Can Sufism Sanitize Our Planet?
SPIRITUALITY, 12 Oct 2015
6 Oct 2015
The intellectual is always showing off;
The lover is always getting lost.
The intellectual runs away, afraid of drowning;
The whole business of love is to drown in the sea.
Intellectuals plan their repose;
Lovers are ashamed to rest.
The lover is always alone,
Even surrounded with people;
Like water and oil, he remains apart.
The man who goes to the trouble
Of giving advice to a lover
Gets nothing. He’s mocked by passion.
Love is like musk. It attracts attention.
Love is a tree, and lovers are its shade.
(“The Pocket Rumi” by Kabir and Camille Helminski)
“There are two aspects of individual harmony: the harmony between body and soul, and the harmony between individuals. All the tragedy in the world, in the individual and in the multitude, comes from lack of harmony. And harmony is best given by producing harmony in one’s own life.”
― Hazrat Inayat Khan
In the chaos that prevails around us the most authentic hope comes from mystics whose poetry and philosophy combines the virtuous message of formal religion with the transcendental values of love and harmony. The finest exponent of this luminous philosophy was Rumi (which means daylight), the great 13th century Sufi mystic whose spiritual message has become the defining credo for many business titans, economic wizards and heads of financial juggernauts.
In the present century Rumi’s influence is being strongly felt by people of diverse beliefs throughout the Western world. Rumi, whose philosophy is couched in luminescent verse, is being recognized as one of the greatest literary and spiritual figures of all time. He is one of the key figures in the development of new age ideals. His teachings have become entrancing markers to ecstatic liberation in an ocean of divine love. Rumi sought freedom for his soul through a mystical connection with the divine and the expression of that relationship through art. The Sufi and dervish communities have become an important strand in the new age movement. The pace of modern life has driven man to a state where the rhythm of life is fast growing erratic and the music is slowly ebbing out
There is a growing feeling of an urgent need for a serious spiritual catharsis .Sufism enables an individual to unpack the crate of bewildering paradoxes which buffet his mind and helps restore balance and harmony. As the acclaimed modern Sufi Inayat Khan says “The secret of life is balance and the absence of balance is life’s destruction” He would emphasize that patience is the power of endurance. As resurrection follows crucifixion, happiness follows suffering. The modern view of this great ideal has been beautifully articulated by Robert Burne. According to Bourne, we express our fullest selves only through working together at a purpose larger than we are: “All our idealisms must be those of future social goals in which all can participate” Because our individual salvation depends on collective salvation only when we hitch our wagon to something larger than ourselves that we realize our true potential
Karen Armstrong, one of the foremost contemporary scholars on theology and mysticism concludes at the end of her admirable and deeply penetrating study, A History of God that the long and arduous training a mystic needs to become conscious of God’s reality does not readily appeal to the broad public. This is of course, true, yet a mystical perspective remains meaningful for many people Dr. H.J. Witteveen the former Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund and himself an accomplished Sufi says that we all have a divine spark in us and we can experience glimpses of the divine when we forget our limitations in the beauty of nature, or art, or in deep love. Pursuing such experiences, and letting them grow deeper, he says, can lead us into the cosmic realm and enable us to celebrate celestial love. As the well known Persian poet Saadi says:”Every soul is born with a certain purpose and the light of that purpose is kindled in his soul”
It is precisely because the Spirit alone is the everlasting reality that the infinite mystery of the material world can never be explained merely in earthly language In the words of Loren Eisley, “In the 45 years of my existence every atom, every molecule that composes me has changed its position or danced away and beyond to become part of other things. New molecules have come from the grass and bodies of animals to be part of me a little while, yet my memories hold, and a loved face of 20 years ago is before me still.”
The body of an adult human being has a thousand billion cells. Each cell is blind; senses it has none. It works in the dark and yet all of them co-operate in the interest of the whole. Sir Charles Sherrington, the eminent physiologist, says: “It is as if an Imminent Principle inspired each cell with knowledge for the carrying out of a design.” Sir Arthur Eddington expressed the same idea: “Physical science has limited its scope so as to leave a background which we are at liberty to, or even invited to, fill with a reality of spiritual import.”
When a man acts without any attachment to earthly bonds, the motivation comes not from the heart’s passions, but from the soul’s clear perception of the indivisible oneness of reality. In this perception, there is no dualism between the perceiver and the perceived and the beholder and the beholden. You cannot tell the dancer from the dance, as W.B. Yeats described it. “The goods of God,” said St John of the Cross “can only be contained in an empty and solitary heart. “You have to empty yourself of all personal greed and lust so that you may be imbued with a selfless and divine purpose. That is the poverty of the spirit which Jesus Christ repeatedly spoke about.
Ibn Khaldun, the 14th century Arab historian, described Sufism as:
.”.. dedication to worship, total dedication to Allah most High, disregard for the finery and ornament of the world, abstinence from the pleasure, wealth, and prestige sought by most men, and retiring from others to worship alone.” (Ibn Khaldun, quoted in Keller, Nuh Ha Mim, The Place of Tasawwuf in Traditional Islam, www.masud.co.uk, 1995)
According to Sufi teachings, the path to experiencing the Divine Presence starts within. It is said that one who realizes oneself realizes the Lord. God is present, but individuals cannot see the Almighty because curtains of ignorance veil their eyes and rust encases their hearts. The average person is ego-centred. Only after he or she has polished the heart and purified the self will the curtains lift, the rust fall away, and the eyes become able to see God.
Through years of effort, Sufi masters developed a scientific approach to achieving such refinement. They discovered that in addition to the mind, human beings have other centres of consciousness that serve as inner faculties for attaining knowledge. Foremost among these centres is the heart. With diligent practice, teachers of Sufism perfected techniques that activate the heart, cultivating profound intuition and realization.
The polished heart becomes a mirror that catches the light of truth and reflects it in one’s consciousness. With this light dawns the understanding that beyond material phenomena, there exists a Being of which everything in the universe is a reflection. One’s own being itself reflects the higher Being.
The famous Sufi woman saint, Rabi’a Basri is perhaps one of the finest exponents of the philosophy of the way a human being surrenders to the master. The journey is so infatuated with divine love that an individual, along with all his bonds to the earthy existence, is virtually snapped form the living world. In a highly moving conversation with God she prays “God, if I worship Thee in fear of hell, burn me in hell. And if I worship Thee in hope of Paradise, exclude me from paradise, but if I worship Thee for Thine own sake, withhold not Thine everlasting Beauty. “When you see that, “everlasting Beauty” in your soul and yourself as one with it, your action will spring from an awareness born of the realisation of self.
The great saints and savants have shown us the value of faith and forgiveness. It is also no surprise that many of these enlightened ones have met their end at the hands of ignorant humanity that either could not understand them or misinterpreted their vision of truth.
Among such enlightened ones, Mansur Ali Hallaj deserves special mention. Hallaj who was born in 858 in Tur in Persia demonstrated through his passionate love for God that even when Truth is put under trial it burns brighter. He would fall into trances in which he said he was in the presence of God and would utter ‘Ana al-Haqq’ (I am the Truth or I am God). He was grossly misunderstood for uttering such words and sentenced to death.
The merger of the soul with God and the concept of absolute truth however are not new to either Western or Eastern religions. Ironically through, Hallaj was killed because his detractors felt that he thought himself to be God. His hands, feet and tongue were lopped off and finally at the time of evening prayer his head was severed. Till the moment he could, he cried: “I am the Truth”, demonstrating his ecstatic love for God. Legend has it that even the ashes of his burnt body cried “I am the Truth” when they were thrown into river Tigris. Hallaj saw the ones who tortured him as servants of God who could not stand any blasphemy against God.
Reminiscent of the forgiveness of Christ on the cross and of Joan of Arc’s concern for her people as she was to burnt at the stake, Hallaj was worried that Baghdad would be flooded by the Tigris when his body would be immersed into the river. He had, therefore, left instructions for his followers. “Lay my robe on the banks, or Baghdad will be destroyed”. Sure enough, they say the waters of the Tigris began to rise when his body fell into them, but a faithful servant laid his master’s robe on the bank and the flood subsided.
The Sufis brought with them the egalitarianism of Islam, shorn of its aggressive proselytising zeal. Their appeal is both individual, offering a salvation ethic based on submission to the divine love of the saint; as well as social, based on the brotherhood of all men, cutting along the dividing lines of caste and creed.
Sufis consider the spirit and body to be one whole. They believe in integration, not dichotomies. What we do in our physical lives affects our spiritually, and vice versa. We cannot look at our lives in a vacuum. Our lives are integrated with our environment, ethics, and family. A well known Sheikh Muzaffar says, “Keep your hands busy with your duties in this world, and your heart busy with God.” Our faith has to be practised daily within our corporate lives. As Sahi, an eminent Sufi mystic exhorts: “A man should be in the marketplace while still working with true reality.”
The fascination of the west with Rumi and Sufi writing isn’t entirely new. The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam was a rage more than 100 years ago in Edward Fitzgerald’s translation. All major mystical British poets have always been aware of Rumi and other Sufi writers. Robert Graves wrote the introduction to Idries Shah’s book The Sufis, which was reviewed at length by Ted Hughes, who said, “The Sufis are the most sensible collection of people on earth.”. Nobel Laureate Doris Lessing has followed the Sufi path. Some of her later works bear the imprint of her interest in Sufi mysticism, which she has interpreted as stressing a link between the fates of individuals and society. In an essay on Idries Shah, she explained its attraction: “Sufi truth is at the core of every religion, its heart, and religions are only the outward vestments of an inner reality.”
She writes further: “They will find the word mysticism has lost its bizarre associations, and that the Way of the Sufi (the title of one of Shah’s books) reveals itself as a sophisticated view of life, embodied in people who through the centuries have always been in advance of their time. Sufis claim that all kinds of notions we think of as Western achievements were part of Sufi knowledge long ago: evolution, for instance, or the power locked in the atom. Their sociological and psychological insights are far in advance of our current ideas. These are most skilled and versatile servants. I have been a student for three decades, and am continually being surprised by what I learn. I have found nothing as informed, subtle, comprehensive, perceptive, anywhere else” Idries Shah claimed no master-ship, no lineage to any particular order, and no disciples as such. Yet his influence through his books was profound to those who became his students and to generations of young idealists, even unto the present day.
Sufism has a long history dating back to very early times. It is perhaps as old as Islam from where it picked up the original thread and wove it into a transcendental philosophy. The first stage of Sufism appeared in pious circles as a reaction against the worldliness of the early Umayyad period (661–749). From their practice of constantly meditating on the words in the Quran (the Islamic holy book) about Doomsday, the ascetics became known as “those who always weep” and those who considered this world “a hut of sorrows.” They were distinguished by their scrupulous fulfilment of the injunctions of the Quran and tradition, by many acts of piety, and especially by a predilection for night prayers. There is a beautiful elaboration of the attributes of a true Sufi:
“In Sufism, eight qualities must be exercised. The Sufi has:
Liberality such as that of Abraham;
Acceptance of his lot, as Ismail accepted;
Patience, as possessed by Job;
Capacity to communicate by symbolism, as in the case of Zachariah;
Estrangement from his own people, which was the case with John;
Woollen garb like the shepherd’s mantle of Moses;
Journeying, like the travelling of Jesus;
Humility, as Muhammad had humility of spirit. “
(Shah 1990: 246)
Sufism’s message of compassion, humility and universal love is attractive and inspiring. But what is a youngster, soaked in the materialist urban milieu in which television provides the greatest input, to make of Sufism? How would he or she understand the Sufi stories?
The following tale from the celebrated Mathnawi of the greatest of Sufi masters, Rumi, illustrates the point. A disciple seeking the Sufi path finally feels he has mastered it and arrives to announce this to his master. He knocks on the door and when asked ‘Who is there?’ answers ‘I’. The master says, ‘Go away, you have not yet acquired knowledge.’ He leaves to return after he has performed more spiritual exercises, and this time when asked who is knocking says ‘Thou’. ‘Come in,’ says the master. ‘There is no room for two in this house.’
This Sufi story illustrates the layers of understanding that lie in Sufism: the obliteration of the ego, the need for the master who will help the quest for knowledge along the divine path, and the search for the true way, the way of God, however difficult and esoteric. These stories are allegories, metaphors, stories within stories, and like the layers of an onion they require patience to peel; they sometimes end in tears.
Several Sufis feel that the time was approaching when their esoteric knowledge, their maps of the unconscious, accumulated over centuries, would be spread to the west, which was now a spiritual desert. While the west has been developing its technological prowess, the dervishes have developed a sophisticated type of inner technology and spiritual engineering, their practices a way of moving towards self-realization. In one poem, Rumi says we should look for God in our hearts, rather than in a church, temple or mosque. Sufis eschew fire-and-brimstone sermons, and rather than forcibly convert those belonging to other religions, they often incorporate local traditions into their own practices. They want to take the sting out of religion. Sufism has enabled people to overcome the social pecking order. It provides the glue that enables the spiritual welding among men and women of diverse traditions so that highbrows and regular folks can coexist in peace.
It is the richness of Sufi music and poetry that that is drawing bankers, politicians, academics and scientists to examine the philosophy behind Sufism. POETRY exercises a special power for Arabs. To a people of desert origins, it takes the partial place of icons and cathedrals, stage drama and political oratory. Yet the Arab canon extends far wider, linking the tribal bards of pre-Islamic Arabia to Sufi mystics. The highest level of consciousness for Sufi is that it is no longer the singer who sings the song but is the song which impels and coaxes the singer with a divine power that weaves a mystic resonance comparable to the highest levels of cosmic beauty. The immense narrative propulsion of this music is enough to raise even the most secular listeners to a state of bewildered grace, irrespective of what they know of the music’s essential, religious connection with Sufism.
A much venerated Sufi of the Indian subcontinent is Bulleh Shah. The poem below is typical of Bulleh’s view of the world. He sees the common underlying reality that lies beneath the mundane, and rejoices in its all pervasiveness. This concept is similar to the monotheistic, omnipresent concept of God that we come across in Sikhism and the Upanishads.
“The soil is in ferment, O friend
Behold the diversity.
The soil is the horse, so is the rider
The soil chases the soil, and we hear the clanging of soil
The soil kills the soil, with weapons of the soil.
That soil with more on it, is arrogance
The soil is the garden so is its beauty
The soil admires the soil in all its wondrous forms
After the circle of life is done it returns to the soil
Answer the riddle O Bulleh, and take this burden off my head.”
The Sufi ideal is to combine the inner and outer life to be active in the world, for example, as an economist or a politician, and at the same time to be inspired by attuning to the divine ideal. The important thing is the balance between these two aspects of like so that the inner light can motivate and shine through worldly activities. Sufism is the message of digging out that water-like life which has been buried by the impressions of this material life. There is an English phrase: a lost soul. But the soul is not lost; it is only buried. When it is dug out divine life bursts forth like a spring. Where is God to be found? He is to be found in the heart of man which is His shrine. But if this heart is buried, if it has lost that light, that life, that warmth what does this heart become. It becomes like a grave. In a popular English song there is a beautiful line which says, “The light of a whole life dies when love is gone.” That living life giving element in the heart is love. It gets overlaid by the dense fog of our worldly pursuit and vain ambitions.
Not every wayfarer who sets out on the path may attain the goal, but for Rumi it is the Sufi path which offers the best potential for attaining true knowledge. What exactly does Rumi understand by Sufism and the quest? How does this mystical way relate to the path of Sharia, or religious law? Neither a separate religion nor a sect of Islam, the Sufi path (Tariqa) is rather a mode of religious observance and a method of self-training and purification, the goal of which is to orient the believer to a religiously-informed spirituality of experience.
Rumi’s Sufism rests upon traditional practices like prayer, fasting and pilgrimage. There is great emphasis on control of baser impulses .Following the example of the prophet Rumi saw everything in existence as continually revealing the Beauty, Generosity, Intelligence, Grace and Love of the Divine Being. Rumi was awestruck and blissfully intoxicated with this love-drenched Oneness. Gradually, Rumi also regained a sobriety expansive enough to contain this ecstatic intoxication and in the course of his life left us a literary legacy that has earned him the title “the Shakespeare of mystics.”
Among the thousands of Hadiths of the Prophet Muhammad are a small number that are called “sacred sayings” (Al-Ahadith Al-Qudsiyyah); in them God speaks in the first person through the Prophet although they are not part of the Quran. This category of Hadiths refers exclusively to the inner life and constitutes a very important source of Sufism. The definition of Sufism as the attainment of inner spiritual virtue (Ihsan) is in fact contained in one of the most famous of these sacred sayings: “Ihsan is that thou adorest God as though thou didst see Him, and if thou seest Him not, He nonetheless seeth thee.” These sayings dealing with the most inward and intimate aspects of the spiritual life have echoed over the centuries within the works of numerous Sufis who have meditated and commented on them. Having issued directly from God, they, therefore, constitute an indispensable source of that inner dimension of Islam that for the most part crystallized and became known as Sufism.
Rumi advocated an individual and interior spirituality, and it is the love, rather than the fear, of God that lies at the heart of his message. He attempts to merge the spirit of the human with the ideal of a god of love, whom Rumi locates within the human heart. Rumi’s first biographer, Aflaki, tells of a man who came to Rumi asking how he could reach the other world, as only there would he be at peace. “What do you know about where He is?” asked Rumi. “Everything in this or that world is within you.”
Because God can best be reached through the gateway of the heart, Rumi believed you did not necessarily need ritual to get to him, and that the Divine is as accessible to Christians and Jews as to Muslims: “Love’s creed is separate from all religions,” he wrote. “The creed and denomination of lovers is God.” All traditions are tolerated, because in the opinion of Rumi anyone is capable of expressing their love for God, and that transcends both religious associations and your place in the social order: “My religion,” he wrote, “is to live through love.”
Yet for all this, Rumi himself always remained an orthodox and practicing Sunni Muslim. As Lewis rightly notes, “Rumi did not come to his theology of tolerance and inclusive spirituality by turning away from traditional Islam, but through immersion in it.” He was not a “guru calmly dispensing words of wisdom capable of resolving, panacea-like, all our ontological ailments”, as he is presented in the translations of Coleman Barks, so much as “a poet of overpowering longing, trying to grope through his shattering sense of loss”.
For Rumi to be a lover of God was not to make some inflated claim for oneself, but actually to admit one’s vulnerability and even helplessness before this Love. Love in some way transforms the lovers and makes them a blessing within creation. Love in its most basic expression is desire, or love of the loveable. We want to possess what we love. This can lead to possessiveness, jealousy and even violence. At another stage love is the wish to share with others in a reciprocal joy. But Rumi described the highest stage of love with these words: “There is no greater love than love with no object.” When a human being matures or evolves to this level of love he or she simply radiates love because he or she is love.
“If the brain and the belly are burning clean with fasting,
Every moment a new song comes out of the fire.
The fog clears,
And a new energy makes you run up the steps in front of you. “
The dilemma of Sufism is best summed up in this lovely quote:
“Today Sufism is a name without a reality. It was once a reality without a name.”
(Abu l-Hasan Fushanji, quoted in Lings, Martin, What is Sufism?, The Islamic Texts Society, 1999,)
Moin Qazi is a well known banker, author and Islamic researcher. He holds doctorates in Economics and English. He is author of several books on Islam including bestselling biographies of Prophet Muhammad and Caliph Umar. He writes regularly for several international publications including Daily Sabah (Turkey) Moroccan Times, Chicago Monitor, Sudan Vision and Times of Malta. He was also a Visiting Fellow at the University of Manchester. He is based in Nagpur.
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