Meeting with Reality: My Road to Tasawwuf

Qais Arthur

Posted Nov 22, 2002      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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In the name of Allah, Most Merciful, and Compassionate

{1} All praises are for Allah, Lord of the worlds
{2} Most Merciful, and Compassionate
{3}King of The Day of Judgement
{4} You alone do we worship and your help we seek.
{5}Guide us on the Straight Path
{6} The Path of those you Bless
{7} Not the path of those upon whom is Wrath nor of those astray.
[Surah al-Fatihah]

Time has passed, its winds bringing debris and sand, its rains having eroded the edifices of what was established before and we the later people must struggle to cling to what remains of a glorious legacy, now barely discernible. The legacy of the days of Men.
I write as a humble slave, bewildered by his own insignificance and utter inability, in face of the mammoth task of simply being a slave in these times. After one year in “The Islamic University of Madina” in Madina al Munawara, Arabia, it became overwhelmingly obvious to my distress, that “The Methodology of the Pious Fore bearers” as I had previously conceived it, was sadly void of the slightest iota of spiritual realization. Confused, frustrated and lost I often found myself quite literally wandering the streets of Madina often in the late hours of the night, in some attempt to fill a void within me. A void which had manifest itself with sudden terror, as such that it threw me into a rather curious state. Several internal crises emerged relating to my Islam. It became starkly obvious that my knowledge was severely deficient and that the people I thought possessed it, in fact did not. I was caught between my identity as a Muslim and a westerner due to some strange Fiqh positions with which I had come into contact. Facts revealed themselves, the nature of the reality of which forced me to question many of the notions I held concerning Scholarship in Islam and my view of the little I knew of Islamic history. I began to rebel and question absolutely everything I read, investigating all that I could in a desperate attempt to find the proper orientation, but for all my effort, I was still on my own and quite lost.

“You can’t subscribe to a tenet of the Ash’aris they are at the very limits of Kufr!” Yet Imam An Nawawee’s well documented adherence to this school was dismissed as “a mistake” on his part. I supposed that if it were acceptable to tread the limits of kufr, on the premise that it is a mistake then why should the same not be said for an issue like isbal. Unfortunately, very few at the mentioned university agreed with my premise and would rather excuse the Imam for what in their view amounts to kufree persuasions on his part (and Imam An Nawawee is above them and what they accuse him of…may Allah’s mercy be upon him) than the thousands or millions who simply fancy western trousers or jeans. There were much graver and more disturbing ideological (and not personal, may Allah be praised for that!) absurdities which characterized my encounters in the Hijaz. These are not fit to mention here, or anywhere else for that matter. With these experiences I returned to my country and entered introvert mode. I did as little as possible by way of Islamic work, for fear of unwittingly perpetuating atrocities or heresies the likes of which I had, previously. This inactivity was also due to my being more keenly aware of my unstable state and the rage and bitterness it entailed, then any of my associates, al hamdu li Allah, who concealed that which was best left concealed.

The summer break ended with my acceptance into the Arabic Language Program at the University of Jordan in Amman, where I would continue my quest to learn Islam.

In the light of my previous year, The University of Jordan with its multitudes of Jeans and Tee shirts busy at work and play was more of what I was accustomed to where universities are concerned so was the civil and mature method of instruction. I quickly settled in and began looking for shuyukh from whom I could take knowledge. It was not long before I heard of Nuh Keller, the shaikh from Amreekah. Of course, it goes without saying that prior to my departure from Guyana to Jordan, I was warned to stay clear of this figure and his “deviance”. Many warned me of him including one very prominent author and Islamic worker who happened to be visiting my country at that time, and who al hamdu li Allah I had occasion to meet. Nevertheless, I was being referred to this shaikh by Arabs with whom I had made acquaintance, and I was rather taken aback by the fact that they referred to him as an ALIM. I thought it difficult enough for a westerner to become an alim, but to be of the caliber that Arabs would have to acknowledge and accept it was a stunning and rare achievement the like of which could not be claimed even by the prominent Islamic worker who had warned me about him. Faced with this reality and the conviction that I could not simply make Taqleed of the individual who advised me not to seek out Shaikh Keller, I agreed to attend one of his classes. This was the beginning of my road to TASAWWUF.

Part 1

This is not a story of an encounter filled with proofs, debates and high level scholarship, as the narrator is far from a scholar. If this is what intrigues you then this article will not. What follows is an account of an experience, the realms of which are the heart and soul not the tongue and mind. And all good is from Allah.

I had agreed with a friend of mine to attend a class of Sheikh Keller, in his Amman home and was at the time reading some recommended works on the Schools of Jurisprudence or Mathaahib, their validity and the need to adhere to one. Prominent in my thoughts at the time was the irony of the whole scenerio, that a firm anti-mathhabist such as myself could actually be found contemplating adherence to the Hanafee School by way of emulation or Taqleed. Still even more difficult to encompass was that I was on my way to visit the house of one of the most notoriously reputed of the “people of innovation” as some had labeled him.

We arrived in the area called Kharaabsha, a once simple outskirt village, now being transformed into a residential suburb, having been assimilated into the expanding city of Amman. I was rather surprised to see the modest building in which we were to find the Sheikh’s apartment. Simple and in many regards tucked away it seemed to be jealously, inconspicuously guarding some great treasure. So it seemed and so was indeed the case. We entered through the narrow opening of the neatly proportioned outer metal door, took off our footwear and placed it besides the multitude of other sandals and shoes that lay before the meshed door of the Sheikh. In session was a Fiqh class, being delivered by a student of his. The room was adequate though not large, soft cream dominated the walls, which, on that late fall afternoon made for a rather serene and sober setting. The student of the Sheikh, himself now on the verge of Sheikh-hood was Arab, Shafee’ee and from his confidence and ease of delivery, competent. I sat there enjoying what I could make out of his effortless elucidation of various points relating to Purity in his mathab. However, it having been the tail end of his class which I had caught, it was soon concluded. There was a brisk knock on the door directly to my back, upon which all in the room immediately stood up. The Sheikh entered. His pace was as brisk as the knock on the door. “As salaam alaikum” he greeted in a controlled, subdued tone as he took his seat on the ground. He gestured and we returned to our seats. My observation began.

Long since accustomed to a certain standard of “learned persons” and “students of knowledge”, I began my appraisal, it however became readily apparent that what I was accustomed to, was in fact of no particular standard at all. There he was, a red bearded white Sheikh, in eastern robes with an immaculate layer-wrapped white turban giving a class in Arabic to a group of attentive students (most of whom were Arab), seated on the ground. His entire comportment seemed deliberate and harnessed. Everything from his voice level to his gestures appeared be confirming to some pervading standard or will. The picture was one totally alien to me. I knew as I observed his students leaning forward to catch his every word that this was no run of the mill “sheikh”, such as we in the west are accustomed to. A penetrating oceanic gaze, complete certainty and serenity in his words and seemless erudite explanatory references and commentry characterized his dars of Ihya’ ‘Ilum ad Deen. I was impressed. Most captivating however, was the feel of his presence, felt in his gaze, Allah Exalted is my witness, the feel of his presence was absence. There was no choice in the matter, before me stood, not an “Islamic Worker”, nor “A Respected Da’ee” nor any of the other sadly defecient titles with which we have for too long been content in accepting from our community leaders. No, rather the truth was manifest, this initial encounter was a powerful indication of what was to become more apparent in sebsequent months. This Man’s mannerism, students and reputation all pointed to one undeniable fact; far from the ugliness of which his opposers accused him, he was indeed accomplished in his field as a Scholar…as a Sufi…as a Muslim. He was a living example of the teachings of our Beloved (Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him). Embodying Knowledge, Action and Spiritual Realization he immediately impressed and inspired me, as was the case of many before me and will continue to be the case of many more to come, Allah willing. My meeting Nuh Ha Mim Keller was my meeting Tasawuf, my entry into the reality of this Deen, my first taste of the vast expance of selfless reality…he had my pledge!

Wa al hamdu li Allahi Rab al ‘aalameen!

Originally published on Masud Ahmed Khan’s excellent website at and reprinted in The American Muslim with the permission of the author.