When Islam Meant Love (a preview)

IslamLoveI grew up a globe trekker. As the son, and grandson, of employees at the American Embassy in India, I was afforded the privilege to see much of Asia and the Middle East before I understood the significance of those journeys, and my time spent on Pan Am flights and in foreign airports throughout the late ’70s and the following decades helped instill a habit of international travel that continues to itch inside me even today. In all my wayfaring, there is one place that stands above all others as a source of peace that I find myself drawn to like a moth to a flame, and in the light of this space, I am extinguished like the proverbial insect, only to emerge reborn like a phoenix, full of love. Atop the Iranian plateau, surrounded by arid deserts, there is an ancient city named Mashhad centered around a holy shrine, the Haram of Imam Reza. For the past two decades, ever since I learned of this sacred temple, I’ve become addicted to the feeling of empowerment from my delicate prayers in this hallowed space. Invocations for healing, clarity, and fortune—all have been answered. So during this visit, when I entered the holy shrine with a deeply spiritual state of mind, my body consumed in its green glow, whispering my supplication while I grasped at the silver chain surrounding it, I was unsurprised, as I slowly turned away from it, to meet the eye-line of one of the shrine’s caretakers, who gestured to me to come and then led me directly to the shrine’s ancient library and introduced me to the director, a direct descendant of Prophet Muhammad. The director, in turn, guided me to the English section, introduced me to a translator who would be at my service, and asked me to write about the significance of this shrine and share its compelling story with Western audiences, so that others could also experience the transcendent peace I found there. I was unsurprised by this sequence of events since my last whispered prayer before I met the caretaker’s gaze, was to be of service to the person I came to see—the person to whom this temple is dedicated, and who is buried below its glorious golden dome, the person who remains a catalyst for the tens of millions of pilgrims worldwide, who flock annually to this sacred space: Imam Ali ibn Musa ar-Ridha.

Imam Ali ibn Musa ar-Ridha is colloquially referred to as Imam Ali Reza or Imam Reza by most of the local population and the many pilgrims who swarm to offer their prayers at his shrine. He is also known lovingly by Persians as the richest person in Iran, due to the fact that over the years since he was martyred and buried in the city of Mashhad, his followers have willed their fortunes over to the shrine, and as a result, expanded it, allowing it to grow in size and stature so that it is presently the largest shrine in Islam dedicated to the legacy of Fatima az-Zahra, the daughter and sole heir to the Prophet Muhammad. The golden dome that covers his grave is iconic and the sanctified halls that lead to it are legendary for its verdant marble floors that glow from the light which reflects readily off of the shrine’s mirrored ceilings. In addition, the inner shrine, the holiest of holies, which is surrounded by a heavy silver chain, is itself often obscured by rainbow-colored mounds comprised of banknotes from all over the world: dinars, riyals, rupees, euros, and my own measly dollars slipped through the silver grating blanket the iridescent jade atop Imam Ali Reza’s grave. To me, there is no place in the world like it, and in spite of the challenge presented of traveling to Iran as an American, I continue to do so, even in years like this one, where global analysts are indicating there may be a war between our two nations. Yet in spite of this looming conflict or the machinations of ever-depraved warmongers, pilgrims like me continue undaunted to migrate to Imam Ali Reza, because he is the antithesis of the violence we abhor, and a cure for the hatred that grows in the systems that choke and oppress us and our planet; he is simply love personified—a virtue that tragically made him a target for murder.

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This was an introduction to my new book “When Islam Meant Love: The Tragic Story of Imam Ali Reza,” which I have been working on for the past year (this is why I have not been blogging), and plan on releasing it mid-way through the year. If you would like to be one of my advanced readers, please leave a comment below.

 

From Iran, With Love

FromIranWithLove
FROM IRAN, WITH LOVE, by K. ALI BALAVEN
I just returned home from Iran—where I spent a significant amount of time in thought, writing curriculum for my Middle Eastern History class, in deep-spiritual reflection at the holiest of shrines, and visiting with the richest person in the Middle East and perhaps, the world.  During my visit with this soul, I had an epiphany, one which I hope will help us avoid bloodshed and thwart the machinations of warmongers.
 
Imam Ali Reza is dead. However, as my most recent visit with him in Iran showed me, he is very much alive.  He is a direct descendant, seven generations removed, of the Prophet Muhammad, through his daughter Fatima.  He is also the 8th holy Imam of Muslims, who honors and emulates the family legacy and traditions of the Prophet. He is buried in the east of modern-day Iran and his story is an interesting parable/lesson for the geopolitical climate of war that looms over all of us now.
 
The Golden Age of Islam saw its height during the lives of Imam Ali Reza, his parents, and his grandparents. This was at a time when Muslim mathematicians, scientists, and physicians would advance the world, while Europe was in trapped in the Dark Ages. All roads led to Baghdad, the capital of the Abbasid Empire, where wealth abounded. It drew Indian merchants bearing their exotic spices, the Chinese with their fine silks and porcelain, even the Vikings would come to Baghdad to trade their furs. The position of the Abbasids then is analogous to the U.S. in the world now, but all was not well in the Middle East.
 
The Abbasids were usurpers, like the Umayyads before them, seizing political leadership, creating hereditary claims, while systematically murdering and disenfranchising descendants of the Prophet Muhammad. By the time Imam Ali Reza became their target, the Abbasids had already murdered his father and grandfather, under the orders of Harun Rashid, an illegitimate leader seated on an illegitimate throne.
 
Harun Rashid, a despot and hegemon,  directed the systematic destruction of Persian, Azeri, Armenian, Kurdish, and Turkish cultures to advance his own coffers and did so in the name of Islamic rule. His son, Mamun, followed in the wicked footsteps of his father, but with great irony, in order to legitimize his own claim to the throne amidst a power struggle with his own brother, he used the love the Persian people had for the bloodline of the Prophet by forcefully maneuvering Imam Ali Reza to join him in Khorasan (Iran). Once he did this, he realized how popular Imam Ali Reza truly was, and seeing that this posed a threat to the entire illegitimate empire, even his own throne, he laid plans to have him poisoned.
 
Who would not love a person such as Imam Ali Reza, who championed peace over war, love over hatred with only kindness to give to others?  People came to him so that he could pray for them, to help deliver them from bondage, sickness, or debt.  His miracles are widely written about and they didn’t stop when he was given Mamun’s poisoned grapes, which caused this man of love to die an agonizing death.
 
To add insult to injury, Mamun ordered that he be buried next to his father, the very man who murdered Imam Ali Reza’s father and grandfather, in an effort to diminish him to a mere footnote in history. However, his presence there brought his flock, and as the reports of miracles continued at his gravesite, his flock grew and sincere lovers of the bloodline of the Prophet Muhammad continued to come in droves from all over the world.
 
Every year, over 14 million pilgrims come to visit this man, but very few, if any, even know that Harun Rashid is buried beside him in an unmarked grave. Imam Reza’s vast mausoleum is now so huge that I spent one whole day walking through it, meeting with people and praying, and when I checked my step-counter, I was astonished to find that I’d walked 16km! It has expanded over the years, through the loving patronage of his devotees of all faiths, and denominations, with many giving their life savings and property to his trust in their wills. His grave is a tomb covered with gold and precious stones, and when you are within its holiest of holies, its sheer grandeur, built by love, surpasses the dusty legacy the Abbasids have left behind.  It’s because of Imam Reza’s tomb’s continued and exponential growth, that he is described by many as the richest person in Middle East, and by what I saw and experienced, I believe him to be the richest in the world as well.  Therefore, there is both great irony and beautiful poetry in the fact that, in death, Imam Ali Reza vanquished the legacy of those who murdered his family and he did so with love.
 
Imam Reza’s supremacy to the Abbasids is now clear, as measured by those who flock to his metaphysical embrace; and his domain is clearly an empire of love—which is the purist emotion you feel when you step onto the green marble, overcome by the hypnotic lights ricocheting off of precious stones, gold, and intricate glass designs while being simultaneously subdued into bliss by the fragrant dance of rosewater and frankincense.  Then there are the tears of deliverance irrigating worry-worn faces, the smiles, the handshakes, the hugs and kisses, all of which leave me drowning in a sea of love.  I emerged baptized with a sense of peace, only to realize that I live in a world trapped by the tensions of war.
 
Today, Saudi Arabia continues the despotism and hegemony that Harun Rashid championed, continues to destroy places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Bahrain, Yemen, Syria, Nigeria, while warmongering with Iran; and they do this with our friendship, blessing the name of fighting the terror they themselves spark!  Together, our loathsome friendship has created a new Abbasid empire that stretches from the oil-rich Middle East, to Washington D.C., and the illegitimate ruler who sits atop this throne is our very own president, Donald J. Trump. 
 
Imam Ali Reza taught me that love conquers, not hate, and that war is a shortsighted person’s means of achieving hollow victory.  I fear that we will follow the way of the Abbasids, and of Harun Rashid, reviled by those who champion the ideal of peace, and for history to judge us in the way people treat our legacy after we are gone. 
 
I learned of Imam Ali Reza as a young Muslim and went on my first pilgrimage to Iran, a year after 9/11, to pray for my mother who had been diagnosed with stage 4 lymphoma and given merely a few months to live.  That journey changed my life and miraculously, my mother beat the cancer and lived another 6 years. This year, I returned to my Imam to pray for peace.
 
I pray that we all find it before it’s too late.
FromIranWithLove2

Inter(ned) Faith

interned-faith

Inter(ned) Faith by Professor A.L.I.

Thomas Munro had a vision of Raghavendra Swami,

Just as I had a dream of my own Samadhi,

For a piece of my heart is buried deep in Shirdi,

And another is covered by Karbala’s sands barely,

And the other vital organs are scattered beyond,

Amongst constellations like Trisanku body parts.

Put together like the rivers that flow unto sea,

The source is the same, this path is for me.

My ablution, an abhishekam performed with water,

From a well in Samarra, the bloodline of martyrs,

And my pilgrimage to Mecca begins in Sabarimala,

My fasting, a practice learnt from a devout mother,

And charity, in the blind generosity of my father,

And prostration learned by bowing down to elders,

So Islam’s rhythm was nestled in Vedic vessel,

And the cultural practices of traditional Tamils,

This is the complexity that helps to form me,

Yet ignoramuses like our president cannot see,

That Islam is everywhere, from the cycles of seeds,

To the circumambulation of atoms in the deepest of seas,

To banish this is to banish self, the essence is peace,

To war with oneself is the sickest disease.