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.
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.
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”→
He smiled at me, revealing a row of impeccable pearly white teeth. I’m not normally moved by a grin to stop in my tracks, but on this occasion a saying of the Prophet Muhammad, God grant him peace and blessings, flashed in my mind on how smiling at a fellow human being is an act of charity.
Since stumbling on this Hadith several years ago, I’ve become more receptive to how I share and respond to the simple gestures of kindness I encounter. In that moment, the young man’s vibrant smile and welcoming demeanour felt like a gift that I should acknowledge.
So I stopped, and we briefly exchanged niceties about how wonderful it was to be outside on an especially sunny August afternoon in London. He was a street fundraiser and I had willingly entered his open-air office, the door quickly closing behind me.
I imagined this gentleman, whose name I soon learned was Dale, spent much of that afternoon on the busy intersection in London’s financial district, trying to attract the attention of the streams of well-paid professionals leaving their offices, in hopes a handful of us would agree to donate to a cause that would no doubt be a worthy one.
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.
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.
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.
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”→
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.
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”→
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.