The Desert Return

Worthing mosque, May 2008

This Symposium is intended as an antidote to the mode of debate that more often than not leaves the participants none-the-wiser. Instead we hope to recover the ancient tradition of interested parties thinking together towards the truth in an atmosphere of convivial discussion.

As the moderator for today’s discussion it is my task to push the boat out and then to keep the conversation on a sound course, with reliance upon Hajj Uthman, whose particular knowledge I am sure will be of considerable assistance to us as the discussion proceeds.

Anyone is free to intervene at any stage, indeed, you are positively encouraged to do so; the only rules being:

  1. a) Appropriate courtesy at all times;
  2. b) That interventions are made for gaining clarification or with a view to advancement towards the truth as opposed to point scoring;
  3. c) One affirms what is true in the previous submission before advancing one’s own contribution;
  4. d) No ‘yes, but’, i.e. apparently endorsing the previous speaker but going on to negate him; 
  5. e) One does not invoke the absent ‘they’;
  6. f) No violence, disorder or disrespect.
  7. g) Be extremely careful and cautious when citing the Qur’?n or a ?ad?th. One may not cite them without having an accurate knowledge of them and one must beware a thousand times of using the Noble Book of Allah and the ?ad?th of the Messenger of Allah s for point scoring or debate.


Although, the brothers who have come from Norwich are well acquainted with some of the themes on which I will touch, none of them are prepared in any way for what I am going to say or the direction in which I wish to go with this discussion. So, apart from me, everyone is on an equal footing of preparedness or unpreparedness.

The Desert Return 

1. Islam Today

There is an ambivalence here: does the desert return to us or is it we who return to it? We will allow that ambivalence to stand for the present. Do not think of the desert as hot and sandy, but rather as deserted, void of habitation. In Arabic it is b?diyah defined as a land in which are no towns or villages or cultivated soil. Its people are badaw? or bedouin. I suggest, before embarking, that the desert has two other names: first, the wasteland, and second, the forest. The forest represents for northern people the same thing as the desert does to Arabs.

The reality of this topic for today is that in fact we live in a beautiful city, a cultured civilisation wherein we are blessed with the ?y?t of the Qur’?n, the ?ad?th and the Sunnah of the Messenger of Allah s, and all the wonders of Islamic teachings, but we will together head into what appears to be a hostile, forbidding and unfamiliar desert. It will have few of the landmarks we are used to. We will not cite ?y?t of Qur’?n or ?ad?th, at least not initially. Be patient. Trust us.

To talk about here and now, I must go back two thousand years. You probably think that refers to Christianity but I must refer to Rome and its conquests.

a. Rome

We all date today as the year 2008, in an era deemed to have begun just two millennia ago. Shortly before the beginning of this cycle, in 55 BCE, the Roman army under Julius Caesar invaded Britain. Later the conquest of Britain began in earnest in 43 CE. An inhabitant of these isles, the leader of the Caledonian Confederacy in Scotland, who fought the Romans at Mons Graupius in northern Scotland in 83 or 84 CE, addressing the assembled warriors about Rome’s insatiable appetite for conquest and plunder, summed them up with these words recorded by the Roman historian Tacitus in his book on Agricola the victorious Roman general:

Auferre, trucidare, rapere, falsis nominibus imperium; atque, ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant.

“To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles, they call empire; and where they make a desert, they call it peace.”

Now the fact that in the age of Falluja this description seems awfully familiar to us is not a coincidence. We live in the Roman age, not the beginning of the third Christian millennium, except inasmuch as Roman might prolonged itself by the cunning adoption of a bastardised form of Christianity.

Understand that Rome crushed its enemies, then granted the survivors citizenship, which included temple space for them to worship their gods. They even translated the foreign gods into the Roman pantheon, and so Lug must be Mercury, and this one Jupiter and so on. And with Rome’s adoption of Christianity, which was in reality Christianity’s submission to Rome, what happened? The same, but now the gods become saints who intercede. This picture we recognise in the Qur’?n.

This Roman form was given the shape we know today by Julius Caesar, who, while running up one of the most staggering debts of the ancient world with his banker Crassus, played the Roman masses while on his route to total power, only to be murdered instantly by his enemies. Little did he get to taste the victory he lived for. Incidentally, Crassus one of the richest men of the era and still ranked in the top 10 most wealthy historical figures, his Net Worth being evaluated at the equivalent of 169.8 Billion $USD (100 B.C), Crassus still desired recognition for military victories in the shape of a triumph. This desire for a triumph led him into Syria, where he was killed in the Roman defeat at Carrhae which was fought with the Parthian Spahbod Surena, i.e. he died fighting the Persians. As then, now. 

b. Celts and Germans

Europe, you must understand as being two elements under Roman rule: the Celts and the Germans. France, Spain, Britain, Ireland and even Italy, had much Celtic population, whereas Germany and Scandinavia etc., were Germanic. The Franks were Germans who conquered France, the Angles and Saxons were Germans who conquered Britain, and later the Vikings, the Visigoths and Vandals, Germans who had input into Spain and even North Africa, these Germans often being Arians, i.e. Christians who did not believe in the divinity of ??s? a. 

So the German and Celtic elements are quite mixed at an early stage and both are dominated by this Roman form, the Romans themselves leaving the stage quite early.

Remember we are in Europe talking about something that has come to dominate the whole earth, so that if we can untangle this here, we have potentially untangled something for everyone.

But let us not be distracted by the political and the military. We have so far talked about the state and power, so now let us talk about the real power: money. Money will help us to put things in perspective. 

c. Hedge Funds

Two highly respected authors have concluded that in total the Iraq war will cost the US between $3 and $5 trillion, $685 bn of which is interest. An astonishing sum. However, around the same time, other reports said that hedge funds now manage somewhere around $560 trillion. Now, not only is this sum unthinkably huge, but it is more than 10 times greater than the entire productivity of all of humanity: the world’s GDPs for all nations is approximately $50 trillion. We are clearly entering a hallucinatory realm. The people handling these hedge funds are just as aware of the fantasy nature of their money as us. Thus, they are moving to own real things before what is undoubtedly the greatest bubble in history bursts. That movement, to buy up gold, oil, farms and food, means that the prices of these things are inflating beyond the reach of ordinary people. This is only the latest and most extreme example of the devastation that the usury economy inflicts on the world’s peoples.

So this is the dual nature of the power/money wasteland which we inhabit.

The wasteland

A myth entered the Christian era at the time of the King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table romances. I want to tell it stripping it of pagan and Christian elements. There is a king who guards the Grail and he is called the Fisher King. The Grail is a symbol for whatever is holy and sacred. This is what kings must do: serve and protect the sacred. The king, however, commits a wrong, because of which he is wounded. When the king is wounded, the land becomes a wasteland. Everyone who has had a revealed teaching has always recognised the connection between the health of the king and his land. It is said that even the birds in their nests suffer from the rule of the tyrant. So the king is wounded because of his wrongdoing and the land suffers and becomes waste. The grail is lost. The sacred is lost. Only a young unsullied knight, someone so pure as almost to be simple, can find the Grail, restore the king to health and heal the wasteland.

What does this myth mean for us? 

The king is the guardian of the sacred. Without the political protection of the king, access to the sacred is impossible. Without the shar??ah we have no access to the ?aq?qah. ?aq?qah is the realm of the élite in knowledge of Allah who know Him with an immediate recognition and not through scholarly knowledge.

1. What was the king’s wrongdoing? 

a. The divine right of kings, the contract with Rome to be the sword arm of the Church, receiving then the pseudo-religious sanctification.

b. He took out a usurious loan. This is subsidiary to 1. It is usury that has wounded him and reduced the land to a wasteland. 

2. Who is the knight that can heal the king and restore health to the land and the people? We will leave that for later.

T. S. Eliot

One of the great poets of modern times, T. S. Eliot, recognised in 1922 in the years after the first world war, that the modern age is a wasteland and he wrote his most famous poem with that title, explicitly connecting it to the Arthurian legend. A few years earlier, in 1919, Yeats had written some equally famous lines:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

These remarkable men recognised the disintegration of the world order, and the ending of what had been European culture and civilisation. They were right. That was when it ended. It was obvious after the first world war. The really great and perceptive thinker was Nietzsche who had written: 

Die Wüste wächst: weh dem, der Wüsten birgt

“The wasteland grows: woe to him who conceals wastelands within.”

Nietzsche wrote this at the height of European civilisation in the 1880s. Only a very perceptive man indeed sees defeat at the very moment of victory. But Nietzsche saw the thing that is the most serious: the wasteland within, which we know as nihilism, and whose  true nature he almost alone saw. 

So we have two wastelands in the outward: the one apparently caused by the US and its foreign policy, the direct heir of the Roman Empire in our time, and the much greater and more serious one caused by global usurious capitalism. However, the cause of all three is the inner wasteland called nihilism.


This word itself is important to us, because it is associated with the first appearance of suicide bombers. It is associated, however vaguely, with terrorism.

I mentioned the forest as the equivalent here in Northern lands of the desert, particularly in Germany and Scandinavia. With that we approach another figure who takes another stance entirely and far from bewailing the spread of desert thinks that this is the time to actively enter the forest.

He said:

We call the Woodtrekkers those who have been made solitary and homeless by the great process, who see themselves inevitably destined for destruction. This could be the fate of many, perhaps everyone. We should also add the following – namely that the Woodtrekker has decided to put up resistance and is determined to carry on the perhaps hopeless fight. The Woodtrekker is therefore the one who has an original connection to Freiheit, who expresses himself – in relation to his particular time – by withstanding automatism and who is determined not to draw its ethical consequence, namely, fatalism. …

Two features are assumed in the Woodtrekker. Firstly he does not allow the law to be dictated to him by any superior power, neither through propaganda nor force. Secondly he reflects upon his defence using not only means and ideas of the age but he also becomes receptive to powers which are superior to those of the age and which can never be dissolved merely in movement. Then one may dare to venture on the trek.

The question as to the intention of such a struggle now poses itself. As we have already indicated, it cannot be restricted merely to the mastery of the realm of the inward. This will be among the ideas which will spread after the defeat. Just as unsatisfactory will be any restriction to concrete goals – like for example the leading of the national struggle for freedom. Rather we will see that it is to do with struggles which will honour national freedom as one contributing factor amongst others. We are not only involved in a national collapse (pag.77) but in a global catastrophe about which it can hardly be said – and still less be prophesied – who will actually be the victor and who the conquered.…

We would like to accept the supposition that in a town of ten thousand inhabitants there are a hundred persons who are determined to put an end to this tyranny. In a town of a million live ten thousand Woodtrekkers (p.21) – assuming we adopt this name without having first completely examined the scope of its meaning. It is a powerful force. It is enough to bring down even powerful tyrants. 

So this is another thought altogether: perhaps it is we who are returning to the desert rather than this growth of an alien environment threatening us.

Thus, have we raised another possibility: flee the cities for the mountain tops and the desolate areas, because this is the end of time?

Hujwiri has in his Kashf al-mahjoub the story of two men in Baghdad who are brothers in Allah. Baghdad already at that time stood for the height of sophistication, elegance, splendour, culture, civilisation and possibly, decadence. One of the two decided that he was going off to the desert to become a real zahid. After some time, he wrote to his brother in Baghdad, “The desert is hard and austere, but by the bounty of Allah it has become like a Garden for me.” His brother wrote back, “Baghdad with of its culture and luxury has become like a desert for me, but my heart is at rest with Allah.”

There were two eminent dervishes in Baghdad, the one a believer in qahr and the other a believer in lutf. Both were always pulling and hauling and each would prefer his own state to that of his contemporary. One would say that lutf is superior as Allah has said, “Gracious is Allah to His servants:” (Q 42:19). The other would call qahr superior by quoting the following verse of Quran, “He is the irresistible, (watching) from above over His worshippers;” (Q 6:18). The dervish who preferred lutf set out for Mecca but on his way struck up in the desert, and never reached his destination. For many years no one heard about him, until he was seen by a traveler on the road between Mecca and Baghdad. The dervish asked the traveler to convey the following message to his friend at Karkh in Baghdad: “If he wishes to see a desert with all its hardship, like Karkh of Baghdad, with all its marvels, let him come here, for this desert is Karkh to me!”

When the traveler arrived at Karkh he delivered this message to the other dervish, who said: “On your return, tell him that there is no superiority in the fact that the desert has been made like Karkh to him, in order that he may not flee from the Court (of Allah); the superiority lies in the fact that Karkh, with all its wonders and magnificence has been made to me like painful desert, and that nevertheless, I am happy here.” 

We are in the desert now. This is it.

There has never been a time in the history of humanity where there were more people in cities than now, but this is “a land in which are no towns or villages”. Cities today are not cities in the sense of culture, safety from threat, learning and society. People flee from the barbarity of these cities to the safety of the countryside, whereas the countryside used to be full of bandits, and the cities were places of refuge and safety. 

This is the  desert.

Therefore, the desert has come to us right here. But what is the meaning of this desert that is encompassing the whole globe and bringing so much disaster and destruction? 

We believe in Allah. We believe that Allah is the One Who disposes affairs. We believe in His all-encompassing mercy. Therefore, it has to be that this is a Divine event whose meaning is beneficial and merciful. 

We can compare this time to the Mongols invasions, the Americans and their allies being the new Mongols. What purpose did the Mongols serve? (Bearing in mind that huge numbers of Mongols themselves became Muslims and went on to give us the extraordinary Mogul civilisation.) In the heartlands of Islam, they also cleared away the decadence into which the Arabs had already fallen to make room for the gradual expansion of the great Osmanl? civilisation, which was to endure from their time until the age of photography and railways. 

We are in the desert, and we can now sense something of great promise within it, but these things are not thrown down from heaven but they are granted to those who strive for the sake of Allah.

So what is its adab? What do we do in the desert? We can answer this from within our own history, from the s?rah and we can answer it from our circumstances and from one of the figures we have already encountered: Nietzsche. He talked about the re-valuation of all values. That is because values had become inverted. In his time it was simpler, but nevertheless his analysis was most startling and threatening: he said that Christian values, i.e. the values of the thing that they called Christianity, are the opposite of noble values, and, tellingly, he endorsed and spoke highly of Islam. 

Our task is more difficult than his. Even some of the Muslims have inverted values, and have done so for two centuries, so whereas Islam itself IS the re-valued values that Nietzsche called for, it is by no means apparent to a lot of us what the values of Islam are.

Among the values that are inverted are the actual values of things themselves in the marketplace. In other words: money. We now accept that some people can print numbers on pieces of paper and we then take them for the value that is written on them. It is like the famous painting of the surrealist Rene Magritte of a pipe, which he titled “Ce n’est pas un pipe – This is not a pipe,” because the picture of a pipe is not a pipe but a picture, and a picture of money is not money but a picture.

Sirah – Taw??d

From the s?rah, we would say that the desert is first exemplified by Makkah, and as you know the revelation divides up into these two complementary aspects: Makkan and Madinan. Simplistically, the Makkan period is characterised by an emphasis on taw??d, and we would consider that unitary science as being represented by two matters: first, an intellectual articulation which is referred to variously as ?aq?dah, kal?m and u??l ad-d?n. And second, the sincerity of the heart towards Allah, exalted is He, in genuinely knowing Him as the sole reality and the sole power. The first matter is something which we cannot consider in a vacuum, and therefore its task in this time is not to argue with Judaism and Christianity and it is definitely not for us to argue with each other, but rather to tackle the theology of the age: science. The second matter comes through purification of the heart and the nafs among the people of this art under the instruction of the masters of this art.

And because many deviations arise from those who make a division between Makkah and Mad?nah, between the two halves of the shah?dah, then we have to quickly move to the oasis city of Mad?nah in the midst of the desert, the locus of the revelation of shar??ah and the place of the Muslim community as a society. And perhaps this desert oasis city will serve as model today in the deserts of the modern world even within, and perhaps especially within, the deserts of modern cities.

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Abdassamad Clarke is from Ulster and was formally educated at Edinburgh University in Mathematics and Physics. He accepted Islam at the hands of Shaykh Dr. Abdalqadir as-Sufi in 1973, and, at his suggestion, studied Arabic and tajwid and other Islamic sciences in Cairo for a period. In the 80s he was secretary to the imam of the Dublin Mosque, and in the early 90s one of the imams khatib of the Norwich Mosque, and again from 2002-2016. He has translated, edited and typeset a number of classical texts. He currently resides with his wife in Denmark and occasionally teaches there. 14 May, 2023 0:03

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