Beloved sisters and brothers, as salaamu alaykum
My jumuah talk today is entitled “Raising our Gaze”, and I begin with some personal reflections. At sunrise, while the neighbourhood is quiet and asleep, I spend a half hour doing a dhikr (remembrance/meditation) walking around our garden. The birds are up and about enthusiastically chirping their own forms of glorification. These days it takes me a while to get into the dhikr – it takes a while to stop the anxious, worrying self, who has fretful dreams night after night about being lost, about not being able to reach her ailing parents, about arriving at a strange place having forgotten my personal belongings, or about being stuck in the lift. Indeed the unconscious processes ones fears when asleep. I wish I had more exalted dreams, but these are my dreams in the times of corona. So on waking, my morning dhikr provides something of a welcome respite.
Some years ago, I was given a dhikr formula by a spiritual elder for times of turmoil and stress which is to repeat the third kalima or what is called the hawqala 333 times (Subhanallah; Alhamdulilah, Walaa illaha il-allahu, Allahu Akbar, Wala hawla wa la Quwataa, illa billa hil Ali yul Azeem) (trans: Glory be to Allah, all Praise is due to Allah. There is nothing that is the center of one’s being except Allah, and there is no power nor strength except through Allah, the exalted, the mighty)
So after about 20 mins of repeating this formula, my mind begins to calm down. Slowly things start to appear differently. When the nafs becomes a bit silent, one is able to see a bit more expansively, one might be able to raise one’s gaze. Looking up into the horizon, I suddenly notice the various trees, close by and far away, how the leaves dance playfully with the breeze, how they shimmer with the loving kiss of the sun, I see their different colours and the hues, how each is so distinctive in their shapes and shades of patient evergreen, shy yellow, sassy orange and golden brown. In raising my gaze, I am quietly alerted to the extraordinary beauty that suffuses nature; beauty that I perhaps often look at but have often not really seen. And as their leaves rustle, I remember the Quranic ayat in surah Isra (17:44) which informs us the all things in the seven heavens and earth declare Allahs’ glory, despite the fact that we do not understand these forms of praise.
In being mindful that each creation is busy with its own form of glorification, and that tress have their own form of dhikrullah, I recognise that my breathing depends on the oxygen they so generously produce. I am made aware that our very breath is contingent. I am made even more acutely conscious of the obligation to honour the natural world through which divine abundance is gifted to us; and the shameful reality that our collective lack of doing so is reflected in our ecological crisis. I remember the words of Shaykh Bawa Muhaiyideen (Rahmatullah Alay) who said that Allah resides in the breath. As we breathe in and breathe out, our breath connects us with the breath of other human lives, and in the same way that the trees are distinctive and different but all share a purpose, so too every human life is intimately connected to others, and we each share the same ultimate purpose in this life.
Yet we each, as unique human beings in distinctive circumstances, live, act and encounter the world very differently: one part of this diversity is a blessing a nimah, the unique nature of each human beings mirrors the plentitude of the divine names as they are reflected differently in each life. This is indeed a wonder. And Allah SWT tells in the Qur’an, Chapter 49:13 as follows:
O humanity ! We have created you all out of a male and a female, and have made you into peoples and tribes, so that you might come to know one another. Verily, the noblest of you in the sight of God is the one who is most deeply conscious of Him. Behold, God is all-knowing, all-aware (Q:49:13)
So here human differences provides an opportunity for knowledge and connection with one another. More especially despite difference of gender, ethnicity, and kinship, we are each judged by the same universal spiritual criterion: Men, women, white, black, South African, Zimbabwean, Iranian or Indonesian, straight, queer, whether you speak Xhosa, Arabic or English, – each is valued by the measure of taqwa, God-consciousness. Taqwa signals that deep awareness that one is in the presence of and accountable to the Real (al-Haqq); it is this higher consciousness that are created to cultivate.
On the contrary, it is a lack of genuine taqwa, a lack of higher consciousness that makes some human beings lord over others which is the root cause of all injustice. The Quran describes a lack of awareness as a state of (ghafla) heedlessness or nisyan, forgetfulness. We become a community characterised by heedlessness when there is silence and complicity with the harm caused by economic inequality and ecological injustice, by sexism, racism, ableism and homophobia to name but a few. These difference based on hierarchies and separations are caused when we collectively are dominated by the nafs al-amarrah, by ego-centredness, arrogance, greed, selfishness, as well as the lack of courage to take on change and transformation. Indeed the outer forms of injustice reflect our collective inner spiritual poverty and destitution; the personal and spiritual are indeed political – and the political is spiritual.
While the lockdown due to corona virus has impacted everyone, the dire situation of people who live in conditions of poverty and/or gender based-violence becomes most acute and for some even deathly in these times. In fact the South African national Gender-Based Violence Command Centre reported a 37% increase of calls in the first week of lockdown in SA and this reflects a similar trend reported in China, Tunisia, Northern Ireland and France.
This lockdown period has radically heightened the impact of prevailing inequalities, and particular forms of violence and abuse. We need to raise our gaze to be ever-more inclusive of those who are suffering most intensely by this virus, to raise our collective gaze so that we are able to diagnose and transform our social structures, so that we may turn away from the gruesome living legacies of capitalism, racism, sexism and ecocide. Social problems are ultimately rooted in spiritual imbalances and the lack of proper vision and discernment. We can no longer as people and as a society continue in this vein.
My beloved sisters and brothers, the corona virus has been indeed demanded that we stop in unthinking, heedless or even victimised ways of being in the world. That we take pause, Yusuf Islam beautifully described it as a “spiritual reset button”, an opportunity to recenter, and start afresh in the world. The pandemic, I believe, can be described as a form of fierce grace that has stopped us in our tracts. It has provided us a translucent diagnostic mirror from a deep well of Divine mercy to diagnose all that ails us and to begin the process of healing and recovery. This fierce grace is beautifully described and astutely analysed by the spiritual teacher, Shaykha Fariha Fatima Al-Jerrahi from the New York based Nur Ashki Jerrahi Sufi order as follows:
“It is like a messenger who brings both the good news and the warning. The good news is that it calls the faithful to become stronger, to turn to our Source and Beloved, to become more compassionate, to focus on what is important, to focus on each other and those in need, to remember that the essence is in the human heart – it is in our self, our family, our neighbor, our community, the earth community –and not in things or achievements, things of the ego. This messenger virus is stripping away the false idols of fame, of self importance, of the illusion that we can live separate from anyone else, of the illusion of nations and exclusive communities. It is unveiling the injustices in our society, that there are people who live on the street, that people do not have enough to eat, that people are not taken care for in their basic need and are being robbed of the resources that God gave to them for their well-being. Through our blindness we are sending wildlife into the sixth extinction. We have come to rely on a chemical, medical and a corporate industry that is twisted and toxic, killing people and creatures. We rely on false assumptions about the purpose of our life. We are not teaching the truth in schools. We are not teaching the truth at home…..The fundamental illusion that is breeding all others is that we do not know our self and we do not know our Lord and Lover. The beloved Prophet, may he be showered in the loving kindness of Allah, has conveyed from Allah, “Know your self and know your Lord.” This is a fundamental order. If we do not place it as our foundation we have no foundation” http://farihafatima.com/2020/04/04/the-messenger-virus/
So my beloved sisters and brothers in faith, I urge you as I urge myself, may we begin to re-establish this fundamental order of knowing ourselves and knowing our lord, of cutting through our illusions of separateness, and of raising our gaze so that we see with both eyes, the eye of zahir (the manifest) and the eye of the batin (the hidden) , the eye to the self and the eye towards to the other – and may our self-knowledge result in treating each life as if it were our own.
My beloved sisters and brothers we are in a particularly sacred time not only for us who have celebrated Laylatal Barah or Roewa, and who are heading into Ramadan, but also for our Christains siblings who have recently celebrated Easter, and for Jewish siblings who have been celebrating the Pesach or Passover. All of these are holy times invoke and celebrate human being’s capacity to overcome inner and outer oppression, to seek atonement and forgiveness, and to emerge in a renewed state.
May it be so for each of us and for the entire community of human beings and for all forms of life.
I end with the following Quranic Ayat from Surah Anfal (8:29)
O you who have attained to faith!
If you remain conscious of God,
He will endow you with a standard by which to discern
the true from the false,
and will clear evil from you,
and will forgive you your mistakes:
for God is limitless in the abundance of His blessing [Q8:29]