THE MYSTIC PEN
Sacred Spaces:Lecture 1
On a bitterly cold, windy spring day in 1992, during her final semester at Harvard, Dr. Annemarie Schimmel gave the second in a series of lectures to an audience of rapt students. It is one of my favorites, as her talk stands to be a true testament of a lifetime of scholarly wisdom brilliantly compressed into a mere hour. Wisdom that could easily be understood by students coming from varying backgrounds and sometimes divergent walks of religious life. As Annemarie relates, in the end all religious streams lead the seeker to the same ocean.
My transcription is a literal one with commas being placed where she paused, took a breath, or drank some water (as she audibly did in the water section!). For ease of reading, I have divided the lecture into four sections according to the topic at hand and placed a heading above each. I have also taken the liberty of inserting images where I felt it enriched the mood of the text.
For those readers who are already familiar with her speaking style, I hope that through this transcription you will be transported back in time to that large, old wood-laden room in the back of Sever Hall, and to a soft-spoken female professor who never entered the hall before the appointed time, but chose to sit outside by the door on the edge of a long wooden bench shrouded by a thick veil of eager students. You might even recall the creaking floorboards that shifted under the weight of our feet as we all hurried to find a seat. But most of all, you might recall how much we learned that semester from this wise professor as she taught us in her signature style…from the inside out.
-Harvard University, Spring Semester 1992
Transcription of Lecture Number I-
The Phenomenology of Islam
…Last time, we were speaking about the way, how in some of the very old cultic objects, the objects of veneration, people from times immemorial began to see some power, some manna as we call it, something that was higher than their understanding.
And it’s natural that they should have concentrated, for instance, on stones, in bizarre shapes or just because of their strength and their apparent eternal durability.
And so the stone has been taken over into almost every religion in some way or the other, and I mentioned the great importance of stone cult among the Semitic people and particularly with great importance of stones in the Islamic rites, the Ka‘bah, the black stone in the Ka‘bah, but also the custom of throwing seven stones three times at a certain place during the pilgrimage.
The same that can be said about the stones can be said in a much smaller way about earth. The earth, always a maternal, I can’t say deity, but the maternal principle in life, occurs also in its own sacred way in Islamic customs. And I mentioned that, for instance, the earth of sacred places such as Mecca, Medina, and especially in Shi‘a Islam of the martyr places, Najaf and Karbala’, is being used for purposes of healing or for prayer beads or for prayer slates on which the praying person puts his or her forehead.
And even the ancient idea of the sacred marriage here of Gamat, of ancient people, occurs once or twice, it occurs particularly in Maulana Rumi’s poetry where he sees himself and the earth as the beloved and the sky. And we have also to think of the Qur’anic idea that women are like a field, which is, of course, a spiritualization of the old idea of the earth.
For countries in the Middle East, the concept of water is, of course, extremely important. And the Qur’an states that God made everything alive from the water. And this word has formed a very important cornerstone in Islamic thought. Water is really the element out of which everything becomes alive. And, for this reason, the sacred springs and sacred rivers play a great role in the Islamic tradition, especially in folk Islam.
It is an old, ancient idea that fountains are usually thought of being feminine or being inhabited by feminine deities or spirits. The same idea can be encountered in Arabic folk literature. For instance, most of the springs in Jordan and Syria are considered to be feminine; only the salty ones are masculine, and Arab women would go there to bathe in the hope of producing a child. So these old ideas are very well preserved in folk Islam.
The whole concept of the sacred water, finds in Islam its most poetical expression in the concept of “the water of life,” which, according to tradition, is found in the darkness. And a “khidr,” the spirit, who is connected with greenery, is the guide to this water of life (pours a glass of water). And so he has become a kind of saint who guides the thirsty and erring, wanton seeker toward his goal.
This concept of “the water of life” permeates, for instance, oriental poetry. We find that is true time and again in Arabic. But even more in Persian, Turkish, Urdu and its related poetry. It is always connected with a search for something that lies at the end of a very long and difficult road. Which brings us, as we shall see later on, to the concept of pilgrimage and search.
The two wells, or the well at the Ka’bah, the Zamzam, is supposed to have miraculous powers, and, according to some folk ideas, the water of the Zamzam was filled once in a year, namely in Muharram, the first month of the Muslim year, by all waters in the world to sanctify them. That is an idea, which was first found in India.
But, according to other traditions…there is an old legend that I heard in Turkey: When the Byzantine Emperor built the Aya Sophia, the greatest mosque of Constantinople, they could not build the dome, the dome would crumble time and again. It was just impossible to construct it. And then they had an inspiration to send people out to Arabia and these people came back with clay from Mecca and with water from the Zamzam, and they brought it together and thanks to these two sacred items, the dome of the Aya Sophia could be constructed.
I think it is a very interesting ideological legend of how a Christian monument was, originally, according to Muslim folk belief, brought into existence thanks to the sacred quality of the water and the clay of Mecca.
The whole imagery of water is, of course, connected with paradise. Paradise is a place under which rivers flow, but it is also connected with the idea of the ocean. Just as in very early religions, the ocean, the primordial ocean, is the material out of which everything created finally emerges, or upon which the spirit of God covers. Especially the Sufis have seen God being the divine unique being and the great green ocean out of which the creatures emerge like waves or like foam flakes.
You have that in many ideas of great mystics like Ibn ‘Arabi (1165-1240), but also beautifully expressed in several poems by Rumi who has a great vision of this ocean out of which all the foam flakes appear and it was easy then that, especially for the mystics, that to see every thing in this world as being as ephemeral as foam flakes on the ocean; just appearing for one moment so that, as the Qur’an says, the world is decked out fair, and then again disappearing in the depths of the pre-eternal and eternal ocean.
And when you see God, or the divine being, under the image of an ocean, then you can also see why there is specific importance to rivers. Its not only the great rivers which we know in geography who are carrying some sacred qualities, but as early as in the tenth century a Shi‘a theologian, Qulini (al-Qulini, d.939 AD), has compared the Prophet to a mighty river that comes and carries everything with him to end finally, in the divine ocean.
And it is highly interesting, that nearly 900 years later, our German poet Goethe (Johann Wolfgang,1749-1832) has written a poem, which was known as ‘Mahomet’s Gesang,’ “song of Muhammad.” It was basically conceived as part of a drama on the Prophet and on the dialogue between his daughter Fatima and her husband Ali, and there Goethe compared the Prophet of Islam to a river which comes out from a very small fountain and grows and carries away with him everything it encounters and takes in itself all the different rivers and rivulets and brooks and brooklets and brings them in triumph back to the father, The Ocean.
Of course Goethe had no idea of Qulini’s idea (with excitement)…but it shows that this feeling (with emphasis) – that the Prophet is a kind of river that brings humanity back to the Divine Ocean- is something innate in the human soul. And in our century, the iIndo-Muslim poet, Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938), has taken as his pen name, Iqbal-i-Laturi, the living tree, because he too felt that it was his duty to bring the Muslims back to the origin of Islam, to the divine ocean.
And if the Prophet could be seen as a river, he could be also seen as rain. When I lived in Turkey, I came to Konya and an old woman asked me, “Ankara da rahmat var mi? “is there mercy in Ankara?”
And I was of course flabbergasted. I didn’t know what to answer, and then I learned that’s “rahmat,” mercy in Turkish and in the other languages, in popular parlance means rain, because rain is seen as mercy. And from this viewpoint, we understand why the poets, especially in the eastern Islamic world, have often called the Prophet rain or rain cloud because in the Qur’an it says that he came “rahmatan bil ‘alamin,” as mercy for the world.
And so, just as rain quickens the dead earth and makes flowers and grass grow out of it – that’s the word of the Prophet – it quickens the dead heart. And so, the comparison is absolutely logical. And we have also to think of the common idea that the rain drops come out of the ocean, travel to the clouds, then come back to the ocean and if they are lucky they find an oyster in which they can become a pearl. So the development of the human soul can be very wealthy under the development of the little drops that comes from the ocean, then stays for sometime in the clouds, comes back and either is submerged completely in the ocean to become one with it, or else finds an oyster and becomes a precious jewel, which it would never have done without this spiritual journey.
And especially the raindrops in April are considered to be extremely important in this respect. We have in Turkey, for instance, big beautiful bezels called nisan yagmurlari ‘the April rains’ in which the drops of April rain were kept and used for blessing purposes. All these things belong to the idea of the sacred water.
But it is interesting to see that Islamic tradition, contrary to, for instance, many of the Indo-Germanic traditions and other religious cults, gives very little room to the symbolism and to the whole imagery of fire. Fire is usually connected with hellfire and as such it occurs, of course, very frequently in the Qur’an and in stories in Hadith and so on and so forth.
However, the divine fire – as it showed itself to Moses on Mount Sinai – occurs only comparatively rarely. And in poetry it can be used as a symbol for a radiant red flower. But, on the whole, the fire sphere is much less developed in Islamic iconography, if we can call it like that and its symbolism, than the watery sphere.
The only exceptions are two images, which can be found from early times onward in mainly the mystical tradition. One is the idea of the iron in fire. Those of you who have worked a little bit on Christian mysticism know that in many traditions in Christianity from origin onward, the transformation of man into the divine is seen as a transformation of a lot of iron, which is put in the fire and looks exactly like fire without however loosing its iron qualities.
This is an image, which is known all through early Christian mysticism and theology. It is also known in India. And in Islam, we have a long passage in Rumi’s Mathnavi in which he describes the deification of the mystic in the image of the iron in fire. The iron thinks it is fire itself, but still it maintains its original quality. And so the human being, as long as he or she is sticking to his material attributes, can never become completely deified. This is one great sphere of fire mysticism and fire imagery in Islam.
On the other hand, we have something that is well known, probably to all of you…an idea that was elaborated first by the great martyr mystic Hallaj (858-922) in the early tenth century, but which permeates poetry and poetical imagery to this day. It is the idea that the divine fire devours everything – God can be seen as a fire – and the soul, like a moth, casts itself into this fire. It is attracted first by the beautiful view of the flame, then by the heat of the flame, and finally, it wants to be unified with this flame and find its death and at the same time its life on a higher level, by casting itself in the flame.
But these two aspects of fire imagery, and the idea that God is fire are rather acclimated in some sense in the whole Islamic world, which is interesting. Because, after all, when you go to Germanic or to Indian imagery, and to the importance that fire has in those traditions, then you see the difference. Part of the fire imagery is out of the lightening which again does not play a predominate role only in later poetry the lightening is seen as the fire that releases the fiery elements from the straw by burning it.
But, very fitting for today is how the wind is used in the Islamic tradition. When I came here to class I felt like one of the infidel people, ‘Ad and Thamud, who were extinguished by an icy wind.
This is a typical Qur’anic expression, and the word for the icy wind, “sarsar,” has become a commonplace for the destructive force of this wind. And so, when you go out in Harvard Yard, you think of sarsar and its cruelty.
But the wind is, of course, not only cruel, as it has shown here in these Qur’anic examples, the wind can also be very beneficent, and especially if it’s a breeze that comes, as the tradition says, from Yemen, from Southern Arabia. The breeze, from Southern Arabia, has become in parlance from early times onward the image for the Divine Grace. The reason for that is that the Prophet said one day, so it is told, ‘I feel the Nafas ar-Rahman, the breath of the Merciful, coming to me from Yemen.’
The reason was that in Yemen, there was a very tired man who certainly was a Muslim of …lectures so to speak and who never met Muhammad but was noted for his piety. The Nafas ar-Rahman, the breath of the merciful, is always mentioned when the writers want to allude to some divine breeze, for instance the spring breeze, which helps the buds to open, the breeze that makes the grass move, the breeze that brings all kinds of wonderful fragrance just as it is imagined to be in paradise.
So we have really these two aspects of the wind, the destructive cold wind by which the infidels are killed, and the life-giving breeze. And here you have one thing, which you should always keep in mind when talking about the whole approach to phenomenology in Islam: Almost everything can be seen from two sides.
The water is beneficent. It is the water of life, but it can also be the torrent that destroys everything. And whosoever has traveled in the Middle East and has seen how, really, in a few minutes a dry wadi can be filled with water, roaring water, knows how dangerous water can be.
The same is true for the wind. It can show God’s Jalal side, the tremendum, and it can show his Jamal side, the most beautiful thing. And if you keep this in mind, then the ambivalence of many expressions become clear to you and I think will be more easy to understand.
But besides all these phenomena, which we just mentioned, there is one thing that is much more central to Islamic thought, in general, and that is the concept of light.
‘God is the light of heavens and earth,’ said the Qur’an in Sura 24:35. And the expression, Nur ‘ala Nur,” “light upon light,’ is used to show the fulfillment, the fullness of the luminous experience. It is natural that the interpreters of the Qur’an have seen in that light, which is like in a niche, as an allusion to the Prophet who is sent to illuminate the world.
He is “sirajun munirun,” as the Qur’an says, “an illuminated lamp.” And it was only a short step to interpret this as his being an absolutely luminous being. Those of you who have read, at least superficially, some Islamic texts or historical texts will know that there is a beautiful prayer by the Prophet or ascribed to him: The prayer for light, “God make me light, put light on my head, light in my eyes, light in my mouth, so that the whole body should be filled with light.” And numberless people have followed the Prophet in using this prayer.
But mystical tradition immediately begins to transform the Prophet himself into light – he doesn’t ask for shade – and more than that, he was, according to some strands in mystical theology, created out of the divine light in pre-eternal times. He was there as a column of light out of which, then, the world appeared. And the idea that all the Prophets carried a luminous substance in them occurs rather early in Islamic theology.
This luminous substance appeared on the forehead of ‘Abd Allah (bin Al-Muttalib), the father of the Prophet, and was then given to him… taken over by Amina (bint Wahb) the mother of the Prophet when she got married to him. And this luminous substance, according to Shi‘a theology, lives in the Shi‘a Imam and has illuminated them throughout the centuries.
So this idea of the constant inheritance of a divinely inspired or even divine light is commonplace, particularly in Shi‘a theology. And the idea that the Prophet himself is a model of such a light is, of course, quite natural. And in this connection we have to remember that in most religions the birth of the founder – or the most important event in the history of a religion – is generally seen as a light filled event. You know that in our Christmas tradition, the lights…the great star that filled the world, the light in Bethlehem on the one hand, the birth of Zoroaster in the Iranian tradition… everything is connected with a manifestation of light.
And so it’s not surprising, that a story that tells of the birth of the Prophet Muhammad also uses this idea: When he was born, the world was filled up with light and his mother could see from Mecca to the castles of Busra in Syria, because everything was filled with this light.
In a parallel tradition, as I said, its not only the birth of the founder of a religion that is covered with light, rather it is also the moment of what we may call the covenant. It is typical that the Laylat al-Qadr, the night at the end of the month of Ramadan when the Qur’an was first revealed, is supposed to be filled with light. And many pious people through the centuries have waited in prayer and meditation and seclusion to see this light in the night of twenty-seventh of Ramad?an. And some of them, where our legends tell us, were blessed with such a view. Because the parallels between the night when the founder of a religion is born and the night when the first revelation comes is very clear. And because, as we shall see later on in more detail, for the Muslim it’s really the Qur’an, as a manifestation of God, that is the center of the faith and so its first revelation is exactly as luminous as is the birth of founders of other religions.
This is something we should always keep in mind. The central place of light, of God as the light of heavens and earth in the Qur’an, has led to whole systems of illumination.
The great Sufi, Suhrawardi, who was killed in 1191 in Aleppo, has developed his whole mystical philosophy as a philosophy of light. Light for him is equal to existence, and the divine light comes down through ranges and rows of angels until it finally reaches the human beings.
And in the journey from ‘al-Dhulumat ’ila an-Nur,’ as it is often called in the Qur’an, God will lead people from the darkness to the light. It is a topic, which was then mystically interpreted in Suhrawardi’s tales in which the soul comes out from the wells, the dark city of Qaywan, and finally reaches the land of spiritual light that is Yemen.
Henry Corbin, in his book ‘Homme de Lumière Dans le Soufisme Iranien,’ has dwelled upon this journey toward the light and the subsequent becoming light of the seeker who step by step looses his material qualities and is finally completely transformed into a luminous being. And this kind of mystical interpretation is found in later centuries as well, which is very natural, it just offers itself to every thinking person.
To be Continued…
Phoenix Ancient Art: for their generosity in allowing us to publish two of their images online. Please go to: phoenixancientart.com to view their outstanding collection of ancient antiquities.
Dr. Carol Armstrong: Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, for generously allowing us to use her images online.
Dr. Alma Giese: for providing assistance and support where needed.
Ms. Feride Hatbogolu: assistance with Turkish expressions.
Dr. Gudrun Schubert: University of Basel, University Library, Islamic Department, Basel, Switezerland: for providing a wonderful image from the library archives and for clarification on Turkish expressions where needed.
Katherine is the host of the Mystic Pen Series. She holds an undergraduate degree from Berklee College of Music and a graduate degree from Harvard University. Her research interests are focused on both the significance and the impact of the aural and visual in cultures and societies around the world (as told through art and music) along with the nature of artistic creation itself. Her area of specialty is the transmission of Near Eastern motifs in Italian art.
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