Heightened Senses

Hello. I'm Imraan. This is the only thing I own outright; I write from time to time, in the hopes that free-association might save a trip to a sanatorium.

Category: Islam

Be God’s Alone

Know (and may God be merciful to you) that the destitute, when he exchanges the remembrance of all things for the remembrance of God, purifies his servitude, and whoever serves God in a pure and unmixed way is holy…So remember only God; be God’s alone; for if you are God’s, God will be yours and blessed is he who belongs to God so that God is His…

(Letters of the Sufi Master: The Shaykh al-Darqāwī, Trans. Titus Burckhardt; with minor modifications [Fons Vitae; Louisville, KY])

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The Sun of God’s Meaning: Love, Decree and Destiny

Hello to my regular three readers!
Below, you’ll find a passage from a book that I find rather magnificent on the question of reconciling the nature of ‘Decree and Destiny’ from a mystical perspective.
It is worth noting that the ‘Tree of Knowledge’ is here understood as the ‘Tree of Love’, and that seems to be the starting point from which her discourse is rooted (pun intended)
Ref: Beauty and Light: Mystical Discourses by a Contemporary Female Sufi Master – the Shaykha Cemelnur Sargut – who I believe heads one of the branches of the Rifa’i order in Turkey. (Ed. Tehseen Thaver; Trans. Cangüzel Zülfikar) (Fons Vitae; Louisville, KY: 2017), pp 84-93.
Hopefully my transcription of this pages is faithful to the original – there will likely be several typographical errors, but I can’t find them now (so, good luck to you)
The latter half of the passage in particular is quite something, and gave me a lot of pause. I pray it affects you in profound ways, too. And also, if you can get a hold of the book for yourself, I guarantee (by the Grace of God, of course) that you will find it of profound spiritual value.
She is rather unique in terms of her public persona in terms of being a Sufi master, she has a science background, and has a following made-up predominantly of seekers who happen to be women (to the chagrin of her male followers, of course, who have to try and get more time with her when they feel somewhat sidelined – I paraphrase but it’s in the introduction).
The passages in the first couple of chapters on the stations of the garden of the heart are particularly striking, though since I’ve been in thought about the nature of the world, theodicy, decree and so forth, this passage really spoke to me. I wish you well in your explorations of this rather resplendent saint.
Much love, and God bless to you all.

____ ____ ____

“Q: Was Adam punished because after being made the site of manifestation for God’s essence, he approached the tree of love and became attached to the attributes?

“A: Very true. From the essence, he became attached to the attributes. And perhaps it is on account of his going back from the essence to the attributes that Iqbal says, “The pleasure of paradise was inscribed in his heart, when he himself was the essence and paradise. This is why he was cast out.” But in my opinion, Adam did not commit a sin. He did what he had to do, and this is how he came to acknowledge and his own non-existence and nothingness. To reach the point of realising our non-existence and say, “We don’t exist,” we must first commit mistakes and errors [emphasis mine]. I was recently speaking to a friend who said, “I used to love drinking…but I gave it up; was my act of giving up the habit more worthy to God than the restraint of a person who never drank?” Of course not. You will make mistakes – accept that you have made mistakes, and then refrain from them for God. In the eyes of God, restraint and renouncement for His sake is admirable, because it requires struggle and effort. and God loves the struggle and effort of human beings when it is for His sake. Consider two individuals that profess their love for each other, but are unable to make any sacrifices for the other. Can this be called love? No, it cannot. Similarly, simply saying, “O God, I love You!” is not enough. The real question is how much are you able and prepared to sacrifice for your beloved. Do you fear that you might lose your beloved? Our relationship with and love for God should produce these concerns [emphasis mine]. Going back to Adam and Eve, it is as if God spoke those words to Adam. It is also as if God made human beings capable of and passionately inclined towards love, and pushed them towards it. Let us connect that point with the poem of Kenan Rifa’i. Wasn’t a similar thing said to Husayn, the Adam of his time? Most certainly, he was told, “Dear son, don’t proceed, else you will suffer immediately.” But just like Adam, Husayn too chose non-existence and nothingnesses. He chose to die for his beloved, and by doing so he chose to set an example for all believers. We are so fortunate to have such lovers of God, who make it possible for us to reach this understanding.

“The divine judgments inscribed in heavenly spheres and the stars are also inscribed in the Preserved Tablet and in God’s Book. All of pre-eternity and eternity can be found in the Preserved Tablet and in God’s Book, and the ink of the pen has run dry. Sura An’am (Livestock) says, “…nor is there a single grain in the darkness of the earth, or anything fresh or withered, that is not written in a clear Record.” So if everything is in God’s book, then the conflicting states of hardship and comfort, happiness and oppression, goodness and evil, are all inevitable. We must experience these through the course of our lives. Why? We cannot say, “Why does evil exist?” It exists so that goodness can manifest. Similarly, for God to manifest himself, non-existence is necessary. All things are known through their opposite.

“Some questions might be raised: “What is the purpose of prophetic teachings?” “What are the benefits of prescriptions by doctors or the wisdom of sages?” “If everything is written in God’s book and is inevitable, why do we find the unjust shedding blood due to ignorance and disorder?” I have tried to answer these questions, but let me elaborate further with the help of some examples. The divine judgments that are inscribed in the heavens and the stars are not particular…Rather, those laws are universal… Similarly, in this world, the manifestations of the movements of heavenly spheres and stars are not circumscribed, but universal. Moreover, neither are the effects of the events caused by the movements of heavenly spheres and stars localised. To the contrary, again, those effects are universal.

“Thus when it comes to specific human actions, humans have the prerogative to choose. We decide what to strive towards and what to refrain from. As we said earlier, if we struggle in the way of God, He is content with us and through this we are able to realise our own meaning. Think of it this way: when these comes up, it radiates its light on everything equally. It cannot shine its light on some and not on others. At the same time, though, the sun does enable the maturation and ripening of some things, and the burning of others. Apply this analogy to our discussion: when the sun of God’s meaning rises, it can either cause us to mature and ripen, or to burn. The outcome depends on our abilities and inclinations. As Yunus Emre (d.720/1320) once said, “it is love that makes people crazy; it is love that brings disgrace on people.” What was he trying to say? That love is at once love and fire. [emphasis, mine] While it can strike one person and raise their station, on striking another person, it can make them lustful and lead to their downfall. So under God’s meaning, the orientation of each person corresponds to his or her abilities. People are affected by the same events in different ways, in accordance with their different abilities.

“Q: What are the factors that affect a person’s ‘ability’?

A: A good person is good from the time they are in their mother’s womb. The same is true for a bad person. The world is made up of these two groups. A good person refers to the lover of God. It refers to the person who struggles to reach God’s beauty. God manifests Himself through this type of person. A bad person means “sealed.” About this type, God says, “I manifest in these individuals as a drop, not as a whole.” Bad people exist in this world so that the good can be distinguished. They (the bad) carry no additional burdens for their sins. They will be given no other punishment. Their punishment is already with them. Consider the following story: when the donkey was taken to paradise, it said, ‘Hee haw hee haw!’ When it was taken to hell it said the same thing. On hearing this the people protested, “This donkey doesn’t understand a thing!” God replied, ‘When the donkey is already carrying its punishment on itself, why are you trying to recompense it further?’ The point of the story is this: say a man has a problem with another man and is constantly causing him trouble, to the point where all day he burns in the fire of his own jealousy. He is, at the very least, absolutely miserable. His entire day is spent in pain, as he conspires new ways to cause harm to others. Why would I need to curse such a person when he cannot be any worse off than he already is? He lacks the happiness and peace that I possess; he is in so much pain and discomfort.

The person who submits to God is happy and at peace; he remains unfazed by whatever may happen in this world. In contrast, those who do not submit are constantly burdened by worldly trials and tribulations. They are always in pain, as they themselves become a source of many other problems. I still remember once a woman said to me, ‘I have a weakness for jewelry; I envy even the tiniest piece of artificial jewelry you wear!’ This person carries the weight of her troubles with her, and constantly eats away at her peace. Perfected Humans show the true path to (less perfect) people like us who vacillate between peace and unrest. They serve as a reminder of the right path for us. Did the blessed Prophet ever give up on Abu Jahl? Never. Didn’t he know that Abu Jahl would never believe? He did. But it was as if he had resolved the following: “It is my responsibility to perform my (prophetic) duty as well is possible. The rest is in the hands of God.” So Perfected Humans convey and enjoin the good and what is true, as to him/her according to his/her own disposition.

With some people, the offering of sound advice produces the opposite effect; it increases the disbelief and makes them protest and say things like, “who do you think you are to teach me?” Whereas others would say, “everything I learn is beneficial for me; God has graced me with yet another meaning.” The objector or the one who says, “who do you think you are to teach me” is already in hell, while the other who embraces learning is in heaven. There is a lot of talk about terrorists these days. People endlessly ask and wonder, “Will they go to heaven or hell?” “Are they really killing people in the path of God?” It is so tragic that today, when the word Muslim is mentioned, terrorist is what comes to people’s minds. This is so painful. The West supports this, and that is how they want a Muslim to be portrayed. If a terrorist hadn’t already created hell for himself in this world, would they ever be able to detonate all those bombs? If a person has entered hell whilst still in this world, is it possible for them to go to paradise in the next world? If we are in peace, and if we are in the presence of God, it means that we are in paradise. If we are not in the presence of God, and are unhappy, we are in hell. If we are in hell, there is a Qur’an verse urging us to return to the presence of God. It says “…give alms…” that is join spiritual discourses, be a service to humanity again, and save yourself from the hellfire. For us to leave this world it is like the setting of the sun in this world, only to rise again in the afterlife. This means that the state in which you leave this world is the same state in which you will be resurrected. Thus, it can be said that people have Theo option of being good or bad. All prophets struggle to remind humanity of the right path and lead them to God’s presence. Everything inscribed in the Preserved Tablet will become manifest. In this regard, people do not make choices; they are not free. Whatever is written in the heavenly spheres and starts is God’s decree. The effects the are manifested through the heavenly spheres and stars are God’s destiny.

If a person wants to instruct a mill, they first decide where to put it up and think of the materials needed, like a stone, a wheel, and water. After this they obtain the materials, prepare what is needed for rotation, and then grind the flower. Note that there are three steps. First one must think of what materials to use; this is the decree, after which the person struggles to build. But first, it has to be imagined and planned. This act of imagining or picturing is the decree. Doing what is necessary for the decree to be carried out is destiny. The flour that is obtained at the end is also destiny. In the same way, God’s knowledge about the heavenly spheres, stars, elements and nature is His decree. The manifestation of the heavens and the stars in this world as they start turn is God’s destiny. Stars have a certain effect on this world, both inwardly and outwardly. In reality, all the planets and starts that appear to be outside exist in us. Horoscropes and stars affect us. That should not be interpreted -as is often done today- as the telling of fortunes. A Perfected Human comes, takes you from one sphere to another and directs you to the right path. This means that God has programmed you in a certain way in your creation. IF your decree is to become wheat, He causes you to be born in a season that will help you manifest your wheat-ness. The season is your horoscope. The wind and the rain of that season help you acquire the level of maturity as well as ‘wheat’.

The spiritual disposition with which you are born, will enable you, through your efforts, to attain that maturity. Even before you have a need for water, a spiritual teacher guides you to the water. This is what is most crucial. God grants His creatures what what is required and desired by their abilities. He assigns to them the appropriate name as their destiny; human form, spirit, abilities and attitude are written in the sperm of humans. People are bound to exist in their own form and spirit. They will necessarily have the abilities that they have, but they are free in their actions. So, while decree is predetermined, our destiny is determined by our actions. People say, ‘Your destiny is in your hands” without reflecting on what this means. Destiny is the fulfilment of decree. And the our destiny is lived out in our hands. (Emphasis mine)

Q: Could you please explain this with an example for us to understand it better?

A: Let’s say it is in a person’s destiny to become a beautiful person. But trial and difficulty is also written for that person for the sake of their perfection. If they endure the trials and show contentment, that destiny will make them beautiful. If on the other hand they get stuck in a state where with each difficulty and affliction they question, “Why has this happened to me?” then trial and difficulty will not work to perfect them. Instead, they will remain “unripe.” This is why we must learn to be content with everything that happens to us. The things that happen to us change our inner structure. They transform us into diamonds when we are just carbon and coal. If instead of transforming into diamonds we insist on staying as coal and say, “No, I will not suffer any pain in this world!” then we will remain at the level of coal. But if we are content with suffering, and if we treat pain not as pain but as a sign that the Beloved is with us, and if when difficulties arise we say, “Praise be to God, this is from my beloved; He has considered me worthy of this, and He has loved me,” then difficulties will become delights that transform us into diamonds. [Emphasis mine]… To be clear, I am not suggesting that we ask for hardship. I am talking about hardship that is already present and destined to occur.

Q: To be content with our destiny is the goal we should strive for, but how do we get to that station? How can an ordinary person get there?

A: Everything comes down to “love.” Spiritual discourses (sohbet) held by Sufis are there to increase our love; we need these discourses in order to realise our love. Spiritual discourse is needed to nourish a person’s love. What feeds love are the feelings a person has during a spiritual discourse. All our talk and discussion about love thus far has the same objective: to understand the meaning of God, to find that Beloved in ourselves, to unite with that Beloved, to meet with that Beloved, and to take each breath with the Beloved. The highest form of love is needed to achieve this, that is, to be content with everything, and to view every event as beautiful. Even when it is human love directed towards a man or a woman, if the beloved scolds the lover, the lover derives pleasure from this. Why? “Because they have spoken to me!” is the answer. It seems “they were upset by something I did.” When someone is reproached by their intimate friend, they experience much pleasure, and think, “if this person hadn’t loved me, they would not have reproached me!” Only and immature soul resents being reproached. But can the reproach of a true friend upset us? The reproach of a friend makes us happy. “If they hadn’t had love for me, they would not have called me,” they think. This is how our relationship with God should be. I, too, reflect on this from time to time. When something really difficult happens to me, I tend to say, “My beloved must have seen me as distinct from others and so He granted this difficult situation to me. He must love me so He has given me a more difficult test than He has to others.” This is the crux of it: to be able to establish a relationship with the beloved and to welcome whatever He sends us according to the best of our ability. And we should remember that with contentment there is reciprocity, such that after our contentment is the station where God is content with us.

Q: Is it a universal rule that everyone should be content with his or her destiny? Do people really have to be content with everything that happens?”

A: It is not easy for everyone to be content. Of course, being content with our destiny is tied to our abilities. It is related to the pre-eternal decree that is in the self. In fact, the best way for us to establish a relationship with God is to never judge the way others are content with their own destinies. Everybody is pleased to the extent that accords with his or her capacity. it is possible that no one will be content in the way I am, and I will not be content in the way that others are. I have said this many times already. dA very close friend of mine in Konya buried his ten children in a collapsed building last Eid. Can I ask, “Why can’t I be like him?” He has met the destiny that was decided for him in pre-eternity by God and God has made it easy on him. We might all see his situation the same way, and after acquiring a lot of information we might learn how to behave in such a situation. But when we actually confront that trial, how do we respond? That’s the question. How we respond is related to the favours that God has bestowed on us. So while the extent of our contentment corresponds to our capacity, the ability to respond well and to be content is only possible through God’s help and blessing. We respectfully bow before those who have such contentment.

Human beings act on their own spiritual predispositions. Did I say human beings? Sorry, every created being in the world acts on its destiny and fate. Let me illustrate this with a story. A mosquito approached the Prophet Solomon to register a complaint. “I’m so upset by this wind! Its continuous blowing is nearly killing me as it forces me along! Could you have a word with it so that it starts to show me some respect?” Solomon speaks to the wind, warning it that it might kill the mosquito and suggests that it be calmer. The wind replies, “O master! Movement is part of my constitution; it is how I was created. The same God that created me also commanded me to move. I simply obey the command; I don’t know what is or is not driven along by my movement. And there is nothing wrong in this because ultimately God has mandated that I, the wind, be blowing.” From this story we see that everything has a duty in this world. For some, the duty entails movement, which can be destructive, but it is their duty.

Such people destroy everything in their path without pausing to think about the consequences. Others courteously welcome all things and treat duty. It is to our place to ask, “Why is such and such person doing this or that?” Our ability to be content with the destiny that God has written for this world rests on our ability to be content with how others will behave accordingly to their own disposition. People are predestined to do what they do; it is their duty. You might do something good for someone, and they might be hostile in response. It is not my place to question this. The goal is to respect what others do. Now, you might ask, “Why do evil-doers get punished if everyone is responsible for doing their duty?” My teacher says, “This brings up a very subtle point.” God has opposite names: names that involve the granting of greatness and dignity, and names that cause abasement and despiability [sic]. With some of His names He guides and with other of His names He leads astray. He forgives, but He also takes revenge and punishes. All His names come into this world after their pleading with him, saying, “O God, please grant us a body.” When there is suffering and oppression, God sends a person who will carry the name of vengeance.To eliminate the qualities that lead one to oppress others, it is necessary for the person with those qualities to encounter vengeance. When they meet, the two names will control and discipline each other. That’s it.

Q: Thank you so much.

“And thus He unites you to Himself…”

I’ve lately been pondering as to what would amount to the Almighty drawing us Near to His Proximity, and certainly what it might take to taste the fruits of paradise in this world. What if I have been precisely wrong the whole time, and thus sought Him with my (poor attempt at) deeds, and not allowing myself to be inhabited by the Almighty at the level of the heart/spirit.

Perhaps this takes, courage, determination, and perhaps even love… what say you?

125

Cling to the attributes of His Lordship

and realise the attributes of your servanthood!

126

He has prohibited you from claiming for yourself,

among the qualities of created beings,

that which does not belong to you;

so would He permit you to lay claim to His Attributes,

He who is the Lord of the Universe?

127

How can the laws of nature be ruptured for you

so that miracles result,

while you, for your part,

have yet to rupture your bad habits?

128

The point at issue

is not the fact of searching;

rather, the point at issue

is that you be prescribed with virtuous conduct.

129

Nothing pleads on your behalf like extreme need,

nor does anything speed gifts to you quicker

than lowliness and want.

130

If you were to be united with Him

only after the extinction of your vices

and the effacement of your pretensions,

you would never be united with Him!

Instead, when He wants you to unite you to Himself,

He covers your attribute with His Attribute

and hide you quality with His Quality.

And thus He unites you to Himself

by virtue of what comes from Him to you

not by virtue of what goes from you to Him.

Ibn ‘Ata’ Illah, The Book of Wisdom, 78-9

Source:

The Book of Wisdom / Intimate Conversations; Trans, Victor Danner/Wheeler M. Thackston (Paulist Press, New York: 1978)

Trans, Victor Danner/Wheeler M. Thackston

Series: The Classics of Western Spirituality

 

 

 

 

When Rumi Found Me In A Time of Grief

I received this document over a year ago, from a sainted being who has become a dear friend and teacher. I only just finished reading it – and it is fortuitous that it happened now. For those of you who aspire to faith, or enjoy dabbling in the metaphysical – heck, even if you have lost all Hope – I recommend parts II and III especially.

A number of you read this blog who live with a debilitating chronic illness – perhaps it is you who may want to consider its words the most. Whilst her experience is anecdotal, her references and reflections esoteric, and perhaps her trust that of a lovestruck fool, perhaps this text may encourage you to try the path of the intoxicated lover. Why not surrender to the Ocean of Being, to which we are all being steadily returned. In our cases, what else is there that we can do?

I hope this isn’t too sanctimonious, preachy nor insulting. But sister Aisha Gray Henry’s text has given me much about which to think. More of her work and publications can be found on the Fons Vitae website – a publishing house she founded and for which she is Editor-in-Chief.

When we met, and she saw me in my wheelchair, she asked me “what is your talent, your gift? How will you contribute?” – these are questions that haunt me still, to which I have no concrete answers. But hers are self-evidently those of beauty. And, like Rumi, who seemed to see the Beauteous Names of the Divine predominating (though this is an opinion of the unqualified), this text resonates with a kind of beauty to which we might all aspire.

Love to you all.

I.

(Shared with permission – email me if you would like a copy of the original)

A Lecture Prepared for UNESCO Celebration in Konya and Istanbul
Honoring Rumi’s 800 Years – May 2007

By Gray Henry

Rumi clarifies principles of Islamic spirituality and metaphysical doctrine through stories, metaphor and the like, in order that we may better incorporate its guidance into the fabric of our daily lives. I’d like to share three instances where his clarifications have been “fleshed out” and gradually demonstrated in my own life—relating to (I) the appointed hour of our deaths and God’s omniscience, (II) suffering and affliction leading to true gratitude and trust, and (III) to self-naughting—a taste, or seeming glimmer (dhawq), of surrender and non-duality.

We love Rumi because he speaks of truths we recognize and know in our innermost hearts. In his Diwan, he counsels:

“Return to yourself, oh heart. For from the heart a hidden road
can be found to the Beloved. If the world of the six directions
has no door, then come into the heart, the place of contemplating
God, though it is not so now, it can be so.”
(6885)

I

All faith traditions attest to the omniscience of God. We are told that the events in our life are already determined but we are free as to how we choose to react. But, how do we know that our fated hour has, in fact, been preassigned? Rumi tries to illustrate this with such stories as that of the two men who are sitting in Damascus having tea. One looks up and notices the Angel of Death approaching their table. In great fear, he flees to Solomon, whose troop of Jinn transport him magically to Samarkand in one instant. The Angel comes up to the man, who remains sitting, and asks, “Wasn’t that so-and-so I just saw sitting here with you? Strange to find him here in Damascus when I have him on my list for Samarkand tonight.”

In the Masnavi, we have another version of this story called “Solomon, The Angel of Death, and the Man who Asked to be Taken to India”:

Solomon said, “Whatever you want, just ask!”
He pleaded, “Please assign the wind this task”
To transfer me to India with its breath.
So, over there, I might escape my death.”

(Solomon) questioned Azrael right at the chime:
“Angel of death, did you drive that good man
From home and family—was that your plan?”
He answered, “Now you know I wouldn’t lie,
I just looked on amazed as he strolled by,
For God had said today he would be dead
Not over here, but India’s tip instead.”
(Book I, 960-974)

Rumi tells us, “All the world’s affairs are planned this way, Open your eyes to see this clear as day.” What are we to conclude? We may believe with our minds that this is a Truth, but how do we know that this, in fact, is what’s going on?

I will now recount a story whereby I came to know with my heart that the hour of death is already there for each of us.

A few years ago, I went out to the airport in Louisville, Kentucky, to catch a flight to Cincinnati, which would connect me to JFK in New York for the evening flight to Cairo. The agent at the counter informed me that the flight to Cincinnati had been cancelled. I replied, “Then put me on any flight to New York.” She said there were none, but that she could book me for the next day. Two business people from New York were standing behind me and pushed their way forward. They were very frustrated by this inconvenience and asked her if there were time enough to rent a car and drive to Cincinnati to make the New York flight. She replied that indeed there was enough time to do this, and the couple turned to me and said, “We’re New Yorkers and don’t drive, but if we rented a car would you drive us and, then, hopefully, all three of us would make the needed flight?” I called my husband and said that it was doubtful I would fly to Egypt that evening, but would take the flight the following night, while probably staying in either Cincinnati or New York.

When we got out on the highway, I noticed a sign indicating that Cincinnati was 90 miles away. We had only two hours before the flight would leave, so I decided that as long as we had made this effort, I might as well drive at 90 miles per hour. I am not used to driving fast, but a strange calm came over me and I concluded that, should the police stop us, we would have at least given it our best shot. As we pulled into the airport, the business couple ran for the flight, I handed the check-in porters $20 to return the rented car and then proceeded inside with my baggage. The agent explained that, unfortunately, it was too late for me to make it, and as tears welled up in my eyes, I commented, “But, I have to make this flight.” As I turned to go, she called me back and said that the New York flight had just, at that moment, been delayed and she could, in fact, put me on and have my bags transferred in New York directly to the flight going to Egypt. When I boarded the plane, the New York couple were pleased and said that they had a car waiting for them at JFK and would be able to take me directly to the needed terminal on arrival. When we reached my terminal, the check-in counter had already, in fact, closed and the neon lights were dimmed. But, I know where the gate is for this flight, as I go each December to visit my children in Cairo, so I ran like the wind. I ran as though my life depended on it and my lungs and chest burned from the exertion. As I reached the gate, the door of the plane was being shut and all the wheelchairs were being removed. I was told I was too late to board, but again I pleaded, “I have to make this flight.” Mercifully, they let me on board.

Late the next day, I was sitting with my daughter when the telephone rang. My husband had concluded that I did not make the original flight but took that same plane when it returned the next day to New York. When that EgyptAir flight left New York, it crashed into the sea. My daughter burst into tears because it was such a close call, but I merely remarked, “It wasn’t my time.” Looking back at what had happened, there were too many coincidences for it not to have been destiny at work. What if the couple had not pushed forward and asked me to drive the rented car? What if I had not driven at 90 miles per hour? What if the flight from Cincinnati had not been unexpectedly delayed? What if the couple had not had a car waiting for them, which got me to the EgyptAir terminal so quickly? And, what if I had not run for my life? Something was pulling me along, a force that drew me steadily on to make that EgyptAir flight. I can only conclude that I experienced the idea that things are written for us. It must be then that these are not isolated occurrences. This must be going on all the time, but we don’t notice it because the events of our daily lives are not critical and do not stand out, particularly. So, therefore, I now am at ease with the cards that are being dealt out to me on a daily basis, and I continue to try to embrace the Divine Will behind these otherwise seemingly random moments with an open, welcoming heart.

II

The lesson to follow concerns the potential and meaning of affliction and suffering, as well as Rumi’s line: “Things become clear through their opposites.”

In his Diwan, Rumi explains,

“Weave not, like spiders—
Nets, from grief’s saliva
In which the warp and woof are both decaying
But give the grief to Him, who granted it
And do not talk about it anymore
For when you are silent His speech is your speech
And when you do not weave, the weaver will be He.”

“At every instant Thou hast given me
A death and resurrection; thus have I
Seen the controlling power of Thy Generosity.”
(Mathnavi V 4222)

And he also counsels:

“He has afflicted you from every direction
In order to pull you back to the Directionless.”
(Diwan 3952)

“Every heartache and suffering that enters your body and heart pulls you by the ear to the promised Abode.”
(Diwan 35486)

And so, here is what happened in my life to demonstrate conclusively the meaning and message of suffering- that really taught me the truth of putting one’s trust in God alone.

Some years ago I was living in an English village outside Cambridge while studying and working with the Islamic Texts Society, an academic organization which we established to publish important spiritual works from the Islamic heritage after having had them translated into English.

One evening as I reached to switch off the bedside lamp, I noticed my arm would not stretch out to do so. In fact, I found I was not able to pull the blankets up about me except by using my teeth; neither arm seemed to function. When I tried to take a deep breath it seemed as though my lungs were incapable of expansion. At the approach of a cough or sneeze, I held my arms tightly around my chest for fear the sudden and painful enlargement of my breast would rip me apart. When I arose the next morning, the only way to get out of bed was to hang my knees over the edge and slide off since my upper torso had become powerless. I couldn’t even raise my arms to brush my hair. Turning the bathroom faucet was an excruciating affair. By holding the bottom of the steering wheel in my finger tips, I was able to drive to the village clinic. The doctor concluded I had some type of virus for which there was no treatment other than time.

A day or so later, my husband and I were to fly to Boston for the annual congress of the Middle East Studies Association. I viewed my affliction as an inconvenience which would ultimately pass and decided to ignore my condition. I noticed, however, that on the day we were to leave England I began to have trouble walking and getting upstairs was extremely difficult. By the time we reached the hotel room in Boston, more and more of my system seemed to be shutting down. I could no longer write or hold a tea cup, bite anything as formidable as an apple, dress myself, or even get out of a chair unless assisted. Everything ached. I could not move my head in the direction of the persons to whom I was speaking –I looked straight ahead, perhaps seeing them from the corner of my eye.

Friends gave all kinds of advice that I simply shrugged off. The worst part was lying in bed at night. It was impossible to roll onto either side, and my whole body felt on fire with pain. It was terrible to have to lie flat, unable to make any shift of position whatsoever all night long. I thought to myself, “If only I could scratch my cheek when it itched, if only my eyes were not dry but cool, if only I could swallow without it feeling like a Ping-Pong sized ball of pain, if only I could reach for a glass of water when thirsty during the long night.”

As we traveled on for work in New York, I continued to make light of my infirmity and to ignore suggestions that I seek help. On the plane, however, when it was necessary to ask the stewardess to tear open a paper sugar packet, I suddenly realized– “I can’t even tear a piece of paper!” I requested that a wheelchair await me in New York and I be transferred to a flight home to my parents in Louisville, Kentucky. Since my husband was obligated to stay in New York, a kind soldier returning to Fort Knox helped me during that leg of the trip. I felt like a wounded fox that wanted nothing more than to return to, and curl up alone in, the nest of its childhood. My father met me, and the next day took me for every test imaginable. Nothing was conclusively established–was this rheumatoid arthritis, or lupus? I was brought to my parents’ house and at last put in my childhood bed with a supply of painkillers, which I was not inclined to take. Since I found I could tolerate great pain, I wanted to observe the situation and know where I stood. I started seeing my body as an object separate from me, and my mind as that which witnessed its ever-declining condition. When my legs finally “went,” with knees swollen like grapefruits and feet incapable of bearing me up, I mused with a kind of detached interest, “Oh, there go the legs!” The body seemed to be mine, but it was not me. Later that night it happened. As I lay gazing out my bedroom door and I noticed the carpet in the quiet hall, I thought, “Thank God I’m not in a hospital and the hall is not linoleum and that I am not subjected to the chatter of nurses. I know I’m in trouble and I do need help, but that would be too great a cost for my soul.”

A few moments later I became aware that I seemed to be solidifying, my body had stiffened and seemed to be very much like a log– I was totally paralyzed. Then, I seemed to separate from my body and lift a distance above it. I glanced back and saw my head on the pillow below and thought, “This is remarkable– I’ve read about this kind of thing… I am thinking and my brain is down there in my head! I must be dead.” I considered what to do and decided to pray.

I noticed that I seemed to be pulled back towards my heart– as if by a thread of light. But then there I was– quite all right, but utterly rigid and still. The light of the moon comforted me as it passed through the leafless November branches making patterns on the blankets. I thought, “Even at night, the Sun is there. Even in darkness and death, Light and Life are present.” The season seemed to parallel my state.

I then began to imagine my future. I have friends who are in wheel chairs who have always been placed along the sidelines for various events. Had I now joined them? Was I now out of the normal life of others? I began to see myself like a hunchback or a dwarf. I had always been known for my inexhaustible energy and activities. I could always, somehow, get to my feet to do one more thing. This was now over. I would no longer be able to do anything. I thought of the people in this world who have impressed me most– the Mother Teresas of our world. I realized that what was exemplary in these people was not what they did, but what they were; their state of being actually inspired others. And so I set upon a plan of inward action: The best thing I could do for others would be to sanctify my soul, to let my state of being become radiant. Having concluded this, I felt things were in order.

In the morning my parents found me, fixed in place; I was given eggnog to drink through a straw–chewing was over. My husband came from New York and I recall marveling when I observed him. He could, without considering the matter in depth, shift his position in a chair, scratch his forehead, or lean over to pick up a dropped pencil– all painlessly! Imagine– reflex action! Occasionally if I really wanted to move, for example, my fingers, I would think to myself, “All right, now, I-am-going-to-try-to-move-my-fingers,” and I would concentrate my entire attention on the task. With incredible pain and focus, I could at most shift a few millimeters. It struck me profoundly that when someone is able to move in this world without pain– that is, in health– that they are experiencing a foretaste of paradise on earth without ever being aware of it. Everything after that is extra.

Ultimately, it was decided that I should be given a week’s course of cortisone so I could return to my children and the British specialist who might be able to figure out what I had. The cortisone was miraculous and frightening– I could actually walk and pick up things– yet I knew that I couldn’t.

On the return to Cambridge, the hospital, needing to proceed with tests, decided that I should be removed overnight from cortisone. I then discovered what withdrawal symptoms are– a level of pain that seems to consume one alive with fire. But the pain was nothing compared to the frightening mental confusion I experienced: I could not grasp proper thinking, or even normal reality. What I needed was not only a doctor, but a kind of scholar/saint who could describe to me the hierarchy of meaning so that I would not be so painfully lost. I suppose true doctors are a combination of all three.

I grasped a rosary and clung to it like a lifeline thrown to a drowning man, and I made it to the light of dawn on the invocation of God’s Name, my sanity somehow still intact.

The English specialist could not make a conclusive diagnosis. Our Vietnamese acupuncturist suggested toxins had built up on the entire nerve and muscle system and prescribed massage during steam baths to release them. It sounded definitely worth doing. But, at the same time, I had come to that point that the very ill come to, where, though they take advice with gratitude, inside of them something has dimmed and they no longer care or wish to make any effort. Pleasantly, I had reached a great calm within. Each day I was brought downstairs where I directed the preparation of meals and worried the children who saw I could no longer sew on a button or sign a check. I was resigned to never moving again. I had never experienced such peace. It was touching that people prayed for me and it was lovely that so many asked after my condition. I felt like an upright pole in the middle of a stream. I had come to feel that it would be wrong to pray for my affliction to be lifted, as its good had come to outweigh its bad, in terms of my heart and soul. I could see what was of real importance.

In the spring, my husband had work in Arabia and suggested that as he would be traveling by private plane they could manage to get me on board. I could as easily sit in a warm climate as I could in cold, damp Cambridge.

A few days later I was asked to give my annual talk at Jeddah’s King Abdul Aziz University. I declined, explaining that I was unable to research and prepare a topic properly. Friends said they would be delighted to do this, if I could come up with a subject. I answered, “All right, why does this Job-like affliction happen to someone, in the view of Islam?” The passages they wrote down and translated to English from both the Koran and hadith, the sayings and recorded deeds of the Prophet Muhammad- – all seemed to say the same thing. In Islam, illness is understood to be a great blessing because it is an opportunity, if borne with patience free of complaint, to purify oneself of past sins– to burn away wrong thoughts and deeds.

As I delivered my talk, it began to dawn upon me why Muslims always reply with Al hamdulilah (the same as Alleluia) whenever anyone inquires as to health. I had always wondered why one could ask someone who suffered from an obviously terrible physical or emotional pain or loss, “How are you,” and all one could get out of such a person was, “All praise belongs to God.” I kept wanting them to talk about their pain with me, to share their suffering, and I wondered why they would not. Suddenly I realized that they were praising God for their state of being. The suffering they endured, no matter how great or small, was an opportunity to be purified, which is the very aim of human existence. In an instant, my own illness was seen in a new light. I no longer patiently tolerated it. I loved it, I flowed with it. I saw how blessed I was to have been tried with not something small, but something as total as paralysis. God had thought me up to it.

As I loved my illness, or shall we say, loved God’s will for me, my fingers suddenly began to regain movement. Bit by bit the movement in my hands returned, until at last in late spring, I was restored. What had been the most painful and difficult time in my life turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me. I had gained a deepened perspective, a sense of proportion and freedom. God had blessed me with near total dependence on others, a symbol reminding me of my utter dependency on Him. And even when I had not been able to move one inch, I was able to be in touch with His Divine Presence.

“God created suffering and heartache so that joyful-heartedness might appear through its opposite.” (Mathnavi VI 104)

(The illness described above was later diagnosed as Guillain-Barre’ Syndrome.)

Rumi explains:

“When someone beats a rug with a stick
He is not beating the rug
His aim is to get rid of the dust.
Your inward is filled with dust
From the veil of I-ness
And that dust will not leave all at once.”
(Diwan 12074)

But, the “rug beating” of the paralysis left much dust, which necessitated God’s going for a central organ- my heart.

III

In his Diwan, Rumi writes:

“Come out of ourselves? But to where?
To selflessness. Selflessness is meaning, meaning.
Self-consciousness is names, names.”
(Diwan 16600)

In the Maqalat, Shemsi Tabriz is recorded as having stated that, “Meaning is God” and, “I have a living God—what would I do with a dead God?” Further, he inquires of us:

“What is the utmost end of need?
Finding what has no needs.
What is the utmost end of seeking?
Finding what is sought.
What is the utmost end of the sought?
Finding the seeker.”

In a verse Rumi liked, al-Hallaj proclaims, “Kill me, my faithful friends! For in my slaughter is my life—my death is in my life and my life in my death.”

The mystery of Die before death is this: “After dying come the spoils—other than dying no other skill avails with God, oh worker of deception.” (Mathnavi VI 3837)

We, the readers of such glorious passages, again attempt to understand them through duality with our reasoning minds, which are lodged in the phenomenal realm. How does one know these truths, these spoils, for certain in one’s own heart?

What does Rumi mean when he says, “All of this dying is not the death of the form—for this body is nothing but the spirit’s instrument”? (Mathnavi V 3821)

Let me now tell you a story of God’s grace upon this poor and unworthy servant when He granted me a taste of that eternal realm of Divine Unity. In 1995, many things had come to a close in my life. My parents, whom I had returned to Kentucky to care for, had died. Following that I had completed some publishing for the Bosnians, after having returned from the most heartbreaking work in their refugee camps during the war as it raged. I had not yet gone back into publishing. (Islamic Texts Society, 1979-1991/ and not yet Fons Vitae, 1997 onwards.) I started noticing that my heart hurt a lot of the time, and I was experiencing frequent shortness of breath. I lived alone in my father’s home and, at night, deep pain in my heart became more and more unbearable. One night, it was so bad, and the skipping of the heartbeats had become so alarming, that I concluded, as I cried out, that I was about to die. It occurred to me that I had never written a will and that maybe – in Kentucky – the state takes all, in such a case. I reached over and took a yellow legal pad, on which I wrote a few simple instructions in a most illegible handwriting. It was very comforting to think, however, that everything had been put in order.

In the morning, finding myself still alive, I decided to call a cousin of mine who worked at the Louisville Heart Institute. She sent a car for me, and it was not long before a very kind Lebanese doctor informed me that every time my heart beat, blood was escaping out into the surrounding cavity. He would need to operate the following morning, and I was not to eat anything from that evening onward. I explained, however, that I was not free on the following morning. For some time, I had had tickets to go to Santa Fe to participate in a dear friend’s wedding and, especially, to be present to the golden Aspen leaves quaking in the autumn breeze. What the doctor did not realize was that I was truly free and did not choose to spend the next morning on a cold hospital operating table when I could be in the autumnal paradise of New Mexico. When I had written the will, I really meant it and everything was neatly arranged, very much like old love letters tied up neatly with a satin ribbon. He said I was extremely irresponsible and that both the altitude of the plane and Santa Fe would be too much for my heart. I replied that if I were alive in a week’s time, I would come in.

A friend came and helped prepare my tiny bag and took me to the airport. I was having a great deal of trouble walking and speaking. On the plane, I found myself to be too frail to even turn the pages of a book. I was simply holding on. But, I did scribble on a tiny yellow Post-It the following few words: What is actually happening to me is not physical, it’s spiritual. My true being is trying to separate from my shadow one. What I meant by that was that my Spirit was trying to free itself from that hypocritical quagmire I had been calling my “spiritual life”.

When I arrived in New Mexico, my friends—having heard of my state of illness—insisted that I stay in their home with them although it had been arranged for me, as a wedding guest, to stay in a hut in the desert, not far from the Indian Museum. I responded, “I’ll take the hut.” The next morning, I woke up and decided to slowly make my way out some many meters into the desert to enjoy the Dante-esque mountains and the golden trees. As I slowly walked out, my inner emptiness, my concluded life, my lack of concern for any future or past, were mirrored by the void of the desert around me. I seemed to be on a vertical alignment with nothingness and completion.

In all faith traditions, we are asked to surrender, but I think that must be impossible to do because we always have an agenda at some level. But, as I began to sit down, I got surrendered—was surrendered. Time simply stopped. There I was, sitting in what can only be described as sat (Infinite Luminous Being), chit (Pure Consciousness), ananda (Absolute Bliss). What we are living in is Divine Beauty. It is actually true, God is love. In an utter reverence and a joy that I had never known, my hardened heart began to melt from relief—I could finally See. Tears of relief completely wet my blue sweatshirt as the waves of myself subsided into the Sea of my Self. Although I had a body, it seemed cool and I couldn’t really feel it. Somehow, through my eyes, I could see an unearthly glory about me- nature’s unveiled paradisal archetypes were shining through. But, what was really going on was that that part within my heart that participates in God was recognizing Itself. Somehow, Itself was recognizing Itself. There was/is no time, there was/is no duality—no past or future, no male or female, no birth or even death, no Islam or Buddhism. There was/is nothing but Divine Reality—there is nothing but God. La ilaha ila Lah. That’s all there is. And, that’s all I want. It’s everything and yet no thing. The Eternal Now: I belong here forever. I am from here- it is the true me- even if I forget it.

“Only Thou, oh Best of Helpers, canst transform the eye
that sees non-existent things into one that sees the Existent!”
(Mathnavi VI 825)

And what is the vehicle that can transport us to this Glorious Other Shore? Perhaps something like this state of being that I was blessedly shown. It exists in the place of “no thinking”- where opposites meet, between good and bad. This state of utter happiness and inherent transcendence of our temporal “selves” is always there and we just have to remember to be in touch with It, to recall that who we really are is absolute reverence, serenity, beauty, humility, and awe. It would seem that access is had through stillness, slowness, and reverence; the Buddha Smile.

As the afternoon faded, the tear-damp shirt made my body feel chilled. I slowly rose to return to the hut. I walked in almost slow motion and thought to myself, “So this is what has been called the Holy Grail, the Golden Fleece, the Plant of Life, and so on. In the myths, when the hero goes out to attain the magic plant, he often loses it before reaching home.” I wondered whether, if I lived, I would abuse and lose this greatest of graces, this taste, of Divine Unity. That night, in the hut, I dreamt of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who, for me, embodies qualities Mercy and Compassion. In the dream, I opened the door of my home, my heart, in Kentucky and there he was on the front steps. Behind him were eight earth-colored, log-like bundles and I thought to myself, “He must be bringing me the Eightfold Path.” He came in through the door and, standing a couple of feet away, facing me, appeared to condense into a Cheops-shaped pyramid, which penetrated my heart. At the same moment, I felt an energy descending through my fontanel and coming up through my feet. When I awoke in the morning, my heart no longer hurt but I could no longer speak or even move except extremely slowly. I concluded that a real person moves slowly and is mostly silent—my exact opposite.

“Silence! Silence! For the allusions of love are reversed;
the meanings become hidden from much speaking.”
(Diwan 12073)

A little later in the morning, some of the wedding guests came to check on me and to invite me along to a special lunch and shower for the bride. People were very surprised how slowly I moved and how luminous I appeared in my silence. At the end of the week, I returned to Kentucky and went to the heart doctor who put all kinds of special belts with sensors, which were heart-sensitive on me. I had been asked to give a lecture in Tehran, at a congress on world spiritual art, so I slowly began to write my paper as I sat looking out the windows at the golden autumnal leaves floating Taoistically down to the ground. They didn’t just fall. And, I hoped that my own death would be so gentle and graceful and golden.

“Make a journey from self to self, oh friend, for by such a journey
the earth becomes a mine of gold.”
(Diwan 12117)

In Iran, everyone kindly looked out for me, and it was there in Tehran that this lesson from God concluded. Martin Lings was speaking about Shakespeare at this congress, and I asked if I could have time to speak with him. I told him about my experience in the desert and added, “I didn’t deserve it.” He looked at me and said, “Do any of us deserve our blessings? No. Do any of us deserve our trials? No. They only appear to be different, but in fact it is simply God adjusting us to His Divine Self. There is no duality.”

“Where should we seek peace? In abandoning peace.”
(Mathnavi VI 823)

In the end, as with the paralysis some years before, my illness turned out to be spiritual rather than physical. The Dalai Lama once said that, for the most part, disease is dis-ease. It is a stress which comes from our being at odds with our true selves. The holier a person, the healthier.

“Give up to Grace
The ocean takes care of each wave.
Until it gets to shore.”

“I am filled with you.
Skin, blood, bone, brain, and soul.
There’s no room for lack of trust, or trust.
Nothing in this existence but that existence.”

And so, I have come to see, life is a gradual demonstration for us all that these eternal verities Rumi describes are true and realizable. Eternity is not in time, but now and it follows that this indivisible Now is man’s ever present opportunity. Rumi asks us to unlock the holy in everyday life- to step back and watch this moment we are in and know this bliss.

Oh, lovers, go out from the attributes of selfhood!
Obliterate yourselves in the vision of the Living
God’s Beauty.”
(Diwan 7850)

No one will find his way to the Court of Magnificence
until he is annihilated.”
(Mathnavi 232)

You are your own shadow
Become annihilated in the rays of the sun!
How long will you look at your own shadow?
Look also at His Light!
(Diwan 20395)

(With gratitude for William C. Chittick’s “The Sufi Path of Love” (Suny, 1983) and “Me & Rumi” (Fons Vitae, 2004)

Love, not Reason…

It’s love, not reason, which has no reign;

Reason is concerned with interest and gain.

A lover ever gives, not expecting a return.

Like God Who gives freely, for us to learn.

Virtue is to give without any cause;

The Domain of religion, at this point would pause.

Being saved from punishment, or gaining a reward

Is what pulls the masses to religion and the Lord,

But Lovers don’t like to amass and hoard;

Above this plane they’ve risen and soared.

Rūmī (abridged a little; trans. Tawus Raja)

From Liberated Soul: In Memory of Sayyid Hashim Haddad, A Translation of Ruh-i Mujarrad (ICAS Press: London, 2017).

If only this was the ethos with which we pursued our interpersonal relationships; heck, our online discourse, even? Truly splendid jewels from the great master himself.

 

“Borrowed” from Facebook – On Virtue

Jesus said, ‘Devote yourselves to obtaining that which fire cannot burn.’ ‘And what is that?’ asked the disciples. ‘Virtue’ he replied.”
–– Cited in Ghazali, Ihya, from Jesus in the Eyes of the Sufis by Dr. Javid Nurbaksh.

The Door or the Road?

Return to yourself, oh heart. For from the heart a hidden road can be found to the Beloved. If the world of the six directions has no door, then come into the heart, the place of contemplating God, though it is not so now, it can be so.”

Rumi, Diwan (6885)

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

 

 

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.”

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