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

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Islamic Mysticism: The Erotic Serenity of Rūmī

As I've mentioned before, 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, including his poetry using generally romantic, erotic, and even explicitly sexual lyrical constructions to elucidate the profound seeking after divine love that is part of the spiritual life.

That said, Rūmī does not advocate allowing ourselves to become overtaken by our erotic pursuits.  In fact, he warns us of the dangers of abandoning self-control in the throes of what are called nafs in Arabic, a word that has in the Sufi tradition an association with the ego, that part of us which draws us always back into slavery to stimulus-response cycles of unthinkingly seeking immediate pleasure and avoiding any discomfort.

"This is how it is when your animal energies,
the nafs, dominate your soul: 
You have a piece of fine linen
that you're going to make into a coat
to give to a friend, but someone else uses it
to make a pair of pants.  The linen
has no choice in the matter.
It must submit.  Or, it's like
someone breaks into your house
and goes to the garden and plants thornbushes.
An ugly humiliation falls over the place.
Or, you've seen a nomad's dog
lying at the tent entrance, with his head
on the threshold and his eyes closed.
Children pull his tail and touch his face,
but he doesn't move.  He loves the children's
attention and stays humble within it.
But if a stranger walks by, he'll spring up
ferociously.  Now, what if that dog's owner
were not able to control it?
A poor dervish might appear: the dog storms out.
The dervish says, 'I take refuge with God
when the dog of arrogance attacks,'
and the owner has to say, 'So do I!
I'm helpless against this creature
even in my own house!
Just as you can't come close,
I can't go out!'
This is how animal energy becomes monstrous
and ruins life's freshness and beauty."

Rūmī reveals to us that a lack of self-control is fundamentally constraining: it traps us in addictive behavior patterns, frustrating the more meaningful pursuits of life because the lesser pursuit of immediate gratification for transient pleasures.

The full beauty, truth, and goodness of the human person are thus caged by the only prison which can truly hold them: the self in all its egotistical and inglorious slavery to its own whims.  And we are all vulnerable to imprisoning ourselves in this way, as he shows in another poetic tale of romance and adventure.

"Someone offhand to the Caliph of Egypt,
'The King of Mosul
has a concubine like no other,
more beautiful than I can describe.
She looks like this.'
He draws her likeness on paper.
The Caliph drops his cup.
Immediately he sends his captain to Mosul
with an army of thousands.  The siege goes on for a week,
with many casualties, the walls and towers unsteady,
as soft as wax.  The King of Mosul sends an envoy.
'Why this killing?  If you want the city,
I will leave and you can have it!
If you want more wealth, that's even easier.'
The captain takes out the piece of paper
with the girl's picture on it.  This.
The strong King of Mosul is quick to reply.
'Lead her out.  The idol belongs with the idolater.'
When the captain sees her, he falls in love
like the Caliph.  Don't laugh at this.
This loving is also a part of infinite love,
without which the world does not evolve.
Objects move from inorganic to vegetation
to selves endowed with spirit through the urgency
of every love that wants to come to perfection.
This captain thinks the soil looks fertile,
so he sows his seed.  Sleeping, he sees the girl
in a dream.  He makes love to her image,
and his semen spurts out.
After a while he begins to wake.
Slowly he senses the girl is not there.
'I have given my seed into nothing.
I shall put this tricky woman to a test.'
A leader who is not captain of his own body is not one
to be honored, with his semen spilled so in the sand.
Now he loses all control.  He doesn't care
about the Caliph, or about dying.
'I am in love,' he says.
Do not act in such heat.
Take counsel with a master.
But the captain couldn't.
His infatuation is a blackwater wave carrying him away.
Something that doesn't exist makes a phantom
appear in the darkness of a well,
and the phantom itself becomes strong enough
to throw actual lions into the hole.
More advice: it is dangerous to let other men
have intimate connections with the women in your care.
Cotton and fire sparks, those are, together.
Difficult, almost impossible, to quench."

Rūmī, as an experienced Islamic jurist, had no doubt seen many cases of forbidden or merely very ill-advised love affairs.  His story rings with the truth of the human experience of the erotic desire, both in its sexual explosiveness and its obsessive, reckless quality.

Overpowering erotic desire is a profoundly irrational and inescapably tumultuous river of emotion. And once we allow ourselves to be absorbed in it, then we are swept along in the rapids, tumbling into the perilous rocks of life's most heart-wrenching events so quickly that we cannot avoid being struck over and over by our mistakes, all the while burning too intensely with desire to really notice the damage we are doing to ourselves in the process.

And yet, Rūmī also points out to us that erotic desire is a good part of life, and what's more, a necessary part of human flourishing.  Erotic desire is such a powerful good that, like any powerful good, when it is used unwisely, it leads to powerful evil.

"The captain does not return straight to the Caliph,
but instead camps in a secluded meadow.
Blazing, he can't tell ground from sky.
His reason is lost in a drumming sound,
worthless radish and son of a radish.
The Caliph himself a gnat, nothing.
But just as this cultivator tears off the woman's pants
and lies down between her legs, his penis moving
straight to the mark, there's a great tumult
and a rising cry of soldiers outside the tent.
He leaps up with his bare bottom shining
and runs out, scimitar in hand.
A black lion from a nearby swamp
has gotten in among the horses.  Chaos.
The lion jumps twenty feet in the air,
tents billowing like an ocean.
The captain quickly approaches the lion,
splits his head with one blow,
and now he's running back to the women's tent.
When he stretches out her beauty again,
his penis goes even more erect.
The engagement, the coming together, is as with the lion.
His penis stays erect all through it,
and it does not scatter semen feebly.
The beautiful one is amazed at his virility.
Immediately, with great energy she joins with his energy,
and their two spirits go out from them as one.
Whenever two are linked this way, there comes another
from the unseen world.  It may be through birth,
if nothing prevents conception,
but a third does come, when two unite in love,
or in hate.  The intense qualities born
of such joining appear in the spiritual world.
You will recognize them when you go there.
Your associations bear progeny.
Be careful, therefore.  Wait, and be conscious,
before you go to meet anyone.
Remember there are children to consider!
Children you must live with and tend to,
born of your emotions with another, entities
with a form, and a speech, and a place to live.
They are crying to you even now.
You have forgotten us.  Come back.
Be aware of this.  A man and a woman together
always have a spiritual result."

The evil here is not only that the captain seems to care not a bit for the consent of the woman he just abducted from the King of Mosul, though that is indeed an evil thing.  He also disregards the wishes of the Caliph, the ruler to whom he owes obedience.

He abandons the virtues of prudence, temperance, and obedience as he gives himself completely over completely to erotic desire.  Rūmī warns that this will have consequences, that our choices always bear fruit, whether the fruit be poisonous or nourishing.  There are always profound implications when our erotic desires are fulfilled.

Whether in the giving of new life in the form of children or purely in the form of spiritual union, something new bursts forth from the one flesh made by the meeting of man and woman.  A weighty responsibility is the inevitable result of such a union, whether we like it or not.

"The captain was not so aware.  He fell,
and stuck like a gnat in a pot of buttermilk,
totally absorbed in his love affair.  Then,
just as suddenly, he's uninterested.  He tells
the woman, 'Don't say a word of this to the Caliph.'
He takes her there, and the Caliph is smitten.
She's a hundred times more beautiful than he's imagined.
A certain man asks an eloquent teacher,
'What is true and what false?'  'This is false:
a bat hides from the sun, not from the idea of the sun.
It's the idea that puts fear in the bat and leads it
deeper into the cave.  You have an idea
of an enemy that attaches you to certain companions.
Moses, the inner light of revelation,
lit up the top of Sinai, but the mountain
could not hold that light.
Don't deceive yourself in that way!
Having the idea is not living
the reality, of anything.
There's no courage in the idea of battle.
The bathhouse wall is covered with pictures
and much talk of heroism.  Try to make an idea move
from ear to eye.  Then your woolly ears
become as subtle as fibers of light.
Your whole body becomes a mirror,
all eye and spiritual breathing.
Let your ear lead you to your lover.'"

The weighty responsibility is often abandoned, often because we have invested in the idea of our beloved rather than the reality of our beloved.  Both the Caliph and his captain are captivated by the idea of this beautiful woman, though the captain's captivity to the idea ends once he has entered into the reality of her.

The reality of our fellow human beings can never live up to our lofty ideas about them, and thus the inevitable disenchantment of the reckless lover.  While disenchantment is inevitable, our response to this disenchantment is not.  We can choose to end our self-deception and cultivate a more mature understanding of ourselves and others, or we can cling to the false ideas and continue to measure all of reality by those false ideas, a measure that reality will always fail to live up to.

"So the Caliph is mightily in love with this girl.
His kingdom vanishes like lightning.
If your loving is numb, know this: when what you own
can vanish, it's only a dream, a vanity, breath
through a mustache.  It would have killed you.
There are those that say, 'Nothing lasts.'
They're wrong.  Every moment they say,
'If there were some other reality,
I would have seen it. I would know about it.'
Because a child doesn't understand a chain of reasoning,
should adults give up being rational?
If reasonable people don't feel the presence of love
within the universe, that doesn't mean it's not there.
Joseph's brothers did not see Joseph's beauty,
but Jacob never lost sight of it.  Moses at first
saw only a wooden staff, but to his other seeing
it was a viper and cause of panic.
Eyesight is in conflict with inner knowing.
Moses' hand is a hand and a source of light.
These matters are real as the infinite is real,
but they seem religious fantasies to some,
to those who believe only in the reality
of the sexual organs and the digestive tract.
Don't mention the Friend to those.
To others, sex and hunger are fading images,
and the Friend is more constantly, solidly here.
Let the former go to their church, and we'll go to ours.
Don't talk long to skeptics or to those
who claim to be atheists.
So the Caliph has the idea
of entering the beautiful woman,
and he comes to her to do his wanting.
Memory raises his penis, straining it in thought
toward the pushing down and lifting up
which make that member grow large with delight.
But as he actually lies down with the woman,
there comes to him a decree from God
to stop these voluptuous doings.  A very tiny sound,
like a mouse might make.  The penis droops,
and desire slips away."

Though the captain has been disenchanted, the Caliph is still captivated by the idea of this woman he sent an army to retrieve from a faraway kingdom.  He becomes like a child who wants a treat, and doesn't want to follow his parent's advice to abstain from it lest he ruin his dinner.  How very like this we all are when we become addicted to satisfying our fleshly desires!

In his laser-like focus on the pursuit of delight in the embrace of the woman's body, he occludes most of what is real.  His perspective becomes a tiny blurry dot, and he is unable to see not only the fullness of the woman as a person, but even the immense national treasures he is responsible for recede into the background of his mind.

While he is enchanted by the idea of ultimate pleasure, the fullness of reality is invisible to him.  But the prompting of Allah brings him out of the enchantment he allowed himself to remain captive to, the spell of immediate gratification of transient desires.

"He thinks that whispering sound is a snake
rising off the straw mat.  The girl sees his drooping
and sails into fits of laughing at the marvelous thing.
She remembers the captain killing the lion
with his penis standing straight up.
Long and loud her laughter.
Anything she thinks of only increases it,
like the laughter of those who eat hashish.
Everything is funny.
Every emotion has a source and a key that opens it.
The Caliph is furious.  He draws his sword.
'What's so amusing?  Tell me everything you're thinking.
Don't hold anything back.  At this moment
I'm clairvoyant.  If you lie, I'll behead you.
If you tell the truth, I'll give you your freedom.'
He stacks seven Qur'ans on top of each other
and swears to do as he says.
When she finally gets hold of herself,
the girl tells all, in great detail.  Of the camp
in the meadow, the killing of the lion,
the captain's return to the tent with his penis
still hard as the horn of a rhino.
And the contrast with the Caliph's own member
sinking down because of one mouse-whisper.
Hidden things always come to light.
Do not sow bad seed.  Be sure, they'll come up.
Rain and the sun's heat make them rise into the air.
Spring comes after the fall of the leaves,
which is proof enough of the fact of the resurrection.
Secrets come out in Spring, out from earth-lips into leaf.
Worries become wine-headaches.
But where did the wine come from?  Think.
A branch of blossoms does not look like seed.
A man does not resemble semen.  Jesus came
from Gabriel's breath, but he is not in that form.
The grape doesn't look like the vine.
Loving actions are the seed of something
completely different, a living-place.
No origin is like where it leads to.
We can't know where our pain is from.
We don't know all that we've done.
Perhaps it's best that we don't.
Nevertheless we suffer for it."

The Caliph is still in his pride when the woman he has kidnapped begins to laugh at him, and his pride stirs up that terrible fire of anger.  His anger leads him to ask for the truth, and the truth is what sets him free.

It allows him to see the depth of his own sin, how his rash decision to fulfill his erotic desires at any cost came back to bite him, as it often does for all of us.  How many times have we learned, quite painfully, that our rushing into the pursuit of the pleasures of food, drink, and sex cost us far more than moderation would have?  How many times have we, like the captain, failed to learn it?

The Caliph learns from his mistake and moves forward, having abandoned his chariot of pride for the sandal of humility, having broken the chains of his slavery to the ego.

"The Caliph comes back to his clarity. 'In the pride
of my power I took this woman from another,
so of course, someone came to knock on my door.
Whoever commits adultery is a pimp
for his own wife.
If you cause injury to someone, you draw
the same injury toward yourself.  My treachery
made my friend a traitor to me.  This repetition
must stop somewhere.  Here, in an act of mercy.
I'll send you back to the captain,
saying another of my wives is jealous,
and since the captain was brave enough
to bring you back from Mosul,
he shall have you in marriage.'
This is the virility of a prophet.
The Caliph was sexually impotent,
but his manliness was most powerful.
The kernel of true manhood is the ability
to abandon sensual indulgences.  The intensity
of the captain's libido is less than a husk
compared to the Caliph's nobility in ending
the cycle of sowing lust and reaping
secrecy and vengefulness."

The Caliph, having recognized his own failings, begins to try to set things aright inasmuch as they can be once they have been broken by rash decisions.  Following the truth having set him free of pride and wrath and lust (so deadly to the soul), he has a serenity that allows him to view the situation dispassionately and honor the reality of the situation.

He recognizes that the profound union of the woman and the captain, though prompted by his own failings, is a reality which should be honored.  He prompts the captain to treat her as a wife rather than as a mere sexual conquest, and divests himself of the temptation to treat her as a mere sexual conquest in the same act.

The damage has been done to some extent, and yet the balance is restored to some extent.  Though the wounds remain, bandages have been applied and the healing process can now begin.  The captain and the Caliph can both find the serenity they so obviously lacked in their lustful pursuits.

This serenity is the erotic serenity of Rūmī, the powerful desire for the good of all that lays waste to pride and anger and lust.  It is an expression of purity, this serenity, a purity of soul that allows us to do what is necessary to break the cycle of evil.

It is this powerful desire for what is truly good that fulfills our erotic longings.  The serenity of Rūmī is the serenity of one who has moved beyond erotic desire as a mere urge for the press of flesh upon flesh and into erotic desire as an expression of divine love, a selfless willing of what is most pure for all.

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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