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 consider him as an inspiration and a 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.  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.”

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