(First, please see this.)
Noah and the Flood
What would be a Sufic approach to ethics?
Let us start by reviewing a recent movie: Noah (2014). With a budget of $125 million, and a worldwide gross of almost three times that amount, it was one of the more acclaimed movies of that year. Christian and Jewish authorities generally praised the film. And yet, some aspects of the movie went unremarked:
- Everybody was trying to get on board, and Noah was preventing them. In reality, Noah implored his people to get on board so they could be saved, yet they all refused, including one of his sons.
- Noah wanted everyone to die: only animals were innocent. See point above.
- Noah and his son were at loggerheads, not because of the son’s lack of faith, but because he was in love with a girl.
- Noah’s wife supported her son, not because she too lacked faith, but out of empathy for him.
- Noah imbibed alcohol and became drunk.
These points highlight the fact that in the West today, we have lost the script. Not only have we lost track of the most basic facts, but we are clueless as to what is morally right or wrong. In short, we have lost our moral compass. This one movie is enough to reveal that.
Good and evil
Let us try to understand the existence of good and evil by recourse to Master Kayhan’s words:
You are not to regard good and evil as the same. You’re not to see them as equal. We’re not going to merge them, we’re going to distinguish between them. God says, ‘Both good and evil are from Me.’ But He further says, ‘Follow the good.’ He doesn’t say: ‘Follow the evil.’ God says, ‘I created both good and evil. If you follow the good, you will come close to Me. If you follow the bad, you will obey the ego/the Base Self. Don’t hold Me responsible later on.’ He distinguishes between the two, He doesn’t hold them the same. God says, ‘I’ve informed you of good and evil. If you obey the self and Satan, don’t blame Me, because I’ve told you about good, evil and everything.’
(The Teachings of a Perfect Master (TPM) (2012), pp. 85-6. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations from Master Kayhan in this article are from that book.)
Seven Hells, Eight Heavens
We frequently confuse the purpose of religion. The Prophet said: “I have been sent for the purpose of perfecting good morals.” (Ibn Hanbal, No: 8595) He also said: “The most perfect of the believers in faith is the best of them in moral excellence, and the best of you are the kindest of you to their wives.” (Tirmidhi, 12:11) So one of the main purposes of religion is to instill good morals in us, so that we can live together in peace with each other during our brief stay on earth.
In a pamphlet titled “The Secret That is Love,” Master Kayhan gave a concise summary of the main principles of morality:
Islam is based on eight principles. These are referred to as the eight gates of Heaven:
Without these, there is no peace, happiness or Paradise in either world…
All the virtues and merits in the world are encompassed by these traits. This is why they have been called the eight gates of Heaven. Those who possess them live in Paradise even while in this world.
As for the seven circles of Hell, the following are the traits that open their gates:
All the evil traits and manners in the world are, in turn, contained in these.
The latter are all traits of the Base Self (nafs al-ammara). A hero is a person who vanquishes a villain. The Base Self is such a formidable foe that those who have overcome it rightly deserve to be called “superheroes.”
Of the gates of Hell, let us focus on two: anger and gossip.
Anger: An Example of Unacceptable Morals
The Prophet said: “If any of you gets angry, s/he should stay silent.” (Ibn Hanbal, Musnad, 1/329; see also Sahih al-Jaami‘, 693, 4027)
There. That’s all. Now how many of us can claim we live up to that? There’s a Turkish proverb: “Who rises in anger, subsides in loss.” And this is a very good explanation of the Tradition just cited.
When we’re angry, we are much more prone to be unjust or disproportionate. Even if you say something entirely inoccuous like “God bless you,” the very words come out like a growl. And this only fuels flames on the other side.
We get angry because we think we’re right. And we may very well be right. But anger causes us to do things that immediately place us in the wrong. Others can then freely exploit the mess we have made.
This does not mean that response is unnecessary. Wait, rather, until your anger has cooled off. Then you can start thinking about dealing with the situation constructively, peacefully, proactively. There are many ways of saying or doing things. Only keeping a cool head can provide the best solution.
Someone may say: “But what about combat? Are we supposed to stay calm there, too?”
In a fight, the lives of both sides are on the line. Level-headedness in combat is more necessary than ever. For anger will cause you to make mistakes, and will give your opponent a weakness, an opening to be exploited. Emotion compromises conduct and puts you at a disadvantage. You cannot put up a worthy fight if you are overcome by anger (“emotion, however righteous, can be the enemy of analysis”—Robert Kaplan). That is why the Prophet again said: “The true wrestler is one who controls himself when he gets angry, not one who throws his opponent to the ground”—that is, one who reins in his Base Self. And that’s really what it’s all about—us versus our Base Self. Vanquish it, and your chances of success are greatly improved. I’m not saying it’s easy, but in this world of trials, that’s what we have to do.
This would be the point to remember the performance of Ali during the Battle of the Ditch. When he was fighting an opponent, as he was about to deal the final blow, the man spat in his face. Ali withdrew, lowered his sword, and said: “Stand up. We must repeat the fight.”
The man was shocked: “Ali, what’s going on?”
“At first, I was fighting you for the sake of religion. But as soon as you spat in my face, my Base Self rose up and interfered. If I killed you under those circumstances, I would have been doing it for the sake of my own ego and not for religion. Therefore, we must fight again.”
Now none of us are the Prophet, and none of us are Ali. True. But the Prophet and Ali were setting these examples for us. How many of us can claim that we’re following in their tracks? Are we sure that we’re acting for religion and not under the command of our Base Self?
In order to make things more comprehensible, let me explain the concepts of Sufism using the terminology of psychologist Carl G. Jung. Jung called the Base Self “the shadow.” The basic characteristic of the shadow, Jung said, is to project its own perceived darknesses and shortcomings onto someone else. So in reality, we (both sides) are not fighting our opponents, though of course apparently, we are. We are actually shadow-boxing with our mirror image, where each side is the other’s mirror.
As the comics character Pogo put it:
This is what we must put an end to. We are all victims of our Base Selves, our shadows. The beginning of the end starts when we stop projecting our own evil onto the other side. Then we can begin to make peace.
We are all created equal. We are all brothers and sisters, descended from the same father, the same mother (Adam and Eve). More than half a century ago, two great men, the physicist Albert Einstein and the philosopher Bertrand Russell, issued the Russell-Einstein Manifesto. That tract ended with the words: “Remember your humanity, and forget the rest.” What does the Buddhist Dhammapada say: “Hatred does not cease by hatred. Hatred ceases by love.” And, please remind me—who was it, exactly, that said: “Love your enemy”?
If we can do that—and by “we” I mean all sides—we may be surprised to discover, in the old adversary, a friend.
Gossip, or backbiting, is another example of immorality. Of it, the Koran says: “Do not spy on, nor backbite one another. Would any of you like to eat the flesh of your dead brother [or sister]? You would find it abhorrent” (49:12). In other words, it’s that bad. Similarly, a Tradition of the Prophet states: “Do not gossip. If your brother/sister has that attribute, it is backbiting. If they do not, it is slander.” We in the West have little appreciation these days of how dangerous gossip can be. But considering that backbiting can even end in loss of life, it is nothing to be trifled with.
One of the greatest dangers of gossip is that disinformation tends to get enhanced. Put another way, information entropy increases. “That’s John’s new dog” may, at a remove of 6 or 7 persons, be transformed into: “They say you’re a dog, John!” Sometimes one starts a rumor, and in time, it comes back in such a form that one has to believe it oneself. The best action, then, is not to initiate a rumor, and not to gossip at all.
Eight Points in Thirty Years
On one occasion, the Master drew a parallel between the Eight Gates of Heaven listed above, and the eight points that a pre-Islamic poet, Hatim al-Taʾi, said he had learned from his teacher in thirty years. Hatim was mentioned in some Traditions of the Prophet.
Hatim tells his teacher, ‘I learned eight points from you in thirty years.’‘What a pity,’ he replies. ‘What are they?’ He tells him. His teacher exclaims, ‘I swear to God that everything I have taught is within these Eight Doors.’ If you fall into the sea, grab hold of one of these eight as a lifesaver, a piece of driftwood. If you do all eight of them, you’re in heaven already.
[The eight points of Hatim were: (1) Loving things that will survive one’s death (good works, worship). Making virtues one’s friends. (2) Combating one’s self. Controlling the self until it obeys God. (3) Opening one’s heart to the love of God. Dedicating one’s most prized possessions to God. (4) Piety and fear of God, which are the most valuable things in God’s sight. To rise in intelligence and morality. (5) Freedom from jealousy. (6) To know that the devil, rather than other human beings, is one’s true enemy. To become friends with everyone.(7) Not to worry about sustenance. To stay clear of what is Unclean/Illicit. (8) Trust in God, and God alone.] (p. 381.)
The Four Poles
The concept of the Four Poles goes back a long way in Sufism: “Like the sun, the sage shines on all the world; like the earth, he bears the good and evil of all; like water, he is the source of life for every heart; and like fire, he gives his warmth to all and sundry” (Sari (Sirri) Saqati, 769–867 AD).
Fire can also be replaced with the night. Master Kayhan regarded these as the four poles of ethics. A Sufi saying neatly summarizes exemplary conduct:
In loving kindness, be like the sun;
In generosity, be like water;
In humility, be like the earth;
In hiding the faults of others, be like the night.
To elaborate, the sun shines alike on a piece of dirt and on a rose; it bestows its light and warmth on everything. Water makes no distinction in providing life for all. The night hides all shames from view. The earth, despite being constantly trampled underfoot, yields its fruits to everyone without discrimination. We have an example here of “turning the other cheek.”
The Prophet asked his cousin Ali: “If someone wronged you, made you angry, what would you do?” Ali replied: “I would do good to them.” “And if they repeated it?” “Again, I would do good.” “And if they wronged you again?” “I would again do good.” The Prophet said: “If I had asked Ali fifty times, he would have repeated the same answer.” In a variant, Ali says in his third reply: “I would do such a good that they would be ashamed to do it again..”
As the Master explained:
Four, five poles: the sun, God created it first, billions of years ago. Earth, I’m stepping on it with my foot. Water, there’s no life without it. We cleanse ourselves with it, it doesn’t say, ‘What are you doing?’ Earth – you go somewhere, you obey the call of nature. You see a flower, a fruit, you pick it, earth doesn’t object to you. Air, we can’t live without air. Night – Kuddusi Baba calls it a ‘Coverer,’ a coverer of shames. If it were day all the time, humans and animals would all go crazy. If it were night all the time, nothing would get done.
These are attributes of Compassion. They belong to human beings, to animals, to everyone. If America were to say, ‘The sun is ours,’ it wouldn’t do.
None of them could exist without the sun. It is totally different. When applied to human beings, the sun is the intellect. It is knowledge, it is life. Night is heedlessness. Water is reproduction: ‘I created you from a drop of water.’ The Divine Name of ‘the Living’ is upon it. [God created all living things from water (21:30).] Earth is the body.
The sun, water and earth are three poles. Whoever takes on one of these enters the domain of the Perfect Human. He becomes a giver, not a taker. All three are givers, they’re not stealers! They’re all givers.
Water is a giver, earth is a giver, the sun is a giver. Life can’t exist without any of them. Let us not protect ourselves. Let us give to the neighbor, to the government. To the stranger. He’s shooting at us, but in his moment of need, let’s give.
Be like the sun. Be like a river. Be like earth. Be like the night. The earth bears the burden of the rest. It bears what nobody, no prophet, no pharaoh bore. You know what I call the earth? Perfect Human! (p. 79-80.)
(This would be the right place to speak about the “Peace Prayer” of Saint Francis. But since this article is already too long, and since I have dealt with that earlier in any case, interested readers are directed here.)
The Articles of Faith
The Islamic Creed has six articles of faith. People repeat it from rote memorization. Yet few pause to consider the meaning of it all. The Master helped us to understand what the Creed is there for:
[Faith] In His Angels – God’s angels exist. God alone knows their number.
Angels don’t get sick. They are in God’s service. But do you possess the ethics of angels?
Angels exist. So what? What of it to us?
Can we take on their ethics? How many of their morals do you have? We fast for a month, that month is angelic morality. When one is separated from food, drink and lust, that is the morality of angels. What we need is their beautiful morals, do you have them?
In His Books – Books. Do you believe in the Quran? Do we believe in the Four Books and the Hundred Pages? We all say ‘Yes.’
How are you with its conditions? Can you practice its precepts? Which of these Verses have you embodied? Have you taken on the morals of one or two, are you following them? Ethics. Character traits. Remember what Aisha said: ‘The Prophet’s morality was the morality of the Quran.’
In His Messengers – All prophets plus the Prophet, who is the light of our eyes, the joy of our hearts. That Prophet whom you love very much, how do you stand with his ethics? How many of his morals do you possess? This is the point: to moralize ourselves with the morals of the Messenger.
The Day of Judgment and the rest, you can keep. (pp.101-2.)
The Example of Abraham
Abraham is a good example of the traits for which God loves people. Abraham is called “Patriarch” because he was the forefather of prophets, from Isaac to Jesus and from Ishmael to Mohammed. The Koran, however, uses a different term. It calls Abraham an “(intimate) friend of God:” “God took Abraham for a friend” (Ibrahima halilan, 4:125; see also 2 Chron. 20:7, Isa. 41:8, James 2:23).
To what does Abraham owe this distinction? This is also hinted at in other sacred verses.
- “Abraham was mild-mannered,compassionate, obedient” (11:75).
- “He came to his Lord with a pure heart” (37:84).
- He was a “good-doer” (37:105).
- Hospitality: “Our messengers [angels] came to Abraham [in human form] with good tidings; they said, ‘Peace!’ ‘Peace,’ he said; and hastened to entertain them with a roasted calf” (11:69, also 51:26).
- He was “thankful to God” and “righteous” (16:121-2).
These, then, are some of the moral traits that enable intimacy with God. Sufis strive to become “true friends” (sing. wali, pl. awliya) of God by adorning themselves with these and other ethical traits.
In the above, special attention should be paid to purity of the heart. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matt. 5:8).
This is also evidenced in the case of David. God called David “a man after My own heart” (Acts 13:22) because he had a perfect (shalem/salîm) heart (1 Kings 11:4, 15:3). This is why God says to David: “David, We have made you a vicegerent on earth” (38:26)—the only person to be so addressed in the Koran.
The intentions of the heart are what matter: “Actions are judged according to intentions” (Bukhari, 1.1.1, 1.2.51). “People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7). “God does not judge you according to your bodies and appearances, but He looks into your hearts and observes your deeds” (Muslim, 6220, 6707).
On one occasion, Master Kayhan enumerated some traits to explain why his own Master had chosen him:
- I love worship a lot.
- I love people very much.
- I feel sorrow for everyone’s worries, I try to solve them. (pp. 442-43.)
This last item is, in fact, the secret to finding the Holy Grail, as I indicated in the same book (TPM). It is thanks to this fact that, ten years after a psychologist told him: “You want to help people,” someone I know likewise found himself in the presence of the Master.
How to find the Holy Grail
As mythologist Joseph Campbell put it, “The key to the Grail is compassion, ‘suffering with,’ feeling another’s sorrow as if it were your own. The one who finds the dynamo of compassion is the one who’s found the Grail.” In this context, the Grail is a symbol for compassion (rahma, marhama).
Once there was a boy who wanted to be king, and in a trial of ordeals he spent a night alone in a forest. Lucky boy that he was, the holy vision of the Grail, the symbol of Grace, appeared to him. A voice told the child: ‘You will be the Grail’s Guardian. It will heal men’s hearts.’ But the boy, blinded by the prospect of a life full of power, beauty and glory, could only think of the omnipotence the Grail would confer on him. In this state of mind he touched the Grail, which seared his hand and disappeared.
From that day the boy is wounded, both materially and spiritually. He grows to be a young man, a king, but he is sullen and listless; life has no meaning, no purpose. His knights return empty-handed from every search for the Grail. One day, as he lies dying, he is offered a drink by another person. His wound is healed. He looks at the cup, and recognizes it as the Holy Grail. He asks: ‘How were you able to find the Grail, which neither I as king, nor my knights have ever been able to?’ The person replies: ‘I did not know you were a king. I only saw your suffering.’ It is he who has become Guardian of the Grail.
Thus the Grail will not be found by those who search for it out of selfish desire. It is again compassion, the urge to help others in need, that will cap our spiritual quest. Such power is entrusted only to those who are willing and able to give, not those who will block or misappropriate it. (p. 20.)
The Prophet is the “example to be emulated.” The Koran has instructed him to say: “If you love God, follow me. Then God will love you and forgive your sins” (3:31). He has also said: “Adorn yourselves with the ethics of God,” like he himself has been adorned. This means to clothe oneself in the ethics that God’s Divine Names call for. As the Master elaborated:
One Name of God is ‘the Just.’ Let us love justice.
Another Name of God is ‘the Truth.’ Let us always be true.
Another Name is ‘the Sublime.’ Let us always be cheerful and good.
Another Name is ‘the Healer.’ Doctors are in this one.
Another Name is ‘the Judge.’ The judges are here.
The people of the West possess our ways. A bath in every home for cleanliness, hot water, cold water. If everyone sweeps his doorway, the whole city will be clean. If one takes an Ablution five times a day, one will have entered flowing water five times. They’re doing [in the West] what we ought to be doing. (p. 88.)
With each Godly ethic we adorn ourselves with, one more obstacle between us and God is removed, and we are one step closer to communion with God. Ethics (akhlaq) is also translated as “dispositions” or “character traits.” This means that ethical behavior should not just be second nature to us, but should become our first nature. It shouldn’t just slide off us under adverse circumstances. It should be our immediate response, our automatic reaction, to all events, whether favorable or otherwise.
Anyone who strives to perfect their ethics and courtesy will find God in close proximity. God says: “Whoever draws near to Me by a hand’s breadth, I will draw near to them by an arm’s length. Whoever draws near to Me by an arm’s length, I will draw near to them by a fathom. Whoever comes to Me walking, I will come to them running.” (Bukhari, 9.93.627)
This Holy Tradition shows that the first move always has to come from us. This is also reflected in the Verses: “God does not change the lot of a people until they change what is in their selves” (8:53, 13:11). In return, God’s response will be in excess of our actions, for God is the Generous.
An Example of Praiseworthy Conduct
Master Kayhan once provided an instance of exemplary ethics from the days of his discipleship:
Forty-five or fifty years ago, I went to visit Hajji Efendi. I was at a distance of four or five hours. He asked,‘Why did you come?’ I didn’t say. I didn’t tell him, ‘Let me carry you on my back,’ I’m still lamenting that.
That day I made a bridge over a brook for ants to cross. I took down a thirsty turtle from a wall. I saw that a snake was trying to swallow a frog by a riverside. It wouldn’t do to kill the snake, and it wouldn’t do to leave them like that. The snake is swallowing the frog, I bore down on the snake’s neck with a shovel. It didn’t release it. It wrapped its tail around the handle of the shovel as far up as my hand. Then it saw that it was in danger and let go of the frog, which escaped. I didn’t want to kill the snake, so I threw it away together with the shovel.
I went to Hajji Efendi. He asked, ‘Where were you?’ ‘I took a look at the water,’ I said. He smiled and said, ‘Bravo, you’ve done a good trade.’ He didn’t say anything else. ‘Go and fetch me a glass of water,’he said. (pp. 450-51.)
Here we see how a sage or saint would act under tough circumstances. Most of us would not have hesitated to kill the snake. Yet the Master spared its life, at the same time resolving the situation and freeing the frog. This is what may definitely be called a “win-win” solution for all sides.
To be continued…