Twenty years ago when I arrived in Fes, I discovered my visa was running out for Spain and since I had to travel to Germany by land to catch my flight home I disappointedly boarded the next bus to Ceuta the following morning. I spent the night in the Ville Nouvelle, I did not see the old city. I did not see Fes. And it always seemed like unfinished business.
When we stepped off the train in Fes from Casablanca and took a taxi to the ancient medina it was a moment of sheer elation. After so many years of longing, we were finally there. Fes medina is now filled with luxury riads and I was tempted to choose a middle range one simply because we might never have that opportunity again to sleep in such a resplendent sign of our tradition. We were met at one of the many gates and taken to our destination by a man with a cart, red faced and puffed after what seemed like a sprint through the labyrinth alleys of the medina. The ancient medina is a car free zone, only accessible by foot or donkey.
Before you arrive in Fes everyone warns you that you will require a guide. It is impossible to find your way around at first because all the alleyways look the same and it is difficult to find any markers of landscape. I thought we were adventurous enough to try it without a guide but after our first day in which we walked in circles and did not find any of the landmarks we were looking for I decided to be a sensible tourist and do what we were told.
Considering it was only three days since we had left Australia the impact of visiting these places is very difficult to put into words. It was just overwhelmingly beautiful. It seemed fitting that we started with Masjid Moulay Idriss II because he was the founder of the city and the son of Sheikh Moulay Idriss I who is considered the Father of Morocco. It seemed that through greeting him, it was like greeting the whole country and it’s rich history and honouring the beauty that brought me into Islam in the first place. As I was standing in the courtyard I heard a voice cry out ‘Marhaba Hajja!’ and I turned and realised an old man was talking to me so I in a somewhat startled voice replied ‘shukran/thankyou’ to which he said ‘Yes! Shukran!’ and went back to sweeping the fountain. Later I discovered that H had taken a photograph of him at some point during our visit.
It was locked but there was a phone number on the door and my guide rang the number and soon a woman came and opened the door. My camera battery died the moment she opened the door. We entered into a lovely courtyard filled with fruit trees, it was still a family home tended by his descendants.
I think my expectation got the better of me on this visit, I had longed to visit here for so many years that to be standing there and with a rather stroppy ten year old, just left me not knowing what to do. It was only when we left and I thanked the woman and took her hand that those expectations just dissolved briefly and with tears in our eyes we said goodbye and stepped back outside the courtyard walls. She invited us back for the Thursday night dhikr but I had no idea how we would find our way there alone in the dark as it was quite a long way from where we were staying.
That night I lay on the bed in my room and imagined the dhikr that was occurring and how much I longed to be there. And I thought about how that was such a common theme in my experience, sometimes being so close to these things yet not being able to partake. And I stared up towards the incredibly high ceiling in the room and it felt as if we were sleeping in the very heart of the universe.
Fes felt like the heart of the world and I was so grateful to be there.
The following day we found our way back to Al Qarawiyyin for the Jama’a prayer. To be able to pray Jama’a beside the courtyard was a wonderful experience. And something we returned to do again when we visited Fes for the second time just before returning to Australia. The second time with my lovely friend M who had come from Belgium for us to be able to meet in Fes!
And still, every Friday now, I transport myself back here in my memory.
The film Fez – City of Saints is available to watch on Youtube.
If a man could grasp the bliss of his secret
he would shed a tear with every breath he breathed.
Sheikh Muhammad ibn al Habib, Diwan
When we arrived in Meknes I had no idea where the Zawia was but after some quick messaging to my friend in Edinburgh we worked out that it was just around the corner. I was so grateful for these instructions because the entrance is not marked and there is no way we would have found it without them.
We entered through the narrow alleyway and into the main room. After visiting Sidi Ali al Jamal in Fez I was again struck by the simplicity of the Darqawi Zawia’s in comparison with the opulence of some of the more famous Sufi orders. The space was empty except for an old man seated by the foot of Sheikh Muhammad ibn al Habib’s grave. We gave salams and as poor H was still feeling sick we asked if we could use the bathroom. The old man who was both blind and deaf led us to the door and unlocked it for us.
A little later we sat down on a majlis area and H fell asleep.
The old man started reciting from the Diwan of Sheikh Muhammad ibn al Habib.
This is a very special place.
Later H woke and it was time to pray maghrib. The old man made the call to prayer and a younger man who obviously loved him very much joined him. We prayed with them and then H asked to go home.
I really longed to know who the man was, to know his name. The whole experience had been wonderful. Because I am not connected to any groups where there is an actual physical presence between teacher and student these kinds of events are enormously significant to me. They are impossible to write about and there is no need really other than as a marker of gratitude and a means of recording details for later times when the memories may not be as clear.
Later back in Australia and scrolling through Facebook I suddenly saw a photograph of the old man and I was delighted to find out his name.
From Signs on the Horizons (THE CARETAKER)
I first met Sidi Ali in 1973 and heard this story from his lips. He was living in the zawiya, helping Sidi l’Ayyashi to take care of the premises. When Sidi l’Ayyashi passed away during the 1980s, Sidi Ali became the guardian of the zawiya. Completely illiterate, he has memorized large parts of the Qur’an and the entirety of the Diwan of Mohamed ibn Al Habib in addition to many Prophetic traditions, wisdom sayings and odes from the Sufis. He’s now totally blind and mostly deaf. He carries a card from the Moroccan government certifying that he is officially indigent (miskeen) that entitles him to beg, which he sometimes does when the guests in the zawiya need to be fed and there is no money. He flashes this card with a mischievous laugh. When I saw him in 1981, he told me proudly and with a chuckle, as if he had achieved the impossible, “You know, I got married.”
I don’t have permission to post the photograph but it doesn’t matter because not so long after this I finally purchased a copy of The Meaning of Man and there amongst the photographs he was again.
It is the nature of life that our choices will always be frowned upon by someone somewhere, we cannot please everyone, I remind myself of this when I am feeling that squashed and uncomfortable sense of being pushed into explanation and defence.
Now that I am on the cusp of middle age I have little patience for those obsessed by identity, those people who cannot step outside their own perception for long enough to meet you with non judgment. As a previous agnostic conditioned against religious communities I have had to strive really hard to not encounter all religious people as narrow minded and rigid so I know how identity and conditioning works. But it is just sheer laziness and arrogance to remain within these habits. But more importantly it is about fear.
For most of us the ground upon which we walk is our perception which is motivated by concepts of identity. Our perception is framed by our biographical data, how we have been taught to think or how we have forged our own journeys through reaction. The most striking thing about perception is that (unless we are a Buddhist) it is unlikely that we will frame our perception around a ground that is no ground. We purposely create a solid ground of ideals and notions. Very few people are willing to venture beyond this solid ground of identity. Yet our inflexibility causes so many problems. People blame religion for war but it is not religion that is at fault but identity. Similarly much of the power mongering in the world occurs through the attempt of one group to monopolise resources and wealth in order to strengthen its identity at the expense of another. The biggest problem we face in the modern world is one of rigid identity.
As a spiritual practise Sufism teaches me to move beyond identity yet this is juxtaposed against a backdrop of a wider religious community for whom identity is everything. And the more uncertain and hostile the environment becomes the more we cling to what we think we are.
There is no area in which I find the grasp of identity more difficult to avert than the area of dress. Whatever I wear or don’t wear will signify something to someone. And often we engage in a purposeful interplay of signifiers in order to control the way we want to be perceived. We dress the part. Muslim women find themselves in a precarious position in which we cannot back off from our dress having some kind of significance. Men largely have much less to worry about.
There are numerous ways I have tried to subvert this enforced significance. By ignoring it and by just doing my own thing and exploring what felt comfortable and interesting and meaningful to me. Yet as a perceptive person who notices all kinds of little visual cues I found ignoring the responses and perceptions of others difficult. Islam as a faith can swallow you whole, it has an incredibly powerful historical tradition which entering from outside without the softening of a cultural conditioning can be completely overwhelming. There are hundreds of rules and an enormous body of dogma which upon exploration uncovers pulses of life where dogma is not just dogma but a lived and powerful system. But discovering which is which is a life work. It can all be too much.
The exploration of the historical tradition can situate us very much inside our heads which defeats the purpose of a spiritual tradition in the first place. It is primarily a system of alchemy and behavioural change. The dogma and identity politics can be a complete distraction from the primary function of the faith, that is the whole point of it all is not being a Muslim in the way that the vast majority of people consider it, as an identity. The point is to know God and God operates in that place of non ground.
The Path to God is littered with the bones of those
who did not remember who they were looking for,
or how great beyond all seeking, concepts,
imaginations and realizations,
He, God Always Is….
If we are making ourselves significant through identity we make this ground forbidden to us.
Traditionally speaking the way a Muslim dresses is important but the characteristics at the heart of Muslim dress are modesty and dignity and lack of personal significance.
A headscarf as a function of this modesty and dignity is very much a part of the tradition but the problem that we face today is that a headscarf brings with it notoriety and significance, it makes us stand out. And no matter what our intention is or no matter how we try to treat it we cannot avoid this significance.
When I wore a face veil I became really acquainted with what is beautiful about it, far from the impressions it leaves in the minds of people I was able to sense how it has been worn as part of our historical tradition and what it meant for women in the past. As a cloak of insignificance allowing women to go about their daily affairs blanketed in Rahma (all encompassing compassion), this is how it felt. And these are unpopular ideas and we are made fools for mentioning them but women need to own their own experience. But regardless of any of this it is not something that can be worn without a great fuss, without significance making. And to a lesser extent a headscarf does the same thing.
Many women wear a headscarf specifically as a marker of identity but what does this omnipresent marker of significance mean for those of us who wear one but who want to merge into the unassuming and not be tied to specific interpretations of identity?
For a long time I have resisted my desire to just be done with it because I have worried that I am simply desiring a return to a more uncomplicated identity, a return to an unblemished white privilege and a world in which I didn’t experience any racial vilification. Because I do recognise the reality of veiling in Islamic tradition and I am not turning away from it in meaning, just in practicality. I can’t help but want to turn away from it in terms of lived experience, to turn away from the significance making and the grasp of identity.
In Morocco I felt totally comfortable and insignificant because it is still a norm but more than that in Morocco I didn’t feel alienated from the identity at large. Moroccan Islam is my Islam, outwardly it is an identity that leads to no identity, it is a practise and an utterly beautiful one. But Islam in Australia feels stifling.
Whatever I do will mean something to someone. To take it off even just for a day signifies something to someone somewhere, to keep it on signifies something else. But I have never believed in a spiritual hierarchy of dress, no matter what I have worn. The only time the grasp of such judgmentalism took hold of me was in the months after a near death experience when the reality of no ground was just overwhelming and I wasn’t ready to take step and trust beyond concepts. And this dogmatic character was short-lived thankfully.
This year I really hope to just stop worrying so much about the perceptions of others and to stop making excuses for people who are trapped within the limited thinking of identity and prioritising their feelings over my own. We are all trapped like this to an extent but to attempt to enforce our perceptions over those of another is an act of discourtesy, no matter what it is we are doing. This does not mean that there are not specifics of morality but it is how we approach it that matters.
Whilst I may be lacking in patience for people wrapped up in identity, I am not lacking love and compassion because I know that what motivates them is fear. And their fear is like my fear.
But in Islam taqwa/God conciousness is half fear, half love.
And the challenge is to not let our necessary fear cause us to grasp and make a ground out of non ground.
But to surrender.
don’t become unconscious
in words and treasures
in ceremonies and materials.
don’t become a collector
of signposts and maps
of pointers and rules.
When the door is opened
don’t just stand there
staring at the open doorway!
There comes a time
when nothing is meaningful
except surrendering to love.
At the very top of Jabal Alam ( a mountain) is the shrine of Sheikh ibn Mashish, said by many to be the Grandather of Moroccan Sufism and one of the great Sheikhs of the Shadhili Darqawi Path.
This is a place I wanted to visit for a very long time. One of his grandson’s founded the town of Chefchaouen, the blue city that I fell in love with so intensely almost twenty years ago.
I wondered how we would get to the top of the mountain, I was nervous about just hiring a grand taxi and travelling a remote mountain road with few people and only wild cows for company! It seemed a bit reckless. But as it turned out, I need not have worried, one of the young men who worked in the place I stayed in Chaouen was from the town of Moulay Abdesselam and when I asked him about how to get there (not realising it was his family’s home town) he was very happy to be able to take us. So we travelled safely and later had lunch with his family in the town.
It was a really wonderful day and serves as inspiration for me now that I am back in the ordinary. There were difficulties that I now realise were really blessings. We set out with good intentions making sure to have wudu/ablution (ritual purity) but I lost it and after a series of events ended up at the summit without it.
Such a beautiful place. I need miracles. In my ordinary life my faith can fluctuate so much. At times when my faith is poor I remember these experiences. The summit of this mountain is an outpouring of beauty. I thought the trip was a disaster and I gave up all my expectations and I gazed out over the village below.
Then all encompassing Mercy, the most indescribable drenching in wonder, it is impossible to put into words and I only record it because of my struggles with faith. There is immense barakah in places like this and once experienced it can’t be forgotten no matter how stale we may become.
Our time at the top of the mountain was brief, we stopped by a roadside stall to buy some meat and then Muhammad took us to have lunch with his family. I sat with his aunt Aisha in this little dark room that looked out across the supremely beautiful vista across the mountains. I was quite overcome by the whole event and I couldn’t help but cry. I still cry thinking about it now that it seems so many lifetimes away.
The other day I came across the story of when Imam Shadhili first encountered Sheikh ibn Mashish and although I had read the story before I had not recalled the section about ablution. Reading it recently I was just overcome by gratitude and that incredible awe that you feel when you realise the marvellous patterns that God weaves in our lives. Some would call it coincidence but I don’t see it that way.
He went forward in reverence and awe to meet his Master, who greeted him with the words, “Have you made ablution (wudu)?” When Abu al-Hasan answered him saying, “Yes,” he was told, “You cannot come to us in a state of impurity. Return and make wudu.” So Abu al-Hasan returned to the bottom of the mountain, remade his ablution and climbed again to its top, and having reached the presence of the Shaykh, asked him if he would accept him as his student.
The Shaykh replied, “I told you to return when you had purified yourself with the ablution.” Once again Abu al-Hasan returned to the bottom of the mountain with the question for his rejection turning in his heart, until he was shown what was necessary for him to do, because he came to realize the meaning of this initial trial and test, and the depth of the purification which it was necessary for him to make before he could enter into the Path of Allah with this holy Shaykh.
This time, as he made his ablution, he emptied himself of everything that he knew, or thought he knew, or that he had learned and taken in from other teachers, and he destroyed all his attributes, pictures, and prejudices, until he knew that he was left with only a vast space of nothingness inside him which was waiting to be filled. He was now totally surrendered to whatever this Master, whom he desired with all his being, would send him.
He climbed once more to the top of the mountain, but before he reached its summit he was met by the Master who greeted him by pronouncing his full line of descent back to the Prophet Muhammad, may prayers and peace be upon him.
The Shaykh now embraced him with the deep Love of acceptance. He could find no words with which to return the greeting, but the Master said to him, “If you wish to fetch water, you take an empty bucket to the well to do so. A full bucket has no room for water.” With these words he took his beloved student by the hand and filled him to overflowing with the holy Water.
Afterwards Abu al-Hasan said: “Allah! I have washed myself of my knowledge and my actions so that I do not recognize any knowledge or action except what comes to me by the hand of this Shaykh.”
The knowledge of this ablution has become the habitual practice (sunna) for all those of this holy Path who have followed after him, because it is the only way to reach the knowledge of the Reality, and the Light from that meeting continues to pour out without ceasing to both the East and the West.