Attempting to Imagine

When I started this blog in January I posted an excerpt of a novel in progress. Because I feel a need to return to the more poetic and inspirational after the past weeks with all the awful news of the Danish cartoons, and now the horror of the bombing of the Holy Shrine in Samarrah, I’m posting another excerpt from the novel. We have some excellent writers in the Islamic blogosphere who can write about politics a lot better than I am able to and many thanks to them for their invaluable work. As for me, weeping won’t change much so I try to write stories in the hope that the imagination can. The following describes the extraordinary conversion experience of a man who has studied and taught Islam at University for years but always remained sceptical of embracing the faith.
*
Clare and Miguel
Half an hour later and Miguel stood before the main entrance to the Alhambra and gazed up at the symbolic key above the outer arch and the outstretched hand whose five fingers reminded the faithful of the foundations of their faith. He entered and moved straight to the Nasrid quarters. He had been here so often and never tired of its beauty or its historical importance. He could truly claim that his first acquaintance with the Alhambra over thirty years ago had marked the inception of an academic career that had brought him a great deal of intellectual satisfaction and great respect for Islam.
‘No more than that?’
Had someone whispered in his ear? Or was it the light breeze that blew through the cypresses? Startled, Miguel looked around. What was transpiring? Why did the very air appear to unknot and emit a fragrance that Miguel could only describe as arousing simultaneous emotions of joy and terror? It was tinged with sibylline memories of grace and love, blended subtly with earthy undertones of a dark fear. This fragrance dismantled his ego and stripped his soul naked. He searched frantically for the owner of the voice, rotating on the spot, his eyes darting in every direction.
He stood near a mihrab, the arched alcove that indicated the direction for prayer, and his restless gestures were brought to a sudden halt as the subtle movement of a finely woven robe drew his attention. A female figure issued from the niche of the mihrab and stretched her hand toward him. Confused, Miguel first took her to be one of the many tourists that visit the Alhambra and he looked around to see who she might be offering her hand to. There was no-one else in the vicinity, Miguel stood there alone and, for moments that raised him above the normal dictates of time, he stood in a silence so complete that he imagined hearing the finest of melodies emanate from the fragrance and descending around him like a rain of barakah.
‘You have not brought her to me yet?’
She questioned him softly. Her tones applied a soothing effect to his perplexed mood. Her appearance filled his soul with an unexpected serenity, and yet he would not have believed there could be so much pain in that serenity; the sorrow of a regret that sought atonement without naming its source, a sorrow that manifested as an accompaniment to serenity for only serenity was able to contain and allow its cathartic effect. Overcome by emotion he began sobbing.
‘Do not worry,’ she continued, and she bent forward slightly to brush a smudging of fine sand from her clothes. She glanced toward the fountain in the Court of Lions and then returned her gaze to Miguel. Those eyes carried a deep affirmation of her ease on the soil of his homeland and a conspiratorial spark signalled her inclusion of him in the heritage of this country; this country that was now forever another. The Spain of his birth had become a land that marked the remembrance of the journey he was about to undertake and that he would henceforth travel wholeheartedly. The mihrab from which the woman had emerged transformed into the springboard of his heart.
‘Do not worry. You will bring her here one day soon and I will be here to meet you.’
She swung around and blended subtly into the intricate textures of her surroundings until she was no longer visible.

Miguel was shaken. A few minutes ago he could not have believed anything of what had just happened to him. Surely occurrences like this were the figments of overheated imaginations? He knew with conviction that this was not so in his case. Everything that had just transpired contained a core of uncommon reality that spoke with a rare eloquence of compassion. He had no idea what she had meant about someone he had not brought with him but she had spoken more than words. Her very being had transformed what he had always taken to be a healthy scepticism into a sureness of faith. No! Transformed was not the right word. He had simply been recalled to what his soul had always professed. The pace of terror and joy pulsed through his heart at an increasing speed and he questioned his ability to sustain it without damage to his system. Previously it would have been impossible for him to contain this fear and this love simultaneously. He admitted to himself that he would have made an attempt to turn away, take the easy option as he had done for most of his life, yet now something was telling him that this was the meaning of ‘insh’allah’, the primal covenant that we all made before birth and that we continuously forgot, always needed to remember. The Covenant of Return trembled as the vibrations of an eternal string instrument, and so finely that perceiving it required the art of loving. So much of our original nature as true human beings was veiled and wrung from us in the mangle of sensual gratification and egoism that we no longer understood the meaning of loving oneself. This is surely the origin of my fear, thought Miguel. It is the fear of letting go.
Copyright Katherine Randall, Granada 2006

Three Reasons Why I Consider Islam to be Groundbreaking

Initially I thought I would write about the three reasons that I find Islam so groundbreaking and why I embrace Islam fully. These three reasons are the Oneness of God (Tawhid), the universal appeal of Islam, and the fact that in Islam God has no gender. Now there is quite a lot to write about these three points, they yield an abundant harvest of reflections* on diverse theological, philosophical, and tasawwuf matters. This promised to be a long post. Then I looked again and it dawned on me, I no longer saw three points, or three reasons, but only one, just One – Tawhid, Tawhid, Tawhid – for that is what the second two points also reveal themselves to be about at closer investigation, tawhid. If anyone is displaying signs of understanding tawhid then take a look at this photo of baby Sinan over at Abu Sinan’s blog.
This has happened to me before; I mean beginning what I thought was going to be a fairly long post only to be brought up short by a sudden realization. It happened when I started thinking about destiny and free will.
But why do I claim these three points to be groundbreaking? To address tawhid first, the Oneness of God has no qualifiers in Islam, there are no lesser gods, nor is there any division of the One into three. Further, from a Sufi understanding, the Unity of God means there is nothing other than God, all of creation can only exist and be within God for without God there is no existence. God simply Is, God created existence. Now if this all seems too far beyond human comprehension, it’s certainly beyond mine, then that is the point, God is beyond human comprehension. And yet He is certainly not beyond His own comprehension, this is the kernel of knowledge for although we cannot comprehend God with our normal faculties nevertheless we have a Heart, qalb, that is the organ of gnosis, the knowledge that is ‘given’, and the man or woman whose heart is pure can ‘see’ God, for it is He who sees, hears, tastes, through the true human being.
Allah subhanallah wa ta’ala sees His Reflection in the innermost being (sirr) of His friend (wali). This is said in the hadith qudsi which I cited in my previous post ‘Heart of Faith’ and one of the most often heard hadith qudsi of Sufi tradition is the following:

My servant draws near to me by acts of devotion, and then I love him. And when I love him I become his ears, his eyes, his tongue, his hands, his legs and his heart: he hears by Me, he speaks by Me, he handles by Me, he walks by Me and he comprehends by Me

*See Tafakkur posts here for more on reflection, just scroll down to find the first post in the series.

Heart of Faith

Heart of Faith

Jalal’uddin Rumi said that ‘the body is fundamental and necessary for the realization of the Divine Intention’. Existence in the physical realm is the path by which the individual attains union with the One. We need to learn how to ‘read’ the inner meaning of the forms, which are the signs of God, and in the physical world the human being is surely the highest of those signs. If there is no separation then there can be no longing for union and it is that longing that requires us to polish the mirror of our hearts so that when it is clear and pure it reflects the mercy of the One. As is said in one of the hadith qudsi (sacred hadith revealed to the Prophet Pbuh but not part of the Qur’an):

Neither the vastness of My earth, nor that of My heaven can contain me. Indeed it is the heart of the man of faith which can contain Me.  

Is there a chasm between ‘the Muslim World’ and the West?

Is there a chasm between ‘the Muslim world’ and the West?

Am I hearing right? As I sat at my laptop this morning I could hear the news coming from the television. A chasm has opened up between Islam and the West, it was claiming, a clash of civilizations, they pronounced. Now that is rubbish, very dangerous rubbish initiated by Samuel P. Huntingdon’s ‘Clash of Civilizations and the Re-making of World Order’ written in 1993. Read here for a review on the consequences of this theory.
I live in the West and I am a Muslim but where is the chasm inside me? Do the fault lines of this ‘clash’, as Huntingdon calls it, run right down the middle of me? Maybe my intestines are at war with my liver, or possibly my left foot is ashamed of my right foot, even, God forbid, my heart is in denial of its dependence on my lungs! Or is that vice versa? No culture, civilization, or religion is, or ever has been, an island. Muhammad Pbuh is reported to have said that we should seek knowledge wherever we find it and the exchange of knowledge is one way in which the peoples of the world are interdependent, effecting industry, philosophy, religion, even cuisine, worldwide. The gain that Europe accrued from the scholarship of medieval Al-Andalus in medicine, philosophy, and theology, paving the way for the Renaissance is an excellent illustration of this fact, but it has been said many times and the powers that be choose to ignore it because the ‘Clash of Civilizations’ theory appears to provide a good excuse for Islamophobia.

To return to my own situation, I am Muslim and I am in the West, I was born here and I grew up here. How can this be if there is supposedly a chasm between the two? Some well meaning people might say that I can act as a bridge; well no actually, I am not here to be walked across so that some can maintain that ‘not all Muslims are extreme’ while looking at me quizzically (and sometimes worse) and wondering what on earth attracted me to Islam. I and many others like me, both reverts and born Muslims, can stand as a paradox to the non-Muslims being swayed by the ‘chasm and clash’ syndrome. I am not a paradox to myself of course, embracing Islam was part of a natural and logical flow in my life, but I appear as such to non-Muslims and my hope is that their engagement with what seems to be a paradox can lead to a paradigm change in thinking so that the ‘them and us’ attitude dissolves into history and is recognized as the destructive and nonsensical paradigm of identity construction that it is.

In conclusion, what is then meant by ‘the Muslim world’ in Western discourse and news reports? It is spoken as if it where a place elsewhere and completely forgets that a country is the people who live in it, the people of England, the country of my birth, as in many other ‘Western’ countries, includes many Muslims, they are not ‘other’, they are English, or French, Danish, American, Australian etc. I would also like to approach this question from the perspective of the Muslim concept of the Dar al-Islam, which according to Muslim scholars is a place where you can practice Islam freely. Traditionally this is a geographical location where Islamic laws rule. This is changing. Islam is present all around the globe so what do we mean when we speak of the Dar al-Islam today? Is it not also the space within which every sincere Muslim moves and prays and acts? The space they create around themselves? Is the Dar al-Islam today more about the energy of surrender that is dependent on the sincerity of the heart and knows no territorial borders as it traverses the planet? Surely the only boundaries to the Dar al-Islam are ignorance and hypocrisy and they also traverse the globe. I am speaking here of the inner state of the individual that effects that persons behaviour and actions and contributes to the condition of the wider community, not of the proclaimed politics of the powerful. The Dar al-Islam therefore, as also the ‘Muslim world’, is anywhere and everywhere that the sincere Muslim sees that: ‘To God belong the East and the West; wherever you turn there is the Face of God’ Qur’an 2:115

Copyright Katherine Randall, Granada 2006

Destiny and Freewill

Thoughts on Destiny (Qadar) and Free Will (Ikhtiyar)

As I was falling asleep last night I began thinking about destiny and free will. I cannot remember what initiated these thoughts but almost as soon as I began reflecting on this perennial problem the Day of Alastu (yawm al-mithāq), as Sufis call the primordial covenant with Allah, came to my mind. It might be better if I said that it came into my heart because it appeared like an immediate answer and solution to all the arguments in favour of one or the other. In that moment before creation all our souls were given a choice when they were drawn forth from the loins of Adam and asked:

Alastu bi Rabbikum?'(Am I not your Lord?), to which they reply, ‘Bala Shahidna’ (Yes, it is so). Qur’an 7:172.

Is this not both destiny and freewill in those few, all embracing words? I just pray that I continue to remember that covenant deep within me until every moment of my life is guided by my destiny to return and my choice to travel willingly.