Heightened Senses

Hello. I'm Imraan. This is the only thing I own outright; and yes, I'm wearing a T-shirt.

On Loo Roll, Decay, Emptiness and Death.

Today, I had the fortune of having a mini class-reunion of sorts; naturally I had to be stoned on my medication in order to attend, and the loudness of all of the chatter in the restaurant was only tempered by a fair dose of clonazepam, baclofen, nortriptyline, gabapentin, paracetamol and a couple of other things. It was interesting to see how quickly since the last time, people’s lives had moved on. Of those who attended, all were in serious, long-term committed relationships, two had married. Others couldn’t attend because of work and the great distances they had to travel, and others still had family-type commitments. Professional training, finishing off qualifications, taking on multiple degrees, and still able to juggle having dinner with us.

Now, I usually avoid social gatherings out of the house; whilst I can get out in my wheelchair when reclining, I’m usually warned by relatives to avoid it if possible as my health can make a scene of its own accord, as it briefly did this evening. Crippling chest spasms – thankfully, I was in a class of bona fide geniuses who are now doctors, so I knew I was in good hands if things went wrong. But I reclined at the restaurant with my feet on the wheelchair to regulate my blood-pressure, and eventually with more medication, it abated.

Thereafter, I had to attend another venue where I expected to be picked up, but it would appear life had other plans and I was delayed for an hour and a half. A decent hour and a half – but I had to at the hour mark, ask for some assistance to use the restroom.

When in there, I saw an empty roll of tissue paper (or whatever the cardboard type insert is) and its emptiness horrified me. I of course replaced it, praying I wouldn’t catch e. Coli or some bizarre infection from it. What surprised me was how much a roll of tissue paper could speak to me.

But I couldn’t quite interpret what it said. Either it suggested that my life had run out of steam, that I was quite literally empty with nothing of substance or use to anyone and a kind of annoyance, as an empty roll in a public restroom might be, or that I had quite literally (again) been used up.

The thing with Severe ME, chronic Neuro-Lyme Disease, Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, Fibromyalgia, some sort of congenital myopathy, trigeminal neuralgia, migraines, Multiple Chemical Sensitivity,  Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome, Osteoporosis, scoliosis, and whatever else I’m not currently remembering…. is that all of these things sap you to a husk of what one once was. Sure, today I was lucid compared to the last reunion three years ago – thankfully clonazepam helps with brain-fog and spasms to some degree – but there is a kind of emptiness I noticed as I was being wheeled into this public restroom. I remembered Elvis – what would happen if I had gone in and not made it out?

What would have been left of me, and by what would I have been remembered. For a brief moment I pitied myself, yet on the other hand I couldn’t help but consider what kind of relief it might be to others if I was gone. I returned home this evening, was helped into my room after a short rest-period, and helped to change my clothing, and then I said to the person who helped me, I’m in extreme pain.

“I’m off, call me if you need me.” And she shut the door tightly on me. I realised then that I had sucked this person dry to the point of exhaustion, and that my pain levels were really no consideration of hers. That I was unable to eat from exhaustion annoyed everyone anyhow, but what was treacherous was the coldness with which the door was gently slammed (!) on me as I complained of being in severe pain. Ho hum; technically it’s not their business unless I need an ambulance, and in honesty, perhaps I might if this goes on.

However, I have clearly tugged at the toilet-roll a little too much in my years of sickness, having just passed the ten year mark from when it all started, and much like an empty roll, it felt as if I had no purpose other than to be discarded.

And that brings me to the question of meaning; what is it the chronically ill have to do in order to live fulfilling lives? A couple of years ago an aunt of mine said, if not admonished, (to) me -” you know disabled people can still get married, they can still study,” and so on – which in and of it self is true, but of course it cannot apply to me in my current state. I try to read as much as I can, and study what interests me in-between scheduling hospital appointments and trying to sleep, sometimes when no amount of sedation is of any use. A relationship – at least a religiously sanctioned one – is out of the question and that’s fine. It is something with which I can live, but can I live with having to sleep so much?

Chronic illness is isolating in this regard – I’m surrounded by people – yet why do I feel me, or that the likes of me,  are so alone? What difference does any purpose or goal I set for myself, such as a half hour’s study in a day, or making it to the kitchen once a day for a meal, or trying to spend a half hour in total silence..what does any of that have to do with serving another human being other than myself?

Not long ago I found myself nearly paralysed to the couch, unable to move because my heart and chest felt like they were on the verge of explosion; someone said, “I’ve got to go”, to which I curtly responded, “so, I could be dying but you need to go to sleep? Fair enough.” I know I shouldn’t have been snarky, and I was likely not going to die that night (nonetheless afraid of having to call an ambulance), but still, that I needed or expected someone to assist or serve me when I had nothing in exchange to give made me sound like a selfish jerk.

With chronic, treacherous illnesses, where there is no end in sight or no real treatment available, especially where the illnesses overlap (my two attempts at hydrotherapy and the subsequent ambulance visits thereafter resulted in the cancellation of this physiotherapy because I could not just cope, and my doctor considered it dangerous), and very little can be done at a very slow pace, one considers the meaning of life. And of death.

You can’t help but ask, would others be better off if you died, because then they would have one less major burden in their life? I don’t anticipate death would bring sweet relief, and I’m not at all saying it’s an escape. Nor am I encouraging anyone to seek it.

We’ve all had those three a.m conversations with ourselves in terms of “what is the meaning of life?” – yet my existential question is, what could I contribute to make meaning?

Meaning in this sense seems inherently selfish – if I had meaning, it’d make me feel better primarily, with a service rendered to others secondary. Is the order of priorities wrong? Probably. But what is there about which I can do with regard to it? It seems all we can do in these states is to serve ourselves.

I happen to be a theist, and at some level find myself having to accept that the gift of life is still a gift, whatever the hardship. And that Graces abound – I am not poor, I have friends, I can finally wear my clothes without screaming in pain, I can tolerate lights and sounds to some extent because I have expensive earplugs, ear-defenders, sunglasses at the ready, sedatives to depress my central nervous system. But to whom is the service rendered if not to me?

What I am saying is…well, like the empty piece of cardboard roll, I feel pulled empty; and the longer this illness goes on, I’m pulling on the toilet paper of the lives of those who have to look after me. I saw tonight what happens when I complain of pain when others are running on empty.

I am thankful for the graces that I have, and the humanity with which others are so wonderful at/in serving me; yet my soul feels as if it’s dying and decaying, and that life is somehow passing me by whilst I live this existence of illness. I’d hate to think that this is the reason for which I was created and set into being, it is hard to accept. I don’t want to be a hero and ‘give meaning’ to someone else’s life, the white knight archetype or anything – I’d just like to give back.

Is the purpose of my existence to surrender? To turn almost entirely inwards, to steer into the sickness and its usual limitations and essentially become a hermit who lives a life of prayer. As the brilliant writer/author/theologian Sara Maitland once said (I paraphrase), “The more time for prayer one has, the more interesting prayer gets.” And she aspires to about 80 percent silence, being pulled into religious experience.

I, long ago, gave up on doing advocacy for these illnesses, as alas, I create an echo-chamber; at one point I thought that advocating for this state of illness would serve others; but life is precious, tiring, and busy. Maybe I might lay in bed henceforth, as I usually do, and just contemplate myself at the point of death, because then and then only might I wake up to the fact that I’m a fickle and frail being, or will I perhaps wake up to opportunities I currently cannot see?

But that’s not to say I didn’t realise the same thing, the emptiness, the void of meaning in my life and actions,  when it came to having run out of toilet-paper in that public restroom.

Why I Refuse to Write About Trivial Things 

A solid head on his shoulders; I tend to into the muck when I occasionally have a rant about pop-culture and rage against what post-modernity is doing to systematically melt our minds. Jamison, our brother in arms, has his priorities straight (he said, grovelingly ;) )

Jamison Writes

My life, as it plays out in my mind, is a series of fragmented memories. Perhaps it is my foggy brain, or just a normal faded memory, but my mind feels like it is filled with a bunch of blotchy points set in time.

10 years ago I was graduating high school, seven years ago I was in college — flipping huge tractor tires in my backyard. Three years ago I was riding my bike and getting increasingly sicker; two years ago I was on my deathbed, last year my health started to improve, and now this year, I’m on the verge of getting out of bed again.

These are the moments and associated topics I choose to write about for many of my essays and blog posts.

I also write about newsy topics, sure, but only if I am able to fit in a paragraph or two about a…

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The Theophany of Perfection

Oh, my beloved! How many times I have called you without your hearing Me!

How many times have I shown myself without your looking at Me!

How many times have I become perfume without your inhaling Me!

How many times I have become food without your tasting Me!

How is it that you do not smell Me in what you breathe?

How do you not see Me, nor hear Me?

I am more delicious than anything delicious,

More desirable than anything desirable,

More perfect than anything perfect.

I am Beauty and Grace!

Love Me and love nothing else

Desire Me

Let Me be your sole concern to the exclusion of all concerns.

Ibn ‘Arabi

 

 

Self-Evidence

“The wonderful thing about holiness, when you really encounter it, is that it testifies to itself.”

David Bentley Hart, A Splendid Wickedness

What was once obvious – just look up.

“What most men do not know- and if they could know it, why should they be called on to believe? – is that this blue sky, though illusory as an optical error and belied by the vision of interplanetary space, is nonetheless an adequate reflection of the Heaven of the Angels and the Blessed and that therefore, despite everything, it is this blue mirage, flecked with silver clouds, which is right and will have the final say; to be astonished at this amount to admitting that it is by chance that we are here on earth and see the sky as we do.”

Frithjof Schuon.

The Beatific Vision – Sickness, Suffering and the Divine Names

Over the last years, as I’ve dealt with furiously fluctuating (ill)health and occasional moments of despair, not least the other week when I was laying on that hospital trolley. Whilst I was there, and in the moments of lucidity I had, I started to read (via Kindle (c) ) and article by a modern-day mystic, Shaykh Nuh Ha Mim Keller, On Suffering and Divine Wisdom.

Here are some passages I found particularly interesting, and occasionally profound, from sections 4 and 6 of his text. I can’t say I always agree with his particular (and occasionally austere) Sufi vision, but in the broad scheme of individual suffering in Light of the Divine, it certainly offers food for thought). The first passage is somewhat complex, just because of the Arabic terminology particularly in reference to the Names with which the Divine Addresses Himself, but can be summed up in these three excerpts that I have taken. These names seem to interplay in the world, and the world seems to be a kind of theophanic revelation of God’s Self-Disclosure in these Names, and so it takes someone with discernment, gnosis, ma’rifa to be able to see which Names are in play at any time, and what they could mean.

There is, also, a kind of serenity with which he accepts ‘Fate’ in so far as it applies to God’s Will/Command and His Names. Perhaps, like with mindfulness-type projects, it is this non-resistance to the world that can benefit the chronically troubled or sick. All is in His Hands, and all that we have to offer is the best that we can do. The best, that is, in terms of heightening what dignity we have, and to efface our egos in the Face of His Majesty, which strikes so blindingly, especially for the chronically ill.

  1. “The particular significance here for theodicy is that the perfection of this world and the next lies in the totality of the myriad interpenetrative and interconnected modes, factors, and implications of these names. For each particular existent’s “perfection” is only over others, which to that extent must be subject to some privation, whether experienced as pain, evil, or suffering.”
  2. The believer, the saint, the ‘arif or knower of Allah directly and experientially–all know Allah in His manifestations and determinations, each according to his own illumination and consciousness of the Divine. They are patent in the wondrous balance in the natural world between species, whose interests are inextricably intertwined by feeding, parasitism, symbiosis, and most dramatically perhaps, predation…
  3. “A “good job” for example, only exists in contradistinction to the less rewarding ways in which other people have to earn a living. Moreover, a certain complementarity imbues the very terms in which the perfection of particulars is construed. Thus triumph has no meaning without the possibility of ruin, or friendship without the possibility of enmity, peace without war, health without disease, safety without peril, might without abasement, or life without death. So privation and evil exist in order to elucidate their opposite, human felicity and perfection; not as any “absolute standard” to measure the Divine, which rather in its entirety measures them. Servanthood means that one accepts that they pertain to man, not to God…

The text:

4. THE CONEXT OF THE DIVINE NAMES

Sheikh ‘Abd al-Rahman taught that the divine names vie over existent things to manifest their implications in them. Consider the example of a young man from a good family, who falls in with bad company and drifts into their way of seeing and doing things, under the influence of the name al-Khafid, the Lowerer, and finally al-Mudhill, the Abaser, until the day comes when he can sink no lower and disgusts even himself. The name al-Tawwab or ‘Relenter’ deploys, he remembers how he was, sees what he has become, and finds himself ashamed before his Maker, to whom he repents. The days and weeks see him improve, under the implications of al-Rafi‘, He Who Raises. He seeks better company, unplugs from bad old ways, and passes into the sphere of al-Wadud, the Solicitous and Tender, to al-Karim, the All-generous, and so forth. The interactions of the names and their determinations are complex and interpenetrative. The name al-Musawwir, for example, the Bestower of Forms, the Fashioner, the Ingrainer, the Organizer, manifests its implications in all existents; while al-Warith, the Inheritor, remains after the implications of the former have been lifted from any particular existent and it has been annihilated, effaced, and dispersed. The name al-Muqaddim, the Advancer, makes one existent precede another, in works, in rank, or in time of appearance; while al-Mu’akhkhir, the Delayer, the Demoter, postpones existents and events until after others, or keeps them back, or lowers them. The name al-Wahhab, the Liberal, the Bountiful, the Giver, dispenses His bounties perpetually, freely, universally, and for nothing in return; while al-Mani‘, the Preventer, stops, denies, checks, and prevents attacks. The name al-Nafi‘, the Benefiter, promotes, helps, and does good to whomsoever He wills; while al-Darr, the Afflicter, damages, harms, and mars whomever He wills. The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said: “Verily, Allah has ninety-nine names. Whoever comprehends all of them shall enter paradise” (Tirmidhi (19), 5.532: 3508. S)….

The believer, the saint, the ‘arif or knower of Allah directly and experientially–all know Allah in His manifestations and determinations, each according to his own illumination and consciousness of the Divine. They are patent in the wondrous balance in the natural world between species, whose interests are inextricably intertwined by feeding, parasitism, symbiosis, and most dramatically perhaps, predation…

Here, the good Shaykh provides an example of how the Divine Names seem to interplay with one another; that in this realm of finite possibilities, of life and death, perhaps it takes time to achieve a balance. However, the passage of time appears to allow us to apprehend the beauty of the way things are, a manifestation of infinite Wisdom and Perfection.

“On Isle Royale, for example, a forty-five-mile-long wilderness sanctuary separated by fourteen miles of open water of Lake Superior from the coast of Ontario, there were no moose until 1908, when a number of them swam across the channel to escape wolves on the mainland. By 1915, their numbers had increased to two hundred. The population, unhindered by natural enemies, kept steadily increasing until 1930, when they had eaten up so much of the vegetation on the island that they were starving in droves, emaciated and diseased. The eight hundred or so moose continued, miserably famished and ill, until the winter of 1948—49, when a pack of some twenty timber wolves came across the ice and began to prey on the herd. They were soon reduced to some six hundred, or thirty moose to each wolf, which is the natural balance between the two species in the wild. The outward ferocity of the wolves bringing down the individual moose and eating them, the inevitable fear and blood and suffering of the prey at the fangs of the predator, proved to be a divine mercy resulting in the recovery of the species as a whole on the isle. Within a few years, the herd was better fed and healthier than any time in the previous half century it had lived there (The Seven Mysteries of Life (13), 474—75)…

“The particular significance here for theodicy is that the perfection of this world and the next lies in the totality of the myriad interpenetrative and interconnected modes, factors, and implications of these names. For each particular existent’s “perfection” is only over others, which to that extent must be subject to some privation, whether experienced as pain, evil, or suffering.

“A “good job” for example, only exists in contradistinction to the less rewarding ways in which other people have to earn a living. Moreover, a certain complementarity imbues the very terms in which the perfection of particulars is construed. Thus triumph has no meaning without the possibility of ruin, or friendship without the possibility of enmity, peace without war, health without disease, safety without peril, might without abasement, or life without death. So privation and evil exist in order to elucidate their opposite, human felicity and perfection; not as any “absolute standard” to measure the Divine, which rather in its entirety measures them. Servanthood means that one accepts that they pertain to man, not to God…

Imam Juwayni, Ghazali’s sheikh in tenets of faith, expressed this by saying, “There is neither good nor evil in the actions of Allah Most Blessed and Exalted in respect to His divinity, for all actions are equal in respect to Him; while their levels but differ in respect to created servants (al-‘Aqida al-Nizamiyya (11), 35—36)” [Emphasis mine].

“This supreme sovereignty of Allah is ultimately the reason why theodicy, if earnestly discussed by divines of other faiths, has far less relevance for Muslims. The ethos of Islam or ‘submission to Allah’ does not reduce the order of created being, with all its complexity, to pleasure or pain, joy or suffering, good or evil, for these refer to created individuals. It instead acknowledges that the universe is a larger context, a theater, an examination room, for human actions to mirror the degrees, shades, and nuances of the Creator’s love or wrath. The theophany of Allah’s love is in human tawfiq or ‘divinely given success’ in obeying Him. The theophany of His wrath is in human khidhlan or the ‘divine abandonment’ of a servant to his own pride and folly. There is no mystery as to which is which, because Allah has sent us messengers to make it plain, given us eyes and ears with which to apprehend their message, an intellect with which to understand it, and a life and death in which to realize it. Acting upon what one thus knows brings about an illuminatory hal or state in which the wisdom of suffering and privation is taken for granted, because the resultant qurb or nearness has transmuted the experience of them into tawfiq rather than khidhlan.

If you cannot, then, reduce God, to the kind of anthropomorphic vision of the Divine through which to examine Him, then perhaps the only recourse we have is His Names, and to see how they Manifest.

 

6. THE DIVINE WISDOM IN SUFFERING AND EVIL
“Someone just and good would not allow suffering and evil if he could prevent them,” is contradicted by many examples of Allah’s wisdom, justice, and goodness, in creation that entail suffering and evil, of which the following are only the most plain after a little reflection.

The Next World

“The value of one over infinity approaches zero. So too, the time one spends in this world pales to insignificance before eternity, where in the next world, each of us will realise that in this one, “you bode but little” (Qur’an 23:113). Allah [and really, this is just the Arabic term for ‘God’ if taken more generically] has placed the story of each particular human being, the creative theophany of the Rahman or Most Merciful, in the larger context of forever, the special theophany of the Rahim or All-[C]ompassionate to those who were His true servants in this world. The eternity of the afterlife furnishes the true measure and context of the transitory sufferings of this life, which are ephemeral in comparison.

“Rumi alludes to this ‘global answer’ to suffering in his parable of the sapling in the midst of the leafless winter, shivering and muttering to itself about the misery of the biting wind and cold, unable to think why God should do such a thing to it. The answer finally comes in the form of the warm and verdant springtime. IN the trajectory of a believer’s life and afterlife, when springtime comes it lasts forever.”

Of course, this isn’t a suggestion for complacency or a fideistic vision, for who knows whom the Almighty will take to be their true believer?

Joys and Suffering as Signs

“Abu ‘Ali al-Radhabari used to say, “What He has made manifest of His blessings indicates what He yet conceals of his generosity.” The experience of those with ma’rifa [I guess, for want of a better term for it, gnosis] in this world is but a foretaste of the incommensurability of beatific vision of God in the next…. [emphasis mine]

For its part, disease is a harrowing ordeal, especially psychologically, since most of us tend to identify closely with our bodies. Yet through its pain and travail we come to understand how little we could bear endless suffering, teaching us to implore Allah to spare us from the hellfire, thus serving as a means of our deliverance. As Ibn ‘Ata Illah [a famous and important mystic, d. 709 AH]  has said, “Whenever He loosens your tongue with a petition, know that He wants to give to you.” (Hiram (8), 37: 102).


Prayer

“Central to worship is supplicating the Worshipped. “Say, ‘My Lord would not even concern Himself with you were it not for your supplication” (Qur’an 25:77). Unlike friends, relatives and virtually everyone else, Allah loves to be asked and dislikes not to be. The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said, “Truly, supplication is what worship is, “then he recited, “And your Lord says, ‘Call on Me and I will answer you: Verily those too haughty to worship Me shall inevitably enter hell, utterly humiliated” [40:60]

“…if not for the problems, fears, inadequacies, and pain man faces, he would remain turned away from the door of the Divine generosity, and miss an enormous share of worship that benefits him in this world and the next.”

Fear, Pain, Death

(Edit – I was on a heck of a lot of medication when I wrote this, so I apologise for all manner of errors found in this piece, but I hope the sentiments come across as I had intended them.)

I don’t know how they do it. Honestly. Hospital workers, nursing-staff in particular as opposed to doctors who are, by design it would seem, colder and more clinical. Anyhow, this is the second time in four days I’ve been ambulanced (sic) off to the Emergency Room to deal with pain issues that I thought were akin to Satan straddling upon my chest. Satan, and an elegant the size of Satan, too.

Of course, when you have Severe ME, Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, Neuro-Lyme Disease, and Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome, no doctor really know what to do with you.

This post isn’t so much about what happened -and not much – the fact that I was writhing around in so much pain despite the fact that I was on enough painkillers to stun one of The Rolling Stones at least twice over was suggestive that there is something going on beneath the surface. But they couldn’t find it, and so here I am, back at home, somewhat tranquilliser and utterly exhausted.

An increasing sensation upon entering a hospital these days, however is one that really does grip me to the core. The impending sense of my mortality, and by extension, Doom. Sure, the Almighty proclaims His Mercy supersedes His Justice, according to Scripture, but yet there is so much for which I need to atone, still. My body is increasingly breaking, the doctors know-not what to do, and the ever increasing chances of a life lived with any sense of normality without battling symptom after symptom after symptom – well the negative possibilities multiply as we speak, to borrow from our friend Griffin, the Fifth-Dimesnional being.

What I cannot get to the root of, however, is my utter sadness every time the ambulance staff decide to take me into hospital. Pure and utter grief. On laughing gas today to help with the pain (the second canister I used-up this week), I was on the verge of tears. Both in resignation that I could not get a transfer to the right hospital nor have anyone manage my pain levels for me, alas, is that the world seems to cave in around me just a bit every time I’m admitted, or offered a new diagnosis. This is what is so utterly heartbreaking. My fear of the Afterlife is rather profound, I admit, but what about the fear I suffer of a life not-yet lived. Ten years have gone by, and we’re closer to no-answers, but umpteen diagnosis. What happens at the next crisis of pain, or the one after that? What happens as I watch the cycle of life and death all around me in a sterile, artificial environment where most professionals have to be detached from the patient in order to survive? Aside from my own sins, why do I fear death so much, when  I have so many friends who have systematically tried to end their own lives?

Why he utter dread upon entering the hospital, a place where I expect to be helped, where most people expect help, too? Is it because I’ve been let-down too many times and am seeing the fires of Doom ahead? Or because dismissive doctors insist that there is no other pain-type medication available to me to take, whilst I writhe around in unholy discomfort begging for them to make it stop?

Anyway, there is something about pain that is so humanising. It’s almost primal. It forces you to interact with a form of yourself so both physical and psychic that has no necessary root cause, nor one that can be treated with any simple solution. But the humanising aspect of it is that you find yourself begging for death during such an episode, or praying, or doing both…desperate for some release, sick to your stomach that you’ve wasted an evening of a relative accompanying you to the hospital to almost no avail, and finally praying that there was ‘something’ that could be done. I ramble here, but I’m trying to get to the root of why this pain has the habit of making me face-down mortality in ways not imaginable.

In years past, when I was healthier, I could easily visit the sick an the frail in hospitals, show something akin to love and make the m comfortable in my own capacity. Now, in severe discomfort and paramedics not knowing what to do with me other than “well we can’t keep giving you gas and air every time”, suddenly my comfort has taken precedent, and my own self has become the locus of my own being – that selfish part of me that only sees me and my immediate pain.

I long to see transcendence and patience, the state of riḍā, yet on the other hand how do you got about it when your immediate physical experience is only competing you to sink into the swamp of despair. Sure, you truly feel helpless, and God Almighty before you with prayers, but otherwise, where is the real semblance, even, of gnosis? Why are there days in such situation when you beg for death so you might not burden those around you, or feel guilty for having called a paramedic to you when there are genuine people dying? Sure, no one knows this for a fact, but equally pain and humility don’t seem to go hand-in-hand for me these days, for all I see is death every time I try to get some help.

Allah is Greater, and I guess I have to make peace with his will. But my life seems so lost to me, direction and purposeless, only battling symptoms and not realising how insular the conditions have made me. Maybe it is a part of a Plan, though to be let in on it might be a pleasure, too…

The Life of Faith

“The Life of Faith…[is] very hard in our culture. It’s not because our culture doesn’t believe in God, it’s because our culture doesn’t believe in Death….we have quite a lot of people in this country… and in the West in general, who believe in God, but they don’t believe in death really, and as a result, don’t really get the point…

“And we do live in a culture that’s dedicated to distracting us from this inconvenient truth. Because, really, what is the business of life if you are A Good American, say, or a good Late-Modern Westerner? It is to buy things. Things. And more things. Some toys. And then some other things, and some more toys. And then to buy some things. That’s what ‘Life’ is. And I’ll tell you, if you think too much about God and the soul, if you haven’t turned God and the soul into happy names for ‘American values,’ but you really think about them and then you think about the horizon of Death, you start thinking that buying things might not be enough to keep Death at bay….and then you might stop buying things! And we know where that leads…Norwegian dentistry.”

David Bentley Hart.

The death of a true saint

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This weekend was incredibly sad; the lion of the Arab Spring in Saudi Arabia was executed, along with forty-six other poor souls, on trumped-up ‘terrorism’ charges. What he did was called for a peaceful uprising against the government.

Watch this speech. I would much rather that our Prime Minister support a man as principled as the late Sh. Nimr and not those odious Kings and Princes that spread widespread takfirism and were the precursors to the so-called ‘Islamic State’

This is a man of principle. May the Almighty Embrace this saint and warrior against imperialism and tyranny.

Friends, there is another Islam that you don’t see. Please always remember this.

Every branch reverts to its root, no more in any way than when it sprang forth.

My Arabic is sadly not where I’d like it to be, so I have to rely upon a translation (by Ralph Austin, see here for original link and commentary by Austin).

That said, I hope you enjoy this poem as much as I did. I don’t tend to read much of poetry – the sheer exertion to decipher them can send me spiralling into overthought!

However, in this case, I had to make an exception. This is from the writings of the great Andalusian Sufi master, Abū ‘Abd Allāh, Muḥammad ibn ‘Alī ibn Muḥammad ibn ‘Arabī al Ḥātimī aṭ-Ṭā’ī, better known to most as Muḥyiddīn ibn ‘Arabī (d. 1165) who is said to be among the most sophisticated and original thinkers the Islamic tradition has ever produced, and whose insights into the Divine, received to regular ‘unveilings’ through which he composed some of his most important works.

The following poem was constructed at some point after he buried his seven-year-old daughter, with his own hands, and his reflections on the matter. Often I’ve heard critics level profound judgements on those mystics, perhaps because they have no sense of perspective nor have not suffered, which is why they felt they could always see the Divine, His Beauty, His Love, etc.; ibn ‘Arabī himself writes what is a moving and (for me) devastating piece of poetry regarding his relationship to his Creator on such a tragic occasion . He seems to foray into his perception of the Divine Reality in the middle somewhere (and for someone like me, uninitiated, I cannot dare to comment on the specifics), but I’ve highlighted to you verses that spoke to me, giving this poetry significant poignancy given the occasion upon its composition.

The themes of the world of multiplicity, the ‘other-ness’ in relation to God, how His Names manifest in a world so relative, and so on are beyond my scope.

If you are unable to read the whole of the commentary, might I suggest you look at just those below verses 19-20, and 21, the latter of which seems to suggest that these profound mystical insights came to him, were triggered by, the demise of his daughter,  which are both gripping and shocking in content. I’ve pasted these below in block quotes. All credit goes to Ralph Austin.

Is it really possible to see His Agency in everything then, when even such a sad happening brings out such depths?I pray this is as edifying for you as (I hope it will be) for me.

With love, and wishes for a thoroughly blessed year ahead, meanwhile. I shall try not to leave it a year before I write again.

1. With my very own hands I laid my little daughter to rest becauseshe is of my very flesh, 

2. Thus am I constrained to submit to the rule of parting, so that myhand is now empty and contains nothing. 

3. Bound to this moment we are in, caught between the yesterday thathas gone and the tomorrow that is yet to come. 

4. This flesh of mine is as pure silver, while my inner reality is as pure gold.

5. Like a bow have I grown, and my true posture is as my rib. 

6. My Lord it is who says that He has created me in a state of suffering and loss. 

7. How then can I possibly hope for any rest, dwelling as I do in sucha place and state? 

8. Were it not for that state I would be neither child nor parent. 

9. Nor indeed would there be any to compare with me as is the casewith my Creator. 

10. It is surely a case of the qualification being one with respect to an essence which is full of implicit multiplicity. 

11. Because I am for my Creator, in our creation like one of a multitude. 

12. Then my God alighted between us, in the very fabric of existence – not merely a figment of belief.

13. All with a firm, well established emergence, to which I may trace my antecedents with confidence.

14. Thus, on the one hand, I can say that I am a mortal like yourselves, while You do vouch for me.

15. Always, however, on the understanding that I am not ultimately a ‘like’, thus to maintain my integrity.

16. For You have banished all ‘being like’ from me in the pre-eternal state; and that is my conviction.

17. See how sublime and lofty is my garden of paradise, secure in the company of matchless beautiful maidens.

18. He speaks of this as we have also in our book the Maqsid ai-Asmā’.

19. Is not created nature His family and people, as also the very
essence of the Unique One? 

20. Consider how He is a consort for her and how they came together
upon my being, so that it split asunder. 

21. These words of mine are not written after long deliberation, but have been a part of me eternally.

22. It was none but the apostle of the Eternal One who activated them within me.

23. He it was who dictated it, leaving me to write it with my hand.

24. Thus is the matter, and none truly knows it,

25. Save a leader of the spirit surpassing in goodness or one of the
golden mean.

26. Indeed, one who is ‘other’ cannot know it now or ever.

27. Every branch reverts to its root, no more in any way than whenit sprang forth.

Commentary to verse 19-20:

Verses 19 and 20 are really quite shocking in the context of Islamic religion. They are extremely paradoxical and are perhaps the most powerful two verses of the poem.

19. Is not created nature His family and people, as also the very
essence of the Unique One?

Nature, as representative of creation, is in this line a feminine word. As Ibn ‘Arabi points out in the last chapter of the Fusūs, the male God or the male element is surrounded by two female elements-created nature and the very essence itself of God which contains all the essences that we are. It is also a feminine word – dhdt. Nature, the creation itself and the sophic basis of that creation – the deep inner wisdom which provides all the material for that creation are as a family, like a wife and family for God, the Reality. He speaks then of His family. His ahl – His household. The creation is compared to a household – a family or a wife to God but, also the very innermost essence. Here we have the union of the two things that were contrasted in the earlier part of the poem – the worldly state and the pre-eternal state are brought together. They are both a ‘consort’ for the Divine One and therefore, very much a part of the Divine. This is a very difficult idea to articulate without causing certain misunderstandings which is rather compounded in the next verse.

20. Consider how He is a consort for her and how they came together upon my being, so that it split asunder.

‘Her’ is Nature on the one hand and the Essence on the other. In this verse, the Arabic word ba’al is used meaning a husband or a consort. (The Arabic word ba’al is the same word as ‘Baal’ used in this way in the Old Testament.) God is seen here as the consort of the double but single feminine. Therefore, the rest of the line is concerned with how ‘they’ consummated their union ‘… upon my being’. Here ‘my being’ (wujudi) is the material which provides the wherewithal for a birth to result from this union of God the Divine al-Haqq and His inner/outer consort. The Hindu concept shakti gives a similar taste of what is indicated by this idea for without the shakti nothing would happen and thus, God would be alone and undivided. It is only the shakti –  the female energy (expressed here by Ibn ‘Arabi in terms of the inner essence and the outer world) which can bring about the whole drama of creation. In this respect then, ‘my being’ is ‘my inner essence – my divine pre-existent being’. The words ‘… so that it split asunder’ refer to the fact that because of the coming together of these two elements, the difference between them became apparent. In many ways, this situation is similar to the vivification of the egg in the womb – splitting, dividing into the eternal and non-eternal.

Verses 19 and 20 are very powerful and central forming the actual conclusion of the poem. In the beginning we had the difference between the two things, then the linking of the two things by the worshipped God and finally the identity of the two things in a union which itself again produces the difference once more so that it is really a cycle that is being discussed here. These two verses are concerned with what is known in religion as hieros gamos – the sacred marriage.

Commentary to verse 21:

21. These words of mine are not written after long deliberation, but
have been a part of me eternally.

This verse harks back to the constant theme of eternal subsistence in this poem. He is saying, in effect: “I have not sat down and thought: ‘What sort of poem can I write? What has my daughter’s funeral conveyed to me?.'” Ibn ‘Arabi is declaring that this rich and difficult poem that he has written has always been there in his heart of hearts, in his deepest depths – from all eternity. His daughter’s death and funeral simply served to trigger the release and articulation of these thoughts, images and ideas into writing.

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