'Hubo un tiempo en que yo rechazaba a mi projimo si su religion no era la mia. Ahora, mi corazon se ha convertido en el receptaculo de todas las formas: es pradera de las gacelas y claustro de monjes cristianos, templo de idolos y Kaaba de perigrinos, tablas de la ley y pliegos del Coran. Porque profeso la religion del Amor y voy adonde quiera que vaya su cabalgadura, pues el Amor es mi credo y mi fe'
My attempt at an English translation goes as follows:
'There was a time when I rejected my neighbour if his religion were not mine. Now my heart has been converted into a receptacle of all its forms: a pasture of gazelles and a cloister of christian monks, a temple of idols and a Kaaba of pilgrims, tablets of the law and pages of the Quran. Because I profess the religion of Love, and I go wherever its caravan leads, as Love is my belief and my faith'
These words were written by a sufi thinker called Ibn 'Arabi, who had lived in Andalucian Spain between the 12th and 13th Centuries CE. The humanity and beauty of his words attracted me, and I began to learn more about this strand of Islamic thought, one that overlaps the distinction between Sunni and Shia, and seems as fresh and challenging to me today as it must have been to people 800 years ago.
What is it all about? Well, here are some fragments to whet your appetite
- Islam can be undrstood as being composed of three (interwoven) strands: 'acting with the limbs' (right behaviour); 'voicing with the tongue' (expressing your faith rationnally, which is also, in effect, theological thought); and 'acknowledging with the heart' (recognizing the reality of the spiritual (or, I suppose, recognizing Reality full stop)). When I find this tricky, I reflect that my Christian faith is not founded on what I do (or what I feel, as emotions are - arguably - a sort of behaviour), nor, ultimately, on intellectual reasoning, but on something much smaller, much harder to pinpoint: the still, small, mustard-seed voice of faith, of deep calling to deep. This third strand is that which the Sufis seek to explore. Sufism is, in part, a recognition that it is not sufficient to be theologically correct and to behave properly: there also needs to be a connection, or at least the search for a connection, between your heart and the Eternal.
- Love is vastly important to Sufis: they see it as God's motivation for creation, and that God's love for us and our love for him are the key aspects of our relationship. Nevertheless they also recognise that love is impossible to define in rational, intellectual terms, even when talking about love between people, let alone that between the created and the divine. Like others who have struggled with this, they have learned that an understanding of love can only be approached through story, metaphor, and poetry.
- The First Shahadah states '(There is) no god but God'. This familiar
statement of faith demonstrates, for Sufis, the distinction between
God, the Real, the Absolute, and everything else, which is all of
necessity secondary, derivative, and provisional. This results in an
apparent paradox: the created has no meaning and no reality apart from
God and is, nothing, and any meaning it appears to have on its own
terms is illusory, yet, because of its very nothingness it points
directly to and demonstrates the attributes of God. Sufis express this
by saying that created things are both veils and signs:
they both hide God and point towards him.
- This argument is seen at its most extreme in the story of Al-Hallaj, who confounded his community by saying 'I am the Real/the Truth', or, effectively, 'I am God'. His point was that his self was so insignificant that all there was was God. The authorities did not, unfortunately, see it that way, and after a lengthy trial he was crucified as a heretic in Baghdad in 922 CE. (If you still he think he seems a bit unhinged, try having a look at his wonderful poem at the bottom of this page about the impossibility of defining or describing God with language (or, alternatively, about how our language's limits can be used to describe God (oh no, it's Derrida and his pharmakon again!)))
- I think it's fairly clear from all this that the Sufi strand of Islam is fond of, and constantly plays with, paradox and apparent contradiction. As with Derrida I don't think this is out of a desire to be perverse and confusing, but simply because this is the only way we can approach uncomprehendable truths.
- Even the name 'Sufi' intrigues: typically of Sufis, the name has a number of possible cross-referring meanings: it could be from the Arabic word for wool to describe the simple cloaks they wore, or it could be connected to the words Sofos/Sofia for wisdom or enlightenment in some langauges, or the root 'Saaf' in some other languages, which means pure, clean, blank...
- I said earlier that poetry is one way Sufis try to get to grips with eternal truths; this is demonstrated par excellence in the works of Jelaludin Balkhi, better known as Rumi. He deserves a whole page to himself, but in the meantime, all I can say is: read him! He effortlessly mingles the normal and the numinous, pointing continually from the earthy to the divine and back again. Born in the early thirteen century in Afghanistan, he spent most of his life in Turkey. He seems to have been inspired by three successive profound relationships with three close friends: Shams, Saladin Zarkub, and, Husam.
- 'Rumi has a whole theory of language based on the reed flute.
Beneath everything we say, and within each note of the reed flute,
lies a nostalgia for the reed bed. Language and music are only
possible because we're empty, hollow, and separated from the source.
All language is a longing for home'
(Coleman Barks, in his commentary to Rumi's Selected Poems, Penguin: I tried to explain it my own words but can't get clearer than his!)
Some poems and poem fragments
- Everyone has eaten and fallen asleep. The house is empty.
We walk out to the garden to let the apple meet the peach,
to carry message between rose and jasmine.
Spring is Christ,
Raising martyred plants from their shrouds...
- ...being in the middle of being partly in my self, and partly
- An invisible bird flies over,
but casts a quick shadow.
What is the body? That shadow of a shadow
of your love, that somehow contains
the entire universe.
A man sleeps heavily,
though something blazes in him like the sun,
like a magnificent fringe sewn up under the hem.
He turns under the covers.
Any image is a lie:
A clear red stone tastes sweet.
You kiss a beautiful mouth, and a key
turns in the lock of your fear...
Al Hallaj says about God:"Before" does not outstrip Him,
"after" does not interrupt Him
"of" does not vie with Him for precedence
"from" does not accord with Him
"to" does not join with Him
"in" does not inhabit Him
"when" does not stop Him
"if" does not consult with Him
"over" does not overshadow Him
"under" does not support Him
"opposite" does not face Him
"with" does not press Him
"behind" does not limit Him
"previous" does not displace Him
"after" does not cause Him to pass away
"all" does not unite Him
"is" does not bring Him into being
"is not" does not deprive Him from Being.
Concealment does not veil Him
His pre-existence preceded time,
His being preceded non-being,
His eternity preceded limit.
If you say 'when',
His existing has outstripped time;
If you say 'before', before is after Him;
If you say 'he', 'h' and 'e' are His creation;
If you say 'how', His essence is veiled from description;
If you say 'where', His being preceded space;
If you say 'ipseity',
His ipseity is apart from things.
Other than He cannot
be described by two (opposite) qualities at
one time; yet With Him they do not create opposition.
He is hidden in His manifestation,
manifest in His concealing.
He is outward and inward,
near and far; and in this respect He is
removed beyond the resemblance of creation.
He acts without contact,
instructs without meeting,
guides without pointing.
Desires do not conflict with Him,
thoughts do not mingle with Him:
His essence is without qualification (takyeef),
His action without effort (takleef).
By Arberry, A.J., from The Doctrine of the Sufis, slightly altered by GE
- Sufism, William C Chittick, Oneworld Oxford
- Rumi; Selected Poems' translated Coleman Barks, Penguin