Peace, one and all…
Yesterday I polished my mirror,
Made it bright and placed it before myself.
I saw so many faults of my own in the mirror
That I forgot other people’s faults completely
Ruzbehan Baqli, Quatrain 3 (Source)
Peace, one and all…
You are not really a hunter, seeking Me,
instead you are My slave and lie at My feet.
You devise means to attain to My presence
but you are helpless either to leave or to seek Me.
The search for Me causes you anguish;
last night I heard your heavy sighs.
It is within My power to end your waiting,
to show you the Way and grant access.
So that you may be released from this whirlpool of time,
and may at last set foot on the treasure of union with Me,
but the sweetness and delights of the resting-place
are in proportion to the pain endured on the journey.
Only when you suffer the pangs and tribulations of exile
will you truly enjoy the homecoming.
Peace, one and all…
Imam Zayn al-Abidin (God sanctify his noble soul) writes, in his Treatise on Rights (Risalat al-Huquq):
‘Know – God have mercy upon you – that God has rights against you and that these encompass you in every movement through which you move, every rest through which you rest, every waystation in which you reside, every limb which you employ, and every instrument which you put to work’
Peace, one and all…
These sayings of mine are really a prayer to God,
words to lure the breath of that sweet One.
If you seek an answer from God,
how then can you fail to pray?
How can you be silent, knowing He always replies to
your, ‘O Lord?’ with, ‘I am here’.
His answer is silent but you can feel it from head to toe.
Peace, one and all…
‘The Prophet (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam) said: ‘Seek knowledge even as far as China’. There is more than one kind of knowledge, however. The highest knowledge is the knowledge that helps us to realise what it means to be a human being: the purpose of being human, and our relationship with Absolute Truth, Allah’
(Shaykh Kabir Helminski, The Book of Language, p. 86)
Peace, one and all…
‘When I die and you wish to visit me,
do not come to my grave without a drum,
for at God’s banquet mourners have no place’
Mevlana, Divan-i Shams 683
Today is Seb-i Arus, the festival marking the return of Hazret-i Pir Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi to the Divine Beloved. To mark this auspicious occasion, I wanted to offer a virtual Mehfil-i Sema, or sema gathering, in honour of Mevlana. The spiritual music offered here includes many of my personal favourites.
The Mevlevi Rose Prayer
May this moment be blessed. May goodness be opened and may evil be dispelled. May our humble plea be accepted in the Court of Honour; May the Most Glorious God purify and fill our hearts with the Light of His Greatest Name. May the hearts of the lovers be opened. By the breath of our master Mevlana, by the secret of Shams and Weled, by the holy light of Muhammad, by the generosity of Imam Ali, and the intercession of Muhammad, the unlettered prophet, mercy to all the worlds. May we say Hu, Huuu….
Mevlevi Nat-i Serif
(Poem in Honour of the Prophet, alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam)
Daglar ile Taslar ile
(Qawwal in praise of God)
Sabri Brothers, Allah Hoo
(Qawwal in praise of Muhammad, alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam)
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan: Sare Nabian Da Nabi
Manqabat Imam Ali
(Qawwal in honour of Imam Ali)
Mevlana Qawwal, sung by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan
Imam al-Shushtari: My Sweetest Moments
Mevlana, Andak Andak
Little by little, the group of the lovedrunk arrive
Little by little, the worshipers of wine arrive
They are on their way; Comforting and gentle
Like flowers from the flowerfield they arrive
Little by little, from this world of Being and non-Being
The non-existent leave and the existent arrive
They come with hands and clothes full of gold
For the poor and hungry they arrive
The gaunt, exhausted from the trials of Love
Strong and healthy they arrive
Like the rays of the Sun , the lives of the Pure
From those heights to the lowly valley they arrive
Green and fresh the garden for the pure
With new fruits from the love drunk they arrive
Their essence is grace and grace they unfold and expand
From the garden towards the garden they arrive
Peace, one and all…
‘Did I not tell you, ‘Do not leave, for I am your friend’?
For in this mirage of nothingness I am the Fountainhead of Life!
Even if in anger you leave Me for a hundred thousand years,
in the end you will return, for I am your true Goal!
Did I not tell you, ‘Be not content with worldly form’?
For I am the fashioner of the tabernacle of your contentment!
Did I not tell you, ‘I am the Sea and you are but a single fish’?
Do not be tempted ashore, for I am your Crystal Sea!
Did I not tell you, ‘Do not fly like a bird to the snare’?
Come to Me, for I am the very Power of your flight!
Did I not tell you, ‘They will rob you and leave you numb with cold’?
But I am the Fire and the Warmth and Heat of your desire!
Did I not tell you, ‘They will taint your character,
until you forget that I am your Source of Purity’?
Did I not tell you, ‘Do not question how I direct your affairs’?
For I am the Creator without directions.
If you heart is a lamp, let it lead you to your true path.
And if you are godly, know that I am your Lord!’
Mevlana, Divan-i Shams, Ghazal 1725
Peace, one and all…
What wisdom was this, that the Object of all desire
caused me to leave my home joyously on a fool’s errand,
so that I was actually rushing to lose the way
and at each moment being taken farther from what I sought -
and then God in His beneficence made that very wandering
the means of my reaching the right road and finding wealth!
He makes losing the way a way of true faith;
He makes going astray a field for the harvest of righteousness,
so that no righteous one may be without fear
and no traitor may be without hope.
The Gracious One has put the antidote in the poison
so that they may say He is the Lord of hidden grace.
Peace, one and all…
God made the earth and celestial sphere
in six days of deliberate work,
even though He could bring forth a hundred earths and heavens
with the words: ‘Be, and it is’
Little by little until forty years of age
He raises the human being to completion,
although in a single moment He was able
to send fifty flying out of nothing.
Jesus by means of one prayer could make the dead spring to life:
Is the Creator of Jesus unable
to suddenly bring full-grown human beings
fold by fold into existence?
This deliberation is for the purpose of teaching you
that you must seek God slowly, without any break.
A little which moves continually
doesn’t become tainted or foul.
From this deliberation are born felicity and joy:
Deliberation is the egg,
Good luck is the fledgling that hatches.
(Masnavi 3.3500 – 3508)
Peace, one and all…
‘Those who find the Beloved in the letter alif need not open the
Quran to read it.
When they blow with the breath of love, the curtains are
Heaven and hell are their slaves, made to serve them.
I give my life for those, Bahu, who enter the state of unity’
(Sultan Bahu, trans. Jamal Elias)
Alif, the first letter of the Arabic alphabet, is written with a single downward stroke of the pen. It therefore symbolises the descent of revelation, of the sending down of divine grace (tanzil). As the first letter, alif begins the entire sequence, being thereby the first recognisable character. In other words, all things begin with and in the Divine. The Quran states this clearly: ‘Surely His Command, if He wills a thing, is only to say to it, “Be!” and it is’ (36:82). This is further underlined when it is remembered that alif is the first letter in the Arabic definite article (al). Or, more precisely, lam is the definite article itself, the alif is required to vocalise the sound properly. Perhaps this tells us that every sound, every vocalisation, every conceptual ability, is a gift from the Divine. Perhaps it also tells us that God’s action is necessary for anything to come to pass – it is only the descent of grace (here symbolised as the alif) that allows us to speak (the lam). Lam is interesting here, because it begins a number of key phrases: la ilaha illa Allah (‘there is no deity except God’) and la hawla wa la quwwata illa billah (‘there is no power or might except in God’).
As such, the alif symbolises the moment of first definition, and thus of creation itself. The divine creative potential descends into the naked universe in each new moment and in each new place. It is perhaps no surprise then to remember that each God’s beautiful Names begins with this alif: i.e. al-Rahman, al-Latif and so on. This universe is thus a kind of theatre, in which the infinite qualities of God are manifested before (and within) us. And lest we think otherwise, these qualities are all part of the infinity of Divinity Itself: alif is also the first letter of the word for God in Arabic, Allah. Allah is often understood to be the Greatest Name, as it combines all of the other Names and Qualities within Itself; it is the comprehensive Name. As the alif is written with a single stroke, it is also the number one. It is thus a powerful symbol of the Unity of All Things. God is al-Ahad (the Singular, the One, the Unique).
Beautifully, alif also speaks of our human connection to the Divine. It is the first letter of the word Adam, father and progenitor of humanity (alaihi al-salam). We receive our human nature via the descent of divine grace, as a literal gift from heaven. The alif also points towards our origin, offering us a means of orientation. Alif begins the word iman (often rendered as ‘faith’ or ‘belief’). Faith in God, beyond every boundary and limitation, is what guides us home. Iman is itself the ‘rope of God’ (3:103) and the ‘most trustworthy handhold’ (2:256). As Mevlana eloquently points out, iman is the essence, beyond every external difference:
’Someone asked: ‘What is greater than prayer?’ Mevlana said: ‘One answer is that the soul of prayer is greater than prayer, as I have already explained. A second answer is that faith (iman) is greater. Prayer is a series of daily actions, while faith is continuous. Prayer can be dropped for a valid reason, or can be postponed, but it is impossible to drop or postone faith for any excuse. And where prayer without faith gains nothing, as in the case of hypocrites, faith without prayer is valuable. Another point: while the prayer of every religion is quite different, still, faith does not change from religion to religion. The states that it produces, its place in life, and its effects are the same everywhere…’ (Mevlana Rumi, Fihi ma Fihi, Discourse 8)
Alif is the first letter of the word adab – a truly pregnant term, whose most comprehensive meaning is ‘appropriate action‘. Awareness of what is most appropriate, most fitting, in each new moment allows us to develop and expand our relationship with others, and thus with Divinity Itself. The alif is also used in Arabic as an interrogative particle. In other words, it is used to formulate questions – questions about God, about ourselves and about the meanings of things. The ability to think, talk and ask questions is fundamental to what it means to be human.
In closing, thinking with the first letter of the alphabet in this way can allow us access into the very heart of what it means to be alive, and what it means to be human.
wa akhiru da’wana an il hamdu lillahi rabbil alameen.
Peace, one and all…
‘A true lover is one who accepts death for the Beloved.
He doesn’t desert love, nor turns his face, even if wounded by
He halts and stands wherever he sees the Beloved’s mysteries.
Bahu, true love is that of Husayn and Ali: to give away one’s head
but never give away the secret’
Sultan Bahu, trans. Jamal Elias
Peace, one and all…
Adab Ya Hu!
Adab is such an essential concept on the spiritual path that it is worth contemplating its meaning and practice carefully. The word conveys notions of mannerliness, refinement, politeness, education and civility. Perhaps the most comprehensive definition I have personally encountered is ‘appropriate action’. That is, each new moment has its own unique adab, its own appropriate word or deed or state. Interacting with others has its own form of adab, as does each unfolding moment of our ongoing relationship with Divinity. This is no doubt why the Sufi tradition developed adab into a unique art form. Thus many Sufi masters devoted themselves to understanding and applying this most important spiritual value.
Given the significance of these things, perhaps we might be able to tease out some points of use by reflecting on the shape of the Arabic word itself. Contemplating the meanings behind the shapes and combinations of letters has a venerable history in Sufi tradition, which understands meaning as being inherent in all things. So, in this vein, I would like to share a few reflections on the truly pregnant word adab.
Before we begin, however, I feel it is important to point out that the ideas offered here are neither authoritative nor absolute – they merely reflect an ongoing, personal attempt to contemplate the infinite signs of God. And as the Arabic saying goes: Wallahu A`lam (or ‘God knows best’).
The Word Adab
As we can see from the image above, the Arabic word adab consists of three letters: alif, dal and ba’. In line with all Arabic words, adab is derived from a tri-lateral root, conveying the basic sense of the term and from which more extended meanings are derived. The Hans Wehr Dictionary defines adab as: ‘culture, refinement; good breeding, good manners, social graces, decorum, decency…humanity, humaneness’ (p.9). Aduba can mean: ‘to be well-mannered, cultured, urbane’ and also ‘to refine, educate; to discipline’. So, as well as being a praiseworthy quality, it is also understood as a process. That is, one can learn, become and embody adab.
Looking at the shape of the word itself, we can understand some of the inner movement essential to such a process (though all movement and power belong to God). To explore some of these movements, let us look at each letter in turn.
Alif is the first letter of adab. It is also the first letter of the entire Arabic alphabet. Significantly, it is the first letter of the Arabic word for God: Allah. It is written as a single stroke of the pen, often from top to bottom. In that sense, it symbolises the descent of God’s word, of revelation. All things begin with God’s action, with the descent of life-giving mercy. In the Quran, we read the following: ‘Surely His Command, if He wills a thing, is only to say to it, “Be!” and it is’ (36:82). Creation is initiated and maintained by Divine fiat, as is the knowledge God imparts to all things: ‘al-Rahman, taught the Quran, created man, and taught him eloquence’ (55:1-4). In that way, alif also suggests lightning to me: realising a new insight certainly does feel like being hit by lightning.
Moreover, in grammatical terms, an alif can be used as an interrogative particle to introduce a direct or indirect question. In other words, as well as being the first letter of Allah, it is also the first letter by which we respond to God, by which we seek to understand Divine revelation. Alif is the first letter of Iblis/Shaytan and thus our knowledge can become perverse if we don’t understand its Exalted Source in each new moment.
The alif thus represents creation, mercy and knowledge; and, in terms of adab, it symbolises our Adamic nature – our simple, innate human dignity. Looking at the letter, I am reminded of respectful posture, of relaxed poise and of balance. Adab thus begins with an acknowledgement of our natural dignity, of who and what we are as God’s viceregent upon earth (2:30). The vertical line also suggests that adab is a grace from God within the sacred centre of the heart; it marks a descent of mercy. Thus, we have true dignity when we stand in the centre of this divine rain, when we realise that our ability to see and act appropriately arise first in God. Indeed, it is to understand that all of actions take being from the Source of All Being. As we begin to grow into this awareness, a quiet space is opened out within our hearts – a place of stillness, in which we can hear the silent voice of Love. Stillness, openness and natural dignity are thus the necessary conditions for adab.
Dal is the 8th letter of the Arabic alphabet. Looking at the shape of the letter, I am struck by the fact that it is somewhat bent over. Indeed, it has always looked like a person sitting on the floor, looking at their feet. Dal thus represents an image of stillness – of sitting peacefully, in quiet reflection. It is also an image of consideration, respect and importantly, humility.
In a symbolic sense, therefore, it is the natural follow-on from the alif. Humility is the only way to open and develop that place of stillness within ourselves. But, humility does not imply servility. There is nothing servile about adab. Once we realise the many gifts Divinity has bestowed upon us, the natural response is to sit in grateful contemplation. It is perhaps no accident therefore that dal is also the first letter of the word du`a – ‘supplication’. Our response to Divine grace should be gratitude. It should also provoke us to reflection, to a consideration of the ways in which we impact upon the world around us. Untangling the knots of our unhelpful deeds takes deep thought and a real inward honesty. Only through such reflection can we begin to see what is truly called for in each new moment. That the letter dal appears to be bent over gazing at its own feet, reminds me that I must take great care as I walk through this world, that all of my actions have consequences, cause re-actions.
Calm reflection highlights another important facet: adab is an ever-unfolding process. I will never reach a point where I can say, ‘I’ve done enough and I have mastered adab‘. The moment such thoughts arise within us is an indication that we are merely beginning another stage in our education. Adab thus takes reflection, humility and remembrance: once we embody such qualities, we are in a true state of dhikr. Interestingly, the pregnant word dhikr (‘remembrance’) begins with dhal, the next letter of the Arabic alphabet. It is written in the same manner as dal, but with a single dot above it – representing this divinely-gifted light from above perhaps.
Adab requires us to be aware of our human dignity, and our connection to the Source. Sometimes strength is called for, whilst at others we are called to embody patience – we are called to deliberately lower ourselves, to lessen our perceptions of our own status and wisdom. Literally, we are sometimes called to ‘halve’ ourselves – to go from the alif to the dal. This is especially so in times of anger, where it can be extremely difficult to maintain our balance. The following tradition of the Prophet (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam) is thus extremely interesting in this regard. The Prophet (sall Allahu alaihi wa alihi wa salem) said:
‘If any of you becomes angry and he is standing, let him sit down, so his anger will go away; if it does not go away, let him lie down’ (source)
Sitting down when angry, ‘halving’ our inflamed wrath, is thus a physical example of this symbolic truth. Context is thus essential. So, how then are we to develop our awareness of context, of what each moment truly demands of us?
Ba’ is the second letter of the Arabic alphabet. It is formed by a bowl-like mark, with a single dot beneath it. Ba’ is the first letter in the quintessential phrase of Islam – Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim (‘In the Name of God, the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful’). This is no coincidence, I think. Indeed, our developing awareness needs to be sanctified, to be transformed into a sacred deed. This is precisely how the basmala is understood within the Islamic tradition, as a way of devoting an action to God. In the context of adab, therefore, our response needs the right beginning, the right opening, to be truly fruitful.
Looking at the shape of the letter, two images come to mind. Firstly, I am struck by this letter as a bowl, as an empty container. It is adab that teaches us how to lift that bowl towards heaven. It is adab that allows our empty bowls to be filled with the water of mercy, and with the wine of love. Because it is the last letter of the word, our empty cup needs to be prepared through divine grace and humility.
Secondly, I see an image of two hands raised in du`a. Adab requires prayer therefore. And an understanding that our prayers are in themselves an expression of Divine grace, as Ibn Ata’illah makes beautifully clear:
‘When He loosens your tongue with a request,
then know that He wants to give you something’
Looking at the dot beneath the ba’ is thus an important reminder of oneness: behind every duality stands a deeper unity – the beautiful oneness of the Divine Reality. Furthermore, that Reality is utterly beyond us, and yet strangely, manifest within each thing. Without the dot, the letter could not be recognised. Without the divine spark in all things, we could not recognise each other: la hawla wa la quwwata illa Billah. The dot also reminds me of a pivot, on which a spinning top whirls. The Divine Reality is thus the pivot on which we all turn; It is the very axis of Creation itself.
So, adab begins with the descent of grace, hidden deep within our frail humanity. It deepens through introspection, prayer and remembrance and ends in a moment-by-moment awareness of the unity of all things, and of the sacred connections between us all. And, in the final analysis, it is this awareness that causes us to turn, to whirl in joy and love around our Divine Source. Awareness of human dignity and human nothingness are the sparks which ignite the fire of love within us.
May God open out a place of stillness deep within every heart. May God bestow His limitless mercy and grace upon us all. May we all be blessed with a deep, living awareness of what is most appropriate, most fitting in each new place and moment.
And my last prayer is in praise of God, Sustainer of All the Worlds.
- Darvish: the Adab of the Sufi Path
- Adab is a gateway
- And spread the greeting amongst yourselves
- Pursue knowledge even unto China
- Mevlana and Me: Poetry, the Moment and Suhbah
- Learning to Talk: the Place of Adab
- Women, Prayer and the Coolness of My Eyes
Peace, one and all..
‘Indeed, in the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the alternation of the night and the day are signs for those of understanding’ (3:190)
One of the most pleasurable aspects of Spring is being able to pray in my garden. After zuhr prayer this afternoon, I sat on the lawn (such as it is), taking pleasure in just sitting there amidst the peace and stillness. I was simply breathing, not thinking of anything in particular – a rare thing in itself.
As I sat there, I found my eyes drawn to a small plant, swaying gently in the breeze, with shadows dancing playfully on the tiny green leaves. I gradually became aware of a thought bubbling up from somewhere deep inside: the constant dance of light and shade is slowly nurturing this fragile plant. If there were too much sunlight, the plant would be exhausted before it had had a chance to fully mature. If there were too much shade, the plant would never grown forth from its seed. As I sat there, I suddenly realised that both light and shade are each, in their turn, an expression of mercy. Indeed, it is precisely this subtle balancing of energies that expresses this mercy most completely.
Interestingly, the following Quranic verses came to mind as these thoughts whirled around in my head:
‘He has raised up the sky. He has set the balance so that you may not exceed in the balance: weigh with justice and do not fall short in the balance’ (Surah al-Rahman, or the Chapter of the All-Merciful, 55:7-9; translated by M A S Abdel Haleem)
The balance (al-Mizan in Arabic) is thus established through and maintained by, justice (the word used in this context is qist). The root from which qist is derived conveys notions of equity, fairness, justice, fair distribution, correctness, balance and scale (source), all of which seem particularly relevant.
More broadly, the Islamic tradition understands justice as the ability to put things in their proper place, in the correct proportions, at the proper time. The balance of justice, which upholds all things, is thus exquisitely proportioned Divine mercy. It is God’s rahma (‘mercy’) that bestows the necessary energies for growth and transformation – in just the right amount, at just the right moment. That these verses should form a part of Surah al-Rahman is no coincidence it seems. Firstly, the entire chapter calls us to reflect deeply on the natural world, and the Divine Reality (Haqq) upholding it.
Secondly, the central refrain of this chapter runs thus: ‘Which, then, of your Lord’s blessings do you both deny?’ (first occurring in 55:13, and then throughout). In other words, we are called to respond to the natural world, and the One sustaining it. And, the appropriate response to this finely balanced mercy can only be gratitude. Thankfulness (shukr in Arabic) is the essential key by which these meanings are unlocked. Moreover, if we cannot deny this deeply embedded balance and appropriateness, we should therefore strive to embody it, to become it. Reflecting on the natural world is thus to reflect on God’s own ‘adab‘, so to speak. We are thus taught, albeit implicitly, to model this divine adab, to let it fill us and become us, all the while realising that it is God’s own action within us that makes such human balance possible.
al-Rahman, meaning approximately ‘the All-Merciful’, or ‘the Compassionate’, is one of the most important Divine Names. Interestingly, the surah begins with the proportion inherent in our own creation:
‘al-Rahman, taught the Quran, created man, and taught him eloquence’ (55:1-4)
The anfas al-Rahman (or ‘Breath of the All-Merciful’) is the life-giving spirit which causes all things to exist. The Prophet (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam) said: ‘Do not curse the wind, for it derives from the Breath of the All-Merciful’ (quoted in William Chittick’s The Sufi Path of Knowledge, p.127).
If this is so in the physical world, it is also true in the spiritual world. Light and shade, ‘good’ and ‘bad’, are for our own inward growth, so that the rose-bush of the soul might also become like this small leaf. In the past, I imagined the darkness as a subversion of the universal order, but now I see that both are necessary. Both light and shadow are God-given; perhaps this is because duality is a necessary part of the physical universe. But, as I am learning, this duality is only apparent: it is only our limited perception that sees this way, dividing what is in fact an indivisible whole. In reality, this duality is an expression of a deeper unity – light and shade, and every other pairing of opposites, come from God, and both are held in exquisite balance by overflowing, transcendent rahma. Perhaps this is why, at this weekend’s retreat, as we spoke of the Divine Name al-Nur (the Light), I realised that this is not merely physical light, but the light of all things that shines in amidst the deepest ‘night’ of this world.
Here is a beautiful rendition of this wonderful surah, with accompanying text.
Surah al-Rahman, recited by al-Ghamdi
In closing, let me offer a beautiful quatrain of Mevlana, appropriately from this weekend’s Threshold Society retreat.
‘I am a mountain echoing the Friend.
I am a picture painted by the Beloved.
I am just a lock, but you hear His key turning.
Do you think any of these words are mine?’
(Quatrain 207, trans. Shaykh Kabir Helminski)
Adab Ya Rahman! Adab Ya Hu!
Update: 2krider’s blog has a wonderful post entitled: Adl vs Qist in Quranic Terminology
Peace, one and all…
‘A servant is dismissed for bad behaviour:
if You behave oppressively, what’s different?
The harm You do in anger and in strife
is sweeter than an ecstasy of harp strings.
Your cruelty is better than a victory,
Your scolding’s more desired than life itself.
This is Your fire – what does Your light look like?
This is the funeral – what’s Your wedding like?
As for the sweetness which violence holds,
and for Your subtlety, none plumb Your depths.
I weep and then I fear He will believe me,
and then from kindness moderate His violence.
I love so much His violence and His grace -
how wonderful, I love these two extremes!
If I forsake this thorn-bush for the garden,
I’ll sing for sadness like the nightingale.
How wonderful, this nightingale, who lifts
his beak to eat the thorns among the rosebeds.
What kind of nightingale is this? A dragon!
In love all bitter things are sweet to him.
He’s lover of the whole; He is the whole.
He’s lover of Himself; He seeks His love’
(Mevlana, Masnavi 1. 1574-1584)