In relation to one of my translations of the first verse of Genesis, I often find myself quoting the insight of quantum physics that light can be seen as either a wave or a particle, depending on whether someone observes a particular phenomena or not. This is called the ‘quantum measurement paradox,’ and we find something similar in the intuition of the early storyteller in Geneis who describes the vision of the Holy One creating the universe in two simultaneous activities—as wave (shemayim) and as particle (aretz).
Another, often overlooked wrinkle of this wisdom is that human mind, being created of the same stuff as the rest of the seen and unseen worlds, can either hold individual pieces of ‘content’—particles–or a flow of consciousness—the wave. As with the finding of quantum physics, which one of these two happens depends on who is observing, or if anyone is looking at all. So when we are in deep meditative states, or simply ‘looking the other way,’ some our deepest creative visions can arise.
Various expressions of this surprised me earlier this month Natalia and I visited South Africa again. We had travelled there twice previously, in spring 2011 and 2012, for conferences sponsored by the Sufi community organized around the work of Shaykh Fadhlalla Haeri. His “Academy of Self Knowledge” in Centurion, near Pretoria, annualy draws an inter-racial and inter-cultural mix of speakers and participants from all walks of South African life and many countries abroad (see http://www.askonline.co.za). One can easily meet early members of the ANC who knew Nelson Mandela, the South African ambassador to Eritrea, a high court Judge or a scientist from Belgium. For instance, one of the most cogent takes on the current situation in the Middle East come from Dr Ali Allawi, a Sufi and the former finance minister of Iraq (http://www.aliallawi.com), a regular visitor to the conference.
I was originally invited there in 2011 to speak on the Aramaic Jesus in connection with a conference entitled “The SacredOrigin of Languages.” I also shared some simple walking meditation practices from Murshid Samuel Lewis, as well as chant and breathing practice. As it turned out, many members of the community had, with the shaykh’s blessing, embraced the translations of meditations on the “99 Beautiful Names” in The Sufi Book of Life. This was despite the fact that Shaykh Fadhlalla, an accomplished Quranic scholar originally born in Iraq, had done his own excellent book on the “Names.” Members of his community continue to tell me how they use the book in ways I had never imagined, for instance, as a form of ‘bedtime story’ for their children at night!
The following year (2012), Natalia was invited to present walking meditations from Murshid SAM for the conference “Celebrating the Delights of Life,” and I gave a workshop on Sufi music as well as a talk about the voices of “desert wisdom.” After a hiatus last year due to my sabbatical, we returned this year. Natalia was again asked to share a session of walking meditation connected with this year’s theme, “World Religions and Spiritual Illumination,” which was very well received.
I offered a short talk on “Spiritual Illumination in Islam,” which I recently posted to the podcasts section on this site. Shaykh Fadhlalla, who spoke just before me, had already offered the mystical kernal of the theme (as I knew he would), so I started my talk from “endarkenment,” the viewpoint of Jonah in the belly of the whale, which is a story related in the Qur’an as well as in the Bible. We often find ourselves completely in the dark, in the dense processes of life far from ‘illumination,’ but this, too, is a necessary step in the journey of spiritual discovery that various traditions describe. Acknowledging that we don’t know often helps to avert our gaze from a creative process in becoming. It is this individualistic gaze (the ‘small self’) that often spoils the process by wanting things to be ‘settled’ before the time is ripe.
Sometimes one doesn’t know the seeds that one is planting, and maybe that’s for the best. During the conference, I met a member of an Islamic community group from Durban, for instance, who had become inspired by the talk I gave on the Aramaic Jesus three years before, and was sharing the Aramaic Lord’s Prayer as part of his movement to encourage South Africans to: ‘plant a tree and Time will pay a rich reward to you.’
Similarly, in 2012, we had met Lynn and Yusuf, founders of the world music group Desert Rose, who have done stunning musical settings interweaving chants from many spiritual and indigenous traditions (http://www.desertrosemusic.co.za or see their Facebook page). They have performed their music around the world and perhaps most importantly as a ‘cultural glue’ for a South Africa still learning how to co-exist peacefully with great diversity. They shared their most recent album Tariqat-The Path live with the conference, which contains many inspirations from the “Names” as well as a stunning version of “God Bless Africa (Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika) in both Xhosa and Arabic. They have also been working on an arrangement of the Aramaic Lord’s Prayer. See below for short clips from both.
“God Bless Africa” arrangment in Arabic and Xhosa (sample from the CD Tariqat—The Path):
“Aramaic Prayer”— Desert Rose: unpublished sample from arrangment in process):
Also unexpectedly, I was asked to join a group project initiated by Shaykh Fadhlalla to re-translate the Qur’an to reveal its essential transformational message. While I have always felt this project is really needed, and have made a few small efforts in this direction, it is certainly beyond me individually. However, I am very hopeful that the group Shaykh Fadhlalla has gathered will be able to accomplish it. As he is in his 70s, the shaykh has put us on a ‘fast track’ for the project. He aims to have the new translation done and published in the next year. My own contribution is to be on the Semitic roots of Quranic cosmology and psychology.
In addition, we have been invited back to various communities in Johannesburg and Durban in the future, so inshallah, we will see what adventures in surprise, al-Awwal, the universe has in store.
Finally, just an hour or so before leaving the country, I was surprised once more when a young man in his thirties wearing a suit, approached me at the Sufi centre in Johannesburg we were visiting. He expressed his gratitude for The Sufi Book of Life and said that it had been instrumental in his work with the Nelson Mandela Foundation (http://www.nelsonmandela.org). He had created an entire leadership program for young South Africans like himself based on the “Beautiful Names,” but without using alienating religious terminology.
Alhamdulillah! Sometimes it’s really true that when one is ‘looking the other way,’ without the self observing, the wave of miracle can flow freely!
(If you would like to contribute to support travel costs for Neil and Natalia’s future work in South Africa, you can make a donation through the Abwoon Resource Center in the USA or directly through the Edinburgh Institute for Advanced Learning.