With William Chittick, Sachiko Murata, Kabir Helminski.
Threshold Society Annual Gathering, August 2001
William Chittick: Let me say something about your basic underlying insight in these discussions of good and evil. Something that Shaikh Kabir referred to a few days ago, and that is: evil is essentially nonexistence. There’s none good but God. There’s your principle. Being is good. Non-existence, the lack of being, is evil.
Now, we run into problems with Mevlana, of course, since he’s talking about the workshop of nonexistence, you say, well, does that mean that that nonexistence is evil? No, of course not. Because it has been pointed out that, when he’s talking about nonexistence, he’s talking from our point of view. But it’s simply because we see things backwards. We think God is in nonexistence up there, and we’re existent. No, we’re non-existent. Remember that passage from Shams. Where he says, “You say God is dhat (essence). So what? What’s it to you? He is eternal being. He is. You are not.”
Now, evil — everything known as evil arises from the side of the nafs. It’s not there (non-being). Nonetheless, and that’s as simple an answer as can be found in Plotinus of course. The Muslim Philosophers like that, Ibn Sina, Avicenna, among others. Ibn Arabi develops it, and he develops it in very interesting directions. They’re very good answers, but usually people want something more concrete that addresses their every day problems. These so-called philosophical abstract answers don’t satisfy people. Most of the time when Rumi addresses these questions, he addresses them in very concrete situations.
I can’t do any better, I think, than simply to read some Rumi for you, and just let you listen to how he develops some of these arguments. Again, I looked at his passages, I’ve collected a few in my book, I just went through them this afternoon. And everything we’ve been discussing the whole week is there, in various forms. And this specific passage touches upon many, many issues.
I have two passages I want to read. The first is from the Fihi ma Fihi. Discourses. Prose. In the Fihi ma Fihi you’re dealing with something like the Maqalat. These are the sayings of Rumi. His disciples are there taking notes. The big difference is they were good note-takers. You’ve got a really good text here. And not only that, everything in the Fihi ma Fihi, practically everything is confirmed by the Masnavi. He covers the same material in the Masnavi. This is his voice. No doubt about it.
Whereas with Shams we have nothing to go on, other than a very corrupt text and stories. But nothing written by Shams himself that we can compare it to, to see to what extent this really represents Shams. Nonetheless I think we have the voice of Shams. It’s pretty clear in there.
But, let’s get back to Fihi ma Fihi. Let me read this. Notice he’s is using, especially towards the end, a very theological mode of discourse. Our opponents say, and we reply. This is a typical, you know, if you say, I will say. We’ve seen Shams do the same sort of things.
“God wills both good and evil, but He only approves of the good. For God said, “I was a hidden treasure, so I wanted, I desired, I loved to be known.” Without doubt, God wills both to command and to prohibit.” This for Muslims is self-evident. The Qur’an is full of commands, it’s full of prohibitions. “Commands are only proper if the act which is commanded is disliked by he who is commanded to perform it. One does not say, “Eat sweetmeats and sugar, oh hungry man!” And if one does say it, it is not called a “command,” but rather, “hospitality.” Likewise it is not proper to prohibit things which man dislikes. You cannot say, “Do not eat stones and thorns.” And if you do say it, it is not called a “prohibition.”
Therefore, commands to do good, and prohibitions against evil, are not proper unless there be a nafs desiring evil.” This is that nafs commanding to evil. “To will the existence of such a nafs, such an ego, is to will evil. But God does not approve of evil, or else He would not have commanded the good.
In the same way, when a person wants to teach, he desires the ignorance of the pupil. For there can be no teaching without the pupil’s ignorance, and to desire something is also to desire the thing’s concomitants. However the teacher does not approve of the pupil’s ignorance, or else he would not teach him.
Likewise, the physician desires people to be ill, since he desires to practice medicine. For his skill in medicine cannot be manifested unless people are ill. But he does not approve of their illness, or else he would not treat them and heal them. Again, the baker desires men to be hungry, so that he can exercise his skill and make a living. But he does not approve of their hunger, or else he would not sell them bread.
Hence it is recognized that God wills evil in one respect, but in another respect He does not. Our opponents say that God does not will evil in any respect whatsoever. But it is absurd to say that He should will a thing and not will its concomitants. Now among the concomitants of His commands and prohibitions is this headstrong nafs, which desires evil and hates the good by its very nature. Among the concomitants of this ego are all the evils in this world. Had He not willed these evils He would not have willed the ego. And if He had not willed the ego, then He would not have willed the commands and prohibitions that are directed at the ego. Moreover, had He approved of these evils, He would not have commanded and prohibited the ego. In short, evil is willed, but not for its own sake.
But our opponents say, “If He wills every good, and if the averting of evil is good, then He wills to avert evil.” But, it is impossible to avert evil without the existence of evil. Or they say, “He wills faith.” But faith is impossible except after unbelief. So one of the concomitants of faith is unbelief, denial.
In conclusion, to will evil is only reprehensible when it is willed for its own sake. But when it is willed for the sake of a good, then it is not reprehensible.”
So here’s a theological argument, it fits in with a lot of the reasoning you find in philosophy and some theology. And of course, quite in keeping with Sufi teachings. Basically saying that the world as we know it with its imperfections is not God. Therefore it can’t be good. The world as we know it is here for our good. God desired to be known, He created the world, He created us so that we can know and love Him. He wants us to know and love Him. He knows we can only know and love Him if we we’re faced with evil. If we experience evil, which is precisely distance from him. Nonexistence. In other words, as fish, we have to experience dry land. We have to flop around, and experience the lack of good, the lack of our water, the lack of our air, suffer the evils, and then we can realize the worth of our creation and return to our creator.
Without that entrance into a realm of relativities and opposites and good and evil, we couldn’t possibly enjoy God. That’s his basic position.
Let me read another passage. You can see Mevlana in this passage being kind of fed up with people, who say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, but, but what about this and what about that. But evil” And who just keep on complaining about the evils of the world, about the fact that their enemies are out there trying to get them, as we saw in the passage this morning. And not listening to this rational argument. So he’s trying another tack here, directed much more to our personal situation. He’s talking to a disciple or whoever, who’s not realizing what the benefit of this contradiction between good and evil is. Look at the worth of suffering, and the fact that there must be, in the nature of things, disasters, death, and destruction.
“Look not at Time’s events, which come from the spheres and make life so disagreeable.
Look not at this lack of daily bread and the means of livelihood.
Look not at this famine and fear and trembling and war and destruction.” You name it. I mean, the things we all look at. Read a newspaper.
“Look at this: In spite of all the world’s bitterness, you are passionately and shamelessly attached to it.
Know that bitter tribulation is a Mercy!
Know that possessing the empire of Marv and Balkh is a Vengeance.
The cruelty of time and of every suffering that exists is easier than distance from God and forgetfulness.
For that cruelty will pass, but distance from Him will not pass.
No one possesses good fortune but he who takes to Him an aware spirit.”
That’s, again for the record, and for those of you who don’t have my book, that’s volume 6 of the Masnavi. You can read the whole passage there in its context. In my book, The Sufi Path of Love, it’s pages 56-58. That’s volume 6 of the Masnavi, verses 1733-1736, and it goes on to 1756 to 1757. I’ve left out most of it.
Q: As your were reading this, it occurred to me that Mevlana lived in a time of great suffering and terror.
WC: Yes, the Mongol invasion.
Q: World War II, the Nazi camps
WC: He’s not talking as a philosopher here, for example. No. He’s lived through it. He’s seen it. He has disciples come in, “The Mongols raped my wife, they killed my children.” So what did he say to them? Listen to what he’s saying to them. Every suffering and tribulation is nothing compared to separation from God. Do what you must do. Do the work.
Q: One thing that helps me is that the Qur’an and hadith have lots of references to timelessness. Where God gives time, and this infinity defines not just the linear time that we’re on, seen and unseen, but beyond the seeming events, and infinity includes all possibilities. So instead of just our lives being a linear sequence of events, some good and some bad, it’s really a multi-dimensional continuum of all possibilities. We just happen to be sitting in one arbitrary spot. It’s almost like you have a picture that’s black and white. And it’s not like there’s presence and absence of good in one particular spot, and it just happened to reach an uncomfortable spot. It’s not important whether it’s opposite is included or not in the picture. I don’t know if this is making sense. But the infinity completely negates good and evil.
WC: Of course, this is a theological type of argument , which is very difficult to assimilate.
Q: It’s hard when my kid gets run over by a car. Faith comes in. The thing that you realize is that this is just one uncomfortable spot in the greater picture.
WC: I would, in your discussion, I would object to the word “arbitrary.” It’s a very un-Islamic idea. There’s nothing arbitrary.
Q: It could be this, it could be that
WC: No, it couldn’t. It couldn’t. It could not. That’s precisely the point. It’s taqdir, it’s God, it’s measured out. Measured out exactly the way it happens. That’s the whole point. Don’t say [lau], don’t say if. Say [taqdir]. [Qadar]. God has measured it out exactly that way. He has destined it. This is the way it had to happen. It’s why the prophet said: The good is in what happens. Whatever happens is the good. There is nothing arbitrary about anything, except in our perception of things. The nafs has this perception which sees things arbitrarily because it can’t grasp the whole picture. But the man of spirit sees that everything is in its proper place.
Q: One thing that I’m not getting out of what I’ve heard so far, is the modern sensibility that most every evil arises from the corruption that humans propagated. And we’re so used to assuming that all
WC: But the passage we just read said every evil comes from the nafs. Who has a nafs? Only us. Only humans. That’s precisely what it’s saying. Every evil comes from our working. Otherwise creation is fine. The world is fine. Everything is beautiful. It’s we who destroy it, it’s we who corrupt it, it’s we who bring about evil. Whether through our activity, or through our ignorance of not recognizing the good when it’s right before our eyes. But in this case, what you’re talking about is the famous Qur’anic verse. “Corruption has appeared in heaven and earth through the hands of what men have worked.”
Q: That’s what corruption is.
A: Yes, precisely. It’s the working of our hands. But why do we work corruption? Because we’re dominated by the ego rather than by spirit.
Q: What’s really struck me with what he’s saying is that in spite of this tribulation and suffering that we experience, we insist on being so attached to this. Not even knowing that our real pain is in the farness from God, and not the nearness. And that is what just strikes me in my heart, because it’s me! It brings it right back to what we’ve been talking about all week. It’s me. And knowing that, feeling that, is what brings my head to the floor and keeps it there. Because if I had any idea how far away I was away from God, I’d never get back up. And that’s what he’s saying. He says, my God, in spite of the tribulations, you’re so attached.
Q: I had a question. As a statement of fact, not all people are attached. I see people every day, literally every day, at work, somebody who’s depressed in the ER because they’re suicidal. And the ones who succeed I don’t usually see. So just taking that as a statement backwards, it’s not true. Some people are just so tired of the suffering in existence, they choose to opt out.
WC: Yes, sure. But it’s precisely because the suffering for them is real. That’s Rumi’s point. They take the suffering as reality, and they don’t see that Mercy is reality. They see with the eyes of the nafs, which only sees the superficial, which only see this. It’s a question of inner healing, of gaining the eye of the heart, of being able to see the face of God, even in human suffering. Buddhism is of course the great religion for beginning with this insight. It says the first thing that you must understand, without this step you’ll never gain wisdom, is to know that everything is suffering. Your happiness is suffering. Don’t be confused. Recognize that it’s suffering. And follow the path to escape.
This is what Rumi is saying. We’re totally confused. We think we have a right to enjoy our lives. No, it’s God’s grace, it’s God’s bounty. We don’t have any existence. We don’t have a claim on what we are. It’s a gift. Everything is a gift. And to say “It’s mine, I have a right to this” that’s your first mistake. I don’t have a right to anything. I don’t have a right to bread. God gives it to you as a gift. I don’t have a right to a home and human rights, all this stuff. This is attached precisely to the world. I think it’s so accentuated in our own society that we don’t even see. Because the language here is the language of a much simpler society, where I think things were not quite so complicated, and good and evil were easier to discern. And now I think much of what we now call good, Mevlana would immediately say that’s evil, that’s turning us away from God.
Q: Since all evil arises from the nafs, is human engendered, could you elaborate on what Satan is?
WC: Sure. First of all, if you go back to the myth, Satan does play a significant role in the Qur’an. But notice that in the general Qur’anic and Islamic understanding of Satan, he is not the ape of God, as he very often is in the West. He is the ape of the prophets. Satan represents the opposite tendency in creation. If God sends prophets, he also wills the existence of Satan. It’s not necessarily in the plural, but very often it is. There are Shaytans, and the Satan, identified with Iblis, is this figure who doesn’t bow down to Adam. But there are all his offspring as well. The Qur’an speaks of Shaytans, the plural. Shaytan, among jinn, so this means they’re invisible. And we have Satans in human form too. They’re human’s like us, but they’re really satanic.
Now, what does satanic really mean? It is the opposite of angelic. The angel, as Rumi says, is created from the same light as Intellect. And it has nothing in its head except for love for God. The Satan is created out of fire, and it has nothing in its head but love for itself. And pride and arrogance. And of course, there are many things in its head. That’s one of the differences, it’s dispersed, it represents a movement away. And the function of the prophets is to guide, to lead us on the path. The function of the Satans, God created them for what purpose? Their function is to call us away from the path. To call us away, to invite us to evil.
Now, are there actually Satans out there? Certainly, most Muslims would not deny that. If they start saying, “I saw him,” then you’d have a right to wonder. But we have plenty of accounts from the shaikhs about visions of Shaytan. One in particular, you know, Rumi tells this wonderful story, about, I think it’s Umar. Umar is sleeping one afternoon, and suddenly Satan comes and shakes him, Umar, Umar, wake, wake up, it’s time for your prayer. And Umar says, “Oh, gee, thanks.” He looks at him, and says, “Hey, but you’re Satan! Why are you waking me up? I thought you were trying to lead me astray.” He says, “Yes, but in your case, if you had missed the afternoon prayer, your weeping and wailing would have caused so much light to enter into the world from God, I couldn’t have stood it. So I had to wake you up.” [laughter]
Q: The way I put my arms around the concept of Satan, is to some degree to equate it with the negative aspects of our own nafs.
WC: Well, exactly, exactly. Now as a microcosmic realm in ourselves, Satan is the nafs. The nafs, precisely, the lowest realm of nafs which pulls us way. That’s why it’s nafs-ammara, commanding to evil. This is Qur’anic. What does Satan do? Invites us to evil. Commands us follow the evil way. Don’t follow the prophets.
Q: My way is easier, less work, relax, enjoy your life
WC: Sure. There are all sorts of reasons. They’re a dime a dozen. But this is precisely, one reason after another for not doing the work that you should be doing. So yes, definitely Rumi says this repeatedly, and then he addresses the philosopher. In one of these verses where he makes fun of philosophers, he says, “The philosopher says, ‘Oh, there is no such thing as Satan, that’s just a myth, right?'” You stupid idiot, just look in the mirror. You want to see Satan? [laughter] You see your own nafs in that mirror.
Q: Well, my sense of evil is anything that separates me from God. And so there’s inside me, some voice, outside everybody, that’s taking me away, then that is Shaytan.
WC: Right. Now, that’s the function of Satan, right, to call you. That voice which is calling you away. But also there’s a positive side to Satan’s function. If you read again the Qur’anic accounts, it’s very interesting. He makes a bargain with God. God says, “All right, get out of here. You’re not going to obey me, get out of here.” He says, “Hold off, God, don’t punish me until the day of resurrection.” “OK, I won’t.” “Well because you led me astray, I’m going to lead astray all these people.” He said, “Go try. Those who have faith have nothing to worry about.”
So already right there in the Qur’an, you can see God making a deal, a pact with Satan. “All right, now you have your job, try to lead them astray. I’ll send prophets to guide them, you’ll try to misguide them.” That leaves us with a choice between good and evil. We have commands and prohibitions, and someone urging us, “Don’t obey these prophets,” who are just, this and that, this and that. Again, the arguments are legion why we should not. So we have these antagonists. With Satan as the ape of the prophet, and calling us, doing everything in the opposite, pulling us in the opposite direction. Without Satan there wouldn’t be prophets. Without the prophets there wouldn’t be Satan. Rumi again says someplace that every prophet has his own specific human Satan. Muhammad had Abu-Jahl. Moses had Pharaoh. You see, each of these are set up. God creates it this way, He wills it this way, so we can discern, at the time, in that actual social situation. You get a very clear choice. Here’s the one calling you, “Oh, don’t pay attention to this man. He’s mad, he’s crazy. His father was nobody. Who is he.” Right? And the prophet calls you to Truth. You have the clear choice. And then you, of course, are responsible completely. You’ve got no excuses.
The other thing, the image I really like here, I mean, you’ve got to watch Rumi about the function of Satan. He says, “God married a wolf to a gazelle. And the result is the human being.” We’re a wolf, you know, a donkey, and a gazelle. Beautiful. Bounding, angelic, graceful thing. And the result is this. And then he sent the prophets, and the prophets scatter straw. And he sent the Satans, and they scatter meat. If you go after the meat, you’re a wolf. If you go after the straw, you’re a gazelle.
Why does he send the prophets and why does he send the Satans along with the prophets? Because just, if there was only straw. It’s got nothing against the people who don’t It’s got no real proof, it’s only when they start eating the meat, that He knows for sure that they’re wolves, and not gazelles. That becomes their predominant character. So this is again, a typical Rumi sort of beautiful, simple image. But you suddenly realize, that oh yes, the Satans are out there, they’re doing good, too, in a very roundabout sort of way.
Q: Well, correct me if this is incorrect, but I’m struck by how, it seems that he also has almost the personality of the trickster in Islam. And that the contempt, if you will, is reserved for the Pharaoh, who sort of buys in. It’s almost like, my perception is that Pharaoh is characterized much worse than Satan, because Pharaoh took the bait.
WC: That’s a very good insight. And I think you’re right on target. That it is Pharaoh who is evil, who really is dumb. Satan was OK, he was, you know, blind. He only has one eye according to Rumi, you see, so he couldn’t see. He could only see Adam’s clay, he couldn’t see his light. But Pharaoh, he bought in. Exactly. And the nafs, of course, buys in. We’ve got a pharaoh within us. Each of us has a pharaoh that buys into that. And so that’s our struggle.
Q: I once heard Satan called, I don’t know where this comes from, but I’ve heard Satan called the Dog of God. With ultimate obedience to the will of God.
WC: Yes. I’m not aware of the source of that. It sounds like something Hallaj might have said.
Q: Like the mountains and the inanimate world, Satan’s a Muslim in a certain sense. He had a developed relationship, and he’s in harmony with the will of God. If he had that choice, that’s kind of a historical matter.
WC: Yes, he’s in harmony with His will, but his work is not approved of, in the way that Rumi distinguishes, but it’s essential to creation. Without Satan, our human situation, we’d just be angels. We’d be angels. And angels can’t move. They can neither go up nor down. And in terms of ontological purpose, of course, they have functions. But they have no free choice. Precisely, it’s Satan again who offers the possibility of free choice. Otherwise we could only follow the prophets. There would only be prophets. Only good. No evil. First of all, such a place is unimaginable, except to God himself.
Q: How about the jinn background of Satan. Does that complicate things?
WC: No, but it solves the problem, of where he is. And the hadiths like, “Satan runs in the blood of every child of Adam, except Jesus and Mary.” And then they ask the prophet. They say, “O messenger of God, even you?” “Even me. But Satan became a Muslim at my hands.” [laughter] Beautiful hadith. Rumi quotes it, of course.
And it’s very interesting, it’s one of the many instances where the Christian view is confirmed. Jesus and Mary are unique in creation. Sinless. Satan doesn’t run in their blood. He runs in the blood of all the rest of us. And what makes the prophet different, Satan has submitted, he’s a Muslim. My Satan is a Muslim. You know, the prophet can say that. The rest of us can’t say that. Our Satan is our nafs. Our Satan, our nafs is not under our sovereignty. This idea of sovereignty – [vilayat]- what does it mean? It means I rule my own lower self, which is my Satan. My angel is in charge of my Satan.
Q: It’s one thing to talk about good and evil in relation to a person who can make some kind of an informed choice. But how about evil that happens to innocent children?
WC: Yes. The way that this is dealt with normally in Islamic theology, is to say that God, the first principle, His mercy takes precedence over his wrath. The second principle, He is just. But His gentleness and His forgiveness take precedence over His justice. So that this idea is of a fundamental underlying mercy One of the many ways of addressing these sorts of issues is to ask, what happens to a child who dies at a young age? From an accident or whatever. An innocent child. What happens to the child? Does the child go to paradise? No. Why not? Because paradise is earned. Paradise is the soul that we make, you see. And in order to do that, you have to be free and responsible. So, in order to earn your way into paradise, you have to first of all have to have the intelligence you developed. Does he go to hell? Absolutely not. Because such a being is innocent. But where does he go? Into God’s mercy. Such a person is given whatever mercy he or she can accept. You see. And so, the theologians have similar arguments for people who have not heard the message of a prophet. Are they responsible or not, if they have never heard the truth expressed? They haven’t been reminded. Are you innately responsible, if you’ve never heard a prophetic message? I think the majority of theologians maintain, no you’re not. God will forgive you, because you haven’t heard a message. You’re not responsible.
Obviously that argument works much more strongly for children. But how exactly does it You say, “Well why couldn’t God have let that child grow up?” Well again, here you’re interfering — “If I were God I would have done a much better job of creating a world.” But then, if you were God, then start thinking of all these people who are going to start appealing to you. And of course you might have wisdom and a bigger plan, and of course this is precisely the way Muslims look at it. God has a bigger plan, and of course we don’t have any idea of what it involves. We don’t know where His wisdom and His mercy and His love are leading. We don’t know why he takes the life, although theoretically he could have. But don’t say lau, if only that child had lived to adulthood.
You know the story of Moses and Khizr in the Qur’an. Part of it is that Khizr is commanded to kill a child, and kills it. And of course Moses is very upset about this, he doesn’t know Khizr has received a divine command. But you see the rationale that the Qur’an itself gives. Because that child. God can say if, if he wants. That child, if he had grown up, would have turned into an evildoer, and would have caused so much trouble for his parents. So I wanted to prevent him from committing sins, so he wouldn’t gain all that and go to hell. At same time, I wanted to replace him with a better child, so those parents can have a son who would grow up and become a good Muslim.
So here’s something which of course is a tragedy, for that individual, from our point of view. But from the point of view of a divine plan, it is mercy working. The child is taken before can he do any more evil. And therefore saved before he can do any more damage to his soul. And the parents, who suffer all that loss, gain like Job, gain something better in return, even though they may not consider it better or even if they don’t know it. So don’t say “If only.” Say, well, taqdir. God has measured it out, God has determined it. And I should trust in God’s mercy and goodness and love.
Q: I was going to mention the story about Moses and Khizr. But I think that we see death as bad. It doesn’t have to be bad. It can just be a change of form.
WC: Well, that was the whole discussion this morning.
Q: So if we see a child die, or we see somebody die young, especially if we expected them to live out to old age or retirement, etc., etc. then it bothers us. It reminds us of our own death. I think it shows how attached we are.
WC: Yes. Thank you. Very good. Think of that text this morning, Shams. In which he says, “Think of that child now. Trust in God for a moment. What is God doing. he’s taking him out of a dark room, and putting him into great big open house, where he can breathe in sunlight and enjoy.” That’s what he’s doing. That’s what death is. Certainly for someone who hasn’t sinned, that is. Someone who hasn’t corrupted his own soul. Now once you’ve become adult it becomes much more complex, but once you trust in God, trust in His mercy, and act accordingly, then who’s afraid of death?
Q: There’s nothing to fear.
WC: There’s nothing to fear.
Q: You can actually look forward to it.
WC: Yes of course. We should rejoice. Why do they celebrate the death of Mevlana every year and call it the day of marriage? Because he joined with his Beloved, when he died. His wedding day.
Q: So then a harder issue than death, is a child who is so wounded, by an abusive situation, that just to speak, for example, in psychoanalytic terms, a solid foundation of self is never formed. So please respond to that.
WC: I can’t second-guess God. I don’t know what is going on. I only trust in his mercy and wisdom. I only trust that he knows what he is doing. It’s evil, it’s terrible. The parents, or whoever, they should be shot. I don’t think those people are treated the way they should be. I think they should be really But, that’s my personal opinion. And maybe our society doesn’t deal with these situations in the right way. But nonetheless when you look at the victim, all you can do is trust in God’s mercy. And you as an individual who have to deal with these people, give as much of your heart as you can, help as much as you can to ameliorate the situation. But don’t feel that giving psychological solace is enough. If you want to be on the path of Mevlana, you have to open the door, too. But of course that may be the first stage. Bring them back to a certain mental balance, then show the way, at least, to the upper world.
Q: I just brought up the example because I think it’s a harder case. Those people survive to be damaged to their souls.
WC: Yes. Yes. But again, you’re second-guessing God. What would have happened, see. “If only” they hadn’t been abused. How do you know they wouldn’t do any damage to their souls if they hadn’t been abused? How do you know they wouldn’t have done much worse damage? You just don’t know. You see, we’re second-guessing God. “Well if I had been creator, I wouldn’t let any parent abuse his child. I wouldn’t let any, you know, whatever perverts do” -I guess you don’t use that language any more do you? you know what I mean, — “I wouldn’t let child abuse go on in the world.” But, as soon as you make one exception for evil, then you’re going to have to get rid of all of it. And once you get rid of all of it, we don’t have a world anymore.
This type of objection is a very un-Muslim way to look at things. It’s not submission.
Kabir Helminski: I wanted to tell a story that just came to mind. There was this true story from Istanbul. A Shaikh whose name I think was Sunbul-I Dede in Istanbul was about to pass on, and he called some of his dervishes together. And he was trying to decide who was going to be his successor. And he asked them if they were in charge of the world, what would they do? “Come back tomorrow and tell me.”
So they came back. One dervish said, “If I was in charge of the world, I would find a way to make all the unbelievers, believers.” “OK, thank you, my son. How about you my son? Next.” The next fellow said something like, “If I were in charge of the world, I would bring a stop to all of the wars.” “Well, thank you very much, but next my son, what would you do?” And the next guy said, “If I were in charge of the world, I would establish the rights of the oppressed, and eliminate illness.” “Well, thank you, my son. And how about you, my last dervish here?” And he said, “If I were in charge of the world, I would leave it exactly as God has presented it to us.” And that dervish became known as Merkez Dede, meaning center, Merkez means center. And in fact he went on to become a great saint, and he’s thought to be one of the four evliya, friends of God , who spiritually rule and protect the city of Istanbul. Merkez Dede. So he saw that the center, the balance of it all.
Q: Something about this discussion has helped me cope with these sufferings of life we all experience, if I want everything different, I have to accept everything else different. That brings me back to acceptance. I don’t like this happening to someone. Am I willing to have one of my kids die? Or have, you know, even some unthinkable suffering happen to me?
WC: Along these lines, I’m thinking of a very famous story in the Masnavi, in which a farmer comes to Moses, one of the children of Israel. And he says, “Moses, would you please teach me the language of the animals?” He says, “Of course not! How do you know I even know the language of the animals?” Every day he comes back and pesters Moses. One day God says, “Teach him.” So the next day this guy comes and Moses teaches him the language of the animals.
The man is so happy with himself. And he goes back and he’s living his daily life. One day he hears the chicken, you know the hen saying to the rooster. “Well, too bad about the old goat here.” And the rooster said, “What’s going on?” “Oh, he’s going to die. Can’t you see?” The farmer takes the goat into town and he sells it, right? Sure enough, the next day he hears, the guy comes back, the guy who bought the goat. “Hey, your goat died on me.” “It was perfectly health when you bought it.” [laughter]
A few days later. About a month later, you know. He was out in the barnyard again. He hears one of the sheep talking to another sheep. He says, “Well, too bad about the old horse. You know, his days are numbered. Look at him, you know. Not much time.” So, he grabs the horse, takes the horse to the market. A week later, the buyer comes back. “What did you do? You sold me a sick horse!” “You looked at his teeth, you checked him out. You said what a fine specimen of horse flesh. How can you blame me? I know nothing. You must have fed him some bad food or something.”
So, this goes on. The farmer starts getting very wealthy, I mean, relative to the other farmers he knows. He’s doing very well. And then a year down the line he hears one of the cows talking to another. “Gee, too bad about the master.” “What’s wrong with the master?” “Oh can’t you see? I don’t think he has more than a week left to live.”
And of course the farmer says, this can’t be! He runs back to Moses. He says “Moses, save me.” He says “What are you talking about?” “Moses, save me. I’m going to die. The cow is saying I’m going to die in a week. Don’t you remember you taught me the language of animals?” Moses says, “What can I do?” “You’re the one who taught me. You’re the one that can save me.” Moses says, “It’s far, far too late for that. Don’t you understand that every affliction you suffer prevents a greater affliction? If you had left that goat to die the first time, and just ignored it, you never would have gotten sick. Your lifespan would have lasted 150 years.” Think about that. God’s mercy is such that every affliction is a stopper – it blocks a greater affliction. So if you search to escape that affliction, you’re opening yourself up to a greater affliction.
Q: So in that case, classically in Sufism, what is the response of people to evil? What is the right attitude towards it when they encounter it in their lives?
WC: Well part of the problem is what are we talking about exactly? You know, evil is a very difficult thing to define. As soon as you start defining it, you might say it’s a lack of good. That’s not a defining. It’s a negative, it’s a lack of good. Now, anything you want to name as an evil, is good from another point of view. It may not be good for you, but it’s good in something else. It may only be good for the maggots, but it’s good for something in God’s creation. So there’s no such thing as absolute evil, there can’t be.
So when you’re faced with evil, first of all, you better start defining your terms and decide why you think it’s an evil. Is illness an evil? Especially in the time of the prophet, illness was looked upon as a blessing. It was suffering, it was an affliction God gave you and would reward you for. So you suffered through it and thanked God, that He didn’t take your life.
Q: So then all these doctors that are trying to cure cancer are wasting their time?
WC: Well, I would rather not get into this (laughter). This is an hour long. One of my very close friends, a person I dearly, dearly love, one of the most wonderful people I know on the face of the earth, named Ivan Illich. You know his book “Medical Nemesis: The Expropriation of Health”? I commend it to all of you, if you’re interested in this issue of what doctors are doing.
Q: In my own mind I look at evil from three different ways. There’s our nafs and what we bring out. There’s the natural world where there’s calamity in it, you know, fire, disease, things like that. The natural world for the most part moves with its own almost mathematical precision. It doesn’t really move with free will. So I have a hard time calling it evil — bad circumstances, but I can’t call it evil. And then there’s perhaps the evil wrought by others, armies come through cities, where innocents are killed, and things like that. And it seems from what we were talking about earlier, if we look at external evil, the external bad, that perhaps again that’s the work in the workshop, where it becomes our opportunity to be friends with the friends of God, to do our work in this world, to bring the good out of the evil, or to be the baker giving the bread, in one of the examples that you brought up.
WC: Yes, sure. That’s good. In this context, it’s just a question of priorities that you really have to keep in mind. What is the first, most fundamental evil? Once you get rid of that, the other evils will sort of dissolve away. And that of course is your problem here. This nafs. If you can eliminate that, you gain this peace of God, then you see with God’s eyes, and like Merkez Dade, you’ll realize that this is the way it must be, this is the way that it is willed by God, this is God’s wisdom, this is God’s mercy.
And of course it doesn’t mean that you can’t do good deeds anymore. No, no, of course. But you do them within bounds of the guidance provided by the prophets. And that invariably has to do with you. To begin with you. The famous hadith is, your soul has a right against you, you have responsibility towards your soul. Your spouse has a responsibility. Your guest. And there are several versions of this hadith, in which those to whom you are responsible are listed. Your neighbor. And it always begins with yourself. Yourself is the first thing you’re responsible for. That’s what you have to answer to God for. So that is your first priority. If you can straighten that out, and then of course these others come into play. You get married. All right. You have all these duties towards your spouse, your children, these are all listed in the Shari’a. And of course they’re also discussed anyway. You don’t need the Shari’a here to point you in the direction of being a good parent. We know that humanly.
But, usually, you know, about the last thing that comes up is the people you don’t know, and these great problems of the world. Because unless you can solve your own personal problem, you can never really help anyone else.
Camille Helminski: What I wanted to ask is if Sachiko could speak a little bit about the nafs, since it came up earlier, as being of feminine gender.
Sachiko Murata: I don’t know if this is good or bad, but anyway, on her command, I have to say something. [laughter] You know, in several days I am here, and several people talked to me about this nafs. Actually, you know some of the people are a bit puzzled, because “Why should the mother in Mevlana’s story be killed?” Why the mother? – they say nafs is image of mother, and that is why it is feminine.
From the standpoint of Islamic cosmology, human being has an aql, an intellect/spirit, a soul, a body, three things. Which of course correspond to universal spirit, soul, and body, which is our nature. The relationship of the spirit, soul, and body is that spirit, that is, light, angel, the pen, intellect, and that is an image of masculine, because that is a single reality. The light has nothing to do with any corporeal reality. That is a single disengaged reality. While the human body, it is dark, a compound reality. And between light and darkness there is no relationship. As a bridge, the nafs was created. And this human nafs is, of course, the mixed-up human psychic domain. You see, highest part of the nafs is almost light, because nafs is synonymous with Iblis, it is made of fire, psychic realities. And fire needs fuel. You see fire as such doesn’t exist. Therefore when we have fire we have fuel. We have the wood to be burned. And then this fire gives light. And then this light, when it goes up, we say the fire is light and you can see things. So therefore, the highest part of the human nafs is almost light, while the lowest part of the human nafs is almost darkness.
And there’s a reason that before the creation of Adam, Iblis was allowed to be living with these angels in paradise. The story said Iblis was fashioned so purified, he was almost light. Now, in human as a microcosm, this hierarchy of states, our body simply observed. If the spirit is pen, then soul is a tablet. If the spirit is male, soul should be feminine. Because that is the spirit, the pen is something that acts. And the tablet – the soul is something acted upon. So in relationship between spirit and soul, soul should be feminine. The feminine — that is a gentleness, receptivity.
Now, one of the problems in the West, is that the feminine is taken as passivity. Passivity is a very negative quality. But receptivity, now receptivity is the highest quality in Taoism. See Tao. That is, Hinayana in Buddhism, that is emptiness. Wei wu wei. No action, and then no ultimate. The workshop of nonexistence is fitting that highest level of emptiness, and that emptiness is coming through this receptivity. And now if the soul in relation to spirit is feminine, the soul which has a wide range, in relation to body should be male. Because if one side is active, the other side should be receptive. So the soul should be male in relation to the body, and the body is feminine. So if the body is governed by the soul, then the soul should be governed by the spirit, this is the proper order of the hierarchy of the psychic realm.
So, just putting this aside, now let me go and explain quickly how things are looked upon in Eastern cosmology in general, and then go back to Islamic cosmology. In the Far East, cosmology looked upon heaven and earth. You see, heaven and earth. And as we see some complaints about the body. Difficult. Is it because of this body we have problems? “I wish we did not have this body, because if we didn’t have a body, we would have no problems.” And she said that if there is no body, there is no soul. Because soul without body, it cannot function. So as we talked about the donkey, we need a donkey so that the rider can be someplace.
In the difference between heaven and earth, the heaven is active, and then earth is the receptive. You see, active and receptive. So earth takes everything, whatever heaven gives. Now the problem is, if you take one heaven, one earth, our feminists say it’s not fair, because the earth is already receptive and never active. But, there are so many heavens and so many earths. And, many cosmologists say, look, when we compare two heavens, whichever is higher we call heaven, lower we call earth. We call to earth. Whichever is higher we call heaven. Whichever is lower is called earth. In other words, the relation between heaven and earth changes the moment we change our viewpoint.
So we do not have one set of heaven and earth, we do not have one set of male and female, we do not have one set of active and receptive, one yin and yang. Once we change our viewpoint, you see, yin and yang change. Yin becomes yang, yang becomes yin. I guess many of you know the terminology of both from the I Ching. You see we have yin and yang in Tai Chi. Yin and yang, male and female principle, are the only principles through which this whole universe is created. And this yin and yang, yang is the shining, the sun and the day, and then the yin is the shadow and moon and the night and darkness. So therefore, as activity, because movement is yang, and receptivity or tranquility is yin. So if we say, man is male, this is yang, and woman is yin — so he is yang, and I am yin. But right now I am called yang, because I am speaking, and all of you are yin, you are listening to me. But then if I shut up in the next moment, see, Kabir starts talking, he is all the yang, and we are yin. So the relationship changes all the time. So woman in relation to man is yin, but woman in relation to her children is yang. Again, woman’s relationship to her mother, it is yin. When a man is sleeping, and a woman is awake, the woman is yang.
But these relationships between yin and yang are very well adapted to Islamic cosmology. So the relationship between spirit, soul and body — If you cannot observe this relationship, yin and yang. If the spirit, instead of acting toward soul, becomes receptive, and soul is becoming active. Then in return, soul becomes receptive towards the body, the body becomes active. So we become yang of man, no more human being, because the body, as Ghazali says, in human reality, it’s as if four things in one sack. Wise man, devil, pig and dog. He said if you could make pig and dog. Pig represents sensuality, and dog represents hunger. And he says that the difference between philosophers and then Sufis is, that the philosopher says go kill your pig and dog. And Ghazali says, no, if you kill your pig, how can you feel love? If you kill your dog, how can you gain your strength? You have to purify, transform your pig into your pure love, and your hunger into pure aspiration. Power. Strength. So that the pig and dog become your two wings to fly toward God.
So you see, if the spirit is yang, a ray, active toward the soul, in turn the spirit is receptive toward God. Because got to be. So, whoever seeks out God is man. You see, Mary is the one when God say, “Man, in the real resurrection, Mary comes first.” So Mary is considered man, in that sense, whoever that person’s intellect is dominating of the soul is called man forever. Whoever has the nafs dominating over spirit is called women. And there is no offense for women. Because we’re talking about the inner reality. We are dealing with one set of cosmology of yin and yang, male and female. And you see in the I Ching it’s very clear, with trigrams, the three lines, is the science of change. Those cosmic family, father and mother, heaven and earth, six children, three sons and three daughters. All three males are represented by one yang line and two yin lines. Female children are represented by one female yin line and two male lines. So whatever manifests in our family is actually only one side, but it is not manifesting two sides. I take that position on reality. Outward manifest as woman, but inside of self is totally different.
Camille: Thank you.
SM: Now I go back to yin (laughter).
Q: This is all discussed in your book, right? (The Tao of Islam)
SM: Yes, that’s right.
Kabir Helminski: I’ll take the yang role for a moment (laughter). You know we’re really asking questions about evil in the world, and our place in all this, and we’re faced with a mystery. You know one can’t really look at the suffering of the apparently innocent, without facing a mystery . Let’s take the worst case scenario, the unremitting suffering and torture of innocent and idealistic people by various tyrannies, and one can’t encounter this evil without saying, I just don’t know. This is inexplicable. And this is part of our situation. And we also look at our life in the world, and what are we doing here. In general, why are we here? What is the purpose of human life? Is there a purpose to life?
One way of seeing this is that this world is the place of soul creation, of the actualization of qualities. And without these tests and these testers, these Satans, without facing the unknown and inexplicable suffering of humanity, without virtue facing very great odds, what chance is there for heroismto be born?
We believe Allah wills this whole world, that Allah is the sum of all will–which is one way to understand Allah–and Allah wills this world just as it is and allows for the presence of evil and great suffering, and yet we know that Allah doesn’t approve of the suffering, because Allah enjoins and approves only the good. And we would like to say, “Let justice reign in this world.” And if justice is not reigning, do we object, do we blame and resent God? Or is it the function of the human being to be that which allows justice to reign? So what is our part in this? Let truth reign, then it takes a truthful human being. Let love reign, then you need loving human beings. Human beings who activate these qualities in themselves, of course, totally through the grace and with the power of God.
A critique of this reality is like a critique of a great blockbuster film. And some would say, well I would rather not have it be this way. Well, would you go to see a film that had no pain, no suffering, no drama? And yet most human beings are drawn to this painful drama, to most of what is produced in the way of films, including violence and sex and all of this stuff. What would we do with a film presentation by the greatest director of all time, that only had angels? So that’s all I have to say. Tamam? I know there will always be questions. Is there a burning question at this moment?
Q: Maybe you could speak a little bit to the fact that The Qur’an enjoins us to fight oppression, and to struggle in that way to. And so in that way, it kind of goes back to what David was saying, in some ways its presence is part of our work as well?
KH: That’s exactly what I’ve been saying, let justice reign. That is the jihad, that is the struggle. And unless we face this challenge, unless we have these challenges, unless we have this resistance in life, there’s no chance for something in us to grow.
Q: What I hear you saying is that our struggle is within, so we can manifest in the world. But I guess what I’m asking is, aren’t we told in the Qur’an to fight oppression in the world also?
KH: Yes, well, maybe I was misunderstood, because I’m not talking about anything other than that, taking action. But I’d say there’s sort of a fundamental self-deluding notion that we human beings have, that I think we may recognize in ourselves. And that is that we think that our will should manifest itself in this world unimpeded. That we should get up in the morning, and especially, if God is on our side, if God is with us, we should be able to really just go smoothly through our day, flow through, and have everything work perfectly. This mentality is exhibited very much by the gambler, who in a way is testing God, you know, throwing down the dice or cards, and saying in a somewhat pathological way, “Are you with me, God?” We have this self-deluding notion that in this world, we expect to be able to–and this is the nafs-ammara too — the expectation that we can go through this life without resistance, and that resistance is bad. So we call this resistance bad. But what if the resistance isn’t bad at all? What if the resistance is exactly what we need to know ourselves, to develop our souls, and to allow the will of God, the beauty of God, the wisdom of God to reveal itself?
So this is an attitude of warriorship, that energy that leads to the greater jihad, which is the struggle with the nafs, and the nafs as it is externalized in all of the events that we find difficult, painful, negative, unpleasant But our struggle is to welcome the resistance. You don’t see in any of the prophets, especially in Muhammad, any self-pity, do you? You don’t see any sense of victimization in their lives. You don’t see any sense of blaming others. Just facing the difficulty and going straight on. And every prophet has enemies. But it’s said that the enemies of the prophets do no harm to the prophets, ultimately. They can do no harm to the prophets. All the harm they’re doing is to themselves.
And finally, there’s the very important notion in Islam that sin is not a violation of God. It’s not a sin against God. But what sin fundamentally is, is a violation of our own human nature. Evil in that sense is a betrayal of our own human nature.
So the presence of evil, or resistance, and even the natural, the apparent evils of the world are opportunities for us to develop our souls. . . As once I saw on the cover of National Geographic, the landscape of Bangladesh, when it was literally, as far as the eye can see, nothing but bodies that had drowned in a flood. Even in the face of that kind of destruction, let’s call it the wrath of God, what is our response to be, if not one of love, courage, and generosity?
Q: I was going to say, we’re all subject to the laws of cause and effect. Sometimes we come in on the tail end of something. Something that was, you know, suffering. But we don’t know what events transpired six months before, or ten years before, to have brought that on. You know, we can’t know. And we judge from our limited point of view. But many times when something goes wrong in our own individual lives, and we suffer something, then if we look back on our lives, I think there was a time before when you did something, and life is cyclical, coming back to you.
KH: So then the why of things, the causality of things, is impossible to fully discern. And that’s why Mevlana says never ask wherefore; never ask why. Well we’ve gone past our time, and prayer time is coming up. I thank you, Professor Chittick, for so much that you shared. And Sachiko, thank you so much. Thank you all for your questions and your listening. Thank you all for the yin and the yang. Amin.