The Unveiling of Secrets The Golden Goose King
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An Interview with Carl W. Ernst -
The Unveiling of Secrets:
Diary of a Sufi Master

Parvardigar Press

Q. The Unveiling of Secrets is an unusual title. What does it mean?

A. Ruzbihan gave this title to his diary. "Unveiling" is a term used by Sufis to refer to the mystical experience in which God tears away the veil that separates ordinary human consciousness from the divine reality. Unveiling often takes the form of visions in which God, the angels, and the Sufi saints appear in visible forms. "Secret" is the innermost consciousness that is hidden within the soul; that secret forms part of the divine reality which is unveiled. From his childhood to his death at the age of eighty-one, Ruzbihan's life was filled with a continual stream of visions and ecstasies.

Q. How was Ruzbihan viewed in his own time?

A. As a youth, Ruzbihan (1128-1209) briefly sold vegetables in his hometown of Pasa in southern Persia; his surname, Baqli, "the grocer," distinguishes him from several other people named Ruzbihan. At the age of fifteen, however, he threw his goods and cash box into the street, and ran away into the desert to seek God. He joined the Sufis shortly afterward. Sometime in his late thirties he arrived in the city of Shiraz, and for many years he preached weekly in the great mosque of the city. He attracted many disciples among the people, particularly the artisan classes, and he was greatly respected by the Turkish princes who ruled the region. His tomb became an internationally known place of pilgrimage visited by travelers from as far away as North Africa.

Q. If he was so respected during his lifetime, and for several centuries after his death, how was it that his work finally became more or less forgotten?

A. Ruzbihan's descendants and followers revered him greatly, but they were not on the same spiritual or literary level, and they were satisfied with being caretakers of his tomb. In addition, a major religious revolution took place in Persian about 1500 when Shi`i Islam became the state religion; at that time, many Sufi tombs were destroyed and thousands of Sufi dervishes were killed. So it is not totally surprising that, by 1900, his tomb had become a ruin. More importantly, his writings on mysticism in Arabic and Persian were sophisticated and daring in expression; the average student of Sufism could not understand them. Nevertheless, a select handful of Sufis in India, Central Asia, Persia, the Balkans, and North Africa treasured his writings. The manuscripts have been rediscovered in the past few decades by scholars in Europe, Iran, Turkey, and India. These works are only now beginning to be translated into Western languages.

Q. How is Ruzbihan connected to more well-known Sufi figures, such as Rumi and Hafiz?

A. A. Rumi (d. 1273) was a child when Ruzbihan died in 1209, and does not seem to have been in direct contact with his teaching, but the two Sufis shared much in terms of their mystical approach to love and beauty. The great Persian poet Hafiz (d. 1391) was also a native of Shiraz, and evidence indicates that he may have been initiated in the order founded by Ruzbihan. The distinctive Persian approach to nature as the manifestation of divine beauty forms a strong link between the visions of Ruzbihan and the poems of Hafiz. Ruzbihan is also one of the most important commentators on the early Sufi martyr Hallaj (executed in 922), famous for saying "I am the Truth."

Q. How is the imagery in Sufi poetry related to The Unveiling of Secrets?

A. Ruzbihan's "unveilings" are expressed in powerfully visual imagery, in which falcons fly up to the garden of paradise, God scatters roses over his lovers, and solitary pilgrims cross infinite deserts and swim through turbulent oceans. When a poem by Rumi says, "May this garden bloom until the resurrection!", Ruzbihan's visions of the celestial garden make it clear that this is not a mere figure of speech, but a visionary experience as well. The figure of the beautiful and cruel beloved so common in Sufi poetry is matched by Ruzbihan's visions of angels with long hair like women, who bear the weapons of Turkish soldiers. These poetic images are therefore closely linked to the mystical experience of ascension to the divine presence, which is the fundamental theme of The Unveiling of Secrets.

Q. How does The Unveiling of Secrets compare to other mystical texts from other traditions, and how does Ruzbihan compare to other mystical writers?

A. In terms of sheer power of expression and passionate intensity, it is hard to think of another mystic who comes close to Ruzbihan. He uses a highly developed vocabulary of mystical experience in a poetic style that recreates the intimate mood of his encounters with God. Among Christian mystics, he resembles Augustine (another powerful preacher) in the way that he uses scripture in unexpected and startling spiritual interpretations. Like Hildegard of Bingen or Julian of Norwich, he describes detailed visionary encounters with God and with the divine qualities of nature.

Q. Would you characterize Ruzbihan's writing as Islamic?

A. Ruzbihan is the author of a major Sufi commentary on the Qur'an, and his writings are saturated with the vocabulary of Islamic theology and law. He was intensely devoted to the Prophet Muhammad, who appears in many of the most important "unveilings" that he describes. While this kind of intensive mysticism is not popular with fundamentalist Muslims, it represents what has been one of the major aspects of the Islamic tradition for over a thousand years.

Q. Modern notions of Islam in the West do not really correspond with the rising popularity of Sufism. Could you comment on that?

A. The news media focus almost exclusively on sensational political versions of Islam, such as the Iranian revolution. Islamic fundamentalists are, however, a small though vocal minority among Muslims. Even today, probably at least half of the world's one billion Muslims have a Sufi orientation. Many Americans and Europeans have been drawn to the ecstatic and lyrical tone of Sufi poetry, which also has a strongly universalist tone. Although today Iran is branded a "pariah" nation by the U.S. State Department, Iran's favorite poet, Rumi, has become the best-selling poet in America.

Q. Are there other works of Ruzbihan's waiting to be translated?

A. Of the more than forty works by Ruzbihan in Arabic and Persian, less than half are preserved. The most important of these include the Commentary on Ecstatic Sayings, which explains the significance of two hundred mystical expressions of the early Sufis. The Explanation of Veils and Coverings discusses the 70,000 veils of light that separate God from humanity. Ruzbihan has described 1001 spiritual stations in a large Arabic work called The Spirits' Font. Prof. Alan Godlas of the University of Georgia will soon publish excerpts from Ruzbihan's massive Qur'an commentary, under the title Brides of the Qur'an. Portions of Ruzbihan's other writings, such as The Jasmine of the Lovers (on mystical love), and Errors of the Wayfarers (a work on mysticism for beginners), will be published by me in a forthcoming anthology of Sufi texts.

The Unveiling of Secrets The Golden Goose King
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