Oh dearest BEAUTY how beautiful you are.
From where do you derive that mantel of beauty? How much more Beautiful that Beauty must surely be. What love is it that Loves you so? Formless, placeless. Transcendent.
Oh dearest BEAUTY how beautiful you are.
From where do you derive that mantel of beauty? How much more Beautiful that Beauty must surely be. What love is it that Loves you so? Formless, placeless. Transcendent.
19th April 2007, Lickey Hills, Birmingham
It was late in the day. The sky was still bright and clear with its canvas of blue enveloping the earth in a gentle embrace. The sun where unhindered by the trees was warm and loving. The slight chill in the air was bearable. He walked, not knowing what else to do, towards a rise in the ground taking his seat upon a solitary bench shaded by a tree. Children were playing with their parents down below to his left. For a passing moment their innocent laughter was uplifting. He plucked a leaf from a near by tree and held it for a while. He looked to the sky. He looked about his feet and took to hand a bare branch slim and strong. Its bark wet to the touch. He rose and walked again with staff in hand. To sit still made it all the more unbearable. Thoughts of sorrow racing through his mind at the passing of his and his brother’s mother the day before.
Though this happens daily, the sun has seen for eons, and the earth has accepted back since the beginning, the passing of mothers and fathers and the closest of kin, it was, however, knowingly for him, the first time. It was tremendous and shattering. He was in that half way house of darkness between the extinguishing of one candle and the lighting of another. That moment where all that which is familiar is no longer visible. Where in that darkness you reach out your hands and find nothing to hold and ask for guidance.
It was then he remembered the recital taught by his teacher who spoke words from the sacred scripture:
Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth
The Parable of His Light is as if there were a niche
and within it a Lamp
the Lamp enclosed in Glass
the glass as it were a brilliant Star
Lit from a blessed tree; an olive tree
neither of the east nor of the west
whose oil is well nigh luminous
though fire scarcely touched it.
Light upon Light!
Allah Guides to His Light whom He pleases
And Allah sets forth parables for men, and
Allah is the Knower of all things
He climbed higher away from the openness and drawn to the shelter of the woods to walk among the trees. There a slender path made by the footsteps of others before him was etched out. The give of the ground on the path was different. The earth below foot was soft to walk upon. His feet sank a little each time as the earth gave way a little. The greenery on either side of the path was dense. The trees seemed countless. A bird call rang out here and there and the faint rustle of small creatures could be heard and then stop. He looked piercingly but listened more to hear the sound of the rustling. There in front of him only a few feet away, camouflaged by the foliage, was the small figure of a squirrel with hands joined holding a morsel of food. They looked at each other for a few moments. He smiled and the creature raced away. He whispered, “Go, go, climb higher, go.”
He walked on with thoughts of sorrow returning eventually coming to a stop. He was standing at a bank that slopped away steeply. He looked again at the sky and through the dense leaves the sun was breaking through. The light only broken by the swaying of the leaves. He closed his eyes and felt the warmth of the sun lapping his face and he could feel the waves of emotions building. Which shore would these waves break upon now?
He thought of her life. He thought of motherhood. He thought of her name. He thought of all the care she showered upon him. He closed his eyes recalling the memory of witnessing her body the night before, lying as if only sleeping. He recalled the coldness of touch as he bowed to kiss her forehead tearfully uttering,
“No more pain now, do not worry. The life to come will be better than the one just lived. Be at peace. Salam alia kum, salam alia kum mere ma”.
Opening his eyes he wailed out in despair in to the silence. He looked about him finding himself amongst countless trees. They looked and felt alive as people with intense concentration. He felt their presence as they stood there tall and magnificent. He raised his hands and asked the trees and all of creation to join with him as he recited the zikr for his mother, for the journey her soul was to make.
“O my Lord. Let my entry be in truth and sincerity, and my exit be in truth and sincerity, and grant me from Thy Presence an authority to support me.
There is no god but God. That is One. There is no other.
To That belongs the Creation To That belongs the Command To That belongs the Praise And That is powerful over all things. God is enough for us: God is the Best of Protectors Best of Guardians Best of Helpers”
He then kneeled on the ground and placed his right hand into the earth. He beckoned the earth to hear him and rise up and hear his words of pleading now for the soul of Liaqat Begum. He spoke aloud to the earth:
“You who are created by the Highest Soul which in turn emanates from the very Mind of God, who by His Grace gives life to all that you cradle, you who are the “mother” of all that is Nature on this earth are about to receive the body of a wife, mother, sister, grandmother, mother in-law and daughter. Who in this life was known as Liaqat Begum bint Aga Mumtaz Hussain. Do not call her back; let her soul continue to the higher ground. Let her soul travel in Light. Let it not look back and long for the care and worry of those left behind. Let her forget all that tormented her and even all that gave her happiness. Let her soul’s memory be only of the “original memory”; that it is of God and unto God it must return. Let her soul not be attached to this realm by the briefest of times in this incarnation. Oh Earth you who recite the recital of your Lord in ways unknown to humanity, send her soul from your realm to the greater realm safely. Let her soul Fare-Well. I need no witness for this plea save God Himself.”
He raised his hands in prayer once more:
“SubhanAllahhai, walhamdulillahai, walaillahaillallaho wa Allah hu Akbar”
The sun was lower on the horizon as he descended from where knelt he yet the light seemed brighter to him than when he had set foot upon those hills earlier that April evening.
As months passed he looked for signs of his plea and prayer having been accepted. He looked for it in the faces of people he encountered in daily life. He looked for it in the passing of clouds and seasons. He looked for signs in dreams that visited him. He looked for it in the faces, voices and words of his family. His wife and children. His brothers and their families. He looked for it in the words of his mother’s brother and sisters.
He took his plea to his father-teacher and recounted to him the time spent upon the hills. He listened to his father enlighten him once again. He rested with this advice and stopped looking. If he was to know at all, he realised, he would not find it. “It” would find him.
30th August 2008, Mother’s room, past mid-night.
He rose from his slumber while his wife and children were deep in sleep about him in the room. He rose to perform the zikr in the room within the house where his childhood and youth had been spent. The room which was a repose and sanctuary for his mother. There and then he felt compelled to perform the zikr of remembrance of The Lord of the Heavens and Earth.
He began slowly, almost inaudible. He recited every syllable with deep concentration trying to connect with how they would have been uttered for the very first time centuries ago by a man known as a Mercy to Mankind. A man who used to withdraw in to the sanctuary of solitude to be found beneath the starry heavens or within a cave.
He continued past the opening of the zikr and in to the phase on entry. Each line passing beyond his lips as if for the first time. He wept and struggling with emotion continued into the phase of recital of remembrance itself and repeated this phase countless times. Time itself was forgotten. He knew not how long he sat there in remembrance. He then stopped and waited. He felt a “presence”. With eyes remaining closed he raised his face.
She stood before him as if standing in another world. She stood as Vision Complete. She was all that Grace, Beauty, Love and Compassion could endow upon the world. If but those that weep could see how She was now? They would weep anew for what She was now. Such tears that replace anguish with Pure Longing of the highest order which cleanses not a little but entire leaving no corner of grief untouched. As tall as the sky itself. As slender and elegant as the beautiful hands of her wedding day. One hand gently overlapping the other.
She was young but with none of the naïve innocence of youth. She was wise beyond any measure of wisdom we could offer. She was commanding with no want of any adoration. She was awe inspiring and yet displaying a welcoming comfort to those enchanted by her.
She was…. “Motherhood” itself.
She was…. “Motherhood” itself.
An Ideal Form. The Archetype of Motherhood. An archetype that exists by the Grace of its Prior Principle, Divine Intelligence -The Mind of God, The Light of God. Which itself orbiting about the very Source of All, The One -The Supremely Absolute One. The Un-Nameable. The Good. She was in a realm that is intangible, immaterial and placeless. A realm without which this sensible world of matter is nothing. This world a pale reflection of that which is within the Universal Soul entire. The One Soul which gives of itself through Ideal Forms to a world that is entranced by what it receives but does not know why.
Her hair long and black, sweeping though flowing in the breeze never losing its essential form. Words fail to describe not only the Vision to behold but, most importantly, her Presence before him was one of the most real things he had ever experienced. She was more real to him in that moment than when she was embodied. Though his eyes were closed he felt her before him standing tall. He felt as if he could reach out and touch her. A Reality unquestionable and true.
She was one of the perfections of Intellect. A perfection more than ideal symmetry could express. Where only The Light of The Divine has the Power to crown with what is truly noble; Beauty!
First and Last he was awestruck with how beautiful she appeared.
Her Beauty was Mighty.
A beauty which even the ancient writer Homer, on the enchanting Aphrodite, would have bowed towards, just as the magicians of Pharaoh had bowed in the presence of Moses to a Higher Reality.
She appeared untouched and unmoved by anything that we in body suffer from. What we would call as important she would not consider even as a passing thought. However her commanding presence, her gaze was upward. Her profile he would etch upon his mind forever.
She was not self-conscious. She knew there was a Mightier Power above. She bowed to it eternally. A bowing that is neither toward the east nor the west.
Perfect though she was in what she was; she longed yet for a Higher Life. To shed this greatest of lives and “Be” simpler still.
She longed for the very essence of what endowed her with Beauty. She was longing for the One from which Beauty emanates eternally. She still recited “innan lil la hai wa inna alia rajoun” but in a completely superior way to what we do here con-joined with body.
Time and his own identity had stood still for him. Was it minutes or hours he knew not. Time and his very consciousness of presence to himself were absent. As he titled his head up, with his eyes remaining closed, to witness innerly the Vision of her, a mother in this life. Her eyes were clear as crystal waters. Did she even know how magnificent she was? Did she have any idea of her commanding presence?
He felt briefly another presence behind her of his father who by now had also passed to the other side.
Her complexion was fair. She was dressed in a sari which shimmed and glistened strangely. It rippled with streams of silver, white and satin. From being draped over her shoulder to the trails at her feet it shimmered relentlessly. One moment one colour then another. Then all three at once flowing from her left shoulder diagonally down towards her right.
As the pace of the colours slowed she lowered her face toward him. Her face moving from left to right downwards and then her eyes fixing their gaze upon him. Impossible to express what now was the movement within his very soul. She smiled a little and lowered her right hand and placed her palm upon his head. Impossible to express the very state of his soul. With bowed head he sobbed for what seemed an eternity for even being noticed let alone recognised.
He raised his hands and took her hand and kissed it. The coldness of touch from the last time he had seen her was no more than a distant cloud of a memory as he felt the warmth of her hand in his. She had fared well.
Years later, approaching the tenth anniversary of his mother’s passing, he recalled the words his teacher-father (Syed Hasan Askari) had written about the great Sufi Mystic Nizamuddin Auliya and his spiritual connection with his mother who says…
“Baba Nizamuddin! Wake up! We are guests on this day in the House of God!”. And she used to glow with joy, and her hands were warm while she lifted me and held me in her arms. It was my mother who initiated me upon the path of trust and joy, who liberated me once for all from the slavery to the seasons and the conditions of this world.”
See also “A Day Like Any Other” about the passing of beloved Liaqat Begum.
Tim Winter / Abdal Hakim Murad is lecturer in Islamic Studies at the University of Cambridge, and is dean of the Cambridge Muslim College, UK, which trains imams for British mosques. In 2010 he was voted Britain’s most influential Muslim thinker by Jordan’s Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre. His most recent book is Commentary on the Eleventh Contentions (2012). Abdal Hakim Murad regularly leads Juma prayers at the Cambridge central mosque, and has preached in major mosques in Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, Spain, and the United States. Recordings of his khutbas and lectures are widely available in Islamic bookshops. His articles have appeared in The Independent, the London Evening Standard, the Daily Telegraph, The Times, the Catholic Herald, Islamica, Zaman, Neue Zrcher Zeitung and Prospect. He is also a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4s Thought for the Day.
Sincere thanks to Tim Winter / Abdal Hakim Murad for this interview.
“Spiritual Human” Interview with Tim Winter / Abdal Hakim Murad
Musa Askari : What does the term “spiritual” or “spirituality” invoke within you? Despite various manifestations of spirituality in the world do you sense at the heart of “spirituality” itself some common ground where people of different faiths or none may encounter each other? Do you recognise such a thing as “trans-spiritual”?
Abdal Hakim Murad: The meaning of the category of the ‘spiritual’ has been so heavily debased by vague New Age appropriations that, although I have sometimes used it myself as a kind of shorthand, I usually find it useless. So many people tell me that they are ‘spiritual but not religious’; but have nothing to say when asked what this means, other than offering a woolly, half-finished sentence which indicates that they have experienced an emotional high in certain situations. If we try to use the term more exactly, we may find that the use of the word to indicate the action of the spirit – either God’s or our own – breaks down when we admit, as most religions do, that everything in existence is in fact the operation of the spirit. Again, the word typically leads us to confusion. It’s probably better to be Platonic, and speak in terms not of ‘spirituality’ but of beauty, which is ‘the splendour of the Truth’ – wherever beauty is discerned, the spirit is engaging in authentic perception, intuiting, whether we admit it or not, that beauty in the world is the sign of the sacred. That includes beautiful conduct, as well as physical or aural beauty. This would bring us closer to the semantic range of the Islamic word ihsan.
On that kind of category we can of course speak of the possibility of forms of mutual recognition between adherents of outwardly very disparate paths. No sacred tradition has ever marginalized beauty. On a rudimentary level we agree that modernity has replaced beauty with a love of newness and originality; and our leaders normally lament this as a disaster. That is a significant, although rather negative, basis for unity and mutual comprehension. More subtly, it is interesting how the recognition of beauty in, say, music or architecture, very often leaps over formal religious boundaries. Buddhists can feel transformed in cathedrals; and American Catholics admit that they are moved when they visit the Taj Mahal; and so on.
Musa Askari: At times I have, innerly – intuitively, been moved to tears by either reading aloud or remembering the beautiful verse in The Quran, “We are of God and unto God we return” (sura 2: ayat 156) At some inner level something is stirred within the soul (a memory perhaps) and those tears are as gifts, the after effects, powerful but secondary. The primary effect is with the soul, our non-material, invisible, indivisible companion, catching a glimpse of the coat tails of this beautiful verse on “returning” and following it. I recall Hasan Askari sharing the metaphor of a child at play upon hearing the voices of it’s parents calling, leaves the play and rushes to greet them. It is perhaps in that swing from the heart to soul we move from the outer meaning to the inner meaning, from the manifest to the hidden. From the particular to the universal, from multiplicity to unity.
I found it moving and a deeply spiritual statement where in your 2010 interview with The Independent you referred to your conversion to Islam as, “the feeling of conversion is not that one has migrated but that one has come home”. I would be grateful if you could share more about the feeling of “coming home” and perhaps consider relating it to the verse quoted above on returning to God or any other verse you feel relevant?
Abdal Hakim Murad: To enter Islam is to repeat the Shahada (the Testimony of Unity and Prophecy); and the Shahada is really nothing less than a testimony to our Source which is also our native land: our point of origin and our place of return (mabda’ wa-ma’ad).
Rumi says in his Divan: ‘We were with the spheres, among the angels – let us return there, friend, for that is our native city.’ This is another universal kind of statement. In the context of the Holy Qur’an (7:172), it is the Primordial Covenant which was the ‘big bang’ moment at which the points of reflected divine light we call souls came into being and were summoned to testify to their Lord. The Black Stone in the Great Sanctuary is said to contain, in a mysterious way, that covenant; it is ‘God’s right hand on earth’. This is in a homily by Imam Ali: ‘when God took the covenant from all souls, He fed it to this Stone, which testifies to the believer’s faithfulness, and to the betrayal of the rejector.’
The five canonical Prayers are an enactment of this: the shahada during the prayer, said facing the House, affirms the House’s representation of the eternity of God, and also our remembering of the Primordial Covenant. In that sense the Prayer is ‘the pillar of Islam.’ It is our formal act of love and obeisance, and our highest dhikr – recollection of the Beloved. ‘Give us peace, Bilal’, the Holy Prophet would say when he wanted the Call to Prayer to be heard; and he said ‘the coolness of my eye is in prayer.’ The Hajj is a different kind of reenactment, taking the form of a symbolic journey from the periphery to the centre. Like the Prayer, it recalls the Ascension of the Holy Prophet, in which he left his earthly city for the Heavenly Abode.
It is that Abode which is, as the Qur’an reminds us, our ‘refuge’ (ma’wa), and our Abode of Peace (dar al-salam). The Garden is our home; but we can experience an intoxicating breath of its fragrance on earth, if we love and recognize the Gardener, and love and care for His garden and its other guests. The only true disaster for us in this place of wonders and signs is to look around us, and allow the demon within to say: ‘There is no gardener; this is only energy and matter’. From that expression of the ego’s defiance, all sin, without exception, flows. Put differently, it is also the true source of our alienation. In a sense the lover of God is always at home, because he feels around him the traces of his Beloved, on all side, in every moment. Love is to be at home, as well as to long for it.
This is why the true Qur’anic believer follows the counsel of the Holy Prophet: ‘wherever he finds wisdom, the believer has the most right to it.’ He knows that although outward adherence is essential; inward adherence may recognize value and beauty in the most unexpected places and people. Wherever the Beloved is yearned for sincerely; the believer will be respectful, for Beauty and sincerity are always to be honoured. This is the meaning of Sufi ‘tolerance’ – it is not a political or doctrinal category – for God’s Law is always to be revered; it is an acknowledgement, rooted both in scripture and in our social experience, of the reality of inward transformation in people of other traditions.
I believe that your father, rooted in the ancient and nuanced sapiential world of Hyderabadi mysticism, made that the basis of his interreligious work. One starts not with the One, but with the Many – for that is where we find ourselves and in the context of which we build our relationships. Great Muslim cities – and in the days of the Nizams, and for some time thereafter, Hyderabad was certainly one of the greatest – maintained a cosmopolitanism that sat easily with inward sagacity, an urbane and literate courtesy, and also with a passion for the outward resources of Islam. Your father was a product of that world, a representative of a classical Islamic deepness and certainty which is fast disappearing today. The young, although desperately in need of an awareness of the sanctity of religious others, often have no idea it ever existed. In today’s multicultural world, fundamentalism and xenophobia seem to be replacing humility, empathy, and the courage to learn from others. Perhaps this is the greatest tragedy of our times.
Musa Askari: In this clip you read aloud an excerpt of the story “Read in the Name of thy Lord” by Hasan Askari from his book “Alone to Alone: From Awareness to Vision”
It is the story of a mother’s devotion to The Quran, the inner etiquette with which she approaches the scripture, the silence of the moment and being moved to tears by the beauty of the calligraphy. She was a “conscious soul”. Hasan Askari concludes the story with, “The entire world stood still at this amazing recital without words, without meaning, without knowledge. With that touch a unity was established between her and the Quran. At that moment she had passed into a state of total identity with the word of God. Her inability to read the scripture was her ability to hear once again: Read! Read, in the Name of thy Lord.”
At times our calling upon God is not a shared experience. It is not as communities or as collective identities that at times we turn to the Almighty for guidance but in the company of solitude. As a muslim leaves their shoes outside upon entering the mosque so too one perhaps leaves at the threshold of the inner door – one’s inner sanctuary, collective associations (not abandoning them). It can be an experience or “moment” of utter helplessness, of being completely alone with oneself as slowly the “presence” of silence fills the room like a beautiful “fragrance” and there leaps forth from our heart and soul a “calling” upon God.
Can you please talk about what forms the “calling upon God” take within Islamic tradition? From the formal prayer (salat) to spontaneous heartfelt utterances? Also in your opinion to what extent does “silence” play a role in the spiritual life of Islam?
Abdal Hakim Murad: I often reflect, as I listen to sermons, that the virtue of silence is not sufficiently cultivated among my contemporary brothers in faith. Or, I might venture to add, among my sisters. Imam al-Ghazali, borrowing from Ibn Abi Dunya’s book of homilies, The Book of Silence (Kitab al-Samt), sums up very finely the Islamic teaching here. As always, a middle course is required. On the one hand, Almighty God, in whose image we are called to remake ourselves, speaks, and has done so often! Who can count the number of His words and scriptures? ‘Were the sea to be ink for the words of my Lord, the sea, and the like thereof, would run dry’. And His prophets, and most of His saints, speak. But their words are wisdom, springing from the Divine self-communication, Speech, Logos – which is from the Essence and is ultimately something so pure it was can be seen as uncreated, partaking in the Divine pre-existence (azaliyya).
A word can heal a soul, or save a marriage, or bring a saint to completion. But a word can also declare war, or break a heart, or send an innocent man to jail. ‘Whoever can guarantee for me what is between his lips, and what is between his legs; I guarantee Paradise for him!’ promises the Blessed Prophet. It sounds easy, but each of us knows how difficult it is. So the teeth, for the Sufis, are a cage, restraining a lethal beast; the Sufi teachers remind us also that God has given us two ears, but only one tongue. We should listen, and listen to ourselves as well. Very often what we say is to vindicate ourselves; only seldom is it to glorify God or to vindicate others. Hence the cage. But it is the ego which is the touchstone. Imam al-Junayd said: ‘If you crave speech, be silent; if you crave silence, speak!’
Your father’s story about the illiterate woman engaging with the Word of God is one I have used often, or at least once a year, in my Cambridge Islam course. It underlines something that non-Muslims forget: the saving, incantatory, brilliant presence of the uncreated Book, which ‘saves’ and ‘heals’ and ‘shows mercy’ even if not a word of it is formally understood. Most believers are shown, at some point of their lives, the miraculous nature of the Book, when it ‘moves in their hands’; these are the ‘bibliotheophanies’ which strengthen faith and increase our love and awe. I have seen non-Muslim students reduced to tears on reading the Qur’an, whose ‘wind bloweth where it listeth.’
Musa Askari: Hasan Askari from his 1995 speech on Spiritual Humanism: “I asked my self this question: Why? Why more than one religion? In other words I was asking for a theology of world religions. I was asking for a global understanding of religious diversity. Because the diversity was there staring into my eyes. It was there un-mistakably present. And therefore, that was the first stage of my journey; to ask a theological question about more than one religion. It was Brumana consultation in 1972 in Beirut the biggest Christian – Muslim consultation of the century, that in my paper I made it absolutely clear that perhaps, perhaps we need more than one religion. How could one dare to equate the Almighty Unity and Transcendence and Mystery with the form of one faith and practice? If we do so then that one religion becomes a god. And it is a blasphemy. As God’s Transcendence is ineffable, as His Might and Power is infinite, as His Attributes are countless and therefore, there should be as many forms of praising Him, worshipping Him, adoring Him, showing love and devotion to Him. And therefore I came home in a multi religious world. As a muslim it was easy for me to arrive at this position because the Quran is the first scripture in the world which started an inter-religious dialogue. It accepted the reality of revelation being given to all communities across the world. The Quran gave me the first clue to understand the theological enigma of more than one religion. “
When you met with Hasan Askari in the 1990s I expect this may have been one of the topics you discussed. I would be grateful if you could share your thoughts on religious diversity and how these have developed over time? I am asking I suppose the same question Hasan asked himself, “Why more than one religion?”
Abdal Hakim Murad: The Qur’an celebrates human diversity; indeed, it is unusual among monotheistic scriptures in doing so. Significantly, it does not include the Tower of Babel story. The ‘difference of your languages and colours’ is a sign of God. In this, the text, in its original distant Arabian cradle, is anticipating its gigantic global reach. More than any other premodern sacred culture, Islam embraced a diversity of worlds. Vincent Monteil, the late professor of Arabic at the Sorbonne, and a committed Muslim and Sufi, wrote of the ‘five colours of Islam’, in a volume which was a tour de force of scholarship, dealing with the Islam of Africa, the Middle East, the Turkic world, the Perso-Indic world, and the Malay nusantara. In all these places a diversity of humanity has sought the shade of the Holy Prophet’s tree, and all those cultures burst into fruit and flowers when Islam reached them.
Religious diversity, however, is not necessarily part of this; because the Qur’an is also insistent on the absolute importance of truth. The God it describes, with the 99 Beautiful Names, is not just another possible account of an Ineffable Noumenon, it is a true God, and those Names describe Him truly. Hence the law of non-contradiction ensures that different religions, which insist on different accounts of deity, cannot simultaneously be true. To claim that their discourses should be regarded as purely relative, is to denigrate them. Humans have the right to expect that their beliefs will be taken seriously on their own terms, rather than just seen as a set of picturesque metaphors which help our inward transformation.
Musa Askari: From the book “Towards A Spiritual Humanism : A Muslim – Humanist Dialogue” 1991,(Chapter 2, page 24), Hasan Askari writes, “The basic concern for me is the way in which we can reconcile our modern discoveries and our ancient insights. For instance, I subscribe to the theory of evolution, say tentatively, but that theory pertains to the evolution of our physical form, of our physical entity, of our animal identity vis-a-vis the environment – it has nothing to do with our “being” as rational and self conscious. I mean our cognizing identity…………..as soon as we enter into known history we notice a very vast gap between the material evolution of our society, and our mental, philosophical and spiritual evolution. We notice a chasm between the material progress of communities and the great philosophical strides they made. Furthermore, we notice that every great leap in consciousness in the past four thousand years is both a leap in that moment and also an epitome of the entire history of the mental life of mankind. It is the meeting point of both the part and the whole. In no other manner could I explain the emergence of the Upanishads and the Gita in a civilisation that possessed a primitive technology. Similarly, in no other manner could I explain the emergence of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle in a small mercantile economy. I am at a loss to explain the emergence of very penetrating insights and formulations into questions of metaphysics in backward civilizations. Consider for one moment the emergence of Muhammed on the Arabian peninsula. Whatever one says, either for or against him, he was nevertheless a phenomenon. How could a primitive nomadic Bedouin culture produce a mind like his capable of transforming world history – it is simply bewildering…………..it is the phenomenon of the individual leap in evolution which to me contradicts the entire theory of materialistic evolution.”
Where do you see opportunities for non-ideological co-operation/dialogue between secular humanists and people of faith not only in terms of human rights but also on re-examining issues relating to our origins as human and spiritual beings as the above quote from Hasan Askari attempts to do?
Abdal Hakim Murad: Well, there are several questions here. One is the frequently overbegged question of whether ‘human rights’ should be understood through the lens of one culture alone. We speak of ‘universal human rights’ when in reality the rights concerned, for instance in the various generally impressive UN declarations, are those which were acceptable to Western or Westernised intellectuals in a particular historical period. John Gray’s Straw Dogs contains an amusing and rather shattering discussion of this. In fact, the author of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was a Lebanese Catholic intellectual who founded the Phalangist militia which massacred thousands of Palestinian civilians at Sabra and Chatila in 1982. And recently we have seen how most Americans have failed to protest against torture, black sites, special rendition, and state surveillance of civilians, as part of the ‘War on Terror’. In practice, the authors of these declarations promptly set them aside when it suits them to do so.
There may be a disturbing and deep cause for this. It seems to me that one of the weak points of the modern discourse is the disjuncture between ‘humanism’, with its often lofty ideas about the human capacity for altruism and nobility, and the hard Darwinian paradigm of the ‘selfish gene’, which holds that we are the consequence of a billion years of blind selfishness. Hitler was a much more consistent Darwinian than are liberal democrats. This unpleasant truth about the implications of strict materialism has not been honestly faced.
The question of the emergence of Islam as an abrupt paradigm shift in history has attracted much attention. It is hard to find another historical event which changed so much so swiftly. Thanks to the profound love and fellowship among the Companions, a new human type seemed to be created overnight, and great civilizations quickly followed. This does, I think, challenge mechanical understandings of the human species as being reducible ultimately to the ‘selfish gene’ and natural selection over immense periods of time. We have the right to be a little Hegelian here: there are ‘world-historical individuals’ through whom astonishing things are accomplished. Hence Carlyle’s inclusion of the Holy Prophet as perhaps the most salient chapter of his book Heroes and Hero-worship. As Hans Küng has written: ‘Muhammad is discontinuity in person’. Here, more than in any other historical event, we find a challenge to evolutionary reductionism; I think your father was being very wise here.
Science is steadily turning into scientism: a rampant total Theory of Everything, which increasingly either patronises or demonises religion. Believers, whatever their tradition, should help scientists to recognize that a true humanism will be alert to ultimately irreducible, personal, aesthetic and ethical dimensions of human consciousness, and will resist, to its dying breath, the reduction of the sons and daughters of Adam to ‘meat machines’.
LOVE: A question, an idea, a goal, one of those elusive things that has pre-occupied humanity constantly. Therefore my first thought on love is that it is a “Constant”. Never failing and all Embracing. Crossing all categories of identification and limit. Running through them as like wind rushing through the trees and the leaves flutter all of a sudden coming to life. At times the wind rushes with such speed it overpowers, at others a gentle breeze of embrace and we rest in its arms. It is One & Many and yet no thing in one place or locality. Therefore my second thought is that it is “non-material, not physical” and thus available to all at one and the same time despite the differences in expression it may take in our lives – One Love. Leading by consequence to my third thought, one cannot speak of Love without speaking, or better still, “Remembering” one’s Being as non-material also, namely Soul. For me Love’s origin, in our lives, springs from the depth and breadth of Soul. The individual Soul and above it the Universal Soul. Love is that insignia, that spark within the Soul, that seed, which is pure “Longing”. Yearning to be whole, to be complete, to come to a rest after much wandering. It is love within the Soul that drives it, nay, compels it to yearn and long for its Source, once it realizes it has a Source, if it realizes it has a Source. Therefore, my fourth thought love is also a “returning home”. A fullness of Being.
If I had a choice of either constantly feeling Love’s embrace through Soul or choosing that from which the Loving Embrace originates, its Source, I would give up love and choose the Home of Love instead. For what could be more “Loving” than that which inspires the Love I feel and seek, which my Soul feels and seeks? Therefore, my fifth thought, love is also to perhaps “forsake love”, to give it up at the final stage of Soul’s journey. After much wandering and longing, love has brought my Soul from shore to shore, over still and raging oceans only to realise to cross that last threshold there can be no duality. “Do not say two. Say One!” (Hasan Askari). I must give up even the feeling of love and be within, as they say “In-Love”. The ship of the seas is no use now. The journey is of another kind. There in that Realm Soul purified of all its ills and hypnosis, filled with the Vision of Visions, there nothing what I think of love or feel is of any use. What gift can I bring to the Giver of all gifts? No gift will suffice except my very Being, my Soul. I bring it back as it was given, “empty” of all projections. Empty with only that remaining which was given in fullness. “Wheresoever one looks, one sees the Face of one’s Glorious and Majestic Lord” (Quran). It is forgotten that this ayat (verse) is more about the Soul than anything else.
What more drop of love can I add to the Source of Love itself? Then I, as Soul, realise with tears of joy and thankfulness, the Love within my Soul which drew me near to the Source, powerful and wondrous as it was, the wind in my sails, is nothing but an image of the Reality of Love. I give up the image and turn to the Original. Where Love is complete, simple, a Unity of all unities. Therefore my sixth thought, love is “pure”. And after such purification there is perhaps only one thing to do. Be humble with bowed head, to wait in patience for the “Beloved” to arrive. At that threshold one does not enter by one’s will for personal will was left far behind in the earlier stages of the journey. One is invited to enter at the behest of the Beloved – to be “in” Love. As the bride waits for the arrival of the bridegroom, an image well illustrated within the Indian custom as among others. And for that invitation, for that recognition, one would wait an eternity if one had to. This is “loyalty” at its peak. For there is no other to turn to. That is why perhaps we now can have a clue in the beautiful adage, “Home is where the Heart Is”.
One may be wondering why I have not referred to Beauty. Ah, but what to speak of Beauty at this stage, All is Beautiful. Love & Beauty are in Union now. And that is my seventh thought; “Beauty” itself. It drew me from the First and draws me to the Last. Should one be invited to enter in to that “Presence”, the journey continues and I cannot speak on that at present for that is Mystery, Beyond Being.
There is knowledge of Unity-Oneness (Tawhid) and then there is Unity-Oneness it-Self. The two are not the same. Words are of no use at that highest stage.
With such a vision, with love considered, in my view considered properly with Soul, one can then engage with the world, with family, relationships, friends, neighbours, “strangers” (in truth there are no strangers to the Soul), seeing that behind all such relationships is the same Love, one-many. “In Love” there is no such thing as the “other”. All are One. Then one may say with utmost sincerity, “Your soul and my soul are one Soul. Your God and my God is One God.” (Hasan Askari).
Of particular interest, spiritually, across diverse traditions, has been and remains the relationship between Master-Disciple, Guide-Guided and Teacher-Pupil. That relationship sits within my heart and Soul all the days of my Life. Beyond grateful to have known it and know it still.
The pendulum swing of Life. Life as a Soul, un-embodied, embodied and un-embodied once more. On the upward swing “we are of God and unto God we return”. On the downward swing, “we are of God and unto God we return”. Only as Souls can one recite this.
From Love, With Love and In Love now and forever. Amen!
*(photograph, January 1995, Hasan Askari & Musa Askari)
*(Thank you to Rahul Singh for asking me about “Love”)
On the passing of my mother written in 2007:
by Musa Askari
It was a day like any other. The dawn light would emerge slowly enveloping the night. The stars would fade in the sky and the sun would rise brining with it all the glory it had to bestow upon the earth. This rising would remind all those with eyes to see that the Universal Soul was taking its place upon the Throne of creation. The Universal Soul emanating as a ray of light from the Sun of all suns, One who sustains all that simply; is.
On such a day she would rise from her sleep that morning perhaps with no idea that this was the last day upon the earth. That the ordinary everyday things she did every morning and afternoon would take on greater significance simply because it would be the last time she would perform them.
The last time she would look at herself in the mirror and see her reflection looking back at her as she preformed her morning ablutions and combed her hair and put on her clothes. The last time she would see an image of her image. An image that was a reflection of her very soul.
The last time she would prepare food and eat her last meal or take a sip of water or take a cup of warm tea into her gentle hands. How was she to know that as she held that cup so carefully it was the same way God had held her all throughout her life?
The last time she would tend her garden and clean the weeds and turn the soil so that it would breathe with more ease. The last time she would smell the fragrance of a flower or feel the earth in her hands. The very dust from which her Lord had made her body is what she tended to. This earth that she tended was a creation of the inner peace that always resided within her soul, alas that she could have tasted this peace more in her life.
The last time she would feel the wind upon her face and hear the flutter of birds’ wing and their song. The last time she would wipe her brow or feel a rain drop fall in to her hand.
The last time she would pray salat to her Maker and offer up her last prayer.
The last time she would speak with another, a son, a daughter, her grandchildren, her brother, her husband.
Then would come the time when tired and fatigued from her toil in the garden she would take her last footsteps in to the house. The footsteps that began when she first walked as a child in to her mothers’ arms were now about to end. The last thoughts that passed through her mind and the last memory, recent or old, that would flash across her consciousness. The last time she would lie down never to rise as a body again. The last breath as she slept and everything within her came to rest and she was returned from which she came. May God have mercy on her Soul.
Her last day was a good day. With her tending the garden she left a sign for others. Always tend to the garden of your mind. Clear out the weeds of thoughts that infect your emotions and distract you from yourself and from those you love and have hurt you. Remember they are weak also. Having done that pay attention as time passes to new weeds and clear them. Having done that turn the soil of your mind and regenerate with new flowers and let kindness blossom like a spring morning. Then you will see and feel that you are becoming free and able to see things as they really are.
On the passing of a loved one we often think of ourselves here and when was the last time we saw them, held them, talked to them and heard their voice. It is also worth taking time to ponder what was their last day like? What was it like to have done the normal things for the last time?
It was like any other day.
*Therein, hides the beauty and kindness of God to my dear mother. That on taking her back He will not alarm her. He will not let fear come into her heart on the last day by letting her know it is the last day. Not on this day.
To Him belongs the Dominion, to Him belongs the Command.
In the very everydayness He has enveloped His Mercy to you on the last day. In the ordinary hides often the extra-ordinary. That God has weaved his taking you back in to the very fabric of your outward existence. When he is able to do this in your outer life what can he not do for you in your inner reflective and meditative life?
The inner life is what remains enshrined in the soul. This is the insignia within the soul of its association with body and leaving it again. The inner life has now burst through and can wait no longer to be the outer life of the soul. God is truly kind in helping with this transition by not alarming you on the last day.
As in birth a baby does not know it is about to be born so in death the mind and heart do not know with certainty that this is the day. He is the First and the Last. He is there at the birth of your life in this world, from the first cell to the passing of your life from this world. Why would he want to alarm you?
Every Day and Every Night and throughout all the days and nights He is ever-present. In such a presence we are humbled and truly kind and forgiving to each-other. By such a presence peace makers act and peace is bestowed and troubles are left far behind.
Every Day God gives you back your soul and so you rise to see your loved ones again and live another day until the last day. So live now until whatever day that be, live not in the past but in the now. In the everyday and ordinary God is to be found also.
She closed her eyes, she was tired now and wanted to rest and God heard her call and I pray she rests eternally and the flowers bloom eternally.
Oh my mother I remember you this day.
Salam alai kum. Salam alai kum. Salam alai kum.
Peace be upon you. Peace be upon you. Peace be upon you
* (And if there be a period allotted to all by fate, to anticipate the hour could not be a happy act” Plotinus)