Saturday, November 15, 2008

Week 04, Attar, Rumi

Notes on Faridoddin Attar’s The Conference of the Birds

1528. “Forget what is and is not Islam,” says the narrator; that’s a confrontational statement given that the five pillars seem so set: believe in Allah and the Prophet’s revelation as the final one; pray five times daily; give alms; purify yourself by fasting; make the pilgrimage to Mecca if possible. So the author redefines Islam (the process and state of submission to Allah’s will) in a manner that de-emphasizes following the rules and instead posits that mystic experience is central.

1528-31. The learned Sheikh Sama’n is someone others look to as a symbol of righteousness in Islam, but he is shaken by a dream in which he has given over Muslim faith only to throw himself into the Christian way of belief. This dream horrifies him, but he must confront his worst fear. This man of books has not struggled, perhaps, has not really lived, so his “submission” will not be complete until he undergoes such a journey as the dream now requires him to begin. Islam, after all, emphasizes the individual’s spiritual struggle to submit.

The Sheikh isn’t overcome by the Christian girl’s beauty alone; on 1529, we are told that this girl “knew / The secrets of her faith’s theology.” Sam’an doesn’t so much embrace wordly desire for her as renounce the world for her sake. He is a spiritual seeker, not a libertine. Still, when the girl unveils, he falls before her as an “idol,” and we’re told that “A fire flashed through the old man’s joints” (1529), and from this point his passion seems to take on an erotic cast. On 1530, he has “put aside the Self and selfish lust,” but his forgetfulness leads him to worship not Allah but a fleshly Christian idol.

1532-36. Allah is known as “the merciful,” but the Sheikh’s Christian idol hardly merits that title—she induces him to “Burn the Koran, drink wine, seel up Faith’s eye, / Bow down to images” (253-55). He declares that he will actually burn his Koran (though the text decorously avoids describing this depraved act), and do whatever he’s told. On 1534, what medieval Christians would call a sententia gets the message across: “After so many years of true belief, / A young girl brought this learnèd sheikh to grief.” Fifty years of study and devotion are swept away by a beautiful young infidel, and this good man is entirely at the mercy of his passions and those who would lead him even farther astray by means of them. On 1535, the Christian girl demands gold and silver, and insists that her worshiper become a swineherd for a year. The sheikh has reached a point beyond description, a place of absolute transgression: “I’ve passed beyond loss, profit, Islam, crime, / For how much longer must I bide my time?” (1535) He is so far beyond the pale of Islam that his friends desert him, and he becomes isolated.

1537-41. The sheikh’s old friend arrives on the scene, and can’t believe the others have left the man to his own devices. So he prays in Rome for forty days and nights until he sees “the Prophet, lovely as the moon” (496), who rewards the friend by liberating the sheikh from the “chain” (505) that had bound him. The sheikh’s repentance and reformation sends him back to his proper dervish cloak and faith, and a dream commands the Christian girl to follow him to the true faith and “emerge from superstition’s night” (569). When her transformation is complete, she feels the familiar pain of absence from Allah, and accepts death to be nearer to Him. The final lines of our selection contrast the uncertainty of “the muddied Self” with the “Assurance” that “whispers in the heart’s dark core” (645-46). This seems like a Sufi point in that the sheikh’s way forward has come by a painful demonstration of how incomplete and wandering a thing is selfhood, which we may gloss here as something like “the ego, or that part of us which is beholden to selfish desires and the pursuit thereof.” It’s true that the sheikh’s passion wasn’t about self-aggrandizement, but his desire must have been selfish because it flowed towards the wrong object too easily. Still, we come back to that initial warning not to be priggish about “what is and is not Islam”: if I understand the lesson rightly, the sheikh’s journey through idol-worshiping and abasement was necessary, so there’s no point in wishing it undone. He has found insight at last by means of this journey, by the aid of his friend and the Prophet. He has confronted his worst fear, lived through it, and now is good as new. At the “heart’s core,” there is something beyond ordinary notions of self, something that connects the believer directly with Allah. It is to that place that the sheikh’s dream and journey have led him.

Notes on the Poetry of Jalâloddin Rumi

“Listen, if you can stand to” and “What I most want”

The robai is a rhymed Persian quatrain, and the content of these two poems speak of the need to get beyond the constrictions of personality, of the ego. In this, Sufism is a lot like, say, Buddhism or Hinduism, both of which counsel forms of constructive self-annihilation. The second poem is noteworthy in its hope that the person who has escaped personality may be able to “sit apart” a while and not just leap right into some other trap that only leads back to the body and desire. The first robai mentions the possibility of a language that will subsist “inside seeing” rather than taking up an oppositional or distorting relationship to insight.

“Don’t come to us without bringing music” and “Sometimes visible, sometimes not, sometimes”

Spiritual insight is described in the first poem as a kind of intoxication (wine is forbidden to Muslims), while the second poem probably alludes to some of those passages in The Koran in which it’s said that Allah will eventually reconcile all people of good will; for now, the “different shapes” or religious faiths prevail.

Robais 25, 82, 158

In Robai 25, the Friend is of course Allah, and the poem simply asks why God is not visible as well as nature. Robai 82 suggests that the essence of ritual is intention; it’s devotion that sanctifies the physical act. 158 mentions a place literally “beyond good and evil,” beyond the rigid conceptions people adhere to about ethical categories and sanctions. Sufism seems to delight in positing this sort of realm, which is also beyond language and self-identity. This strategy seems designed to open up the believer’s mind rather than focus it on some petty set of “rules and regulations.” In other words, the enemy of any religion is the tendency of believers to settle into comfortable, empty ritual practices and to adhere childishly to some code of do’s and don’ts. But that’s not spirituality, it’s herd-think that demands authoritarianism.


“An Empty Garlic” and “Dissolver of Sugar”

The first poem deals with shortsightedness in matters of spirit: “You miss the garden, / because you want a small fig from a random tree.” Introspection and silence are the counsel: “Let yourself be silently drawn / by the stronger pull of what you really love.” The speaker suggests, if I understand him rightly, that spiritual understanding is like a beautiful woman we can’t see because we allow our attention to be taken up with the material world as “an old crone” that flatters us with her attentions and her talk. Spiritual enthusiasm is its own kind of understanding. In the second poem, what is the “dissolver of sugar”? Well, the main thing that dissolves sugar is water. It seems to me that God is figured as being like a lover whose touch melts the beloved. The speaker says he wants to be ready for death, and he welcomes the presence of God as something that can “dissolve” his ordinary self into a greater reality. The very distance between lover and beloved only compels the speaker towards unification.

From Spiritual Couplets

“A chickpea leaps almost over the rim of the pot”

As an admirer of Indian cooking, I like this poem and would advise any wayward chickpea just the same. The chickpea gets a lesson, that is, in its value as a natural thing to the human beings who are about to consume it: “Remember when you drank rain in the garden. / That was for this. . . . / Grace first. Sexual pleasure, / then a boiling new life begins.”

“Why Wine is Forbidden”

Well, as the Romans say, in vino veritas. The speaker suggests that most people are more likely to become belligerent than mellow when drunk. His view of human nature is somewhat distrustful, and he’s probably right: most people do become jerks when they drink too much. The Prophet understood this, and therefore prohibited the consumption of alcohol. At best, alcohol only helps people cheat their way to ecstasy, and apparently our Sufi mystic thinks it’s necessary to put some real effort into the attempt.

“The Question”

The speaker presents us with a choice: God’s presence will appear to us as a fire on our left, and water on our right. Which will we choose? If we choose the soft-seeming, flowing water, we choose wrongly. Sometimes—and almost always in matters of spirit—the easy choice, the “rational thing to do”—isn’t the right choice. Water partly represents the material world, which can be soft, pleasant, seductive. Fire is the element of purification and transformation: that is what we should choose. As it turns out, “If you are a friend of god, fire is your water.” The poet isn’t condemning water; he is suggesting only that “Fire is what of God is world-consuming. / Water, world-protecting.” As spiritual beings, I think he is saying, we should not fall in love with the things of this world. Our proper home is fire, spirit, not earthly comforts. We find the same choice put more starkly in the Gospels: Jesus says, “whosoever will save his life shall lose it” (Matthew 16:25). Former student Kathleen Olem describes the assumptions underlying this poem very well. She writes, “ Rumi suggests that what we believe to be true when we rely on reason, and our senses, is nothing more than an illusion he likens to magician’s tricks. In the realm of spirit, reason can be misleading; what appears to be death by fire is really spiritual transformation, what mystics refer to as "piercing the veil of illusion" revealing an eternal reality that will sustain us. Water, on the other hand, represents the physical world, and all its pleasures, which we mistakenly believe will sustain us, but, by its very nature, cannot. Rumi is pointing out that, on the mystical path to spiritual enlightenment, the truth may, in fact, contradict what we have always held to be true.”

From Birdsong: “Lovers in their brief delight”

The speaker emphasizes the cost of both erotic and spiritual passion, describing it in terms of sacrifice: “A thousand half-loves / must be forsaken to take one whole heart home.”

From The Glance: “Silkworms”

This poem quietly revels in paradox: embrace hurt and it will “change” into joy. It figures the life-process as the spinning of a cocoon whose purpose is transformation from the material to spiritual, from earth to flight. Particularly fine is the conclusion: “When I stop / speaking, this poem will close, / and open its silent wings . . . .” The poet’s words have as their purpose something beyond his intention or interpretation; the poem is to take flight and go where it will.