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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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zikr

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”

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”

Sufi Healing and Embracing Pain

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.

Ya Qabid, the Constrictor

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.

Continue reading “Sufi Healing and Embracing Pain”

Nurturing Intimacy During Ramadan

It’s well after midnight and burning candles flicker in my dimly lit living room. Music hums quietly in the background, a love song carried through the vibrating cry of the reed flute. My head gently sways right to left to Oruç Güvenç’s sweet notes and we sit, me and my Beloved, at the table overlooking the night sky as London fades into a deep sleep. There’s a stillness outside and within.
No words are spoken as I gaze at my Beloved with longing, seeing and thinking of no one but Him. His Names are all around me, in the light of the candle, Ya Nur, the Essence of Luminosity. In the delicious scent of the yellow and pink roses in the vase next to me, Ya Latif, the Subtle One. In the love exploding in my heart, Ya Wadud, the Most Loving One.

After eating my suhour meal — a boiled egg and a small bowl greek yogurt with acacia honey and chia seeds — we move to the sofa. Not for a moment do I let go of his Handhold, so strong it will never give way.*

Unable to find words to express the depths of my yearning, I open at random pages of poetry drawn from the wells of masters. Who better than them can express the urgings of my heart.

First, from Mevlana Rumi, comes:

The real beloved is that one who is unique,
who is your beginning and your end
When you find that one,
you’ll no longer want anything else
(Masnavi III, 1418-19, translated by Camille and Kabir Helminski)

Then Yunus Emre chimes in:

You fall in love with Truth and begin to cry,
You become holy light inside and out,
Singing Allah Allah
(The Drop that Became the Sea, p. 72)


And Sheikh Abol-Hasan of Kharaqan offers:

Nothing pleases the Lord more than finding himself in the Lover’s heart
every time He looks there.
(The Soul and A Loaf of Bread, p. 61)

I read each verse, aloud or silently, to You, Ya Sami, the One Who Hears All. The goosebumps on my skin and underneath a visceral reminder that You are, as the Quran says, closer to me than my jugular vein.

Continue reading “Nurturing Intimacy During Ramadan”

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 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”

Spiritual Wisdom In A Treasure The Burglars Left Behind

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.

Broken glass
Shattered window, by Georg Slickers

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.

There was another motivation, though, for my spontaneous urge to shine the silver. I was seeking reassurance that the polish would work when up against years of neglect visible on the surface.
Continue reading “Spiritual Wisdom In A Treasure The Burglars Left Behind”

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”

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