Balkinization  

Saturday, December 30, 2006

The Laziest Son - A Rumination

Scott Horton

A man on his deathbed left instructions
For dividing up his goods among his three sons.
He had devoted his entire spirit to those sons.
They stood like cypress trees around him,
Quiet and strong.
He told the town judge,
"Whichever of my sons is laziest,
Give him all the inheritance."

Then he died, and the judge turned to the three,
"Each of you must give some account of your laziness,
so I can understand just how you are lazy."

Mystics are experts in laziness. They rely on it,
Because they continuously see God working all around them.
The harvest keeps coming in, yet they
Never even did the plowing!

"Come on. Say something about the ways you are lazy."

Every spoken word is a covering for the inner self.
A little curtain-flick no wider than a slice
Of roast meat can reveal hundreds of exploding suns.
Even if what is being said is trivial and wrong,
The listener hears the source. One breeze comes
From across a garden. Another from across the ash-heap.
Think how different the voices of the fox
And the lion, and what they tell you!

Hearing someone is lifting the lid off the cooking pot.
You learn what's for supper. Though some people
Can know just by the smell, a sweet stew
From a sour soup cooked with vinegar.

A man taps a clay pot before he buys it
To know by the sound if it has a crack.

The eldest of the three brothers told the judge,
"I can know a man by his voice,
and if he won't speak,
I wait three days, and then I know him intuitively."

The second brother, "I know him when he speaks,
And if he won't talk, I strike up a conversation."

"But what if he knows that trick?" asked the judge.

Which reminds me of the mother who tells her child
"When you're walking through the graveyard at night
and you see a boogeyman, run at it,
and it will go away."

"But what," replies the child, "if the boogeyman's
Mother has told it to do the same thing?
Boogeymen have mothers too."

The second brother had no answer.

"I sit in front of him in silence,
And set up a ladder made of patience,
And if in his presence a language from beyond joy
And beyond grief begins to pour from my chest,
I know that his soul is as deep and bright
As the star Canopus rising over Yemen.
And so when I start speaking a powerful right arm
Of words sweeping down, I know him from what I say,
And how I say it, because there's a window open
Between us, mixing the night air of our beings."

The youngest was, obviously,
The laziest. He won.

- - -

Not Christian or Jew or Muslim, not Hindu,
Buddhist, sufi, or zen. Not any religion

Or cultural system. I am not from the East
Or the West, not out of the ocean or up

From the ground, not natural or ethereal, not
Composed of elements at all. I do not exist,

Am not an entity in this world or the next,
Did not descend from Adam and Eve or any

Origin story. My place is placeless, a trace
Of the traceless. Neither body nor soul.

I belong to the beloved, have seen the two
Worlds as one and that one call to and know,

First, last, outer, inner, only that
Breath breathing human being.

There is a way between voice and presence
Where information flows.

In disciplined silence it opens,
With wandering talk it closes.


- Mawlana Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Balkhi (Rumi), Masnavi-ye Manavi (ca. 1265)(Coleman Barks transl.)


If we had to craft a list of the ten greatest poets of human history, then certainly this thirteenth-century Muslim theologian, who began his life in modern day Afghanistan and ended it in what later became Turkey, would have an assured position on the list. And as for universality – what better measure than the fact that in 2004, Rumi ranked in surveys as the best read poet in Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and, thanks to the brilliant translations of Coleman Barks, the United States. As with any Rumi poem, this one has many layers of meaning to it. But here's my understanding.

Like Boccaccio's ring story in the Decameron (the third from the cycle of the first day) or Lessing's parable from Nathan the Wise (act 3, scene 4)– this choice of virtue among three sons should be immediately understood (and certainly would have been understood by a contemporary of Rumi's) this way: which of the three faiths "of the Book" is the true faith? The father is, of course, the God of the Book, and the sons, "tall like Cypresses," are Islam, Christianity and Judaism. Rumi echoes that in the follow-on ("Not Christian, Jew or Muslim…") And to this question Rumi offers several answers, mostly laden with irony. He tells us that professed belief counts for little, particularly if not sincerely held. "I can know a man by his voice," says the eldest son, who is promptly ejected from the contest. (But compare this with the wiser man – as Rumi reminds us, the clay pot must be tapped to test for a crack; the buyer who relies on the outward appearance alone is a fool). And, like Boccaccio and Lessing, he says that it is our conduct that matters and must ultimately provide the basis for a judgment.

But on this point the irony of a Sufi mystic kicks in. For conduct, Rumi takes "laziness," for which here I see the introspective process of truth-seeking that is Rumi's hallmark, and that of the Mevlevi Brotherhood which he helped define. It involves discipline and rigor ("disciplined silence"), but to the uninitiated it must, of course, seem nothing but "laziness." ("Mystics are experts in laziness.") Can you hear the laughter? Rumi mocks himself, or at least, shows that he has a sense of humor.

Importantly, Rumi warns us against demonization of the outsider, of the nonbeliever (the "boogeyman," who, he reminds us through the voice of a child, "has a mother, too.")

But back to our question. Who is the chosen son? In the end we learn that it is "the youngest son," and the youngest of the three faiths is, of course, Islam. But this is not Rumi's ultimate meaning. The true answer is to point to the false premise of the question. The answer lies in what unites, not in what divides humankind – what ties humans one to another and to the world in which they live. A Sufi faithful would know this as the doctrine of the oneness of God, tauhid. Hence, the right answer: "there's a window open/ Between us, mixing the night air of our beings." Those who are driven by differentiation and false pride for their religious choice – whatever the religious choice - have failed the test in the most miserable way.

And on this point, Rumi, Boccaccio and Lessing – the Muslim, the Catholic, and the Protestant who launched the drive for the emancipation of Europe's Jews - see things very much eye-to-eye. But their message is a vital one for our day. We live in an age in which thoughts of crusaders and caliphates have been resurrected for shameful and blood-drenched purposes. This must be overcome with urgency.

So for the New Year, I wish what Rumi wishes – not a rejection of faith, but a faith more profound, based on tolerance, compassion and respect for the ties that bind humankind. I wish that the land where Rumi once walked – from his native city of Balkh in Afghanistan to his final home in Anatolian Konya - would know his thoughts and hopes again, and the peace that they promise. But I wish the same thing for my fellow citizens at home in the United States, where the poison of religious bigotry seeps ever closer to the groundwater. I hope we all can find that way "between voice and presence" of which Rumi writes. We need it badly. "With disciplined silence it opens/ With wandering talk it closes." So here's a resolve for the New Year: Let us find the tools to keep that window open. There is nothing that humanity requires more urgently than this.

Comments:

So for the New Year, I wish what Rumi wishes – not a rejection of faith, but a faith more profound, based on tolerance, compassion and respect for the ties that bind humankind. I wish that the land where Rumi once walked – from his native city of Balkh in Afghanistan to his final home in Anatolian Konya - would know his thoughts and hopes again, and the peace that they promise. But I wish the same thing for my fellow citizens at home in the United States, where the poison of religious bigotry seeps ever closer to the groundwater. I hope we all can find that way "between voice and presence" of which Rumi writes. We need it badly. "With disciplined silence it opens/ With wandering talk it closes." So here's a resolve for the New Year: Let us find the tools to keep that window open. There is nothing that humanity requires more urgently than this.

Amen! That was a magnificent post.

During my deployment to Saudi Arabia during the Persian Gulf War, I was able to obtain an English / Arabic Quran with extensive annotations and an detailed index written by Arab Islamic scholars so the English reader could understand the nuances of Arabic terms which do not translate well.

The Quran reads like Rumi writes in the passage Scott provided us.

The Quran's references to jihad speak of spiritual striving to be the people Allah wishes us to be.

The Quran commands Muslims to respect and honor the other "peoples of the book" - Christians and Jews - which the Quran essentially calls well meaning, but following scriptures which have been miswritten over the years.

It is tragic that most Western people think that bin Laden's fascism represents Islam. This rabidly predatory philosophy has very little to do with the Quran I have read.

Happy New Years to all here.
 

What price is paid for one religion to be right if its at the expense of others being wrong?
 

how is bin laden a fascist?
 

Aaron said...

how is bin laden a fascist?

Apparently you missed my argument on this account in past posts and the extensive rejoinders.

In a nutshell, I contend that bin Laden is a fascist because he promotes Islamic solidarity by murdering Jews and Christians in a jihad because they are infidels to create a theologically (rather than racially) pure state.

This fascistic philosophy is at odds with the way Allah defines jihad and the proper relationship between Muslims and other "peoples of the book" in the Quran.
 

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