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The On Being Project

A Love Stronger than Death

A Love Stronger than Death

Even in a world of suffering that we both create and live in, this one hurts somewhere deep, deep in that place where the heart meets the inner soul. The rumors started to come out: an explosion. In Medina. In the very sacred City of the Prophet.
Coming in the aftermath of Paris and Tunisia and Niger and Nigeria and Brussels and Syria and Istanbul and Yemen and Egypt and Iraq and Bangladesh and daily mass shootings in America. This was not the most catastrophic terrorist attack. No, the attack on Baghdad killed hundreds of people, and destroyed a whole city block. It got almost no coverage in Western media, because, well, Iraq.
But this one felt like a violation in a different way, not because of the sheer loss of human life, but because of the assault on the sacred itself. Yes, every single human life is sacred, every human being more precious than any temple.
This one cut deep. It violated. This was Medina. This is Medina. Medina means the “City of the Prophet.” In Muslim sources, it is referred to as al-Madina al-Munawwara: The Illuminated City [of the Prophet].
It is a city of light. A city bathed in light. God’s light permeates this city. The shrine of the Prophet is a garden of light — a garden where the fragrance of the Prophet makes it all real.
Mecca, Medina, Jerusalem. These are the three holy sites of Islam. Mecca, Medina, Jerusalem. Mecca is the house of God. Medina is the house of the Prophet. Jerusalem is the house that connects all the prophets together, and us to God through them. All three are sacred. Medina is the lynchpin.

Muslims perform the Hajj to Mecca as the house of God. Mecca is the site of the temple (the Ka‘ba) that Abraham, Hagar, and Ishmael built, the first temple devoted to God, the site that we face for prayers, and the place we come to for the ultimate pilgrimage. Mecca is sacred, and many people say that as the pilgrims come there we bring our highest aspirations and our cluttered egos.

Mecca is also filled with the hustle and bustle of millions of pilgrims, of luxury hotels whose very existence betrays the radical egalitarianism of Islam, and a reminder of how the Saudi petro-capitalist Wahhabism has already destroyed the majority of the sacred sites of Islam there. Mecca is the most sacred spot on Earth for Muslims, but it carries a sense of being on this Earth, with its complexities and contradictions.
Medina is different. Medina has always been different. Medina is a quieter garden. It’s a town that gracefully carries the gentleness of the Prophet. Medina is the place that the mystics from half a world away sing about lovingly and longingly. Oh what sweet Entezaar (longing, yearning for a simple glance):

Medina Chalen
Isi maheen chalen

Come,
let us go
You and I
To Medina
This month,
This month
Let us go
To Medina

For so many Muslims who have never been able to financially afford the visit to the City of the Prophet, we have expressed our longing to God like this:

Ay Katib-e Taqdir,
Madina Likh De

O Writer of the Book of Destiny
Write Down “Medina” for my fate!

If Medina is a noble sanctuary (haram), then Muhammad is the Tajdar-e Haram, the one who wears the crown (taj). He is the king of the sanctuary. So many millions, billions, have cried out in our grief to Muhammad, to God, to be granted being close enough to Muhammad to be bathed in his light, to be worthy of his fragrance, to receive his intercession.
And now, explosions in this noble sanctuary. And now, a violation of the garden of light:

Mai-kasho aao aao
Medina Chalen

Come, devoted lovers,
Let us go to Medina!

AAo AAo Medina Chalen
Isi Maheen-e chalen

O let us go to Medina
Let’s go this very month!

Amjad Sabri, the devotional singer who was just killed during Ramadan, would sing:

“There is neither sorrow in this life,
nor fear of death in Medina.”

How were we to know that the fear of death in Medina was not mere poetic hyperbole? And what can we say about a city that so loves the Prophet that after the ghastly explosion, on that very night of the explosion, more people came to the Prophet’s mosque than before?

What do we say about a love that’s stronger than death? What do we say about those whose Ramadan night prayer has sorrow in this life, yet rises above fear of death, in Medina?
This is the Islam that is real. This is love, compassion, devotion, tenderness. This is the Islam that I know, that millions of Muslims around the world have known and breathed and nurtured and lived inside their bones and deposited in their children’s souls.
Then what does one say about a group like ISIS that wages war on the Prophet? How dare do we call it an “Islamic” state when they seek to blow up the very shrine of the Prophet, and kill loving devotees of the Prophet? When you have a group that attacks the very shrine of the Prophet of Islam, killing Muslim devotees in the holy month of Ramadan, can we set aside the question of them being proper representatives of Islam?
The savage attacks on Istanbul, Bangladesh, Baghdad, and of course Medina are opening up a fascinating conversation about Islam and Muslims, including among American Muslims. The deep sense of frustration and even hopelessness (or as a friend reminded me, un-hopefulness) is leading to soul-searching conversations about what do we do, what can we do about the demon of ISIS, who is responsible, and what it has to do with Islam.
One of the foremost scholars of Islam in America, Hamza Yusuf, had a profoundly moving response to this assault on Medina, and what it has to do with Islam. Titled “The Plague Within,” it is worth reading closely:

“What we do not need are more voices that veil the problem with empty, hollow, and vacuous arguments that this militancy has little to do with religion; it has everything to do with religion: misguided, fanatical, ideological, and politicized religion. It is the religion of resentment, envy, powerlessness, and nihilism. It does, however, have nothing to do with the merciful teachings of our Prophet, God’s peace and blessings upon him.

Unchecked, we will see this plague foment more such violence, until one day, God forbid, these hateful and vile adherents obtain a nuclear device, the use of which has already been sanctioned by their ‘scholars,’ including one currently imprisoned in Saudi Arabia.”

Hamza Yusuf is surely on to something about the religion of nihilism. We cannot simply repeat that the militancy of ISIS and similar groups (al-Qaeda, Boko Haram) has nothing to do with religion. But we can say that it has nothing to do with the religion of mercy, the religion of love, the religion of beauty.

It has been said before and it deserves to be repeated. What these nihilists have done is the almost impossible: to take a religion of love, justice, mercy, and beauty, and make it appear monstrously hideous and repulsively violent.

If the attack outside the Prophet’s mosque in Medina is by ISIS, let’s say it loud: They are not Muslim in any recognizable fashion.
I have been hesitant to get into the game of deciding who is and who is not a Muslim. But if you blow up human beings, during Ramadan, outside the shrine of he whose very being is a mercy to all the universes, you are not a Muslim. Whatever the red line is for a group to no longer be part of a community, this crossed it a long time ago. Any group who would so hate the Prophet so as to desecrate his light-filled sanctuary cannot be said to belong to the religion that bears the fragrance of the Beloved (S).
I say this not to somehow protect the “reputation” of Islam. It is simply to say that a rose does not cease to be a rose just because a dog urinates in the garden. And that is what ISIS is, as the Prophet said a long time ago about groups like this: “The dogs of hell.” May God spare us, and spare the garden of light, and spare the community of Muhammad, and spare humanity from the dogs of hell.
Yet we are not done merely by pronouncing these barbarian savages as non-Muslims. That does nothing to bring the dead back, to comfort the grieving, or to protect the next targets. That requires work, real intelligent work, organized and mobilized work. It calls for the many countries who all claim to stand opposed to ISIS (United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria, Iraq, etc.) to cooperate together to vanquish the demon of unmerciful vengeance.
It calls for a real conversation about the insane militarization of what is already the most volatile and militarized region of the world.
It calls for a thorough examination of the role of the United States, the United Kingdom, and other countries in the illegal invasion of Iraq which has directly created the instability there that has allowed ISIS to form. Let us be clear about this: there was no al-Qaeda in Iraq prior to the U.S. invasion, and obviously no ISIS. We in the United States and our allies do bear a direct responsibility for the vacuum of chaos through which ISIS has formed. Our political leaders who lied and misled us bear a primary responsibility here.
It calls for an accounting of the role of Wahhabi ideology in eradicating local and indigenous interpretations of Islam — the same Wahhabi interpretation that is housed in Saudi Arabia, allegedly the United States’s closest (non-Israeli) Middle Eastern partner. How strange to be befriending the same regime that nurtures the destructive ideology that is being exported to South Asia, Africa, and all over the world.
There are concrete political, diplomatic, and ideological solutions necessary. But there are also spiritual answers. There is, among other things, a profound existential crisis of nihilism, ugliness, violence, and hopelessness. The answer, surely, cannot be merely more and more bombing. There is also the need for love, for mercy, for justice, for tenderness.

In other words, the answer to the assault on Medina is… Medina. The answer is Muhammad.

The legacy of Islam, the legacy of any real faith, is the possibility of transformation. We are not bound to live like this. We are not bound to ugliness. We are not doomed to hatred and violence. We are born from the Lord of Light, into the Light. We are made in the image of a beautiful God, a lovely Love. Love, beauty, mercy: these are the very divine qualities that are the fabric of the cosmos. This is our true and eternal nature.
And for us, as Muslims, the answer, the solution, is in the very shrine itself. It is the very being of the Prophet. As the devotional singers used to say:

We’ll perform the “prayer of Love supreme” (namaz-e eshq)
in Medina…

Now, let us pray and remember, resist and dream, sing and love, organize and mobilize so that our babies can breathe easier.

Mai-kasho aao aao
Medina Chalen

Come, devoted lovers,
let us go to Medina!

AAo AAo Medina Chalen
Isi Maheen-e chalen

O let us go to Medina
Let’s go this very month!

Medina Chalen…
Come my Beloved,
Let us go to Medina.
Let us go this very month.

The King of Medina calls.

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