by Sa’diyya Shaikh
This talk, presented at the Cape Town launch in of Shabbir Banoobhai’s if i could write, provides detailed insights into the Sufi element in his work. The penetrating spiritual gaze of the poet is expanded by the speaker’s deep knowledge of tasawwuf, a reading that exemplifies the spiritual thread between writer, reader and God in the acts of writing, reading and observation of faith. Dr. Sa’diyya Shaikh teaches Feminism and Islamic Studies at the University of Cape Town and is author of the seminal book,Sufi Narratives of Intimacy: IbnʿArabī, Gender and Sexuality.
I saw a beautiful movie the other day, called The Tiger and the Snow. It evoked for me a strong association with Shabbir’s work. The central character in the movie, a poet with an extraordinary gusto for life, is asked by his two young daughters how he came to be a poet. In his response, he observes that a genuine poet is “one who can get others to feel their hearts beating”. Shabbir Banoobhai, according to this criteria, is a poet par excellence, for this work,if i could write, a collection of letters to his daughters, resuscitates the heart.
Here, it is important to note that to the Sufis the “heart” symbolizes the spiritual centre and not the emotional centre. What Shabbir Banoobhai does in this exquisite work of the heart is that he helps us grapple with what it means to be a spiritually perceptive human being, a human beingalive to his or her ultimate purpose, a human being who engages the world and other human beings with the divine qualities of love, compassion and justice, a human being brave enough to lose the accumulated and often jealously guarded baggage of selfhood and illusions of the ego in order to become someone for whom reflections of the Divine shimmer through all of life’s experiences. Shabbir’s if i could write is an elegant mystical work that inspires and urges us to submerge our beings in the ocean of God’s oneness.
Shabbir’s work breathes and lives beautifully
in the trajectory of Islamic spiritual writings
… within the genre of Sufism or tasawwuf
Shabbir’s work breathes and lives beautifully in the trajectory of Islamic spiritual writings, often found within the genre of Sufism or tasawwuf. When I speak of “Sufism”, I refer to nothing less than the strong spiritual current that has animated the Islamic tradition for centuries. Sufism is an integral part of Islam, the property and heritage of all Muslims. In pre-modern Islam many mystics also held, simultaneously, positions as jurists, scholars and theologians and in this respect were also just ordinary human beings. The sectarian identities we now ascribe to ourselves are one of the less attractive accruements of our time. Having made this point, I want to now proceed to place if i could write within the genre of Sufi cosmology and its understandings of human nature as well as its relationship to the Divine.
He edifies the presence of God
in every experience and relationship
we encounter in daily life
Throughout this wonderful book, Shabbir alerts us to the deep intimacy we share with the Divine. He exhorts us to love God and reminds us of the many ways to love God more deeply, wholly, and in all things. He edifies the presence of God in every experience and relationship we encounter in daily life. In fact, some readers may find Shabbir’s insistence on our inseparability from God and the ultimate oneness of all experience difficult to digest. Yet, for others, this might be profoundly illuminating, fitting right in with the grand tradition of teachers like Rumi, Ibn Arabi, Bawa Muhaiyaddeen and other spiritual luminaries.
Here, I want to focus a little on the story with which Shabbir starts and ends the book. He draws on the tradition or hadith al-qudsi, a particular favourite method of the Sufis. In this particular hadith, God says “I was a hidden treasure and I yearned to be known; so I created the world so that I might be known”. Sufi thinkers have reflected extensively on this extraordinary hadith, using it as a starting point for understanding human nature and our relationship with God. It is God’s own yearning, longing and love to be known intimately that is the reason for our creation. Thus, in our innermost potential and being, we are all mirrors to God. As Shabbir notes in this regard, “we are all shimmerings of the divine”. What this book does perhaps, in this its most consistent theme, is it holds forth a mirror to the reader that reflects this intrinsic God-given nature of the human being, this original divine fitrah to which we are heirs.
we are reflections
of the hidden treasure that is God
And in presenting to us this fitrah, Shabbir alludes to another Quranic story in his conclusion, the story of the primordial covenant between God and humanity, known as yaum al mithaq or the day of alast when Allah asked of all souls in a time before time, in an existence before we even entered our physical bodies, in the primordial existence of each soul that was yet to enter a body – Allah asked “Alastu birabbikum?” (Am I not your Lord?) And each soul responded “Bala shahidna” (“Indeed, we bear witness that there is no god but God”). Rumi states that the divine alast and the human answer is the seal of the heart, thus this organ is forever under the spell of God’s infinite power and love. In Rumi’s paradoxical imagery, human hearts are depicted as intoxicated from the wine of alast, which enables humanity to distinguish between good and evil, necessary for a consciously responsible life.
The tenth century mystic, Junayd of Baghdad, states that the Sufi yearning for fana or mystical annihilation is the yearning to return to the same state of non-existence, that is, the non-existence of a self as separate from Godas it had existed on the day of the covenant where one’s end is the return to the beginning. Alast has come to symbolize the moment of Unity between God and humanity.
love of the divine
is the essence of spiritual behaviour
Shabbir’s focus on the identity or similarity between humanity and God, on the notion of our intimacy with God, our yearning for God, our loving God, is particularly necessary in our context. We live in a context where anger looms large on the world’s stage and where love is hard to find. In our own small madrassa we have for too long focused exclusively on the transcendence of God, what Islamic theology has called tanzih, without balancing this with notions of Divine immanence or tashbih. And we often fear this God who is so entirely above us. On the other hand, we have very limited exposure to that part of the tradition that focuses on our closeness to God, traditions that inform us that we are reflections of the hidden treasure that is God, a God with whom we share a profound existential intimacy, a God who loves us and whom we love, a God the heavens and earth cannot contain but whom “the heart of the faithful believer contains”, according to another hadith qudsi. It is the latter perspective of God and our relationship to God that Sufis particularly focus on, and which Shabbir does so beautifully in this book, stating with the most incisive simplicity that “Love of the divine is the essence of spiritual behaviour”. Having a loving God, we are urged to epitomize the divine quality of love and to live up to the highest qualities possible of human character.
These reminders that Shabbir and other Sufis give us about our true nature and potential, point out that every human being, in fact, has an inner source of Islam – in other words, a natural endowment to know and love God, an intrinsic inclination towards faith. In fact, we have an in-built God-given primordial radar for the good and the wholesome. At the deepest part of our humanity, we have the innate capacity to recognize the good, and thus, we are not a morally inert humanity which revelation saves, but one that is primed to know goodness. For us, revelation serves as a confirmation of a natural order. This is no fallen humanity!
the mission in life is to return
to the state of the original shahadah,
of bearing witness to God’s oneness
So what happened to this exalted nature within an Islamic worldview? Why is there so little evidence of it in the world? The real problem,stated in Islamic thought,is forgetfulness or heedlessness. When we become heedless of the Divine and of our own divine nature, the divine within becomes progressively more veiled, screened off to ourselves.
So the mission in life is to return to the state of the original shahadah, of bearing witness to God’s oneness, as we did on the day of the primordial covenant when all the accretions of selfhood were non-existent. This is why the shahadah, bearing witness to God’s oneness, is the first pillar of Islam. Many Sufis see themselves as drawing the full spiritual consequences of this fundamental pillar of Islam. Whereas Islamic law requires that in order to be Muslim, one is to officially declare God’s oneness, Sufis demand that this witness not merely be lip service or an intellectual endeavour or merely a sentiment or reflection, but rather a full, experiential witnessing that results in inner knowledge of God’s oneness. What does this type of witness mean in practical terms? The first pillar of Islam, the shahadah, begins with a negation, la illaha, and then proceeds into an affirmation, il-Allah. This initial negation “la illaha” demands that we reject all forms of deities, not simply idols that the Prophet Muhammad broke in the ka’ba, but also the internal idols that we all carry. It signifies emptying the self of all internal and external idols, all that seeks dominion over the soul,
whether this is selfishness, greed, jealousy, anger, family attachments, materialism, political identities, religious identities or intellectual fame. It is after this negation has happened that the affirmation can follow – only when the soul and body have been cleared of false deities, is the space clear for genuine affirmation of God’s complete sovereignty and Oneness. Sufi practice entails the journey of purification of the self from the lower instincts, from the self-absorbed passion and ego that drives us as human beings, from all the attachments that bind us to this world and distract us from the One. And as we break our inner idols, we polish the mirror of the heart, wherein the Divine resides.
Shabbir not only gives us the beautiful big picture
of the God-human relationship but also
an extensive road map to get there
Shabbir not only gives us the beautiful big picture or grand narrative of the God-human relationship, but also an extensive road map to get there. He illustrates beautifully that God resides in the detail, that spirituality is embodied in our lives and relationships with others. It is not simply something we perform on a ritual prayer mat or only in a mosque.
His amazing letter on adab, defines this astutely as not simply courteous behaviour, but also “knowing the proper place of things”as well as responding in each moment to the highest reality. In this letter, he presents tender and poignant narratives – the graceful and beautiful adab reflected by his wife Ruxanna in dealing with a family dilemma. In another instance, on a Hajj that the poet had so eagerly intended to share primarily with his wife, the needs of a blind friend takes precedence, which results in unexpected spiritual gifts for all.
Shabbir focuses also on the details, the very intricacies of everyday life, whether this is raising and teaching one’s children about peace, injustice and war, or teaching by example, or dealing with one’s pain in situations where one has been wronged, or learning how to speak and to listen to another, or becoming artists whose art aspires to transcend form, or clothing beauty with modesty, or being constantly vigilant with oneself by monitoring one’s own thoughts, intentions and actions, or staying away from inflated self-concepts, spiritual pride, hypocrisy and false piety, or doing genuine service to human beings and placing others above oneself, and a whole host of guidelines for living, which incidentally, are scattered throughout the book and not only captured in the letters entitled “Guidelines for living”.
One of my all-time favourite lines in this book is “To be divine, instead of trying to become more than you are, become less than you are”.
Shabbir gives us in this book … a reflection of divine generosity – a primer for the refinement of character and personality
What Shabbir gives us in this book, which can only be described as a reflection of divine generosity, is a primer for the refinement of character and personality. Sufis have often described the refinement process as spiritual alchemy, meaning by this the transformation of base qualities of the self into the gold that is the divine goodness.
Within the context of contemporary South Africa, and the world at large, where human beings are struggling hard to make sense of their lives, where there is an overwhelming tide of materialism that threatens to overshadow human beings and fundamental truths, where wars devalue human lives, in such a context, this book should be read intently, for it is a book that nourishes the deepest and highest in human nature.
It is not coincidental that the man who has written this book is a beautiful human being, characterized by a profound gentleness and generosity of character, a true friend, a caring father and a loving husband. Neither is it coincidental that this is a book addressed to his two beautiful daughters, Ilhaam and Tazkiyah, or that Shabbir´s wife, Ruxanna, appears centrally positioned as an inspiration in one of his most important letters. Spiritual refinement and beauty of character is in the detail.Allah is in the detail, love is in the detail, beauty is in the detail – the spiritual journey is in the present.
I would like to end with the following hadith: “In the days of your time, Your Lord has fragrant blasts of mercy. Address yourself to them, so that you may be struck by one of them, never afterwards to be wretched”. Shabbir, my inspiring friend of the spirit, thank you for this fragrant blast of mercy. May we each address ourselves to it, be struck by it, never again to be wretched, inshallah(God willing)!
© Sa’diyya Shaikh. All rights reserved.