Friday, March 31, 2006

A Review of: Essential Sufism

A Backdoor To Insights Into Islamic Culture

A Review of: Essential Sufism, James Fadiman & Robert Frager, Foreword by Huston Smith (1997) Harper Collins

During my mere three years of living in Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates I endeavoured to take an open-minded approach to Islamic culture, mostly because the Emiratis themselves have taken such great efforts to offer specific tolerances to various religions, cultures, and lifestyles within their own nation. However, my attempts to learn written Arabic were pedestrian at best, I took a private tutor at home weekly for probably about a year in total. My reading ability never really progressed beyond the name tags of my students, and attempts to read stylized shop signs.
Part of my "block" was obviously simultaneous immersion in Islamic culture, which also entailed the occasional, seemingly half-hearted attempts at evangelisation, which I perceived fairly regularly as an opportunity to learn a little about Islam. However, regardless of the author, every book I found placed in my hands on the topic of Islam was often a very poorly argued justification for the superiority of one particular world religion over all others. Proofs almost inevitably mirror the claim that, "There is no God but God" which translates poorly as an evangelisation tool; or the claim that there is no religion but Islam.
I never really attempted to counter such simplified, "proof is a proof is a proof" logic. Therefore such texts always remained partially read and abandoned on my shelf. And when it came time to leave I found that those books did not fit in my bags or packing cases. Even in readings of Bernard Lewis I have often wished that such a knowledgeable academic could attempt to approach the heart of Islamic beliefs with the aim of expressing some of its greater, perhaps intangible virtues. However too often I believe Westerners in particular take a stance similar to that a woman I know, married and divorced five times that, "We in the West have nothing to learn from the Arabs."
In my travelling explorations of a few places in the Middle East, such as Egypt, the most poignant memory of the passage of time, or the depths of culture that reside there, or the inevitable discoveries of preceeding empires and dynasties long gone, themselves the remaining mysteries of the Nile, was observation of the villages surrounding in particular the Crocodile Temple, Kom Ombo.

At Kom Ombo I was fascinated more by the sizes of the guided crowds, the negotation of the confines of the ruins themselves by awestruck or bored visitors; it really depended on how long or how many ruins one has visitied as to the scale of the impact of historical sites themselves, which appears to fade over time or through repeated visits to various eventually seemingly similar monoliths. Long lines of perspiring generally European tour groups.

But basically my learning was in observing the scale or depth of archaeological excavations required to unearth Kom Ombo. Over thousands of years, the temple had slowly settled under the feet of generations of the fellas. Next to the temple was a cross-section of the layers upon layers of humanity which had slowly evolved up to present day. It looked just like a layering and layers upon layers of sediments and clays, soils and the trappings of civilisations compounded and compounded upon themselves.

So a book like "Essential Sufism" is in my mind a reasonable ouvre into the possible underpinnings of Islamic culture. These Sufis are the natural mystics of Islam, and as mystics, they share great similarities to other religious mystics. In general study of the mystics of various religions one may chance comparisons which offer reflective values, those which unite humanity in more variations of parallel than division. Thus a book like "Essential Sufism" offers much in general reference to contemplative learning.

That these records of early Islamic and some modern day Sufi wisdoms are pieced together in general topics of human interest make them accessible and non-threatening from a religious perspective. That is namely, one need not be a Muslim to contemplate and appreciate this book. In particular, it is abook of quality which I would compare to various translations of Lao Tsu. So if your interest takes you to affirmations of a transcendental human existence, fairly explored, fairly realised in readings of the ancient texts of early writers and readers, this book will satisfy a desire to engage some of the values which peace-loving Muslims continue to hold close to their hearts.

I will close with a quotation from the chapter on Love.

The secret of madness is the source of reason.

A mature man is insane with Love.

The one who has his Heart together

Is a thousand times stranger to himself.


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