Sunday, 13 September 2015

The Millennium Eve I Spent Alone at the Mosque

Marina Del Ray, California

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

Being 21 at the time, I was captivated by the different input I received through this professor. Something about witnessing a German middle-aged man pronouncing Quranic Arabic and explaining it philosophically enchanted me; it made those three hours every Monday/Wednesday quite different. Unlike the religion we were taught in school, which we often had to memorize, 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 mistaken, especially by non-Muslims, as a sect of Islam. It is, however, more accurately described as an aspect or dimension of Islam. Sufi orders (Tariqas) can be found in Sunni and Shia, among other Islamic groups and traditions.

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

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 my growing interest in psychology and philosophy, esotericism lead me to delve more into the depth and to read more books. This was the time when I began pondering the inner reaches of the human mind; how deep can one venture and explore their inner selves.

My developing mind, however, was seeking to get higher. So when a friend once mentioned that there is a Sufi Zikr (Dhikr) in a nearby city outside of Cairo, I didn’t hesitate to go along 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, 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 of whom 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 and most attendees were already in some trance state. I recall that there was one old lady sitting on a chair, also smoking. 

After maybe 30 minutes of this, 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 30 minutes, we then said goodbye and went back to Cairo.

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

For as long as I can remember I have always been interested in the different and the odd, the weird and the mysterious, the occult and the forbidden. Somehow the rest didn’t really do it for me.

I had religiously read a collection of books called the Supernatural Encyclopedia which I had borrowed from a friend. And I always tried to take in whatever I don’t know with wonder and curiosity rather than with skepticism or preconceived beliefs.

Whether it was telepathy, ghosts and poltergeists, alchemy and magic, or any arcane knowledge for that matter, all Psi phenomena of mind over matter fascinated me like no other. Why? Because, this knowledge is considered somewhat unknown to most people and understood only by a few, which itself makes it more attractive to my eyes. 

Another major reason for my attraction is that, whether we believe in it or not, this otherworldy stuff entertains the imagination and enhances the creativity like nothing else, which consequently changes the way we perceive what we tend to call our ‘reality’.

Then came this one specific event and it was the Millennium’s New Year’s Eve of 2000, which was during the month of Ramadan. Many folks were celebrating at the Jean Michel Jarre party by the Pyramids, my parents and sister included. Others spent it at house parties. My few friends and I, though, had quite different plans.

By 11 p.m., I left the buddies at my place — two of whom were tripping on LSD and one on mushrooms — and went to the Sayyidah Zaynab Mosque in Old Cairo to spend midnight in seclusion, meditating, reading and studying the Qur’an. Yep.

I stayed there till 1:00 a.m., then went back to join my tripping buddies. I’m not sure what was going exactly through my head at the time, but all I know is that I was looking for deeper spiritual truths. As mentioned, I had been experimenting with altered states of consciousness for several years, so I was seeking existential answers elsewhere. 

My curiosity towards the intellectual tradition of Sufism further led me to read the writings of Rumi, Omar Khayyám, and Al-Ghazali (Algazel) among other Sufi literature, many of which has greatly influenced Western philosophers, writers, and theologians alike.

I had equally started reading about Buddhism. One of the first books, as I recall, was Chogyam Trungpa’s The Myth of Freedom.

During this same soul searching period, I became interested in mysticism and spiritually — still looking for answers. I had joined a centre where I learned Tai Chi and had group meditation. I was one of the youngest members, and I loved what those few hours a week did to me — a sort of escape from that mundane life. 

I had already started working, mostly in shifts, so this weekly cleansing activity became very much needed. It was always something I was looking forward to with great anticipation. 

A year and a half have passed and the owner of the centre was moving 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 developed a drug of choice, that was when things drastically changed.

To my good fortune, I was yet again to experience Sufism, this time on a deeper, and perhaps also truer, 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 a much more wonderful and serene experience. We went in, prayed, dimmed the light, and had the zikr, which consisted of much more chanting and prayers than the “Allah/Allah Hay” from the previous time. 

Afterwards, we sat on the floor and shared a yummy meal. 

Then we listened to some reading by Professor Stelzer — who is ranked number two in the hierarchy of the tariqa sect in Egypt and who is best known by his first Muslim name, Abdul Jalil, or Sheikh Abdul Jalil.

The attendees of the zikr were made up of a variety of multicultural men. Many looked like they come from very different backgrounds and nationalities, myself included. Some teachers from the American University in Cairo, some expats, some students, and some older men from various countries.

Yet, our union during those three hours every Thursday night was beyond any differences. We were there for one thing only: Sharing an enriching, soul-cleansing experience. The closest thing I could relate to at the time was taking ecstasy and going to a rave. Only that the intoxication here was not chemically induced, so this natural high doesn't have a low.

On special occasions — mainly on Islamic holidays —  females join the zikr and they would sit on the outer side of the circle. 

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

In my last years in Egypt, the zikr had become the final light I was holding on to and my only outlet, so I tried to never miss. Meetings were held at different people’s homes as each week someone would volunteer to have the Brothers over. We always listened to some readings afterwards and we always had meals. 

Years have passed and I left Egypt to Canada then to the U.S. Many things have changed since then, as they always should.

Despite the fact that my 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 other words, between imitating older paradigms and creating newer ones; those who follow others’ path and those who go where there is no path and create their own trail. 

On that same note, The Ashram Sweeper Who Blocked Me on Facebook is another article you may enjoy.

That said, eventually my soul search led me to myself. For it was my truth which needed to be discovered and not anyone else’s. I felt compelled to go through the direct experiences rather than, like many, build my entire life on the foundations of others’ experiences. 

You see, I have found my inner light — my true being — and it has been within me all along. Now I don’t have any need to belong to certain isms or schims. As I thoroughly explained in Who Are We?, I came to realize that using labels to separate myself from others goes against the human condition. Because, down deep inside, at the very core, we are all One — unlabelled.

I still meditate, though alone. I also still go to circles, though drum circles, where I can freely and genuinely express myself without having to think much of preconceived beliefs or ideologies. I now live life to the beat of my own drum and have never been more at peace.

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