IRTIQA interviews Amatullah Jyly Armstrong about the launch of her book “AND THE SKY IS NOT THE LIMIT”

– Interview with Nadia Cassim

 

“I had never even really thought about God, yet there I stood, whisper­ing a little prayer to God. It was bewildering. The need to pray was quietly making itself known to me, but I wasn’t paying very close attention; I wasn’t really listening to that faint cry from within. Not yet.”

Extract from And the Sky is not the Limit- A Sufi Journey

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Amatullah Jyly Armstrong was first introduced to me seven years ago when I was an aspiring young artist and holding my first public art exhibition at the Old Sparks Gallery in Johannesburg. I first heard her speak of her journey to Islam as an Australian woman and her deep connection to the Almighty through Sufi teachings, at the Sultan Bahu Centre. Little did I know that I would have the privilege years later, on the brink of an epic launch, to discuss her revised book, And the Sky is not the Limit- A Sufi Journey, which has recently been published by Blessed Tree Press.

Below are her answers to some of the questions I asked.

 

1. Your journey to Islam, if I am not mistaken, was one filled with both beautiful experiences as well as personal struggle. You have travelled the world, lived in different spaces, engaged with different people, all of which has helped shape your outlook on the Islamic faith and your spirituality. Please tell the readers about some of your more poignant spiritual experiences since coming to the faith.

 

In reality there were many soul-stirring experiences leading up to the moment of my inner surrender into Islam. It was these earlier experiences, these fleeting moments of mini-awakenings, which propelled me to question, to seek and yearn for my direction, my spiritual path. Evanescent epiphanies when one is totally overwhelmed by the awesomeness of life, when anything, no matter how miraculous or mundane, can trigger a deep yearning for that intangible ingredient that is missing from one’s existence. But I think my experiences in the Sahara Desert were the most profound, poignant and powerful; experiences of such intense yearning for the Beloved, Allah. So, there were many so-called spiritual moments prior to my embracing Islam.

And after realizing that I was a Muslim then for many years it was just hard work! Learning how to pray, studying as much as I could, endeavouring to learn some Arabic etc. However there would be those times when I was flooded with such love and gratitude, when there was an opening, a realization of unity and the interconnectedness of everything.

Experiences of a spiritual nature are really secrets between Allah and His slave so they are very rarely spoken about. And, as the Sufis say, “One has to taste to know.” One cannot know the sweetness of honey without tasting. One cannot comprehend another’s spiritual state. One has to taste it oneself.

 

“When Islam entered my life in the early 1980s, I was in a dilemma. As my heart was being gently attracted to the beauty of the Islamic teachings, my head kept stubbornly warning me not to take that huge step. It seemed as though I had to choose between the secular Australian lifestyle into which I had been born and the depths of the Islamic tradition to which I was being drawn”

Extract from And the Sky is not the Limit- A Sufi Journey

 

  1. For those who are unfamiliar with your book And the Sky is Not the Limit which was first published in 2002, give a brief outline of the nature of the book, what it encompasses and what you believe, is at the heart of it.

 

Actually, And the Sky is Not the Limit was first published in 1993 in Kuala Lumpur. In 2002 it was published in South Africa for a book/speaking tour which was arranged and coordinated for me by Irshad Soofie from the Habibia Soofie Mosque in Pietermaritzburg. Irshad Soofie had read the book and invited me to visit mosques and gatherings throughout South Africa to share the story of my journey.

Back in 1992 I was asked to write a story about my life. So I wrote a very long document, on an electric typewriter, without any thought or intention of it ever becoming a book. I was merely writing it because someone wanted to read it. However, a publisher became interested, much to my surprise and amazement, and And the Sky is Not the Limit was born.

Writing And the Sky is Not the Limit was actually my attempt to search for and bring out any hints, clues or indications of spiritual inclinations and yearnings in my life, from childhood through the many phases and stages of life to adulthood. I wanted to find where and when the seed of yearning was planted in my heart and how that seed was watered and eventually sprouted forth. I wanted to read the signs on the horizons which indicated what was to come, that is, Islam and the Sufi Path. The main focus of the book is the Sufi Path.

Before proceeding I must emphasize the fact that I wrote And the Sky is Not the Limit 24 years ago, so it covers only my first eight years as a Muslim and my first two years in a Sufi Tariqa. There has obviously been a wealth of experience and journeying in the years that followed the book’s initial publication.

In the book I wanted to describe my personal experiences, the struggles and frustrations, the joys and beauty, of being initiated into a Sufi Tariqa and devoting myself to the practices and methods of the Path. I endeavoured to explain the trials and soul searching that I went through in those initial years, the inner battle that I tried to wage against my ego. But this is the story of my own individual journey. And everyone’s journey is different. Throughout the years I have received emails and messages from many people, usually women, who have been able to relate to aspects of my story. And I found that women were so relieved and thrilled to actually have a book about Islam and the Sufi Path written by a woman.

At the heart of the story is the small yet mighty miracle of someone being called to Islam, and heeding that call. It reveals the immense possibility of transformation for anyone anywhere, here and now. It is a clear proof of the infinite Mercy of Allah in opening a yearning heart.

“It is very difficult to leave a place to which you have be­come so strongly attached. If we could live in a constant state of such awareness, of doing everything for the very last time, “this might be my last breath,” would we waste even a moment of our lives? I think not…And when we start adding up all those things to which we’ve become attached, glued and stuck, we might start to under­stand that each and every one of them has in reality been get­ting in our way, preventing us from doing the one thing, the only thing we should be doing with our lives: struggling to be free of the tyranny of our own selves”

Extract from And the Sky is not the Limit- A Sufi Journey

  1. You are known by many as a person who seeks to spread the light and wisdom of Sufi teachings. Hence, what are you hoping to get from the release of this new edition of the book?

 

As I mentioned earlier, I wrote And the Sky is Not the Limit in 1992, so it covers only the first stages of my inner and outer journeys. I had never really considered revising Sky until my friend Ahmed Akoob kept suggesting and urging me to prepare the book for a new audience, a new generation. And so when I read back over the original text I knew it was imperative for me to thoroughly revise the entire book. Many changes were needed. I wanted to retain the spontaneity, freshness, enthusiasm and innocence of the 1993 publication whilst making important changes. I deleted certain passages which, with hindsight, I considered to be unnecessary, at times inappropriate and perhaps even misleading. And I added small details and remarks in the hope of making the book more interesting for readers.

So I think that this revised edition will be more accessible to a new generation than the original was because it reveals the fact that Islam is beautiful and extremely flexible. Islam is not strict and rigid. It is flowing, adapting. It is gentle and thoroughly transformative. And love is its very Essence.

Even if the book touches only one heart, then, alhamdulillah.

  1. Your publication, Letters inside in the Journey, speaks to the book And the Sky is Not the Limit. In what way will this publication add to those who have read, and who will read, And the Sky is not the Limit?

 

I wrote Letters Inside the Journey in 1994 in order to more fully explore the journey which I described in And the Sky is Not the Limit. Throughout my first two years in my first Sufi Tariqa I had written numerous handwritten letters to my Sufi mentor. This was in pre-internet days! After some time my mentor sent all my letters back to me with the directive, “Write a book!”

Letters Inside the Journey is also in dire need of revision before I would even consider republication. I have withdrawn permission from my publishers to reprint it because of the need for severe changes. Much of the book is useful and beneficial, however there are many sections which need clarification, alteration and in some cases deletion. That being said, I do think a revised edition of the book would be a useful companion volume to And the Sky is Not the Limit because it describes in the depth the intense soul-searching I experienced, the many questions I asked, the peaks and the abysses of the journey. Maybe one day I will embark upon a thorough revision should there be a need.

 

“I had never before heard the word Sufi, but from that time onwards, I became haunted by the word Sufi; I thirsted for more information about these people who called themselves Sufis. Islam was often portrayed as a dry and desolate religion, but the small amount I man­aged to read about Sufism was vibrantly alive, pulsating with rich beauty and an overflowing love of the Divine. This was the Islam I wanted”

Extract from And the Sky is not the Limit- A Sufi Journey

  1. How do people get a copy of the latest edition of And the Sky is not the Limit?

For the time being people can contact: Sultan Bahu Centre, Ahmed Akoob: Work – 0118866919; Cell – 0606441614; Email – akoobfoundation@gmail.com

Ahmed will respond promptly to enquiries.

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