As soon as the plane touched down on the runway of London Gatwick’s airport, my eyes welled up with tears and I felt a sense of grief. The realization had just dawned on me that I had, once again, been separated from the sacred: from a place where you are continuously reminded of the Divine to a world where the Divine is seemingly absent.
I was back in London, my home town, a place I love in so many ways, but also a city in which I had been wanting to escape. I needed a spiritual boost for my faith to be reinvigorated, because, far too often, it is shaken by centripetal forces and the cacophonous surroundings in which I am submerged. Enough was enough, no more inner turbulence, I needed yakeen, certainty. The modern world seems to provide everything but certainty.
Last night I returned from Konya, Turkey with a group of almost 150 students of knowledge to attend a three-week course called Rihla, an Arabic word meaning a spiritual journey undertaken to acquire divine knowledge. The programme, organised by the North American Deen Intensive, has been running since the late 1990s. It gathers some of the greatest Islamic scholars and teachers of our time, to share knowledge with students of knowledge from around the world.
Rihla’s in the past have been in Mecca, Medina, Morocco, Spain and California, among others. One of its primary purposes is for students to spiritually detoxify themselves, by literally removing them from their polluted surroundings.
This year, it was held in Konya, a spiritual behemoth, a place which undeniably radiates a sense of sacredness. People who go to Konya will testify that one feels entrenched in its history, from the multitude of ancient mosques, to the melodiously sanctified sounds of the adhan, call to prayer.
Situated in Central Anatolia, its history is steeped with mysticism, saints of universal repute, economic and military prosperity and poetry that continues to shape and transform the lives of countless souls around the world.
Konya, of course, is the home of Muhammad Jalaluddin Balkhi, also known as Rumi, the 13th century Sufi saint and America’s best-selling poet. But the mystic left us with something mysterious. Despite all the Islamophobia, the War on Terror and America’s general unease about Muslims, their favourite poet is Rumi: a devout Muslim from Afghanistan called Muhammad… it doesn’t quite seem to add up. But actually it does. Rumi’s message is all about love and nothing else. His poetry of love speaks to anyone and everyone; it’s a timeless portal with its effusive and inspirational messages of hope and wisdom.
We went to visit the tomb of Rumi while we were there, and this experience brought many to tears. In the room next to Rumi’s tomb, was a box which had a strand of hair of the Prophet Muhammad and, quite mysteriously, there was a beautiful scent coming from the hair. Others went to Masjid Uhud, another Mosque in Konya, which had a single strand from the Prophet’s beard. And one of the student’s who went said the scent coming from that strand of hair was the same scent coming from the hair of the Prophet at Rumi’s tomb.
It is experiences like this, which further strengthen the resolve of Muslims in defending the Prophet Muhammad against slander. “Non-Muslims don’t understand how the Prophet is different to all other people. They think he’s the same as everyone else, they don’t understand his reality and his essence,” one of the teachers said.
It is no wonder why that, among the courses taught at this year’s Rihla, two were on the poetry of Rumi. One was taught by Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad, a Cambridge university academic, often considered Britain’s most influential Muslim and described by Shaykh Habib Ali Jifri as the modern day al-Ghazali.
Other classes included Logic, taught by Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, the west’s most influential Muslim scholar; Marvels of the Heart, a course on Imam al-Ghazali’s 21st book in the Revivification of the Religious Disciplines, by Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah; Spiritual Cultivation, also known as the science of Tasawwuf; Qi-Gong, an art form developed by Dr. Philip Yang, who taught classes on meditation, breathing and healing techniques; Islamic theology, Aqidah; Devotional Law, Fiqh; among others.
In essence, the courses aimed to provide a holistic understanding of the Islamic faith and its three components: Islam, Imaan and Ihsan, which is based on the famous Islamic tradition, called the Hadith of Gabriel.
Islam is the horizontal dimension of faith, it pertains to the outward, such as praying and fasting. Imaan is about the intellect, and more to do with one’s inward faith, a type of faith that is supposed to penetrate the heart and permeate every cell of the body. This is faith in things such as: the angelic realm to previous divine revelations such as the bible. But the highest dimension of religion is Ihsan, often described as spiritual excellence, which ultimately leads to sainthood.
Ihsan is from where Sufism has its origins. Sufism, contrary to what many people think, is simply about purifying one’s heart and aligning one’s character with the beautiful comportment of the chosen one, Muhammad, peace be upon him. Abdul-Qadir Jilani, one of Islam’s greatest Sufis, is believed to have said that Sufism is “absolute truthfulness to God and having good character to all human beings”. And having good character means preferring others to you, according to Dr Umar.
Many people at this year’s Rihla, especially the teachers, assistants and organisers, demonstrated this beautiful comportment. Whether it was Shaykh Hamza crying on many occasions because of his soft heart and concern for others; or Shaykh Abdal Hakim taking a used plastic cup from the bin to drink some water, to avoid waste, despite there being many clean cups right in front of him; or Tayssir, a teaching assistant blessing the Rihla with a smile which never seemed to fade.
What was also evident was the love people have for the scholars. People were quite literally in awe of Shaykh Abdal Hakim – because, he, along with Shaykh Hamza are modern-day mujadids, reformers, who are reclaiming Islam from its hijackers: the modern day Salafi movement. The awe, it seems, comes from a deep sense of gratitude for what they have accomplished and are continuing to accomplish, for slowly reviving and renovating Islam and promulgating the religion’s intellectual and spiritual essence.
Indeed, when Shaykh Hamza was giving his classes, even the other scholars would attend, because there is a recognition of who this man is, and what he has done, almost singlehandedly for Muslims over the past 20 years.
What was also noticeable was a sense of stillness many of the scholars manifested – even within their eyes, there was something which seemed to show an inner tranquility. It was also quite normal for the scholars to quickly snatch their hand away when a student was about to kiss it, showing a sense of unworthiness.
The Islam demonstrated at the Rihla was one of beauty, humility, love for one another and an eagerness to help people, no matter their religion or birthplace. It is an Islam that has a lot to offer people, with teachings such as not wasting water, reducing the amount we eat and improving the self before trying to transform the world. Shaykh Hamza said during one of his classes: “Islam spread because it made sense to people.”
One of the oft-repeated messages of this year’s Rihla, however, was for Muslims to find a sense of contentment, despite the vilification of their religion. “Let them laugh, let them mock, mock on,” Shaykh Hamza said. Shaykh Abdul Hakim added: “In an age which has avowedly given itself to dunya [the world] and materialism, you will expect the people of truth to be despised.”
For the time being, it’s back to Youtube videos, we’ll be watching the likes of Shaykh Hamza on our screens, rather than being in his presence. It’s a sad reality. Returning home serves as a reminder that the world consists of opposites: godly and ungodly. Being back home reminds me of the latter, but the trip reminded me that there is a Home which, God willing, awaits all of us, where only Beauty exists.
The views of this article do not necessarily represent the views of Deen Intensive.