When I took a pen and wrote freedom on an empty page of my notebook, I stopped for while and kept staring at the word I had just scribbled. Freedom was a word I had read and written many times, a word whose definition kept evolving every time I experienced new facets of what it meant to be alive.
Freedom is probably one of those words one learns the earliest at school. Paradoxically, despite being one of the earliest words I have learnt to write, freedom is probably the one word my intellect has always failed to grasp. Every time I would try to come up with an eloquent definition of what freedom meant to me, my mind would become silent, as if telling me it couldn’t possibly express a reality it had never truly experienced.
When I thought about it long enough, this reality made sense to me. How could one define what freedom is, if one had never experienced freedom itself? Similarly, how could one define what enslavement is not, if one was not even aware of being a slave of its own desires? Further, if one needed to experience freedom in order to define it, how could one strive towards ultimate freedom in a world where one only exists in the meaningless and primitive form of our finite physicality?
In today’s article, which is the eighth of this series of reflection, I will continue to answer the very question I had asked myself at the beginning of Muharram: What does Husayn mean to me? What did his love do to me? For the most part in previous articles, I have tried to answer this question from a historical, social, and theological standpoint. So far, I came to the conclusion that al-Husayn’s stand in Karbala defined for me concepts of resistance, unity, faith, marriage, and motherhood. Today I would like to take step back from the university of Karbala and the lessons one can learn from it. Today, I would like to leave pen, paper, books, historical sources, logic, and argumentations aside. In this piece, I would like to speak to hearts and spirits only. Tonight, our minds can rest for words that you are about to read are written in the language of love and freedom, a language only understood by the soul.
In the wilderness of the quest leading to You
Contemplating dunes devoid of any meaning
In the deserts of its ego’s self woven illusions
Whose flapping echo their fragile uncertainty
The wayfarer begins to look for enlightenment
From a light that instilled the fire that burns him
He loses his mind in the stillness of this trance
As his spirit spirals around the oneness of your being
Veils start to fall only when his soul starts to rise
It is when he frees himself from ties that cage him
To a life where he exists only through foreign eyes
That the lost wanderer seeking You, Himself he finally
The day of Arba’een is upon us. Although historically, this day marks the fortieth day following the martyr of al-Husayn, I will forever recall this day as the anniversary date of the day I experienced ultimate freedom.
Two years ago, I was fortunate enough to participate in the most significant event that has till now shaped the person that I have become. I was one amongst the millions of followers of al-Husayn fortunate enough to participate in the walk from Najaf to Karbala.
I remember having read a lot about it. Most of my family members and friends had already performed this pilgrimage before. Seeing the effect of this journey in their lives had made me eager to experience myself what this miracle was all about. After having walked towards freedom, untying myself from every bound that had kept me in darkness, I am now daring to commit the injustice of putting into words bits and pieces of what it means to experience the shining light of this thriving and pulsating miracle.
If you were to ask anyone on the street, which verb carrying the idea of motion best defines the idea of freedom, most people would answer ‘to fly.’ In our societies, freedom is so intertwined with our physical reality that words that transcend our outer existence are often those we use to define freedom. It’s as if one could only experience freedom when leaving everything that binds one to its existence on earth. Therein lies the first thing that struck me during this journey. My walk towards freedom didn’t need this ‘Westernized’ and ‘romanticized’ idea of flying in order to discover my true identity. During the days of Arba’een, the first lesson al-Husayn has taught me when defining what freedom meant, is that ultimate freedom is the liberation of one’s soul. One may fly towards outer space in a sophisticated vessel but still be the slave of its own primitive desires. One could walk on the deserted roads of a worn torn country letting its soul fly towards the infinite domain of the realm of light and still experience freedom.
When I started my physical journey towards Karbala leaving Najaf four days before Arba’een, I could sense that my body was leading the way as my soul was dragging behind. My soul was longing to meet its master, but it had not yet risen to the level required for it to outpace my limbs and walk towards enlightenment. This reality changed, as each and every step I took towards Karbala, gradually shifted the balance of my existence; before the walk, I was a body more than a soul. When I reached Karbala, I was the infinity of my soul more than I was the nothingness of my physical being.
There are many ways in which this walk has set me free and most of them are tied to having entered a greater realm of self-consciousness. Hence, I feel this journey can best be explained using terminologies used by Urafa (gnostics) when they describe different stages one goes through while embarking in a journey of spiritual wayfaring (sayr wa suluk).
One of the first things I experienced on this journey was the radiating flavor of selflessness that made everyone walking towards Karbala to bloom and radiate under its spring. Everyone I saw had embarked in a journey in which they had left their own desires and wishes at the doorstep of their respective houses. The only drive that set our souls in motion was love. It is that shift that made us transcend the wilderness of materialism and experience for the first time, what it meant to actually be free.
Once selflessness entered my soul permanently through the sheer devotion and generosity of the people I encountered in the walk, I experienced another realm of freedom when I untied myself from every label that had so far defined who I was in the eyes of the world. I remember having walked alone for the most part. I can still remember the energy I felt when I first led my eyes on this floating tapestry of black veils carried by the wind towards Karbala. During the first hours of the walk, I kept re-defining in my head, words I would use if one was to ask who I was. Before the walk, my identity comprised of my nationality, my age, my area of expertise, my experiences, my family, my friends and everything else that one might use in order to introduce itself to a stranger in a casual conversation. But during the walk, none of those realities mattered. It is when I left the multiplicity of my self-defined identity that I experienced another level of freedom. In other words, it is when I defined myself in measures of light, and light only, that I experienced what it meant to fulfill the purpose of my existence. I think I can safely say, that it is when I realized that I was a mere soul amongst an ocean of moving waves, all striving towards the shores of al-Husayn that I experienced the purest flavors of tawheed (belief in the oneness of God) for I was now able to reflect the light of the Creator itself.
Now that I was only a flame set alight by the love of al-Husayn, I tried to experience another level of freedom by first and foremost enlightening every corner of darkness I had within myself, and I did that when I introduced silence in my life. During that walk, I became a candle that silently burnt its own desires in order to experience the true fragrance of its soul. During the walk, when I got accustomed to the sweetness of silence, I came to the conclusion that one can only attain a certain level freedom when one liberates itself from the noise of thoughts constantly spiraling over one’s mind. It is when one rises above those thoughts and the often futile sentences they generate that one enters a new realm of freedom, one that does not need words to express itself. The beauty of silence is best expressed in the perfect words of our Imam, Jafar as-Sadiq (as) who said: “Silence is the motto of lovers [of God], and in it lies the Lord’s pleasure. It is the virtue of the prophets and the motto of the pure ones.”
When I think about it now, I feel as if it is when I introduced silence in my existence that I left my physicality and embraced the immortality of my soul. I could not hear the sound of my footsteps on the ground, nor could I hear the beating of my heart. Like the whistling of my blood rushing through every crossroad of my arteries, they were all tied the finite domain of an existence defined by time, space and sound, while I was now a free soul floating in a realm of light and absolute silence.
Finally, the ultimate way in which this walk had set me free is when I was able to contemplate my own soul and the purity of the light it was made of. When you embark in such a journey in which, you empty yourself from desires, lust, fear, and worldly gains. A journey in which every step is a manifestation of your love for al-Husayn (as) and Allah, you unknowingly purify yourself from every stain that had darkened your once pure soul. It’s as if your soul was a pool of clear water, which the attachment to this world had now left impure. Each step taken towards Husayn was now a purifier that slowly emptied the pool from every dirt accumulated on the surface of its water. And once the water was as clear as it was when Allah had first instilled light in its core, you were now able to gaze through it and finally experience sheer sincerity and devotion in your dhikr (invocation) of Allah.
There are other ways in which this walk has set me free, ways that I haven’t still been able to put into words. When I come to think of it, I doubt I will ever be able to write about all possible ways in which this walk had liberated me. Although I am conscious of the fact that I haven’t grasped even the most minute aspect of the freedom great Urafas have described on their journey of wayfaring, I am convinced that the sincerity one experiences during this walk is perhaps one of the greatest manifestations of the pleasure one feels when leaving the material realm in order to enter the realm of the soul.
Besides freedom, this walk has also shaped my understanding of the faith one should have in the unseen and the day of Qiyamat (Day of Judgement). I have often heard from the pulpit that on the day of Qiyamat, people will be so absorbed by the truthfulness of Allah’s light that parents will forget their children, husbands will forget their wives, as each one of them will walk towards the same direction bearing in their hands only the sincerity of their good deeds. The reason why I am linking this walk to the Day of Reckoning is because faces I have seen in the walk were only and solely preoccupied by their own deeds and what they had to offer to their Lord.
I mentioned earlier that one aspect of the freedom I experienced was the fruit of my newly acquired identity, which expressed itself only through the submission of Allah (swt). Similarly, because I recognized myself only as a slave of God, I felt completely disconnected from any other tie that bound me to my worldly life. Each step that I took on this walk, was motivated by a sincere spiritual thirst. None of my thoughts originated from a need imposed by my status in the society. I wasn’t a son or a brother anymore. I wasn’t a student. I wasn’t a tenant, I wasn’t a friend, I wasn’t a community member, I wasn’t a teacher. At that moment, I was none of them. I was just whatever I was after all labels attached to my existence were detached. In some ways, I was experiencing the lightness of becoming a child again, while still keeping the intellectual ability to think and analyze my environment as an adult. And it is precisely because I felt the only drive that set me in motion was my submission for Allah that I felt this is somehow how we will meet our Lord.
I’d like to dedicate this piece to all lovers of al-Husayn (as) who have started their journey of love towards freedom. I pray for their safety and the safety of our holy shrines. I’d like to end this piece with a couplet from Rumi which best symbolizes the lack of words I experience whenever I want to describe what al-Husayn (as) means to me:
I can’t say more concerning this theme
An ocean fit not in a narrow stream
The speech has got to that point of the script
Where the pen is split and the paper is ripped.