This past summer, I was honored with the blessing of being able to travel to the holy lands of Iraq and Iran to visit the resting places of the descendants of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him and his family), a visitation that is often referred to as “ziyara,” or “ziyarat.”
“The word ‘Ziyarat’ is derived from the word “zawr” which means to deflect or draw away from something. A lie is called ‘zur’ because it deflects from the path of truth. The ‘za’ir’ [individual undertaking the ziyarat] is known to be so, because he deflects from other than “the one he intends to visit.”[…] And it is said that the reason why Ziyarat is referred to as visiting the saintly human beings, is because it is to deflect from the material routine and draw away from the corporeal world and incline toward the world of spirit, while one is present in the corporeal environment and maintains one’s bodily form.
“[…] Ziyarat has been reduced to visitation in the earthly abode. The Islamic worldview, however, due to its sharp and accurate cognition of reality, as taught by the Holy Qur’an, the Holy Prophet, and his infallible successors, does not limit Ziyarat to the corporeal world. It rather believes that human beings can communicate with those who have transcended this limited world of matter and can listen to them as well. […] Unlike those who consider the human being as an entity which perishes after the worldly death, Islam teaches mankind that death is a purgatory and bridge to the realm beyond. In fact, to be more accurate, death is “tearing of some veils” from the higher reality of every thing. […] Therefore, the more purity we enjoy, the better we can communicate with those exalted spirits who have left this material world, are alive in the real sense of the word, and due to their exalted station of existential mediation (about which we shall soon discuss in detail) can influence the world of contingent existence and even benefit us in different ways.
“[…] Our aim of Ziyarat, however, must transcend seeking personal benefits. […] Of course this does not mean that one should not seek personal benefits from the great personalities, but one must at least have realized the ultimate purpose of Ziyarat. […] Such realizations tear the veils of the past and future, and release the human being into the world of perpetual bliss and ecstasy.”
-Shaykh Muhammad M. Khalfan, The Sacred Effusion
During my travels, I endeavored to keep a regular journal, jotting down sights and sounds, tokens of advice from teachers and friends, and other thoughts that came to mind. The accounts that are, God-willing, to follow are pieces of those musings. No two ziyara experiences are the same, and what I have come across in my travels is in no way representative of the ziyara experience as a whole – most likely, it falls short of the true ziyara experienced by the greatest mystics and scholars.
As with any intensely life-altering experience, there will of course, be excerpts too personal to share. But as for the other parts, I would like to share them in the hopes that this story, this experience that so utterly and irrevocably changed my life, this journey whose undertaking to this very moment is challenging me to do and be better, always better – that it might serve as reminder to my own soul first and foremost of what it has seen. But if it somehow reaches the heart of a fellow reader the way others’ ziyara experiences have reached me (a reaching for which I am forever grateful), then all praise belongs to Allah, Lord of the Worlds.
If the trees were pens and oceans ink (31:27), not enough could be said in the praise of such a Merciful God, or his most beloved servants. This writing, will never be enough. It will never even come close to enough. But now, it is all I can think to do. All other conversation has lost its sweetness.
Certain experiences, such as this one, are untranslatable. They exist in the language of the spiritual realm, and the language of the tongues in this physical one is simply not sufficient. Knowing this, there does exist some hesitancy in relating my thoughts, aware that doing so is a pinning down with uncomfortable finality the wings of emotion with the anvil of words.
It is like facing the pinkening skies of a warm summer storm and wishing to put its gentle caress into words. No matter how much we strain our eyes, we cannot encapsulate its breadth. No matter how hard we look, we cannot take in all at once the reaching expanse of horizon.
What, then? Should we look away?
Ah! But what of the beauty we would miss if, at the very least, we did not try?
Perhaps all that is in our power at this moment is to feel the warmth of, not the entire storm, but a single droplet on our tongues. Perhaps we cannot have the horizon, but maybe we can call just one inch of sky our own.
And perhaps, in this moment, that inch is all we need.
As we discover this inch, this unchartered territory, perhaps we may feel the need to put its exploration into words – we are new to this land, and if we do not lay the trail for ourselves now, then as we travel ahead, perhaps we think we might get lost.
So for now, we write. We compose our songs of discovery, singing as we move forward, marking the way for ourselves, inch by solid inch, a path to follow home should forgetfulness ever overtake us, should we need to be reminded, should we need to return to these melodies again.
But eventually, when the time is right, when we have sung as much as we can and our words have exhausted us, and we have not just seen, but felt the sky’s softness with our own hands… it is then that we will find that we will have grown out of our need for them, and from our hands, the words we once clenched onto will fall away.
Silence will overtake us, and we will hear what we could not hear above our singing before: the even sweeter song of the storm. And in that moment, we will find our feet will no longer be earthbound, but will be spiraling upwards… our faces drenched with the lightness of rain, as we laugh and laugh, remembering the too-long forgotten fragrance of the sun.
In need of your prayers,
Rabi al-Awwal 16, 1437 AH / December 28, 2015 CE