It’s 12:20pm in Damascus. It is quiet outside. This kind of quiet is leaving me with a great sense of serenity. I imagined all the Sheikhs and Imams of mosques around the city of Damascus with their serene voices giving mostly-spiritual Friday Prayer Talks to attenders. I had to imagine them giving the usual Friday speech because I couldn’t actually hear them!
It just struck me that if I were in Amman right now, a competition of which-mosque-is-louder would be bombarding my ears, and every body’s ears, turning a beautiful and calm Friday into a parade for loud, threatening, frustrated voices telling people about 3 major things: Jihad (supposedly: fighting for the sake of Allah), Hell fires, and cursing America and its submissive agents in the region.
That’s Amman, always polluting the air on a Friday noontime… and calling it pious.
But in Damascus, there is Adab (good manners). Yes, yes, many can argue that mosques here don’t blast their speakers in adherence to guidelines by the Ministry of Religious Affairs. Good. Then how come the Jordanian Ministry doesn’t do the same?
This is a sign of the great Adab (respect) that Syrian Imams generally enjoy. In Syria, Damascus and Aleppo particularly, Sufism is prevalent among leading Sheikhs (religious mentors) and Imams (mosque leaders). In many cases, they preach a different kind of approach to religion, they talk about inner development, observance of ones self, being kind to others, and love of the Prophet.
In Amman, all we hear about is enemies (outward ones, of course) that we must die to kill, the enemies of Islam (foreign ones, of course), the enemies of the Muslim society, conspiracy theories, Hell fires that will grill the skins of enemies and those of us who don’t follow Islam (Kuffar, that is – nonbeleievers).
In Damascus, the focus is on a different world. For one, the tone of the Damascene Imam is much more calmer, much more inviting, than the Jordanian Imam (you don’t believe me? Switch to Jordan TV on a Friday Prayers time).
Tone is a sure sign of Adab (or lack of it). While in Jordan, it is almost like a hurricane has struck us, in Damascus, it is peace upon peace. My heart often pounds hurriedly when I pass by a mosque in Amman on a midday Friday. It is loud, nerve-wrecking, loud, and yes… ugly.
° Religious tone speaks to depth of mentor-ship
The way religious leaders talk to the public is very significant of the content they are preaching.
A leader who talks to you about Love of the Prophet is miles and miles away from another who tells you to go kill those who are your enemies (just because you should think you are better/right and they are deprived of Allah’s mercy! I mean, come on!).
A preacher who tells you the enemy is within you and it is your Ego (Nafs) that sways you in wrong directions then shows you the path towards Allah’s Light, is telling you a different thing from a preacher who tells you you are great, you are always right, and everybody else is wrong, and therefore they must die in the name of so-called Jihad!
Maqam of Sheikh Abdullah Al-Daghistani (qAs) in Damascus
A lot of my foreign friends have questions about Islam that I try to answer as much as I can. When they squeeze me in a corner about some insane Saudi Fatwa (religious ruling), I tell them there are different manifestations of Islam in the region, one kind does not rule out or dominate the others. If the media is focused on the ugly radicals who say they represent Islam, come to Syria and see for yourself how different Islam manifestations are brewing. This Islam belongs to everybody, covered and uncovered, with a beard or without; people here generally-speaking, have hearts like true gems. Crime rates in Damascus are the lowest in the world, and this involves all kinds of crime!
Syria is where the great Sufi Iban Arabi is buried, it is where Ahl Al-Bayt (the Family of Prophet Mohammad) and some of his closest Companions are buried. it is where an endless number of spiritual and Sufi leaders are buried.
Prophet Mohammad did not preach war and hatred, he preached inner self ascension. His mission is to take us to the Presence of Allah, to meet God, and know him. Tell that to a Jordanian or Saudi Imam and you are immediately considered an outcast, an enemy of Islam! They will tell you you can never know Allah, your job is to carry out his commands to the letter. (How can you love someone without wanting, with a deep inner urge, to know them?).
But Prophet Mohammad did enter the Divine Presence on the Night of Ascension… and his task is to take us from one station to another, to purify us, and teach us, and clean us, so we can enter the Ultimate Mosque in the Presence of the Almighty Allah.
Religion, therefore, cannot work without a mentor, an experienced Sheikh, to lead us through the mazes of our inner world, our Self, and Ego, and psyches. Many people think they can decide on behalf of Allah who will enter Hell and who will enter Heaven. Simpletons are everywhere: people who have huge egos that tell them they know everything about religion. Sit with them for five minutes and you will get a strong urge to get out of your skin. That’s not religion, nor is it mentor-ship, and it definitely has nothing to do with spiritual education.
° We are not equal in inner strnegth
Some people say ALL PEOPLE equally have to pray 5 times a day, perform pilgrimage, fast, etc. That’s also not true. ALL PEOPLE are not on the same level of spiritual development. Keeping prayers, and fasting, are all things that are meant to purify us, they are not an end by themselves. Only a knowing mentor, like Prophet Mohammad, (or an existing Spiritual Inheritor of Mohammad) can actually tell each one of us what to do. I know Sufi followers who are asked to perform one Sajda (prostration) a day. The Sheikh knows their circumstances/needs and knows that if he asked them to perform 5 prayers a day they will rather leave the whole spiritual development thing behind and continue their lives without the heavy burdens of ritual and daily commitments.
When Prophet Mohammad used to teach his companions how to pray, he started teaching them slowly, giving them a step by step tutorial, over a long period of time. He did not receive Quran in one go; it happened in a revelation after revelation so he can take people from one station to another – with a sure foothold in what they are learning. First they were allowed to pray while they are drunk; the Prophet then slowly trained them to pray from 1 time to 5 times a day, and to pray while being sober. Then he slowly took them to the station of not drinking at all.
Why then are people in this time and age are expected to jump right into the higher ranks of religious performance without taking it step by step. Why do they get terrorized if they don’t immediately take on every religious task mentioned in the book? That is not Islam!
Now, if a man or a woman from England, for instance, find something appealing in Islam, their hearts sway towards this beautiful Light… they might approach 2 kinds of “Muslim” Shiekhs, and get 2 extremely different results:
1- a Salafi/Saudi-minded Sheikh, will order them to stop drinking, he will order the woman to wear the Hijab (head cover), to perform 5 times, to stop mingling with men, to stay at home, to quit her job, he will tell the man to grow his beard, to fast, pay Zakat, attend Friday prayers always and forever, etc.
How can they do all of that just as they have started their journey into Islam? How can any one called Muslim (who was raised Muslim, that is) do all of that all at once?
One more question: Who said this is what Islam is all about?
This is the point where Salafis like to call Sufis “Zanadiqa” (outcasts of religion). They translate the above-mentioned questions into: An invitation to destroy Islam!
2- Well, let’s see what happens when these two British people, or even a born-Muslim, go to a Sufi mentor. He will train them over a very long span of time on what is right for them, maybe on performing prayers, while teaching them something about the secrets and spiritual meanings of prayer. They might not be asked to pray at all, but might be asked to pay a minimal amount of alms to the poor. Or they might be asked to repeat one of Allah’s Names 100 times a day before they go to sleep. This all depends on what their Ego needs to be humbled, purified, and changed.
We don’t have the same set of Ego illnesses/desires/needs. Some people are struck by a huge doze of envy within the folds of their Nafs/Ego/Self, others are poisoned with pride, others with jealousy or greed. On their journey towards the Divine Presence of Allah, each one of them needs a different kind of spiritual bath for his/her Ego; the Spiritual Inheritor of Mohammad knows best what each of us need, because he himself was lead down a very difficult path where his Ego was trained, where he was trained to put up with people, understand them, and not overburden them with tasks that they cannot carry.
لا يكلف الله نفسا إلا وسعها
سورة البقرة – 286
God does not ask us to do or carry more than we can carry.
You cannot ask a spiritual “child” to carry what a spiritual “grownup” can. One has just started, the other has been initiated into the world of Sufi inner-self development, both are not equal in duty – and they may never be!
Why so? Because God looks at our hearts, not our outward signs of being pious. One can pray every day yet believe he/she is better than everyone else, while another bows down to Allah once a day and has the whitest heart you have ever met!