Ruminations of a Sufi Master

Sufism is a means of focussing away from the commonplace, and the temporal, and transcending oneself as a means of encountering unity with God.

The absolute otherness of God is central to the Sufi approach. While humankind may perceive, comprehend and aspire to the attributes of God; such as Justice, Truth, Love and Mercy, the Essence of God is unknowable through the usual human means of knowing. This unknowability is the realm which Sufis endeavour to inhabit; the way of mystery and wonder. For Sufis the material world is a manifestation of God therefore all nature is imbued with the Divine while having its own temporal existence. God is the Prime Mover, the Progenitor and yet transcends space and time.  This is far from being a cause for humanity feeling abandoned by God in creation, rather a spur to search for the means by which we may glimpse the essence of the Creator through devotional practice, study and opening the heart and mind to a higher level of enlightenment. Such a life committed to seeking God is of necessity all-consuming. Religious language, practice and ethics draw us near to the Divine but the way of the Sufi is beyond traditional confessional faith structures and institutions; it is the way of the mystic, the spiritual pilgrim who is longing and striving to experience God is a way beyond knowing.

This God, who is the beginning and the end of all existence, is also the author of all existence so we, as humankind, are ourselves manifestations of God. Such an elevated view of humanity is a source of hope for a human universalism; if all could recognise our essential oneness with each other all ethnic, gender, religious or ideological differences would melt away. The Sufi is in this sense the vanguard of a New Humanity.

All world religions are subject to the limitations of their projections of God and God’s purposes. These projections are often based upon fear rather than love hence the tendency to binary opposites: Heaven and Hell, Good and Evil, Sinner and Saved etc.  These are well meant but are misconceptions; they detract from the Ultimate search for God and leave us in half-way state of comprehension and understanding. The Sufi pursues the essence of God and conceives it obliquely through the Beautiful and the Good; all that is life giving and life enhancing in the world. The Sufi is a practitioner of love in this world as their identity rests not upon any human esteem but on the deep understanding that they are loved by God in a reciprocal relationship of lover and loved.

“Soul, if you want to learn secrets, your heart must forget about shame and dignity. You are God’s lover…” Rumi

The above reflections on Sufism were penned by Rev Larry Wright, Convenor of the Religious Affairs Advisory Group, following an evening in discussion with Ayatollah Safavi, a man who radiates the calm, intelligent, enlightened personae of a dedicated and seasoned devotee. As a Sufi master he commands the respect and admiration not only of his followers but of people of good will from other faiths and none. As an Iranian he embodies the traditions of Persian and Shia Islamic culture with their poetic imagination and natural wonder.

Safavi shared his discourse  on the Sufi approach to The Divine, the Ultimate Cause;  God for some, Allah for others.  He began with a meditative chant or mantra which is part of his daily practice for centring his being and mind upon God.  Such practice is indication of the highly prayerful and mystical nature of Sufism.

 

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Regarding Barcelona

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The latest atrocity visited upon innocent civilians on a summer’s day in Spain follows a now, sadly, familiar pattern of events. The callous running down of anyone in the way of a death dealing vehicle is followed by frantic attempts by the authorities to contain the perpetrators and end their murderous intent by all means possible, often by lethal force.  ISIS (Daesh) are anxious to claim such incidents as their own –  though a direct link may be unproven – they are without doubt  the bitter fruit of their pernicious and doomed ideology. After each such outrage certain questions linger and their solution seems as elusive as ever. Why do young men (and sometimes women) from similar backgrounds enrol themselves in the destructive and blood thirsty claims and actions of ISIS (Daesh)? What do they hope to gain from such atrocities which in further their cause or beliefs?  As the perpetrators are often killed or kill themselves during such terrorist acts what is their personal belief of their future beyond death?  It may give some comfort to imagine these acts of terrorism are also acts of desperation as the adherents of extremist forms of Jihadism see their illusion of an earthly Caliphate, formed in their own image, receding with every military defeat in Iraq and Syria.

If these are acts of desperation then the source of that desperation is not only political and ideological, it is also spiritual. To have ones dreams, beliefs and aspirations for the dawning of a new age of certainty and authoritarianism based upon Islamic principles (however distorted), with ISIS at the vanguard,  widely discredited  and disowned among your co-religionists and see the vanguard systematically defeated is a bitter, and for some, unbearable experience of downfall.  Towards the end of World War Two a number of SS officers committed suicide rather than surrender and the Kamikaze pilots off the Japanese Imperial Army were similarly intent upon death rather than dishonour. If your ideology is one where honour rather than shame and guilt is a core element of your culture then what are your options when facing the defeat and humiliation of your dreams?

For those committing these atrocities lines have been crossed: from idealism to nihilism, from belief in a paradisiacal earthly future to a death fixation and from utopia to dystopia. History recounts the crossing of these lines leads to a narrowing of options for the ‘believer’; death or glory. But it is a glorification of the self rather than the cause. Such terrorists are engaging in a monumental act of self-centred narcissistic nihilism which is neither martyrdom nor sacrifice as they are not directly persecuted and no one benefits from their death. By choosing to die after murdering the maximum number of innocent people they are reinforcing the dysfunctional and doomed nature of their cause.

Does this analysis give us any cause for comfort? No. Such extremes of individualism have their roots in the Western discourse which for 300 years sought to delineate the needs of the individual over the anonymity of the whole and the authority of the state; faith – at best – providing a moderating influence on both. But where is faith now? Whither the institutions which endeavour to mediate the divine will to the masses while conscious of their own shortcomings? Alongside the narcissistic nihilism of the current cohort of terrorists is a spiritual emptiness at the heart of many nations and peoples, an emptiness being filled by a range of quasi religio-politico causes bearing little or no resemblance to the God of Love and Mercy many millions still worship in one form or another.

 Fr Larry Wright, Religious Affairs Advisory Group, London,

August 2017.

Building a Better World

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Father Larry Wright (pictured centre above), Religious Affairs Advisor at the Next Century Foundation, speaking at the Aramea Foundation:

The blade the bullet and the bomb know no morality, they have one purpose only, to kill and injure. Those who wield these weapons of destruction have choices; they are moral beings who have chosen the way of violence. This choice is informed by their beliefs and their beliefs informed by their chosen cause or ideology; or both.

If choosing the way of violence is based upon an extreme ideology then they have adopted an uncompromising  view of the world and how it should be ordered which requires them, and their co-believers, to spare nothing or no one in pursuit of their ultimate aims; barbarity is unleased, violence spirals and any semblance of humanity abandoned; they appropriate for themselves the appearance of an irresistible force. However, as in the paradoxical proposition “What will happen if an irresistible force meets and immoveable object?” nothing in nature is absolutely irresistible and nothing is absolutely immovable. In the gritty realties of power struggles action and reaction happen by degrees and each mirrors the worst aspects of the other and thus violence breeds violence “Those who live by the sword, die by the sword.” (From the Christian Gospel)

Am I describing Daesh? I could also be describing Cromwell’s Model Army in the England of 1640s or Facist regimes in Europe in the 1930s and 40s. All believed themselves invincible all were ultimately vanquished. Their legacy was and is more violence. Violence breeds violence.

(Quote) “The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy, instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that”. Martin Luther King Jnr

Plato said, “Only the dead have seen the end of war.”

Violence breeds violence and its siblings are: vengeance, reprisal and retaliation. Governments, as well as individuals, adopt these siblings and unleash them at will.  To break the spiral of violence we must contend with these forces of vengeance and violence at their root cause.

All wars end. Either through attrition, intervention, diplomacy or capitulation conflicts cease. But the end of conflict is rarely the beginning of a sustainable peace; too often the end of fighting is merely the impression of peace when in reality it is an armed truce vacillating between possible futures.

For years, America the UK and their allies have appropriated to themselves the mantle of a global, interventionist morality. This policy has been seen by many as either little too late or at worst disastrous for all concerned. For the first time in modern history the consequence of this deeply flawed morality has brought the victims of intervention, in seemingly overwhelming numbers, onto their shores and into their streets. Traumatised, at times half dead, physically and psychologically scarred, starving and despairing they are as much the West’s casualties as any of our armed forces killed or injured in recent wars. Violence breeds violence.

From the violence suffered by traumatised refugees coming to our shores, a new violent reaction is being embodied in the resurgence of reactionary, populist political forces in America, Europe and elsewhere. The populist slogans they scream and chant are a repudiation of the so called liberal, democratic values which have dominated international discourse since 1989. These new forces are indifferent or opposed to any assertion of international morality. They will use violence (rhetorically and actual) to secure their nation’s borders, engender a patriotic siege mentality and practice isolationism from global intervention; rather than try and do intervention better they prefer not to do it at all.

In the Levant, Western influence has waned and is seen as fatally flawed, other regional powers have filled the vacuum  but they have historical and ideological agendas which are inimical to the West.

The West, meanwhile, is verging on economic bankruptcy; the UN is also deprived of funds and in thrall to the Security Council, the new American regime is inexperienced and lacks credibility and Europe is fragmenting as a political project. Western intervention seems to be reduced to targeted military strikes in the Levant and anxiety about trade deals elsewhere. The West seems gripped by a moral inertia. So from where will arise new energy for global conciliation and rapprochement come? Russia, China, Turkey, India? Are we in a diplomatic winter?

(Quote from Quran)  “There is no good in most of their secret talks save (except) (in) him who orders Sadaqah (charity in Allah’s Cause), or Maa‘roof (Islamic Monotheism and all the good and righteous deeds which Allah has ordained), or conciliation between mankind; and he who does this, seeking the good Pleasure of Allah, We shall give him a great reward” (Quran, Surah An-Nisaa, 114)

If the Great Reward goes to the conciliators of this world (“Blessed are the Peace makers” Quote from Christian scriptures ) then we need an uprising of peacemakers and an army of reconcilers. (The Aramea Foundation, The Next Century Foundation, Initiatives of Change?). We need a coalition of the willing who will work tirelessly and sacrificially for Peace; demanding a renewal of ethically based foreign policies, a renewal of internationalism, reaching out to enemies and bringing light to the darkest places.

As a person of faith I know faith’s shortcomings but I also know its power to inspire and transform lives and situations and to give vision and hope to humanity in its days of darkness:  “To turn spears into pruning hooks and where people will study war no more” (Quote from Jewish Scriptures).

Faith must play a significant role in post conflict Syria and Iraq, Syria and Iraq will also need all the goodwill that can be mustered and a Marshall type plan of economic and civic reconstruction unprecedented in modern times. This is the cost of the West’s repentance and the East’s intransigence and the Middle East’s incoherence.

Within any plans for the possible futures in the war torn areas of the Levant, their must be a plan for  the future of Jerusalem, that city set on a hill which is the rallying point for so much human longing for God.

May we find new hope, new vision and new determination to shape a future where it is not the dead who see an end to war, but the living.

London

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The following statement, which we have paraphrased slightly but which we endorse, was issued by Seyed Sadreddin Safavi of the International Peace Studies Centre in condemnation of the terrorist attacks in Manchester and London (to view the original statement in full click here):

The recent barbaric terrorist attacks in London and Manchester are the work of inhumane individuals. These acts of terror by individuals masquerading as Muslims, are against the very letter and spirit of the Qur’an and Islamic law. In Islamic law neither in peace nor war, is it permissible to kill civilians, or cause terror and chaos in society. Their crime is a crime against humanity.

We are filled with sorrow and grief for the victims of these heinous crimes, and honor the men and women in uniform who risk their lives in combating these heinous acts of terror, and admire the cohesion and spirit of unity in British society who do not give in to terror, and answer the terrorist call for division, chaos and hate, with unity, order and love.

The Muslim community in Britain and across Europe must rise up against the savagery perpetuated by those who claim to be Muslim but their actions reveal their evil nature.

  1. First, Peace loving Muslim communities must vocally condemn these acts, and vocally and in action oppose those who support the cancer of terror that has spread across the globe by Wahabbism.
  2. Second, Muslim communities must take back the mosques in their local area from the preachers of hate who poison the mind of our youth.
  3. Third, as a community we must use social media to combat the campaign of hate and terror of Daesh (ISIS) and like minded groups.

Our social media campaign must work on two general fronts:

First to promote the true Islam, which is the Islam of peace and dialogue, the Islam of stability and respect for differences of opinion, and teach our youth that the savage ideology of Daesh and all those who support it or hold the same world view is opposed to Islam and condemned by Islamic law and the majority of Muslims. To do this the works of Muslim thinkers in the West such as Professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr is of great use and benefit.

Second, Daesh and its followers aim to divide our communities across Britain, they aim to cause an atmosphere of Islamophobia and hate, we must confront this in our social media campaign and inform our fellow citizens in Europe that we stand side by side in opposing these barbaric terrorist movements and acts.

We will stand united in the face of terror, we will say no to hate, and we will defeat the ideology of hate which has taken the lives of thousands of individuals from all walks of life and all faiths across the globe.

by Seyed Sadreddin Safavi

Manchester

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It was with profound sadness that we heard the news of the Manchester bombing. This act of cruelty was all the more atrocious because it deliberately targeted the young and vulnerable.

Those who set themselves apart by committing acts of extreme brutality, and those who support them, have often been warned of the consequences of their actions.

Violence spawns violence.

Anger spawns anger.

Hate spawns hate.

Our response, however, will be different. We cherish our values. We stand for compassion. We stand for sincerity. We stand for loyalty. We stand for hope. We stand for an inclusive society rather than a small minded world based on exclusivity. We stand with all of good heart. We stand together, strengthened, not cowed, by this piteous act.

This act redoubles our resolve to protect our vulnerable, most particularly the very young and the very old, the weak and the dispossessed – And to prevent them from all harm. And in so doing build a world founded on love and fellowship and complete freedom from fear.

ANSWERING EUROPE’S MIGRANT CRISIS

John Bond of Initiatives of Change writes:

A million migrants reached Europe last year from the Middle East and Africa, half of them from Syria. A million more are expected this year. This will not stop until peace prevails in Syria and Iraq. People fleeing for their lives do not obey border controls.

We Europeans need to do all we can to resolve the conflict. And we need to care for the refugees.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has set the lead, and many Germans have responded wholeheartedly. Other countries have dragged their feet, not least Britain. This is shameful. We led the invasion of Iraq along with the USA, and the ineptitude of our post-invasion policies are a major cause of the war from which the refugees are fleeing. More than any other European country, Britain has a moral obligation to care for them, and we are shirking that responsibility.

In so doing, we are missing a vital opportunity. Because refugees are not just victims, they are potential peacemakers. In many countries, returning refugees have played a significant role in developing structures capable of maintaining peace. Europe, after centuries of war, has had a large measure of peace for 70 years, and the lessons we have learned can advance peace on other continents. Here Syrians can gain insight into what it takes to enable a multicultural society to function harmoniously. Many of them will return when conditions improve. We can help them return with a greater understanding of how to work for a governance which serves all citizens.

We need to offer this help because of our history. A century ago Britain and France grabbed the territory of the defeated Ottoman Empire and divided it up, creating Syria and Iraq. In Britain’s case, to ensure a supply of oil. There was no thought of creating coherent nation states whose peoples could live in harmony with each other. And we British promised the same land to different peoples. The region has been paying the price of our duplicity and short-sightedness ever since. As the British Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, said in 2002, Britain’s record in the region is ‘not entirely honourable’.

He spoke with British understatement. If we ask why such a destructive organisation as ISIS attracts thousands to its ranks, one answer is to look at the decades of humiliation of the peoples of the region. As psychologist Evelin Lindner has said, humiliation is the ‘nuclear bomb of feelings’. We British cannot deny that we have helped cause the explosion of anger and hate we see in ISIS, and the resultant flow of migrants. If we recognise this, we will then be able to develop policies which unite British of all backgrounds in tackling extremism, rather than policies which do the opposite because they stigmatise Muslims for our misdeeds.

Much of this also applies to our record in Africa. For several centuries Europeans have exploited Africa – taking slaves, minerals, oil, agricultural products, fish, and giving little in return. African diseases receive inadequate attention until they affect richer nations. Weak African governance is tolerated, perhaps because it makes exploitation easier. And then there is climate change, which is largely caused by the industrialised nations, but which impacts most on Africa’s drylands, severely reducing their agricultural potential.

The overall result is that some countries are so poor and so poorly governed that many enterprising Africans see no hope, and leave for Europe.

This will continue until Africa thrives. That is a challenge to Africans; there is much that only they can do to improve governance.

But it is also a challenge to the rest of the world including Europe. We need to end the exploitation. Let Africa’s fish feed Africans, not the rich nations whose factory fishing vessels plunder African waters. Let us pay adequately for the minerals and oil we take from Africa. Let us end the trade agreements which thwart African development. Let us tackle the European corruption which enables African corruption. Let us build the partnerships between Europe and Africa which will strengthen human rights and inclusive democracy on both continents.

That is the realistic answer to Europe’s migrant crisis.

John Bond grew up in Britain and has worked with Initiatives of Change on several continents, including eight years in Africa and 25 in Australia. There he gave leadership in initiatives aimed at healing the harm done by tragically misguided policies towards Aboriginal Australians, and was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia. He is now a co-convenor of the Caux conference on Just Governance for Human Security. He and his wife Mary Lean live in Oxford.

Happy New Year

Stafford Clarry sent us this picture of sunrise on New Year’s Day 2016 from the highest mountain in the world. May 2016 be a year in which at long last we see the beginnings of peace on earth:

Sunrise

Stafford writes: First light of the first sunrise of the new year, observed from the highest mountain in the world, Mauna Kea in Hawaii.

HAPPY NEW YEAR

Mount Chimborazo in Equador is the highest mountain in the world measured from the center of the earth.

Mount Everest is the highest peak on earth measured in altitude above sea level, about 8,850 meters (29,035 feet).

If the height of a mountain is measured from its base to summit, then the world’s tallest mountain is Mauna Kea on the “Big Island” of Hawaii at 10,200 meters (33,500 feet) from its base on the floor of the Pacific Ocean. The summit of Mauna Kea is 4,200 meters (13,800 feet) from sea level to the summit.