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)

Relationship, Humility, and Interdependence

We do not reach love completely on our own. If we are loveless in and of ourselves, it is because we are living with our center of gravity in the false self. The false self is created from the desires and compulsions of our own separateness. This false self believes strongly in its own existence as separate from the rest of life, and it recruits the intellect to help defend this illusion at the expense of the whole of the mind.

There is nothing more difficult than to make two minds one; that is, to help them to love each other. If two or more people are in love, there is harmony, a unity of purpose without the loss of individuality. When we are thinking only of our own desires and needs, there is disharmony with others and we feel at cross-purposes. We live in a culture that emphasizes the individual at the expense of relationship. More and more people and alone and lonely.

Can the ego overcome its own separation? Most probably not, because it will still be playing the ego’s games, trying to become better than others or to attain its own desires and security at the expense of others. Only Love can tame the ego and bring it into service of Love. It is the nature of Love to create relationships. You might say it is Unity expressing itself. The lover, the beloved, and love itself are all one in reality.

In order to really love, our ego structure has to dissolve and re-form on a new basis. Our hearts may have to be broken, our false pride humbled. Love then re-creates the self.

Sometimes we feel that we want to love others but we cannot; we just don’t have the capacity for it. Just as the cause can produce the effect, the effect can also produce the cause. The tree produces the fruit; and the fruit can produce the tree. Love has many fruits; kindness, patience, generosity, courage, self-sacrifice. Love will produce these fruits; and these fruits will engender love. This is a two-way street. The effect can produce the cause. An apple contains the seed of a tree.

One of the greatest Sufi I have known, a man whose love was so tangible it was barely possible for us to be in his presence without tears, used to say: May my imitation become real. By practicing the fruits of love, by showing kindness, patience, and generosity to others, especially when it doesn’t come easily, we may summon the cause of these fruits, namely, real love. The tree bears fruit,and the fruit can also produce the tree.

Love is conscious relationship in presence. With presence we are in conscious relationship; our essences are present to each other. If we love without presence, we are merely projecting our neediness, lack of fulfillment, or desire onto another person. The higher Love is the welcoming of otherness into ourselves as ourselves, recognizing the stranger as a friend.

Love is the absence of defenses; it is emotional nakedness. “Only one whose garment has been stripped by love is free of desire and defect.” In the presence of love we find acceptance. Our self-disclosure, our emotional nakedness, helps to open the space for love. With presence we hold no image of ourselves that separates us from others. Love accepts imperfection; it loves the actuality and recognizes the potentiality.

Sometimes it is not until we know our helplessness and our failure at love that we can come under the grace of love. This is the great value of humiliation of sin and failure, because our ego, the shell that keeps love out, has broken open. Love is not the attribute of the self-righteous and the perfect. It is the attribute of the humble, those who have realized their own nothingness, those who have failed in love.

(Kabir Helminski. The Knowing Heart: A Sufi Path to Transformation. Shambala Publications, Inc. Boston, 1999. P.49-50)

The Spectrum of Love

People mean so many different things when they refer to love. For some it means desire or lust, for others compassion, for some need, for others compassion, for some need, for others generosity, for some an impersonal ideal, for others devotion or yearning. Love is one power that is reflected on many levels of our being: physical, emotional, mental, social, spiritual, and cosmic.

Love is not primarily an emotion. Sometimes the greatest enemy of love is sentimentality, the cheapening or trivializing of the greatest power in the universe. Once a certain sheikh, someone who had given a lifetime to the path, was visiting us. He spoke about the efforts and sacrifices that are needed if we truly want to know the Truth. There was a guest in our circle that day, someone who was filled with a sentimental enthusiasm. “But what about Love?” she asked with her dreamy eyes.

“Love?” I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re talking about,” our foxy mentor replied.

“Well, love is wonderful, love is incredible, love is what spirituality is all about. You mean you don’t know about love?” An excruciatingly long pause followed.

“My dear,” he said to her, “should one use a word unless in the moment that one uses it, one is that love?” There are dangers in talking about love without being love. The dangers of not talking about love are also great. Worst of all may be convincing ourselves that love is far removed from ourselves.

The most elementary and limited form of love is desire, or eros, to use a more suggestive term. We all have desire, or passion. At the most basic level it is animal desire – desire of the desirable, love of the lovable. Eros is attracted to what it finds desirable or beautiful. Its power is valuable as long as we are not enslaved by it, but often eros knows no limit in its desire.

The domain of eros is attraction and pleasure. Eros is the power of the universe as it is reflected at the level of our natural, animal self. From the spiritual point of view, eros is a derivative, metaphoric love. It searches without satisfaction through many objects of desire but never reaches full satisfaction. Sufis refer to it as “donkey love,” because the donkey brays – not a very pleasant sound – when it is aroused.

Philos is a form of love characterized by sharing or participation. It is a more comprehensive form of love, wider, less self-centered than desire. It brings people into relationships. Philos engenders all forms of sharing: family life, social clubs and political organizations, brotherhoods, sisterhoods, cultural bonds.

The highest, most comprehensive level of love is agape – a spiritual objective, unconditional love. Immature love needs to be loved; mature love simply loves. Agape, or unconditional love, can dissolve the false self. By removing the obstacles we put in the way of agape, by grounding ourselves in the principles and knowledge of love, and by being with those who love Spirit, we may come to live within the reality of agape. Eventually agape will refine and expand our sense of who we are to infinite dimensions. It will dissolve our separate existence. Then, instead of seeking the security and consolation of the ego, instead of seeking to be loved, we will be love itself.

I once asked someone whose spiritual maturity I trusted, “Is there ever a time when you no longer need other’s love?”
“Yes, when you love.” When you are love. When there is no difference between you and what you love.

Once a certain man knocked at a friend’s door. His friend asked him, “Who’s there?”
“It’s me,” he answered.
“Go away. This is not the time. There’s no room for two at this table.”

Only the fire of separation can cook the raw. Only loneliness can heal hypocrisy. The poor man went away and for a whole year burned with longing to be with his friend. Eventually his rawness was cooked, and he returned to the door of his friend, but no longer as he had been. He walked back and forth, in humility and respect, cautious lest the wrong word should fall from his mouth. Finally, he knocked.

“Who is there?” the friend called.
“It’s only you here at this door.”
“At last, since you are I, come right in, O myself, since there isn’t room for two I’s in this house. The double end of the thread is not for the needle. If you are single, come through the eye of the needle.”

Intimate conversation is one of the most important practices of the way of Love. Without a spiritual friend/teacher/guide our possibilities of advancement are very limited. The spiritual friend should be a humble human being who has melted in God. The implicit call of such a person is: “Fall in love with me, just as I fall in love with you; then in our mutual nonexistence we will be complete.” The phrase “to fall in love” is not to be confused with romance or any form of possessiveness, but it strongly suggests a kind of intimacy and mutual devotion that is necessary in this spiritual relationship. A Sufi of the twentieth century, Ishmael Emre, has said, “The compassionate and perfect human beings kill the secret of Truth with humility and the sword of love.”

Yet despite these high-minded thoughts on love, we must acknowledge that we have all failed in love. This is our starting point. We have all been broken and disappointed in love because our love has been identified with our egoism, when it was meant to dissolve that egoism. We can love when we expect to get something. We can love when we have the perfect person to love. But there is no such perfect person, and even if there were, we would not know it unless we too were perfect, because we would inevitably project our own imperfection onto the others, as the masses have always done to the prophets. God’s messengers were not loved; they were more often hated. Hatred is frustrated love, the shadow of love. It implies the presence of love corrupted by egoism. Egoism can turn beauty into ugliness, generosity into selfishness, love into hatred.

(Kabir Helminski. The Knowing Heart: A Sufi Path to Transformation. Shambala Publications, Inc. Boston, 1999. P.46-49)

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Kingdom of the “I”

What is it that we are searching for? Our situation as human beings is that we live in a world of pain and death. No amount of pleasure can negate this reality. Our means of pleasure is the body, and the body is subject to satiation, sickness, and death.

Even if we no longer fear the punishment of hell, we have to somehow deal with our own animal self. We try to know which of our desires can lead to a real and perhaps lasting well-being. We try to know when and how much is enough; and yet this animal self has endless desires. Repression, or at least self-discipline, is an evitable condition of our situation. Our very identity, our ego-self, is a complex of psychological manifestations arising from the body and related to its pleasure and survival. There is a terror in living with a body that is irrational, fallible, and finally, mortal.

We have no cultural and spiritual value systems to reconcile us with the body. We serve the body but we do not teach it how to serve. We worship the body, but we do not sanctify it. Our cultural value systems today are among the least spiritual ever offered to a human community. Basically, the meaning of life has been reduced to an unconscious operating mode: get a job that will enable us to buy what we want, pass through life with a minimum of pain and discomfort. The fulfillment offered to us is the fulfillment of being good and intelligent consumers, effective seekers of pleasure. We will have to repress many of our desires in order to eventually satisfy a few of them.

Yet there is still problem of our existence. Even if we are free to fulfill our desires, we still lack something to fulfill and give meaning to our lives. Even if we have removed God the Judge, we have a feeling of existential contraction, unworthiness, guilt, and sin.

This existential contraction is the “I” itself, cut off from the spiritual dimensions of Reality. Effectively, in our everyday waking existence, this is all we know and are. We become this “I” that seeks pleasures and avoids pain. Our capacity of pleasure is, however, limited and our confrontation with pain is inevitable. To protect ourselves we unconsciously try to make ourselves the Absolute Ruler of our own psychological and material realm. We create a kingdom with boundaries and defenses. We strive to consolidate our powers so that we can acquire what we want and keep out what we don’t want. This is the business and strategy of the “I”. And yet even from a materialist perspective, this kingdom has all the substantiality of a spider’s web. Despite our pride and careful efforts to spin this web, fate can brush it away without resistance. It is no wonder that we who depend on the material world for our sense of security and well-being live in a perpetual state of fear and contraction. Even when we are attaining our desires, and so have experienced what we call “happiness,” we cannot help but question whether this is real, and how long it will last.

What are we to do with our consciousness, our will, our love? These are the choices that variously confuse, distract, and oppress human beings.

This human face is a shape
Tethered in the stall of pain:
Part god, part angel, part beast...
A secret charm, rarely released.

- Rumi, D 568

Our “I” is our relationship to the world; and as long as this relationship is characterized by a self and world, we are in duality. This is our relationship with reality. Our resistance, expectations, complaints, and desires fly off at a tangent from what actually is.

The vast majority of human beings are living in a state of alienation from spiritual reality and from their own essence. Instead of living life directly and knowing themselves directly, all experience is filtered through layers of mental and emotional conditioning in the form of subjective distortions, defense mechanisms, cultural prejudices. This total mechanism of distortion we take to be ourselves. We are living in a “virtual reality” of our own creation, but because we have always been in costume, always wired to the program, always turned toward the screen of fantasy, we have not known ourselves. In the best of these times people’s minds are filled with everything but the truth: images from consumer culture, manufactured desires, superstitions, hallucinations, beliefs, allergies to beliefs, the clichés of neurotic individualism. In the worst of times, human minds may be occupied with mass psychoses of nationalism, fanaticism, racism, tribalism, or religious fundamentalism.

(Kabir Helminski. The Knowing Heart: A Sufi Path to Transformation. Shambala Publications, Inc. Boston, 1999. P.6-8)

Monday, November 14, 2011

A Lover’s Tale

One day, one of God’s lovers goes to the home of his shaikh. The shaikh begins to speak to him about love. Little by little, as the shaikh speaks, the lover begins to melt, becoming more and more subtle until he just flows like a trickling stream. His whole physical being dissolved in front of the shaikh, until there was nothing but some water on the floor.

Just then a friend of the shaikh enters the room and asks, “Where is that fellow who just arrived?” The shaikh points to the water on the floor and says, “That man is that water.”

This kind of melting is an astonishing transformation of state. The man lost his destiny is such a way that he became what he originally was: a drop of liquid. Originally he had arrived at human form from water, for as God has said: “We created all of life from water.”

This lover merely returned to his original essence, the water that is the source of life. And so we may draw the following conclusion: A lover is that being by whom everything is brought to life.

(Kabir Helminski. The Knowing Heart: A Sufi Path to Transformation. Shambala Publications, Inc. Boston, 1999. P.3)

The Sacredness of Everyday Life

A spirituality adequate to our times would have to establish the sacredness of everyday life in the face of increasing challenges to our humanness. The acceleration of time, the coercion of mass media, the commercialization of human relationships, and the artificial environment that technology is creating – all serve to create conditions that present new and unforeseen challenges to the human soul. While we seem to be advancing technologically, the capacities for sustained attention, for spiritual aspiration, for deeper relationships, and for spiritual presence seem to be diminishing.

Amid all this noise, are we becoming deaf to the overtones of transcendence? With so much entertainment at our fingertips, is humanity’s range of experience actually shrinking? Are we becoming trapped in appearances, oblivious to the essential ground of Being?

Sufism is a path formed from the cumulative experience and wisdom of generations of human beings who have attempted to live according to what they consider a divine way of life and to empirically resolve the conflicts of existence. Sufism aims at the highest spiritual attainment within the context of everyday life. Sufism has been called “the path of return”. It is fundamentally a movement of consciousness from the state of separation, or exile, to a reunion with our Source. In essence, if we trace our own consciousness back to its Source, we will find that we have never been separate. We will experience the dissolving of what which never was in that which has always been.

There is a Hadith Qudsi that aptly expresses the intimate union of the self and its Source:

As My servant continues to draw near to Me through voluntary practices,
I become the Hearing with which he or she hears,
The Seeing with which he or she sees,
The hand with which he or she touches,
The feet with which he or she walks.

It should be clear from this saying that a mysterious cooperation is acknowledged between the human and the Divine. It is less a matter of the human knowing God than of God being discovered in all the sensibilities of the human. From the perspective of Truth, I cannot know God, but God is both the knower and the known. Only God knows God.

Practically speaking, what are the human capacities required to experience the sacredness of everyday life?

We have a heart, by which is meant an organ of perception through which the reality of Spirit can be apprehended. We cannot begin the spiritual journey unless the “eye of the heart” is at least slightly open. It is for the heart to know that Reality which is not immediately apparent to the intellect or the senses. Every other organ of perception discerns through its own limited window; only the heart sees from all sides at once and can perceive Oneness.

It is necessary to distinguish the heart from our common emotions that are rooted in our egoism and that mostly obscure the knowing of the heart. The spiritual process from this point of view is removing the distorting factors of egoism that veil the heart. This is often described as “polishing the mirror of the heart.” Muhammad p.b.u.h said, “There is a polish for everything, and the polish for the heart is the remembrance of God.”

(Kabir Helminski. The Knowing Heart: A Sufi Path to Transformation. Shambala Publications, Inc. Boston, 1999. P.181-182)

The Role of a Sufi Teacher in Modern Culture

The role of a sufi teacher in modern culture is analogous to an athletic coach who would like to train people to develop their abilities to an Olympic level. He would have been educated for this and have the appropriate degree. Without necessarily being the greatest athlete himself, he would be in a position to train others who have particular talents that he may not have. He would have the general knowledge and the principles, and he would have some decades of experience in training others, as well as himself.

What if, however, we lived in a society that was ignorant of Olympic-level training and performance? What if most people had a lack of interest in or resistance toward any notion of training, their attitudes having been formed by a fast-food culture? What little they gave experienced of athletics might have come from elementary school gym teachers and the coarse and sweaty environments of locker rooms. What if, in addition, their physical health were weak and their emotional health characterized by a legacy of shame and abuse? They would have no love of their body since it had been associated with pain and defilement rather than freedom and joy. Such people would need to learn to work out, to learn about their bodies and what they are capable of. Our culture’s preparation for and receptivity to spiritual training may be no better.

It would be foolish if a horse trainer were to receive a half-wild starving and crippled horse and insist that it put on a saddle and prepare itself for the rigors of dressage. It would be equally foolish if a medical doctor were to receive patients in critical condition from starvation and lecture them about the benefits of organic versus processed food. We live in a culture that is starved for spiritual reality. The immediate need is to save people from starvation. Anyone who is insists that starving people pledge loyalty to the brand name of the food that saves them from starvation is not in service but is self-serving. There are distinctions to be made among both earthly and spiritual foods – whether these are synthetic, natural, or organic, for instance – and under the best circumstances, in the normative human condition, these are important distinctions.

The immediate need, however, is to help people in a state of starvation. Later we may consider what is a suitable diet, what are appropriate calisthenics, and which specific skills to concentrate on.

(Kabir Helminski. The Knowing Heart: A Sufi Path to Transformation. Shambala Publications, Inc. Boston, 1999. P. 30-31)

The Four Pillars of Knowledge (Ibn ‘Arabi)

Ibn ‘Arabi describes silence, seclusion, hunger and vigilance as the four pillars of spiritual knowledge (arkan al-ma’rifa). In describing them as ‘pillars’, Ibn ‘Arabi is implying a direct equivalent or correspondence to the five Pillars of the Islamic religion (arkan al-islam), that is, the practices of the testimony of faith (shahada), ritual prayer (salat), alms-giving (zakat), fasting (sawm) and pilgrimage (hajj), the first equating to spiritual knowledge (ma’rifa). It is also in correspondence with his notion of “the pillars of the religion” (arkan al-din), which he mentions as faith (iman), sainthood (wilaya), prophethood (nubuwwa) and envoyship (risala).
He mentions these four as some of the things to be practiced so that one “becomes firmly established in the affirmation/realization of Unity (tawhid)”. He describes two actions of commission (hunger and seclusion) and two as actions of omission (vigilance and silence), and as in this treatise, points out that “hunger includes vigilance, and seclusion includes silence”. Interestingly, he specifies that according to the people of God, seclusion is the “chief of the four”.

Other chapters in the Futuhat provide more detail on the individual principles. Chapter 80, for example, discusses the nature of seclusion, stressing the internal meaning and therefore more universal nature of the principle.

“None is in seclusion except one who knows himself, and he who knows himself knows his Lord. He has no object of contemplation except God, by virtue of His Most Beautiful Names, and he is characterized by them in both his interior and exterior.”

Referring particularly to Divine Names that can have a negative connotation, e.g. the Proud (mutakabbir) and the One who enforces or compels (jabbar), “he secludes himself from the likeness of these Divine Names due to what they contain in terms of negative attribute if someone is named by them or manifests with their properties in the world. Man’s reality is to be totally indigent, and one who is indigent cannot be self-important or proud.”

Yet further than this is the one who secludes himself from all the Divine Names, since they belong to God alone. Even though he may be dressed in the likeness of all the Names, yet he prefers to rest in poverty and indigence. Such a one returns to his native land, which is absolute servanthood, and this Ibn ‘Arabi considers to be the real place of Man. He continues:

“The servant returns to his own special quality, which is utter servanthood (‘ubuda) in which Lordship does not compete. He is adorned (tahalla) by that, seated in the house of his potential reality, not his existence in Being. He observes the dispensation of God within him, and he is secluded from spiritual directorship (tadbir) in that.”

Here again one may note how he makes a passing reference to what really constitutes the description of servanthood, i.e. adornment (tahalli) – the use of such quite deliberate terminology provides links between apparently disparate texts.

In the Hilyat al-abdal Ibn ‘Arabi presents his teachings in a most succinct way. Describing the four pillars or rules in terms of how they are understood by the aspirant (murid) and the verifier (muhaqqiq), he speaks of them as a spiritual state (hal) and a spiritual station (maqam) and as bearing fruit in a particular domain of spiritual knowledge (ma’rifa).

Were we to take them simply at face value, as practices, “things to be done”, we would clearly miss the essential point which Ibn ‘Arabi is making. All that is physical has its root in that which is spiritual: all our practice is preparation, to bring us to a point where one allows the acknowledgement of the Divine in all His fundamental and rightful height and glory, remaining in pure servanthood while He remains in full sovereignty.

What is absolutely remarkable about this masterwork is how precise and all-encompassing Ibn ‘Arabi’s descriptions of spiritual practice are: he gives us, in the space of a few pages, enough material to contemplate and act on for a lifetime. Whatever forms of spiritual practice we may come across, they are forms or effects of these four, if they have real validity, and every spiritual tradition knows of their efficacy.

Finally, it is worth noting that the number four plays a significant role in Ibn ‘Arabi’s thought. Elsewhere he refers to it as the most perfect number, and associates it with the earthly, receptive principle (as opposed to the heavenly, active principle): for example, the four sub-lunar spheres, the four qualities of Universal Nature or the four categories of existence. In the Hilyat al-abdal the four pillars of exterior principles are the prerequisites for spiritual ascension. The pillars correspond, then, in a certain sense, to the isra, the overland nocturnal journey from Mecca to Jerusalem accomplished by the Prophet prior to his ascension into heaven (mi’raj), an Abrahamic spiritual journey from the “place of Ishmael” to the “placeof Isaac”, a purification process that takes the seeker to a place beyond the four exterior dimensions. Only through the accomplishment of these four, says Ibn ‘Arabi, will the reality of the abdal be known, the seven representatives of Heaven who are described in the final poem as “those of pure virtue and noble eminence”.

(Translated by Stephen Hirtenstein. The Four Pillars of Spiritual Transformation. Anqa Publishing. Oxford. p.20-24)

Being Muslim

The duty of human beings is to surrender to this unique, omnipotent God, the Merciful, the Compassionate (as He is called at the beginning of each chapter of the Qur'an and also at the beginning of every human activity); to surrender from the bottom of one’s heart, with one’s whole soul and one’s entire mind. The word “Islam” means this complete surrender to the Divine will; and the one who practices such surrender is a Muslim (active participle of the fourth stem of the root s.l.m., which has also the connotation of salam, “peace”). Muslims do not like the term “Muhammedan,” as it suggests an incorrect parallel to the way Christians call themselves after Christ. Only members of some late mystical currents called themselves Muhammadi to express their absolute loyalty to the Prophet as their spiritual and temporal leader.

The Muslim, who recognizes the One God as both Creator and Judge, feels responsible to Him: he believes in His books (the Torah, the Psalms, the Gospels, and the Qur’an) and in His prophets from Adam through the patriarchs, Moses, and Jesus up to Muhammad, the last lawgiving messenger. Further, he believes in God’s angels and in the Last Judgment, and “that good and evil come equally from God.” He tries to lead his life according to the revealed law, well aware that God’s presence is experienced in every place and every time, and that there is no really profane sphere in life. Fulfillment of cultic duties and the practice of mercy and justice are commanded side by side in the Qur’an: the ritual prayer, salat, is in almost every instance combined with zakat, the alms tax. But the worldlings who are embroiled in caring for their wealth, and who neglect religious duties, are threatened by Divine punishment.

(Annemarie Schimmel. Islam: an introduction. State University of New York Press. 1992. P. 14-15)