because my body cannot contain the yearning

there is only one valve to release the pressure – my eyes

and so I cry

accept these tears, my Lord

and let them pave the way to the abode of men

in front of whom I am nothing but a bewildered lover

Bismillah al-Rahman al-Raheem

Allahumma salli ‘ala Muhammad wa aali Muhammad

al-salam ‘alaykum ya Aba ‘Abdillah al-Husayn ibn ‘Ali

I pledge my allegiance to you eternally, hoping in Mercy, fearing Justice, longing for the Garden, terrified of the Fire

I seek your companionship in this life and the next, O Sayyid Shabab al-Jannah

I testify before the sacred presence of the All-Knowing that you are one of the “ulu’l-amri minkum (the holder of authority amongst them)” to whom obedience is owed for the sake of Allah

I testify before the sacred presence of Habeeb Allah, blessings and peace be upon him and his family, that Allah loves those who love you.

I see no other epitome of love for you but following you on ‘Ashura.

In my heart and with my words, I make complete tawalli (allegiance) to you, and complete tabarri (opposition) to those who stood against you, at the head of whom was Yazid. You had the right to rule, and the one who sought your submission had no right.

I have so much still to learn about what it means to follow you, but I will follow you until the end of this world, with Allah’s permission.

My pledge to you is my pledge to your grandfather, the Best of Creation, blessings and peace be upon him and his family.

Ask Allah to make me one of your truest servants in history, for in the words of one of your servants, “it was here that I found the meaning of life, and every day after was in this meaning spent.”

Labbayka ya Husayn!

For the following of our Prophet
For the obedience to our God
You are the one I have been searching for all these years

You are my commander and what a blessed commander you are!

Your servant,

Robert David Coolidge

Allahumma salli ‘ala Muhammad wa aali Muhammad

The usual combination of saying subhan Allah and alhumdulillah and Allahu akbar has a meaning that many overlook.

Subhan Allah means that Allah is completely different from the material creation. It is often translated simply as “Glorified is Allah.” Theologically, it is connected to tanzih, which is to make a thorough distinction between Allah and the creation. Allah is exalted above any comparison to the creation.

On the other hand, alhamdulillah – often translated as “all praise is due to Allah” – is theologically related to the opposite of tanzih, which is tashbihTashbih is to compare Allah to the creation for the sake of understanding something about Allah. For example, we talk about the “mercy” of a mother and the “Mercy” of Allah, and we say that Allah’s mercy is far greater than the mercy of mother (as is stated in many hadith). So when we have a good meal, we say alhamdulillah because we recognize that ultimately it is Allah who has given it to us. In some way, it is from Allah and so we attribute its praiseworthiness to its Owner.

Tashbih and tanzih form a dialectic, a back and forth that creates mental and emotional movement. We know that Allah is not the deliciousness of food nor the beauty of a sunset, and yet we enjoy food and sunsets as reflections of Allah in some way. When we recognize that Allah is distinct from the world, we say subhan Allah and when we see Allah’s presence in something we say alhamdulillah.

Allahu akbar breaks the dialectic – it affirms that Allah is greater than both tanzih and tashbih. Allah is beyond all dialectics and dualities. The Reality of the Real (al-Haqq) is greater than any conception we can form of Reality. Allah is both intimately connected to and transcendentally disconnected from that which is not Allah in the greatest of ways. Allahu akbar.

All three are true, and saying them together complements each other and leads one closer to that which all three phrases have in common: الله

سبحان الله الحمد لله الله أكبر

It just hit me: orphan sponsorship is a serious spiritual practice. The aspirations of the spiritual path in Islam can be summarized in two goals. The first is being with the Prophet, may blessings and peace be upon him and his family. He is considered to be the best of creation, and mystics long to know him and be in his company. Obviously, walking this path involves saying salawat and other forms of devotion. But reflect on the meaning of this hadith: “‘I and the one who looks after an orphan will be like this in Paradise,’ showing his middle and index fingers and separating them.” (related in Sahih al-Bukhari) What more vivid illustration could the Messenger of Allah give us of the path leading to his companionship, may blessings and peace be upon him and his family!

The second goal is intimate experience of Allah directly. So reflect on this verse: “The one who gives from his wealth in order to purify himself, not giving for anyone who has done him a favor to be rewarded, but only seeking the countenance (wajh) of his Lord, Most High. He is going to be satisfied.” (92.18-21) The seeker wants to see the face (wajh) of God, and God is promising that the seeker will be satisfied. Orphan sponsorship involves giving to someone that the donor will probably never meet in this life, thus increasing the likelihood that one gives with a pure intention.

This is another reminder of the practical nature of Islamic spirituality, which flows from the balanced example of the Prophet Muhammad, may blessings and peace be upon him and his family. May Allah accept the orphan sponsorships of every Muslim in the United States, whether done through Helping Hand, Islamic Relief, Zakat Foundation, NuDay Syria, or any other institution which facilitates this act of worship, and may the facilitators be granted the same, and may the orphans all have long lives full of good deeds, ameen.

Organizations facilitating orphan sponsorships:



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