ACCEPTING ONE’S CHOICES:
SUFIC ISLAM, A LIFE CHANGING EXPERIENCE
By Shaykh Ahmed Abdur Rashid
Bismillâh, Alhamdulillâh Allâhumma salli wa sallim alâ sayyidinâ Muhammadin, wa alâ âlihi wa sahbih
Introduction: Sufic Islam’s Potential to Heal Cultural/Ethnic Conflicts
Fourteen hundred and twenty years ago (by the Islamic calendar), two tribes of Arabia were locked in civil war. Centuries of living side by side had failed to integrate their blood-lines; on the contrary, feuds had multiplied. Then, remarkably, they heard about a man who taught a new way of thinking: a man who had erased the lines between clan and clan, slave and master, black and white, rich and poor, calling all to equality in the name of one God. A small group of visionary men and women of both clans approached this man to see if he would consider emigrating to their area to bring peace to their warring peoples. He agreed.
With that emigration, the city now known as “Medina” emerged from the ashes of age-old violence-and Islam, under attack from tribal factions in its place of origin, finally came into its own as a way of life that transcends all differences of ethnicity.
Fourteen centuries later, where do we stand? What are we to make of the ethnic violence among Hutus and Tutsis? West Bank Palestinians and Israeli settlers? Northern Irish Catholics and Protestants? Serbians and Kosovars?
The theme of this symposium is self-discovery. Clearly, “self” can be understood in different ways. From the time of the Prophet Muhammad (s.alla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) until today, some people have held images of self that engender fragmentation, self-centeredness, ethnocentricity, and conflict. Others-including the Prophet (s.alla-llaahu alayhi wa sallam)-have understood the self in ways that transcend cultural limitations. This is the understanding of self that reconciled the clans of Medina. This is the understanding of self that can heal the conflicts in our world today. This is the understanding of self that comes through the path of Sufic Islam.
Peace, equity, co-existence, tolerance, forgiveness, and partnership are fundamental principles of Islam. Allah Subh.aanahu wa t’a alaa tells us in the Holy Qur’an:
Yaa ayyuha-l-ladhiina aamanuu laa ta’kuluu amwaalakum bainakum bil baat.ili illaa antakuuna tijaaratan can taraad.im minkum, wa laa taqtuluu anfusakum, innallaaha kaana bikum rah.imaa
O ye who believe! Do not eat up your property among yourselves in vanities: but let there be amongst you traffic and trade by mutual good-will: nor kill [or destroy] yourselves, for verily God hath been to you Most Merciful (4:29).
Innama-s-sabiilu alalladhiina yad.hlimuuna-n-naasa wa yabghuuna fil-ard.i bighairi-l-haq: ulaa’ika lahum adhaabun aliim. Wa laman s.abara wa ghafara inna dhaalika lamin azmil umuur
The blame is only against those who oppress people with wrong doing and insolently transgress beyond bounds through[out] the land, defying right and justice: for such there will be a grievous penalty. But indeed if any show patience and forgive, that would truly be an exercise of courageous will and resolution in the conduct of affairs (42:42-3).
Wa in janah.uu li-s-salmi fajnah. lahaa wa tawakkal ‘ala-llaah.
And if [your enemies] incline to peace, incline thou also to it, and trust in Allah… (8:61).
The Sufis have refined the means of attaining to and sustaining these principles in our lives here and hereafter. If more people were practicing Islam and Sufism, the world would not be in the miserable state it is in today.
Redefining Terms / Redefining Our Lives
There is no lack of people who call themselves “Muslim” and “Sufi.” But identifying oneself as “Muslim” or “Sufi” does not guarantee that one is understanding, let alone practicing, Tasawwuf and Islam. One may equally well be trying to make Tasawwuf and Islam fit one’s own definitions, or “pouring the ocean into a cup.” Perhaps a cup of ocean is better than no ocean at all, but just think how much more is gained by experiencing the real thing!
Newcomers to Sufic Islam in the West often assume that they can understand Tasawwuf in intellectual or psychological terms. Moreover, like most novices eagerly venturing into unknown territory, they may be too quick to assume that they already have the tools needed for the journey.
For example, every English speaking adult can define the terms “trust,” “faith,” “belief,” “submission,” “duty,” and “responsibility.” Yet, all these terms change their meanings as we pursue knowledge. To plumb the realms of self-discovery, the seeker has to embrace this process of change.
The terms “Tasawwuf ” and “Islam” are among the first that need to be re-defined in many seekers’ vocabularies. Basic misunderstandings of both terms have led some people to think that they can define them independently. In fact, there is no Tasawwuf without Islam. What is Islam? In Arabic, the word means “to affirm peace, safety, and security; to be unimpaired, faultless, certain, and established; to submit and hand oneself over to a higher power.” What is Tasawwuf? It is the process of developing and refining the character of an individual for the sole purpose of perfecting the worship, service, and trust of Allah (swt) and, as a result, creating a more balanced and harmonious world for today and future generations, as well as creating our place and role in the hereafter. Once one grasps these definitions of the terms, one clearly recognizes that Islam and Tasawwuf are inseparable.
Integrating new or broader meanings (such as those I have just given) equips the seeker to comprehend greater subtleties of self-discovery. Two stages are involved, requiring different levels of development and spiritual commitment. First, we understand new definitions conceptually; next comes the more challenging task of accepting them.
In the Holy Qur’an, Allah (Subh.aanahu wa t’a ‘alaa) comments on those people who,
Wa la’in sa’altahum man khalaqa-s-samaawaati wa-l-ard.a wa sakh-khara-sh-shamsa wa-l-qamara layaquulunnal-laahu fa’annaa yu’fakuun. Wa la’in sa’altahum man nazzala mina-s-samaa’i maa’an fa’ah.yaa bihi-l-ard.a min b’ di mautihaa la-yaquulunnallaah. Quli-l-h.amdu lillaah. Bal aktharuhum laa y’qiluun. Wa maa haadhiihil hayaatu-d-dunyaa illaa lahwunw wa l’ib wa innad. Daara-l-aakhirata lahiyal h.ayawaan lau kaanuu y’lamuun
…if you were to ask them, “Who created the heavens and the earth, and constrained the sun and the moon [to their appointed work]?” they would say, “God.” How, then, are they turned away?…And thus it is: if you ask them, “Who is it that sends down water from the skies, giving life thereby to the earth after it had been lifeless?”-they will surely answer, “God.” Say: “[Since this is so,] all praise is due to God [alone]!” But most of them will not use their reason: for, [if they did, they would know that] the life of this world is nothing but a passing delight and a play-whereas, behold, the life in the hereafter is indeed the only [true] life: if they but knew this! (29:61, 63-64)
To change our definitions means changing not only the way we speak and interpret others’ speech, but the way we think. Ultimately, it means redefining the context in which we live our lives. It means redefining the very terms of our existence. This takes contentment, confidence, and courage. The Prophet Musa prayed,
Rabbi-shrah. li s.adri. Wa yassir li amri. Wah.lul ‘qdatam mil lisaani. Yafqahuu qauli.
O my Lord, open for me my chest [grant me self confidence, contentment, and boldness], and ease my task for me, and loose the knot [defect] from my tongue, …that they may understand my speech…(Qur’an 20:25 28).
Those who are drawn to the spiritual path feel inwardly compelled toward a deeper understanding of self, and thus of Allah’s creation and purpose for us. The Prophet Muhammad (s.alla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) stated:
Man ‘rafa nafsahu, faqad ‘rafa rabbahu
Know yourself and you will know your Lord.
In coming to know ourselves, our selves are transformed. At a certain point in the journey, each of us must accept that our choice to travel the path of Tasawwuf is life changing. This choice eventually alters every aspect of our thinking, feeling, sensing, reasoning, and planning. It changes each of us so drastically that sooner or later, we find ourselves reflecting back on who we used to be, and hardly recognizing that person.
Some seekers find the prospect of major life changes threatening. They postpone them for as long as possible. They may go through the external changes, but put off the internal ones. Or, they are receptive to internal changes, but deny the need to make external ones. Most often, they reluctantly accept the necessity of guidance, but resist the multiple levels of trust required to understand the comprehensiveness of Islam.
At the opposite end of the spectrum are those who desire life-changing experiences too much. They declare anything that is spiritually-charged to be “life-changing,” and go out collecting such experiences, as long as those experiences support their self-image and provide ample emotional and ego stimulation.
Self-discovery requires overcoming both fearful and over-eager reactions to life-altering experiences. Resisting change out of fear, or chasing change because it feels good, keeps one in the mode of “I want, I need, I can, I can’t.” To make progress, one must relate to “I” in a different way. One must start to seriously consider the questions, “Who am I? What am I? Where am I? And why am I?”-and to align one’s answers with the choice to pursue this Path.
In the Qur’an Allah (Subh.aanahu wa t’alaa) contrasts two types of people:
Wa mina-n-naasi many-y’jibuka qauluhuu fil h.ayaati-d-dunyaa wa yush-hidu-l-laaha ‘laa maa fi qalbihi, wa huwa aladdul khis.aam. Wa idhaa tawallaa s’aa fi-l-ard.i li-yufsida fihaa wa yuhlikal h.artha wan nasla, wa-l-laahu laa yuh.ibbu-l-fasaad. Wa mina-n-naasi many yashri nafsa-hub-tigaa’a mard.aatillaahi, wallaahu ra’uufum bil-‘baad.
Now there is a kind of person whose views on the life of this world may please thee greatly, and [the more so as] he cites God as witness to what is in his heart and is, moreover, exceedingly skillful in argument. But whenever he prevails, he goes about the earth spreading corruption and destroying [humanity’s] tilth and progeny: and God does not love corruption….But there is [also] a kind of person who would willingly sell his own self in order to please God: and God is most compassionate towards His servants (2:204, 206).
Ask, “Who am I?” “I am a Muslim and an aspiring Sufi.” No; dive deeper. “Who am I, as an aspiring Sufi and as one who identifies himself or herself as a Muslim? Where am I in this process? What are the implications and responsibilities of this identity?”
Ask yourself, “Where am I?” The answer is not just, “At the Sufism Symposium.” Nor is the answer simply, “I am on the path of Sufism” or “I am a Muslim.” If that is the extent of your response, you are avoiding the active aspect of your life journey and avoiding many inner and outer commitments that are necessary for real progress.
It is not enough to ask, “What am I?” “I am a teacher…a therapist…a parent…a doctor….” Go further: “What kind of a teacher? What kind of a parent?” Are you one who exemplifies a clear and specific value system, beyond self-interest? Are you a sincere and humble seeker of Truth, wherever it may take you inside and outside your “self”? Are you willing to own that identity, and not just your image of it? Are you ready to understand and accept unequivocally what it gives to you and demands of you, as a partisan of Allah (Subh.aanahu wa t’alaa)
The questions do not stop here. As we meet, people elsewhere in the world are fleeing “ethnic cleansing,” starving, wandering homeless. Each of us must ask, “What part of history am I in? Where am I standing in the universe as a Muslim in the truest sense of the word?” Then, turning our attention back to this Symposium and to all our other day-to-day circumstances, we must reflect, “Who am I in this specific situation, and what is my relationship to others of like name and identity, as well as to the rest of humanity who are my fellow beings, created and sustained by Allah (Subh.aanahu wa ta’alaa)?”
Self-Referencing or Allah-Referencing?
Although these questions sound psychologically-based, for the sufi aspirant, they come from a spiritual yearning and paradigm. Therefore, the answers lead to different kinds of realizations and transformations. (Please note that I use the word “psychological” in its most common sense (referring to the secular science of mental processes, behaviors, and emotions), rather than in its philosophical sense.)
There is little possibility that a psychological approach to self-discovery will yield deep spiritual awareness, although spiritual understanding does result in deep personal awareness of one’s psychological nature. The person of spiritual insight sees no need to reconcile spirituality with secularism, or a self-centered paradigm with a paradigm which is centered on Allah and our responsibility to Allah (Subh.aanahu wa t’ alaa) and the purpose of His creation. For Allah (Subh.aanahu wa t’ alaa) guides us in the Holy Qur’an:
Wa maa khalaqtu-l-jinna wal insa illaa lily’buduun.
And I have not created the jinn and human beings to any end other than that they may [know and] worship Me (51:56).
To increase the seeker’s attunement to this Divine purpose, the Shaykh guides him or her to refine subtle centers of perception (which we call the latayf and which have many dimensions to them, too complicated to explore in this talk1 ). The awakening of the latayf makes possible degrees of self-discovery that are inaccessible by any other means.
People seek out psychological counseling in hopes of becoming more self-aware, improving their relationships, understanding the circumstances of life, learning to feel good about themselves. From the point of view of the Sufi, these goals are secondary to the purpose of human life. Indeed, their fulfillment is a natural consequence of sincere effort and faith. But they are not meant to be the focus of the spiritual journey.
The real spiritual journey is designed to catapult us out of incessant self-referencing. It is to free us from self-absorption so that we might praise and serve Allah (Subh.aanahu wa t’ alaa) and create a better environment for future generations to do the same. Allah’s (Subh.aanahu wa t’ alaa) favorite name is ‘bd Allah,” meaning “servant of Allah.” Through Tasawwuf, every one of us may transform our self into a’bd Allah.
The Dynamic Nature of Nafs
What is this self that we are seeking to transform?
Nafs the Arabic word for “self,” connotes “soul, psyche, or spirit.” It is also defined as “a living creature, a human being”; as “the essence or nature”; as “inclination or desire.” Nafs is derived from the same root as nafusa, meaning “to be valuable, precious.” Related verbs mean “to compete or strive” and “to breathe.” Nifas means “childbirth.” Nafas means “freedom or liberty.”
So, then, we can say that Nafs is the dynamic force which is breathed into the physical body at childbirth. It is the precious essence that differentiates the living from the dead. It is deeply connected to a sense of liberty and freedom.
As you listen to me and others speaking at the Symposium, you might find it interesting to plug in different meanings of Nafs. When I talk about personal identity, for example, you could substitute the word “essence.” As people refer to “essence,” you could put in the word “self.” If I mention what the self is inclined toward, you might recall that “inclination” is a definition of self.
Striving, competing, breathing, giving birth: clearly, the self that we are trying to discover not only exists, but is active. It is moving, evolving. It has traveled from ghaib (the unseen) to dunya (the material world), and it will return again to ghaib. In the course of its journey, it rarely stays still for long.
Do you aspire to be a better person? Are there aspects of your character that you would like to improve? Do you long for greater clarity?
Why would we have these feelings, unless our Nafs inclines towards and has the ability to change? Our selves can be changed. In fact, they are changing right now, right before our very eyes.
What are we changing into? What should we be changing into? The answer is A’bd Allah.
From Nafs to A’bd: Fulfilling the Human Design to Serve and Worship
A’bd is commonly defined as “servant” or “slave,” most frequently in the context of serving Allah. But it also may mean “human being.” By definition, human beings are servants and slaves of the Divine.
The verbs based on the root letters of A’bd indicate the type of servants we are to be. A’bada means “to worship, to venerate, to adore.” Human beings are constructed not just to serve, but to be servants who worship, venerate, and adore.
Where are we to worship, serve, and venerate? In the ma’bad: the “place of worship or house of God.” Remember, ma’bad comes from the same root as a’bd (human being). Allah (Subh.aanahu wa ta’ alaa) says in the Qur’an,
Nah.nu aqrabu ilaihi min h.ablil wariid.
I am as near to you as your jugular vein. (50:16)
Where is this house of God? Here, in us, in human beings. It is not where we pray. It is where we pray: in ourselves. For this reason, Muslims may pray anywhere-in a house, under a tree, in a car, in an airplane-because we carry our house of worship with us.
However, if one’s house is filled with ego and self-importance, then no matter where one is, one has no space to serve the Divine. A portion of the Qur’anic verse that Muslims most frequently repeat in prayer states,
Iyyaaka na’budu wa iyyaaka nasta’iin…
You alone we worship; You alone we ask for help (1:5).
How often, when we pray, do our thoughts remain concentrated on our own selves? What happens when we turn our full attention towards the Truth, and really live “You alone we worship”?
We begin to fulfill that which Allah (Subh.aanahu wa t’alaa) has designed us to do. We are transformed from physically-oriented beings to limitless seekers of our origins.
Until that time, we struggle with the self in every situation, instead of being ourselves: humane beings, seekers, and Muslims in the true meaning of the term. When we can be ourselves in every situation, we will no longer struggle with ourselves.
This is the life-altering change that results from accepting the choice to pursue the Path of Tasawwuf. This is a deeper meaning of “submission” in Islam: to perfect our humanness as servants, worshipers, and lovers of Allah (Subh.aanahu wa t’ alaa); to become who we can be.
Afaman sharah.a-l-laahu s.adrahuu lil islaami fahuwa a’laa nuurim-mir-rabbih?
Could, then, one whose bosom God has opened wide with willingness towards self-surrender unto Him, so that he is illumined by a light [that flows] from his Sustainer, [be likened to the blind and deaf of heart]? (39:22)
This illumination through the surrendering of one’s self is the reciprocal of the creative intention of Allah (Subh.aanahu wa t’alaa) that gave us life-kun fayakun (“be and it became”).
The Organism of Humanity
Kun fayakun is the link that binds all human beings, beyond differences of culture and ethnicity. Just as one egg, when fertilized, grows into a single organism, so too Allah’s (Subh.aanahu wa t’alaa) intention created a unified organism. This organism is humanity. We are all cells of the same body.
On an individual level, if one part of your body gets wounded or infected, your whole body responds. You respond emotionally; you call a doctor; you try this or that medicine. You respond physiologically: your immune system sends corpuscles to fight infection and promote healing.
Our natural state is to resist disease and destructive forces. Our immune system is the physical analog to our latayf: that is, it is the recipient on the physical level of the transmissions of the intent (niyyah) of our Creator so that our body can and will serve well our spiritual purpose. But we must make choices to bring harmony between our inner self and our outer circumstances; to create a developed, balanced, harmonious life and spiritual center for the worship (a’baada), praise (hamd), and glorification (subhaana) of Allah (Subh.aanahu wa t’alaa)- in a sustainable and harmonious way.
On a global level, the average person neither perceives nor responds to humanity as an organism. He or she regards himself or herself as a separate entity, connected only loosely (if at all) to “those other people over there.” Humanity’s immune system has been suppressed for so long that when one part of the body is engulfed in crisis, the other parts either fail to notice or are too paralyzed to respond. The blood vessels are clogged; the synapses are not striking.
Re-activating our Capacity to Respond
Mevlana Jalaludin Rumi wrote, “It is through necessity that the means of perception are developed. Therefore, O man, increase your necessity.”
Necessity has a way of increasing itself if we do not take the initiative. We are all too familiar with the pattern: human rights violations occur in one part of the world. The rest of the world turns a blind eye. The violations escalate. Other nations still fail to respond. Finally, the violations reach such proportions that other societies are compelled to respond, if only for self-interest or protection. Necessity has refined humanity’s organs of perception: the world wakes up and takes action. But by now, the genocide, war, or devastation has spread like an untreated infection. Far stronger measures are needed to stop it than might have been required at an earlier stage.
How can we increase our necessity sooner? How can we wake up before nightmares of human bloodshed jolt us to consciousness? We have to see the necessity of “those other people” to be our necessity. We have to not block our innate sense of interconnectedness. Look at the refugees streaming across our television screens, the children starving in Iraq, the victims of riots in Indonesia. Look at the faces of the people-look at their eyes-and get upset. That may be one of the last tools we have before we stop caring altogether.
Perhaps some of us feel that our burdens are so great we cannot possibly take on another’s weight. But just think: if our bodies operated that way, we would all have died from the first infection we ever got!
Levels of Response, from Long-Distance to Right at Home
According to a Hadith:
Allah will ask on the Day of Awakening, “O child of Adam, I fell ill and you did not visit Me.” He will reply, “O my Lord! How could I have visited Thee when Thou are the Lord of all the worlds?” Allah will say, “Did you not know that so and so among My servants was sick, but you did not visit him? And did you not know that if you had visited him, you would surely have found Me with him?”
Again, Allah will say, “O child of Adam, I asked for food from you, but you did not give Me food.” He will reply, “O my Lord! How could I have fed Thee, when Thou are the Lord of all the worlds?” Allah will say, “Did you not know that so and so of My servants asked you for food, but you did not feed him? Did you not know, that if you had fed him, you would surely have found Me with him?” …(Karim 274-275).
As we come to recognize the inextricable bonds between our individual selves, our fellow human beings, and the Divine, we cannot not respond. The question then becomes, how? On a personal level, the options seem to fall into two categories. We can offer long-distance support, sending money or other items to organizations who are directly assisting those in need. Or, we can offer hands-on aid, volunteering our skills and energies in places like Macedonia, Kosovo, Bosnia, and Rwanda.
Both venues are essential. Both express and reinforce our understanding that all human beings are cells of the same organism. Both reflect the guidance of the Qur’an and the Sunnah of Nebi Muhammad (s.alla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam). Obviously, giving hands-on aid requires a greater investment of ourselves. Writing a check is not the same as handing out bags of rice, carrying water, hauling beds to makeshift infirmaries, working for days without sleep.
But an even greater investment of self is necessary if one wants to end the kinds of tragic situations that the world suffers from today. To bring lasting resolution and healing, one has to do all that-and more. One has to engage in tarbiyya: spiritual education and the gaining of knowledge.
The processes of Tasawwuf-that is, the processes whereby the Shaykh guides the seeker to become an A’bd Allah-send transmissions to the global society. If we give the time and make the effort; if we are sincere about our prayers, meditation, and our love for humanity; if we are self-sacrificing without any caveats or back-pocket excuses, we can develop potential within us that can transform ourselves and our communities, and thereby become a powerful spiritual magnetic force that sends out a vibration to humanity. People who are in tune with it will resonate with it, like a male moth who, as soon as he detects one pheremone of scent from a female moth ten miles away, turns around and immediately flies towards her. If we can become one-pointed enough to overcome the destructive tendency to be eclectic and never satisfied, if we can accept what our role and duty is, we will pick up the scent (dhawq) the inclination, the responsiveness, and head towards the source. If enough people do that, it can send out a transmission that will change the direction of humanity.
We have no trouble recognizing the negative effects of products that are corrupting, destructive, and disunifying: the mass market toys, video games, television shows, and so on. Nor do we doubt the power of the intentions of manufacturers and media moguls, who sell people what they want to buy, while simultaneously shaping their preferences through the products and images being sold to them. If we so readily acknowledge the power of greed, how can we doubt that efforts based on compassion, mercy, forgiveness, tolerance, patience, understanding, and service to one’s brothers and sisters (whether or not they are our friends or allies) can shift the paradigms of the world?
Our prayers and intentions do make a difference. Even more importantly, our thoughts and actions make a difference. If you say a kind word to someone here, then a border guard says a kind word to someone passing through the border, or refrains from shooting someone.
Realizing that “My Way of Being has Global Impacts”
You can believe this because you think spiritual people are supposed to believe such things, or you can believe it based on experience. I recommend the latter.
Islam evokes from us the experience and the active responsibilities that are necessary for the transformation of self and society. One experiences the non-local effects of one’s prayers, actions, and intentions through meditation.3 Our Shuyukh speak of the necessity of “adding spirituality to your Islam.” By this they refer to the absolute necessity of adding muraqabah (meditation, contemplation) and dhikr (remembrance) to the standard Islamic practices of Qur’an reading and daily prayers. The Prophet himself (s.alla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) set the example for these voluntary expressions of love for the Divine, doing prolonged prayers and other forms of meditation that are extensions of the prescribed practices of Islam.
When one sits in meditation and does dhikr for long periods of time with all sincerity, one comes to perceive reality in a different way, a way that is more accurate, more spiritual, and more in tune with recent developments in science. Scientists have found evidence of non-local experiences. But most of us were trained in the old paradigm of linear and reductionist science. This has a profound effect on how we think about social and spiritual issues. If we had been taught from childhood that our thoughts and actions have profound effects outside our small circle of friends and family, we would act and think in different ways today.
One cannot redo one’s childhood education. But, through proven methods, one can change one’s mindset now. Meditation and contemplation bring to consciousness one’s cellular intuition of the interconnectedness of humanity. It enables one to experience the reality that everything one does, everything one thinks, and everything one says has far-reaching effects.
If the terms of one’s life have not changed before one reaches this stage in meditation, they definitely change afterwards. One realizes that the choice to commit to a spiritual path entails refining the self until one’s deeds, thoughts, and words have only constructive effects.
Life Changing Experiences that can Change the World -(i.e., Suggestions/Methods for Refinement)
In the last few minutes of my talk, let me offer some brief suggestions for how to refine the self. My first suggestion pertains to love.
Suggestion/Method #1: Cultivate Love for the Divine
The inborn instinct of the human being is to love the Supreme, the Absolute, the beauty and perfection of Allah. Unfortunately, love of the material world blocks this inherent attraction. Meditation alone rends the veil between dunya and ghaib, between the physical world and the non-physical reality. The deeper and longer one meditates, the closer one comes to perfect consciousness of the presence of the Divine.
The Shuyukh say, “Humans fall in love, and in spirituality, we rise in love.” In the rapture of spiritual love, we realize that Allah (Subh.aanahu wa t’alaa) alone is the Doer, the Owner, the One Who Controls. What, then, is our relationship with Allah’s (Subh.aanahu wa t’alaa) creation? It must be one of loving it. What else is there? If I do not own it or control it, and I am enthusiastically working for the One who does, the only relationship I could possibly have is love.
Such love liberates our minds and hearts from the illusion of self-importance. It moves us from the complacency born of our prosperity, safety, and security to activism based on the responsibility that comes with prosperity, safety, and security.
The flame of love for Allah (Subh.aanahu wa t’alaa) is kindled through meditation, remembrance, and the reading of Qur’an. Once lit, it must continue to be stoked by these same practices. This brings me to my second suggestion.
Suggestion/Method #2:Commitment Moment to Moment
Allah (Subh.aanahu wa t’alaa) tells us in the Holy Qur’an:
Ah.asiba-n-naasu any-yutrakuu any-yaquuluu aamannaa wa hum laa yuftanuun?
Do people imagine that they will be left [at ease] because they say, “We believe,” and will not be tested with affliction? (29:2)
Wa mina-n-naasi man-y-ya’budu-l-laaha a’laa h.arf fa’in as.aabahuu khairu-nit.ma’anna bih wa’in as.aabat-hu fitnatu-ninqalaba a’laa wajhih khasira-d-dunyaa wal aakhirah dhaalika huwal khusraanu-l-mubiin.
And there is, too, among people many a one who worships God on the border-line [of faith]: thus, if good befalls him, he is satisfied with Allah; but if a trial assails him, he turns away utterly, losing [thereby both] this world and the life to come…(22:11).
You do not just love God once and then you are a Sufi. You do not just believe once and from that time on, you are a believer. You believe, and then the test and trial comes, and still you believe. Then the test and trial comes again, and you believe.
How do you not run out of belief? By maintaining your muraqabaha, dhikr, and study of Qur’an. These are the doorways to la haula wala quwatta illaa billaahi-l-‘Aliyyu-l-‘Azim (“there is no strength nor power but in Allah, the Most Powerful, the Almighty”). Through these means, one gains patience and steadfastness (sabr), and one’s tests and trials become merely the polishing of the heart.
Suggestion/Method #3: Dive into the Creative Possibilities of Islam, Within the Parameters of Shariah
I realize that “the creative possibilities of Islam” may strike some people as a contradiction in terms, and that mention of “the parameters of Shariah” may evoke fears of the kind of stultifying dogma that many have turned to Sufism to escape.
But Islam is not meant to be upheld by narrow-minded authorities, not does it restrict creativity, access to information, or dialogue. Allah (Subh.aanahu wa t’alaa) instructs us in the Holy Qur’an:
Fabash-shir a’baad. Alladhiina yastamia’una-l-qaula fayattabia’una ah.sanah ulaa’ikal-ladhiina hadaahumu-l-laahu wa ulaa ika hum ululalbaab.
Give, then, this glad tiding to [those of] My servants who listen [closely] to all that is said, and follow the best of it: [for] it is they whom God has graced with His guidance, and it is they who are [truly] endowed with insight! (39:17-18)
Maa ja’ala ‘alaykum fi-d-diini min h.araj.
…[Allah] has laid no hardship on you in [anything that pertains to] religion…(22:78).
Therefore, one need not fear, reject, or try to universalize Islam, or attempt to de-Islamicize Sufism.
Historically, authoritarian structures and restrictions have been imposed in the name of Islam on certain people and societies, creating negative impressions of Islam among Muslims and non-Muslims alike. But why should educated individuals remain passive victims of these stereotypes, and why should they be rejectionist? Those who fail to see Islam as a dynamic and organic process are not doing the things that will illuminate their Islam. They are not studying Qur’an and Hadith, they are not meditating, they are not making dhikr, and they are not placing others before themselves.
Studying and absorbing a set of values-based guidelines frees us from habituated patterns and expands our tools for self-discovery. Indeed, by experiencing Islam in its essence, we can generate new energy, new outlooks, new ideas, new institutions and discoveries that can and will revitalize our global civilization. Those who are drawn towards Sufism but reject the prayer, zakat (charity), fasting, or pilgrimage will never know this potential. Those who accept Shariah will progressively discover its meaning and benefit from its transforming power.
This brings me to my fourth and final suggestion.
Suggestion/Method #4: Humble Oneself Through Supplication
Let me share with you an excerpt from a prayer known as Du’a Kumayl.
O Allah, my Master, many a fault You have overlooked. Many a hardship You have mitigated. Many an error You have prevented. Many an ordeal You have averted, and my beautiful praise, [which] I did not deserve, you have made known. O Allah, worst is my distress; intense is my discomfort; few are my virtues; chains pull me down. My far-fetched desires keep me from my gains. I have been deceived by the wily world and by my dishonest, unwary self. …O my God, guilty of acts of omission and commission against my own self, I have come to You, and I stand before You, apologetic, repentant, humble and debased, asking mercy, confessing my sins, confiding in You, disclosing my faults.
We live in a world where that type of prayer is considered unacceptable, because it seems to be self-deprecating. As people have turned away from religion and toward a populist/modernist, self-referencing, self-aggrandizing, and psychologically-oriented lifestyle, they have lost understanding of the positivity of acknowledging one’s sins and imploring forgiveness. Even the terms “sin” and “imploring” are dismissed as mindless litany. How does one get beyond one’s reactions, and, in so doing, allow oneself to experience the beneficence and generosity of the Creator, the Compassionate, the Merciful-Allah (Subh.aanahu wa t’alaa) ? One must recognize the pollutants of the world around us; acknowledge one’s conditioning, past, limited definitions, prejudices, and developmental handicaps; and see the need to constantly cleanse ourselves. Dependence on Allah (Subh.aanahu wa t’alaa) is not demeaning, but clarifying and purifying.
The du’a continues:
If you put me away with Your enemies, join me with the condemned and separate me from Your adorers and friends, then suppose, O my God, my Chief, my Master, my Lord, that I may patiently bear with Your punishment. But how will I put up with Your separation? I may hold on patiently to the burning heat of the fire, but how will I endure the painful deprivation of not beholding Your clemency?
Many of us have been conditioned to recoil from and reject those images. But how can we not see the simplicity and sweetness, the purity and faith in such a supplication?
Contemplate the power of repentance as embodied in this du’a. The repentance expressed here is more than saying “I’m sorry” because one is expected to say it, or “I’m sorry” because one has a momentary bout of remorse. It is a heartfelt evaluation of self (muhasabatu-n-nafs) based on faith and submission. Such repentance brings one to a level of honesty that guarantees protection and security.
When Islam is understood, lived, presented, and experienced as the safe, secure, tolerant, and forgiving Truth that it is, progress towards breaking the cycle of revenge around the globe-as well as towards overcoming one’s own selfishness or self-deprecation-is guaranteed. Think of the doorways that can be opened to forgiveness and patience, towards setting aside the egotism of seeing oneself as authorized by Allah (Subh.aanahu wa t’alaa) to punish others in the name of Truth. Think of what it would mean if even a small number of those involved in the crises raging today could come to see themselves as nothing more than A’bd Allah, servants of Allah (Subh.aanahu wa t’alaa) no better than anyone else. Think of how many lives could be saved if, instead of judging, condemning, resenting, and attacking, some tiny proportion of the world’s people could learn to look one another in the eyes and say, “I am of the same origin as you; our duties and our responsibilities are the same; so, too, are our hopes.”
This was the healing brought 1420 years ago to the warring tribes of Medina by the Prophet Muhammad (s.alla-llaahu a’alayhi wa sallam). This is the healing available today, when we accept the life-changing experience of Sufic Islam and embark upon the real discovering of the self and its purpose. It is a discovery to be found by those who would strive in the way of Allah, the way of Truth and Compassion: by those who would commit themselves (and their selves) to service, praise, and worship of the One who alone is worthy of worship.
Wa Llahu lahu ul-haqqi wa huwa yahdis-sabil.
Hasbuna Llahu wahdahu wa ni’mal-wakil.
Wa salli ‘ala sayyidina Muhammadin wa alihi wa sahbihi ajma’in
wal-hamdu li-Llahi rabb il-‘alamin.
Truth belongs to Allah; it is He who shows the way.
Allah, alone, suffices us, and what a fine guardian is He!
Blessings upon our Master Muhammad
and his family and Companions altogether
and praise is due to Allah, Lord of the Worlds.
Book which contains du’a Kumayl translation
Gallagher, Winifred. New Breed of Spiritual Seekers: Looking for God Beyond the Borders of Organized Faith. Special to MSNBC. April 1, 1999.
Karim, Fazlul. Al Hadis: An English Translation and Commentary of Mishkat-ul-Masabih. Book I. Lahore: The Book House, undated.
Weiss, Rick. Sixth Sense: What Your Immune System Knows. Washington Post, April 19, 1999:A3.