I would like to begin my talk with a verse from the Quran:
وَإِذَا سَأَلَكَ عِبَادِي عَنِّي فَإِنِّي قَرِيبٌ ۖ أُجِيبُ دَعْوَةَ الدَّاعِ إِذَا دَعَانِ ۖ فَلْيَسْتَجِيبُوا لِي وَلْيُؤْمِنُوا بِي لَعَلَّهُمْ يَرْشُدُونَ ﴿١٨٦﴾
(2:186) When My devotee ask thee concerning Me, I am indeed close (to them): I answer the prayer of every one suppliant when she or he calls on Me: Let them also, with a will, hear My call, and believe in Me: That they may be rightly guided
There are two particular aspects of this beautiful quranic verse that I would like to focus on. It foregrounds a mutual relationship between God and human beings, and a relationship of intimacy where God is always available to the sincere seeker. Moreover it presents for us a certain mode of being in the world, a posture of seeking and asking, of willingness to hear, to receive and to be guided, of intention and focus. It points to a central teaching in the path of spiritual transformation about the clear choice that human beings are given, where despite all the nuances and the grey areas of existence, we are each given a choice in every moment, in the ordinary and in the everyday, about whether we choose a stance of seeking and submission, of receptivity to guidance, of openness to God OR to succumbing to one ego, ones fantasises or perceived needs or even our mental agitations. So for those of us desiring transformation, this verse reassures us that the Reality is ever present, and ever seeking to be known, and that we are indeed to ask of it and to live in a state of receptivity, and that niyyat or the setting of clear and conscious intention is extremely important. Now how to be a receptive human being remains an enduring question.
A critical point of entry is the recognition and the awareness that within each one of us and every human life there exists a higher consciousness—how much of it we are receptive to and how much we cultivate it varies enormously between individuals but the central point is that we each of us are the containers of the spirit of God without exception. Humanity shares a deep intimacy the Divine, what is known in the Muslim tradition as our fitrah or innate nature perhaps best reflected in the hadith al-qudsi where God says “The heaven and earth do not contain me, but the heart of my faithful servant contains me.”
I would like to make some observations about human nature in this regard: firstly, every human being is created to know and manifest the divine – this is a shared and collective existential purpose. Secondly, simultaneously each human being is (as described exquisitely by our own sufi poet, Shabbir Banoobhai, Seeing Perfection, p69), a UNIQUE filter of divine light. As such, each soul has its own particular and distinctive pathway to God, in harmony with her or his own nature and constitution. Thus, knowledge of oneself, in the non-egotistical sense, is absolutely key. There is in our beings an exquisite balance between the universal and the particular, between on the one hand— recognition of the shared human possibilities where every person equally possesses the same ultimate prerogatives, rights, responsibilities in this life, where we fully appreciate that the original divine light is scattered on all lives, and on the other hand— a keen attentiveness to individual differences, where responsiveness to a person’s particular nature and constitution renders this light either visible or less visible. Most importantly this original divine light cascading through a myriad filters and personalities is never lost or elsewhere. It is amongst us, and within each of us and between us; accessible, seeking manifestation, and ever-present in our everyday lives– it is the true source of self-knowledge, as well as the basis of our most meaningful relationships.
Now I want to linger for a bit on the notion of the uniqueness of each of our personalities, that the One God sought to create and to manifest in the multitude of our personalities and natures. So one should not discard ones distinctiveness or individuality as something that comes from the lower self or ego level. We have not been created the same, we have been created different and diverse in order to know and learn about one another and I would like to add that in learning about this multitude or diversity we are learning about the One Divine source from where we all come, and that same One to whom each and every one of us will return. The quran tells as, We have created you male and female, communities and tribes so that you may know one another and the best among you is one who is most God-conscious (49:14), This is a marvellous celebration of many types of difference, and each of these differences open for us a way towards the knowledge to God, and where irrespective of our difference we are all subject to the same moral and spiritual compass.
So while we are each unique and particular filters of light we need to do to constantly cultivate that distinctiveness with reference to the higher realms, to ever-expanding forms of virtue so that we are in alignment with Gods guidance, rather than to allow our uniqueness to descend into the lower realms of pride and ego, and divisive difference. So how is this appreciation of diversity and difference practically helpful?
In valuing the uniqueness of human beings, a very helpful spiritual lesson that I have learnt is to surrender my own expectations of others. This might seem quite a common-sensical insight but I am amazed by how many of us are often so enduringly in pain because of our expectations of others. Before I elaborate on this let me say that I am not by any means suggesting that anyone indiscriminately accepts bad, discriminatory or abusive behaviour from others. That is clearly unacceptable. I am talking about something a bit different – I am talking about our frustration and unhappiness when people close to us perhaps a parent, a partner, a daughter or son does not fulfil our own aspirations or expectations of them. “If only I could process all my childhood issues with my mother or father”; or “if only my son would continue the family business”, or, “if only my daughter would attend Thursday night dhikr”, or “if only my wife was more attentive” (it can be any one of these or whatever your own particular expectations is, fill in the blanks,) THEN things would be better.
Now at the most basic psychological level, I am going to assume that many of us have already realized that ultimately we cannot change anyone else-each person can only change themselves and, changing ourselves is often hard enough. So all this expectation, frustration and disappointment is quite futile, and it would be in the very simple interest of one’s basic psychological health to try to let go of expectations. However more importantly, I want to highlight what I think is a valuable spiritual dimension of this aspect of surrendering expectation within relationships. When one accumulates a mountain of expectation in relation to anyone else, it blinds us in seeing them for who they uniquely in their own God-given distinctiveness are, and in fact to appreciate what they do indeed offer to us. In any of these contexts, we might be so busy measuring another person in relation to our own internal metrics, and resentful that someone does not meet our criterion that what we often miss entirely, is the beauty that that human being has in her or himself, the unique way in which his/her nature might offer us so many other gifts that we are unable to see because we are too busy with some other calculus of value and worth. What that means for many of us is that we might have treasures at our feet, beautiful human beings in our innermost and everyday circles of friendship and family — yet we are too blinded by our own needs and expectations to really see them, appreciate them, and honour the beauty they bring into our lives. For our spiritual lives to be imbued by discernment, we need to put down our own egos, and sometimes our very human needs, in order to be able to fully see and cherish the unique gifts that those around us might offer. And of course never underestimate the sheer psychological relief, reduced suffering and easier path to contentment that opens up when you put down your expectation of others.
Now talking about expectations of others and receptivity to what truly is in each distinctive moment and how the divine might manifest in unexpected ways, let me share a personal story.
As a young person I came to UCT to study Islamic Studies as a response to a deep spiritual hunger and a desire to understand my own purpose. Many classes later, and still experiencing deep existential emptiness despite reading extensively, I realized that my hunger would not be satisfied by purely intellectual work, but that I was really in search of a spiritual teacher. So being a diligent if slightly nerdy student, I did all the legwork, reading lots of books about how I could find a teacher. I had, at the time, fairly romantic ideas of meeting this perfect teacher. In my imagination, I thought I would immediately recognize this powerful teacher whose commanding presence would directly shift my consciousness, and unveil the truth for me. Note the very jalali or majestic images that I had imagined defined a spiritual teacher.
During that time I received a scholarship to study for a PhD in the USA — and I went there with some ambivalence and uneasiness, – while I was excited at the prospect of studying Islam and religion with some of the leading scholars in the world, I was anxious about going to the centre of what I considered the THE capitialist first world neo-colonial empire whose imperialist foreign policy was deeply problematic for me, radical young activist that I was. So I went to the US in this ambivalent state of excitement about learning and a critical attitude towards American politics and possibly some not very positive stereotypes about American people.
So it is somewhat funny, that it really was in the middle of the empire that I found a most sublime of spiritual teachers –-and not only that the teacher was a small Sri Lankan man called Muhammad Rahim Bawa Muhiyaddin, with a high pitched voice that sang Tamil songs and didn’t speak any English, who looked just like hundreds of south Indian old men I had grown up around in the streets of the Durban, and who to boot rather inconveniently, was no longer physically alive. Moreover I did not recognize him or his teachings at all at first. It was through the living qualities of his followers, that I was drawn to the source. There was a fragrance, an alluring fragrance that people in that community carried, and I recognized it as some intangible beauty that was most compelling. What unfolded in the ensuing years was a relationship of deep love and wisdom through the teachings of this Sufi teacher and thorough the transmitted wisdom, character, and behaviour of some of his closest disciples. It has and continues to be an extraordinary journey for me.
There, in the middle of the Empire, had all of my deepest questions and hunger been responded to, AND in forms that I had never expected it: a most jamali and for me ordinary looking man, who at the outer level did not meet any of my fantasies of a teacher. He was quite ascetic too, being vegetarian and celibate (I personally had no inclinations to either!). He was in many ways the opposite of the mental image of the Shaykh I thought would awaken my heart. Moreover I encountered a living embodiment of these teachings, amongst a group of people, and some of them (who would have known!) were Americans. The students and followers of Bawa epitomized some of the most beautiful character and deepest wisdom. There were so many learnings in this –wisdom comes in the form it comes, not always packaged as we expect, sometimes in the most unexpected of places, breaking down the walls of exclusion, expectation, stereotypes. It is the birthright of every human being, and that when you put down your expectations and open your heart the panorama of divine beauty is evident all around you in forms that might not meet your own imagination or intellectual ideals.
My final reflection on the spirituality of the ordinary relates to an important statement made by Shaykh Fadhlalla Haeri, a contemporary Sufi teacher who recently visited Cape Town. He warned against being too captivated by a mystical experience or two, dreams or visions that we might have had. With that luminous sword of love, he said something like “if you have had some extraordinary visions or some dreams good for you, but really who cares? “ What I think he was saying was that at no point should one become so enthralled by what I call a piece of “spiritual candy” or the idea or a concept of the spiritual path, and particular forms of experience, that we forget that the real meat of spiritual work is in our everyday behaviour, in the very ordinary realms of our lives, our adab, and in our relationship with one another. So really the spiritual life is about doing all that each of us have to do in our lives with the best of qualities and constant purification of one’s intention. Ultimately it is of little consequence what specific work or labour you do— you can be a street sweeper, a lawyer, a parent, a spouse, a teacher, a businessman or medical doctor—in the field of the spirit, each of these roles allows equal capacity for the cultivation of a human beings heart. No one space is spiritually superior in terms of the possibilities to cultivate character. Our egos might have a way to classify some things we do as more important than others, perhaps because some aspects of what we might do get more social recognition and prestige, but that is not the Reality.
For the seeker and the lover of God/Truth, each of ones spaces of engaging the world, be it in a specific profession and or in a family or community role that one assumes, each of these spaces are workshops for the self. What is of primary importance is the qualities with which you do your work; what sincerity and presence you give to your particular task or responsibility; how you engage those around you– how loving, compassionate and just you are in your interactions; how much generosity you allow for the weakness of others; whether you embody firmness, and courage when it required; how lovingly you serve other lives, and dedicate your intention to the One, and surrender your action to the qualities of God. And all of these qualities and intentions can be found in the full range of our everyday lives, ranging from our work in the political and social arena to the most everyday of domestic spaces. For example, it is in fact spiritual work when you cook a meal for you family with loving devotion and as a form of worship, and like every other act, as ordinary as it may seem, by focussing your intention and inviting the One who is source of love and nourishment to be present with you and through you, the mundane and the ordinary are transformed into the spiritual. Or when you deal with your children or co-workers you attempt to model the very qualities you want them to see in them, Children and in fact all people learn best by example—when one engages with human beings with loving kindness, that is sets our hearts alight.
Let us remember that Allah Subhana watalllah and Her infinite abundance resides in the detail- spirituality is embodied in our lives and relationships with others. It is not simply something we perform on a ritual prayer mat or only in a mosque, but more importantly in how we engage the everyday, be this the raising of children; how we treat our fellow human beings particularly those that are less powerful than ourselves and who are marginalised in our societies and within our own communities; how we teach by example; how we deal with our pain in situations where one has been wronged; or learning how to speak and to listen to another; or becoming artists whose art aspires to transcend form; or clothing beauty with modesty; or being constantly vigilant with oneself by monitoring one’s own thoughts, intentions and actions; or staying away from inflated self-concepts, spiritual pride, hypocrisy and false piety; or doing genuine service to human beings and placing others above oneself. Spiritual refinement and beauty of character is in the detail. Allah is in the detail, love is in the detail, beauty is in the detail – the spiritual journey is in the present.
I end with a prayer: Ya Allah, Ya Gafoor, Ya Karim opens each of our hearts, and our eyes to the highest wisdom and the divine love that is constantly pouring into our everyday lives, and that we each receive that bounty with sincerity,
Ya Raqib, Ya Rahim, please help us to be vigilant and constantly purify our intentions,
Ya Wadud, Ya Ra’uf, Ya Adl, inspire us to each embody beautiful adab in our ordinary lives, our relationships with one another individually, socially and politically.