Soukeyna Osei-Bonsu looks to the natural and the world of birds to help us understand how we can journey closer to Allah through Dhikr
Medieval theologian Ibn al-Qayyim is quoted as saying:
“The heart on its path to Allah the Almighty is like a bird, where love is its head, and fear and hope are its wings.”
Certainly, this illustrates the equilibrium that must be in force for us to balance and soar through the pomp of this life to reach God. It is interesting to note in this parable that without these three components the bird would lose its bearing or even worse collapse earthward and be destroyed.
Using Ibn al-Qayyim’s simile, it is also interesting to note that even migratory birds at times must rest. Even tired birds at times crossing great swathes of ocean rest mid-flight or take a stopover. To quote bird enthusiast Jennie Miller:
“Fatigued and famished from a night of flying, a migrating bird navigates vast tracts of terrain in search of a site with ample food, suitable shelter, and few competitors or predators. These stopover sites play a crucial role in a bird’s survival by serving as pit stops where it can rest and refuel for a few hours or days before moving onward. In fact, stopover sites are so critical for bird recovery that during migration birds actually spend more time on the ground than in the air.”
This brings me to the title of this article.
Mastering the nafs ‘self’ and disciplining the soul is very much about ascertaining what kind of bird you happen to be. There is ‘the ruby-throated hummingbird [which] travels non-stop for 24 hours across 965km of open ocean from the US Gulf Coast to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico’ , then there are seabirds who often take breaks on the sea to feed and rest  still, in the end, reaching their destination.
When navigating between this life of hollow material and the unseen world of dhikr, angels, Jinn, Divine decree and inexhaustible knowledge, we must know primarily what kind of bird we were uniquely created to be. Are we birds like the companion of the Prophet ﷺ Lady Fidda al-Nubiyya who only spoke using Qur’an and thus flashed by through this life to the next in the fast lane?
Are we like Abu Bakr al-Siddiq (may God be pleased with him) who used his days for establishing the truth and spreading his wealth and the cover of the night for secretly serving the downtrodden? Or are we instead like the Sahabi (companion of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ) who asked the Prophet ﷺ what he had to do to attain the next life, followed the Prophet’s ﷺ instructions to fulfil the basics and was proclaimed by the Prophet ﷺ to be a man of paradise?
What kind of bird are we? Will we race through this life without resting in this world or will we consciously take stopovers in this world whilst flying to the next?
It is up to us to determine our capacities and capabilities and to establish which route we will take to the next. And it is up to us to reach the destination.
The feet are planted in this life and the heart looks up to God. The feet walk to work to earn a living but the heart is facing Divine Light. The mouth laughs and eyes fill with mirthful tears amongst friends; the body explores this life and enjoys what it has to offer but the heart must be turned to face the truth.
The question remains: how do we practically journey each day and migrate the heart towards God?
The primary vehicle we can use to travel is Dhikr (remembrance of Allah). The vehicle of Dhikr is to plant a tree. To garden and cultivate soil your eyes have not yet seen. The word that leaves your mouth is a seed and your efforts are watering and pruning the plant. To protect your deeds from ostentation is to protect the seedling from the elements. Dhikr is the garden and the gardener. Seed and sower. Pursuing the truth is keeping the trees you have planted free from disease, demise and destruction.
The heart turns relentlessly and it is important to compel it to face God in prayer and before falling asleep when our soul partially leaves our body and we experience an almost-death. Especially before sleep as actions are judged by their endings and witnessing the break of dawn is never promised.
If you have returned home in this world after a hard day’s work and want your heart to enter the next before you fall asleep, one certain way is to make Dhikr of God until you attain Firasa (discernment) and Basirah (insight).
Dhikr of God is not a mindless exercise of the mouth. Rather it is a crane which lifts the heart and turns it back to its origin. It is also the tarmac and cement through which the next life is built, through which forests are planted in that unseen realm as well as means of returning spiritual vision.
Dhikr is a voyage and a sharpener of sight, a means through which we stay awake and alert, vigilant and posted at our stations. We are the soldiers of Allah. Dhikr is your superior telling you to stay at your post, to outlive this war raging between you and your soul, and to fulfil your Divinely appointed duty of being a steward on earth.
So, you have determined what kind of bird you are and resultantly what kind of route you will be taking to Allah. You have been travelling through the vehicle of Dhikr to the unseen world every day but you still get caught up in this life or fall into the schism between this and the next. How do fallen birds take flight again?
The solution is to avoid all the avenues to blindness. The primary remover of sight is sin. Sin will rust the heart, cause it to become heavy, take away the sweetness of faith, and cause you to languish in this world. Sight is regained as worded by Sheikh Omar Suleiman ‘by a relentless commitment to the truth’. If your reality has darkened and you are wading through suffocating covers of darkness unable to see a light to the truth, Dhikr of Allah will guide you out of that terrain and into the unseen realm of the real reality again.
Navigating between the two lives can feel confusing. Being in this world too much can lead to forgetting the next and thus feeling waves of overwhelming shock when you finally remember it and the extent of your heedlessness. The same is true for the opposite. If you are a bird that needs to take a stopover and you are flying in the next world for too long then returning to the hollow Dunya (earth) can be equally as shocking and lead to debilitating confusion when realising that the masses believe its deception.
As Muslims, we take the middle path. If you are in this world for too long, pick up your Tasbeeh (prayer beads) and travel to the next. If you are in the unseen world for too long and the weight of the truth is becoming too much for you to withstand, stay a little in this world. The two worlds are where we reside. The body in this one and the soul in the next.
Oftentimes, we want to be the hummingbird that crosses the ocean in one flight under the cover of the darkest night. This is essentially not our route, but the route of the pious predecessors. We cannot completely abandon this life. Despite the fragility of this accommodation, it is still accommodation. Even if we have set up shop and home on a spider’s web it is still home, liable to be blown into the wind but home for now. Living on a precipice is not easy but take heart and be patient…our final abode awaits.
Soukeyna Osei-Bonsu is a student, SOAS graduate, writer and author of a debut poetry collection published with Lote Tree Press. She is involved in black activism and also runs an online magazine exploring adventure, culture and spirituality (www.mzab.co.uk). Soukeyna has also recently founded a women’s dawah initiative Farasha (www.far-asha.co.uk) to help Muslim women transform and reform themselves as well as to assist women who may be disillusioned with Islam/ the Muslim community for differening reasons. You can follow Soukeyna’s writing on Instagram @soukeynaoseibonsu and Farasha on @farasha_co_uk