By Kelly El-Yacoubi
“Mystical Dimensions of Islam,” first published in 1975 by profilic Harvard professor Dr. Annemarie Schimmel, has become a mainstay in the academic study of Sufism. I accidentally stumbled upon this book ten years ago in the stacks of my college library. I flipped through the pages, only to be suddenly captivated by a photograph entitled “Woman in Trance.” It portrays a beautiful, poor Pakistani mother who has become completely absorbed in her remembrance of God. She hangs her head back and closes her eyes; all the while her small child sleeps on a little blanket on the ground beside her. The image instantly etched into my memory. Little did I know that I would draw upon it time and again as a source of strength in my adult life as a mother.
Schimmel’s deliberate choice not to include the term “Sufism” in her book’s title indicates a wise, seasoned understanding of both the nature of her subject and the weaknesses of her readership. Too often Westerners turned off by the practical norms of Islam are allured by the notion of a suprareligious Sufism, not realizing that there can be no true Sufism without Islam, no high spirituality without practical structure.
So what are “mystical dimensions” anyway? Some of us may think of esoteric, hidden meanings that only certain elite souls can grasp. We might imagine a realm filled with spiritual visions and miraculous encounters with the unseen. Perhaps all of us imagine something – anything – with more substance than the skin-and-bones spirituality that peppers our busy, mundane lives. In reality, our spiritual sages remind us, “the best karāma is istiqāma.” The most miraculous gift is upright practice.
A lot of young American Muslims feel inspired to be “spiritual,” whatever that means. We want the Islam we practice to be deep, meaningful, and substantive – and rightly so. But often times there’s a discrepancy between that desire and how we actually live. Our time is increasingly filled with the preoccupations of, well, occupations. And smart phones, social media, food, and endless to-do lists.
And, for some of us, children. Many who develop spiritual interests while young are challenged by how to maintain that desire once we become parents. Mothers in particular face a tremendous struggle. Keeping focused in salah, or sometimes even praying salah itself, becomes a tricky accomplishment in the presence of a nursing newborn, a rambunctious toddler, or bickering siblings. Our souls continuously gasp for a sliver of private time for spiritual practice: Is there childcare at the conference? At jum‘ah prayer? At taraweeh? Maybe daily Qur’an-time occurs via mini-van speakers before the afterschool carpool, if it even occurs at all. Our ‘ibada becomes chicken dinners, budget-friendly grocery lists, or just keeping our heads above water as we juggle laundry, career, and family. But these things are not small. When done for Allah’s sake by either parent, they are all truly ‘ibāda. Still, Allah’s beloved messenger ﷺ taught us that Paradise is at a mother’s feet.1
But what about the mother who feels an urgent tug within – a deeper spiritual calling? What about the mother who adores her children but feels an unsettling dissatisfaction about not having enough time to devote exclusively to her Lord? She loves her children infinitely, but still notices that modern family life can often place “severe limitations on women’s ability to follow the call to a deeper spiritual life.”2
To this mother I say: Keep holding on. Child-rearing years have the potential to serve as a cocoon in which the mysterious, inevitable process of spiritual development occurs.3 Nothing is wasted. Allah subhānahu wa ta’ala has a perfect plan for your soul.
To this mother I also say: You are the woman in the photograph – so please let yourself be her sometimes. Let yourself dwell in the meadows of dhikr for a few extra moments after salah, though a small hand tugs at your shirt. Let your forehead stay in sajdah a few extra moments, though the clock ticks at you like a scolding finger.
To this mother I gently whisper: Allah hears your heart. Re-establish a private, intimate best-friendship with Him inside your consciousness while you devoutly bathe, clean, feed, clothe, console, nuture, and listen to the children He gifted you. Look at their faces while thinking of Him. In return, may Allah bathe, clean, feed, console, nuture, and listen to your spiritual heart in ways you never expected.
And to this mother I promise: the part of you seeking soul-development is worth your attention. Treasure it. It’s your spirit longing for Allah, but more importantly it is Allah longing for you. Don’t give up. Strive for private time inside salah, and outside too. Don’t be tempted to sully those sacred after-bedtime moments with unfulfilling tasks. Instead, claim some sanctuary time. Even if it’s just a handful of minutes, commit to sit still, close those tired mama eyes, and remember Allah’s perfect beauty. Just like the woman in the photograph, become your higher self and dissolve in dhikr until only Allah remains on your tongue, your thoughts, your soul. God knows you deserve that.
I’ve owned the book “Mystical Dimensions of Islam” for almost as many years as I’ve been a mother. It’s served as a beautiful reference to some of my questions about Islamic spirituality. But the first page of my treasured copy also happens to be scribbled on by one of my children, as if to ironically remind me that all spirituality needs to stay grounded in reality. The ultimate “mysticism” is to surrender every part of yourself – favorite books and all – to Allah Most High.
If you only have a few seconds left to read this due to some beckoning mommy-crisis, it’s ok. The most authentic Islam is always tethered to daily work that is utterly practical. Some of the greatest spiritual masters spent their formative years cleaning toilets – sound familiar?
What better way to know Allah than to be His representative caretaker on the Earth? So keep responding to your child’s cries with as much love as you can, but don’t forget to find moments to also honor the cries of your soul. Invest in your everlasting existence. Close your eyes and taste God’s name. Allow yourself to lovingly connect with the Divine. You deserve it. And Allah deserves it too.
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