a sermon by Jaco B. ten Hove - Paint Branch UU Church - May 5, 2002 -
Presented with the help of reader Leo Jones (Worship Associate)
The people knew that Mulla Nasarudin was generally intolerant of preachers and lecturers, so they asked him to give a sermon. He climbed into the pulpit and said: "Do you know what I am going to speak about?"
"No," everybody answered.
"If you are so ignorant, I am not going to waste time speaking to you," Nasarudin said and climbed down from the pulpit.
The following day he put the same question to them. This time everyone's answer was, "Yes, we know."
"If you know," Nasarudin replied, "then what am I here for?" And he left the mosque.
The third day, to the same question, half of the worshipers said, "We know," while the other half said, "We don't know."
So Nasarudin responded: "Let those who know tell those who don't."
There you have a good example of Sufi philosophy, teaching methods and character, all rolled into one story. The abiding message of Sufism is clear: "Don't listen to preachers or formulas. Avoid the polished sentiments of others. Find your ecstasy in yourself." Sufis seek a union with God, which is the object of most mystical systems, only they follow a radical path within to get there. Along the way they locate themselves very much in the here and now.
And what has attracted me to Sufis, the little that I do know of them, is that they don't lose their sense of humor along that path, as we shall see throughout this sermon.
Sufism is basically a mystical religion of the Middle East, rooted in early Islam and designed to increase the chances of one's union with God by an ever-deepening experience of inward spirituality. It emerged strongest in Persia, but remains an active world religion today, sometimes called Neo-Sufism, with pockets of adherents in the West. Sufis-in the West, at least-emphasize a traditional unitarian notion that God is one with all life.
Sufism has always been a religion of immediacy. Philosophy must be relevant to the moment, to the context of this time and this place. They put little emphasis on dogmatic texts or static preaching and much emphasis on individual teaching and learning.
And even then, what is being taught is more to the point than the teacher, resisting the cult inclinations which have diverted some other mystical systems. Teacher and student alike must back up words with action. A 9th century master declared that
"A Sufi is one whose speech accords with behavior."
My title today is distilled from this idea.
And character? Sufis are usually full of it. This Mulla Nasarudin is quite a character: beloved and beguiling. Sufis prefer to learn and practice their brand of Islamic mysticism through stories with multiple levels of meaning, especially ones that cleverly expose self-delusions or pompous pretensions. Nasarudin is a prime figure in such episodes (although not the only one). In arguments it is common strategy to make one's point by working up to a Nasarudin story, which then becomes very hard to dispute.
One day, King Harun al-Rashid, who wasn't very pleased with the free-thinking Nasarudin, said to him:
"If you can prove that I am no more powerful than other mortals, including yourself, I'll give you a hundred gold pieces. If you fail, I'll have you placed, with your head shaven, on the back of a donkey and driven around town as an imbecile."
Nasarudin replied, "I'll try, but first I would like you to order these flies not to bother me."
"But flies won't follow my orders," the King said. Then he thought for a while and dropped the subject.
Nasarudin Hoja lived in 13th century Persia and is representative of a large number of what the Sufis respectfully call "wise-fools." They were an independent and clever lot, possessed by a form of divine zaniness. They rank in influence among the cultural sages. One author summed it up this way: "Fools have been endowed with such a provision that a hundred scholars would be amazed by it." The teachings contained in wise-fool stories have broad appeal and reach people of all educational levels.
Nasarudin Hoja himself went to divinity school in Turkey and attained the religious title of Mulla, only to give up his official post to follow the Fool's Path to wisdom and survival. Survival is the wise fool's forte.
Nasarudin was starving at one point when he passed through a village and heard that a wealthy landowner was dying.
"I am a doctor," he said to the villagers. "Take me to his bedside."
Once there, he felt the old man's pulse and asked for a meal of fresh bread, fresh goat cheese, and ripe grapes. The servants brought them and left. Nasarudin ate the repast and prayed for the old man.
Just as he was leaving the village, his patient died.
"Your remedy gave the opposite result," the villagers complained.
"Be thankful," replied Nasarudin. "If it weren't for my remedy, two would have died instead of one."
Another time, Nasarudin dreamed that someone was giving him nine coins.
"Make it ten," Nasarudin insisted, refusing to accept only nine coins.
Right then he woke up, empty-handed. Immediately he closed his eyes and said, "All right. I'll take the nine coins."
With a unique blend of serious intention and humor, Sufism has etched a subtle yet significant place in the history of religion. Sufis combine a subjectively sublime philosophy and an appreciation of the absurd with dedicated devotion. It has long been a distinct and popular undercurrent in Islam, compatible with it, spreading throughout the Middle East, although Sufis have often been persecuted, as well, particularly by rulers who don't appreciate their independent attitude.
But especially in Persia, now Iran, Sufis have been very influential in the culture of the people. Many wise-fool tales have become so established that one can sometimes merely suggest a particular teaching story by just naming its punch line or an identifying element and listeners will understand the reference and nod in agreement. "Nasarudin's quilt" is a notable example-an image that might immediately call up the story of a loud street quarrel orchestrated to draw Nasarudin out of his bed so that thieves could make off with his quilt. A similar deception can be named simply by invoking two words, "Nasarudin's quilt" and people will respond, "Ah, yes."
The Sufi synthesis also draws on early contact with Christian hermits and Greek mystical systems. Some point out that the root of their name, "Suf," means wool in Arabic, supposedly after the rough robes of white wool worn by early mystics, in imitation of Christian monks. Others claim the name comes from the fact that the sound of the letters S, U and F together have a certain desirable effect. This debate is appropriately ambiguous.
Sufis often carry a benign posture that today we might call "a non-anxious presence." A woman adept around the turn of the 9th century offered this description:
"A Sufi is [one] who neither fears hell nor covets paradise."
Western incarnations of modern Sufism reflect their tolerant, universalist tendencies. Above all, Western students of Sufism must seek authentic written and oral materials and activities that are designed by local Sufis to operate within the students' own culture, time and circumstance. The bulk of Middle Eastern translations are declared unsuitable because they were intended for specific audiences elsewhere. The philosophy must be reinterpreted anew by each aspiring Sufi. This is quite a contrast from some other more dogmatic religious traditions.
I do detect in Sufism a fair amount of dualism and a rejection of this world in favor of that mystical, other-worldly union with God. But what recommends Sufis, I think, is that their route to ecstasy is distinctly inner, and it upholds the dignity and integrity of the individual amid a plurality of paths.
They resist most attachments to earthly possessions, but personhood is quite important. Teachers always model their lessons, much as Nasarudin is a model. Sufism insists that it can be taught and learned in many ways, so there is no one convention. A true Sufi must judge authenticity each moment, for true authenticity emerges, again, from one's immediate context and not from adherence to dogma or leaders.
To that extent, personality worship is distracting and forbidden. As the great 13th century Sufi poet and teacher Rumi suggests:
"Look not at my exterior form, but take what is in my hand."
A teaching story about improper discipleship also involves Rumi. Since he was prone to spend long periods in his Turkish bath, his would-be followers took up this same practice, in hopes of similar illumination. But Rumi chastised them with a metaphoric lesson:
"Tie two birds together and they will not be able to fly, even though they now have four wings."
An illustration of the humility of Sufi teachers is the title of one of Rumi's books: "Fihi Ma Fihi," which translates: "In it what is in it." In other words, "You get out of it what is in it for you." In a system like this, which is so customized to the individual, the Sufi teacher acquires a supreme relational authority. This is paradoxically required for the student to eventually trust him or herself to the degree that will allow the desired inner union with God.
Sufi women, by the way, are not so excluded as in most other religious groups. The followers of Haji Bektash, a 14th century master, admitted women to their meetings, calling for "social reinstatement of women" to redress the balance of a society based on male supremacy. Such progress was limited, of course, by wider restrictions, but notable nonetheless.
The authority of a Sufi teacher is demanding but benign, and very egoless. It is the main task of the teacher to encourage in the student the right response to needs, not desires. The needs of the student are determined by the teacher. And desires are like clouds, interesting but obscuring; visible but allowed to float on by.
Direction from the teacher is to be unchallenged, but not so civil or royal authority, which in its ignorance often treads heavily on enlightenment.
One day Nasarudin climbed onto King Harun's throne. The courtiers rushed to the Fool, and with sticks and stones made him leave the royal seat.
Nasarudin turned to Harun: "I sat on this chair for one minute and suffered so much. Pity those who sit here all their life."
Another day the King read a poem he had composed and asked for Nasarudin's opinion. "I don't like it," said the Mulla.
The king became angry and ordered Nasarudin to be put in prison.
The following week the King summoned Nasarudin and read him another poem. "What do you think of this one?" he asked.
Nasarudin got to his feet.
"Where are you going?" asked the King.
"To the prison," answered Nasarudin.
I really cannot profess to know much about the specific and esoteric religious techniques of the Sufis. Forgive me if I seem to present here an inordinately narrow and oversimplified view of this rich practice. Other than a number of experiences with the Sufi-inspired Dances of Universal Peace, I have never been on the inside of anything Sufi. I have eagerly read Rumi and other Sufi poets, and have tried to research their history, their philosophy and their place in Islam. But they are intentionally vague and paradoxical, because each student must be on the mystical path for themselves, to discover anew the teachings that will serve them. This makes summary and description somewhat difficult (not unlike with Unitarian Universalism).
Suffice it to say that they have elaborate spiritual disciplines for emptying the self so as to achieve union with God. Chanting, meditation, prayer, dancing and other very intense methods are used, very seriously. You have likely heard of the Whirling Dervishes, who are an order of Sufis. (Dervish is a Persian word meaning beggar.)
One of the greatest of Sufi writers, who lived a generation before Rumi, was Farad al-Din Attar. (His comment on absurdity challenges the top of your order of service.) Attar used the wise-fool extensively in his poetic tales, and believed that:
"Lovers of the Truth find the light only if, like the candle, they are their own fuel, consuming themselves."
This reminds me that we can only respond to our times with the substance of our lives. We offer of ourselves and are consumed, and in that activity we hope to reach a level of Truth, always self-described.
Another classical author makes a simple yet poignant connection:
"When I see the poor dervish unfed, my own food is pain and poison to me."
This is the thought of one steeped in interdependent awareness. The Sufis speak of holistic medicine, too. Hakim Jami, a poet and dervish from 15th century Persia and Afghanistan, tells this story:
A Poet went to see a doctor. He said to him: "I have all kinds of terrible symptoms. I am unhappy and uncomfortable, my hair and my arms and legs are as if tortured."
The doctor answered: "Is it not true that you have not yet given out your latest poetic composition?"
"That is true," said the poet.
"Very well," said the physician, "be good enough to recite."
He did so, and, at the doctor's orders, said his lines again and again. Then the doctor said: "Stand up, for you are now cured. What you had inside had affected your outside. Now that it is released, you are well again."
Jami was a genius and had many people wanting to attach themselves to him. But, again, this was unacceptable. "Seekers there are in plenty," he would say. "But they are almost all seekers of personal advantage. I can find so few seekers after Truth." He was also fond of pointing out that those who tried to overcome pride were likely doing so because they could then inflate themselves with such a victory.
No, Sufism demands a perplexingly simple approach. It is an intimate resting in paradox, an active stance which requires patience, self-understanding and a good teacher-a teacher to help one learn how meaning is often elusive, below the surface, behind the obvious words, awaiting exploration. Meaning is often elusive. Sufis seem to revel in this truism, as if embracing it were the next step toward union with the Divine Paradox.
Nasarudin was the guest of a distant relative, who put him up in the basement where there was a bed. In the middle of the night, the host was awakened to the sound of his visitor's laughter coming from upstairs.
"What are you doing here?" he asked. "You were supposed to be sleeping in the basement."
"I was," answered Nasarudin. "I rolled off my bed."
"And how did you fall upstairs?"
"That's what I am laughing at."
Another time a thief visited Nasarudin's house and left with half of his belongings. Nasarudin picked up the rest of his belongings and set out after the thief.
"What are you up to?" the thief inquired when he saw Nasarudin following him in the street.
"Nothing," answered the Mulla. "For quite a long time I have been thinking about moving to a better place. Now that you are so kind as to carry half my belongings I am taking the rest and moving in with you. My wife and family will join tomorrow morning."
"Here," said the thief, putting down his loot. "Please take them back, but let me go."
There is no definite "How-to-be-a-Sufi" method. That may in fact be its most distinctive religious feature, given the rigid formulations so eagerly offered by many other paths. Therein may also lie its intrigue for me. I am drawn to honest process, especially if it engages humor.
Mulla Nasarudin may even get the last laugh. If you visit his tomb you'll find it behind an iron gate ably secured by a large padlock. But do not turn away in disappointment, for that front gate is all there is; there are no side walls around the tomb.
In a related vein, these words on Rumi's epitaph work well as a closing sentiment:
"When we are dead, seek not our tomb in the earth, but in human hearts."
Farzan, Massud. Another Way of Laughter: A Collection of Sufi Humor. E.P. Dutton, NY. 1973.
Waley, M.I. Sufism: The Alchemy of the Heart. Labyrinth Publishing, Ltd., UK. 1993.
Barks, Coleman, trans. The Essential Rumi. Harper Collins, SF. 1995
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