A few precious moments of Sufi wisdom might save our souls in these corrupt and troubled times
Mehru Jaffer Vienna
Grace and goodness are gone. Faith, fidelity nor love is practised. Brother fights brother. When unity is undermined, will the world not fall apart?
According to the Sufi, the world will never fall apart - no matter what. It is the human condition that is in disgrace and not nature. In the midst of a mess it is pretentious for human beings to claim that they are trying to rescue the world. Instead, they should try somehow to rescue the self because dignity must first return to the individual before it reaches society.
For the Sufi, the worst times - of the kind we are going through now - are also the best times for individuals to realise that dirt has seeped deep into their beings. The best battle between the mean and the magnanimous begins within the self in the true spirit of jihad. The Sufi sees no solution in battling over God to achieve good.
Remembering the words of Faiz Ahmad Faiz who died in 1984, helps start us on the right
Jab koi baat banaaye na bane
Jab na koi baat chale
Jis ghadhi raat chale
Jis ghadhi maatami, sunsaan, siyah raat chale
Tum mere paas raho
Mere qaatil, mere dildaar, mere paas raho...
(Just when nothing seems to work and nothing helps As far as the eye can spy when there is nothing but a breast-beating void, More silent and darker than night Then my foe and my friend, you must stay with me)
Sufis prefer poetry as their medium of expression. Islam emerged out of an oral tradition practiced by nomads all over the world. Writing was avoided and teachings were transmitted orally through tales and fables as caravans camped at different sites. The Koran follows the same style. In fact, the word Koran in Arabic means to recite. In Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world, a newspaper is called Koran.
Combined with the influence upon Islam of pre-Islamic poetic traditions of the Persian court and reaction to the prosaic interpretation of the Koran by strict, rational legalists, the Sufis chose poetry to share their experiences of love with the world. Prose is the language of philosophers, theologians and religious jurisprudence. The language of the Sufi is different from that of the judge. The Sufi does not see himself as the custodian of truth. He expresses himself as a lover of truth. His desire is to explore intensity through poems that are said to be closer to the heart of human awareness than any other form of expression.
My heart embraces every form,
Pasture for gazelles
Convent for monks
Temple for idols
Kaaba for pilgrims
Tabula of the Torah
Pages of the Koran.
I follow the way of love
And where love's caravan takes its path
There is my religion, my faith...
(Ibn Arabi, Spanish Arab, 13th century)
Terrorism is not peculiar to any one religion. Terrorism is an anti-social act and a law and order problem. Terrorism is an administrative issue, not a religious one. It is not religion but the mean spirit of man that is the problem. Envy, greed and negativity have soiled human existence in the past and are doing the same now. It is the same lust for power and lack of compassion that tainted the religious culture of previous societies that threaten to tear the secular societies of today. The question today is: What is the place of religion in a ‘secular age' and, more pertinently, the moral commitment of individuals to life?
For a Sufi, moral progress is not judged by man's power over the forces of nature but by his control over the passions of the heart. To speak the truth, to respect both human and animal, and to be compassionate towards the meek is the daily practice of a Sufi. Modern Moghuls dismiss this behaviour as idealistic and impossible to realise without even trying. For the same reason perhaps, today's troubled stockbroker will never muster the wisdom to converse with a Sufi, despite the very real possibility that the few lines of poetry he earns in return may end up buying him the greatest solace ever.
Do not boast when the wheel of fortune swings you aloft, Another twirl will land you on the bottom mark.
The sun reaches the zenith and begins to descend: So also falls the fool who follows it...
(Fariduddin Attar, 13th century)
The whole path lasts no longer than a step.
(Shah Nimatullah, 14th century)
And the pimps of the world will make what they will of the following lines:
Happy the heart which avoids a certain tourism of
And does not enter in by every door where someone beckons.
(Hafez, 14th century)
The prima donnas may ponder over:
How long will you puff yourselves like flowers, adorned with cap and sash?
The cap gives lordship over this realm of clay.
The sash is slavery to your soul's desires
Liberate yourselves alike from slavery and lordship
Or free yourself like Nezami from Nezami.
(Nezami, 13th century)
All high priests might consider:
Collect your mind's fragments that you may fill yourself,
Bit by bit with meaning.
The slave who meditates the mysteries of creation for sixty minutes
Gains more merit than from sixty years of fasting and prayer.
(Sani Ghaznavi, 12th century)
The role of religion was to provide spiritual solace in a finite, material world. Somewhere along the way, the entire idea of the sacred has been corrupted and eventually discarded. Indeed, discontent with religious hierarchy gave birth to secularism in the Middle Ages in Europe.
Not long ago, it was felt that religion was a thing of the past and had no use in an age of science. The material and spiritual are two sides of the same coin. The spiritual hunger in our material age has only increased. Religious energies have not disappeared although it is troubling to witness ugly manifestations of human behaviour passed off as religious fanaticism.
In A Secular Age, Charles Taylor explains what secularism means at a time when religiosity seems to have a firmer grasp than ever on public life and how secularisation can create space where religion and unbelief can coexist without inevitable self-destruction. Taylor does not argue for or against religiosity but says that today many people feel the pull of both positions, even after they have opted for one or the other.
In a series of lectures in the Spring of 2000 at Vienna's Institute for Human Sciences, the eminent professor of philosophy talked of the replacement of the "enchanted" world of religion with the promise of self-improvement and the possibility of re-making the world.
In the new ‘disenchanted' world, the worship of God was exchanged for human prosperity. Since then, amazing progress and prosperity have been achieved but the ethical has been allowed to slip out of daily life. Self-centred individualism has shattered the spirit of community living.
The gradual reduction of human values to the realm of relativity is causing stress. The spirit of the secular West is responsible for having fanned India out of complacency. Indians enjoy a greater freedom of thought in modern times. However, faith in traditional solutions has been shaken and fear and insecurity have taken over. The result is the periodic eruption of irrational behaviour that often results in violence. What is sad is the preference expressed, mainly by conservative forces, for the life that was, instead of the life that is.
Spirituality is said to enable human beings to realise all their potential, including material potential, so that they can stand secure inside their own souls. In India, all the great religions of the world are still practised but only a small pocket of the population enjoys great wealth. For Indians, modern times might seem exhilarating, but also a cause for anxiety.
Many a thoughtful Indian broods today. The unhappy hermits are steeped in pessimism. While society undergoes cosmetic changes, the Sufi continues to scrub his soiled soul like he has since eternity. The aim of a Sufi's life is as constant as the rising sun. The Sufi is never distracted from gradually trying to awaken the eternal in the finite self. And the best Sufi is also said to be silent. It does not occur to a Sufi to claim that he has solutions to the world's problems. The simple lesson learnt from a Sufi is that it is possible to enjoy a full life without threatening the lives of others.
The secret to the soul of a Sufi is not to desire that which does not exist. The Sufi has little to say to those engaged in a futile chase after illusions. A Sufi invariably leaves a troubled soul to find solace and peace on his own. Hamadani, an 11th century philosopher and mystic who was executed in Baghdad on charges of heresy, wrote:
Our friend ran into the house,
Slammed the door tight and hid himself.
Now if I come and knock on the door
What a ruckus I will raise in that house.
The Sufi pours heartfelt yearnings into a poem but the words are as meaningless as a mirror without a reflection. Poetry too is just words till different readers find different meanings in it.
Suddenly, unexpectedly, he arrived...the guest
The heart trembling,
"Who is there?"
And soul responding,
Came into the house and we lunatics ran into the street
Stared up looking for the moon.
(Jalaluddin Rumi, 13th century)
The disease of our times is the dwindling spirit of human beings despite the bulging wallets of the fat cats. After a visit to the stock market, the path suggested by the Sufi is perhaps a perfect turn to bring light back into life in this twilight despair of emerging darkness.