If you were ‘born a Muslim’, do you remember the first time you whispered the creed? The words that recognised and then reverberated in you the oneness of God, that united all your separate existences into one – that there is none but One. Did you recognise then, or do you recognise now, the concept and importance of the One? The singular, the centre, the focal and the unclear, the entire other? Do you search for Him? And if you do, or did, was He found?
Because I ask, am I in His image? or is He in mine? Is He the light of the Heavens and the earth and all that is in-between or is He in all of this? Is this His light around me, above me, below me and to my left, and to my right? If everywhere, why is He unseen? If He is nowhere, how is He in all that has ever been?
I placed Him first on my tongue then swallowed His mystery deep. His name would hesitatingly vibrate with my mechanical and entirely distracted prostrations. If You are here, watching, then know this oh my Creator, that this is for You, but You say this is for me instead, so here we are, looking at each other, waiting for the heart to stir.
Years passed and so did my interest. Religious curiosity turned into a search of the intellect, of the mind. If Islam declares itself to be a religious philosophy that ferments brilliance in the mind, let Him rise out of my questions as answers, so that I shall put to peace this first step, because once I understood and accepted His existence, I argued to myself, I could be the slave He has destined for me to be. An obedient one.
I plucked away for months but silence remained. As I would rinse my arms in preparation for prayer, I would catch the sight of water forming and then falling off my elbow and finger tips. This sight always caused me to tremble and cry. It is said that the act of ‘Wuzu’ (ablution) is an act of love and worship in itself, so do not hurry, but ensure the water that collects in your hair, mouth, fingertips and feet is thorough, for it will take with it your sins once it leaves you.
But the act of prayer delivered nothing, but He watched throughout as I stood in corners and halls, in small and large mosques, in my own caves and caverns, as I joined large gatherings or hid myself in myself. If He is everywhere, let my union with Him be where there are no distractions. Silence, He did not speak.
Some will say, how can you deny the signs of God? He presents plainly in His book, signs that are undeniable to any man of observation. Our faith was built on contemplation, Ibrahim (a.s) saw the stars fade, the moon sink and then the Sun set, and observed signs of the One, the One God. He denied nothing and nor did I.
‘We will show them Our Signs in the universe, and in their own selves, until it becomes manifest to them that this (the Quran) is the truth’. [41:53]
Later I attributed faith, or this adherence to His faith by others, that appears to arrive easily to blindness, well intentioned but unchallenged blindness. How do these pilgrims, these pious worshippers perform and convince themselves of His presence so convincingly? Has He abandoned me but entered them instead? Where do their hands and feet find the strength to run to Him when I walk backwards? I search for Him, I deserve Him. I found nothing. I deserved nothing.
The infinitude of Allah was where my trembling began. For me to be able to comprehend Him, in any way, in my thoughts and then to see how others do it, shook me. Somehow, we have all collectively, yet individually, decided and agreed that His existence is beyond measure, and although this is explicit in the Qur’an, it has a permanent present in our practise of our faith. For some conviction and faith is natural, a gift, they have accepted with both hands and then planted against their chest, but I put out no hands and declared that a plain gift was not what I wanted. I grappled in thoughts and the various lands, reached around and opened the fists of old men, of blind and of the deaf, of mothers, of brothers and of strangers and then asked, ‘where is He’? in fear always, that He was watching, I sealed my eyes and looked away when the Truth began to inscribe itself.
But then I did find Him, and He has not left since. My accusations of self-apostasy dissolved. He came suddenly not from one minbar, one sermon, nor from one shrine or mausoleum, nor from a chapter or verse or even a word or a nukta. Those who make these claims are either blessed or liars. I stood under the arches of Cordova where Iqbal bent his knees, to do the same? perhaps, but I also stood in the shadows of minarets and ran my fingers through the muqaranas of Khorosan, delighted with my efforts, but then I went even further and loudly applauded man for his aspirations to please Him, but laughed inside, wondering if He ever came to them or was this their attempt to lure Him? Perhaps. I climbed higher and looked at His horizons in our cities, and then confessed again, silently, each time to myself, of His absence and of the emptiness that I have climbed into. At this height I understood man’s selfish need to inspire himself in the setting of the sun, but I had no such need. I hoped instead that the sun not set, not leave, and suspend itself in the lowest of horizons, that today, Mikaeel and Jibreel would have mercy and not cut its throat, that the red and orange hues be left inside, that no sign was needed today. The lamps that would be lit inside me sourced their oil from the lands that I had called His name in, what seemed doomed now began to blossom into something.
This is how it happened. I veiled my eyes with His signs, I sealed my ears with His recitations, I pressed my forehead on His doorstep, and I then asked myself ‘why does this one man produce with the same hands what others cannot with a ten thousand others?’, and He showed Himself. I have been standing still since, as I no longer know where to be, and each time I do call for Him, with need, He responds but do I really want to present Him to you? Can I show you, without revealing my own shame, who He is? What He has inspired in these distant lands, what pages He has filled with His ink, what seas He has emptied with His glory, what limbs and what hearts He has turned?
I found Him first, and let me count, by the orphan. I followed Him to Hejaz, and under the Uthmani arches and doors, He rocked and cradled, then pushed me and said ‘go’, and without hesitation but with doubt, I went. It was here that I met my Muhammad, my Mustafa, and it was here that He pulled and cloaked me by His most beloved. But I sat by my own beloved’s blessed feet, and then on other days, by his blessed head. I concealed Him in those moments, in my arrogance and in my own abstractedness, but I could not succeed. Truth began to leak, it left my eyes, down the finger, formed on my feet and then overtook me. Was this the journey of a pilgrim, or a slave? Or was this the veiling, again, of the unveiled?
Then I found Him, secondly, standing by me during my evening prayers, though He never presented Himself or announced His arrival. I first noticed when I began to question His existence all together. In no form, in no matter, in no particular manner, He became a part of me, it is that presence one feels of another entity, the only entity, when you think you are alone, the presence that belongs to no man or angel, but a presence that holds your heart and turns it on its side, for this turning is where peace is found. It is Him who, with his finger, stirs the heart or leaves it be, some prayers remain ordinary, many remain empty but the few, and these can number perhaps just one in a year, wash you and clean you of the dirt of the world, and you glimpse into His mercy with clarity.
Then I found Him in my chest in that hour before Mikail pulls up the sun. The heart, frustrated with the stillness and inaction of the night, dismisses all signals that request ‘be calm’, it expands. He, always present, awaits my morning prayer, observes my wuzu, nods at my proclamation, my first deep breath and my first words that announce, ‘there is none but Him’, to Him I belong, I ask myself, ‘to me You belong’, He replies.
It was later in poetry that He would resurface. It was not in Keats, Milton, or any other English anthology but in the words of the Iqbal and Attar, who managed to do what none other, in my assessment, had done. While Iqpal pulled God, who now He sat in front of me, Attar undid in me the hardness of faith that Europe had cemented, he showed me, and very clearly, the utter pain that cannot and should not be contained when He is the audience. With poetry in my fingers as a tool, I began to undo the known and unknown knots in my heart. Poetry, as a wider art or science of love, removed the distractions and focused on the urgent. I do not claim to truly understand the works of great Islamic mystics, or its saints, nor do I believe I comprehend the pain exuding from the chest of great men and women who articulated when often is hidden inside, but I observed and drew out my own route. On the prayer mat I felt alone, but in my creative conversations I felt Him present. I never opened a book of Mawlana Rumi, I was ashamed then and I am ashamed now, Why? of my unpreparedness of course, of my weak Farsi.
A year and eighteen months have passed since a deep crisis overtook me, a thud on the heart, a grip on my arterial flows, one that instilled in me a undoubted certainty that it was time to leave. That He was not seeking me here, so I must go seek Him elsewhere. Perhaps, I thought, He remained hidden in the secret lexicons of Farsi, the language that had shaped my own, but one I never opened further. What had Iqbal unlocked, that Mawlana knew? What caused Khorasan to be the fertile ground that it was, and if it was the language to unlocking secrets, it must be acquired.
A few months later I moved to Iran, one to study Farsi and secondly to study myself. I recall, with precise detail, how my first evening was spent. I made my way to the one of the oldest and what seemed to me, perhaps the most beautiful mosque in all of Iran, the Old Jameh Mosque of Isfahan. I arrived an hour before sunset and as it was summer season, the prayers were performed outside as is tradition all over Iran. Bright red carpets, that now become muted with the disappearing light, were laid out to accommodate a thousand worshippers but there were no more than fifty. This was my first day, and I did find Him. I watched Him present in a space that nothing exists, where the ancient walls ended and the sky began, He was where the sun had just been. It was here I developed a close affinity to the bleeding of the sun, the red hues it leaks, the orange amber it raises, and then the blueness that envelops the sinking star as it cloaks itself in the dark sheets of the night. The next two months were spent in searching, for He decided what I had seen on my first day, was perhaps enough and perhaps only an invitation to something more. I chased Him to the city of fire, Yazd, to the gardens of Shiraz, even to Tabriz, where another sun had been put to rest – Shams Tabrizi, but nothing. I galloped, without a break, all the way east to Mashhad, where I found signs that He was present, or He was there. In the eyes of pilgrims, the fervour had remained from their confessions and it was clear He had listened to them not too long ago, but now as I stood at the feet of a descendent of my Nabi, He had departed without anyone noticing. I wept silently as my journey was coming to end, and Khorasan had embraced me so tight, I could not, I would not want to depart.
The Quran is the elucidation of our existence, it is the parchment, the bone, the oral and yet it is heavily embodied in us already. We remind ourselves of what we already once known, we reaffirm what we have always believed (though it is said in this world, in this material form our souls forget what was taught them when they were fashioned) but many do deny, but we, us, those who think ourselves wise and contemplative, hold witness to the Truth, but who amongst us really, can call himself a true believer?
Then I found Him in my faithlessness. I believe, I declared, but am I to be tried? This burden that I carry, it is no more or just above what I can bear? With each act of denying His place in my state and my blessing, His voice grew faint, His position by my side became less apparent, and His words became more problematic. What I thought my logic, repelled the master Logician. But then I found Him ever present when I denied him entirely. What Iblis articulated so masterfully, using my own arrogant human intellect, my weak heart, and with such little effort, was dusted off when ‘Qul huwal laahu ahad’ was recited by my tongue as a habit. The heart starts to fill, some say with light, in the denial it shrinks so in acceptance it overflows as quickly. This faithlessness repeats too often.
Then I found him in everything when His absence became apparent and undeniable. Perhaps, His presence was not here because it never was, perhaps this caravan that I ride, that I lit unwillingly, but on which I stayed, was headed to Him on its own with no lead, and no tail. I rocked up and down past these dunes, and I was not alone, as I felt the hands of my brothers tighten their grip.
I rocked one evening back and forth in the darkness of the night, untrained to this motion, I cradled myself. In this safar, who else cradles, who else folds our limbs, caresses our hair, and whispers ‘be calm’? the following evening calmness was my abode, but before the hour of fajr arrived, my heart stirred, ‘awaken bani Adam’. He was here, He was here. My heart has lit up again.
“They have hearts wherewith they understand not, they have eyes wherewith they see not, and they have ears wherewith they hear not (the truth). They are like cattle, nay even more astray; those! They are the heedless ones” [7:179].