Shaykh Muhammad Emin Er

June 30, 2013

Imam Khalil Abdur-Rashid’s words on the passing of a great Saint of our century, his teacher, Sh Muhammad Emin Er. 

Shaykh Muhammad Emin Er - The Last Ottoman Scholar by Imam Khalil Abdur Rashid

Shaykh Muhammad Emin Er – The Last Ottoman Scholar by Imam Khalil Abdur Rashid

It is with deep humility and honor that I sit to transmit a snapshot of the

life of my teacher whom I spent 8 years of my life studying under; who
would refine me, educate me, advise me, and transmit ijaaza to me thus
becoming the father of my spiritual life, Shaykh Muhammad Emin Er.

Shaykh Muhammad Emin Er was born in 1909 in the village of Kuluyan
(recently renamed Kalash) in the province of Diyarbakir, in the southeast
of what is now Turkey but was at that time the Ottoman Empire. Shaykh
Emin’s family belonged to a Kurdish tribe called Miran. His father, Haji
Zulfikar, was a wealthy farmer who took a great interest in science and
education, and happened to be a person of some wealth. There being no
school in the village of Kuluyan, Haji Zulfikar employed a private tutor to
educate his two young sons, Muhammad and his elder brother Ali. Then just
as his sons were learning to read and write in the Arabic script (at the
time still the official script of the Ottoman language and state), Haji
Zulfikar passed away. The future Shaykh had already lost his mother Hawa
while he was still a young child of the age of three or four and thus (like
the Prophet Muhammad, may Allah bless him and grant him peace) he was left
an orphan. To this day, Shaykh Emin travels to the graves of his mother and
father in the village of Kuluyan at least once per year. **

At this time, Muhammad Emin was 10 years old, and the Ottoman state still
stood as one of the largest in the world extending from North Africa to
Yemen, and from the Balkans to the frontiers of Persia. It faced
coordinated attacks on many fronts, east and west. Because of the war, the
economic situation became ruinous, as the Ottoman state was increasingly
forced to deplete its already overextended financial resources in the
defense of its territorial integrity. The resulting economic hardship was
severe throughout the country and the young Muhammad Emin passed through
the remainder of his early life in much straightened circumstances, first
under the care of his stepmother and later under the care of his elder
brother. He contributed to the support of his family by shepherding goats
in the high mountains surrounding the village. All the while, his desire to
learn to read and write, ignited both by his late father and his former
tutor, persisted and grew. Having neither paper nor pen, he used stones to
scratch words and sentences on flat rocks, while tending his goats on the
mountainsides. This striving to improve his reading and writing skills
despite great deprivation gave rise to the legend in his village that
Khidr, the companion of Moses and saintly figure who comes to the aid of
the destitute, provided the young Muhammad Emin lessons in his sleep. **

So great was his passion for knowledge that he would cry bitter tears wile
imploring Allah to help him learn to read the Quran. He missed no
opportunity to seek out people whom he thought might help him. He would
journey on foot for several days at a time simply to visit knowledgeable
people in the vicinity of his village. He would eventually learn how to
write letters and read books in the Ottoman script. As for the Arabic
language and knowledge of the traditional Islamic disciplines, there was at
the time no one in the region able to introduce him to this type of
scholarship. Thus he sought what he could from books. However, as the new
Turkish Republic was established, the traditional Ottoman script was
abolished and its use outlawed altogether with all Quranic and Islamic
education. Families began to fear the consequences of teaching the Quran to
their children even in the privacy of their own homes. As Shaykh Emin
recalls: “…at that time, everything was forbidden in Turkey. Even to read
and to learn the Quran was forbidden in those days. It was not easy, like
it is today. We had very hard times, so I resolved at my first opportunity
to seek religious learning in Syria.” This was not to be. Reaching the
border city of Gaziantep, Muhammad Emin was not permitted to cross into
Syria. He resolved instead to travel first to Adana, and soon thereafter to
Istanbul. Knowing no one in Istanbul, he soon ran out of money, and thus
went on foot to Bursa where he worked as a servant for a wealthy family in
order to make a living. 

At the age of 25, Muhammad Emin made his first of many trips of pilgrimage
(hajj) to the Sacred House, in Mecca. Upon his return, his desire to seek
scared knowledge undiminished, he undertook extensive travels in eastern
Anatolia to seek out scholars and ask them to teach him. He later resolved
once again to cross into Syria in search of scholars who could instruct
him. By now, World War II had begun, and although he succeeded in crossing
the border, he was detained by security forces who suspected him of being a
spy. He spent some time in prison in Syria before being cleared. Set free
by authorities, he returned to Turkey, particularly to Diyarbakir. There he
was able to study the remaining subjects in the foundational curriculum of
the traditional Islamic sciences, many of them concerned with Arabic
linguistics. These included propositional logic (mantiq), historical
semantics (ilm al-wada’), figurative usage (isti’ara), etiquette of debate
and argumentation (munazara), literary meaning (ma’ani), rhetoric (bayan),
refined usage (badi), fundamentals of Islamic creed (usul al-din),
methodology of Islamic jurisprudence (usul al-fiqh), Islamic jurisprudence
of both the Hanafi and Shafi Legal Schools (fiqh), and Islamic spiritual
psychology (tasawwuf). The teacher with whom he spent the greatest part of
this time was Molla Rasul, a classmate of the famous Bediuzzaman Said
Nursi. Shaykh Emin would later meet Said Nursi and study briefly with him
as well. 

In 1951, Shaykh Emin completed the last of his studies, completing the
study of discursive theology (kalam) and received his full license (ijaaza)
in all of the rational and traditional Islamic disciplines which have
constituted the curriculum of the greatest of scholars of the Islamic
tradition since the time of Imam Ghazali in the 11th and 12th centuries. In
addition, Shaykh Emin mastered and received ijaaza in the sciences of
exegesis of Quran (tafsir), religious laws of inheritance (fara’id) and the
sciences of the prophetic traditions (usul al-hadith).

Shaykh Emin has devoted his entire life to emulating the example of his
teachers and teaching the inner and outer discipline to student, issuing
ijaaza to those who successfully complete their study under him – efforts
he continues to this day. Central to this is his position within a chain
(isnad) that is within an unbroken lineage of transmission of knowledge
extending back to Prophet Muhammad, may Allah bless him and grant him
peace. And, according to the custom of Muslim scholars of this mold, he in
turn passes on the knowledge transmitted to him by his mentors, bequeathing
a place in this unbroken chain to students in the 21st century. Even if
seldom encountered, it is nevertheless true that such an isnad persists to
the present day. Shaykh Emin has six children and 40 grandchildren. A
seventh child of his passed away as a toddler. Having retired from many
years of service as imam in several cities, he continues to live a life of
rigorous worship. He has little free time, but uses it when it comes to
read and contemplate the Quran and consult the commentaries of the great
scholars on questions that occur to him in his reading. Shaykh Ein sleeps
very little –by his own estimate, perhaps three hours during the night, and
an hour or two before noon if possible. He always sleeps in a state of
ablution, in emulation of the sunna of the Prophet, may Allah bless him and
grant him peace, and mindful that, should he die in his sleep, he would
want to face his Lord in a state of purity. He rises every day at around
3a.m. for the night prayer called tahajjud, remaining awake in a state of
contemplation until the time of the prescribed dawn prayer (fajr). He then
remains in the place of prayer and reads Quran until the sun has risen, and
then remains for a bit longer, finally offering a voluntary cycle of prayer.

He passes the rest of the morning in scholarly writing, sometimes receiving
visitors. Shaykh Emin writes only in Arabic, always facing the direction of
prayer (qibla) in a state of ritual purity (wudu). When his work is
interrupted for some reason, he performs ablution and two cycles of prayer
before resuming his writing, a demonstration of profound reverence, typical
of the foremost representatives of the Islamic scholarly tradition but
seldom encountered in the present day, before the grave responsibility of
transmitting knowledge.* *

His modest home in Ankara, Turkey witnesses a steady stream of guests, and
he never refuses any request of learning, regardless of the level of the
student. Shaykh Emin and his guests sit on carpeted floor of a room lined
with shelves of books from floor to ceiling. The students and visitors are
always served tea and sweets, and even a complete meal at the appropriate
times. He teaches his students on an individual basis, through the pace and
method of instruction best suited to each person’s aptitudes and
constraints. Although it is his habit to fast whenever possible, he goes
out of his way to accommodate those guests who are not fasting in order to
set them more fully at ease in his company. This observance, far from being
merely the exemplary of the manners of his generation, is the living sunna
of all the Prophets. The importance of this for people in his company is
tremendous, and not to be overlooked. It is possible to learn a great deal
about exemplary conduct from books, and even to some extent to imitate what
one reads. But not everything we need to know on this matter is written,
nor could it be. It is by keeping the company of those who know it that we
acquire the essentials of exemplary conduct in both its written and
unwritten aspects. Shaykh Emin’s conduct exemplifies what was transmitted
to him from his teachers, and they from theirs, and so forth along lineages
extending to the teaching and example of Prophet Muhammad, may Allah bless
him and grant him peace. All of this gives us a greater sense of what could
be lost to us forever if the last chains of transmission of this tradition
were ever to be broken.


June 18, 2013

Words by a friend who passed away a couple days ago, she wrote this at the beginning of the new year. If only we all knew the year we would pass away. Make the most of your time here. Life is such.

I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes.

Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re Doing Something.

So that’s my wish for you, and all of us, and my wish for myself. Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before. Don’t freeze, don’t stop, don’t worry that it isn’t good enough, or it isn’t perfect, whatever it is: art, or love, or work or family or life.

Whatever it is you’re scared of doing, Do it.

Make your mistakes, next year and forever.

Light & Darkness

How much more can I take?

This question has been at the root of the human experience for as long as we have been able to record it, if not longer. It was the lament of Job — or at least one of them — and is asked with no less frequency today, in response to circumstances ranging from devastating loss and grief to the typical hardships of a trying job or a long winter.

William James’s ‘sick souls’ were more likely to experience the ‘acute fever’ of religious belief.

But where is that actual point at which a person “breaks” or comes to believe not only that her life is devoid of value or meaning, but that the world is, too? The truth is that most people really do not want to ascertain just how much more they can suffer. A vast majority of people would look askance at someone who really wanted to experiment with her limits for suffering. But what if we are to treat it as a genuine question? In some of my recent work in the area of addiction and philosophy, I’ve found that many active addicts of all sorts confront that limit every day, in ways that those fortunate enough to be free of addiction may never know. For some of them, the process of reaching that limit becomes an opportunity to effect radical transformation of their lives.

A broader understanding of this concept can be found in the work of William James, whose famous work, “The Varieties of Religious Experience,” provides significant insight about the limits of misery and its transformative potential. “Varieties” is product of lectures James delivered at the University of Edinburgh in 1901 and 1902. His focus is the experiences of individuals “for whom religion exists not as a dull habit, but as an acute fever.” By “religion,” James does not mean religious institutions and their long entrenched theological debates, but rather something more akin to an individual spiritual state, which may or may not include belief in a god.

James was uniquely suited to deliver these lectures. He was a physician, philosopher and a psychologist before the field of psychology was part of academe, and someone with a deep, abiding interest in psychic events. He was, in all senses, a student of human nature. He explored this question of what we may call the “misery threshold” because he wanted to know if some people were more capable or more prone to experience “the acute fever” of religious belief. His answer: it is those who suffer most who are inclined to experience that fever. These are the people who fascinated him: those who toed right up to and sometimes over the line of despair and meaninglessness.

James claims in “Varieties” that there are two kinds of people, differentiated from where they live in relation to their misery threshold. Each person, he argued, has a threshold for emotional pain akin to a threshold for physical pain. While some people at the slightest physical pain tend to run to the ibuprofen or painkillers, others seem able to tolerate excruciating physical pain. The same holds for misery.

James calls those who live on the sunnier side of their misery threshold “healthy-minded.” Optimism fills their lives, though there are degrees of optimism. Some of the healthy-minded see the glass half full while others see it as half full with something really delicious. These are the sort of people who always look for the bright side and have a soul with “a sky-blue tint, whose affinities are rather with the flowers and birds and all enchanting innocencies than with dark human passions.” Though the sunny-side people can be miserable at times, they have a low tolerance for misery. It would take something catastrophic for them to stay on the dark side of their misery lines.

The sunny-siders are somewhat interesting to James, if only because they constitute a type that is almost completely foreign to him. James knew himself and many of his family members to belong to the second category — “sick souls” and “divided selves,” who live on the dark side of their misery threshold. Sick souls tend to say No to life, according to James, and are governed by fear. Sick souls tend to become anxious and melancholic, with apprehension that opportunistically spreads.

The person with a divided self suffers from what James calls “world sickness.” This sickness is progressive and James charts its development keenly and compassionately. Those with divided self experience a war within; their lives are “little more than a series of zig zags,” their “spirit wars with their flesh, they wish for incompatibles” and “their lives are one long drama of repentance and of effort to repair misdemeanors and mistakes.”

Perhaps not coincidentally, this is an accurate description of addiction. James knew a great deal about drunkenness or inebriety, to use the language of his time. For years, his brother Robertson (Bob) was in and out of asylums for the inebriate and spent his final years with James and his wife. This may explain why some of the most compelling first person accounts in James’s work of divided selves and sick souls who were later transformed come from people who were drunkards. (This may also explain why Bill Wilson, one of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, was so taken with William James. He was able to see himself in these stories and as a consequence, make sense of his own conversion experience when he sobered up for good in 1934.)

James’s description tracks our knowledge of addiction accordingly. The first stage of world sickness is what I would call  “pleasure diminished.” What had previously brought joy or pleasure before now brings it less often and to lesser degrees. For an addict, the buzz just isn’t as much fun. It just isn’t the same yet she will continue to seek it.

“Pleasure destroyed” is the second stage. More and more things are seen as or end in disappointments; pessimism becomes the most frequent response. The pessimism grows though at this point it still attaches to particular situations in life rather than to the whole of life. An addict will take any disappointment as a reason to use. As more things become disappointing, the more a person will understand herself to have reasons to use.

The final stage in this world sickness is best described as “pathological melancholy.” The progression in this final stage is significant. First a person is no longer able to recognize joy and happiness. She experiences a melancholy and dreariness about life that makes her incapable of generating any joy for herself. The next phase is a melancholy in which a person generates an acute anguish about herself and the world. In this stage, a person feels self-loathing and acute anxiety. Her entire being, James would say, is choked with these feelings.  Quite significantly, not only does the person see herself as having no meaning or significance, but nothing in the world has meaning. This melancholy leads to a kind of utter hopelessness about the particular conditions in which one lives and the meaning of life in general. With this hopelessness, the drama of repentance and effort to repair will end. It would take too much energy and it just isn’t worth it. Nothing is worth anything.

The person in the grips of the worst melancholy experiences a frightening anxiety about the universe and everything in it. At this point, panic and fright completely govern a person. James describes a man who admitted that a “horrible fear of my own existence,” came upon him one night. The man suddenly remembered an epileptic patient he had seen in an asylum who had greenish skin and sat “like some sort of Egyptian cat or Peruvian mummy, moving nothing but his black eyes and looking absolutely nonhuman. This image and my fear entered a combination with each other. That shape am I, I felt potentially … I awoke morning after morning with a horrible dread at the pit of my stomach, and with a sense of the insecurity of life that I never knew before, and that I have never felt since.” In a letter to a friend after the publication of “Varieties,” James admitted this was his very own experience as a young man.  He himself had walked right up to the edge of a yawning abyss. James scholars debate the exact date of this crisis, but most locate it some time when James was in his late 20s.

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Nietzsche recognized that “when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.” Kierkegaard realized that some people were more afraid of jumping into that abyss than falling. James understood this fear and saw the potential for transformation “through a passion of renunciation of the self and surrender to the higher power.” It is after this renunciation that one can experience “the acute fever” of a spiritual life.

The terms “surrender” and “higher power” and “powerlessness” are apt to leave some people uneasy (they are key phrases and concepts in 12-step programs everywhere). To surrender, in more Jamesian terms, is to make oneself open to new possibilities. To surrender is to stop clutching core beliefs or parts of one’s identity so tightly. When one loosens her grip, she makes it possible to hold something — perhaps very tentatively — in her hands. In the case of a person whose self worth or humanity has been decimated, it is a matter of being open to the possibility that just maybe she is worthy of a little dignity and respect. Surrendering can be simultaneously liberating and terrifying.

The when, where and how of surrender depends on a person’s misery threshold. Someone with a low threshold cannot suffer long and so is willing to make changes. Others will be able to suffer enormously and not surrender until there is nothing left to lose. Each person’s “rock bottom” is the point where misery can no longer be tolerated.

“Higher power” may leave even more people uneasy. James, however, uses the term in an elastic way. He does admit that “we Christians” call this higher power “God.” But to illustrate what he calls a “higher and friendly power,” James uses Henry David Thoreau’s description of walking in the gentle mist at Walden Pond. Thoreau wrote, “Every little pine-needle expanded and swelled with sympathy and befriended me.” Higher power can be nature, moral principles, patriotism, or a sense of fellowship or good will to others. For some, higher power is “enthusiasm for humanity.” Each of these, James might say, takes a person outside or beyond herself and connects her to others and thus can be a higher power.

It is easy to identify the ways that “the acute fever” burned in the Christian saints who engaged in all sorts of acts of self-mortification. But it is not easily spotted in someone who has surrendered to and embraced a higher power about their addictive behaviors; there is no equivalent of sack cloth. There is, however, a unification of a previously divided self. People who know addicts in recovery often see this before the addict herself. A person with the acute fever of sobriety or recovery comes to have a firmness of mind and character. She has clear beliefs and principles and acts from them. She also has stability that is achieved and maintained by keeping various relationships with relatives, friends congruent with personal history, commitments, goals and beliefs. Each of these helps to hold the others steady. Finally, a person who burns with the acute fever of sobriety has equilibrium. She is able to strike the balance between opposing forces, some of which are in her control and others not.

No one person will be immune from all suffering. However, the acute fever transforms a person’s life so that the drama, chaos and despair are, as James says, “severed like cobwebs, broken like bubbles.” And this, James would proclaim, shows that hope and redemption are just as much part of the human condition.

Though the birth classes my wife and I took last summer while we were expecting our daughter were almost painfully thorough, they did not answer a few pressing questions: What is one to do if the imminent arrival of his first child engenders nothing but fear and dread? If the creation of new life turns his morbid mind to the inexorability of death? If the mere notion of bringing an innocent creature into this malevolently entropic world fills him with an anxiety that is like a persistent, unreachable itch?

The iPad is a perfect nightlight. It is the fatherly reassurance that Freud says we all crave.

Some take drugs, prescribed or not. For others, a stiff drink is a favorite (not to mention traditional) self-medication. Fair enough. But when my own neurons get overheated, I prefer to chill them in the soothing currents of the digital seas.

As a journalist, I can justify my e-obsession by claiming that following Twitter feeds these days more or less passes for original reporting. But even by that measure, I am like a bartender who pours himself a tall one a little too frequently throughout the night. The guy who is never really drunk, but never quite sober.

I don’t want to call it addiction, to trivialize the suffering of alcoholics and compulsive gamblers. It is more like reliance, a psychological craving that will only be satisfied by the calming swipes of my finger across the smooth, shimmering screen of a device.

Thus, as my wife was going into her 10th hour of labor, I was blasting through my Instapaper reading list, making sure I was fully informed about both the future of Syria and hipster mustaches. The next day, the first day of my daughter’s life, I was back on Facebook, wallowing in inanity like a pig in mud.

I am far from alone. Some researchers are pushing for inclusion of Internet Use Disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which would effectively make it a mental illness. And a recent article in the Web publication LiveScience noted that “The Web’s unpredictable payoffs train people much in the same way Ivan Pavlov trained dogs, which were conditioned in the 19th century to salivate when they heard a bell they associated with food. Over time, people link a cue (e.g., an instant-message ping or the Facebook homepage) with a pleasurable rush of feel-good brain chemicals.”

The thing is, I love the Internet. I need my gadgets. I don’t want to be cured.

Ever since my own birth, it seems, I have dreaded nightfall and the silence of the evening dark. As an adult, I have been granted some solace. The iPad is a perfect nightlight. It is the fatherly reassurance that Freud says we all crave. Mine comes from a man named Steve.

I push a button and, as the argentine glow washes over my face, my dread begins to recede. The image of an apple appears; it has been bitten and I can not help but think of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden. But in a moment the apple disappears, and – lo! – is replaced by salvation: orderly rows of apps, bright columns of faithful soldiers in my own private war against solitude and disorder and oblivion.

The dread is gone.

I am a child again, I regard red notification balloons with excitement; they bring updates and news. I scroll through a slideshow on Buzzfeed — huh, that corgi really does look like Richard Nixon — and check Epicurious for a recipe for vegetarian pasta carbonara, because one day I really would like to make vegetarian carbonara for my wife, and wasn’t there a gift on Amazon I wanted to buy her, and look what’s finally in the Kindle store…

Maybe it is merely distraction, the oft-reported undoing of the focused, sophisticated mind. But I think it is something more. The philosopher Thomas Carlyle once called our planet “a hall of doom” — a diagnosis all too easily confirmed by most days’ news. But the terror that the outside world so frequently engenders can be neutralized — by YouTube videos of dachshund puppies, Facebook updates from “friends” I do not know, Instagrammed chronicles of exotic meals I am too timid to ever try and too cheap to ever pay for, the Twitter wisdom of @KimKierkegaardashian, not to mention that one Tumblr about how dads are the original hipsters. For thrills, I visit places on GoogleEarth that I am unlikely to visit in reality. I go on CollegeConfidential and pretend that I, too, am, deciding between Swarthmore and Cornell. All I am trying to do is turn Carlyle’s hall of doom into someplace more bearable, a digital cocktail lounge with a rotating cast of characters who do not mind being observed and who are always engaging and appropriately loquacious and are never bothered when I choose to go converse with someone else.

I would never claim that we live in a digital utopia. But might we take some comfort in several minutes in my completely unremarkable Facebook news feed: Someone (I don’t know her or how we became friends) has asked fellow users to support a program that allows poor young women in the Bay Area to experience the outdoors; someone else has posted an image of an Emily Dickinson manuscript; a journalist whom I respect has linked to an article about the dangers of generic drugs, appending the post with her own insightful views on the incompetence of the Food and Drug Administration. On Twitter, intelligent people are debating Benghazi, bike lanes and the Miami Heat. On Kickstarter, millenials allegedly weaned on apathy and irony are earnestly trying to save the world.

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This pretty much strikes me as the public sphere celebrated by Immanuel Kant as the paragon of enlightened society, updated to fit the requirements of the modern world. It is people using a common language and reason to proffer ideas, promulgate competing causes, agree and disagree, foment and undercut.

To go even further, the digital domain fulfills one of the basic promises of any organized religion: it offers a path to immortality. Paper fades and buildings crumble, but what you leave behind on the Internet is pretty much forever. It is a polytheistic religion, its gods bearing monosyllabic names like Jobs and Gates, Brin and Page. All — well, all who are able to afford it —can enter its exalted domain.

None of this, of course, is easy for my wife. Within three months of my daughter’s birth, a frequent and annoyed call resounded through the apartment: “Can you put the iPad away and play with the baby?” And sometimes, I have learned to shut the thing off and read “Goodnight Moon,” because it is true that man cannot sustain himself on Facebook “likes” alone. But there are other times when, for whatever reason, there is a tightness in my gut and only a few brainless minutes on Gawker will relieve whatever inchoate and irresolvable existential anxiety is its cause.

It could be the birth of my daughter and all it implies that turned my head to such thoughts. But no matter. Because I am certain that there is reason to fear. I take my cue from Pascal, who wrote in his “Pensées,” “When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in an eternity before and after, the little space I fill engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces whereof I know nothing, and which know nothing of me, I am terrified. The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.”

But by the grace of modern technology, I can fill at least some of those infinite spaces with the luminous procession of tweets and shares and updates – all of it inconsequential, all of it wonderful.