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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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Discovering Islam

The Heart-Breaking Work of a Dervish

A section of the Wisconsin River winds through towering, 500 million-year-old rock formations composed layer upon layer of honey-coloured sandstone. Called the Upper Dells, the cliffs were cut by ancient glaciers. They’re remnants of a time when the continent was covered in desert.

Upper Dells, Wisconsin river. Photo by Dailah Merzaban
Upper Dells, Wisconsin River

During a boat tour meandering around the imposing cliffs and traversing dazzling river narrows, a few dear friends and I marvelled at the protruding rocks that cradle a several-mile stretch of the river. Our guide described how these Cambrian-period rocks are some of the oldest exposed bedrock on Earth, a testament to their strength and endurance. And yet the Dells are essentially created from sand, making them also among the softest rocks in existence. Being incredibly porous, they let water penetrate into them. This enables lush clusters of pine trees to grow supported by deeply embedded roots. The surface is also soft enough for swallows to burrow nests into the sides of the sandstone.

The incredible robustness of the Dells paradoxically relies on their delicacy and receptivity, a fitting analogy as I reflect on my journey as a dervish, or disciple, of Mevlevi sufism.

It’s been just over a year since I made a public commitment to the path that traces back to Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi, one of the greatest mystics and poets the world has ever known. This period has marked the most rigorous and transforming spiritual and psychological training I’ve ever undertaken. It’s complicated to describe the subtle realisations that unfold on a personal journey to attain nearness to God. What I can put into words is that, above all else, my heart has become more porous, receptive and tender.

The changes in me are both subtle and profound. Rather than simply dropping a pound in the cup of a homeless neighbour as I may have before, I’m more inclined to look them in the eye and ask how they are and what they need. Instead of finding fault in another I deem has wronged me, I pause before reacting to understand their vantage point, not judge them from mine. I’m more merciful with myself, tuning down that once roaring inner critic that constantly questioned my worthiness, intelligence and goodness.

Continue reading “The Heart-Breaking Work of a Dervish”

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Translating Love’s Confusion: Hollywood and Misreading Rumi

The 2010 Hollywood celebrity fest chick-flick Valentine’s Day opens with Reed Bennett, a florist played by Ashton Kutscher, proposing marriage to Morley (Jessica Alba), as she wakes up on Feb. 14.

Evidently startled, Morley initially accepts, sending Reed on a joyful mission to let everyone know his sweetheart said “yes”! But his elation is short-lived. A few hours later Reed finds Morley in his apartment packing her bag as she hands back his ring and walks out on the relationship entirely.

Just then, as movie’s downtrodden protagonist leaves the scene, the narrator — a radio show host named “Romeo Midnight” — drops a word of wisdom that sounds a tinge sufi.

“It’s Romeo Midnight back again.
And if those topsy-turvy feelings have got you twisted inside out, think of the poet Rumi who 800 years ago said: `All we really want is love’s confusing joy.’
Amen, brother.”

 

When I watched this movie shortly after its release, I was bemused at the irony of hearing a 13th-century Islamic poet and scholar quoted in a cheesy American blockbuster seemingly unwittingly. A Persian poet of love, Rumi is often uprooted from his historical context and polished for resale for Western audiences who may not realize his object of affection isn’t a romantic love interest, but the Divine Beloved.

livlu-ghemaru-heart-of-steel
Heart of Steel, by Livlu Ghemaru

Rumi writes in a transcendent and inclusive way about love and loss, so his wide-reaching appeal isn’t surprising. Yet it can be frustrating to see him conspicuously taken out of context. Not only is he often divorced of the Islam, or Self Surrender, his poetry conveys, Rumi’s words can be used to propagate unrealistic ideals of how romantic love is the magic key to personal fulfilment and happily ever after.

I’ve certainly been swept up in these sentimental pursuits, especially in my 20s. My upbringing combined Egyptian influences and North American popular culture (Hollywood and Disney included), particularly in the late-1980s and 90s, both of which dictated I needed to find love, get married and have children to be whole.

Measured against these standards, I was a failure. Before 25, I’d broken off two engagements, and for many years after that my love life was one long dry spell punctured by a handful of dates and a couple of agonizing encounters with unrequited love. A resentful inner critic insisted I was to blame, and that persistent hollowness in my core could only be filled with romantic love, which I felt I couldn’t be worthy of; I couldn’t get the part. Continue reading “Translating Love’s Confusion: Hollywood and Misreading Rumi”

Forgiving my reflection

Sufi stories and poetry often allude to mirrors. Not the ones that immediately come to mind which we look at each day to see the outer image we project to the world. Rather, they refer to inner reflections that enable us to see our true nature. Sometimes this happens when we encounter a different perspective of ourselves revealed in another person’s heart and, through this, come to better understand the presence of God within us.

The image I saw glaring back at me that evening a few weeks ago was one I quickly turned away from on account of its unpleasantness.

Candle's reflection, photo by Andreas Kusumahadi

Someone I cared for deeply, and who reciprocated this affection, spoke in anger and anguish of how they felt hurt by my actions. My instant reaction was to refute the criticisms outright to myself. I didn’t deserve these words, my injured ego protested. The comments delivered in fury simply could not be true since they were a far cry from the compassion, honesty and kindness I was striving to embody.

It’s at moments like this when I’m shaken by an interaction with a loved one, friend, colleague or even a stranger that I feel compelled to spend time in silent contemplation to reflect on the words that were exchanged and the events that unfolded.

In his poetry, Rumi describes how it is through the wound that the light of truth enters us. “Don’t turn your head,” he says in his Masnavi, an epic Sufi poem conveying a message of Divine love and unity. “Keep looking at that bandaged place.”

Unable to sleep, I tended to the agony inflicted on my heart into the early-morning hours. In the process, I dared to take another look at that mirror and examine it, this time peering back at myself through the eyes of my loved one. It was then, when I was focused and present, that I saw the glimmers of truth nestled within the harshness of the confrontation.
Continue reading “Forgiving my reflection”

Opening the door to surrender

Each time I open the door to leave my apartment, I recite three poignant yet simple Islamic phrases in a subtle whisper that’s only audible to me.

“Bismillah,” Arabic for “In the name of God,” I say in a quick breath as I rotate the lock to the right and grasp the door knob. I continue with “Tawakkul ‘ala Allah, “I place my complete trust and reliance in God,” as I step into the hallway and gently close the door. And “Laa Hawla Wa Laa Quwwata Il-la Bil-laah,” or “There is neither might nor power except with Allah,” glides along my tongue as I turn the key fasten the lock until, by God’s will, I return.

It takes about seven seconds to recite these lines before dashing to the elevator to rush to work, run an errand, attend a social gathering or take a trip to a grocery store. The words are modest for the richness and tremendous power they encompass when reflected upon. They embody the essence of surrendering to God, which is what Islam is principally about.

Open door, photo by Brad Montgomery

In the basic definition, a Muslim is one who consciously lives in a state of presence with the Divine. When the prefix `mu’ is attached to a verb of four or more letters in Arabic grammar, it changes the meaning from the action to the doer of that action. For example, the Arabic word “to teach” is “darris,” and a teacher, the one performing the act of instruction, is the “mudarris.”

A Muslim, then, is one who performs “slim,” or “surrender.” When I discovered this simple grammatical rule six years ago while studying my mother tongue for the first time in an academic setting, it provoked an understanding inside of me. I realized that to truly be Muslim rather than simply label myself such, I needed to really experiencesurrender to the Divine, and that meant God should be the focal point of my consciousness.

Continue reading “Opening the door to surrender”

The night of a thousand months

In the name of God, the Infinitely Compassionate, the Infinitely Merciful
We sent it (the Quran) down on the Night of Destiny
And what will make you comprehend what the Night of Destiny is?
The Night of Destiny is better than a thousand months
On that night, the angels and the Spirit come down by the permission of their Lord with His decrees for all matters
It is all peace till the break of dawn
(Quran, The Night of Destiny, Surah 97)

During Ramadan, my perceptions of time somehow become more magnified.

At the onset of the Islamic holy month, the 30 days of fasting that lie ahead look lengthy and daunting, especially now as they coincide with the Summer Solstice and many Muslims in the Northern Hemisphere refrain from food and drink for 18 hours or longer. Yet even as we endure some of longest days of fasting of our lifetimes, Ramadan has once again hurried by and I find myself embarking on the sprint through the final 10 days. As the finish line comes into view, I can’t help but wish that it was further afield to give me more time to extract spiritual benefits from the month.

laylat al qadr foto
Mosque by moonlight, (Photo courtesy of Vicky TH)

With little room to scale back my working hours, I rely on evenings and weekends to dedicate more energy to prayer and reflection, Quranic readings, Sufi remembrance and meditation, and the giving of zakat, a redistribution of 2.5 percent of my wealth to the less fortunate. Carving out the hours needed for these acts of worship means I spend less time resting my head on my pillow and more on my prayer mat. 

There is something pliable about the passage of time while fasting. Every second and minute tends to become more palpable when I’m craving a 10 a.m. caffeine fix to get me through then next wave of conference calls and news story pitches, only to look up at the clock and realize there’s another 11 hours and 24 minutes until Iftar, the meal to break the fast at sunset.
Continue reading “The night of a thousand months”

Of Saints and Matchmakers

As I was growing up, Islam’s benevolent female saints existed in my imagination as otherworldly matchmakers.

Common features of my family’s infrequent summer holidays with relatives in Egypt were visits to mosques enclosing the shrines of Sayyida Zainab and Sayyida Nafisa, two descendants of the Prophet Muhammad who have come to be regarded as Cairo’s patron saints, may God grant them peace and blessings. My mother, often with her sisters who lived in smaller cities along the Suez Canal, would arrange mini pilgrimages to these grand Cairene mosques for a single purpose: to pray for suitable partners for their unmarried children.

SAYYIDAZAINABCAIRO
Female worshippers gather around Sayyida Zainab’s mausoleum in Cairo

Amidst weeps and whispers, they would gather around the mausoleums of these saints offering earnest prayers to rescue their single daughters and sons from the matrimonial side lines. From beyond the divide between this world and the next, these venerable women of faith would intimately identify with the anguish of being the mother of an unwed child and act as intermediaries with God in removing the obstacles blocking the perfect partner from springing forth – at least that was the hope of my female kin.

While my own memories of these visits are vague and likely layered by personal accounts relayed by my mother over the years, the urgency placed on marriage left me feeling perplexed. The more I found myself becoming the focal point of the prayers, the more frustrating and painful these pilgrimages became.

By my mid- and then late 20s, the cultural pressures to wed young and my inability to make it happen inadvertently alienated me from faith, and obscured my view of the spiritual significance and prowess of these female saints. My only encounters with them were a manifestation of socio-culture pressures that dictate a woman’s value lies solely in her success as a wife and mother, a line of thinking that left me jaded and confined rather than empowered by their presence. Continue reading “Of Saints and Matchmakers”

Seeking the Kaaba Within

I was fully aware that within seconds my body would be drawn into a mass of humanity unlike any other in the world. “Surrender to the experience,” I thought while stepping into the overflowing main courtyard surrounding the Kaaba. The barriers that divide us in our daily lives are lifted here at the seat of the holiest site of Islam.

No honorary titles or entitlements have worth or function, there’s no distinguishing based on whether you are a woman or man, whether your income bracket is high or low. Rather, the bracketing qualities that contain us outside–our nationality, ethnicity, age, or skin tone–are shed at the door. Wherever our outward journeys have started, we all walk barefoot inward into a single circle, devoid of these unnecessary parenthesis appended to our identities.

“The goal of all is the same” no matter what road we took to get here or what quarrels we fought on the way, Rumi writes in Fihi Ma Fihi, It is What It is.

kaaba-night

We are both universal and singular, each worshipper an equal soul before the Creator of all humankind and all being. Here we consciously move together in a unified mass, circling seven times around this stone cube as our prophets, peace and blessings be upon them, and our predecessors have for centuries. It’s become a timeless procession connecting us to the scattered cosmos. With the right kind of openness, the pilgrimage is a truly humbling, enchanting and purifying act of dedication to God, The Gracious One.

The ritual starts at the eastern corner, where the Black Stone is situated, a stone that Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessing be upon him, said was blackened by the sins of humankind after descending from heaven as white as milk. I’ve certainly swerved from the path since I was last graced by the opportunity to visit the Holy City five years ago. My soul yearns now for nourishment as I circle the four corners of the central cube draped in black.

I yield my body to the crowd that surrounds me in every direction, letting it move my limbs. I’m here for my soul, after all, and as we give thanks and make prayers to the Infinitely Compassionate One, drawing our attention to the Kaaba as birds circle above us, I concede any claim to the personal space that I normally protect.

Sometimes I find my body being drawn inward with an uncontrollable force, and it is suddenly so close to the edge of the Kaaba I can almost touch it.
Continue reading “Seeking the Kaaba Within”

Between 33 Beads

My glossy burgundy subha had been dangling there for weeks, unused, upon the embroidered cushion resting casually against the Malaysian wood chair in my living room.

The prayer beads were almost camouflaged as they nestled into a tawny-coloured pillow cover I purchased during a trip to Istanbul six years ago, the image of a traditional Turkish tunic woven upon it in numerous shades of brown, gold, red and grey.

It was almost camouflaged. But mostly just overlooked.

I knew it was there, after all, for that is where I always placed the subha once I’d finished with it following an early-morning or late-night period of worship. Gliding each of the 33 beads slowly and methodically along the string with my index finger and thumb, I would repeat some poignant devotion between each click of a bead: one of the 99 Glorious Names of God, or a Quranic verse, or a phrase of sufi remembrance, all in an earnest effort to draw my attention to the Divine.
prayer beads two.jpgYet supplications, as important as they are in maintaining a consistent state of peace of mind and presence in Islam, are all too often left to fall by the wayside as I get swept up in my life.

I find excuses for being too busy to do more than my daily prayers, and too distracted to remember that dhikr, a form of devotion involving repeated acts of remembrance recited silently or aloud, is just as important to sustaining a well-rounded spiritual routine.

For as many times as I may neglect them, though, those beads always lure me back, usually when a circumstance of life reminds me of my fragility.
Continue reading “Between 33 Beads”

Everything is a blessing

For the past four years, every time I open the door to leave my apartment, I’ve almost consistently recited three poignant yet simple Islamic phrases in a subtle whisper that’s only audible to me.

“Bismillah” (In the name of God), I say in a quick breath as I rotate the lock to the right and grasp the door nob. I continue with “Tawakkul ‘ala Allah” (I place my complete trust and reliance in God), as I step into the hallway and gently close the door. And “Laa Hawla Wa Laa Quwwata Il-la Bil-laah” (There is neither might nor power except with Allah) glides along my tongue as I turn the key fasten the lock until, by God’s will, I return.

It takes the whole of about seven seconds to recite these lines before dashing to the elevator to rush to work, run an errand, attend a social gathering or take a trip to a grocery store. The words are so simple for the richness and tremendous power they encompass when reflected upon.

They embody the essence of surrendering to God, which is what Islam is all about. When we say them, we are acknowledging that from the moment of utterance, we’re leaving it to the Gracious One to guide, protect and guard us. And by doing so, whatever happens during the course of the day becomes a reflection of that state of surrender, whether it is good or bad, easy or challenging, unpleasant or comforting, agonizing or healing.
Continue reading “Everything is a blessing”

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