Madnas

…"There is a pleasure sure in being MAD, Which none but mad men know" John Dryden…

… For Lahore, my unrequited love…

Where I lived, we could no longer see stars at night or glow-worms in summer. Not long ago, times were simpler and when you sang ‘twinkle-twinkle little stars’ to your younger cousins, you had something to show for it on the sky. You could use your morning paper to kill mosquitoes or wipe tea spills. Now, there is just a lot of local blood splattered by bombs on the morning paper and too many words written there, which were not an ingredient of our morning tea. Sure, there were bombs exploding elsewhere but now the blood is spilling too close for comfort, in Karachi, Rawalpindi and even in my hometown, Lahore.

Where I live now, in Texas, there are plenty of stars to be seen but no one talks about ‘twinkle-twinkle little stars’. They have other rhymes now that I am too old, too foreign for. It’s a small town, where the calamities include a road accident damaging a car, a shoe robbery and loss of power for a grand total of six minutes. Not bombs, no. No blood.

And when Lahore is set ablaze by several bombs in a day, when forty coffins await their burial, the prayers and the tears, I wonder why people around me are watching basketball tonight? Why is the local television station talking about planting a silly plant in spring? When the nurse at the clinic asks me the where-are-y’all-from question, I wonder why she’s smiling when I say ‘Pakistan’? Does she not know what is happening to this Pakistan of mine? Does she not know my six-year old nephew back in Lahore felt the jolts of bombs going off near his school TWICE?

The fact remains, she’s not a dweller of the bubble.
I am.

There are several fresh-off-the-boats like me here but they don’t live in my bubble. Their hands don’t tremble with grief, anger and helplessness when they read “45 dead in Lahore blasts”. True, I’ve spent more years outside Pakistan than in Pakistan – true, I was looking forward to relocating to a new country, in pursuit of living out my ‘Islamic dream life’, and to a satisfactory degree, I have achieved that.

But Lahore, you, you are and will remain my unrequited love. Your food knotted my stomach and gave me the runs. Your noise challenged my basic nervous system. Your energy exhausted me in my youth. But I still indulged in this platonic affection for you. Perhaps I was a weakling … perhaps I could only deal with miniatures, when you were the stuff for a life-sized mural.

And still caught in that distant love for you, I lack the words to tell you what I feel for you when you bleed like this.

And when I find no listener, I talk to my three-month old daughter… I tell her how absolutely sad mama is for Lahore today. As long as she doesn’t understand human language, she shares my bubble…

Just when we thought we were healing.

… Reclaiming my Religion …

… From them.

Of course it’s depressing but not entirely new: this isn’t the first such course Islam has had to live through. Muslims have had several lows – spiritual, physical, material -  some of it was their own doing, the rest is just characteristic of world history, change of power. Muslims have killed each other since forever, graphically too, for politics, money and ironically, for thinking one has a better claim to Islam than the other person reciting the qalima.

And so, it is happening again. In Pakistan, too.

On the morning of the showdown in Lahore, I received a call from one of my significant others. She was concerned like every other Pakistani, of course, but was also concerned about her son because he has just started growing his beard, “just like the terrorist who got caught”. Whatever the controversy over the complusion of beard in Islam is, if there is any, to leave this practice only because the so-called “Islamist terrorists” do it, is worrying.

If we let go of our beliefs because of them, they have won already.

Not only have they terrorized us from stepping out of the house, they have terrorized us from practicing our religion the way we want to. Initially I felt pity for some of these suicide-bombers, deeming them victims of indoctrination. But  for how long, how long can you pity a nineteen-year old who blows himself up, thinking he has a better claim to the qalima than you and I do, and destroys hundreds of families with one trigger. There is a limit to how much one can justify and I am tired of looking at things from their perspective when all they have to offer is suffering and doom to us, day after day after day. The only, sadly, bright side of the story is you actually see Pakistani people celebrating with the police. No one in our history has been able to do that – turn us in favor of our police force. But really, celebrate what?

…Sabiha Aunty…..

It’s not unusual to keep pictures of your significant others in your wallet. It only becomes unusual when one of the pictures belong to a woman who is your friend’s mother. Anyone who reads this, today or ever, have you heard of someone carrying a picture of their friend’s mother in their wallet?

Sabiha Aunty is my significant other.

I insist on using present tense for her even though I was told a few hours ago, “she is no more”, in the exact words of a friend. No one who has breathed on this planet can ever be “no more”… and then, a person like Sabiha Aunty?

sabs

It is very hard to identify with someone’s death if you’re sitting in another country. Until you visit the empty bed, empty chair, empty place, you continue to imagine them there. I continue to imagine her in her black 2.0 D and chaadar. I continue imagining her engulfing embrace, her “come on”, her laughter, her eagerness to help before you even realize you need help, her love for Allah’s creation – children, birds, animals – you name it, her driving anyone and everyone across the town for learning, her simple but convincing social skills, her hospitality, her ability to take care of everyone, her ability to play the man and the woman in every situation. The list could go on and on.

I don’t understand why we wait for someone to die before we celebrate them. Inside me, all around me, there are so many artifacts of my life signed by her, with her pen and mostly, with her love. From books to bed linen, perfumes to pens, and above all, the sort of inspiration that’s extremely rare. The world is full of inspiring speakers but it’s very hard to be an inspiring do-er with persistence. I know everyone who knew her could make the claim that they were her favorite or closest to her. I can sincerely make that claim and believe it with my heart that anyone who makes such a claim is sincere. That’s just who she was. I feel lucky, unrandomly lucky, to have known her so well and to have shared so much with her.

InshAllah Allah SWT will be proud of her. That’s the kind of person she was, a woman who’d inshAllah make Allah proud of His creation.

…My Starfish Pen…

One day my pen broke.

So, of course, there was a lot of ink splatter. Nothing red though, nothing gory or loud. Just blue ink. No, purple actually. Lots of purple ink, watery, pigmented, but nothing you could make inkblot butterflies out of. Heaps of white pages went to waste and the damage to the pen seemed irreversible.

I hid the pen. It was my pen, not Dorian Gray’s.

Who’s Dorian Gray?

When my pen was functional, Oscar Wilde stimulated it. So Dorian Gray hid his beautiful self-portrait and wished for himself to remain beautiful forever. Left to the worship of pleasurable senses alone, Dorian remained beautiful, while his self-portrait suffered his age and the brunt of his ugliness, his sins.

Like I said, it’s not Dorian Gray’s pen we’re talking about.

My pen came from simpler times, simpler places. Like a starfish. More approachable, right there in the ocean, very basic. And it regenerates its arm. That’s what my pen did. Regenerated.

I didn’t have to look for it, it came looking for me… having regenerated another feature.

It masters me now. I don’t need… I cannot control Oscar Wilde or Wordsworth to stimulate the pen now. Something else stimulates it.

The most important thing in life cannot be written down in a blog. It cannot be written down at all. Period. Stomach it already!

It cannot be known. In a dream-like life, why must something resembling sadness come, right out of a thundering sky? And like a redundant duo of a mystery and a sci-fi movie, the pen drags you away, away from needles, spoons, away from the hand. Even from the hand? How can this pen do that… and why. Why, when it won’t even write down the most important thing in life. Or even something of a lesser degree, lesser importance, anything.

And now, I think the pen is done.

Wasteful.

Before it broke, it wrote two books, poetry, diary. It wrote everything but a blog. The blog came later. Did the blog break it? I don’t remember. But I remember I wrote stuff with it. It was my pen then, not an alter ego that I have no control over.

I don’t miss the pen.

I miss Mom.

So that’s what it is.

How hard was that, seriously.

… His-Story…

The short life of my nephew.

…Relax?…

The concepts of wait and faith are incongruous, like an oxymoron that somehow has to coexist in nature. I can deal with that, by struggling or pretending. What I cannot deal with anymore is the casual, almost cruel adage: “If you just relax, it will happen.”

For years, I tried to find solace in that.

All I had to do was relax, and it will happen, whatever I want? Sounds unfair but not impossible. But these wise words have something behind them, a simplicity you find in religious scruples too, that makes them more adhere-able than man-made, aureate philosophies.

This event in life has made me question that relax-and-it-will-happen sermon. If I relax, it may never happen. If I don’t relax, it may still never happen. Now, I feel violated and humiliated when someone asks me to relax. If I could go into the future and see the outcome of my struggle, my suffering, I may consider relaxing. At the moment, that luxury is not available to me and so, I choose not to relax.

… It is 4:05 pm…

It is 4:05 p.m.: There are men of all ages, walking towards their local mosque, discussing events of the day, politics, inflation, or illnesses. The prayer begins and there is that usual scuttling of people as they make lines to join other worshippers. All of this is normal, of course. and everyone is functioning mechanically, in a fashion we are used to in our automated times.
At 4:07 p.m., all is not normal inside the building. A spine-tearing noise emanates from inside the mosque, turning human lives into a mass of rubble, limbs and cries. Half an hour later, this becomes the breaking news item on television. Location, casualties, sights and sounds surrounding the event are all taken care of by reporters. The presentation on television ends with that clichéd comment: “According to the local police, this is the sixth suicide bombing in our city since…”
Another day, another city: a five-star hotel expecting foreign visitors makes the headline. The alleged suicide bomber only manages to kill himself and one guard. The government vows to identify those responsible for this “heinous act”.
Yet another day, another city: there is heaviness in two homes that were strangers to each other until one explosion and two deaths joined them in an individual mourning. One belongs to an innocent passerby, and the other to a suicide bomber, a victim of indoctrination. And lets remember, all of this is happening in a city that has not seen war in the last thirty years.
This is nothing but a few very common myriads of human reduction. Not only is this not brand new information for you, these are anecdotes we have exhausted our nervous systems over to the point that we don’t feel inclined to ask a highly fundamental question: who did this and why?
We are breathing this very second in a modernized, restructured amphitheatre, where an unknown master of puppets decides who will be the audience, and who will be the prey in the cage. Far-fetched as it may sound, each one of us is vulnerable enough to play either role.
I suppose I must love this country, but it is a country where the term ‘enemy’ has become vague and fluid because of stratification of beliefs and confusion of loyalties. For some of us, the enemy is ruling the country; for another, the enemy is a foreign ideology; for yet another, the enemy is anyone who has more food on his table than him. Provided with the right environment, the right propaganda and tools of psychological influence and persuasion, any of these people will ripen to become carriers of grenades, and the headline of the newspaper you will hold tomorrow morning, with your cup of tea.
Pardon me for carving out such a simplistic view of things that are beyond normalcy and sanity but as we stand in the line of fire, it is imperative to review our own roles as enablers of this hysteria of deaths.

… This city…

So this town gets its share of frozen, spherical rain…

… Worth of Metal…

Inspired by a true story.

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You will not find any of them speaking about his underworld life with such hushed whispers as long as he is breathing. But just wait till he dies and those whispers will reach your ears: the whispers you hear when one aspect of a person’s life, however dormant it was during his breathing hours, is casually associated with the end of his time. Those whispers, that is all you’ll hear about him afterwards. It is as if all that remains of him is his name, that one aspect and then, of course, his death. So he smoked? Hence the fatal cancer. So she wasn’t careful with fire? Hence the burn to death. So he rode a motorbike?

But that is the thing.
He did not just ride a motorbike. He approached that machine with deference, learnt to ride it with devotion and gradually rose to make it his hinds, his wings, his slave. He lived through it and to whatever extent poetic aesthetics justify his death through that motorbike, deaths are seldom clean or quiet. With a faded, red baseball cap on his head and nineteen breezy years on his back, he died early morning or so was estimated by the surgeon since his body was discovered later that night, next to a broken pavement, and a broken motorbike.

Years after his death, friends and relatives still talk about that one aspect of his life that led to his death, but not in front of his mother. Mothers seem to have a biological resolve to view their offspring in a bubble not shared by others.

Especially mothers of teen-aged offspring.
Or a teen-aged, dead offspring.

Her bubble remains filled with myriads, like a rainbow, from his first step, multiple spankings, never-ending flu, to matters no writer can fathom to know. The son’s motorbike does not figure so distinctly in her bubble, at least not as graphically as it does for others.

Thirteen years after his last morning, his mother visited a marketplace, far from the place her son was born at, grew up at, or disappeared from. The boy behind the counter recognized her. Unlike others who still condemnably discuss that one aspect in whispers, this boy remembered him with half-forgotten, half-remembered awe. With that unguarded awe, he speaks to her.

This boy mentions some of the things from her bubble, what an unusual sense of humor her son had, how sensitive he was about his family, how good he was with numbers. And how good he was the motorbike. It is not like she had never heard anyone say that, but certainly not with this candidness. A secret, unknowable nudge inside her forces her to probe a little more.

With the motion of his hand, and that age-old fascination, the boy says, “he could slide with his bike under a moving trailer and come out.”

No one had ever told her that.
That one aspect.

That one piece of information, one that would make her bubble swell and pant, unable to break or contain. All the years she spent in an unspeakable loathing of an imagined person who she believed had killed her son suddenly forms into interchangeable specters, from the unrecognizable image of her son at this death, to hazy images of his black motorbike.

Human beings with metal inside meet sensational endings, perhaps that is why there is metal there to begin with. Some clatter, movement, some damage. The rest of the creation is programmed to watch and remember them with a secret admiration, an element of fear and overt condemnation.

But these philosophies can never be a part of her bubble, a re-opened, wound. The only metal she could come to seeing, of his, would be the clamor of the metal around him that slid him to his last breath.

She is alive. Her bubble is kicking.
That one aspect resonates in there.
That one aspect.

I wish I could celebrate something else about that life.

…From the Town of Selective Blind Spots…

Cities have their idiosyncratic temperaments, flavors and side effects. Just the way people look at you in a city, sends some of those flavors up your nostrils. There is something ironic about this city. It is perhaps the latest organized city on the country’s map, but markets here are lined with old book shops and antique stores. Hub of documented politics, colored number plates, plaster-faced people in big cars, labeled houses, guards and trees, but something about the temperament of this place stills any possibility of real life philosophy.
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Is it just this city or the whole country? Like a score board of an ill-fated game, every morning newspaper brings with it a certain number of casualties, from Swat, Waziristan, Islamabad, Karachi and other cities, with phrases like ‘human limbs hanging from lamp posts and trees’. I read somewhere that philosophy is for the rich and poetry for the poor but I don’t know if either of these arts exist anymore. Or perhaps I am a simpleton, unable to filter them out from modern day journalism. When I realized I will be moving here, I was thinking trees, winters and long silent roads, not to stimulate me to write but to pacify some worn neurons. But something about the city has changed. There are hidden blood stains and a post-traumatic silence. Blood of the previously unseen, down trodden articles of this rich city – madrassah going people, security guards, dhabba owners. Before these carnages, people probably thought there was no poor man in the capital.
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A Pakistan Studies teacher once told us about his friend, who had come from East Pakistan. He sniffed the air of the capital here and said, “I smell the jute of Bengal here”, since it was, perhaps, the work of dissatisfied Bengalis that fed the establishment of a capital in West Pakistan. I don’t know, I wasn’t there – I am not qualified to verify or contest the statement. But I smell the blood of many other cities here.
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I can suddenly see the poor people here. They suddenly mean something, like the mountains up North suddenly meant something more after their long silence, on that October day two years ago. Like the blood lost in all other cities is fueling something right here, right at the heart of where the blood is dispelled from. Incoherent, self-contradictory, illogical philosophy – that is all I can produce for now.
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I love this city, but it will never be mine, not with its selective blind spot.

… From the town of Headless Mannequins…

So, we give in.
It’s not so easy to enter Heaven. No secrets, equivocation or exaggeration about it.
So, we give in. Sometimes, we give up.
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How simple it was for him, the Sahabi who recited the qalima, carried a sword and became a martyr, in the real sense of the word martyr. No battle of nafs in everyday things, no prayers, nothing. Faith and martyrdom, direct and conclusive. But I wouldn’t go so far with assuming, who knows, he may have wanted to live through this test here. Allah knows.

Back in the town where the clear distinction between native men and women is black and white, literally. The town where you see two mosques for every twenty houses. The town that almost entirely kneels and bows with every categorical solar positioning. The town with His House on the left, and Prophet’s home on the right. The town, where, like before, I feel protected and a little more honest to myself than my hometown allows, or will ever allow?

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The town of Headless Mannequins.

God says there’s a purpose for all of this.
I believe Him. I don’t see it, but if He says it’s there, I believe it. I’ll try to, at least.

… About the Heart…

From the time human language began making sense to you, it has been about the colored paper called money.
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It has been about documents.
It has been about rules set down by the convoluted growth of our civilization.
It has been about those with more white hair on their heads than you.
It has been about those born with power through a little game of destiny.
It has been about those whose synapses work out more magic than yours ever would.
It has been about conventions that have passed down, questioned and unquestioned.
It has been about those who profess a little more faith than you do.
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The world has always been about them.
When was it about the heart, anyway?

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One dream or a thousand dreams, who consults the heart when it comes to decisions? When you were a speechless toddler, you could see your dreams through: no documents, rules, synapses or conventions stood between the heart and reality. It was all about the heart for you then. But the minute your secret went out, the minute you began understanding something about how the world runs, your dreams are not seeable anymore. Your heart still goads you to create magic mountains and stardust in a little fantasy corner… and life teaches you to pluck each grain of dust out of that chimera. Something about it bites, but letting go of those dust particles becomes routine work.
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It doesn’t become easy, ever, though.
Take that.

… Rumi Fa’ani … Iqbal Ba’qi …

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“All that dwells on the earth is annihilated and there subsists only the face of your Lord, the possessor of majesty and generosity.”
Surrah Ar-Rehman, 26-27
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Fa’ani is annihilation, the third step on the Sufi path: one who is dead in worldly attributes and alive in divine attributes, only. Complicated talk, perhaps.
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After roaring expansion in Eurasia, during the medieval era, the thirteenth Gregorian century brought Islam’s political downfall, an affliction it never quite recovered from. This seems to be the course of events in human race: happy times produce extravagance, monuments and babies; troubled times produce criminals, angst and poets. While it cost Islam many lives and lands, the disturbed times produced Jalal-ud-Din Rumi, goading his falling people into rhymes of mystical uplifting and spiritual love.

After ruling the subcontinent for centuries, the Muslims lost it to the foreign powers. While the explicit enemies were Mongols in Rumi’s time and the British in Iqbal’s time, the common implicit adversary for Iqbal, and his spiritual guide Rumi, was decentralized leadership and struggle for power. What added to Iqbal’s uneasy times were the fall of Khilafat, a puppet icon of Islam’s once flourishing history, stagnation of Muslims’ collective intellect, and the academic and professional progression of Hindus the Muslims once flaunted in ruling.

Rumi, in his writings, employed the term ‘qalandar’ to describe a Sufi who has achieved the highest state of annihilation (fa’na) from himself, and all that is left (ba’qi) is the Self. Typing this out on an electronic keypad, in the twenty-first Gregorian century, I wonder if I even know what they mean, all these words I just put down. Isn’t “Qalandar” the word you hear from qawwalis, pseudo-qawwal pop stars, and at pseudo-oriental-drum-banging-burger-class-hangovers of spirituality?

The trick of learning from associations is so mechanical that when readers, who are striving to be authentic believers, see these two words (fa’ani, qalandar) coming from one author, they tend to suspect his ideology.

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I, myself, have always had problems digesting ‘fa’ani’ and my simplistic understanding of it. Does it really mean Sufis aspire to reach such a height of proximity with God that they would annihilate themselves from the world, including the rights of their body and those who depended on them? Is this really what Allah Subhana Wa’tala refers to in verses twenty-six and twenty-seven of Surah Rehman? Or, is Fa’ani just annihilation from the wonts and wants of your nafs, your lower self?

Iqbal, although an enthusiastic follower of Rumi’s spiritual teachings, rejected the Sufi concept of Fa’ani. As R.A. Nicholsan puts it,

“As much he (Iqbal) dislikes the type of Sufism exhibited by Hafiz, he pays
homage to the pure and profound genius of Jalaluddin, though he rejects the
doctrine of self-abandonment taught by the great Persian mystic and does not
accompany him in his pantheistic flights.”

Iqbal’s negation of fa’ani rescues Islam from the seemingly Buddhistic theories of annihilation and self-desertion. He condemned ‘fa’na’ as a concept, which was a complete antithesis to his theory of ‘khudi’ and what he considered “more dangerous than the destruction of Baghdad” (an ironic quote for these times, isn’t it?).
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Rumi employs the term ‘mirror’ for a ‘fa’ani’ and one wonders what that means. My understanding (simplistic, like I said) is that annihilation should be from justifications and explanations of our iniquities. The mirror-self of the fa’ani should be so pure that it should reflect sin as sin, and not diffuse your inner eye into working out a defence mechanism to find excuses for your misdeed. Like Rumi says of one who has annihilated,
“He is neither this, nor that: he is plain”.

It is that pursuit for ‘plainness’ which may bring Rumi and Iqbal on the same table of Fa’ani.

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… Solemn Recantation…

I realize now, how little we know about ourselves and the unfolding of who we will be and what large claims we make in our formative years about the future. How we suckle on some moments of life, and document them on paper, within neural circuits, as if the rest of our existence in this dimension is going to depend on that.

And then, how easy it is, wonderfully easy…revoltingly easy… to let go…

And restart.

Just push the right button.

Like there was no past, you just never existed. Even the name you so prided over, the name you thought made you shine out of the darkness of the rest of creation, it can fall into anonymity and you don’t feel the loss. That’s the strangest part of it, you feel absolutely no loss in this surrender, in this homogeny with something that was never yours… when you feel now, that this is all there was, from the beginning.

And the beginning took place just now.

The hair has grayed and the back bone makes slight crackling noises and the calcium of your teeth is less of what it was. But you’re brand new.

And you grope in the darkness behind you and there is nothing there. You, especially, are not there. This is what frightens you the most, your absence in those foot-prints and the knowledge that you’re never going back there. You will not be accepted there, you’ve burnt the bridges, ships, foot-tracks, pages, tunes, laughter, everything.

Did you really have to do that? Disassociate and start all over? Not turn around when anyone calls out your name from behind you? Never look into pages where you documented even your sighs? Everything is brand new, still wrapped in plastic for you to unwrap and delve into. Even your skin feels plastic. A grand total of zero individuals have asked you to do this. This is your call…and you’re not even scared. You are in a numbing sort of joy. You wonder how remember your language, though.

Some artifacts try to make their way across… but only on the superficial level, some books, some cities, not people though. Not entirely, at least. This is you in a personal world, not shared by people. And you will build the walls yourself and hold the fort. God Willing.

You worry me slightly.
Just that.

I wonder how you survived it, you blog, you.

…Ascension to Grihastha…

To Grihastha, yes.
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But only in flowery ‘spiritual’ terms. My own religious scruples dictate me towards a more practical demeanor and I celebrate both rides, flowery and the real one. So, a sailor you are… and a sailor I am. And here we are, with our own pretty little festival of our fanciful Noah’s ark. And yet, here we are, soul-sailors riding out of the non-physical land that will succumb to dust behind us? Temple by temple, pillar by pillar, ash by ash, flame by flame . . .

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Shams Tabraiz asked, “Who is greater, Muhammad or Bestami?”

Rumi replied cautiously, “Muhammad.”
“But Bestami said ‘I am the Glory!’ Muhammad said, ‘I cannot praise You enough!’”
Rumi fainted under the force of the question from the strange dervish. When he recovered, he uttered, “Bestami had a glimpse of knowledge and took it for the totality. But for Muhammad the divine glory was continually unfolding.”
And Shams knew he had found his worthy disciple.

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There, sailors! That is what ye all need to know for your Grihastha trip. The magic of perpetual amazement and continuous unfolding and the fluid expanse of all that we may never see in its entirety. That we must restrain from even wanting to see in its entirety. God ordained this journey on Noah’s ark, don’t think about what lays beyond. Think of the ark itself, of the companions.

Of the companion.

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