Peter Gould

Heart of Design ConversationS

Designing with Divine Love

Heart of Design ConversationS

Designing with Divine Love

In this conversation series, we explore design as a spiritual practice with creative leaders, spiritual teachers, and startup founders from around the world. Here, Peter Gould interviews author and poet A. Helwa

With hundreds of thousands of followers on social media, and widespread acclaim for her books, A. Helwa’s work has become a beacon for spiritual seekers looking to connect with their hearts and their faith. We spoke about her rise to prominence, and why intention, trust, inspiration and heart-centeredness remain central to her creative aspirations.

“Questions and answers have a dance,” says A. Helwa as we discuss the importance of finding your ‘real’ question – what she calls the “question on your heart”.

“A lot of the time we’re seeking answers, but one of the most powerful teachings I’ve learned is actually to much more deeply seek your question. What are you really asking? Really deeply asking? Often the questions we ask aren’t the ones on our heart. We are often asking questions with the longing to rectify a doubt or create certainty. However, just like every colour belongs to the light, behind all the colorful questions we ask we are ultimately seeking for the one light of Allah. This is why it is important to be present with the question on your heart, because the answer is going to find you, but you’ll miss it if you don’t know what your real question is.

Helwa is telling me about some of the biggest learnings of her creative and spiritual journey over the past few years: A journey that has seen her author the beautiful, successful and impactful book Secrets of Divine Love, as well as the subsequent Secrets of Divine Love Journal, and the recent collection of her poetry entitled From Darkness Into Light.

Her work has become a beacon for spiritual seekers looking to connect with their hearts and their faith – helping readers to access “divine love in everyday life” in an intimate and inspiring way.

It’s a journey that’s rooted in her upbringing — both as the daughter of deeply devout, service-based Muslim parents, and a student at a Christian private school in California, which, in the absence of Islamic schools in the area at the time, gave a strong foundation of faith in an academic setting.

As she emerged from under the spiritual wings of her parents to search for her own connection with Islam during her late teens and early 20s, she travelled across the Muslim world to seek out and learn from teachers who could help her cultivate her fatih; unlocking her relationship with Allah, the Qur’an, and Prophet Mohammed (Peace And Blessings Upon Him).

Ironically, however,  it was an entirely negative circumstance that catapulted her into the public eye with her Instagram account Quran Quotes Daily.

“I was on my own journey, studying books, seeking teachers, and travelling around the world in pursuit of knowledge, and in the midst of all this happening there was a big uprising of ISIS attacks,” she explains.

“At the time, I was experiencing Islam in a beautiful way. It was as if I was a newborn baby, seeing the world for the first time. I was being mesmerized by the intricacy and depth of the tradition when ISIS, a terrorsit organization that does not follow the tenets of Islam, came along claiming this love-based tradition through acts of violence, hatred, and bigotry. It made me feel helpless.”

“It was as if I was a newborn baby, seeing the world for the first time. I was being mesmerized by the intricacy and depth of the tradition.”

“But I wanted to do something. And all that I had was a pen, so I chose it as my benevolent weapon. Since I was about nine years old I was writing on the back of napkins, old receipts, and hotel pads so I decided I was going to start an Instagram page and show Americans the other side of the Islamic tradition.

“And so that’s how I really started Quran Quotes Daily, which was the first iteration of sharing Islamic knowledge that I’d learned from my teachers to a wider audience.”

Finding the ‘why’

In a short space of time, Helwa’s posts spread like wildfire, and eventually she consolidated much of her learnings in the highly acclaimed Secrets of Divine Love. Compiling and publishing the book, however, brought up important questions of intention and purpose and she sought to identify that ‘real question’ in her heart — a process that creatives around the world have been through for generations upon generations. As a designer I relate it to the practice of finding our ‘why’; clarifying what we are really trying to do and solve, and who we are solving for.

As designers we are encouraged to repeatedly go back to that ‘why’, and keep asking whether we are building our products, services or strategies in the best way possible — a process of iteration, testing, trying, and continual refinement.

“Finding this ‘why’ is very significant,” agrees Helwa. “With writing specifically you can very easily have multiple whys — or intentions. I have come to see that no matter what we set out to do in life we often have an outward intention, and also a hidden, shadow intention.

“The outward intention is something we can define, and one that we can post on our wall or read it aloud as a sort of mantra to ourselves. But the shadow intention is hidden and we struggle to define it or admit to it, so it rules so much of how we articulate ourselves without us often even being aware of it. It’s that shadow intention that can often make academic writing purposefully complicated or intellectual. For example, a scholar may have the intention of wanting to share an important learning interwoven with the shadow intention of coming across as intelligent.”

“Whatever this hidden ego desire is, it will push through and potentially really push you off track. I see this often happen with writers and creatives. You begin reading a book and then it hits the shadow intention and something changes completely. The voice shifts.

“So for me, the question of ‘why’ is so dead on. What makes you want to sit up and share words into a world that will definitely come back and say it's not good enough on some level? What makes you want to put your heart out there, with all the hours that go into it, when it’s possible that it will never reach a wide audience of people? What makes you take off your shell and show up with your naked, true soul before a world of strangers? That purpose and why is what you really need to hold on to because it is what fans the flames of inspiration.”

“What makes you want to sit up and share words into a world that will definitely come back and say it's not good enough on some level?”
Searching for true success

As Helwa spoke, I couldn’t help but think that this ‘why’ is strongly linked to understanding what success really means to us.

As entrepreneurs, business owners, employees, managers, and even creatives, we are routinely taught that success revolves around certain metrics: bottom lines, clicks, downloads, leads, conversions, traffic, and so on.

But while financial stability and sustainability, material comfort and business development are no doubt important, there are other metrics that also deserve consideration. Metrics that might include spiritual aspirations, inner wealth, tranquillity of the heart, community impact, and others.

“We don’t need people who are ‘successful’ in a traditional sense,” says Helwa. “We need people whose hearts are alive.

“This particular generation is so inundated with comparison. They think ‘if I’m not 21 and a millionaire then I’m a failure.’ These are the crazy standards that the era of bitcoin and YouTube blogs have ushered in. I was listening to a podcast today about Walmart and Sam Walton, and just how long it took for him to build something like that. We don’t have the same idea of how long it takes to attain a certain success or a legacy. It’s all fast-forward.”

I ask Helwa what advice she would give to young creatives and aspiring entrepreneurs that they might not hear on a typical business podcast or read in the many business books on offer — advice that might steer them away from notions of comparison and feelings of anxiety?

“It’s a really important question and one I could answer in many ways,” she says. “But I think what comes up for me the most is really to be present with what and where your heart inclines towards, and be observant about it.

“I was also thinking recently about what other currency there is other than money. Currency comes from the Latin ‘currere’, which is like a current — something that flows. The idea is that water that’s stagnated is diseased, so the real purpose of currency is that it moves constantly — it doesn’t stagnate — hence the verses in the Qur’an warning Muslims about being miserly and burying gold and silver for themselves. These teachings are not saying that you can’t save, but rather we are being reminded to not amass wealth out of greed.

“With that meaning, that currency is movement, I think young people especially should ask themselves what kind of business do they want to do that can bless as many people as possible? What does that look like? And then what could you do that’s even bigger - that could have even more impact for even more people? If the returns didn’t matter, what would you really do?

“Young people especially should ask themselves what kind of business do they want to do that can bless as many people as possible? What does that look like?”

“That’s a question I attribute to my Dad. Every time I had an idea, he’d ask me, ‘if money wasn’t a problem, what would you do?’ He always encouraged me to dream first and then consider what is possible after.”

I was curious to know how Helwa puts this into practice. How does she dream big and then take positive, proactive steps towards reaching those aspirations?

“When you have a longing, it will pull you,” she says.

“Rumi teaches us to build the ship and the water comes, because the water seeks the ship as much as the ship seeks water. Likewise, the baby’s cry makes the mother’s breast fill with milk. That’s what I mean when I say the questions and answers have a dance.

“For me, I stay true to my intention and say, well, if it’s meant to be then Allah will open a path. I think this notion is perfectly articulated by my friend Sanam who says, ‘what’s coincidence to the disbeliever is divine choreography for the believer’.”

“What’s coincidence to the disbeliever is divine choreography for the believer.”

She shares an example from a new project she’s been exploring in recent months.

“One of the things I’ve been doing this year is starting to think about children’s books. Because I thought how interesting it would be to share how I would answer the question ‘who is Allah?’ if a child asks me. Or ‘where does Allah live?’ These are very cute questions, but I think a lot of us don’t know how to respond, based on the intellect of a young child.

“I don’t know anything about children’s books or illustrations, but I have this intention to help parents address those questions with everything I’ve been reading and learning and asking. So the intention is there, but how to make it happen? I have no idea.

“But then suddenly my typesetter for my latest book tells me in passing, ‘I have a children’s book publishing company’. And he’s such a great guy — he’s Christian and would like to represent Islamic books more, and suddenly it’s like, huh, interesting: The path opens.”

Talking more about her process, Helwa explains that she also ensures to regularly check in with her ego; leaning on her friends, family and teachers to keep her aligned with her intention.

“This is where companions are really important. People you can go to and say ‘this is who I am, this is what I’m going through, this is my writing - please help!’ It’s so important to have people who are on the path, who are committed in an extraordinary way, look at your work and say: ‘Hey, I felt your heart all the way up until this paragraph, and then something happened’.

“Then I have to go back, and even if I feel like it’s the most beautiful paragraph, and I love the way it’s structured, the language, the metaphor — I have to go back and question whether my intention in this paragraph is to be of service to the person reading it, or just to make something beautiful for my own vanity. I have to look at myself and then let that paragraph go, or realign and write it again. Flexibility is everything. As the mystics say, ‘Blessed are the flexible for they bend, but do not break’.

“Flexibility is everything. As the mystics say, ‘Blessed are the flexible for they bend, but do not break’.”

“The side effect of that is that I’ve really put a stall on sharing Islamic content externally for the past year and a half. I’ve been reading a lot, learning a lot, collecting a lot, but I only want to share from a place of pure service. I don’t want to have the kind of mentality that most people in business or marketing would have around orienting my life to the ever-changing social media logarithms that require increasing amounts of time while giving you less and less visibility.  I could do that, but I’d lose the whole purpose I started with. And I’d rather have that purpose and write another book in 10 years, than lose my ‘why’ and have a larger social following.”

Setting a new intention

Whether or not it takes Helwa 10 years to publish another book, it's safe to say that the written word is not the limit of her aspirations. In fact, she reveals that another of her future ambitions is to “be part of creating a clearly Islamic, Muslim movie that’s the number one spiritual movie recommendation”.

“Not to say ‘oh we’re the best in the world’,” she  adds, “but whatever your tradition, to be able to say ‘whoa, that was interesting’.

“I have no experience, no understanding of scriptwriting, but I’m just starting to formulate what that kind of film would look like, and saying hey, if Allah wants it to happen, it will. The only thing I can do is set an intention and work towards it. If a door opens, then despite my lack of knowledge or experience, I’ll walk through it. And then every step of the way, I’m begging for Divine help.

“A lot of people say ‘I don’t know how to do that and they stop there.’ I always say that the difference between a successful person and a not so successful person is only one thing. A successful person will say ‘I don’t know how to do that’, and then will go out and learn how to do that. The not successful person says ‘I don’t know how’ and stops there.

“There are things you don’t know how to do in life, and that’s okay. Just like you learned things in the past, you can learn whatever is in the way between you and your dreams.”

“There are things you don’t know how to do in life, and that’s okay. Just like you learned things in the past, you can learn whatever is in the way between you and your dreams.”

Perhaps the most telling intention behind this and all of Helwa’s other projects, however, is her desire to inspire others; to encourage young people especially to believe in themselves and their capabilities, and build on the work she has started

“I’m hoping that somebody is reading Secrets of Divine Love and isn’t just inspired toward their relationship with the Divine, but also feels brave enough to go after the things that they believe in or long to see in the world.

“It's the same with the movie I hope to one day make. If just one person can see it and it gives them the motivation to make something better, then that’s everything to me because that means we are progressing as a community.

“In a way, I want the work I am called to steward into this world to be remembered, but I want the correlation with me as the author or creative to be forgotten. That would be a dream for me. After all, no one reaches for a book or movie on faith because of the author, they reach for it because of their longing for God. In a sense, I am a nobody, trying to tell everybody about the only One that really matters: God.

“My work isn’t just to say ‘hey, Muslims are here.’ It’s to remind people that they’re not alone — there’s a God who loves them and created them, and chose to do so intentionally. And that reminder is at the heart of my mission.”

In closing, Helwa shares a wisdom from Rumi that beautifully illustrates this mission:

“Rumi teaches us that when you whisper, the person who is listening has to lean in to hear it. And eventually if you lean in enough, you and the other become one, and in that intimacy there is no separation so the only exchange is silence. To me this is what unity means.

“If that could happen, then no matter the cost of my work, or no matter what it takes, I’ll be happy, because that’s the currency I’m after – to invoke a sense of unity within the multiplicity. After all, the Qur’an teaches us that despite our many tribes and colors we all originated from one soul. My prayer is that we can witness that Divinely created interconnectedness amidst the persisting illusion of separation.”