For me, a first year BA English Literature student at Kingston University in London, enclosed by quintessential Western atheism and hedonism; Bollywood bonanzas; Salafi, Sufi and Hizbut Tahrir skirmishes; Qadianis; Kozovo ‘Jihadis’; and Pakistani parental, tribal expectations; the prospect of the Rihla was rather intriguing and daunting.
The powerful figure of my Daada Abba, paternal grandpa, Dilawar Khan, had passed on to the world of infinity and the spectre of death wrestled with my hedonistic soul. That and a die-hard, shadowy Hizbut Tahrir guy who had moved into our halls of residence and pursued us lads daily exhorting us to prayer, taqwa and the ‘Islamic personality’ which would lead us on to revive the Khilafa in South London. Well, in our halls of residence perhaps. Or even in our chaotic bedrooms!
A troubling but profound event pushed me further towards the boundary of repentance and spiritual oblivion. I was driving back from Kingston to Aylesbury on the M25, late in the night, desperate to get home in time to drop the family car off and beg a lift from my older brother back to London. I had won free flights and tickets to Euro Disney from the jean shop I was working at because of smashing sales targets for LEE and WRANGLER jeans. It must have around 3am and my flight from Heathrow was around 10am.
Anyway, in my rising panic, I took the wrong exit on the motorway and was heading towards Gatwick instead of Watford! Cursing my stupidity, I figured the next exit would put me back on track (these were the days way before SAT NAV….) Providence had it that the next exit nudged me onto a one-way lane, which was now heading deep south. Yikes! I literally punched the steering wheel. I was not going to get back home in time and could miss my flight! However, the added salt to my wound was the realisation that I was lost… I didn’t know where I was going. At that moment, when I felt my self losing control of the situation and feeling a disconcerting helplessness, I called out to Allah. I cried out in frustration. But no reply emerged. Instead, taking a leap of faith, I took an exit onto another motorway, praying that it would put me back on track and display some familiar places. Alhamdullilah, eventually, I got signs for Aylesbury and proceeded homewards.
But now I was being flashed by a procession of drivers careering past me. I pulled over and checked outside, the despair returning. My headlights had blown out! I didn’t have AA membership and it looked like I was definitely going to miss my flight. A spark of determination and desperation fired me up, I drove onwards, ignoring the flashes and praying the police did not come by. Luckily, I came across a petrol station which happened to have one headlight bulb left. That was better than nothing…. So now I had one light to get me home. I prayed all the way, hoping that I did not encounter the police- a young, Asian male driver was a perfect storm for the cops. And alhamdullilah, I got home, my brother graciously drove me to the airport, I visited Paris with my colleague and things did transpire according to my desires.
But that moment of despair and desperate colloquy with the divine haunted me and lived in my heart thereafter. That moment of getting lost, losing control and then the fortune of being warded away from trouble played out. It was as if I had been cast out to sea, seen life in its rawness and then been brought back safely to shore. At the time, one of the texts we were reading was Shakepeare’s, The Tempest. One line stood out for me from the play from the shipwrecked prince, Ferdinand: “The music crept by me on the water”. In the play, Ferdinand feels haunted and intrigued by this music, unbeknown to him played by the sprite, Ariel, which leads him to discover the beauty of Miranda. For me, my whole life seemed to converge onto this moment of being lost, which had impelled me to find something deep within.
A week later, still haunted, and wishing to relieve my conscience, I decided to start ‘practising’ Islam. The next day, after mentally shedding old skin, old haunts, old ‘friends’, I approached the openly Salafi President of the Islamic society and announced: “I want to start praying brother.”
“Masha Allah,” he smiled, “Masha Allah.”
From then on, it was no longer about studying and partying, but studying and praying. No longer just English poetry, prose and drama to negotiate but the sublime rhetoric of the Quran and sunnah. Well, let’s just say, learning the Arabic alphabet properly… No longer indulging in the pleasures of the flesh but avoiding the haraam. Especially gelatine! There were additions to this. For our Salafi crew, it was also avoiding the shirk, bida, culture, Hindu customs and unIslamic practices of our Pakistani heritage. For the Hizbut Tahrirees, it was a step further: not only avoiding the shirk, the bida and the customs, but also working for the Khilafa, reinstalling the Khilafa, protesting for the Khilafa, live, eat, sleep Khilafah. (But don’t worry, brothers, you can still wear designer clothes and indirectly check out the ‘scenery’ while acting piously and ‘khilafaly’. Keep it halal brothers, keep it halal. One look.)
Then there were the so-called Sufis, or the Pakistan society, which was their official name at Kingston student union at that time. The Salafis and the Hizbees told us to stay clean away from them. In fact, one of the Salafis told me that he once strode into a Sufi meeting at the uni, and shouted: “If you worship Muhammad (sws) stay here, if you worship Allah (swt), come with me!” Wow, what a piece of rhetoric, I thought, remembering my English literature classes. Funny though, something about this Salafi reminded me of Malvolio from Twelfth Night: (Also part of Shakespeare module I was taking). “Some are born great; some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them!” Well, this brother’s rhetoric was not quite on the level of Shakespeare, but he was very Malvolian!
Then the Hizbees would sneer at the ‘Sufis’ declaiming their servitude to the British, Zionist enterprise and failure to embark on Khilafa and jihad. “They love the Kafirs, brother, they just sit in their houses and use their bida tasbihs. They’re useless… What we need is a system brother, a system that will bring the rule of Allah back onto the earth. Islam is not about the five pillars only- it is also politics, brother, politics.” Funny, something about these guys reminded me of Marxist ideologues (Another elective module I happened to be taking was Political theory.)
The ‘Sufis’, or the Baralwis, they were proud to announce, equally stuck their noses up to the others. “Don’t listen to these ‘warbies’, come with us.” Hmm, these guys reminded me of something familiar (Our local mosque- Baralwis versus Tablighis!)
In the diner, the restauranteur was a Qadiani who didn’t hold back his views: “Let me show you in my Quran, let me show you.”
The Kosovo ‘Jihadis’ would walk around acting like they owned the place: “yes brother, I’ve been on jihad in Kosovo, alhamdulillah, alhamdulillah. I don’t really tell anyone, but just saying, to encourage good works, alhamdullilah, alhamdulillah.”
In phone calls and visits home, we were bombarded with: “Get an education; get a profession; get married!”
And to top it off, in my lectures, the English professors would eloquently deride supernatural beliefs and systems. One professor would often announce: “there is no such thing as Absolute Truth. Truth is unstable, ever shifting, ever moving and changes with context- let us consider this when we read a text and embark on interpreting it and even interpreting the world…”
A cacophony of competing values and perceptions, a minefield. I thought practising Islam would bring in a quiet life of worship and purity. I thought it would quell that haunting feeling of being lost. Instead, this new way of life existed in what seemed like a maze of ideological mayhem. Civil war between Muslims, external threats from atheists. For the atheist English professors, the ‘truth’ lay in finding the textual pathway to a secular, unstable notion of truth that did not hinder the freedom of interpretation. For the plethora of Muslim groups, occupying the correct pathway to the truth seemed like the “be-all and the end-all”. Like Macbeth, the ambition was to be at the top of the truth pyramid, to be the self-appointed kings of truth and all else were Macduffian munafiqun (hypocrites).
That’s when Providence had it that, a friend, Sidi Ednan Ahmed leant me a book: Rumi- Poet and Mystic, translated by R A Nicholson. And Sidi Masud Khan introduced me to what was termed as ‘traditional’ Islamic scholarship and scholars. Rumi’s poem, ‘Religious Controversy’, calmed the voices for me. “The number of locks around a treasure show its true value…” There was great benefit in being patient and steering through these voices to reach spiritual realisation. And Sidi Mas’s contacts, which included amazing people like Sidi Rifat Sheikh, Dr Ridwan Saleem, Shaykh Saquib Mahmood, Sidi Uthman Bhally and Sidi Jawad from Hounslow, introduced me to the Rihla and hadith of Jibril: Islam, Iman, Ihsan. Traditional Islam, taught by scholars whose teaching was supported by isnads, chains of transmission all the way back to Prophet, Allah bless him and grant him peace.
The Rihla, organised by what was then, the Ibn Abbas Institute, was an intensive course in August 1997, in Nottingham, at Jamia Al Huda, an Islamic school. In the previous year, this course was delivered at Jamia Al Karam in Retford, a school run by the great scholar, Imdad Pirzada and I believe there were earlier Rihlas in the Americas as well.
The Rihla course leaflet was intriguing. It introduced the idea that the Western, secular world did not possess a monopoly over intellectual and cultural capital- Islam had a golden history waiting to be tapped into. Even the map of the Islamic world was in contradistinction to the widely-accepted Western world map. Intriguing indeed. But what was daunting was the course itself: the intense study of Arabic grammar, Islamic jurisprudence, the Hikam of Ibn Ataillah. Then there were the teachers: Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, Shaykh Nuh Ha Mim Keller, Shaykh Abdullah Al Qadi, Ustadha Besa. Americans, converts, Arabs, experts, people who had carried out in-depth study. This all sounded like a dreamworld…
When I tested these ideas to the Salafis, they said: “Do not go near them, they will mess up your aquida”. The guys at the Pakistan society gave positive vibes, a Tablighi brother, who loved Imam Hamza, really encouraged me. The Hizbees were already distancing themselves from me.
A more subtle challenge was dealing with my English literature fraternity. My teachers had seen me change from a clean-shaven, care-free, Levis 501 student to a bearded, salwar qameez wearing militant. One teacher, a brilliant professor, used to arrange seminars in a beer garden. I would begrudgingly go along and take part. He knew I had become more ‘Islamic’. And what proceeded from him and others was a more vigorous and eloquent dressing down of established truths and medieval thought through their interpretations and commentary of Shakespeare, poetry, and Victorian prose. One professor, Dr Gregg Eaves, was a genius, a real virtuoso of literature. He would literally be buzzing with energy in lectures, wandering around the room whilst reading, and his deconstruction of the texts was exhilarating and breathtaking. As were his critiques of religion and supernaturalism. In his unpacking of Elizabethan poetry, he would highlight the inherent misogyny, in line with societal and religious expectations. He would deftly weave insights into poets like Thomas Wyatt and others, whom he suggested subtly sought to question established truths and snub foolish, peevish religious ideas. During these lectures, I would become increasingly aware of the fact that out of all the students consuming these lectures and seminars, my way of life seemed to be closest to all that was tyrannical, oppressive and soul-destroying for these scholars of literature. In fact, Dr Gregg, whilst teaching Toni Morrison’s Beloved to us in an American literature module, once wrote a rather penetrating comment in the margin of my essay. When I commented on the character Paul D, his tobacco tin and how he symbolically kept his heart in it, Dr Gregg wrote a comment next to this line: “just like many other men since…” I thought he was alluding to me, that in my religious turn, I too was keeping my heart in a tin, I too was suppressing all my natural desires and urges by following a medieval, authoritarian approach to life. This made me wonder: does Islam allow your heart to flourish? Or does it keep the heart locked away in a tin? Am I limiting myself by practising Islam or am I emancipating myself?
So, what had been an annus horribilis was followed by an annus mirablis! I attended the 97 Rihla with these mind-bending months behind me, filled with disquiet but also a sense of expectation. I sought solace from the student union battles and insidious whispering of secular doubts. I followed the music, like Ferdinand in The Tempest. But it didn’t lead me to Miranda. Instead it led me to the beauty of the hadith of Jibril: Islam, Iman and Ihsan and knowledge of the signs.
In this tranquil private school setting in Nottingham, and with these scholars and students from around the world, I experienced knowledge, lectures, and presentations, which were like the brilliance I had experienced at uni, but wholly different as well. Here were not wishy-washy ideas about exploring your desires and being inwardly free like a Western literary intellectual. Here, Shaykh Hamza gave some very decisive words from Imam Al Ghazali: “Time is like a sword, if you don’t cut with it, it will cut you down…. If you don’t busy your self with good, it will busy you with evil…” Here, the depth of knowledge was similar to Dr Gregg’s, but there was an indescribable presence and reality to the ideas expressed, as I remember Shaykh Nuh Keller saying: “if you want to know how your state is with Allah, examine how much Allah means to you.”
We began learning Arabic grammar through the Ajrumiyya, Hanafi fiqh with Ustadha Besa. I saw this face-veiled woman, Ustadha Besa, give erudite and inspiring lectures, mirroring and eclipsing the erudition I saw in my female literature professors. I saw Shaykh Ibrahim Osi Efa speak about the Islamic tradition with an irrepressible intensity and reality. Ustadh Hasan Abdallah, an African American martial arts expert, taught us some amazing moves and gave some wonderful insights. In my local masjid growing up, I had only ever received religious instruction from male, Pakistani, Punjabi maulvis and pirs, some of whom were brilliant and some of whom were mean-spirited and rather malicious (see http://www.novid.co.uk/articles/the-rise-and-fall-of-aylesbury-asians-1991-1992-part-2/ ). But now we were exposed to Black, American, Nigerian teachers, White converts, Arabs, female scholars, which only helped to enrich and cement our faith and show the true diversity and richness of the Islamic world.
I saw Shaykh Abdullah Al Qadi teach the recitation of Quran with love and passion, unlike the severity and thrashings of the maulvis we had experienced growing up, but also with a sacred devotion I felt that was the missing heart of Western academia. He said things like: “Be with Allah like you’re a baby. Cry out to him and be needy to Him like a baby is for his mother.” Here there was not just intellectual learning, here there was instruction on how to be with the Divine reality. Here there was no pressure to reinstate the Khilafa or purge shirk and bida. Instead there was exposure to classical knowledge and the scholars allowed the texts and traditions to speak for themselves. Here was knowledge, but not for the sake of it or to get a job or for just appreciation, like the English literature essays, here the knowledge was to close the gap between your self and your Lord. Knowledge was a bridge to lead you to the divine presence. Here the professors, the teachers, led you in prayer, modelled gracious behaviour and offered heartfelt advice. Here, for a whole month, the teachers sat with the students after morning and sunset prayers and invoked supplications and invocation in circles of light. This and praying behind them in congregational prayers moved me like nothing else.
Here the professors didn’t just deconstruct the texts with a sense of intellectual guile and sophistication. Here the professors deeply loved and revered the authors of the books they were teaching. This quality was markedly absent in our secular university environment. In that democratic environment, you should not hero-worship Shakespeare or revere him. He is a great writer, historically, but we as intellectuals can grapple and interpret his texts as equals, if not more enlightened because us professors are now furnished with technological and empirical knowledge. However stimulating and brilliant the English literature course was, I began to feel quite bored and unimpressed by its secular, intellectual superiority and found comfort in the deep quiet reverence that Shaykh Hamza had for Ibn Ajjaroom, that Shaykh Nuh had for Ibn Ata Illah and that Shaykh Abdallah had for the science of tajweed. The English professors were indeed exceptional, inspiring, engaging. I could see why people fell for the voices of secular thought. But, like Ferdinand, I was being led now by a different kind of music on a different type of island shore, by a different type of unseen force.
In this Rihla environment, I saw people from Baralwi-Sufi backgrounds, Deobandhi backgrounds, and even some Salafi and Hizbut Tahrir-minded individuals together, consuming the knowledge. Here, I met Muslims from North America, the West Indies, the Arab world and other cities around the UK. An Egyptian scholar, Shaykh Mohsin Najjar, visited, giving a passionate lecture on love of the Prophet, Allah bless him and grant him peace. Shaykh Abu Bakr Ba Shoayb, an East African shaykh, came and gave a stirring talk on adab and acceptance. I will never forget the haunting qasida he sang in Tanzanian style. Horizons were expanded; stereotypes were shattered. I traversed around these sights and manifestations like Ferdinand caught in the gaze and wonder of Miranda. My heart didn’t feel like it was in a box here, like Paul D. Here I felt expansion. Islam was the right place to be. Allah is the reality, and knowledge, application and dhikr lead to Him.
One of the enduring aspects from this Rihla was that a dear brother, and our Arabic grammar teacher, Ustad Dean Othman, kindly lent me a tape of a Turkish hadrah of the Halveti Jerrahi order from Istanbul. I listened to this for the first time in a car and was spellbound…. And I have been spellbound and attracted to this zikr ever since. The haunting invocations and deep, resonating remembrances transported me and moved me like nothing I had felt before. Since that time, I have played these hadrahs, and the ones led by Shaykh Nuh (may Allah bless him) in Jordan, in the background of my life events and they have helped me to steer through rough seas and to stay clear of ominous islands and bewitching voices floating on the winds of fate.
I remember returning home that month, energised but then hankering for that Rihla experience, desperate to feel that spiritual exhilaration once more. On my arrival home, I learned that Princess Diana had passed away, the nation was in a state of mourning, and I felt as if I had been away in the deserts with a magical people, off the grid, off the trodden path, off the radar of the dunya, shaytan and mass media. I so wanted to be in that environment again, and when I heard the Rihla was to be in Fez in 1998, I leapt at the opportunity!
The 1997 Rihla lead us to the vision of the ocean. It enticed us to move ahead and wade.
1998, Fez Rihla, Morrocco
I attended the Rihla a year later, at the end of the second year of my literature degree at Kingston. That year, the Islamic society had rocked and convulsed in a series of paradoxes and insights. Having slightly more knowledge now, I was more at ease moving around the Islamic societies and negotiating secular English professors.
I generally kept my Islamic views to myself. The Salafis knew I had been influenced by Hamza Yusuf and the ‘Sufis’ and I was careful what information I wanted to leak out, as we were all quick to indulge in polemics.
But a funny incident stands out. The Salafis had a secret weapon, a resident ‘scholar’. This brother was wonderful, mercurial, and deeply knowledgeable. His Arabic was impeccable. But he would have fits and starts where he would lambast the Hizbees and the Sufis as innovators and misguided. However, at other times, rather unannounced, he would swing the other way. Once he was giving a tafseer session on the Quran, translating verses into English. Us brothers and sisters of the Islamic society listened. Suddenly, he changed his train of thought. “Brothers and sisters, I have to tell you about some people who are the real Islam, the true Muslims. They are the Sufis, brothers and sisters, the Sufis. I really have to study them and then I will talk to you about them.” Suddenly, the lecture hall was awkwardly silent, the Salafi President of the Islamic society looked horrified and the vice-president tried to laugh it all off. “He’s only kidding…” They stopped the talk. Inwardly, I was laughing my head off at their attempts to shut down their own secret weapon, who was the only knowledgeable person in the Arabic language. This was yet again another example of sectarianism seeking to block out knowledge from the faithful.
On the literary front, the atheistic undertones rumbled on, underneath the textual interpretations. With the English professors, we were once again studying Shakespeare, but also British fiction, the great James Joyce and his Portrait of an Artist As a Young Man and Ulysses. Dr Gregg and his friends went to town within this module on Modernist texts. Joyce’s, Stephen Dedalus, was the archetypal repressed, Catholic boy, who threw off religious and Catholic societal constraint and was eventually rewarded with his epiphany of the bronze beauty on the street. This hedonistic, lecherous vision was a striking contrast to the sublime unveilings of Shaykh Bayazid al Bistami I was reading about in Muslim Saints and Mystics, and Ibn Al Arabi in Sufis of Andalusia. Another figure who had caught my wonder at the time was the Algerian saint, Shaykh Ahmed Al Alawi, through Martin Ling’s book, A Sufi Saint of the Twentieth Century. I was cheered by his line: “you think we are with you but inwardly we are in the highest heaven.”
Joyce’s thirsty sexual vision was arguably the consequence of growing up in a fire and brimstone style of religious life. From my readings, I knew that Islam favoured sexuality within marriage, and this Joycian journey was not as pertinent to the Muslim experience. Celibacy does drive the heart into a box and perhaps leaves it boiling there perilously. But I began to wonder what people like Joyce would have made of sacred figures like Shaykh Al Alawi. Joyce’s experience of religion would have been with pious, severe Catholic priests who argued adherents to purge the soul of the sins of the flesh. Joyce’s mother tried to instil the fear of God in him. Shaykh Ahmad Al Alawi on the other hand recited the name of the God over the universe and studied Maliki fiqh and aquida. This year, we also studied American transcendental literature from the likes of Emerson (whose contemplations really echoed some of the spirit of Ibn Ataillah’s Hikam), Thoreau’s Walden Pond (I was fascinated by his references to Shaykh Saadi- something our lecturers did not really explore), but also Nathaniel Hawthorne’s, The Scarlet Letter. You couldn’t get a stronger criticism of religion and religious people than The Scarlet Letter. Who would want to be a practising Christian or religious person after reading and internalising that book! The main couple, an adulterous priest and a local married woman, face oppression by a fundamentalist, unforgiving Christian society.
We also studied African American literature from the likes of Booker T Washington, with his The Future of the American Negro, and Toni Morrison’s, Beloved. The African American experience was both tragic but energizing. Reading about the Harlem Renaissance and texts like The New Negro highlighted the vitality and resurgence of African Americans against their oppressors. For once, we were confronted with the excesses of the Western Greco-Roman civilisation. In literary theory, after reviewing the fundamental ideas from Saussure and other structuralists, we learned about the theory of heteroglossia from Bakhtin and how a text could occupy several realities and interpretations simultaneously. This reminded me of how the Shaykhs in the 97 Rihla explored the various interpretations of the mutashabihaat, ambiguous, verses of the Quran. Although the connections were hazy, the intellectual and spiritual reality of the Rihla was helping me to untangle and negotiate a way through these thought processes without falling into kufr. I followed Nathanial Hawthorne’s characters and felt sympathy for them and anger towards religious fundamentalism but imbued my readings with the kalima. The Rihla had taught me to seek knowledge for the sake of Allah, even in so-called secular knowledge. In fact, from the aquida sessions on the Sanusiyya with Shaykh Hamza, we learned that knowledge is an attribute of Allah, and all knowledge comes from Him. Our acquisition and dissemination of knowledge is a test from God. Either it will be for you or against you, but ultimately, all knowledge originates from God.
So, I tried to take this reality with me whilst reading books like The Scarlet Letter. Hawthorne didn’t like the Abrahamic God because his notion of Godhood was tainted by his context. But what wisdom can I glean from the book? This is a key question I learned from the Rihla. Shaykh Hamza and Shaykh Nuh were quoting back and forth not only from Islamic sacred works but also from Western works. This implied to me that studying literature should be about finding the wisdom that is in it, reading and surveying the writer’s thoughts, picking and internalising what was helpful for your relationship with Allah and critiquing the rest. Once again, Hawthorne had not met the like of Shaykh Ahmed Al Alawi. Western literature was fraught with writers and ideas at odds with a religious tradition that was far too severe. The contemporary Muslim world was not exactly a haven of enlightened religion. The Muslim world had its detractors, like Rushdie and his Satanic Verses. Had Rushdie been seduced by his own tradition’s ma’rifa, direct experience of God, and ishq, cosmic Divine love, through the likes of Bulleh Shah and Daata Saab, instead of so-called Western freethinking, he would have had fana– annihilation in the divine presence and a release from the vicissitudes of this mortal coil. Perhaps if Rushdie had felt the tears of a true ashiq, lover of the Prophet, and felt the sheer irresistible joy of the Prophet’s presence, then he wouldn’t look down on a religion which has left a permanent print of love, awe and life in the subcontinent. Those who take things to disbelief, cynicism, violence and to an extreme, are bereft, and those who live for a drop of the wine of unity are overwhelming rich.
Why wasn’t there a book like The Scarlet Letter in the Muslim world, I thought to myself during these times? Because first and foremost, Muslims did not see sex and sensuality as an evil thing. Imams do fall in love and get married. Allah is beautiful and loves beauty. We have created for you mates. They are your garment and you are their garment. Quite normal. Yes, sexual impropriety was dealt with severely in the Muslim world, but people at heart still loved their religion, most people at least, it seemed to me. D H Lawrence found The Scarlet Letter an admirable and wonderful work of the imagination. Lawrence and Hawthorne could not see the beauty in revealed religions. I knew that people like them would never warm to the world of Abraham, Jesus and Muhammad, upon them be peace. But, once again, one had to feel some sympathy. Lawrence and Hawthorne had not been guided to the islands of Islam, Iman and Ihsan. They had not met people of ma’rifa, of intoxication and sobriety. Perhaps they were too proud to investigate further. But their religious traditions taught them that desire, in and of itself, was a fallen reality. No wonder they rebelled from it and sought out alternatives, transcendentalism for Hawthorne, hedonism for Lawrence.
Dr Gregg Eaves also presented the poetry of Wallace Stevens, Whitman and Yeats to us in a poetry module. Stevens’s poetry particularly stood out for me as a blueprint for the secular mindset and Dr Gregg eloquently elucidated this. In Stevens’s famous poem, The Snowman, he argued that “One must have a mind of winter…not to think / Of any misery in the sound of the wind”. One must not project anything on nature and accept the exterior, objective reality for what is it as: “For the listener, who listens in the snow, / And nothing himself, beholds / Nothing that is not there and nothing / that is.” One interpretation of these lines, according to Dr Eaves, was that seeing religious, spiritual and metaphysical ideas in the world was projecting “misery in the sound of the wind”, was projecting your own inner fears and desires onto a cold, objective exterior world. It was only by relinquishing metaphysics, and developing a cold “mind of winter” that you could witness the pure objectivity of nature and the world, beholding “nothing that is not there”. To me, it seemed Stevens’s “mind of winter” was immersed in the act of negation (laa ilaha), but for me, this was only half of the process in the kalima- affirmation followed negation, (illallah).
Also, in this year, for British fiction, we studied texts like Conrad’s, The Secret Agent, Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Joyce, and Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines. Through these famous works, our English department forged a worldview that Western society had developed literature and thought which unpicked and undid the repressive knots of religion, colonial patriarchy, and hierarchy in favour of a democratic, individualistic utopia. The city of London was at the heart of this.
I had yet to experience how other international cities presented alternative approaches to life in this world. I had been to Pakistan, but as a 12-year-old, I lacked the maturity to notice this. However, the Rihla in Fez unveiled the beauty and magnificence of a city inspired by tawhid, the Quran and love for the Prophet, Allah bless him and grant him peace. The spirit of Fez was imbued with the spiritual and intellectual energy which had thrived there for generations. London was a smouldering hubbub of historical and contemporary cultural traffic, congesting the hearts and minds but it was exhilarating and mind-blowing. A myriad of Divine names manifesting and playing off each other. Fez was almost like a mysterious, timeless island waiting to be discovered by us Western Islamic wannabes, surrounded by a haze of intrigue and tension, as to what we would discover there. But we found no King Kong lurking in the darkness, waiting for a sacrifice, nor any sirens bewitching us with their voices off the shore. This was more like time travel.
I remember the magic of the ancient city of Fez for the first time, entering Bab Al Joloud, and threading through the streets, bazaars, tinker markets before entering our resting place, Al Attareen and the blessed khalwa room of Imam Al Jazuli, Allah be pleased with him. Such a contrast to London! Even in the ancient parts of London, modern memorabilia and paraphernalia pop out where you least expected it, like cash machines and computer screens in shop windows, parking meters and council notices. But in these timeless streets in the Fez, it felt as if you had left the late twentieth century and returned to a bygone age of travellers, merchants, artisans, scholars, and saints. What I wasn’t prepared for was one of the secrets of Fez and of other Islamic cities. The streets were cramped and claustrophobic in places, but when you entered a door, suddenly you were greeted with a refreshing expanse, an exquisite fountain and courtyard, a secret within a secret. The Muslim world did look rather strict and austere on the outside, and once you penetrated it, there was a wealth of meanings behind closed doors. Whereas in London, all hung loose, what you see is what you get, thought is free, sensuality is open, the self is apparent, reason is king, and the imagination is queen. In Fez, out in the streets, there was a sense of constriction, but then once you were invited inside, there was a great sense of expansion. London seemed to lose its secrets by revealing all. Old Fez seemed to preserve its mystery through its outward austerity.
The Qarwiyyin mosque was a mesmerising place which taught me this lesson the most. Once you stepped through the door, from the narrow street, and you stood in the courtyard, with its green and white geometric floor tiling and Alhambraesque water fountains, all cares and concerns slipped away and you suddenly felt your self being washed away in the trickles of water and the lines of geometry. You felt your whole soul eclipsed by an almighty display of tawhid, unity. So simple, yet so profound, so alive, yet making you accept your mortality there and then. The Quranic recitation was a wondrous gathering after fajr and maghrib daily, where the people of Fez, chanted a hizb of the Quran, in Maghribi style, full of love and joy. You wouldn’t find this happening in a secular university- chanting the works of Shakespeare everyday in the lobby! This choral chanting was unique to this otherworldly, spiritual environment where people had inwardly submitted to the divine presence. Sitting in these gathering was breath-taking and no amount of intellectual trickery, critical theory or Wallace’s mind of winter could explain away the sacred reality of these gatherings.
The Fez Rihla gave me a glimpse of what ancient students would have experienced, padding through the labyrinthine streets, sitting at the feet of experts in the mosque, taking notes on lessons, then going away and finding some links between the ideas and concepts learned. Our lessons were in the great hall of the Qarwiyyin, our teachers were traditional scholars from Fez, Shaykh Abdul Hayy Al Amrawi, Shaykh Muhammad At Ta’weel, and Shaykh Abdul Aziz Al Kasar, may Allah bless them all. Our curriculum for the month was based around the classical text, Al Murshid Al Moin, from the great North African scholar, Ibn Ashir, Allah bless him, with a combination of aquida, fiqh and tajweed. Our generous teachers, Shaykh Hamza, Shaykh Jamal Adh Dhahabi, Shaykh Anwar Muhaymin and others, had the task of translating the lessons to us Westerners. Shaykh Abdul Hayy was an old man but his teaching style revealed a miraculously young heart and boundless energy! He taught the Ajroomiyya with such enthusiasm, that just his demeanour made you interested in what he was teaching. I compared his teaching style with Dr Gregg Eaves from Kingston and thought these two might have an interesting conversation if they were to ever meet! Shaykh Abdul Aziz, another teacher advanced in years, taught as tajweed with supreme dignity and pure love. Whenever he recited a short sura, like Zilzila, you could feel the love pouring off his spirit. He was just completely in love with what he was reciting, and what a difference that was to see, for me, who had been taught Quran as a child by a cane-wielding, vicious teacher, who seemed more interested in punishing us then transmitting any love for his art. Shaykh Muhammad At Taweel taught us theology, aquida, with proficiency and depth and his innocent and welcoming smile seemed to hide a penetrating intelligence. This was the first time many of us had been exposed to traditional teachers from the Islamic world, and they certainly broke the mould for me. My childhood experience of Islamic teachers varied between violent, ignorant old men, to some saintly and gentle old masters of life and belief. But the three teachers we learnt from in the Qarwiyyin, for me, seriously broke down stereotypes of what a teacher of Islam looked like and sounded like.
Many wondrous events occurred. Near the end of the course, Shaykh Hamza, who had been reticent to speak freely in the Qariwiyyin, where the local population gathered, gave a rousing speech in Arabic, pointing to the fact that we as Westerners had travelled far to learn and that they, the Moroccans, had an oceanic tradition waiting to be tapped into. You could hear a pin drop during that speech. The audience listened, spellbound, hearts convulsing. In fact, I clearly remember one man who started sitting with us in the lessons at the beginning of the month, clad in t-shirt and jeans. During Shaykh Hamza’s rousing speech, at the end of the course, he was crowned in a delightful turban, smiling serenely.
Sidi Abdul Hadi Honerkamp, a teacher at Fez’s Alif Institute at that time, treated some of us with a tour of the sacred tombs and resting places of the friends of Allah, in the famous Bab Ftouh. On this tour, our guide enlightened us with stories and realities about some of the great spiritual masters of Fez and Sidi Abdul Hadi’s connection to some of the resting places was palpable. It was at one of the graves, either Al Arabi Ibn Abdillah or Shaykh Yusuf Al Fasi, may Allah bless them, that Sidi Abdul Hadi made supplications, as if he was in communion with a dear, dear friend.
We visited the tomb of Molay Idris, Allah have mercy on him, on the mountain, in Zerhoun, where we were stared at like we were from outer space! But when we alighted at the tomb, Shaykh Hamza performed an impromptu qasida, singing with ecstasy before the resting place of the heart of Islam in Morocco, the noble sharif, grand son of the most noble, Allah bless him and grant him peace.
Another time, at the closing ceremony in the Attareen, our host, Sidi Darwish, of the Moroccan Awqaf, Religious ministry, composed a touching poem for us, which Shaykh Hamza translated. At the line, And Fez is weeping / Now that you are leaving, a dry night, suddenly transformed into some heavenly drizzle, lighting on us. The divine serendipity was undeniable.
Brother Sohail Hanif and I went on an odyssey to the tomb of Mawlana Al Arabi Ad Darqawi, Allah have mercy on him, deep in the Rif mountains, Bubarih, at Bani Zarwal. On this journey, we encountered unforgettable people and places but most of all we experienced a hospitality not possible in a secular, Rushdie-inspired environment. Strangers treated us like family; we stayed the night with a generous soul called Al Arabi Al Murabit, in his cool house in the mountains. This did not seem to me a harsh, fundamentalist community capable of inscribing a letter A on an adulteress for public shaming. These were a simple, untainted people who lived off the land, worshipped God and just kept themselves to themselves.
Once again, the student population was a wondrous mixture of British, European, American, Canadian, and Arab young people, hailing from a variety of races.
The organisers, which included Sidi Nazim Baksh, Shaykh Ibrahim Osi Efa, and brother Ahson and others, tirelessly met our needs and for me, a British Pakistani Muslim, people like them really opened avenues and experiences that I would not have had before.
I remember walking through the streets of ancient Fez, with my head filled with the images of The Scarlet Letter, the letter A; Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus roaming the streets of Dublin; Wallace’s mind of winter; Dr Greg Eaves and the English professors; the international, cosmopolitan streets of central London; the Salafi-Sufi skirmishes; my erstwhile, lost, hedonistic soul. Then I balanced this with the ancient sights and sounds of the old city; the daily, choral Quranic recitations in the Qarwiyyin; our wise, traditional teachers; the beautiful, descending walk from our dormitories in Bab Al Giza to our lessons; the mysterious, saintly bookseller, who used to be outside the Qarwiyyin and then inside read the Quran in a unique, stirring way. Two worlds converged within. After all these internal movements and masquerades, two simple sentences resonated and tied it all together: La ilaha Illallah Muhammad Al RasulAllah, there is no deity save Allah; Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.
The Rihlas had shown me how to join these two oceans, these two worlds in my soul. Instead of being unsettled by the scarlet letter, A, the Rihla helped me to stabilize the ground of my being with the Arabic letter BA, and the reality that everything in the universe is through Allah, billah. And I am indebted to all the organisers and teachers who facilitated these courses and pray they receive untold reward and blessings in both worlds, ameen.
This happened when I was nineteen and twenty years old. Now, in my forties, I have not continued to pursue Islamic knowledge in great depth, although I have travelled to the Middle-East and I try to sit with scholarly and blessed people whenever the opportunity arises. Instead I have taught English language and literature to British teenagers for the past twenty years. My worldly livelihood has remained in the world of Dr Greg Eaves, The Scarlet Letter, Shakespeare, secular thought, and post-modernity. But in my heart of hearts, behind the exterior, I can not help but to fall into the valleys of La ilaaha illallah Muhammad Al Rasul Allah.
The two Rihlas I attended opened this valley, this island in my mind and soul and I traverse it. Each time I fall off this path, the words of Shaykh Hamza, from Imam Al Ghazali always return: “Time is like a sword, if you don’t cut with it, it will cut you down,” and that words of Shaykh Nuh Keller: “Watch over your heart…” I pray that these types of Rihlas will continue to thrive and survive and particularly open themselves to the less well-off through sponsorship and community funds, insha Allah.
So, in these times of mass distractions and virtual phantasmagoria, in these times of war and famine, in these times of secular supremacism and inward upheavals, and in these times of corporeal and incorporeal pandemics, may Allah send us into the beatitudes of His endless valleys of Oneness and the calm shores of the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him. May Allah relieve the suffering of the afflicted ones and give us victories over the oppressors, and bless us with the best of both worlds, Ameen