Allah, subhanahu wa ta‘ala, tells us to travel through the earth and see what was the end of those who denied the truth. As we travelled through the historical relics of the ancient civilization of China, it gave us opportunities to reflect and learn from their vestiges andathaar.
One such place, the Great Wall of China, which stretches almost four thousand miles and with all its branches over thirteen thousand miles, must certainly hold a lot of lessons for us, from its inception under the emperor Qin Shi Huang 220 BCE to its later enhancements by the Ming Dynasty. Thousands of miles of wall were built over inhospitable terrain at the expense of unimaginable amounts of material and lifetimes in human resources, a monumental task in which untold lives were lost, to provide protection from invading hordes of nomadic tribes. Today, it stands witness to the fact that no wall provides protection, nor moats or ditches, but that the decree of Allah overwhelms every human effort, which nevertheless must be made as we are tasked to do. True protection lies only in the obedience of Allah and establishing justice on earth as His khalifah (vicegerent). Whenever the balance of justice is skewed, it sounds the death knell of the prevailing system.
Just as the ancient Chinese dynasties have passed, so has the cultural revolution of Mao Zedong. The effort to protect our lives and possessions frequently takes precedence over preserving and strengthening our connection with Allah. We focus on real and imagined external enemies and neglect to focus on the enemy lurking within, our lowernafs (lower self). We strive to preserve and multiply our worldly possessions instead of making a concerted effort to beautify our inner treasure, our akhlaq. The personal struggle of tazkiyah (spiritual purification) against the lower self and its inclinations and desires is an effort that is always rewarded and bears fruit by the Grace of Allah. It is protected and preserved from the ravages of time and changes of civilizations. Even the Great Wall could not stop the invading Mongols from the North, or the more recent invasion of western capitalism and self-indulgent influences that now traverse the airwaves and electronic media.
The protective wall that needs to be built is the one that protects our most treasured possession, our quloob (hearts), from all that distances us from Allah, subhanahu wa ta‘ala. However, imprisoning and sequestering the lower nafs within a wall of restraint and ultimately making it subservient to all that Allah loves and is pleased with, is sometimes a daunting task. It is sometimes harder than the building of the Great Wall. As Sidi Mokhtar teaches from our salaf (predecessors), it is harder to dislodge hawa (whims and inclinations) from within ourselves, once it has taken hold, than carving a mountain with our finger nails. The Great Wall reminds us to direct our efforts to that which is more virtuous in the sight of our Lord and more rewarding.
The fortresses along the wall, lookouts for enemy invasion, sounding the alarm, reminded me of the admonishing words of Sidi Abdul Qadir Jilani: Stand guard at the gates of your qalb with the sword of tawheed allowing entry only to that which the Sovereign approves.
I pray and hope that the fortresses of our heart do not fall into disrepair, become unmanned, or worse, become just tourist attractions for occasional visits.
Over the centuries, Chinese culture seems to have stressed on the quest for longevity. It is a futile aspiration as we know that nothing truly remains except good deeds:
وَالْبَاقِيَاتُ الصَّالِحَاتُ خَيْرٌ عِندَ رَبِّكَ ثَوَابًا وَخَيْرٌ أَمَلًا
But good deeds, the fruit whereof endures forever, are of far greater merit in thy Sustainer’s sight, and a far better source of hope. (Surah al-Kahf, 18:46)
وَالْبَاقِيَاتُ الصَّالِحَاتُ خَيْرٌ عِندَ رَبِّكَ ثَوَابًا وَخَيْرٌ مَّرَدًّا
And good deeds, the fruit whereof endures forever, are, in thy Sustainer’s sight, of far greater merit [than any worldly goods], and yield far better returns. (Surah Maryam, 19:65)
So our hopes and expectation of reward should be anchored on our deeds and the Grace of Allah. Longevity is only in the akhirah. So, seeking it in this life is wasted effort. On the other hand, leading a life full of virtue guarantees, by His mercy, an eternal life of bliss – that is true longevity.
The Reed flute caves reminded me of the world within each one of us, the essential reality of who I am, my “inner image”. The complex maze with a myriad of stalagmites and stalactites unfolds the result of millions of years of water dripping drop by drop, producing both beautiful shapes and grotesque monstrosities. As Shaykh Mokhtar teaches us: every action or word has its consequences, that over a period of time take shape to form our inner image, our akhlaq, either beautiful or ugly. It is said that we will also see our deeds in the grave in the personification of beautiful or ugly companions. How careful should we be of each act and each word we utter with regards to its consequence, making sure the consequences of our words and actions do not hurt anyone or anything. Hence, the value of khalwah (seclusion, retreat) and silence in our process of tazkiyah. Each action, like each drop of water, has a consequence that will visibly manifest itself at a later date, and molds who we are on the inside, a reality that will be laid bare one day when all the outer adornments are stripped away to show who I truly am. What will I see that day, a pleasing sight or one from which I would want to distance myself?
يَوْمَ تَجِدُ كُلُّ نَفْسٍ مَّا عَمِلَتْ مِنْ خَيْرٍ مُّحْضَرًا وَمَا عَمِلَتْ مِن سُوَءٍ تَوَدُّ لَوْ أَنَّ بَيْنَهَا وَبَيْنَهُ أَمَدًا بَعِيدًا وَيُحَذِّرُكُمُ اللّهُ نَفْسَهُ وَاللّهُ رَؤُوفُ بِالْعِبَادِ
The Day every soul will find what it has done of good present [before it] and what it has done of evil, it will wish that between itself and that [evil] was a great distance. And Allah warns you of Himself, and Allah is Kind to [His] servants.(Surah Ali-Imran 3:30)
The stalagmites reach up from the cave floor, a symbol of hope of one day reaching and uniting with the stalactites hanging from above, symbolic of a rope extended from above for those who want to reach for the upper echelons of spiritual ascent.
The small collections of water on the cave floor accurately reflect that which was around, showing it like it is. Or is it a reminder that what appears real is just an image, whereas the reality, Al-Haqq, lies beyond. It also reminds us that it is through the lens of our quloob that we see the realities of the world and interpret what we see and experience. A qalb in a state of tranquility, in dhikr of Allah, and in a state of tazkiyah andsalaamah will accurately reflect the essential reality of everything and see the Manifestation of the Divine in everything.
The scenic river cruise in Guilin, with breathtaking views of natural beauty, was also a reminder that worldly beauty was created to unveil the Divine. However, it is still “dunya”, particularly if its beauty is so captivating that it itself becomes a veil between the beholder and the Divine. Hence, Shaykh Mokhtar always, by example and by exhortation, teaches us to be in the dhikr of subhanAllahi wa bi hamdihi and La ilaha illa Allah. Continuous dhikr elevates nafsani enjoyment to a qalbi enjoyment. How many boats must have passed by those mountain peaks and cliffs daily, weekly and yearly over the centuries? How many passed by in a state of dhikr? Each of those peaks will bear witness for us on the day we need it most. This is the benefit of a spiritual journey with a teacher who is a practitioner and from whom we are always trying to benefit by observation, learning and practice.
How many silk worms of China and pearl-bearing oysters in the south China seas have sacrificed their lives to provide comfort and adornment for us at the command of their Lord, the One, Who made everything subservient to us. They are saying as if :
إِنَّ صَلاَتِي وَنُسُكِي وَمَحْيَايَ وَمَمَاتِي لِلّهِ رَبِّ الْعَالَمِينَ
“Indeed, my prayer, my rites of sacrifice, my living and my dying are for Allah , Lord of the worlds.” (Surah An’am 6:162)
Have we also submitted fully to Him? Is the worm and the oyster better than me?
The grand Mosque of Xian stands as a witness for the countless unknown believers who must have passed through it and worshipped Allah, subhanahu wa ta‘ala, since 742 CE. Little is known of their struggle to preserve their deen, their persecution and their sacrifices. Their names unknown, no monuments or statues erected for them, yet known to Allah, subhanahu wa ta‘ala, and of a status that only Allah grants. And how many dynasties and emperors, with their struggle for power, conniving plots and self-serving edicts are commemorated in statues, portraits and monumental graves. Such people of power and clout, apparently protected by armies of soldiers, both above ground and underground, have come to naught. In this is a lesson for people who reflect.
“Mind your step”, Shaykh Mokhtar reminded us at the grand Mosque of Xian, along with other reminders. “Mind your head”, and “Hydrate your mind and heart” were statements I noticed not just as a coincidence but as a reminder from Allah to help keep our qulooband our tongues soft with His remembrance. Dhikr, dhikr, dhikr, then more dhikr.
There was a small quote on the counter at the Crowne Plaza in Shanghai: “It is the small things that make a difference.” How true! Observing our teacher and shaykh, I learned how to hand over the boarding card for scanning and how to take it back with two hands! There is adab in every little thing which we casually ignore, these are the “little things” that add up to ihsaan. And it is ihsaan and akhlaq that brought Islam to China, and of which Sidi Mokhtar reminded us on our first day in China. It was akhlaq andihsaan that won the heart of Valon, our tour guide who accepted Islam on the last day of the trip and brought him into Islam by the Grace of Allah. May Allah, Subhanahu wa ta‘ala, make us people of beautiful akhlaq and from among the mohsinoon.
The other lesson I learned, besides the importance of akhlaq and the perfection ofadab in the execution of our actions, was to give every moment its due of recognition and awareness of the Rububiyah of Allah, subhanahu wa ta‘ala, and consequently ourUboodiyah. It means to not let the past preoccupy us at the expense of what is at hand, nor let the future distract us from the responsibilities of the present, to be a sahibul-waqt, a person of the moment. We must look for what Allah, subhanahu wa ta‘ala, wants to show us at each moment. Even on a vacation, we should be conscious of things that need to be rejected, those that need to be accepted but require no action, those that are accepted and require action, and finally those that are a perfection of imaan and ‘amal according to Rasulallah ﷺ.
Our expectations should not be anchored on what we want, but on what Allah wants to show us. We should be ready, with the lens of our heart, to see things as they really are. We should refer everything back to Him, and wait for His decree in all matters.
We see the manifestations of Allah’s mercy and His justice in what people receive. How we perceive it is a product of the state of our qalb. Allah’s Jalaal and Jamaal are apparent everywhere, even in communist China. And yes, as I learned, it is certainly possible to make a spiritual tour of China, no matter how strange it may sound.
I thank Allah, subhanahu wa ta‘ala, for this opportunity and the companionship of Shaykh Mokhtar Maghraoui and all my beloved brothers and sisters who were my companions on this journey. I am grateful to Al-Madina Institute and particularly Ustadh Moutasem Atiya, for their organization and facilitation of this memorable spiritual tour of China.