Starbucks, at Gaslight Village; Islam and Spirituality

InshaAllah, this will be my second blog post. It feels a bit surreal to be able to actually write something; for many years, I read books, and listened to lectures. I’ve had many ideas, but they were never able to come to fruition via an outlet such as writing. In my first blog post, I wrote a little about my life story, and tried to do an introductory book review. For this second entry, I decided that I would continue talking about my background, and the subject that has interested me more than any other for the past decade of my life: the study of Islam. (But first: the new place that I visited).

I wasn’t really expecting to write about a Starbucks café as my new place to visit. This is because I was hoping for each new location to be somewhat of a unique experience, and also because I believe that there is a hidden wisdom in buying from local businesses. But this Starbucks was a bit different: it had great outdoor seating, which allows you to think, read, and write in peace. The café is located in a place called Gaslight Village, which is a part of East Grand Rapids. Gaslight Village is a small stretch of road and shops, whose external appearance is just barely reminiscent of certain cities I’ve been to in Europe. Oh, how I wish to live in one of those cities … inshaAllah, I’ll be able to fulfill this dream in the future.

There was actually a local café nearby, called the Bagel Kitchen; but the atmosphere there didn’t feel right. Which goes to show you that there is more than one factor to consider when choosing a location for one’s recreational time. The Starbucks here has elevated seating, as well as a table on the ground floor, which is level with all of the cars that pass by. There are also no shops directly next to it, which gives it a slight feeling of expansiveness. The other café, however, has a shop directly to its left and right; and only two small tables out front. So the atmosphere felt more constricted, and thus not as good for writing.

When I went inside the Starbucks to buy a drink, I did something I almost never do: I bought a bottled water, instead of a coffee. The reason I mention this, is because I feel that people in our time are increasingly suffering from digestive illnesses; and I’ve found in my studies that seemingly little things we do, like getting a latté every day for years on end, can really add up and start causing inflammation in the stomach. Of course, one’s diet as a whole plays a very important role. But it’s amazing to me how it can be so difficult to reduce our consumption of something like coffee. I’ve tried to do this countless times; and only now have I been able to develop a philosophy of self-discipline that leads to gradual improvement. A famous Sufi shaykh once said: “The most pleasurable glass of water, is the one that is drunk after fasting.” If we want to truly increase the pleasure that we get from something like coffee, we can do so by actually fasting or detoxing from it, from time to time.

….. …..

Now, I would like to transition into talking more about my background, and some of the literary themes that I chose for this blog post. I was born into a Muslim family; but in our time, such a circumstance does not necessarily mean much. Unfortunately, religiosity in general has undergone a major decline during the past several decades. What remains of it, in my experience, is a lot of empty ritual and mechanistic devotion. Up until the age of twenty-two, I had more or less had this kind of an experience with religion: it was a set of outward actions that were impressed upon me, and I tried fulfilling some of these actions, here and there. My life was to change, however, when I experienced one night an emotional catharsis which was entirely unexpected. Shortly thereafter, I began to read an English translation of the Qur’an. This was the beginning of my independent research into this topic. Many years later, I consider myself to be very fortunate in being able to learn about this way of life. Much has happened since that fateful night, nine years ago; and I am grateful to consider myself a student of this Way. I imagine that someone reading this blog post in the future might become interested in this topic; so I would like to provide some introductory remarks on how I think this subject should be approached, and which books I would recommend, so that one can gain a wise and profound understanding of the Path, inshaAllah.

With regard to reading an English translation of the Qur’an, I would recommend the one that was translated in the year 1937, by Shaykh Abdullah Yusuf Ali. There is a specific edition, though; it has a total of about 1,800 pages, and contains a profound commentary of the translator throughout the entire text. The publisher of this edition is Tahrike Tarsile Qur’an. The way that I read the Qur’an, for the first time, was by going through it just a little at a time. With regard to my overall schedule, I was working a typical 8-to-5 shift; after work, I would read maybe a few pages a day. I remember that period of time as being a profoundly spiritual experience; I was overwhelmed, as many are, by the words that I was reading.

My current library of books on this topic is very curated; and I only arrived at them after a lot of trial-and-error. This process, unfortunately, is something that a lot of people will have to go through. So I apologize beforehand for the struggle that is ahead of you; it has scarred many, but perhaps the suffering was necessary. With regard to the publishing companies that I would recommend, there are three: Sandala Publishing, based in Berkeley, California; Fons Vitae, based in Louisville, Kentucky; and the Islamic Texts Society, based in Cambridge, England. From the Islamic Texts Society, I’ve ordered mostly books by the 11th-century Persian scholar, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali. He was the author of a highly-revered magnum opus of spiritual-religious knowledge, called: the Revival of the Religious Sciences. From this series, which comprises an astounding forty books, I have read several, and hope to read more. That is all I will say for now about the topic of “Islam and Sprituality;” I don’t like focusing too much on religion, so I will conclude this blog post with some notes that I recently wrote about a book I’m reading. It is called: The Plague, by Albert Camus. It was published in the year 1947; ten years later, Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature.

(From my journal): “Right from the outset, I really liked the way he described the city of Oran, which is a coastal city located in the North African country of Algeria. Camus’ description of Oran sounds a lot like how I might describe the city in which I live; he writes: ‘The truth is that everyone is bored, and devotes himself to cultivating habits. Our citizens work hard, but solely with the object of getting rich’ (p. 4). He also writes that the townspeople of Oran use Saturdays and Sundays to relax from a demanding work-week; this is what people in our time do as well. So it’s really interesting to come across this kind of a historical similarity, provided that the author is not exaggerating his description. He continues describing the townspeople of Oran: ‘It will be said, no doubt, that these habits are not peculiar to our town; really all our contemporaries are much the same. Certainly nothing Is commoner nowadays than to see people working from morn till night and then proceeding to fritter away at card-tables, in cafés and in small-talk what time is left for living’ (p. 4). To think that he was describing city-life about seventy years ago … what would he say if he were alive today?

“One of the things that is difficult for me to handle when reading modern literature, is the palpable lack of religious sentiment. This gives the entire text a feeling of malaise; uncertainty; anxiety. At the same time, I’ve realized that in the twenty-first century, we have inherited certain literary traditions, namely those of modernism and postmodernism. So I think it’s important to acknowledge this, and then to go about trying to gather as much information as we can about the literary value of these time periods. To that end, I recently read Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and The Trial, followed by Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground … inshaAllah, I’ll have a chance to share my notes on these books as well.

“The first four pages of The Plague were, in my estimation, a great introduction by the author. On page 7, Camus begins the main narrative, which is going to be about rats who start turning up dead throughout the city in increasing numbers; this is to be a foreboding of the sickness that is going to infest the people. The first character that he introduces is called Dr. Bernard Rieux, who encounters a strange thing ‘when leaving his surgery on the morning of April 16.’ Dr. Rieux asks ‘the concierge of the building to see to its removal;’ the name of the concierge is M. Michel, an old man. I think that the ‘M.’ stands for ‘Monsieur,’ which means ‘Mister’ in French.

“There’s a great passage several pages later, in which the narrator of the novel (who is as yet unnamed) describes Dr. Bernard Rieux as ‘a man who was sick and tired of the world he lived in—though he had much liking for his fellow men …’ (p. 12). This kind of a sentiment, I think, is something that a lot of people could relate to. On the one hand, we have ‘the world,’ which is perceived differently by each person. I’m sure that a lot of people, like Dr. Rieux, have a very negative view of their external environment. On the other hand, we have our own direct life-experience, which we are exposed to daily; that is, interacting with others, especially our loved ones and those who are closest to us. This is mentioned in the quotation above by the words: ‘… though he had much liking for his fellow men …’ I’ve certainly felt this way: I think that sometimes, if we focus too much on the large-scale difficulties that are all around us, we can start to feel very weak and overwhelmed; if we develop this kind of a tendency for months or years, then we could easily become ‘sick and tired of the world.’ But, we are constantly being brought out of this burdensome state of mind by the beating hearts that we encounter, who talk to us every day; thus rekindling our love of simplicity, and the small deeds we do have control over.

….. …..

“As I’ve been reading these last few books, I also started to understand the importance of vocabulary; so I went to the bookstore and got a Merriam-Webster collegiate dictionary. When I read a book now, I’ll look up the definition of a word from time to time, and write it in my journal. There are many words that I encounter whose precise definition I couldn’t articulate; so I think that this is a great exercise for expanding one’s intellect. In Camus’ novel, one such word was ‘rubicund.’ It means: to be red (in color); ruddy. The context: ‘… he was looking tired; and his normally rubicund face had lost its color’ (The Plague, p. 13). But something else made this word even more interesting: right above it in the dictionary was the word ‘Rubicon,’ which was something that a good friend of mine had been telling me about that very same day. The Rubicon is a river in northern Italy. In ancient Rome, when the emperor Julius Caesar crossed this river in the year 49 B.C. with his army, it was ‘regarded by the Senate as an act of war’ (Merriam-Webster, p. 1,087). The word ‘Rubicon’ has also taken on a separate meaning as a noun, which is: ‘a bounding or limiting line, esp. one that when crossed commits a person irrevocably.'”

Well, I’ve reached an acceptable word-limit for this entry, in my estimation. Until next time … ….

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