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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.

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Answering Extremism

Countering Islamic Extremism With Radical Love: Book Review

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.

Radical love
Radical Love cover, published by Yale University Pressaption

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



They bow down

in prayer



Now

imagine:



Remove the Ka’ba

from the middle of the circle



Are they not prostrating

toward one another?



They are bowing down

toward each other’s hearts


Continue reading “Countering Islamic Extremism With Radical Love: Book Review”

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My Journey From ‘Moderate’ Muslim to Seeker of Love

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.

Continue reading “My Journey From ‘Moderate’ Muslim to Seeker of Love”

The doubt essential to faith

Lesley Hazleton, a British-American author who wrote a profile of the Prophet Muhammad, pbuh, gives a stimulating TED talk on the importance of doubt to acquiring faith. She points out that Muhammad’s first reaction to his divine revelation was one of terror, uncertainty and conviction that it couldn’t have been real.

This modest man who became an ardent advocate for social and economic justice in Arabia started his journey to Islam trembling with fear, overwhelmed by doubt, panic and disorientation. It was this visceral human reaction that “brought Muhammad alive” for Hazleton. Doubt, she says, is essential to faith. Without it, what’s left is heartless conviction that risks devolving into dogmatism and fundamentalism. And absolutism, she rightly argues, is the opposite of faith. Continue reading “The doubt essential to faith”

Unlike Fulla, the Islamic Barbie doll, we aren’t objects

‘Fulla’ is an Islamic answer to ‘Barbie’ marketed in the Islamic world
I often imagine it must be truly difficult for many non-Muslims to understand why a woman would choose to be Muslim. If you look at the media these days you find so many reasons why it seems absurd for an independent, modern-minded woman to follow the Islamic faith. This month, news emerged that a group of women in Malaysia had set up an ‘obedient wives club’, which sounds dreadful, but somehow manages to be worse than it sounds.
The club’s founders say that domestic violence, infidelity and divorce can be rectified only if women keep their men happy in the bedroom. They should be so good in bed that they are “better than a first-class prostitute”. In effect, they equate a woman’s proper practicing of the Islam with her success at satisfying her man’s carnal desires. Some Indonesian women have opened their own branch of the club.
If I was not a Muslim myself, I would cringe at the thought of a faith that objectifies women such that they are reduced to being sex objects for their husbands. Marriage, in this context, is a union forged solely for physical satisfaction and a man’s faithfulness relies on a woman’s ability to satisfy his sexual needs.
Fulla and Barbie: just toys

At about the same time as that story was splashed in newspapers and news wires across the world, a Kuwaiti woman who had once run for parliament called on sex slavery to be legalised. She argued that buying a sex-slave would protect devout Kuwaiti men from committing the sin of adultery.

Again, what woman would willingly choose to be part of a belief system that assumes men are inherently too weak not to be given to sin, and places on women’s shoulders the burden of ensuring men don’t stray from their faith?
I sympathise with non-Muslims. Even as a Muslim I read these articles and cringe. In many ways, they are worse than reading about men suppressing Muslim women in places like Saudi Arabia, where women are struggling even for the basic right to drive.
I cringe because these women attack the most-beautiful aspect of my life, my Islam, and complicate it, tarnish it, misconstrue and misinterpret it. In my view, they are doing a major injustice to humankind and, more importantly, to God. They appear to take the view that we as women are nothing more than Barbie or her Islamic answer, Fulla – objects that can be bought and played with.
Muslim men and women will often loosely cite traditions or Quranic phrases, stripping out the context and relevance, in order to justify their illogical ideas of what it means to be Muslim. In the process, they alienate Muslims and non-Muslims alike. They distort the beauty of God’s message in a way that places ego and fulfilment of pleasure above all else, which is completely at odds with Islam’s purpose.
Indonesian women launch branch of ‘Obedient Wives Club’
The term Islam means ‘submission to God’ in Arabic. The more you surrender to the Divine, the less attached you become to the desires and temptations of the world, and the greater freedom you find. As a woman, I have found more liberty in submitting myself to God in Islam than any feminist ideology, job title, self-help or how-to book, or piece of clothing would ever collectively even come close to giving me.
Submission places in a human’s grasp the freedom to be happy in every moment of life, and find purpose and blessing in every hardship and triumph.
A relationship between true Muslim men and women is far greater than a physical bond. One who really loves God and submits her/his self to the Creator as a Muslim would never be unfaithful. That is not part of the language of true submission, that is part of the language of ego and desire that we are supposed to separate ourselves from.
I would applaud efforts to strengthen marriages by encouraging men and women to communicate better and be obedient to each others needs mentally, spiritually and physically. But placing the burden on women is a gross misrepresentation and disservice to Islam.
Islam is simple and inherently rationale, hence its appeal to me and many women. God gives each human soul the chance to attain salvation through prayer, fasting, charity, patience and works of righteousness. I often cite the Quranic verse below because it so beautifully encapsulates the egalitarian ideas that God tries to convey to those who are willing to listen:
For Muslim men and women, for believing men and women, for devout men and women, for true men and women, for men and women who are patient and constant, for men and women who humble themselves, for men and women who give in charity, for men and women who fast, for men and women who guard their chastity, and for men and women who engage much in Allah’s (God’s) praise, for them has Allah prepared forgiveness and great reward. 
(Quran, 33:35)
There is an intrinsic spiritual equality between men and women in the pages of the Quran (The Recitation), which charts out the path individuals should take to strive toward eternal peace and escape the facade of modern life. Men and woman are different by nature, and our roles in life are very often complementary. But Islam does not objectify women – patriarchal cultures and traditions upheld by men, and women, do. Islam is a very personal struggle to discover God and find peace.
As I truly embraced Islam in the past year, I discovered how to separate myself from the emphasis society places materialism, consumerism, success and sex appeal in achieving lasting happiness. Islam has taught me to drown out the senseless noise of modern society and allow the beauty of God’s message guide me.

Being a Muslim woman means I am chaste. I involve God intimately in each of my daily activities, knowing as God informs us in the Quran that He is closer to me than my jugular vein. Like everyone, I work and run errands, meet friends and family, cook, clean, shop and travel. But five times each day like clockwork I pull myself away from whatever activity I am doing to kneel in devotion to God in prayer. It is comforting to have this consistency in my life; whether I am having a good day or a bad day, I am constantly drawn back to the Source.

Quran mentions women and men and equal number of times on its pages
There is a harmony in submission that runs through your life as though it were a continuous thread, weaving together our days into a beautiful quilt, each loop of which is coloured with a new insight from the Divine.
Being a Muslim woman means I fast regularly out of a desire to purify my body, speech and thoughts. It means I give generously to charity from the money God has entrusted with me. It means I try my utmost to be a loving, devoted daughter, sister, friend, colleague and human being. I am not married, but if God wills that I should be some day, it will mean cherishing my husband and striving to work together to find intimacy on a spiritual, mental and physical level.
This short description of what Islam means to me as a modern, independent and devout Muslim woman will never be splashed as a headline like the “obedient wives club” so irritatingly was this month.
But this is my reality; submission is a beautiful state of existence. It is a shame that a minority of irresponsible women and men will continue to tarnish the spirit of Islam for their own narrow-minded, self-centred objectives. 

All I can really do to fight the stereotypical view of Muslim women’s oppression is be the best Muslim I can be. The closer I draw into God’s embrace–and He becomes the object of my affection–the more I discover liberty in the truest sense.

A clean sweep

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As myself and tens of millions of Egyptians jubilantly relish at the victory of toppling a dictator who ruthlessly clung to power for three decades, it may seem unusual that I have garbage on my mind.
Watching footage of the past two weeks building up to the revolution that would depose Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, I was shocked to see Egyptians picking up paper scraps and splashing water onto the streets of Tahrir Square with mops and matchless motivation, cleansing their surroundings with a spirit of pure delight and good cheer. This struck me as a key symbol that something had fundamentally transformed in the Egyptian mindset.
A daughter of Egyptian parents but born and raised in Canada, I was always deeply bothered by trash during my usually infrequent trips to my homeland as a child. I couldn’t understand the rationale of throwing cigarette butts, candy bar wrappers, empty plastic bottles out of speeding car windows and dirtying one’s neighbourhood and home. One day when I was 13, during the second family holiday to Egypt that I can recall, I posed the question to one of my cousins Ashraf. We were visiting him and other relatives in the Suez Canal city Ismailia, my mother’s birthplace.
My cousin, then a 30-something lawyer who had lived his entire life in the North Eastern Egyptian city, smiled , looked me in the eye, and said in a matter-of-fact way, “ya habibty ya Daliah, this is not Canada. Our government gives us no benefit for keeping the country clean. This culture doesn’t exist here”. I admit that in the almost two decades that have passed since then, most of the details of that glorious summer holiday spent with family in Cairo, Fayoum, Ismailia, Suez and Port Said have escaped my memory. But Ashraf’s words remained etched in my mind. Egyptians had been denied a culture of civic responsibility by a government that defined legitimacy as its ability to incite fear and indifference among its people.
Each time I returned to Egypt following that trip in 1992, I saw the trash accumulate more prominently; as the streets became more riddled with rubbish, I felt inside that it represented another layer of hopelessness afflicting the population. I worked as a journalist in Egypt from 2002 to 2004, but left as living costs soared wildly in part triggered by a state decision to sever the dollar peg in favour of adopting a managed flotation for the Egyptian currency in early 2003. Inflation mounted in the following years due to currency weakness, high oil prices, swelling global food costs, huge population growth. As the people’s frustrations grew more palpable, the trash piles heaped higher and higher.
But I wasn’t prepared for what I would witness during my three visits to Egypt in the past year and a half. People living in our 10-year-old apartment building in the Haram (Pyramids) district of Cairo were throwing entire bags of trash from their eighth and ninth floor balconies onto the empty plot of privately held, abandoned land behind us. It was covered in garbage. I was shocked and appalled. Only palm trees, not a spot of trash, could be seen on that land just five years earlier.
My brother-in-law, who grew up adoring Egyptian cinema and people from afar, was ecstatic about embarking on his first trip to Egypt this past September. He was, regrettably, taken aback by the filth that filled so many Cairene streets. One day, he went with my mom and nephews to visit the Pyramids and a man with a horse-drawn carriage graciously offered to take them on a tour, but said he would use a short cut. Smirking, he told them they should be prepared to see some wonderful “ful and yasmeen” – deliciously fragrant flowers commonly sold in Egypt. My gullible mother and brother-in-law believed him. Until, that is, the old man’s truly Egyptian humour rung clear; the carriage passed through heaps of uncollected pungent trash, situated just off the five-star Mena House hotel adjacent to the Grand Pyramids. They pressed their noses closed and laughed at the redefinition of floral aroma.
While Egyptians always bring light-hearted humour into every situation, desperation was building. I could feel it on every street corner – the people were frustrated, desperate, irritated following 30 years of repression and years of double-digit inflation met with no meaningful increase in wages. Along with the building furore, I was overwhelmed by how garbage was teeming everywhere. Walking along the Nile with my family one day, police officers tried to force us to erase photographs we had taken of the trash amassing along the banks of the great river. It was disgraceful. My mom cursed the government, and Hosni Mubarak, her criticisms silenced only by our pleas for her not to make a scene. Egypt was, simply, overflowing with the sense of indignity and apathy that my cousin had described to me so many years before.

You can imagine my astonishment watching footage of Egyptians rolling up their sleeves and cleaning Cairo’s streets in Liberation Square this past two and a half weeks. It literally moved me to tears. All it took for the patient, good-humoured, inventive Egyptians was the scent of freedom to restore their dignity and faith in the future of their country, and fuel their resolve to rebuild its glory, one piece of trash at a time.
In my elation at the momentous events of the past 18 days, I imagine that during my next visit to Egypt, it will appear exceptionally cleaner – in form and spirit. I imagine the attitude of civic responsibility will spread through the streets and people will take pride in their supreme accomplishment of regaining their dignity and reclaiming ownership of their land. It will take a long time for Egypt to reverse the damage left by decades of oblivious dictatorship. But I have enormous faith that this newfound freedom will echo in every corner of ‘Umm Al Donya’, an Arabic phrase commonly associated with Egypt, meaning ‘Mother of the World’.

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