there is a tale

Posted on September 10, 2018

there is a tale that aches the heart
whose telling tears its seams apart
a thousand years
of flowing tears
which call: ya Hussain

 
there was a band of noble few
who left behind all that they knew
to fight the fight
of dark and light
their chief, al-Hussain

 
of young and old their party made
both valiant men and women brave
with noble brows
this noble vow
til death! ya Hussain

 
with scorching days and bitter nights
the barren desert marked their plight
the wound struck first —
the children’s thirst
their cry, ya Hussain

 
the enemy in thousands came
crooked their cause, lowly their aim
blinded by greed
prepared their steeds
to kill… ya Hussain…

 
the river wept to see the scene
(salvation’s ark) (demon’s ravine)
spilling of blood
a crimson flood
lapping, ya Hussain
 
when every friend and brother fell
came then the time for this farewell
a sister’s cry
pierced through the sky
my life, my Hussain…

 
in grief, one lion, head unbowed
army of wolves, trembled aloud
one man of God
facing such odds
no man, like Hussain

 
they came to butcher, came to maim
to end Islam, to kill Hussain
yet through your line
Islam survived
deen ast, ya Hussain

 
arrows were struck, your body bled
a sword was raised, severed your head
yet who lived on?
in hist’ry’s dawn?
your name, ya Hussain

 
yours is the tale that soothes the soul
that turns the broken spirit whole
no earthly pain
nor grief remain
with you, ya Hussain
 
and yours, the tale that heals the heart
whose telling is a saving art
for all my years
for you, my tears

 
Imam,

ya Hussain

what matters most

Posted on April 22, 2018

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 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

Posted on March 12, 2018

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)

burn the dead wood

Posted on March 8, 2018

One of the most important lessons I have learned in the past few years is this: do not make yourself small for anyone else. Whether it is with friends, family, or in a romantic relationship – anyone who asks you to fold yourself into a smaller version of you so that they feel more comfortable, is not someone who has your best interests in mind. Anyone who asks you to sacrifice pieces of yourself, your principles, or your values, is not someone who hopes for your success. Do not minimize your desire for growth to keep someone who feels threatened by that growth a part of your life.

Each soul is made for greatness. Each human is linked at his or her core to the Infinite. The task given: to rediscover that core. To come upon the divine. To live the lessons. To try to be the best at everything you do.

The time given: one life.

One.

In your personal quest, you must always remain humble. You must never consider yourself to be better than anyone else. But at the same time, you must always remember that you are not less than anyone else either.

Unfortunately, there are many people who have either given up on their own growth or feel stuck where they are – and because they don’t know how to or don’t want to move forward, they don’t want anyone else to either. May God guide all of us and inspire each of us to break free of this kind of cycle, and help each and every one of us (especially those of us who are struggling) to do and be better.

It is important to help others see the light in themselves, but in the process, you must not forget to foster your own inner light – by pushing your limits, elevating your thoughts, challenging yourself, exploring every cavern of your being, your talent, and your ability – until you set your life ablaze in brilliant flames and watch as the dead wood burns away… and emerges from the ashes the phoenix your life has been waiting for you to become.

gone writing

Posted on November 9, 2017

“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. […] 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

nothing but beauty

Posted on October 1, 2017

ya Zaynab, the time has come to bid Hussain farewell
horrors to pass the looming of a bloody moon foretells
 
ya Zaynab, with the rising of Ashura’s sun
to come to the aid of your Hussain there will be left no one
 
ya Zaynab, to the battlefield he is to go
and will shower down upon him rain of merciless arrows
 
ya Zaynab, facing thousands he’ll stand as one
yet all will scatter from the sword of Ali’s fearless son
 
ya Zaynab, seeing light, the darkness will be scared
more archers will be signaled and more swordsmen prepared
 
ya Zaynab, then wounds on wounds will kiss his skin,
and when they do the enemy will start to circle in…
 
ya Zaynab, from his horse he’ll be shot down
and snarling wolves snapping their jaws your lion will surround
 
ya Zaynab, and when he falls to his knees
the heavens will hear wailing of an anguished sister’s screams
 
ya Zaynab, will choke with grief your tears!
as the chest of your Hussain is ripped and torn apart with spears
 
ya Zaynab, his head from his body will be severed
and the brother you held close to you will in his blood be covered
 
ya Zaynab, this world for you will turn to ash
when your brother, your Imam, when your Hussain breathes his last
 
ya Zaynab, yet Hussain will leave you with this mission
to remain strong and carry on the message of his revolution
 
so ya Zaynab,
 
even when your tents they come to burn
even when you are imprisoned by those who truth’s call have spurned
 
ya Zaynab, even when they tie your hands
even when they drag you as captives across miles of lonely land
 
ya Zaynab, even when the tyrant brings you in his hall
your spine will not be broken, like your brother you’ll stand tall
 
ya Zaynab, you will not have with you a sword
but each tyrant’s throne will shatter by the grandeur of your words
 
ya Zaynab, in fear before you they will stand
when you pronounce the Prophet’s blood is dripping from their hands
 
ya Zaynab, for all who listen you’ll attest
the truth of who these tyrants are, of who has devoured your flesh
 
ya Zaynab, to them you will proclaim
their strongest efforts will not erase the splendor of your names
 
ya Zaynab, in fear they’ll shout: your brother died!
with sweaty palms cry out: Hussain is no longer alive!
 
but ya Zaynab, you’ll call towards the sky
do not name as dead those in God’s way slain – no, they are alive (2:154)
 
ya Zaynab, with your brother’s head they will then taunt
with this, in fright, their assumed victory in Karbala they’ll flaunt
 
but ya Zaynab, you will still look them in the eye
and declare with the firmest gaze the victory of the Most High
 
and ya Zaynab, all will tremble, in your voice they’ll hear Ali:
as they realize that Karbala was nothing but beauty
 
as they realize
 
that Karbala
 
was nothing
but
beauty

the smallest acts

Posted on September 30, 2017

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
 
an arrow from a grown man’s hand takes flight
the small neck of a sweet child it strikes
goes limp an infant in his father’s arms
rivers of blood left 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…
 
was this the tyrant’s wish? a desert grave?
in which a 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?

 
 

*Shaykh Mufid in Kitab al-Irshad, tr. IKA Howard, p. 379, refers to the fourth Shi’i Imam as Ali b. al-Hussain al-Akbar, and the Ali whose mother was Layla, is addressed as Ali b. al-Hussain al-Asghar. The infant who was martyred in Karbala is named Abdallah b. al-Hussain or Abdallah al-Radi (i.e., the suckling child). Thus, in historical sources, Ali al-Asghar does not refer to the infant son of Imam Hussain. However, I have chosen to use Ali al-Asghar in this poem to avoid confusion as it has become commonly known to refer to the infant as such, while acknowledging that the infant being referred to is, in fact, Abdallah al-Radi.