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Interview with Carl Ernst

by Jawid Mojaddedi

Hosayn ebn Mansur al-Hallaj (d. 922), most familiar simply by the name “Hallaj,” is probably still today the most widely discussed Sufi from his generation. Celebrated by later Sufis for the theopathic outburst “I am The Truth/God” (ana l-Haqq) and for legends about his lack of fear and indeed total embrace of his own execution at the gallows in Baghdad, he was the most important inspiration for prominent Sufis of later times, such as Ebn Khafif, Ruzbehan Baqli and Farid al-Din Attar, and has been celebrated by countless others, including Rumi.
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Hallaj was also the source of controversy for, not only the above events, but for taking Sufism to a mass audience at a very early stage and, among other things, encouraging them to make replicas of the Kaaba in Mecca to use for worship at home (the most likely reason for his execution). What is less well-known about Hallaj is that he was the most prolific Sufi poet of his time, but this is now changing thanks to the publication of some 120 of his poems in English translation directly from the original Arabic by Carl Ernst, Distinguished Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Hallaj: Poems of a Sufi Martyr (Northwestern University Press, 2018) is a special treat for readers of Sufi literature in English who have lacked up till now any substantial writings related to Hallaj. This collection of poems is fully annotated and expertly contextualized by the most qualified scholar for this task, Carl Ernst, who has not only written the only monograph on theopathic outbursts, such as ‘ana l-Haqq’, but has also worked extensively on Ruzbehan Baqli, among a wide range of Sufi research areas so far in his career. Ernst’s academic expertise enriches this volume without spoiling the beauty of the material that he is presenting, as one might fear when so much erudition is applied to it – rather he has highlighted the beauty of Hallaj’s poetic oeuvre with his elegant and sensitive translations that catch the finest nuances in the original Arabic of Hallaj and have been selected on the basis of an extensive and in-depth familiarity with the subject.

Universities across the world have adapted to the Covid-19 pandemic through remote teaching via video conferencing, and the same format has been used for this discussion with Carl Ernst about his book Hallaj: Poems of a Sufi Martyr and related topics in Sufism. Interviewing Ernst, Jawid Mojaddedi is particularly interested to know his views about the challenges of working on contested writings attributed to someone so legendary and controversial, as well as the degree to which the poems represent familiar teachings associated with Hallaj, such as the glorification of Satan as lover of God, and the elimination of barriers and distinctions in the human-divine mystical encounter, for which Hallaj was accused of incarnationism (holul) by Muslim theologians.



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Sain Zahoor

There are people who walk the earth as if they have walked upon it for centuries. Sain Zahoor Ahmad is one of them. A living repository of the poetry of Baba Bulleh Shah, Zahoor is known for his ektara (one-stringed instrument), bell-clad feet and colorful garb reminiscent of Joseph’s “coat of many colors.” Bulleh Shah, a 17th century Punjabi poet famous for his heartrending poetry, breathes again in the vocal chords of Sain Zahoor.(SUFI Journal in Issue 83)



“First is the journey from God,
then the journey to God.
Last is the journey in God”.
—Sufi tradition

Crossing a field in darkness
we slid into like
delicious swimming

feeling our way without eyes
sifting strands of dark
like falling butterflies

we found a hedge alight
with fireflies
drops of light

like crazy raindrops
in all directions.

We wanted to see those
dancers of light, imagined them
white- winged,

holding their lanterns high,
plunged our fists into thorns
captured worms.

That might have been the moment
I lost you,

a dual world
knew myself
separate from the sun.

I began the journey back
to find you, toiling upstream
on rivers of light

in my rowing-boat-body
didn’t notice the rivers
were your veins

your arteries
sun rising and setting
blink of your eye.


Mary Coelho Article Notes


1 David Ray Griffin, God and Religion in the Postmodern World (Albany State University of New York Press, 1989) p. 51.

2 Peter B. Todd, The Individuation of God, (Wilmette, IL: Chiron Publications, 2012) p. 5.

3 Thomas Berry, Evening Thoughts (San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books, 2006) p. 154.

4 F. David Peat, Synchronicity: The Bridge Between Matter and Mind (New York, Bantam Books, 1987) p. 192.

5  Andrew Harvey, The Sufi Way of the Beloved: The Sufi Path of Love . (The Shift Network) transcript of Module 2, p. 10.

6 Brian Swimme, Hidden Heart of the Cosmos (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books,1996), p. 100.

7 Andrew Harvey, The Sufi Way of the Beloved: Radiant Bewilderment as the Gate to Oneness,(The Shift Networkk Transcript of Module 5, p. 20.

8  Andrew Harvey, The Sufi Way of the Beloved: The Glory of the Glory. (The Shift Network) transcript of Module 4, p.11.

9 Martin Lings, What Is Sufism? (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1975) p. 65.

10 Andrew Harvey, The Sufi Way of the Beloved: Radiant Bewilderment as the Gate of Oneness,(The Shift Network) transcript of  Module 5, p, 25,)

11 Peat, Synchronicity, p. 88.

12 Peter B. Todd, The Individuation of God p. 8.

13 Andrew Harvey, The Sufi Way of the Beloved: The Way of Passion.(The Shift Network) transcript of Module 6, p. 4.

14 NY Review of Books, Vol, LXIII, No. 17, Nov. 10, 2016, review of George Musser, Spooky Action at a Distance, p. 52.

15 Brian Swimme, The Powers of the Universe (Center for the Study of the Universe, 2004), Episode 1, Seamlessness.

16 Lothar Schäfer, In Search of Divine Reality (Fayetteville, Arkansas: The University of Arkansas Press, 1997), p. 5.

17  NY Review of Books, Vol, LXIII, No. 17, Nov. 10, 2016 review of George Musser, Spooky Action at a Distance, p. 52.

18 Andrew Harvey, The Sufi Way of the Beloved: The Glory of the Glory: Ibn Arabi, (The Shift Network) transcript of Module 4, p. 1,9.

19 Quoted in Maria Jaoudi, Christian and Islamic Spirituality (New York: Paulist Press, 1993) p.84. Upton, Doorkeeper, p. 48

20 Jaoudi, Christian and Islamic Spirituality, p. 34.

92 Book Reviews – The Way Under The Way



A The Place of True Meeting
By Mark Nepo

Publisher: Sounds True, Louisville, CO.
Pages: 297



Written with the temperance and pace of a spiritual seeker, The Way Under the Way represents twenty years of Mark Nepo’s poetic life and wisdom; the result of a spiritual revelry that he suggestively describes as “undressing what I know.”

Such an undressing reveals the visceral immanence of fear and pleasure—nursing a broken bird until it dies—and the sublime ephemera of reflection and transcendence— “Heidegger’s notion of dwelling with care /in the being that underlies everything.” The poems, though whittled with care, in their accumulation feel more like a stream wearing away a soft shore as it passes: the poem, like the shore, remains; but the agile spirit, like the water that carved them, speeds away into the distance.

There are obstacles and passages, which often turn out to be one and the same phenomenon viewed first on the approach and then in the passing. In Nepo’s spiritual longing and aching cosmology, the divinities would, if they could, exchange eternity to enjoy the brevity of having all that we know… and then having it all taken away. In his poem, “The Angel of Grief,” an angel reflecting on the exalted and fleeting lives of man cries out to man in its longing, “I would give Eternity to /live with what you’re given, and to feel /what is opened by what is taken away.”

Mark Nepo is a known quantity to the readers of SUFI, with many of his pieces first published in SUFI, and his first book, Unlearning Back to God, published by Khaniqah Nimatullahi Publications in 2006. From there, Nepo penned a New York Times #1 best seller, The Book of Awakening, while becoming a spiritual muse to one of America’s great media icons, Oprah Winfrey. Still, as much as Nepo’s books, interviews and workshops have moved the needle in popular spirituality—and they have—his best writing blossoms in the subtlety of his poetry, where, “a cloud parted /in my mind and the light within /made it briefly to the page.”

The burden of the spiritual experience falls heavily over most of Nepo’s poems and yet, there is a sincerity in his spiritual devices which transcends mere affectation or New Age calculation. “Poetry is not the words and how they are written on a page… poetry is the unexpected utterance of the soul.” This is a ubiquitous trope in Nepo’s writing and interviews, but in an interview for SUFI he added this alluring addendum, “now I want to be the poem.”

The naiveté of childhood and the lumpish weight of memory are captivating motifs in Nepo’s poems, as in his poem, “Oh, Grandma,” wherein he reaches back “between worlds” into his childhood in Brooklyn and sees his grandmother, gone now twenty years, “leaning from your kitchen/ into the brick alley, except /the alley is my heart. /And the light behind you /is where we come from /and where we’re all going.”



Losing the Narrative Self+


1. Bruce Hood, The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity. (New York: Oxford UP, 2012. PDF e-book), 105.

2. Evan Thompson, Waking, Dreaming, Being. (New York: Columbia UP, 2015), 358.

3. Marya Schechtman, “The Narrative Self,” in The Oxford Handbook of the Self. ed. Shaun Gallagher (Oxford, UK: Oxford UP, 2013), 395.

4. Schechtman, “The Narrative Self,” 395.

5. Ibid., 396-397.

6. Ibid., 399. See also, Katherine Nelson, “Narrative and the Emergence of a Consciousness of Self,” in Narrative and Consciousness. eds. Gary D. Fireman, Ted E. McVay, Jr., and Owen J. Flanagan (New York: Oxford UP, 2003). For more on the development of the narrative self, see Robyn Fivush and Catherine A. Haden eds., Autobiographical Memory and the Construction of a Narrative Self: Developmental and Cultural Perspectives, (New York, Psychology Press, 2013).

7. Khenpo Tsewang Gyatso, “Definition of Ego,” in The Healthy Mind Interviews. ed. Henry Vyner vol. 2 (Kathmandu, Nepal: Vajra Publications, 2004), 46-47.

8. Gyatso, “Definition of Ego,” The Healthy Mind Interviews, 50. Here Vyner is explaining how the mind works according to Gyatso.

9. Ibid., 63.

10. Ibid., 116,135.

11. Lopon Tegchoke, “Knowing the Emptiness of Thoughts,” The Healthy Mind Interviews. ed. Henry Vyner vol.3 (Kathmandu, Nepal: Vajra Publications, 2004), 66-70.

12. Tegchoke, “Emptiness,” Interviews, 90.

13. Wendy Hasenkamp, et. al., “Mind Wandering and Attention during Focused Meditation: A Fine-Gained Temporal Analysis of Fluctuating Cognitive States,” (Neuroimage 59, 2012), 750-760. quoted in Thompson, Waking, 351-352. For more on Focused Attention (FA) and Open Monitoring (OM) meditation techniques, see Antoine Lutz, Heleen A. Slagter, […], and Richard J. Davidson, “Attention Regulation and Monitoring in Meditation,” Trends in Cognitive Science, (April 19, 2007): PMC U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institute of Health, accessed April 17, 2015,

14. Norman A. S. Farb et. al., “Attending to the Present: Mindfulness Meditation Reveals Distinct Neural Modes of Self-Reference, Social Cognitive Affective Neuroscience 2 (2007), 313-322. quoted in Thompson. Waking, 354-355.

15. Ibid., 355.

16. Baime, Michael, “Your Brain on Mindfulness,” Shambala Sun. (July 2007): 84, accessed April 17, 2015,

17. Lopon Tenzin Namdak, “The Trechko Interview,” The Healthy Mind Interviews. ed. Henry Vyner vol. 4 (Kathmandu, Nepal: Vajra Publications, 2004), 107-109; 120-123.

18. His Holiness the Dalai Lama, “The Dalai Lama Interview,” The Healthy Mind Interviews. ed. Henry Vyner vol. 4 (Kathmandu, Nepal: Vajra Publications, 2004), 66.

19. Javad Nurbakhsh, The Psychology of Sufism, (London: Nimatullahi Publications), 11.

20. Javad Nurbakhsh, Divan-E Nurbakhsh: Poems of a Sufi Master ed. Danny Kopoulos and Paul Weber (New York: Khaniqahi Nimatullahi Publications, 2014), “Glossary,” Divan, viii.

21. Ibid., viii.

22. Javad Nurbakhsh, The Path, (London: Nimatullahi Press, 2003), 174.

23. Javad Nurbakhsh, Divan-E Nurbakhsh, 280.

24. Javad Nurbakhsh, The Path, 34.

25. Ibid., 175.

26. Javad Nurbakhsh, Quatrains, Divan, 324.

27. Ibid., Divan, 357.

28. Ibid., 326.

29. Nurbakhsh, “Words Accomplish Nothing,” Divan, 16.

30. Nurbakhsh, “Words Accomplish Nothing,” Divan, 16.

31. Nurbakhsh, “He is the Truth,” Divan, 9.

32. Ibid., 150.

33. Ibid., 126.

34. Ibid., 9.

35. Ibid., 233.

36. Ibid., 45.

37. Ibid., 106.

38. Ibid., 104.

39. Ibid., 182.