Monday, August 29, 2005

friendship among us

Reciting you, friend, I lose sight of you.

Your dear face is veiled by the light of you.

I remember your lips, but the memory

The memory, my friend, veils your lips from me.

#193: From Rumi's Kolliyaat-e Shams-e Tabrizi

Search word: friend

Yesterday, I ventured out of my hobbit-hole and met some new live friends. Rumi makes many many references to friend which is understandable since this whole set of quatrains was dedicated to his lost friend and teacher, Shams of Tabriz. This one is an early quatrain judging by its numbering and it has a more literal or earthy sense in referring to this friend. The same or a similar position of "other" in Rumi's verses is often also taken by a feminine figure and quite simply by God. However, whether the figure is male or female, human or godlike, Rumi seems always to relate to it as a friend, that is, on an equal footing.

In many religious traditions, but in Islam especially, God is seen as a kind of patriarchal ruler, master and "Lord", not as a lover or friend. The idea of God as lover comes into the Abrahamic tradition with Jesus but is not preserved in Mohammad's vision. God is strictly seen in Islam as being without a partner, being thoroughly singular and unrelated to anything else.

Qur'an 3:64 (Yusuf Ali)

Say: "O People of the Book! come to common terms as between us and you: That we worship none but Allah; that we associate no partners with him; that we erect not, from among ourselves, Lords and patrons other than Allah." If then they turn back, say ye: "Bear witness that we (at least) are Muslims (bowing to Allah's Will).

It is interesting to note in this Koranic passage that no human authority is to be allowed, only God's word has authority. If this is followed through absolutely truly, then each man and woman should accept only divine revelation that comes to him or her directly. Unfortunately, it isn't made clear in Islam just how an individual is to process such a revelation and in practice various religious authorities are relied on and only Mohammad's original revelations are taken at all seriously. Anything else is viewed as heretical or blasphemous. Most Muslims, in fact, fail to follow the written direction in their own sacred scripture.

Certainly not so Rumi nor evidently Shams either. As a wandering and essentially homeless dervish, Shams was ever open to God's presence with never a human authority to intervene. Rumi, on the other hand, was a solid citizen and a stay-at-home. It was through Shams that he learned to commune directly with God as a good Muslim really should but he seems also to have struggled to bring some form to these experiences and to communicate them better than had the Koran. The eventual Sufi practices that Rumi helped develop were also a way of integrating these personal revelations and render them more socially bound and therefore acceptable. Any such boundaries, however, are forever meant to be broken open anew. Humanity seems unable to rest within them and seems always to want to move beyond the established edges or frontiers, whether they are geographical or intellectual, artistic or spiritual.

In today's verse, there is a strong sense of the power of Shams' physical presence for Rumi. He clearly loved being with him, simply being together. He recognises here how precious that was and how easy it is to lose sight of this when the message from the "other" is too much dwelt on. Taking my cue from Rumi, I can say that I enjoy these times I spend with his verses. Whatever comes of that, whatever message or wisdom or teaching, the bottom line is that I enjoy my friendship with this poet.


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