The Alchemy of Suffering and Intimacy with God and the Qur'an

Greetings of Peace dear Friends,

I pray you are well! This week, I want to share a piece of beautiful writing by a beautiful friend. My friend writes anonymously on a Substack so I will honor that anonymity, however, I secured my friend's permission to share this piece here. I wanted to highlight it because it was striking to me for a few reasons.

First, the message is moving, profound, and transformative for the soul. It is relevant to every single one of us.

But secondly, it is like a story that elicits moral meaning and guidance from the Qur'an in an immediately relatable and timeless way, just as we have experienced and been so engaged with in our Project Illumine journey - we have been learning how to trust that beyond the verses that appear to address an event or give us a warning or good news or a reminder, that there is deep, transformative, and elevating instruction for us in the here and now, if we take the time to reflect, invest in knowledge, and understand.

Third, it occurs to me that there is so little writing like this - pieces that at the most basic level, talk about the Qur'an and God in a beautiful, human, natural, relatable, timely, and kind way. The way this piece is written, it is an engaging narrative, a guidance, a comfort, an opening and an invitation, and an intimacy shared. Pain is intimate and so is the elevation that can arise from it.

People in our day and age don't seem to like to talk about God in intimately beautiful ways, nor the Qur'an in terms of relatability and accessibility. As a non-Arabic speaker who is limited to English translations of the Qur'an, accessibility and relatability to the Qur'an has also been limited for most of my Muslim life. No longer after this incredible journey of learning with Project Illumine over the past two and a half years.

But while our engagement with Dr. Abou El Fadl's Project Illumine has made me at once more comfortable, intimate, engaged, and confident with the beauty, power, and relevance of the message of the Qur'an for our age, it has also made me yearn for more companionship with those who see this message in similarly profound and meaningful ways. I want to find more people who write and engage with the Qur'an AND God in intimate, real, humanist, relatable, and beautiful ways. This piece checks all those boxes. When you see it, you recognize it, and you feel it in your soul. Enjoy!

The Qur’an is full of stories of agony.

Think of Musa’s mother, who placed her baby in a basket in the river Nile and sent him into an unknown fate, at a time when Pharaoh commanded the killing of all newborn males. Imagine her heartbreak, her agony…

Think of Maryam, the mother of Isa, alayhi salam, who gave birth to her son, isolated and alone in the desert, with no one one to help her other than God, while bearing the scorn and disdain of society over this immaculate conception. She asked to be long dead before facing such a fate! Imagine her pain, her suffering…

Think of Hajar, running in the desert, back and forth, thirsty and desperate, with her crying baby, calling out for his mother. Imagine her solitude, her exhaustion…

Think of Yusuf’s father, who endured his son’s loss and disappearance, the apple of his eye, who cried for him so much that he went blind. Imagine his brokenness, his grief….

Think of Yunus, whose people’s arrogance inflicted him with such alienation and disappointment from the world, that he ended up in the belly of a whale. Imagine his affair, his fear…

Think of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, who lost all his loved ones, one after the other, and faced the worst, most vile persecution from his own family, his own tribe. Think of the loneliness, the pain….

Many sages have compared this life to a womb (rahm) wherein the Rahman cradles creation in His all-encompassing, unitary care. Yet we forget that the womb expels, constricts, contracts, and tears open. The thahir (external reality) of this life is pain but the batin (the inner reality) is Mercy.

People tend to think of Prophets as chosen ones whose lives were anointed with ease, whose paths were paved rose gardens, whose realities are far removed from “normal people” like us. Prophecy has ended, we say. Normal people like us are not enchanted, we think. We are not chosen, we presume. We are out of this ancient parables of bygone legends, receptacles of God’s special grace.

However, God mentions these stories of suffering towards his most beloved, his chosen Prophets, their wives and mothers, to show us that it is precisely suffering that is the mark of his Grace. The tears, tilling, and toil are but signs of Chosenness. There is no such thing as “God’s chosen people” inherent to any race, creed or lineage.

He/she who believes that Prophets and their families had it easy, that they had some hereditary right of kings over all lowly others, misses the point of revelation entirely: that whomsoever believes, is inherently, chosen. We all have tailored paths of individual salvation. Each of us is chosen. The path of faith is perilous one, full of hearts broken, shattered hopes, suffocated cries and unspeakable pain.

But remember, their is no virtue in pain itself. God does not love us to suffer, for agony is only a teacher along the way to Him. It is joy that is the end goal, it is grace and ease is the ultimate promise of God.

Some people turn their pain into cynicism, others turn it into subdued patience, waiting on the margins of life till they meet their graves, hoping for gardens of reward in the afterlife.

Others turn their embers into emeralds, imbuing their life with the light of prophecy, they begin to see both pain and ease as One, wanting neither an enchanted path of joy, nor the rewards of suffering, rather, they seek God alone. Perhaps no modern saint embodied this realization better than the West African Muslim sage, Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse, who said:

First I prayed for wealth. Later I realized that does not last. Then I asked for mercy. But realized that also doesn't last. I concluded that if a person would remain free of wants and needs he should ask only for Allah Himself.

May Allah give us Allah. Anything else that He gives other than Himself will come to pass. And as His vicegerents, we are bound to always be in need of Him. May Allah give us Allah.

St Thomas Aquinas only realized this on his deathbed, when he famously said: “Domine, non nisi Te—Lord, nothing except you.” But the living knowers of Allah (al-arifin billah) make God their only goal, seeing neither pain nor joy, but God alone.

May we rise above victimhood and sadness and achieve God as our goal, may suffering lead us not to seeing ourselves at all, but seeing God alone.

Even if all the world’s torturous whips lash our backs, we can choose that Bilalian cry: “Ahad, Ahad!” God is One.

May Allah give us Allah.


Image credit: Aslan Pahari.

Supporting knowledge is among the most important and elevated ways to create lasting light in these dark times for Muslims.


PROJECT ILLUMINE II: THE LIGHT OF THE PROPHET MUHAMMAD: "Decolonizing the Sirah in the Age of Islamophobia: A Master Class"
We have been planning for our next engagement as we are nearing the completion of the halaqas for PROJECT ILLUMINE: LIGHT OF THE QUR'AN, the first complete and original direct-to-English language Qur'anic commentary (tafsir) in over 40 years. To be clear, the Qur'anic commentary online classes will conclude, but then it will shift gears to become a full-time publishing project - it will be a full-force effort to transform the last two and a half years of halaqas into a legacy multi-volume book! Exciting!

What will we turn our attention to in our halaqa sessions? I hope and pray that we will be able to achieve our aim of journeying deep into the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) with Dr. Abou El Fadl, experiencing his lifetime journey with the hadith literature (reports about the life of the Prophet), just as we did with the tafsir. In order to make that dream come true, as all non-profit organizations must, we need to raise the funds to be able to do this project right. This Ramadan, please support PROJECT ILLUMINE II: LIGHT OF THE PROPHET MUHAMMAD, "Decolonizing the Sirah in the Age of Islamophobia: A Master Class." Muslims do not own their own history nor their own narratives. What we know of our tradition is largely seen through a colonial filter. To get at the truth and beauty of our tradition, we must re-examine, relearn and re-engage the hadith literature anew. Dr. Abou El Fadl dedicated his life to engaging this tradition as only a scholar could, working to satisfy his own questions. Now we have the opportunity to receive this precious understanding of the life of the Prophet. How can we allow this opportunity to pass? 

Dr. Abou El Fadl was focused on the intimate history of a great man - who the Prophet was as a person, why he was endearing to those around him, and how he lived, loved, prayed, and worshipped. This is not a review of the institutional history of the Prophet's life, or a chronology of the battles he fought or the treaties he signed. Similar to a previous 8-session halaqa he did entitled, "Humanistic Approaches to the Life of the Prophet," back in the late 1990s/2000s, it is an unprecedented, humanistic “first-hand meeting” with the Prophet based on Dr. Abou El Fadl’s extensive review of original Arabic texts. However, this master class engagement will include the 20+ years of additional research he has done since then!

Consider this tantalizing quote by Dr. Abou El Fadl:

“In researching the entire corpus of hadith traditions, it becomes apparent that so many of the reports about the Prophet Muhammad were built upon or shrouded by medieval mythologies. Yet, in the midst of this immense accumulation, there are reports that have all the earmarks of telling us a testimony - someone actually testifies to something real. And when you take all these things that testify to what is real, what emerges is a picture of who this man was and why what he did was so great. People think you can just open a book of hadith and just read it. You can’t do that. You are dealing with texts that were written hundreds of years ago by people whose outlook and understanding of their reality was very different. You have to take all of that into account when getting to the heart of who the Prophet was as a human being and why those around him loved him so dearly, which is what I was seeking to understand…”

Do you want to see this knowledge come to light? Help us! We also have the blessing of a most generous donor who will match all donations dollar for dollar up to $50K! God bless and elevate their family! 

We need to raise $185,000 by June 30, 2023 to secure one semester of weekly virtual halaqas that will run from January to June 2024. If we can raise another $185,000 by December 31, 2023, then we can secure a second semester of weekly virtual halaqas that will run from July to December 2024. This will be a subscription-only halaqa, with subscriptions for each semester costing $600 for the semester ($100 per month)/$500 if you donate BEFORE June 30, 2023. 


PROJECT ILLUMINE TONIGHT at 6 PM Eastern Time: Surah 91: Al Shams and Surah 104: Al Humazah! 
Hope to connect with you online soon insha'Allah (God willing)! May God uplift, empower, and elevate you always!

In Peace and Hope,

The Movement to Reinvigorate Beautiful and Ethical Islam has begun.  Join us.

Your donation to The Institute for Advanced Usuli Studies will help fund important work to combat extremism and ignorance. We are a 501(c)(3) non-profit public charity dedicated to research and education to promote humanistically beautiful and morally elevating interpretations of Islam. We seek to support our brightest minds to advance knowledge and to build a community of individuals founded on dignity, respect and love for all of God's creation. See The Usuli Institute Credo for our statement of values. Please give generously to support a beautiful, reasonable and vibrantly human Islam for future generations to come. All donations are tax-deductible and zakat eligible.


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