When I reflect on al-Fatiha as an Opening towards a Psychology of Islam, there
comes to mind a range of stories, images and experiences which take me from
the Holy cities of Mecca and Medina to a comic trader of magic carpets in a desert town in Morocco, from a mausoleum in a mountain settlement in the Yemen to an interfaith church in San Jose, California, from a graduation ceremony at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology to a psychology of gratitude, from a sacred password for an intimate relationship with the One to philosophical questions about the shadow of the Divine.
In 1982, my first contact with the sacred sites at Mecca and Medina inspired silent recitations of al-Fatiha as I circumambulated the Ka’ba and as I approached the tomb in Medina of the Holy Prophet Muhammad, may peace be upon him. In those special moments, while I experienced a new longing for sacred knowledge, I also experienced my first challenge to my identity as a Muslim. How could I share my identity as a Muslim with other pilgrims when my knowledge of Arabic was limited to just al-Fatiha? And yet, that same ability to recite these “oft-repeated verses” was the very proof of my identity as a Muslim. If I had nothing else in common with my hosts and my fellow pilgrims, there was still this one aspect of my life that I shared completely with every soul who was performing their own personal pilgrimage. It is this kind of sharing of identity with the Other, no matter how much out of one’s comfort zone one might be, which is a central tenet towards uncovering a psychology of Islam: it is the Umm al-Kitab which connects me with the Ummah. The two words, Umm and Ummah have a common root. There is the Transcendent masculine aspect of Allah which is “beyond the grasp of all vision.” But there is also the feminine aspect of Allah in the Ummah, and in the Collective Unconscious, as Jung might have described it. There is a deep sense and “experience of community” in Islam, which underlies its psychology.
On my continued journey, that year, through the Middle East which took me from Bahrain and Kuwait to Baghdad and the sacred sites of Shia Islam, Kerbala, Najaf and Kufa, from the Mausoleum of the Aga Khan in Aswan to the legacy of his ancestors, the al-Azhar in Fatimid Cairo, I still struggled with my Muslim identity. Yet, al-Fatiha was always with me to challenge my doubts and my denials.
Many years later, having traveled in Indonesia and Malaysia and made peace again with my Muslim identity, I found myself in a desert town in the Sahara in 1999. A man was walking across the road in a stunning Tuareg-blue ninja-like outfit. I asked my guide, an ex-Peace Corps worker who had married a Moroccan and hence spoke Arabic fluently, to stop and inquire about where I might find such a “cool” outfit. The “blue-clad” man smiled and invited us to his brother’s souvenir store. As we entered, our party was warmly welcomed by the owner and invited to soothing hot mint tea, dates and nuts – typical of the warm and gracious hospitality extended to all tourists in Morocco. The owner then insisted that we look at his fine array of carpets. Not really responding to our disinterest in carpets, I told him that I would only be interested in buying a fine “magic carpet.” If he had any of those, I might be persuaded to take a look. This is where I humbly ask the reader now to observe the same level of patience as I was required to do on that hot Saharan afternoon…
Out came a trunk of carpets which the owner rolled out on the floor in a flourish of self-satisfaction and mystery, and with a glint in his eye. “Are these really magic carpets?” I asked.
“Yes, yes! These are really magic carpets. You have to be able to say a few special verses and I guarantee that these carpets can fly!” he wagered with abandon and confidence.
“Really?” I asked, by now quite incredulous of his intentions and trustworthiness. It was then that he recited al-Fatiha!
“So,” I asked him, “if I am able to recite these verses, you say these carpets will fly?”
“Yes, yes!” he responded eagerly. So, I began to recite the seven verses of al-Fatiha. He was shocked and surprised, then embarrassed and delighted!
“You are my brother! You are a Muslim!” With that he came over and gave me a big Moroccan bear hug! I could hardly stop laughing to myself as a result of my own charade.
“Let’s talk about that outfit now!”
He responded warmly and said that his brother was not able to locate any in the market and that he promised, if I let him measure me, that he would have the ninja outfit sent to my next destination. “Yeah right!” I thought to myself. I did not believe him for a moment. How could I believe a fellow Muslim who would try to sell an innocent tourist a magic carpet, even if he was only trying to be cute?
But the very next day, the blue ninja outfit with the star and crescent pattern showed up at my hotel. It had been made overnight and fit me exactly. When I offered to pay for it, I was told that the owner had sent it as a gift for my fiftieth birthday!
There had been something in that moment that passed between us as fellow Muslims which only al-Fatiha was able to convey. I was not only thrilled that he had kept his word but that he had also extended such generosity.
The following year when I was traveling in the Yemen, again al-Fatiha was required as my secret password to enter a Mausoleum in a mountain settlement. If I could recite al-Fatiha, I would be allowed into the sacred shrine of the Tayyibi Muslims.
Some years later still, after the World Trade Center terrorist attacks, I was asked by the interfaith church that I attended in San Jose, California, whether I might be willing to represent Islam in an interfaith service in which the prayers from several wisdom traditions would be recited. I was honored to be asked and I recited al-Fatiha in my blue ninja outfit. It is wondrous how these sacred verses entitled me to be an ambassador for Islam and the Muslim Ummah on that special sunny day.
Even more mysterious was how al-Fatiha was recited at my graduation ceremony in 2004 by Dr. Robert Frager, co-founder of the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, and Sheikh of the Jerrahi Order in the Bay area.
These are some of the stories that feature al-Fatiha in my life. But there are deeper experiences that inspire the search for an even deeper understanding. These occur in the
meaning of the words of these sacred verses: the juxtaposition of Rahman and Rahim; the daily expression of praise to the One for the sustenance of all beings, by which I apprehend all of Creation; the request for guidance on behalf of all beings, not just for guidance in my personal individual life; the imagining of a straight or direct path which is related to those who have been blessed with favors. There are a host of figures and images that come to my consciousness of those who have been anointed and blessed with divine favors: Abraham, and Ismail, Noah and Moses, Jesus and Muhammad, Hazrat Ali and Ahl al-Bayt, peace be upon them all.
Then there are existential questions about the sacred shadow invoked by those who have earned the wrath of Allah and gone astray. For years, I have struggled with how Allah could be a loving and merciful God and yet be “wrathful”. I recognize my own fears of the shadow both for myself and all other beings, who may have turned away from the Grace and Compassion of Allah. There is here a clear implication of free will and its self-destructive potential. There is a sense of awe as well as a call to personal responsibility and accountability for walking in the way towards Rahman and Rahim. There is ultimately a call for walking with care on the path towards consciousness and conscious living on a daily basis. These are all the treasures and blessings of al-Fatiha.