I stumbled upon Brother Daniel Abdal-Hayy Moore’s website a couple of months ago. I watched a video of this serene man reading from a children’s book he wrote called Abdallah Jones and the Disappearing-Dust Caper. I went on to download several samples of his poetry and watch him in an interview. I was immediately impressed by him. Both religious and spiritual, his poetry has such deeply moving, all-encompassing significance. I feel compelled to share him with you all.
1. According to your bio, you accepted Islam in 1970 when you were in your early thirties. What was the particular appeal? What drew you to Islam, and Sufism in particular?
Daniel Abdal-Hayy Moore
CHOOSING ISLAM – ONE MAN’S TALE
by Daniel Abdal-Hayy Moore
I became a Muslim when it seemed I had already accepted Islam in my bones, as if beyond choice, and I only had to make a leap to embrace it formally. Outwardly I was content; inwardly I was coasting. My three year old theatre company was disbanded after a hilariously chaotic production for a Tim Leary Benefit at the Family Dog in San Francisco, circa ’68 – naturally, the orange juice everyone had passed around was spiked, so that the chorus members were doing the final scene in the first ten minutes – and for six months I had been typing out poetry manuscripts in my attic in Berkeley preparatory to a big publishing push.
I considered myself a Zen Buddhist, but I was other things as well. My normal routine was to get up, sit zazen, smoke a joint, do half an hour of yoga, then read the Mathnawi of Rumi, the long mystical poem of that great Persian Sufi of the thirteenth century.
Then I met the man who was to be my guide to our teacher in Morocco, Shaykh Muhammad ibn al-Habib, may Allah be pleased with him. At first, the meeting was simply remarkable, and my guide a simply remarkable man. But soon our encounter was to become extraordinary, leading to a revolution in my life from which I have never recovered, and never hope to.
The man looked like an eccentric Englishman. He too had only recently come out of the English version of the Hippie Wave. He was older, refined in his manners, spectacularly witty and intellectual, but of that kind prevalent then who had hobnobbed with the Beatles and knew the Tantric Art collection of Brian Jones firsthand. He had been on all the classic drug quests – peyote in the Yucatan, mescaline with Laura Huxley – but with the kif quest in Morocco, he had stumbled on Islam, and then the Sufis, and the game was up. A profound change had taken place in his life that went far beyond the psychedelic experience.
For the three days following our meeting, two other Americans and I listened in awe as this magnificent storyteller unfolded the picture of Islam, of the perfection of the Prophet Muhammad, and of the 100 year old plus Shaykh, sitting under a great fig tree in a garden with his disciples, singing praises of Allah. It was everything I’d always dreamed of. It was poetry come alive. It was the visionary experience made part of daily life, with the Prophet a perfectly balanced master of wisdom and simplicity, an historically accessible Buddha, with a mixture of the earthiness of Moses, the otherworldliness of Jesus, and a light all his own.
The prophetic knowledge our guide talked about was a kind of spiritual existentialism. It was a matter of how you enter a room, which foot you entered with, that you sipped water but gulped milk, that you said “bismillah” (In the name of Allah) before eating or drinking, and “alhamdulillah” (Praise be to Allah) afterwards, and so on. But rather than seeing this as a burden of hundreds of “how-to’s”, it was more like what the LSD experience taught us, that there is a “right” way to do things that has, if you will, a cosmic resonance. It is a constant awareness of courtesy to the Creator and His creation that in itself ensures an almost visionary intensity.
It is hard to put forward any kind of explanation of Islam, to try to suggest the beauty of its totality, through the medium of words. The light of Islam, since it is transformational and alchemical in nature, almost always comes via a human messenger who is a transmitter of the picture by his very being.
Face to face with our guide, what struck us most was his impeccable, noble behavior. He seemed to be living what he was saying. Finally, the moment came, as a surprise, when he confronted me with my life. “Well,” he said one morning after three full days of rapturous agreement that what he was bringing us was the best thing we’d ever heard. “What do you think? Do you want to become a Muslim?”
I hedged. “It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve heard about so far. After all my Zen Buddhism, all my yoga, Tibetan Buddhism and Hindu gurus, this is certainly it! But I think I would like to travel a little, see the world, go to Afghanistan (then unoccupied), maybe meet my Shaykh in a mountain village far off somewhere.”
“That’s not good enough. You have to decide now. Yes or no. If it’s yes, then we start on a great adventure. If it’s no, then no blame, I’ve done my duty. I’ll just say goodbye and go on my way. But you have to decide now. I’ll go downstairs and read a magazine and wait. Take your time.”
When he had left the room I saw there was no choice. My whole being had already acquiesced. All my years up to that moment simply rolled away. I was face-to-face with worship of Allah, wholly and purely, with the Path before me well-trodden, heavily sign posted, with a guide to a Master plunk in front of me. Or I could reject all of this for a totally self-invented and uncertain future.
It was the day of my birthday, just to make it that much more dramatic. I chose Islam.
Reprinted from Whole Earth Review, No. 49 Winter 1985
2. After your conversion you stopped writing poetry for about ten years. Why did you stop and what caused you to begin again after ten years?
When one has committed oneself to a teacher, or his or her preceptor or guide, submission (within one’s personal limits) is necessary to advance along that chosen Path. I did so with (now) Shaykh Dr. Abdal-Qadir as-Sufi, when he was the muqaddem (deputy) for the beloved Qutb shaykh in Morocco, Shaykh Muhammad ibn al-Habib, raheemullah.
At the time of my embracing Islam I had some success with a first book of poems, Dawn Visions, and another that I wrote around that time, Burnt Heart/Ode to the War Dead, both published by City Lights Books, and my theater company of three years. I continued writing poetry according to my practice, perhaps somewhat obsessively, and at some point the muqaddem, himself Scottish and very savvy in the literary world, said I should desist from writing altogether, as well as reading all kinds of books other than the Qur’an and the Diwan, or song collection, of our shaykh.
This hiatus did last about ten years, but during that time I traveled, lived in Morocco, Nigeria, Spain, working with our growing Sufi community, and also, on the literary side, served as the English editor of a Qur’an translation done by the very renowned translator, Aisha Tarjuman, and her husband, now Shaykh Abdalhaqq Bewley. They, knowing Arabic, provided our work sheets, and I helped choose appropriate English lines for the verses. So in fact I honed and sharpened my literary sensibility with the highest of revealed texts, something that entered my heart and my viscera in a very deep and real way, Alhamdulillah.
After this period, still then Muqaddem Abdal-Qadir, asked me to write a novel of two parallel lives, Muslim and non-Muslim, and call it Ped-Xing, (or Pedestrian Crossing). While in Nigeria I wrote the first draft, which he then edited, and which remains in manuscript form, perhaps never to be published. A bit later I began writing poetry again, more or less because the dam broke, and out it flowed, and has been more or less regularly flowing ever since, by God’s Grace.
3. You published two books of poetry prior to your conversion to Islam and travels to Africa and Europe. I imagine that time and experience and your travels greatly informed your writing. This is natural. As we develop and grow, so too does our art. Specifically how did Islam inform your poetry? Did it change your artistic focus? In what way?
There are so many skeins that come together in the weave of a sensibility, and when a poetic project is at the center, in the widest sense of a meaningful cosmic perception of the life we live in the universe we’re in, then everything contributes to its texture. But if at the heart of us is a true submission or “turning” (or conversion if you will) to a prophetic teaching as embodied and articulated in a living saint, then things get that much deeper and richer.
Always a student of poetry, from the Beats to the French and Spanish and Latin American Surrealists, with actual friendship with many of the modern practitioners of the art, even unconsciously as it were, I seem to sieve in what’s going on around (and then inside) me.
I’ve always particularly resonated with poetry that has a spiritual core, Saint John of the Cross, William Blake, Walt Whitman, and so many of the modern poets of the San Francisco Renaissance Literary Movement, my own geographical locale, that I naturally took in with greater interest any with the tone of wisdom and enlightenment, honing my own literary self in the process. So when we first visited our shaykh in Meknes, Morocco, and heard his diwan of poetry of the Shadhili-Habibiyya Sufic Tariqa being sung night and day by his disciples, poems of spiritual counsel as well as of direct experience, based not on a literary ego but rather a long wisdom tradition of travelers, I was very affected by it as a standard and model for my own poetic path, if Allah willed that any of that truth might manifest in it, without presumption. During the time of my hiatus from actual writing, mentioned above, when I worked with translators on the Qur’an, I was given a holy gift of spending intellectual time with the revelation to mankind through the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, every day for years at various intervals, and this took hold of sensible aspects of my heart that have never left me. I can only hope that some of that light is emitted by my poetry and sensed by readers or listeners of it in its variety and totality.
Interview to be continued on April 11th.