Chronicles of Sorrow III

Chronicle The Third – 2009 (1430 AH)

Just: The Way Things Are

So we’ve dealt with the first of five core beliefs Muslims have: that there is One Absolute God.  Naturally, the next question is what kind of God is He?  Gentle, loving and fatherly? Kingly, authoritative and demanding?  What motivates Muslims to believe in Him; to trust and obey Him so completely?  Is it fear? Is it hope? Or something else?

There’s a famous tradition from Islamic history that goes:
“Some people worship God out of greed (for heaven), this is the worship of the merchant. Others worship out of fear (of hell); this is the worship of slaves. Others worship out of love; this is the worship of the free man.”

– Ali ibn Abi Talib

Regardless of which category you belong to, the one thing that you rely on is that at the end of the day, you’ll be treated fairly.  Without that, why would you put in so much effort?

By Any Other Name…

“The most beautiful names belong to Allah. so call on Him by them…”
(The Qur’an – The Heights, Verse 180)

You might have come across the phrase ‘The 99 names of God’, also called Asma’ul Husna (Beautiful Names).  Muslims call upon God by various names, each representing an attribute, for example: Ar-Rahman (The Merciful), Al-Ghafoor (The Forgiving), Al-Waliyy (The Friend), Al-Wadood (The Loving), Al-Hakeem (The Wise) and so on.

Of all these attributes, the one singled out for a founding belief is Al-’Adil (The Just).  It seems odd at first that instead of more obviously appealing qualities such as love and mercy, this should be the one that God chooses to emphasize.   But perhaps while we focus on our secondary emotional needs, He prefers to reassure the most essential of our inner needs – that of fairness.

Justice gives everything in the universe a sense of purpose and being.  It’s inborn in human nature to understand, respect and feel particularly possessive of this principle. “That’s not fair!” is a refrain that is heard coming with equal passion from kindergarten kids and professional adults.

We’ll talk about why Islam describes itself as the Innate or Natural Religion another day, but for the purpose of this article, we need only look at human instinct to understand why a sense of justice is what keeps a society alive and healthy.

The situation in Gaza is still fresh in our minds.  People around the world are shocked by the loss of innocent lives, and the outrage at what is being described as a genocide is a world concern.  What is it that has united opinions across race, culture, nationality and faith?  A sense of violated justice. 

We feel that something ‘wrong’ is taking place, and that we must as a global community speak up against it – even if we are helpless in terms of power to make a difference.   This is what reminds us that we are still human on some level.  That we haven’t been reduced to a bestial level (because even animals have some basic sense of justice.) 

That is why the second root of belief in Islam can be added as below:

I.  That there is Only One God. (Arabic: Tawhid)
II. That God is Just (Arabic: Adalat)

All God’s other attributes are dependent on His Justice. In the bigger picture, if He wasn’t Just then how could we respect Him?  How would we explain the balance of all things or that innate trust every human being has that every injustice committed in the world will have to be accounted for some day, some how?

From an Islamic perspective, the reason why Justice makes everything fall in place is because Muslims recognize it on two levels:

a) The common meaning i.e. the opposite of oppression, the following of personal rights.  The mistake we often make is to try and apply this kind of justice to God and then end up with questions like: “If God is Just why does He let the innocent suffer?”  We fail to realise that this kind of justice is flawed even its best.

b) The Divine Justice applied to God, defined as “to put everything in its place”. The entire cosmos is maintained by this kind of Justice. It means that God ensures that the universe (and all of creation) is in a state of equilibrium. 

Justice versus Equality

It’s important to note that equality is not a condition for justice.  While it’s all well and good to fight for equal human rights, this is a different issue altogether from justice, and especially Divine Justice.

An extremely simplistic analogy would be that of a classroom.  A good teacher doesn’t just dish out the same marks to all the students.  He/she gives you what you work for.  That’s justice (to the best of the teacher’s ability).  In the real world, the heart of a whale is not the same size as the heart of a robin, that’s justice too.

Once you believe that God is Just and that He is Perfect in all His Attributes, it becomes a matter of logical conclusion that this Justice applies at all times, even when you don’t understand exactly how it works.

That nifty quality we call hindsight is very handy in getting a glimpse at true Justice.  How many times have you thought your world was falling apart and then some time in the future, looked back and thought to yourself “That actually worked out for the best”?  Everything is always working out for the best, we just don’t have the capacity to see it all in play.

Our perspectives are limited to our own personal lives and the lives of those connected to us.  But Divine Justice has to ensure that everything and everyone is dealt with fairly.  We cannot comprehend its scope even if we tried to, because it goes beyond the finite limits of our space and time.

Here’s a children’s story often used to illustrate this:

A man once set out to pray. On the way, he met his elder daughter who was married to a potter. She asked him to pray for rain so her husband’s fresh batch of pots could dry quickly. A little further down the road, he met his younger daughter who was married to a farmer.  Her request was that he pray for rain so their crops could grow.    The man was confounded.  What was he to pray for when both requests were valid and yet completely opposite?  So he prayed to God to deal with both according to His Justice.

The tale, though simple, is – like all parables – highly effective.  It shows us how our own sense of justice is inevitably biased by the people around us, and also that we can never know how one event will affect others.  For this reason, we trust in a Higher Power to make sense of it all.

Life’s Unfair. Is it?

One of the most common questions asked is: “If there really is a God and He is so loving, why does He allow the bad stuff that’s going on happen?”

It stumps most of us.  Why would He indeed?  To understand this we need to first realise that God didn’t create this world as a little playground on which to place us as pawns and then move us around as He pleases.  He created us independent, with self-respect, honour and with one essential quality – free will.

We all want the freedom to either obey or disobey Him.  But with every right comes a responsibility.  If we want to be free to do as we please and God to lay His Hands off in our personal choices, then we also have to understand that the perfect Balance means that for those actions, we will have to face consequences, sometimes far-reaching ones.

Take for example, a mud slide that kills the people living along a hillside and leaves many homeless.  We wonder what the poor people did to ‘deserve’ this.  In our indignation, we overlook the systems that reduced these people to living in flimsy shanty huts, below the poverty line.  Who created this imbalance in society?  Who is responsible for not providing them with proper housing? Or jobs?  Do we really expect God to step in and fix our mistakes every time we do something without thinking of the welfare of the entire community?

That is why Islam emphasizes cause and effect.  Every action has a reaction.  Sometimes the reaction of these actions happen on another dimension (the metaphysical, the spiritual or the unseen), but they always happen.

Like a factor tree, you can trace back every reaction to its cause, until you ultimately reach The First Cause: God. He is the First Essential Cause without Whom no other cause can exist.  But every consecutive effect is the result of the immediate cause before it.  All that comes from the First Cause is good.  It is when we deviate from the directions and instructions set for us, that the chain reactions of our mis-steps lead to our own destruction.

Muslims often speak of ‘fearing God’, which I think is what creates the image of a despotic, dictatorial God of Islam.  It is unfortunate that they rarely clarify that what they mean is ‘fearing the Justice of God’ because if we were to be judged on our flawed actions, none of us would ever measure up to deserving the rewards of heaven.  They also forget to mention that this fear is always balanced by hope in another famous attribute: that God is also Ar-Rahman (the Merciful) who Knows the extent of our (in)abilities and the sincerity of our actions – even when we fall short – and so He forgives and is easily pleased by the little we offer Him.

The Wrath of a Mother

So far we’ve skimmed over how the injustices we consider God to be turning a blind eye to, actually stem from our own actions, but what of natural disasters then?  It’s hard to swallow, but even these are sometimes a result of what we put our planet through: pollution, deforestation, nuclear testing, inhumane experiments…none of these are carried out in contained environments.  Can we turn against Nature and not expect her to react to our affront?

However, some of these disasters are part of a bigger system of trials and tests.  If you believe in God, then you believe that He created this world for a purpose.  In Islam that purpose is to explore, learn and discover Him by rising to the heights of enlightenment.

For this to happen, every so often we need to face challenges and difficulties.  The world serves as a crucible for the perfection of the soul.  Fear, danger, pain, loss – all these things makes us turn back to God.  And if you closely study the truly natural disasters, you will realise that they happen when a people are most lax and have forgotten Him.

These things happen as a warning and a reminder; if we are helpless in the face of a natural phenomenon that has no intellect or consciousness, then what is our position in regard to an All-Knowing God Who created these phenomenon and has full authority over them…and us?

———

As usual, this article skims over the concept.  Volumes have been written on this subject and the greatest minds have discussed it, just as the simplest ones have wondered over it.  That everybody has the capacity to understand it at their own level is also a part of His all-encompassing Justice.

As usual, I’d recommend reading, researching and really just sitting down somewhere peaceful and thinking. In the X-files, Mulder always had a poster in the background that said The Truth is Out There. Those script-writers got it wrong as usual.  In reality, you don’t have to go hunting too far, because the Truth is actually in you.

S’laams,
bint Ali

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Chronicles of Sorrow II

Chronicle The Second – 2009 (1430 AH)

Start at the Beginning

When people think of Muslims, there are certain pictures that immediately come to mind: rows of people praying in white kanzus and caps, fasting in the month of Ramadan, going for Hajj once a year ‘somewhere in Saudi Arabia’, throaty ‘wallahi, billahi’ utterances, women in plentiful folds of fabric, and possibly the thought that you should tread cautiously when talking about their religion because you never know when they’ll whip out that bazooka they’ve been hiding under their bed and unleash ‘jihad’ on you…

Okay, so I’m generalizing here, but it’s surprising how many people do actually associate these – and only these – things with Muslims.  So for those of you still with me on these chronicles (thank you!), let’s wipe the slate clean and start afresh, shall we? 

All this stuff above forms a part of Islam although some of it has been (highly) misconstrued.  However, the practical side of Islam holds little or no meaning without the beliefs that support it.

Of Mohammedans and Musselmen

For a long time, we used to be called ‘Mohammedans’.  In fact, if you hunt down an old dictionary, you’ll probably still find it there as a noun…wait, did I say old?  Heh, I just checked my current updated online web dictionary and guess what?  It’s still there.  Muslims don’t really like being called that because it implies that their faith is founded primarily on Muhammad (which its not) or is even misunderstood to mean that they consider Muhammad to be a part of the Divine Entity.

I’ve met people who think that Muslims set up Muhammad as a competitor to Christ; that he’s a ‘new god’ of our own making or that we have our own version of the Trinity with Muhammad in place of Jesus.  I even had one young man look at me in shock when I mentioned God and say: “You mean you believe in God?”  (Aside: :O)

Where does one start explaining what Islam is when there are people who don’t even consider it a faith, just a  ‘movement’ of sorts?  The basics seem a good place to start.  Faith comes from within, and the strongest faith is founded concrete, unshakeable beliefs.

So let’s talk beliefs…

(Just a note: These chronicles are just an explanation; no ulterior motives here.  Feel free to disagree, but keep the conversation insult-free.) 

From Healthy Roots doth Healthy Branches grow

Islam can be (very) broadly divided into two aspects: Its Roots and its Branches.  The Roots refer to the actual beliefs that qualify you as a Muslim, while the Branches are the responsibilities you assume once you have accepted those beliefs.  The one depends on the other. 

Just like you can’t expect a healthy set of fruit-bearing branches from a tree that has weak roots, you cannot expect your actions (the praying, fasting, etc.) to fulfill their intended purpose if your understanding of your beliefs are weak. 

For this reason, any person is allowed to question the 5 fundamental beliefs (roots) of Islam to the satisfaction of their intellect and sensibility.  In fact, it is compulsory on every Muslim to do so; blind faith is not an option.  You can’t inherit Islam from your parents, otherwise it becomes a set of traditions. It has to be active, voluntary submission.  Much of the misuse of Islam comes from Muslims-by-Birth, not Muslims-by-Faith.

Once you’ve accepted the roots, then you then submit to the branches without protest. That is what Islam really means.  To surrender totally to the Will of God; but not just any God, a God you believe in completely and without a doubt with your mind and soul.

Is Allah God?

In high school I read a (comic) book that claimed that Allah was a myth created out of an idol worshipped during the pre-Islamic era.  Eh? Hello?  Where is the sense in a faith based on an idol then going on to condemn not only the worship of idols, but the association of anything with God? 

It’s a tragically funny accusation, but it does neatly brings us to the first essential Root without which, there is no Islam.  Literally.  And that belief is:

I.  That there is Only One God. (Arabic: Tawhid)

Simple, right?  It actually is. 🙂 (Anyone ever wondered why finding the Truth isn’t so much about adding complicated layers, but rather distilling down to the bare basics?) 

Tawhid means that Allah – which is an Arabic name for God – is One. Absolutely, Infinitely, Perfectly so.  This Oneness applies in every sense. For example, when counting in Arabic you say wahid, ithnayn, thalatha… (one, two, three).  However, you cannot say God is wahid.  You say instead that God is Ahad.

Ahad is a One that is uniquely used for God.  It is a One that cannot be added to or subtracted from, divided or multiplied, neither can it be categorized into a one of a ‘kind’.  It has no numerical value, just a theological one. 

This Oneness extends in principle to the Unity of God, because He is Absolute to such an extent that only He exists and through His Existence do all other things exist.  He Unites all things into one harmonious Whole and everything reflects this Unity from vastest expanse of the cosmos to the the smallest atomic structure that constitutes the universe. 

In its purest form, Tawhid means admitting God is the Only Reality.  So when, for example, a Muslim says “Allahu Akbar” (God is Great), what he or she means is that God is Great and there is no greatness except His.  The same applies for every attribute of God – Beauty, Love, Mercy, Glory – all these exist in their absolute form in Him. 

It’s not just in attributes that we consider God as absolute, but also in existence.  You’ll often hear descriptions of Allah being Eternal in such a way that He is the First for Whom there is no ‘before’ and the Last for Whom there is no ‘after’; that He Exists, but not through the phenomenon of coming into being; that He is Everywhere but not in the sense of occupying space.  So Tawhid means believing that God is not limited by time, space, ability or anything really, because everything has been created by Him and is constantly in need of Him to exist.

The thing I really *heart* about Islamic theology is how versatile it is.  The basics never change, but you can explore it from almost any angle and come across a new facet that will make you sit back and go ‘hmmm’.  Like this excerpt:

“Because God is at once absolute and infinite, the Divine Nature, although usually referred to in the masculine, also possesses a feminine ‘aspect’, which is, in fact, the principle of all femininity.  If God in His absoluteness and majesty is the Origin of the masculine principle, in His Infinitude and beauty, God is the Origin of femininity…The Islamic conception of God, while emphasizing His Majesty is certainly not oblivious to His Beauty, and this truth is reflected not only in female spirituality in Islam but in the female dimension of all Islamic spirituality."

(Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Encyclopaedia of Islamic Spirituality, Volume One: Foundations)

When I read this, the first thing that came to my mind was how much yin and yang there was in this theory.  The fact that the Unity of God comes from His being Judge and Creator as well as Cherisher and Nourisher.  That He metes out Justice, and is also Merciful; that He is All-Powerful and yet Forgiving.  That He is not only the Truth we seek out, but the Balance as well.

You’re the Only One for Me

Because there is no duality in Islam at any level, Tawhid isn’t just a mental concept, but a practical one too. 

When we decide to do something, we say “Insha’Allah” (If God Wills); when things go the way we want – and even when they don’t – we say “Alhamdulillah” (Praise be to God); when someone does us a favour, we say “Jazakallah” (May God reward you for this) simultaneously acknowledging that it is God who brought that good to us through that person.  Life becomes about recognizing God through and in your environment, your circumstances, the activities you indulge in, the people around you and most importantly, in your self.

To be a Muslim is to be constantly aware of the presence of God, not only as theological idea, but as a metaphysical truth and a living Reality.  Whatever we do – individual or societal, spiritual or political – is (ideally) connected to God.  It’s what I fondly call going through life wearing God-Coloured Lenses.  Piety or spiritual levels in Islam are related to the degree to which a person has realized this Tawhid. 

Tawhid is a huge (and I mean he-yuge) subject so I won’t even try to ramble more about it.  There’s plenty available to read, and I recommend The Sermon of The Skeletons by Ali ibn Abi Talib for not only a more in-depth description of Tawhid, but also some very interesting descriptions on creation as a whole.

The only thing left to say is that it was because Muslims had forgotten this fundamental belief that Karbala took place.  They were putting up with a tyrant who broke laws, oppressed people and flouted the principles of Islam without opposition.  Had he continued un-opposed, there is little doubt that the Muslim empire would have gone the way of many dictatorships before it and imploded before becoming a distant cultural occurrence in the time line of world history.

It was to revive the spirit of Tawhid that Husayn ibn Ali allowed himself to be forced onto the scorching plains of a little known desert.  On the 3rd of Muharram, he was ordered to move his small camp, including women and little children from the banks of the River Euphrates and he did this without protest.  When asked why he complied, he stated that he did not want history to record the inevitable confrontation as a ‘fight over water’.  The battle was to establish Truth and nothing would be allowed to come in the way of that.

Today is the 7th of Muharram, when the water supplies ran dry in Husayn’s camp and for the next three days, not a drop of water reached them.  People sometimes wonder whether it was necessary for Karbala to be as brutal as it was.  But the desperate need for a protest would not have been understood, nor the depths to which the souls of those claiming to be Muslims had sunk been recognized, if we did not see in the annals of history, the little children of Husayn weakly crying out to the enemy “Thirst! Thirst is killing us” and if we did not see the enemy reply by holding out flasks of water, only to mockingly laugh and pour the precious liquid onto the burning sands as the children watched in despair…

S’laams
bint Ali