WARRIORS + POETS

what matters most

there is a surrender that happens at the peak of life, and another at the edge of death, and the two do not weigh the same. there is an abdication when the first glimmer of light is seen on the horizon, and another when the last glimmer is about to fade, and the day between them is not the same.

and how you spend the day matters.

it is said, “to be pious in one’s youth is the style of prophets; in old age even the cruel wolf gives up his cruelty.”

what matters most is what you choose to do when you have everything to lose. what you choose to give up when it means the most to do so. when you decide, when you are young and beautiful and full of youth and life, what matters most to you and what doesn’t.

when you have the riches of Sulayman yet you set your face to the sky –  saying this is all from you and for you, my Lord. when you have the beauty of Yusuf yet you turn from temptation – saying this is all from you and for you, my Lord. when you have the strength and position of Hurr yet you race to Hussain’s side – saying this is all from you and for you, my Lord! when you have the youth of Qasim yet you ready your sword for battle – saying this is all from you and for you, my Lord…

when i examine my life and weigh the years in the balance – have i utilized my riches, my beauty, my strength, the way God meant me to –  or did i not value their worth enough? have i put my head to the ground enough? have i spoken to my Lord enough?

have i squandered my youth in desire and play? have i kept my Lord for my old age? have i understood the frailty of this world enough?

. . . there is a surrender that happens at the peak of life, and another at the edge of death. and there is a lifetime in between. and how we choose to spend that lifetime – how we choose to spend each day – matters.

make it matter.

everyone except us

hugo writes, “curiosity is a form of gluttony. to see is to devour.”

few exist the cannibals of the flesh, but many the cannibals of the soul. many, who spend their evenings by the fireside, slavering over the slabs of a fellow man’s spirit, the blood of a fellow man’s struggle dripping from their lips. many, for whom the call – “will any of you love to eat the flesh of his dead brother?” (49:12) is drowned out by the gnawing of their teeth – persistent, searching ever more and more, consuming with frenzy the appetite of who dids and what dids; eyes wild, mouth gaping, ingesting, feasting, destroying.

what is it in us that is so drawn to the destruction of another human being? what is it, that makes us gather as if in mobs around the guillotine, ready to point! shout! condemn! the man we have dragged to his knees on the stage? is it, perhaps, the hope that the louder our voice and angrier our snarl, the more hidden our own slips and errors will become? that the more unforgiving our face, the less likely anyone will discover the chink in our own armor – the ugliness which creeps, the darkness that sneaks, the monsters who sleep in the depth of our souls?

how merciless we are – we who sniff out the misdeeds of others solely to uncover and expose them; to drag them from their beds and display them naked in the streets; to show the world with pride, and a ‘praise be to God!’ the impenetrable depth of our purity.

how foolish we are – we who do not know that when we have had our way, when the tears have wracked and broken our victim’s body; when all the fight has left his skin and the crowds disperse; when this creature of God’s remains in the loneliness of the street with no one but the moon to hear the fractures of his sighs; when he reaches down to grasp a handful of dust, and with a pang cries out— ah! this, is what I am! — in that moment, the fallen man becomes more beloved to God than the man who stands on the pedestal: the worshipper made of marble who looks at his figure and thinks: Ah, This Is What I Am.

what a carnival, that we, imperfect creatures, should try each other on the scale of perfection – when God, the Most Perfect, the Most Majestic, the Most Wise, tries us on His scale: with power and with might declaring His wrath; but with such sweetness declaring greater, always greater, His mercy.

oh Lord! it is good that man was not made to be god – for with what a weighty hand would we punish our fellow creation.

we, who do not forgive each other our lapses. we, who shrink from an outstretched hand, a brother caught in the grasp of struggle, trying to extricate himself from its roots. we, who turn away in disdain, afraid the dust on his hands might dirty the hems of our robes. we, who fix our stares on the flaws of others, thinking ourselves immune to their sins. we, who have never been offered the Pharaoh’s kingdom, yet think we would have turned it away; who have never heard the siren’s song, yet think we would have saved our ships from crashing on rocky shores.

we, who think so highly of ourselves, and so little of God, that we think: this world is a test for everyone except us, pride will fall every king except us, Satan’s deceit will trick every worshipper except us, the fire’s flames will touch everyone, except us.

my dear self, for too long has the spyglass of your heart been focused on others, yet never have you turned it inward to the stormy seas of your own soul. leave this charade – this thing of play whose theatre rests on the chests of your fellow man. when the curtain rises and the dialogue shifts to the conversation, the actions, the secrets of your brother – cry out as if their words were knives, stabbing into your very heart. clasp your hands over your ears and flee!

run, like one whose head is caught on fire. let them jeer. let them mock. let them call you the madman, the one who, by one word was made insane.

let them. for there is another world to come. and a greater Judge who waits. and a court whose jury no man will escape . . . where no tongue will remain silent except that it will shudder and tremble, revealing all that it used to do.

“Two men entered a mosque – one, a devoted worshipper, and the other a sinner. When they left the mosque, the worshipper had become a sinner, and the sinner had become sincere. This is because the worshipper entered the mosque while he felt proud of his acts of worship, and his thoughts were preoccupied with that. However, the sinner was thinking remorsefully about his sins, and so he sought forgiveness from Allah from what he had done.” -Imam al-Baqir (a)

“why do you never find anything written about that idiosyncratic thought you advert to, about your fascination with something no one else understands? because it is up to you. there is something you find interesting, for a reason hard to explain. it is hard to explain because you have never read it on any page; there you begin. you were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment.

write as if you were dying. at the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. that is, after all, the case. what would you begin writing if you knew you would die soon? what could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality? […] why are we reading, if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened and its deepest mystery probed? […] why are we reading, if not in hope that the writer will magnify and dramatize our days, will illuminate and inspire us with wisdom, courage and the hope of meaningfulness, and press upon our minds the deepest mysteries, so we may feel again their majesty and power?

[…] at its best, the sensation of writing is that of any unmerited grace. it is handed to you, but only if you look for it. you search, you break your fists, your back, your brain, and then – and only then – it is handed to you. […] one line of a poem, the poet said – only one line, but thank God for that one line – drops from the ceiling. Thornton Wilder cited this unnamed writer of sonnets: one line of a sonnet falls from the ceiling, and you tap in the others around it with a jeweler’s hammer. nobody whispers it in your ear. it is like something you memorized once and forgot. now it comes back and rips away your breath. you find and finger a phrase at a time; you lay it down as if with tongs, restraining your strength, and wait suspended and fierce until the next one finds you: yes, this; and yes, praise be, then this.

[…] one of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. the impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. something more will arise for later, something better. these things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. you open your safe and find ashes.

after Michelangelo died, someone found in his studio a piece of paper on which he had written a note to his apprentice, in the handwriting of his old age: ‘draw, Antonio, draw, Antonio, draw and do not waste time.'”

– annie dillard

the smallest acts

there have been times an infant this has shown
that age does not define how much you know
the wisdom that we look for in the skies
is oft found in the youngest child’s cries

there have been times without having to speak
servants of God managed the greatest deeds
unrecognized by servants of this world
young soldiers in the service of their Lord

such tyrants history had come to see
the likes of which before there’d never been
yet, by this Pharaoh’s reign would come to end—
a infant’s basket down the river bend

such miracles which had not yet been done
Maryam, untouched, had given birth—a son
protect his mother, Isa had been able
words spoken by one resting in his cradle

such darkness had been spread in Karbala
when called a question out Aba Abdillah
an answer given by his infant son
showed clearly who the battle truly won

when tender Ali Asghar raised his arms
eager to save the life of his Imam
it demonstrated no matter your age
we all have our own separate part to play

when his tongue was run over thirsty lips
soldiers of greed found that their choice was this:
repent and turn back from the way they’d come,
or seal their fate with Asghar’s martyrdom

perhaps some men start shuffling their feet
perhaps this truth they slowly start to see
what excuse do they have to truly give
for not letting an infant child live?

what is it, in the gasping of his breath?
what is it, resting on his father’s chest?
that causes seasoned soldiers to grow scared
as if a dark abyss before them stares

without words Ali Asghar sends a message
the only weapon that you need is courage
the smallest acts will always aid the fight
to overcome the darkness with the light

the cries of Ali Asghar reach their ears
the piercing of a soldier’s driving spears
tears making plain the message of Islam
cannot be made separate from the Imam

with tears he strikes such fear into their souls
with tears demanding each of them to know:
his tears are tears that smother flaming fires
his tears are tears that topple grand empires

all murdered but Hussain still stands unbeaten!
before them, Ali Asghar undefeated!
…and so an archer raises up his bow
the coward’s old response to the hero

Hurmala aims towards a small body
and strikes the small neck of the young Ali
goes limp an infant in his father’s arms
blood-red rivers pooling in his palms

and yet, the patience of Hussain remains
in tears towards the sky such words he says
how easy hardships that on me befall
when witnessed in the presence of Allah…

using his sword Hussain then digs a grave
in which this tiny body is to lay
how can the heart hold back its wailing screams
thinking of how small this grave must be…

wails sounding from a mother’s empty arms
for centuries this grief will now live on
until that moment comes on Judgement Day
when every tyrant’s sentence is proclaimed

when angels will scream, wa Museebata!
as brought forth are tyrants of Karbala
an infant’s justice will be realized
appearing with this question in his eyes:

speak of your sins, explain before Allah!
is on your hands, blood of RasoolAllah!
speak as your hearts with terror are now filled—
for what sin with such cruelty was i killed?

sweeter than honey

the meeting of swords, the clashing of souls
brought by dawn after silence of night
thousands who fight for darkness to prevail—
less than one hundred warriors of the light

the tenth of Muharram on Karbala’s sands
a battle this morning has bloodily raged
a few hours the length of centuries seems
a grief by which young children are aged

from the first arrow released by the enemy
Imam Hussain’s companions for him have bled
while there is strength remaining in their bones
not a drop of the Prophet’s blood will be shed

men continue to leave, bodies continue to return
as a bloody scene in a weeping desert unfurls
until finally none of these brave souls remains
each companion valiantly departs from this world

yet still, Yazeed’s army continues to advance
Imam Hussain’s family now must enter the fray
brothers and nephews and sons never to return
on burning sands their bodies now lay

of Karbala’s youth there is a brave soul
who has come now to ask his Uncle a question
to take up his sword and to enter the battle
he has come to seek his Imam’s permission

how can Hussain look upon this young face
and let him go knowing the enemy’s plans
that they will not rest until piercing his skin
until his blood flows like rivers in the sands

he refuses but his nephew Qasim is insistent
he kisses his uncle’s hands with this request
to allow him to defend the message of Islam
until then the blood in his veins will not rest

his requests are delivered with such earnest
that Imam Hussain can deny him no longer
he kisses his face and allows him to leave
his face so much like the face of his brother

in youth, wealth or beauty or power or fame
anything we dream of our horizon may hold
our bones are now strong and our blood is fresh
thoughts of death come when we’re frail and old

in youth, our shoulders are unburdened
we cannot be expected to represent our faith
thoughts of this world are right here and now
thoughts of the hereafter can surely wait

when it comes to religion, we still have time
when we’re older we’ll learn more of Islam
when we’re older will come the light of our faith
when we’re older will we understand our Qur’an

right now all that matters is being young
all is enjoyment from each dusk to dawn
is that how it is? is this age and youth?
or have we understood living all wrong?

when we see Karbala, we see there are youth
many who are not quite much older than us
there is Qasim and there is Muhammad and Aun
who at such an age put in Allah their trust

youth who come to the aid of their Imam
with no thought to the length of their years
ready to stand for the purity of their beliefs
even if it means facing the enemy’s spears

they could have been worried about the enemy
not just what they’d say, but to them what they’d do
they could have cried out we are yet only youth!
and the army stands as many while we are so few!

they could have been nervous of standing out
not to a few people, but an army of thousands
not just a group who would jeer at them with words
but those who’d ready their swords to surround them

but to these youth, none of this was a thought
for being young did not stop them from knowing
the divine purpose for which they had been created
where they came from and where they were going

they would sacrifice each and every desire
not at life’s edges where death’s kept at bay
rather living each moment only for their Lord
when death’s call still seems far away

Hazrat Qasim enters the battle with such valor
the cub no less than his father, the lion, Hassan
a young boy striking fear into soldier’s hearts
showing them how the battle of the soul is won

eager to defend Islam and his Imam Hussain
he does not hesitate in setting off on the plains
the enemy hopes to strike fear in his heart—
forgetting which bloodline runs through his veins

these is the son of Hamza and Haydar!
the son of Abu Talib and Hassan al-Mujtaba!
his is a lineage more radiant than the stars
this is the grandson of Muhammad al-Mustafa!

yet the cruelty of the charge, the cutting of his bones
the army surrounds him – imagine the scene
men racing forward on horses, and his spilling blood
amidst snarling wolves, a young child’s screams…

a soldier coming forward and striking his head
and Hazrat Qasim falling down on the plains
with wounds kissing his skin, this final farewell
“O dear Uncle, come to my aid!”

like a wild falcon, Hussain enters the battle
the enemy from his force scatters and flees
he cradles this young child’s head to his chest
as Qasim’s soul from this world slowly leaves

“By Allah! It is difficult for your Uncle
that he could not come to your aid…”
as he holds him in his arms, these tender words
the master of Martyrs to a young boy says…

in death, Hazrat Qasim’s face holds a smile
and in it the night’s memory comes to mind
an image of a young face in a tent full of men
who knew with dawn, all present would die

of the boy who realized his youth may be at stake
who tomorrow, may life for death have to barter
yet with passion in his voice he had asked his Imam
“Uncle, am I, too, included in the list of martyrs?”

Imam Hussain had responded, “O my dear son!
How do you consider death (in the way of Allah)?”
and Hazrat Qasim had smiled such a sweet smile
and in his answer, this shining lesson history saw

that the human’s true price is greater than this world
that the only thing worth it is eternity

that no oppressor or tyrant can shackle your soul
when God Himself has created you free

that to enter the fray with your honor and die on your feet
is better than living life on your knees

for such death dying for truth
can only be as he said:

for Qasim, such death,
sweeter than honey

o eyes, shed your tears

O eyes shed your tears
Muharram’s moon has turned
in these days Hussain’s blood is spilled—
the tents of Zaynab burned

O eyes shed your tears
the caravan arrives
soon will the sands redden with blood—
the children’s gasping cries

O eyes shed your tears
a battle now will rage
a noble band of few will rise—
warriors of every age

O eyes shed your tears
the bodies on the ground
trampled by the hooves of horses—
broken, in pieces found

O eyes shed your tears
the son and father part
the Prophet’s face enters the fray—
yet spears still pierce his heart

O eyes shed your tears
to Furat Abbas goes
Hussain rushes to his side—
Hussain returns alone

O eyes shed your tears
will not be quenched a thirst
the neck of Hussain’s pure infant—
an arrow reaches first

O eyes shed your tears
Hussain will call this cry
“Is there no one to help us?”—
will ring throughout the sky

O eyes shed your tears
join Hussain’s ranks and know
you could not be there in body—
you can still be in soul

O eyes shed your tears
more than just in sorrow
but in reflection and new growth—
to better our tomorrows

O eyes shed your tears
these tears must us revive
they lead to perfecting our souls—
they bring dead hearts alive

O eyes shed your tears
weep and recall Hussain!
how they surrounded him with swords—
how he fell on those plains…

O eyes shed your tears
Hussain killed in Karbala!
from the skies heard, O soul at peace—
return now to Allah…

O eyes shed your tears
the heart begins to shake
a young daughter’s heart-wrenching wails
the head raised on the stake

O eyes shed your tears
the ringing of her cries
searching the desert for his chest
for where his body lies

O eyes shed your tears
don’t let this month’s moon pass
without your heartstrings torn apart
in Hussain’s love steadfast

O eyes shed your tears
cry wa Muhammada!
in these days, join his caravan—
Hussain and Karbala…

the secret

the world still craves to know the secret spoken by Hussain
that changed the heart of one such as Zuhayr the son of Qayn

what was it that was spoken in the silence of that tent
that changed a wary man into a man wholly content?

when just moments ago, Zuhayr had in this act persisted
where Hussain lay his camp, Zuhayr would lay his at a distance

two caravans had found their paths by destiny were crossed
yet one hid from the other steering clear at any cost

til finally the noble son, the heir of Thaqalayn
dispatched a message for Zuhayr, the simple son of Qayn

with one who had avoided him, Hussain now wished to speak
with one whose hesitance til now both caravans had seen

the news arrived and all around him motionless became
would he accept the invitation sent him by Hussain?

such an invitation, still the will of Zuhayr faltered
until were spoken such words by which destinies are altered

Zuhayr’s wife had beheld what her husband did not see
by such women are some men made from naught to Hussaini

how strange is this Zuhayr! all praise to God alone belongs!
the Prophet’s son has summoned you and you do not respond? 

her words ignite a spark inside the depths of Zuhayr’s soul
and so he stands and to the tents of Hussain he now goes

on entering the tent he’s who his whole life he had been
yet when he leaves an altered man by history is seen

Zuhayr has returned, shining bright, contentment on his face
his wife bids him farewell as with Hussain he takes his place

the world still craves to know the secret spoken by Hussain
that changed the heart of one such as Zuhayr the son of Qayn

what was it that was spoken in the silence of that tent
that changed a wary man into a man wholly content?

what was that treasure hidden in the depths of Zuhayr’s heart
that in the eyes of his Imam set him clearly apart?

something was seen there by Hussain; Zuhayr did not yet know
a seed in need of one small push into an oak to grow

men like Hussain are not just men, they are spirits in flight
and so the hearts they call to them turn by their touch to light

those who have known him, know that when you stand before Hussain
he’ll change your heart the way he changed that of Zuhayr bin Qayn

when came the call from his Imam, Zuhayr did not know why
yet answering the call alone, his soul was purified

such is the beauty of Hussain—by darkness we’re enthralled
yet to us he extends his hand: us by our names he calls

we choose so often to be blind and from our souls to turn
yet when we come to know Hussain we learn how to return

just like Zuhayr, our caravan has traveled on so far
beside us Hussain’s makes its way, headed for Karbala

if in this moment, sorrow’s weight upon you heavy lays
consider it the gentle touch of Hussain’s changing rays

if this desire – to be his – awakens in your heart
consider that Hussain has sent your soul a special call

if you respond seeking to learn the secret Hussain knows
and if you go leaving behind all that your tent now holds

if in this moment truth like that of lightning now does strike
and if you let it alter you, not slow, but speed of light

if like Zuhayr you wish that you are killed a thousand times
so that each time to your Hussain you may offer your life

then even when arrows of life towards you become vaulted
you will stand firm, you will not shake, your faith will never falter

and all will wonder what was said in your heart’s silent tent
that changed a straying soul into a soul in truth content

the world will ask to know the secret spoken by Hussain,
that in one moment made you rise a person truly changed

the world will ask, yet like the secret of Zuhayr bin Qayn—
this secret will always be yours, for you and your Hussain