The Tan Journal (Entry #31)
I don’t usually think of my Journals in terms of their colors. There is the first Journal that got it all started. That Journal was a quadrille (graph paper) notebook I had found around the house. Then there is the yellow paper Journal of the summer before going away to Amherst (and records the initially weeks there). And then there are the Tan and the Pink Journals. These two Journals, of all my Journals, stand out because it was during this period that I underwent an accelerated transformation–and I had the fortune to record a lot of it.
Going to the Van Pelt Library at the University of Pennsylvania was becoming almost a daily ritual. I am going there to read, research, and keep up with my Journal writing. I am also going there to get some silence and solitude. I was reading widely in order to improve my writing skills. From my writing, I hoped to be challenged to my core–to attain self-understanding and clarity and to express those feelings and thoughts on paper.
I was also delving a lot into my previous Journals. In particular, i was spending a lot of time reflecting upon my Amherst experience. Also, I while at the library, I had read Barron’s Top 50 Colleges and Universities. It had an article about Amherst, which instantly transported me back to the campus. I was suffering from Home-sicknesses and a longing for the beauty of the Happy Valley. I would write: “I haven’t seen a patch of woods since returning from Massachusetts.” Urban life is wearing on me, and reading about life back Home was a source of solace. Another part of my Journal reading was I was trying to distill from my past what I wanted to do with my future. The Journals helped keep me inspired and keep my dreams in focus.
As for research, like I said before, I was trying to cross-reference the material I was learning in the lessons at the mosque. I wanted to be sure that what I was learning was in sync with mainstream classical Sunni Islamic scholarship. The more I researched, the more I became convinced that it was. For one, there were the debates that I witnessed some of the Brothers engaged in with people from other groups. I saw that they soundly–by both Scriptural and rational proofs–defeated opponents. Also, on more than one occasion, I would read in an Orientalist’s work about one heretical or blasphemous sect or another and the Sunni response, and then I would hear the very same argument (and counter argument) in the lesson at the mosque in the evening.
Another aspect of my research was to try to reconcile what i had learned in Academia, my own independent studies into ancient black and African history, comparative religion and philosophy with traditional Islamic knowledge. My goal was to synthesize this information into a grand thesis of world history that I would use for my Master’s Degree (…such were my hopes of the time). My plan was to attend graduate school the following fall–but time was running out, and I hadn’t taken my GRE and done applications, as of yet.
I would write: “I want to devote my life to activating the intellect.” Although, as per my recent experience in a UPENN classroom, I knew that Academia had its limitations, but I figured it was still the best fit for me, as far as a career. In fact, I knew little else, and I preferred the thought of teaching at a university, writing books, and spending my time discussing ideas to working in a corporate veal pen for some transnational megaconglomerate entity.
I came across one book that was particularly influential upon my thinking at the time. The book compared the lives and influences of Aristotle and Al-Ghazali on their respective civilizations (i.e., the “West” and Islam). The book mentioned that one of the differences between Islamic civilization and the “West” is that the West was not able to reconcile its Christian tradition with logic as expounded by the Greeks. Thomas Aquinas and other Church thinkers tried to meet the challenge of Greek philosophy and the science of logic, but try as they may, they could not reconcile the Trinitarian doctrine with reason. As a result, the West, in essence, suffered a schism between religion and reason. The people of science and logic went in one direction, and the people of “faith” went in another.
Muslim theologians, like Al-Ghazali (who was not the first, but probably the most famous in the West), stood up to the challenge of the ancient Greek philosophers, and discredited their doctrines with concise rational proofs. Al-Ghazali’s, Tahafatul-Falasafah (The Incoherence of the Philosophers) demonstrated the use of reason in understanding the proper belief in the Creator, while at the same time showed the inconsistencies and absurdities of the claims of those who were enamored with the Ancient Greeks (such as, Avicenna and Al-Farabi).
This book also gave me a framework for the intellectual history of Islam. Not only did it reinforce the idea that what I was learning at the mosque was part of the mainstream of Islamic scholarship, this book also showed the influence of the Muslim world upon the West. This is something that is typically overlooked by Muslims from the “Old Country.” They see the “West” as the other, and by and large, have little concern for its intellectual tradition. As for the convert Muslim (especially, one who has gone the academic route), he is a product of the Western tradition and is trying to understand Islam, at least in part, from a Western perspective. To show the depth of influence that the Islamic world has had on the West by way of culture, trade, literature, science and math, and theology helps the convert get a better sense of his place in Western society. And with this knowledge, he can refute many of the assertions that anti-Muslim bigots make about Islam (such as, claiming that Islamic civilization has contributed little or nothing to the world).
As was mentioned in previous entries, Al-Ghazali was not merely a Muslim intellectual or scholar; he became an ascetic, who left his teaching position at the prestigious Nizamiyyah University in Baghdad to become an itinerant Sufi. It was only after attaining a high station of piety that he returned to his teaching post and elaborated on his experiences and how pure spirituality does not contradict the true Islamic creed. Pure spirituality was not based upon logical absurdities or flights of fancy. Such experiences are real and do not contradict the tenets of Islam (nor are they attained by abandoning Islamic Sacred Law). The West could not produce such a personality as Al-Ghazali, because, in reality, it did not have the benefit of genuine prophetic guidance (as a matter of fact, much of the “Western identity” is based upon its opposition to genuine prophetic guidance). The West had Christianity, which was a pagan perversion of the true monotheisitic message that Jesus taught. Given that polytheism is inherently absurd, it should not be a surprise to anyone that much of the current Western intelligentsia has turned to agnosticism or atheism in one form or another.
LAUNDRY OR LENTILS
One day as I was walking in the “penthouse” (the penthouse how the Brothers referred to the upper level of the mosque where most of us had migrated when the weather outside, and consequently the temperature inside the mosque, had dropped) digging through my pockets, I let out a very audible laugh that got me some looks. No, life in the big city had not driven me insane–but I had just about run out of money–and had to make a choice between doing a load of laundry or buying a bag of lentils for dinner. As a recent college grad, this was not the trajectory I had hoped my life to take. Anyway, I opted for the lentils. Clean clothes were going to have to wait. Times were, indeed, getting hard on the boulevard.
I was now going to have to struggle to maintain some degree of equanimity in the face of poverty. To my advantage, I wasn’t alone. Most of the Valley guys who had made “hijrah” to Philadelphia were suffering financially, as were many of the local Brothers. This is not to say that we (or I) made the most prudent decisions at the time, but we also had before us numerous examples of pious Muslims who had lived in a state of penury. They lived their lived devoted to obedience to the Creator and empty of the desire for worldly vanities. We did want to follow their example.
The statements of the righteous regarding piety, virtue, and detachment resonated with us. One quote struck me so much that it made its way from one of my Islamic notebooks to my Journal was:
“That which Allah has willed to happen, it is going to happen at precisely the time and manner Allah willed to happen. Nothing can prevent it.”
And then in commenting on that statement Imam Ali Ibn Abu Talib (the fourth Caliph) said:
“One’s Faith is not complete until one understands and lives by this statement.”
Similarly, at this time, I had learned the saying of Imam Ahmad Ar-Rifai`yy, one of the leading Sufis:
“My heart is at ease, because I know whatever was meant for me will never miss me, and whatever misses me was never meant for me.”
This was a spiritual challenge: to subdue the base self and train it in contentment with what has been predestined. If one sincerely wished to attain Islamic piety, there would be no room for hubris. God owns us and does not owe us anything; hence, it is far more prudent to subdue the putrid ego and submit than it is to rebel against the Creator of the universe because you didn’t get what you wanted.
Among the things I wanted was to go to graduate school. But I had no money to take the GRE, and I didn’t have money for applications. My academic education was going to have to wait. Nonetheless, I was still determined to go to the library and continue with my research. I wasn’t going to allow my lack of money to deter me from the pursuit of knowledge. And although in one sense I was increasingly feeling like circumstances were cutting me off from the outside world, the quests down Locust Walk to the Van Pelt Library reminded of my responsibility–my responsibility as a Sunni Muslim with traditional knowledge–to share the message of Islam with the larger society.