Al-Andalus, 820 CE.
The city of Qurtuba lay beneath the glow of stars like a rare jewel of the world. It was quiet, yet very awake. It observed the bustling marketplace, the awe of distant travelers, the whispers in the Caliph’s palace, and the wanderings of one Marwan ibn Abdel-Jalil. He was tall, dark featured, and middle-aged. He was intelligent, knowledgeable, and… cautious, for tonight, he awaited an important visitor.
His bearded and troubled face was masked by the shadows of the dark alley as he tried to remain discreet as possible. He peaked into the light while pulling his hood over his head. He can’t be this late. The Abbasids must have killed him!
Paranoia and countless possibilities pounded at his mind as his eyes darted frantically to the streets. Could he live with himself knowing that he was responsible for someone’s death? Could he ever forgive himself?
Nonsense, he’s been on these kinds of assignments many times before, Marwan assured himself. Just be patient. He went back into concealment and let out a deep sigh. He soon found his gaze skywards and watching the glittering stars. It didn’t take long for Marwan’s imagination to take flight, especially when it came to astronomy. Along with mathematics and philosophy, astronomy quickly became a personal passion after reading the works of many great Muslim and Greek astronomers. However, after preaching every Friday as an Imam at his local Mosque for nearly all of his life, Marwan’s mind craved for more knowledge. He understood the importance of learning about the Holy Qur’an and the Prophet’s life, but he also believed it was his duty, as a Muslim, to seek and absorb as much knowledge as possible. Breakthroughs were being made by his colleagues, both near and far, but one man in particular caught Marwan’s interest. A man he was incredibly envious and jealous of. A man who lived in the East and produced such profound works that myths and folklore surrounded his brilliance. A man who believed Reason and Revelation both sprang from the Divine. A man whose name was Mohammed Al-Khwarizmi.
There must be more to his discoveries, Marwan thought to himself as he turned towards the streets again. No single man can – Ah, finally! Marwan’s visitor arrived.
“Talib!” Marwan whispered as loudly as possible from the alley. Talib, a younger man dressed in dark robes, heard Marwan and carefully made his way to the alley.
“The stories are true!” he said with a smile. “You must go to Baghdad, brother, it’s the most beautiful city I’ve ever seen—”
“Calm down, Talib,” Marwan replied, eagerly trying to get his answers. “What do you mean ‘the stories are true’?”
“The legends, brother!” Talib said with excitement, “Al-Khwarizmi receives his wisdom from a Higher Truth – The House of Wisdom has a secret room that only he enters. That’s where he attains knowledge.”
“You have seen this room?” Marwan asked.
“No. But others have told me that the room contains a special Cup.”
Marwan was confused, but allowed Talib to continue.
“It’s called the Cup of Divine Love,” Talib explained, “only those who truly Love God will see the untold Secrets of the Universe when they look into it.”
“But that’s impossible. Even if that were so, God only communicates with Prophets, and the Last Prophet has come and gone.”
“No one understands the Cup fully,” Talib answered. “The scholars there spoke of it in terms too deep for my understanding! You should join them in Baghdad, brother! With all your teachings and writings, I’m sure they would be honored to let you study in the House of Wisdom.”
Marwan was flattered and smiled. “Thank you, Talib.” But suddenly, a breeze of sorrow swept over Talib and he became saddened.
“What’s wrong, my brother?” Marwan asked.
“Friend, this means you will be leaving us. For the past eleven years, I have been honored and blessed to listen to your teachings. I have learned so much from you, as if you were my own father, and now my Soul grieves as you depart.”
Marwan listened compassionately and felt blessed for someone to perceive him in this way. “Talib,” he said in a comforting voice, “separation in our reality is a natural process of the world, but the beauty that has nourished our hearts always remains.”
Talib nodded and forced a smile. “I know that you deserve to be among the greatest scholars. For this, I will smile.”
But smiling would not be enough for Talib. As Marwan left, Talib mourned. The world is never the same when we are separated from those who have touched our lives in such remarkable ways, but the passage of time reveals purpose and meaning. Talib reminded himself of this Truth as he walked through the lonely streets. He knew it was time for his teacher to leave.
And so it was. Marwan stepped into his silent bedroom, but took a moment to reflect on his life in Qurtuba. He sat next to his wife, Nawal, who was fast asleep on their bed. They had been madly in Love once – a long time ago, when they were blossoming in their youth. There was no doubt that the city Loved Marwan, for his words, guidance, and wisdom, but the fading Romance of his marriage saddened him deeply. There was a distance between them. He was always busy. Studying. Worrying. Stressing. Disappointed with his career, he wanted a better name for himself. A better name for both of them. Qurtuba’s future was uncertain; some said that it was a developing city and could even one day rival Baghdad, but others said it would crumble and fall, either to the extremist factions in the South or to the Franks. Regardless, Marwan couldn’t afford the risk. Baghdad was a prosperous city and the center of learning in the world. Could there really be a magical Cup that revealed Secret Knowledge to those who are absorbed in God’s Love? Could there really be a reward for such devotion to the Creator of the Universe?
His mind asked these questions as he ran his finger over his wife’s face. Even touching her felt so foreign. Things will be beautiful again, he thought. He couldn’t take her with him. He needed to establish a career there first. The Cup is not something she would understand. It was something he needed to see for himself.
I’m doing this for her, he thought. She will forgive me.
* * *
Like Talib, the city wept when Marwan left Qurtuba. He had touched the lives of so many people, filled their hearts with hope and joy, and taught them to always be in touch with the Unseen world.
“I don’t understand,” Nawal said with pain in her voice, “What else is there for you to seek in the world?”
“There is always more to learn,” he argued, “you speak as if I should abandon knowledge and just be satisfied.”
“Aren’t you satisfied with what we have? God’s Love is not something you can only find in one part of the world, it presents itself everywhere.”
“How?” he asked.
“What about our Love, Marwan? Does His Love not present itself in our union?”
“Romantic Love and Divine Love are not the same, my dear,” Marwan replied in frustration.
“You used to say the opposite before—”
“My thoughts have changed,” he interrupted. “This is not something for you to easily understand. Destiny is guiding us on a new path, Nawal. Qurtuba will soon fall, and it’s best for me to find a brighter future in the East before those dark days arrive.”
She couldn’t help but just wonder where the Marwan she knew went. The Marwan she fell in Love with – her Romantic, her Poet, her Friend.
I don’t know you anymore, she thought. Where have you gone, Friend?
Many months passed as Marwan’s caravan traveled deeper into the Muslim world. He saw the changes in architecture, he heard different dialects of Arabic along with other languages, he tasted the different foods, and he interacted with people of diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds. One man in Damascus asked him why he embarked on such a journey to Baghdad, and Marwan replied: “God brought me here. This is all His doing. I am a servant to His will.” The man was so impressed with Marwan’s response that he allowed him to stay in his house. There, Marwan shared mystical and scientific teachings with children and educated them about the importance of absorbing knowledge and Loving the Divine.
As Marwan arrived in the city of Baghdad, he was in awe of its sophistication, diversity, and beauty. It was more magnificent than he had ever imagined; in each building, he saw the mastery of architecture and craftsmanship; in each garden, he saw true and pure devotion; in each individual, he saw the thirst for higher learning.
The Abbasid rule in Baghdad was notably different than what Marwan had seen under the Umayyad dynasty in Al-Andalus. Marwan was amazed at how non-Arab Muslims, along with non-Muslims such as the Jews and Christians, functioned prosperously under the Abbasid Caliph. After marveling at such a site as Baghdad, who would want to live anywhere else?
He was reminded of Nawal when he saw married couples in the marketplace. He thought of her when he saw children playing in the streets with their friends. He remembered her when he saw the fully bloomed roses in the gardens.
Soon, I will make a living here, he thought. Soon, I will bring her here.
Soon, she will forgive me.
* * *
After several exhausting weeks, Marwan was finally granted to visit the House of Wisdom. He had visited debates in the Caliph’s courtyard where scholars discussed whether the Qur’an was created or uncreated. The Caliph had reserved his opinions about this topic and was simply waiting for the best man to defend his argument. Although Marwan’s beliefs conflicted with the Caliph’s, he still developed a passionate argument on the Caliph’s behalf. He shouted his argument from the crowd to interrupt the scholars.
“Who said that?” The Caliph asked.
Marwan rose to his feet confidently. “I did.”
“You. Who are you?”
“I am Marwan ibn Abdel-Jalil, I come from the West. From Al-Andalus.”
The crowd gasped. One of the Caliph’s guards shouted: “The Ummayads have sent a spy!”
The guards were about to seize Marwan, but the Caliph halted them. “What brings you here, Andalusian?”
“The Ummayad Caliphate is weak and crumbling,” Marwan said, “they have yet to dismantle conventional thought and govern society in the manner of the respected Abbasid Caliph.”
The Caliph was amused and allowed Marwan to continue.
“Your ideas and philosophies are revolutionary, and must be implemented in government if we are to remain prosperous and civilized. Those mindful of God know the outcomes of such balance between Reason and Revelation.”
The Caliph quickly grew fond of Marwan and, one day, engaged in a private meeting with him. He asked Marwan what he could offer to him.
“I would like to study here and earn a living, and grow in my knowledge of spiritual and worldly matters. God knows how much I hunger for learning, but first, I would like to visit the House of Wisdom and know what secrets lie within.”
The Caliph nodded and granted Marwan permission to visit the House of Wisdom, but he did not mention anything about the Secret Room or the Cup of Divine Love. Why would it only be granted to one man? Was Al-Khwarizmi the only one who knew about it?
* * *
Months passed and Marwan had grown tired and frustrated. He had not written to Nawal as often as he wanted to. He missed her. But he couldn’t tell her that he didn’t find what he was looking for. He would have been too ashamed. He couldn’t let his townspeople down – what would Talib think? His opinion of him would diminish. He couldn’t let that happen. He had to stay here until he found what he came for. How could the Caliph not share the secrets with him after taking passionate stands for his ideas week after week?
Marwan still never met Al-Khwarizmi. He heard the people talk about him all the time, and even read his latest publication on algebra, but it was as if he was a ghost who lived amongst the city.
One night, Marwan stayed at the House of Wisdom longer than he usually did. Marwan figured that if Al-Khwarizmi was around, it had to have been at night. For hours, Marwan searched the libraries and the hallways for the mathematician, but had no luck. For all Marwan knew, Al-Khwarizmi was probably at home and sleeping.
Suddenly, he heard something from behind. It sounded like stone sliding against the pavement. Marwan turned around and quickly made his way down the corridor. Around the corner, he saw a door disguised as the wall. Marwan’s eyes widened as he noticed a man walking away from the hidden doorway. Al-Khwarizmi. That has to be him!
Marwan continued down the corridor as the man walked around another corner. Marwan wanted to call out to him, he wanted to introduce himself, he wanted to ask him the questions that have been troubling his mind for months, he wanted to share his own knowledge and impress him! But Marwan didn’t call out to him. The hidden door was within his reach and it tempted him – calling him to come inside. Marwan touched the wall and gave it a gentle push. It moved and granted him access.
The wall repositioned itself after Marwan entered the secret room. Immediately, there was a long and spiraling flight of stairs ahead. His entire being was trembling with excitement as he journeyed up the stairs. At last, he would see the Truth with his own eyes.
The enormous room was upstairs was mysteriously quiet, yet everything read like music to Marwan – mathematics written on the walls, golden astrolabes resting on the wooden tables, and countless shelves of books. There was a beautiful fountain of clear water in the center of the room, which Marwan marveled at. On the perimeter, a violet-colored Cup rested alone, as if it was waiting for Marwan.
Marwan held the Cup in his hands and slowly observed it. The experience of awe seemed to have consumed him completely, but he was startled and looked up to see Al-Khwarizmi standing quietly.
How did he get here? I just saw him outside… Before Marwan could say anything, Al-Khwarizmi spoke: “Logic and Reason have their place in this world, but they are not the answers to all questions.”
Marwan couldn’t keep his eyes off Al-Khwarizmi, a relatively tall and handsome man wearing a neatly wrapped turban and beautiful lavender robes. To Marwan, he had the perfect face of an Enlightened human being. Marwan was both delighted and intimidated at the same time.
“Is this Cup what you seek?” Al-Khwarizmi asked.
“I seek the key of knowledge that unlocks the life of Transcendent Reality,” Marwan answered.
“Such knowledge does not need a tangible key. The key is within.”
Marwan was confused. “But I heard stories,” he said, “Of the Cup revealing Secrets unknown to man.”
Al-Khwarizmi smiled. “This is also True, depending on one’s perception. But only those who truly Love God will see the Beauty.”
“That is a task that you seemed to have mastered,” Marwan replied.
“To the world, I am a mathematician and philosopher. They may hold me in high esteem, but does that mean they truly know me? The mystics say ‘a pile of holy books stacked on a donkey is still a donkey.’ My numbers, my words, my letters – these are all things that people know me for, but my inward nature is only known to God Himself.”
Marwan reflected on his words. Al-Khwarizmi continued:
“Perhaps, you should test it out yourself. Fill the Cup with the fountain’s water, and before you consume it, look into the reflection and you will find the answer to your questions.”
Very well, Marwan thought. He dipped the Cup into the fountain and watched the water glisten beneath his eyes. He held the Cup in front of him, and with all the excitement and anxiety, he finally gazed into it.
The clear water, and the normal reflection of himself. He kept looking in the Cup, searching every corner and examining every detail. Everything looked normal to him.
“I just see a reflection…” Marwan looked up to where Al-Khwarizmi was standing only to find emptiness. Al-Khwarizmi was gone.
Marwan stood up and walked around the room, looking for Al-Khwarizmi. That’s odd, he was just here!
He called out his name several times, but heard no response. Marwan didn’t understand. He needed to find his answers. He needed an explanation.
He ran down the stairs and started to push the wall. It didn’t move. Marwan pounded at the wall and then threw his shoulder into it while screaming. Oddly, the wall broke open and sent Marwan falling into sand.
Utterly mystified, Marwan slowly rose to his feet and observed his surroundings: The House of Wisdom was gone. Baghdad was gone. He was in a vast desert. The city was nowhere to be seen. Marwan couldn’t believe what he was seeing and started to run across the dunes, calling out for help.
“Al-Khwarizmi!” he shouted. “I don’t understand!”
Marwan tripped over himself and fell face first into the sand. He wanted to go home. To Qurtuba, to his wife – his Beloved, his Friend. He missed everything about the way he was before. He missed the Mosque, giving his Friday speeches, and leading the prayers. He missed the simple life.
The realization hit him hard. All that obstructed him from Joy and Peace in life – he understood now in this painful lesson. Despite all the things people thought and said about him, despite all the times people praised him for his teachings and writings, and despite what the Caliph admired him for, the Cup revealed what Marwan Loved the most: himself.