Thursday, September 27, 2007

the forgotten cup

The beauty of the heart
is the lasting beauty:
its lips give to drink of the water of life.
Truly it is the water, that which pours,
and the one who drinks—all three
become one when your talisman is shattered.
That oneness you can't know by reasoning.

Rumi: Mathnawi II: 716-718
version by Camille and Kabir Helminski via Sunlight

Today's excerpt from Rumi's Mathnawi is referenced (by R.A. Nicholson in his own translation) to sayings attributed to one of the great saints of early Islam, Bayazid Bastami (804-874 CE).

I am the wine-drinker and the wine and the cup-bearer.

I came forth from Báyazíd-ness (individuality) as a snake from its skin. Then I looked and saw that lover, beloved, and love are one, for in the world of Unity all can be one.

sayings of Bayazid, via Nicholson, via dar-al-masnavi

This triune nature of unity has an obvious parallel with the Christian trinity, a most famous icon of which is shown below:


icon by Russian artist, Andrei Rublev c. 1360-1430

In this image, the three angels that visited Abraham (Genesis 18) are depicted. Though three in number, they are also referred to as a visitation from "the Lord", implicitly The One. The unity of the threesome is conveyed by the artist through the bowl or cup at the centre as well as through the containing circular form of the composition. What contains the three (the envelope) is also the centre (the nub) that holds them all together.

This Old Testament trinity is seen, of course, by Christians as a foretaste of the later trinity, clarified now as God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost (or Spirit). In some images of this trinity the cup appears as a receptacle for Christ's blood and in the "vierge ouvrante" statues, it is the Great Mother as Virgin Mary that contains the Divine Trinity.

There is, therefore, always this fourth and unifying entity that is both the source and the end point of unity. As the early alchemist, Maria Prophetissa, is said to have put it:

One becomes Two,
Two becomes Three,
and out of the Third comes the One as the Fourth.

There are, in fact, two original Ones in this schema: the Great Mother as original whole and the Great Father as creator and generative principle. The second element is the Son and the third the Spirit. Finally, the whole returns to unity in the original One though now with the difference that distinctions have been made and transcended.

The parallels with Bayazid are as follows:

* The cup-bearer or saqi is God as original One, the Great Mother or Great Father depending on the emphasis.
* The cup itself is not mentioned by Bayazid or referred to by Rumi: it is "the forgotten cup" of the title.
* The wine is Christ, or more specifically, His blood as it is poured out in sacrifice.
* The drunkard or drinker is the Spirit, so evidently present in alcohol and therefore so perfectly represented by the person filled with the Spirit of God.
* All three (or four if the cup itself is included) are One, as Bayazid and Rumi assert, after not before making the distinctions among the elements.

The further parallels inside orthodox Islam are as follows:

* Allah, like the saqi, covers both the original Great Mother and Great Father.
* Mohammad is the cup that received God's Word.
* The Koran is the wine or the Word itself.
* Muslims themselves are the community receiving the wine.
* Allah, Mohammad, the Koran, and the community of Muslims form one unity in The One.

These mythopoetic elements in the Judaic, Christian, and Islamic trinities are not hard-and-fast. Like all such elements, they are fluid and any one element can readily flow into any other. Thus can Mohammad be seen in the role of Great Father (as non-Muslims see him, that is, as the originator or creator of Allah), in the role of the wine (as when Muslims imbibe his life story as spiritual nourishment) or in the role of the Final One (as when he is perceived as the Last Prophet).

Coming back to Bayazid, we still have the "lover, beloved, and love are one" idea. We could equate the Beloved with God (the Father or the Mother) and the Lover with the devout seeker after truth. Love, then, would act like the wine that is passed from one to the other. If lover and beloved are equals, then the equation can go either way and God is no longer appropriately seen as Father or Mother but simply as Friend. Still, we are left with the missing or forgotten cup. I suspect this is the Heart as Rumi might express it or the Soul or Psyche as we might express it today. I think, too, that the cup hints at the body, the house of the soul. The larger cup, God as Mother and container, is also the material world.

These are only sketchy outlines of ideas, each element worthy of considerable amplification and the whole leading to further interesting avenues to explore. However, I will have to leave that for another day.

Update: An expanded article with more images is now available as The Forgotten Cup.

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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

the hidden hand

See how the hand is invisible while the pen is writing;
the horse careening, yet the rider unseen;
the arrow flying, but the bow is out of sight;
individual souls existing,
while the Soul of souls is hidden.

Rumi: Mathnawi II:1303-1304
version by Camille and Kabir Helminski via Sunlight

These lines come from a lengthier meditation around the Koran 8:17 which reads:

You did not slay them, but God slew them; and when thou threwest, it was not thyself that threw, but God threw, and that He might confer on the believers a fair benefit; surely God is All-hearing, All-knowing.

trans Arberry

The first line (of this excerpt) also seems to be echoing that most famous quatrain from Omar Khayyam:

The Moving Finger writes: and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

Omar Khayyam, version by Edward Fitzgerald

In Khayyam's version, we get a sense of the inevitability of events as nature's immutable laws are applied to the "now", creating a fixed past and (implicitly) determining a fated future. It is very much a Newtonian world befitting an astronomer-poet but it can be read as equally true whether from an atheistic or from a theistic standpoint (as is quite common in Khayyam).

In the Whinfield version, Rumi's meditation ends with another echo from Khayyam as follows:

Whatsoever is seen is weak and base and impotent;
What is hidden is equally fierce and headstrong.
We are the captured game; who is the snare?
We are the balls; where is the bat?
He tears and mends; who is this tailor?
He fans and kindles the flame; who is this kindler?
At one time He makes the faithful one an infidel,
At another He makes the atheist a devotee!

Rumi: Masnavi I Ma'navi: Book II, Story V, trans E.H. Whinfield

The Ball no Question makes of Ayes and Noes,
But Right or Left as strikes the Player goes;
And He that toss'd Thee down into the Field,
He knows about it all--HE knows--HE knows!

Omar Khayyam, version by Edward Fitzgerald

Clearly this Ultimate Agent is capable of both "yes" and "no", of both "right" and "left", of both tearing and mending, of driving humanity to despair or to total worshipful commitment. Put baldly, this Ultimate Agent is capable of both Good and Evil, of both Just and Unjust, of both True and False, of both Beauty and Filth. As embodied in the Islamic deity Allah, He even admits such quite plainly:

Wherever you may be, death will overtake you, though you should be in raised-up towers. And if a good thing visits them, they say, 'This is from God'; but if an evil thing visits them, they say, 'This is from thee.'

Say: 'Everything is from God.' How is it with this people? They scarcely understand any tiding.

Whatever good visits thee, it is of God; whatever evil visits thee is of thyself. And We have sent thee to men a Messenger; God suffices for a witness.

Whosoever obeys the Messenger, thereby obeys God; and whosoever turns his back -- We have not sent thee to be a watcher over them.

They say, 'Obedience'; but when they sally forth from thee, a party of them meditate all night on other than what thou sayest. God writes down their meditations; so turn away from them, and put thy trust in God; God suffices for a guardian.

What, do they not ponder the Koran? If it had been from other than God surely they would have found in it much inconsistency.

Arberrry version: IV:80-84 [my emphasis]

In case Arberry is confused, here is another version:

78 Wheresoever ye may be, death will overtake you, even though ye were in lofty towers. Yet if a happy thing befalleth them they say: This is from Allah; and if an evil thing befalleth them they say: This is of thy doing (O Muhammad). Say (unto them): All is from Allah. What is amiss with these people that they come not nigh to understand a happening ?

79 Whatever of good befalleth thee (O man) it is from Allah, and whatever of ill befalleth thee it is from thyself. We have sent thee (Muhammad) as a messenger unto mankind and Allah is sufficient as Witness.

80 Whoso obeyeth the messenger hath obeyed Allah, and whoso turneth away: We have not sent thee as a warder over them.

81 And they say: (It is) obedience; but when they have gone forth from thee a party of them spend the night in planning other than what thou sayest. Allah recordeth what they plan by night. So oppose them and put thy trust in Allah. Allah is sufficient as Trustee.

82 Will they not then ponder on the Qur'an ? If it had been from other than Allah they would have found therein much incongruity.

Pickthall version: 4:78-82 [my emphasis]

In summary, then, Allah is the Absolute Agent behind Absolutely Everything (implicitly including both Good and Evil). And yet - almost in the same breath - Allah denies that He is behind the Evil, for that is humanity's responsibility, not His. Thus does He demonstrate His capacity for mendacity, injustice, delusion, or witlessness, depending on how one reads this second declaration. Finally, just two breaths away, He boasts of His own logical consistency as evidence of His authorship of the Koran. The implication is that it would have come from Satan had it contained incongruities. Since He has just baldly demonstrated these very incongruities, we are left with a Being that surely embodies both Good and Evil, both Allah and His own shadow Satan.

Much as Islam, through Jasser, shot itself in the foot in my last post, so in this one it is Allah Himself who shoots Himself in the foot.

I'm adult enough and have seen enough of the world to know that it is true that Good and Evil sit together in this world, as do Truth and Falsehood, Justice and Injustice, and so on. It is in my nature to prefer a deity that admits as much rather than indulging in this hypocritical game that Allah so delights in. That is why I prefer my own Goddess of the Perfect Mind:

For I am the first and the last.
I am the honored one and the scorned one.
I am the whore and the holy one.
I am the wife and the virgin.


I am the one who is honored, and who is praised,
and who is despised scornfully.
I am peace,
and war has come because of me.
And I am an alien and a citizen.
I am the substance and the one who has no substance.


I, I am sinless,
and the root of sin derives from me.
I am lust in (outward) appearance,
and interior self-control exists within me.
I am the hearing which is attainable to everyone
and the speech which cannot be grasped.
I am a mute who does not speak,
and great is my multitude of words.

The Nag Hammadi Library: The Thunder, Perfect Mind, translated by George W. MacRae @

mona lisa


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Saturday, September 15, 2007

the Koran according to Jasser

Then, when the sacred months are drawn away, slay the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them, and confine them, and lie in wait for them at every place of ambush. But if they repent, and perform the prayer, and pay the alms, then let them go their way; God is All-forgiving, All-compassionate.

Koran 9:5, trans A.J. Arberry [emphasis added]

In 2007, it would be equally moral for a Muslim to say that we should “slay al Qaeda wherever we find them.” Thus, a Muslim learns these passages as exhortations from God regarding war as last resort, and with the underpinning of principles of just war. These same principles have been used in other faiths to this very day, to justify war in the protection of our nation-states.

M. Zuhdi Jasser: Which Islam? Whose Islam?

This morning, in my email box, I found the much anticipated 3rd installment of M. Zuhdi Jasser's commentary on the Koran. In the 1st and 2nd installments, Jasser merely broadcasts and rebroadcasts his intentions but fails even once to actually quote from the Koran. At last, in this 3rd installment, we get a brief and wishy-washy commentary on a seven-word excerpt (emphasized above) from a single verse.

In the 1st installment, Jasser laid down some of his ground rules and explained his philosopy and approach [my emphasis]:

There is no “communication” or “excommunication” for that matter involved in my being a Muslim. It is a complete free-for-all, with no institution providing or guaranteeing membership other than God.

Thus, one of the foundational principles of our American Islamic Forum for Democracy was that we affirm the “inalienable right of every Muslim to be equally entitled to their opinion concerning their own interpretation of the religion of Islam and its scriptures. We refuse to accept subservience of the interpretation of our personal faith and personal relationship with God to imams (teachers and prayer leaders) and other ulemaa.”

This man, though clearly well-intentioned and able in other ways, is writing like a vacuous fool. Freedom is a fine thing but it must always be wedded to responsibility, to an adherence to some principle of moral or scholarly conduct. Otherwise, what results is precisely the chaos and anarchy that Jasser accuses al Qaeda of attempting to foment.

However, it is not just the door to anarchy that is opened here, but the door to bigotry, as demonstrated in the following perfectly logical development:

I would never call myself "a Muslim", not even for a moment or for the sake of making an argument through hypothesis, because the laws of apostasy would make it impossible for me to change my mind. I could quite literally put my life at risk. However, let us allow that I am "a woman of God" and thereby permitted the freedom of interpretation that Jasser allows to Muslims.

Though I belong to the small nation-state of Australia, I identify also with other similar nation-states threatened by Islam (or Islamists), states such as Israel, the USA, Canada, the European nations, and India. I see this conglomeration of nation-states and their advanced culture (which includes a healthy respect for the truth as unveiled by the scientific enterprise, as well as modern principles of governement) threatened by the violent acts of people calling themselves Muslims, acting under the banner of their religion Islam, and in the name of their deity Allah.

Just as Mohammad identified "idolaters" as his enemies against whom a defensive and therefore just war was called for, so can I identify "Muslims" as the enemies of my nation-states and culture against whom a defensive and therefore just war is called for. From there, it is simple to conclude that we must “slay Muslims wherever we find them.”

This replacement of "idolaters" with "Muslims" is more justified by the modern context than is Jasser's replacement by the narrow term "al Qaeda". A general term covering a particular approach to deity - via statues and images - is replaced by another general term covering a different approach to deity - via the Koran and life of Mohammad (an idolatry of book and person, rather than statue or image). The latter are quite clearly as dangerous to us today as those "idolaters" were to the Muslims of yesteryear.

By contrast, the term "al Qaeda" is restrictive and narrow while at the same time having dangerous fuzzy edges. Who belongs to "al Qaeda"? Is it only "card-carrying" members? Does it include anyone who has ever trained with them? Anyone who has attended one of their lectures (knowingly or not)? Anyone who sympathizes with their cause (such as seems true for the majority of the Pakistani population)? What about Hamas and Hizballah? What about the dozens, nay hundreds or even thousands, of other Islamist groups calling themselves different names and with no or very loose ties to al Qaeda itself? What about the so-called non-violent groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir who prepare the ground politically for the Islamic takeover of the West? Where does it end? If "al Qaeda" is to have any meaning as a denotation of our current enemy, it must be extended so far as to include a large plurality of Muslims and certainly a majority in certain parts of the world. What the heck! It's easier to just say "the Muslims"!

Thus does Islam, through one of its gentler apologists, shoot itself in the foot.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

thoughts post sep11

The biggest danger to the West is this climate of defeatism, appeasement, and cultural collapse now on display for the Islamists to see. This is the single biggest impetus to Islamist terrorism. We all have to grasp that terrorism is not the biggest threat we face. The biggest threat is the ideology that drives it. It’s not enough to fight terror, vital though that is. The principal battleground is the world of ideas, the battle for hearts and minds. The Islamists see this very clearly. They understand that psychological warfare — the fomenting of paranoia, resentment, hysteria, and demoralization — is their most effective weapon. If they can hijack the human mind to the cause of hatred and lies, they have an army; and if they can bamboozle and demoralize their victims, they will win.

Melanie Phillips: Denial, England dated September 11, 2007

Liberal democracy is no less an armed ideology than Islamist ideology, and liberals forgetting this elementary fact disarm themselves for an eventual surrender to those who reject a liberal future and make war against it in the present.

On Sept. 11, 2001, Americans awoke to a war in progress.Six years later the question hanging in balance is whether Americans and their allies will end this war on their terms or concede defeat to Islamists.

Salim Mansur: Fickle memories

For us here in Australia, sep11 is a very long day: for most of the hours on that date, it is not yet sep11 in New York where it counts, so it remains sep11 for much of our 12 September as well. It is only now, on 13 September, that I can really feel it is "post sep11".

This has felt like a very important anniversary. The fact that it fell on the same day of the week meant that a certain level of replay was possible. As a tennis fan, I watched while Roger Federer reaffirmed his dominance of the sport, winning the US Open tournament for the fourth time in a row. That was Sunday. On Monday, the media was abuzz with interviews and photo opportunities of this champion. I wasn't a tennis fan back in 2001 but everyone here in Australia knew that our own Lleyton Hewitt had won the tournament that year and no doubt a similar media circus encircled him on the following Monday. Then came the surreal events of Tuesday morning, making such an extreme contrast of the highly civilized and elevated fairness of the sport of tennis with the brutality and barbarism of this renewed Islamic invasion of our culture.

The two commentaries above each focus on an important element of our response to sep11. As Phillips points out, the battle within the world of ideas is crucial but we must also win this battle on the ground, in Iraq and in Afghanistan, perhaps soon also in Iran, as Mansur reminds us. Both fronts are needed and each requires a different kind of courage. However, in the Islamic world, Mohammad set the tone early when he approved the murder of women disagreeing with him (see Sunan Abu-Dawud 4348 and 4349 and my own hearing the breath). When battling with Islamists in the world of ideas, we also all put our lives at risk like soldiers on combat duty. This risk is taken most gravely by Muslims and ex-Muslims themselves wherever they oppose an official, orthodox, or political Islam. Apostasy is evident in an ex-Muslim like Wafa Sultan or Ayaan Hirsi Ali but apostasy - or at the very least heresy - is an accusation readily levelled even at a devout Muslim such as Mansur. People like him are soldiers on both battlefields.

In utter contrast, in the game of tennis, warriors fight it out without even making contact with each other, certainly without any bloodshed or direct physical harm involved. A purified spirit of combat prevails with a kind of humiliation being the price of defeat, far short of death itself. We often hear the expression: "I would rather die than ..." In the case of Islamists and any Muslim tied to the phenomenal (historical, cultural, institutional, doctrinal) aspect of Islam, the cultural defeat seems, indeed, to be worse than death. Muslims are dying in great numbers everywhere - and taking many innocent non-Muslims along with them - because they cannot stomach defeat on a level playing field, in a fair battle of wits and expertise, such as tennis is and such as any civilized cultural conversation amounts to.

Here in Australia we have a great reverence for sports heroes and heroines but nothing is viewed so badly as a poor loser in a fair game. Sadly, most of the Muslim world is behaving precisely like that, like poor losers in a fair game. Whatever rights and wrongs there may be within the specific doctrines underlying the West or the Islamic world, it is in the West that the greatest intellectual breakthroughs occurred, leading to profound understandings of our physical world and of the process of evolution of life on earth. The first gave us power through the atom bomb, the latter gave us humility in the face of life's diversity and our place in its unfolding. It is a further sign of Islamic arrogance that it greedily grasps at the fruits of the first while turning its back on the lessons of the latter.

That is why I watch out, with great care, for how events are unfolding in Iran with its ambition to replay jointly both the Hiroshima and the Holocaust tragedies while, at the same time, watching and waiting to see any signs that the Islamic world is "getting it" as far as Darwin is concerned. So far, the evidence is very very scant and so is the evidence of the natural humility that would accompany such a realization of God's plan for us.

Monday, September 10, 2007

the mystery of the crucifixion

And because of their saying: We slew the Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, Allah's messenger - they slew him not nor crucified him, but it appeared so unto them; and lo! those who disagree concerning it are in doubt thereof; they have no knowledge thereof save pursuit of a conjecture; they slew him not for certain.

Qur'an 4:157, trans Pickthal

This critical verse turned up today in Robert Spencer's series of blog entries that are working through the Koran from start to finish: Blogging the Qur’an: Sura 4, “Women,” verses 104-176. All the commentaries that Spencer refers to posit a substitute person who was made to appear like Jesus to fool the Jews into believing that He had indeed been crucified when in reality He had been whisked away into Heaven by Allah. These are purportedly orthodox or mainstream commentaries, not mystical or Sufi interpretations (which are often seen as heretical by orthodox Islam).

What did the Sufis think of this verse? And, in particular, how did Rumi see it? He does refer to this verse in his Ghazal (Ode) 728 which juxtaposes Jesus the Messiah with His Islamic counterpart, Mansur Al-Hallaj, who was also executed in part by crucifixion (though ultimately by beheading). Below is the Coleman Barks version of the ode in its entirety followed by the Arberry translation of the pertinent lines.

More Range

We're friends with one who kills us,
who gives us to the ocean waves. We

love this death. Only ignorance says,
Put it off a while, day after tomorrow.

Don't avoid the knife. This friend
only seems fierce, bringing your soul

more range, perching your falcon on a
cliff of the wind. Jesus on his cross,

Hallaj on his - those absurd killings
hold a secret. Cautious cynics know

what they're doing with every moment and why.
Submit to love without thinking, as

the sun this morning rose recklessly
extinguishing our star-candle minds.

Rumi: Ghazal (Ode) 728
version by Coleman Barks

That idea the Christian carries abroad, the Moslem has not that
idea, that He is slaying this Messiah upon the cross.
Every true lover is like Mansur, they slay themselves; show any
beside the lover who deliberately slays himself!

Rumi: from Ghazal (Ode) 728
translation A.J. Arberry

Rumi's interpretation jumps right outside of the obvious and literal and places the difference of opinion between the Christian and the Muslim right where it most appropriately sits: simply as a difference of perspective. The Christian sees the observer of the crucifixion as the agent thereof, whereas the Muslim (or strictly the Sufi Muslim) sees the victim, whether Jesus or Mansur, as a self-slayer, as a willing agent of His own self-sacrifice. It's no wonder Rumi was revered at his death as a great bridge-maker across religious divides for this is a subtle and profound interpretation that allows for a partial truth in both perspectives. Both the orthodox Christian and the orthodox Muslim have missed the point, he says. Neither has grasped the essential mystery of the crucifixion.

And yet ...

Rumi's is a rare and obscure interpretation and there is no evidence that it ever "took off" with enough convincing power to allow Christians and Muslims to live in peace in the region. Even today, in Rumi's area of the world (modern day Turkey), the tension between the two religions persists.

Moreover, Rumi's take is more radical even than the Christians' as it removes all agency and therefore all blame from the actual judge, jury and executioner that we would normally hold guilty for torturing and murdering an innocent victim, let alone a great prophet or saint.

If we carry such reasoning to its logical conclusion, then all 3000 victims on sep11 were self-slain. Perhaps it was not true for all, but at least for those who recognized as they died that they were necessary players in an awesome divine drama. I feel sure that many came to some such conclusion as they approached the final explosive impact, as they roasted in the intense heat inside the buildings, or as they plunged to their death outside.

Similar observations can be made regarding the Jewish victims of the holocaust, the Russian victims of Stalin, the Chinese victims of Mao, and the many many millions of others throughout history. As Rumi puts it in the Arberry translation: "show any beside the lover who deliberately slays himself!"

It is surely true that the West suffers from an excess of egotism but surely the radical mystic - as expressed by Rumi in this ode and by Jesus and Hallaj in the manner of their death - suffers from an excess of ego-denial. The smaller sun of the ego is born from the larger sun of the greater self: we are made in the image of God. As certainly as we return to dust at death, so does our smaller sun return home to the larger. However, between our birth and our death, surely we are responsible for taking care of this temporary vessel of the soul, our living bodies; surely we are responsible for maintaining our self-reliance (call it our free will) in the face of forces far beyond our control; surely we are responsible to keep our small individual candles alight even as God's ferocity whirls about us; and surely we are called upon - by Whom? - to stand up to God and say "no" to utter devastation.

Jesus on the Cross

Jesus on the Cross @ wikimedia

Saturday, September 08, 2007

the verdict on Islam

As another anniversary of the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington approaches it can be said no other subject during this period has been discussed as widely as Islam and Muslims.

Salim Mansur: Muslim world not a monolith

9/11 was the first real Internet event ...

Yaakov Kirschen @ Dry Bones

As sep11 approaches as the 6th anniversary of Islam's violent impact on the West, articles are appearing that try to sum up our responses to that event. Salim Mansur, the sanest voice out of the Muslim world, insists that Saudi Arabia and its Wahhabist brand of Islam is "the Muslim world's heart of darkness", protected by the West's dependency on its oil.

There are, however, many voices arising from among Western scholars of Islam that are warning that this heart of darkness is, in fact, the essence of Islam and not some extreme puritanical interpretation. In this, the concept of abrogation is important as it gives precedence to aspects of Islam that developed later in the life and adventures of the founding prophet. Thus the violent and intolerant aspects emphasized in Wahhabism have far greater weight than earlier tolerant aspects as well as later Sufi attempts to spiritualize the notion of jihad from its original imperialistic meaning to that of an inner struggle.

The issue of abrogation in Islam is critical to understanding both jihad and da'wa, the propagation of Islam. Some Muslims may preach tolerance and argue that jihad refers only to an internal, peaceful struggle to better oneself. Western commentators can convince themselves that such teachings are correct. However, for learned Muslim scholars and populist leaders, such notions are or should be risible. They recognize that, in practice, there is compulsion in Islam. They take seriously the notion that the Qur'an teaches not just tolerance among religions, but tolerance among religions on the terms of Islam.

David Bukay: Peace or Jihad? Abrogation in Islam [my emphasis]

As Kirschen observes, the internet has been a major forum for discussing Islam after 9/11 and I have taken part in many of those forums as well as following the arguments of influential (ex-)Muslims like Ibn Warraq (through his book Why I Am Not a Muslim) or Wafa Sultan (through her widely viewed confrontation on Arab television). I have also followed the developing views of non-Muslim writers like Daniel Pipes (of The Middle East Forum) and Robert Spencer (of Jihad Watch). I watch closely the developments in Israel via various Jewish news outlets, with special attention to the writings of journalist Caroline Glick.

In "real life" I have also attended a few "interfaith dialogue" events and courses which attempt to build bridges between the Christian and Islamic faith traditions. The most memorable remark concerned the contrast between Jesus' veneration as victim and Mohammad's veneration as victor. However, understandably enough, these bridge building exercises lacked any well developed opportunities for authentic confrontation. They are never debating platforms but fairly facile "feel good" moments.

I'm a great believer in the idea that nothing worthy of the name "truth" can exist unless it has survived the flames of heated debate and forthright confrontation. As an ancient Chinese sage put it: "True gold fears not the refiner's fire." On that basis, I've come to the conclusion that Islam is, by and large, too fragile to face such intense fire and is therefore pretty valueless on the face of it. However, the Sufi interpretations do have value, especially if they are understood as essentially subversive (which is also how Wahhabism perceives them).

I am particularly partial to the popular Sufi image of Jesus riding on a donkey in company with Mohammad riding on a camel, an example of which is shown below. These two prophets are two sides of the one coin: expressed not only as victim and victor, but as passive and active, as feminine and masculine, as flexible and firm, and many other similar opposites.

Jesus and Mohammad

In my view, Christianity distilled an essentially one-sided aspect out of the complete original picture that Judaism represents. Islam was needed to fill things out, so really the complete man should be able to imitate both Jesus and Mohammad, both Mansur Al-Hallaj (the Islamic Christ) and Julius Caesar (the archetypal worldly emperor-conqueror of the West). Each needs the other and ultimately fails when it tries to stand alone.

When people talk of Islam as being "a religion of peace", they are trying to reduce it to a mimicry of Christianity which it simply is not. When Israel tries to bend over backward to obey Christian based principles in her approach to her sworn enemies, she leaves herself open to victimhood and exploitation. Israel is badly in need of the forthright warrior spirit boldly expressed in Glick's writings for only a warrior can vanquish an enemy warrior.

It is difficult for Israel and it is difficult for all of us to watch as this dreadful drama is played out. I'm too small a player to do more, really, apart from praying for Israel's longer term safety and for the immediate safety of the children of Sderot who have been deliberately targetted by Qassam rockets from Gaza. I pray also that a new Judaism will develop that will allow its children back into the fold with a new Jerusalem accommodating not only the original monotheism and its Christian and Islamic offshoots but this new integrative theism that will honour all of the children of the Goddess.

Friday, September 07, 2007

daily bread

In these two worlds I don't know of any means of livelihood
better than trust in our Sustainer.
I know nothing better than gratitude
which brings in its wake the daily bread and its increase.

Mathnawi V: 2426
Version by Camille and Kabir Helminski

My first chore for the day is to walk to the local shops and buy our daily bread. I am thankful that we have a good handful of bakeries to choose from, each offering plain cheap bread made with heart and diligence. I shop further afield when seeking bread with seeds or sourdough, or bread of a specialist Greek, French or Italian style. I am glad I am not limited to those, however, and that the mundane variety is reliably there and close at hand.

Rumi's theme today is a simple one and a reminder of the mundane elements of everyday life that sustain us.

daily bread

Thursday, September 06, 2007

remaining blind and deaf

I am the Spirit Moon
with no place.
You do not see me for I am hidden
inside the soul.
Others want you for themselves but I call you
back to yourself.
You give me many names but I am
beyond all names.
Sometimes you say I am deceitful
but as long as you are
I will be too.
Until you remain blind and deaf
I will be invisible.
I am the garden of all gardens
I speak as the King of all flowers
I am the spring of all waters.
My words are like a ship and the sea
is their meaning.
Come to me and I will take you
to the depths of spirit.

Rumi: Ghazal (Ode) 1518
trans Azima Melita Kolin and Maryam Mafi via Sunlight

Today Rumi speaks in the first person as God, as the Greater Self, the Larger I. Just as yesterday (from the Mathnawi) he wrote that "the water of speech gushes from the mouth of the dumb", so today he tells us he is "the spring of all waters" visible only to those who "remain blind and deaf". This, for me, resonates strongly with the following lines from St John of the Cross:

To arrive at being all
desire to be nothing.
To come to the knowledge of all
desire the knowledge of nothing.
To come to the pleasure you have not
you must go by the way in which you enjoy not.
To come to the knowledge you have not
you must go by the way in which you know not.

The Ascent Of Mount Carmel
trans Kieran Kavanaugh OCD
via wikipedia


In English, there are many words with negative connotations that begin with the letter D, as the sampling above indicates. However, it is also true that:

Out of doubt can come a new faith,
Out of dread can come a new courage,
Out of doom comes a new dawn,
Out of the dark comes a new light,
The devil alone can fully challenge us,
Deep in the dung heap lies the pearl of great price,
After death comes the resurrection, and
We reach God only by venturing far enough down.


Wednesday, September 05, 2007

poet or priest, prophet or clown

He had not learned to preach from poring over commentaries;
no, he learned from the fountain of revelations and the spirit--
from the wine that is so potent that when it is quaffed
the water of speech gushes from the mouth of the dumb,
and the new-born child becomes an eloquent divine
and, like the Messiah, recites words of ripened wisdom.

Rumi: Mathnawi VI:2654-2656
version by Camille and Kabir Helminski
via Sunlight

The above three couplets from Rumi's Mathnawi refer to the prophet Noah who "preached a new sermon" everyday. Me, I'll just post a new blog entry everyday and see how I go with that.

I've been rereading Joseph Campbell: The Masks of God: Occidental Mythology, especially the chapters on Islam. However, it is the Conclusion that I have found most rewarding to reread. In it, Campbell makes some nice distinctions, firstly among "attitudes toward divinities": those of the priests and those of the poets. The first tend to take their gods literally or "for real" while the second understand the reality of human imagination. While priests tend to maintain a religion or mythology, prophets will often initiate a new direction or found a new cult. The prophet, for Campbell, is a certain kind of poet:

Overwhelmed by his own muse, a bad poet may imagine his visions to be supernatural facts and so fall into the posture of a prophet - whose utterances I would define as "poetry overdone," over-interpreted; wherefore he becomes the founder of a cult and a generator of priests.

Thus does Campbell move into a third component of distinction, yielding: "the true poetry of the poet, the poetry overdone of the prophet, and the poetry done to death of the priest". However, he does also refer to the "poetry underdone" of the poet who is limited to the personal and fails to reach the archetypal. More specifically, this kind of poetry tends "to rest in the whimsies of personal surprise, joy, or anguish before the realities of life".

It's hard to find a nice fourth word to name this last kind of poet. The best I could find is "humorist" or "comic". From there, one readily thinks of the joker, the jester, the clown. This is a hugely popular figure in our current culture, perhaps because we are weary of the archetypal. The Homer Simpson character created by Matt Groening is the great debunker of all things serious, sacred, or sanctified. He is utterly anti-numinous.

There is a great deal of humour within Rumi's own writings. This debunking wit flashes out here and there throughout his opus. Perhaps it is finally what makes Rumi's work so complete and so satisfying.

So now we have four manifestations in the field of mythology:

1) the true poetry of the poet, of which Campbell himself is a prime example since he writes in a serious vein but with often highly lyrical passages;

2) the poetry overdone of the prophet, of which the Qur'an is a prime example since it takes God so seriously from go to whoa;

3) the poetry done to death of the priest, of which so many prayers - such as Christianity's "The Lord's Prayer" - are typical; and finally

4) the poetry underdone of the comic, of which Matt Groening is an outstanding exemplar.

Come to think of it, I like the word "clown" best for the last manifestation in mythology. It finishes well when one lists the types: poet or priest, prophet or clown.

I often think of Mohammad simply as Mo, a clown figure ("real" name Roy Rene) once popular here in Australia. According to Campbell's schema, clown Mo is indeed the shadow side of prophet Mohammad.

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