I joined the SOAS Students Union Islamic Society as soon as I started at London University in September 1980 and became it’s president in 1981, a post I held until 1984. During my presidency I set up an Islamic bookstall, organized talks and debates and showed films, set up a room for daily prayers and got permission to use one of the lecture rooms for Friday Prayers. At first we shared the responsibility of giving the sermon among the students, but this proved difficult, as most were either too busy too prepare a talk or felt unqualified to do it. Eventually we decided to invite a speaker from outside and approached Dr Kalim Siddiqui, the Director of “The Muslim Institute” just down the road in Endsleigh Street. Dr. Siddiqui was obsessed with the Islamic revolution in Iran and was on a mission to promote a similar revolutionary ideology amongst British Muslims. He later went on to form “The Muslim Parliament of Great Britain” with the aim of creating a “non-territorial Islamic state” in the UK.
At first our Friday prayers, led by Dr. Siddiqui and his understudy, Dr Ghayasuddin, were well attended. The talks were always highly political and revolved around the history of European colonialism in Muslim lands and how this was the cause of the backwardness, poverty and decline in Islamic values that Muslims were suffering at present. A great deal of rhetoric was also directed at America, ‘The Great Satan’, which, it was claimed, was embarked on a new form of economic and social colonialism even more sinister, since it used puppet regimes to keep Muslims enslaved and ignorant of their Islamic heritage. Interesting as this was to young students eager for a cause to take up, the subject of God and spirituality seemed conspicuously absent, and many of us began to tire of hearing the same thing, week after week. After a while the numbers attending started to go down, and as the responsibility of clearing chairs, laying sheets and putting everything back was becoming a chore that my close friend Hussein and I had to do on our own, I decided to end Friday prayers on the campus and recommend students attend a local Mosque.
There were two mosques near enough to walk to and be back in time for afternoon lectures – though it meant skipping lunch. “The Mosque of Light” near Euston Station, was a small room in the basement of an Edwardian terrace that had seen better days. Most of the congregation came from the Bangladeshi community in the area, many of whom worked for British Rail or as traffic wardens. They would rush to the mosque, straight from work and, still in uniform, place handkerchiefs on their heads and squeeze into the cramped space, spilling out onto the street. The only signs of the room being a mosque were the sheets on the hard floor and a small broken bookshelf that leaned over, top heavy with Qur’ans. The second mosque was in the plush new offices of the “Muslim World League” in Tottenham Court Road. Funded by Saudi Arabia to propagate Islam, it was full of well paid administrators who dealt with applications for grants. The prayer room was a smart carpeted hall, well stocked with expensively bound books.
At first I attended “The Mosque of Light”, as I found the atmosphere there much more authentic, but then the renowned Sufi preacher, Sheikh Nazim, began giving sermons at The Muslim World League every other Friday. I had been reading some of the great Sufi poets and writers and was drawn to their universalistic and mystical approach, so I was eager to listen to Sheikh Nazim. Born in 1922 in the town of Larnaca in Cyprus, he first moved to Istanbul to study Chemical Engineering at university, and then to Damascus in 1945 to study under Shaykh Abdullah ad-Daghestani, of the Naqshabandi Sufi Order. From there he traveled around the world, particularly in Western Europe, where he had built up a large following and was presently based in Peckham, south London. His followers spoke very highly of him and told me he had ‘special’ knowledge about many things, including the coming of the Mahdi – ‘the Rightly Guided One’ prophesized in hadith. It seems odd now that the Saudis, who did not approve of Sufism, allowed him to preach at the World League, but the director at the time was an amiable, broad minded Saudi who embraced many different views, and it should be remembered that in the early 80s there had not yet developed the sharp ideological divisions amongst Muslims in Britain that were soon to occupy them.
Sheikh Nazim arrived to deliver his sermon, wearing a huge green turban and a long flowing green cloak. He was flanked by Murids, students of his spiritual path, dressed in the same manner. I was immediately struck by his presence and charisma. He had a slow and deliberate way of speaking, in which he paused on words he wished to emphasise, and when he smiled, which was often, he looked like your favourite granddad, about to make a sweet appear from behind his ear. His strong Turkish accent only added to the endearing quality of his speech. I enjoyed his talk greatly and wanted to speak to him in person about his predictions of the Mahdi, but there was never time, as I had to rush back to university. However, when one of his followers invited me to attend a small gathering in Peckham, I jumped at the chance.
The mosque in Peckham was a converted flat over a grocer’s shop and gave no outward clue to the devotions inside. More than half of those present were white Europeans, an odd assortment of professionals, ex-hippies, eccentrics and drop-outs. Many of those I spoke to seemed to be very narcissistic with a messianic complex, which jarred with the perception of Sufism I had got from reading Rumi and Ibn Arabi. I sat next to a young English convert who looked like a 1920s gangster – slick back hair, pin striped suit and dark glasses. As the room was only dimly lit, I assumed he could see nothing through the glasses.
“Assalamu-Aalykum, my name is Hassan.”
“My name is Sulayman.” He lowered his glasses. “But you can call me Slim”
“Are you a regular here at Sheikh Nazim’s circles?”
For no apparent reason he replied in Arabic.
“Al-Hamdulilah, Kuntu azooru Sheikh Nazim al Halaqa li Mudda Atiqa.”
It translated as “Praise be to God, I was visiting Sheikh Nazim the Circle for an ancient time!”
“Oh.” I nodded
“Wa min ayna anta?” (Where are you from?) he continued in Arabic.
“Ana min Finchley fi Shimal London,” (I’m from Finchley in North London) I said trying to get into the spirit of things.
Sheikh Nazim came in followed by his students in green turbans and cloaks. As he sat down, a plump German lady rushed up and kissed his feet. Several others followed and either prostrated at his feet or kissed his hands. Slim encouraged me to join him in greeting the Sheikh.
“Assalamu Alaykum,” I said stiffly, extending my hand for him to shake.
“Wa Alaykum Assalam wa rahmatullah,” he replied, taking my hand and smiling.
Once we were all seated again, Sheikh Nazim began leading the Zikr (Remembrance), congregational chanting of God’s names or supplications. He started repeating the words “Allahu, Allah Haqq” (God! God is Truth). Everyone immediately joined in and started gently swaying to the rhythm of the words. After what seemed like a very long time Sheik Nazim signaled a change in the words and the pace, by repeating
“Allahu, Allah Hayy” (God! God is Living). By the time Sheikh Nazim led another change, the energy level had grown so great that the whole room seemed to be vibrating to the rhythm.
“Allah Hayy, Ya Qayyum.” (God is Living, Oh the Awake!)
Most had their eyes closed and appeared to be in a state of intense concentration as they swayed together. I couldn’t resist the pounding rhythm and became carried away with rocking back and forth as I repeated “Allah Hayy, Ya Qayyum” over and over again. The room became hazy and looked like a black and white negative image; everything around me was disappearing. It was an almost psychedelic experience and I was completely lost in the moment, throwing myself backwards and forwards without any inhibition or self consciousness. Unfortunately it also meant that I was unaware of the abrupt end to the proceedings and to my great embarrassment, I continued chanting and swaying for a second or two after everyone else had stopped.
Sheik Nazim recited some prayers and began his sermon. He spoke in a heavy accent, mispronouncing many English words.
“Allah love all his serv-hents. Allah love everything! Every human, every creature, every plant, every rock. Allah does not hate. If Allah hate something it cannot exist.”
He would choose someone in the audience to look at in the eye, as though he were speaking to someone special.
“Allah’s love is not animal love we see in Dunya (this world). It is love that never change. It is love that never die. Our purpose is to reach higher love and immerse ourselves in Love Oceans.”
I wasn’t sure what he meant by ‘Love Oceans’, but it sounded wonderful.
“Only when the serv-hent worship Allah can he wake Love Oceans. We live in time of hate and misery. Most human know only physical love and so become unhappy and miserable. Without waking Love Oceans we can never content.”
I was impressed by both his message and his manner, but felt uncomfortable about the exaggerated reverence his followers showered on him, and decided to ask him about this, during the question and answer session that followed.
“Is it Islamic to allow people to prostrate at your feet? Prophet Muhammad didn’t have people prostrating at his feet, did he?”
My question prompted angry murmurs and boos, which made my face blush and eyes water.
“I do not ask they do, but if they wish for love and respect, I accept. Remember parents prophet Yusuf prostrate to him.”
I wanted to ask him more questions, particularly about his prediction about the Mahdi, but others were keen to speak. A young couple presented themselves – both converts, one English and one Asian.
“We would like to ask your holiness for your blessing to get married.”
After asking their names and a little about their background, he gave them his approval, placing his hand on their foreheads and saying a prayer. Others quickly came forward with questions.
“I had a dream Sheikh that I was on top of a mountain, there was a light above me and flowers began raining down.”
“This is good dream my child, you receiving Divine gifts.”
“My sister is sick, Sheikh. Please pray for her recovery.”
He held his hands up and prayed, and everyone followed.
Eventually he got up and moved towards the staircase, still surrounded by petitioners. This was my final chance, before he disappeared. I squeezed myself forward through the crowd.
“Sheikh Nazim, can I ask you about the Mahdi. You said he’s coming?”
He started walking up the stairs followed by his green bodyguards.
“He is here!”
“In this room?” I followed him up the stairs.
“No, in Hijaz.” (The area around Makka and Madinah.)
“Does anyone know who he is?”
“He has not exposed to anyone yet.”
“Then how do you know?”
“My Sheikh tell me.”
“Is that the Sheikh who’s dead?”
Sheikh Nazim believed he was in contact with a Sheikh who had died in the 1940s.
“It depend on what you mean dead?”
“In the meaning of not being alive.”
Sheikh Nazim’s bodyguards had heard enough of my questions and aggressively blocked my access, pushing me back down the stairs. The Sheikh was swiftly escorted out of sight.
I was a little disappointed with what I had witnessed at Sheikh Nazim’s circle. Not so much with Sheikh Nazim himself, but the way his followers fawned upon him. It seemed little more than a cult of personality. I was also extremely skeptical of his claims to special knowledge from a dead Sheikh. After Sheikh Nazim had retired upstairs with some of his Murids, I started to move towards the exit when I was approached by a tall bearded Englishman.
“Are you on the path, brother?”
“Do you mean am I a Sufi? No, not really. I like Sufism and want to learn more, which is why I came here today.”
“To learn more you must take the path.”
“The problem is I find some things a bit off-putting, like kissing feet and special knowledge from a dead Sheikh.”
“In order to follow us you must not judge or object to anything. This is how the Seeker of knowledge must approach his teacher, just as Khidr told Moses not to question anything if he wished to learn.”
“Well, Moses is one thing, but it seems there is a dangerous potential here for the blind to lead the blind, wouldn’t you say?”
“That’s why you must follow the true Sheikh, so you can completely trust him.”
“I find it difficult to completely trust anyone in such matters.”
“Then that is the source of your problem, brother.”
“What makes you trust Sheikh Nazim so completely?”
“In every age there is one chosen representative (Khalifah) of God. In our age it is Sheikh Nazim. He is the Perfect Saint.”
“What is your evidence?”
“Those who follow him have evidence. Sheikh Nazim knows things that cannot be known by ordinary men. He has proven this on many occasions. For example I myself witnessed him predict the precise time that one of his followers would die and it happened exactly as he said it would.”
“I’m not doubting your word, but there may be many rational explanations for that.”
“Yet another proof for you, my dear brother, is that he has the ability to be with every one of his Murids at every given moment. He can be in one place with one and with another in a different place.”
“I’m sorry but I find that very hard to believe.”
“It’s the arrogance in your Nafs (Ego) that prevents you from believing. You must stop resisting, let go and open your heart.”
Our conversation reminded me of a passage in Alice in Wonderland:
“I can’t believe that!” said Alice.
“Can’t you?” the queen said in a pitying tone. “Try again, draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.”
Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said. “One can’t believe impossible things.”
“I dare say you haven’t had much practice,” said the queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
Sheikh Nazim has been the subject of many outlandish claims and linked to some far-fetched schemes. Perhaps one of the more bizarre is “The Moon Temple Project”, a venture aimed at erecting a Mosque on the Moon as a “true sign for rational people.” The project’s founder, a Russian Muslim called Asadula, said, “There is some Divine predetermination in the fact that the crescent moon is the symbol of Islam and the minarets atop our mosques resemble spaceships.” Asadula got the calling to build the Moon Temple while praying for his brother who was in surgery:
“And in an instant, oh wonder, I lost all sense of reality. It was as though some super-powerful beam of light struck me in the eyes with its radiant brightness. I closed my eyes to shut out the blinding light, but this did not help – the celestial radiance continued to permeate to the core of my very being. I felt as though all the organs of my body had been pierced through and strung out on this mysterious thread of unprecedented light. And, as though continuing some conversation begun long ago and causing my whole body to tremble, a Voice said unto me:
“And such ordeals shall pass, but your destiny is invincible! Your brother has not come to the end of the goodly provision provided unto him. He will recover. And he will stand by your side as you toil together to build a Temple on the Moon. This will be no easy journey. Your path, Asadula, is winding and rocky. And you will raise a Temple on the Moon as a symbol of human faith. And the five-fold azan (call to prayer) for salvation will be heard throughout the universe.”
Sufism is admired in the West as it suits the trend for religion to be moderate, liberal, and embracing a variety of lifestyles. One Sufi Sheikh I invited to give a talk at SOAS explained that Sufism is the pinnacle of all religions and one can find Christian, Jewish and Hindu Sufis as well as Muslim Sufis. Sufi Sheikhs were often regarded with the same awe in the 60s and 70s as Hindu Gurus and other mystics of the East, and many a hippie trail ended up following Sufism in one form or another. But I was unconvinced by Sheikh Nazim’s circle and the Sufi circles I susequently visited. My experiences made me very skeptical of the claims of such Sheikhs, which seemed at best harmless eccentricity and at worst dangerous self-delusion. Of course I did not blame Sufism as a whole for the short-comings of particular Sufi Sheikhs or their followers, but it did put me off joining a Sufi order. Nevertheless I was drawn towards the spiritual and metaphorical understanding of Islam that Sufism taught and although I could not call myself a Sufi, I did develop a leaning towards a less literal interpretation of the Qur’an. A belief that behind the words was a deeper meaning and significance that was not immediately apparent. I also enjoyed Sufi writings, poetry and parables. Amongst these parables are the light-hearted stories of Joha (also known as Mullah Nasrudin). They are told throughout the Muslim world and are part of an oral tradition going back centuries. They are humerous tales that at the same time impart a wisdom. Perhaps my favourite is one that pokes fun at Sufism itself:
Joha was leading a procession through the local bazaar. Whatever Joha did, those following him did the same. Every few steps he would stop and rock back and forth chanting “Hu Hu Hu Hu!”. Those following him did the same. He would stop and shake his hands. Those following him did the same. He touched his feet and jumped up in the air. Those following him did the same.
One of the merchants, who knew Joha, quietly asked his old friend;
“What are you doing, Joha? Why are these people imitating you?”
“I have become a Sufi Sheikh.” Replied Joha “These are my Murids (spiritual seekers), I am helping them reach enlightenment!”
“How do you know when they reach enlightenment?”
“That’s the easy part! Every morning I count them. The ones who have left – have reached enlightenment!”