Sunday 13 September 2015

The Millennium Eve Spent Alone at the Mosque

The Millennium Eve Spent Alone at the Mosque by Omar Cherif, One Lucky Soul

During my senior year in university I was taking three philosophy courses and one psychology to complete both minors. Two of the philosophy were taught by a Professor Stelzer; one was Contemporary Philosophy, the other Ibn Arabi. 

Being 21 at the time, I was captivated by the different input received through this professor. Something about witnessing a middle-aged
German man pronounce Quranic Arabic and explaining it philosophically enchanted me; it made those three hours every Monday/Wednesday quite different. Unlike the cherry-picked religion we were taught in school, which we often had to memorise almost blindly, my thinking here was challenged. This left me curious to know more. 

Around the same time, I was introduced to the basic notion of Sufism — the mystical, ascetic branch of Islam. Sufism is often considered to be a sect of Islam. It may be otherwise described as an aspect or dimension of the religion. Sufi orders (Tariqas) can be found in Sunni as well as to a lesser extent in Shia, among other Islamic groups and traditions. The word tarika / tarik originally means way or path in Arabic, which holds metaphorical meaning in Sufism.

According to Ibn Khaldun, the 14th century Arab historian, Sufism is:

Dedication to worship, total dedication to Allah most High, disregard for the finery and ornament of the world, abstinence from the pleasure, wealth, and prestige sought by most men, and retiring from others to worship alone.

Along with the growing interest in psychology and philosophy, esotericism led me to delve more into the depth and to read more. This was a time when I began pondering the inner reaches of the human mind; how far and deep one can venture to explore what God may really be whether as an entity outside of us or more likely as concept  and understand their inner selves along with it.

My developing mind was seeking to widen its horizon, to investigate different modes of consciousness. So when a friend once mentioned that there is a Sufi Zikr (Dhikr) in a nearby city outside Cairo, I didn’t hesitate to go with him and his driver who was from there and knew the way.
 A Zikr is a ceremony-like remembrance circle where attendees repeat short phrases or prayers like mantras, reciting them silently or aloud.

As planned, we reached our destination at around 7 pm and entered a ‘zawya’ — a room usually used for prayer. There was a group of men sitting on the floor, many had water pipes in front of them. This was not the usual ‘shisha,’ but the ‘goza

Rounds and rounds of water bongs fixed with small pieces of hashish would circle the room as the blue smoke filled the air. In the corners of the zawya, a few men were playing hand drums while most attendees were already in some state of trance. I recall that there was one older lady sitting on a chair, also smoking up. 

After maybe 30 minutes of this preparation, the lights were dimmed, the bongs removed, and the chanting began. Standing up and moving from side to side, the room echoed with either Allah, or Allah Hay — which translates into God is Alive. The Zikr lasted about 45 minutes before we said goodbye and went back to Cairo.

Even though hippie-minded me enjoyed the unusual experience and the different set and setting of the high, I knew this wasn’t the Sufism I was interested to examine. After all, all I did during the previous years was using substances to get there, so I needed some novelty.

The Millennium Eve Spent Alone at the Mosque by Omar Cherif, One Lucky Soul

For as long as I can remember I have always been full of questions. Constantly fascinated by that which is different and ambiguous in life as well as in the universe in its entirety: The odd and the mysterious, the peculiar and the eccentric, the occult and the forbidden, the unexplainable and the paradoxical, the paranormal, supernatural, and metaphysical. These anomalies often defy explanation and seem to violate the agreed-upon laws of physics, even transcend logic and rationality. The thirst for such subjects has always been there, complemented by a certain Orphic desire to dig deeper in order to extend my knowledge beyond the usual and ordinary.

One of my earliest sincere reading into said realm of forbidden knowledge was a collection of books titled the Supernatural Series by Danbury Press (1975). In general, I tend to do my best to take in the unknown with wonder and curiosity rather than
based on preconceived beliefs; to keep an open mind. Later, however, a healthy dose of doubt, scepticism, and critical thinking had to be added to the equation. Simply because there are as much unfalsifiable claims floating around as there are outlandish superstitions and New-Age-type of woo-woo.

Whether it was telepathy, spirits and UFOs, alchemy and magic, or any arcane knowledge for that matter, all Psi phenomena of mind over matter found in the series fascinated me like no other. Why? Because, these fairly outrageous and controversial occult subjects are considered somewhat secret and unknown, making them more attractive to one
’s eyes. 

Another substantial reason for the attraction is that, whether we believe in it or not, the mystery shrouding such otherworldly stuff entertains the imagination and enhances creativity like nothing else. The exposure therefore changes the way we perceive what we tend to call ‘reality’. One can indeed entertain ideas and contemplate information without having to accept or believe them.

Then came one remarkable event by New Year’s Eve of 1999-2000, which happened to be during the month of Ramadan. Many were celebrating the once-in-a-lifetime Millennium at the Jean Michel Jarre concert by the Pyramids, my parents and sister included. Others spent it at house parties. My few friends and I, though, had quite the different plans.

By 10 p.m, I left the buddies at my place to go to the historic 
Al-Sayeda Zainab Mosque in Old Cairo. While two of them were tripping on LSD and one on mushrooms, I was to spend midnight in seclusion, meditating and reading the Qur’an. Fully sober. Yep.

For those who may not know,
Zainab is the grand daughter of prophet Mohamed who is known to have been buried at the spot where the mosque was later built some hundreds of years of ago. Al Sayeda, meaning lady, is a honorific title.

I was the only one inside the ancient mosque except a man who works there. Finally by 1:00 am I went back to join my tripping buddies. I’m not sure what was
exactly going through my head at the time, but it seems I was looking for deeper spiritual truths. As mentioned, the young psychonaut in me had been experimenting with altered states of consciousness, he was therefore seeking existential answers to all the queries [and contradictions] elsewhere.

Another thing is that I was about to graduate in less than a month, so facing adulthood and the unknown was coupled with many question marks about my coming life.
And what occasion signifies a new era more than the Millennium Eve. 

Following reading — and studying — the Quran about 15 times throughout the years, the Bible, and parts of the Torah, my curiosity towards the intellectual tradition of Sufism further led me to the writings of Rumi, Omar Khayyám, and Al-Ghazali (Algazel) among other Sufi literature. Many of which have greatly influenced Western philosophers, writers, and theologians alike.

I had equally started reading about Buddhism. The first introductory book was Chogyam Trungpa’s The Myth of Freedom.

The Millennium Eve Spent Alone at the Mosque by Omar Cherif, One Lucky Soul
Al-Sayeda Zainab Mosque captured in 1884-1885

During this same soul searching period I became interested in mysticism and spiritually, still looking to explore what it is to be a human being. I wanted to know, not merely and unquestionably believe. I joined a centre in a Zamalek flat, Time Out For The Soul, to learn Tai Chi and to group meditate. I was one of the youngest members and thoroughly enjoyed what those few weekly hours of peace and quite did to me; a sort of mini holiday from that mundane life.

Unlike the growing
healing industry found today, these type of centres and gatherings were almost unheard of in Egypt then true pioneers. Never was there any more than six or eight people at a time. By then I had already started working, mostly in shifts, so this weekly cleansing activity was always something to look forward to with great anticipation. 

A couple of years have passed before the owner of the centre, Randa, moved to the U.S. So naturally, my indulging was fully re-focused on drugs. I have been experimenting with all sorts of substances, but then when I got hooked on a drug of choice, that was when things drastically changed. Addiction turned out to be a whole different hell of an experience. The resulting suffering remains highly educational nevertheless and, paradoxically, also empowering. Nothing like it teaches you more about yourself; travel and psychedelics may follow. 

To my good fortune, I was yet again to encounter Sufism. This round on a deeper, and perhaps more sincere and traditional level.

The first time I went to a truer Zikr was with my older cousin who had been several times before. This time there was no hashish smoking, but it was more of a serene and meditative experience. We went in, prayed, dimmed the light, and had the Zikr, which consisted of much more chanting and prayers than the sole “Allah / Allah Hay”.

Afterwards, we sat on the floor to share a simple meal. 

Then we listened to some reading — in English by Professor Stelzer who may be otherwise known by his first Muslim name [Sheikh] Abdul Jalil and who is ranked number two in the hierarchy of this specific tariqa sect in Egypt, the Naqshabandi Sunni Sufi order. Today, it is said that around 72 different Sufi orders exist, with the Naqshabandi being one of the major and more international four. 

The attendees of the Zikr were made up of an eclectic variety of multicultural men. Many looked like they come from different backgrounds and nationalities. Few non-Egyptian teachers from the American University in Cairo, some expats, some students, and some older men from all over. Every now and then there would be a visiting murid from a different country. Once again here, being in my mid-late 20s I was usually one of the youngest if not the youngest.

Despite the mix, our fraternal union during those few hours every Thursday night transcended any seeming differences. We were there for one thing only: Sharing an enriching, soul-cleansing experience. The closest I could relate to at the time was taking ecstasy at a rave or festival. Only that the intoxication was not chemically induced, and natural highs dont have lows.

On certain occasions — mainly on Islamic holidays —  females joined the gatherings and they would sit on the outer side of the circle. 

The group receives a weekly e-mail with the time and location, in which we’re all addressed as “Dear Muhebeen” — meaning lovers. This is a metaphor Sufis use to describe the state in which Zikr in particular, and being a Sufi in general leaves them. 

Amid the struggle of drug addiction in my final years in Egypt, these evenings became the one light I was still holding on to and which seemed like my only outlet, so I tried not to miss. Gatherings were held at different people’s homes as each week someone would volunteer to have the Brothers over. We always listened to some reading afterwards and we always shared a meal. 

Time has passed before relocating to Canada in my early 30s then to the U.S — for a full decade. Quite a lot has changed since then, as it ought to. There, I got clean from the years-long toxic lifestyle, went back to exercising, eating well, communing with nature, and leading a conscious existence in general. In other words, I was back to loving myself.

It also a time of questioning everything,
including myself. The clarity and freshness motivated me to put all views, beliefs, biases that I had been taking for granted to the test. Leaving my comfort zone and all the known was a catalyst for unlearning and deconditioning from all that which does not serve the evolution of my being, which basically means growth. 

Despite the fact that my early philosophy has been fairly inspired by Sufism, Buddhism, and later Taoism among other schools of thought, as I matured throughout life, I found that there is a fundamental difference between scripturalism and experimentalism  in terms of depth of knowledge as well as in terms of Truth; between imitating older paradigms and creating newer ones; following others’ paths and daring to explore uncharted territories while forging our own trails. 


Following all the years of reading and studying, the soul search eventually led me to myself. For it was my truth that needed to be discovered and not anyone else’s. I then felt compelled to learn through direct experience rather than, like many, build my entire reality on the personal beliefs, opinions, foundations of others. 

But I absolutely had to go through it all to reach where I am today. And for that I remain truly and wholeheartedly grateful.

After the extended period of searching and seeking and questioning I found my inner light — true being — and, apparently, it has been within me all along. You see, when we go through our own hell and survive it, when we evolve to a certain frequency and fully know ourselves, there is no need to follow, belong to, associate with any isms or schisms. For the Kingdom of Heaven is nowhere but within you.

As thoroughly recounted in Who Are We?,
Why We Should Not Fear Death, The Ashram Sweeper Who Blocked Me on Facebook, then more personally in My Journey Towards Self-Transcendence, you come to the realisation that using labels, be it spiritual or otherwise, to separate oneself from others goes against the Human Condition. That it is not our beliefs that matter in the end, but our love, empathy, and compassion; how we treat others. One can indeed be a decent human being just by being themself. Because down deep inside, at the very core, we are all One — unlabelled.

Verily, if one is still waiting for some leader, guru, middleman, partner, or even certain institutions, strategies, methods, rituals,
rules, books to offer them spiritual significance and to make them feel whole and safe and protected, they have not yet discovered the Tao to their full potential. For those means, like lighthouse beams, are mere tools which could only point to the entrance of the cave, but one must enter by themselves; so that they may own their truth, leading them to liberation and self-actualisation
Attempting to relive and mimic the stories of the past in order to gain a reward in the future or in fear of retribution can only get us so far. Because it takes us away from the authenticity of the present moment — often causing anxiety and restlessness. It likewise implies to our every nerve ending that we, as we are, are not enough; that we need to depend on a source of authority, an entity outside of us, to show us how to navigate our own lives and regulate our own emotions. This juvenile fear-based dependence tend to render people meek, mushy, and overly fragile.  

As such, each realised man and woman ought to be a light unto themselves. And to know thyself is what it takes. Doing the inner Work using the findings comes next.
The more you know yourself, the more following others will seem futile. Through direct experience, self-knowledge then becomes the journey during which our inner truth is found and owned. This Rabbit Hole is a bottomless pit ― an everlasting endeavour guiding the soul as it keeps spiralling closer and deeper towards its inner core. Such unique journey may be challenging, uncomfortable, and solitary, but it is certainly worth it. The more illumination on the individual level, the more illumination on the human collective. For everyone and everything are interconnected in this universe. In the same way, the bigger the fire the more darkness it reveals.

I still meditate, alone. I still go to circles, drum circles, where I can freely and genuinely express myself without having to consider preconceived beliefs, traditions, ideologies. I live life to the beat of my own drum in the present Here and Now and have never felt more at peace. Spiritual truth is a pathless endeavour.

The divine spark you seek is already within you. Allow it to shine through you unobstructed and it will eternally light your way.

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