Whether We Look Inwards or Outwards, There Is Only Submission

يا أَيُّهَا الَّذينَ آمَنُوا اتَّقُوا اللَّهَ حَقَّ تُقاتِهِ وَلا تَموتُنَّ إِلّا وَأَنتُم مُسلِمونَ

“O’ you who have faith! Have piety of God, as is His right due to Him and do not die except as those who submit to God’s will (Muslims).” — Qur’an 3: 101

There persists great difficulty and controversy over the meaning of the Arabic word, “Islam”. Popular definitions often hover over “peace”, undoubtedly to dodge accusations of Muslims, the practitioners of the religion Islam, being inherently and exceptionally violent. Other dictionary definitions suggest “to abandon”, suggesting when one becomes a Muslim (yet another definition from the verbal root, aslama, which Islam is derived from) he or she “abandons the world and all its illusions” in favor of God. And while there may be others, I’ll highlight a third here: “submission”. Continue reading “Whether We Look Inwards or Outwards, There Is Only Submission”

A Man in the Clouds and Other Theological Misconceptions

Big Bang defies laws of physicsI remember one day, while sitting on my lunch break back when I worked in IT at UPenn, I happened to sit near a guy, non-Muslim, who oversaw me reading my Qur’an and we struck up a conversation. In summary, he stated he wasn’t religious because he didn’t, “believe in a man up there in the clouds”. I replied that while I did believe in God I also rejected the notion of the Creator being “a man in the clouds” or a man at all. we must never forget that some people are much closer to Islam than they even know. Their rejection of God being a man is in many ways a confirmation of half the shahadah (Testimony of Faith). They need only confirm illa’Allah (no deity except God!) and of course Muhammad is His messenger.

Dr. Shadee Elmasry posted something on his Twitter feed that reminded me not only of that conversation but also the important need for Muslims to precisely articulate what Islam professes, and simply because we believe in God or the Creator in no way implies we believe as others do. We must struggle to combat the straw-man argument that “all religions are the same”. Indeed they are not.

#MiddleGroundPodcast: Process vs. Results

Discussing an important difference in how we approach our worship, our life, and our Islam.

Process vs. Results

One of the most common and detrimental mistakes I see people make when it comes to religion is having a results-based versus process-based approach to worshiping and living as a believer.

The fallout of having a results-based religious practice and lifestyle, particularly when the expected results are a certain set of emotions (happy, elated, euphoric, etc.) is that (1) if we happen to be granted such a state then our tendency is to fetishize whatever we used to get to that “state”: dhikr beads, a particular wird or litany, a certain place of worship, or quite often a particular teacher, living or dead.

Of course the more obvious negative complications can result in a downturn in faith, being frustrated, and even the loss of faith when I particular fetish fails to deliver “its promise”.

As I mentioned, results based-practices inevitably will require some kind of fetish. By fetish I do not mean the popular notion of a curious or even deviant obsession (quite often sexual in the modern context) with a particular thing or object. Instead, I am referring to an older and more original notion of an item having magical or mysterious properties. In many cultures, especially shamanistic cultures, a priest might believe a particular object may even hold a deity. It was also understood in the Middle Ages to imply the use of sorcery (for instance, the Portuguese term, “feiticeria”, meaning “sorcery” or “witchcraft”).

In the end, results based-religious practices are always guaranteed to fail, letting us down because they are ill-suited to the needs of actual human beings who, throughout their lifetime, will experience a wide spectrum of emotions, all the way from joy to grieve and many others in between. Results-based practices often give off the glow of spirituality but lack the depth and substance to deliver on their promises.

Process based practices, however, require no fetishes and no artifacts. Then really require the heart, mind, and soul of a believer. Consider even the statement of the Prophet when he said, “the entirety of the Earth has been made a place of worship”.

أُعْطِيتُ خَمْسًا لَمْ يُعْطَهُنَّ أَحَدٌ قَبْلِي نُصِرْتُ بِالرُّعْبِ مَسِيرَةَ شَهْرٍ، وَجُعِلَتْ لِيَ الأَرْضُ مَسْجِدًا وَطَهُورًا، فَأَيُّمَا رَجُلٍ مِنْ أُمَّتِي أَدْرَكَتْهُ الصَّلاَةُ فَلْيُصَلِّ، وَأُحِلَّتْ لِيَ الْمَغَانِمُ وَلَمْ تَحِلَّ لأَحَدٍ قَبْلِي، وَأُعْطِيتُ الشَّفَاعَةَ، وَكَانَ النَّبِيُّ يُبْعَثُ إِلَى قَوْمِهِ خَاصَّةً، وَبُعِثْتُ إِلَى النَّاسِ عَامَّةً

“I have been given five things which were not given to any one else before me. (1) Allah made me victorious by awe, for a distance of one month’s journey. (2) The earth has been made for me a place for praying and a thing to perform dry ablution (wudu), therefore anyone of my followers can pray wherever the time of a prayer is due. (3) The booty has been made lawful for me yet it was not lawful for anyone else before me. (4) I have been given the right of intercession on the Day of Resurrection. (5) Every Prophet used to be sent to his nation only but I have been sent to all mankind.” al-Bukhari, #335

They also allow for the believer to worship and live — as a believer — regardless (or even in spite of one’s emotional state!). This process-based mode of living and worshipping is complete and holistic. We can see the way the Qur’an pushes man to this completed and sincere form of worship when we read passages such as,

وَأَقيموا وُجوهَكُم عِندَ كُلِّ مَسجِدٍ وَادعوهُ مُخلِصينَ لَهُ الدّينَ ۚ كَما بَدَأَكُم تَعودونَ

“Stand and face Him in every place of worship and call on Him, making your worship and religion sincerely for His sake alone.” Qur’an 7: 29

So what does this really mean? Are we to worship a live as believers even when “our hearts just aren’t in it?” Yes. Absolutely! In fact, living and worshipping as a believer when we’re sad and grief-stricken, and not just when we’re happy, is the beginning of wisdom and the first of many important steps towards being sincere and obedient with God. Wisdom is more than the application of knowledge; it is the ability to make correct judgments independent of emotional hegemony. It is likewise an important step toward taking full responsibility for ourselves; our Islam. In doing so we not only wind up praying and fasting and tithing when we’re tired, hungry, and broke, but we can finally reach a true state of belief, one where, as the Qur’an says,

قُل إِنَّ صَلاتي وَنُسُكي وَمَحيايَ وَمَماتي لِلَّهِ رَبِّ العالَمينَ

“Say: ‘My prayer, and my rites of worship, my living and my dying, are for God alone, the Lord of all the worlds’.” Qur’an 6: 162

#MiddleGroundPodcast: Sha’ban – The Month of Branching Out and Connecting

[Direct download]

One of the linguistic meanings of Sha’ban is “to branch out” and “connect” because it’s the month which literally connects with Ramadan.

عَنْ أَبِي هُرَيْرَةَ، عَنِ النَّبِيِّ صلى الله عليه وسلم قَالَ قَالَ اللَّهُ عَزَّ وَجَلَّ إِذَا تَقَرَّبَ عَبْدِي مِنِّي شِبْرًا تَقَرَّبْتُ مِنْهُ ذِرَاعًا وَإِذَا تَقَرَّبَ مِنِّي ذِرَاعًا تَقَرَّبْتُ مِنْهُ بَاعًا – أَوْ بُوعًا – وَإِذَا أَتَانِي يَمْشِي أَتَيْتُهُ هَرْوَلَةً

Abu Huraira reported Allah’s Messenger ﷺ as saying that Allah, the Exalted and Glorious, stated,

“When My servant draws close to Me by the span of a palm, I draw close to him by the cubit and when he draws close to Me by the cubit, I draw close to him by the space of two arm spans, and when he comes to Me walking, I go in a hurry towards him.”Sahih Muslim, #2675

Likewise, Allah has made us into shu’uban and qaba’il.

يا أَيُّهَا النّاسُ إِنّا خَلَقناكُم مِن ذَكَرٍ وَأُنثىٰ وَجَعَلناكُم شُعوبًا وَقَبائِلَ لِتَعارَفوا ۚ إِنَّ أَكرَمَكُم عِندَ اللَّهِ أَتقاكُم ۚ إِنَّ اللَّهَ عَليمٌ خَبيرٌ

“All you people! We created you from a single pair of a male and a female and made you into different races and tribes so you can come to know one another. The noblest among you in the sight of God is the one who is the most mindful of his duty to Him. Truly, God knows and is aware.”Qur’an, 49: 13

الشعوب: جمع شعب بفتح الشين، وهو أعظم من القبيلة، وتحته القبيلة ثم البطن ثم الفخذ ثم الفصيلة

Ibn Juzayy says,

Shu’ub is the plural of sha’b, which is greater than a qabilah, which is after the qabilah is a batan, then a fikhdh, then a fasilah. — al-Tas’hil l’Ulum al-Tanzil

What makes a shu’b is that the people are connected. Our connection is not simply to one another because we share the same ancestor but because we share the same core belief: Allah and His Messenger. This is why unity is so difficult in the Muslim community because we’re not connected or connecting on that thing which can truly branch across divides.

قالَتِ الأَعرابُ آمَنّا ۖ قُل لَم تُؤمِنوا وَلٰكِن قولوا أَسلَمنا وَلَمّا يَدخُلِ الإيمانُ في قُلوبِكُم ۖ وَإِن تُطيعُوا اللَّهَ وَرَسولَهُ لا يَلِتكُم مِن أَعمالِكُم شَيئًا ۚ إِنَّ اللَّهَ غَفورٌ رَحيمٌ

Joining Islam is not doing God a Favor

Background: During a year of famine, members of the bedouin tribe of Banu Asad arrived in Medina and professed to be Muslims in order to receive donations to help their tribe. They said they had never fought the Muslims and that they had always donated to the Muslims and helped them in the past, which was only partially true. Their behavior in the city was culturally reprehensible, and they also conducted themselves in obvious ignorance of Islamic manners and values. Finally, they made it seem as if they were doing the Muslims a favor by joining them. While their profession of faith may or may not have been real, they had not let the full effect of faith seep into their hearts in a genuine fashion. This passage was revealed in response. — Asbab al-Nuzul

“The bedouin Arabs are quick to say, “We believe!” Yet, say to them (Muhammad), “You have no faith, for you’re only saying, ‘We’re surrendered to God,’ but sincere faith hasn’t yet entered your hearts. If you obey God and His Messenger, He won’t decrease the value of any of your (good) deeds, for God is forgiving and merciful.”Qur’an, 49: 14

For other khutbahs and podcasts, see the Middle Ground Podcast.

Your Relationship with Allah Cannot Be Separated From Your Worship of Him – A Middle Ground Khutbah

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Your relationship with Allah cannot be separated from your worship of Him. For you have had a relationship with your Creator, your Lord, for a very, very long time.

Am I not your Lord?

وَإِذ أَخَذَ رَبُّكَ مِن بَني آدَمَ مِن ظُهورِهِم ذُرِّيَّتَهُم وَأَشهَدَهُم عَلىٰ أَنفُسِهِم أَلَستُ بِرَبِّكُم ۖ قالوا بَلىٰ ۛ شَهِدنا ۛ أَن تَقولوا يَومَ القِيامَةِ إِنّا كُنّا عَن هٰذا غافِلينَ

“When your Lord took out all their descendants from the loins of the children of Adam and made them testify against themselves ‘Am I not your Lord?’ they said, ‘We testify that indeed You are!’ Lest you say on the Day of Rising, ‘We knew nothing of this’.” Qur’an, 7: 172

This is the issue of putting too much stock in identity and not enough in substance. When your relationship with Allah is based solely on your experience as a physical body in the here-and-now (hayāt al-dunia) and not balanced with not just the concerns of the Life To Come, but its reality, then one will consistently be riddled with disappointments and doubts.

Islam, as a way of being and living, certainly includes using one’s mind, it should not be confused for being a religion of intellectualism. When one feels overwhelmed, go back to a point of simplicity and sincerity.

ذكر عبد الله بن بسر أن رجلا قال إن شرائع الإيمان قد كثرت علي فأخبرني بشيء أتشبث به قال لا يزال لسانك رطبا من ذكر الله تعالى

‘Abdullah bin Busr mentioned that a man said to the Prophet ﷺ ‘O Messenger of God, the rules and regulations regarding faith are too numerous for me so inform me of something I can hold on to’. The Prophet replied ﷺ ‘Never allow your tongue to cease being moist in the remembrance of God the Exalted’.” — Related by al-Tirmidhi in al-Targhib wa al-Tarhib

“In the original American populistic dream, the omnicompetence of the common man was fundamental and indispensable. It was believed that he could, without much special preparation, pursue the professions and run the government. Today he knows that he cannot even make his breakfast without using devices, more or less mysterious to him, which expertise has put at his disposal; and when he sits down to breakfast and looks at his morning newspaper, he reads about a whole range of vital and intricate issues and acknowledges, if he is candid with himself, that he has not acquired competence to judge most of them.”Tom Nichols, How America Lost Faith in Expertise.