This text is an English translation of a Khutba (sermon) given in Spanish by Sidi Hashim Cabrera, specifically Khutba 4 from the book ‘Khutbas of Dar-as-Salam‘. The Quranic translations are by Muhammad Asad, but I have done the translation from Spanish myself and am responsible for any errors. I have left many of the key Arabic terms untranslated, as per the original sermon. A key term is ‘maqaam’ meaning ‘spiritual station’. Another key term is ‘nafs’ meaning ‘soul’.
The maqaam of Nuh [Noah], peace be upon him, is the beginning of the spiritual journey, of the interior voyage. It is the purification that our body needs to regain its natural luminosity. In this maqaam our Tahara is established, the deepest and most pervasive ablution or ghusl. This purification by water is the test that assays us, that prepares us, giving us the necessary strength and knowledge to be able to live the Revelation in our own being and thus be able to develop as conscious creatures.
Allah gives us form in the womb of our mothers. We evolve within the placenta, floating in nourishing, protective, hospitable water. In this way our Sustainer prepares us to receive light in the world of shadows where we must be born. In this maqaam, within our mothers, we experience another light, a light that is tinged with the blue of water, a light now screened by an animal skin, maternal and human.
According to Semnani, within our energetic body of light, the latifa related to this maqaam is called latifa nafsiya, and it is the subtle organ that governs the organic and vital soul, the sensing soul, the centre from whence surge the desires and passions. In the Qur’an it appears under the term nafs ammara, the commanding I (Sura 12, Aya 53). Of this nafs ammara Allah says, in relation to the human being, it “undoubtedly incites evil.” Is it the I of the senses, which lends credibility and reality to what our eyes see and our ears hear, and nothing more than that. It is the unconsciousness associated with entropy, it is a raw nafs, an unpolished I that overflows in waves without limit, which is always trying to find expression, the form it might be, a torrent of energy.
Our basic humanity is undergoing its test of maturity, the maqaam where the nature of our voyage is decided. Traditional medicine is very familiar with the purifying effect of this subtle center. To restore the energy balance lost by disease it is necessary to rid the belly of fire through cold water on the skin, causing a thermal reaction. The medicine of Nuh is a medicine of health as it works on the causes of chaos, of imbalance, which is always excessive fire, heat, inside of a human being who is essentially water. It is about restoring thermal equilibrium, levelling the balance between the internal and external through water. This tempers us, but we must be willing to withstand the cold on our skin during the journey.
It is precisely this nafs ammara, this impulse which overflows into chaos, toward entropy, that the Revelation of Nuh tries to redirect within us, initiating an inner journey that will transform us until, in the best case, as Allah wishes, we become a nafs motma’yanna, the calm soul that Allah gifts us in the Qur’an, in Surah Al Fajr:
“O thou human being that hast attained to inner peace! (28) Return thou unto thy Sustainer, well-pleased [and] pleasing [Him]: (29) enter, then, together with My [other true] servants (30) yea, enter thou My paradise!” (Qur’an, Sura Al Fajr, verses 27-30)
To make the voyage through this night of chaos, from the darkness of the senses to the luminous perception of Fajr, of the spiritual dawn, of Ishraaq, it is necessary to understand the deep meanings of the revelation of Nuh, peace be upon him, to understand the purificatory meaning of conscious servanthood and submission to Allah.
Desire is life and life is heat that expands. Humans distract ourselves with the names and this distraction ends up altering our own sensibility. Our senses don’t only get drunk on chemical substances but are intoxicated by thoughts and images, and so our experience is degraded. We became a turbid consciousness, possessed of insufficient clarity to distinguish between what we’re seeing and what, without control, we imagine and project. Our heat stops expanding and gets locked inside, and our skin is cooled. We experience a walled-up combustion in the belly, an imprisoned energy in a moulded, permeable body of clay.
Turbidity is a resistance to the passage of light through water. They are impurities, ashes of light, but they are also living organisms because water is the placenta of our Earth. Life arises and grows like a light passing through the water, a white light that reveals blue bands, luminous blue, fluid and undulating. Interestingly they are the same symbolic colours that Christianity assigns to the Immaculate Conception. Light passing through the waters is the Revelation that Allah performs through His messengers, peace be with them. In this case Nuh, who brings the revelation of our spiritual birth, our first experience as creatures in a state of submission and as believers, as muslims and mu’mins, Alhamdulillah.
Adam became the first muslim when he submitted to Allah by making Tauba to Him. Nuh is the first mu’min because he is the first human to feel an inner recitation, a certain Revelation from Allah, an awareness of the Real in his heart. Nuh, peace be upon him, warned his people and pointed the way to submit to Allah, to worship Him, trying to bring them into the light, to show them Tawhid, but the dignitaries refused to acknowledge the truth and they fought against him, like all the prophets after him, with the same or similar arguments: “this man is nothing but a man like yourselves … if Allah had wanted to convey a message he would have performed miracles,” etc.
In ‘Sura Al Mu’minoon’ we find Nuh receiving the Revelation while feeling the rejection of his people: 23:26 Said [Noah]:
“O my Sustainer! Succour me against their accusation of lying!” (23:27) Thereupon We inspired him thus: “Build, under Our eyes and according to Our inspiration, the ark [that shall save thee and those who follow thee]. And when Our judgment comes to pass, and waters gush forth in torrents over the face of the earth, place on board of this [ark] one pair of each [kind of animal] of either sex, as well as thy family – excepting those on whom sentence has already been passed -; and do not appeal to Me [any more] in behalf of those who are bent on evildoing – for, behold, they are destined to be drowned! 23:28 “And as soon as thou and those who are with thee are settled in the ark, say: ‘All praise is due to God, who has saved us from those evildoing folk!’ (23:29) “And say: ‘O my Sustainer! Cause me to reach a destination blessed [by Thee] – for Thou art the best to show man how to reach his [true] destination!'” 23:30 In this [story], behold, there are messages indeed [for those who think]: for, verily, We always put [man] to a test.” (Qur’an, Sura Al Mu’minoon, verses 26-30)
Certainly there are many messages in this story. One of these is the crude expression of a fracture in humanity. Internal division forms part of the creation of the human being who, upon being made a confidant in the names of things, apparently loses Tawhid in the stare of the other but may be redirected through the consciousness of Allah, through the Tawhid of islam and iman up to the unitary and elevated light of ihsan. The wound may be closed but we must preserve awareness, cultivate it, because consciousness cannot be imposed but arises and grows in the nucleus of the human heart. But there are people who are refract the Light, who are closed to His message.
Allah, Subhana wa Ta’ala, wants to purify the community and admonishes Nuh, telling him not to plead for those who are bent on denying the truth and on evil-doing. On these has already been rendered judgement, precisely because their hearts have been closed and sealed. Nuh pleaded for them not out of naivety but out of compassion and kindness, out of the desire that all souls might be saved; not for nothing his mission was to build a ship and save the entire animal soul: a pair of animals of each species and his own human family. The surviving human being survived complete with his animal soul, organic and functional, but now it is a soul tested with submission to Allah and comforted with His Protection, with His aman [sic]. Whosoever can’t endure the test doesn’t just remain veiled to Reality but also his vital soul fades prematurely until it stops fluttering.
Nuh receives the Revelation while feeling the rejection and hostility of his own people, his own family. The maqaam of Nuh is the journey that we have to make from maqaam to maqaam, from prophet to prophet, until the luminous circle of Revelation is complete, crossing the great waters, the toughest circumstances. Along the way we acquire a spiritual force that arises in us and makes us mu’minoon, while we are immersed in adversity, feeling hostility and resistance from others and from ourselves.
Sailing in the ship of Nuh implies transcending the names, concepts and images, transcending one’s own vision. This navigation of light, crossing the great waters, feeling the moisture on our skin, is the first happening of the soul, the nafs, its first experience of the luminous and subtle world. It is the time when Allah blows Suruh [sic] into the gestating being and grants the dignity of being truly human. From this moment Allah is preparing us to face the moment of our earthly birth, the passage from the water world to the world of air, so that we may finally pass through the skin of our mothers. From that transcendental moment the ship sails on the waters against the current, scanning the horizon outside, trying to find the source from whence arise the waves and tides of appearance, until it finds calm.
It is the ‘hero’s journey through the night’ that Carl G. Jung describes to refer to the journey of consciousness through the dark sea of the human unconscious. It’s the return of Ulysses to his homeland on board a boat to whose mast he is tied: the hero’s ears are sealed with wax so that the Jinni do not distract him from his return and do not make him mad. But Nuh, peace be upon him, cannot cover his ears because it is Allah who talks to his heart and reveals the du’a that all who dwell in this maqaam must say. Nuh neither wants nor is able to cover his ears because he is a true prophet, the first of the messengers after Muhammad, peace be upon them. Because the soul of Muhammad was created before that of Adam and because in the Qur’an of Muhammad are all our du’as:
“O our Sustainer! Make us arrive at a destination blessed by You, for it is You who best shows man how to reach our true destiny! Amin”
The maqaam of Nuh brings us awareness of our voyage, of its scope and meaning. It is the awareness of our condition in the face of Reality. We submit or rebel. There is no half-stepping. The waters flood in and there is no longer any time for repairs. Those who climb into the boat of consciousness are saved, unbelievers inevitably drown because they are veiled with the things of the world, with their names and images, and do not realize that the waters overflowed a while ago. And this is what we perceive when we sail in this boat of the mu’minoon . . . we feel the desperate expressions of the unbelieving like a fire in the belly and our skin feels a chill, because we are human and we are affected by everything that affects humanity and creation.
Not only do we mu’minoon not cover our ears but we heed these desperate cries and see in them the expression of the immense power of Allah, Subhana wa Ta’ala, that does what it wants with the human heart. But we mu’minoon have already boarded the ship and we listen attentively to the recitation of Nuh:
“(11:41) So he said [unto his followers]: “Embark in this [ship]! In the name of God be its run and its riding at anchor! Behold, my Sustainer is indeed much-forgiving, a dispenser of grace!” (11:42) And it moved on with them into waves that were like mountains. At that [moment] Noah cried out to a son of his, who had kept himself aloof [from the others]: “O my dear son! Embark with us, and remain not with those who deny the truth!” (Qur’an, Sura Hud, verses 41-42)
The caliphate, the realization of the promise of Allah in the human being, began its evolution in the ship of Nuh. It Is the first caliphate of the ummah because until that point the community had lived without guidance or direction, it was just a vital humanity abandoned to an irreversible dissolution, to entropy, gone astray through language. Then Allah arouses a luminous khalifa in us, a prophet who will guide us through the trial, who will purify us until we arrive at a doorway where every member of our community will eventually become a khalifa of Reality, a khalifa ullah. The mu’min navigates by the name of Allah and moors the ship with His name. This is the ship of fools [. . .] of Allah, of the enlightened who are saved because they feel that everything depends on His power, because they discover His compassion and His light in every heartbeat, Alhamdulillah.
Nuh, peace be upon him, is sailing with us as we listen to the Revelation that Allah is performing through him. The Nuh of our being is the consciousness of our essential vitality and the urgent need to purify ourselves, to separate the coarse from the subtle, to restore our balance in the world. It is the maqaam of the overall health of our body, because it is the balance of light in water, the key to the balance between the internal and the external, a corporeal manifestation of our submission.
We are created from a qutb, from an axis that opens up an intense polarity until there is a splitting into pairs of our kidneys and glands which, for balance, are required to compensate for the heat and the entropy in the midst of water. And all this leads to different states, maqaams which are like these giant waves that the Quran describes. The Revelation of Nuh, peace be upon him, makes us voyagers through the maqaams, pilgrims from light unto Light. Alhamdulillah.
Nuh carries us across the great waters, guides us in the night sea. He shows us the compass indicating the direction of our journey, our qibla. Such guidance is not, in this case, to the geographical east or the east of the Orientalists, but to the east where the Light of lights dawns, towards the Ishraaq. Nuh takes us from the west of the shadows, from the twilight of fire, darkness and ignorance.
During his journey in this maqaam, Suhrawardi witnessed the appearance on the horizon of the Star of Yemen, Suhail or Canopus, which rises “on some wispy clouds woven by the spiders of the elemental world, in the world of generation and dissolution.” The Star of Yemen points us to the east of spiritual dawning, the direction in which the Fountain of Life is found.
It was this bright wink which Muhammad felt, peace [and blessings] be upon him, when he said, “I feel the Breath of the Merciful coming from the direction of Yemen.” The Prophet, peace be upon him, was referring to the spiritual light of his contemporary gnostic who lived in that land, a salih called Oways al Qarani who knew him without ever having physically seen him, and whom the prophet also knew in the same way. Oways had no visible human teacher but this didn’t stop him from feeling the Guide inside him. For that reason seekers without a visible guide call themselves owaysis.
The appearance of the Star of Yemen during the spiritual journey means that we have already abandoned the west of the shadows, that now we are crossing over to our true destination which is none other than the Fountain of Life, the Light that is neither from the east nor the west and which burns without having been touched by fire. Light upon Light. Allah, Subhana wa Ta’ala, enlightens whom He will.
Allahumma: Draw us to Your presence in the ship of Nuh. Oh Allah: We are grateful for the wisdom that is hidden in Your trials. We ask strength, courage and dedication to live in the maqaams that You decree for us. Make us understand the luminous meaning of our difficulties, show us the Star of Yemen. Amin
Review of the chapter ‘Al Azim’ from the book ‘The 99 Names of God’ by Daniel Thomas Dyer
I find myself drawn to Allah’s names of majesty and wrath such as al-Azim, the Tremendous. Daniel chooses strong words and images on these pages: earthquakes, sinews, mountains, cracks and dust.
Through the cracks wrought by earthquake and mountain-splitting, there is always the leavening of light, which Daniel invokes using a Leonard Cohen quote. Daniel could have gone back to Rumi for the original but it is in the spirit of this wonderful book to embrace variety and diversity wherever possible.
Just as light brightens cracks, the book reminds us how the awe expressed in the Prophet Muhammad’s earnest prayer of submission was softened, by his allowing his beloved grandsons Hassan and Hussein to climb and play on him as he prayed.
Meditating on Daniel’s picture of a wall destroyed by an earthquake to reveal the name ‘Allah’ behind, I recall the Hadith Qudsi “I am with those whose hearts are broken for My sake” and I dig out these words of Rumi: “Wherever there is a ruin there is hope for a treasure – why do you not seek the treasure of God in the wasted heart?”
I recall the powerful idea of being broken (shikast) as an initiatory stage on the path to God, which seems closely related to al-Azim. Daniel echoes the question from the Qur’an: Who could give life to bones that have crumbled to dust? It will be inspiring for readers to contemplate the answer.
I think that The 99 Names of God by Chickpea Press is a tremendous achievement, and I hope it will bring light and hope to many people.
The Muslim theologian Abdal Hakim Murad says “Sometimes we see in the world manifestations of the divine beauty and grace – and that’s preponderant – sometimes we see in the world manifestations of the divine rigour and wrath. And this is one of the big differences between our (Muslim) understanding and, say, the Christian understanding. The Christians say “God is love” and immediately they can’t explain the meningitis virus or whatever, and this is a major source of loss of faith amongst them.
“Now we say that Allah is indeed Rahman [intensely merciful] and Rahim [most compassionate] and He is Al-Wadood [the loving], and He has those beautiful attributes and they do predominate and at the end, when good and evil are finally differentiate, we will see that the Rahma [divine mercy] predominates over the divine wrath. Nonetheless we also believe that Allah is Al-Jabbar (The Overwhelming), Al-Muntaqim (The Avenger), The Judge (Al-Hakkam), and that’s one reason why Islamic theology hangs together so well when confronted by the paradoxes of evil and suffering in the world. We believe that the world is the endlessly subtle interaction of ninety-nine names that includes names of rigour as well as names of beauty.”
“. . . which also means that the perfected human being, the Adamic human being, sometimes (and predominantly) manifests mercy and forgiveness, but sometimes can manifest rigour as well, which is why the Prophet (saws) forgave the people of Mecca, but he also went to war against them. Because he is the true Khalifa, he has those names and he also has within himself something of the Rahma, and he has within himself something, also, of Al-Muntaqim (The Avenger).
“The true representative of Allah (swt) on earth is not just the woolly-minded, kind, benevolent saint who always turns the other cheek, but sometimes has to uphold Allah’s rule in the world through those names as well, and that’s part of the completeness of Sayyedina Muhammad (saws), that in him we can see manifested (so far as is possible for created mortal human beings) all of the names of Allah, not just the names of beauty and the names of mercy.”
The spirit is impractical. The spirit is of no use. It cannot be used. Any attempt to use the spirit contravenes its nature. Impractical spirituality is based on this recognition. Rather than try to use the spirit, impractical spirituality enjoys the beauty of spirit for its own sake.
To directly seek practical applications of the spirit such as ‘spirituality in the workplace’ is to miss the point. Sure, we can appreciate the beauty of the spirit anywhere: in the home, workplace, in the car, or on a plane — but attempts to put the spirit to use in those places are like trying to form water into a chair.
Better to let the spirit use us, because the spirit is not ours to command. In Arabic the path of the spirit (ruh) is called Ruhaniyat.
“They ask thee [Mohammed] concerning the spirit. Say: “the spirit comes by command of God. Only a little knowledge of it is given to you, (O men!)” Qur’an 17:85
The concepts of Divine transcendence and immanence describe humanity’s relationship with God. They can be simplified to separation and proximity.
Listen to this reed as it is grieving; it tells the story of our separations.
“Since I was severed from the bed of reeds, in my cry men and women have lamented.
I need the breast that’s torn to shreds by parting to give expression to the pain of heartache.
Whoever finds himself left far from home looks forward to the day of his reunion.”
These are the opening lines of Rumi’s spiritual epic, the Masnavi (trans. Williams 2006). Indeed, separation / transcendence is the starting point for much theology. Yet Divine proximity / immanence is also key. In the Quran, God says of His relationship with man:
“We are nearer to him than his jugular vein” (Q50:16).
How can God be both separate from and close to us, transcendent and immanent? The relationship or distance between a person and God is not fixed. In a Hadith Qudsi, God says:
“Take one step towards me, I will take ten steps towards you.
Walk towards me, I will run towards you.”
If we take this to its extreme, at what point does the gap close between God and man? If we continue taking steps towards God and God continues running towards us, do we ever meet or, as Rumi suggests, achieve ‘reunion’? Some Sufi mystics such as Bayazid Bistami and Mansur Al-Hallaj have achieved states of union with the Divine, and the question “Who was greater, Muhammad the Prophet or Bayazid Bistami?” caused Rumi to swoon on his first encounter with his mystical initiator Shamsuddin.
“While the Prophet said: ‘We do not know Thee as it behoves!’, the Sufi Bāyezīd Bisṭāmī called out: ‘Subḥanī’, ‘Praise to me!’ If we are to believe legend, it was the contrast between these two utterances that awakened Mawlānā Rūmī to the spiritual life. Rūmī, so it is told, fainted when listening to Shams’s shocking question about whether Bāyezīd or the Prophet was greater, a question based on the two men’s respective sayings that express the human reactions to the meeting with the Divine. The tensions between the two poles of religious experience, that of the prophet, who knows his role as humble ‘servant’, and that of the mystic, who loses himself in loving union, became clear to him.” Annemarie Schimmel, ‘Deciphering The Signs Of God’ (Gifford Lecture)
The key insight of monotheism is God’s Oneness and unique fitness to be worshipped. In Islam, the understanding of God’s Oneness or Unity is known as Tawhid. Statements of God’s Oneness typically emphasise transcendence – the fact that God cannot be compared to anything within creation. For example, Sura Al-Ikhlas (chapter 112 of the Qur’an) says:
Say, He is God, the One,
God the Eternal,
He neither begets nor is begotten
And there is none like him.
From the point of view of Tawhid it is not advisable to represent God in ways that associate or mix him with created entities. Monotheists object to the visual depiction or representation of God because any picture or statue of God contradicts God’s Uniqueness. Many divine characteristics are necessarily excluded from any picture or statue. Also, any picture or statue inevitably associates or mixes God with created entities such as human or animal forms, or even subtle objects like light. On the other hand, verbal descriptions (i.e. names such as ‘Merciful’. ‘Powerful’, ‘Just’ etc.) do not necessarily exclude other divine characteristics and therefore do not contradict God’s Oneness, nor do they necessarily associate God with created entities. In the Torah the commandment against idolatry (arabic: shirk) reads:
“You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” (Exodus 20:4).
The key words here are ‘make’ and ‘form’, meaning that the commandment relates to pictures and statues, because words are not ‘made forms’, unless we really stretch this phrase. However, the dangers of idolatry do not entirely disappear simply by prohibiting the making of forms of God. When we use words to describe God’s qualities there is the danger that we may overemphasise some at the expense of others, to the point where we even fragment God in our own minds. Perhaps this disease can affect those who greatly overemphasise God’s Wrath because, as a hadith qudsi tells us, the inscription on God’s throne reads: “My Mercy precedes My Wrath”. To deny God’s Mercy is a serious misunderstanding, warped and partial.
Although many names for God are valid, it is preferable not to use names that might associate God with created things. Moreover, certain names belong to God and must be not be used for any other being or entity, for example “Possessing Supreme Power” or “The Lord Who Looks Down In Mercy”. It is not appropriate to use these names to describe or worship any other being. My own spiritual path has led me from a form of polytheistic worship in which I used to mistakenly associate other beings with those names, to a position (Islam) in which I now believe these names just apply to God. However, I believe that I received some blessings even in the earlier stage, because these names always belong to God and, even if we think we are worshipping other beings through these names, we are really worshipping God. Ascribing these names to other beings than God is a form of idolatry and is seriously not recommended, though God in His Mercy may choose to accept the prayers of someone who uses these names in ignorance. However, once this person realises that God is One, and that these names belong to God, he or she must certainly stop worshipping any other being through them.
Some Hindus and Buddhists practise a mystical form of monotheism because they realise that all the apparent manifestations of God are in fact illusions, and that there is only one God. Annemarie Schimmel describes mystical monotheism as
“the secondary monotheism in which, starting from polytheistic tendencies, at last theological speculation comes to understand that one single reality underlies all the varied manifestations which are called deities, and reaches the conclusion to explain the manifold gods and goddesses only as functions of the One Divine Being; this type of monotheism may also result from mystic experiences in which the seeker finds himself united with the profoundest depths of the Divine, and regards, thus, the deities only as emanations from the Most high indivisible Essence; or in prayer man chooses one out of the great number of gods and turns towards him in faith and trust as if only he be effective; or different deities become united for purposes of cult and rite or as a result of the political unification of two peoples with different objects of worship. But this kind of monotheism which is characteristic of the ancient religions of Egypt, Babylon, India, etc., is always deductive; it does not make a clear cut between the One and the many, and admits the existence of deities besides the Highest Being.” Gabriel’s Wing, p87
Schimmel contrasts this mystical, deductive monotheism with prophetic monotheism:
“It was prophetical experience in Israel (plus Christianity) and in Islam which realized the overwhelming uniqueness of God besides whom all those whom man might have adored until then were nothings and which cannot tolerate the worship of any other than that God who reveals Himself in the individual life and in history. Mystic monotheism may include all forms of reality because there is nothing existent but God and everything is a part of His life; but prophetic monotheism is always exclusive . . . . that is why the negation in the beginning of the Muslim creed la ilaha illa Allah—there is no god but God.” (ibid)
The key characteristic of prophetic monotheism is that it negates deities: “there is no deity but the Deity”. Mystical monotheism proposes a unification of deities but does not negate deities, because they are still regarded as valid objects of worship. For this reason many adherents of prophetic monotheism believe that mystical monotheism is an inadequate understanding of the Deity, whose very existence negates deities.
Tawhid is the profession of the Absolute Oneness of the Deity, the establishment of the Deity as the Absolute who negates deities. One way of understanding the negating function of the Absolute is by studying dialectic reasoning. In dialectics, a thesis gives rise to its reaction, its antithesis, which contradicts or negates the thesis, and the tension between the two is resolved by means of a third position, the synthesis. The synthesis, however, it not merely a combination of the thesis and antithesis, rather it is a completely new entity which may be utterly different from both thesis and antithesis, but which nevertheless resolves their tensions, so that it utterly negates both thesis and antithesis.
Imagine two religious teachers, both of whom are polytheists, but who disagree about a particular deity in the pantheon: one teacher claims the deity is supremely good; the other believes the deity is supremely evil. How to resolve the tension between them? Sweep away the whole pantheon and realise that there is no god but God. In a sense, God is the inevitable conclusion or ‘synthesis’ arising from the thesis and antithesis set up by the polytheists – but God is not deduced from their premises or their deities, nor does God unite their deities, instead God negates their deities through Absolute Unity.
God is One in a similar way that the universe is one. The universe is the totality of all physical phenomena; God is the Totality, the Whole. God’s Wholeness is the source of all holiness and well-being. God is the Absolute in whom all opposites and contradictions are resolved. God is One because there is no other. God is One because no truth contradicts any other truth – they are all aspects of the Truth. By the same token, no goodness or virtue contradicts any other aspect of goodness or virtue, they are all aspects of the greatest Good. God is the Unity to whom the apparent multiplicity points. Sufis seek the signs of God within multiplicity: everything has a side facing toward God; everything points to the One God, and we delight in that recognition. God is Love.
The goal of Sufism is to know God in this life. All Muslims believe that we will meet God in our future life, especially on the Day of Judgement. However Sufis believe that it is possible to meet and know God in this life. My Sufi friend Abdullah advised me to “make friends with God before you die”. The Sufi saints (awliya) are the friends of God, who have achieved intimacy with God in this life.
Major religious figures such as the Buddha, Moses, Jesus and Mohammed revealed eternal truths in specific times and places. The truths they revealed must be understood within those contexts. We might prefer, if it were possible, to receive the eternal truth context-free, but then we would be even less able to relate it to our own lives and draw practical conclusions. Even though the world has changed since our great religious teachers, the basic context — being human — has not.
Religious scholars from all traditions have applied great effort to the ongoing process of interpreting the original teachings in ways that apply today. It is difficult to be both faithful and relevant, and not all get the balance right. If they get the balance wrong they achieve neither faithfulness nor relevance. The fundamentalists are desperate to cling on to the literal meaning of every single word, and in doing so they lose the spirit of the original teaching. The modernists are desperate to update the teaching, and in doing so they distort the tradition and throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Within both Judaism and Islam there are sophisticated schools of jurisprudence, which seek to apply the holy law today. The Talmud contains a record of how rabbis have applied the Torah in particular times and places, with their reasoning and discussions. Islam developed four main schools of jurisprudence (fiqh), and the process of interpretation (itjihad) continues today.
It is important to understand attitudes towards itjihad when studying Islamic fundamentalism. Interestingly, the modern Islamic movements most associated with fundamentalism, such as Wahhabi and Salafi, sought to reinterpret Islam, rather than accept the previous interpretations handed down by generations. Their interpretation was very much about taking Islam back to basics, trying to live exactly as the Prophet and his companions would have lived, and strongly rejecting anything they saw as ‘innovation’. But by rejecting the tradition of interpretation handed down through generations they in fact lost touch with the living essence of Islam, relating instead to an idealised version of the religion that they themselves had invented.
The beauty of the religions is their appearance in particular times and places, and their ongoing relevance today. God mercifully provided specific guidance for real human situations. Specificity in religion is a strength, not a weakness. There is a parallel with art here: no painting or novel would show anything true or beautiful were it not for the specific detail. The skill of the artist is to take a specific scene and, while being true to it, lift it beyond the mundane. God has done the same, by offering real people the solutions to their actual, mundane problems, and at the same time revealing eternal truth.
On the spiritual path both self power and Divine power are required to achieve liberation / salvation / illumination. Self power means relying on our own power, control, effort etc. Divine power means letting go, and relying on the blessings, grace and transformational properties of the Divine.
Tibetan (Vajrayana) Buddhist teachers tend to be exponents of Divine-power, emphasizing the role of the Divine (conceived as Buddha / Buddhas) in the development of virtue. A typical statement is “without the blessings of the Buddhas, it is impossible for a virtuous mind to arise.” (Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, Understanding The Mind).
Like the other great religious traditions, Buddhism is interesting because within it we can find a wide variety of practices and interpretations. There are exponents of Buddhism who strongly emphasize self power, and there are others such as Japanese Pure Land practitioners who rely completely on Divine power. The main practice of the Pure Land school is nien-fo (Jap. nembutsu), repeatly reciting the name of Buddha Amitābha (Jap. Amida) in order to recollect and call on him for protection. There is a striking similarity here with the Sufi practice of dhikr.
One of the founders of the Pure Land school was Shinran who, according to Paul Williams in Mahayana Buddhism, “felt incapable of attaining enlightenment by his own efforts, so his last resort was faith in Amida” . Shinran developed an extreme Divine power view, believing that “salvation comes from gratefully accepting Amida’s saving grace, not by any good works.” After a single recitation of the nembutsu with faith all other recitations are superfluous, and according to Shinran even faith comes from grace. Shinran closely analysed the nature of self power and Divine power, and came to believe that relying on Divine power is the truly difficult path, because it is too easy to slip into believing that we have the power to rescue ourselves and that our own actions might be sufficient for salvation.
Although it has many good qualities, Pure Land is an extreme interpretation of Buddhism, similar to Calvinism in Christianity. It certainly seems a long way from the Buddhism described in the early scriptures (Pali Canon), although the practice of ‘letting go’ is found there. I think the following paragraph from Lama Yeshe reveals the fine balance between self power and ‘letting go’ in healthy Buddhist meditation:
“Now, you might think that Buddhism emphasizes control too much and feel that the lamas are saying, “Your deluded mind is so full of negativities that you must restrict it tightly.” But this is not what we mean . . . In Tibet we say that directing the mind is “like bridling a fine horse to make him rideable.” A horse is a tremendously powerful animal and if you do not have the means to control him properly he may gallop off wildly, possibly destroying himself and others as well. If you can harness all that energy, however, the horse’s great strength can be used for accomplishing many difficult tasks. The same applies to yourself . . . So the control we are talking about is similar to that of a pilot who does not restrict but rather directs the power [my italics] of his aeroplane.” Wisdom Energy, p125-6
In this analogy, the conscious mind that is capable of control is self power, and the horse is the unconscious power of the mind and the inner energy winds (Skt. prana). Correct practice means finding the balance between self power and letting go, so that the horse is under control, but is still able to express its unbounded energy. Another analogy is sailing, where the wind is outside of our control, and the elements of the boat such as the sail are self power. By correctly orienting those elements which are under control to the wind, the sailor is able to use (or be used) by the other power to good effect.
As well as balanced teachings like these, within Tibetan Buddhism it is easy to find teachings which tend strongly to Divine power. The Dakini can be considered an archetypal manifestation of Divine power. She appears to Naropa as a hag in order to shock him into a new, more honest phase of spiritual practice:
“All that he had neglected and failed to develop was symbolically revealed to him as the vision of an old and ugly woman . . . she is a deity because all that is not incorporated in the conscious mental make-up of the individual and appears other-than and more-than himself is, traditionally, spoken of as the divine.” Herbert Guenther, The Life and Teachings of Naropa.
Also, Judith Simmer-Brown writes:
“the Dakini is the ‘other’. As an outside awakened reality that interrupts the workings of conventional mind, she is often perceived as dangerous because she threatens the ego structure and its conventions and serves as a constant reminder from the lineages of realized teachers. She acts outside the conventional, conceptual mind, and has therefore the haunting quality of a marginal, liminal figure.” (from Dakini’s Warm Breath).
As well as the Dakini, the major source of other-power in Vajrayana Buddhism is the Lama (spiritual guide). In The Single Decisive Path, Gampopa says: “mahamudra [great enlightenment] has no cause; faith and devotion are the cause of mahamudra. Mahamudra has no condition; The holy Lama is the condition for mahamudra.”
Although the great monotheist religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam emphasize the centrality of faith in God, most denominations assert the importance of self power too: “God helps the man who helps himself” neatly sums up this attitude, or “first tie your camel, then trust God”.
“The things we normally see do not exist” is one of the phrases for which Geshe Kelsang Gyatso would most like to be remembered. it is a wake-up call to us all, heartfelt advice that we should integrate into our daily lives and our way of perceiving the world.
The reason why “the things we normally see do not exist” is because the things we normally see appear to exist inherently, independent of their parts and the minds which perceive them. During his Universal Compassion teachings in Summer 2008, Geshe Kelsang explained how we can overcome our ignorant grasping at inherent existence. He described how we should analyze with wisdom the way things normally appear to our minds. The following paragraphs are my edited notes from his teaching:
“What does it mean to search for things with wisdom? Through wisdom we develop the sincere wish to understand the way things really are, which is called ultimate truth. With this wish, if we search for things, then we are doing so with wisdom. This is called an ultimate search.
“When we search for things that we have lost such as our car we are searching for things with ignorance. This is called a conventional search. If we lose our car we believe that the car we normally see is lost, but this car does not exist! This is ignorance. Then we believe we have found the car that we normally see. This is also ignorance! We should know that although we see things, our way of seeing things is mistaken.
“When we see a car we see a car within its parts. In reality a car does not exist within its parts because neither the individual parts nor the collection of parts is the car. If we search with our wisdom eye we will not find the car. We will realize that it does not exist in the way we think. We will realize the emptiness [Sanskrit: shunyata] of the car. We meditate on this single-pointedly for as long as possible until we develop deep familiarity.
“In the same way we see our body. Whenever we see our body we see it within its parts. In reality our body does not exist within its parts, because they are the parts of the body not the body itself, however there is no body other than its parts. Through understanding this we will perceive the emptiness of our body.
“In the same way when we see our self we see our self within our body and mind. In reality our self does not exist within our body and mind because they are our possessions and our self is the possessor. However there is no self other than our body or mind.
“We can apply this to all phenomena. Then we will realize the emptiness of all phenomena. We should meditate on this and hold it without forgetting.”
(For more detailed teachings on emptiness, please refer to Heart of Wisdom by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, available from http://www.tharpa.com)
In a separate teaching Geshe Kelsang Gyatso has said that the mind which is completely mixed with the emptiness of all phenomena can validly be called God (see my article God and Buddhism). So, when the veils of illusion are removed, what remains is God.
In a poem called The Theophany of Perfection by Ibn Arabi, God addresses the disciple, revealing the veiled truth behind “the things that we normally see”.
“Oh, my beloved! How many times I have called you without your hearing Me!
How many times I have shown myself without your looking at Me!
How many times I have become perfume without your inhaling Me!
How many times I have become food without your tasting Me!
How is it that you do not smell Me in what you breathe?
How do you not see Me, not hear Me?
I am more delicious than anything delicious,
More desirable than anything desirable,
More perfect than anything perfect.
I am Beauty and Grace!
Love Me and love nothing else
Let Me be your sole concern to the exclusion of all concerns!”
(quoted in An Ocean With Shore by Michel Chodkiewicz, State University of New York, 1993)