A Pilgrim Between East & West

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“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

Masnavi IV

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.

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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.

Blake

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.”

Surah Ash-Shahr

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.

Prophet Yusha

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 masterpieceWe 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.

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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.

Meeting two rivers
The exact spot where Shams & Maulana met

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.

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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.

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“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.

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Building Bridges Over Troubled Waters

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In the moment of crisis, the wise build bridges, the foolish build dams.

African Proverb

I’ve been looking at my passport with greater attention lately. It worries me that much of my privileged existence is tied up in a pocket-sized book sealed with the stamp of approval by Her Majesty the Queen Elizabeth II. The much sought-after British passport. To acquire this privilege, I did nothing other than to come into this world in a hospital in an industrial city in the heart of England. The hospital no longer exists, but I still have my passport.

The golden coat of arms of the English royal family printed on the front has somewhat faded from frequent bouts of wanderlust and the thumbprints of strangers. Like the Border Officer in the port of Calais just a few weeks ago. Taking in my physical appearance, I’m sure he noted to himself that my face was not so different from the refugees trying to escape. Sitting comfortably in a rented car with friends, we drove effortlessly into a waiting ferry. It carried us back to the white cliffs of Dover across the English channel, a mere 25-mile stretch from the French coast.

We left behind towering security fences topped with razor wires. On the other side, thousands of refugees remain trapped between the homes they fled and a searing rejection in the lands they chose to seek refuge. In a mere five days, my life was shifted by those resilient to all that life threw at them and the people who buoyed their hopes in troubled times. Determined to join forces, me and my friends came together to offer a lending hand. From six different faith traditions, we went with one common cause. We pooled our resources to work with grassroots organisations taking the place of the Welfare State. We slipped into their cohort of an Anglo-French band of brothers and sisters, to offer hospitality to guests lost in the land of strangers.

On our arrival at Calais, the air around me felt heavy and burdensome as if trudging through thick mud. We drove a short distance to the charity warehouse hidden away in a desolate industrial estate. Straight away we joined in the hub of activity brimming with life. With two daily meals needing to be prepared every day for refugees scattered around Calais and Dunkirk, we chopped through endless boxes of vegetables whilst making sure the bread baskets were never empty.

On other days, we sorted through clothes to help insulate our guests from distant lands,  not familiar with the cold European climate. Great efforts were taken to ensure each blanket and tent taken from refugees was promptly replaced. Somewhere in Northern France, there are piles of ripped tents and sleeping bags soaked with teargas. We kept warm in the freezing February temperatures with layers of hats, scarves and thick coats as we worked. When our feet became numb with the cold, we took breaks with steaming hot cups of tea. I wondered how much warmth is generated by the morning distribution of firewood given to refugees dispersed in the woods of Calais.

On the final few days, I had the opportunity to join the food distribution teams. Pulling up in our van on a disused plot of land, the landscape was bleak and barren of trees and instead dotted with pylons. Serving measured portions of curry, rice, and salad I was happy to remove my apron and join the crowds on the other side of the serving table.

I spoke to Eritreans, Ethiopians and Afghans in a language I didn’t know we had in common; Hindi. In our globalised world it’s often easy to forget that we may have more common tools at our disposal than we realise. They spoke of their hopes and fears. Their wishes to join family members on the other side of the English Channel. Their deep faith and conviction shone through the downcast sky of late evening.

Driving to a food distribution site in Dunkirk the following day, we arrived at a somewhat different environment, to a quaint nature reserve. The reflection of a setting sun sank slowly into the lake near us as we served the evening meals. Communicating with some of the refugees through broken bits of English, I wished that I spoke Farsi or Arabic. But their English was good enough to understand my love for “Maulana.” A single word that still lights fires in hearts around our world. Like them, Maulana Rumi was a refugee who fled from war, in his case, by invading Mongol armies in modern day Afghanistan.

Soon enough, my thoughts had become distracted. I was haunted by the images of a scene I had witnessed the day before. Clouds of tear gas chased a group of refugees as they fled from people in power holding emptied canisters. I turned to the words of Maulana for guidance in how to hold opposing feelings in the palm of my hand, of joy and sorrow as my heart opened and closed,

Observe the qualities of expansion and

contraction

in the fingers of your hand:

surely after the closing of the 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.

MASNAVI III 3762-66

 

My memory sped back to just a few months ago, to the hills of Kashmir. As I had watched my father being carried to the ancestral burial ground, a golden crested Hoopoe bird had perched itself on a kikar tree directly in my line of vision. I was mesmerised by this majestic bird native to the region, as my father, shrouded in simple white cloth, was laid to rest in the soil deep in the earth. Through swollen eyes tired from red-eyed flights and my unexpected loss, the beauty of this orange-breasted bird momentarily cut through my grief. Even in the darkest moments, beauty finds its way back to us.

I resolved to keep the warmth of the refugees I met and to guard our interactions in my heart. I felt no anger towards those following orders and abusing their positions of power, only sadness. Somewhere along the line, their lives had hardened their hearts and made them immune to the suffering around them. My sorrow was reflected back to me in the darkness of cloudy Calais skies and the desolation of a grey seafront. The image of waves of murky water washed over me,

 Or its similitude is that depths of darkness upon an abysmal sea, covered by a wave above which is another wave, above which is clouds, creating darkness piled one upon another;

when he puts forth his hand, he would scarcely see it. He to whom God assigns no light, he will have no light.

al-Nur 24:40

I turned to my friends to buoy my faith. We spoke deeply and openly about focusing on the changes we could make, however small. Our kinship across different faith traditions and belief systems renewed my faith in humanity.

There was harmony in our exchanges to balance the dissonance caused by policies and decrees designed to separate and exclude. I reflected back and forth between our differences before resting on common ground. We created a circle of light between us, illuminated by awakened hearts. Our approaches were different but our aims were the same; to build bridges to transcend man-made frontiers. Working side by side, we worked with established groups of volunteers who had created a haven of inclusivity, respect, and mutual appreciation.

I reflected on the power of interfaith kinship in past times. I thought back to the first group of Muslims fleeing persecution by the Arab Elite in the 7th century. They crossed the Red Sea by boat to seek refuge in Abyssinia, modern day Ethiopia. The ruling Christian King was urged to turn them away, their reputations smeared as criminals. When that failed, the wealthy elites tried in vain to create divisions by pointing out the obvious differences in belief between the Christian hosts and the Muslim refugees.

The elites failed to sway the King, who instead chose to honour their shared love of Jesus and Mary. The refugees were saved. I looked at my group of friends and recognised a shared value for humanity that overrides any differences in semantics. Were it not for intolerance and grossly disproportionate power struggles, many would not have had to flee their homelands in the first place.

I’ve come back home with a heavy dose of reality, countered by an unshakeable belief in the volunteers who remain in Calais. Regular updates tell me that the inclusive vegan meals suitable for all, given by the charity, have been halted as I write. Meat and potatoes have been replaced on the menu made by hands which don’t hold the same love of the people I worked with. Despite this, my experience has given me a sense of optimism and hope that I have never felt before. It’s not a lazy hope flimsily held by magical thinking and vague sympathies but rather an authentic hope founded on affirmative action taken in a constructive manner.

On our final day, the clouds broke free to let the Sun takes its rightful place. I smiled as I looked up at the blue sky sinking into a sea brightened by much-needed light. The colour matched a bright blue feather I had picked up near my fathers grave in late November. A well- recited verse circled in my mind,

And when it is said to them, “Spend from that which God has provided for you,” those who disbelieve say to those who believe, “Should we feed one whom, if God had willed, He would have fed? You are not but in clear error.”

Ya-Sin 36:47

 

Beyond the battle between the ethics of right and wrong, beyond the basics of food and shelter, is the need to nourish the souls of others. Somewhere between the shores of Dunkirk and Calais is a man holding a Farsi-English dictionary learning a new language through translations of the poetic verses of Hafez and Rumi. Maybe one day I’ll understand the Farsi version and he’ll know the English version off by heart. One word that is shared between our cultures is khuda hafiz, (“God protect you“) our shared etiquette of saying goodbye.

A Tree In Four Seasons

 

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Willows At Sunset Van Gogh, 1888

This world is like a tree, and we are the half-ripe fruit upon it. Unripe fruit clings tight to the branch because, immature, it’s not ready for the palace. When fruits become ripe, sweet and juicy, then biting their lips, they loosen their hold. When the mouth has been sweetened by felicity, the kingdom of the world loses its appeal. To be tightly attached to the world signifies immaturity; as long as you’re an embryo, blood-drinking is your business. “
Rumi, Mathnawi III, 1293-7

 

Another month, another season. I came tumbling down from the lofty mountains of New York and fell back into the streets of English suburbia. I didn’t plan on staying for long in my native UK, but Providence had other plans. My heart knows where I want to be, but I should know by now that there are always greater forces at play than just the longings of my heart. Who knows how long it will take for My-timing to synchronise with Divine Timing. After a tumultuous start, I have successfully passed the three-month mark, the longest I’ve ever been home in over a decade.  And to celebrate, I’ve come to spend a week in a sleepy coastal town in the South West of England. I’ve conjoined my wayfaring ways to cat-sitting for strangers. It’s a novel way to continue enjoying the few luxuries in life still available to me, at no cost (warning; flexibility required!).

 

From the kitchen table, I watch the evening sunset descend behind a row of trees as it disappears for the night into the surrounding sea’s that lead into the North Atlantic Ocean. When an early autumn breeze carries in warm salty currents through the wide patio doors, it’s tempting to believe that all is well in the world.  I almost feel guilty that I have been blessed with this haven of tranquillity while deep pockets of the world are incurring the dual wrath of Nature and human aggression. Behind the scenes of chaos, I see the Buddhist wheel of life where the pig representing ignorance feeds into the bird representing the poison of passion, making it difficult to stomach the resultant aggression, symbolised by the snary snake. But the shadows were always there, like a poisonous snake in waiting for its next victim. I console myself with the myths of Plato, like the myth of Politicus, as narrated by the Eleatic Guest;

 

The universe, says the stranger, has two cycles, in one of which it is guided by God himself and revolves for a certain period in one direction, but afterwards God ceases to propel it, so that the direction of it’s motion changes and it revolves for an equal period in a contrary direction. The reason for this is that it is impossible for that which has body to be without change of any kind, and this change, of the direction of it’s perfect circular motion, is of all changes the least.

The first period, when God was the Ruler and Shepherd of men, was the Golden Age, and even when the motion had changed, vestiges of the former perfection remained for some time until the growing discord among men impaired the beauty of the world.

The Myths of Plato

The ultimate free-will. The will to lower oneself to the lowest depths of depravity. Or equally, the will to manifest the highest potential of the perfection of God’s creation. Perhaps, as I keep reading, our world will not change by the will of God alone, not unless we change the condition of the world ourselves.

The thought of the political governance of the world solely entrusted into the hands of the human ego driven by free-will, doesn’t seem so far-fetched in some of our world leaders. Equally, I can’t help but see a connection between the benign fear-based religion that many follow in my faith community, without harming others, and the perversion of Islam twisted and bent out of shape to dominate news headlines. The same headlines used to define 1.8 billion of the world’s population, whether they practice the faith or not.  Though the tough shell of exoteric Islam abused and hardened by patriarchy and politics is slowly cracking open to reveal the hidden depths of its esoteric counterpart, it’s painful nonetheless to witness the cracking of the shell. As always, I turn to Maulana Rumi for courage, seeking inspiration from his timeless wisdom,

 

“Don’t turn your head. Keep looking at the bandaged place. That’s where the light enters you.”

If the world is to be considered as a living breathing object that has been mistreated badly, you can hear the cries of Mother Earth and feel her pain if you listen carefully enough. But I can also hear the silent cries of those hell-bent on causing as much havoc and chaos as possible. They’re like trees planted in the shadow planes that grow stunted, twisting their roots to catch the few motes of sunlight that they can. With each act of tyranny, they inch further away from their primordial purity, their fitra. But to reject the shadows of the world, would be akin to rejecting parts of myself and separating myself from the world. A cancer cell doesn’t stop being a cell just because it’s malignant, and so the body suffers as a whole unit. In times of illness, it’s easy to forget how the body functioned without disease.  The Golden Ages of humanity seem as mythical and ancient as the words of Plato. But there are also cases of spontaneous remission, whereby cancer cells miraculously disintegrate and the body begins to operate in a healthy manner again.

I’m reminded of the fable of the tree in four seasons. A father sends out his four sons to view a pear tree over the period of a year. The first son visits in the throes of winter. The twisted branches of the barren tree shiver nakedly in the wind and the son leaves uninspired despite the early signs of tiny buds. The second son visits in the spring when the buds are starting to swell with potential, filling his heart with the hopes of a promising summer. The third son visits the following season and is graced with a tree in full blossom scenting the air. The fourth son visits in the final season to be met with a tree pregnant with ripe fruit, waiting to be picked. At the end of the year, each son argues the validity of his truth, unable to see the natural continuation of each of their experiences blending into one stretch of time.

I may not live long enough to see the buds of today ripen into fruit, but that doesn’t stop me from planting seeds to be sown by generations to come. Maybe it’s the job of my generation to replenish the land first with much-needed nutrients and create the ideal conditions. In one of my favourite Hadith, which mysteriously didn’t make the cut in Islamic jurisprudence priority, the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) is said to have stated that,

‘Even if it’s your last day, you should still plant a tree.’

 

But the soil is tough and dry, it may take a while for it to become healthy enough to nurture fresh seeds. Pushed deep into the soil,, the seeds need to crack open in the depths of darkness to enable young shoots to push upwards towards the light. This is the most fragile time, but also the most exciting.

 

Tomorrow I’ll leave behind the sterile streets of this quiet coastal town as I swap a somewhat static environment for the challenging but dynamic environment of home. But I’m sad that most of my mixed community of varying creeds and cultures don’t share my love for the environment. Table talk in my family home has evolved from the police surveillance vans alternatively stalking (ir)religious fundamentalists and violent Neo-Nazi extremists, to the Government worker strikes that have left months of uncollected rubbish stewing on the streets. The local park is my sanctuary no more. It’s embarrassing to watch burka-clad women sidestep empty condom wrappers left by careless clandestine lovers. Much like the Parisian dog owners who refuse to clean up after their canine darlings, my local community expects Government employees to pick up their cans, confectionery wrappers and takeaway containers arrogantly tossed at the feet of young saplings.

Like my favourite pair of young gingko biloba saplings on an adjacent side street. Struggling with exam stress induced asthma as an adolescent, I was offered no relief by inhalers prescribed by doctors. My saviour came in the form of small herbal tablets from the gingko plant, a tree native to China. My airways opened, I could breathe again. My love for this wonder tree was cemented for life. The words of William Blake come to mind,

The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way.

As a man is, so a man sees.

 

But there is one small square of green that still remains my sanctuary. It’s in the family back garden. And incidentally, there is a pear tree in the centre, lovingly tended to by my mother.  We may not have much in common, my mother and I, but the mutual love for this tree binds us together. As the leaves on surrounding trees turn into varying hues of golden yellow, red and brown, the autumnal wind has put an end to the continuous supply of ripe fruit that coloured my summer. Soon the branches will become as bare as Van Gogh’s Willows at Sunset only without the smouldering heat of the Provençal sun. The sun doesn’t burn so brightly in middle England as it does in the golden fields in the South of France, but that’s ok because I know behind the grey clouds, it’s still the same sun.

 

 

Torn Between Two Worlds

 

And to God belongs the East and the West. So wherever you turn to, then, again, there is the Countenance of God. Truly, God is One Who is Extensive, Knowing.

al-Baqarah 2:115

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A lot can happen in just one season. The cool April spring breeze tore me away from my beloved France and carried me across the Atlantic to a small corner of Upstate New York to join the American branch of my Sufi family. I feel like a tiny being, dwarfed by the majesty of the nature that surrounds me. The giant maple and cedar trees have shielded me from all the harsh energies that find their way into my daily Newsfeeds. It’s complicated being a spiritual wayfarer in 2017. I have to navigate around tightening border controls and global politics. But I was one of the lucky ones. In a country that has become synonymous with #MuslimBan, my US visa entry stamp happily sits next to my Pakistani tourist stamp from last summer.

 
For the last three months, I’ve spent my days immersed in study and contemplation, supported by hundreds of acres of undisturbed nature. Red cardinals and bright yellow finches dominate the skylines using the flower patches as their runway. As spring turned to summer, the pink azaleas gave way to orange lilies. Even nature takes it in turn to display its beauty. The evening sunsets are best viewed from the top of the mountain. The half hour trek up a stony trail is worth it for another turn on the ‘Bridge to Everywhere.’ A closed wooden bridge, it stands suspended in mid-air, held only by metal ropes on one end. I often lie flat on my back watching the clouds drift above a canopy of branches. Not for the faint hearted, I love it when the evening breeze rocks the bridge side to side as if I’m being cradled by nature.

 
I’m glad I made the decision to prioritise my spiritual and emotional fulfilment over material security before Brexit and American politics took centre-stage. But it’s an ongoing process. Faith is not a linear process, every disappointment tests me every day. Having hoped my stay would be more permanent in the US, the Universe decreed otherwise. Like a turtle, I will soon have to gather my belongings back into my shell as I prepare for the next stage of my journey.

 
It seems that the early summer winds are now blowing me along warm currents to the East. I’m both excited and terrified by the prospect. To date, my religious upbringing was dictated by patriarchal models cultivated in the East. My spiritual teachings, on the other hand, have mostly been taught by teachers in the West free from the restrictions of normative traditions. And therein lies my dilemma. I’m neither of just the East or West, I am both. How do I reclaim my faith and keep the spiritual freedom I’ve experienced?

 
Early on in my journey, I can see now how I was drawn to a spirituality that largely appealed to my European sensibilities. A child of the eighties, I was the lucky recipient of counter-culture Western seekers who brought back with them the essence of Buddhism without the baggage of cultural forms or prejudices. And so when I freed myself from the pain and exhaustion of upholding my own cultural norms, my Buddhist community provided a neutral zone where my authentic self could emerge. But the world has changed immensely over the last few years. White supremacists and religious extremists have joined forces to push me into reclaiming my faith and culture. And I was plunged into a crisis of identity.

 
Having never been an issue for me before, I suddenly became aware of being a brown dot in a sea of white spiritual seekers. Well-intending individuals who poured unconditional love into my broken soul found it hard to acknowledge my needs were different to theirs, that my needs were not being met in the confines of their monocultural setting. Finding it hard to express my frustrations, my words were clumsy and misunderstood. My struggle was made worse by the different interpretations of ego-identity. It was easy for fellow seekers who belong to majority population groups to dismiss my inner angst. I was told my suffering was self-inflicted by attachments to false concepts of self. And that ethnicity, gender etc are just mere illusions that perpetuate separation from others with layers of false identity. So I suppressed my pain, until it burst out of me, unable to contain feelings of frustration. I felt guilty that the love and acceptance of my friends just wasn’t enough.

 
Yes, we are equal on an Absolute plane of existence. But on a Relative sense, right here, right now, my challenges are different. I am a woman. I am an ethnic minority. I am a Muslim. My needs are different. Why did it take me so long to say these words? I’m not sure when diversity became akin to division, why is it so hard for the world to see unity in diversity? On the other side of the scale, I struggled to fit in all-Muslim Sufi groups. It felt at odds with my inter-spiritual approach, my love for spirituality extending beyond just one tradition. After years of searching, I have finally found an international community of mystics that encourage me to seek out what I need. In my Sufi community in the West, I am again a minority. But my needs are at least understood by my teachers. Nonetheless, my heart yearns to connect with a spirituality that honours my cultural roots but doesn’t come with conditions. I’ve come to the conclusion that when you live between two worlds, it is unlikely that you will have all your needs met in just one setting. It’s time for me to spread my wings again.

 

 

I had to fly three thousand miles to the West in order to find the courage to explore the East. As the doors close on me in the USA and mainland Europe, I take it as a sign to finally explore a spirituality closer to my roots. But it’s not without its consequences. As I contemplate which Muslim countries to visit, I have to take into consideration their strict narrow interpretation of religion, not to mention their volatile politics. My hyphenated spiritual-but-not-sure-if-I’m-religious status is unlikely to be understood. Even less likely to be understood is my Universalist approach to Islam. Sufi mystics with their message of love, harmony and tolerance are at the top of the list of wanted infidels targeted by ISIS. Am I ready to relinquish my freedom in order to seek out the treasures I desperately yearn for hidden in the East?

 
Despite my challenges with my parents, I feel blessed to have grown up in a family where I was given no less freedom than my brothers. France for me was the epitome of freedom, especially when married to beauty. I still mourn the end of my love affair with France. I was like Attar’s nightingale, who refused to part from the rose, not wanting to relinquish a lesser love for a deeper connection with Simorgh, the Divine King. As the Hoopoe says,

Dear nightingale, this superficial love which makes you quail is only for the outward show of things. Renounce delusion and prepare your wings for our great quest; sharp thorns defend the rose”

It was no contest, my love for God won. Towards the end of my time in France, I struggled to speak French. My lips refused to part, preferring to spill out songs of praise in Urdu and Arabic that had lain dormant in my heart for so long. Even during my estrangement I never lost my love for Islamic calligraphy, art and music. But they were always a painful reminder of a world that I had left behind. I have always secretly dreamed about living in cities resplendent with Islamic architecture and art born out of interfaith tolerant dynasties. Maybe the seeds of Sufism were planted in my heart in Istanbul, back when I was on the cusp of my crisis of faith. Then again, maybe the blessings of Ibn Arabi were bestowed upon me during my childhood years when visiting his final resting place in Damascus. But at eight years old, I was too young to realise the significance of this wandering Andalucian Sufi mystic, during an unplanned family trip to the Syrian capital. My heart constricts when I wonder if these ancient holy sites have been left unscathed under international missiles hijacking the Syrian skies.

 
Bibi Zaynab’s mausoleum, however, I do remember. I wonder if she, as the direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed blessed me with his love, when I rubbed my tiny hands on the gilded cage that carries her remains. I wonder if the spirit of her grandmother Khadijah rubbed off onto my childish heart and made me into the woman I am now. When I’ve been forced into situations that required assertiveness I have always looked to Khadijah, a widowed businesswoman who proposed marriage to her employee, the Prophet Mohammed. Considered by some as the first female Muslim mystic, she spearheaded a long line of ancient female saints silenced and sidelined by history. But their memories live on nonetheless. I live by Rabia’s rule of loving God for the Beauty of God alone, neither tempted by the rivers of heaven nor frightened by the fires of hell. The only fire that rages inside a mystic is in their heart.

 
It’s a far cry from the position of many women today. As a young single female accustomed to living in cosmopolitan cities, it has always pained me to see the restrictions placed on women when visiting majority Muslim countries. To this day, some Sufi Orders shun female members. Western females, however, are sometimes treated as honorary males but the language barriers remain. My desire to know the inner secrets of Islam is so strong that it’s a barrier I’m willing to overcome. Love, ishq, is the greatest driving force there is. It’s not Truth that I’m searching for, but Beauty. Maybe one day I’ll realise they were always the same thing.

 
My love and passion is understood well by those who equally love their own traditions. My greatest source of strength in recent months has been the love and support of my Christian and Jewish Sufi friends. Free from the baggage that I hold, they have renewed my love for Islam. They have provided a safe sanctuary for me to explore the inner dimensions of a faith that they see as a continuation of a Prophetic line. They have given me the key to a secret garden that I was denied access to by the custodians of my religion. It humbles me that they have taken the teachings of tasawwuf and sealed them onto their hearts without renouncing their own faiths.

 
With my fellow American Muslim friends, I have found kindred spirits. Our religion is a far cry from that of our parents. We’ve all had our struggles in reclaiming our birthright and forgiving our parents for misusing religion as a tool to control. I recently spent one of the holiest nights of Ramadan in a three storey townhouse in the fashionable district of TriBeCa, New York. Joined by an international crowd of fellow mystics, we allowed ourselves to be consumed by ancient devotional practices cultivated over the centuries. From dusk until dawn we used our voices as instruments as we sang to the heavens and connected to the angelic spheres, our hearts beating in rhythm with the musicians beating their drums. For the first time in five years, I prayed in the traditional Muslim way in a not so traditional setting. Standing shoulder to shoulder, men and women side by side, I allowed my head to bow down as a symbolic gesture of submission to a benevolent force greater than my own.

 
Inevitably, I have first had to process the lingering memories of the old Saiqa. The old me that was trying so hard to be devout that I became overly invested in the outer forms with no inner reflection. And sometimes I hurt others with my narrow-minded, judgemental views. The old me inherited a patriarchal version of religion, one that was created by men, for men. But my old personality was so disconnected from my feminine aspects that for a short while it worked. I can see now that my dominant masculine personality could never have understood, let alone appreciated the path of the mystics.

 
As my own evolution evolves my capacity to understand increases accordingly. I question translations and misinterpretations over the centuries. Now when I read passages from the Quran I do so with the eyes of my heart, chasing subtle clues hidden in the poetic verses of Maulana Rumi. Each person comprehends religious scripture according to their evolution and experiences. Even if I was to speak my truth it would make little impact on those deafened by calcified beliefs. So if I cannot speak my truth, I will embody it instead. As the rust in my heart slowly gets polished, I hope it can act as a mirror to reflect the light I receive and join other illuminated souls. The fact that I’ve managed to cultivate this spirit under the chaotic conditions imposed by the current US government gives me hope for the rest of the world. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. I’m sad to leave the US but it’s time for this spiritual wayfarer to step down from the mountain and re-enter the world. As it happens I did see hummingbirds courting the rose bushes in the early morning light in the Herb garden. How befitting for a Sufi centre. It was a timely reminder that I am just a passing visitor and that my soul will continue to push me to ‘go as far as China to seek knowledge.

 

 

For the last few days, I’ve been on silent retreat. Alone in a cabin in the woods, my meals delivered by dear friends. I’m full of gratitude for all the generosity and kindness I’ve received from my teachers, guides and friends. But my heart tells me it’s time to let go of the safety net of large spiritual communities and venture forth alone. I’ve received enough love now to sustain me as I go further. It’s time to try the Eastern model of a more intimate setting and dedicate all my time to learning. Who knows where it may lead me. I just pray that I continue to walk my spiritual path with confidence and trust.

A Precious Jewel Mounted in Gold

“On truths path, wise is mad, insane is wise. In love’s way, self and other are the same. Having drunk the wine, my love, of being one with you, I find the way to Mecca and Bodhgaya are the same.”

Maulana Rumi

Inayati mon amour

There was a time once when the Garden of Truth in the inner depths of my mind was a haphazard mess overrun with weeds of shame and guilt deeply rooted in unfertile earth soiled with fear and doubt. Inherited falsities dressed as truths and limiting beliefs meant that the damage was extensive, leaving me frustrated in knowing how to move forward. I couldn’t ask for help from those closest to me because their gardens were in an even worse state than mine and worst still, they were blind to the chaos. I could only see thorns, where they could only see roses. So for two years, I persevered in quiet solitude to bring order to this botanical chaos, with limited success. Admitting defeat, I summoned the help of those who had walked the same path before me. To my delight, I struck gold at my first attempt. My heart rejoiced in finding a community of fellow Truthseekers, complete strangers who happily borrowed me their tools and shared their expertise.

And so within a short space of time, over two decades of damage was gladly reversed with amazing results. With a healthy foundation of fresh fertile soil, seeds of love and wisdom brought back much-needed vitality and beauty. The warmth of the Sun helped to illuminate the dark shadows. As rows of roses bloomed, soft feathered nightingales arrived singing their songs of love summoning winds carrying spores from unfamiliar lands. And thus my love affair with Tibetan Buddhism began. For four years, I enjoyed the fruits of my labour, happily basking in an illuminated mind as spacious as the blue sky, surrounded by the beauty of other loving souls. Occasionally there were storms but I always had the support of my friends to repair the damage caused by stray thoughts and old patterns.

But then eighteen months ago, a storm that had been brewing from the beginning unleashed its full force. This time the old tools didn’t have the expertise required to repair the repercussions of old wounds that had reopened. And so the garden so lovingly cultivated grew wild again, as I let old weeds resurface. But this time, forgotten longings of my heart also resurfaced, desperately wanting to connect with a mind in panic.  And so in my weariness,  I let my mind accept this olive branch offered by my lonely heart. It longed to connect to other hearts closer to my roots, and to one beating heart in particular, the path of tasawwuf,  otherwise known as Sufism.

After a long fruitless search to find a Sufi teacher and community I connected to, I despairingly conceded that it was unlikely that I would find a community which allowed me the freedom of expression to be my authentic self.

But as I let go and let God, I finally found a community that answered my call. As Murshid Inayat Khan once said, “When the cry of the disciple has reached a certain pitch, the teacher comes to answer it.” Making my way to the Swiss Alps last year to attend a summer retreat, I finally found what I was looking for. For the first time in my life, I felt my inner oriental and occidental divide blissfully melt into wholeness.

Moving back to my old meditation centre last autumn, I felt lonely amongst my Buddhist community who I had considered as my spiritual family. Having tasted the rare wine of spiritual diversity of a more Universal path closer to my heritage, my heart was drunk with a joy that could not be repeated elsewhere. And so the seeds of discontent initiated my next rebirth, as I continue to traverse the path of dying a thousand deaths in this lifetime.

But no rebirth is complete without a dark night of the soul. Each transition in my spiritual change has involved a painfully deep inner cleansing of old beliefs which no longer serve me, to allow space for my inner dimensions to expand and grow. Each challenge has served to stretch my capacity to receive new blessings on the way.

“Destruction, annilation or death might seem a very different change; yet there are a thousand deaths we die in life. A great disappointment, the moment our heart breaks, is worse than death. Often our experiences in life are worse than death, yet we go through them. At the time they seem unbearable, we think we cannot stand it, but yet we live. If after dying a thousand deaths we still live, then there is nothing in the world to be afraid of. ” Hazrat Inayat Khan

And so, stuck in the dark corridor between one door closing and a new one opening, my descent into a prolonged dark night of the soul began. Sitting in the darkness, like a butterfly driven into reverse metamorphosis and forced back into her cocoon, I grieved the loss of an illusory firm ground, as I was plagued with more questions than answers. In the words of the Spanish mystic, St John of The Cross, If a man wishes to be sure of the road he treads on, he must close his eyes and walk in the dark.”

As the darkness intensified in the last few weeks, I stopped searching for light. Instead, I resigned myself to sitting (impatiently) as my shadow-self grew darker. My higher self, desperate for change, fought tooth and nail with my lower self, who refused to let parts of my old-self dissolve. I was stuck in that in-between phase of Bardo, vacillating between hope and fear. But amidst the confusion, windows of clarity would sometimes open.

I reasoned with myself that the deep longing that precedes the inner journey towards God and my own inner Divine Essence, is infamous for its difficulties, and a necessary spiritual station to visit. It’s from the thick impenetrable walls of separation from the Divine, that scores of music, art and poetry were born out of frustration and anguish. The words of Attar come to mind, as the Hoopoe warns his fellow birds of the hardships involved in making the way to the Kingdom of the Majestic Simorgh,

Do not imagine that the Way is short; Vast seas and deserts lie before His court. Consider carefully before you start; The journey asks of you a lion’s heart. The road is long, the sea is deep- one flies first buffeted by joy and then by sigh’s; If you desire this quest, give up your soul and make our sovereigns court your only goal. ‘I am a pilgrim of our sovereigns Way’; Renounce your soul for love; He that you pursue will sacrifice His innermost soul for you.”

Conference of The Birds.

It took years of overhauling my subconscious mind with Tibetan practices of deep meditation, self-compassion, and loving kindness to others, in my attempt to attain bodhicitta, an awakened heart, to fully grasp the beauty of Attar’s words. This is the distinction between the Islam I grew up with and the hidden heart of Islam I fell in love with. The path of the mystics involves intense bouts of inner purification to open up a sincere heart that is powered by patience and perseverance in the face of setbacks.

And so, step by step, my higher-self claimed victory and contracted itself enough to pass through the narrow gate. But would my Buddhist path continue to lead me past the narrow gate or would I have to leave it behind?

I was left alone to contemplate the difficulties of blending two paths. On the days I succeeded, I felt peaceful and secure, but it was always short-lived.  I reflected on the famous story of Maulana Rumi taking his students to a field to watch a farmer digging holes. Searching for water, he had nearly destroyed a field by digging many incomplete holes. Digging only superficially for a few feet, he would abandon the hole when he found no water. And so time and time again, he self-sabotaged an opportunity to access a wellspring of abundance. Instead, he remained stuck, blocked by his frustration and confusion.

Was I like the insane farmer? In the end, I have reasoned that I’m not. As a child, I had a well dug for me, but the water was murky and lacked the vitality of the Divine. And so without even realising it, I had begun to divert sideways from the path dug for me. And in doing so, I dug deeper until I finally hit bedrock, where all the blessings of the Divine had been flowing all along.

 

And so through all my difficulties I have came to the conclusion that following two spiritual paths has given me a multitude of tools to navigate difficult terrains. In the words of Trungpa Rinpoche, both can be brought together to make something beautiful like a jewel mounted in gold. Which in my case, brought me back to the Throne of God, like Ayat-ul Kursi, my most beloved passage of the Qur’an.

It took a long time from me to bridge the proclamation of faith from ‘La ilaha there is no God, to ‘ illa ‘llah‘, but God. God is not an external being out there, God is within me, closer to me than my jugular vein. Having stopped looking outside of myself, I looked within, like the famous saying, ‘I went looking for God and only found myself, I went looking for myself and found God‘. A non-theistic tradition gave me an unadulterated perspective to crack the outer shell of Islam to access the hidden pearl of the Divine. I have finally understood why primordial purity is hidden behind emptiness. We have to empty ourselves of our preconceptions and walk the path of doubt and confusion and embrace the Al-ghayb, the Unseen Power to discover Al-Fitra, our Divine basic goodness.

And now that my feet are firmly rooted on the path towards the Divine centre, I understand, we’re not so different. We all just want to be happy. We’re all like different caravans that are going in the same direction. May we be happy, may we be healthy, may we be loved (for who we are).

 

 

 

 

 

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A Garden Amidst the Flames

O Marvel! a garden amidst the flames.
My heart has become capable of every form:
it is a pasture for gazelles and a convent for Christian monks,
and a temple for idols and the pilgrim’s Kaa’ba,
and the tables of the Torah and the book of the Quran.
I follow the religion of Love: whatever way Love’s camels take,
that is my religion and my faith.

Ibn ‘Arabi

There seems to be a giant fire raging across the world, currently spreading its flames in the Western hemisphere brought over from easterly winds. Which seems to tie in with 2017 as the year of the Fire Rooster in the Tibetan and Chinese calendars. The loud rooster is here to wake up humanity from its slumber charging ahead with its fiery energy. Fire can cause destruction and burn everything in its vicinity but it can also illuminate dark shadows and bring warmth. Our early ancestors depended on fire for providing sustenance and protection against the elements. New communities can be created by the warmth generated when wood and stone come together to create sparks and new life.

My heavy heart was lightened last weekend by the warmth and love demonstrated by the ordinary masses who took to the streets, defying the orders of their leaders. The fight for justice started long ago in the Middle East, and now as we in the West begin our own battle, a new level of empathy has been reached for those fighting unjust laws. Until we experience something for ourselves, we can never truly understand. It’s a sign that the old age tactic of divide and rule no longer works in a world that has become a global village. While our rulers and politicians re-enact old animosities, I have faith that the collective consciousness of humanity has risen high enough to prevent this re-enactment from fully taking form. Laws and decrees cannot force hatred into loving hearts. And the law of karma is more powerful than any world power. The Universe will keep giving us the same lessons until the lesson is learnt. Maybe the chaos we see around us gives us an opportunity to put right the wrongs of the past.

Whether it’s in the guise of religious fundamentalism or secular extreme right-wing politics, a similar vein of patriarchal bias runs through both. While the upheaval and suffering is incredibly difficult to witness, it’s a necessary phase before seeds of change can take root. All negative emotions take root from fear. Taking a leaf out of Jonathan Haidt’s book, the world as it stands can be essentially be divided into two classes of people. The first seek comfort in that which is familiar and are afraid of all that which is different. Such closed individuals are terrified of change while the other category thrive on change. They embrace diversity and actively seek out new experiences. I started life as the former and am currently in the latter category. Life has truly humbled me with all the curve balls it has thrown me, taking me to places I could never have imagined. I feel ashamed when I think of my former self, with my narrow-minded point of view, happy to play the role of victim, always blaming another. I judged others from the standpoint of my own capabilities, strengths and my own personal definition of morality which was fuelled by a fear based and misguided interpretation of my faith.

Fundamentalist Muslims preach that in order to be a good Muslim, I must reject my Western values and outlook to life. Western right-wing politicians find it incomprehensible that my Muslim faith could be compatible with my Western identity. And both are following their Truths, according to their conditioning. Everybody thinks they are right. After a decade of unintended exploration of other faiths and cultures, I am now equally at ease in the immigrant communities I grew up in, and the majority white communities I have lived in, I have learnt to assimilate into both lifestyles. It hasn’t been without its challenges but my life is richer for it. And now I have reached the middle ground where I need both. Neither of the East nor the West, I am an inseparable fusion of the two. Like migrating birds who travel back to warmer climes as the seasons change, I need both to survive. If you clip my wings, I will become half a person. The world needs me just as much as I need it.

In fact, I believe Western Muslims from Eastern heritages hold the key to unifying a divided world. We tread both worlds, it is only natural that we become the bridge between East and West. But in order to act as a bridge, one must have both feet firmly grounded to create a stable foundation in order to sustain the weight it must carry. Walking through the streets of Rawalpindi and Islamabad, I spent most of my time in Pakistan last summer in bookshops, leafing through books filled with Sufi poetry and Urdu ghazals, trying my best to revive my rusty knowledge of the official language of my parents country of origin. Nestling into a corner, I was given milky elachi chai from the chaiwalla ouside together with almond biscuits, as I took my time in choosing as many books as my luggage allowance permitted. Whether it’s in Pakistan’s capital or the streets of Paris and London, bookshops have always been my salvation, whichever country I am in.

Contemplating my forthcoming visit to the US I have had to confront the ever increasing derisiveness of the term ‘Muslim‘. I struggle to fit into any of the stereotypes that the media brandishes. Everybody has their own definition of the term. I take Ibn ‘Arabi’s definition of Muslim as the one best suited to me, as ‘one who submits their will to the will of God’. The 13th century Andalusian mystic, now buried in Damascus, travelled the world in search of knowledge and held the messages of Moses, Jesus and Mohammed in equal reverence. I take comfort from the ancient mystics who unified nations made up of different faiths and cultures. I take the time to remember that Rumi is the most famous Muslim literary figure in the US by virtue of being their most read poet. 

Deep in the Kashmiri hills, near my parents’ ancestral villages, I paid homage to the shrine of a famous Sufi saint and poet Mian Mohammed Baksh, regarded by some as the Rumi of the Indian subcontinent. Equally revered by Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus and Christians, his shrine was a salvation and a beacon of hope for everybody before the region was carved into separate nations, dividing them by the very thing that unified them before. Visiting the shrine one afternoon, as the late August heat gave way to a balmy cool breeze, I felt immense love and peace as I walked the white marbled floor reflecting the mid-afternoon sun.

The Sufi mystics with their ageless words of beauty have offered me some motes of their eternal wisdom from beyond the grave, during these dark times. I read the words of Attar, the Persian poet, and reflected on the timelessness of his message 800 years later,

A king is not one of these common fools
Who snatches at a crown and thinks he rules. The true king reigns in mild humility, Unrivalled in his firm fidelity.
An earthly king acts righteously at times”

Immediately the Dalai Lama comes to mind. The embodiment of Avalokitesvara, he exemplifies all that is missing in much of our global leadership, namely compassion, wisdom and love in the face of injustice and ignorance. His diverse following includes Tibetan Muslims who still consider him as their spiritual leader.

In the samsaric wheel that we call life, it seems impossible sometimes to stay centred as the wheel turns up and down. To keep faith and determination in the face of adverse conditions is all in the daily work of a Boddhisattva. The time has come for the monk to step down from his mountain and join the world where he is needed. Sometimes we even need to swallow poison. But if handled correctly, even poison can be transformed into medicine. Like peacocks and their innate ability to eat poisonous plants, insects and animals. In Tibetan culture, the peacock not only survives but thrives on this poisonous diet. It is said that it owes its beauty to eating a particular plant that creates its beautiful plumage, which could prove fatal for other species.

Equally revered in the Islamic world, my favourite story about the peacock hails from Indonesia. As gatekeepers of heaven, the peacock was tricked by the devil into eating him and that is how he entered paradise, thus creating the duality of good and evil.

Maybe the chaos in the world is making room for a different world, a better one in which the duality we see is melted into one. I long to see esoteric interpretations of the worlds major religions becoming the rule and not the exception. Where barriers of exclusivity, homophobia and the curtailing of women’s right are removed and replaced by a perennial world view led by the compassion of Christ consciousness. Where the choice to believe in God is freely given in order to allow a more authentic relationship to the Divine. A world in which my mother doesn’t flinch at the thought of our relatives finding out that I am on the Sufi path. And that the Buddhist teachings have opened the pathways of my mind in order for my heart to open. The greatest journey one undertakes is that from the mind to the heart . When I practice sa’ma, whirling in an anti-clockwise motion with my right hand in the air, I feel the love from the Divine pulsate through me as it filters through my heart before offering it to the world with my left hand . It’s painful to see such a divided world, but like the words from my favourite song, ‘koyla seh heera bahnta hai‘ from a piece of coal a diamond is created.

I leave you with the words of my favourite rebel mystic Shams-i Tabrizi,

If one of the mature ones makes sa’ma in the East, another one begins moving in the West. They are aware of each other’s states.”

Boddhichitta

“My heart is awakened. I am the one who turns to the face of the Friend.

I am the one that becomes a river in order to join the sea.

I have overcome the troops of my ego; I have destroyed its towers and fortresses.

I have cleaned the inside; I am the one who has cleaned the country.

I have faced His excellency, that Man of Love has opened my eyes.

He has shown me my own essence; I am the one called ayet-i kull.”

Yunus Emre, 13th C. Anatolian Sufi poet. 

 

“The Boddhichitta is like a seed because from it grows all the truths of Buddhism. It is like a farm because here are produced all things of purity for the world.

The Boddhichitta is like the earth because all the worlds are supported by it. It is like water because all the dirt of the passions is thereby cleansed. It is like the wind because it blows all over the world with nothing obstructing its course. It is like fire because it consumes all the fuel of bad logic.

The Boddhichitta is like the sun because it leaves nothing unenlightened on earth. It is like the moon because it fills to perfection all things of purity. It is like a lamp because it perceives where the road is even and where it is uneven.

The Boddhichitta is like a highway because it leads one to the city of knowledge. It is like a secret ford because it keeps away all that is not proper. It is like a carriage because it carries all the Boddhisattvas. It is like a door because it opens to all the doings of the Boddhisattvas.

The Boddhichitta is like a mansion because it is the retreat where Samadhi and meditation are practised. It is like a park because it is where the enjoyment of truth is experienced. It is like a dwelling house because it is where all the world is comfortably sheltered. It is like a refuge because it gives salutory abode to all beings. It is like an asylum because it is where all the Boddhisattvas walk.

The Boddhicitta is like a father because it protects all the Boddhisattvas. It is like a mother because it brings up all the Boddhisattvas. It is like a nurse because it takes care of all the Boddhisattvas. It is like a good friend because it gives advice to all Boddhisattvas.”

(Gandavyuha Sutra, translation D.T Suzuki.)