At Compass Point

Verily, He causes the sustenance to descend upon me, and 1 see Him flowing through the whale in the water and through the bird in the sky. – Shaykh Abu al-Hasan al-Shadhili

Where am ? at this exact point? There’s a heat wave in Philadelphia, the growly noise of airplanes, my clock with different birdsongs for each hour ticks away, my health is good, my mind troubled but calm . . . I’ve forgotten my dhikr, but have now remembered it . . . the prayer on the Prophet, peace of God be upon him … as often as I recall, hoping by it to be recalled … by God, like a defective automobile to be replaced by an improved model … of my self without such defects. . . or better yet, by a non-self. . . letting only God . . .

We have to know where we arc at any given time. Are we at the cockpit of a plane about to slice through a skyscraper? Are we demolishing traces of the Prophet’s precincts in Mecca to deflect any vestiges of idol worship? Are we bent over a Qur’an reciting it or puzzling out its meanings, or letting His words shine on our hearts? Are we standing in the circle of a hadra, holding hands with Moroccan farmers or Jordanian fishermen with fingers like tree branches, or as women with other women, loving hands both strong and son, invoking God’s Living Name? …

We may die at any moment. And yet we never really die, here or there. Wondering in my 20s or 30s where I’d be at this point in my life, nearing 66, but feeling much the same as I did then, except the water under the bridge is more serene and more turbulent. Serene because as we age we must submit more seriously. Our bodies themselves are busy submitting. Turbulent in that as tomorrow could be the appointed day of my death, I must muster my most brilliant forces to charge up the hill of God’s Mercy and hope to be among the humbly victorious living or the witnessing dead still within His Light. The Caliph ‘Umar, may God be pleased with him, said that if he heard there was only one to be granted the Garden, he would hope it might be he, and if there was only one to go to the Fire, he would pray it would not be he, such was his humble uncertainty and lack of arrogance in spite of his worldly “power.”

I love my solitude, and grow tired and frustrated at the world, so battered and broken it seems, with such crazy people seemingly in charge of policies that do nothing to alleviate suffering, but instead augment it. I can’t imagine what they see in their mirrors, their profound ugliness is so appalling. How can those around them not see it? In grammar school no one got away with anything without the rest of the class knowing, with a kind of precocious wisdom, just how awful somebody was, except, perhaps for their closest clique. Perhaps this is the same situation, but at large, armed and dangerous on the world stage. It’s time to turn inward to go to the grottos of the heart and find the space there for compassionate prayer and sincere remembrance of He Who Knows and Acts in this world.

How radiant the Muslims would have been to let Salman Rushdie rave alone and ignored, his pitiful novel moving from bestseller to bargain bin within months, to let cartoonists draw their filthy pictures. In our serenity we would show a purity of heart instantly recognizable by the treasure we carry in our souls, above such trivializing, mocking only themselves.

But Allah is mocking them, and

drawing them on,

as they wander blindly in

their excessive insolence.

– Qur’an 2: 1 5

A friend suggested that Palestinians should dress in white robes and walk across the River Jordan singing – men, woman and children – and show the world a spirituality suddenly obvious to all. These would be dramatic photos for the newspapers and websites! But the “authority” said Palestinian men have to show strength of might. Where’s imagination, where’s going to the root of our Islam to the immediacy of the moment, true spontaneity that comes of faith which knows answers to questions that haven’t even been asked?

Each interaction with anyone has this possible impact, from the smile that is “charity,” to more substantial reaching out. We don’t even know our effect on the world, but should be like whales that glide through the water as implacably themselves and intent on their deep “whaleness” as any saintly creature. Dhikr that goes deep into the soul does that. And when we see saintly ones among us, by virtue of their glow and the simplicity of their words that cut through iron and enter the shuttered heart, then we know that Islam’s Zamzam flows as strongly as ever throughout the driest landscapes, of land and of our momentary beings, wherever we might find ourselves on the Meccan compass.

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    A piece previously published in the print issue of Islamica Magazine between 2003-2009. The following has been an effort to digitize and archive as a free service. Author citations can be found at as we continue to work on improving the digital archives here.

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