I recently accompanied my murshid on a spiritual retreat in Turkey, along with a group of dear friends and seekers. We sat in the presence of sufi teachers and visited shrines, including the House of the Virgin Mary in Ephesus and the tombs of Mevlana Rumi and Shams of Tabriz in Konya.
One of the lessons that resonated with me was the idea that we can relate to prophets and saints like Muhammad, Jesus, Mary, Buddha or Rumi not merely as historical figures, but as sacred personalities who belong to all humanity, rather than a particular religion, ideology or nationality. They represent transcendent qualities accessible through the collective human consciousness.
We open ourselves up to a direct experience with these sacred figures when we bring our lower selves or egos (called nafs in sufi terminology) into alignment with our hearts. In sufism, this is achieved by cultivating consciousness of the Divine Reality, or Allah, through zikr, or remembrance. Over time, such practices heighten our spiritual radar and we grow more and more into our greatest humanness, where direct experiences with the Beloved permeate all circumstances of life.
As Mevlana Rumi says:
Our body is like Mary.
Each of us has a Jesus inside.
If a pain and yearning shows up inside us,
the Jesus of our soul is born.
If there is no pain, no yearning,
the Jesus of our soul will return to its origin from
the same secret passageway he came from…
If there is no pain, no yearning,
we will remain deprived
not benefiting from that Jesus of the soul.
(Translated by Omid Safi, in Radical Love: Teachings from the Islamic Mystical Tradition)
Understanding that prophets and saints reside in the potentiality of every human’s experience opened a deeper dimension of intimacy and connection for me. It’s also obliterated the cultural and religious divisions that I’d grown up believing separated people.
In my journey, I’ve felt connected to prophets and saints not merely because I’d read about them and appreciated their stories. But because shifts in my consciousness have given me a direct sense of who they were and how their qualities have manifested in my own experience.
One of my first such encounters was with Khadija, Muhammad’s first wife. She came into view just as my consciousness was awakening to the dimension of Spirit that I’d been blind to after a lifetime of being trapped in my mind. A single mother managing a multinational business, Khadija exuded strength and confidence, so much so that she had no qualms about proposing marriage to the much younger Muhammad, her employee.
More than admiring her audacity, though, I started to notice how her courage to live outside social norms was transforming my own way of being in the world. It was as though she came alive inside of me: I gradually turned off all the cultural and familial noise and pressures standing in the way of charting out my own path. A wholly receptive feminine energy, Khadija revealed herself in the intuitive part of me that feels an unbreakable heart connection to the Divine even in the face of prevailing mainstream pressures that rejected this, in her time and mine.
And yet after spending some time reading about Ali’s devotion to Muhammad, parallels emerged. Ali offers an example of how to arrive fully armed to our inner battle ground where the fight for the soul, or jihad, takes place. A big part of me, especially in the past couple of years, has been bold in confronting many painful psychological wounds blocking my path to spiritual maturity, always with abundant self compassion.
The Ali in me has the gentle courage to bring unhealthy patterns of behaviour rooted in childhood trauma and religious and cultural conditioning into conscious awareness and allow the spiritual alchemy of zikr to transform and heal them. The more I peel away the veils of my lower self and realign my psyche toward Compassion and Love, the more I grasp Ali’s presence and appreciate why the Prophet said, “I am the city of knowledge and Ali is its gate.”
Moments of insight like these remind me that journeying on the sufi path puts me in direct contact not only with my living teachers, but with a lineage of saints, prophets and friends of God. In my own tradition of Mevlevi sufism, rooted in the teachings of Mevlana Rumi, I sometimes imagine the dialogue between Shams of Tabriz and Rumi happening within me.
Shams ignited the flame of Divine Love in Rumi by daring him to view reality from a different vantage point. I experience Shams, Arabic for sun, as the inner witness objectively observing my thoughts, feelings, sensations and emotions and shining a light on where I need to pay attention. His luminous being challenges me to question familiar patterns of thought and behaviour, and rub away the layers of tarnish that separate me from my spiritual heart.
The more polished my heart becomes, meanwhile, inhibitions melt away and I shock myself with creativity and ideas. Writing flows more easily, and I’ve developed a love for singing, learning to play music and whirling that I couldn’t have imagined possible even a couple of years ago. It’s here that I catch a glimpse of the radiance of Rumi, through whom that Divine Creativity surged in tens of thousands of verses of poetry.
With each step I take to open in receptivity to wisdom coming in from the Unseen, I’m pick up subtler frequencies of spiritual perception. Sometimes it’s as though I can tune into an intimate and lively sohbet, or spiritual conversation, taking place in my heart, where humanity’s sacred teachers blow insight and truth, if I am still enough to listen.