a community of lovers
Didn’t I say, don’t sit with sad companions?
Don’t sit with anyone but those whose hearts are glad.
Since you are in the garden, don’t go to thorns.
Sit amidst the roses, jonquils, and jasmine.
[Divan-e Shams-e Tabrizi: 1518, tr. by Kabir and Camille Helminski, The Rumi Daybook]
In November last year, I was out in Didsbury Village posting a flyer for the Urs Celebrations (Rumi’s Circle were to hold the following month) on the outdoor community notice board. Here, I encountered a beautiful woman perhaps in her 60s. Her hair was made golden by the bright Autumn sun, her eyes a bright beautiful blue reflecting the crisp wide sky. She was smartly and warmly attired, and beamed me a bright smile…
She quizzed me about the event. I explained to her that Rumi was a deeply spiritual poet and learned individual who taught of the centrality of love to the spiritual path, and the unity of all creation. The event was an opportunity to celebrate his life. She smiled in response and a conversation began.
Our talk spanned the cynicism in the modern world about love, the seeds of discontent sewn by those in power, and all that it seems we have lost. Words about loss of community (I learned that she lives alone), our inherent interconnectedness, her belief in our inherent goodness, and the value of all human beings tripped from her lips.
Then her voice became hushed and she told me quietly that she and others were afraid. “The things we hear in the media… We haven’t seen anything done like this before by religion,” she said.
I instinctively knew what she was talking about and felt a sadness rise within me as I remembered the victims and the fear I could sense in her voice. She told me that she was Christian and someone in her church community had been personally affected by the atrocities that had been unfolding in Iraq. She apologised for assuming that I was a Muslim.
I could see she didn’t hold me accountable for these actions but I felt also a desire in her to hear me explain away these horrific acts.
I searched for an appropriate response. It felt right to stay away from defensive statements about Islam or from pointing to other atrocities committed in the name of religion by non-Muslims, as others in a defensive posture might (the actions of one group never justifies the actions of others in any case). It also didn’t feel appropriate to offer my concerns on the geo-political factors at play… and so I offered some words from my heart placing my hands gingerly over hers: ‘Most of us from Islamic faith backgrounds also find ourselves struck with horror at such occurrences and can understand your fear, and even feel it ourselves. Such acts are alien to our understanding of Islam and our belief in a loving Creator.’
I saw in her eyes that seemed so alive with spirit that she was reassured a little by my words, and so our discussion continued. We talked with sensitivity and care about what drives such acts: of anger as frustrated love, of the untruths pedalled by those we have trusted with power. I felt we truly met each other in that moment not as a Muslim or a Christian but in our primary relationship as human beings who care about their world.
She also moved on to acknowledge the small acts of kindness that she had experienced from Muslims too. The door being held open, offers to carry her bags, friendly exchanges, hospitality and generosity. She said how these little acts had made her question that the perpetrators of such violence could also be Muslim.
It reminded me that even the harm caused by the gravest atrocities can be healed with small acts, though it hardly seems possible at times. This filled me with the hope, the idea that even a tiny step of kindness can actually create such goodwill and open hearts. Perhaps this is because human beings are thirsty for that kindness and connection with others.
My new friend told me she was often disappointed with friends who were educated and who still jumped to negative conclusions about Muslims. I offered it to her that perhaps the small acts of kindness that we had discussed, and she had experienced, might also change their perceptions. She smiled at the possibility.
I began writing this reflection in November and I never quite got round to posting it. Last Friday however, I was reminded of this exchange, as I sat at a writers meeting in a library in Chorlton where the theme of the writings shared was ‘Hate Crime’ (in support of a local authority campaign). I sat with a heavy heart as I heard the poetry and short stories of a predominately Muslim group expressing very real hurt and fear due to the increased attacks on Muslims following recent events in Paris, and the proposed counter terrorism legislation which it is feared will be used against the Muslim community.
Women who wear the hijab now think twice about where they should risk travelling alone, mothers worry about their children, twitter feeds are bursting with abuse. The writings brought to mind Shylock’s speech in The Merchant of Venice: ‘Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons…If you prick us, do we not bleed?’ There is fear on all sides, being pedalled by various players around the world. They seem intent on having us believe that we are somehow different from each other. That age old trick of demonising the ‘other’. I hope we don’t fall for it.
I have been guilty of withdrawing from the negativity of the media of late (whether it relates to the horrors perpetrated by those referred to variously as ‘extremists’, ‘militants’, and ‘Islamists’, or even the backlash against Muslims) because I have struggled to know how to respond. I didn’t want to respond with negativity toward the perpetrators or the situation, not because I am not troubled by it, but so as not to add to the negativity in our world. I didn’t want to be defensive or offensive or feel helpless in light of acts which seem alien and mysterious to me.
I feel now that whilst guarding ourselves from falling into negativity is important, withdrawing completely is also not the answer. The answer lies in treading a path between acknowledging the negativity and the fear without being drawn into it, and meeting this with something much more beautiful and with bold determination.
Last Sunday, I found myself for a few short minutes at Didsbury Mosque which was hosting an open-day for non-Muslims curious about Islam. As I looked around the prayer hall, I spotted small groups of men and women stood around chatting together. I also spoke briefly with three elderly non-Muslims who had made the effort to drive from a short distance away to hear something about Islam from Muslims. They said they were so glad they came. It seems clear what ordinary human beings want.
My experiences make me turn to Rumi whom I know also lived through difficult times. As a child his family fled Balkh (modern day Afghanistan) from Mongol invasions, and his later life was lived against the backdrop of the Crusades. Living in times of fear and foreboding, he enjoyed good relationships with those of other faiths and continued to speak about Love and Unity. He had students who were Christians whom he would stay with at the Christian monastery in Sile (which neighboured his home town of Konya, Turkey), and at his funeral his death was mourned by Muslims, Jews and Christians alike.
Rumi’s words continue to appeal to those of all backgrounds (faith or no faith) and as such he is recognised as a bridge between many worlds. His words speak directly to the heart as they recognise our common struggles, our connectedness, and our inherent value as representatives and servants of the Creator and creation. This vision of humanity requires a particular response from us. My understanding is that this response must come from a heart which puts aside difference and defensiveness, which clambers over fear, which is conscious of itself, and allows only words and actions which are inspired by Love (a desire for true service to creation as a whole) to manifest.
My feeling is that there must be more encounters, whether pre-planned or on street corners, and that they must be motivated by a genuine desire to create communities of Love. The first step to this must surely be to truly hear and understand each other without any preconceptions or agendas.
My prayer is that we be blessed with many encounters to truly see in our brothers and sisters of all races, all religions and orientations, ourselves. Amen.
Join us if you can on Valentine’s Day to celebrate with Love our Unity as human beings… with an opportunity to hear from a friend who, like the rest of us at Rumi’s Circle, prays to embody Rumi’s vision.
~ Fatimah Ashrif