Friday, September 12, 2014

A Stand Up Path

A’uzu Billahi Min ash-Shaitain ir-Rajeem.
Bismillah ir-rahman ir-raheem.
Al Hamdu Lillahi Rabbil ‘Alameen.
Wasa’atu Wassalamu ‘Ala Muhammad wa ‘Ala Alihi was Sabhihi was Sallim
Al-hamdu lillah, Ahmaduhu Wa Assta’eenuh, Wa Asstahdeenhi, Wa Asstaghfiruh, Wa oominu Bihi Jalla wa ‘Ala wa Laa Akfuruh.  Praise be to Allah; I praise Him and I seek His assistance. I believe in Him, the Exhalted, and I will not disbelieve Him

The title of my khutbah today is A Stand Up Path

Going through the Quran at my snail pace, I came across this ayah (43:61)
“And lo! Verily there is knowledge of the Hour. So doubt ye not concerning it, but follow Me. This is the right path.”

Immediately, I had this intense image of being on a mountain trail surrounded by tall pine trees and someone is up ahead- God? Muhammad? I can’t tell, but I know this person is my guide, and his face is hidden in the shadows, he has a long dark beard. The guide is beckoning me to follow him up the winding mountain path.

Then a few days later I read this ayah (6:126):
“And whomsoever it is in Allah’s will to guide, He expandeth his bosom unto the Surrender, and whomsoever it is His will to send astray, He maketh his bosom close and narrow as if he were engaged in sheer ascent. Thus Allah layeth ignominy upon those who believe not.”

And I’m thinking Hmmm. Sheer ascent. If you go on a typical mountain path, it winds around and zig-zags across the face of the mountain. But if you are in a great big hurry and want to get to the top as quickly as possible, then you want to go vertical. The problem with going vertical is that you are going to be very dependent on other people and things: the person belaying you, the pitons in the stone, the rope and so on. The sheer ascent path is extremely risky. The zig-zag path is longer but safer.

The next ayah says (6:127)
“This is the path of thy Lord, a straight path. We have detailed Our revelations for a people who take heed.”

Now I have heard “siratil- mustaqim” all the time. We say it five times a day during Fatiha, but reading “straight path” just doesn’t make sense here. A mountain path is winding, the vertical path is straight up, but the ayah just before that is warning AGAINST that kind of strategy. What is the deal with “straight path”? I go to the Khalidi translation: “straight path”. I have a feeling I am going to get that from all the English translations because “straight path” is the knee jerk reaction to translating that phrase. On impulse I turn to the Asad translation. He translates it as

“…it is thus that God inflicts horror upon those who will not believe. And undeviating is this thy Sustainer’s way.”

Undeviating? NEVER heard that before! Then Asad’s note:

“lit. and this thy Sustainer’s way is straight” i.e. unchanging it its application of the Law of cause and effect to man’s inner life as well. The term rifs occurring in the preceding sentence and rendered by me as ‘horror’ signifies anything that is intrinsically loathsome, horrible, or abominable. In this case, it would seem to denote that awesome feeling of utter futility which , sooner or later, overcomes everyone who does not believe that life has meaning and purpose.”

Asad believes that if you don’t follow God you will be plagued with incapacitating existential crises. Fair enough. But why would he choose “undeviating” instead of “straight”?

Then I get obsessed with finding the root word of ‘mustaqim’ because I know the roots can open up a lot of different meanings. But I can’t find it. “Mustaqim” is a weird word, and all my perturbations with “mim-ta-qaf”, “ta-qaf-mim”, “sin-ta-qaf” end up nowhere. This must be some weird Arabic conjugation and I can’t figure it out. Finally, in desperation, I email a Muslim scholar because I figure this will be an easy question for him to answer. And if he doesn’t answer, well, I tried.
In the meantime, I start thinking about how “mustaqim” sounds a little like “taqwa”- could it have the same root? I look up “taqwa” and very weirdly the root is waw-qaf-yah. This root means “protection, safe”. Is this supposed to be the safe path up the mountain? The protected path up the mountain? I consider the word “sirat” which is supposed to have the origin of “path to water”. What would a “safe path to water” look like to a desert nomad? First off, the Arabian peninsula has no year round standing body of water, no lakes. So perhaps some of these paths are only seasonal- at certain times of year there is a pond, at other times it is dried up. There would be many different paths, their usage dependent on the time of year. There is no ONE path to the water because the water itself keeps changing location. Then I think about a “protected” path. I know a lot of predators ambush their prey at the watering hole, maybe a protected path would be free of potentially lethal carnivores?

Then the scholar gets back to me with the root of “mustaqim” it is “qaf-waw-mim” and this root has nothing to do with protection. This root has to do with standing up, as in getting off the floor, standing at attention (like a soldier), standing lined up on the Day of Judgment.  “Mustaqim”  doesn’t have anything to do with ‘straight’ as a shape, like a straight line or some kind of vertical feature, this has more to do with accountability. It is more like being a “stand-up guy”, meaning a loyal and true friend- even the kind of person that will submit himself to torture rather than betray you.  It is like a “stand up comedian”- the performer in front with the audience, not a lot of props, being put on the spot with the constant pressure to make everyone laugh. Undeviating in that she has to go through her routine and if her material isn’t funny, she only has herself to blame.

Think of all the other “standing” connotations in English: upstanding citizen, stand up for yourself, stand up and be counted, take a stand, outstanding , stand up straight don’t slouch (as my mother often reminded me).

God isn’t guaranteeing your safety on this path. He isn’t saying everything is going to work out just hunky dory. It doesn’t mean that there won’t be vicious predators trying to ambush you along the way. “Mustaqim” means this is a total accountability path. I am going to be a loyal friend to God, even if the going gets tough. It means I will be ready to stand by my decisions and defend them. It means I’m going to do my best and maybe I will fail, but I am at least going to try.


(Khutbah part 2)
Al-Hamdu Lillahi Rabbil ‘Alameen Wassalutu Wassalmu ‘Alakhairil Mursaleen; Muhammadin Al-Nabiyil  Ummiyee, wa ‘Ala alihi wa mahbihi Ajma’een.
Praise be to Allah, the lord of the universe; May the greeting and peace of Allah be upon the best Messenger, Muhammad, the unlettered Prophet; and upon His family and upon all of His companions.

There is a hadith from Bukhari collection, “In this world, be as a traveler.” Most of the time, people will explain this as do not get too attached to things in this world, particularly materialistic things. I have a hard time reconciling that interpretation with the hadith of Ayesha, “The Prophet enjoyed giving gifts and he enjoyed receiving gifts.”

So I have a different interpretation for “Be as a traveler in this world”, and I take it from the life of Moses, and particularly in his wandering with the Bani Israel. The first thing you have to understand about traveling, is that things don’t always go according to plan and you have to improvise as best you can. For instance, you go off to have some quality alone time with God on top of the mountain, and when you come back, everyone is worshipping some cow statue. So then you have to deal with that. The second thing is that as a traveler, you should try to keep the whining down to a minimum. God sent down manna and quail for the Bani Israel to eat, and they still complained because it lacked their favorite flavorings. The complaining didn’t hurt God’s feelings, it says in the Quran “they only hurt themselves” 7:160, but I’m sure the complaining was not fun for people around them. The third thing about traveling is to be patient and take your turn. Moses had to strike the rock with his staff so all 12 tribes would know where to line up at the watering hole. Another aspect of traveling is to be appreciative of new sights, sounds, smells--take it all in. Many times in the Quran we are instructed to look at ruins and think about these past civilizations. Also, it is to be noted that when Moses got revelations from God, he was not in his own home, he was outside, in nature. Muhammad also got his first revelation when visiting a cave. Changes in surroundings may not give you direct communication from God, but they can clear your mind, stimulate your brain and perhaps give you a fresh perspective.

“Be as a traveler in this world”  for me means : 1) have a goal,2) have a plan,  but be ready to improvise as things happen, 3)don’t complain so much, 4)be patient and forgiving, and 5)appreciate the sights and sounds around you. But most of all, being a traveler means standing up and MOVING. Believe in your goal, start down that path, and do not get stuck sitting on the sidelines.

Closing du’a is from  Surah 60, it is a prayer of Abraham, who was quite the traveler himself:

Our Lord, on Thee do we rely, and to Thee do we turn, and to Thee is the eventual coming. Our Lord! Do not make us a trial for those who disbelieve, and forgive us, Our Lord! Surely Thou are the Mighty, the Wise.

Rabbana ‘alaika tawakkalna wa ilaika anabna wa ilaikal-masir. Rabbana la taj-alno fitnatan li-lladhina kafaru waghfir lana Rabbana innaka Antal ‘Azizu-l-Hakim. Amen.

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