He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Islamic Mysticism: The Ecstatic Asceticism of Rūmī

Rumi is far from the only Islamic mystic, but he's the poet most likely to be familiar to the Western reader, so his work is a good place to start in examining the subject of Islamic mysticism.  It's valuable to point out that although Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī himself seemed to believe that he was authentically following the teachings of the Prophet as they were received from Allah in the form of the Qur'an, there are plenty of Muslims who find some of his statements to be inimical to Islam.

There are also plenty of Muslims who find his poetry to be a deeply moving reflection of Islamic spirituality.  Part of Islamic spirituality, as with Christian spirituality and Buddhist spirituality, is the practice of self-denial.  While many people focus on the mystical ecstasy that comes through in his poetry, Rūmī is firmly grounded in Islamic asceticism.  He understood that mysticism divorced from asceticism is in danger of becoming merely a habit of useless self-validation, a series of ecstatic expressions which do not transform us as God wills us to be transformed.

"Listen to the poet Sanai,
who lived secluded: 'Don't wander out on the road
in your ecstasy.  Sleep in the tavern.'
When a drunk strays out to the street,
children make fun of him.
He falls down in the mud.
He takes any and every road.
The children follow,
not knowing the taste of wine, or how
his drunkenness feels.  All people on the planet
are children, except for a very few.
No one is grown up except those free of desire."

We see here that his experience has taught him that true spiritual maturity is developed in part through the kinds of ascetic practices which gradually free us from slavery to our transient desires.  In the Islamic tradition, the fasting and almsgiving of Ramadan, daily communal prayer at the mosque, the sacrifices necessary to make the Hajj, the recitation of the dhikr are all part of the tapestry of ascetic practices which transform a Muslim in this way. Rūmī continues:

"God said,
'The world is a play, a children's game, and you are the children.'
God speaks the truth.
If you haven't left the child's play,
how can you be an adult?
Without purity of spirit,
if you're still in the middle of lust and greed
and other wantings, you're like children
playing at sexual intercourse.
They wrestle
and rub together, but it's not sex!
The same with the fightings of mankind.
It's a squabble with play-swords.
No purpose, totally futile.
Like kids on hobby horses, soldiers claim to be riding
Boraq, Muhammad's night-horse, or Duldul, his mule.
Your actions mean nothing, the sex and war that you do.
You're holding part of your pants and prancing around,
Dun-da-dun, dun-da-dun.
Don't wait till you die to see this.
Recognize that your imagination and your thinking
and your sense perception are reed canes
that children cut and pretend are horsies."

The picture he paints for us of a life bound by our transient desires is a life of silly fighting to protect our egos and pitiful attempts to use sex to find the profound intimacy of spirit for which we truly long.  Rūmī asks us to be willing to accept this hard truth now, the truth that much of what we spend our time doing is the acceptance of a paltry substitute for divine love, whether it's the thrilling height of self-righteous battle-rage or the thrilling height of sexual pleasure, both of which are nonetheless worthless next to union with the Beloved.

"The knowing of mystic lovers is different.
The empirical, sensory, sciences
are like a donkey loaded with books,
or like the makeup woman's makeup.
It washes off.
But if you lift the baggage rightly, it will give joy.
Don't carry your knowledge-load for some selfish reason.
Deny your desires and wilfulness,
and a real mount may appear under you.
Don't be satisfied with the name of HU,
with just words about it.
Experience that breathing.
From books and words come fantasy,
and sometimes, from fantasy comes union."

Here he invokes HU, the pronoun of divine presence.  Rūmī wants us to go farther than the mere acquisition of the knowledge of Creation, doctrine, or law (though he has a healthy respect for them and fair amounts of them himself); he wants to strive sincerely for union with the divine presence, allowing our being to be suffused with divine love.  He has found that denying our desires and putting an end to our egotistical wilfulness is what helps us to find a far greater ecstasy than those we had previously sought in the thrills of sex and violence.

The life of a mystic is made possible by the lifestyle of the ascetic; those who would drink of the wine of divine love must first deny themselves an all-too-easy reliance on the wine of the grapes and berries as well as the intoxicating droughts of sex and violence.

"God has given us a dark wine so potent that,
drinking it, we leave the two worlds.
God has put into the form of hashish a power
to deliver the taster from self-consciousness.
God has made sleep so
that it erases every thought.
God made Majnun love Layla so much that
just her dog would cause confusion in him.
There are thousands of wines
that can take over our minds.
Don't think all ecstasies
are the same!
Jesus was lost in his love for God.
His donkey was drunk with barley.
Drink from the presence of saints,
not from those other jars.
Every object, every being,
is a jar full of delight.
Be a connoisseur,
and taste with caution.
Any wine will get you high.
Judge like a king, and choose the purest,
the ones unadulterated with fear,
or some urgency about 'what's needed.'
Drink the wine that moves you
as a camel moves when it's been untied,
and is just ambling about."

The mysticism of Rūmī is not just some flighty and abstracted absence of the ego; his mysticism is a mysticism that is earthy, grounded in the messy reality of human experience while it soars on the wings of divine love.  Like the ancient Christian devotions that came before it along with the early Christian mystics, the Islamic mysticism of Rūmī is not dualistic; the spirit and the flesh are not good and evil, respectively.  Instead, the bodies we are given are to be given back to God in service and obedience, a very good part of the spiritual life.

Elsewhere, he tells a story which illustrates this nicely:

"As he was walking, Moses heard a shepherd praying to God, offering to comb God's hair, wash God's robe, and kiss His hand. Moses scolded the shepherd for his blasphemy. That night God appeared to Moses and admonished him. 'You have driven away a worshiper from his worship. In his sincere, simple way, that shepherd was much closer to me than most scholars and ascetics.'"

Rūmī also understood that asceticism divorced from mysticism is in danger of becoming merely a habit of useless self-flagellation; he notes that ascetics do not grow close to God merely by virtue of their ascetic disciplines.  And he understood that both our mysticism and our asceticism, in order to bring us to union with Allah the Beloved, must be centered on the goal of cultivating love for Allah, and for one’s fellow human beings, and for all of Creation.

"There is no salvation for the soul
But to fall in Love.
It has to creep and crawl
Among the Lovers first.
Only Lovers can escape
From these two worlds.
This was written in creation.
Only from the Heart
Can you reach the sky.
The rose of Glory
Can only be raised in the Heart."

It is in this life that we learn of the divine love which we can experience both here and after this life, a profound union of the spirit which transcends and fulfills the union we find with one another here on this planet.  This union begins with the self-denial of the ascetic, the first step on the journey to free the heart to love fully.

"If you could get rid
Of yourself just once,
The secret of secrets
Would open to you.
The face of the unknown,
Hidden beyond the universe
Would appear on the
Mirror of your perception."

In the end, Rūmī shows us in his writings a wonderful tapestry depicting the story of a self-denial which meets its end when the self is moved out of the way so that we can finally see the immanent and transcendent mystery of Allah the All-Merciful, our Beloved in whom we find the rest for which our restless hearts are yearning when they move us to drown ourselves in earthly wines.  Rūmī points us to the wine of divine love so that instead of drowning ourselves in earthly wines which bring suffering and death, we might drown ourselves in the wine that brings eternal joy and life.

The Ecstatic Asceticism - The Divine Dance Music - The Erotic Serenity

By Molavi - Masnavi Manavi Molavi, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17260486

Note:  The above is an artist's rendering of Rumi's portrait.  To see what I used to gather the Rumi quotations, see my Sources page.

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