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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”→
In the heap of objects strewn across the dining room floor, I spotted a sterling silver sugar bowl that was part of a four-piece tea set my mom bought about three decades ago to entertain guests. I picked up the bowl with one hand, while using the other to rummage through the pile of papers, cloth napkins, tupperware and cutlery scattered beneath my feet. I was curious whether the rest of the silverware was somewhere in the mess left by the burglars.
When I couldn’t find it there, I turned my head toward the tall oak buffet beside me, whose contents had mostly been dispersed onto the carpet. Nestled in the corner of one cabinet, the tea pot, tray and cream pitcher lay untouched.
The sight of them startled me. A thick layer of black film had formed on the surface of the silver, making it unrecognizable against the shimmering exterior in my memory. It was no wonder the burglars who ransacked our family home in Canada several weeks earlier had disregarded the ensemble as they hauled away several electronics, appliances and gadgets.
At that moment, a saying of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, crossed my mind. “There’s a polish for everything that takes away rust,” he said. “And the polish for the heart is the remembrance of God.”
That was perhaps the first time I’d considered this Hadith in a literal way. Acting on an impulse, I grabbed an old bottle of silver polish from the mess on the dining room floor and a soft sponge from under the kitchen sink, and started to vigorously rub the tea pot. I was determined to make it shine again like it did during my pre-teen years in Lethbridge and Calgary, when my mom would fill it with her favored Red Rose tea to serve to visitors alongside a slice of vanilla cake or syrup-drenched Egyptian basboosa.
Part of me was grateful for a distraction from the pangs of sadness I felt at seeing almost every corner of our four-bedroom family home turned upside down. After learning of the break in, my sister and I made the 10-hour plane journey from London to Vancouver to assess the damage. We found the contents and memorabilia contained in closets, cupboards and drawers sprawled over our maroon-colored carpets.
Yet I wasn’t mourning stolen possessions. The home I’d lived in as a student, and visited almost every year since moving away after university, just felt different. During those first few nights, each creak of the walls and squeak of the furnace would cause a stir inside me. I envisioned we were on the verge of another invasion of our privacy.
So as I hunched over the counter top removing years of residue from the silverware, part of me was nursing feelings of guilt for failing to safeguard our family sanctuary. We’d made it easy for the robbers, who shattered the window next to the front door and let themselves in when no one was in town.
Turning on a tune by Egyptian legend Abdel Halim Hafez, my sister Mandy handed her iPod to Uncle Hoda and gestured him to place the headphones over his ears. Seconds later, an expression combining astonishment and glee came over his face while listening to a melody that must have taken him back at least three decades. Our uncle laughed and sang along to the words of “Gana El Hawa, the Love Came to Us,” while swaying his head from side to side, fully mesmerized in enjoyment of the moment.
If there’s anything that I will always treasure about my Uncle Hoda, who passed away last month following a battle with cancer, God bless his soul, it is that he was among only a small number of people that I’ve encountered who lived for the present.
I imagine it was Uncle Hoda’s deep connection with God that enabled him to embody this state of being. He spoke with great reverence of the Divine, and the love that sprang from that bond was contagious. Positivity and optimism radiated from him; whenever he entered a room, it was with the lightness and calmness of a person who was content with the joys and patient with the challenges of his life.
As my two sisters and I reminisced in our Whatsapp chat room about our beloved maternal uncle in the days following his passing, we alternated between tears and laughter. I was struck at how profoundly he had affected each of us, given we lived far apart most of our lives, Uncle Hoda in Egypt and us in a scattering of cities around North America, the Arabian Gulf and Europe.
It was joyous to reunite with our uncle during summer holidays, the distresses of our childhood dissolving away in his playful presence. He was consistently ready to offer a smile, which would make his small eyes almost disappear beneath his bushy eyebrows. Whether he was getting us to hum and sing along to the latest Egyptian pop song or sending us into an endless round of giggles during an afternoon drive around Cairo by swerving his car to the right and left in a zigzag pattern, Uncle Hoda always made us feel like the centre of his attention.
As I got older, the ease with which our beloved uncle yielded to the flow of life was deeply inspiring for my spiritual journey. He would constantly seek divert attention away from himself to calm the often-frayed nerves of his siblings.
When a car accident took our beloved uncle to within a hair’s breadth of death 16 years ago, I remember how on emerging from his coma, Uncle Hoda would downplay his pain to calm his rattled and restless sisters. Even as he battled the painful side effects of treatments for pancreatic cancer this summer, our uncle tried to reassure our worried mom that the symptoms were bearable and he was infinitely content with whatever God willed.
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.