Monday, July 22, 2019

It's Just A Frivolous Game

This is the draft of my sermon for this Friday at ISGH Main Center.

Preamble: Remember

After the liturgical opening...

I remind and urge you and myself to be mindful of God, who said:

إن الذين اتقوا إذا مسهم طائف من الشيطان تذكروا فإذا هم مبصرون
[Those who are mindful of God, when a visitation of Satan troubles them, remember, and their vision is restored.] (Elevated Places: 201 الأعراف)

In this context, the exegetes assured us that the blinding “visitation from Satan” is anger. The verses leading to this one (201) had ordered the Prophet (p) to respond to others' negative behavior with positive kindness and forgiveness:

خذ العفو و أمر بالعرف و أعرض عن الجاهلين * و إما ينزغنك من الشيطان نزغ فاستعذ بالله إنه سميع عليم
[Take what comes easily to people, bid them to what is honorable, and turn away from the ignorant. And if an affliction from Satan should provoke you, seek refuge in God; He is All-hearing, All-seeing.] (Elevated Places: 199--200 الأعراف)

When the Prophet (p) received the first verse (199), he asked the Archangel Gabriel (p) about its meaning, and Gabriel (p) returned with the explanation that this is what God had ordered:

صل من قطعك و أعط من حرمك و اعف عمن ظلمك
[Reconnect the ties of kinship with those who severed them; be generous to those who withheld your rights; and forgive those who did you injustice.]

Then the Prophet (p) asked:

و الغضب يا ربي و الغضب
[My Lord: And what about anger?]

In answer to which the next verse (200) was revealed, calling that anger "an affliction from Satan," advising us to seek refuge in God, mindfulness of whom reminds us who we are and who we strive to be, thus restoring our vision.

Adversity As A Blessing In Disguise

We live in a time of apparent difficulty, and we should be very thankful for this.

First, we should never say (or think) that our time is particularly bad:

:روى البخاري و مسلم عن أبي هريرة (ر) قال، قال رسول الله (ص) ، قال الله تعالى
يؤذيني ابن آدم يسب الدهر، و أنا الدهر، بيدى الأمر، أقلب الليل و النهار
و في رواية أحمد: و أبدل الملوك
[Bukhari and Muslim narrated on the authority of Abu Hurayra (r) that the Prophet (p) said that God said: Humans insult me when they curse their time. For I am time. I control everything. I alternate day and night, (and in the narration of Ahmad:) I replace kings.]

Second, during times of ease, whenever we score some minor victories, in business, elections, or other endeavors, we are prone to make more mistakes by losing our discipline, becoming haughty, insulting others, and so on. Times of apparent hardship, like the current one, are necessary to re-teach us discipline.

For this reason, Ibn `Ata’ Illah said in his Hikam:

العارفون إذا بسطوا – أخوف منهم إذا قبضوا، ولا يقف على حدود الأدب في البسط إلا قليل
[Those who know are more apprehensive during times of ease and expansion than they are during times of difficulty and constriction; because very few can remain disciplined during times of ease and expansion.]

With regard to which condition we get to experience in any given time, faith is primarily about accepting fate. That is why Ibn `Ata'Illah also wrote in Hikam

ما ترك من الجهل شيئاً من أراد أن يحدث في الوقت غير ما أظهره الله فيه
[He is all-ignorant: The one who desires to cause something different from what God has made manifest in any given time.]

It's Just A Frivolous Game, As God Said

What we find so troubling, even to watch, is just a frivolous game. It is a game for accumulation of delusional wealth and power. This is what God tells us in the Chapter that mentions Iron:

إعلموا أنما الحياة الدنيا لعب و لهو و زينة و تفاخر بينكم و تكاثر في الأموال و الأولاد كمثل غيث أعجب الكفار نباته ثم يهيج فتراه مصفراً ثم يكون حطاما و في الآخرة عذاب شديد و مغفرة من الله و رضوان و ما الحياة الدنيا إلا متاع الغرور
[Know that the present life is but a frivolous game, an adornment, a cause for boasting among you, and a rivalry in wealth and children. It is like rain whose vegetation pleases farmers; then it withers, and turns yellow, and finally lies in ruin. But in the world to come there is severe punishment, forgiveness from God and contentment; and the present life is but the joy of delusion.] (Iron: 20 الحديد)

Impermanence is the name of this game. Today's winner is tomorrow's loser, and the spoils all turn to dust.

So why do we get more unsettled watching this game -- watching news, hearing insults, or suffering discrimination -- compared to how we feel when watching a frivolous game of baseball or basketball?

I recognize that it is hurtful when we find ourselves -- to belabor the frivolous-sport simile -- turned into the balls being kicked around, or the ants being stomped upon. But the point of religion, at its best, while we take every legal precaution to protect ourselves, is to do the necessary internal work to avoid  counterproductive anger.

Notice here that suppression of anger is not sufficient, albeit the first stage. If we stop at suppression of anger, we can eventually be so full of anger that it overflows in our conduct; as the poet said that every pot overflows with its content: كل إناء بما فيه ينضح. Rather, we have to go through the three stages that God has listed:
الذين ينفقون في السراء و الضراء و الكاظمين الغيظ و العافين عن الناس  الله يحب المحسنين
[Who spend in prosperity and adversity, restrain their anger, and pardon the offenses of others; and God loves the good-doers.] (Family of Imram: 134 آل عمران)

Because our tradition does not teach not resisting evil and turning the other cheek, we can certainly duck or block to avoid the next slap, while assuming a spectator's perspective to contain anger. Beyond that, our tradition teaches إحسان: responding to negativity with positivity:
و لا تستوي الحسنة و لا السيئة إدفع بالتي هي أحسن فإذا الذي بينك و بينه عداوة كأنه ولي حميم
[Good and bad cannot be equated. Repel with the most beautiful response, and behold, he who was your enemy will become like a close friend.] (Well Explained: 34 فصلت)

When we adopt the spectator attitude, we can see that all mundane occurrences, including mean politics and social strife, are just parts of a frivolous game. Admittedly, some people make ungodly amounts of money from various mini-games, and some others suffer, or even lose their lives or livelihoods. But in the grand scheme of things, as we have recited earlier in (Iron: 20), it remains a frivolous game! All joy, pain, profit and loss are temporary phenomena that wither away and turn to dust.

It is often difficult to remember this. Therefore, the verses in the Chapter that mentions Iron began with a call to remember: Is it not time to remember?

ألم يأن للذين آمنوا أن تخشع قلوبهم لذكر الله و ما نزل من الحق
و لا يكونوا كالذين أوتوا الكتاب من قبل فطال عليهم الأمد فقست قلوبهم و كثير منهم فاسقون 
[Is it not time for the hearts of the faithful to be humbled to the Remembrance of God and the Truth that He has sent, and for them not be like those to whom the previous Book was given, but the term seemed long, so their hearts have hardened, and many of them are sinners?] (Iron: 16  الحديد)

Al-A`mash reported that this verse was sent as admonishment to the Prophet's companions (r) after they had settled in Madina and found ease. Abu Bakr (r) was sitting with a group from Yamama when this verse was recited, and they wept. He said: We used to be like this before our hearts hardened (هكذا كنا حتى قست القلوب).


We have no choice but to watch this frivolous game, which is played by very few, and watched by all. But we must not forget what the game is and who we are, lest we may act incorrectly.

As I recited in the beginning of this sermon from the Chapter that mentions Elevated Places, the Prophet was -- and by extension we were -- ordered to respond to negativity with positivity, and to use mindfulness of God as a vehicle for protection from blinding anger.

The reward is immense, as God said:

ألا إن أولياء الله لا خوف عليهم و لا هم يحزنون * الذين آمنوا و كانوا يتقون * لهم البشرى في الحياة الدنيا و في الآخرة لا تبديل لكلمات الله ذلك هو الفوز العظيم * و لا يحزنك قولهم إن العزة لله جميعا هو السميع العليم
[Those close to God; fear not for them, nor shall they grieve, (they are) those who have faith and God consciousness. For them are glad tidings in this world and the next; and God’s words are immutable: This is the great victory! And let not detractors’ words cause you grief. All glory belongs to God, who hears and knows all.] (Jonah: 62--65 يونس)

عن سعيد بن جبير، قال: سئل رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم عن أولياء الله، فقال: الَّذِينَ إذا رُؤُوا ذُكِرَ اللَّهُ
[It was narrated on the authority of Sa`id ibn Jubayr that the Prophet (p) was asked about who those close to God were, and he (p) said: Whenever they are seen, God is remembered.] May we be blessed to be in their company!


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