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May 1, 2018

Thoughts of a Young Hawk

Filed under: Uncategorized — irajdealwis @ 4:13 am



My grandfather told me that he had met the King of birds: the Simurgh. He was a still a young hawk when the hoopoe dreamed of such a thing, and they made their long journey, through dusk, cold nights and clear mornings, all together, alone and in twos. When they returned, everyone said how they had each come back changed, and they made a habit of meeting regularly, remembering their troubles and teaching their children, and their children’s children, and I am one of these. I am a young hawk  now, you’d say I am somewhere in my early twenties, and I occasionally went to these meetings growing up and recently started paying attention to them. They say that seeing the Simurgh fills you with hope and purpose, because you feel His love, and as I get older I am looking for something to fill that hole. Every time I go for prayers, I hope that someone would say “let’s go see the Simurgh again,” but no one has ever done this.




Once a week every Sunday evening, when the sun is not too hot, and yet the air is warm and soft under my wings, my grandfather and I fly to our prayer circle. He glides on gentle puffs of air and I all around him. My grandfather can glide through almost any wind, and know exactly how long it will take before a storm will reach us, and he knows the best places for shelter. I don’t talk to him on our Sunday afternoon journey though. He gets very annoyed.  The prayers start exactly at four thirty and the hopoe, even though he is old, still starts:

“ In the name of the most merciful and compassionate one.”

He reminds us that our intention should be to attain the highest spiritual state, and to ask that he makes the path easy, and that we are not tempted from the path. I repeat after him softly under my breath. I close my eyes tight and hear the words fill my breast.

The heart of ritual prayer is when we fly in a large circle, all of us ina tight circle, and unbroken ring, keeping pace and circling. In every round we repeat a name of one of our kings and at the end of each cycle we fly a little higher, till we have said every name and we are soaring above the world, and the trees dissolve into fields, the mountains look like things of play, and the rivers like lines of split ink. We do this seven times. When we start my voice is always over the place, thinking of things I need to do, and what meal we will all share after prayer. My voice asks what next I will do and where next I should wonder. I turn and turn around filling my mind with the names of God, and turning each name into a long song, silencing the voices one by one. In time I feel as clear as the air at dusk far above the world of animals and men. I go home with a silent mind.



Every Friday we go to hear the hopoe speak, and the owl, peacock and others who went on the journey. They come together on the branches of a tree, an old peach tree, in the late afternoon. The hoopoe usually speaks first. He reminds us that God is in everything, and in everyone. He is in the leaves of that are young, bright green and in the leaves gathering to crumble away. Hr id in the seeds, and the pits of fruit,and he is the hollows of trees.

“He is each of you,” the hoopoe declares, “but you must seek and find him, keeping the highest goal in mind, and not settling for anything else.”

When the hoopoe speaks slip in to a tone that’s a mixture of invention and memory, the best of stories. I close my eyes and I try to imagine God with me when I do different things. The owl speaks next and he answers questions, and helps people think through a question and a problem. He is often the one who sits with someone in trouble and help them through it.

“I am really afraid of going to the cliffs and praying alone at night I went once and just sat there all night, I couldn’t say anything, not one prayer. I’m too afraid,” a young nightingale said.

The owl would say, “you must slowly, slowly come to see all the shades of night, and how to confront her fear. When I had a sorrow or fear I could not defeat I’d sit with one of the elfer birds after a meeting and they’d have a story to take me along. On these nights I learnt to think about god, and how to learn the same thing many times over before I remember it. I learnt about how God created the world then and has not stopped since, and that even in the dirt of rivers flowing from cities, he is still creating. I remember my mistakes and repented when the spoke of adaab. If I spent an hour listening, I felt it was an hour of treasures.


Yet as the weeks pass by in the same cycle of prayer, between daily tasks I try to remember the lord and think of the heart and of good intentions. For a while I will remember to do this, and remember to sustain a practice. But again in a few more weeks I’d forget. One cycle of practice learnt and done and then forgotten and replaced. The journey seems to be in the end a weekly performance, a regulation and no more. And though I look forward to the shade of the peach tree I have come to see that in its leaves growing and fading, and under its thick shade, the Simurgh may not be found.







In these short letters, I reflect on the institutionalization of religious life. Prof. Asani showed how even the charismatic authority of Sufi teachers become institutionalized around lineages of literal or spiritual descent, tomb veneration, ritual communities, fixed vocabularies, and systems of practice. I wanted to imagine what it was like for a young bird, growing up guided by those who went on a spiritual journey, and their stories, but still practicing the rituals that the original seekers developed. The rituals and the meditations become the principal means to go on a spiritual journey, than the questions and the adventures. I drew on my own experiences in circles of Sufi practice to think about what types of learning and religious exploration can happen in a institutionalized Sufi setting, and the common limitations of such a practice. How can ritual prayer bring about transformation? How can an almost ritual relationship to a teacher bring about change?

Singer’s faith

Filed under: Uncategorized — irajdealwis @ 3:42 am

Your lust-ridden mind

by Mohideen Baig


Does your sensuous mind suddenly clamour?

Is your soft heart throbbing with fear?


Does your sensuous mind suddenly clamour?

Is it bathed in stains?


Then say with your lips,

I take refuge in the Buddha


Compassion and mercy lies decayed,

Anger and envy lounges nourished.

And now is there tyranny and oppression?

And now have men become beasts?


Then say with your lips,

I take refuge in the Buddha.


Has suffering and hassle twisted you? Contorted your mind?

Has truth been killed out there in the world?

Has that serene and pure heart of yours

Been destroyed by lies and self-deception?

At the precipice of mercy and justice,

Does your heart shudder and turn back?


Then say with your lips,

I take refuge in the Buddha.


To whom can I say my lament?

The man who is suddenly abandoned to loneliness in this world

His heart wanders unbound.

The king of our world is loneliness

And in his reign has love perished,

Drunk on himself man rips apart his own soul,

Having slain and buried the voice of truth,

He hears devotion too shudder and die.


Then say with your lips,

I take refuge in the Buddha.


When even the echoes of love have drifted from the world,

flames of envy roam, and dance and burn,

And a mother’s love sets in to night,

And she places a sword in her son’s hands,

the earth shudders and writhes,

The rivers boil and froth.


Then say with your lips,

I take refuge in the Buddha.

I take refuge in the Dhamma.

I take refuge in the Sangha.

The translation and recitation of this Buddhist devotional poem by a Sufi poet and singer, Mohideen Baig, is my attempt at reconciling the gap between ritual practice and a religious journey. A key theme in Rumi’s poetry is the recollection of the beloved, of the teacher and of God. Why carry out dzikr all the time? What is the transformation that such a devotional practice brings? In this poem, Baig brings his understanding of dizkr to a Buddhist context, while using Buddhist language to talk about mental life to elaborate on the many aspects of the nafs. When the mind takes its many forms of hatred, envy, fear, greed, depression and loneliness, Baig tells his listeners to remember the Buddha who was their teacher. The constant remembrance of a teacher, day to day as the mind shifts, is a central part of daily practice. The poem culminates in the image of a mother arming her son, a common sight during the civil war, and Baig suggests that the storms of our mind, if unchecked by remembrance, are allowed to fester then the damage goes beyond the personal into the political. I found this poem extremely moving to read for it melds two deep doctrines from two faiths: a way of detailing the mental life from Buddhism, and the power of dzikr from Islam.

What I saw in Kataragama

Filed under: Uncategorized — irajdealwis @ 2:27 am

Click me


Be it Rumi, or Hafiz or Attar, a recurring theme in Sufi thought is the imminence of the divine in every aspect of our life, and a critique of the divisions made by systematised religions. While most of these writers don’t continuously harp on the multiplicity of faith, Prof. Asani showed how their thought leads to inclusive practices. My first encounters with Islamic practice happened in a temple in the South of Sri Lanka shared by Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and indigenous faiths. The deity shown in the center is venerated as Bodhisattva, the second son of Shiva, as Al-Kidr and as a local mountain deity by the four faiths. As I a child I wandered through the gardens of the temple visiting all shrines. Designing the mosque, as an Islamic space, took me back to this temple where every devotee is forced to respect and acknowledge other faiths, and how such a space can create a deep appreciation for multiplicity.

I need a change!

Filed under: Uncategorized — irajdealwis @ 2:19 am


Click me

In the closing lectures of the class Prof. Asani turned to the struggles that modernity, colonialism and western presence churned in Islamic countries. While we discussed the history of colonialism, reformist programs and nationalism, I feel we left one of the most pertinent and ongoing forms of modernity undiscussed: tourism. People of all skin colours who have left their local settings and cultures, and migrated to cities and middle class lives, often travel through the mode of a tourist. The main purpose of travel is not a journey of change, a pursuit, or a pilgrimage, but a consumptive trip of eating, ogling and laying about. I found a French tourist advertisement of the 1980s, a map of Sri Lanka annotated by a tourist remembering the best places to eat and lounge, and overlaid it with an important pilgrimage route for Sri Lankan Muslims. The pilgrimage begins at the Shrine of Sheikh Osman Waillullah Sahib in Colombo, proceeds to the White Mosque in Beruwala, then to the cave where Sheikh Muhiyadeen Abdul Qadir Jilani is believed to have meditated on a pilgrimage to Adam’s Peak, and finally the Shrine of Pal Kudi Bawa who welcomed Al-Kidzr to the island. A pilgrimage, much like the one described in the Conference of the Birds, promises a journey that is more enriching than one of mindless consumption. I have participated in both forms of travel, and have seen the damage that tourism has wrecked in many sacred places, and by overlaying these two modes of travel I wanted to highlight the stark difference between them. I wanted a single image that could evoke both feelings and force the viewer to compare the difference.


April 23, 2018

From Eden, to Adam’s Peak to the Sea

Filed under: Uncategorized — irajdealwis @ 3:24 am

From Eden On and On


He fell, his first step the earth hugged and kept

And he lay there: man’s first day here he was

All curled.


He was Adam and he still rose at dawn,

a naked breath hung high in the mountain air,

And he asked not why, and how, and where to?

For he knew:

That God had made him to be alone,

To be with Hawa, and here, but all alone,

And saw his narrow mountain top,

Above the world between the hills and the ocean,

Couldn’t hold all three.


Down, down, down the hills he walked,

Unknowing the thing that called him,

To the Ocean he drew close,

Hingul, Kurundu, nuwa, araliya,

The winged song trees he named

And the dive of the black crow,

Again and again from his lonely perch.

Nor did Hawa, from the taunting shade appear.

I am alone, Adam said.


Under a vast leaf’s shade

a jackal licking blades of blood

Falling from a sambur’s hide:

“Handun diviya Adam named.

A tongue soft and curled and snapping,

“Kottiya” Adam screamed,


And from a leopard’s teeth

He saw blood first spill,

And the prey maker become prey.


Did he then see how Cain would Abel Kill,

Once, here, again, and again, and there,

And still?

“I am alone” Adam wept,

His tears each a precious stone, you and I

Can find in these valleys still,

And give to the war widow’s child,

Or sell on to the Queen’s own kind

And try and feel a little less alone.


Down and down from the hills he walked.

Till he found a river, and the river found the sea.

He stood and watched


the silver rags dancing on a dumb surf,

repeating roars,

each wave breaking from the ocean,

And flinging on the scorching sand,

Each alone in its making and its end.


A man whose tame fish keeps him afloat,

above waves,

green like the young roots growing from rivers,

I have heard said, taught Adam to pray.

They say he learnt to kneel, and bow,

In the silent singing mid-day sun,

And even as his neck burnt brown, and then black,

He heard his Lord and felt his love.


The broken wave strolled back into the sea,

The bleeding deer to dust,

And the hope of seeing Hawa,

Her new naked hands, and neck, and face,

Clothed and naked again and again,

For this could Adam learn to long.


By the Ocean, not far from where I live,

Adam learnt to pray.



As Islam moved out of Arabia, it picks up the languages, stories, sensibilities, and practices of the places it arrived in. This poem is a reflection of how Islam has adopted to the landscape and the stories of Sri Lanka. Sri Pada, or the sacred footprint at peak of Mt. Samanala, that I grew up worshiping as the footprint of the Buddha, is known as Adam’s Peak to Sri Lanka’s Muslims. It is believed that Adam fell and fell when he was cast from Eden and he landed atop this peak, and his first footprint was marked on a stone. He then walked through the jungles of the island till he reached the Ocean, and met al-Khidr who taught him how to pray, and seek his way back to Hawa. The poem melds this story, and the experience of exile from a place of security and meaning, and how our understanding of the divine changes radically in the context of exile.

Is Izeth it?

Filed under: Uncategorized — irajdealwis @ 3:22 am

During my first lesson in meditation, Uncle Izeth said,


“Imagine Sheik Nazim sitting next to you, picture his brown eyes, softened with thought, the wrinkles around them, his grey flecked beard, his rose lips, and in time you will hear his voice. First you will feel him, your mind will rest, and your heart will whisper. In your heart you will first hear him. He will know what you need to do, and he will speak to your heart. Listen not to me nor to anyone else. You must ask him. He speaks to you already, softly in your own mind. In time you will see him, as clear as you see me, and he will take you through the world, and through time, and he will show you what you were, are and will be, and the world was, is and will be. And when all has been cleaned of you, he will tear the final veil, and your lord you will see. And from then on, before He moves your world, your Lord will ask “Is this your will my love?”


He had a mirhab set in to the wall, and in this niche he had pasted photographs of the Kaaba, the golden dome of Karbala, the green dome above the Prophet’s tomb, the blue dome of Konya,  and the sandy brown domes of Bukkhara. There were pictures of Sheik Nazim tending the garden, cooking, preaching, smiling and one of him almost spilling a cup of tea. Sheik Nazim Al-Haqqani was the head of the Sufi order. He had studied in Damascus, resisted the French, won the love of a venerated Naqshbandi teacher and become a teacher in turn.


To seek guidance from a living man, who lived in Cyprus, but would appear to me in a vision was new idea. I tried to follow the instructions, but I’m not too good that. My prayers never yielded Sheik Nazim, but rather a feeling that was something like this:


I imagined a great dome, tall and cavernous, surround me. Whenever I prayed the dome appeared, unfolding around me by thoughts squeezed out of a tight nozzle, a mind bound in repeated prayer.I wanted it to be green like the forest just after the rains, the air feeling rich and wet, the light gentle and the walls enveloping every direction. I wanted the dome to swirl with the smell the people, my grandmother who died the year before, my childhood kitchen, fresh mud by a stream, and a cool afternoon.  But it never bought these things I wanted. The dome was always still, the air stern, heavy and odorless. The deeper I entered prayer, the heavier the dome grew, the safer I felt, and nothing could harm me here, and nothing was ever asked of me. Sheik Nazim never came, and it was just me and this dome.


After prayers, Uncle Izeth and I smoked a splif and listened to Plastic Ono Band. He said that I seemed rather worked up during prayers.



My feet were burning in spite of the soft river sand of the temple. I had walked around the shrine one hundred and three times, and I had five more to do. With this devotion, I asked Lord Karthikeya for a small favour. I asked him to show me my grandmother. I missed her. A clairvoyant told us that my grandmother, who taught me how to eat, write, read, walk through the village, sew a button, give for its exquisite pleasure and spot a greedy shopkeeper, had died and been born again as a handmaiden to her beloved lord, here where she had worshipped him all her life.  My feet were sore and calloused and yet I walked round and round the temple, desperately muttering my prayer. I was somewhere close to end of my cyclical journey, and I like to think it was just when I had completed the ritual, an old man, with a long white beard, complete with turban and robe came up to me and smiled. We talked. He asked me why I was circling the temple. I told him. He said he couldn’t help with that, but if I wanted to see something I hadn’t before, I was welcome to join him for dzikr. I was well versed in folktales to know that you always listen to an old man who comes up to you in a temple. The old man was Moulana-Sheik Nazim Adil Al-Haqqani, from Lefke in Turkish Cyprus. He led dzikr that night in the dergah at the edge of  temple.


Sheik Nazim lead dzikr. His voice was soft, and low, and a hall full of men and women chanted after him. I cannot remember what he said after prayers, or what I said to his disciples who surrounded me. But a peace came over me. Sheik Nazim would return to Turkey soon, I was informed, but if I was still interested I could reach out to his senior disciples. Someone gave me a card for Sheik Nazim’s representative: Mr. Izeth Nilar.




I have practiced with Uncle Izeth and his companions, a group of senior practitioners, mostly women, for the last couple of years. I still don’t know if Uncle Izeth is really my teacher. I still learn from him, but there is one glaring hole in his life that I cannot really understand. His wife,  Aunty Saadiya, who he still seems to care for, and with whom he is raising four seemingly happy children, looks on at Uncle Izeth’s piety with utmost disdain. She cooks and cleans and keeps him house. He tends the garden, reads, makes an income from a few honest hustles, and spends his evenings preaching. However much I try, she avoids talking to me. She smiles and says hello, retreats to the kitchen, only coming out to serve coffee. I met her once at fabric shop. She was running her hands through layers of linen with a friend. We had a brief and cordial chat, and even though I had been to her home countless times, she treated me as a stranger. Why did she keep this world that her husband inhabited, in which he was a leader and a teacher, far from her own life? Did she, who had for so many years cared for uncle Izeth, and who had in turn needed his attention and love, see something in him that I could not? If she didn’t take his religious life seriously, maybe there was a crucial flaw, a slight off hand that I just couldn’t see.


In spite of the coldness in their marriage, I still keep uncle Izeth as a teacher. Mostly, because I need someone who can pay attention, look in and tell me that I’m either right or I’m wrong.




Mr. Izeth Nilar, Uncle Izeth, Sheik Izeth Kalifa of Moulana-Sheik Nazim Adil Al-Haqqani Al-Naqqashabandi to the island of Serendip, drove a small grey Maruti Suzuki. It is the car of young middle class couples who can’t wait to replace it with a more dignified vehicle, and of retired couples who have settled into their limited means. It is so light that when you speed you can feel the car lift off the ground. In the case of an accident it would fold up like a loaf of bread. We would be the only casualties, and uncle Izeth drove like a maniac.


This was only my third meeting with Uncle Izeth. I was to join him at his home for a cup of coffee

and the Maghrib prayer, and we would drive to Dewatagaha Mosque for dzikr. His wife served us coffee. We prayed. He from a chair because he had injured his back, and I on a silk prayer mat handed down Uncle Izeth’s family.


We drove in to the city. Rush hour was easing up. Streams of cars gushed on, and on through our poor roads. A car jostled with a bus, and a motorcycle crawled between them for an inch of space, for an extra second, just to get home; have it all done with. There we were turning into a road, stopping to check traffic. And there we saw a bus, an enormous maroon casket of office workers on our left, and a car with a full fledged family of four dreaming of dinner coming at us from the right. You and I would have let them pass for how can one really be later for prayer? Uncle Izeth hit the gas. The car slipped forward and he veered left to avoid the sedan, and as I screamed like a dying mongoose, he swerved sharply to the right to slip in front the bus and hurtle on. The horns of furious drivers followed us. Uncle Izeth merely laughed at me.


It took me awhile to notice that Uncle Izeth’s driving never made me nauseaus. Not once did the car jolt, or slip, slide or bounce. Not once did he slam the breaks throwing me headfirst at the windscreen. He had prefect control. Every journey was single perfect stroke, and so he sought the slim spaces between a car, a bus and a motorcycle to shoot through. He knew the road, and it seemed he had faith. It was then, watching him drive, that I thought this was a man worth listening to at least for awhile.




Prof. Asani’s lecture on Sufism focused on the personal relationship between disciple and teacher. We discussed the role that Shaykh Ahmadu Bamba played as a both a teacher guiding students under the strains of his present world, French colonial Senegal, and as a mystical teacher, an object of devotion still remembered, addressed and supposedly accessed by his disciples. In the first few years of my twenties, I spent a lot of time with Naqshbandi Sufi order of Sri Lanka, and with its main spiritual guide for the island, Sheik Izeth Nilar. I reflect on the many things I sought in a religious teacher: long term guidance, a person to talk to about other ways of leading life, a person who you hope can take away of losing loved ones, a person who can embody a right way to be in the world, and the pitfalls of this search. Even as I developed a trust for Uncle Izeth, and tried to see what Imaan looks like in our age, I could see through the holes in his religious and personal life. The story is about trying to piece together the different elements that go into that search for religious guidance that is more than just the external, beautiful,  trappings of a faith (which I all to easily get lost in.)

Hello world!

Filed under: Uncategorized — irajdealwis @ 3:20 am

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