The Journey of Faith and the Challenges We Experience
August 8, 2016
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.