the spiritual response to privilege

The following was written for a Friday sermon at Duke University a few weeks ago:


In the name of God, the infinitely loving and compassionate. May the peace and blessings of God be upon His noble messenger, our beloved master Muhammad.
Indeed all praise is God’s alone, whom we praise and thank endlessly, in whom we put our reliance and trust, and whom we ask for forgiveness. And we seek refuge and protection in Allah from the evils within our souls, and the evils of our actions. Indeed whomsoever God guides, then they have true guidance, and whomsoever God leads astray, then they have nothing to turn to for guidance. And I bear witness and testify that there is nothing in existence worthy of devotion other than Allah alone, the Ultimate and Transcendent; and I bear witness and testify that Muhammad is the beloved servant and messenger of God.

In today’s khutbah, I will be sharing some reflections on a single verse in the Qur’an that has been a beautiful yet challenging companion of mine for many years. At the conclusion of Surat al-An`am, Chapter 6 of the Qur’an, after a series of verses discussing the believers’ pure devotion to God alone, the final verse of the Surah proclaims:

“It is He, God, who has made you inheritors of the earth, and has raised some of you above others in degree, to test you through what He gives you. Your Lord is swift in punishment, yet He is indeed most forgiving and merciful.”

This verse, in conjunction with other passages of the Qur’an, provides us with a spiritual orientation towards the uneven distribution of blessings or privileges in the world that we see around us.

Let’s go bit by bit. The verse begins by recalling the concept of khilafah. The divine voice states that God has established human beings as “khalifah”s on earth. More literally, this term means to be a successor or inheritor. Thus for instance we know that the leader of the Muslims was called the khalifah of the Prophet, the Caliph, the successor to the Prophet’s leadership and authority. And of course, to have inherited this position entailed responsibility to manage and take care of the affairs of the ummah. Thus when the Qur’an refers to humanity as the “khalifah” of the earth, it is saying that we have inherited the earth, and the moral implication of this is that we are responsible for managing the affairs of the earth with justice and excellence, according to God’s will. We can translate “khalifah of the earth” then perhaps as caretaker or steward of the earth. God has made human beings caretakers or stewards of the world, we are responsible for its functioning, for the wellbeing of the creation. It is in this light that the prophet said “the creation is the family of God, and the most beloved to God are those that are most beneficial to God’s family”.

Thus the verse begins by reminding us of this responsibility, of our role as caretakers and stewards of the world. It is pointing our attention to this role, to keep it in mind as it moves on to the main message of the verse. The verse continues: “and has raised some of you above others in degree, to test you through what He gives you.” Before reflecting on this message, a brief note about translation. When we translate, we have to be aware to not just literally convey the words of the Qur’an as they appear in the original Arabic, but try to understand what is being conveyed in that language in that context, and how to express that in our own cultural linguistic habits, and not just try to be faithful to the literal meaning. So before, the best translation that I could think of for the word used here, “darajah”, was “degree” or “rank.” Literally darajah means a step, or a degree, and thus socially implies “rank”. But more recently, upon reflecting on the message here, and thinking about how we talk about this idea in our society today, I’ve realized that what is being referred to in this verse with the word darajah is what we today call “privilege”. And this is the central message of the verse, and thus the central message of my khutbah today will be thinking about privilege in light of this verse.

So what is privilege? It’s a commonly used word today but what is meant? The basic idea as we all know is a special advantage in life and in society that some people have and others do not.

What is important to note is that the wording is not specific, it just says “degree”, and this ambiguity allows the verse to be understood by each of us in a way that relates to us individually. Because Allah has given each of us privileges in very different things: in wealth, in intelligence, social status, some specific talent or skill, in emotional well being, in family background, even in things such as character, etc. These are not things that we have acquired by some merit of our own, something we deserve; rather our conditions in life, where we come from, almost completely determines who we are and what kind of person we are and what we have in life. Thus the verse says that God has “raised some of us above others in degree,” that some of has been given privileges that others have not — why? To try you, to test you through what He has given you. The unequal distribution of privileges in this world, of wealth, health, social status and respect, comfort, power, authority, enjoyments of life, etc, all of this is a trial. What we generally see as “blessings” and “privileges” in life, therefore, are not necessarily good or positive in an ultimate sense. The Qur’an says elsewhere, “We will test you with both evil and good fortunes, as a fitnah, as a temptation and trial.” Everything in life has the potential to be a fitnah, everything is both a trial and an opportunity, either to grow in God-consciousness, mindfulness of the Divine, to grow in Other-centeredness, or to become more absorbed in the nafs, in one’s own self and its egoistic desires and whims.

Now I should note that I’m going to be speaking about this from the perspective of a position of privilege, as someone who has experienced an immense amount of privilege in life. My position and experience in life leads me to reflect on this verse and think about what it means to respond to having privileges in a spiritually upright way. I believe this should inshallah be helpful and not just relevant to myself personally, since we are all a privileged bunch in some way or another. Definitely, in many ways many of us may do suffer from various struggles, pains, scars, in life, etc that are very serious. But the fact that we are here in this audience, means that the vast majority of us at least enjoy certain important privileges, of class and educational access and opportunities, as well as natural capacities and talents (book smarts, work ethic etc), able-bodiedness and general health, etc… Every blessing we enjoy that gives us an advantage in life are privileges that this verse is pointing to, so think to yourself, reflect on the various ways you are privileged…To be sure, this verse also can encourage us to think about what is expected of us with regards to our lack of privilege in various realms and dimensions of life, because that too is a trial. The Quran calls on us when we are underprivileged to still strive to live up to certain moral ideals and standards of decency and dignity, to grow spiritually through one’s struggles in life, to be God-conscious. But my focus in the rest of the khutbah will be on the other side of things, how to respond to the privileges we enjoy in life in a spiritually upright manner that brings us closer to God.

So? How do we respond to privilege? This verse is telling us that we have been given uneven privileges in life as a trial – well what is this trial, what is expected of me in this trial? In religious contexts, we usually talk about recognizing the blessings and privileges in your life, and being grateful to God for them. Be grateful that you have been given these things in life. That is a given right? But what is gratitude in the first place? We usually think about it as a feeling and thought, as an emotional or cognitive thing. I see the blessings in my life, and I think “thank you Allah,” alhamdulilah. And there. If I’m sincere in this expression, then I’ve done my gratitude. In my understanding of the Qur’an, however, this is not actually gratitude. That is more about feeling good. For instance, in describing the immense blessings and privileges and power granted to the Prophets David and Solomon, at the end of this long list of blessings they were given, the Qur’an says: “Oh family of David – enact gratitude! Work in thankfulness and gratitude! And indeed few of my servants are truly thankful.” It is making it clear to us that gratitude is not a state of mind or an emotion – it is a way of life, it is an embodied, active response, it is good work. Similarly, in describing the immense riches and privilege of Qarun, the companion of Musa, Qarun is told: “Do good to others just as God has been good to you.” Respond to privileges through righteous action in serving the creation. Similarly, and perhaps most powerfully, in surat al-Fajr, it is said: “And as for the human, whenever her Lord tests her by His generosity and by letting her enjoy a life of ease, she says, ‘My Lord has been generous towards me.’ Whereas, whenever He tries her by limiting her sustenance and livelihood, she says, ‘My Lord has disgraced me!’” Immediately following this description of the common human response to blessing and hardship in life, privilege and lack of privilege, the divine voice powerfully proclaims: “But nay, nay! You are not generous towards the orphan, and you do not urge one another to feed the needy, and you devour the inheritance with devouring greed, and you love wealth with boundless love!” This is one of those beautiful moments in the Qur’an that calls on us ever so powerfully to transcend ourselves and the traps of the ego. It jolts us out of our common human responses to the ups and downs of life – how has this affected me? ME ME ME!! – calling on us to move beyond our constant preoccupations with ourselves, our own pleasures and desires, and instead to concern ourself with the other. To move from ego-centeredness to Other-centeredness. Thus we see that gratitude is not to say “thank you Allah!” but it is to act, to respond to God with God-conscious action, in service of others, and in transcendence of one’s ego.

So the first lesson we’ve found in the Qur’an in responding to our various privileges in life is to recognize the moral imperative of action, of doing good. And we’ve begun to see in this last example that this is tied to serving the creation, moving beyond our preoccupation with our privileges and the desire to indulge them, and instead concerning ourselves with others. This is why the verse we are discussing today begins with a reminder that we are khalifahs on the earth, as I mentioned before, we are caretakers and stewards of the earth, we are responsible for the wellbeing of the world around us and its creatures. Thus the obligation in response to the trial of privilege is to seek out the disadvantaged, the underprivileged and to serve, to support, to empower. The Qur’an speaks endlessly of the yatim, the orphan, like the in the verses I just mentioned – you do not care for the yatim! The ultimate accusation. Why? What does the yatim represent? The yatim symbolizes the most vulnerable in society, the most disadvantaged, one who has the least options. The Quran exhorts us endlessly in this regard – to give to those who have less, to empower the weak. To give up the advantages we have been given in what capacity one can, in order to even the playing field, to mitigate the unfairness and suffering of inequality, to use one’s privilege to make things better for others, to empower others.

This of course brings with it a danger — When we use our privileged position to seemingly help others, we can easily re-create certain kinds of power dynamics and hierarchies that simply re-inscribe various privileges and bring hurt and humiliation to others. This is something to be deeply aware of. In surat Baqara, eg, we find a powerful set of verses that warn very strongly against giving sadaqah and helping others in a patronizing or condescending way, in a way that emphasizes your goodness or your “favor” to them – as the verse says, “following your generous giving with reminders of your benevolence or hurtful words”. These verses tell us that such charity is not charity at all, and is negated, empty, and fruitless, like rain falling on a barren rock, or like a garden burned down in a fire. It yields no fruit. Giving from a position of superiority and entitlement, making others feel indebted and inferior, all of this is the antithesis of the true spirit of giving. We have to be deeply aware of our privilege, and how it can seep into everything one does. Even when we think we are doing something good, it can often become a way of subconsciously asserting our superiority, our power, our privileges over others. It is in light of this that we have to be ever vigilant of our nafs, our ego and its sense of entitlement, and how it can take any opportunity at all times to assert itself, to try and be on top.

This manifests itself in innumerable ways that we must be constantly vigilant about. We must learn to read the movements of our heart and soul, to be aware and question what is motivating particular behaviors, why am I feeling a particular way in this or that situation, what is bothering me? Is it some principled issue that I am concerned with, or is my ego feeling threatened that some of its privileges are being challenged or taken away? This manifests itself very often in issues of gender eg, where all sorts of arguments are constantly being thrown around in support of some inequality or another between men and women. My point here is not about any particular issue itself, but the ability to ask oneself what is motivating my concern, am I seeking the pleasure of God, or is it entitlement and privilege? This is particularly of concern in religious contexts. Eg why do we as an American Muslim community at large feel religiously outraged when changes and adaptations to certain rules in the religion are proposed that would be inclusive of women, but we don’t have the same reaction to changing other things. For instance, there has been consensus for many centuries that the khutbah is part of the act of ritual worship, and thus must be delivered according to the Sunnah of the Prophet, in the Arabic language. Thus a khutbah in English as I’m doing now would not be valid. Yet as American Muslims, you’d be hard-pressed to find masajid that insist on the khutbah being in Arabic. That is considered an acceptable and reasonable change to religious rulings. Women giving a khutbah on the other hand, that is an outrage and an affront to our religion and an imposition of the West. Why the inconsistency? What is motivating this reaction? My point here is not actually about the validity or invalidity of this issue, what the right position is on such issues. Rather I am concerned now with the movements and stirrings of our hearts, for each of us (particularly the men) to ask inside ourselves: is it truly religious devotion to the sunnah that is motivating this or that position I have on an issue, or is it perhaps a sense of collective privilege and specialness that we feel entitled to

Or for instance, we often hear a slew of critiques of giving charity to the homeless and the poor – “these handouts just make them lazy, make them depend on our charity! They are abusing the system, taking advantage of our generosity! They are going to use the money we give them for drugs!” yada yada. These may well be valid concerns sometimes, the point here again is not to make policy arguments about best-practices. The point is that the Qur’an frequently calls us out on this tendency to make various intellectual objections to things, but in fact what is motivating us in our hearts is the ego. Is our sense of entitlement to our privilege. I should ask myself: Why does it matter to me if the homeless man is deceiving me? What exactly is bothering me? That this exchange is not entirely on my terms? That I’m not one to be fooled by that kind of person? These are questions we must become comfortable asking ourselves, interrogating ourselves; as Umar (r) said, we must hold ourselves accountable, before God holds us accountable. Let us ask God for forgiveness for our actions and our shortcomings. Aqul qawli…

* * *

To recap, I have been reflecting in this khutbah on a single verse, at the end of surat an`am, that reads: “It is He, God, who has made you inheritors of the earth, and has given some of you privileges over others, to test you through what He gives you. Indeed your Lord is swift in punishment, yet He is most forgiving and merciful.” This verse then is just one manifestation and reminder of the ultimate spiritual and moral message of the Qur’an and the Sunnah: to push us to move from ego-centeredness to Other-centeredness. Because, to indulge in one’s privileges, to uncritically and heedlessly enjoy what one has been given without mindfulness of God and God’s family, is to be caught in self-centeredness, the prison of the nafs, the ego and its desire for gratification. The message of our spiritual tradition, our calling in this worldly life, is to transcend that ego-centeredness, to struggle day in and day out to overcome that attachment to the privileges we enjoy, to give them up when possible, to use them for the benefit of others and serve the creation, rather than indulging in them to satisfy one’s own desire. That is to become Other-centered, to transcend one’s own self to become centered on God and the family of God. This is the journey that all of of us are on each and every day, a struggle, an upward climb as the Qur’an describes it, that is a heavy moral burden indeed. The verse ends sharply, in a way that both makes us feel the immense heaviness of this moral burden while also giving us deep hope in the grace, mercy, and love of God. The verse concludes: “Indeed your Lord is swift in punishment, yet He is most forgiving and merciful.” The verse employs a very common technique in the Qur’an, to evoke both fear and trembling in front of God, as well as love and hope. The divine voice warns us severely in the first part of the sentence, reminding us that the fate of those who take the pleasures and privileges of this world as the only reality and are heedless and careless of their moral responsibility to give back, and are lost in the pleasures and desires of the ego, their fate is a frightening one. And yet, the divine voice also recognizes our inherent weakness and imperfection and shortcomings as humans, and that we cannot entirely live up to this ideal of perfection, all we can do is strive and struggle, and we are comforted by the fact that God is forgiving, God is loving, God is merciful, and with God’s grace we can be embraced in love by Allah swt.

Ya Allah, guide us to that which you love, guide us to moral excellence, and purify our hearts. Grant us your love and proximity and closeness to you, and make your love the most beloved of things to our hearts.
Ya Allah, give us the excellence of this life and the next and save us from the torment of the fire.


Gender and spiritual wholeness: a response

In response to the previous blog post on the concept of spiritual equality in light of Ramadan parenting discussions, we received a thoughtful and intelligent comment on the piece by a very sharp and insightful sister, challenging the assumption that women’s spirituality and spiritual needs/experiences should be evaluated and judged on the basis of a male-centered standard and perspective that prioritizes ritual worship over child-rearing. Women’s spirituality, she argued, is unique and particular to their experiences and roles and should be respected and appreciated as such. While I very much value and appreciate her contribution to the discussion, the following is a clarification and further elaboration of my perspective on the matter:

To begin, I did not in any way intend to suggest that ritual worship is more important than taking care of children. Rather, I said that it has a unique function and role, i.e., that it provides different fruits than other forms of spiritual life and worship, but not that it is better or more beneficial than those. Indeed, I would be the last person to promote ritualism as the ideal of the spiritual path. I firmly believe that spirituality is about holistic living. And a life of ritualistic devotion without engaging in the world and without attention to one’s various social and moral obligations and responsibilities is a shallow and superficial spirituality that means very little. But that doesn’t mean that ritual devotion doesn’t play an important role in that journey, as a connection to the Divine through ritual brings the sacred dimension into the rest of our experiences and engagements in life so that those things can be experienced fully and contribute to our spiritual growth. So I am in no way trying to diminish the importance of child-rearing (and other forms of social/familial responsibilities) in one’s spiritual growth.

As for the very crucial point regarding the need to acknowledge the particular experiences of women and not evaluating them on the basis of a male normative standard, I agree that this is quite important, and in fact my partner-in-crime Saadia is currently in the midst of writing a blog post on that precise topic, on the need to develop a communal discourse that positively recognizes and validates women’s unique and particular experiences in a life of faith and spirituality rather than simply treating them as an exception and afterthought.

That being said, I also do not see such a rigid bifurcation between male and female experience and spirituality that should not at some level be bridged. In fact a good portion of my motivation in taking the positions I do on gender stems from a desire to see more “femininity” inculcated in men. A number of years ago, I began to realize that my own moral and spiritual growth was being hindered and held back precisely because I was lacking in qualities, traits, and values that we normally associate with “femininity”, and I have since very self-consciously tried to inculcate those in myself.

We can I think understand this matter through the prism of the concept of “acquiring/embodying the traits and attributes of Allah” (al-takhalluq bi khuluq/asma’ Allah) that has been so famously and beautifully discussed by such towering figures as Imam al-Ghazali and Muhyi al-Din Ibn Arabi, among many others. In order to become more whole and perfect human beings and radiate the Divine light within us, we must inculcate and manifest in ourselves the various “beautiful names of Allah” (as appropriate to our servanthood of course). And in order to reach towards perfection, we must manifest those names and attributes in the most balanced and holistic way possible, giving each attribute its due and appropriate share (e.g. “mercy precedes wrath” as a principle). We also know that among these names and attributes of Allah, there are the “jamālī” and the “jalālī” names, that is, those having to do with beauty and those having to do with power/majesty. These have also often been associated with femininity and masculinity, respectively. God, of course, encompasses the entire spectrum of attributes, both the beautiful/feminine as well as majestic/masculine. And in light of that, the most perfect and whole human being will also manifest a balance of the various attributes, both “feminine” and “masculine”. We see this most beautifully illustrated in the example of our beloved, the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him), who clearly embodied many beautiful qualities and traits that would normally be deemed feminine, to the extent that it was said that he was “as shy/modest (haya’) as a virgin girl”. (The prophet’s femininity in the context of a machismo culture of masculinity is the topic for a future blog post as well, inshallah.)

The point I am making is that the spiritual well-being and wholesomeness of men is also hindered by being restricted to “male” roles and modes of existing in the world. That is a severe limitation on one’s experience of being human. We should not box ourselves into these idealized categories of femininity and masculinity, they are not rigid empirical categories that map directly onto being women and men in real life. So we men should also be trying to cultivate in ourselves the beautiful feminine qualities of nurturance and self-sacrifice that are so crucial to child-rearing, as a crucial part of our spiritual development.

Ramadan, parenting, and “spiritual equality”

Since Ramadan began, my wife and I have seen quite a few posts and reflections regarding the inability of mothers to spend their time and energy in ritual devotion and spiritual development because of the demands of parenting (erm, I mean, mothering). Can’t make tarawih prayers at the mosque, someone has to stay home with the kids. Can’t read much Qur’an, the kids require too much attention. Can’t devote time to any worship beyond the bare requirements, too many responsibilities in the home.

With this come of course the reassuring statements by religious authorities that their energy and time spent in fulfilling their familial responsibilities as mothers and wives is itself a form of worship and obedience to God, and will be rewarded equal to the ritual devotion that they are missing out on.

Of course, there is no doubt that fulfilling one’s obligations and duties in life is part of our worship of and relationship with God, and is morally and spiritually meaningful. That is an important reminder and message of balance and reassurance. But, at the same time, there is something woefully lacking in such discourse. We have to have more to offer than mere comforting words about the reward of such obedience, some constructive and practical discussion of how to create opportunity for women to also participate in the abundant ritual blessings of Ramadan. So I have a few points in response to such communal rhetoric and discourse.

1) Firstly, just because those social and familial responsibilities are also a form of worship and obedience to God, it doesn’t take away from the unique role of ritual devotion specifically in our spiritual development and relationship with God. The spiritual fruits that we harvest through ritual practices (prayer, dhikr, reading Qur’an, meditation, etc.) are not the same as those that come from other forms of obedience and worship, and should not just be lightly cast aside.

2) Secondly, if it is true that serving your family and fulfilling your responsibilities to them is a form of worship, and we are serious about this, then this message needs to be directed not just towards women but men as well. After all, parenting is a joint endeavor and is the responsibility of both parents (in those families with a two-parent household). So yes, men too will get rewarded for taking care of their families and fulfilling their responsibilities to their children and wives. It is a form of worship and obedience to God for them as well. Otherwise, if we are not willing to emphasize this mutual responsibility, then it is clear that such rhetoric is nothing but an apologetic justification for women not having the opportunity to seek spiritual edification.

3) Thirdly, again, let’s focus on men for a bit, shall we? In all this rhetoric, women are as always valorized for their sacrifice for their families. In this case, even sacrificing their spiritual life. What we fail to recognize is that the flipside of such sacrifice is the spiritual greed of the men in our communities. Is the message we’re sending that it’s okay for men to be spiritually greedy, taking advantage of the ritual blessings of Ramadan without a care to the fact that the women in their lives are yearning for such spiritual opportunities but cannot have them? Is it not part of spiritual excellence and maturity to seek the betterment of others as well and promote a fair and balanced spiritual life for the whole?

4) That brings me to the practical considerations of what I’m talking about. In most situations, there is really no reason why one partner should take all the hits spiritually. So if you are privileged enough to be able to perform tarawih prayers together as a couple at home, do that instead of going to the mosque. If you prefer praying at the mosque or are not able to adequately perform tarawih yourselves, then alternate who goes and who stays with the kids, or figure out babysitting, etc. In general, alternate who gets to spend some extra time alone praying, reading Qur’an, meditating, reading dhikrs, etc., and who takes care of the kids. Share responsibilities and tasks so that both partners have a bit more time to concentrate on their spirituality. Each situation and each couple’s dynamics are unique and particular to them, but the bottom line is: negotiate, compromise, and figure something out that works for both people.

We hear endless apologetics from religious authorities about how in Islam the social roles of men and women may not be the same, but they are nonetheless “spiritually equal”. As a community, however, we need to think long and hard on how to make the concept of “spiritual equality” more than just superficial rhetoric that essentially means “you will not be punished in the afterlife for being a woman”. That is not spiritual equality, that is simply a notion of God that is not terribly unjust and arbitrary in His omnipotence. Let’s stop kidding ourselves. If it is to be a meaningful concept at all, spiritual equality can’t just be about the next life, it has to be about this life too, about the experience of religious and spiritual life. Otherwise our women are privileged to enjoy the same “spiritual equality” as African-American slaves, who were promised that fulfilling their social role and obeying their slave-masters would land them in heaven in the next life. I, for one, don’t think that is a standard of spiritual equality that we should settle for.


Spiritual Crisis and the Breaking of Dawn

We are told that, in the period before receiving revelation, when he would spend extended periods of time in spiritual seclusion in the famous cave of hira’ on the Mountain of Light, the Prophet (may the salutations of the One be upon him) was overtaken by powerful experiences of spiritual illumination, which he likened to the breaking of light at dawn. We can only imagine what these experiences were and what they were like, but the description is powerful: suddenly and intensely, the sun rises and God’s light shines forth, illuminating and eliminating all the darkness, meaninglessness, and confusion that surrounds and suffocates the soul.

Soon thereafter, as is well known, the Prophet received the first Qur’anic revelation from the angel Jibreel and was thus initiated in his role as the Prophet and Messenger of God, the blessed recipient of Divine guidance to humanity.

After first receiving revelation, in the earliest phase of his prophetic mission, we know that there was an extended period of Divine silence, in which the Prophet did not receive any revelation. It is said that during this time, the habib (our beloved) became extremely grieved, distressed, and anxious. Perhaps he had incurred Divine displeasure and been abandoned by God? Or had he been mistaken, perhaps possessed by some spirit all along? What had happened, why had Divine communication ended? One can only imagine the pain, doubt, confusion, and distress that he experienced at this time, but some reports do give us an indication of just how intensely this experience affected our beloved Prophet: one hadith, for instance, relates that he intended to throw himself off the mountain multiple times, but was intercepted by Jibreel who reassured him. (Keep in mind that there is no consensus or certainty about the details of any of these matters, as there are always multiple conflicting reports about them – even the famous story of the cave of hira’ is not the only report we have on the first Qur’anic revelation.)

It was at the end of this period of silence, we are told, that surat al-Duha was revealed to the Prophet, recalling the earlier description of his spiritual illuminations, contrasting them to the darkness he now felt himself to be in:

“By the breaking light of dawn! And by the night when it is darkest and most still! Your rabb (Nurturer and Lord) has not forsaken you, nor is He displeased.” {93:1-3}

These verses not only comforted and reassured the Prophet in his lowest moment (the darkest hours of the night), but they set forth a most beautiful and inspiring description of the spiritual state of humanity. Juxtaposing the suffocating darkness of the night with the sudden and magnificent break of dawn, these verses highlight for us the cycle inherent in our spiritual lives. For we all experience our own spiritual nights and days, the darkness and light of the soul. We have all been through moments and periods of guidance and misguidance; being lost and finding our way, only to lose it again; having clarity and then confusion, doubt and then certainty again.

These verses remind us of the natural cycle of the day, in which the darkest moment of the day comes right before the light of dawn. They seem to be speaking directly to me: In those moments, when the darkness enshrouds you and envelops you like a cloak, covering you, suffocating you, blinding your vision, making every step more and more difficult, as you walk in confusion, anxiety, and fear; in those moments, remember that darkness is nothing but the absence of Light, remember that the sun rises after the darkest hour of the night. Remember that, and do not despair, do not lose focus or perspective. Even the Prophet of God, I am reminded, found himself in a low-point, a moment of darkness, a period of confusion and doubt.

Such is the cycle of the day. But it seems I must also accept that the day too passes and the night arrives. The cycle repeats itself of course, and darkness too inevitably comes after the light. I cannot become proud, self-assured, or complacent in times of spiritual clarity and solidity, for I am not guaranteed to remain in the light without the cycle repeating itself again.

These verses and the example of the habib comfort and reassure me that my struggles with faith, my confusions and doubts, my unanswered questions and discomforts, they are all a part of the journey of faith. Faith, it seems, is not a stable constant, not something you have, but rather a lifelong journey that you traverse. The cognitive certainty and experiential connection to the Divine go and come, ebb and flow, like the cycle of night and day. Faithfulness, however, is to keep on seeking the Truth that is God (al-Haqq) with sincerity, honesty, commitment, and struggle.

The Prophet’s example is instructive here: in this lowest of moments, his doubts and confusions centered on his own self – have I done something? was I mistaken or misguided? was I wrong in my understanding or belief? It was never his faith in and commitment to God that wavered. This teaches and reminds me: I may be confused or in doubt about particular beliefs, I may struggle to understand how to make sense of certain things. But this will make me question myself, what people have told me, what tradition has determined, what inherited understandings and doctrine have been passed on to me; it cannot, however, make me lose sight of the only Reality in existence, the only Truth worth striving and living for, the only existence more Real than all the world around me and the thoughts in my feeble mind.

Finally, after having reminded us of the cycles and struggles in our journey of faith, the surah ends with a powerful call for spiritual humility and ethical responsibility:

“Did He not find you an orphan and then give you shelter? And did He not find you misguided and then guide you? And did He not find you in need, and then enrich you? Therefore, be not harsh with the orphan. Nor repel the one who asks of you. And as for the blessings of your Lord, proclaim and announce.”{93:6-11}

This reminds us that, no matter the inner turmoil and confusion that we may be facing, this cannot make us forget the moral imperative upon us in living a life of faith. We may doubt, we may not understand, but we must not allow that to become an excuse to mindlessly give in to self-deification and hedonism. For the fact that there is something that transcends us and the empirical reality around us, and the fact of our moral responsibility and accountability as human beings, are truths so deeply engrained in our God-given nature (fitra) that – even though we can of course rationally doubt and deconstruct them – we can never in reality escape their hold on us.


De-Centering the ego (nafs): Responding to the trials of life

It is well known – indeed common sense – that in the Qur’anic paradigm, all things are from God. All good and bad, calamities and blessings, all come from God alone. The message is of course implicit throughout the Qur’an in the fundamental principle of God’s omnipotence and power over all things. It is also made explicit in many different passages, such as {2:155}, {10:107}, {57:22} and {64:11}, among many others.

Yet the Qur’an also says in many verses throughout its sacred pages (see {3:165}, {4:62}, {30:36}, {42:30}, and {42:48} for examples) that whatever befalls you of good is from God, and whatever befalls you of evil is from yourself and your own actions. That seems a bit contradictory.

In fact, in one passage, this tension is made all too apparent. In speaking of the weak of faith, it is said: “And when a good thing happens to them, some say, ‘This is from God,’ whereas when evil befalls them, they say, ‘This is from you [O fellow­man]!’ Say: ‘All is from God’” {4:78}. Then immediately in the following verse, the divine voice proclaims, “Whatever good happens to you is from God; and whatever evil befalls you is from yourself” {4:79}.

This juxtaposition of seemingly contradictory messages strikes one as not the most philosophically cogent and coherent message that can be offered. Are calamities that befall us because of something that we did, or because God has willed this for whatever reason? It can of course be philosophically explained and made sense of, but the fact remains that as presented in the Qur’an, it is simply two straightforward statements in tension with one another yet placed side by side.

I would suggest that this is precisely because the Qur’an is not interested in providing us with philosophically cogent, abstract metaphysical truths about the nature of Reality, just for philosophy’s sake. For one, the Qur’an’s consistent use of such paradoxes is a reminder that our finite intellect and the limitations of language cannot capture the true nature of Reality, which is far beyond our frail human capacities. Thus what we have are glimpses, approximations. Truth enshrouded in veils.

More importantly, however, the message of the Qur’an is interested above all in our moral formation and development, not in having us accept and understand abstract propositions about the nature of reality. The goal of the Qur’an is our own tarbiyya, fashioning and molding our spiritual dispositions, our character, and our ethical outlook on life. To train us in how to live with ourselves, with others, and with God. To push us forward in our journey from ego-centeredness to Other-centeredness (and by this I mean the Divine Other as well the rest of creation). The Qur’an is thus a pedagogical process and training, rather than a book of information. It achieves this goal by providing glimpses and windows into Reality and using rhetoric, thus stirring our hearts and souls and moving us to action, introspection, and thus the path of self-purification (tazkiyya). This is what my father has called “maqasid al-`aqa’id” (the objectives of creedal beliefs) in an article he wrote long ago, in which he insightfully reflects that the Qur’an says “And if all the trees on earth were pens, and the sea ink, with seven more seas added to it, the words of God would not be exhausted: for, verily, God is almighty, wise” {31:27}. If with God’s absolute infinity of knowledge and wisdom, and with the virtual infinitude of all that exists, only these limited bits and pieces were offered to us, then surely that is for a reason, surely they are meant to point us toward something. It is up to us therefore to search for those meanings and struggle to make our hearts pliable and amenable so as to be molded by those meanings.

That brings me back to the verses we began with, the topic of trials (both “blessings” and “calamities”) we face in life. Each of the verses in the Qur’an that touch on this issue pushes us to inculcate in ourselves a particular spiritual disposition. Among the abundant spiritual fruits of such verses are a humble recognition of one’s utter fragility and dependence on God, contentment in the face of life’s ups and downs, and self-introspection and repentance for one’s shortcomings and moral failings. I think it is worth mentioning that all of these verses in the Qur’an leave out one possibility: that what good befalls you is from yourself. Clearly the self-importance and self-satisfaction sown by such an idea is not meant to be a part of our inner dispositions.

In particular, though, I wanted to point to one passage in particular that seems to provide a slightly different message than all of those mentioned above, one that I have rarely heard touched upon.

In surat al-Fajr, it is said: “And as for the human, whenever her Lord tests her by His generosity and by letting her enjoy a life of ease, she says, ‘My Lord has been generous towards me.’ Whereas, whenever He tries her by limiting her sustenance and livelihood, she says, ‘My Lord has disgraced me!’” {89:15-16). Immediately following this description of the common human response to blessings and calamities in life, the divine voice powerfully proclaims: “But nay, nay! You are not generous towards the orphan, and you do not urge one another to feed the needy, and you devour the inheritance with devouring greed, and you love wealth with boundless love!” {89:17-20}. It then goes on to speak of the next life, the torment of divine punishment, and the utter tranquility, peace, and love of reunion with the Divine.

This is one of those beautiful and priceless moments in the Qur’an that calls on us ever so powerfully to transcend ourselves and the ensnarements of the ego. It jolts us out of our common human responses to the ups and downs of life – how has this affected me? ME ME ME!! – calling on us to move beyond our constant preoccupations with ourselves, our own pleasures and desires, and instead to concern ourself with the other. To move from ego-centeredness to Other-centeredness, the core of all true spiritual teaching.

Meditations on Khushu’

Praying with focused attention and concentration has always been a persistent and demoralizing struggle.  We all understand the importance of concentration in prayer.  To pray with a focused consciousness on what we recite and the awesomeness of standing before Allah is the ultimate goal.  How to achieve that state, however, has always eluded me.  The many khutbahs that counsel us to pray with khushu‘ and not a single one talks about how to get there!  You start prayer and think, “I need to pray with khushu‘.”  Then “but how do I get there…get there? How would I even know that I’m there?!”  “Oh yeah, khushu‘…ok, again, concentrate!”  The more I tried, the more it escaped my grasp.  Eventually, I find myself “thinking” a lot about khushu‘ but never quite feeling/experiencing it.  Then, a couple of years ago, I attended a Buddhist meditation circle and it all started making a lot more sense.  Not quite what I expected attending that circle, but Allah has a beautiful way of leading us down unexpected paths.

Our first session, my (not-then) husband and I walked into a small room.  We pulled some floor cushions and joined others in the circle.  Before we began the light was dimmed and I immediately noticed the silence and calm descend in the room.  Our lives are so inundated with bright lights and constant noise that we do not notice the light – and sound – pollution that crowds our minds.  It is not until we are ready to sleep that we switch everything off; a slowing down of the mind and body that is associated with sleep.  It had never quite struck me before that slowing down the processes of the brain is greatly facilitated by silence and dimmed lights; such a small measure and such calming effects.

Before we began, the meditation leader gave brief instructions for those of us attending for the first time: “find a spot on your body, the tip of your fingers or the tip of your nose and focus on it…if you find your mind wandering, return to this spot to focus yourself.”  That’s helpful…but what to do with the thoughts??  “Just notice them, observe them and let them pass…don’t focus on them, don’t get engrossed in them.”  Perfect!  Now to begin meditation…find the spot, tip of my nose seems good enough…focus!  The next fifteen minutes were spent in an agonizing effort to focus and re-focus. I would get lost in my thoughts without even realizing it and only catch myself after the stress induced by my thoughts would kick in: “oh my God, so much work to do…I need to go to the library right after this…no food in the house…final papers due in 2 months!!!”  I finally heard the dong and the meditation session ended.  Phew! This meditation business is hard.  Why is everything that is good for you so hard??

I left frustrated that first week.  Damned brain! There’s no end to the thoughts!  Over the course of the week I contemplated often on my “meditation.”  I felt less defeated knowing that there was a method to controlling my thoughts and all I had to do was practice.  We started by sitting in meditations for brief moments and I practiced holding my concentration for a minute at a time.  Pretty quickly I was able to focus for a minute or two at a time; now I just had to increase my stamina!

Returning to meditation the next week, the circle leader repeated the same instructions.  This time I found myself able to focus longer.  I felt myself, for brief moments, sinking into a deeper state.  In and out of focus…watch the thoughts, let them pass, like a powerpoint slide of the thoughts in my head!  As I sat in meditation, having lost focus, consumed by my thoughts, it struck me suddenly: this is how to achieve khushu‘!  I need to practice focusing and train myself to disengage from my thoughts.  We are so in the habit of always listening to the chirpings of our minds that we don’t know how to switch it off.  I also learnt that my years of obsessively focusing on focusing was a distraction of its own!

And so, that day, I decided to try my newly acquired Buddhist meditation skills in prayer.  I realized that that my stamina had not yet reached the stage where I could concentrate for a 5-10minute period, so I decided to set a small, achievable goal: one rakat.  As I stood on the jai namaz (prayer mat) I decided on the spot to which I could return to re-focus and reminded myself to let the thoughts roll.  Allahu Akbar.  I took a brief moment to empty my mind and focus before beginning.  I felt my body calm down as the name of Allah came upon my tongue.  As I came up from sajda I was overwhelmed by the intensity of a prayer that was not plagued by the thoughts in my mind.  For a short period of time I felt like my prayer had taken me away from this world.  Losing focus felt more like a “return” than a “loss.”

Khushu‘ in prayer, I learnt, is not about some miraculous “getting there.”  The meditation skills taught me what no khutbah or book was ever able to convey before: focusing in prayer is about habit-formation.  It’s about our minds learning a new skill of being able stop, being able to leave behind the preoccupations of this world (our never-ending thoughts).  If we can learn this skill, then for brief moments the life of this world ceases to consume us and we are able to let go of our thoughts.  Zoning out in this way allows us to enter into another state of connection and intimacy with Allah…a state in which you pray as though you are in Allah’s presence.  It all begins, however, with mundane and basic skill formation: focus on the spot…let your thoughts pass you by, notice them, acknowledge them, but don’t engage them.

Most importantly focusing in prayer is a process.  Once I had learnt how to focus, I needed time to build my stamina to be able to concentrate for sustained periods.  My brain was learning a new skill and it needed time to get a hang of it.  Initially I only attempted focusing a rakat at a time, however, as I continued practicing the skills of focusing and zoning out, I found myself being able to do so for the entire prayer.

Of course, I still struggle to pray with focus and concentration.  Falling into a state of meditation is not easy.  It still requires effort on my part, mostly because I do not practice the skills as often as I should.  But it has made a big difference.  I no longer feel defeated by my thoughts and sometimes I find myself able to get into that state, though it doesn’t last too long.  Those few moments, however, are pure ecstasy.  Prayer becomes not just worship or obligation but intimate conversation.  I feel lifted from the mundaneness of existence, embraced in Divine presence.  They are fleeting moments, blessings from Allah.  But, like all things of this world, they are ephemeral, and go as quickly as they come.