Spirituality without Islam: The Example of 'The forty Rules

2012-06-13 20:54:00

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
9 May 2012 / DR. NAZILA ISGANDAROVA, TODAY’S ZAMAN
 
As an outspoken author, columnist and academic, Elif Shafak has made an impact on Turkish literature.

She is the author of works including “Pinhan” (The Sufi, which won the Mevlana Prize in 1998), “Şehrin Aynaları” (Mirrors of the City), “Mahrem” (The Gaze, which earned her the Union of Turkish Writers’ Prize in 2000), “Med-Cezir,” “Bit Palas” (The Flea Palace), “The Saint of Incipient Insanities” (Araf), “The Bastard of Istanbul” (Baba ve Piç, a 2006 bestseller) and “Siyah Süt” (Black Milk). Her novel “The Forty Rules of Love” (Aşk), published by Viking/Penguin in English and by publishing house Doğan Kitap in Turkish, became one of the bestselling books in Turkey in 2010.

The book is about love and an invitation to a journey in search of true love, which overcomes all human-made boundaries, including borders, genders, race, etc. The book is all about the story of the heroes, who are in search of true and eternal love. It starts with a description of the ordinary life of a Jewish-American housewife, Ella Rubenstein, in Boston. Ella is 40 years old and unhappily married with three children. Her husband, David, is a successful dentist; however, he fails to attend to the needs of his wife and betrays her. She is not happy with “being the mother, the wife, the dog walker and the housekeeper…” Ella decides to work; however, it is not so easy.

Ella has a degree in English literature, but she has been out of the workplace since graduation. However, David helps her find a job as an editor at a publishing company, as compensation for his betrayal. The publishing company assigns Ella to read and report on “Sweet Blasphemy,” written by Aziz Zahara, a Scottish convert to Islam. His novel is about Shams of Tabriz, a famous dervish who was in search of Jalal al-Din Rumi, nicknamed Mawlana (Mevlana), in order to transmit his spiritual knowledge to him, who as a result transforms from an ordinary cleric into a successful advocate of love, unity and integrity at the expense, however, of losing his friend and master Shams. Ella associates herself with Rumi and adopts Zahara as her mentor, who sets a fire in her heart and also frees her from the bondages of ordinary life, as if “800 years later the spirits of Shams and Rumi are still alive today, whirling amid us somewhere…”

In this respect, the novel raises several questions about the relationship between religious dogmas and faith and spirituality; the turmoil of the bloody Mongol invasion of Muslim lands; the social and economic injustices in society; slavery, etc. For instance, “The Forty Rules of Love” describes the political, economic and social crisis of 13th-century Anatolia as follows:

“The 13th century was a turbulent period in Anatolia, rife with religious clashes, political disputes and endless power struggles. In the West, the Crusaders, on their way to Jerusalem, occupied and sacked Constantinople, leading to the partition of the Byzantine Empire. In the East, highly disciplined Mongol armies swiftly expanded under the military genius of Genghis Khan. In between, different Turkish tribes fought among themselves while the Byzantines tried to recover their lost land, wealth and power. It was a time of unprecedented chaos when Christians fought Christians, Christians fought Muslims, and Muslims fought Muslims. Everywhere one turned, there was hostility and anguish, and an intense fear of what might happen next. In the midst of this chaos lived a distinguished Islamic scholar, known as Jalal al-Din Rumi. Nicknamed Mawlana -- Our Master -- by many, he had thousands of disciples and admirers from all over the region and beyond, and was regarded as a beacon to all Muslims.”

Shafak in her novel gives an example of Islamic spirituality without Islam and alludes that many Sufis, including Shams of Tabriz, and even Mawlana, were quite neglectful in observing daily Islamic rituals. It even introduces drinking and dancing during devotional ceremonies as part of spiritual practices. Take, for instance, the scene where Shams offers Mawlana to transgress the boundaries of halal (permissible) and haram (forbidden). On the one hand, Shams tries to help Süleyman overcome his drinking habits, but on the other drinks wine and offers it to Mawlana. This kind of spirituality, of course, existed in some Sufi branches, i.e., the Bektaşi order of Anatolia; however, they did not make up the majority of Sufi orders.

The first question that emerges is whether it is possible to achieve ruhaniyyah (spirituality) and ma’nawiyyat (morality) without the formal shell of the five pillars of Islam -- tawhid (unity of God), salat (prayer), zakat (almsgiving), sawm (fasting during Ramadan) and hajj (pilgrimage). Many great Muslim scholars and spiritual teachers have agreed that Islamic spirituality is nothing other than the realization of these principles and tracing their impact on our actions, thoughts and emotions. Shafak makes reference to these principles in some parts of the book. For instance, Baba Zaman, a Sufi master in Baghdad and guardian of Shams, starts his speech with “Bismillah” (In the name of God), which every Muslim begins every action with. Bismillah, like Mash’Allah (what God has willed), Alhamdulillah (praise be to God) and Insha’Allah (God willing), are the Quranic formulas that shape the framework of Islamic spirituality. However, in spirituality without Islam, these words are just superstitious utterances.

The word ruh (spirit), which is the foundation of the ruhaniyyah (spirituality) in Islam, is strongly related to the Divine Spirit, which is blown into us from the beginning of our unearthly life. Humans, therefore, have a yearning for Divine Proximity, spiritual perfection and beauty, and the permanent home rather than the passing aspects of earthly life. Moreover, that Divine Spirit within us provides blessing and grace so that some people decide to dedicate their lives to God. By doing so, their ultimate desire is to make a paradise on earth before entering the heavenly paradise. However, in the novel, the word “paradise” possesses something not desired in traditional Islamic spirituality. Is it right? It is true that many Sufi masters had delivered the message that their ultimate desire was not a “paradise,” but unity with God. Even Rabia al-Adawiyya had prayed, “O my Lord, if I worship Thee for fear of Hell, put me in hell, and if I worship Thee in hope of Paradise, exclude me thence, but if I worship Thee for Thine own sake, then withhold not from me Thine Eternal Beauty.” However, they did not belittle the importance of paradise because the real meaning of “paradise” is perfection and divine beauty. It also means the divine presence, the re-finding of lost ideas, sounds and unity.

The novel, furthermore, presents the idea of love. Shafak writes: “The word ‘Love’ does not need any adjective or noun to describe itself … Love is worlds in its own … you are either in the middle, the center or you’re outside yearning for it...” Such a journey starts in the inner world. It is the 10th rule, which is as follows: “East, west, south or north makes little difference. No matter what your destination, just make sure to make every journey a journey within. If you travel within, you’ll travel the whole wide world and beyond.” This will create centeredness within and help us to unite the fragments and distractions around and within us. As a result, we feel “at home” wherever we go; “where the soul is at home with God,” as Thomas Kelly, the Quaker philosopher, teacher and mystic wrote. And as Thich Nhat Hanh has suggested:

I have arrived.

I am home.

In general, the novel presents spirituality as a quality of human life. It has many rewards, including serenity, courage, loyalty, unity and love, which is very important. The traditional understanding of Islam presents love of God in the light of obedience to God by application of the Divine Law, the Quran, which requires knowledge. It is not a coincidence that all great Sufi masters have quoted the famous hadith, “I was a hidden treasure; I wanted to be known; therefore, I created the world so that I would be known.” Moreover, Shafak overemphasizes the esoteric nature of Islamic spirituality. The reader gets a sense that the esoteric (al-batin) nature of Islamic spirituality is not important because its real target is to achieve that esotericism; therefore, the preferred way to exotericism is directly practicing it. However, Islamic spirituality is concerned both with exoteric and esoteric acts. In this context, Islamic spirituality is a journey from the outward to the inward, and is impossible without the Quran and the prophetic model.

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