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The Spiritual Journey of Noah

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

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Self-Power and Other-Power

Buddhist Stupa in Kesariya, Bihar, India

Buddhism generally advocates ‘self-power’ as the path to liberation, advocating that we are responsible for purifying our own minds to bring about our own liberation. This is particularly evident in the earliest (Theravada) teachings. Later forms of Buddhism (Mahayana) display more ‘other-power’ tendencies, identifying something or someone beyond our control which / who has the the power to purify our minds for us if we accept / submit.

An example of a Buddhist school in which ‘other-power’ is strongly emphasised is the Pure Land tradition of Japan. The main practice of this school is nembutsu, reciting the name of Buddha Amitābha (Amida in Japanese) in order to recollect and call on him for protection. One of the founders of the Pure Land school was Shinran who “felt incapable of attaining enlightenment by his own efforts, so his last resort was faith in Amida” (1). Shinran developed an extreme ‘other-power’ view, believing that “salvation comes from gratefully accepting Amida’s saving grace, not by any good works”.

However, I believe that Sufi Islam is the culmination of ‘Other-power’ because it has Tawhid at its heart. Pure Land Buddhism can be very effective because Amitābha, meaning Infinite Light, is one of the names of God. However, because Buddhists represent Amitābha visually they imply his separation from other Names and miss Tawhid. By insisting on Allah’s Oneness, Islam correctly identifies the Other on whom to rely / submit, providing the basis for the straight path to liberation. It is through complete submission / reliance on the Divine Other that we annihilate our self, then only Self remains.

Brief history of self-power and other-power in Buddhism

The earliest (Theravada) Buddhist teachings are from the Pali Suttas, the only teachings directly attributed to the historical Buddha by conventional historians. These teachings date from about 500BC and primarily emphasise self-power, though they hint at the possibility of the other-power of the mind (chitta), in the form of underlying radiance. In the ‘Finger-Snap Sutta’, the Buddha says: “This mind, monks, is brightly shining, but it is defiled by defilements which arrive. But this is not understood as it really is by those who are spiritually uneducated, so they do not develop the chitta. This mind, monks, is brightly shining, but it is freed from defilements which arrive. This is understood as it really is by those noble disciples who are spiritually educated, so they do develop the chitta“.

Already we can see the possibility of abiding in the pure nature of mind, the other-powered path of letting go, so that defilements naturally subside and the pure radiance of the mind shines through. Early Buddhism starts to objectify the radiance of the mind around 400BC with the building of stupas, physical representations of the enlightened mind of the Buddha. With the origin of Mahayana Buddhism around 200CE, non-historical celestial buddhas such as Amitabha start to be envisaged, who embody various aspects of the enlightened mind. Devotional practices of reliance on the liberating other-power of such buddhas and bodhisattvas start to be developed.

One of the classic formulations of other-power in Mahayana Buddhism is the dakini, who appears to the Abbot Naropa (956–1041CE) in an ugly form and, in a manner familiar to Sufis, makes him realise that his years of formal practice and scholarship (self-power) have failed to purify his mind. “All that he had neglected and failed to develop was symbolically revealed to him as the vision of an old and ugly woman”(1). “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.”(2)

Tibetan Buddhism revolves around such manifestations of other-power. My former Buddhist tradition emphasises the name Dorje Shugden, meaning ‘Possessing Indestructible Power’, whose manifestation as other-power is the source of so many of the fears and hopes of the Tibetan people.

(1) ‘The Life and Teachings of Naropa’, Herbert Guenther, Oxford University Press (1963)
(2) ‘Dakini’s Warm Breath’, Judith Simmer-Brown, Shambala Publications (2001)

Why I Stopped Practising Buddhism

One of the main reasons I stopped practising Buddhism and embraced Islam instead is because I could no longer bear to be caught up in the dispute between the Dalai Lama and my Tibetan Buddhist teacher Geshe Kelsang Gyatso over the practice of Dorje Shugden, which relates to questions concerning the purity and preservation of Tibetan Buddhism. The following paragraphs explains the dispute in the context of my own, limited understanding of Tibetan religious history.

“Dalai” means “Ocean” in Mongolian, while “Lama” is the Tibetan for “Guru.” Putting the terms together, the best translation is “Ocean Teacher” meaning a teacher who is spiritually as great as the ocean. The honorific title ‘Dalai Lama’ was offered to the Tibetan monk Sonam Gyatso (1543–1588) by the Mongol ruler Altan Khan in 1578. The title was later applied retrospectively to Sonam’s two previous incarnations, Gendun Drup (1391–1474) and Gendun Gyatso (1475–1542). Gendun Drup was a disciple of the great scholar-saint and religious reformer Lama Tsongkhapa (1357-1419) who founded the Gelugpa (yellow hat) tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. Gendun Drup wrote a special praise to Tsongkhapa called Song of the Eastern Snow Mountain (Shargangrima in Tibetan). In this song he says to Tsongkhapa:

For the fortunate people of Tibet, the Land of the Snows, your kindness, O Protector, is inconceivable.
Especially for myself, Gendun Drup . . .
The fact that my mind is directed towards Dharma
Is due solely to your kindness,
[…]
Although I cannot repay your kindness, O Protector,
I pray that, with my mind free from the influence of attachment and hatred,
I may strive to maintain your doctrine and cause it to flourish
Without ever giving up this endeavour.

Many of Tsongkhapa’s disciples attained enlightenment and, as well as the Dalai Lama, the other major reincarnation lineage to come from the Gelugpa tradition is the Panchen Lama. The Dalai and Panchen Lamas often took turns to rule Tibet, with the Panchen Lama acting as regent if the Dalai Lama had not yet reached maturity. The Gelugpas had achieved political supremacy in Tibet in 1642, when the 5th Dalai Lama (1617–1682) was installed as ruler by the Mongols. The 5th Dalai Lama, who is known as the Great Fifth, secured his rule by overcoming opposition from the rival Kagyu and Jonang Buddhist schools, and also by suppressing opposition within the Gelugpa tradition itself, focussed around the orthodox Lama Dragpa Gyaltsen (1619-1656).

The 5th Dalai Lama and Dragpa Gyaltsen were both disciples of the fourth Panchen Lama Lobsang Chokyi Gyaltsen (1570–1662) at Drepung Monastery, one of the three great monastic universities established by Tsongkhapa and his disciples near Lhasa. Although they had been friends, Dragpa Gyaltsen started to rival the 5th Dalai Lama, and became the focus for Gelugpas opposed to the 5th Dalai Lama’s practice of Dzogchen, a non-Gelugpa practice which the 5th Dalai Lama had adopted from the Nyingma (red hat) tradition and Bön. The conservative Gelugpa element believed the 5th Dalai Lama was corrupting the purity of the tradition by adopting Dzogchen, which had never been taught by Tsongkhapa. Dragpa Gyaltsen was killed at the age of 37, and his spirit started to haunt the 5th Dalai Lama, whose attempts at exorcism failed. Meanwhile, the conservative Gelugpas started to believe that Dragpa Gyaltsen had been an incarnation of the Wisdom Buddha Manjushri, and propitiated his spirit as the Protector of Tsongkhapa’s tradition, calling him Dorje Shugden (Possessor of Supreme Power). Eventually the 5th Dalai Lama made peace with Dorje Shugden.

By the 19th century, Tibetan Buddhism had started to decline. Two reform movements arose: the Ri-me (eclectic) movement, and a Gelugpa reform movement. The Ri-me movement was initiated by the Lama Jamgon Kongtrul, partly as a response to the sectarianism from which he had personally suffered. Born into a Bön family he was a very able boy and, when he visited the town of Derge to visit his father, the local Nyingma Lamas were so impressed by his abilities that he was invited to join their monastery, where he received ordination. He enjoyed studying at the Nyingma monastery but, because of his talents, he was ‘requisitioned’ by the more powerful regional Kagyu monastery, where he was recognised as an incarnate Lama. Later, Jamgon Kongtrul began to “feel regret with what he considered a lapse with his connection with the Nyingma lineage, and he attributed this as the cause for later ill health and various mental and karmic obstacles”. Gradually, as he worked through these problems “Kongtrul developed a profound faith in all aspects and lineages of the Buddha’s teaching . . . The symptoms of the inner conflict caused by the sectarian and political problems seem to have been resolved by the time Kongtrul was forty years old, when he went on to establish the retreat center and continue his prolific writings. The program of the retreat included meditations from all of the practice lineages, some of which were disappearing within the overbearing monastic institutions of the four main schools . . . The non-sectarian (Ri-me) movement flourished in large part due to his contributions.” (quotes from ‘Creation and Completion’ by Sarah Harding).

Despite recognising the value of all four traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, the Ri-me movement prefers to categorise practices according the Nyingma framework devised by Longchen (1308-63) rather than the Gelugpa framework devised by Tsongkhapa. This framework accords Dzogchen the highest position in the hierarchy of practices, so “although the Ri-me drew their leaders from the Sakyas, Kagyus, Nyingmas, and even the Böns, the movement was primarily a triumph of Nyingma eclecticism, in that it emphasised Dzogchen as an element in all true Buddhist practice and supported the idea that all interpretations of Buddhist doctrine are equally valid, with no one version in a position of orthodoxy above any others.” (from ‘Buddhist Religions’, 5th edition, by Robinson / Johnson / Thanissaro). Therefore Ri-me’s pluralistic tendency, rejoicing in the good qualities of all four Tibetan Buddhist traditions, may be outweighed by its assimilationist tendency, seeking to integrate and unify the traditions under a common framework with Dzogchen at its centre.

The alternative reform movement was the revitalisation of the Gelugpa tradition by Phabongkha (1878-1941), who re-emphasised meditative practice because the Gelugpas had become somewhat lost in scholasticism. Like Tsongkhapa before him, Phabongkha emphasised the meditative practices (Lamrim & Lojong) brought to Tibet by the Indian Lama Atisha (980-1054), whose followers were known as Kadampas (the Gelugpa tradition is also known as the New Kadampa Tradition). Phabongkha also revived the practice of Dorje Shugden, and there was some hostility between his followers and the Ri-me movement in Eastern Tibet.

The current (14th) Dalai Lama (1935- ) initially studied and practised within the Gelugpa tradition under Phabongkha’s principle disciple Trijang Rinpoche (1900-1981) and engaged in the practice of Dorje Shugden. He later received teachings and initiations from Ri-me teachers such as Dilgo Khyentse (1910-1991) and started to practice and teach Dzogchen. He stopped practising Dorje Shugden and has subsequently banned and suppressed this practice, which greatly upsets my former Buddhist teacher Geshe Kelsang Gyatso (1931- ), who was also a disciple of Trijang Rinpoche. Geshe Kelsang Gyatso organises protests against the Dalai Lama when he visits Western countries, and has recently been involved with the publication of a book attacking the Dalai Lama entitled ‘A Great Deception’. The Dalai Lama’s biological brother Gyalo Thondup has been strongly linked to the suppression of Dorje Shugden practice.

Fortunately, I don’t have to worry about this magical mess any more, because Allah is my Guide and Protector. My Kashmiri Sufi Sheikh Ghulam Rasool has been very kind in helping me to escape when my spiritual practice was at a dead end. Some others are not so fortunate in finding a way forward. My new resolution is tawhid. 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, is not merely a combination of the thesis and antithesis, rather it is a new entity, different from both thesis and antithesis but which nevertheless resolves their tensions, so that it negates both thesis and antithesis. As I wrote elsewhere:

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.

The Beautiful Irony

A valid comparison can be drawn between money addicts and heroin addicts. Neither group can be trusted, but it is not appropriate to hate either heroin or money addicts because they are both sick. Addicts shouldn’t be allowed to run our industries or invest our money but we shouldn’t hate them. They are not in control of their own behaviour – they are not themselves. Not being themselves, they are incapable of experiencing empathy and compassion. The beautiful irony is that the self is entirely unselfish when it is at its healthiest. Only the diseased self, full of fear and insecurity, grasps onto what it perceives as “mine” at the expense of other people.

Elite education can drive out co-operative instincts like empathy and compassion. However I don’t think this is inevitable, and I believe it is possible to learn techniques of intellectual and emotional self-defence to protect against this brutalising effect. These techniques are widely applicable because, as George Monbiot points out (1), in modern society we are besieged by advertisements trying to undermine our healthy, intrinsic self-worth. Through causing alienation, corporations seek to refocus our self-esteem around their superficial products and brands, and delude us into pointless competition against each other.

Fitra is the Islamic concept of the underlying purity of the self. Fitra means ‘pure primordial nature’ or ‘basic goodness’ and is an Arabic word appearing in the Qur’an. The Prophet Muhammad (saws) said that every child is born with perfect fitra (1). Subsequent human impurities are ‘adventitious’, i.e. they arise due to upbringing, circumstance etc. Muslims believe that Islam is the religion which perfectly expresses this pure primordial nature because fitra is naturally drawn to the One God, to Whom the Muslim monotheistic practice of tawhid is the best path.

In his essay ‘Fitra: An Islamic Model for Humans and the Environment’ (2) the Sufi scholar and leader Saadia Khawar Khan Chishti discusses the relationship between fitra and care for the environment. He argues that spiritually healthy people (whose fitra is being well expressed) will naturally care for the environment and other people. For example, they will naturally be contented and will not require large quantities of consumer goods. He therefore argues that the solution to the environmental crisis must have a spiritual element – namely the clearing away of obstructions to fitra. Non-spiritual solutions on their own will not suffice.

The concept of fitra is similar to the concept of ‘Buddha nature’, which is also described as our natural, primordial purity. Buddhists believe in the interdependence of all life, and say that our Buddha nature is best expressed when we break down the egotistical barriers that falsely separate us from others. Therefore they say that “compassion is our Buddha nature” because, without a false ego and a diseased sense of self, like the Buddha we will naturally empathise with the suffering of others and want to relieve it.

***

1. George Monbiot, The Values of Everything (http://www.monbiot.com/archives/2010/10/11/the-values-of-everything/)

2. Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 2, Book 23, Number 441. “No child is born except in al-fitra and then his parents make him Jewish, Christian or Magian (Zoroastrian), as an animal produces a perfect young animal: do you see any part of its body amputated?”

Understanding God’s Oneness

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 necessarily contradicts God’s Oneness, as many divine characteristics are necessarily excluded from any picture or statue. Also, any picture or statue necessarily 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’, ‘Wrathful’ 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.