The Unveiling of Secrets The Golden Goose King
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Sufism, A Spiritual Bridge to the Middle East

By Carl W. Ernst, Parvardigar Press


Most Americans, if asked to name their most immediate associations with Islam and the Middle East, would unhesitatingly reply with words like "terrorism," "fundamentalism," and "fanaticism." From the drama of the Iranian hostage crisis of 1978-9, to the frightful tyranny of Saddam Hassam in Iraq, to the tragic list of victims in the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation—the list of negative media impressions seems endless. Yet at a time when the U.S. government has been in a sharply antagonistic relation with Iran and other Muslim countries, an unofficial cultural encounter of profound proportions has quietly been taking place. A thirteenth-century Muslim mystic, Jalaluddin Rumi, is now the best-selling poet in America. How has this Persian Sufi poet managed to touch the soul of the West?

While there have been previous cases of enthusiasm for Middle Eastern authors in English translation—Omar Khayyam and Khalil Gibran—never before has there been such a dramatic contradiction between official politics and the power of popular culture. Not only is the poetry of Rumi finding a major audience, but additional manifestations of Sufism, such as the mystic dance of the Whirling Dervishes, and the entrancing qawwali music of Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, have now had a remarkable impact on Western audiences and performers.

For over a thousand years, Sufism—the mystical aspect of Islam—has been a major factor in the lives of most Muslims. For those who are accustomed to hearing only the authoritarian pronouncements of Muslim fundamentalists, this may come as a surprise. Yet if one looks beyond the level of media debates, there are numerous examples of Sufism's influence in Muslim societies today. Whether one visits Morocco, Egypt, Turkey, Iran, China, or Indonesia, Muslims reveal their great devotion to those Sufi saints who provide a model for how one becomes close to God. Based on the Qur'anic revelation and the model of the Prophet Muhammad, Sufism became a spiritual method that deeply penetrated all levels of Muslim society. It offered an interior vista on the practices of Islam, developed through the discipline of the Sufi orders in deepened prayer and meditation. It is only in the modern period, following upon European conquest of Muslim countries, that ideological opponents of mysticism (whether fundamentalist or secularist) were able to seize some of the symbolic capital once associated with Sufism, rejecting it as somehow foreign to their vision of Islam.

The sudden prominence of Sufism in the West coincides with the startling explosion of interest in spirituality and mysticism that has occurred in the late 1990s, echoing the New Age trends that began in the late 1960s but on a far larger scale. While some of the New Age productions may seem superficial to lovers of mysticism, there are many genuine gems that have received renewed attention or have been rediscovered after centuries of neglect. Such is the case with the mystics of medieval Christianity, including Meister Eckhart, Hildegard of Bingen, Marguerite of Poirete, and St. Teresa.

Rumi, who is claimed equally by Turks, Iranians, and Afghans, has been one of the most beloved of Persian poets for centuries. Rumi's recent popularity in the West, largely through the verse translations of Coleman Barks, is partly related to the resurgent interest in Sufism, but it can also be attributed to Rumi's singular qualities as a poet. His freedom with the highly conventional forms of Persian poetry is couched in terms of love, music, and dance. He constantly strains at the leaden bonds of earthly life, leaping in song to the heavens and beyond. He combines an effortless and lyrical ease of composition with a cheerful disdain for literary pretension (this despite the fact that he has the largest collection of lyrics of any Persian poet). His use of the symbols of nature makes the world transparent to the spirit, while his earthy humor removes any hint of haughtiness.

Rumi is not an isolated figure, however. The Sufi tradition is over a thousand years old, and there are literally hundreds of Sufi authors in Arabic, Turkish, Persian, and other languages who still remain unknown in the West. A few Sufi writers have been following Rumi and are now available in attractive English translations. The popular Conference of the Birds by the Persian poet Attar has been ably translated by Dick Davis and Afkham Darbandi, and the metaphysical Arabic writings of Ibn `Arabi are appearing in lucid versions by William Chittick. Robert Bly and a host of other translators are producing new versions of Rumi, while more writers have taken up the challenge of the master Persian poet Hafiz. The visionary diary of the Persian master Ruzbihan Baqli, recently translated by me as The Unveiling of Secrets, illustrates the range of intense spiritual experiences cultivated in Sufism. These mystical authors from the Sufi tradition, now becoming available in translation, are a revelation for Western readers. They speak with the intensity and passion of an Augustine or St. John of the Cross, but their less familiar symbolism and style gives them freshness and immediacy.

The political problems of the Middle East have resisted the best efforts of statesmen and diplomats for decades. Tyrants and demagogues will certainly continue to dominate the news as part of the endless struggle for power. But beyond these media stereotypes, and on a much more intimate level, mystical literature is becoming a medium of communication between East and West. For many American readers, political news is simply inadequate to handle the larger human truths of the spirit.

Carl Ernst is Professor and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and author of the Shambhala Guide to Sufism (available in October).

The Unveiling of Secrets The Golden Goose King
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