A Foreword: Usually I tell people that I am a writer, but in the case of these Letters it would be more accurate to say I was the pen. They were a gift. First glimpsed as an inspiration I was blessed to receive on the final morning of our August 2015 retreat in Dorset (and which sent me running pell-mell back to my room for my journal), the individual letters unfolded over the weeks that followed, during the time I stayed on in London after the retreat and then once I was back in Louisville. Writing them felt like taking dictation, albeit from a whispering and at times almost inaudible voice.
However much of the truth and beauty of that transmission you may perceive here is only thanks to that Divine Generosity which bestows so freely in its longing to be known. Any faults, errors or infelicities of expression that may have crept in are entirely due to this one’s own limitations.
My intention in gathering these Letters, and putting the feeling around them into words, is to share the incredible luminosity and warmth of our Prophet (peace be upon him) that I experienced, and which are gifts in themselves. Far from being a distant or larger-than-life figure, it is his accessibility, his very human Being, that makes him so inspiring. He is a man as well as a messenger. And even though I may address him as “M,” it is Muhammad I fell in love with.
– Louisville, December 11, 2015
1. New Rain of Blessing
Of all the stories that I’ve heard and read about you, I do have one particular favorite. Would you allow me to share it as I see it in my mind?
A late afternoon in winter: a rocky plain set against a dull sky. You’re not at home in Medina. I see you in a camp, on the slope of a mountain overlooking a broad plain. Could it be Uhud, on the day before the battle? From a distance, the tents of your small army are just dots amidst the dry brown folds of the hills – the black squares of woven goat’s hair could almost be mistaken for shadows if it weren’t for the banners above them, flying.
Your commanders are meeting in the center of the camp. You’ve had an uneasy feeling about this confrontation all along; but having done your best to give clear orders, you leave them to do the rest of the planning. Now as you move through the camp, you greet the men who are cleaning their weapons or practicing their fighting stances. Smiling, you wave away their offers to bring water or shade you from the sun.
So seldom are you left alone, despite your need for solitude. And even when you are alone, you’re always being watched. Among the eyes following your progress now are Aisha’s. Your youngest wife coaxed and begged you to come along despite your warnings of war’s danger. She follows your progress from the tent you’ve set up some distance from the others.
Leaving the camp proper, you continue in the direction of the higher slopes, walking deliberately over the scree and gravel. Some people say your gait is like a man descending from a great height. This time, however, you’re climbing: up to a place where the wind sighs through the rock. There you offer a prayer.
Aisha watches you, standing and prostrating, the way that Jibreel instructed you. You move through the postures with a grace that not even the most ardent of the faithful can imitate. You move in stillness and with stillness.
But above you in the sky, clouds are massing. The flap of the tent entrance where Aisha is crouching starts to whip in the wind. She hastens to tie up anything left loose or uncovered inside. When she turns back, she sees that a fine rain has begun to fall. It looks like the sheets of silver the Bedouins beat into jewelry.
Meanwhile, you’ve concluded your prayer and are climbing back down the rock, coming in her direction. Since she has put everything away in anticipation of the storm, the only cloth she can offer to dry you off with is the one wound around her head. She’s removing it as you step out of your shoes and duck through the tent entrance.
Holding out the cloth, she pats your shoulder and back. Your robe is dry. She stares at you for a moment.
“I don’t understand,” she says. “Outside – it was raining.”
You glance back at the plateau behind you, and then down at the cloth in her hand. It’s the one you used to cover your own head after Jibreel gave you the first revelation. When your prophethood was in its infancy, shuddering and shaken like all new life coming into the world, that wool wrap was your swaddling cloth.
Remembering, you draw Aisha to you, cradling her head against your chest.
“Oh, my dear,” you murmur into her hair. “That was not the rain of the outer world – what you saw was the rain of blessing.”
She rubs her eyes and peers out of the tent again, then looks up at you. “The rain of blessing?” she repeats.
Now you can’t help laughing a little. “Don’t you see? It’s falling all the time.”
When I first heard this story, I couldn’t wait to tell it to MomJ, my other mother in childhood (and after). I told it to her over the phone. When I finished, there was a silence.
“That story really touched you, didn’t it, honey?” she said after a moment.
Because of its magic, I said, the power it has to completely change any experience you’re having. Even right now, I said, seeing her in my mind’s eye as I saw her so often growing up: sitting in a recliner with a landline receiver pressed to her ear, a faint smile playing on her lips, the brass ship’s clock chiming in the background. It wasn’t so difficult to imagine the rain of blessing falling on her there in Maryland, just as I could see it from where I was sitting at that moment myself in a friend’s midtown Manhattan apartment, the 27th floor view turning Second Avenue into a long ribbon of white light.
My dear, my darling, sweet friend of my heart: thank you for indulging me in my version of the story. Telling it to you in this way, as I watch the rain falling on the evening before the battle, I see something that I missed before: the truth that everything is mercy. Even suffering, even war. Whatever burdens Allah gives us to bear contain gifts in equal measure, even if it’s beyond our perception to see it that way. “With hardship comes ease,” as it says in the Qur’an. You knew, perhaps better than anyone else, that it’s how He expands our heart.
May that rain of blessing continue to anoint you, dearest of Dear Ones, from your ears to your toes, as you move through the gardens of Paradise.
Taking a deep breath, hoping to catch just a hint of your fragrance,