Sufis, Philosophers, And Nanak
Justice is the king of salvation.
Whoever is just is saved
from all kinds of errors and futilities.
It is better to be just
than to pass your whole life
in the genuflexions and prostrations of exterior worship.
Attar, The Conference of the Birds 31
The wars of mankind are like children’s fights –
all meaningless, pitiless and contemptible.
When Muhammad (570-632) founded the religion of Islam, he used traditional methods of warfare to fight his enemies and to convert those whom he called idolaters. The Qur’an he recited and his own sayings that were written down as tradition became the basis of Islamic law in regard to war. The Islamic concept of jihad can mean the struggle to obey God and be just; but it also developed meanings similar to the Christian ideas of “holy war” and “just war.” Within ten years of Muhammad’s death, aggressive Muslims had spread their religion by force beyond Arabia to take over the Persian empire, Palestine, and parts of Syria and Egypt. Islamic law then was applied, giving the most rights to Muslims, secondary rights to the peoples of the Bible (Jews and Christians), and fewest rights and the highest taxes to others (idolaters). Territory ruled by the Muslims was considered a part of the realm of Islamic peace (dar al-Islam), and everyone in this territory was to be protected. Because of their desire to convert everyone in the world to their religion, Muslims believed they were in a state of war (dar al-harb) with their non-Islamic neighbors. The only way they could be at peace with them was by a limited treaty. These theories were defined in detail at the height of the Abbasid dynasty during the reign of Caliph Harun al-Rashid by Abu Hanifa’s disciple Shaybani (750-804) in his Islamic Law of Nations.
Even al-Ghazali, one of the greatest Muslim philosophers, justified lying to gain advantage in war. Yet Islam means peace, surrender, and submission (to God), and there are many Muslims who are very peace-loving, especially the Sufis. These Islamic mystics were originally named after the woolen robes they wore as a form of social protest. They began as ascetics who remained aloof from the lower material life at Basra. The first man to be called a Sufi was Abu Hashim (d. 776) of Kufa. Sufis were soon gathering at a monastery established by a wealthy Christian at Ramlah in Syria. Sufism also spread to Khurasan, where the influence of Buddhism was felt. Ibrahim ibn Adham (d. 777) recommended other-worldliness, celibacy, and poverty. He believed the true saint covets nothing in this world or in the next but is devoted only to God. He found that in adopting poverty one should not consider marriage, since one could not fulfill the needs of a wife. Adham said that when a Sufi marries, he boards a ship; but when he gets a child, his asceticism shipwrecks.
Rabi’a, Al-Hallaj, and Ibn ‘Arabi
The most famous woman Sufi was Rabi’a al-‘Adawiyya of Basra. She was born in 713 or 717 into a very poor home. After her mother and father died, during a famine she was sold into slavery. Even when she broke her hand while fleeing and was re-captured, she still wanted only to please God. When her owner perceived her illumination while she was praying, he freed her so that she could pursue her spiritual path. Rabi’a remained celibate, rejecting several offers of marriage from prominent Sufis because she was essentially already married to God; she died in 801. Stories and sayings of hers were later written down by the 13th-century Sufi ‘Attar in his Memorial of the Friends of God. He justified including a woman by noting that God does not regard your forms but is more concerned with right intention. In the unity the mystics seek there is no male or female. It was said that Rabi’a prayed a thousand times a day. When someone said she was fit to be an abbess, she replied,
I am abbess of myself.
Whatever is within me, I do not bring out.
Whatever is outside me, I do not let in.
If anyone enters and leaves, it has nothing to do with me.
I watch over my heart, not mud and clay.1
Rabi’a said that a servant of God is contented when one is as thankful for tribulation as for bliss. She taught that God should be worshipped without fear of punishment or hope of reward but for its own sake. She said,
O Lord, if I worship you out of fear of hell, burn me in hell.
If I worship you in the hope of paradise, forbid it to me.
And if I worship you for your own sake,
do not deprive me of your eternal beauty.2
When she was asked why she carried fire and water, Rabi’a replied that she was going to burn paradise and douse hell-fire so that both veils might be lifted from the seekers, and then they will have sincere purpose. At the present time she lamented that if hope for reward and fear of punishment were taken away, no one would worship or obey. When asked why she worshipped if she had no hope for paradise, Rabi’a replied that she preferred the Neighbor to the neighbor’s house. Her goal was union with God. Once when someone asked her to come outside and enjoy the flowers of spring, she invited them to come inside and contemplate their Creator; for her contemplation of the Creator had turned her from contemplation of the creation.
In 885 Ghulam Khalil accused the Sufis in Baghdad of heresy, which could bring capital punishment. Abu’l-Husayn an-Nuri (d. 907) offered his life to save his companions; but when the Caliph investigated, he found the Sufis were good Muslims and released them. Thus Nuri demonstrated his brotherly love as the genuine spiritual poverty of preferring others to oneself. Some theologians called him a heretic because he referred to himself as a lover of God. He described the psychological stages of love in The Stations of the Hearts. He likened the heart to a garden nourished by the rain of God’s mercy. Junayd criticized Nuri’s exuberance and startling miracles. For example, to conquer his fear of lions, Nuri lived in the lion-infested forests along the Tigris. He was said to have died after cutting his feet on sharp reeds when he ran into a reed-bed after being enraptured by the recitation of a verse.
Al-Husayn ibn Mansur al-Hallaj (858-922) was the Persian son of a wool or cotton carder. He became a disciple of Sahl ibn ‘Abd Allah of Tustar but received his Sufi gown from ‘Amr ibn ‘Uthman Makki at Basra. He married a woman who already had a daughter by another Sufi, who belonged to a family that had supported the ‘Alid slave rebellion of Zaidi against the ‘Abbasid Caliphate; she bore al-Hallaj three sons. Al-Hallaj himself remained a Sunni and studied with Junayd for about six years but left him to go on a pilgrimage to Mecca, where he spent a year praying and meditating by the Ka’ba. Then al-Hallaj traveled through Persia to Kashmir and India, eventually reaching the frontier of China. He returned with paper from the Chinese on which his disciples later inscribed his sermons with gold ink. He would weep and give sermons in the marketplace. In one he explained that God sometimes shines forth to people and sometimes is veiled from them; God is revealed so that humans can be helped but is hidden lest they all become spellbound.
Al-Hallaj was about fifty when he announced in the mosque of al-Mansur at Baghdad to his friend, the Turkish poet Shibli, “I am the truth (or the real).” Believing he needed to die in God, al-Hallaj told people in that mosque that God had made his blood lawful to them and that they should kill him so that they will be holy fighters, and he will be a martyr. However, the only ones who were really hostile to him were the fundamentalist Hanbalis. Al-Hallaj continued to preach that his death would be a coming to life and an awakening. He noted the miracle that he had become a father to his mother and that his daughters had become his sisters. He was ordered arrested in 908 for being involved in the Sunni plot of the Caliph ibn al-Mu’tazz, but he escaped to Susa. Some of his followers were arrested, but al-Hallaj was not found. He was taken to Baghdad in chains until 911, though no charges were brought then. Two years later the vizier ‘Ali ibn Isa tried him, but his case was suspended by the influence of ibn Suraij. Instead of being charged with the serious crime of heresy, he was convicted of being a charlatan and was humiliated and imprisoned.
Al-Hallaj was kept a prisoner in the royal palace for eight years and was much appreciated by the Queen Mother. Fear of a Hanbali revolution caused the vizier Hamid bin al-‘Abbas and the Greek eunuch army commander Munis to put al-Hallaj on trial again. Al-Hallaj had written to a friend advising him to destroy his Ka’ba, meaning sacrifice his life, and the mystic was convicted of advocating the destruction of Mecca. Al-Hallaj had also recommended that those unable to go on a pilgrimage to Mecca celebrate it at home with prayers and by giving a feast and clothes to thirty orphans. Drunk Caliph Muqtadir signed his execution order. When his servant Ibrahim asked for a keepsake word, al-Hallaj said, “Yourself,” because unless you enslave it, it will enslave you. Al-Hallaj spent half the night before execution repeating the word “illusion,” and then near dawn he began shouting, “The truth!” He was taken to the execution ground while ecstatically dancing and laughing. He asked God to pardon those who were punishing him. Al-Hallaj received a thousand lashes; his hand and foot were amputated, and he was hanged in a noose until morning, when he was decapitated. All booksellers were summoned and had to swear not to sell any work by al-Hallaj.
The sayings of al-Hallaj were collected together, but the only complete text is The Tasin of Before-Time and Ambiguity, which defends the position of Iblis for having refused to worship Adam on the ground that he should not worship anyone but God. Al-Hallaj wrote that things are known by their opposites, and so whoever does not know vice will not know virtue. He spoke to those who might not be able to recognize the real directly to recognize him as the trace of the real. Even though his hands and feet were cut off before he was killed, al-Hallaj did not go back on his proclamation.
Many Sufis influenced by al-Hallaj moved to Khurasan and Transoxiana, where the Samanids were more tolerant of mystics. Abu Nasr as-Sarraj (d. 988) was from the city of Tus in Khurasan and described the Sufi way of life in his Book of Flashes. In that work he outlined seven stations of repentance, watchfulness, renunciation, poverty, patience, trust, and acceptance. He quoted numerous Sufi teachers as he defined each of these qualities on three different levels of experience – the novice seekers, the select, and those with mystical knowledge.
Repentance is returning from what knowledge condemns to what knowledge praises. For the knowers it is turning away from everything except God. Seekers are watchful of the uncertain things between the prohibited and the permitted; knowers are watchful of everything that distracts one from God. Renunciation goes beyond the prohibited which is obligatory to what is permitted and at hand. Junayd said that in renunciation the hands are free of possessing and the hearts are free of craving. For novices poverty means not owning anything and refusing anything offered. Junayd said that the truly poor do not ask and do not argue, while Sahl ibn ‘Abdullah said that one does not ask nor refuse nor hoard. The highest reality of poverty is described by al-Jariri as refraining from requesting what is not lest one lose what is. Junayd said that patience is bearing a burden for God’s sake during the time of hardship; but one truly patient in God does not weaken or waver in all trials. Trusting in God is sufficient, and Junayd said that the best trust is the heart’s relying on God in all its conditions. Ibn ‘Ata’ said that acceptance is letting God choose for the servant, who accepts it gladly, knowing that God knows best.
‘Abdullah Ansari (1006-88) taught Sufis in Herat, and his lectures in Persian were recorded by his students, who for a long time did not know that he was indigent because he wore fine clothes while teaching. Ansari was imprisoned in irons for five months in 1046 because of a petition by theologians. As his fame spread, his students provided him with gifts. Ansari was banished briefly in 1066, but four years later Vizier Nizam al-Mulk sent him a robe of honor. In the last eight years of his life Ansari continued to teach even though he was physically blind. Ansari was one of the Sufis who supported the more conservative Hanbalis.
A Sufi master is called a pir, and ‘Abd-al-Qadir Gilani (1077-1166) was one of the most popular teachers of the mystical doctrine. As a boy his mother sewed eighty gold coins into his coat and sent him to Baghdad for religious education, warning him never to speak falsely. When a robber of the caravan asked him if he had any money on him, Gilani admitted he had the hidden coins. Gilani explained to the chief robber he could not begin his religious quest by telling a lie, and the chief was converted from his life of crime. At Baghdad, Gilani was severely disciplined by a syrup vendor and then practiced night worship on his own, reciting the entire Qur’an. Pir Gilani lectured at a madrasah college on the Qur’an, the traditions, and the law. When he was about fifty, he decided that marriage was a social duty. Gilani took four wives and had 49 children. Gilani preached outside the city to large crowds in a building that was constructed for him. He received large amounts of money, which he distributed to the poor.
Some of Gilani’s sermons on practical morality were collected by one of his sons as Revelations of the Unseen. He expounded on ten virtues he believed led to spirituality even though none of them is required by Islamic law (Shari’a). First, do not swear by God, either truthfully or falsely. Second, speak no untruth, even in jest. Third, do not break a promise. Fourth, do not curse or harm anything. Fifth, do not pray for or wish for harm to anyone. Sixth, do not accuse anyone of religious infidelity. Seventh, do not attend to anything sinful. Eighth, do not impose any burden on others. Ninth, do not expect anything from human beings. Tenth, only notice in others what may be superior to oneself.
The Persian philosopher Suhrawardi (1153-91) was called the master of illumination and the martyr. He studied philosophy and psychology at Isfahan and was influenced by Zarathustrian concepts of angels. Suhrawardi traveled widely to meet Sufi masters and practiced asceticism in spiritual retreats. At Aleppo he tutored the governor Malik Zahir Shah, a son of Saladin. However, his theosophical views were disliked by the orthodox jurists. The famous judge al-Fadil advised Saladin to have Suhrawardi put to death, and by the Sultan’s order the prince had him executed the year King Richard arrived at Acre.
Suhrawardi believed that mysticism and philosophy are compatible because the principles of philosophy can be validated by the experience of illumination. Suhrawardi was having difficulty understanding how humans know, but in his meditation he saw Aristotle telling him that first one has to know oneself. Suhrawardi identified the source of being as light, which is essential to all cognition, and all beings are illuminations of the Light of Lights (God). He adopted the classical psychology that is also found in Avicenna’s work that distinguishes the vegetative, animal, and intellectual aspects of the soul. Suhrawardi described the five internal senses as sensory communion, fantasy, apprehension, imagination, and memory. The degree of one’s purification in this world will determine the ontological status of the soul in the next world. Suhrawardi wrote more than fifty works in his short life and had much influence on the Illuminationist tradition.
Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi was born in an Arab family at Murcia in Andalusia on August 7, 1165. He was educated in Seville and sought Sufi masters in Spain and North Africa. As a youth he met Averroes at Cordoba, and he was initiated into Sufism at Tunis. Ibn ‘Arabi went to Mecca in 1201 and wrote love poems, Interpreter of Desires, to a young woman, whom he believed symbolized wisdom. He wrote that forgiveness is better than capital punishment. He lived an ascetic, saintly existence. When someone gave him a palace, he quickly gave it to a beggar. Ibn ‘Arabi suggested that four things are needed for salvation-serving those in need, a pure and peaceful heart, good will to believers, and thinking well of everyone. He traveled to Egypt, Baghdad, and Aleppo; he spent years at Mecca but completed the 560 chapters of his Meccan Revelations at Damascus, where he died in 1240.
Ibn ‘Arabi found imagination to be the link between sense perception and the intellect. He taught perpetual transformation leading to a mystical union of the self with the real. The images that manifest the deity are constantly changing, and each is valid but only for the moment. Clinging to an image leads to idolatry. The infinite is paradoxically within all and beyond all, identical and other, immanent and transcendental. This theological view that God is both in the entire universe and transcendent beyond it is called panentheism. The polished mirror of the human heart is capable of every form. Joy and sorrow are experienced as one passes away in union with the beloved. The mystic does not become one with God but rather realizes that one already is one with God. As the images change, one may participate in the perpetual co-creation, continually annihilating and re-creating. Ibn ‘Arabi called Muhammad the Logos of God, and he identified all true prophets with this universal person who is cosmic, prophetic, and mystical. He believed in the essential unity of all religions, and he found that the essence of this one religion is love. Because of the unity of God, in his Divine Governance of the Human Kingdom he argued that the soul should rule in humans just as humans are kings on Earth. The theosophical ideas of ibn ‘Arabi were later systematized by his followers. His ideas especially influenced Persians such as the poet Jami, Mahmud Shabistari who summarized them in his Secret Rose Garden, and the great theosophist Mulla Sadra.
Ibn ‘Ata’illah was a teacher in the Shadhili Sufi tariqa (path) at Alexandria, and he wrote his Book of Wisdom before his own master died in 1288. His aphoristic sayings are designed to help Sufi students on the mystical path. He asked how the heart can be illumined while the forms of creatures are still reflected in its mirror? Or how can one journey to God while shackled by passions? How can one enter the presence of God without purifying oneself of forgetfulness? How can one understand the mysteries if one has not repented for offenses? It is better to look out for vices hidden in yourself than to look for the invisible realities that are veiled. Actually reality is not veiled from you, but you are veiled from seeing it. Ibn ‘Ata’illah wrote that no action arising from a renouncing heart is small, and no action coming from an avaricious heart is fruitful. When God’s justice confronts you, no sin is minor; but when God’s grace faces you, no sin is major. Unless hope goes with action it is merely wishful thinking.
Al-Kindi, Al-Razi, Saadia, and Miskawayh
Although Christians, Syriacs, and physicians had spread Greek philosophy into Islamic culture, Abu Ya’qub al-Kindi (c. 801-c. 873) was the first major Muslim philosopher to be influenced by Greek thought. Most of his many treatises are lost, but he defined the philosopher’s goal in theoretical knowledge as gaining the truth and in practical knowledge as behaving in accordance with truth. Al-Kindi found harmony between religion and philosophy. He wrote that the purpose of every useful science is to get away from anything harmful by taking care against it and in acquiring what the prophets have proclaimed, which is the unity of God and the practice of virtues acceptable to God while avoiding the contrary vices. In the extant Art of Dispelling Sorrows al-Kindi explained that sorrow is caused by the loss of what is cherished or the failure to attain what one desires. Wishing to hold onto material possessions, which are perishable, is in vain. Unnecessary sorrow can be avoided by cultivating moral courage and detachment. The reasonable person is content to enjoy temporary things but does not grieve over what is lost. Socrates said he never grieved. Al-Kindi suggested the Stoic method of discerning what is in our power from what is not. What we can do is our duty, but what happens beyond our control we can accept with fortitude. To fear death is irrational, because it is natural and inevitable.
Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi (865-925) was born at Ray and injured his eyes practicing alchemy. Al-Razi then studied to become a doctor and directed the hospital at Ray; he directed a hospital at Baghdad during the reign of Muktafi (902-908) but returned to Ray, where he gathered many students in circles. If all the circles failed to answer a question about science, then al-Razi answered it. He assisted students needing stipends and treated the poor for free. He wrote an influential medical text. Much of what is known about al-Razi comes from writings that opposed him. He admired Plato and believed that Aristotle had corrupted philosophy. Al-Razi held that the five eternals are God, soul, matter, space, and time. God has perfect wisdom and is pure intelligence. Life flows from souls attaching themselves to matter. Souls remain in this unreal world until they are awakened by philosophy to the real world. He described matter as the creation of the Creator in absolute space and eternal time. In a major book on the philosophical life, al-Razi wrote that the supreme purpose for which humans were created was not for physical pleasures but to acquire knowledge and practice justice.
Al-Razi emphasized reason as God’s greatest gift to humans. He did not believe that religion and philosophy could be reconciled, and he considered prophecy and revelation unnecessary because reason is sufficient. Al-Razi opposed authority and considered all people equal; differences are only caused by development and education. He found that prophets contradict each other. People become attached to religion, because they imitate tradition, they are influenced by clergy serving the state, and their imaginations succumb to ceremonies and rituals. Al-Razi showed the contradictions between Judaism, Manichaeism, Christianity, and Islam. He denied that the Qur’an was miraculous and believed a better book could be written. Al-Razi preferred scientific books to all sacred books, because they are more useful to people. Prophets even do much harm by causing religions to war against each other.
In ethics al-Razi believed that a philosopher should follow a moderate life between excessive asceticism and too much indulgence in pleasures. He himself lived so, not serving a monarch; he was a doctor and counselor and quite generous and tolerant of others. Al-Razi used Plato’s psychology of the rational, pugnacious, and appetitive aspects of the soul, and he believed that people should control their passions and appetites by using their rational faculty. Because people do not usually see their own defects, he suggested asking a reasonable friend or neighbor. When told about them, one should not be sad but joyful and encourage the person to describe more of one’s faults. He was influenced by Galen’s treatise “How Good People Benefit from Their Enemies.” Al-Razi described pleasure as a return to nature. He criticized vanity as preventing one from learning more or doing better. Anger is a natural emotion for self-defense, but in excess it does much harm. He considered lying a bad habit; but when it’s purpose was good, he praised it. Too much worry is harmful. Desire brings pain and harm, and drunkenness leads to calamity. Al-Razi felt that no more wealth should be acquired than was needed and spent, except for a small emergency fund. Ambition that leads to dangers should be renounced. Other vices he warned against are arrogance, envy, miserliness, gluttony, erotic passion, frivolity, avarice, and fear of death. Like Socrates, he argued that death is not to be feared, because it is either another life in a better world or nothing.
Saadia ben Joseph (882-942) was born in Egypt but moved to Palestine when he was about 23. He has been called the founder of scientific Judaism. Saadia compiled a Hebrew-Arabic dictionary, and he translated the Bible into Arabic. He moved to Babylon and refuted the ideas of the Karais, who did not accept the teachings of the rabbis. Saadia defended the traditional Jewish calendar. In 928 he was appointed the Gaon of Sora, where he used philosophy to systematize the Talmud. When he refused to sign a decree of Exilarch David ben Zacchai regarding a large inheritance, Saadia was removed from his position. Saadia proposed Josiah Hassan as a new prince of the captivity; but the resulting conflict in 933 caused the Caliph to depose Saadia and banish the rival Exilarch Hassan to Khurasan. Saadia lived in retirement at Baghdad writing. His major philosophical work, The Book of Doctrines and Beliefs had one part on divine unity and another on divine justice. He agreed with the Mu’tazilis in believing in human freedom as the basis for moral responsibility. Saadia explained the good reasons for the laws against killing, stealing, adultery, false testimony, and other trespasses, and he distinguished these from the religious laws and traditions that he considered rationally neutral.
Saadia was reconciled with David and restored to his office in 937. Three years later David died, and Saadia helped his son Judah be appointed Exilarch; but he died and left his 12-year-old son with Saadia. Because of his age a relative filled the office, but he was executed for having disparaged Muhammad. The next Exilarch was the last, as he was assassinated by fanatical Muslims while riding in his carriage even though the Caliph tried to prevent his murder. The Sora school was closed about 948 after seven hundred years, but copies of the Talmud were sent to Spain. The school at Pumbeditha went on for another century until the last Gaon Chiskiya was imprisoned and then executed in 1040. Chiskiya’s two sons escaped to Spain.
Yahya ibn ‘Adi (893-974) was a Jacobite Christian. Influenced by al-Farabi, ibn ‘Adi studied Pythagorean metaphysics. He believed that the Greeks were superior in wisdom and in propagating the arts and sciences but that this inequality between peoples could be eliminated by education. The unity of humanity implies the imperative to love all people. Those seeking perfection are friends to all and compassionate. The divine power is in every rational soul, which is what makes people human. Ultimately all people are a single entity in many individual souls. When humans restrain their irascible soul and are guided by the rational soul, then all people become friends. One should love the virtuous for their virtue and feel compassion for the base. Even the king is only a king so long as he loves and pities his subjects.
The Sincere Brothers were led by Abu Sulayman al-Maqdisi, who wrote their philosophy in fifty letters. Souls are saved from the defilement of matter by a celestial ascent that is preceded by three levels. First, the rational faculty masters the urban arts at age fifteen. Second, the ruling faculty learns to govern brothers with generosity and compassion at age thirty. Third, the legal faculty helps kings exercise command and control with kindness and moderation at age forty. The brothers assembled in sincere friendship for sanctity, purity, and good counsel. They believed the religious law had been contaminated by error and folly and that it must be purified by philosophy. Perfection could be achieved by combining Greek philosophy with Islamic religious law. The sick require the religious law, while the healthy need philosophy. Virtue is acquired by philosophy and leads to the divine life. The religious virtues based on authority and opinion are corporeal and temporal, aiding in recovery from illness; but virtues based on demonstrative proof are certain, spiritual, and eternal, preserving health.
The historian and ethical philosopher Abu ‘Ali ibn Miskawayh (c. 936-1030) studied the histories of al-Tabari with abu Bakr Ahmad ibn Kamil al-Qadi and philosophy with the Aristotelian commentator ibn al-Khammar. For seven years Miskawayh served as librarian for abu al-Fadl ibn al-‘Amid, and he probably served Buyid princes such as ‘Adud al-Daula. Miskawayh wrote a history of the world. He believed that history is a mirror of society in each era, and the historian must be careful not to mix facts with fiction. Facts should be interpreted according to human interests that show creative hopes and aspirations. History is like a living organism that is guided by nations’ ideals, and it even affects the future. Miskawayh shared the same theory of evolution as the Brothers of Purity (Sincerity) with the four stages of mineral, plant, animal, and human, culminating with the prophet imbibing the celestial soul within.
Miskawayh also adopted Plato’s psychology and the traditional virtues of wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice, and he elucidated Aristotle’s ethical doctrine of the mean. Wisdom he divided into intelligence, retention, rationality, understanding, clarity, and capacity for learning. Courage includes greatness of spirit, fearlessness, composure, fortitude, magnanimity, calmness, manliness, and endurance. Temperance he divided into modesty, tranquility, self-control, liberality, integrity, sobriety, goodness, self-discipline, good disposition, imperturbability, stability, and good deeds. Justice includes friendship, concord, family fellowship, recompense, fairness, honesty, amiability, and piety. He further divided liberality into generosity, altruism, nobility, charity, and forgiveness. Miskawayh believed that wisdom is the noblest aim in life and achieves the most happiness. The other goals people seek are honor and pleasure. He recommended humanistic education as the way to salvation, perfection, and happiness. Perfection of character begins with ordering one’s faculties and actions so that they are in harmony within. The intelligent person examines imperfections and makes effort to remedy them. A youth should be trained in law to carry out duties until it is a habit. Then ethical studies establish the habits firmly as virtues in the soul by proofs. However, education by obscene poetry can result in the false values of lying and immorality.
Miskawayh criticized asceticism and withdrawal from society as unjust, because they want services without rendering any themselves. He noted that ascetics sever themselves from moral virtues. He believed that people are social and need to learn mutual cooperation with others to perfect humanity. Humans need others in order to survive, and they naturally desire friendship. Those who serve others much may demand much, but those who serve little can ask for little. Human affairs need to be ordered by government, which removes misfortunes. The highest law is from God, followed by the law of the ruler, and the law of money. The four causes of harm are the baseness that results from passion, wickedness resulting from injustice, grief caused by error, and anxiety resulting from misfortune. Humans should love each other and contribute to each other’s perfection like different organs in a single body. Miskawayh rejected the idea that happiness only comes after death; he believed we must search for happiness in this world and in the world to come.
Miskawayh found that human love for God is too high to be attained by mortals; but the student’s love for the teacher is even more important than a son’s love for his parents because teachers educate souls and guide them to happiness. Friendship he considered most sacred, and he noted that even a king needs friends to give him information and carry out his orders. One should please one’s friends without hypocrisy or flattery. Miskawayh disagreed with Aristotle that love is an extension of self-love, for he found that one must limit self-love in order to love another. He contrasted the pleasure of animal love with the virtue or goodness of spiritual love. Love is the best sovereign; but when it fails, justice must be brought about by fear and force.
Miskawayh recommended practical disciplines for diseases of the soul such as anger, vanity, contentiousness, recklessness, cowardice, pride, self-indulgence, deceit, fear, and sadness. Some of his remedies are similar to those of al-Razi. One may control the passions by not dwelling on the memories of pleasurable sensations. Rational deliberation can help one avoid being driven by the force of habits. Like Pythagoras, he recommended reviewing one’s actions at the end of the day to examine one’s shortcomings. The cure of many ills is achieved by eradicating anger and arrogance. Anger is caused by vanity, pride, bickering, importunity, jesting, conceit, derision, treachery, wrong, ambition, and envy, but they all culminate in the desire for revenge. Anger also accompanies greed. The self-respecting and courageous person overcomes anger with magnanimity and discernment. Fear is of future events which may not occur. Fears that cannot be prevented such as old age or death can be relieved by understanding that death is an escape from pain. Grief is caused by attachment to material possessions and by not attaining physical desires. The remedy is realizing that nothing in the world of generation and corruption is stable nor endures. Those who learn how to be satisfied with what they find and are not grieved at loss will be happy.
Ibn Hazm and Ibn Gabirol
Ibn Hazm al-Andalusi (994-1064) was born at Cordoba into a wealthy family that had recently converted from Christianity to Islam. His family fled the Berber invasion. His mother, brother, sister-in-law, and father had all died by the time he was 18, and Ibn Hazm himself suffered from heart palpitations and an enlarged spleen. The family’s property had been lost during a civil war at Cordoba in 1009, but Ibn Hazm became vizier to the caliph at Valencia and was vizier at Cordoba under Caliph al-Mustazir in 1023. However, the continuing civil war destroyed the Umayyad caliphate, as Spain broke up into petty states. He spent three years studying jurisprudence in order to answer criticism he received from eminent jurists. He was imprisoned several times for his politics and eventually retired to write. According to his son he wrote 400 books, though fewer than forty survived. His critical writings were often unpopular, and some of his books were burned in public.
Ibn Hazm wrote about romantic love in The Ring of the Dove, and his greatest work was an encyclopedic study of comparative religion. He rejected the current notion that women are more susceptible to corruption. Ibn Hazm defended the rights of women and slaves and argued that everyone should have a free education. In politics he rejected the Shi’a ideas that the imam (leader) should be chosen by heredity and that he is infallible. Ibn Hazm believed that the ruler must be just, but he ranked the scholar who teaches the people as deserving an even higher place in the hereafter.
Near the end of his life Ibn Hazm wrote A Philosophy of Character and Conduct. In considering that life is a continual process of reducing anxiety, Ibn Hazm discovered a method for arriving at what all people seek. He described it eloquently as follows:
I discovered that this method consists in nothing else but
directing one’s self towards a Supreme Goodness
by means of good works conducive to immortal life.
For, as I investigated, I observed that all things tended to elude me,
and I reached the conclusion that the only permanent reality possible
consists in good works useful for another, immortal life.
Every other hope that I desired to see realized was followed by melancholy,
sometimes because what was ardently desired escaped me,
sometimes because I decided to abandon it.
It seemed to me that nothing escaped these dangers
but good works, directed by a Supreme Goodness.
These alone were always followed by pleasure
in the present and in the future;
in the present because I was freed from numerous anxieties
which disturbed my tranquillity,
and, moreover, friends and enemies concurred in commending me;
and in the future because these works promised immortality.3
This virtuous work is free of defects and the most effective way to stop anxiety. Ibn Hazm observed that those who worked for this end were joyful and free of cares, even when they underwent unpleasant tests, because of the hope that the end of their life would bring what they sought. He compared the spiritual life to sensual pleasures.
The pleasure which the intelligent man experiences
in the exercise of his reason, the learned man in his study,
the prudent man in his discreet deliberation,
and the devout man in his ascetic combat
is greater than the delight which is felt by the glutton in his eating,
the toper in his drinking, the lecher in his incontinence,
the trader in his painful bargaining, the gamester in his merriment,
and the leader in the exercise of his authority.
The proof of this lies in the fact that intelligent, learned, prudent,
and devout men also experience those other delights
which I have just enumerated in the same way
as one who lives only to wallow in them,
but they tend to abandon and separate themselves from them,
preferring instead the quest for permanent release from anxiety
through good and virtuous works.4
Ibn Hazm advised his readers to listen to the Creator more than to what other people say. He believed that those who think they are safe from all criticism are out of their minds. Those who study deeply and discipline the soul not to rest until it finds the truth are more glad to receive criticism than praise, because praise can lead to pride, while criticism may result in correction. Even unjust criticism can help a person to learn how to control oneself with patience. He put those seeking eternity on the side of the angels, those striving for evil on the side of the demons, those striving for fame and victory on the side of the tigers, and those seeking pleasures on the side of the beasts. Those who seek only money are too base to be compared even to beasts but resemble collected slime. The person with a strong intellect with extensive knowledge, who does good deeds, should rejoice, because only the angels and best people are superior.
Ibn Hazm encapsulated the whole of virtue in the saying of the prophet Muhammad on the golden rule – “Do as you would be done by.“5 From the prophet’s forbidding of all anger Ibn Hazm inferred that the soul should turn away from greed and lust while upholding justice. He considered the person misguided who would barter an eternal future for a passing moment. The person who harms is bad, and anyone returning evil for evil is just as bad. Anyone refraining from returning evil is their master and the most virtuous. Ibn Hazm warned against gaining a reputation for being devious. The person who knows one’s own faults better than others know them is blessed. Security, health, and wealth are only appreciated by those who lack them; but the value of a sound judgment and virtue is known only to those who share them. The wise are not deluded by a friendship that began when one was in power. He recommended trusting the pious.
Too much wealth causes greed, and Ibn Hazm defined the supreme objective of generosity as giving away the entire surplus of one’s possessions to charity. He defined courage as fighting in defense of religion, women, ill-treated neighbors, the oppressed who seek protection, for a lost fortune, when honor has been attacked, and for other rights. Ibn Hazm defined continence as turning away all one’s organs of sense from forbidden objects. He defined justice as giving spontaneously what is due and knowing how to take what is right. Nobility is to allow others their rights willingly. “One hour of neglect can undo a year of pious effort.”6 During civil war the blossom does not set fruit. He considered it a virtue of self-discipline to confess faults so that others may learn from them. Then Ibn Hazm described how he worked to overcome his faults of self-satisfaction, sarcasm, pride, trembling, love of fame, disliking women, and bearing grudges. He believed that the best gift from God is justice and the love of justice and truth. He observed that anyone who cares about your friendship is willing to criticize you, while those who make light of faults show they do not care.
Ibn Hazm warned against giving advice, interceding, or giving gifts only on the condition that they be accepted; one should not insist. He considered the highest aim of friendship to have all things in common without constraint and preferring one’s friend to all others. He characterized love as longing for the loved one, fearing separation, and hoping that one’s love will be reciprocated. He believed that jealousy is a virtuous feeling made of courage and justice, and he claimed that a jealous person never committed adultery. He described the five stages of love as making friends, admiration, close friendship such that one misses the other terribly, the obsession of amorous affection, and finally passion. For Ibn Hazm the four roots of virtue are justice, intelligence, courage, and generosity, and their contrary vices are unfairness, ignorance, cowardice, and greed. He considered honesty part of justice, and temperance part of generosity. He noted that the good do have a hard time in this world, but they find rest in their calmness that others worrying about the vanities of this world do not know.
The wise see their own faults and fight against them in order to overcome them. The fool ignores them, or even worse, takes them for good qualities. One should avoid speaking of the faults of others except when counseling someone face to face. One should also be careful not to praise people to their face lest one be taken for a vile flatterer. Ibn Hazm warned against being proud of intelligence, good works, knowledge, and courage, because there are always others who are superior in these good qualities; being proud of wealth, beauty, praise, ancestry, and physical strength is ridiculous because they have no lasting value. If your pride causes you to boast, you are doubly guilty, because it shows that your intelligence was unable to control your pride. He reminded us that it is harder to tame oneself than it is to tame a wild beast, and it is also more difficult to guard against other humans than it is against wild animals. Ibn Hazm believed that to the well-born honor is more important than gold. The well-born should use gold to protect one’s body, one’s body to protect one’s soul, one’s soul to protect one’s honor, one’s honor to protect one’s religion, and one’s religion should not be sacrificed for anything. A person wishing to be fair should put oneself in the adversary’s position in order to see the unfairness of one’s own behavior.
Solomon ibn Gabirol was born at Malaga in Spain about 1022 and was educated at Zaragoza. By the age of 16 he was already well known for writing poetry. He was protected by the king’s advisor Yekutiel ibn Hasan until Hasan was imprisoned and executed in 1039. Ibn Gabirol was called a Greek for his Neo-Platonic philosophy, and his two ethical works, Choice of Pearls and The Improvement of the Moral Qualities, were written when he was quite young. He became a court poet with the prominent Jewish statesman Samuel ha-Nagid in Granada. Samuel’s son Joseph (1031-1066) became the Jewish leader (Nagid) when he was 24, but he was killed when Muslims massacred 1500 Jewish families in Granada on one day. This was the first major persecution of Jews in Islamic Spain, and the Jews in Granada were compelled to sell their property and go into exile. Yet Abu Fadl Chasdai, the son of a poet as famous as ibn Gabirol, was made vizier in that same year of 1066 by the king of Zaragoza. Ibn Gabirol’s major work on metaphysics was called The Fountain of Life, but it only survived in Latin translation with the author’s name appearing as Avicebron or Avencebrol; only in 1846 was it realized that this book, which influenced Christian scholasticism, was by ibn Gabirol. His poem The Royal Crown humbly calls upon the grace of God. He may have died as early as 1051, though other authorities say ibn Gabirol died about 1070.
Ibn Gabirol’s Choice of Pearls is a collection of aphorisms, some of which were collected from ancient Greek philosophers. He passed on the advice about the four mental types – the wise know and are aware that they know, and one can learn from them; those who know but are unaware that they know need reminding; those ignorant who are aware that they are ignorant can be taught; and those who are ignorant but pretend that they know are fools and should be avoided. He noted that kings may be judges on Earth, but the wise judge the kings. If one cannot control one’s temper, how much less can one control others. Those who seek more than they need hinder themselves from enjoying what they have. A person’s best companion is the intellect, and the worst enemy is desire.
In The Improvement of the Moral Qualities ibn Gabirol commented on various moral qualities. He found that intelligence and modesty go together in people. Those who hate people are hated by them, and this may destroy one, as one suffers injury from hostile people. Wrath is reprehensible except when it is used to correct or because of indignation for transgressions. Generosity in moderation is commendable but not when it lapses into prodigality, squandering substance on pleasures and lust. Valor perseveres in the right and overcomes desires. It is better to die in the best way than to live in an evil way.
Another influential ethical work was written by Bahya Ben Joseph ibn Pakuda in the second half of the 11th century. Bahya was a rabbinical judge in Zaragoza. He believed that one must go beyond the duties of the body required by religious traditions, and so he wrote Duties of the Heart, describing them in ten sections called gates. Bahya tried to spiritualize ethics by appealing to conscience as more important than ritualized laws. He himself became a self-denying ascetic. Bahya explained that people are blind for three reasons. First, they are too absorbed in secular affairs and pleasures. Second, they grow up surrounded with such abundance they take for granted that they do not appreciate the wisdom and bounty of God. Third, people do not seem to realize that the various mishaps that occur in the world are valuable trials in order to learn discipline. Bahya described the many blessings of life and perceived in them the miraculous design of a divine creator. He argued that altruism is really in everyone’s self-interest, for the beneficiary is under obligation to serve the benefactor.
Poets Sana’i and ‘Attar
The Persian poet known as Sana’i was born in the middle of the 11th century in the Ghaznavid empire that ruled Afghanistan and parts of India and Iran. He wrote panegyrics to his patron, Sultan Bahram Shah. Sana’i wrote the first great Sufi poetry in the verse forms of ode (qasidah), lyric (ghazal), and rhymed couplet (masnavi). His Enclosed Garden of Truth (Hadiqat al-haqiqa) contains 10,000 couplets and was written about 1131. In the first book of The Enclosed Garden of Truth Sana’i of Ghazna began by praising God and suggesting that reason is unable to attain knowledge of God. Prayer can lead to God by polishing the mirror of the heart. He told the parable of how an elephant is perceived differently in a city of the blind by those who handle its ears, trunk, and legs, which seem to be like a rug, pipe, and pillars. Because no mind knows the whole, fools are deceived by fanciful absurdities. He asked how can anyone who does not know one’s own soul know the soul of another? How can the Godhead be known by the hand or foot? Sana’i suggested that the steps to heaven are many and are best attained by wisdom and work, for sloth results in impiety.
Sana’i recommended worshipping God in both worlds as if one could see God with the outward eye; though you do not see God, your Creator sees you. When you have grappled with death, you will no longer turn away from death and will come to know the world of life. Only in the annihilation of one’s own existence does one enter the road to eternal life. The pious are those who give thanks for divine kindness and mercy; but unbelievers complain the world seems unjust. Sana’i advised his readers to end all imitation and speculation so that your heart may become the house of God. Your own soul distinguishes unbelief from true religion and colors your vision. Selflessness is happy, but selfishness is most miserable. In the eternal there are no unbeliefs and no religions.
Sana’i described the journey on God’s road as belonging to the person with sharper vision and wisdom. To turn your face toward life you must put your foot down on outward prosperity, put out of your mind rank and reputation, and bend your back in divine service to purify yourself from evil and strengthen your soul in wisdom. By looking on divine truth cut yourself off from the false world, leave behind those who contend with words, and sit before the silent. Travel from the works of God to the divine principles, and from the principles to the knowledge of God. From knowledge one enters the secret and reaches the threshold of poverty. When you have become a friend of poverty, your soul destroys the impure self, and your self becomes the soul inside you. Ashamed of all its doings, it casts aside all its possessions and melts on the path of trial. When your self has been melted in your body, your soul by steps accomplishes its work. Then God takes away its poverty; when poverty is no more, God remains.
Sana’i believed that the phantoms of sleep are ordained so that humans may understand their hopes and fears. Then his poem proceeds to interpret the meaning of various symbols in dreams. He warned against making your understanding captive to your body in the three prisons of deceit, hatred, and envy. No one who regards the self can see God; whoever looks at the self has no faith. Sana’i recommended that if you are on the path of true religion, cease for a time contemplating yourself. He believed that anger, passion, hatred, and malice are not among the attributes of the one God, the creator, who is merciful. God draws you by kindness that may appear like the anger of a noose. So long as one seeks for love with self in view, there waits the crucible of renunciation. For those new on the way of love, renunciation is a key to the gate. Desire for a mistress brings gladness, but it is far from God. The legion of your pleasures will cast you into fire; but desiring God will keep you as safe as a virgin in paradise. To Love, God says, “Fear none but me.” To Reason, God says, “Know yourself.” God tells Love to rule as king. When the reasonable soul finds the water of life and expends it in the path of the Holy Spirit, then the Holy Spirit rejoices in the soul, and the soul becomes as pure as Primal Reason.
Farid al-Din ‘Attar was born at Nishapur in northern Persia on November 12, 1119, but sources on his date of death vary from 1193 to 1234. According to legend he was killed in 1221 after he was captured by the Mongols of Genghis Khan at Mecca; he advised against accepting a ransom of gold until it was increased but then suggested accepting an offer of straw. His name indicates that he may have been a chemist or sold perfumes, and a legend tells that a dervish induced him to leave his father’s profession to study Sufism. ‘Attar traveled for 39 years to Egypt, Syria, Arabia, India, and central Asia before settling in his native Nishapur. He wrote at least 45,000 rhymed couplets and many prose works, and he was greatly admired by the Sufi poet Rumi. ‘Attar wrote biographies of Sufi saints, but the allegorical Conference of the Birds, completed in 1188, is considered his greatest work.
‘Attar began The Conference of the Birds (Mantiq al-tair) with an invocation praising the holy Creator in which he suggested that one must live a hundred lives to know oneself; but you must know God by the deity, not by yourself, for God opens the way, not human wisdom. ‘Attar believed that God is beyond all human knowledge. The soul will manifest itself when the body is laid aside. One cannot gain spiritual knowledge without dying to all things. When the birds assemble, they wonder why they have no king. The Hoopoe presents herself as a messenger from the invisible world with knowledge of God and the secrets of creation. She recommends Simurgh as their true king, saying that one of his feathers fell on China.
The Nightingale says that the love of the Rose satisfies him, and the journey is beyond his strength; but the Hoopoe warns against being a slave of passing love that interferes with seeking self-perfection. The Parrot longs for immortality, and the Hoopoe encourages the Peacock to choose the whole. The Duck is too content with water to seek the Simurgh. The Hoopoe advises the Partridge that gems are just colored stones and that love of them hardens the heart; she should seek the real jewel of sound quality. The Humay is distracted by ambition, and the Owl loves only the treasure he has found. The Hoopoe reprimands the Sparrow for taking pride in humility and recommends struggling bravely with oneself. She states that the different birds are just shadows of the Simurgh. If they succeed, they will not be God; but they will be immersed in God. If they look in their hearts, they will see the divine image. All appearances are just the shadow of the Simurgh. Those loving truly do not think about their own lives and sacrifice their desires. Those grounded in love renounce faith and religion as well as unbelief. One must hear with the ear of the mind and the heart.
A total of 22 birds speak to the Hoopoe or ask questions about the journey. Short anecdotes are told to illustrate the Hoopoe’s points. The Hoopoe says that it is better to lose your life than to languish miserably. The Hoopoe advises,
So long as we do not die to ourselves,
and so long as we identify with someone or something,
we shall never be free.
The spiritual way is not for those wrapped up in exterior life.7
You will enjoy happiness if you succeed in withdrawing from attachment to the world. Whoever is merciful even to the merciless is favored by the compassionate. It is better to agree to differ than to quarrel. The Hoopoe warns the sixth bird against the dog of desire that runs ahead. Each vain desire becomes a demon, and yielding to each one begets a hundred others. The world is a prison under the devil, and one should have no truck with its master. The Hoopoe also says that if you let no one benefit from your gold, you will not profit either; but by the smallest gift to the poor you both benefit. She says,
Good fortune will come to you only as you give.
If you cannot renounce life completely,
you can at least free yourself
from the love of riches and honors.8
A pupil becomes afraid in facing a choice between two roads, but a shaikh advises getting rid of fear so that either road will be good. The Hoopoe tells the eighth bird that only if death ceases to exercise power over creatures would it be wise to remain content in a golden palace. The ninth bird is told that sensual love is a game inspired by passing beauty that is fleeting. The Hoopoe asks what is uglier than a body made of flesh and bones. It is better to seek the hidden beauty of the invisible world. An anecdote about Jesus yields the following lesson:
Strive to discover the mystery before life is taken from you.
If while living you fail to find yourself, to know yourself,
how will you be able to understand
the secret of your existence when you die?9
The Hoopoe advises the eleventh bird that giving yourself over to pride or self-pity will disturb you. Since the world passes, pass it by, for whoever becomes identified with transient things has no part in the lasting things. The suffering endured is made glorious and is a treasure for the seer, for blessings will come if you make efforts on the path. The fifteenth bird is told that justice is salvation, and the just are saved from errors. Being just is better than a life of worship. Justice exercised in secret is even better than liberality; but justice professed openly may lead to hypocrisy. A story of two drunks teaches that we see faults because we do not love. When we understand real love, the faults of those near us appear as good qualities. When you see the ugliness of your own faults, you will not bother so much with the faults of others.
The journey of the birds takes them through the seven valleys of the quest, love, understanding, independence and detachment, unity, astonishment, and finally poverty and nothingness. In the valley of the quest one undergoes a hundred difficulties and trials. After one has been tested and become free, one learns in the valley of love that love has nothing to do with reason. The valley of understanding teaches that knowledge is temporary, but understanding endures. Overcoming faults and weaknesses brings the seeker closer to the goal. In the valley of independence and detachment one has no desire to possess nor any wish to discover. To cross this difficult valley one must be roused from apathy to renounce inner and outer attachments so that one can become self-sufficient. In the valley of unity the Hoopoe announces that although you may see many beings, in reality there is only one, which is complete in its unity. As long as you are separate, good and evil will arise; but when you lose yourself in the divine essence, they will be transcended by love. When unity is achieved, one forgets all and forgets oneself in the valley of astonishment and bewilderment.
The Hoopoe declares that the last valley of deprivation and death is almost impossible to describe. In the immensity of the divine ocean the pattern of the present world and of the future world dissolves. As you realize that the individual self does not really exist, the drop becomes part of the great ocean forever in peace. The analogy of moths seeking the flame is used. Out of thousands of birds only thirty reach the end of the journey. When the light of lights is manifested and they are in peace, they become aware that the Simurgh is them. They begin a new life in the Simurgh and contemplate the inner world. Simurgh, it turns out, means thirty birds; but if forty or fifty had arrived, it would be the same. By annihilating themselves gloriously in the Simurgh they find themselves in joy, learn the secrets, and receive immortality. So long as you do not realize your nothingness and do not renounce your self-pride, vanity, and self-love, you will not reach the heights of immortality. ‘Attar concluded the epilog with the admonition that if you wish to find the ocean of your soul, then die to all your old life and then keep silent.
In the Book of Affliction (Musibat-nama) ‘Attar described forty stages in spiritual progression as a wayfarer asks different creatures how to find God until the ultimate truth is given by the prophet of Islam himself in the ocean of one’s own soul. These stories reflect outwardly the mystical experiences of disciples during forty days of meditation.
In the Book of God (Ilahi-nama) ‘Attar framed his mystical teachings in various stories that a caliph tells his six sons, who are kings themselves and seek worldly pleasures and power. Twenty-two discourses are preceded by a long exordium that praises God, the prophet Muhammad, and the first four caliphs. The first son is captivated by a virgin princess, and his father tells him the adventures of a beautiful and virtuous woman who attracts several men but miraculously survives their abuse and then forgives them. They acknowledge that carnal desire is necessary to propagate the race but also recognize that passionate love can lead to spiritual love, which can annihilate the soul in the beloved. One story indicates that even a homosexual may be more sacrificing than a scholar or a descendant of ‘Ali. Other stories indicate the importance of respecting the lives of other creatures such as ants or dogs. One only thinks oneself better than a dog because of one’s dog-like nature.
The second son tells his father that his heart craves magic; but his father warns him against the work of the devil. A monk tells a shaikh that he has chosen the job of locking up a savage dog inside himself, and he advises the shaikh to lock up anger lest he be changed into a dog. The father suggests that this son ask for something more worthy and tells an anecdote in which Jesus teaches a man the greatest name of God. The man uses it to make bones come alive into a lion, which devours him, leaving his bones. Jesus then says that when a person asks for something unworthy, God does not grant it. Birds and beasts flee from people because people eat them. God tells Moses to watch his heart when he is alone, to be kind and watch his tongue when he is with people, the road in front when he is walking, and his gullet when he is dining. A saint tells a shaikh that love is never denied to humans, for only the lover knows the true value of the beloved. Another saint warns that unless you pray for protection from negativity (the devil), you shall not enter the court of God.
The third son of the caliph asks for a cup that could display the whole world. ‘Attar concluded a story by saying that Sufism is to rest in patience and forsake all desire for the world, and trust in God means bridling one’s tongue and wishing for better things for others than for oneself. This son asks why his father seems to disparage the love of honor and the love of wealth which all seem to possess. The caliph replies that in the crazy prison of the world one can achieve greatness only by devotion. Since one speaks to God through the heart and soul, it is difficult to speak with God of worldly things. The third son asks if he can be allowed to seek power in moderation; but the father still warns that this will place screens between him and God. Each screen created by seeking power will create more screens. One must see both the good and the bad inside and outside oneself to understand how they are connected together. Saints who reach their goal see nothingness in all things, making sugar seem like poison and a rose like thorns. Ayaz advises the conquering sultan Mahmud to leave his self behind since he is better being entirely We. In the last story for his third son, the father says that thousands of arts, mysteries, definitions, commands, prohibitions, orders, and injunctions are founded on the intellect. What cup could be more revealing than this?
The fourth son seeks the water of life, and his father warns him against desire. A wise man considers Alexander the Great the slave of his slave, because the Greek conqueror has submitted to greed and desire, which this wise man controls. If the son cannot have the water of life, he asks for the knowledge that will illuminate his heart. In one story ‘Attar concluded that if you are not faithful in love, you are in love only with yourself. The fifth son asks for the ring of Solomon that enables one to communicate with birds and other animals. The Way is summarized as seeing the true road, traveling light, and doing no harm. The father tells this son that he has chosen an earthly kingdom, because he has not heard of the kingdom of the next world. He advises this king that since his sovereignty will not endure not to load the whole world on his shoulders. Why take on the burden of all creation? The caliph suggests that his son practice contentment, which is an eternal kingdom that overshadows even the sun. When Joseph was thrown into a pit, the angel Gabriel counseled him that it is better to notice a single blemish in yourself than to see a hundred lights of the Unseen.
The sixth son desires to practice alchemy, but his father perceives that he is caught in the snare of greed. Gold is held more tightly by a miser than the rock grips the ore. The son observes that excessive poverty often leads to losing faith, and so he asks God for both the philosopher’s stone and for gold; but his father replies that one cannot promote both faith and the world at the same time. In the epilog the poet commented that since he receives his daily bread from the Unseen, he does not have to be the slave of wretched men. ‘Attar concluded this work with the satisfaction that he has perfumed the name of God with his poetry.
Rumi’s Masnavi and Discourses
Jalal al-Din Rumi was born on September 30, 1207 in Balkh (Afghanistan). His father Baha’ Walad was descended from the first caliph Abu Bakr and was influenced by the ideas of Ahmad Ghazali, brother of the famous philosopher. Baha’ Walad’s sermons were published and still exist as Divine Sciences (Ma’arif). He fled the Mongols with his son in 1219, and it was reported that at Nishapur young Rumi met ‘Attar, who gave him a copy of his Book of Mysteries (Asrar-nama). After a pilgrimage to Mecca and other travels, the family went to Rum (Anatolia). Baha’ Walad was given an important teaching position in the capital at Konya (Iconium) in 1228 by Seljuq king ‘Ala’ al-Din Kayqubad (r. 1219-36) and his vizier Mu’in al-Din. Rumi married and had a son, who later wrote his biography. In 1231 Rumi succeeded his late father as a religious teacher. His father’s friend Burhan al-Din arrived and for nine years taught Rumi Sufism. Rumi probably met the philosopher ibn al-Arabi at Damascus.
In 1244 Rumi’s life changed dramatically when he met the dervish Shams al-Din of Tabriz. Rumi spent so much time with him that his disciples became jealous until Shams was murdered in 1247. To the music of flute and drums Rumi invented the circling movements of the whirling dervishes and began writing mystical love poetry to his departed beloved; his disciples formed the dervish order called the Mevlevis. After 1249 the Seljuq governors paid tribute to the Mongol empire. As vassal of the Mongol Baiju, Mu’in al-Din governed Rum for twenty years starting in 1256, and he patronized the mystical poet. Rumi was also inspired by love for a goldsmith named Salah al-Din Zarkub until he died in 1261. His disciple Husam al-Din Hasan urged Rumi to write mystical poetry and tales called Masnavi in the style of Sana’i and ‘Attar. Rumi completed six books of these before he died on December 17, 1273. Many of his talks were written down in the book Fihi ma fihi, which means “In it what is in it” and is often referred to as his Discourses.
In the prolog to the Masnavi Rumi hailed Love and its sweet madness that heals all infirmities, and he exhorted the reader to burst the bonds to silver and gold to be free. The Beloved is all in all and is only veiled by the lover. Rumi identified the first cause of all things as God and considered all second causes subordinate to that. Human minds recognize the second causes, but only prophets perceive the action of the first cause. One story tells of a clever rabbit who warned the lion about another lion and showed the lion his own image in a well, causing him to attack it and drown. After delivering his companions from the tyrannical lion, the rabbit urges them to engage in the more difficult warfare against their own inward lusts. In a debate between trusting God and human exertion, Rumi quoted the prophet Muhammad as saying, “Trust in God, yet tie the camel’s leg.“10 He also mentioned the adage that the worker is the friend of God; so in trusting in providence one need not neglect to use means. Exerting oneself can be giving thanks for God’s blessings; but he asked if fatalism shows gratitude.
God is hidden and has no opposite, not seen by us yet seeing us. Form is born of the formless but ultimately returns to the formless. An arrow shot by God cannot remain in the air but must return to God. Rumi reconciled God’s agency with human free will and found the divine voice in the inward voice. Those in close communion with God are free, but the one who does not love is fettered by compulsion. God is the agency and first cause of our actions, but human will as the second cause finds recompense in hell or with the Friend. God is like the soul, and the world is like the body. The good and evil of bodies come from souls. When the sanctuary of true prayer is revealed to one, it is shameful to turn back to mere formal religion. Rumi confirmed Muhammad’s view that women hold dominion over the wise and men of heart; but violent fools, lacking tenderness, gentleness, and friendship, try to hold the upper hand over women because they are swayed by their animal nature. The human qualities of love and tenderness can control the animal passions. Rumi concluded that woman is a ray of God and the Creator’s self.
When the Light of God illumines the inner person, one is freed from effects and has no need of signs for the assurance of love. Beauty busies itself with a mirror. Since not being is the mirror of being, the wise choose the self-abnegation of not being so that being may be displayed in that not being. The wealthy show their liberality on the poor, and the hungry are the mirror of bread. Those recognizing and confessing their defects are hastening toward perfection; but whoever considers oneself perfect already is not advancing. The poet suggested driving out this sickness of arrogance with tears from the heart. The fault of the devil (Iblis) was in thinking himself better than others, and the same weakness lurks in the soul of all creatures. Heart knowledge bears people up in friendship, but body knowledge weighs them down with burdens.
Rumi wrote how through love all things become better. Doing kindness is the game of the good, who seek to alleviate suffering in the world. Wherever there is a pain, a remedy is sent. Call on God so that the love of God may manifest. Rumi recommended the proverb that the moral way is not to find fault with others but to be admonished by their bad example. The mosque built in the hearts of the saints is the place for all worship, for God dwells there. Rumi began the third book of his Masnavi as follows:
In the Name of God the Compassionate, the Merciful.
The sciences of (Divine) Wisdom are God’s armies,
wherewith He strengthens the spirits of the initiates,
and purifies their knowledge from the defilement of ignorance,
their justice from the defilement of iniquity,
their generosity from the defilement of ostentation,
and their forbearance from the defilement of foolishness;
and brings near to them whatever was far from them
in respect of the understanding of the state hereafter;
and makes easy to them whatever was hard to them
in respect of obedience (to Him)
and zealous endeavor (to serve Him).11
A sage warns travelers that if they kill a baby elephant to eat, its parents will probably track them down and kill them; yet they do so, although one refrains from the killing and eating. As they sleep, a huge elephant smells their breath and kills all those who had eaten the young elephant but spares the one who had abstained. From foul breath the stench of pride, lust, and greed rises to heaven. Pain may be better than dominion in the world so that one may call on God in secret; the cries of the sorrowful come from burning hearts. Rumi also told the story of the Hindus feeling the different parts of an elephant in a dark room. He emphasized that in substance all religions are one and the same, because all praises are directed to God’s light. They err only because they have mistaken opinions. Sinners and criminals betray themselves especially in times of passion and angry talk. Prophets warn you of hidden dangers the worldly cannot see. Humans have the ability to engage in any action, but for Rumi worship of God is the main object of human existence.
Rumi wrote that Sufism is to find joy in the heart whenever distress and care assail it. He believed the power of choice is like capital yielding profit, but he advised us to remember well the day of final accounting. Many of his stories are designed to show the difference between what is self-evident by experience and what is inferred through the authority of others. His philosophy of evolution of consciousness is encapsulated in the following verses:
I died as inanimate matter and arose a plant,
I died as a plant and rose again an animal.
I died as an animal and arose a man.
Why then should I fear to become less by dying?
I shall die once again as a man
To rise an angel perfect from head to foot!
Again when I suffer dissolution as an angel,
I shall become what passes the conception of man!
Let me then become non-existent, for non-existence
Sings to me in organ tones, “To him shall we return.”12
When the love of God arises in your heart, without doubt God also feels love for you. The soul loves wisdom, knowledge, and exalted things; but the body desires houses, gardens, vineyards, food, and material goods. Rumi also believed that there is no absolute bad; the evils in the world are only relative. A serpent’s poison protects its own life; but in relation to a person it can mean death. When what is hateful leads you to your beloved, it immediately becomes agreeable to you. Solomon built the temple by hiring workers, for humans can be controlled by money.
Men are as demons, and lust of wealth their chain,
Which drags them forth to toil in shop and field.
This chain is made of their fears and anxieties.
Deem not that these men have no chain upon them.
It causes them to engage in labor and the chase,
It forces them to toil in mines and on the sea,
It urges them towards good and towards evil.13
Rumi warned against bad friends who can be like weeds in the temple of the heart; for if a liking for bad friends grows in you, they can subvert you and your temple. He also warned against the judges who confine their view to externals and base their decisions on outward appearances; these heretics have secretly shed the blood of many believers. Partial reason cannot see beyond the grave; but true reason looks beyond to the day of judgment and thus is able to steer a better course in this world. Therefore it is better for those with partial reason to follow the guidance of the saints.
In the fifth book of the Masnavi Rumi included several stories to illustrate why one should cut down the duck of gluttony, the cock of concupiscence, the peacock of ambition and ostentation, and the crow of bad desires. The story of how Muhammad converted a glutton who drank the milk of seven goats and then made a mess after being locked in a room shows the humility of the prophet in cleaning up the mess himself. He concluded that the infidels eat with seven bellies but the faithful with one. The peacock catches people by displaying itself. Pursuing the vulgar is like hunting a pig; the fatigue is extensive, and it is unlawful to eat it. Love alone is worth pursuing, but how can God be contained in anyone’s trap? The most deadly evil eye is the eye of self-approval. The greed of the gluttonous duck is limited as is the greed of the lusty snake; but the peacock’s ambition to rule can be many times as great. Worldly wealth and even accomplishments can be enemies to the spiritual life. These are the human trials that create virtue. If there were no temptations, there could be no virtue. Abraham killed the crow of desire in response to the command of God so that he would not crave anything else, and he killed the cock to subjugate pernicious desires.
Rumi suggested that God uses prophets and saints as mirrors to instruct people while the divine remains hidden behind the mirrors. People hear the words from the mirrors but are ignorant that they are spoken by universal reason or the word of God. Ultimately God will place in people’s hands their books of greed and generosity, of sin and piety, whatever they have practiced. When they awake on that morning, all the good and evil they have done will recur to them. After enumerating their faults, God in the end will grant them pardon as a free gift. To tell an angry person of faults, one must have a face as hard as a mirror to reflect the ugliness without fear or favor. Like ‘Attar, Rumi wrote of the mystic’s attaining annihilation, but he explained that the end and object of negation is to attain the subsequent affirmation just as the cardinal principle of Islam “There is no God” concludes with the affirmation “but God,” and to the mystic this really means “There is nothing but God.” Negation of the individual self clears the way for apprehending the existence of the One. The intoxication of life in pleasures and occupations which veil the truth should pass into the spiritual intoxication that lifts people to the beatific vision of eternal truth.
In the Discourses Rumi presented his teachings more directly. In the first chapter he suggested that the true scholar should serve God above the prince so that in their encounters the scholar will give more than take, thus making princes visitors of scholars rather than the reverse. Rumi advised stripping prejudices from one’s discriminative faculty by seeing a friend in Faith, which is knowing who is one’s true friend. Those who spend time with the undiscriminating have that faculty deteriorate and are unable to recognize a true friend in the Faith. Rumi taught the universal principle that if you have done evil, you have done it to yourself, for how could wickedness reach out to affect God? Yet when you become straight, all your crookedness will disappear; so beware but have hope! Those who assist an oppressor will find that God gives the oppressor power over them. God loves us by reproving us. One reproves friends, not a stranger. So long as you perceive longing and regret within yourself, that is proof that God loves and cares for you. If you perceive a fault in your brother, that fault is also within yourself. The learned are like mirrors. Get rid of that fault in yourself, for what distresses you about the other person distresses you inside yourself.
Rumi taught that all things in relation to God are good and perfect, but in relation to humans some things are considered bad. To a king prisons and gallows are part of the ornament of his kingdom; but Rumi asked if to his people they are the same as robes of honor. He argued that faith is better than prayer because faith without prayer is beneficial; but prayer without faith is not. Rumi explained to his disciples that the desire to see the Master may prevent them from perceiving the Master without a veil. He went on,
So it is with all desires and affections, all loves and fondnesses
which people have for every variety of thing
father, mother, heaven, earth, gardens, palaces,
branches of knowledge, acts, things to eat and drink.
The man of God realizes that all these desires
are the desire for God,
and all those things are veils.
When men pass out of this world
and behold that King without those veils,
then they will realize that
all these things were veils and coverings,
their quest being in reality that One Thing.
All difficulties will then be resolved,
and they will hear in their hearts
the answer to all questions and all problems,
and every thing will be seen face to face.14
Rumi suggested God created these veils because if God’s beauty were displayed without veils, we would not be able to endure and enjoy it just as the sun lights up the world and warms us. The sun enables trees and orchards to become fruitful, and its energy makes fruit that is unripe, bitter, and sour become mature and sweet. Yet if the sun came too near, it would not bestow benefits but destroy the whole world.
Rumi compared this world to the dream of a sleeper. It seems real while it is happening; but when one awakes, one does not benefit from the material things one had while asleep. The present then depends on what one requested while asleep. God teaches in every way. A thief hanged on the gallows is an object lesson as is the person whom the king gives a robe of honor; but you should consider the difference between those two preachers. Even suffering is a divine grace, and hell becomes a place of worship as souls turn back to God just as being in prison or suffering pain often urges one to pray for relief. Yet after people are released or healed, they often forget to seek God. Believers, however, do not need to suffer, because even in ease they are mindful that suffering is constantly present. An intelligent child that has been punished does not forget the punishment; but the stupid child forgets it and is punished again. The wickedness and vice of humans can be great because they are what veil the better element, which is also great. These veils cannot be removed without great striving, and Rumi recommended that the best method is to mingle with friends who have turned their backs to the world and their faces to God.
Kabir and His Mystical Poetry
The traditional dates of Kabir are 1398-1518. Some scholars speculate that 1398 was chosen as the birth date of Kabir to account for his having known Ramananda; so they accept 1440 as a more reasonable date for his birth. Charlotte Vaudeville doubts the incident with Sikander Lodi and argues that people claimed he died in 1518 to explain that; so she suggests he died in the mid-15th century. Kabir was the son of a Muslim weaver and lived in the suburbs of Benares. To Hindus as a poor Muslim he was considered to be of the lowest caste. His name means “Most High” and was said to have been picked at random from the Qur’an. As a child his tears once prevented his father from sacrificing an animal at a religious festival. As a young man Kabir wanted to study with the great Vaisnava saint Ramananda, who refused to look at Muslims or low-caste Hindus. So Kabir laid down on the steps by the Ganges River, where Ramananda bathed and accidentally stepped on him. Ramananda exclaimed his mantra “Ram Ram,” and Kabir took this for his initiation as his disciple. Eventually Ramananda allowed his gifted disciple to come out from behind a curtain and changed his policy about admitting those of low caste or from other religions.
Kabir took up his father’s craft of weaving and worked at the loom for the rest of his life. He married and raised a son and a daughter. Kabir accepted disciples from all castes from the lowest to kings. He traveled extensively, and his poems contain words from various languages and dialects. One stanza on Kabir in Nabhaji’s Bhakta-mala is considered particularly authentic. It has been translated as follows:
Never did Kabir accept the distinctions of caste
or the four stages of life,
nor did he revere the six philosophies.
“Religion devoid of love is heresy,” he declared.
“Yoga and penance, fasting and alms-giving are,
without meditation, empty,” he affirmed.
Ramaini, sabdi and sakhi he employed to impart his message-
to Hindus and Turks alike.
Without preference, without prejudice,
he said only what was beneficial to all.
Subduing the world,
he uttered not words to please or flatter others.
Such was Kabir, who refused to accept the bias of the caste system
or the supremacy of the six philosophies.15
Kabir taught the unity of God and religion. In his own practice he used both Hindu and Islamic methods. By the Hindu term “Rama” he meant “the One in whom we get joy,” not the incarnation of Vishnu. He also used the Islamic term “Rahim,” which means “the supremely merciful One.”
Kabir told Dharam Das that the idols he was worshipping must be used for weighing, because they could not answer prayer. On another occasion he warned Dharam Das that the wood he was putting in a sacrificial fire had insects and worms that were being burned. Dharam Das wanted to see Kabir again and so spent most of his money providing meals for sadhus in yajnas at Benares; but Kabir did not come, because he did not want him to think that devotees could be bought with wealth. After spending his money Dharam Das was going to commit suicide; but he met Kabir, who initiated him and his wife. Dharam Das eventually became Kabir’s successor in his hometown of Bandhogarh.
Kabir taught many Muslims and Hindus of all castes for seventy years. He encouraged them to search their own hearts to find God within themselves. He considered religious rituals of little value, because they are like making God into a plaything. He said that all souls are sprung from the seed of God. The king of Benares was a student of Kabir, and so for a long time he was protected. Sultan Sikander Lodi (r. 1489-1517) was also impressed by Kabir’s holiness; but resentful qadis and pandits accused Kabir of blasphemy for ridiculing their rituals and scriptures. Sikander ordered Kabir chained and drowned; but the waves broke the chains. Neither would an elephant trample on Kabir. It was even said that he escaped from a fire. When Sikander realized his error, Kabir immediately forgave him, saying that forgiveness is the game the saints play. Many people came to Benares in order to die in the holy city; but Kabir went to Magahar, which was believed to be so cursed that those dying there reincarnated as donkeys. Magahar suffered from lack of water; but when Kabir was there, the river began to flow. After his death the Muslims wanted to bury Kabir’s body, and the Hindus wanted to cremate it; but according to an often repeated legend they found nothing but flowers, which they divided for burial and burning.
Kabir was apparently a vegetarian. In a poem on true asceticism he criticized the hypocrisy of those who preach to others but do no work. He wrote that boiled pulse and rice with a little salt is a good meal and asked who would cut his own throat to eat meat with his bread. The Brahmin is not the guru of a devotee because he got entangled in the four Vedas and died. Those killing living beings violently call it lawful according to the Qur’an; but they will have to answer God and account for their violent crimes. To use violence is tyranny, and God will take you to task. Kabir said that he had dissolved into bodiless bliss; he lived free from fear and caused fear to none.
Kabir’s poetry emphasizes the love of God, whom he referred to as his husband. He advised being truthful and so natural. Truth is found in one’s heart, not in outward religious rituals nor in sects nor vows nor religious garb nor pilgrimages. He wrote that truth is revealed in love, strength, and compassion. He encouraged people to conquer hatred and extend their love to all humanity, for God lives in all. In five poems Kabir warned about the following five passions: the poison of lust, the fire of anger, the witch of avarice, the bonds of attachment, and the malady of ego (selfishness). In a poem from the Bijak he suggested Brahmins give up their caste pride and seek nirvana. When Kabir died, his disciples asked his son to start another sect; but Kamal said that his father had struggled during his life against sectarianism, and he would not destroy that ideal. Yet many of his disciples founded sects based on the teachings of Kabir.
Nanak and the Sikhs
Nanak was born on April 15, 1469 near Lahore. His father Kalu was in the Kshatriya caste; but under the Muslims they were not allowed to be in the military. Kalu was a shopkeeper and record-keeper for a landlord, who had converted to Islam. Nanak learned arithmetic and accounting from his father, reading and writing in Devnagri from a Brahmin, and Persian and Arabic from a Maulvi. Nanak had a tendency to give away his father’s goods to the poor and quarreled with him. When Nanak was 16, his older sister’s husband got him a job in the store of Daulat Khan Lodi, the governor of Jalandhar Doab. Two years later Nanak married the daughter of a Punjab merchant, and they had two sons, Sri Chand in 1494 and Lakhmi Das in 1496; they would be raised by his sister and her husband. On the November full moon of 1496 Nanak had an enlightening experience. Thus his birthday is often celebrated at that time. His message “There is no Hindu; there is no Muslim” has several layers of meaning, implying human and religious unity and also that those who call themselves one or the other are not truly so. When the Qazi of Sultanpur Lodi complained about his message, Nanak sang that his devotees are ever joyous, for they learn how to end sorrow and sin.
In 1499 Nanak’s father sent the Muslim minstrel Mardana to persuade his son to stay at his post. Instead he became Nanak’s closest disciple, and they began traveling. Nanak often joined the Muslims in their prayers. He suggested that the first prayer should be to speak the truth, the second to ask for lawfully earned daily bread, the third to practice charity, the fourth to purify the mind, and the fifth to adore and worship God. To the Hindus, Nanak preached against idol worship and caste distinctions. He personally dined with those of low caste, and he raised the status of women. To the Muslims he emphasized Gan – singing praises of God, Dan – charity for all, Ashnan – purification by bathing, Seva – serving humanity, and Simran constantly praying to God. Nanak abstained from eating animal food. After spending two years in the southwest Punjab, from 1501 to 1514 Nanak traveled to the southeast in India. In Delhi he and Mardana were arrested for violating Sikander Lodi’s order against preaching in public; but their singing in jail caused such a disturbance that they were soon released. In Benares, Nanak may have met Kabir, for their teachings are very similar. From 1515 to 1517 he was in the Himalayas and went as far as Tibet. About 1520 Nanak traveled to Mecca, probably by sea, and many believe he visited Baghdad on his way home that took him through Iran and Afghanistan.
The hymns of Nanak indicate that he witnessed Babur’s third invasion of the Punjab in the winter of 1521, for he complained about the raping of women and how Yama (Death) came disguised as the great Mughal Babur. In the fourth invasion of 1524 Nanak saw the city of Lahore given over to death and violence for four hours. After the fifth invasion of 1526 Nanak lamented the dark age of the sword in which kings are butchers, and goodness has fled. He also referred to kings as tigers and their officials as dogs that eat carrion. The subjects blindly pay homage out of ignorance as if they were dead. The jewel of the Lodi kingdom had been wasted by dogs. A wealthy devotee donated land on the bank of the Ravi, and the village of Kartarpur was built for Nanak and his disciples. Nanak lived there from 1522 until his death on September 22, 1539. Nanak did not consider himself an avatar or a prophet but a guru who could help people find God. Before he died, Nanak named Angad to be his successor as Guru.
Nanak’s songs were later collected together in the Adi Granth that became the scripture for the Sikh religion. His basic teaching about God is summarized in the Mul Mantra, which indicates that God is one, the truth, the creator, fearless, without ill will, immortal, unborn, self-existent, and is realized by grace through the Guru.
The Mul Mantra is followed by the longer Jap Ji, which Nanak wrote about 1520. Jap Ji means “meditation for a new life.” It begins by noting that God cannot be comprehended by reason nor by outward silence, and one cannot buy contentment with all the riches in the world. The way to know the truth is to make God’s will one’s own. All things are manifestations of God’s will, which is beyond description. By communing with the divine Word and meditating on God’s glory one may find salvation by divine grace. The Word washes away all sin and sorrow and bestows virtue. By practicing the Word one rises into universal consciousness, develops understanding of the whole creation, transcends death, and also guides others. Yet no one can describe the condition of the one who has made God’s will one’s own. People carry their deeds with them wherever they go, because one reaps what one has sown. The highest religion is universal brotherhood that considers all equals. Nanak sang that you should conquer your mind, for overcoming self is victory over the world. Wealth and supernatural powers distract one from God. The world operates by the two opposite principles of union and separation. Everyone is judged according to one’s actions. Jap Ji concludes,
Make chastity your furnace, patience your smithy,
The Master’s word your anvil, and true knowledge your hammer.
Make awe of God your bellows and with it kindle the fire of austerity,
And in the crucible of love, melt the nectar Divine,
Only in such a mint, can man be cast into the Word.
But they alone who are favored by Him, can take unto this Path,
O Nanak, on whom He looks with Grace, He fills with Everlasting Peace.
Air is the Master, Water the father, and the Earth the mother,
Day and night are the two nurses in whose lap the whole world is at play.
Our actions: good and evil, will be brought before His court,
And by our own deeds, shall we move higher or be cast into the depths.
Those who have communed with the Word, their toils shall end.
And their faces shall flame with glory,
Not only shall they have salvation,
O Nanak, but many more shall find freedom with them.16
In the musical Asa di Var Nanak emphasized the oneness of God, the importance of repeating the divine Name and completely surrendering to God’s will. He believed that only God and the Guru are without error. A record is kept of everyone’s actions. The virtuous are treated well and remain in heaven, but the sinners transmigrate for the punishment that may educate them. Nanak advised his followers to give charity secretly and be humble. God frees people through the true Guru. Faithful disciples worship God patiently, shun evil, eat and drink moderately, and are detached from the world. Love and humility are the most essential qualities of worship. God’s justice is impartial to all, rich or poor, high or low. Nanak also used Kabir’s metaphor of God as his beloved husband in his Bara Maha that poetically describes the months of the year and the communion of disciples with God.
Nanak showed the way by which all people could escape from the misery of a selfish life and reincarnation. The divine order (Hukam) can be perceived when the Guru awakens in the person the voice of God within. The sound of this Word (Shabd) or Name (Nam) of God can be heard in loving meditation so that the essence of God and the creation is communicated through human experience. By practicing this discipline (Simran) the devotee ascends to higher levels until the ineffable oneness of God is attained. Like Kabir, Nanak rejected all external forms of rituals, ceremonies, caste distinctions, scriptures, and all the dualities of the human mind. Because all are equal, one should not fear any human being but only God. Nanak fostered community kitchens in Sikh temples so that all devotees regardless of caste could eat free meals together. His religion was also equally available to women.
Nanak believed that God is personal and that one can have a personal relationship with God, but he did not worship incarnations of God such as avatars or anthropomorphic conceptions. Asceticism, celibacy, penance, and fasting do not necessarily bring one closer to God. The inward way is open to all, including those with a family life. For Nanak the one God is both nirguna and saguna, meaning both absolute and conditioned, both manifest and unmanifest. The selfishness (haumai) of lust, anger, avarice, attachment, and pride must be overcome. The Guru is the ladder or the vehicle by which one reaches God. Nanak recognized the law of karma by which individuals reap what they sow, and the goal is to attain liberation from the cycle of reincarnation. The grace of God enables one to transcend the law of karma and become free. Loving meditation on God is the way to do this. Like Jesus, Nanak compared the Name of God to a seed that must be planted in the field of the body, plowed by the mind through actions, irrigated with effort, leveled with contentment, and fenced with humility.
Nanak described an ascent through five stages. The first is realizing one’s connection with God and beginning discipline; the second is acquiring knowledge and understanding; the third is effort; the fourth is God’s grace that comes to the fully devoted disciple; and the fifth is truth and the merging of the disciple into the one God. The discipline of Simran means being devoted to the good and also implies good actions. Nanak wrote that among the low his caste was the lowest, and he proclaimed that God lives in all souls. For Nanak the good person is free of hatred and malice, never thinks one is wronged, resists evil, injustice, and tyranny, and looks on all others as superiors. One should earn one’s living by labor and share those earnings with those in need. He noted that all humans are conceived and born from women. Nanak criticized the custom of Sati. He said that a Sati is one who dies from the shock of her husband’s death, not by climbing on her husband’s funeral pyre.
Instead of one of his two sons, Nanak chose Angad to be the second Guru. Angad died in 1552, and Amar Das succeeded him. Nanak’s son Sri Chand had renounced the world, and his disciples practiced celibacy and austerity. Amar Das declared that the reclusive followers of Sri Chand called Udasis were separate from the active and domestic followers of Nanak’s teachings who were called Sikhs, meaning “disciples.” Amar Das encouraged the disciples to be physically fit and denounced the use of intoxicants. In his congregations women did not observe purdah, and he appointed three women to be preachers. He urged monogamy and encouraged widow remarriage; he discouraged women from beating their breasts in mourning a relative. Amar Das warned devotees against avarice, selfishness, falsehood, greed, hypocrisy, and worldly desires. When Muslims broke the earthen pitchers of Sikhs drawing water from a common well, the Guru advised against taking revenge. Instead they spent three years digging a well, which was completed in 1559. Amar Das died in 1574 and chose his son-in-law Ram Das to succeed him. He had a reservoir dug at a place that became Amritsar. The Sikh religion did not grow rapidly. When Ram Das died in 1581, the number of Sikhs had only doubled in the 42 years since Nanak’s death.
The Guru after Ram Das was his eighteen-year-old son Arjun. He converted the religious organization into a government by sending out agents to collect taxes (10% of income) instead of merely accepting contributions. These agents were called masands, meaning “nobles,” and they were allowed to keep a portion of what they received. Guru Arjun gave the masands turbans and robes of honor. The money was used for building, and Arjun began living in aristocratic style at Amritsar. He encouraged Sikhs to take up commerce as well as agriculture, and some became rich trading horses, timber, or iron; others became carpenters and masons. The famous Emperor Akbar visited Guru Arjun in 1598.
Guru Arjun collected the writings of his predecessors with his own into the Adi Granth, meaning “Original Book.” Most of the hymns were by the Gurus, but a few were by other saints, such as Nam Dev, Kabir, and Farid. Use of these devotional hymns helped develop greater understanding of the Sikh teachings. The Adi Granth was completed in 1604. Arjun’s longest and most popular hymn is Sukhamani, which means “peace of mind” and is often repeated in the morning by Sikhs after the Jap Ji. Sukhamani praises the infinite attributes of God, warns against the five senses, and describes the spiritual path of God’s name. God is truth, which is the highest virtue. Humans experience God by true and pure living. Arjun recommended surrendering oneself to the true Guru. God is reality and the only source of well-being. If you sing God’s praises, God will take care of you. Muslims complained to Emperor Akbar that the Adi Granth was blasphemous to Islam; but he did not find it so and even contributed 51 gold coins.
The growing wealth and power of Arjun made enemies. He antagonized the Lahore financial administrator when he refused to marry his son to Chandu Shah’s daughter. Arjun made prayers for fleeing Prince Khusrau, the rebelling son of Jahangir, and gave him money. After the new Emperor Jahangir arrested and partially blinded Khusrau, he summoned Guru Arjun to Lahore. The Guru refused to pay a fine or make any changes to the Adi Granth. So he was tortured in the sun and finally drowned while bathing on May 30, 1606.
By Sanderson Beck
- Tadhikrat al- ‘Awliyal’ by ‘Attar, tr. Paul Losensky in Early Islamic Mysticism, p. 163.
2. Ibid., p. 169.
3. A Philosophy of Character and Conduct by Ibn Hazm, tr. James Kritzeck in Anthology of Islamic Literature, p. 133.
4. Ibid., p. 134.
5. Morality and Behavior by Ibn Hazm, tr. Muhammad Abu Laylah in In Pursuit of Virtue 26, p. 127.
6. Ibid., 93, p. 140.
7. The Conference of the Birds 18 by ‘Attar, tr. Garcin de Tassy and C. S. Nott, p. 50.
8. Ibid., 23, p. 60.
9. Ibid., 26, p. 68.
10. Masnavi 1:5 in Teachings of Rumi tr. E. H. Whinfield, p. 18.
11. The Mathnawi of Jalalu’ddin Rumi Volume 2 tr. Reynold A. Nicholson, p. 3.
12. Masnavi 3:17 in Teachings of Rumi tr. E. H. Whinfield, p. 159.
13. Ibid., 4:2, p. 186.
14. Discourses 9 by Rumi, tr. A. J. Arberry, p. 46.
15. Nabhadas, Bhaktamal, Chhappaya 60 quoted in Sethi, V. K., Kabir: The Weaver of God’s Name, p. 4.
16. Jap Ji by Guru Nanak, tr. Kirpal Singh. Delhi, 1972, p. 164-165.
This is a chapter in Guides to Peace and Justice from Ancient Sages to the Suffragettes, which is published as a book.