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Dervishhood, Divine Names, and the Times We Live In

Dervishhood, Divine Names, and the Times We Live In

Photo: Camille Adams Helminski, Yenikapi Mevlevihanesi, Istanbul, 2010

Note: dervish refers to a seeker or student on the Sufi path. This reflection is written from the perspective of the Mevlevi tradition in which I participate.

What is the path of dervishhood?  One definition could be “the cultivation of our essential humanness.”  Latent within each human being are capacities for sensing and expressing realities such as beauty, gentleness, relationship, unity, truth, and love.  To live from and manifest these possibilities is both the potential and the high calling of being human.  Dervishhood is a path, rooted in daily life in the world, that seeks to bring that calling, in all of its holy ordinariness, to its fullest fruition.

Within the Sufi tradition, we see all of existence as a manifestation of “the Names of God” (the divine potentialities or qualities), which themselves exist latent within the infinite Godhead (or “the Ocean of Meaning,” as Rumi calls it).  It’s here, in the realm of manifest existence, that these divine potentialities become actualities.

The Names of God are traditionally divided into two categories—the jalali (powerful or wrathful) and jamali (beautiful or merciful) Names.  Both jalal and jamal, constriction and expansion, firmness and gentleness, are needed to structure a world such as the one in which we live.  And yet, God says in a hadith qudsi (an extra-Qur’anic divine saying spoken through the Prophet Muhammad), “My Mercy precedes my Wrath,” and again, in the Qur'an (7:156), "My Mercy encompasses all"—that is, mercy is more central or fundamental to the Divine nature than wrath—so much so that even wrath is understood in the tradition as nothing but veiled mercy.

In another hadith qudsi, the Divine Voice proclaims, “I was a hidden treasure, and I longed to be known, so I created the worlds.”  And so the worlds (note the plural) tumble out from the heart of God for the sole sake of manifesting the hidden treasure that is God—particularly those most fundamental Divine Names, such as beauty, mercy, and love.  (Take a moment to ask yourself—“What good is love or beauty that exists only in potential, unmanifest, hidden in the Ground of Being?”—and you may begin to get a sense of why the Sufi says there is a world in the first place.)

And yet, a world in which those jamali Names can be expressed cannot begin to unfold without the aid of the accompanying jalali Names of stricture, contraction, and limitation.  Petals and thorns together bring forth the fragrance of the rose. Dervishhood may be seen as submission to the Names of Wrath for the sake of manifesting the Names of Beauty—that is, embracing life’s thorns for the sake of the emergence of its petals.  But it also may be understood more simply as submission to all of the Names (in whatever configuration or arising), and to their irreducible dance (each partner inseparably calling forth the other), which in total brings forth the essence of the Rose.  For ultimately, we find that all Names become a single Name—and petal and thorn are one.  Objectless, unjudging, undying, the source and goal of all existence—that single Name is Love, and every Name its veil.

Within creation, the human being holds the capacity to bear the fullness of the Names in such a way that one's whole being becomes a fragrant offering to God.  The human being manifesting humility, gentleness, beauty, and love—regardless of all outer conditions—is the rose-crown of creation.  It could even be said that only such a one is actually human—while the rest of us live mostly sub-human lives.  Such a completed human being (insan-i kamil) may still manifest God’s stringent Names—exhibiting clear boundaries, calling out injustice, speaking a strong “No” when needed—but only in service of Love’s becoming, and never for the sake of one’s own ego.

This completed (or, perhaps better, completing—lest we think the journey is ever ended) human being is the ripened fruit of creation.  And this maturation, this becoming fully human, is the essential work of dervishhood.  It is a slow and gradual process through which, little by little, the dervish is awakening to the absolute Unity of all that is—of petal and thorn, darkness and light, jamal and jalal.  This total Unity we call Haqq—Reality.  Such seeing is the fulfillment of the profession of faith, “La ilaha illallah,” “There is no god but God”—understood now simply as “There is nothing but God.”  The dervish sees that all of existence is only the theatre of Haqq, of Truth, of Oneness Unfolding—and that Love exists as the center and purpose of all that is.

In this theatre of divine manifestation, Reality experiences, expresses, and comes to know itself through infinite modalities.  On the dervish path, our work is to be for God that modality called the lover.  Whatever other ways there may be (and our work is to judge none of them—for ultimately, what is not in service of God?), we are to simply hold down, and hold to, the way and work of Love.  The unique position given to the path of Love can be heard in these lines from Mevlana Rumi:

In religion, there is no Love, and Love has no religion
Love is that ocean without boundary or shore
Where lovers drown without sigh or cry

On the path of love, friend and stranger are one
That one who has tasted the wine of union with the supreme Soul
In his religion, the Ka’aba and idol-temple are one

The sect of Love is different from all other religions
For lovers, their sect and religion is simply God

In loving You there are certainly no Muslims
In the religion of Love, there is no infidelity or disbelief

Love’s religion is other than the seventy-two sects:
Beside it the throne of kings is just a floorboard [1]

Might dervishhood, this path of the lover, speak uniquely to the pluralistic (and often post-religious) world we live in?—a world where traditional religious forms often seem to divide more than unite?  It could be said that in these times we do not need more Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, or Jews—but rather, more mature or completed human beings.  On the Mevlevi path, growth in love—human maturation—is our primary concern.  Our teachers have said that when one enters this path, “If you are a Jew, you will become a completed Jew; if you are a Christian, you will become a completed Christian; and if you are a Muslim, you will become a completed Muslim.”[2]  Could it be that dervishhood offers a model for human transformation and maturation that speaks with a particular fullness to the needs of our times?

This, of course, begs the question of the relationship between Sufism and Islam.  While the Mevlevi tradition is grounded in the wider framework of historical Islam, we resist a small understanding of what Islam means.  As one of our teachers, Malamati and Mevlevi shaikh Mehmet Selim Öziç, has said: “All human beings are members of the same family, that of Adam.  [...E]ach of the world’s established religions is a partial expression of essential Islam.  Thus ‘primordial religion’ [din al-fitra] directly informs the heart of humanity as a whole.”[3]  For Mehmet Selim Baba, "essential Islam" was always larger than what he termed "acculturated Islam."

From this perspective, we can speak of both an essential Islam (or, perhaps better, islam), understood as the din al-fitra—the primordial current of religion that appears wherever human beings appear—as well as the unique, cultural instantiations of that essential din, which include the formal religion of Islam itself.  It's in this light that our Mevlevi path understands the religion brought by Muhammad—that it represents a flowering of the universal truths (the unity of God, the way of surrender, etc.) and practices (prostration, chanting, contemplation) that lie at the heart of all authentic religion.  By understanding our primary affiliation as a rooting in this essential islam—which embraces all of the great traditions—the Mevlevi path necessarily opens out to people of all religious backgrounds.

Again, in the words of Mehmet Selim: “The Sufi path must be opened to people of all religious perspectives, and the insights of this path should be shared with mystics of all other traditions: Jews, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists, etc.  It is imperative that the mystics of the world’s religions come together in dialogue in order to share the particular gifts given to their respective traditions.”[4]  Mehmet Selim Baba's words speak to the times we live in, and to an emerging global culture of love and conscious interrelationship that we seek to support and further.

This broad and inclusive approach grows out of, and not in spite of, our Islamic heritage.  To be clear, the Mevlevi path traces its lineage chronologically and historically through Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi and Shams of Tabriz all the way back to Imam Ali and the Prophet Muhammad (may divine peace and blessings embrace them all)—and these are undoubtedly our roots.  But from another angle of vision, our lineage isn’t most truly found by simply moving backwards through time, but rather by moving more deeply into the now.  From this perspective, we discover the prophets and pirs not only as figures of the past, but as living, imaginal realities and archetypes present within human consciousness.  It is through this living chain or silsila, leading into the Love at our center, that we discover the true and ongoing source of our tradition.

This shift in perspective also changes the way we might ask certain questions—for example, not “What would Muhammad have done fourteen centuries ago?” (which could result in a dead and imitative legalism) but instead, “How would the prophetic archetype seek to manifest itself in this time and place, at humanity’s current level of cultural development?”  This is a question we must ask as we seek to live the dervish path—to cultivate our essential humanness—in a way that meets the times we live in: times that more than ever call us to walk the way of Love, bear forth the Names of God, and become mature and completed human beings.

[1] These English translations, as well as the Persian originals, can be found at https://blogs.harvard.edu/sulaymanibnqiddees/2014/05/30/the-religion-of-love/

[2] Kabir Helminski, The Knowing Heart, p. 20

[3] Yannis Toussulis, Sufism and the Way of Blame, p. 156

[4] Ibid., p. 158

Boundaries, Bark, & Incarnation

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