“Haq Maujood” by Sanam Marvi and Amanat Ali


I was really surprised this morning when I signed into my WordPress account and found so many comments awaiting moderation. At first, I thought I was getting spammed, but then I checked my blog statistics and noticed that my previous post, “And They Call Me Barbarian,” was featured on WordPress’s main page (or “freshly pressed” as it’s called, I’m told).  I’m a bit overwhelmed with the number of comments, likes, and followers I received in one day, but I would like to say a sincere thank you – to my regular readers and to my new ones – for your support and solidarity! I am truly grateful. :)

This post is inspired by the “Ramadan Mixtape” series over at Aslan Media. Music is such a powerful form of expression and I think it’s great that the website is collecting songs that inspire Muslims about faith, good action, and compassion. This Punjabi song by Pakistani singers Sanam Marvi and Amanat Ali is a Sufi devotional piece and one of my favorites. Marvi and Ali both have amazing voices, masha’Allah, and I absolutely Love how they sing this song in ecstatic praise of the Creator and Imam Ali (peace be upon him). All of the musicians performing this song make it a deeply moving experience. Click on “cc” in the video for the English translation.

Below are some of my favorite lyrics in the song. I hope everyone is having a beautiful Ramadan! :)

گھوم چرخڑا چرخڑا
Ghoom charakhra charakhra
Spin, spinning wheel!

گھوم چرخڑا سائیاں دا تیری کتن والی جیوے
Ghoom charakhra saainyyaan da teri kattan waali jeewe
Spin, Lord’s spinning wheel, long live the one who spins You

کتن والی جیوے
Kattan waali jeewe
Long live the one who spins You

لڑیاں وتن والی جیوے
Lariyaan kattan wali jeevay
Long live the one who spins Your strands

مینڈا عشق وی توں مینڈا یار وی توں
Mainda ishq wi toon mainda yaar wi toon
My Love is You, my beloved is You

مینڈا دین وی توں ایمان وی توں
Mainda deen wi toon imaan wi toon
My religion is You, faith is You

مینڈا جسم وی توں مینڈی روح وی توں
Mainda jism wi toon maindi rooh wi toon
My body is You, my soul is You

مینڈا قلب وی توں جند جان وی توں
Mainda qalb wi toon jind-jaan wi toon
My inner heart is You, my spirit and life is You

مینڈا کعبہ قبلہ مسجد ممبر مذہب تے قرآن وی توں
Mainda Ka’ba qibla masjid mimbir mazhab te Qur’aan wi toon
My prayer direction, mosque, pulpit, canon and Qur’an is You

میڈے فرض فریضے حج زکاتاں صوم صلات اذان وی توں
Maide farz fareezze hajj zakaattaan saum salaat azaan wi toon
My sacred duties, my pilgrimage, fasting, prayer, and call to prayer are You

مینڈا فکر وی توں مینڈا ذکر وی توں
Mainda fikar wi toon mainda zikar wi toon
My contemplation is You, my remembrance is You

مینڈا ذوق وی توں وجدان وی توں
Mainda zauq wi toon wajdaan bhi toon
My pleasure is You, my ecstasy is You

Wishing You a Blessed Ramadan!

Salaam readers,

I know it’s been a few months since I’ve updated my blog. I’ve had several ideas for blog posts, but haven’t had the time to write them yet. Insha’Allah, soon! I know we’re well into Ramadan, but I would still like to wish everyone a happy and blessed month!  May this month be a time of reflection, spiritual growth, and most of all, compassion.  May it bring communities together and guide us all closer to justice, peace, and liberation. Ameen.

Ramadan is the month in which the Holy Qur’an was revealed to our beloved Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, so one of my goals this year is to re-read the Qur’an and learn more about the life of the Prophet and his family (peace be upon them). Like for a billion Muslims around the world, Ramadan holds a special place in my heart and always reminds me about the importance of self-discipline, God-consciousness, and showing kindness to all of Allah’s creation.

Ramadan is not without its challenges. The major concern I have every year is not about abstaining from food and drinks before sunset, but rather how workplaces accommodate our religious holiday. Workplace discrimination against Muslims in the United States has been on the rise in recent years and it serves as a reminder of how deeply engrained Islamophobia and racism is. Aside from Islamophobic remarks and harassment, especially during Ramadan, it continues to amaze me how workplaces do not see the insulting double standard when they treat their employees to food baskets, greeting cards, and “holiday dinners” for Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Hanukkah, but won’t even acknowledge Ramadan. It also shocks me when workplaces are not prepared (e.g. not scheduling enough help) for iftar time, which prevents Muslims from opening their fast on time or not being able to have a full meal.

I have left voice mail messages and written numerous e-mails to various departments of my employer, encouraging them that recognizing Ramadan in the workplace in an appreciative and non-superficial manner would strengthen the company’s commitment to diversity (I have issues with the way “diversity” and politics of “inclusion” serve to center whiteness, but you get the point). So far, no response. Meanwhile, I anticipate ignorant and even racist remarks from co-workers when I inform them about my fasting throughout the month. It can be annoying how the usual response is, “Oh my God, don’t you get hungry?” or “That must be so hard!” The sentiment seemed to always be, “Oh, I feel so sorry for you; your religion is really strict.”  It’s interesting when I reflect on how fasting became another way for me to resist Islamophobia and racism. At a very young age, I never wanted to show my white non-Muslim friends, classmates, teachers, and bosses that Ramadan was a difficult time for me. Instead, I learned to embrace the holiday and told them that they didn’t need to feel sorry for me and that it was offensive if they did. “I choose to fast,” I told them, “Ramadan is a special and joyous month for us.”

Anyway, I know the ignorance and bigotry is part of the challenge and struggle against Islamophobia at large. I don’t believe in shaming or scolding people for being angry, so when I say that Allah teaches us to be patient and steadfast, I don’t mean it in a condescending way, but rather as a recognition of struggle. As Allah teaches us in the Qur’an, the Divine presence is always close and near to us:

(Prophet), if My servants ask you about Me, say that I am near (to them). I respond to those who call upon Me. Let them, then, respond to Me, and believe in Me, so that they may be guided. – Qur’an 2:186

I have noticed that some Muslims can be discouraging of others by monitoring the way they pray, how they open their fast, how they express themselves, etc. Judgmental attitudes from some fellow Muslims tends to ruin the spirit of Ramadan and I think invalidating a person’s feelings is cruel and un-Islamic. There are some Muslims, for example, who are unable to fast for various reasons. There are some Muslims who choose not to fast for various reasons. As a friend told me, instead of judging and ridiculing these individuals, we should focus on our sense of community by practicing compassion and understanding without any condescension, sense of “superiority,” or arrogant and self-righteous preaching. Here is a beautiful Hadith that highlights on how integral compassion is to Islam:

The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) would kiss his daughter Fatima (peace be upon her), talk to her, confide in her, and have her sit by his side, without paying attention to the remarks or even the criticisms that his behavior would give rise to. Once he kissed Hassan (peace be upon him), Fatima’s son, in front of a group, who were startled. One of them, Aqra ibn Habis, expressed his shock and said: ‘I have ten children and I have never kissed any one of them.’ The Prophet answered: ‘One who has no compassion for others is not entitled to compassion (from God).’ – Sahih al-Muslim (narrated by Tariq Ramadan, Qur’anic translation from Al-Islam.org)

On a similar note, Aslan Media is currently running a Ramadan “mixtape” series where Muslim writers and artists share their favorite tunes for the holy month. On today’s post, I shared Abida Parveen’s song “Assan Ishq Namaz” because of its beautiful and powerful vocals and lyrics. Here are my thoughts about the song:

Music by Pakistani living legend Abida Parveen never fails to inspire and mesmerize me. Her divinely-inspired voice passionately expresses the deeper themes of divine love, sorrow, and longing that are often found in Islamic mystical/Sufi poetry. In this song, she sings famous verses by renowned 17th century Punjabi poet Bulleh Shah. I love her ability to infuse so much pure emotion into the original poem and express how meaningful the lyrics are. The song opens with these important and relevant verses:

Parh parh ilm hazaar kitaaban
qaddi apnay aap nou parhiya naee
jaan jaan warhday mandir maseedi
qaddi mann apnay wich warhiya naee
aa-vain larda aye shaitan de naal bandeaa
qaddi nafss apnay naal lariya naee.

[Yes, you have read thousands of books,
but you have never tried to read your own self;
you rush in, into your Temples, into your Mosques,
but you have never tried to enter your own heart;
futile are all your battles with Satan,
for you have never tried to fight your own desires.]

This message of self-reflection, humility, and holding one’s self accountable captures the compassionate heart of Islam and is conveyed so powerfully when Parveen sings it. Bulleh Shah reminds us that when we judge others or perceive ourselves as “more pious” or “superior,” we fall into arrogance, hypocrisy, and failure to see our own faults. I believe these lyrics are relevant to social justice struggles as well and how self-critique and accountability is needed so that we don’t reproduce oppressive forces in our own movements. It is respect and compassion for every human being that makes Bulleh Shah’s message so beautiful and Islamic.

May Ramadan guide us to bettering ourselves and the societies in which we live. Ameen. I end this entry by sharing another amazing song by Abida Parveen, “Soz-e-Ishq.” I listened to it one day after sehri time and fajr prayer and it was such a soulful and soothing moment. The vocals, the lyrics, the music composition and arrangement – everything about it is so incredibly beautiful and spiritually moving (click on “cc” for the English translation). Enjoy!

Fire Under Water


Their cold-hearts cast you out.
Here, beneath motionless skies
where all that would shine
is tinted in monochrome.

The taste of winter air
slithers into your lungs
and exhales as a trembling sigh –
cold smoke falling from your lips,
curling downward and vanishing
into icy waters.

Thousands of books
are sinking in this ocean:
mistranslations, romanticized histories
distorted facts, lies against humanity.

Pages too ashamed to show their faces,
longing to tear themselves out of binding;
black ink too ashamed of the words it was forced to write,
longing to drain its blood into non-existence –
both welcome death at sea.

You watch from the shore
shivering in the arcane chill;
the world still bleeds,
the sound of violence echoes from afar,
bombs, gunfire, voices crying out –
the roar of this distant thunder
growling louder like an oncoming storm.
You mourn for all those nameless, faceless people;
those who were called friends, Lovers,
mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters:
their last breath lingering in the air you breathe.

Tears begin to flow;
your black funeral cloak
blowing in the wintry breeze,
unfurling like a banner
with grieving strokes of poetry
painted in red upon its flowing cloth,
reminding that mystery we call ‘soul’
about Karbala’s tearful tragedy.

O broken spirit,
listen to the drumbeat in your heart
throbbing like the tabla
harmonized with ecstatic Qawwali praise,
a song for martyrs is taking flight.
Feel that unseen being within
pounding like a relentless hammer
at the exit door of your chest –
screaming to break open,
pleading to be seen,
to escape this lonely chamber.

The music strikes like lightning,
like a firestorm erupting in your veins,
hot sparks bursting in your blood –
pulsing chaos in fiery crimson –
electric currents charging through skin,
igniting body into mystic fire.

Burning rhythm
possessing you in its divine rapture,
locking you in its surreal magnetism;
your arms spread, palms open,
calling energy from heaven and earth;
your head swinging in euphoria
the wind racing through your hair –
everything is spinning round,
spin with it, O friend!
whirl in the direction of Mecca’s pilgrims!
slam your bare feet onto the ice
crush this frozen glass, melt this misery,
dance upon cool waters
and watch steam ascend.

The music leaps to your lungs
and escapes, bursts into a desperate cry –
a voice so passionate and fierce,
wailing in all of its agony,
crying out for Creator, for that One,
for peace, for reunion;
crying out for justice –
to drown out the hell that is war,
to blast every drone out of the sky,
to halt every soldier on the battlefield,
to lock every weapon in eternal ceasefire,
to blot out the lies and have truth revealed;
a cry so loud and raging –
to wake up the masses,
to shatter the colonial implant in our minds,
to demolish the pillars of supremacy,
to smash every spy camera invading our privacy,
to cut the plug that wired us to this machine.

You want to charge, you want to march onward,
but an icy tentacle from the ocean below
wraps around your legs –
in a swift, violent tug
it pulls you under.
Suddenly, all this heat
is swallowed again by winter.

Frozen blades pierce into your body,
shattered glass cutting into your skin;
all of your thoughts flooded
by cruel, crashing tides.
You fight to swim skyward
as you sink deeper
into this sea of lies –
desperate hands stretched, reaching
for anything to hold,
anything to survive.

Your thoughts call out to Creator,
begging for answers, praying for a hand
to reach down below.
You have fought this battle before,
but the hatred, the violence, the apathy –
the waves are too powerful now.

Just when you think this is the end,
a small, radiant orb of light
descends towards your begging hands
Remember, dear heart, it says,
God is in the darkness, too.

You have sung so many ghazals of sorrow,
spent so many days grieving separation,
wept so many tears for the Friend,
sought so many answers to erase your fears;
I have listened, I have understood –
I am Here.

O faithful follower,
feel this warm breath
wisp across your face,
God wants you alive.
You will not drown
in this death before death.

Catch this eternal flame,
place it in your heart,
and I will set you ablaze.
Become on fire for Me,
shine like Zulfiqar;
burn, glow – in all of your beauty
as fire under water.

~ Jehanzeb

Imam Hussain, Love, and Social Justice

I know I mentioned to a few friends that I was taking a brief hiatus from blogging, but since it is the month of Muharram, I wanted to share a few thoughts about Imam Hussain, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon them both), and how his martyrdom in the Battle of Karbala still carries significance today.

Before I continue, it seems impossible to talk about the events of Karbala without also acknowledging the spiritual diversity within Islam. Unfortunately, Orientalist discourses, particularly on the differences between Sunni and Shia Muslims, have produced many misconceptions and distortions about Islam. It is also disheartening when Muslims internalize these stereotypes and reproduce Orientalist narratives which create barriers towards intra-community dialogue, understanding, and respect.  For instance, whenever discussions arise about “different sects” in Islam, it is often code for anything that is not Sunni.  Sunni Islam, which represents the majority of Muslims worldwide, is not only the dominant and central focus of discourse, but also regarded as the “true” or “authentic” Islam. The implication, whether intended or unintended, becomes about casting non-Sunni Muslims as the groups that “deviated” and splintered off into “their own version” of Islam.

While I was raised Sunni, there was a point in my spiritual journey when my research on Sufism intersected with Shi’ism. For about 3-4 years now, certain Shia beliefs have been very central to my faith, such as believing that Imam Ali was the rightful successor of the Prophet. I also believe in the infallibility of all God’s messengers and the Panjtan Paak (The Holy Five, or Ahl-ul-Bayt/People of the House), the latter being (1) Prophet Muhammad, (2) his daughter Fatima, (3) his cousin  and son-in-law Ali, and his two grandsons (4) Hassan and (5) Hussain (peace and blessings upon them all).  As with Sufism, I didn’t see Shi’ism as a “separate religion,” but rather as an expansion of my knowledge of Islam. Sufism, for example, is a term I use to identify the deeper and mystical teachings in Islam, not something “outside” of Islam (Sufis can be either Sunni or Shia, though there tends to be a lot of overlapping with Shi’ism).

Differences in theology and practice does not stop me from seeing Sunni Muslims, Ismailis, Ahmadis, and others as my brothers and sisters in Islam.  I don’t look at issues confronting Sunni-majority communities or countries and think to myself, “Well, that’s a Sunni issue, I don’t have to worry about.”   I believe in real unity of Muslims. That is, unity based upon understanding, respect, and appreciation of spiritual diversity, not “unity” based on conformity to one monolithic school of thought.  I strongly believe that Faith is very personal, so rather than endlessly debate about who is “right” and who is “wrong,” I believe our communities should not only have discussions rooted in the Islamic teachings of compassion and brother/sisterhood, but also put those teachings of compassion into practice by respecting one another.  As Prophet Muhammad once said, “One who has no compassion for others is not entitled to compassion (from God)” (Reported in Sahih al-Bukhari & Muslim).

Despite my not seeing Shi’ism separate from so-called “mainstream Islam,” I also have to understand my privileges because my community identity is still Sunni.  What I mean by this is that when I attend Sunni Mosques or social gatherings with my family, I don’t have to worry about being stigmatized in the same way a Shia family might. I have the privilege to avoid that stigma by not “outing” my Shia beliefs because people know my family is Sunni, therefore I, too, must be Sunni.  Orientalists perpetuate misconceptions about Sunnis and Shias by persistently discussing the “Sunni and Shia” divide within the context of “sectarian violence.”  It is equally important to have this critique while also not glossing over the way Twelver Shias, Ismailis, Ahmadis, and other non-Sunni Muslim groups are stigmatized and persecuted by Sunni-majority governments (many of which adopt or are influenced by Wahhabi ideology, not to mention being simultaneously backed and exploited by western imperialist powers). Furthermore, it is easy to say, “All Muslims should just call themselves ‘Muslim,'” when one has never had to deal with the struggles faced by non-Sunni Muslims.  Of course all Muslims self-identify as Muslim, but it is also important to not ignore the reality in which non-Sunni Muslims are treated differently due to their beliefs.  Rather than calling on Muslims to their erase their diverse identities for the sake of a problematic “melting pot” and assimilationist ideal, we should be appreciative and respectful of these differences.

There are a lot of great books and sources available to learn more about the spiritual diversity in Islam, so instead of delving into those rich and complex histories, I will focus on the events of Karbala and the lessons all of us, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, can learn from Imam Hussain’s stand against the tyrant Yazid.  Regardless of theological differences, all Muslims recognize that Imam Hussain and his 72 soldiers were brutally massacred by Yazid’s army of 5,000 (some sources report 30,000) on the tenth day of Muharram, known as “The Day of Ashura.” Differences surface in the way Imam Hussain’s martyrdom is commemorated or observed by various Muslim groups, but the stand against Yazid, a man who appointed himself as Caliph without council or election, is remembered as resistance against corruption and oppression.  Despite the insurmountable odds, Imam Hussain stood firmly in the face of tyranny for the sake of reviving the message of Islam and spiritual leadership for all Muslims. In a beautiful manqabat (Sufi devotional poem) written by Pakistani poet Hafeez Jalandhari and sung by the late Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Imam Hussain’s defiance is expressed in vivid detail:

Libaas hai phata hua, ghubaar mein ata hua
Tamaam jism-e-nazneen, chida hua, kata hua
Yeh kon ziwiqaar hai, bala ka shahsawaar hai
Ke hai hazaar qaatilon ke samne data hua

Yeh bilyaqeen Hussain hai
Nabi ka noor-e-ain hai

(Translated from Urdu)

His dress is torn, with mud it is worn
His splendid, delicate body is cut, slashed, and torn
Who is this dignified, master horseman?
Who is standing his ground in front of an army of thousands?

Indeed it is Hussain, it is Hussain
The Light of the Prophet’s eyes, it is Hussain

The poem describes the violent wounds inflicted upon Imam Hussain’s body, yet emerging from all of the pain, suffering, and tragedy of Karbala is praise for the Prophet’s grandson and his unwavering spirit of resistance.  Even though Imam Hussain and his army of 72 were slaughtered, it is their stand against injustice that remains eternal and serves as a reminder for the oppression that exists in our present world.  As it is stated in the Qur’an: “Do not think of those who have been killed in God’s way as dead. No, they are alive with their Lord, well provided for” (3:169).  Indeed, the physical body dies, but it is the soul that lives on. The message of what those individuals stood for lives through the people who follow their example.  In fact, Imam Hussain’s famous quote on the day of Ashura powerfully captures the call for social justice: “Every day is Ashura and every land is Karbala.”  The narration reminds Muslims that injustice is everywhere and that every day must be lived with consciousness of our responsibilities in the constant struggle to end all forms of oppression.  Values such as selflessness, serving humanity, aiding those in need, and trusting in a higher power should be implemented in each day of our lives.   Prior to the Battle of Karbala, Imam Hussain asked fellow Muslims for assistance, but many of them did not help or speak out.  We learn about the importance of being mindful of our privileges and not neglecting or being complicit in the oppression of others.

Since Prophet Muhammad is taught to be the role model for all Muslims, it is interesting to explore how poetic praise of Imam Hussain symbolizes the way he followed the example of the Prophet.  In the poem above, Jalandhari illuminates the intimate relationship between Hussain and his grandfather by referring to the former as the noor (light) of “the Prophet’s eyes.” This special praise for Imam Hussain is not uncommon in Sufi poetry, but there is often a perception that such expressions of Love are shirk (generally translated as idolatry or polytheism). To overcome such unfortunate misunderstandings, which tend to cause judgmental attitudes among Muslims, it might be helpful to remind ourselves that there are infinite ways to show Love and devotion for God.  Because someone glorifies the Prophet’s grandson does not mean they are worshiping Hussain, but rather commemorating and celebrating him. Imam Hussain stood up for the rights of all human beings by sacrificing himself, but is self-sacrifice or martyrdom the one and only way to express one’s commitment to justice?  Of course not.  It is the essence that matters.  So, while one person may express Love for God by exalting God’s name in prayer, another person may be expressing Love for the Divine by showing Love for God’s creation.  This is not shirk, but rather demonstrating that serving/Loving humanity also means to serve/Love God.

According to Syed Akbar Hyder, author of “Reliving Karbala: Martyrdom in South Asian Memory,” the following is probably the most recited Persian quatrain in South Asia, even by those who do not speak or understand the language:

Shah ast Hussain, badshah ast Hussain
Deen ast Hussain, Deen panah ast Hussain
Sar dad na dad dast dar dast-e-Yazid,
Haqqa key bina-e la ilah ast Hussain

King is Hussain, Emperor is Hussain
Religion is Hussain, the refuge for religion is Hussain
(He) gave up his head, but did not give his hands in the hands of Yazid
The truth is that the foundation of la ilaha (negation of all gods except God) is Hussain

This poem, written by Indian Sufi master (khwaja/pir)  Muinuddin Chisti (d. 1236 C.E.), was also popularized in a Qawwali (South Asian Sufi devotional songs) by the aforementioned Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.  As Hyder illustrates:

The truth, according to this thirteenth-century Sufi (Chisti), is that the very core of Islam, its essential creed of tawhid, or Divine Unity, ‘la ilaha illa lah Muhammadan rasul Allah,’ or ‘there is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is His messenger,’ is Hussain. Since Hussain refused to pay allegiance to Yazid, in spite of having to make innumerable sacrifices, he is projected as an embodiment of Islam’s creed that refuses to acknowledge any power other than that of God. (emphasis added)

Related is how philosopher and poet Allama Muhammad Iqbal (d. 1938) centered on Karbala’s religious symbolism in conjunction with the “political project to unite and mobilize Muslims, especially the Muslim minorities in the South Asian subcontinent.”  Iqbal not only connected his “evocations of Karbala and martyrdom” to the “subsequent discourses of anti-colonialism and nationalism,” but he also saw the spiritual and political message of the Qur’an in Imam Hussain himself.  As he passionately articulates in Persian:

Ramz-e-Qur’an az Hussain amukhtim
za-atish-e-ou shola ha andukhtim

I learned the lesson of the Qur’an from Hussain
In his fire, like a flame, I burn

Since the beginning of Muharram this year, I have been reflecting on these words, which I feel prompt the question: “Well, what is the lesson of the Qur’an?”  Much of what Imam Hussain’s martyrdom means for us to resist oppression has been written above, but I also think there needs to be a critical analysis of the way we discuss religion and religious symbolism, especially within the context of social justice.  For example, when we talk about Islamophobia, racism, and military occupation of Muslim-majority lands, we often think exclusively about male experiences.  An article on anti-Muslim violence against Muslim women was recently published on AltMuslimah and highlighted on this point of male-centrism, not to diminish or negate male experiences with Islamophobia and racism, but rather to address the way racist and violent attacks on Muslim women have been remarkably ignored by Muslim civil rights groups, mainstream western media, and American women’s rights organizations. When the Qur’an says, “There is cause to act against those who oppress people and transgress in the land against all justice” (42:42), it is not only relevant to struggles against racism, classism, and war, but also sexism, misogyny, and sexual violence because all of these forms of oppression intersect. Racism, classism, and war produce distinct forms of oppression against women, specifically women of color, as sexism, misogyny, and sexual violence are integral to the larger structures of white supremacist power, heteropatriarchal domination, and state violence.

When we talk about Imam Hussain’s commitment to justice, equality, and liberation – all of which mirrors the Qur’an – we must think of ending all forms of oppression, whether they be racism, sexism, classism, abliesm, homophobia, etc.  We must have this discussion because without centering intersectionality politics in social justice struggles and honestly examining the problems that exist in our own communities, we undermine the values we claim to be standing for.  We look very hypocritical when some of us are commemorating the memory of Imam Hussain, but then participate in rape culture by blaming rape victims. We perpetuate victim blaming logic when we, on the one hand, claim Islam is about brother/sisterhood, but then, on the other hand, accuse the Muslim men and women beaten by police officers at an American theme park of “victimizing themselves” or “being at fault.”  We demonstrate failure in understanding of our spiritual teachings when we exalt Hazrat Fatima (peace be upon her), but then deny women equal rights in Mosques, schools, workplaces, etc. Although it is crucial to fight Islamophobia and demand for our rights in non-Muslim majority countries like the United States, where is the compassion when anti-racist and anti-imperialist critiques of an administration that bombs, kills, and rapes Afghan, Iraqi, and Pakistani bodies in Muslim-majority nations are ridiculed, insulted, or ignored by Muslim representatives of civil rights groups?  Religious context or not, how do fully understand what interconnectedness of humanity means when some of us are only talking about unity, acceptance, and respect inside the United States?

As previously mentioned, sacrificing one’s self for justice is not the only expression of resistance or activism, even though bell hooks’ reminder about struggle comes to mind: “Struggle is rarely safe or pleasurable.”  Prophet Muhammad once said, “If you see a wrong, you should stop it with your hand; if you cannot, then you should speak out against it; if not that, then at least condemn it in your heart, that being the weakest form of faith” (Sahih Muslim). It is easy to see how Imam Hussain exemplified this Hadith in his life, but also worth examining is the internal struggle. That is, Imam Hussain spoke out against injustice, even if it was in his own community. In our present reality, Muslim communities, like all communities, are no exception to sexism and misogyny.  Muslim men obsessing over the way Muslim women dress, for example, comes from patriarchal entitlement and sense of male “ownership” of women’s bodies.   Denying women prayer space or refusing to engage in dialogue about gender segregation in Mosques (and this is mostly in the mainstream Sunni context since there are other Muslim groups who do not have gender segregation in Mosques) not only perpetuates sexism, but also seeks to marginalize and silence critiques of patriarchal interpretations of Islam and the Qur’an. Asma Barlas, author of “‘Believing Women’ in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’an,” asserts that the Qur’an is egalitarian and anti-patriarchal. Misogynistic interpretations of the Qur’an, argues Barlas, do not stem from the teachings of the Qur’an, but rather from history of Muslim men who have interpreted the text to speak to their own realities while excluding or interpreting experiences of Muslim women.

Some of the poems I shared above can probably be read as patriarchal, but if we critique them with Asma Barlas’ thesis in mind, we can reinterpret them as expressions of Love for Imam Hussain rather than “evidence” that somehow only male figures in Islam carry such importance.  Shia scholars have written that one cannot mention Imam Ali without mentioning Hazrat Fatima (Prophet Muhammad’s daughter) because she was “his companion in life and suffering.”  They also contend that one cannot mention her children Hassan, Hussain, and Zainab without mentioning Hazrat Fatima because she was “the secret of their personalities throughout their lives.”  The Prophet Muhammad once said of Hazrat Fatima:

Fatima is part of me; whoever angers her, angers me and whoever harms her, harms me (Sahih al-Bukhari, Muslim, Tirmadhi, Musnad Ahmad: v.4, p. 328., Khasaes An-Nisaee: p.35)

Elsewhere, the Prophet said:

Surely, God is angered when you (Fatima) are angered, and is pleased when you are pleased. (Mustadrak al-Hakim: v.3, p.154., Tadhkirat al-Bast: p.175., Maqtal al-Khawarazmi: v.1, p.54., Kefayat At-Talib: p.219., Kanz al-Umal: v.7, p.111., Sawiq: p.105)

This link between Hazrat Fatima and Prophet Muhammad and God is quite remarkable when read within the context of patriarchal interpretations of Islam as well as western non-Muslim accusations that Islam is “inherently sexist.”  I remember when I first started reading Shia works about Hazrat Fatima, I was surprised to learn that she is a role model for both women and men.  As one scholar writes:

When we present Fatima as a role model, we are not talking about women only. We present her as a role model for both men and women because she is a constituent element of Islam and the Muslim people as a whole, not just of women.

Another scholar writes of Asma bint Omais, the wife of Jafar ibn Abi Talib, who asked the Prophet if any verses of the Qur’an were revealed in regard to women. She asked the Prophet if women were “caught with loss and detriment,”  to which the Prophet asked, “Why?”  Asma replied, “Because in Islam and the Qur’an no virtue has been announced in relation to them as there has been for men.”  The Prophet replied with this verse from the Qur’an:

Surely, the men who submit and the women who submit, and the believing men and the believing women, and the obeying men and the obeying women, and the truthful men and the truthful women, and the patient men and the patient women, And the humble men and the humble women, and the almsgiving men and the almsgiving women, and the fasting men and the fasting women, and the men who guard their modesty and the women who guard, and the men who remember God much and the women who remember God much: God has prepared for them forgiveness and a great reward. (Qur’an 33:35)

In respect to this verse, many male scholars agree that the Qur’an stresses on equal values for women and men.  Of course, this is not to gloss over how many of these scholars assert sexist attitudes towards women’s role in society, but it is interesting to read their own words against them!  Having said that, if women and men are equal, as the Qur’an teaches, then we must see violations against gender equality as injustice. Similarly, if Muhammad is to be the role model for all Muslims, then so should Fatima, whether one believes both of them to be infallible or not. Indeed, Fatima and her daughter Zainab endured hardship and challenges throughout their lives, and while some poetic praises from Muslim men honor these women, they tend to focus more on their sorrow than their immensely active political roles.  Hazrat Fatima constantly questioned authority up until her death, while Hazrat Zainab was taken prisoner by Yazid, but never submitted to his rule. On the contrary, she constantly condemned him, despite the risk of being executed herself.  Iqbal often writes of Hussain’s greatness because he is the son of Fatima, but Iqbal also goes further to say that had it not been for God’s laws of monotheism, he would have “gone round and round her (Fatima’s) grave-site” and “would have done sajdah (prostration) on her grave.”  Although Iqbal is known to challenge patriarchal Muslim jurists in regard to women’s rights, his conservative views on gender need to be critiqued.  It simply makes no sense for Muslim men to celebrate women like Khadijah, Fatima, and Zainab and yet persist with sexist attitudes and practices that aim to relegate women to the background.

Lastly, I think there needs to be a critique of Love and the way it is presented in relation to Islam and the Qur’an.  If Love is equality for all human beings, regardless of race, gender, class, sexual orientation, etc., then Love is foundational to Islam.  Orientalists offer a very simplistic understanding of mourning in the Twelver Shia tradition and fail to highlight on the multiple ways people express their grief and sorrow during Muharram. What they also fail to emphasize is that Imam Hussain’s martyrdom was one of Love, i.e. Love of the Divine and Love for humanity. Sufism is not immune to Orientalist misrepresentations either, as we find many western New Age writers, poets, and musicians participate in spiritual appropriation.  For example, poetry by the 13th century Sufi poet Jalaluddin Rumi are shamelessly mistranslated and distorted by Coleman Barks and others who do not speak Farsi and go as far as deliberately omitting Rumi’s Islamic references. When one reads these New Age “translations,” one might think of Sufi poetry as merely “universal” and “inspirational” quotes with an “exotic flare.”  Of course Sufi poems are inspiring, passionate, and breathtaking, but incredibly rich and complex cultural, religious, and literary themes are lost in western New Age romanticism and appropriation.  For instance, the way the poems I shared earlier shift so fluidly from the grief of Karbala to praise of Imam Hussain reflect the larger Sufi theme of joy and sorrow mirroring one another. This theme is rooted in the Qur’anic verses: “God will grant after hardship, ease” and “truly, with every hardship, there is ease/relief” (65:7, 94:5-6).

These verses are proven by the struggles of Muhammad, Khadijah, Ali, Fatima, Hussain, Hassan, and Zainab.  Further, we are reminded that Love is not without struggle or endurance through hardship.  Interestingly, I’ve noticed in some casual conversations that there is a general misinterpretation of the relationship between joy and sorrow.  Some say such poetry is “too depressing,” while others say it “idealizes” suffering.  On the contrary, poems that speak of struggle on the path of Love are deeper expressions of the human soul; it’s longings, desires, sorrows, joys, uncertainties, etc.  Zeb-un-Nisa (d. 1702 C.E.), who is reported to have participated in the mourning of Muharram, writes the following about Love:

Here is the path of Love—how dark and long
Its winding ways, with many snares beset!
Yet crowds of eager pilgrims onward throng
And fall like doves into the fowler’s net.

Despite the “winding ways” on the “path of Love,” she illustrates how the seekers/Lovers persist, even if the end result is doom.  Like many Sufi poets, Zeb-un-Nisa refers to Love in her poetry as Love for God, so there is a fitting analogy that can apply to Imam Hussain’s struggle in the way of God/Love.  One of my personal favorite verses from Zeb-un-Nisa beautifully captures God’s assurance of relief after hardship:

And see the thorny waste
Whereon your bruised feet their pathway traced,
This wilderness, touched by your blood that flows,
Blooms fragrant as the rose.

I don’t read poems like this as merely romanticizing pain or suffering, but rather as acknowledging that struggle exists in our lives.  Struggle manifests itself differently for everyone, which underlines the importance of being aware of our privileges and responsibilities.  As we reflect on Ashura, we can also use this time to bring our communities closer together.  If we believe the Qur’an’s message of peace, Love, respect, and liberation for all human beings  is represented in Imam Hussain’s stand against tyranny, we must recognize the Karbalas that exist in the present world – Palestine, Kashmir, Afghanistan, the Native American land that we non-Natives occupy, everywhere.  Love within the context of social justice eliminates domination and establishes commitment to others, no matter where the oppressed are found, as Paulo Freire writes. bell hooks adds that Love is also about understanding that all of us, irrespective of race, class, gender, etc. have “acted in complicity with the existing oppressive system.”  Understanding our complicities serves as a reminder to keep ourselves in check and not recreate oppressive hierarchies in social justice movements.  Our commitment to interconnectedness with others, consciousness of our own responsibilities, and fighting all forms of oppression everywhere is, like the struggles of Muhammad, Fatima, Hussain, and Zainab, rooted in Love.

Every day is Ashura and every land is Karbala.

Soul Twin

I wait for you.

Like a messianic prophecy
that will someday come true.

We existed together
before creation of the universe,
somewhere beyond ideas of time,
space and matter.

Elements we became,
stardust fallen from the heavens,
risen upon earth
in beautiful skin and bone.

Separate we are,
histories of our own,
yet sharing a dream
that sometimes seems
too far-fetched to understand.

I search for you.

Like mystics possessed by longing
for unity with God.

Deep in the city of my soul,
walking through the remains
of shattered dreams
and haunted memories,
the cold stare of phantoms
remind me of the battles
that were fought,
all of the pain and agony
that was endured.

There are whispers here
amongst the dark ruins,
voices that speak of the One,
a companion who will come
fulfilling a truth forgotten.

The roses I find in the dark
are signs of your presence,
I have not seen your face,
but I know you are here,
existing within me,
where I am also
within you.

Our souls overlapping,
walking, sometimes racing
towards one another;
journey onward, say the voices,
across the oceans,
the fields, the mountains.
Reunion is close,
slowly coming into view
like darkness fading to dawn.
Don’t give up, friend,
follow the signs
for they are rays of light
cast from the Beloved.

I breathe with you
and you with me,
reciting holy verses
to bridge distanced hearts,
like poetry we are,
music in perfect harmony;
Believe –
meld your flame with mine,
we’ll make a firestorm together,
fierce and passionate
like strokes of lightning,
flashing in their wild splendor,
lighting up the skies
for all eyes to see;
and like bursts of hot energy
shooting beams of fiery light,
we’ll strike the earth,
burning and melting the illusions
to set our prisoner-selves free.

We’ll wake from this dream-world,
and become crowned
on the throne of Love
in our transcendent reality.
We’ll enter the garden
and become whole again,
lit by the torch of Angels,
shining ablaze in our immortality.

Feel this union in meditation,
in a place where separation fades away;
only you can understand this magic
that drives the journey through.

Know that when I dance for God,
I am also dancing for you.

~ Jehanzeb

Awaken

p20

BURNING at the center
of mere being
there is a radiant star
blazing in all of its agony
to reveal a secret
that you never knew existed.

You are asleep
haunted by the phantoms
of illusory dream-world;
caught and entangled
in the chaos
of false liberation.

Awaken
to the sound of
shockwaves tearing
across the sky
as the whirling dervish rotates
with the dance of the universe;
pound the drum that stimulates
the mystery of heart and soul;
listen to the rhythm that pulsates
with mystic solar energy
of time immemorial.

You are dizzy
lost in this ecstatic high
ailing from confusion
the dervish says:
you have been drinking poison
all of your life
you have been a victim
of a sadistic science experiment
reprogrammed by greedy corporations
implanted with falsehood
artificiality of living
you are an android
dreaming to be
human.

Unplug yourself
From the lies
From deceit and deception
From the fear and misery
Unplug
From the system.

Come, this way
to the open field
where the blade of sunlight
pierces through darkness;
open your mouth
and drink some of this
become absorbed
in this hyper trance
turn, spin, whirl
up, down, left, right
let go
and become
nameless, faceless
directionless.

Discover your luminary self
conquer dizziness
burn through the shell
of temporal chrysalis;
radiate like celestial fire
emerge and bloom
into flowery madness.

Yes, you know who you are
You are here to set the world ablaze;
open your eyes
with the flame of ignited stars
and see the universe
that was created with One Divine Breath.

Inhale and exhale with that.

A Personal Reflection on Shab-e-Miraj

muharraqi_image53
Tonight marks the night when our beloved Prophet Muhammad, peace and Love be upon him, ascended to the seven heavens with the guidance of the archangel Gabriel. His ascension took place from Jerusalem, where he was carried into the heavens on a flying horse named Al-Buraq. This miraculous night journey is one of the most important events in Islamic history because it not only established daily prayer in the Muslim way of life, but also tested the Faith of Muhammad’s companions. Traveling to Jerusalem, leading prayer with all the Abrahamic Prophets, and being carried into the Seven Heavens seemed unbelievable to many people at the time. How could anyone believe him?

When the Prophet returned from his journey, fellow Muslims even doubted what the Prophet was saying. Some people approached the Prophet’s friend, Abu Bakr (may Allah be pleased with him) and said, “Look at what your companion is saying. He says he went to Jerusalem and came back in one night!” Abu Bakr replied, “If Muhammad said it happened, then it must have happened. I believed him when he first talked about Divine Revelation, why should I doubt him now?” On this occasion, Abu Bakr earned the famous title of “As-Siddiq” (the Truthful).

Al-Miraj was discussed at my Mosque a few months ago and I remember the speech was so moving that it made me reevaluate certain things in my life. As many of my friends know, I felt that my spiritual journey truly began in 2002 when I started to persistently and diligently question everything. In that time, I felt that I discovered the importance of prayer by actively questioning it: Why do we pray? Because we’re told, or because we truly understand the significance of detaching from the material world and reminding ourselves to be mindful of Allah’s Greatness and Omnipresence?

Over the years, prayer has been a special part of my life and I always strive to capture the true essence of it rather than doing it ritualistically. But there was something different about the speech that was given at my Mosque a few months ago. We were taught that prayer was given to us by Allah as a Gift. It was a reminder, yes, I recalled reading in the Qur’an several times that prayer is for our benefit, but at the same time, it was a new perspective. As the speaker put it, “Allah told Muhammad, ‘Tell your followers that if they want to experience Miraj, this is it, salaat (prayer).'”

As I reflect on Al-Isra and Al-Miraj, I think about all the wonderful people I’ve met in the past year or two and how grateful I am for knowing them and calling them my friends. It’s a beautiful thing to share some of my spiritual experiences with friends who can relate to them, and it’s also great to be awestruck by all the beauties that unfold before us every day (we just have to do our best to be mindful of them). Beauties that we often call “coincidences” and then overlook them without realizing how significant and special those experiences are. Today, for example, I found a quote that I’ve been searching for for a quite some time now. And I found it in a book that resonates with special meaning to me. It’s by an Islamic mystic (Sufi) woman in the late 9th century:

Being in the company of one’s spiritual brethren in this world is the consolation for being in the abode of materiality. ~ Oum Abdullah

It’s so easy to get discouraged in the motions of life, but it’s a blessing to have your true friends around; people who listen, care, and understand. Just like the Prophet’s ascension to the seven heavens, this kind of friendship, brother/sisterhood, and Love cannot be measured empirically. I feel with all my heart that the friendships I’m blessed with are transcendent of the materialistic world that tries to keep us stressed, afraid, worried, and sad.

May Allah bless our beloved Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, his family, his companions, and all of the Prophets. And may Allah bless you, my dear friends :)

Peace, Love, and Light

~Jehanzeb