journey to the stars

Sunrise in Baynol Haramain. Karbala, Iraq. July 14, 2015.

Bismillah hir Rahman nir Raheem
In the name of Allah, the Most Beneficent, the Most Merciful

This past summer, I was honored with the blessing of being able to travel to the holy lands of Iraq and Iran to visit the resting places of the descendants of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him and his family), a visitation that is often referred to as “ziyara,” or “ziyarat.”

“The word ‘Ziyarat’ is derived from the word “zawr” which means to deflect or draw away from something. A lie is called ‘zur’ because it deflects from the path of truth. The ‘za’ir’ [individual undertaking the ziyarat] is known to be so, because he deflects from other than “the one he intends to visit.”[…] And it is said that the reason why Ziyarat is referred to as visiting the saintly human beings, is because it is to deflect from the material routine and draw away from the corporeal world and incline toward the world of spirit, while one is present in the corporeal environment and maintains one’s bodily form.

“[…] Ziyarat has been reduced to visitation in the earthly abode. The Islamic worldview, however, due to its sharp and accurate cognition of reality, as taught by the Holy Qur’an, the Holy Prophet, and his infallible successors, does not limit Ziyarat to the corporeal world. It rather believes that human beings can communicate with those who have transcended this limited world of matter and can listen to them as well. […] Unlike those who consider the human being as an entity which perishes after the worldly death, Islam teaches mankind that death is a purgatory and bridge to the realm beyond. In fact, to be more accurate, death is “tearing of some veils” from the higher reality of every thing. […] Therefore, the more purity we enjoy, the better we can communicate with those exalted spirits who have left this material world, are alive in the real sense of the word, and due to their exalted station of existential mediation (about which we shall soon discuss in detail) can influence the world of contingent existence and even benefit us in different ways.

“[…] Our aim of Ziyarat, however, must transcend seeking personal benefits. […] Of course this does not mean that one should not seek personal benefits from the great personalities, but one must at least have realized the ultimate purpose of Ziyarat. […] Such realizations tear the veils of the past and future, and release the human being into the world of perpetual bliss and ecstasy.”

-Shaykh Muhammad M. Khalfan, The Sacred Effusion


During my travels, I endeavored to keep a regular journal, jotting down sights and sounds, tokens of advice from teachers and friends, and other thoughts that came to mind. The accounts that are, God-willing, to follow are pieces of those musings. No two ziyara experiences are the same, and what I have come across in my travels is in no way representative of the ziyara experience as a whole – most likely, it falls short of the true ziyara experienced by the greatest mystics and scholars.

As with any intensely life-altering experience, there will of course, be excerpts too personal to share. But as for the other parts, I would like to share them in the hopes that this story, this experience that so utterly and irrevocably changed my life, this journey whose undertaking to this very moment is challenging me to do and be better, always better – that it might serve as reminder to my own soul first and foremost of what it has seen. But if it somehow reaches the heart of a fellow reader the way others’ ziyara experiences have reached me (a reaching for which I am forever grateful), then all praise belongs to Allah, Lord of the Worlds.

If the trees were pens and oceans ink (31:27), not enough could be said in the praise of such a Merciful God, or his most beloved servants. This writing, will never be enough. It will never even come close to enough. But now, it is all I can think to do. All other conversation has lost its sweetness.

Certain experiences, such as this one, are untranslatable. They exist in the language of the spiritual realm, and the language of the tongues in this physical one is simply not sufficient. Knowing this, there does exist some hesitancy in relating my thoughts, aware that doing so is a pinning down with uncomfortable finality the wings of emotion with the anvil of words.

It is like facing the pinkening skies of a warm summer storm and wishing to put its gentle caress into words. No matter how much we strain our eyes, we cannot encapsulate its breadth. No matter how hard we look, we cannot take in all at once the reaching expanse of horizon.

What, then? Should we look away?

Ah! But what of the beauty we would miss if, at the very least, we did not try?

Perhaps all that is in our power at this moment is to feel the warmth of, not the entire storm, but a single droplet on our tongues. Perhaps we cannot have the horizon, but maybe we can call just one inch of sky our own.

And perhaps, in this moment, that inch is all we need.

As we discover this inch, this unchartered territory, perhaps we may feel the need to put its exploration into words – we are new to this land, and if we do not lay the trail for ourselves now, then as we travel ahead, perhaps we think we might get lost.

So for now, we write. We compose our songs of discovery, singing as we move forward, marking the way for ourselves, inch by solid inch, a path to follow home should forgetfulness ever overtake us, should we need to be reminded, should we need to return to these melodies again.

But eventually, when the time is right, when we have sung as much as we can and our words have exhausted us, and we have not just seen, but felt the sky’s softness with our own hands… it is then that we will find that we will have grown out of our need for them, and from our hands, the words we once clenched onto will fall away.

Silence will overtake us, and we will hear what we could not hear above our singing before: the even sweeter song of the storm. And in that moment, we will find our feet will no longer be earthbound, but will be spiraling upwards… our faces drenched with the lightness of rain, as we laugh and laugh, remembering the too-long forgotten fragrance of the sun.

In need of your prayers,

-Aqeela Naqvi

Rabi al-Awwal  16, 1437 AH / December 28, 2015 CE

letters to our daughters

10:01 PM. New York City | Stand clear of the closing doors please. With a leap, I slip through the subway car doors just before they close, grabbing on to the nearest pole for balance. Probably not the smartest idea, but then again, as a student with exams on my mind, the unforgiving bite of the subway doors is the least of my concerns. I fumble with my bags, pulling out my flashcards to study, the endless barrage of information quickly becoming a blur before my eyes. As I go through them, I glance up and catch a man staring in my direction. At my gaze, he looks away, but as I return to my flashcards, I watch as he continues to stare in my peripheral vision.

On the subway, strange glances and occasional stares tend to be a usual occurrence. What with the horrors taking place in the world (every night, it seems, another headline), villains masquerading as ‘Muslims’ (a statement which couldn’t be further from the truth), climates of fear fueled by media furnaces churning out specifically constructed hateful rhetoric…as a Muslim woman who observes Hijaab, such moments have, unfortunately, come to be expected. Such stares are neither justified nor warranted, but they happen…and quite frankly, after years of being on the receiving end, the only thing they really are is getting old.

When I was younger, the reactions of others to my presence used to preoccupy me. I had only been wearing Hijaab for a year when 9/11 happened, and, at a young age, it was difficult for me to understand what it was that made people sneer or mumble under their breath as I walked by. As I got older and the stares become more pronounced, not having the naivety of childhood to protect me, I would be lying if I said they didn’t affect me in some way. There were moments when I stood, staring at my reflection in the mirror, wondering if it would just be easier to let go of it all – if it would be easier dress the way my friends dressed, do my hair the way they did, walk down the street or stroll around the mall without catching a double-take;

…if it would be easier to be like everyone else.


It was in the same years when I struggled with observing Hijaab due to the opinions of non-Muslims that I also began to struggle due to the opinions of some Muslims as well. During those teenage years when all is thrown to the wayside beyond one’s physical appearance, it was difficult to navigate the ropes of what I knew Islam taught versus what I would hear some Muslims say. Already grappling with how I was perceived by others at school, I hoped to find refuge within my own community, but unfortunately, this wasn’t always the case.

Instead of watching many elders teach us girls to do and be better than what society expected of us, I watched as they, too, minimized us into the smallness of our physical appearances. At everywhere from weddings to community events, by explicit word or implicit action, we would hear – I’m looking for a girl for my son, but he wants someone who is fairer; Haven’t seen you in a while! Have you put on weight?; You know, you should wear a bit more makeup if you want boys to notice you; Don’t you think you’re taking the whole Hijaab thing a bit to the extreme?

I distinctly remember the first time I was faced with such statements – and it was like a blow to the stomach.

Comments from people unfamiliar with Islam I could handle. Their statements either stemmed from ignorance or pre-planned agendas, and either could be easily dismantled by the proper use of knowledge and intellect. But comments from Muslims themselves? People I had grown up with? Who sat next to me in the Masjid? How could I answer them? How could I dismantle this?

I did not know then, and I pray that Allah guides us all to learn how to address this exceptionally important issue now. But as a young girl, I remember biting my tongue, fighting waves of frustration, tears choking at my throat – thinking one thing: I feel so lost. Sayyida Fatima, I wish you were here.


Many years later, I would like to hope that Sayyida Fatima heard my cry, because now, all praise belongs to Allah, my Hijaab is still with me. And not just as a cloth or an obligation to be upheld, but as the dearest piece of my identity; the very life force that breathes within me. Getting here has, by no means, been an easy road, and I am still far from my destination; I am still far from understanding its true worth and perfecting it in the manner of Sayyida Fatima and her daughters.

But now, learning how to carry this flag is no longer a struggle; it is the greatest honor.

Despite this fact, I still wish that when I had been struggling, when I had been looking into bloodshot eyes reflected back at me in the still hours of night questioning this integral aspect of my identity…I wish someone had told me what I wish to share with my sisters now.

I wish someone had said: my daughter, there is a great secret to your inner dimension. Seek it. Do not fall prey to ideas of what this world wants you to become. Look to your role models – to women like Sayyida Fatima – to know who you were created to be.

My daughter, do not define yourself by your level of external desirability. Do not consent to this public consumption of your soul. The journey of being a woman in this society – Muslim or otherwise – is one that requires extreme perseverance. And the obstacles designed against you have been structured specifically so that you are kept from discovering the divine destiny you have been created for. Do not let them keep you from discovering yourself.

My daughter, do not abandon the revolution that is stirring in your soul – the one that this society will attempt to quiet by degrading you into nothing more than an object to be whistled at by passersby. By taking you, beautiful from the moment you are born, and spending every moment afterward trying to strip you of your beauty. Telling you: your words are not enough, your mind is not enough; that to be given an ounce of respect, to be allowed to carry the mantle of “liberation,” you must consent to being dissected by the scalpel of corporate desire. Forcing you to seek their approval on how to dress or talk or laugh; trying to meet their impossible demands to be all at once the nerdy girl sporty girl curvy girl skinny girl funny girl cool girl beauty-queen-girl-next-door girl – the everything girl as long as its anything but your true self. Do not accept this grave injustice to your soul.

My daughter, after bearing so many years of misogyny, do not do what the system would wish you to do and internalize the inferiority that has been forced upon you. Do not let it be that now, instead of others oppressing you, you learn to do it yourself – cutting other women down, so that even you – as a woman – take doing things ‘like a girl’ as an insult.

My daughter, do not accept the oppression of culture and tradition that says women are inferior to men – but at the same time, do not run into the arms of a more modern oppression that wants you to compete with men either. Your standard has never been men, but always your own soul – because Allah (swt) has never defined your value in relation to a man, but only in relation to Himself.

My daughter, the greatest woman that ever lived showed us that we must resist when our societies try to bury us alive. She showed us that a daughter is not a burden, but the greatest honor. A wife is not a servant, but a partner to spiritual ascension. A mother is not separate from society, but the very shaper of society. And this womb, this vehicle of creation, is not a hindrance to a woman’s potential, but the very source of her power – so that when a woman’s hand reaches out to rock the cradle of her child, she is in essence rocking the very cradle of humanity.

My daughter, there is so much to being a woman. This journey requires an immense amount of struggle, but if you allow it to, it can become a thing of beauty. Whatever stage you are on, keep with it; no one is perfect at first. Begin where you are comfortable and work your way from there. If you stumble or fall or get lost on the way, know that God’s forgiveness is greater than we can imagine – He forgives, so do not bind yourself to your mistakes. Learn to forgive yourself. Keep moving forward. It does not matter whether you run, walk, or crawl – all that matters is that you keep moving.

My daughter, allow your strength to stem from your modesty, both in dress and demeanor. But remember, this strength will not be strength if you use it to push others to the ground. The worst thing you can do for your soul is use your modesty as a means of looking down upon others. If you have embraced the physical covering, do not push away those who are not there yet. Do not walk the earth with an arrogant heart. Do not judge the modesty that you can see on another woman, because the modesty that is less visible – the one of her words, actions, thoughts – may far exceed yours. The woman who today does not observe Hijaab completely may one day observe it more deeply than you. But even if she never does, that does not give you the right to consider yourself better than her. Each woman is on her own spiritual journey – and your place is not to judge or outcast, but to uplift and help your fellow sister.

My daughter, this cloth is more than a covering – it is, in its essence, a stronghold. Protect yourself and others through its understanding. When the stares of strangers and the comments of friends become too much to bear, call on your Leader, Sayyida Fatima, and take strength from her name. Do not let them make you believe that if you walk in her light, you will be less beautiful. Do not let them prevent you from entering – or scare you into abandoning – this fortress.

Raise your voice with her strength and declare:

“The demand of society from a woman, the demand of a woman from herself, and the demand of a man from a woman all revolve around physical beauty. But the real beauty lies in the moment the society, man, and woman herself should demand from woman the beauty of the soul and the spirit and human qualities and talents…Islam does not demand beauty from a woman. It does not ask for an illusive appearance. In society, it does not demand physical, sensual, feminine features. No! No! Rather…Islam demands from you your existential value, and not sensual value…”

Because in the early days of your wearing this Hijaab –

“You may have accepted it without being aware of the responsibility of wearing this vitalizing dress, without having endeavored to realize the aims and message of this dress, without ever having tried to refine and reform yourself in order to deserve this dress, this attire. In all such circumstances, your Hijaab can never be Islam personified…It shall never be a revolutionary stronghold…except when you should have learnt Islam as a deen (a system of life), a comprehensive ideology, recognized it as such, and linked it truly and boldly with all your existence, your being, your life, your traits of character, your aims and objects, as well as your ambitions.”

But now that you are beginning to understand:

“Rise and revolt…with the help of your Hijaab, the depth of which you have now fully realized, which has bestowed upon you the infinite capacity of being human.”

Rise and declare:

“…I am free. I am released…With my Hijaab, with the heavy social responsibility of the commands to do what is good and forbid what is wrong…I enter the stage of society and conquer all its planes…The type of woman who you had yourself forged, had yourself trained, had yourself taught ideals – the way of talking, laughing, wishing, longing…you have now lost such a woman, such a stronghold…this stronghold shall never fall into your hands.”

Beauty of Concealment and Concealment of Beauty


To my dear sisters who are struggling. To those constantly being made to feel like they don’t belong. To those living under the constant threat of harm because of the religion they most publicly represent. To those standing, like the young girl I once knew many years ago, looking into the mirror, wondering if it would be easier to let it all go and be like everyone else…

Yes. It would be easier – to look like, speak like, talk like, everyone else.

For a while.

But believe me when I say that though it might seem easy at first, the most difficult thing in the world is spending the years to come watching your identity be chipped into pieces; standing there as you are sculpted and moulded by the hands of others, losing the very core of your self – and looking the other way.

It might seem difficult now. In fact, it most definitely is. But you are not alone. Your fellow travelers on this journey stand behind you; Allah (swt) is close by your side.

And if you want to know if it gets better? If it gets easier learning how to live life as your authentic and truest self?

It does. And it will.

“Verily, with every hardship, there is relief.” (94:6)

Relief will come. But in the meantime, we must master this hardship, reminding ourselves and the generations of our daughters –

You are beautiful because you were made beautiful. Not because another person says, ‘You are beautiful.’ You have the universe inside you, so a) do not wait for another to look into your eyes and tell you they see cosmos dancing there for you to believe it, or b) allow another to say that they see nothing there so much that you stop believing as well.

Do not insult your existence by seeking its validation from others. Your worth is not scribbled in pencil, a second-hand appraisal of an outer form. It is written in gold by the First Hand who sang the love song of your inner existence.

Your life is one—count it: one. Do not allow another to live two lives by means of subjugating yours. Your mind is your homeland. Do not allow it to be colonized into thinking that beautiful is ‘everyone else’s beautiful’ and not your own beautiful.

You—your journey—has never been about them: what they think of how you dress/talk/sit/stand/walk/laugh. Your journey has always been, and will forever be, only about you.

You are a bird that was created to sing in the freedom of the skies; not to trill in the cage of the opinions of others. The majority of birds sit with wings clipped—and, missing the taste of flight, would do anything to keep you, too, on the ground.

But you have wings, my daughter.

You have wings . . . fly.

words, that changed everything

“when you stand in front of Imam Hussain (ع), remember:
you are standing in front of the personality who changed Hurr.

that same personality is changing you.”

—ayatullah basheer al-najafi
najaf, iraq.   july 7 2015.

the blood of Muhammad’s sons

“Whoever could recognize me—has recognized me, and for those who have not recognized me, by introducing my ancestors and my family, let me introduce myself to them:

O people! I am the son of Makkah and Mina; I am the son of Zamzam and Safa; I am the son of he who, after lifting the Hajr al-Aswad in his own cloak, erected it upon its original position; I am the son of the most distinguished pilgrims of the Holy Ka’baa; […] I am the son of that Holy Prophet upon whom the Lord Almighty sent revelations; I am the son of Muhammad al-Mustafa and Ali al-Murtadha; […] I am the son of the one who beside the Holy Prophet fought with two swords and two spears; migrated twice and took the oath of allegiance twice; […] like a lion when the spears entangled with each other in war […] made them softened, crushed, and powdered, scattering them away like the wind.

He is the Lion of Hijaz, the Exalted Chief in Iraq, the Makki, the Madani, the Khifi, the Uqabi, the Badri, the Uhadi, the Shajari, and the Muhajari […] He is the Chief of the Arabs, the Lion of the Battlefield, the successor of the two Mashhar, and the father of two sons—al-Hassan and al-Hussain. Yes, he is (to whom belong all these virtues and precious distinctions) my grandfather—Ali ibn Abi Talib. I am the son of Fatima al-Zahra…”

[…] Imam Sajjad (a) continued this epic glorification until the loud cry of the people was raised. Yazeed became scared and, fearing that lest a revolution would occur ordered the Mo’adhin [announcer of the Adhaan, the call for prayer] to announce the Adhaan in order to silence Imam Sajjad with this trick.

The Mo’adhin arose and began the call for prayer: “Allahu Akbar (God is Greater)…”

Imam Sajjad: “Anything greater than Allah does not exist.”

“…Ashhadun la ilaha illallah (There is no God except Allah)…”

“My hairs, skin, flesh, and blood witness the unity of Allah.”

“…Ashhadu anna Muhammad ur RasoolAllah (I bear witness that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah)…”

Looking toward Yazeed:

“This Muhammad, whose name was just now announced, is he my grandfather or yours? If you claim that he is your grandfather, that would be a lie and a denial of the truth – and if he is my grandfather, then why did you kill his family and put them through the sword?”

—excerpts, the sermon of Imam Sajjad (a) in damascus
the story of karbala, ayatullah ali nazari munfarid

ya mawla,
Imam Sajjad,
ya Zayn-ul-Abideen.

may i be sacrificed for you,
for the grieving of your heart,
the heaviness of your chains,
the redness of your tears…

how mercilessly the world has shed,

the blood of Muhammad’s sons.

beloved of Ali

when i stood near the grave of Imam ‘Ali,
i felt something in the atmosphere change—
not when i cried, “Haydar,”
but when i whispered:


هُمْ فَاطِمَةُ وَ أَبُوهَا وَ بَعْلُهَا وَ بَنُوهَا
“they [those who are under the cloak during the revelation of 33:33]
are Fatima
her father, her husband, and her sons.”

“carry on”

it’s easy to fight when everything’s right,
and you’re mad with the thrill and the glory;
it’s easy to cheer when victory’s near,
and wallow in fields that are gory.
it’s a different song when everything’s wrong,
when you’re feeling infernally mortal;
when it’s ten against one, and hope there is none,
buck up, little soldier, and chortle:

carry on! carry on!
there isn’t much punch in your blow.
you’re glaring and staring and hitting out blind;
you’re muddy and bloody, but never you mind.
carry on! carry on!
you haven’t the ghost of a show.
it’s looking like death, but while you’ve a breath,
carry on, my son! carry on!

and so in the strife of the battle of life
it’s easy to fight when you’re winning;
it’s easy to slave, and starve and be brave,
when the dawn of success is beginning.
but the man who can meet despair and defeat
with a cheer, there’s the man of God’s choosing;
the man who can fight to Heaven’s own height
is the man who can fight when he’s losing.

carry on! carry on!
things never were looming so black.
but show that you haven’t a cowardly streak,
and though you’re unlucky you never are weak.
carry on! carry on!
brace up for another attack.
it’s looking like hell, but – you never can tell:
carry on, old man! carry on!

there are some who drift out in the deserts of doubt,
and some who in brutishness wallow;
there are others, i know, who in piety go
because of a Heaven to follow.
but to labour with zest, and to give of your best,
for the sweetness and joy of the giving;
to help folks along with a hand and a song;
why, there’s the real sunshine of living.

carry on! carry on!
fight the good fight and true;
believe in your mission, greet life with a cheer;
there’s big work to do, and that’s why you are here.
carry on! carry on!
let the world be the better for you;
and at last when you die, let this be your cry:
carry on, my soul! carry on!

-robert william service

kindred spirits

Processed with VSCO with k3 preset

it is a warm summer’s night in qom.

i sit on the floor in masjid-e-jamkaran and look up at the ceiling, admiring the beauty of the architecture, the interlacing weaving of the arabic calligraphy – composed with such precision, but in its composition, somehow still as wild and free-flowing as foam rising on waves of eastern seas.

i follow the meditated pattern of their sweeping lines, marveling at their intricacy – musing on the intricacy of the path of my life that has been unfolding: a thousand hidden alleys, a thousand secret moments, a thousand twists of twine, a maze interwoven with the stars – all, to bring me… here.

i think about how, in the span of a few weeks, the course of my entire life has been changed. the sights i have seen, the knowledge i have faced, the people – the guides, the mentors, the strangers, the friends – i have come across. as each of their faces comes to mind, i send towards heaven a prayer; pausing as i come to one, the keeper of my heart’s most weary secrets, the conversation, from the depths of nights to the mist of cloudy dawns.

this friend in particular, who isn’t here, but has gone to the harram of Sayyida Masooma (sa) to bid her final farewell – her flight leaves tonight, departing this once-strange-land, now-called-home to return to a now-strange land, once-called-home. not knowing when she’ll be back and wishing we had more time to spend together, i pray for her happiness, and suddenly, feel someone sit down beside me.


without even turning, i recognize her voice. and it is all i can do not to laugh.


and as we sit side by side in silence i begin to smile – wondering at the seeming coincidences in life that have never really been coincidences at all, but all part of His greater, beautiful plan. and with an exhale and a heart strengthened by the shoulder that now rests next to mine, i whisper into warm summer winds: thank you Allah, thank you, thank you for the kindred spirits of friends…

the taste of magic

when i open a harry potter book,
i am eight years old again,
starlight streams through the window,
i can taste magic.


“there are some things you can’t share without ending up liking each other, and knocking out a twelve-foot mountain troll is one of them.”
-harry potter and the sorcerer’s stone-

in sharing, a friendship struck many years ago between three friends and a wide-eyed eight year old hiding in the stacks of a dusty library during lunchtime, coming across a book, the story of the boy with the lightning-shaped scar…

with the first turn of the page a nearly 20 year journey: lazy summer days spent with a bowl of ice cream escaping into a world sometimes more real than my own; hidden moments in autumn-crisped schoolyards and classrooms, heart racing to turn the next page; hiding under the covers late in snowy nights, the world silent and asleep, but surrounded by the conversation of friends.

this magical world i escaped into as a child, the companion of my youth, the nostalgia of my adulthood, has taught me this: read. be a lover of reading. allow your children to become lovers of reading. the stories of childhood are the ones we carry with us – flames at which to warm our hands in our colder hours.

let your kids feel constellations move in their souls. show them that magic exists, before the grayness of the world has a chance to convince them it doesn’t.

the potter generation – an entire generation, growing alongside the books. aging with the characters. and to this day, those, knowing that harry potter was one of our first glimpses into the meanings of love. friendship. loyalty. sacrifice. betrayal. disappointment. success.

as harry, ron, and hermione struggled to make sense of their world, so did we. as they grew up and realized – that not every friend is a true friend, that the people we look up to sometimes make mistakes, that there are great darknesses in the world – so did we.

but at the same time, we also realized that true friendship, though rare, does exist, and it is worth fighting for; that people may make mistakes, but it is not their fall that defines them, but their decision to stand back up; and that though there is darkness in the world, there is within us the power to defeat it:

the light of an even greater, undefeatable magic.