The Book Foundation, 161 pages, 2004, $15.95
A book as important as Jamal Rahman's The Fragrance of Faith needs to be recommended with as much grace as possible, for it contains precious reminders that the spiritual teachings of Islam are as filled with compassion as they can be. We live in a time when the spiritual clarity Jamal Rahman shares may well be critical to the healing of person and planet.
The book introduces us to very special teachers with whom Jamal himself grew up. His parents conveyed the person and the teachings of Jamal's grandfather, a spiritual teacher and healer named Maulana Hedayatullah. Through Jamal's text his grandfather comes to life for us all.
Sufism is the more mystical aspect of Islam, but not a denomination or independent sect of Islam. The Sufis understand that their traditions stemmed from the teachings of the Prophet, but were meant for a smaller community willing to engage in the immediacy of the spiritual encounter. Jamal communicates this teaching to the reader much as it was communicated to him. We become his students, and he speaks to the struggles we each experience in our own growing.
Grandfather, grandmother, father, and mother speak through the pages of this book with deep eloquence, and each adds to the deeper understanding of the sacred words of the Qur'an, of the collected sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (the hadith), and of the examples of his life (sunnah). But it is Jamal who weaves these teachings together, with exquisite threads of the great Sufi poet Rumi and heartfully humorous stories of the famous Mulla Nasrudin to form a fabric of surprising comprehensiveness, an accessible entry to the experiential aspect of Islamic thought.
That means, of course, that Jamal offers neither a historical or a theoretical approach to Islamic tradition. Readers wanting to explore these sides of Islam might well read Karen Armstrong's Islam, or The Heart of Islam by Seyyed Hossein Nasr, who is one of the foremost scholars of Islam today.
In Jamal's relatively short volume, we are introduced to the three principles (surrender, faith, and moral virtue) and the five pillars (profession of faith, prayer, almsgiving, fasting, and pilgrimage) of Islam. We are treated to expositions sparkling with story, poetry, and sacred verses, and we are invited to drink deeply of the nectar of the spiritual fruits of the Islamic tradition.
We are offered verses for reflection and contemplation, many by Rumi: “When a seed falls into the ground, it germinates, grows, and becomes a tree: if you understand these symbols, you'll follow us, and fall to the ground, with us.” We are offered practices, inviting us to visit personal places of pain in order to move to greater awareness: “Make a list of people to whom you have lied. Silently, in your mind, talk to them. Tell them the truth and from your heart ask for forgiveness. Then invoke God's mercy and forgive yourself.”
This is hardly the image of Islamic tradition offered us by the media; this is not the Islam that supports violence and hatred. This is a spiritual Islam, teaching the way of the opening heart, mind, and identity. It does not seem to be Jamal's intention to counter distorted teachings about Islam, but rather to offer Islamic verses for our own consideration.
What I hear is universal; what I find here reflects the finest of Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, and Hindu spiritual teaching: “In a Hadith Qudsi, Allah says: I cannot be contained in the space of the earth, I cannot be contained in the space of the heavens, but I can be contained in the heart of my loving servant.” Jamal continues, “The Divine Heart, we are told, is in the human heart. Between heart and Heart lie level upon level of consciousness and realization.”
All mystical traditions ultimately converge, since each leads beyond itself to an absolutely shared Universal. We are invited to journey more deeply toward this Universal through the teachings and the exercises in this text.
In The Fragrance of Faith, we are gifted with pages worthy of reading and rereading, of contemplating and meditating, of savoring and sharing. The chapters are short, yet packed with timeless insight for our pondering.
I am so glad this is such an exceptional book. Jamal is a good friend. He is a colleague with whom I study and with whom I teach. In writing as well as in person, he shares the beauty of his tradition. He offers us a living face of Islam expressing a universal love and compassion for all beings. Jamal has been a minister at the Interfaith Community Church in Seattle for almost four years. Although he teaches as a Muslim, he is able to honor Truth as it expresses through all the world's religions.
Perhaps a gentler time would not value so highly a work of such open-hearted generosity of spirit. But this is not that gentler time, so Jamal's work brings a refreshing fragrance to awaken the sleeping compassion and peace at the core of our own beings. This is a work for which we can be truly grateful, providing teachings that so kindly remind us of the greater Presence yearning to be expressed through us all.
“Knowing the power of gratitude, grandfather asked that we strive to be grateful even in times of affliction. When we hold gratitude in our hearts in difficult times, we are giving thanks for unknown blessings already on their way. Grandfather believed that besides compassion and awareness, gratitude is the other key available to us for unlocking the mysteries of the Universe.”
—Rabbi Ted Falcon
Ted Falcon is rabbi of Bet Alef Meditative Synagogue in Seattle, where he is active in interfaith dialogue and spiritual gatherings. He is co-author of Judaism For Dummies and author of A Journey of Awakening: Kabbalistic Meditations on the Tree of Life. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.