We wound our way slowly up the mountain’s dirt road, carefully choosing tracks for the tires that avoided the worst of the ruts caused by the spring rains. It was only the two of us taking this outing to the top of the mountain, myself and my peculiar friend, a village Sufi mystic who was missing many teeth and who was at least twenty years my senior. My friend, a mullah (teacher) of sorts, had aggressively befriended me in the way only a villager in an honor-shame culture can, hoping, I later found out, that I would be his ticket to America. But on this day all I knew was that he wanted to take me somewhere special.
Sufism is the experiential “denomination” of Islam, roughy analogous to Pentecostalism within Christianity. The focus of Sufi Islam is on achieving mystical union with God, thereby experiencing his power and his love. But this is accomplished through good works, prayers, mantras, etc. It’s my opinion that the Sufis borrowed heavily from mystical Middle Eastern Christianity and that they came the closest to the Christian idea of God as they strayed further from orthodox Islam and into “heretical” ideas, such as the belief that God could become a man incarnate. The Sufis reached their zenith in medieval Islam, but in the last hundred years or so have lost much of their influence as Saudi-funded Wahabiism seeks to return Islam to its own interpretation of the faith’s original form and sources. If you’ve ever heard of the whirling dervishes, then you’ve heard of one expression of Sufi Islam. Sufism is declining, but it holds on in contexts like ours, where it once ruled.
As we traveled up the mountain we passed a few shepherds with their sheep dogs, goats, and sheep, as well as a man on an ambling tractor. The temporary vibrant green grass and flowers of spring complimented the view as we climbed higher and higher above the village, its valley, and its flashing lake. Many other mountain peaks were now in view and I soaked in the beauty of this ancient region. After about twenty minutes of driving we arrived at the end of the road. On our left we could now look down over the other side of the mountain where we could see a large town and the soaring peaks beyond it, home to local guerrilla fighters who are, of course, regularly bombed by neighboring countries. The town in the valley below us had its own tragic history of genocidal bombing at the hand of a former dictator. Just in front of us was a shepherd’s hut, but we turned and walked up the slope to our right toward a small grove of wild gum trees.
My friend reached for a cut made in the trunk of one of these gum trees and handed me a glob of cloudy white sap, encouraging me to chew it. It’s consistency was surprisingly like chewing gum, but the only flavor was bitter pine-needle, without any sweetness whatsoever. I forced a smile and kept chewing it for politeness, but looked for a good opportunity to discretely spit it out. In spite of my deep desire to “go native” I just haven’t been able to understand the delights of chewing on Pine Sol-flavored sticky tack. Next, we came to a natural spring, which I was genuinely happy to take a drink from. The way that God causes springs of water to gush up out of the tops of mountains is simply magical and delightful, especially in a land that turns into a desert for nine months of the year.
Now we came to the main attraction, an ancient oak tree, squat and bordered by a small fence. Hundreds of small colored cloths hung from its branches and swayed in the wind. And in the middle of the fenced area was a grave.
“This man was the son of the caliph, Umar,” my friend announced. “They came here with their armies and my ancestors gave them a bloody resistance. We killed so many of the invading Arabs that they still call those of us from this area ‘The Killers of the Disciples.’ Ha!”
“This man,” he went on, “killed thousands upon thousands of my people.”
It was a poignant scene. In front of us was the grave of a man who took part in religiously-motivated genocide. In the valley below us lay a town where thousands of the same people group had died by genocide, once again, but as recently as the year I was born. Just beyond that town lay the mountains where jets continue to drop their bombs to this day. What came out of my friend’s mouth next left me speechless.
“This is a holy man. This is a holy place. We should pray here.”
It was then I fully understood the horrific irony of this place. The locals understood this man’s grave to be a shrine. That’s why the little colored cloths were tied to the branches of the old gnarled oak, Asian-style, to represent a prayer. Somehow my friend could not see the awful contradictions of his words, his ethnicity, his history, and his religious beliefs. Two plus two did not equal four. The son of the caliph of Islam could kill thousands of his ancestors in the name of Islam and his grave could still be considered a holy shrine. And just that morning my friend had reassured me that ISIS’ violent actions did not represent true Islam. Yet here we were.
My friend entered the enclosure and lifted his hands to pray, in Arabic, the language of his people’s conquerors.
For my part, I turned and walked away. I did pray, but not to the shrine of a killer. Rather, I prayed to the God who made the mountains, the wild gum trees, and the mountain springs, the only one who hears prayer, the one who has called us to love our enemies, and the one who alone can open the eyes of the blind. Even one so blind as my friend.