“The first stage of attaining Truth is the recognition of your mortality.”
A Sufi saying
Hello from the first month of the new year, 1443!
As you know, we’ve come to accept one linear time based on the movements of the Sun. However, Islamic calendar follows the Moon and according to it, we are already observing the first month of the calendar called Moharram.
Moharram means “the one which is veiled and hidden”. This month is like a bride who does not lift the veil over her face anyone but for the groom (in the classical Turkish sense at least) Because she waits for a lover who is after her truth in patience, longing and gentleness. He knows her real worth. And she confides her secrecy in him since she trust his ability to protect it.
The feminine principle is dark, hidden and veiled like the womb. It is the place where God’s name, al-Sattar, (the Veiler) manifests itself. Only those who are the real seekers are accepted there. Those who serve this truth in love and dedication become both the servant and the sultan of this place, palace. Otherwise, it is haram to those who try to project their own understanding of what she is, to her and try to control and manipulate it. Although he thinks he already attained her, it would be the result of a total illusion. That’s why in Islam, the concepts of haram and halal are important. Haram is something that we are not yet aware of its truth and halal is what we are already in a sacred, private and intimate relationship. When I hurt and disrespect someone, an animal or tree, I do haram to them. And they hide their beauty from me. It is also because their beauty is hidden to me that I practise haram to them.
In the garden of the womb, a seed is sown through the hands of love and Life starts growing there, from the zero point, which the month Moharram represents in a symbolic manner through the mythological stories believed to took place in this month, stated below:
It is when…
-Adam’s sin is forgiven
-Enoch ascends to the sky
-Noah’s ship is saved from the flood
-The fire Abraham is thrown cannot burn him but turns into a rose garden
-Jocob reunites with his son Joseph
-Job is healed from his long term illness
-Moses passes through Red sea and saves Israelits from Pharoah
-Jonah comes out of the fish
-Jesus is born and also ascends to the sky
-Mohammad immigrate from Makkah to Madinah
The common thread of all these stories is a point where there is a crisis, a troubling process, a loss happens and with that a new life, healing, meeting and connection emerges. In Sufism, it is called attainment of the real life after dying. Die before you die so that the everlasting life is replaced by the illusionary one. It is where the field of time is reset and everything starts again. And again and again. In cyles. Actually, it has been always like this and you are the one who realizes that is the case, leaving your illusionary self and its limited concept of time and place behind. This is called surrendering to what is and flowing in it in perfect alignment instead of swimming against the flow to try to prove your own agenda.
Whenever we direct our attention to this flow and remember the taste of being right here right now and touch the secrets engraved in what is called time, what we assume we know is reset. Assumptions that cause pain and illusions that close our hearts are dissolved. All of them go back to their source, the One where they all be-long and long to reunite.
Second chances are opening themselves layer by layer when I…
realize the one I love and think eternal is actually a mortal being
lie in my bed my body burning with high fever
watch the forests burning
hear the sounds of people drowning in the flood
tremble with the earthquake
…then I am standing at the zero point. Untouched, unsaid, in that naked secret place. Where the veils are opening. I am intimate to this naked truth and able to confess my love to her by tearing the veil in one move.
I am standing in a place where my personal rhythm, order and regularities, the stories I believe, things I cling, my idols I am worshipping are distrupted suddenly. Creating shock and pain. An invitaiton to witness completely a different reality is emerging. A point where disloyalty, inconsistency, swaying from one mood to another is coming to an end. At this point, I remember what my soul is commited to, until the moment I forget it again.
In this month we have experienced calamities, fires and floods in Turkey, one after another. They have been inviting us to the zero point and staying there as a witness and taking required action accordingly. We are quite familiar with the concept of witnessing so far. Maybe we think of witnessing as an act of observing something or someone by positioning ourselves at a certain distance without engaging with it; just observing “objectively” and let it pass.
Lately, a new perspective on witnessing has been opening itself to me through Islamic tradition, Eshedu, coming from the profession of faith:
Ashadu an la ilaha illa illa-ilah, wa ashadu anna muhammadan rasulullah
One of the God’s names, Ash-Shaheed is all witnessing. For Sufis, your qualities, actions and very existence is nothing but the manifestation of God’s attributes. So true witnessing is a reflection of this name.
Sufis are said to participate in both the deepest troubles and joys of the beings around them without interpreting or labelling them as necessary or conscious. Here the point is to fully participate in whatever happening around us (actually in us because we are all one) without giving them a seperate existence of their own and without being affected by them (or enchanted in the positive and negative sense). But instead becoming a tree whose branches dance with the wind freely, following its invitation yet its roots fully secured in its center. Both fixed and dynamic at the same time. In this way we can host the manifestations of God by knowing “all shall pass” because they are not eternal as God is the only eternal being and still recognizing how precious and valuable they are . In this way, serving them as they deserve to be served. This is what I call the prayer of witnessing, eshedu.
I call this kind of witnessing mercy, ar-Rahim where the heart is present in all its vulnerability and tenderness in the face of especially pain. Ar-Rahman and ar-Rahim, the foundations of basmala (Bismillahirrahmanirrahim) are the foundations of the reflection of this witnessing.
Instead of sitting on the mountain top I choose to reside and only observe things through objective and disinterested eyes by saying “It is her story, his story, their responsibility”; walking in the middle of the hustle and bustle of the bazaar, on the line of fire, participating in what I observe from the eye of the storm, saying: “This is our story, this is the story of the One” is called eshedü.
Closest companion of this witnessing is grief. Through grief, we metabolize and integrate what we fully participate otherwise it becomes too overwhelming and unbearable for the human heart.
One of the qualities of Moharram is to grieve:
In the month of Moharram, we remember how the grandchild of Prophet Mohammad; Hossein (One of the ahl al-bayt, real channels of the true Islam) was martyred in the hands of Yazid who was the representor of Islamic khalifat back then. Yazid was captured by the wordly ambitions and pride. Although he believed in and represented the religion Islam, he did not hesitate to massacre Hossein and his companions (72 people against thousands of Yazid’s soldiers) in a place called Karbala, This is a breaking point in history where true Islam is differentiated from political Islam. Nowadays what we come to know as Islam is the extension of the Yazid’s way of practising it. What about true Islam? How to discover it? It is possible to do it through the lineage of Prophet’s grandchildren. Most of the sufis are the spiritual members of this prophetic channel, they derive their Islamic inspirations from the house members of Mohammad, not the Islamic khalifas. (when Mohammad was alive, khalifas were democtatically chosen but after he passed away and 4 khalifas from his lifetime were assasinated, it was inherited from father to son starting from Muaviye)
Some books commemorating this incident used to be read during the ten days of Moharram in the dargahs. It was a good way to remember what happened in Karbala and also realize that nothing has changed since then, the war still goes on..
We also read a classical text on Karbala with my students and this process opened up many inspirations and realizations regarding the true Islam and its degeneration as well as the topic of grief in our hearts. Although it is not completely possible to tell you all of it, at least I want to share some important points with you.
The book used conceps like trouble, hardship, distress a lot to narrate the event of Karbala. At first it might look like a gloomy reading and we looked at why it might feel so . We realized the writer is always using the counterpart of the words in dialect; positive and negative together. As we have been always talking about how life and death; Calal And Camal qualities of the Divine function together, it made sense.
Hereby, Karbala invites us to look at our relationship with pain (and actually death). Karbala literally means the village of troubles. This reminds me of one of the sayings of Mohammad:
“The world is not a place of comfort”
This does not mean that we should deny the world and not enjoy its beauties by leading a monastic life, by putting the spiritual realm over the material one. Islam as a tradition does not approve of retreating yourself completely from the physical world by denying it but recommends the harmony between the two realms (which is called sırata’l-mustaqım). Sufis call this state “Being with God in the market place”. Prophet Mohammad says: “Work for the world as if you would never die and work for the after life as if you would die tomorrow.”
Then what does “The world is not a place of comfort” mean?
In the Sufi context, the world is not eternal, it is a place where constant creation and destruction happens. It is exposed to change which makes it transient. Depending on the transitient things takes your peace away because change is a threat to comfort. Humanbeings are supposed to adapt to the changes, update themselves and be transformed, evolved. This requires being awake, in the state of deep listening in dynamism. Kind of comfort the hadith refers to is the comfort of the state of gaflat (heedlessness and slumber) A state of vanity which comes from the conviction that “Okay, I am complete now, nothing to change, nothing to learn” Now I have a good order based on my beliefs and it is time to retire. This state is what delays the journey of perfection (kamal).
Secondly, this world is a stage for the journey of perfection to be manifested. It is a curtain where the names and attributes of the Divine are projected. If we are not aware of the essence of the projections but take the projections as realites, not finding the Artist in the artpiece, we might find ourselves in a constant process of trying different roads to find the peace of heart which might reqiure lots of energy and time, draining us in the end. Uncertainty does not generally give comfort. Those whose attention is on The Artist are not scattered to all directions but they direct their efforts and time to a path their soul finds resonance with and deepen in it.
The world keeps humans in discomfort by always promising comfort to them since the hearts which cannot be satisfied flutter in the web of the habits and choices assumed to be the comfort zone.
In the Islamic context, true comfort is in salam, which can be translated as peace, surrender and certainty. (Islam comes from this root). The hearts which are certain are at peace. Other than that there are lots of reasons in this world to trouble, scare and worry us, all the time. The main cause of trouble is the conviction that we own a seperate identity. An ego which knows the best. In the Islamic tradition, salam is a state in which a human opens up to a transpersonal and transcendental Being and accepts to become a “servant” of this Truth. However, someone who hasn’t made peace with his/her mortality is scared of surrendering to a Power bigger than s/he is. His/her pride won’t allow this to happen. In order not to die, s/he strives to build higher walls around the castle of his/her egoistic self. This makes the person highly self-defensive and resisting at the same time.
Someone who tries to find comfort in the discomfort is on the way to reconcile with his/her finiteness. Especially in our times people mostly (and disproportionally) give their attention to “well-being”, “consciousness, joy and happiness” and “enlightenment”. This gives them little if no room to look at and practise their counterparts “dying well”, “feeling pain” and “servanthood”. We die to live not live to die. Therefore, we find ourselves avoiding facing our mortal nature and our own inevitable death by trying to become “immortal” and “Gods and Goddesses” or only “One with God and not different from the Divine”.
At this point I would like to talk about the function of grief:
To grieve is to praise and honour the pain and and loss through poetry, story-telling and songs. It is turning pain into honey as they say in Turkish. In Turkish literature, the texts of praisal are called methiye (eulogy) and the texts of grief are called mersiye (elegy). Unfortunately, we lost our connection with fine arts and literature and it became almost impossible to grieve in this manner.
According to sufis, The Divine Being (zat) is both imminant and transcandent to us. This means we are neither seperate from It nor we are completely It. In this context, it is possible to celebrate our immanent divine soul and the manifestations of the Divine on the physical realm through eulogyies. Here I am talking about the joy of seeing the Divine in the world and in this way enjoying the material without worshipping it. On the other hand, we express the pain of being in a mortal body, impossible not to lose, through elegyies. The fact that you do not give up loving a mortal being; keep loving knowing one day you will lose her/him makes you a real lover.
Francis Weller, in his book The Wild Edge of Sorrow talks about the five gates of grief
- Everything We Love, We Will Lose
Maybe one of the things we are most scared of facing is that whatever we love will be taken away from us eventaully, at least in the physical sense. Islamic tradition highlights this by suggesting that it makes much more sense to give your heart to the Eternal one (and of course Its manifestation in this world by knowing it is the Divine I am attracted to)
Every soul will taste death (Ali İmran,185)
We certainly come from God and to God we are returning (Al-Baqarah, 156)
Wherever you are, death will find you out (An-Nisa,78)
Everything will perish except God’s face (Al-Qasas, 88)
All that is on Earth will perish. (Ar-Rahman, 26)
The aim of the creation is for the mortal things to perish and from this death, something new born, That’s why sufis try to “die before they die” which is called intentional death, dying of your false self and reaching the immortal life (baqa).
Moreover, making peace with your mortality and remembering death helps us being more grateful to each others’ presence by expressing our appreciations while we still have time with each other. No more procrastionation.
Loving someone/something mortal invites our hearts to the state of vulnerability and surrender. Falling in love is a huge risk to take. You might crumble into pieces, if you are lucky. You shall not attain righteousness until you spend out of what you love (Ali Imran, 92) reminds me of this. To give back whatever I call mine to its True Source is the first gate of grief.
Prophet Mohammad was already told by Archangal Gabriel that his both grandchildren would be killed, one of them being poisened (Hasan) and the other his head cut off during the battle (Hossein). That’s why Gabriel celebrates Hosseins birth and also gives his condolences at the same time. It is a perfect symbology of joy and sorrow; life and death; material and spiritual coming together as a whole.
And Prophet Mohammad was given a chance to always keep in mind that his beloved grandchildren would not live on this Earth long yet keep loving them fully, which he did. At a time when people were not celebrating their children, he took Hossein on his back becoming his horse and played in the street with him, to people’s amazement.
2) The Places That Have Not Known Love
It is impossible to grieve without looking at the neglected rooms of our hearts; barriers built in front of the roads going home and recognizing them as they are. For sufis we are on an exile, away from the real home (yet you experience it right here right now paradoxically:) When we listen deeply to the cries of our souls in longing, we start recognizing the road signs.
When someone forgets the divine essence s/he is part of, it brings the feelings of unworthiness, feeling not belong, finding it difficult to re-late, to love and to actualize the potential inherent.
What we call “human” is an absolutely precious thing. No matter how wounded we are and how resentful become in shame, our worth continues to shine. It is always there as long as we are willing to look at it.
And as time goes by I come to appreciate our wounds more and more. There is an extra tendency to “heal” the wounds by joining endless workshops and events. I find the self-healing work important however when it is done to fight against the wounds, to turn them into something ideal, or to get rid of them forever, I think we miss something there.
Our wounds, exiled parts brings us to modesty and humility where Prophet Mohammad calls “Poverty is what I praise.” Poverty here means not claiming ownership and always pointing out to the Real Owner of the things. When we fall, make mistakes and find ourselves in trouble, our sense of Self thinking everything is under control receives a warning: “Wake up! That might not be the case” That’s why if a sense of recovery increases your vanity maybe it is worth trying to embrace the humility of a wounded self instead. Poverty is what I praise means it is my grief. I lament over my wounds which keeps me awake.
In the Karbala war, we see through Yazid how the unloved and unrecognized parts of our souls turn into spite, jealously and violence eventually. He tries to compensate The big sense of lack growing inside with wordly throne, leading to such a massacre. That’s why those grieving for Hossein and his companions need to look inside and find the traces of their inner Yazidian tendencies.
3) The Sorrows Of The World
We are not seperate from the world nor it is seperate from us. There is a reason why Ali says: “Humanbeings think of themselves as something small yet the universes are folded in them.” According to Sufism, what we call a human is a place of assembling of different elements and beings. That’s why the crises and pain we assume to happen outside is happening right in us. Here the topic of social responsibility and justice comes to the stage.
The surah “We did indeed offer the Trust to the heavens and the Earth and the Mountains; but they refused to undertake it, being afraid thereof: but man undertook it: he was indeed unjust and foolish.” (Al-Ahzab, 72). tells humans to practice justice, to be someone whom creations can be at peace around. However humans are generally in the state of forgetfulness (of this responsibility, the trust they promised to take) become unjust; both opressing themselves and beings around them. Oppression comes from the state of sleep.
Those who are waking up to this responsibilty feel the sorrow and pain of the world and without being crashed or paralyzed by it, honour them and do what is needed to be done from their side.
Hossein too does not hesitate to go to Karbala although he already knows that his death is awaiting him there. He goes because he takes the responsibilty of the spiritual Trust endowed to him by his ancestors and he defends the true values of Islam to entrust them to the future generations, by leaving a legacy behind. Although he seems to lose the war, his Trust continues through his companions who remains alive. In fact Karbala becomes a place where truth and falsehood is distinguished from one other.
4) What We Expected and Did Not Receive
Sufis believe what we are really after is the ultimate union with our essence. This union is firstly activated through sincere relationships and intimacy experienced in this world. Whenever we cannot find such an opportunity to taste this kind of intimacy, the longing we have for it in our hearts is an invitation to it. As long as you keep singing the song of your pain, love will hear it. Broken hearts attract the mercy of the Divine. Similarly Hossein always talks about the pain of being in this world and looking forward to reaching his eternal home. Yet, this longing does not make him leave the world and its callings.
5) Ancestral Grief
What has replaced legends, mythological thinking, poetic imagination and rituals in the post-modern time? We all know the answers. If energy is not lost but replaced in the world than our ancestors keep grieving through us. To hear them and voice their songs that are resonating with us, closing the circles that complete their life span is the work of ancestral grief. It does not only include our blood relatives but also the spiritual ancestors whose wisdom we carry on. To tell their stories keep them alive and help them reach completion through us. The fact that we are sharing the memories of Mohammad and his family in this month is to keep their meaning alive in our hearts and renew our kinship. Otherwise grief is not an expression of a past resentment, spite or revenge by cursing to “seemingly” trouble makers but something that beautifies, sanctifies and blesses both the bitter and sweet gifts of Life.
And Prophet Mohammad says:
Tears of grief are the rain of mercy and compassion.