2016-06-30
Excerpted from "Why I am a Muslim" with permission of ThorsonsElement, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers UK.

When I was 19 years old, I was a first year student at Wellesley College. I lived in a dormitory neighboring our campus lake that shimmered even on the coldest New England winter days. The tradition was that if your beau accompanied you on a walk around the lake three times he must then ask you to marry him. If he didn't, you were free, even under Wellesley etiquette, to push him into the lake. In nearby Green Hall, I would attend my first college class (of many) on Islam. The woman who would later become my advisor was lecturing us on Islamic mysticism.

The Sufis, she told us, were Muslim mystics--poets, musicians, artists, writers and others-who had a deep love for God. They first emerged in the mid-eighth century in response to the then-Muslim leadership's focus on political affairs. The Sufis wanted to remember Muhammad's emphasis on unity and brotherhood with members of other religions. The Sufis also longed to be with God, and they felt that no one really understood them the way God did. The artistically inclined ones would work themselves up into ecstatic raptures-through dance or poetry.

The famous thirteenth-century Sufi poet Rumi once compared himself to a reed growing by a lake that was ripped from the ground to be used as a reed-flute. Beautiful sounds came out of the reed, which resonated with each listener, capturing their own personal feelings. But the reed wanted to be back in the earth, near the lake. "Like the reed," my teacher told us, "Rumi wanted to be returned to God. His love for God was that strong."


Hearing that poem for the first time, I both understood it and didn't. When I left class that day, I felt as if I were seeing everything for the first time. I saw the fingerprints of God everywhere--in every tree leaf, in the blades of grass and even in the glow of the lake. Some Sufis say that they are actually in love with God and that only God knows them intimately. Once you realize, as Sufis do, that God is in everything, you can't help but always look for Him.

Sufism is the mystical attitude or phenomenon within Islam. It is probably the aspect of Islam that is most attractive to non-Muslims because, generally, Sufism espouses a philosophy of listening to one's heart and emotions to feel the presence of God, rather than, for instance, focusing on strict rules. While all mystical traditions are experiencing a renaissance these days, like the Kabbalah movement of Judaism and the tradition of Catholic mysticism, Sufism has been a catalyst in the Islamic world since it arrived on the scene. Its message is clear and spare, minimalist almost: focus on God.

Every time I am confronted by Sufism's clarity--whether through a Rumi poem or a Sufi folk song--I am stunned by it and seduced by its simplicity and single-minded focus on the one God. Sufism is not a specific sect or branch of Islam but actually cuts through all the various schools and sects. As a result, one can be a Sunni Muslim and also Sufi or an African-American Muslim who holds Sufi ideals and so on. One of my reviewers for this book, Dr. Maher Hathout, who is a scholar of the Qur'an, remarked after reading this chapter, "As a matter of fact, there is a Sufi inside every believing Muslim." Furthermore, while the essence of Sufism is the same from Sufi to Sufi, individual Sufi orders maintain different practices and traditions for worship, passed down for hundreds of years.

The converts to Islam I meet these days either converted because of the lyrics of avowed Muslim rappers like Mos Def or Q-Tip or because of Sufism. They'll tell me how they found a book of poetry by Rumi or Hafiz (another famous Sufi poet, who lived about one hundred years after Rumi) and became immediately hooked. In fact, since the beginning of the Sufi movement, Sufism has assisted the spread of Islam.

Contrary to widespread popular belief, Islam was not really spread by the sword--most Muslim leaders including Muhammad abhorred forced conversion. The Qur'an itself says, "Let there be no compulsion in religion," (2:256) and in my experience, Muslims do not engage in missionary activity. (Judaism has a similar prohibition on missionary activities) However, one could say that Islam was spread by Sufism--not in all areas of the Islamic world, but certainly in South and Central Asia. Muslim conquerors might have gained power in a certain area, but the appeal of the emotion-guided Sufis actually caused the locals to convert or to become more devout Muslims. Even near-illiterate Pakistani rickshaw drivers can sing a Rumi poem to you while they transport you in their colorful conveyance. In South Asia, it is not even uncommon to find a Hindu or Christian praying at the shrine of a Sufi saint; the appeal of Sufism is so strong that it stretched beyond formal religious boundaries years ago.

The Sufi Guide to Living

A few years after graduating from Wellesley I found myself back in New England--this time at Harvard. I had been asked to appear on a panel at a conference on Islam in America and there sitting next to me, on the end of the panel, was the Sufi Shaykh Taner Ansari, who is the author of a book called The Sun Will Rise in the West: The Holy Trail and has a Sufi school in Napa, California. I knew he was a Sufi because he was dressed funny. (At Muslim gatherings, you can usually spot the Sufi shaykh. He's the one who looks like he's dressed in costume).


Shaykh Taner had on a waist-length black robe that he had wrapped around himself and tied with a waistband of the same fabric. He also had a matching prayer cap on his head. His robe and cap were made of wool-the same wool the Sufis were named after.

In the ninth century, a group of Muslims, like this Shaykh, had begun wearing the coarse woolen garments Muhammad is known to have worn. They wanted to emulate the Prophet Muhammad, not only because he is a model Muslim and person, but also because the community felt they had lost touch with his example, focusing too much on politics and strict practice of Islam. Muhammad was religious, but, they felt, he did not focus on rules and regulation. To them, the still young Muslim community was focusing on these rules to the detriment of the inner spiritual development Muhammad had perfected. Muhammad wore tasawwuf, which was a kind of wool, because the poor people of the time wore the same wool. Muhammad wanted to show that all Muslims and all people-rich or poor-lived and worshipped as equals. To symbolize their connection with what they felt were the original goals and mission of the Prophet, this group wore the tasawwuf fabric, and, from tasawwuf, the word "sufi" was derived.

Shaykh Taner was very fair and had light blue eyes. He was an older man and was so calm that, at first, I was uncomfortable. When the time came for his speech, Shaykh Taner was suddenly invigorated. The mild-mannered Sufi had become the hyper active speaker. It was a good thing he spoke behind a podium because otherwise all his energy might have hurtled him forward and into the audience. My speech came next. I was introduced as the "Muslim Feminist Cowgirl." I spoke about the reaction to my first book and how the American Muslim community needed to be more unified and less critical of each other.

After we had all spoken, the entire panel moved outside where those in the audience could meet us and ask questions.

"How dare you say that you are a Muslim feminist?" a young American Muslim woman in a turban-like hijab and skintight jeans was yelling at me. I was quite surprised to be the object of the clear scorn she had. She felt that the phrase "Muslim feminist" was redundant since Islam already incorporated the principles of feminism. To call myself a "Muslim feminist" would give non-Muslims the impression that feminism did not exist in Islam. She did have a point, I thought. So I said to her that I only use the title so that non-Muslims will know that one can be a feminist and a Muslim at the same time. I did not mean to take anything away from Islam. She was not satisfied though, and I wondered if she expected me to yell back at her.

"Listen, she has heard what you are saying. You are welcome to write your own book. Now let that be the end of it," Shaykh Taner's slightly accented voice had piped in. He had been sitting next to me, listening to this woman for as long as I had, but I had no idea he cared. I realized the Shaykh was on to something. To her endless barrage, I just kept saying, "You heard him. I encourage you to write your own book." Finally, my fan gave up and left. I didn't need to yell back so much as defuse.

At that very moment, the conference organizer began telling us that the last shuttle van from the Science Center would be leaving soon. It was evening and a cold March in Cambridge, and I did not want to miss the shuttle off the massive Harvard campus.

"Don't let it go without me," I yelled back at the organizer, who was already busy with something else.

"Don't worry," the Shaykh said to me gently. "You will have a ride home." I wanted to say, "Thanks for the rescue back there, but I don't think I can count on God to find me a ride to my hotel, Shaykh." But something about his demeanor told me not to say anything. I still had people waiting to talk to me about my speech, and the Shaykh's student and his wife were beginning to gather up his things.

I had already left myself in the hands of a man whom I didn't know at all. He would periodically look back at me, hold his palm up at me the way a crossing guard would, and say, "Don't worry. We are not going anywhere." I finally finished speaking with everyone, and I realized that the Shaykh and his group, which included another speaker, were waiting for me. We all headed off to the small car of a student of the Shaykh's and sped off to the hotel. The Shaykh had kept his promise to me and didn't once complain that I had delayed his departure by nearly forty minutes.

Shaykh Taner writes in his book that a true Sufi should be of such a nature that when you are around him, you forget your troubles--that the Sufi takes on your problems for you. Furthermore, because the shaykh himself is at peace, he will not appear to be troubled by your troubles, but you will have the benefit of being freed from them.

I had Guatemalan Worry Dolls when I was little, which served a similar function, albeit on a much smaller scale. They came in a little plywood container not much bigger than a quarter. They were tiny little stick figures, probably made of a paper mache-type substance and dressed in tiny, bright clothes made of hot pink, white, and yellow string. As the legend goes, you would tell each doll one of your problems just before you went to sleep and leave it out of the container. As you slept, the doll would work on your problem for you. Guatemalan spiritualists and Sufis probably both know that, in time, most problems resolve themselves, especially if you can unburden yourself of them enough to focus on how to solve the problem rather than worry about it.


Shaykh Taner--whom I had never met before and who had no reason to assist me-had taken my problems away from me. The Sufi way to deal with the young women with the strident comments was not to yell or engage in a shouting match, but simply to say thank you and acknowledge her comments. The Sufi way to help another is not to fuss or draw attention to your assistance, but simply to help. In one evening, Shaykh Taner had helped me twice, and without any heavy lifting. When the time came for him to be hyper, in delivering his speech, he was able to tap into the reserve of energy a Sufi has. A Sufi is guided by his emotions, but he never lets his emotions control him. He controls them for maximum effect when needed. If you could be a person like that, wouldn't you?

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