(Obituary written by Dr Saiyad Nizamuddin Ahmad)
Shaykh Abdullah Nooruddeen Durkee passed away in his home on Green Mountain on the 25th of Muharram, which also marks the martyrdom of al-Imam al-Sajjad Zayn al-Ābidīn Alī Ibn al-Husayn (Alayhis Salam) in the year 95 H. I first came to know Sidi Nooruddeen in the summer of 1990. It was the beginning of a deep friendship that lasted for some thirty years until his death. The following is a biographical sketch of my dear friend along with some personal observations.
Shaykh Abdullah Nooruddeen was a pioneer in spreading Islam in the United States of America and has the distinction of being perhaps the very first American-born sufi Shaykh. He was granted khilāfah in the Shādhilī Tarīqah in 1975 by the Cairene Shaykh Ibrahim al-Battāwī who was also a professor at Al-Azhar University.
Prior to his acceptance of Islam in al-Quds at the hands of Shaykh Muhammad Alī al-Jamal al-Rifiāī in 1969, Sidi Nooruddeen had played an important role in introducing the teachings of many Eastern sages and spiritual masters from various Traditions to Americans who were intensely seeking spiritual fulfillment and guidance in the 1960s. Through the community near Taos, New Mexico, known as Lama which he co-founded (along with his wife at the time, Asha, and Jonathan Altman) he established what would become a very active hub for serious seekers of wisdom and enlightenment. The community at Lama was founded for the awakening of consciousness in a drug-free, vegetarian, and heavily work oriented routine which included daily early morning meditation. Sidi Nooruddeen also designed and built the buildings of Lama. Through Lama Sidi Nooruddeen came to be associated with the Zen master Joshu Sasaki Roshi, the Tibetan meditation masters Kalu Rinpoche as well as Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Pir Vilayet, Murshid Sam Lewis and Baba Ram Dass (Richard Alpert), to name the most prominent figures. Sidi was instrumental in presenting the teaching of Ram Dass (a disciple of Neem Karoli Baba) in the form of a book which came to be regarded as a “classic” and continues to be in print since its original publication in 1971, namely Be Here Now whose unique design was the product of Sidi Nooruddeen’s genius. After this, Sidi wrote a work entitled Seed which was similar in design and presentation to Be Here Now. It was published in a limited edition of only 5,000 copies in 1973 by Sidi and presented the spiritual practices of numerous religious traditions. It contains one of the earliest accounts of the Muslim prayers.
However, Lama was not the only community which Sidi Nooruddeen established. In 1979 he was instrumental in founding the first proper Islamic community in America in the form of a town named in Abiquiu, New Mexico dubbed ‘Dar al-Islam’ which continues to exist. Dar al-Islam was built on a plan and design of Sidi Nooruddeen. Its unique domed architecture of hand-made adobe mud-brick in the style pioneered by Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy (d. 1989) was also a unique contribution of Sidi Nooruddeen.
By the time I met Sidi he had already left Lama and had subsequently spent time studying Arabic and Kulliyyat al-Sharīa in Makka’s Umm al-Qurā University, where he spent the years 1971–1974. I met him on the day of Id al-Adhā, 10 Dhū al-Hijjah 1410 in Cairo at the home of Suleiman Abdullah Schleifer, who at the time was professor of Mass Communication at the American University of Cairo (AUC) and himself a very old friend of Sidi Nooruddeen. When I was introduced to Sidi he asked what I was doing in Cairo. When I told him that I had come to Cairo to pursue my own studies in Arabic and AUC he asked what my other interests were and I told him sufism. He asked me what I had read about it and I mentioned I had been reading al-Madrasat al-Shadhiliyya by Shaykh Abd al-Halīm Mahmūd. To my delight he told me that he was working on a translation of it along with some other related works and most importantly the ahzāb of Sidi Abul-Hasān al-Shādhīlī, the founder of the order. These were ultimately published as Orisons (1st edition 1411/1991) and Origins (1433/2012). The latter in particular remains the only dual-language edition with extensive commentary of any collection of the devotional texts of any sufi tarīqa. Orisons and Origins represent the most authentic presentation of sufi praxis and doctrine of any tarīqa in the English language. These two works are surpassed in significance only by his beautiful edition of the Holy Qur’ān with Arabic text, his own English translation, and employing a very user friendly and phonetically accurate transliteration system of his own ingenious design. This work, known as the Tajwīdī Qur’ān, has enabled millions of people around the world to begin reciting the sacred Arabic sounds of the Allah’s last revelation. The accurate recitation of the Qur’ān on a regular daily basis year-round occupied a central place in the teaching of the Shaykh and one to which he zealously held himself until he departed this world. Indeed, he was the one who found me a tajwīd teacher in Cairo, the walī Shaykh Abul-Majd, Imam of Jāmi’ al-Adawiyya. The recitation of the Qur’ān as well as the ahzāb of the Sidi Abul-Hasan, and the invocation of the Divine Name (and other practices all set out in detail in his Orisons) were taught by Sidi in a profound way. He saw all of this, especially the recitation of the Qur’ān as a means of return to the Origin, ta’wīl in Arabic. Sidi Nooruddeen was especially fond of the visionary recital of Shihab al-Din al-Suhrawardi al-Maqtul known as The Tale of the Occidental Exile which likens the condition of the spiritual seeker as an exile in the land where the Sun sets, the occident, and it is the task of the seeker to return to his home in the land where the Sun rises, the orient, from which the Sun of spiritual illumination shines forth. In this he drew heavily on the teachings of numerous masters presented in the writings of Henry Corbin, especially The Man of Light in Iranian Sufism, Temple and Contemplation, and L’Archange emprourpre his copies of which he had bound in beautiful honey-hued leather. Sidi Nooruddeen saw the condition of all seekers as one of exile in this world and the Way of tasawwuf as “the way back.” However, he was aware of the ascendancy of a kind of “debased Islam” which denied this precious legacy along with the corrosive influence of modern “civilization”. he writes in Orisons (p. 4):
“There is also the current of the increasingly dominant and expansive secular world civilization which, among other things, debases through moral, spiritual, and metaphysical relativism, all values to the lowest common denominator in order to provide the illusion of ‘democratic’ understanding which offers a sentimental, and metaphysically non-consequential ecumenism whose aim is the reduction and, ultimately, the destruction of Divine [and hence rigorous, essential and absolute] Revelation and the Traditions which derive from it, to a folkloric atavism in order that it may be replaced by a synthetic and syncretic weltanschaung which will accommodate and advance the “progress” of the new world ‘order’.”
In contrast, he spoke of the Way of tasawwuf in Orisons (p. 99) as:
“On one hand stand the literalists, the modernists, the fundamentalists who would reduce everything to a matter of form, ordinance and law and on the other hand the cultists, new agers, and psuedo-sufis who would transform everything into metaphor, symbol and spirit; the Mutasawwifah stand in the center for they are the people of the Heart, the people of the Middle Way, in accord with: ‘We have appointed you the nation of the centre [ummatan wasatatan] (2:143).’ It is they who, almost alone in the world today, insist upon the fullness of the Revelation and the fullness of the Sunnah and reject any and all hints that the Reality which Allah speaks is solely symbolical, allegorical or metaphorical.”
May Allah have mercy on the soul of Shaykh Abdullah Nooruddeen Durkee and grant him a place in the Garden in close proximity to the Ahl al-Bayt to whom he was so devoted.