Unimaginable to Me

I can’t imagine what goes through the mind of a suicide bomber, but it can’t be pretty. I can’t put myself in the place of someone who would prepare for months and weeks up to the final day, to inwardly leave every loved thing behind forever, go through the zombified motions of traveling to the appointed place equipped with deadly explosives and the sure knowledge that he or she will soon burst into a billion unbody-like pieces and kill or maim as many people as possible, hoping – with a fervor that I really can’t imagine – that his or her soul will fly free into a martyr’s Paradise where all the angels and ultimately Allah will congratulate him or her on a job well done!

I gave up my Zen practice, psychotropic ecstatic experimentation and Free Love in 1969, in Berkeley, California, the capital of all these delights, to become a Muslim! So throwing my life away in an irreversible act of self-destruction as a result of my radically spiritual decision would be to me simply unthinkable. This can’t be Islam, these poor souls can’t represent the pure Way of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, even with all their justifiably frustrated rage, even if confronted by the Iron Moloch of seemingly unconquerable power.

I entered Islam drawn by the descriptions of the lovers of Allah, the experiential, direct tasting of the Divine Presence in every moment, the free-flowing nectar of His Light of True Knowledge (look how these things are capitalized!). In the 1960s we were all reading Rumi, ‘Attar and Nizami, back when they were translated by rather stuffy English scholars like Nicholson and Arberry, but the winds of sweet light were blowing through these works just the same, promising a Gnostic eternity of Grace.

Where is delight in the moment enraptured with love of Allah, where is the vision of His Compassion, the sense of His Presence and the heart beating with His remembrance in these puritanically hard-edged, and indiscriminate attacks against total bystanders, including children? Are the victims complicit in their government’s evils simply by their (ignored) existence? Who gave the suicide bombers permission to take their lives? Are they Qadis (judges)? (or even enlightened saints doing God’s will) with a direct hotline to Allah’s justice? And where is the vision of the Prophet, peace be upon him, who came as a mercy to mankind, seen in his time with his family and companions, and his every action replicated in our own lives with as much scrupulosity as possible?

Should I have stayed facing a wall in meditation? We don’t see Zen Buddhists blowing up other people as well as themselves. Vietnamese Monks did occasionally set fire to themselves in protest of the American invasion there, but in open spaces where no one else would be affected except by the sight of a saffron clad, headshaven young and beautiful monk flaming like a torch. But even that was hard to fathom or justify, since the Bodhissatva vow of Compassion for all mankind is to refrain from entering Nirvana until every sentient creature has entered it first.

No, for me the promise and proof of the highest enlightenment possible to the human heart in Islam is as great if not greater than when I first embraced Islam thirty-five years ago. Over these years I’ve sat with men and women of God’s Nearness, He having become the hearing with which they hear, the seeing with which they see, the hand with which they strike, and the feet with which they walk; the Answerer of their requests.

Certainly in Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq serious resistance to violent injustice is legitimate, though the Sufis operate from a strength of vast spirituality impossible to fake. At one of the heights of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict (there’ve been so many!), American poet Allen Ginsberg phoned me and asked how to pacify the Muslims, having spent much of his career chanting OM and successfully bringing calm to touchy social situations. I told him, “Muslims retreat into a ribat, study Qur’an for months and do immense amounts of invocation, and then they come out fighting. But it’s not just the Palestinians who need pacifying, Allen. How do you pacify Israel’s intractable Iron Fist?” He agreed, and wasn’t sure.

But even when they enter combat, the Muslims don’t commit suicide, and they’re careful to find the antagonists of true Jihad based on the Prophet’s strict rules: no women, no children or old people, a face to face engagement with the armies of the enemy . . . It’s even prohibited to destroy crops and trees!

Compared to this, there seems to be a cowardly masochism in suicide bombers. Of course, conspiracy theorists might insist that these pawn-like souls are put to give them a pretext for stronger aggres- sion. In a deeper though perhaps unlinked way, this is true. But I can imagine (in spite of my failure to imagine the state of sui- cide bombers) a President of the United States and the leaders of the “Free World” suddenly being struck by the futility of fighting slippery “terrorists” by endless and greater force or tighter “security,” and sitting down with really open hearts and engaged intellects to try to find solutions for the wounds the bombers are insistent on exacerbating. It’s true that these enlightened leaders would have to be angelically winged and filled with a light of intense and otherworldly brightness. They would have to dismantle their police and military state structures, reverse their greed for world (read “oil”) domination, come to an equitable way of dealing with Israel and the Palest inians ,immediately stop the war in Iraq and try to effect reparation for the damages and devastation of the thousands of dead from their own years of terrorist tactics. And they would have to ask forgiveness, from God and from the people against whom they’ve aggressed. But I’m from California, so my hold on reality may be a bit too dreamy for this world.

But then perhaps the dark thoughts, the desperate Black Holes of Suicidal explosion, the unimaginable beckoning and sucking of the suicidal Void, that moment when a bomber triggers what will be his or her expulsion from this world and sadly enough from Paradise as well, would dissipate, and we could get on with the usual crimes and petty injustices of human life on earth without them spiraling into the chaos that even the Prophet, peace be upon him, predicted would prevail near the end of time.

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

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