If you are Turkish, Afghan or Iranian, most likely you would consider your ‘bard’ to be Jalaluddin Muhammad Rumi the great poet and Imam who is buried in Konya, the capital of central Anatolia, Turkey. He was born in Balkh, Afghanistan but after migrating to Turkey where he settled and taught he wrote his twenty seven thousand couplet poetic masterpiece, the Mathnawi which was written in Persian. He died in 1273 CE and is buried in Konya in the most beautiful of maqams (pictured above) In recent times translations of this work have been made into every language of the world and which has seen Rumi become, in the case of North America, its best selling poet. (a manuscript from 1479 in Persian pictured below)
So, when given the opportunity to attend the well known Deen Intensive Rihla in Konya this past July, my wife and I jumped at the opportunity as there had to be something special waiting for us there. To most people who read this blog the words Rihla and Deen Intensive are probably well known but for those who just happen to have dropped in and don’t know, let me give you a brief explanation.
The Rihla was conceived back in 1995 in the USA by the well known teacher and translator, Hamza Yusuf (amongst others) as an opportunity for anyone who wanted to study, intensively in a residential situation, a selection of the traditional Islamic sciences with prominent scholars, over a three to four week period in the summer break and in an interesting venue. The scholars would teach in English and could give the students the best of their knowledge over a short time which would traditionally have entailed the student traveling over many years to different countries and gathering such knowledge, having first mastered Arabic of course, and enduring all the rigours that this would have demanded.
So it was designed for those whom a life devoted to scholarship would be impossible, but who were able shell out a fairly hefty sum to attend for this brief period. It has over these last 18 years proved a remarkable success and continues to attract 150-200 students of all ages every year from all over the world. The subjects covered every year would find their place in the curriculum of any self respecting seminary or university in the muslim universe and include Aqida, Qalam, Logic, Fiqh, Sira, Tajweed, Tasawwuf etc., * (see below for translation) and much more, but all embraced by the broad and luminous shariah. Shariah being a very much abused and misunderstood term in the Western universe who have confined it to amputations and similar cherry picked distortions. Appropriately its accurate translation is “the wide road that leads to an everlasting spring of water”, a special meaning for a desert dweller and also for the dweller in the modern desert of the western world desperate for the essential water of divine knowledge.
In the 1970s we used to go yearly to Morocco to attend great moussems and mawlids of singing, hadras and visiting living and dead saints and benefitting greatly but with little or no real study of what it all meant and why. Not that we could have sustained such study at the time. I have seen a common phenomenon in nascent muslim cultures in the west over the last 40 years or so of the tariqas or sufi brotherhoods and how they became the necessary starting points in countries where no Islam existed which was the case in point in London in 1970 when I opted in to this particular religion. It was like survival Islam and the brotherhoods (which was also a sisterhood in fact) helped concentrate study, practice and create a kind of social nexus in a town or city location (in London in my case). And for a few years we became Moroccans both in dress, culture and religious practice. But despite its outreach it remained quite insular and eventually fell foul of the usual problems of such communities: group think, mismanagement, economic collapse and after an exodus to Norfolk, complete disintegration into rancorous civil war.
I mention this because looking back I think it was a lack of a certain fundamental education that left no real foundation for any future growth although it sufficed for a time. Tasawwuf (sufism) was always one of the traditional sciences embedded in the shariah studied in Muslim seminaries going back over a thousand years to the time of Junayd who consolidated this knowledge and who is considered the Imam of this science. But our early education subsumed all other sciences under the rubric ‘tasawwuf‘ which is clearly incorrect. We were to be sufis more than anything else. The term tasawwuf has many translations but rectification and purification of the heart is the most useful. But it is only part of a spectrum of essential knowledge for the traveller on a spiritual journey. It deals with unravelling and cleansing the human heart of all its vices like envy, lying, idolatry, backbiting, arrogance and so on and in these times probably the most important initial medicine for people who enter Islam from the dominant culture.
But even a few hundred years ago the value of tariqas was called into question by such scholars and authentic teachers as Sidi Ahmad Zarruq who had in his lifetime seen tariqas become corrupted in different ways. In the late 1970s and early 1980s we saw the same thing happening in the UK. What was needed was a new sound basis for all of the Islamic sciences in which tasawwuf could take its proper place so that sincere seekers could be protected from charlatans and the latent cultishness and corruption of ‘groups’ of this kind – but still benefit from its core function.
Since the 1980s quite a few young men and women from the west have ventured into the traditional muslim world and have returned with authorised knowledges which they have set about teaching. This is where we come back to the notion of the Rihla which means essentially “traveling for divine knowledge”. This is where the overview of knowledge so much needed can be established in a kind of roving university that the Rihla is. In the past it has tempted gifted students to take this kind of study much further and who have become qualified teachers themselves.
Much as I know that tariqas have fulfilled a vital service in conserving this teaching down the centuries, something I have benefitted from personally, I can see how some have become unfit for purpose and have trapped their devotees in cults which deny them the bigger picture in which both men and women can advance in the acquisition of sacred knowledge and spiritual growth. In traditional societies there were many scholars, muftis, qadis and faqihs in circulation to keep the balance and to counsel sufi shaykhs if they got out of line…and in fact to counsel anyone from kings to the common man — something lacking in western cultures till recently. Remember that the great lights of muslim history, Imams Al-Ghazali and Jalaluddin Rumi and in my own time the great Moroccan teacher and poet Muhammad ibn Al- Habib who passed away in 1971 at a great age (shortly after we met him), were first and foremost great ulema, masters and teachers of outward formal knowledge. It’s worth reflecting that Ibn al-Habib was teaching these sciences in the Karoueen Mosque in Fes in 1900!
So this Rihla in Konya for us was very beneficial, albeit for a week, and was as illuminating as weeks of singing and dancing in Morocco 40 years ago. It was filling all the big gaps that my initial introduction to Islam and Sufism had left me with. The content of Rihlas from this year and last year can be viewed online at DeenIntensive.com so you can ascertain yourself what it was all about. Viewing on-line is not the same as being physically present but nonetheless is very beneficial. Its strong web presence is a symbol of its relevance in the digital universe but with its feet firmly in the ground of person to person teaching. Receiving knowledge from teachers authorised to teach from an isnad of authorised teachers is very different from instruction from auto-didacts who have constructed what they teach from books and knowledge gleaned from unauthorised sources and who make false claims as to their authority. What is most refreshing at these Rihlas is being in the company of people who sought no identity or distinction in the group, in their name, their clothes or what sat on their heads other than being muslims and sincere seekers of knowledge. And how after only a week you can closely bond with people you have never met before and how your whole interior perspective can be changed and refreshed. It really puts the holy back into holiday.
“Travel, that ye may gain advantage” (Rumi)
* Approximate translations of the terms above of a sample of Sharia sciences:
Aqida: belief; what we can believe and cannot believe about God. (Imams ‘Ashari and Maturidi)
Qalam: literally speech; theology, deeper knowledge of Aqida
Fiqh: jurisprudence / sacred law. (Imams Malik, Shafi’i, Hanafi & ibn Hanbal)
Tasawwuf: sufism; spiritual purification and illumination of the heart. (Imam Junaid)
Sira: life of the Prophet
Tajweed: correct Qur’anic recitation and pronounciation