Monday, December 20, 2010
Why would someone do this? Part I
Over 20 years ago, I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago in South Asian Languages and Civilizations. I found myself living in the city of Chennai (then Madras) to do my dissertation research. One day I saw and ad in the newspaper for an Urs ceremony (Yahrtzeit/death anniversary of a Muslim Sufi Saint) in Georgetown, the oldest section of Madras. I made my way down the narrow streets til I found a small mosque with a dargah (tomb) attached to it. Near the tomb, a group of men gathered to perform zikr (dhikr), the chanting of spiritual formulae. The chanting and singing was awesome. It felt as if the room were filled with angels. (It wasn’t til many years later in Uman, Ukraine that I would feel that spiritual intensity again.) In the middle of the chanting, a small man stood up and began to pray out loud. There was a sincerity and beauty in his voice that I had never heard before. I found out later that he was Professor H. Habibullah Shah, a physics professor, Sufi sheikh and poet whose teacher was buried there. Every night he would sit there in quiet prayer or talk with students. I began to join him in the evenings and with numerous cups of tea and incredible patience he opened up a new world for me. He taught me the spiritual vocabulary of Islam, that would later find echoes in the Chassidic philosophy I now embrace.
It was Professor Shah who taught me “heshbon ha nefesh,” to examine my deeds daily. It was he who showed me what the sincere inner struggle looked like. He showed me how law and discipline foster devotion and joy. It was Professor Shah who revealed to me that my years of studying other religions masked a deep yearning for my own service of G-d. He respected my Jewish heritage and inspired me to come to submission to G-d as an observant Jew. This effort is an expression of my hakarat ha tov, my deepest gratitude.