By Mahmoud Mostafa
For me, dervishhood is a total commitment to follow in the footsteps of the Prophet, Mevlana Rumi, Shams, and all the blessed ones who traveled the way of love. There are many aspects to this following and over the years it has been shown to me that the sincerity of commitment to this path is manifest in knowing that one is a servant and living one’s life in this truth. What are the practical aspects of this way of living? For me there are several dimensions, there is a state of being, an active practice, a quality of self-reflection and self-knowing, and a way of conduct in daily life.
State of Being:
When I reflect on how this path has changed me over the years I see a definite shift in my perspective. The meaning of my life has changed, my understanding of the events and interactions that I live every day is very different from what it used to be. If I were to describe how my perspective was before I would say that I saw things as if I were the center of existence; it was all relative to me. I saw things in the context of what I wanted, what I liked and disliked, what I thought I should be like, what I imagined people thought of me, how I wanted them to see me, and what I thought they expected of me. Now my perspective has shifted to what can best be described as being in love with the tremendous and beautiful divine manifestation that is life. It is a state of seeing my life as part of a much greater whole, that my life is an integral part of a oneness that pervades everything and that is conscious and alive. This shift has enabled and empowered me to have the resolve and courage to let go of many of the attachments and conditioning to which I was shackled and to learn to accept, trust, and find joy in what is. Some of the attachments that I am aware have largely left me are: my religious identity, my professional self-image, my desire for social and economic status, my sense of national identity, my relationships and what I want them to be for me, and my self-projections upon my children. I find that I am loving more often, less worried, more forgiving, more compassionate and less anxious and hurried about life. I find myself more aware of the inner dialogue that tries to trap me into fear and worries about acceptance and lack of abundance. I’ve gone through some big stressful experiences recently and this state of being has helped me to not only cope with these major stresses, it has made the difficult experience a blessing and gift from God. By no means do I see myself as truly free of attachments, I still face some major issues with my ego and the road is filled with surprises! What I do see is that I am relating to my being in a different way and from a different place.
Growing up as a Muslim I’ve been conditioned to think of Islamic practices as defining our religion. Now I have a different understanding of the purpose and meaning of our practices. A daily practice is one of the most important things because it loosens the grip of habit, the heedlessness of procrastination, the urgency of time, and the noise of the world upon our hearts. A regular practice interrupts automatic living and gives us a chance to renew our intention, revive our awareness and to seek forgiveness for what we’ve wasted of our lives. Practice softens the heart and increases our longing, it teaches us humility, it gives us opportunity to face our defensiveness, resistance, and arrogance and to respond to these impulses with obedience and purpose. In my experience I have often stumbled in my daily practice because of taking on too much. It helps me to remember the Prophet’s guidance to, Take on those practices which you have the capacity to sustain… Lately, I’ve come to understand the importance of constancy even if it is only for a few minutes a day. It is vital to keep that connection, to not relapse into complete heedlessness and automatic, habitual living. To follow the guidance of taking what has been made easy for us to receive is very important, even if it is for just five minutes a day. For the Prophet completed his earlier guidance by saying, for God does not grow weary unless you do. I’ve found that by persisting in a daily practice doing as much as I am able on any given day and then putting aside a longer period of time once a week, say one evening, when one can be with the practice without a time limit, when one can go on for an hour or longer, can go a long way in increasing one’s capacity for presence and remembrance. I learned this from the bitter experience of trying to do too much every day and failing miserably and giving up all practice eventually because of despair. I found that trying to complete a count or duration of zhikr got me into trouble. Then being on retreat it became clear that what is important is to keep up as much as possible of a daily practice without counting, even if it is little, and then to dedicate a longer period of time weekly when one can deepen one’s practice and be free of time pressure.
The work of undertaking a daily practice brings us to see our relationship with time and how we spend it. Do we see the time we’ve been given on this earth as part of the sacred trust or do we squander it without much thought? The Prophet advised us to, Be more careful with your time than with your wealth. And he warned us that, Every human being will be asked how he spent his time. It is so easy to squander our time. It doesn’t take much for us to fall into our mindless habits and automatic patterns and it takes a lot of effort to counteract this inertia and resistance that we have to undertaking the effort that can lead to our transformation. Mevlana says in Book IV of the Mathnawi that, God gives each lover a taste of bliss at the beginning, and then when the lover, driven by desire for this taste, begins to strive forth, God places an obstacle before him each day! So it is important to understand how it is natural and part of God’s scheme that we struggle with resistance and difficulties whenever we undertake a practice, it is part of the cooking process that we need to experience and we grow from it.
My daily practices consist of Salaat, Zhikr, and Wird. I try to do as much of each as I can each day even if it is for a short period of time. Then once a week I dedicate one evening to a longer period of Zhikr, Quran, and Turning. Recently I also have made my intention to do a mini-retreat at home where I would go into seclusion for 1.5 to 2 days every three months. This I found to be a very valuable practice because it brings me into a more centered state of presence and remembrance.
Another active practice that has been vital for me is fasting. I do it often and sometimes for extended periods. I realize this is not for everyone. For me it is a deep practice of inner stillness, trust, and intimacy. Sometimes I will undergo long fasts of 3 months during the months of Rajab, Shaaban, and Ramadan. And during the year I try to fast two days a week. When I feel that fasting is becoming habitual I will stop for a while and then resume again when I feel a change in my heart. I have found that fasting is an effective polish for the heart and that it wakes me up in a way that is deep and loving.
Self-Reflection and Self-Knowing:
I find that self-examination and witnessing is a very important aspect of dervishhood. Observing the machinations, ploys, and inner dialogue of the Nafs is key to awareness and transformation. Without keen insight into ourselves we can be easily lulled to sleep by our egos. I find that it takes a lot of courage to be able to look with honesty and sincerity at ourselves and it also takes compassion to accept and seek forgiveness for our faults. Over the years I’ve come to see my greed, my desire for recognition and attention, my fears, my hypocrisy. It’s not easy to know these things about myself and to face them with courage and compassion but it is part of the work of transformation. I found that the more I consciously practice self-witnessing the more insight is given to me during zhikr and in my dreams. Important things have been shown to me in dreams or during sleep. Deep knowing about myself and how my Nafs works were revealed that have guided me and have released me from several biases, assumptions, and harmful behaviors.
Another aspect of self-knowing and observation is to oppose the desires of the Nafs. Many sheikhs advice us to go against whatever the Nafs wants. This is important advice. The more we can know what the Nafs is driving us to do, the more we can stand in the way of these impulses and exercise our free will to choose otherwise, the more we are transformed and the more we grow spiritually. I struggle with this a lot and it is a very difficult effort. For example eating is one of the great desires of my Nafs. I find myself overeating or eating mindlessly, sometimes I find myself eating greedily with a devouring urge. I try to oppose this impulse but I am often defeated by it. Another example is with sleep or the delaying of practice. I feel shame when I see how diligent I am to make appointments and deadlines such as being on time to catch a flight or make a phone call, but I will make every excuse and take every way to put off waking up in the morning for prayers or any of the other daily practices. I’ve come to understand that the way to oppose the Nafs is not in fighting it but in turning away from its obsessiveness and seeking God.
The Way of Conduct in Daily Life:
This I think is one of the greatest and most effective teachings of our way. Often we find ourselves relating to spirituality in a way that takes it out of our daily life or, just as harmfully, that attempts to takes us out of daily life in the name of spirituality. Our way is not this. To be in the footsteps of the Prophet is to learn to bring spirituality to life in our daily lives, to let Spirit enrich and beautify us in normal everyday things that we do. This is part of the Tremendous Character of the Prophet. I’ve found that there are two important aspects to this conduct: relationships and Adab. To bring spirituality into relationships to me is to be consciously asking, What would Love do? When we ask this question our defensiveness, our agendas, our pettiness, our fears, and our greed somehow melt away and we are left facing a profound truth from which it is difficult to turn away if we want to live our life with integrity. What would Love do? has changed my life. It has, in many significant ways, saved me and those I love from my Nafs. For example, it has brought me to acceptance and to genuine respect for the sacredness and integrity of my children’s lives and their right to live their lives and make their choices without fear of my judgment. What would Love do? broke down my defensiveness and my deep-seated desire to see my children doing better than me that is code for, I want to succeed where I think I failed. This is a veiled, great tyranny that was handed down to me from my own parents and which I quite naturally assumed was a good thing to inflict upon my own children until I learned to ask, What would love do? This one amazing question has helped me to understand many important things about relationships and what it means to love.
Adab is the other tremendous aspect of our way. The practice of Adab is critical in developing our awareness and our servanthood. This was indelibly etched upon my heart when Cafik Jan came to California for our summer retreat. One time, when Sheikh Cafik was leading the prayer I was late joining the group and so was not done when he finished. I remember that I thought about being late and I was anxious about him starting the Tesbih before I was done. I let go of this thought and focused on completing the prayer. Then I realized that nothing was happening around me, everyone remained seated in silence. When I finished and gave the last salaam I looked up and saw his kind, old eyes from the front of the congregation focused on me like a hawk and as soon as he saw me finish he started the Tesbih. I wasn’t expecting this at all. I was in the very last row and he was up front where it was normal to not be aware of what’s going on in the back, but he was fully aware, fully present to those who were with him and, just as significantly, fully aware of his servanthood to us. I understood then what the true meaning of Imam was; it was not to lead the prayer but to offer the prayer from one’s heart as a service to one’s friends. This was a keen, unforgettable lesson in the beauty of Adab from a true master of our way.
Painting by Harry Turner.