a community of lovers
I want a heart torn open by longing
to share the pain of this love.
Whoever has been parted from his source
longs to return to that state of union.
[Rumi, Mathnawi I, 3, trans. Kabir and Camille Helminski]
I must start by saying that in spite of my love of the written word, in regard to spiritual sharing I have always felt reluctant to submit a written piece no matter how beautiful the intention of the forum. After all, how can an individual, who struggles against the very lowest parts of herself daily, espouse beauty and wisdom when she can’t truly represent those values in every living moment? I am not writing therefore of my own self here but reflecting on an example I wish to emulate – if Allah wills – and which my lifetime hero, Muhammad Ali, who died last week, did truly represent.
My journey following Ali’s life has been one of evolving relation and understanding since that first overwhelming contact with the potential for human greatness that he symbolised, mostly through his stance against oppression and the majority view. This stance was news to a docile, obedient girl, perhaps 8 years old in the 70’s when she discovered Ali’s autobiography on her father’s bookcase, and I remember returning to it time and again for the breath of a controversial and radical life it offered. It is that same girl who, as a student, raced on her bike, breathless with excitement on a sunny Oxford morning to finally meet her idol. In a curious coincidence , my spiritual re-awakening in adulthood stemmed from meeting with teachers who themselves now live in Louisville, Ali’s hometown. Even after his death, it seems the connection remains.
Only now have I been able to reflect on what beautiful Divine planning led Muhammad Ali away from talk of segregation and individualism to the end of his life where all religions and cultures united, perhaps uniquely, at a Muslim American funeral on the world stage. How poignant to see his core values espoused by those able to give them eloquent voice, an ability that he himself had lost. And Ali flouted convention yet again in the name of freedom. We saw a rabbi representing Jewish America bidding peace on the Prophet Muhammad and calling for an end to police persecution of black people and worldwide oppression through war. Alongside the rabbi were Hollywood celebrities and Presidents lauding his character. In the end it was Ar-Rafi, the Exalter, who brought this poor, uneducated boy from Louisville, as unschooled as his beloved last Messenger, to these heights.
For me, the key to the progress of Ali’s self-evidently joyful, abundant and loving life is solely the sincerity of the man’s heart and his life direction towards the Divine. The Beloved Prophet said, “There is one organ which guides man aright and it is the heart.”
It seems that all the ingredients were there in Ali’s life and character for training a heart in its sole purpose of worship: parents who espoused self-esteem and love of oneself; belief that the Spirit of God moved through him; clarity of right from wrong, but not self righteousness; absolute belief in freedom from oppression; strength in the face of hardship and loss of what the world esteems in terms of wealth; rejection of gaining power through corrupt means; persistence – he never gave up through rigorous training schedules, public vitriol, 30 years of a debilitating illness; humour (something that is lacking in so many in the Muslim world!); the ability to take himself lightly and easily walk the Path. Al-Latif, the Subtle, manifested in Ali like in our Beloved Prophet, mostly by the joy he brought to his nearest and dearest, exemplified by his joyous humour and their returned love. They talk of final moments with him, whispering lightness in his ears even after death, as the Quran was recited around them. There was also a foundation of pervading contentment with his lot in life. Tributes have been paid to the fact that he never complained about his illness. As he said himself, “God does not make mistakes.”
Finally, but of course primarily, there was his humility before God and his true submission to the One whom he absolutely knew “held his heart in His hands”. Asked during an interview about the most important preparation he undertook before a fight, he cited the need to pray and ask for God’s help knowing that all success comes through Him/Her. He then recited a long litany without abbreviation to a spellbound audience of sporting fans and an open- mouthed interviewer.
So it seems that his heart, already created pure and beautiful by the fitra command of Allah – that same key to the kingdom we are all gifted with from Him/Her – became atomic, sending out to millions of people waves of Universal Love that he knew he was only channelling. He became the “hands and feet of God” as Divinely promised to those who exceed the bounds of others and live for the sake of God alone. He inspired children with his message of support, and he elevated many black people from self-harm. He generated love not just by direct gratitude for his gifts, but also indirectly too. In his final months his heart still led the way. His message of solidarity caused the prison guards of an American journalist recently imprisoned in Iran to be more merciful to their prisoner.
Ultimately, because of his pure-hearted intention “to get ready to meet his Lord”’ asserted in his 30’s, his dying was for Allah Al-Qadr, the One who Destines All Things in Eternity, who took him back at a time when America needed to hear the message of Unity most – on the brink of returning to a split, hateful society like that of the 50’s , a situation that his family say was “heartbreaking” to him in spite of his personal health issues. He became a man of Heart.
And for this one… well, it is encounters like these with Beauty crafted by “The Greatest “ that stoke the fire of her relationship with Love. We are each being heart-trained by Ar-Rahman and although my consciousness may not be as completely aware as someone like Ali, through the intention of some of my choices and the prayers of my parents, I feel led now in relative safety by His/Her representatives on this earth: the sheikhs and sheikhas who teach and strive to portray universal Love and Heart exemplified by the Sufi Path.
Al-Mudhil, the Abaser, has sometimes had to jerk the “galloping horse” of my ego, as described in Sufi terminology, away from the edge of the canyon, but Ar-Rahman, the Merciful, always led the way. He/She says of Himself/Herself, “Call me Allah or call me Ar-Rahman,” and “Mercy is the greatest of my attributes.” My role is only to keep my heart pure.
In his 20’s, Ali had a recurring dream that he would be passing through Louisville with thousands cheering him from each side and then he would fly away content. Well, Ali has flown and we are left here trying to be Ali, be our own greatest versions of ourselves.
As stated by our beloved Prophet as he wept at his son’s death, we are human, and so in spite of the joyful witnessing of his life, I am hurt now that another candle has been blown out by Al-Mumit, the Taker of Life. In the words of Sherman Jackson (and his speech at the funeral is worth hearing in full): I love you Muhammad. May Allah bless you and bring you peace. I say it with a greater understanding of that acute sweetness and pain that I feel when I bless Muhammad my beloved Prophet, the Light of the World. By God’s grace, that supreme Heart in action has manifested its Purity beyond human comprehension down the generations, but there is a similar lesson in witnessing and remembering these lives and their ways to fulfilment. Is that not what we are all seeking, to return to our Lord in a state of mutmain – contentment and joy?
There is a Muslim tale of life after death that describes how in some graves a beautiful figure will sit and keep the deceased company. That figure is the deceased’s good deeds and the happiness they brought to others in life. I know “no soul knows the joy of the afterlife”, but it is comforting to think of Ali, smiling beautifully, jiving, as perfect in physique as he was in his youth, talking to that figure, his earthly journey over. I pray that if Ar-Rauf, the Honey for the Heart, the All Healing, Al-Ghaffur, the Forgiving and Returning One, wills, Ali’s most shiny trophy – his heart – will finally be bathed clean and returned to where it belongs, where we all finally belong – with Allah.
No ode to this “great ball of love”, as his acquaintances called him, would be entirely complete without a simple, catchy few lines of rhyme. So, in his memory, from a true 70’s child who did not know the import of her inexplicable adoration of an African American hero until now, this is for you Ali:
I want to live
I want to give
I’ve been a miner for a heart of gold
It’s these expressions I never give
That keep me searching for a heart of gold
And I’m getting’ old
Keep me searching for a heart of gold.
[Neil Young, “Heart of Gold”]
~ Asma Khan, London