Friday, October 05, 2007

Text of talk by Anab given at Fordham University, New York City - Sufi Circle Interfaith Conference, April 2007

Genesis 11: 1-9

(1) And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.

(2) And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar, and they dwelt there.

(3) And they said one to another, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar.

(4) And they said, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.

(5) And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children built.

(6) And the Lord said, Behold, the people are one, and they all have one language, and this they begin to do; and now nothing will be restrained from them which they have imagined to do.

(7) Let us go down there and confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech

(8) So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of the earth, and they left off to build the city.

(9) Therefore is the name of it called Babel [confusion]; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth; and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of the earth.

For the purposes of this talk, it doesn’t really matter whether one considers the passage from Genesis to be historical narrative, myth, a moral teaching story, revelation, or some combination of these possibilities. From whichever perspective one wishes to engage the Babel-theme, there are some instructive elements for what is going on in the world today.

Some of the themes encompassed by the foregoing Biblical passage concerning Babel are:

-- choice/free will … the capacity to select among possible avenues of behavior … in the case of Babel, choosing to make a tower. God permitted this to happen but only up to a point, and, so, there are limits beyond which God will not permit things to proceed.

-- Another theme of the Babel story concerns intention … the motivation for doing things, and in the case of Babel the intention was for the people to make a name for themselves so that in the event that they came to be scattered across the earth, people would know of them and what they had accomplished.

-- A third theme of the Babel passage involves methodology … the way which is chosen through which to implement one’s intention … in the case of the people of Babel the methodology was expressed in terms of the exterior physical world, technology, and rational planning. However, God already had provided humankind with an esoteric, internal, way to approach Divinity – at least to the extent of the capacity which humankind has been given – and the way which Divinity had provided to humankind was not through outward, superficial, very limited and often distorted theological or rationalistic means.

Therefore, on one level God was angry with the people of Babel because they had sought to invent their own modality for reaching God. They had sought to reinvent the wheel of spirituality and rejected the mode of spiritual transportation with which God had provided them.

The bricks of stone and the slime used for mortar symbolize the arbitrary, rule-governed systems of logic – whether theological, scientific or rational -- which were being used to reach up towards God. The people of Babel committed the foregoing error in methodology and so have all too many Muslim, Christian, and Jewish theologians down through the ages.

-- Another theme which is present in the Babel story is that of creative imagination … the inspiration through which a plan or method is conceived. In the case of Babel, the manner in which creative imagination was to be used by the people was not pleasing to God. Among other things, it showed a lack of appropriate restraint concerning human behavior as well as a lack of insight concerning so many dimensions of Being – especially with respect to the fact that life did not exist primarily for human purposes but rather Creation existed for Divine ones.

--the issue of consequences is also present in the Babel incident… for every choice we make, there are consequences … sometimes the consequences are fortuitous and sometimes the consequences are not so fortuitous… and, as with almost everything else, what turns out to be a problem for some becomes a potential boon for others.

The consequences for the people of Babel were that they became scattered and were isolated from one another due to problems of communication and confusion. Furthermore, one of the consequences of the Babel event was that although the people did make a name for themselves – after all, thousands of years later they are still being talked about – nonetheless, and as previously indicated, this did not come about in the way that the great thinkers of Babel had envisioned.

Consequently, one should be careful of what one intends because while we humans have our plans, God also has Divine plans, and as the Qur’an indicates God is the best of planners [Qur’an 8:30]… and to God belongs the conclusive argument [Qur’an 6:149]

On the other hand, however difficult the consequences may have been for the people of Babel, the good news is that they and history got to continue. And, here we find ourselves today with an opportunity to reflect upon, and, possibly, make use of some of the lessons of Babel.

In the matter of Babel, the wrong choice was made [namely, how to use the gift of time], the wrong intention underlay that choice [in other words, to serve ego rather than to glorify Divinity], the wrong methodology was used to try to reach God [i.e., that of external, legalistic, arbitrary, rule-governed methods rather than through principle-bound indigenous, esoteric methods] and creative imagination was inappropriately used and called upon to serve human purposes rather than Divine purposes, and although the people of Babel got their wish – a name for themselves – it was not quite what they had in mind when they started their venture.


Today, we [meaning the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim peoples], who are the inheritors of the Abrahamic Prophetic tradition, often find ourselves to be uneasy if not hostile neighbors of one another. We find ourselves this way because, among other things, of what we have inherited from the times of Babel … we have become separated through the confusion of communication … we have become separated and isolated from one another through our collective wrong choices, and our collective wrong intentions, and our collective use of problematic methodologies, and our collective use of inappropriate modes of creative imagination, and of our collective failure to take responsibility for the many consequences which are the direct and indirect result of all that we, collectively, are doing wrong with respect to choice, intention, methodology, and creative imagination.

We always have grievances against one another, and only very rarely do we have grievances against ourselves. Yet, the world is like it is today because we are like we are today… it is not the other who is at fault, it is we who are at fault. Benjamin Franklin is reported to have said that insanity is to keep doing the same things while expecting different results, and if this is the definition of insanity, then, many of us qualify to be so diagnosed.

What is going on between Palestine and Israel is insane – and I mean there is insanity transpiring on almost every side of this issue. What is going on in Iraq is insane. What is going on in Darfur is insane. What is going on in Afghanistan is insane. What is going with respect to terrorism – both in relation to its perpetration [by individuals and by nations] and the manner in which it is handled – all of this is insane. What is going on in the United States, as well as around the world, with respect to violence, poverty, health care, injustice, race hatred, sexual and spiritual abuse, as well as environmental degradation are all expressions of the presence of pathology.

Yet, the beat of insanity goes on in all these places. We keep doing the same things, but we expect different results.

Do we need more proof than the foregoing abbreviated list of collective tragedies to demonstrate that we all seem to be having problems communicating with one another? Do we need more proof that the consequences of Babel are still with us … that the people of the Abrahamic prophetic tradition are – to paraphrase George Bernard Shaw – one people divided by a common spirituality?

There are those within the Muslim community who have arrogated to themselves the delusional mission of being the saviors of Islam and, as well, they believe, the saviors of the whole of truth. There are those within the Christian community who have arrogated to themselves the delusional mission of being the saviors of Christianity, and, so, they believe, the saviors of the world. There are those within the Jewish community who have arrogated to themselves the delusional mission of being the saviors of Judaism and, so, they believe, the redeemers of all humankind.

God does not need such saviors. God has the whole thing under control … even if we don’t think so. Things will take place and events in this world will end nowhere but in accordance with Divine edict.

The reason why I refer to the messianic fervor which influences so much of the behavior of certain theological elements within the Muslim, Jewish, and Christian communities as being delusional is because, among other things, all of the people to whom I am alluding seem to be of the opinion that they are greater than every one of the Prophets who make up the Abrahamic tradition. Such people are deluded because they believe that they can accomplish what no Prophet was ever able to accomplish … namely, the redemption of the world and all humankind.

During the time of the Prophets, some of the people, by the Grace of God, believed in the sacred, spiritual nature and purpose of existence, and some did not. Yet, if all of humankind were destined to realize their essential identity and unique spiritual capacity, then this would have happened in the time of the Prophets but it did not happen then, it is definitely not happening now, nor do I believe this will happen in the future.

Yes, God willing, the Messiah will come and, yes, God willing, Jesus (peace be upon him) will come a second time. And perhaps, who knows, Jesus (peace be upon him) and the Messiah (peace be upon him) may turn out to be identical with one another.
For those who have ears with which to hear, and eyes with which to see, and a heart through which to know, there shall be, God willing, great blessings. But, this will be brought about through Divine generosity and not through the oppression and killing of other people by those who have grandiose, arrogant, self-serving flights of self-delusion about their place in the scheme of the universe.

Indeed, oppression is so odious to God that the Qur’an indicates it is worst than killing [Qur’an 2:191, 2:217] However, one might never know this by looking at the Muslim world and within which many Muslims oppress one another, as well as others, in a variety of ways.

All of the deluded individuals (that is certain of the Muslims, Christians, and Jews who are being alluded to) are secretly and openly plotting, planning, fighting, quarreling, manipulating, exploiting, abusing, and maneuvering to bring about the final reckoning – to bring about Armageddon so that their delusion might become everyone else’s nightmare. Apparently, all such people believe that fighting and killing are the only way in which Divine purposes can be achieved.

Why is it that so many people are willing to trust God when killing is their method of choice to bring about so-called just ends, yet, they do not seem to be willing to trust God and use peaceful means to realize such just ends?

Albert Bandura, a psychologist, once indicated that people usually do not engage in harmful conduct until they have justified the alleged morality of their actions to themselves. This is what all too many Muslims, Christians, and Jewish individuals have done … convinced themselves that harmful conduct toward others has been sanctioned by Divinity … convinced themselves that God has sanctioned the declaring of war on anyone who does not think, act, pray, dress, speak, believe, worship, or live as they do.

This is all the legacy of Babel. This is the legacy of the wrong choices, the wrong intentions, the wrong methods, and the wrong forms of creative inspiration which are the signatures of the Babel event. We continue to live out our version of the Babel myth in the most modern and most destructive of ways.

If you dislike the idea of insanity being the governing principle at work in much of what goes on in the world today, then I have another -- possibly even more sobering -- idea to put before you. A fair amount of psychological research indicates that 1 in every 25 people has sociopathic inclinations.

These individuals are scattered across every strata of society and every kind of occupation … from the poorest to the richest, and from the business world, to military, educational, governmental, and religious institutions. These are people who, among other things, are indifferent to the suffering which their actions cause for others and who camouflage their conscienceless motivations with political, philosophical, economic, and/or religious rhetoric.

What is even more disturbing is that as experiments like those of Stanley Milgrim at Yale back in the 1960s and early 70s have shown is that a great many of the general population can, under the right circumstances, be induced into becoming what I term ‘ideological’ or theological sociopaths. These are people who are willing to inflict a great deal of harm and suffering on others because the former individuals have been unduly influenced (by other individuals, groups, religious leaders, the media, or government officials) to believe that the damage or pain which is being inflicted is okay … that it allegedly serves some ‘higher’ purpose and, therefore, is supposedly justified.

More than seventy years ago, W.B. Yeats, the Irish poet, once wrote, in reference to the sort of circumstances in which we find ourselves to day, that:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned,
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.


The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is reported to have said:

“There are 71 sects among the Jews, and only one of them is correct. There are 72 sects among the Christians and only one of them is correct. There are 73 sects among the Muslims, and only one of them is correct.

At the heart of the Abrahamic Prophetic tradition, there are those Jews, Christians, and Muslims who give expression to a set of choices, intentions, methods, and use of creative imagination that reflects Divine guidance and purposes. Ah, but who are those blessed people?

It is said that there are four kinds of individuals. Those who know and know that they know. These are the Prophets and saints, and one should follow them. Then, there are those who know but don’t know that they know. These people are asleep and need to be awakened. Then, there are those who don’t know and know they don’t know. These people are capable of learning and, therefore, should be taught. Finally, there are those who don’t know and don’t know that they don’t know. These are the ignorant, and one should stay away from them.

The truth of the matter is that within each of us reside these same four kinds of individuals. There is a part of us which knows and knows that it knows, and, God willing, it gives expression to the very best of our spirits, hearts, and souls. There is also a part of us which knows but needs to be woken up because that part of us is asleep to the truth of things even though we have the capacity to know the truth. As well, there is a part of us which knows that we do not know, and, consequently, we have a desire to seek and learn the truth. And, finally, there is a part of us which does not know and doesn’t know that it doesn’t know, and this is the ignorance and darkness of our egos.

The problem is that when we are ignorant we often have delusions of grandeur and believe that our ignorance is the part of us which knows and knows that it knows, when, in reality, it is the part of us which does not know and doesn’t know that it doesn’t know. This is the mode of “being full of passionate intensity” which marks the worst of us and against which Yeats warned us in his poem.

When we are unduly influenced by this aspect of ourselves, we are so certain and convinced that we are right, we are prepared to insist that everyone see and do things our way. In such a condition, we are prepared to impose our solutions for life and death on others. We are prepared to sacrifice others on the altar of our own sense of self-righteousness.

The Qur’an warns about such wrongheaded, wrong-hearted, and wrong-spirited conviction when it says: “Shall we tell you who will be the greatest losers in their works? It is those whose striving goes astray in the present life while they believe they are working good deeds.” [18:104]

So, who are the ones among the Jewish, Christian and Muslim peoples to whom the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was alluding in the previously cited hadith concerning those who are correct

In the Qur’an, Surah Shams begins with the following:

By the Sun and his brightness,
And, by the moon when she follows him,
And by the Day when it reveals him,
And by the Night when it enshrouds him,
And by the heaven and He Who built it,
And by the earth and he Who spread it,
And by the soul and Him Who perfected it,
And inspired it with knowledge of lewdness and Godfearing.
He is indeed successful who causes the soul to grow,
And he is indeed a failure who stunts its growth. (Qur’an 91:1-10]

My spiritual guide taught me that the rhetorical style of the Qur’an is such that whenever God wishes to draw attention to the importance of something, an oath is used … such as ‘by the moon’, or ‘by the sun’, or ‘’by the heavens’ or ‘by the earth’ and so on. Nowhere else in the Qur’an does one find as many oaths heaped on one another as one does in the opening verses of Surah Shams.

So, to what is God seeking to direct our attention to that is of such importance God is directing our attention to the choice with which we all are faced – namely, between being among those who devote themselves to the spiritual growth of the soul and, God willing, succeed, or being among those who are the ones who obstruct the spiritual growth of the soul and, as a result, fail in life’s purpose.

Who are the ones among the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim peoples who, God willing, have found the right way? Well, the following list of qualities is by no means definitive, but it offers up some spiritual food for thought:

The ones to whom the Prophet is referring are the ones who, in accordance with Surah Shams spend their lives purifying their own souls rather than trying to purify the souls of others.

They are the ones who, in accordance with the Qur’an know that “ritual worship preserves one from lewdness and iniquity, but, verily, remembrance of God is more important.” [29:45]

They are the ones who, in accordance with the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) -- and in accordance with what has been the teaching of all of the Abrahamic Prophets – are likely to agree with the reply of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) when he was asked about what actions are most excellent and is reported to have said:

-- “to gladden the heart of a human being;
-- to feed the hungry;
-- to help the afflicted;
-- to lighten the sorrow of the sorrowful;
-- to remove the wrong of the injured.”

The correct ones among the Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities are the individuals who know, and act upon such knowledge, that they must die before they die … not kill before they die.

In this regard, one might note the instance in which a fellow Sufi once was talking with Ra’bia of Basra (may God be pleased with her) on a hillside overlooking the city and the man pointed to the town below and said in a somewhat condescending tone that the people of the city often did not fast or pray or go on hajj, but the man quite proudly indicated how he had done so many extra fasts, prayers, and pilgrimages … above and beyond what was required of him. The man was about to go on when Ra’bia (may God be pleased with her) gave the man a hard look and said: “Thy existence is a sin with which none other can compare.” – it is the death of the existence of the ego which is to be sought before we die our biological death, and when we kill others we rob them of the opportunity to do this.

The ones to whom the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was referring are the ones who are likely to agree with the Qur’an when it says: “Say: Surely my prayer and my service of sacrifice … my life and my death are all for God, the Lord of the Worlds.” [6: 162] There is nothing in this about killing others.

The ones to whom the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is referring are the ones who are likely to agree with Hazrat Abu Bakr Siddiq (may Allah be pleased with him) when he said: “Realization of our inability to attain comprehension of God is itself comprehension.” These are the people about whom Yeats said that the best were those who lacked conviction because they know that reality and the whole truth are beyond the capacity of any single individual to circumscribe, and, as a result, they had great humility when it came to the truth and who realized that above every person of knowledge there is One who possesses still greater knowledge [Qur’an 12:76].

The correct ones among the Jewish, Christians, and Muslims peoples to whom the Prophet alluded are the ones who are likely to follow the guidance of the Qur’an which says: “So follow the Deen [the way] of Abraham, the upright. He was not of the idolaters. [3:95]

The correct ones to whom the Prophet alluded are the ones who understand and who act in accordance with what the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) meant when the Prophet is reported to have said: “This world is maintained in existence by illusion.” And when the Prophet is reported to have said: “Assist any person who is oppressed, whether Muslim or non-Muslim.” And when the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is reported to have said: “Your most hostile enemy is your soul enclosed between your two sides.” And when the Prophet is reported to have said: “Kindness is a mark of faith and whoever has not kindness has not faith.” And when the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is reported to have said: “You will not enter Paradise until you have faith, and you will not complete your faith until you love one another.” And, when the Prophet is reported to have said: “There is no person who is wounded and pardons the giver of the wound but God will exalt that person’s dignity and diminish that person’s faults.”

The ones among the Jewish, Christian and Muslim peoples to whom the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is alluding in the previously cited saying of the Prophet are those who would find resonance with the prayer of Ra’bia of Basra (may God be pleased with her): “O Allah, if I worship Thee out of desire for heaven, then, deny me heaven, and if I worship Thee out of fear of Hell, then throw me in Hell, but if I worship Thee out of love for Thee and Thee alone, then, grant me Thy vision.”

The Qur’an says: “Allah does not change the condition of a people, until they change their own condition.” [13:11] The insanity of our choices, intentions, methodologies, problematic use of creative imagination, and the consequences ensuing from such pathology will not change until we begin to struggle toward changing our own spiritual condition.

The problems of the world will not change as long as our energies and efforts are mostly directed toward trying to change others through violent, oppressive, or presumptuous methods. The problems of the world will change from insanity to sanity when, God willing, we begin to work to change ourselves.

The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) often stressed the importance of character. For example, he is reported to have said all of the following:

-- “The best thing on the Day of Judgment will be a beautiful character.”

-- “The most perfect of the faithful in faith is the most beautiful of them in character.”

-- “I have been given all the names, and I have been sent to perfect good conduct/behavior/character.”

The individuals among the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim peoples who focus on the acquisition of character or akhlaq are among those who, God willing, are on the right path.

The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) also is reported to have said: “Shall I not inform you of a better act than fasting, charity and prayer? Making peace between one another – enmity and malice tear up heavenly rewards by the roots.”

Making peace is considered to be better than fasting, charity and prayer … three of the five pillars of Islam.

If and when we follow such guidance, then, God willing, we may, finally, free ourselves from the legacy of Babel. When we learn to listen to the spiritual – and not theological -- voice through which God is addressing our souls, hearts, and spirits – our essential identity – then, and only then, will the confusion brought into our lives by the din of egos all trying to speak over one another begin to subside and we will be able to join one another in a peace quest … I do not know if we will ever reach such a propitious moment, but our fate lies in our respective willingness to change ourselves and not try to change others.

Such a peace-quest can only be pursued when we are ready to enter into a monologue with God … where Divinity speaks to us, and we listen with our souls, hearts, and spirits such that we all become united in one voice … that of God.

In closing I would like to refer to an anecdote involving Enrico Fermi, one of the great physicists of the twentieth century who is reported to have said: “Before hearing your lecture on this subject, I was confused. Now having heard you, I am still confused, but on a higher level.” I hope that perhaps having listened to me, that, at the very least, if you are still confused about things, then, God willing, I hope you are confused on a higher level.


Sadiq Alam said...

Salaam brother,
wonderful lecture!

can i quote a part of this lecture and with update about sufi podcast?


Anab Whitehouse said...

Wa 'alaykum as-Salaam, Dear Sadiq

I'm happy that you enjoyed it, and you are most welcome to use it for whatever purposes you wish. Hope you are well.


Anonymous said...

excellent read!

thanks for sharing it.

Anonymous said...

really really great, inspiring, thought provoking... much good stuff to read in there... let's hope we all try more to acquire a good behavior... may God help us