“The wonderful thing about holiness, when you really encounter it, is that it testifies to itself.”
David Bentley Hart, A Splendid Wickedness
“The wonderful thing about holiness, when you really encounter it, is that it testifies to itself.”
David Bentley Hart, A Splendid Wickedness
“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.”
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.
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).
“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.”
(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…[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.
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
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.