Reflection on God’s name ‘Al Azim’
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.
Humanism and Religion
It is possible to be both religious and a humanist. For me, humanism means attributing weight and importance to the individual human experience. Historically, some religious practioners have neglected the individual experience of themselves and others, preferring to prioritise the literal religious doctrine in all circumstances. However there is not necessarily a contradiction between religion and humanism.
An example of a non-humanistic approach to Buddhism would be to treat all individuals like pebbles on a beach and, rather than consider their own individual circumstances, encourage them simply to adhere to Buddhist doctrine in the expectation that it will resolve their problems. On the other hand, a humanistic approach would encourage the practice of meditation as a form of compassionate, internal listening, a pre-requisite for the sensitive integration of Buddhist teaching in your life.
In Islam, the Qur’an contains the verse “We will show them Our signs on the horizons and within themselves until it becomes clear to them that it is the truth.” (Q41:53). The Arabic word for ‘signs’ is also used to refer to Qur’anic verses themselves. Therefore we can understand that in Islam there are three principal loci of revelation: the natural world (‘horizons’), the psyches of individuals (‘within themselves’) and the Qur’an.
In recent years there have been movements in the Islamic world to reconcile modern understanding of the natural world (science) with Qur’anic revelation, and there is also a long-standing humanistic current in Islam which reconciles individual psychology with revelation. For example, the 13th century poet Rumi was both steeped in Qur’an and sensitive to individual experience, comparing the human psyche to a guest house and suggesting that we (the hosts) treat all our guests (cognitive, emotional & spiritual states) with kindness and respect.
“This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.”
— Jelaluddin Rumi,
translation by Coleman Barks
Sufism and Quakers
I am a Muslim who sometimes attends my local Quaker meeting. In England, Quaker meetings offer unstructured worship where one sits in silence until someone feels moved to speak. In my local meeting I can generally enjoy 30 mins of silent meditation or dhikr until someone speaks. In the silence, Quakers wait on God “as if none were present but the Lord” and the metaphors they commonly use to describe God are spirit and light, which map to the Sufi concepts of ruh and noor.
The ‘Quaker Faith and Practice’ book which sets out the current rules for Quakerism in England says that you need to be “broadly Christian” to be a Quaker (i.e. to be a member of The Religious Society of Friends which is the English Quaker congregation). However, many Quaker meetings (including my local one) make no distinction between members and regular attenders. There is no requirement for an attender to be Christian, as long as one is “in sympathy” with the meeting.
In fact, I have found a number of Quakers to be in sympathy with Sufism. One lady at my local meeting is planning a return trip to Konya after a moving visit. She asked the Sufi brethren who were her guides in Konya to take her to Rumi’s mausoleum but they insisted on taking her to Shams first. Soon after arriving at Shams’ tomb she was overcome by emotion and found herself kneeling on the floor weeping! However, when she was taken to Rumi’s tomb she found it quite ordinary in comparison. When she asked the Sufi brethren why, they asked her “where do you think Rumi is?” In death there is nothing to keep Rumi apart from Shams so Mevlana can be found at the tomb of his friend.
At What Point Does the Gap Close Between God and Man?
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 Meaning of Life
We can apply the Zen debate between sudden and gradual awakening to the question of faith, refuge and salvation. My local vicar in Sussex once told me that there is a difference between salvation and sanctification. Salvation is sudden and occurs the moment you give your life to Jesus. Sanctification is the gradual process that follows. Perhaps the act of faith is necessarily a sudden shift to the objective perspective, whereas the assessment of our faith is part of the gradual subjective process. In this sense, in one moment of pure faith we are already outside samsara. Sure some Pure Land teacher must have said this? And if this moment of pure faith occurs at the point of death, perhaps this means we lock into the objective perspective – forever, or until we freely decide we need to work on our subjective side again.
Your thoughts resonate with some of my recent contemplations. In the film ‘The Meaning of Life’ by Monty Python there is a scene in which a group of corporate executives in the boardroom discuss the meaning of life:
Exec #1: Item six on the agenda: “The Meaning of Life” Now uh, Harry, you’ve had some thoughts on this.
Exec #2: Yeah, I’ve had a team working on this over the past few weeks, and what we’ve come up with can be reduced to two fundamental concepts. One: People aren’t wearing enough hats. Two: Matter is energy. In the universe there are many energy fields which we cannot normally perceive. Some energies have a spiritual source which act upon a person’s soul. However, this “soul” does not exist ab initio as orthodox Christianity teaches; it has to be brought into existence by a process of guided self-observation. However, this is rarely achieved owing to man’s unique ability to be distracted from spiritual matters by everyday trivia.
Exec #3: What was that about hats again?
This idea of bringing the soul into existence by a process of guided self-observation with the assistance of an outside spiritual energy does indeed seem to me to be the meaning of life. Its relationship to salvation and sanctification might be as follows:
Salvation corresponds to initial baptism / baptism of water. At this point one enters religion and receives the protection of God. However, one has not yet been sanctified. Sanctification corresponds to baptism with the holy spirit. This latter baptism is normally associated with the Pentecost. The Catholic Catechism describes what was granted to the Apostles at Pentecost as the “full Outpouring of the Holy Spirit” (i.e. sanctification).
In between initial baptism (salvation) and baptism with the holy spirit (sanctification) is the baptism of fire. This confusing stage is the process of transforming the soul from its raw to its cooked state or, to use Rumi’s specific form of this of analogy, transforming the wheat of the soul into cooked bread:
The heart’s like grain, and we are like the mill.
Say, does the mill know why it whirls around?
The body’s stone, the waters are the thoughts —
The stone says “Oh the water understands!”
The water says “No, ask the miller, please —
He sent the water downhill — ask him why!”
The miller says: “Bread-eater! — should this cease
To move, say then, what would the baker do?”
Perhaps sanctification is when the baker puts his seal of approval on the cooked bread, before serving it to his customers?
I remember the Monty Python scene about the soul from when I saw it in the cinema. It intrigued me then. They almost certainly got it from Gurdjieff. It was an important idea for me at the time, but graudually I found it reinforcing a type of self-grasping and causing tension. What I like about Mahamudra and the wisdom teachings in general is that our fundamental nature is already pure and in a sense enlightened. We need to relax into our enlightened (and eternal) nature rather than create it through effort. Gurdjieff”s teaching on the soul gave me the feeling that I needed to create my own immortal nature, and thus increased unnecessarily the tension an over emphasis on self power creates. I realize now I misunderstood the teaching. Have you heard of the two types of Buddha lineage which Geshela taught in Great Mother of the Conquerors, the naturally abiding lineage and the developing lineage? As the names suggest, the naturally abiding lineage is something we’ve already got, and refers variously to the emptiness of our mind, the clarity of our mind, or the clear light mind. The developing lineage is what grows through spiritual practice. I like to see soul as a pattern or order that gradually emerges out of our chaotic “uncooked” nature, the fully developed soul being symbolized by the Deity within his mandala that embraces the whole universe, having fully transformed chaos into cosmos. I might have got this idea from you. The development of soul is therefore closely related to the accumulation of merit, which I sometimes see as a song or chant that begins with a lone voice but graudually brings together an entire football crowd.
I think you could argue that until our soul pattern has reached a certain degree of stability there is no individuality within us that can reincarnate. Specific actions have been created which lead to specific effects, and on this causal contiuum we can impute an I linking the two, and therefore speak about rebirth, but this is not the same as a reincarnating soul.
Gurdjieff taught that soul is created through self-remembrance and conscious suffering. Self.remembrance seems to correspond to the mindfulness and alertness of vipassana, and concious suffering to the practice of patience as described in How to Solve our Human Problems. These two practices do seem to me to be the basis of any genuine spiritual practice on the self-power side.