Nasruddin’s dialectic and the fear of freedom

 

by Modaser Shah

There have always been, whether in religious or secular domains, two ways of thought: the scholastic,  where thinking is limited to what has already been “decided” or determined by eminent texts or thinkers, who came before. Here thinking is “permissible”only within set boundaries but not beyond, because then faith might be questioned or become shaky and chaos might ensue, choices have to be made. This can be felt as an unbearable burden of freedom, one might say, a la Sartre or Erich Fromm (Escape from Freedom).
The other approach is to let thought roam free, beyond the bounds of acceptability and comfort making some sense in terms of human reality,  accessible in some way even if not altogether “rational.”  Of course, there are risks involved, in both, of extremism, i.e., loss of balance. Rigidity provides a certain sense of safety and comfort, but its dangers may be less obvious to the “orthodox” . The notion of a flat earth provides a sense of stability and safety, whereas a round earth feels, or at least did, precarious. We are marooned from our firm foundations. But a deeper reality-rooted look ought to convince one that both are equally precarious or secure, in the ultimate sense. It sounds strange to think that somehow, the Almighty  was somehow, less able (nau’zubillah!)  to provide the necessary  degree of security and safety, depending on the geometry of the earth.

At first blush, these two may seem, like the proverbial East and West, subject to “never the twain shall meet.” However, like everything else that has to do with life, matters are more complicated than a simplistic binary; that is the two opposing currents, overlap, intertwine and “inform” each other. That is to say,   there is a dialectical relationship between them, as between faith and doubt, freedom and bondage.

And a figure like Nasruddin, a wise fool, is needed to loosen the unfree, rigid, framework, to enable us to glimpse chaos, the  insecurity of not knowing, so that there is some capacity for a dialectical or transitional space, a la Winnicott, the  psychoanalyst, where thinking can expand and freedom can be glimpsed, savored.  Which can be pretty frightening to most “sane” or ordinary mortals, even angels, apparently,  except for, perhaps,  Satan,or Iblis; but that is a whole separate subject.  Suffice it to say that the figure of Nasruddin  rises to the challenge, but removes some of the fear and loathing, with the use of levity and humor, sneaking in the idea of choice under the guise of good cheer and “madness” or foolishness, reducing the terror that otherwise might scare people away.

His is, I think, an invitation to us to experience the security of not knowing, i.e., being uncertain, in other words becoming  human, an apparently impossible goal. Could this be the wisdom of the foolish Mullah? The impossibility for man to be human (Insaan), was noted also  by Ghalib, the well-known Indian Urdu poet, who lived in the 19th century and struggled throughout his life with existential dilemmas.

Sufism is an attempt to find an alternative way of knowing, and thinking, not theoretically but empirically, through direct experience. “Polishing the heart”, a Sufi trope, with meditation and other exercises, prepares the mind for the experience. But this requires the ability to tolerate not knowing or partial knowing. And balanced thinking.

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The 84th problem

by Modaser Shah

This is a story related about the Buddha, considered by some Muslim scholars in the Middle Ages as one of the myriad prophets sent by God to various nations.

A farmer came to the Buddha, having heard many stories about his amazing ability to assist people to free themselves from  suffering, looking for help with his never-ending problems. He liked farming but hated that it depended on the whims of nature: rain or no rain or too much rain, each producing different results. He was fed up with his nagging wife and ungrateful, tiresome children.  And there were also unfriendly neighbors and merciless tax collectors and greedy merchants. What were one to do?

The Awakened One listened patiently and said,” I am sorry but I cannot help you. ”

The farmer couldn’t believe his ears and asked for explanation.

The Buddha explained:” Everyone has 83 problems. When you fix one, another crops up.”

The man interrupted,  furious, “You are supposed to be a great teacher.  I  had great expectations.”

“Maybe I can help you with your eighty-fourth problem.”

Incensed, the man cried: ” You are adding to my problems! What kind of help is that?”

Calmly, with a kindly tone, the Buddha said, “It is simply this: that you don’t want to have any problems.”

It is not related how the farmer reacted; perhaps, one hopes, he was silently enlightened, able to face life as it comes, without illusions.

Life without problems! What a dream, but alas,  only a dream. To paraphrase Rumi: problems are like cracks in  the walls, which let the light in, illuminating the inner darkness. As Carl Jung said: “There is no coming to consciousness without pain.”

Of course,  the acceptance of  the notion that  life comes with problems and changes beyond one’s control, the ultimate being death, must not be understood as passive acceptance, but, what one might call, effortful acceptance, as struggling with difficulties is part of life.   Mark Twain (in what I would refer to as a Nasruddinesque moment) said,  “My life has been full of misfortunes, most of which never happened.”

 

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A Unilateral Peace

by Navid Zaidi

St. Catherine’s Monastery, officially Sacred Monastery of the God-Trodden Mount Sinai, is the oldest monastery in the world (est. 565 AD). It is located at the foot of Mount Sinai near the town of Saint Catherine, Egypt.  It is a world heritage site with its library possessing a huge collection of Christian historical icons, second only to Vatican. It is a treasure house of Christian history that has remained safe for 1400 years under Muslim protection.

In the year 628 AD, a delegation of monks from St Catherine’s Monastery came to Prophet Muhammad in Arabia and requested his protection. The Prophet responded by granting a written charter of rights with protection and other privileges to the Christians. Scribed by his cousin Ali Ibn Abi Talib, it is sealed with an imprint representing Prophet Muhammad’s hand.

According to the tradition preserved at the Monastery, the Prophet knew and frequently visited the Monastery, building relationships with the Sinai monks.

Historically known as the ‘Ashtinameh of Muhammad’ or the ‘Peace Covenant of Muhammad’, the document is preserved at the library of St Catherine’s Monastery and is reproduced here:


The Promise to St. Catherine:

This is a message from Muhammad ibn Abdullah, as a covenant to those who adopt Christianity, near and far, we are with them.

Verily I, the servants, the helpers, and my followers defend them, because Christians are my citizens; and by God! I hold out against anything that displeases them.

No compulsion is to be on them. Neither are their judges to be removed from their jobs nor their monks from their monasteries. No one is to destroy a house of their religion, to damage it, or to carry anything from it to the Muslims’ houses.

Should anyone take any of these, he would spoil God’s covenant and disobey His Prophet. Verily, they are my allies and have my secure charter against all that they hate.

No one is to force them to travel or to oblige them to fight. The Muslims are to fight for them. If a female Christian is married to a Muslim, it is not to take place without her approval. She is not to be prevented from visiting her church to pray. Their churches are to be respected. They are neither to be prevented from repairing them nor the sacredness of their covenants.

No one of the nation (Muslims) is to disobey the covenant till the Last Day (end of the world).

The striking feature of the covenant is that it imposes no conditions on the Christians for enjoying its privileges.

In other words, it is a unilateral peace charter clearly protecting the Christians’ rights to property, freedom of religion, freedom of work and unconditional security without demands of anything in return.

These rights are inalienable, eternal and universal. The Prophet boldly declares the Christians, all of them, as his allies and equates ill treatment of Christians with violation of God’s covenant.

Unilateral peace may have a bad reputation in world history, but if the Prophet’s example is any guide to the Muslims of the world, as it must be, the knowledge of this charter can have an enormous impact on Muslim behavior toward Christians.

As Dr Muqtedar Khan, director of Islamic Studies at the University of Delaware, once said:

‘Muslims and Christians together constitute over fifty percent of the world. If they lived in peace, we will be half way to world peace.’

Now, the promise to St Catherine was not the first time the Prophet of Islam engaged in unilateral peace efforts in tribal Arabia.  The same year, 628 AD, he entered into a peace treaty with the powerful tribe of Quraysh of Mecca.  Known as The Treaty of Hudaybiyah, the terms of the signed document were considered by the companions of the Prophet to be demeaning and filled them with dismay to the point of rebellion and mutiny.  The negotiations for peace and a unilateral withdrawal brought depression and stretched their loyalty to almost beyond what they could bear. The Prophet, however, was willing to try something entirely new for his times by choosing the road to peace.

What’s more, the Prophet seems to have made a specialty of drafting peace charters.

Six years earlier, in 622 AD, soon after his arrival in the city of Medina, the first Muslim State was founded in the security of a social contract, called the Constitution of Medina. The constitution promoted peace and freedom by establishing the rules of a Free State for a pluralistic community composed of Muslims, Jews and pagans.

 

 

 

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To Teach or Not to Teach

by Tabassum Saba

Many years ago a colleague helped me open my first email account. Those were the days when internet technology had just arrived to the mainstream and opening an email account was considered a great technological skill. The person made me promise that I will teach five more people to open an email account because he himself was fulfilling his own promise to the person who had taught him this skill.

If you are fortunate or content enough to achieve your career or family goals by the middle age then a question pops up:  ‘Is this all there is?’

This is perhaps the best time to pass down the knowledge and lessons of life to others, but many of us don’t find confidence in or the significance of doing this. We feel this contribution is as little as teaching someone to open an email account.

A teacher is a person who is confident, has a better control of his or her emotions, and is wiser and maturer. It’s his or her job to guide others by bringing out the best in them. The true leaders knows that they can teach by setting an example. It is also an opportunity for our own emotional growth because life is giving us another chance to straighten up our acts with wisdom and emotional regulation which comes with experience. The wise elders are empaths who can put themselves in others shoes and can have a glimpse of their struggles.

In a way, it becomes our obligation to pass on to others the knowledge and skills we have gained. Says Maya Angelou:

When you learn, teach. When you get, give.

Ashfaq Ahmed, Pakistani Sufi writer, in his masterpiece play “Mun Chaley ka Soda” describes a state in which a student is stuck in the role of a seeker and wants to stay in that role forever.  The student is scolded by his Sufi master who informs him that he cannot be a student all his life and has to step up and assume the role of a teacher. The seeker is afraid of taking this step. In a way it is much harder as it brings more responsibility and personal accountability.

The fear of becoming a teacher in our personal, professional and spiritual lives (all of which are inter-related) can be paralyzing. We may think we don’t know anything and are not good enough. Indeed, even the greatest spiritual teachers and prophets go through this feeling of inadequacy and reluctance.

The honor of assuming the role of a teacher is sometimes not even possible because in many cultures there was, and still is, a monopoly over this role which is granted based on caste, social status, or gender.

Teresa of Avila (1515- 1582) is such an example. She was allowed to be a nun but as a woman she was not allowed to study theology. She was required to take constant guidance from the theologians, all of them were men, many of them much younger than her. They would often tell her that some of her spiritual experiences and ideas were the work of the devil. She believed them until she was in her late 40’s. At age 47 she had an epiphany that she was fully capable of understanding, analyzing, and implementing her experiences and did not need validation from male theologians.

Teresa of Avila found that inner strength. This phenomenon of support and confirmation occurs when we finally discover who we really are.

Teresa let her fears go as she began the great works of the later part of her life, she proclaimed:

Not a fig do I care for all the devils in hell. It is they who will fear me!  “Oh, the devil! The devil!” we say, when instead we could say, “God! God!” and make the devil tremble. I am sure I fear those who are terrified of the devil more than I fear the devil himself. For the devil cannot harm me at all, but they, especially if they are confessors, can upset people a great deal.

After finding the confidence to have faith in herself, a different woman emerged. We now know her as Saint Teresa of Avila, the one who was a leader and a teacher of her order for her remaining years that turned out to be the most productive years of her life.

By the way I still use that email address after two decades. It is not only a collection of thousands of emails but also a journal of ups and downs of my life which reflect the life-lessons learned over the course of these years. I am thankful that someone had the courage to teach me how to open that account.

 

References:

  1. Mun Chaley ka Soda (in Urdu) by Ashfaq Ahmed
  2. Fakir Rung (in Urdu) by Sarfraz Shah
  3. Dark Night of The Soul  (Explanation by a Psychiatrist) by Gerald G. May, MD
  4. Sacred Contracts by Caroline Myss

 

 

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The Mullah and Trump: Losers and Winners

 

by Modaser Shah

Susan Sarandon, the well known Hollywood star, is reported to have said that (the American) people were more awake because of Trump. This reminded me of a story about Mullah Nasruddin, the wise-fool of Sufi lore. I heard it from Kamran Zafar, our esteemed colleague on this site, who deserves the title of “Practical Sufi” with which he is affectionately known to us Sufi seekers. The gusto and verve with which he related this teaching tale is hard to reproduce in the written word, but I will try, at least, to convey its essence.

At one time in his life, Nasruddin got into the business of quick enlightenment. To those seeking enlightenment (of which there are many in each age and all times) he announced an easy and cheap way to gain insight into existence and reality.  All they had to do was to join him in a morning assembly and to follow him in procession as he walked around town while imparting to them the spirituality they sought. Nothing could have been simpler! The seekers of quick and easy enlightenment grew by leaps and bounds.  The Mullah would be at the head of the throng, incanting holy chants, intoning unintelligible phrases, and seeming always profound and powerfully mysterious. The procession would march from one end of the town to the other, at which time the Mullah would stress continued effort, offer prayers, and allow the crowd to disperse.

At first the crowd grew rapidly, then levelled, and then (as many grew tired of the humdrum routine) started to tail off.  The Mullah who gloated over his success when the crowds were growing seemed even more ecstatic when they were dwindling. He claimed success of his method even as people were leaving him. Everyone was puzzled over Mullah’s happiness over thinning crowds.  Some wondered if he was losing his grip on reality. Finally, someone asked him how he could claim success if people were leaving him. He laughed and then cried, at their simple-minded confusion, wondering why they could not see what was so plain to see: the successful ones were the seeming “losers,” the ones who left the throng of Mullah’s mindless followers.

One wonders if a similar moment of enlightenment and spiritual growth awaits some people who are blindly, i.e., in the grip of false consciousness, following Mr Trump and his promises, explicit and implicit.

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Musashi’s way; Trump as the Other.

by Modaser Shah

 

In order to see, act…
In order to stay the same, change
(Heinz von Foerster)

You can’t face yourself or turn away from yourself because you are IT
What do you need to understand? Can the eye see itself?
(Zen saying )

In order to see, we need to face it (whatever the it may happen to be)  and to get through, we must act. So what do we do? Mullah Nasruddin, the sage of Sufi lore, is likely to answer: Look in the mirror! You can face yourself and the eye can see itself, in it. The mirror is other people.

Miyamoto Musashi, Japan’s foremost swordsman, philosopher/painter,  says, “If you don’t know others, you don’t know yourself.” He advises, in a utilitarian vein, “Do not do things  which are useless.” This would disappoint Nasruddin, as he is wont to counsel things that seem useless or worse (his strategy seems to be to lead people to go beyond thinking and yet think again, perhaps, in a new way: to unlearn and begin to learn .  However,  the Mullah would certainly concur with the samurai that “..there is more than one path to the top of the mountain.” (The Book of Five Rings,  1645 ). Musashi also states, “If you know the Way broadly, you will see it in everything.”  In other words, the way of the sword became the way of painting, art, of living and dying. And then giving it up (in his case, the sword) became possible for him; clinging to it was no longer necessary.  The way of the sword became the way of no sword. I think Bruce Lee was referring to this situation when he talked about his way as the way of no way.

Knowing and realizing ,or, becoming, oneself is possible only via  the other, according to Musashi.

A Sufi saying seems relevant here: ” The meaning of life is to plant a tree, under whose shade we do not expect to sit.”  ( Nelson Henderson ). The other deserves that place of solace and peace. In Nasruddin’s story of the lost keys, he needed an other to complete the narrative and achieve/convey insight into man’s blind spots, into the yin and yang , light and dark, the dialectic of being , of knowing and unknowing, of life and death.

Rumi expresses our need for the other poetically:

Be grateful for whoever comes

because each has been sent

as a guide from beyond

The other here refers to the other or alien outside and inside ourselves ( i.e., unwanted feelings, thoughts etc. ) .

We need the other to know ourselves; however, like anything else, if this is carried beyond reason,a surrender to the other results, rather than self knowledge. Just as the other can be dehumanized, so can the self. A current example:

Trump, what he symbolizes,  seems to be the other,  for the United States in general but for the Republican Party, in particular, the shadow,  the dark side, long disavowed, disowned, as if not existing. The Republicans , in facing the shadow, could learn a great deal about themselves, their values, their moral compass, their strength of character. Instead, mostly what seems to be happening is: surrender, no increase in self knowledge, in the face of a strong personality. He also represents a kind of stress test for the US system of government, for the part represented by Lincoln. Trump will pass but this dark aspect of society will remain, posing a challenge from time to time; and an opportunity for betterment, if faced sans denial, illusions ,delusions,paranoia.

 

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Questions, Terrorism, and Nasruddin’s beard

by Modaser Shah

Consider this Nasruddin scenario: Mullah Nasruddin has become a celebrity, much sought after. This forces him to resort to disguises to evade “fans” and their questions. A beard, if long enough, would serve purpose. One morning the Mullah finds himself in the company of a  youngster who, after scrutinizing the Mullah’s face, asks hesitantly, “Sir, I was wondering whether your beard stays over the blanket or under it when you go to bed at night.”

For the first time in his life, the sage is stumped. He scratches his head in puzzlement, “Son, I honestly don’t know,  I haven’t paid attention, but I appreciate your asking it. It deserves some observation and thought.”

After some time,when the Mullah runs into the youngster again, his beard is gone; the latter  obviously disappointed, has an inquiring, baffled look. The Mullah smiles indulgently, ” My boy, yours was some question; I didn’t know if it was right to leave the beard above the blanket or pull it below the blanket at night. I just couldn’t sleep anymore. My beard had to go.”

In this story the Mullah seems to have been steeped in Taoist thinking: treating a trifling matter with the utmost seriousness whereas previously he had been seen to treat utterly weighty questions with lightness.

The beard became a quandary; he addressed it by eliminating the source . Why bother thinking? Why  have a choice? It is like the wall on the Mexican border; it eliminates the problem. Except that it doesn’t really. However, in the short term, it relieves us of having to think and make choices, ethical, moral, and political. The same goes for  the climate change or the global warming issue. Why not just avoid having to think and to make choices? (Incidentally, those of us who oppose the wall, are also often motivated by the wish to avoid the exertion that thinking & making choices require. It is not just a matter of saying no).

For some problems, the Mullah’s “solution” may seem like a lazy avoidance of thinking and making choices. However, for other situations, the suggestion may work perfectly well, such as in public health. If tobacco and alcohol consumption is thought to cause certain diseases, then trying to eliminate these habits makes sense. By analogy, if D’aesh is deemed to be the cause of terrorist activity, “completely wiping it out” makes sense.

However, we will still have to make choices, because D’aesh (or ISIS), apart from being a problem, is also a symptom of other things. Terrorism, like the Mullah’s beard, is likely to grow back. Questions must continue to be raised. The Mullah’s motto was: make light of the serious, problematize the day-to-day, the familiar.  Stay on the surface to plumb the depths.

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