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...?