A. Helwa is a writer who has inspired readers through her passionate, poetic, and love-based approach to spirituality. Her popular blog @quranquotesdaily, was established while obtaining her Masters in Divinity, as a means of helping others overcome personal and spiritual struggles on their journey of experiencing divine love. Helwa's first book, Secrets of Divine Love, is available now.
Fadhilah: Alhamdulillah, thank you for writing such a beautiful and beneficial book. I notice that you began the book with Allah swt as the Origin of Love, then expanded on His love and mercy in the pillars of faith and worship, before dedicating only the last 5 or so pages on man being the recipient of that love. In a world today where the importance is always placed on man; on self-love, self-care, and self-everything, I found your unrelenting yet very gentle focus on God refreshing. What are your thoughts on this?
Helwa: I would say that we human beings focus on ourselves because we struggle with the veil of self management. One of the my teachers, Salima, used to tell us “don’t fight the darkness, turn on the light.” In other words don’t take on the responsibility of overcoming your ego or fighting your desires by yourself, but turn to Allah and begin with His help. It is important that we strive and put in work, but we must be careful to not fall in the trap of thinking what we experience spiritually is from our doing. Allah is the giver, the lover, the creator, and the One who guides us on the path of mercy and love.
We can talk about theories or we can sink into this everlasting ocean of Divine Love and let its waters purify our hearts and uplift our spirits.
I sort of think of us humans as farmers who plant seeds in a soil that doesn’t belong to us, with the need for a sun we can’t control and the necessity for rain we can’t predict. Yes we do the labor of planting the seeds of our actions but Allah determines the outcomes of those seeds, and in reality it is also Allah who inspired our hearts to do good actions in the first place. In the end the entire matter belongs to Allah. Usually this is when the debate of free will vs. pre-determination enters the picture. For me the solution isn’t to debate, but to stand in awe of the mysterious way that Allah pulls us into His love that shatters the intellect and mind. We can talk about theories or we can sink into this everlasting ocean of Divine Love and let its waters purify our hearts and uplift our spirits. Maybe it’s because I am from California, but I choose the ocean!
F: Beautiful, mashaAllah. It seems to me that this idea of “sinking into the ocean of Divine Love” is one of the central themes of your book. For readers who have yet to pick up your book, could you dive deeper into what that means, and perhaps share some practical steps a “new” seeker can take to begin dipping her toes in this vast ocean?
H: Swimming in the ocean of Divine Love is less about doing and more about being. It is about surrendering our will, our reality, our preferences, and even our identity. It is about giving all that we are to God, to receive the infinite love of our Creator in return. It is important to point out that I believe that Allah loves every single one of His creatures unconditionally. His love is not dependent on us or our actions because as the Qur’an says, Allah is independent from His creations. In other words, what we do or do not do cannot affect God. Our experience of Divine Love changes not because God loves us any less, but because we are veiled from experiencing His all-encompassing love due to the veil of our own sins.
Over and over again Allah says in the Qur’an that He does not oppress us, but we oppress ourselves. What that means is we are all in the ocean of Divine Love, but some of us are asleep, some of us see the majesty but we are in a submarine, separate, not willing to dissolve ourselves entirely. This is the deep secret of Divine Love, you already have it. You already are in it. There is no destination for you to reach. We are all walking the path of Islam from here to here, from now to now. There is no space or time where we are going. The journey is inside, it is finding that what we seek for we already carry. Adam had achieved nothing when the Angels bowed before the spirit of Allah in him. It was that Spirit that made him worthy not his actions. That is the first step.
Invoke the quality of gratitude and experience how Allah's quality of Ash-Shakur or gratitude may begin to open your eyes to how close Allah has always been
We need to begin with gratitude for all that Allah has given us before we could do anything to earn it. The beginning of the journey, is Alhamdullilah, All praise to Allah. For the ones who want to dip their toes in the ocean of Divine Love, I would say begin with gratitude. Go into nature, meditate on a flower, or a bird, or the sky, the ocean, or even the beauty of your family, friends, spouse or children. Look at how beautifully Allah sculpted His creatures. Be in awe of the mysteries that surround you. And then say thank you, say Alhamdullilah. Invoke the quality of gratitude and experience how Allah's quality of Ash-Shakur or gratitude may begin to open your eyes to how close Allah has always been. Allah says in the Qur’an, "And when (O Messenger) My servants ask you about Me, then surely I am near: I answer the prayer of the suppliant when he prays to Me.” (2:186)
In other words, even the thought to call upon Allah makes Him close to us. After all, Allah is already closer than our jugular vein, so it's not Allah who comes closer to us when we pray, but we who open our eyes and notice how close He always has been. (50:16)
F: I love it that your answer for the seeker who's starting out is have gratitude because that is definitely something anyone can do whatever stage of learning the Deen they're at. Out of curiosity: You mentioned in your book how your search for God led you to travel around the world, learning and seeking, before coming to a realization "there is no destination for you to reach... The journey is inside". I see this in my own spiritual journey as well as the journey of many others': a focus on outward journeying (be it in literal distances or in changing outward forms), before finally turning inward. Why do you think most seekers tend to follow this outward -> inward path?
H: I believe for many of us the journey begins in a more dense or outer form because in many ways it’s easier to understand. The inner realm is subtle and harder to grasp, harder to see the pitfalls and summits, and harder to walk deep inside. The traveler is called by the Qur’an to see the Earth, to travel it and witness the physical signs of Allah. We begin in this outer state of worship because without Islam you cannot get to Iman because without the container of our outward practices it becomes difficult to foster spiritual growth. Traveling on the outer in a physical dimension equips the seeker with lessons that can become necessary provisions for the inner journey.
"The journey inside in many ways begins because the journey on the outer leaves us empty handed and with nowhere else to turn.
Now in no way am I saying traveling the world is a pre-requisite for spiritual growth, but I will say seeing so much of the world taught me that the deep desire of my heart could not be found in this realm of existence. The most magnificent sites bewildered me only for a few moments, but then the feeling was gone and I was back to feeling this insatiable desire for something I couldn’t seem to find. I chased my tail for years all over the globe before I realized what I sought was Allah and He was already with me so He couldn’t be found, He had to be unveiled and discovered.
The power of the physical journey is actualized at this point. It was here when I had seen what I thought I needed to see, had the money I thought I needed to be successful and yet I was still left with the same feeling that I was finally pushed into the place I had avoided and covered with the veils of identity. The journey inside in many ways begins because the journey on the outer leaves us empty handed and with nowhere else to turn. I thank Allah for the disappointments and emptiness that came with the outer journey that led us to seek Him on the inner realms. Again, it seems that no matter the direction of our search, whether it be inwards or outwards, all roads begin with and lead to Alhamdulillah.
F: At Wardah, we carry many titles by the likes of Mawlana Rumi, Imam al-Ghazali, and at one point, even one of your teachers, Sidi Muhammad Sa'id al-Jamal. To me, Secrets of Divine Love is a refreshing take of the wisdom within these books by our sages and shaykhs, written in a language that is more accessible to the reader of today, by means of relevant examples and metaphors. What inspired you to write this book, and what are your intentions for it?
H: My intention for the book was to give people what I couldn’t find growing up. I always wanted to have a book on Islam that explained the basics in a spiritual and poetic way. In a way that felt loving and accepting. I think this generation is really deep, but also our attention span is limited. I think the Islamic tradition has some of the most incredible books of depth, but it often requires you to read thousands of pages, often times on one issue for hours.
I wanted to create a book that sort of wove in the Qur’an, hadith, stories, poetry, and reflections in a way that had enough diversity that the reader could stay engaged. I also wanted the book to be something Muslims could share with people of other faiths without feeling like they may get offended. I wanted people of other faiths to feel inspired by Islam even if they were on a different spiritual path.
"My focus has been to bridge the gap of our differences with knowledge so that we could have deeper understanding and acceptance between cultures and religions.
One of the biggest compliments I ever got was when my Christian friend read the Qur’an chapter in Secrets of Divine Love and said “After reading this chapter, I have a deeper appreciation for the Bible, because reading about God’s word inspired me toward the revelation I grew up with in a deeper way.” She also began praying Christian prayers 5 times a day, saying the ideals of the salat were so convincing to her. I know many Muslims focus on conversion, but that’s never been my focus. My focus has been to bridge the gap of our differences with knowledge so that we could have deeper understanding and acceptance between cultures and religions. When I started writing this book, I thought I’m not some great Sheikh or great teacher, and that feeling of inadequacy almost stopped me from trying.
I give all praise to Allah who strengthened me by His strength and showed me that my weakness was my greatest secret because it forced me to depend on Him instead of myself. I am surprised in many ways this book is selling out like crazy, and I see it as a sign of our collective desire to be closer to Allah and to deeply feel His love. I know that no one is reaching for me and my words when they reach for this book, but are reaching for the influence and light of Allah that allowed me to write it. Alhamdullilah for the kindness of our loving Lord.
F: MashaAllah. May He gift you all that you intended and more. Last question: I've read that Secrets of Divine Love was also a surprise in the sense that you actually set out to write a different book. I understand that you're now back working on that initial project. Care to share more about it and what readers can look forward to next?
H: Many people don’t know I didn’t begin with the intention of writing “secrets of divine love” it sort of just came into existence through guidance when I was working on a daily Qur’an typography book. That first book that I have been working on for about 3.5 years is a compilation of hand-lettered artworks from dozens of designers worldwide. The goal was to inundate the web with Qur’an typography that was colourful and contemplative instead of a standard font on a photography background. We have so many wonderful examples of illustrative works of the Qur’an in Arabic but we lack that in the English language. When I found out no one had done that before I sort of just began and it snowballed into what it has become today, which is 600+ Typography pieces of my favourite verses.
For the book I will have a team of 10 pick around 365 of them to showcase and then in sha Allah share that book with the world. It is a huge project, one that I had no idea how much work it would take, but by the grace of God it should launch in sha Allah early 2021. The typography book required so much of my time graphically that I would sort of take a break and write about the verses I was creating artworks for.
On top of that @quranquotesdaily [on Instagram] was growing so rapidly and people were asking so many questions that I started to sort of collect the answers I found along the way. I had stacks of notes everywhere and then the strong guidance came to sincerely and strongly commit to making my personal notes and hundreds of pages of lecture notes into a book. For those that read the book, I really resisted the process. It was by the grace of Allah that I overcame my doubts and trusted the Lord to lead me on the path He sought. I am infinitely grateful to my teachers and friends who read hundreds of pages and corrected my mistakes along the way and encouraged me to keep writing.
I also think my story is a testament to trusting what God makes for us, even if it’s hard, inconvenient, or makes you feel inadequate. The goal is to give all those feelings to Allah trusting that His strength and perfection will lead you to the outcome He has written for you.
Lastly, I want to say a special thank you to you my sister Nur for your endless kindness and patience with me. Also many thanks to brother Ibrahim of Wardah Books who was instrumental in mentoring me through questions I had about the book industry world. He shared his knowledge generously and for that I am forever grateful. Before any other bookstores really gave my book a chance, Wardah did and that was very special for me having lived in Singapore in the past. May Allah bless you, your family, friends, and all of your readers with the best in this world and the next.
Love and light,