This was a letter I wrote to someone in 2007 from prison and then I asked Umar Lee to post it on his blog, which he did. His blog is now offline so I reposted it below. — I.R.
SUNDAY, JUNE 17TH, 2007…5:12 AM
Letter from Ismail Royer to a Brother
(Ismail asked that I publish this on my blog)
Assalaamu Alaikum wa Rahmatullah. Jazaakallaahu khayrun for your thoughtful letter. It’s nice to know that someone benefited from the efforts we were making with “A True Word.”
You raise some interesting points in your letter. I’ll begin by saying, it’s very heartening to hear of a Muslim majoring in English, which is really an aspect of the study of the soul of man. Walt Whitman said, “Viewed freely, the English language is the accretion & growth of every dialect, race & range of time, and is the culling & composition of all. From this point of view, it stands for Language in the largest sense, & is really the greatest of all studies.” This sounds politically incorrect now, but there’s a lot of truth in it – excepting, of course, classical Arabic’s role as the master key to our religion.
In contrast, most Muslims who purse education study the mechanics of this world – engineering, computers, medicine (which, in its “modern” form, sees the body as a machine). This is in accord with our materialistic age, in which man has forgotten that he is spirit, and that God is his goal. And the Muslim world especially is deluded in this way, even a great deal of those who care about their religion, where the materialism of this age is compounded with their inferiority complex. (I recently had this conversation: Q: “Brother, don’t we have enough engineers?” A: “How else are we going to overtake the kuffaar?” For many, their religion is on the surface – it is political theories, nationalism, & materialism superficially resembling religion.)
I have lots of thoughts to share with you & could easily overdo this letter, and will probably do so – but I am excited to hear from someone who, it seems, is of the same mind.
In your studies, have as your goal: to understand man (yourself first) & to clarify & improve the quality of your writing (i.e. , your thought) – all with the objective of bringing your fellow man (beginning with yourself) closer to his true nature & potential. A side benefit in all this is experiencing art for its own sake.
Some advice: declare bad writing your enemy. Read Orwell’s “Politics & the English Language” & Strunck & White’s booklet. Read good writing, like Hemingway, Mark Twain, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, etc. Eliminate jargon & excess words. Avoid words of Latin & Greek origin if an Anglo-Saxon word will do.
As for you being an American, this is a great blessing. We can benefit the Muslims because we have a fresh perspective, creativity, and imagination. We can benefit Americans – our people – because we have Islam.
You ask about literature and our current environment. Our age is the culmination of a shift from a spiritual to a material view of the world, and it is this material view that defines our age, and is the source of its disease. Some very insightful men and women perceived this, at least with respect to the modern era, and I believe it’s impossible to understand our disease, & how to cure it, without reading them.
I would start with Dostoevsky (Notes from Underground, Crime & Punishment, Brother Karamazov) & Kierkegaard (The Sickness Unto Death, The Concept of Anxiety), they are key.
Then, Balzac (Pere Goriot, etc.), Flaubert (Madame Bovary), Turgenev (Fathers & Sons), Melville (Bartleby). Certainly Kafka & Orwell, & Nietzsche.
I realize most of that is not originally English. They are some of my favorite examples. And beyond them, if you read any of the good writers writing from the early to mid 1800’s to the early 1900’s (i.e. Dickens, James), you will gain insight into how society was beginning to change.
Listen to this, from Kierkegaard: “There is so much talk about human distress and wretchedness … there is so much talk about wasting a life, but only that person’s life was wasted who went on living so deceived by life’s joys or its sorrows that he never became decisively & eternally conscious as spirit, as self, or, what amounts to the same thing, never became aware & in the deepest sense never gained the impression that there is a God and that ‘he’, he himself, exists before this God – an infinite benefaction that is never gained except through despair.” (emph. added)
This despair is distance from God, and, K. explained the worst form of this despair is not to be aware of it. This age, he said, is the Age of Despair.
Modern man’s distance from God, & its effect on the individual soul & society, was also a central theme of Dostoevsky. He wrote in Crime & Punishment of a young man, a political radical who commits a horrible crime, his “heart unhinged by theories”. In Brothers Karamazov, he wrote: “Much on earth is concealed from us, but in place of it we have been granted a secret, mysterious sense of our living bond with the other world, with the higher heavenly world, & the roots of our thoughts & feedings are not here but in other worlds. That is why philosophers say it is impossible on earth to conceive the essence of things. God took seeds from the other worlds & sowed them on this earth, & raised up his garden, & everything that could sprout sprouted, but it lives & grows only through its sense of being in touch with other mysterious worlds; if this sense is weakened or destroyed in you, that which has grown up in you dies. Then you become indifferent to life, & even come to hate it.”
You asked about how the existentialists’ thought has influenced the modern world, & I would say not much. They recorded their observations & we continued on our course. (An exception may be Nietzsche, who may have hurried us along.) What we must do now, in the Age of Despair, is study these authors to become intimately familiar with ourselves & modern man. I believe this is much more fruitful, from the point of view of “fiqh al-waaqia,” then obsessing over distorted “shadows on the wall” cranked out by the news media.
Of course, this study should not be taken up without simultaneous deep study of the Book of Allah, a mercy & healing for the heart, a Light & Guide. We must learn to read this book in Arabic & study its exegesis. Otherwise , our study of man & his disease would be wasted; we would lack the insight to discern it correctly & knowledge of how to administer treatment, & may, audhubillah, go astray.
Ibn al-Qayyim said: “The pinnacle of the whole affair & its central pillar is the continued contemplation on Allah’s verses – to such an extent that these verses would overpower one’s thoughts & fascinate one’s heart.
“When the Qur’anic meanings replace the heart’s passing thoughts, when these meanings take charge of a person’s heart so that it only turns to them for help & security – when this is fulfilled, his journey goes smoothly, his course becomes clear, & even if it appears as though he is standing still, he would, in fact, be moving ahead so fast as to race with the wind.”
You asked about my essay – I’ve put it aside until, insha’Allah, I learn more.
As for my prison sentence, al-Ghazali said that if we had perfect power like God to determine our destinies, & perfect vision like God to see the future & know what is best for us, we would choose exactly the fate that God chose for us.
Wa sallallaahu ‘alya nabiyyana Muhammad wal hamdu lillaahi Rabbil-`Aalameen. Wasalaam,