Wednesday, February 13, 2008

A mystical poem

Ibrahim has posted a poem to illustrate the mystical Islamic tradition that he admires. Ibrahim in italics. It's in response to my posting on intellectual black holes (which you should probably read first). My comments follow:

IBRAHIM WRITES: I am posting the following as an example of a text from within the Islamic mystical tradition. The author is Muhammad ibn al-Habib, a Moroccan shaykh who died in 1972 (see Wikipedia). It offers a view onto a non-rationalist tradition, which is either nothing but fantasy and imagination (or simple insanity), or an internally coherent and viable worldview shared and practised by millions of adherents past and present – or both. Note the stanza which appears towards the end: “Strip yourselves of all knowledge and understanding”. This is a technique which is referred to in other mystical traditions: “Except that ye be as little children…” and “In pursuit of knowledge, every day something is acquired; in pursuit of the Tao, every day something is taken away…” are two that spring to mind. Intellectual black holes?

The Robe of Nearness

The invocation of the Beloved has clothed us
in beauty, radiance, exaltation and delight.
In drawing near we cast aside every restraint
and openly proclaimed the One we love to glorify
The Beloved gave us a draught of pure love to drink
which forced all but the Beloved to disappear.
We saw the whole creation as mere floating specks of dust:
and witnessed the lights appear openly and clearly.
After having been effaced and annihilated
in a light-giving wine, we returned to creation.
By a pure gift from Allah we were given going-on
and then, with patience, we concealed the One we love.
How often have we looked on a wayfarer who has then risen
to the stations of those who have plunged into the seas!
We have healed the hearts of what had gripped and possessed them
through sciences whose taste is subtle; and then they soared.
We focused on something secretly and then it came about,
and so the One we have chosen to love has come to us.
We heard a secret call from the presence of the Unseen:
"In Our sight you are beloved so be filled with gratitude."
We have authority to quench the thirst of whoever comes longing
for the encounter and not seeking mere information.
Even if presents are plentiful and generous gifts abound,
pay no attention to them, but cling to poverty.
Humble yourselves to its people – they will satisfy your thirst.
You should draw near to them and have no fear of disgrace.
Strip yourselves of all knowledge and understanding
so that you may obtain what the great have obtained.
Freely offer up your self, you who desire union,
and follow the Shaykh in whatever he indicates.
Witness the truth in him, in both your essence and your heart,
annihilate yourself in him: by him you will win through.
He is the light of the Messenger from every point of view,
and the medicine of hearts, both openly and secretly.
So pay attention to him and show him great esteem.
Go into his presence in a completely broken state.
Blessings be upon the Prophet and all his family
and Companions and all who direct other people to him,
And peace, fragrant with musk and every sweet perfume,
and consummate beauty and unrivalled sublimity.

STEPHEN WRITES: Poetry is heady and intoxicating stuff, for sure. This poem encourages humility, and warns against placing love of material wealth and possessions over more important things. We can say "yes" to these parts, of course, as we can to the suggestion that, say, turning off our intellects for a bit and immersing ourselves in a child-like way (Ibrahim quotes "be as little children") in something (a game, a piece of music, etc.) can be a good thing.

But, having got you to start saying "yes" (a well known sales technique) it then starts slipping other messages in, including, crucially, the idea that, in one particular sphere, you should entirely shut down your critical faculties and permanently submit to the authority and majesty of "the one".

This is all dressed up in seemingly profound and heartfelt language, much like a love poem.

Here we find another standard technique of cults everywhere. Inspire people, get them saying "yes!", perhaps add a dollop of pseudo-profundity, and then start to suggest: "Oh and by the way, you have to just believe this. Forget about understanding or making any sense of it yourself - you are not capable. You must just unconditionally submit and open yourself up to THE TRUTH! And then you will KNOW!"

There's also a bit of "The Jesus Light" going on here too - appeal to some sort of inner, undeniable cosmic light.

I have to say, I find this sort of manipulation pretty creaky and transparent. I don't doubt it was written in all sincerity, though.

As I say, it involves a very well-worn and familiar technique, used by cultists everywhere, to which we seem peculiarly vulnerable. As I've also noted, such appeals to mystery and mystical experience and claims that "I just KNOW!" will be familiar to nurses working on psychiatric wards up and down the country.

I think what I need to do is make a still stronger case for distrusting such experiences and invitations to shut down ones intellect and embrace total submission. Will do that shortly...

In short, yes, I think this poem nicely illustrates an intellectual black hole in action.

Ibrahim - do read The Jesus Light if you get a chance. Be interested in your response.

POSTSCRIPT: one of the best ways of immunizing people against being sucked into such black holes is to reveal how they work, and to give lots of examples, so they can begin to see a pattern emerge. Perhaps, in order to reveal how poetry can be used in this way, we should run a poetry competition? You can submit a "mystical" religious poem, perhaps with some explanation of how and why you've constructed it. I suspect there are certain basic ground rules that most mystical religious poems use, so that, when you've got to know them, it's easy to produce your own (perhaps we could then write a computer program, a bit like the postmodern essay generator, to write such mystical poems). Bit cynical and cruel of me, perhaps, but undeniably educational. Shall we...?


Anonymous said...

So how do I choose between this poem, the Song of Solomon, Wordsworth's Daffodils, or Nina Simone singing Sinnerman as my guide to truth, to name the first three religious alternatives that come to mind?

Kiwi Dave

Anonymous said...

Better still is a poem by Rupert Brooke I once heard on one of the BBC's religious programmes:

Fish (fly-replete, in depth of June,
Dawdling away their wat'ry noon)
Ponder deep wisdom, dark or clear,
Each secret fishy hope or fear.
Fish say, they have their Stream and Pond;
But is there anything Beyond?
This life cannot be All, they swear,
For how unpleasant, if it were!
One may not doubt that, somehow, Good
Shall come of Water and of Mud;
And, sure, the reverent eye must see
A Purpose in Liquidity.
We darkly know, by Faith we cry,
The future is not Wholly Dry.
Mud unto mud! — Death eddies near —
Not here the appointed End, not here!
But somewhere, beyond Space and Time.
Is wetter water, slimier slime!
And there (they trust) there swimmeth One
Who swam ere rivers were begun,
Immense, of fishy form and mind,
Squamous, omnipotent, and kind;
And under that Almighty Fin,
The littlest fish may enter in.
Oh! never fly conceals a hook,
Fish say, in the Eternal Brook,
But more than mundane weeds are there,
And mud, celestially fair;
Fat caterpillars drift around,
And Paradisal grubs are found;
Unfading moths, immortal flies,
And the worm that never dies.
And in that Heaven of all their wish,
There shall be no more land, say fish.

Post-Islamist said...

I once had the opportunity to study pragmatics, part of which is concerned with conversational maxims and relevance theory. I believe that human beings, or at least the type with which we are familiar, will tend to assume that what the other person is saying is somehow relevant to the conversation. This leads us to try to interpret what the other is saying, however apparently meaningless, in a kind of spirit of goodwill, sometimes called the ‘politeness’ maxim. Some thinkers observe such other maxims as tact, generosity, approbation, modesty, agreement, and sympathy. These are kind of the unspoken rules of conversation. Now it is easy to exploit these maxims by cheating and thereby making fun of the poor dupe who was thinking all along that you were playing by the normal rules (sucker!). The postmodern generator is a good example, but what does it really prove?

As for commenting on the Jesus light – it would seem that anything I might want to say will be immediately categorised as pseudo-profundity so there doesn’t seem to be much point.

Stephen Law said...

Hello post-Islamist. No not everything you say will be dismissed as "pseudo-profundity". There are genuinely profound insights and truths of course. And sometimes they are expressed through poetry, of course.

You are right about operating with a principle of charity - trying to make the best sense one can of what someone else is saying. But of course, sometimes it's clear it doesn't make sense. The principle of charity doesn't prohibit us from saying something is vacuous, or muddled, or whatever, if we think it is.

I do think that the message at the core of this poem *does* makes sense, in fact. I think we would both agree precisely on what it encourages us to do: to turn our intellects firmly off and submit utterly to the will of Allah.

I'm just not going to do it. And I think there are excellent grounds for advising others to be very wary of such encouragements too.

These sort of injunctions are common across all cults. Pointing this up, and engaging in a little gentle mockery, seems to me a reasonable way of raising awareness of that fact.

Anonymous said...

While I basically agree with Stephen's line of reasoning, I find his occasional reference to psychiatric disorders a bit misplaced (or potentially distracting) in the debate.

Of course I realise that a substantial number of psychiatric afflicted have elements of religion as a part of their disease(s).
I also think descriptions of behaviour for a number of "prophets" and sages (from various religions) resembles some modern psychiatic diagnoses.

However, when it comes to what Ibrhahim tries to convey, it falls well within what I believe should be the span for "normality".
Hence I find the reference to psychiatric institutions a bit distrubing.

In Cod we trust

Ron Murphy said...


The psychiatric reference struck a chord with me. Without wishing to go into detail I'm in regular communication with someone who has a severe psychiatric disorder. The absolute certainty with which they 'know' something to be true, when everyone else knows it isn't, is a real illustration of the extent to which the human mind can fool its own conscious self. Yes, it may be an extreme example, but aren't most extremes in human conditions simply further out from the norm than the non-extreme.

We are all susceptable to illusion and delusion, especially self-delusion. "Smart people are very good at rationalising things they came to believe for non-smart reasons." - can't remember who said that.

Anonymous said...

@ Ron,
I appreciate your point, and I have similar personnal experiences myself.

My point was that I am currently not inclined to think that Ibrahim or Post-islamist are reasoning outside (psychiatric) "normality".

In Cod we trust

Stephen Law said...

Yes let me stress that I am not suggesting that Ibrahim, or mystics, or religious people generally, are nuts. Sorry if I seemed to be implying that. But have made some connections obviously:

1. I have just been struck by similarities between the patterns of reasoning some religious folk exhibit and those exhibited by some nutty people. Both seem to find themselves locked inside weird, self-sealing bubbles of belief from which they cannot escape. I have written something on Yong Earth Creationists along these lines. To me, talking to, say, a Young Earth Creationist, or a member of the Plymouth Brethren, really does seem a lot like talking to someone who has some sort of psychiatric condition. But no, I don't think the former are insane.

2. Another point I made (a challenge I laid down) was, if we say that certain intellectual moves are ridiculous when made by the clearly deluded, how do we justify taking them more seriously when made by the religious.

3. I also think that normalcy shades into abnormalcy, and that *certain* religious experiences - particularly those of overwhelming euphoria - are probably not so very far removed from the experiences of those who have some sort of psychiatric condition. I think we all have experiences like that, of differing degrees, from time to time, don't we? What makes them "religious" is that they then just get interpreted religiously.

Ibrahim Lawson said...

Post-Islamist, one thing the postmodern generator might mean is that an unquantifiable but central aspect of human experience cannot be captured by certain kinds of thinking. There are some texts you read which are delightfully clear, transparent and unambiguous, written in every day language, well-structured and logically ordered. I enjoy reading and appreciate such texts in philosophy, which can be beautiful in a kind of Mozartian way. However, to my knowledge, this way of thinking and speaking has a curious difficulty in accounting for some pretty basic elements of our life: the reality of the world and the reliability of our knowledge of it; how on earth we ever get signs to represent meaning; how we know other people have minds like ours; what the word ‘true’ means; why we should think that some things are morally right or wrong, etc. I mean, fairly important stuff, right? Now you might think that these things just are and we can take that pretty much for granted, but is that really good enough? Does that authorise us to take a position on these things when someone else disagrees with us?- let alone set about sorting that person out using physical violence? (Bombing will continue until ‘democracy’ is established). I say no.

Getting back to the difficult issues, if logic etc won’t so it, what else do we have to help us get some kind of linguistic grip on what is means to be human? Whatever it is, it isn’t going to be logical, and it’s going to be difficult, it’s going to have long awkward words or vaguely allusive ‘propositions’; why, there might even be contradictions. And it’s going to be easy to parody.

Ron Murphy said...


This is about as close to agreeing with you I feel I have come so far.

"...this way of thinking and speaking has a curious difficulty in accounting for some pretty basic elements of our life: the reality of the world and the reliability of our knowledge of it." - Yes, in terms of philosophy and metaphysics.

We really don't know what reality is, ultimately. I personally want to continue to investigate this reality through modern Western philosophy, using reason and science as a foundation since they have, for me, produced the best results so far. You may choose to do it 'mystically' - where the scare quotes merely indicate that I don't see any value in that route, not that I thinks it can be proved to be wrong.

"I mean, fairly important stuff, right?" - Yes, for many people, current company included I think. Though not for all; not for some atheists, and I'd say not for some followers of religion.

"Now you might think that these things just are and we can take that pretty much for granted,..." - For daily use, yes. "...but is that really good enough?" - In the quest for truth, not entirely.

"Does that authorise us to take a position on these things when someone else disagrees with us? - let alone set about sorting that person out using physical violence? (Bombing will continue until ‘democracy’ is established). I say no." - Bingo! Exactly! It doesn't give Bush and Blair the authority to invade Iraq. It doesn't give the Pope the authority to 'persuade' (the indoctrinated) to avoid condom use when it could reduce the spread of AIDS.

And, it doesn't give Islam (through its followers) the authority to kill apostates and blasphemers, or to impose rules on homosexuals, or to indoctrinate children, or to impose Sharia law, or to impose your view on people that don't share your view.

And, it doesn't give reason based atheists and secularists the authority to prevent you from observing those parts of your faith that don't also impose on others. Oh, but then we don't claim that authority do we.

Ibrahim Lawson said...

Ron, I really must get on with my work so I'll write again later, but I thought you'd pick up on the comment about not having the right to use our own position to interfere with others when we can't know that we are right. but of course I am critiquing rationalism, as an ideology, here - it is rationalists who cannot justify their politics on that, faulty or at least problematic, basis. A Muslim is not similarly prevented from being certain about their beliefs and therefore imposing themselves on others if that is necessary and appropriate (and it isn't, I hasten to add). And I suspect that underneath the carefully constructed veneer of reasonable respectability, liberal secularists have no qualms about the use of force 'when necessary'. I am saying that by their own ideology, which cannot demonstrate its own validity in its own terms, they cannot justify this; and that therefore they haven't got a leg to stand on, or any moral high ground, when it comes to criticsing other people.

Ron Murphy said...


So, are we agreed that Bush, Blair, the Pope and other Christians, and other theologies, and atheists don't have the authority to impose their views on others?

Is the only sticking point about whether Muslims have the only truth? Which Muslims might that be? There appear to be several 'true' Islams out there.

And how do you come to believe that Muslims (albeit with the 'right' authority and the 'right' reason) have the authority to kill apostates and blasphemers, or to impose rules on homosexuals, or to indoctrinate children, or to impose Sharia law?

"...if that is necessary and appropriate (and it isn't, I hasten to add)." - Well many Muslim authorities think it is, not to mention the many non-authorised crackpots that follow Islam. This is the danger of Islam (and religion generally).

Is this another "Heads I win, tails you lose" argument? Because if it is, the only 'truth' it reveals is the danger of Islam.

And, to pick up on the other part of this post, particularly Stephen's "Yes let me stress that I am not suggesting that Ibrahim, or mystics, or religious people generally, are nuts.", and Cassanders' "My point was that I am currently not inclined to think that Ibrahim or Post-islamist are reasoning outside (psychiatric) 'normality'." - In respect of your certainty, "A Muslim is not similarly prevented from being certain about their beliefs..." - I seriously wonder if following some religions does in fact induce some degree of the psychosis I have witnessed in the genuinely ill.

But, rather then assert such an unqualified judgement, I would simply ask, how do we, or you, tell the difference?

Ron Murphy said...


I have a question.

On your blog we have been engaged in debate with Ibrahim, a Muslim. There are also debates with a Christian, Sam of Elizaphanian, where he has contributed here, and in more detail on his and other blogs. In both cases, when they debate with atheists there is some attempt at rationality, but when rational debate fails them they resort to some version of, "Your rationality is limited, my faith isn't. Your world view doesn't include all forms of knowledge, mine includes another form of knowledge your rationality doesn't have access to. I know the real truth, you don't. Heads I win, tails you lose."

So, the question is, how do these two debate, between themselves, their one truth as they see it?

I've never witnessed such a debate in depth. All I see is when Muslims and Christian debate anything in public is a stand-off when the debate moves towards the questioning of their faiths. I'd like to listen in on a real debate between members of the two groups. I suspect I wouldn't be able to keep up as they drift off into fantasy land, but it might be worth a try.

I'd be interested in your view.

Nathanael said...

I'm sorry to say, but this is, in terms of literary aesthetic, a poor poem.

Nathanael said...

Stephen's critique of the poem as little more than cult-induced propoganda is right on target.