Interview with Rabia Harris
- In Islamic tradition, there are ninety-nine names of God, but these stand for infinite names of God, which are relations between human beings and the Divine. The human being encompasses all the possible relations between creatures and the Creator and it is for the beauty of the manifestation of all of those possibilities that we are here.
- ...we don’t grasp the presence of God . Part of that is that we have expectations of what we think God ought to be doing. Our expectations frequently interrupt our awareness of what God is actually doing. That is a great struggle. Everyone needs to struggle with his or her own demands, because what I want is a veil and my notion of my own welfare is much smaller than God’s notion of my welfare.
- Spiritual life is not a life for cowards.
- One of the fundamental practices is the five-times-a-day prayer. I depend on that. It’s my root and I couldn’t do without it. It’s absolutely essential and, if I were to give that up, God forbid, I think I would lose all balance and direction. It’s like a crystal skeleton upon which everything is built.
- Some Muslims are really attached to the idea that people will go to hell forever and that they will rot there, but the Qur'an is rather subtle about this. It talks about eternity, but eternity is a subtle business. We can learn from our own states that a thing may go on indefinitely in all directions and yet you can be removed from it, even if you can’t get out of it by yourself.
- I saw that F.O.R. (the Fellowship of Reconciliation) was an interfaith organization constructed as an umbrella over a number of single-faith peace fellowships, but there was no Muslim Peace Fellowship. So I asked why there wasn’t one and they said, “Well, we tried several times, but we never got anywhere trying to organize one.” So, I thought, I couldn’t do any worse than they had! So I began to try.
- In my community, even though we aren’t related by blood, we have a common spiritual metabolism.
Ann: I am here with Rabia Harris and we will be talking about the Islamic path. I like to start interviews with each personís prayer, so what would a good prayer with which to start?
Rabia: Well, we always start anything significant that we do with a`udhu biLlahi minash-Shaytan ir-rajim, bismiLlah ir-Rahman ir-Rahim, which means, “I take refuge with God from the accursed Devil, in the name of God, most merciful and most compassionate.” So, I think that should suffice us.
Ann: That covers it, no question about it. What spiritual tradition were you raised in? I use the word spiritual, because I find that with religion it has a different connotation. So, what spiritual tradition?
Rabia: Well, my early tradition has no particular name. I think, for me, you have to know a little about my religious background, because I was born into an interfaith family. My father’s family is Jewish and my mother’s family is Christian.
My father’s family emigrated from Eastern Europe , coming over at the beginning of the twentieth century. They were from Latvia , Russia , and Poland . Dad was born here and is a secular Jew. His parents were observant, but he was secular, as he didn’t want to have anything in particular to do with religious life. As a matter of fact, he has an aversion to it.
My mother’s people hailed from southern Germany and Amsterdam , Holland . They were Christians, largely Episcopalians. That was the German side, but we have the story that this side was originally Catholic. They converted when the priest came around with the collection plate once too often and he was kicked out of the house with the answer that we were henceforward to be Episcopalian. So, my mother was not particularly observant and she never went to church, as far as I know, but she had a strong mystical Christian strain.
My parents married because of mutual attraction. They were the only people in their families to go to college, having a lively intellectual curiosity. They encountered one another relatively late in life, for the times, and, when they married, they made the decision not to have any religious education in the home.
So, I was brought up in an atmosphere that was spiritual, imaginative, and intellectually alive, but no name was given to it. My younger brother and I were exposed to two different sets of traditions, because even though there was nothing in the home, we had both sets of families and we used to celebrate both sets of holidays. So, that’s my background.
Ann: That’s exciting!
Ann: How many years did you follow that path, your parents’ path?
Rabia: Well, with little bits of strain here and there, I followed my parents’ path until I left their house at around eighteen years old. I was three years out of school, between high school and college; I went back to college several years after my cohorts. And I began my spiritual searching when I left my parents’ house and went to California . For three years, I continued with that search, and, when I returned to college for another four, I was a major in the academic study of religion. It was in my senior year of college that I came to Islam.
Ann: Where were you raised?
Rabia: I was raised in the suburbs of Philadelphia .
Ann: What drew you to California ?
Rabia: What draws everyone to California ? I was out for adventure and I wanted to see the world. It was the furthest possible place that I could go from home and I wanted to go out and get into trouble and I promptly did.
Ann: The doors flew open, right?
Rabia: That’s right.
Ann: So, then, tell me about your conversion, change, or awakening to Islam.
Rabia: Well, there are a number of ways that story can be told. The simplest way to tell it is that I was always fascinated by religion, because of my upbringing. My younger brother had no interest in religion, whatsoever, from an early age, and I had an abiding, lively interest in religion. So, when I got out of high school and I took those years off, one of the things that I decided I was going to do was to give myself a reading course in world scripture. I started to read all the major scriptures of the world that I could lay my hands on. I was living in Venice , California , at the time. So, I read the Old (Jewish & Christian scripture) and New (Christian scripture) Testaments, the Upanishads (Hindu scriptures), the Bhagavad-Gita (sacred Hindu text), and various other forms of Tibetan and Buddhist scriptures and, finally, I came upon the Qur'an. This was a Penguin paperback version of the Qur'an and, when I read it, I really disliked it, intensely. This was what I liked least about religion; it seemed to be all fire and brimstone preaching. There was nothing there to appeal to me, at all, but that didn’t make any sense. There are millions of people in the world who order their lives by this book. They must get something out of it and I asked myself, “What do they get out of it?”
About the same time that this question began to bug me, I had started to read the Sufi mystics and I was reading Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi, who was then a rather obscure writer, but now, of course, is the best-selling poet in America . As I read his ideas in a book called Discourses of Rumi, they enormously impressed me . I felt that this man had such humor, such depth, such subtlety, and such generosity of spirit. He answered so many questions that had been with me for such a long time. When he speaks about the Qur'an, he speaks of it with such respect and such affection. He was seeing something that I wasn’t. Whatever he was seeing, I hadn’t seen it and that bothered me, as an intellectual problem.
Later, I decided to relieve the hearts of my parents and turn around and come back from California and go to school. I had already been accepted and had deferred admission. Up to then, I had no plans for my education, except to please them, and I said, “Well, I think I will study Arabic and learn how to read this text in the original and then, maybe, I will understand it better.” So I did.
I went into my freshman year, at Princeton , as an Arabic language student. Very quickly I began to discover, even reading as a novice in the language, that these texts had much more to them than had been conveyed by the translation I had first encountered. I began to get really excited, because I had never seen a book constructed like this. I became very aware that the translation I had read was radically bad! That was my first run-in with translation issues, which of course, in all our religious traditions, provide major complications. Anyway, the more I experimented with the Qur'an and the more deeply that I read into the Sufis, the more attracted I became to that way of life. But I still remained uncommitted, because so many beautiful things can be seen in so many different traditions. I had come to a point where I felt that I could become a Jew, a Christian, a Buddhist, a Hindu, or any of these things. I wondered how to make a decision on this. I didn’t know upon what basis I should make that decision; you can't just flip a coin! Yet I felt my heart drawn in the Sufi direction. Then, when I was a senior in college, by the grace of God, I met some Sufis and that was such a striking experience. They so impressed me as human beings that I said, “Well, that’s what I want to be when
I grow up!” So, some months after, I started to sit with that teacher and his circle, I made my profession of faith and became a practicing Muslim.
Ann: Were you still living in the Princeton area?
Rabia: Yes. At that time I was traveling by bus to see him, periodically, from Princeton up to Spring Valley . Then, about two years later, I moved to the Spring Valley region.
Ann: What is his name?
Rabia: His name is Tosun Bayrak al-Jerrahi. He’s still teaching and his mosque exists in what is now called Chestnut Ridge.
Ann: Oh, I was there when I did the other interview with Barry and we sat in the kitchen.
Rabia: Right, so you may have heard some of these names before.
You said that you had studied spiritual paths, but what was distinct about the Islamic path? Can you say Islamic, only, or do you say Sufi?
Rabia: No, we are practicing Muslims. Sufism cannot be pursued in any depth without the practice of Islam. It’s not possible. There are some who like to reflect on Sufi ideas and they are welcome to do that, but Sufism is a way of life and it is built on the Islamic way of life. You can’t have a house that stands without a foundation. That’s how we understand it. So, sure we can talk about Islam and Sufism as two separate things, but they interpenetrate one another.
Ann: I’ve been up to the “Abode of the Message,” which is a Sufi center.
Rabia: That’s a center in transition. Those are people who are trying to do a Unitarian/Universalistic thing.
Ann: That’s what it felt like to me when I went up there, a long time ago.
Rabia: Their original teacher had other plans. The second generation changed the original teacher’s plans and the third generation, which is where they are now, has begun to turn back to the first. So, they are going through a transformation.
Ann: Now, your mosque has stayed fairly focused on this one teacher, right?
Rabia: Yes, that’s right, because he opened the mosque in the first place, back in 1977, which was when I first encountered him. I was fortunate to have met him only a couple of months after he opened his doors. He’s still there and we’re still with him.
Ann: Is your family with him? Are you married to someone who goes there? Do you have children?
Rabia: Well, I am divorced. I have no kids and I was divorced back in 1981.
Ann: So you’re an independent woman.
Rabia: That’s right. It was after my divorce that I moved to be a part of the mosque community. Before that, I was living in Bloomington , Indiana .
Ann: Can you tell what is distinct about the Islamic path that is different from, say, Judaism, Christianity, or Buddhism, for you, personally? Not academically, though you can cover that if you want, but how did it open your heart?
Rabia: Well, it’s the direction from which God called. I had felt, really, as I described it. At that moment, I could have gone in any direction, or taken any path, but God didn’t call me from the Buddhist or Christian direction. God called me from the Muslim direction and I felt that it would have been drastically ungrateful not to answer that call, no matter which direction it came from. Then, once that door was opened to me, I began to know that there was an enormous treasure of wealth inside that door. I am still learning what to do with some small fraction of that treasure.
Ann: I think I know what you mean by “a call,” because I have definitely have had a call, but could you say something about that, because I think it is an important thing for people to understand, as they read about these different religions. How was “the call” for you?
Rabia: It’s a thing that is outside one’s control, in my experience. It’s almost like magnetism that, if you turn in that particular direction, you move almost despite yourself toward that thing. Whereas, if you turn away from that direction, you feel that you are struggling against something. So, eventually, doing that thing is the equivalent of being true to one’s self.
Ann: Yes, the magnetism I definitely understand.
Do the Sufis use the words “ Holy Spirit,” or is there another name? What I say is that the Holy Spirit called me and came into me. That’s a more Christian term, but is there a term that would be more Sufi than that?
Rabia: We just talk about the guidance of God.
Ann: No intermediary to stretch it out, right?
Who are your spiritual heroes? Certainly, you said Rumi and your Imam.
Rabia: Yes, my shaykh, Tosun Bayrak al-Jerrahi, is my direct teacher and my greatest living hero. Also, in recent times, there has been Shaykh Muzaffer Ozak Efendi, who was my teacher’s teacher. There is also Shaykh Bawa Muhaiyadeen of Philadelphia , who influenced many others. In historical times, someone else who has deeply influenced me is the saint after whom I am named, Rabi`ah al- `Adawiyyah. Also, there is the one whom I consider my intellectual master, Hadrat Muhyiddin ibn al-`Arabi.
Ann: I am so unknowledgeable about your religion and about those people, but what would stand out about them? What is the message that they’re giving that moves you?
Rabia: Well, they are all different.
Ann: Okay, can you tell me some of the differences?
Rabia: All of them provide a means of approach to the enormous spiritual gift that was given to our Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him. However, that gift is so vast and has so many dimensions that it is difficult to encompass it in its entirety. So it’s helpful, sometimes, to have teachers that embody one or another aspect of it in order to draw one closer to just what that point of wisdom, love, subtlety and generosity might be.
With the masters that I’ve encountered through reading, there is a matter of reflection. One delights in the immediate discovery and then there is a time of reflection. For instance, there may be words that come into one’s heart and don’t go away. You keep thinking about ideas, or you keep going back to a poem, and it plays with you inside, until the meaning of it gradually starts to tease out.
The people that I have been fortunate enough to meet in this life have changed my assumptions about what it means to be human and that is a very direct and immediate thing.
Ann: That is what this site is about, so what can you say about that, because in doing these interviews I feel, as you do, that there is real gold to be found in each of these paths and it’s just how you learn to be a human in the highest form. For me, that’s compassion, understanding, service, and intellectual challenge. What would you say about that question, “What does it mean to be human?”
Rabia: That’s what our whole business is about and the way we understand that is probably best transmitted in story terms.
In the Islamic tradition, in the Qur'an, we are told that before the creation of human beings, God brought the angels together and said, “I’m going to make a representative on the earth.”
The angels raised objections, saying, “What? You’re going to do that? You’re going to put somebody there who is going to cause corruption and shed blood when we already sing Your praises and glorify You?”
God replied, “I know something you don’t know,” and He created the first human being. This was before the separation of the sexes, so this was a universal human being, which we call “Adam.” Then, God brings Adam before the angels and He asks them, “Can you tell me the names of these?” In the Qur'an this term “these” is kind of mysterious. You know, of these, of what?
So, the angels reply, “Well, You know perfectly well that we only know what You have taught us and we can’t answer that question.”
So, God says to Adam, “Teach them the names.” And the human being teaches the names to the angels, becoming the teacher of the angels. At that point, God says to the angels, “Prostrate yourselves to Adam!” And they do, except for this one character, and this character refuses to do that.
What this character is doing there, in the first place, is left open in the Qur'an, but there he is. He is held to be a spirit, and there he is in the convocation of angels, and God said to him, “What’s wrong with you? Why won’t you prostrate yourself to that which I have created with My two hands?”
The spirit replies, “Well, you have created me of fire and you have created that of clay and I’m better!” There we have the original sin. It is not a human problem. That spirit, later called the Devil, committed the original sin.
So, God says, “We don’t need you here anymore. Go away.”
And the Devil says, “Wait, wait, you’re wrong! Let me show You that I’m right about this thing that You just made. I’m going to mislead these beings from every possible direction and these creatures will never remember you!”
Then, God responds, saying, “Go ahead and try.”
After that, the whole Biblical story of the Fall develops. So, what we take from this Qur'anic prologue to the classic story of Genesis (is that the human being, even before the Fall, was expected to fall. That was the objection of the angels. “Are You going to put somebody there who is going to cause corruption and shed blood?” The value, though, of humanity was such that God was willing to risk those dangers in order to put us here to do our job, which was to be His mirror. Humans were to be the representatives of divine qualities, to embody the divine qualities, in the material world. The way the Sufis have understood this mysterious business of “the names,” which has been taken up by a great many mainstream Islamic theologians (although Sufis have developed it to a high degree of subtlety and beauty), is that those names are the divine names. In Islamic tradition, there are ninety-nine names of God, but these stand for infinite names of God, which are relations between human beings and the Divine. The human being encompasses all the possible relations between creatures and the Creator and it is for the beauty of the manifestation of all of those possibilities that we are here.
So, there you are.
Ann: That’s a beautiful story. I’ve never heard that.
Rabia: I have been molded by this story and it is fundamental to the whole of my life.
Ann: Have you had any experiences that have taken you to the edge of despair where you could feel spirit, or God, or the aspects of the angels with you?
Rabia: Yes, I’ve had that experience. I don’t really want to talk too much about those things, because I hold those experiences to be private experiences, but I know what that is.
Ann: Would you be able to say something more intellectual about it, then, for somebody who is seeking? If you’re on a path and you’re devoted to the path, is there some safety for a person? Is there someone there?
Rabia: There is always someone there. It’s just that we don’t grasp the presence of God . Part of that is that we have expectations of what we think God ought to be doing. Our expectations frequently interrupt our awareness of what God is actually doing. That is a great struggle. Everyone needs to struggle with his or her own demands, because what I want is a veil and my notion of my own welfare is much smaller than God’s notion of my welfare. That, I believe, is true of everyone.
Ann: Yes, I believe that too. So, if you get into ego, arrogance, and plans it may not be the best, but with meditation, service and a good community sometimes it is easier to stay on path.
Rabia: Those things all help and are essential, because we are all growing. We’re all learning and we all start as beginners. It hurts to grow inside and there is no escape from that. Spiritual life is not a life for cowards. Another line from Rumi that goes with the spiritual path, in general, is that the model of it is, “Roses, roses, thorns, thorns!”
Ann: Yes, that’s right. We get to know where the thorns are and you can be a little more careful about getting stuck, right? The thorns are there, at any age.
Rabia: That’s right!
Ann: People say to me, “Oh Ann, you’re so spiritual and everything must be so wonderful” and I reply, “I don’t think so!”
Rabia: No, that’s not what it’s about.
Ann: It’s a nice fairytale idea, but it’s always about going to that next level, more growth and what you’re supposed to let go of. It doesn’t stop. So, what spiritual practices do you use, yourself, to stay in harmony with that higher vision, or energy, or light?
Rabia: Well, one of the fundamental practices is the five-times-a-day prayer. I depend on that. It’s my root and I couldn’t do without it. It’s absolutely essential and, if I were to give that up, God forbid, I think I would lose all balance and direction. It’s like a crystal skeleton upon which everything is built. Other than that, there is the community life and its rituals. These are Sufi ritual practices, which I also depend on, but much less than the salat, the formal prayer. The basic practices of Islam are like a rock; the praying, the fasting, the tithe and even the Pilgrimage (to Mecca ), although we only have to do that once in our lifetime. The Pilgrimage is a grand, transformative experience and one goes back to those memories.
Ann: Have you done the Pilgrimage?
Rabia: Yes, I’ve done it.
Ann: Have you done it more than once?
Rabia: Yes, in fact, I’ve been to Mecca three times. Twice I have been to make the Pilgrimage and once to make the Visitation, which is out of season. This is because the proper Pilgrimage, which is an obligation for those who can afford it, has to be done at a particular time of year. There are huge crowds, with four million people and more, and there isn’t much leisure time for sightseeing, so it’s nice to go back, out of season without the pressure of the crowds, and just visit the sights and see them more clearly.
Ann: Do men and women go together?
Rabia: Yes, that’s right.
Ann: Have you noticed anything hard about being Islamic for a woman?
Rabia: Well, it depends on the circles in which you travel. In Sufi circles, I have never found the slightest difficulty in it. At first, it was a struggle sitting separately, as I wasn’t brought up like that. However, it’s only part of the time and not all of the time. Once I got used to that and I stopped kicking, screaming and fighting over it, I realized there were great advantages to spending substantial portions of time in the company of women. I was actually very happy to spend time in the company of women. I think it would be harder if that was all I ever got to do, but that’s not the way that we live. In some Muslim circles that is the way that people live and I would find that very difficult, indeed, but that was not how I was trained.
Ann: You are so intellectually bright and so ahead of yourself, even as a young girl Are there any limitations on you in the Muslim community, because of your smarts?
Rabia: Well, yes and no. It’s respected. I’m very much respected in my community, because intellect is respected in the Muslim community. However, no matter who has it, it always has a tendency to distance you a little bit from people. If you’re particularly gifted with intellect, other people tend to be afraid of you and that is pretty much universal. So, that takes some work to overcome. Part of the way I try to do that is to be silly a lot, which is a lot of fun.
Ann: Do you do any teaching at the mosque?
Rabia: No, we’re not constructed that way. The mosque teaching is all done around a single teacher, but he sometimes sends me out to be his spokesperson and there is a lot of informal conversation that goes on. Apart from the mosque, I have this other position as the coordinator of the Muslim Peace Fellowship.
Ann: Speak about that, because that is an interesting thing.
Rabia: Yes, that was a strange spin-off of the relationship between our mosque and the Fellowship of Reconciliation, where we are now sitting and speaking.
Back at the outset of the Bosnian war, our teacher, Tosun Bayrak Efendi, went to Bosnia to see what we could do for the people there. First, he wanted to deal with small children. Then he realized that there were huge obstacles and red tape preventing small children from being taken out of the country. Also, the family structure there was firm enough that relatives were taking care of many orphaned children. So he didn’t worry quite so much about them, as he had done originally. However, there were all sorts of older kids, high school and college kids, who were absolutely stranded, because they had been going to school under state subsidy in the previous regime and, all of a sudden, that was withdrawn. It all became nationalistic. So, if you were in Zagreb , you could only get your education if you were a Croat. For those living in Belgrade , in the Serbian territories, you could only get education if you were a Serb. Many of these kids were living on the streets of major cities, selling their blood to survive, because all their money had evaporated and they couldn’t get home due to the war. So our teacher began to be concerned about bringing those kids over here to continue their education, because it was at that time that the Serbs began massacring the intelligentsia, wanting to wipe out any possibility of regeneration for the Muslims. Getting those kids over here would, first, save their lives, and second, assist them to make a new professional class for Bosnia for when the terror was over.
We sent out hundreds and hundreds of letters. I remember sitting down with other members of the mosque to send them out, one afternoon, to all sorts of colleges and universities, asking them if they would take Bosnian kids. We got no acceptances, except for one Christian college that agreed to take a Christian. So, we sent them a Christian, as we had all sorts of refugees! At that point, we realized that Muslims simply had no credibility and no one was going to listen to us, as we were.
So Tosun Efendi got together with Doug Hostetter, the then head of this organization, the Fellowship of Reconciliation (F.O.R.), who later became the head of its Interfaith and International Department. He asked if they could work together. Doug got very interested in this idea and the mosque and F.O.R. built a joint project, called The Bosnian Student Project. F.O.R. has local groups all over the country, and many of its members are academics. So F.O.R. was able to send out the call to its membership, asking if they could bug their deans and administrations for scholarships for kids from Bosnia , and they did it! Each one had to be individually negotiated, they had to have host families and it was a whole saga. Anyway, they brought over, one by one, a hundred and fifty young people.
So, that built very strong relations between the mosque and F.O.R. and, when an opening came up on the staff here, my shaykh told me to go and apply for that opening. I was in a completely different line of work at that point, but he said, “Go and get it.” The job here was on a magazine and I had done a lot of freelance editing. I didn’t really want it, but he told me to apply. I ignored him for about two months and then my job went bad and I realized I should apply for this other job. That’s how I came to F.O.R.
When I arrived, I saw that F.O.R. was an interfaith organization constructed as an umbrella over a number of single-faith peace fellowships, but there was no Muslim Peace Fellowship. So I asked why there wasn’t one and they said, “Well, we tried several times, but we never got anywhere trying to organize one.” So, I thought, I couldn’t do any worse than they had! So I began to try.
That was in 1994, when we got it off the ground, and we’ve been continuing ever since. We’ve developed a modest, but solid, reputation. We have a website and we have about four hundred members scattered around the world in little groups, here and there, with a person or two from forty different countries. After September 11th, everyone wanted to speak with Muslim peace activists, and that put me on the road. So now I do a great deal of public speaking, seminar work, and so forth and so on. That’s that story.
Ann: What is it that is important to tell people when you go speaking, as a Muslim? What are the key pieces that you want to get across?
Rabia: First is the enormous diversity of the Islamic world. People very frequently assume that Islam is this horrible monolith that is bearing down on them. It is a fantasy and it’s very necessary for people to see that we are a very variegated and diverse group. Not only are we from all sorts of cultural and ethnic backgrounds, but also from all sorts of ideological positions and this is fine. Another thing is to try slowly to communicate to people that we have common work and that Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists and everybody with a spiritual commitment has a common job that we must take on. Sometimes I come out and say that and sometimes I just hint at it. It just depends where the session goes. I also, simply, like to take a lot of questions. That’s what I do.
Ann: So where do you see the highest value for service? What do you see as the major thing that we should do, right now, for service, as a community of spiritual seekers?
Rabia: There are so many opportunities for service that we can barely count them all. I would say, in this country, the most important thing for us to do is to overcome racism. It absolutely has to happen and, unless people of faith commit themselves to that, I don’t think it will move. I think that the mainstream white community has become blind to the issue and hasn’t correctly weighed it and, as long as that continues, this country will bleed spirit and will lose much more than we could ever gain. So, I really think that is our first priority, here.
Elsewhere, where is the crisis? Well, right now, it is in the older Islamic countries and in Africa that the most work really needs to be done. The United States has left a huge mess in Afghanistan . We’ve got a huge mess in Iraq , which we are standing in the way of solving, rather than solving. God alone knows where that is going to go. There must be justice for the Palestinians. All of this is pressing and our moral responsibility. Then, the African scene, especially the AIDS scene, is very grave and needs a huge amount of commitment. Anything that we can do to assist those people to cope with that situation can only be for the benefit of the whole world.
Ann: Yes, because whole countries are going to be wiped out.
Rabia: Yes, it’s entirely possible and may we be preserved from it.
Ann: I was working with a woman, the other day, who has an orphanage where there are a thousand children and she is going across America trying to get funding. Americans are reaching out, so I think if you pose it in the way where it is action-orientated then I think we can be more resolve-oriented. In this way, I think that people will give.
Thank you, that was very beautiful what you had just said, but let’s shift the focus a bit. Do you think that God can hear us when we pray, or talk?
Rabia: Oh, of course! What kind of a God would It be if It couldn’t hear us when we prayed, or talked? I can’t even imagine what you’d be praying to that wouldn’t listen to you.
Ann: How about God’s answers to us?
Rabia: God’s answers are continuous. We don’t necessarily notice them. The fact that we continue to breathe is a continuous answer from God. It’s like we were talking about before; our expectations block our perceptions of what is really there. That’s a regular thing.
Ann: Yes, just the flowers on the table and the river, the beauty of what is around us, at all times, as well as our families and our work.
Rabia: Even in the continuing change in our perceptions. You know, we aren’t responsible for that. Where does it come from?
Ann: You mean that there is spiritual help for our perceptions?
Rabia: Yes, that’s right.
Ann: I do find that, if I seek, if I’m praying, reading, and serving, there are things that come in and I don’t know where they come from. They’re there for me. I’m older and I’m sixty-nine, but for someone younger it can be harder to hear, sometimes.
Rabia: Yes, I think so, but that’s part of growing. We’re not supposed to know it all, at the beginning. We’re supposed to learn it as we go along.
Ann: That’s right.
How does your spiritual community enrich your life?
Rabia: That is my great joy, especially as my destiny has not led me into marriage, so far, and I’ll never have children. I may, who knows? One day, I may adopt children. It’s open. The everyday intimacies that people rely on, I get from community. I don’t get them from a husband or from bringing up kids. I get them from the community that I participate in, so that’s very strengthening and it gives me a great deal of satisfaction.
Ann: You’ve been in the community for a long period of time.
Rabia: For ages, that’s right. So, it becomes like an extended family.
Ann: Definitely, they know you.
Rabia: We all know each other and we are all very close. Not everyone is drastically in love with one another. In every family you don’t like every person, but they’re blood. In my community, even though we aren’t related by blood, we have a common spiritual metabolism. That is the trick.
Ann: How big a community is that?
Rabia: Including the kids, every Saturday we cook for about one hundred and twenty people.
Ann: Oh, that’s big.
Rabia: Yes, it’s big, including the kids. Then, there are all sorts of people that we only see a few times a year, but I’d say that if you brought everybody in, it would be about a couple of hundred people.
Ann: So, you will do a service and then you all get together, cook, and serve lunch and dinner?
Rabia: Yes, we do prayers, dinner, the shaykh teaches, we just hang out and then we do the Sufi rituals together. Usually there are two sets of Islamic evening prayers, as there is an evening prayer and a night prayer and, in-between and after these, we fit in all the rest of it. So, we usually run from about six o’clock to about midnight , every week. People come and go and whenever you want to show up, you show up. You come when you want and everyone knows, more or less, when things happen. So, that’s our anchor, but we have other things. A smaller group meets every Monday to practice singing the religious songs that we use in our rituals, or just for the pleasure of them. They’re from the Turkish tradition, mostly. Then, during Ramadan, we get together every night, but there is always a lot of visiting back and forth and general hanging out of friends. We call each other on the phone; keep up with one another’s stuff, and everybody’s kids run in and out of each other’s yards. It’s like that.
Ann: So everybody is living quite close to one another?
Rabia: Many of us live within a few blocks of one another.
Ann: Oh, that’s nice, too.
Rabia: Yes, but obviously not everybody lives close like this.
Ann: What does Sufism, or Islam, say about bad things happening to good people?
Rabia: Oh, bad things always happen to good people. They happen to bad people, too. Bad things happen. There are different ways to handle that, but the fundamental way to handle that is in terms of teaching. That is, if there is a difficulty that one encounters then there is something to be learned from it. Sometimes there is something fairly simple to be learned and sometimes there is something extremely difficult and profound to be learned. We don’t necessarily grasp what we are being taught when we are suffering that bad thing. The meaning of it may come to us years afterwards. The difficulty of it is that if we are struck a particularly hard blow is it going to interrupt our faith? There is always a test there. Are we going to stay connected, or are we going to let go of our connection? We can only hope, turn to God and pray that our connection will remain. If we lose hold, God will not lose hold.
Ann: So, when that loving energy is around you, in your grief you can’t hear it, or feel it.
Rabia: That’s right.
Ann: That’s where community can come in, for the death of someone in your family, like a spouse, child, mother, or father. It doesn’t matter. At those times, it is very hard to believe that God is there.
Rabia: Yes, but in those times, there is much to be learned. We need to come to terms with death. We don’t want to understand death. We don’t want to think about our own death, but, unless we can, our lives don’t take on their intrinsic nobility. We become trivial.
Ann: You’re right, when people have not struggled, there can be an emptiness, or vainness. Yet people who have been through things have great compassion and understand the light. So, I agree with you there. You don’t wish it on anybody, ever, but it is true.
What do you say about when people die? Is that important to know about? Are there angels and a heaven?
Rabia: What happens?
Rabia: We have a whole teaching about that and it can be a great comfort. We definitely believe in a life after death. We believe that there is a Day of Judgment and everyone is accountable, but that the grand accounting is in the hands of the Most Merciful and Compassionate. There is a heaven and a hell and, of the ones who are in hell, many will be released, dependent on the mercy of God. Some even say that everyone will be released except for the hypocrites. It’s better to be a sinner than a hypocrite!
Ann: I’ve worked in prisons for seven years and psychiatric hospitals for another seven years and what may look like sin from outside, when you hear a person’s story, you think, “Of course! Where else could they have gone?” God’s compassion is far better and bigger than mine. So, it’s hard for me to get my own mind around hell.
Rabia: Is it?
Rabia: Well, we believe that it’s a balancing act. We will go to that treatment that our heart requires and, if we haven’t accounted for things in this life, we will account for them later. Some Muslims are really attached to the idea that people will go to hell forever and that they will rot there, but the Qur'an is rather subtle about this. It talks about eternity, but eternity is a subtle business. We can learn from our own states that a thing may go on indefinitely in all directions and yet you can be removed from it, even if you can’t get out of it by yourself. The Qur'an tells us, about heaven and paradise, that it continues eternally and is a promise never to be broken by God. It also tells us about hell, that it continues eternally, except as God wills. So I think that there is a trapdoor out of hell. There are all sorts of talk in the traditions of the Prophet, which are not Qur'anic, about the intercessions that can be made for the people who are suffering, because of their deeds. Our Prophet is the intercessor for all of the Muslims, the other prophets will intercede for their communities and all of the Muslims who are accepted have their own intercessions that they can make. We might extend that to all people of faith who are accepted. They will have their own intercessions to make. So the love and compassion that is in our hearts, even if it can’t play itself out fully in this world, we can hope it will have some utility in the next, as well.
Ann: Is there any sense of reincarnation?
Rabia: No. We don’t follow that teaching. There is one life. However, we do believe that this is only one bit of a long story. We believe there was a pre-existence of which we remember very little and that the afterlife is far greater than, but not comparable to, this life. The variety and complexity of this life lead from here, onward, into an infinite synthesis. Such a thing is not possible here, so there would be no necessity to come back here.
Ann: So, why do we come? There is something before we are born and then we come here for maybe thirty, eighty, or one hundred years, before advancing to this next level. So, what is the reason for even coming here?
Rabia: This is the testing ground. This is the job. The created world is the job and part of it is for the purpose of seeing the unseeable, to understand the invisible in the visible and to glorify the Creator in the creation when it’s hardest to do. In the rest of the invisible universe, it’s very easy to do. We come here, because this is where it is very hard to do and it’s the crux. We don’t know all of the connections that go out from the work we do here, but to find the beauty in the challenge is our job.
Ann: Is there any ancestor worship? In the spiritual realm, are there ancestors that are helping you, too?
Rabia: We don’t believe in worshipping anything except God. Only God. Some people do, however, feel connections to teachers of previous eras and the strongest, of course, is to the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him. Many of us feel he is spiritually present and that if we live according to his way of life, we harmonize ourselves with his frequency, if you will. It then becomes more possible to receive that guidance, which is never absent. Sufis believe that all of the Prophets are present in that way and teaching can be received from them by living in resonance, but that’s a very esoteric spiritual topic. So, yes, we believe that it is quite possible, but it is not worship, because even a Prophet of the highest station is still a created being. It is just the commonality of creation that transcends time.
Ann: So really Muhammad is available from the spiritual realm and that is my job, to get to that frequency.
Rabia: That’s right. Then, to the extent that I could even begin to approximate that, I can receive some of that light, while understanding that what he is teaching is the worship of God, not the worship of himself. Ancestor worship, saint worship, is not how we understand things at all.
Ann: In closing, what would you like to share about seeking a spiritual path? If someone was questioning, what would you say to him or her?
Rabia: Keep your ethics straight. There are a lot of people who are in this for the money. There are a lot of straightforward frauds and there are a lot of self-deluded people who think they have the right to teach and don’t. If we don’t lose track of fundamental, hardheaded, ethical decision-making, such folks won’t fool us. Every seeker needs a bullshit detector. If you have that down, take some risks, follow your intuition, taste things and see what tastes best. When you find something real, commit.
Ann: What would you say would show up, very quickly, in a bullshit detector?
Rabia: I would say arrogance, self-interest, sexual immorality and exploitation of members of a community, avarice and, also, delusion. A lot of those things will show up very quickly, if you don’t throw away your intelligence when you go out on this quest.
Ann: So, say a little bit about delusion. What do you mean by that?
Rabia: That’s the most difficult of all. There are a lot of people who can have uncommon experiences, visions, and unusual states and we can become terribly impressed with them. That is a trap and those things, in themselves, don’t have any intrinsic value. They can show you that there is more to reality than you thought, but they don’t have, in themselves, intrinsic value. People who are mostly interested in creating special effects often don’t have anything of lasting of value to offer.
Ann: Yes, that’s very helpful. Do you have anything else to share in closing?
Rabia: No, I’m intrigued that you managed to get me talking about this stuff. That was well done!
Ann: Thank you. Well, my heart and interest is here.
Rabia: I look forward to seeing the other interviews on your site.
Ann: Well, thank you, and I really do appreciate your time.Rabia: Thank you.