Life’s Illusions

Shaytan is constantly feeding our delusions about the nature of life and indeed, death. I found Terence McKenna’s reflection on his immanent death to be profound:

I always thought death would come on the freeway in a few horrifying moments, so you’d have no time to sort it out. Having months and months to look at it and think about it and talk to people and hear what they have to say, it’s a kind of blessing. It’s certainly an opportunity to grow up and get a grip and sort it all out. Just being told by an unsmiling guy in a white coat that you’re going to be dead in four months definitely turns on the lights. … It makes life rich and poignant. When it first happened, and I got these diagnoses, I could see the light of eternity, a la William Blake, shining through every leaf. I mean, a bug walking across the ground moved me to tears.

Many of us do imagine that death will come upon us at a sudden moment: a car crash, as McKenna states, a robbery, a stroke. And indeed death does visit us in this fashion but the real illusion that McKenna reveals is we can have such reflections anytime we chose while we’re still living. As a Muslim, I should always be engaged in a process of “getting a grip” or “sorting it all out”. That we cannot have such vivid or lucid reflections while living is deception from Shaytan and from ourselves. Viewed from this perspective, reality moves from being a cold, dark and purposeless void to one given warmth, illumination and dignity by the Light of God. So yes, even a bug walking across the ground should move us to tears for a cadre of reasons: the Garden, the Fire, and simply put, the majesty and over-awing reality of la ilaha ill’Allah.

إِنَّ فِي خَلْقِ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ وَاخْتِلَافِ اللَّيْلِ وَالنَّهَارِ وَالْفُلْكِ الَّتِي تَجْرِي فِي الْبَحْرِ بِمَا يَنْفَعُ النَّاسَ وَمَا أَنْزَلَ اللَّهُ مِنَ السَّمَاءِ مِنْ مَاءٍ فَأَحْيَا بِهِ الْأَرْضَ بَعْدَ مَوْتِهَا وَبَثَّ فِيهَا مِنْ كُلِّ دَابَّةٍ وَتَصْرِيفِ الرِّيَاحِ وَالسَّحَابِ الْمُسَخَّرِ بَيْنَ السَّمَاءِ وَالْأَرْضِ لَآيَاتٍ لِقَوْمٍ يَعْقِلُونَ

“In the creation of the heavens and earth, and the alternation of the night and day, and the ships which sail the seas to people’s benefit, and the water which Allah sends down from the sky – by which He brings the earth to life when it was dead and scatters about in it creatures of every kind – and the varying direction of the winds, and the clouds subservient between heaven and earth, there are Signs for people who use their intellect.” Qur’an, 2: 164.

Khatm Reflections #2: Juz’ 24

The following are reflections from my Qur’an reading circle, a khatm, where each of us reads a juz’/30th of the Qur’an every month. These reflections, I hope, are intended to be somewhere between anecdotal and aphoristic. They are not intended to be scholarly. I hope you will enjoy reading them as much as I (will) enjoy writing them, God willing.

بِسْمِ الله الرَّحْمَٰنِ الرَّحِيمِ

“When harm touches man he calls on Us. Then when We grant him a blessing from Us he says, ‘I have only been given this because of my knowledge.’ In fact it is a trial but most of them do not know it.” Qur’an 39: 49.

فَإِذَا مَسَّ ٱلْإِنسَٰنَ ضُرٌّۭ دَعَانَا ثُمَّ إِذَا خَوَّلْنَٰهُ نِعْمَةًۭ مِّنَّا قَالَ إِنَّمَآ أُوتِيتُهُۥ عَلَىٰ عِلْمٍۭ ۚ بَلْ هِىَ فِتْنَةٌۭ وَلَٰكِنَّ أَكْثَرَهُمْ لَا يَعْلَمُونَ

Technology. It’s supposed to save us; make our lives better. And while I do not deny that technology aids us, it also creates a number of problems, many of which we never saw coming. Sometimes when I read the above verse I am led to think of the environmental crisis we’re facing. A number of experts point to human-related uses that created this crisis. No doubt that we have played a major part but when we face disasters how often do we attribute our safe passage through it to this or that thing? How often to we give direct thanks to God for bringing us through. And in those instances where we are subject to devastation, we seldom see it through the lens of fitnah, or being “tried” by God. These passage, and others like it in the Qur’an, point to an inclination of man’s to be ungrateful after great hardships have been inflicted.

“Say: ‘My slaves, you who have transgressed against yourselves, do not despair of the mercy of God. Truly God forgives all wrong actions. He is the Ever-Forgiving, the Most Merciful.’” Qur’an 39: 53.

قُلْ يَٰعِبَادِىَ ٱلَّذِينَ أَسْرَفُوا۟ عَلَىٰٓ أَنفُسِهِمْ لَا تَقْنَطُوا۟ مِن رَّحْمَةِ ٱللَّهِ ۚ إِنَّ ٱللَّهَ يَغْفِرُ ٱلذُّنُوبَ جَمِيعًا ۚ إِنَّهُۥ هُوَ ٱلْغَفُورُ ٱلرَّحِيمُ

Despair. It is amongst the most powerful human emotions. It can compel us to give up entirely on ourselves, our loved ones and our lives. I see not only anger and depression when I look at the world (Muslims included), I see it in myself. Shaytan goads us into giving up on God’s clemency as this is a sure path to the Hell-fire. This is why God describes Shaytan as a clear enemy/عدو مبين. I struggle with wanting to see the results of my own desires and my own hands and when those do not materialize in ways that I can validate (or validate myself), I become susceptible to despair. The most obvious consequence of despair is rejecting God’s message (i.e., becoming kafir) or tumbling down a long hole of sin and transgression. This is why optimism is so important as a believer, not as a slogan, but as a mode of operation. For anyone’s Islam to be successful they must operationalize what God said in a hadith narrated by Abu Hurayrah:

“When God made creation, while established on The Throne, decreed: ‘My mercy proceeds My wrath’.”

إن الله لما قضى الخلق ، كتب عنده فوق عرشه : إن رحمتي سبقت غضبي

It takes courage to tackle one’s inner demons, so to speak. Often that courage comes in the form of choosing to obey God versus acquiescing to what popular opinion may think of us. As Jamaal Diwan put it in a recent tweet:

“If you do something good or right even when your faith is low it is NOT hypocrisy, it’s actually a sign of piety.”

So as advice to myself and to whomever may read this: do for self. Believe, for your own sake. Do good, for your own sake. Turn your back on the despair that Shaytan wants you to wallow in. And know that your Lord forgives all sins:

“Say: ‘My slaves, you who have transgressed against yourselves, do not despair of the mercy of God. Truly God forgives all wrong actions. He is the Ever-Forgiving, the Most Merciful.’” Qur’an 39: 53.

قُلْ يَٰعِبَادِىَ ٱلَّذِينَ أَسْرَفُوا۟ عَلَىٰٓ أَنفُسِهِمْ لَا تَقْنَطُوا۟ مِن رَّحْمَةِ ٱللَّهِ ۚ إِنَّ ٱللَّهَ يَغْفِرُ ٱلذُّنُوبَ جَمِيعًا ۚ إِنَّهُۥ هُوَ ٱلْغَفُورُ ٱلرَّحِيمُ

And God knows best.

Disciplining the Soul to "Return Pleased and Well Pleasing"

First Khutbah – Main Points

كل نفس ذائقة الموت ونبلوكم بالشر والخير فتنة

“Every soul shall taste death. And We shall test you by evil and good means as a trial.” [al-Anbiya’ 21: 35]

On the grand scale of things, Islam is about the worship of God. But when we look at Allah’s Book, the Holy Qur’an, Allah presents an over-awing framework by which through our brains and our hearts, we might come to know Him and submit willingly [أسلم]. We only need listen to His Call:

والله يدعوا إلى دار السلام ويهدى من يشاء إلى صراط مستقيم

“And it is God that calls to the Abode of Peace, guiding as God wills, to a straight path.” [Yunis 10: 25]

Whether we attempt to thwart God’s proclivity [الشريعة] in This Life, we shall be held accountable for what we have said and done and ultimately, even if only by our very createdness, we shall submit.

يسبح لله ما في السموت وما في الأرض له الملك وله الحمد وهو على كل شيء قدير

“Everything in the heavens and the earth negates the possibility of any god other than Allah. The dominion belongs to Him as well as all praise. And He has power over all things.” [al-Tagabun 64: 1]

Submission is an ongoing process. In order to facilitate this, God has provided for us His Signs, which unfurl like a ship’s sail before a steady wind:

خلق الإنسان من عجل سأوريكم ءايتي فلا تستعجلون

“Mankind was created hasty. I shall show you My Signs so do hasten.” [al-Anbiya’ 21: 37]

So when Bani adam steps back to look at the Big Picture, ease [سعادة] and certainty [يقين] can enter into the heart and life’s apparent randomness takes on a shape and form of meaning and purpose:

ونبلوكم بالشر والخير فتنة

“And We shall test you by evil and good means as a trial.” [al-Anbiya’ 21: 35]

Second Khutbah – Main Points

So how do we attain this happiness, this certainty, this insight?

It involves struggling against one’s own soul. Ibn ‘Abbas [rah] reports, that the Prophet [s] said:

أعدى عدوك نفسك التي جنبينك

“The most ardent enemy is your own soul [nafs], which is between your two sides.” [al-Bayhaqi]

This is similar to what Allah tells us in the chapter Yusuf, when Prophet Yusuf/Joseph [عليه السلام] said concerning the governor’s wife when she tried to seduce him:

وما أبرئ نفسى إن النفس لأمارة بالسوء إلا ما رحم ربي إن ربي غفور رحيم

“I do not say my soul [nafs] was free from blame. The self indeed commands to evil acts – except for those my Lord has mercy on. My Lord, He is Forgiving, Merciful.” [Yusuf 12: 53]

To be sure, it is exceedingly difficult to achieve this state of tranquility, happiness, and certainty. The modern cultures are hostile to the development of these qualities, as This Life constantly seeks to distract us. For this reason, we must strive to devote ourselves to God, remembering Him always:

يأيها الذين ءامنوا ادخلوا في السلم كافة ولا تتبعوا في خطوت الشيطان إنه لكم عدو مبين

“O’ you of faith!, enter into Islam completely and do not follow in the footsteps of Shaytan. He is an open enemy to you.” [al-Baqarah 2: 208]

In this way, Allah further reveals our own devious nature in that we often attempt to evade our responsibilities towards Allah, such as showing gratitude, etc.

Islam reconciles the seemingly opposed aspects of the wayward self:

ألنفس الأمارة بالسوء

And the soul at rest:

يأيتها النفس المطمئنة ارجعى إلى ربك راضية مرضية

By coming to see this aspect of our relationship with Allah—The Big Picture—we foster a greater sense of realization [يقين-معرفة] of our purpose in life:

ما خلقت الجن والإنس إلا ليعبدون

“I did not create the Jinn or mankind except that they are to worship Me.” [al-Baqarah 2: 208]

and …

الذين يذكرون الله قياما وقعودا وعلى جنوبهم ويتفكرون في خلق السموت والأرض ربنا ما خلقت هذا باطلا سبحانك فقنا عذاب النار

“Those who remember God standing, sitting and laying on their sides, and reflect on the creation of the heavens and the earth [utter], ‘O our Lord, You have not created all this in jest, how perfect You are, so protect us from the torment of the Fire.” [al-‘Imran 3: 191]

Endeavor to restrain your souls, and the Ultimate reward will be yours:

وأما من خاف مقام ربه ونهى النفس عن الهوى فإن الجنة هى المأوى

“For the one who fears the Station of his Lord and denies the appetites of the lower self, the Garden will be his refuge.” [al-Nazi’at 79: 40-1]

Finally, in the advice of our Beloved Prophet [s]:

حاسبوا أنفسكم قبل أن تحاسبوا ووزنوا أعمالكم قبل أن توزن عليكم

“Take account of yourselves before you are held to account and weigh your deeds before they are weighed for you.” [al-Tirmidhi’s al-Qiyamah]

Download the khutbah, Discipline the Soul to “Return Pleased and Well Pleasing” here.

Listen online now

[audio:http://www.marcmanley.com/media/mp3s/khutbah_upenn-7-16-2010.mp3|titles=Disciplining the Soul to “Return Pleased and Well Pleasing” by Marc Manley]