“Who am I?” is a perennial question that we all ask ourselves from time to time. And it has many answers and facets that mystics down the ages have thoroughly explored and poets immortalized in verse. It’s a very personal and universal question. I’ve often asked myself this question and regularly find myself at a loss to answer it. That may be in part because I’m an INFJ-T personality type, but predominately because it is something that life continually makes us ask.
We are born into a particular family at a specific place with a distinct culture, ethos, and predisposition. With any luck, we’ll branch out and find ourselves surrounded by new cultures, different people, and competing worldviews. We’ll meet seemingly peculiar people. Sometimes this is by choice. Often it is by circumstance. Maybe our parents moved around a lot, or we fell in love with a person of another race, religion, and nationality. Maybe our roles changed. We were kids, who became young adults, who had kids and became parents, only to see them leave home and find ourselves alone in an empty nest with wrinkles and time on our hands. Our relationships are in constant flux as people come and go. Our families grow and downsize. So who am I?
Am I that spontaneous, carefree sixteen-year-old from Indiana who used to run around having fun with her friends?
Am I that single college student who would go backpacking along the Appalachian Trail or the twenty-two-year-old who decided to marry a man that most people advised me against because he was “too different?”
Am I a wife and mother? Am I a Christian or a Muslim? If I become a Muslim, does that mean I’m not who I was?
If I’m a Muslim, am I a Sunni or a Sufi, are those mutually exclusive or the same thing?
Did I stop being Diana Lynn when I became Diana Uday (in Maharashtra, the wife takes her husband’s first name as her middle name)?
Or is the name Babuji gave me, Maryam Qadri, who I am? Who is Maryam?
Does my sexuality define me? Is that who I am?
What about my race and sex (I was born a white woman) is that who I am? Am I my body?
What happens when someone dies, someone who helps define me?
When my mother became a widow or my husband an orphan, does that mean they aren’t who they are? Is being someone’s partner or child the epitome of our being?
What if I’m able to identify with others who are unlike me?
What if I love Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, atheists, other cultures, languages, customs, and have good friends in the LGBTQ+ community?
What if I don’t want to divorce myself from all these different facets of my being (these different experiences and people)?
What if I’m all of the above and none of it at the same time? Who am I? Am I a social chameleon or a keynote? What is a keynote?
According to Hazrat Inayat Khan, “Every note is fixed in its place, so is every man fixed in his ideas and ways. But the one who treads the spiritual path, he is all notes and he is no note in particular. Therefore he may rightly be called the keynote, the note which makes a consonant chord with every note that is played with it.”
Sufis from Rumi to Bulleh Shah have expressed this idea in their poetry. They realized that they are only this or that on the surface level of existence (e.g., I am Maryam, I am a Muslim, I am a daughter, wife, and mother, I am a writer, I am off-key, I am on key, I’m a Hoosier who lost her accent). Deep down we are something much more profound and indescribable. There is nothing, but God is a powerful Quranic formula for realizing the impermanence of identity.
In this spirit, Rumi exclaimed: “Muslims, what to do? I no longer know myself! I am no longer Christian, Jew, Zoroastrian, nor even Muslim, nor of the East, nor the West, nor of the land, nor the sea… nor Indian, Chinese, Iraqi… I seek the One, I know the One, I see the One, I call the One” (Diwan-i Shams-Tabrizi).
Likewise, Ibn ‘Arabi ecstatically declared:
My heart has become capable of every form:
it is a pasture for gazelles and a convent for Christian monks,
and a temple for idols and the pilgrim’s Kaa’ba,
and the tables of the Torah and the book of the Quran.
I follow the religion of Love: whatever way Love’s camels take,
that is my religion and my faith.
In the Vadan, Hazrat Inayat Khan reminds us to “serve all and be nothing.”
Does this mean we stop identifying with our roles, convictions, and respective cultures, etc.? No. Does it mean that these Muslim saints stopped being Muslims? No. It means that they effaced themselves so that only the Light of God shined through. That is why Sufis like Rumi, Ibn ‘Arabi, Hazrat Inayat Khan, and many others were the Jay Shetty of their times. They were and remain insanely popular because they could relate to almost anyone by speaking the language of the heart. This love language is universal and timeless.
It is why when someone is being the Buddha or Christ-like or following in the footsteps of Muhammad (may a multitude of blessings be upon him) that others are irresistibly drawn to said person and feel safe, secure, inspired, and moved. They may not adopt the religion of this individual, but they will respect it all the more and come to see their ideal in the other because we are inseparable from the Light. Jami elucidates this as follows:
Who is man?
The reflection of the Eternal Light.
What is the world?
A wave on the Everlasting Sea.
How could the reflection be cut off from the Light?
How could the wave be separate from the Sea?
Know that this reflection and this wave are that very Light and Sea.
PS. “All of life is peaks and valleys,” said John Wooden. He wisely advised against letting the peaks get too high or the valleys too low.
PPS. One of my favorite writers recently posted a moving interspiritual piece called “The Body Keeps Score.” Be sure to check it out and support her work!
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