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In Conversation With Michael Sugich

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Hearts Turn: Sinners, Seekers, Saints and the Road to Redemption, our 2019 Readers' Choice book, is written by Michael Sugich.

Michael Sugich is the author of Palaces of India (Pavilion Books UK 1992), Living in Makkah, a children’s book (MacDonalds Publishers UK 1988), and Signs on the Horizons: Meetings with Men of Knowledge and Illumination (2013). He wrote documentary films on the expansion of the Two Holy Mosques in Makkah and Madinah (1990s); and Faisal: Legacy of a King (2012).

Hearts Turn is a singular and gripping exploration of the act of 'tawba', a Qur’anic term commonly translated as repentance. In Arabic the term 'tawba' is dynamic, meaning to ‘turn’ or ‘return’. 'At-Tawwab' is one of the Names of God, the Oft-Returning or Ever-Relenting. Tawba is an active constant, an ongoing, compassionate reality that renews every moment we are alive. The process of purification is a process of continuous turning.

 


 



Conversation

 

At the end of 2019, Wardah Books did a poll among our readers and your book, Hearts Turn, came up top. Having presented your book in talks and seminars in the West and in Malaysia and Singapore, what do you think is the reason for the wide appeal of this book?

 

On the most superficial level, I think the book is fun to read and has a kind of emotional rhythm and flow that carries the reader along, through a progression of stories.  With Hearts Turn and my previous book, Signs on the Horizons, I’ve tried to bring storytelling back into the contemporary Muslim narrative. We have a rich tradition of storytelling in Islam that has more or less vanished in our time. Yet we are inundated as never before with stories, in books, movies, video streaming and computer games with the values and beliefs (or disbeliefs) of a culture that is, in many ways, the antithesis of Islam. The storytelling we do have in translation is mostly from the ancients and, while the stories are still compelling and spiritually relevant, they’re from another age and leave the impression that Islam stopped developing sometime in the Middle Ages. Also, over time, most of the stories of the saints down through our history have been bowdlerized and have become overly reverent hagiographies, which can make the tales hard to relate to our present reality.

 

I tried to bring this venerable tradition into our contemporary world, as unexpurgated as possible. Some of the stories are raw, with violence, crime and sexuality that may be hard to take at times or seductive, depending upon the reader. Others are lyrical. Some are heartrending. Some are bizarre. They all have a purpose, which is to deconstruct the concept of Tawba, a term commonly translated as repentance but actually meaning ‘to turn’ or ‘to return’. In speaking to young Muslims from around the world it struck me that a great many were carrying around a burden of guilt for all the many wrong actions they may have committed without understanding that, as human beings, we were created to sin. The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, said, “If you did not sin, God would destroy you and replace you by another people who would commit sins, ask for God’s forgiveness and He would forgive them.” And he also said, “He who repents of a sin is like one who has never sinned.” For many Muslims today, raised on a puritanical doctrine that equates sin with unbelief, these hadiths can be mind-blowing. The key to understanding them is realizing that Tawba is a dynamic, constantly renewing process of turning. It is our default condition and is, in fact, the beginning of the spiritual path because it is the first stage in engaging the heart, which is the first step on the inward journey.

 

So, I think that the notion that there is this constant process of sinning, then turning, then sinning, then turning until the process is complete may be revelatory and compelling. There is an extraordinary passage in the Maqalat of Shems-i-Tabriz in which Shems says:

 

“In my view, no one can become a Muslim just once. He becomes a Muslim, then he becomes an unbeliever, then again he becomes a Muslim, and each time something comes out of him. So it goes until he becomes perfect.”

 

What I tried to do in Hearts Turn is to show how this process works in a contemporary context without, of course, implying that any of those whose stories I relate, including my own, has become perfect. For that, I have retold stories from the ancient texts about the great Medieval saints who attained spiritual perfection after some very bad beginnings. So, there is an implicit message of hope, which I think has attracted an audience. 

 

Your earlier book, Signs on the Horizons, is mainly about the saints of Islam in the modern period. While there are still saints in Hearts Turn, the focus is on ordinary lives that reveal extraordinary stories upon closer inspection. What was the thinking behind this focus on the commonplace rather than the sublime for Hearts Turn?

 

Well, first of all, I don’t see anything in life as commonplace. The ordinary world we live in is packed with meaning, there for us to unpack in the course of a life. One might say that a saint is someone who has finished unpacking and has put everything in its place. The rest of us are still in various stages of the process. Hearts Turn is about the moment when a soul comes face to face with meaning.

 

I think that sometimes we miss out on the great lesson we can learn from the lives of the Companions of the Prophet, may God give him peace and be well pleased with them. What I mean is that at the outset the Companions were ordinary people. They were all flawed individuals in one way or another and were transformed and sanctified by proximity to the Messenger and by the practice and teaching that he brought. Islam is transformative. I wanted to show how that transformation takes place among ordinary people.

 

There is humour in your writing, and it treads a very fine line between levity and solemnity. Can you tell us more about this?

 

My starting point in writing about anything is that I don’t take myself too seriously. The subject, yes. Me, no. I think you’ll find that much of the humour in the book is self-directed, self-deprecating. And, I assure you, it is not false modesty; I have every reason to be self-deprecating. In other instances, the humour is situational. I find it hugely enjoyable to excavate the absurdity of a situation.  The difference between comedy and tragedy is that in comedy there’s a happy ending, in tragedy there isn’t. We get ourselves in to all kinds of ridiculous trouble and if we survive, if there is a happy ending, then we can laugh about it. I truly believe in happy endings because I have a deep-seated certainty that God is Kind, Forgiving, Gentle, Loving, Oft Returning and the Most Merciful of the Merciful.  Of course, life is a serious business. The Prophet Muhammad said, “If you knew what I knew, you would laugh little and weep much.” Without ignoring the existential gravity of our predicament as human beings, we crave and need moments of relief and those moments of relief can be filled with mirth. Sidi ‘Ali al-Jamal, the master of Mulay al-‘Arabi al-Darqawi, wrote that humour is one of the most effective vehicles for transmitting knowledge. By juxtaposing gravity and levity, the heartrending and the hilarious, I think one can keep readers on an emotional hook that may well carry them to a deeper understanding.

 

What books have you read recently that you absolutely love (and recommend)?

 

Letters on the Spiritual Path: Mulay al-‘Arabi al-Darqawi al-Hasani (translated by Mohamed Fouad Aresmouk and Michael Abdurrahman Fitzgerald, published by Al-Madinah Institute, 2018) is a treasure. Although Shaykh al-Darqawi lived in the late 18th, early 19th centuries, his teachings are incredibly contemporary. He breaks down the spiritual path with stunning, uncompromising simplicity. There have been other versions of the Letters but the new version by Aresmouk and Fitzgerald is far and away the best, most complete and most authoritative. It is an essential text for anyone interested in Islamic spirituality.

 

A while back I was doing some research and pulled an old book by the late Tom Wolfe off my bookshelf, a collection of essays and short fiction called Hooking Up, published in 2000, and was, all over again, hooked by Wolfe’s prescience, extraordinary intelligence and immaculate style. I was particularly taken by an essay on neuroscience titled, “Sorry, but Your Soul Just Died”. Wolfe, for all his irreverence, was a serious traditionalist. He takes aim at the whole scientific establishment:

 

   “Recently I happened to be talking to a prominent California geologist, and she told me: ‘When I first went into geology, we all thought that in science you create a solid layer of findings, through experiment and careful investigation, and then you add a second layer, like a second layer of bricks, all very carefully, and so on. Occasionally some adventurous scientist stacks the bricks up in towers, and these towers turn out to be insubstantial and they get torn down, and you proceed again with careful layers. But we now realize that the very first layers aren’t even resting on solid ground. They are balanced on bubbles, on concepts that are full of air, and those bubbles are being burst today, one after the other.’
   “I suddenly had a picture of the entire astonishing edifice collapsing and modern man plunging headlong back into the primordial ooze. He’s floundering, sloshing about, gulping for air, frantically treading ooze, when he feels something huge and smooth swim beneath him and boost him up, like some almighty dolphin. He can’t see it, but he’s much impressed. He names it God.”

 

I love that final passage. In this fin de siècle collection I think Tom Wolfe pretty much nailed the digital age.

 

I also have had a glimpse, courtesy the author, of Abdal Hakim Murad’s latest book, Travelling Home. It knocked my socks off—a brilliantly erudite and incisive analysis of the position of Muslims in Europe today that is a delight to read.

 

What can you tell us about your forthcoming book project?

 

I have two projects in the pipeline. One is short-term. The other longer-term. The short-term project is a collaboration with my dear friend Peter Sanders. We are planning to publish a series of biographical monographs on some of our greatest contemporary Muslim sages. The series is an outgrowth of the work Peter and I have done over the years on bringing the living and recent spiritual exemplars within our tradition into the public eye. In a very real sense, the series is a direct extension of Peter’s recent book, Meetings with Mountains. In the original version, pre-publication, a number of brief biographies were included, written by distinguished scholars like Shaykh Hamza Yusuf and Dr. Mostafa al-Badawi. Due to the great length of the volume it was deemed necessary to cut the biographies. We realized that regardless of how well-known and revered these great 20th and 21st century sages are, that there is very little published on their personal lives and their luminous virtues. The project proposes to restore awareness of living spiritual exemplars within the Islamic tradition through the publication of a series of pictorial Exemplars in our Time monographs profiling recent living sages who have left a profound contemporary legacy of knowledge, humility, compassion, wisdom and service.

 

The biographies and stories of the sages of Islam (tabaqat), have been an inspiration to Muslims since ancient times. Yet, this powerful teaching tradition has been all but lost to young people today. This is to a great extent because the notion of sainthood within Islam has not been sufficiently contemporized. 

 

What we mean by this is that popular narrations of Muslim saints and sages have been limited to hagiographies of the Companions of the Prophet Muhammad, the Followers of the Companions like Al-Hassan al-Basri, Rabi’a al-Adawiya and Abu Yazid al-Bistami, and the narratives from the Mediaeval period by and about Mevlana Jalalud’din Rumi, Muhyid’din ibn al-‘Arabi, Imam Abu’l Qasim al-Junayd, Imam Abu’l Hassan al-Shadhili and others. While there is a wealth of material on sainthood up to the 19th century available in ‘Arabic, Farsi and Urdu, there has been very little published on contemporary exemplars and almost nothing in English. This has left the impression that these people no longer exist; that they are idealized, mythological figures from a distant Biblical past and have no relevance to the times we live in.  The outcome of this misunderstanding is that Muslims around the world have looked to other role models: on the secular side, to politicians, athletes, musicians and movie stars; on the religious side to Muslim televangelists and charismatic demagogues who may or may not be genuine role models. Or, in absence of moral exemplars, they look beyond their religion and societies to iconic, inspirational activists like Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Mother Theresa.

 

The Exemplars in our Time series seeks to bring the men and women of luminous virtues from our tradition back into the spotlight. We are hoping that the series will resonate with many communities and individual readers and can become a teaching tool for Muslim educational institutions and home-schooling programs across the Muslim world.

 

Each monograph will feature a concise biography, photography, calligraphy and other visuals. We are committed to launching three monographs in the series this coming July at the Bradford Literary Festival in the UK. Depending on the funding and support we receive, we will continue publication of the Exemplars in our Time series through 2020 and 2021.  

 

The second, longer-term, project is a book that aims to help young seekers set out on a spiritual path. So far, I have interviewed a number of authentic spiritual guides and posed the kinds of questions I am asked by young people who want to take a spiritual path but don’t know how to start. I’m approaching the subject not from where a seeker should be but from where he or she is right now. Young Muslims, whether they have entered Islam from outside the faith or have been born into the faith, are carrying around a lot of cultural and emotional baggage, distractions, confusions and delusions that they need to deal with and possibly dump before they can set out. Many young people become discouraged at the outset and quit, while others fall under the influence of people of false claims, waste precious time and eventually become disillusioned. One important aspect of the book will be an exploration of spiritual authority.

 

The aim of the book is to give sincere young seekers the basic tools they need to pursue a spiritual path with their priorities straight and with enough clarity and understanding to set out safely and, insha’Allah, arrive at their destination, which is nothing less than knowledge of God.   

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