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.
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 mono-cultural 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.