Believe in God (Thanks Dilla)

Reflections on belief in God, its antithesis, and suffering/separation

The cultural roots of our political problems

We talk a lot about the political revolution we need. The cultural revolution is more important.

  1. Career success is fulfilling.
  2. I can make myself happy.

    It’s easy to say you live for relationships, but it’s very hard to do. It’s hard to see other people in all their complexity. It’s hard to communicate from your depths, not your shallows. It’s hard to stop performing! No one teaches us these skills.

  3. Life is an individual journey.

  4. You have to find your own truth.

  5. Rich and successful people are worth more than poorer and less successful people.

We pretend we don’t tell this lie, but our whole meritocracy points to it. In fact, the meritocracy contains a skein of lies.

The message of the meritocracy is that you are what you accomplish. The false promise of the meritocracy is that you can earn dignity by attaching yourself to prestigious brands. The emotion of the meritocracy is conditional love — that if you perform well, people will love you.

The sociology of the meritocracy is that society is organized around a set of inner rings with the high achievers inside and everyone else further out. The anthropology of the meritocracy is that you are not a soul to be saved but a set of skills to be maximized.

No wonder it’s so hard to be a young adult today. No wonder our society is fragmenting. We’ve taken the lies of hyper-individualism and we’ve made them the unspoken assumptions that govern how we live.

There is nothing essentially wrong with meritocracy. The problem lies in what we determine deserves merit. Is it material success? Is it success in relationships? Or is it a success that looks at our character and piety?


Further reflections from Surah al Zumar

Say, “Are those who know and those who do not know equal? Only possessors of intellect reflect.” ...It is they whom God has guided; it is they who are the possessors of intellect.

The Arabic word لبّ (lubb), rendered here as intellect, is an intesting word. At its root, it means to be sensible, reasonable, or intelligent or to become wise. From this root comes a word meaning the upper chest and the word in this verse translated as intellect, but also meaning the heart. Furthermore, it means core, gist, essence, or quintessence; the innermost, marrow, or pith; prime or the best part. Again, a very interesting word indeed.

In Aristotelean theory, everything has an essential function and he surmised that the essential function of man is his rational function. There is another word that seems to be more familiar when thinking of the intellect in Arabic which is عقل ('aql). عَقْل comes from عَقَلَ which means to hobble; to tie up or bind; or to be endowed with reason, be reasonable, or have intelligence. In Plato's Tripartite Theory of the Soul, he surmised that the soul has an appetitive part (similiar to plants), an emotive part (similiar to animals), and a rational part. The rational part's job is to restrain the other parts of our soul and we can see this in ourselves if we reflect (though maybe not so much so with the emotive part today in our age of feeling). One who does this and keeps all of the parts of the soul in harmony is said to be just.

It would seem, then, that perhaps a better rendering of لبّ would be wisdom as someone becomes wise, as a wise person is the best part of humanity, and as wisdom is the quintessence of the human being. And عقل would render as the intellect or the rational faculty of the human being.

Parsing through verses nine through eighteen of Surah al Zumar, Allah reveals some qualities of those possessed of wisdom:

  1. They are devoutly obedient,

  2. Especially during the watches of the night.

  3. They prostrate in prayer and

  4. Stand in prayer.

  5. They are wary of the next life.

  6. They hope for the Mercy of Allah.

  7. They are conscious of Allah.

  8. They do good.

  9. They are patient.

  10. They worship Allah.

    This is repeated in both verses eleven and fourteen with a subtle nuance. The first instance is a commandment, but then in verse fourteen the command has been accepted and has become personal.

  11. They devote their دين (deen) entirely to Allah.

    This is also repeated in the same verses with the same subtle nuance, i.e., moving from being the object to being the subject. Also, دين is usually translated as religion and it does have the meaning of professing something at its root; however, in the American context where religion is seperate from our personal lives (read: seperation of Church and State), it should be understood that Islam is a way of life. Maybe in an isolated context lifestyle is better, but that has its own baggage.

  12. They are the first of those who submit.

  13. They fear the punishment of the next life.

  14. They shun false deities.

  15. They shun worshipping false deities.

  16. They turn to God.

  17. They listen to the Word.

  18. They follow what is most beautiful of it.

    This means to choose what is most virtuous of the commandments or recommendations revealed to us.

  19. They are guided.

  20. They are tolerant.

  21. They don't lose their selves (the nafs).

    Rather, they recognize the reality that everything is a servant of Allah and has been given to us by Him. There is nothing worthy of worship except Allah; so, it is up to us to submit.

  22. They have glad tidings.

Constriction and Expansion

Further reflections from Surah al Zumar

And when harm befalls man, he calls upon his Lord, turning unto Him. Then when He bestows a blessing from Himself upon him, he forgets the One upon Whom he called before and sets up equals unto God...

I suffered from depression or, should I say, I suffered from my own choices. Depression is an affliction, no doubt. Ibn 'Abbas, may Allah be pleased with them, said that the foundation of this world is tribulation. Tribulation can take two forms; a test or a punishment, and this depends on our choices. Like Dres from Black Sheep said, “The choice is yours.”

To be clear, here, I'm talking about depression not induced by trauma. Where a trauma was involved, I don't want to blame the victim. My depression, though I don't know when it began, was a result of choices I made, not from any trauma inflicted upon me. It is a gift to be able to see that clearly. However, even when trauma is involved, we are responsible for the choices we make in response to that trauma. It's a huge, difficult pill to swallow, like trying to take a giant pill meant for a horse, but it's the truth that with reflection we can see clearly. One important aspect of any therapy is learning how to see from a different perspective and perspective is a choice.

Allah says that “when harm befalls man, he calls upon his Lord, turning to Him.” Harm is a constriction. Everything in this world is constriction or expansion. There is a duality that exists in this world. Light and dark, male and female, static and dynamic, majesty and beauty are all examples; one necessitates the other. The Arabic word used for harm, ḍur-run, can mean disadvantageous, like a constraint in wealth. The use of the word befalls is interesting though. Other translations say touch. The Arabic word used by Allah is mas-sa which can mean befall, but can also mean touch, handle, palpitate, violate, or cohabit. Touch is interesting given our reaction to the constriction which is usually disproportionate to what actually happened. Like a professional actor, I mean athlete, flying to ground when touched by another player, we fly off in anger when someone touches our sensitive pride.

“Then when He bestows a blessing from Himself upon him...” Ahh, expansion, relief, and then growth. Depression wasn't a constant state. There were times that I could forget about it and enjoy the moment or at least be caught up in something enough to forget about it. This is a blessing, an expansion or at least an opportunity for it. It is a blessing from Allah.

”...he forgets the One upon whom he called before and sets up equals unto God..” Truly we are a forgetful creation. The prophets were reminders. The Qur'an is a reminder. One of the best acts of worship is dhikr, a reminder. Salat is a reminder to reconnect with Allah. We forget Allah, may He forgive us and be merciful upon us. That is why some have said that every moment we exist, meaning being cognizant of ourself and not Allah, is a sin. The rub here is that not only do we forget, we setup partners to the One that gave us the blessing. We make progress in therapy and are told to be proud of our accomplishment as if we did something. It is a blessing from God. We had nothing to do with it. “B-b-b-but I did this and I did that.” Who gave you the life to do that? Who gave you the intellect to make that choice? Who gave you the will to follow through? Who gave you the physical ability, the various organs and muscles involved in doing that? Who created that choice that you chose? Glory be to God!

Hast thou considered the one who takes his caprice (ego/self) as his god?

Allah, Most Elavated, knows best. And may He forgive us our mistakes and allow us to cover them with that which is better.

Of God, of man, of this world

More reflections on Surah al Zumar

If you do not believe, surely God is beyond need of you. He is not pleased with disbelief for His servants. And if you are grateful, He is pleased therewith for you; and none shall bear the burden of another. Then unto your Lord is your return, and He shall inform you of that which you used to do. Truly He knows what lies within the breasts.

Allah speaks the truth and Glory to Him. This verse is an encapsulation of our existence, our existence in relation to Allah and this world. It contains within it indications of the Nature of Allah, the nature of man, and the nature of this world.

Allah is absolute, far beyond need of us or need of anything for that matter. Rather, everything that exists in the worlds exists because of Him. And not only do we exist because of Him, we are entirely dependent on Him every moment that we do exist. We are contingent beings; we are in need.

O mankind! You are needful of Allah; and He is Self-Sufficient, the Praised.

We are not just needful of Him when we think we are, when we want a new car, a new house, when we need clothes or food; rather, we are needful of Him every single moment, with every breath we take. He causes everything to exist and He causes everything to happen, every expansion of the heart, every contraction of the heart, every expansion of the lungs, every contraction of the lungs, every expansion of our sustenance, and every contraction of our sustenance. Furthermore, we need His pleasure.

We are His servants and every servant, while in a state of servitude, needs his master. Our disbelief in Him incurs His displeasure; our gratitude to Him incurs His pleasure. Disbelief in Him is equivalent to being ungrateful to Him. The Arabic word for disbelief is كفر (kufr) which comes from the word kafara which linguistically means to cover over. Disbelief then, literally, is to cover the blessings of Allah, to be ungrateful for them, to not acknowledge from Whom they came. It has quite unfortunately become common for people to thank the universe, or nature, or to just say thank you with the pronoun “you” having no referent. This is pure delusion, pure ingratitude, pure disbelief.

Those of us in this state should be wary of death, wary of our return to our Creator. Certainly, He is watching and, certainly, He will remind us of what we do. But, not just those of us in this state; rather, all of us have cause to worry for we can never be grateful enough for even the blessing of eyesight just like we can never be grateful enough to the mother that bore us for nine months and cared for us another year after that, much longer for some of us, while we could not care for ourselves. Being grateful is an action; it is something we do, not just feel. Our actions reflect how grateful we are and we are responsible for those actions.

He it is Who brought into being for you hearing, sight, and hearts. Little do you give thanks!

And Allah, the Most Elevated, knows best.

The Self and the Soul

A reflection from Surah al Zumar (Chapter of The Throngs)

“He created you from a single soul then from it its mate,” says Allah in the Qur'an.

This word soul is interesting. Soul is from the Old English sawol, meaning the spiritual and emotional part of a person, animate existence, or life, living being. The Arabic word used by Allah is nafs which could also be translated as self or ego. Self means your consciousness of your own identity while ego, in a metaphysics sense, means the self or that which feels, acts, or thinks. There is obviously some overlap here in the words soul and self/ego.

Elsewhere, Allah says, “Then He fashioned him, and breathed into him of His Spirit...”

The word standing in for ruh here is spirit which comes from the Latin spiritus meaning a breathing (respiration, and of the wind), breath or breath of a god. Spirit, then, would be the most accurate translation for ruh as it has the same meaning Allah indicated in this verse.

Nafs, however, is harder to pin down. The nafs is spoken of by Allah and commented on by the scholars as being something that can be refined, something that goes through developmental stages. Hence, it would seem that self might be more appropriate as it refers to being conscious of our own identity, more specifically, being conscious of our separation from God which is the essential suffering we experience in this world as indicated by some scholars. Ego could be a close second had it not the Freudian and common usage baggage attached to it. The nafs starts its path as being child-like, but has the potential to develop, moving past that essential suffering, into something that is reconnected to its Lord, content with its Lord, and its Lord content with it.

Allah says, “O thou self at peace! Return unto thy Lord, content, contenting...”

A final note and something that requires more research, the word nafs is feminine. Traditionally, the scholars have interpreted the verse I started with as referring to Adam, peace be upon him, understandably and far beyond me to question. I can't help wonder though. The word being feminine might indicate that it doesn't refer to Adam, as he was definitely masculine, and maybe refers to some other primordial creation. I know that the gender of words in languages such as Arabic don't always correspond to the object they signify, but they often do.

And Allah, Glory to Him and Most High is He, knows best.

He is al Lateef, the Subtle. Translated as Ever Kind, does Him not justice.

He is Subtle and Kind, Ever Kind and Ever Subtle, but isn't He Ever? He is Subtly Kind, Kind in Subtle Ways.

Like the mother to the child, He is to His servant, His slave, if only we knew.

If only we knew, that we are indeed slaves, that must submit, one way or another. If only we knew,

how Subtly Kind He is, the mother caring for her child, innumerable, the child doesn't realize. It's not born yet, it's not cognizant of others yet, It's not cognizant of its mother yet; entitled, spoiled, and we pray not rotten.

The gift of eyesight flings the worshipful rituals, of the five hundred year worshiper, off the scales.

So what of hearing, touch, smell, taste, balance?

And what of love, hope, justice, beauty, mercy, Mercy, MERCY?!

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