The following is one of four truly gorgeous and insightful short films of contemporary Chechen Sufi rituals. They are all well worth watching, as is the veritable treasure-trove of material the film-maker, Vincent Moon, has accumulated over the past few years, not only in the Caucasus but across the world.
March 7, 2014
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March 6, 2014
We have no prairies
To slice a big sun at evening—
Everywhere the eye concedes to
Is wooed into the cyclops’ eye
Of a tarn. Our unfenced country
Is bog that keeps crusting
Between the sights of the sun.
They’ve taken the skeleton
Of the Great Irish Elk
Out of the peat, set it up,
An astounding crate full of air.
Butter sunk under
More than a hundred years
Was recovered salty and white.
The ground itself is kind, black butter
Melting and opening underfoot,
Missing its last definition
By millions of years.
They’ll never dig coal here,
Only the waterlogged trunks
Of great firs, soft as pulp.
Our pioneers keep striking
Inwards and downwards,
Every later they strip
Seems camped on before.
The bogholes might be Atlantic seepage.
The wet centre is bottomless.
Bogland, Seamus Heaney, in Door Into the Dark (1969)
November 12, 2013
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In the vast field of medieval Arabic and Persian literature, it is not hard to find authors whose works seem all but impenetrable, cloaked in difficult syntax, obscure vocabulary, and constant, often infuriating motion from one perspective to another, full of occluded subjects, ambiguous referents, and unattributed references. ‘Azīz Nasafī, who seems to have lived at some point in the 13th century in what is now Uzbekistan, was not such a writer. Rather, his treatises, which defy easy categorization, are concise yet clear, carefully constructed with a pedagogical eye towards learners of varying skill levels; he is often humorous, drawing upon ‘real-world’ analogies in illustrating theological points. Some sources refer to him as a ‘Sufi,’ though this is a problematic characterization, as should be clear from the excerpt from one of his short treatises which I’ve translated and presented below, the Zubdat al-haqā’iq. He incorporates elements from the discursive tradition of Sufism, and had some sort of relationship or affiliation with a shaykh of the Kubrayi tariqa- but that is about the limit of it. He does not present himself as a Sufi shaykh, and his incorporation of Sufi material is selective. Likewise, he was clearly conversant with multiple streams of philosophy; his own particular philosophical perspective was a sort of monism, similar, but not dependent upon that of the rather more famous ibn ‘Arabi. But it would probably be inaccurate to simply call him a philosopher and be done with it.
And so on we might go with all of the conventional designations for thinkers and religious folk of this period- categories become rather difficult, if not impossible, to apply. He himself, in several of his treatises, deflects categorization: he instead tells his readers that his purpose is to present the teachings of multiple ‘schools’ of thought and practice, trying hard not to bias the reader in one direction or another. And, perhaps surprisingly given much of what we think we know about the Islamic middle ages, he is generally quite successful in his ecumenical endeavor. In the end, though, he does make sure that the most important things are clarified, the things that the spiritual seeker, he believes, cannot dispense with.
Regardless of how we classify him, ‘Azīz Nasafī was clearly a prolific enough author, with a deeply humane vision of religious and ethical practice, a vision he wished to impart to a wide audience. And he did reach a wide audience- his texts circulated far and wide, from South Asia to Southeastern Europe, both in their original Persian and translated into other vernaculars. Despite his relative obscurity in life, his texts and the mystical-ethical vision they contained have found considerable reception. I hope this short text, taken from the final section of the final chapter of the Zubdat, imparts a glimpse of that vision, as our author describes the sort of conduct the spiritual seeker ought to engage in, and what she ought to avoid, and how to truly become ‘an inhabitant of heaven.’
Finally, for more information on this figure, see the quite good Encyclopedia Iranica article on him: Nasafi, ‘Aziz.
O dervish! If you yourself are not able to arrive at the limit of spiritual stations, or spend the entire day in gazing upon the divine attributes and the spiritual stations, or persist in contemplating what no eye has seen nor ear heard nor thought entered the human heart, or always dwell in the highest heaven and in closeness to the Divine Presence in the station of absolute proximity, in the witnessing and the encountering of the Beauty of the Divine Presence, the Possessor of Magnificence—well, at least strive that you be saved from hell and become an inhabitant of heaven!
O dervish! Everything that falls into the salt mine becomes salt, and everything that falls into a filthy place becomes filthy—dirt from dirt, purity from purity! First of all you make yourself pure so that everything that comes from you is pure.
O dervish! Don’t obsess about praying a great deal, nor about fasting a lot. Don’t obsess about making the ḥajj a lot—just do what is obligatory. Don’t obsess about expanding your vocabulary, don’t obsess about reading lots of stories, don’t obsess about increasing in philosophical knowledge—just be content with the necessary amount. Rather, you should be concerned with being honest and good-hearted, for the torment of the folk of hell is mostly from dishonesty and bad-heartedness, while the comfort of the inhabitant of heaven is from honesty and good-heartedness. It is necessary that your inner self become honest and good-hearted so that you be delivered. For if you bind yourself with affectedness, you are in hell. It is necessary that you become such that, all day, goodness and comfort [towards others] spontaneously pour out of you. Do not be like those who all day, evil and pain [towards others] pour out of them. Their inner selves have become the doing of dishonesty and evil. Your inner self must be honesty and the doing of goodness.
O dervish! You will be ornamented with the characteristics of God when you entirely act with goodness, neither desiring compensation for yourself nor imposing obligation; rather, you take the obligation upon yourself. For bad-heartedness is when all day you cause pain to people and desire pain in people, whether by word, deed, or property. When you know the meaning of evil, it is necessary that you be far from it!
Good-heartedness is when all day you desire comfort for people and all the time cause comfort for people, whether by word, deed, or property. When you know the meaning of good-heartedness and bad-heartedness then know that everyone who is honest and good-hearted is delivered from hell and becomes an inhabitant of heaven. Then, if you seek either remaining [in this state] or a higher degree—it is well and good, in view of the fact that for the inhabitant of heaven everything that she achieves in this world or the other, her heaven becomes more expansive, while for inhabitant of hell everything she achieves in this world or the other, her hell becomes tighter.
O dervish! From the beginning to the end of spiritual journeying, this little treatise suffices for the spiritual wayfarers.
’Azīz Nasafī, Zubdat al-haqā’iq.
August 30, 2013
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I stood between them,
the one with his travelled intelligence
and tawny containment,
his speech like the twang of a bowstring,
and another, unshorn and bewildered
in the tubs of his wellingtons,
smiling at me for help,
faced with this stranger I’d brought him.
Then a cunning middle voice
came out of the field across the road
saying, ‘Be adept and be dialect,
tell of this wind coming past the zinc hut,
call me sweetbriar after the rain
or snowberries cooled in the fog.
But love the cut of this travelled one
and call me also the cornfield of Boaz.
Go beyond what’s reliable
in all that keeps pleading and pleading,
these eyes and puddles and stones,
and recollect how bold you were
when I visited you first
with departures you cannot go back on.’
A chaffinch flicked from an ash and next thing
I found myself driving the stranger
through my own country, adept
at dialect, reciting my pride
in all that I knew, that began to make strange
at that same recitation.
Seamus Heaney, April 13, 1939- August 30, 2013. ‘Making Strange,’ in Station Island.
August 27, 2013
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The following is from the opening pages of the superb treatise on Sufism, practical and theoretical, by Najm al-Dīn al-Rāzī Dāya (1177-1256), entitled Mirṣād al-’ibād ilā ’l-mabdaʾ wa ’l-maʿād. Dāya was a disciple of another, rather more famous Najm al-Dīn, the one known as al-Kubrā; Dāya studied the Sufi path under him in the city of Nishapur. However, unlike his master, Dāya seems to have been little concerned with the practice of taking on disciples. Instead, in the course of his wandering life- from Central Asia to Anatolia to Tabriz to Baghdad, all during a period of intense and often violent change and dislocation in the region, with the Mongol invasions being the most famous of these changes. The period in which Dāya lived was also a period of incredible productivity in Sufi circles: many of the intellectual and organizational formations pioneered during the era would continue to deeply shape the practice of taṣawwuf up to the present. Two of Dāya’s works would become part of this long-term legacy: the work excerpted here, and the tafsīr to which he contributed, described in my previous post.
Unlike the tafsīr composed by al-Kubrā’s disciples, Dāya’s most famous work, the Mirṣād al-’ibād, was composed in Persian, which was quickly becoming a central language of intellectual life across many Muslim communities, and not just in regions that were historically Persian-speaking. Dāya’s magnum opus, for instance, was composed in Konya, in Anatolia, under Seljuk Turkic patronage. Of course, Arabic remained the ‘first’ language of Muslim intellectuals, Sufi or otherwise, and would continue to be given at least nominal priority, even as more and more works were produced in Persian, and, in time, other vernaculars, including different Turkic dialects (themselves influenced heavily by the diffusion of Persian). In the excerpt given here, wholesale Arabic phrases are incorporated, without being translated (which is not always the case- many later authors will translate or expansively paraphrase almost all Arabic material in their works). However, alongside the direct quotation of Qur’an and hadith in Arabic is another feature deeply ingrained in Persian Sufic texts: the use of poetry, which in time would appear even in Arabic treatises as authoritative texts closely behind hadith in authoritative value.
As for the content of this excerpt: Dāya’s stated intention is to show the reader the incredible glory of human nature and potential, potential that must be ‘unlocked,’ or perhaps more fittingly, hammered back into shape. In the cosmology and anthropology he unfolds here- itself a piece with similar intellectual currents au courant among other thirteenth-century Sufis- the human person is the center of the created cosmos, and more. It is in the fully-realized human heart that the divine essence and attributes is truly manifest and refracted, as it were, to the rest of creation. The heart is, for Dāya, the supremely deiform aspect of the human person: but it must be refined through the careful tutelage of spiritual masters before it can shine with its primordial splendour. Here we see the deeply social setting of taṣawwuf: for the full realization of this high anthropology, particular human relationships are necessary. The return to the cardial deiform shape, the cosmic centrality, for which humans were created is possible: but it is only truly realized in the presence and under the care of an already-realized master, a Friend of God. And, for Dāya at least, it must occur gradually, as he makes clear in the final lines of this introduction.
Finally, a note on the remainder of the text, which in printed edition comes in at some 300 plus pages: after some further introductory material, Dāya presents some essential cosmology. This is followed by a description of the proper path to true gnosis, from basic adherence to the shari’a, adherence to a master, and, ultimately, divine realization. Next, Dāya turns to an examination of different sorts of human ‘types,’ which neatly leads into a concluding chapter on the different sorts of Sufis and Sufi organizations, which include people from the top of human society down to the ‘working classes.’
The purpose of the existence of the human person is gnosis (ma’rifat) of the essence and attributes of God, just as David asked: O Lord, why did You create the creation? He said: I was a hidden treasure and I lovingly wished to be known, so I created the creation that I might be known. True gnosis comes only from the perfect human person, notwithstanding the fact that in servanthood the angels and jinn are participants with humans—but as for the human person, he is distinguished from all other beings by the bearing of the burden of the trust (amānat) of gnosis that [is described in the verse] Verily, We offered the trust to the heavens and the earth, et al. The intended meaning of ‘heaven’ is the folk of heaven, meaning, the angels; by ‘earth,’ the folk of earth, meaning, the animals, the jinn, and the devils; by ‘mountains,’ the folk of the mountains, meaning, the wild creatures and the birds. Out of these, none are capable of the burden of the trust except the human person, because, out of all His creation, it is the human soul that is the mirror of the beauty and majesty, which makes manifest the divine Presence, and is the point of manifestation of the universality of the attributes [of God]. [The words] He created Adam in His own image are an indication of this.
The quintessence of the soul of the human person is the heart, and the heart is the mirror, and each of the two worlds are the covering of that mirror. And the manifestation of the totality of the attributes of the beauty and majesty of the divine Presence are by means of this mirror that is We will show them Our signs on the horizons and in their souls. In this vein it is said:
The purpose of the being of mankind and jinnkind is the mirror/ The object of sight in the two worlds is the mirror.
The heart is the mirror of the beauty of the King of Kings/ And these two worlds are the covering of that mirror.
And when the soul of the human person, which is predisposed for mirrorhood (āyina-gī), finds pedagogical upbringing (tarbiyat) and arrives at completion, it witnesses the manifestation of the totality of the attributes in itself, the soul itself recognizing why it was created. Then the reality of He who knows himself knows his Lord is realized, and he again knows what he is, and for whom the secret of grace and beneficience is found, just as [it is said]:
O copy of the divine book that you are!/ O perfect royal mirror that you are!
Outside, nothing in this world is/ From yourself, in seeking, is everything that you wish.
But until the soul of the human person arrives at the perfect degree of the limpidity of mirrorhood, he must engage in much journeying and struggle. This only be means of the main thoroughfare of the sharī’a and the true ṭarīqa, and only by gradation. It is just as iron must be first extracted from a mine, then fashioned and shaped through skill and learning of various sorts which they manifest, just as transmitted by the master of the craft, before it can become a mirror.
The human person is in the beginning a mine of the iron of this mirror, for humans are mines, like mines of gold and silver. That iron must be, brought forth from the mine of the being of the human person through sound oversight (ḥusn-i tadbīr), and through pedagogical upbringing , so that you arrive at the degree of mirrorhood, by gradation and gradual advance.
 Gnosis being the special, experiential knowledge/comprehension of God, distinct from more discursive, rational reason, ‘ilm. The two are not necessarily opposed so much as they represent, in classical taṣawwuf, hierarchical degrees of knowledge.
 Probably one of the most famous and most cited of hadith among Sufis, this is a so-called hadith qudsi, or ‘sacred’ hadith, attributed directly to God. Its import for establishing Sufi cosmology is pretty evident, even apart from the expansions of meaning interpretation provides.
 A partial citation of Q. 33.72. The entire verse runs: Verily, we offered the trust to the heavens and the earth and the mountains, but they declined to bear it and were afraid of it. The human person accepted it; he is oppressive and ignorant.
 These two terms are frequently paired in Sufi texts, in order to emphasize the necessity of both the ‘external’ religious ‘path’ (the literal meaning of shari’a) and the ‘internal’ religious way (tariqa also meaning path or way): in other words, the whole gamut of Islamic practice, not just legal obligation or mystical practices.
August 26, 2013
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By the late medieval period, the study and explication of the Qur’an in Muslim communities across the world had given rise to a vast range of approaches and texts. Some exegetes examined individual surahs; the Fatiha, the opening surah of the Qur’an, and Surah Yusuf, the longest single sustained narrative in the Qur’an, were particularly popular in this regard. Other writers examined the entire Qur’an from particular perspectives, be it legal, grammatical/philological, or with an eye to moral development. Some such specialized commentaries were comprehensive, verse by verse, while others dealt only with those portions deemed relevant to the particular concern of the commentary. Among ‘specialized’ commentaries were those produced by Sufis, either incorporating ‘mystical,’ Sufic interpretations as part of a larger more ‘conventional’ commentary, or focusing exclusively on interpretations and concerns especially salient to Sufi thought and practice. Of these latter, specialized commentaries, one of the more widely reproduced and read was a tafsīr known by the name (among other names) of al-Ta’wilāt al-Najmiyya, which was possibly composed by the famous Sufi master Najm al-Dīn al-Kubrā (1145-1220), or, more likely, by his close disciples and successors, including Najm al-Dīn al-Rāzī Dāya (1177-1256). At any rate, the tafsīr is reflective of the developed Sufism of al-Kubrā and his ‘school,’ itself a culmination of centuries of Sufi practice and thought. I have excerpted and translated a short excerpt from this commentary below.
The commentary is distinctive for its highly cohesive style: while it unfolds verse-by-verse, the author (or authors) maintains consistent analytical and narrative threads through the examined passages, consistently treating the material from a ‘mystical,’ indeed allegorical, perspective. To use the author’s own term, his interest is in the ‘inner’ meaning of the Qu’ran, a concern shared by previous esoteric-minded exegetes. He is careful, early on in the commentary, to point out that his exclusive treatment of the ‘inner meaning’ of scripture is not meant to deny the ‘outer meaning,’ or what a contemporary medieval Christian exegete would have probably called the ‘historical’ or ‘literal’ sense of scripture. A quick perusal of the commentary reveals why a more exoteric-minded critic might believe the author was denying the literal sense: the contents of the admonitions, the stories, the theological pronouncements are all shifted and resignified, sometimes subtly, sometimes rather dramatically. As in the passage below, historical events are removed from the finality of historical time and instead become universal, recurring spiritual ‘events.’ Moses, for instance, is not a historical figure—or rather, is not merely a historical figure—but is the human heart, arrayed in struggle against the passions of the lower world. The story of the exodus of the Hebrew people from Egypt becomes the cyclical story of the heart’s exodus from the oppression of the lower self and the snares of the world, crossing the sea of passions to the meeting with God.
This is not to say that our author wishes to negate the ‘outer’ significance of the words, however; Sufis very rarely rejected the ‘literal’ or exoteric, and were often in fact particularly rigorous in their adherence to the ‘external’ religious law and rites. Indeed, for him—and for many, many other medieval exegetes, Muslim and Christian—scripture was not mere ‘allegory,’ in the modern sense, whereby the text really means something else than it appears on the surface, making the surface meaning superfluous. For these exegetes, scripture—and indeed history as a whole, especially as recorded in scripture and sacred tradition—was capable of simultaneous significances, equally important and ‘real,’ and mutually interdependent. To use a metaphor popular with Sufis, scripture is a sea, with many ‘submerged’ meanings, but all part of one single sea. Hence different exegetes might come to different conclusions when searching for the ‘inner’ meaning of a given passage—a perfectly acceptable outcome, given the boundless nature of the text. Similarly, for medieval Christian exegetes, the ‘mystical’ valences of scripture, be they typological, allegorical, or moral, were manifold, with different people in different spiritual states finding different meanings and spiritual nourishment in them, though all participating in both the shared ‘external’ meaning and the shared language and practices of in the ‘internal’ path. On the whole, this sort of interpretation tended to make the sacred text more intimate, more personal, as it was now reflective, not just of some universal salvation history, but also of the individual spiritual journey to God. Such a focus on the individual spiritual journey was not meant to negate or detract from the ‘historical,’ universal story, but rather to illuminate its ‘inner’ aspects, and bring it to the level of the individual seeker, the daily struggle against the passions, and the personal experience of God’s grace and illumination. Nor was such a focus meant to exist in isolation, or as mere individual discovery, but rather as part of a larger, older tradition of spiritual masters and seekers, speaking a shared language and sharing common symbols.
Then He related concerning the various sorts of His benefaction and the types of His grace with them, through His words: And when We delivered you from the house of Pharaoh (Q.2.49). The subtle indication (al-ishāra) in this [verse] is that the delivery from the house of Pharaoh, [who is] the lower self (al-nafs) commanding to evil, while they [the house of Pharaoh] are its blameworthy attributes and rebellious characteristics, on the day of They treated you unjustly with evil torment, slaughtering your sons and shaming your women. [That is], the spirit and the heart, by the slaughtering of the sons of the spiritual praiseworthy attributes, and the shaming of the women of one of the attributes of the heart, due to their making use of them for bestial, base deeds—[the aforementioned salvation] exists only through the deliverance of God, as Muhammad said [in the following ḥadīth]: ‘Not one of you is saved by his deeds! It was said: Not even you, O Prophet of God? He said: Not even me, except God cover me in His grace and mercy!’
And in your abasement: that is: in the overpowering domain of the attributes of the lower self over the spirit and the heart. A great trial from your Lord, in good and ill, for the one whom God guides and keeps safe and sound, He tries him, until he returns to God in seeking deliverance—so God saves him and destroys his enemies. The one whom He leads astray abides forever in the earth below and follows after his fleshly desires in excess, so God rejects him and allows his enemies to overwhelm him.
Then He related concerning His great benefaction on a succeeding occasion, with His words: And when we parted the sea for you: the subtle indication in this verse is that the sea is this world below—its waters are the desires and the pleasures of the world. Moses is the heart, and his people the attributes of the heart. Pharaoh is the lower self commanding [to evil], and his people are the attributes of the lower self, and they are the enemies of Moses and his people, seeking them in order to slay them, while they [Moses and his people] are traveling towards God away from their enemies who are following after them. Now: the sea of this world is before them, and they must certainly cross over the sea in their journey to God. If they heedlessly plunge into the sea without the striking of the staff of No god but God in the hand of Moses, the heart—for he possess a beneficient hand in this matter—then they would drown, as Pharaoh and his people drowned. But, if this staff had been in the hand of Pharaoh, the commanding lower self, it would not have possessed the confirmatory miracle of the cleaving of the sea. And when Moses, the heart, struck with the staff of remembrance [of God], through God’s permission, first the sea of this world below split with the negation of No god, then the water of its desires separated apart to the left and the right. Then God sent the wind of divine providence and the sun of divine guidance over the bottom of the sea of this world below, and it became dry of the waters of the desires. The Moses, the heart and its attributes, plunged in, crossed over, and the divine providence of but God delivered them to the shore of The utmost limit belongs to your Lord (Q. 53.42). It was said to Pharoah, the lower self: Drown, and enter the Fire! (Q. 71.25). So astutely understand—‘Verily, the Qur’an possesses an outer and inner [aspect].’
 The ‘lower self (al-nafs)’ or ‘soul’ commanding to evil is a term, Qu’ranic in derivation, that describes the lower, sinfully inclined portion of the human person, that in its corrupted state acts contrary to the human person’s original, exalted nature; it is generally irrational and inclined towards the passions and desires.
 The spirit (al-rūḥ) and the heart (al-qalb) are two ‘locii’ of the human person, the spiritual centers through which both the external and internal spiritual senses and locutions are processed. Sometimes the two are presented in a gradated fashion, with the heart being subordinate to the spirit; here, that hierarchy is less in evidence.
 This is of course the first half of the shahada, the Muslim declaration of faith. In Sufi practice and theory, this phrase is often used in dhikr (prayerful inner and outer remembrance of God), and has also accumulated an immense body of analysis and significances, of which this passage is but one brief instance.
 My somewhat clunky translation is an attempt to render the significance of the term mu’jiz, which is a particular sort of miracle, usually considered to be exclusive to prophets, as signs confirming their prophethood. The miracles of saints are, according to most theologians and mystical thinkers, of a different order and significance.
 A partial citation of a hadith much quoted, in one form or another, by Sufi exegetes.
August 24, 2013
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You can get there from here, though
there’s no going home.
Everywhere you go will be somewhere
you’ve never been. Try this:
head south on Mississippi 49, one-
by-one mile markers ticking off
another minute of your life. Follow this
to its natural conclusion- dead end
at the coast, the pier at Gulfport where
riggings of shrimp boats are loose stiches
in a sky threatening rain. Cross over
the man-made beach, 26 miles of sand
dumped on the mangrove swamp- buried
terrain of the past. Bring only
what you must carry- tome of memory,
its random blank pages. On the dock
where you will board the boat for Ship Island,
someone will take your picture:
the photograph- who you were-
will be waiting when you return.
Natasha Trethewey, ‘Theories of Time and Space,’ in Native Guard: Poems, 2006.