“The summer sun is sinking low;
Only the tree-tops redden and glow:
Only the weathercock on the spire
Of the neighboring church is a flame of fire;
All is in shadow below.
O beautiful, awful summer day,
What hast thou given, what taken away?
Life and death, and love and hate,
Homes made happy or desolate,
Hearts made sad or gay!
On the road of life one mile-stone more!
In the book of life one leaf turned o’er!
Like a red seal is the setting sun
On the good and the evil men have done,–
Naught can to-day restore!”
~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “Sundown”
I haven’t had much time for reflection or writing this Ramadan, what with packing the remainder of all my earthly possession into my small, V-4 Honda Civic, and what with preparing myself, physically and mentally, for a cross country road trip. In fact, I haven’t written anything in the past few months. I place the blame on the tumult of being uprooted, on the necessary though-not-so-welcomed chaos involved when one relocates from the known and familiar to the unknown and oblivion. The bedlam may bear the fault, but I fear my mind has felt the brunt of the repercussions: the words don’t flow as easily as they once did, the thoughts don’t effuse as they did months prior, almost like the valve has been closed; and the cogs in my inner mind don’t turn so readily, as if they’ve rusted to acquiescence. I read some of my early writings and wonder if I am the same man who wrote them, for surely, the sentences I am constructing – the diction I employ – now are far more inferior to them. I would have expected the fasting and the prayers to open the valve or to act as a much needed lubricant. However, as of late, given the chaotic nature of my life at this point, I have been unable to give my Lord His entire due this holy month. Thus, the valves remain shut and cogs stay corroded. Ramadan is not just the abnegation of food, drink, and legal (read: martial) sexual intercourse: it’s also a time to renew and repair those severed or otherwise strained connections with your Lord, which, I’m forced to admit, I have not done. The presence of disorder is no excuse not to give Him His due: perhaps, I might say, there is no excuse at all not; and yet, perhaps, I might say, that in fact periods of disorder and strife are the best occasions to give Him your all, to go for broke, to put your best foot forward. Allahu’Alim. God surely knows better.
…but it may well be that you hate a thing the while it is good for you, and it may well be that you love a thing the while it is bad for you: and God knows, whereas you do not know.
Hence, I shall put my best foot forward. These ruminations left early, several months before Ramadan even commenced, and are arriving late, just as these blessed days closing. I just located the words to clothe them and the courage to relieve my mind of the burden of carrying them (they are quite heavy). For this, I am remiss. The moon is waning and I feel I haven’t given Him my all yet, haven’t been entirely open and honest both with Him and myself. This is something I hope to rectify starting with this entry – insha’Allah. I hope the gates of taubah (repentance) will remain open for me as undergo this transition, as this humble soul of a wayfarer starts his journey westward, his pursuit of the setting sun.
I left Atlanta with a heavy heart, unsure of when I would be able to return and how I would do so. While I can’t say I developed an attachment to the city, I can say I came into contact with people who I will sorely miss. I’m in a foreign place right now – Houston, Texas – under the auspices of my gracious uncle whose namesake I share. My younger and I arrived here a few days ago from Pensacola, and for the sake of stability, it is here where we will stake our ground, at least for the time being or at least until we wear out our welcome. The drive through the Southeast – Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana – was smooth but long with horrid traffic and bad driving within Houston prolonging our arrival by at least an hour or so. My younger brother will call the flat landscape and arid heat of Texas home for a few years, but for me, Houston is just a stepping stone, an intermediate step – a rest stop, if you will – for my ultimate destination: California. As such, my time here will be short, limited to a few days. In that time, I hope to get some things off chest.
Someone who entered my life right before I left Atlanta has made me aware that I am too hard on myself, that I am too fastidious with myself. My melancholy, brooding (as is put), and contemplative bent, intensified due to the rigors of Ramadan, are almost to the point of being obnoxious (or so it would seem): they make me distant and difficult to ascertain. For the past few months, I’ve castigated myself for what I perceive to be my inner failures or inadequacies in religion or in other avenues of life: earnings, education, eloquence, erudition, etc. The sensation that I should be a much better, wiser, smarter, kinder, stronger, faster Muslim or person or student or capoeirista or whatever than what I am assails me almost to the point of paralysis. The sensation that I should be in a much better position than I am retards my relationship with this person. Of course, Socrates assured us that the unexamined is not worth living and was unjustly put to the sword for his conviction. Ibn ‘Aṭā Allāh as-Skandarī, the famous Egyptian Sufī from Alexandria, states the following in his book of aphorism entitled Tāj al-‘Arūs (“The Bridge-Groom’s Crown“) concerning self-criticality:
If you are asked, “Who is a believer?” Say, “One who is aware of his own faults and does not attribute faults to others.” And if you are asked, “Who is abandoned?” Say, “One who attributes faults to others while absolving himself of any and all.”
~translated by Dr. Sherman Jackson, in his book Sufism for non-Sufis?
And of course, the even Prophet himself, in Musnad al-Bazzar, is reported to have said, “Blessed is he who preoccupies himself with his own defects, rather than those of others.” So there is definitely a place for this in my consciousness, and I hope, my pre-conscious as well. But I recognize that there also must be spaces for forgiveness, mercy, grace, patience, and forbearance to offer a balance. In my mind, the reality sin and falling short of one’s expectations are inevitable, per Jesus’s statement in the New Testament, the Gospel of Matthew: “Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to sin! Such things must come, but woe to the man through whom they come! [Matthew 18:7].” Our condition then as human beings renders any sort of utopian ideal of either religious or material dimension impossible. I’ve come to realize this is where the aforementioned spaces are needed – to make the leap of faith across the chasm of our own failings as people as Muslims, as Christians, as people who believe in a power greater than themselves, and maybe, perhaps as people who do not.
Sin is therefore behovely, as Prophet Muhammad is reported to have said: “I swear by Him in whose hand is my soul, if you were a people who did not commit sin, Allah would take you away and replace you with a people who would sin and then seek Allah’s forgiveness so He could forgive them. [Sahih Muslim]”
Verily, God loves those who turn unto Him in repentance and He loves those who keep themselves pure.
We all chase the setting sun to some degree, and there is no way we will ever catch it. We’re not meant to do so in the first place. We were made to stumble, to fall, to get bruised and battered, to get up, to heal, to try again, and above all to be forgiven, if we would but seek it. After all, perfection is overrated: any student of literature will tell you it doesn’t make for an interesting narrative; we aren’t suited for it. The value and purpose of a truly self-conscious, a sincere God-conscious existence lies not in perfection, but in struggle, in trying, in making an earnest effort to attain to something worthwhile.
O YOU who have attained to faith! Remain conscious of God, and seek to come closer unto Him, and strive hard in His cause, so that you might attain to a happy state.
A curtain has been drawn closed on a phase of my life and I am entering another one. What went before is with Allāh but what is to come requires the agency I’ve been given by Him. It’s the beginning of the beginning, a cause for both celebration and anxiety. I would do well to remember that I should have nothing more than I’ve been granted and that should be thankful for even that. As I move West, as I chase my setting sun, I’ll be cognizant of those spaces of forgiveness, mercy, grace, and forbearance. They are wide and all-encompassing…
But as for him who repents after having thus done wrong, and makes amends, behold, God will accept his repentance: verily, God is much-forgiving, a dispenser of grace.