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

Moving One’s Life Back Towards The Center – A Khutbah

The following khutbah was delivered at Middle Ground Muslim Center on January 1st, 2016.

“The ‘aqidah (theology) of modernity has changed to make the ‘abd (the slave/worshipper) the Rabb (Lord) and the Rabb the ‘abd.”

[Direct download]

Full notes here.

Qadr For Dummies

The following is an account from one of the many counseling sessions I do in my role as imam. In this session we discussed some questions regarding qadr (often translated/understood as “predestination” but whose root is much closer to “measuring”) and God’s omnipotence, particularly in the face of human tragedy. The results from the session were found to be useful for this particular person and per their suggestion and permission, I’m reposting here.

Omnipotence as we often imagine it, as fragile and limited beings, is akin to a driver who has a stifling set of hands on the wheel and as thus, doesn’t let anyone else drive or participate.

Let us imagine another type of omnipotence: your child (4-years old) invites friends over to your house to play. In the process of playing they make a mess, spill pop (soda for Midwesterners), drop food on the floor, maybe even break a plate. Oh, and they also get into a fight. But is any of this out of your jurisdiction or control as a parent? No. Why? Because you have the power to clean it up and resolve their disputes. Likewise, even in the face of terrible tragedy, God has the capacity to take account (qadr) and to set affairs straight: reward or punishment as well as mete out justice and give recompense.

It is strange sometimes that we are unwilling to apply the same findings about the natural laws of the universe to other problem sets. Perhaps this is the failed results of attempting to divide life into sacred and profane realms. For instance we find all objects have mass, density, and gravitational pull. The larger, more dense an object is, the greater its gravitational pull. Likewise, the gravity of a group of 4-year olds playing, making a mess, breaking a plate and bickering over toys is trivial. But in the minds of those children, it is grave indeed. Thus, a parent is the suitable judge to arbitrate and adjudicate this scenario. Scaled up, one may understand who God is, what life is all about, how to process and compartmentalize life’s joys and sorrows, and ultimately know that nothing is outside of God’s capacity to arbitrate and adjudicate. As God says in the Qur’an, chapter 57, verses 1-2:

سَبَّحَ لِلَّهِ ما فِي السَّماواتِ وَالأَرضِ ۖ وَهُوَ العَزيزُ الحَكيمُ

لَهُ مُلكُ السَّماواتِ وَالأَرضِ ۖ يُحيي وَيُميتُ ۖ وَهُوَ عَلىٰ كُلِّ شَيءٍ قَديرٌ

“Whatever is within the heavens and the earth reflects the glory of God, and He is the Powerful and the Wise. [1] To Him belongs the control of the heavens and the earth. He alone grants life, He alone grants death, for He has power [qadr/qadir] over all things. [2]