Imam Ahmad (may God have mercy on him) recorded Abu Umamah (may God be well pleased with him) saying that a young man came to the Prophet (may God bless him and grant him peace) and said, "O Messenger of Allah! Give me permission to commit zina [sex outside of marriage].'' The people surrounded him and rebuked him, saying, "Stop! Stop!'' But the Prophet said, "Come close." The young man came to him, and he said, "Sit down," so he sat down. The Prophet said, "Would you like it for your mother?" He said, "No, by Allah, may I be ransomed for you.'' The Prophet said, "Neither do the people like it for their mothers." The Prophet said, "Would you like it for your daughter?" He said, "No, by Allah, may I be ransomed for you.'' The Prophet said, "Neither do the people like it for their daughters." The Prophet said, "Would you like it for your sister?" He said, "No, by Allah, may I be ransomed for you.'' The Prophet said, "Neither do the people like it for their sisters." The Prophet said, "Would you like it for your paternal aunt?" He said, "No, by Allah, O Allah's Messenger, may I be ransomed for you.'' The Prophet said, "Neither do the people like it for their paternal aunts." The Prophet said, "Would you like it for your maternal aunt?" He said, "No, by Allah, O Allah's Messenger, may I be ransomed for you.'' The Prophet said, "Neither do the people like it for their maternal aunts." Then the Prophet put his hand on him and said, "O Allah, forgive his sin, purify his heart and guard his chastity." After that the young man never paid attention to anything of that nature.
The Prophet did not shy away from the spiritual and psychological needs of this young man, but addressed it clearly. He brought back to his mind the implications of what he was asking for, and how it relates to the general principle of loving for others what one loves for oneself. He made him confront the selfishness of his own desires, and see things from a more universal perspective. Once he had made it clear in the young man's mind that what he was asking was deeply problematic, he also spiritually intervened on his behalf, by which he was healed from the disease of his heart.
Imam al-Ghazali (may God have mercy on him) taught us that the refinement of our hearts is obligatory. It is something we must do, just like staying away from the haram and doing our obligatory worship. He counsels that one should look for a qualified shaykh to help them do this, but if this is not available, then one should find a sincere brother or sister in faith to help and provide counsel on this path. In this respect, it is important to keep in mind that no one is as trustworthy as the Prophet (may God bless him and grant him peace). One of his names is al-Amin, the Trustworthy. Every qualified shaykh I have ever met will tell you the same thing - the Prophet is the true master of the spiritual path, and the one from whom guidance is obtained, by the grace of God.
Regardless of whether one has access to truly trustworthy helpers or not, one must confront the reality of their inner state, just as the Prophet (may God bless him and grant him peace) forced the young man to confront the reality of his desires. The Qur'an states:
"God knows everything that is in the Heavens and Earth, and God knows everything that you conceal or declare, for God is knowing of that which is contained in the depths of your hearts." (Surah al-Taghabun, verse 4)
I have stated this before, and I will state it again. God already knows everything about us, so what we have to do is admit it to ourselves and to God. This may sound easy and simple, but it is not, because it means we each have to confront our deepest fears and struggles. In the case of the hadith mentioned before, perhaps we think that the young man just haphazardly asked the Prophet his provocative question. But I think that is probably unlikely. It is much more likely that he struggled with it in private - perhaps he thought about some young woman over and over again until he felt like he couldn't control himself, and went to the Prophet in a state of deep confusion and turmoil. The fact that he was willing to openly ask such a provocative question indicates that he was probably at his wits end, didn't know what else to do, and so went in search of a way out as a last resort.
This internal struggle is a common feature of our human experience. Many of our life experiences are so painful and challenging, it is easier to bury them deep within - to lock them away as a means of survival, and try to forget about them. It is much harder to openly confront them and try to overcome them. But as we progress towards the light of al-Nur, God will make us confront them whether we like it or not. This can be deeply painful, but we can take comfort in the words of the Prophet when he said, "Never is a believer stricken with a discomfort, an illness, an anxiety, a grief or mental worry or even the pricking of a thorn but God will expiate his or her sins on account of their patience." The path of inward rectification requires that we overcome these obstacles by facing them head on, with courage of spirit and trust in God. The Prophet (may God bless him and grant him peace) speaks to these sorts of realities in the following hadith, related in the book al-Adab al-Mufrad by Imam al-Bukhari (may God have mercy on him):
For the mother and father who have lost a child at a young age - a grief that I cannot even begin to imagine - the path to Paradise is found in confronting the reality of that loss with the light of faith. For them to achieve submission in face of the will of God, they must go beyond simply praying and fasting and "being a good Muslim." The Prophet says, "and resigns them to Allah," by which one might say that they make peace with the fact that God is al-Qadir al-Mumeet, The Powerful One, the Giver of Death. When God decreed that their children would die, there was nothing in the whole universe that could be done to prevent it. And we ask God for well being for ourselves and our loved ones, and ask that those who have lost children at a young age be comforted with a comfort directly from al-Salam, the Source of Peace, ameen!
These examples may seem somewhat extreme, or perhaps even arbitrary, because they are not your own struggles. But these examples compel us to see that Islam was given to us not so that we could live in some fantasy world, divorced from our real issues, but was given to us to provide the means by which we can confront the "that which is contained in the depths of our hearts." Regret, fear, the pain of loss, despair, agony, envy, weakness, lust, humiliation and the desire to humiliate, greed, hopelessness - these are some of the things that reside in our hearts, and until we have unearthed them, and brought them out to be grappled with, we are avoiding what really matters. The Prophet (may God bless him and grant him peace) did not shy away from them, and neither should we.
Doing the right thing is only part of the struggle - adopting the right attitude of heart can be far more challenging. As our life unfolds however it does, can we become those who truly trust in God, the mutawakkilun? When disappointments appear, can we become truly those who are patient, the sabirun. When our bodies yearn for something that is forbidden, can we truly control ourselves, and be considered from the muttaqun? May God give us the tawfiq (Divine success) and taysir (Divine facilitation) to have the qualities of tawakkul, sabr, and taqwa.
The pillars of something are like the foundation - they make everything else possible, but they are just the beginning. As a philosopher might say, "they are necessary but not sufficient." In this way, the 5 pillars of Islam provide us with a context, but they do not answer the deeply personal questions which are at the core of our being. Someone told me recently, "I think Islam is very compelling, but I struggle to believe in God, because if God is real, then God is to blame for my suffering, whereas if this is all just an accident, then no one is to blame, and I can just chalk it up to bad luck and move on." This may have been one of the most honest theological statements I have ever heard from anyone, and I pray that al-Mu'min al-Hadi, The Guardian and Guide, grants this person faith. This is precisely where the theological meets the personal, and it is a dynamic that all of us intuit on some level.
Ultimately, the answers of Islam revolve around inspiration and hope in the face of the inevitability of pain, loss, and suffering. God is arham al-rahimin, The Most Merciful of those who show mercy. If we could think of the greatest possible situation in this world, going to the limits of our ability to dream of a good life, then God has already thought of something far better to give to those whom God chooses. This reality is evoked by the words of the Prophet (may God bless him and grant him peace):
Belief in these realities is essential to self transformation - otherwise every loss in this world will increase us in frustration at the state of society and resentment towards the nature of the universe. The truth is, it is God who gives and takes away, not the world. The one you love will only love you back if al-Wadud, The Loving, puts love in his or her heart for you. The money that you crave will not reach your hand unless al-Razzaq, The Provider, decrees that some recruiter at McKinsey Consulting chooses you for a job as opposed to the 50 other highly qualified candidates. The power that you hope to wield in your adulthood will only be manifest if al-Qadir, the Powerful, blesses you with it. The child that you hope to have will never exist unless al-Khaliq, the Creator, places it in the womb of its mother. This is reality - this is la ilaha illa Allah, and the path to how to respond to reality is the secret of Muhammad rasul Allah. For we need to know how to live once we have seen reality. If we get the lover, the job, the power, and the family, what do we do with it? Do we look down on those who have less than us, forgetting the fact that every single thing we have is from God's grace?! Or do we adopt the way of the Prophet (may God grant him blessings and peace), who taught us to look at those below us in worldly matters, and those above us in spiritual matters. Will we adopt the way of the one who chose to be a servant when he could have been a king, because he was not obsessed with the gifts, but always kept his heart firmly fixed on the Giver of all things. For the one who is given in this world will quickly forget their gifts if they experience the loss of the next life, whereas the one who is given in the next world will quickly forget any loss they experienced in this life.
Last week, I attended a fundraiser at NYU for our brothers and sisters in Gaza. The stories that were told were heart-wrenching, and it made me realize, once again, how much I have to be thankful for, and how far I am from giving to others what they deserve. I am concerned about my own stuff, my own life, my own problems - it is always I, I, I. May God forgive me my weaknesses, and allow me to be more like the Prophet (may God bless him and grant him peace), ameen! He was a man who could simultaneously care for a large family with multiple households, spend large chunks of each day fulfilling the needs of others, stand in extra worship in the nights, spend of his wealth for the poor and needy even when that meant not having enough food to eat himself, undertake journeys into the hot desert to confront those determined to destroy everything he was trying to build. Someone can only do all of this if they have fully embraced the reality of la ilaha illa Allah, and allowed their inherent weakness to be covered over with the strength of al-Qawi, The Mighty. He will always be above us in spiritual matters, sall Allahu alayhi wa alihi wa sallim, and the people of Gaza are a reminder to us of what it means to truly face challenging realities! How many hopes of this world, however basic - just for enough to eat, just to sleep through the night in peace, just to see your children grow up safe - have been denied to our brothers and sisters in Gaza?! Is it because we are inherently better than them that we have so much?! Without a doubt, this is not the case.
As the Qur'an states:
"Whoever desires honor, then to Allah belongs all honor..." (Surah al-Fatir, verse 10)
God alone is the source of all power, might, and honor, so we should pause and ask for forgiveness whenever the thought crosses our minds that we are better than someone else. If we have any material or spiritual blessing, it is nothing but God's generosity to us, which God can take away if God so chooses, and give to whomever else instead of us. One of the reasons we follow the Prophet (may God bless him and grant him peace) is because God chose him to manifest the best of human characteristics, with steadiness and consistency, by saying:
"Truly, you are of a great moral character!" (Surah al-Qalam, verse 4)
God gave to the Prophet, and God gives to us. We each have only that which God has given us, but it is natural for us to be eager for more, recognizing God's incomprehensible bounty. We are all weak, needy, desirous and afraid - that is our eternal position before God. In the face of this reality, we can do nothing but flee towards al-Ghani, the Rich, before whom we are all impoverished beggars, hopeful to experience the reality of anta arham al-rahimin, "You are the Most Merciful of those who show mercy!" After we confront the painful trials of life, and come to grips with what it means in our hearts, we hope to be included amongst those who say, "No, I never experienced any unhappiness at all!" May it be so, by the mercy of the Most Merciful of those who show mercy, for all of us and everyone we love. May it be so for my beautiful little niece, through whom I have begun to understand what it means to wish you could protect someone from any harm or sadness. May it be so for the people of Gaza, and all of their beautiful children that they wish they could keep safe from any harm, and for the poor and oppressed in every corner of this world, whether remembered or forgotten, whether Muslim or people of other worldviews. bi rahmatika ya arham al-rahimin!
To close on a practical note, if you want to help your brothers and sisters in Palestine, I recommend making du'a for them, and donating to Islamic Relief, who have been working on the ground there for many years. http://www.irusa.org/countries/palestine/