Completion of a Cipher and a Camp (Entry #25)
“My cipher’s complete….”
The Sudanese Brother used to frequently say to the Teacher and me: “Don’t forget.” By that he meant for us not to forget him when making “du`a’,” that is, when supplicating God for good things, we should ask God to also grant him the good. But also, given his Sufi tendency to play on words, he meant for us to “remember.” “Remembrance,” i.e., dhikr, is central to the Sufi path. Dhikr is the practice of reciting the Names of Allah or other specific invocations in praise of the Creator or benedictions upon the Prophet Muhammad (and others). From the habit of making dhikr—with presence of heart—it is hoped that one will earn reward from the Creator. And instead of the concerns of this transient world occupying the central point of one’s mind, a person will have in his (or her) heart a constant remembrance of God. As the Qur’an mentions:
“Those who believe, and whose hearts find satisfaction in the remembrance of Allah: for without doubt in the remembrance of Allah do hearts find satisfaction.”
The Journal itself formed a sort of extended “dhikr”–a form of remembrance. On the 17th of May, I would write that it had been a year since I had embarked on this journal journey.1 And I said on that day about the Journal that it’s “a passageway to the past.” When I would write or read about my experiences and give them reflection, it led me to the remembrance of God. From the Journals, I gained a hawk’s eye view of my life… or my living…. From such a vantage point on my life, I gained a sense of wholeness, circularity, connection, and completion. It was evident that I had not guided myself. I could not be responsible for orchestrating this masterpiece of an experience called “life.” There was an Omnipotent and Omniscient Creator that I needed to submit to and surrender to wholeheartedly in order for my life to truly be fulfilled.
I would write:
“This Cipher in Amherst has been very good, but I realize that it is time to move on. I’ve been granted time to see the streams flow, hear the birds sing, smell the flowers and the farms, to soar in the wide blue sky above wise old hills—I’m always willing to explore more of that, but it’s time to make that move.”
I had now lived under a full circuit of the Amherst sky and sun on my own terms. It was a year earlier that I began to strip myself down and asked: What do I want to do? I wrote and wrote during the previous summer and remained (fairly) consistent through the year. As I reflected on my life through those Journals, through a journey of compressed memories, I became more and more convinced that there was a Paradise—a place more glorious than this. If God had created such experiences and wonders on earth and in this mortal flesh, it seemed to naturally follow that God could have prepared something far more sublime for the human once he surrenders his physical frame. The person, however, would need to have the sincere desire to want to know and to obey the One who created him. He would have to be ever vigilant from allowing the heart to become encrusted with the filth this world, or attached to its vanities, or forgetful of its Creator. He would need to be grateful if he wished to be successful; and wretched was the ungrateful who refused to recognize the bounties God had bestowed upon him at no obligation.
Early on during the summer break, the Sudanese Brother moves in. I find it difficult living with another person at this point. He was a social, as many Africans are. I, on the other hand, was the opposite. I wasn’t very social before I started my “quest.” Actually, my quest was driven, in large part, because, of the sense of alienation I felt for much of my life. And when I did start questing, it was a process of eliminating more and more people from my life. We either just parted paths, or I ceased sharing common interests with many peers. I only wanted to be around those people who could assist me in getting where I felt I needed to go—i.e., I only wanted to be around those who could somehow influence me to be a better human being. After I started calling myself a “Muslim,” I became even more selective about that people I associated with, and that circle of friends further contracted when I not only considered myself a Muslim but became interested in following traditional Islamic knowledge.
Furthermore, the writing habit is something that is largely pursued while alone. Where as the Sudanese Brother sought camaraderie, and would like to sit up telling stories about his shaykh and other righteous Muslims, my focus at the time was on writing and trying to reconcile discordant thoughts in my head, or exercising, and maintaining a schedule, and establishing a greater level of discipline, order, and structure in my life. I was beyond content to sit at the Writer’s Window inking up pages in the Journal or being engrossed in reverie while strollin’ solo with the blue vault of the Valley over my kufi. It would take years of being around immigrant Muslims before I realized how different their cultures were from “my culture.” And it would take me even longer to make some personal adjustments. I say this, for there are many challenges that a convert Muslim faces. The cultural divide is one of them. But if one is patient and keeps an open mind, God-willing, one can take what is good from the various Muslim cultures and grow as a human being.
During this time, I give Fitzgerald’s, This Side of Paradise, another read, and finish it in remarkably few sittings. This was the book that started it all. It still would make an impression upon me, and the last line of the book: “I know myself, but that is all,” had been the theme of my life for the last few years—even though, I couldn’t claim to have reached a state of satisfactory self-knowledge, it was what I was seeking.
In mid-June a formal position is offered to me at the school in Philadelphia. Wow, I think: I can go to Philadelphia, seek the Islamic knowledge, and have a real job! In-shaa’ Allah soon after, I’d get “wifed-up” and be content about as content as I could possibly be. After the offer is made, we (Teacher and I) are invited to go down to Philadelphia; we are going to be introduced to the community as the “new teachers in town” for this new school. I would be involved with the Social Studies program. History, after all, was my thing.
Although writing was my ideal, being involved with a school, being involved with the education of the next generation, was one of the interests I had had for a while. In the June 25th entry, I describe my ideal home. I mention that I’d have my wife and babies in a farmhouse located on a dirt road with a nearby trout stream and a lake (in which I describe, of course, what kinds of game fish would be therein). Near the lake would be the school that I saw myself running.
There is a lot of energy stirring around the Islamic center in Philadelphia. I am meeting lots of new people and getting prepared for a new life. I am also scoping around for a prospective wife (hey, hey, hey!). I didn’t write much about the visit, but there I one incident that stands out. During the first trip to the Center, one of the leaders of the organization was chewing out some guy over a letter that he had written, which involved slandering someone or “someones” of the organization. This time the same guy was in an argument with one of the regular Brothers who worked at the Center. They are in the adjacent alleyway, and the former gets thrown into a pile of trash and the latter pulls out a large caliber automatic pistol. In my mind, I am thinking: “Well, I’ve never seen anyone get shot before. That would be different.” As it turned out, the incident was over some ex-husband, baby-daddy, stepfather drama. For the good of all involved, no trigger was pulled, but it was sort of my initiation into Philly Muslim street culture, even if I was only a mere bystander. Although I chalked it up (at the time) as an anomalous incident with an apparent trouble maker, it was more like a foreshadowing of what would later be taken as the norm.
After the trip, I suffered several days from what can be describe as “spiritual exhaustion.” Something is going on inside. I am losing nearly all interest in worldly matters. My job decreases in significance to me; I end up sleeping and dreaming a lot; I am now anticipating the Camp and just hoping that I can make it to Philadelphia and start my life in a Muslim community. I would write of my my anticipated move: “Whatever happens in Philly, Allah knows best, it’s going to be a big change.” What little did I know… what little did I know.
The Camp came a few weeks after the school visit. Subhanallah, during this time of my life, I was having many “turning points,” and the Camp was certainly one of them. The Valley Guys were all excited and telling me stories about their previous experiences and how it would be a chance to meet other Brothers from all over the USA and Canada. Some of those Brothers were said to have lots of knowledge, and some were strong in the matters of Islamic spirituality. Not only that, this year one of the main students of the “Master Shaykh” would be coming to America for the first time.
As for our journey to the Camp, the Sudanese Brother, and the Traveler (as I’ll call him), and I would be riding in the Behemoth (the Teacher sold the Behemoth to the Sudanese Brother several months earlier). The Behemoth was old and not up for the trip. In addition to getting lost, we had car trouble, and a trip that should have taken six hours took us twelve. While at the Camp, things don’t go very well for me. I have to deal with a lot of new people. I have to deal with the different cultures—for unlike the trips to Philadelphia where the majority of Muslims were African-American, now I was immersed in a largely Lebanese cultural environment.
Furthermore, I feel overwhelmed by the knowledge. The teacher (who I will call the “Shaykh” from now on end), was going over the same book I had taken on the fundamentals of the personal obligatory knowledge, but with more detail. In the process, he went into depth about matters pertaining to apostasy and how one could inadvertently fall out of Islam. The waswas (satanic chatter) was nerve racking. All the doubt and skepticism that is part and parcel of the academic education system started to arise in my mind. I am struggling to resist it, but it’s one issue after another. And when it’s not doubt and confusion being insinuated into my mind, other ugly ideas would come to the surface, and instead of digesting the lessons, I am at war with the dialogue going on in “Herman’s head.”
Being plagued by waswas is not an uncommon experience for the new Muslim—especially, for the one who is trying to get serious about practicing his religion. As one Brother would tell me, “The thief doesn’t go to an empty house.” Likewise, when a person attempts to do the right thing, it shouldn’t be surprising that the forces of evil–from both the seen and the unseen—would try to confuse or disturb the person.
Thankfully, the Camp wasn’t only about fighting deviant thoughts dancing around in my skull. Just in meeting the Shaykh, I sensed that I wasn’t in the presence of someone who merely read a lot of books or sat in a lot if Islamic lessons. I was convinced that he was a man with spiritual gifts and treasures. I’m not the type of person to wrapped up into the “cult of personality,” and I am not prone to get overly emotional, but I could feel subtle physical changes in my heart just by sitting next to him. On the third night of the Camp, I had a dream that I was walking down the street where my aunt lives in Springfield. I was talking to some teenagers about the non-linear sense of time in dreams, and the next thing I knew I was in the Symphony Hall (in Springfield) attending a reception for the Shaykh. One of the Philadelphian Brothers I had befriended was leading the Shaykh around, and I started pleading to the Shaykh not leave, and I was telling him how much I loved him. Then I began to realize that the power of the Shaykh was a glimmer of the power of the Master Shaykh. I then began to feel the Master Shaykh’s grandfatherly presence in my heart, and I woke up crying.
I had received, by the Mercy of God, another initiation that summer. Although, I felt comfortable about how my Teacher and other Brothers of the Association explained the matters of the Islamic Creed—especially, the proper belief in the Creator—and how they clarified what was wrong with and refuted various heretical and blasphemous doctrines, I was now getting a taste of Islam’s vast spiritual ocean. This is what I had read about in the books purporting to be about Sufism, and now I was being afforded direct exposure to it, by the Grace of Allah. Everything else paled in comparison.
The Behemoth was not up for the trip back to the Happy Valley. I don’t remember exactly where the last place she broke down on us, but I do remember riding through New York City with the car on the flatbed of a tow truck. The drive, which was suppose to take six hours, took us this time twenty-four. On the back road to Brittany Manor, the tow truck driver observed: “This is a very beautiful area.” And as Jazz Man would say: “True indeed.”
By the time we get back, I am not exhausted, I am WIPED OUT. In spite of us being in the midst of a heat wave and not having air-conditioning in the apartment, I sleep about twenty hours straight. It wasn’t the drive that was so tiring, it was all the stuff that was going on internally (and since I am no expert in that area, I can’t tell you what it was). How could I turn back to this world after that Camp? Although Amherst is a beautiful area, life in general looks narrow and dark at this point. I would (kinda) joke in the Journal that if I could find a nice, warm, dry cave (I might add, with in-cavern heating and plumbing) on a hillside somewhere I’d “be straight.” Spiritual circumstances are becoming such that I am going to be forced to exit “The Womb.” My days in Amherst are numbered, and Philadelphia is the only place for me to go.
1That is, I made the intentionally to write on a daily basis, or at least regularly. I just noticed upon reflection that I started the two phases of my Journal writing upon major transition points in my life: graduation form high school and then graduation from college.