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November 1, 2013

Our Frailty

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Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim

The theme that Allah subhana wa taala puts in front of us this evening is that of frailty. We are frail as human beings. We are designed by His Genius to be inadequate. It cannot be otherwise, because there is no other way of describing the condition of that which is very small in the face of that which is overwhelming other than frail, or inadequate and about to be overwhelmed.

This condition cannot produce in the first instance, anything other than fear, and Allah subhana wa taala tells us that we are at a complete loss because of this – because in the face of time, it is the nature of that which is overwhelming to overwhelm that which is miniscule. It is the nature of the vast to conquer and overcome the tiny. So in the fullness of time – we know from Surah Al-Asr, He told us – all our plans are futile. Alhamdulillah. But Allah subhana wa taala does describe the condition of those who escape this futility. In Surah Al-Asr He told us it is those who believe and those who do what is correct and do good works, who transact in a way with the world which is based on what Allah requires of you.

This thing of belief, Allah also explains to us elsewhere that among other things, this is about remembering Him. He said that the only way to transcend this fear that you have – which is the natural fear of that which is tiny which is about to be overwhelmed – the only thing that makes the agitation of the heart tranquil is the remembrance of Him. What you have to understand is that this is a matter of singular and single minded dedication and effort. You cannot escape this terror unless you do as He prescribes, and He prescribes this state of dhikr for you – standing, sitting and lying down.

In other words, you have to constantly work at becoming quiet, at feeling the presence at the back of your being, because that is to remind yourself of what is there. It is not thinking a thought. It is not a memory problem here. An example is that if you are busy with baking a cake, for instance, but at the same time you are having an argument with your spouse and your attention is elsewhere. But then at some point you are reminded of it and then you being yourself back to what it is that you were doing. That’s what remembering is – to remember His presence, His immediacy NOW. It is coming back to NOW. That’s what dhikr means. It doesn’t mean to go into revelry.

That work of coming back to NOW – of sensing His presence – you should do all the time. If you don’t commit real effort and real dedicated work to achieve that state you do not achieve it. You do get the occasional person who is immensely gifted, who doesn’t have to remind themselves to become present. They don’t have to do the work because Allah is just immediately apparent. They are very rare, particularly today. You also have people who have had the mercy of horrendous trauma like a near-death experience or catastrophic failure of something in their lives where they realise that all that they had was Allah. When all their plans were smashed in front of them and all that they had was to deliver themselves up to Him.

But even those people as soon as things start going right, they forget, and they go back to this illusion that they’re in charge. So you cannot rely on the dice for this one. You cannot allow for the mercy of the catastrophic failure or somehow that you are just immensely gifted for the fundamental problem of your life to be sorted, which is the fear that we all suffer – of being that which is very small in the face of that which is going to overwhelm us. Escaping that fear is possible – that is the good news. The bad news is that by His Word, you have to work at it. That is the first work. The first work is behind our eyes. It is cleaning out our hearts. It is becoming quiet, becoming reflective. It is to constantly bring ourselves back to the present, which is His presence.

Further in Surah Al-Asr Allah subhana wa taala tells us that to just do this inner work is not adequate. You have to transact in a way with the world which basically says that you mean it. If we act on the basis of our fear, then we try and protect ourselves from the world, which means that we don’t trust life. And because we don’t trust life, we have to come up with our own plans. But we know Allah hu khairu makireen.

So how do you develop the strength of will to forgo your plan and to accept that there is a plan and it’s a good plan, and despite the fact that it looks like you are about to be annihilated, just believe that He is in charge? You can’t just program yourself to do that, you have to act accordingly. And how do you act accordingly? You act on the basis of what Allah wants from you in a situation rather than what you want. You forgo your plan for His Plan, and His Plan is expressed as serving the world that He has given to you at that moment. Act in the best interest of The Other in the situation that you are in.

The key thing that occurs to me about the ability to act in the best interest of The Other is that in the first instance, it has to mean in the best interest of other people. So whenever you face another human being, be very deliberate and ask yourself, “What is right for this person?” Not what you want to get or how you try to protect yourself but realise that this person has been sent to me in this moment by my Rabb for a reason, and that reason is that I should serve them. Ask yourself, “How can I help them?” and then act accordingly.

This intention to be helpful to the people that Allah brings to you in your life, this secret rests in appreciativeness, not in disapproval. How do you propose to be helpful to something when you dismiss and disapprove of it even before you’ve approached the problem? It’s like saying I’m going to spit the medicine out before I’ve put it in my mouth. You have to let the person in.

So it occurs to me that one of the key habits we have to escape in order to be able to do the action piece of what Allah wants us right is disapproval, our disapproval of other people. We really are intolerant of other people’s frailty. We demand immense compassion for our frailty, but we should be kinder with the frailty of others. That doesn’t mean to say that we bless moral rottenness. We all have to struggle with our own moral rottenness, and it is our duty to confront the moral rottenness that we see around us. But see so very often allow that perception of the person’s inadequacy overshadow the blessing that the person brings.

Understand that every human being alive fundamentally has more blessing than curse otherwise they couldn’t be there – that’s how it is – and if they’ve got more blessing than curse, then what they deserve from you is 10 affirmations and 1 negation. Not negate, negate, negate, because their inadequacy is just the bottom side of an adequacy. We have this peculiar notion that our strengths and weaknesses are different things, but that just isn’t how Allah subhana wa taala has made us. Your strength is your weakness – it is simultaneous.

If you have an immense ability to focus – some of us do – it will mean necessarily that you cannot divide your attention, and that is a weakness. If you have the blessing of being able to manage a number of things at the same, it will mean that you cannot focus. The strength is the weakness. The weakness is the strength.

If you look at the people around you, maybe they’ve been made different from you not because they are inadequate, but because they supplement your inadequacy. Maybe they supplement your inadequacy to the point where it is quite irritating to you, but if you just govern your irritation and wrought your sabr – your patience – to bear, which Allah subhana wa taala again refers to in Surah Al-Asr, you would recognise that this person is extraordinary almost in indescribable ways, far more than what you could imagine. Our role is to celebrate that specialness.

Allah also in the Quran tells us that He has made us different for a reason – so that we could know each other. It reminds me of the story that somebody made the monkey the king of the jungle, who then thought that the rabbit should be able to browse the top of the trees, that fish should fly and that the swallow really should learn how to swim. “We should all have the same strengths,” and he drowned the swallow and killed the fish, and he broke the rabbit’s neck trying to get it to crane up as far as the giraffe. But that’s what we do. We don’t celebrate the people around us. We first find the 15 things that are wrong, before we find the 500 things that are right.

We have to understand that if the just act isn’t on a foundation of appreciativeness, of gratitude, then it is not just. It becomes absolutely apparent when you think about parenting. Yes, there is a place for tough love, for confronting the child – maybe the smack – but it’s called tough love. Maybe we should call it love tough because it’s based in love. If it’s not based in love, it’s just brutality. In other words if the negation isn’t rooted in affirmation, it’s just brutality. If the confrontation isn’t rooted in kindness, it’s just vicious, it’s unjust. You cannot do what is right by the other, if you do not love them. If you disapprove of them, you cannot do what is right by them.

That doesn’t mean to say that you’re always going to be sweet with them. If your parents were any good to you, they weren’t always sweet with you, but you had no doubt that they did this for you. Not because they disapprove of you, but because they deeply loved and appreciated you. They saw in you something that was extraordinary. That’s how we should be with the people around us. We should be really kind of each other’s frailties, protect each other’s frailties, and not demean each other because of our frailties.

Allah subhana wa taala has put our condition together with such genius. One way of looking at a group of human beings is that it can instantly collapse into a brawling mass of vicious beasts that are all trying to gun for their own interests, or they can operate as one. So it’s like thinking of a group of human beings as a single body. When your body acts as a single body, there is not a single cell in your body that acts for its own interests – not one. Every single cell does things that the rest of body needs and the rest of the body does things that the cell needs. The cell cannot and does not act in its own interests. When a group of cells do that, the cells become cancerous, and the body dies.

We either die as a community or we thrive as a community. How do we thrive as a community? We thrive as a community when we act in the other’s interest. And how do we act in the other’s interest? We appraise the other’s interest appropriately, because we would have appreciated the other first. We have recognised the 10 things that we have received from them and in gratitude, we give them the one thing that they require from us. When we have appreciated the 10 things that we had from them, even if the one thing that they require from us has a bit of bitter taste to it, they will accept it because it was based on appreciativeness and gratitude, not disapproval and negation.

Allah subhana wa taala has made us as an experience in love. Our condition is an experiment in love. And He created the opposite – alienation, hostility, conflict – as the contrast to make this phenomenon possible. But that alienation is only transcendent if we work to make this phenomenon possible.

So there is work to be done – to do the dhikir piece of your life, to remember Him and to serve His creation – that is the way to chart yourself out of the horror show of being made that which is frail, defenceless and puny in the face of a universe that is vast, alienating and has absolutely apparently no sympathy with you.

May Allah grant us nearness to Him.
May Allah grant us annihilation in Him.
May Allah grant us death before we die.

This discourse was given by Shaykh Ebrahim after a dhikr session on the 21st of September, 2013.

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