Al salamu alaykum (Greetings of Peace)! I pray you are well and taking advantage of the energy of the first week of the year! I always find that when the Gregorian calendar turns into a new year, for some reason, I have a new-found motivation to take command of things anew, and to try to do things a little better. It is not that the days feel different or that I have any cosmic awareness of the changing alignment of the planets. I literally only have a different calendar date reflected on my phone and the upper right corner of my computer screen. So why? I don't know, but I'll take it. :)
Much in the same way that the end of the year gives me pause for reflection on the past year, on the flip side of the coin, the start of a new year has me looking forward to what I should hope to accomplish in the coming year. I am sure many people feel the same. But for 2023, I have high hopes and aspirations of getting my affairs in order, should this be my last year on the planet. I realize that not many people like to think about, much less plan for their departure, but I must say that between the pandemic, what feels like the constant acceleration of time, and the grand engagement with the Qur'an, which has been the Project Illumine commentaries for the last two years - which will, God willing (insha'Allah) reach its conclusion sometime in this calendar year - I feel the visceral urgency of an active engagement with my personal legacy. What will I leave behind if this is my last year on earth? If we have learned anything at all from just the pandemic alone, it is that anyone can go at any time. Ditto with the acceleration of time. At a minimum, I should have my worldly affairs in order just so that my loved ones can make sense of what I typically do of which they are completely unaware. But with our incredible engagement with God's Book through Project Illumine, far beyond the worldly that we should perhaps be more concerned with is our looming personal deadline to leave a lasting legacy - our most important investment in what comes next: creating the lasting goodness in this life that will simultaneously "pay it forward" for us in the next. Have I done enough? What will people remember about me when I am gone?
One of the biggest challenges that God has given me, when I look at the totality of my life thus far, is related to how well I was able to convey what I know of the Islam that God revealed to me through my life experiences. God first led me to Islam when I was a graduate student on my own for the first time, away from everything familiar to me. This experience gave me the chance to discover a completely new faith on my own, independent of any other influences other than my almost desperate desire to find my purpose and meaning in life, and chart a path that felt clean, dignified, and good. I believed in God but that belief didn't manifest in any part of my life. Thankfully, as I have shared elsewhere, after the initial spark of interest in Islam, it would take another two-and-a-half years of prayer, study, and reflection before I could overcome my many reservations and eventually convert to Islam. God then facilitated for my first year as a Muslim to be an immersion into American Muslim culture at the mosque, which looking back, was an important lesson in understanding the frustrating state of affairs for so many Muslims, especially converts, and the very long list of "opportunities for improvement" within the Muslim community to put it gently. After reaching a point of intellectual stagnation, after which many converts actually leave the faith, I was blessed by God to be introduced to Dr. Abou El Fadl's scholarship, which I have often described as a breath of fresh air to a suffocating person. Not surprisingly, many people use similar analogies to describe their reaction upon finding Dr. Abou El Fadl's work. Thank God, shortly thereafter, God facilitated my meeting Dr. Abou El Fadl in person, and the rest is history. As we have learned, there are no coincidences, and in my experience, God perfectly tailors challenges for each individual that wants to find their purpose and meaning, as I did. :)
So back to my biggest challenge. I married a scholar for whom I have been convinced since meeting him back in 1995 that he is the key to turning things around for Muslims in our dark, defeated, colonized state. Being this scholar's wife afforded me a perspective and an education that is second to none when it comes to understanding the rich, sophisticated, beautiful, intellectual and deeply humane version of Islam - the Islam that convinced me to become Muslim when my whole world thought I had gone insane. It didn't matter because once I intuitively recognized Truth in my heart and soul, there was no going back. I didn't need anyone else's validation because I knew that no one could walk in my footsteps, understand my journey, nor convince me that this journey didn't ultimately lead to a beautiful, just, and loving God. I also learned early, thank God, that everyone's personal journey is by definition lonely, if one is truly on the search for meaning, largely because meaning is unique to each individual and because sometimes we don't have the language to convey the totality of what we are feeling and experiencing to fully connect at the same level with another human being. But with God, we don't need words or explanations or justifications. God already knows, and I believe that if and when we are blessed to find that true connection with God, no matter how tenuous at the beginning, once we commit to the path of wanting God, we have found The Lifeline. It is exactly as our tradition tells us - if we take one step towards God, God will take ten steps towards us. That was most definitely my personal experience.
In 2023, I will reach my 29th anniversary as a Muslim convert and Dr. Abou El Fadl and I will celebrate our 28th wedding anniversary. The acceleration of time. The Usuli Institute just marked its 5th anniversary and we are two years into an intense study of every chapter of the Qur'an that began back in 1996, during the first year of our marriage. A side note. This tafsir (Qur'anic commentary) journey began as a line-by-line traditional commentary. That means that Dr. Abou El Fadl went line-by-line in the Qur'an, talking about the various meanings and interpretations of pretty much every word of every chapter we covered. Within that, he would insert his own understandings, sometimes anonymously attributing them to "some scholars in the tradition believe..." Back then, everything was new to me and I could not distinguish what was his or anyone else's for that matter. I thought that all scholars were equally learned more or less - shows how little I knew! Fast forward 25 years, during which he was pursuing his own path of understanding with the Qur'an, just for his own edification with no intention of ever sharing his personal relationship with the Qur'an. It was just for his own satisfaction - a private affair that was as intimate as his own relationship with God. I had no idea what he was up to! With a scholar's mind, curiosity, and passion for knowledge, he pursued what would become the fruit of Project Illumine -- what we are receiving today. And what a gift.
Two points to ponder. Dr. Abou El Fadl shared with me this week that as he was pursuing this knowledge, 1) because he had no intention of ever sharing any of it, he explored everything freely without the burden of thinking about a potential audience's expectations or approvals. This certainly affected his ability to think out of the box and challenge traditionally held notions and understandings that didn't always make sense - he could freely satisfy his own curiosity without the fear of judgment or desire for acknowledgment; and 2) he was really driven by trying to understand the original meanings of the message as received by the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). What was it that set the place on fire (Modern day idiom)? As we have seen, even understanding the idioms of the Prophet's day and age were game changers (another modern day idiom!) in understanding the original meanings of the revelations! Dr. Abou El Fadl's thematic understanding of every chapter of the Qur'an, as we have seen in these Project Illumine halaqas, have unlocked something unprecedented for our times - telling us in ways we can intuitively understand what the Qur'anic message actually says. When I hear it, it presses all the intuitive, primordial buttons in me that I didn't know I had. It rings true with my heart, my mind, and my life experience. It is priceless.
So what do you do when you have been given a priceless gift that you think everyone would want but no one believes exists, ie. an explanation of the meanings of the Qur'an that make sense, are morally, ethically, and humanistically elevating and just -- and that are directly applicable to the challenges you face in your life, your context, and your world? How do you convey to people that the Qur'an IS accessible, understandable, and further, extremely specific and relevant to what should be done to turn our situation around as Muslims - and simply as humanity as a whole? How do you convey to people that not all tafsirs are the same, and that there is something deeply profound, elevating, and enlightening in this project we have been working on at Usuli?
Herein lies the very personal challenge that God crafted for me. All along this glorious journey of the last 25+ years, God has provided me with the training, the tools, and the life experiences to reach this point where now, I am tasked with the challenge of sharing this priceless gift with others. My worldly training is in marketing and brand management. I have been on this Usuli journey for almost 30 years, long before the Usuli Institute was formed. I have personally experienced what Dr. Abou El Fadl explains as the purpose of the Qur'an - bringing people from darkness to light. I am so grateful and passionate about giving back what I was gifted from God - an education that brings beauty, understanding and peace to this very challenging yet temporary earthly existence. I pray that I can do as much as I can before my time is up.
I recognize that while one person can make a difference, a community of people can exponentially amplify the effect. So, if you made it this far in my email, then hopefully, you have the patience, perseverance, and hope to help me in my task. :) If you have watched the Project Illumine halaqas, I hope you will agree with me that we have received a priceless gift that must be gifted to others. I invite you to help me think freely and creatively about how we, as a community that has been blessed with the fruits of this knowledge, can effectively share and convey this priceless gift with others to the greatest outcome? I welcome your thoughts, ideas, questions, comments, prayers, and feedback, if you care to share! :)
I am so excited for tonight's Project Illumine halaqa installment of Surah 5: Al Ma'idah, Day 4! Hope to connect with you online soon insha'Allah (God willing)! May God keep you and your loved ones on the path of love, light, and beauty always!