Category: Issue 98

98 Beyond US vs THEM

Beyond US vs THEM


Tribalism is on the rise. Across the United States and Europe, people are becoming more divided along party lines.  Humane immigration policies, democratic values and the future of the planet (due to the threat of climate change) are all at stake, and there sometimes seems to be no prospect of people becoming receptive to opposing views or making any compromise. Tribalism operates at several levels: at the level of the nation, promoting nationalistic ideology; at the level of political party, promoting either right, left or center ideology; at the level of race, promoting one race or ethnic group over the other; and at the level of religion, promoting one religion as “truer” and morally superior to others.

At the heart of tribalism is the idea that the set of values and beliefs to which one adheres is “better” or “truer” than any other set of values and therefore one must not only stay loyal to those views but also one must do so to the detriment of one’s adversaries. Only the tribe I belong to is the right one. Therefore, I must advance the views and values of my tribe while destroying the beliefs and values of the other tribe.

In his recent book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, Robert Sapolsky explores the biological roots of tribalism; he uses the term “Us Versus THEM” to refer to this way of thinking. What’s fascinating about Sapolsky’s approach is that it shows that our biological system is attuned to seeing the world in tribalistic terms of Us Versus THEM, and that we have to make a constant effort if we want to override our biological tendencies towards tribalism.

From the day we are born we learn to group and categorize our sensory data to perceive something as either similar to us or different from us, hence agreeable or repugnant. This is especially true about our ability to recognize and group people in terms of the color of their skin, race and gender. We perceive the race of a person in less than one tenth of a second and the gender of a face within 150 milliseconds. By the age of three to four, children already group people by race and gender and have a “more negative view of those who differ from them in these categories and perceive other faces as angrier than same race faces” (2017, 391).

Interestingly, and perhaps disappointingly, the perception of dichotomy between Us Versus THEM is usually automatic and happens at the unconscious level. But even if we have no control over categorizing someone as being one of Us or as one of THEM initially, control can eventually happen at the cognitive and conscious stage. When presented with information that tells us another person is different from us because of our perception of his/her race, for example, we may either accept the difference as essential or override the difference as being superficial. We can use a higher-level analysis of context to determine if a perceived difference is a real threat or not.

However, there is still further processing at the unconscious level before our conscious mind can decide what to do with the information. Once we recognize someone as THEM due to their skin colour, race or religion, the amygdala (the part of the brain which sits under the cortex in the temporal lobe of the brain) is activated. The activation of the amygdala is usually associated with feelings of anger, fear or aggression. So we already feel fear or anger towards THEM before deciding what to think. In other words, our mental capacity is already rigged or biased about THEM by the time we are presented with information about others at the conscious level. Moreover, hormones such as testosterone or oxytocin may help to support a barrier between Us and THEM. For example, the hormone oxytocin, which is abundant in mothers and promotes trust, generosity and cooperation, can also exaggerate tribalism and encourage aggressive behaviour towards THEM.

The seat of our rational thinking and cognition is the frontal cortex which sits on top of the amygdala. Oftentimes, when our amygdala is activated and we feel anger or fear, we are able to override these feelings and put them aside by using conscious thinking. After examining the situation, we may come to realize that there is no reason for experiencing fear and anger and consequently we can ignore the instinctual fear and anger we feel when we encounter one of THEM. But sometimes our cognitive thinking can be influenced by subliminal messages or alternative realities that our culture may present in order to take advantage of and affirm the bias presented by the stimulation in the amygdala. These false messages serve to discourage us from overriding the biological response, and instead reinforce our basic instincts. We are all too familiar with the role of propaganda and misinformation by political parties to propagate untruths and promote a negative view of the other side. In such circumstances, the amygdala goes into overdrive; once it subjugates our rational cognition, we become a full-fledged member of the Us Versus THEM tribe.

I hope it is obvious that tribalism is detrimental to humanity. If not controlled and defeated, it usually ends in conflict and war with disastrous consequences. In fact, human history is filled with wars and conflicts caused by race, ideology, irrational beliefs and outright false opinions about others. We need a worldview which is inclusive of others if we are to survive as a species. It doesn’t take much to realize that distinctions based on race, cultural norms, ideology and religion are superficial. Distinctions dissolve when we can connect to THEM by listening to them and expressing kindness. Interaction and dialogue lead to understanding and reduce the perceived sense of threat.

Of course, at the political level, one way to resist tribalism is to promote policies that are based on equality and fairness. Such policies, when implemented, can encourage us to question our base instincts. When we feel threatened by THEM and there is no real rational justification for our fear and anger, the existing cultural norms and values can help us to overcome these feelings and override the messages we receive from the amygdala. Humane policies must be able to withstand challenges such as the recent mass migrations from poor to rich countries caused by global warming, poverty and wars. These circumstances have put Western egalitarian views under severe pressure, and have contributed to the rise of populism and nationalism around the globe.

In fact, our moral and spiritual growth is only possible when we go out of our safe community and reach out to others who think differently from us.

Religion can be proposed as a way to reduce or override unconscious or biological tribalism by promoting compassion and tolerance towards others. However, it can also be used as a sword to eliminate others and to promote our basic negative instincts and prejudices. During the Crusades tens of thousands of people were killed. Catholics and Protestants have been killing each other in Europe for 500 years and Shiites and Sunnis for almost 1300 years in the Middle East. We still see the conflict between Hindus and Muslims in India; Buddhist monks led the persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar (previously known as Burma). Jews have been subject to persecution, expulsion, pogroms and genocide throughout Europe, and the Middle East for millennia.

At the personal level, there are of course various techniques available to an individual confronted with tribalism so as to resist being swept away by feelings of anger and fear when experiencing others as THEM. One is mindfulness: the practice of being aware of our fear and anger and trying to understand why we feel this way towards others. We can try to acknowledge the reasons for it and make explicit to ourselves our automatic biases in order to understand ourselves better and to control such biases. We should pay attention to our shared attributes with others and ignore our superficial differences. We can also actively engage in perspective-taking: when confronted with one of THEM, try to take his/her perspective. Thinking from and imagining the reasons behind another person’s point of view have been shown to reduce our bias towards others.

Where does Sufism fit in all this? For starters, the practice of Sufism is not about having the right sort of belief; it is about having the right sort of attitude in the world. It is the attitude that it is possible to strive to be a better human being, to discover our divine nature and in doing so to bring joy and happiness to others. It is to fight against our base instincts and transform ourselves to kinder and friendlier individuals. The underlying metaphysical premise is designed to help one to achieve this goal. One starts with the principle that there is only one being in the universe and whatever exists is a manifestation of that one being. Oneness is the basis of Sufism. When one accepts Oneness, all dichotomies disappear and with them the distinction between Us Versus THEM. We all share the same divine essence though in appearance we are different. Of course, one does not know the truth of this premise until and unless one experiences it. That is the reason a proper attitude is required in Sufism instead of having the right sort of belief: the attitude that changing oneself is possible. Sufism is an experiential mode of existence. For the one who experiences unity of being, all distinctions disappear—there is only one reality. There is no Us, there is no THEM, but only the One.

It is important to note that Sufism works at the individual level, not at the level of a uniform community. This is because any transformation requires that the individual make an effort while living and working in a normal community. One can only see his/her base instincts while living and working solely with others who are different and who believe and behave differently. The practice of Sufism does not happen in isolation, nor does it work while living and working with people who believe and feel the same way about the world. A muscle can only be developed when it meets resistance; likewise, our strength to overcome our instinctual aggression can only be developed when there is something present that triggers those base feelings.

This is, of course, not to deny the valuable role of community in one’s moral and spiritual development. Human beings are, by their very nature, social, and we form communities based on our shared values and beliefs. We all have a sense of wanting to belong to a group where others share our views. The numerous online communities which have emerged across the internet are evidence of our deep desire to engage with similar-minded people. The role of a healthy community is to provide a safe environment for individuals to thrive morally and spiritually and to actualize their potential in every field of knowledge. But to belong to a community should not mean to deny that there are other communities with different beliefs and values. In fact, our moral and spiritual growth is only possible when we go out of our safe community and reach out to others who think differently from us.

To tackle the problem of tribalism we need a combination of individual efforts such as practicing mindfulness, embarking on a spiritual journey, and employing rational thinking, as well as support from our cultural norms and political systems. If the social fabric of society is not based on fairness and truth, we will be overwhelmed and alone in our struggle to transform ourselves, and we will be susceptible to our inherent biases being reinforced by negative societal influences. Conversely, if we do not struggle to transform ourselves and tackle our biases earnestly at the individual level, no amount of help from society will help us to overcome our basic and biological tendencies towards tribalism.

Sapolsky, Robert, Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, Bodley Head Press, 2017.


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98 I am drunk from head to toe



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I am drunk from head to toe

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Love for my Beloved’s beauty has rendered me drunk
from head to toe.
I have abandoned my self. I am bewildered.
I am drunk from head to toe.

I keep drinking the bitter wine of pining for Him.
I have lost all reason,
I have nowhere to settle or rest.
I am drunk from head to toe.

Don’t preach moderation to me, I worship wine!
I will drink even more than before;
I am drunk from head to toe.

I know the way of wisdom,
But I am trapped in the Beloved’s love,
and I am drunk from head to toe.

I will rise up and whirl, I will stamp my feet
and holler drunkenly,
for I am drunk from head to toe.

Yesterday is gone, tomorrow has not come;
this moment, among the Rendan,
I am drunk from head to toe.

I swear by the Bestower of Light and my Master’s grace,
that I am happy among these drunks,
and I am drunk from head to toe.

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98 The Bees of the Invisible


Photo © Bert Hoferichter/Alamy.COM

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The Bees of the Invisible

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We are the bees of the invisible. We wildly gather the honey of the invisible in order to store it in the great golden hive of the Invisible.
—Rainer Maria Rilke, from The Poet’s Guide to Life: The Wisdom of Rilke, Translated by Ulrich Baer

I recognize a sacredness
in the kousa dogwood this morning
as I have no other
morning, noticing its red fruit
ripening among the branches
that the barnyard squirrel
will gorge on when it is at its peak,

which marks the end of summer
and autumn’s incipience.
How difficult it is to give up
August’s lushness,
in all of its wildness,
to the glorious diminishment
of September, with its flashy golden

days, the mornings drenched
with heavy dew, each one surprising
as purple asters appearing
amid the cool shadows of the grass.
In winter, when the snow accrues
the rabbits that burrow
in the juniper hedge emerge

to nibble the bark of the dogwood
since they are unable to browse,
and they strip a few inches from
the base of the tree; but now
I am drawn to the counterpoint
of the catbird’s cry
and the throbbing pulse of cicadas.

In making things whole,
the bees of the invisible hover
above deep blue stands of chicory
lingering amid the flat tops
of Queen Anne’s lace that flourish
among the leaning swaths
of timothy’s newly gilt inflorescence.

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98 The World Is As You See It

The World
Is As You See It


When one sees from the Heart,
one’s vision is said to be adjusted…

When the Earth shakes, the tremor is being felt right at the heart, before any cognition has taken place. At that very instant, before any sensory experience kicks in, we feel the gripping sensation at the very core of our being… A split second after, the immediacy of the event is being “assessed” by the cognitive responses, and we act in accord with the inborn reflexes, or the way we’ve mastered the instincts.

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These kinds of experiences strip us bare of all coverings, and we stand naked at the presence of pure Being, even if for a split moment. In the aftermath, we often feel serene and elated from being shaken to the roots of our existence. These moments have the capacity to reveal that awareness is prior to any sensory or mental interpretation. The reason why it’s not obvious, is because cognition takes over in a flash, perhaps to reassure the continuity of sensory perception. This is the key to the mystery of perception, that which keeps the treasure of direct experiencing locked into relationship between the seer and the seen.

The Kashmir Shaiva Tantras speak of dramatic experiences that give us an immediate sense of our essential nature beyond any coverings or conceptual understanding. These experiences don’t have to be terrifying or frightening. The receptiveness to beauty could be just as powerful, for it opens the windows onto a transcendental view of reality.1 Creating or being in the presence of a profoundly moving work of art, in whatever form, could trigger an aesthetic response which prompts us to lose our identity for a moment, and merge with the work. This transcendental experience of becoming one with what is being perceiveds could be said to be the very noble purpose of all arts. Most of us have had these experiences, albeit they are too short and pass unacknowledged. Still, these are casual confirmations of the Self uncoated by Its own power of perception, immediate and self-evident, even if it falls short of a true spiritual revelation.

One could argue that these are only fleeting moments and have little significance when it comes to deep spiritual insights. Fleeting as they are, these moments give us a distinctive flavor of Being beyond any sensory or mental interpretation, well before the Self has fully cognized Itself on the level of human existence. That is, shaken to the core, we fall into Awareness which puts us firmly on the ground of conscious living.

No matter how knowledgeable or intelligent we are, our perception is subjected to the limitations imposed by the relationship between knower and known. It is because the knowledge itself is based on information provided by the senses, and interpreted by the dichotomized nature of the mind. While subject and object remain a predominant experience, direct perception of Reality is hidden from the view. The purpose of spiritual practice is to free our awareness from the duality born of the perceiver and the perceived. Another meaning of liberation, is freedom from the known— not so much from memory, which holds experiences stored as information, but freedom from the identification with the knower and the known above all else!

That liberation cannot be achieved on the level of mind. No matter how clear the grasp of Ultimate Reality is on the intellectual level, it is still a concept. Mind is inseparable from the dual nature of a thought, where subject and object are its chief components. It is for that reason that Perennial traditions speak of merging into the Heart, for it reconciles the seer (subject) and the seen (object) into Oneness—as natural a state as Being itself.

Beatific or terrifying, all experiences arise from and merge into that sphere where perception is in the molten state of pure potentiality. This is of special significance, for our perception is at its utmost refinement when the creative tension between our awareness and pure potentiality is in perfect alignment. That alignment is represented by the union of Shiva and Shakti, and spontaneously takes place at the Heart.

The heart region is associated with many functions, and often serves as a metaphor for feeling, emotion and intuition. However, the Spiritual Heart is not the physical heart, nor is it the energetic wheel known as the Anahata Chakra, but the abode of Consciousness Itself.2 The Spiritual Heart transcends Time and Space, yet it has a precise location in the human body, and experience places it in the chest, two digits to the right of the central line, almost mirroring the physical heart.

Entering the Heart—as most explicitly spoken in the traditions of Sufism and Tantra—is paramount to direct realization of one’s essential nature. For it allows seeing through the Heart. Here perception reaches its spiritual maturity, undisturbed by fluctuations of the mind, and refined to the point of Oneness.

The Heart is the seat of prana (vital force) contained in perfect equilibrium; direct apprehension of the Supreme Essence is fully cognized here. From here, it emanates as Universal Love and finds its expression on all planes. The Heart is the eye of Non-Dual Awareness, which beholds all creation with an equal vision. From here, all perceptions ebb and flow as waves on the sea of infinity.

Everyone familiar with the ancient Advaita Vedanta text3 would recognize that the line­—“The world is as you see it”— serves as a leitmotif of the entire scripture, and points to the core of experience itself. Yet the phrase is not as obvious as it may seem.

At its face value, the line conveys the very nature of seeing, for the quality of perception is based on the cognitive responses. Empowered by the dichotomized and synthesizing nature of the brain, the senses complete the picture by giving us the three-dimensional view of what we call manifested reality. That process, electrical in essence, is conducted by the vital force or prana, as it is known in the Indian tradition.

Prana is the chief property of Shakti,4 the dynamic aspect of Awareness which illumines all processes. Shakti is responsible for expansion and contraction of Awareness on the level of human experience.5

Perception is far from a passive act, and the information supplied by the senses is not an autonomous event taking place in a human body. It is a process where the inseparable relationship between the observer and the observed is in a state of creative tension. Moreover, that relationship is influenced by the quality of perceiving, the quality of observing. When I behold something—anything—I am bringing it forth into existence by the sheer act of seeing. Seen from that perspective, perception is a dynamic process, where perceiver, perceiving and perceived are mutually interdependent modalities of Consciousness, without which there is no experience. Our perception is colored by the modality which dominates awareness at any particular moment. For instance, when the object dominates our experience, perception is said to be reduced to the gross experience of physical reality. When our attention moves to the subject, there is a qualitative shift in awareness.

Entering the Heart—as most explicitly spoken in the traditions of Sufism and Tantra—is paramount to direct realization of one’s essential nature.

The richness of our environment is based on the level of our awareness. The world “out there” is the way we perceive it “in here,” and that’s not a static affair, for our reality changes with our perception of it. It is for that reason that refinement of perception is seen as an indispensable part of any spiritual progress. From gross to subtle, to celestial and beyond, with every change in awareness, there is a corresponding change in perception, and, as a result, in our environment. Consciousness is self-referral and perception is its inherent quality. It is said that the creative vision of an artist is based on the perceptual ability to see the world beyond the obvious. Likewise, the mystical vision is a transparent perception of reality stripped of coverings from the sensory to the extra-sensory, to the divine vision of the Self beholding Itself. Moreover, every change in perception is accompanied by subtle changes in what is being perceived. We are literally molding our reality by the way we perceive it. The true seeing unfolds in being able to appreciate the subtlest aspect of creation in all its beauty and splendor; it’s “To see a World in a Grain of Sand And a Heaven in a Wild Flower…” to borrow William Blake’s line, as a poetic vision of Oneness in motion.

There is a certain view prevalent in Neo-Advaita suggesting that names and forms are creations of the mind, which means that as long as the mind exists, so does the world of forms and phenomena. That view makes sense when the world is seen as an illusion or a reflection of Pure Awareness.

However, when the world is perceived in terms of one’s own Self, what seemed unreal—at the initial or intermediate stages of Self-realization—is now being experienced as one’s own reality, permeated with Bliss. This is a very intimate affair, where such terms as ‘real’ and ‘unreal’ completely lose their meaning. So, the intimacy between name and form goes beyond formation of the mind. To have a better view on that, let us consider the following.

Any form in its essence is sound condensed as matter. Sound creates patterns; these patterns correspond to anything born into the manifested, audible plane of existence. Thus, Kashmir Shaivism speaks of the vocalized patterns of Energy (Shakti) as an expression of Pure Awareness (Shiva), where the matrix6 of name and form is the Womb of all that is born into existence. These vocal sounds emanate from the Heart, and assume an identity of their own by veiling Pure Awareness with the power of Its own limitation. Yet, in essence, all names and forms are expressions of Oneness humming Its own name to Itself.

Shakti (Pure Potentiality) is the dynamic expression of Shiva (Pure Awareness). Shakti is Shiva. Pure Awareness and Pure Potentiality are in a state of constant creative tension, without which there is no experience at all. When it comes to perception, there is nothing that has no Shakti behind its movement. We could suggest that the unfathomable mystery of perception is perfectly reflected through the complex network of cognitive responses on the level of human physiology, where sensory experiences are divine attributes and Grace Itself is the transmitter.

To sum it up without any attempts to pin it down, there is no Awareness without Movement within its own Stillness. Consciousness is conscious of Itself because of Its inherent movement within. What is real or unreal here is indeed a matter of perception. Hence, the world is as you see it. Whatever you perceive, behold it tenderly; it is alive and throbbing with infinite possibilities of which you are but an expression of Love in Its pure potentiality.

1 According to the Tantras, there are five faces of Shiva (Awareness, Absolute), each reflecting a certain attitude and associated with the particular subtle element which has its counterpart in the manifested plane of existence.
2 It is an important distinction that the physical heart is the most refined replica on the material plane, while the Heart Chakra is the energetic wheel which balances the elementary realm with that of pure tattvas (forms of energy).
3 Yoga Vasistha – one of the most important scriptures of the Vedantic Philosophy.
4 According to the Tantric view, Shakti is the primordial power which gives rise to all Energy. It is the power of Shiva (Pure Awareness) manifesting Itself as Shakti (Pure Potentiality).
5 The very term Kundalini, ‘the coiled one’ conveys the contracted state of Awareness on the psychophysiological plane. When that [Energy] is stirred, awakened and undergoes the process of expansion, it is known, from there on, as Prana Shakti.
6 Matrika (Sanskrit), from the root “ma”—Mother of all that exists. Hence the world is seen not as an Illusion, but pulsating with infinite possibilities—Reality Itself. This is an alternative view of maya, distinctively different from the dreamlike illusion largely accepted in Advaita Vedanta.


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98 When a Sufi Chooses to Travel

When a Sufi Chooses to Travel

Two South Asian Pilgrimages


When a dervish chooses to travel…his object in traveling must be either pilgrimage or opposing injustice or to see a (holy) site or to derive instruction or to seek knowledge or to visit a venerable person, a Shaykh, or the tomb of a saint; otherwise his journey will be faulty.

—Data Ganj Bakhsh

When our Sufi teacher, Syed Mumtaz Hussain Shah, or Shah Jii, traveled away from his Sufi center, a cave and complex of small buildings in the hills near the city of Islamabad in Northern Pakistan, he carried a small satchel. In this satchel was the one book he owned, an Urdu translation of The Unveiling of the Veiled by the famous 11th-century Sufi Saint, Hujwiri, or Data Ganj Bakhsh. When we discussed the passage above from Data’s book, Shah Jii said to me, “These principles are quite correct and I appreciate all of them. However, one more rule needs to be added—We only travel under the instructions, guidance, and blessing of our Murshid, ‘Spiritual Master,’ or, as we shall see, ‘Spiritual Masters.’”

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Later, one day in June, 1977, Shah Jii informed me and the rest of the disciples that his Murshid had instructed him to travel next week to the tomb of a Saint high in the hills of Murree. The disciples were pleased. They told me that the mountain site was beautiful, that we would arrive before sunset, enjoy the evening’s activities, and participate the next day in the Urs, death day celebration, at the tomb of Baba Lal Shah. The drive up they said would, “only take about two hours.” However, as it turned out, the trip was a long, intense, and challenging series of difficulties and openings that took almost eight hours.

About two in the afternoon, when we were expecting to set out, Shah Jii came down the trail from the Sufi Center to the bus stop and parking area at the edge of the village of Nurpur. There he found several of his followers arguing with the driver who was supposed to take us to Murree. We had obtained an old white van but given that 14 of us were going —Shah Jii, several senior disciples, two young disciples, and some worldly followers and family members, we needed a car as well. It had been sunny in the morning, but now the weather was turning dark, ugly purple and gray clouds rolled rapidly past overhead and fierce gusts of wind whipped up dust around us. The driver was concerned about the weather and our plan to take back roads. Becoming surly and rude, he loudly demanded more money. Shah Jii stepped in and patiently tried to persuade the driver but he refused to listen, turned, and stalked off angrily. Shah Jii remained completely at ease, calm and unperturbed. As the driver walked off, Shah Jii happily joked and laughed with a friend who had just arrived.

Up on the hills. lightning was playing and we could hear distant thunder. One of the disciples said, “The weather does look really bad.” “No matter,” Shah Jii replied serenely and he sent two of the disciples off to the nearby city of Rawalpindi to seek another driver. As we waited, a thunder storm hit with crashing thunder, wild strikes of lightning, and a downpour of rain. Finally, about 3:30 the disciples returned with another driver and his car, a battered 1967 Opal. Our spirits lifted and we attached green flags to the car, signalling that we were Sufis on pilgrimage. It was still raining but everyone seemed glad to be leaving the routines of ordinary life and happy to be finally setting out together for the celebration ahead. Shouting religious slogans, both drivers gunned their engines and we roared off together. Splashing along the wet road, the van pulled up even with our car and laughing and shouting we raced down the road side by side. The van went on ahead when we stopped for gas. When the tank was filled, the car wouldn’t start. As the rain poured down, we got behind the car and pushed. Finally the engine coughed into action and we drove on, beginning our long slow climb up into the steep hills. The car was humid, one of the windshield wipers was broken, and the visibility was poor. The driver often had to lean out the side window and wipe the outside of the windshield with a rag. He was also concerned about an official check point up ahead because we did not have the appropriate official papers. Darkness fell and the twisting mountain road was slick, dark and narrow with deep drops down into the valleys below. We slowly passed though dark pine forests. In several places the road was partially washed out and we had to inch past dangerous drops. Shah Jii remained as serene as ever and he too chuckled when the driver jokingly asked, “Wouldn’t one of you like to drive?”

Stopping for tea at a candlelit café, we were told that there had been several accidents on the road. In one crash a truck overturned and one of the passengers, a young boy, mysteriously disappeared. As we discussed the road ahead, one of the disciples complained about all the troubles we were encountering, the delays and dangers, the bad roads, and the terrible weather. Shah Jii smiled and calmly said “What ‘difficulties?’ Difficulties are what make travel amusing.” When we came to the checkpoint the armed guards, seeing our Sufi flags, waved us on through. But the challenges continued. Given the poor visibility and bad roads we drove slowly. Mostly there was no other traffic but occasionally, a huge painted truck or large rickety bus suddenly appeared around the turn ahead. We narrowly avoided several crashes as we drove along the very edge of the road. Two or three times we had to slam on the brakes, stop, and back up to allow a truck to squeeze by.

When we finally reached the entrance to Baba Lal’s shrine it was 11:30 pm, about eight hours after we set out. We turned off the highway and started down the dirt entry road. Because of the rain it had turned to mud as slick as ice and the car—impossible to control—slid alarmingly from side to side. Eventually we had to leave the car and set out on foot, carrying our gear towards the shrine in the dark, rain, and mud. Arriving, we found that the shelters were crowded and completely full and there was no place for us out of the rain. “No matter,” said Shah Jii. So we walked out onto a wet grassy field, spread a heavy carpet down on the ground, lay down, and pulled another carpet up over us. The five of us lay side by side with the rain pattering down on the top carpet just above our heads. Soon the rain stopped and despite the discomfort, we were fairly dry. It felt surprisingly good to be lying there together with our Teacher. We were happy to be with him and there was a pleasing sense of spiritual camaraderie. Shah Jii seemed totally content, happy and at ease. I fell into a peaceful sleep. When we awoke, the scene was wonderful. The rain and clouds were gone and the sun was shining warm and bright. The sky above was beautifully clear, the mountain air fresh, and up here on this high meadow we could see ridge after ridge of blue mountains falling away towards the Indus plain in the distance far below. Cooking fires were already going, someone was beating a huge drum, and several men and women were beginning to dance. It was a happy time, this was the anniversary of Baba Lal Shah’s union with the divine.

When we awoke, the scene was wonderful. The rain and clouds were gone and the sun was shining warm and bright. The sky above was beautifully clear, the mountain air fresh, and up here on this high meadow we could see ridge after ridge of blue mountains falling away towards the Indus plain in the distance far below.

So Shah Jii and the Sufis quite remarkably transformed our long, arduous, challenging eight-hour journey and difficult arrival into an interesting, enjoyable, and “amusing” spiritual experience. Through their teachings; “no matter,” “difficulties are what make travel amusing,” their general orientation and demeanor, and their responses to what occurred, Shah Jii and his senior disciples taught us about the Sufi way of travel. If you can rise out of the nafs, the whining complaining lower self, and stay with and be guided by the Ruh, or True Self, the difficulties and opportunities of travel can become “amusing,” interesting, and entertaining opportunities to practice the art of the Sufi way. Along with prayer and meditation, the Sufis accomplished this transformation through how they related to their companions. There was a strong feeling of spiritual camaraderie, responsibility, affection and connectedness. The Sufis seemed always to be relating to each other through relaxed, leisurely, friendly conversing. Chuckling and laughing, they kept and regained composure by centering, staying in the Self, and relating from there. Helping to lift each other up, they reinforced the happiness and power of being together on a spiritual journey. Our Teacher, Shah Jii, played the key role in this, his affection for us as his students, his words, suggestions, laughter, serenity, charisma and unshakable good humor were contagious and called us back to the way. Through his presence and guidance we experienced a peculiar sense of contentment—satisfied and happy to be right here on this journey willingly accepting whatever was happening.

Our support from Shah Jiii was amplified by the principle he added to Data’s rules for Sufi travel. On this journey it was not just the five of us riding in the car or sleeping under the carpet. We were accompanied by a powerful set of invisible companions, our Spiritual Allies, or “Murshid.” For these Sufis, the Murshid was not one singular Teacher but a collective who were mainly understood to be the spirits of the Sufi teachers with whom we were connected. Most important was Shah Jii himself—in his physical presence and also as a figure in our minds. The Murshid also included Shah Jii’s teachers and several Sufi Saints like Buri Imam, Data, Zinda Walyi, and Baba Lal Shah, all of whom were very much with us on the pilgrimage. Shah Jii’s decision to travel was based on a spiritual intuition he received from his Murshid which gave him “the blessing and permission to make the trip.” Sometimes the Murshid were experienced as external spirits. When any kind of help occurred, when the new driver finally arrived at Nurpur, when the car started, when we successfully squeezed past a truck, when we passed though the check point, when the missing boy was found on the shrine, when we awoke in the morning to a beautiful day, the Sufis attributed these occurrences to the spiritual assistance we drew from the Murshid.

The Murshid were also experienced as images within the mind in dreams and waking consciousness. As disciples, we were expected to cultivate this inner guidance. As Shah Jii said to me, to attain spiritual help, “You must form an image of your teacher/Murshid in your heart” and “You must seek to keep the Teacher always with you in your heart.” This is the basic principle, calling up the image of our Teacher, we become centered and can draw on all the “help” or spiritual power they give us. Often the Sufis gave thanks to the Murshid in the midst of the journey by calling out their names. Happily racing our car down the wet road near Nurpur, passing safely through a dangerous place, experiencing the beauty of the morning, the Sufis would call out the name of one or more of their Teachers or Saints, as by shouting out the name of Buri Imam as “Buurriii!” Even the difficulties we encountered came from the Murshid. Just as one’s Teacher presents one with difficult practices during the initiation process, the Murshid, they say, “love to test and thereby strengthen” the spiritual power of their followers. By orienting to all the ups and downs of pilgrimage this way, the Sufis transmuted the experience of travel into an ongoing spiritual drama.

As anthropological scholars like Victor Turner suggest, an important part of pilgrimage is the special connectedness, the feeling of “communitas” that develops among those who are traveling together. What the Sufis show us is that this community is much wider than the real people actually with us on the trip, and that pilgrimage can be made more spiritually powerful by using creative imagination to consciously connect with the allies that ride along with us. In suggesting that we develop an image of our teachers or Murshid in our minds and hearts, the Sufis are not asking us to do something very difficult. Although many of us are only dimly aware of this, and although our Western culture leads us to downplay it, every one we know well, our family members, friends, and our teachers not only exist out there in the real world, they also exist as doubles within, as images in our minds. At night we see and interact with these images in dreams. In our waking experience of the stream of consciousness, they regularly appear to us as we re-experience past interactions or anticipate what may happen next. What the Sufis emphasize is that the practice of consciously relating to images of our spiritual teachers is a powerful dimension of the spiritual journey. When we see one of our teachers in the real, her or his presence calls us back to the Self. Similarly, when we see our teachers in our mind’s eye, they help us as well, calling us back to the Sufi way. Connecting with our teachers through the heart, we feel the love and gratitude we have for them. Connecting through our understanding, we recall what they taught us and continue to teach us about how to live.

After I left Pakistan in 1977, I never saw Shah Jii again—in the real. When I returned in 2007 he had already passed away. But given what he had invited me to do during our time together, I remain in touch with him. I can “see” him in my mind’s eye. I continue to interact with my image of him through memories and waking dreams. I remember the example he set for me on occasions like the pilgrimage to Murree. I recall things he did and said, and continue to ponder and learn from these, as when I seek to apply his teachings to some aspect of my life. And our “relationship” has also developed over time. In the beginning I was very much his muriid, his student. But as I have matured over the years this has changed. Eventually the Teacher lets his disciple go as a student—and welcomes him as a companion. Now it is less like I am listening and more like we are conversing. Now I feel more independent. I feel like I have my own source within, and to an extent I do. But it is useful to remember that this inner guidance is not just “I” making choices. If it was not for our Teachers, we would not have learned how to tune to the Teacher within—and the petty ego might have become our Murshid. All these years later, Shah Jii is with me but he is not the only one. In the decades since 1977, I have worked with other teachers. My Murshid is plural and includes, for example, my American Sufi teacher, Ruth, her teacher’s teacher, Inayat Khan, three Tai Chi Masters, and several other teachers I have worked with and continue to meet.

Encounters with various Murshid occurred on a “pilgrimage” I made earlier this year with my wife and a Hindu friend, both of Indian origin. We traveled to ashrams, Hindu temples, and sites of natural beauty in Tamil Nadhu in the south of India. While it was just the three of us traveling together, in our minds and hearts we each brought with us a variety of spiritual figures. We carried images of teachers we have learned from, and also images of Hindu gods and goddesses to whom we are connected. My wife has a longstanding interest in Shiva, Lord of Awareness, and in the warrior goddess, Durga, who she relates to as a symbol of female empowerment. Back home on my desk I have a small painting of the goddess Saraswati that my wife once gave me. But her image as a symbol of spiritual beauty and learning is also with me in my consciousness. For all of us the trip was a meaningful opportunity to visit some of the most sacred and renowned Hindu temples in South India. Out of the heat and sun, in the mysteriously powerful semi-darkness of the Chidambaram Nataraja Temple, we contemplated dozens of wonderful images of Hindu gods and goddesses including that of Shiva in his manifestation as Nataraja, Lord of the Dance. There we attended darshan, a special ritual of blessing and “appearance” in which devotees see the god and the god “sees” them. With an expectant crowd we waited as Hindu priests ducked in an out of the curtained area preparing for the appearance. While we were waiting, we gazed up at statue of Shiva in his nataraja pose, dancing the universe into motion and stepping on the dwarf of forgetfulness of Self. As I admired this statue, I remembered a teacher telling me that as you yourself step on, or overcome the inner dwarf of forgetfulness of Self, you can sometimes “almost hear it screeching.” Eventually, to the sounds of drums and temple bells, the curtain was parted and the symbol of Shiva appeared. While encountering such external representations was riveting and meaningful, an equally vivid form of darshan occurs when an image of the god or goddess appears in a dream or vision, or when the Goddess’s inspiration or influence is experienced. Much like the Sufis, my wife and our friend often felt that something that happened on our trip was not an accident, “Kali made us stop here,” “Durga directed us there…”

While I enjoyed visiting the temples and participating in the drama of the Goddesses’ seeming interventions in our trip, most of my own interactions with the Murshid took other forms. We stopped for several days in the small coastal city of Pondicherry, the center of the former French colony on the Bay of Bengal. We came here to connect with a Hindu Teacher, Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950), a former Indian freedom fighter, yogi, and guru. When the British sought to jail him for his political activity he escaped to the safety of the French colony and established an ashram in Pondicherry. Sri Aurobindo and his special companion, a French woman known as “The Mother,” are buried here and their spirits are very present. We could connect with Sri Aurobindo because we had read his writings, knew the general details of his biography, and had seen his photographs. Reading his essays, some of his teachings lingered in my memory and occasionally his image appeared in my mind. On two nights, I attended the evening ritual in the ashram not far from the guests house where we were staying. There were about seventy-five people sitting there in the courtyard around the tombs of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. The courtyard was open to the night with the branches of trees reaching up into the twilight. While faint sounds of the city reached us, it was quiet in the courtyard. Dim lights and candles added to the air of mystery and devotion. Devotees placed their hands and often their foreheads on the tombs, and stayed there quietly. When meditation started, the lights were turned off and we all sat in silence. I felt in spiritual communion with the mix of westerners and Indians sitting there together as we focused on the presence of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. Afterwards, walking in the soft evening darkness back through quiet city streets to the guest house, I reflected on Aurobindo’s teachings about the mysterious power of silence. I remembered how, unlike some Hindu gurus, he taught that the world is not an illusion, it’s real and it’s divine. And we are responsible not only for pursuing our own spiritual path but for trying to help the human world progress.

While I was much less aware of “The Mother,” I ran into her unexpectedly when I went into a Pondicherry shop. It had a small book nook and I picked up a copy of a journal publication of the Ashram. Glancing through it, I “heard” the Mother’s voice as I read a short essay she had written decades earlier. In many situations, she taught, we get too caught up and need to “step back” from the situation either literally or psychologically. Putting the journal back on the shelf, this teaching stuck in my mind. Later I tried to put it into practice and reflected further. “By ‘stepping back’ we can regain our sense of who we are—regain the True Self we can regain our the Sufis would say—and then we can better find our way through the situation before us.”

When we stopped in a French bakery for lunch, I enjoyed gazing at the pastry display, “The eclairs look delicious!” A few moments later I had an unexpected encounter with another great teacher. The wall of the bakery was lined with spiritually oriented posters. While my wife was ordering, I stopped in front of one that had an image of the Buddha sitting in meditation. The accompanying text presented a brief story which went something like this: A man went to the Buddha and said, “I want happiness.” The Buddha replied, “First, get rid of ‘I’ which is the ego, second get rid of ‘want’ which is your craving desire. What’s left is happiness.” Trying to integrate this with Sufi teachings, I thought, “Well, in getting rid of, or shifting out of, the petty ego, we transition to the True Self, and living from here we can be, we are, happy.” As we set out in the car, the encounter came back to me and I told the story to my companions.

In the course of our pilgrimage we had spiritual experiences in temples and ashrams, in shops and bakeries, and in sites of natural beauty. In the wonderfully green mangrove swamps of Pichavaram, trying to really experience them well, I thought about how an important dimension of Sufism is to seek to see the divine everywhere—and the Sufi Teacher, Inayat Khan, came to mind. I recalled how he says that we are often only dimly aware of the beauty, the shining of the divine, in the world all around us. In this way, he says, and I remembered his powerful words, “we waste our life, which is an opportunity to experience and enjoy.” But when we “remember” our Teachers and receive their help, we can clear away distractions and deeply experience the beauty before us. Pondicherry turned out to be a wonderful place to watch the sunrise out of the Bay of Bengal. Rising early, I ventured out to the beach, found a good flat rock, sat down, lowered my eyelids, and entered the quiet of meditation. Shah Jii appeared, and a vivid memory came back to me. I had slept at the Sufi Center and soon after dawn Shah Jii woke me up. He indicated that I should be silent, and he led me and another disciple on a narrow trail up the mountain to a rocky ledge with an amazing view of the surrounding hills and the vast green Indus Plain far below. Silent, but very much with each other, we watched the rising sun sending beautiful rays of light over the mountain ridges and down onto the plain below. This memory overlapped with my experience at Pondicherry. Again I was not alone, dozens of others—westerners and Indians—awaited sunrise on the rocks nearby or on the balconies of the guest house and apartment buildings behind us. Many more beings were also with us. Some people were praying to their gods and goddesses, or chanting mantras, and others like me were in tune with their Teachers. And when the sun rose, we all experienced a beautiful moment of communion together.

When the Indian Pilgrimage was over, my wife and I flew back to the US. On the way, sitting in the cramped and crowded economy section of Emirates Flight 231, I awoke from a brief period of dozing with a headache, sweating, fatigued and uncomfortable. Merging the past and the present moment, I remembered and felt again all the sadness and strain of packing and saying goodbye to our Indian family. I looked at my watch, it was a little after 4 am Indian time and we had already been traveling for eleven hours—driving out of Hyderabad through hectic traffic to Rajiv Gandhi airport, flying to Dubai, waiting in the airport and flying for hours over the Middle East toward the Atlantic crossing. And from now until our arrival in Washington Dulles airport, “ten more hours to go!” Mired in an ugly, unpleasant state I felt resentful, sick, and tired. I started whining to myself, “How am I going to handle the rest of this trip?” Then somewhere in the inner distance, I seemed to hear a faint whispering call, “You should meditate.” “But,” I answered “I don’t feel like it…” And then, just barely overcoming my resistance, I decided to try for a minute or two. Straightening up, stretching, relaxing my body, I centered and started following the breath, leaving my self-pitying state behind, I entered the silence, “Ah, so much better.” Surprisingly, it was easy to stay in meditation and for the next 25 minutes or so I sailed free and easy through calm empty space. Then awakening, shifting out of this good meditation, I felt wonderfully restored. The meditation, I thought, was “utterly transformative.” Feeling some agency, energy, and amusement again, I pulled my pen and travel journal out of the seat pocket, lowered the tray table and happily started going back over my notes on the Tamil Nadhu pilgrimage—reading, remembering, and filling in details. I enjoyed recalling our visits to the marvelous Hindu temples, sunrise on the Bay of Bengal, and the silence of the ashram. As I recalled and re-entered these experience via memory and reflection, the Murshid reappeared and once again I connected with Sri Aurobindo, the Mother, Shah Jii, and the Gods and Goddesses of the Temples. And then, “What’s that high pitched noise I seem to hear?—Ah, yes, Shiva, it’s the dwarf of forgetfulness of Self, screeching…”

1 Ali Bin Uthman Al-Hujwiri (Data Ganj Bakhsh) Kashaf Al Madjub, (“The Unveiling of the Veiled,”) translated by Reynold Nicholson, Islamic Book Foundation, Lahore, Pakistan, 1976, p. 345.
2 Victor Turner and Edith Turner, Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture, Columbia University Press, New York, 1978 p. 37, Cf. pp. 250-251.
3 Peter Heehs, Sri Aurobindo: A Brief Biography, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1989 and Peter Heehs, ed., The Essential Writings of Sri Aurobindo, Oxford University Press, 1998. Not far from Pondicherry is Auroville, the successful experimental township founded by The Mother.
4 Hazrat Inayat Khan, Mastery Through Accomplishment, Sufi Order Publications, New Lebanon, NY, 1978 p. 294.


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98 The Costly Transgression

The Costly Transgression

Woman as Lover in Sufi Discourse


Woman as lover or desiring subject is mostly absent in Sufi discourses. In the following analysis, I will focus on two exceptions that find their way into Sufi discourses of love. The first is the character of Zulaykha in the story of Yusuf and Zulaykha; this is based on the Koranic version of the tale in sura Yusuf, which is modified and retold in numerous Sufi texts, including Attar’s Ilahinama. The second, less well-known, is the story of the daughter of Ka’b (known as Rabi’a Balkhi), also in Attar’s Ilahinama. While both Zulaykha and Rabi’a Balkhi open spaces for the articulation of woman as lover or subject of desire in Sufi discourses, I argue that Attar’s empathy and inclusivity also allows him to offer an implicit critique of the dominant masculine discourse of Sufism.

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Sura Yusuf, as already suggested by its name, is mainly about the trials and ordeals of Yusuf (Joseph), the son of the prophet Ya’qub, on his path of faith and eventual prophethood. Yusuf, the favorite son, is taken by his jealous brothers to the desert and dropped into a pit. A caravan looking for water saves Yusuf from the pit and takes him as a slave. He is later sold to an Egyptian ruler by the name of al-Aziz. Al-Aziz’s wife attempts to seduce Yusuf, but Yusuf resists the temptation. He is then wrongly accused of trying to seduce the wife of al-Aziz and sent to prison. Because of his ability to interpret dreams he is able to interpret the king’s dream, save the kingdom and as a result, obtain his freedom.1 After his release he demands that the wife of al-Aziz confess to her guilt and that he be exonerated from the accusation of attempted seduction. The wife confesses to her guilt and shortly after that Yusuf becomes ruler of Egypt, and a prophet. Eventually he confronts his brothers and returns home to his elderly father who has lost his sight crying for his beloved Yusuf.

In the Koranic version, the wife of al-Aziz, who is not even identified by name, is simply a seductress representing both the threatening force of female sexuality and woman’s deception (her guile). However, as discussed by Gayane Karen Merguerian and Afsaneh Najmabadi in “Zulaykha and Yusuf: Whose ‘Best Story’?”, in the later commentary of sura Yusuf, the wife of al-Aziz is given the name Zulaykha and the story of Yusuf over time changes into the story of Yusuf and Zulaykha with an emphasis on Zulaykha’s love for Yusuf. Zulaykha’s love is also gradually incorporated into Sufi literature as an example of earthly love’s transformation into divine love, famously illustrated in the fifteenth-century poetic narrative Haft Awrang (Seven Thrones), written by the Sufi poet Nur ad-Din Abd ar-Rahman Jami (1414-1492).

In mapping the trajectory of Zulaykha through centuries of Koranic commentaries, stories of prophets (sacred histories), and Sufi literature, Merguerian and Najmabadi try to ascertain whether or not Zulaykha’s evolution as a character makes a feminist reading or a “feminist appropriation” of her possible. In their view, even though Jami’s Sufi rewriting of Zulaykha elevates her status from a mere seductress to a Sufi lover, at the end she cannot be completely rescued “from the confines of male heterosexual imagination.” Given that in Jami’s version, Zulaykha’s reward after years of suffering for Yusuf’s love is to be restored to her original beauty and wealth and presented to Yusuf as his wife, Merguerian and Najmabadi conclude that “in all of the story’s various existing versions, including Jami’s, Zulaykha is crafted by heterosexual male desire and imagination.”2

Though I agree with Merguerian and Najmabadi that Zulaykha’s character, like so many other fictional female characters depicted by male writers, is heavily influenced by the dominant discourse of male desire, I am open to an interpretation that destabilizes the dominant discourse. In a way Merguerian and Najmabadi already do that in their feminist interpretive strategies, suggesting as they do that “guile” is not restricted to women, or that it can be interpreted as wit. But in terms of female sexuality and desire, they seem to think that Zulaykha cannot offer much as a vehicle for feminist interpretation. I will suggest otherwise.

In the Sufi discourse of love, Zulaykha is probably the only well-known female character who assumes the mantle of a lover. Since the ultimate goal of Sufi love is the annihilation of the lover’s ego identity in the beloved, the promise of the union is never the promise of sexual/physical fulfillment but of total loss or dispossession of self. The Sufi discourses that treat Zulaykha as a lover seriously, emphasize this loss more than anything else. In Attar’s Ilahinama, for example, we find this emphasis in highlighting the seemingly lowest point of Zulaykha’s life story as evidence for the sincerity of her love. In a brief narrative moment, Attar depicts Zulaykha at the time when she is reduced to a blind, destitute, old woman sitting at the side of the road waiting for Yusuf. In a reversal of fortune, he is now the ruler of Egypt and a prophet, soon to pass by with his army and entourage. Seeing her in such a pitiful state, Yusuf turns to God and prays for her death saying, “O God, what do you want with this old blind woman? Why don’t you take her away, since she sought to bring disgrace to your prophet?”3 Though the scene is based on Nayshaburi’s eleventh-century tale of Yusuf and Zulaykha in Qisas al-anbiya (the stories of prophets), it offers a completely different take on the meeting of the two after many years at the dramatic point of the reversal of fortunes. In Nayshaburi’s Qisas al-anbiya Zulaykha appears to be still in charge, in spite of her misfortunes.4 She is the one who initiates the conversation and eventually asks Yusuf to pray that she regain her eyesight. Yusuf also is shown to have a lot of sympathy for her. In Attar’s version of the scene, on the other hand, Zulaykha is silent and Yusuf is depicted as a cold-hearted revengeful man. After Yusuf’s prayer for her death, it is Gabriel, the messenger of God, who addresses Yusuf stating that it is Zulaykha’s love for him that makes Zulaykha dear to God. Admonishing Yusuf for his prayer, Gabriel asks: “Who told you to seek the death of the rose in the garden and to wish for the destruction of the friends of Our friends?… Since she is filled with tenderness for Our Yusuf, who would think in hatred of taking her life?”5 The paradox of Gabriel’s defense is that Zulaykha is championed because of her love for Yusuf, while Yusuf himself does not value this love and is admonished for that. In a way Yusuf is here the voice of the dominant male discourse, full of hate, who sees Zulaykha as nothing but a lying seductress who tried to corrupt the prophet of God. But, as a lover in Sufi discourse, Zulaykha is presented as someone who is willing to sacrifice all and everything for her beloved. At the end of the scene Attar concludes: “If you know how to sacrifice your life you have some conception of the lovers’ secret, and if you have no idea of sacrificing life all your talk is of no avail.”6 Imagining Zulaykha as a Sufi lover and defending her against the misogynist discourse of male desire, Attar is finally able to focus on Zulaykha’s love alone and show that it can stand on its own, even when the object of her desire (Yusuf) despises her and prays for her death. Though Attar alludes to the possibility of Zulaykha regaining her youth, beauty, and status to regain Yusuf’s desire, the scene’s focal point is Zulaykha’s suffering in love, Yusuf’s cold-hearted response to her, and God’s admonishment of his prophet’s lack of sympathy to his destitute lover. Here Zulaykha’s punishment has nothing to do with punishment for her excessive sexuality (as argued by Merguerian and Najmabadi in relation to other versions of Zulaykha’s tale), but it is the suffering of a Sufi lover who has to let go of all her possessions, including her self, in order to be annihilated in her beloved and attain union. In that sense, Zulaykha’s suffering is no different from Majnun’s. Attar’s depiction of Zulaykha in this brief scenic moment in Ilahinama not only destabilizes the normative narrative of sura Yusuf, but also, in mirroring the reversal of fortunes, offers a fresh and ironic juxtaposition of a vengeful self-righteous prophet on the one hand and a disgraced, destitute lover who has sacrificed all for her love on the other hand. Attar’s Zulaykhas ultimately triumphs as a Sufi lover.

Nevertheless, the short reference to Zulaykha in Attar’s Ilahinama cannot undo centuries of religious/literary misogyny. Zulaykha’s character as a seductress responsible for wrongfully accusing the prophet of God and sending him to prison persists in the Islamic discourse and imagination. What Attar’s rendition of Zulaykha does, however, is to show that Sufis’ understanding of love as an ultimate act of self-negation not only is more important than prophethood, but also can provide the means to dismantle feminine stereotypes and to open spaces for women’s spirituality.

Daughter of Ka’b (Rabi’a Balkhi)

A lesser known character in Sufi discourse is the poet and princess, daughter of Ka’b, who appears also in Attar’s Ilahinama. Attar’s daughter of Ka’b is based on the poet Rabi’a bint Ka’b al-Quzdari, mentioned by Nooruddin Muhammad Aufi Bukhari (1171-1242) in his Lubabul Albab, the oldest known biographical work in Persian literature. Aufi, who was a contemporary of Attar, does not say anything about Rabi’a Balkhi’s personal life except that she was constantly in love and engaging in “shahid bazi.”7 This small fleeting reference is very significant, since to my knowledge it is the first time in recorded Persian literature where a woman is identified as a practitioner of shahid bazi. Does this mean that she enjoyed the company of young adolescent boys (amrads), or simply had male lovers? It is hard to say. The rest of Aufi’s entry on Rabi’a Balkhi is devoted to his praise of her poetic powers in Persian and Arabic with a few examples of her poetry. On the other hand, Rabi’a Balkhi is also known in her native Afghanistan as the mother of Persian poetry, and a national hero on account of her poetry and her tragic death brought about by her love for her brother’s slave, Baktash. So, in Afghan cultural discourse, the story of Rabi’a Balkhi’s life is mostly identical with the story of the daughter of Ka’b related in Attar’s Ilahinama. Her tomb, which still exists in Mazar-i Sharif, has been visited for centuries by young lovers who treat her with a saint-like veneration.

Even though Attar refuses to name Rabi’a Balkhi and only refers to her as “daughter of Ka’b,” in telling the story of Rabi’a Balkhi he not only firmly establishes the possibility of a woman as an ardent lover in Sufi discourses, but also empowers the female lover with the gift of poetry to enable her to express the intensity of her love and to communicate with her beloved. Interestingly, as in the case of Rabi’a al-Adawiyya there are no references to Rabi’a Balkhi’s life story and love story before Attar. Aufi’s fleeting reference to her constantly being in love and engaging in shahid bazi is the only reference outside Attar that dates near him or precedes him. Whether or not Attar is mythologizing a historical figure or creating a legend based on pure fiction, his story of Rabi’a Balkhi engages historical reality as well as mystical truth.

The story of Rabi’a Balkhi (or daughter of Ka’b) appears in discourse twenty-one of Attar’s Ilahinama, in an exchange between the king father and the sixth son. In answer to the father’s question of what each son desires most, the sixth prince responds that he desires the knowledge of alchemy to guarantee the mastery of both worlds (the material and the spiritual). The father in turn rebukes his son for falsely equating desire with love and goes on to explain what love actually means.

If you would achieve perfection in love you must be perpetually in three conditions:
First weeping, second burning, and thirdly bleeding.
If you come forth from these three seas,
Your Beloved will admit you behind the curtain, otherwise
He/She will lay many a thorn in your path,
And if you do not understand these words,
the following story will suffice to explain them.8

The story of Rabi’a Balkhi therefore is framed as an example of mystical love and, contrary to most examples in the discourse of Persian Sufism, the protagonist of this love is a woman. The beautiful daughter of a ruler by the name of Ka’b falls in love with his brother’s slave, Baktash. Unlike the Layla and Majnun story where love consumes the lover even in the absence of any impediments to their union (where Majnun cannot stand to be in proximity to Layla), or Mahmud and Ayaz story where the physical proximity does not diminish the intensity of love, Rabi’a and Baktash’s story, with a woman as the protagonist lover, is essentially a story of forbidden love.

Unlike Zulaykha who at the beginning of her love wants to fulfill her desire and to consummate her love, Rabi’a, who often in her poetry expresses the pain of separation and the hope of union with her beloved, refuses to engage in any physical act of love-making when the opportunity presents itself. Sometime after the lovers start a literary affair, Rabia moves through a passageway when she encounters Baktash. Immediately recognizing her, Baktash seizes her skirt. Feeling indignant, Rabi’a tears herself loose and says:

Ill-mannered one, what impudence is this? Thou art a fox—how can you take the place of a lion?
No man dares approach me—who are you that you should seize my skirt?9

When Baktash protests that she is the one who has been sending him love poems day and night, “Having first driven me mad why do you treat me as a stranger?” Rabi’a responds that he should be content that he is the reason, the excuse for this love.

You know nothing of this mystery.
Something has happened within my heart and it was brought about by you,
Not a hundred slaves would have been worthy of doing this, and yet I have granted it to you.
Is this not enough for you that you have been the reason, the excuse?
There is no goodness in what you have done,
What you have done is falling into lust.10

Rabi’a leaves at once and Baktash’s love for her intensifies after the encounter. Attar no doubt wants to make sure that Rabi’a’s love is not mistaken for an ordinary physical/sexual attraction that can only find satisfaction in the physical union of the lovers. Right after depicting the scene, Attar quotes the great Khurasani Sufi master, Abu Sa’id Abu al-Khayr in saying that from her poetry one can tell that Rabi’a is not addressing an earthly beloved, but really expressing her love for God.11 Still, if we compare Rabi’a’s rejection of Baktash’s physical love to the numerous stories of Mahmud and Ayaz where the two lovers are depicted in physical proximity and at times in erotic scenes of love lying next to each other, it would seem that Rabi’a’s rejection of Baktash’s physical advances cannot be simply explained away as an enactment of an ideal Sufi love. As we shall see by the end of the story, there are legitimate reasons for Rabi’a to be mindful of her interactions with Baktash. Class and gender barriers complicate Rabi’a responses. She is a princess; he is a slave; they are both under the direct command of the king/brother Hares.

One cannot underestimate the role of poetry in the love story of Rabi’a Balkhi. Not only does Attar’s narration of Rabi’a love story rely heavily on the love poems that Rabi’a regularly sends her beloved Baktash, but also her love poems betray the secrecy of her love and ultimately expose her love to the world and to her brother and lead to her tragic death. When a friend of Baktash looking for valuables inside an urn comes across the hidden love poems and presents them to Hares, Rabi’a’s poems become irrefutable evidence of her crime of love. Hares orders his men to put Baktash in chains and take him to the dungeons. He also calls on his men to have his sister’s wrists cut open and have her entombed in a bathhouse. Wailing and crying, Rabi’a continues to write poetry with her own blood on the walls of the bathhouse until she dies. Rabi’a’s poems thus exceed their literary function as expressions of her love and at the end become physical embodiments of the lover/poet.

My share of love is this
That they put me in hell while still alive,
So that I could record my secrets in hell,
Amid flames and fire in blood.
How would you know the way this should be written?
Such a tale should be written by blood.
Since I’m in hell for the heavenly face of the beloved
I’m in paradise everywhere I turn.
Since God has made hell my lot,
My tale is the paradise of lovers.12

Attar does his best to transform Rabi’a Balkhi’s fortune by making her tale and her poetry a vehicle for an ideal Sufi love. But somehow, he is not as successful with Rabi’a Balkhi as he is with Rabi’a Adawiyya in his Tazkerat al-Awliya. The tale of Rabi’a Balkhi with all its fantastic imagery (i.e. a woman writing poetry with her blood), dramatic plotline, and tragic love theme is not picked up by other Sufi writers after Attar. She is mentioned here and there (as in Jami’s Nafahat al-uns), but she is not incorporated in the Sufi discourse of love like Layla and Majnun or Mahmud and Ayaz or even Yusuf and Zulaykha. She stands alone, unique, and at odds with the tradition that cannot bring itself to include her as a woman poet/lover wholeheartedly.

Perhaps, the apparent neglect of Rabi’a Balkhi in Sufi discourses is due to the fact that the story of Rabi’a Balkhi as told by Attar is among other things a story of honor killing, the murder of women by their male relatives due to what is perceived by the family/community as sexually immoral behavior. Attar is clearly on the side of Rabi’a in the story. He even makes sure that Rabi’a is avenged at the end. Eventually Baktash frees himself from the dungeon and cuts the king’s throat at night. Then he goes to Rabi’a’s grave and kills himself. Nevertheless, Attar makes a great effort in presenting Rabi’a’s love as a love that transcends physical passion, as if arguing that had Rabi’a acted on her love for Baktash, her claim to love would have been illegitimate. In fact, Attar’s aim is to show that, like the Layla and Majnun story, Rabi’a’s love for Baktash as an example of profane love (eshq-e majazi) is a vehicle for spiritual love (eshq-e haqiqi). Attar believed he was making a good case for the inclusion of Rabi’a Balkhi in the lofty spaces of Sufi love discourse. After all, in the case of Yusuf and Zulaykha as we have seen, the Sufi discourses were generous enough and forgiving enough even to allow for the physical passion of Zulaykha. However, Sufi writers did so, as Merguerian and Najmabadi point out, by transforming Zulaykha into Yusuf’s object of love. In other words, they turn Zulaykha from a lover to a beloved, projecting a masculine ideal of love. Moreover, as a prophet renowned for his beauty and talked about in the Koran, Yusuf’s love is already deemed legitimate. Rabi’a’s love for a slave on the other hand, continues to challenge the Sufi discourse of love, which for the most part is a discourse founded on male desire and homoerotic love.

Ultimately, we owe the existence of the woman as lover in Sufi discourse to Attar and his continuous efforts in imagining women as spiritual actors and agents instead of mere bystanders and impediments in men’s spiritual quests. No doubt, Attar was also limited in his vision of women’s spiritual involvements and experiences. But as we have seen in the case of Rabi’a al-Adawiyya, Zulaykha, and Rabi’a Balkhi, the daughter of Ka’b, his vision was far more conscious of the possibility of woman’s agency as both divine and human lover than most of his contemporaries or even his predecessors.

1 The story of Ysuf interpreting king’s dream.
2 Gayane Karen Merguerian and Afsaneh Najmabadi, “Zulaykha and Yusuf: Whose ‘Best Story’?”, International Journal of Middle East Studies, 29 (1997), 500.
3 Attar, Ilahinama, Kadkani, 365. Attar Ilahi-nama, Boyle, 297.
4 Qisas al-anbiya, Neyshaburi.
5 Attar, Ilahinama, Kadkani, 365. Attar Ilahi-nama, Boyle, 297.
6 Attar, Ilahinama, Kadkani, 366. Attar Ilahi-nama, Boyle, 298.
7 Lubabul Albab, Aufi, page 61, entry 51
8 Ibid.
9 Attar, Ilahinama, Kadkani, 379. Attar Ilahi-nama, Boyle, 313.
10 Ibid.
11 There are no references to Rabi’a Balkhi in Abu Sai’d’s known biographies.
12 Attar, Ilahinama, Kadkani, 386. Attar Ilahi-nama, Boyle, 321.


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98 Nudge



Somewhere around the sixth month in utero, our daughter started hooking her foot over my wife’s rib. Discomfort followed: soreness, restlessness, a reminder of new life. I do not have a uterus, but I do have a rib, and several times a small foot (or something like it) has hooked thereon. People use the word calling, but that’s so grandiose. So I call it a nudge. That’s how it feels. God—whoever that is, by whatever name—was nudging me toward something. This essay needs a warning label. WARNING: the nudge is slippery, even dangerous.

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For one thing, it’s hard to tell if the nudge is a nudge at all. Sure, maybe there is a foot on your rib. Or maybe you slept funny, or overstretched, or the jalapeños are back for their revenge. That’s not much to hang a life on. And yet it’s exactly what God expects—no, what God appears to expect. (Who can be sure, after all?) You take a risk that maybe, just maybe, you’re building your whole future on indigestion.

Then there’s this. A few months after our daughter’s birth, my wife had a sudden coughing fit and broke a rib. The same rib that served as a perch for the persistent foot. She thinks the foot weakened the rib, and that’s why it broke. So following the nudge can get you lost and break your bones. And little by little, I’ve learned to entrust my life to it.

That word calling: people use it all the time. Listen in the right circles, and you’ll hear someone say she has a calling from God. Or God called him to the mission field. It’s been going on for centuries. Ancient Hebrews and Christians wrote about God calling. Mostly, in these stories, God tells people things. God tells Abraham his future as a father of multitudes. God tells Moses the sacred law on Mount Sinai. An angel tells Mary she’s about to give birth to God.

Yes, God appears in dreams and visions too. But there’s a lot of audio in these sacred texts. The divine hands cupped round the divine mouth, shouting to be heard above the fray, like the mother on a porch who yells it’s time to come home for dinner. Some days I’d love a call to come home. Instead I get a nudge. A foot on a rib that never goes away.

With all the talk about calling, you have to search hard for people who’ve experienced the nudge. But you will find them. The nudge is what Elizabeth got in the Christian sacred texts. Mary arrives, pregnant with Jesus, and calls out a greeting as she walks in the door. Elizabeth, pregnant with John the Baptist, feels the baby leap in her womb. Many years later, seekers began to visit monasteries with the dream of joining someday. They still do. The abbot or novice master sits down with them and asks about calling. The answer is usually vague, and it centers on restlessness, an inner discomfort that outlasts mood swings and physical pain. They rarely mention babies, but maybe they should. Something is being born. And it won’t quit till it gets its way.

We were driving back to Johannesburg in a blinding rainstorm—a 10-hour trip to catch our flight home—and my mind lingered on the tectonic shift that South Africa had wrought in me. So much of what I’d always considered essential had lost its luster: the striving, schmoozing, and false self required to run my own business. Something else waited to be done.

Something is being born.
And it won’t quit till it gets its way.

I knew what the something else might be. Before the trip I’d launched a blog about matters of spirit. Each Saturday morning I’d compose a post or two at a café right out of the seventies, all bright orange and funky fonts and plush sofas. It refreshed me from the shallows of the workweek, and I continued to blog during the South Africa trip. But then the trip was over, and we sped through the rain toward our flight, and the foot slipped over my rib. One half-day a week was no longer enough. I was being asked to write more. I flew back to America and wrote more. The nudge didn’t stop. It didn’t stop till the writing occupied half my days and all my bliss. Only then did the child change position, the soreness recede, and my body lie at rest.

Sometimes you only know the nudge by its symptoms. For the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah the nudge was a fire. Long ago he obeyed God’s call (the verbal kind) to rage against the leaders of Israel, and he’d had more than his fill of it—enough to consider turning his back forever. But it wasn’t that simple. If I say, “I will not mention God, or speak any more in God’s name,” he writes, then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.”

For others the nudge is a gasp, or a gleam. Thirty years ago, during a dinner with close friends—the kind who look out for each other—my wife and I were bemoaning the need to leave town for some other, less expensive place. Ideas got thrown around, considered, shelved. Then someone mentioned the city where we now live.

My breath caught in my throat. I looked at my wife, and the light in her eyes told me she’d felt the same.

I haven’t said much good about the nudge. It’s been all annoyance and inconvenience and warning labels. Yet so many of us follow wherever the nudge leads. If that seems irrational, look again at the light in my wife’s eyes. It’s a quickening of sorts: the very first movement of that new life. We see what’s coming and we cannot keep our feet from running toward it. Elizabeth’s baby knew what lay ahead. Mary nudged with her greeting, and he leapt for joy. I have seen that joy, the allure of following it, the love offered behind the allure, the Mystery enfolding it all. Many of us will do whatever it takes to bring that nudge, safe and squalling, into the world. Later on, we’ll do everything we can to nurture it, till it too gives life to everything it touches.


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98 depths



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listen to the hum
its unstruck chords
offer full silence

note by absent note
it can play you into existence.

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