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A place to start, but not the starting point.

Updated: Dec 5, 2020


The Anatolian beach is quiet, but for the waves. A recovering cynic sits in a room with about twenty followers of Muhammad (ﷺ). Whatever social graces the recovering cynic has—and they are few—have eroded. The days have been long, and it’s late.


The gentle sheikh says, “Tell me. What’s on your hearts?”


Out of the manners of friendship, no one rushes to be first. The gentle sheikh, who has said on other occasions, “I’m okay to sit in silence, if you are,” turns this time to one of the friends across the room and calls her by name. What she shares is meaningful, powerful even. And the gentle sheikh expounds. This happens again and again, perhaps with different words and concepts, but still, again and again.


The sheikh's eyes land on the recovering cynic. He calls him by name.


If you’ve ever fallen in love with someone, you might know the feeling of wanting to say I love you, before knowing what the response will be. The mouth goes dry. Every muscle tenses up. The chest feels like it will burst. There is a fear that if the words are said, this whole thing could turn out horribly. But there’s also a fear that if the words are not said, this whole thing could turn out horribly.


Oddly enough, these feelings seem strikingly similar to the moment one decides to say, “We’re finished.”


On this night, there is a hesitation before speaking, a moment to squirm and summon up courage. There are a couple of starts and stops. Finally it comes. About a year and a half after Shahada, the confession comes: “Believing that Muhammad (ﷺ) was a prophet is easy. But I’m finding it hard to learn how to love him.”


The gentle sheik takes a big breath and slowly lets it go. “Yes,” he exhales. “Hm.” Then silence.


***


It is coming up on two years later. I am standing alone in what is called the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah, just after the night prayer. This is where Muhammad (ﷺ) settled after narrowly escaping murder in Makkah. This is the very ground where he lived, walked, slept, and died. He is buried within these walls.


A few days ago was Umrah, the minor pilgrimage to Makkah. Given the events of the past week or two, this should be a time of wholeness. It should be a time when we are particularly receptive, when openings accelerate the beautification of our character.

Yet at this moment, it's not remotely like that.


The cynicism has somehow managed to fester its way back up. Like any addiction, it's never far from the surface. And it has come this time in the form of, "What is all this? What am I doing here? Poser."


If gratitude is the door to God, this cynicism is the guard dog standing in front of it.


My eyes get hot. It's the percolating tears. So, I wipe my face, pick up my bag…and leave.


And to top things off, this nagging cough, headache, and stomach trouble that started last week aren't getting any better. Neither is the rash on the left foot. If anything, they're worse, despite the $90 bill from the pharmacist (who could know at this point that a virus is set to shut down the world in a matter of weeks?). I don’t remember the last time I ate.


Sickness and hunger--such are common companions of pilgrimage. One is prepared for this. But what seems difficult to reconcile is the desperate loneliness, the heartbreaking emptiness. Do these have a place in pilgrimage?


***


Back when we were in Anatolia, the sheikh said he was grateful for the recovering cynic's tender honesty. That kindness changed everything. Then he said something that would be lost for a while. But just for a while. "When one of these beautiful faces shows you love," he said, waving his hand to include everyone in the room, "They are being the face of Muhammad (ﷺ). So, maybe we don’t have to worry about loving Muhammad (ﷺ). Maybe we simply allow Muhammad (ﷺ) to love us through those who love him, and then we see what happens."


The salve that comes in Madinah is the one the sheikh had promised. Muhammad (ﷺ) does indeed visit....by way of one of the friends in Anatolia. Strangely, it comes via a simple text message: "Dear brother Joseph. I was thinking about you and wanted to reach out and say salams. We love you dear brother, looking forward to seeing you someday soon, insha'Allah.”


We can read about this man Muhammad (ﷺ) who was gentle and kind and whose family never had a harsh word to say about him. We can read about this man who would pray while his grandsons clung playfully to his back or who would be late for leading prayers because he was consoling an orphan. A man who would gently move a mother dog and her puppies so that they would not get stomped. A man who would check to see if a neighbor was sick when the neighbor missed a day of throwing garbage on his head. A man who would forgive those whose hatred had led to his beloved wife’s death, his uncle’s slaughter, and his own exile.


But this night, we don't read. We experience. We understand. Tonight the face of Muhammad (ﷺ) prompts a distant friend to send a text message, from hundreds of miles away, at precisely a time when it is most needed.


This is the face of Muhammad (ﷺ).


This is the face I have come to love.

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