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THE PATH - Part 4

In view of the practical consequences of attempting to live 'on trust,' it is not surprising to read the advice given to those who would perfectly fulfil the doctrine: "Let them dig a grave and bury themselves." Later Sufis hold that active exertion for the purpose of obtaining the means of subsistence is quite compatible with 'trust,' according to the saying of the Prophet, "Trust in God and tie the camel's leg." They define tawakkul as an habitual state of mind, which is impaired only by self-pleasing thoughts; e.g. it was accounted a breach of 'trust' to think Paradise a more desirable place than Hell.

What type of character is such a theory likely to produce? At the worst, a useless drone and hypocrite preying upon his fellow-creatures; at the best, a harmless dervish who remains unmoved in the midst of sorrow, meets praise and blame with equal indifference, and accepts insults, blows, torture, and death as mere incidents in the eternal drama of destiny. This cold morality, however, is not the highest of which Sufism is capable. The highest morality springs from nothing but love, when self-surrender becomes self-devotion. Of that I shall have something to say in due time.

Among the positive elements in the Sufi discipline there is one that Moslem mystics unanimously regard as the keystone of practical religion. I refer to the dhikr, an exercise well known to Western readers from the careful description given by Edward Lane in his Modern Egyptians, and by Professor D. B. Macdonald in his recently published Aspects of Islam. The term dhikr--'recollection' seems to me the most appropriate equivalent in English--signifies 'mentioning,' 'remembering,' or simply 'thinking of'; in the Koran the Faithful are commanded to "remember God often," a plain act of worship without any mystical savour. But the Sufis made a practice of repeating the name of God or some religious formula, e.g. "Glory to Allah" (subhan Allah), "There is no god but Allah" (la ilaha illa ’llah), accompanying the mechanical intonation with an intense concentration of every faculty upon the single word or phrase; and they attach greater value to this irregular litany, which enables them to enjoy uninterrupted communion with God, than to the five services of prayer performed, at fixed hours of the day and night, by all Moslems. Recollection may be either spoken or silent, but it is best, according to the usual opinion, that tongue and mind should co-operate. Sahl ibn ‘Abdallah bade one of his disciples endeavour to say "Allah! Allah!" the whole day without intermission. When he had acquired the habit of doing so, Sahl instructed him to repeat the same words during the night, until they came forth from his lips even while he was asleep. "Now," said he, "be silent and occupy yourself with recollecting them." At last the disciple's whole being was absorbed by the thought of Allah. One day a log fell on his head, and the words "Allah, Allah" were seen written in the blood that trickled from the wound.

Ghazali describes the method and effects of dhikr in a passage which Macdonald has summarised as follows:

"Let him reduce his heart to a state in which the existence of anything and its non-existence are the same to him. Then let him sit alone in some corner, limiting his religious duties to what is absolutely necessary, and not occupying himself either with reciting the Koran or considering its meaning or with books of religious traditions or with anything of the sort. And let him see to it that nothing save God most High enters his mind. Then, as he sits in solitude, let him not cease saying continuously with his tongue, 'Allah, Allah,' keeping his thought on it. At last he will reach a state when the motion of his tongue will cease, and it will seem as though the word flowed from it. Let him persevere in this until all trace of motion is removed from his tongue, and he finds his heart persevering in the thought. Let him still persevere until the form of the word, its letters and shape, is removed from his heart, and there remains the idea alone, as though clinging to his heart, inseparable from it. So far, all is dependent on his will and choice; but to bring the mercy of God does not stand in his will or choice. He has now laid himself bare to the breathings of that mercy, and nothing remains but to await what God will open to him, as God has done after this manner to prophets and saints. If he fo11ows the above course, he may be sure that the light of the Real will shine out in his heart. At first unstable, like a flash of lightning, it turns and returns; though sometimes it hangs back. And if it returns, sometimes it abides and sometimes it is momentary. And if it abides, sometimes its abiding is long, and sometimes short."

Another Sufi puts the gist of the matter in a sentence, thus:

"The first stage of dhikr is to forget self, and the last stage is the effacement of the worshipper in the act of worship, without consciousness of worship, and such absorption in the object of worship as precludes return to the subject thereof."

Recollection can be aided in various ways. When Shibli was a novice, he went daily into a cellar, taking with him a bundle of sticks. If his attention flagged, he would beat himself until the sticks broke, and sometimes the whole bundle would be finished before evening; then he would dash his hands and feet against the wall. The Indian practice of inhaling and exhaling the breath was known to the Sufis of the ninth century and was much used afterwards. Among the Dervish Orders music, singing, and dancing are favourite means of inducing the state of trance called 'passing-away' (fana), which, as appears from the definition quoted above, is the climax and raison d'ĂȘtre of the method.

In 'meditation' (muraqabat) we recognise a form of self-concentration similar to the Buddhistic dhyana and samadhi. This is what the Prophet meant when he said, "Worship God as though thou sawest Him, for if thou seest Him not, yet He sees thee." Anyone who feels sure that God is always watching over him will devote himself to meditating on God, and no evil thoughts or diabolic suggestions will find their way into his heart. Nuri used to meditate so intently that not a hair on his body stirred. He declared that he had learned this habit from a cat which was observing a mouse-hole, and that she was far more quiet than he. Abu Sa‘id ibn Abi ’l-Khayr kept his eyes fixed on his navel. It is said that the Devil is smitten with epilepsy when he approaches a man thus occupied, just as happens to other men when the Devil takes possession of them.

We must now imagine him to have been invested by his Sheykh with the patched frock (muraqqa‘at or khirqat), which is an outward sign that he has successfully emerged from the discipline of the 'Path,' and is now advancing with uncertain steps towards the Light, as when toil-worn travellers, having gained the summit of a deep gorge, suddenly catch glimpses of the sun and cover their eyes.

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