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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:

muhammad_is_the_messenger_of_allah_by_erfanskills-d5ro5gn

Bismillah

I have reached the end of a process in my spiritual journey.

The conclusion? Everything I have said or done or felt in the last year has been connected to my struggle to fully embrace my role as a stay-at-home father. Put differently, I am so often craving stimulation that is not connected to him. Even my spiritual life has this element. I know now that one of the reasons I chose to write about such topics as the Mahdi and angels is because it is stimulating and fascinating. I just as easily could have read/watched Dune and Constantine (which I did as well). For those of you who are unfamiliar with those two fictional worlds, the first focuses on a Mahdi-esque figure and the second focuses on a character who is in contact with angels and demons. So I thought that I was trying to bring greater clarity to my theology, but I know now that is only partly true. I was also just looking for something entertaining that would stimulate me. Hours and hours in a world of dirty diapers, Curious George, and pushing the stroller through the park leaves a man in need of something a bit more exciting.

There is no way I could articulate to another person the extent of how this has manifested – but Allah knows, because it is Allah who showed it to me in a moment of illumination.

The rest of 2015 promises to be more of the same. Nap times have to be respected, snacks have to be prepared, and Curious George is apparently still the most amazing thing ever, even when it is the same episode for the 7th time. Ma sha’ Allah la quwwata illa billah (whatever Allah wills, there is no power except with Allah). But I have to move beyond where I have been for the last year, and embrace MY reality, the one that Allah decrees for me and me alone. What this means, I do not know, because I haven’t got there yet. I am entering unknown territory. Please make a du’a for me that Allah blesses me to be a servant with whom He is pleased.

I write this publicly because I believe in transparency and accountability. There is nothing sinful in articulating this personal awakening, and perhaps it may be beneficial to another. Or perhaps it will better explain my behavior. You have a right to know who your religious leaders really are, and since I just led hundreds of people in salat al-jumu’ah earlier today, I can’t deny that I am a religious leader on some small level. I know for sure that my many writings about Shi’ism are related to this, because Shi’ism is different and somewhat exotic to me (hence, stimulating), and also because I am deeply moved by what it teaches about fathers and sons. The hardest I cried in the last year was the night in Muharram they recounted the death of Ali al-Akbar, the eldest son of Imam Husayn, on the battlefield of Karbala. I know tonight in an even more profound way why that night was so transformative. Allahumma salli ‘ala Muhammad wa aali Muhammad (O God, bless Muhammad and the family of Muhammad)!

Here is a picture of the two of us together. If you saw my phone’s gallery, you would think that my entire life revolved around taking pictures of my son. But I don’t really share these photos with anyone other than family. So this is me being a bit more honest about the real story of my life, the one that sleeps in the other room while I type these words. May we both be in Paradise together, by the mercy of the Most Merciful, ameen.

Father and Son at the Clare County Fair, Michigan, July 2015

IMG_20150805_102640961

I posted a message on FB, and sent emails to those not on FB, to gather criticism. I needed to hear what others think of me, so that I can better understand the defects of my self. Almost 17 years of trying to be a “practicing Muslim,” as they say, has made me a firm believer in the words of Ibn Ata’illah: “The source of every disobedience, indifference, and passion is self-satisfaction. The source of every obedience, vigilance, and virtue is dissatisfaction with one’s self. It is better for you to keep company with an ignorant man dissatisfied with himself than to keep company with a learned man satisfied with himself. For what knowledge is there in a self-satisfied scholar? And what ignorance is there in an unlearned man dissatisfied with himself?”

Which brings me to my first reflection. One respondent told me to rise above praise and criticism, and instead adopt an attitude of unconditional love. You have touched on something very sensitive in my heart. As I mentioned above, being self-critical has been the main way in which I have been able to adopt the characteristics of those whom Allah loves. For example, the Qur’an states that “Surely Allah loves those who constantly repent and purify themselves.” (2.222) As I wrote previously, I struggled with leaving alcohol. I wanted it, and I wanted to be able to drink it and not feel so guilty. But I had to continually repent and try to purify my self from this craving for something Allah prohibited. It was like spiritual warfare (al-jihad al-akbar) – it was not soft nor gentle nor loving. I didn’t want to go through that experience – I wanted Allah to make it easy for me. But it wasn’t, because there were very clearly two sides: that which I wanted and that which Allah wanted. It was a test of faith, plain and simple, and if I had continued to drink, I believe that would have led me ever closer to Allah’s punishment. This is what is “true to my way of speaking,” as you put it. And I am appreciative that you expressed your self in a way that was meaningful to you. And I can understand why you might find my way of speaking jarring. I am just trying to explain where I am coming from.

Which leads me to my next reflection. Someone jokingly mentioned that they should get off FB and sit with the saints. I know they were making a joke, but obviously there was some truth to their joke. My short response is that I am more certain that my son is a saint then I am of any adult. Adults sin – little children do not. So I believe that the service I render to him is more deserving of my time and energy than pouring tea for the shaykh. My son is helpless, but the shaykh can pour his own tea. So I spend a good portion of my day with my sinless shaykh who demands a lot of me, and FB is what I use to engage my mind since he teaches without using many words. So to the one who encouraged me to keep using FB, don’t worry – stay-at-home parents who can’t regularly get to spiritual and intellectual gatherings generally like FB a lot!

So, to the person who recommended building a “sustainable jama’at,” I hear you. That is why I pay ridiculous Manhattan rent to live two blocks from ICNYU, my spiritual home. There I pray with others. There I discuss. There I reflect. There I attend spiritual gatherings. There I teach and am taught. There I take my son in his stroller to be around nice Muslims.

Which leads me to respond to the person who said to say away from gatherings and groups and just be normal. That is part of the reason why I have chose ICNYU as my current spiritual home. The folks there are generally pretty similar to me, although I can’t claim to be particularly normal. Some of them have unique skills, like a remarkable acumen to study (Ebadur Rahman), great skill at organizing beneficial gatherings (such as Naqi Haider), and a gift for compassionate leadership (Khalid Latif). I mention these three individuals specifically because they feel like friends for the sake of Allah. They benefit me on the path to Allah, both in serious ‘religious’ moments, and in casual relaxing moments. I am truly grateful for their friendship, and amazed that I have met all three through ICNYU.

As for the criticism that I rejected a book based on its cover, you misunderstood. I have too many books to read already, and have no interest in reading anything about contemporary Judaism. It could be the most fascinating study in the world, and I still wouldn’t read it, simply because it does not fit into my priorities. And as always, I’d be happy to see you in person and discuss this all more, as usual.

Finally, I would like to address the two people who critiqued my relationship to career and leadership. This is the most challenging to discuss, but so be it. I hear you that leadership, conviction and engagement are important. But these matters in religion are not like in other areas of human endeavor. Religion requires a type of leader who considers earthly praise and blame as equal, because the leader is connected totally to God. If I have seen anyone like that, it was Ayatollah Khomeini, may God have mercy on him. Love him or hate him, he feared no one, and changed the world with his conviction that he was acting on behalf of God. Khomeini dismissed many critics, because in his own mind, he knew the right thing to do and did it. But I live in a world where most people think Ayatollah Khomeini was a bad person, including most Muslims I know. So that leaves me in an awkward position. Do I aspire to Khomeini-esque conviction in my work, or do I learn from his mistakes? In many respects, I asked for all of this feedback because my natural inclination is to aspire to Khomeini’s example. He has always been the symbol for me of the greatest accomplishment possible for a modern religious leader, and it is perhaps the contentiousness of his legacy that makes me cautious. Obviously, as an American convert, my path could never be like Khomeini’s. But it still does not change the fact that he represents something unique for me – I can think of no person I have seen with my own eyes that teaches me more about what it might be like to have a Prophet walking on Earth in our own era. Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe that’s a bad thing. But it is definitely something that cuts to the heart of the meaning and purpose of my own life and work.

So to the person who said that my posts are offensive to those who disagree, I am not sure exactly what you are referring to. Could it be my characterization of the sons of Sa’d b. Abi Waqqas and Mu’awiya b. Abi Sufyan as those who unlawfully shed the blood of the Prophet’s grandson al-Husayn b. ‘Ali? If so, then I cannot apologize in the least. My relationship with God is connected to my feelings about what happened at Karbala. If that makes me a Shi’i, then so be it. If that makes me a Sunni, then so be it. I honestly do not know how to “classify myself,” as you requested I do, as anything other than a Muslim who has wept for what happened at Karbala.

And now that I have responded to everyone, I wanted to say that your thoughts touched on so many sensitive issues. I have reviewed what you said multiple times, and revised this post a lot as well. I think the tensions and ambiguities of what I have written are pretty obvious, and a sign that I am still working things out. Thank you for helping me review where I am at, and keep sharing with me your thoughts. May Allah guide us all to pure servitude (‘ubudiya), ameen.

Sayyed-Khomeini-RA

My paternal grandfather was a male and my paternal grandmother was a female. They engaged in sexual intercourse, and through that Allah created my father.

My maternal grandfather was a male and my maternal grandmother was a female. They engaged in sexual intercourse, and through that Allah created my mother.

My father is a male and my mother is a female. They engaged in sexual intercourse, and through that Allah created me.

My wife’s dadajaan was a male, and my wife’s dadijaan was a female. They engaged in sexual intercourse, and through that Allah created my wife’s abba.

My wife’s nanajaan was a male, and my wife’s nanijaan was a female. They engaged in sexual intercourse, and through that Allah created my wife’s ammi.

My wife’s abba and was a male, and my wife’s ammi was a female. They engaged in sexual intercourse, and through that Allah created my wife.

I am a male and my wife is a female. We engaged in sexual intercourse, and through that Allah created my son.

My entire existence, and the existence of the most important people in my life, is entirely due to “gender and sexuality,” by the decree of Allah.

الله

اللهم صل على سيدنا محمد و آله و سلم

27th Ramaḍān, 1436 AH

Indeed, We sent [the Qur’ān] down during the Night of Decree.
And what can make you know what is the Night of Decree?
The Night of Decree is better than a thousand months.
The angels and the Spirit descend therein by permission of their Lord for every matter.
Peace it is until the emergence of dawn.

I have never met an angel, never felt an angel’s presence, nor do I think I truly understand their importance – but I believe in them nonetheless, because Allah and the Messenger of Allah (blessings and peace be upon him and his family) have informed me of their existence.

Those who lived in the Prophetic era didn’t see them in their angelic forms either – even though Muhammad’s prophethood was predicated on his claim that he was regularly meeting with the archangel Gabriel (Jibrīl) – so I don’t take my not seeing them as a bad sign. As the Qur’ān states:

“O you who believe, remember Allah‘s favor to you, when the forces (of the disbelievers) came upon you, and We sent upon them a wind, and the forces (of angels) you did not see. Allah is watchful of whatever you do.” (Qur’ān, 33.9)

Contrast that with verses where they are seen by normal human beings:

“Those who do not fear to meet Us say, ‘Why are the angels not sent down to us?’ or ‘Why can we not see our Lord?’ They are too proud of themselves and too insolent. There will be no good news for the guilty on the Day they see the angels. The angels will say, ‘You cannot cross the forbidden barrier,’ and We shall turn to the deeds they have done and scatter them like dust.” (21.23)

So I recognize that not seeing them is a test of faith, however much that must enrage the pure materialist. There is no empirical means to access the angelic realm – at no point in human history will a brilliant PhD from Oxford discover a mathematical proof for the existence of angels that leads a research team with billions of dollars in funding to develop a piece of technology that allows humans to observe angels at work. Such a storyline might work in Hollywood, but it is impossible in the real world. But as the Qur’an states,

“…If you could only see the wicked in their death agonies, as the angels stretch out their hands [to them], saying, ‘Give up your souls. Today you will be repaid with a humiliating punishment for saying false things about God and for arrogantly rejecting His revelations.’” (6.93)

So maybe the skeptical mind should not be too quick to see an angel – they might not like what they see staring back at them.

The inclusion of belief in angels in the following verse, which has been a personal source of guidance for many years, is enough to prove their importance to me:

“Goodness does not consist in turning your face towards East or West. The truly good are those who believe in God and the Last Day, in the angels, the Scripture, and the prophets; who give away some of their wealth, however much they cherish it, to their relatives, to orphans, the needy, travellers and beggars, and to liberate those in bondage; those who keep up the prayer and pay the prescribed alms; who keep pledges whenever they make them; who are steadfast in misfortune, adversity, and times of danger. These are the ones who are true, and it is they who are aware of God.” (Qur’ān 2.177)

God has mentioned the angels along with other obvious fundamentals of sound faith and righteous action, and so we do not deny them. But how can we get a better understanding of angels?

Perhaps we can reflect on two verses of the Qur’ān:

“Say [Prophet], ‘If anyone is an enemy of Gabriel – who by God’s leave brought down the Quran to your heart confirming previous scriptures as a guide and good news for the faithful – if anyone is an enemy of God, His angels and His messengers, of Gabriel and Michael, then God is certainly the enemy of such disbelievers.'” (2.97-8)

God speaks of the enemies of the angels. Some scholarly commentaries on the Qur’ān mention incidents that happened in the time of the Prophet (blessings and peace be upon him and his family), but let us first explore some general meanings. First, to actively disbelieve in the angels likely means to be their enemy. Secondly, to deny the role that they have played in the revelations from God to humanity is likely to take them as an enemy. Thirdly, to interpret them away as some force of nature, and not as the created beings whom God has named quite explicitly as Gabriel and Michael (Mīkāl) is more likely to take them as enemies. Lastly, to believe that the angel is your enemy is to take them as an enemy, which was actually the story behind the verse. There were people in the Prophetic era who considered Gabriel to be their enemy. The following story is related in the classical Qur’an commentary Asbāb al-Nuzūl by al-Wāḥidī (d. 1075):

“The Jews came to the Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace, and said: ‘O Abu’l-Qasim! We would like to ask you about a few things; we shall follow you if you answer them. Who, among the angels, comes to you? For there is not a single prophet except that an angel comes to him with a message and revelation from his Lord, glorified and majestic, so who is the angel who comes to you?’ He said: ‘it is Gabriel’. They said: ‘That is the one who comes down with war and fighting. He is our enemy. If you had said: Michael, who comes down with rain and mercy, we would have followed you’.”

Angels were part of the beliefs of the followers of Moses (upon him peace) and Jesus (upon him peace), and they show up repeatedly in the Bible. Islam affirmed that general teaching, but also clarified various misconceptions. For example, in Islam, there is no concept of a “Fallen Angel,” for angels by their very nature cannot disobey God. And just as angels supported previous prophets, such as the angels that rescued the Prophet Lot (upon him peace) from Sodom and Gomorrah, so too did angels play an important role in the mission of Muhammad (blessings and peace be upon him and his family). For example, they fought with the Muslims at the Battle of Badr:

“God helped you at Badr when you were very weak. Be mindful of God, so that you may be grateful. Remember when you said to the believers, ‘Will you be satisfied if your Lord reinforces you by sending down three thousand angels? Well, if you are steadfast and mindful of God, your Lord will reinforce you with five thousand swooping angels if the enemy should suddenly attack you!’ and God arranged it so.” (3.123-5)

Importantly, there is no indication that angelic support has been removed from the Islamic community, so many centuries later. Our natural spiritual desire is to want knowledge about angelic support that we can rely upon. So when we look at the narrations from the Messenger of Allah (blessings and peace be upon him and his family), we see various situations when the angels come to help and pray for those who believe in them:

  1. Seeking beneficial knowledge
  2. Sitting and waiting for prayer while in a state of ritual purity
  3. Fasting while others are eating nearby
  4. Visiting those who are sick
  5. Making du’a for someone who is absent
  6. Gathering to remember Allah

The reality is that the angels are there to support and comfort us on the path towards the Truth. Struggling for the sake of what is right can often feel like a lonely road, but if one remembers that the angels surround the person struggling for good, then one finds a sense of tranquility. The following verses reminds us of the angels’ concern for us:

“Those [angels] who carry the Throne and those around it exalt [Allah] with praise of their Lord and believe in Him and ask forgiveness for those who have believed: ‘Our Lord, You have encompassed all things in mercy and knowledge, so forgive those who have repented and followed Your way and protect them from the punishment of Hellfire. Our Lord, admit them to gardens of perpetual residence which You have promised them and whoever was righteous among their fathers, their spouses and their offspring. Indeed, it is You Who is the Exalted in Might, the Wise. And protect them from the evil consequences [of their deeds]. And he whom You protect from evil consequences that Day – You will have given him mercy. And that is the great attainment.'” (40.7-9)

Angels are Allah’s creation, and they obey the command of their Lord. And yet, the angels would seem like “demigods” to the masses of humanity. Their power and influence in the world, the reported nature of their size and appearance – all of these, if truly grasped, strike awe in the heart of the human being. People worship, serve and sacrifice to imaginary beings that are far less majestic than angels, and yet it is a remarkable testimony to the Muslim understanding of monotheism (tawḥīd) that we never consider angels as anything other than God’s loyal servants. There are some in human history who have worshipped the angels, believing that their immense power means that they have the inherent power to benefit or harm us. But the reality is that they do only what they are commanded. They have no inherent power, but rather all power and might and glory belongs to Allah alone, Who is the Creator of the angels. When we remember that, we feel the brotherhood of creation with the angels. They are different from us, and yet we serve the same Master.

The recitation of the Qur’ān reminds us of the centrality of the angels, for it is Gabriel “who by God’s leave brought down the Quran to [Muhammad’s] heart confirming previous scriptures as a guide and good news for the faithful.” We believe that the Angel Gabriel came in Ramadan to review the Qur’an with the Messenger of Allah (blessings and peace be upon him and his family), acting not simply as medium of revelation, but also a teacher.

“The Prophet was the most generous of all the people, and he used to become more generous in Ramadan when Gabriel met him. Gabriel used to meet him every night during Ramadan to revise the Qur’an with him. Allah’s Messenger then used to be more generous than a free flowing wind.”

When the Messenger of Allah (blessings and peace be upon him and his family) was absorbed in the Qur’ān, the delights of this world were nothing and could be easily given away as an additional act of worship. This is profound, especially when we remember that another fundamental act of worship tied to the prophetic reality, the salawat, also leads us to the same realization. As the Qur’ān states:

“Allah and His angels send blessings on the Prophet: O you that believe! Send blessings on him, and salute him with all respect.” (33.56)

After that, we send blessings upon the Prophet, and in turn the angels ask for blessings on us, as the hadith states:

“There is no person who sends blessings on me, but the angels send blessings on him so long as he sends blessings on me. So let a person do a little of that or a lot.”

It is a cycle of blessing, and another manifestation of the mercy of Allah that is built into the world. The Messenger is mercy, and recitation of the Qur’ān and sending salawat increases us in that connection with mercy!

Even though we have not met the angels face to face in this world, we will meet them in the next life without a doubt. There are many different angels that Allah and His Messenger (blessings and peace be upon him and his family) have informed us about, but perhaps the most important to mention at the end of this writing are the two angels who will meet us at our end: Munkar and Nakīr. Both Sunnī and Shi‘ī theologians state that everyone who dies is questioned in their grave by these two angels. It is reported that they ask three questions:

Who is your Lord?

What is your religion?

What do you say about the messenger that was sent to you?

So in closing, I remind myself and anyone who reads this to should remember these three questions whenever we hear talk of angels, and think about how we will respond to these questions when Munkar and Nakīr come to meet us in our graves. If our lives are filled with faith and good deeds, we hope that Allah will give us to the strength to sincerely reply:

Allah is my Lord (Allāhu rabbī)

Islam is my religion (al-Islāmu dīnī)

Muhammad is my Prophet! (Muhammadun nabīyī)

اللهم صل على سيدنا محمد و آله و سلم

a9bc80b2e0ec993c278397da666fef1a

In Ramadan

In Ramadan

I feel it more

It burns me

I don’t want travel

nor adventures

nor books

nor experiences

– if I wanted the dunya, I would have taken it! –

I want You

I want the One for whom this whole thing matters

without You

this is nothing more than the play of history

“And We did not create the heaven and earth and that between them in play.”

Abbasids, Mu’tazilis, Khalidi Naqshbandis

Fez, Qum, Lucknow

Just words on a page

Empty words

But You

You who Exist

You who Are

You

There is no me without You

I did not create myself

“And he presents for Us an example and forgets his [own] creation. He says, ‘Who will give life to bones while they are disintegrated?’ Say, ‘He will give them life who produced them the first time; and He is, of all creation, Knowing.'”

So of what use to me is anything of this world

if it does not lead me back to You

just as the Beauty of the Worshippers said:

“let us taste the sweetness of Your affection and nearness

allow us to struggle in You

preoccupy us with obeying You

and purify our intentions in devoting works to You

for we exist through You and belong to You

and we have no one to mediate with You but You!”

الله الله الله

Bismillah al-Rahman al-Raheem

May Allah send blessings and peace upon the Messenger of Allah and his family

I have always been wary of eschatology. Even before I was a religious person, I used to talk to religious people regularly. People just say crazy stuff when they start talking about the “end of times.”

But I need to move beyond that, because Islam has a rather detailed eschatological tradition. So this Ramadan, I decided to use some of my limited free time to try to understand the current discourse about the Mahdi, who plays a central role in Muslim beliefs about the future of humanity. For those who don’t know who the Mahdi is, he is a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, may blessings and peace be upon him and his family, who will “fill the world with justice, just as it had once been filled with injustice.”

I did this “study” for two reasons. One, because there is a lot of talk about the Mahdi these days, as Muslims try to make sense out of the fighting in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, which often pits Sunnis against Shi’is . Two, because it is a belief that is shared by both Sunnis and Shi’is, even though they differ on its details. To be clear, only the beliefs of the “Twelver Shi’is” are discussed herein, due to their dominant role in contemporary Shi’i discourse globally. But in addition to these more exoteric reasons, I also want to know what the “right” belief is about the Mahdi. At the end of the day, a belief is either true or false, ontologically speaking. As a Muslim, for example, I affirm the existence of a place I have never seen called “al-Nar (the Fire),” which in English we usually call Hell. It is spoken about vividly in the Qur’an, as well as the Sunni and Shi’i hadith literature. Denying its existence takes one out of the fold of Islam, according to both Sunni and Shi’i theological traditions, and so I affirm its existence. It is, for all intents and purposes, part of the warp and woof of Islam. Growing up, I did not believe in Hell, and in fact it was a joke. But as I have grown spiritually, by Allah’s grace, I have understood the necessity of taking it very very seriously.

I now want to take beliefs about the Mahdi seriously too. When I was studying Sunni theology based on traditional texts explained by living scholars, I avoided asking questions about the Mahdi. To be honest, I didn’t want to ask because I knew that I would have taken their answers with a grain of salt, even though I had a great respect for them in general. Why? Because one cannot talk about the Mahdi properly without a comparative analysis of Sunni and Shi’i traditions, as well as an awareness of the role the Mahdi plays in contemporary socio-political realities. It is all highly politicized, and always has been. Discussions about the Mahdi are not about the next world, for they go straight to our current existential concerns. What is going to happen in the coming decades? What sort of world will my children live in? What is the deeper meaning behind all of this strife? The Muslims in the early generations asked these questions too, such as Muhktar al-Thaqafi, who launched a rebellion against the Umayyads in the name of the Mahdi.

Muslims talk about the Mahdi because he is the earthly fulfillment of our desire for a leader like the Prophet, may blessings and peace be upon him and his family. When the Prophet ruled in the 7th/1st century, the Muslims were united. When the Prophet ruled, he established justice that was beyond doubt. When the Prophet ruled, the enemies of Islam were in retreat. When the Prophet ruled, spirituality and politics – and thus the inner and outer life of human beings – were one holistic reality. The Ummah of Muhammad is united in affirming that the Beloved of God will never return to this earthly realm. Instead, one of the descendants of his daughter Fatima al-Zahra will unite this broken Ummah, bring justice back in a way that cannot be questioned, and fulfill the Muslims’ yearning for a true representative of God on Earth. The Ummah differs on the details of his rule, but this shared notion of the Mahdi is enough for us to realize that he will be a charismatic presence unlike anything any of us has ever witnessed.

I deliberately chose not to do a historical analysis of the Mahdi doctrines. People like myself, trained in Euro-American historiographical traditions, tend to think that we have properly understood an idea if we can describe its historical genesis. But I think that is a misguided approach when we come to the Mahdi. For the Mahdi is a doctrine that is vigorously upheld in both Sunni and Shi’i theology, even to the point where a well-known Salafi scholar like Yasir Qadhi and a well-known Shi’i scholar like Ja’far Subhani maintain that it is a belief that is established through tawatur (narrated by so many chains of transmission, such that it is impossible that it was forged). By making this claim, these scholars are saying that this is a belief that cannot be doubted in its essentials, although its details may be debateable.

The reason this is important to point out is because the Mahdi is not mentioned directly in the Qur’an, although there may be some verses that implicitly refer to the Mahdi, as argued by Shi’i scholar Sayyid Sulayman Hasan. It is only discussed in the hadith literature, and the Sunnis and Shi’is have different books of hadith to which they refer. But by having both Sunni and Shi’i scholars claim that belief in Mahdi is established by tawatur, it means that it is still a well-established belief in Islamic theology even though it is not mentioned in the Qur’an. As such, what concerns us is not a modernist attempt to engage in a source-critical study with the goal of removing the Mahdi from Islamic theology, but rather an attempt to make sense out of it given our current existential reality.

I cannot speak for the whole Ummah of Muhammad, may blessings and peace be upon him and his family. I am simply one human trying to make sense out of the past, present, and future. But the concept of the Mahdi effects all of us. Put simply, he is expected to be one of the greatest political and military leaders of all time. His rule will effect everyone on the planet, as dramatically demonstrated by traditionalist Sunni scholar Ibrahim Osi-Efa. Popular Shi’i lecturer Dr. Sayed Ammar Nakhshawani highlights that his implementation of justice will be so profound it will even attract Buddhists and atheists who are concerned about social justice. As he puts it, “they will be allowed to join the army of the Mahdi.”

Which leads me to my first observation about contemporary Mahdi discourse. Yasir Qadhi and Salafi scholar Salman al-Oadah, both of whom received their religious education in Saudi Arabia, downplay the miraculous nature of the Mahdi. They stress that he is simply a human like other humans, whom Allah has chosen to play a specific role in the unfolding of history. While this is technically true – no one claims that the Mahdi is not a human being – it is also obscures the world-changing personality of the Mahdi. Napoleon, Genghis Khan, and Alexander the Great will not compare to the Mahdi in terms of the political and military impact he has on human history. He will also unite the Muslims politically under one banner, something that hasn’t happened for over 1000 years. Given that, one cannot adequately imagine the charisma that he will possess, by Allah’s permission. Yes, he will be a human being like other human beings. But that is like saying that I am a basketball player, and LeBron James is a basketball player. On the one hand, it is a factual statement. But given the context, it is a complete obfuscation. Iranian Ayatollah Wahid Khorasani’s remarks (here and here) on the exalted spiritual nature of the Mahdi hint at our inability to comprehend the Mahdi, obviously speaking within a very distinctly Shi’i theological context.

Which leads to a second observation. The Mahdi in Shi’i discourse, as laid out by Jassim Hussain, not only leads the Muslims against their opponents, but also rights the wrongs internal to the Muslim community. In the supplications related from the Mahdi in Shi’i hadith literature, one finds numerous references to his role in re-establishing that which was lost over time in the early Islamic polity, as the political leadership of the Ummah failed to maintain spiritual legitimacy in the eyes of many Muslims. This makes sense when one remembers the enormous persecution of the descendants of Fatima under the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphs. In short, in order for the Ummah to apply justice without, it must have justice within. I found no mention of that in any Sunni source I consulted, despite one article by Turkish Sunni academic Zeki Saritoprak that focused on how the idea of the Mahdi brings hope to those suffering from injustice. If the Mahdi is supposed to establish justice, and if Sunnis believe that the Mahdi will begin his leadership from the Sacred Mosque in Makkah, does it not make sense that the first injustices he would redress are those committed by the monarchs who control Makkah? Perhaps the geo-political rivalry between Iran and the GCC means that Sunnis don’t want to connect the idea of the Mahdi to internal injustices of the Ummah, because it will give added political strength to oppressed Shi’i populations in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. In this regard, it is interesting to note that the one non-Sunni in the GCC, Sultan Qaboos of Oman (who is an Ibadi), receives high praise from Nakshawani for making a country where Shi’is can attend religious functions without fear. Due to his implementation of justice, Qaboos may be interested in being part of the army of the Mahdi, and one can only assume that Nakshawani is thereby implying that the other GCC monarchs would feel rather differently.

But perhaps wariness of talking about internal injustices in Muslim-majority countries also stems from bad memories of the false Mahdi who actually did take over the Sacred Mosque in Makkah in 1979, Juhayman’s brother-in-law. Yasir Qadhi opens his talk on the Mahdi with discussing the significance of this event. Both Sunni and Shi’i scholars affirm that there have been many other false Mahdis in recent times, such as the Mahdi of SudanIbn Khaldun’s discussion of the Mahdi affirms that this was an issue in the pre-modern past as well. But I found none that reached the point of denying the reality of the Mahdi simply because it has been misused many times. In Shi’i contexts, there is also a concern about abusing the idea of being the representative the Mahdi, given that it is believed that he is currently alive and exerting spiritual influence over his hundreds of millions of followers in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan, UK, USA, and elsewhere. Ayatollah Khomeini addresses this issue while commenting on a hadith about hypocrisy. There is also currently a man in Iraq who claims to be a messenger from the Mahdi and the eschatological figure known as “al-Yamani,” and has his own low-budget TV shows to spread his teachings. So the struggle to define the Mahdi is an ongoing phenomenon that has very real political ramifications. Yale historian Abbas Amanat shows how the conception of the Mahdi within today’s socio-political environment has a lot to do with changing natures of clerical authority in Shi’ism after the Iranian Revolution.

After reviewing everything I did, I cannot say with any clarity what I believe about the Mahdi, other than that I do not deny him. It is clear to me that the concept of the Mahdi is always, and always will be, tied to the politics of the time. I do not deny that current events seem poised for the emergence of the Mahdi, as Osi-Efa argues, and as many Shi’is believe very deeply. But I also understand how it made a lot of sense to think the Mahdi would emerge in political contexts such as the Abbasid caliphate, as is well documented in Jassim Hussain’s text. This is always the challenge of eschatology – when are the signs actually there, and when are people reading way too much into current events? Nakhshawani’s first lecture in his series on the Mahdi is the only source that I consulted which very forthrightly discussed the serious methodological challenges of interpreting current events in light of scripture.

And when we say “scripture,” we have to be clear that we are talking about the Sunni and Shi’i hadith literature. These texts form the basis for the theological discourse about the Mahdi in both Sunni and Shi’i theology. And I am not an expert in either set of texts, and so am unable to comment on the chains of narrators mentioned by Qadhi, or Osi-Efa, or the classical Shi’i scholar al-Mufid is his Kitab al-Irshad, or anywhere else. I have tried to understand the Mahdi as a living expression of the faith of Islam, and the hope of Muslims for justice to be manifest both between rival Muslim communities and between Muslims and the rest of humanity. This is a discussion that is real and vibrant in the minds of many Muslims today, and so a discussion of the chains of transmission only get us so far. I would urge those whose scholarly capabilities are far greater than my own to do a comparative analysis of the chains of transmission about the Mahdi. But such a study would require a person who had studied under both Sunni and Shi’i masters of ‘ilm al-rijal (the science of narrators), and unfortunately I am unaware of anyone in the world who has that qualification, although I may be mistaken.

What Muslims should be wary of are those who simply make up things, like Imran Hosein. He claims a special ability to read the signs, both in the scripture and in world events, but a lot of what he says makes very little sense and he changes his ideas when they turn out to be false, such as revising his view that Gog and Magog was the Soviet Union when that obviously turned out to be not true. There are religious leaders in Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Hinduism who essentially lose their minds focusing on eschatology, and I have been studying them since I was in high school. I find it totally fascinating, while also a bit sad. Not one of them turns out to be right, and they misled their small group of followers into wasting their lives worrying about nuclear war and other such things. Imran Hosein seems to me like a classical example of that. I have enormous respect for great scholars who are using their knowledge to face the intense political challenges of our time, such as Shaykh Muhammad al-Yaqoubi and Ayatollah Sistani. Imran Hosein is certainly not of their caliber, and I am sure there are others likes him out there who will waste your valuable time.

We should not treat the Mahdi like it is a fairy tale. Muslims need to be able to talk about the Mahdi with people of other worldviews. As Sayyid Sulayman Hasan states in his lecture, the verse of the Qur’an, “It is He who has sent His Messenger with guidance and the religion of truth to manifest it over all religion, although they who associate others with Allah dislike it” (9.33) can be interpreted as referring to the Mahdi. For the Prophet Muhammad, may blessings and peace be upon him and his family, only conquered a small portion of the world. In many respects, the Mahdi can be understood as the one who finishes the job and completes the prophecy. Right wing commentators have picked up on this, and this is also one of the reasons Israel and the United States are so wary of Iran, which is the nation state where belief in the Mahdi is the most widespread. The idea of the Mahdi is inherently politically threatening to those who do not hold Muslim beliefs. Nakshawani goes a long way in thinking along these lines, and whether one is Sunni or Shi’i, I suggest taking seriously what he has to say. Why? Because we cannot talk about justice and the Mahdi separately. As the hadith I quoted at the beginning affirms, the whole point of the Mahdi is justice (‘adl), and justice is a universal aspiration, not something that only Muslims care about.

Perhaps better than any source, the significance of the Mahdi in our world can be summed up in the fact that he was mentioned in the United Nations by former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And while a Muslim may not agree with his specific beliefs about the Mahdi (in particular, his use of the word “perfect”), what he says applies generally to the concept of the Mahdi in both Sunni and Shi’i theological traditions. What really made him unique was not so much the specific details of his beliefs, but that he had the audacity to state these beliefs publicly on the proverbial world stage. Of course, he was mocked for doing so, but at least he didn’t pretend that the Mahdi wasn’t a big deal when he said:

“The Almighty and Merciful God, who is the Creator of the universe, is also its Lord and Ruler. Justice is His command. He commands His creatures to support one another in good, virtue and piety, and not in decadence and corruption. He commands His creatures to enjoin one another to righteousness and virtue and not to sin and transgression. All Divine prophets from the Prophet Adam (peace be upon him) to the Prophet Moses (peace be upon him), to the Prophet Jesus Christ (peace be upon him), to the Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him), have all called humanity to monotheism, justice, brotherhood, love and compassion. Is it not possible to build a better world based on monotheism, justice, love and respect for the rights of human beings, and thereby transform animosities into friendship? I emphatically declare that today’s world, more than ever before, longs for just and righteous people with love for all humanity; and above all longs for the perfect righteous human being and the real savior who has been promised to all peoples and who will establish justice, peace and brotherhood on the planet. O, Almighty God, all men and women are Your creatures and You have ordained their guidance and salvation. Bestow upon humanity that thirsts for justice, the perfect human being promised to all by You, and make us among his followers and among those who strive for his return and his cause.”

I have no idea if the Mahdi will come in my lifetime or not, or in my son’s lifetime. But this intellectual and spiritual journey has made me more serious about looking at history as part of a process whose architect is the Divine. For many years, I have focused on the past (like any good Princeton graduate student in Islamic Studies is trained to do). Learning all of this has made me think about the future. As long as I live, I am sure I will continue to reflect on these questions, and I ask al-Haqq (the Truth) to “show me the true as true and bless me to follow it, and show me the false as false and bless me to avoid it.” I was willing to affirm the Prophethood of a man I have never met who lived in 7th century Arabia, may peace and blessings be upon him. So I hope I have no unwillingness to follow whoever may be his true representative, with Allah’s help. As such, may I be counted as a follower of the Mahdi, whoever he may be, whether I live to see him or die before he comes, because he represents the authority of my Prophet, his forefather, may blessings and peace be upon him and his family, ameen.

imam-mehdi

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