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)