Years ago I was interested in spiritually oriented Islamic summer camp for my son, who at that time was around 10 years old.
I was familiar with the writings of the Muslim mystical teacher, Bawa Muhaiyaddeen, who had formed a spiritual community in Philadelphia. The community endured past Bawa’s death, and has had a rich reputation for being a pluralistic, spiritual, and racially diverse community—all qualities that are important to me.
I drove down to Philly, and made my way to the Bawa Muhaiyaddeen Fellowship, which is located in a lovely neighborhood. I walked in, acquired some literature, and asked if there was anyone in particular I should talk with about Bawa’s teachings.
Someone suggested I should talk with “Dr. G.”, a soft-spoken Sri Lankan man.
I really just wanted a quick bit of information about summer programs: was it a sleepover camp, where would the children stay, and so on. Instead Dr. G. grabbed a piece of paper, and starting drawing pictures. And as he drew, he started telling a story:
“Imagine a man who’s thirsty.
He is looking for water.
He starts digging.
He digs 5 feet, 6 feet; doesn’t hit water.
He gives up.
He moves a few feet over and starts digging again.
Again, he doesn’t hit water.
He gives up again, and again keeps moving.
Time and again, he digs five to six feet deep, and every time that he does not hit water, he moves over.”
Then Dr. G. stopped, and looked at me with a smile that somehow penetrated the depth of my soul:
“If he had dug deeper, twenty feet or so,
he would have found water.
He could have found water in any of those places,
if he had been willing to go deep enough.”
It took me a while to figure out what was happening.
A stubborn part of me really just wanted to hear what date the summer camp was starting on, and what would happen to my son overnight. Slowly, very slowly, it started to dawn on me what Dr. G. was saying: I couldn’t evade the responsibility of spiritually finding “water” in my own home. It was not enough for me to ship my son to a summer camp. I needed to dig deeper right where I was, instead of thinking that I had to move (or move my son) to get a spiritual life.
Over the years I have come back again and again to see Dr. G. And often he grabs a pen, and some paper and keeps telling stories. The stories stay with me, maybe because we as human beings have a special relationship with these stories.
Over time, I have come to see that the legacy of Bawa (and his children, such as Dr. G.) also applies to the history of Islam in America. There is the temptation to keep running here and there, to tap into the “wells” that exist in Muslim-majority countries. That is an understandable endeavor, and very noble. I understand the desire of Muslims to want to go to Egypt, Iran, Turkey, Pakistan, Morocco, Mauritania, and other Muslim contexts to gain spiritual wisdom.
At the same time, it is also important for us to dig deep, dig deeper right here in America, till we hit the water of life here. The legacy of Bawa is a part of that. The legacy of African-American Islam is a part of that. The legacy of transnational Muslims and white converts is a part of that. What matters is to dig deep enough to find the water of life, here in America.
So I keep going back to Bawa and Dr. G., and keep sharing that with children. God-willing, we will dig out enough of our selfishness to find the very water that flows here, flows there, flows everywhere….if we are willing to dig.