96 Diffracting Rumi

Diffracting Rumi
on Becoming Human

By Annouchka Bayley



I died as a mineral and became a plant,
I died as plant and became an animal,
I died as animal and became Man.
Why should I fear? When was I less by dying?
Yet once more I shall die as Man, to soar
With angels blest; but even from angelhood
I must pass on: all except God doth perish.
When I have sacrificed my angel-soul,
I shall become what no mind e’er conceived.
Oh, let me not exist! for Non-existence
Proclaims in organ tones, To Him we shall return.
—Jalaluddin Rumi



We have never been fully human. This is the contention of some of the authors who work with post humanisms. Every time I’ve mentioned the word “posthumanism” outside (and even sometimes within) the academy, I’ve been met with variations on a theme of incredulity. “What do you mean posthuman?” Then laughter. This is a state of affairs that is both encouraging and discouraging. Discouraging because it suggests that a fundamental belief about “our” humanism is that we have actually achieved it. Or that we’ve always been there—at least since the Vitruvian Man burst out in all his glory in the Italian Renaissance courtesy of Da Vinci.

Diffraction refers to physical phenomena, processes like light diffracting through a prism on a journey of ontology as it explodes into an array of colours…


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But in truth, perhaps we’ve never actually been fully human, and this is the encouraging part, for “what do you mean posthuman?” is also a question that has sometimes been asked in the context of a disbelief in the idea that we were ever human in the first place. Thus, the incredulity emerges at a different segment, a different cut, along this line of questioning: how could “we” be post-something when we were never initially there in the first place? This has usually in my experience been accompanied by an exasperated sigh. Perhaps in other words/glances/nonverbal modes the question has become: why are you being so insanely impatient?

But it is not impatience that drives me, amongst others, to fashion a prism through which to try to glimpse notions of the human and becoming-human. Today, as I sit at my round desk in unreasonably hot (climatically transitory?) weather, provoked by the editor of this journal to write something, I return to something that has always-already been there in my history—right down to level of DNA. And it’s something that as an academic, a writer and a performer, I must and shall bear witness to. Learning Rumi by heart is my heritage, a tradition in my family and from my childhood, and the world that surrounded us: the recitations on the verandas, the balconies, the bedrooms and living rooms, the gardens, streets and khaniqahs that shaped my early and middle experiences of being (towards) human.

So this essay—this piece of storytelling in service of learning to “live and die together well in a thick present” (to reference the writings and projects of Donna Haraway) is not so much a reflection upon Rumi, but a diffraction of one particular poem read through the body and life of a human (in process). But not so fast! First, what on earth is diffraction? Diffraction refers to physical phenomena, processes like light diffracting through a prism on a journey of ontology as it explodes into an array of colors; or of waves that diffract in a pond, rippling over and above and within each other to form a new and temporary watery surface. Such intensities are not about reflection, they do not assume that one unit is separate and another unit is separate and they meet to form a third, or reflect the originary nature of each other (as when you look in a mirror and say “wow, I look so…” or post a selfie and say “well this is so me right now…” Neither are true—they are merely representations of “me”—and often severely filtered at that, as anyone under the age of 35 who has received a selfie will know, or anyone who has children under the age of 35 will know!) Rather in diffraction, these units of being find they are not inherently separate “units” at all but are eternally existing from within each other, momentarily creating new and various forms in the metaphoric and material “garden” that is the manifest universe.

Diffraction 1: Representations. I realize that mirror-like representations are a farce. Why? How? Because sitting with my parents as a child, at the foot of Aga Joon Nurbakhsh, I see something happening. My optical nerves pulse and vibrate and encounter this Other person—Other self engaged in the pursuit of not-self—who is clearly mirroring both my parents in the same moment. He changes states as rapidly and quickly as a pond diffracts into waves on a windy day. I giggle internally (well, what can I say, despite the continual misapprehensions, I am in fact extremely shy) and watch him endlessly and playfully reflect she and he who stares into him. Is it a reflection? Or is it a diffraction? After all, he is of course inimitably him—his voice, his body shape, his own seeing eye. How can one ever engage in reflection? Reflection is too static, too stuck, too dependant on a universe that stays still. Rather diffract! Show the difference differing. Watch the endless encounters buzz and hum with variation. What states might diffract into other states? Read from a position of fana or baqa, would Rumi’s stories not tell something entirely other?

In other words, diffracting something, or using diffraction as a method of exploration and inquiry allows the inquiry to come from a position of seeing the world as a complex, entangled ontology—to see Being as not built up from a number of separate units, but as a entangled flow of phenomena, a surface of intensities, which in Sufism might tug at something within scholars and practitioners’ familiarity with the concept of the Unity of Being. Not at all the same, but not entirely different either, a concept itself that diffracts its own existence here on the page in this set of contextual mark(er)s.

So, to diffract this segment of Rumi (perhaps himself a diffraction of Shams, of Konya, of Persia, of the flow of time and space and matter we call “history”) through posthumanisms, through myself today at this moment, through the context of “would you like to write something for the journal…?” means here to thicken the present with diffractive storytelling. And the story right now is of Rumi journeying from one state to another in his poem. What he points to here is ostensibly a kind of teleology. He talks of evolution, of a history that has lead from the halcyon days of hanging out in primeval soup, to becoming something unfathomable and more-than-human. But is Rumi just talking about evolution in some kind of Darwinian daydream/nightmare where “we” humans move on to some kind of next stage of evolution (indeed there are groups that affirm that becoming-robot is the fulfilment of the Bible­—but here I digress into what are, for me, shady and uncomfortable waters…)? Not in this diffraction. Because whilst Rumi may be referring to the process of evolution, in his inimitable style, he is perhaps also talking about a teleology of states and stations along the way to becoming human in Sufic terms.

As I sat at the side of teachers, mentors, mystics and cynics with a perhaps manic curiosity, (apparently I should have been playing with dolls, sorry Grandad) I heard many stories of what it might take to become human in these terms. It would take practice. It would take suffering. It would take dying to selves and self in the sense of “die before you die”—a sentiment that repeats and (re)emerges in mystical literatures across a range of cultures. It would take listening to wise old men. It would take not listening to wise old men. It would take living in the world and not living in the world. It would take getting married and not getting married. It would take having children and not having children. It would take embracing poverty and not being impoverished. It would take learning and unlearning everything you learned. In short: it would take everything (in both senses of the phrase).

Thus, the only way forwards (and backwards, in the sense of tracing the diffraction of personal history) was to embrace the idea that these things­­—these binaries of having and not having, doing and not doing, being and not being—were all eternally entangled. They were all existing as vital and vibrant parts of each other. And not just as concepts, but at the material level of flesh itself. These concepts were all living as part of my flesh and my experience of being alive on this planet. Much like Rumi’s poem and how I might diffract myself through it (and vice versa), all these knowledges, all these states were co-existing in one and as one. What “one”? Well, in one present-moment slice of identity, in an experience self continually diffracting into uncountable scores of phenomena. Or, to invoke the scholar Karen Barad, perhaps momentarily into a marked body—here, mine.

Diffraction 2: “You’re a tiger.” “No, I’m not.” “Yes, you are.” “No, I’m not.” And so on and so on. I remember thinking in this instant that I wish I were, but the truth (of this diffraction) is far weirder. I’m absolutely a crocus. Now I remember walking into university. I had by chance, managed to secure a place engaging in the academic study of Sufism (amongst other great traditions). We’d had a lecture on Rumi’s poem during our Mysticism in the Great Traditions course (one might indeed pick the title apart, but nonetheless, there I was, less than twenty and very excited.) Later, I went to my dear friend and teacher’s door to ask “What am I? What animal am I?” It was a trick question, to my mind, as I felt about as animal as a block of wood. “Ha!” is the response. “There’s nothing animal about you. But I’ve never seen a vegetable with so much presence.” I breathe the biggest sigh of calm—I’ve been seen but not reflected. I’ve been diffracted in contact with another. On recollection, perhaps it was nothing but a simple farmyard joke. But how I love this memory, that over time helps me to diffract myself. A further twenty years on, I find myself dreaming of crocuses. How beautiful that they grow in often inhospitable weathers. I imagine tigers trampling them underfoot. What is the power of the crocus-human, this particular and strange diffraction (like all others) that moves about on the planet, getting jobs, loving, eating, dancing, crying and wishing? Not much. But simply and only that we grow back. We know that we will grow back in endless diffractions, on endless fields and hope to be picked and given to a lover for a moment of joy.

But Rumi’s poem does something further than offer a metaphoric manual on becoming (and importantly also not becoming) one’s own diffraction of self via dying to different states and realities. Whilst situating these states within the material world (the world of rocks, veggies, animals, humans before the weird and wonderful, speculative world of angels and beyond) he also suggests that these states of being are temporary—that we are always-already dying to self, materialities and concepts: “I must pass on”… And perhaps this is where a brief investigation of the word “transcendence” might come in, both in terms of the poem and its diffraction here.

Transcendence is a word that troubles me. I became uncomfortable with it after a time when I felt its most prevalent diffraction was as a way to deny the body, materiality and to enforce an “us” and “them” that felt akin to the way Enlightenment readings rendered some people (usually non-white, often female) less civilized and more savage, less able to attain to the sacred than others. Thus, I felt that the word itself often carried a colonial baggage that filled its utterance with a whole host of angry ghosts whose voices had been stoppered up and silenced in the wake of innumerable colonial violences. However there are other diffractions to be included…

In English, the prefix “trans-” is applied to suggest something of slippage, of non-binary experiences and contexts. We trans-it from one place to another, existing temporally and spatially in between. We trans-form our homes, our spaces, our relationships, our lives. We trans-late from one language to another, crossing divides in the same moment that we invent them (for as every writer and reader knows, we never truly “capture” the meaning and form when we translate —why should we?—but invent something hopefully strong and beautiful). Thus, whilst to transcend something might suggest that it was originally fixed and we went beyond it, in this reading, we can do something different. All these trans’s are indicative of unfixed and constantly moving realities that go on to make up our simple everyday. Rather than being fixed and transcending out and beyond in order to arrive at another fixed, often disembodied point, transcending might also point to moving along to another state of engagement along an entanglement. Perhaps no experience is ever fully un-entangled from others. Not even the most simple and taken for granted one: being human.

Going further, as Rumi takes us on this journey, we also come to enter into a conceptual place that is simultaneously outside of conception. Perhaps there’s nothing a mystical writer likes more than the stylistic introduction of a paradox! In the context of Rumi’s religious and cultural tradition, and more specifically in relation to the end of his poem quoted here, outside of conception means into the state of returning to Allah—or that which is outside of human experience, and yet paradoxically in the literature of Islamic mysticisms, is closer to you than your jugular vein. Thus, there is something in diffracting literatures and writings in this context again that invokes the entanglement of binaries, of dualities, of separate selves, and othernesses. From the position of being-in-entanglement, these paradoxes of the Sufi kind perhaps become practiced as part of the course of living and dying, part of the everyday, part of the self and the marks we make. They become embodied and alive, a continually diffracted treasure that forces one to go beyond the reasoning mind and its endless, chattering attempt to fix realities. They become part of the journey and the endless work of “becoming human.”

Bearing witness to my own heritage through this brief diffraction of reading and reciting Rumi from my early life conjures up my own experience of making and unmaking marks. Of entangling through culture, through practice, through DNA with the vast heritage of Sufism to a moment of living with Rumi and his journey of states through recitation. Of living and dying together with friends, with books, with thoughts, with messy politics, with messy cultural traditions, with clear and unclear conflicts, with jobs, with mysticisms, with parents and families and pets, with displacements and revolutions, the thrills and sorrows of being always in-between. Of bearing witness in my own small, tiny way to becoming, always becoming, human.


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96 The Creed of Drunkenness



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The Creed of Drunkenness

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Cupbearer, by God, I am drunk and unconscious;
O drunken gypsy take me by the hand

My ashen face is flushed with wine
I have cut off the self, I am free of “I”

I don’t want to hear that the healing wine is unlawful
When I saw His face, I broke my repentance

I don’t know any faith or belief, religion or creed
If you must know, I am a worshiper of wine

Away! You babbling intellect, stop your nonsense
I am crazy for Him, I am free of common sense

Since I am captivated by His beauty
I have no worry for this fleeting life

I heard Nurbakhsh tell a companion
“I am utterly drunk from the Beloved’s beautiful Face.”


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96 Knowledge of the Self

Knowledge of the Self

by Alireza Nurbakhsh

Since the time of Plato (d. 347 B.C.E) knowledge has been generally defined in the Western tradition as a justified true belief. The justification occurs either through empirical evidence or a discursive method of mathematics. We know that the sun is shining if and only if the sun is shining and we perceive this to be the case. We also know that 2+2=4 is true by understanding the meaning of “2” and “4” and the plus sign.

Following the same tradition, the French philosopher René Descartes (d. 1650) classified human knowledge into two categories: empirical knowledge which is based on sensory perception and mathematical knowledge which is non-empirical and is based on the definitions of our mathematical concepts and rules. For Descartes, the knowledge of the self is empirical knowledge, immediately presented to us through introspection: I know I am in pain because I feel pain. Although Descartes could doubt the existence of everything, including the truth of mathematical statements, he could not doubt that he was doubting. Since for Descartes doubting is a form of thinking, he then arrived at his famous statement: “I think, therefore I am.” Knowledge of the self and its indubitable nature is thus the cornerstone of Cartesian philosophy.

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The 18th-century Scottish philosopher, David Hume (d. 1776) famously used the same method of introspection to argue that the perception of self is an illusion. By using introspection, he could only “perceive” various sensations at any given time without a self to bind them together.

With the rise of modern psychology and the Freudian notion of the unconscious and the subconscious mind, the study of the self has entered the scientific domain. We now have many theories relating to how the human mind works, explaining things ranging from cognitive abilities, to the sources of our anxieties and fears, to what makes us happy and content.

From a modern scientific point of view, understanding oneself is to understand how the cultural environment in which one develops and how the character traits of our parents and those around us have shaped our psychological traits or personality. Understanding ourselves then means understanding our fears, hopes and anxieties, as well as our other character traits and how we came to possess them. This in turn will help us to come to terms with our emotions and cognitive capacities in an effective way. Indeed, more and more people in the West engage with a therapist as a way to acknowledge and mediate their emotions, regain their psychological health or simply to understand themselves better.

Self-knowledge is also part of all major western religions and eastern traditions such as Buddhism, Hinduism and Sufism, but as it relates to an experience of the oneness of all things, not individual identity. From a mystical point of view, self-knowledge is the understanding that the self is illusory and that there is only one reality of which each person or individual forms an insignificant and indistinguishable part. The often used examples of a drop in an ocean or a candle flame placed before the sun may illustrate this point. The nature of reality here is water or light, and the drop or the candle flame are only vehicles expressing these realities. From the point of view of an “enlightened” drop, there is no distinction between “I” and “other” as there is only one reality, namely “water.” By the same token, from the standpoint of an enlightened person, the distinction between “I” and “others” disappears as there is only one reality, namely “consciousness” or “being.”

In a story relating to the Buddha himself, it is said that when he attained enlightenment at the Bodhi-tree, the god of Death and Desire approached him and displayed to Buddha his three beautiful daughters, Yearning, Fulfillment and Heartache. Had the Buddha thought in terms of “I” and “they” the god would have been able to unseat him, but instead the Blessed One remained unmoved as he had lost all sense of things being separate from one another; for him there was neither an “I” which desired nor a “they” to be desired. Thus, the temptations failed.

In Sufism, to know oneself means to know that our common experience of self as a distinct entity is an illusion. It is to experience the non-existence or annihilation of the self (fana) through love of the Beloved. The illusion of self has to be shattered in order to experience Oneness of Being. Farid al-Din ‘Attar, the 12th-century Sufi poet, in his Conference of the Birds refers to the state of self-knowledge as the third station in the seven-stage journey towards the Truth. When one reaches the stage of self-knowledge:

He sees the core, not the outer layer,
He does not see himself anymore, only the Friend.
Whatever he looks at, he sees the face of the Beloved,
And every atom reminds him of his Beloved.

In both Sufism and Buddhism, love or compassion and detachment from the world are prescribed methods to help one dislodge the sense of self and to realize it is an illusion. The path of love and compassion requires the seeker to treat others as if they are part of her; to feel others’ pain knowing it is her own. The path of detachment requires one to relinquish the fruit of one’s actions, to perform a task to the best of one’s ability without expectation of a reward. Focusing on the process without paying attention to the benefit that one may gain at the end of the process is the meaning of being in the world and not of the world.

It goes without saying that for the person who has realized that the self is illusory, participating in the world is not a difficult task. Like Buddha, the enlightened person “knows” at a deep level that there is no distinction between “I” and “others,” which makes it easy to reject the constant temptation that “I” is real and is distinct from “others.”

In Sufism, to know oneself means to know that our common experience of self as a distinct entity is an illusion. It is to experience the non-existence or annihilation of the self (fana) through love of the Beloved.

But for a person who has not experienced the illusory nature of the self, it is a constant endeavor not to fall into the trap of “I” and “other.” Our social systems and cultural norms require us to differentiate between ourselves and others. One’s rights and obligations are not the same as one’s neighbor’s. Thus, in order to survive in this world we have to differentiate between “I” and “other.” We cannot tell our landlord, for example, that we will stop paying him rent because there is no distinction between us and him. This argument will get us evicted.

But this should not be a cause of despair. Attaining spiritual truth often requires that we do not accept cultural norms at face value. Nevertheless, I believe, there is a more profound reason why we should participate in the world which views each human as a distinct reality and separate from others. We cannot discover our humanity and the ability to love if we withdraw from the world. One cannot understand the act of compassion if one is living in isolation or with like-minded people who do not challenge one’s point of view and understanding of the world. Acting compassionately becomes meaningful in our encounters with our adversaries. It is of course good to act compassionately towards others who share our values and beliefs, but it is quite remarkable to act with kindness towards people who completely reject one’s point of view to the point of being totally biased in their treatment of us.

In one sense it does not make any difference whether we adopt the common view that the self is real or a Sufi/Buddhist view that it is an illusory construct. We still experience pain, hunger, anger and joy. We still have to deal with others in the world, make a living and pay our taxes. If there is any difference, I suggest that it would be in our attitudes.

If one experiences the illusory nature of the self, fundamentally such a person “understands” that there is no distinction between herself and others. The attitude of such a person will be to help and preserve others as if they are no different from herself. Acting with compassion and kindness will be the logical conclusion of this attitude. The question of whether to treat oneself preferentially in interactions with others will not even arise as there is no experience of “self” as a separate entity from others.

In contrast, the experience of “self” as a real entity with each individual “self” being distinct and separate from others, does not naturally lend itself to a compassionate and kind attitude. There is no natural reason to help others if one’s self is “real” and in a fundamental sense different from other selves. If we adhere to a reality of each “self” as being distinct from other selves, with each possessing a series of unique wishes and desires that are not necessarily shared by other “selves,” the inevitable conclusion is that we promote and satisfy our own self or ego at the expense of others. Hence, human societies have had to devise complex systems of laws to prevent unfair treatment of some human beings by others.

It seems clear that the experience of self as an illusory entity lends itself naturally to human beings having a more compassionate attitude in dealing with other living things. But the question remains of how to cultivate such an experience. Without having the experience, it is not easy to treat others as if they are part of yourself. What can we do to be more receptive to the experience of unity and of seeing ourselves not as separate entities but merely as part of the sea of humanity and the living world?

The Sufis’ response to this question is somewhat paradoxical. For most people, in order to experience unity they must behave as if they are experiencing the self as an illusion. One must act with compassion and love even if one does not “see” the oneness. It is this persistence in acts of kindness and compassion that opens the door to the experience of oneness and exposes our self-identity as an illusion. Only a few fortunate ones get to experience the oneness of all existence effortlessly by the sheer grace of God.

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“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.


95 Test Restricted Posts


by Alireza Nurbakhsh


To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour
—William Blake


The term sacred comes from the Latin sacer which means “set off, restricted.” In ancient Rome the word sacer came to mean that which was restricted to the divine domain. Eventually, the sacred came to be identified with the divine and the pure, while the profane became identified with the mundane and impure.

The first point to observe about the sacred-profane distinction is that it is subjective. Things, places and people are not in themselves sacred or profane. They become sacred or profane because we conceive them as such. This is illustrated by differences among religious traditions and their conceptions of what is sacred. In Hinduism, for example, cattle are thought to be sacred and are deeply respected. No doubt this is because cattle are a source of milk, fuel and fertilizer in India. However, no such reverence exists in most of the rest of the world where cattle are merely a source of meat. Another example of the subjectivity of the experience of the sacred is evident when we see sacred artifacts in a museum. In such an encounter, we do not experience the sacred in the way people from the culture that created the objects would have experienced them when those people encountered the same objects.

Although the experience of the sacred is subjective and differs from one culture to another, it is possible, to borrow the terminology of Carl Jung, that the notion of the sacred is part of our “collective unconscious,” and is common to all human beings, existing in us innately. In this context, the subjectivity of our experience of the sacred has to do with the particular and varying manifestations of this archetype (to use another of Jung’s terms) in each of us, for the sacred can take a wide range of forms in different cultures and religious traditions.

Although the worldview, religion, or tradition that we adopt determines what sorts of things are sacred, the experience of the sacred also differs from one individual to another and can be intensely personal. It stands to reason that if the worldview we adopt does not include anything which is sacred in the original sense of being restricted to the divine, we cannot have a sacred experience. Here I use the term sacred experience as synonymous with mystical or religious experience.

In sacred or mystical experiences, we escape our mundane existence by coming face-to-face with something much greater than ourselves. The religious traditions, by and large, dictate where and when one should have such experiences, namely, in sacred spaces such as churches, mosques, synagogues, Buddhist temples or Hindu ashrams and while engaged in contemplation of the divine or in prayer. Each religious tradition prescribes what is sacred and in doing so creates an acceptable pattern of what constitutes a sacred experience. An Anglican Christian, for example, may experience the sacred at Westminster Abbey upon seeing the icon of Christ and relive the experience of Jesus’ sacrifice for one’s sin. But to a Japanese tourist the space will have no more than a historical or artistic significance.

There are, I believe, three main features common to all mystical experience. The first is that we feel we are in the presence of something greater than ourselves, be it God, nature or even an encounter with another human being. The second is that such an experience is usually outside the realm of the ordinary. The experience becomes increasingly ineffable; we find it hard to describe it in language without the risk of sounding absurd. The third and the most significant aspect of the mystical experience is its transformative nature. The experience is not an end in itself; one who undergoes such an experience is not engaged in a voluntary or self-serving exercise. The encounter with the sacred has always been a transformative force in all traditions. The result of such a transformation is a desire to reach out to others in order to help and love. Those who experience the sacred become more inclusive and loving especially to those who have been marginalized in society.
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The Spanish mystic Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) is a good example of someone whose personal mystical experience shaped her worldly life of contemplation and service to others. Her intense desire is illustrated by the following sacred experience, which she recounts in a passionate and erotic language.

It pleased our Lord that I should see the following vision a number of times. I saw an angel near me, on the left side, in bodily form. This I am not wont to see, save very rarely… In this vision it pleased the Lord that I should see it thus. He was not tall, but short, marvelously beautiful, with a face which shone as though he were one of the highest of the angels, who seem to be all of fire: they must be those whom we call Seraphim… I saw in his hands a long golden spear, and at the point of the iron there seemed to be a little fire. This I thought that he thrust several times into my heart, and that it penetrated to my entrails. When he drew out the spear he seemed to be drawing them with it, leaving me all on fire with a wondrous love for God. The pain was so great that it caused me to utter several moans; and yet so exceeding sweet is this greatest of pains that it is impossible to desire to be rid of it, or for the soul to be content with less than God.1

In the Sufi tradition, Ruzbehan Baqli Shirazi (1128-1209) is an example of someone whose very intense experience of divine love made love the central theme in Persian Sufism and thus affected many generations of Sufis in Iran.  He describes an erotic experience similar to St. Teresa’s in his book Abhar al-Asheqin (“Jasmine of the Lovers”). Ruzbehan first describes his journey in the sacred angelic realm; upon returning to the world he experiences an intense love of God and the pain of separation from Him. God then manifests Himself to Ruzbehan as a beautiful Chinese woman and tells him to look at Her as if he were looking at another human being.

My heart’s eye suddenly opened and I saw with my own physical eyes. I witnessed a Chinese beauty bewitching the whole world with her loveliness and coquetry. Her infidelity, loveliness, trickery, coyness and shamelessness were apparent in her bewitching eyes, and it was as though Satan himself resided in the curl of her tresses. She has put to shame Venus in beauty and has surpassed Jupiter in loveliness. With her gentle and attractive deer-like walk, she hunted down the lions and has already made the ascetics detest their abode in the heavenly monastery. I gazed upon her in astonishment but mindful of my piety, I became ashamed of myself. I spoke to her without using words. Suddenly, she looked at me with utmost loveliness and said: “Alas, you have broken your vows and left your monastery.” Out of bewilderment I replied, “I have just found my lost lovely bride in the hidden realm of pre-eternity. You are my only wealth in this world and the hereafter and the jewels of all worlds. I came across you in this ruin of a place, not by way of incarnation but by direct manifestation.” She replied with coyness, “What are you saying? Is it not true that in Sufism to look at anything other than God is unbelief and perilous? Is it not the case that from the point of view of reason and divine knowledge, by doing so, you waste your life and lose your vision?” I replied with my heart’s joy, “O Beloved, you are so worthy of my admiration and worship, even if you decide not to drink the wine of love with me in the assembly of selflessness.”2

Different religions prescribe different methods for entering the realm of the sacred, but what is common among them is that their methods always involve purification rituals such as fasting, prayer, meditation, service to others and self-denial. These rituals can be viewed as sacrifices that we have to make in order to have access to the realm of the sacred. In Sufism, the sacrifice we have to make is that of our ego which has separated us from the world of the sacred. It is through love and service to others that the Sufis contribute to lifting the veil of the ego, thereby experiencing the sacred. The experience of the sacred involves the experience of Oneness though love, and that of the profane relates to the experience of multiplicity and lack of love. For the Sufis the experience of the sacred can happen anywhere and at any time. There is no specific place or time to have such an experience. Any place can be sacred and at any given time the Sufi can have such an experience. It happens in places and at times when we surrender ourselves to God and meditate on Oneness. Ultimately, it is the experience of Oneness in this encounter with the sacred that leads the Sufi to love and serve all, this experience being the underlying cause of the Sufi’s transformation. The experience of Oneness pushes us back to the realm of humanity and drives us to serve others.

Increasingly, modern man has taken the stance that nothing is sacred and everything can and should be manipulated. Nothing is restricted to the divine domain. We continue to exploit nature despite being confronted with the dire consequences of our actions. We continue to manipulate animals and plants despite not knowing where this path will eventually lead us. Some even pursue the manipulation of human genes with the object of producing humans who are less prone to disease, smarter and live longer through cultivating and growing organs which can be replaced or enhanced. Homo sapiens in this process of manipulation eliminated the sacred and is attempting to take over the divine domain.

The cost of banishing the sacred from our world is to live in a world devoid of mystical experience. If today we come across someone whose experience is similar to Teresa of Avila or Ruzbehan Baqli most of us do not have a framework to relate to this person; we would doubt his or her sanity. But a world devoid of mystical experience is a world devoid of the true personal transformations by which human beings become less egocentric and more caring towards others.

Many have suggested that the arts can and should replace the sacred, a process that more or less began in the western world during the Enlightenment. If the point of having sacred or mystical experience is to transform us into better human beings, the arts are an insufficient substitute. The arts can contribute to sacred experiences, but are not of themselves adequate practices. Art can provide a language with which to communicate our experience of the sacred, but in our participation and experience of it we do not make the sacrifice which is essential to our transformation into a better human being. Going to museums or attending a concert, though often beneficial to us, are not always activities that make us reach out and help others. These are things we usually do for self-fulfillment and growth while the only sacrifice made is the time and money we spend pursuing these experiences. True growth and transformation occurs when we can be of benefit to others. Traditionally, it has been our encounter with the sacred through various rituals and practices that has brought about such transformations. Without the experience of the sacred we are at risk of living only for ourselves and to the detriment of others.

I have taken for granted that the experience of the sacred always leads to our transformation for the better. However, throughout the history of religion many wars and conflicts have been incited by those who claimed they had had an encounter with the sacred. To this day we continue to witness a confrontational and belligerent attitude by those who claim they are in receipt of direct instructions from God or are acting in the name of those who had such instructions. Any action which is divisive and based on hate and hostility stems from self-delusion and ego, while the experience that is truly sacred must always drive us to help and serve every human being regardless of their religious, racial or ethnic background.

1  Peers, E. Allison. Studies of the Spanish Mystics, London, 1927.
2  Nurbakhsh, Dr. Javad, ed.,  Abhar al-Asheqin, by Ruzbehan Baqli Shirazi, Tehran, 1970.



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