When I imagine sacred space, my first impulse is to think of the soft, thick purple and cream-coloured prayer carpet that sits at the foot of the floor-to-ceiling windows in my living room. Looking out the past the balcony to the right, I can glimpse the moon blooming and retreating each passing month in the night sky.
A vase with fresh roses and a flickering candle accompany me on my left, while the fragrance of wild orange and bergamot fills the room from the diffuser on the corner of the TV stand. At times, ney music or Quranic verses may hum softly in the background, as I open a page or two of Rumi’s poetry, breathing their wisdom deep into my belly.
Outwardly, these adornments work together beautifully to create an ambiance that nurtures tranquility and promotes self care and compassion. After neglecting these qualities for so long, it’s taken me a few years to strike a favorable balance.
The more time I spend refining my sacred space, though, the more I realise the end goal is so much more expansive than simply achieving comfort in the body and mind. By creating external conditions whereby stillness is enhanced, distractions are minimized and senses are refreshed, I’m pushed to focus on cultivating the other, more important, sacred space: the one inside.
As the spiritual and psychological work of this path continually reveal to me, this isn’t always comfortable. In fact, it is often the opposite. Replicating the stillness of the outer sacred space in the inner one requires a lot of spring cleaning to clear out the junk—such as the impulsive thoughts and self-limiting beliefs—that have been lodged in many nooks and crannies of my psyche.
Hanging onto emotional baggage dulls the energy of my inner world a lot like clutter might in a room. Until those suitcases are opened and the anguish and pain are released, there will always be barriers to inner stillness. It’s a lot like ablution, only instead of water, it is zikr that does the cleansing.
In a sense, the inner work of decluttering is about nurturing the inner sacred space so our deeper and more meaningful senses can be accentuated — the spiritual senses in the heart, or the “deeper level of mind” as Shaikh Kabir sometimes calls it.
We all have psychological blind spots, aspects of our personalities that are hidden from our view. My own tend to boil down to fears that feel too threatening to acknowledge, and so are easier to tuck away. This is why I’m deeply grateful for Sufi practices that bring these distortions into conscious awareness through zikr, the repetition of Divine Attributes.
I often linger on the line in the Mevlevi Wird that offers an antidote for approaching my phobias: “Facing all fears, (say) ‘there is no god, but God.’” These words, La Illaha illa Allah, have been part of my life since I was a child, yet only since moving away from the religious understanding has the immensity of their spiritual significance unfolded for me. In my impression, the six words have been usurped by religious authorities to divide people based on those who worship one supreme lord, and are thus bound for “heaven,” and those facing a more sinister fate because they worship a collection of gods.
This superficial interpretation is dangerous because it keeps our focus outside, leaving us prone to fixating on comparing ourselves to and judging the actions of others. What is more meaningful and ultimately more challenging is to witness our interior world and all the false “gods”— the contradictions, obsessions and preoccupations — that consume our attention.
Welcoming La Illaha illa Allah into my days for a few years has brought to light the crowd of idols within me, and it’s bigger than I care to admit. From the sometimes debilitating desire to be acknowledged and validated, to more subtle idols, like the tendency to speak to myself in a self-deprecating way, the zikr has opened a gateway to my shadow side.
My experience is that zikr works on an incredibly subtle level and is a gradual unfolding, like a germination process for the spiritual heart. At first, it didn’t feel like anything was happening; I had to trust that this seed I was planting in my inner world would eventually blossom.
Through the tears welling up in my eyes, I looked down at the opening and closing of my hand.
First I wrapped my four right fingers over my thumb and pressed them against the centre of my palm into a fist. I examined it for several seconds, then slowly released the fist until my fingers were outstretched. For a few moments more, I gazed at my open hand, before closing it again.
After several minutes I started to sync the motions with my breath so I inhaled as the fist closed, and exhaled as it opened. With every in breath I silently repeated Ya Qabid (The One Who Constricts), one of the 99 Qualities of Allah, understood as the Divine Reality in the Islamic Sufi tradition. With each out breath, Ya Basit (The One Who Expands Our Hearts), emerged in a whisper from my lips.
I concentrated on this meditation long after the sobbing had ceased, mesmerized by the incredible workings of the human body. Rumi’s poetry frequently references the harmony between expansion and contraction. In a physical sense, it keeps us alive: the rise and fall of our diaphragms brings forth breath and the heart constricts and expands to move blood through our veins.
And yet, when it comes to emotions, how often in life have I clung to joy and sought to prolong it, and deemed pain as “bad” and sought to keep my sojourn in grief and sorrow as brief as possible. In my meditation, a more visceral understanding of the importance of accepting the difficulty and ease of life with equal graciousness settled into my heart.
Rumi alludes to this in the verse Two Wings:
Observe the qualities of expansion and contraction
In the fingers of your hand
Surely after the closing of your fist comes the opening.
If the fingers were always closed or always open,
the owner would be crippled.
Your movement is governed by these two qualities:
They are as necessary to you as two wings are to a bird.
(Mathnawi III, 3762-66)*
Working with Divine Names like Ya Qabid and Ya Basit has been transformative for my spiritual practice this year as I engage with some old psychological wounds that had been buried in the depths of my subconscious. In the Sufi tradition, we understand the Names as Qualities of Reality which we can activate in ourselves by consciously holding them and allowing their essence to unfold within us.
While reading Omid Safi’s new book, Radical Love: Teachings from the Islamic Mystical Tradition, I was among editors from London’s media outlets attending a briefing on how the British public perceive Muslims, based on research commissioned by the Aziz Foundation. The book was sitting in my purse as we heard some staggering statistics: nearly one in three Brits feel negatively toward Muslims, three times higher than the closest religious group. Among these sceptics, 91% feel more suspicious of Muslims after terror attacks.
The findings were a jarring contrast to the passionate love that drips from the pages of Safi’s collection of poetry from several dozen Muslim mystics, passages from the Quran and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. I walked out of the meeting with a visceral sense that the Islamic path of Radical Love, or Eshq, is the antidote for neutralizing the violent associations that Islam is readily smeared with in the mainstream imagination.
There are, admittedly, many books of sufi love poetry dedicated to the impassioned verses of Rumi, Hafez, Attar and others — my own Mevlevi spiritual teachers have translated stunning compilations of Rumi, in particular.
Safi adds something unique and important for this juncture of human history. He brings together the voices of generations of lovers of God into a single, richly nourishing anthology, translating them anew to take into account modern language, references and sensibilities.
It’s like a tasting menu; the reader gets a generous sampling of morsels of Islamic mystical wisdom drawn from sufis over the centuries. It’s ideal for dipping into for moments of inspiration in our fast-paced, distracting, consumer-driven lives, where spiritual growth is readily sidelined.
The Path of Radical Love, madhhab al-‘eshq, argues for a different way of relating to God than is typically associated with Islam. Emphasizing unity and oneness, it challenges human tendencies to divide and erect barriers among ourselves, often in the name of religion, culture or tradition. It is lived and breathed through humans who have done the personal work of confronting their own egoism to become reflectors of Divine qualities of on earth.
In his introduction, Safi posits that the lovers of God whose poems fill his book are “boldly impatient.” While everyone is promised to meet the Creator face to face in the Hereafter, these individuals long to know God here and now. Lovers strive to make the Divine real in their daily lives by living and breathing Love in every moment and circumstance. He likens Radical Love to alchemy: it illuminates everything in us that is cheap and base, transforming it into gold.
“As Rumi says, it is through this Radical Love that the bitter becomes sweet, the thorn turns into a rose, the pain contains healing, and the dead come to life,” writes Safi.
But Radical Love encompasses more than the inward psychological journey to our innermost hearts. It’s also about engaging with humanity by nurturing beautiful relationships and creating communities that are harmonious, promote dignity and bring about justice in the world. Radical Love needs to be lived and embodied here and now, in the “messiness of earthly life.”
“For the mystics of the path of radical love, love (Eshq) is not a sentiment or an emotion. It is the very overflowing of God onto this realm. It is this radical love that erupts out of God, bringing us into being. It is this love that sustains us, and it will be this cosmic current that will carry us back home.”
Safi’s book is an impressive undertaking. His delicate renderings of the Quran and Hadith capture the essence that’s been sorely lacking in the traditional translations many of us grew up with. I found his rendition of the Quran’s first verse, Al-Fatiha (The Opening), poetic and enchanting. His approach reminded me how important it is to consciously approach the Divine with love, rather than projecting our own egoism onto Him/Her.
A God Closer Than…
I created humanity I know what whispers into your soul…
and I am closer to you than the beating of your heart ~Quran (50:16)
A Heart to Contain God
My Heaven cannot contain Me Neither can My Earth
But the heart of My faithful devotee suffices Me ~Hadith
Dipping into Safi’s book feels like witnessing a spiritual conversation, or sohbet, between a lineage of God’s closest friends, all seated around the same circular table, united in their desire to “make God real, make love real and let love shine.”
Opening it at random, you find Fakhr al-Din ‘Iraqi, a contemporary of Rumi who died in 1289, seated next to Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Sulami, who lived more than 250 years earlier. Elsewhere, a drunk Rabi’a — a woman who lived during the eighth century in Iraq — staggers in intoxication with God’s love beside the 13th century poet Farid al-Din ‘Attar. His most famous work is Conference of the Birds, an allegory depicting the collective journey of mystics making their way to the Beloved — essentially, the very thing Safi brings to life in his book.
In our own times, Sufism is unfortunately sidelined from the mainstream conversation. It’s not as contentious or eye-catching to talk about ecstatic love of God as it is to give the spotlight to terrorists who have polluted faith with their own toxic egoism. Yet the lovers of God are always there, forming, as my teacher once put it, the endocrine system circulating through the bloodstream of humanity.
Several days after that media briefing, I tried to imagine what would have happened if I’d been inspired to pull out Safi’s book from my purse and had each editor seated around the boardroom table randomly open and read aloud a poem. That thought came to me as I lingered at a verse of Shams of Tabriz, the spiritual guide who ignited a flame of love in Rumi’s breast.
While Rumi’s words are sprinkled dozens of times in Radical Love, Shams makes only one appearance near the end of Safi’s book and — in his characteristic way — pierces right to the heart of the matter:
Remove the Ka’ba
God commands us to pray in the direction of the Ka’ba
Imagine this: People all over the world are gathered making a circle around the Kaaba
I recently accompanied my murshid on a spiritual retreat in Turkey, along with a group of dear friends and seekers. We sat in the presence of sufi teachers and visited shrines, including the House of the Virgin Mary in Ephesus and the tombs of Mevlana Rumi and Shams of Tabriz in Konya.
One of the lessons that resonated with me was the idea that we can relate to prophets and saints like Muhammad, Jesus, Mary, Buddha or Rumi not merely as historical figures, but as sacred personalities who belong to all humanity, rather than a particular religion, ideology or nationality. They represent transcendent qualities accessible through the collective human consciousness.
We open ourselves up to a direct experience with these sacred figures when we bring our lower selves or egos (called nafs in sufi terminology) into alignment with our hearts. In sufism, this is achieved by cultivating consciousness of the Divine Reality, or Allah, through zikr, or remembrance. Over time, such practices heighten our spiritual radar and we grow more and more into our greatest humanness, where direct experiences with the Beloved permeate all circumstances of life.
As Mevlana Rumi says:
Our body is like Mary.
Each of us has a Jesus inside.
If a pain and yearning shows up inside us,
the Jesus of our soul is born.
If there is no pain, no yearning,
the Jesus of our soul will return to its origin from
the same secret passageway he came from…
If there is no pain, no yearning,
we will remain deprived
not benefiting from that Jesus of the soul. (Translated by Omid Safi, in Radical Love: Teachings from the Islamic Mystical Tradition)
Understanding that prophets and saints reside in the potentiality of every human’s experience opened a deeper dimension of intimacy and connection for me. It’s also obliterated the cultural and religious divisions that I’d grown up believing separated people.
In my journey, I’ve felt connected to prophets and saints not merely because I’d read about them and appreciated their stories. But because shifts in my consciousness have given me a direct sense of who they were and how their qualities have manifested in my own experience.
One of my first such encounters was with Khadija, Muhammad’s first wife. She came into view just as my consciousness was awakening to the dimension of Spirit that I’d been blind to after a lifetime of being trapped in my mind. A single mother managing a multinational business, Khadija exuded strength and confidence, so much so that she had no qualms about proposing marriage to the much younger Muhammad, her employee.
More than admiring her audacity, though, I started to notice how her courage to live outside social norms was transforming my own way of being in the world. It was as though she came alive inside of me: I gradually turned off all the cultural and familial noise and pressures standing in the way of charting out my own path. A wholly receptive feminine energy, Khadija revealed herself in the intuitive part of me that feels an unbreakable heart connection to the Divine even in the face of prevailing mainstream pressures that rejected this, in her time and mine.
Sacred breezes like Khadija’s have swept over me at many points on my journey, awakening qualities I wasn’t aware existed. Recently, for instance, I had my first deep contact with Imam Ali, Muhammad’s son-in-law and cousin. I was initially startled because Ali is famed for being a great warrior who fought many battles at the prophet’s side. I didn’t fathom such masculinity could exist in myself.
And yet after spending some time reading about Ali’s devotion to Muhammad, parallels emerged. Ali offers an example of how to arrive fully armed to our inner battle ground where the fight for the soul, or jihad, takes place. A big part of me, especially in the past couple of years, has been bold in confronting many painful psychological wounds blocking my path to spiritual maturity, always with abundant self compassion.
The Ali in me has the gentle courage to bring unhealthy patterns of behaviour rooted in childhood trauma and religious and cultural conditioning into conscious awareness and allow the spiritual alchemy of zikr to transform and heal them. The more I peel away the veils of my lower self and realign my psyche toward Compassion and Love, the more I grasp Ali’s presence and appreciate why the Prophet said, “I am the city of knowledge and Ali is its gate.”
Moments of insight like these remind me that journeying on the sufi path puts me in direct contact not only with my living teachers, but with a lineage of saints, prophets and friends of God. In my own tradition of Mevlevi sufism, rooted in the teachings of Mevlana Rumi, I sometimes imagine the dialogue between Shams of Tabriz and Rumi happening within me.
Shams ignited the flame of Divine Love in Rumi by daring him to view reality from a different vantage point. I experience Shams, Arabic for sun, as the inner witness objectively observing my thoughts, feelings, sensations and emotions and shining a light on where I need to pay attention. His luminous being challenges me to question familiar patterns of thought and behaviour, and rub away the layers of tarnish that separate me from my spiritual heart.
The more polished my heart becomes, meanwhile, inhibitions melt away and I shock myself with creativity and ideas. Writing flows more easily, and I’ve developed a love for singing, learning to play music and whirling that I couldn’t have imagined possible even a couple of years ago. It’s here that I catch a glimpse of the radiance of Rumi, through whom that Divine Creativity surged in tens of thousands of verses of poetry.
With each step I take to open in receptivity to wisdom coming in from the Unseen, I’m pick up subtler frequencies of spiritual perception. Sometimes it’s as though I can tune into an intimate and lively sohbet, or spiritual conversation, taking place in my heart, where humanity’s sacred teachers blow insight and truth, if I am still enough to listen.
It’s well after midnight and burning candles flicker in my dimly lit living room. Music hums quietly in the background, a love song carried through the vibrating cry of the reed flute. My head gently sways right to left to Oruç Güvenç’s sweet notes and we sit, me and my Beloved, at the table overlooking the night sky as London fades into a deep sleep. There’s a stillness outside and within.
No words are spoken as I gaze at my Beloved with longing, seeing and thinking of no one but Him. His Names are all around me, in the light of the candle, Ya Nur, the Essence of Luminosity. In the delicious scent of the yellow and pink roses in the vase next to me, Ya Latif, the Subtle One. In the love exploding in my heart, Ya Wadud, the Most Loving One.
After eating my suhour meal — a boiled egg and a small bowl greek yogurt with acacia honey and chia seeds — we move to the sofa. Not for a moment do I let go of his Handhold, so strong it will never give way.*
Unable to find words to express the depths of my yearning, I open at random pages of poetry drawn from the wells of masters. Who better than them can express the urgings of my heart.
First, from Mevlana Rumi, comes:
The real beloved is that one who is unique,
who is your beginning and your end
When you find that one,
you’ll no longer want anything else
(Masnavi III, 1418-19, translated by Camille and Kabir Helminski)
Then Yunus Emre chimes in:
You fall in love with Truth and begin to cry,
You become holy light inside and out,
Singing Allah Allah
(The Drop that Became the Sea, p. 72)
And Sheikh Abol-Hasan of Kharaqan offers:
Nothing pleases the Lord more than finding himself in the Lover’s heart
every time He looks there.
(The Soul and A Loaf of Bread, p. 61)
I read each verse, aloud or silently, to You, Ya Sami, the One Who Hears All. The goosebumps on my skin and underneath a visceral reminder that You are, as the Quran says, closer to me than my jugular vein.
For many years starting at around the time of the 9-11 terror attacks, I referred to myself a “moderate Muslim.” I used the term on my Facebook profile and pronounced it if asked about my religious beliefs.
The label was in many ways a reactive disclaimer to popular opinion about Muslims. It meant for me that I was raised in an Arab, Islamic household in the West, I rejected extremism and was tolerant of diversity and multiculturalism. I was an approachable and modern professional who didn’t take religion too seriously. I still felt a deep connection to my inherited identity, albeit with limited critical reflection. I believed in God, fasted during Ramadan and prayed on occasion, but rarely with a deep amount of presence or the Divine at the center of my consciousness.
I suppose the label also insinuated that I wasn’t fully Muslim in the way people perceived Muslims. Becoming “fundamentalist” in following the tenets of the mainstream religion was seen as synonymous with being radicalized. So I didn’t bother.
Several years passed and life, as it does, handed me one setback to negotiate after another. Each of them, slowly but surely, pulled me further and further away from God. I was left questioning what the point of faith, and for that matter life, was at all. Then, just as I was abandoning the religion I’d known my whole life, I had my first encounter with spiritual Islam.
It was almost eight years ago, and the tender sensations that coursed through my veins still induce goose bumps. Unable to sleep, I’d been sitting on my living room floor trying to decipher how to cope with my latest misfortune and understand why I deserved it. Then, in a burst of inspiration, my perception shifted. I saw that what I’d perceived just the moment before as a disappointment was actually a blessing, for it led me to be receptive to the guidance that was unfolding within me.
In that moment of clarity, my consciousness awakened to the realization that it was futile to search outside of myself for fulfillment, because the transience of relationships to things, people and places can never offer enduring satisfaction. All at once, I became aware of being held in the arms of a Love so great it encompassed everything. The burden on my heart was replaced with an immense sense of peace. That moment changed the course of my life for it allowed me to grasp the true magnificence of my own consciousness and its ability to come in contact with the realm of Spirit.
I’d just finished getting my hair cut and styled at the one salon in London that specializes in curls only to walk out the door to find it was pouring rain. The nearest Tube station was shut that Saturday for engineering works, so I scurried down the side streets of the West London neighborhood to the closest alternative, about a 20-minute walk away.
Determined to protect my neatly defined coils from unravelling into a mass of frizz, I huddled under the red umbrella with a duck-head handle I carry with me every day. Google Maps recommended I walk through Portobello Market, where merchants selling vintage clothing, handbags and antiques seemed as unperturbed by the rain and near-zero January temperatures as the hundreds of would-be shoppers crowding the length of the road.
With no interest in shopping, my entire focus was to protect my hair from the rain. I tried carefully to navigate my way through the sea of umbrellas without poking anyone in the eye with the exposed metal spike that never failed to come undone from the nylon canopy at inconvenient moments like that one.
Before entering the final stretch of the street market, I came to an intersection. The pedestrian signal had just turned red, so I waited at the corner of the sidewalk, oblivious to the large puddle of water that had accumulated at the curb beneath my feet. Before I had a moment to look down or back away, a car sped through the pool of rainwater, which splashed up and left me totally drenched from the waist down.
I paused for a moment from the shock.
But I didn’t get angry.
I didn’t feel moved to curse out loud at the driver or complain bitterly to whoever was close enough to hear.
Nor did I feel embarrassed at being the only pedestrian at the intersection who seemed to lack the foresight to leave a little distance from the curb.
I felt — grateful.
“Alhamdulillah,” I mumbled to myself as I looked down at my skirt and tights that were soaked through to the skin. “Ashukrlillah.”
The reaction surprised me. Not that long ago, a similar sequence of events would have sent me spinning into feelings of self pity, self-consciousness and whining at how unfair the universe was.
Huddled at the back, left-hand corner of a large hall, me and a handful of other women would gather to take part in the Islamic Friday prayer at our university in British Columbia the early 2000s. Meanwhile at the front of the room, where light streamed in from the windows, dozens of young men stood side-by-side in rows.
We recited the same prayer, but the gap in our experience was far wider than the swath of carpet separating the masculine and feminine in most Islamic religious spaces. As soon as we would say our final salams, I would dash for the door as quickly as I’d arrived.
Attending congregational prayers — where women are typically relegated to back corner, behind a partition or in a windowless room of a mosque — has always been an awkward and disheartening experience for me. The rigid segregation of religious spaces made me hyper aware of the limitations of my feminine identity, which I realized only years later were imposed on me rather than intrinsic to the tradition. That gnawing sense of discomfort made me ashamed of my girlhood, and eventually my womanhood in ways I can only now begin to articulate.
I was so immersed in patriarchy during my childhood that I assumed messages of faith could be communicated only through the masculine voice. After all, most references I encountered of God were as “He” and all the prophets in Abrahamic traditions were men.
Yet as I got older, my most intimate moments with Allah in personal sacred spaces had an entirely different quality. During early-morning prostrations before my Beloved, I had a deep sense that our connection was beyond constructions of gender and beyond my supposed inferiority. Rather, it was an exchange of energies that was deeply loving and nourishing. Something wasn’t right with the prevailing, masculine narrative of Islam, but I was unable to put my finger on why.
That changed when I became acquainted with the powerful women who have been largely erased from our spiritual histories. Their voices are muffled and faint not because they didn’t exist, but because they’ve been hidden and written out of relevance by patriarchal readings and writings of Islam.
In the past two years, I’ve attended conferences in the U.K. Lake District focused on the theme of awakening the Sacred Feminine within ourselves and the world, including inspired key note addresses by author and spiritual guide Elizabeth Anne Hin. She brought the idea of the “prophetess” alive for me in a way I’d never experienced before.
Dew, for me, is related to light. It is formed overnight when the air becomes saturated with water vapour, yet its droplets adorning leaves, grass and flowers are observed only once the sunlight shines upon them. It is a beautiful sight and a reminder of the grace of God in creating nature for us to enjoy and understand His miracles.
This blog is dedicated to sharing my every-day discoveries of how the light and beauty of Islamic spirituality can be part of a modern, well-rounded existence.