Nostalgia for Islam


The end of knowledge is that man comes to the point where he was at the origin. – Sheikh Abu Yazid al-Bistami (d.875)

IT’S 2006, I’m 65, and I’m nostalgic for the old days. Now I don’t mean for a child’s leather jacket with hood and strap (I can still taste the strap!), silvery tricycles or my first yellow Oldsmobile, or the heady days of Berkeley in the 60s with the newest Bob Dylan album or a new book of poems by Ginsberg or McClure. No. It’s not that. I’m nostalgic for my first days as a Muslim, knowing nothing, learning and eager to soak in everything I could, open-heartedly embracing the divine revelation and its adherents with a high sense of adventure and joy, and I mean that without any trace of romanticism whatsoever.

In the California of the 60s Islam was a complete unknown. I had the heavy black volumes of Nicholson’s translations of Rumi’s Mathnawi which I read every morning after yoga thinking it was superlative surrealism of the folkloric kind, and of course we all grew up (me born in the 40s) with a copy of Fitzgerald’s The Rubiyat of Omar Khayyam in the house with its romantic, orientalist illustrations from the 1920s. But when I first heard about Islam and Sufism in the late 60s (from Abdal-Qadir as-Sufi, aka Ian Dallas of The Book of Strangers, with whom we spent our first years) we were totally enthralled by both his earnest eloquence and the amazing news he was bringing, and saw from our experienced eyes that this illuminated world of God’s love and His Prophet’s perfection (peace of Allah be upon him), as well as his incomparable Companions, blessings on all of them (who, like us, were also learning day by day, experience by experience), and the 107-year-old Sufi sheikh then living in Meknes, Morocco with his disciples, was really the next step forward. We saw it as a true realization of the Revolution of Consciousness, into the fulfillment of our deepest spiritual as well as physical and societal desires. This was a perfectly legal intoxication from which one need never “come down.” And those days (and it stretched for years afterwards) were all illuminated with God’s eagerly expected unpredictability in every moment, each pointing to something, well, awesome in its true sense.
We were keyed up to witness the “signs on the horizon and in ourselves “in a fresh, even raw and totally vulnerable way. Sloughing off the old and flaking snake- skin of our earlier adventures, spiritual and otherwise, and taking on the Way of Muhammad and the testified nobility of His Path, was both a constant difficulty of readjustment and a soul’s excitement – the fresh wind of it on our faces and the deeper light of it in our hearts. But under- neath each day’s twists and turns was a complete trust that whatever we encoun- tered was beneficial and knowledgebestowing. The portal entrance of the Shahada (the basic agreed-upon contract of One God and His sent Prophet) guaranteed that. We were now in a cosmic safety-zone, where even infractions were meaningful and transformable, and there were no accidents.

I’d practiced Zen and read Sutras with their promise of enlightenment, and studied Yoga and Tibetan Buddhism, with its otherworldly iconography and its promise of enlightenment, and then was confronted with an Islam presented as a clear road to the ultimate goal of all mortal life, marifah, fully experienced recognition of God in all things, everywhere, at all times, in this world. This, of course, with obligatory morality and daily practices, the negligence of which might shut the whole project down. But the atmosphere was positive in every sense, and we were invited to build a community of people free of the nuisance of their nafs, ego-trips, contentiousness, and disharmony. Instead, with a central hub of the Master teacher, our Moroccan sheikh and his deputy of idhn (permission), who simply reflected contemporaneously the light of Muhammad, peace be upon him, we could sit close to that radiation and get the lovely warmth of it, and hopefully the golden sheen.

We lived in London for a while in a commune, me a Californian, enduring the bone-stuttering cold, the disorienting otherness of English culture, but now as a Muslim with constraints and preferences, not as a tourist, but as a disciple and acolyte, whose intention above all was to absorb and benefit, rather than hobnob and sightsee. It wasn’t all English tea and scones (though we certainly had some of those as well), but at the same time we were living the consecration of the early Muslims as thirsty ones and Abrahamic (and Mukammadanl) seekers, Mecca at the center of our hearts, each prayer a kind of closing in and further refinement. Our intense dhikrs (chanted Qur’anic invocations) were like shooing the last frayed bats out of our cracked belfries, and inviting, really, the truest angels in for an amicable colonization. And all for love of God and His Prophet, peace be upon him, for really there was nothing else in those first days to match that heart’s conflagration.

When we finally went to Morocco we lived among the fugara there, the “poor in need” of God, the dervishes, and had authences not only with our sheikh (may God be pleased with him), but also with a number of saintly men and women, who had achieved what was advertised and whose poise and wisdom in our presence was not only imparted to us but also inspired us. And we weren’t treated like the novices that we were, but were enthusiastically welcomed and given the straightforward teachings of Qur’an and hadith as if sweetmeats were being passed around to delight our palates, and as if they were all fresh news from the Prophet’s mouth only moments ago. The elders showed us immense forbearance, excusing the extensive gaucheness in our manners and even our practices, rarely correcting our mistakes until the second visit a year later, or if so, only mildly, almost by inference rather than by doctrinal and dictatorial imperative (and perhaps it’s also this I’m nostalgic for . . . the Islam of sweet inference and exalted example rather than the rat-a-tat of ceaseless doctrinal book-banging).

Certainly, over all, we were still ignorant, and certainly with knowledge comes complexity (and as my Zen Master often said, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few”), but there was a freshness of outlook of our “beginner’s mind,” and a thirst for the opening of consciousness, a zeal to be true and to continually associate with those who elevate our state, rather than lower it, as enlightened teachers everywhere always commend.

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    Islamica

    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 islamicamagazine.com as we continue to work on improving the digital archives here.
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