My journey with Sufism began in 2008, after spending a year self-reflecting over my past difficult experiences in Islam. My first introduction into this mystical spiritual path was a mainstream approach that focuses on an intellectual study of books of asceticism and self-discipline, supported by an auxiliary social practice of participating in conferences, group divine remembrance and celebrating the birth of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him.
As I experienced a tremendous resurgence in my spiritual wellbeing in this new religious direction. I was constantly trying to synthesize this new aspect of my life with past interests and aptitudes, most importantly theater and a larger love for arts. Unfortunately, my attempt to harmonize these past cultural experiences with what mainstream Sufi Muslims perceived to be the peak of spiritual Islam was met with another emptiness, similar to the one I faced during my years with much more stringent approaches to Islam.
I found myself often compromising between two voices inside of me. One demanded that I abstain from my cultural past and attach myself instead to the intellectual study of asceticism and attend the spiritual gatherings where only Arabic hymns or their English translations are recited. The other voice, which reminded me of many precious songs I used to listen to from American culture, such as John Denver’s Annie’s Songs, Goo Goo Doll’s Iris or Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, which always reminisce of the exquisite poetry of medieval Sufi masters of the likes of Rumi, Hafiz and Ibn al-‘Arabi did not have a place in these meetings.
The first redemption for my soul came when I was admitted to the doctoral program in Islamic studies and the beginning of my journey with the prominent Andalusian Sufi master, Ibn al-‘Arabi. His writings immediately filled the gap in my heart unfulfilled by the entire Muslim community or their intellectual and social practices. This is simply because Ibn al-‘Arabi provided me with the missing ingredient that would allow my life, past and present, to be a meaningful portrait in my journey towards God.
Ibn al-‘Arabi overwhelmed me with his poetry, such as these famous verses:
My heart has become accepting of every form ... A meadow for gazelles ... A monastery for monks ... A house for idols ... The Ka’ba of a pilgrim ... The pages of the Torah ... The codex of the Qur’an ... I attest to the religion of love wherever its caravan goes ... For love is my religion and faith,
Suddenly, upon reading this and other excerpts, my past love for music, film and the arts generally came back revived by the light of sanctity. The tranquility I felt when my inclinations towards Art, its transparency and power to bring people closer to God were validated in Ibn al-‘Arabi’s writings suddenly flooded my consciousness from his gate. For the next 5 years, my journey with the Andalusian mystic flourished through many contours and openings in his voluminous writings.
I no longer had any doubts that Sufi masters of the past, like Ibn al-‘Arabi or Rumi, could provide the medicine for curing the contemporary lack of aesthetic appreciation among mainstream Muslims, Sufis or otherwise. However, for me, I had lost hope of finding an actual Muslim group that pays homage, in its teachings and practices to the vision of Ibn al-‘Arabi, Rumi and the expansive vision of Islam they represent.
This all changed two years ago when I met my spiritual father, his eminence Shaykh Hisham Qabbani and the grand master of the Naqshbandiyya Sufi path, Shaykh Nazim Adil al-Haqqani. I had long been deterred by non-Sufi Muslims and mainstream Sufis from indulging this branch of the Naqshbandiyya Sufi path, due to their unorthodox and controversial understanding of Islam.
It is truly a serendipitous circumstance that I encountered my teachers Shaykh Nazim and Shaykh Hisham after beginning my doctoral studies. For had such a meeting taken place prior to my extensive study of Sufi history, I may have believed the accusations hurled against this beautiful school of spirituality. However, since my experience of their spiritual drink came after this academic study, I immediately realized that their approach is the closest in outward form and inward spirit to that spring of tradition from which Ibn al-‘Arabi and Rumi emerged.
Although I have never had the blessed opportunity to meet Shaykh Nazim in the realm of bodies, due to his passing in 2014, I feel his presence is there always during my interactions with Shaykh Hisham, one of his foremost disciples. On a personal level, Shaykh Hisham’s encouragement for me to continue developing a personal relationship with Ibn al-‘Arabi has made him an actual rebirth, in my heart and imagination, of al-Shaykh al-Akbar (the Greatest Master) in our present day and age.
This is not simply the result of his encouragement for my studies of the Sufi master’s writings, but also because his teachings flow from the same spring and dress the Andalusian mystic’s spirit in a harmonious contemporary dress. Perhaps the best example of this is when I asked Mawlana Shaykh Hisham about the importance of Art one day and he said:
“Art does not flow from the human animal instinct, but rather from the spirit, because it evokes emotions. It helps us get closer to God!”
Also, it is his embodiment of Ibn al-‘Arabi’s expansive and universal love, demonstrated in the above verses, as he describes to me the celebrated Lebanese Christian author Gibran Khalil Gibran as a “divinely inspired scholar!”. Or perhaps its his sheer joy to listen to my friends and I as we serenade him with spiritual music from the Oud and Guitar during the Eid holiday. All of these instances can be described by what Shaykh Hisham himself once explained about the character of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, that “he never said no!” … Likewise, my spiritual master always gives in the way of expansion and ease.
In reality, however, the flood of beauty and tranquility flowing from a spiritual master like Shaykh Hisham is an allusion to grand masters before him, in this case Shaykh Nazim. Ultimately, this chain of spiritual mountains culminates how it began, in the person of the Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him. He whose reality Muslims have traditionally believed to be the root of all beauty in the cosmos, most auspiciously in Art and culture.