The World is Beautiful

بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ 

The following is extracted from a swuhbah by Shaykh Tu’sun Bayrak al-Jirrahi (q.s.). 

What does it mean to be in the world but not of it?  Shaykh Muhyi ad-Din Abu ‘Abdullah Muhammad ibn ‘Ali ibn ‘Arabi (q.s.), who is considered to be the greatest shaykh in Sufism, was traveling to Makkah, and he passed through Tunisia.  In Tunisia he was told that there was a holy man living there who he must visit.  This holy man was a fisherman who lived in a mud hut on the beach, and caught three fish a day, no more, and he gave the bodies of these fish to poor and hungry people.  He himself boiled the heads of the fish, and just ate the heads.  He did this day after day, year after year.  He lived the life of a monastic person, a person who had divorced himself from the world totally,  and, of course, Shaykh ibn ‘Arabi (q.s.) was very impressed with this discipline.  So he spoke to the fisherman, and the fisherman asked, “Where are you going?  Are you going to pass through Cairo?”  Shaykh ibn ‘Arabi (q.s.) nodded and the fisherman said, “My shaykh lives there.  Will you please visit him and ask him for advice for me, because all these years that I have been praying and living humbly like this, I have not received any advancement in my spiritual life.  Please ask him to give me advice.” 

Shaykh ibn ‘Arabi (q.s.) promised him that he would, and so when he arrived in Cairo, he asked the people in the city where this shaykh lived and they said, “Do you see the huge palace on the top of the hill?  He lives there.”  So he went to this beautiful palace on the top of the hill, knocked on the door, and was received very well.  They brought him into a large, luxurious waiting room, gave him food to eat, and made him comfortable.  But the shaykh had gone to visit the king.  Sufis do not normally visit kings or people in high positions.  It is forbidden because they can become an additional veil between us and Allah (s.w.t.), an additional attachment to the world. 

While Shaykh ibn ‘Arabi (q.s.) was in this luxurious room waiting for the shaykh, he looked out the window and saw a procession coming.  The shaykh was riding a beautiful Arabian horse and was wearing a big turban, diamond rings, a fur coat, and had a whole honour guard of soldiers at his side, and he arrived with great pomp at the palace.  But he was a very nice man, and came and greeted Shaykh ibn ‘Arabi (q.s.) warmly, and they sat down and started talking.  At some point in the conversation, Shaykh ibn ‘Arabi (q.s.) said, “You have a student in Tunisia.” 

And the shaykh replied, “Yes, I know.” 

And Shaykh ibn ‘Arabi (q.s.) said, “He asked for your spiritual advice.” 

“Tell my student,” the shaykh said, “if he is so attached to this world, he is never going to get anywhere.” 

This was confusing to Shaykh ibn ‘Arabi (q.s.), but on his trip back, he stopped in Tunisia.  He went to the fisherman there, who immediately asked, “Did you see my shaykh?” 

“Yes, I saw your shaykh,” he replied. 

“What did he say?” asked the fisherman. 

Shaykh ibn ‘Arabi (q.s.), looking uncomfortable, said, “Well, your shaykh, you know, he lives in great pomp and great luxury.” 

The fisherman replied, “Yes, I know.  What did he say?” 

Shaykh ibn ‘Arabi (q.s.) told him, “He said as long as you are so attached to this world, you are never going to get anywhere.” 

The fisherman cried and cried.  “He is right,” he said, “each day, when I give those three fish bodies to the people, my heart goes with them.  Each day, I wish I could have a whole fish instead of just a head, while my shaykh lives in great luxury but does not care at all about it.  Whether he has it or not, it does not touch him.” 

That is what it means to be in the world but not of the world.  It means that, as Sufis, we are supposed to be out in the world participating in the world, but not fall in love with the world.  There is a hadits that tells us, “The world is your friend if it reminds you of Allah (s.w.t.), and it is your enemy if it makes you forget Allah (s.w.t.).” 

One Sufi mystic is quoted as saying, “To leave the world is not to abstain from property, wife, and children, but to act in obedience to Allah and to set the things of Allah above those of the world.” 

Another hadits tells us that when Allah (s.w.t.) Ordered the world, he Spoke to the world, “World, the one who becomes your servant, treat him as the worst of slaves.  Beat him.  Make him work hard and when he dies, crush him.  But if he becomes my servant, care for him well and when he dies, hug him like a mother would hug her child.”  That means that if we are servants of Allah (s.w.t.), then the world will be our servant, obey us, and make us rich and everything else.  When we die, it will hug us gently like a mother caressing us.  But if we forget Allah (s.w.t.) and become servants of the world, then the world will whip us, kick us, and make us work like hell.  When you die, it is going to crush us. 

What exactly do we mean by ‘the world’?  Our wives, our children, our home, our work, our money in the bank, our position in the company, our political aspirations or affiliations, our bed at night, our shower in the morning, our breakfast - everything!  There is a word in Arabic, dunya, which also means “the world” or “worldly life”.  It seems that it is often spoken about as something negative or as something that tempts us away from the path.  Many people think in those terms, but it is important to understand this distinction.  If dunya makes us forget our Lord, if it makes us forget where we came from, what our function is, and where we are going, if it makes us a fool, then it is our enemy.  But if it reminds us that this is just a passage, this is just a place for tests, this is just a place to prove that we do what we are Created for, then it is a good place, a good thing, and a wonderful friend. 

Would it be accurate to say that for most of us, the world tends to be the former, tends to be that which draws us away from Allah (s.w.t.)?  It is not the world’s fault.  It is our fault.  It is not the devil’s fault. It is our attachment to the world.  The world is beautiful.  Allah (s.w.t.) Made it beautiful.  Every spot of it is a Reflection of Him.  He has never created anything ugly.  Creation is simply a mirror.  When there is nothing in front of the mirror, it reflects nothing.  But Allah (s.w.t.) is in front of it, so all of Creation is a Reflection of Him.  We see His Attributes, the Attributes of Allah (s.w.t.), Reflected in the mirror of Creation.  That is what we are.  Everything in Creation is Allah’s (s.w.t.) Attributes.  It is not Allah (s.w.t.), but it is from Allah (s.w.t.).  So there is nothing wrong with the world.  It is our fault that we make a god of it.  It is not the world’s fault.” 

Many Sufi shuyukh have had wives and families, owned businesses, and some are even said to have been great sultans.  What is it that enables a shaykh or a dervish or any spiritual seeker to live amidst all the complexities and temptations of the world and still do the right thing?  How can we act in the world in a way that expresses non-attachment to the world?”  The answer to that question is very simple.  A young German lady asked that question to Shaykh Muzhaffar Uzak al-Jirrahi, and he said, “My daughter, we are very fortunate, because we have got a book in our hands, the Qur’an, which we believe is from Allah, from the Lord.”  The Gospels are equivalent to ahadits.  In other words, it tells us what Jesus (a.s.) did and what Jesus (a.s.) said.  But we believe that the Qur’an was Revealed by Allah (s.w.t.) and Brought word by word, letter by letter, dot by dot, to the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.).  Through his blessed lips it came out, and not a dot of it has changed for the last one thousand five hundred years. 

We actually have three touchstones to find out whether our actions are right or wrong.  But we must act.  We cannot sit on our behind, because then, we are dead.  Now if the action corresponds to what Allah (s.w.t.) Tells us to do in the Qur’an, it is definitely the right action.  It is said that in the Qur’an there are a thousand things to do and a thousand things not to do.  We certainly do not know all of them.  I know perhaps a hundred things, and even those often depend on interpretation.  So this touchstone, this test to see whether our action is real gold or fake, is a difficult one. 

The next touchstone is the imitation of the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.).  Although he lived one thousand five hundred years ago, the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) was never alone, and everything he did and said was recorded.  None of it was inconsequential - the way he drank his water, the way he made love to his wives, the way he went to the bathroom.  There are hundreds of thousands of ahadits of things which he said and did, and these are easier to understand, because no interpretation is necessary. 

The third touchstone is our conscience.  We have to ask our conscience, “This action that I am about to do, is the result going to be beneficial for the world - for him, for her, for me, for the grass, for the cat, for the turtle?  Or is it going to be the opposite, is it going to cause pain and hurt?’  If it is beneficial, it is right; if it is not beneficial, it is wrong.  What all of this boils down to is that we are here to ceaselessly do right action. 

I just returned from a trip to Iraq to help with some of the suffering there.  I visited orphanages and hospitals and was able to donate money to help a great many people who are suffering, especially children.  And while I almost never talk about my personal experiences, my experience there still lingers with me, because a strange thing happened.  During my few days in Iraq, I was not there.  Action was there, things were happening, but it was as if I was not there.  And I felt that that was my great, great Reward which I received.  And for me that suffices.  Action without being there.  We have a word in Turkish.  It is “hiç, which means “nothing”.  And that is the goal. 

There are beautiful stories about the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) where he would be so lost and immersed in these intense spiritual states that he would not even recognise his own wife, Sayyidatina ‘Aishah bint Aby Bakr (r.a.).  He would say, “Who are you?”. 

And she would say, “‘Aishah.” 

And he would reply, “Who is ‘Aishah?”  You see, he was not there.  He was so far away that he did not even know his own wife.  But then there were other times when he would rest his head on the thigh of his wife and say, “‘Aishah, caress my head.”  So even he needed a little comfort.  We have to come back to the world.  We are in this body, you see, and it needs things.  We have to come back.” 

In my life, I was a very successful artist, but I gave up my career, gave up fame and fortune to devote myself to the spiritual life.  What was it that compelled me to leave my own life behind and take this step?  Actually, both my wife and I were artists, and we felt very strongly that it was feeding our egos.  Art, art exhibitions, and the consequences of being accepted and successful are incredible food for our ego, which is the Sufi’s enemy.  The final straw was when we went to Rome to visit a friend, a sculptor, and there was a very pretty young girl there whom my friend introduced me to.  And she was so adoring to me.  She said, “Oh, I know you.  I love your art.” 

She was completely praising me, and I saw the ego suddenly rise up and say, “Aha!  This beautiful, spiritual girl is telling you that you are a great artist.” 

So I said, “O my God!  That is it.  It is over.”  I hit the ego on the head and decided I was finished with it all. 

In the Sufi tradition, what is the ideal relationship to the world for those who have gone very deep into the spiritual life?  What we do is to find our place in the world, our duty, our function in this world.  When we find it, we should do it as best we can.  We should ask for Allah’s (s.w.t.) help in finding it and doing it.  For example, when a person wants to go to college and study certain things, they often take aptitude tests.  So in a much larger and more complete sense, we have to pass ourselves through aptitude tests and find out what we have been Brought into this world to do, and then we must do it as best we can.  That is how one’s relationship should be to the world. 

Thirty years ago, if somebody would have told me that I was going to be a Sufi and a shaykh, I would have laughed and said, “What are they talking about?”  Therefore, we cannot say that I did it.  Finally, Allah (s.w.t.) has to Do it for us.  That is why when we pray, we open our hands.  If our hands are open and something drops into them, we can catch it.  But if they are not open, you cannot.  It falls away.  So we have to be open, and that is all that we can do.  I do not even say open our heart.  We have to open ourselves, everything - our body, our mind, our potential.  We have to keep everything open and somehow hope to receive direction and indication as to what our function is.  Once you find our function, I think then, we will also find ourselves through our function. 

Sufism is not generally known as a spiritual tradition that emphasises renunciation of the world.  But, in the Sufi tradition, does renunciation play some role in the quest for spiritual union?  In our discipline, we don't agree with this.  On the contrary, that renunciation is a sin.  Renunciation means that we are thirsty and He, Allah (s.w.t.), is Offering us a glass of water and we say, “No, thank you.”  That's a sin!  For instance, Allah (s.w.t.) Offers to reduce our prayers when we are traveling.  And some idiots say, “No.  I will continue making my prayers as if I am not travelling.”  That is an insult.  It is a sin.  Because Allah (s.w.t.) Offers us a Gift and we say, “No, keep your gift.”  It is arrogance in the extreme, this renunciation business.  This is the opinion of the Sufis.  We should take whatever it is we receive, and we should put it to good use.  If we do not want it, we give it to somebody who needs it.  So there is no going to the monasteries, no climbing up the Himalayas, no pouring ashes on our heads and sitting cross-legged on nails.  We have to go out into the world and participate.  For example, our teacher, Shaykh Muzhaffar, loved to eat, loved good food.  And he had a young wife, whom he loved very much.  He used to say, “Money - there should be a lot in your pocket, but none in your heart.” 

What about the example of Jesus (a.s.)?  He is considered to be a Sufi prophet and yet he encouraged people to leave the world behind and follow him.  In Arabic, we call Jesus (a.s.) “Ruhullah”, the Spirit of Allah (s.w.t.) or more accurately, “Ruh min Allah”, which means not the spirit of Allah (s.w.t.), but the spirit from Allah (s.w.t.).  Jesus (a.s.) was pure spirit and a human being cannot be pure spirit.  His method of teaching was not by example.  In fact, whoever who tried to imitate him got eaten by the lions, or lost in the dark chambers of monasteries or convents which were not good for anybody.  His message was not through imitation, but through what he said.  The teaching of Christ (a.s.) was not to abandon the world.  It is just that some people tried to follow his example, which is absolutely impossible to follow.  But his teaching is possible to follow. 

Our worldly lives are inherently sacred and can potentially become the vehicles for spiritual awakening.  If, in running the marathon, we feel that the force in us which permits us to run is from Allah (s.w.t.), the ground which we are running upon is from Allah (s.w.t.), and the breath which we inhale and exhale is from Allah (s.w.t.), then this experience is indeed more important than reading the Bible in vain.  But the problem with the New Age spiritualists is their intention, by saying that a marathon is equal to the Qur’an, so abolish the Qur’an.  Their premise is right, but their actions and their intentions are wrong. 

There is nothing new in the world.  But they think that because we are living in the twenty-first century, things have changed.  Nothing has changed.  The same thing is valid now as was valid for the caveman, except, of course, that life was simpler.  Life became more complicated, but we still have the same sized brain.  And we have the same good and bad, right and wrong, sweet and bitter, dark and light - everything has existed for a long time.  The camel became the airplane, but everything is the same.  At the time of Jesus (a.s.), all these problems that we have today existed.  Read the Bible.  The villains were there.  The thieves were there.  The murderers were there.  The politicians were there.  Everybody was there, doing the same things!  So what makes people think that new solutions have to be found?  What makes them think that they know better than Jesus (a.s.)?  They are arrogant, and that is the problem. 

Should we say our daily lives in the world are sanctified through our ongoing voluntary submission and surrender to the Will of Allah (s.w.t.)?  It is not as simple as that.  Submission, yes, but cognisant submission.  Not blind submission.  That is the difference between the orthodox and the mystic.  The orthodox blindly submits, and in blindly submitting, imagination may intervene.  While the Sufi, the mystic, tries to understand and submit, and therefore taste what he is eating.  The orthodox eats at McDonalds and then goes to a French restaurant and eats beef bourguignon.  To him, it is the same thing.  He does not taste it, he just submits, he eats.  But the Sufi chooses.  The hamburger tastes bad and he recognises that, so he goes and eats the beef bourguignon.  He tastes his religion and he understands what he is doing.  He submits willingly and knows that one thing does not taste good and the other does.  That is the difference. 

In the new American “spirituality”, instead of that kind of cognisant submission to a Higher Authority, many people are speaking about self-authority - where it is up to us to pick and choose as we see fit from among the world’s traditions of wisdom, to find our own methods and spiritual practices that suit our lives in the world.  This is crazy, arrogant.  They are saying, “I know better than God.  I know better than Jesus.  I know better than Moses.  I know better than the shuyukh.”  We are forbidden to say “my”.  We are forbidden to say “me”.  This is “my” idea.  This is “my” concept.  This is “my” right.  This is “my” wrong.  Forget it; it is just anti-discipline.  This is self-glorification, making our own self our god.  That is deadly.  Those people, they die.  They are living zombies.  They live this life with imagination, with no concept of truth, no concept of reality.  They live in their imagination, and they die in their imagination and they will wake up when they die and say, “O my God, what have I done to myself?” 

For 6,000 years in Judaism, for 2,000 years in Christianity, for 1,500 years in Islam, hundreds of thousands of saints and spiritual teachers have devoted themselves to this, and they have found and refined the relationship of the human being to the world, to life, to the hereafter.  And here comes this man or this woman who studies a little psychology, a little philosophy, and rejects the whole thing.  Millions of people, intelligent people, devout people, have made this their specialty.  We are living in a period of specialty, but those people were super-specialists.  Their documents are here, their words are here, their principles are here.  It is not even worth discussing.  May Allah (s.w.t.) Help these people.  That is all that we can say. And may Allah (s.w.t.) Forgive them. 

At what point on the spiritual path are we ready to be of service to the world?  At the beginning, in the middle, and at the end.  This is in the Qur’an.  Allah (s.w.t.) Says that “I have Created man so that he can make ‘ibadah to me.”  ‘Ibadah means “service”.  But it also means “worship”.  So the true worship is in service.  Allah (s.w.t.) Says that, “I have Created man so that he serves Me.”  But Allah (s.w.t.) does not need service.  On the contrary, He is our Servant.  Every minute of our lives, we are being Served.  We inhale; He Makes us inhale.  We exhale; He Makes us exhale.  He Brings us coffee; He Makes us drink the coffee.  Twenty-four hours a day, to all of us - from the microbe to the highest specimen of this Creation – He is in Continuous Service.  So what does He Mean when He Says that He has Created human beings so that they would serve him?  In short, He Means to serve His Creation.  If we are the supreme Creation, then we have to serve those in Creation who are like us, who are in need, or who are under us.  That is the purpose of our Creation.  Service should be from the moment we are born until the moment we give our last breath, but we have to find out in what way.  That is what is most important.  We have to find out in what manner we are supposed to serve.

The ultimate expression of our spiritual lives is found in the world.  They say that what we are looking for is found in the afterlife or in some future birth.  No.  Hell is here.  Paradise is here. Everything is here.


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