Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Nurturing Intimacy During Ramadan


It’s well after midnight and burning candles flicker in my dimly lit living room. Music hums quietly in the background, a love song carried through the vibrating cry of the reed flute. My head gently sways right to left to Oruç Güvenç’s sweet notes and we sit, me and my Beloved, at the table overlooking the night sky as London fades into a deep sleep. There’s a stillness outside and within.

No words are spoken as I gaze at my Beloved with longing, seeing and thinking of no one but Him. His Names are all around me, in the light of the candle, Ya Nur, the Essence of Luminosity. In the delicious scent of the yellow and pink roses in the vase next to me, Ya Latif, the Subtle One. In the love exploding in my heart, Ya Wadud, the Most Loving One.



After eating my suhour meal — a boiled egg and a small bowl greek yogurt with acacia honey and chia seeds — we move to the sofa. Not for a moment do I let go of his Handhold, so strong it will never give way.*

Unable to find words to express the depths of my yearning, I open at random pages of poetry drawn from the wells of masters. Who better than them can express the urgings of my heart.

First, from Mevlana Rumi, comes:

The real beloved is that one who is unique,
who is your beginning and your end
When you find that one,
you’ll no longer want anything else
(Masnavi III, 1418-19, translated by Camille and Kabir Helminski)

Then Yunus Emre chimes in:
You fall in love with Truth and begin to cry, 
You become holy light inside and out, 
Singing Allah Allah
(The Drop that Became the Sea, p. 72)

And Sheikh Abol-Hasan of Kharaqan offers:

Nothing pleases the Lord more than finding himself in the Lover’s heart 
every time He looks there. 
(The Soul and A Loaf of Bread, p. 61)

I read each verse, aloud or silently, to You, Ya Sami, the One Who Hears All. The goosebumps on my skin and underneath a visceral reminder that You are, as the Quran says, closer to me than my jugular vein.

Sunday, 25 March 2018

My Journey From ‘Moderate’ Muslim to Seeker of Love


For many years starting at around the time of the 9-11 terror attacks, I referred to myself a “moderate Muslim.” I used the term on my Facebook profile and pronounced it if asked about my religious beliefs.

The label was in many ways a reactive disclaimer to popular opinion about Muslims. It meant for me that I was raised in an Arab, Islamic household in the West, I rejected extremism and was tolerant of diversity and multiculturalism. I was an approachable and modern professional who didn’t take religion too seriously. I still felt a deep connection to my inherited identity, albeit with limited critical reflection. I believed in God, fasted during Ramadan and prayed on occasion, but rarely with a deep amount of presence or the Divine at the center of my consciousness.

I suppose the label also insinuated that I wasn’t fully Muslim in the way people perceived Muslims. Becoming “fundamentalist” in following the tenets of the mainstream religion was seen as synonymous with being radicalized. So I didn’t bother.

Several years passed and life, as it does, handed me one setback to negotiate after another. Each of them, slowly but surely, pulled me further and further away from God. I was left questioning what the point of faith, and for that matter life, was at all. Then, just as I was abandoning the religion I’d known my whole life, I had my first encounter with spiritual Islam.

It was almost eight years ago, and the tender sensations that coursed through my veins still induce goose bumps. Unable to sleep, I’d been sitting on my living room floor trying to decipher how to cope with my latest misfortune and understand why I deserved it. Then, in a burst of inspiration, my perception shifted. I saw that what I’d perceived just the moment before as a disappointment was actually a blessing, for it led me to be receptive to the guidance that was unfolding within me.

Saturday, 10 February 2018

Thanking Big


I’d just finished getting my hair cut and styled at the one salon in London that specializes in curls only to walk out the door to find it was pouring rain. The nearest Tube station was shut that Saturday for engineering works, so I scurried down the side streets of the West London neighborhood to the closest alternative, about a 20-minute walk away.

Determined to protect my neatly defined coils from unravelling into a mass of frizz, I huddled under the red umbrella with a duck-head handle I carry with me every day.

 Google Maps recommended I walk through Portobello Market, where merchants selling vintage clothing, handbags and antiques seemed as unperturbed by the rain and near-zero January temperatures as the hundreds of would-be shoppers crowding the length of the road.

With no interest in shopping, my entire focus was to protect my hair from the rain. I tried carefully to navigate my way through the sea of umbrellas without poking anyone in the eye with the exposed metal spike that never failed to come undone from the nylon canopy at inconvenient moments like that one.

Before entering the final stretch of the street market, I came to an intersection. The pedestrian signal had just turned red, so I waited at the corner of the sidewalk, oblivious to the large puddle of water that had accumulated at the curb beneath my feet. Before I had a moment to look down or back away, a car sped through the pool of rainwater, which splashed up and left me totally drenched from the waist down.

I paused for a moment from the shock.

But I didn’t get angry.

I didn’t feel moved to curse out loud at the driver or complain bitterly to whoever was close enough to hear.

Nor did I feel embarrassed at being the only pedestrian at the intersection who seemed to lack the foresight to leave a little distance from the curb.

I felt — grateful.

Alhamdulillah,” I mumbled to myself as I looked down at my skirt and tights that were soaked through to the skin. “Ashukrlillah.”
WS Squared Photography
“Splash” by WS Squared Photography
The reaction surprised me. Not that long ago, a similar sequence of events would have sent me spinning into feelings of self pity, self-consciousness and whining at how unfair the universe was.

But something is shifting in me now. I hear Dede’s voice in my head urging us, as an important first step to spiritual transformation, to stop complaining and seeing the problems in everything. Each moment contains a reason to be grateful, he says. Gratitude to be alive, conscious, breathing. Even when we’re irritated and dissatisfied, we can be thankful for whatever the Divine Reality, Allah, has in store for us each day.

Friday, 8 December 2017

Awakening the Sacred Feminine in All of Us

Huddled at the back, left-hand corner of a large hall, me and a handful of other women would gather to take part in the Islamic Friday prayer at our university in British Columbia the early 2000s. Meanwhile at the front of the room, where light streamed in from the windows, dozens of young men stood side-by-side in rows.
We recited the same prayer, but the gap in our experience was far wider than the swath of carpet separating the masculine and feminine in most Islamic religious spaces. As soon as we would say our final salams, I would dash for the door as quickly as I’d arrived.
Attending congregational prayers — where women are typically relegated to back corner, behind a partition or in a windowless room of a mosque — has always been an awkward and disheartening experience for me. The rigid segregation of religious spaces made me hyper aware of the limitations of my feminine identity, which I realized only years later were imposed on me rather than intrinsic to the tradition. That gnawing sense of discomfort made me ashamed of my girlhood, and eventually my womanhood in ways I can only now begin to articulate.

I was so immersed in patriarchy during my childhood that I assumed messages of faith could be communicated only through the masculine voice. After all, most references I encountered of God were as “He” and all the prophets in Abrahamic traditions were men.  
Yet as I got older, my most intimate moments with Allah in personal sacred spaces had an entirely different quality. During early-morning prostrations before my Beloved, I had a deep sense that our connection was beyond constructions of gender and beyond my supposed inferiority. Rather, it was an exchange of energies that was deeply loving and nourishing. Something wasn’t right with the prevailing, masculine narrative of Islam, but I was unable to put my finger on why.
Image by Irina Naji
Image by Irina Naji

That changed when I became acquainted with the powerful women who have been largely erased from our spiritual histories. Their voices are muffled and faint not because they didn’t exist, but because they’ve been hidden and written out of relevance by patriarchal readings and writings of Islam.

Monday, 13 February 2017

Translating Love’s Confusion: Hollywood and Misreading Rumi

The 2010 Hollywood celebrity fest chick-flick Valentine’s Day opens with Reed Bennett, a florist played by Ashton Kutscher, proposing marriage to Morley (Jessica Alba), as she wakes up on Feb. 14.
Evidently startled, Morley initially accepts, sending Reed on a joyful mission to let everyone know his sweetheart said “yes”! But his elation is short-lived. A few hours later Reed finds Morley in his apartment packing her bag as she hands back his ring and walks out on the relationship entirely.
Just then, as movie’s downtrodden protagonist leaves the scene, the narrator — a radio show host named “Romeo Midnight” — drops a word of wisdom that sounds a tinge sufi.
“It’s Romeo Midnight back again. And if those topsy-turvy feelings have got you twisted inside out, think of the poet Rumi who 800 years ago said: `All we really want is love’s confusing joy.’ Amen, brother.”
Heart of Steel, by Livlu Ghemaru
When I watched this movie shortly after its release, I was bemused at the irony of hearing a 13th-century Islamic poet and scholar quoted in a cheesy American blockbuster seemingly unwittingly. A Persian poet of love, Rumi is often uprooted from his historical context and polished for resale for Western audiences who may not realize his object of affection isn’t a romantic love interest, but the Divine Beloved.