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Odyssey of the Spirit


Muhammad Harun Riedinger

Added on: April 26, 2008

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[First published as a 4-part series in Women’s Own Apr., May, Jul. & Aug.2000]

Since I became a Muslim in 1975 and settled in this country [Pakistan], I have been asked over and over again, how my conversion came about, mainly by my Muslim brothers and sisters who were astonished that someone who had been raised in the socio-economic comfort of a wealthy western nation should give up that background to live with them as one of them,  putting up with all the backdrops and inconveniences of a developing country.

Allah has informed us in His Generous Book, of the most crucial event of our existence, to which however most of us do not have conscious access. The event of “Alast”, when God gathered the spirits of mankind into HIS Presence of Glory and Majesty –– long before their physical incarnation on the earthly plane of existence –– and confronted them with the ultimate creational reality : “a lastu bi rabbikum” –– Am I not your Lord? And they all –– we all –– had to submit to it, confirming with one voice as it were: “bala” –– Yeah, truly Thou art –– entering thereby into the most awesome covenant.

The Sufis say, that some of the spirits –– those of the lovers –– were drunken with ecstasy at the beatific vision of their Lord, and joyously danced into temporal existence, whereas others –– those of the non-believers –– were bogged down by the prospect of a life of dependence and bondage, and only unwillingly dragged themselves into what appeared to them the misery of life, and Allah knows best what went on. One thing is certain however, deep down in the soul of every man there is a memory of that event, which can never be erased, and which is activated several times in the life of every man; it may be triggered by anything. These are the moments of truth, the instances when we suddenly re-cognize reality, the absence of phony games and falsehood and illusions. And in these situations it is that God is reminding us of our covenant with HIM, at the same time opening a door and offering us to return to HIM.

During my later years of adolescence and early years of adulthood I had heard the knock of the Real at the door of my heart a couple of times, before I finally set out in search of it in 1974. At that time I was actively involved with theater, I had earlier made the very profound experience, that any form of self-expression, if pursued intensely enough would lead to some higher form of consciousness and eventually self realization. I had consciously chosen acting as the medium, since that did not depend on any outward means other than my body, of which I could possibly be deprived, and thus I decided to go to India to study Hata Yoga (a discipline which is capable of developing more or less total control over all outward and inward  functions of the body) and classical dance. I did not know much about Islam then, rather I should say, I did not have any correct information about Islam at all. All I thought I knew about it stemmed from a subtle, viciously mind-poisoning misinformation set-up, which has been permeating the organs of education and information in the West since the early Middle Ages up to this day. Due to this wrong information I was not particularly interested in Islam, moreover what I had seen from the Turkish immigrants who had come to my country  mainly in pursuit of worldly gains, did not strike me as in any way impressive either. This state of affairs however was to change very soon and drastically, when I actually reached Turkey on my journey to the East. Apart from an overwhelmingly warm hospitality, as compared to the arrogant, cool indifference many western people show towards strangers, I was charmed by a number of behavioral patterns of the people there, which were rather new to me. For example, there was actual communication going on between young and old people, who seemed to have a healthy relationship of mutual respect and regard for each other. The unbridgeable generation gap, I knew from home was nowhere apparent. Another  impressive discovery I made was, that the people there had a sincere respect for their religion, even if they did not practice it. When the call for prayer was heard form the loudspeakers of the minarets all conversation came to a sudden halt, radios were switched off, and nobody spoke a word until the adhan was over, furthermore did I never during my more than three month stay there hear a single joke about religious or sexual subject matter, which disgustingly enough are the two most popular joke topics almost everywhere else in the non-islamic world. Another mind-boggling novelty for me was the respect these people had for food, in particular bread. If a piece would accidentally fall on the floor, they would pick it up, kiss it and put it  on some elevated place, to be picked up by some fellow creature from the animal kingdom. In the western world, tons of bread are thrown away every day. I could go on recounting these little ordinary every-day happenings which appeared to me with my western background quite extraordinary and so profoundly sound, and which, as I realized, must have had to do with the religion of these people. Thus I had to credit this religion, which I had held in so little esteem with a considerable amount of wisdom. I thought it would be worthwhile to read the source book of Islam which, as I knew, was still available in its original, and although I did not see the remotest chance of me becoming a Muslim at that time, I made a commitment in my heart that, if I should ever have a chance to learn Arabic, I would do so, as to have access to the treasure of wisdom, which I was convinced, was to be found in the Qur`an.

The next close encounter with the Real happened some 5 month later, again in  Turkey which I had left in the meantime. I was traveling south with three Dutch youths, who had given me a lift while hitch-hiking back into Turkey from Greece (where I had unsuccessfully tried to get a job on a ship, as to work my passage over to Bombay). I had read about the “Whirling Dervishes” (a Sufi order founded in the 7th century Hijri  in Konya by the great saint and scholar , Mawlana Jalal ud Din Rumi – may Allah sanctify his secret), and I was very interested to see one of their famous dance performances, so I asked my hosts to stop over in Konya, which they willingly did. I could not see the “Whirling Dervishes” (whose public performances are now under the auspices of the Turkish tourism department), but I visited the shrine of the saint, which used to be the monastery (khanqua) of the order, now - by courtesy of Mustapha Kamal’s “modernization” of Turkey - it is a museum. There, among other exhibits, an old handwritten manuscript was displayed in a glass cabinet, along with a translation of the Persian text. It read something like:

‘ Come back, come back,

even if you are a Christian or a fire worshipper, come back!

Even if you have betrayed your repentance a hundred times, come back!

Come back,  this is not a place of despair! ’

Reading these lines left me with a peculiar kind of feeling, the meaning of it had somehow communicated with my soul, and even though I did not pay any further attention, something had ‘clicked’ deep inside me.

We left Konya shortly after that, but when we had driven about 50 km, I suddenly heard a very clear voice in my heart, telling me: “You must go back to Konya, you missed something there, and if you do not return, you will incur a great loss!” This did not leave me with much of a choice, and I asked my bewildered hosts to stop their car at once, thanked them and bade farewell. Back in Konya, I visited the only person I knew, a shopkeeper, whose acquaintance I had made late one night during the first visit, in some wine shop, fully drunk, and singing at the top of his voice. When I saw him this time at his antiques and souvenir shop,  he turned out to be a well educated person, speaking several foreign languages, and seeming to have some connection or access to the present master of that dervish order, which however he was somehow very reluctant to share or make available to me. But he gave me some books in exchange for books, I had been carrying with me, the most important and sizeable one of which contained the 1st two volumes of Mawlana Rumi’s ‘Mathnawi’. On this second sojourn in Konya I also met a truck driver in the hotel where I was staying, and he promised me he would take me with him to Teheran once his truck was ready, and I was to meet him in a few days time in Mersin, another city on the Mediterranean coast . So I left the town of Mawlana Rumi and went south for my date. Reaching there, I still had to wait a couple of days, and spent my time idly, fishing, swimming or sitting in tea houses, smoking water pipe and practicing the little bit of Turkish I had learnt by chatting to fellow idlers. On one of these occasions I asked the people around me about the dervishes, about whom I had heard so much. They laughed and said these were all stories of the past, and nowadays there were no more of them, but one man beckoned me to sit next to him, and then told me he knew a dervish.” Very good,” I said, “can you take to him?” He agreed, and off we went. I did not pay particular attention to the way, walking along and talking with my companion. We must have walked some 20 minutes, when he stopped in front of a house, telling me his friend lived there. He knocked the door, but there was no one at home. My guide told me that his dervish friend was a peddler, selling household goods in the streets with a push cart, and that he probably was on his round now, so we turned around and walked back. My truck driver had still not shown up, and so I decided two days later to try the dervish once more. Unfortunately I couldn’t find the man anymore who had taken me there, and I had neither noted down an address nor watched the way. So, with not much hope I would ever meet the dervish, I set out to walk more or less aimlessly, but to my great surprise, after some time I found myself again in front of his house. Again, there was nobody answering my knock, but when I was just about to leave, I saw an old man with a push cart in one of the alleys. I went up to him, and he gave me a curiously welcoming smile when I, a total stranger asked him whether his name was so-and-so, but when I posed my next question, whether he was a dervish, he became very serious, almost harsh, asking me suspiciously: ”What do you want?” I introduced myself and explained how and why I had come, which made his face light up again and he cordially invited me into his house, where he immediately started preparing something to eat. His ‘house’ actually was just a simple room with hardly any furniture and barely space enough for his cart, a bed and a small table, and except for the cart with all the merchandise on it, it was more like a hermits cell, outwardly narrow and bleak, but inwardly expanded and made comfortable by the kindheartedness and hospitality of this good man. After the meal, he asked me about my faith, and hearing that I was a Christian, he reached out to a makeshift shelf on the wall , took a book from it, kissed and opened it reverently, and started to read certain passages from it. I did not understand any of what he read, but later I figured, he had read out to me all the passages from the Qur’an which speak about Jesus (a.s.), trying to show me that Muslims too, respect him believe in him as a prophet. A lot of what the old man said, I could not (linguistically) understand, but he spoke with such tenderness and kindness that it was sheer delight, just listening to him. Later in the evening he told me not to go home to my hotel, but to stay with him, which although the idea of sharing the bed with this old man estranged me a little, I somewhat reluctantly agreed to. In the morning again he served me a simple but delicious breakfast, and then he told me something which, strangely enough, I understood every word of. He said that the dervishes were not a relic of the past, and that they were present everywhere, only they were hidden, and I would not be able to see one, even if he stood right in front of me. They had a password, he said, and if I knew that, they would let me enter into their circle. I asked him what the password was, and he said, pronouncing it very slowly and distinctly: ’ash_hadu an_la ilaha illa_llah wa ash_hadu anna muhammadan_rasula_llah’, and he even made me repeat it three times. I asked him what it meant, but although he tried to explain its meaning to me, I could not understand him anymore. It was like a veil had been lifted just to let this most important message through to me, and then it was dropped again. My generous host and friend then wrote the password for me on the back of a packet of cigarettes, he had bought for me, gave me a few liras and sent me on my way. The next day my truck driver also turned up at the hotel where I was to meet him, and soon I was well on my way to the East.

On the long journey through Turkey, I started reading the books which I had traded-in in Konya, avoiding the big one, which I thought would be better to read in a more stationary situation. After a few days we reached the Iranian border, and the truck driver advised me to make my own way from there, since he expected to be held up with the customs clearing longer than it would take me to reach Teheran hitch-hiking. Teheran did not impress me a lot, it appeared to be just another modern metropolis like London or Paris, and so I just passed through, heading east for Meshed and the Afghan border. In Meshed I got my visa for Afghanistan and before long I was on my way to Kabul.

Afghanistan was quite a cultural shock for me – not an unpleasant one though…, the clock seemed to have been turned back some 500 years or so, everything seemed to be so much more down-to-earth, and time itself appeared to move at a very comfortable pace, no hectic haste anywhere. My antiques dealer in Konya had told me that there was a city in Afghanistan by the name of Mazar-e-Sharif, and that I should make it a point to visit that place on my way to India. I enquired about it in Kabul, and was told that it was up in the north, a day’s journey by bus, and since I was not in a particular hurry, I made the trip. The first thing that caught my attention after getting down from the bus were the white pigeons. There were so many of them, and when I started  looking for gray ones, and other birds altogether, I couldn’t find any, there were just white pigeons. I figured this had to be a very special place. There is a great saint buried there, and people believe it is his miracle that all birds which come to this city are turned into white pigeons – God knows best. I tried to visit the shrine, but was not allowed to enter as non-muslim, and I promised myself that I would come back here one day, and nobody would recognize me as non-muslim and stop me.

A short distance from Mazar-e-Sharif is the ancient city of Balkh which, besides its historical sites is also famous for its hashish, of which I used to be an occasional user at that time, and so I paid this old city a short visit too. Only later on I came to know that Balkh actually was the birth place of Mawlana Rumi, the saint from Konya who had been yielding such a compelling influence on my decisions during this journey of mine, and who was to overtake my destiny altogether.

That evening after returning to my hotel room, I finally decided to start reading that enormous book I had been given in Konya, and  which I had avoided all along because of its size, the ‘Mathnawi’ of Mawlana Rumi. It was absolutely amazing, the moment I opened the book and started reading, he was right there. A strong and vivid presence, which I could feel so real and near, as if he were sitting right in front of me. Although my eyes were reading the words, it was actually he, speaking to me what I was reading, like a personal message which went straight to my heart. In this moment I knew, if there was anything worthy of being called truth, then this was it, there was no doubt! I realized I had found, or rather I had been given what I had been searching for all along. I have never before or afterwards had an experience like this with a book, and after this I would not let go of this book and spent every free minute reading in it, devouring its content like someone who had suffered two thousand years of starvation of the mind.

After returning to Kabul there was nothing to keep me much longer in Afghanistan, and I soon crossed the Khyber Pass and reached Peshawar.

I somehow had the notion that I wanted to reach Bombay first of all places in India, and this was only possible either by sea or by air, and since the latter was, due to financial restraints out of the question, I boarded a train to Karachi, where I hoped to get a ship. The train ride gave me a lot of time and ease to read in my ‘Mathnawi’, and doing this, the length, discomfort and monotony of the journey south did not bother me at all. While reading I came across a passage, where the author stated, that for the traveler on the path of reality, it would become necessary at one point to acquire the help and guidance of a master, without which further progress not only was not possible, but the danger of being waylaid and misled became imminent. I do not remember, nor did I pay any attention, where exactly the train was passing at this point, but I have good reasons to believe that it must have been somewhere half-way between Lahore and Multan when I silently turned to my Creator and said this prayer in my heart:

O my God, YOU know of this plan of mine to go to India, which I consider the best I ever made. If it is good for me in YOUR Sight, make me succeed in it, and make me find a master to teach me. But if YOU in YOUR Wisdom know, that it is better for me, that I should find a guide from among the Muslims to lead me on the path of reality, then I am prepared to give up my own plan and submit to what YOU have planned for me’.

Now this was really the turning point, the point where I actually surrendered the management of my life to HIM, and by that – inwardly – I became a Muslim, because that is exactly what Islam means: surrender. Of course Islam cannot be complete or take effect, if it is executed only inwardly, just as it is utterly in vain, if it is practiced only outwardly. It is complete only when the outward is based on the inward and the inward confirms the outward, or the other way around, which is only a different, but just as valid approach, in order to provide an access for people with a different mentality. In one case love leads to wisdom and knowledge and in the other, knowledge leads to wisdom and love - and God knows best. 

When I got down from the train in Karachi, a man came straight up to me, took my bag and carried it to a taxi opened the door and took his seat behind the steering wheel: “Where do you want to go?” -  “If I knew that, I wouldn’t be sitting in your taxi”, I thought to myself. I told him I needed to go to the shipping company which operated the Karachi – Bombay boat, and perhaps to the harbor. He told me that would cost me 10 Rupees, and upon my remark that I was going to pay that much, even though I thought he was trying to rip me off (which was not justified at all, since I had no idea how far the good man was going to drive me), he said very seriously that he was not going to charge me anything if I thought that, which effectively dispelled all my distrust about his honesty. At the shipping company I was told that the next boat to Bombay was not due before another two weeks, and the harbor seemed to be a restricted area, prohibited to enter for anyone who could not convince the guards of having a justified reason to be there, which of course ‘looking for a passage to Bombay’ was not.

“Where do you want to go now?” was the inevitable next question of my taxi driver, and when I told him that I neither knew that nor had enough money to go to a hotel for two weeks, he pondered for a short while and then started driving. After a while he stopped the cab, and asked me to follow him. We went into a densely populated,  poorly developed low-income-area somewhere alongside the railway tracks, by-standing children staring at me like I was a creature from another world. After a short walk we reached a hut, where a man was baking bread in a ‘tandoor’. The taxi driver spoke shortly with the baker and then told me that I could stay here until the departure of my ship to Bombay in two weeks’ time, apologizing that he was not able to accommodate me in his own house.

The  baker did not know English at all, and so I could not  verbally communicate  with him, but the hospitality I was given by this simple man was absolutely remarkable. He gave me a bed and served me two meals every day for two weeks, not once asking me a single question, or indicating in any way whatsoever that he expected anything in return.

Taj, the taxi driver came by almost everyday, he also showed me a small shrine nearby, which was like a peaceful, pretty little island in this chaotic metropolitan ocean of concrete and exhaust fumes. There were flowers and trees with birds singing in them, a horse, a few goats and some domestic fowl, and calm but happy people, who did not seem to have anything other to do than just to be there. An outward manifestation of the beauty and serenity of the soul of that saintly person who once lived there and lies buried there. There was also a man living there, who, I was told, was a descendant of the former, he had noble features and on his face and in his eyes I noticed some sort of light. He was very respected and sometimes he came out and sat there on the veranda on a prayer mat, listening to people who came there to seek solace or counsel, sometimes he would rise his hands to pray for someone.

During these days of waiting I used to spend most of my time at that place, which somehow attracted me very strongly, reading in my ‘Mathnawi’. On the wall over the prayer rug, on which the caretaker of the shrine used to sit, there were two Arabic calligraphies which attracted my attention in a very peculiar way, and I often caught myself looking at them, wondering what meaning lay hidden under these artful pen strokes, and I somehow had a strong intuition that the mystery of the entire universe was encrypted here. Only much later I realized how correct and to the point my feelings had been: these two Arabic calligraphies actually depicted the Divine Name ‘Allah’,  the eternal source and destiny of all creation, and the name of the Noble Prophet ‘Muhammad’ – peace be upon him, its real purpose and ultimate fulfillment. (There is a very famous tradition in which is related that God addressed the Noble Prophet in words to the effect: “Had it not been for you, I would not have brought the creation into existence”.)

After two relaxed weeks, Taj, my taxi driver took me again to the city where I was informed by the shipping company, that the boat to Bombay was due in two days. Walking out of their office, a man in the street came straight up to me and asked me whether I was German. Somewhat surprised I admitted it, and hearing that, he insisted that I went with him to his office close by. He was a Persian businessman who had once worked and lived in Germany for some time, and he was just curious why I had come and what I was doing here. Over a cup of tea, I told him about my journey and its prospective destination, and after listening patiently, he said: “Look, if you really want to learn more about Islam and also learn Arabic, I can take you to a place where you can stay and study it, free.”  I thought to myself…now?…two days before my ship is going to take me to Bombay? It didn’t really make any sense! But then, something deep inside me reminded me of that promise I had made myself in Istanbul at the beginning of my journey, that, if ever I had a chance to learn Arabic, I would do so. Well, this was it, here someone actually offered me to arrange for me to learn Arabic free of cost. I was confronted with my own sincerity. How serious could I take myself and my quest altogether, if I did not stick to a decision I had made in a ‘moment of truth’? And what was it anyway that was stopping me - missing a boat which goes every month? And what about the prayer I had made, surrendering the pursuit and realization of my plans to the higher wisdom of divine guidance? How could I be so sure, that the offer of this Persian businessman, was not part of the divine guidance? If I was not to face myself being a total hypocrite, there was only one possible answer to all of these questions, my conscience was bombarding me with: I had to check it out, I had to give this offer at least a fair trial.

Soon the three of us were sitting in Taj’s taxi, who followed the directions of the businessman. After stopping at a few places, where the latter got out of the car to make some inquiries, we finally stopped at an enormous mosque which had a religious school (madrasah) attached to it. The businessman again got out, and after a short while he returned with two bearded and turbaned men, and the tidings that I could study and stay here, and would even get a small stipend, however there was one condition – an administrative requirement: I would have to become a Muslim first. I was not very thrilled at the prospect of this, and thought that it was altogether not correct to make “becoming a Muslim” a condition for admitting me. If Islam was so good it should be self-evident, and one should be given a chance to come to that by one’s own free decision, but since it appeared to be quite futile to argue with the administration of the place, I did not insist on my point of view, and instead asked what it implied to become a Muslim. One of the men who had come out with my Persian host explained, that first of all I had to pronounce the formula: ’ash_hadu an_la ilaha illa_llah wa ash_hadu anna muhammadan_rasula_llah’. That sounded familiar! It was the ‘watchword of the dervishes’ which I had been given in Turkey, and, realizing this, my ‘icy’ opposition to the whole idea started to thaw. At good last, I was told what the meaning of this “mysterious, powerful secret code” was: the simple affirmation of the oneness of God, and the genuineness of the prophethood of the Noble Prophet Muhammad – peace be upon him. The second thing, the clergyman explained, I had to offer a ritual prayer five times a day. Thirdly, I had to keep a day-time fast every day during the lunar month of ‘ramadan’. The fourth obligation was to give a fortieth part of ones wealth in charity, and the fifth and last requirement was to perform the pilgrimage to Makkah once in a lifetime, these last two obligations being conditional to disposing over sufficient means.

It did not take these ‘Five Pillars of Islam’ – as they are called - much time to pass the scrutiny of my conscience and intellect. The first and perhaps most consequential one did not really pose much of a problem. The mysterious, logically inconsistent and incomprehensible Christian concept of a tri-unite, entirely good god, who sacrifices his only begotten son in order to appease his wrath about the evil which his own human creation had wrought,  had long ago lost its credibility. I could not conceive that God who had given me an intellect as a faculty of discernment, would demand of me that I believed in something which was repulsive to this very intellect. I had no doubt  that there was only one God, and the Prophet of Islam, among whose followers my beloved and revered Mawlana Rumi was proud to count himself, had to be a genuine prophet, no less genuine than Moses, Jesus, Buddha or Lao Tse – peace be upon all of them – and I was not required to renounce those either, quite to the contrary Islam actually confirms them, some by name, some by implication. So by pronouncing the Islamic testimony of faith, I would not betray any of what I believed to be true! To pray five times a day was a bit of a bother I thought, but then, one could probably get used to it. The fast was rather an incentive than a deterrent, I had kept more difficult fasts than the Islamic fast before, since I considered it to be a spiritually beneficial practice anyway. The charity tax and the pilgrimage were not acute at this point, and if my situation changed so that they would be, I did not think I would have a problem observing these either, and so I told them that although I did not consider it a pressing necessity for myself to become a Muslim yet, if they did,  I was ready to go along.

We all went inside the compound and entered what appeared to be one of the lecture rooms, which soon filled up with students and lecturers, who gathered around us seating themselves on the floor. The apparent director of the school (if I remember correctly, his name was Mufti Wali Hasan) addressed the gathering with a few words, and then made me repeat after him the Islamic testimony of faith like that  dervish in Mersin had done before, only now, I was aware of its meaning. Then he told me that I should adopt a Muslim name now, and asked me what my old name was. I told him, it was “Harald”, and one of the students immediately suggested the name Haroon for me. The Mufti seemed to like this suggestion, but he bestowed upon me the great honor, which, when I think of it now, I often feel so unworthy of: preceding this suggested name Haroon, he added the best name any man could have, Muhammad.  

With this new name, Muhammad Haroon, the mufti quasi conferred upon me a new identity, telling me, that all the sins and misdeeds I had committed in my life before this auspicious moment were completely forgiven, and that this was a new beginning for me with clean slates. I do not think I was at that time (or perhaps ever) able to fully grasp the magnitude of God’s Generosity and Kindness unfolding in this event, nor the implications thereof, being admitted into the community of the followers of the Noble Prophet (blessings and peace be upon him), being - potentially - the best community that ever walked the earth, representing the pinnacle of man’s spiritual evolution. This statement must not be misunderstood, Islam does not have a “savioristic” doctrine like the Pauline version of Christianity, and unless the individual Muslim strives to realize this given potential by a correct life transaction (i.e. fulfilling the rights, his/her creator, fellow creatures and own self have over him/her), it will not avail him or her anything at all.

After this short ceremony everyone present embraced me to welcome me into the new fold, and the joy and sincerity by which these people accepted me, a total stranger, as a brother, was quite moving. I bade farewell from the Iranian businessman and Taj, the taxi driver, and started to live in the new place.

This was quite a change! I was supposed to transform from a carefree wandering ‘troubadour’ into a disciplined student of theology, a transformation which perhaps never completely realized, but in as far as it progressed, I must admit that the five times daily prayers, which, in my ignorance, I had held in so little esteem, proved to be a formidable help.

I was at first put up in a room with the only two other western converts, Abd ul Karim, an African-American brother, and Yousuf Talal, a white American, both senior students, who already had acquired a considerable amount of scholarship, and who were quite helpful, seeing me through the initial phases of adjustment to the new environment. The administration thus made all-out efforts to make my stay as comfortable as possible, as well by having me take my meals in the foreigners’ mess. These were all well-meant arrangements, which however I soon declined to utilize, and instead asked to be allowed to live and eat with the local students, which was, with some astonishment though, granted, and it did not diminish my comfort in the least, quite to the contrary. The academic aspect of my adjustment was a bit more difficult. Due to understandable restraints on part of the administration, who of course were not able to set up a special study program for me, put me in traditional Qur’an-reading class, where I was to get acquainted with the Arabic script in order to be able to read the Holy Book. There was quite a number and variety of mostly non-resident students, mainly young boys and girls between 4 and 12 years of age to whom the addition to their ranks of a 27 year old ‘ghora’ or ‘angrez’, as they referred to me when talking amongst themselves, was quite a curiosity. This probably applied as well to the teacher, who, except for the disciplinary use of his cane, nevertheless applied the same method of instruction to me as he did to the rest of his pupils.

In this manner it took me about three or four weeks to complete the ‘qa’idah’ (a small booklet, traditionally used to teach the Arabic alphabet to children), and I started to have serious doubts whether I had made the right decision to get myself into this situation. Although I had learned by this time to slowly read words in this new script, I sort of despaired at the thought of how long it would take me to actually learn the language, if I continued at this pace and in this fashion…

So, one day I decided to find out when the next boat to Bombay was available. The people at the shipping company informed me that there was no service until after one month, except for a ship, which was sailing that very day, but there were only two hours until its scheduled departure. I thought this was my good chance, and rushed back to the madrasah to pack a few necessities. Having done so, I painstakingly avoided to be seen leaving by anyone and sneaked out. At the port I was told that I needed a leaving permit from the police department, and there I was informed that the same could only be issued if I handed in my registration papers. Those were with the administration of the madrasah. When I reached there, it was shortly before the noon prayers, and the office was closed. In addition to the agony that the passing of every minute caused me, I was very concerned that the people in the office would ask me a lot of questions, which to answer and to explain I neither the time, nor the guts, and although I hated myself for it, I decided to tell them I needed my registration papers for some work at my consulate. The person dealing with these matters was somewhat astonished, but he nevertheless gave me the papers. I rushed back to the police station, and the officer there said that the ship must have left by now. I quipped: “You are not supposed to be here anymore, but you still are, if God wills the boat will still be here.” He smiled and gave me my leaving permit, but when I finally reached the docks, it turned out that God had not willed, the boat had sailed half an hour ago.

Even though it was disappointing, because I had fixed my mind on the idea that, since the departure of the vessel had coincided with the day on which I enquired about it, my decision to leave was correct, I felt also some relief, because if that cowardly lie I had made up to make good my escape, would have been part of the basis upon which my further endeavors were founded, did not feel right. I just had to put up with my present plight for another month.

In order to escape the somewhat uneventful and dry routine at the madrasah, I would sometimes go to the small shrine, where I had found so much solace during my first two weeks in Karachi, otherwise I kept to my earlier practice of reading a lot in my Mathnawi.

Once, a young man, who did not look like one of the students at all, approached me, and asked me in English whether I was interested in Sufism, since he had observed me reading in that book quite frequently. Upon my affirmative reply, he asked me whether I had actually ever met a Sufi master or pir, as they are called here, and on my denial, he asked me whether I would like to meet one. Of course did I want to, and so he promised to make arrangements for such a meeting.

This young man, Yusuf Kakakhel, was a student of engineering at the university, but he lived in the madrasah with his brother, one of the senior lecturers. One Saturday he took me to a lavishly furnished office in one of the business centers in the city, where he introduced me to one of the directors of that company, who was a disciple of the pir, we were going to visit. The businessman, Mr. Haroon Jaffer, kindly made a chauffeur-driven, air-conditioned car for us available to take us to our destination, which was also an institution of religious studies, like the madrasah where we had come from, some distance outside the city. We had to wait for a short while before the man, we had come to see, entered the room. He was a man of big stature, dressed very simply in a long white shirt and a lungi, and although his complexion was not of particularly fair color, there was a lot of light on it. He welcomed me in flawless English, and then listened patiently to my story. At the end, he said he would try to help me, and asked me to see him again in a week’s time, during which I was advised to recite frequently benedictions upon the Noble Prophet.

A week later, my friend Yusuf again took me to my appointment, this time the venue had changed, we went to a mosque in the center of the city, where quite a number of people had gathered, sitting on the floor around spread-out linen sheets, in the center of which a large amount of date pits and other seeds were lying, which they picked up in handfuls to drop them one by one onto heaps in front of them, while silently reciting something. After all the seeds from the center had disappeared into the heaps in font of each person, Mawlana Tufail, made a supplication, and then addressed the gathering, this time of course he spoke in Urdu, and I did not catch a single meaning of what he was saying. After that the congregation stood up for the night prayers, which concluded the gathering. I expressed my disappointment about having been invited to come here, and then not been given any attention to my companion, but he told me that I got it all wrong, and that the Mawlana’s discourse actually had been revolving mainly around my case. Giving me a summary of the discourse, Yusuf told me that Mawlana Tufail had talked about the different Sufi orders and explained that these, while adopting different methods of training, had all but one aim, to realize and perfect the spiritual potential in man. The variety of the different silsilahs, as they are called here, was only a means of providing a suitable approach for the vast variety of human nature, and in this context, the Mawlana who himself belonged to the Naqshbandiah order, had mentioned that he could, and, if I insisted, would impart spiritual training to me, but that, according to my nature, I would be better off, entering the Chishtiyah order, and he also mentioned that there was a master of that order by the name of Shahidullah Faridi living in Karachi, whose address however was not known to him. One of Mawlana Tufail’s disciples however remembered that he knew one of Hadrat Shahidullah Faridi’s disciples through some business connection, and so the search for this Sufi Shaykh in a monster of a city like Karachi did not seem so hopeless anymore. 

The following weekend my friend Yusuf again went with me to the city to seek out Mr. Saleem Tariq, the man who was supposed to become my contact to the Chishtiyah Shaykh. After finally finding the office of the insurance company for which he worked, we were told that he was on leave. The following week we repeated this exercise with the same result, he was still not back. Not having learned yet the virtue of patience, and besides that, the time for the departure of the ship to Bombay, which was still spooking in my head, coming awfully near, I told my companion during our third attempt on the following Saturday, that, if we were again unsuccessful this time, I would give up my search and leave. He was very upset and tried to change my mind, telling me stories about the great rewards some people had gained by persevering, but I was rather determined, thinking, that if it had taken me three weeks just to make contact with a disciple of the Shaykh, how long would it take to reach him?

Allah never tries us beyond our powers of endurance, and although our man was not in the office, where we had gone to meet him, we were told that he was back from his leave now, and that we could find him in another office. Reaching there, we still did not find him, but we were informed that he was expected within half an hour, which was little after all the time and effort we had spent in the past three weeks. As promised Mr. Saleem Tariq finally turned up, and listening with great interest to the account of my odyssey, he decided to give a call to his pir immediately, who in turn, quite contrary to my apprehensions, ordered him to take me to him at once.

If one has expectations of something that one does not know from a previous experience, one always forms some conjecture in one’s mind as to how it will be, and while we were waiting for Hadrat Shahidullah in the lounge of his house, my fantasy painted a picture of ‘My Master’. Having come from the West in search of a guide, I of course imagined him to be from among the people of this part of the world. Then, I expected him to appear in some sort of princely attire, adorned by costly ornaments. And lastly would he inspire such awe that I could not dare to look him straight into the eyes.

My surprise, when he entered the room came close to consternation. There was an over six feet tall man of obviously European origin, dressed in a simple plain white collarless shirt and a pair of white pajamas, not even a ring on his fingers, and above all, a loving, welcoming smile on his noble face.

“Just look at him”, the devil almost audibly whispered into my mind, bombarding me with the seed of doubt, “how can he qualify to be your master?” I never figured out whether it was the presence of the Shaykh himself, or the soul of my first spiritual guardian, Mawlana Rumi, which fortified my heart against this onslaught of satanic impertinence. I suddenly remembered, having read in the Mathnawi that Allah sometimes tests a seeker of the truth by allowing him to fall prey to an imposter, but if the former remained steadfast and sincere to his quest, God would deliver him from that false mentor, and never put him through the same test again. This very thing had already happened to me in Turkey during my first sojourn there, and thus I was inspired with the certainty that the man in front of me had to be a genuine man of God, into whose spiritual care I could entrust myself, without any danger of losing my soul, or harming it in the least.

The first words he spoke to me smilingly were something to the effect:” So, finally you have come, we were expecting you earlier.” And to my surprised question, how he had known of my coming, he just casually replied that someone had told him about it. Then, after listening to some of my narrative, he told me that he was ready to accept me as a disciple and to teach me, however that I had to stay in Karachi for that purpose, and should forget about traveling, dealing a final and fatal blow to the ‘spook of the boat to Bombay’ that, although I had not mentioned any of it to him, had until shortly before my meeting with him still been lingering in my mind. I replied that since I had reached the goal and destination of my travels now, there was no need to go any further, and I sincerely meant that. He once more confirmed his willingness to accept me as a murid, but told me to think about it myself once more before I made the commitment of obeying and following him unquestionably, and then to come back the following Thursday, on which day he had a weekly gathering in his house, after which he usually accepted new members into the order if there were any. I had no more doubts in my heart, but he still insisted that I should think it over once more.

The following Thursday Mr. Saleem Tariq came to the madrasah to pick me up, but he came two hours earlier than we had fixed, and I was just having a shower, slowly getting ready for what was to become the most consequential event of my life. He told me to hurry up, the Shaykh had especially called and told him to bring me there well before the gathering. The reason, why he had diverted from his usual practice, i.e. to initiate me into the order before the gathering instead of after it, I only realized later. That day was the auspicious day of the miraj – the famous night journey and ascension to the Divine Presence of the Noble Prophet  – Allah’s Blessings and peace be upon him – and after the gathering, which always started with the sunset prayers, the date of the Islamic calendar would have changed, and the Shaykh wanted me to have the blessings of that day for my initiation.

When we reached the house of Hadrat Shahidullah, I was taken to the room of the master who was sitting on a prayer rug on the floor, with a calm air of serenity on his noble countenance. Seated next to him was another senior member of the order, who was present as a witness to the simple ritual, called bay’ah or ahd, (denoting an oath of allegiance) which was to take place. The master explained to me the implications thereof, and then asked me to sit before him in a kneeling position, which he also had assumed, my knees touching his. He then took my hands in between his and recited the words of the oath, which I repeated after him sentence by sentence. After this, he raised his hands and made a prayer, asking God’s Blessings and Protection for me on this path I had chosen to tread.

His prayers, attention and loving care have ever since stayed with me as an inexhaustible source of strength and support in every situation, particularly in difficult ones and in moments of weakness, doubt and temptation, and his physical departure from this world in 1978, did not change this blessing in aught. I do not find words to even come close to portray the magnitude of blessings and benefits – temporal and spiritual – that I derived from my association with this wali of Allah – may God sanctify his secret, raise his station and grant him ever-increasing nearness to HIMSELF! 


I did not write this account of my experiences as some sort of memoirs, but mainly for three reasons:

Firstly, in Surah Duha of the Qur’an, which literally touches so many aspects of my life, Allah says: fa ‘amma bini’mati rabbika fahaddith – and as to the favors of your Lord, relate them!

Secondly, I have come across a number of dangerous misconceptions about the spiritual aspects of Islam and the working of the saints or Awliya Allah, as they are referred to in Islamic literature, which have, by my very own living experience, been de facto refuted. These wrong ideas are in vogue mainly among certain circles who like to consider themselves “progressive” Muslims, whereas the fact of the matter is that their minds are infested with materialistic thought, and their hearts are paralyzed by arrogance.

Thirdly, I have over and again been asked by my Muslim brothers and sisters how my conversion came about, and was deeply rewarded by the interest, enthusiasm and joy they expressed about it, whereas Christians, and in particular people from the west hardly ever ask. They think it is really weird and cannot conceive that there could possibly be any valid reason at all for someone to act this way.

Great changes in the lives of people usually have their effects not only on the person who undergoes the change, but also on his or her social environment, i.e. the people whose lives are directly or indirectly linked to that person. One very conspicuous trait of human nature is, its fixation to the status quo. Therefore, the people who are affected by somebody else’s change usually are uneasy about it and oppose it - unless it brings them some obvious gain or benefit - because it means they have to adapt themselves to a new, unknown situation. They have to watch out, they might have to change their approach and attitude to that person, which might imply changing old habits (one of the most mortifying measures). This discomfort and opposition can even turn into enmity, when that change is in direct conflict with what they hold dear and cherish, or what had always been an unquestioned standard or truth, and they are absolutely unwilling, perhaps even incapable of considering a possible justification for the change their acquaintance or relative has made.

In the glorious Qur’an, there is frequent mention of people who were admonished by their respective prophets to amend their wrong social behavior or religious practices. The response of these people was invariably rejection of the admonition, because as they said, their ancestors had been doing the same things, and therefore there couldn‘t be anything wrong with it. This is the great pitfall of habit and even tradition; at one point it takes over and asserts itself as an unquestionable truism in the mind. If it is a truly good habit or a virtuous tradition, it can be a formidable traveling companion on the journey of life, but if there is any impurity in it, it can bring its adherent to fall.

The touchstone for what is good and what is not is uncompromising sincerity towards oneself, because God has given everyone of us a conscience that would never fail us, unless we constantly violate it, and even in that case, it is not our conscience that fails us, but it is our faculty of perception that we have incapacitated.

If I look back, it was not really a conversion in the sense of a change in belief, it was rather a transformation, much like the one a caterpillar undergoes when it turns into a butterfly, which is actually a process of leaving the imperfections and limitations of a particular state of being behind, to move on to a state of perfection. The same principle really, that applied to the divine message itself, when it was presented in its final, the ‘Muhammadan’ version, which God HIMSELF certified by revealing: “This day I have perfected for you your religion…” This does not mean that God’s Message to man was at any time imperfect in any way – HE is far beyond the possibility of imperfection in HIS Being and in HIS Acts! – only the various subsequent presentation forms of HIS Message, which were entrusted to man from time to time at the hands of a chain prophets, suffered alterations and other effects of corruption that time inevitably brings with itself, while in the custody of man. We can hardly fathom how fortunate we are, that this latest and final edition which the Noble Prophet Muhammad – Allah’s Blessings and peace be upon him – was entrusted with, and which he truthfully delivered in its full splendor, has got the promise of God’s Protection from all corruption and decay until the end of time.

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Odyssey of the Spirit (in PDF)

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Muhammad Harun Riedinger can be contacted at: muhharrie@gmail.com

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