by Idris Ali Khan
[Another friend of mine, Idris Ali Khan—like Caspar, a heteronym, and also a friend from my undergraduate years, now at Cornell Medical, soon to be a psychiatrist—wanted to respond to Caspar’s position, from “a particular kind of Islamic perspective—somewhat Sufi, perhaps a little ‘liberal,’ even.” I was grateful for the opportunity to host the words of a formidable, yet, I think, rather plainspoken and direct intellectual. – Sam Buntz.]
[Note – the article to which Idris is responding, by (heteronym) Caspar Da Gama, can be found here: https://themutedtrumpet.wordpress.com/2012/11/12/the-intelligent-post-modern-womans-guide-to-nihilism/%5D
Now, my friend Caspar Da Gama, I can assure you—despite seeming to be strongly possessed of a certain conviction in his lack of convictions or in the lack of the possibility of convictions—is not a man of conviction. I know for a fact that despite his “Byronic” posturing, he doesn’t desire any particularly hedonistic experiences — he just wants “a good woman and a passel of chilluns,” as Mr. Buntz once put it in a good-humored mood. I first became acquainted with Da Gama in international school (the Lester B. Pearson College of the Pacific, for the record—one of the “United World Colleges”) before we both went on to Dartmouth College, and I can inform you that it is only his mind that is damnable and mischievous. He does not snowboard on Himalayan peaks nor does he dabble in club-drugs or collect sexual conquests—he is a rather short, bookish, benignly-squirrely sort of person, though he would not appreciate my saying so. But as a “liberal Muslim”—though my views, I think I may modestly say (throwing any fear of offense to the wind) are rather less watery and fleeting than those of a liberal Christian—I feel that I am somewhat qualified to offer a critique of my friend’s position, as I have done in the past, perhaps less articulately, in literally dozens of dorm room conversations.
Now, we should start off with one of the questions Da Gama has posed, rhetorically: Why do we know nothing of spiritual reality to begin with? Why do we need to “flail around in the dark,” as he put it, without being informed of the fundamental conditions of our existence? Now, for a Christian, this might be a problem—but, uniquely, in most forms of Islam, we have come to understand that every child is born a Muslim. There is no “original sin.” The infant’s first desire is to turn towards the Source, towards God—but that desire is perverted by circumstance, by the ignorance conditioned by society or, even, I suppose, by one’s own mental apparatus, when used improperly. For instance, one might be given an over-active intellect, which one might then use perversely to stray from these fundamental realizations… Yet, we do not need to turn to Islam to find the sole source of this point, since truth is ever a wanderer: even Dante (who foolishly burned Muhammad and Ali in his Inferno) said that the “desire of every being is to return to its origin.” In the Quran, Abraham expresses this innate desire to return: in trying to remember what God he should worship, he considers the moon and the sun, but upon seeing that they go down—are thus subject to time—he turns spontaneously to God. “God” is not a bizarre notion injected into his mind from outside and he did not need to “flail around” for it—it is the central response of his own being to the situation of forgetfulness with which existence in time has presented him. A central practice in Islam is what is called “dhikr”—remembrance. It amounts to repeating the names of God—of which ninety-nine are known, and the hundredth remains hidden. This can be done using prayer beads—the rosary was evidently an Islamic creation, copied by Christian crusaders returning to Europe—or (as the Prophet apparently did it) by counting on one’s own fingers, or by simply pronouncing the names (as I often do) with the tongue of thought.
Caspar presents the perfect example of someone who has become detached from the memory of his Origin, and insists (weakly) that he has no such memory. As the great semi-Muslim poet, Kabir, said: “The truth is you turned away yourself, / And decided to go into the dark alone. / Now you are tangled up in others, and have forgotten what you once knew / And that’s why everything you do has some weird failure in it.” Now, Caspar, I know that that might seem somewhat harsh—and I don’t mean that it applies to you, alone. Rather—and I fear I may be imitating the sermons of my father (a British Imam of Indian birth), a bit pompously—it applies to all of us. But don’t feel too ashamed too quickly: the soul of each person (in Sufi Islam) pre-exists the creation of the physical world. It wasn’t born polluted with sin from the beginning, like the Christians (St. Augustine, for instance) used to say. The words of Wordsworth perhaps appropriately capture some of this, since he and Sufism were both influenced to some degree by Neo-Platonic philosophy—“Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting / The soul that rises with us, our life’s star / Hath had elsewhere its setting and cometh from afar: / Not in entire forgetfulness, / Not in utter nakedness / But trailing clouds of glory do we come / From God who is our home.”
Sin is thus not a state of almost physical pollution for us, staining us to the root—it is simply a state of forgetfulness, ignorance, to be shaken off with some training. In fact, the Arabic word for ignorance—“Jahiliya”—is the state in which the Arabs were said to be living before the Prophet arrived to show them the light—the inner light, which they had ignored for so long. So, I think that, from the Islamic perspective—insofar as I can claim to represent a spiritual phenomenon that has, in fact, given rise to many perspectives, ranging from the most enlightened the world has ever known (like those of the Prophet and his Sufi heirs) to that of the usual error-ridden and corrupt blunderings of which human beings are disastrously capable—Caspar’s desperate questions are grounded in rotting foundations. We weren’t born into the ignorance he describes—ignorance is what we’ve fallen into. To be unable to see the spiritual reality surrounding us is to refuse to use the lights we’ve been given and to which the Prophets have continually re-directed us. What is needed is not the elaboration of nihilistic philosophies or dense, needlessly abstruse theologies—what is needed is a return to the simple sincerity of the heart. It is the “common heart” that guided Abraham when he chose God as the center of worship as opposed to the fleeting phenomena of the natural world—the phenomena, which Caspar claims, provide the only mode of existence he knows. But a lifetime’s education in Islam combined with the comparative study of world religions—which I pursued in college—has convinced me that there are other and finer modes of existence. And though my personal belief is that Islam has provided, in its most refined form, the purest crystallization of those modes, there is no reason the experiences of a Taoist sage or a Christian mystic or a Hasidic Jew could not demonstrate the living power of the Spirit to a startlingly convincing degree. Caspar nervously asserts and keeps asserting that “joy” is the center of his philosophy, the cargo borne along by his caravan into “the mouth of the void.” But what kind of caravan is it, really? Does the “common heart” feel this to be so joyous? Close thy Omar Khayyam and open thy Rumi: “Come, come, whoever you are, / Wanderer, idolater, worshiper of fire, / Come, even though you have broken your vows a thousand times, / Come and come yet again. / Ours is not a caravan of despair.”