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Theological Chauvinism and Divine Bounty

February 17, 2019

 

Assalamu Alaykum Dear Students,

 

I hope you receive this letter with the best of health, Iman, and integrity.

 

For the last few letters, I have been addressing matters related to bigotry, as well as our responses to real and perceived prejudice. All of that exploration of racial, ethnic, political chauvinism was intended to set a foundation for a core issue: theological chauvinism. It is in theological chauvinism that we find one of the roots for other societal problems. In the past, I have drawn attention to the love of the world as another root. Of course, narcissism is the root of both of these.

 

You may be familiar with the passages in the Qur’an that critique those people who believe they are guaranteed paradise to the exclusion of all others. The logical conclusion should be that such people would be praying for death. Meaning, if I believe that paradise is greater than anything anyone can imagine and lacks any of the disliked elements and limits of this worldly life, then why would I stay here if I am guaranteed a free pass there? The Qur’an proceeds to inform us that such people will not pray for death. Rather, they have neither any certainty of that “doctrine” nor are they able to break from this world.

 

A first lesson to take is that in our paradigm, we should have a true sense of urgency regarding our afterlife. My actions -- more than my thoughts -- reveal what I believe. If my actions indicate a lack of urgency about salvation, then my attempts to convince myself that I am serious about my beliefs are mere wishful thinking. The same applies to personal transformation in matters of this worldly life: I can claim to care about my health, but my diet and activity reveal how much I do or do not care about my health.

 

If I have a sense of urgency regarding my afterlife, then I have a sense of urgency regarding my actions and personal development in this worldly life. It is a running joke that in every Friday sermon, I am asking you what is changing in your life; if I have an urgency about this life, then I would have an urgency about changing myself (for the better). It follows that one type of person given special praise in the afterlife is the person who in youth did good. When we are young, our actions reveal that we feel we will live for eternity.

 

Now, consider the concern for the salvation of others. Do you believe that your non-Muslim acquaintance, neighbor, colleague, friend, or family member is -- because they are not Muslim -- Hellbound? If yes, then what are you doing about it?

 

There is a common belief in our community that a Muslim may or may not go straight to paradise, but will eventually go to paradise. In contrast, a non-Muslim will *not* go to paradise. We find this belief reflected by many across traditions regarding their own. For example, it is a common belief across Christianity that if a non-Christian rejects taking Jesus as their Lord and Savior, that they will not be granted eternal life.

 

Theology has material consequences. I should take a moment to comment that in this letter, I am not analyzing the doctrine of salvation or the integrity of the interpretation of texts. To satisfy your curiosity, however, I will emphasize the one point where all Muslim theologians in history seem to agree: everyone will be treated fairly on the Day of Judgment. Another conversation would require that we explore the mixture of the textual sources and our whims, whether we *want* our belief system to be exclusive or inclusive.



Rather, I am addressing the material consequence of doctrine. When you hold to a set of beliefs, they will have inevitable consequences in how you conduct your life. The easiest to detect is that you would distinguish between those who share your beliefs and those who do not.

 

The belief in the exclusivity of salvation sounds like arrogance, but it is not. It becomes arrogance when the believer does not care about the salvation of their non-believing acquaintances. Many of you have heard my recollection of the first time I slept over our next-door neighbor, part of a devout Lutheran family. He asked me if I believed in Jesus, may peace be upon him. I was in first grade and didn’t know any better, so I said, “No.” He cried himself to sleep. That is compassion; though he was seven years old, he was taught to be concerned for my salvation.

 

The belief in the exclusivity of salvation becomes chauvinist when you want to *exclude* others from salvation. This is something common in today’s rage-infested world: when someone’s politics offend us, too many of us ostracise (read “excommunicate”) them as though their political dissent is worse heresy than anything in theology. The way we speak about people whose politics differ from ours is -- at the very least -- disturbing; more than that, however, it is destructive. Such people, because they are distancing themselves from the realities of true reality, are living in a world of symbols: you will find them sifting people out of their lives because of symbolic problems rather than substantive problems, as they slide further down this slippery slope.

 

Test yourself. Consider whatever demographic you regard as the most privileged in society or the world. Now, consider the possibility that someone from that demographic -- whose politics you may regard as vile -- would not only receive salvation but may receive a higher level and in paradise than you. Or, what if someone who oppressed you or your loved one has a chance at a higher level of paradise than you or your loved one. That suggestion alone is enough to break the “faith” of some of us.

 

This resistance to this idea reveals a problem in one of the most basic of all concepts of theology: Allah is free to do whatever He wills, that He is free to give of His bounty to whomever He wills, *and* that if He gives something to someone, it does not reduce what He can or would give you. Taken further, we are taught that the Divine will not give us less than what we earn on the Day of Judgment. We are also taught, however, that He may give us more than what we earn. Knowing that nothing you would be given is diminished, can you accept that the Divine has full authority and freedom to give more to someone else?

 

I should comment that the wrong way to embrace this theology is to become apathetic about life, not caring for anything. Rather, we are prescribed to partake of the joys of life. The Prophet, may peace be upon him, had favorites, had loves, had preferences.

 

Another wrong would be to assume that if God is free to give of His bounty, that He would give you nothing. If you are reading this letter, you are of a demographic that has received many of the Divine’s bounties, whether or not you choose to acknowledge it.

 

The more difficult it is for me to accept that the Divine has the freedom to give of His bounty to whomever He wills, the more likely I will fall into jealousy. Jealousy is a consequence of ingratitude. Meaning, the more difficulty I have in accepting God’s freedom and authority, the more it will challenge my own ability to be grateful to Him.

 

Ingratitude -- the belief that you are not receiving what you should receive -- is a manifestation of narcissism or vanity. Thus, the more ingratitude you have in your disposition and worldview, the less you will care about the salvation of others.

 

Consider how simple and subtle that “switch” is. If we turn it one way, we have success. If we turn it the other way, we have failure. Meaning, if I can appreciate that simple reality -- that the Divine has full freedom to do as He wills, to give bounty to whomever He wills, that in giving to others, it does not deplete anything from what He has given me or would give me -- then I would be able to develop gratitude in multiple dimensions, including what I have received and what others have received. If I cannot appreciate that simple reality, then I will fall into jealousy, because of ingratitude, because of narcissism.

 

The consequence of this behavior on my own belief and practice is that I will be of weakening faith, thus: weakening practice. That will correspond with or be balanced by increasing narcissism. Meaning, narcissism, chauvinism, or arrogance, are marks not just of weak faith, but of weak esteem. Narcissism is an inferiority complex manifesting as a superiority complex.

 

Supremacist groups are shared collections of people with inferiority complexes. When a pious person becomes chauvinist, it is the same thing: they should have developed comfort in their relationship with the Divine, but instead they unleash a wave of internal problems. When a collection of such people are together, you *will* find them insulting those outside their denomination or outside their religion. When a Sunni or Shia is insulting the other, it is a sign of weak faith. If someone Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, is insulting the other, it is a sign of weak faith. If someone insults the Prophet, may peace be upon him, and we resort to hate, it is not a sign of love of the Prophet -p- for no hate can appreciate him, but it is a sign of weak faith.

 

Bring this back to the question of salvation. If I am certain I am guaranteed salvation, I should be seeking death. If I am certain that there is a Day of Judgment in which I will be held to account for my choices, I should conduct myself with urgency about the time I have left. If I believe someone I know is hellbound, then I should be trying to get them to choose to be heaven bound. If, however, I am instead weak in faith, I will not give much attention to any of these matters as much as something else in my worldly life. The dark conclusion of that might be that I resort to jealousy and insults.

 

Sometimes the insults convert to hate, which converts to violence while everyone forgets about the salvation of the other or themselves. All because of the resistance to a simple theological point.

 

And Allah knows best.

 

Omer M

The seeds of tunnel vision

February 10, 2019

 

Assalamu Alaykum Dear Students,

 

I hope you receive this letter with the best of health, Iman, and integrity.

 

How does it happen? How do we fall down the rabbit hole of tunnel vision in evaluating everything as hostility against us? In the previous letter, I mentioned that a major source is tribalism, that gets fueled by narcissism, that get inflamed by anger. Meaning, if you believe in conspiracy theories like the usual Wahhabi, Jewish, Reptilian conspiracy theories, you are engaging in narcissism.

 

Let us go deeper. The following may look like armchair therapy. Rather, I am laying out some of the roots that guide your spiritual formation: your parenting, your friends, your life experiences, trauma, and how you respond to them. Therapy and spiritual formation overlap though they rely on different models with the common goal being health; I have directed many of you to the Wellness Center. The Wellness Center has directed many of you to me.

 

In other words, I am listing some of the biggest obstacles to your spiritual development. In the context of this discussion, we are speaking of the consciousness of supremacy or the consciousness of being the victim of supremacy. So long as we lock ourselves in this type of tunnel vision, growth is impossible; regression is inevitable. In the language of the Qur’an, this is the archetype of the Devil as well as the Pharaoh: both had delusions of superiority *and* victimhood, then tried to sustain that disposition, no matter the cost on themselves or others.

 

Further, when we look at the various nations in the Qur’an that get condemned, we see that this behavior becomes contagious like a plague. In the same way that a virus or bacteria travels from person to person seizing their system into sickness, rage is a disease that spreads from face to face, from eye to eye, from tongue to ear to tongue. You cannot see your own face except with an external device (reflection or camera): it may be that everyone else sees that you carry this disease, except yourself.

 

Thus…

 

The first step to falling down that path is in regarding every statement from one or both of your parents/guardians as criticism or disapproval. When our parents speak with us, their comments have the force of authority. Coming from a culture that praises independence, we receive the voice of authority with a reflex of rebellion. Some of us interpret our parents’ comments -- no matter what they say -- as disapproval. If we respond with disrespect, then we provoke actual disapproval.

 

If you have this view, then the older that you are, the deeper that sentiment will be within you. It will manifest in other interactions, especially with those whom you regard as authorities. It may manifest in determining that every instance that runs counter to your own approval is patriarchy or racism or Islamophobia, etc.. I have students who have trouble seeking pastoral care from me because they view me the way they view their parents: someone old, out of touch, and disapproving. I have peers whose struggles with faith are easy for everyone around them to trace to struggles with parents, and everyone can see the connection but them.

 

Second, regardless of your relationship with your parents, if you place yourself in the company of people with the same sentiments, then it is very hard to get out of this disposition against others. This is a common problem when converts mingle with converts, not unlike when friends mingle with friends: they inherit each other’s worldviews as well as each other’s social and spiritual pathologies. Convert or Lifer, many of us have many relationships with others on social media that we mistake for real conversation when instead they are cesspools of shared fantasies of discontent; they become shared ills. You judge people by deciding that they are judging you. You believe that they are conspiring against your own people.

 

The result is the unconscious creation of a narrative that the world is relentless in its disapproval of us. I have watched students who were optimistic, transform and turn into something sour, if not poison. They went from being humble community servants to arrogant, self-serving devils slandering everyone (including myself) that they decided was an opponent. They decided that everyone who disagrees is an oppressor while seeking justification in the sympathies and “likes” they get online.

 

I hope you recognize the behavior. One, you get your fix from social media comments, emojis, numbers-of-views, and “likes.” Two, you lash and insult those who are close to you, when they do not give you such approval. Three, you repeat the cycle. Meaning, you sound like an addict. If I felt it would be of benefit, I would list those students by name who have fallen into this cycle. Rather, it would propel these ego-junkies further into their descent. So as not to come between family members, in such cases I have had to distance myself from siblings of the poisoned-souls.

 

A third cause, however, is the mixture of life experience and global narratives. Every one of us knows the feeling of unfair treatment. Sometimes, that unfair treatment relates to the allocation of rewards: you work harder than someone else yet they get the praise and promotion. Sometimes, unfair treatment comes in the form of condescension. If you keep receiving unfair treatment, at some point you may determine that every friendly gesture is condescension; this choice is more likely when it is a common narrative. Meaning, minority and marginalized communities have advocacy organizations that provide a line of defense against hostilities. There are also, within these communities, other organizations that profit in preaching the that various forces are hell-bent on destroying them.

 

There is a fourth cause - trauma. Sometimes, our approach in labeling people is a survival mechanism, in which we find ways to keep our distance from people. I wonder if it is possible for someone living in America in 2019 -- with the nonstop onslaught of big media and social media -- to escape trauma.

 

When I mention parenting above, you might be someone who remembers losing one or both parents and the rupture within that came from that loss. You might be someone who was not raised by two biological parents, but by a series of foster parents. It is not a coincidence that the stories in our tradition of the greatest of the prophets and messengers, may peace be upon them, include stories of their parents or their children, including Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad. One of the most significant influences on your relationship with the Divine is your relationship with your parents.

 

Sometimes the trauma comes from elsewhere. Perhaps it is the result of violence from others. Sometimes it is the result of abandonment. So, some of us sabotage our relationships to avoid the risk of being hurt or let down. It may be that we are alienating people who have nothing to do with our internal battles because we feel compelled to preserve ourselves by attacking them.

 

How do we get out? Two answers.

 

The thorough answer. Because this is the question of transformation, the most effective way to get out is to go through thorough personal reformation with frequent instruction from a guide with a small cohort. There are many who claim me as their teacher but do not make much use of me, or seek assignments that they do not do. Rather, find a teacher and glue yourself to that teacher with a cohort of peers with identical goals. The students who make the most of our time, doing the assignments I give them, listening to my advice including the times it stings, transform the most. Students who visit me on occasion or skip my assignments, do not change; they are not looking for a mentor, but a chef to feed them tasty meals. There are plenty of weekend parties that pretend to be learning sessions that take on that role.

 

The shortcut answer. Work on gratitude.

 

If, however, the cause is trauma, then the pathway is therapy. The above approaches may not cure but might deepen a crisis.

 

And Allah knows best.

 

Omer M

 

The Narcissism of Hats and Flags

February 03, 2019

 

Assalamu Alaykum Dear Students,

 

I hope you receive this letter with the best of health, Iman, and integrity.

 

In the last letter, speaking about the rabbit holes in perceiving bigotry, I mentioned that there are times when intention and reception do not match on symbols: we might receive something as bigotry, though the intentions of the alleged perpetrator are not malicious. A most recent example is the MAGA hat. It is in the clash of symbols that we find the fuel and possible problem: tribalism and anger. Meaning, a way out of the tunnel vision is in tempering both.

 

The MAGA hat is for many (as in millions of people) hate speech. If you are a member of a minority or marginalized community, and someone walks up to you wearing such, you might brace yourself for an attack. On the other hand, you might choose to wear the hat as a statement of political party support, with aspirations to return America to a happier time.

 

The most common example, however, is a nation’s flag. The flag is a nation’s totem, full of all sorts of symbolism including everything -- depending on the beholder -- from the sacred to the profane. It used to be that the American Flag was considered to be so sacred that it was an offense to wear it as clothing. The 1970s film “Easy Rider” changed that and now we see the Stars and Stripes everywhere.

 

As you know, the symbolism of the Flag, as well as the National Anthem, may have altered, but has not reduced. Former NFL star Colin Kaepernick -- on the advice of a military veteran -- began to kneel during the anthem. Twenty years prior, NBA star Mahmoud Abdur-Rauf refused to stand during the anthem. As the players brought upon themselves the animosity of millions across the country, both careers suffered. Abdur-Rauf did modify his position to stand for the anthem, but in prayer. Neither, player, however, expressed any remorse for their decisions.

 

I wonder if there is a flag that does not provoke that polarization of emotions. For all the criticism that religion receives for causing violence in the world, all the religious-motivated bloodshed in history does not match the sheer number of bloodied bodies from the secular nationalist wars of the 20th Century. I have to distinguish those flags of nations that have a history of conquest from those flags which represent new independence. Still, today’s new independent nations may tomorrow be conquerors.

 

Of course, it is not the flag that causes the war, but the tribalism it represents. We might use such words as “solidarity,” but they are all tribalism. Kaepernick and Abdur-Rauf argued that the flag represents a history of oppression. Many of my Palestinian students see the flag of Israel as a symbol of not only of their subjugation and dispossession, but that -- as is the case with oppression -- that the oppressors are escaping consequence. Many of my Jewish students see the same flag as a symbol of a safe haven. Some see the flag -- with focus on the Star of David -- as the meeting of the Divine from above down to humanity below, and humanity reaching from below up to the Divine. When I see the flag of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, with its Shahada -- the Islamic declaration of faith, the most sacred utterance the tongue can recite -- resting on a sword, I experience enough of a complex mix of feelings about the Saudi polity, about Islam today, about Islam in America, that it would take more than a letter to express. Some see the rainbow flag as a symbol of community and humanity against the structured oppression of heteronormativity, while others see the flag and even regard the term “gay pride” as symbolic of the worst corruptions they can imagine, while they themselves might be wearing an American flag.

 

Tribalism is so innate in our human experience that the Muslim scholar from the 1400s, Ibn Khaldun, identified it as one of the primary fuels for social action. Meaning, theology cannot move masses of people as much as tribalism can.

 

Though tribalism is a collective narcissism, it is not a bad thing. If it is in the form of patriotism, it means that you feel joy in your own: you want your team to win. If it becomes nationalism, however, it means you want your team to win, even when it is unfair or unjust, as though your team is right even when it is wrong.

 

In other words, tribalism clashes with justice. When that happens, then justice must win in every case. One of the predicaments of American Islam is that so many in our community invest time and money toward Muslim identity -- drawing attention to Muslim accomplishments past and present -- while investing so little attention toward next-world salvation, this world-justice and its root in this world-character.

 

Many of our rabbit holes -- in the quest to identify allies, hegemons, sellouts, and the like -- are tribalisms. Meaning, when we consider ourselves to be of the oppressed, we do not seek justice with our oppressors. Rather, we seek for them to be humiliated and destroyed. That is not justice. That is the behavior of a mob, with the modern mob being the anonymous commenters across social media.

 

Before I proceed, I must comment that the above paragraph can be misused to push pacifism and quietism. No, I am for activism with its dimensions and force.  I would go so far as to say that activist forces are as necessary for the defense of society against corruption as military forces are necessary for the defense of society against threats.

 

The activist must, however, be the most disciplined of civilians, with a discipline that is a mix of an ascetic and a soldier. Otherwise, the activist reduces themselves to the annoyance of a chatterbox on social media, calling out anything that does not suit their narcissist fantasy. When they are in power, they become tyrants worst than the tyrants they replace.

 

The activist rabbit hole starts forming when they resort to symbols. Usually, the symbols begin with colors, then they evolve to icons and heroes. Often, their heroes are those who have been “oppressed” with arrest or death even when staged, as though either is a mark of honor. Then they define reality according to metaphors, then they identify the opposition according to devils, uniforms, and counter-colors. Then, they move into the realm of imagination, resorting to small moments of defiance as though they have reached closer to their imaginary destination.

 

If tribalism is the fuel of this world of symbolic interaction, and narcissism is the fuel of tribalism, then what is sustains the tribalism? Usually, it is anger. We see it in our society. In those moments when someone presents themselves holding to a symbol, like a MAGA hat, we respond with an orgy of anger. If you have a short fuse that ignites when someone disagrees with you, you are probably a narcissist. Meaning, you are not searching for truth in a disagreement as much as you are demanding submission.

 

What fuels that anger? Usually the conviction that we are not going to receive justice. Meaning, many activists and social-conscious workers do not realize that they have defeated themselves and their causes because they have embraced the notion that they will lose. That creates anger and narcissism, which fuels the ideology that gets subverted as tribalism.

 

More on the effort to escape this trap next time, Insha Allah.

 

And Allah knows best.

 

Omer M

 

When bigotry is not bigotry

January 27, 2019

 

Assalamu Alaykum Dear Students,

 

I hope you receive this letter with the best of health, Iman, and integrity.

 

In the previous letter, speaking of bigotry and the signs of its presence, I commented that some people dress well and smile to be granted status as an equal among their colleagues. Still, some people dress well and make themselves up because they like to do so. Some people smile because that is their default expression, or they are modeling themselves after the Prophet, may peace be upon him. Meaning, there are plenty of criticisms of particular Muslims that are not Islamophobia. Likewise, there are actions that parallel the form of white supremacy, anti-black racism, androcentrism and patriarchy, anti-semitism, etc. that are not these.

 

What about those cases that look like bigotry, but may not be? What about those cases where a smirk from a kid in a MAGA hat is not intended as bigotry? Or, is it that every MAGA hat represents White Supremacy? What about cases that look like criticisms of Islam, but are not? There are criticisms of Muslim majority lands, like the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, that are veiled or direct attacks on Islam and there are criticisms of that polity’s policies regardless of religious identification. You already understand this point because many in our community (including myself) argue that many criticisms of the state of Israel are not, by default, anti-semitism. What about cases that look like hate but are not?

 

The most obvious part of the discussion is the difference between intention and reception. I do not (yet) agree that the MAGA hat -- the red baseball cap with “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN” following President Trump’s lifting of the phrase from President Ronald Reagan -- is the modern equivalent of the Klan hood, because that would still be the Klan hood. Still, the hat is for many a symbol of hate. Nevertheless, there are students on campus who believe their wearing their MAGA hat is an act of bravery, seeking American ideals in a hurricane of liberal opposition. Meaning, one side sees the MAGA hat for the worst it represents and the other side sees it for the best it aspires to. If I see someone in Chicago wearing the hat, I’m curious rather than offended. When I am traveling in the Suburbs and I see that hat, the curiosity has a shade of caution.

 

Many of us have internalized the bigotries against us; we must resist allowing ourselves to be consumed by them. I know that the hate against Muslims over the past two decades (though it goes back through the 1990s) had affected me so much that it has affected my interactions. When I would fly, for example, I would choose seats that would make it difficult for me to be perceived as a threat. These would be window seats in cramped rows or middle seats between two large men. That is when bigotry succeeds: when we submit to bigotry without anyone telling us to do so.

 

[I should comment that I was freed from at least some of that double-consciousness because of the relentless attacks of Islamophobes trying to depict everything Muslims do as threatening. Meaning, if nothing I can do will make them happy, then I am free to do anything I want. Back to the aisle seats, I went, stretching my legs...only to get my shoulders bumped by the flight attendants’ carts.]

 

There is a problem among many of us of having in fallen down an ideological rabbit hole. Such people interpret everything that does not suit their worldviews as opposition against them. Everything becomes an issue of racism, misogyny, cultural appropriation, etc. because of the form of the event (whether it is a glance, an expression, a comment, a statement, etc.) can be made to fit the form of hate.

 

We have the saying that for a hammer, everything looks like a nail. If we frame our world as one of oppressors and victims, we see everything done by everyone in the category of “oppressor” as oppression. Meaning, if that person does not return my phone call (rather, for your generation, your text), they are ignoring me because I am [insert category of victimized populace].

 

Then, what happens? We give ourselves permission to use the hammer, by not only firing accusations, not only getting upset but abandoning the boundaries of civility. In the recent case of the apparent confrontation (?) between the young men in the MAGA hats, the Native American elders, and the Black Hebrew Israelites, the vilest behavior was done by the internet vigilantes who found and spread the name of the young man at the center of the video. Regardless of who is at fault in that event, that is wrong. Almost as bad, however, is that the vigilante behavior gives free fuel to the bigots to continue their bigotry, for bigots see themselves as victims rather than oppressors.

 

Think about it. If you fall down a rabbit hole and look up to the sky, what do you see? A tunnel. This is all tunnel vision.

 

There is another inverse consequence to this tunnel vision: a myth of exclusivity. Meaning, we decide that someone not of our demographic is incapable of identifying the cues that trigger us. In other words, is it possible for a non-Muslim to understand what it is like to be a Muslim without being Muslim? In some ways, yes and in some ways no. But, is it possible for a non-Muslim to identify the cues that reveal Islamophobia? Of course. Someone non-Black may not be able to understand what it means to be a Black American but can identify the subtleties of racism.

 

The mistake many people of color make about Whites is to assume that someone White cannot comprehend the experiences of a person of color. Can I, as a man, understand what it means to be a woman? No. Can I comprehend the experiences of a woman? To a partial degree? Yes. Can a woman, however, comprehend the experiences of a man, more? Yes, because men have made themselves the default of society, providing far more information on manhood and all its peculiarities. So, in America, it is fair to say that a person of color knows more about whiteness than a white person knows about color. That a non-Christian knows more about Christians than vice versa. And on. But, that does not exclude a person from the majority or privileged groups from having insights about the minority or marginalized.


There are a few ways to test how deep you are in your tunnel. One is the personal narrative test. Classify yourself according to your identities. How easy is it for you to identify those identifies that are minority or marginalized, in comparison with those that are privileged or oppressive?

 

Another is the anticipation test. Suppose you are engaging with someone from the troublesome demographic; are you anticipating their bigotry before they do or say anything?

 

If you are conscious of misogyny, androcentrism, male chauvinism, and are engaging with a man -- who tends to lack filters in his conversations -- as he opines on something, are you waiting for them to state something that you can twist into a disagreeable interpretation?  We might be incriminating someone before they committed a crime. Meaning, if we are correct, four out of five times, then in that fifth time we have identified someone as a bigot who may not be. We have excluded someone who might have been an ally. This does not, however, discount the four we did identify.

 

Likewise, in the previous letter, I spoke of the facial expression of bigotry, which is often a frown or a smirk. For example, as a person of color you might be accustomed to being a target of racism; if you are walking through a store, are you looking at the faces of the White people, seeking for them to glare or stare at you? We might tell ourselves that it is for purposes of safety, and sometimes it is (see the next letter). Sometimes, even the concern for safety is an inhibitive paranoia. Still, I cannot minimize the concern: men will be shocked to learn how many women have received gender-based harassment or nonconsensual contact.

 

Another way is the anger test. Test how quickly rationality evades you, getting replaced with emotion (usually anger). If you are Muslim and someone -- perhaps a Republican -- supports the restrictions on immigration, how quickly does your blood boil before hearing their arguments? How quickly do you discount anything they would say afterward? If you do that, you have done what you accuse them of doing to you: you have reduced them to an opinion and removed their own complex humanity; this leads into the next test.

 

Another is the narrative test. If you have decided that someone is a racist, misogynist, Islamophobe, etc.., you impose a narrative upon them, speculating about the causes for their behavior, as well as the directions their views will take. You follow their comments for some time, reifying your perception of them, not realizing you might be 100% wrong. Yet, each time you misinterpret, rather, twist their comments, you deepen this narrative of them in your own psyche, making it harder for you to see their truths.

 

Because of my roles in the community, my reputation precedes me. There are many who have applied all sorts of narratives upon me, some of which are outlandish in praise and some of which are equally absurd in negativity. I tend to find out either because those narratives reach friends of mine, who tell me or because some people tell me themselves. Those who get to know me know that the praise was not deserved. I hope those who assume the negative feel the same.

 

I do notice, however, a couple patterns. In many cases, there are a few people who are initiating rumors (including positive rumors). Through the usual telephone-game processes, those rumors multiply. When enough people verbalize the sentiment, it becomes a narrative that fits other yearnings within us: either the desire for an angel or the desire for a devil.

 

One protection is to force yourself to be objective. A MAGA hat, for example, for one person is a symbol of hate, while for another person it is a symbol of hope. Every person who wears or sees the hat, however, is more than the hat. And every person the hat-wearer sees, is more than the glance they receive. If someone, however, is dressed in a Klan hood, I am not staying to find out if they are an undercover Black American police officer.

 

And Allah knows best.

 

Omer M

 

Bigotry and Chauvinism

January 20, 2019

 

Assalamu Alaykum Dear Students,

 

I hope you receive this letter with the best of health, Iman, and integrity.

 

Bigotry is one of those forces that is most insidious when it is invisible to everyone, except those who are on the receiving end. When it is systemic it is like mold or poisonous carbon dioxide, permeating the air even though it is hard to detect. Its sibling, chauvinism, is the same in its subtle subjugation of populations. Bigotry is disapproval. Chauvinism is narcissism. Both -- even when not exercised consciously -- are exertions of power.

 

I tell students that a way to get a sense of the bigotry and chauvinism in a professional environment is to look at how people dress. If you notice members of minority groups dressing better than their counterparts, it is a sign of inequities. Meaning, there is a common notion that if you are part of an underrepresented group, you have to prove your *equality* with double the effort, double the standard of conduct, double the excellence in disposition.

 

You already witness it in most professional environments: women will be compelled to spend more time on face, hair, and clothing than men. Can you conceive of a professional setting in America in 2019 in which women would not have such expectations upon them? Likewise, when you see African American professionals dress according to standards far exceeding their colleagues, it may be a sign of similar pressures. While the current symbol of cultural, organizational diversity is the Muslim woman with covered hair, the common Muslim woman -- especially the African American Muslim woman -- suffers through even more difficult expectations of performance.

 

Bigotry manifests in scrutiny of conduct as a test toward acceptance. Rep. Rashida Tlaib has been portrayed as dishonorable for her use of bad language, by -- of all people -- the President. Within our community, we have had a healthy and unhealthy debate about her *one* use of a bad word in speaking about Trump. Some within the community have asserted that these criticisms of her conduct are because she is a woman, that a man would not receive the same scrutiny. This point is true for *some* of the criticisms levied against Rep. Tlaib, that if Rep. Carson or former Rep. Ellison did the same, they would not be as vocal. Still, in the mainstream press there are estimates that Rep. Tlaib’s word (again, one word) received five times more attention than the racist comments of another Representative from the same time period.

 

Commentators have drawn attention to the perfect disposition with which President Obama had to conduct himself during his leadership, in contrast to the childish behaviors of his predecessor, and the offensive behavior of his successor. Since her inauguration, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been subject to the vilest attacks. It is one thing to misquote her or misrepresent her story, as has been happening since before her election; that is wrong, though common in politics. Opponents then drew attention to photos of her dancing in a video for a student project in college as “proof” of immaturity and licentiousness. After that, they disseminated fake nude photos of her; meaning, someone had to take the time to make a photo look like her before distributing it. That is a team effort. A team of devils.

 

On the same note, actress Brie Larson responded to calls for her to smile more in her performance as Captain Marvel in the upcoming film, by obscuring photos of male superheroes with smiles. Those photos, with the smiles, look comical, not in the way that the comics sought. This compulsion to smile, by the way, is also common among members of marginalized communities. When you detect that a people view you as a either a threat or a youngster or a trickster, you overcompensate with smiles.

 

When you are the recipient of bigotry, you recognize the expression people give you. It may be a frown. It may be a smile (rather, a smirk). Whether you notice it or not, it is always, however, a look of disapproval. The disapproval may seem to be over your efforts yet it is focused on the inconvenience of your existence, as though the only way to provide space for your humanity is to tolerate concessions for you, even if you are better than everyone else in your peer group. The message of bigotry and chauvinism, from the bigot and chauvinist is, “Your existence and conduct is my liability.” In response, the message from the recipient or victim is, “Your conduct inhibits my existence.” Again, you feel compelled to have double the quality and quantity of work.

 

I have commented before that when I teach or speak in many elite and elitist religious and secular environments, the thrust of the questions on Islam is often, “Prove to me that you are not a savage.” Depending on the moment, sometimes my response is to push back, in polite language, with the same, like: “In light of your question, I cannot prove to myself that you are civil,” or “Only an idiot would assert something like that.” For example, the question is, “Why can’t Muslims stop killing each other?” the response is, “It’s understandable that we think everyone else in the world is violent, considering our own conduct. Muslim reality, however, is different.”

 

What is the essence of the disapproval? It is the sentiment that you are less because you are struggling with inescapable animal attributes (sloth, lust, laziness) as though you are cursed submit to Western medieval notion of the flesh, over the enlightenment notion of the mind. In contrast, one of the essences of both the Liberation Theology and Caliphate movements is that poverty is a systemic imposition on masses. One of the lines in rap group Public Enemy’s song, “Fight the Power” is “No, we’re not the same, ‘cause we don’t know the game.” Even if someone had the capability to bypass systemic subjugation, they are crippled because their subjugated environment lacks the institutions and mentors to show them how.

 

Some hate gets imposed onto theology. When hate merges with religion it becomes ideology, the kind of which yields scores of wars, murders, and slaves. Through the Bible we have examples. Black Americans were taught a theology of the Curse of Ham. Jews were viewed as Christ-killers. Arabs, descendants of Ishmael, were looked at as descendants of a wild donkey.

 

We have fallen into similar traps. Because of the deceit of leaders of three of the Jewish tribes against the Prophet, may peace be upon him, some frame all Jews as treacherous. Some view all Black American Muslims as akin to the Prophet’s companion Bilal, not realizing that in their attempts to offer praise they are infantilizing. Above all, across history and across the world we have so many communities of traditions with problematic depictions of women, with the most common being that women are either of the purity and simplicity of the Virgin Mary or are sharp sirens taking away the agency of men.  

 

Every religious and secular community has such examples of hate in their history, though in some cases does the hate move beyond the heart into violence. I do not know if it is possible to ever understand the scale of the genocide of the Native Americans or the Transatlantic Slave Trade. When a people see another people as subhuman, it seems that the former behave in ways against the latter that make animals all seem noble.

 

The final point to consider is that of the most powerful tools of bigotry or chauvinism is to erase. It is common for those in power to undercut the accusations of oppression by either refusing to acknowledge the oppression, by placing blame on the leaders of the oppressed, or by placing blame on the oppressed themselves. By claiming “All lives matter,” we speak a truth, that erases a truth.

 

Even more insidious is complete erasure. Consider the various forms in our society that I have not mentioned, including those that manifest as homophobia, ageism, and more. There are some groups for whom the mention of their existence becomes for them an existential threat before anyone can have a conversation. There is one word in this paragraph that will give some the excuse to ignore the entire letter.

 

And Allah knows best.

 

Omer M



The complexities of complexity

January 13, 2019

 

Assalamu Alaykum Dear Students,

 

I hope you receive this letter with the best of health, Iman, and integrity.

 

In reflecting on the past years in general and the past year in particular, I have figured out one specific aspect of life to focus on with you. There are others, like trying to figure out how to inspire some of you to improve on your Islam, to inspire you to shift from being man-babies and disney-princesses to upstanding, outstanding adults. At the top of the list, however, I want you to embrace “complexity.”

As islands, you and I are complex human beings, with complex feelings, complex histories, complex lives. For me, that is part of the richness of life. That is also part of the joy of my work, discovering the richness within each of you. We are not, however, islands but are interconnected with so many people, locations, moments, ideas. It is fair to assume then, that most issues are complex, for which you can and should have multiple opinions.

 

Consider discourse. In contrast to scholarship, social media is akin to cafeteria conversation, with journalism landing somewhere between the two. Meaning, social media is a meandering stream-of-consciousness, which not only lends itself to simplistic thinking but obstructs complex thinking. I wonder how many debates on social media led interlocutors to change their opinions; I suspect that number is as close to zero as is possible. Likewise, I wonder what percentage of debates on social media led to strains in relationships; I suspect that number is close to 100 percent.

 

Further, ideology tends to resist complexity. Whether we admit it or not, we each have a certain amount of ideology seeping through our thinking, that we might label or mislabel as “truth.” We can call that “ideology” or its root an “instinct” or a “belief” or a “desire.” perhaps about the Divine, humanity, or some social matter. Many would regard “surivival” as a foundational instinct that informs many of our choices. That survival instinct might inspire us to behave in ways -- if the situation demanded it -- that seem “inhumane.” I am not speaking of two hungry people in a forest running away from a growling bear, but I would include that. Rather, think of two people applying for the same job not realizing that their behaviors in applying for the job, promoting themselves in the interview, and even undercutting the competition, might be coming from a simple survival instinct...not unlike the way two other people are running away from a tiny spider crawling toward them.

 

We have a saying that if you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. I complain about the tendency we have as activists to split the world into those who have power and privilege and those who are oppressed and dispossessed. We fall into the trap of labeling, for example, every White man as privileged, and every non-White-Man as oppressed as though a refugee who is assumed to get a college education is more oppressed than a White male of the same age, growing up in a broken home in Appalachia. I have mentioned in a recent letter that if you are reading this letter, it means that you have access that many do not, regardless of your various identities. Meaning, you are privileged. Own it. You can be oppressed and privileged at the same time.

 

Because people fit into multiple categories because of their multiple identities, it means that you will misinterpret the behaviors of people. Think of chivalry. If someone opens a door for you, are they being polite, or are they exerting power? Perhaps neither. Perhaps both. If someone does not open a door for you, are they being impolite, or are they exerting power? Perhaps both. Perhaps neither. It often means, however, that you believe you have “figured someone out” and you might be just wrong.

 

Another point to consider is nuance. I suspect that a Black American woman raised in Englewood will have differences in the experience of race from a Black American woman raised in a small town in Mississippi. Or a Palestinian raised in Gaza and a Palestinian raised in the West Bank. Or, an Ismaili Pakistani and an Ahmadi Pakistani, both living in Karachi. Depending on the conversation, that nuance can reveal a difference as wide as East is from West, or that difference is irrelevant in the context of the subjugations.

 

There are, however, illusions of complexity. Contentious issues will have different perspectives. Sometimes people believe that someone has been humanized, or that bias has been removed, by looking at their strengths and by looking at their detractors. So, imagine that I pretend to give you a “balanced” view of Islam by speaking of the passages that promote peace and the passages that promote armed confrontation. What is the problem in that approach? One problem is that it assumes that there no default, that there is nothing implicit. Academics fall into this trap by problematizing issues and doing so in incomplete ways. Journalists fall into this trap by presenting “both sides” of an issue with talking heads as though the number of quotes represents the spread of opinions on an issue.

 

There is also a risk of limiting the focus to “complexity;” a lens seeking complexity can hide oppression. Complexity is important to find solutions but can be detrimental in seeing problems. Some use “complexity” as a way to stifle conversation, which is a way to stifle dissent. Think of any of the common intersecting concerns we find in our Muslim consciences, including gender, race, economic exploitation, sectarianism, Palestine, Syria, Turkey, etc.. I can stifle dissent on an issue, say “Race,” by saying that it is a complex issue involving American history, American institutions beyond law enforcement, crime, capitalism, religion, real estate and taxes, political maneuvering, representation, mental health etc. as a way to say that a young Black American man killed by a police officer was an unfortunate anomaly because there are so many factors involved that we will not be able to identify why he is dead. All of those matters and more are part of the issue, but if any of that discourse minimizes the seriousness of a death, then it is a sign that we are prevented from asking why he is dead, and from asserting that the system was rigged against him.

 

There is a risk of using complexity as a way or excuse to self-stifle. You might find yourself thinking that on a given issue -- because you do not know all of the opinions -- you should withhold judgment. Sometimes, however, we choose agnosticism on an issue to avoid being unfair and sometimes we do not want to face the difficulties that come with certain opinions.  

 

For starters, you will never have omniscience in either the variety of opinions on a topic or the value of each of the opinions. Further, we are not obliged to have opinions on most matters. There are many questions in Islam for which I have no opinion because they are not relevant to my life or work.

 

We cannot, however, be agnostic on issues that pertain to someone else’s suffering. So, one strategy is to start with those segments within an issue that you can take a stance on and try to build. Another: take a stance and if you find a better stance, then correct yourself. If an issue is indeed complex, it is possible to have multiple stances, relating to different parts of an issue. Regarding climate change, it is not a contradiction to believe that the global increase in temperature is real, is life-threatening, that humans are responsible for it, that the short-term preservation of capitalist structures is still a better option than their eradication, yet because they already have self-preservation mechanisms in place, long-term strategies regarding systemic change must be supported.

 

Or, you change the lens of the conversation: instead of speaking about climate change, speak of pollution especially in dictatorships that our nation supports. Then, revisit the conversation.

 

We are taught to be wary of the prayers of the oppressed -- even if the oppressed does not obey the Divine -- because there is no barrier between it and Allah. From one perspective, we can understand that God knows who is oppressed. From another, consider that someone oppressed may think with a clarity that few have and will pray with such clarity.

 

I speak of complexity as something that I enjoy. Try it. Explore all your own different dimensions in what makes you, you. Consider the same for someone close to you. The other option is to define someone according to one identity, as though I am only Muslim Chaplain. That is a modern problem I believe identified by Emile Durkheim: we identify people in single categories according to the function they have in our lives, like the person who drives your bus each day. No name; just a function. Consider all my identities: Muslim, Pakistani, Chicago-raised, American citizen, Lecturer of Islam, Muslim Chaplain, cisgender man, heterosexual, etc,; what can all of that tell you about my life or my opinions or dreams or sorrows? Beyond a few short bullet points, nothing. Get to know me and all my various worlds; I expect you will like me more (or if you don’t like me then maybe you will finally like me).

 

Do you see what I’m hinting here? Love necessitates complexity.

 

I have explained why I want you to embrace complexity: the complex life is not only more realistic, but more rich. The hard question, however, is how do I get you to embrace complexity. These letters will not become more complex as I have been trying to express complexities in either individual letters or across letters. On social media, you will see me speak of matters with much more complexity. Or, you will see me summarize the complexities of a matter in the latter parts of discussions. In Friday sermons and other classes, I do not yet know.  Sometimes the challenge of finding a solution is even more difficult than the difficult challenge of finding a cause.

 

At the very least, if you understood this letter, you have begun the embrace of complexities of complexity.

 

And Allah knows best.

 

Omer M

Favorite books from 2018

January 6, 2019
 
 
Assalamu Alaykum Dear Students,
 
I hope you receive this letter with the best of health, Iman, and integrity.
 
I wanted to look back at my favorite books from the past year. As you will see, some of the books were published earlier. I hope they inspire you to go through them. Perhaps you can suggest your favorite reads and listens from your year.
 
The best of the best.
 
1. Anand Giridharadas, The True American: Murder and Mercy in Texas and
Anand Giridharadas, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World.
 
Giridharadas provides incisive analysis about American life.
 
Through True American he follows the story of a Bengali American in Texas who gets shot in the face in a gas station by a guy seeking to defend America. As the latter gets sentenced to death, the Bengali (Rais Bhuiyan) tries to get him off Death Row.
 
In Winners Take All he explores the various elite cultures in the way they convince themselves they are serving humanity and the dispossessed in what is either exploitation or self-congratulations.
 
2. Patrice Khan-Cullors / Asha Bandele, When they call you a terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir and
Jeanne Theoharis, A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History.
 
Khan-Cullors is one of the founders of BLM, sharing her story while illustrating ways that systematic racism is invisible because it is lawful, is invisible because it is easy to ignore or blame the victims because they are voiceless, and is invisible because power is equally invisible. It is heartbreaking yet the fact of its publication makes it hopeful.
 
Theoharis’ book analyzes the ways in which the facts of the Civil Rights Movement have been co-opted into mythologies about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King, Rosa Parks, the Black Panthers, the student movements, and others. This book hits so hard that I feel like I knew nothing about the Movement except for mythology.
 
3. Mithu Storoni, Stress-Proof: The Scientific Solution to Protect Your Brain and Body--and Be More Resilient Every Day, and
Johann Hari, Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions, and
Michael Pollan, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence.
 
Storoni’s book is the best self-help book I went through in the past year. It provides numerous data-backed techniques for dealing with stress that I started implementing before completing the book.
 
Hari’s book is part personal exploration, part journalist research about the nexus of treatments for depression and general alienation in society. I do not advise to use this book as a reason to get off prescribed medications, but I do recommend reading this book to find voids in life.
 
Pollan’s book is part personal exploration, part journalist research about the history of psychedelics in our society, and their potential uses and benefits. It makes me want to try mushrooms. Again, this is not an endorsement for you to try on my behalf, especially considering the risks of tainted product.
 
4. Miles Davis, Miles, and
Questlove, Creative Quest, and
Michael Ovitz, Who is Michael Ovitz?
 
I love autobiographies, memoirs, and biographies, especially of artists. This year I also went through books about or by Ibtihaj Muhammad, Arthur Ashe, Bruce Springsteen, Herbie Hancock, Bob Dylan, Michelle Obama, Barack Obama, Terence Stamp, Lamont U-Gawd Hawkins, James Comey, and others. This book may be the gold standard of artist biographies. You can hear his frank voice in the way he speaks about everything from music, to race, to his partnerships, to his relationships, taking us into the mind and life of one of the 20th century’s greatest artists.
 
Musician Questlove provides a manual on the development of creativity, while also looking at the way changes in technology and business mesh with creativity. Hollywood powerbroker
 
Michael Ovitz provides a biographical history of the work of agents in getting creative works produced. It is a biography, a history, an exploration of art, and a lesson in management.
 
5. Natalie Moore, The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation, and
Christian Picciolini, White American Youth: My Descent into America's Most Violent Hate Movement--and How I Got Out.
 
I am a sucker for books on Chicago, especially the South Side of Chicago.
 
Moore’s biographical book provides a sociology of the South Side that the Obama books do not cover. Picciolini’s book shares his story as someone who went astray into the White Supremacy movement and eventually got out at great personal cost, though he is now working to build bridges between communities.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Looking back on 2018

December 30, 2018



Assalamu Alaykum Dear Students,

 

I hope you receive this letter with the best of health, Iman, and integrity.

 

Looking back on the year. I have mentioned to many of you that I wish there was a way to keep confidentiality, yet share with all of you all of the different issues students have brought to the office. Overall, the issues may get categorized into theological/spiritual, personal/social, and academic matters.

 

In 2018, students have wrestled less with theological matters than in previous years. The common matters remain the same: why do I need belief, how do we reconcile determinism and predestination with free will, how and why do we have so much suffering in the world. That question -- why do I need belief -- illustrates a two-fold problem. The first is that we are conditioned to be served, rather than to seek. This disposition means that we are accustomed to fulfilling our appetites. The other side of the problem, however, is that -- you have heard from me many times -- the approach to Islam we teach is irrelevant to your lives and outlooks.

 

The most common spiritual conditions, however, remain as excessive narcissism and insufficient gratitude, though that is probably true of the human experience itself. In our case, our students tend to come from multiple economic classes. Though I can list numerous exceptions for each of the following, we have some patterns. Those from families of higher tax brackets tend to have less experience with struggle. On the one hand, they do not know how to respond to their own struggles -- underreacting in some matters and overreacting in others -- while on the other hand they regard the struggles of others (especially from marginalized communities) as more legitimate. Those from families of lower tax brackets tend to have more experience with struggle. Still, they often delegitimize the struggles of others, especially those less fortunate than they perceive themselves to be. On a side note, students still tend to be terrified about the judgments that others hold of them, not realizing that in a few decades they will not care.

 

On the flipside, every student at Loyola should consider themselves to be of a privileged demographic and should respond to the Divine with gratitude. How many different ways should I list the luxuries? Education itself? A peaceful environment? A beautiful campus on the lakefront in a big diverse city? Excellent faculty and staff at your service (including the Muslim chaplain)? One of the largest populations of Muslims on almost any campus in the US (especially at a private institution)? The Muslim prayer space? A Campus Ministry leadership and staff that expresses specific concern about the well being of Muslims? It is possible to be part of a privileged class and a minority group and a marginalized group at the same time, no? In other words, every one of us can find someone in our vicinity who has been given less of the world.

 

On that note, we still have a void in the common categories of Muslims from non-Sunni Arab/South Asian demographics. Meaning, the almost-unanimous presence in the prayer space and the MSA events are Sunnis, with a few Shias. Except for a few Muslims of European descent, almost all the attendees are Arab and South Asian.

 

Though the larger, social events have much more variety, the concern remains the same. How do we pull non-Sunni Muslims into the community? How do we pull in Muslims from the Black American, African, Balkan, and other communities into our community? One of the worst obstacles to this is the loose tongue of the person who expresses displeasure at someone, compelling that someone to turn away from that community. On the other hand, self-marginalization is its own problem when it shifts from identity-preservation and self-protection to excuse-making and accusations. In numerous cases, I’ve asked members of marginalized groups to help and will continue to do so. Still, I am pleased that students from such marginalized communities are often present in other activities, often connected to ethnic or political organizations.

 

I am also happy to report that the most common personal/social issue that students have been visiting me with has not been anxiety (which is a close second), but crushes. Otherwise, the other common issues have been depression, struggles with parents, struggles with gossip and slander, struggles with alcohol, narcotics, and pornography, and struggles with suicide ideation. In these cases, more often than not, I have been referring you to therapists either at the Wellness Center or off campus. I am also pleased the stigma against visiting therapists is going away. Parents still seem to be opposed to mental illness help both as a concept and as something to pay for; students seem much more open. There are not as many students expressing concern about their friends’ eating disorders, but I suspect that the number of those suffering has not changed.

 

Further, there are still many students who react to the world as though they are reacting to perceived tyranny of their parents. Meaning, they cannot help but rebel searching for something that they do not know they are searching for it, and they hop from setting to setting to setting. Some people never grow out of this.

 

Anyways, regarding that desire for romance, my approach is to refer you to your parents. About half of you have relationships with at least one parent that allow for such conversations. Half of you have nothing of the sort. In most cases, the crush you have on another student is a mixture of attraction to some perceived quality in that person, as well as a desire to be wanted, valued, or loved, as well as a desire not to feel alone, as well as a desire for interaction, as well as a desire for a sense of meaning. Regarding gender interaction itself, my advice is still the same: if you can honestly say that your parents would approve of your conduct, then go forth as you will. In many cases, however, I know your parents and know your parents would not approve of what you are doing.

 

The most common academic issues this year have been from students struggling with unfair or seemingly unfair teachers. Some students had fallen behind either because of personal problems or because of apathy and needed advice in getting their teachers’ sympathies in a way that is not unfair. There are less students complaining about other students cheating; I hope that means that there are less students cheating. I hope. I used to exclaim in the Friday sermons that if you cheated on your way to Med School, then I hope you do not become a doctor. Perhaps that statement has been accepted as a prayer because of the number of students who have been getting kicked out of Med School for not being able to handle the rigor.

 

I mentioned in a previous letter that a student who used to resist cheating was having challenges to his faith because he was not getting grades as high as the cheaters were getting. He would visit me in the office, ready to cry because he put all of his efforts into studying yet would not earn the grades he sought and would not get the grades the cheaters received. The concern continued because he did not get the MCAT score he was seeking. Students often have a grey zone in such scores: scores so low that they will postpone their applications until another attempt at the MCAT and scores high enough to use for applications in the current cycle. He fell into the grey zone in which his score was neither high nor low. He chose to apply to schools; I am happy to report that he has been accepted into the Medical School of his choice, Alhamdulillah. I happened to walk into the Muslim prayers space and saw him a moment after he received the email announcing his acceptance. He was in tears, this time with gratitude to the Divine. Alhamdulillah.

 

I am noticing that for more of you, my role as chaplain is shifting from “pastor” to “mentor.” This pleases me. Meaning, though my schedule is so often packed, I am always happy, Insha Allah, to assist each of you with any matters you seek to discuss. I am happy to work with you on your writings, whether we speak of essays for class or personal statements for graduate programs. Some of you visit the office with the specific goal of developing your faith. Some of you visit to develop your ideas. Some of you visit for casual conversation. Some of you visit for moral support. Some of you visit for any of the reasons mentioned above in this letter. All of these and those reasons are great. More of you, however, are visiting me for lifecycle matters, which include the above but have the thrust of life questions. I have mentioned to you many times that those students who do connect themselves to mentors (and do what their mentors prescribe) always surpass those who choose to live life as autodidacts by leaps and bounds. That is, however, the nature of privilege: the capacity to skip opportunities.

 

I still have mentors today. Every week during the semester I sit for an hour or two with a scholar with the intention of furthering my Arabic though we spend half the time talking about life, and every minute is an education for me worth more than gold. I have other mentors and tutors through whom I learn other things. I am always looking for mentors; it is easy to pinpoint those of my peers who do not partake of the same life privilege. We are always limited in resources, with the primary resource being time. But, there is always time hidden somewhere. I meet online with a tutor on a daily basis after Fajr prayers. As I type this letter, that is 6am.

 

Overall, my micro, meso, and macro goals for you remain the same. The micro-goal is that when you leave my office, you are in better shape than you were when you entered my office. That is my goal for every interaction with everyone -- casual or formal -- and my success rate is increasing. The meso-goals are that you develop as successful adults, who take ownership of your conditions, who embrace the complexities of the world, who have the ambition to achieve excellence in your efforts, who love to serve. The macro-goals are that you, as a population of Loyola graduates, lead. In this life and the next.

 

And, my other wish remains the same. I wish I had a magic wand, through which I could erase your struggles, but the closest thing to such an elixir is personal connection. Likewise, I wish I could share with you all the issues that students have brought to the office, so that you see that you are far from alone, because the accursed devil wants you to feel that nobody understands your plight because nobody knows your pain; the accursed devil wants you to drown in narcissism, rather than submission. Last, I wish that I had unlimited time and resources through which to serve. That is an ultimate test of this life: you are given limits on everything, so you have the choice to look to what you do not have, to squander what you have, to take what is not yours, or to make the best of what you are given.

 

On to 2019, insha Allah.

 

And Allah knows best.

 

Omer M

Regarding the misconduct of preachers

December 23, 2018

Assalamu Alaykum Dear Students,

I hope you receive this letter with the best of health, Iman, and integrity.

By now, you have heard that the Illinois Attorney General is accusing the Archdiocese of Chicago of underreporting cases involving allegations of clergy sex abuse. In addition, the USA Midwest Province of the Society of Jesus released a list of names of clergy with established allegations of sex abuse of minors.

As you know, I have the infamous reputation in the community of investigating various similar claims of the misconduct of preachers. I tend to avoid talking about these cases except in the steps pursued because of reasons I will share below, which can be summed up in one word: darkness. If that is not enough, I get pulled into cases of counter-radicalization and counterterrorism, getting exposed to other types of darkness. In any case, I tell people that not all pedophiles are Catholic, and not all terrorists are Muslim. And, now, it is relevant that I talk.

These men and their victims will receive justice at the very latest, standing before Allah. While we do believe that the path to forgiveness is open for even the worst of people, these perpetrators are among the worst of all people. Not only are they vessels of the Divine, and not only did they become vessels of the accursed devil, but most are also unrepentant. Some of these men are not able to control themselves. Some of these men tiptoed along a slippery slope and slid. In the cases I worked on, most perpetrators had a small window of remorse that soon shut, overtaken by narcissism. That is literally the narrative in our tradition -- overtaking any possible remorse with narcissism -- of the accursed devil.

In sitting with one of the above perpetrators -- who had been molesting girls for over thirty years in the US alone -- I found myself feeling that I was talking literally to the accursed devil himself. Keep in mind that in the various radicalization and terrorism cases I have been involved with, I sat face to face in front of killers as well as some who planned to kill. In my experience, terrorists and aspiring terrorists tend to lack both intelligence and Islamic knowledge. They also tend to be blunt, believing that defiance is pious. These preachers, however, tend to be intelligent, predatory in the subtle ways they find and isolate their prey, crafty enough to hide their misconduct, and even figure out ways to justify their behaviors Islamically. All of that behavior is demonic, but one of these perpetrators was so smooth in the way he was running circles around me with a string of nonsequiturs that sounded logical, that I felt like I was talking to the accursed devil himself.

A journalist covering one of these cases asked me: has this affected your faith? It did not then and still does not affect my faith in the Divine. I am conditioned to see all that happens before me as a precise, willful examination from the Divine. The experiences working on these cases have, however, affected my faith in people. Deceit is bad enough when it is coming from such perpetrators, but there is more.

This type of community work results in five other problems. First, some of the coverups are team efforts. The perpetrators and their co-conspirators maintain their innocence, leading the masses of followers to support them against the investigators and even the victims. They put such pressure on the family of the victim, if not the victim themselves, that they drive them to ruin. I have had cases of fathers beating their survivor daughters to keep them quiet because of community shame; that shame came from harassment of people trying to protect various preachers.

Second, the investigators lose their own way. While this work has brought me closer to some people because of their integrity, it has also turned me away from others who revealed themselves to be vile people seeking not to work toward protection of the oppressed and toward community healing, but personal elevation. Some started sounding like the perpetrators in seeing themselves as victims, launching their own slander campaigns. There are people who have worked on these cases who continue to invoke their work as though they are heroes and martyrs, never having risked anything, while almost ruining the cases with their own misconduct and carelessness.

In other words, if you costume self-promotion in the costume of social justice or community healing, then your faith will vanish and you will replace what has emptied with more self-promotion. You will not notice. Your close friends will see your transformation, but if they challenge you on it, you will alienate them. Of course, if your close friends are of the same ilk, nobody among you will notice.

Thus, Third, there are those people whom we turn to for guidance yet -- in seeking to protect their own personal brands -- remain silent when their voices are necessary. They are vocal on easy causes, but silent on these matters. That is the problem of celebrity: you shift your outlook from concern for "students" to concern for "fans" and "supporters."

Fourth, the sheer number of people who come forward to share that they are also victims of others is almost astounding as the high percentage among them who say, “I told people but nobody did anything about it.” The amount of pain people carry, abandoned by those who should be protecting them, is nothing less than shocking. How can we claim to be a community of the Prophet, may peace be upon him, while ignoring such atrocities?

Fifth, years after the fact, these cases haunt me. We begin each investigation assuming the accusers are speaking the truth, and the accused are innocent. Then, the crimes are haunting enough; I cannot imagine the experiences of the survivors in what they have lived through and what they have lived with sometimes decades after the fact. Then darknesses you wade through in such investigations, with people trying to protect reputations and institutions add more complexities. Then, long after the fact, I wonder about the choices I made in my investigations, wondering where I may have done something wrong, regarding the survivors, perpetrators, the community. One of the scholars I worked with on a case of preacher-misconduct shared the same thing: the case haunts him.

The end result of all this is that I have become very distant from people. I was always aloof, tending to prefer solitude to crowds. That has all increased manifold as a direct result of working on these cases. Keep in mind that even though my faith in the Divine may have increased in these years, there are components of that faith that are challenged. Do the math. Everything that happens to you, including your experience of reading this letter, is a specific conversation the Divine is holding with you. Some of those conversations are through people. Meaning, if I am making myself distant from people, then I am making myself distant from one of the ways that the Divine interacts with me. I still give you, dear students, my all and will continue to do so. Others: no because I do not want to see any more darkness than I need to. I’ve gone from having weekends fully-packed from morning into night with lectures and classes, to pulling away from almost everything, which means I have also pulled away from most people as well.

My point in sharing all this is to say to you, dear student, I understand if these scandals challenge your faith. How is it that the Divine can allow such things to happen? How is it that a person of piety can do such monstrous actions? How can a person of knowledge be so deceptive? How can a community be so slow to act?

Crises of faith parallel other illnesses, like depression. In our paradigm, the treatment of depression requires figuring out where it is located. Is it in the body? Is it in the mind? Is it in the heart? Is it in the external space we call “relationships?” Likewise, such is the case with crises of faith. I should comment that with my behaviors above, which sound like symptoms of depression, I did get my own therapy and counseling, as I am familiar with my own history of depression.

For some of you, the treatment for crises of faith is to engage your mind, your rationality to work through such issues to make sense of them. For example, does the misconduct of someone acting as the voice of God indicate that there is a problem with God? No, because these are just men. Or, some crises of faith are matters of the heart that get addressed with heart work, starting with the relationship with the Prophet, may peace be upon him, or specific acts of worship, or specific recitations. Or, some crises of faith are addressed with something that seems counterintuitive. As follows:

We are taught to stand up for justice even if it requires us to go against our own selves. Consider the commands to stand for justice on their own. If we are commanded to stand for justice, we can infer from such commands that it is Allah’s will that injustice will happen. By design.  On the one hand, “going against our own selves” means that we have to take ownership of our wrongdoings. On the other hand, it means that we have to stand up for justice even if every cell in our body is pushing us to remain seated.

I am saying that if you stand up for justice when you see wrongs, it will deepen your faith, even when it seems that the perpetrator is escaping justice. How? When you are enacting justice, you are enacting worship in multiple forms, including obedience to the Divine, obliged service to the oppressed, obliged service to the oppressors by preventing them from oppressing. When you are enacting justice in obedience to the Divine, you become more conscious of that inevitable Day of Judgment, including your own. As you grow conscious of your own Day of Judgment, you are by definition growing in faith.

If you are a perpetrator, then I have one request: come forward and admit your crimes. You will save yourself and the community much grief. Own it. What hits you in this life will be less than what you have done to your victim. What will be taken away from you will be less than what you have taken away from others. I cannot vouch for what will happen to you with the Divine.

If you are a survivor, you have my prayers and support. If you have not received help, there are ways to get help. Please.

So, dear students, you and I know that these cases will continue. Crimes done by servants of God will continue. So too will the work of justice. Even though the examples I give above may not be relevant to your struggles, so, too, will your faith continue, Insha Allah. So will mine, Insha Allah. Let’s talk.

And Allah knows best.

Omer M

Pursuing temperance toward excellence

December 16, 2018


Assalamu Alaykum Dear Students,

I hope you receive this letter with the best of health, Iman, and integrity.

As we wind down the semester, I suggest making a plan for the month before classes restart. You will have about 30 days, which would include decompression, vacation, and productivity. If I were to suggest one goal for this Break, it would be to straighten out your sleep schedule. The three most common questions I ask students when coming to the office with various personal struggles are: what is your sleep schedule like, what is your diet like, and what are your prayers like? The Achilles heel for the common undergrad is the disrupted sleep schedule, especially during Finals and Break. Part of the reason I schedule my classes at the beginning of the school day is to weed out those who do not control their sleep schedule.

The deeper question to ponder over: where are you excessive or an “extremist?” I tend to run on two speeds: full speed and asleep. If I am not making full use of the time I’m awake, then I feel as though I am wasting away, and I start to yawn. It may be a type of extremism, except that I enjoy it. I enjoy the work I do. It does not mean that I am always multitasking -- except if I am listening to an audiobook or a lecture while driving -- but it does mean that I tend to have hyperfocus. I admit, however, that sometimes the hyperfocus is in all the wrong places, but that is a topic for another time.

Every semester ends with me getting hit with such a severe illness that I’m immobilized for a few days. It is such complete exhaustion that it is hard for me to get out of bed, and it is hard for me to use much cognitive power. I can feel its onset not only from the fatigue but also from the intense feeling of tension in my thoughts. In previous experiences, the best I could do was to binge watch some shows online or to listen to some light audiobooks. Normally, it lasts a week, but it may have happened this past weekend: I was out. I could not get up.

In other words, I do not know how much more or less intense your lives are than mine, but a goal of life -- both in terms of health and productivity -- is to find the way to maximize our efforts, by way of making allowing ease upon ourselves. Meaning, if you work nonstop at full intensity, you will break down in the way I break down after each semester. In the long term, you will not be able to sustain that approach. In my defense, some of that exhaustion is from the emotional weight of helping students navigate personal horrors. You would be surprised what some of your smiling classmates carry.

I have complained before that we teach religiosity in our Muslim communities through superheroes and supervillains. Those superheroes, aside from the prophets (may peace be upon them) and their families and companions (may God be pleased with them) are the figures in history who have accomplished great feats of personal piety, historical conquest, or intellectual brilliance. Thus, we share stories of the hero who performed a thousand units of prayer a day, and in secret fed a thousand people every night; we know about the feeding because these families came forward at the same time after he died. We know about the scholar who re-prayed decades of daily prayers when he realized he was praying in the front row for egotistical reasons, rather than service to the Divine. Or, we know about the scholar who narrated a 50,000 line (25,000 cuplet) poem that was/is read in Islamic history almost as much as the Qur’an itself. Those stories should show us what a person is capable of the way contemporary stories of superathletes or inventors or entrepreneurs do the same, but they instead become mythologies we do not bother to compete with because they do not speak of the humanity of those heroes.

We have numerous narrations of companions of the Prophet, may peace be upon him, who would go so far in their piety, that he would reprimand them. In one case, some companions decided to fast all day every day and pray all night every night. The Prophet, may peace be upon him, told them not to do it for their bodies have rights over them, their families have rights over them, and on.

In other cases, there were companions who would fast over a few days, without breaking their fast. Again, the Prophet, may peace be upon him, joined them commenting that if the length of the month permitted it, he would have continued, outlasting all of them. The point is that the demands on him are higher than the demands on them, yet he eats, drinks, and sleeps.

In other cases, however, the Prophet -p- warns against extremism, in that the faith of an extremist is like an arrow going through an animal. Consider the analogy: not only does it go in and out with speed, but it also tears apart the flesh along the way. Extremism is multiple levels of violence a person commits against themselves first, and others second. It is no surprise that extremists seem to be unhappy, prone to rage.

In essence, in the path toward maximizing productivity, I am calling you to a disposition of excellence. We have a problem of mediocrity in our community, whether it manifests in the way we run our organizations or the way it manifests as moral mediocrity.  Deeper, we have a problem in masking sloth as moderation. Sometimes students tell me that they are moderate, rather than say what is more accurate: they are not being honest about their self-assessment. “I do not cover my hair, but I do not dress in a bikini,” or “I do not make my prayers, but I do not hurt people.” Using that logic, everyone is moderate because everyone can cite examples of better and worse practice. “I do not keep my feet to myself but I also do not kick *every* person I meet.” That is all a culture of mediocrity.

From yet another perspective, because we are creatures of habit, we miscalculate our levels of religiosity by identifying what we do do or do not do. Except for life events that require us to change behavior, the person you are today will be the person you are a year from now, which will be the person you are 10, 20, 30 years from now. Life events include a massive change to your daily schedule, including the shift from student life to full-time employment with a fixed schedule. Life events include the death of a provider. Life events include marriage or parenthood.

If, however, you take control of your own life and narrative, you can focus on immediate change. As I mention in literally every single Friday khutba (sermon), make it a goal to conduct micro-changes in the way you live your life. Then, you can look back at the past year and identify where you have improved. Ramadan, our annual intensive boot camp, invites us to conduct more significant changes within ourselves.

My wish for you, then, is that you live life to its fullest potential. When undergrads tell me that they are skeptical of religion, using the usual arguments -- that religion promotes violence, that there are so many religions, that religion is a tool for control -- I try to steer first to the opportunity of life because speaking of the benefits of religion, in that religion is an outstanding means to reaching great heights in internal and worldly accomplishments, with the aspirations for even greater heights in otherworldly accomplishments.

I have mentioned before that it is easy to figure out which students are my best investment of time because those students do the assignments I give them, whether it’s an assignment related to delay prayers or gratitude or certain recitations. Those who make use of me as a mentor do better than others, in the same way, that I still turn to teachers to guide me.  

A few students will do exactly what I assign them, and the results appear very soon. Other students will do an assignment for a month, then stop, then complain to me about how much they hate the assignment while complaining about how much they hate my assignments. I have a running joke with one student that it takes her about four years for her to internalize the utility of my assignments; that works for me because different people work at different speeds. Some students come to me for tutelage, but decide upon their own assignments, not realizing I may be a bit better equipped to assign things; it would be like going to a fitness instructor saying I want to work on Core, but then overriding the exercises the trainer gives me. Sometimes, my informality allows students to treat me as a peer, in that they speak to and about me in ways they would never speak of others they respect.

And, there are some students who are immersed in hypocrisy. There are some who are quick to fire accusations at others, yet unable to tolerate any critiques of their own selves. Likewise, there are others who regard all criticisms as code attacks on them, even if the author (here, me) is not thinking about them.

There are other students who, however, resist all instruction. If I give an assignment, they want to do the opposite. The world I use for that is, “childhood.” We know the experience of wanting to rebel against what our parents want us to do. When we expand that reflex to rebel against a friend or -- goodness gracious -- a chaplain, then we need to step back and check if we are also still sucking our thumbs and wetting our pants.

In mentoring students, however, my job and challenge are to figure out how to make something work. If one assignment fails, perhaps a different assignment will succeed. If the student does not realize that they lack motivation, perhaps I can try something else to inspire them. So, even though I am listing critiques of student attitudes in these paragraphs, these are illustrations of the terrain, not expressions of frustration.

In any case, my hope is that you succeed in Finals, and you succeed in Winter Break. Success in Finals is easier to measure: get A’s. Winter Break success, however, is in the usage of that free time in a beneficial way. We can talk about ideas. If, however, you only have brain space for one accomplishment, then stabilize your sleeping. Two? Food. Three? Prayer. I would suggest Prayer first, but some students cannot stop sleeping.

And Allah knows best.

Omer M

Political Criticism and Diplomacy

December 9, 2018

Assalamu Alaykum Dear Students,

I hope you receive this letter with the best of health, Iman, and integrity.  

A few notable political events have been on Muslim minds lately. A former President of the United States has returned to his Creator. A college professor lost his on-camera-expert job because of remarks he made at the United Nations critical of the policies of a member nation. Third, one of the most prominent American scholars of Islam is under fire for remarks praising another nation.

The reflections on President George H.W. Bush have been as polarized as we would expect. There are those who remember him as a man of great service to the nation, great loyalty, and great dignity. Then, there are those who remember him as a War Criminal, with focus on his interventions in the Middle East, Central America, and South America, as well as certain policies that had an impact on American lives.

Dr. Marc Lamont Hill gave a twenty-minute speech commemorating the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, listing injustices committed by or within the state of Israel against Palestinians, finishing off his speech calling for a “free Palestine from the river to the sea.” For some, his comments were antisemitic. For others, his subsequent firing from CNN -- as well as calls for his firing at Temple University -- illustrate that it is impossible to express any support for Palestinians because of the impossibility of expressing any criticisms of Israel.

Shaykh Hamza Yusuf’s situation is the inverse of Hill’s. Yusuf, the President of Zaytuna College and Vice President of the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies, in an impromptu on-camera interview praised the United Arab Emirates as not only a tolerant country but also one of the safest countries on the earth. Some saw his comments as the language of diplomacy necessary at the level of international affairs. Others saw him as bowing to an oppressive state that has a long history of detaining political prisoners.

So, who is correct? Perhaps everyone, though I disagree with many of them. That is the dilemma of political commentary. Part of the problem, however, is that these are two types of rhetoric: diplomacy with and critique of Power. In the path of social change towards social justice, both are necessary, though by different populaces on the same team.

First, consider this. If comments are made by individuals rather than institutions, then Power will control the discourse. If comments come from institutions, then the more powerful will hold more sway. Meaning, everyone pays attention to the smallest foibles and the largest atrocities by our current head of state but nobody listens to orphans, including many of the people advocating for or sponsoring orphans. In the war for justice, Power will win most of the battles of public discourse.

For example, a million people might speak of Bush as a War Criminal, citing numerous examples from his life after his Presidency, his Presidency, his Vice Presidency, and his leadership of the CIA. Because they are individuals -- even if they are making identical comments -- the nation itself will “remember” him as one of the great civil servants.

Likewise, a million people might criticize Israeli policies for oppressing the Palestinians but the likelihood is high that a Black American criticizing the state would get painted as an antisemite. This is because even though Palestinians might have the sympathies of populations multiple times larger than the population of Israel, the institutional support Israel receives in the United States -- much, much more from Zionist Christians than from Jews -- results in a very specific pro-Israel discourse. Meaning, we can criticize every American president, institution, and ally, with much more freedom than we can criticize Israel.

 

Because of my particular identities, I cannot define what is and is not antisemitism anymore than I can define what is anti-Palestinian hate, homophobia, anti-Black racism, or misogyny. I would, however, ask if a criticism of Israeli human rights violations is more antisemitic than a criticism of the human rights violations of a Muslim majority ally like Turkey, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, or especially the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is Islamophobic.

Further, Shaykh Hamza’s work of the past years has placed him often in dialogue with power; while the approach he took in the 1990s through the first decade of the 2000s was one of vicious criticism of Power, his status in the world has since risen, requiring discourse that sounds apologetic, discourse that sounds like ignorance if not approval of the policies against millions by nations such as the UAE, the above-mentioned Muslim majority nations, and others.

The second point to consider is that there will be clutter in the discourse. Meaning, there will always be opportunists and charlatans who will cozy up to Power, claiming “to want to learn” or “to engage in civility.” They are sometimes easy to identify by the force with which they publicly condemn some or all of the community. Sometimes, they are easy to identify because they get other people to fight their fight, while they remain quiet.

In addition, there will always be clowns who become the de facto spokespersons for the dispossessed, marginalized, and oppressed, by behaving in such abrasive or ridiculous ways that they make all of the oppressed seem like clowns and savages. They are easy to identify because they have no following among the masses they claim to speak for, yet receive much attention.  They believe that “defiance” is success, as though they are liberated and free from the constraints of Power. In our era, some of these people are terrorists, rather than freedom fighters.

Further, there will the celebrity preachers who protect their brand so fiercely that their speeches and activism tend to be more about themselves than the pursuit of justice. Their promotion of their own brand tends to be in proportion to or illustrated by the number of photos of themselves -- including those photos that seem to be unscheduled -- that they themselves post. Do not be mislead to think that an arrest is a badge of authenticity.  You can turn to them for inspiration, but do not expect any substantive critique or insights to come from them. Their product is charisma, not wisdom or scholarship.

What are the best ways to approach the pursuit of social justice, in terms of discourse about power? The most obvious: organize, act, and speak. That is our prescription, that if we see something wrong, change it with your hand, or your tongue, or (the weakest approach) your heart.

Keep sharpening your critique, while remaining aware of the above. In other words, keep sharpening your critique while also looking at its utility in given times and places. At some point, however, the critique becomes repetitive, at which point action is more important. How many headlines have I read in social media about some celebrity whose monologue “takes down” some power broker...with absolutely nothing changing? Repeated critique has the power of becoming the “standard” even if it is slander or delusion. Consider how many times pundits on claim you and I are part of a conspiracy to take over America? Millions of people believe it. Millions believe the Jews control the world. Millions believe that Whites are genetically superior to others.

Further, do not underestimate the importance of diplomacy. After the conquest of Makkah, the Prophet, may peace be upon him, gave worldly incentives to leaders of the Quraysh to get them to embrace him. To some, he offered major pieces of land. To others, he offered wealth. All this was happening, while the Muslim of Madinah, who fought along side him were poor. The Muslims of Madinah complained. You know the rest of the story; if not, look it up. Or, consider, when he had less power, the accommodations he allowed in the text of the Treaty of Hudaybiyya. Or, consider, when he had even less power, how many times he did and how many times he did not condemn the power brokers, in contrast to how often he condemned the atrocities themselves. [As a hint, I am saying to get closer to the Prophet, may peace be upon him.]

Diplomacy may be the enabling of oppression but words of respect to a tyrant may at times be more effective than words of condemnation. We are taught that one of the greatest jihads is to speak truth to a tyrant, but we are not told that that specific truth must be packaged in rage. Consider that tyrants are often narcissists: if there is a way to convince them of something that could save lives, which approach would be more effective in getting their participation? If, however, diplomacy requires lies, then beware. We are taught that lies and deception are acceptable if they can prevent bloodshed, but lying is itself to be cautioned against.

There is another point regarding diplomatic manners with the deceased. I caution against condemning people to Hell: except for a few people identified by Allah as damned, you and I do not know the afterlife of a deceased tyrant any more than the afterlife of a deceased servant. Further, when someone has just died, I question the utility of listing out all of their atrocities, unless it is done in the context of their institutions. You are more than likely going to set your cause back by alienating people by condemning the deceased people they revere.  If, however, we are speaking of objective assessment, that is a different matter; list all details, though it might be better to wait after a mourning period has passed.

I should also add that we have to move beyond Fanon and Foucault. In similar discourse a century ago, the Muslim critics of Power seemed to pull from Marx and Nietzsche. The discourse in the Academy has either built upon these profound thinkers and/or has replaced them with others. But, outside the world of ideas and in the world of reality, they are limiting.

 

I will give you a simple example: if you are reading this letter, chances are that you are not a White Male, yet you are more privileged than most of America’s White Males. When the suburbanite children of physicians and other white-collar workers start pointing fingers at others for privilege, my head spins because I know I won’t be able to get much community *work* from them as much as I will hear hatred of their own people (as self-loathing is a type of narcissism). Likewise, there are others who have positioned themselves as victims based on denomination, race, gender, or ethnicity to such a degree that, every time you meet them they have nothing of use to offer except the same condemnations of community because they do not realize that they have chosen to consume themselves with anger rather than love, especially love for justice or love for the oppressed.

And Allah knows best.

Omer M

The Pure Self

December 2, 2018



Assalamu Alaykum Dear Students,

 

I hope you receive this letter with the best of health, integrity, and Iman.

 

So many students come to my office seeking to find themselves. A common complaint from students is, “I don’t know who I am.” Sometimes, however, they position themselves in a quest for self-determination, not realizing that it is obvious to anyone that theirs is an internal battle against perceived tyranny, usually the tyranny of their parents.

 

Some parents are indeed tyrants. Most other parents, no. More often, students perceive tyranny from their parents when there is none, except some tough love. In any case, their struggle with religion, with personal relationships, with their own personal health is a product of their internal fight. If they are able to vanquish that demon, then it is as though they are free to find fulfillment. Until then, they overcompensate with sometimes healthy, sometimes unhealthy, sometimes destructive behaviors. Many of those heroes our society elevates engage(d) in destructive behaviors, mentioned below.

 

We have a common belief in our tradition, traceable to a teaching of the Prophet, may peace be upon him, that everyone is born in a primordial state called the “fitra.” As part of this natural state, everyone is hardwired with a consciousness of the Divine, as well as a consciousness of right and wrong. Thus, the answer to the question, “If someone was raised on an island, would they believe in God?” can be, “Yes” because of the fitra. “Intelligence,” then, is the ability to choose what is healthy and avoid what is destructive.

 

There is a small genre of allegorical literature addressing this question, under the title “Hayy bin Yaqzan.” The only extant edition is from the 1100s, by the Muslim Aristotelian thinker from Spain (Granada), Ibn Tufayl. He traces the birth and life of Hayy, raised by deer on an isolated island, in what becomes an inevitable quest for the big answers to life, which lead him to connect with the Divine.

 

If that is the case, then a goal of religion in general or Islam, in particular, is to return you to your primordial self, rather than introduce something foreign into your system. Even in the case of the work of the Prophet, may peace be upon him, in Makkah/Mecca, he was calling the Makkans back to their original belief system, the path of Ibrahim/Abraham (may peace be upon him), that preceded the idol worship of their era.

 

In a previous letter, I mentioned that America, in contrast to most of the nation-states on the planet, is an aggressively ideological state. Most of the nations of the world are organized along ethnic lines. Some are structured according to selective approaches to religion. While the secular states in Europe--especially France--are similar to the US, they have not had to contend with differing populations until very recently. America, in contrast, obliterated what was present, established a new nation, broke off allegiances to the Old World, and has centuries of immigration populating it. The nation coerces the immigrants to conform into the American vision, reforming if not erasing the artifacts of their ancestry.

 

A hallmark of the nation-state era is the dominance of public space; the idea is that your home is your sanctuary, but everything outside of the home is subject to regulations. Religion, then, becomes something you are free to pursue in private, with limited motility in public, for example in public attire and semi-private temples.

 

A hallmark of the postmodern era is the intrusion of the public--by way of telecommunications, big media, social media, and surveillance--into private space. Meaning, the public invades your private space as soon as you activate one of these media devices. When you deactivate the device, it still dominates your imagination and thoughts.

 

So, what would happen to that same person raised on an island, without having the dominating ideologies of society imposed upon them? What would happen to that same person if they were not on “the grid;” rather, what would happen if there was no grid for the to join? Meaning, is someone able to be their “true” self?

 

It is not a coincidence that such are people our society celebrates, at least if they are men. We celebrate men for unstoppable determination. Steve Jobs, Elon Musk. Richard Branson. Muhammad Ali. Prince. We see them as people who could not be anything but themselves, and were able to carve out unique lives. So, we marvel not only at their work, but at their independence. Granted, some of their narratives are constructed: we do not speak much about Steve Jobs’ daughter, Elon Musk’s or Prince’s children who died, Richard Branson’s failed businesses. We do not speak about Muhammad Ali’s personal life. Not only are their narratives constructed, but they may be mythologies.

 

We do elevate the stories of women who could not help but to carve their own personal paths to life, but we frame their determination in a cloud of complications, usually roller coaster thinking: Cheryl Strayed’s memoir is called “Wild,” while the movie based on powerhouse journalist Marie Colvin is called “A Private War” referring to her battle with her own inner demons. Such was the case especially in the 1980s and 1990s in our appreciation of Oprah Winfrey, with focus on experiences with sexual assault, attempts at weight loss, and struggling romantic relationships. Otherwise, in the case of such women as Madonna and Kim Kardashian, we elevate them as women who chart their own course first through public sexuality. Depending upon the beholder, either they are determining their own narratives or are cashing in on their ability to self-objectify.

 

In this light, what is the goal, then of Islam? Among the many other goals, like connection to the Divine, preparation for the afterlife, and the implementation of justice: to remove your internal walls, so that you can be your true upright self. It is the process of molding you into someone whose fear and hope are in the Divine rather than anything in the world. If you fear nothing in the world, and your hope is in something beyond this world, then you are...free. This is the perfected human. The Insan Kamil.

 

Thus, the first step for the bewildered undergrad might to accept that they do not know who they are. This is understandable, because until college, most young people lived in their parents’ shelter.

 

The next step, however, is to decide whom they want to be, or to decide to reach their primordial purity. Once they make a decision, it becomes easier to figure out where the obstacles are. My suggestion is that they strive for human perfection.

 

The next step in this path of personal liberation is in taking ownership of our behaviors, through the seeking of forgiveness from the Divine and from those whom we have wronged.

 

The best next step from here, however, is to enlist the tutelage of a mentor or teacher who will be compassionate, yet brutally honest with us. Many, if not all of the heroes we revere were not savants as much as they were guided. Often I can figure out my success rate with a student as soon as I learn how willing they are to learn, their willingness to learn correlates with their willingness to take ownership for their plight.

 

I do not want to romanticize this notion of personal-freedom-through-belief. On the one hand, it is easy for someone who is a slave to their passions to think that they are free. On the other hand, this notion of liberation through belief is something real, but it has also been the slogan for every type of Muslim movement from the Sufis to the Islamists. Meaning, even the idea of the free believer or the perfected human gets caught between delusion and mythology.

 

And that is material for another time.

 

And Allah knows best.

 

Omer M

 

Entering and Leaving Belief

November 21, 2018



Assalamu Alaykum Dear Students,

 

I hope you receive this letter with the best of health, integrity, and Iman.

 

In recent weeks, one popular singer became Muslim while another left Islam. The singer who became Muslim was famous for some beautiful songs, yet infamous for criticisms of power, especially power in the Catholic Church. The singer who is said to have left Islam was raised in a Muslim household, was popular in a recent “boy band” and was popular for a public romantic relationship with a Muslim fashion model. We pray that Allah guides everyone--especially us--to paths that lead toward Him.

 

Though my point of departure is those two “conversions,” my focus is on why people enter religion in general and Islam in particular, and why people exit. For every person who enters Islam in America, another person (sometimes that same person) leaves. Some go so far as to state, “I am no longer Muslim,” while others tend to let the Islam within them fade away, or they fade away from the Muslim community.

 

At the level of Divine will, He guides whom He wills. At the level of the human heart, all of the following is anecdotal, focusing on Islam in Chicago, going back a few decades; some will take issue with these points as they may not apply to them personally.

 

Regarding those who enter Islam, the most common issues are yearning and marriage. People enter Islam seeking healing, completion, purity. Or, people enter Islam seeking marriage. Outside of coercion, there is no wrong intention--considering the various worldly incentives the Prophet -p- offered the leaders of Makkah shortly after the Conquest--even if it is worldly: what matters is what direction someone takes with their Islam.

 

Regarding those who enter into Islam, but leave, the most common issue is lack of community. Under the Umayyad empire (661-745 CE), when someone became Muslim, they would be connected with a family who was responsible for nurturing their growth. While our community has many people who will donate money, wear stickers to show they voted, and dress in costume to attend an occasional march, I do not have too many people to turn to, to nurture new Muslims. I have a very short list of tireless workers who are overloaded. On that note, I have enough trouble finding community members who are willing to even mentor others, here, we are speaking about nurturing lives.

 

Thus, someone enters into Islam, but does not have a community to connect to, so they have to figure out their own solitary path. This problem gets compounded because some converts are abandoned by their family and friends. It gets compounded further because some well-intentioned Muslims push new converts to change everything in their lives from friendships, to clothing, to diet. It gets compounded even further because some converts, full of zeal, are not able to have patience with the perceived sloth lifelong Muslims, while overlooking their own inconsistencies and hypocrisies. It gets compounded even further because some converts fall into a circle of destruction with other other converts, who together frown upon the community.

 

Regarding those who were raised in some form of Islam but exit Islam, the most common issues are yearning, resent, and gluttony. Some Muslims were not raised with much Islam because their Muslim parents veered toward secularity or the peculiarities of culture, and they had no reason but to regard Islam as something primitive belonging in the “Third World.” Others have deep resent against their place in life, especially against their parents, especially against their fathers. Others, however, indulge in their appetites to such a level that they take something as an ilah (a god) other than God: that gluttony becomes a pathway against God.

 

Among Generation Z Muslims, however, the situation seems different. I frequently tell parents that I do not know what holds young Muslims from Generation Z in Islam. The dominant culture is a mixture of Christianity and Capitalism to such a degree that counter-cultures in our society are often reinforcing the dominant cultures. In other words, we are celebrating the recent elections as though they are revolutionary, without mentioning that the long-term expected result is not revolution. Rather, the expected result is that new non-White, non-Christian faces are reinforcing the established categories of governance, with the same capitalist lobbies influencing them.

 

Further, you have heard from me many times that the Islam we teach in our institutions is cluttered with trivia and threats. Meaning the Islam we are teaching them is a burden rather than a system for navigating life, death, and beyond. Some parents who regard themselves as “victims” of such tutelage swing the pendulum to the opposite side, providing an Islam not with trivia and threats, but with abstract ideals like “justice” and excessive positivity. In either case, the approach to Islam we are handing Generation Z (i.e. you) is a two-wheel bicycle to cross an ocean.

 

For Generation Z Muslims, departure from Islam is a departure from something neither relevant nor central to their identity or existence. Departure from Islam is not as controversial for them as it was for their elders. Many of their questions about Islam--often related to peripheral matters--ask: explain to me why any of this is useful or meaningful to my life? If they are raised by my peers, too many of my peers have not resolved their own personal knots and project them onto theology or community, rather than take ownership.

 

We would like to think that Islam’s strongest point is its tight, simple, pure theology. Meaning, you are in this world in an interaction with the Divine, who is testing you with many things, and then completing the examination in a posthumous, justice-filled day of Judgment. The way to pass the tests is found in the instruction and model of the Prophet Muhammad, may peace be upon him.

 

The above is a nice paragraph, but, different people need different things at different times to enter into a community, to remain in a tradition, etc..

 

Religion gives you a map of reality, along with a process through which to navigate reality. Along with that, Religion gives you a community of people somewhere on that path, often following one or more heroes. Many people position modern Science in opposition to Religion, arguing that the objective reality that Science depicts is more accurate than what Religion offers. Science also provides heroes, but Science falls short, however, in providing substantive community. The military offers a depiction of reality, with the nation-state at its heart, along with community and heroes. Twelve Step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous offer prescriptions and community. Capitalism and Socialism also provide depictions of reality often focused on material relationships.

 

Thus, the best approach to religion in this world is the approach to religion that gives you the best ways to navigate life. But, for you to pursue that, you need yearning. The greatest obstacle to yearning is not a lack of yearning, but yearning that gets so directed to the temporary stimulants of the world, that you keep seeking satisfaction from within them, to the point that you become gluttonous. Without feeling yearning, you can “fake it.” If you are willing to fake it, however, it means you have yearning, but you do not know where it is within you.

 

And Allah knows best.

 

Omer M



Political Activism and Representation

November 11, 2018



Assalamu Alaykum my dear Students,

 

I hope you receive this letter with the best of health, integrity, and Iman.

 

With the recent Midterm elections, we have been celebrating the election of two Muslim women -- Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib -- into Congress. Omar (5th, Minnesota) and Tlaib (13th, Michigan) are the third and fourth Muslims elected to Congress, following Keith Ellison, who is now Attorney General of Minnesota, and Andre Carson, who represents the Seventh District of Indiana. I do not have time to list all of the Muslims who were elected or almost elected across the country on Tuesday: that number is in the dozens.

 

As “American Stories,” Omar and Tlaib and the others are especially perfect. Omar is a refugee from Somalia, having lived for years in a refugee camp before reaching the US. Tlaib is a Palestinian Lawyer whose giant family originates in the West Bank, though she was raised in Michigan. Regardless of your own racial or ethnic background, their story is your story.

 

Living in Orland Park, one of my thrills over the past weeks has been from seeing “Rashid” signs on my street, on the lawns of homes not owned by Muslims or Arabs. Further, a graduate of both Full-Time Islamic School and Harvard, Abdelnasser Rashid, who ran as a Democrat for Cook County Commissioner in the 17th District, which is historically not only very Republican but in many regions is far-right Republican, lost by less than 2% of the vote. That is an enormous accomplishment.  

 

If the history of Jews and Catholics are foreshadowing the Muslims of America, we are not far from having more Muslims elected into public office at the local and national levels. The first Jewish Congressman (Lewis Levin, Pennsylvania) began his term in 1845. The first Jewish senator (David Levy Yulee, Florida) began his first term a few months later. Before we lump all political Jews in a single box, inching toward Jewish Conspiracy theories, we should note that these elections took place not only before the establishment of Israel, but even before the growth of the Zionist movements. Rather, as you and I know, European Christian antisemitism predates the 13 colonies by centuries, yet Americans have elected over 200 Jews to Congress and Senate.

 

The Catholic presence in the US is different. For centuries, Catholics had been establishing institutions across the Americas, especially schools and hospitals. Those sympathetic will see these institutions as positive contributions. Critics, however, will point out that this work was part of an imperialist/evangelizingl enterprise, especially looking at similar establishments of schools and hospitals in Muslim majority lands at the same time. They have a valid point. Nevertheless, the growth of Catholic communities--separate from those institutions--across the Americas was in waves, related to unrest in Europe.

 

When Catholics were part of the very first Congress, including Chris Carroll, majority of Catholics were from England. As Catholic immigrants from other European nations--Ireland and Germany, in particular--settled in the US, the “natives” formed the Know Nothing Party, which had an anti-Catholic agenda. 

 

In the 1920s, the Democrats nominated Catholic New York Governor Alfred Smith for President. This move galvanized the Klan in the way President Obama’s election has done the same in our era. As we know, Smith was not the first Catholic president: that was JFK in 1960, whose loyalty to the US (against his loyalty to the Pope) was often challenged.

 

I share all this continuing a point from the previous letter, that the Muslim American political growth is going through inevitable evolutions. Meaning, by pure persistence, we can assume we will have more Muslims elected to political office, more Muslim judges (right now the Supreme Court has one 1 Episcopalian, 5 Catholics, and 3 Jews). The developments will further cement the Muslim presence in the American story.

 

That story is your story.

 

It is interesting, however, that we fall into the same American Exceptionalism as other communities, as we speak of these American elections as milestones for Islam and Muslims in the history of the world. When we consider that there are fifty Muslim majority countries in the world at the moment, or that Muslim empires from the Umayyads, Abbassids, Fatimids, Ottomans, Safavids, Mughals, etc. dominated major sections of the world, then our accomplishments in America seem less impressive and our celebrations of our accomplishments seem--I dare say--narcissistic. Multiple Muslim majority nations have already elected female heads of state, while very few Muslim organizations in the US have done the same. A few Muslim majority heads of state have more influence over American policy than all of us combined.

 

The point here is not to shun Muslim political activism, but to hold it to the same standard we hold non-Muslim politicians. Meaning, if you are voting for a Muslim just because they are Muslim, are you any different than someone White Christian voting for someone White Christian, because they are White Christian? We would like to think that the Muslim candidate would hold the same political values we do, but until 2001, the American Muslim community was split: African Americans often voted Left, while Arabs and South Asians often voted Right. After racism began to take over many parts of the GOP under George W. Bush, the transnational Muslims “immigrated” from the political Right to the Political left.

 

Or, to speak of religious-minded Muslims who have hope that some sort of “Islamic” way will change things our society, we can look overseas, for example, in Turkey. In the recent decades, Turkish politics have shifted very aggressively from the secular to religious. Many Muslims support the current Turkish head of state because of his religious rhetoric, many support him because he comes from a family of Sufis, many support him because of his support for the Palestinians. But, regardless of your stance of the Gulen movements--as I have Turkish students who respect them and Turkish students who despise them--it is hard to justify a democratic head of state conducting sweeping arrests of journalists, academics, and the elderly. In an open democratic society, when the head of state arrests journalists or academics, he is a dictator.

 

Multiple Muslim majority nations have multiple “religious” political parties, including Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia. The end result is that they become almost sects of their own as each party claims Islamic legitimacy.

 

To speak more bluntly, I am cautioning us against seeing Muslim American political elections as beneficial for anything beyond representation. In a society so image-driven, representation is important, because representation expands your own personal ambitions. Any celebration beyond that, however, is egoist because representation is not policy.

 

There are other consequences to the impulse to celebrate representation. The first is that when we elevate one population, we subdue another. With the release of the very entertaining “Crazy Rich Asians” movie, many East Asians celebrated this unprecedented depiction of their communities, rather, this depiction of their humanity, in such a major Hollywood production. When I watched it, I laughed out loud every time a South Asian was on screen, because all four South Asians in the movie were silent, intimidating Sikh security guards.

 

The second problem of the celebration of representation is that the higher the platform, the lower the standards we apply. Consider all of the most popular Muslim American figures, starting with the athletes, from the past fifty years. How many can you name whose personal character was something for a Muslim to celebrate? If you found out that I was engaging in inappropriate conduct, you would be right to have me censured, if not removed. If, however, one of our heroes was quietly engaging in inappropriate conduct, would we do the same? No we would not, because some of our greatest American Muslim heroes engaged in inappropriate conduct while we celebrated their celebrity.

 

The third problem is that the culture of celebrity is a culture that fuels sloth as much as it inspires. On the one hand, successes in the public sphere increase our ambitions. On the other hand, we seem to claim them as our own rather than emulate them. Consider all the attention we give to Malcolm X every May (marking his birthday) and every February (marking his martyrdom): we give much social media attention to him, but beyond social media slactivism, we do not find many who love the community so much that they are willing to give their lives, willing to die for the people. Rather, I know a whole lot of Muslims in the political realm, on the public speaking circuit, and in entertainment who curse the community.

 

So, I encourage you in celebrating these Muslim accomplishments, but urge you to take them for what they are, and use them to inspire your to raise your ambitions.

 

And Allah knows best.

 

Omer M

 

Political Activism

November 4, 2018



Assalamu Alaykum Dear Students,

 

I hope you receive this letter with the best of health, integrity, and Iman.

 

Consider what you will be responsible for before Allah on the Day of Judgment. First, you will be responsible for your own soul. Along with that, you will be responsible for what you owe to Allah and what you owe to those around you. You owe Allah the acts of worship (as found among the “rights of Allah” or “huquq Allah”). You owe certain responsibilities to those around you whether Muslim or not, like security and sustenance, (as found in the “rights of the servants” or “huquq al-ibad”).

 

It seems that record numbers of people are voting in this week’s election. I remember the 1990s and early 2000s during which we would have arguments about the Islamic legitimacy of voting in a democratic process.

 

At one end of the spectrum, some Muslims argued against “taxation without representation.” They stated that if you do not vote, you are giving government officials a free pass to do as they will with as much as a third of your salary. At the other end of the spectrum, some Muslims embrace an idea called “tawhid al-hakimiyyah” or “monotheism in governance,” which argued that Popular Sovereignty is polytheism (shirk) because it is giving the power of the judiciary and legislation to the masses, rather than God.

 

For what it’s worth, I’ll share that for me, the issue was always utility against futility: the amount of hours and dollars invested or spent in politics seemed to me to be a waste compared to other places, like the development of scholarship or investment in institutions that support family and mentorship. I’m hinting at a deeper problem: even if all those funds and hours were not directed toward politics, it does not mean that they would get directed toward scholarship or family. Our community is far more wealthy today than it was twenty years ago, and funding for Muslim scholarship is still near the bottom, except for a few endowments at major universities. Funding for crash courses is not funding for scholarship, by the way. Except for those endowments, I imagine we spend more money on ornamentation like gaudy mosque chandeliers. It is not a coincidence that there are so many narrations in which the Prophet, may peace be upon him, spoke of the decline of knowledge and the rise of violence and affliction in the same passages. The lack of community investment in knowledge is my job security. I would prefer the opposite.

 

In any case, the sets of arguments on both sides had been simplistic, both approaches have lacked any long-term vision, never moving beyond dialogues of the deaf. Such is the case today as well, despite twenty years passing since those arguments began; there has been a lot of mockery against dissent, but minimal substantial development of thought. It is possible that I have completely missed all of the deliberations. I doubt it.

 

Part of the reason both for the breach and the inability to articulate a comprehensive worldview is that the argument’s unspoken subtext was over something deeper than political participation: it was the tension between those (often of transnational backgrounds) who chose to assimilate and integrate into American society and those who chose conservatism as a means to preserve the self and identity. This debate is not unique to Islam; we find it across the Abrahamic traditions in American history.

 

Twenty years later, both sentiments remain present in our community, but the arguments have ended: the mainstream community has endorsed political participation and those who embrace the tawhid al-hakimiyyah stance tend to limit their attendance at the Islamic centers to prayers.

 

On a side note, I am not going to give much more attention here to tawhid al-hakimiyyah because it is a misuse of analogy in theology. Their dissent is legitimate, but their arguments are not. We use analogy (qiyas) as a tool in Islamic law to derive consistent answers. When we apply qiyas to matters of theology, we make everything a matter of tawheed vs. shirk. Because you are choosing your appetite over God when you commit many sins, then your sins become polytheism, and polytheism is unforgiven, therefore you are supposedly doomed. This line of reasoning does not work because it is not sound.

 

In any case, it is not that the community went through any serious deliberation over these issues, though there is legitimate ongoing discussion about strategy and tactics. Rather, it has been an inevitable passive evolution. It is inevitable because, unlike most other nations in the world, America has been since its inception an ideological state. America’s vision--as manifested through institutions, culture, and the dominance of imagination--is so dominant and so dominating, that it forces every ancient tradition to conform into the same categories, reducing religion to an identity, carrying particular affiliations, terminologies, fables, costumes, invocations, and slogans. Meaning, with each decade we are further replacing al-Islam with a fast food, mass consumption version that looks, smells, and sounds like Islam, offering no nutrition for our hearts and minds.

 

I should make it clear that assimilation is not the problem. Part of the function of the methods of Islamic law is to figure out how to practice your Islam fully in any time or place or political situation. I’m speaking of an assimilation conducted without deliberation: that is erasure.

 

Thus, in the American context, all the major religious traditions, despite being so different in vision, complexity, depth and breadth, are more and more interchangeable. All the major religious traditions are coerced to fulfill the American vision. I’ll give you a small example: as marijuana gets legalized across the country, we will find the Muslim justification for its consumption “normalized” using the usual methods of citing precedents from other populations (for example, North Africa and Qat in Yemen) giving us the illusion of rigorous deliberation. Further, many with a bit of knowledge of tradition cite legal processes (i.e. maqasid, maslahah, istihsan) to justify everything. Meaning, in the battle between America and religion, religion figures out ways to accommodate everything even at the cost of its own integrity, so America keeps winning.

 

What has developed, even if by passive evolution, is that our political activism has moved far beyond a conversation over presidential elections. In the 1990s and first years of this century, the focus was on the Muslim community aspirations and the safety of Muslim populations overseas, primarily Palestine, Muslims of India, and Iraq. There were a few blips of concern about Kashmir, Bosnia, Kosova. Not much else.

 

The fact that we are speaking so much about elections right now--in midterms, with emphasis on local politics no less--is a hint that we are more concerned about the well-being of our local Muslim *and* non-Muslim community and are aggressively taking responsibility. Regardless of your stance on political participation, this is an important development. Meaning, you are more likely to fulfill your Muslim responsibilities when your political or activist world places emphasis on your own street, neighborhood, and town, than on the whole nation or world.

 

Nevertheless, because everything is integrated, this focus on the small circle of influence around you, does not free you from concern at the national or international level. We have to address those systemic problems; that is conversation for another time.

 

In all, if you haven’t voted, vote.

 

Deeper, it may seem I am suggesting that unless we as a community more actively develop our priorities, we will further erode into a shallow Americanized religion rather than form a conscious deliberate community. Rather, I am suggesting that the erosion is almost complete; it contributes to my job security because that Americanized Islam is as beneficial for your soul as a McDonald’s happy meal is for your body. The last twenty years seem to show that the next twenty will be more of the same.

 

So, more than vote, let’s deliberate bout how to shift the direction.

 

And Allah knows best.

 

Omer M

 

Trainwrecks

October 28, 2018



Assalamu Alaykum Dear Students,

 

I hope you receive this letter with the best of health, Iman, and integrity.

 

It has been some time since my last letter to you. I needed the time to work on my many thoughts. It is unfortunate, however, that it was the events of the past week--of all things--that set me out of hibernation.

 

On Wednesday, a man in Louisville shot some people at a grocery store. Prior to murdering Maurice Stallard and Vickie Lee Jones, he went to a Black Church, armed. As of yet, the murders have not been classified as hate crimes.

 

On Friday, a man was arrested, suspected of sending live pipe bombs to the homes of many people on the political left. The targets were Barack Obama, the Clintons, Joe Biden, Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Eric Holder, Debbie Wasserman Schulz, Maxine Waters, Robert DeNiro, George Soros, Tom Steyer, John Brennan, and James Clapper. For some reason, these attempted murders keep getting identified as bomb threats.

 

On Saturday, a man opened fire on congregants at a synagogue, killing eleven and injuring another half dozen. These are his victims: Joyce Feinberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, David Rosenthal, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax, Irving Younger. This community, by the way, was very active in resettling Muslim refugees from overseas.

 

The common element in each of these cases seems to be the ongoing violent last gasps of White Supremacy. As you well know, you and I are also in the crosshairs. Members of other minority and marginalized groups are as well.

 

After that night in November 2016, you know that I have been very concerned about the future. There have been a few periods in the past two years during which I became hopeful. In each of those cases, it was because of the sheer number of people who have been standing up against hate.

 

The moves have been sincere and valuable; most have been symbolic and some have been substantive. The symbolic statements of solidarity have been the essays, memes, marches, protests, and vigils. The attempts at substantive change have focused on the ballot, including the current elections. In our era in which we give images the weight of authority, symbolic gestures may have more power than substantive moves. On that note, I hope that each of you takes the time to vote. I voted last week.

 

I am less optimistic today than I was in 2016. I have pulled away from almost all community work. I am teaching one course in the community through this school year, with the possibility of a few more, but I do not expect to do much more. Part of the reason is that I want to give as much brain-space and heart-space to you. A second reason is that I do not have much in me to give to the community; my classes may be educational, but they feel like I am serving people nice meals rather than compelling personal transformation. A third reason is that there are many more people who do better work, Alhamdulillah. I am finishing up another case of Muslim preacher misconduct, now having worked on cases involving about a dozen and half preachers; there are organizations like FACE in Texas that are more equipped to address these issues.

 

The change in approach, however, means that I am dedicating more attention and more intensity to personal study and development and more attention and intensity to each of you. Even though I see the future as something dim, it does not mean that I am giving up. Not a chance.

 

I’ve digested the narratives from our history too many times to be able to give up, whether we speak of the Muslims at Badr, Khalid b. Walid against the Romans, Imam Husayn against tyranny. Meaning, there is a part of me that is not interested in struggle unless the odds are against us. They are. Right now, this is a losing battle.

 

What I am seeking from you, however, is to complete the handshake with me. Please do not take this request as a statement of disrespect, but I need many of you to grow up now. I hope to neither (ever) infantilize your struggles, nor to judge them. My mission is to help you find Iman, healing, empowerment, success. Your challenge, however, is to be men and women, moving beyond childhood and into leadership.

 

One of the hardest aspects of my work is one of the hardest aspects of friendships. Sometimes, you are watching a human trainwreck. Such a person is one who is sliding faster and faster downhill into oblivion, despite the numerous people trying to hold them back. The one thing they need is to take ownership of their plights; instead, they continue to run away. So long as you place any responsibility for your condition on someone other than yourself, you are sliding downhill. Indeed, the blame for some of your struggles is on others; the responsibility for your healing and growth is always, however, on yourself. Why? Because the world is too busy to take time out for you. The brutal reality is that most of the world does not care about you.

 

In other words, the struggle preventing many people from transitioning from childhood into adulthood is the struggle of taking ownership for their condition. So, when I am calling you to adulthood, I am calling you to take ownership for your personal condition. When I am calling you to leadership, I am calling you to take ownership for the condition of your communities.

 

This brings us back to White Supremacy. For starters, all supremacist movements are compensation for inferiority and weakness. If you have to tell your own people they’re the best, it means there is some doubt about it. White Supremacy is a centuries-old mixture of a selective, absurd interpretation of Christianity, toxic masculinity, imperial ambitions. A consequence is a series of fables about the past, conspiracy theories about the present, and dreams of a utopian future. A deeper consequence, however, is violence; initially, the violence is sporadic, then it is mob violence, then it is institutionalized genocide.

 

At its core, however, it is a bunch of people unable to contend with the economic consequences of globalization. Religion is giving them neither the guidance nor escape they need. So, they are turning to narcotics; the masses are literally turning to opium.

 

They entrust certain people for guidance, including those in public office, those on camera, and those at the pulpit. Those leaders are often charlatans unable or unwilling to give substantive answers, and instead, give symbolic mythologies, which include blame of African Americans, Jews, Latinx, Muslims, LGBT, and others for their own discontent.

 

These legitimized con artists capitalize on the anxiety in these precious hearts -- a White Christian heart is no less precious than another heart -- and replace it with fear, that they replace with rage. And they never take ownership for the violent consequences of that rage.

 

They will not take ownership for inspiring the murders in Louisville and Pittsburgh, and will not take ownership for the attempted murders from that bomb maker. Their symbolic gestures have substantive consequences.

 

Instead, they have chosen to behave like a bunch of children. When leadership behaves like toddlers, then the trainwreck is the entire community, leaving a trail of wounded, bloodied bodies in its path. Meaning, we are watching White supremacists pretending to save the country, by cannibalizing it. But, it is your and my country as much as anyone else’s, so let us be the adults in the room.

 

I have few answers for all this, but I do not have the privilege or capacity of giving up. Neither do you.

 

And Allah knows best.

 

Omer M





Advice on Student Life

August 26, 2018

 

Assalamu Alaykum Dear Students,

 

I hope you receive this letter with the best of health, Iman, and integrity.

 

Classes start this week. I hope you are ready; I am sure you are ready iA. I wanted to share a few reminders as things on which to focus. Very simple. College can be the best time of your life...or not. I want it to be the best. Consider the following.

 

1- Regarding your full-time job: class.

 

A- Do not miss class. Do not sit in the back row. Sometimes students sit in the back because of shyness. Sometimes, they use the wall behind them as a headrest. Still, when my students sit in the back row, the message I interpret from them is that they focus on leisure, rather than work.

 

B- Do your school work as soon as you can. It was the practice of the generation of the Prophet, may peace be upon him, to do all their most intense work in the time slot between Fajr and Zuhr prayers. Speaking from my own experience, that is the most productive time of the day.

 

C- Regarding some classes over others. It is fine if you prioritize some classes over others, classes related to your major or long-term plans will have more weight in your outlook. When students ask me if they can skip my class for another class, however, I infer a few things about them. The first is that I should not consider them to be serious students in any capacity, especially when they ask me for letters of recommendation.

 

2- Social Life.

 

A- For many of you, this will be your first taste of freedom. The result is that you will find yourself staying awake into the late night hours with friends as though you are on a summer camp. You might binge for hours on shows, but otherwise, you’re not going to learn anything useful about life in those late hours.

 

B- Be militant about your circle of friends. You will be what your friends are, especially in matters of integrity (or lack thereof). Some of you will start or will increase your consumption of booze and drugs because of your friends. Some of you, however, will elevate yourselves in excellent ways because of your circle of friends.

 

C- Be strict about your communications with potential romantic partners. I am not encouraging you to find romantic partners or potential spouses; I’ll leave that matter between you and your parents. But, if you have extensive interaction with someone, you *will* develop feelings for them. The more you interact, especially after hours, the more you will lower your guard. Your heart will start to race when you hear from them. You will not want your conversations to end. Then, you will get addicted to each other.

 

3- Regarding your Islam.

 

A- The most important thing to work on are your daily prayers and your integrity. If you can establish your daily prayers, you will develop a routine and stability in your day. Let’s work on a plan to develop you in your prayers. If you schedule your day, then schedule in your prayer times; I do. Each week, I update my prayer schedule for the following two weeks. Then, I plan my appointments around my prayer times. If possible, try to schedule your classes each semester so that you can attend Friday prayers as well.

 

B- Your peers should regard you as someone of high integrity. You will have many opportunities to cheat. If you make it your practice to cheat, you may get the scores you need to get your Med School or graduate school admissions, but it is doubtful that you will be able to sustain the rigor of those programs. I have had multiple students get kicked out of Med School because they could not sustain the work, and they could not sustain the work because of cheating. Of course, if you cheat in my class, you Fail.

 

C- Own your condition. It is easy to blame everything in your life on circumstance or on others, but the brutal reality of the world is that nobody cares. I have students who fall behind in attendance and work. Speaking as Chaplain Mozaffar, this distressed me. Speaking as Professor Mozaffar, however, you are a grown adult; I am not chasing after you. The more you can take ownership of your plight, the freer you will be to fulfill your personal, spiritual, and professional ambitions.

 

4- Regarding the MSA, the Musalla, Me.

 

A- So much of our lives is a list of missed opportunities. I am here at your service. I am not only here to help you heal from pain, but also to help you achieve personal excellence. I am here to form you.

 

Many of you will visit me at the end of your college careers, however, expressing regret for not visiting me sooner. So, start with a visit in the *next* week to break the ice and start the relationship. I’m not that scary, up close. My daughters complain that I overload on the cologne; I don’t think you want the other option.

 

B- When you graduate (Insha Allah) from Loyola, you will miss all the Muslim resources this school provides you. Most of your Med School, Dental, Law cohorts will have maybe 5-10 other Muslims (instead of 800). Immerse yourself in these resources. Sign up for the MSA lists and chat groups. Volunteer.

 

Some of you, however, will fear that other Muslims are judging you. Considering that most of your fellow Muslims have taken my classes, and I know their grades and their personal lives, let’s say that almost nobody is in a position to judge you. Consider something more profound: if you are worried about being judged, so too are they. Consider something even more profound: if you are assuming that people are judging you, then that means that you are already judging them. By the time you reach my age, Insha Allah, you’ll be too concerned about cholesterol and plantar fasciitis to care what other people think of you.

 

Further, every year, there are some haters who decide that it is there duty to condemn the MSA. One thing you will learn about haters is that if they criticize one thing, they will criticize many things. They should be talking to me for help, rather than insulting MSA to you.

 

C- On the same, note, do not limit your college experience to MSA. The most exciting students that visit me seem to be those who are involved in things beyond the usual Muslim-ish organizations. The MSA has had everything. An MSA student was the guy who dressed as the Loyola wolf. Many MSA students have worked on the school newspaper. MSA students have led other student organizations. Expand your world.

 

5- Regarding life in general.

 

A- I regard each of you as adults. The community views you as Youth, and the community is wrong. I have expectations of each of you regarding your disposition and intellect. The Divine has designed life for us to toil and struggle, with some play. Too many of your peers and my peers choose to play instead of struggle. When I think of community work, I wonder where all my peers are. Then I remember all the touch football, basketball and cricket leagues out there.

 

B- The door to redemption is always open. You will make many mistakes throughout your college career. These will be mistakes in partaking of forbidden practices, lies, missed obligations. But, the door is open to turn back and straighten yourself out. Never, never, never give up. I am primarily here to help you on these matters, iA.

 

C- I like to joke that even though Loyola’s Ignatian motto is that you should, “Go forth and Set the World on Fire,” I can not prescribe that because I’m the *Muslim* Chaplain and someone might alert Homeland Security. So, I’ll say instead cite Bill and Ted in their Excellent Adventure and call upon you to be Excellent, especially to each other. You don’t even know who Bill and Ted are, do you?

 

This letter makes me sound like a grumpy old man, whose feet hurt. I’m nice. Sometimes. I’ll get better shoes.

 

And Allah knows best. Let’s talk.

 

May Allah bless you.

 

Omer M






On suicide

June 10, 2018

 

Assalamu Alaykum Dear Students,

 

I hope you receive this letter with the best of health, integrity, and Iman.

 

I was not expecting to write this letter especially because I am in transit across the country, but I have to. My chaplain letters sometime include personal reflections; this letter will contain quite a bit.

 

Two very popular celebrities--designer Kate Spade and chef and social commentator Anthony Bourdain--have taken their lives. While reading about them, I discovered articles about skyrocketing suicide statistics among cab drivers, young Pakistanis, Black Americans, Middle Aged White Males as well. One of the most difficult-to-read books I own is called "Suicide in Palestine: Narratives of Despair." I have multiple students whose middle-aged Arab brothers have taken their lives. While I was typing this letter, a student (not affiliated with Loyola) informed me that her uncle just took his life. In Spring 2017, we had a surge of suicide ideation among our students. Last year, we connected it with the release of the Netflix show, “13 Reasons Why.” Even though the second season of that show was just released, I don’t suspect such causal relationships.

 

At this point in such letters, I have to share--if I have not already--that depression has been part of my narrative to such a degree that it has altered the course of my life. I know depression well enough to recognize it in me when it comes back: my mind feels as though it is slowing down as though joy is the result of a fast mind and despondency is the result of a slow mind, I start feeling like I'm wading in warm quicksand on a hot day, and the swamp makes me miserable, yet it also feels like a warm protective blanket that I do not want to get out of.  Sometimes, I can spot it when it approaches, but sometimes it takes a few months in the quicksand for me to realize what is happening.

 

It doesn't end there, I had suicide ideation since childhood, to the point that I would--as a gradeschooler--cut deals with God about life. All the prayers eventually came true, though some took decades for me to notice. I don't know where the ideas came from. Perhaps someone made a passing comment. Perhaps it was a scene in a television show. Perhaps it was from my own thoughts.

 

But, I  have not only had suicide ideation in my history, but multiple suicide attempts using different means. If I told you the means, you would regard it as a miracle that I am here today.

 

I'd categorize the attempts in three ways:

 

1- Cries for help in which I would hurt myself in such a way that would *not* result in death,

2- Seeking escape from either the mental pain or seeming meaningless of life,

3- Moments of fury in which I felt so suffocated that I decided in the spur of the moment to throw everything away either with ultra reckless behavior or specific steps to end everything.

 

I also have to comment that the path is not linear: depression does not automatically lead to suicide ideation, which does not automatically lead to suicide attempts. Meaning, when depression overtakes me, it does not mean an increase in suicide ideation. Rather, they are three overlapping circles, which overlap more when the issues are not addressed.

 

There are *some* aspects that I can “release” like a genie from a bottle. The symptoms were much worse in my art/creative days. We sometimes think of artists as these tormented souls. When I need or want to be creative--the level of creativity that many of my then film school classmates turned to drugs to reach--I creep into that realm of my mind and heart. I know how gruff my socially awkward personality can be: you did not want to be around that depressed-anxiety-filled person. I started shutting off that part of me some time into my daughters’ early childhoods.

 

I didn’t realize how much I was keeping that part of me locked up until I was working on some television projects a couple of years ago and reached into that internal vortex. I do not recall suicide ideation returning, but depression returned in full force. Then, that depression would find some relief when I would experience exhilaration on completing a creative project.

 

About a decade ago, I had students--two spouses taking my class together--who defined suicide in a significant way: suicide is a way someone succumbs to depression. When you die from cancer, the disease eats your system faster and faster as it spreads across your organs. When you die from depression, you are suffering a condition of the brain and/or mind. They developed this understanding after their daughter--who was very highly successful in worldly matters--took her life. There is some truth to itin coping with such loss.

 

There are still people in our community who believe that mental health is something unreal that can get resolved by choosing to be happy or by praying more. This is the mistake of prescribing the wrong medicine for a pathology. Different adhkar (prescribed repetitive recitations) in our Tradition have different usages; the wrong adhkar will at best be useless and at worst be damaging.

 

There was a time in my childhood when the at-home treatment for all illnesses was aspirin. Everything. Later research showed aspirin was the *wrong* treatment for many symptoms. Tylenol overtook aspirin as the medicine of choice until we discovered that it is mainly a pain reliever and too much acetaminophen causes liver problems. This is what happens when parents tell you that you only need to pray more or go for a walk: they are giving a prescription that treats many conditions but may not address your specific situation.

 

Then, it becomes a double problem because not only does your depression persist, but your faith shakes because prayer is not erasing it. In other words, increased Salah/Namaz (the daily prayers) is a cure for many conditions, but sometimes it is a misdiagnosis. Just as there are times in the day or month when you are *not* permitted to make the Salah, there are times when Salah is not the proper treatment.

 

In any case, some depression is a condition of the body (including the brain), requiring professional physiological treatment. For the past few years, I have been on and off prescribed antidepressants; they function not unlike statins for treatment of high cholesterol. I have noticed a correlation between my mood and specific types of beef; as a result, I have cut down on beef consumption. I suspect a cause would be the chemicals injected into that beef. Likewise, certain exercises and certain postures work wonders on my disposition; others, not so much.

 

When many of you come to my office, one of the first questions I ask are about your sleep and diet; fixing your sleep or diet will not cure depression or anxiety, but bad sleep or diet will worsen it. Eventually, I refer some of you to the professionals at the Wellness Center.

 

Some depression is a condition of the mind, requiring specific education, much of which is a recalibration of how we look at the world. Meaning, two of the dominant functions of religion are (a) to tell you how the world works and (b) to prescribe how to navigate it. That is why religions last: they provide us with what we need even of much of their internal structures an content are otherwise irrelevant and perhaps bunk. On a side note, the scientistic worldview tries to give us a complete system based on a materialist/patterns approach and is very good in that aspect of our being.

 

Some of the bogus treatments of our era include things like “The Secret” and the “Law of Attraction.” They confuse du’a with cure. As primers on how to make du’a (supplication) they can be useful. Otherwise, they are forms of mental acetaminophen, fooling you into trying them as everything except for mental pain relief.

 

Some depression is a condition of the heart: sometimes it is the result of letting our nafs run free, sometimes it is the result of alienation. There is a popular book right now that asserts that depression’s cure is in developing strong relationships. Again, it is a correct treatment for *certain* forms of depression, but when it is presented as a cure for all depression, then it is dangerous.

 

Here in matters of the heart, we require prescriptions that--in our society--might seem much more “religious.” When I am mentioning that there is a part of my personality that I am shutting off it may sound internally violent. Rather, it is Taqwa: keeping myself on guard, 24/7, just like we do in Ramadan with fasting. Meaning, in our popular culture, the sentiment is that you should "obey your thirst" and discover your supposed authentic self. In our Tradition, however, you should "control your thirst" in order to be your authentic self, because letting your thirst (i.e.) fun free is a pathway to deep unhappiness.

 

Having said all this, some final comments for your consideration:

 

1- If you are struggling through depression *please* get help. If it is easier to start with me, please do so. Often my job is to get you comfortable with the idea of seeing a therapist and/or psychiatrist and sometimes a shaykh. I have seen each. I don’t care about people judging me: I’m at an age where my desire for no longer being physically, mentally, or spiritually miserable far exceeds any concerns about embarrassment. But, I understand your hesitancy.

 

2- Collectively, we are living in a very desperate, defeating era. Much of social media is the production of pessimism, performance and foreboding views on about the future. Still, when someone succumbs to depression and takes their life, there is no answer. You will look for answers in your loved one’s struggles, and you may find clues, but there is no answer. A time will come where we will find cures for these things, Insha Allah, but right now we do not have them. But, you too need to go through a process of healing that may require therapy.

 

3- Kate Spade is a decade older than me, and Anthony Bourdain is a generation older than me. Meaning, I know that depression will be part of my life for years to come. In the same way some students do not have the privilege to ignore their diabetes, I do not have the privilege of ignoring depression.

 

4- I hope it is clear that I want you to be well. I hope that every person who enters my office knows that they are loved. I am not the only person who feels this way about you. Read the narratives of the family members of suicide victims: they are destroyed. Suicide is not an escape from suffering, as much as it is an expansion of suffering.

 

And Allah knows best.

 

Omer M

Departing from you. Believing in you.

May 13, 2018


Assalamu Alaykum Dear Students,

I hope you receive this letter with the best of health, integrity, and Iman.

When we look at the various interactions the Angel Gabriel (Jibril) had with the Prophet Muhammad, may peace be upon him, we see different elements of the relationship of the mentor with the mentee. We know that Jibril delivered the revelations from Allah to him. We know that he taught him the salah (the formal prayer). We know through the many wondrous narrations about the Night Journey that Jibril guided the Prophet, may peace be upon them, on a tour through the heavens and hell.

One of my favorite moments in their interaction took place in that Night Journey when they reached the highest point that Jibril could reach, after which he had to send Muhammad, may peace be upon them, on his way, alone, for that intimate meeting with Allah. This is akin to the experience that mentors and teachers like me experience during weeks like this graduation week. In completing your studies, you must now not only leave my protective environment, flying out of the nest to soar without me, but you must also now strive to soar higher than I have ever reached.

Let us also remember that the role that the Prophet, may peace be upon him, may have been so unique, yet he was the pinnacle of the work of the prophets and saints that preceded him. His responsibility was to the prophet assigned not only to the Hijaz but for all humanity then and beyond. From Adam through Nuh (Noah) through Ibrahim (Abraham) through Musa (Moses) through Isa (Jesus), the prophets assigned to specific populations, it is as though he is standing on the shoulders of the prior generations, and they are standing on shoulders of the generations before them. Your job is to now stand on the shoulders of the teachers and mentors you have had here at Loyola, as we stand on the shoulders of the teachers and mentors who taught, guided, and nurtured us. All of that sounds nice, but we forget that you owe it to future generations to be the foundation upon which they stand.

For those of you who are graduating, our relationship need not end this weekend; I hope it does not. That event of the Night Journey happened (according to majority opinion) roughly halfway into the period of the Prophet’s receiving revelation; Jibril continued to guide and teach him through to the end of his life. Near the end, he interrogated or examined the Prophet, as recounted in the “Hadith of Jibril.” So long as I am able, I am here to offer you whatever is within me, Insha Allah. Every year there are more and more alumni and former students who keep in touch with me as they further discover what Allah has in store for them.

Let us also remember that the Prophet is the ultimate, true mentor: yours and mine. Because he is no longer with us, we know him through those who knew him. There will come a day in which I am no longer here to teach you. I do not expect that my departure from this world will be as traumatic an experience for any of you as was the departure of the Prophet for his family, companions, and the world itself. But, my point here is to remind us that all of this guidance has numerous worldly goals yet one clear destination: the Day of Judgment. The whole of my interaction with you is focused on helping you focus on seeing true reality, on seeing reality for what it is, on guiding you away from seeing the world as nothing but you (narcissism), to seeing the world as nothing but you and God, and better than that: seeing the world as nothing but God.

It is a blessing that we are beginning Ramadan this year just as we finish our school year, and just as some of you finish your college careers. At one level, we know that the activities of Ramadan -- including the fasts, the meals that start and end the fasts, the intensive personal immersions in the Qur’an, the extensive tarawih prayers -- are fulfillments of acts of worship. Many students reach the latter parts of Ramadan, however, feeling that they are not feeling anything. They may not realize that they are indeed experiencing Islamic “spirituality.”

In our greater culture, when speaking of “spirituality,” we might speak of being free from externally imposed strictures, like when people say, “I am spiritual but not religious,” or feeling exhilaration, or getting clouded with intoxication, or exploring the ideas of metaphysics. But, Islamic “spirituality” is “clarity.” Thus, as you get deep into Ramadan, through all the various exercises, you may be feeling nothing, because you are experiencing clarity.

We are taught that we are born on fitra, that everyone is born pure, good, innocent. Then, as our parents raise us, as we make choices in life, as society influences us, that fitra gets buried with layers upon layers. What causes those layers? We are shielding ourselves from aspects of the world that seem hostile. When those layers are not sufficient, we had more shields on top of them.

Thus, when we look at the world, we look through more and more layers or filters, not realizing that our vision of the world gets more and more obscure. Meaning, you may have a tree outside your window, yet as these layers pile on in you through the years, you see the tree differently from time to time. You may see the tree as a source of oxygen. You may see the tree as a piece of natural beauty. You may see the tree as a home for animals. You may see the tree as available wood. You may see the tree as sacred because it is a tree. You may not notice the tree. Each of these is the result of a different filter. Meaning, each of these is the result of a different layer we put around our heart to protect ourselves.

The most dominant filter among your generations is the scientistic filter, that convinces you that there is an objective reality that is honest with you, while your subjective experience is dishonest with you. One of the consequences of this filter is that you feel compelled to conform to this objective reality, at the cost of your uniqueness. Sometimes that price is hostility or violence against the self.

This is part of the joy of teaching children: they are so unfiltered, so pure, that their questions are so piercing. Older students tend to be so buried in their layers that they ask the same predictable questions, week after week.

Thus, what happens when you fast, week after week? Because you are in this act of partial or complete self-control, you are bypassing internal layers, sometimes because it is too exhausting to maintain them. Undergrads are surprised that have I have a filter: the other day in our department kitchen, some female colleagues mentioned that they never see me there. I responded with the second most absurd answer I could think of. The third most absurd answer was, “I decided to do work, for a change.” The second most absurd answer was, “I’m not often in the kitchen because I’m a man.” If you’re wondering, the *most* absurd answer would have been, “I’m not often in the kitchen because I’m a man, ROAR!! [at which point I would have to growl and flex my muscles].” But why did I need to respond to a cordial comment with absurdity? That’s a filter. I don’t think it’s insecurity, but my point is that undergrads get surprised when I tell them that when I fast, my filters go away, which means that I have filters. In other words, what is the filterless version of me expressing: no nonsense.

I have to remind students that Ramadan is not a month of self-denial, but of self-discipline. So, when you are fasting, you are ignoring many of these filters; you are so on guard, so fixated on not breaking your fast -- even when you are alone -- that you are replacing those shields with another shield: taqwa. The consequence of this taqwa is clarity.

When are our minds very clear? When we are hungry. Meaning, our need for food/water is so clear. Our need for food/water is so great that we set everything else aside. So, consider what is happening:

Those of you who take my classes know how difficult I make them. It is because I want you to work at your best standard because I know you can do it. I am expecting you to not only earn an A but an A+. Meaning, I believe in you. I give you opportunities to see me before you submit your assignments so that you can fix anything that needs to be fixed. If you believe you received an unsatisfactory grade from me because I have some vendetta against you, then you are not understanding. The moment you enter my class or my office, my default is to believe in you. If you are doing less than what is necessary for you to earn an A+ from me, then you are believing in yourself less that I believe in you.

Now, consider when Allah hits you with struggle. He is expecting you to earn the highest level of paradise: your palace is already there, waiting for you. In other words, He “believes” in you. If you are asking yourself, “Why is this happening to me?” then you are not understanding. Further, if you are seeking only to “pass” by getting into paradise by the bare minimum, then you are conducting yourself in a manner that is lower than the dignity with which the Creator has formed you.

And, that is my ultimate goal for your future, more than professional success, more than family expansion, more than material profits. My ultimate goal for your future is for you to reach your perfection, by way of clarity, by taqwa. If you can taste the clarity this Ramadan, then you know your target.

And Allah knows best.

Omer M

 

Facing Inevitables

May 6, 2018

 

Assalamu Alaykum Dear Students,

 

I hope you receive this letter with the best of health, integrity, and Iman.

 

We have now completed the semester, entering that short phase during which my students with B+ and A- grades try to negotiate their grades up to A grades. The most extreme case of this was a student who "earned" a D, but was convinced he deserved an A. Then there was the student who failed my class once, then took another class with me, and when he earned an F in that class, he protested. I don't mind this negotiation because your grades will stay on your transcripts forever.

 

For some of you, the stress over grades is because you want to get into graduate or professional (i.e. med) school. For many of you, however, you are terrified of your parents' wrath. I do not understand this approach of default-anger, having been someone with decades of default-anger within me that I had to wash out of me. Speaking as a parent, I can tell you that even when they tell you that you are the spawn of the devil, that 100% of the things your parents say to you translate as, "I want you to have the best life you can, and I do not know how to express it in your language." But, those reflections will not help you this week. For many of you, the goal of this week is to survive with minimal injuries to your soul.

 

If you are terrified to face your parents, chances are that your parents' style of parenting is, "Nothing you do will make me happy even when you make me happy. I will seek out the dark cloud in every silver lining." Some such parents add to their unhappy approach with, "I am going to worry all day long especially when I have nothing to worry about."

 

Some such parents have the Deluxe approach, which means that for them, "Money solves all the problems of the world even though I have so much money and am yet so unhappy all that time so if you are not a doctor you might as well die."

 

Then, there are those parents that have the Super Deluxe approach, in which all the following grades are the same: F, D-, D, D+, C-, C, C+, B-, B, B+, A-.

 

Then, there are those parents that have the Superduper Deluxe approach, in which they reprimand you that your classmate named "Aanteater Aardvark" is always listed first in all of the honor rolls, and you, named "Zoobilee Zoo" always come in last. If you try to remind them that the list is alphabetical, and *they* chose to name you "Zoobilee," you will get in trouble.

 

So choose your adventure. I suggest option 1.

 

OPTION 1: Face the inevitable.

 

1- Assume they are not capable of being happy, so they are not capable of being happy with you.

2- Give them the bad news and let them kill you, then murder you, then execute you.

 

OPTION 2: Delay the inevitable.

 

1- Hide and be miserable for as long as you can.

2- Give them the bad news and let them kill you, then murder you, then execute you.

 

OPTION 3: Really delay the inevitable and make things worse.

 

1- Run away.

2- Spend your life running away.

3- Hide and be miserable for as long as you can.

4- Give in, only to discover that all your siblings will be unhappy that you made your parents so unhappy.

5- Give them all the bad news and let them all kill you, then murder you, then execute you.

 

OPTION 4: Change the world.

 

1- Fight for all of the oppressed children across the world who suffer under the regimes of tyrannical parents.

2- Wake up from the dream.

 

OPTION 5: Bring in family.

 

1- Find an aunt or uncle who can defend you.

2- Discover that your parents are so angry, that your aunt/uncle give up rather than face the wrath.

3- Give them the bad news and let them kill you, then murder you, then execute you. But because you brought in other people, they will kill you twice as much.

 

OPTION 6: Try to win their sympathies.

 

1- Try to tell your parents that you want nothing more than to make them proud of you.

2- Give them the bad news and let them kill you, then murder you, then execute you.

 

OPTION 7: Attack.

 

1- Remind your parents that if they call you names like "Spawn of the Devil," that means that you are the Spawn and they are the Devil.

2- Give them the bad news and let them kill you, then murder you, then execute you.

 

OPTION 8: Wish for an alternate reality.

 

1- Wish that Mozaffar is your parent instead of your parent. Note that Mozaffar's daughters have probably never asked that Mozaffar be their parent.

2- Give them the bad news and let them kill you, then murder you, then execute you.

 

OPTION 9: Gratitude.

 

1- Be thankful you have parents who care about you.

2- Who are we trying to kid. Ignore this option for now.

 

Good luck.

 

Keep in mind that if you choose the life of worry -- and most of you choose the life of worry by delaying giving your parents the "bad" news -- then you have already become what you wish to avoid: you have become your parents. Personalities seem to get nurtured into longevity across generations because the household environment that keeps your parents' personality as it is, is the same household environment that you are growing up in. And, they were nurtured in a similar household environment by their parents.

 

In other words, your goal is to make peace with the parenting you received. So many of you come to my office with problems related to your parents that I can tell almost 100% of you that there are numerous others who have a much worse situation. In the past year, a few of our students also lost parents: their hurt continues as I type this letter. With the pain of loss, there are also the various uncertainties, like financial uncertainty.

 

You have heard me say many times that I find a direct correlation between a student's resent against their parents and their resent against God. We split the attributes of God into two categories: those of majesty or power and those of beauty or mercy. If you regard your parents as tyrants, you will default in your perception of God to those attributes of power, regarding the other attributes as secondary.

 

So, the next matter to make peace with is your perception of the Divine. You control your perception of your parents, though it is easier to control it when you are distant from them and not falling into the usual defenses against trauma. You control your perception of the Divine.

 

The recurring theme in all of the options above should be obvious: take ownership of your situation. I have students who enjoy dishing out insults to others, yet lose their bearings when someone tosses back an insult to them. I have students who would rather blame their situation on Western Hegemony or Muslim mediocrity than their own choices; I have to remind them that there is no Zionist/Wahhabi/Illuminati conspiracy that gets them to skip classes. I have students who regard all experiences in life that do not conform to an upper-middle-class paradise, as hell.

 

What is the other option? To live always in prison. The prison you live in is not a prison of your parents' control over you, yet I have students who seem to remain in that prison. The prison you live in is not a prison of society crushing you, because you choose whether or not to be oppressed. The prison you live in *is* the false-reality you have constructed around yourself to deal with actual-reality.

 

In other words, I am saying that when we are in those moments of choosing between facing or delaying an inevitable difficulty, we are choosing between remaining in a prison we think is protective or a reality that is inevitable.

 

Face the inevitable. Even though your soul will get crushed, your heart will be lighter for it, especially if the soul-crushing is inevitable.

 

If you can start facing the inevitables in this world, then we can talk about that Ultimate Inevitability: al-Waqi'ah. If you cannot, then you will regard the Day of Judgment as fantasy, no matter what you tell yourself.

 

And Allah knows best.

 

Omer M

Heartbreak

April 22, 2018

 

Assalamu Alaykum.

 

Dear Students,

 

I hope you receive this letter with the best of health, integrity, and Iman.

 

The most common issue from the past week has been heartbreak. It is fitting that the previous week was about loneliness, and now we discuss that pain that each of you will experience if you have not already.

 

The feeling of heartbreak is the feeling that your innards have been torn out of you, leaving this open cavity that you try to glue together, but you cannot. Also, that internal laceration causes a growth of pressure -- huzn -- that you need to release from your system. In other words, when you experience heartbreak, you experience a massive hole in your being, which your system tries to fill with a spiritual cyst until you heal. Healing is the release of that cyst.

 

This broken heart comes from one of four types of deaths: the death of a loved one, the death of a relationship, the death of a dream, or the death of a phase. We will speak of the first two here, and will Insha Allah cover the next two at a later date.

 

We have mentioned before that one of the recurring themes in our Tradition is connection: these deaths are the breaking of connections. If you are suffering through any of these deaths, then you need to process them and grieve in order to heal. If you do not, you will compound the scars in your heart with other scars. Your body fights the cyst by layering other defenses onto it. Because life goes on, because the world continues to move, it is easy to run from our grieving by immersing ourselves in other things, like our jobs. Because life goes on, because people's lives continue, we wonder how to not be alone in these periods.

 

I have to apologize in advance because heartbreak is the topic of so much art, poetry, and song, which will make this letter -- authored by an art school grad -- seem even more technical and antiseptic than normal. Further, these heart matters require treatments that are very specific to different personalities; because of the length of this letter, I will not be able to discuss treatments in much detail here. Visit me. With some students, I do not give them the analysis you will read below except to empower them; rather, I tell them to read a specific set of poems or song lyrics, or I will tell them to watch a particular movie. Then, after that, I may refer them to moments in the Prophet's life, completed by readings of Surahs like Ya-Sin (Surah 36) or al-Duha (Surah 93) or al-Inshira (Surah 94).

 

If you have not yet suffered the death of a loved one, you will, and it will hurt. The mistake the "pious" members of our community make is that we do not allow ourselves grieve. Rather, we shut down those parts of us that hurt, pretending that our belief in God will keep us whole. It would be no different than telling someone with a broken leg that their belief in God will heal them. Your belief in God exists in a place within you that is different than the injury to your leg and different than the injury to your heart. It will not heal you. If belief in God were sufficient, then the Prophet, may peace be upon him, would not have missed his wife Khadija for those many years after her passing. If belief in God were sufficient, then Bilal, the first Mu'azzin, the first to make the call to prayer, would not have given up making the call after the Prophet's death, may peace be upon him.

 

Thus, those cultural rituals we have, most of which involve visiting the grief-stricken, are specifically designed to help you mourn and heal. It was the practice of the Prophet, may peace be upon him, to visit grieving families. Most of our grieving rituals, however, are cultural inventions. For example, many South Asians have the Qur'an Khani, while many Arabs have the Azza. In our contemporary American culture, we have the Memorial. All of these rituals involve bringing people together, gathering around the people suffering loss, to help release that pressure within us: often by emotions, sometimes by laughter, often by tears.

 

These emotions are, as the Prophet tells us, a rahma from God. Recall that a "rahma" is a mercy, meant to bring us closer to God. The costumes or uniforms of grief -- in some cultures black, in some cultures, white -- are also part of the process of release, sometimes as much as the specific passages of scripture we recite in those occasions. Of course, the most significant ritual is the funeral, through which you release the body of the deceased from your world. In Muslim culture, we are prescribed to conduct the funeral (janaza) and the burial as soon as possible. Some of the benefit is to prevent of the spread of sickness, and some of the benefit is to start the healing process as soon as is possible.

 

In this understanding of the process of dealing with the death of a loved one, we have insights to the most common type of heartbreak from students from the past week: the death of a relationship. Some of you have been in healthy relationships and some of you have been in unhealthy relationships. Not all the relationships have been two-way: some have been crushes. When relationships end, especially if they are our first loves, they hurt as much as and identical to the deaths of family members.

 

Shortly after my first daughter was born, I felt something inside me that is hard to describe, except that every parent may have felt it as well. It was a type of warmth, as though a part of my heart I never knew existed began to grow. It was a type of *love* I had never known to be love. As she grew, so did that love. Soon, her younger sister inspired the same feelings within me. I would have to stare at their photos. I would sit at my desk thinking (in pain) that some day they would get married and move on, thinking this while they were toddlers.

 

As you know, my marriage with their mother ended a few years later, and despite almost daily communications with my daughters since then, there is a hole that remains in my heart to this day, over a decade later. That is the one big difference from the previous type of death: when a relationship ends, the person with whom you shared the relationship moves on, and you desire a speedy reincarnation of the relationship before they can move too far away, yet when it does not happen, the pain persists.

 

What happens when you are jilted or betrayed by a halal romantic partner (like a spouse or fiancé) is a bit different than what happens when a non-halal partner jilts or betrays you. In the latter case, you may feel the remorse for engaging in something that was neither appropriate nor healthy. You know it was not good for you, yet you still wish to return to it. To be fair, if a halal partner betrays you, it may have been a toxic relationship whether or not you noticed; likewise, you wish to be re-immersed in something you know is harmful. Sometimes, however, the feeling of betrayal sparks in you because your partner shares something that stuns you.

 

It is here that we speak of addiction. It is similar to an addiction to a narcotic. Some of us have personalities that are addiction-prone, often because we did not receive enough nurturing from our parents, guardians, or elders. When we separate from (i.e., quit) the narcotic, we experience withdrawal symptoms. When we pass beyond the withdrawal, we still miss the collegial experience of getting high.

 

Imagine that your heart has a few specific cavities, in addition to the atria and ventricles. One cavity is the size and shape of your mother. Another is your father. Another for each sibling. Another for each relative in your extended family. Another for your closest friends. The more of these cavities you fill, the more your heart is full. The more of these that are not filled, the more you feel empty and the more you long.

 

Another cavity is for your romantic partner (though polygyny and polyamory are topics for a different conversation), while at the same time, yet another cavity is for the relationship itself. Two cavities. When your relationship breaks, you may long for your partner, because you are longing to be in the company of that person *and* perhaps because you are longing to have *any* person to share with.

 

When you are addicted to your partner, you cannot stop thinking about them. You long for them even when you don't want to long for them. They keep invading your thoughts so much that you feel as though you are in prison, losing your mind. So, as a quick fix, some people race to other romantic partners, with varying degrees of success from these rebounds. Sometimes it works, but sometimes, it is like replacing cigarettes with food: you will see many people who quit smoking, pack on many pounds because they replaced one addiction with another.

 

A better fix is to fill those slots with the Prophet Muhammad, may peace be upon him. In other words, one of the larger cavities in your heart is for your prophet. One of the purposes of the Shama'il literature, describing him in detail, right down to his hairs, is to help us visualize him to help us develop love for him. Every time you think of your former partner, immediately think of the Prophet. At the same time, look for his attributes in other people, so as to immerse yourself in a world of love for him, the same way that Majnun (Qays) would look at things recalling his beloved Layla. When you love someone, you will see their face in every face. On a side note, when you take someone for granted, you will see their behaviors in other behaviors and will take it as a nuisance.

 

The greater cure for that rupture within us is to fill it with gratitude. Some of you are sick of my gratitude prescriptions, but it is not a coincidence that the metaphor of gratitude is water. Water cures so many ills in our body, and gratitude does the same for so many ills in our soul. When we do not consume water, then our body demands that we give it something, sometimes unhealthy. When we do not fill our hearts with gratitude, our heart dies, or we replace gratitude with something unhealthy, like anger. Water does not, however, cure everything, and neither does gratitude.

 

The point here is that death causes a rupture in love that causes a huge longing that feels like loneliness. When we work to add gratitude to that love, it will not wipe out the longing, just as water will not provide a permanent cure for thirst. But, gratitude will provide a type of pleasure and feeling of fulfillment that will help mitigate the pain.

 

So, let's figure out a prescription for you to help you love God's beloved Prophet, to help you cope with loss, to help you become grateful for what He did give you before He took it away from you.

 

Until then, read Rumi's "Tale of the Reed." A reed flute sings, and many people come to hear it sing, but none of them understand the pain he is really trying to express. He wants to go home to the reed bed. And be loved. And that is what we each want. As we mentioned in the previous letter, the truest love, is the love we seek to return to, in God.

 

And Allah knows best.

 

Omer M

Cohorts and Fathers and Transformation

March 18, 2018

Assalamu Alaykum Dear Students,

I hope you receive this letter with the best of health, integrity, and Iman.

The most common issue of this past week relates to cohorts. We are watching the Basketball team reach heights in the NCAA tournament. I love the press conferences after the game because Coach Porter Moser begins each interview with an appreciation of the Divine. Further, the team seems to be a very tight squad without any single players getting all of the attention. Such is often the case with NCAA teams, in contrast to NBA teams which rely on superstars for both on-court victories and off-court profits. For example, all of you have heard of Lebron James, but how many of his teammates can you name?

The struggles our students have been addressing in the past week again recall the consumption of harmful substances (alcohol and narcotics). I have students who have been in Alcoholics Anonymous who realize they need to go back. When we are turning to these substances, we are seeking to fulfill something. Either we are turning to these substances to help us escape an emptiness or misery, or we are turning to these substances as part of the search for social acceptance.

In each of the recent cases, one of my first questions related to the intimate circles the students keep themselves in. In other words: who are your tightest friends? We have said many times that you are who your friends are. This point becomes especially important when you are seeking personal reform.

When you are trying to change yourself, the world around you remains the same. So, the world is working to keep you the same as you were before. Likewise, the appetites within yourself are resistant to change, akin to the elasticity of rubber or steel. For example, many people come back from the pilgrimage to Mecca seeking to be transformed into new versions of themselves. After a short period, because human nature is elastic, they return to the persons they were before the pilgrimage, or worse.

So, if the large world around you resists you changing, and the world within you resists you changing, then what should you do to change? Change that space in between the two: change your inner circle. Put yourself in the company of people who will support the version of yourself you want to be. If you can, keep yourself in environments that can facilitate your changes. This is the success of Alcoholics Anonymous: it is a group of people who make you no promises except to support you in your mutual search for healing. That is what friendship is supposed to be.

As they seek their own personal transformation, there is a mistake that some people make: they start shutting out those friends who would help them. If you are shutting people out of your life because they are choosing to keep you in check, then chances are that you are not seeking transformation as much as you are seeking an escape.

Parents and school administrators often ask me what to do to keep their children off drugs. I tend to place the blame on the fathers. I ran an ambitious Sunday School for some six years. It took some effort to get the mothers involved; they (thankfully) became very involved. I failed, however, in getting the fathers involved. Meaning, I failed in getting the fathers away from their weekly ritual of sitting in front of the television, cheering for a losing football team. If the fathers will not invest two hours in the week, then it does not interest me in babysitting their children with the hope that they would learn some Islam; I am not that saintly.

This is an issue across generations. In MSAs across the country, women are far more active than men; men often want to play. Even though most mosque administrators are men, mothers tend to be far more involved than fathers. There are very few of my male peers who are active in the community; when I listen to them talk theology I find myself preferring to join undergrads in smoking marijuana. [This is a joke]. Anyways, this point illustrates Privilege: if you do not feel compelled to change, it means that you have the privilege of not feeling compelled. When it comes to their Islam, our men are in privilege.

Fathers often use the excuse that they cannot be as involved in their children's lives because they have to work. That is a valid excuse in those families that are living from paycheck to paycheck, not in those families that are living from Lexus to Lexus.

I have seen fathers who spend much of the year overseas, earning for their families, yet still succeed in being present in their children's lives, through online resources. I have, however, seen many fathers who spend much of their time at home in front of televisions, providing no emotional nurturing to their children.

The point in all this is that in the vast majority of cases I have seen in which students are turning to drugs, alcohol, and other unhealthy behaviors, it is because they keep themselves in an unhealthy circle of friends. They keep themselves in an unhealthy circle of friends, however, because they are seeking to fulfill an emptiness that should have been filled by their fathers. Many times, they do not realize that the consumption of drugs is an attempt to fill a hole. Drugs are a fascinating thing because they give the short term ecstasy with a long-term cost. So, for some people, drug consumptions are behaviors toward joy or relief, while for others, drugs consumptions are behaviors toward self-destruction.

We have a teaching that if your father is happy with you, it is a sign that God is happy with you. Unfortunately, some fathers use this teaching as a bludgeon, making it impossible for the child to make them happy. Rather, the father should make a conscious decision to be happy with the child; that will benefit the child.

But, if you feel that you cannot make your parents happy, you might find that you connect yourself with friends who feel the same way about their own parents. That process becomes mutually destructive. There are, however, some things to consider.

Sometimes, the problem is a communication gap. When you get a 95/100 and your parent asks you, "Why didn't you get 100?" you are hearing, "You failed." In fact, they are saying, "I know you have the capability to get 100/100, so what fell short?" They are telling you that they believe in you, yet you are hearing that they doubt you. So, just as I mentioned above that parents need to reframe how they look at their children, the child -- you -- might need to reframe how you look at your parent. When you are hearing something that you interpret as, "You failed," you should try to translate it instead as, "I know you, and you can do better."

But, if you internalize the sentiment that you cannot win your parent's approval, then you might find yourself engaging in unhealthy practices as a means of coping with that pain.

I'm sorry to say this, but sometimes, however, the student is just a spoiled brat. Meaning, sometimes, the mistake of the parents is that they have given their child a life without any suffering, so that the only suffering the child perceives is the parent's displeasure.

The greatness of the story of the Gautama Siddartha in Buddhism is that his father tried to shield him from all suffering, as is the case of almost any parent of means. When, however, Siddartha discovered suffering, he developed a sense of compassion. In contrast, other children would turn, then, against their parents. [Remember, by the way, that the Buddha's father is a Desi parent].

Or, we have in the Bible and in Islam, the story of Job (Ayyub), may peace be upon him, who went through intense suffering. The accursed Devil in the Bible suggested that it was God himself who was preventing the Ayyub from turning against Him. If God would remove that protection, then Ayyub would -- according to the Devil -- turn against his Creator. He was wrong. [Remember, by the way, that Ayyub, is an Arab]. We know that the accursed Devil himself turned against God. Allah made him beautiful, and he turned against Allah blaming Him for his plight, making him ugly.

The point here is that you must take control of your subjectivity. If you are the parent, you must choose to be happy with your child, which means that you must seek out the reasons to be happy. And, if you are the child, you must bring yourself to choose to read your parent's choices as supporting you, even if the voice is one of rage, which means you have to find those reasons to support that approach. If you choose to hate your parent, then what is your other option, but to let yourself be destroyed? If you allow yourself to be destroyed, you will turn against all other father figures in your life eventually.

Then, if you can make peace with your situation with your parents, you will hopefully have a better capability in choosing your friends, in your quest for transformation.

Of course, you can always choose me as your friend. But, seek out a cohort with whom you can become tight, like players on a successful basketball team. They are there, looking for you as well. I know because all of you -- at least the women -- come to my office.

And Allah knows best.

Omer M

 

Searching for Authenticity

February 18, 2018



Assalamu Alaykum Dear Students,

 

I hope you receive this letter with the best of health, integrity, and Iman.

 

The most common issue in the office this past week has been from students who feel that they do not know themselves. This sentiment is to be expected, if you have been living your whole life in your parents’/guardians’ nest in the weekly high school routine, and are now half a step free by being in college. Meaning, until now, chances are that you did not need to know yourself. Chances are that you did not need to ask yourself that question, “Who am I?”

 

We emphasize personal authenticity in our society, enough that we admire people who seem to be “authentic” when they present themselves in public. I suspect that this desire will rise in response to something far more significant in our society: personal branding. Because a camera is always feet or inches away from you, there is pressure ever to be performing, even if the performance is a bright smile on a terrible day. Likewise, I expect that there will be the thirst for people who seem authentic, whose emotions and comments seem genuine; of course, they might also be performing.

 

Often we associate authenticity with the marginalized; we associate performance with the privileged. We associate substance with the marginalized and shallowness with the privileged. This is the typical subject of White savior movies from Hollywood, like “The Blind Side” and “Lawrence of Arabia.” But, in my experience, this view also often comes from members of minority groups who were themselves raised in the middle class or upper middle class, who tend to be hypercritical of their kind, while looking for substance in their own lives, but will not leave their middle-class trappings. Such people will often be very selective in their support: one might give attention to Black Americans with broken families suffering in poverty and dispossession, but will not support White Americans with broken families suffering in poverty and dispossession.

 

Still, from the perspective of our teachings, there is some truth to this view. The Prophet, may peace be upon him, tells us to be wary of the prayer of the oppressed, for there is no veil between it and Allah. One reading of this narration is that the supplication of the oppressed is a heartfelt prayer. On the flipside, there is also some concern about this view. The Prophet also said that poverty leads to rejection of belief. In other words, we know the line that “power corrupts,” but so too does a lack of power.

 

We appreciate authenticity when a celebrity shares an unpopular opinion, risking their popularity. But that is only when the opinion does not contradict our own; if the opinion contradicts ours, then we decide they are pandering to the “other side” and the “other side” is usually power. The comedian Sarah Silverman recently called on Jews to stand up for Ahed Tamimi, a 17 year old Palestinian girl in jail in Israel. A tourist camp south of Bethlehem posted photos comedian Jerry Seinfeld and his children with soldiers of the Israeli Defense Forces. Chances are the reader with strong opinions will support one of these two comedians. If your concern is over the plight of the Palestinians under Israeli Occupation, then you might appreciate Silverman. If your concern is for safety for Jews and Israelis, you might appreciate Seinfeld. You might support both. It is also possible to oppose any of these three options.

 

We also use this demand for authenticity to determine whom we allow speaking on causes. Sometimes the credential is demographic. Much of the lauding over the recent “Black Panther” film is because of what is on the screen and soundtrack. Still, much of the praise is because the director Ryan Coogler is not only Black American but his previous two films have an active social consciousness to them, with African American men in their starring roles. Much of what was on screen whether we speak of the accents, costumes, or politics had very authentic lineage. The weakest point of the film was the vulnerable likable CIA agent who was a protagonist in the film that spoke about colonization.

 

Sometimes the credential relates to life choices. If you position yourself as a former terrorist turned peace worker, people will be interested in your story because you know consequences of terror. An author, James Frey, wrote a book about recovery from drug addiction and gained tremendous notoriety. The book became a bestseller. Addiction specialists and investigators found problems his memoir. Eventually, he admitted to fabricating some of the information, and the publisher allowed readers to get refunds on his book.

 

I recently went through the autobiographies of the jazz superstars Miles Davis (“Miles”) and Herbie Hancock (“Possibilities”). In language and content, Davis’ autobiography seemed far more authentic. It seemed as though every paragraph had the word “motherf--.” He spoke about himself through a range of feelings and hopes and successes and mistakes. In contrast, Hancock (who was a mentored by Davis) spoke about a world he continued to discover, especially in possibilities in music, technology, and belief. But, perhaps both were equally authentic, except that Davis was a far more prickly character. Or, perhaps both books were equally performances: the autobiographies of Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan both were full of wonderful phrasing and reflections but seemed distant. Springsteen’s book seemed less distant or guarded than Dylan’s. Or, maybe, as a person of color, my bias favored the African Americans; probably not because my listening history and tastes have far more rock and folk than jazz.

 

As people of color and members of minority and marginalized groups, there is an approach that we find to be so inauthentic that it repulses us: when a member of our group seems to try very hard to be accepted by power and the mainstream. We have praised blogger Hoda Katebi in her recent infamous WGN interview for not only her poise but her direct, unapologetic answers. She was interviewed as a Muslim fashion blogger of Iranian descent, raised in Oklahoma. Eventually, the questions went to Iranian nukes, and one of the reporters commented that she’s an American that doesn’t sound American. I didn’t think much of the questions: I was just so impressed by the sharpness of her mind in those moments. In contrast, we have a few examples of people who self-identify as Muslim and seem to race to every chance to get on camera or to get the approval of power brokers, even if it means insulting Muslims. I will not give those examples.

 

Lately, a credential has been "vulnerability." When someone seems vulnerable, they seem authentic to us. “Vulnerability” might be the revelation of an internal flaw in an otherwise polished shell. It might be a place of pain, fear, or hope. Perhaps, because our world is so full of layers of performance and instant gratification, we yearn for vulnerability.

 

So, to help you figure out your own authenticity, I am giving you a few exercises. At the very least, conduct these as thought experiments. It is better, however, if you do the exercises on paper; perhaps we can work on them together.

 

Imagine three circles.

 

Make a list of your attributes. Define yourself according to twenty attributes. The more attributes you can list, the better. Now, place those attributes in that circle. The attributes that are most central in describing you should be closest to the center of the circle.

 

Now, consider someone who is very close to you who will be honest with you. What twenty attributes would they list to describe you? Do the same thing with the second circle. What would they place at the center, and what would they place at the periphery? Do the same with a list of your vulnerabilities.

 

Now, find that person and ask them to do this exercise, with the third circle. What twenty attributes *do* they list to describe you, and where do they place these in the circle?

 

Compare the three circles, and look for patterns.

 

Now, draw a fourth circle. That is the person you seek to be.

 

If we compare books about Barack Obama, they seem to be about two different people. His memoirs, “Dreams of my Father” and “The Audacity of Hope” present a very different person -- a much more polished person -- than David Garrow’s “Rising Star.” The memoirs present Obama as though he is writing his own narrative and mythology, while the Garrow biography presents Obama with many more dimensions, and many different motivations and a much more complex environment. Both authors are choosing to emphasize and frame different moments from Obama's life.

 

So, the first circle was your mythology. With that fourth circle, write your narrative. Write the person you want to become. Then, decide when you want to become that person. So, you may make a circle for “you” of five years from now, ten years from now, and beyond.

 

Then, figure out steps to become that person. Tangible steps in answering, "Who am I?"

 

Let’s work on it together.

 

And Allah knows best.

 

Omer M



Denomination Nation

January 28, 2018



Assalamu Alaykum Dear Students,

 

I hope you receive this letter with the best of health, Iman, and integrity.

 

We are at that point in the semester that the non-Sunni Muslim students on campus despise. In my THEO 295 Introduction to Islam class, I require students to interview Muslims who are not part of their sect or denomination. Meaning, if you are a non-Muslim, you may interview any Muslim. If you are a Muslim, then you find a Muslim who belongs to a different school. The net result is that a whole lot of Sunni students go on the search for all the Shia students.

 

The point of the exercise is to enter someone else's world to learn their outlooks, while also reflecting on your own. So, by design, a goal is to get -- for example -- Catholic students to get a taste of Muslim life, and Sunnis to get a taste of Muslim non-Sunni life.

 

The risk of this type of assignment is the exotifying of another population. Western Imperialists depict Peoples of Color as noble savages, in need of civilizing because they all suffer from the same alleged problems: lack of technology, patriarchy/misogyny, traditional lifestyles that prevent "progress," hypo-rational, hyper-violent, and hyper-sensual cultures, tribal rivalries, and general naivete. On a side note, my use of the term "Peoples of Color" is itself a problem because it reinforces the notion that "White" is a default, or a base like with paint, or a non-color, or a starting point. "Color" then, is a divergence from the “White” default.

 

Incidentally, this approach is also the approach of many preachers, seeking to correct the misguided masses. Conversion for them is no different than conquest for the imperialist.

 

Thankfully, that has not happened with this assignment. Rather, as intended, the exercise has enhanced the experience of the interviewer by experiencing a bit of the humanity of the subject. Non-Muslim students have the chance to listen to a Muslim up close, and Muslim students have the chance to listen to a Muslim of a different sect up close.

 

In our campus community, we have students who self-identify as "Muslim" from across a whole span of theologies, including mainstream Sunnis and Shias, Ismailis, Ahmadis, Nation of Islam, Druze, as well as students from mix parentage, meaning one parent is Sunni and the other is Shia. A large percentage of students on campus, however, self-identify as, "My parents are _____ but I don't know what I am. I am spiritual, not religious." As you know, I position myself as a Sunni, following Hanafi law on most matters, and I am the Muslim Chaplain for all of you, even if you do not self-identify as Muslim.

 

If we hold to the orthodoxies and orthopraxies of each of these different sects, then we acknowledge that some of these denominations regard themselves as the only true paths of Islam, and regard all or some of the others as outside Islam. That theological or legal exclusivism is not a problem on its own; it is a necessary consequence of belief.

 

When you are claiming to be on a path to the Divine, then you will have to define what is inside and outside your path. In much of Islamic Tradition, exclusivity is based on creed, not on action. Your beliefs inform your intentions, and your intentions define your actions. Thus, you can commit a mountain of sins -- and the pathway for repentance is open to you -- but you are still a Muslim throughout that process so long as your beliefs are those of Islam. If your beliefs are outside of Islam, then your intentions are outside of Islam, then your actions are outside of Islam.

 

This may sound strict, but faith tends to be more strict than we realize. There are two opposites: one is to define belief according to action, another is to ignore belief and action entirely and define membership in the Muslim community according to identification as Muslims.

 

Consider the Khawarij (aka the Kharijites). They were a tiny literalist puritan movement with presence even in the time of the Prophet Muhammad, may peace be upon him, though they reach full infamous impact a few decades after his death. One person came to the Prophet and scolded him to shield himself with God, even though the Prophet himself is the embodiment of a relationship with God. The Prophet warned us about this type extremism, equating its "faith" to an arrow flying through a hunted animal. It races in and out, tearing flesh along the way.

 

The Khawarij were labeled as such because they departed from the greater community, regarding them all as heretics. They chose a strict interpretation of text over humanity, allowing violence as a solution to solve problems. When they would pray, they would pray with such force that their faces and palms would have scabs. Soon, they turned against Ali, may Allah ennoble his face, accusing him of having left Islam. Their argument was that in a political conflict he agreed to allow a human to judge over a matter when God is the Judge of all. The argument was easily defeated but did not convince most of the Khawarij. As part of a long path of killings, they killed him.

 

Many associate ISIS with the Khawarij. It follows that if you are living in ISIS-controlled territories that you have to carry a "repentance" identification card. It is not merely an ID; it confirms that you repent for a life of sin, being the life you lived before ISIS-rule.

 

The Khawarij quickly splintered among themselves, accusing each other of heresy and were wiped out. The same will happen with ISIS. Such groups tend to vanish as quickly as they arrive while having torn so much flesh along in the process.

 

If the Khawarij approach is to regard scripture as primary and literal, then the opposite approach is to regard scripture as incidental and metaphor:  include everyone who self-identifies as Muslim in the same family. At the national level, this is the dominant approach to Islam in our society: anyone who claims to be Muslim -- regardless of creed -- who gives Muslims good p/r is celebrated as a hero, while anyone who does not is hated. The easiest example is Muhammad Ali. Mainstream Sunnis and Shias would not have regarded the Muhammad Ali of the 1960s and early 1970s as a valid Muslim because of his beliefs in the teachings of the Nation of Islam, yet Muslims across the spectrum of doctrines celebrate his famous stances as the stances of a strong Muslim.

 

In this approach, there is no focus on salvation or upright conduct,  except if it garners good press. There is something to be said about representation especially in our image-conscious society, but I wonder if the cost is integrity. In each of the high-profile cases of celebrity preacher misconduct I worked on, community members urged me to stay away from law enforcement and from the media because of the bad image it would give Muslims. In the most recent case -- after which I have had three other low-profile cases -- the most vocal criticism came from people concerned about our public relations.

 

Thus, we celebrate numerous celebrities because they self-identify as Muslim, even though we would not otherwise recognize them as Muslim or vice versa. Or, we celebrate their fame despite the fact that almost the entirety of their product is most un-Islamic by any and all viewpoints. This list includes numerous singers, DJs, writers, comedians, actors, and on-camera talent. You know my view on Muslim celebrities, just like my view on celebrity preachers: look at them all as performers in a theater, and "Muslim" is one of the many attributes in their costume. Better yet, look at all of them as clowns in a global circus.

 

So we have five approaches. A secular humanist approach is to see the humanity in every person and value it. An imperialist approach is to regard everyone as being in need of conquer because they are in need of civilizing. A belief-driven approach is to derive intentions through articulated belief, with focus on salvation and character. A text-driven approach is to override all, including the Prophet himself. A p/r approach is to welcome everyone, so long as they make you look good. Pick two. You know which ones.

 

And Allah knows best.

Omer M









Gas Station Procrastination

January 21, 2018

 

Assalamu Alaykum My Dear Students,

 

I hope you receive this letter with the best of health, integrity, and Iman.

 

I thought that I had rid myself of much of my procrastination by making extensive use of task lists. Meaning, I schedule To Do List items to do my projects, splitting them into very small doses. I have four separate To Do Lists: Loyola matters (Todoist), Personal Maintenance (Toodledo), Study (Wunderlist), and Complex Projects (Asana). After multiple attempts at multiple methods, that is a system that -- for now -- works for me. Over the past year, I was more productive than I had been in the prior five years combined. I expect more for this coming year.

 

It did not occur to me that I am far from a full cure for procrastination until I was headed to a gas station a few days ago.

 

One of the blessings of driving a Hybrid is that I can let my gas tank sit at Zero for quite a few miles before refilling my tank. I discovered last semester that I could go for a full day with an empty tank. Maybe more.

 

You can see where this story is going, and it goes there. Let's continue.

 

I had to get to an appointment off campus and was driving down Lake Shore Drive, passing through that S-curve near Randolph and drove over a pothole. Something didn't sound right. The car started to slow, feeling heavy. I looked at my dashboard for that orange "flat tire" sign, which did not appear, and wondered if I had such a warning.

 

Still rolling around the curve, a red light appears with an exclamation point. My car starts to shut down. The dashboard has a little battery sign showing me how much energy I have, and it starts to drop to "empty."

 

My car stops in the middle of the intersection of LSD and Monroe. Rush Hour approaches. So, I have to get out and push it. Tires are okay. Good thing I've been going to the gym because this process was far more natural than expected. I should take a Junior High School moment here to flex my biceps in self-approval.

 

I roll the car to the right lane and have to take a moment to figure out how to get some gas. I make some calls. My emergency blinkers flash, and I keep looking in my rearview mirror at the cars that speed towards me. If one of those drivers is staring at text messages, it's all over.

 

As I type this, I realize something stupid. While my car sits there, I should have perched myself on the side of the road. If the car got hit, I would be fine. It was cold outside, but it was getting cold in my car. Hindsight. I could have avoided that giant semi-truck that plowed into my car sending me flying into the Grant Park trees.

 

Those cars were coming so quickly, and no, that thing with the truck and trees did not happen, but I had to embrace a moment of fatalism. I was at that moment in life without any power to do anything. I have done all I can. I am in this predicament because my own doing: procrastinating something as simple as taking two minutes to fill a tank of gas.

 

About a decade ago I went through one of the darkest periods in my life and was able to find some light when I was able to embrace my powerlessness. Often, we seek to increase our power to decrease our vulnerability. On a side note, this is why most of your parents want you to become physicians: life as a doctor is a stable life with potential luxury, cash brings ability, which means -- in theory -- that cash decreases vulnerability. In theory, because if you are to be tested, you *will* be tested. Still, in this economy, that is not a wrong career choice especially considering that you are going to school to get a job; though I wish my students would also go to school to get an education as well. It would also be nice to become a health professional to help people with their health.

 

Anyways, I was going through huge personal problems but kept trying to fight as though I was punching fists into a Tsunami. When, however, I was able to embrace my powerlessness -- not unlike that famous "Serenity Prayer" -- I was able to let go. I was able to make peace with my situation. When I was able to make peace with my situation, I was able to take ownership of my culpabilities, and accept the rest as God's Will. Acceptance of God's Will is not resignation, as much as calibration: resignation is avoidance while calibration is straightening your understanding of circumstance. Some of you come to my office trying to fight your Tsunamis, and you experience all the frustration I did back then. We like to say that everything is a "Test," but when we are tested, we do not like to be tested, so we fight and protest, and we become more miserable than we need to be. If we can figure out what elements are God's test upon us, then we respond to God, rather than to a human instigator.

 

So, sitting in my car, I know I'm being tested. Further, I had to get to appointments. A much younger version of me would have been overloaded with stress. This is the first time in my life that my car stopped because of lack of gas, but I am not able to count the many times I have had a car break down in all the worst places. I have been in cars that have broken down in the middle of the Dan Ryan. I have been in cars that have broken down in sketchy neighborhoods. I had had bikes whose tires went flat when I was far from home or an air pump. Nothing new. When you are hit, you can choose either to despair or to get your job done. So, I called the various offices I had to visit to let them know of my circumstances, letting them know I'll be late.

 

Embracing my powerlessness without a choice but to wait, I continue to pray. "Alhamdulillah 'ala kulli." "Praise and gratitude are due to Allah over everything." When hit with such a struggle, just keep reciting it, reflecting on its meaning. Sometimes in such moments, we complain of our lowly state. Sometimes in those moments, we praise. I keep glancing at that rearview mirror, taking deep breaths when cars speed towards me. I continue to pray.

 

The man comes with gas. A gallon. My car starts. My tank still flashes at Zero. My battery is still near empty, but slowly it fills.

 

A person with sense would have gone directly to some place to fill gas. But I like pushing my limits. Instead, I sit in Rush Hour traffic on the highway, having passed a few exits that would have taken me to gas stations because I wanted to get to my appointment.

 

I stare at my tank. Flashing. I stare at my battery, which is reaching half-full. That is more than enough to take me.

 

And, then for some reason, the battery power went down a notch. And, that scared me. It also made me laugh, as I imagined calling up gas person again to bring me another gallon. So, I decided to get my gas. I cut across a bunch of lanes to an exit. I drive to a station, and as I head to the station, it hits me, "I still procrastinate." I was procrastinating getting gas when my car was low on gas, minutes after running out of gas. That is next-level procrastination.

 

The entire travail added a mere ninety minutes to my travels, Alhamdulillah. It has come and gone and will be forgotten, except when useful for letters like this. I am remembering a whole list of things I need to add to To Do Lists that I had forgotten, like updating my will. But, in those ninety minutes, life showed me some truths about myself, and life showed me some truths about life.

 

And Allah knows best.

 

Omer M

 

Dr. King and Us

January 14, 2018


Assalamu Alaykum Dear Students,

I hope you receive this letter with the best of health, Iman, and integrity.

My original intention for this weekend was to post for you snippets of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s final speech. It was called the, "I've been to the Mountaintop" speech and if we did not speak of content, its oratory alone -- especially in the last five minutes -- is among the best you will ever experience. Go read and listen to it.

In it, he spoke of traveling through history to witness the most hopeful points of human history, leading to that latter point of the twentieth century, when he had to lead nonviolent movements against violent movements, against poverty, against neglect. At its core, it is a demand to live as people with the full self-determination and dignity of humanity, being a dignity that can only be attained by force, that can only be attained by *nonviolent* force. The next day, he was assassinated.

Instead, I chose to reflect on something else: you and I are children of the dreams of MLK. In his final years, he was hated more than you are hated now. I often speak about Islamophobia, including attacks on Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus or attacks on Islamic centers or anti-Sharia legislation across the nation or the Muslim Ban under the current White House. But, if your biggest struggle in life is in making your parents happy -- which is indeed impossible with many parents -- your struggles are not insignificant, but you do have to acknowledge all the different places in life where you are privileged.

I reflect on the condition of modern activism. There are those real, hardcore activists who have to serve; they cannot stop. Chances are that you do not know who they are. And, there are those people who have to find reasons to be angry; they cannot stop. Then, there are those who are on the covers of magazines and give speeches, and give you all of the credit; and, most of all, they provide no program for their activism. Stick with the first; stay away from the latter two.

We like to quote the statements and post the photos of our heroes, whether we speak of the Prophet himself, may peace be upon him, or other figures like Rumi, Omar Mukhtar, Malala Yousafzai, Muhammad Iqbal, Malcolm X.

You know that activism is much more. Just as much as I abhor our culture of celebrity-preachers, I dislike our culture of celebrity-activists. If you are praised on the cover of established mainstream magazines, then you are not an activist, but a model. Your activism may have been co-opted; it is the oldest technique for Power to give support to activists to buy them off, with the activists fooled into thinking that they are providing service. Dr. King, in contrast, had the ear of U.S. Presidents and used their attention to negotiate.

So, there are a few ways for you -- dear student -- to test yourself. First: think of your contemporary activist-heroes. Can you identify their program? Not their cause. Their program.

Or, something simpler. When Allah tells the Prophet Abraham/Ibrahim, may peace be upon him, that He is making him a leader for all people, he responds, "And, what of my descendants." The Divine responds, by saying that His promise does not apply to wrongdoers.

There are multiple meanings derived from this conversation, which we can speak about at other times. For our purposes, however, I want to you to ask yourself: how often do you pray for your descendants? If you are a parent, you might feel compelled to pray for your children. Here, I am speaking of *all* of your descendants. So, even if you have no children, do you pray for all of your descendants? Start now. If you do not pray for all of your descendants, then I suspect that your appreciation for the work of MLK might miss the mark: you were the beneficiary of his efforts.

Though Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. struggled early on in school, he was a graduate of Morehouse College, perhaps the most prestigious HBC in the country. Further, he earned a Ph.D. from Boston University. He could have gone into any field: he could have become -- dare I say it -- a physician. Instead, he became a preacher and one of the most important activists of our nation. When an activist is serving, they do not know the people they are serving.

We are taught that if we are planting a tree and see the end of the world approach, that we should continue planting our tree. A tree is an investment in the future. You may not live to see the tree reach full height and full reach, but you hope that future generations will benefit from your tree. There are some of you who do have oppressive parents, and I tell you that if you can not do the beneficial project you hope to do, perhaps you can support your child in their path.

My question is that if you are not already concerned about your own descendants or your siblings' or cousins' descendants, then what will fuel your concerns about such matters as global warming, economic justice, etc.. Obviously, you can have a concern about all of these without ever having children. But, the concern is very different when you think of your own children.

We read in the Qur'anic commentaries on the meaning of Allah's attribute, "al-Raheem," (The Eternal Source of Mercy). When a mother is caring for five children, she will love all five thoroughly, but she will not love the four the way she loves her own child. A common understanding of the implications of Allah's attribute as "al-Raheem" is that while He gives mercy to all creation, for example through sunlight and rain, He has *unique* Mercy for His true believers.

This brings us back to the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It would be fair to say that his primary dedication was toward the rights of Black Americans. Many of you who are reading this are not Black American, and on a side note, many of you would be surprised to know how many of the Muslims on campus are Black American. There are many Black American elders in Chicago who can tell you of having to travel from hospital to hospital to get treated for a broken bone because the doctors and nurses would say, "We don't serve n____ here." In my experience, even though we are speaking of events from 50+ years ago, most people still do not want to talk about those dehumanizing traumas. That you can consider *becoming* a doctor shows that you are a beneficiary of his efforts. You are the children of his dreams. Own it.

Own it, by continuing the work. Own it by paying it back. You already have a sense of what it is like to be hated. Turn that hate into hope for the others. Someone whom you never met gave blood so that you could do something as simple as using a toilet, eat at a diner, vote, or take the MCAT.

And Allah knows best.

Omer M

New Year Resolutions

January 7, 2018

 

Dear Students,

 

Assalamu Alaykum.

 

I hope you receive this letter with the best of health, integrity, and Iman.

 

As we begin this new calendar year, we begin with hope for the future. We have a good practice in making the New Year a moment of celebration of hope, filled with New Year's resolutions.

 

Resolutions always start with physical fitness. I went to the gym a record number of times this past year (117 intense workouts), focused on strength training. I promise you that there is now solid muscle well-insulated under all that adipose. At least in some places. Ok, maybe just a few places. I hope to have 120 workouts this year. I hope to improve upon that with 100 additional workouts focused on cardio and endurance training, Insha Allah.

 

You'll notice that -- for me -- self-improvement plans are most successful when they involve quantifiable metrics based on action. Meaning, now I am looking at the number of workouts rather than pounds lost or inches off of the waistline. Each of the above workouts also has a set minimum time length for the routine. Once I figure out a routine of quality work for a time slot -- like intense study for 20 minutes --, then I figure out the number of sessions.

 

So, regarding brain development, last year I went through 20,900 pages of completed books, the goal this year is to increase that to 21,100, with a detailed analysis of at least 12 books, including repeated readings of a few particular books.

 

It may seem pretentious that I keep track of such things; I need to do so for the way I process. The more I can be clear about the knowns and the concretes, the easier it is to release them, and release the anxiety about the unknowns and the abstracts. And, it sometimes makes it easier to enjoy the vulnerabilities. More on this in a moment.

 

Anyways, regarding social development, I hope to be better in responding to calls, texts, etc.. from friends. I enjoy being a hermit too much; my office makes for a beautiful man-cave, as does my car, as does a dark movie theater. At first, I will try five personal responses per day. I will also try to reach out to five old friends per week. This choice of “five” is arbitrary, according to what I  believe I can accomplish. Related, I am going to try to proofread all of my communications before sending them out.

 

Regarding heart development:

 

Giving. My routine is that whenever someone asks for money, I give it if I have it. If it is an online request, then my routine is that the dollar amount reflects the year, and the cents reflect the month. Thus, donations this month would be $18.10 per request; naturally, this limits how many online requests I respond to at a time. To put it into perspective; when I started this practice many years ago, I was giving $1 at a time. Some online recipients asked me to stop because it was not worth their time; this does not happen anymore.

 

Also, I always tried to have singles and change on hand for the spontaneous requests, but have to figure out a standard giving amount. For decades it had been a dollar, but the cost of being homeless has skyrocketed because people carry far less cash now. All of this assumes the financial capability in all those moments to give.

 

More on heart development. More nighttime (tahajjud) prayers. More Qur'anic reflection, recitation, and memorization. I have not yet figured out numbers. There are a few religious texts I hope to complete in 2018. And, I'm making a list of all the people I need to forgive, and all the people I need to seek forgiveness from. I used to be a most forgiving person; I’ve noticed how jaded I’ve become in the past year and know that the seeking and granting of forgiveness will be much harder than in the past.

 

More on heart development: better as a family member. Long way to go on this one. How do you quantify this? There are some ways related to communications that I’m still reflecting on.

 

Even more on heart development: I need to reconnect with some teachers.  Last on heart development: I have to find 30 minutes a week to immerse myself in nature.

 

Now, for you:

 

Among all of your resolutions, I have one specific request: vulnerability. The most common problem of faith from students in 2017 was in difficulty facing the unknown. I request that you *resolve* to make peace with your vulnerability. This does not mean that you will cure fear, but you can reduce unnecessary anxiousness.

 

There is no point in your life in which you will not have unknowns, which means that there is no point in your life in which you will not be vulnerable. Rather, we tend to cherry pick among our various vulnerabilities to decide which ones upset us.  Most of you get hit with anxiety over graduate school admissions, which is a blessing, and you know it. Unfortunately, society has convinced many of you that if you do not get accepted into Medical School, that your life is over and you should give up.

 

There was a long period in which I went through a lot of anxiety: perhaps the first few decades of my life. It was so familiar to me to be tense that I did not know any other feeling. Most of you know that feeling; I hated that feeling. I stumbled upon a passage of the Qur'an in which the Divine is speaking about His awesome abilities and is asking the reader -- especially the non-believer -- why are you not afraid of getting swallowed without warning by a sinkhole.  (Surah al-Mulk). For me, that was a question about choices: if I am going to worry about every thing from a flat tire while driving to missing a major appointment to getting hit with a disease, why am I not worried about a sinkhole suddenly devouring me?

 

This reflection did not cure my anxiety, but did start the process which -- maybe ten years later -- allowed me to realize that I had gone through so many struggles and further decide that whenever stress hits, that "life goes on." Meaning, when struggle will hit, I will deal with it, but beyond the normal processes of prevention -- "a stitch in time saves nine" & "tie your camel and then trust Allah" -- I am not going to worry. Rather, I am going to pray: for the best of this life, the best of the hereafter, and protection from the Fire.

 

Another effort that helped mitigate my anxiety -- again, "mitigate," not "cure" -- was to cut down on procrastination. Or, to reframe this point, I did not like the feeling that comes with procrastination, so I fought the feeling by doing work in advance. Or, to reframe again: part of procrastination is that we do not admit to ourselves that we hope that the burden or problem will go away. Now, when I would be burdened with a task, I would accept that the task has to get done. Once I have accepted that I have to complete a project and that there is no escape from completing the project, the next step was to figure out small steps through which to complete the projects. Rather than wait until the last moment to complete a syllabus; I start working on it in small steps far in advance. As you can imagine, the quality of my work has improved.

 

I keep emphasizing that these steps do not cure anxiety. Some anxiety comes from matters deep within ourselves and requires extensive therapy to help find and repair. Other anxiety is physiological and requires medication. Anxiety and depression among the 60+-year-old elders in our community have skyrocketed, and a few of them are visiting professionals, while many do not believe they are experiencing anything. They compensate with anger.

 

Perhaps the biggest treatment against the anxiety, however, was failure. I have mentioned this many times, which I have failed at more things than most of my peers. Once I reached a point of maturity in taking ownership of my faults, shortcomings, and failures, I seem more comfortable in my skin than most of my peers. All of these failures -- and seeing that "life goes on" -- have made it easy for me to put myself in situations of vulnerability, like visits to the gym.

 

Then, once I was able to accept the failure as a moment to reflect, retry, or move on, it only became a true "failure" if I gave up on something I should not give up. There are plenty of those failures as well, which are topics for other discussions.

 

As I proofread the above letter, I realize it makes me look like I have life all figured out and that I am some extraordinary human being. Not even close. Nope. Much of the above was motivated by one simple desire: to not feel miserable anymore. When facing the unknown, we can choose to be miserable or not. For years, I did not realize that I chose misery. Some of you still choose misery.

 

And Allah knows best.

 

Omer M



Marriage

December 31, 2017



Assalamu Alaykum Dear Students,

 

I hope you receive this letter with the best of health, integrity, and Iman.

 

As we finish this calendar year, I hope to discuss one of the two topics that are the most discussed among undergraduates. Muslim Junior High School students love talking about Hell. And Jinns. Muslim High School students love talking about the end of the world. And Jinns. Muslim College students love talking about marriage. And Jinns. Now, we can talk about marriage.

 

I expect that the number of readers of my Chaplain Letters will double to 4, give or take. This Letter is going to be more graphic than most of my Letters.

 

What do you seek in a spouse? I am not asking about biodata or appearance. I am asking what you seek from a spouse to give to you. Bollywood and Hollywood have convinced many of us that marriage is this exciting festival with shallow emotions that get resolved within 90 minutes. Instead, most of marriage is boring. Most of marriage is mundane. Most of Marriage places focus on living a life together: that is boring.

 

I am entertained by how many students push back against this idea, convinced that marriage is some exciting non-stop celebration of feelies and goodies. Imagine you and your spouse went on a vacation every weekend -- Friday through Sunday -- to some exotic corner of the world, like Lahore, Hyderabad, Lincolnwood, Bridgeview, Damascus, Bitunia, or Ramallah. Imagine you even went to one of the earthly paradises, like Karachi, Patna, or Orland Park. Every weekend. That still leaves four out of seven days of boring life.

 

Let's face facts. I know most of you. I love you each to death, but most of you are boring people. You would think that with the amount of Marijuana (Forbidden) or Alcohol (Forbidden) you consume, these external substances would make you more interesting, but isn't happening. Upgrading your narcotic (Forbidden) intake will make you even more boring. Isn't it sad that when you visit my office, the most exciting person in the room is a nearly fifty-year-old overweight man dressed in carpenter jeans who has made Dad Jokes an art form? That is sad. And boring.

 

Rather, that is life, because life is boring. Life's richness is in the relationships. When each of you comes to my office, it is the relationship that we are building with each other.

 

So, what I am suggesting here is not yet that we re-orient what we seek in marriage. Rather, I am suggesting that we re-orient what we seek in life. Pick one: a solitary life full of immense wealth or a life of middle income with some strong relationships. Of course, the former appeals to me because that would allow me time and money to buy more and more books. But, anyone with any sense would pick the latter.

 

Take this point a step further. The friendship is a process that requires cultivation, and I admit that I am the worst at this. Different friendships require different approaches to cultivation, just like what we find in the "Love Languages" idea.

 

Friendships are also training for married life. Forgiveness, apology, compromise are the difficult parts of friendship. Learning, living, growing are the joyous parts of friendship. So, if you are not strong in cultivating friendships, then most likely, all that you are seeking in marriage -- whether you realize it or not -- is a trophy and a sex partner. In both cases, you are not seeking a friend or a life partner, but someone to fulfill your appetites for narcissism.

 

We have to address sexuality in the marriage. For starters, all those of you who are -- to put it politely -- "practicing" with sexuality before you get married, even if it is with your fiancé, need to learn how to keep your clothes on. If you realized what sins your characters reveal, you'd all (men and women) dress in niqab. The Qur'an teaches us that your body parts will testify against you for making them engage in sins. You may not realize that they testify against you in this world as well, for those who can read the testimonies. And, let's face it, ours is a patriarchal society: promiscuity will affect the man far less than the woman. But, that does not excuse the man: both of you have to be gatekeepers of your own bodies and souls.

 

But, sexuality is one of the functions of marriage. Of course, if I have to hear another sermon from an “uncle” telling us with great force that “the marriage makes the Zina the halal and you know who you are! And the Angels curse you!” etc., I may have to bust my head on my keyboard. Anyways, the most common complaint from husbands *and* wives to me are about dissatisfaction with sexuality. Often the complaints are first focused on excessive anger, but that particular anger finds its fuel in sexual dissatisfaction. Its is a vicious circle: the s/he is not satisfied and gets frustrated. Their spouse closes off further. Then s/he gets angrier. Then, the spouse closes off even more.

 

The legal texts are so frank in their language that they sound coarse, stating that when you sign on to the marriage contract, you are giving ownership of that part of your body to your spouse. In theory, that would mean that you have the disposition of always being ready to be ready for your spouse. In theory, that would say -- on a side note -- that there is no such thing as marital rape, though there is, today especially because we have convinced ourselves that marriage is a Cinderella fairytale fantasy and sexuality is a fringe benefit rather than a central endeavor. Meaning, even though sexuality is a right, it cannot be attained by force, but by love, gentleness, generosity, and most of all: partnership.

 

A common line students share is, "I want someone better or more knowledgeable, who will help me grow." More narcissism. The mentor or teacher is someone you turn to to help you grow. Your spouse may be your keeper of secrets, your cushion, or your loyal protector but is not your therapist.

 

The most ridiculous line, of course, is the, "If it's meant to be, it will be." Aside from the fact that it makes me want to throw my shoe at your head, and say, "If it's meant that the sole of this shoe will hit you the soul within you, it will hit you," and aside from the fact that we still invoke fate in all the wrong places...nobody believes it. If you truly believe that if a relationship is "meant to be, it will be," then you do not need to do anything. Every time your potential spouse tries to contact you, ignore them. If it’s meant to be, it will be. If their family comes over to begin the engagement, then run to the store, get a pie, and put it in your face and walk in. If it’s meant to be, it will be. So, it is a lie we tell ourselves, thinking that it is theology. I wonder if Jinns tell each other the same line when they are looking to get married.

 

So, I am suggesting that you shift focus toward cultivating relationships. You are still in school to get a job, and hopefully an education. But, invest some of your brain space in cultivating your friendships, and invest some of your heart space in the vulnerability and trust that comes with friendships. There is a meme somewhere on that internet-thing calling on us to nurture memories rather than possessions.  Memories happen with people.

 

Friendships are training for married life. Married life is training for worship of the Divine. Marriage is training you in your service to the Divine: you are compromising every inch of your being, with the conviction that it is for something better, you give and give and give, you fail and seek forgiveness, you are failed and give forgiveness, you support your partner and your partner supports you. If, however, you try to impose your will on your spouse, then you are not submitting; you are coercing.

 

By the way, another topic that all age groups love to ask about is Nazar (the evil eye). There seems to be a direct correlation between arguments for legalizing marijuana and Nazar as explanations for everything in life. Perhaps there is causation along with the correlation.

 

And Allah knows best.

 

Omer M

2017 Favorite Books on Islam and Muslims

December 24, 2017



Assalamu Alaykum Dear Students,

 

And Merry Christmas to those observing Christmas. Belated Happy Hanukkah.

 

I hope you receive this letter with the best of health, integrity, and Iman.

 

In the last letter, we spoke about some good books about general topics. Here, I am giving my book recommendations on the best books about Muslims and or Islam from my readings of the past year. It may be important to read the explanation because my suggestion to read a book does not mean that I thought it was a good book.

 

The topics may not appeal to you, but if you want to get a sense of strong writing, reflection, and research on Islam and Muslims, explore these.



THE BEST:

 

1- Su’ad Abdul-Khabeer, “Muslim Cool.” This profound academic study of the way Islam manifests in Black American cultures as a type of “coolness” was eye opening for me, despite having grown up in Chicago, having been following Rap/Hip Hop for three decades, and watching all of what she writes about, right before my eyes. This was the best, most important book I read on Muslims this past year. Fair disclosure: not only do I know and respect the author and her better half, but her better half is...a Muslim Chaplain (at the University of Chicago).

 

2- Mona Hassan, “Longing for the Lost Caliphate.” She explores a sentiment pervasive among Muslim populations, that when the Ottomans were dismantled in 1924, that something intrinsic to Islam has been lost, being a dominant polity. This towering work of scholarship explores the history and language of Islamic politics, through a few empires, and modernity. I will have to read this book a few times to appreciate it. Her sweeping, yet close reading across languages, scholars, and histories was enough for five books.

 

3- Pankaj Mishra, “Age of Anger.” This book also made my other list. It is here because it is very much about Muslims as much as it is about Westerners. The profound connections he makes were nothing less than genius. I cannot imagine that he would be able to produce another work as complex and insightful. If he can produce a few more such books, then I will have no doubt that he will have been one of the 21st Century’s greatest thinkers. No pressure.



THE REST: All of these books are very human.

 

4- Omar Ghobash, “Letters to a Young Muslim.” I tire when reading non-specialists pontificating about Islam, whether they are diplomats, physicians, engineers, lawyers, etc., in the way that physicians feel when homeopaths write about healthcare. This book was a gentle breath of fresh air. Ghobash is a diplomat writing a series of letters to his son, introducing the world to him, while wrestling with the questions of the day, without claiming to have answers. He does not speak as an authority, as much as he speaks as someone who loves Islam, his son, and the process of learning itself. What stood out for me in this book was the humility and compassion of the father for the child; maybe it is because so much of my day involves the victims of dispassionate fathers.

 

5- Tamim Ansary, “Destiny Disrupted.” I went through this book on the recommendation of two friends, and went through it again this year. Having studied and taught Islamic history academically I can say that this is the best introduction to Islamic history for the lay reader.  His wry sense of humor makes the book even more enjoyable.

 

6- Khizr Khan, “An American Family.” In the other list, I was biased in favor of books that had a Loyola connection. I stayed away from this book for some time because of my bias *against* the author, assuming that he is this Pakistani Uncle who would spend his time talking about how great America is (and see my comments below on Ali Rizvi’s book). I get enough of that at some mosques.

No, this book was a heartfelt autobiography about a man from meager means who worked very hard and acknowledged his many lucky breaks, that always came in the form of the kindnesses of other people. I will push my daughters to read, and the Pakistani in me had to go through his chapters on his son’s death over and over again, feeling the pain of a Pakistani elder. Or, maybe it is just humanity in me that gets touched by the humanities of others speaking about their pains, especially their lost children.

 

7- Jonathan Eig - “Ali: A Life.” I had the privilege of attending Muhammad Ali’s janazah and memorial. Then, half a year later, I took my daughters to visit his grave, knowing I was still coping with his death. For me, this book completed my mourning. But, it was also an important book because it showed that Ali was a complicated person. On the one hand he was generous to everyone including the numerous people who wanted to shake hands with him and the numerous people who exploited. On the other hand, he betrayed his wives numerous times, and the book does not mention his tears seeking forgiveness from the Divine, and perhaps from his wives. And, let us face it, his profession was the most un-Islamic of professions. Here is this man who seemed to be a mixture of searching for every type of love, while following through on every type of base appetite. But, when he believed something, he believed it through the depths of his being.

 

Meaning, he was one of the first of our Celebrity Preachers: because he elevated us with his public accomplishments, we made him into an even larger hero, and ignored his vices and the pains he caused others. Many would say that in our lauding of Celebrity Preachers we are seeking the Mahdi, the guided savior. No, is as though in every one of the Celebrity Preachers we elevate, we are seeking another Muhammad Ali: a Muslim who accomplishes much and we take credit.

 

8- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, “Coach Wooden and Me.” This book is about mentors and made me realize how much every generation’s biggest failure is in the refusal to become mentors for the younger people. Out of the hundreds of Muslims my age, how many mentors are there in Chicago from my age group to the college students? Ten?

 

Kareem speaks with love, sharing the life and wisdom of his modest UCLA coach; the winningest basketball coach in NCAA history. Kareem is a young high schooler who first meets him, and gets transformed under his tutelage, including his own transformation from Lew Alcindor to KAJ.

 

9- Carla Power, “If the Oceans were Ink.” Power is a British journalist who follows the scholar Shaykh Akram Nadwi across London and the world, learning Islam through his lens. It is not difficult to find the formulaic “White Woman meeting the Colored Exotic Leader.” That trope goes at least as far back as Rudolph Valentino’s “The Sheikh” movies from a hundred years ago. But, this book is not a work of exploitation or fetishization. Rather, it is a work of exploration.

 

10- Garry Wills, “What the Qur’an Meant.” A very friendly book, continuing Father Wills’ approach found in other books. It works as an intro to the Qur’an for Catholics and everyone else. If I were to write an intro for Catholics I would take a very different approach because Father Wills places focus on the big issues that everyone always talks about, and you know what those issues are. His goal is very direct: to work to wipe out all these hostilities against us, and to show that Muslims and Christians are far closer in belief than people (especially Christians) realize. He takes much of his material from the recently published mammoth “Study Qur’an.” Many Muslims had been attacking the Study Qur’an because of perceived agendas. Considering how large that book is, I suspect that none of those people had actually read it.



BOOKS YOU SHOULD EXPLORE FOR THE IDEAS EVEN THOUGH THEY WERE DISAPPOINTING.

 

The first book is a statement of piety, but cherry picks ideas and history to make its point. This last book is a statement of impiety, using the same tired arguments readily available on the internet:

 

11- Reza Aslan, “God.” For nerds like me, this is a fun exploration of the approaches we take to God. He speaks as a historian, but forces history to fit his theological ideology, which is consistent with most of his writings. When theologians write history, they give attention to some moments and diminish attention from others to fulfill their ideologies; meaning, theologians pick and choose how history works. This is not limited to Aslan. Numerous respected authors in all the sacred Traditions do the same. I am revisiting Bertrand Russell’s “History of Western Philosophy” and he states in the opening that he does this.

 

For Aslan, the pinnacle of religious thought is Wahdat al-Wujud, but he does not give it much detail, and does not discuss its modification -- Wahdat al-Shuhud -- by Ahmad Sirhindi. The idea of Wahdat al-Wujud (“Oneness of Existence”) is that you reach a point of oneness with God. The controversial versions of this merge the believer with God, thus making the believer into God. The less controversial versions speak of reaching a point where we cease to exist, and God is the only existence. We cease to exist when our narcissism ceases. Aslan does not distinguish between these ideas, perhaps because he is discussing super advanced concepts for a lay readership.

 

The idea of Wahdat al-Shuhud (“Oneness of Witness”) is that you reach a point of ceasing narcissism, but because your natural design -- along with the natural design of all creation -- is to praise the Divine, you reach a point of complete 100% witness of the Divine, which is complete 100% praise of the Divine.

 

Nevertheless, to his credit, Aslan seamlessly makes Islam part of mainstream American discourse better than anyone, and deserves credit for that alone. There are other Muslims who represent Islam and Muslims in the mainstream and he is smarter than most of them (and again, my basis favors the Chicagoans). This book is another example of that.

 

12- Ali Rizvi - “The Atheist Muslim.” I am suggesting this book to you not because it has any fresh ideas, which it does not. Rather, I want you to see the current state of the art in popular-intellectual critiques of Islam: they are weak.

 

My point is not to say that Islam is above critique; the Qur’an itself prescribes the doubters and challenges the opponents to produce something that can compare. Much of Tradition, especially our Tradition, is a centuries long conversation on big and small matters, critiquing past and contemporary works. On top of all that, I work in academia, where it sometimes seem like that people derive life by problematizing everything, including the desire to problematize everything.

 

Rather, there is a genre of books in mass publication, authored by people who to seem believe that they are smarter or more worldly than the rest of us, yet they illustrate that they have nothing much to share except a Muslim name, pedestrian ideas, and admiration for a mythical West. I should list those people in another letter, but one similar author with a book this year is Haroon Moghul. Paging through Moghul’s book, it was clear that he was consistent: any time he writes or speaks about Islam or Muslims, he spends most of his time talking about himself, which he did for an hour in one of my classes. At the recommendation of someone who I now regard as a pseudo-feminist (in that this person writes about women but attacks victims of domestic violence), I played his YouTube series’ about faith a few years ago at a MSA Men’s Retreat. Again, the whole piece was about himself. But, leaving out comments about his self-perception, it is clear that he knows almost nothing about the Muslim community, and when writing about Islam he comes with the usual cursory knowledge that many have, peppered with a few clever insights. The Islam he presents, despite an ability to quote from a wide variety of sources, like any grad student can, is a shallow rationalist approach that is effectively an atheism which believer forces upon himself as piety and manifests as irrational narcissism. The sad part is that he teaches Islam to Rabbis at a prestigious institution in Israel. But, Ayaan Hirsi Ali teaches diplomats about Islam and non-Muslim communities about feminism and has credentials in neither, so it is nothing new. A market has supply and demand, even though the market is sometimes a racket.

 

Anyways, the hope I had in Rizvi’s book was that it would raise some challenging ideas. Instead, he expresses his admiration for the West as the land of enlightened thinking, and ignores the legacies of Slavery, Genocide, and Colonialism. This is similar to the constant sentiment in Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s works (and in her most recent book she calls on us to give up belief in the Hereafter). The most preposterous section of Rizvi’s book is the last section; after spending a full book insulting beliefs in what he regards as myths, he tells a friend that her dead father lives in some alternate universe. Rizvi fails to comment on the inconsistency. I was hoping he would acknowledge resorting to religious-ish mythologies in coping with the difficulties of life, but he does not.

To his credit -- unlike Moghul and Hirsi Ali -- he does not present himself as a victim. Thus, I am hoping that he is young and continues searching, in which case I look forward to witnessing intellectual growth. Otherwise, critiques of religion by Nietzsche, Weber, Marx, Russell are each far stronger. My hope for Moghul and Hirsi Ali is the same.

 

In other words, to understand my disappointment in these latter books, look at the scholarship in the “best” list, look at the humanity in the rest of the recommended books.” Then look at these latter books. My complaint in these latter books is that smart authors were insulting my intelligence.

 

Anyways, keep in mind that this list is not a curriculum. It is only list of the best books or relevant books on Islam and/or Muslims that I went through in the past year.

 

Post your favorite books on Islam and/or Muslims.

 

And Allah knows best.

 

Omer M

 

2017 Favorite books not about Islam or Muslims

December 17, 2017



Assalamu Alaykum Dear Students,

 12

I hope you receive this letter with the best of health, integrity, and Iman.

 

As we finish this calendar year, I am looking back that the books that affected me most. If you have time during this break between semesters, I urge you to go through at least one. Not all of these books are from the past year, but all of these are books I discovered in the past year.



THE BEST OF THE BEST. These are the books I am telling people to drop everything and read:

 

1. Gregory Boyle - “Tattoos on the Heart.” / Gregory Boyle - “Barking to the Choir.”

 

One of the fringe benefits of the work in Campus Ministry is that I get introduced to the amazing efforts of people across the world. When Gregory Boyle came to campus, it was clear that there was something special about him. My colleague in Ministry -- Dave Holmes -- would speak about him when speaking about Alternative Break Immersions. Father Boyle runs the largest gang intervention program in the world.

 

Then, I discovered Boyle’s books, and could not put them down. Perhaps he articulated a larger, more serious version of work that I do as your Chaplain, helping me to understand my work better. In fact, the loving humor I use to speak about each of you finds kinship in the loving humor he uses to speak about the young people he embraces. While I have buried perhaps half a dozen students, he has buried over two hundred. The first book is about taking the approach of kinship; the second is about compassion.



2. Bryan Stevenson - “Just Mercy.”

 

Another book introduced through Loyola. This was the book that began the school year for about a quarter of you. But, (now alum) Wesam Shahed started telling me much more about him as we were watching the film “13th.” Stevenson is a Black American Harvard Law School grad who drives across the country providing legal counsel to indigent people stuck in court systems that seem to convict them from before any crimes were committed.

 

Stevenson’s stories about his efforts are heartbreaking, yet he remains hopeful, while acknowledging what the difficult work is doing to him, including the trauma and the clarity.



3. Timothy Snyder - “On Tyranny.”

We will be having a book club meeting each week next semester reading this short book. Yale Historian is very clear in stating that America has entered the spirit of pre-Nazi Germany, and it is almost too late to stop the descent. So, he gives twenty steps of advice. One of the pieces of advice, however, makes it seem like we are too late.



4. Sean Young - “Stick With It.”

 

I go through numerous self-improvement books a year. Many of them are very good. The best in recent years was Charles Duhigg’s “The Power of Habit.” This book is better by leaps and bounds.




HONORABLE MENTIONS - These are books not about Muslims or Islam that you must read. Next time I will share books about Islam and/or Muslims, Insha Allah.

 

Matthew Desmond - “Evicted.” A study of poverty in Milwaukee. For critics who wonder why people cannot escape poverty, this book shows that it is because the moment you lose your home, and start moving from home to home, you are not able to gain any stability, and your education is the hardest hit. Meanwhile, federal subsidies benefit landlords, but not tenants.

 

Chris Hedges - “Unspeakable.” One point in this book has both enlightened and haunted me. As he talks about his career as a journalist for the major papers, he says that he could not get promoted because he would take the stories nobody wanted, and he would not hesitate to write about Power. We would think that he is living the exact life that a major newspaper would seek. Rather, the major newspapers (including the New York Times and the Washington Post) bend to the will of the White House. A few months after I completed this book, the New York Times was under fire for hiring and promoting journalists who were very pro-Trump. Last week, the NYT was again under fire for a long piece sympathetic to Neo-Nazis.

 

Pankaj Mishra - “Age of Anger.” Mishra provides a profound, sweeping history of modernity, decentering it away from Europe, to explain how we are where we are today.

 

Trevor Noah - “Born a Crime.” Noah, the host of the Daily Show and recent performer at Loyola, shares the story of his childhood. His father was white, and his mother was a Black South African, which meant that Noah’s birth was literally a crime. He provides numerous insights on life and poverty.

 

JD Vance - “Hillbilly Elegy.” At one level, this is the memoir of a man who was raised in Appalachia, eventually joined the Marines, and graduated Yale Law School. At another level, it is an account of Trump’s America, being a population of people who are *not* as religious as we assume, though they are watching their families and communities disintegrate as globalization shifts jobs across the world.

 

There were many other solid books, but the above were the books that had the most impact on me. Perhaps they will be of benefit to you. If you have any suggestions, send them my way.

 

And Allah knows best.

 

Omer M

 

The Personal, the Pious, the Political

December 10, 2017



Assalamu Alaykum Dear Students,

 

I hope you receive this letter with the best of health, integrity, and Iman.

 

The modern sentiment toward religion limits its role to private human practice with limited public affectation. The idea is that secularism -- a non-religion that has a value system as much as many religions -- dominates public space, with the backing of a bureaucratic structure. Part of the success of the American experiment is that its form of secularism allows for and protects -- through Free Speech -- the extensive personal expression of religion. Still, in Islam, we speak of Islam informing every aspect of life from the private to the public, from the individual to the social, political, and economic. We have obligations of justice toward everyone, regardless of their beliefs.

 

A lot has been said about the recent announcement that the US is recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and that it is moving our embassy to Jerusalem. Israel itself announced Jerusalem (at least East Jerusalem) as its capital nearly three decades ago.

 

The most preposterous criticism of the move is the same as the most preposterous praise of the move: it is either hurting or helping the Peace Process. The problem with this rhetoric is that it assumes that there is a peace process in place. Evaluate all the various attempts, from UN 242, to Oslo, to the Quartet, to the various talks of the past decade, and see which, if any, is in place as settlements continue to expand. I have numerous Palestinian students whose relatives in the “bilad” cannot find jobs except as construction workers in those settlements that are taking away their own land.

 

Let us not think that this language is another example of the continued recklessness of the current incumbent in the White House. His predecessors -- Presidents Clinton, Bush, Obama -- made similar comments. In 1995, Congress passed the “Jerusalem Embassy Act,” which called for the move to be completed by 1999, though none of the presidents until Trump followed through on it.

 

The next point to consider is the myth that this is a religious conflict. Indeed, it seems that in containing some of the most sacred precincts on the planet, Jerusalem and the regions surrounding it seems to be one of the planet’s largest graveyards. While religion is a part of the conflict and inflames the conflict, we should not lose sight that the fundamental problem is the Occupation of Palestinian lives and lands. Al-Aqsa is the third most sacred space in Islam, and even then, a human life is more valuable than al-Aqsa.

 

It is the responsibility of people of religion to be the social conscience of society. A large obstacle that prevents people of religion from standing for justice is not lack of faith, as much as it is tribalism: where we focus only on injustices against our own co-religionists. In constructing a Muslim Ummah, the Prophet, may peace be upon him, not only worked to end the tribal structures of Arabia and beyond, but he also shifted the discourse from tribal vengeance to uniform justice for all. Thus, if I only critiqued Israel for its subjugations of the Palestinians, especially knowing that nearly all other Arab heads of state have used the Palestinians as bargaining chips, I would be guilty of tribalism disguised as justice.

 

As you know, the vast majority of my political comments address violence, hunger, and corruption in Chicago. Nevertheless, we must understand that in our era, everything is linked. Obama made this point in his “A New Beginning” speech in Cairo after his historic election as president. Angela Davis makes this point in her award-winning, “Freedom is a Constant Struggle.”

 

An example is the American attempts at prohibitions against the BDS movement. There are moves in various parts of our society working to outlaw BDS and any other criticisms of the State of Israel. Regardless of what your stance on BDS may be, it should be understood that it is preposterous that our Free Speech should be challenged, especially the Free Speech to criticize a foreign government, especially a government that we arm, especially an ally responsible for numerous human rights violations.

 

Another example is the ongoing debate over the acceptance of Syrian refugees. If the catastrophe in Syria is not mind-boggling enough, I am troubled that Syrians have had to flee literally across the world to the United States to find safety, and are turned away.

 

Thus, my critique applies as much to Israel -- which is not a secular state -- and its treatment of the Palestinians as it does to Saudi Arabia -- which is not a secular state -- and its treatment of Saudi Shias and Yemenis. There has been much American press praising the recent anti-corruption moves in Saudi Arabia while also speaking of the destruction of Yemen, without connecting the two; the destruction of Yemen comes directly from the Saudi regime. Likewise, the head of state of Turkey -- which is no longer a secular state -- has been receiving great praise from many Muslim populations for his defense of the Palestinians and criticisms of Israel, while the same populations turn a blind eye to his witch hunt of Turkish Muslim activists and academics, accusing them of insurrection. On that note, I find it fascinating that some Muslim scholars and preachers will in one moment speak with force against mixtures of Islam and politics, yet in the next moment praise Muslim imperial legacies such as those of the Ottomans and Mughals.

 

We cannot speak about violence, hunger, and corruption in Chicago without speaking about violence, hunger, and corruption across the country, without speaking about the same abroad, because the common elements in all of these cases are overlapping ideologies, policies, and techniques. Whether we speak of hunger in Chicago or Somalia, is not the result of lack of food, but of obstructive policy. A friend who invests his almost every waking minute in local and global social service told me that in Somalia there are plenty of distribution channels for the sale of guns, and there is plenty of food that could be delivered through those channels, yet there is a famine: that is policy, not drought. On a side note, if we consider the policies of a recent Chicago mayor, we would note how much he seemed to work like an Arab dictator.

 

A police officer who worked in Ferguson at the time of the unrest told me that even though we blame cops for the murders of unarmed Black American men and women, there are other parts to the problem, at the very least because the courts are acquitting the officers. The most important is that the local politicians support police officers only when expedient. Further, Black and White gang and militia members are coming back from service as American soldiers overseas having been trained by the US military. Further, because of right-wing rhetoric suggesting that “Obama is coming for your guns,” there has been a decade-long buying frenzy of weapons compounded by an increase smuggling of weapons, allowing for the gangs and militias to be more armed and skilled than ever. Further still, Davis mentions in her book that during the protests in Ferguson, Palestinian participants discovered that the same tear gas used overseas was being used there.

 

The point of all this is that many students -- especially Palestinians students who are directly affected -- have come to me disappointed and upset over the recent announcements by President Trump regarding Jerusalem. We used to say, “think globally, act locally.” Now, I am telling you to think locally and globally and act globally and locally. Now that you are completing finals and will have time off from school, let us invest time to think about how. Let us think about how our Islam compels us to stand for justice locally and globally, with consistency for all. I don’t have any answers in all of this, but you and I have plenty of obligations.

 

And Allah knows best.

 

Omer M

2017 Longings

November 26, 2017



Assalamu Alaykum Dear Students,

 

I hope you receive this letter with the best of health, integrity, and Iman.

 

With the completion of another Thanksgiving, we are reaching the end of another semester and the end of another calendar year. I started getting headaches yesterday while visiting siblings in Milwaukee because the late November winds surpassed 60 degrees. Since childhood, my system has been able to handle huge drops in temperature, but not huge increases.

 

I look back at the events of this past calendar year, even though we have a whole month left. We began in January, full of anxiety. Despite having passed a year since the last presidential election, he has not been impeached. Regardless of your politics, the tenuous experience that we have had under the previous two presidents has gotten even more nebulous in the past year. We began the school year in better shape than we were in in January. As we end this semester, I feel that we are doing even better.

 

Nevertheless, there is still quite a bit that our community members struggle with. More alcohol consumption than in the past. More drug consumption than in the past. More premarital and extramarital sexuality than in the past. More self-harm than in the past.

 

I am saying that if we dig deeper, we see that we have more longings than we have in the past. We have discussed in the past that loneliness is a longing. The feeling of exile is a longing. Fear is a longing. Hope is a longing. All of these are longings for God that manifest as these unique feelings, which we then try to erase with behaviors, like the behaviors above.

 

What do you do to fulfill your longings? Chances are that you may do some of the above unhealthy practices. Students ask me that question: “we talk to you, who do you talk to?” In some ways, it is the same question: “What do you do to fulfill your longings?” Both of these questions are asking, “Where do you find your relief and solace?”

 

I joke that I do not have any friends. Actually, I have a few friends that I am very close to. But I joke that I do not have any friends because almost all of those close friends -- even those who are older -- regard me as a teacher. I may sound as though I am claiming or “humblebragging.” No, it means that I have not yet allowed these friends to see me for all of my edges, in the way my siblings know me.

 

Thus, I feel that feeling of exile as much as each of you. We are made to feel out of place in our society as Muslims, as non-Christians, as (most of us being) people of color. Considering how deep patriarchy digs itself into our cultures, womanhood is often an exile. The non-Sunnis tend to have additional layers of feeling out of place. If you self-identify as LGBTQI, you have additional layers of exile. If you have struggled through specific tests, like the loss of a parent or child, then you might feel even more exile.

 

Sometimes that exile is a feeling of being out of place. Sometimes, it is a choice to feel out of place. I don’t know if it makes sense, but I do know that I find solace and relief in being myself with all my edges and contradictions. Meaning, I do not know how to be a normal person.

 

Peer pressure exploits the pain we feel in being different than everyone else. When I was your age, I had just as much difficulty fitting in, but at that time this separation was a source of pain. Now, it is a source of relief, accepting that there are certain aspects of my personality that I have not been able to mold, despite four decades of effort. Now, I accept that I can stop trying at least in aspects that do not involve right and wrong, or dignity.

 

Another source of relief and solace for me comes from learning. When I sit with each of you, I love learning about each of you. I love your stories about your lives. I love the way you share your stories. I love learning about your hearts. In that process, I am also learning much about my own self. I notice every day that each person that the Divine places in those chairs in my office is a person who is struggling with something identical to something I struggle through.

 

Further, I love reading. Most of you know that I have struggled with reading since my earliest years. I overcompensated by investing extra hours in my daughters, getting them to read at advanced levels by the time they started kindergarten. I also overcompensate in my own reading. In 2017, I will have gone through some 70 books, some 20 thousand pages. This does not include your papers.

 

This is not boasting; this is a sign of how much I have been in need of relief. Reading is a giant struggle for me. One method I have used to face struggle itself is to push myself through books. Meaning, I am so conditioned to find the completion of a book to be impossible (considering that it took me a decade to complete my first reading of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”) that my efforts at completing a book are my efforts at conquering myself by completing the impossible. The result is not only the thrill of accomplishing these small impossibilities. There is a deep joy in learning something that gives me more exhilaration than what caffeine gives you.

 

The same applies to my trips to that gym down the street from campus. My trainer noted that I like pushing my limits. I am not fit, yet when he gives me two options, I always take the more difficult option. This is not because it will make me more fit; it is because it is more impossible. Then, after he tears me apart, I do cardio until I feel like I am going to collapse. If I had the time, I would go even further. It is the same thing I do with reading: I find relief in accomplishing the impossible. Perhaps it is because the moment I surpass my limits, I surpass the worldly limits that form me. Meaning, in those moments, I cease to exist. And yes, when I am on those machines, I am either reading or studying. Last week, when I was not studying the life of the companion Abu Bakr, I was studying the film “Heat” (1995).

 

The model of the Prophet Muhammad, may peace be upon him, was that when he would be hit with stress and struggle, he would go immediately into Salah/Namaz, being the canonical prayers. I used to perform the prayers for the reward of the prayers. Each time you prostrate, sins are dropped away from you. Now, I go into prayer to find relief. Meaning, I put my face on the ground for God, and then I talk to God. He gave me the struggle; I turn to Him not only to be freed from the struggle but turning to Him is itself freedom from the struggle. When I am turning to Him, the world no longer exists.

 

I also find great inspiration in one of the descendants of the Prophet, may peace be upon him. Ali b. Husayn, commonly known as Zayn al-Abideen, is the Fourth Imam for Shias (after Ali b. Abi Talib, Hasan b. Ali and his father Husayn b. Ali). He is also known as Imam al-Sajjad, for performing 1000 rakats of Salah/Namaz per day. In addition, each night, he fed 100 families. He taught many lessons through specific passages in the 57th Surah (al-Hadid, “Iron”); I have taught you a few lessons from the same passages. I do not accomplish anything close to what Zayn al-Abideen did, but his actions gave me some of my targets. Perhaps because they are impossible.

 

I wonder if I will ever fit in. Anywhere. I share this with you to let you know that you do not have to fit in either. Rather, use that pain to overcome yourself and immerse yourself in the Divine, rather than in destructive behaviors. If you can bring yourself to do that, then society will not have the power to make you collapse because you will be too busy trying hard to make yourself collapse. What holds us back from conversation with the Divine is not our longings; it is the limits society places upon us, which become the limits we place upon ourselves.

 

And Allah knows best.

 

Omer M

 

Reflections on Muslim Reform

November 19, 2017




Assalamu Alaykum Dear Students,

 

I hope you receive this letter with the best of health, integrity, and Iman.

 

There are many calls for a “reform” of Islam. Some from within our global community, many from elsewhere. Often, the calls are for Muslims to experience a reform akin to the reform of Christianity from 500 years ago. We do not find as many calls by non-Christians for reforms of Christianity, non-Jews for reforms of Judaism, non-Hindus for reforms of Hinduism, or non-Buddhists for reforms of Buddhism. Within each of those communities, however, there are liberal and conservative voices providing internal critiques of their communities.

 

The most common matters across all the traditions tend to be the matters imposed upon them by the world itself; each of the different communities seeks to navigate their ways through these challenges. Thus we find much discourse on the issues of authority, gender, modernity, violence, and public space. There are other factors that influence reform in each of these traditions, usually related to manifestations of power, through governance, education, technology, and media. Whether through scholarship, activity, or imagination, every community wrestles with these issues more than they might realize.

 

Consider our community. We will have people who may identify themselves as “conservative,” yet rely on a timetable or smartphone app for prayer times, rather than look at the sky or shadows. They may dress in thobes -- as though that is more pious -- even though they are not Arab, dress in modern western undergarments and those thobes are often made in factories in China. They read and cite the primary sources (usually the Qur’an and Hadith) without training in reading those sources. They choose strict interpretations of Islamic law, risking making things Haram that are not Haram.

 

Consider the other end of the spectrum. There are those who may self-identify as “liberal,” yet their opinions come not from our primary sources. Rather their interpretations of the primary sources are informed from modern Western usually Marxist categorizations of power, privilege, the dispossessed. Those at the far end of the spectrum speak of an Islam that is informed by poststructuralist thinkers, which, to the outsider look like calls for anarchy.

 

Where would you position me? There are many who see my emphasis on students making their daily prayers as a sign that I am conservative. Then, there are many who read or misread my statements about the humanity of members of the LGBTQ communities as a sign that I am liberal. There are many who see the history of my teachers, and past involvement in the Khilafah movement, and think that I am not just conservative, but potentially fascist. There are many who see my actions in exposing the gross misconduct of popular scholars and preachers, as signs that I am focused on elevating myself while destroying all that is sacred.

 

The answer: I do not know where I would position myself. We are each complex people. Meaning, my opinions are complex for matters that are complex. Most matters are complex.

 

Where would you position yourself? Or, where would you position your parents? For many students in our community, their approaches to Islam -- or, in some cases, their departures from Islam -- are rebellions against their perceived tyranny from their parents. Meaning, for many students, everything that they dislike about Islam, is actually everything they dislike about their parents.

 

There is another point to consider. Different self-styled Muslim reformers seek different ends.

 

There are those Muslim reformers, often positioned among the Islamophobes, who seek an Islam where everything is removed and all that remains is a small list of good morals. These people tend to side with Western Imperialists in their opinions on everything, as though it is the pinnacle or end of history. Some who have a bit of knowledge of our traditions argue through legal somersaults that America is the modern embodiment of Islam.

 

There are those who seek to make Islam relevant to their times and places. The assumption here is that Islam -- because it is 1400 years old -- is obsolete, and the world has progressed. Our era is different from the era of the Prophet, may peace be upon him. In fact, as soon as the Prophet left our world, the environment was different. And, today’s economy has fundamental differences from the economy at the time of the Prophet. Those people who are assuming that the world has “progressed,” however, might be embracing Hegel’s philosophy of history more than they realize.

 

There are those who seek to make Islam have better public relations. There is less concern on matters of salvation and more concern on the impression our community members give. The goal here is to embrace everything that gives a good impression and to oppose everything that gives a bad impression. Such people will praise activists who appear in magazines, but will condemn the prickly work of justice. They will conduct fundraising drives to help victims of various tragedies, not for purposes of service, but for public relations.

 

There are those who seek material power, through which to make Islam or Muslims dominate other populations and ideologies. I am not speaking here of ISIS. Rather, I’m speaking of Muslim politicians in many Muslim-majority and non-Muslim majority countries.

 

Common among all of the above, however, is that the above are lay people. In our history, almost all Islamic reform has come through scholarship. Consider the terminology itself. “Jihad” means “struggle,” and “Ijtihad,” which comes from the same root, means “intense struggle.” Yet, in our traditions, “jihad” was used for “fighting,” and “ijtihad” was used for “scholarship.” In Sunni traditions, many consider the Turkish/Kurdish scholar Bediuzzaman Said Nursi (d. 1960) to be one of the major revivalists of recent times. In Shia traditions, many consider the Iraqi scholar Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr (d. 1980) to be one of the major revivalists of recent times.

 

Note that the ideas of reform (islah) are inseparable from the ideas of revival (tajdid). Meaning, throughout our history, it seems that the most common goal of Muslim reformist thinkers was *not* to figure out how to articulate Islam in such a way that it was relevant to the lives of people of their era, in a way that still maintained the integrity of the belief system. That goal was secondary. Further, though it closer to the real goal, the actual goal was also *not* to figure out how to facilitate the *full* practice of Islam in new settings.

 

Rather, the most common goal of the Muslim reformist thinkers, whether we speak of al-Ghazali, or Shah Waliyullah, or the Usulis, was to facilitate the submission to God in new settings. If that goal is not central, then I would ask if it is “Islamic reform.” Thus, the vehicle through which these scholars sought to facilitate submission to God in new eras and places was through developing an understanding of a full practice of Islam, which required an understanding of the needs and relevancies of the new eras. Thus, reform of Islam was synonymous with the revival of Islam.

 

Or, reform of Islamic thought was synonymous with the revival of Iman among the populations. Iman is something more than faith. It is that internal trust and security in Allah, in navigating life in this world and the next, through the model, being the Prophet Muhammad, may peace be upon him.

 

To be continued at some point…

 

And Allah knows best.

 

Omer M




Mental Health and Spirituality

November 12, 2017

 

Dear Students,

 

Assalamu Alaykum.

 

I hope you receive this letter with the best of health, Integrity, and Iman.

 

It used to be that when a little girl became weak, had a runny nose, and hot forehead, that her family assumed that she was sinful or was possessed by the devil. As the medical sciences developed, the diagnosis shifted from evil possession to a “fever” that was treated with simple medications.

 

Now, we are in need of that same advancement regarding mental health.  It is too common in our communities that lay persons -- often parents -- diagnose their children’s mental illnesses in one of three ways: something that can be cured with prayer, evil possession requiring a jinn-exorcism, or an insanity that the parents claim will be on their permanent record and affecting them for life. I am pleased that our community is beginning to accept mental health as a real thing, but we are still a long way from being serious in taking mental health as something serious. It is clear that many parents need counseling at least as much as their children do.

 

You hear from me many times that modern American life is hostile to a person’s mental health.  The Twilight Zone episode “Execution” features a man from the 1800s walking the streets of modern America getting overwhelmed by all the lights and noise. We have that. In addition, we are a nation that has been at war for your entire conscious lives. Even if you do not have any acquaintances fighting in the war, the repeated attention given to the war affects your sense of stability and safety. In addition, we are bombarded by media, whether the missiles are airbrushed photos of cover girl models or new stories of mass shootings. In addition, social media keeps hitting you with photos, so much that you feel like you must always be performing even if it is for a simple meal. In addition, we are living through a political era that is so bizarre that its crass White Supremacy seems mundane. In the past few weeks, we have also seen many women and men come forward brave enough to expose the inappropriate conduct of politicians and celebrities. In addition, we have increasing Islamophobia. In addition, many of you are coming from environments of historical trauma, whether we speak of being Black American, Palestinian, Bosnian, Iraqi, Afghan, or minority and marginalized Muslim groups. In addition, if you are not a heteronormative cisgender male, then you are also subject to additional challenges. In addition, you work through college and all of its academic and social pressures. As you carry *all* of this, do you expect to be mentally well?

 

A criticism of mental health is that the science is experimental. Meaning, counselors rely on theories of human nature that are not coming from our scriptural sources, while other theories will replace these theories. This is true of all science, but for our purposes this is an abstract point; what you care about is efficacy. Meaning, even within our traditions, there are multiple schools focused on healing the self. Just as the different schools of Islamic law reflect different methods of interpretation of the primary sources, different Sufi schools (tariqas) reflect different conceptions of the Self and its healing. Of the different Sufi paths, the most widespread across Chicago are the Naqshbandi, Chishti, Qadri, and Tijani. While the histories of these different Sufi schools relate more to the usual social forces (patronage from monarchs, usually), different schools will fit different personality/spirituality types. The same goes for the Martial Arts, in that different schools fit different personality/body types.

 

Moving beyond the abstract, into the concrete, however, consider if you are diagnosed with a physical sickness, with a proposed treatment plan. You may choose to go to a different physician to get a second opinion. Medicine is not the exact science we would like to imagine it to be: the real test is efficacy. If the treatment works, you take it. Likewise, with a mental health professional, you may discover that your first counselor is not a good fit, but the next one is a better fit. Over the years, I have visited multiple counselors and psychiatrists, and some of them have been outstanding in their ways to identify elements in my personality. You will, Insha Allah, find mental health professionals that can provide treatment that benefits you.

 

Too many of us would like to believe that you can pray away the problems. Parents who tell this to their children do not realize that they are challenging their child’s faith. If the child prays for the mental illness to go away, and it does not, then what does it say about the efficacy of prayer? It says that prayer does not work. Parents who do believe that prayer can fix mental health matters should use the same approach when trying to change a flat tire. Rather than pull out the jack and the spare, and rather than call AAA, they should pray the flat away. Good luck.  Rather, they should pray for their hearts to soften toward these other methods of treatments. I suspect that prayer is more likely to lead to results.

 

Rather, the real problem with expecting prayer to remove illnesses is something a bit more complex. Among the Hakims of the world, there are those who have particular Qur’anic recipes for particular illnesses. Meaning, you recite a specific set of Qur’anic passages a specific number of times, and perform a few other simple steps (often involving water), to diagnose and to treat illnesses. The problem, then, with telling someone to pray to make an illness go away is that it is not a sufficient or appropriate treatment. It is like prescribing aspirin for *every* possible illness.

 

There is stigma regarding mental health: many people believe that if you get mental health treatment, that you are not only “crazy,” but that you will also get recorded as “crazy” on some mythical permanent record. This point is not only absurd, but it is also detrimental. If someone is suffering from depression, the ultimate risk is suicide. When parents do not accept this reality, they are choosing blindness. Further, even if there was this hypothetical record that follows you, the way your internet searches and purchases will remain with you, what have you to lose?

 

Regarding jinns, there are a few scholars that are cashing in by charging exorbitant amounts of money to exorcise jinns from people. While jinns are real, possession is real, and exorcism is real, it does not mean that every case of someone behaving in a matter “abnormal” requires an exorcism. Sometimes Xanax works. Sometimes, a series of conversations works. For those who do not believe in jinns and exorcisms, I return us to the same point: efficacy. If performing a series of steps results in a removal of symptoms, then it does not matter if you believe in it.

 

In any case, our Muslim communities have all the same mental health issues as every other community. Because we are so resistant to treating these issues, we are allowing problems to remain in our households and in our own selves that do not need to be there. Many of our homes have serious problems of anger, anxiety, depression.  In many cases, these problems are causing further problems that are far greater than anything I have the skill set to solve. Meaning, a father’s rage causes problems in the daughter. It does not have to be that way.

 

So, let’s talk.

 

And Allah knows best.

 

Omer M

Christianity, the Reformation, and Muslims

November 5, 2017
 
 
Assalamu Alaykum Dear Students,
 
I hope you receive this letter with the best of health, integrity, and Iman.
 
A few days ago, we witnessed the 500th anniversary of one of the biggest moments in Christian history. Martin Luther is said to have nailed a document on the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany listing nearly 100 criticisms of doctrines and practices of the Catholic Church. Through this critique, he was seeking a reform or repair of Christianity. From the outside, it seems that he is using the same approach that is later taken up by Abraham Geiger and other architects of Reform Judaism, as well as similar burgeoning movements in American Islam: understanding, explaining, and living religion through the methods of the secular academy rather in addition to the religious seminary.
 
Today, we look at Martin Luther’s moment as the trigger that launched what became Protestant Christianity. Today, we can classify global Christianity into four umbrellas: the Catholics, the Protestants, the Eastern Orthodox, and the Heterodox (including the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses). While many regard Chicago, like Boston, as a very Irish Catholic city, we have every type of denomination of follower of Jesus, may peace be upon him, in Chicago, including us.
 
Depending upon who is providing it, some of the major moments, persons, and periods in the story of Christianity, after the departure of Jesus, may peace be upon, include the conversion of Constantine, the Council of Nicaea, the writings of St. Augustine, the Great Schism, the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, the Protestant Reformation, the European Renaissance, the European Wars of Religion, the Treaty of Westphalia and Empire, the Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution, Industrial Revolution and the rise of Capitalism, Modernity, the growth of Christianity in Asian countries. Within the past century, some of the most influential moments have been, in Catholicism, the Second Vatican Council and the rise of Liberation Theology. If we were to look through an American lens, we would add the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
 
You might find it interesting that many of the key Christians in the story of the Prophet Muhammad, may peace be upon him, were classified as non-Christians by “mainstream” Christianity. Many of the decisions were made in “Ecumenical Councils” that were conducted at various times and places over the past centuries. These Councils were meetings of members of the Church, to find answers to certain contemporary questions. The first was the Council of Nicaea (which is now Iznik, Turkey) in 325 CE. The most recent was the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) or the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church (2016), depending on whether we are looking through the lens of Catholicism or Eastern Orthodox Christianity.
 
While Heraclius and the Romans were what we in the modern West would categorize as mainstream Christians, the others were not. King Armah, who was titled as “al-Najashi” and the Christians of Najran were said to be Christians of a tradition which branched off from a church which itself did not accept the Council of Chalcedon and thus did not recognize what we might regard as “mainstream” Christianity. Waraqah b. Nawfal and Bahira were Nestorian monks, whose approaches to Christianity became regarded as heresies after the Council of Nicaea, though more officially with the Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon.
 
This raises questions about the applications of multiple passages in the Qur’an as they relate to Christians. We find the terms “Ahl al-Kitab” (People of the Book) and “Nisara” (People of Nazareth, or Nazarenes) throughout the Qur’an. Many Muslims today identify Christians as either “Isa’i” being followers of Jesus, or “Masiheen,” being followers of the “Masih” or the Christ. In our history of categorizing other faith communities, it seems that we classified people according to their sacred text, the persons they followed, or their locations.
 
The concept of “People of the Book” is that these populations connect themselves with remnants of past revelations from Allah. The “Book” may refer to the greater “Tablet” that is in God’s possession that is said to contain all the revelations and all the script for all that would happen. More commonly, however, the interpretation is that “Book” refers to each of the Books that Allah has revealed to Messengers, may peace be upon them all.
 
The Jews are included because of the Tawrat. The Christians are included because of the Injil. There was a period when Hindus were included because of the Upanishads. I do not have enough knowledge to support or object to this, but I suspect that this period was under the rule of the Mughal Emperor Akbar, which is the controversial subject for another time.
 
Some commentators speak of the Gospels as though they are the same as the “Injil,” that Jesus, may peace be upon him, received. This is a mistake because nobody I am aware of in the umbrella of Christianity claims that the Gospels were revelations to Jesus. Rather they were accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings, with focus on his birth and final years, including events after his Crucifixion. Considering how many of the teachings of Jesus in Christianity overlap either with teachings of the Prophet in the Hadith literature or teachings of Jesus found in the Hadith literature, there may be some other connection, perhaps to materials that scholars of Biblical history regard as possible sources of the Gospels. Or, it may be that they were commonly taught in the Prophet’s time with Christian monks or traders.
 
In any case, these depictions of the People of the Book and the Nazarenes span a whole spectrum of behaviors and relationships. There are those who would love that nothing of good would come to us. There are those among the People of the Book who cry on listening to and recognizing the truth of the Qur’an, believing in the revelations sent to them and you. There are those who hide the truth, even though they recognize it as they recognize their own sons. There are those whom you can entrust with a mountain of Gold. There are those who would not return a single coin to you even they had to hold it with their teeth, and justify their behavior by saying that the sacred law does not apply to you. We are told not to take them as intimates. We are given permission to eat their food as well as (at least for Muslim men) to marry them, and these are the most intimate relationships. We are told that they are closest to us because they have among them priests who humble themselves before God. In history, however, so many of the wars were between Christians and Muslims, including the Crusades. We have passages that state that the Nisara -- and anyone who believes and does right -- will have their reward with their Lord, without need for fear or grief; commentators on these passages assert that they are referring to people who lived before the Prophet Muhammad’s time and revelation.
 
The most practical way to make sense of these passages -- as well as the passages we understand to speak of the Jews -- is to understand something that should be obvious: there are whole spectrums of Christians. Another point to reflect upon is that the Qur’anic passages are addressing conduct and attitude, not doctrine (though the Qur’an also addresses doctrines around Jesus). It seems that all the Christians at the time of the Prophet, including the Romans, Nestorians, and Alexandrians (the branch that al-Najashi belonged to) were regarded at least as Ahl al-Kitab, even though they had some different beliefs. Today, we tend to regard Protestants as part of Ahl al-Kitab as well, though I do not know it to be the result of scholarly deliberation, as much as it is just consistency or simplicity, in the way that many Christians may regard all self-identifying Muslims as Muslims, including Sunni, Shia, Ahmadiyya, and the Nation of Islam, even though some of these groups do not some of the others as Muslims.
 
Martin Luther’s efforts also raise questions about reform in Islam. We hear many people calling for a reform in Islam akin to the Protestant Reformation. Most of those calls are from Imperialist stooges who want to break Islam, some are calls from Muslims and non-Muslims who regard Islam as irrelevant or broken. Further, we do not hear as many people calling for a reform of Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism, except on particular matters like gender and authority; my point is that there is an element of power in this call. We will speak about Muslims and Reform at another time, Insha Allah.
 
And Allah knows best.
 
Omer M

The Perils of Misconduct

October 22, 2017

 

Assalamu Alaykum Dear Students,

 

I hope you receive this letter with the best of health, integrity, and Iman. I hope you get a chance to appreciate the Fall colors. Chicago is gorgeous in Fall and Spring, Alhamdulillah.

 

There are many reasons I keep repeating the importance of integrity in your work. You know the obvious reasons. It is an Islamic obligation. It is a normal human obligation. You would want people to conduct themselves with integrity with you. It is easy to speak in honesty; it is difficult to sustain a lie without telling other lies. If you commit a crime and you do not take ownership of your choices, you will tell lies to sustain your supposed innocence. The more lies you tell, the deeper you bury yourself, the harder and more humiliating the fall will be when you get exposed. Even worse: you may misuse the trust and loyalty of others to protect you from getting exposed.

 

Another reason, however, is that the sins of youth remain with you, decades later. The sins of youth chase after you like zombies: they are ugly remnants from a previous life, that haunt you and continue following you, even when you believe you escaped them. Most people spend the rest of their lives running from their inner zombies. Some of you will read this letter by pointing fingers at others; I am speaking to you about your history.

 

The most obvious way that the sins of youth chase you is in physiology. As you know (because you are SnapChat Warriors), I’ve weaned myself off of carbonated drinks, having replaced them with these giant bottles of Freshly Squeezed Orange Juice. I used to guzzle various soft drinks -- despite how harmful they were -- as if I was drinking water. Soon, I will shift to smaller doses of the juice, Insha Allah.

 

We are taught that if in Islamic law an action gets categorized as “Fard” or “Wajib,” it is not only mandatory to fulfill, but we can infer that it is beneficial for you and society in the next life as well as in this worldly life. Likewise, we are taught that if something is “Haram” (prohibited), we should infer that it is harmful, even in moderation. The list of the Fard actions and the list of the Haram actions are both short lists, and we should try to be firm in them.

 

The mistake we make when we are young is that we assume we will reform ourselves later. The first mistake, of course, is that we assume we will have time to transform. The second mistake is that such procrastination does not end. There are self-improvement efforts that I still delay, having delayed them week after week, for a few decades. My waistline is a monument to my procrastination.

 

The most painful way that the sins of youth chase you, however, is in your misconduct against other people. I have spoken many times about the demons I worked to resolve, starting with a destructive and self-destructive anger. My anger, for much of my life, was an irrational rage that caused pain to many people and ignited ways for me to hurt myself as well. Some of you have experienced me being upset at your choices; that is not the anger I am speaking about. That is the behavior of a mentor to an apprentice. There are a number of narrations of the Prophet Muhammad, may peace be upon him, expressing anger. In each of those cases, he is conducting himself in the role of the guide. I am speaking of something irrational that feels like a tornado.

 

The first wave that started diffusing my anger was the births of my children. You know how much I obsess over my daughters; in my desire to give them everything I could, the most important aspect was in being a model for them. They have softened so many of my soft edges just by being them.

 

The second wave was in seeing my behaviors in other people. It is easy to see the problems in our actions when we see them in others. It is harder to recognize such hazards in ourselves.  

 

The third wave is simply age: you reach a point in life where you no longer want to be miserable, and you finally have enough maturity to focus on internal repair. It is only now after decades of delays that I have started working on my physical health applying routines that will last, Insha Allah. I had a mentor who was an alcoholic for years. When asked his motivation for going through a 12-step program, he said it was because he no longer wanted to feel the way he would feel after a long night of binge drinking. I wanted to be freed from the toxic anguish of my anger.

 

The fourth wave was in active efforts to develop gratitude. Gratitude washes out anger the way water washes out fire. I have students who feel that they have nothing to be grateful for. Once you start developing gratitude, such sentiments from others seem jarring.

 

Still, the legacy of my anger still remains within me enough that I am sometimes consumed by remorse. I also see the way anger consumes others; they are not yet ready to take ownership for their own destructive choices.

 

There is another aspect of this remorse: people will remind you of your past. Some people with fleeting integrity will also use your past sins to condemn your present public self. There are quite a few people who cited my former anger matters to portray me as a present-day monster. There is not much that I can do to help such people, except to hope that they find their peace, as more important individuals were hit with more serious accusations. They will have remorse haunt them.

 

Not too many people survive a public onslaught of past misbehavior without further wounds. Most suffer at least from humiliation by way of the humiliation their children experience. Politicians may have to step down from their posts. Our incumbent in the White House has not only survived these outings but seems to have benefited from them.

 

The biggest remorse for misconduct, of course, will be on the other side. There seems to be debate among Islamic scholars on the question: would God forgive you if your victim does not forgive you?  But there seems to be a consensus that if you pay for your crime in this world according to Islamic dictates, then you will not be held to account for them on the other side. So, it is in your best interest to repent, reform, and repair.

 

As a Muslim, you are obliged to do the best you can to keep your character upright. If you do not, it will not escape you no matter how much you try to escape from it. But, a reminder of the changing seasons is that you will have new opportunities to repent and reform; you will have more chances to rebuild your life no matter how much you may have damaged it: I am living proof. So, let us figure out what you need to take ownership of in your misconduct, and let us figure out how to fix things. Leaves will fall, but new leaves can sprout.

 

And Allah knows best.

 

Omer M



Why Me?

October 15, 2017



Dear Students,

 

Assalamu Alaykum.

 

I hope you receive this letter with the best of health, Iman, and Integrity.

 

Can you bring yourself to have the attitude that, “we will figure out how to get through this,” whenever you are hit with struggle? You have already heard me claim many times that you are guaranteed to be hit with struggle and that you are guaranteed to be hit with struggles that you can handle. So, embrace the sentiment that you will get through whatever hits you. You can scare yourself with examples of horrible experiences that have happened to others, but I am speaking to you about you: you have to be militant with yourself in the belief that you can get through anything that life throws at you because you have already gotten through so much.

 

A common question from students is “Why me?” when speaking of the various struggles of life that hit them. The first answer I give them is, “Welcome to life. I’m still in one piece, and so shall you be.” I have survived four and a half decades of various struggles, including many of which I imposed upon myself; so shall you. The twenty-year-old version of me was not any stronger than you. I have faced many moments in life when I thought I could not take more, and not only did I see the sun rise again, but I was able to handle even larger struggles. Life goes on. Life is now easier for me if only because I remember passing through enough struggles to know that I will get through any future struggles, no matter how painful they are, no matter how many ways I pray to God to trade those struggles for something else. The struggles will get larger, and I will get through them, Insha Allah. Life goes on.

 

Last time, we commented that the default of life is Rahma, that the Divine pours so much mercy upon us and in us, that it is impossible to measure His generosity. Struggle is not the default of life, however, but the exception. Struggle is a guaranteed experience, but it is still the exception to the experience of life. Loss is an exception to life, but it is a guaranteed direction that life will take for most people. Whether you lose your childhood, you lose memories, you lose loved ones, or you lose love itself, the world will take things away from you. And you will persist because we all do.

 

More than that, the answer to this question is akin to the answer to the question, “Why do I need religion?” The simplest answer to this question is: to help you get through life better than you otherwise could.

 

Suppose we argue that all of religion is a human construction, that there is no God, and there is no afterlife. Meaning, suppose we argue that the Prophet Muhammad, may peace be upon him, invented Islam. Religion in general, and Islam in particular, still provides you with a time-tested system of navigating life.

 

If there is no afterlife, then, in the end, I will become fertilizer, regardless of how I lived my life whether I lived a life of generosity or wickedness. If there is no God, then when I am alone, I am *alone,* without the accompaniment of the Divine watching over me, without the Divine guiding me, without the Divine interacting with me. If religion is a human construction, then there are no miracles, there is no meaning, and there is no purpose.

 

Meaning, everything becomes limited to biology, chemistry, physics and cause and effect. Meaning, if all of this is fake, then you are nothing but a bag of chemicals that will be returned to the earth. You are just an insignificant a blip in the billions of years long process of the universe, and you would be forgotten even before you were born.

 

Even then, religion gives you a thousand-years-old well-tread system to guide you through life, especially through the most intense periods of life. Consider it when you are faced with the loss of a family member. If there is no God and no afterlife, then that family member is gone. Fertilizer. Gone. If there is God and an afterlife, then you have the hope of reunion with them. If there is no God and no afterlife but you follow Islam, then you have hope -- even if it is a hope in a falsehood -- to help ease you through life.

 

Then, if all of this is a false construction, what do the does belief in the Day of Judgment give you? It gives you a consciousness that there is a bigger picture, that there is an accountability that anyone who has oppressed you will not escape, nor will you. The belief in the Day of Judgment, the stronger it is, the more it stabilizes your hope and fear.

 

If all of this is a false construction, then what do the daily prayers give you? They give you a respite from the day: a vacation from the day, five times a day. In that process, if you immerse yourself in those prayers, they give you calm and stability, especially in the storms of life.

 

Even the idea of “Islam” itself gives therapy. The world operates a particular way, hitting you with things that are beyond your control. And when you ask “Why?” the answer is, “It is God’s will, and we surrender to Him.” Some cultures have turned this approach into an unhealthy fatalism that permits them to become passive, no matter what hits them in life. But, the healthy aspect of it is the acceptance of things beyond our control, compelling us to Surrender and Submit to the One who made the system the way it is made.

 

I commented last time that the version of religion you have been given has been most dysfunctional. Why? Because it gives you so many slogans about the greatness of Islam and fools you into thinking that that is itself “Islam,” Thus, this approach does not guide you through the vicissitudes, the ups, and downs, of life. You saw it on social media a few weeks ago: thousands of people who claimed to be devout students of a charismatic teacher of the Qur’an could not contain themselves in spewing the most un-Islamic hate, curses, and threats. You have to wonder what they were learning if it was that easy for someone unknown to make them lose their minds with such speed. Likewise, so many of you complain that you have family members who go to the mosque regularly, recite the Qur’an frequently, claim to follow the model of the Prophet, may peace be upon him, yet they are tyrants to everyone at home; I used to be that person in my family. I know many ideas pretending to be Islam that do not work because I practiced many of them, and dared to call them “Islam.” We live, we learn, we forgive, we seek forgiveness, and we hope to be forgiven.

 

So, in a nutshell, why make life more difficult than it needs to be? Why reject something that can help you? Help me to help you embody religion, and with all its struggles and hopes life will be much easier. More than that, it will be much more meaningful and purposeful. But, you have to take the first steps.

 

More than that, I’m telling you that it is all true, which means that there is so much more.

 

And Allah knows best.

 

Omer M

Erasing God

May 20, 2017
 
Assalamu Alaykum Dear Students,
 
I commented in various fora (these letters, Friday sermons, lectures) that there has been a surge of faith problems in our community this Spring. I attribute some of it to the intensity of life these past few years, but there may be other causes. One case to address is the person who consciously leaves God. A friend asked for some input on this, prompting this letter.
 
We have to distinguish between someone turning against Allah (a’udhubillah) versus someone losing faith in Allah’s existence (a’udhubillah). The former is more like atheism or anti-theism, and the latter is a type of atheism that is more like an agnosticism. Keep in mind that the second point is that someone is losing faith in Allah’s *existence,* which is different than losing faith in Allah taking care of them. Many, many more people struggle with faith in Allah taking care of them.
 
In the first case, 100% of my experiences have been of people with scarred hearts. Sometimes, they are unable to navigate or negotiate trauma. A common example has been the tragic death of a sibling. Someone is unable to come to terms with the death, and are not getting nurturing from anyone else. So, eventually they turn to Allah by turning against Allah.
 
More common, the scarred heart comes from jealousy instead of trauma. Usually, this jealousy is masked in the costume of resent. Usually it is resent against the parents. Most often, it is resent against the father. The father might be physically present. Might provide every material benefit to the child. But, the father is emotionally absent. More often, the person’s default image of their father is that he is a tyrant.
 
In every example, the converted-atheist begins with rational arguments against God’s existence. These are the usual arguments, including “We cannot reconcile Free Will with Predestination,” and “This evil and disorder in the world is proof that a good god does not exist.” The arguments tend to be inconsistent, and when I gently start pushing back on the inconsistencies, the person begins to collapse, like a house of cards. This is because the rational arguments are a mask. The real issue is the scarred heart underneath the mask.
 
In the second case, when someone loses faith in Allah’s existence, it is usually because of surrendering to something else. Here, the person is taking something else as an ilah (god) and might not realize it. They are dedicating themselves to this other ilah to such a degree that they are re-forming their whole worldview or ontology, without realizing it. It is as though the love of their ilah seeps through their veins and affects everything. They may not realize that they are altering their outlooks on iman (faith), nifaq (hypocrisy), jihad (effort), himma (zeal), sabr (fortitude), ummah (community), and morality, to make the object of worship this new ilah.
 
It may sound like shirk, it may sound like addiction, but I am holding off from using these terms because “shirk” is a very heavy term, and “addiction” is the diagnosis of the psychologist. Here, we are talking about purification. [Shirk = partnering someone or something with God]
 
In my experience with local Muslim populations, the three most common ilahs are pornography, the self (i.e. narcissism), particular activist causes. Meaning, someone watches so much pornography, that they start adjusting their schedule to fill their appetite for pornography. Or, they look forward their entire day to their dosage of pornography, and may indulge any time they can. Eventually, they find themselves thinking that they don’t know if they believe in God anymore. Further, they will develop repulsion for people, behaviors, and ideas that would bring them away from their ilah (and/or bring them closer to Allah).
 
These days, the Self is often such an ilah. This is a much more difficult issue to address. The behavior of taking the Self as an ilah is very similar to the behavior of the Munafiq (hypocrite). The motivation of taking the Self as an ilah often relates to an overcompensation for an internal emptiness. This internal emptiness might result from the same causes of the scarred heart mentioned above and/or deep lack of self-esteem. The emptiness first gets overcompensated with self-loathing, which is a type of narcissism, which then becomes self-love masking the self-loathing. The person’s approach is to turn narcissist, often with the support of enablers who feed the narcissism (friends and family). Such narcissists — out of self-loathing — will find more appeal in distant relationships than in those present before them.
 
These people get repulsed by people who critique them, and will surround themselves with “yes men.” The “yes men” themselves are often suffering from their own issues. Thus, this mix is very hard to treat because you have to first separate these people, who are otherwise poison for each other. One of the difficulties that the Prophet, may peace be upon him, had with the various groups in Makkah and beyond is that the members of the opposition would lock their hearts in with each other. Consider three metaphors of trees in the Qur’an. One is the tree formed from the true believers, which develops deep roots and is very strong and towering. Another is the Zaqqum, the tree of hell. The dwellers of hell turn to it for nourishment, but it is nasty, yet people keep turning to it: this is the true experience of the narcissists in their interactions with their fellows.
 
The other tree is actually a seed. This is the seed that sprouts seven stalks and each of those stalks sprouts a hundred more. This last tree is the result of the good word or the gift of donation. Meaning, it is hard for the bystander to pull the narcissist out of his/her congregation, but they might be able to start treating themselves. Or, as one of my teachers used to exclaim, “The solution to nifaq is infaq!” (Infaq = giving to the point of exhaustion).
 
The third most common ilah is the result of frustrated activism. Activism needs to fueled by love. If it is not, then anything fueling it will eventually expire and anger will become the fuel. More than that, their “Islam” will actually be their cause, and they will force their islam to conform to their cause. Their cause supercedes obligations to the Divine, though the activist — if s/he does pray — will pray primarily for their cause, and the destruction of the opposition. The most telling sign of these people is that they re-form their ummah according to their cause. You will often hear such people rail against the Muslim ummah, while praising other non-Muslims for integrity, though the actual praise is for support for their cause.
 
Now, I should comment that such an activist might not have a global, national, or local cause. It might be a cause involving just one, two, or a handful of people.
 
It is very hard for the activist to be fueled by love because s/he sees love as weakness. Further, it is very hard because the activist sees nothing but destruction in their world, and like the persons above, gets scarred from the trauma. Love requires strength. Malcolm called on people to love themselves. Dr. King called on people to love the enemy. James Baldwin called on the enemy to love himself. These are not easy approaches to love, when society pushes you in the opposite direction.
 
We do have other faith issues in our community, just like every other community. But, in my experience the above are the most common in ours.
 
I hope you received this letter with the best of health and Iman.
 
And Allah knows best.
 
Omer M

Reflecting on the 2016-2017 school year

May 1, 2017
 
Assalamu Alaykum.
 
My dear students,
 
I hope you receive this letter with the best of health and Iman.
 
It has been quite a year. For me, each of the previous years has been more intense than its predecessors, with the past twelve months being the most intense of them all. I had many things planned this year in terms of programming and had to scrap most of them, except for pastoral care and the extra-curricular classes, in order to have maximum time for students.
 
I have to conduct my final calculations, but I estimate that scheduled office visits increased by 100% while unscheduled office visits increased by 350%. Communications from alumni increased by 500%. Visits by non-Muslims have also increased to the point that as much as 20% of the visits to my office are by non-Muslims. The student needs beyond (or through) spiritual formation have ranged from help for anxiety, fear (about the political situation), personal problems, family troubles, relationship problems, academic issues, faith issues, marital troubles, and — sadly — suicide ideation. I would help students in my capacity, while referring so many students to the Wellness Center that I wondered if I was singlehandedly keeping them in business.
 
I do have to take a moment to address suicide. The number of students visiting with suicide ideation has skyrocketed. We have some theories why, but we are still at a loss. But, I know those feelings of despair and rejection. There is, however, always hope. There is *always* hope. Sometimes, when students come to my office, sinking into despair, I have to remind them that the fact that they have come to my office means that they have hope. The fact that you are reading this letter is a sign that you have hope. This hope will not cure depression or prevent ideation, but it is a start to help me help you get help.
 
In any case, we did conduct numerous classes throughout the year, exploring the Qur’an, the life of the Prophet Muhammad, may peace be upon him, the Hadith literature, Hadith sciences, Ethics through a Muslim lens, multiple classes on the various books of al-Ghazali and Rumi. We also had classes on Endo’s “Silence” through a Muslim lens. I suspect that I learned as much as each of you.
 
Most of all, however, my relationships with many of you have begun, and with many of you have grown. It has been a joy serving you. I estimate that nearly 500 Kleenex were used to help the tears. I estimate that we have shared some 20 boxes of Ice Breaker breath mints. I told a zillion jokes, of which a few were not inappropriate. A few. Maybe some of those tears were caused by the jokes.
 
I will admit that I did not want to start the school year. I was exhausted from global and personal matters from the Summer. Imagine the struggle that any of us has gone through in dealing with the various atrocities committed by and against Muslims. Now, imagine carrying the struggles of 30-50 people. I am not claiming any nobility on this; just plain exhaustion. It used to be that my summer was a three month period of complete decompression after nine months of heavy intensity. Last summer was an indication that those days are gone and I have to change strategies. Further, I went through a painful process of having some toxicities removed from my world. When I started the school year, I was so worn that I was leaving campus as quickly as I could.
 
Here we are, now at the end of the school year, and I experienced two high points in the past week. One was the annual “Mozaffar Appreciation Day,” from you, with a beautiful gift, a beautiful card, and delicious candies. Thank you so much for it. The other, I was taken aback to be honored with Loyola “Staff Member of the Year.” To be honest, when I first received an email on the nomination, I thought it was a joke. The “Mozaffar Appreciation Day” is embarrassing because thank you’s are not necessary for obligatory work. It is my pleasure and obligation to help you find health in all aspects of your life, starting with your heart. The “Staff Member of the Year” award was sweet, yet bitter sweet, because it reminded me that much of my work is the careful process of providing glue to cracked and scarred hearts. I prefer to be the quiet person hiding in the cave doing work, while others get the accolades. A student said I reminded him of The Giver in “The Giver.” I would like to think of myself as Batman, but I’ll take it. And the honors are very precious for what they mean.
 
I often get asked if I get tired or frustrated from serving you. To be honest, I don’t. I don’t think parents get tired of being parents, though our bodies get exhausted. Perhaps the point is that the fuel is not salary, not attention, but just modest love. Each of you is precious to me with each of your complexities and stories. When each of you enters my office, it is a joy to see you, and a hope that I can lighten the loads on your souls, if at least a little.
 
As I have said before, I do not know where we will be in a year. There is no indication that the national or global tensions will decrease any time soon, while there are many indications that they will escalate. And that is a reminder of the cold reality of this worldly life: it is not paradise. But, it is also not hell. This world is full of joys but also full of struggles. I urge each of you to improve upon the things you do have control over, which are your relationships with yourselves, with others, with the Prophet, may peace be upon him, and with the Divine. Among the goals of religion, beyond salvation and explanations, is guidance for navigating through the various experiences of life. The more you can develop your religion, the more you can face what comes your way in ways that are healthy. Maybe I’m just a thick headed South Sider in that when I think about the future, I say, “Bring it on.” It’s no fun if it is not impossible.
 
For those of you who are graduating, you have my prayers. I am looking forward to watch you soar. It has been a privilege watching past students get married, have children, complete their studies, develop their careers, and simply grow. If you have benefitted at all from my service, then I ask you to pay it forward. Mentor others. Give to others. I have lived multiple lives over the years, doing just about everything immature and wrong that a person can do. The life of faith, gratitude, integrity, excellence, generosity, and deep relationships is the most fulfilling life I have had aspired to live. But, I do expect each of you to have experiences when your faith gets challenged, where your integrity gets tested, where you find excellence an inhibitor, where you want to withhold your giving, and where you have relationships that are poison. This is all part of the experience of life.
 
This experience of life is so fascinating. I could not have imagined that the past five years would have contained what they did. I cannot imagine what the next five years will contain. But, I am eager to find out, and I hope that they will include you. I would tell you to “Set the World on Fire,” but because I’m Muslim in this climate, that is not a good idea. So, I will settle and demand from you to “Live extraordinary lives,” because you have it in you to do so.
 
May peace be upon you.
 
Omer M

Tough year

May 1, 2017

Assalamu Alaykum.

My dear students,

I hope you receive this letter with the best of health and Iman.

It has been quite a year. For me, each of the previous years has been more intense than its predecessors, with the past twelve months being the most intense of them all. I had many things planned this year in terms of programming and had to scrap most of them, except for pastoral care and the extra-curricular classes, in order to have maximum time for students. 

I have to conduct my final calculations, but I estimate that scheduled office visits increased by 100% while unscheduled office visits increased by 350%. Communications from alumni increased by 500%. Visits by non-Muslims have also increased to the point that as much as 20% of the visits to my office are by non-Muslims. The student needs beyond (or through) spiritual formation have ranged from help for anxiety, fear (about the political situation), personal problems, family troubles, relationship problems, academic issues, faith issues, marital troubles, and — sadly — suicide ideation. I would help students in my capacity, while referring so many students to the Wellness Center that I wondered if I was singlehandedly keeping them in business. 

I do have to take a moment to address suicide. The number of students visiting with suicide ideation has skyrocketed. We have some theories why, but we are still at a loss. But, I know those feelings of despair and rejection. There is, however, always hope. There is *always* hope. Sometimes, when students come to my office, sinking into despair, I have to remind them that the fact that they have come to my office means that they have hope. The fact that you are reading this letter is a sign that you have hope. This hope will not cure depression or prevent ideation, but it is a start to help me help you get help. 

In any case, we did conduct numerous classes throughout the year, exploring the Qur’an, the life of the Prophet Muhammad, may peace be upon him, the Hadith literature, Hadith sciences, Ethics through a Muslim lens, multiple classes on the various books of al-Ghazali and Rumi. We also had classes on Endo’s “Silence” through a Muslim lens. I suspect that I learned as much as each of you. 

Most of all, however, my relationships with many of you have begun, and with many of you have grown. It has been a joy serving you. I estimate that nearly 500 Kleenex were used to help the tears. I estimate that we have shared some 20 boxes of Ice Breaker breath mints. I told a zillion jokes, of which a few were not inappropriate. A few. Maybe some of those tears were caused by the jokes.

I will admit that I did not want to start the school year. I was exhausted from global and personal matters from the Summer. Imagine the struggle that any of us has gone through in dealing with the various atrocities committed by and against Muslims. Now, imagine carrying the struggles of 30-50 people. I am not claiming any nobility on this; just plain exhaustion. It used to be that my summer was a three month period of complete decompression after nine months of heavy intensity. Last summer was an indication that those days are gone and I have to change strategies. Further, I went through a painful process of having some toxicities removed from my world. When I started the school year, I was so worn that I was leaving campus as quickly as I could. 

Here we are, now at the end of the school year, and I experienced two high points in the past week. One was the annual “Mozaffar Appreciation Day,” from you, with a beautiful gift, a beautiful card, and delicious candies. Thank you so much for it. The other, I was taken aback to be honored with Loyola “Staff Member of the Year.” To be honest, when I first received an email on the nomination, I thought it was a joke. The “Mozaffar Appreciation Day” is embarrassing because thank you’s are not necessary for obligatory work. It is my pleasure and obligation to help you find health in all aspects of your life, starting with your heart. The “Staff Member of the Year” award was sweet, yet bitter sweet, because it reminded me that much of my work is the careful process of providing glue to cracked and scarred hearts. I prefer to be the quiet person hiding in the cave doing work, while others get the accolades. A student said I reminded him of The Giver in “The Giver.” I would like to think of myself as Batman, but I’ll take it. And the honors are very precious for what they mean.

I often get asked if I get tired or frustrated from serving you. To be honest, I don’t. I don’t think parents get tired of being parents, though our bodies get exhausted. Perhaps the point is that the fuel is not salary, not attention, but just modest love. Each of you is precious to me with each of your complexities and stories. When each of you enters my office, it is a joy to see you, and a hope that I can lighten the loads on your souls, if at least a little. 

As I have said before, I do not know where we will be in a year. There is no indication that the national or global tensions will decrease any time soon, while there are many indications that they will escalate. And that is a reminder of the cold reality of this worldly life: it is not paradise. But, it is also not hell. This world is full of joys but also full of struggles. I urge each of you to improve upon the things you do have control over, which are your relationships with yourselves, with others, with the Prophet, may peace be upon him, and with the Divine. Among the goals of religion, beyond salvation and explanations, is guidance for navigating through the various experiences of life. The more you can develop your religion, the more you can face what comes your way in ways that are healthy. Maybe I’m just a thick headed South Sider in that when I think about the future, I say, “Bring it on.” It’s no fun if it is not impossible. 

For those of you who are graduating, you have my prayers. I am looking forward to watch you soar. It has been a privilege watching past students get married, have children, complete their studies, develop their careers, and simply grow. If you have benefitted at all from my service, then I ask you to pay it forward. Mentor others. Give to others. I have lived multiple lives over the years, doing just about everything immature and wrong that a person can do. The life of faith, gratitude, integrity, excellence, generosity, and deep relationships is the most fulfilling life I have had aspired to live. But, I do expect each of you to have experiences when your faith gets challenged, where your integrity gets tested, where you find excellence an inhibitor, where you want to withhold your giving, and where you have relationships that are poison. This is all part of the experience of life. 

This experience of life is so fascinating. I could not have imagined that the past five years would have contained what they did. I cannot imagine what the next five years will contain. But, I am eager to find out, and I hope that they will include you. I would tell you to “Set the World on Fire,” but because I’m Muslim in this climate, that is not a good idea. So, I will settle and demand from you to “Live extraordinary lives,” because you have it in you to do so.

May peace be upon you.

Omer M

 
 
 

Language and Power

March 5, 2017



Assalamu Alaykum Dear Students -

 

I hope you receive this letter with the best of health and Iman.

 

In Washington state, the body of a young Muslim man was found hanging from a tree after he had been missing for a month. First, his death was ruled a suicide. Now, as the FBI investigates, it is “undetermined.”  Such stories pepper my social media feed. Whether he died by suicide or homicide, his death is tragic, and I ask you to make a prayer for him and his family. But, if he died by homicide, then we should clear about terminology. In our era of White Supremacy, the homicide of a Black man by hanging is a lynching.

 

Language includes value. Meaning, words have impact not only in their meanings, but also in perpetuating certain worldviews. Rather than speak of something as lies, certain people in power are using the term “alternative facts.”  We often complain that when a Muslim takes leave of his senses and kills people at an office, it is “terrorism,” but when someone not Muslim walks into a church or in a movie theater and does the same, it is a “shooting.” Similarly, an Israeli comedian spoke of Israeli policies against the Palestinians as “apartheid” rather than “occupation.” And, “occupation” gets used in contrast to “stalemate.” Likewise, in the 1980s, we ennobled the Afghans fighting the Soviet occupiers as “mujahideen” (i.e. people who do Jihad) and “Freedom Fighters,” and now, as they fight our occupation, we speak of Jihad as something dangerous, and we speak of the same Afghans as “insurgents.” When speaking of the Syrians seeking safety in Europe and the Americas, they are “refugees,” though some choose to call them “migrants.” Further, some in power speak of the arrival of refugees as an “invasion.” If it is possible to have a most vile usage of terminology, we find it in the latter of the Stages of Genocide, where marginalized populations get labeled as a pests, to make their extermination as easy as is possible. The Nazis called Jews “vermin.” The Hutus called Tutsis “cockroaches.” In Myanmar, Muslims were called “bacteria.” In the United States, some have been speaking of Islam as a “cancer.”

 

Language is also a mask or deflection. When politicians argue about the dangers of “Radical Islamic Terrorism,” they defend themselves by stating that they are not singling out all Muslims, but only the dangerous ones. But, when we look through all of their statements, they spew such nonsense like, “Islam hates us.” Further, multiple politicians have insisted that the recent immigration policies are not a “Muslim Ban,” even though (a) one politician confessed that the strategy was to isolate Muslims, and (b) Muslims from across the globe trying to enter the US, as well as Muslim American citizens trying to return home to the US have been getting detained and questioned about their Islam.

 

All of these usages reflect power. We speak of History as written by the victors. We usually think of Power as something defined by bloodshed or control of energy resources. But, Power also seeks control of language, as a way to control outlooks, especially the outlooks of those victimized by Power. Thus, these terms do not enter our discourse as accidents. They are deliberate and designed as tools of subjugation and dehumanization.

 

But, we must point to a few things very important.

 

First, only someone dehumanized can dehumanize someone. If the human race is a human family, as we believe it is, then the killing, subjugation, or even hate by one person against another is also violence against the self. Thus, because it manifests as hate and violence against People of Color (and, for that matter, non-Christians), White Supremacy is an act of White self-hate, disguised as self-love. This point might sound preposterous, but consider it.

 

If you love yourself, then you nurture yourself with compassion. If you fill your heart with rage, fear, hate, and violence, then you are corroding yourself from within. Look at the current voices of White Supremacy in our society: do they look like happy healthy people? Not even remotely. James Baldwin states that Whites cannot develop love for Black Americans until they first learn to love themselves. Thus, extreme self-love is rooted in extreme self-loathing. When I look at a grown adult’s (especially someone middle aged) social media and *all* of their photos are of themselves, I get concerned about their well-being.

 

Thus, your antidote against this dehumanization is to appreciate the innate worth, the immense value that every human being has. When we say that killing one is like killing all humanity, we are saying that one human being is so valuable that it is beyond measure. This requires you to appreciate your own innate worth and dignity. Further, our tradition is one that emphasizes a spiritual meritocracy. Meaning, the most important nobility is with the Divine, the most noble of those people are those with the most God-consciousness in their hearts, minds, and actions.

 

Further, hate cannot sustain itself. Anger is like fire, and the nature of fire is that it seeks to stay alive by burning everything, until there is nothing left to burn; then it calms. When challenged by hostiles to prove to them that Islam is not an ideology of hate, I have to remind them that Islam is a population of a billion and a half people spanning nearly 1500 years, producing sophisticated civilizations, with presence in every place in the globe. A hateful ideology cannot sustain itself that long and wide. Likewise, if Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc.. -- each of which has pockets of people committing violence against others -- were themselves hateful ideologies, they would not last as long as they have. Hate will fizzle out, but after it has burnt everything down.

 

Thus, your antidote against this hate is to embrace gratitude. Gratitude is the water that can fuel love to put out that anger. This becomes especially important, when you read of the lynching of a young Black American male. Anger is so contagious that it can spread faster than fire in a trail of gasoline.

 

Further still, when we speak of supremacist ideologies that are so deeply organized, individual efforts will not stop them. A commonalty between various Liberation Theologies and Caliphate (Khilafah) movements is the argument that when oppression is systemic, institutionalized, and deep-rooted, then not only will donations to the needy not resolve poverty, but because such donations give us (the donors) the satisfaction of contributing, they will further reinforce oppression. The way of the prophet Moses, peace be upon him, against the pharaoh of his time was to lead his people out of subjugation into exile in the desert. The way of the prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, against the pharaohs of the Quraysh, was to lead his people out of subjugation, into exile in Madinah (Medina), as a major step in his overall revolution.

 

Thus, the challenge for you and I in confronting the contemporary pharaohs and their minions is to develop gratitude in the course of helping them develop true self love. Meanwhile, we have to figure out systemic answers to systemic oppressions. Otherwise, more trees will hang more young men. And, speaking of that young man, his name is Ben Keita. He was 18 years old, and a few weeks away from High School Graduation. His father speaks of him as a happy young man. And now he is with God.

 

And Allah knows best.

 

Omer M




Responding to Pharaohs

March 1, 2017

 

Dear Students,

I hope you receive this letter with the best of health and Iman

We have been speaking about pharaohs. Sometimes I get pulled into divorce cases, where one spouse seeks to get out of the marriage as quickly as possible. The spouse may present three hundred sixty reasons for the divorce. The goal is to convince you a divorce is not only the best solution, but urgent. When putting all of the reasons together, they present their case like lawyers. But, when looking at the reasons, you see that they are not just lies, but are nonsense. It is nothing but performance.

Further, to push their case through with full force, they resort to feeding partial information or misinformation to their peers and lapdogs, presenting themselves as innocent victims of the savagery of the other side. And the lapdogs bark on cue as ambassadors.  And, there are others who rally with them, pretending to be peacemakers, only to reveal that they have neither impartiality nor spine.

And that is what we should expect when a pharaoh speaks. And that is what we should expect from his religious and political supporters who stand up applaud every paragraph in a speech, because they have their own self-serving agenda to support, and it lines up with the pharaoh. When the narcissisms of disparate people confederate, it is tribalist triumphalism masked as service, and it makes for a bizarre world built on the exploitation of real victims.

There is a need to fact check the lies, to have gone through the process of holding to truth, but beyond that there is no point. When someone resorts to lies and preposterous claims, their goal is neither truth nor justice, but to fulfill their agenda. Rather, by spreading misinformation, they seek to consume and divert our attention.  You are busy investigating the deceit, wondering how someone can be so comfortably fraudulent, while they are already busy working on their next steps.

Our proclivity in such environment might be to speak truth to power. On a side note, the history of the phrase, “speaking truth to power” is interesting because we seem not to know its origins. Some attribute it to Quakers, some to the Civil Rights movement (Bayard Rustin), and some to the ACLU. In our tradition, the Prophet Muhammad, may peace be upon him, tells us that the best jihad is to speak a truthful word to an unjust ruler. In the Qur’an, we find different conversations with or about those in power.

The most remembered is the conversation with Abu Lahab, which most reflects what we think of when we think of speaking truth to power. The Prophet, may peace be upon him, began preaching publicly, reminding people of the coming Day of Judgment, when we will each be held to account for our choices. Abu Lahab, himself one of the leaders of Makkah (Mecca) as well as the caretaker of the idols stored in the Ka’ba, lashed back at him, exclaiming, “May your hands perish!” In our language it is a curse that would be akin to, “Go to hell.”

Surprising the crowd, the Prophet, may peace be upon him, responded likewise, “May the hands of Abu Lahab perish” and, as we know, took it much further, stating that Abu Lahab will roast in hell. This surprises the crowd because the Prophet, may peace be upon him, was always a man of such truth, fairness and gentleness, and was speaking to one of their leaders (also his uncle) with such blunt force.

In another case, the Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham), may peace be upon him, speaks to a king who believes himself to be the most worthy of obedience. The Prophet Ibrahim, may peace be upon him, uses logic against him, with the inferred point being that the only Power to Whom obedience is due, to be concerned about, or to even consider is God.

The Prophet Ibrahim, may peace be upon him, argues that God gives life and death. The king calls in two prisoners, and orders one to be executed. “See? I give life and death.” The Prophet Ibrahim, may peace be upon him, argues that God makes the Sun rise from the East, and invites the king to make the Sun rise from the West.

According to commentaries, that king was named Namrud (Nimrod). It is interesting that the legends about Nimrod state he had kingship over the entire world, though in our language, a nimrod today is a fool.

In another case, the Prophet Musa (Moses), may peace be upon him, faces Pharaoh, who considered himself to be god. God’s initial instructions to Musa, may peace be upon him, are to speak to Pharaoh gently. Remember that gentleness is a matter of tone, neither a matter of weakness nor of abandoning truth.

In another case, God tells us in the Qur’an about the type of leader who eloquently claims to speak from his heart, yet is the most vile of opponents. When away, he sows corruption and destroys. When called to turn to God, his pride leads him to sin, like an allergic reaction to piety. That is the nature of performance. When someone consumed with an appetite for the world stands in the presence of the pious, performance is their costume. Performance is deflection.

In commentary, this leader was Akhnas b. Shariq, one of the rich men of Makkah. He claimed piety to the Prophet Muhammad, may peace be upon him, but his agenda was exploitation of the wealth of the Muslims. The Qur’an does not state directly what the response is to such a person. We may deduce a few things, looking at context: we should speak to or about the leader by way of inference, and/or when we see such a person obsessed with the world, we immerse ourselves with the best of the world *and* the best of the hereafter, intensively seeking the pleasure of God. Further, the Prophet Muhammad, may peace be upon him, tells us to beware of the prayers of the oppressed (even if the oppressed have rejected God), for there is no separation between them and God.

In the above, we have four scenarios in dealing with Power. The latter three seem to be mild, while the first seems aggressive. There is a fundamental difference: the latter three are examples of people who hold (in our language) secular power, while the first held religious power. In the pre-modern era, the line between the secular and religious was often non-existent, but here we are contrasting those whose tools were physical might and wealth with the man whose influence was in protecting the other-worldly traditions. In other words, when confronting a corrupt religious leader, the approach might be blunt, for the religious narcissist offers a unique danger, trying to lock the voice of the Divine (or divines) in a box. That danger is all the more worse when the religious leader supports pharaoh.

In those divorces mentioned above, by the way, the spouse has in every case abandoned their love for their spouse, giving it to another lover, and it is almost always themselves.

And Allah knows best.

Omer M

Savagery and Gentleness

February 19, 2017


Dear Students,

Assalamu Alaykum.

I hope you receive this letter with the best of health and Iman.

C-Span just published its list of the greatest presidents in our history. President Obama is 12th. Andrew Jackson — the apparent inspiration for our current Executive Ordering president — is lower. Most fascinating is that FDR is third.

It is most fascinating because today is Remembrance Day in Japanese American communities. It is the 75th Anniversary of the passing of Order 9066, signed by…FDR. It is this Executive Order that paved the way for the incarceration of Japanese Americans. Such language like “internment” and “evacuation” were used, but it was nothing less than a sudden, indefinite imprisonment. To put things into perspective, many of those imprisoned were your age.

I had the privilege last week of sitting with a few grandchildren of incarcerated Japanese Americans. This piece of American history was ignored. Growing up in Chicago, we were taught extensively about the bombing of Pearl Harbor. We were taught about the atomic bombs dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, though as a response to Pearl Harbor. But, we glossed over the incarceration. They were drawing attention to the incarceration to mark its place in history, but to also draw attention to our plight as Muslims.

There is a frankness, almost a pained gentleness in the way these grandchildren -- who are my age -- speak. It recalls Holocaust survivors, who have that same pained gentleness when they share their experiences, perhaps the result of decades of processing. I saw the same pained gentleness a decade ago in the Middle East talking to Palestinians living under Occupation. I saw the same pained gentleness in Bosnians who escaped “ethnic cleansing.” I saw the same pained gentleness in survivors of the civil war in Afghanistan. I saw the same pained gentleness in survivors of the genocides in Rwanda and Cambodia. I saw the same pained gentleness in recent refugees from Syria and Myanmar. And, I still see the same pained, gentleness in elder Black American men and women, who are still unable to tell me the stories of the hate they experienced.

I am unable to explain the pained gentleness, except perhaps to say that they are people who have seen the worst both in humanity and the unknowns of the world, and are happy to be alive, perhaps escaping trauma, though the trauma might not have escaped them. The grandchildren did not witness it, but the experiences of their parents and ancestors have become part of their own DNA.

That same day, I was in conversation with some elder Jews, sharing our experiences. These elders kept insisting that what they see in the news about so-called Muslim fanaticism is definitely politics rather than theology. They were familiar with the politics of religion, race and ethnicity, and not just from the Holocaust. In Chicago, there were numerous suburbs that had “loan covenant” laws prohibiting Jews from buying property. Kenilworth, Deerfield, and Evanston were among these towns.

In Kenilworth, there are two churches, across the street from each other. Having spoken at nearly every type of religious community, nearly every type of house of worship, I can comment that it was in Kenilworth that I faced the most hostile crowd at a house of worship. Media would lead you to think that such would be the expected behavior from a Christian community somewhere in the Rust Belt or near some local Trailer Park community. No, those people -- in Church and in their homes -- tend to be modest and polite. To be fair, I have faced far more hostilities outside of houses of worship (getting hit, spit on, and of course cursed at). And to be fair, 90% of the people at the church were polite. But, the 10% seemed free to ask numerous questions that had the sentiment of “prove to me you are not a savage," while the others remained silent. Advanced degrees and upper class wealth are no deterrent for ignorance.

And, that is also fascinating about the human experience. Right now, you and I are facing what may be the plight of many communities mentioned above. We get portrayed as a threat to our society, by dishonest communities. The statistics about Muslims foreign and domestic, as well as the statistics about refugees give no support to the Executive Orders directed at us, and we find ourselves having to prove that we are not savages. Yet, those dishonest communities -- politicians and war profiteers -- continues to benefit from vilifying us.

Further, our conversation on war remains dishonest. We obliterated the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (literally) after Pearl Harbor, and we incarcerated over a hundred thousand indigenous Japanese Americans, refusing even to use honest terminology. And, though we rightfully speak of the destruction on 12/7/1941, we give less attention to what we did. Likewise, today, we still portray 9/11 and ISIS as theological movements, ignoring the effects of our foreign policy endeavors. Theology is part of the story, but if theology was the primary motivation for 9/11 or ISIS, they would have happened decades ago and would recur on a daily basis. And, if our foreign policy was different, there would be no 9/11 or ISIS. Fifteen years after 9/11, that is still an impossible conversation in America. But, centuries after the arrival of the first enslaved Africans, Race is still an impossible conversation, so we should not be surprised. It is hard to admit to savagery, especially in a people who display pride about their civility.

In other words, the savagery of a people gets exposed not by their own tongues, as much as it gets exposed by the pained gentleness of those accused of being savages, thus savaged, by savages. This is not to say that our neighbors are savages. No. But there are plenty of savages on stages, on camera, speaking in microphones around us. And, you and I will respond to the savagery with gentleness. Gentleness is not weakness; at times it will be firm and unwavering, and sometimes it will be pained.

And Allah knows best.

Omer M





Activist Hypocrisy

February 12, 2017



Dear Student, Assalamu Alaykum.

 

I hope you receive this message with the most warm of health and Iman.

 

We have been speaking about the internal and external Pharaohs. Let us a take a step further in our approaches to facing the external Pharaohs. We find two common strategies in our activist community: agitation and engagement. Both are correct, and both can be found in the Prophet Muhammad’s revolution, may peace be upon him. But, as we will see, both are also wrong if we part from his method.

 

The agitation school asserts that Power must be coerced to react and relent, because otherwise Power does not relent, does not negotiate in its race to gain more power. In agitation we take steps to gain the attention of Power, sometimes through symbolic displays of solidarity. Sometimes we compel Power to react in response to our nonviolent actions (like boycotts and/or blocking government or business operations). Though we do not have it here, the agitation formula might also include violent actions to compel Power to react. Their focus is on the grassroots.

 

The engagement school asserts that humans with human personalities hold Power and can be convinced to soften their edges, edges that have material consequences on the dispossessed and marginalized. The humans who hold power tend to be narcissists who can be convinced through skillful protocol to relent in their subjugations. Their focus is the on the elites.

 

We see the the Qur’an, starting with the earliest revelations to the Prophet Muhammad, may peace be upon him, gives attention to the care of orphans. To get a sense of justice and compassion in any society, look at its treatment of its most vulnerable. The most vulnerable of the most vulnerable are its orphans. Further, those who most quickly embraced his call were those least invested in the prevailing system: the women, the enslaved, the members of the weakest tribes, and the young people.

 

He did, however, call upon the elites, and a few embraced his call, while most did not. He also met with the power brokers of Makkah (Mecca), Ta’if, Yathrib/Madinah (Medina). When he was without power, they gave him ear, but they rejected him. When he had some power, some confirmed treaties with him (and some broke those treaties). When they called upon him, he attended, ready to listen to their concerns, ready to consider their offers (of power, wealth, respect), but he refused their central demand: to stop preaching.

 

There is also a moment, where the Divine corrects the Prophet Muhammad, may peace be upon him, when he was giving attention to one of the elites (who would not reciprocate), while delaying a conversation with blind person who was seeking guidance. The lesson we take from this is that it is not strategically wrong to seek out the elite, except when done at the cost of a single person’s guidance to God, no matter their status in society.

 

The core mistake in this agitation/engagement dichotomy becomes apparent in that the two groups do not speak to each other. The Prophet’s movement, may peace be upon him, was one consistent movement, in which he called on different followers of different skill sets for different jobs.  In our current situation, we have two populations that are quick to point fingers at each other. Those of the agitation school see the engagers as spineless sellouts. Those of the engagement school see the agitators as born-to-lose irrational miscreants. Further, that agitators point out that the engagers admire those of power, even justifying Power’s excesses and atrocities, racing to be on camera or at a microphone. Likewise, the engagers point out that the agitators celebrate suffering as badges of honor, seeing defiance, if not incarceration -- if not death itself -- as a badge of legitimacy. The agitators draw attention to the wealth and prominence that engagers seem to gain because of selling their souls. The engagers draw attention to the wealth that many agitators come from as privileged children from privileged families and societies.

 

As the saying goes, when you point your finger at someone, three fingers point back at you. The core mistake in both approaches -- of many but definitely not all -- is that their efforts are exercises in narcissism costumed as service. There are tests to see if this applies to you. I’ve been in many circles of both agitators and engagers, and I see these behaviors on both sides.

 

Deceit and self-deceit. Activists need to be brutally honest. The Prophet, may peace be upon him, tells us to speak the truth even if it is bitter, that one of the greatest Jihads is to speak a word of truth to a tyrant. But, among those of the activist communities, people lie about their work. People lie to themselves about the work. People misrepresent themselves and/or the work. People lie to themselves about their intentions.

 

Deflecting criticism. All pieces of advice and criticism are constructive. All of them. You may not agree with the criticism, but you should consider it. When allies and opponents provide criticism, they, however, deflect it and keep insisting that they are working to reform or improve things. Often, they will take criticisms as attacks. Or, they might judge intentions behind criticisms as ways of avoiding criticism.

 

Arrogance and devaluing the community. The opportunity of service to the community is a gift handed to you. When someone comes to you in need, a door has opened for you to approach the Divine. These people, however, speak of the community with contempt and condescension. They might see themselves as more educated, insightful, street-smart, wise, and especially guided to save the community (and this also applies as self-deceit) than the community members themselves.

 

Two-faced behavior. It is important to be consistent. It is easy to fall into the trap of performance. When they are in the company of believers, they speak with and present themselves with the pieties of believers. When they are with others, they mock and insult the community.

 

Look at all these behaviors: they are the behaviors of a fledgling tyrant. So, in providing service, one of the most important pitfalls is in misdirecting the service away from those in need, those vulnerable, those marginalized, toward ourselves. The model of the Prophet, may peace be upon him, was love for us greater than our own love for our own selves. If, however, narcissism is our approach, then we will fail in serving the community whether by engagement or agitation, because we have already abandoned it.

 

And Allah knows best.

 

Omer M

 

Fixing the Internal Pharaoh and the External Pharaoh

Sunday, February 5, 2017

 

Dear Students,

 

Assalamu Alaykum.

 

I hope your receive this letter with the best of health and Iman.

 

Our society’s political upheaval continues, though many bright spots — related to push back from within the masses, media, and judiciary — give us hope. I should also comment that I have received calls, emails and visits from members of nearly every division in the university, and nearly every department offering their support to all of you, asking me what else they can do to support us. And, for that, we should be grateful to them, and grateful to the Divine. Further, we must be ready to extend our support to the other minority and marginalized communities soon, uniting as one. I’m also eager to listen to any of your ideas on any of these matters.

 

In the last letter, I spoke about the behavior of the Pharaoh, ending it with a question about our own internal Pharaohs. Meaning, in the process of facing the public tyrant, we have to make sure to erase our internal tyrannies.

 

The Prophet, may peace be upon him, received instructions almost simultaneously, calling upon him to work to change society (via Surah al-Muddaththir) and to strengthen his already strong, pure soul (via Surah al-Muzzammil). In other words, if we choose the route of social change, then we must also place heavy focus on personal strength, for it is easy to lose ourselves in our work in unhealthy, if not destructive ways.  

 

We find a parallel in our own physiology. You breathe in and out. The two aspects of breathing are inseparable, removing the carbon dioxide and replacing it with oxygen. Then, as the blood reaches the heart, the two-part lub dub constriction takes in the blood and fires it through the rest of the body to provide nourishment.  The In order to remove the Pharaoh in society, you must work to remove the Pharaoh within, and vice versa.

 

We should read this teaching both in the context of social change as well as personal transformation; consider the two to be inseparable.  You cannot work on social change without also working on your own personal transformation, and you cannot work on your own personal transformation without working on social change.  If you are focusing on one without the other, you are abandoning half of your being. This separation of the two is part of the modern fragmentation of the self and society, where faith, practice, character, and service are disconnected from each other.  We have students on campus who make their prayers, yet see no contradiction that they also cheat on class work, and/or involve themselves in un-Islamic behaviors. I should keep count over how many times people come to me asking about Islam, asking what they’d have to change if they were to embrace Islam, and when we talk about giving up drugs and alcohol, they tell me they get high and drunk...with other Muslims. !!

 

I comment frequently on those among my peers who have chosen half rather than both. The longtime activists, who started in high school and college full of ideals and grand visions: so many of them are now withered, unhappy people. Likewise, those who focused exclusively on self-transformation (i.e. in the development of their own personal faith), abandoned those around them, as though they walk past the needy -- despite so many calls in our belief system to care for the orphans and needy -- on their way to prayer, while society crumbles. It is not that either rejects the other half; rather, we tend to give far more effort to one and take the other for granted. It is not like the parent who works intensively and extensively in their profession, but ignores they child they claim to be working to provide for. Be whole.

 

We also see opposites happening: each are behaviors of crass selfishness.

 

Some delay both efforts--public and personal reform--with a fantasy intention of working on them later. So many of our students are pre-meds, who happen to have enough time to play and party, but have the intentions of working on personal development and social change at a later time. Usually that later time does not happen until someone’s back is against the wall, and usually that is decades later when they start facing their own mortality.  While medicine is itself a career of service, for many it is a career of high income.

 

We see another opposite happening. At the collective level it is religious triumphalism. At the individual levels it is charlatanry.

 

At the collective level, these are people who believe that they are accomplishing both efforts, yet are doing neither.  As we watch the rise of religious nationalism across the globe, across every major religion--Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism--we see people who convince themselves that they are serving their beliefs by forcibly imposing themselves in public and private space, often with bloodshed and theft as a necessity in the process. If a common thread in religion is the Golden Rule, these are people in contrast who do unto others to be able to do what they want to themselves, convinced that their brutality is piety.

 

At the individual level, these are charlatans of who perform with false humility, having convinced themselves that God is on their side, while they behave in childish or vile ways in their personal lives, abandoning personal responsibilities for the chance to jump in front of cameras and microphones.  They may not commit murder, but they tell lies that sound like truths, because that is by definition performance.

 

All of these are people who serve neither society nor development as much as they are manifesting their own internal Pharaohs, taking the role of an ignorant, narcissistic god over the masses.

 

Thus, where do we begin? Come to my office, and let’s plan.  You own this country as much as your classmate does. You own this country as much as someone on Pennsylvania Avenue does. You are not going to give it up to some people trying to sell us all out to complete their narcissist utopian visions. The mess they leave when they run away, will be a mess that you and I have to clean up, because Pharaohs do not give up anything without a fight. And, when they run, we have to make sure that we do not replace them as Pharaohs. Thus, it will take time and effort to be one. What else is there to live for?

 

And Allah knows best.

 

Omer M

 

The Pharaoh, his personality, his methods

January 29, 2017



Assalamu Alaykum Dear Students -

 

I hope you receive this letter with the best of health, Iman, and Consciousness.

 

In Qur’anic study, we find that commentators use the Pharaoh as the archetype of a tyrant. Perhaps the first such usage in our traditions is by the Prophet Muhammad, may peace be upon him, in reference to one of the fiercest oppressors of his generation, Abu Jahl. One of the most common uses is in reference to Yazid, whose forces slaughtered the grandson of the Prophet, Husayn. In the modern era, Pharaoh has been a designation -- of all places -- in Egypt by critics of its dictators for the last few decades.

 

In studying the Pharaoh, we may get tips on engagement and techniques.

 

First, let us look at his personality traits.

 

When speaking of the Pharaoh, Allah states that he was arrogant. This is the same attribute used for the accursed Devil. Looking deeper into the attribute, we see this form of arrogance as a trait that someone hides behind, as though seeking cover or protection by way of arrogance.

 

It follows then, that he has very deep fear. Such is common among kings and tyrants: they fear rebellion or revolution, so they respond with subjugation. Likewise, an internal (avoided) emptiness leads them to overcompensate with aggression.

 

Thus, another attribute of the Pharaoh is that he is defiant. Again looking deeper into the attribute, he is someone who pushes against boundaries and limitations. His was the behavior not merely of sin, but deliberate sin, and such was the case of those working for him. His minions are as corrupt as he is.

 

He is fiercely competitive. He regards himself as a god, and gives no space for the service to any other gods. In our modern language, this would be the ultimate megalomania: not only does he consider himself a god, but refuses acknowledgement of any other.

 

In considering himself to be divine, he also believes in the fantastic or miraculous things about himself. Meaning, along with the megalomania, he finds attraction in grandiose works and mischief.

 

Then, let us look at his techniques, resulting from the above personality traits.

 

He amasses tremendous wealth. He behaves criminally, bypassing the law. He rules with tremendous private strategizing and cunning, making mischief and corruption in the land.

 

He accuses others of lying and corrupting the world, as he did with Moses, may peace be upon him. He speaks as though he is the defender and preserver of the land. Meaning, he regards people of truth as being charlatans seeking to deceive. Likewise, he deceives the masses not just with lies, but with organized means of deception (i.e. magicians). Further, he claims to be speaking in defense of the people. In turn, he calls on the people to defend him against the people of truth.

 

He has advisers who often speak for him, threatening the masses, as well as the Pharaoh’s minions.

 

Further, in ruling, he his quick to command large instructions so as to either prove his own greatness or to challenge the greatness of others. He brings people who help him, close to him. They have the feeling of being honored insiders, while he acts as though he owns them. He isolates people who fail him, often with violent threats, if not violence itself.

 

He keeps his people divided into factions, elevating some, and subjugating others. He keeps elevating himself above the people. He keeps the people afraid of him, though young people are less afraid. He keeps monitors among the masses, regarding it as a technique of caution against subversion and dissension. And, when he fears a threat, he sweeps through with violence.

 

And, the wife of the Pharaoh is trapped and isolated in his world. In our traditions, the wife of the Pharaoh is among the most pious of women.

 

When we read narrations about end time prophecies, we have a natural desire to see them as commentaries on the present. Likewise, I’m sure that the above seems a bit too familiar. Thus, in future letters, we will look at the ways Allah prescribes in dealing with such leaders. But, the most important point to understand is that they cannot outlast God. And, before looking to any leaders in our world, we must also look to our own inner Pharaohs. How much of the above describes you?

 

And Allah knows best.



Omer M

 

Fear, Despair, and the Inauguration

January 18, 2017



Dear Students, Assalamu Alaykum

 

I hope you receive this letter with the best of health and Iman.

 

Welcome back to a new calendar year and a new semester. I hope that you return to class with eagerness, curiosity and optimism. Today, we celebrate the life of one of our society’s great activists who never gave up on hope in this nation. On Friday, we inaugurate a head of state who was elected with the support of many and whose statements have frightened many. Many of us wonder what the future holds.

 

In my experience, the most common reason people leave their religion is that it does not provide them with what they need. This is not to say that the opposite is true; meaning, people who stay in their religion may or may *not* find what they need. Some people leave their religion because they cannot accept real or perceived historical inaccuracies. Some people leave their religion because they cannot accept real or perceived internal contradictions. Some people leave their religion because they -- without saying it -- believe they are more intelligent than the authors. Some people find something better, while others believe that “nothing” is better than what they had. That is not to say that when someone leaves their religion, that the problem is automatically with their religion. You and I know very well that some people teach and preach Islam in ways that are very unhealthy, taking a glowing gem and turning it into something rotten.

 

I have said to many of you, privately and publicly, that I do not know where we will be in a year. It may be that this new presidency will resemble the totalitarian regimes we saw in Europe in the 1930s. It may be that the new presidency will resemble the dictatorships we saw in the Arab states for the past fifty years. Or, it may be that the new presidency will resemble both sets of Daley years we saw in Chicago.  Take each of these references for what they mean to you, but the common element is that even though the authors of our Constitution sought to keep power in check, there are ways to subvert it, at human and financial cost. There is a growing sentiment among many in our society, including ourselves, Latinos, LGBT, and other minority groups and marginalized communities that we need to brace ourselves for whatever might be in the unknown.

 

The first step is to get our bearings straight. One of the purposes of religion is to not only explain the unknowns, but to guide us to navigate through them. What are the unknowns in your world? All of us must wrestle with the unknowns in some way, because there will always be unknowns in our lives. Too often our default approach is fear, denial, despair, or resignation.

 

Fear happens when the unknown seems ominous and we believe we may not have the tools to face what it releases into the known. Meaning, I apply for admission into a program and I really hope I get accepted, but I fear I may not, and I fear I do not know what I will do if I do not get accepted, thus I fear that everything in my world will collapse. Many of us are in fear about what will happen in our society, starting on Friday.

 

Instead, try hope. Hope will not require you to abandon your fear.

 

Denial happens when we do not allow ourselves to believe there is anything ominous. This is the common lot of parents who have a hint their child is doing something unhealthy, but they do not want to think about it, and force themselves to ignore their suspicions. A parent will notice something not right, perhaps in their child’s eyes, or their child’s behavior, but will choose to disregard rather than investigate. Many of us would believe that things will turn bad in our society, but will not allow themselves to consider it.

 

Instead, focus on paying attention to each major development, especially for the sake of those marginalized communities among us, looking at what we need to do to protect them.

 

Despair is fear without hope. Rumi teaches us that all fear includes hope, and all hope includes fear. I fear something will happen, but I hope it will not. I hope something will happen, but I fear it will not. Despair is fear without hope, thus it is not fear anymore. Certainty is hope without fear, and thus it is beyond hope. Many of us look at what has been happening in the world, in places like Syria, and struggle to have optimism about anything.

 

Despair is not an option for a believer. Despair was the destiny of the accursed Devil.

 

Resignation is an acceptance that happens when we embrace powerlessness.  You are standing at the shore, watching a the towering Tsunami approach, and you know there is no place to run.  So, you stand, or you sit, and you watch the Tsunami approach, or you close your eyes, because that is all you can do now. Perhaps you make the Declaration of Faith.  

 

Rather than resignation, choose acceptance for it is more positive. Suffering will not happen except if God allows it; no suffering will happen -- big or small -- except that God will alleviate sins from our lives like leaves falling from a tree. Acceptance is an acceptance that power is not in the hands of the persecutors or inquisitors, but in the hands of the Divine.

 

But, consider something else. The unknown is something you possess that God does not possess. Meaning, God knows all, but I do not. When I am making a prayer or supplication to God, I am -- by the act of prayer itself -- venturing into the unknown. Not only that, I am illustrating hope. The act of praying to God is an act of hope. So, work on your daily prayers. They will help to provide stability, and tranquility in addition to hope.

 

We will speak more about these matters as they develop. But, my door is always open to you, as are the doors of my colleagues in Campus Ministry, Insha Allah. And, be sure that the whole of University is on your side.

 

And Allah knows best.

 

Omer M



Remorse and Arrogance

September 25, 2016



Dear Students,

 

Assalamu Alaykum.

 

I hope you receive this letter with the best of health and Iman.

 

In the Islamic narrative of Adam and Eve, peace be upon them, Allah invites them to eat of whatever they wanted in the Garden. They were free to go wherever, except for one tree. The devil made them both slip, and they both went to the tree. They both felt remorse, were taught how to seek forgiveness, were granted forgiveness, and were then sent to earth.  

 

In a parallel story, Allah tells the angels to bow before Adam, may peace be upon him. Angels do not have the capability to disobey Allah; thus, they bowed down. Among them was Iblis, a jinn, who refused to bow, became arrogant, and became among the rejectors of God. When asked why he didn’t bow, he claimed superiority, proclaiming to God, “I am better than him. You created me from fire; You created him from clay.” He gets banished to Hell, and makes a request, seeking that the entry into Hell gets delayed until the Day of Judgment. Granted. He makes another request, vowing to lead humanity astray. He’s given permission to try, but told that he won’t be able to get to Allah’s true servants.

 

Contrasting the two stories we find one fundamental difference. Adam and Eve felt remorse, were taught how to seek forgiveness, sought it, and were granted it. Iblis felt no remorse, did not seek forgiveness, yet behaved with arrogance, still made requests of Allah, and even vowed revenge.

 

Depending upon the purity of our condition, if we do something very wrong that is outside of the norm of our behavior, we experience a burst of internal emotion that we may then transform into remorse or into its opposite -- in this case -- arrogance. That internal sentiment is a feeling of self-debasement. Either we embrace it, or instead of self-debasement, we turn it upside down into a sense of greatness: arrogance. In other words, you do something wrong that you do not normally do, like slander someone, then you have this burst of emotion that either gets confirmed as remorse, or gets inverted into arrogance.

 

Then the sentiment gets followed by further action: if I feel remorse, then I confess, and I seek pardon. If I feel arrogance, then I will justify my actions. If I steal something from someone and feel remorse, I will confess and return what I stole. If I steal something and feel arrogance, then I will justify stealing, and might blame the victim for my choice to steal.

 

In other words, remorse is part of the process of owning our choices. Arrogance is a choice to  avoid our responsibility.  The more severe the action, the greater the sentiment, making either the remorse or arrogance greater.  Remorse can be of such force that it becomes a type of depression. Arrogance can be of such force that it becomes a type of rage.  

 

Take a moment to note the power of these sentiments. If we choose arrogance, we start constructing a full world view around it to justify the arrogance. Once we embrace that worldview, it is very hard to get out of it, unless something else later on debases us. I have seen many cases where someone committed a wrong against someone else, blamed the victim, and continued to justify it.

 

I think back to those horrendous wrongs I’ve done. In some cases, starting a charade, continuing it, making it more complicated and worse, causing difficulties in someone else’s life.  The process of confession is a process of cleaning our slate, but also of seeking relief.

 

Then, there is another aspect to the wrongs: the collateral damage. Of the interpretations of the Adam and Eve story, one is that the experience of with the tree was a training exercise for their forthcoming responsibilities as God’s deputies on the Earth, to show them that they will make mistakes and to show how to fix them (by turning back to God).  Another interpretation -- which has some commonalities with some Biblical readings -- is that they were sent to Earth because of the episode with the tree. It is this latter reading that I would like us to think about because it opens us to this issue of collateral damage.

 

If the first pair of responses -- remorse or arrogance -- were responses to our actions, we have a second set of responses related to the consequences of our actions. The difference here is that these responses are long lasting. Adam and Eve, according to the second reading above, went to the Tree, were forgiven, but because they launched a chain of events, they were still expelled from the Garden into the Earth.  In other words, sometimes we do wrongs, and may be forgiven or pardoned for them, but the effects and consequences of our actions remain.  Imagine if you hurt someone, and were forgiven for it, yet their pain remains. If you break something that belongs to someone else, that person might forgive you, yet the object remains broken.  We have a lesser-cited teaching that on the Day of Judgment when humans are scurrying around in fear waiting for judgment, Adam will have some sadness, thinking that he is the one who unleashed this whole process for them.

 

Consider the places in your history where you took ownership for your wrongs. Though it’s a much more difficult task and might require someone else to inform us, consider those places in your history where you did not.

And Allah knows best.


Omer M

Eid and 9/11

September 14, 2016



Assalamu Alaykum Dear Students,

 

I hope you receive this letter with the best of health and Iman.

 

This weekend was both troubling and auspicious for what we commemorate.

 

Sunday was the 15th anniversary of 9/11/01.  It is strange to me (and those of my generation) that most of you do not have a memory of that day, save for the countless replays of various moments of that day.  It was a terrifying day, one of the most terrifying of my life.  

 

As you and I know, we (Muslims, as well as those confused for being Muslims, like Sikhs) were doubly attacked on that day. Our home was hit. Then, a wave of hostility against us was unleashed.  To be fair, the hostility began long before 9/11/01. We can trace it at least back to the first Gulf War at the beginning of the 1990s.  Nevertheless, things became amplified on that day 15 years ago. I dream of a day when I no longer have to regard 9/11 as a shadow looming over me or us.  It has altered the course of my life in multiple ways, including career direction.

 

Further, for the entirety of your intellectual lives, America has been at war, with Muslims.  When I was a child, the movies were about Vietnamese fighters hiding the steaming jungle, or stiff Soviet officers seeking to dominate America.  Now, the sentiment zeroes in on Turbaned or Hijabed Muslims hiding behind sand dunes, also seeking to conquer America. Nevertheless, that’s the moment we are in, and we know that certain politicians are exploiting the moment.

 

That day, and the fifteen years since than have been a test for each of us, Muslim or not. We are taught that a difference between a hypocrite and a true believer is that a hypocrite is like a stalk of wheat that gets bent as it gets knocked down, and is never able to come back up. The true believe is like a stalk that gets knock down and steadily rises again.  In other words, the hypocrite falls into despair, and the true believer never gives up hope, even if s/he has to will him/herself back up purely on hope.

 

We are also taught that the figures most tested are the Prophets, may peace be upon them, which brings us to the other commemorations this weekend. Sunday was Yawm al-Arafat, “The Day of Arafat.” It is the day when millions of Muslims from across the globe congregated just outside Makkah (Mecca) in performing their pilgrimage (Hajj).  For those not in the vicinity of Makkah to perform the Hajj, it was an immensely meritorious day to fast.

 

Then, the next day, Monday, was Eid al-Adha (The Festival of Sacrifice). As you know, this day commemorates the event in our Tradition where Allah tells the Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) to sacrifice his son, may peace be upon them. Among Ibrahim’s greatest objects of love were his long await son.  The test then, was for Ibrahim to see whom he loved more -- Allah or his son -- and we know that he passed the test. Taken together, these two events are a commemoration of the story of Ibrahim and family, including Hajar (his wife) and her quest to find water for her son, the building of the Ka’ba, by father and son, and then, this moment of sacrifice.

 

At the same time, the pilgrimage is a reminder or rehearsal of the beginning of the Day of Judgment, where we will all be swarming together awaiting Allah’s accounting for us.  

 

And, of course, at the same time, it is a commemoration of the story of the Prophet Muhammad, may peace be upon him, on the same ground. After two dozen years of calling people to God, witnessing the rejectors among his cousins torturing his followers, exiling him, going to war against him and them, and eventually giving in, the Prophet was finally able to perform the Hajj near the end of his life.  When we perform the Hajj, we follow the footsteps that he walked, which follow the footsteps of Ibrahim.

 

It was in the Divine will that all of these things landed at the same time. They can be events that split our personalities, requiring them to go in opposite directions. My suggestion is to consider each of them as a pathway to Allah, either through fear, sorrow, remembrance of His favors, or love.

 

And Allah knows best.

 

Omer M






The Rahma Ethos

September 4, 2016

 

Assalamu Alaykum Dear Students,

 

I hope you receive this letter with the best of health, Iman, and Taqwa.

 

In this Labor Day weekend, Chicago witnesses two of the nation’s largest annual gatherings of Muslims. The ISNA (Islamic Society of North America) Convention takes place every year, usually during the Labor Day Weekend, often in Chicagoland. This year it will be in Rosemont. Likewise, the Mosque Cares convention takes place during the same weekend, almost always in Chicagoland. This year it will be in Tinley Park. I have been attending the conventions on and off for a few decades. It has been an experience watching the community transform over the years.

 

The key point I would like you to ponder over is that when you attend such a convention, with so many people, what you see will be as much an observation of what is before you as it is a reflection of what is within you.  Imagine you are looking at a crowd of a thousand people. Think about what you notice in those thousand people.  Some of what you notice might be the anomalies in the crowd. Some of what you notice might relate to what you expect to see (and then you see it).

 

Having said that, think of what you think of when you think of the Muslim community.  Every year at the beginning of the year, students visit me, hesitant, because they want to connect with their Islam, but they are afraid of being judged. Many times, students assume they are being judged; that is a judgment in itself, is it not?  If I assume or fear that people are judging me, then in fact I am the one judging them.

 

The fear of judgment is a natural fear.  Despite the thousands of talks I have given, I still experience stage fright almost every time.  Sometimes there is that one person in a crowd that provides inappropriate comments and criticism that then makes the space seem less tranquil.  That person might be one in a hundred. The other ninety-nine people might be perfectly welcoming or quiet.

 

Thus, judgment is a choice.  When you feel or fear that someone is casting a negative opinion upon you or about you, override your thinking as quickly as you can with something like, “Insha Allah, not.” “God willing not.” Meaning, “Insha Allah, they are not suspecting anything negative of me.”

 

The goal to develop in your disposition toward the community is one of love and hope.  If you want to find crooks in the community, we have them. If you want to find hypocrites in the community, we have them also. But we do have plenty of tender, humble, upright people.  Focus on them, and have sympathy for the others.  Have love for all.

 

But, the point about perspective and judgment goes further. You choose what you think of Allah. Some students tell me that they believe Allah hates them. Others tell me that they believe that Allah has abandoned them.  There are three points to consider with such views. The first is that these are real feelings. Real sentiments, and should not be dismissed. Rather, they should be investigated to figure out where the feelings are coming from. Second, these feelings represent longing. If you believe that God hates you, then it follows that you are longing for Him not to, but you may not have the tools to move beyond the feeling that you are hated.  Third, even then, these sentiments and beliefs are choices.  You choose what you think of Allah, and, for your experience in life, that is what Allah becomes for you.

 

The default outlooks we are prescribed to have toward Allah come from His many names. The most commonly repeated attributes among those names are the attributes of Rahma (mercy that brings the mercy-recipient closer to the mercy-giver).  Meaning, make it a conscious choice to see the default relationship that Allah has with you to be Rahma. Then, when looking at the environment around you, see all the things in your environment, as well as the entire collective ethos of the environment, as the product of Allah’s Rahma on you.

 

This means that the ethos of the world around you and I is one of Da’wa (Calling). The environment around you is calling you to experience and to witness Allah’s Rahma. Meaning, when you look at a cloud, or a tree, or a building, or another person, that entity is calling upon you to not only remember Allah’s Rahma, but to accept and experience it. Meet me in my office, and we can discuss exercises to help this develop this outlook.

 

Thus, one of the ongoing struggles of life is to accept and immerse ourselves in Allah’s Rahma.  This also applies when we are experiencing struggle, which is also a Rahma, which we will speak about some other time. Until then, if you get the chance, take a visit to one of the conventions, and witness Allah’s Rahma through your community. Then, do the same with the Muslims on campus.

 

And Allah knows best.

 

Omer M

Dear First Years, Welcome to Loyola

August 22, 2016

 

Assalamu Alaykum,

 

On behalf of Campus Ministry, I would like to welcome you to Loyola.  I am your Muslim Chaplain, here to serve you in your spiritual and personal needs and ambitions.  

 

As you well know, Loyola University Chicago is a Jesuit Institution with strong focus on academics, faith, and social justice.  Though the university itself is less than 150 years old, you are joining a tradition that spans centuries.  As a Muslim on campus, you are adding to the conversation by bringing our own rich traditions to the campus.    

 

In your entering class, there are 200 Muslims, coming from all over the globe.  In the entire Undergraduate population, we have nearly 800 Muslims.  We are 7-8% of the population, growing each year.  

 

I have two roles in the University. On the one hand, I teach academic courses, usually in the Department of Theology, and sometimes in the Department of Modern Languages and Literature.  I started teaching here in 2008, having taught at many of the schools across Chicagoland.  Most of my classes are related to Islam, including “Introduction to Islam” and “The Qur’an as Literature.” Other courses I have taught include, “Revival and Reform in Islamic History and Thought,” and “Masterpieces of Literature: Islam.”

 

On the other hand, I am Muslim Chaplain, beginning my third year in the role. I am here to assist and guide you in your personal growth, no matter how much of a priority Islam is for you or not, and no matter how you approach Islam.  I have very good relationships with students. Many return to talk even years after they have graduated from Loyola.

 

Among the ways I serve you include pastoral care. Every day students make appointments with me seeking help or conversation on matters related to belief, personal life, as well as academics.  Some students feel that they have already developed extensively as Muslims prior to starting their college careers, and seek more.  Other students feel that they need to learn where to begin, and might be timid in asking. Whatever your outlook is, you will find me eager to work with you. Whatever your level is, I will meet you there.  My goal is to figure out how to help you grow and find your fulfillment.  Consider me to be a personal trainer for your heart.

 

Other programs I provide include reading groups, where we go through material, whether it is a book or article, and read and discuss together. Last year, some of the topics included the Qur’an, with focus on Surah al-Baqarah, neo-Atheism, Muslim Feminism, Socrates, and Muhammad Iqbal. This year, I hope to offer other programs that will help you in your personal growth, with focus on community building.  

 

And, considering the political and global situation we are in right now, consider me (as well as the entire Campus Ministry staff) to be a source for comfort for you.  We live in a time that is full of uncertainty and chaos.  You will always find me to be your friend, and older brother.  My wonderful colleagues in Campus Ministry feel the same way toward you.

 

I am looking forward to meeting with you. Please make an appointment with me and we can work together to figure out where to focus over the course of your college career and beyond. I hope to reach out to you personally over the course of the year, to develop our relationship.  My office is in the Campus Ministry Suite in the Damen Student Center, Room 217.

 

You might know that just outside our Suite, we have the Muslim prayer space. We have space for women and men, with separate rooms for each to perform their ablutions (wudu).  

 

Frequently throughout the semester, I write “Chaplain Letters” providing reflection and food for thought about life. I encourage you to read them and discuss them. They are available here:

 

http://www.luc.edu/campusministry/faithprograms/faithtraditions/muslimchaplain/muslimchaplainscorner/

 

Further, I run a Facebook page that has announcements and other communications. I encourage you to “Like” it.

 

https://www.facebook.com/lucchaplainscorner/

 

I encourage you also to take part in the Muslim Students Association, and will send you more information on that soon.

 

I do look forward to the great things you will do here at Loyola, and beyond.  Thus, I give you three simple assignments: make an appointment with me, read my Chaplain letters, and “Like” the Chaplain Facebook page.

 

My prayers are with you.

 

Very respectfully,

Omer M. Mozaffar

 

Welcome Back Students

August 22, 2016



Assalamu Alaykum.

 

My Dear Students,

 

I hope you receive this letter with the best of Iman and health.

 

It gives me joy to welcome you back to another school year at Loyola.  Classes begin in less than a week. The student presence on campus is growing, seemingly by the hour.  I’m noticing that the many eager South Asian fathers who stroll along with their freshmen each seem to look like relatives of mine. And each year, they seem to be closer and closer to my age, as my oldest daughter began her campus visits this past year, and is just a few years away from entering college herself. I’m also enjoying the last days of a lightning fast internet connection before the thousands of students log into the system.

 

I hope that you are full of energy, ready for an exciting year of learning, bonding, and growing.  I am somewhere in my ninth year of teaching here, and my third year as your Chaplain. In these roles, I have learned as much as you have and look forward to learning much more. I enjoy conversation with students because they (you)  possess that youthful curiosity about the world, with just enough of a lack of filter to be honest, and enough of a filter to be polite. As we get older, often our filters get stronger, cautioning us in what we say, as well as what we think about ourselves.  Of course, my family members are still waiting for my filters to develop. Smile.

 

Let us not forget how taxing this summer has been. It has been one of the most difficult summers for me in years.  Some of those difficulties come from the same things you have experienced, through our national political discourse, local and international violence perpetrated by people claiming to be Muslim, as well as violence perpetrated against Muslims (and those lumped with Muslims).  The Presidential election is still some two and a half months away, and a lot can happen until then, and after then.

 

In that spirit, I have an important request for you for this year: let us work extra hard in community building. When you feel as though you are the only person carrying burdens or enduring struggle, it is a painful, lonely experience. When you share with others, even if it is with mere conversation, the loneliness feels a bit less constricting.  There are a few ways to build this community. First, attend my and MSA events. I will be offering even more programming than last year.  The MSA has been working to improve this year over previous excellent years. Second, when you have meals, try to eat with others.  

 

And, let us not forget the primary reason that you are here at Loyola. For most of you, the goal is to get the grades that will get you into an excellent professional school. For some of you, the goal is to get the degree.  My hope is that in this year, you also seek something that Loyola offers in a very unique way: an education.  Life is often a list of missed opportunities.  While many of your classes here will be not different than the identical classes at other schools, save for quality, remember that the Jesuit outlook fits with ours in so many ways, in the quest to address the whole person individually and to work toward justice collectively.  So, let’s talk about what aspects of your person can be improved upon and how to do so.

 

I do not know what the future holds for us. Sometimes, we have the choice to be in fear, hope, excitement, or dread. Sometimes elements within our physiology or within our personal histories make those choices difficult.  Nevertheless, I always find learning to be an exhilarating experience. Thus, for these weeks, choose excitement.  I am certainly excited to see you again, and hope you will schedule time to see me.

 

And Allah knows best.

 

Omer M

The Journey of Faith and the Challenges We Experience

August 8, 2016


Assalamu Alaykum

 

Dear Students -

I hope you receive this letter with the best of health and Iman.

There is a constricting pain that each of us experience from time to time. If you've experienced the death of a loved one or the death of a cherished relationship, then you know this feeling. You are getting squeezed, while your innards get shoveled out of you.

The most difficult questions from students for me to answer are those that require me to take a high road when I'm in a low place. For example, students push back when I push them to be optimist, and it might be difficult to answer when I am going through a personal struggle. It is easy to preach optimism when life is easy. When life gets hard, full of pain and the darkness of unknowns, then it becomes much more difficult to be an optimist; I have to still push students to see sunshine and rain as blessings, but I must do so with integrity, not sanctimony.

We are taught that part of the journey of faith is aqabah, where -- to grow in faith -- you go through an intense process of constriction and depletion, to grow. Though I speak of a concept, there are many locations in the Middle East with this name, and I suspect there is an etymological relationship. But, the idea of aqabah is simple: part of life is a very difficult passageway to cross, to get from your state, to a better state. To make sense of it, think of a steep upward slope. An example would be when there is no food available, yet you feed others. It is one thing to feed people when you are full, with a full refrigerator, and money to spare. It is something far more difficult to feed someone when you yourself are hungry. It is not wrong for you to feed yourself in a halal manner if food is scarce; that would be the equivalent of a passing grade. That would be an act of submission. It is an act of faith, however, to feed others when food is scarce while you yourself are starving.

The first time we experience this is at birth. When you go through your mother’s birth canal, that is aqabah. You are being squeezed through, from the warmth of your mother’s protective, nourishing body, out into the coldness of this world. But, even though you are the one physically crossing through a space, your mother is the one experiencing aqabah, because she is -- even with modern anesthesia -- experiencing the struggle of giving birth to you. Something happens to your mother in this process, where for three quarters of a year, she is growing you within her, growing her own love for you. Then, when you are born, either through normal birth or c-section, something further happens to her, as though the love she is developing for you gets sealed into an unbreakable, undefinable hold. Meaning, in that period, we are aqabah manifested, but our mothers are the ones crossing a difficult path, with the other side of it being a joy that not even a father knows, and a father knows immeasurable joy on the birth of his child.

You feel squeezed and even though the challenge might not be physical, the pain is very physical. When a loved one dies, the remaining hole within you cannot be filled. When a relationship dies, perhaps it can. But, in this letter, I’m speaking about struggles of life as a way to speak about those people we turn to to guide us through our own struggles.

This is the problem with this celebrity Islam. Think of any celebrity preacher you follow and ask yourself how much vulnerability s/he shares. I am not asking how much you know about his/her life. Nor am I asking how much they cry; I cry at the microphone so frequently that I’m often starting speeches hoping not to cry, and I believe much of those tears are coming from adrenaline rather than sorrow. At most, the celebrity preacher will share stories that are self-deprecating, but you will almost never see vulnerability in such preachers, because it is not good business. Considering that I know so many celebrity preachers, I would go so far as to say many do not even know how.

Thus, the problem in turning to a celebrity preacher to help you get through your struggles is that you are choosing a carbonated soft drink for nourishment, rather than milk: you feel as though you are getting replenished, but you are getting further depleted. Thus, when you are going through an uphill struggle, the most a celebrity preacher can give you is some nice slogans that you would then post on social media.

So, speaking of those times when we are in the office, and I’m going through a difficult ordeal, and you (the student) need from me to help you out of yours, consider what is happening. You are being my experience of aqabah. You are, without realizing it, forcing me to get through my struggle. And in the process, it is so painful, yet it is so healing. Thus, your responsibility is to pay it forward. Carry the burden of your peer, and Insha Allah, it will help you squeeze through your own. The most that celebrity Islam can do is tell you to do it, but most celebrity preachers do not know how.

And Allah knows best.

Omer M

Muslims in Catholic Academia

January 31, 2016

 

Dear Students,

 

I hope this letter reaches you with the best of health and Iman. Just sending a short letter.

 

I had the privilege of representing Loyola with a few colleagues at a conference in Washington DC, sponsored by the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities and the Interfaith Youth Core. I wanted to share a few observations for your consideration. It was an educational, eye-opening experience.

 

The first is that Loyola seems to be way ahead of almost every other institution in serving the non-Catholic populations, including us, competing mainly with DePaul and Georgetown.  Consider the beautiful prayer space, the Muslim members of faculty, the chaplain, and the IWS minor with its plethora of excellent courses. We have so many offerings here that it is easy to take them for granted, and then miss them -- or regret ignoring them -- once we’re in our post-Loyola lives.

 

Second, there seemed to be unanimity, starting all the way from the President of the ACCU, that there is a need to serve the non-Catholic populations, especially the Muslims, especially in light of national and international events. I have not attended a conference of non-Muslims in which Muslims were mentioned (positively and sympathetically) as many times as they were in this 24 hour period.

 

Third, the consensus was that this responsibility to serve is because of their Catholicism, not despite it.  The Church in Vatican II produced some revolutionary documents (considering where the rest of the world was at the time in the 1960s) about relationships with other faith communities, especially the Jews and the Muslims. These are Dignitatis humanae and Nostra aetate, which -- for our purposes -- called for mutual respect between Muslims and Christians. The Western World was stuck in the Cold War, elsewhere secular nation states were just formed across the globe in this new post-WW2, post-Colonial era, and American Catholicism was not only asserting itself on the international stage, but had just elected (and lost) a US President. Talk of religion -- focused on building bridges, rather than laying borders -- was something unheard of.  Vatican II does not necessarily represent a shift, or something new; in sessions during the conference, scholars argued that this inter-faith work is textbook Catholicism. For the head of our Campus Ministry, Lisa Reiter, none of this was anything new for her.

 

The fourth point to consider is that the convener of our conference was Eboo Patel and the IFYC.  Eboo and I have some history together. My wife used to work for him. Our kids go to the same Islamic school.  Now, our former Interfaith Chaplain Brian Anderson -- who had an outstanding relationship with the Muslim students -- works with him.  Watching Eboo in action makes me wonder who is the bigger character, him or me.

 

My point, however, is that it is still something new -- even for me -- to see a Muslim at the head of such a non-Muslim event.  He is a bit younger than me and I find him very inspiring. It seems that most of the attendees, of higher pay grades and skill sets than myself, felt the same way.  

 

And that leads me to the main point of my letter. While most of the letter should give you comfort that there are so many people looking out for you, I am not giving you the privilege of resting on their efforts.  You and I know that, as bad as Islamophobia may be (and I have expressed many times all the experiences my own family has had), there are many other types of phobias, hate crimes, institutional suppression and neglect far worse than what most of us are facing.  Eboo formed and grew IFYC in that environment.

 

A repeated point during the entire conference was that the Catholics of America are the best of the crop when compared against their competitors, but they have a lot more work and improvement to do. Thus, I am not trying to paint a picture indicating that the Catholic world today is a work of perfection.  But, of the various religious communities, it seems as though they are in the lead. In the past few centuries, while facing hate akin to what we face, the Catholics formed what are now nearly 250 universities across the country. Including high schools, there are currently a million students in Catholic institutions.  

 

I feel sometimes that getting us Muslims to focus on something other than marriage and med school -- like education beyond the core sciences and service of local non-Muslims aside from Muslims overseas -- is like asking for something impossible.  I also wonder if my presence on campus has not inspired improvement among the Muslim students, as much as it has given many an excuse not to work.

 

But, take the time you need to get what you need done. But do not delay; I expect you to hit the ground running. As he tells us in his book, Eboo started his organization with an idea, not knowing where to go. Now it and he are forces to be reckoned with. He is one of the most influential of all the Muslims in America.  Every time we sit down, whether at a birthday party or something else, we engage with full attention wrestling and wrangling over big questions, pausing conversations when our kids start yelling at us for attention. Over the weekend, we had a chat about the importance of studying the Humanities. And, a question that neither of us had an answer to -- with full respect for the skills required for the Health Sciences -- was how to get Muslims more active and engaged.  

 

The ball is in your court. Find a cause and make it yours. Let’s talk.

 

And Allah knows best.

 

Omer M

 

Complex spouses

January 24, 2016

 

Dear Students,

 

Assalamu Alaykum.

 

I pray you receive this letter with the best of health and Iman.  

 

In the course of this past weekend, I was pulled in to three separate marriage disputes.  Meaning, three couples, three separate sets of problems. While the details of those situations are their own, I feel compelled to make one key point about married life that seems lost on undergrads: life is complex, thus, people are complex.

 

We are taught that people find attraction to potential spouses and motivations for marriage through a host of reasons: beauty, lineage, wealth. We are also taught that the best reason for marriage is your potential spouse’s religious outlook and practices.  

 

Our local Muslim cultures tend to imagine themselves as conservative, though that cautious behavior tends to be inconsistent and sometimes absurd. I am thankful that my office has giant windows on both sides, and that there is no stigma for students to visit me, so that students of all liberal and conservative outlooks feel comfortable in visiting me. But, in contrast, I once had a colleague who was very rigid in keeping genders segregated, yet had a female physician. If that is not enough, he blamed her gender for her inability to cure his illness.  

As a result of this mass conservatism, however, a dominant reason that many contemporary young Muslims seek marriage is for the chance at interaction, emotional and physical, escaping the strictures they lived through.  While too many young male Muslims have made it forbidden upon themselves to speak with their female co-religionists, and vice versa, I find it fascinating that this ad hoc ruling seems less applied when either speaks with non-Muslims.  I find it more fascinating that even those Muslims who are so strict on such rules are not able to speak with courtesy with others. It recalls the student who for years would never respond to my greetings (“Salam”) except with a short split-second grin, yet she sent me repeated extended emails asking to help her find a loan for med school. Perhaps in person, she was shy.

 

The point in all this is that even though I am pointing out what seem to be inconsistencies, I am speaking to the complexity and complications of human behavior.

 

There is a parallel we can draw from pre-Islamic Arabia.  I suspect some causation in the following behavior. As we know, Makkah (Mecca) was about as fiercely patriarchal as any society has ever been, including the practice of female infanticide.  It is fascinating, however, that in this same land at this same time, in this environment that was missing so many women, poets recited verses of idyllic female lovers. Further, at this same time, soothsayers and oracles were often female, as were the goddesses that the men worshipped. These practices were so contradictory and horrendous that even God Himself calls them out on it.

 

Likewise, when I listen to young people search for potential spouses, or when I listen to them consider specific people, I find a comparable set of extremes. On the one hand there is an idealizing of what their spouses should be like. One of the ideals is of a type of misogynized piety.  Once a young man came to me after a Friday Khutba (Sermon) and asked me to help him find a wife. His preference: a widow of an Islamic scholar, who was herself a zahida (an ascetic). Another common line, “I want to marry someone who is better than me so that I will improve as a Muslim.” That is idealist language, and it is not the job of the spouse to be your teacher.  Often, that well-intentioned statement is code language for: I want someone who will be easy to deal with.

 

There are a few other major problems, related to visual media. The first is the fashion/airbrush industry. While in line with my daughters, at miscellaneous stores like Aeropostale, as we stand next to photos of frowning models in overpriced clothing, I get into conversations with them about airbrushing and what it does to our understanding of beauty. The second is the film industry -- especially Bollywood -- which has corrupted not only our ideas of weddings, but our notions of love, replacing devotion with infatuation.  The third is pornography, which requires its own conversations. Here, however, I will mention that pornography is corrupting all aspects of intimacy and beauty. The recurring theme in all of these examples is that our imaginations overtake our reality, leading us to seek a spouse who does not exist, considering especially that those models do not look like their airbrushed photographs, those Bollywood romances are just stupid, and pornography is performance.

 

The next problem relates to our behaviors prior to our weddings: in a nutshell, a common question I receive from your peers, asking for advice as they think about marriage is, “What am I supposed to share about my past?”  The answer is: if you have repented and it does not affect your spouse-to-be’s life, it is none of his/her business. If, however, it will affect him/her perhaps because of the people involved, then you may have to have conversations about this.  On the flip side, too many young men and women are way too immature to conceive that their spouse has had experiences that may not have been wholesome. More importantly, many hold double standards in this behavior, having their own vices while not allowing their potential spouses to have the same.

 

The most important point, however, is some much simpler. When you meet people through the years and get to know them, you discover many of the struggles that people carry. Every person you meet is probably carrying more than even they realize.  For example, when you reach my age, you might be startled to find out how many people have had children who died. But, I have had college students who have themselves had children who returned to their Creator. This does not include all those students who have lost siblings.  If you have not experienced this, then imagine the pain associated with it: it is immobilizing.

 

The person you marry will be someone who is carrying burdens in his/heart.  Some of these burdens are identifiable. Some are buried deep within the most tender spaces in their being.  The result, however, of those traumas, experiences, challenges, will be complex human behavior that seems to be contradictory and inconsistent.

 

This does not justify the horrendous behavior of the pre-Islamic Arabs, nor does it justify some of the other behaviors above.  But, the point is that every one of us, despite our abilities to smile and live, carries something. As life goes on, we will each be carrying more. And more.

 

Thus, the first challenge in looking for a spouse is in looking for someone made of a soul, flesh and bones, and memories.  Too many of us are looking for someone made of cardboard.

 

And Allah knows best.

 

Omer M




Removing Harm

January 13, 2016

 

Assalamu Alaykum Dear Students,

 

I hope you receive this letter with the best of health and Iman.

 

As we wind down our winter break, I want to begin to address some of the most common questions I receive.  The favorite conversations for Muslims on campus are Halal Meat, Music, Jinns, Marriage, and Gender Interaction, not in that order.  The most common question I receive from non-Muslims off campus are about ISIS, Israel, Palestine, Syria, and hijab.

 

Let us lay out a foundation. First we must establish priorities.  For some reason, gender interaction, for example, is such an apocalyptic concern for MSA members that social justice, salvation, honesty, ethics, and the apocalypse itself get less concern, even in the same person.  We can make a correlation between the strictness we choose to enforce gender segregation and the priority given to conversations on marriage. One often leads to the other.

 

From the perspective of Islamic Law, the first priority is to remove the harms, which in our individual conduct means that we should seek to remove Haram (forbidden) practices.  We should not confuse “Haram” (forbidden) practices with “Makruh” (discouraged) practices. There are many behaviors which are categorized as Makruh, yet for some reason we seek to label them as Haram.

 

The list of those Haram practices is short, but if we are involved with any of them, we might have trouble removing them. The most common problems on campus, including Muslims, would be drugs, alcohol, pornography, and sex outside of marriage.

 

We have a process of changing habits in our primary sources, which entails three steps: education, limited behavior, complete practice. In the Qur’an we have this model in the passages on alcohol prohibition, as well as those passages on fasting.  

 

The first step is education.  We know, from an Islamic perspective, that liquor is forbidden, but we should engage in an extensive process of education on both the detriments and benefits of liquor.  Education should involve both scriptural and academic sources.

 

The second step is to engage in limited behavior. Meaning, in the case of alcohol, the common second step is to make sure not to be intoxicated at prayer time.  If you are someone who makes all your prayers or if you are someone who makes none of your prayers, your goal would be to be sober at prayer time, whether or not you are praying. This would mean that you would have to stop drinking at least an hour or so before prayer time.  Considering how close all the prayers times are in winter, it would mean that you would have to cut out all drinking in daylight hours.

 

The third step is to complete practice.  Meaning, in the case of alcohol, you would reach a point at which you would stop all drinking. Throughout these second and third steps, you might still be reading up on the risks and rewards of the behavior you're changing.

 

So, how much time would it take to go from the launch of step one to the completion of step three? For one person it might take 10 years. For another person it might take a single year.  In the generation of the Prophet, may peace be upon him, it seems to have taken a decade. If it took ten years to remove alcohol consumption in that community, then it might take a contemporary community longer.

 

To make this three-step process of changing behavior most effective, it is important to do it (a) under the tutelage of a mentor, and (b) with others.  The advantage of having a mentor guide you through the steps is that the mentor will give you the nurturing you need, but will also be brutally honest about your growth and pitfalls.  The advantage of working with others who are also seeking to change behavior is that it increases motivation as well as self-checking.

 

These affairs of behavior are the affairs of the heart.  Historically, the Sufi networks were focused on such transformation. The Shaykh would be your mentor, and the community of students would be working on this personal transformation.  

 

From a spiritual/Sufi perspective, those behaviors categorized as Haram are behaviors that inhibit our relationship with Allah.  In other words, from the perspective of Islamic Law, actions deemed to be Haram are considered to be harmful, even if the harm is not immediately apparent.  From the perspective of Islamic Spirituality, actions deemed to be forbidden are so because they strain or obstruct our connection to the Divine.

 

In contemporary society, other groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous would be provide a similar pathway to getting cleaned up.  Theirs is a 12-Step process that is very honest and hopeful.

 

And, our Wellness Center is staffed with people who can guide you.

 

The hardest part in any bad behavior is in seeking to remove it.  So, if you are working to remove a Haram from your life, or something less severe, let’s talk.

 

And Allah knows best.

 

Omer M

Dr. King's Letter from the Birmingham Jail

January 16, 2016



Assalamu Alaykum Dear Students,

 

I hope this letter reaches you with the best of health and Iman.

 

This weekend we are observing a holiday in commemoration of the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  In his memory, I would like each of you to take moment to read his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. You may find a facsimile at Stanford’s website at this address:

 

http://okra.stanford.edu/transcription/document_images/undecided/630416-019.pdf

 

The first thing to note in the letter is that he addresses the letter to clergy.  You will see that it is a response to critics, in our language, sometimes calling them out for criticizing him but not criticizing the situation that his demonstrations were addressing.  It used to be that preachers were among the lead voices in the Civil Rights movement. Preachers had and have the responsibility of providing a social conscience for society. Often, they are co-opted by power structures to enforce power.  

 

Chicago has a few religious leaders focused on social causes, and we are at a very religious school that emphasizes Social Justice. While Dr. King did not address them in this letter, the members of the Nation of Islam were also very important leaders of the Civil Rights movement, and recently hosted the second Million Man March.  

 

Our on campus Muslim community is not as socially active as it can be, beyond the posting of memes and facebook posts. To be fair, we do have religious campus Muslims who are very active on #BlackLivesMatter, Palestine, and Syria, among other causes (including Domestic Violence), but they know that they are a small minority in comparison with the overall Muslim population here.  

 

A second thing to note is his focus on non-violence. Among his influences is Mahatma Gandhi, and his philosophy of Satyagraha. The idea is that you embody truth with your being in the face of tyranny. In common parlance, that is non-violence.  A contemporary of Gandhi, Abdul Ghaffar Khan had a similar movement called Khuda-i Khidmatgar.

 

The point about non-violence is something to consider in our contemporary era.  We find some Muslim scholar-activists endorsing this idea in because the difference between power and the dispossessed is so great now that there is no other option.  Meaning, in the pre-Industrial era, especially the pre-gunpowder era, the difference in tools and resources was still great, but nothing compared to what we have now.

 

Consider his four steps in non-violence: assessment of a situation, negotiation, self-purification, and direct action. Often activism has a romantic, adventurous quality to it. In that lens, many believe that activism means defiance, and someone getting arrested somehow carries a badge of honor.  Rather, activism is careful strategy. Looking at the life of the Prophet Muhammad, may peace be upon him, we see repeated examples of careful strategy, first telling his followers to keep their hands tied up against any aggression by the oppressors, eventually launching action against them.

 

Within those four steps, we see self-purification. In his language, it was education and preparation for dealing with the various sources of tension.  It would be, in our language, training in Sabr (active perseverance), which is very much at the heart of your Islamic consciousness. In a world outside of social service, we speak of Sabr in dealing with the vicissitudes of life.  In the case of service, then Sabr is the ability to maintain integrity and persist while witnessing and experiencing what others are experiencing. To be frank, an activist Muslim who has the discipline to make his/her daily prayers will have more backbone against struggle and fuel against burnout than one who does not.  I’m saying this from experience. Most Muslim activists are fueled by anger and a consciousness of victimhood, and they burn out and lose their integrity very quickly. To paraphrase James Baldwin, the activist must be driven by love, and that includes love for the oppressor, to get the oppressor to develop love so that the oppressor becomes a human.

 

Another point to note is his mention of the interconnectedness of all these issues.  While those in the #BlackLivesMatter struggle have found strong commonality with those working to end the occupation of the Palestinians, the point is that all the world’s issues influence each other. I suspect he is pulling this point from another influence, Reinhold Neibuhr. President Obama--influenced by both King and Neibuhr--makes a similar remark in his “A New Beginning” speech in Cairo, addressed to the Muslim world.

 

Related, I would like you to consider something else, King is Dr. King. Meaning, he is a highly educated, trained intellectual. While there are many highly educated activists, the strange commonality between those of the far left and those of the far right is an anti-intellectual, action orientation.  There are plenty of PhDs in both the far right and left, but the collective lay impulse is different. The Prophet -p- says (paraphrased) that there are four types of people in this world: those with knowledge and wealth, those with knowledge without wealth, those without knowledge but with wealth, and those without knowledge or wealth.  The first acts upon the knowledge and does great things. The second wishes to do so, and thus gets rewarded for the desire. The third does not care, and has the worst lot. The fourth may wish to be like the first two, and would get rewarded for the desire. The point is that knowledge is so fundamental.

 

Last, as you know, I get interviewed by the press about Islamophobia.  Not to discount any individual experiences, Islamophobia is nothing in comparison to what is happening right now in Black American communities. But, reporters ask me what Muslims plan to do about their/our future here. That is up to you. Your priority as a student is to get your degree with the best level of excellence you can achieve. No question. But, hiding in careers will not save you.

 

Read through the letter. It is one of the more important American documents of the past 50 years (though 52 to be exact), not only because it represents a moment in our history, but because it provides a lens and manual.  Rather, let us read it together and discuss it.

 

And Allah knows best.

 

Omer M



Resolutions for Sleep and the Tongue

January 04, 2016

 

Dear Students,

 

I hope you receive this letter with the best of health and Iman.

 

As we begin our new year, we get into the annual conversation on New Year Resolutions.  Some like to resolve not to have any resolutions, but I like to have New Year Resolutions, at least as a way to restart, reinvigorate, retry.  Last year I lost some 20 pounds; this year I hope to accomplish at least that, along with some other personal goals related to character and practice.  The New Year Resolution is a plan for self improvement, which is a plan to change behavior, which is a plan to change a habit. Habits give us stability, yet they also resist growth. We say that we are creatures of habit.  In the digital age, we are creatures of algorithms, with the idea being that our behaviors are so habitual, that marketing teams can figure out what we plan to consume and when, with increasing precision.

 

Intellect itself, from an Islamic legal perspective, is the ability to choose what benefits you over what harms you. From a Behavioral Economics perspective we should behave like rational beings, yet we do not. Why? Some of it has to do with the appetites we have within us.

 

In terms of benefit, each of our choices fall into one of the four following categories: those which benefit neither this life nor the next, those which benefit this life but not the next, those which benefit the next life but not this life, and those which benefit both this life and the next life.  We can use the same outline to define the detriments of each of our actions, asking what is the detriment in this life or the next, if any, for any of our actions.

 

Consider those actions which are of no benefit either for this life or the next. These are the actions which are pure wastes of time, either through some sort of useless behavior or idle talk. As we know, we need to have conversations with people, even on casual matters. Further, we need to take periodic breaks to allow ourselves to recharge. But, it is possible to fulfill our needs for interaction and breaks in ways that are either beneficial or wasteful.

 

Our bodies have rights over us; when we violate them, our bodies respond accordingly. As we age, we are able to push our limits less. As an example, think of sleep. There is an ideal range of sleep, which for most people is somewhere between 6 and 9 hours. So, when we skimp on sleep in order to get more work done, we feel the effects with sleepiness. Then, we compensate for the drowsiness with caffeine and energy drinks. Then, our bodies react to that combination of the lack of sleep, compounded by these synthetic drinks, with heart palpitations, and such.  

 

Think of the other extreme. When we sleep too much, we do not feel refreshed. Rather, we feel sluggish and cloudy.  That extra amount of sleep was a waste of time, meaning it provided no benefit in any capacity. Further, that type of exhaustion might effect that day’s performance enough to make it a waste of a day.  

 

These actions -- which provide no benefit -- are the actions which cannot count as breaks. A way to assess them is with the inverse: are they detriments?  When you speak to or about someone, what is the good or harm in it? The key problems on campus are bad language and gossiping. I will have to speak in much more detail about these topics, but the first step is to regard the utterance of foul language to be foul, like sewage. Imagine the worst possible smell, and imagine that that is the smell of your breath when you utter foul language.  

 

The vivid, disturbing analogy of gossiping is chewing on the dead carcass of the person you are speaking about. Gossiping is a way of seeking a gain over someone.  When we attack someone we are seeking gain for ourselves, by directing attention away from our own faults, but also by presenting ourselves as “aware” of something about them, life, the world, etc..

 

So, consider yourself walking through a forest and you find the dead, rotting carcass of your friend.  Then, you bite into it. That is what you are gaining when gossiping about that friend. Gossip does not gain status. It does not gain friends. It does not gain wealth. It does not help the heart. Rather, it is the consumption of a rotting corpse. If the image was not so gross, I would ask you to do an internet search for “rotting corpse.” I expect that, aside from photos of zombies, there would be some disgusting things out there.

 

With sleep, the key is in three aspects: being firm about bedtime, being firm about wake time, and being consistent.  So, pick which of the three is the easiest and make it a goal.

 

With language, the concern is different because the tongue acts the same way an exhaust pipe acts.  Meaning, when we gossip or curse, we are expressing some need within us. So, the key is to fulfill the need in a wholesome halal manner.  For example, when I need to express what someone would express with bad language, you will hear me say, “Sub-han-Allah” (“God is most high” or “Glory to God”).  If I am in mixed (i.e. non-Muslim) company, then you will hear me say something like “Goodness gracious!” When there is a need to express something in repugnance, then “Astaghrifullah” (“I seek God’s forgiveness”). If I’m in great shock, then “La hawla wa la quwatta illa billah.”  It takes effort even to say it, but the linguistic meaning is “There is not power or strength, except with God.” The effective meaning, however, is “I cannot believe this. This is so huge or horrendous that only God could allow it.”

 

So, looking at our conduct for this coming year, two suggestions -- for a New Year resolution -- are to figure out how to have stability in sleep and how to transform bad language, gossip, and detrimental actions into positive behaviors.   It takes time to put these into practice, the repeated effort will create a new habit, which will yield transformation, insha Allah.

 

And Allah knows best.

 

Omer M

Muslims and Christmas

December 28, 2015

 

Assalamu Alaykum.

 

Dear Students,

 

I hope your receive this letter with the best of health and Iman.

 

A question I receive every year is “Can we Muslims celebrate Christmas?”  And, every year, I wait until after Christmas to address it. The question is never, “Can we go to Midnight Mass?” Rather, “Can we get a tree and exchange gifts?” I never get asked, “Can we Muslims celebrate Hannukah?” Likewise, no questions about Ash Wednesday, Lent, or Easter.  The answer, as always, depends on who you are and what you seek.

 

For starters, I do not celebrate Christmas. Having lived here for almost the entirety of my life, with my formative years taking place in a devout Christian community, I have never felt compelled to celebrate Christmas, and nobody compelled me to do so. Never had a Christmas tree. Never longed for any of it.  Still, I can probably sing all the lyrics to Silent Night and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. Every year I look for the chance to joke that I (as a Muslim) should buy the Christmas songs of Barry Manilow (Jewish) or Irving Berlin (Jewish).

 

Before continuing, I should run through the usual checklist of other events from the past few months. These are events and holy-ish days that spark annual conversations:

 

The Two Eids: I still love them. I’m a moon-sighter (if you know what that means), so I love the excitement of looking for the moon.

 

Halloween: I took the kids Trick-or-Treating. The pagan origins were never part of the present observance, at any point in my life. Yes, it is a consumer spending day.  

 

Thanksgiving: Had a big dinner with family, that included Turkey. There is the valid concern about European imperialism and Genocide of the Native Americans, which holds more relevance for Columbus Day.  But, it is more important for Native Americans to take the lead on this conversation.

 

The Birthday of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him (a few days ago):  After the Maghrib prayer, I had the family recite extra blessings (salawat) on him, and I read through some shama’il literature on him, describing his personal attributes, asking the kids to imagine him.  Whether it’s on the occasion of his birth or not, I love reading Shama’il literature as a way to get close to him. The observance of Mawlid is something important, but better suited for a separate conversation.

 

The Chicago Air and Water Show: Nobody asks me if it is okay to go to the Air and Water Show.  Extra fast planes still excite the little boy in me, but I’m not a fan of the spectacle celebrating billion dollar killing machines. Nevertheless, a few years ago, we were stuck in traffic on Lake Shore Drive, and the kids were able to watch the Blue Angels.

 

So, who should “celebrate” Christmas?  We can address the concerns into three groups:  Converts, those of Frail Faith, Lifers with non-Muslims in their family, Lifers without non-Muslims in their family..  

 

If you are a convert -- especially a new convert -- and your family’s normal practice is to observe Christmas, then you need not alienate your family.  Our obligations to the Divine supercede all other obligations, but we need not make them contradict. If your family is pushing you to worship in the Christian form, that is one thing. If your family wants you to join them at Mass, and they still acknowledge you are Muslim, then that is also different than worshiping; do not alienate your family unnecessarily. If, however, they want to do all the other Christmas things, that is also something other than worship.

 

The mistake many well-intentioned Lifers (Muslims born and raised as Muslim) and veteran Converts make with new Converts is to tell them to drop everything that seems to be outside the strictest interpretations of Islam: drop non-Muslim friends, change diet, drop music, drop non-Muslim “attire,” and drop family.  I know many Converts who become depressed during the Holiday Season because they miss the joy of the Christmas season, finding it replaced by isolation and loneliness.

 

To be fair, sometimes Converts become (or feel they have to become) ultra-militant in order to adjust to their new path in life.  Whether this ultra-strictness is the result of well-intentioned personal choices or well-intentioned advice, the convert often has a crash, because human nature does not work by drastic changes.  Human nature is elastic. If you push it too far without reinforcing or transforming the Self, it will bounce back, hard. Further, such coerced or self-coerced militancies are always inconsistent. As humans we are inconsistent, and those who are strict in their practices are too.  

 

If you are someone for whom rejection or observance of Christmas has an impact on your faith, then it is more important that you and I have some conversations.  Meaning, if you feel some sort of increase in faith by condemning Christmas, then I would suggest you are getting something other than an increase in faith. Likewise, if for whatever reason (often, lack of community), the Christmas season is a test of faith for you, then let’s talk.

 

If you are a Lifer with non-Muslims in your immediate or extended family, you are part of the fastest growing demographic in the Muslim community.  Meaning, every Muslim will have non-Muslims in his/her extended family, most often through marriage. I do. So, if Christmas is not yet present somewhere in your extended family’s practices, it will be soon.

 

If you are invited to participate, then go, especially if there is no question about your own Islam. When people are inviting you to come together with them, to join in their cultural festivities, to partake of their sacred practices, participate. Again, if relatives are trying to get you to become Christian, then that is something entirely different. I have attended so many services in so many houses of worship, and I find them to be educational and stimulating.

 

As for the fourth group: Lifers without non-Muslims in their families, we have the question of motive. We should not assume that if someone does not observe any Christmas merrymaking that they are militant, and we should not assume that if someone decks their halls with boughs of holly, that they are selling out.  

 

So, the two questions to ask are: “What is your Islam to you?” and “What is Christmas to you?”  And these questions have to be answered with honesty. Framed another way, “What is your priority in your choices?”  Meaning, Muslims in America span the entire spectrum not only of cultures and socioeconomic standings, but also levels of faith and religious conviction.  Some Muslims seek to live a life of ongoing perfection and proximity to the Divine. Some seek to participate in happy festivities, and could care less about religious observance.  For others, the priority is to get through the day. For others, religion holds priority on holy days. For others, religion is a nuisance, but not enough of a nuisance to leave the community. And, each of these priorities has a history of experiences that inform them.

 

Some Muslims feel more American if they celebrate Christmas. Some feel more validated if they do so. Some feel more empowered if they vocally reject Christmas.

 

But, if someone asks me, “Can we celebrate Christmas?” I would respond with, “No.” Regardless of the cultural aspects of Christmas, it is a Christian event. Yes, there is the conversation about the capitalist present or the pagan histories, but that is material for another conversation. Christmas is a sacred day for Christians. It should be respected as a sacred day, for Christians.

 

And Allah knows best.

 

Omer M

The Same Divine?

December 22, 2015

 

Assalamu Alaykum.

 

Dear Students,

 

I hope your receive this letter with the best of health and Iman.

 

Do Muslims and Christians believe in the same Divine? A local Christian college place a professor on leave because of theological stances she has taken along with her covering her hair in support of Muslims. We are at a Catholic university; this question is relevant for us.

 

Both Islam and Christianity are monotheistic traditions. The answer is, as we would expect, yes and no.  

 

First, three problems in the conversation: tribalism, jealousy, and narcissism.

 

Many of the people who are asking this question, are not asking any question. They are asserting a challenge. Many have decided that one reason to oppose Muslims is because of terrorism, moreso because their religion calls for terrorism, and moreso because their central belief -- in their Divine -- calls for terrorism. So, their approach to this question is the same old conflict-seeking behavior: we are civilized and they are savages.  It is the same violent approach to the world that many have had to endure here, including Native Americans, Black Americans, Latinos, Irish, Jews, and Catholics.

 

It is important to remember, however, that in responding to that tribalist venom, that we do not behave the same way.  There are some who want nothing of good to come to us, yet we forgive. We do not insult the Sacred of others.

 

Second, nobody has a monopoly on God. God has a monopoly on all.  Sometimes we find people (among our own and others) who fall into passive-aggressive tribalism.  We might not be violent to another group, yet we might not want anyone else to have a share in any good. In a related question: can a non-Muslim go to paradise, some resistance to a “yes” answer comes from people who feel that it would not be fair for a Muslim to have to work so hard through daily prayers, fasting, etc., while a non-Muslim could enter paradise without such efforts. The first problem with this view is that it takes away God’s authority to give bounties to whomever He will.  The second problem is that it assumes that God’s bounties will run out, if spent on someone else.

 

In other words, these are all manifestations of jealousy. Built into jealousy is the sentiment that we have the authority to decide who deserves what. Built deeper into jealousy is the sentiment that if someone else receives bounties, that there will less available for us.  Jealousy itself is also a form of narcissism.

 

There are those who get extra aggressive either in being exclusive or apologetic; both approaches are narcissist in that we try to choose whatever conclusion fits our own temperament.  To some degree, each of us does perform our own lives according to the dictates of our appetites, and that plays out in the ways we embody our belief systems. Those who are aggressive in exclusivity believe that there is no possibility even to explore this any relationships between Faiths, believing that the other group is headed straight for damnation, regardless of what the text, tradition, and believers state.  Those who get too apologetic push hard to make the two traditions seem interchangeable.

 

Now, there are three common views for the relationships between Islam and Christianity regarding Divinity: different, partially same, and same.

 

The first view argues that Tawheed and the Trinity cannot be reconciled; in this sense, Muslims and Christians do not worship the same Divinity.  The key is in the role of Jesus, may peace be upon him. In an Islamic lens, he is a prophet of God, and never told his followers to take him as a deity. In a Christian lens, God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son.

 

Another view runs consistent with the above, but provides a slight modification, suggesting that Muslims and Christians do, in part, worship the same Divinity.  The argument here is that when the Bible speaks of the Father, that Divine is the same Divine that Muslims refer to as Allah. Muslims do not use the word “abba” (father), but use the word “rabb” (nourisher).

 

Still, there are differences in the attributes of the Biblical Father and the Qur’anic Rabb.  Meaning, the monotheism of Judaism seems much closer to the monotheism of Islam, yet there are differences in the attributes of the Supreme Being.  Nevertheless, as illustrated in the New Testament’s Lord’s Prayer, some of the attributes of the Biblical Father parallel the attributes of the Qur’anic Allah: including guide, provider, forgiver.  

 

It is on this note that we find a third view, arguing that Muslims and Christians worship the same Divine, and the first proof given is that many Christian Arabs pray to Allah. The argument here is that both Muslims and Christians worship the Supreme Being, the Creator of all, thus they worship the same Divine.

 

The difference is in how the Supreme Being manifests Himself, reveals Himself, discloses His Self and/or His will. The starting place of these differences would be in the differences found in Iman Mujmal and Iman Mufassal, in contrast to the Nicene Creed.  The difference gets further articulated in the different formal forms of prayer of the two traditions.

 

So, when a Christian and Muslim speak of God do they speak of the same? Some do.

 

And Allah knows best.

 

Omer M

 

Violence and Respite

December 13, 2015

 

Assalamu Alaykum,

 

Dear Students,

 

I hope you receive this letter with the best of health and Iman.

 

I want to congratulate you on another semester completion.  I hope you earned the grades you hoped to earn. If not, I hope you refine what needs to be refined so you may earn the grades you seek next semester.  And, in the interim between semesters, I hope and pray that you are able to get some relaxation, at least by getting away from the intense routine of the past 16 weeks. I am right now beginning my process of decompression from the struggles of the semester, seeking to be fully recharged and refreshed when the next semester begins, mid-January.  

 

I wonder how possible it is to get completely refreshed. It seems that every week, the news gets more tense.  In the past week, one presidential candidate -- in response to the shootings in San Bernardino, California -- has called for a policy prohibiting all Muslim immigration into the United States. In response, a whole slew of leaders (political and religious) and celebrities have responded against that candidate.  Further, we have been hearing stories from across the country featuring the best and worst of behavior. On the one hand, many people have been reaching out to Muslims, to offer support. On the other hand, a number of alleged hate crimes have been reported, including attacks on people, attacks on mosques, and threats galore.  

 

Many of us in the community have a habit, that when we hear of a violent crime, we find ourselves hoping that the perpetrator is not a Muslim. The idea is that we are bracing ourselves for backlash.  I reached a point deciding that that is a wrong approach. When we hear about a crime and get concerned about our own safety, we should indeed prepare ourselves, if there is anything to prepare. But, in the process, we are ignoring the original victims.  My point in all this is that when such atrocities happen, there are the real victims, their are the consequential victims and then there are the potential victims. Some of us Muslims have been real victims, some have been consequential victims, but most of us are potential victims.

 

For various reasons, big news outlets focus attention on alleged perpetrators, rather than victims. In the case of San Bernardino, our society has given plenty of focus to the alleged killers, but not nearly as much to the victims or their families.  We might assert that all this attention results from the fact that the alleged killers are Muslim, and that Islamophobic sensationalism gets ratings and advertising revenue, and helps the national war machine. Consider, however, all other mass shootings you can think of: the movie theater shooting, the shooting at Sandy Hook, the recent shooting at the Planned Parenthood offices.  Unless the victim is someone famous, we give most of the attention to the killers.

 

I stated in a recent letter that the victims of these shootings, especially the family members, enter an unwanted permanent phase of life, without their loved ones. Because of the moments of violence, they are thrown into such a tornado of experiences that many do not recover. Add to it that, for some time, they keep having to be reminded of the moments of murder because the news keeps exploring the atrocity.  Add to it that, after a week or a few weeks, the news stations move on to other stories, as does the world, and they are left alone without any aid. Abandoned.

 

Further, consider the families of the perpetrators.  In some cases, they might have contributed to an atmosphere that helped form a killer.  But, can you imagine that anyone would want their children to be killers? No: often the family members of the perpetrators are also victims.

 

Then, there are those consequential victims, who are attacked in backlash because of an attack. After San Bernardino, this includes some Muslims as well as some people mistaken for being Muslim (especially Sikhs). There are members of my family who have been physically attacked over the years, specifically and identifiably because they are Muslim. Most Muslims have someone in their family who has been attacked or detained because of their appearance or name.  The attacks have made many Muslims afraid.

 

Then, there are those victims of violence, who get zero attention. As you know, the number of mass shootings in America exceeds one per day. And, as you know, most do not get much coverage. The dead in all those shootings also have families.  

 

I am also leaving out mention of all the other types of victims, whether of shootings, bombings, domestic violence, sexual abuse, or institutionalized racism.  The point in all this is that our focus should be on the healing of victims, rather than creating a narrative that we are the victims. When we create a narrative about our own collective victimhood, we do generate sympathy, but we also give ourselves permission to disempower ourselves. And, we ignore those who really need help.  And, as for those who really need help, often they are unable to or afraid to. Our mandate, as is the case with most religious communities, is to be a population of healers.

 

While we were shopping at a children’s store over the weekend, the clerk -- at this store where everyone is supposed to be smiling -- told my wife to “Get out of the way even though you do not speak English!” It was a strange comment, considering that -- whether we are in public or private -- my family speaks mostly in English.  We left the store, continuing about our day, forgetting the comment. We could try to draw the world’s attention to the “incident” -- and get the sympathy of many people -- but that would be a waste of time. It would be wrong to take a moment with a tired grouchy clerk and frame it as some instance of Islamophobia, because that would take attention away from people who have really been hurt.  My regret is that, as a teacher, I did not turn the event into a teaching moment for the clerk. At the very least, I could have given her a smile, because that would have been a way to heal her own heart, because that was the way of our Prophet, may peace be upon him.

 

And Allah knows best.

 

Omer M

 

Violence and Sorrow

December 2, 2015

 

Assalamu Alaykum,

 

Dear Students,

 

I hope this letter reaches you while you have the best of health and Iman.

 

One of my favorite books is Saadi’s “Gulistan” (“The Rose Garden”). It reads at first like advice for Kings on running a society. As we get deeper into the text, we see it is something more like a thousand year old set of Blues or “Chicken Soup for the Soul.”

 

What is the efficacy of Blues music or that “Chicken Soup” series?  They allow us to share our personal pains with other people. They allow us to be frustrated. They allow us to be disappointed. They allow our ideals to shake and break.  But, they do not allow us to be alone. And in sharing our pain together, the pain itself seems something tolerable. But, because Saadi’s text is religious, it is also prescriptive, and we’ll get to that in a moment.

 

On that note, it is disappointing that I have to write letters such as this to you. When you are twenty, you should be so full of dreams and ideals that they are fuel for you to break down iron walls and shatter glass ceilings. But, with the amount of violence in our society, and the amount of violence committed by Muslims, and the escalation in our consciousness because of social media, it is hard to keep ideals. When you are my age, and your ideals get shaken or shattered, it is not as much of a problem, because you have so many decades of life behind you to remind you that there is plenty of joy ahead of you.

 

So, here we are, on the anniversary of the murder of our brother Mutahir Rauf.  Next to Madonna Della Strada, a young tree reaches for the sky, planted there in his memory.  A few months back, on the occasion of his birthday, we stood before that tree remembering him and praying for him.  Back then, the tree was full of reddish leaves. Now, it is bare. But, when I see a bare tree, I see the fingers of two hands in prayer, reaching up in supplication.

 

As you well know, we are also hearing reports of vile shootings in two places. One in Savannah, Georgia, and the other in San Bernardino, California. As I type this letter, I am so filled with disgust over these murders, not only because of the soulless violence, but in the case of the latter, so many victims were disabled.  Even in completing this paragraph, I have had to pause because I am so repulsed.

 

I have been involved in what is currently known as Countering Violent Extremism or Targeted Violence in our community unofficially for nearly two decades, and officially, through the CIOGC for the better part of this year.  I can say, with those decades of experience, that those people who voice a proclivity for violence in the name of Islam (usually voiced after they have been arrested) consistently seem to be Islamically clueless. In some cases, they really do not know anything. In other cases, they are filled with talking points fed to them by various internet sources.  In each case, they are filled with anger and romance. Anger over the perceived desperate plight of Muslims overseas, and Romance about what they themselves can accomplish. In the vast majority of cases, the anger is cured with extensive compassion, and the romance is cured with an emphasis on getting ourselves knee deep in the exhaustive process of fixing local problems. A third tool is necessary: frank honesty about our texts, about our theology, about the condition of Muslims, as well as our own culpabilities and capabilities.  In an occasional case, the anger and romance are so deep that the young man is lost. I imagine that the killings done by White Supremacists, which statistically are a much greater danger, might be treated similarly, except for all the heated rhetoric promoting fear and anger in their hearts.

 

So, I write this letter to you, to help us keep our focus straight. In the case of the California killings, (at this point) an alleged killer is Muslim.  Yes, there will be blowback. Yes, the Islamophobic venom will continue. But all this will happen anyways. As you know, I have given well over a few thousand talks since 9/11/01. A few years ago I reached the point realizing that while some people need to know we are civil, some people will insist that we are savages.

 

I instead want you to think back to the families.  You can imagine that Mutahir’s family and friends (including some of you) have made it through the first year. Dare I say that they “survived.” Some of us in our Loyola family have lost loved ones in the past year to strokes, cancer, and natural causes. Those families also are struggling through the first years.  In years from now, you and I will forget the victims of today’s shootings, but their family members will struggle through today’s loss for years, if not decades.

 

In other words, all the Islamophobia in the news is easy to walk away from by covering our ears. Shut off your media if you need to. It may be that this shooting guaranteed something in the next Presidential election or in surveillance laws. It may be that some of us will be at risk of assault, and I again urge you to not be alone.  Unless you are in danger, you need not worry about that, at least today. If you are in danger, get help immediately.

 

Nevertheless, I keep wondering about these shootings. Dealing with disgust and resignation, I find myself returning to a passage in Saadi’s book. You can raise a wolf, training it to be a sheep, but when that wolf gets hungry and devours everyone, you should remember it was always a wolf. My point is that today we are in disgust, resignation, and fear, but let us not forget that ours is a violent society. Let us not forget that there were 300+ mass shootings already in the past year, and there will be dozens more in this next month. Today we weep, but if tomorrow we do nothing, then let the wolf of violence continue to devour. At the very least, we should help the families heal. But, for the rest of society, we have to cure this disease.

 

So rather than feeling fear, I am telling you to feel urgency. To cure. All those of you aspiring for Med School are aspiring to be people who cure. I can’t do this alone.

 

May Allah bless you.

 

Omer M

 

Opinions on having opinions

November 28, 2015

 

Assalamu Alaykum Dear Students -

 

I hope you receive this letter with the best of health and Iman.

 

As we close off this week and month, we witness another Thanksgiving, another Black Friday, and another set of protests about Police shootings.  In all three cases, we witness that we tend to draw lines where someone is on one side or the other, an ally or a threat.

 

On the one hand, these are three separate conversations that happened to converge.

 

In the case of Thanksgiving, our intra-Muslim conversation explores the halal-ness or haram-ness of observing the festivities.  One side argues that because we have only two holidays (Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha) and because the roots of Thanksgiving tend to be problematic (related to colonization and genocide of the Native Americans), observance of Thanksgiving would be un-Islamic.  Another side argues that, regardless of the history, Thanksgiving is not a religious holiday and is a moment to be with family and give thanks.

 

In the case of Black Friday, the conversation is something larger than the intra-Muslim conversations. One side argues that Black Friday illustrates the worst aspects of corporate financial exploitation and brings out the worst in human behavior. The other side argues that the day is harmless, and is an opportunity to save money.  

 

In the case of the Police shooting protests, one side argues that systemic oppression of African Americans is an ongoing crime of the worst proportions. The other side argues that protesters are selective in choosing their causes, thus illustrating that they are driven by ideology rather than justice.

 

Where you stand on the above issues is up to you. The following are my stances; I want you to develop your own opinions.

 

  1. I do not go out of my way to “celebrate” Thanksgiving, I prefer Chicken over Turkey, I prefer informality to formality, but I also cannot remember the last time I did not have a formal Thanksgiving dinner with family and/or friends which involved enough food consumption to overtake a Pakistani village, but -- more importantly -- plenty of happy conversation.

 

Regarding Black Friday, I look to see what DVD’s are on sale, but did not find enough motivation yesterday to stand in line to save a couple dollars. Last year, my kids wanted to experience the Black Friday excitement, and we stood in line in the cold, walked into the store (while other grown adults ran), and we wound up purchasing something that wasn’t even on sale. In light of that experience, I suspect they no longer care for Black Friday.

 

Regarding protests about Police shootings, I have Law Enforcement in my family, I have students who are Law Enforcement, and I would call Law Enforcement when crime is committed, but I have firsthand watched the way some cops target my African American friends.  Further, when I watch comparable news footage from the 1960s, I feel like nothing has changed. There is an institutional obstruction (to put it politely) to African American sanctity that might break no laws, yet it breaks spirit.

 

There is a deeper point I hope to raise. As we can see, ours is an era in which we feel compelled to have opinions. I wonder if, in the entire history of Facebook, anyone jumped into a hot debate and actually changed their opinions on something big.  We also see that more often than not, when religion is invoked for discussions on a divisive matter it is often invoked by people who do not know what they are talking about. Likewise, when getting into discussions about religion, capitalism, police brutality, or Race, we fall into talking points.  The point here is that when we get into debates, we are not looking for “truth” or “the right answer” or even “insights.” We are not looking to learn. Rather, we are often looking to win the debate.

 

We can imagine, then, what is lost in the process. The first is easy to understand: we do not win anything. And even if we did, a social media win is not much of a win.

 

The second loss is much larger. Learning does not happen. When we are taught that a difference of opinion is “rahma” (mercy) in our ummah (our community), there is an implied point about learning and adab (manners). When there is a lack of motivation to learn, we are saying that we are smarter than those with whom we disagree. When there is a lack of manners (and those manners are usually overtaken by anger), then we are guaranteeing alienation. If, however, learning is politely sought from someone with a different set of opinions, we grow. If there is a difference of opinion and learning is not sought, and manners are missing, then a difference of opinion is not a “rahma” but a “fitna” (chaotic trial) in the community. In this previous sentence, I have summed up for you the source for most of the contemporary divisions in our community.

 

The third loss is related, but larger. Because learning does not happen, we do not discover better pathways. Our ultimate goal is a better relationship with the Divine, a better Hereafter, and a better life in this world.  So, we are just staying the course with a fixed set of opinions. I have had students over the years, who did not understand this point: we sometimes confuse the process of real learning with a process of “learning” more of the same material or more material from the same outlook.  Learning involves venturing into an unknown. Most of what we today think is “learning” is actually consumption of knowledge. There is a role for consumption of knowledge, but it relates more to stability than to growth.

 

But, the greater loss is that we fail to see where we agree. Pick any hot topic and we will see that everyone agrees on some points. Then, we assume that the “other side” lacks the priorities we hold dear. Muslims who disagree about the observance of Thanksgiving will agree that it is fundamentally important to win the favor of the Divine on each matter and to eat together in general. People who disagree about Black Friday will agree that a person should be able to work enough to provide for themselves and their family.  People who disagree about Police Brutality will agree that African Americans should not be dying from violence.

 

But, greatest loss is that when we engage in debates for some goal other than learning, we miss out on the chance to learn something bigger than the complexities of an issue.  We miss out on the chance to learn someone else’s personal story. We miss out on the chance to learn someone else’s humanity. The result is, instead, that we label a person according to a specific set of perceived opinions and a specific set of actions.  

 

I used to avoid getting into conversations about hot topics with people unless I first developed a relationship with them.  Years later, I’ve slipped from that practice, and need to exercise it some more. But, more than that, I have noticed that over the years, I have still fallen into the trap of labeling some people according to a small set of actions and a perceived set of opinions.  And, the logical result of that, is that I have distanced myself from them. And, that is a loss.

 

Whether or not your own learning will decrease the number of dead African American bodies, or will lead to fair wages, or pious religious observance, Allah knows best. But, as we collectively engage, we collective grow together.

 

And Allah knows best.

 

Omer M

 

Paris Terror and Media

November 21, 2015



Dear Students,

 

Assalamu Alaykum.

 

I hope this letter reaches you with the best of health and Iman. Just sending you this letter.

 

It has now been a week since the attacks in Paris.  Looking at the conversations online, off campus, and in my office, we can sum up the discourse as follows.

 

1- Criticism of inconsistent attention given to the various deaths.

2- Nobody talks about Imperialism or French culpability in global atrocities.  

3- Muslims are not terrorists.

4- Nobody talks about White Supremacists.

5- Syrian Refugees and Political Rhetoric.

6- Anxiety.

 

I will address some of these points in separate letters, Insha Allah. But, let us start with this point about inconsistent attention.

 

Many have commented that we care about the French but do not care as much about the Lebanese and Iraqis who were killed the day before, or the Nigerians who were killed a few days later. To make this point further, many mentioned that the attacks in Kenya half a year earlier were not given much attention.

 

The implicit point in these contentions is that we give more attention to (White) Westerners.  There is some truth to this point. We do. We will continue to do so. But, let us explore this.

 

The most prominent contention is that the media continue to ignore these events. This point is somewhat false and somewhat true. We have to distinguish between actual journalism and the “Breaking News Industry.”  The whole reason we know about these events in the first place is that they were covered by journalists. This is not to negate the impact of social media (tweets, posts, camera footage), but the only reason I knew about Beirut and Baghdad were because some journalists covered the stories.

 

The Breaking News Industry is a different story.  As we know, the Breaking News industry is a business that we might mistake for a public service.  Meaning, the Breaking News industry will focus on whatever will get ratings and revenue, and will try to convince us we need to give it all our attention.  We all know this. As you and I know, a Muslim killer will often get more attention, and different attention than a Christian killer. Or, when a crime has been committed by a celebrity against a woman, we focus on the celebrity more than the survivor.  But, you and I also know that a “Reality TV” star’s pregnancy or dog will get more attention than a genocide. But, why? Because we will watch. That habit of picking and choosing stories might have several problems to it, but it is now “normal.”

 

Such has been the case when I was in college. Such will be the case when your children are in college. Frankly, I have trouble watching that part of televised news because the intensity of the moment, with the flashy graphics and dramatic music, is overwhelming.  It not only exhausts me, but it also makes me anxious.

 

Facebook has now reached that point for me. I have to turn off Facebook because the bombardment of these stories gets to me. Some of the sensitivity just comes from age. Some of it comes from being a parent. Some of it comes from trying to appreciate the reality and gravity of the situations.  Consider the point I’m making. It is getting overwhelming, learning over and over again about people getting murdered.

 

Having said all this, I want to draw your attention to this layered phenomenon, and what it tells us. Why is it that the Breaking News Industry thrives? Because it feeds into our appetites. Why is it that Facebook thrives? Because it feeds into our narcissism. But, what I am illustrating with my own experiences (with these various business and social media) is that this fueling of these appetites will reach that conclusion: a type of anxiety.  Meaning, you are taking in too much information -- rather, too much violence -- for what you can process. In other words, despite living in some degree of comfort, removed from the violence, we are causing ourselves to get a media-motivated PTSD.

 

Thus, try a sabbatical from social media. Most of you know that I take regular sabbaticals. I hope to restart those. The first few days are difficult, weaning ourselves off. Then, after enough time, something wonderful happens: we start getting clarity again.

 

But, there is another point I have to make about the inconsistency of attention given to such atrocities. As mentioned, it will continue. Regardless of the media’s involvement, some atrocities will gain more sympathy than others.  We had a similar experience months back, when young Syrian Muslims were killed in North Carolina at just about the same time a young Somali Muslim was killed in Kansas City. The latter received far less attention from us. So, consider two points about this.

 

First, we know that our collective concerns tend to place most attention on causes closer to us demographically. Meaning, if your family is directly affected in Palestine, Syria, India, you have every reason to be concerned especially about them.  

 

But, if your primary concern is over a particular population of suffering people, nobody should criticize you for your grief. Consider the grief you experience over the loss of your own relative, against the grief you might not experience over the loss of a stranger. My point is that if the killings in Paris trigger someone into all the difficult experiences that go with such an event, it is wrong to criticize that person for only focusing on Paris. It is not injustice if that person experiences grief over killings only in Paris, just as it is not injustice for the next person to only experience grief because of killings in Karachi. Justice requires us to treat everyone fairly. Compassion requires us to seek out all who can receive it. But mourning, like love, will be selective.

 

Having said that, the point in all this is that we are in a time not only of extensive violence, but extensive information, and extensive emotions.  There is no end in sight. It is difficult just keeping our bearings straight. But, I hope this letter helps in the process of processing. And if you need to grieve, let yourself grieve.

 

Let’s talk.

 

May Allah bless you.

 

Omer M



Welcome or Welcome Back

August 24, 2015

 

Assalamu Alaykum,

 

Dear Students,

 

I hope this letter reaches you with the best of health and Iman. Just sending a reflection.  

 

First, I would like to welcome you to or welcome you back to Loyola.  As your Muslim Chaplain, it is my goal and responsibility to help facilitate your Muslim experience here in this Jesuit institution, in this cosmopolitan city.  I do hope to meet and get to know each and every one of you, developing a friendship that will hopefully last long after your or my Loyola years. Please stop by in my office and let’s talk about life, religion, movies, whatever.  I am often at my desk in the Campus Ministry Suite in Damen 217.

 

To start the conversations, I should tell you about myself. Though I was born in Pakistan, my family moved to the Chicago area when I was really young. We have been living here for over 40 years. I currently live on the South Shore, at the other end of Lake Shore Drive. I have been at Loyola since 2008, teaching mostly in the Department of Theology.  As of last year, I have also been your Muslim Chaplain.

 

In terms of Islam, I have been active in the Chicagoland Muslim community -- literally in just about every region North, South, West and Central -- for some twenty years. My Islamic education comes from traditional and academic sources. I used to give upwards of 500-1000 talks and classes per year (which averages to 1-3 per day). With my increases in family and professional obligations, I have reduced that tremendously. Still, I am all over Chicago frequently speaking or learning, while my base is Loyola.

 

I enjoy teaching and chaplain-ing tremendously.  Both require me to be a guide and both enable me to learn tremendously.  Both are fields of service. Both are most gratifying. I appreciate the Loyola students tremendously. You are a good flock. Inquisitive. Energetic. Diligent. Diverse.

 

Second, as you begin this term I ask you to take a moment of personal inventory by looking at your intentions.  Ours is a fast-paced, intense society. It is easy to get pulled into the raging river of society and float along, while forgetting where we are going and why we are going there.

 

So, in your personal inventory, I ask you to re-affirm for yourself three intentions: what is your life mission, why are you here, and what more can you learn.  

 

What is your life mission? Is your life mission to face the Divine on the other side? Is your life mission to a good upright citizen? Is your life mission to please your parents or guardians? In one sentence, decide what is your life mission and make it as specific as possible.  That can help you figure out all of your secondary goals. Take a moment to figure out your life mission. In other words, keep control of your life choices.

 

Almost all of you are here for one primary purpose: to get your degree. Most of you are here to get a degree as part of the process of professional development. This means that you are here with a particular major seeking a strong set of grades. If your goal is to get the grades, then my suggestion is that you make an intention not merely for A’s but for A+ grades. Do not settle for something less, when excellence is within reach. Ours is a tradition that places heavy emphasis on excellence (itqan, ihsan).

 

Last, what more can you learn? Regarding this point, most of you already know what it is like to be the fish-out-of-water, or the minority in almost any population you are present.  But, in that worldview, it becomes easy to live in a bubble, not feeling the need to learn about anything outside of our small spheres. So, I request that you make an intention to make yourself vulnerable and learn one new thing a day here on campus. This learning process might require that you learn about the other faith communities on campus. It might require learning about peoples whose beliefs or non-beliefs run completely counter to yours. We are taught to seek knowledge from our early youth until our grave. Seek.

 

Once again, I welcome you or welcome you back. Let’s do this together.

 

May Allah bless you,

 

Omer M. Mozaffar

Three Murders in Chapel Hill

February 11, 2015

 

Assalamu Alaykum,

 

Dear Students,

 

I hope this letter reaches you with the best of health and Iman. Just sending a reflection.  

 

After a semester full of weekly letters, we recall that we ended our semester on a tragic note.  After that, I needed time off. As you know, I’m also deeply involved in major community matters that have consumed my thinking to such a point that outside of work, community, and family, there was little time for me.  A friend forced me to go watch a movie last Saturday, and I slept through most of it. Some of the sleep was not because of the movie.

 

While those challenges are still ongoing, it is unfortunate that of all the events that have motivated the final re-launching of these letters, it is another murder. This time, the murder of three Muslim kids -- kids, as far as I am concerned -- in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. I am not one for symbols (in contrast to substance), but is in their memory I’m wearing my UNC sweater today, incidentally given to me by a student who knew them really well.  May God’s forgiveness and mercy be upon them and their family. I did not know them personally, though I know some of you were connected to them. I do know many people from UNC and Duke who did know them, and as is to be expected, they are devastated. As always, my prayers are also with you. Please stop by my office to chat whenever you’d like.

 

I’m commenting in this letter on something related: that despondency that seems to be consuming our community as though things seem to keep getting worse.  My lens might be jaded a bit, but I feel that undergrads have far less hope in them than my generation did at that age. The environment is different. You are raised in a decade of war. I was raised in the “me generation” of the 1980s and 90s.  Perhaps today’s wars are directly related to our conduct back then.

 

But, when I look at my beloved Muslim students, that despondency seems deeper.  In the 1990s, we were convinced that Islam in America was growing as this vibrant eagle or falcon, ready to lead America and the world.  It was a period of tremendous optimism and excitement.

 

Now, however, after a long list of atrocities and tragedies, I’ve witnessed this decline among so many of you.  I’ve watched the Syrian students seem to lose the spring in their step, so much so that they even seem to slow down as they walk.  I’ve watched the Palestinian students feel abandoned. I’ve watched the Shias across ethnicities feel disregarded. I know from conversations with so many of you, that you each are carrying very heavy weights within your hearts.

 

I am definitely exhausted by these worldly struggles, but I feel that so many of you are also.  Not physically, but emotionally. It is an exhaustion that is even generating conflict. Most of all, however, I feel among so many of you, resignation.  

 

That resignation seems to take the form of “why care?” about anything, whether it is religion, academics, career, or even life.  I don’t need you to tell me that it is not healthy, but I can tell you that in the 20-some years since my undergrad days, a few things are very true.  First, life gets worse and life gets better, because that is how life works. Second, as many of you have heard from me many times, I love my 40s far more than my 30s, which I loved far more than my 20s.  Life is far more complicated in my 40s than it was in my 20s, but it is also far more relaxed. Most of all, however, looking back at the past 40+ years, if I had to choose between apathy or vested immersion in life, I can say that apathy would be easy but depressing.  Vested immersion in life is full of pains and joys, but it is full of life itself. Life might sometimes be bittersweet, sometimes, bitter, but gosh is it sweet, Alhamdulillah. The sweetness supercedes everything, even when we cannot seem to taste it.

 

So, in essence I’m saying, that if all you can do sometimes is breathe, then breathe, and enjoy the taste and smell of the air (even if you’re on the train).

 

While I would like to give you good advice on how to replace the resignation with hope and optimism, instead, I will give you three pieces of straightforward input, not listed in order of priority.  

 

1- Stop by.  Let’s chat. Some visit with theological questions.  Some visit with campus questions. Some visit with personal challenges.  Some of you like to chat just to take a break. Some like to joke around.  Work on your relationship with the Divine. And, I can work with you on that also.  I’ll meet you where you are at, spiritually. Let’s chat.

 

2- Visit the Wellness Center.  I had a wonderful meeting with the staff of the Wellness Center at the beginning of the semester.  They already had my support, but now much more so. I was happy when they told me that they have plenty of Muslim students visiting.  Mental health, social health, are real things. They are professionals eager to serve you.

 

3- Cultivate your relationships.  Many of you have heard my comments about the shallow relationships many have been keep, allowing for factions and fights.  We’ll talk about some of that later, if Allah wills. For now, cultivate your friendships, if at the very least because each of you is carrying heavy burdens within yourselves, and the more people you can share these weights with, the lighter the load feels.

 

And God knows best.

 

May Allah bless you.

 

Omer M

 

Where life takes us

December 8, 2014

 

Assalamu Alaykum,

 

Dear Students,

 

I hope this letter reaches you with the best of health and Iman. Just sending a reflection.  This letter was supposed to be an end-of-semester rally, hoping to inspire you to work hard on Finals. But, recent events have compelled me to speak about something else.  

 

The single most common theological question I receive is the question of Free Will.  All other questions are a distant second, starting with the question of Evil or the question of Suffering or the question of “Why?”  Many of you know my answers to these questions, but I want to focus on one thing: we have no idea what is written for us. We have no idea where life will take us.

 

Is life a straight line?  In one way it is. But, when we are in the middle of it, it seems the opposite.  Looking back on my 40+ years (Masha Allah), I’ve traveled an assorted series of twists, turns, loops, and somersaults.  I had no idea I would someday be a chaplain. No clue I would someday be a college professor. No clue I would someday be part of the Loyola community. No clue that my academic life, my professional life, and especially my personal life would take the directions they have taken.  

 

Thus, I have some guesses, but still no clue where I will be or what I will be in five years.  I am as clueless about that as I was five years ago about where I would be today. My life is full of failures.  Full of redemptions. Full of resolved and unresolved matters. From some lenses, my life is a high speed adventure.  From other lenses, it’s an abominable mess. From other lenses, my life is simple and small. In the process, I hope I learned a few things.

 

But in one way, life is very much a straight line.  Our moment and location of death is set. Our whole process of life is a path leading to that moment, in that spot.  We hope that our final words, our final sentiments will be some sort of smiling, appreciative praise and appreciation for the Divine.  But, each of us is headed on a non-stop road to that moment, to that location. On Friday night, Mutahir Rauf reached that location, that moment, just a few blocks away from campus.  I do not know if he woke up yesterday morning knowing it would be his last. I do not know what his final thoughts were. Perhaps it was a prayer to the Divine. But, I know that that moment was set for him. And I know that that night, the lives of his family and closest friends turned upside down.  

 

You do not recover from the death of a loved one: you morph into something different.  When your loved one dies, the moment of detachment yanks you into a different reality. It is not unlike the tension you experience when you travel to a completely foreign land, only intensified, perhaps a thousand fold.  The whole experience of travel is a tension. As you get comfortable in a foreign land, you start to acclimate. But, your “homeland” will always be a part of you while you transition into your new land. This is the experience of death. Your geography might be the same. Your environment might be the same. Yet, with the death of a loved one, you are suddenly thrown into a completely different world.  That loved one will always be in you, but will no longer be with you. Grieving is that process of transitioning.

 

Some people make the mistake of resisting grief. They try to hide behind theological slogans, insisting to themselves that they are ok. The result is that they’ve transitioned to another world, resisting to accept it.  The need to grieve still forces its way through, often through some visceral anger. Too often we turn to anger as some sort of baseline emotion for everything. That in itself is a problem we can talk about at another time.

 

Consider the path of belief.  When we ask Allah in the first Surah to guide us on the Straight Path, we understand that that Straight Path is a Circle.  We seek a destination in the Shade of the Divine, with the Divine, but that is also where we started. In essence, we are seeking a return, Home.  Some commentators teach us that our most primordial yearning is our yearning to return to Him. From there, all of our pains relate to that alienation we experience in this world, from Him. Our joys stem from moments of closeness to Him.  There is a common line of poetry: you enter this world crying, while everyone around you is smiling and laughing, but you should exit this world smiling and laughing, even though everyone around you will be crying. That smile happens with proximity to the Divine.

 

This distance and proximity spans a location that does not have space or time.  If you know Love, then you know what I mean. You derive pleasure or pain thinking about your beloved, even though your beloved might physically be in the next room or the next continent, or in the next phase of life.  As you know from our conversations, I think about my daughters all day long. All. Day. Long.

 

One thing I learned through my various episodes is that people are hurting.  There is a lot of pain in our world, in our society, in our community. It is fair to assume that anyone you meet has some struggle, concern, torment that is weighing on them.  Not everyone you meet will be in luxury, but everyone you meet will be in struggle. That hurt relates at one level to our distance from or proximity to the Divine.

 

But, we cannot just tell people, “You hurt because you are far from God.” That would be like telling someone starving, “Your stomach hurts because you have no food.”  That is why, when we are suffering, the last thing we want to hear is scripture, because it is such a practice of stating the obvious that it feels like a reprimand. The starting point instead is to extend love, to give compassion, to give an ear, motivated by scripture through our hearts, rather than tossing out scripture from our tongues.

 

And, with that, I look back at where I was in June, not knowing I’d be your chaplain.  I did not know how many different issues and struggles you would share with me, so that we can help work through them together.  I went through a horrendously difficult struggle some years ago, and as I yearned for some solace, one ayah changed everything: 9:128.  In a nutshell, Allah is telling us that when we hurt, the Prophet (peace be upon him) hurts. I needed to know that my hurt was not alone.  

 

I can tell you from experience that this compassion extends.  When the child hurts, the parent hurts. When the apprentice hurts, the mentor hurts.  And, when the student hurts, the chaplain hurts. That is the behavior of love. And, as we complete this semester, I can say that I had no clue how much love I would develop for each of you, dear students.

 

I hope to share life with each of you in the Shade of the Divine, with the Divine, on the other side.  Until then, take what I give to you and pay it forward.

 

And God knows best.

 

May Allah bless you.

 

Omer M

 

Ideal personalities

November 30, 2014

 

Assalamu Alaykum,

 

Dear Students,

 

I hope this letter reaches you with the best of health and Iman. Just sending a reflection.  More reflections on what it means to be “religious,” especially in distinguishing between imagination and reality.

 

The Catholic Church has recently installed Blase Joseph Cupich (pronounced SOO-pich) as the Archbishop of Chicago.  Most of you have been alive long enough to know him as the third of Chicago’s nine Archbishops. I’m a bit older: I vaguely remember the funeral of Cardinal John Cody.  But, during my formative years, Chicago’s Archbishop was Cardinal Joseph Bernadin. Looking at Wikipedia, I’m surprised that Cardinal Francis George has been Archbishop longer than him. In my mind, even though he has stepped down because of terminal health issues, he’s still the new guy.  

 

Bernadin was depicted as a saint -- in all senses of the word -- especially in his final years, as he succumbed to cancer.  He had an equanimity in his disposition, regardless of the struggles he faced. He didn’t seem to run or hide from problems.  Francis George was very active in building bridges with the Muslim community. On the side of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago, I (along with Professors Hermansen and Nizamuddin) am part of a project to connect our scholars with theirs.  George’s outreach will hopefully have effect and benefit long into the future.

 

It might be fair to say that Chicago Archbishops have had a huge impact on me personally, in defining the conduct of a religious person.  Even though I knew Cardinals Bernadin and George only through television, I saw men who were deep into their faith, who were serious, yet friendly.  These were men addressing religion in the contemporary urban world. Most notably, they were comfortable in their skin, in belief. When they spoke (again, on camera) they had an affability in their tone, which was not something I was used to hearing from our own scholars.  Of course, when I was growing up, nearly all of our own Muslim scholars were gents from overseas, for whom English was not a strength.

 

Our society tells us that the “ideal” religious persons are Mother Theresa, the Dalai Lama, and perhaps Pope Francis.  In the case of the first, we admired her for giving up her life to serve the impoverished. In the case of the second, we admire his simplicity, perhaps his mastery of the self, as well as his efforts against state occupation.  In the case of the current Pope, he embodies service to the poor against systemic obstructions.

 

In the Muslim majority countries of the world, those “ideal” religious people would be Abdul Sattar Edhi in Pakistan and Fethullah Gulen of Turkey (though he lives in Pennsylvania).  Edhi has provided social services to hundreds of thousands. Gulen has transformed Turkey from an aggressively secular environment to one that is now openly Muslim. In American Islam, it is Malcolm X, who “gave his life because he loved us so.” I’m not including recent Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai because she is still a kid, despite seeming to have far more life experience and backbone than I have.  

 

From a Muslim lens, the Catholic Church is fascinating because it has its continuously running central authority.  This does not mean that there is uniformity in opinion; rather, Catholics have as much variance in opinions as any other religious population.  The advantage of such a structure, however, is a uniformity across the world at some level of doctrine, as well as an efficiency in accomplishing things.  Islam is decentralized, and has been for more than 1300 of its 1400+ years. For such groups as the Ismailis, the Ahmadiyya, and the Nation of Islam, there are central authorities and rules of membership.  Within the Shia and Sunni, we find individuals who have not just loyal, but obedient followings. Among the Sunnis, these are usually Sufi Shaykhs, the heads of the various Sufi Orders (Turuq). Among the Shias, these are often Ayatullahs, especially those who are Marja-e Taqlid (Maraji).  

 

But, for the most part, the Muslim world lacks a central authority.  The result is a giant conversation, in theory, across the spectrum of ideas and practices.  The global soup we call Islam is full of every type and shape of theology, ideology, and practice.  The vast majority, however, do indeed fall into a very small set of schools, with most issues getting addressed with just a handful of opinions. But, because there is no central authority, there is no central calibration.  Meaning, Islam in this worldly life becomes whatever you understand or want it to become; there is nobody who can stop you, theoretically.

 

In some places in the world, you might get subjected to violence if your views or practices do not conform to someone else’s standards.  In Pakistan, Ahmedis, Shias, Ismailis, and Sufis are frequently targeted. In Iran and Syria, Sunnis are frequently targeted. In certain regions in Central Asia, those who are perceived to practice a political Islam are targeted.  Some Sufis often target Wahhabis and Salafis. In Iraq, it is not as clear who is not targeted. In civil society, however, if someone wants to do something wacky and call it Islam, they have freedom to do so.

 

This does not mean that all the different variants of “Islam” will find salvation. Within the major schools, especially the ancient schools, there are centuries of debate over who can earn or be granted salvation (and who cannot or will not).  While the agreed upon answer is that “Allah is the judge,” the point here is that in my worldly life I might be free to do what I want, but my next-worldly conduct -- according to the vast majority opinion -- will involve answering to certain expectations.  Almost every one of the different schools and sects of Islam agrees that there is a Day of Judgment. At least two small minority schools say that the passages in the Qur’an about this Day are metaphor: there is nothing after death.

 

The point in all this is that the way you live your life -- more than the way you “think” you should live your life -- defines what Islam is to you.  You look at your day from start to finish. Your actions and thoughts reveal what Islam is to you. Look at how you spent the past week: that is your answer for what it means to be religious, what it means to be upright, what it means to be proper.  

 

We often live in our imaginations.  Most of us would never regard our conduct to be the best of conduct. Instead, we would speak of figures in history, whether we speak of the Prophet -p, the Imams, the Sahaba, or past figures in history as exemplars.  Or, we might speak of the best apparent qualities we impose onto contemporary celebrity scholars. Or, we might speak of people in our personal worlds, according to what we perceive to be the best of their qualities. All of these are in our imaginations.  These are real people with real qualities, but we know them only through specific lenses, whether that lens is community, text, or television. A person’s Islam might be influenced by divinely-ordained people, sacred text, heroes of past or present. It might even be influenced by non-Muslims, like the Catholics I mention above.  But, it is our own conduct, in practice, that reveals what we really think.

 

Once we start becoming honest with ourselves about what we do and why we do those things, then we can start talking about improvement, Insha Allah.  But, what we do and why we do those things we do, meaning what we are consistent at (in positive or negative behavior), is what we in practice embody as acceptable, proper behavior.  If we didn’t regard it as acceptable or proper, we would try to change it. If we don’t at least try to change it, we are saying it is ok.

 

And God knows best.

 

May Allah bless you.

 

Omer M

 

America, Race, Muslims

November 28, 2014

 

Assalamu Alaykum,

 

Dear Students,

 

I hope this letter reaches you with the best of health and Iman. Just sending a reflection.  Late, because I’ve been so busy.

 

One of the biggest, most unresolvable crises of American life is the crisis of Race. The recent events from St. Louis illustrate this point, that Race is not only the impossible conversation, but it also seems to be the unresolvable conversation.  There are other difficult conversations: the Middle East, Gender, Sexuality, for example. Race, like all of these, is a very real issue. We must understand it well. On a side note, we must address it properly so that we do not point fingers wrongly at people. Meaning, we must avoid pointing fingers at someone (in this case White) for something he did not do.  But, because you are American, you inherit this conversation.

It is also fitting that I am writing this note while completing Thanksgiving, which I will address below.

 

We must be clear to distinguish between Racism, Bigotry, and Discrimination. The latter two can be from anyone against almost anyone. Meaning, it is possible for a Blackamerican to be bigoted and to discriminate against someone White. Racism, in contrast, has a national power-dynamic and institutionalization built into it. It might be difficult to understand: a Blackamerican cannot, by definition, be racist.

 

In the conversation on Race, we must speak of power, privilege, identity, and make sure we understand these matters properly.  For example, it is not that white people are in power, as much as Whiteness dominates. I find it curious that when I’m with a group of students aged 13 or under, and I ask them to describe the first person who comes to mind as an American, they mention someone with blonde hair and blue eyes.  Keep in mind that they are 13 or under. Meaning, for almost the entirety of their conscious lives, the President has been Obama, yet when they think of a common “American,” they think of someone Scandinavian.

 

I find it even more curious that those same students, mentioned above, do not -- by default -- think of themselves as “American.”  It is common for Muslims, born and raised here, to consider themselves outsiders, as though the default race/ethnicity/religion of America is White Christian.  While Christianity was definitely central to the lives of the vast majority of Americans for the entire history of this nation, this is officially a secular nation.  The default religion of America is secularism; the constitution and American public space are consciously agnostic. Stores are bombarding us with Christmas music and reindeer right now not because they are Christian, but because there is a market for it.

 

Let us also be clear about which Christianity is the perceived default: Protestant. As Muslims, we tend to think of Christians all as one group with one theology.  Catholics have had a presence on these soils in various pockets for centuries, but when Catholics started migrating to the US in masses, they were rejected in ways akin to what you and I face right now as Muslims.  In many cases -- because they did not have the privilege of instantaneous mass media -- they were treated worse. The point is that Catholics were “outsiders” as much as you and I are now, and now majority of the Supreme Court Justices are Catholic.

 

Further, if you live in Chicagoland, then the vast majority of “White” people you meet will have ancestry that traces back at most 4-5 generations.  Within the city of Chicago itself, the White people you meet will more than likely trace themselves back to 2-3 generations. Arabs and South Asians have now had an established presence in Chicago of 3 generations, and in some places like Detroit, 4-5 generations.  

 

So, in reality, you are not an outsider here, any more than your neighbor is.

 

But, things are different when we speak to Blackamericans.  The only population more indigenous than Blackamericans are the First Nation / Native Americans.  You will rarely meet anyone in America who has a lineage here that traces back further than any Blackamerican.  Of course, you will not meet anyone who has lineage that traces back further than a Native American’s. Remember that Thanksgiving is on the one hand, the holiest holiday in America. More stores are shut on Thanksgiving than on Christmas, until the insane “Black Friday” shopping begins.  But, Thanksgiving, for a Native American is a reminder of theft and genocide, as much as or more than Columbus Day.

 

Because of the way Power imposes itself, it grants privilege grants in a few ways: institution, culture, and thought.  I’m old enough to remember Chicago before the election of Mayor Harold Washington in the 1980s. With his election, the possibilities for a person of color to get a government job increased tremendously.  Prior to this, there were persons of color in occasional high positions, and they were usually immigrants. After his election, it became much more common to see Blackamericans in all levels of employment in the government.

 

But, regarding prosecution and sentencing, the statistics seem to indicate that we have a really long way to go.  Statistically, a Blackamerican male will receive harsher sentencing than a White male counterpart convicted of the same crime.  

 

Further, in culture, we do find cultures across the globe privileging light skin; we internalize White Supremacy in our own self-images.  I find it troubling how common it is for young women and men to feel something inferior about themselves because of the perceived darkness of their skin.  It is also absurd that (a) the biggest movie star in the world (from Bollywood) is a spokesman for “Fair and Handsome” skin lightening cream, and (b) the Bollywood actress regarded as the most beautiful woman in the world is, in real life, my skin color, but on screen, after she has apparently lathered up on the lotion, she is almost milky white. And, I’m not talking about chocolate milk.

 

But, what about Muslims in America?

 

In 1964, Blackamericans constituted almost the entirety of Islam in America. There were Arabs in Detroit, primarily from Lebanon. There were small pockets Moroccans all over the country. There were also pockets of Chinese Muslims across the West Coast.  But, the vast majority of Muslims were Blackamerican. By 1990, about a third of the Muslims of America were Blackamerican, with a third Arab, and a third South Asian. Now, Blackamericans constitute about 20% of Muslims in America, with most of the other 80% split still between Arabs and South Asians.  Of course, there are rapidly rising populations of Latino Muslims and other converts. There are also rapidly rising populations of East African, North African and Iraqi refugees, whose children frequently get embraced by local Churches.

 

But, something else changed. Up through 1964, Islam in America was a spiritually driven civil rights movement.  Since then, it has shifted to an Identity movement, where Muslims became much more conscious of their image in society, and the preservation of back home cultures, than in Spirituality and Social Justice.  It is fair to say that even though we do not judge anyone’s intentions, most of the Islamic centers established in the past few decades were focused on cultural identity-preservation. Meaning, parents did not want their children to “become American.” So, it follows that the children of those centers do not regard themselves as American, as ridiculous as that may be.

 

It was in 1964 that Malcolm X wrote his letter from Makkah (Mecca) amazed that he was finding Muslims of every skin color and eye color, all united in pilgrimage.  But, today, I am repulsed by how often I hear the most horrendous, racist language among Muslims, young and old. I am disgusted by how many liquor stores across the most poor regions of Chicago are run by people with Muslim names.  It used to be that most of these Muslim-run liquor stores were run by Palestinians and Jordanians; since then, however, quite a few others -- including Muslims from South Asia -- have opened up such shops. Because it is a local problem, it feels more shameful than knowing that killers overseas claim my religion as they wreak havoc.

 

Again, this is the legacy you are inheriting.  It is up to you to decide which side of the line of justice we stand on.  It is up to you to decide whether or not to embrace your responsibilities in this society, as an American.  The other option is that we look down on ourselves or others because of things as shallow as skin color.

 

And God knows best.

 

May Allah bless you.

 

Omer M

 

What is religious?

November 17, 2014

 

Assalamu Alaykum,

 

Dear Students,

 

I hope this letter reaches you with the best of health and Iman.  Just sending a reflection.

 

What does it mean to be “religious?” I receive this question many times -- would you consider yourself religious -- and I have trouble answering it.  

 

I think of my parents, who are very hardcore in many of their Islamic practices; over the years I have watched them grow increase in their Islamic practices.  My father has been, for example, praying all five prayers in the mosque for a few decades. I think of my teachers, who have chosen lives of simplicity and meager incomes, in order to serve the Divine.  I think of those of my peers who have traveled across the world, through Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and Southeast Asia to acquire knowledge. For some reason, I want to associate religiosity with effort.

 

Often in our community, we associate religiosity with costumes.  If a woman covers her hair, we regard her as more pious than a woman who does not.  We often associate a man’s level of piety with the length of his facial hair: somehow, if the beard is longer we take it to mean that the man is more pious.  Further, we also seem to have a measuring stick of piety according to the foreign-ness of the clothing: the more non-Western the clothing, the more it gives the illusion of piety.  The more Arab the clothing, the more we tend to associate the bearer with piety, especially if s/he is non-Arab. This particular point is especially interesting because the attire of the Companions of the Prophet -p- seemed to resemble South Asian Shalvar-Kameez more than the modern Arab Thobe.  

 

In any case, all of this contributes to the reasons you see me dress the way I do: I don’t want people to start thinking I’m pious, especially if they base my piety on where I shop for clothing.  Furthermore, much of my clothes and your clothes might be made in sweatshops. We have a fundamental problem if some “Islamic” object -- be it a scarf, a shirt, a prayer rug, or a set of beads or sweatervest and jeans -- is made from exploited labor.  

 

So, we know that we are not in position to measure another person’s religiosity.  If we see the actions of piety, we should associate them with piety. But, if we do not see those markings, then we should not assume that a person is not pious.  So, we can assume a person is pious, but we cannot assume a person is impious. In other words, it is generally okay to assume someone is more religious than us, but it is not as okay to assume that someone is less religious. Generally.

 

Thus, how do we measure our own piety?  For starters, four arenas of life: how much do we serve Allah, how much do we serve others, and how much do we care for what Allah has given us.

 

Measure the quality and quantity of your service to Allah.  The first step is to know what Allah wants from you. Then, figure out what you are consistent on, both in terms of quantity and quality. So, your prayers: figure out how consistent you are in fulfilling them, and figure out how consistent you are in your concentration and devotion in those prayers.

 

Measure the quality of your character and service to others.  So, while you are a student, do you cheat? If yes, then I hope that you do not get into Med School. But, aside from that, the point is that character is also central to Islamic religiosity.  You cannot be a good believer and have bad character. Some companions complained to the Prophet -p- about a fellow who would make his prayers yet would go out and rob people. They were told that either his prayers would outweigh the effects of robbing, in his heart, or his robbing would outweigh the effects of praying.  Meaning, your actions affect your belief.

 

Measure how you take care of what Allah has entrusted you with.  This includes your body, wealth, possessions, and if you have children, your children.  How much do you take care of these things? How clean are you?

 

The fourth involves the overall focus on excellence.  For everything you do, religious, secular, important, mundane: do you focus on doing it in excellence.  That is very central to our Tradition. The believer, we are taught, seeks excellence in everything s/he does.  Excellence is not something that can be achieved overnight. Excellence is not a process of hitting a grand slam with every attempt.  It finds its manifestation through long term patient persistent perseverance.

 

In sum, the first three speak of submission, compassion, and trust.  The opposite of these would involve “submitting” to Allah on our own terms rather than His.  Further, instead of compassion, we might fall into vanity. Instead of caring for what we’ve been entrusted with, we might fall into a sense of entitlement.  The fourth speaks of quality and precision. The opposite would be negligence. Many scholars of the heart regard negligence (ghafla) as the biggest of vices, for it allows us satisfaction with mediocrity in our service to the Divine, our character, and our nurturing of what we were entrusted with.

 

So, am I religious? I don’t know. But I know I have plenty of specifics to improve upon.

 

And God knows best.

 

May Allah bless you.

 

Omer M

 

Divine Will, Sunnis and Shias

November 3, 2014.

 

Assalamu Alaykum,

 

Dear Students,

 

I hope this letter reaches you with the best of health and Iman.  Just sending a reflection. Longer than usual.

 

While most anything that the Divine wills is open for tremendous observation, analysis, and reflection, one choice always strikes me as profound. I’m speaking of the events of the 10th of Muharram, known commonly as Ashura. This day represents a fundamental split between Sunni and Shia.  As mentioned before, I position myself as a Sunni, and serve all of you (as well as any and all non-Muslims on campus). In the context of this letter, however, that informs the language of prayer and respect I use for the people mentioned below.

 

A fundamental difference between the two groups stems from the sources of guidance. Beyond the Prophet -p- and the Quran, Sunnis look to the Sahaba (the companions of the Prophet -p) with emphasis on specific Sahaba.  Shias look to the Ahl al-Bayt (“the people of the house”, aka the family of the Prophet -p) with emphasis on specific members of the Ahl al-Bayt: the Imams, may Allah be pleased with them. From there, both schools look to their scholarly traditions that have developed over the centuries.

 

But, speaking of the Ahl al-Bayt, Sunnis and Shias give different attention to them, and also differ regarding who is and is not included among the Ahl al-Bayt.  Still, it must be noted that both hold the Family of the Prophet -p- in the highest levels of love. Meaning, Law and Love integrate with each other differently in the two traditions, and we say that play out in the regards given to the Ahl al-Bayt.

 

Contemporary American Sunnis and Shias have mostly forgotten this point that Sunnis also hold the Ahl al-Bayt in the highest level of esteem.  It is odd that Sunnis have forgotten this, considering that every prayer ends with blessings on the Prophet -p- and his family. Further, so many Sunnis are named either Hasan or Husayn, after the beloved grandsons of the Prophet, may peace be upon him.  Among Sunnis in many parts of the Muslim world, there is heightened respect for Sayyids and Sharifs, being descendents of the Prophet, may peace be upon him.

 

This brings us to another difference between Sunni and Shia: what happens with Ashura.  In practice, beyond any contemporary political differences, Ashura may or may not be an irreconcilable split between Sunni and Shia.  Attempting to reconcile Shia and Sunni on Ashura would be akin to trying to reconcile Jews and Christians on Passover/Good Friday: it’s the same period, with fundamentally different meanings and observances, for the Jews are celebrating the Exodus from Pharaoh, while Christians are commemorating the crucifixion of Jesus, may peace be upon him.  If it was in Allah’s will that the events that landed on Ashura would have happened on different days, the world might be a different place. But, His will governs the world, and His will is most profound.

 

In Makkah’s pre-Muhammadi period, the Quraysh, leaders of Makkah (Mecca) used to fast on Ashura. The Prophet, may peace be upon him, is reported to have fasted on this day, also instructing the Muslims to do so.  When the revelations in Madinah (Medina) gave instructions to fast for Ramadan, the fast of Ashura become optional.

 

In Madinah, the Prophet, may peace be upon him, is reported to discovered that the Jews were fasting on Ashura.  They told him that the fast was in commemoration of the Divine saving Prophet Musa (Moses, peace be upon him) and his people from the Pharaoh. That was the moment of the splitting of the sea, that most of you are familiar with.  In contemporary Judaism, that commemoration is Pesach (Passover). And, the closest I am aware of, to that Madinan fast is the Fast of the Firstborn. I mention “contemporary Judaism” because most of our historical references to the Jews of Madinah are hard to find in mainstream contemporary Jewish sources.  

 

You will recall that in the Islamic paradigm, the Prophets, from Adam through Muhammad, including Moses and Jesus are regarded as Prophets of Islam, may peace be upon them.  Thus, the Prophet -p- instructed his followers that we have greater right on Moses. So, he instructed Muslims to fast on the day of Ashura and either the day before or the day after.  

 

What I have shared above holds such prominence in Sunni tradition that it is often a celebrated day.  But, then, there is another event.

 

Some sixty years later, the once fledgling Muslim community is now a global empire.  The Umayyad family runs the empire, under the son of Mu’awiyya b. Abi Sufyan, may Allah be pleased with them, Yazid.  As part of a movement to return justice to the Muslim world, the beloved grandson of the Prophet -p- answers the call of people from Kufa, Iraq.  As he heads to Kufa, Yazid’s forces encounter them in a nearby location, Karbala, Iraq. Yazid’s forces wipe out almost everyone in the camp, including the beloved grandson, Husayn, as well as Husayn’s child. Muslim populations across the globe regard the martyrdom of Husayn, may Allah be pleased with him as one of the great atrocities of Islamic history.  

 

I am intentionally leaving out many details, as well as many depictions.  For example, among Sunni theologians (rather than historians who are Sunni), Yazid receives various characterizations, from esteem, to inept, to mistaken, to malicious.  Among Shias, however, Yazid was the Pharaoh of his generation, ordering the murder of the grandson of the Prophet, on the exact day of Ashura.

 

While Sunnis express Ashura as one of two days of fasting, Shias express much of Muharram itself in grief over the betrayal and abandonment of the grandson of the Prophet, may peace be upon him.  That difference periodically enflames antipathy between members of each school, Sunni and Shia: Sunnis wonder why Shias are not listening to the instruction of the Prophet -p, while Shias wonder why Sunnis disregard any concern for the grandson, may Allah be pleased with him.  It gets far worse than that: Karbala itself has to go on heightened security because of recent terrorist attacks during the mourning processions.

 

In light of this week’s events, all of the above takes on a further relevance. With the Israeli closing of al-Masjid al-Aqsa, we find that double concern resurfacing: Sunni call for Divine intervention against tyranny (as embodied in the splitting of the sea) and Shia call for Social Justice against tyranny (as embodied in Husayn’s work and martyrdom, may Allah be pleased with him).

 

So, what is my advice to you, regarding Ashura, regarding Jerusalem? Practice your religion according to the dictates of your religion, and do not be disturbed the practices of others. You have what you earn, they have what they earn.

 

The vast majority Muslim population in the world, in the United States, in Chicago, and at Loyola is Sunni.  It means that there will be “Sunni privilege:” some will exercise it intentionally, but most who exercise it, do so unintentionally.  Sunnis must understand this, but so too must Shias: the exercise of privilege is a problem when it intrudes on the lives, practices, and sensitivities of those of lesser privilege, but it is not always done with malice.  Sometimes, yes. Always? No. Likewise, the acknowledgement of a minority group’s lack of power is itself sometimes a “favor” from the privileged, thus reinforcing privilege more than erasing it.

 

Thus, my first advice is straightforward: practice your religion.  On my campus, you are each safe with me and protected by me, Insha Allah.  If your religion prescribes that you fast then fast. If your religion prescribes you to mourn, then mourn.  If your religion prescribes you to fast, then understand that those who are mourning are doing what they understand their religion tells them to do.  If your religion prescribes you to mourn, then understand that whose who are fasting are doing what they understand their religion tells them to do. You will have what you have earned, and they will have what they have earned.

 

Regarding Israel, Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, India, Somalia, etc.. all those places where tyranny reigns, remember that you have obligations. But as far as Ashura is concerned, you start with God. Secondarily, remember that your obligations to your neighbor supercede other social justice obligations, but they do not replace the others.  Beyond America’s facade, there is plenty of hunger, trauma, and suffering.

 

Nevertheless, in all this, I find the Divine’s will so fascinating: everything traces back to that day of the splitting of the sea.  Imam Husayn, may Allah be pleased with him, is killed on Ashura. On Ashura, the people of Musa, peace be upon him, were saved by the Pharaoh.  Jews, however, celebrate that Exodus on Passover. For Christians, it is during the Passover festivities and sacrifices that Jesus, may peace be upon him entered Jerusalem, leading to a short series of betrayals and judgments, resulting in his Crucifixion.  A recurring theme in each of these narratives, is the suffering of the forces of good at the hands of the forces of evil. Thus, within the two Islams, the complete picture is to seek reliance on the Divine against human tyranny, and seek to stand up against human tyranny in service to the Divine. Thus, with that temporary closing of al-Aqsa, I’m reminded of a common Shia saying, invoking such memories in every struggle for justice, is “Every land is Karbala; every day is Ashura.”  

 

Thus, my second advice: in your obedience to the Divine, dedicate your work toward justice.

 

And God knows best.

 

May Allah bless you.

 

Omer M

 

Social Change within and Without

October 27, 2014

 

Assalamu Alaykum,

 

Dear Students,

 

I hope this letter reaches you with the best of health and Iman.  Just sending a reflection.

 

We are at the beginning of a new Islamic year: 1436. It has been 1436 (lunar) years since the Prophet, may peace be upon him, left his beloved hometown of Makkah (Mecca). He was escaping murder from his the leaders of Makkah, murder from own relatives. That event was the “Hijra.”

 

Consider his crime: he was preaching.  He was not preaching an overthrow of the current system, yet his preaching had consequences that were social, economic, political. In the Christian story of Jesus, may peace be upon him, we have something similar: his message was not political, yet it had political consequences.  Those who were invested in the status quo found these messages threatening, and moved to have the callers removed, by execution. In both Traditions, the attempted killing was a failure: according to Islam Muhammad escaped to Yathrib, and according to Christianity Jesus was resurrected, may peace be upon them. Further, the attempted executions were processes that led to the Callers becoming something much greater in influence. Today, more than half of the world is either Muslim or Christian.

 

Within both these Traditions, Islam and Christianity, we have this fundamental lesson: social change begins with a change within the individual believer.  We are taught at least twice in the Qur’an that Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is within themselves. This change is in both directions. If a people are in a position of superiority, Allah will not change their condition unless they change what is within themselves, from morality to corruption. And, if a people are downtrodden, Allah will not change their condition until they change what is within themselves: from less piety to more piety.

 

Consider this when you look at the world, especially your world.  In addressing any dissatisfaction, the first place to look is the most difficult place: within yourself.  We have that folk saying: remember that when you point your finger at someone, three fingers point back at you.  It is easy to blame our shortcomings on others. It is easy to focus on the faults of others as a way of diverting from any attention on our own faults.

 

Now, take it deeper:  consider what you think of the Divine.  Do you think of the Divine as merciful upon you? Do you think that the Divine disapproves of you? Do think that the Divine cares for you, or is ambivalent?  Do you think that the Divine is eager to reward you, or forgive you, or punish you? You control what you think of the Divine.

 

Many students come to me, convinced that the Divine hates them.  Some students come to me thinking that Allah holds them in unique favor, above all others.  The reality is that it is your choice to believe that God loves or hates you.

 

Even deeper: what I see in God is a projection of what I see in myself.  Meaning, if I believe that God hates me, it might mean that I need to work to reduce my own self-loathing.  If I believe that God uniquely loves me above everyone else, it means that I might need to work on this excessive self-love.  

 

Further, what you think of God in the deepest places in your heart will influence how you see the world around you, and how you see what happens in your world.  But, if you think of God as punisher, then you will see the struggles in your life as punishment. If you see Allah as merciful upon you, then you will see the struggles of your life as difficult, yet merciful because they could have been worse.  Again, let me repeat: you control this. Thus, if you get into a car accident, you will interpret the event according to what you see in God. If in your mind, God is a punisher, then you will see the accident as punishment. If God is merciful, then you will see the accident as something that could have been so much worse. If you see God as ambivalent, then you will see God as abandoning you when struggle hits.

 

So, why did the Prophet, may peace be upon him, escape Makkah?  Was it to save his own life? If that was truly the case, then he would not leave his beloved Ali in his bed in his place, may Allah ennoble his face.  He could have left without doing so.

 

Rather, he left Makkah for the same reason that -- despite the Makkan’s offers to him, he could not stop preaching -- because he was instructed by God to do so.  He had to place his trust in the Divine to take care of himself, Ali, and the rest of his followers, may peace be upon him, and may Allah be pleased with them. Why did Abu Bakr stay back, when all the other Muslims were sent to Yathrib? Again, out of obedience, may Allah be pleased with him.  When the two were hiding in a cave, just as the Quraysh seemed like they were going to find them, Abu Bakr became tense. The Prophet, may peace be upon him, reminded him that the third with them, was Allah.

 

And in this we have a fundamental lesson.  If I have to evaluate my self-worth according to anything, it is according to my obedience and trust on Allah.  I have an inherent self worth because of my being human. Beyond that, my self worth is based on the kind of human I am in my heart, according to what Allah prescribes.  That is something I control: I control my level of surrender to and reliance upon Allah. As I change that, I also change what is happening in my world around me, and to me.  

 

The new year, then, becomes an annual reminder and opportunity to renew this understanding.  The new year becomes an annual reminder for hope. In our society, we speak of New Year resolutions.  At the very least, think of the new year, taking place right in the middle of your semester, as a new reminder of his story, may peace be upon him, and yours.

 

Next week, Insha Allah, we will see that the new year is a reminder of something else.

 

And God knows best.

 

May Allah bless you.

 

Omer M

 

Sacred Spaces: The Moment

October 20, 2014

Assalamu Alaykum,

Dear Students,

I hope this letter reaches you with the best of health and Iman. Just sending a reflection.

We have been exploring sacred spaces in the recent letters. We looked at the Heart and the Mosque. Today, let us look at the Moment.

Time is your most valuable of all assets, far above Money. One person might be given exorbitant material wealth, and another, very little. Another person might be given 20,000 days of life, while another is given thirty thousand. The person given the most time (rather than money) has been given the most.


In the case of Money, you will have highs and lows. Money comes and goes. In the case of Time, however, it is a losing venture. You are given your full account at birth, distributed every 24 hours until it is fully depleted. As Ali, may Allah be pleased with him, has told us, you are a fixed quantity of days. Each day, you lose a day, and you can never get it back. Thus, it is not advisable to be a miser with your money any more than it is to be a spendthrift. But, you should be a miser with your time. Meaning, keep tight control over it, being careful who you share it with.

As we get older, we get more conscious of the fleeting nature of time. Statistically, two-thirds of my life is done, but for all I know, it might be 90% or only 30%. But, statistically speaking, I’m in the final third of my life. We get a small taste of this feeling, each Ramadan. It begins feeling so long, but in the final days, final hours, final minutes, there is that dash to get in some final good works. I suppose that is something akin to what I’m doing now, with life.

When we are younger, we may not think about time as much, except in the way it pertains to looming deadlines. When we do not think about time, we live as though we are immortal. Meaning, we live as though we need not be concerned with time. Imagine the person with so much wealth that he/she throws dollar bills into the wind. That is what we are doing with our time when we waste it: we are throwing it to the wind.

Further, there is that sense that if we need to fix something about ourselves, we can get to it, later. We can get to it eventually, but not at this moment. These are the frequent plights of the young person with his/her time. The problem is that they persist until we start seriously considering our mortality. Usually, that does not happen until 80% of our lives have passed (or, we have been reminded severely about our mortality early on).

It follows, then, that one of the people granted the special shade of the Divine in the afterlife, is the young person who devoted him/herself to the worship of God. If you are young and you are using the Moments you have been given to serve the Divine; you earn that special experience with the Divine.

For those young and old, however, there is another concern: looking at the reality of the moment itself rather than living in our imaginations. One place is in prayer. It is so easy to spend your entire prayer thinking about everything other than God. One of the benefits of the different postures and recitations of the prayer is to bring you back into it. We will talk more about this in the future, Insha Allah.

Further, it is easy to live in fear or grief. Both are variants of daydreaming, where we leave the ground in front of us to reside in some other place, but an unhappy place. Fear takes the form of “I hope this horrible thing does not happen.” In the process, we do not live in the moment we are in. Rather, we live in dread, living in our imagination, of what might happen. Grief takes the form of “This horrible thing has happened,” and we live in a world of questions asking “What if I did this or that differently” or some forms of self-flagellation. Again, you are not looking at the ground in front of you, because your mind is elsewhere.
There are, of course, times when fear is natural and might be beneficial. There are times where grief is necessary. I’m cautioning us against falling into a constant state of fear or grief. Too much fear can translate into anxiety. Too much grief can translate into despair. Both also tend to fuel anger, which will destroy.

There is some thing else that prevents us from living in the moment: impatience. As it is, human nature is easily prone to impatience. Through impatience, we do not live in the current moment. We live in the next moment. Just as that moment is arriving, we live in the next moment after that, but never in the current moment. Often, it is impatience that prevents us from praying with concentration, because we think about things we want to get done. So, when you pray, decide that you will ignore the rest of the world for these few minutes of prayer. And, let yourself go and dive into the prayer to God.

Then, there is the dilemma of the cellphone, which yields multiple struggles. Our contemporary instant gratification culture exacerbates this impatience. Rather, the impulse toward impatience dissolves away the firm discipline of perseverance. Taken further, each moment you are looking at a screen is a moment you are not living in reality in front of you. The reality is not your phone screen.

Thus, putting all of this together - you are handed a certain amount of moments, and you respond with choices. You will be held to account for those choices. Take control of your phone use. Let the word go when you pray. But, whatever you do, know that the clock keeps ticking.

And God knows best.

May Allah bless you.

Omer M

Time as Currency

October 20, 2014

 

Assalamu Alaykum,

 

Dear Students,

 

I hope this letter reaches you with the best of health and Iman.  Just sending a reflection.

 

We have been exploring sacred spaces in the recent letters. We looked at the Heart and the Mosque. Today, let us look at the Moment.  

 

Time is your most valuable of all assets, far above Money.  One person might be given exorbitant material wealth, and another, very little. Another person might be given 20,000 days of life, while another is given thirty thousand.  The person given the most time (rather than money) has been given the most.

In the case of Money, you will have highs and lows. Money comes and goes.  In the case of Time, however, it is a losing venture.  You are given your full account at birth, distributed every 24 hours, until it is fully depleted.  As Ali, may Allah be pleased with him, has told us, you are a fixed quantity of days. Each day, you lose a day, and you can never get it back.  Thus, it is not advisable to be a miser with your money any more than it is to be a spendthrift. But, you should be a miser with your time.  Meaning, keep tight control over it, being careful who you share it with.

 

As we get older, we get more conscious of the fleeting nature of time. Statistically, two-thirds of my life are done, but for all I know it might be 90%, or only 30%.  But, statistically speaking, I’m in the final third of my life.  We get a small taste of this feeling, each Ramadan. It begins feeling so long, but in the final days, final hours, final minutes, there is that dash to get in some final good works. I suppose that is something akin to what I’m doing now, with life.

 

When we are younger, we may not think about time as much, except in the way it pertains to looming deadlines.  When we do not think about time, we live as though we are immortal. Meaning, we live as though we need not be concerned with time.  Imagine the person with so much wealth that he/she throws dollar bills into the wind. That is what we are doing with our time when we waste it: we are throwing it to the wind. Further, there is that sense that if we need to fix something about ourselves, we can get to it, later. We can get to it eventually, but not at this moment.  These are the frequent plights of the young person with his/her time.  The problem is that they persist until we start seriously considering our mortality. Usually, that does not happen until 80% of our lives have passed (or, we have been reminded severely about our mortality early on).

 

It follows, then, that one of the people granted the special shade of the Divine in the afterlife, is the young person who devoted him/herself to the worship of God.  If you are young and you are using the Moments you have been given to serve the Divine; you earn that special experience with the Divine.

 

For those young and old, however, there is another concern: looking at the reality of the moment itself rather than living in our imaginations.  One place is in prayer. It is so easy to spend your entire prayer thinking about everything other than God.  One of the benefits of the different postures and recitations of the prayer is to bring you back into it.  We will talk more about this in the future, Insha Allah.

 

Further, it is easy to live in fear or grief.  Both are variants of daydreaming, where we leave the ground in front of us to reside in some other place, but an unhappy place.  Fear takes the form of “I hope this horrible thing does not happen.” In the process, we do not live in the moment we are in. Rather, we live in dread, living in our imagination, of what might happen.  Grief takes the form of “This horrible thing has happened,” and we live in a world of questions asking “What if I did this or that differently” or some forms of self-flagellation.  Again, you are not looking at the ground in front of you, because your mind is elsewhere.  

 

There are, of course, times when fear is natural and might be beneficial.  There are times where grief is necessary.  I’m cautioning us against falling into a constant state of fear or grief.  Too much fear can translate into anxiety.  Too much grief can translate into despair.  Both also tend to fuel anger, which will destroy.

 

There is some thing else that prevents us from living in the moment: impatience.  As it is, human nature is easily prone to impatience.  Through impatience, we do not live in the current moment. We live in the next moment. Just as that moment is arriving, we live in the next moment after that, but never in the current moment.  Often, it is impatience that prevents us from praying with concentration, because we think about things we want to get done.  So, when you pray, decide that you will ignore the rest of the world for these few minutes of prayer. And, let yourself go and dive into the prayer to God.

 

Then, there is the dilemma of the cellphone, which yields multiple struggles.  Our contemporary instant gratification culture exacerbates this impatience.  Rather, the impulse toward impatience dissolves away the firm discipline of perseverance.  Taken further, each moment you are looking at a screen is a moment you are not living in the reality in front of you. The reality is not your phone screen.

 

Thus, putting all of this together - you are handed a certain amount of moments, and you respond with choices.  You will be held to account for those choices.  Take control of your phone use. Let the word go when you pray.  But, whatever you do, know that the clock keeps ticking.

 

And God knows best.

 

May Allah bless you.

 

Omer M



Sectarianism and Imam Ali

October 13, 2014

Assalamu Alaykum,

Dear Students,

I hope this letter reaches you with the best of health and Iman. Just sending a reflection, as the Muslim Chaplain for all of you.


About a week after completing his one and only Hajj (as a pilgrim), the Prophet (may be upon him) headed home. He reached a valley, known as Wadi Rabigh. Within that valley, he reached the pond, Ghadir Khumm. In this event, which is authenticated in sources of both the major sectarian groups, the Prophet -p- is reported to have told us that whoever takes him (the Prophet -p) as his mawla, that Ali (may Allah be pleased with him) is his Mawla. In some narrations, instead of “mawla,” we have a variant, “wali.” We will come back to this in a moment.

I’m making this point to speak not about the differences between Shi’i (Shia) and Sunni, though that is part of the discussion. Rather, to make the point that on campus and in society, we have all different kinds of “Muslims.” For those of you who know what these terms mean, I am Sunni. Within Sunni, I tend to be a Hanafi.

On campus, we have had and have so many different types of Muslims: Sunnis, Shias. Within the general umbrella of Sunnis, we have presences of Hanafis, Shafi’is, Malikis, Salafis. I’m sure we have Wahhabis (and yes, that is a real thing). We have Sufis, Brelvis, Mahdavis. Among the Shias, we have Jafaris (Imamis, Ithna Asharis), Isma’ilis, Bohras. We have Ahmadis. We have had members of the Nation of Islam. I have a friend at a different school who is Ibadi. I’ve also had Alawis among my students over the years. And, of course, we have Muslims who might not fit into any known category. On campus, we even have former Muslims who attend nothing related to Islam, or they attend cultural events.

On paper, for the untrained researcher, it might be difficult to find the differences between many of these groups. Or, the differences might seem -- to the outsider -- to be matters of nitpicking. Another person will see these different groups as a sign of diversity. Another will see this as a sign of division. It is in the eye of the beholder.

The real, practical difference, however, is in the spirit and experience of each of these groups; the real difference is in the consciousness of the lay-believer. A Sunni and a Shia, both of the same specific ethnicity, both raised on the same street in Chicago throughout their lives, both going to the same schools Monday through Friday from Kindergarten through College, will have two different experiences in their consciousnesses. In the same way, a Catholic and a Lutheran, both of the same ethnicity, neighborhood, schooling, will have two different experiences in life, especially in their consciousnesses.

The point is that in the population of Muslims, there is a large variety. Now, whether or not you know what these terms mean is not the question here. According to the orthodoxies within these various traditions, some of the other schools mentioned above are categorically not Muslim; if that describes you, I am not asking you to change your beliefs because of social norms or political correctness. You should follow your beliefs as you understand them. You should search within and beyond your beliefs as you feel compelled to do so.

For the campus community, however, those views are not immediately relevant, except in time of prayer (or marriage). Meaning, I am the Chaplain for all of you. Likewise, that prayer space is for all of you. Because of my studies and because of growing up in Chicago, it is likely that I know your traditions better than you do, but I’m always learning. And, because I’m also a Professor, teaching the academic study of Islam, I would recommend each of you to learn more about your own and other traditions within and outside of “Islam.” You will be surprised by what you do and do not find.

It is especially interesting to see how different communities give a different meaning to the same events. In the case of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, we each have narratives of the Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham), peace be upon him, taking his son to be sacrificed. Some of the moments of the three stories are identical. Some are different. But the meaning and value of this event are different for each of the three Traditions.

This weekend is the anniversary of the Prophet’s -p- sermon at Ghadir Khumm. The Prophet, may peace be upon him, is reported to have said that whoever takes him (the Prophet) as his master, then Ali is his master. The variant is that whoever takes him as his intimate friend, then Ali is his intimate friend.
In Shia tradition, it is a major moment during which the Prophet -p- announces Ali, may Allah be pleased with him, as his successor. In Sunni tradition, it is a statement about the greatness of Ali, may Allah ennoble his face. In Shia tradition, it is not the only such reference about the importance of Ali. In Sunni tradition, it is not the only reference about the importance of Ali, yet it is one of some references about the greatnesses of a number of the closest Companions (Sahaba) of the Prophet, may peace be upon him. Again, where this event holds prominence in your outlook is up to you; this letter is not trying to convince you to change anything.

The meaning of this event in the two traditions also gives hint to the nature of some common disagreements between members of the groups, related to their consciousnesses.

Whether or not any of these sentiments are accurate is beside the point: they are common. It is a common sentiment among some Shias that some Sunnis abandon the Prophet’s -p- family. Thus they abandon him. Likewise, it is a common sentiment among some Sunnis that some Shias curse the Sahaba. Because Sunnis commonly see themselves as the default of Islam, some wonder why Shias seem (from Sunni perspectives) to splinter off. Because Shias see themselves as uniquely loyal to the Prophet’s -p- house, they see (in Shia perspectives) Sunnis as selfishly usurping the rights of his family, may peace be upon him and may Allah be pleased with them.

It is also common for lay-believers of either side to get unintentionally paternalistic and competitive against the others, mistakenly believing that they are better, more pious, or more upright than members of the other side. Likewise, it is common for some to quote texts from each other to legitimize their points.

But, it is also common among the two groups not to care, especially when there is not a political necessity to do so. In many Muslim populations, the differences of Sunni and Shia play out as cultural differences, but not as social differences, especially because the variances even within these two sectarian methods are vast. But, when there is a political necessity (i.e., mass violence against a group), then the religious identification might be a ticket to a mass grave.

Still, the result of both of these processes of stereotyping and othering is something worth noting: the tension that some Sunni might feel like a default sentiment toward some Shia, or that some Shia might feel like a default sentiment toward some Sunni is something rather common between them. Both tensions are an expression of love for the Prophet, may peace be upon him. When you love someone, especially as passionately as a Muslim loves the Prophet (may peace be upon him), then you love what he -p- loves, passionately. And, if the beloveds of the beloved are not given their due, then it provokes a visceral, emotional response. I am not saying that the tensions are justified, for usually, they are not. But they are understandable until they become institutionalized (at which point they become harmful). But, regardless of which of these many traditions that lay claim to Islam is or is not authentic, it cannot be denied that almost all of them place the Prophet -p- at the center of our outlooks and services toward Allah.

We will talk about some of these issues more shortly, Insha Allah, but in closing, I have to make one more point. As you know, because I speak about Islam at various places, religious and secular, I also get exposed to the various sentiments of us. Simply put: Islamophobia is back with full force. Through the lens of Islamophobia, nobody cares what type of Muslim you are, or how religious you are. As too many Sikhs know, the Islamophobes don’t even care if you are Muslim, as long as you “look” Muslim. While only Allah will decide which approach(es) to Islam is acceptable, the Islamophobe seeks out all in his/her crosshairs to attack. Thus, if your approach to your beliefs requires you to call out another person who considers him/herself Muslim, understand that there is someone else targeting both of you.

But, I say to each of you, Insha Allah, you are each safe with me. Consider the Muslim prayer space as a safe space, especially when I’m there. Consider my office in particular, and Campus Ministry in general to be a safe space.

Allahumma salli ‘ala Muhammad, wa ‘ala aalihi, wa as’habihi, wa barik wa sallim.

Oh, Allah, we call upon you with all Your names, to shower your blessings upon the Prophet, and upon his family, and upon his companions, and bless them and extend greetings to them.

May Allah bless you.

Omer M

Pilgrimage and Procrastination

October 6, 2014

Assalamu Alaykum,

Dear Students,

I hope this letter reaches you with the best of health and Iman. Just sending a reflection.

I was privileged to go on the pilgrimage to Makkah (Mecca) some 14 years ago. My then-wife and I considered that Hajj was Fard (obligatory) while having children was Sunnah (an obligation less in obligation than a Fard). So, we decided that one of our first trips together would be the Pilgrimage. My advice to you is to have a sense of urgency regarding your pilgrimage. Meaning, do it as soon as you are able, whether that is in your twenties, thirties, or older. Because the deadline to fulfill it is theoretically decades away, we tend to procrastinate and wait until we finally decide to go on the pilgrimage. Most of the people on my flight to the Middle East were 15+ years older than me.

In this note, think about all the different obligations, commemorations, and metaphors that take place with the Hajj. We know the many functions of the Hajj. Primarily, it is an obligation to Allah. Along with that, it is a commemoration of events in the life of the Prophet Muhammad -p, including his early work as a Prophet -p- calling idol worshippers to monotheism, to his provoking of events that led to the great peace treaty of Hudaybiyya, to his sermon. We know that the specific steps are commemorations of the life of Ibrahim (Abraham) and family, peace be upon them. We also speak of the so-to-speak dress rehearsal for the Day of Judgment, where we congregate dressed in our death shrouds. At the same time, the Hajj is itself a great equalizer. Indeed, people attend the pilgrimage with various levels of comfort especially before and after, but still, during the specific events, everyone is very much at the same level, rich or poor.

But, I wanted to speak about one element of the pilgrimage we tend not to look at: the commemoration of family.

All the major steps of the Pilgrimage, especially the lesser pilgrimage Umra, follow paths of the Prophets -p- in service to Allah, and they are each statements on family. We speed back and forth between the two hills Safa and Marwa. What are we recalling? A mother’s love for her child. When Ibrahim was leaving Hajar and Isma’il in the barren valley we today call Makkah (Mecca), she asked him if Allah told him to leave them there. When he confirmed, she responded, saying with conviction that Allah will take care of them.

Now imagine this for yourself, even before speaking about them two. Over the course of your life, you will find yourself feeling alone in the middle of the wilderness of the world. If you allow yourself to feel abandoned, then it is easy in those moments to fall into despair. But, we do not have the privilege to fall into despair. It is not an option. You might even feel that way during your studies. The key is to do what she did: she got up and started looking.

As we know, she put her young child down, and sped to the top of Safa, looking for any indication of sustenance. Nothing. She runs back to check on her child. Then she runs to the top of the other hill, Marwa, looking for anything. Nothing. She runs back to check on her child. As we know, she kept running back and forth. And, where did she find water? Underneath her son’s feet. The point is that our sustenance and livelihood are there for us. But, we have to get up and go searching. We have to put in the struggle to find it.

But, as mentioned, that is also the struggle of a parent for her child. You will see when, Insha Allah, you are parents, that you will easily bend over backward to give your child everything. And, for almost all of us, this is the case of our parents toward us. Nevertheless, even though we know it, we sometimes do need to hear words of affirmation and validation somewhere among the words of criticism and correction, but that is the subject of another discussion at another time.

And, consider the Ka’ba itself that we face in prayer, and walk around in another type of prayer. First built by Adam, peace be upon him. Washed away during the flood of Nuh, peace be upon him. Rebuilt by whom? Ibrahim and Isma’il. A father and son together, peace be upon them all.

Something to consider when, Insha Allah, you have children is that it is very easy to outsource your child’s nurturing to other people. Make sure that as you develop in your career, and you find yourself working hard to give your child everything, that you are not so immersed in work (for your child) that you abandon your parenting of your child. That is the strange contradiction of our world, especially our suburban world. We work hard to give our child everything, except for time with us. That immersion in the world is an upside plan. The is the nature of this world: as you dive deeper into it, you turn upside down.

But, we also know that there are limits to our love for our children. This process gets commemorated in the Stoning of the Jamaraat. Ibrahim, peace be upon him, longed for a son. The answer to that prayer was Isma’il. But, then Allah tested him over his love for his Creator, against his love for his son. He was, as we know, instructed to slaughter his son. On the way, the accursed devil himself sought to tempt Ibrahim away from it.

Consider the temptation: Ibrahim was seeking to obey Allah. The devil was preaching to Ibrahim to not kill his son. At that moment, things were upside down, from a worldly perspective. And there, is a big lesson: obedience to the Divine, as embodied by the Prophet -p, is our standard for theology, morality, piety, and justice. Usually, universal notions of piety, morality, and justice will be the same with ours, but sometimes they will be in opposition. And, frequently popular notions will contradict Divinely-ordained practices because popular notions are often informed by power and passion.

A deeper point to take from this ritual is that we sometimes fall into a sense of entitlement with our parents, as though they owe us something. And, yes, too many parents are too effective in making us feel as though we have no hope of salvation because we do such apparently poor jobs in serving them. Nevertheless, the world does not owe you anything, nor do your parents. Our obligations are to God. If we can make peace with this, interacting with the world, with them, with ourselves, and with the Divine will become easier. It will become easier to stand up, right side up.

And God knows best.

May Allah bless you.

Omer M

Sacred Spaces: Houses of Worship

September 29, 2014

Assalamu Alaykum,

Dear Students,

I hope this letter reaches you with the best of health and Iman. Just sending a reflection.

In the last letter, we spoke about one of the sacred spaces: the human heart. This time, we speak about another sacred space, the House of remembrance of God. If the spiritual heart is the center of the human being, the house of worship is the center of the community and its own spiritual heart.

If the spiritual heart is ill, the entire person or community is ill. The way you care for your heart will reveal the way you care about your whole self or your community. If you care for the mosque, you will care for the community. If you seek to dominate the mosque, you will seek to dominate the community. If you disregard the mosque, the other behaviors follow.

In our greater Islamic Tradition, we know that the entire world is a mosque. Thus, the entire world is sacred. So, the way you treat the earth reflects what you think of humanity, the animals, the plants, the mountains, the structures, etc.. If you do not pay attention to your immediate environment, then it follows that you will not pay attention to the anonymous people around you.
Still, there is no spot in the earth that is more sacred than a human being. We are taught that even if the most sacred structure (the Ka’ba) was damaged or destroyed, we must first check on the well-being of the people.

The most sacred of such spaces on the earth, then, is the Haram in Makkah (Mecca), where the Ka’ba is located. Consider that if there were only two Muslims in the world, they would be praying inside the Ka’ba. What is inside? Empty space. It is also our direction of prayer. As I type this, millions of Muslims (literally) have begun the lifetime journey to the Haram, as part of their pilgrimage. Consider that when these pilgrims walk around the Ka’ba in their circumambulation, they walk counterclockwise: it happens that the heart is closer to the Ka’ba that way.

Take these points a step further. If you want to get the sense of a community, look at its Friday prayers. How do people conduct themselves, what is the sermon like, how do people enter and leave? If you want to get a sense of the whole Ummah, look at Hajj.

The second most sacred is the Haram in Madinah (Medina), commonly known as the Mosque of the Prophet, may peace be upon him. It is within this structure that we also find the Rawdah, which is reported to be a small taste of Paradise. It is also within this structure that we find the grave of the Prophet Muhammad, may peace be upon him, and two of his blessed companions, may God be pleased with them. Madinah is also host to some other mosques with special histories.


The third most sacred is the Haram in Jerusalem, commonly known as the Farthest Mosque (al-Aqsa). One thing to consider is that when we speak of al-Aqsa, we speak not of that golden domed, blue structure, which is the Dome of the Rock. It marks (among other things) the place from where the Prophet, may peace be upon him, ascended in his blessed night journey. We also do not speak of the physical building a few yards away, that is today called “al-Masjid al-Aqsa.” The actual “Aqsa” mosque is the whole campus.

In Shi’i (Shia) tradition, there are some other sacred sites, including (among others) the Haram of Imam Ali (Najaf, Iraq), the Maqam of Imam Husayn (Karbala, Iraq), and the Mosque of Sayyida Zaynab (Damascus, Syria). May God be pleased with each of them.

What else, then, by extension, is sacred? Two things to consider.
The temple is a sacred space. The temples of other traditions, be they churches, synagogues, Hindu temples, Buddhist temples, gurdwaras, are sacred spaces. There are some commentators who suggest that Muslims have a greater responsibility to protect the temples of non-Muslims than our mosques, citing specific Divine word choices in the Qur’an.

It is in the history of conquest that temples are often replaced by other temples. In Istanbul, there is the Aya Sofia. It was a pagan Roman temple. On that space was built a church, which was rebuilt to be the largest church on the planet. That church was then converted into a mosque. Today it is a museum.


Hindu-Muslim relations in Chicago became very tense in the early 1990s, when an old mosque in Ayodhya, India was converted into a Hindu Temple (or, convert back into a Hindu Temple, before the Mughal conquest). A decade after that event, excavation revealed that before being a Hindu Temple, it was a Buddhist Temple. The chances are that before being a Buddhist Temple, it was something else.

And, of course, we have the history of Jerusalem, which requires a whole separate exploration at some point.

The other point to consider is that the home is a sacred space. In much history, especially in Islamic law, the space inside the home was private space, and outside of the jurisdiction of the authorities (except in the case of danger). Much of the Modern era has witnessed the absolute dominance of public space by government and marketing. More and more of this post-Modern era has witnessed an invasion of private space, first through media, and now through government-authorized monitoring. It is as though we are witnessing the end of privacy. That removal of privacy is a form of steady violence to the self.

Consider what it means to regard a physical space as sacred. You enter the space with respect and reverence. You conduct yourself with maturity and manners. You keep the space meticulously clean. Greater than all of these, you use the space for the remembrance of the Divine, and nothing worldly. To harm the sacred spaces is to do the opposite, starting with the prevention of the remembrance of the Divine.

Having said this, I have a few requests. First, when you come to the Mosque on campus, treat it with respect to something far more serious than your lounge to take your naps. Meaning, enter it with the reverence you should have toward a sacred space. Second, please keep the space clean, every time you visit it.

And third, take a moment to visit the sacred spaces of the other traditions on campus, and in the city. Of course, make sure you find out the proper manners for your entry and visit.
And God knows best.

May Allah bless you.

Omer M

Sacred Spaces: The Heart

September 22, 2014

Assalamu Alaykum,

Dear Students,

I hope this letter reaches you with the best of health and Iman. Just sending a reflection.

I want to speak about the respect we need to hold for “space,” but first we must explore some fundamentals. There are four foundational sacred spaces in our experience. In this note, we will speak of one of the four.

The first of the sacred spaces is the human heart itself. It is a space through which Divine Light, reaches us, and beams through us as Light upon Light.

In our Tradition, all of creation is precious. All creation can receive this Divine Light. It is not that there are good and bad creations. Rather, all are in a hierarchy of goodness. At the bottom we would find the most wretched, including the accursed devil, being one who received, understood, and rejected the connection with God.

The most precious of all creations is the human being, regardless of creed. The most precious of all human beings are the great recipients of Divine Light, the Prophets, may peace be upon them. The most precious of all the Prophets is the Prophet Muhammad, may peace be upon him. We are taught, that when he was in a room, he was the most radiant of everyone.

The point to take from this outline is that each person you ever meet is a person of such value that all the universe cannot match up. In both Qur’anic and Biblical Traditions, it is such a catastrophe when a human life is taken, that it cannot be measured; it is as though all humanity is taken.

A problem of modernity, however, is that we often reduce people to their mechanical functions in our lives. One person might be your bus driver; that is the function this person holds in your life and nothing more. Another person might be the student who sits in front of you. Another person might be the cashier at the food shop. I mentioned in a previous letter that every person you ever meet is a person with a story, full of hopes, dreams, joys, and pains.

A problem of the appetite, however, is that we often reduce people to what they can do for us. If someone seems to have more ability, power, and wealth, we might grant them attention, hoping they will endow us with some benefits. In the meantime, we might ignore another person who has none of