the city

damascus was born yesterday and she’s a million years old. we walk on ancient land, treading on the bones of a thousand generations, layers of civilization since time began. we walk on sidewalk and pavement, litter, dirt and dust, through sunny skies and crowded streets, ancient houses, street cats eyeing you from the tops of dumpsters, little boys carrying bread home from the baker. a million stalls in the souq, vegetables in square arrangements like quilted cloth, women carefully making their way through, grocery bags in hand, in high heeled shoes and purses with the criss-crossed c’s of ‘chanel’. Skinned sheep hanging on hooks outside butcher shops, tables filled with cheap cosmetics and hairbrushes, cascades of scarves hanging up outside clothing shops, small mosques with luminous green lights. bumper to bumper traffic, taxis, Pepsi trucks, suzukis, microbuses, the big blue bus heading downtown, towards the Hijaz Railway Station, where historic trains used to bring pilgrims to the holy cities, and now makes charming background for the tourists.

The old city, blind alleyways and narrow streets, maqams and graves, no end to the jumble of small shops and wares being sold, just like the last few centuries: fabrics to the left, spices straight ahead, metals around the way to the right. hawk eyed sellers appraising your value from one glance, trying out their limited vocabulary in a number of languages. “min junoob afriqiyya ukhti? you speak tha englisss? very beautiful dress. for you only one thousand…”

 its heart and soul: jami’a umawiyy, the eye of the storm, soothing calm among the fervor of people and business, walls whispering stories of scholars, worshippers, and lovers of God.

my street. adhan ringing to the skies, occasional pop music from passing cars, young men chilling on the street and laughing until late into the night. students of deen walking by in well pressed thaubs and books in hand. a father calling his wayward son home from a high apartment window “Brahiiiiiim!“. footsteps of the neighbors kids playing upstairs, soulful quran recitation from a students open window.

a living breathing entity this city, a few million peoples lives happening to cross paths, along with the vibe of countless dead ancients, Kurds, Iraqis, Palestinians, Lebanese, and the ‘pure’ Damascenes, who can tell what part of Syria you were born in by the way you say your ‘a’, and who can still ask ‘bayt min?’ (What’s your family name?) and know whether the answer deserves a respectful nod or an upturned eyebrow. even language is a play on old and new, Allahu yu’teeka al-aafiyah (a prayer for well being) before asking for anything, and general conversation mixed with borrowed English words, making it far from the classical…

ancient and modern, slow paced and pulsating, complex and colorful… that’s damascus for you…

Published in: on February 28, 2007 at 12:23 pm  Comments (7)  

if eyes could see

a story I heard from one of my teachers:

Imam Abu Hamid al-Ghazali had a brother who was of ahl Allah, a person of deep spiritual insight and understanding. At the time when Imam al-Ghazali was known for his mastery of Islamic law and excellence as a teacher, his brother would never pray behind him, for reasons he left unsaid. His mother would often chastise him for this (‘What will people think? They’ll think that there’s some problem between you two, or that you find his prayer unacceptable’) until one day he relented. He went to the masjid where Imam al-Ghazali led the prayer, and after the iqamah was called, he joined the ranks of worshippers. He left immediately after the prayer, his perturbed and troubled feelings apparent on his face.

When Imam al-Ghazali returned home, he questioned his brother about the manner in which he left the masjid, and his apparent unease. His brother replied, “In the first raka’h I saw you in a vast garden, reciting words of the Quran. But from the second raka’h until the end, all I saw was blood, blood, blood… you were swimming in a pool of it…”

Imam al-Ghazali’s face colored, and he confessed: “In the first raka’h I was in a state of khushu’ with Allah [focus and connection]; but in the second, I recalled that a woman had approached me earlier in the day, and asked me a question related to haydh [menstruation], and I became distracted thinking about her question.”

It was shortly after this time that Imam al-Ghazali left his high ranking position as a teacher and scholar and went into seclusion, focusing on purifying his soul and worshiping Allah. It was from this time of spiritual focus that he produced Ihya Ulum ad-Deen, one of the greatest and most influential books of Islamic history.

Published in: on February 15, 2007 at 2:42 pm  Comments (7)  

it just slips away…

Is there such a thing as knowing too much? Having a million facts swimming in your head, readily able to answer questions that may be asked of you of religion, but not being able to answer simple questions within yourself: why are you stupid? Why don’t your actions meet your words? Why do you carry this basket of sorrows and resentments and bad opinions of God with you everywhere you go, yet you speak of Him as if you are one that knows Him?

My teacher in the U.S. would talk about this all the time. He would say, ‘knowledge is not of any benefit if it’s just in your head or on your tongue. It’s something that needs to sink down into your heart, it’s something that needs to be *felt*, experienced, acted upon, for it to have meaning.’ and I would dutifully note this down in my notebook, next to all my other detailed, organized notes from his classes. And then when he finished, I would close my book and go home, and put it away with all my other notebooks that I had collected and filled over the years, and go about my business.

What do years and years of doing this do to a soul, except weigh it down with knowledge that is not really knowledge? Absorbing information about what I should be doing, about the path I should be trekking, as I sit idly by and watch others move on? A million conferences, seminars, classes, and halaqas… a hundred million words about God fill my mind, but they are hollow and empty, because they have not been acted upon. I sit. I laze. I shy away from the harshness of cleansing my soul. I learn Arabic, but every orientalist knows Arabic. I practice tajweed, but a billion CDs in the world articulate the Quran better than me. I accumulate facts upon facts about this deen, storing them away, for an unset future time when I will be ready for them. but what I don’t seem to understand is that knowledge that is not acted upon slips away, like sand in a clenched fist. you think you’re holding on to something, only to wake up one day and find that, the whole time, you’ve been tightly grasping nothing at all…

I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand-
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep- while I weep!
O God! can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?

e. a. poe

Published in: on February 2, 2007 at 1:38 pm  Comments (6)