“Tell me, you who wish to be under a Law: have you not heard the Law? It is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a maidservant and one of a free woman. The son by the maidservant was according to the flesh, and the son by the free woman was according to the promise. This is an allegory: for these are the two testaments, one from Mt. Sinai giving birth to slavery; this is Hagar. That Hagar is Mt. Sinai in Arabia; it corresponds to the Jerusalem of today, which is a slave with her children. But the Jerusalem above is a free woman: this is our mother.” – Paul, Galatians 4:21-6
The primary material of the spiritual life is experience, and for this reason the dominant metaphors for it imply sequential unfolding: a journey, an ascent of a mountain, plant-like growth. These metaphors imply a linearity in which each point on the line must be touched, and in an established order. The sequence is important: the pursuit of perfection, or dissatisfaction with one’s own self, such a virtue in youth, means something different in old age; and so with all things spiritual. The point is nothing in itself, like a note in the midst of a symphony; its meaning comes from the fact that it follows other particular points, and itself is followed by others. It is the nature of one experience that it alters all those which follow and all those that came before.
For this reason, certain profound, peak spiritual experiences, to those who have not been prepared by all the preparatory points, seem utterly incomprehensible or trivial; such a case is found in the meeting of the wandering dervish Shams of Tabriz and the man who was to become the greatest of all spiritual poets, Jelaluddin Rumi. Shams asked Rumi a question, which so overwhelmed the poet that he fainted. According to the best sources, the question was, “Which was the greater, Muhammed the Apostle of God, or Abu Yazid al-Bestami?”
For those without the requisite knowledge, the question is unintelligible – the acquisition of knowledge being one of the necessary points on the journey. For those with a proper (in this case Islamic) dogmatic perspective, the question is merely easy: of course Muhammed is the greater. Contentment with the proper dogmatic perspective is also one of the points on the journey. But for Rumi, the question opened a door he had passed daily but never truly seen before, as if a young man had thought he inhabited a garden, until one day someone brought him outside and showed him that in fact he was part of an entire world.
The first step, knowledge: who was this Abu Yazid (also known as Bayazid), that he could rival Muhammed in the eyes of a Muslim? He was a Sufi – a Muslim mystic – and in his day (died ca. 875) was known as “the king of the Gnostics,” “the mystical knowers of God.” In particular he is considered the founder of the “intoxicated” or ecstatic school of Sufism. There are two principles of this spiritual practice: 1) the highest experience of life is union with God 2) the most reliable way of achieving union is to break down the boundaries of one’s own self by ascetic self-denial. I will let Abu Yazid sum this up:
They asked him, “Teach us how you reached true Reality.” He said, “By training myself, by seclusion.” They said, “How?” He said, “I called my self to accept Allah Almighty and Exalted, and it resisted. I took an oath that I would not drink water and I would not taste sleep until I brought my self under my control.”
Note that the question asked Abu Yazid already presumes that he had reached “true Reality” – he did not have to wait for the afterlife. He could break through to true Reality in this world, because it was always there anyway. The theology behind this is pantheism (or some theologically refined quibble on pantheism): the further you go along the path the more you find that the God you seek is everywhere, inescapable, and the barriers are faults of perception – in some sense, what you are doing is altering your definition of God. For certain you are not looking anymore for a thing entirely outside yourself. Even your desires are His manifestations. Abu Yazid said of the ultimate agency of God:
I made four mistakes in my preliminary steps in the Way: I thought that I remember Him and I know Him and I love Him and I seek Him, but when I reached Him I saw that His remembering of me preceded my remembrance of Him, and His knowledge about me preceded my knowledge of Him and His love towards me was more ancient than my love towards Him, and He sought me in order that I would begin to seek Him.
The Sufi Ibn Taymiyya sums up this spiritual pantheism thus: “He didn’t see himself as existing any longer, but only saw the existence of Allah, due to his self-denial.” The agreement of the Sufis on this point with Christians is remarkable; Paul said, “I live no longer – not I, but Christ lives in me.” Another good anecdote of Abu Yazid on this topic:
Abu Yazid asked a man who was following him, “Who are you looking for?” He replied, “I am looking for Abu Yazid.” He said, “O my son, Abu Yazid has been looking for Abu Yazid for forty years and is still not finding him.” The man then went to Dhul Nun and narrated this incident to him. On hearing it Dhul Nun fainted. He explained later saying, “My master Abu Yazid has lost himself in Allah’s love. That causes him to try to find himself again.”
One of the typical results of this pursuit of ecstatic union is a certain negligence toward more worldly forms of religion, in general because much religion confirms and strengthens the individuality of the self (generally in the form of moralism) rather than breaking it down. It is useless to the one seeking God:
He said, “I stood with the pious and I didn’t find any progress with them. I stood with the warriors in the cause and I didn’t find a single step of progress with them. I stood with those who pray excessively and those who fast excessively and I didn’t make a footstep of progress. Then I said, ‘O Allah, what is the way to You?’ and Allah said, ‘Leave yourself and come.’”
The afterlife, such a preoccupation for non-mystics and for Muhammed, is not much of a concern for Abu Yazid:
He said, “O Allah, what is your Fire? It is nothing. Let me be the one person to go into your Fire and everyone else will be saved. And what is your Paradise? It is a toy for children. And who are those unbelievers who you want to torture? They are your servants. Forgive them.”
Needless to say, this is not orthodox Islam. And Abu Yazid did not spare his audiences. He said pantheistically of himself, “There is nothing in this robe I am wearing except Allah.” And he attributed to himself divine praise, saying “How great is my glory! Glory be to Me!” Some of his sayings are so grand they are almost terrifying: “If the Throne” – i.e., of God – “and what is around it and what is in it were placed in the corner of the heart of a Knower, they would be lost completely inside it.” Shams of Tabriz may have been thinking of the following saying of Abu Yazid when he asked Rumi to weigh him in the scales with Muhammed: “I set forth on an ocean when the prophets were still by the shore.”
In fact, these daring sayings caused Abu Yazid trouble with the religious authorities – (orthodox Islam is typically hostile 1) to attributing divinity to anyone or anything, as in pantheism 2) to claiming that anyone surpasses Muhammed). Abu Yazid was seven times exiled from his home of Bestam; and he remained controversial throughout his life and afterwards. The actions of some of the later Sufis made the situation worse. Al-Hallaj proclaimed “I am The Truth!” and was executed for it, about forty years after the death of Abu Yazid, as part of a general reaction from orthodox Islam suppressing Sufism. From this point forward the Sufi mantra became, “Wear the inner garment of the mystic Way, but the outer garment of the Law” – most Sufi teaching as to the irrelevance of the rules of devotion became esoteric and reserved for initiates. Sufism is still controversial in Islam; a good source informs me that much Sufi practice and Sufi writing is illegal today in countries like Iran (though I have not found this confirmed on the internet; but one way or another, the Sufis’ antinomianism is often considered apostasy, a crime punishable by death in most Islamic countries).
This data gives us some of the background of Shams’ question. Abu Yazid was precisely the kind of religious figure the modern world likes – a man who pursued his own individual experience of God, seeking neither to legislate to others nor terrify them with threats of hell nor extract worldly goods from them with promises of heaven. “He was not into religion, but he was really into spirituality,” the Californian would say. From this modern perspective, the question Shams asked Rumi is quite a bit like asking, “Which is greater, the traditional man or the modern man? fundamentalism or religious modernism?” But let us take a look at the orthodox Islamic perspective, because the vast majority of Muslims, given the data, would say Muhammed was greater, and would not need to faint like Rumi to do so.
It is easy to pick transcendence too cheaply. One of the great problems of religion is that human life, which should be peace and grandeur, in fact mostly consists of endless bickerings and resentments about petty things. Many religious people have attempted to solve this problem by deriving from a few central hypotheses (e.g., “Muhammed was a good man”) prescriptions for all the possible human friction-points, i.e. all the details of life (“when you pray, face the way Muhammed prayed, use the words Muhammed used, etc.” (though admittedly for the most part religious men like Muhammed have been more egotistical than this, saying “face the way I pray, use the words I use,” etc.)). Muhammed was a master of this kind of “organized religion” – a man who came up with (or, in orthodox terms, was a conduit of) a daily regimen of life, to put it into alignment with a perceived divine order. He established rules for legal testimony, inheritance, holidays, prayer, cleanliness, sexual behavior, food, clothing, warfare, and nearly everything else, which are still used today over large parts of the world. What is more, he devised a whole set of ingenious modes of propagating, enforcing, and preserving the rules he promulgated. These are all incredibly useful things to do – in fact, they probably represent the most useful thing a person can do. From the social perspective – which is necessarily most people’s perspective – Muhammed was the greater man.
But the problem with all modes of social regulation is that they always get outmoded. By the time of the Sufis, Muhammed’s morality was already several hundred years old and dated. The whole tradition of the Hadith had created a complete system of morality based on Muhammed’s life which made Allah a comically thorough legislator, setting down eternal laws for questions like whether or not men can shave their faces (they cannot), whether it is permissible to urinate standing up (debatable, certainly not preferred), what types of fabrics men and women can wear, and what kind of toilet-paper equivalents can be used. Let me repeat that: eternal laws. This was the established way, and all bida – “innovation” – was expressly prohibited.
Not only had the system reached a comical point of thoroughness, it had also followed the natural tendency in all legislated morality for the practice to calcify and lose its inner meaning. This makes a recasting of morality periodically necessary – one of those obvious truths which certain sorts of religious people cannot imagine God taking into account. The old local and pagan pilgrimage to Mecca, when combined with Islam’s universal message of the oneness of God and brotherhood of man, became one of the most powerful ritual experiences on earth. But being a human practice it was bound in time to degenerate into an obligation, and the Sufis themselves cast some doubt on how valuable the pilgrimage truly was:
Abdallah ibn Al-Mubarak was living at Mecca. One year, having completed the rites of the pilgrimage, he fell asleep. In a dream he saw two angels descend from heaven.
“How many have come this year?” one asked the other.
“Six hundred thousand,” the other replied.
“How many have had their pilgrimage accepted?”
“When I heard this,” Abdallah reports, “I was filled with trembling. ‘What?’ I cried. ‘All these people have come from afar out of the distant ends of the earth and with great pain and weariness from every deep ravine, traversing wide deserts, and all their labour is in vain?’
“‘There is a cobbler in Damascus called Ali ibn Mowaffaq,’ said the angel. ‘He has not come on the pilgrimage, but his pilgrimage is accepted and all his sins have been forgiven.’
“When I heard this,” Abdallah continued, “I awoke saying, ‘I must go to Damascus and visit that person.’ So I went to Damascus and looked for where he lived. I shouted, and someone came out. ‘What is your name?’ I asked. ‘Ali ibn Mowaffaq,’ he replied. ‘I wish to speak with you,’ I said. ‘Say on,’ he replied. ‘What work do you do?’ ‘I cobble.’ I then told him of my dream…. He uttered a cry and fell in a faint. When he recovered I said to him, ‘Tell me your story.’
“The man told me, ‘For thirty years now I have longed to make the pilgrimage. I had saved up three hundred and fifty dirhams from my cobbling. This year I had resolved to go to Mecca. One day the good lady within becoming pregnant, she smelt the smell of food coming from next door. “Go and fetch me a bit of that food,” she begged me. I went and knocked on the neighbour’s door and explained the situation. My neighbour burst into tears. “My children have eaten nothing for three days together,” she said. “Today I saw a donkey lying dead, so I hacked off a piece and cooked it. It would not be lawful food for you.” My heart burned within me when I heard her tale. I took out the three hundred and fifty dirhams and gave them to her. “Spend these on the children,” I said. “This is my pilgrimage.”’
“The angel spoke truly in my dream,” Abdallah declared, “and the Heavenly King was true in His judgment.”
How could this be false? This is the theme of all the Hebrew prophets, including Jesus – “God desires mercy, not sacrifice” – but the emphasis on the performance of religious ritual as an indispensable moral obligation is ineradicable in Judaism and Christianity just as in Islam. In truth, all of these rituals are designed not as an obligation, but to give believers an experience of a truth – they are favors from God, but as Abu Yazid said, “Allah has granted his servants favors for the purpose of bringing them closer to Him. Instead they are fascinated with the favors and are drifting farther from Him.”
For this reason there was a very real struggle between the Sufis and Orthodox Islam, before the Sufis retreated into esotericism. If men had made an idol of the Law, then the true believers had to smash it, just as Muhammed had smashed the idols in the Kaaba. Many of the Sufis specifically associated themselves with wine, which was prohibited in Islam. If you did not have the courage to use wine for the sake of making contact with God, you were a slave to social rules. Look at the way this is drawn symbolically and directly in the following story:
Shams asked a sheikh, “What are you doing?”
“I am looking at the moon’s reflection in this lake,” replied the sheikh.
“Why don’t you look directly at the sky? Are you so blind that you do not see the true object in all you contemplate?”
Shams’ reply had such an effect on the sheikh that he asked Shams to accept him as his disciple.
“You do not have the strength to bear my company,” replied Shams.
“The strength is within me,” said the sheikh. “Please accept me.”
“Then bring me a pitcher of wine, and we will drink together in the Baghdad market.”
Fearing public opinion, the sheikh replied, “I cannot do this.”
Shams shouted, “You are too timid for me. You haven’t the strength to be among the intimate friends of God. I seek only those who know how to reach the Truth.”
Modern Sufis will be quick to point out that wine is symbolic in Sufism, so the talk of drunkenness in Rumi or Khayyam is metaphor. But that cannot take away the basic point: the prohibition on alcohol, like all such prohibitions, is a social convention and not an eternal Law of God. If you do not know this, you cannot be “among the intimate friends of God.” For the law is a means, and all its prescriptions must be revisited as time passes to tighten the gap between means and end: “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” may be said of every restriction in the law.
A common modern perspective on this is, “Well then, why don’t we just get rid of these rules and rituals?” But there are obvious reasons not to. One is that they often do offer precisely what they are supposed to – an experience of what might otherwise be merely an idea. The Sabbath, for instance, when seen as a favor to us and not a legally enforceable obligation, offers its practitioners a host of benefits. Most people recognize the value of ritual life and worship especially with children, but even a skeptical adult senses immediately how sacred spaces and rituals affect us, and seem to have meaning, but a meaning which enters our brains subliminally. It may be true that all things are holy, but unless children are trained to treat particular places as holy, it is often the case that they simply become adults with no sense of the holy at all, or they feel it, but feel nothing holy in themselves to respond to the holiness they see outside of them – they feel locked out of the experience and mere spectators. Human spirituality must be bodily, must be incarnated: it must have a physical component, or our brain is cut off in itself rather than integrated with its source.
The mystics themselves were almost all aware of this. While they pursued reforms in their religious traditions, they did not attempt to create New Age-type religions with no rules at all. Instead, they generated a two-chamber religious system. Abu Yazid formulated it thus, discussing whether or not it was necessary to turn toward Mecca to pray: “When you are separate from the Kaaba, it is all right to turn toward it, but those who are in it can turn toward any direction they wish.”
Yazid’s solution is emblematic of what I call “the two Islams”: one religion for those who are “separate from the Kaaba,” and one for those who are in it. This dichotomy is found in all religions. There are two versions of every religion; the full life passes through both; they represent the proper religion for two different stages of life. Both are necessary, and religion goes awry when it focuses on one exclusively. Not even Abu Yazid would have believed that his mystical voyages had rendered the nuts-and-bolts religion of Muhammed disposable. He merely would have called the religion of Muhammed a good religion for novices. And everyone has to be a novice before being a sage.
When teaching young children to pray, you would teach them to use the same words, and the same qibla, and the same postures as other people; this would be a sign of their equality with them. And indeed, they should be encouraged to keep those same words and qibla and postures, until that lesson is learned. But once it is learned, something else happens – a new religion is born in the heart of the believer.
This new religion is defined by inner experience, not belief-systems and identity-systems, and an understanding of the larger principles on which all the minor restrictions are based. It is fundamentally free, therefore, to realign the minor restrictions – wisdom being required, of course – as they necessarily drift into irrelevance with the passage of time. The basic principles do vary from religion to religion – Buddha preached detachment while Christ preached love – but in all of them there exist a set of basic principles by which the regulations have in fact been profitably altered with time.
But it is essential to know that the regulations are the means of our formation. We cannot skip to enlightenment. We all know what happens when two parents who have given up on the rules try to raise a child: typically, they raise one unable to master self. The rules cannot be dispensed with until they have fulfilled their purpose. Most of what we call immorality is selfishness. Adhibition to a set of moral rules means the disciplining of selfishness, the attainment of the capacity to see the experience of others, and such efforts are the precondition for all subsequent spiritual experience. In the purely selfish human being – which we see more or less only in very young children – there is no room for anything other than self. But in the vast majority of people, the interior estimate of self is comically (or tragically) out of proportion to the truth. Once the self begins to be reduced to its proper (very small) place, the moral rules are considerably relaxed, because a person with accurate self-knowledge has the rule inside of him, in the form of the knowledge that he is no more important than any other person. Does he desire possessions? Yes – but he also recognizes that there are other people in the world, and this balances his desires. Does he desire sex? Yes – but his love for others makes all exploitation distasteful to him. Does he desire power? Yes – but he knows that others desire it too, and need to be heard as well.
But en route to this desired state nearly everyone passes through the tendency toward fundamentalism, which desires a rule once established to be immutable. This tendency is so marked a psychological phenomenon – it offers relative certainty to unstable minds – that it persists despite the fact that you can always find in every person some violation of the rules. Paul said of this, “All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law’” – his implication being, of course, that no one actually does.
For this reason, Paul saw Christianity as inherently a “religion of the heart,” where the rules were mostly about social cohesion, sound governance, and public relations – they were not the actual means of reaching God. Paul saw himself as entirely competent to decide moral questions within the various Christian communities, and based on his results, it appears he did an excellent job. He was free to legislate for the communities because God was no longer understood as a legislator. The fact that later Christians canonized his writings as “the Word of God” is one of those enjoyable-horrifying ironies of history. But even so, the evidence is still overwhelming that Paul realized that law-based religion is only the first stage, for children: he calls it the “Paedagogos,” the babysitter. This was later enshrined in ritual with a bipartite mass, with a mass for “catechumens” or novices – readings from Scripture, prayers, and a sermon – after which the catechumens were dismissed and the Mass of “the faithful” began. As this distinction has been lost, the effect has been to resolve the entire religion into a religion for catechumens: Scripture, prayer, sermons, and rules. Paul saw the danger even in his own lifetime, and time and again he preaches the principles of the higher religion: “The entire law is summed up in a single command: ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’ If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.” “Everything is permissible – but not everything is beneficial. Everything is permissible, but not everything is constructive.” “You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ.” “But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.” “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened by a yoke of slavery.” “Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: ‘Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!’? These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining the flesh.” “The commandments, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘do not murder,’ ‘do not steal,’ ‘do not covet,’ and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.” “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.”
Though it is standard modern fare that the writer of the above sentences was in so writing overthrowing the religion of Jesus and replacing it with “Paulianity,” in truth the continuity is striking. Though there are many ways to sum up the ministry of Jesus, the Gospel evidence – which is all we have, really – suggests a “religion of the heart” skeptical (at best) of religious moralism and purity-codes, and utterly compatible with Paul’s basic message and with the message of the Sufis as well. It is the further point in the spiritual journey.
And at that further point we are given the freedom to true the rules again to the higher line, just as every pair of parents revises the rules that governed their own childhoods, retaining many things and jettisoning others. But if they themselves remain forever children, enslaved to the rules they have inherited, their growth will necessarily be incomplete, and something will still stand between them and God – they will be “outside the Kaaba.” All spiritual life must in the end be internalized: there can be no looking for authorities anymore. If necessary, this may require sin and falling away from God and failure – in fact, this is the normal route. Our own perceived superiority to others is often a terrible obstacle. As Paul says, in fourteen words which express a tremendous amount for those who have lived through it, “Through the law I died to the law so I might live for God.”
I will close with a story of Abu Yazid and the proper spiritual role of legislation, and let those who wish ponder further the great question of Shams of Tabriz:
One day a man came to Abu Yazid and said, “I have fasted and prayed for thirty years and have found none of the spiritual joy of which you speak.”
“If you fasted and prayed for a hundred years, you would never find it,” answered the sage.
“How is that?” asked the man.
“Your selfishness is acting as a veil between you and God.”
“Tell me the cure.”
“It is a cure you cannot carry out,” said Abu Yazid.
Those around him pressed him to reveal it. After a time he spoke: “Go to the nearest barbershop and have your head shaved; strip yourself of your clothes except for a loincloth. Take a nosebag full of walnuts, hang it around your neck. Go into the market and cry out – ‘Anybody who gives me a slap on the neck shall have a walnut.’ Then proceed to the law courts and do the same thing.”
“I can’t do that,” said the man. “Suggest some other remedy.”
“This is the indispensable preliminary to a cure,” answered Bayazid. “But as I told you, you are incurable.”
Most of the stories of the Sufis are from Farid al-Din Attar’s Memorial of the Saints, the Arberry translation.