TRANSFORMATIONS

Compiled By: Hajj Mustafa Ali

Story by Ibrahim

I came to Islam after a very long search for something, call it Truth, Real knowledge or use whatever label you want. I sought always in the outward but that elusive something always evaded my efforts.  The seeker and the sought are really one, and what I sought was within, though I did not at first perceive this.  Most of what I encountered in life was only a hindrance to fulfilling that inward yearning and it prevented me from arriving sooner at this present stage in life’s remarkable journey.  So you who read this must look within yourself, if you are still seeking this path, and not at my story, or me for these are only signposts along the way.

I was born in England in 1928 and was abandoned at an early age to be raised by my grandmother, a simple, hard working, honest woman who had great determination and courage.  We were poor and were helped by neighbors at various times with fuel for the fire and food for the table.  We grew most of our own vegetables, and some fruit, gardening organically as a natural way of life.  We generally managed quite well to stay healthy and sane.  There was never money enough for extra pleasures and we were contented with what was around us.

I attended a small church school in the village, sang in the choir twice on Sundays and earned a few pence singing at weddings and funerals.  It was in this environment that I was first touched by an awareness of something infinitely beautiful, which lay just beyond my perceptions but was intimately connected with them.  This feeling stole over me as I watched the slanting rays of the setting sun move across chapel, blending the pattern of the western stained-glass window into the cardinal-red carpet between the choir stalls.  Evocative, fascinating and utterly removed from the subject of the sermon from the pulpit in that hushed, attentive church.  This kind of experience was quickened at times by glimpses of similar beauty as I watched the wind ripple the golden wheat field against the backdrop of blue sea and sky;  “surprised by joy” as C.S. Lewis said.  Even more profoundly moving is the infinite sadness that steals over the heart watching slowly; falling snowflakes melt into the heaving gray sea.

At Grammar School I struggled to learn the lessons while sensing all the while that adults either knew nothing of life’s meaningful experiences or else they did not care to share them with me.  I was uncomfortable with the clever arguments about Christian Theology, which our head master taught under the title of “Divinity”, and I questioned incessantly almost everything he said.  My constant refusal to accept his well-rehearsed arguments was based on a clear awareness that Theology and the Christian life were both fundamentally at variance with my own experience and with the life going on around me.  There was always this adult tendency to sweep arguments under the carpet and out of sight, as though they did not exist, and to demand more obedience to elders and to strive for more faith; then everything would one day become “alright”.  I could not believe this to be true because my elders themselves were obviously in some confusion.

Thus Religion seemed at variance with daily life, as it was lived in rural England, and had even less connection with the teeming life in Nature and the awesome splendor of the starry night-sky, both of which I had begun to observe more closely with ever deepening satisfaction and with the immediate reward of discovery.

Then came a clear sign that helped to clear away some of the confusion between an imposed Religion and a Life experience.  I saw clearly that the elders I questioned only thinly concealed their ignorance and did not illuminate the mind.  They simply did not know the answers.  So I turned away from the learned, respectable people in that class-conscious English society and began to seek knowledge elsewhere.  I sought real knowledge that unifies everything and illuminates not only the learning of the head but what the heart knows also.  Thus, by degrees, I was led to people who understood my questions and the quest; but the answers were as elusive as ever before.  There was neither a road to the goal of understanding this life nor any map.

Somewhere along the way I learned two things of great value.  One is that an intense, burning desire for anything will bring to one that which is sought, be it material possession or knowledge.  So beware desire because there is a universal law that rewards exactly!  Secondly, I learned that deep within us awareness arises that thrills and intensifies in contact with real, useful knowledge and accepts it readily, on trust, until experience seals it irrevocably.  What is thus revealed to the inward eye is never lost nor can it be taken away.

So began the long search for knowledge of what IS, the seeking of Life’s riddle of why am I here, from whence do I come and wither do I go, naught knowing.  A search embracing about forty years of running back and forth between one school and another, embracing along the way for a while nearly all of the major religions and many of their splinter groups.  They all had something to offer but I found no lasting satisfaction in any one of them.  One of the last of these movements involved “fragments of an unknown teaching” that was developed by Gurdjieff and pupil Ouspensky in the 1930’s and later expanded in England and America after the last world war.

As I came to know more people it was apparent that most never start on this journey because they are satisfied with what they know; and what remains tantalizingly unknown to them is smothered over by the cares of this world and the burdens of life.  Such people were my early teachers and they are the self-satisfied and successful people who are the majority.  But Gurdjieff’’s teaching was for the dissatisfied who knew it and, like myself, were searching; those who knew their situation and wanted to wake up.  Some of the experience gained in this school was useful to develop awareness and sensitivity to what is happening around one.  But “work on oneself” was a difficult discipline to follow even at the school, and it was almost impossible to continue alone outside the system.

I now dimly realized that a magnetic center of some kind, well established within, was pulling me onward toward some unseen, powerful pole.  If such force is opposed by willfully not following the way one must go, then the whole system is violently disrupted and chaos results.  In such a situation a person risks serious disorder both physically and mentally.  Illness then comes as a great blessing, if recognized as a balancing and restoring agent, and is a clear signal to stop and to review what is occurring.  Thus it was that I fell seriously ill to the point of death and learned a third thing of value.  Death is absurdly easy to accept after intense suffering.  All one’s values previously held are seen from an entirely new perspective.  The inevitable end seems easy to accept to the one who suffers, but is harder on those who are left behind.  So grieve not for the departed but for those who remain.

After passing this stage I turned back again to Christianity and re-entered the fold to immerse myself completely within that community.  I found the old arguments were still being discussed superficially, but they were even more obviously threadbare, torn to tatters by the winds of change.  Christianity looked like a beautiful polished nut with no kernel, and it was moldering away from within.  All the social activity had the usual missionary zeal, and was well intended and well directed.  But at heart Christianity had no unity, no cosmology, no depth and no reality.  It was at best superficial socialism with outworn creeds whichever fragment one examined.  So I turned away from religion, for the last time, and looked again for the sources from which useful knowledge had come.  I reread the works that in the past had moved me profoundly, the Sufi poets, and the works of their modern counterparts.  I was surprised one day to read that one could not enter a Sufi school except by way of Islam.  This was a new direction in which I had never looked before, though I had once read the Qur’an in English without receiving much lasting impression.  I remembered too the hours I had once spent in the British Museum Library researching the subject of Alchemy.  The arcane terminology, the symbolic language and the fragments of Arabic I never thought I could ever come to understand had fascinated me.  I had once wanted to learn Arabic, to better understand the sources of Alchemy, and now I felt strongly impelled to start again in this direction.  The Qur’an was the key.  I knew I simply had to get a copy of the Qur’an with Arabic and English text together and I could make a start!

The sequence of events that now occurred looks like a kaleidoscope in retrospect, but the main fragments are clear enough.  That strong desire moved heaven and earth to bring me to the goal, more swiftly than any scheme that I could concoct.  A busy career in science very soon carried me to Vancouver; a city I knew only vaguely from passing through at other times on the way to other places.  I was convinced that a four hour delay in the start of our business meeting would give me just time enough to enter the city to find an Arabic/English Qur’an.  I set off at once certain that I would find what I sought.  After three false starts in different bookshops I found a large shop with a good selection on Islam, but no Qur’an.  It was there I met a woman who had just returned from the East who gave me an address of a shop specializing in religious and related matters.  Armed with a set of bus numbers and sketchy map I had located the shop in twenty minutes and stood before a section labeled Islam.  In front of me was a pile of large, green covered volumes, and I picked up my first Arabic/English Qur’an.  At my feet were copies of a quarterly called “Islam, a journal of the Darqawi Institute”.  I collected these together and paused for a moment to look at a book by a Sufi entitled “The way of Muhammad”, and a curious little work close by which I thought would suit my wife, “The Book of Strangers” by Ian Dallas.  I left the shop in great haste and returned quickly to the hotel with minutes to spare before the beginning of the business meeting.  For the moment the books were forgotten, but the die was cast!

It was not until I was on the plane and five miles above the Rocky Mountains that I opened and read a little from the journals and “The way of Muhammad”.  I read and I was instantly transfixed.  It seemed that all I had ever sought lay suddenly open before me.  I read on and was transformed.  Here was knowledge of another order revealed in startling clarity.  The tremendous impact of that moment did not fade for days; I moved like one in a dream but all the while open, sensitive, alert and aware.  The impression was crystal clear.  I had to find the source of these writings.  Over and ever again the feeling welled up in the heart that I must “turn back”, “look homeward to some distant origin”.  The outward flight from life was finished and for a moment I rested on some pinnacle far removed from the “the source”.  Like a spent rocket that soars up and up, I rested for an instant in suspension, stopped in space and then plunged to the source.  I read the Qur`an as though for the first time and knew that no matter how much I read and understood, it was an infinite ocean.  I could not go wrong, even though nobody was there to explain it to me.  The Qur`an and the books I had bought were like pearls of great price encountered unexpectedly.  Here was real knowledge and here were real people living by every word of it.  The journey of more than forty years was nearly at an end.  An inner prompting warned not to approach Muslims in North America but to seek the source of this inspiration.

The stimulus this experience had engendered was more than enough to propel me on yet another business trip to Europe.  After my work was completed, I found my way to Norwich in England and to the Ihsan mosque.  My long journey ended in the month of Ramadan when I repeated the Shahada before the assembled fuqara and Imam Abdus-Samad.  I stayed with these good people for two weeks, living the “deen”, learning Arabic and the salat.  I had never met their like before nor had I ever experienced such illustrious company . . . al-Hamdu lillahi WA Shukru lillah.