Despair and The Plight of Progress Among Muslims Today

In 1976, renowned religious scholar, Huston Smith, addressed the mythical stature the notion of progress had achieved during the 20th century in his work, Forgotten Truth.  He wrote:

‘The [20th] century in which politicians have preyed on hope unprecedentedly, promising “The Century of the Common Man,” “The War to End All Wars,” “The War To Make the World Safe for Democracy,” “The Four Freedoms,” “The Great Society”- this century of maniacally inflated expectations has seen utopian writing come to a dead stop. ‘Hope,’ Kazantzakis concluded, “is a rotten-thighed whore.” Even Bergsen, who moved Darwin into philosophy, came at the end to view that man was ‘being crushed by the immense progress’ he has made.’ (Huston Smith, Forgotten Truth).

Now, more than forty years later, amid even more supposed progress – in medicine, technology, and values  – a silent pandemic of despair festers and grows all around us, particularly here in the proverbial West, the bastion of all things seemingly progressive.

Recently, the New York Times reported that the suicide rate in the U.S. is at a 30-year high. In rural parts of the U.S., the suicide rate has increased by 40%. In the UK, suicide is the number one cause of death for men under the age of 45. If those statistics don’t immediately jump out at you, on a global level, suicides outnumber deaths caused by wars and homicides according to the World Health Organization.

It seems that dejection and hopelessness are legion when we look behind the myriad of distractions set upon us. Here in Los Angeles, beneath all the glitter, glamour and progressive pronouncements, loneliness and addiction are plagues as they are in many major cities throughout the world. All the stifling concrete and isolation – the broken familial ties and lack of kinship beyond a fleeting revelry – is staggering.  Worse, you’ll find cats and dogs treated better than human beings here and elsewhere.

More to the point, as Muslims and as people of faith in general, we have all but forgotten that faith is an active demonstration of high values and principles beginning with humility, forbearance and compassion and not merely an analytical, academic or theological pursuit:

“Behold, thy Lord said to the angels: “I will create a vicegerent on earth.” They said: “Wilt Thou place therein one who will make mischief therein and shed blood?- whilst we do celebrate Thy praises and glorify Thy holy (name)?” He said: “I know what ye know not.” (Quran, 2:30)

We are commanded by God to be the example for all of humankind. That means we are tasked with a greater allotment of responsibility by virtue of this vicegerency.

Unfortunately, we now marginalize those timeless values and principles that serve as the bedrock of faith for complex trends in thought that yield provocative, but often barren fruits.  While rote dogma and an uncritical historicity have a stranglehold on much of the Islamic world today, there are also a fatiguing amount of modern and postmodern paradigms that we unwittingly give inordinate credence to without much of a good fight if a fight at all.

The notion of human evolution in relation to faith is a most telling example (though countless examples abound).  How many of us have balked at the notion but find ourselves lacking any cogent argument to counter it when confronted with the litany of arguments online and elsewhere?  At best, we waffle a bit and try to find some odd, symbiotic answer that treacherously tightropes between faith and science or we just respond with rote dogma and platitudes.

We have even convinced ourselves that to question such ideas relegates us to some silly museum in Kentucky when, in fact, such claims can be just as dogmatic as anything else:

“Among scientists themselves, debates over Darwin rage furiously, fueled by comments such as Fred Hoyle’s now-famous assertion that the chance of natural selection’s producing even an enzyme is on order of a tornado’s roaring through a junkyard and coming up with a Boeing 747. But when religion enters the picture, scientists close ranks in supporting Darwinism…Michael Ruse of the University of Guelph – a self-confessed bulldog for Darwinism – puts this colonization of theology by biology when he charges his fellow Darwinists with behaving as if Darwinism were a religion. Rustum Roy, a materials scientist at Pennsylvania State, goes further. Half seriously, he has threatened to sue the National Science Foundation for violating the separation of church and state in funding branches of science that turned themselves into religions…we have the curious spectacle of [Darwinism] colonizing not only theology but biology as well.” (Huston Smith, Why Religion Matters).

More importantly, science and its requisite methodology have become, by default, the religion of sorts:

“In one of his illuminating articles…Hubert Dreyfus writes: ‘Science is our religion in the very important sense that we think science tells us what reality is.’ And what does it tell us? Dreyfus answers: reality ‘is meaningless physical reality.’” (Huston Smith, Beyond The Post-Modern Mind)

The last few decades of postmodernity now find us vainly trying to deconstruct ideas into various minutiae hoping to find some perfect definition or category for what ails all of us only to be lead further down the endless rabbit hole of our neuroses.  In our noble and understandable zeal for equality and justice, we often overlook glaring contradictions in thought. The likes of Derrida and Foucault secretly lurk in the shadows of so many of these arguments (and often unwittingly so) from many well-intentioned and knowledgeable Muslims even when so much of what they argue for is in direct opposition to the very enterprise of faith.  Worse, rather than yielding to God, we inexplicably try to make God yield to us through these very paradigms.  As a result, beliefs are deconstructed into oblivion and faith reduced to an empty husk.

Smith goes on to write:

“[T]he modern version of hope is emphatically historical…for its eye is on an earthly future instead of the heavens…In the [religious] outlook hope is vertical, or at least transhistorical. The Kingdom of God that is to come…will differ in kind from the history that preceded it. If the traditional view rested its case on the fact that in boiling water bubbles rise, the modern view hopes to escalate the water itself.” (Huston Smith, Forgotten Truth)

It’s my sincere belief that we are losing ground to a much larger and insidious battle. I see not a few younger Muslims uncritically white knuckle their faith through their teens and twenties, holding on for dear, dogmatic life only to finally abandon faith entirely. This is fast becoming the age of apostasy for Muslims and for people of all faiths. Despair in all its various ugly guises is becoming the order of the day as faith is reduced to a timid, votive candle often at the hands of well-intentioned souls. God knows best. Amen.

 

 

 

 

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The Ethical Brilliance of an Eye for an Eye

It’s all too common to view the Abrahamic injunction of an eye for an eye to be somehow barbaric or, at least, a regressive form of justice in this day and age. Most of us have heard Gandhi’s famous saying of an eye for an eye making the whole world blind. Critics of faith often cite this verse as a harsh even vengeful form of retribution, especially as it exists in the Old Testament:

“But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.” (Exodus 21-24)

The Quran reaffirms the verse, but adds a crucial proviso in the form of mercy and forgiveness:

“And therein we prescribed to them: a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a nose for a nose, an ear for an ear, a tooth for a tooth…But whosoever forgoes it out of charity, it shall be an expiation for him.” (Quran 5:45)

Elsewhere in the Quran, retribution (Qisas) for murder is elaborated on further:

“O you who believe! Retribution is prescribed for you in the matter of the slain: freeman for freeman, slave for slave, female for female.” (Quran 2:178)

Now here’s why this is such a brilliant ethical construct. It’s not establishing a rule allowing for enmity and bloodshed it’s setting a limit to curb violence. God Almighty is not condoning vengeance He’s explicitly stating that one cannot exceed the limits set by the ruling:

“The broad legal, social, and cultural context of this verse is the system of tribal feuds and vendettas in the Arabia of the time, which, as the commentators describe, would often escalate to proportions way beyond the original crime. Thus one tribe might retaliate for the killing of a man by killing not only his murderer, but many other members of his tribe…”(Study Quran, 76)

In other words, before this revelation in both the Old Testament and the Quran, vengeance and retribution often existed on a level of unmitigated savagery.  The Abrahamic decree demands that if retaliation is necessary it can only be meted out in equivalent measure to the criminal act either by punishment or just recompense:

“Against the prevailing practice, the verse is understood to maintain that responsibility for a crime is dictated precisely by the nature of the crime. Hence the wording of the verse implies that retribution for a crime against a woman [or freeman or slave] could neither fall short of nor exceed the retribution appropriate to that crime…” (Study Quran, 76)

Rather than encouraging violence, enmity and bloodshed, both the Old Testament and the Quran discourage it while not disregarding the rights of victims either:

“Moreover, because the maximum revenge is limited to the execution of the perpetrator and vendettas are forbidden, it is a way of preserving life.” (Study Quran, 78)

While the New Testament asks that we nobly turn the other cheek, it’s fair to argue that Matthew 5:38-42 is directed at the individual on an existential level rather than a communal one:

You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.  And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.  Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. (Matthew 5:38-42)

The Old Testament and the Quran are enacting a kind of legislation whereas Matthew 5:38-42 encourages magnanimity and forgiveness from the victim(s) not from those in authority. In that sense, one can argue that the latter part of 5:45 in the Quran echoes the sentiment found in Matthew 5:38-42.

Also, turning the other cheek is not always practical, wise or possible. For example, say an individual preyed upon children in a small village. There’s little recourse but to seek some form of justice for the safety and harmony of the community.  One cannot simply turn the other cheek and let the crimes go without putting the entire community in serious jeopardy.

Still, the Quranic injunction provides us with both the ability to seek retribution, but also the ability to forgive as a form of expiation. Herein lies perhaps the wisest form of justice.

 

 

 

Dealing with Lust, Our Dumbest Desire

If we’re being honest with ourselves, sexual desire has reduced most if not all of us men to howling baboons at one point or another. Not to say that we’ve always acted upon it, but there’s a reason why even Sophocles, the ancient Greek playwright and contemporary of Socrates, referred to lust as the mad master. Sexual desire is a most powerful impulse. It’s compelled men throughout the ages to do great and terrible things. Certainly, it can reduce the best of us to ignoble bottom feeders:

“We have certainly created man in the best of stature; then We return him to the lowest of the low.” – Quran 95: 4-5

Now when I say lust is our dumbest desire, I mean dumb in a colloquial sense as in oxen, donkeys, Donald Trump, your typical seemingly mindless beasts. Rational thinking goes out the proverbial window.  So does our spiritual acumen.  Such desires consume us in a manner tragically similar to the vain attempts of your neighbor’s dog on your poor, innocent leg.

As Muslims our initial response to sexual desire is often complete denial as in, “Nope! Not me! I’m not horny at all! Never! Why am I sweating? Steam?” While this is noble it’s also a tad naïve. Denial then leads to sort of white knuckling of desire wherein we start to maniacally pray through grinding teeth to the point of lockjaw and tooth loss.

Of course, praying is necessary, but just throwing up haphazard duas while caroming about your family’s living room like some rabid bull half on fire is not exactly the best approach (And no one wants to end up like George Costanza in that fatal Glamour magazine incident).

Worse, self-flagellation rears its ugly, barbarous head. That devilish voice we sometimes confuse for our conscience begins to tell us how weak and useless we are, how ineffective our faith is and how damnation and ruin are surely upon us. Suddenly, we are drowning in two kinds of despair: Hapless lust and a foolish lack of faith.

Do not minimize God Almighty’s mercy and forgiveness because you are overwrought with shame, guilt and embarrassment. That is a serious transgression in and of itself. Often such despair leads you down even darker paths if you allow yourself to wallow in self-pity. Trust me :(:

“Say, “O My servants who have transgressed against themselves [by sinning], do not despair of the mercy of Allah . Indeed, Allah forgives all sins. Indeed, it is He who is the Forgiving, the Merciful.” Quran 39:53

Even if you acted upon your desire in some wild, illicit manner – pornography, a hookup, a trip to ye ol’ strip club or brothel – there’s no need to turn into some repentant 80’s televangelist. Don’t get me wrong. We’re reaching the peak of stupidity here, but you’re not allowed to curse yourself and the world around you either. Just because you’re on fire doesn’t mean you get to burn the entire house down too. Pray for forgiveness, counter your transgression with some bold act of goodness and learn to avoid temptations in the first place.

I know I know, avoiding temptation is easier said than done when you’re exhausted from studying at your local café and some pretty gal suddenly strides across your weary eyes adorned in Lululemon’s latest offering in yoga ‘pants’ a shade tighter than halal sausage casings:

“Then suddenly, as though a dry path appeared through the Red Sea, Satan saw the beauty of women, and he began to dance. ‘More! More!’ The hazy eyes, the fascination of a soft cheek, a cheekbone, a reddening lip, the glance that burns a man like a cumin seed on a hot fire-brick!” – Rumi

Perhaps, that first glance couldn’t be avoided, but the second, third and fourth certainly could have been. Never mind the fact that you’ve set yourself ablaze, you might even need a neck brace after all that gawking.

For men, especially young men, living in the modern world it can seem like just about everything is offering some kind of sexual fantasy – billboards, advertisements, commercials, cheeseburgers (I’m looking at you, Carl’s effin’ Jr.).  Even a trip to the gym is full of sexual provocation (Mind you all of this is as much the fault of men as it is women if not more in so many instances). Heck, some days when I go lift at 24 Hour Fitness I can’t tell if I’m at the gym or a strip club. At this point, I wouldn’t be surprised if they start offering lap dances in the squat racks either.

Still, we do have a choice, a better, higher and wiser choice:

“The kernel of true manhood is the ability to abandon sensual indulgences…These matters are as real as the infinite is real, but seem religious fantasies to some, to those who believe only in the reality of the sexual organs and the digestive tract.” – Rumi

Instead of caving to desire or self-flagellating about like some guilt-ridden idiot, learn to laugh a little. I mean it. Laugh at the impulse and how silly it actually is. You may die of hunger and thirst, but no one’s ever died from horniness. It certainly isn’t the end of the world either no matter the outcome.

We don’t overcome our impulses by denial, despair or indulgence, but through a healthy and wholesome discipline.  Discipline teaches us not to feed our desires in the first place. A spark is much easier to handle than a forest fire:

“Fiery lust is not diminished by indulging it, but inevitably by leaving it ungratified. As long as you are laying logs on the fire, the fire will burn. When you withhold the wood, the fire dies, and God carries the water.” – Rumi

Amen.

 

 

ISIS, Machiavelli and Martin Luther

Most Muslims are at their wit’s end trying to defend Islam against the horrific actions of ISIS and their ilk. Many have even gone to great theological lengths to explain how ISIS is diametrically opposed to the tenets and principles of Islam. Unfortunately, the efforts of these well-intentioned souls often fall on deaf ears. Rarely, if ever, are the naysayers and Islamophobes informed in any meaningful way on hermeneutics or exegetical constructs concerning matters of faith. Usually these critics, many of whom are academics or supposed intellectuals of some repute (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, the late Christopher Hitchen, etc.), abandon any attempt at critical evaluation and reduce themselves to henpecking literalists to bolster their misguided claims and accusations – ironically enough, the same foolish methodology that fundamentalists like ISIS employ in their draconian attempts at indoctrination and terror.

Never mind the most obvious, but seemingly lost fact that Islam is, by no means, monolithic. There are upwards of 1.5 Billion Muslims in the world today whose beliefs are incredibly wide and varied in scope. Asking a Muslim what they’re doing to combat terrorism is like walking up to some random Mexican and asking them what they’re doing to fight the Cartels. Or perhaps a more perfect analogy is asking a Nigerian what they plan on doing about gang violence in South Central Los Angeles. In other words, it’s a nonsensical and loaded inquiry based almost entirely on gross, superficial gleanings informed by wild ignorance and fear-mongering.

The reality is that the likes of ISIS are neither driven by the tenets of Islam nor can be challenged by them. Battling ISIS on theological grounds is a mostly fruitless effort. The supposed beliefs of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his ISIS henchmen are simply a threadbare disguise. At root, they are driven by greed and power, not living a virtuous life as a defined by the Quran and the example of the Prophet (pbuh).

With that in mind, let’s put aside all the seemingly endless theological refutations against the horrific crimes committing by ISIS. Instead, let’s turn to Niccolo Machiavelli, that shrewd, provocative Renaissance philosopher whose seminal work, The Prince, details the acquisition of political power by any means necessary – something ISIS is hell-bent (pun intended) on achieving.

 Virtue and Vice in a Machiavellian World

 Virtue and vice have no inherent metaphysical value in relation to power according to Machiavelli. They are simply tools to facilitate gaining and maintaining authority. Of course, this runs completely counter to any religious notion of virtue and vice, but no matter.  Concepts of goodness have no teleological or eschatological purpose in Machiavelli’s sociopolitical world.  Virtue is simply a means to a decidedly worldly end:

“Thus, in direct opposition to a moralistic theory of politics, Machiavelli says that the only real concern of the political ruler is the acquisition and maintenance of power…” – Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Notions of goodness and salvation are mere abstractions to be manipulated when necessary (I’m reminded of that sad and profound scene in the film Paradise Now where some two-bit mullah tries to convince the main character to become a suicide bomber). Machiavelli even argues that ethics and virtue in a classical, Aristotelian sense can be outright foolish and impractical. In fact, in The Prince Machiavelli elaborates even further and insists that acts considered wrong or deplorable might need to be committed for the sake of achieving and maintaining power:

“The term that best captures Machiavelli’s vision of the requirements of power politics is virtù. While the Italian word would normally be translated into English as “virtue,” and would ordinarily convey the conventional connotation of moral goodness, Machiavelli obviously means something very different when he refers to the virtù of the prince. In particular, Machiavelli employs the concept of virtù to refer to the range of personal qualities that the prince will find it necessary to acquire in order to “maintain his state” and to “achieve great things,” the two standard markers of power for him. This makes it brutally clear there can be no equivalence between the conventional virtues and Machiavellian virtù.” – Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

To be clear, Machiavelli is not contriving some diabolical sociopolitical theory from thin air.  He is simply drawing from endless examples throughout history to assert his claims.  As a result, vice and virtue are relative concepts and ought to be gauged mainly by whether or not they facilitate one’s sociopolitical might.

The Brutal Measures of Martin Luther

What’s often lost in all the volatile discussions about Islam, Islamophobia and terrorism, especially here in America, is just how violent the roots of Protestantism are. Many are aware of atrocities committed under the banner of Catholicism (Crusades, Inquisitions, Conquering of the Americas, etc.), but America is largely Protestant. Most of us simply know Martin Luther, the father of Protestantism, as a rebellious German priest who challenged the Catholic hegemony that enveloped most of Europe. However, few are aware of how he evoked the name of Christ in a very Machiavellian sense to justify the barbarous oppression and slaughter of thousands of the German working poor desperate to free itself from the crushing boot heel of feudalism.

Martin Luther was desperately trying to consolidate power with various German princes against Catholic rule. To do so, Luther twisted Christian virtue as he saw fit. In fact, the following quote could easily echo the words and sentiments of al-Baghdadi or Bin Laden:

“The peasants would not listen; they would not let anyone tell them anything, so their ears must now be unbuttoned with musket balls till their heads jump off their shoulders…He who will not hear God’s word when spoken with kindness, must listen to the headsman, when he comes with the axe.” – Martin Luther, An Open Letter on the Harsh Book Against the Peasants

Even more compelling in a Machiavellian sense is how Luther manages to deform the very notion of God’s mercy and later condemn any act of rebellion against authority as blasphemous (of course, he fails to acknowledge his own monumental act of rebellion against the Catholic Church):

“The Scripture passages which speak of mercy apply to the kingdom of God and to Christians, not to the kingdom of the world…Rebellion is no joke, and there is no evil deed on earth that compares to it.” – Martin Luther, An Open Letter on the Harsh Book Against the Peasants

To be clear, it would be in gross error to associate Luther’s brutality with Christianity as a faith and philosophy.  Not only in error, but nonsensical as well.  Luther certainly was fueled by aspects of zealotry and self-righteousness, but these driving forces were diametrically opposed to the supposed virtue he espoused.  Instead, it was greed and power that ultimately drove him to encourage such injustices.

Like Luther, al-Baghdadi and his ISIS henchmen distort, corrupt and deform the beliefs they supposedly profess to pursue their nefarious ends. Sadly, this is nothing new. Human history is replete with such mayhem and corruption whether it’s ISIS, Pope Urban II, Mao, Stalin, etc. And, thank God Almighty, it is also full of brave souls who continue to defy such tyranny no matter the odds. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Jinn, Tall Tales and Night Terrors

Jinn exist. As Muslims we accept this as fact. The Quran dedicates a Surah to these otherworldly beings and the Hadith mention them with some frequency. Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) even dedicated a mosque to the jinn right near Masjid al-Haram.

Unfortunately, most of us are all too familiar with exhausting amounts of fanciful tales regarding jinn that usually fall somewhere between wild imaginings and blatant superstition. An uncle of mine (may God rest his soul) had an insufferable habit of saying salaam to every breeze that passed through an open window. He also claimed to have traveled with a jinni companion numerous times. I suppose that’s more convenient than Uber, but I digress.

Of course, there are some stories that inspire a good deal of apprehension as well. If true, many of the popular films and novels about possessions and hauntings – The Exorcist, The Conjuring, The Entity, etc. – suggest the handiwork of malevolent jinn. Some of us even have our own stories that reveal something more than just tall tales.

A Christian friend of mine recently recounted his terrifying experience with what he referred to as a demonic presence years ago as a teenager. Apparently it involved actual physical harm. Now a film producer well into his 30’s, he could not finish the story without welling up in tears. One of the most startling aspects of his many encounters was suddenly seeing a ghastly figure of a man standing in the middle of a lonely, rural Texas highway while driving home. The apparition appeared out of nowhere. He couldn’t brake in time. Strangely enough, his old Mustang passed right through the figure. My friend turned to his then-high school sweetheart riding alongside him and asked if she had witnessed the ghastly man as well. Puzzled, she denied seeing anything. He was certain he was losing his mind. Ten years later she finally admitted she saw the apparition as well. She was simply too terrified to acknowledge it for all those years.

My own experiences are, at the very least, peculiar. Since my late teens and well into my twenties I routinely experienced night terrors. While it’s clinically defined as a sleep disorder, actual studies and findings are nebulous at best, especially when one digs deeper for causes (The documentary, The Nightmare, currently on Netflix is worth viewing. The production values are not great, but the stories provide sufficient explanations about the mystery of night terrors).

Night terrors usually occur when one is in a state of sleep paralysis. Most importantly, in almost all of my experiences and those of others my surroundings remained identical with ‘waking life’ so to speak. Unlike a typical nightmare or dream, one is fully aware and conscious. However, one simply cannot move. At best, I could pry open my eyes or twitch an arm or leg. Often this is when I would sense another presence in the room.

Not until I lived in a single-wide trailer on the outskirts of a rural, college town as an undergrad was I finally assailed by the full scope of night terrors. By most outward aspects at the time, I was a pretty degenerate college student, drinking, partying and pursuing the opposite sex with foolish, ignoble intentions. Inside that trailer though and in secret from most of my peers, I’d begun my lifelong pursuit of faith in all its various guises. Though I’d read the entire Quran in Arabic as a boy, my comprehension was exceedingly poor. I began to read as many English translations of the Quran I could find. At the time, I must have had at least five different translations of the holy book to cross-reference alongside innumerable works by notable scholars on Islam. I also began studying other religious traditions on my own and at the university – something that to this day has afforded me greater understanding of my own faith in Islam.

This is when I began routinely waking up into a state of sleep paralysis at odd hours of the night. Unable to move at all, strange, vaguely human shadows would appear along the periphery of my half-open eyes. These figures would grab at me, crush against me, stealing my composure and breath. The pressure was often unbearable. Worse, at times I’d feel molested, caressed in incredibly inappropriate ways. Only after considerable panic, was I able to shake myself fully and finally awake; that is, awake as we traditionally define it. Sometimes I would be so disconcerted and frightened, I would be forced to turn on my bedroom light and stay awake for the remainder of the night.

Understandably, the veracity of my experiences may leave some wanting. Nonetheless, I should perhaps detail my most horrifying, yet strangely enlivening night terror that occurred before a great shift occurred inside of me. On one particular night having exhausted myself from studying both for my degree in Philosophy and from my own pursuit of faith I woke up, yet again, in a state of sleep paralysis. Face down and on my stomach I felt some hopelessly strong, unnatural force driving itself into my back effectively pinning me down on my mattress. I could hear pages being rapidly flipped on my desk from the many religious books scattered there. And for the first and last time I heard a voice. Deep, unnatural and almost bestial in nature it simply said, ‘don’t believe.’

This time, however, I didn’t wake up terrified. I woke up emboldened, smiling even. I finally understood that whatever I was experiencing, I was doing something right. From this point forward I began putting my whole trust in God during these nightmarish episodes. And it worked. Every time I woke up in a state of sleep paralysis and felt the telltale signs of another presence I vehemently began to pray. Most often I would simply repeat Surah Fatiha until I could break out of this dejected state. It’s difficult to put into words, but the prayer formed a wall of protection around me and this wall only grew more fortified and impenetrable with each successive encounter.

In fact, I knew that it was over to a large degree when I had a final, most telling dream. In the dream (an actual dream), I sat upon a park bench on the edge of a vast, impenetrable pine forest. Slowly, dozens upon dozens of shadows emerged from the woods surrounding me. I continued to sit without fear, trusting God. They could do nothing. I felt victorious.

It’s as though these unnatural, negative forces unwittingly compelled me toward faith not away from it. Perhaps this is a part of God’s great wisdom for all that we suffer. Again, I was utterly helpless in those moments. My physical prowess meant absolutely nothing. I was young, strong, had boxed and wrestled for some time. None of that could avail me. Only my trust in God could.

Many people who have suffered from night terrors insist that fear fuels the encounters. As my fear decreased and my trust in God Almighty increased the attacks trickled down to nothing as did the actual episodes of sleep paralysis.

Are night terrors the result of insidious jinn? Obviously, I can’t say for certain, but if you were to force my proverbial hand I think there is much more at play than just one’s subconscious. The dreamscape is certainly filled with mysteries.

My own experiences certainly changed me though and for the better, at least, so I hope though God knows best. Every so often I still have a night terror. It can still be disconcerting, but it’s as though my very being retreats into my heart as I recite Surah Fatiha and am fortified by God Almighty. I can feel the prayer course through my spirit as it vanquishes any attempt at frightening or harming me.

For certain, in all those horrifying episodes I’d discovered something incredibly beautiful. In such moments of complete helplessness the only thing I could do is call upon God’s Power and Mercy – something we often neglect to do when our day-to-day life invades us with all its distress and distractions. Amen.

 

 

 

Faith and Islam in The Age of Antidepressants

Without question, prescription drug use to remedy our insufferable moods has skyrocketed in the last few decades. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), antidepressant use has increased by 400% since the 1990’s. That figure alone should be cause enough for alarm for all us, Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

This is not an indictment on those who feel compelled to use medication to ease their suffering (including my friends and members of my own family). Rather, it’s in indictment on the misguided belief that such pills and potions are actually curing us of our existential ills and angsts. They are not. They are simply numbing us to life and that distinction cannot be emphasized enough.

Unfortunately, so many of us have simply accepted the use of antidepressants as necessary to quell the grief, anxiety and sorrow that hover like foreboding ghosts in our lives. Faith and God are no longer considered sufficient for us to endure the various trials and tribulations inherent to existence. Certainly, the psychiatric paradigm has little use for faith with its dogmatic insistence that chronic anxiety, depression and all else that assails our proverbial psyche are the results of chemical imbalances in the brain. And, yes, it is a dogmatic claim. Take, for instance, the following quote from a piece in The New Yorker from 2013:

“Despite their continued failure to understand how psychiatric drugs work, doctors continue to tell patients that their troubles are the result of chemical imbalances in their brains. As Frank Ayd pointed out, this explanation helps reassure patients even as it encourages them to take their medicine, and it fits in perfectly with our expectation that doctors will seek out and destroy the chemical villains responsible for all of our suffering, both physical and mental. The theory may not work as science, but it is a devastatingly effective myth.”

For all the rampant use of antidepressants such as Zoloft, Paxil, Prozac, etc., the actual science behind them is not only suspect, but may be categorically wrong as well. The commonly held notion that depression is the result of low serotonin levels in the brain is, at the very least, an antiquated notion. It’s also imperative to note that placebos are close to 40% as effective as antidepressants.

However, what all this rampant prescription drug use is doing is numbing us from both the necessary joy and suffering inherent to our lives. It is also turning us into inadvertent addicts at the behest of our, albeit, well-intentioned, but often naive doctors. According to Brene Brown, a professor of Social Work at the University of Houston famous for her TED Talk:

“We are the most addicted, we are the most medicated, obese and indebt adult cohort in human history.”

Worse, suicide is a secret epidemic. Even amid all the gun violence and mass shootings, suicides still outnumber murders 2 to 1 according to the Center for Disease Control. Things are clearly not right in our so-called modern world and the pharmaceutical methods we desperately cling to have failed us.

The Case For Faith

 “Trust in God, but tie your horse’s leg.” – Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)

I certainly don’t believe that one can simply pray their way out of anguish or sorrow. It requires work, sometimes arduous, painful work. In many respects, faith is synonymous with endurance. In Islam we are taught to gracefully endure our mental and physical burdens. In fact, endurance, patience and gratitude are hallmarks for all the major religion traditions including Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, etc. In the Quran we are told:

“Your Lord has neither left you, nor despises you. What is to come is better for you than what has gone before for your Lord will certainly give you, and you will be content. Did he not find you an orphan and take care of you? Did he not find you perplexed and show you the way? Did he not find you poor and enrich you? So do not oppress the orphan and do not drive the beggar away and keep recounting the favors of your Lord.” – Quran, 93:2-11

This specific Surah was directed at the Prophet (pbuh) in his own moments of anguish and grief and also has universal implications for all of us. Not only does it assuage and avail our own sufferings by insisting on patience, gratitude and compassion, these verses also demonstrate that even our beloved Prophet (pbuh) suffered, but steadfastly held onto the reigns of faith and gracefully endured. As Muslims, this is the example we must follow.

While I do believe that offering empty prayers in any time of need often proves insufficient in addressing all that we may suffer, it’s not the prayers themselves that are at fault. It is the inherent lassitude involved in such mindless efforts. Certainly, saying our daily prayers, performing zikr and meditating on God are a boon to our psyche and can remedy the chronic stress that fuels our modern, maddening pace of life provided we remain steadfast and consistent in our efforts. In this sense, praying is not wishful thinking, it is actively engaging our soul with our Creator, giving us reprieve from the burdens of the world.

Speaking of effort, we are told and taught to battle with the negative aspects of ourselves, our nafs so to speak, not accept them as facts of life. Even something as simple as 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise is proven to be more effective than taking antidepressants according to this study done at Duke University. Some may object and argue that even something as simple as exercise requires a Herculean effort. That is the battle we must fight with faith and with fortitude. Despair is not an option.

Faith and Addiction

If any of you have a friend or family member recovering from addiction, chances are you’re, at least, somewhat acquainted with the twelve steps associated with Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. Aside from the very first step of acknowledging the addiction, the very next steps require the recognition of a Higher Power, i.e., God and putting one’s faith and trust in this Higher Power.

Many of you might object with the argument that drug addicts and alcoholics are not the same as individuals on antidepressant medications. While the consequences of such obvious addicts are easier to discern the goals are the same: An ardent desire to quell the fatigue, the gloom, the despair. As a society, we’ve simply accepted some forms of addictions as more palatable and, therefore, acceptable as long as a doctor has scribbled it on a notepad. However, the motivations are the same. Any honest addict will tell you the goal is not to feel good, but to stop feeling bad. Addicts genuinely seeking help are also at rock bottom. Many have already spent a lifetime contending with the maze of excuses and rationalizations to avoid confronting their sufferings head on. Unfortunately, the same is not true for many people on antidepressants. The actual causes of their anguish and sorrow have been swept beneath the medicated rug.

Depression, anxiety, stress, etc., are not new phenomena.   Suffering in all its various guises is inherent to existence and has been around since the Fall. How we go about enduring all our trials and tribulations is a testament of faith and who we are as human beings. Viktor Frankl, no stranger to suffering as a Holocaust survivor, puts it quite succinctly in his seminal work, Man’s Search For Meaning:

“It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.”

“What is to give light must endure burning.”

It also must be noted that Frankl believed faith in God an imperative even though he lost almost his entire family in the Holocaust including his beloved wife.

No pill or potion can avail us of our suffering no matter the popularity of such false remedies. Faith is not offered as some easy platitude, but as a necessary way to orient ourselves toward the proverbial light and away from all the encroaching darkness around us. Amen.

 

An Olive Branch to Ex-Muslims

There’s a fair amount of understandable anger and vitriol among those that have left Islam alongside a dizzying amount of issues to contend with – one’s family, one’s identity, one’s place in the grand scheme of things, etc. I say understandable because it’s a fair reaction to a belief that people often feel or have felt confined and bound by due to their upbringing and, dare I say, misinformation from mullahs to muftis to one’s own relatives. And before that triggers an onslaught of naysayers and ad hominems, hear me out. I was just like you if you can believe it.

In short, I grew up in an Islamic household in small town America that went from fairly normal to fanatical upon moving to Saudi Arabia for a spell. My parents (yes, I still love them dearly!) became obsessed with rules and strictures to the point of absurdity. Many of you know the drill – the most mundane, trivial misstep resulted in perishing in hellfire for all eternity. Worse, I attended a parochial school in Saudi Arabia where teachers habitually slapped students around. For example, if our feet were not perfectly aligned with one another during prayers, a brutal turd of a teacher would sneak up behind us and whip our feet with a rubber hose in the supposed name of Islam. Imagine going from a sweet old lady as one’s grade school teacher to that. I habitually vomited every time I stepped off the bus out of anxiety and fear. Thank God my friends were mostly refugees who taught me to toughen up. Back in the States I could only relate to folks generations before me who had similar stories growing up in Catholic schools.

Upon returning to America three years later, my older brother and I quickly began to shed our religious skin. We grew wild the way preachers’ sons in America grow wild. We lived two very different lives: the one inside our home and the one outside. My brother abandoned God entirely while I simply grew to hate Him. For many former Muslims I sense that same resentment toward Heaven. For some, it’s difficult to shuck the belief in God altogether. Instead, a rueful spite forms. I get that as well.

Later, as an adult I grew even wilder, slowly entering a wilderness of proverbial sin and despair (even if we don’t use the term ‘sin’ I certainly wasn’t making good choices) in part because I inherited all my orphaned father’s unrequited ghosts and because of the inherent sense of dislocation than many sons and daughters of immigrants feel or have felt no matter where they are. Still, I managed to publish my first poem in The Seattle Review around this time. I’d finally captured how I’d felt as a boy on paper, warts and all, regarding faith and loneliness:

A Small, Dark Boy

I thought I could pray
hard beside the schoolyard wall
right before the recess bell
to keep from being this

permanent stranger in the only town
I had known. All the pretty girls
seemed to fall between the spaces
of my open hand. I had to
pray a little more. I thought

I could betray what I knew
to be imminent: for a long while
I would have to be alone.

At this point, I began my academic pursuit of philosophy and literature. This led me to the studying of religious philosophy which led me toward various academic scholars of Islam. Now I say Islamic scholars, but most of them were non-Muslims. I’m not talking about muftis or mullahs. It is supremely ironic and cannot be emphasized enough that it was non-Muslims who allowed me to slowly rediscover Islam. If this is an indictment on the current state of Islam as practiced by many Muslims so be it. The Islam I was learning about from scholars such as Anne Marie Schimmel, Carl Ernst, Huston Smith, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, etc., was literally night and day to the Islam I was taught as a boy. Even now, ten or more so years later, I continue to devour their works among so many others. Gone was all the fire and brimstone and obsessing over pork and premarital sex ad infinitum (my folks even had a book entitled, Gelatin)! Certainly the principles were not dismissed nor abandoned, but emphasis was put on the big picture, ideas and humanness toward one another in relation to God rather than rote dogma and an often idiotic zeal for strictures. Did I suddenly stumble back onto the proverbial straight path? Of course not. However, it did manage to pry open the proverbial door to both faith and Islam and, most importantly, a genuine sense of peace and contentment (not always, of course, but more so than I ever could have imagined) after so many years of restlessness, ennui and despair.

Of course, I’m not trying to sell you on Islam or anything else, I’m just suggesting that maybe don’t slam the door on God just yet, even if that means finding another path toward Him. And in doing so, be fair, not only to others, but to yourself. I’ve perused a lot of the posts and comments on /r/exmuslim. Many of you are young, highly intelligent and engaging. However, when I read your comments regarding the Quran or Prophet (pbuh) they seem borne more out of frustration and anger than logic or some careful exegetical analysis.

Many of you are avid readers and understand that reading poetry and literature often requires a high level of comprehension to fully understand or, at least, better understand what is being said. Two telling examples for me in this regard happen to be two of my favorite books: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Moby-Dick. When I read these novels in the 8th grade they were just fun adventures and not much else. However, when I reread them in my late 20’s the breadth and scope of these works seemed, at times, limitless, especially, Huck Finn.

I understand that many of you have deep-seated resentments toward Islam and therefore the Quran and Hadith. As result, it’s become quite common (and easy) to henpeck verses, refuse context or a deeper understanding in order to prove its inadequacy. This is more a disservice to your intellect and humanity than anything else. If you’re venting vent. I get it. However, only the most daft of literalists would argue that Ode to a Nightingale is about Keats’ love of ornithology. The same goes for any scripture or religious text as well. At the very least, respect the nature of discourse lest we devolve into rants akin to FOX news.

This is already decidedly longer in the proverbial tooth than I had hoped and there is so much more to be said regarding notions of identity and whatnot, but I’ll leave you with a few quotes:

“No one wants advice – only corroboration.” – John Steinbeck, The Winter of Our Discontent

“Don’t waste yourself in rejection, nor bark against the bad, but chant the beauty of the good.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

“When all is said and done, we are in the end absolutely dependent on the universe; and into sacrifices and surrenders of some sort, deliberately looked at and accepted, we are drawn and pressed as into our only permanent positions of repose. Now in those states of mind which fall short of religion, the surrender is submitted to as an imposition of necessity, and the sacrifice is undergone at the very best without complaint. In the religious life, on the contrary, surrender and sacrifice are positively espoused: even unnecessary givings-up are added in order that the happiness may increase. Religion thus makes easy and felicitous what in any case is necessary.” – William James, Varieties of Religious Experiences

Be well and take care.  Amen.