Thursday, 30 April 2009

Damascus Breeze

Dedicated to our beloved Sheikh 'Abd ar Rahman ash Shagouri, rahimahu Allah ta'ala.
This was written in Oct.2003, after a summer of swimming amongst the scholars of Damascus, it is one of a collection of essays to be published insha Allah.
by Asra Bukhari

In the name of Allah, Most Merciful, Most Beneficent. From Him alone we come and to Him alone we return. Peace and Blessings on His beloved, our Prophet, the Elect, ere and anon.


Five years and a split second brought me into Damascus, Syria. Five years of waiting and within a second I was transported there. After one realizes how little one knows about his Lord, and spends some time next to those who know more, something gnaws inside to seek and be around those who have spent most of their lives in that sole pursuit. As Edward Hall, the anthropologist said, �The drive to learn is more basic than the drive to reproduce.� One hopes to either receive some of the knowledge the erudite attained or at least to be in their company for the boon felt beyond the bone in their midst.

This is what led me on the road to Damascus. It was a fortuitous bounty from heaven that the scholar and sage hailing from Syria, Sheikh Muhammad al Yaqoubi, frequented my country, my town, my heart. I sought the Sunnah and found it in his country, his town, his heart. As one studies the Sunnah, one prays to implement everything learned and pines to see its traces on the bodies of brethren. After years of such studies, I was aglow to find that the Damascene scholar is drowned in the Sunnah, his walk, his talk, and the way he doles and delivers, with every instance and interaction. One sees a strain of the way of our beloved prophet, peace be upon him, on many a scholar in Syria who has spent years of study, inhaling his hadith and exhaling his aura afterwards. I realized the wonder of sheikh Muhammad�s exhortation for students in the West to plan the best vacation and �visit the �ulema of the Muslim world.�

The late sheikh Mekki al Kattani [d. 1974] May Allah have mercy on him, was one of the recent scholars who brought his brimming love of the Prophet, peace be upon him, [from his native Morocco] and filled the oasis of Damascus with its fragrance. The great wali, Sheikh Ahmad al Habbal one of the foremost elderly scholars of today, glorifies Allah and doles several odes and salutations on the Prophet, peace be upon him, almost every morning after fajr, enrapturing the worshippers, many who come from oceans away to satisfy the necessary desire of loving the prophet, more than one loves his or herself or anything else except his Lord. As the Algerian sage, Sheikh Ahmad al Alawi, May Allah have mercy on him, had remarked, �Chanting is not crippled with the dry bones of words, liquid and flowing like a stream, it carries us into the presence of God.�[1]

One of the Grand Sheikhs of this city, Abdur Rahman al Shagouri, though a bit weak from his old age, may Allah preserve him, whose Dimishq musk lingers on many students throughout the world, still heads his regular sessions glorifying Allah, Most High and singing salutations on the prophet and his family. Truth be told, he is one of the main reasons I landed in Damascus. I had heard about him for years and wanted to quench the two ponds, my pupils, with his presence. My fondest scenes of Syria are of watching the Hadra Sunday nights after �Isha from the balcony of Masjid al Warid al Kabir(which stands at the end of a maze consisting of some of the narrowest alleys in the world) and watching all the great men of Allah of this fair city, led by Sheikh Abdur Rahman, taking those present, to the presence of their Lord.

My first attendance at this session, I went alone, and could not rely on a soul to point him out to me, yet I needed no introduction, as five years of waiting intensified my introduction and when he was brought in the musalla, [in a wheelchair] I knew it was he. Allah. I was privy to meet him thrice during my trip (in his private chambers twice), wal Hamdulilah. He delighted me and my friends with his charm and humor and most tearfully, with his concern for seekers of Truth throughout the world. He asked us, �Who is ahead in their efforts for their Lord, the students in America or those in England?� I, the American, said resolutely, �The English,� much to the dismay of a dear friend, also an American (Californian) and the glee of my English friends whom were present. Hopefully, I provoked more of his pity to be directed westward, thus securing more du�as for us!

Of course, I did mention to him that our beloved Master the great 'Alamah, Shaykh Muhammad al Yaqoubi al Hassani, who strode into our lands with the wheel of knowledge and the weal of wisdom, has been spreading the sanctified Syrian soil and making great leaps in America and throughout the world, taking us on the chariot that leads to our Lord. May Allah preserve and protect him and all of our shuyukh. To this he smiled proudly from ear to ear and nodded, acknowledging he knew this. We asked him to pray for all of our teachers including, Shaykh Nuh Keller, Shaykh Hamza Yusuf Sheikh Imam Zaid, Shaykh Jamal al Zahabi, and all those we know and those we don't.

Also in that attempt, I asked him to bless a few bags of sweets so that I can return with them to spread some of his barakah to these lands. As it happened, one of those bags was sent to India via my aunt and the others distributed to students in the East Coast and a few blessed friends still have to this day, some of those choicest candies. This city, as all Muslim lands, is known for her hospitality and the homes of the scholars are the actual �open universities� as they all have revolving doors making way for the seekers of knowledge and wisdom. Damascus is a denizen of voices making music elocuting their love for the prophet, peace be upon him, at every interval between prayer and party.

My trip started off with two weddings to attend, one of a friend and the other, of the daughter of noble, notable parents, Umm Sa�eed and Sheikh Adnan Al Majd, teachers of sacred knowledge, paisleys that adorn this city of silk. Upon entering their home one is caught in a waft of surreal love for the prophet, peace be upon him. Both gatherings beheld the majesty of our Maker, both were cascading with love for our Master Muhammad, peace be upon him. It occurred to me that these are the real princes and princesses, the true repositories of regality that most of the world lives, unawares. The bride, the sheikh�s daughter, was aglow in her wedding dress as she dressed her spirit with the remembrance of her Lord. She was indeed a precious princess, filled with decorum and Divine Grace that glided her every move. Her every exhalation filled the chambers with pristine love for the prophet, peace be upon him. Even the dancing was divine, as the women [celebrating separately from the men] moved only their torsos, arms above making an angular �U� all the while sending salutations on the prophet, peace be upon him. Guests were served with luxurious vanilla ice cream, embedded with emeralds, no less. Syria is known for both its heavenly ice cream, which even the �Culture Shock� guidebook, calls the best in the world, and its jewel of a nut, the pistachio. And while we are on its epicurean attractions, one must not forget that chapter 95, Surah �Al Tin� in the holy Qur�an, according to most scholars, refers to Syria, as this fair city is resplendent with this divine delight, the fig, as well. [2] My heart was captured, my soul enraptured, my body and mind fractured, in fana, [annihilation]. These were the most marvelous wedding parties I ever walked into, insha Allah, they were a portent of paradise for all in attendance.

This ancient land, ubiquitously known as the oldest inhabited city in the world, glistens for not just those seeking the sublime. It holds a magical mist for the historian, the architect, the scientist and general explorer as well. This mist is not missed by those seeking meaning in a world of mayhem growing more and more minute by the minute. The archaeologist and the adventurer is drawn here by the ancient amphitheaters, ruined castles and citadels, towers, and tablets [some dating back to the third millennium BC]. My traveler�s guidebook to Syria, quotes Kahlil Gibrain, �You are not enclosed within your bodies, nor confined to houses or fields. That which is you dwells above the mountain and roves with the wind.� [3] Indeed, you may find that you dwell in Damascus. The Kahlilian quote befits my name, �Asra�, which is taken from the first verse of chapter 17, the Surah �Isra� in the holy Quran, about the ascension the prophet, peace be upon him, took in the night to Jerusalem and then further on into the presence of Providence. Understood from this context my name actually means to be taken to Sham [the Arabic name for the greater Levant region] in the night, indeed I was. Those from the subcontinent will be familiar with the refrain from elders, �We are all a portion of our names, so be careful of the names you choose for your children.� My Arab friends love to jest that my name is a verb, I was happy to finally �do� my name nonetheless.

It is no wonder that this is the oldest capital city in the world, everything is fine and fabulous here, thus it is kept as it is. Even its weather, though seemingly difficult and dry, is rewarding for the patient and grateful. Every evening is visited by an elegant breeze. The rain of Damascus is its breeze. Dimash al Qadeemah, as the old city is called in Arabic, hides unscathed behind the scrim of the seventeenth century, minus a few cars making way here and there, making themselves anachronisms.

The city�s children are affable, respected as springs of knowledge in themselves, endeared by all, and embraced even by the bustling city streets. They run under its protective care, as they proudly head off for errands to the corner shops bringing back forgotten provisions or treats for themselves, commissioned by their tender parents. It is as if the psychologist, Alice Miller was speaking of children in Sham upon writing the following:
We will come to regard our children not as creatures to manipulate or change, but rather as messengers from a world we once deeply knew, which we have long since forgotten, who can reveal to us more about the secrets of life, and also our own lives...[4]
The older inhabitants of this elderly part of the earth, like its children, exude with curiosity of everything under and around the sun.

I was even privy to glance a time times two, out of the window of my taxi ride, a security guard, standing sentinel, building by his side, yet with his own glance tucked in a book. This city is indeed following the axiom, �Knowledge is gained, from cradle to grave.�
The word education is taken from the Latin, �educare� which means to lead out from within. In Damascus, the laity and the lofty is led out of ignorance into gnosis. Almost everyone I met in Damascus, from my exuberant taxi driver, Abu Ayham, who filled enthusiasm en route to my morning Arabic class at the university, my exotic Arabic teacher, Dima, whose authentic Arab yet subtle subcontinent looks could get her in a Bollywood movie without a screening, to my mysterious cleaning lady and cook, and my newfound effusive friend, Nur, was enigmatic if not eccentric, all genetically encoded with a gift of gab. A Hollywood writer could pick anyone at random off the streets of Damascus and run with a dynamic story on him or her. Abu Ayham if �discovered� would have a screenplay and his own program within a fortnight. But then again, precisely because life is lived to the fullest here, the old fashioned way, of knowing everyone in detail in ones round of daily life, cinema is superfluous. Thus, sans cinema, everyone here has character and charisma, which, incidentally, means, a gift from God.

If it wasn�t for the Arabic that abounds here one might think one is in Dublin as opinions are exerted into the air like a shaken carbonated drink, opened. The
art of dialogue is alive in Damascus and speakers of the Classical Arabic, called �Fus-ha� are especially adept, and the teachers of it, meticulous, in enunciating every letter with its rightful sound and respective characteristic such as length of stay on the tongue and most crucially, the point of exit from the mouth.

Many western singers, in fact, study this art called tajweed, which is mainly studied to recite the Qur�an properly. Upon reciting with the precision of tajweed, the Qari (reciter} inevitably pierces himself and the listener into another plane. Whatever it is that one studies in Damascus, the aim is closest to perfection as ones faculties allow. Thus, the sounds, the sights [including the beauty of its people whom inherited the original Arabic look], after one peels the opaque layer of dust observable at the outset, and the senses, are all exquisite, leaving only rarefied onion layers, transparent and transcendent. It seems, as well, as a reward for their righteous endeavors, for such cities, abuzz with His Glory, God has expanded ten minutes into two hours, all the more time to struggle and celebrate, as those on the road to Damascus do, leading them out to Him.

For the religious set, it is enough to know that the prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, blessed Syria with his breath and his body. We know he visited the lands at least twice, once as a young lad on a business trip with his uncle whence the monk Bahira recognized him as the last prophet foretold in the Bible, and another time after prophecy was granted to him. In addition there are sound hadith which record his mention to move to this blessed land when things in the world looked bleak, in addition, numerous hadith contain his extolment for the people of Sham. [5]

Even before the arrival of Islam into al Sham, this part of the earth was already ethereal. Damascus was referred to then, as �the mother of the universe.� Indeed she, Eve, was known to have lived here. It was and has been the sacred abode of countless prophets and saints. Gibril Haddad cites scholars who count around 1700 graves of prophets in the Sham region [including the prophets Adam, Abel, Sheth, Nuh, Lut, Job, Hud, Zakariyya] and 500 tombs in Dimishq itself. Prophet Ibrahim passed through here and the cave wherein he meditated is preserved.[6]
Besides the prophets and saints, and a multitude of scholars from the Ummah, such as Shaykh al Akbar, may Allah have mercy on him, scores of Sahaba, companions of the prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, are also buried in the belly of this great city, including the venerable Bilal, may Allah be pleased with him, the first muezzin of Medina, who rests in the cemetery, called Bab as Sagheer, not far from the Ummayyad mosque. Having never visited a graveyard prior to this one, I truly felt like the living dead while paying my respects to the Sahabah and other great sages of the Muslim world that sleep in this Syrian soil. As Rumi masterfully provoked, �Go to the graveyard and behold those silent eloquent ones.� Their legends live on in the world, and upon visiting them, one senses that their limbs are more alive than ones own. Each one of their lives is better than a millionfold of my kind. One is swathed in barakah by visiting these foremost from our Ummah. I would return to the cemetery many times during my summer sojourn in Syria, swaddled in its immense serenity. Therein lay the souls as the prophet had said, that knew the secrets of living, but were in no position to do anything about it, while those who visit them were without such wisdom, though they were in a position to do something about it, if only they knew.

One of the bounties I am eternally grateful for on this trip was how I chanced upon the site wherein sheikh Muhammad�s father and teacher, the venerable Imam of the recent past of the Grand Ummayad mosque, Sheikh Ibrahim al Yaqoubi, may Allah have mercy on him, is interred. Any student who has ever sat in a class with sheikh Muhammad is bound to hear mention of his father in his eternal gratitude to him for the immense knowledge he imparted into his young son, our teacher Sheikh Muhammad al Yaqoubi. Thus, it was that one afternoon soon after arriving in Damascus and not wanting to wait any longer to pay my respects to our teacher�s teacher, I set off in a taxi not even knowing the whereabouts of the cemetery at that time, let alone where his blessed body was laid to rest, yet ending the evening standing at his gravesite at the stroke of the call for the maghrib prayer, and the strike of the evening breeze, just as I was about to head back before the cemetery gates closed.

One ostensible shrine is contained within the Grand Ummayyad mosque in the old city. John the Baptist, peace be upon him, rests within this grand, historic mosque, with a roofless [though roofed perpetually by a congregation of birds] rectangular courtyard, clad with white marble slabs all around its 50 m by 120 m of expansive open space. At one time this was a church, in fact, after the spread of Islam into Damascus during the reign of the second Caliph �Umar, may Allah be pleased with him, this serene place of worship was divided in half, Muslims and Christians each using their portion to pray to the same God, the One. This tradition of Muslims spreading their wings, welcoming people of other faiths and protecting them as the Qur�an exhorts them to, continues today in Sham and throughout the Muslim world. Only, to verify this great secret, one must not turn to newspapers for information on Islam and Muslims, but hear accounts of those who have been to these lands from ones circle of friends, else, read real literature. As Oscar Wilde said, journalism is unreadable, and literature unread. The prayer hall in the Umayyad is covered with mosaics, the roof held up by long paneled arms, lined with green and gold motif work, and besot with three domes and three minarets. The southeastern minaret, the tallest of the three, is the one wherein the prophet Jesus, peace be upon him, is expected to alight and rain upon the earth with his reign of peace.

To flock to Mecca is a must for every Muslim to renew his faith and rehearse for the parting from this world. Here, La ila ha illa Allah is cemented in his soul. To visit Medina, where is encased the one concerned for all of the created, the prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, is demanded by the heart. Here, one hears the cry of the other half of the creed, �Muhammad ar Rasul Allah.� While Mecca and Medina are mandates, Damascus is a desire, at least for those that come to know of its significance in the realm of all religions. Damascus beckons to the believer. �All those come here who feel haunted by the thought of God.� [7]

1] Lings, Martin. �A Sufi Saint of the Twentieth Century: Ahmad Al Alawi.� Islamic Texts Society, Cambridge, U.K., 1993.
2] Haddad, Gibril. �The Excellence of Syro-Palestine, Al Sham, and its People.� Maktabat al Ahbab, Damascus, 2002.
3] Mannheim, Ivan. �Syria and Lebanon handbook.� Footprint Handbooks, Ltd., Bath, England, 2001.
4] Markowa, Dawna. �How Your Child is Smart.� Conari Press, Berkeley, Ca, 1992.
5] Haddad, Gibril.
6] ibid.
7] Lings, Martin. p.21, quoted by sheikh Ahmad al Alawi to a Westerner who asked him how his disciples find him.
� Asra Bukhari, 2003 - 2004

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