To Dream, To Float, To Glorify

  This week I submitted a translation I have been working on for 5 months, of an Ibn ‘Arabi book on the 99 Names of God that had previously been translated into Spanish (I was translating it into English). It’s been a labour of love but also a “gift-laden carpet”* in many extraordinary ways.

This uy again.

This guy again.

  The most transformative part of the work, of course, was just going over the meanings of the 99 Names over and over again, discovering new nuances. It is astonishing how few of them are negative, in our understanding of the word (Al-Muntaqim – the Avenger – and Al-Darr – the Bringer of Harm – are the only two that spring to mind; al-Mumit, the Bringer of Death, doesn’t really count, as death can be the most beautiful release, depending on how much you want it).

  On the other hand, there are dozens of Names that relate to generosity, kindness, gentleness and forgiveness: Al-Rahman (The All-Compassionate), Al-Rahim (The All-Merciful), Al-Ghafar, Al-Ghafur, Al-Ghaffar (variations on the Most Forgiving), At-Tawwab (He who turns towards the one turning towards Him), Al-Sattar (He who conceals faults), Al-Karim (The Generous), Al-Jawad (He Who gives before being asked), Al-Halim (The Mild), Al-Wasi’ (The All-Embracing, as in the Qur’anic verse “His mercy embraces all things”), al-Wali (The Protecting Friend), Al-Wadud (The Loving), Al-Wahhab (in contrast to the religious conservatives who have taken on this name, it means The Giving)…

  I shouldn’t be so surprised, but the impression that one often gets of Islam is that it encourages fear of God, fear of hell, fear of a patriarchal system that is supposed to order every aspect of our lives. But the reality, when you pull those appearances apart, is quite the opposite. It’s enough to melt a heart frozen stiff with fear.

  Even though I’ve been Muslim all my life, or perhaps precisely because of that, I have so often found it easy to slip into assumptions about what a Muslim life is like. There always needs to be a balance between the intellectual, the ethical, the practical and the aesthetic. What often happens is that one or more of these is neglected; our faith limps along cock-eyed, developing achy joints as a result of its poor coordination.

  And then we innocently go to the nearest, quickest reference points to seek out an uplifting hadith, quote, du’a or bit of history: Sheikh Google, his wife Binti YouTube and their hyperactive son, Ibn Facebook. Apart from those things that are posted by friends, whose intentions we know well enough to trust, we emerge from these virtual encounters riddled with gunshot wounds inflicted by different doctrinal angles, and shell-shocked at the bigoted, insulting, or downright stupid ideas (not to mention actions) of some Muslims.

  I think it was because of my need for something that really went deep that this book landed on my table. Ibn A. seems to have a knack for explaining even the most intricate existential problems (such as the existence of evil – he says that transgressions, being brought into existence by God, ask forgiveness from Him on behalf of the place where they are carried out – that is, in the person doing them). Some of these issues have dogged me for years; no-one else has put them straight for me satisfactorily. My intellectual side can be dragged out of the closet and de-mothballed at last, to rejoin my daily wardrobe of selves.

Medieval manuscript of Ibn Arabi's works - which numbered about 200

Medieval manuscript of Ibn Arabi’s works – which numbered about 200

  One of the things that has hooked me most is his etymology. Sufism has a long tradition of finding correlations between words with the same letters in a different order – hence the link between ‘to do, act’ (عمل) and ‘to know’ (علم), i.e. don’t act without knowledge; or words whose graphics are the same when the vowels are not written – such as عالم, which can mean ‘knower’ (‘alim) or ‘cosmos’ (‘alam); or words whose letters themselves (each one of which has not only a numerical value associated with it but also meanings of their own, such as ʿayn, which means the letter ع, eye, spring or source) provide them with other shades of meaning: so, you could say, عدم, meaning ‘non-existence’, is differentiated from ادم, Adam, by the ‘ayn that is his eye (and thus his all-important witnessing) and the Source that brought him into being.

    Everything in existence is, by Sufi logic, a sign of Allāh – including, of course, ourselves – so nothing is coincidental. All things and beings, events and non-events, are alive with meaning. Because Arabic evolved as a language for the purpose of receiving divine revelation, all of these little correlations are clues left for the careful observer to trip over, their faces lighting up with glee at what a gem was left lying around for anyone to find.

  One of these correlations dawned on me the other night, late, when my brain had slipped out of analytical, left-brain mode and into that dream-like, perceptive state usually populated (in my brain, at this hour) by complete gibberish.

  It was this: the verb سبح, which in form I means ‘to swim, to float’ and hence ‘to transcend’, and which in form II is translated as ‘to glorify, exalt, extol’ (as in the expression ‘سبحان الله’, translated as ‘Transcendent is Allāh’ or ‘Exalted is Allāh’), combines these two nuances for a very good reason.

  When we utter (or feel) the phrase ‘subḥān’Allāh’ – on seeing something extraordinary or astonishing, or realising something that inspires awe in us, or simply when recognising the incredible beauty, harmony, or logic of something – not only do we extol Allāh, but we transcend the mundane hamster-wheel of negativity that we wade through in our daily lives ourselves.

  So, while these clever little connections leap out at the word nerd and light them up like a Christmas tree, in fact everything has the ability to have that effect if we only paid enough attention to it – or, perhaps, the right kind of attention.

lenticular clouds, orgiva

  Which leads me to another little light-bulb that blinked on this week: that in order to become a friend of God (the term used in Arabic to mean a saint), perhaps what’s needed is to treat everything as a friend – loved ones, strangers, all creatures, nature, water, time, space… – because it all exists in and because of Divine Reality. It’s easy to make a big show of religion, to wear pious-looking gear and be kind to the poor and needy, and then snap at a child because they their need for breakfast does not coincide with my desire to get up and make it. What do you mean that’s not universal?

  Several of the Companions mentioned that they never saw anything but that they saw Allah in, behind, or with it. And a famous Sufi training story tells how a fish went swimming through the ocean, asking everyone where the water was. I might only taste a drop of it of this ocean, but it leaves me realising how thirsty I am for it.

*An aphorism of the Shadhili Sufi master Ibn ‘Ata’illah al-Iskandari reads: “States of need are like gift-laden carpets”. See also my previous post Song for the Crocodiles.

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Song for the Crocodiles

London, 27th August 2013

 

  Crouched among biodynamic farms an ancient coppiced woodlands, like a child suppressing laughter in a game of hide-and-seek, is the breathtakingly lovely Emerson College in Sussex, whose festival of storytelling ‘Everything Under the Sun’ took place over Bank Holiday weekend. Improv, world folk tales, listening for the story that is waiting to emerge from the most forgettable object – the experience was so light, shocking in the simpleness of its fun, it felt like it was changing my approach to writing with every minute that passed.

  Reflecting on it over the past few days, the shock lay in remembering how alive I feel in the making of a story, or the performing – the telling – of one. It is about as far removed from the illusion that fiction appears to be as a ship so far from shore that only the ocean can be seen. 

  It’s something I’ve struggled with a little over the years; Sufism has everything to do with reality, with freedom from illusion, but story-crafting seems to be all about dipping into the imagination and even – when it’s a really good – being lost in it. Wahm, vain fantasy or illusion, is spoken about in derogative terms; I have read several prayers seeking protection from it.

  Meanwhile, another question – interconnected to the previous one – has been on my mind, more and more over the last few years: how can a child be raised in such a way that s/he does not lose that wondrous state of openness, of sensitivity and play, that children gift us with – when we can stop our frenetic activity and enjoy it with them? Or, put differently, is it possible to bring up children in such a way that their instinctive trust, their belief in what they cannot see, remains undimmed without stunting their growth into adulthood?

Etching made by my sister Hanna Whiteman - see her website www.hannawhiteman.blogspot.co.uk

Etching made by my sister Hanna Whiteman – see her website http://www.hannawhiteman.blogspot.co.uk

  The two questions came together at this festival. Well-known for having a strong Waldorf connection (storytelling is central to Steiner school education), the storytellers showed me very plainly that adults do not have to lose that sense of wonderment and playfulness, can remain free-spirited and open without falling into silliness, vain fantasy, or the kind of wimpy escapism that often gets associated with alternative education (or, indeed, a certain breed of religionists).

  On the contrary; these were deeply wise people, not in the way you’d perhaps envision wisdom (no long wispy beards or monk hats), but in a way that was integrated into adult competence and confidence, our ability to organise and lead and teach. 

  The impression I had, particularly from a creative nature walk I took with Malcolm Greene, veteran storyteller and teacher at Emerson (and elsewhere), was of an adult who welcomed every new idea without criticising for the sake of being bigger than the one criticised – yet that didn’t mean he wouldn’t call out a clanger.

  I was astonished at my own amazement that this was possible. I wonder where I got the idea that adults had to be cynical, that without this ‘healthy’ cynicism they would come across as childish – by which, I regret to say, I mean pathetically weedy? Instead I felt completely respected, heard, ‘met’ as an adult, but the inner playfulness I hardly ever dared to let out (except while playing with my kids) was fully met, too.

  One of the exercises we did was to find an object in the woods we had walked to and turn it into a story. So a fern became the original Christmas tree for early British people, who were really very small, and who would gather together at ritual times and dance around the fern plant, kicking away the damp humus on the floor, eating the tiny white pearly mushrooms that were actually drops of elf milk that had spilt from hazelnut shells carried by mothers who had rushed too quickly to their children at night, while the amber beech leaf was in fact the lost earring of the gossamer lady of the lake (a crumpled spiderweb), who was coming to the dance and dropped it…

  There is a huge difference between thinking a story like this and making it up together with other adults, telling it excitedly in bursts as each one thinks of a new thread. We are kids again. It’s a new game. The feeling is wonderful; the adults in us are still there, providing us with thesaurus searches when we need a good word, but the playfulness is back and as vivid as it was when we were six. You inner child is alive and realer than you’d think.

  Which brings me back to the education question. What causes a child to shut off that vivid reality, in which anything could be anything else? Is it really as simple as using plastic toys, playing video games, or watching television, as many a Steiner school will tell you?

  I don’t think those things help, especially. But I think there is something we do as parents that is far more influential in this sense. We tell our children to stop being so silly.

  Remember that? “Don’t be ridiculous.” “Act your age” (a real dose of adult idiocy there). “Stop crying.” “Be a big boy.” Or even the unforgivably cruel, “Grow up.” Is that the example we were expected to grow up to be? 

  Quite apart from the damage done in negating the things pictured in the technicolour showstopper of a child’s imagination, I would like to point out that being silly is really very amusing. I have a friend who recently admitted that she has a photo from her wedding night in which she and her new husband posed as the freakish inbred villagers from the League of Gentlemen. I am unashamed to admit I do a lot of silly walks, dances, faces, gibberish invented songs, partly to distract my kids from incipient brat-outs, and partly just to get a laugh. It’s cheaper than putting a family through psychotherapy in years to come. I see it as a sound investment.

  Perhaps we are so keen to cut off the imaginative drive because of the fears that so often brew in the cauldron of that wildly creative brain. My kids have told me on countless occasions that there is a monster in the house. At some point, I stopped saying ‘Don’t be silly’, and started listening to them. 

  It was hard at first, remembering the fear that rises like floodwater at the thought of these perceptions; many times I have also felt the presence of something peculiar, or benign,  or even protective, or simply a being who is sitting on the sofa, keeping me company. At times the feeling is suffocating (the toilets at my best friend’s studio are definitely home to something creepy, I can almost feel it closing a hand over my throat; no surprise her 3 year old son says there’s an octopus in there). 

  It might be difficult to believe what I’m saying; we’ve all been given so much conditioning that monsters don’t really exist in the closet, there are no crocodiles under the bed, nothing is looking in the window at night…yet horror films love to play on these fears, and if you remember being a child, I can guarantee you can remember the chill you felt of lying alone in a dark room, or going to the bathroom at night, or going into the garden at night – why was it always at night?

  Let me tell you story now, and you can choose to believe it or not. Last night, I was working on a translation. It was a book by Ibn ‘Arabi, the great 13th century scholar and mystic of Murcia, Al-Andalus. (I was working on the Spanish to English; it has already been translated from Arabic to Spanish).

  Something about translating a person’s words immediately makes me feel their presence. Sometimes it happens when reading their work, but often writers have been so edited, or were writing in such a detached way, that their essence doesn’t come across well at all. But translating a classical manuscript has a different feeling to it. It’s difficult, clumsy; often you feel you are blundering around in the dark.

Andalusian mystic and author, 1165-1240 CE

Andalusian mystic and author, 1165-1240 CE

  And out of the dark loom figures. I’m not sure if it is the spirit of the writer, or some other being come to help you work it out. But when I turned off the computer at 1.30 am, and went to pray before bed, there were people sitting on the sofa. They had their hands on their knees. I would say they were probably men, though gender didn’t have anything to do with it. They were aware of me. One of them, I felt, could have been Ibn ‘Arabi, summoned to help put me on track with this mind-numbingly difficult translation.

  It’s happened a few times recently, particularly during Ramadan, when I was often up in the night at strange hours praying. You might say it was a hallucination brought on by lack of sleep. I’ve slept much less and still not hallucinated, and in any case, there was nothing visual there – which is precisely what answered my question about imagination.

  There is a vision in the head, and a vision in the heart. Rarely do the twain meet – at least in the daytime, when there is enough light to distract the eyes of the head and so much activity for it to be getting on with. The heart’s vision usually takes a back seat – unless you make an effort to be reminded of it, or you are of a highly intuitive nature (in which case it can be paralysing).

  At night, when this intuitive state returns to many of us, especially children, those entities that we are too busy to notice in the daytime start to demand our attention. (You might want to call them energies, if that takes away the creepiness factor for you.) 

  But a while ago I realised that addressing my children’s fears directly, not by declaring those entities as non-existent but by calmly accepting their perception of them and offering them some practical way to deal with them, helps them cope with their fears without shutting off their heart’s vision. So we blow raspberries at monsters, shoo them out by shaking towels, make lots of noise, tell them to go home, sing songs loudly about how we’ll chop them up and put them in a peppery soup, squirt water at them, close curtains and light nightlights, sweep dusty neglected underbeds and air out stuffy wardrobes and bathrooms.

  The head doesn’t want to accept the possibility of these entities existing, partly because it doesn’t want the competition of the heart’s vision (heads are territorial like that), and partly because it just doesn’t have any way of dealing with it – which really is terrifying. How does the rational mind come up with a solution for an intuitive problem?

  You have to revert to play to find the solution. You have to go back into the child’s space of anything being possibly anything else to come up with the next page of the story, the next event. Sometimes it will seem quite crazy. Other times there will be so much wisdom to it your jaw will drop at your child’s perspicacity. 

  Cavegirl, who is now 3, remarked to me the other day, while I was on the computer sending emails, “Mummy, wake up!” I replied, “I am awake!” to which she said, “No. You’re asleep”.

  A commentary of technology’s habit of disconnecting us from other people aside, that showed me how well her heart vision was integrated with her head vision – as, I suppose, all children’s must be, up to a certain age. She described me as she saw me – yet she knew I was not literally asleep, because I was sitting up in a chair, typing. But I may as well have been. My heart-light was switched off, and only head activity remained. I was, to her, in a different world, detached from the reality she perceived. I certainly wasn’t sensing the presence of night visitors then, I can tell you. 

  In story, the two visions, heart and head, converge. Head is there offering adjectives, guiding story arcs, planning ahead a little, reminding not to waffle. But heart has taken centre stage. Heart is on the stage in fact, dressed in wild batiks with a staff in hand, enthralling the page with visions that may or may not ever have been but feel real – and that is true enough.

  When fears emerge, whether your child’s or yours, story offers access to your intuitive ability to problem-solve in the non-physical realm, where there certainly are crocodiles under your bed – or something that only the word ‘crocodiles’ can adequately describe. Write the crocodiles a letter to tell them to go away (politely – you don’t want to get them annoyed). Sing them a song, or play a tune on a penny whistle, à la the Pied Piper of Hamlin, and lead them out the front door (locking it shut afterwards). Send in a team of pirhanas to devour them…I don’t know, they’re your crocodiles, you make it up. (Add them in the comments when they seem to work!)

  Most of the time, it makes you laugh to play out these solutions, which itself acts as a detergent to fear. And the side-effect of getting rid of a crocodile infestation is appreciating those protectors, teachers, guards who appear when you need them. 

  Why is it always at night? Because that’s when the stories emerge from their dens.