The Ecstatic Exchange: Words on my Life and Poetry
Bismillah er-rahman er-rahim To begin to present my life-time’s body of poetic work …
To begin to present my life-time’s body of poetic work in a context both of my American literary heritage as well as my experience as a Sufi Muslim in the tariqa of the Qadiri-Shadhili Darqawi-Habibiyya of Shaykh Muhammad ibn al-Habib of Fez, I would need to begin more or less from the beginning, with the reader’s indulgence, and Allah’s forbearance.
I started writing poetry seriously when I was about sixteen years old, and had my first book, Dawn Visions, published by the famous City Lights Books of San Francisco when I was only twenty-four, six years before I became Muslim. At that time I had many friends in the American poetry world, some of them well-known, and in the late 1960s, I started a theater company, The Floating Lotus Magic Opera Company (see under theater here and at Wikipedia), that was quite popular in Berkeley and beyond, for which I wrote the poetic texts and directed the plays, as well as acting in them. I am also a pictorial artist, and I designed the poster announcements and the general artistic design of the plays, the backdrops, costumes, etc., with collaboration as always from other very talented members of the company.
The Floating Lotus Magic Opera Company, which lasted for about three years, was mystical, sacred theater, done in a highly expressionistic folk style, based on the Zen and Tibetan Buddhist teaching that I was then practicing, but a personalized Buddhism with love of God as its central tenet. The plays we performed were an expression of our resistance to the ongoing Vietnam War, articulated in as spiritual and engaging a way as possible. At each performance, which were almost always at an outdoor amphitheater in the Berkeley hills, at night, by Coleman lantern footlights and torchlights set in a crescent at the circumference, under the stars, we were attempting to transform all the dark and evil energy in the world into peaceful and positive energy, an immodest ambition to be sure, and as much as it was a rebellious outcry against violence and the war, it also offered a remedy: we began and ended each performance with a group meditation, harmonious at the beginning, and after the cathartic performances of the opera we always invited the entire audience to join in a meditation, which they invariably did, sometimes for a half hour in total silence — creating a peaceful atmosphere, and therefore also harmonious at the end.
In all my poetry I was very inspired and influenced by the modern poetics of American poetry rather than that of the older and more formal British tradition, and in particular that of the living and performing poets of the time (Allen Ginsberg, Charles Olson, Michael McClure), and Walt Whitman, the great poet of America, who was a kind of natural wali, and who wrote in a very open, expansive, and maximalist way about love of reality, love of humanity, love of nature, love of living, love of love (and yes, love of men), and love of a non-denominational both personal and Creator God. At the same time I was reading and being influenced by French Surrealist and Latin American Surrealist poetry, whose dipping into the unconscious and superconsciousness was a perfect mirroring for me of the mind-expanding explorations that were so alive in the 1960s, particularly among young America.
Then in 1962, living in Mexico City and learning Spanish, I met the renowned Mexican poet, Marco Antonio Montes de Oca, who was my first major poetry mentor by his total life commitment to poetry, and who, as evidenced by his work, was very much in touch with the Unseen.
His poetry is very lush and ecstatically beautiful, and his fluid imagery seems to spring from the ghayb (the unseen), and at that time we as a generation were also extremely in touch with the ghayb, with the miraculous and the unknown, which was a very daily presence for us, and as a result we were also drawn to mystical teachings, mainly either of Zen or Tibetan Buddhist or Hindu practices — Islam and Sufism were somewhat less known then, except in translations of the works of Rumi, his Discourses especially, and ‘Attar’s Conference of the Birds.
I am including all these details to better introduce my poetry to anyone who might be surprised at the poems I have been writing as a Sufi Muslim for the past thirty years, springing as they do from the accumulated sum total and life experience of all of these influences.
But to return to my chronology, after about three years, up until 1970, The Floating Lotus disbanded as a theater company, and for the next six months I wrote and edited my poems in my attic room in Berkeley, California. Then, by Allah, and His created set of amazing interlocking circumstances, the Scotsman, Ian Dallas, then already known as a high-profile member of his radical generation in England, came to Berkeley to meet me. He was then simply Abdal-Qadir, muqaddem of Shaykh ibn al-Habib, raheemullah, of Fez, who at that time was living and teaching in his zawiyyya in Meknes, Morocco. Thus, in 1970, at the age of thirty, after meeting this very remarkable man, this deputized representative of a whole world of teachings from an enlightened Sufi shaykh, and enthralled by his late-night narratives, accompanied by a handful of equally enthralled but less committed listeners, I entered Islam by his hand, and my life was changed forever.
Of course, becoming Muslim was the great turning point in my life, and its greatest blessing. I’m also thankful to Allah that I entered Islam as a Sufi. I immediately began reciting the wird and the dhikr of the tariqa at the same time that I was learning to read and recite the Qur’an and becoming steeped in the Way of Islam. But I also arrived at this point having a body of work in poetry and theater behind me, as well as graphic artwork, with two books of poetry published by a well-known major poetry publisher, and a very strong sense of how I hoped to proceed.
At this time three of the four of us who had accepted Islam in America, having been invited to the Moussem of the shaykh in Meknes, performed puppet shows with some hand-puppets I had made years before, to make the necessary journey to London, England, where the other new members of the western community were living. The visit to England (before the Central London Mosque in Regents Park was built), and then continuing on through France and Spain to Morocco, was a major spiritual event, most importantly due to its goal, to meet Shaykh ibn al-Habib, raheemullah, and his fuqara. For all my visits to gurus, holy men and teachers in the 60s in America, sitting for a moment with this grand qutb wali enlivened my heart and confirmed both my acceptance of Islam and the tariqa in a single instant, and gave, as all the great shuyukh and awliyya do, a glimpse, by his magnificence, into the much vaster and incomparable magnificence of the Prophet, salallahu alayhi wa salam, of which all the awliyya, are, by their admission, simply drops in his ocean.
But all of this experience has also had the strongest and most abiding influence on the spirit of my poetic work — all the recitations of wird, qur’an, adhan, and especially the constant singing of the beautiful teaching Diwan of Sayyedina Shaykh, which we sang after meals, in circles in the mornings and evenings, and before the hadras and the discourses. In his Diwan I saw poetry in its true function as a joining of beauty with truth. Here was poetry that had a spiritual reality to lead its reader or reciter (or singer) to enlightenment (and connecting to my earlier interest in sacred texts), as a vehicle for knowledge of Allah, and through His “minute particulars” (to use a phrase by William Blake), to know Him by His multifarious manifestations on earth and in the heavens. This has become almost lost in the West, because the real lovers of Allah are looked down upon by mainstream literary artists and intellectuals (mostly secularist and often atheist) as being not quite rigorously intellectual enough. This holds true, sadly for most of the brilliant but mostly modern secular poets writing in Arabic or French as well, who seem to have distanced themselves almost completely from the devotional and inspirational (and enlightened) aspect of Islam and Sufism in their own religious and cultural tradition, creating a wide void between their literary intellectual world and the world of rigid fanatics who then define Islam as a two-dimensional, turbulent ideology. Here, as well as in America and Europe, doubt and even intelligent and sensitive “confusion,” politics, or social nostalgia for a bygone time, seem to be esteemed far more than a certainty from which, by someone who loves Allah with sincere passion, one’s inspiration pours. In the West, this may be due partly to a perception that the most passionate believers are most often right wing and even fanatically pious writers, whose “message” outstrips their aesthetic concerns. In the Muslim world it may be the enormous magnetism by modern Arab writers toward the flash, glamor and success of western writers. A well known poet such as Adonis suggests that in regards to Arabic poetry after the revelation of Islam, it only could parrot the Qur’an, Hadiths, or the strictest religious thought of Islam, though it seems he may have ignored the centuries’ long history of great Sufic outpourings of praises from poets and Sufi shuyukh that are also purest inspired and imaginative poetry.
The Mathnawi of Rumi, in the early Nicholson translation, was also an early influence on my work, the poetry of his fables strung out between passages of purest, soaring ma’rifa. Even before meeting then Muqaddem Abdal-Qadir, I was reading Rumi’s Mathnawi every morning, after a session of Yoga, not yet a Muslim, and as a poet I wondered, “What an amazing store of miracles in this incredible epic poem!” If we put his Mathnawi and his Diwan of Shams of Tabriz on a par with world poetry, next to Homer say, or Shakespeare, we see the vast range of his work. It’s closer to the English poet, John Milton (the way Hafez might be closer to John Donne), with his Paradise Lost, but it’s not Milton struggling to “Justify the ways of God to man,” like an attorney defending an invisible but powerful client. Rather Rumi, the Gnostic, knows Allah, and the outpoured work that comes from his knowledge is a great ocean of love for Him, and includes all the particulars of Islam. Over the years I’ve felt that the Mathnawi is Mevlana Rumi’s poetic and Gnostic commentary on the Qur’an, and on the hadith literature and the lives and teachings of the awliyya, and can be read that way, all inspired efflorescences going back to the Qur’anic source (but not slavishly and robotically “parroting” the Qur’an, as Adonis insinuates).
Coming back to the West, after being in Morocco, I was asked by our teacher, still then muqqadem Abdal-Qadir, to stop writing poetry. Because of my submission to the tariqa and my longing to have its higher knowledge, he suggested best not to write for a time, perhaps because I was writing obsessively, and I needed to take a break. Often when we enter the Path of Knowledge we must divest ourselves of old habits, and in order to be open to new knowledge and clarity it is best to stop doing what we have been very committedly and passionately doing. So for almost ten years I stopped my usual practice of writing poetry and concentrated on working with the Bewleys (Shaykh Abdalhaqq and Aisha Tarjuman) on an English translation of the Qur’an as an editor of the English, and other projects such as typesetting and seeing a number of Diwan Press Books through the press, including the first edition of Shaykh Dr. Abdal-Qadir’s The Way of Muhammad, as well as traveling and living in other parts of the Muslim world. After this lengthy damming up, however, when I began writing again, a flood of poetry began and has continued to expand to the present time, and insha’Allah will continue to my dying day, if it is meant to by Allah and is deemed to be of any worth. At the time of this writing I have sixty book-length manuscripts of poetry, twenty-five of them now published and in print, and am presently writing poems for a book (I always seem to write books of poems) whose working title is The Caged Bear Spies the Angel (begun August 30, 2010).
But in regards to the poetry itself, it is important to note a few characteristics that may be bewildering to a reader used to the Sufi poetry of the likes of Hafez, Rumi, Sana’i or ibn Farid, because rather than elaborating in various contexts and moods about wine, the moon, the mole on the beloved’s cheek, or the beloved’s bewitching eyebrows, images that over the centuries have created a whole world of symbolism, I find myself writing with a more idiosyncratic imagery, contemporary, and often whimsical. I remember the French Surrealist, Andre Breton’s remark: “Etonnez moi!” (Astonish me!) And in dealing with an awakening to the instantaneous manifestations of Allah or the winds of love, astonishment in so many ways seems perfectly appropriate. I love including distant planets or galaxies, for example, in a situation that is also very intimate, because we are cosmic beings, and to evoke distant spaces means that the heart is vast. I always recall, as a basis of my poetics, the Hadith Qudsi: “The whole universe cannot contain me, but the heart of the mumin (the heart of the believer) can contain me.” Also, and this may be a saying of the awliyya: “Man is a little cosmos, and the cosmos is a big man,” which posits that all knowledges reside already within us, if we purify and clarify our hearts and both our inward and our outward perceptions.
Mainstream American readers may look at my poetry as being overly“religious,” and Muslims, and even Sufis, may find my poetry too surreal, too strange, expecting a more Rumi (usually via Coleman Barks) kind of wisdom poem, though as any Arab or Persian or other Muslim reader might tell us, their poetries have always had a surreal aspect. I’ll present one poem to show how I enter into a contemplation of Allah’s Majestic creativity, having received the first two lines by inspiration, knowing there was a poem to follow:
The invention of the camel was
frosting on the desert’s cake
just as the invention of the whale was
to the oceans which were splendid and
magnificent in themselves but when suddenly
whales moved through them they entered
a higher magnitude altogether
Like clouds in the sky were for the earth shining
naked without them whereas
with their fluffy ermines draped around its
rocky shoulders no ball nor opera opening is too
fancy to keep the earth away
So too by the same token the heart is
a perfect vessel for getting blood from
one side of our bodies to the other but the
placement deep within it of the crystalline
palatial gateway and the
secret door to the treasure cave and the
singing inhabitants of the isle of contentment
as well as the arduous ascent up
vertical spiral stairways to God’s dustless precincts just
one touch away from where we are now
are as whales to their oceans and
camels to their deserts
Perfection placed by the Divine Hand to
complete the intended picture and
bring it to life fully lit from within
breathing His original Breath
(from Invention of the Wheel, 2010, The Ecstatic Exchange)
I often begin with what might seem a somewhat preposterous statement, and then, having cornered myself, the poem will proceed to develop and swim out of that statement to a hopeful bit of wisdom recognition. I once said that I wanted a miracle in every poem, a miraculous event or turn of events, or a gratitude at the miraculous everyday-ness of our normal life. Regarding the way I’ve written all my poems in the past two decades especially, I receive the first few lines that seem to bubble up or appear on my conscious mental screen, and then write the poem from that inception. These are inspirational lines. I most often write in the middle of the night, the time for dhikr, having awakened with a line “alive” and present in my mind. And I’ve trained myself over the years to hear, to listen deeply, insha’Allah, to catch those lines, those words, and take them seriously, which proceed as a lever for the rest of the poem. I’ve often said that it’s like someone knocking on a coffin-lid from the inside, because it’s a dead thing until it comes to life again, and you have to listen closely for it and copy the words that are dictated to come forth.
Throughout, the main theme of my poetry is Allah, the Prophet, salallahu alayhi wa salam, the prophetic teaching, or prophethood itself, the shuyukh of knowledge and ma’arifa, the awliyya, or the ways of sainthood: these are the stationary hub of the turning wheels of my poems. But in them there’s most vividly the imagery of nature, of animals, especially insects, as I have always been very taken with the Qur’anic ayat: “Allah is not beneath striking the image of a gnat, or something smaller.” As the great Diwan song in Shaykh ibn al-Habib’s Diwan (raheemullah) says:
Reflect upon the beauty of His artistry on land and sea
And journey through God’s attributes both obvious and hidden
The greatest signs of God’s limitless perfections are found
Within our souls and on the horizons spread across the world
Contemplate all physical forms and behold their structural beauties
In exquisite order like pearls threaded on a string
Journey through the mysteries of human languages and speech
That give voice to what’s hidden deep within our hearts
Contemplate the mysteries of the body’s flexible limbs
And how our hearts command them so often and so easily
As well as the mystery of how our hearts may turn obediently
But then fall back into creeping darkness and transgression
Journey through the earth with all its varieties of plant life
And note how vast are its flatlands and how many its steep ascents
Fathom the mysteries of all the oceans and their fishes
And their numberless waves held back by an unbreachable barrier
Note the mysteries of the winds and how they bring
Both misty fogs and rain clouds streaming down in drops
Travel through the mysteries of all the starry heavens –
The Throne the Footstool and the Spirit sent by God’s Command
Then you will affirm God’s Unity with the totality of your being
And turn away from illusion and vain doubt and all otherness
You will say, “Dear God, You are what I seek!
My impregnable refuge from wrongs injustices and deceit
You – my only Hope in answering all my needs
You – the One who saves me from every evil and every harm
You – the Compassionate One Who answers all who call
You – the wealth that provides the needy in their need
O Sublime One to You I raise my voice in prayer –
Hurry to me the Opening and the Secret O dear God
By the honor of that sublime one all our hopes depend on
On the Day of Distress when we’re assembled at the Gathering
Upon him God’s blessings as long as Gnostics journey
Through the lights of God’s Essence in His every Self Revealing
And his People and Companions and all those who follow
The Divine Commandments by the sweet nobility of his Way.
As well as perfect spiritual inspiration, this amazing qasidah of our shaykh could also well stand as a manifesto for writing poetry, today and forever. From this qasidah alone great poems can emerge. I certainly have made it (and the other qasidahs of our shaykh ) the foundational aesthetic and artistic “theory” of my work over the years, as well as its intention, and am always refreshed by it. We’re surrounded by the poetry of the world, and the fact that the world around us and within us, by Allah, is “meanings set up as images,” as the Diwan also says, makes it a matter of tuning into it with our whole heart, and finding in it the deepest wisdom and nearness to Allah.
Most of my books may not always seem Islamically themed at first, with some strange titles and including some very imaginative, imaginary, or “imaginal” poems. But I have also written a number of books of specifically Islamic poems, the Ramadan Sonnets being probably my best known to date (first published in excerpts in The American Muslim, with thanks to Sheila Musaji), in which it was my intention to open myself and write a poem or poems every day of Ramadan, in 1986. I have also published Sparrow on the Prophet’s Tomb, which includes three shorter books: Mecca/Medina Timewarp, The Chronicles of Akhira, and Mauloud. These are specifically Muslim/Sufi books. Mecca/Medina Timewarp was written during an ‘Umra my family and I took in 1996, and I remembered that scholars and poets would write even in the Haram al-Sharif in Mecca, so I took a notebook with me and did the same, and I did as well in the presence of the Prophet’s tomb in Medina, salallahu alayhi wa sallam. The title poem of the book of the same name, Sparrow on the Prophet’s Tomb, comes from that moment.
So, insha’Allah, the task as a writer or poet is to always put oneself in the midst of what may come, wherever Allah’s manifestation may be happening. Of course, it is happening everywhere, whether we are aware of it nor not, but we want to be in a state of dhikr to recognize it as often and as deeply as possible. This requires a certain training, which, for me, came partly from the time I spent with the muqaddem and shaykh, as well as my earlier Zen Buddhist meditation, and something I became more aware of as I traveled in other parts of the world, and saw what Allah has done with other civilizations, present and past, as Allah ta’ala counsels in the Qur’an.
In the late 1970s, six of us western Sufi Muslims, fuqara of Shaykh ibn al-Habib, traveled throughout northern and south-eastern Algeria in the late 70s, when it was still easier to travel there, and met many awliyya, some wellknown and some more hidden. Every moment you sit with a wali is worth many years of ‘ibada, as it is said, because these men and women of Allah, who have reached a high station with Allah, show us more than words can tell what the grace of Allah and the Prophet, peace be upon him, really is, and how they manifest among us in our present life. We also spent time living and traveling in Morocco, and attended many mawlids and moussems. In the tomb of Ali al-Jamal in Fez we discovered the book that was translated and published by The Diwan Press as The Meaning of Man. We were told his fuqara, even today, are still coming down to his tomb, which is situated in a low place in Fez, to read from and study his book. We photographed each hand-written page and later transcribed it and translated it into English, a first-time event of great importance. We also journeyed to Shaykh Ibn Mashish’s mountaintop tomb in Larache, raheemullah, and did dhikr and prayer among the wild cork trees, prostrating in sajdah on the flat cork-floored crest above the canyons as if flying among clouds.
In a way of nourishing the heart and soul, all of these experiences have invested my poetry in a way that I really can’t even explain, and it may not be obviously evident. To this date, I have not written an account about the trip to Shaykh ibn al-Mashish’s tomb, because I’m not a scholar-historian nor memoirist, but a writer of poems. If you remain an open field, from the creative, poetic point of view, Allah works through you however He wills.
Back in the beginning when I was first a Muslim, the poets that I knew and loved, in San Francisco and California at that time, were mostly Buddhist, and they wrote poetry out of their Buddhism, both philosophically and through their love and interest in nature and our natural “enlightened” consciousness. Their poetry is often meditative, recognizing the essence of stillness, and above all, recognizing the goal of the end of mankind’s suffering, which is spiritual wisdom. At the time, when I thought about my poetic intentions, I said to myself, “This is what I want to do, insha’Allah, for Islam, for Sufism, I want to be a voice that isn’t specifically only speaking to Muslims,” because this time in our history is the era of the Prophet Muhammad, salallahu alayhi wa salam, where Islam is the deen of Allah. We “Muslims” in particular have to remember that the Prophet came for every human being, and it will be so until the end of time — we must speak to everyone. At the inception of my being Muslim and Sufi, I wanted to create a body of work that reminds people, and myself, about Allah, praying and hoping that every poem I write is a dhikr for me, and insha’Allah, also a dhikr for other people. Because as Allah says in Qur’an, “When you forget, remember!” which is an ayat of tremendous mercy. When we go through a moment of unconsciousness, or torpor, ghafla (forgetfulness), then we turn and remember, we remember Allah and His beloved Prophet, salallahu alayhi wa salam, we remember who we are and the path of life we are on, and the heart ticks back into a wider consciousness.
The Chronicles of Akhira was the first book I wrote after taking the aforementioned ten-year break from cultivating and being open to inspiration, when I started writing again, and it begins with an epic bang:
They came down from the high and low places,
they threaded themselves along
through the intricate threadings,
the ancient ones and the new ones,
all the famous were among them,
all the shining stars,
all the historical glory-grabbers, the great thieves,
all the inventors with their psychological quirks,
the nobodies came as well, the flowing multitudes of the anonymous,
the endless dissatisfied housewives, authoritative bureaucrats,
gas-station attendants and couples with no children,
philanthropists and the workaholics,
they came through the sandy pass,
faces were indistinguishable, differences unnoticed,
naked they came and assembled,
fear for their own state kept their eyes on the ground,
they came and made ranks,
the noble and notable next to the hardened criminal,
the saint in his glow next to the shrew in her darkness,
all the Chinese came, all the Australian Aborigines,
some who had never been clothed came,
and some who had never been out of them,
important socialites were bereft of their diamonds,
the scholar with references bereft of his briefcase,
the policeman with his beer-belly pitched on his heels,
the priest with his miter now gone, lost in a haze,
well-known faces recognized in the earthly crowd
were lost in the mass now, shaded by the one standing next to it,
no Rolls-Royce stood ready for the king,
his feet made dust-prints with the rest,
no helicopter hovered to take the millionaire away,
he felt the weight of his reconstituted body now with the rest,
as they awaited the setting-up of the scales,
as humanity assembled on the plain under a blinding sun
and awaited the judgment to fall
that would decide each one’s place…
These are the initial stanzas, and the poems that follow continue the vision of everyone gathering for the Akhira, the Yawm al-Qiyama, including the imagined world afterwards, the Akhira, or Next World, of the title (after all, Dante did it!) Then Mauloud, of course, is about the Prophet, salallahu alayhi wa salam, poems in which I’m searching for a way to express in some way to a Western reader who the Prophet was. What I learned from traveling, from sitting with living exemplars of at least a glimpse of who the Prophet was, is that in the West, Europe and America particularly, the sense of who the Prophet Muhammad is to us historically until today, and how the Muslims venerate him without deifying him, is non-existent.
This is the reason why many in the west, cartoonists and journalists, have offended so many Muslims by their heavy-handed and ham-fisted characterizations of him, done with so little respect, and that actually includes disrespecting Sayyedina ‘Isa, alayhi wa salam, as well, the prophet of Islam previous to Muhammad. The West understands Sayyedina ‘Isa only in the Christian context, not as a prophet, but as the unique “son of God,” and even as “God on earth,” so when we say we don’t accept Jesus as the son of God, but we do accept him as a great and holy prophet, it is usually taken as a denigration and a negative thing to say, rather than as true veneration. The whole understanding of prophethood has been debased in Christianity, as alluding to the wild men of the Torah/Old Testament, who shouted and carried on at the margins of society, mainly about God’s impending punishments. It is not generally known in the sense of the absolute miracle and vastness of true prophethood, as it is known in Islam. So the niyyat of Mouloud was to explore in a series of poems a way to arrive at a clearer understanding, for the western mind, of the cosmic dimensions of prophethood.
This conundrum regarding prophethood is something I don’t think Muslims in the rest of the world understand in regards to how western culture (which is known as “Judeo-Christian” rather than “Judeo-Christian-Islamic”) has developed with its pervasive and very entrenched theological underpinnings. Because of the Christian indoctrination of Sayyedina ‘Isa, alayi wa salam, as being a Messiah or the “Son of God,” one who died for our sins and whose act of death was and continues to be enough for us to be “saved,” a perspective consistently illustrated in all the high (as well as popular) arts of painting and music, poetry, prose and theater, the idea of a prophet in the Muslim and Qur’anic sense is almost a non-existent idea. Then there is the fact that the Christian Church has almost always oppressed or even tried to eradicate their awliyya from among the church ranks, such as Saint Francis, making it almost impossible for the mass of Christians to know, in any really imitative way, something of the spiritual dimension of Sayyedina ‘Isa, alayhi ya salam. This has been true throughout our own Islamic history as well, where many of the awliya have been killed or exiled, because they are reminders of the ever-living, manifestation continuum, in a lesser way, of the Prophet, salallahu alayhi wa salam, and therefore also a threat to temporal power. Every wali says: “I am a drop in the ocean of the Prophet.” So when we sit with a wali, and see him or her in his or her magnificence as only a drop, then the Prophet, salallahu alayhi wa salam, by comparison, must be of a spiritual dimension so much greater than our imagining.
One of the things that may startle a reader of my books is their covers, the collage artwork that I create especially for each book. Ever since my childhood I have drawn and painted pictures, and in my early twenties attended the San Francisco Art Institute in California, majoring in fine arts. Poetry soon took over, however, as my main creative work, though throughout the 60s I also did watercolor paintings, painted many of the pages in my poetry notebooks, and as mentioned, designed theater sets and costumes for our late 60s theater company. Lately I’ve returned to making collages from photographic elements found in magazines such as The National Geographic, with their often astonishing juxtapositions of images that both evoke a dream-world of the “subconscious,” and also, somehow, the linguistic collage juxtapositions in my own poems, taking place, as they do, in a more spiritual than naturalistic space. There are figures of humans and animals in them that might distance some stricter Muslim sensibilities, though I firmly believe that the prohibition concerning figurative art applies to shadow-casting sculptures that are worshiped, rather than pictorial imagery either drawn or photographed, as long as the images themselves are not haram. It may be claimed, of course, that the glut of imagery in our modern world constitutes a kind of mental worship, with monetary gain as its intended pinnacle, but that seems more abstract than it need be for an artist who may feel creatively constrained by such strict doctrinaire limitations.
My poetry has also had a place in theatrical productions I have written and directed over the years, particularly before becoming Muslim as mentioned before, for our sacred ritual theater company, but also more recently, in plays written especially for the Bawa Muhayuddeen Fellowship in Philadelphia, in celebration of his coming to America, and based on the teaching stories he would tell during his discourses. The aesthetic with all my theatrical pieces has always been akin to worldwide folk theater, using basic everyday materials to invent magical effects, such as a long bolt of silk cloth fluttered to resemble a waterfall, or flames painted on cardboard and fluttered in the hands of the actors. More recently I revived my earlier puppeteering with The Floating Lotus Magic Puppet Theater, producing its main puppet play, The Mystical Story of Layla and Majnun, presented in Philadelphia and New York to mainly adult audiences, using puppets my wife and I made especially for the production, the text in rhyming couplets, based on the classical work by Azerbaijan’s Nizami.
The development of theater in the Islamic world, particularly within Arab culture, has been slight, possibly due to aversion to imitative representation, though this is not true in Turkish, Indian and Indonesian cultures. The theater that would most appeal to Muslim audiences might be that of moral parables and symbolic situations, firmly within a spiritual context, though some naturalistic plays are now being produced to untangle some of the knotty webs of actual Muslim life in the so-called modern world.
These, then, are the things that impel my work, wishing for it that it be both universal in its appeal and its accessibility, and of particular sweet interest and even inspiration and comfort to Muslims and Sufis alike, if they have open-minded appreciation of very modern aesthetics and poetics and new ways of adoring our Lord and his messengers.
I would also like to express an enormous gratitude to the people of Morocco, who have always shown us the deepest generosity. At first, filled with longing and excitement to be a part of a tariqa in Morocco, I went to Meknes to the zawiyya of our shaykh thinking it would be a kind of perfect Utopia, and it was perfect, but not in the way we think. It was perfect the way the world is perfect. And at the same time, the intention, the niyyat, of everyone, even the imperfect ones, like us, like me, was to be in a circle of dhikr, and to find the Presence, the Hadrat of Allah. There is something deeply imbedded in the heart of the Moroccan people that is very beautiful and essential, full of iman, having available to it the various steps toward real knowledge of God, and as a citizen of the world with spiritual thirst, for that I am deeply grateful. When our little community of European Muslims passed through the market streets, in our djalabas and turbans, purchased in Tangiers before we went south into the Moroccan heartland, people would stop and weep to see obviously Muslim westerners respectful of Moroccan culture, instead of as with the earlier influx of Europeans who came as hippies in the 60s, and who seemed only to indulge in some of the less Islamic aspects of Moroccan culture.
Although I was born in Oakland, in the North American state of California, I consider Meknes, Morocco, my real birthplace, where I met Shaykh ibn al-Habib, raheemullah, wali of Allah, Qutub shaykh of the time, and where I also lived for a time that had the taste of eternity in it, in his zawiyya with his disciples. It was there I saw the old men (and some of the women as well, most especially his wives) of his spiritual community who had been with him for decades, who were now like trees, forests of trees — I was living in a forest of ‘ilm and ma’rifa. Among all the variety of people we encountered there we found these giant trees, like towering redwoods. That was the world of our shaykh’s domains. So when my wife and I visited Meknes a few years ago, in early 2000, I suddenly felt at home again.
I was with a group of us living in the zawiyya during the last Ramadan of Shaykh ibn al-Habib’s life, and I went on Hajj in 1972, with Shaykh Dr. Abdal-Qadir, Shaykh Abdalhaqq Bewley, Abdal-Aziz Redpath and the great photographer, Peter Abdal-Adheem Sanders. It was a truly momentous Hajj for us. We were meant to meet the shaykh in Jeddah. We had asked permission in Meknes at that Ramadan to go on Hajj and he had said, “Meet me in Jeddah.” But we arrived in Jeddah and he wasn’t there. So we went on to Mecca, and still didn’t see him. Then the sheriff of his zawiyya, Sidi Moulay Sheriff, came running up to us, greeted us very happily, asked how we were, how our travels were, and if we were satisfied with our accommodations (which we were not, our mutawwif had not really taken care of us). He then went and found us a good place to stay, took us to a place to eat, for we were all very hungry, and after all that, which must have taken over an hour or so, took Abdalhaqq Bewley off to speak to him privately. When Abdalhaqq came back he had tears streaming down his cheeks. Shaykh ibn al-Habib, raheemullah, wouldn’t meet us in Mecca, for he had died on his way from Meknes by automobile, in Blida, Algeria. So our Hajj was one of deep grief as well as the deep experience of the Hajj itself, and was therefore a doubly difficult journey, and continued to be so when we returned to England to tell the community there the very sad news. But I’ve always felt, and this has been a constant in my own spiritual life as a living example of true ‘adab, that the way in which this faqir greeted us, carrying such a terrific burden of news, was so extraordinary, in that he didn’t run up to us saying, “The shaykh is dead! The shaykh is dead!” But in fact, he made sure we were comfortable, and fed, and then spoke the right words to Abdalhaqq privately.
We found in all our journeys to Morocco and our visits with the people, that with the natural beauty of the country itself, with its lavender valleys and rolling green hills, and its variegated and rich culture, among the people there’s an innocence and a deep wisdom, there’s a depth, a beauty in the people, and certainly in the profound tradition of Sufism and Islam that is so much a part of Morocco, in all of its manifestations. And the tradition is still very much alive that makes available, through the living scholars and shuyukh and awliyya, the Path to Allah, The Ultimate Reality, through correctly and sincerely receiving the proper initiation and ‘idhn, from a real shaykh of m’arifa, of whom there are many great and magnificent living exemplars today.
May Islam and Sufism continue to grow and thrive among all humankind everywhere, with Morocco again at its peak of a golden age of Sufism and true Islamic teachings, and constant nourishment for all those who go with a hunger for true spiritual experience and deep-rooted foundational learning. Amen.
(originally written in answer to questions posed by Aziz El Kobaiti Idrissi, Moroccan Sufi scholar, who has published this in a book on Sufism in the West, in Arabic with English text of the above essay, and translations of some of my poems)