بِسْمِ اللَّهِ الرَّحْمَٰنِ الرَّحِيمِ
bismi al-lahi al-raHmaan al-raHeem
May we be aware of Allah’s Presence, and The Pleasure of His Love and Kindness.
Peace and blessings brothers and sisters, and welcome to Islamic Renaissance Magazine! The day of Awakening is here. May we be the awakening we seek.
My name is Kenneth Bickers. Brother Ihsan has graciously accepted my application to help edit, publish, and launch this enlivening Islamic Renaissance Magazine’s inaugural edition. May our efforts be accepted and blessed with divine success. Masha’llah!
Let us begin with how this happened. What resulted in this circumstance? Beyond how I got here, as the Editor of Islamic Renaissance Magazine, how did an encounter with brother Emil Ihsan Alexander Torabi and the Islamic Meditation Program connect me with a vision for Islamic Renaissance Magazine? “How did it all happen”? Well, it’s a long story. But to be brief…
… My earliest memory of a spiritual nature is being confronted in a mall parking lot by the fastest talking person I had ever heard. He actually approached my oldest brother Bennie, as he pulled into a parking space. My other brother Steve and I were just along for the ride. The person doing all the talking was saying something about a very thick and beautiful book he kept shoving in the car window. He ended his pitch by plopping the nice book in my brother Bennie’s lap. Then the catch… he asked for a donation of $10! We didn’t have $10, (else, he would’ve probably had it). We rummaged through the car and our pants pockets for change, coming up with less than two bucks. The solicitor looked disappointed, but remained enthusiastic as he politely took the large volume out of my brother’s hands and replaced it with a much smaller copy of a similar but, different book. He told us this would serve the same purpose. Then he seemed to vanish as quickly as he had appeared, back into the maze of cars and concrete.
We weren’t quite sure what had just happened, nor were we too concerned about it. At least not nearly as concerned as Mom would be when she heard of it! She took us and that book straight to our local Baptist preacher, who promptly explained that we had been hoodwinked by a member of some kind of demonic cult. I didn’t mind his insults of the nice young man as much as the fact that the preacher kept our book– without even giving us a donation! I was going to read that. Little did I know, I would read that and much more of this tradition about a decade later. Truly, no one can thwart Allah’s divine will!
My next spiritual encounter was less interesting, but just as captivating. I was inside the same small-town mall, (apparently a virtual “Mini-Mecca” of spiritual activity), when I found myself cornered by an evangelical Christian. I must’ve been only 11 or 12 years old. This second guy wasn’t nearly as fascinating as our “parking-lot-proselytizer”. I remember going along with what I perceived to be a “high-pressured” sales tactic, as it seemed the quickest way of emancipation. I felt bad about ending this one in a prayer that was less than sincere. However, I rationalized that God knew I needed the relief. I went along with what this person had to say, but I just wasn’t feeling this goody-goody stuff at that time of my life. It was just too disingenuous for me. The intoxicating effects of the dunya were already becoming entrenched in my consciousness. Rebellion dogged my every step. I had no time for spiritual pretenses. The Quran tells us that there is some advantage with intoxication, but more disadvantage. I would find this out the hard way!
Isn’t it amazing how Allah orchestrates the welfare of human beings? While I was allowed the freedom to choose my own way of digression from all things moral and spiritual; God would use these very sources of rebellion to bring me to my knees, crying out to Him in surrendering desperation!
The path I had embarked on would wind around a host of mental and emotional twists, (usually either caused or accentuated by the world’s wide variety of intoxicants). It would be accompanied by various and sundry conflicts with authority, eventually leaving me restless, irritable and discontent. After hitting an emotional bottom, morally and spiritually bankrupt I eventually found that “with every hardship comes ease.”
At what seemed like the lowest point in this abyss, God sent Mark F. to me. Mark was a person who would forever alter the course of my spiritual development. A mutual acquaintance named Mike C., (who I knew from the church I was attending at the time) had repeatedly mentioned Mark, insisting that I should meet him. When I asked why he didn’t bring him to church Mike informed me his friend was “spiritual”, but not “religious”.
Finally, one day when I came to see Mike, Mark was also there. I decided to play it cool. “Let me see what this charlatan is peddling before I move on to smash his spiritual veneer”, I thought. Allah had another plan! The more I listened and observed this person, the more I was humbled by his living demonstration of virtue. He spoke of the Bhagavad-Gita as the “New Testament” of Hinduism, and freely shared his experience of studying The Quran and praying with Muslim “brothers” while incarcerated.
“How could this be?” I thought to myself. “How can someone agree with both Hindus and Muslims, and still claim to be spiritual?” And how could a person like me, (fancying myself an orthodox Christian), ever accept such a heretic? In sharp contrast to my self-righteous attitude stood the Bible verses that kept playing in my head. Verses in the book of Galatians, for example listing the fruits of the Holy Spirit. It mentioned such fruits as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, etc. Furthermore, Jesus was quoted in the Gospels as saying, “A bad tree cannot bring forth good fruit.” Yet here he was… Mark F…. staring me in the face. I didn’t need a degree in theology to tell me he obviously grew more of these fruits on his tree that I did on mine. And they were of superior quality as well.
A decision was made, as I opened my mind and heart to traditions beyond what my family had been accustomed. From this experience a yearning began to develop within me to see the God of my understanding in and through the eyes of others. This would play a pivotal role in bringing me to where I am today.
As a result of Mark’s influence, I procured my first English explanation of The Quran, as well as a Bhagavad-Gita. Shortly thereafter, I joined the association of devotees who followed the Vaishnava Vedic tradition of Hinduism. The very group the “parking-lot proselytizer” had represented all those years ago!
This eventually led me to become a serious student of Vedic philosophy and practice. I went to live in a monastic setting and took initiation from a spiritual teacher. This taught me discipline. We chanted over 28,000 names of God daily. We also followed four “Regulative Principles”, (i.e., refraining from meat eating, gambling, intoxication, and illicit intimacy).
However, this was not to last. Much to my dismay, the last of those principles proved to be my undoing. I attempted to regain my footing by getting married and taking a 2nd initiation as a Vedic Priest (Brahmana). Nothing seemed to help. Once having given myself over to another, my relationship with my Lord was not the same. The connection became severed, until eventually I even went back to the dunya and all its accompanying addictive cravings. Heartbroken, I recognized it was time to leave.
I was crushed! Feeling abandoned and dejected, but not wanting to go on with the repeated and inevitable consequences of my behavior, I finally sought refuge in 12-Step Recovery.
Here I found other fallen and unfortunate folks, who welcomed me with open arms. Not only that, they loved me until I could love myself. That would take many years. Nevertheless, over time, and through their selfless service and unconditional love, these wonderful everyday people gave to me what an exalted association of transcendentalist could not—they gave me back my humanity!
Living clean and sober over the past 28 years has brought many gifts. I was blessed to go back to school, obtaining a Master’s degree in Psychology. Working as a Therapist and Coordinator of Outpatient programs, I received Post-Graduate training and Certifications from the Founding Father of all Cognitive-Behavior Therapy, Albert Ellis himself! But my most prized rewards were a wonderful wife, a stable family life and a lovely daughter who has never seen me in active addiction! And that is where the story continues—with my daughter.
As I was taking her to school one morning, our conversation turned to Islamic studies in her Advanced Placement History class. She remarked that the media seems to want to portray Muslims as willing to kill those who refuse to convert. I told her I had read in the Quran where it does say to, “Kill them wherever you find them.” She told me I was taking that verse out of context, and recommended I reacquaint myself with it. As the saying goes, “He who has no Shaykh has the nafs (ego) for a Shaykh.” Well, I had my daughter!
Arriving home later that day, I dusted off an old Pickthall translation of the Quran I had laying around, and got busy. Thus, began my sojourn into this most amazing Divine Reminder, in earnest. I quickly felt the translation inadequate, so I went out and acquired a few more. (A habit I still seem to have trouble resisting). While a Vedic Priest I never appreciated people trying to understand our tradition exclusively through scholarly research. It simply could not be done. So, I visited a few Masjids and had some brothers teach me how to pray. I was intent on understanding this path by practice. I found instruction through many online sources as well. Some were more corrupt than others. Finally, as I began to find inspiration in this Way of Surrender I forgot all about why I had started.
Then another milestone occurred. I was eager to join my many years of meditation practice with this newly found direction. So, I googled “Islamic Meditation.” That’s when I found brother Ihsan’s Islamic Meditation Program (IMP), as well as his writings and videos on The Islamic Renaissance. I felt like I had arrived home!
Except my contacting a few local Masjids to learn the prayers, I had been purposely avoiding association with other Muslims. I worked with a few, and we talked occasionally. But I did not want to be exposed to the sectarian religious influence of others until I had a good grasp of the Quran’s plain message. So, when I discovered the IMP it was like water in a desert. This led to The Soul of Islam Radio and Awakenings Academy. The latter of which recently guided me to my teacher, Shaykh Imam Fode Drame, (may Allah’s Peace and Blessings be upon him).
Living in Tampa, Florida some 3,000+ miles away from the Zawiyah, I’m still starved for the physical association of noble friends. But now my heart yearns for it! Insha’llah, I am gradually increasing my connections here locally.
And that, my friends, is how I got here. I have also told you of how Brother Ihsan’s association made possible the best of gifts, my taking the hand of the Shaykh. Now let us turn our attention away from my own awakening to that of the Ummah and the rest of the world. Let’s look at the potential for an Islamic Renaissance, and a vision for the magazine that bears its name.
A Vision for Us
Allah is truly “Powerful over all things!” The state of our souls and the collective condition of the Ummah being no exceptions. Rather than lament our fallen condition ad nauseam as is so in vogue, let us look instead within ourselves for the light to illumine this fallen world around us.
Renaissance means precisely this. The word connotes revival, renewal, reawakening, rebirth, reappearance, resurgence and regeneration. It starts within our very selves.
Prophet Isa, (may Allah’s Peace and Blessings be upon him), reportedly told the religionists of his day, “You have a form of godliness, but no life within!” He also criticized their desire to have the Kingdom of Heaven descend from the clouds, replying “You will never see it! For the Kingdom of God is within men.” And therein lies the answer to our Islamic Renaissance.
Let us go beyond our preoccupation with forms of religion, and even our attachment to being so “Islamic.” Rather, let us turn all our attention to the Lord of our hearts, “and yearn for him with love!”
Brother Ihsan has described the 3 Phases of Islamic understanding to be Islam, Iman, and Ihsan. Islam is when one begins to practice the forms of the religion, such as going through the motions of Prayer, Fasting, Charity, Pilgrimage, etc. Iman is when this practice leads to actually having faith or belief in these forms, along with revelation, the messengers, angels, etc. But the culmination of all this is Ihsan itself…the Way of the Heart enthralled in love of God. This is truly the Way of Perfection, or Spiritual Excellence. And it is this taste, the taste of associating with Spiritual Excellence and its Noble Companions, that will compel others to seek this ripened fruit of surrender.
There is nothing exclusively “Islamic” about this. At least not in a cultural sense. Spiritually, of course, it has everything to do with Islam—the Way of Surrender—for this is the only way to experience it.
In the Vaishnava Vedic tradition there is a name for the Supreme, who has no equal. This name is Krishna. This Sanskrit name literally means the All-Attractive One. His name is such due to His being the reservoir of all attractive attributes, such as fame, knowledge, beauty, strength, wealth, etc.. All these Divine Qualities have their source in Him alone. Who is this, but Allah? It is only by Allah’s will that any of us can reawaken our slumbering souls. He bestows dominion on whom he pleases, and He withholds it from whom he pleases. All good lies in His hand, and His are the most excellent qualities.
If our Ummah is to reawaken—if we want it revitalized—let us do our part by reawakening ourselves. This can only happen by God’s Grace. It is only by association with His Divine Attributes that we can experience our own perfection. It is only by our perfecting ourselves that our Ummah will renew its spiritual excellence. When we think of the Hereafter we think of Paradise. Another meaning of the Hereafter is “accountability.” This accountability for our own spiritual excellence is what is asked of us to experience an Islamic Renaissance. This will restore the former glory of our Ummah. This will allow us to once again collectively taste the sweet, delectable fruits of Paradise.
Therefore, the Islamic Renaissance is nothing less that being attracted to that All-Attractive One, who bestows his Spirit of Awakening without reckoning. We need not criticize the current condition of our community, nor that of any other. Let us rather practice the positive psychology of praise and appreciation! Let us praise Allah for his many gifts bestowed, as well as His Wisdom in what he has withheld. Let us appreciate the beauty of His Divine Reminder to us, while simultaneously recognizing His Splendor in the ways of others. Insha’llah, this will result in our Eternal and Divine Success!
Peace and Blessings…