Dear Forum Friends,
Australian reader Ben Bowler created two interfaith projects (Monk- and Muslim-for-a-month) that put this advice from a Melchizedek into practice:
...There is not a Urantia religion that could not profitably study and assimilate the best of the truths contained in every other faith, for all contain truth. Religionists would do better to borrow the best in their neighbors' living spiritual faith rather than to denounce the worst in their lingering superstitions and outworn rituals.... P.1012 - §4
The month is actually nine days. He made a short video montage of the Muslim experience:
Ben then blogged the following report of the participants remarks:
Report on first Program - February 13-21 - Istanbul, Turkey: "Breath Taking" "Mind Blowing" "Heart Opening" "Life changing"
It was the good intention of this blogger to make regular reports on the progress of the first group through the Muslim for a Month 9-day program during February 2011. However the intensity of the program was such that there was not only little time for posting, moreover there was a prevailing sense of helplessness in attempting to convey to the outside world just what the group was going through. To be honest, the sense of helplessness remains and so I begin this report by deferring to my fellow guests:
Famke (Belgium) - 25
"Partıcıpatıng at Muslım for a Month was a mınd-blowing experience."
Carol (Ireland) - 28
"Where this experience has taken me, is nowhere I have conceived of before. Endless gratitude to all involved."
Joan (Australia) - 73
"For me personally, it is a very profound moment in my long life and I thank you from the bottom of my heart"
Annetine (Australia) -74
"The Muslim for a Month program has opened my heart and mind to a new way of being."
Ben R. (Israel / Holland) - 26
I wouldn't know where to start to describe my feelings about Muslim for a Month. I guess it's just best to say that it was an unforgettable, life changing experience.
Rajiv (USA) - 25
"The progression over the 2 weeks has been something emotional, remarkable, inspiring, uplifting, breathtaking, and above all humbling."
So what was it that made this week-and-a-half so breath-taking, mind-blowing, heart-opening and life-changing? Let me do my best to explain to you, knowing in advance that I am bound for abject failure...
Firstly, let's start with the physical aspects of the program: the Sufi Lodge, Ali Dede Tekke is a supremely comfortable and wonderful facility. Recently refurbished by Fonda Ajans and dedicated by the municipality to this program, the 13 rooms of the Lodge are easily the equivalent of any 4 star hotel. The fact that the facility it is a 400 year old Sufi Lodge from the Ottoman Empire adds a certain gravitas and the tombstones in the courtyard are a constant reminder that the spiritual journey we are all on has a common destination. Or beginning?
The location of the Lodge in the Eyüp region of Istanbul at the foot of Pierre Loti mountain is superbly suited to the program. A few minutes stroll down a lovely street lined with Cafe's, Kebab Houses and Boutique Shops, we found ourselves standing in front of the impressive Eyüp Sultan Mosque, one of the holiest of all Islamic sites, not just in Turkey but for the entire Muslim world. We all enjoyed spending time in this historic and beautiful area so close to the old Constantinople walls.
Mealtime with the group was always great fun with excellent local cuisine and the flow of Turkish tea and coffee was a constant blessing. We enjoyed the touristy parts of the program such as the Bosphorus River cruise, visiting the Hagia Sopia and the Blue Mosque as well as shopping for bargains in the Grand Bazaar and the Egyptian Bazaar. Our hosts were always cheerful and ready to help; Mr. Ahmet, Mr. Kudred and Ms. Sevde were so accommodating and went way beyond all expectations in catering to every single need of the group. We were transported to the various locations in a super-comfortable van, and indeed time in the van was an bonding experience for our group; we watched documentary videos, we sang songs, we told stories, we got to know each other, we hung out...
Intellectually the experience was challenging, stimulating and certainly enlightening. The line up of professors and academics that came to present to us was impressive, even verging on slightly embarrassing for our humble group of simple folk. Still, having such a luminous roster of instructors made for fascinating and lively discussion during and after each presentation as we westerners tried to understand the various pillars of Islam.
We learned that there is in Islam a thirst for knowledge about the universe which has led to major contributions in the fields of medicine, science, music, mathematics, philosophy, poetry, architecture and indeed virtually every domain of human existence.
We learned that there is no one monolithic thing that can be called Islam and that it is as varied, nuanced and diverse as any other great religion. Counter to one of the main stereotypes held in the West, less than 20% of Muslims come from the Arab world. We internalised at a deeper level just how severe some of the misrepresentations of Muslims are in the western mindset.
We learned that peace loving Muslims detest violence and acts of terrorism committed in the name of their religion at least as much as we do and quite possibly more.
We observed that Islam at its best is a dynamic living faith, committed to peace, social justice and the highest spiritual values. We learned this by observing our remarkable hosts rather than anything taught in the classroom. We learned a great deal about the origins of Islam in 6th century Arabia, the context into which the religion was born.
We also received a deeper appreciation of the place of the Qur'an in Islam, how it is universally accepted by Muslims as God's very words. This was one of the aspects that represented an intellectul challenge for our group. The only comparable thing would be how some Protestant Christian's view all the books of the Bible as inerrant, - divinely perfect. It is more evident to us now that how one interprets these texts can mean the difference between religion as a constructive influence of inspiring beauty or as a force of destruction.
Emotionally it was a huge experience for the whole group. It is said that when one drinks the water of the well of Zamzam then it shall surely exit the body as tears. Well this certainly seemed to be the case with us after we were offered the special water at a breakfast in the city of Bursa near the Marmara Sea. There were a great many tears on this trip. It was an incredible joy being in this group, merging as we did with our hosts, taking this special jouney together. We could somehow feel the significance of what we were doing at many different levels. There were personal breakthroughs, spiritual insights and conversations going late into the night as groups talked and processed together in twos and threes in the bedrooms. There was a lot of affection and love between us and that special bond that comes only from shared experience. There was also much laughter as our hosts kept the mood swinging from light and frivolous to profound and moving.
Our group was made up of more women than men and the ladies took every opportunity to connect with the Muslim women who were our hosts. All the questions about head scarfs and the place of women in Islam were raised and there was much productive and mature discussion. There was a special bond between the female hosts and guests, with much embracing, laughter and tears.
Standing at the tomb of Mevlana Rumi several members of the group wept freely, swept up in the spiritual currents that eddied around this holy place. There is no sense that Rumi himself is sacred, but his absolute devotion to the one God and his love for creation remains somehow palpable in this place. Someone once asked Rumi to describe love and after several days of thinking he admitted that he could not. He said instead that you must taste it. I feel pretty much the same way about this program.
If there was such a thing as a spiritual Geiger counter then it would have been going ballistic during this trip. There were moments when the structure of religion dissolved and there naked we were; guests, hosts, even the staff at the lodge, - human beings on a sacred journey into God. For some of our group it was a moment to reflect on the religion of their childhood, whether Jewish or Christian and prompted some reassessment of personal attitudes towards faith. For some this was a raw emotional experience and is an ongoing process.
For others who has grown up with no religion it was an opportunity to immerse into a living faith culture and to feel what that is like. Islam is literally in the air in Turkey; the sights, the sounds, the people, the places, you can actually taste it. Growing up without a framework for religion, God, faith and spirituality is the modern reality for millions of Europeans and so the chance to make contact with an authentic and healthy religious culture can certainly be a transformational experience.
Sufism is about transcending the ego-desires of the world and attaining a constancy of God-consciousness that is ever seeking ways to serve others. Spending time with our hosts and witnessing their dedication to God is in itself a remarkable spiritual experience. As Mr Ahmet said, just being together and in the spiritual atmosphere of one another can be a profound, transforming experience.... Well for us, it sure was.
I truly do not know how to do justice to the program through these crude words. All I can do is to sincerely thank every single person involved in this experience, most notably my fellow travellers for having the chutzpah to come and Mr. Ahmet, Mr, Kudred and Mr. Sevde for being so gracious and allowing us into their lives and into their hearts. We intend to never leave.
Ben Bowler, Boksum, March 1, 2011
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