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.
Islam came alive. It wasn’t a rigid, dogmatic system of rituals, dress codes and obligations, but a direct experience of Divine Compassion and Mercy. It wasn’t a religion of fear, but a tender, beautiful path toward Unconditional Love. Rather than a label or identity, it was a state of being in surrender to the natural flow of the Divine Reality, or Allah.
As I embarked on this stage of my journey, the word “moderate” dropped out of my vocabulary and off my Facebook profile. Simply being Muslim satisfied me for a handful of years. I didn’t miss a prayer, fasted regularly and truly began to encounter God in my daily life, in nature, in interactions. Immersing myself in that energy increased my generosity, compassion and patience.
And yet, as much as my connection with the Divine deepened, I became aware of an agitation in my heart, as though the peace I felt was skin deep. I knew then I needed a spiritual guide to help me understand what I couldn’t see. My journey led me to Mevlevi Sufism, first through reading the books of a couple who would later become my beloved teachers and simultaneously feeling inexplicably drawn to the whirling dervishes during a visit to Turkey.
What I didn’t realize until later is that I’d bypassed some entrenched psychological wounds and couldn’t see the ways I was beholden to my false self: to the shame that comes with growing up in a patriarchal Islamic doctrine that belittles women and left me feeling ashamed of my femininity and sexuality. To the constant cultural hammering that if I wanted to be seen and accepted, I couldn’t be myself; I needed to be an obedient girl who didn’t get angry, didn’t challenge others, was always polite, and never showed too much emotion or disappointment.
Sufism is a spiritual psychology that calls on me to be a constant witness to my states. It involves zooming out of my thoughts, feelings, emotions and sensations and observing them from a more objective vantage point. I acknowledge the grip that shame and fear had/has on me, as well as a mix of envy, pride and resentment. Then, slowly and gently, they are transformed in the alchemy that is zikr, the repetition of Divine names and attributes that transports us into another realm of conscious awareness.
Essentially the sufi way is about knowing myself and my wounds more deeply, something our beloved Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, counselled is essential on the path to truly knowing the Divine that is closer to us than our jugular veins. What I’ve discovered is that I’m someone, like anyone, who has idiosyncrasies and mental knots, obstacles and conditioned behaviors that I need to decode with care and compassion.
In dervishhood, I’ve come to find the label Muslim no longer feels appropriate. Paradoxically, the more I hone my inward presence and spend time in worship, the less in Surrender, or Islam, I realize I am. It’s a state I aspire to, but that feels further away as I more honestly acknowledge my humanness, my delusions, my shifting states and degrees of separation from Reality.
So, after shedding my identity as a “moderate Muslim.” After moving away from my definition as a Muslim who has things figured out. I find myself sitting at the threshold of my innermost heart, longing to be guided by it in every moment: a seeker of the Infinite Love that threads together all existence.
Engaging with each day, I realize more and more the depth of my need for the Sustainer in every breath of this journey and, as Mevlana Rumi describes, aware of the immense suffering and the boundless Love that reveal themselves while traveling it:
Whether one moves slowly or with speed
the one who is a seeker will be a finder.
Always seek with your whole self
for the search is an excellent guide on the way.
Though you are lame and limping,
though your figure is bent and clumsy,
always creep towards the One. Make that One your quest.
By speech, and by silence, and by fragrance,
catch the scent of the King everywhere.
(Masnavi III, 978-981, translated by Camille and Kabir Helminski)