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A deeply personal account of my own struggle losing my mother to cancer. These brief words were offered as support to family members and friends of patients who had lost their lives due to illness and other causes. They were provided as part of a memorial service that took place at St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton on May 9, 2013. I share these words here for those who might find benefit in them.
I have recently discovered how much my own self-care is related to how I understand my relationship with my Lord. Particularly, how I feel a certain sense of anxiety at times as to whether or not I am fulfilling my potential. This worry takes a toll on my physical and spiritual health. My discontent with my present self makes me feel unable to rest at times and unable to fully enjoy even the triumphs after a struggle. This is, in part, because I believe that I have not fully reached my potential which is my true struggle and goal.
I have come to realize that this perception clouds my ability to appreciate and accept aspects of myself in my present state. I am struggling, I am learning, I am forming, I am changing, I am evolving, I am doing… all of this for some future goal. But, what about what I have right now? Or better yet, what about who I am right now?
I was talking to a friend of mine recently and he advised me that there is a difference between a human being and a human doing. I asked him to explain what he meant, and he said that human doings focus their attention on their actions. They self-identify with their actions and let themselves be defined by them. Yet, actions once over and gone become mere memories. To feel a sense of satisfaction, a human doing must then begin engaging in another action.
On the other hand, human beings can be satisfied with who they are. They do not self-identify merely with what they do, but with the personal qualities that make up who they are. They choose to not be defined by actions past and gone, or wait to be defined by actions still to come. Human beings accept who they are in each successive moment; their faults and all.
Reflecting over this I have discovered how much I believed that God cared for me because of who I have the potential to be, but not because of who I am right now. The thought threatened me: I worried what would happen if I changed my theology. What if I believed God could love me for who I am RIGHT NOW? Would I stop growing, would I stop evolving?
In the Qur’an and the Bible, two sacred texts that speak to the origins of the universe, it says that God created the heavens and the earth in six days. Yet, it also says elsewhere in the Qur’an that God can create anything simply by saying “Be” and it will be so. So, I began to wonder: What if God enjoys the process of change? What if God enjoys seeing creation evolve? And, if so, what if God appreciates me not necessarily for who I may become, or have the potential to be, but for who I am now…
The thought brought tears to my eyes as I felt my perception of God changing. If God enjoys watching change, that is exactly what I am doing. But now, my struggling, my learning, my forming, my changing, my evolving, and my doing can be with God’s love by my side rather than out there and beyond the next hurdle.
My focus on the divine’s love for me for who I have the potential to be versus who I am has had dramatic effects upon my self- acceptance. This has pushed me towards a narrow future-orientation depriving me of the present and giving me in its place only anxiety. I have hopes now of accepting myself as I learn to accept that God embraces me for who I am in each successive moment. For, in each moment I am seeking to be with Him, despite my poor qualities and short-comings. I am still working on it, and I am thankful for a Lord who can embrace me even at times I find it difficult to accept myself.
Imams and other Islamic religious leaders need to move away from the (too) commonly stated line (in sermons and elsewhere): “If you say you love the Prophet but do not follow all of his Sunnahs, you are fooling yourself.”
While the statement may come from a place of encouragement, it can be perceived as a way of belittling another’s love for their Prophet (God bless and grant him peace). Needless to say, it can also be construed as “talking down to people” (even if this was not the intention of the speaker).
We are all growing in our Islam in stages, and so too our love for the Prophet (God bless him and grant him peace). Furthermore, I do not see any reason to necessarily assume that one’s love for the Prophet (God bless him and grant him peace) has become voided by falling into sin.
Rather, our love for the Messenger of God (God bless him and grant him peace) is a encouragement and inspiration for all of us to become better servants of God, despite our shortcomings. And, his message is also one of encouragement despite one’s falling short of doing everything he asked. As he stated in a rigorously authentic hadith: “What I have forbidden for you, avoid. What I have ordered you [to do], do as much of it as you can.” [Bukhari, Muslim]
I encourage our Imams and leaders to adopt a methodology of guidance which recognizes that we are all at different places in our journey to our Lord, and ask that they not doubt anyone’s love based upon what they see (or hear) of them. For there was during the time of the Messenger (God bless him and grant him peace) a companion of his who used to get drunk; despite its being made forbidden at the time.
After repeatedly falling into this sin, other companions reprimanded him harshly but our Messenger commanded them to stop and said (despite the man’s falling into open sin): “Verily, this man loves Allah and His Messenger”.
Our Messenger (God bless him and grant him peace) saw through the sin to the heart of the sinner, and saw in it love for God and His Messenger.
This is the Messenger I love…
We were sitting together in a circle in the masjid and today’s talk was about the Prophet Muhammadﷺ. Young men and women, many of whom not born Muslim, moved to sit with us after performing the ‘asr prayer. We had come together to speak about the man whose life was dedicated to teaching us our religion.
One of the young men among us, Jacob, had only embraced Islam a few months earlier and had become immediately passionate about his new faith. As we all sat together Jacob revealed a secret: “I remember when I first embraced Islam,” he said, “I didn’t know that much at all about the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. And, I would see all these people around me just in love with him… I loved Islam… but I did not know why people were so obsessed with him?”…
(read more on Healing Hearts Blog)
A heart that has not truly grasped the golden rule—loving for others, what you would love for yourself—will ultimately break it. Too often the reason why it is difficult to be involved in the community is that we lack this rule in our heart. This is especially the case when feelings get heated between members of the same community–or even religious organizations–over the correct way to resolve an issue. Yet, many times the issue is not the worst part of it.
During discussions passions may become inflamed, hurtful words said and slander and backbiting becomes a norm. This often leaves greater harm in the community then the initial problem that prompted it. The Prophet ﷺwas keenly aware of the effect of words. Very comprehensively he ﷺ said of their effect: “A man utters a word pleasing to God without considering it of any significance, yet for it God exalts his rank; and another one speaks a word displeasing to God without considering it of any significance, yet for it he will sink into the Hellfire.”
And God says:
“Believers, no one group of men should jeer at another, who may after all be better than them; no one group of women should jeer at another, who may after all be better than them; do not speak ill of one another; do not use offensive nicknames for one another. How bad it is to be called a mischief-maker after accepting faith! Those who do not repent of this behaviour are evildoers” (Q. al-Hujurat, 49:10-11).
May Allah forgive and protect us…
Furthermore, due to our own ideals and goals community leaders, activists, and volunteers may become dismissive of the benefit another member of the community brings–simply because they do not share the same focus. This is like dismissing the moon for not shining like the sun, yet each was created with a distinct purpose. It is a great blessing that we find in our community those who argue for more youth programs and services, another for fairer treatment of women, another for better religious education and another for interfaith work; all of this is needed!
Yet, while each leader walks the community towards a perceived destination, they stumble over the concerns of others. And, not sharing the same focus, some (if not many) dismiss the efforts of the other.
If we are truly trying to bring some good to the community, we need to recognize and accept that the work that others are doing, and the concerns that others are bringing forward are all needed and come from a genuine concern for the good of the community. Leaders must understand the concerns of the people, even if the concern is not their primary focus. Though, I would argue that many times they are all interrelated.
Let us then speak well of the other and help them in their work, for ultimately we are all looking forward to living in a better community. Let us not speak ill or ridicule the efforts of the other; for they may be providing a much needed service to the community we would not be able to provide on our own.
May God help us to bring good to others, but also protect us from preventing others from bringing good as well…
A wise man once said, “Nobody goes down a path of destruction except believing that it is a path to happiness.” These words have had a great effect upon how I look at myself, as well as the problems of the world. Like me, so many people are simply looking to be happy, but in the process only bring self-harm. This reminds me of the verse of the Qur’an: “If the truth were in accordance with their desires, the heavens, the earth, and everyone in them would disintegrate” (The Believers; 23:71).
Don’t I, or others,reflect upon what is truly good for us? Yet people–unknowing of what direction we should take in life–have only our desires to lead us. At times we may even feel enslaved to our base passions and ego which appear to be the only thing moving us forward. Yet, don’t we know that if our desires are given free reign over our souls they will only mislead it. Of this God says: “The deeds of disbelievers are like a mirage in a desert: the thirsty person thinks there will be water but, when he gets there, he finds it is nothing” (Light; 24:39).
Worse than “finding nothing” is finding only pain, loss, or becoming even more disoriented on one’s path. Such an experience may feel like we are covered by “shadows in a deep sea covered by waves upon waves, with clouds above–layer upon layer of darkness” (Light; 24:40).
But wherever God wills, there is His Light.
Darkness and disorientation is not a healthy state in life, and it need not be a permanent one. We may feel at times like we are traveling a path of happiness, only to later discover that it was but a mirage, or worse, a path of self-destruction. However, in each journey we have something to learn, and perhaps our life is full of too many journeys to count. I pray that in each journey I learn something about the true path to happiness. Along the way, I also pray that I am learning how to further surrender my base desires for the desire of One whose sustaining power and merciful nature is the true source of my happiness.
Of the many signs in life that you have a purpose is that you have a friend in need and God has given you the capability to help them. Truly, those people who help others are the inspiration for goodness in this world and those acting out of goodwill and faith are the true believers. The Messenger of God ﷺ said, “None of you truly believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.”
Part of being human is having needs. We cannot even be alone without the need for good company; even with all the money in the world we would feel empty without a good friend. May God help us to be good friends to one another. God has provided us such a powerful gift in that He has taught us through the Qur’an and His Messenger ﷺ how to subdue our own selfish nature so that we may, instead, share what we have with others. As human beings we have the capacity to do such good, which is why it is so disappointing to see others mistreating the orphans (Q89:17) and refusing to help the sick and needy. Do people not see that every heart without guidance is diseased, and every human being is in a constant state of need? God does not wrong people at all–it is they who wrong themselves (Q10:44).
God help us. Righteousness is the most beautiful of characteristics, and the righteous the most beautiful of people; ya Allah make us among them! And do not allow us to alienate ourselves from the righteous, nor discredit their striving for you, nor cause them any harm.
Besides the scholars and shaykhs, and the imams and activists, there are those brothers who and sisters who brought us food because we had none, who taught us something because we did not know, who shared with us a smile because we needed one, who loved us for Your sake, O Allah, because You are the Most Generous One. O Allah, my prayer is that you preserve them all. May You serve those who serve others, may You love those who love others, may You protect the honor of those who protect the honor of their brothers and sisters. O Allah, guide us to be in the company of the righteous and may we not die until You count us among them.
Comparisons, allegories, and examples from the world around us are used in the Qur’an by God to not only illustrate a point, but evoke emotion. These examples enrich the lessons, by associating a concept (like resurrection) to the world around us (like plant life after rainfall); and through them higher meanings become more familiar and recognizable. Yet, human beings, who are the most contentious of creatures, do not always reflect. Led instead by passion—and the seeking of lower desires—human beings become blind to not just these examples within the Qur’an, but also the world around them from which these examples are drawn. They do not witness the signs (ayāt) in the creation of the heavens and the earth and the alternation of night and day. Nor do they recognize the examples within the Qur’an (like those following) but, instead, ask “by this what does God mean?”
* * * * * *
Encouraged by Dr. Ingrid Mattson, and my own interests in wanting to better understand the broader Islamic tradition, I decided to read and review a book on tafsir (Qur’anic commentary) composed by one of the Shi’a tradition’s most erudite scholars: ‘Allamah Sayyid M. H. Tabataba’i. Here is my, a Sunni Muslim’s, summary and reflection…
The Qur’an in Islam: It’s Impact & Influence on the Life of Muslims, by ‘Allamah Sayyid M. H. Tabataba’i, trans. by Assadullah ad-Dhaakir Yate (Texas: Zahra Publications, 1987), 118 pages.
Written in Persian with the intension of being translated for an English-speaking audience, The Qur’an in Islam attempts to “make Shi’ism better known in the Western world” (p. 9). It was written by, as Dr. Seyyed Hossein Nasr relates in the book’s Forward, “one of the great masters of the traditional sciences in Iran” (p. 10). The author, ‘Allamah Sayyid M. H. Tatataba’i, was born in 1903 (or 1892) into a “distinguished family of scholars” (p. 10) and spent most of his life as a student, and teacher, of Islamic sciences. Tabataba’i was a prolific author and despite the hindrance of eye-problems that plagued him until his death in 1981, he continued to write books and articles on the Islamic sciences; especially on the subject of Islamic Philosophy. Through his later life and parallel to his other works he continued to write what would later become a “monumental commentary” on the Noble Qur’an, his Tafsir al-Mizan; a massive twenty-seven volume work (in Arabic, but also translated to Persian) which he “completed in his mid-seventies” (p. 11). The Qur’an in Islam, is considered to be a “synopsis of [that] major commentary” (p. 11).
Only being 118 pages (including the Forward and Index), Tabataba’i does not attempt to convey every point from his voluminous commentary, rather he distills it down to five key elements (separated into chapters): 1) The Value of the Qur’an in the Eyes of the Muslims, 2) The Teachings of the Qur’an, 3) The Revelation of the Qur’an, 4) The Relationship of the Qur’an to the Sciences, and 5) The Order of the Qur’an’s Revelation and the Growth of the Qur’anic Sciences. Though much of the text does deal with the role of the Qur’an in the life of a Muslim, much more of it is focused upon hermeneutics; that is, the methodology through which a text is interpreted. Tabataba’i makes clear in the introduction that the “purpose of this work is to define the position of the Qur’an in such a way that the Holy Book explains itself, rather than giving our own opinions concerning it” (p. 15). This is of course a difficult, if not impossible, position to manifest for any person and, while well-intentioned, one which I do not believe he presents. However, The Qur’an in Islam is still an excellent introduction into the Shi’i approach to the Qur’an, providing for its reader a rational, albeit brief, analysis of some very intricate hermeneutical debates between Sunni and Shi’i Muslims.
The opening chapter, on value of the Qur’an in the eyes of Muslims, begins with an appeal to the reader stating that “[the human being] has no other aim in life but the pursuit of happiness and pleasure” (p. 17), and that this aim directs a human beings every action (whether they realize it or not). Through a masterful stringing together of this point with Qur’anic verses Tabataba’i illustrates that the Qur’an appeals to an innate nature (fitrah) within all of us that can only be nurtured, and thus truly happy, by following the program that it was created for (i.e. Islam). By use of analogy Tabataba’i compares the life of a human being to that of a plant “emerging from a single grain in the earth” and aware of its “future existence” (p. 19) as an ear of wheat, or a walnut tree. While growing, these seedlings do not imitate each other, but rather emerge from the soil in a fashion directed by their own “distinct inherent characteristics” (p. 19). If a human being follows the plan that has been laid out before them, nurturing their innate nature with the following of revelation, they will achieve the moral characteristics that are distinct and inherent within their own design. The author then concludes that the plan that is laid out for humanity is derived from the Qur’an, and immediately follows this with the appropriate verses of the Qur’an to confirm the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ as a messenger of God.
Chapter Two, the largest chapter of the book, is inaccurately titled “The Teachings of the Qur’an”; it may be more aptly titled “Shi’ite Approaches to Qur’anic Hermeneutics”. Within the thirty-five pages of this chapter Tabataba’i summarizes twenty theological points concerning the interpretation of the Qur’an, such as: its universal application, its perfection and eternal quality, its inner and outer meanings, the explicit (muhkam) and the implicit (mutashabih) verses, the history of Qur’anic commentary, and the use of Imams as authoritative sources of insight. I will only address two of these points. The first, and possibly the most interesting, is the inner and outer dimensions of the Qur’an. It is here where the author most digressed from his stated intention to convey the Qur’an by itself without “giving [his] own opinions concerning it”. He has, however, succeeded in explaining clearly his own positions.
Tabataba’i relates that “each man has a different capacity of understanding and since the expounding of subtle knowledge is not without danger of misinterpretation, the Qur’an directs its teachings primarily at the level of the common man” (p. 31). To support that beneath this meaning there are other more subtle, and deep, interpretations Tabataba’i cites the thirteenth surah al-R’ad (The Thunder) verse seventeen which says: He sends down water from the sky, so that valleys flow according to their measure. Within the context of this argument the verse offers a beautiful analogy implying that each person (i.e. valley) has varying levels of capacity to understand revelation (i.e. the water from the sky). However, his use of it is based itself upon an interpretation of its inner meaning, the very practice he is trying to deem permissible through citing this verse. Contemporary philosophy would call this “begging the question”. Nevertheless, the use of this verse as an analogy for one’s capacity to learn is a beautiful one.
The second, and most uniquely Shi’i approach, is his discussion of the commentary of the Imams (from the family of the Prophet) as authoritative. Unfortunately Tabataba’i does not provide his evidence for this practice until half-way through the book- though he has referred to it throughout the text. It would have made more sense to move this discussion earlier in the book. As one not familiar with this conception I was genuinely interested in the evidence he would provide, however the only proof he presented was the thirty-third surah al-Ahzab (The Confederates) verse 33 which says: God’s wish is but to remove uncleanliness from you, O people of the Household, and clean you a thorough cleaning. Though he does present other verses to assist the understanding of this verse, I do not find the interpretation convincing. I am still left wondering why the Prophet’s family (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him and his family) should have any greater authority–let alone absolute authority–as Qur’anic exegetes over any other pious and learned Muslim.
In his third chapter, “The Revelation of the Qur’an”, Tabataba’i responds to some orientalist assertions concerning the Qur’an and also some of their more skeptical views pertaining to certain critical points of Islamic theology. Here Tabataba’i conveys his understanding of the orientalist perspective and impressively presents a rationale for one’s submission to revelation over intellect. He states that “The intellect, which recognizes the existence of God, cannot refuse the law. It will always decide in favor of that which revelation demands of man” (p. 79). This is because the “believing man will recognize the importance of the revelation over any personal matter” (p. 80).
The fourth and fifth chapters deal directly with the history of the Qur’an, or more particularly the assembling of the mushaf (the written Qur’an) and its oral and written transmission. Many discussions are given here like the Asbab al-Nazul (occasions of revelation), chronological order of the surahs, the protection of the Qur’an from corruption (which may be surprising to many Sunnis), and the Qira’at (differing recitations of the Qur’an). Tabataba’i does offer some wonderful analyses between both Sunni and Shi’a considerations of what can be used from this historical tradition to help us better understand the Qur’an, like a more critical view of the Asbab al-Nazul narrations and the order of revelation.
Overall I enjoyed this opportunity to expand my knowledge of Shi’i thought through reading this text. I also came to understand better why this particular scholar is respected and greatly revered. I found his arguments intelligent, even while some points did appear lacking. That being said, ‘Allamah Sayyid M. H. Tabataba’i’s work The Qur’an in Islam does prove a good read for those interested in better understanding a Shi’i approach to the Qur’an.