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.

Tag: Philosophy

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)

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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.”

“The Defeat of the Schools”

I’ve recently picked up my copy of Mortimer Adler’s great work – indeed, there are those that deride him for not being one of the great philosophers of the last century (and indeed he spanned almost the whole century), though he reached an audience, and actually said things of substance that most philosophers couldn’t dream to do – and he notes, very astutely, the failure of  teaching institutions to teach people to be good readers, lifelong-learners. I feel it is as true in the United Kingdom, as it was in the United States, over seventy years ago. I enjoyed the last of these paragraphs in particular:

“When I say that the arts are lost, I do not mean that the sciences of grammar and logic, for instance, are gone. There are still grammarians and logicians in the universities. The scientific study of grammar and logic is still pursued, and in some quarters and under certain auspices with renewed vigour. You have probably heard about the “new” discipline which had been advertised lately under the name “semantics.” It is not new, of course. It is as old as Plato and Aristotle. It is nothing but a new name for the scientific study of the principles of linguistic usage, combining grammatical and logical considerations. 

“The ancient and medieval grammarians, and an eighteenth-century writer such as John Locke, could teach the contemporary “semanticists” a lot of principles they do not know, principles they need not try to discover if they would and could read a few books. It is interesting that, just about the time when grammar has almost dropped out of the grammar school, and when logic is a course taken by few college students, these studies should be revived in the graduate school with a great fanfare of original discovery.

“The revival of the study of grammar and logic by the semanticists does not alter my point, however, about the loss of the arts. There is all the difference in the world between studying the science of something and practising the art of it. We would not not like to be served by a cook whose only merit was an ability to recite the cookbook. It is an old saw that some logicians are the least logical of men. When I saw that the linguistic arts have reached a new low in contemporary education and culture, I am referring to the practice of grammar and logic, not to acquaintance with these sciences. The evidence for my statement is simply that we cannot write and read as well as men of other ages could, and that we cannot teach the next generation how to do so, either.

“It is a well-known fact that those periods of European culture in which men were least skilful in reading and writing were periods in which the greatest hullabaloo was raised about the unintelligibility of everything that had been written before. This is what hap end in the decadent Hellenistic period and in the fifteenth century, and it is happening again today. When men are incompetent in reading and writing, their inadequacy seems to express itself in their being hypercritical about everybody else’s writing. A psychoanalyst would understand this as a pathological projection of one’s own inadequacies on to others. The less well we are able to use words intelligently, the more likely we are to blame others for their unintelligible speech. We may even make a fetish of our nightmares about language, and then we become semanticists for fair.”

Mortimer Adler in How to Read a Book: The Art of Getting a Liberal Education, (New York; Simon and Schuster: 1940), 85-7.

On the Soul

Dear friends, 

I have, for the last few days, been dipping into a wonderful collection of essays by Marilynne Robinson, called When I Was a Child I Read Books. I’ve managed to steal a computer for a short time from relatives – who have grown perhaps as dependent upon them as have I! So here is what I could produce in a short amount of time:

If indeed you’re looking for a read that will draw your attention merely to the state of ‘marvel,’ or ‘wonder’ at the glory of the very fact that you ‘are,’ then there are very few books I might recommend more highly than this one, for it is exquisite. Robinson has a way of lovingly crafting her sentences, and drawing the reader’s internal eye to a state of reflection that I feel few modern writers can do comparably well. 

Here is a stunningly beautiful passage from her first essay, Freedom of Thought, on modern discourse and the soul: (I hope I have not breached any copyrights – though dear readers feel free to inform me and I will edit the passage as necessary; my hope is just that you get a decent and tantalising spoonful of her work that would draw you in to purchase her books):

“Modern discourse is not really comfortable with the word “soul,” and in my opinion the loss of the word has been disabling, not only to religion but to literature and political thought and to every humane pursuit. In contemporary religious circles, souls, if they are mentioned at all, tend to be spoken of as saved or lost, having answered som set of divine expectations or failed to answer them, having arrived at some crucial realization or failed to arrive at it. So the soul, the masterpiece of creation, is more or less reduced to a token signifying cosmic acceptance or rejection, having little or nothing to do with that miraculous thing, the felt experience of life, except insofar as life offers distractions or temptations. 

Having read recently that there are more neurons in the human brain that there are stars in the Milky Way, and having read any number of times that the human brain is the most complex object known to exist in the universe, and that the mind is not identical with the brain but is more mysterious still, it seems to me this astonishing nexus of the self, so uniquely elegant and capable, merits a name that would indicate a difference in kind from the ontological run of things, and for my purposes “soul” would do nicely. Perhaps I should pause here to clarify my meaning, since there are those who feel that the spiritual is diminished or denied when it is associated with the physical. I am not among them. In his Letter to the Romans, Paul says, “Ever since the creation of the world [God’s] invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.” If we are to consider the heavens, how much more are we to consider the magnificent energies of consciousness that make whomever we pass on the street a far grander marvel than our galaxy? At this point of dynamic convergence, call it self or call it soul, questions of right and wrong are weighed, love is felt, guilt and loss are suffered. And, over time, formation occurs, for weal or woe, governed in large part by that unaccountable capacity for self-awareness. 

The locus of the human mystery is perception of this world. From it proceeds every thought, every art. I like Calvin’s metaphor – nature is a shining garment in which God is revealed and concealed. As we perceive we interpret, and we make hypotheses. Something is happening, it has a certain character or meaning which we usually feel we understand tentatively, though experience is almost always available to reinterpretation based on subsequent experience or reflection. Here occurs the weighing of moral and ethical choice. Behavior proceeds from all this, and is interesting, to my mind, in the degree that it can be understood to proceed from it. 

We are very much afflicted now by tedious, fruitless controversy. Very often, perhaps typically, the most important aspect of a controversy is not the area of disagreement but the hardening of agreement, the tacit granting on all sides of assumptions that ought not to be granted on any side. The treatment of the physical as a distinct category antithetical to the spiritual is one example. There is a deeply rooted notion that the material exists in opposition to the spiritual, precludes or repels or trumps the sacred as an idea.This dichotomy goes back at least to the dualism of the Manichees, who believed the physical world was the creation of an evil god in perpetual conflict with a good god, and to related teachings within Christianity that encouraged mortification of the flesh, renunciation of the world, and so on.

For almost as long as there has been science in the West there has been a significant strain in scientific thought which assumed that the physical and material preclude the spiritual. The assumption persists among us still, vociforous as ever, that if a thing can be “explained,” associated with a physical process, it has been excluded from the category of the spiritual. But the “physical” in this sense is only a disappearingly thin slice of being, selected, for our purposes, out of the totality of being by the fact that we perceive it as solid, substantial.We all know that if we were the size of atoms, chairs and tables would appear to us as loose clouds of energy. It seems to me very amazing that the arbitrarily selected “physical” world we inhabit is coherent and lawful. An older vocabulary would offer the word “miraculous.” Knowing what we know now, and earlier generation might see divine providence in the fact of a world coherent enough to be experienced by us as complete in itself, and as a basis upon which all claims to reality can be tested. A truly theological age would see this divine Providence intent on making a human habitation within the wild roar of the cosmos.”

 

Sweet dreams, pray hard …you scumbag politicians, complicit and bought-off media, and Godless institutional oligarchs…

‘Let’s be clear what it at stake: services, people’s health and even lives. As Professor Terence Stephenson of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges put it last week, doctors’ warnings had been ignored, and “unnecessary competition [would] destabilise complex, interconnected local health economies, in particular hospitals, potentially having adverse effects on patient services.”‘ Owen Jones, The Independent.

Please read this article – and if you’d rather not – here are my thoughts on the reforms to the NHS in a slightly broader context.

For those of you who voted Tory (that’s ‘Conservative) at the last election, and New Labour at the previous ones…thank you so very, very much.

As a disabled person who is in need of NHS services regularly, I have experienced first the sub-standard care that comes when you turn healthcare into a racket based on the coldest, most dehumanising economic principles…from being unable to see the specialists that I need fourteen miles away from my home, in the very city in which I live, as ‘there is not enough funding in the PCT to justify it’; to waiting over a year for an application to be heard with regard to getting in-patient rehabilitation (as yet with the case in limbo sandwiched somewhere between a bureaucratic fat-cat’s wallet and pool of blood resting in his chalice..)

..to being discharged by physiotherapists and occupational therapists repeatedly because my recovery has been ‘too slow’ to justify me ‘being kept on the books’ (how’s that for economic?) –  maybe four times in the last year – twice after just two visits…. – my being forced to see psychiatrists because the institutions were at a loss (both in terms of finances and morale, and even expertise) to be given drugs, effectively to shut me up and stop complaining (incidentally, these drugs have only had a negative effect on my health)… as I said, thank you, dear comrades.

…Yet there are countless others who have both lost their lives or have suffered the most dehumanising cruelty at the hands of an institution, and a government, and a complicit public, whose responsibility has been to protect the vulnerable. I didn’t plan on falling sick at 18 and not being able to contribute to the services on which I became forced to be reliant (no, I don’t have a sense of entitlement – just had a hope that I might be able to leave a better NHS behind for my own, and your children)… but thanks to those of you who justify propping up a godless financial behemoth, killing millions in far-off lands with money you have stolen from your own fellow citizens to fight for natural resources that you were never entitled to… you know what….thank you again.

…Forget just the atrocities committed against those of us reliant on the ‘welfare state’, and what grief we have to go through to ‘prove’ we are sick or in need, with less than 0.5 percent of us as fraudulent claimants to disability support… think how many months we are cut off from financial support etc, to be forced to rely on people who can barely afford to feed themselves…. There is blood in your hands, in all of them, in mine too… in your bellies because of the unjustified sustenance procured at the hands of your soldiers, in your wallets because of the circulated wealth that has come from robbing it out of the pockets of those who needed it the most through ‘savings’ (not ‘cuts’)…

But of course if you know not of anyone who is in desperate need of these services which were a birth-right to them, and to you, a part of the compact they have made as contributing citizens to this country, and to each other (that’s you included), you will sleep in relative peace tonight as the lives of millions of them are ravaged further after today. Sweet dreams, comrades.

…Hopefully Hell won’t spit you out in disgust… I say this not flippantly – but if you happen to believe that Christ died and arose for your sins this weekend…Happy Easter to you. Enjoy the festivities with your families… but think about this… how many others are you killing off for your sins? That you will never be able to be vindicated for nor redeemed, without an act of all-out sacrifice and nothing short of Grace… pray hard for your souls…pray very, very hard indeed.

“But he cried through the depths of darkness…” (21:87-8)

Yesterday I found myself reading these verses by Rumi, the masterful Persian mystic (from the Islamic tradition), and felt that I had to share them.

Just in case you didn’t know, ‘Allah’, is the Arabic term for God (the same God of the Judeo-Christian tradition, the Bible, regardless of what some people will try to tell you). Then there is

is the mention of ‘Khazir’ (Khidr more commonly), ‘The Green One’ – a revered figure in the Islamic tradition often charged with carrying out spiritual tasks by God, who was said to possess some mystical insight, and a righteous dispossession.

One night a man cried, “Allah, Allah!”
until his lips became sweet with the sound.
The Evil One approached him as he stood chanting,
and asked “How now, chatterbox?
Where is the answer to your insistence?
Who replies to you ‘Here am I?’
No answer comes from the Throne:
how long then will you mindlessly go on crying ‘Allah?'”

Broken-hearted, the man ceased his chant and lay down to sleep.
In that sleep he dreamed a dream, and in that dream the
holy mystic Khazir appeared before him in a green garden. The saint spoke:
“Why have you desisted from the mention of God?
How is that you now despair of calling on Him?”

The dreamer replied,
“I ceased because no ‘Here am I’ was coming to me.
I fear therefore I may be turned from His door.”

Khazir answered, “God says: ‘Your cry of “Allah” is itseslf My “Here am I,”
just as your pleading and agony and fervor are My messenger.
All your twistings and turnings to come to Me were
My drawing you that set you free.
Your fear and love are the snares to catch My grace.
Under each “Allah” of your whispers many a “Here am I” ‘”

At least to my mind, these verses say something profound in opposition to the dominant, materialist worldview that our friends in the ‘Academy’, especially in the Natural Sciences (how’s that for ironic?) seem to uphold. Causation in the linear sense appears here to be profoundly insufficient in understanding Reality. Whether or not Rumi is suggesting (and I know very little about him, alas) that the very act of chanting His name is a manifestation of the Divine Mercy – that our connection with God is so pervasive and sewn-into the fibre of our existence that we fail to realise how connected we are actually in fact…or if it means that we ought not to see our pleas for ‘help’, or our yearning for Him as a spiritual endeavour that originates in our own agency rather than His…I cannot be entirely sure. Maybe he meant something else altogether.

But we have the problem today of seeing ourselves as ‘apart’ from the Reality of things (and I find this a grave difficulty with the various apologists from the great Monotheistic traditions, Islam included), through which we insist on placing barriers between God’s ‘Will’ and that which is manifested through it – i.e. creation. No, I’m not saying in the more pseudo-spiritual fashions, or even in the demonic traditions (see what I did there :p) , that we are all deities therefore and that we possess Divine Agency thus, and can manifest our wants independently and so for – far from it!

Yet what we see is a hermeneutic sense of ‘separateness’ through which we try and ‘rationalise’ without recourse to the Revealed or inspired traditions our place in the cosmos (which might be in part where the analytic tradition, so impacted by the dualistic tendencies, has gone astray).   Thus we place tremendous intellectual barriers between us, and Him, and our approach in trying to reconcile ourselves with our existence; I can’t provide an alternative framework for viewing the world (though I’m currently reading Dr Nasr’s Islamic Philosophy from its Origin to the Present: Philosophy in the Land of Prophecy which seems to be making a good go of it!) but increasingly the ‘rationalistic’ lens appears gravely inadequate when trying to reconcile our metaphysical beliefs/structures we perceive with the epistemological observances we make of the world, which are often wholly reliant on those metaphysical presuppositions (remember my previous post on David Berlinski?). Thus, is God merely a metaphysical construct or is He part of the lived epistemology of our world? Or both?

This translation is from The Inner Journey: Views from the Islamic Tradition (Ed. William C. Chittick); ‘PARABOLA Anthology Series’; (Standpoint; ID: Morning Light Press), 2007; 205.

The book was kindly gifted to me by someone I hold very dear, and I highly recommend its various essays (which are rather short and eminently readable), with the various masters of Islamic philosophic/mystical traditions, not least of all Dr Seyyed Hossein Nasr (one of my heroes).

Timothy Winter on Salafism

Again, here’s a principled, intellectual, moralistic critique – by an intellectual giant in the West; a principled, ‘mainstream’ Islamic scholar, Timothy Winter – of the contemporary Salafi ideology that’s sweeping the Islamic world

(I’d argue that it’s an anti-intellectualist, anti-philosophical, ‘protestant’ form of interpretation of scripture and canon – sometimes with an overemphasis on literal meaning) with disastrous results on the intellectual health of the Islamic community – critical faculties seem to be cast away, despite the fact that this Salafi worldview is an hermeneutical construct.)

That said, there are plenty of people who belong to this school that one can have a meaningful conversation, I met many at university, for example – however my concern, as Seyyed Hossein Nasr points out – that the dominant theology behind Salafis and other groups have not been able to produce heavyweights in the senses of al-Ghazzali, Ibn Sina, Mulla Sadra and so forth. Certainly, these latter figures have contributed to the Islamic mystical climate for the most part – however the worldviews that they espoused had a much broader application – there are ontological, epistemological, ethical criteria outlined by these great visionaries that could prove utterly beneficial when Muslims face the challenges of a modern, secular, imperialist hegemon, as well as when it comes to dealing with internal affairs, the relationships to their own dictatorial governments, etc.- these are things that don’t seem to occur any more because of perhaps an over-reliance on ‘authority’ in a hermeneutic sense. That said, I’m willing to be convinced otherwise.

Whatever path takes you there, I guess. But I wonder if we might be able to expedite our own progress if we just permitted ourselves to reflect more, just a little…? Not to be afraid of our thinking if we remained steadfast to our fundamental Islamic beliefs – Tawhid (divine ‘Unity’, I guess), Revelation, and importantly, the place of the intellect in relation to this.

Below, I’ve pasted a brilliant talk by Seyyed Hossein Nasr on the need for philosophy in the Islamic world that you will get immense benefit out of. He is a true moral heavyweight, and a very brilliant man at that. Not to mention a polymath. Please watch, if you’re interested.

“I have said th…

“I have said that ignorance is bad; but there is one thing worse than ignorance, that’s applied ignorance!”

Seyyed Hossein Nasr

Good ol’ Frothy Hitchens

This about made my week. I have recently taken to reading David Berlinski’s The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions and read this early on, and just had to share:

Because atheism is said to follow from various scientific doctrines, literary atheists, while they are eager to speak their minds, must often express themselves in other men’s voices. Christopher Hitchens is an example. With forthcoming modesty, he has affirmed his willingness to defer to the world’s “smart scientists” on any matter more exigent than finger-counting. Were smart scientists to report that a strain of yeast supported the invasion of Iraq, Hitchens would, no doubt, conceive an increased respect for yeast.*

No, I am not in any way related to the Discovery Institute, nor do I have a personal stake in the books’ sales (and if all three of you buy it, we probably won’t be able to start that literary revolution) – nonetheless, it is worth a read despite the fact that my pockets won’t feel heavier. How’s that for self-effacing…?

*(David Berlinski, The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions; New York, NY: Basic Books; 2008; 4-5).

Religion and the 21st Century…

Here’s a recent debate at the Cambridge Union featuring some rather interesting big-wigs – Drs. Rowan Williams, Richard Dawkins, Tariq Ramadan, among others! A friend once pointed out to me that sometimes, if not often, a lot of these debates are about rhetorical posturing -but we have come to an age where the only way you can make a systematic case, where people will actually pay attention to you, is if you host a public spectacle and allow charismatic people to speak (I’d say this is the tragedy of modern newscasting – although the latter is far more agenda-driven than most of us actually recognise). So, more power to those who partake and actually give up their precious time to engage with people who seem more interested in point-scoring than with any notion of ‘truth’.

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So, this is perhaps the first (and last) time I might find myself supporting Douglas Murray in anything – I was thoroughly impressed by his talk – at least in part- , despite the fact that on the whole, he has a knack for essentialising religion and religious people; however this was one of those rare occasions where I found, one the whole, that the ‘religious’ seemed to make a much more strong case in favour of their views. Now, despite being of a ‘religious temperament’, I tend to find that arguments from science, for example, as being a little lacking (to say the least), however I’m more convinced by Dr William’s/Ramadan’s/Douglas Murray’s (Lord help me for including Murray…!) arguments about human dignity, opposition to dogmatic humanism, and the search for meaning far more convincing and systematically sound – even if the latter disagreed with both the former Archbishop and the ‘Islamic Martin Luther’!

Anyhow, Rowan Williams – for whom I have a great respect – was on peak form (if only he had been allowed to speak like this regularly, and wasn’t demonised by the press as some sort of archaic despot overseeing an influential but fallacious worldview and dangerous power-structure)… Dr Ramadan made his usual case , polished, refined and I think quite fair (but I wish more people would take it seriously – somehow when hardened humanists face a reasonable ‘believer’, their minds somehow short-circuit and they often ignore what he actually has to say.

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Finally, did anyone spot the slightly sloppy “Nobody denies that correlation doesn’t entail causation, everyone who knows anything about it knows that correlation is evidence for causation…” – I’m no philosopher, and I don’t say this with any sort of polemical glee… but do they really let him teach at Cambridge…?! Or is he some sort of quintessential postcolonial subject whom they keep around for display purposes?

…Okay, that was a cheap-shot, I admit; nonetheless this perhaps demonstrates the fallacy, which Dr Ramadan accurately expressed, of essentialising someone with whom you disagree.

…Just in case you’re wondering what problem I have with it – the speaker cited that in Western countries that ‘more religious’ (however you measure that), there is an increase in all sorts of social problems, etc.; of course one could offer a counter-argument that secular states have historically been responsible for wholesale industrial death, in a greater scale than anything witnessed in history; moreover, tremendous demagoguery existed, nuclear weapons were discharged…hmm, correlation between a secular state and atrocity…ironic, ain’t it? Like I said, who in their right mind would let him teach Logic?

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