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In a bit of a rush today… Rowan turns 16 today at 1:23. He has a most interesting chart, full of challenges for his Dad. 80) He just finished Mary Stewart’s “The Crystal Cave”, and has been tearing through all the Celtic Mythology and Reference books in our library. This summer has been a great one for him.
I am pleased to welcome Jay Kinney to our featured writers. His work with Gnosis Magazine (which he founded) and other projects over the years has helped me immensely in understanding the workings of the metaphysical universe. I still have a Roxy album (a bootleg copy of course!) that he did the cover on back in the early 1970′s. Hopefully we will be seeing more of his articles in the future. Welcome Jay!
On The Menu:
Islamic Dilemma and the Sufi Message – Jay Kinney
Poetry: William Blake
Art Work: John William Godward
Have a Brilliant Day!
Islamic Dilemma and the Sufi Message – Jay Kinney
As the West comes to grips with the terrorist attacks and threats, there is a strong temptation to see things in simple terms of Good and Evil. But before we are stampeded into a clash of civilisations, we need to step back for a moment and examine the real forces at work. Islam is undergoing its own crisis, with many conflicting voices clamouring to be heard. The angry cries for Jihad threaten to drown out the saner counsel of Islams living mystics, the Sufis. What follows is one attempt to clear the air, in the hope that disaster might be averted.
Ironies abound. Amidst all the uproar it is easy to forget that in Arabic, Islam means surrender, and that it is derived from the same root word as peace. Those who are disposed to dismiss religion itself as an irrational scourge are happy to see this as just another case of religious hypocrisy. After all, if we add up all the casualties caused by holy wars, crusades, inquisitions, and other battles taken up in the name of God, the endless line of corpses would seem to give the lie to religious claims of a higher morality or compassion.
All religions are founded on the fear of the many and the cleverness of the few, Stendhal cynically observed. But, as Oscar Wilde noted: Who is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. While religions have failed to live up to their own ideals, the same charge can be levelled against Democracy, Communism, Humanism, Monarchy, Science, and every other means of human self-organisation and inquiry. Of this we can be sure: no sooner will a model for social benefit be formulated than a dozen uses will be found to employ it for social ill. Social institutions by their very nature become arenas for the exercise of power and greed: the forces of the reptilian brain which take us back to Step One, over and over again.
Yet despite the abysmal record of folly and destruction, there is an enduring human need for a sense of spiritual connection to something greater than ourselves. Religions may be imperfect, but they have nevertheless provided a moral anchor for billions of people throughout history. Even if a believers faith be relatively unsophisticated and dependent on others say so, when sincerely held, it does offer some sense of connection with the Universe. This is no small thing, but it hardly exhausts the possibilities.
Fortunately, there is clear testimony that some individuals and groups have been able to fully realise the kernel of truth that too often lies slumbering within the religious husk. Anyone who has given sincere attention to the accounts and writings of genuine mystics, such as Meister Eckhart, Ibn Arabi, or Plotinus, cannot fail to see that a higher consciousness, which encompasses both the Infinite Source of Being and the human individual, is possible.
This consciousness, as a direct and authentic experience, does not depend for its existence on theological or religious doctrine. Indeed, mystics say that this consciousness itself clarifies and illuminates doctrine.
Religions, as theological and social structures built around the realisations of their founders, must accommodate themselves to and address the traditions and customs of the cultures in which they evolve. Had Jesus been born in a Chinese manger or had Buddha been enlightened while sitting under Newtons apple tree, the religions that followed in their wake would have been far different affairs. In order to better understand the current state of Islam, a brief look at its origin and evolution is in order.
There is no question that Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam, was a profound mystic whose lot it was to be born into a Bedouin tribal society shaped by intense family ties, trading routes, localised pagan gods, and relatively primitive cultural forms. The Quranic message, articulated by Muhammad in poetic Arabic, was received in discreet parts over the course of 22 years years marked by attacks on the Prophet and his small band of followers by other hostile tribes.
Muhammads communion with the Real was called upon to provide guidance to the Muslims as they struggled to defend their faith amidst war and social chaos. As observed by some Quranic scholars, such as Fazlur Rahman, some passages of the Quran are addressed to a specific time and place, while others are of a more universal nature. This is important to note, as it accounts for some of the seeming contradictions between verses, as well as the problems that arise when verses are quoted out of context. But in any event, the Qurans identity as a dialogue with the Supreme Being is so intertwined with the circumstances of its birth that, to this day, Muslims only consider a Quran to be the Quran if it is in its original Arabic. All translations into other languages are merely interpretations and inexact facsimiles.
This is an admirable attempt to preserve fidelity in transmission, though one wonders if even this devotion to the original text isnt a case of closing the barn door after the mule is gone. For the special value of a living mystic or prophet is the dynamic nature of their expression of the Real, to which they have access. The Qurans words in the absence of Muhammads living interpretation, like Jesuss parables without his own commentary, are susceptible to a dogmatic crystallisation induced by the limited understanding of later followers who risk mistaking their own piety for insight.
One early attempt within Islam to head off a decline in religious practice following Muhammads death, was the collection and preservation of hadiths (quotations from the Prophet), among which are the hadiths qudsi (Prophetic quotations conveying messages from God, given outside of Quranic passages). Hadiths typically contain testimonies, by the Prophets companions, of Muhammads suggestions and judgments on the details of daily life and specific questions of practice, law or family concerns. The hadiths qudsi are understood to provide an extra-Quranic source of Divine guidance. A secondary source of information is the Sunna, a recording of the Prophets own personal habits and practices, including quite intimate reports by his wives.
Unfortunately, even preserving the specifics of the Prophets interpretations, insights and behaviours still finds them anchored to their time and place. At the same time, there is much dispute over various hadiths authenticity, with many being suspected of later manufacture for partisan purposes.
Islams institutionalisation, once the Prophet was gone, saw Muhammad defined as the most perfect exemplar of Islam, with all questions of right behaviour and scriptural meaning referred back to his own statements and behaviour, or to the Quran. The best means that later Ulema (scholars and jurists) could suggest in rendering decisions was analogy and consensus of the community processes that have left little room for creative insights or inspired interpretations.
Because Muhammad served his community as resident mystic, prophet, commander in chief, and social arbiter, Islam again, in taking him as its exemplar developed an ideal of theocratic rule as its civilisation grew. As in Medieval Christianity, there was little sense of separate spheres for religion and civil society Islam was a way of life. The combined figure of Sultan (Ruler) and Caliph (Religious leader), though hardly consistent throughout the succession of Islamic empires, was in place in the final centuries of the Ottoman Empire, only to collapse along with the implosion of the Ottomans following WWI. The Caliphate was abolished by Ataturk in his effort to constitute a secular Turkish republic on the ruins of the Empire.
The inroads made by European colonialism in the waning decades of the Ottomans, and particularly post-WWI, helped stir the pot of Arab nationalism, Pan-Arabism, and radical Islam, all of which arose in response to the splintering of Islamic civilisation. There was no single Islamic solution put forth that commanded universal support. A multitude of Islams, ethnic nationalisms, and dictatorial regimes carried the day.
It is this sequence of events that brings us to the present reality of a decentralised and dispirited Islamic world mourning its former glories, riven along nationalist and sectarian lines, resentful of previous Western colonialism, and defensive towards an encroaching globalisation that promises to be more pervasive and invasive than mere colonialism ever was.
The lightning rod for Muslim resentment towards this state of affairs has come to be symbolised, for better or worse, in the creation of Israel, in what was previously Palestine. What was seen by Jews as a refuge from Nazi persecution, and by the Zionists as the fulfilment of a scriptural and political dream, was seen by many Muslims as an exclusionary Western wedge, achieved by Haganah, Irgun, and Stern Gang terrorism: an ethnically-defined state disenfranchising its former residents, and a surrogate for the present Western superpower, the USA. The Israeli/Palestinian blood-feud, terrible enough in itself, has metastasised throughout the Muslim body, taxing the Islamic immune system, and readily diagnosed as the underlying Western cancer which can be blamed for every painful social malady.
As stated at the beginning, ironies abound. The very virtue that enables millions of Muslims to feel a brotherhood across national and racial divides the sense of an Umma (community) of believers also fuels the presumption of extremist Islamic terrorists to represent the whole of Islam in their assault on the West. In truth, bin Laden and Co. (or Islamic Jihad or Hezbollah) no more represent Islam than the judicially-selected Bush regime represents the whole of Western democracy. Behind each camps stated purposes and PR, loom the reptilian brains Will to Power the opposite of the mystics realisation and of the stated goal of most religions: surrender to the will of God.
Religion, devoid of the mystics link to the Real, may not save us in fact when religion is used as a rationale to wage political warfare, it may condemn us to a hell on earth of its own creation. But that doesnt mean that we should turn our backs on the spiritual impulse toward realisation and human perfection that lies at the root of religion. The survival of Sufism within the broader confines of Islam is a significant case in point.
Sufism is a term coined by Western orientalists for the mystical path in Islam, commonly known as tasawwuf by Muslims. Ill continue to use it here for the sake of simplicity. Sufism isnt a sect or subgroup within Islam, so much as it is an expression of the mystical understanding underlying Islam.
Despite Muhammads roles of prophet, commander in chief, and social arbiter, it was his vocation as mystic that preceded and subsumed his other responsibilities. According to Sufi tradition, Muhammad acknowledged Ali, his nephew and son in law, as his spiritual successor, i.e., as the one Muslim within his inner circle who had also been blessed with a potent mystical awakening. Because the roles of spiritual and political leader had been combined in Muhammad, they became the object of the power struggles following the Prophets death. Those struggles eventually resulted in the division between Sunni and Shia Islam, though that need not concern us here. Suffice it to say, that for most Sufis, Ali represents the continuation of the mystical impulse within Islam, and nearly all Sufi brotherhoods trace their initiatory lineage back to Ali.
The operating premise of Sufism is that the mystical consciousness (but not the Prophetic role) of the Prophet and Ali is possible for others. The encounter with the Real in which the dynamic paradox of the Infinite and the finite, the Absolute and the particular is known and experienced is not relegated to the distant past or possessed by a designated few, but is within the capacity of everyone, should they so desire.
Authentic mystics have usually occupied a position in tension with established religion, because their dynamic relationship with the Infinite has often placed them at cross-purposes to the theological certainties promulgated by religious authorities. It is to Islams credit that it made more room for its mystics than did Christianity, its chief rival. This leeway was sometimes due to the patronage of Sultans who were interested in tasawwuf, and sometimes due to the popular support that some saints enjoyed. This is not to say that Sufis were always honoured or even tolerated. They were sometimes persecuted as heretics, executed or merely silenced; but whether welcomed or deplored, they were able to pass along their wisdom and methods from generation to generation.
The predominant means of this transmission was through Sufi brotherhoods or Orders (tariqas) caretakers of continuous lines of teaching methods derived from the founding inspiration of a particular mystic. Unlike Christian contemplative monastic orders that demanded celibacy and a sequestered life, the Sufi tariqas were generally composed of everyday people, with families and outside professions. Thus, up to the present, the Sufis have provided a street-level access to mystical experience.
Jalaluddin Rumi, whose mystical poetry has enjoyed great popularity in the West in recent years, is the best known representative of Sufism. His emphasis on Love as the key entry-point to communion with the Divine has led many people to assume that this is true of all Sufism. However, just as Yoga can be subdivided into several parallel paths to the Divine, including Hatha (physical), Jnana (mental), Bhakti (devotional), etc., so each Sufi order has its own flavour and emphasis, derived from its founding saint. Still, whatever their emphasis or methods, all Sufis share the ultimate goal of a spiritual awakening or opening, where the seeker comes to intimate knowledge of the Real.
This may sound terribly remote from anything of practical value, especially if one imagines this awakening to be a state of everlasting bliss which renders its recipient incapable of dealing with mundane affairs. However, Sufism teaches the need for the mystic to descend again into daily life, where he can function in normal situations while maintaining an expanded awareness. This is truly the path of Muhammad, who from the mystical point of view stands as exemplar for the completed human: one who is both physically and spiritually alive, and able to interpret his own Quran.
Such individuals light the way for others, often serving inconspicuously as conduits of inspiration and encouragement. A pharmacist in Istanbul, a shopkeeper in Fez, a poet in Damascus there is no predicting where one may find those who are called friends of God.
Fundamentalist movements originate out of a form of spiritual inspiration themselves. Despairing of the decadence and corruption they perceive in the present expression of their Faith, the fundamentalists as their name suggests try to return to the pure fundamentals.
For religions of the Book religions based on revealed scriptures this commonly takes the form of cleaving even closer to scriptural authority. But rejecting the succeeding centuries of religious evolution, and not privy to dynamic interpretation of the founder or of mystics, the fundamentalists commonly opt for the most literal readings of their holy texts. And when those texts are as ambiguous and nuanced as the Quran, this can lead to confusion and incoherence, thinly veiled by rigidity.
The result is a proliferation of mini-Caliphs or Popes, certain of their own purity and the truth of their interpretation, cut off from scholarly commentary and discourse, and contemptuous and dismissive of all who disagree. In eras of profound change and discord, the fundamentalists reduce the Infinite Source of Being to a static icon created in their own image, in a tragic reversal of the creative process.
Those who kill and terrorise in the name of God demonstrate their own distance from any real connectedness with the Whole. This is the dilemma of Islam at the dawn of the 21st century. The Umma of believers are themselves held hostage by the terrorists who claim to represent them. As Zia Sardar has written in The Observer (UK – Sept 23, 2001): . . . all good and concerned Muslims are implicated in the unchecked rise of fanaticism in Muslim societies. . . . We have been silent as they proclaim themselves martyrs, mangling beyond recognition the most sacred meaning of what it is to be a Muslim. . . . The terrorists are among us, the Muslim communities of the world. . . . And it is our duty to stand up against them.
The Prophet affirmed that Allahs Mercy supersedes his Wrath. (Hadith al-Qudsi). One can only hope that the moderate Muslim majority will draw upon the wisdom of those within their own tradition who know that Mercy intimately and find the courage to stand up.
© Jay Kinney, 2001. Jay Kinney is the co-author, with Richard Smoley, of Hidden Wisdom: A Guide to the Western Inner Traditions (Quest Books, 2006). He is editor of The Inner West: An introduction to the Hidden Wisdom of the West (Tarcher/Penguin. 2004). His next book, The Masonic Enigma, will be published by HarperSanFrancisco in 2007.
Poetry: William Blake
THE VOICE OF THE ANCIENT BARD
Youth of delight! come hither
And see the opening morn,
Image of Truth new-born.
Doubt is fled, and clouds of reason,
Dark disputes and artful teazing.
Folly is an endless maze;
Tangled roots perplex her ways;
How many have fallen there!
They stumble all night over bones of the dead;
And feel–they know not what but care;
And wish to lead others, when they should be led.
THE GARDEN OF LOVE
I laid me down upon a bank,
Where Love lay sleeping;
I heard among the rushes dank
Then I went to the heath and the wild,
To the thistles and thorns of the waste;
And they told me how they were beguiled,
Driven out, and compelled to the chaste.
I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen;
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.
And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And ‘Thou shalt not’ writ over the door;
So I turned to the Garden of Love
That so many sweet flowers bore.
And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tombstones where flowers should be;
And priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars my joys and desires.
THE HUMAN ABSTRACT
Pity would be no more
If we did not make somebody poor,
And Mercy no more could be
If all were as happy as we.
And mutual fear brings Peace,
Till the selfish loves increase;
Then Cruelty knits a snare,
And spreads his baits with care.
He sits down with holy fears,
And waters the ground with tears;
Then Humility takes its root
Underneath his foot.
Soon spreads the dismal shade
Of Mystery over his head,
And the caterpillar and fly
Feed on the Mystery.
And it bears the fruit of Deceit,
Ruddy and sweet to eat,
And the raven his nest has made
In its thickest shade.
The gods of the earth and sea
Sought through nature to find this tree,
But their search was all in vain:
There grows one in the human Brain.