“Come, come whoever you are. Wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving. It doesn’t matter. Ours is not a caravan of despair, come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times. Come, yet come again, come, come.”
In Sufi lore, there is a cosmic mountain, Qaf, located in the furthest point of the East in the mythical city of Jabalqa. It is in the quest for this legendary mountain that from thousands of birds, only thirty manage to complete the pilgrimage to meet the great Simurgh. But then there’s a twist, and I won’t spoil it for you. Not that I’ve managed to complete a single reading of ‘The Conference of The Birds.’ It’s been five years since I discovered it while on silent retreat at a Buddhist meditation centre. It took another two years, in a different Buddhist monastery (this time Zen) to actually begin reading this epic allegory penned over 800 years ago. When the Buddhist nuns discovered my religious origins, they told me of a visiting Muslim dervish from Malaysia who had been sent by his Sufi teacher to study with the Buddhist monks. The signs were clear. It was time to return and seek the hidden treasures in my own faith tradition.
For the soul of every bird that reaches mount Qaf Confers glory on the whole family of birds
In Attar’s allegory, the birds pass through seven valleys, each one representing the spiritual stages in the ascension process to God. Firmly rooted in the first valley of ‘seeking’, I decided to do what all seekers do and go on pilgrimage. At this very moment in time, millions of pilgrims are circumambulating around the Ka’ba in Mecca, as we slowly approach the final days of Hajj.
But I didn’t go to Mecca. Instead, I aimed closer to home and set my compass to the Ka’ba of hearts, the mausoleum of Mawlana Rumi in Konya, Turkey. Arriving in Istanbul, nobody bothered checking my tourist visa. It only reinforced the sacredness of my journey. Making my way into the city, I began my pilgrimage in the same place as where I ended it ten days later, on a park bench in the square between the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque in the cobbled streets of Sultanahmet.
It took a while to find the right bench with the exact backdrop of located palm trees and towering minarets. The same bench on which my father had sat on a year earlier, only a few months before his passing. The orange marigolds from last summer have since changed into yellow petalled floral displays, but they still draw nourishment from the same soil and light and adoring onlookers.
I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen:
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.
And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And Thou shalt not. writ over the door;
So I turn’d to the Garden of Love,
That so many sweet flowers bore.
And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tomb-stones where flowers should be:
And Priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars, my joys & desires.
Taking the scarf around my neck and wrapping it around my head, I separated myself from the crowds of sighing tourists by simply uttering the magic word ‘namaaz’. The security guards waved me in for after-hours entry. It wasn’t my first visit to the Blue Mosque. I’d been once before many years ago and remember begrudgingly offering prayers to appease my mother. This time, however, there was no compulsion in my worship. I’d come alone, on my own terms for no other reason than love alone.
I relished in the fact that as a woman, I could enter any mosque of my choosing throughout Istanbul, often entering through the same entrance as the men. As a lover of the Divine, history, and art, it was a heavenly mixture that grounded me in the face of the modern challenges in Turkey. In a city where East meets West, I felt whole. There are few places left in this world that can hold the weight of the different threads that make up my identity. I felt equally at home when walking through crowds of trendy hipsters in downtown Istanbul and the veiled women exercising their right to religious freedom. But appearances can be deceptive. The most confident women I saw were those treading both worlds, proving that it can be done.
Up until now, my experience of visiting mosques in the U.K has always been a disappointment. Devoid of the feminine dimensions of beauty, compassion, receptivity and awe, I am always left feeling energetically drained. Like the priests in black gowns walking their rounds, I can barely listen to a few words of the religious leaders in my community without my stomach wanting to churn. Yet, in Istanbul, something magical happened. Struggling with the heaviness of the grief that comes with the loss of a parent, I was passing Sirkeci station when I heard the call to evening prayers. In need of Divine healing, I answered the call. Standing shoulder to shoulder with random worshippers and the street cats, the imam recited my go-to verses when in times of strife,
“Did We not expand for you, your chest? And We removed from you your burden. Which had weighed upon your back. And raised high for you your repute. For indeed, with hardship (will be) ease. Indeed, with hardship (will be) ease. So when you have finished (your duties), then stand up (for worship). And to your Lord, direct your longing.”
Elevated by the imam’s recitation, I could have kissed the kaleidoscope of colours lining the inside dome and walls, The beauty of being in a foreign country is that you don’t understand the proceeding sermons, leaving just the soft melodious rhythms of ancient Arabic still ringing in your ears.
Walking back onto the main road feeling lighter and happier, I was met by the sea breeze of the Bosphorus holding me in its embrace. It was pulling in the direction of the East, urging me to cross to the Asian side of Istanbul. Thus my itinerary for the following day was set. Hand in hand with google maps as my faithful companion, I was ferried to the Asian district of Beykoz. There on the highest point of the Bosphorus, lies the tomb of Prophet Yusha/Joshua (pbuh), the succeeding Prophet after Moses (pbuh). His 17m long tomb is one of the longest I’ve seen and symbolises his reverence by Muslim, Christian and Jewish pilgrims alike. And being ‘Catstantinonple‘ a tomcat gingerly slept at the head of the grave among fragrant white flowers, taking its place of honour among the towering humans.
The one advantage animals have over humans is their magnetism to sacred sites of the past without a discriminating eye to which religion they belong. As we look back at the past, we are forced to hold together the beauty of sacred buildings together with the violent chaos witnessed by the eyes of walls, as each civilisation came and went at the beckoning of stronger conquering forces.
“The great kings of the world very often have been pulled down from their thrones by those who for years bowed and bent and trembled at their command, but the Christ-like souls who have washed the feet of the disciples are still held in esteem, and will be honoured and loved by humanity forever.”
Hazrat Inayat Khan
A serendipitous visit to Ravenna, Italy only a few weeks earlier, had preempted my timeline to the past from Roman to Byzantine, to Seljuk and Ottoman. In the glowing heat of mid-June, I walked the sandy coloured streets of Ravenna that saw the transition from a vanquishing Roman stronghold to the beginnings of a Byzantine dominion. Their lavishly mosaiced churches formed the model for those still standing today in Istanbul, like the Hagia Sophia which was modelled on the Basilica San Vitale.
On the walls of the Basicilca are small squares of gold trapped between two pieces of glass form a sea of gold behind idealised figures of Christ. I recalled the words of a Lebanese art historian at a lecture I recently attended. The two-dimensional images were an attempt by the Byzantine artists to bring the transcendental into the physical while retaining its otherworldly quality. In contrast, the geometry of late Neoplatonic tradition and the early Islamic civilisations were neither physical nor spiritual, rather somewhere in between the two. The patterns and formations allow the imagination to roam freely, its universal appeal taking any onlooker into a dream-like state of revelry.
As the mosaics made their way to the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, it is said that Muslims and Jews were tolerated by the Byzantine leaders but Christian heretics were not. The past is not easy to eradicate and the Christian gnostics with their inherited elements of Greek traditions were prime targets for persecution and book burning. Sufi saints in the Islamic empires have often not fared better. Tales of battling with the orthodoxy is a common narrative. Religious exclusivism is not an easy beast to fight. It has dominated much of our recordings of human culture in its threats against pluralism and tolerance. In the Buddhist tradition, it is said that hidden texts called termas were buried for safekeeping in the knowledge that they would one day be rediscovered at a time when humanity was ready to understand their message. The discovery of the Nag Hammadi library in 1945, has brought us back into contact with the Gnostic texts after a gap of centuries. But will it bring us closer by reigniting the divine spark in all of us?
My summer of pilgrimage would not have been complete without paying homage to the great poets of the middle ages, one from the West, the other from the East. Though the city of Florence still lays claim to its most famous poet, Dante is in fact buried in the city of Varenna among the jewelled Byzantine churches. Standing in the simple marble interior of his tomb, my love of literature and religion traversed paths.
From the ceiling hangs a lamp perenially burning oil from the Tuscan hills, a posthumous peace offering from the city of Florence that banished him for his scathing criticisms of its leaders. I sometimes wonder if the spirit of la convivinzia of Southern Italy and Andalucia had made its way to Florence, Dante would have still laid the charge of schismatic on the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh).
Though my beliefs differ from that of a 15thC Italian poet, I share his passion for l’amor divino and the beauty of words strung together to create a literary masterpiece. We each have our personal definitions of heaven and hell, and my idea of heaven would be to be in a room full of the very same figures banished in Dante’s inferno. One person’s hell is another person’s heaven. What Virgil meant to Dante, Maulana Rumi means to me and beyond. Though Dante’s love for Virgil was compromised by his intensely religious views at odds with the Roman poet’s belief in “false and lying Gods,’’ my love for Maulana is unconditional and unbound by the limitations of reason.
O light and honour of all other poets,
may my long study and the intense love
that made me search your volume serve me now
Divine Comedy (Inf. 1.82-84)
My spiritual heritage includes poets, saints and philosophers who in their all-consuming love for the Divine, insisted that the cup of love floweth onwards to all creeds and cultures. What greater lover of the Divine could there be than Maulana Jalal al-Din Balkhi, known more commonly to you and me as Rumi. With the imprints of the streets of Varenna and Istanbul marked on the soles of my sandals, I continued onward to Konya in central Turkey.
I reunited with familiar faces in a gathering of fellow seekers who have accompanied me on my spiritual journey for the last few years. But my heart always has room for more lovers of God, and I was overwhelmed with joy to be in the company of so many kindred spirits. It quickly became part of my afternoon routine to visit the green towered mausoleum of Maulana Rumi and take in the scent of rose water escaping from a treasure box bathing a strand of Prophet Mohammed’s (pbuh) beard.
On a signpost in the rose garden outside Maulana’s tomb, one sign pointed South-East to Syria. Only 616km in distance but a million light years away from the peace and love I felt in Konya. The most peaceful part of Konya was without a doubt was at the tomb of Shams-i-Tabrizi. Though the identity of the encased remains remain under doubt, as one local dervish remarked, the tiny mosque holds the energy of those who love him still. Few of the manic crowds of tourists venture out here. Sitting on the bench outside the mosque, I observed devoted lovers for whom Maulana Rumi came as a pair inseparable even in death from his spiritual counterpart that was Shams, the sun that set his heart aflame. Without Shams, we would not have the Rumi we know today. The meeting of these two rivers allows us to drink deeply by the wells of the Divine.
Following the rhythms of the Sun, my evenings were brought to life with ecstatic zikr ceremonies with local dervishes whirling, chanting and drumming with vigour to collectively awaken the Divine light within us all. Just as the Earth circles the Sun, and the Moon circles the Earth, harmony is maintained as we gravitate towards the orbits of our natural pathway.
Neither does it lie in the sun’s power to overtake the moon nor can the night outstrip the day. All glide along, each in its own orbit
Surah Ya-Sin, 36:40
The fear of darkness loses its hold in the light of day. Even in the cover of night, the memory of light is kept alive in the hearts of lovers, just as the Moon holds the light of the Sun in the night sky.
Images of Ka’ba’s floating in the hearts of the dervishes tapped gently on my rusty heart. Tradition has it that seekers and saints would direct their caravans first to Konya to seek the blessings and benedictions of Maulana Rumi before making the pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina. The only other green domed mausoleum in the world is that of the “Master of the two realms”, the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh). I hear Medina calling. In a mere six hours, I could theoretically fly from London to Jeddah with all the other white-robed pilgrims. But I’m old fashioned, I prefer to take the longer road to Mecca. My solo spiritual exploration of the East has only begun. It’s not Airmiles that I’m looking to collect, but parts of my soul that I’m seeking to reclaim. And it can only happen in certain places, perhaps only then will I feel complete. Then I can visit Mecca.
“This place is the Ka’ba of lovers; he who comes here lacking is made complete.”
(Inscription at tomb entrance, Konya)
For the last few weeks, my caravan has been stationed at an English market town. On my daily walk to the local woods, I find myself reflecting and reminiscing on my summer of pilgrimage. Last week, I came upon a small stripey blue feather shed from a Bluejay bird. In indigenous cultures, blue feathers are messengers of peace. As the gap narrows between my Eastern heritage and acquired Western identity, I took it as a sign of encouragement from the Universe. I’ve put the Bluejay feather with the electric blue feather I found near the family burial ground in Kashmir last winter. The search engines tell me that its a feather from the Indian Hornbill, a magnificently colourful bird with large wings. Bluejays, the Indian Hornbill and the Hoopoe. These birds have been guiding my steps into the unknown. One day when I’m ready, maybe they’ll guide me from the valley of seeking to the next valley that awaits me. The valley of love.