Ancient wisdom for the 21st century [Archives:2004/699/Opinion]
By Amjed Naseem
“I sought a soul in the sea, and found a coral there; beneath the foam for me, an ocean was all laid bare” – Rumi.
In these uncertain times, when Muslims are increasingly coming under fire for their religious beliefs, it might be useful to look back at some of the more tolerant teachings of our faith, particularly those espoused by Mowlana Jalaluddin Rumi. Although Rumi is too often dismissed as a heretic, by some of his more orthodox critics, his life and works show just how Islam can be a tolerant faith that encompasses the complexities of life with a mantle of unbridled love and compassion. Given our current state of affairs, it is unfortunate that we could not carry on the legacy of men like Rumi, whose teachings could have prevented much of the woes that we suffer from today, both temporally and spiritually.
In “Signs of the Unseen”, Rumi gave us our first introduction to metaphysics, which if understood properly can do wonders for the reaffirmation of faith. Taking examples from the outer world, Rumi eloquently reaches the depths of existence and illustrates just how God can permeate down to the molecular recesses of our creation, giving meaning to the Quranic verse, “Have they not reflect on the kingdoms of the heavens and earth and the things that God hath created.” The following are five examples of how Rumi illustrates the relevance of God in our daily lives, which Muslims today, can astonishingly benefit from even nine centuries after the poet's death:
1. In order to defend the common Sufi proclamation of “I am God”, which borders on the blasphemous for some Islamic clerics, Rumi defines the statement to be rather a sign of humility, likening it to drowned man who surrenders his individuality to the greater movement of the water. “We are like bowls floating on the water,” he says. “How the bowls go is not determined by the bowls but by the movement of the water.” His other example is that of the lion and the gazelle. As long as the gazelle is fleeing the lion it is distinct in being, like the man who turns his back to God, but as soon as the gazelle is captured, its individuality is obliterated and only the lion's existence remains. Similarly, when a man succumbs to the power of the Higher Intellect, he too ceases to be an individual but becomes part of the greater being. This concept of complete capitulation may explain why Jesus is purported to be the first Sufi and explains why Catholics have come to consider him as God literally.
2. A second indication of God's preeminence over man is illustrated by Rumi's notion of the veil. All manner of trades, according to Rumi, like tailoring, building, harvesting, astronomy, medicine, etc. are found within man and “not under some mud clumps.” Therefore, in order to lift these veils and attain higher knowledge, one must first be attuned to the source of that knowledge. For Rumi, man can never be self-taught because even when Cain killed Abel, a raven had to show Cain how to bury his dead brother.
3. The preceding point is further elaborated by Rumi's illusion to the shadow. It is Rumi's understanding that as our shadows resemble us is some shape and form, we are shadows of God and resemble him in some or all of his attributes.
4. Being a proponent of the mystical approach to God, Rumi tells us not to focus on coincidental, which he compares to the scent of musk, which ceases to exist when the actual musk has evaporated. The knowledge of bodies and knowledge of religions are distinct for Rumi, because while one is to only see the “flame and light of a lamp” the other is to burn in that same flame and light of the lamp. “It is like a ray of sun shining into a house. Even though, it is a ray of sunlight it is still attached to the sun. And when the sun sets, its light will cease. One must, therefore, become the sun in order for there to be no fear of separation.”
5. After 9/11, for all those people who could not understand how God could allow such evil, Rumi's answer is very simple. God wills motivations for evil in man's soul as a teacher wills ignorance in the student, or the baker wills hunger for the people. But the baker does not wish the people to remain hungry lest he cannot sell his bread. Similarly, God wills evil so that he can teach us the meaning of good. He further illustrates this point by comparing the thief or murderer who is hanged to a model citizen. Both are preachers, in Rumi's examination, because both preach a message either by being hanged or by living a good life.
For those of us who stand on the precipice of faith and are unable to make that crucial leap forward, Rumi's wisdom can show us that the kingdom of God on earth is in fact all around us. Rumi's ability to extract deeper meaning from ordinary experience can give us more enlightened view of the world and our situation at present. Instead of being reactionary as many Muslims are today, Rumi offers us an alternative to the way we normally view our circumstances and process them in our minds so we maintain a more accurate perception of a given situation. So while we are forever plagued by misguided judgments in the political arena, it might be wise to pay Mowlana Rumi back another visit at least for the sake of auld lang syne.