By Simon Burns
The circle of men falls silent. A string of prayer beads swings from the creased hand of a gray-bearded sheikh, all else is still. For an instant the circle seems to hold its breath.
“Ya lateef, ya lateef,” chants the sheikh. The voice of a young boy bursts in with it, “Ya lateef, ya lateef.” Devotion is flying from 30 or so sets of lungs, filling every corner of the Mosque of Muhieddine Ibn ‘Arabi in Salihiyyeh, in the foothills of Mount Qasyoun.
This is the Sufi dhikr (remembrance) and the men in the circle are sending out a chant of devotion at the Muhieddine Ibn ‘Arabi mosque.
“They are connecting with God from the very center of their hearts,” says Ahmad Al Mujahid, one of the circle’s leaders.
As the chant gathers momentum, the energy swirling around the circle is almost palpable. Some are rocking back and forth, their palms upturned towards the sky, with tightly shut eyes and intense expressions on their faces. The chant rolls on, faster and faster, louder and louder. Then, whoosh, and silence descends.
This singing, like the other chants, draws words from the Quran and hadith. Ahmad says that the participants sing themselves into a state of fitra, where they feel their primordial nature – the original way that God made them.
Less than five meters from the dhikr circle lies a tomb of great power. According to Sheikh Muhammad, it is the Damascus equivalent of the Kaa’ba. Pilgrims journey to say a prayer, ask for a cure for sickness, help with hardship or just bask in its presence.
It is the Muhieddine Ibn ‘Arabi tomb, more commonly known as Ibn ‘Arabi to English speakers, or Al Sheikh Al Akbar (The Greatest Master) to Sufis. He is a saint, philosopher, mystic, poet, traveler and sage of universal importance to Sufism.
Born in the 12th Century, with a body of work stretching to 15,000 pages, he has inspired philosophers from China to Europe – from Daoists to Dante.
Sheikh Muhammad Al Yaqoubi is a Syrian scholar and Sufi descended from the prophet Muhammad. Formerly the Mufti of Sweden, he now lives in Damascus and gives a weekly Friday speech at the mosque. “Attachment to God is a work of the heart,” he says. “The heart is detached from everything except God in the dhikr.”
He says that Ibn ‘Arabi is present in the tomb, listening to the pilgrims who visit the mosque. “They cannot hear his replies because of the veil that separates humans from the world of spirits and djinn. Only great Gnostics can perceive him.”
Some Fridays, though, believers report seeing Ibn ‘Arabi. Participants in the ceremony have been known to see a beam of light projecting from his tomb to the dhikr. One Friday, Sheikh Muhammad forgot to include the Fatiha (the opening verse of the Quran) in his evening speech, as he usually does. “Ibn ‘Arabi appeared to me in the audience and reminded me! I had to stop and say the Fatiha!”
Andalusian Spain of the late 12th Century was a mix of religions, managing relative harmony among the followers of various faiths. From an early age, Ibn ‘Arabi saw the underlying unity of the three monotheistic faiths. According to Sheikh Muhammad, Ibn ‘Arabi saw in them not difference, but a single shared essence. The same is true of Damascus, he says.
“In Damascus, people of different religions have always known how to live together. From an early age we learn to distinguish our religions and ourselves, but not to hate other religions. We respect each other’s right to live together, and to share land, air and food. In this respect, Syria presents a model for the west on dealing with minorities.”
More than 770 years after Ibn ‘Arabi was laid in his tomb, a line from his poetry gives expression to a sentiment that resonates to this day in the dhikr. It resonates with people, regardless of faith: “By God, I feel so much love that it seems the skies would be rent asunder, the stars fall and the mountains move away if I burdened them with it: such is my experience of love.”
Participation in the dhikr is recommended to all Muslims regardless of denomination (Sheikh Muhammad calls it the tissue of Islam). Anyone is welcome at the tomb of Ibn ‘Arabi, and men of all faiths can observe the dhikr every Friday after the Maghrib prayer (a little after 4:30 pm). Sheikh Muhammad al Yaqoubi gives a speech every Friday at the mosque after Asha’ prayer (just after 6 pm). He will begin classes on Sufi mysticism in English in coming months.