Dew Point

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 way of life.

Freedom from Food: The Gifts of a Three-Month Fast

Daliah Merzaban describes the taste of Love concealed beneath pangs of hunger

“Keep your body hungry,” was the advice a spiritual guide gave as a few friends and I embarked on a three-month fast earlier this year. In addition to Ramadan, we set the intention to fast during the two preceding months — Rajab and Sha’ban — as well.

In one way, it felt impossible; at first, I had to battle resistance even to say yes to the invitation. My mind was afraid of giving up my morning coffee during busy days at work. I worried how fasting might thwart a social life that was already constrained by pandemic lockdowns.

But in another, more visceral way, there was excitement at the prospect of traversing a trail I’d never journeyed before. I’ve always found fasting nourishing for my heart and body, but I never imagined fasting the equivalent of three Ramadans at once. I was curious to discover what lay ahead in this mysterious new land.

My teacher’s encouragement to keep our bodies hungry wasn’t necessarily about adhering to a strict set of “rules” as much as about pushing the limits of our hunger by listening carefully to our bodies. There’s wisdom concealed beneath pangs of hunger that isn’t audible when we rush to satiate cravings.

According to one tradition, Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, advised reserving a third of the stomach for food, a third for drink and a third for breath. With his wisdom in mind, I decided to have single small and nourishing meal each evening, thereby skipping the early-morning pre-fast meal called suhoor. I also cut out most sugar, which has been a crutch I have used to numb pain since childhood.

Some days, especially in the first month and a half, I was far from satisfied with the amount I’d eaten. I would succumb to overeating or late-night snacking. My body would end these days with a sense of uncomfortable fullness.

On other days, I was granted the strength to push through the cravings that arose. Instead of filling the craving, I would breathe air into my belly, imagining it was food. I allowed the hunger to be there, witnessing the discomfort as lovingly as I could. Eventually, the cravings would pass. My body would end these days with a sense of lightness and ease.

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Prophet Muhammad and the Garbage Thrower

True power and compassion flow when validation comes from within

Of the many stories relating the beautiful character of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, the one I’ll call The Tale of the Trash has been the most present in my life.

From a young age, my mom would tell me and my sisters this story to describe how the Prophet of Islam acted with mercy. The version in my memory goes something like this:

Muhammad lived in a house, much like ours in Canada, perhaps with a front porch and a small front lawn. There was sometimes a fence around the lawn and sometimes the house was situated along a tree-lined cul-de-sac, depending on where we lived. We moved a lot.

One of the prophet’s neighbours, a grouchy woman with deep frown lines on her forehead, would come by every day rain or shine, and throw a little garbage on his doorstep like she was delivering a morning newspaper. And every morning, the Prophet would go out like he was picking up the paper and carefully collect every piece of trash with his bare hands. Every banana peel and used plastic cup, and dispose of it.

He wouldn’t get angry. He wouldn’t fight. He wouldn’t react at all. He’d just gently clear away the mess, and go on with his day.

(Obviously it’s absurd to imagine banana peels or plastic cups or picket-fenced green lawns in the deserts of seventh century Arabia, but allow me to indulge the version of the hadith that nestled itself in my heart as I was growing up.)

This pattern repeated month after month. Until one day, the Prophet went out to pick up the trash like he was collecting the morning paper, and found nothing. The woman hadn’t been by that morning.

This is where the essential message of the story is revealed. Rather than feeling relieved at the prospect of being left alone, the Prophet became concerned. He suspected something must be wrong. He promptly walked over to his neighbour’s home and asked of her whereabouts and condition. It turned out she had fallen ill. The Prophet asked permission to visit her and prayed by her side for recovery, health and wellbeing.

The woman was so moved by Muhammad’s compassion that the hostility she felt toward him quickly dissolved. Eventually, she embraced Islam, that state of being where a human accesses and bows to the Divinity found at the inmost place within the heart. Where we find the Self of and in God.

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Listening to the Reed

It would be impossible to separate my heart’s awakening with my Sufi master Rumi from awakening to music, and in particular the music of the Turkish reed flute, called the ney.

Outwardly, I suppose it wouldn’t seem surprising for a disciple of the Mevlevi tradition of Sufism to be drawn to the mystical instrument described in the opening lines of Rumi’s poetic masterpiece, the Mathnawi. Mevlana’s description of the ney is the entry point into a universe of 26,000 verses conveying in extraordinary detail the human being’s journey toward union with the Divine Beloved.

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Turkish reed flute, photo by Uzma Taj

Yet for someone like myself, who had never learned to play an instrument, my desire to approach the ney came as an absolute shock. From the moment I unexpectedly birthed that elusive first sound about three years ago, I’ve sensed that this instrument is seeking to teach me something about my essence, and more precisely, how far I’d strayed from my Self. I, like the reed torn from the reed bed, was dry and void of life until the Breath of Love enlivened my heart. It was, truly, an experience of love at first sound.

Rumi says:

Listen to the reed and the tale it tells,
how it sings of separation:
Ever since they cut me from the reed bed,
my wail has caused men and women to weep.
I want a heart torn open with longing
to share the pain of this love.
Whoever has been parted from their source
longs to return to that state of union.

[Mathnawi I, 1–4]

Looking back at the past few years of my journey as a dervish striving to embody Rumi’s guidance, it is as though these lines have come to life in my body. They have resonated against the inner lining of my being and ignited a fire that has consumed many self-limiting beliefs that were holding me back. Studying the Mathnawi and living and breathing Mevlana’s teachings has opened me up to greater creativity than I ever fathomed possible. A once hollow existence is now brimming with more music, poetry, companionship and love than I could have ever imagined I deserved.

Something stirred in my heart with that first note from the reed that is difficult to put into words, other than to say there was a palpable longing to connect to the Mystery behind the sound. It felt magical. In that single, breathy note, it was as though beauty became real for me. For the first time, music became a possibility. I’d never imagined myself as a musician. During my turbulent childhood years, there wasn’t space for me to explore this possibility. So, as with so many of our human gifts, that potential lay dormant, waiting to be ignited. Which brings me to a few more of Rumi’s opening lines in the Mathnawi:

This flute is played with fire, not with wind,
and without this fire you would not exist.
It is the fire of love that inspires the flute.
It is the ferment of love that completes the wine.

[Mathnawi I, 9–10]

My understanding of these lines has deepened as my feet journey on the hot coals of awakening. The reed is a superb metaphor for an awakening human being, slowly emptying of the beliefs and psychological conditioning that erect barriers to the Divine Breath seeking to resonate in our bodies. To reconnect with our deepest voice, we need to be carved and hollowed like the reed.

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Prayers Are Answered in the Still of the Night

A week and a half before Ramadan, I was awake in the early hours of the morning, consumed by a feeling of vulnerability. I’d just finished recording my debut song and part of me felt afraid to share it, afraid of how it might be received.

The fear of rejection gripped my body. 

As I tried to comfort this anxiousness with zikr, I looked out the window and saw the moon, in bright yellow, peek up over the eastern horizon. I can’t recall ever witnessing the moon appear so close to the earth before, probably because my new home offers me a view of the sky I’ve never had before.

It was mesmerising to watch it climb slowly, becoming whiter and whiter as it rose. Likewise, the constriction gently let go of my body and was replaced with an overwhelming sensation of lightness rising within. In this space of stillness, the words of a new song started flowing from the depths of my heart.

I scribbled the lyrics into my notebook. They felt like a gift, an affirmation from my Sustainer, my Rabb, that I needn’t worry; I could trust the inspiration coming from my Inmost Heart and share it without fear. The song that arrived in the wee hours of that morning, called In the Still of the Night, is about the power of night vigil: The practice of deep night-time worship that I’m especially devoted to during Ramadan. The chorus speaks of how it is during this time that sincere prayers are heard — and answered.

This Ramadan, I’ve been reflecting on the mystery of prayer. My understanding of the concept has evolved over time. I used to see prayer as an act of asking the Divine for what I want, usually specific worldly possessions and pleasures, whether they be love and relationship, a new job, a new home, etc.

That is certainly part of it; being able to articulate to Allah what I don’t want in life, and what I do want, has helped me to cultivate healthy boundaries and brought about a lot of positive changes in my life in recent years.

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Whirling through life: Reflections of a female whirling dervish

Whirling is a seven-centuries old form of full-body worship emblematic of the Mevlevi tradition of Jalaluddin Rumi — and a practice I’ve woven into my spiritual routine over the past couple of years. Each time I begin whirling, there are a few moments my mind’s eye lingers in the image of a flower sprouting from the soil and slowly growing, budding and opening into full bloom.

Also known as turning, it begins by tilting the head toward the heart and crossing the arms at the chest, right over left, with the fingers wrapped slightly over shoulders. After bowing down before my teachers in the Seen and Unseen, I rise upright into a shape resembling the Arabic letter Alif and start rotating counterclockwise. Slowly, I uncross my arms and glide my fingers down the centre of my body toward my belly, as though a seed is being planted in the root of my being.

Then, again slowly, I move my fingers back up over my solar plexus and past my heart before outstretching my arms into the air, as though they are spreading out like the petals of a flower opening into its full splendour. This flower is swaying in the breeze, delighting passers-by with its fragrance and, all the while, firmly rooted in the Earth.

This image reminds me that with all the beauty of movement embodied by whirling, it is most importantly about grounding. 

It took me a long time to understand this. I recall the first time I saw whirling dervishes during my first visit to Istanbul in 2010. My sister and I saw a pair of them spinning counterclockwise in their white, flowy gowns at a restaurant near the Blue Mosque. I felt dizzy just watching them and assumed that this “dance” transported the dervish into some trance-like, ecstatic state.

My experience with the Mevlevi form of whirling has been quite the opposite: It is while turning that I feel the most rooted in my body.  This has been an important teaching for me. As someone with an active connection to the imaginal realm, I can easily lose touch with the anchor of my body. I have a tendency to forget to breathe deeply and at times entirely detach from the sensations of my gut, legs and feet.

By engaging every part of my physical form with each 360-degree rotation, whirling strengthens my core, improves my balance and enhances my awareness of the Heart, the dimensionless point in the centre of my being where I am closest to Allah.

Sema ceremony at St. John’s, Waterloo church in London, December 2019

In order to turn gracefully, the dervish’s left leg must be fixed on the floor, which in practice I find hard to do. It feels something like trying to embody Al Qayyum, the Quality of the Divine that means the Self Subsisting Source of All Being. My shaikh has likened Al Qayyum to a pole connecting the world of Spirit and the earthly realm, crossing through the human heart. The more centred I become, the more my left leg can hold position. The opposite is also true. If I get caught in the chatter in my mind, my body wobbles.

The right leg, meanwhile, rotates around the left, much like the embodiment of the Divine Name Ya Hayy, the Ever Living One. This interplay between Ya Qayyum (axis) and Ya Hayy (motion) is a constant reminder that life flows most beautifully from solid roots.

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Being in Love Together

I recently attended a retreat where a fellow seeker described the sweetness of the companionship that unfolds on the Sufi path. He likened the sensation to “being in Love together.” It was a beautiful way of putting it. Each of us is seeking the Cosmic Love at our core, side by side. Each of us is facing our unique inner battles to tear away the veils that have separated us from this Love as we were growing up. And the more we dismantle, the more we see that the nature of Reality is Love.

In one sense, spiritual work is incredibly personal. As many friends and I journeyed through Turkey last month, one Sufi master we met spoke of how even our murshid, our spiritual guide, can walk with us only to the edge of the desert. The inner work that happens in the desert, that scary place where we grapple with the innermost wounds of our psyches, we must face alone. I appreciated this analogy because my own jihad, or struggle with the lower self, sometimes feels like walking through a desolate place with the scorching sun on my skin and no shade to give me respite.

And yet as isolating as this image may appear, that’s not how I experience it. Even in the depths of the pain of processing psychological wounding, I’m aware that my teachers and companions are cheering me on from the sidelines. They love me unconditionally and long for me to reach my highest potential. Over and over again, I marvel at how this sense of being loved completely gives me the courage to sink into dark, painful places and allow light and healing to unfold. It is this Love that is moving me to wholeness.

The importance of companionship is something that Mevlana alludes to frequently, encouraging us to surround ourselves with mature souls whose hearts are glad. In one verse, he says:

“Between our hearts there’s a window that can open.
But what is there to open when no walls remain.”

Continue reading “Being in Love Together”

Following Unexpressed Pain Into the Arms of Mercy

More than previous Ramadans, this year the holy month felt like a journey with my Rabb, my inmost self, deeper into the arms of Mercy. Under the gentle guidance of the Sustainer who is closer to me than the beating of my heart, I traveled through time to wounded parts of myself and allowed this body to experience the tragedy of unexpressed pain and emotion.

Grief that had been tucked away, sometimes for decades, came into conscious awareness and flowed in rivers of tears through my eyes and in piercing moans resonating through my vocal cords. I allowed untended parts of me to feel the softness and tenderness of touch, of being held, nurtured, fed and, most of all, loved just as they are. Together with the compassionate attention of my Rabb, I witnessed feelings of pain, neglect and abuse and gave them permission to be expressed and seen.

I feel drawn to share one of these experiences to illustrate how I came during the month of Ramadan to more deeply understand the Quranic words in Surah Al-Araf (The Faculty of Discernment) about the Mercy of Allah overspreading everything (Quran 7.156), wrath included.

During one of the final nights in Ramadan, my Rabb took me on a journey to a memory of when I was no more than three or four. It was the middle of the night and this little me was standing in front of the window in the living room, sobbing uncontrollably. Her pyjamas were wet, as was the floor beneath her. She had peed on herself because she was too scared to go into the bathroom alone. She was convinced there was a monster lurking outside the bathroom window. Her parents had tried to reassure her it was just a tree. By day, even to her it appeared as a tree. But inevitably it was a monster again by nightfall.

 On the night etched in my memory, she awoke to find no one at home to take her to the bathroom. Mom and dad had rushed her sick older sister to the hospital. She was alone with the monster, and terrified.

For years, I’d seen this little girl in my mind’s eye with an expression of horror on her face as though she was separate from me. On this Ramadan night, though, the magnitude of her agony passed through this body. I felt her unmet needs viscerally. And as the feelings unfolded, the realization sunk in of how a series of traumas like this one in my childhood had influenced the perception that I wasn’t worthy of being nurtured and cared for. This core belief manifested in my life in many destructive ways.

Then, in the midst of the tears and grief that gripped my body from all these simultaneous realizations, an image appeared in my mind’s eye. Little Daliah was still there on the living room floor, only now a light emanated from her breast and filled the entire room. I understood this to be the light of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him. This light lifted her off the floor and into the arms of Love. She felt fed, loved, nurtured and seen by this Love. The memory dissolved into Unending Beauty; another crevice of my psyche cleared out and transported from darkness into Light. As the room that carried such torment became radiant and empty, a deeper understanding settled into my being of why the Quran refers to Muhammad as a Mercy for all the worlds (Quran 21.107).

Continue reading “Following Unexpressed Pain Into the Arms of Mercy”

Sacred Space: Lighting the Lamps Within

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.

Continue reading “Sacred Space: Lighting the Lamps Within”

La Illaha illa Allah and Connecting to Our Shadows

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.

Continue reading “La Illaha illa Allah and Connecting to Our Shadows”

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