Sunday, 17 August 2014

Reading Stories of Dante and Ibn Arabi

All things are to be loved in God, not outside God.
The sweetest four lettered word, the holiest of mysteries, the meaning of life, the cause of creation, the essence of religion and mysticism, the object of poetry - LOVE; it is all that ultimately counts, that all seek, that sanctifies everything, that dissolves all questions and that drives our every movement.  Even acts of cruelty are ultimately reactions to denial of love. We demand nothing except love from our fellow humans. The quests for fame, for power, for money, for status are really roundabout quests for love or parasitic on love quest and are important only for those who don’t allow themselves to be consumed by love. Problems with spouses, hash or nosh or divorce can be mostly traced to failure to read the language of love. Teach love and you don’t need to teach anything else. Islam has been described as “the religion of Love’, for the last Prophet(SAW) appropriated the station of perfect Love beyond any other Prophet, since God took him as His beloved.” One definition of kafir may be thus formulated: one who is not open to love as hiding truth is denying love. Hell is a place where there is no love. How open we are to love shows how much is our proximity to God.

Some books are too important for our choice to read or not to read them. One such book is the Book of Love. This book recommends us; we can’t recommend it. Perhaps all other books are variations of this book. The best story in the Quran – the story of Joseph as read by poets and Sufis – has this theme. The Bible has great songs Psalms that hover around this theme. All Sufi poetry is a stanza in the Book of Love. Today I recount two great love stories of Dante and Ibn Arabi. Dante’s story as told by a Dante scholar is reproduced below.
Dante came to see that all his early poetic activity had been directed towards one end: the mastery of a medium through which he could convey the nature of his love for a young woman, few months younger than himself, whose beauty and transparent goodness seemed nothing less than miraculous… Dante’s feelings grew from love-longing to love-service to love-worship. She was ‘ wonderful, without precedent and without peer” and seemed to have come down from heaven to make the miraculous known. He felt he entered new life. But she died when Dante was just 25. And this death was the fortunate misfortune that inspired Comedy. Shocked, grieved, he made afresh start and found “new serenity founded on a deeper understanding and a deeper love”. Within a year he could speak of her death as an assumption into heaven; and with new insight he would see it as the necessary climax of her life. In heaven her beauty was greater and her beautifying influence increased. He attempted now to make himself worthy of the role of poet of Beatrice in glory and hoped to write in her praise what has never been said of women before.
But his trajectory for this proved very different. In order to overcome his enduring grief he turned to two well known books of consolation” the dialogue On Friendship by Cicero and more importantly Consolations of Philosophy. Looking for silver, as he himself put it, he found gold. Looking for comfort and a “a remedy for his tears” he found philosophy and his intellect. The key theme of both Boethius and Dante is “ mankind would be happy if only men’s minds were governed by the love that governs the heavens” He converted to philosopher – love of wisdom ‘ whose goal is that perfect loving which admits no interruption for shortcoming, in a word, true happiness won through contemplation of truth. Dante asked himself two most pressing questions: ’What shall I do for the best” and “What shall I do to find happiness” and found perfect answers in Aristotle’s Nichomean Ethics as expounded by Aquinas. Right choices are not simply a matter of opinion, and happiness not simply a matter of good luck. For him “morality was the beauty of philosophy and placed ethics above metaphysics and second only to the study of God and the revealed word of God.”
Ibn Arabi fell in love with Nizam In Mecca and transformed her into a sort of Beatrice. He says that he had never “seen a woman more beautiful of face, softer of speech, more tender of heart” and thus describes the encounter with her: “a lissome young girl who captivated the gaze of all those who saw her, whose mere presence was the ornament of our gatherings and startled all those who contemplated it to the point of stupefaction. Her name was Nizam (Harmonia) and her surname "Eye of the Sun and of Beauty." Learned and pious, with an experience of spiritual and mystic life, she personified the venerable antiquity of the entire Holy Land and the candid youth of the great city faithful to the Prophet. Her glance, the grace of her conversation were such an enchantment... If not for the paltry souls who are over ready for scandal and predisposed to malice, I should comment here on the beauties of her body as well as her soul, which was a garden of generosity... And I took her as a model for the inspiration of the poems.” These poems constitute famous Tarjumanul Ashwaaq (Interpreter of Desires). Its publication caused a reaction from literalists and he had to respond by a commentary explaining its symbolism. But let us note in both the cases – of Dante of Ibn Arabi – inspiration is earthly. It is women that provide the passport to Heaven.
There is no such thing as mere women of flesh and blood. God made (wo)man is his own image. Women points beyond herself to heavenly archetype. She is a sign of God. To those who ask how does it feel to experience God one may reply “something like when one is in love. “Love and charity” is the essence of whole scripture as Augustine said. Humility, the key virtue that takes us to heaven is “concealed form of love.” But let us not confuse lust and love, falling in love and rising through love. All things are to be loved in God, not outside God. And then everything is indeed fair in love.

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