Do any of us know where we’re heading? It seems futile to contemplate destinations, physical or existential, when the world is on stuttered pause. Carefully cultivated plans, life’s expected milestones and hard-earned goals are suddenly and indefinitely out of reach. Little if anything makes sense, yet we’re told to push ahead with our pre-existing trajectories as if pandemia hasn’t descended like a thick mist. ‘Destinations might sound rational, but one has to wonder whether it is as elusive as destiny,’ Ebrahim Moosa writes later in these pages. ‘Why? Because the once solid pathways to ends and purposes have ceased to be pathways. They are as elusive as traces drawn on desert sands.’ Veering off course via tangents and random meanders has become less of an option. Instead our worlds seem really quite small, the promise of any alternative destination stalled. As the African-American novelist and anthropologist, Zora Neale Hurston, suggests in Their Eyes Were Watching God, ‘there are years that ask questions and years that answer’. I think we all know where we are with the year 2020. All that is left is to content ourselves with the here and now, one day at a time, and wait patiently for the year that will provide the answers.
Although, of course, alternatives still do exist. Instead of traversing the world, virtual and internal realities allow access to destinations from which we are physically barred, offering an escape from what we may, with some hyperbole, describe as this hell on earth. Some of these are infernal realities, the existential anguish of the realms of the darkest recesses of our imagination. The Qur’an describes hell in terms of mathwā, explains Moosa, ominously ‘meaning an abode or destination with permanence’ while the word maṣīr ‘derived from the verb ṣayr, to journey, does not signify a comfortable journey; rather it means a journey involving effort’.
Perhaps hell is a state of mind rather than an endpoint. Ever since fear-inducing motifs peppered seventh century mystic Hasan al-Basri’s ‘zuhd’ or renunciation poetry, hell has been depicted as a destination we must do everything in our power to avoid. The influential scholar, who is celebrated as a founder of Sufism, regarded death, and the ‘fork-in-the-road’ options some believe it offers, as the ultimate destination. Is what comes before – life – therefore a toil that must be endured, driven by pious observance in order to divert from a destiny of damnation? The great Al-Ghazali seems to think so, apparently informed by al-Basri’s unequivocal warnings. He tells us in his multi-volume tome The Revival of the Religious Sciences: ‘your coming unto it [hell] is certain, while your salvation therefrom is no more than conjecture…fill up your heart, therefore, with the dread of that destination.’
Whether hell occupies a literal or metaphysical space, it involves a journey of maṣīr; and as it is such an undesirable destination, only with a great deal of effort can one avoid such a calamity and be granted a place in its antithesis – heaven. Quite, but not quite, the type of effort that C Scott Jordan details in his evocative exploration of Kuala Lumpur in this issue. ‘Pinching myself to prove I am awake I proceed past an escalator entrance that seems as though it just materialised from below the ground, it was one of the ways into or out of the subterranean Kampung Baru LRT (Light Rail Train) Station, towards a massive cement square pillar. Within the pillar rises and falls a lift, around the tower’s circumference wraps a tiered stairway, presumably to heaven. Electing exercise, I climb the steeper-than-they-look stairs, and began to sweat. It starts to rain; or rather, in KL it always pours, in spontaneous and overly dramatic fashion. As I reach the top of the pillar, I cannot tell rain from sweat but I’m not bothered because even the few prepared umbrella wielders were no match for this torrent of water.’ Qur’anic references to paradise make frequent mention of water as a purifying life-giving source so Jordan could consider his heavenly climb in the pouring rain quite the spiritual cleanse.
Muhammad Iqbal, poet, philosopher and ‘spiritual father’ of Pakistan, believed heaven and hell to exist as states of mind, rather than actual locations to which humans would be sent after the quantifying of their deeds upon their demise. Never meant to be taken literally, the basis upon which a person is to be consigned to the mental anguish of hell or the euphoria of paradise would depend on their inner psychic and intellectual development. We often speak of struggle resembling spiritual experience, even if it is as banal as a gruelling climb up the stairs of a bridge in Kuala Lumpur. Similarly, Hafeez Burhan Khan writes of his wanderlust as a catharsis, with every step of any journey and each discovery of a new destination an emotional release and a moment of personal expansion. Momentarily freed from the mundanity of existence, he talks of his love of drifting through unloved landscapes, places in transition, marginalised urbanity and soaking in the memory of all that went before amidst buildings that echo with memories.
Choosing to remain rooted in the same place one’s entire life, although not without its merits, seems to inspire a parochialism that fuels the small-minded populism we are witnessing in the world today. This is not a modern-day phenomenon however. As Robert Irwin writes in his essay on the Mamluks, ‘the fifteenth-century Flemish merchant Anselm Adorno prefaced the account of his pilgrimage with an attack on those who were foolish enough to think there was no country except their own and that everybody else lived in dark shadows as savages. Those who had read widely or travelled out east knew better. From such sources one may get a sense for the texture of life and the conflicting faiths and passions of those times, and one may dream of how it was to have lived in the Mamluk Sultanate.’
The texture of lives lived elsewhere is a compelling reason to visit the treasure chest of destinations available to us, and hopefully will be available to us after Covid times. Whether it is to feast on great food, as Boyd Tonkin exquisitely recounts in ‘Invisible Thessaloniki’, or to discover hitherto unknown destinations, as Natalya Seitakhmetova, Zhanara Turganbayeva and Marhabbat Nurov lay bare in their treatise on the strands of Kazakh Cultures, there is forever something to discover and be immersed in. We lower our Western-centric gaze and allow voices intimately entwined in the history and contemporaneity of the Central Asian Republic to be heard, while patting ourselves on the back for elevating the other. ‘Heaven is a Place on Earth’, Belinda Carlisle sings. Well, surely hell is in the narratives imposed upon those unable to tell their own stories. After all, only some of us are privileged in our freedom to roam from one destination to another with ease. That it is purely down to the accident of nationality enabling this few to cross borders with ease is a shameful travesty.
Those without appropriate documentation, for whom legal passage across countries is all but denied, are condemned to risk their lives when the only channels open to them are illegal and unsafe ones. Displaced peoples seeking sanctuary from poverty, war, persecution or in search of opportunities are dehumanised and left to fester in inhumane conditions. The refugee camps scattered across the globe are a blight on our humanity. These places are hell on earth for people whose only crime is to dream of a better future. As countries closed their borders one by one in the extraordinary global shutdown of Spring 2020, in an attempt to keep out the deadly virus, some of us used to the freedom to travel, were experiencing an impingement on our ability to roam for the very first time. Tamanna Rahman had an inkling that her trip to Cuba, just before lockdowns were being imposed, was perhaps not totally wise, but so unprecedented and rapid was the suspension of travel that she could never have foreseen the precarious scramble she eventually had to undertake to return to the UK.
Ziauddin Sardar’s recounting of his 1986 trip to Assisi, where he explained to Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, that Muslims regard their role on the planet as vice-regents, or trustees entrusted by God with the earth’s safe-keeping, illustrates how little has been achieved to stave off the climate crisis despite awareness of its imminence decades ago. Climate change and an increase in the frequency of pandemics looms on the horizon and instability will increasingly creep into the existence of those of us who take our comfortable lives for granted. To anyone seeking to jealously guard their little piece of paradise, keen to keep out those who find themselves in undocumented limbo hell, may they be warned that one day, sooner than they may think, it could so easily be them on the wrong side of border control. Any one of us could find ourselves in search of paradise, just like the much-loved Sudanese poet Abdel Wahab Yousif who died in August 2020. Known to his fans as Latinos, the talented young man drowned off the coast of Libya in a tragic attempt to cross the Mediterranean adrift in a flimsy and overloaded dinghy, all in the hope of starting a new life in Europe. He was far from being the first to perish in an attempt to make the hellish crossing, and is not even nearly the last to die. On reading about his final voyage, I was reminded of the haunting image of three-year old Syrian Alan Kurdi’s tiny lifeless body lying faced down in the sand, having drowned in yet another gut-wrenching tragedy on the Mediterranean in 2015. His family had been desperately fleeing the war in Syria. All the options available to them were desperate ones and their gamble came at the most horrific cost. It is difficult to comprehend the terror of little Alan’s final moments. How much did he understand the ugliness of his fate, the grotesqueness of the system that forced him into such danger. What we do know, however, is that Latinos was fully aware, even prophetically aware of the doom that awaited him. In his final poems, the translations of which are published in this issue of Critical Muslim, he seemed to predict his demise at the hands of a merciless sea that in the blink of an eye swallowed all dreams, hopes and aspirations of the dispossessed.
The pursuit of dreams does not magically end when the destination is reached. In Amro Ali’s essay on Berlin exiles, we learn why ‘hell’ cannot be seamlessly exchanged for ‘paradise’. Berlin is a destination like no other. Steeped in a history of violence and ideological scars, this palimpsest of un-beautiful brutalist beauty reinvented itself as a haven for counter-culture and non-conformity. Like many truly international capital cities, Berlin is an exception to the nationalist inward-looking tendencies that currently characterise more provincial areas throughout the world. The city attracts intellectuals, thinkers, drifters, hedonists, artists and activists, all looking for a place where they can fit in by not fitting in. When Angela Merkel declared there would be no upper limit on the number of Syrian refugees Germany, the wealthiest country in Europe, was willing to accept, her calculated decision was in the interests of her country. It also demonstrated the administration’s commitment to human dignity. In recent years Berlin has witnessed a growing community of Arab exiles, disillusioned and shattered by the failures of the Arab Spring. In his essay Ali calls for the Arab diaspora to recover and rebuild their lives and continue to engage despite the trauma of exile: ‘The procession of dislocation that materialised in 2011 has been viciously derailed since. Now, to coherently embark upon a regenerated starting point in this long journey of political redemption, a “we” is required: This feeds from new political ideas, collective practices and compelling narratives that are currently re-constructed and brought to life in a distantly safe city.’
Syria’s hellish war rages on while Egypt’s population buckles under the oppressive regime of General Sisi with human rights violations and surveillance routine. It is no secret that the entire region is utterly destabilised. We gain some historical insights with Zainab Rahim’s review of the Channel 4 neo-noir series ‘Baghdad Central’, set in the aftermath of the US invasion of Iraq. Post-invasion Baghdad may be portrayed as hell, but we must be wary of dividing our world into the categories of hell or paradise for no place truly exists with a monopoly on either concept. In Paradise and Hell in Islamic Traditions, Christian Lange re-casts the concept of heaven and hell, suggesting the two worlds are far more enmeshed than traditional scholarship would suggest. There is hope of universal redemption from eternal hellfire, as articulated so well in the scholarship of the Andalusian philosopher Ibn Arabī: ‘on the one hand Ibn al-ʿArabī makes room for hell as the manifestation of God’s attribute of “majesty” (jalāl), which complements His “kindness” (jamāl). On the other hand, Ibn al-ʿArabī predicts that punishment in hell will eventually come to an end. However, instead of moving on to paradise, hell’s inhabitants will remain in hell, attached to it, and in a certain way enjoying it, like natives prospering in their homeland.’
This brings me back to Iqbal’s definition of heaven and hell as states of mind informed by our continuous present rather than far-flung physically located destinations. Life is, after all, essentially a negotiation of our circumstances, as illustrated by Shanon Shah’s moving description of his Qur’anic voyage, and how his relationship with the sacred text continues to evolve as his life journey progresses. It is for this reason that Lange moves away from the commonly used term afterlife, and instead refers to paradise and hell as the otherworld. According to traditional Islamic teachings, to achieve a modicum of comfort in the otherworld, good deeds and exemplary moral conduct must be carried out throughout a person’s lifetime. The realms of paradise, hell and earth are separated, Lange argues, not by impenetrable boundaries, but are instead porous states of mind, of existential presence, fuelled by religious symbolism, existing in the darkest corners of our imagination. It is difficult to stomach the extreme depictions of hell in Islamic tradition, characterised by the most macabre and brutal medieval punishments of the day, with particularly horrific torture seemingly reserved for women, religious minorities, and those who do not form part of the traditional establishment. In her ‘Last Word on Patriarchy’, Shehnaz Haqqani captures exactly why such a literal understanding of hell, among other more stagnant positions in traditional Islam, have come to prominence: ‘“Islam” as we know it is a process, and its teachings – besides the most essential, monotheism and belief in Muhammad as a prophet – is a matter not so much of truth but of power.’
Fear of the literal destination hell permeates through Islamic scholarship and continues to stagnate Muslim thinking, such is its vice-like grip on our psyches. Lange cites the poem ‘Revolution in Hell’ by the late Iraqi philosopher and poet Jamil Sidqi Al-Zahāwī, who dreams of his own death caused by consuming a dish seasoned with watercress. It is then that he ponders, ‘hell is where the philosophers and rationalists are, that is to say all the forward-thinking, revolutionary spirits that traditionalist Islam condemns to eternal damnation: Ibn Sīna, Ibn Rushd, and Ṭūsī, but also Socrates, Epicurus, Voltaire’, and questions which destination is for him.
Destination hell is a terrorising state of mind. A feature of traditional Islam many Muslims admit has led to them feeling alienated from the faith. Saimma Dyer writes of growing up in a Muslim tradition that many of us can relate to: ‘my connection to God diminished as I was exposed to a dogmatic, rigid and fear-inducing Islam… The imam warned us about the dangers of hellfire and how almost everything in life seemed directed to lead us into that hellfire.’ In adulthood, she discovered, just like Haqqani, that there are many ways of experiencing and ‘being’ in Islam. It was then that she embarked upon a spiritual path, an inner journey that would eventually lead to an awakening to an Islam that she could finally feel an affinity with. Whether the journey is one of ease or difficulty, the destination does not have to signify an end. Instead, it can be more than a culmination of what came before, as well as forming part of the process of all that is yet to be.