Wednesday, October 03, 2007

cutting the crap

I said, "Show me the ladder, that I may mount up to heaven."
He said, "Your head is the ladder; bring your head down under your feet."

from Rumi: Ghazal 19, trans A.J. Arberry, via Sunlight

In his notes to this translation, Arberry explains the second line above as meaning "prostration in prayer, the subjection of reason to spirit". Me, I read Rumi in my own way. I prefer to take his meaning more directly: to see - in this instance - a head under a foot and not, as Arberry would have it, a head submitting to Allah or spirit. A foot is a foot and a spirit is something almost diametrically opposite to that. To me, Rumi (through the divine guide or Friend) is simply advising that the best way to reach heaven or attain things we yearn for is to begin with reality, to begin simply with "what is".

Our feet, after all, are what connect us to the earth. As we walk about, the pressure on our feet is a constant reminder of our heaviness, of this gravitational pull of body to earth, and of our inevitable rootedness in reality. Of course, it is also human to aspire to something other than the reality we are in. We express that in our longing for the Beloved, in our ambition to climb higher and higher, thus achieving more and greater things. However, we go nowhere so long as our heads remain in the clouds of imagination and aspiration. The journey must always begin with the here and now, with things as they are.

Here in Australia, I believe largely as a result of our British heritage, we like to link "spirit" with dung of one sort or another, especially when mocking vaporous idealism. We exclaim: "what a load of bullshit!"; or more sharply command: "cut the crap!"

In the Islamic world, there is no one better at trying to get Muslims to bring their heads down under their feet than Wafa Sultan, the forthright realist of brief but potent Arab television fame. (Those powerful five minutes remain at YouTube.)

As brave as she is, however, Sultan is stronger on rhetoric than on fact. For example, she does say in her speech that:

We have not seen a single Jew blow himself up in a German restaurant. We have not seen a single Jew destroy a church. We have not seen a single Jew protest by killing people.

transcript from her appearance on Al Jazeera TV, February 2006

Unfortunately, this is not strictly true, especially not the last and more general sentence. It is justly claimed that it was Jews who carried out the first act of modern terrorism in the King David Hotel bombing. Many innocent civilians died, Jews included. Since I am an Israeli sympathizer, I understand what drove the Jews to do this. I don't see it as a petty act of revenge but a necessary and desperate act of survival for the Jewish people. Others less sympathetic might see it as a case in which Jews did indeed "protest by killing people".

Salim Mansur is another solid realist in the Muslim world, less flashy but equally determined, working in the quieter but more precise ways of the academic. For me, his strongest "cut the crap" message to the Muslim world is contained in a little known essay titled Muslim on Muslim Violence: What Drives It? (available from the Center for Security Policy). In it, he documents the genocidal atrocities perpetrated by Muslims on their so-called brothers-in-faith, starting in the first century of Islam and more recently expressed during the violent breakup of Pakistan in 1971. He attributes this self-destruction to a political corruption of the original message of Islam at the time of the Karbala massacre and he asks that Muslims take a hard look at this turning point in their history when this "official" Islamist ideology was adopted.

The difference between the two realities, that submitted by Sultan and that by Mansur, is that the first locates the error right in the heart of Islam, right in the very opening page of the Quran (the Fatiha). She has, as a consequence of this and of other experiences, turned her back on Islam as a spiritual path. Mansur, on the other hand, is loyal to the forces opposing this "official" political Islam, forces largely contained within or expressed through the Sufi traditions. In this way, he can still identify as a Muslim although most Muslims (being so largely politicized and under the sway of "official" Islam) would deny him that identity and thereby feel free to attack him in a violent physical way. Despite a loyalty to what he would see as the pure essence of Islam, he remains an apostate in the eyes of "official" Islam.

In terms of realism, of who has put their head more firmly under their foot, I have to favour the lady here. She may be making some slight errors in her enthusiasm to communicate forcefully, but the overall tenor of her message is, to my mind, correct. I believe that Mansur sees an ideal - or more correctly, an idealized - Islam, an Islam that might have been. There are enough elements in the Islamic faith tradition to keep that ideal alive for him.

And it is indeed a beautiful ideal, an ideal of brotherhood in faith, a transcending of all boundaries of race or tribe. It is an ideal very purely communicated by the likes of Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, a modern Sufi of British origin, who promotes a world consciousness of Oneness. His message can be accessed through The Golden Sufi Center.

However, some ironic questions arise: Is this not precisely the message that Islam is meant to convey? Is the world now not divided precisely along the lines of who - or what - can best deliver this message of Oneness?

Wafa Sultan certainly doesn't see Islam as fit for the task. Salim Mansur might see Sufi Islam as fit. Vaughan-Lee is careful to downplay his Islamic allegiance in favour of a New Age purity, wearing his stark white outfits, sitting next to flower displays, and speaking in a tone of studied gentleness. There seems to be no fighter in him, not even of the spiritual sort. But still, he is a Sufi and a Muslim.

By contrast, Robert Spencer likes to quote Rumi on his allegiance to Muhammad thus:

Root and branch of the roses is
the lovely sweat of Mustafa [that is, Muhammad],
And by his power the rose’s crescent
grows now into a full moon.

quoted in Spencer: The Truth About Muhammad: Founder of the World's Most Intolerant Religion,
and also at his blog:
Blogging the Qur’an: Sura 6, “Cattle,” verses 1-83
original source is Annemarie Schimmel: And Muhammad Is His Messenger: The Veneration of the Prophet in Islamic Piety

It is clear what Spencer's intent is here, especially in the context of the Quranic verses on which he is commenting and which actually have no connection whatever to Rumi's lines. Spencer has merely found an excuse, any excuse, to point the finger at Rumi and tar him (and his fellow mystics such as al-Hallaj) with the same brush as he tars Muhammad himself. The message is: Don't trust the Sufis for they are as much "Muslims" and just as "bad" as any other Muslims.

And Spencer does have a point. For those, especially, who are appalled at Islamic violence, a sweet pure mystic like Vaughan-Lee is very attractive and his ideal of Oneness also. However, should one be tempted thereby to affirm the shahada (the affirmation of Muslim faith) then there is no going back for the gentle Sufi has brothers in Islam who forbid apostasy and will see to it that you stay put.

As outsiders - poor benighted kufrs that we are - we must take Islam for the reality that she is, both her good points and her bad. We cannot but respect Islam as a long-standing institution within humanity's history but the political ideology is, as Spencer keeps reminding us, a solid and real part of what Islam is. It is there at its very roots, in the Quran and in the life of Muhammad.

I love some of the good things, especially many of the lovely lines of wisdom of Rumi. However, I love the humanist in Rumi, not the Muslim. If, to his sensitivities and in his time, Mustafa did smell sweetly it is no longer true today. Too much of the dung at the heart of Islam has been uncovered. There is simply too much crap there to allow for a sweeter smell. Yes, perhaps there is a pearl inside that dung heap, but I have yet to discover it myself or have it shown to me.

For me, Rumi and his opus stand apart and independent of Islam. The wisdom, the pearls, therein can survive many a refiner's fire, whether that of the Islamists or the more recent one of those commercializing him. A few days ago the 800th anniversary of Rumi's birth was celebrated thus in Konya, Turkey:

rumi birthday

Whirling dervishes perform a sema ritual during a ceremony to mark the 800th birthday of the Sufi mystic poet Mevlana Jelaleddin Rumi in Konya, Turkey.
Photo: AP @

When I saw this photo, I didn't know whether to laugh or cry and, indeed, I wondered whether Rumi himself would know which was appropriate. After some thought, I've decided that from his grave there would issue loud and hearty laughter: he would go with the guffaw.

Similarly, when it comes to Islam: I must also go with the guffaw.

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At Friday, 05 October, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"For me, Rumi and his opus stand apart and independent of Islam."

I've thought this for some time myself. Excellent, thought provoking post.

At Friday, 05 October, 2007, Blogger Arizona said...

Thank you, kimberly.


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