At Play

بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ

The following is adapted from Signs on the Horizons by Shaykh Michael Sugich.

“He would hold informal court every evening between the sunset prayer and the night prayer in the Holy Mosque in Makkah, overlooking the mathaf between the Yemeni Corner and the Black Stone.  Sitting magisterially above the marble stairway leading up to the raised Sinan Pasha Mosque that surrounded the mathaf, his station was directly beneath the elevated sound booth, muqabiliyyah, from where the mu’adzin would call the prayer.  Draped in brilliant white Sudani robes, head wrapped in a flamboyant voluminous turban, his black beard flecked with grey, his handsome face luminous, his smile dazzling, he was an imposing, romantic figure.

Every habitué of the Haram Sharif in Makkah knew Shaykh Isma’il.  He was hard to miss; a magnetic presence, attracting worshippers and seekers of all kinds.  One would rest awhile in the pleasure of his company between the prayers.  The atmosphere around him was informal, almost playful.  I would always greet him when I passed by and would sit with him from time to time.

It was said that he knew the sciences of the unseen and sometimes cured those afflicted by mental illnesses, possession and magic.  He was among the few who the conservative religious authorities allowed to openly practice this science, even though his Sufism was anathema to them.

If I remember correctly, he was a shaykh of the Idrissiyyah Order in Sudan.  He lived across from the Sawq al-Layl in a simple flat on Gazah Street.  He had students and the occasional patient and spent his days in worship and study.

On one occasion I introduced the shaykh to a group of visitors from the U.S.  He invited us to his home for supper after the night prayer.  Several members of the group were Shi’ah Muslims.  Although a Sunni, Shaykh Isma’il spoke with great learning on Shi’ah doctrine, mentioning that whereas Sufism evolved as a separate strand within Sunni Islam that Sufism is completely integrated into Shi’ah canonic law, shari’ah.  One of the most striking characteristics of the great Sufi scholars I have been able to meet, is their inclusiveness and acceptance of all professions within Islam.

On the other hand, hypocrisy, falsehood and lying are universally condemned.  He once told me, apropos of nothing in particular at the time, ‘The worst human being on earth is the man of false claims.  There is nothing worse than this.’  He added further that anyone who openly claimed to be a shaykh, in the sense of being a spiritual master, was automatically a liar.

We were sitting together after the sunset prayer.  He knew I was from America but nothing more.  He began to ask me about myself.  I told him that I was of Arab extraction but had been orphaned as an infant and never knew my birth parents.  I was not raised as a Muslim but had embraced Islam as a young adult.  He asked me if my birth father was a Muslim.  I told him that I knew he was from Syria but had always assumed that he was Christian because many Syrian Christians emigrated from Syria and settled in America in the years after the First World War.

When I said this, Shaykh Isma’il reached over and placed the fingers of his right hand on my throat, just above my esophagus, touching my jugular vein.  He closed his eyes and with his outspread hand touching my throat, he recited an invocation for a long time.  When he finished, he took his hand away, flashed a huge smile and said emphatically, ‘Your father was a Muslim.  His father was a Muslim.  His father was a Muslim and his father was a Muslim!’

I walked away from this encounter skeptical, to say the least.  I am wary of spiritual guides who resort to theatrical gestures of this sort.  I did not give much thought or credence to the exchange but later on, mostly to satisfy my curiosity, I asked my shaykh, Sayyid ‘Umar ‘Abdullah to come with me to the Holy Mosque to meet Shaykh Isma’il.  I told Sayyid ‘Umar about the previous exchange I had had and I wanted his insight.

After the sunset prayer, I led Sayyid ‘Umar to Shaykh Isma’il’s maqam, his established place in the mosque.  When Shaykh Isma’il saw him approaching with me he cried out ‘Abshir!  Abshir!’ meaning, ‘Good news!  Good news!’, as if he was greeting a dear, long-lost friend.  The two men sat together and spoke at length, thoroughly enjoying one another’s company.  When we left Shaykh Isma’il’s circle, and descended the marble stairs to cross the mathaf, I asked Sayyid ‘Umar what he made of the Sudanese shaykh.  Sayyid ‘Umar shook his head with awe.  ‘He is wasil,’ he said.  ‘He has arrived.  He is so advanced that he can play.  His knowledge is very, very great.’  The wasil are those Joined to God.

There is a saying, ‘Blood will tell’.  It seems my blood told Shaykh Isma’il a story.  But God Knows Best.”


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