Bismillaah ir Rahmaan ir Rahiim
In the name of Allah, The Merciful, The Compassionate
KNOWLEDGE OF REALITY AND IGNORANCE OF REALITY
Journeying In The Spiritual Path
By Fatima Fleur Nassery Bonnin
It is important from the outset to mention that everything we write and teach here in the Australian Centre for Sufism and Irfanic Studies (ACSIS) is derived from the fundamental issue of the inner, spiritual journey, which is the Purpose of Life according to Sufism.
Contrary to common approaches, we do not need to engage our mind in an attempt to figure out what the purpose of life is. Allah revealed this to Prophet David so that it would be passed on to us, and it is called the Hadith (tradition) of The Hidden Treasure. When Prophet David asked Allah about the purpose of creating the Creation, the response was "I was a hidden treasure and loved to be known, so I created the creation in order to be known". Therefore our purpose is to follow Allah’s will for creation, which is to know Him. Since Allah has used the word “love” before “creation”, love is therefore ontologically prior to creation, and Sufis have interpreted that it is therefore essential for this purpose.
Jesus (pbuh) also emphasised the importance of love in the journey to God in response to the question of one of his disciples who asked: “Master, which is the greatest commandment?” To which Jesus said:
“Love the Lord Your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind”
To begin to experience such love we must become a traveller on a spiritual path – and the further we journey on this path the closer we get to that love and consciousness of Allah, God. It is a path that requires us to surrender parts of our ego personality that were necessarily formed in this life hopefully before we leave this world to enter the life of the Hereafter. If we are successful in changing the way we live in this life, then our 'self' could be transformed and become a vehicle to take us from the little streets of life to the major road to God, which in Qur’anic language is 'Serat al Mostaghim', meaning the Straight Path. If we are sincere in our spiritual desire, then the minor streets which lead us astray and distract us and run counter to where we need to go, can be avoided as we embark on an inward journey and find our footing on this straight road to God.
In Sufism, Love and Knowledge are often likened to the two wings of a bird on the journey to God, as it is said, we cannot love something that we do not know. This is why in Sufism, 'Irfan', knowledge and awareness of God, is a necessity if one is to become a true traveller who consciously takes on such a journey. However on the path to Irfan there lie many obstacles, and Sufis remind us again and again that one of the major obstacles on this journey are the thoughts that plague our mind and keep us busy with ourselves.
Here is a puzzle.
Hafiz the renowned Persian Sufi poet says:
“I tell you a secret; don’t see your self and you are free”
Similarly Abu Sa'id Abi’l Khayr another Persian Sufi Master says:
“When you are occupied with self, you are separated from God.
The way to God is but one step: the step out of yourself”
But as soon as you hear this, immediately you will turn to your mind to figure out how to do that.
How does one get out of the trap of mind?
This one step out of the self comes at the price of a lengthy journey away from the preoccupations and distractions of life and this difficult task is only possible through turning to remembrance of God, and quite often this journey has a physical outer dimension to it, a dimension which actualises the break from ordinary life and reinforces the inward journey.
The majority of Sufi masters have taken long years of journeying, leaving their material life and their families behind in order to find the Truth and Certainty. Al Ghazalli, the famous 12th century Sufi master and philosopher, following in the way of many of the earlier Sufi saints of Islam, embarked on a 10 year sojourn, and decided to sever, at least temporarily, his worldly attachments and family to find God in the wilderness.
It is said that Buddha as a 29 year old prince, just after his son was born, went off in search of the Truth and this journey took many years. When he came back his son was 13 years old and his wife realised that he had been enlightened with higher knowledge. She asked, “Couldn't you have found what you were after here next to your family?” And Buddha said, “Yes but I did not know it before - not until years of journeying and soul searching - that what I was looking for was not outside myself but within.”
The legendary Sufi poet, Farid al-Din ‘Attar in his famous book Manteg al-Tayre (Conference of the Birds) depicts this journey by telling us the story of 100 birds that take the journey in search of their King, 'Simurgh'. They pass through seven valleys (alluding to the 7 stations of the development of the soul), and undergo many trials and each valley requires them to free themselves of what is precious to them and change their state. Only thirty birds manage to reach the abode of the Simurgh, but when they arrived there was no Simurgh, they then realised that they themselves are the simurgh - si (thirty) murgh (bird).
One can say the life of a person in this world - all his needs, wants, aspiration and pursuits - can be described as a paradoxical satire where he is compelled to constantly yearn and strive, without realising that what he really searches for is inside him!
Usually these kinds of journeys are only expected of the Masters and Saints. The level below this is called ‘khalvat’ which means seclusion, and the traveller ‘salek’ of the path spends 40 days in seclusion. Some Sufi masters have done this a number of times. When people go into khalvat for 40 days, something changes in them because the demands of life and surrounding distractions and relations with people are not there to demand their usual automatic responses, therefore something shifts in them and they become more in tune with their deeper self, and from then on the events propel them with more ease rather than with struggle. When there is struggle it indicates the presence and control of the ego-self, and its resistance to change no matter how it is rationalised, and I will explain the rationalisation later. The propelling of events and experiences along with the feeling of longing is the sign that the minor streets that one is travelling on is going in the right direction, towards the main road of Serat al Mostaghim.
However the most common spiritual journey is the regular and ongoing engagement with spiritual practice under the supervision and guidance of a spiritual teacher, towards the goal.
There is however much groundwork to be done when one travels on the inward journey, and that groundwork is always the same in Sufism. It is remembrance of God and paying serious attention to one's actions, words and thoughts. This is called ‘moragheba’ in Sufism, a term which can be translated as vigilant watchfulness. When we become truthfully aware of what goes on with us and inside us, and correct and change the misguided parts according to the established Sufi teachings, then things start to happen which move us on the path. Ordinarily the majority of people are caught up in ways to maintain the status quo and feel comfortable with their automatic habitual patterns - using rationalisation, justification, projection, minimisation, denial etc. They do not realise that these behaviours are what keeps them blinded to reality.
Freud spotted these patterns and coined them ‘defence mechanisms’. However since Feud did not believe in religion and spirituality, these ideas never extended beyond a psychological framework. So although Freud saw the need to dismantle defences to reduce pathology, he did not take this far enough, as he was guided by the norms of society, which ironically from the spiritual perspective, help to maintain the ego-personality by normalising a range of subtle defences which serve to maintain the ego-personality, which is the main hub of the obstacle in the spiritual journey and has to go.
Again let us repeat the words of these two highly enlightened people:
The way to God is but one step: the step out of yourself.
Don’t see your self and you are free.
One of the main purposes of the journey of the traveller, ‘salek’ is to develop enough distance from their ego-self so that they can recognise the part of themselves that threatens and sabotages them by keeping them engaged with the outer senses so that their inner eyes and ears do not open. Since this part of us camouflages itself with our own mind and rationality, it is incredibly difficult to distinguish without the outside help of a teacher.
Hafiz’s well known line “You, yourself are the problem, get out of the way” is another expression of this fundamental problem that our self, reinforced by our ordinary seeing and hearing, is based on reasoning, conceptual thinking and sensory experience, none of which help us approach the essence of life. Spiritual unfoldment is a journey away from this self, whether an outer journey is taken or not. Vigilant watchfulness, ‘moragheba’ under the guidance of a spiritual teacher must be sincerely practised, in order to gain a perspective on our selves, which opens the way and makes us receptive to the light of spiritual realisation and unfoldment. This unfoldment is the purpose of our life, and it is a road that leads to the surrendering of those parts of us that sabotage us and prevent us from love and knowledge of God.
In the next article I will explain more how this sabotaging takes place and what its purpose is.
May Allah guide us all in the straight path and give us the light of knowledge and vision of Reality.