What is the exile in islam?
The Sufi path is mostly a path of exile (ghurbah). Yet, the estrangement and loneliness people feel towards one another takes them closer to the Lord.
Aspects of exile and estrangement appear in the lives of Zechariah (as), his son John (as), as well as Jesus (as). The fact that their followers were only a few, and that two of them were martyred by the people they were trying to guide, while the other faced attempted murder, meant they underwent a tough exile in their own homeland. Yet, at the same time, this estrangement enabled them to lead such sincere and selfless lives that they ended up among the other prophets Allah (jj) has forever hailed: Zechariah (as) and John (as) until the day they were martyred, and Jesus (as) until the day he was raised to the heavens.
This idea of loneliness and exile ascribed to prophets finds an interesting expression in the hadith below. The Prophet (saw) says:
“Count yourself as a traveler on this earth.” (Bukhari, Riqaq, 3; Tirmiz, Zuhd, 25)
“Good news to the enstranged!” (Muslim, Iman, 232)
Through spiritual circles (suhbah) divine remembrance (dhikr), self-denial (riyazah) and sincerity (ikhlas), Sufism aims to ripen the sublime qualities innate to man’s natural predisposition, and transform him from rawness to maturity. Still, humans come with different aptitudes; and the Sufi method of letting man in on the mystery behind the human being and matter does not have the same effect on all. Yet, despite a difference of degree, there are some tendencies that all individuals share. One of them is the inner desire to return from this land of exile to the land of origin.
Thus, through dhikr, Sufism also seeks to raise man’s desire and search for reuniting with his Lord in that peaceful clime prior to his physical creation, from his subconscious to his conscious mind. This marks the pinnacle of spiritual maturity; and the Qur’an tells us how to get there:
“Know that only in the remembrance of Allah do hearts find rest.” (Al-Rad, 13: 28)
This state of mind most beautifully appears in the insan-i kamil, the spiritually perfect human being. This is a person, who has unraveled the mystery of:
“We surely belong to Allah, and to Him we shall return.” (Al-Baqarah, 2: 156)
Once man and jinn begin to severely desire this return to origin, because they have been created with higher levels of cognition, the feeling becomes a source of pain and anguish. After that point, a person is reminded at every breath that he is indeed in exile.
As beings pass through various stages beginning from their point of origin, exile manifests differently at each phase. For example, man was first in the realm of spirits. He then departed into the mother’s womb. He also changes places during his stay on earth. From there, he departs to the grave. And finally, he returns to his Lord.
The poet must have felt this feeling of exile deep within is heart, when he described some of its phases below:
From one stage you see the sun and the sea
And you see both worlds from another
The final stage is an autumn, and it lasts
Where past and future is all but a dream
In light of all that we have just said, exile is something that is intertwined; it comes in stages and layers. The only way to eliminate it is to retrace all the middle stages back to the first point, to the Lord. Reuniting with the Lord is how one can relieve the deepest yearning caused by exile, which gives the spirit the acutest pain. Even though they may not have come to terms with this greater longing and spiritual anguish, people who have had to leave their villages and towns for foreign lands, still carry a sense of exile deep in their subconscious. Only saints endowed with a high level cognition grasp this spiritual pain, and live only with the concern of divine reunion, without the least worry for all those middle stages. Junayd Baghdadi thus defines Sufism as:
“…for the Real to kill you in yourself, and revive you through Himself.”
The most beautiful manifestation of this state of mind is for the servant to decrypt the secret of being with the Lord and continually persist in His remembrance.
Dhikr is not just to repeat Allah’s (jj) names. It is to become truly aware of Allah (jj), and for divine manifestations to take hold of the heart and envelop one’s entire existence.
Persisting with dhikr carries a person to such a level that the truth of the dhikr becomes one with the truth of man’s creation. A person becomes a mirror of the dhikr he repeats. The truth of dhikr is beyond letters, words or sound. And the essence of the heart, as it comes from the Lord, is subtle, beyond the flesh. Once the dhikr and the heart become abstracted from matter, they become one and realize unity (tawhid) in the truest sense. There, the heart reaches nothingness. Everything is erased apart from the gist of the dhikr, who is the Lord. At this station, the heart becomes the focal point for the divine names to appear; and like a lens that burns everything under it by drawing in the rays of the sun, the heart burns everything else apart from the Lord (masiwa). This is the state of fana, annihilation. This is where mortals make way for the Immortal (Baki). This is the stage of contentment, of peace.
It was this freedom from the exile of earth and attaining reunion that made Rumi (qs) describe death as ‘the wedding night.’
One of the most important qualities of saints is that they burnt with a longing in this land of exile, which took them to true immortality. Rumi (qs) says not even death is enough to quell the intensity of this fire:
“After I die, open my grave and see the smoke that rises out of my shroud from the fire deep inside!”
A saint whose face was aglow despite being on his deathbed, was asked:
“How can you smile when you are about to die?”
“My entire body has now merged into my lips. And my lips now beam with a different smile!”
A moth longs for light. It is not just a simple butterfly. It is also called a ‘propeller’, as its longing makes it spin around the light. The moment it sees the light, it is drawn to it and loses all its willpower. It crashes into the light and is burnt. It may seem though it is gone; but it has now reached reunion.
Rumi (qs) has said:
“It is impossible to taste divine love without incinerating the flesh!”.
Following a deep spiritual turbulence, Hallaj-i Mansur began to yearn for death, and said:
“In death lies my revival, my life and reunion!”
Going by these profound manifestations, exile is:
Separation from the Creator.
A fire inside the heart.
Burning with longing.
This is because man is on an eternal journey. This journey began in the spiritual realm prior to physical creation and proceeded through to earth, the land of exile. Subsequently, his free spirit fell captive to the body and the five senses. Yet, his separation from the source has resulted in a longing and desire to return to the place of origin. And depending on the distance he has covered, his cognition becomes clear, whereby the longing and desire to return becomes more intense. This means that the human being is always estranged and ever in exile.
Exile has many types:
For prophets and saints, there is a second exile beyond the exile of earth; and that is the pain of separation from companions. It was decreed that Jacob (as) and Joseph (as) undergo severe pangs of separation, for their bond with the Lord to become even stronger; so that they constantly turned to Him, cut connections with all things else and attained to the highest of spiritual ranks.
This is the wisdom that underlies the fact that all prophets have spent some time in exile, away from their homelands, and experienced the feeling of estrangement in all its forms.
The Prophet (saw) felt the severest kind of exile in Taif. He was stoned and left bloodied. Yet, through his deep compassion, he showed complete patience and consent; and instead of cursing the people of Taif who stoned him, he prayed for their guidance. As a divine reward, he was subsequently taken on the Night Journey, the Miraj.
Hence, exile is a window to pain and anguish. That Rumi (qs) begins his sea of wisdom, the Mathnawi, with the words:
Listen to what the reed flute is telling
From the pain of separation it’s wailing
…underlines the weight of estrangement and exile in human life.
For long years, Adam (as) also cried and ached with the pain of longing, for having been separated from paradise, his place of birth, and sent to an exile on earth. That was because his homeland was paradise, near the Lord. In a way, he passed on this feeling of estrangement to his children. The old saying, ‘a nightingale in a golden cage still sings songs of home’, makes it easier to understand why man moans about being exiled from a sublime realm to a lowly place.
Rumi (qs) explains exile by drawing a resemblance between the human being and the reed flute:
“The reed flute says, ‘Since the day they ripped me out of the marsh, my wails have reduced everyone on earth to tears.’
‘Let separation rip my heart to shreds to it can better express the pain of love!’
‘Whoever falls remote from his origin, will forever wait for the moment of reunion.’
‘I am the crier of all circles, the friend of both saints and sinners.’
‘Everybody thinks they are my friend, and seek to learn something from my words.’
‘My wails, though, expose my secret; but then again, many hearts lack the light to perceive it!’
‘The soul and skin are not hidden to one another. But there is no permission to see the soul.’
‘The sound of the reed flute is fire. Do not think it is a vain song! Shame on anyone who lacks this fire!’”
In a poem, Rumi (qs) also says:
Listen to the reed flute, hear what it’s saying
The secrets of the Lord it is exposing
Its face pale, insides empty, head severed
And to the player’s breath it is deserted
But without words or a tongue
‘Allah, Allah’, it is wailing
The flute reed was ripped out of the marsh where it was raised, and had its chest branded and punctured with holes. It had shackle-like metal rings strapped around its head, feet and between its joints, and imprisoned, for which it dried up and turned pale.
Man is exactly like this. He was sent to this world from his home in the divine realm, constrained to the limits of being human, and had its heart branded and melted with the fire of separation. While this is the reality for all human beings, it only comes to the surface when one attains to the level of insan-i kamil, through contemplation and spiritual feeling.
All visible and invisible creatures in the universe receive a certain share of the Almighty’s names. As for human beings, they carry all the manifestation of divine names. Man has attained to the mystery behind the verse, “I breathed into him My Spirit…” (Al-Hijr, 15: 29) Hence, he is a wonder of creation, a masterpiece of art. The Almighty’s art, power and creative force is most consummately manifest in the human being. So, by purifying the dirt and desires of the ego, the human being becomes perfect in the truest sense. Like metal dust close to a magnet, he will begin to feel an intense yearning and desire to return to his land of origin.
This is possible because the spirit of man comes from Allah (jj) and is therefore also endowed with the ability to return to Him. The fuel of this return journey, is love. Love is a fire in the heart that smolders all things other than Allah (jj). Through this fire does the desire rise for man to return to where he came from. His excitement and wish for his Lord surges, and his yearning gains force.
Rumi (qs) beautifully explains Bilal’s (ra) desire to leave this world of exile and reunite with his Lord:
“Bilal (ra) had become thin like a crescent. Death had cast its color and shadow on his face. His wife could not stand seeing him like this.
‘Oh no, my house is destroyed’ she said.
‘No, no, do not say that’, Bilal replied. ‘This is the time to rejoice. My house is now built!’
‘Until now, I have lived with the sorrow of earth, of the exile of being away from the Lord!’
As Bilal said these words, his face was blooming with daffodils, roses and tulips. His already bright face was even more aglow.
But seeing Bilal’s breath shorten and his energy decrease, his wife said:
‘My good-willed, honest Bilal! So, now is the time to say goodbye!’
But Bilal replied:
‘No, no! Now is the time to reunite! Now is the time for this longing and exile to end!’
‘Tonight is the night you will go into exile and disappear from your family and children!’
‘No, tonight is perhaps the night my spirit returns home!’
She asked, ‘So, we will no longer see your face?’
He said, ‘If you look high enough, you will see my face among the Lord’s true servants! Do not look down; that is where the ugly faces of the dirty world are!’
His wife again said, ‘Woe to me, my home is destroyed!’
Bilal, this time, said, ‘Look at the spirit, not the flesh! I had many kids and a small house. Allah has destroyed the house that is my body to make it better and more adorned! If my body is not destroyed, my exile will never end, and I will never be able to return to my land of origin, the land of beauty that contains no nonsense; and I will never be able to reunite with the Absolute Beauty!’”
Saint Aziz Mahmud Hudayi, who lived and breathed this state of mind, articulates his feelings in exile, as:
What could I do with the world?
All I need is my Lord
No need for anything else
All I need is my Lord
Some chase this life
Others pursue the next
All in one love or another
All I need is my Lord
Cast out vain desire
Go and seek out the Real
Hudayi’s final words are
All I need is my Lord
Another who came into this land of exile, yet did not get caught up in its fleeting passions and burned instead with the fire of reunion, was Yunus Emre. Like a loyal lover, he did not throw an eye at anyone but the beloved and marveled at how anyone could possibly be fooled by the world. As a result he felt estranged in a land of exile, which he describes as:
I have come with a wonder
My true state no one knows
I speak but only I listen
My tongue no one knows
Physically, man is from the earth. He, therefore, lives on earth and feeds from it. Ultimately, he dies and returns to earth, and becomes one with his origin.
Thus, this world is ideally expressed as ‘exile’. It has also been famously referred to as a ‘guesthouse’ to emphasize its fleeting nature. That is because a person in exile does not necessarily have to return. In contrast, a guest has to sooner or later move on, and the thought of leaving enters the mind as soon as the stay begins.
One day, the Prophet (saw) had slept on a straw mat, which had left marks on his body. The companions thereupon suggested:
“We should at least lay something softer on the mattress.” To this, the Prophet (saw) replied:
“Why would I have anything to do with the world? I am like a traveler who pauses for a shade beneath a tree and then moves on.” (Ibn Majah, Zuhd, 3; Ibn Hanbal, I, 39)
At another time, the Prophet (saw) put his hand on Umar’s (ra) shoulder and advised:
“Be on earth like a person estranged or a wayfarer!” (Bukhari, Riqaq, 3; Tirmidhi, Zuhd, 25)
It is due to this reality of exile stressed by the Prophet (saw) that many people with hearts burning for the Lord, have lived like strangers on earth in search for the paths of reunion. The pleas they have made with the love of Allah (jj), such as:
Let us, Lord, inside the home of heaven
Just to join those who gaze at Your Beauty
…were complemented with their love for the Prophet (saw):
We are burning, Prophet of Allah
Quench us with Your sight
And these voice the sentiments of all burning hearts.
One of the great Sufi masters of the later period, Esad Erbili makes this passionate plea to his beloved:
The heart, my beloved, craves a light of your beauty
The eyes, my doctor, some kohl from the dust you tread
No comfort in tears, no answer to heartfelt pleas
My burden of sin needs the grace of the Prophet King
Those in love with you can desire nothing but you
They want neither wealth, nor rank, nor pleasure, nor joy
He begs you to appear in all your splendor for once
A poor Esad, who wants no more than to die for you
For every mortal born into this world of exile, the last leaf on the calendar of life is death. Those who live like travelers conscious of the fact they have only come into this world to ultimately go, try to pass the trials of anguish and sorrow, in anticipation of their eternal rewards. They are always resigned and content in the face of various experiences this exile presents, whether they be of pleasure or pain. For such fortunate people, death is merely a gate that opens to eternal mercy and reunion with the Lord.
The final mementos of this exile are gravestones. Each tells a different story, articulating many lessons of wisdom.
Once, a woman had died while giving birth, along with her twin babies. Tahiru’l-Mevlevi, a commentator of Rumi’s Mathnawi, felt moved by the incident, and he found the woman’s family. He told them he wished to write a gravestone for the deceased woman and her babies, and penned the following lines:
An Epitaph for a Gravestone
Death didn’t let me hug them just once
With my babies it put me in the grave
To You My Lord I have now come
Holding my orphans by their tiny hands
This is the reason why the great Rumi depicts life on earth as both an exile and a journey. Life on earth, he says, is fickle, fleeting and deceiving; those who rest their hopes on it will inevitably be disappointed. Based on the limited nature of life, Rumi also likens it to a guesthouse. He even says the spirit is a guest inside the body, as it only stays there for a certain period.
Thus, it is clear that being a guest takes many shapes and appearances, which are often intertwined. Rumi elaborates this through his style of wisdom, pointing to how opposites, in this universe, exist together, entwined:
“Take note, young man. This skin is a guesthouse. Every morning, your guests joy and sorrow come running to it.
Rest at ease. Do not ever think these guests will stay for good! Joy and sorrow will check out to nothingness. They are not immortal.
Whatever comes from the unseen arrives as a guest in your heart. Treat it kindly. Do not be saddened by sorrow, or elated from joy.
The thought of sorrow blocks the path to joy. It does not care! But the reality is, sorrow itself opens the road to a joy of a much different kind.
Ideas and sorrow sweep the home of the heart of other kinds of sadness. All the way until new goodness and joy arrive inside the heart.
The hand of sorrow shakes yellow leaves off the branch of your heart. All the way until green leaves burst one after another.
Whatever sorrow sheds from the heart, it always replaces it with something better.”
In his poem titled ‘Exile’, which he wrote during the time he spent away from his homeland, contemporary poet Kadir Misiroglu voices this reality as:
… … …
Not at home but at the Lord
The land of peace
Does exile end
But until then
Ebbs and flows
Of all sorts
… … …
There’s a famous saying
Stop! Don’t waste a breath
Allah is enough
The rest is whim
Lord! Grant us a mindset of reunion in this land of exile! Include us among Your servants who will gaze at Your Beauty!