Monday, January 31, 2011

You Must Move

Allah is like a hawk,
His eyes are drawn to motion.
If you don’t want Him to notice you, do nothing.

If, however, you crave His attention,
if you long for His caresses and His care,
you must move.

You must laugh like an idiot,
dance like a bridegroom,
and sing like a sparrow.

It isn’t piety that will make you irresistible to Allah,
it’s the irrepressible joy found
in simply living your life.

So sing loudly, dance wildly, speak bodly
love wantonly, give generously, pray sincerely
work hard, hug tight, kiss wet.

There’s nothing to be gained
from being small.
God is great—go and be great, too.

Sunday, January 30, 2011


Oh, dear. I know that look.
Allah has come upon you.
Do come and sit down before you topple over and hurt someone.

Drink this tea.
Catch your breath.
And tell me what happened.

I remember when it last happened to me.
I was at the well, getting a drink of water.
And Allah fell upon me like a cat pounding from a roof top,
claws extended to clutch at my shoulder.

It was all I could do to remain upright.
My brain felt like it was on fire,
and I saw reflected in the well all of the worlds and their myriad creatures.

I was lucky I didn’t fall in.
And yet, in a way, I did fall in.
I fell into the mind of Allah, and I will never be the same.

It has happened before, don’t misunderstand.
But every time is different.
Every time you see something new that you did not see before.

And every time it illumines all that is shadow,
exposes everything that is a lie
and turns me once again to face Mecca in my heart.

I do not know why Allah does this to people
and you can never predict when it happens.
My advice is to see it as a blessing
rather than the uncomfortable imposition it feels like now.

But Najat does know one thing.
Once it has happened to you, you will sell everything
—even your soul—to make sure it happens again.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Teacher's Wisdom

You come to me, and you call me “teacher.”
I make you tea and call you “friend.”
We with focused attention before Allah and we call it “prayer.”

Don’t look to me for answers. Don’t suppose for a minute
that I know what I’m doing, here. I don’t.
It isn’t my wisdom being spoken into the silence between us.

I open my mouth and the winds of heaven
move my lips, or they don’t.
When we are finished, we will be fortunate if we are both a little wiser.

I am not the teacher. I am the tea-maker.
Allah is the teacher.
You and I are both students, and always will be.

My love, if I ever get to the point where I say, “I can answer that”
please do not strike me dead.
But kindly persuade my wife to inform me that my teaching days are over.

For if I think I have any answers,
If I am foolish enough to believe that I know what I am doing
If I am ever arrogant enough to suppose that my own wisdom exceeds yours

then my usefulness in this world is at an end
and my time is better spent wetting myself and drooling into a towel
until the angel of sleep closes my eyes forever to this good life.

Najat is only skilled as a teacher
by knowing that his own wisdom is only slightly more valuable
than his excrement.

Friday, January 28, 2011


Allah’s embrace can end worlds or begin them.
Allah’s embrace can bring hope or despair.
Allah’s embrace can lead one
—kicking and screaming—to heaven or to hell.

Allah’s embrace can kindle resentment or affection.
Allah’s embrace can bring clarity or madness.
Allah’s embrace can snuff out your life or redeem it.

And the mystery of it is that these opposites
—life and death, sadness and joy, suffering and grace—
are always performed with one and the same act.

How you perceive it is largely determined
by the posture of your hand:
is it open to receive, or is it balled into a fist?

Najat knows life can be hard.
I’ve seen my share of blessings wrapped in pain.
I, too, struggle to behold all that Allah gives as a gift.

Thursday, January 27, 2011


I have no interest in proving to you
that Allah exists, or in persuading you
that His eye and His care is always upon you.

For such things do not fall into the realm of reason,
regardless of what the jurists argue.
This sort of thing involves the imagination and the heart.

I imagine that Allah is there, and He is there.
I imagine that Allah cares, and it is clear to me that He does.
I imagine that Allah speaks to me, and His voice is plainly heard.

You are quite right that I might be making it all up,
that Allah is a figment of my imagination.
I find it just as likely, however, that you are a figment of His.

Consider, for a moment, that the imagination
does not conjure up only fantasies, but might in fact
be an organ of perception, like unto the eye or the ear.

Consider, please, the fact that everything
that human beings create must first be imagined
and only then do they take form.

Are songs, stories, buildings, furniture,
clothing, food, or even children imaginary?
And yet all of these things were imagined before they took shape.

Allah imagined the world, and it came into being.
Allah imagined you, and you came into being.
It seems to me that you might, at the very least, return the favor.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Preparing the Heart

The body acts.
The mind thinks.
The heart loves.

Allah shaped the body,
Allah inspires the mind,
but it is in the heart that Allah makes His home.

All sensible people love the body
and care for it
as one does one’s own house.

An untrained mind
will believe anything
and may betray you.

But—and I think this incredible—
many people neglect the heart,
as if it were not a necessary organ.

Listen to Najat: if you have not prepared your heart,
If you have not learned to love even those things you do not love,
you are not yet prepared to welcome the Beloved.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Wake Up!

Your soul and my soul are not different things.
We behold the same glory through windows
that we either clean, or we don’t.

Your soul and Allah are not different things.
His glory is yours,
so how ready are you to shine?

This entire world radiates from the blazing heart of Allah.
Every creature is a revelation of the glory of God,
and testifies to his faithfulness and mercy.

Every moment we live
is the cry of the muezzin, calling all to prayer.
Every action is a prostration.

If you don’t live like this,
you have forgotten who you are.
Najat’s teaching is your coffee. Wake up!

Sunday, January 23, 2011


Sufism is not a religion.
It is the living, beating heart of faith,
regardless of what religion you happen to be.

Other People of the Book have Sufis,
although since they speak other languages
they have other words for them.

Religion is the husk surrounding the grain.
Living faith is the meat it protects,
like a shining pearl in its shell.

Religion is the container, the clothes, the form
that contains and provides a vehicle for
a living faith that cannot be spoken, or written down.

Do not, O Muslim, confuse Islam with living faith.
Yet living faith cannot survive without Islam,
nor can Islam survive without living faith.

But they are not the same. The practice of Islam
leads either to the soul’s entombment or its liberation.
Whether living faith is present will determine its destiny.

Sufis do not seek to form a religion—we already have a fine one.
We seek only to set Islam on fire by igniting its heart.
We seek only to make it live.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

One Great Sun

The spiritual life is a purging, an ongoing discernment
between what I am clutching to greedily,
and what I have truly surrendered.

I must constantly be asking myself,
regarding all that I put my hand to,
“have I surrendered it? Is this under submission to Allah?”

For anything that is not submitted
Is a barrier between my Beloved and me.
Anything I clutch as my own steals my heart
from the One who truly owns it.

I know what you are thinking,
but believe Najat when he says
that this is not tyranny.

This is the hard work of seeing.
This is the sorting of what is Real and what is not.
This is the hard work of putting my soul in order.

The only thing that is Real is Allah.
All other things are shadows cast
by that One Great Sun.

What value are shadows?
And why should I spend my soul
To hide it away like some secret treasure only I may enjoy.

It is no treasure. Not my money, not my house,
Not my children, not my wife, not my widowed mother
Not my teachings, not the mosque, not you, my friend.

We are all shadows, and not one of us has worth apart from Allah.
If that Sun were to stop shining, all of us shadows
would disappear into black.

I clutch to nothing,
because all but my Beloved is nothing.
If I do not see that, I live in illusion.

Therefore everything must be surrendered.
And when I do, it is given back to me,
But I know it for what it is.

This is my religion. Islam means “submission.”
If I refuse to submit any one thing,
then I am a hypocrite, or I am deluded, or I am a heretic.

I submit. I surrender.
Allah help me to see
what I have not yet surrendered.

Friday, January 21, 2011

A Drop of Pain

I do not deny that there is great suffering in this world.
And what kind of Muslim would I be if I did not believe
that Allah had the power to subdue it?

Why He does not subdue it
when so many good and innocent people suffer
is a great mystery that I have not yet divined.

What I do know is this: that for every drop of pain,
there is an ocean of joy
and that I would not know one without the other.

And that is Allah’s gift and Allah’s wisdom

My own widowed mother, as much as I love her
forsakes the ocean and praises the drop
at great length, every time I see her.

Many people do this.
And this, it seems to me,
is an even greater mystery.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011


I realize that there are some who whisper against me
over their coffee in the shops, saying,
“That Sufi is against religion”

…which is absurd. I love my religion.
I just don’t think it ought to be confused
with the Truth.

Be not quick to condemn Najat
until he has explained himself,

The mind of Allah is vast.
If you think you can comprehend it,
your sin is pride.

If you think the Prophet could comprehend it
—peace be upon him—you make him more than a man,
and therefore you are a heretic.

Islam is like a vast but circumscribed sea.
It is shallow enough that fools can bathe in it but not drown.
It is deep enough that scholars will never exhaust its treasures.

And yet, as the fishermen of Ephesus know of their sea,
it is so full of life that it can sustain all,
none will go to bed hungry—not this night, not any.

It is therefore the greatest treasures,
our life, and the greatest of gifts
from the hand of Allah.

And yet, this sea is contained by a shore,
for if it covered the whole of the earth
there would be no place for people.

Islam describes the world, but it is not the world.
Islam teaches us how to live, but it is not the breath of life.
Islam teaches us wisdom, but it does not exhaust the mind of Allah.

Our religion is great.
The Prophet was great.
But Allah is greater.

God is great!
God is great!
Now tell me I am against religion.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Outward Forms

I understand why, among our people, everyone must practice Islam.
Without it, society would once again descend into the chaos
of blood fueds and lawlessness.

What I don’t understand is why,
if a man must practice the outward forms of a religion,
he does not avail himself of the inner rewards as well.

It is as foolish as a starving man,
who, when given walnuts, keeps the shells in a bag
and throws the nut meat into the street.

Allah has set before us a grand way of living
A great feast to nourish and enrich our souls.
Would it not be rude to refuse His hospitality?

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Loneliness of the Desert

The infidels send their holy men
into the desert to commune with their gods
I don’t know who they find out there,
but I don’t think it’s Allah.

Out there, Allah is just an idea,
as far above them as the scorching sun,
just as distant, just as helpless to save.

For where there are no people
there are no opportunities
for mercy, or justice, or compassion.

Perhaps they find themselves.
But in my opinion, to find oneself in isolation
is the same as being lost.

Listen to Najat:
Every good thing you have ever received from Allah
was passed on to you by human hands.

Sunday, January 16, 2011


I call these petty inconveniences in my life “tragedies,”
but you and I both know how selfish,
self-centered, and just plain crazy that is.

These are not tragedies.
They are the fist of Allah pounding away at the door of my heart,
smashing everything I have invested in
   that is not Him.

They are the hammer of Abraham,
smashing the idols in the Kabah
to the horror of his father and the villagers.

Indeed, I must be grateful for them,
For they are the only thing standing between me
and the delusion that I am alone sufficient for all of my needs.

In truth, I hate trouble as much as you do.
It takes faith to see the hand of Allah in it.
Submission, O Muslims, takes a lifetime!

So today I will submit even my resentment
at being inconvenienced.
And tomorrow I will be given the opportunity
   to submit again.

Saturday, January 15, 2011


I notice that there has been a great deal of silence
between Allah and you of late.
There are two kinds of silence.

In one kind, you are faced away from your Beloved.
You have closed off your heart,
   you have stopped speaking—and listening—
and have spurned all intimate congress between you.

This kind of silence is cold and dead and forbidding.

In the other kind, you are facing towards your Beloved.
Your eyes are fixed on His
   and love radiates between you, filling your heart
and communicating intimacies too tender for words.

This kind of silence begat the worlds.

I do not presume to know what is happening
between you and Allah, so perhaps you will tell me.
Which way are you facing?

Friday, January 14, 2011


I know that someone hurt you.
I can see it in your eyes
when the muezzin sounds.

You bow, you kneel, you prostrate yourself
your mouth moves with the words of the prayers.
Your body prays, but it is clear to me that your heart does not.

Come to my rooms.
Sit here, allow me to pour you some coffee.
Let us talk.

Anything you say in this place is safe
from widow’s talk or the wrath of zealots.
There is no one here but us two bumbling seekers.

Even Allah will respect your privacy,
and will drive away the jinn
so that the only ears that hear your words will be mine.

Nothing you can say will surprise me.
You can utter no heresy that I have not heard before.
You cannot truly blaspheme if you are only being honest.

Perhaps the imams have betrayed you.
If so, tell me that story.
The imams are often wrong, and some are even cruel.

Perhaps Allah has abandoned you. That story, too,
you can tell in safety. When you are ready,
I will stand beside you as you confront Him with His offenses.

Don’t look at me like that.
Allah is a powerful God, and can weather any abuse
you can level at Him.

Ah, I can see it in your eyes
that you are afraid of Hell
if you dare speak to Allah in this way.

Allow Najat to comfort you.
I speak to Allah this way all the time.
All lovers fight.

If there is no honesty, no redress, no accountability,
there is no relationship. Allah wants nothing from you
quite so much as relationship.

I know you are scared, but my friend, you must speak
   of the barrier that separates you and Allah.
Once you have named it, together we can overcome it.

So speak! Speak! Whatever is weighing down your soul.
For if you are not free to speak your mind
you are not free to love.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Pure Religion

Allah dances like a drunken fool
to the music of the tambur and oud.
He staggers, he laughs, he sways, he falls.

Last week Allah fell into my mind
and I saw visions of the faithful and the damned.
It frightened and inspired me
   and I became more disciplined in my practice.

A couple of days later Allah fell into my limbs
and I felt the strength of tigers.
I put it to good use digging a new well for old Dede.

Then, Allah fell into my throat and I sang like a sparrow
until my wife threatened to split my head with some crockery
if I didn’t stop my infernal warbling.

Later Allah fell into my loins
but propriety prohibits me from telling you what happened then.
Let us only say that my wife was pleased,
   and did not threaten me with crockery.

Yesterday, Allah fell into the sky
and it lit up like fire.
It moved my soul to wonder.

This morning, Allah has fallen into my coffee
and the pleasure I experience as I hold it on my tongue
is pure religion.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

My Soul Wants to Fly

Today a bird flew into my house and would not leave.
First, I tried to give him ample opportunity to fly away,
opening the door and windows and waiting patiently.

I am still waiting.

Next, I tried to shoo him out, running at him from behind,
with the hope door before him.
Instead he fled sideways beneath the safety of a low table.

After that I treid to lure him out with food,
Leaving a trail of tasty seeds from the table to the door.
He ate a few, then, sated, returned to the shelter of the table.

I have given up. It got cold,
so I closed the door and shuttered the windows.
Then I went to bed.

I do not know why that bird did not want to be free.
Oh! I am so stupid.
There, now I see. I guess I do know, after all.

I hope Allah
will not shutter up the house before
my soul has decided to fly.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Spiritual Master

Today a dervish showed up at my house,
bowed before me and announced that he would
Study at the feet of a master if only I would have him.

So I cuffed his ears and threw him into the street.
It was the only merciful thing to do.
If people think I am some kind of spiritual master,
   someone is bound to get hurt.

I will only disappoint them
and my reputation may never recover.
Best to send him packing early.

“Spiritual master,” he said. Who is he kidding?
Not me. Not Allah. Not you, if you know me at all.
Only himself. Let him delude himself at someone else’s feet.

I am no spiritual master.
I have achieved no state of enlightenment
nor any stage of advanced spiritual understanding.

I am neither prophet, seer, nor adept.
I’ll tell you what I have learned, however,
and perhaps that will serve to instruct you.

I have learned to love Allah with my whole heart
and I have learned how to fight with Him fair and square.
What more does anyone need to know, really?

Sunday, January 9, 2011

What Prayer is For

Whenever the muezzin sounds his call,
people all face towards Mecca and fall on their faces.
But if you ask them what prayer is for
they look at you as if you are trying to trick them.

Listen, my friends, no one is trying to trick you.
But in my opinion, while the imams have done a very good job
explaining how we should pray,
they have not done a very good job as explaining why.

Prayer is not designed to change the mind of Allah
—what hubris!
Prayer is not commanded in order to instruct Allah
—Allah alone knows all!
Prayer does not effect change in the outside world
—your will is so strong only in your dreams!

Prayer is only this—to share you life with Allah,
to open to Him the feelings of your heart
and the concerns of your mind,

to enjoy His presence and to be still long enough
so that He may hold you and rock you
as your mother used to do on those long ago nights
when the moon threatened to crash through your bedroom window.

Listen to Najat. Why should you pray? The moon is big, now.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Talk and Listen

When I ask students about prayer,
all of them know how to bow towards Mecca.
This is the Prayer of the Body, and it is important.

But when I ask them about the Prayer of the Heart,
some of them have no idea what I am talking about.
These are the easy cases. They have little to unlearn.

Others, though, say that they talk to Allah
all day and all night. And I think, “my poor, poor Beloved
—who can bear to hear such incessant chatter?”

Still others say that they wait in silence
for the Beloved’s voice. And sometimes
they even hear it.

There is nothing wrong with the chatterers or the lovers of silence,
not really. Both of them are necessary.
The trouble comes when a seeker does only one and not the other.

Every wife wants her husband to talk.
Every wife wants her husband to listen.
Every husband hates to do either, usually.

But the wife knows what makes a good relationship.
It is this kind of relationship Allah wants to have
with each and every person alive.

So, my dear ones, listen to Najat:
if you want to be healed, talk.
if you want to be wise, listen.

But if you want to know the deepest intimacy
with your Beloved,
you must learn to do both.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Sunni and Shia

There is an old Shia woman who carries water in our village,
and every time she passes the well,
the women spit on her.

It makes me sad. It makes Allah sad as well.
There is enough sadness here between Sunni and Shia to fill that well
a thousand times over.

I know the imams will say that I am wrong
and perhaps even blasphemous for saying this,
but say it I must.

It is not better to be Sunni than to be Shia.
It is not better to be Shia than to be Sunni.

Sin has seeped into every jar,
and all are equally tainted.

But love can be found in every jar as well,
mixed up inseparably with that sin.

All of us have drunk it.
All of us suffer.
All of us benefit.

Najat says, Allah sees no difference
between Sunni and Shia.
He only sees people who are equally thirsty
and have only unclean water to drink.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Lashing Out

Today I am so angry at Allah
I wish I could hit Him!
I want to punch Him in the face and pull out His hair
and make him feel even the smallest portion
of the pain that I feel today.

So instead I rage at the sky
and throw dust at the sun
and roll in the brambles until I bleed.

And when I have shouted myself hoarse
and cried myself dry
and have worked myself into such a miserable state I am shaking

Allah comes up behind me,
places his mouth upon my ear, going “shush, my love.”
I lash out but only succeed in boxing my own ear.

So then he lays beside me, his arm around my chest until it is still
whispering, “Calm yourself, my love.
Why don’t you tell me how you really feel.”

And this is why I hate him.
He never takes any of my pain seriously.
Not really.

He shows up and acts as if, no matter how much I am suffering,
everything is going to be all right in the end.
And this only serves to make me angrier.

Najat is no idiot.
He knows that Allah is wise.
He only wishes Allah were not so damned smug.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011


This evening I sat at the bedside of old Ali,
his voice as dry as sand,
his eyes searching yet unseeing.

I listened as he recounted his genealogy
from ancient times to the present
from Abraham—peace be upon him—
to his own father in one unbroken line.

I listened in awe as the generations he summoned
transported us swiftly through the years
and ending with his own great-grandson Ishmael.

You might have thought it was boring, but it wasn’t.
Some people will admit that they find the mosque services boring,
so people are just people and you can’t judge them too harshly.

But truly, I found Ali’s genealogy and the services at the mosque
fascinating for precisely the same reason:
both were acts of worship.

An old dervish I know once told me that
worship is any act that connects us to the larger Reality
of which we are so small a part. He was wise.

I love the prayers, because when I kiss the ground,
it connects me to all the men and women
who have prayed these words before.

I love my religion, because it connects me
to all those who have followed it in the past,
and all those who will follow it in the future.

I love the hajj, because when I walk it
I am connected to all those who have walked it’s dusty roads before me,
and all those who will walk it.

I love those moments when a dribble of sadness
erupts from my throat unbidden
or a shout of joy bubbles up unforeseen
for these connect me with my Beloved.

And here is Ali, speaking the connection between himself
the prophet Abraham—peace be upon him—
like the words of the Friday liturgy
spoken with as much reverence and authority
as any imam has ever spoken.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Just Listen

Quiet!...   Damn, now I’ve lost it.
You have to listen close to hear the whisper of the Beloved.
Can you hear it? No? Have you tried?

To hear this Voice, you do not have to go to any special schools.
No degrees or diplomas will help you here.
If anyone tells you he is an expert, take my advice and run away.

Who knows what voice such a person is listening to,
and whether or not it is from Allah?
Only you can discern that, and you must be silent to do it.

So leave the schools behind you
and tell the teachers to stop their jabbering.
Tell the experts to find other fools
   from whom they can swindle their bread.

Enter the cave of your heart and sit in silence
until the Beloved approaches you from behind
wraps His arms around you,
   and pulls you in to lay against His breast.

Then listen, and listen well.
Remember the words He speaks in those intimate moments
and share them with the world when you have gone out again.

Does it seem strange to share such whispered intimacies with strangers?
Is there anything about Allah that is not strange?
Is there anything about this dance of the soul that does not confound you?

Najat is no expert in anything. Just ask my wife if you don’t believe me.
She will tell you. She is not shy.
Najat has just practiced the art of sinking back into the Divine embrace
   and listening.

Don’t try to make sense of it.
You can’t. Just do it.
You can.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Third Way

You wouldn’t go to a chicken for milk,
unless you are demented.
Just so, you should not go to Najat for a fatwa.

A chisel is a useful tool, unless you need to hammer a nail.
Then, it is just awkward.
Just so, if what you want is a ruling on jurisprudence,
   Najat is the wrong man for the job.

I am not an imam (Allah be thanked).
I am not a scholar (dogs will chase their tails).
I am a dervish (my chest relaxes and I sigh).

There are three ways that a person can be faithful to Allah,
three ways that the soul can find its way
and the first two are easy:

You can do the right things
   —the imams will be happy to tell you what those are and how to do them
You can believe the right things
   —the scholars will let you know when they’ve reached a consensus.

But the third way is hard,
and requires much close listening, discernment, and effort
on the part of any who pursue it.

The third way is to do what is beautiful,
to love what you love,
to sing the songs that demand singing,
to express what cannot be spoken,
except in the language of the heart.

If you want to know how to do that,
you have come to the right place,
and Najat is your man.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Who I Am

This family is who I am.
It’s not the only family to be a part of, certainly.
It is not better than any other family.
But it’s my family, and I love them.

This path is who I am.
It’s not the only path.
It is not better than any other path.
But it’s my path, and so I walk it with joy.

This religion is who I am.
It’s not the only religion.
It is not better than any other religion.
But it’s my religion, and so I practice it with reverence.

I am not alone. There are others on this journey.
I have family members, travelling companions, brothers and sisters of the Ummah
who make my life rich, meaningful, and valuable.

Najat knows who he is.
And he knows he is nothing without others.
Allah, in His wisdom, made us for community.