A letter for her (XXXI) – Al-Baatin

11:00 AM | 11 May 2020

It’s very rare – and very fascinating – to see the child that has grown within someone you call your grandmother because when you’re a kid, you think all grown ups were always all grown up.

You loved making sandcastles. The way your slender fingers would expertly build another home is a fond memory etched over the papyrus of time now. You’d place a chair on the shoreline and go and sit there, letting the waves sink the plastic chair deeper into the moist floor, the salty water playing with the seams of your saree. And you’d sit there and smile beautifully and gaze back at the sun, your sunglasses making you look like a diva. You were gorgeous!

Life has become pretty much like the waves you’d sit with. One after another, rushing in; leaving no time for the first wave of a new realisation to engage with the brain before sweeping in another extraordinary feeling that I have to struggle to recognise. I really can’t decide whether to laugh at that or to continue to be surprised. Or why not both?

I don’t have answers to any of the questions. I don’t even have questions anymore. I wanted to climb the highest peak of Tawakkal. I wanted what Hazrat Umar wanted: “Oh, Allah! Make us of your few servants!” And this is mighty difficult, Nani Jaan. You used to say, “Allah Mian bohat piyaray hain! (God is lovely!)” He really is. I don’t know anything at all except the fact that He makes me take out my phone and open up the dua, “Allah alone is sufficient for us, and He is the best disposer of affairs for us.” (Quran 3:173) when my boss is creating a difficult situation for me in an OPD swamped with more than thirty patients. All I know is that He relieves my anxiety when my brain – more than my heart – tells me that no power is bigger than God and what will only happen is what only He wills. All I know is that these last fourteen days passed by without cough and fever and in the line of duty because He is the Omnipotent, and there’s work threaded in the lines of my palms only. All I know is that if He’s giving enough strength to the two people who brought me into this world to also send me out on this new battlefield, then only He can turn the Impossible into Possible. All I know is that if I find myself calling out to Him for help when I’m stuck in the restroom with no water or when I find myself whispering to Him to grant me the motivation to drop another few extra pounds on the weighing scale or when I make a quick dua for my favourite food, I’m free from the chains of human dependency and unfulfilled expectations. All I know is that when I find myself writing unsent letters that have no address, my soul is testifying to the power of duas made long ago, to His promise of not returning us empty-handed, to the very special heartbeat that He has hidden inside me. All I know is that when lost in the blurriness of this cacophony, the only lantern I am able to hold is that of istikhara; for every tangled knot, for every aching breath, for every dark alley. All I know is that ever since I’ve started playing this game of Tawakkal, He is increasing not only the level of difficulty, but also my bonus points, my resilience, my Love for Him, and how somehow, I know we’ll be able to fill in this crossword puzzle. Because He is our secret inner companion, after all.

And all of this because of your magical duas. I see them protecting me, making me stronger, happier. Little by little, every day. The dewdrops falling on me, calming the storms within, now comfortable with patience, waiting for and amused at the unknown path, but the known heartbeat.

Thank you, Nani Jaan.

A letter for her (XXIX) – I’m not scared today

4:20 PM | 8 April 2020

The last few letters that I wrote to you were all written in a hurry, like a quick update to my best friend so I can feel her around. It reminds me of how we draw back the curtains on a sunny day to let the sunlight in without letting the room heat up.

It’s going alright. It’s going okay.

When we wake up from a long, long sleep – literally – there’s a fresh glow on the face that prepares us for what is to come – the squabbles of the day, the empty milk bottle in the fridge, another terrorising shift in the middle of human bodies breathing in money. A little bit of that and a lot of our own misgivings, our own trials being judged by our God. So there was that finally. It’s a good start, you’d say. At least enough to let one stand up again.

What’s the point of this all anyway? What’s the point of being defeated in a battle that was never mine?

There’s a long, long journey lying ahead in the count of whatever miles we have left. And I do not want to sin by wasting them. What answer will my soul have when I stand in front of Him then? Your resilience taught us to stand firm on our faith – the faith that asks us to believe in His powers, in His wisdom, in His mercy – and not give up. The last six months of your life ask me to honour that. How can I turn away now? I’ve come so far on this journey and on the journey of my heart and soul. I’ve lost the way to go back. There are no sign-posts behind, there’s nothing; some people take away all of us when they go. You know that.

In a parallel world, if little fn was stepping on these same pebbles, falling and hurting herself, giving up, crying and praying, what would have I done? I thought long and hard about this, Nani Jaan.
I’d have told her to stand up for herself. Finding happiness within ourselves is pretty much like laughing at the balloon you just threw in the air. Or the thorny rose you plucked from the garden – the gardener snoring blissfully – to hide in your ‘Dear Diary’.
I’ll fight everything – the injustices, the cruelty of this world – and I’ll also pick up the shattered glass pieces that have pierced the gentleness of what I so freely and happily gave. But with the smile of my soul, the faith that you had, and the miracle of prayers. And some forgiveness. That’s going to be hard. But I shall try because I want to be true to the promises I’ve made.
Do you think I can do that? Do you think you are still proud of me?

It’s so quiet in here. So very quiet. The quiet dripping of the water from a broken tap. The childhood memory of the meyna chirping at 3 PM in the afternoon, only the sun keeping it company as young kids slept before a daily ritual of tea and Gluco biscuits. The sharpening of the pencils before starting off the exam paper as small hands brushed the shavings underneath the desk drawers. The lovely, lovely scent of baby powder as a new born slept peacefully – curtains drawn, innocence and happiness frolicking in the air – and grown ups looked down at it in awe and envy.
It’s so quiet in here. So very quiet.

I’m not scared today. Maybe because I’m your granddaughter. Maybe because I’m the daughter of a woman who sends out her heart everyday when she drops me off at the hospital, duas and “Beta, apna bohat khayal rakhna!” making the seconds go by. Maybe because I come from a generation of women whose strength and courage in the face of life’s challenges have always, always won. Women who have truly been women, God’s gentlest, strongest creations. So now I’m not scared of anything anymore. Because you weren’t either.
And because she isn’t, either.
And Insha’Allah, she won’t be, either.

Aik baat bataoun?

2:16 PM | 16 March 2020

it used to come out slowly,
bespeaking an affection always hesitant.
because there’s a little fear.
a pretty little fear of falling down, of running away.
a little bit of adoration, so much longing.
so. “aik baat bataoun?”

always some sweet surprise, a favourite season.
an old yearning shy to be seen,
twinkling to light up your world, you said.
words and gestures, wishes and prayers
hidden away.
a sunless sky for the moonless nights.
so. “aik baat bataoun?”

confessions, and secrets, and memories,
and hopes and dreams, all planned for the ceremony.
pine trees swinging, meynas singing.
nobody can say it again.
even the mirror will lie.
so. “aik baat bataoun?”

sois juste heureux

1:47 AM | 11 March 2020

there’s a little knock on the door
“tuk, tuk, tuk”.
but i stand still, holding my breath.
this door is made of all things broken
glued together with love.
the polish is old, almost worn-out.
there’s another knock.
i do not move.
the clock hasn’t struck – not yet – i remind myself.
homecoming is never easy, i want to say.
“tuk, tuk, tuk”.
maybe one day. one day when they won’t stop you.
maybe one day. one day when i am but not a problem, not a doubt. not that.
one day when you have caught your stars.
one day when you are shining on them like the brightest of ’em all.
till then, i’ll stand here, listening to all the knocks keeping me alive
but opening the door only once: when the answer to our prayer
will be so loud, so clear
that it will go around the world faster than the scent of tulips.
there’s a little knock on the door.
“je pense à toi aussi”.
“sois juste heureux”.

We have no other choice, really. Hope, it is.

10 August 2019

When we started our paediatric rotation for our final year, I was expecting to learn a lot. But things never go as planned, do they? An unexpected incident gave me the red light and I lost my pace.
The Ziauddin alumni would know what a darling the Paeds department is so that didn’t help either.

I may not have learned as much about little kids and their ailments – but I’ll get there because I want to – but I was certainly tutored in how to battle anxiety and stress and not fret over that which is beyond our control. Fretting over the scary end-of-rotation test and a gargantuan syllabus was not going to help. Neither was worrying over a future that could potentially steal the golden hours of my present. Being happy, staying happy, is a choice; I was beginning to unveil the curtains looming over my subconscious.

So like the generous August downpour greeting our dusty Karachi, I began to feel a certain level of generosity towards the concept of mindfulness and Tawakkal (unshakeable, unconditional faith in God). Let’s just say that I decided to be eternally hopeful.

The rising sun, the eclipsing seasons, each new heartbeat, each new step forward, each new advancement made to better humanity, every little baby being named something sweet – all of this is a reminder that nothing lasts forever. Not joy, not sorrows. So we must go on having hope, we must go on having faith that everything will be fine.
Yeah. Everything will be fine.

We have no other choice, really. Hope, it is.

It’s a strange place to be in as the hands of our clocks slowly tick by. There’s a whole new life lying ahead of us and there are important decisions to be taken. Like any other final-year medical student, I, too, am tired. There’s a lot on my plate and I just keep getting a bigger plate; maybe the exhaustion is waving at you from my words, maybe not. Maybe it’s time to take a step back and just enjoy the light drizzling, the melodies of summers gone by, the excitement of a promising future, and a life of purpose, and laughter, and love.

Paediatrics, thank you for teaching me that, at least! It’s all peaceful now, finally. Thank God!


Photo: Maham Noor Darabu


I often wonder how a dua makes its way up above the seventh sky

9:03 AM | 5 August 2019

I often wonder how a *dua makes its way up above the seventh sky; a little fluffy ball weighing our hopes, desires, fears, and happiness.

There’s probably more than one layer of ozone that it needs to fly beyond.
There’s the hurt resting heavy on people’s hearts, slowing down our duas. Then there are our own follies – mistakes big and small – and disobedience (do we ever really listen to what He so lovingly says?) that slow them down. There’s fear – and it’s the deadliest of all – that hunts down our duas like vultures prying over a dead animal; fear of our duas going into that empty space, the black hole of the universe.

So, you see. Our duas ascend upwards – it’s a video game! – and there’s fear and unashamed sins, and the sad, broken sighs of humans who may be once-upon-a-times; all attacking our duas from left, right, centre, up and down. The dua gets scared. Who is there to protect it? But there is, isn’t it? Repentance and Tawakkal. So from down here, our hearts launch a missile of both, powering the impossible. Up and up and up. Something just like this. And if it’s powerful enough – a couple of megavolts, maybe – the dua shoots up; beyond the stars and stardust and the misty clouds and the seven skies straight up to fall down and prostrate by His throne. And with the grace that is only His, He picks it up, ever so lightly.

And that is how we have little secrets with God. Beautiful secrets. Life-changing secrets.




Photo: Saba Saeed

there is no such thing as “things falling apart”

1:18 PM | 4 August 2019

A few minutes ago as I was tidying up my closet, a delightful thought arrived (just like how epiphanies do – amidst the chaos of our daily chores) and my heart smiled. I could picture the twinkling stars in the dark sky covering up the fairy lights set up gaily by humans like ourselves, to lighten up a simple dinner on a hot and humid day.

As I carefully hung one shirt after another onto the white hangers, I wanted to clap and laugh and laugh at myself for not realising earlier that the secret to being happy – eternally happy – was in accepting that with His praise and with gratitude on our tongues, nothing could ever go wrong; there is no such thing as “things falling apart” or “everything that can go wrong in the universe is going wrong” – it is all a part of His plan, His will, His way of rearranging and realigning things to make everything perfect for us. But what’s the key to this hidden treasure? Constant dhikr, remembering our Allah at all times – our tongues moving to sing His praise; our hands removing a thorn from the road; our legs moving to save a patient; invoking in ourselves a gentle consciousness of our actions that doesn’t hurt another soul; thoughtful gestures that rescue another one in need; through kind acceptance of another human being’s uniqueness; by not lying, by not cheating; by fulfilling the rights of our near and dear ones; by killing the deadly nafs that seeks acceptance from this world; by being forgiving; by elevating our souls and becoming better versions of ourselves.

Yep. It is all a part of His plan, His will, His way of rearranging and realigning things to make everything perfect for us. And what is perfect? Extraordinarily different and unique for us all, just like our fingerprints.

So what I’ve learnt in a little more than two decades is that the real joy is in finding happiness and peace and contentment when things don’t go our way.
Otherwise, what’s so special about this life, about us?


Artwork: Tooba Masihuddin 

the little secrets of life

7:20 PM | 1 August 2019

Five years ago when I started medical school, I had expected to learn the truth about human life – how we breathe, how we eat, how we sleep. Literally. But what I have stumbled across is far, far greater than that. I’ve learnt how we feel, why we feel. The little secrets of life, you know? Yeah. And how a dua – a heartfelt prayer – works.

We sit on the prayer mat and raise our hands in supplication and cry our hearts out, our foreheads kissing the ground, our souls trembling. We utter our hearts’ deepest, darkest desires. Then we get up from the prayer mat and we expect heaven to have been laid right before us, right away! Not so fast, people! Not so fast!

It’s a process. Slow and steady, usually. Also awe-inspiringly quick, sometimes. A fetus takes nine months to grow into the baby that the mother gives birth to after a tiring labour. I’ve seen duas being answered like that. I see it now, too. I see the ease in the difficulty. “For indeed, with hardship will be ease.” (Surah Ash-Sharh [94])
It’s amazing how I can even see it. Another one of those hugs from God, you know? Pour in a little love, a faith that loves to play hide-n-seek, also throw in an ounce of fear – “what if my prayer isn’t answered?” – and lots and lots and lots of patience: that is your dua. And then the magic begins to show itself; a  few trips here and there, maybe a disaster or two, a couple of heartbreaks and a huge river of tears later..it happens! At the perfect timing, in the perfect way. Perfect here is synonymous to His will, okay?

And so it’s happening! It’s happening and I am in happy awe of how beautifully He is managing the universe! The little ants who get their sustenance; the chirpy birds; the poor cobbler at the end of the lane. Me. You. Us.

We all have such a beautiful relationship with God. He has little secrets with everyone, all of us. That’s so incredibly fascinating, is it not? How He brings ease into my life will be very different from how He sends a hug your way. But the interesting bit is that we all see it. Not always. Just sometimes. And in those “some” times, lies the secret to all of our time on this little planet.

Everything wonderful is on the way. Yeah? Yeah.



A letter for her (X) – Loh-e-Quran

Thank you for keeping your promise, *Nani Jaan.

It was a peaceful night. After a long, long time, I woke up feeling happy. I heard your voice comforting me again. I held your hand, just like I used to. Do you know what the best part was? I felt you protecting me. I felt you protecting me from everything I’ve ever been scared of. I guess that explains the peace in the air dancing around me as I woke up to the sunrise, awed by its beauty!

I’ve been thinking about the Loh-e-Quran, the Al-Huruf-ul-Muqattta ‘at.
Everybody reads it knowing that nobody knows what they mean.
It’s like waiting for the monsoon rain and hoping it irrigates the thirsty fields but knowing it could also destroy it …
It’s like living through the trauma of regret and cursing yourself till many moons later, the fog clears up and you are able to see very clearly that you have been Guided, that it was all His hidden wisdom and His unconditional Love, waiting to reveal itself. It reminds me of how Surah Kahf narrates the story of Moses and the man who was given knowledge from His own. Moses – like us – knew not the wisdom and love behind the defected boat, the dead boy, the broken wall. All until his journey with the wise man came to an end and there remained no secrets. And that’s how we read them at the beginning of some chapters from the Quran – hurrying over them to get to the next chapter and then the next one, not pausing at any of the **‘ruku’ to breathe in the Love, the Mercy, the Promises, the Guidance, not pausing to marvel over the miracle of words and feelings in our dusty hands, not wondering if this huge, huge universe really is just a tiny atom powering another, much larger universe. That’s how we rush ahead, failing to understand, failing to fall in Love with the One. And all of this is the Loh-e-Quran – this mysterious wisdom behind those moments of our lives we waste crying over, those ghastly moments that we fight ourselves for, those agonising moments we refuse to forgive ourselves for. Who are we to forgive ourselves and others when all of this – our unsaid goodbye, the heartless words of heartless people, the untaken decisions, the paralysis of my time – are already a part of His allegory?

They say God loves us more than seventy mothers, and a mother’s love is the noblest of all mortal loves. When I was a child – a little, talkative, mischievous girl – and I’d fall down and graze my knee, ***Ammi would rush towards me and hide me in her arms and kiss away the ‘boo-boo’, and bandage it, and make the pain go away, and then hold my hand to make sure I stay safe. God – our God – held my hand on Earth the day He held yours to take you away. He kept me safe from the pain of watching Azrael take away the life from within you, from each of your limb, one by one. He kept me safe from the pain of holding my own breath as you exhaled for one last time. He kept me safe from giving up learning how to heal human bodies and human hearts. He knew that if it weren’t for our unsaid goodbye, I, too would have made my last journey with you and He did not permit that because He wants me to do something on this Earth, a ‘something’ that I’m slowly beginning to see. He knew that the pain of those nightmares was enough to show me what others needed eyes for because I’m a little too me. And so I felt His hug – the love of a mother’s multiplied by infinity – bursting through me the day you visited me in my dream and everything began to make sense to my heart as it touched the gentleness of Tawakkal, of this unconditional faith in the power of His magic. The mind already knew it, but the soul had to feel it all on its own, all alone. And I was alone, away from all humans. And I felt His hug as the cacophony of my nights stopped and there was no more shaking and no more sobbing and no more struggling breaths. Yes, the horrors of that day are hiding between the cracks in my heart, but they are also covered by the force of His love. And it reminds me of what you’d recite with me – “And which of the favours of your Lord will you Deny?”

So that’s Loh-e-Quran, Nani Jaan. The fight with the past for the love of the future. And as my tongue recites these, in awe of what it might mean, I know that the Revelation when I join you will be beautiful. It will be very beautiful and I’ll feel His love filling in every bit of my soul again.

Thank you. Thank you for not leaving me. You’re the only one who stayed.

Love you!

Your best friend.

*maternal grandmother
**a paragraph of the Holy Quran

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Why Sufism? 

Whether you prefer to crawl, sprint, swim, or walk from one place to another, you can enjoy closeup views of Earth’s inexhaustible supply of things to notice. You might see a vein of pink limestone on the wall of a canyon, a ladybug eating an aphid on the stem of a rose, a clamshell poking out of the sand. All you have to do is look. 

– Space Chronicles, Neil degrasse Tyson

All you have to do is feel.

A hundred thousand years ago and a hundred thousand years later, the human race has, and will struggle with the same fear – the fear of vulnerability, the fear of losing, the fear of betrayal. Hand in hand with that fear, they will protect those close to their heart with a protectiveness that hurts. Like holding a child’s hand while crossing the road, but holding it too tightly.

As flawed humans, as flawed mortals, we are scared of the concept of vulnerability. Because it reminds us of the fact that what we like – what gives us that feeling of security, of being loved, of being…accepted – can be lost. And we don’t want to let go of that, do we? So we build these huge walls around us, these majestic structures that are meant to keep our egos and self-esteem safer, our hearts unscathed. And these majestic walls do more than that; have you seen a convict’s hands roped together by metal handcuffs? That’s what these walls do. They chain our hearts from feeling the greatness of love, gentleness, kindness, empathy, and sacrifice. These walls do not let the child within us laugh with glee at the flying balloon. They do not let us love one another, and in doing that, they do not let us love God. Tell me, how many times have you lost hope? How many times have you kept yourself from expecting something grand from life? How many times have you calculated the pros and cons of doing a deed of kindness for a fellow earthling? How many times? There. That’s the number of times – multiplied by infinity – when you did not love yourself, when you did not love God.

But know this, let your heart know this: pain, heartbreak – especially in the way of God – is utterly gorgeous. It’s raw beauty! Like after hours of labour, the baby takes its first breath in our world with a shriek that the mother remembers till her last breath.

You know what happens. You feel this huge, gaping hole in your heart, and it feels like your gushing tears won’t stop. Your throat hurts with the effort of holding back those tears, and your eyes are tired. You want to close them for a long, long time. You hide under the blankets, hoping you’d disappear, hoping that those voices, those ugly voices would stop. But this too, shall pass, my dear. And it is this pain that will bring you closer to He Who Created you. Because Who else will you turn to? Another human? Another mortal? A mortal as flawed, as helpless as you? Someone you depended on to take care of your heart? That was your mistake. You’re lucky, He loves you so much, that He wants to give you THE best. And He wants YOU. What a grand, grand honour! This pain that you think is breaking you – this pain because you are trying to not cheat on your Lord and to do what He wishes you to do because that really is your armour – is worth it then, isn’t it? Isn’t it? This pain will make you turn to Him and Him alone and then, finally, slowly, the chaos will end. Peace will descend within you, around you. But peace will descend. That is not my promise, that is HIS promise.

Everything is a manifestation of this Greater Force that has the remote control of our lives – running into an old friend in a park, the funny video you come across when you are in a bad mood, the apple pie that you ate today, you not getting that nondescript little vial of ‘Heart Note’ a lifetime ago, me writing this and you reading this. It’s always a lesson, always a win-win. If not this, then what? Then something even better, because my knowledge is limited, my intellect is incomplete, my wisdom is questionable, my judgement is flawed, but not His; not of the mystery that is God, not of the One who created us so we could discover His beauty and then fall hopelessly in Love with Him.

Someone (may you stay blessed and in peace, always) once told me – and that won me, the beauty and the innocence and spirituality of those words – that “Sufism is being bros with God”. It’s really that, isn’t it? Being best friends with your Creator, sharing your joys and sorrows with Him, turning to Him when in need, making His people smile and helping ease their distress and never hurting them because after all, when you love someone, that’s what you do – you take care of everyone who is theirs – and discovering His world,  and contemplating over the mysteries of the Universe, and wondering how many galaxies are yet to be named,  and how many biological discoveries are yet to be made,  and how many Renaissance men and women are yet to be born, and believing in “Recite in the name of your Lord who created – Created man from a clinging substance. Recite, and your Lord is the most Generous – Who taught by the pen – Taught man that which he knew not.” (Surah Al – Alaq, The Clot)

Why do certain things happen? Why do hurricanes come and go, taking away the memories that were desires? Because they were meant to end our era of blindfolded trust and adjust our lenses so that we can see the real beauty – the rose that seems so beautiful to the world will prick my fingers if I try to hold it and keep it with me, but the water lily will float gracefully in my pond, peacefully.

How often do the tangible invisible chains of class and responsibility suffocate you, you who are reading this at this very moment? How often do you feel like a stranger amongst the crowd of people you love? How often does the crippling loneliness overwhelm you? How often do you wish to let go of everything and do nothing but lose yourself in the oceans of ilm and tasawaff and dreams yet to be dreams? How often? Very often. Frequently. Because you are indeed, a traveller in this world. Because this world really is just a resting place for the Curious Souls seeking knowledge – seeking Him – seeking the secret to immortality, without ever realising that this immortality will come after the end of our journey in this world. That is why, O’ mortal, you feel lost in your own body. And that is tremendously good because it means you really are His beloved and your real home is There.

This present cacophony that you hear, maybe you hear it, but you can’t seem to discern the notes behind it. Maybe this is the way out? Maybe you are not paying attention to your rubatosis – the awareness of your heartbeat – the way you are meant to.

The way out is right in front of you. It’s very practical, mind you. And hidden beneath that practicality, is a spirituality waiting only for you.

Once in your lifetime, you will meet this one person who will teach you everything that you need to know about life. And you will then know the meaning of life. And then, when you have trustingly let down those majestic structures that we earlier spoke of, you will discover – neigh – you will see how those who resent loneliness, will gift you the same. You will know then how easy it is to leave your mark everywhere – in the folded pages of your favourite book, in the words of your favourite poetry, even in a stranger’s kindness – and you will also know that unknown to thyself, you may have done the same. What then, what now, you will ask yourself.
That’s it, nothing, except that you try to pass the test.
Because “Kis qadr purkayf hai Teri mohabbat , Yaa Rabb!
(Your love is so delightful, My Lord!)
Naa bewafai ka khadsha, naa judai ka khof!
(There is no danger of unfaithfulness, nor any fear of separation.)”

And that, dear reader, is why Sufism.