Wednesday, April 12, 2006

health check

I went to my doctor, said, "Hey, Zein al-Din,

Please measure my pulse and check my urine."

"It's bad," he said, "Your bile is mixed with insanity."

"That's fine," I said, "That's fine, so let it be."

#1479: From Rumi's Kolliyaat-e Shams-e Tabrizi

I can think of no more bile-filled writing than the Quran and the bitterness expresses itself most clearly in the frequent discussions of hell. There are 97 mentions of hell in 49 of the 114 chapters of the Quran. Less direct allusions also abound. Here is a sample (my bold emphasis):

Quran 74:41-56 (Yusuf Ali)
And (ask) of the Sinners:
"What led you into Hell Fire?"
They will say: "We were not of those who prayed;
"Nor were we of those who fed the indigent;
"But we used to talk vanities with vain talkers;
"And we used to deny the Day of Judgment,
"Until there came to us (the Hour) that is certain."
Then will no intercession of (any) intercessors profit them.
Then what is the matter with them that they turn away from admonition?-
As if they were affrighted asses,
Fleeing from a lion!
Forsooth, each one of them wants to be given scrolls (of revelation) spread out!
By no means! But they fear not the Hereafter,
Nay, this surely is an admonition:
Let any who will, keep it in remembrance!
But none will keep it in remembrance except as Allah wills: He is the Lord of Righteousness, and the Lord of Forgiveness.

Within this bitter spiel, I've emphasized what I see as the key issue that annoyed its writer. Mohammad wanted his revelation to be seen as special, as final, as God-given, as "true" for every man and woman, and for all time. Clearly there were individualists around him claiming that God should be able to reveal Himself to every person, that each one of us has The Right to Write (as Julia Cameron so nicely puts it). In much of the Muslim world, many citizens (especially the female ones) are denied even the right to read, let alone the right to compose their own verses of divine revelation.

For me, then, Rumi's verse makes sense as referring to this bile that he has inherited through his father, this bile of Islam. Through his encounter with Shams, he gained access to his own mystical nature, to his own "insanity", so that this was added to the mix. While the doctor clearly sees the insanity as a problem, Rumi sees it as the healthy component. In fact, one of the things that makes it hard for me to see Rumi as a serious Muslim is the total absence of bile in his insanity. When I read his communications across the vast gulf of centuries and cultural divide, I never feel guilty or mistaken or even very slightly admonished. All I ever feel is love. All I ever hear is pure clean water gurgling from a spring.

I believe that if humanity wanted to study carefully what is right and what is wrong in religious revelation, then it would need go no further than to compare the Quran with the body of Rumi's poetry. The extremes are laid out so starkly for anyone with a clear-sighted eye to see.

I'd happily wade in bile
Or sit in a pile of dung
If such sweet love arose
From this insanity.


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