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.
— Aqeela (@AqeelaNaqvi) November 18, 2015
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).
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!