Some of the greatest learning and insight I find comes from being put on the spot, to respond with heart and integrity in the most appropriate manner, to not only spontaneously answer very difficult questions but to recognise when the question is in fact, a cry for healing.
The biggest learning is when it happens when least expected and this happened to me recently giving a talk about Islam at a university in Melbourne, Australia.
It was essentially an easy talk, a little Islam 101 and a little of indigenous history.
Following my presentation and as the conversations with the audience evolved, it became clear one of the teachers in the audience was struggling with tension. It was like a bubble, slowly rising to the surface. Until… it popped, “What do you have to say about Islam and the oppression of women?”
It wasn’t so much a question, but a declaration, a statement driven by unresolved anguish and unhealed pain. It was a cry to release the pressure of pent up wounds.
I listened, I empathised with her and I concurred, “If I were exposed to that experience of ‘so-called’ Islam I would also feel anguish and oppression and I can assure you from my heart to your heart, it would be quite the unwelcoming path, absent of the spiritual nourishment that calls us to seek. Anything contrary to this feeling is not the Islamic way and a very real barrier to achieving taqwa, God-consciousness, enlightenment.”
She continued, “So explain to me how this has happened in Iran over the last 20 years.”
At this point, what was happening for me was a critical and deeper analysis. Listening for clues to what was being said, and even more so what was not being said. Her ‘question’ was a poignant one as it revealed the true motivation for the exchange.
So often, we are challenged on the spot and the urge to defend is a natural one. When we really ‘listen’ however we are elevated out of the defensive mire and upward into an enlightened and emancipated space where reconciliation is real.
“I can speak with you of my experience of the Islamic path, of the beauty, the philosophy and the seemingly unorthodox journey that nourished a spiritual consciousness where my inherited Christianity had left vacancies. The vacancies I am referring to, I was unconscious of until I began this path but subconsciously my heart was yearning to awaken seeds of wisdom within, which Islam activated. I often wonder if it was the fitra calling. What you’re describing to me, it’s not Islam. It’s the opposite of my experience. I am not a scholar of political science, nor well acquainted with the specific foreign policy, the patriarchal and cultural dimensions which drive perverse ideologies that rob humanity.”
Spirituality and indeed, the Abrahamic tradition espoused by and through all the great Prophets to the Prophet Mohammed (s), provide a handhold in life which lights the way. There is no compulsion in following the way.
Anything contrary to this is not of God, but of man, and eventually, justice comes to all. Spirituality speaks many languages, but always the same message. There is only one God and the light in the soul is a gift, an inherent truth, and any human who takes this light is doing an injustice to all of humanity.
“I feel with anyone wounded by darkness. We are all one body and we feel pain when any part of the body aches. I ache with you. This has no spiritual home. This conduct is the intoxication of power and politics, and those vulnerable to its lure are asleep at best, there is nothing healthy for the body of humanity in this darkness.”
“Is any of my journey resonating?” She nodded. I continued, “We are here together, I offer you my journey, my experience and I am compassionate to your experience. Sadly the world is filled with the politics of darkness, everywhere. The perverse of heart will always seek discord… But the light is always there, it can never be extinguished.”
It was a tough moment, standing at the front of the room, taking this pain and working with it, honouring her journey and her lived experience of how politics, power and patriarchy had eroded her faith and the faith of many others. At the moment when facing aggression, when defensiveness is a natural response, the real call was for listening and compassion.
I recall a conversation with Sr Saara Sabbagh, the Founder of Benevolence Australia, the NFP I work with, “No matter what the challenge, we do not pick up arms, we open our arms.”
I share this reflection as a reminder to myself, to be conscious of humanities need to be heard, to heal and how through compassion, healing can be nourished, humanity activated, and real growth for all gained.
If the teacher happens to read this, and all who relate, may our hearts be granted aafia and whatever comes our way please treat us with gentleness.