Many are the names of God and infinite the forms through which He may be approached.
If you must be mad, be it not for the things of the world. Be mad with the love of God.
My journey into Islamic spirituality began during my early college years, ushered in thanks in part to the influence of Shaykh Nur al-Jerrahi (Lex Hixon). He was a student of both Bawa Muhaiyaddeen and Shaykh Muzaffer Ozak, yet his spiritual awakening occurred after discovering Sri Ramakrishna, a Bengali saint who lived in the late 19th century. Sri Ramakrishna’s pluralistic religiosity was to give Shaykh Nur a key to enter a variety of religious contexts, realizing that, with unwavering devotion, each potentially leads to spiritual awakening.
It was fitting then that I first encountered Sri Ramakrishna in Hixon’s book, Great Swan, a poetic and mesmerizing masterpiece that gives the reader a taste of what it must have been like to sit at the feet of the great Bengali sage. While reading Great Swan I experienced almost a type of “bilocation”, as if transported to Sri Ramakrishna’s time and place, knowing perfectly well that I was sitting in Chicago reading the pages of the book. As absurd as it sounds, I became completely absorbed in the experience, oblivious to what was happening around me. Very rarely have I had such a powerful experience while reading, including while engrossed in books from my own faith.
Growing up simplistically thinking of Islam and Hinduism as very different, perhaps incompatible religions, Sri Ramakrishna gave me – like he did for Hixon before me, a way to challenge my assumptions and allow for a more open, compassionate approach towards other faiths. This did not mean that I wished to become a Hindu myself, but I knew that Sri Ramakrishna, who was a lifelong devotee of Mother Kali, could also see a reflection of his own tradition in other world religions like Islam. In fact, for a short time he practiced Islam, while still returning to his own way.
Toward the end of 1866 he began to practise the disciplines of Islam. Under the direction of his Mussalman guru he abandoned himself to his new sādhana. He dressed as a Mussalman and repeated the name of Allah.
His prayers took the form of the Islamic devotions. He forgot the Hindu gods and goddesses – even Kali – and gave up visiting the temples. He took up his residence outside the temple precincts. After three days he saw the vision of a radiant figure, perhaps Mohammed. This figure gently approached him and finally lost himself in Sri Ramakrishna. Thus he realized the Mussalman God. Thence he passed into communion with Brahman. The mighty river of Islam also led him back to the Ocean of the Absolute.”
What was it that a young Muslim male like me found in Sri Ramakrishna that was so powerful? In part, it was his expansive view of religion, and initially his short experiment with Islam, which came during his time experiencing different paths of worship, primarily in Hinduism. As an extension of his own evolution, and to prove that Islam could lead to enlightenment as much as these many Hindu paths, Sri Ramakrishna delved into its practice.
The other thing that pulled me into the world of Sri Ramakrishna was seeing how deeply alive and aware he was in each and every moment. He encountered all types of people and situations in a way that was spontaneous and subtle. There is one definition of a Sufi in Islam that quite appropriately fits Sri Ramakrishna, and that is that a Sufi is a “child of the moment”. Sri Ramakrishna embodied this quality in a way that confounded and confused those around him, especially ones less aware of the spiritual dimensions of life. Yet, hidden within each of his encounters was a wisdom and deep love for all.
Sri Ramakrishna appeared outwardly almost child-like, acting with little concern for outward appearances. His sole duty was to awaken those around him, compassionate and receptive to the Divine will and not his own ego identification. He was often lost in samadhi, a meditative state that made him lose consciousness of the world, and become absorbed in a silent bliss. At other times, he would be ecstatic, dancing frantically and singing devotional songs with devotees and visitors. He could be gentle and encouraging, and conversely angry and biting. He could elaborate great esoteric truths and then act as if he knew nothing at all. None of these actions contradicted because all were done quite deliberately by a man who was fully alive at each moment in time. In The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, the primary text chronicling his words and deeps, there are many examples of this constant fluctuation in behavior such as this:
While dancing, Sri Ramakrishna every now and then went into deep samādhi. When he was in the deepest samādhi he could not utter a word and his whole body remained transfixed. The devotees danced encircling him. After a while, regaining partial consciousness, he danced with the strength of a lion, intoxicated with ecstatic love. But even then he could not utter a word. Finally, regaining more of the consciousness of the world, he sang again, improvising the lines.
In fact, Sri Ramakrishna did not believe in linear time and the outward world that we cling so tightly to as filtered through the five senses. There is in fact a spiritual reality far more real than this apparently solid reality. He said that “seventy percent” of our awareness should be focused on God at all times, even while going about our daily lives. This greater reality is impossible to describe, though available experientially with the right level of longing and devotion. The example of this humble Bengali sage taught me to enter fully into my own religious life, much as Sri Ramakrishna gave himself without restraint to his. In each moment I have to experience the Divine in a fresh, insightful way, cognizant of the Qur’anic verse that, “Wherever you turn, there is the Face of God.” (2:115)