A Talk given at the UNESCO International Rumi Symposium, Istanbul
O you who study the world, you’re just a hired worker.
And you who desire paradise, you’re far from the Truth.
And you who are satisfied with the two world, but unaware
Because you have not tasted the happiness of His sorrow,
You’re simply excused
A Quatrain of Rumi
During these celebrations honoring the 800th anniversary of his birth it is appropriate to reflect on what Mevlana offers humanity at this time. Humanity is navigating through a perilous passage between shallow materialism and one-dimensional religion. Both are destructive to our humanness itself. On the one side we have the commercialization of life, the privatization of natural resources, the tyranny of transnational corporate economic power. On the other hand we have the authoritarian manifestations of religious belief divorced from any real spiritual perception. Fundamentalism thrives in a spiritual vacuum. Without the spiritual perception of a spiritual reality, religion degenerates into mere intellectualism, formalism, legalism, and finally authoritarian, puritanical extremism.
Mevlana’s madhabi ashq, or school of love, is a corrective to both the authoritarian concept of religion lacking in Mercy, and a materialist ethic that indulges the human ego. We do not need a political regime based on a distorted and one-dimensional apprehension of religion that claims to be the only Truth. We do not need a piety forced upon us by a religious power elite. Nor do we need a world ruled merely by commercial and corporate forces, especially when those forces result in the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few. We do not need a society that serves the lowest common-denominator and that allows a race to the bottom. We cannot afford the kind of society where true human spiritual values are buried by an avalanche of popular culture of transient, ugly, and vulgar attractions. And if we are to fulfill our human destiny we need a spiritual knowledge that can bring our spiritual nature to maturity within the conditions of contemporary life.
The wisdom we love in Mevlana’s teaching has its application and effect both for the wider humanity and for the individual who seeks a path of spiritual development, or sayri suluuk.
At the level of the individual seeker, the theme of “spiritual perception” is one of the most productive and enlightening perspectives from which to view the work of Our Master, Mevlana. Spiritual perception is a theme that constantly appears in his work, perhaps even more than the theme of “Love”. Yet spiritual perception is inextricably united with the theme of Love for two reasons: one is that without spiritual perception love alone is futile and incomplete; If love is not informed by spiritual perception it remains at the level of mere ego, producing only desire and sentimentality.
Perhaps more importantly the process of developing spiritual perception leads to Love itself. Love is the Truth. Love created everything. The revealing of the Merciful and Divine Love is the purpose of existence. “No ignorant soul ever sat on the Throne of Love.”
To say it another way: the fulfillment of our human destiny is ultimately through the development of spiritual perception. Our science is called irfan, signifying the realization through knowing. Nothing less can satisfy the human heart. The human being is essentially a knowing substance, able to know the essential truth and mystery of existence. The eternal light exists here in this world of suffering, pain, and conflict, but we fail to see it. Pure milk flows beside the rivers of blood, but the child of the heart fails to receive its nourishment.
As Mevlana reminds us, the human being is essentially an “eye.” But the eye of the heart can be veiled by the physical senses. The human being is potentially much more than a biochemical creature seeking its own satisfactions. But a spiritual education is needed to raise us to the truly human level.
The bio-chemical sensory organs of the human being can blind us to spiritual realities, but when the spiritual senses are awakened even the physical senses become illumined. And so our science is also called tassawuf, signifying the purification of perception.
Mevlana was the nightingale who became a falcon, a hunter of spiritual truths. Mevlana and his heirs are the lights we should join with, for if a spiritual intellect is paired with another spiritual intellect, light increases and the way becomes plain.
Mevlana, being one of the foremost educators of the heart, can and does offer us a systematic knowledge, a science of the human soul. As he says in an introductory section to one of the books of his Mathnawi. What he offers is the root of the root of the religion. Mevlana is a reliable guide to the straight path at the heart of the Prophetic tradition. In other words his wisdom can guide us to the fulfillment of our human possibility and destiny. Only a knowledge based in spiritual wisdom can lead the individual and humanity, as a whole, to fulfillment. Otherwise humanity remains lost in the labyrinth of its own shallow distractions or ends up tyrannized by the idealogues of a false utopia.
Mevlana’s gift to us is that he presents us with a spirituality that has all the nuance of art, rather than the clichés and dogmas we too often find in the name of religion. He speaks to us in the language of the soul, a poetry of image, metaphor, and music. If the Divine is the ultimate Creative Power, that has brought us on the merely physical level: delicious fruits, fragrant roses, the spectacle of nature, and the beauties of the human relationship, that same Creative Power has also brought us an inner life of even vaster dimensions, more subtle beauties, inestimable spiritual virtues, and experiences both subtle and profound. If on the one hand the birth from the physical womb leads us into the beauties of the sensory world, a second birth from the spiritual womb brings us into a spiritual universe of awesome beauty and meaning.
Mevlana was in love with this Creative Power; sometimes he was drunk with it and sometimes in a wise sobriety only attained after such drunkenness.
The root of the root of the religion, the core of the Prophetic Way, has two fundamental aspects: One is holding the Divine Reality at the centre of our consciousness at all times and under all circumstances. The second is a subtle undoing of the self, the stripping away of everything false, everything the ego has constructed to defend its position. This undoing of the self goes against most conventional values and thinking.
The first, the remembrance of God, is the ability of the heart to recognize and appreciate the Divine Presence. To keep the Divine at the center of our consciousness is to quiet the busy, talking mind, to still the reactive, ego-based emotions, and to learn to be—to be with the Divine Presence. The Sun of Divine Knowledge travels in no orbit, but it rises in the inner spirit of the human being. Its illumination is from the timeless, spaceless dimension. When the human being has attained to that experience, the sunrise of Divine Illumination is with you wherever you go, whatever circumstances you may be in.
The second aspect, the undoing of the false self is a very subtle work requiring a finely honed knowledge—a knowledge which Mevlana offers to us in a profoundly comprehensive way. The undoing of the self is not a self-created program, it is the final kilo that sinks the ship.
Unless the seeker is absolutely erased,
In truth, he will not come into union.
Union is not penetrable. It is your destruction.
Otherwise anyone could become the Truth.
It usually requires a teaching, a teacher, and a community within which to practice the teaching. The undoing of the self is sometimes described as a transformation through seven levels of the nafs, each more subtle and pure. It is this thinning of the veil of one level of the self that allows another subtler level to be experienced and expressed. In this process what is false, conditioned, and unreal is gradually lessened and a new quality of self emerges—a higher self. That higher self is realized when we are stripped of our superficial identifications and stand naked before the Divine. And Mevlana is our higher self:
This is what I am: sometimes hidden, sometimes seen.
Sometimes a mumeen, sometimes Jew or Christian,
Able to fit into any heart,
Taking on a new face every day.
Perhaps we have been fortunate enough to know some living examples of this transformation. If we have been that fortunate, we have also been transformed by knowing even one such being. Our path led from Mevlana and Sufism to Muhammad, peace be upon him, and Islam. We were brought into “the garden within the flames,” as Ibn Arabi has called it.
Only after years in that garden did circumstances bring me to the Masjid. To say it was a disheartening experience would be an understatement. It challenged my Iman. I wondered if we had created an imaginary Islam, because what I saw and heard in the mosque was so different from the beautiful state we experienced among the lovers and the drunkards. I questioned whether what I had experienced was the same religion I was finding in the mosque.
Mevlana must have known something about this discrepancy between the Madhabi Ashq, and the one-dimensinal religion that oppresses the soul with its rigid commands and external preoccupations. Some people are very anxious to appropriate Mevlana to their own concepts of orthodoxy. But just as the Prophet and the Qur’an offered a challenge to man-invented religion, power-structures and superstition, so, too, does Mevlana challenge the manifestations of religion that have become contaminated with human egoism, I will let Mevlana issue his own warning:
If you don’t like the fragrance, don’t come to our neighborhood.
And if you can’t tear off your clothes, don’t jump in the stream.
This is the direction from which all directions are directed,
Unless this is what you want, stay away from the center.
At times I have had my own doubts, but I have come to trust that the Madhabi Ashq is the Dini Qayyim, the authentic religion, and the Din al Haqq, the religion of Truth, which is destined to shine upon all religion though the kafirs detest it.
I want to share with you, however, part of a text I discovered in Aflaki, which finally brought comfort to my heart.
Weled and the Sayyids Condensed from Aflaki
A distinguished young man, from the Sayyids of Medina, the son of the custodian of the Prophet’s, peace and blessings upon him, tomb, came to visit Sultan Weled one day.
He was wearing an extraordinary turban which he had wound around his head with one of the ends falling to a point just above his navel, while the other end was rolled in that way that the Mevlevis call ‘shekker-awiz’. Sultan Weled showed him great respect and discussed various ideas and mysteries of the Path, ‘in the clear Arabic tongue’… (Qur’an: 26: l95) The young man showed great enthusiasm and good will and asked in all sincerity to become a disciple. He asked for a written proof (diploma) and someone gave him this in Arabic.
After that, Sultan Weled asked him the following question: “Other shaikhs have not adopted this fashion of ‘shekker-awiz’, which is used uniquely by our Master and the Mevlevis; where does this custom come from?”
“From great antiquity,” replied the young Sayyid, “We are descended from Abraham, and belong to the Qoreish tribe. We have had the keys of the holy Kaaba and that of the Prophet’s tomb in our possession since the time of Abraham; and we also have the keys to the house where our Prophet’s two blessed shoes and other objects are kept.
The way in which our Prophet was honored is described in the Qur’an: He was allowed to approach our Lord and was looked upon with a favorable eye; he was shown through signs what he needed to see, and he heard the mysteries of the revelation directly without an intermediary. He saw a beautiful figure above the Heavenly Throne, a figure such had never been seen, in the highest rank of the angels or among any of the other denizens of Heaven.
The Prophet was overcome with love and drunk with this grace and beauty of this figure. He saw that he was wearing a turban twisted in the Chekker-dwiz style and ‘a borda’ from Yeman. Deeply troubled, the Prophet asked Gabriel this: “I saw many marvelous and unusual forms in each celestial sphere. However none delighted me as much as this figure does. Is he an archangel, a perfect saint or a prophet on a mission? Who is he and what is his secret?”
Gabriel answered: “This beautiful vision, is of a person descended from Abu-Bekr, the Truthful, who will appear among your people at the end of time, and will fill the world with the lights of your mysteries and truths. And our Lord will give him feet, a pen and a voice such that the generations of people will love him and become his disciples; he will be the mystery and the light of the manifest world and will bring purity to your religion.
In every way, in conduct and appearance, he will be like you! And his name will also be Muhammad and his other name, Jalaluddin. In his teachings he will explain the mysteries of your traditions, and will illuminate the profound ideas of our glorious Qur’an.” Gabriel concluded.
And the Prophet, peace and blessings upon him, was overcome with a great joy. When he had returned to his blessed home, he began to wear his turban in the same way that he had seen in the vision.
This is the story that the pilgrims from Mecca told us, and we heard them repeat it word for word to the worthy Sayyids from Medina.
In essence Mevlana offers us the knowledge leading to spiritual perception. He reminds us of the transformative power of the Divine Reality. It is inevitable that the human substance when it comes into contact with the Divine will be transformed. Isn’t this the essence of a true understanding of Divine Revelation. Do not the Holy Books and the Prophets call us to be transformed by this spiritual power? In Mevlana we have the remedy for every spiritual pathology as well as the elixir to transform the, crude substance of our own selves, to turn our stony natures into rubies.
The story in Aflaki convinced me that the Islam we had found in the Garden of Mevlana was indeed the Islam of the Prophet, a mercy to the worlds, and not some wishful thinking or imaginary creation of our own. I repeat these words from Aflaki so that their Truth may echo within our hearts: He will appear among your people at the end of time, and will fill the world with the lights of your mysteries and truths. And our Lord will give him feet, a pen and a voice such that the generations of people will love him and become his disciples; he will be the mystery and the light of the manifest world and will bring purity to your religion. In every way, in conduct and appearance, he will be like you!