Monday, December 26, 2011

The Lotus Flower and the Honeybee

Look at the pond. In a large pond, there are fish and frogs and crabs and water snakes and insects and water bugs and oysters and crocodiles and hippopotamuses and otters. Many things live in a pond. Lotus flowers also live in a pond. They are beautiful flowers, with gorgeous colors and a natural honey. But the fish and frogs and other things that live in the pond do not drink that honey. They do not search for that honey. They do not even realize that the lotus has honey. The frogs may sit or jump on the leaves of the lotus, but they do not know that there is honey in its flower. They do not have that understanding.

But, a honey bee that lives far away on a mountaintop, or a honey bee that loves far away in the jungle, can smell the honey of the lotus flower. It will fly straight toward the flower, making the sound, “Keeee, keeee, keeee.” It will fly very fast until it finds the honey. As soon as it comes to the flower, it buzzes around, then sits upon it, and stops moving its wings. Its sound ceases. Then it puts its nose down into the flower, extracts the honey, and rubs the pollen on its legs. The bee does not hurt the flower, does it? It only takes the honey and the pollen and then flies away. It flies back to the original place, depositing the pollen on other flowers and storing the honey. That is what a bee does. Every honey bee does this. There are millions and millions of honey bees, and each one does its duty like this.

Similarly, God has created people in the world. We live in the pond of illusion, the pond of maya. We live in the huge pond of forms that come from the earth, fire, water, air and ether. These forms are the pond of illusion, and we with our mind and desire swim in this pond. Even though we are swimming in illusion, the lotus of the heart also lives there, naturally. Within that lotus flower of the heart there are natural, beautiful qualities, beautiful actions, beautiful conduct, patience, compassion, tolerance, peace, unity, and tranquility. This fill the lotus and make it beautiful. When these qualities blossom within, the flower of the lotus opens. Then its beauty is known and its beauty speaks. It becomes indescribably beautiful, with so many colors and hues. And deeper within that beauty is the true natural honey which is God. God, His power and His truth have such a beautiful taste! That taste is the honey of knowledge, the honey of wisdom and the honey of light. It is the taste of the honey of God and the honey of god’s justice.

In the pond of illusion there are bad thoughts, satan’s qualities, drugs, lions, tigers, crocodiles, frogs, scorpion, fish, donkey – everything. They do not gather the honey which is the power of God, God’s light, and God’s truth. They do not gather the honey of knowledge and the honey of wisdom. They live near the flower of the heart, they live all around it, but they do not accept the honey of truth. Blood-ties, our relationships, religions, and races all live around that flower. Arrogance, karma, maya, lust, anger, greed, miserliness, fanaticism, envy, obsession, intoxicants, theft, murder, and falesehood all encircle the flower. In that pond, there are the four hundred trillion, ten thousand ‘spiritual miracles’ of the mind – things that people claim to be miracles. They all fly around and around this flower. It is possible that they might sit on the flower of the heart, but they do not know about the honey inside. Only the honey bee which comes from the mountaintop knows the taste of the honey.

God is our original Father. He is the One who made us, the One who protects us. He is our Father. When God sees the beauty of the honey of the heart, the honey of knowledge, He comes with the buzzing sound of “Rrrrr”, and He comes with the resonating sound of “Hoooooo.” When He sits upon our heart, it does not hurt. He does not hurt our life, and He does not hurt our existence. He gives beauty to beauty. He gives love to love. He comforts us, makes our heart happy, makes our flower of our heart blossom, and then extracts the honey. He extracts the honey of love, the honey of compassion, the honey of good qualities. He extracts that taste and takes it to His paradise, to His judgment to His place of justice. He stores the honey there, and then tomorrow, when we go to the kingdom of God, He will give that honey back to us. The He will make us peaceful, and He will keep us in paradise. This is what God does.

Think about this a little. The heart of grace must contain good qualities. You must have good thoughts, you must have peace and tolerance, and you must realize this explanation in your life. You must attain patience, tolerance, peace, and justice. If you fill your heart with good things, your heart will be beautiful, and God will make you the leader of His kingdom. God, the greatest father of all, will take you unto Himself. You will gain victory, peace, tranquility and serenity here, as well as there. []

(M.R. Bawa Muhaiyaddeen. My Love You My Children. The Fellowship Press, Philadelphia. 2006. p. 63-65)

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Originality of Sufism

The great Andalusian Sufi, Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi used to pray a prayer which begins: ‘Enter me, O Lordm into the deep of the Ocean of Thine Infinite Oneness’, and in the treatises of the Sufis this ‘Ocean’ is mentioned again and again, likewise by way of symbolic reference to the End towards which their path is directed. Let us therefore begin by saying, on the basis of this symbol, in answer to the question ‘What is Sufism?’: From time to time a Revelation ‘flows’ like a great tidal wave from the Ocean of Infinitude to the shores of our finite world; and Sufism is the vocation and the discipline and the science of plunging into the ebb of one of these waves and being drawn back with it to its Eternal and Infinite Source.

‘From time to time’: this is a simplification which calls for a commentary; for since there is no common measure between the origin of such a wave and its destination, its temporality is bound to partake, mysteriously, of the Eternal, just as its finiteness is bound to partake of the Infinite. Being temporal, it must first reach this world at a certain moment in history; but that moment will in a sense escape from time. Better than a thousand months (Qur’an XCVII:3) is how the Islamic Revelation describes the night of its own advent. There must also be an end which corresponds to the beginning; but that end will be too remote to be humanly foreseeable. Divine institutions are made forever. Another imprint of the Eternal Present upon it will be that it is always flowing and always ebbing in the sense that it has, virtually, both a flow and an ebb for every individual that comes within its scope.

There is only one water, but no two Revelations are outwardly the same. Each wave has its own characteristics according to its destination, that is, the particular needs of time and place towrads which and in response to which it has providentially been made to flow. These needs, which include all kinds of ethnic receptivities and aptitudes such as vary from people to people, may be likened to the cavities and hollows which lie in the path of the wave. The vast majority of believers are exclusively concerned with the water which the wave deposits in these receptacles and which constitutes the formal aspect of the religion.

Mystics on the other hand – ans Sufism is a kind of mysticism – are by definition concerned above all with ‘the mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven’; and it would therefore be true to say, in pursuance of our image, that the mystic is one who is incomparably more preoccupied by the ebbing wave than by the water which it has left behind. He has none the less need of this residue like the rest of his community – need, that is, of the outward formd of his religion which concern the human individual as such. For if it be asked what is it in the mystic that can ebb with the ebbing wave, part of the answer will be: not his body and not his soul. The body cannot ebb until the Resurrection, which is the first stage of the reabsorption of the body – and with it the whole material state – into the higher states of being. As to the soul, it has to wait until the death of the body. Until then, though immortal, it is imprisoned in the world of mortality. At the death of Ghazali, the great eleventh-century Sufi, a poem which he had written in his last illness was found beneath his head. In it are the lines:

A bird I am, this body was my cage
But i have flown leaving it as a token.

Other great Sufis also have said what amounts to the same: but they have also made it clear in their writing of speaking or living – and this is, for us, the measure of their greatness – that something in them had already ebbed before death despite the ‘cage’, something incomparably more important than anything that has to wait for death to set it free.

What is drawn back by spiritual realisation towards the Source might be called the center of consciousness. The Ocean is within as well as without; and the path of the mystics is a gradual awakening as it were ‘backwards’ in the direction if the root of one’s being, a remembrance of the Supreme Self which infinitely transcends the human ego and which is none other than the Deep towards which the wave ebbs.

To use a very different image which will help to complete the first, let us liken this world to a garden – or more precisely, to a nursery garden, for there is nothing in it that has not been planted there with a view to its being eventually transplanted elsewhere. The central part of the garden is alloted to trees of a particularly noble kind, though relatively small and growing in earthenware pots; but as we look at them, all our attention is caught by one that is incomparably finer than any of the others, which it far excels in luxuriance and vigour of growth. The cause is not naked to the eye, but we know at once what has happened, without the need for any investigation: the tree has somehow been able to strike root deep into the earth through the base of its receptacle.

The trees are souls, and that tree is one who, as the Hindus say, has been ‘liberated in life’, one who has realised what the Sufis term ‘the Supreme Station;’ and Sufism is a way and a means of striking a root through the ‘narrow gate’ in the depth of the soul out into the domain of the pure and unimprisonable Spirit which itself opens out on the Divinity. The full-grown Sufi is thus conscious of being, like other men, a prisoner in the world of forms, but unlike them he is also conscious of being free, with a freedom which incomparably outweighs his imprisonment. He may therefore be said to have two centres of consciousness, one human and one Divine, and he may speak now from one and now from the other, which accounts for certain apparent contradictions.

Sufism is nothing other than Islamic mysticism, which means that it is central and most powerful current of that tidal wave which constitutes the Revelation of Islam; and it will be clear from what has just been said that to affirm this is in no sense a depreciation, as some appear to think. It is on the contrary an affirmation that Sufism is both authentic and effectual.

As to the thousands of men and women in the modern Western world who, while claiming to be ‘Sufis’, maintain that Sufism is independently of any particular religion and that is has always existed, they unwittingly reduce it – if we may use the same elemental image – to a network of artificial inland waterways. They fail to notice that by robbing it of its particularity and therefore of its originality, they also deprive it of all impetus. Needless to say, the waterways exist. For example, ever since Islam established itself in the subcontinent of India, there have been intellectual exchanges between Sufis and Brahmins; and Sufism eventually came to adopt certain terms and notions from Neoplatonism. But the foundations of Sufism were laid and its subsequent course irrevocably fixed long before it would have been possible for extraneous and parallel mystical influences to have introduced non-Islamic elements, and when such influences were finally felt, they thouched only the surface.

In other words, by being totally dependent upon one particular Revelation, Sufism is totally independent of everything else. But while being self-sufficient it can, if time and place concur, pluck flowers from gardens other than its own. The Prophet of Islam said: ‘Seek knowledge even it be in China’.

(Martin Lings. What is Sufism? University of California Press, 1975. p.11-16)

Friday, December 9, 2011

Women in Sufism

God has made dear to me from your world women and fragrance,
And the joy of my eyes is in prayer.

This saying of the Prophet Muhammad has been quoted a number of times now – so how is it possible that Islam should have come to be known as a religion with a negative view of women? And yet, over the centuries and under the influence of growing legalistic and ascetic movements, the woman in Islam has been relegated to a position far removed from the one she knew and enjoyed during the times of the Prophet and his successors.

This is why it is impossible to overestimate the role the Prophet’s first wife, Khadija, played in defining the woman’s place in Islam. This widowed merchant woman was already the mother of several children when she proposed marriage to her significantly younger co-worker Muhammad and subsequently bore his children. She was also the one who consoled and supported him after his first visions and auditions and who convinced him that the revelations he experienced in the cave at Mount Hira during his meditations were not of demonic but rather of divine origin. Khadija rightfully bears the honorary titles Mother of believers and The Best of Women, khair un-nisa (the latter still a favorite name for women). Modern Muslims, including a mojority of women Muslims, repeatedly stress her essential contribution to the early history of Islam. She loved Muhammad deeply, and it was only after her death in 619 and after more than a quarter of a century together, that Muhammad gradually and over the course of time married a number of other women. Among his later wives was the very young ‘Aisha, the daughter of his loyal friend Abu Bakr. The other women were widows or divorcees, some even former slaves.

In the early days of Islam women were actively involved in all aspects of social life and communal affairs. ‘Aisha used to discuss problems arising from tradition with the Prophet’s companions, and not only with them. In 656 she actually rode to battle herself in order to fight against ‘Ali bin Abi Talib and his partisans.

Even if the woman’s position has deteriorated in many respects since the days of the Prophet, she continues to play a very important role in Sufism. This mystical branch of Islam came into being in the early eighth century, about a century after the Prophet’s death. It was initially a purely ascetic movement that strove to counteract or work against the Muslims’ increasing worldliness and to remind them of their religious duties. Sufism gained in strength and number during the expansionist period of the Islamic empire. By 711 the Muslims had not only crossed the Straits of Gibraltar (which still bears the name of its conqueror, Jabal Tariq) but had also penetrated into Sind, the lower Indus Valley (today the southern part of Pakistan) and had crossed into Transoxiana as well, all on their way to Centra Asia.

The ascetics, however, were more interested in conquering the kingdoms of the heart and the soul, and it is of no small significance that a central role in this endeavor fell to a woman. The name Rabi’a al-Adawiyya or Rabi’a of basra heralds the beginning of the actual mystical movement in Islam. She is the one credited with having transformed somber asceticism into genuine love mysticism. Everyone knows the story of how the pious ascetic ran through basra with a mucket of water in one hand and a burning torch in other, and when asked about the reason behind her action, she replied: “I want to pour water into hell and set paradise on fire, so that these two veils disappear and nobody shall any longer worship God out of a fear of hell or a hope of heaven, but solely for the sake of His eternal beauty.”

This popular legend found its way into the Christian world as well. It was intoduced to the West by Joinville, the representative of Louis IX, and was retold by the Quietist Camus in his book Carite ou la Vraie Charitee, which appeared in 1640. the illustrations show a woman in oriental dress with a torch and a bucket, over whose head a sun beams with the Hebrew inscription YHWH. After that she turns up in every cenceivable variation in European literature.

Rabi’a was not the only pious ascetic to devote herself completely to the love of God. A female relative of the Prophet, Umm Haram, was already supposed to have participated with ardent enthusiasm in the first Muslim expedition against Cypress and is said to have fallen in battle as a “martyr” in the Holy War.

We also know Bahriyya al-Mausuliyya, who wept herself blind. This is a common motif, for it was felt that physical blindness enables a person to see the Divine Beloved all the better, especially because, as it was later believed, the eye is no longer a veil between the person looking and the one being looked at.

Sha’wana is another interesting figure among the early ascetics; she is also famous for her incessant weeping. Even the great ascetic Fudayl ibn ‘Iyad (d.803) is supposed to have asked her to pray for him. The pious Sufi Bishr al-Hafi, known as “The Barefooted One” (d.841) as well as the great traditionist Ahmad ibn Hanbal (d. 855) approached Amina ar-Ramliyya to ask for her intercession, and it was through her that they learned of their reprieve from hell.

Ghazali tells how Sha’wana appeared to one of her friends in a dream after she (Sha’wana) had died and been highly honored by the inhabitants of paradise. She gave the dreaming woman the following advice: “Let your heart be very sad and let the love of God override your desires. Then nothing will harm you to your dying day.”

Thoughts about death and the afterworld are characteristic of the early women ascetics. Another woman who tradition says also came from Basra was Mu’adha. She deprived herself of as much rest as was humanly possible, for the very thought of the long sleep of the grave was enough to keep her awake.

Ibn ‘Arabi’s attitude toward women is particularly interesting. His memories of the great women ascetics of Seville, whom he had met while still a youth, were very vivid. One, for instance, was Fatima bint al-Muthanna, a woman who lived in extreme poverty. She had been married for many years before her husband died of leprosy. “She was a consolation for the inhabitants of the earth” are the words the Andalusian master used to describe her and to report of her strange miracles. The Sura al-Fatiha, the first chapter of the Quran, served her and fulfilled all her desires. So much so, in fact, that she once even restored an unfaithful husband to the wife who had turned to the saint with her pleas for help. Despite her poverty, Fatima, who described herself as Ibn ‘Arabi’s “spiritual mother” (and whom the biological mother of the great theosophist actually visited on occassion) was possessed of an unflappable cheerfulness. She would sometimes play the tambourine and joyfully praise the glory of God:

I rejoice in Him. Who was turned toward me and claimed me as one of His Friends. Who has used me for His own purposes. Who am I that He should have chosen me among all of mankind? He is jealous of me, and if I look to others, He loosens afflictions against me.

(Annemarie Schimmel. My soul is a woman: the feminine in Islam. p.26-46)

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Poverty (Faqr)

The central attitude in Sufi life is that of faqr, “poverty.” The Qur’an (Sura 35:16) has contrasted man in need of God with God, the ever Rich, the Self-sufficient, and here lies one of the roots od the Sufi concept of poverty. In fact, the main names under which the mystics have been known in the West – though often in distorted images – are faqir, “poor,” and dervish, “poor, mendicant.” Poverty was an attribute of the Prophet, who claimed, according to the tradition, faqri fakhri, “poverty is my pride.” There are numerous legends about the destitute state and the poverty of his household and the members of his family.

The Sufis considered outward poverty a necessary station at the beginning of the Path, and they tried to preserve it as long as possible, often throughout their lives. There is no reason to doubt the validity of the stories in which the utter destitution of some of the great mystics is dramatically described. The reed mat on which the mystic slept, and which often constituted his only worldy possession, became in later Persian poetry a symbol of spiritual wealth, since it gives its owner a rank higher than that of Solomon on his air-borne throne:

Everyone who has to write the manuscript of the etiquette of Poverty
Puts a ruler from the strips of the reed-mat on the pages of his body.

Poverty interpreted in a spiritual sense means the absence of desire for wealth, which includes the absence of desire for the blessings of the otherworld. One of the aspects of true faqr is that the mystic must not ask anything of anyone – Ansari, though utterly poor, never asked his wealthy friends even for a blanket, though he knew that they would have wanted to give him one, but “since they did not perceive my misery, why ask them?” For to ask would mean to rely upon a created being, and to receive would burden the soul with gratitude toward the giver, a burden that was considered most embarassing and heavy; both in poetry and in everyday speech this feeling of minnat, “gratitude,” has a negative value for the faithful.

If man has no wish for himself in this world and the next, then he may be called a genuine faqir. To possess anything means to be possessed by it – the world enthralls those who possess some of its good, whereas “ the true faqir should not possess anything and thus not be possessed by anything”. He needs God, nothing else.

Hujwiri spoke, correctly, about the form and the essence of poverty: “Its form is destitution and indigence, but its essence is fortune and free choice”. The dervish, the Sufi, may be rich if he has the right attitude, which means that his outward wealth and power are of no interest to him and that he would be willing to give them up at any moment. The final consequence – after quitting this world and the next – is to “quit quitting” (tark at-tark), to completely surrender and forget poverty, surrender, and quitting. About the year 900, there was discussion in Baghdad and elsewhere about the superiority of the poor or the rich. Most of the Sufis agreed that faqr was superior and preferable to wealth, provided that it was combined with contentment – and this is the general solution found in later medieval Sufism, as in Abu Najib as-Suhrawardi’s Adab al-muridin.

Many of the early sources are filled with the praise for the true faqir and sometimes equate him with the genuine Sufi. Yet Jami, following Abu Hafs ‘Umar as-Suhrawardi’s distinction among “ascetic,” “poor,” and “Sufi,” as explained in the ‘Awarif al-ma’arif, regarded the faqir, in the technical sense, as inferior to the real Sufi, for whom faqr is nothing but a station on the Path. If he makes poverty a goal in itself, the faqir is veiled from God by his very “will to be poor”. That is basically an elaboration of a saying by Ibn Khafif: “The Sufi is he whom God has chosen (istafa) for Himself, out of love, and the faqir is he who purifies himself in his poverty in the hope of drawing near [to God]”.

Others have praised faqr as the central quality of the mystic, as Rumi says in an
Interesting comparison:

It is like the highest sheikh, and all the hearts are murids, the hearts of the lovers turn
Around it. (D 890)

Hujwiri has described this kind of poverty very beautifully:
Dervishhood in all its meaning is a metaphorical poverty, and amidst all its
subordinate aspects there is a transcendent principle. The Divine mysteries come and
go over the dervish, so that his affairs are acquired by himself, his actions attributed to
himself, his actions attributed to himself, and his ideas attached to himself. But when his affairs are freed from the bonds of acquisition, his actions are no more attributed to himself. Then he is the Way, not the wayfarer, i.e., the dervish is a place over which something is passing, not a wayfarer following his own will.

Faqr here, is almost equated with fana, “annihilation in God,” which is the goal of the mystic, as Rumi said once in the Mathnawi. For Atter poverty and annihilation constitute the seventh and last vale on the Path leading to God, after the traveler has traversed the valleys of search, love, gnosis, independence, tauhid and bewilderment.

The equation of faqr with annihilation, and the emphasis on the negative, nonexistent aspect of things is expressed, in Islamic art, by the large empty hall of the mosque, which inspires the visitor with numinous grandeur. It is also reflected in the negative space in the arabesques or in calligraphy. Only by absolute faqr can the created world become a vessel for the manifestations of God, the eternally rich.

(Annemarie Schimmel. Mystical Dimensions of Islam. The University of North Carolina Press, 1975. P.120-123)

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Complete Trust in God (Tawakkul)

One of the most important stations on the Path is tawakkul, complete trust in God and self-surrender to Him. The definition of tawakkul is of central importance for an understanding of classical Sufi thought. Darani, the spiritual descendant of Hasan al-Basri, defined it as the apex of zuhd, “renunciation.” Muhasibi, representative of orthodox views, holds that the degree of tawakkul can very in accordance with the degree of faith a person has. Throughout the ninth century – probably beginning with Shaqiq al-Balkhi – the pious discussed the different aspects of this attitude, which Dhu’n-Nun defined as “complete certitude.” According to these definitions, real tauhid demands tawakkul: God, in His absoluteness, is the only actor, and therefore man has to rely completely upon Him. Or, to define it differently: since the divine power is all-embracing, man must have complete trust in his power.

Tawakkul in its interiorized sense means to realize tauhid; for it would be shirk khafi, “hidden associationism,” to rely upon or be afraid of any created being. This aspect to tawakkul is one of the basic truths in Sufi psychology: as soon as every feeling and thought is directed in perfect sincerity toward God, without any secondary causes, neither humans nor animals can any longer harm the mystic. Thus tawakkul results in perfect inner peace. The numerous stories about Sufis who wandered “in tawakkul” through the desert without fear of lions or highway robbers, without any provisions, reflect this attitude in a somewhat romantic fashion.

But exaggerated tawakkul might induce man into perfect passivity. Then it might produce strange figures like the dervish who fell into the Tigris; asked whether he wanted to be saved, he said “no,” and asked whether he would rather die, he again said “no” – “for what have I to do with willing?” God had decreed at the time of creation whether he was to be drowned or saved. Another story that deals with the exaggeration of tawakkul is told about Ibrahim ibn al-Khawass, an Iranian Sufi who used to wander in the deserts without any provisions (‘ala’t-tawakkul). But a colleague of his thought even this too lax, since “his Sufi dress begged for him”; he made him wear luxurious attire and then sent him to the desert to practice real trust in God. This same wayfarer would refuse the company of Khidr, the patron of pious travelers, because his graceful company seemed to negate his perfect trust in God alone – had not Abraham, after all, refused help even from Gabriel when Nimrod cast him onto the blazing pyre? And he was rewarded for this act of tawakkul by God’s changing the fire into a cool rose garden. How, then, could the Sufi ascetic even think of danger if everything was in the hands of God? And why should he get involved in a profession to gain his livelihood if God would send him his food in any case, if there was food predestined for him?

The ascetic regarded everything worldly as contaminated; nothing was ritually clean enough for him to occupy himself with. He would rather spend his days and nights in worship than pollute himself by “practical” work. And even if he did work, why should he try to gain more than was needed just for one day? To store money or goods was regarded as a major sin – did the pious know whether he would still be alive within an hour, or by the next morning?

Extension of hope (tul al-amal), is one of the most disliked attitudes in Sufism; Ghazzali’s chapter on “Fear and Hope,” in his Ihya ‘ulum ad-diin, echoes these feelings and gives a lucid picture of th austere outlook of early Sufism. Even mystics who cannot be regarded as typical representatives of strict tawakkul often distributed all their money in the evening or gave away everything they had on Friday.

However, neither strict Hanbalite orthodoxy nor the moderate Sufis accepted the notion of tawakkul in an overstressed form; exaggerations like those just mentioned were criticized by many of the leading pious. They considered this exaggerated attitude a violation of the Prophetic tradition – did not Muhammad himself advise a bedouin: “First tie your camel’s knee, and then trust in God”? Sahl at-Tustari is the perfect example of a mystic who tried to combine a life in the “world” with complete tawakkul, and his contemporary Junayd taught his disciples how to regard earning: “The proper method of to engage in works which bring one nearer to God, and to occupy oneself with them in the same spirit as with works of supererogation commended to one, not with the idea that they are a means of sustenance of advantage”

In the course of the time, tawakkul came to be regarded more as a spiritual attitude than as an external practice. If everybody had lived according to the ideals promoted by some of the early ascetics, the whole economic and social fabric of the Muslim Empire would have collapsed. However, as a basic station on the mystical Path and as a spiritual force, an unshakable trust in divine wisdom and power, tawakkul is still an important element of Muslim piety.

(Annemarie Schimmel. Mystical Dimensions of Islam. The University of North Carolina Press, 1975. P.116-120)

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Aim of Life

Beloved ones of God,
I ask your indulgence to my subject of this evening which is the Aim of Life. As to the main object of life there cannot be but one object; and as to the external object of life, there are as many objects as many beings. There is one object of life for the reason that there is one life. In spite of many apparently appearing, in spite of many lives outwardly appearing, there exists one and only life. It is in this thought that we can combine and it is from this thought that true wisdom is learned. No doubt that main object of life cannot be at once understood and therefore the best thing for every person is to pursue his object in life first, and in the accomplishment of his personal object some day he will arrive to accomplish that inner object. When man does not understand this he thinks there is something else to accomplish and all this is before him that is not accomplished and therefore he remains at a failure. The person who is not definite about his object has not yet begun his journey in the path of life. The first thing therefore is for a person to definitely determine his object before himself. However small that object is, when he has determined it he has begun his life.

We find in the lives of many people sometimes all through their life, they do not happen to find their vocation of their life and what happens? In the end they consider their life a failure. All through their life they go in one thing or another; yet not knowing their life's object they can accomplish so little.

When people say: Why I do not succeed? In answer to that I always say: Because you have not yet found your object. As soon as a person has found his life's object he begins to feel in this world at home. Before that he feels in a strange world. No sooner a person has found his way, he proves to be fortunate, because all things he shall want to accomplish, they come to him by themselves. If the whole world was against him, he gets, got such a power that he can stand on his object against the whole world. He gets such a patience then, when he has, he is on the way to his object that whatever unfortunate happens, it does not discourage him. No doubt as long as one has not found it, then one goes in one thing and then in a second and he thinks that life is against him. Then he begins to find faults with individuals, conditions, planets, climate; with all things. Therefore what is called fortunate, what is called succesful, that is to have the right object. When a person is not wearing the clothes made for himself, then he says it is loose or too short. When they are his clothes he feels comfortable, they are his. Real thing therefore is to give freedom to every soul, to choose his object in life and if he finds in his object at home, to know that he is on the right path.

When a person is on the path, then also there are certain things to be considered. When a person has a knot to unravel, to loosen, in the meantime a person gives him a knife to cut it, he has lost a great deal in his life. It is a small thing, but by not accomplishing it a person has gone back. It is a kind of taking a back step. This is a little example I have given, but in everything one does, if one has not that patience and confidence to go forward, then one loses a great deal. However small a work a person has undertaken, if he accomplishes it, he has accomplished something great. It is not what work a person has accomplished, it is the very fact of accomplishing which gives him the power.

And now coming to the question of this object, which is the object of every soul; that object may be called the spiritual attainment. A person may go all his life without it, but there will come a time in his life when he may not admit, but he will begin to look for it. Because spiritual attainment is not only an acquired knowledge, it is the soul's appetite. And there will come some day in life that a person will feel the soul's appetite more than any appetite. No doubt every soul has an unconscious yearning to satisfy this soul's appetite, but at the same time one's absorption in everyday life that keeps one so occupied that one has no time to pay attention to the soul's appetite.

Now, the definition of spiritual attainment can be found in studying human nature, for the nature of man is one and the same, might he be spiritual or material. There are five things that man yearns for: life, knowledge, power, happiness and peace. Now the continual appetite which is felt in the deepest self yearns for either of these five things.

Now in order to answer his appetite what does man do? In order to answer the desire to live, one eats and drinks and protects one's self from all dangers of life. And yet the appetite is not fully satisfied because all danger he may escape, but the last danger he cannot escape, which man calls death. In order to answer the next thing which is called power, a man does everything in order to gain the physical strength; power by influence; rank; every kind of power he seeks in order to be powerful. And he always knocks against disappointments, because he always sees that if there is a power of ten degrees, there is another power of twenty degrees to knock against it. Just think of the great nations, ones whose military powers so great, one could not have thought that in one moment they will fall down. One could have thought that if they will fall down it will take thousands of years for them to fall down, so great was their power. We do not need to look for it in their history, we have just seen in these past few years; we have but to look at the map.

Then the third kind of appetite is the happiness. Man tries to answer it by pleasures, not knowing that pleasures of this world do not answer for that happiness which his soul really seeks after. Man attempts are in vain. He finds in the end that every effort he made for pleasure, he made with a greater loss than gain. Besides that which is not enduring, that which is not real in its nature is not satisfactory.

Then that desire of knowledge. That knowledge gives a tendency to study. And man might study and study all through his life. If he read all the great libraries, all the books, there will still remain that question, "why?" That "why" will not be answered by books he will study, by exploring the facts which are outside the life. In the first place the depth of nature is so profound that man's limited life is not long enough to probe the depths of life. Yes, comparatively or relatively you might say one is more studied than another, but no one by the outer study of life comes to the satisfaction of life.

And then there is the appetite for peace. In order to find peace one leaves one's environments which trouble him. One wants to go away for people. One wants to sit quiet and rest. But even a person not ready for this peace, even if he went in the caves of Himalaya, away from the whole world, even there he would not find peace.

By the explanation of these five aspects of appetite, the deepest appetite of man, one finds that all efforts of man made to satisfy these appetite seem to be in vain. And how can these five desires be satisfied? They can be satisfied by spiritual attainment, for that is the only thing which answers these five different appetites.

And to explain how these five appetites are answered by spiritual attainment. The desire to live can only be satisfied when the soul realizes its eternal life. For mortality exists rather in conception than in reality from a spiritual point of view. Mortality is the lack of soul's understanding of its own self. For instance, a person always thought that his coat was himself; he lived all his life in that conception and when that coat was torn he thought that he died. The same one experiences in life. It is a kind of illusion that the soul gets from this physical body and identifies itself with this mortal being. It is just like identifying oneself with one's overcoat. And by the loss of the coat one thinks that: I am lost.

Nevertheless an intellectual knowledge of this is but of a little use. Because when the inner self has identified itself with the body and when in imagination the person thinks: No, no, the body is but my overcoat. It is therefore that the meditations are done by the wise people of all times in order to give a chance to the soul to find itself independent of the physical body. Once the soul has begun to feel itself, its own life independently of its outer garb, it is beginning to have confidence of its life, it is no longer afraid of what is called death. No sooner these phenomena once vouchsafed, a person no longer calls death a death, he calls death a change.

And now coming to the idea of the power. The true power is not in trying to gain the power. The true power is in becoming power. But how to become it? It requires an attempt to make a definite change in oneself and that change is a kind of struggle with one's false self and when that false self is crucified, then the true self is resurrected. Apparently before the world that crucifixion is the lack of power; in truth, all power is attained by that resurrection.

As to the knowledge, there are two aspects. One knowledge is that which one learns by knowing the names and forms of this life, what we call learning. This cannot be the answer of that appetite. This is only a step-stone to that appetite, it cannot satisfy this appetite.

This, only the outer learning helps one to go to the inner learning, but this inner learning is quite different from the outer learning, and how is it learned? It is learned by studying self. One finds that all the knowledge that one strives to learn and all that exists to study, it is all in oneself. Therefore one finds a kind of universe in one's self and by the study of the self one comes to that spiritual knowledge which is the soul's appetite.

And then comes the question of happiness. One thinks, that: If my friend is very kind to me then I will be very happy; when people respond to me, or when I will get my money I will be happy. But that is not the way to become happy. It is a mistake, because the lack of happiness makes one blame others, because they are in the way of that person to be happy. But really speaking, that is not so. True happiness is not gained; it is discovered. Man's soul himself is happiness. That is why he longs for happiness. What keeps happiness out from one's life is the closing of the doors of the heart. When the heart is not fully living, then the happiness is not living there. Sometimes the heart is not fully living, but a little living. And it expects the life from the other heart. And that is gained by spiritual attainment. The person who has found his peace within himself, that person may be in a cave of the mountains or amidst the crowd; in every place he will experience his peace.

The question is how these five things can be gained. As I have said, the first necessary thing is for the person to accomplish the object which is immediately standing before him. However small, it does not matter. It is by accomplishing it that one gains the power. As one goes on further through this way in this life, always seeking for the real, one will come to reality. Truth is attained by the love of truth.

The person who runs away from truth, truth runs away from him. If not, truth is more near to the person than what is without truth. There is nothing more precious in life than truth itself, and in loving truth and in attaining to the truth, one attains to that religion which is the religion of all people and all churches. It does not matter then what church he belongs, what religion he professes, what race or nation he belongs; when once he realizes the truth, he is with all, all because he is with all. It is the disagreement and misunderstanding which is before a person has attained the truth. When once a person has attained to the truth there is no misunderstanding. It is those who have learned the outer knowledge, the disputes come among them. But those who have attained to the truth, whether he comes from north pole or the south pole, what country, it does not matter. When they have it understood, the truth, they are atonement. And it is this object that we should keep before us in order to unite the divided section of humanity. For the real happiness of humanity is in that unity which can be gained by rising above barriers which divide man.

Thank you all for the most sympathetic and patient response. May God bless you.

(Hazrat Inayat Khan. Rue de Loxum, 22 May 1924)

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Horoscope

There is a thing called a horoscope. But it does not suit Wisdom. Horoscope will agree with only earth, fire, water, air and ether. But horoscopes will not suit the faculties of Perception or Feeling, Awareness or Cognition, Practical Understanding or Knowledge, Wisdom and Divine Luminous Wisdom.

The horoscope is for the body, not for the Grace of God. Everything comes within the control of Divine Grace. The twelve signs of the zodiac fall under the four categories of earth, fire, water and air. With the aid of these you can predict the state of the physical body. But you can’t predict the actions of the soul. The horoscope can predict the state of the physical body of only ignorant souls. But these predictions will not hold good for people with wisdom or knowledge. It is where earth, fire, water, and air disappear that the light of wisdom appears. As long as one is controlled by the four elements of earth, fire, water and air, then egoism, sex, jealousy, illusion and the hypnotic torpor caused by illusion will exist. These effects are indicated in the horoscope. But horoscopes will not suit a person in a state of Divine Wisdom. As far as Wisdom and Truth are concerned, horoscopes are useless.

The horoscope only covers the physical world of illusion (maya). If you submit yourself to a belief in horoscopes, you will be traversing only the physical world and the sense world. You cannot go beyond. Believing horoscopes will not allow you to traverse the world of Truth and Divine Grace and Divine Wisdom.

(M.R. Bawa Muhaiyaddeen. The divine luminous wisdom that dispels the darkness. The Bawa Muhaiyaddeen Fellowship. Philadelphia, 2004. p. 201)

A Man’s Duty

You are living in a town. The town is in imminent danger. It has become necessary for you to escape to the next town. There is a sea between your town and the next town. You have to get hold of a boat or ship and sail across the sea to the next town. You have no time to think of your house and your property at this time of grave danger. All your attention is devoted to escaping from that town, somehow or other, leaving behind your house and your property to fate.

The physical body in which you dwell cannot indicate to you when death will overtake it. It swerves between the two extremes of joy and sorrow. The body gets fatigued. The limbs become powerless at the approach of death. Before the great calamity of death overtakes your body, you should leave it and get into the boat of Wisdom, sail across the sea of Ignorance and settle on the shore of True Knowledge. You should do this with the same speed with which you will get into the boat and escape from the city which is doomed to destruction. Only then will you obtain Spiritual Liberation in this birth itself. Otherwise, you, your wisdom, and your soul will be destroyed. As a result, you have to take several births and meet with spiritual loss. It would be better for you to understand this and act accordingly. This is man’s duty, his inescapable duty.

(M.R. Bawa Muhaiyaddeen. The divine luminous wisdom that dispels the darkness. The Bawa Muhaiyaddeen Fellowship. Philadelphia, 2004. p 185-186)

To Know the Self

The soul is God’s Grace. It depends on Him. This body is made of five elements: earth, fire, water, air and ether. These five elements are inimical to one another. But they all have faith in God (Allah). From the day they developed faith in God, their enmity disappeared and they started dwelling together. Since they have faith (iman) in God, they are indestructible. Their power is never destroyed. They exist forever.

In the same way as a house is built of five elements, God has built a house for the soul out of the five elements on an agreement. When the period of agreement is over, the soul must get out of the house.

At the end of one’s life, when the body is interred in the earth, the five elements in the body return to the respective five elements in the earth. When that happens, the soul has to return to the Creator as it is His property. If you understand this, you can understand your self.

If one knows that this is a rented house, he will know himself. You will know that this body is not your house; this is not your property! In that state you will know soul. The Creator (Allah) has explained this clearly to Noor Muhammad, the Effulgent Divine Luminous Wisdom.

God has told Muhammad, “O Muhammad! I have not created anything without you.” Muhammad is God’s Effulgence, His Beauty. Muhammad is in the Divine Luminous Wisdom of soul.

The soul is God’s property. It is sacred and pure; it is Effulgence. It is that light that has come from Him that is living in this rented house. After it has studied the world and come to understand what it is, it sees its Lord, and reaches God. In that state one who has known his self knows his Creator. Understand this clearly.

Without understanding this, as long as you identify yourself with the physical body, there is death. If you realize that this body is a rented house, and know yourself, you will know that this is not your house or your property. In that state, you will come to know the soul, the Creator.

(M.R. Bawa Muhaiyaddeen. The divine luminous wisdom that dispels the darkness. The Bawa Muhaiyaddeen Fellowship. Philadelphia, 2004. p 181-182)


Man in his upward Divine ascent, although living in this world, should for all practical purposes concentrate his consciousness in his higher self.

Like an aluminum pot and spoon, for example, provide the means towards the preparation of say 32 different kinds of food dishes, each of them with a particular and peculiar taste. People who taste these delicacies relish the particular taste of each delicacy according to their likes and dislikes, but the aluminum pot and spoon, although they conjointly provide the means and preparation of the 32 dishes, did not register any particular reaction in respect of any particular dish or for that matter even the 32 dishes cumulatively provided no reaction whatever on the aluminum pot and spoon.

Similarly, man treading on the path of righteousness should react exactly like the aluminum pot and spoon to things of joy and sorrow in this world.

It is also inevitable for man in the course of his existence on this earth to be involved in innumerable manifestations generated in the world of illusion (maya) in the discharge of his duties and obligations.

But he should perform his duties in the same spirit of detachment evidenced in the illustration of the aluminum pot and spoon.

Such a person would find his ascent on the path of Divine Wisdom, free from the encumbrances generated by the world of illusion.

(M.R. Bawa Muhaiyaddeen. The divine luminous wisdom that dispels the darkness. The Bawa Muhaiyaddeen Fellowship. Philadelphia, 2004)

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Rizq (Our ‘Daily Bread’)

Rizq (our daily bread) has been guaranteed from preeternity. Why worry, then? Is not one of God’s names ar-Razzaq, “He who bestows sustenance”? And He has shown His kindness to every being from his birth, even from the moment of conception, by nourishing him first with blood, then with milk. Since everything is created by and belongs to God, man possesses absolutely nothing of his own; therefore it would be vain to strive to attract or refuse anything. The Muslim creed expressly states that “what has been destined for man cannot possibly miss him,” be it food, happiness, or death.

The overwhelming feeling of God’s all-encompassing wisdom, power, and loving-kindness is reflected in the Muslim tradition as fully as in some of the Psalms and in Christian tradition. The word ascribed to the Prophet, “if ye had trust in God as ye ought He would feed you even as He feeds the birds,” sounds almost evangelical. This deep trust in God’s promise to feed man and bring him up, as it developed out of the Qur’anic teaching, has permeated Muslim life. Sana’i said about 1120:

If your daily bread is in China,
The horse of acquisition is already saddled,
And either brings you hurriedly to it,
Or brings it to you, while you are asleep.

And even today Muslim intellectuals may say: “Wherever your riz is, there you will find it, and it will find you.”

The Muslim mystics often use the expression husn az-zann, “to think well of God,” which may sound strange to modern ears, but which means once more the absolute, hopeful trust in God’s kindness. God definetely knows what is good for man and gives bread and death, punishment and forgiveness according to His eternal wisdom. This attitude has been a source of strength for millions of Muslims, but it is not to be confused with the stoic acceptance of a blind fate, as it is usually understood in terms of predestinarian ideas. The faith in the rizq that will reach man was certainly carried too far by an early mystic who forbade his disciple to stretch out his hand to grasp a dried-up melon skin.

(Annemarie Schimmel. Mystical Dimensions of Islam. The University of North Carolina Press, 1975. P.117-118)

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Struggle Againts the Nafs

The struggle against the nafs has always been a favorite topic of the Sufis, and they have never tired of warning their disciples of its ruses, not only in the crude forms of sensual appetites but in the guises of hypocrisy and false piety, which must be carefully observed and obliterated.

The nafs has a rosary and a Koran in its right hand, and a scimitar and a dagger in the sleeve (M 3:2554)

Says Rumi, taking up a warning formulated four hundred years earlier by Dhu’n-Nun. Even to indulge in constant acts of worship or prayer can become a pleasure for the nafs; the mystic, therefore, has to break every kind of habit, for otherwise his nafs will overcome him in a subtler way. The “pleasure derived from works of obedience” should be avoided, for that is fatal poison.

One of the great dangers for the wayfarer is laziness or leisure; as long as he has not yet reached his goal, it would be better for him to occupy himself with seemingly useless things, like digging one pit after the other, than to spend a moment in leisure, for “leisure (faragh) is an affliction”.

The chief means for taming and training the nafs were, and still are, fasting and sleeplessness. The first ascetics have often been described as qa’im al-lail wa sa’im ad-dahr, “spending their nights upright in prayer and maintaining a perpetual fast by day.” The old saying that the three elements of Sufi conduct are qillat at-ta’am, qillat al-manam wa qillat al-kalam, “little food, little sleep, little talk” (to which often “loneliness, keeping away from men,” was added) is still as valid as it was a thousand years ago.

Lack of sleep was considered one of the most effective means on the mystical Path – “the eye is weeping instead of sleeping”.
The ascetic spent his nights at prayers recommended in the Qur’an, which gave him time to enjoy blessed conversation with his Lord through prayer. Many of the mystics would avoid stretching out their legs or lying down when slumber overcame them, for all of them hoped for some revelation after the long nights of sleeplessness, which extended over years. The most beautiful story pertaining to this attitude has been told and retold for centuries: Shah Kirmani did not sleep for forty years, but eventually he was overwhelmed by sleep – and he saw God. Then he exclaimed: “O Lord, I was seeking Thee in nightly vigils, but I have found Thee in sleep.” God answered: “O Shah, you have found Me by means of those nightly vigils, if you had not sought Me there, you would not have found Me here.”

For practical purposes, however, “to eat little,” is even more important than to avoid sleep. The Sufis would fast frequently, if not constantly. Many of them extended the fasting in Ramadan observed by every Muslim; but in order to make fasting more difficult, they invented the so-called saum da’udi, which meant that they would eat one day and fast one day, so that their bodies would not become accustomed to either of the two states. “Fasting is really abstinence, and this includes the whole method of Sufism”.

“Hunger is God’s food by which He quickens the bodies of the upright”, says rumi, who also argues that, just as the host brings better food when the guest eats little, God brings better, i.e., spiritual foor to those who fast.

Like the early Christian monks who lived exclusively on the host, the Muslim saints considered hunger the best way to reach spirituality. To be empty of worldly food is the precondition for enlightenment. “Could the reedflute sing if its stomach were filled?” Rumi asks repeatedly. Man can receive the divine breath of inspiration only when he keeps himself hungry and empty.

(Annemarie Schimmel. Mystical Dimensions of Islam. The University of North Carolina Press, 1975. P.114-116)

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Nafs (The Soul)

The forward movement on the Path, as initiated by repentance and renunciation, consists of a constant struggle against the nafs, the “soul” – the lower self, the base instincts. The faithful had been admonished in the Qur’an (Sura 79:40) to “fear the place of his Lord and hinder the nafs from lust.” For the nafs is the cause of blameworthy actions, sins, and base qualities; and the struggle with it has been called by the Sufis “the greater Holy War,” for the worst enemy you have is [the nafs] between your sides,” as the hadith says.

The Qur’anic expression an-nafs al-ammara bi’s-su’, “the soul commanding to evil” (Sura 12:53) forms the starting point for the Sufi way of purification. The holy book contains also the expression an-nafs al-lawwama, “the blaming soul” (Sura 75:2), which corresponds approximately to the conscience that watches over man’s actions and controls him. Eventually, once purification is achieved, the nafs become mutma’inna (Sura 89:27), “at peace”; in this state, according to the Qur’an, it is called the home to its Lord.

The main duty of the adept is to act exactly contrary to the nafs’s appetites and wishes. There is nothing more dangerous for the disciple than to treat the nafs lightly by allowing indulgences and accepting (facilitating) interpretations, says Ibn Khafif. It is incumbent upon every traveler on the Path to purge the nafs of its evil attributes in order to replace these by the opposite, praiseworthy qualities. Sufi hagiography is full of stories about the ways in which the masters of the past tamed their appetites and, if they failed, the manner of their punishment.

The nafs is something very real, and many stories tell of its having been outside the body. Sometimes it took the form of a black dog that wanted food but had to be trained and sent away; other mystics saw their nafs coming out of their throats in the form of young fox or a mouse. The nafs can also be compared to a disobedient woman who tries to seduce and cheat the poor wayfarer (the noun nafs is feminine in Arabic!). A recurrent image is that of the restive horse or mule that has to be kept hungry and has to undergo constant mortification and training so that, eventually, it serves the purpose of bringing the rider to his goal. Sometimes it is likened to a disobedient camel – Rumi compares the struggle of the intellect with the nafs to the attempt of majnun to turn his camel in the right direction, toward the tent of his beloved. Even comparison of the nafs to a pig is not rare. It is found mainly in ‘Attar’s poetry; like Sana’i before him, he felt that those who obeyed their piglike nature would themselves be changed into pigs.

Sometimes the nafs has been likened to Pharaoh, the self-centered ruler who did not listen to the call to faith uttered by Moses but claimed a divine rank for himself and consequently was drowned in the Red Sea; or to Abraha, who intruded in the holy city of Mecca and should be scared away with stones.

Old, popular beliefs were revived when the nafs was said to take the form of a snake; but this serpent can turned into a useful rod, just as Moses transformed serpents into rods. More frequent, however, is the idea that power of the spiritual master can blind the snake; according to folk belief, the snake is blinded by the sight of an emerald (the connection of the pir’s spiritual power with the green color of the emerald is significant). Thus, his influence renders the nafs-snake harmless.

The image of training the horse or the dog conveys the most nearly accurate impression of the activity of the Sufi: the lower faculties are not to be killed, but trained so that even they may serve on the way to God. A story told about the Prophet Muhammad well expresses his faith in the training of the base soul; the expression used here for the “lower qualities, instincts,” is shaytan (satan): “When asked how his shaytan behaved, he answered: ‘Aslama shaytani; my shaytan has become a Muslim and does whatever I order him,” i.e., all his lower soul will obey its master, as everything in the world will obey the one who has completely surrender his will to the will of God.

(Annemarie Schimmel. Mystical Dimensions of Islam. The University of North Carolina Press, 1975. P.112-113)

Tauba (Repentance)

The first station on the Path, or rather its very beginning, is tauba (repentance); tauba means to turn away from sins, to abjure every wordly concern. As the poet says:

Repentance is a strange mount –
It jumps towards heaven in a single moment from the lowest place.

Tauba can be awakened in the soul by an outward event, be it a profane world, which is suddenly understood in a religious sense, a piece of paper on which a relevant sentence is written, the recitation of the Qur’an, a dream, or a meeting with a saintly person. One of the several stories about Ibrahim ibn Adham’s conversion is particularly well known:

One night, he heard a strange sound on the roof of his palace in Balkh. The servants found a man who claimed, in Ibrahim presence, to be looking for his lost camel on the palace roof. Blamed by the prince for having undertaken such an impossible task, the man answered that his, Ibrahim’s, attempt at attaining hevenly peace and true religious life in the midst of luxury was absurd as the search for a camel on top of a roof. Ibrahim repented and repudiated all his possessions.

The “world” was considered a dangerous snare on the way to God, and particularly in the time of the old ascetic harsh, crude words were uttered to describe the character of this miserable place, which was compared to a latrine – a place to be visited only in case of need – to a rotting carcass, or to a dunghill: “The world is a dunghill and a gathering place of dogs; and meaner than a dog is that person who does not stay away from it. For the dog takes his own need from it and goes away, but he who loves it is no way separated from it”. Most of the Sufis, however, would speak of the transitoriness of the world rather than of its perfect evil; for it was created by God, but it is perishable since nothing but God is everlasting. Why should the ascetic bother about it at all, since compared to the glory of God, the world is nothing more than a gnat’s wing?

The Sufis knew how often “repentance was broken” – an expression connected, in later Persian poetry, with the breaking of the wine bottle, which induced people to sin again and required renewed repentance. But the mystical leaders were sure that the door of repentance remains open, it is

A door from the West until the day
When the sun rises in the West

i.e., until Doomsday, says Rumi, on whose mausoleum in Konya the famous lines are written:

Come back, come back, even if you have broken your repentance a thousand times.

(Annemarie Schimmel. Mystical Dimensions of Islam. The University of North Carolina Press, 1975. P.109-110)

Ikhlas (Absolute Sincerity)

The adept should turn with his whole being toward God – ikhlas, and giving up selfish thoughts in the service of God are the basic duties of every mystic. A prayer without ikhlas is of no avail; a religious thought that is born out of this sincerity is meaningless, even dangerous. Praise and blame of the crowd do not mean anything to one who has turned wholly and without any qualification to the Lord; and though he will constantly be acting virtuously, he will forget his good and pious actions in his attempt to act solely for God. He forgets, of necessity, the thought of recompense for his works in this world and the world to come.

An act of perfect sincerity, done for God’s sake, might result in spiritual progress even though it might appear outwardly foolish.

Typical is the story of a not very bright murid whom some mischievous people teased, telling him that he would gain spiritual enlightenment by hanging himself by his feet from the roof and repeating some meaningless words they taught him. He followed their advice in sincerity and found himself illuminated the next morning.

An overstressing of the ideal of ikhlas has led to the attitude of the malamatiyya, “those who are blamed,” those who conceal their virtuous deeds in order to perform their religious duties without ostentation. For the greatest sin is riya (hypocrisy) or ostentation, and the master of psychological analysis in early Sufism, Muhasibi, dealt extensively with this danger. Sufi texts tell many stories about people whose hypocrisy was revealed, and they were put to shame. A famous example is this:

A man ostentatiously prayed the whole night through a mosque he had entered at dusk and where he had heard a sound that seemed to indicate the presence of a human being. But when the call for morning prayer was heard, he discovered that his companion in the mosque was a dog, thus rendering all his prayers invalid and himself impure.

(Annemarie Schimmel. Mystical Dimensions of Islam. The University of North Carolina Press, 1975. P.108)

The Pilgrimage to Mecca

One should not forget that the shari’a, as proclaimed in the Qur’an and exemplified by the Prophet, together with a firm belief in the Day of Judgment, was the soil out of which the piety grew. The Sufis did not abolish the rites but rather interiorized them, as it was said, “The people who know God best are those who struggle most for His commands and follow closest the tradition of His Prophet”.

The performance of ritual prayer, fasting and pilgrimage to Mecca constituted, for the majority of the early Sufis, the minimal religious obligation without which all possible mystical training would be useless and meaningless. Many of them performed the pilgrimage to Mecca frequently – up to seventy times, if we can believe the hagiographers. They knew that the true seat of the divine spirit was not the Kaaba made of stone but the Kaab of the faithful worshiper’s heart, in which God might reveal Himself to those who completed the Path.

When you seek God, seek Him in your heart –
He is not in Jerusalem, nor in Mecca not in the hajj,

Says Yunus Emre, voicing the conviction of many of his contemporaries and followers. Yet the pilgrimage remained a central point in the Sufi lfe, and Mecca was not only a place where the Sufis would meet and join in discussion, but where many of them were blessed with revelations and illuminations.

(Annemarie Schimmel. Mystical Dimensions of Islam. The University of North Carolina Press, 1975. P.106-107)

The Importance of a Sheikh

The novice who has entered a master’s group becomes “like the son of the sheikh”; he is considered part of him according to the tradition, “the son is part of the father.” The sheikh helps him to give birth to a true “heart” and nourishes him with spiritual milk like a mother, as it is often repeated.

The Sufis have always been well aware of the dangers of the spiritual path and therefore attributed to the sheikh almost unlimited authority: “When someone has no sheikh, Satan becomes his sheikh,” says a tradition, for the satanic insinuations are manifold; the murid may even feel uplifted and consoled by certain experiences that are, in reality, insinuations of his lower self or of a misguiding power. Here the sheikh has to control him and lead him back on the correct path, for

Whoever travels without a guide
Needs two hundred years for a two days journey.
(M. 3:588)

One might real all the books of instruction for a thousand years, but without a guide nothing would be achieved.

The master watches every moment of the disciple’s spiritual growth; he watches him particularly during the forty-day period of meditation (arba’in, chilla) that became, very early, a regular institution in the Sufi path (derived, as Hujwiri says, from the forty-day fast of Moses, when he hoped for a vision from God, as related in Sura 7:138). The sheikh interprets the murid’s dreams and visions, read his thoughts, and thus follows every movement of his conscious and subconscious life.

Visiting his master is a religious duty of the disciple, for he will find from him what he will not find elsewhere. And to serve a master is the highest honor of which a disciple can boast – even if it were only that he “cleaned Junayd’s latrines for thirty years”. Even to have met a leading sheikh at once endows a man with a higher rank.

Under the guidance of such a trusted master, the murid could hope to proceed in the stations on the Path. The sheikh would teach him how to behave in each mental state and prescribe periods of seclusion, if he deemed it necessary. It was well known that the methods could not be alike for everybody, and the genuine mystical leader had to have a great deal of psychological understanding in order to recognize the different talents and characters of his murids and train them accordingly. He might exempt a disciple for a time from the forty-day seclusion, for instance, because he was spiritually too weak, or because his spiritual ecstasy might overwhelm him. If the murid were to concentrate too much upon himself rather than upon God, or if passions might overcome him and make him nervous and angry, it might be better to have him live in the company of other people for his spiritual training because of the mutual influence and good example.

(Annemarie Schimmel. Mystical Dimensions of Islam. The University of North Carolina Press, 1975. P.103-104)

The Stations (Maqamat)

Once the mystics had identified three main parts of religious life (shari’a, tariqa, haqiqa), they began to analyze the different stages and stations that the wayfarer has to pass on his way. They distinguished between maqam (station), and hal (state). “State is something that descends from God into a man’s heart, without his being able to repel it when it comes, or to attract it when it goes, by his own effort.” Or, as Rumi puts it more poetically:

The hal is like the unveiling of the beauteous bride,
While the maqam is the [king’s] being alone with the bride.
(M 1:1435)

The maqam is a lasting stage, which man reaches, to a certain extent, by hiw own striving. It belongs to the category of acts, whereas the states are gifts of grace. The maqamat (stations) define the different stages the wayfarer has attained in his ascetic and moral discipline. He is expected to fulfill completely the obligations pertaining to the respective stations, e.g. he must not act in the station of respect as if he were still in the station of repentance; he also must not leave the station in which he dwells before having completed all its requirements. The states that come over him will vary according to the station in which he is presently living: thus the qabd (contraction) of someone in the station of poverty is different from the qabd of someone in the station of longing.

The mystical theoreticians were not certain whether a state could be appropriated and kept for a while or whether it was a passing experience; they also differ in their classification of the stations and in their description of certain experiences that are seen sometimes as stations, sometimes as states. Even the sequence of the stations is not always clear; it varies according to the capacity of the adept, and God’s activity can change stations or grant the wayfarer a state without apparent reason.

Three of the early classifications show the variability of the sequence.
Dhun-Nun speaks of faith, fear, reverence, obedience, hope, love, suffering, and intimacy; he classifies the last three stations as confusion, poverty, and union.
His younger contemporary in Iran, Yahya ibn Mu’adh, gives a spiritual chain closer to the generally accepted form – repentance, asceticism, peace in God’s will, fear, longing, love and gnosis.
And the Iraqian Sahl at-Tustari, again a few years younger, defines the sequence as follows: response to God’s call, turning toward Him, repentance, forgiveness of sins, loneliness, steadfastness, meditation, gnosis, discourse, election, and friendship.

The manuals of Sufism enumerate still other stations; but the main steps are always repentance, trust in God, and poverty, which may lead to contentment, to the different degrees of love, or to gnosis, according to the mental predilection of the wayfarer. In order to enter the spiritual path, the adept – called murid, “he who has made up his will” (to enter the Path) – is in need of a guide to lead him through the different stations and to point the way toward the goal. Ad-din nasiha, “religion consists of giving good advice,” was a Prophetic tradition dear to the mystics, who saw in the constant supervision of the disciple’s way by the mystical guide a conditio sine qua non for true progress, though the image of the sheikh at-tarbiya, who acutely supervised every breath of the murid has developed only in the course of time.

(Annemarie Schimmel. Mystical Dimensions of Islam. The University of North Carolina Press, 1975. P.99-101)

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Qur’an & Arabic Language

The Qur’an is a book that God revealed to Muhammad by means of the angel Gabriel. Notice that we make a distinction between the Qur’an and a translation of the Qur’an. This is normal procedure in the Muslim view of things, in marked contrast with the Christian view, according to which the Bible is the Bible, no matter what language it may be written in. For Muslims, the divine Word assumed a specific, Arabic form, and that form is as essential as the meaning that the words convey. Hence only the Arabic Qur’an is the Qur’an, and translations are simply interpretations.

The Arabic form of the Qur’an is in many ways more important than the text’s meaning. After all, Muslims have disagreed over the exact interpretation of Qur’anic verses as much as followers of other religions have disagreed over their own scriptures. One of the sources of the richness of Islamic intellectual history is the variety of interpretations provided for the same verses. Muslim thinkers often quote the Prophet to the effect that every verse of the Qur’an has seven meanings, beginning with the literal sense, and as for the seventh and deepest meaning, God alone knows that. (The Prophet’s point is obvious to anyone who has studied the text carefully.) The language of the Qur’an is synthetic and imagistic – each word has a richness having to do with the special genius of the Arabic language. People naturally understand different meanings from the same verses.

The richness of Qur’anic language and its receptivity toward different interpretations help explain how this single book could have given shape to one of the world’s great civilizations. If everyone had understood exactly the same thing from the text, the religion would never have spread as widely as it has. The Book had to address both the simple and the sophisticated, the shepherd and the philosopher, the scientist and the artist.

The Qur’an says that God never sends a message except in the language of the people to whom it is addressed: Revelation conforms to the needs of its recipients. The Qur’an also tells us that Muhammad was sent to all the world’s inhabitants. In order to present a message understandable to everyone in the world, the Qur’an had to speak a language that everyone could understand. And Islam did in fact spread very quickly to most of the civilizations of the world, from Chine and Southeast Asia to Africa and Europe. These people spoke a great diversity of languages – and we mean not only languages of the tongue, but also languages of the heart and mind. The Qur’an has been able to speak to all of them because of the peculiarities of its own mode of discourse.

Far from being a hindrance to the spread of Islam, as some have imagined, the Arabic language has been an aid. Although the form of the text was fixed, the meaning was left with fluidity and adaptability. People who did not know Arabic were forced to learn the Arabic text and then understand it in terms of their own cultural and linguistic heritage. But no one’s interpretation could be final. The next generation could not depend exclusively upon the previous generation’s translation and commentary any more that it could ignore the understanding of the text established by the tradition. Each Muslim needs to establish his or her own connection with the scripture. All serious Muslims were forced to enter into this Arabic universe of discourse – a universe, indeed, which they considered divine.

If, on the one hand, the Arabic Qur’an encouraged diversity of understanding, on the other, it encouraged unity in form. All Muslims recite the same scripture in the same language. They recite their daily required prayers more or less identically. Indeed, given the basic importance of God’s revealed Word, recitation is the major way of participating in the Word. Understanding is secondary, because no one can fathom the meaning of God’s Word completely. The most important task is to receive and preserve the divine Word. Its Arabic form is all-important. What one does with the form that one receives follows after receiving it.

A translation of the Qur’an is not the Qur’an, but an interpretation of its meaning. The Qur’an has been translated dozens of times into English. Each translation represents one person’s understanding of the text, each is significantly different from the others, and none is the Qur’an itself. There is but one Word, but there are as many interpretations of that Word as there are readers.

This is not to say that Islam is a cacophony of divergent interpretations – far from it. By and large there is much less diversity of opinion on the fundamentals of faith and practice than, for example, in Christianity. Those who try their hand at interpretation have to undergo a great deal of training to enter into the Qur’an’s world of discourse. Moreover, this training is accompanied by the embodiment of the Qur’an through recitation and ritual. The Qur’an possesses an obvious power to transform those who try to approach it on its own terms. This is precisely what Islam is all about – submission to the will of God as revealed in the Qur’an – but this is not simply a voluntary submission. The Qur’an establishes an existential submission in people so that they come to express its fundamental message through their mode of being, no matter how “original” their interpretations may be.

Of course, we are speaking of Qur’anic interpretation in the context of Islamic faith and practice. Many Westerners who have not been sympathetic toward Islam have offered their interpretations of the Qur’anic text. There is no reason to suppose that such interpretations will help non-Muslims understand the text that reveals itself to Muslims.

The Arabic book that goes by the name Qur’an is about as long as the New Testament. In most editions it is between 200 and 400 pages in length. In contrast to the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, the Qur’an issued from the mouth of a single person, who recited what he heard from the angel Gabriel. Both the Jewish and the Christian scriptures are collections of many books that were written down by a large number of human beings, and opinions differ as to their status as revelation. Even if we say that the book of the Bible were all revealed, they were revealed to different people who did not live at the same time or in the same place.

The Qur’an is divided into chapters of unequal length, each of which is called a sura, a word that means literally “a fence, enclosure, or any part of a structure.” The shortest of the suras has ten words, and the longest sure, which is placed second in the text, has 6,100 words. The suras are divided into short passages, each of which is called an aya. Some of the longer ayas are much longer than the shortest suras. The word aya is often translated as “verse”, but literally it means “sign.”

The Qur’an elaborates on the ways in which the followers of the prophets, specifically the Jews and the Christians, have or have not lived up to the prophetic messages. It issues instructions on how to love a life pleasing to God. It tells people that they should pray, fast and take care of the needy. It goes into great detail concerning human interrelationships – such as laws of inheritance and marriage – in a manner reminiscent of parts of the Hebrew Bible but foreign to the New Testament. It tells people that they should observe God’s instructions purely for God’s sake, not for any wordly aims. It warns those who deny God’s messages that they will be thrown into the fire of hell, and it promises those who accept the messages that they will be given the bliss of paradise. Much more than the Judeo-Christian Bible, the Qur’an talks specifically about God. No matter what the topic may be, it finds occasion to refer the discussion back to God, if only by the device or attaching clauses mentioning God by one or more of his names, such as “And God is the Mighty, the Knowing.”

For Westerners, the Qur’an is an extremely difficult text to appreciate, especially in translation. Even for those who have spent enough years studying the Arabic language to read the original, the Qur’an may appear as disorderly, inaccurate, and illogical. However, there is enough evidence provided by Islamic civilization itself, and by the great philosophers, theologians, and poets who have commented on the text, to be sure that the problem lies on the side of the reader, not the book. The text is undoubtedly one of the most extraordinary ever put down on paper. Precisely because it is extraordinary, it does not follow people’s expectations as to what a book should be.

The Qur’anic world view is closely tied to the Arabic language, which like Hebrew and Aramaic (the language spoken by Jesus), belongs to the Semitic family. The internal logic of Semitic languages is very different from that Indo-European languages such as English, Latin, Sanskrit, and Persian. To begin with, each word derives from a root that is typically made up of three letters. From the three letter root, many hundreds of derived forms can be constructed, though usually only a few score of these are actually used. We should often discuss Arabic words in explaining the meaning of concepts. Without such discussion it would be impossible to suggest the richness of the associated meanings, the difficulty of translating words into English, and the interrelationships among Arabic words that are obvious in the original.

(Sachiko Murata, William C. Chittick. The Vision of Islam. I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, London. 2006. p xiv-xix)

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Example of Muhammad

The way of Sufism is secured on the foundation of the spiritual virtues and practices of the Prophet Muhammad. This Way has had its interpreters in every age, and yet it was complete from the time of Muhammad. The Sufi way actualized and fulfilled certain qualities that had been latent in what was revealed through Muhammad, and the literary, musical, aesthetic, and interpersonal refinement of the Mevlevi Way, in particular, testify to the inexhaustible treasure of Muhammadan spirituality.

Most Westerners who are drawn to Sufism were first attracted by its qualities and were only gradually led to understand how the qualities of Sufism are the fruit of the Qur’anic revelation and the example of Muhammad. Sufism is a wide and universal door that leads out of the prison of human vanity and conjecture to an expansive spiritual reality. After this reality has been tasted through experience, it is possible to grasp how completely it is testified to by the revelation of the Qur’an and the life of Muhammad.

Without the character of Muhammad, who was called “the living Qur’an”, the early Muslim community would not have possessed the magnetic and inspired qualities that gave birth to a high level of culture. Within a few generations, this impulse of Islam spread from the backwater of Arabia to become a vast civilization – a civilization based on a universal ideology of human equality, social justice, and divine remembrance.

Without character of Muhammad, the whole spirit of Sufism is inconceivable. The study of the Prophet’s sayings and actions has always been central to the curriculum of Sufism.

‘Ali, one of the Prophet’s closest companions, preserved this saying:

Meditation in God is my capital.
Reason and sound logic are the root of my action.
Love is the foundation of my existence.
Enthusiasm is the vehicle of my life.
Contemplation of Allah is my companion.
Faith is the source of my power.
Sorrow is my friend.
Knowledge is my weapon.
Patience is my clothing and virtue.
Submission to the Divine Will is my pride.
Truth is my salvation.
Worship is my practice.
And in prayer lies the coolness of my eye
And my peace of mind.

Muhammad’s character exemplified a life of love and became a model for all who were called Sufis. These Sufis in their turn continued this impulse into an ever more explicit expression of love.

Human history has no greater example of a figure who was both a contemplative and a social revolutionary. On the one hand Muhammad devoted himself to meditation, vigils, and fasts; he opened his heart to the Invisible and there he heard Gabriel’s voice; he listened to the guidance that was given for the various circumstances he encountered; and he transmitted a revelation and way of life for the benefit of humanity. After that revelation began, he also found himself responsible for a growing community, and eventually a nation, which in an unbelievably short period of time became a unified and energized culture that swept across the world. For someone even cursorily acquainted with the facts, it would be difficult to deny that any other single human being has affected so great a number of people so deeply and in so many aspects of their lives. The way revealed through Muhammad and the Qur’an enlists from its more than one billion faithful a remarkable degree of commitment and energy: prayer and ablutions five times a day, a month-long fast, a universal pilgrimage, a single ritual prayer and Holy Book accepted by all Muslims, a practical and specific rule of social law governing business, social life, the family, and the individual.

What stands out in the prophet’s life are a combination of qualities that include sanctity, wisdom, faith, integrity, strength, justice, generosity, magnanimity, nobility, humanity, and modesty. It was these qualities that shaped the spiritual climate of Islam. Because Muhammad’s speech and actions were remembered and preserved more exactly than perhaps any other historical personality, in the hearts of Muslims his life became a norm for all of human life.
And yet Muhammad could not be confused with God. He listened to what the Divine revealed even when it criticized his own actions.

(Kabir Helminski. The Knowing Heart: A Sufi Path to Transformation. Shambala Publications, Inc. Boston, 1999. P. 174-176)

The School of Love

We are all students in the school of love, although it may take us a long time and much suffering to admit this fact. Something obstinately refuses to see the obvious. It is amazing how stubborn and slow we are, and how often we still forget. We forget whenever we think ourselves more important than others, whenever we see our own desires and goals as more important than the feelings and well-being of those we love. We forget whenever we blame others for what we ourselves have been guilty of. We forget whenever we lose sight of the fact that in this school of love it is love that we all are trying to learn.

Yunus Emre, the first and greatest Turkish Sufi poet, says, “Let us master this science and read this book of love. God instructs, Love is His school.”

We have all been failures in love. This is our conscious starting point. Only a saint is an expert and complete lover, because only a saint has been freed by God from what stands in the way of love.

We can practice medication and seek spiritual knowledge for years and still overlook the central importance of love. One of the subtlest forms of egoism is when we engage ourselves in a practice to be more spiritual than others, when we turn spiritually into an arena for our ambition. But Love eventually forgives even that.

We are not merely Love’s passive instruments; we are its servants. In order to know how to serve, our love needs to be grounded in knowledge.

Love without knowledge is dangerous. With love alone we could burn ourselves and others. With love alone we could become lunatics. In ancient tradition they warn us of the person who is unconsciously “in love”. Such people, it is said in Central Asia, should wear bells on their ankles to warn others of their state.

Love is such an extraordinary and complex power, and the human being has such a great capacity for love, that to dismiss it as an unknowable mystery is like standing in awe before a fire and saying we don’t know what this is, how it started, or what to do with it.

Love is both mystery and knowledge. Furthermore, it is a mystery that has spoken to us about itself in the form of those revelations that have profoundly altered the course and quality of human history. The lives and teachings of Buddha, Jesus, and Muhammad have influenced and transformed so many billions of people because they are essentially teachings of love.

(Kabir Helminski. The Knowing Heart: A Sufi Path to Transformation. Shambala Publications, Inc. Boston, 1999. P.39-40)