Chapter 1: My Journey from Faith to Doubt -3-

I immersed myself in religion from head to toe. I would spend all my spare time in prayer and worship and attending “thikr” circles (religious gatherings where the names of God and pious prayers and phrases are recited together as a group, which is led by the sheikh). I would only leave one Islamic lecture or sermon in a mosque in order to attend another one, so that I could gather knowledge from all angles and from the correct places, and so that I could be a good example and a role model for others.

After the death of my father, I suffered the misfortune of having to study under a group of scholars in al-Madinah so as to preserve the “sacred knowledge” (فيرشلا ملعلا) that I had inherited from my father and a long line of Sheikhs (Sufi orders generally have long “chains” of teachers who pass on knowledge from one to another). It was feared that this knowledge might be lost to my family, which had been its guardian for the last 500 years, at least. So, I took on the whole of my duty in preaching, guiding, ordering good and forbidding evil. I did this especially at Friday prayers and all the religious festivals, and even on some non-religious occasions.

With me ended the pious ancestors, for I was the last in the chain of servants of the “sacred knowledge” in my family. I was the last fruit of the tree which for so long provided Damanhur with scholars, fuqaha, preachers, judges, Imams and authors in the many “wirds” (Sufi gatherings where portions of the Qur’ān are read along with the chanting of the names of God with various prayers and invocations) and “thikr” gatherings, and many other gatherings where religious knowledge was shared. However, it doesn’t appear that anyone from my family is eager to repair that chain that ended with me. Indeed, religion has become stale goods these days—and I seek refuge with God Most High!

Then, to cap it all, I joined al-Azhar, The Most Luminous (رونلأا), and received the “sacred” knowledge in it. Oh, how many times they pursued me there and insisted on the necessity of wearing the turban and the kaftan! God be praised. How long I suffered them both while adorning them with a thick beard and a scary face! I do, however, have some fond memories of my sheikhs and old colleagues, the flowers of al-Azhar—may God be pleased with them and benefit us by their baraka. They were the treasure of treasures. The heart and the soul.

But the truth is that I was mostly very disappointed with the studies at al-Azhar. For that reason, I decided to leave in the third year, a year before my graduation. I wasn’t sorry. Many advised me at the time to complete my drama-filled, ill-fated studies in order to obtain my diploma in empty disputations and meaningless discourses and contentions. They said that, with that diploma, I could enter the third year in the Faculty of Literature at King Fuad I University (now known as Cairo University).

That was in the early 40’s, during the time of Sheikh Mustafa al-Maraghi. But I had had enough of their studies to the extent that I couldn’t take any more. I had wasted three years of my life for nothing. So why add a fourth year for no other reason than to obtain an elegantly-printed, colourful document that, though visually pleasing, would be of worthless import, useless content, and meagre substance? It would constantly remind me of the wasted days and empty times, of frustrated hopes and extreme misery.

So it was a divorce of three pronouncements, and we went our separate ways, even though I was affiliated with the highest faculty of Azhar’s faculties at the time, and they were the closest to my soul. It was the faculty of Usul al-Din in Shubra…but al-Azhar is al-Azhar!

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The Belief Phase

On my face is the mark that one cannot miss. (4) It is the first of my features that stands out. It is that feature that the Noble Qur’ān refers to when it says, “Their mark is on their faces from the trace of prostration.” It sums up a lifetime of prayer, tahajjud, tears, reverence, worship, repentance, seeking forgiveness, striving, and self-accounting.

I used to take great solace from prayer; it was my very lifeblood. In it, I could open my heart, bare my soul, and comfort my spirit. My heart was deeply attached to God: it was never inattentive of Him, unable to bear parting from Him, and always poised to receive His light.

Indeed, I loved the spirit of mysticism and devotional gatherings that embodies Sufism. I felt that they carried me to the outermost heights of ecstasy, where I could glimpse a vision of the heavenly kingdom. These were as blessed moments that I could snatch from the depths of time. When in this state, I felt I was embraced by an overwhelming sensation that eloquence cannot convey, that ties the tongue and causes words to stumble on the lips.

I have vainly tried to pierce through this brilliant light that explodes all things, or to become one with it, or to just be an atom in that glistening silver, that pearly white star. (5) There, pure crystal lakes fill open horizons. Soft, from its apex, a river cascades, sparkling with light, acting as a mirror in which one could not only see one’s face, but the universe and time. The processions of ages and epochs.

In this radiant arena, I stand dazed and bewildered. I am filled with feelings of overwhelming heartbreak and sorrow, for I am neither an artist nor a poet that could record what I am experiencing of euphoria and joy. But who knows? Perhaps even if I had been an inspired poet, the right words that I spent years mastering would still have been hard to find, and would have slipped away in a moment.

It is no wonder, for perhaps it was the nature of that pure, spiritual beauty, that timeless and heavenly vision, to leave me tongue-tied, about which the most eminent doctors could do nothing. In fact, this is what happened in reality, for there is that which no eye has seen, nor ear heard; there is that which has never occurred to the mind of man. And many of the things that do occur to the mind of man defy description. So what about those things that cannot occur to the mind, which are not within his sphere of knowledge or understanding? In short, those spiritual states (تلااح) that manifested themselves to me in moments of ecstasy are not things that occur to any rational mind, so he who seeks to express them is seeking the impossible!

The ecstatic state would only last a few moments, and then I would soon recover my senses. I would wake up from my state as though I had fainted, and my foot would slip as I got up from my place. The real world would appear as though it was reflected by a rusty mirror, as though it were full of wickedness. This divine beauty that I had witnessed had pierced my heart and returned me to the pure nature with which God had created me, and had thrust me back to the pristine nature by the way of the horizons that are open to Sufism and the world of the soul. With all of this came humility, tears, seclusion and self-denial, the immersion of the heart in the remembrance of God, and the emptying oneself of worldly pursuits.

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(4) This mark is believed by many to be a visible mark on the forehead that appears due to the friction from repeatedly prostrating in prayer.

(5) In this passage, the author is describing his ecstatic experiences as a follower of a Sufi Tariqa. The phrase “Pearly white star” is from Qur’ān 24:35 – the famous “Verse of Light” that describes God as enclosed within layer upon layer of light. It is much loved by Sufis and Muslim mystics. The faithful at thikr gatherings seek to lose themselves in the light of God and achieve – even for a moment – the ideal of Fana’, which is “destroying/dissolving” the self and then ultimately Baqa’, “remaining” i.e. being part of the Eternal One, other than which nothing exists.

(6)
The Saviour from Error and the Joiner to the Might of the Magnificent by Al-Ghazali, page 103.

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