What is SeekersGuidance Retreat like? 6 Days in the Appalachian Mountains

What is SeekersGuidance Retreat like? 6 Days in the Appalachian Mountains

Sr. Whittni Abdullah shares 6 days at the SeekersGuidance Retreat in Cooker Creek Tennessee.

Day 1: We have Arrived


We have arrived…in the Appalachian mountains, in the heart of the Cherokee nation. We are exhausted. I’m not sure if this program should be called a retreat. The schedule is intensive with back-to-back classes that begin early in the morning before Fajr and end late at night after Isha. So the day basically runs from around 5am to 11pm, or is it 4 am to 11 pm? You know I had to digress from the schedule though, right? I do have a little one, after all. And I’m so happy to see that there are other mommies here with their babies, having to take walks outside to get the little ones asleep. There is babysitting though…but of course, I’ll be interrupting that so that Noora can get her nap, or else we will never survive this.

Alhamdulillah, it’s a beautiful place. Tennessee, or at least what I’ve seen from Knoxville and Tallico, is a great example of Southern hospitality. No matter who we bump into whether Muslim or non-Muslim has a friendly smiling face and kind words to offer, mashAllah. It almost makes me want to move here. Almost. It’s too country. So country that we had to drive an hour from the airport to get to this campsite that’s nestled in the woods, and I couldn’t find many places to shop besides old mom and pop stores that looked like they were on the brink of closing down if they hadn’t already, and Walmart….and those are miles away.

But don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining. I like it here. And even though I cannot attend every session because I take my mommy duties seriously, I am blessed in that both my husband and mother-in-law are here, and can fill me in with notes on what I miss. That means you get the goods too! Well the gist of the goods inshAllah. Because I can hardly keep my eyes open to write this one entry. And I kind of feel like I’m cheating because I’m staying at a lodge 11 minutes away from the campsite with wifi. Oh well, I don’t think Noora and I would do too well in the bunks. We’d get voted out, Survivor Style, for sure. Then, no one would get any sleep. It’s better this way inshAllah.

I’ll have to fill you in with more later…(tomorrow), but I wanted to share one thought and some pictures with you from outside of my lodge. The thought: Dr. Umar Faruq AbdAllah reminded us very elegantly of the significance of the place where we are staying (Coker Creek, Tellico Plains, TN). It’s the heart of what was the Cherokee nation, a people that had Islam among them, just like the Africans brought to the Americas as slaves. The point was that America’s roots were never too far from Islam. It’s nothing new, it’s been here all along, and it’s as much a part of American history and tradition as any other thing. Islam is part of the soul of America. And I’m not quoting; I’m generalizing. MashAllah. This is something I’m going to have to delve deeper into inshAllah–I’ve been inspired with another historical adventure!

As for the pictures…I found a flowering tree that I’ve never seen before. Does anyone know what it is? And my favorite part outside the lodge is the walking path made of cross-sections of trees. What a beautiful reminder of the natural path we are on to journey to our Lord.

Day 2: Trees may be some of the greatest teachers on the journey…

Today was the first day of classes, AND I went horseback riding and swimming. But we have to talk a little bit more about trees. There was a wonderful khatira from Dr. Umar Faruq AbdAllah today on the Moroccan scholar Muhammad ibn Ja’far ibn Idris al-Kattani al-Hasani al-Fasi’s Aqidat al-Najah (1857-1927). It’s a 19-line poem that talks about the essential beliefs in aqidah, and mashAllah, it’s so deep that we only covered like the first 2 verses, and that was enough to blow me away. The knowledge that we are getting here is so profound, there’s no way I could blog about it all, so we’ll just have to settle for snapshots of the day. Today we must speak of trees.

In the poem, Dr. Umar emphasized that Allah creates all things from nothing. And He constantly creates and re-creates and wills things to be in continuity until He wills otherwise. If He, azza wa jal, decided to stop this constant creative power, everything would not turn to dust. It would turn into nothing. He is the Only Necessary Being. He is Pre-Existent. And everything else is nothing. Subhanallah, I actually feel good about being nothing today. It’s a beautiful thing to think that you and I were chosen to be…for some reason, and we are not necessary beings. Subhanallah.

But that’s not what really grabbed me. It was Dr. Umar’s talk about becoming perfect in our existence, more pure in our existence–getting closer to the reason we were made–to worship and obey Allah. And how we perceive things is directly reflective of our hearts. Take for instance a tree. Most people just see a tree, and then they may begin to see signs of Allah being manifested in the tree. They begin their understanding from low to high. At one of the higher points, they may begin to understand the name of Allah, Ar-Razzaq (the Provider) through the existence of the tree, who provides. The tree gives us food, oxygen, shade, beauty, lumber, nourishment–just to name a few. It’s the tree’s job to be a provider. Subhanallah. And it does so unconditionally and willingly…and unceasingly until we chop its head off while its making its sujud (the roots). Subhanallah, where is our gratitude? To Allah and the tree? We can’t live without either one. Allah created the tree and it helps maintain our existence, though we don’t help the tree maintain its own existence in many circumstances. But before I get on my treehugging soapbox, the point of all this is that we must train ourselves to see beyond creation to see the Creator. The one with a more pure existence, a more pure heart, sees Ar-Razzaq first, and the tree second.

And this was just five-ten minutes into the whole talk, one of nine given today by different scholars. If you haven’t listened to any of Dr. Umar Faruq AbdAllah’s lectures, you might want to start. MashAllah, he has a lot of knowledge to share and a beautiful way of conveying it. I hope that I have done this poem and his explanation of those things justice. It wasn’t my intent to give you notes because I deeply believe that you need to have the first-hand, primary-source experience to get the right meanings of things sometimes, but I just had to talk about my newfound understanding of trees. I will never look at them again in the same way, nor will I think of this attribute/name of Allah in the same way. Now let me go hug my friend-provider-Abdul Razzaq, the Calliandra Surinamensis (thanks Jodi!).

Day 3: You are like the company you keep

Today was such a spiritually uplifting day. I feel that I’m receiving so much benefit here–from the sisterhood and brotherhood to the information from the lectures. MashAllah. Today I want to share snippets from a lecture from Shaykh Mohammed Mendes, entitled “The Qur’an on the Journey to Allah.” In it, he extolled a shaykh that I’ve only heard about fleetingly: Imam Ahmadu Bamba Al-Hasani (1854-1927), who was a descendant of rasulAllah (saws) from Senegambia, West Africa!!! I never knew there was an African descendent of the Prophet, mashAllah, and a pretty contemporary one at that!! We read an excerpt from his 1600-verse poem, Masalik al-Jinan (The Paths of Paradise), that is specifically on the recitation of the Qur’an and related matters.

Imam Bamba was a lover of the Qur’an. He called it his beloved (habibi), his imam (imami), and friend (khalili). He loved the Qur’an so much that when given gifts, he would only accept the Qur’an by hand. Every other gift was told to just be put down. MashAllah. And the lesson from this poem is that the Qur’an isn’t the gift that should be put down on our shelves to gather dust. We should take the Qur’an as our friend, because as the Prophet (saws) said, A man follows the religion of his friend; so each one should consider whom he makes his friend.” (Sunan Abu Dawud)

And this seems to be the theme of today. Surrounding ourselves with positive influences so that we become better. At first, I thought of this only in the concrete way–the friends I hug and invite over my house, but as Shaykh Mohammed Mendes reminded us: Who could be a better friend than the Qur’an who has every answer inside of it? Every remedy–everything we need to know? He said that many scholars have said that if you haven’t found the answer you seek in the Qur’an, you aren’t reading deeply enough. Subhanallah. The Prophet (saws) was a walking Qur’an. His character was the Qur’an. We are to follow his example, so we must also become Qurani-c.

He (peace be upon him) also said: “A good friend and a bad friend are like a perfume-seller and a blacksmith: The perfume-seller might give you some perfume as a gift, or you might buy some from him, or at least you might smell its fragrance. As for the blacksmith, he might singe your clothes, and at the very least you will breathe in the fumes of the furnace.” (Bukhari)

Would you rather have the perfume of Heaven or the fumes of Hell? Hmmm…the choice isn’t that hard intellectually, but putting into practice in a world of distractions seems to be. But let me share two new hadiths that I learned today, both from Aish’a (ra), though I don’t know their source (I’ll get back to you on that inshAllah–by the way, Aisha is the one who described the Prophet and his character as Quranic as well). She said:

“I’m bewildered at a man who has reached the age of 60 and hasn’t memorized the Qur’an.”

She then further said, “I’m bewildered at a woman who has reached the age of 20 and hasn’t memorized the Qur’an.”

So it’s time to get cracking. I turned twenty-six four weeks ago. But it’s never too late to make a new friend. And even if I never finish this newfound goal (as of today, no less!!) of trying to memorize the Qur’an, actions are by intentions, and Allah records a good deed as done even if one does not complete it. And He doubles the reward for those who struggle with Quranic pronunciation, too…so don’t think of the Qur’an as a burden or hardship–what a blessing reciting it will be for all those who struggle with Arabic!! And doesn’t everyone stumble a little at some point or another with Arabic? :)

Day 4: The company you keep

Alhamdulillah, today I got to go to every class except for two. Today had a big block in the middle of the day for rest (like 6 hours!!) because truly, no one here is getting much sleep with the company of blessed knowledge. In the classes, the theme of the company we keep was echoed again, and very interesting points about reciting Qur’an that I don’t think many people know. Or at least, they were things that I didn’t know. So that is what I’ll share with you today inshAllah.

Shaykh AbdulKarim Yahya said that the company we keep, the environment, and whisperings are what distract us from the path of Allah. And company is not just physical. It can be digital, literary, visual. The books we read and the movies we watch are like sitting in the company of the author, director, and actors of the script at the state they were in when they were writing and acting it out. Subhanallah. That’s something to think about…No wonder one feels so rejuvenated after reading Al Haddad and Ghazzali–they were in blessed states! So imagine what being in the company of the Qur’an is! You are enjoying the company of Allah (swt), the Educator, the best company there is!!!

And Shaykh Mohammad Mendes in his continuation of the poem by Imam Bamba (ra) said that reciting the Qur’an protects and strengthens one’s eyesight. It allows one’s eyes to worship Allah. Even glancing at the Qur’an is a work of devotion. And the worship we do is not just for us–it’s for our ancestors and progeny. It helps them in the grave, and in the future. It lightens the punishment of the grave for your parents and forefathers, even if they aren’t Muslim. Subhanallah. It was great to hear this at a time that I’m really interested in my ancestry and how it has played into my being. I also learned that you are told to recite in Jannah and you ascend the levels of Heaven until you stop reciting, so the more Qur’an you know, inshAllah, the more you’ll ascend. So let’s not let another day go by where we don’t keep The Best Company and ascend!!!

Day 5: On Acceptance

Today has been a relaxing, but long day, so this message will be brief. But I’ve learned a lot about acceptance from all the teachers. For instance…

  1. We must accept the place that we are in life. We must accept the decree of Allah (swt) and His Wisdom in putting us in the particular situation we are in at this moment and time. We are nothing without Him. And He Wills all. Every good deed we do is a gift from Him. We must show gratitude in every situation.
  2. We must accept our faults and failures. It’s an honorable thing to be able to admit our wrongs. For we do not admit the wrongs, how can we correct them and find out what’s right? How can we turn to Allah and be forgiven if we don’t recognize our deficiency and ask for it?
  3. We must accept who we are. We have been given our parents for a reason, and it is from the Wisdom of the Creator. We did not choose them, nor did we choose our ancestry. Allah chose them and Allah chose us to journey on His Path to find our better selves–the person He always knew we’d become if we put some effort into our potential.
  4. We must always ask Allah to accept our deeds. Just because we do them, doesn’t mean they are accepted. Ali (ra), said, “Be more anxious for your works to be accepted than for them to be done, for no accepted deed is small”. This was a reminder from Shaykh Yahya Rhodus in our Perfecting Prayer class, and it is also written in Imam Al Haddad’s Mutual Reminding.

On a more practical note, we ascended Buck Bald Summit at maghrib (sunset) today, a mountain where we enjoyed a 360 degree panoramic view of North Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee. We prayed maghrib on top of the mountain and made dhikr with the trees and grasses out in the open. It was a beautiful experience, mashAllah. And there were even some Christians on the mountain who joined in our dhikr at the end. Subhanallah. May Allah move their hearts and guide them. It’s hard to believe that tomorrow is the last day. I almost never want this retreat to end, though I know the real test for me will be implementing what I’ve learned back at home. Please pray for our success and acceptance of our ibadah, and our continual ascension in matters of the deen. May Allah ascend all of us through our prayers and everything we do for His sake. Amin.

~Please enjoy this snapshot of our evening from Buck Bald Summit~

Day 6: Homecoming

Yesterday was a very bittersweet day. It was the day we left to go back to the “real” world–back to our homes to continue the journey on our own. In a way, I feel that we already were in the “real” world in Tennessee. We were doing things as they should have been done all along in our regular lives. The key now is to bring that reality back home and break down the walls of illusion that have surrounded us.

So now we are back home. And the illusions seem crystal clear. The glitter of the dunya isn’t as attractive as it was before. We have disconnected the cable boxes and TVs. And we are doing fine. Alhamdulillah.

You know, when I first heard of the retreat, I wasn’t that excited to go until almost the last minute. I don’t know why. I could give you a million excuses. None of them would matter, but the truth was that my heart was dying from whisperings to ignore what I already knew to do. Then I started to read Imam Al Haddad’s Book of Assistance for the second time, my go-to book for when life overwhelms me and joy is hard to find within myself. At the same time, I read Ethar El-Katatney’s Forty Days and Forty Nights…in Yemen which detailed her personal journey to Allah in Tarim, Imam Al-Haddad’s city. I never even thought about traveling to Yemen before reading that book, but I connected with Ethar’s struggle between the dunya and akhira, and I also have always loved the wisdom of Imam Al Haddad. I’ve always felt a special connection to him, and since I knew I wouldn’t be able to up and go to the Dowra program this year for a 40-day intensive, I settled on the Seekers Guidance Journey to Allah retreat. But I did not settle. This retreat gave me so much more than I can describe to you. Allah gave a gift to my family by bringing us here…an eternal one that inshAllah will bring us closer to being a more heavenly creation throughout the generations. Allah blessed us in immense ways, and if you have the chance to go to the retreat next year, GO! Even if you don’t think you have a chance, pray istikhara and make all arrangements to GO! We didn’t think we would be able to go this year. It seemed to be a 100% chance that my husband would not be given leave of work. But lo and behold, Allah had other plans. Likewise, you’d think with 100% certainty that all the listed speakers would be there, but Allah did not will Shaykh Faraz Rabbani and Ustadha Shireen Ahmed, the founders of Seekers Guidance, to go. But Allah is the Best of Planners and we still benefited from their knowledge and presence of heart via digital communication. There is wisdom in everything. And you’ll never know what benefits you’ll reap until you go.

I cannot wait until the Seekers Guidance Retreat next year inshAllah. While I hesitated to go this year, I’m already excited and can’t wait for this time next year, inshAllah. Likewise, at the closing program, we prolonged our farewells. The program started late and we kept talking past the time scheduled. We drew it out. We didn’t want to leave each others’ company. We became family. And we made a du’a that the Prophet (saws) made to reunite. I truly feel like I have a larger family now, one of shuyukhs, brothers, and sisters, who look like every kind of ethnicity in the world, but feel as close as being my blood kin. Shaykh Faraz Rabbani told us during the retreat via satellite that a traveler doesn’t stop. He/she may pause to rest, but they are always thinking of the next steps–the next move, and they do this with intention. When I arrived in Tennessee, I was a woman battling her complacency in life–a woman who lost some of her nur and drive after she left the comforting handhold of the MSA and the ease and simplicity of the single life. But I can tell you now that I am complacent no more. InshAllah I am moving. I am traveling. And now again I feel like a stranger to the world (and happily so!), and at home with the company of Allah. Know that wherever you find me next on this journey, whether in Tennessee or in Yemen or perhaps in some other place that Allah has destined for me to go, I am happy to meet you on this journey to Allah. And my heart is beating again. La ilaha il Allah.