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Son of Karbala

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SON OF KARBALA
(Chapter 10 Clear Currents)

(Excerpts)

By: Shaykh Fadhlalla Haeri

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There will come a time upon people that those who wish to live their faith will flee from place to place and from one hill to another, like a jackal that seeks safety (from harm).

  Prophet Muhammad

When I felt the time had come to leave Tucson, Shaykh Abdalqadir asked me to stay a little longer so he could put me in seclusion or 'khalwa', which also means, literally, emptying out. He felt not only that I was ready, but 'over-ripe' for it. During this period, I was not to see or talk to anyone. My days and nights would be spent chanting the name 'Allah'. This I did in my small Tuscon apartment.

My earlier preconceived notion of a far off secluded spot was soon shattered. I had always imagined myself tucked away on some mountaintop (but within easy enough reach of food and other amenities!), with birdsong and nature surrounding me, as I went deeper and deeper into meditative bliss. The reality was rather different.

The apartment was on the third floor of a block of flats located by a highway and the thunderous sound of passing juggernauts day and night. The unseasonal rain, which hammered onto the highway outside and on my windows, continued for my entire khalwas and added to the cacophony of the traffic. For someone with sensitive hearing this was quite a struggle, but surprisingly, I was soon able to ignore the noise.

I was in khalwa for three or four days; during that time I meditated and was given simple food. As my senses were denied simulation, they became more heightened. I would weep every time the man brought me food. The carrots were radiant with light and color. The peas were merging into what appeared to be a liquid state. It was beautiful.

I had vivid dreams and visions of great beings and prophets, especially the Prophet Muhammad. At one point, I saw myself lifted by him as a mother lifts her baby and carried for some distance across a barren desert, after which I was embraced and walked on by myself. There were many other visions, both disturbing and serene.

The idea of khalwa involves complete severance from the world. Periods of seclusion and isolation are  necessary for spiritual health and development. They are prescribed and practiced by all paths of enlightenment. The world of rationality is causal and its mysteries can only be unraveled through the exercise of a healthy intellect and what appreciation lies beyond. The spiritual world relates to the heavenly, inner, unseen realities in subtle ways that can only be tapped into by exclusion, silence and through transcendental states(1). Giving up outer awareness and going beyond the world of causality is the only way to reach this subtle world, whose patterns are already in the soul and heart, but locked away for most people. The 'emptying' that takes place during khalwa reveals the cosmology of one's inner.

Nothing benefits the heart more than a spiritual seclusion whereby it enters the domain of true reflection.

Ibn Ata' Allah Iskandari (Click here to see excerpts from The Wisdom of Ibn Ata'Allah)

The make-up of human beings is a combination of two worlds or domains. There is the identifiably physical person, with body, mind and intellect, and  there is the emotional and spiritual side which is more difficult to describe or define. The outer, physical and discernible 'ego' or 'nafs' is the lens through which we relate to and experience this world but this differs from person to person.

The subtler component is the 'ruh' 'the soul'. This is essentially the same in each person and is the essence, root and source of life within us it allows humans to relate one to another. The soul contains all the patterns in existence and the boundless truth, which reflects the eternal divinity within humanity. Only in this context can it be said, 'God created man in his own image.'

God resembles nothing and nothing resembles God. Anything that one can imagine about Him is a misrepresentation.(2)

Prophet Muhammad

The soul has no possibility but to reflect the truth and to energize the emerging developing ego. The ego has no real independence for it is dependent on the soul for its existence. This is why spiritual exercises, prayers or religious services and devotions are uplifting and desirable. The soul is the only true and durable source of well-being, contentment, and thus happiness. The self or ego is subject to confusing changes. The soul is constant.

We can explain all motivations and desires in life by reference to the soul. Take, for example, generosity, patience, forgiveness and all other virtues. These qualities dwell in the soul, which reflect Divine attributes, and the self tries to mimic or experience these virtues. When you act generously and with tolerance, this is a reflection of the absolute Generosity and Tolerance of God. The person echoes the perfect patterns of the soul without reaching total satisfaction; we are forever worshipping at the altar of these perfections.

The soul is ever content and humans can only have moments of contentment the absolute contentment of the soul is only reflected in relative terms in this world of change. The self seeks power, whereas in truth, the soul is the source of power power as a reflector of God, the All-Powerful. The self seeks knowledge and the soul is the source of knowledge as it reflects God, the All-Knowing. The self yearns for all the Divine qualities within the soul and acts in the world to reproduce these states.

That is what was meant when Prophet Muhammad said, 'He who knows himself knows his Lord.' The trouble arises when the self or ego attributes the Divine qualities to itself, whilst in truth it is only a passing shadow without any substance except as a means of realizing the light within.

Your ultimate enemy is your (lower) self.

Prophet Muhammad

All outer searches and quests are symptoms and reflections of the perpetual inner call of the soul. Seclusion and periods of withdrawal give one the opportunity to hear the call more clearly. When you hear the original Caller, silence and timelessness, all movements and change cease to exist. The transitory reality is absorbed by the timeless and boundless 'Truth' beyond this world. You come to recognize that, from the beginning to the end, all authority belongs to the One True Author.

You come to know that you do not exist, as you believed before. You die (to the transitory world) before you die (physically and irrevocably). You witness consciousness as a shadow of the Eternal, All-encompassing Divine Oneness. You transcend worldly consciousness to pure consciousness.

Your so-called death in this world is the recognition of the 'ongoingness' of the soul. When the self yields or dies, inner contentment is accessed and realized. This is the enactment of returning to the One through the soul or spirit within. This is enlightenment.

Someone once asked him, 'When will the Kingdom of God come?' He answered, 'The Kingdom of God doesn't come if you watch for it. It isn't in heaven. It doesn't come only after you die. No one can point to it and say, 'It is here' or 'it is there.' For the Kingdom of God is within you.

Jesus (Matthew 22:1721)

Seek truth you will find it in your self. Therefore, know yourself.

Prophet Muhammad

After a few days the khalwa period usually lasts up to forty days(3) inner awakening for the mature or ready seeker may occur in special and unexpected ways. After I emerged from seclusion, I wrote a letter to Chinmaya to thank him for his love and patience with me. 'Only now the obvious has become obvious', I wrote, with tears of joy streaming from my sleepless eyes.

True knowledge enables a man to realize that he is the soul with a body. Now, in his ignorance he thinks that he is a body with a soul.

Swami Chinmayananda

It took about six months after khalwa for me to readjust to the outside world for I was feeling exceptionally vulnerable and found normal human activities, such as driving a car or being driven, unfamiliar and even frightening. The immediate effect of khalwa was to see the fallacy and uselessness of everything that one had previously considered important and significant. Whatever people considered as being responsible action or generous service was seen now as merely ignorant, short-term selfishness and self-deception.

I could see how every aspect of the lower self was demeaning or distracting, while at the same time there existed in the heart a most sublime essence and light, reflecting the primal truth of God's eternal light. My constant companion was the knowledge that everything in life has a reality, but none of it is durable compared to eternal Truth.

The Giver is One, and all of creation are receivers, it is not a question of finding God so much as realizing that He is already within you and is the instigator of your needs and search. God is already there and has been there and everywhere, before time and in time. God is within you and around you, before you and after you.

In the Qur`an, God tells us that He is closer to us than the jugular vein. It is just that we do not always recognize this. There is a famous Christian story in which a man is looking back on his  life as represented by footsteps in the sand. For most of the way, there are two pairs of footsteps in the sand and God tells the man that He was with him every step of the way. But the man notices that on the low points or difficult times in his  life, there is only one pair of footsteps and so he asks God why He left him in the times of difficulty. To this, God responds that those were His footprints for He was carrying the man.

In the Islamic tradition, there could never be another pair of footprints besides those of God. To presume this is to presume there is an 'other' and this is to be mistaken for there is none but God.

You are not veiled from Allah by the existence of something that exists with Him since there is nothing which exists with Him. You are veiled from Him by the illusion that something exists with Him.

Shaykh Abdal Qadir al Gilani

The first thing Shaykh Abdalqadir asked me after khalwa was to teach Qur`an to a group of ladies in his Ribat at Tucson. The Divinely revealed Book seemed now illumined, accessible and transformative. This was the first time I spoke and thought spontaneously, without effort or self-concern. From my childhood I had never felt the need for the label of a profession or occupation, but this new state took over. When people asked me a question which moved my heart, the answer came to my lips in spite of me! I had no option but to share what is not mine and submit to what comes through me.

Shaykh Abdalqadir gave me the 'idhn' or permission to practice as a Sufi shaykh of the Shadhili order. Subsequently, two other Sufi shaykhs have given me the idhn of the Chishti and Rifa'i orders (incidentally, shaykh is a title I have never been very happy with, especially because of its connotations in more recent years and its spurious use). Because of my reluctance to teach, Shaykh Abdalqadir would, in jest, refer to me as 'the reluctant shaykh.'

I found myself in this new position without any desire for it. It was what God had allotted for me, and though I may have preferred to run away from it, it was my appropriate destiny. This feeling was re-enforced by my mother, aunt, brothers and sisters, who gave me a number of the family items from Karbala. Included amongst these were the prayer mats of my father, grandfather and great-grandfather, Shaykh Ahmad, Shaykh Muhammad Hussein and Shaykh Zainul Abideen. A couple of years before he died, my brother, Danish, had given me one of our father's rings, which he had from his youth. And, touchingly, the year before he died, my eldest brother, Sadrudeen, sent me Shaykh Ahmad's Qur`an (traditionally given to the eldest child) with a note saying that I was the heir to it and he had just been looking after it for me.

One day, Mashti told us a story about God's will and destiny.

'There was One, there was no one, other than Allah there is no one.'

'There was a young prince whom the soothsayers predicted would preside over a great new kingdom. When the prince grew up, he became an ascetic, fasting all the time and avoiding worldly desires, interests or attachments. A time came that he could no longer stand the excesses of his father's kingdom, so he left for the mountains with just one sarong.

He climbed up beyond the mountain villages and beyond the tree line to where there was a great plateau with a stream and a few shrubs, which produced the berries for his subsistence. There he found a cave and set up his frugal residence, content in meditation and fasting.

After a few weeks, the people of the surrounding villages heard about the presence of the prince who had forfeited his throne to lead a life of asceticism. A few of them decided to make regular visits to be in the company of such a sincere and godly man. They would continuously ask him if they could do or get anything for him. He always refused their tempting kindnesses.

As the visitors increased in number and regularity, he realized that it would be embarrassing if anyone were to see him while he was washing his one sarong in the river, so he accepted the offer of another cotton sarong. The new sarong soon arrived and the people continued to come being more worldly and attached, they were challenged by this man, so free and detached. One does not want to be incumbent with the things of this world.

For a time, the prince was very content with his two sarongs, but then after a while, he began to notice that soon after he washed a sarong and left it on a bush to dry, field mice were tugging at it, damaging it and continuously moving it to another location. He thought it would be a good idea to have a cat.

This request was transmitted to the men from the villages and a cat was brought up the next day. The mouse problem was soon resolved, but the cat became very unhappy as the mouse population diminished. The prince, reflecting on the condition of the cat, concluded there to be no harm if there were a cow that could be milked for the cat. The cow arrived but our prince found that it too required maintenance. He was cautious not to let worldly activities engulf him or distract him from his joyful meditative state and so consented to the cow being looked after by a poor old man from the village.

Time passed with the prince, the cat and the cow living in harmony on top of the mountain, but the poor old man was growing unhappy. The mountain air, fresh milk and yogurt had quite rejuvenated him and he longed for company. The old man approached the compassionate and understanding sage prince and asked for permission for another person, preferably an elderly lady, to join him. The prince could not deprive this old man of such a basic request.

As the elderly lady arrived, she made her own demands. One thing led to another and within a year there was a small village. Within three years, there was a kingdom, presided over by a wise ascetic king. The moral is you cannot control what finally comes to you as part of destiny. This is influenced by the wishes of others as well. The prince gracefully submitted to what was written and remained in blissful contentment.

And Allah knows best.'

* * *

At the time of the khalwa, I realized that the outer rituals of Islam cannot be separated from their inner meanings and the inner meanings would not gel unless encased in the outer rituals. I gained particularly from prayer or salat. Some people find meditation frustrating because they have been unable to reap the benefits of it quickly it is not for everyone. Salat, however, is useful for everyone and rewards people according to the level they can manage.

At the very least, leaving aside the spiritual benefits, for the duration of the salat you can stop an argument, stop being angry and stop other stresses. Salat takes you away physically from distractions. You stand facing the Ka'aba and praise and thank your Source. Then you bow, seeking entry into the inner sanctum. Then, you 'disappear' in the prostration, your 'you-ness' hidden in submission. If you are able to 'plug in' properly, especially with the prostration, it gives you increasing access to an inner dimension. I found that the very core of the salat for me was the prostration, sajda, which is the ability to disappear from all sensory stimuli. It takes you into a subliminal state or a state of sensory deprivation and therefore into a state of spiritual rejuvenation.

I do not like proselytizing, but when people came to me for guidance, I could only guide them to what I had discovered. I would say to them if you can do your salat properly, put your head down and disappear, then the inner, higher dimension of you will appear.

The only way I could talk to westerners interested in Islam was by expanding on the inner meanings of Islamic worship. As time went by, I found that Muslims needed this knowledge just as much if not more. They needed to know about the transformative part of the rituals they performed.

Trying to fulfill this need became an ongoing quest and source of great benefit for me as I researched, both in existent Islamic literature as well as through experiencing these rituals, the inner meanings of ablution, prostration, fasting, and hajj. There had already been a good deal of literature produced on the subject, but usually not presented in a way the modem Muslim or sincere seeker can assimilate.

* * *

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(1)It was during one of his frequent periods of seclusion and meditation in a cave outside Mecca that the Angel Gabriel came to the Prophet Muhammad and the first verses of the Qur`an were related.

(2)There is a Hindu saying in which God is defined as, 'that which we cannot perceive, but by which we perceive, that which we cannot understand, but by which we understand.'

(3)Khalwa is sometimes referred to as 'chillah', a Persian word, which means forty. This is derived from a Qur`anic story of the Prophet Moses, who left his people for forty days to go into seclusion.

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