Juz’ 9: The cycles of history and the human soul

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“And We sent to no city a prophet [who was denied] except that We seized its people with poverty and hardship that they might humble themselves [to Allah ]. Then We exchanged in place of the bad [condition], good, until they increased [and prospered] and said, “Our fathers [also] were touched with hardship and ease. So We seized them suddenly while they did not perceive.”
{7:94 -95}

One year ago we moved from Egypt to Andalusia to escape the turmoil of the present and seek solace in nostalgia for the past. I had visited Granada and Cordoba ten years before, a year or two after I chose the path of Islam, when its citrus scented patios, narrow cobble-stoned alleys, and traces of religious convivencia filled me with that same romantic longing for a lost, yet tangibly present al-Andalus, eulogized by the many Muslim pilgrims who paved my way there.

If post-colonial alienation, dispossession and political corruption are the modern manifestations of the scourges faced by the peoples of Prophetic times, then al-Andalus fulfills the role of the pristine state to which Muslims long to return – the paradise that exiled us for the archetypal sins of decadence, lust for power and arrogance. One of the most powerful expressions of al-Andalus as metaphor for moral failure, displacement, and loss is Mahmoud Darwish’s haunting “Eleven Stars Over al-Andalus” (a reference to the prophecies of Yusuf, peace be upon him, whose dream interpretations earned him his freedom):

“Our tea is green and hot: drink it. Our pistachios are fresh; eat them.
The beds are of green cedar, fall on them,
following this long siege, lie down on the feathers of our dream. 
The sheets are crisp, perfumes are ready by the door, and there are 
plenty of mirrors:
Enter them so we may exist completely. Soon we will search
In the margins of your history, in distant countries, 
For what was once our history. And in the end we will ask ourselves:
Was Andalusia here or there? On the land…or in the poem?”

Darwish’s city on the hill, his al-Andalus/Palestine appears forever lost, but the human story told by the Qur’an is not linear like the story of modernity and progress – the story of either continual improvement or irredeemable loss, in which historical events move in orderly sequence towards an inevitable destination. Like the revolution of the globe, the turn of the seasons and the movements of the human soul, Qur’anic history is cyclical. After poverty and hardship, unheeded Prophetic warnings and corrective afflictions, men and women have always returned to the signs within and without and found the patience to brave life’s tragedies without losing faith:

“And We caused the people who had been oppressed to inherit the eastern regions of the land and the western ones, which We had blessed. And the good word of your Lord was fulfilled for the Children of Israel because of what they had patiently endured. And We destroyed [all] that Pharaoh and his people were producing and what they had been building.”
{7:137}

The small mountain village of Orgiva where we settled was once the last Muslim foothold against the bloody persecution of the reconquistadores. The chapels and churches that perch in the rocky outcrops of the Sierra Nevada hide countless Muslim and Jewish bodies, and whitewashed walls occasionally crumble to reveal time-worn pages of Qur’anic scripture once placed there to bless the home. At fiestas and in my daughter’s public school history classes the Reconquest is remembered as the defeat of an occupying force, yet the locals channel their Moorish ancestors in the rhythm of their speech and the network of canals that give life to the land.

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These are cherished relics for the Muslim pilgrims who come to spin moral stories and dreams of imperial glory out of al-Andalus’ past. Faith may find support in these tales, but can only give life when rooted in the here and now. The Sufis discussed time in terms of waqt (momentary time) or hal (present), which grant real existence only to immanent experience. The Turkish theologian and reformer Said Nursi wrote that, after creation, the past comes to us through the future and then becomes the past once more. As we move through time, past and present are non-existent and only our current ‘state’ is real.

In Orgiva, the wheel of history revolved into the 21st century carrying hippie seekers and countercultural travelers, barefoot and in beat-up vans. With them arrived the small Sufi community, who built a flat-roofed lodge among the olive groves in the traditional style of the Alpujarras and filled it with Persian rugs, Egyptian prayer-beads, and dhikr, the remembrance of God.

Most of them are Spanish converts who found their way to Islam through their names, their dreams or the teachings of their Turkish Shaykh, who advised them to mine their history to define who they are in the present. Like Baseera, whose deep crow’s feet dance mischievously around her eyes when she relates how her ex-husband rushed to the mosque to say his shahada after he had a vision of the last bloody battle between Muslims and Catholics while tripping on acid in the Sierra Nevada. Or Dorri, who traveled to Chefchaoen in the Moroccan rif for “a taste of the Spanish past” and potent hashish. While her friends slept off their high one morning, she lay awake, pregnant and lucid, and listened in wonder as the phantom melody of the dawn prayer wove its way through the roaring static of an electrical storm. Then there are those who retraced the steps of Tariq ibn Ziyad, revolving into Iberia on the same waves, but in leaking lifeboats, bound to be fugitives rather than victors. Like dreadlocked and soft-spoken Muhammad from Marrakesh, who serves food and sells homemade sweets at the Sufi lodge to assuage the harsh edges of his illegality. Or the bright Senegalese hawker I met on the sea-shore last week, who forces trinkets on condescending bathers on weekends to make a pittance for the family back home, but still sends blessings on Granada every night when he takes out his prayer beads and recites the Mouridiyya litany.

On the margins of Spain, this ragtag community of faith gives new life to Islam by coming together and remembering God. At times inspired by a past that might have been glorious, and might have been unbearably cruel, but determined to harness all the contradictory forces of the present to the invocation of Divine blessing. The Andalusia I live is far more complex than the al-Andalus I dreamed, but the contemplation of its loops through time helps me come to terms with the tragedies that plague the Egypt I left. As a beloved teacher once explained, the ibn al-waqt (‘child of time’) lives in the moment, outside of past and future, attending to his or her obligations in the here and now, no matter its challenges, and fully conscious that Divine time may send its miracles tearing through the pattern of human history at any moment.

You can find the Dutch translation of this text on Wij blijven hier!

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