(NB: Faqir, plural Fuqara, literally means pauper or needy person. It is the word used in Morocco for those who are part of a Tariqa. The word is roughly the equivalent of 'Sufi'; this though is a term of high praise, and so is not used often; certainly not to refer to oneself or one's group. Sale is a city in Morocco, north of the Capital, Rabat.)
Thursday 23rd March
After spending a week being beaten and kicked by my two-year-old son, tonight is my first visit to the Alawi zawiya in Sale since I arrived in Morocco. I take a taxi down to the old city after Maghrib, and head for the zawiya. I can smell incense burning as I walk up the narrow street and through the door. As I enter, I immediately see Hajj Saeed, the Sheikh of the Tariqa in Sale, standing near the back. I go to greet him, and am only seconds from giving him a hug before I realise he is praying. The hands by the sides always fools me. I beat a hasty retreat, feeling rather embarrassed, and notice Hajj Muhammad, an elderly Faqir who for took a shine to me for some reason when I first came to zawiya around eighteen months ago, sitting with his back to the side wall of the zawiya. I go to greet him; he is pleased to see me, it’s been a few months since I was here. We chat a little about English weather, and he examines my prayer beads as he has done before, as they are strung a little unusually. They are Tijani beads, and instead of the usual thirty-threes, they are strung in sets of seven, thirteen, twenty, twenty, nineteen, and eleven. I bought them in Fes, and usually people give them to a fellow who can restring them if they want regular forms, but I decided to keep mine as they are, as having different numbers on hand can be useful.
Hajj Muhammad points out two black fellows wearing colourful robes sitting at the back of the zawiya. I had noticed them too; they are obviously not Moroccan. There is a third man with them, a Moroccan wearing a suit. Hajj Saeed has finished praying and is sitting with them. They appear to not know Arabic; the third man is translating for them. I hear the words ‘Mali’ and ‘Timbuktoo’ float over to us across the room. Intriguing.
We pray Isha; the Zawiya is also a mosque, and after the prayer people begin to head for home, leaving just a few Fuqara sitting and waiting for the others to arrive so we can begin. I approach Hajj Saeed to greet him, and apologise for disturbing him before. However, he is clearly surprised when he sees me, and welcomes me back to Morocco. It occurs to me that he did not notice my interruption; he was busy entreating his Lord. I muse for a while on how far I have to go before I would be so engrossed in my prayer as to fail to notice someone amble over to me and attempt to engage me in conversation.
I sit at the front of the zawiya with Hajj Muhammad, waiting for everyone to come. We sit in silence for a while, until Hajj Muhammad says to me ‘O my teacher!’ I look at him and smile. ‘Yes?’ He points at my tasbih, loose on my lap, and says ‘Make Dhikr of Allah!’
The Fuqara begin to arrive in earnest. I recognise two Berber fellows from the south who I have visited before. They are both excellent singers; I begin to anticipate a good night in the making. Hajj Saeed introduces the two fellows from Mali. They have come to Morocco for medical attention; I notice one of them has a large cast on his arm. The third man is their doctor. They are leaving tomorrow, and they wanted to attend a Dhikr gathering before they left. The doctor asked around, and was directed to our zawiya. He himself has never been to a Dhikr gathering. Hajj Saeed explains to him that we will read some Quran, then entreat Allah by chanting His Names. We will then sing some sacred odes, and stand in remembrance of Allah. The doctor nods his head. He seems interested.
We begin with the Hafidha of Moulay al-‘Arabi ad-Darqawi, a powerful wird consisting of certain verses from the Quran, each repeated three times. We then read a Latifiyya, calling upon Allah by his name Latif, ‘the Subtle, the Kind’. As we read, the tremendous and lofty position of the zawiya in Islamic society occurs to me. Here we are, a cluster of Arabs, Berbers, Africans, and a solitary European, each with our own languages and cultures, gathered together for no reason except the remembrance of Allah. The immense Nur of the zawiya seems apparent, swimming through the air like the voices of the Fuqara or the smoke from the incense.
The Munshidin begin to sing, starting slowly and gradually increasing their pace, until the rhythm catches hold of us and we begin to breathe along with the poems, vocalising the words Allah Hayy, ‘Allah Lives!’, as we do so. Before long we are standing, joining hands in a great circle, swaying lightly back and forth as we continue the chant. This is the Hadra, literally ‘Presence’; the remembrance of Allah with the body as well as the tongue. Gradually the pace increases, until the Hadra comes to a finish and we sit, continuing the poems for a while before finishing with a du’a. Some people are weeping.
Hajj Saeed gives the lesson. He says that the Dhikr of Allah brings hearts together, and peoples of all races and cultures gather together in praise of Allah, and become brothers. He mentions the Dhikr of the Supreme Name, ‘Allah’. He says that when a person calls upon Allah by His Attributes, he is seeking the manifestation of that attribute. For example, when he calls ‘Ya Razzaq’, ‘O Sustainer’, he is seeking provision and sustenance. When he calls ‘Ya Ghaffar’, ‘O Forgiving’, he is seeking forgiveness and mercy. When the person calls on Allah by his Greatest Name, rather than calling on Him by His Attributes, he is seeking the Essence of Allah Himself, and asking Allah for nothing else besides knowledge of Him.
We drink some milk and eat some dates, and the two guests from the south sing some poems. They are wonderful; I am rather partial to Soussi melodies. When they finish, Hajj Saeed says that this is a manifestation of Allah’s saying that among His signs is our different colours and languages. He is Berber himself, and he always wears a big grin when he hears poems sung in the Soussi style.
We eat some chicken and couscous, and someone jokes about the bird-flu. Many Moroccans are worried about the flu after the death of a lady in Egypt, and have sworn off chicken. Not the Fuqara, it seems.
We make du’a and get up to leave. A Faqir whose name always eludes me gives me a lift home on his scooter. As we ride, he tells me that Allah’s door is always open, and those who turn to Him in repentance will find Him merciful.
Friday March 24th
I go to Sale Grand Mosque for the Friday prayer. The subject of the Khutba is the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) as the Prophet of the poor and needy. The Imam tells the story of when a group of aristocrats of Qureish came to the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) as he was sitting with some of the poorest of his companions, including Bilal and Suhayb ar-Rumi. They told him that if he sent these poor people away, they would sit with him and hear his message. He refused to send them away. The aristocrats suggested a compromise. They said that if the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) consented, they would go with him to a place a little distance from his companions, so they would not have to sit and endure the unpleasant odour that emanated from their woollen clothes. The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) agreed, seeing an opportunity to call to the way of Allah those who would undoubtedly have an influence on others. Allah immediately revealed the verse ‘And do not turn away those who call on their Lord morning and evening seeking His presence’ (Quran 6:52). The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) told the aristocrats that he would not accept their offer. He continued to sit with his companions, until he needed to leave. As he made to get up, Allah revealed ‘Restrain yourself along with those who cry unto their Lord at morn and evening, seeking His Countenance; and let not your eyes overlook them, desiring the pomp of the life of this world; and obey not him whose heart We have made heedless of Our remembrance, who follows his own lust and whose case has been abandoned.’ (Quran 18:28) The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) heeded the words, and continued to sit with his companions until they realised he needed to go, and so got up themselves to allow him to leave without being the one to rise first.
The Imam says that we today resemble these aristocrats, unwilling to associate ourselves with the poor, perhaps refusing their hands in greeting, or else shaking their hands with disdain.
He then tells the story of Abdullah Dhu Abajatain, who was one of the richest youths in Median before accepting Islam, but whose family cast his out penniless and naked when he revealed his Islam to them. He found a cloth (Abaja) and tore it in two, then used it to clothe himself. When the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) saw him in this state, he named him Dhu Abajatain, ‘he of the two cloths’. Abdullah died on the eve of the battle of Tabuk, and was buried by Abu Bakr, Umar, and the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) himself, who lowered him into his grave. The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) then climbed out of the grave, raised his hands to the sky, and said ‘O Allah, be pleased with him, for indeed I am pleased with him.’ Ibn Umar, who was watching, wept and said ‘Would by Allah that it was I in that grave!’
The Imam says that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) acted in this way with the poor of his companions because he truly understood the words of Allah: ‘Verily the noblest of you in the sight of Allah is the most pious of you.’ He says that we today do not understand these words, taking as our role models that wealthy and successful, and looking at the needy with disdain and contempt; perhaps refusing to allow our children to marry pious poor people, favouring instead the wealthy, regardless of piety.
After Maghrib, I go to the Darqawi zawiya in Sale to read the Hafidha with the Fuqara there. There were only a few of us there; everyone had gone to a sirah lesson in the old city. This, along with today’s khutba, adds to the buzz of excitement and anticipation; the month of Rabi’ is coming.
Saturday March 25th
I’ve been invited to a gathering tonight with some of the Fuqara from our zawiya. I go down to the zawiya after Isha, and find Hajj Saeed sitting with three elderly fellows. I greet them and sit down with them. They are all from the south, I think from Agadir. One of them doesn’t speak Arabic, so Hajj Saeed translates everything into Berber for him. Hajj Saeed talks about the significance of the rosary (tasbih). He says that the one who wears his rosary around his neck is he whose ego has died; he is not concerned about what people might think of say of him. They may think him a hypocrite, or a fool, or they may be impressed by this show of piety; either way, he is oblivious, busy with his Lord. Hajj Saeed says that there are two names for the rosary: subha and tasbih. He says that subha is the name for the rosary when it is in one’s pocket, or lying on one’s shelf at home. Tasbih is the noun derived from the verb, and is the name for the rosary when it is in one’s hand, aiding one in the remembrance of Allah. He says we must endeavour to turn our subha into tasbih.
The elderly gentleman tells a story in Berber, and Hajj Saeed and the others grin. He translates it for those of us who didn’t understand. Once there was a gathering in someone’s house, and so many people turned up that the host protested that he had no space for them all. ‘Besides,’ he said, ‘they are not all Fuqara; some of them are only here for the food!’ Deciding to test them, the host devised a plan. He stood at the door with a pin concealed in his hand, and called them all in. As they passed him in the doorway, he surreptitiously pricked them in the arm with the pin. Those who cried out ‘Allah!’ he invited in. Those who cried out ‘ouch!’ he turned away! We all laugh at this, and Hajj Saeed explains that the Murid must endeavour to remember Allah at all times, until it is natural for him. He says that there is a gulf between he who, when about to crash his car, cries out a meaningless exclamation or a curse word; and between he who calls out ‘Allah!’ and so ends his life with the remembrance of his Creator.
Our ride arrives; it is a van, half-filled with boxes of razor blades. I suspect the natural business sense of the Berbers. Sure enough, hen we arrive at our destination, over the river in Rabat, we are met by a throng of Fuqara from the Souss, some of whom I recognise from previous gatherings. It seems the gathering will be in someone’s house. Often in Morocco, people invite the Fuqara to their houses to bless a wedding or birth, or sometimes just for the baraka of filling one’s house with Dhikr. It seems tonight’s gathering is of the latter kind. As we climb the stairs to the house, someone accidentally flicks the switch, and the lights go out. Everybody jumps and shouts ‘Allah!’ except me; I mumble ‘oh dear’ under my breath. It seems I have failed the test.
We pile into the living room, there are around forty of us, and the room is small, but somehow we all fit it, some sitting on the sofas around the walls, and the rest on the floor. There is a mix of ages, ranging from the very old to the very young. The older men’s faces are filled with the light of those who have spent their lives in the remembrance of Allah.
We begin with the recitation of the Quran, Surah al-Waqi’ah. We recite in the Moroccan fashion; those who have heard it will know that everyone recites together with a flat tone, or perhaps with two alternating tones. This time though, is slightly different. The recitation is led by a group of fellows with very powerful voices. I have never seen them before. At first we read in the usual way, but then, without warning, they drop the pace so we are reading at half speed. After a moment, they drop the pace again, so we are reading very slowly and quite loudly. I have never heard the Quran recited like this, and it seems new to most of the others, too. The slow pace, and high volume, seems to make the sound reverberate in my bones. The meanings of the verses ring out clear when recited so slowly. It is quite the most extraordinary thing I have ever heard.
After the recitation, the nashids begin. This is a not a gathering of any particular Tariqa; I recognise Alawis, Darqawis, Siddiqis, and others. Most of the Fuqara here are Berbers though, and this is reflected in the melodies we hear. Poems from eclectic sources are recited; I hear snatches of Imam Shafi’i, Rabi’a al-‘Adawiyya, ibn al-Farid, Imam as-Suhrawardi, Ahmad al-‘Alawi, and others. Before long we are on our feet, in a Hadra. The singing is led by the two Soussi Fuqara who attended last Thursday. The Hadra is a jovial affair, as they genrally are when accompanied by Berber rhythms. This is what the Fuqara call ‘al-Farah fillah’, ‘joy for the sake of Allah’; an expression of happiness and gratitude for the blessings of Islam and Dhikr. After it finishes, we sit and sing a few slower tunes to wind down. The Alawi Fuqara are invited to sing. We do a few poems of Sheikh Ahmad al-Alawi’s, and then an elderly fellow who I’ve seen before a few times is invited to sing. I was hoping he would offer something, he has a lot of energy and knows how to stir the Fuqara up. He hasn’t got a powerful voice; in fact it’s little more than a whisper, but his rhythm is infectious. Before long, we are in another Hadra. This time the Alawi munshidin lead the singing, and it’s a more intense affair than the first.
After we sit for the second time, we read some more Quran, and the host passes round some tea and cakes. After the recitation finishes, one of the Fuqara reprimands the host for interrupting the Dhikr with tea (it is not very good gathering adab), and tells off some people who were talking during the recitation.
Hajj Saeed is invited to give a lesson. He says that we must ensure we are Fuqara both in and outside the zawiya. This means first and foremost that we should treat people with the manners of Fuqara. The first of these manners should be compassion and mercy. Yes, says Hajj Saeed, it is more proper to wait for the Dhikr to end before bringing the tea, and it is improper to talk whilst the Quran is being recited; but perfection is Allah’s attribute alone. We must have compassion with those who make mistakes, and forgive them, and speak to them with beautiful and kind words. I feel that I will cry, both in the gathering and now writing this, because Hajj Saeed is always such a source of mercy and tolerance.
Tables are rolled in, and half the Fuqara are moved to another room so there is enough space for them to eat. We have the excellent chicken that Moroccans reserve for special occasions, followed by fresh fruit. I have missed all this these last few months. We finish up, read a long supplication, and get up to leave at around 2am. As we stand, someone knocks over a glass. Everyone jumps and shouts ‘Allah!’ except me, I say ‘whoops-a-daisy!’ under my breath. It seems I have failed the test. Again.
We are given a lift back to the zawiya, and then I get a taxi back home with Hajj Saeed and a Faqir I have never met. He tells me he is from Agadir; he came up this morning, and will go back tomorrow. I am amazed he could make such a long journey for just one day. He says he has come to see his Sheikh, meaning Hajj Saeed. He tells me that there is a zawiya in Agadir which Hajj Saeed established around five years ago. There are already around one hundred Fuqara there! I never knew we had a zawiya there. This reminds me that a Faqir from England has emailed me asking about gatherings in Agadir. It seems he is in luck. I am again amazed by Hajj Saeed. His work is immense.
Wednesday March 29th
There is a gathering tonight in the Tuhamiyya zawiya in Sale to celebrate the imminent arrival of Rabi al-Awwal, the month of the Prophet’s birth (Allah bless him and give him peace). I go down to the old city after Isha, and head for the Darqawi zawiya, where Mukhtar, the muqaddam of the Alawi zawiya, rather confusingly lives. Someone is spinning cotton in the street outside his house, and I almost get my head lopped off by the thread, stretching across the entrance to the zawiya. The fellow is most apologetic.
We set off for the Tuhamiyya zawiya. I have never been there before; I am going tonight because I have heard that my teacher, the president of the Majlis al-‘Ilm (lit. ‘council of knowledge’) in Sale, will be there. I haven’t seen him since September, and I am eager to see him before I have to go back to the UK. Mukhtar warns me on the way that this gathering is for Madihin (singers of the praise of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), and very classy and professional with it). ‘They don’t do the Hadra’, he tells me. I make a mental note not to leap to my feet in the middle of the gathering. As we get nearer, I begin to hear the sounds of the singing coming form the zawiya. Wow. They sound like real professionals. I had thought it was going to be a simple gathering, but it seems not. There are armed police guards outside the doors to the zawiya. As we go in, someone hands me a thin booklet detailing the program for the evening. Inside, everyone is wearing white jellebas and fes hats. I feel a bit silly with my brown jelleba and muddy trainers. It seems I have misjudged exactly what kind of night this will be.
I open the booklet and attempt to sing along with the poems; but this is really classy stuff, not like the simple 4/4 rhythms I’m used to, and I cannot follow even with the words in front of me. Andalusian nashids use very difficult rhythms and time signatures, constantly changing every line. After a moment’s mumbling along, I give up, and just sit and listen.
It emerges that my teacher is not here; he has just had an operation on his eye, and needs three months to rest and recover; he is over eighty years old. I am very sad not to see him. Mukhtar nudges me, and points to the door. Apparently a government minister has just walked in. Hence the armed guards.
The nashids continue for a while, and then someone at the front begins to tell the story of the Prophet’s birth (Allah bless him and give him peace), half talking and half singing. Every now and then he stops, and the story is interspersed with more nashids. The quality of the singing is excellent; I can’t see the front of the zawiya from here, so I can’t see the faces of the singers. When the narrator reaches the point in the story where the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) was born, everyone stands up. We sing poems of welcome to the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), who came to pull us from the darkness into the light. A feeling of intense gratitude comes to me, as I remember my life before I embraced Islam; but whether we are converts or born Muslims, we have all in our own way made a choice to enter Islam, and to choose it instead of disbelief. We all owe the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) an immense debt of gratitude for coming to us and showing us the way to the truth. How could we not stand for him, and extend our welcome?
Someone gives a lesson. He quotes a well-known poem that says ‘we are seated in the presence of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace)’. He says that to understand this, we must first understand that moments such as these, and gatherings such as these, do not belong to the physical world; rather they are purely moments of the spiritual world. We are concerned, then, with our hearts and souls, which are independent from our bodies. If we comprehend this, it should not seem unusual or unlikely that a gathering such as this might be blessed and graced by the presence of the Best of Creation (Allah bless him and give him peace), being as it is an occasion devoted to his praise and remembrance.
He then says that Allah, Exalted, refined the character of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) with tremendous and noble characteristics, but unfortunately we have abandoned these characteristics. We now see our children have poor manners and are ignorant of the religion. Are they reading the Quran, and devoting it to memory, or are they spending their time on other things? He says that the cartoons in Denmark cannot harm the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) or decrease anything from his lofty status. However, we should consider this ugly incident as the result of the people’s ignorance of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), and our failure to convey the message of Islam to them in the best way, and our failure to adorn ourselves with the characteristics of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace).
It is then announced that my teacher has written a poem to read on the night, but as he is too ill to attend, it will be read by the host in his stead. The poem is beautiful, although I don’t understand all of it as my Arabic is not really there yet. It starts with a commemoration of the birth of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), and welcomes him. It then makes mention of the Quran, the greatest miracle of any of the Prophets, and urges us to study it and teach it to our children. The poet then condemns himself as nothing but a lowly poet and singer (there are mumbles around the audience here of ‘Hasha lillah!’; I begin to realise the love the people of Sale have for my teacher; I didn’t know before tonight that he was so well known). It ends with a du’a.
They bring out the food. It looks very good, but I have to go, my wife was expecting me ages ago, I told her it wouldn’t be a late gathering; I had no idea it would be like this. Mukhtar gets up to come with me. I tell him to stay and eat, but he insists on accompanying me. ‘We came together,’ he says, ‘we’ll leave together.’ He walks me to the city walls to get a taxi home. I tell him to run back to the zawiya to join the meal. He smiles, and says that it’s ok, by walking me home he has gotten his fill of the ‘other food’. I don’t understand at first, but then he says ‘I’m talking about spiritual realities now, not the physical’. I smile and kiss his hand.
By walking me home when he knew I didn’t know the way, he has performed an action for the sake of Allah that holds more benefit for him than he could get by waving me off from the zawiya and tucking in to the food. I suppose it’s because he knows that the next world is better and more lasting than this one. I smile to myself as I get in the taxi. The ‘other food’. I rather like that.