The Ethics of Man: Ethics in an Age of Capitalism

Before civilisation, man was first, a primate, second, a creature with consciousness- able to philosophize, to enjoy materialistic commodities, to enjoy the productions of the industrial revolution, to be able to create – art, culture, the very thing that differentiates us from all other living beings on earth. But today, in an information era, as man has evolved where famine, war, and plagues are no longer problems created by nature, man faces wars that are political wars, famines in regions because men made conscience decisions that led to entire societies collapsing and thousands of people starving (seen in Iraq, Afghanistan, Ireland, Syria, Yemen in the past few decades, just to name a few) – it is hard to say, are we first, a primate, or are we first, conscious beings?

The basic needs for survival are rarely an issue for an overwhelming majority of the population globally- shelter, food, and water. This gives us the opportunity to imagine, theorise- granting us the ability to be able to create beyond our capacity – technology, transportation, AI, the internet, etc. Millions of people today no longer have to worry about nature’s disasters as much as in our hunter-gatherer times, the dangers of the wilderness, nor need to wonder when it’ll rain next for crops to grow, and so on, as we did daily when civilisations first began to sprout. The immeasurable amount of knowledge we have today on how the earth is built, the technology we’ve built to extract resources much more efficiently, has allowed us to become first and foremost, a conscience, thinking, being, And so, we must question the ethics of man, beyond our primal needs. Therefore, there is an urgent necessity to examine the ethics that base our ideologies and structures that so shape society.

The earth’s resources are enough for all, however there has always been an extreme inequality within the distribution, traditionally the dichotomy of the global north exploiting the global south was a practical explanation- maintaining much of those in the Middle East, Africa and South-East Asia in masses of poverty. We are no longer hunter gatherers, living in small societies where tomorrow’s food is not certain. From “what will I eat tomorrow?” it is now “when will I be able to buy the next iPhone?” Having gained the ability to harness the earth’s resources (oil, coal, plants, animals, land, and slowly – wind, tidal and solar energy), capitalism is the global dominating way of life.

I call it a way of life here because it inflicts every part of human life- our ideologies, our daily routines, how we interact with others, how things are structured. Capitalism is an ideology based on the ethic of man to be efficient. Within this ideology, it is considered “good” and “right” to be efficient; to work an 8-hour day job, to contribute to the economy. And then the economy produces more products for us to feed off of, as we become more and more distracted by mass commercialism and entertainment reaching new levels of addiction, consistence, and convenience of use. To not contribute in the system of capitalism today is almost impossible, one would have to live in the very few areas of the globe that is not dominated by this ideology and unpopulated. It is unnatural to not be a participant in the structures of capitalism today, as it has become normalised, and in a way, natural, for humans today to be efficient, as a being existing within the structures of capitalism.

Religion here, directly coincides with capitalism. Capitalism is founded on the basic assumption that efficacy is first and foremost. Religion is based on differing ethical values – those that focus on faithfulness, community. Capitalism, is not inherently a natural force, but rather, the commodification and result of the creations from the 18th century industrial revolution and today’s technology, stripping us of independent thinking, of community, and of faith. It is the same contradiction of faith and science. Yet it is the ethics behind these ideologies and practices that differ. Hallaq (2013), in The Central Domain of the Moral, refers to these mutually exclusive ethics as the “I” struggle versus the “Ought” struggle. The “I” struggle is that of capitalism, of modernity – an individual struggle to become successful, efficient, and to contribute to the society. The “ought” struggle is that of religion, to pray, to follow the correct rituals, to have faith, to be kind, and to be one with the community.

We are conscious, thinking creatures existing without knowledge of how we came to be or why. The tragic paradox of man’s creation (the paradox being that we are born as a species without knowing why or how, yet are curious, self-aware creatures by nature) will always lead to differing ideologies, social structures and systems of beliefs. Thus it is vital to look at the ethics that these ideologies, social structures, and systems of beliefs are founded on and shaped around. Each of these societal structures or systems of beliefs are attempts to answer the question of what is “ethical”, what is morally “good” for Man; how certain ideologies have materialised into the physical realm through implicated rules, expectations, and norms.

One such thing we must consider is this: Is there a single universal ethic or moral we can all agree upon? While the idea of moral universalism is just, it is not practical nor is it capable of becoming a reality as it directly coincides of what it means to have multiple humans. The concept of duality, is inevitable in the presence of men. Men are diverse by nature, as there being two bodies and two minds is different than if this were one body and one mind. With many bodies and many minds, there will be an array of ideas, beliefs, personalities, and therefore actions that are carried out as the result of these ideas or beliefs or personalities. Therefore, how can every single human, state, nation, or society, believe in the same ethics? The essence of moral universalism is therefore unsound and goes against the very definition of men.

However, men there are plenty, and diversity therefore arises in the beings that think. And so, to attempt to convert others to one’s own religious beliefs, is just as impractical and illogical as attempting to spread one’s own ideologies- apparent in the West’s quest to conquer the world through the claim (whether true or not) of spreading democracy and materially, capitalism. Yet just as it is in man’s nature to be diverse, it is also in man’s nature to attempt to understand the self through an understanding of the other. Therefore, each man will find those he is more similar with than those he is not. Therefore, groups, societies, nations, states, tribes will form, as men are plenty, and smaller groups will form. And these groups will have ideas that directly contradict one another, dissimilar ideas that may coexist simultaneously, and ideas that are similar in their nature. Therefore, the age-old conflict between the global north and global south is but, in a way, natural, just as is the battles of science and religion, the West and non-West, between religions, and between nation-states and before that, warring societies.

Ibn Rushd, also Known as Averroes, and “The Commentator”.

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أبو الوليد محمد ابن احمد ابن رشد‎ (Abu I-Walid Muhammad Ibn Ahmad Ibn Rushd), known as Averroes in the West, was a prominent Islamic philosopher during the Islamic Golden Age. He was often called “The Commentator” due to his vast and extensive commentaries on everything Aristotle wrote, with the exception of Politics, where he instead wrote a commentary on Plato’s Republic. Coming from a line of judges, he was well versed in jurisprudence and was appointed qadi (judge) in Seville several times. Under the Caliph Abu Yaqub, he met Ibn Tufail in the same court, and it was he who told Ibn Rushd the Caliph desired to understand Aristotle’s books, resulting in his vast commentary on Aristotle we are able to enjoy today. Ibn Rushd served as a judge as well as a physician in the Almohad caliphate, but later met his misfortune and injustice due to political circumstances under the Caliph Al-Mansur, the son of Caliph Abu Yaqub.

His own manuscripts, including On the Syllogism, On the Intellect, On Conjunction with the Active Intellect, often defended Aristotelianism, as he believed Aristotle had the purest intellect. Whether this is may be considered haram is Islam is worth pondering about. He, as did many of the other Muslim philosophers, understood the prophets to have a pure Intellect that almost, in a way, reflected the Active Intellect (God’s Intellect). In this sense, what would he have said, if one asked him, why did Aristotle not receive or dispel any form of revelations? Perhaps he would have argued that Aristotle’s secular work was, in its own form, a revelation.

Regardless of what his answer might have been, many of his ideas and writings led to the mindless masses to collaborate and turn against him, declaring him a heretic and cursing his books as well as those who read it – essentially marginalizing him from society. Thus he joined the list of condemned philosophers. Of course, there was politics at play as well – the Caliph Al-Mansur wanted the support of Ibn Rushd’s rivals and thus turned against him. As a result, many of Ibn Rushd’s works were lost, as his works were declared illegal or burned by the Caliph. Ibn Rushd’s Incoherence of the Incoherence is arguably the main criticizing work against al-Ghazali’s Incoherence of the Philosophers. He argued that interpretation of the holy text does not make one a disbeliever, contrary to Al Ghazali’s ideas, but instead using ta’weel (تأويل , interpretation) to understand and strengthen faith is almost mandated by God, and he’d then support this with aya’s from the Quran.

One of his important and influential thoughts was that philosophy and religion (or faith) were not at odds, but rather philosophy reinforces faith. In his book Fasl al Maqaal (On the Harmony of Religions and Philosophy) he argued that the Quran itself urges contemplation and therefore is a must for Muslims. This leads us to his highly held regard for analogy as the strongest tool to attempt to reach Truth. Ibn Rushd’s emphasis on the importance of contemplation deems it a necessity for a Muslim, as, he argued, it is urged and invited by Allah to do so. Therefore, it is, in this sense, a duty to use the Intellect to examine all that exists around us.

Ibn Rushd discussed the idea of شرع (“shar”), which is for the masses who are unable to contemplate deeply (nor do they generally want to), while only those who are able to (the philosophers), should engage in ta’weel and furthermore, these philosophers should not discuss these ta’weel to the masses. However, as his persecution showed, this is not realistic. While ideally it is a sound idea, to separate the two, however in reality this is not possible – his books and his teachings still reached the presumably mindless masses, resulting in his exile and marginalization from society. So, then, perhaps we can contemplate a different methodology – instead of letting شرع for the masses and keeping the writings and compositions of the philosophers to themselves – perhaps dispelling these shocking and fear-inducing ideas in a different way is worth contemplating upon. The methodology of the Brethren of Purity in their The Case of the Animals Versus Man Before the King of the Jinn is entirely written in story-form, and yet philosophical criticisms, thoughts, ideas and the like are well versed in it, able to exist more freely as it is read, facing less opposition than Ibn Rushd’s works. This is due primarily to two things: the story-form of the writings as well as their anonymity.

Finally, Ibn Rushd’s respect for previously proven premises and knowledge is humbling and also useful. He understood that one should not limit oneself to one’s own time and era, disregarding those before, nor should one limit oneself to one discipline, instead- medicine, astronomy, mathematics, physics, ethics, philosophy, and so on, are all helpful in questioning and examining Truths as well as in attempting to reach Truths. In this sense, he understood the experimental sciences to be built on the accumulation of knowledge throughout the generations. While this point is valid, one must make sure to also question the very essence of the prior knowledge before basing one’s own assumptions and questioning after it.

A Reflection on Al-Ghazali- Mystic and Islamic Philosopher

أبو حامد محمد بن محمد الغزالي (Abu Hamid Muhammed Ibn Ahmed Al-Ghazali), born in the Persian town of Ghazala, also known as the “proof of Islam” (Hujjat al-Islam), transgressed through an personal journey that very much is reflected by his intellectual journey as a philosopher, theologian and Sufi mystic. Perhaps he was one of the more honest philosophers and thinkers of his time, as he abandoned his posts in Baghdad in 1095, embarking on a solitary, spiritual journey for eleven years – where he, similarly to Al-Farabi, traveled around the Islamic world. Ghazali’s realization that he was going the “wrong way”, where this Doubt shook him to his core, as he saw the materialism and superficiality within which his life was rooted in, prompted him to embarked on a journey to find the “righteous path”. The first scholar to combine Sharia and Sufism, or, in other words, religion with Sufism, or theology with taste, he went against many of the thinkers of his time.

Ghazali’s intellectual journey may be divided into three stages. The first may be classified as “doubt”, during which he began to doubt the premise of defending or justifying religion as something that requires dogmatic defense. It was during this stage where he wrote the infamous “Incoherence of the Philosophers”, a rigorous rant on the issues and constraints of the الفلاسفة (“falasifa”, translates to “the Philosophers”). Doubt was the means to reach the Ultimate Truth, the second stage. Ghazali believed the Intellect was not enough to reach the Ultimate Truth, and, as such, trust is needed. Just as the Intellect aids our constrained senses, something was behind the Intellect, governing the Intellect. In this sense, the Intellect is similarly able to deceive, just as our senses are. This brings us to his third stage, the Final Truth. Here he emphasised the importance of trust in prophecy, as prophecy is beyond the Intellect. It is a natural perception, he believed, beyond the Intellect, faith, or religion, and instead, should be understood as a spiritual experience of heart and ذاق (“douqh”, meaning taste).

Ghazali’s belief and argument that the Intellect has the ability to be impotent and deceiving, and therefore cannot be wholly trusted leads to the conclusion that trust in prophecy, instead, may aid intellect. Ghazali placed a heavy emphasis on prophecy. According to his writings, after the Prophet Muhammed died, there is now a need for trust in the prophecies, and from this will sprout inspiration, which is the extension of the revelation- almost as if the prophecy had been revived, in a way. The Final Truth is attained by believing in Prophecy first, as prophecy is beyond the Intellect. This has a similar echo to Ibn Sina’s writings on prophecy, where he argued prophesizing is rational, and uses syllogisms. However, prophets merely state the conclusion without the premises, although this does not lead to the conclusion that it isn’t based on the premises. Ibn Sina believed that the prophet’s intellect was such that it didn’t need the premises. Here the revelation’s are seen to be above rationality and intellect, in a similar vein to Ghazali’s beliefs.

Ghazali’s influence is widespread and variant. He has had an effect on Islamic Fundamentalists, as they have exploited and used his writings to their own gains. This has, in turn, caused a widespread misconception of Ghazali as having closed the doors to philosophy in the Islamic World, and opened the doors to Islamic Fundamentalism, as some blame him for the decline of science in the Islamic world. However, this Western theory is privy to being reductionist to Ghazali himself and his writings. Furthermore, the belief that the phenomena of the rise of Islamic Fundamentalism may be attributed to one person, thing, or entity, is an oversimplification and therefore faulty.

His writings also largely effected Western philosophers, including the well-known René Descartes. Descartes’ “basket of apples” philosophy argues that one must inspect each apple in the basket, carefully, and only putting back the sound ones. This is a metaphor for one’s mind, to inspect each thought within his or her mind, and in this sense, not taking anything for granted. To turn over each belief and determine which are true. This is strongly reminiscent of Ghazali on Doubt. This doubt echoes throughout various philosophers. One cannot help but think of Plato’s cave allegory in comparison to Ghazali’s work. Both men were plagued by doubt (as was Plato’s mentor, Socrates), however they diverged in where this skeptical journey led them. While Plato believed one could achieve truth and infallible knowledge by emerging out of the dark cave and into the world, Ghazali believed that only by looking within, into the soul and by trusting in God and the revelations, would one be able to truly attain Ultimate Truth. The two great philosophers have interesting overlaps, with Ghazali being almost confused as to how there can be so many different sects that men tended to believe merely because he was brought up in this way, while Plato depicting the falsehood of data that men tend to be bound by – symbolized by the shadows of the Cave.

In  المنقذ من الضلال (“al-Munqidh min al-dalal”, translates to “Deliverance from Error”), an autobiographical account of Ghazali, one can understand his approach and thoughts towards skepticism and doubt, which was what led him to initially leave his teaching position, and is essential to search for the Unshakable Truth (حقيقة). His quest for certainty led him to question uncritically accepted religious beliefs, and instead search for a kind of عِلم الْيَقين (“‘ilm al-yaqin”). This diverges from Socrates’ “the only thing I know is that I know nothing”. Ghazali experienced two personal crises, with the second leading him to look within in, and resulting in his conclusion that only through a life of trust or تَوَكُّل (“tawakkul”) would the seeker be able find the Unshakable Truth, which he called the Ultimate Truth. In this way, one could remove the veil- a common Sufi concept in which knowledge of the heart surpasses that of the intellect, and by going through personal, spiritual, struggles, will one reach the truth, and the veil covering the spiritual realms will be unveiled.

In تهافت الفلاسفة (Incoherence of the Philosophers), Ghazali denounced Muslim philosophers such as Ibn Sina and Al-Farabi. He refuted Aristotelian logic and the Falasifa’s certainty of rational logic being superior to knowledge derived from the revelation was incorrect. In particular, he saw theology as a dead body of rituals, with men blindly believing certain things without really understanding why. Perhaps one of the biggest contributions Ghazali perpetuated was the idea that Intellect, and rationalism, have constraints on understanding many of the main philosophical questions within Islamic Philosophy, such as Creation and God’s attributes.

Ghazali’s honesty, and lack of fear for political or social retaliation of consequence is admirable, and is reminiscent of less fortunate philosophers and thinkers like Socrates and the Sufi mystic Mansur Al-Hallaj. If we are to understand Islamic Philosophy within four groups- المعتزلة  (“Mu’tazila”), الأشعرية (Ash’arites), الْتَّصَوُّف (the Sufis) and those of أصول الفقه (Islamic Jurisprudence), Ghazali is not able to be easily classified into any one of these, as he explored them all throughout the course of his life. Many would classify him as a philosopher, a mystic, a theologian and a Muslim jurist. Various ideas of his fall under the Ash’rites predisposition of placing revelation over rationalization. Meanwhile, his spiritual journey led him to wholly follow the beliefs and ways of a Sufi, such as his emphasis on trust to attain absolute Truth, or, in other words, to be one with God. Ghazali began his journey as an al Kalaam, before going to the Philosophers, and then the Sufis.

We know Plato and Socrates, but who are Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd?

Islamic philosophy must be understood differently from the Greek philosophers. The Islamic philosophers, or المتكلمون (“speakers”), flourished during the Islamic Golden Age between the 9th and 13th centuries. They were influenced greatly by the Greek philosophers – employing the dialectic method (attempting to discover some form of truth by examining opposing statements on a subject), originally invented by Aristotle and infamously used by other Greek philosophers like Socrates – and also in examining similar topics, those within the subject of metaphysics. Some of the greatest thinkers within Islamic Philosophy are Ibn Sina (known in the west as Avicenna), Al Ghazali and Ibn Rushd (known in the West as Averroes). Unfortunately, in many Western classrooms on philosophy the chronological order begins with Greek philosophy and often entirely misses the Islamic philosophers. Today many discuss the relationship and compatibility between Islam and democracy, but also Islam and science. Here is a crucial movement that first began questioning things in Islam and is therefore necessary as a basis in understanding the background information to be able to coherently and aptly discuss relevant topics today, such as whether Islam is inherently incompatible with science (or democracy) – for the moment disregarding the problematic insinuations within the wording of these topics/questions.

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Islamic philosophy first began to flourish under Ma’mun’s rule during the Abbasid Caliphate, and under him the دار الحكمة (House of Wisdom) came to be, in Baghdad, as the capital of the caliphate was Baghdad then, during a time of open trade: a luxurious age witnessing massive trade in commerce, textiles, and a rise in knowledge centres where academics, scientists, philosophers, etc., would come and discuss certain matters that intrigued them. Their name depicts the method in which they examined these topics – orally, by using the dialectic method or by discussions, at the beginning and only later evolved to being written and recorded. The flourishing of this time led to the simultaneous increase in the translation of works, from Greek and Syriac to Arabic, which led to much original research in the Islamic world, and which aided in the influx of ideas from other cultures and languages into the Empire, as well as the flourishing in education. Under Al Ma’mun it was an open society that flourished, with a meeting of different religions, with those that converted to Islam having a different set of schemata.

There was also political conflict, which led to more thinking about certain topics related to human governance, such as- “who has the responsibility to command the good and bad?” For example, the Kharijites did not support Ali for arbitration, as they believed Ali should have fought. Political conflicts as such led to more discussions on questions like, “is he considered a sinner?” Therefore, both economical flourishment and political conflict led to the emergence of new thoughts through knowledge centres like the House of Wisdom. As the Abbasid empire grew, and experienced much more contact with surrounding people’s from differing backgrounds, cultures, etc., there was increased discussion on the Quran, and things that were considered normative for a Muslim (i.e. what is considered “good” and “bad”, or the aforementioned who has the responsibility to command the good and prevent the evil- us, or leave up to God?). Therefore, the questions the “Speakers” asked unique, despite discussing things mostly confined to faith, as they also pondered metaphysical questions (largely within the frame of Islam).

It was here المعتزلة (Mu’tazila), meaning “those that isolate”, indeed, isolated themselves from the the “speakers”. They were the “rational thinkers”, who placed reasoning as superior and above to the revelation, and were the main school of thought until 848 AD when a new caliphate (under Al-Mutawakkil) replaced Ma’Mun’s. Basra and Khufu became more important than Baghdad in thought due to the Mongol invasion of 1258 and the “Siege of Baghdad”. However, by this time, the Mu’tazilites had already spread beyond the Islamic empire, into lands including Persia and Asia Minor (today’s Turkey). The Mu’tazilites  were now considered heretical with the demise of their movement. In opposition was the الأشعرية‎ (Ash’arites) of Basra, who placed the revelation as superior and above reasoning. The Ash’arites still used the dialectic method, like the Mu’tazilites, however they insisted that reason was subordinate to revelation. These are the defenders, as they believed that because our intellect is created from God, therefore reasoning must not presuppose the revelation.

However, relatively speaking to أصول الفقه‎ (Islamic jurisprudence), both the Mu’tazilites and the Ash’arites were similar in that they both believed reasoning was necessary in answering, pondering and discussing these questions. The Islamic jurisprudence‎ diverged from the other two in their view of the extent to which this reasoning was to be used in relation to the revelation. The Islamic jurisprudence believed that reasoning had no place in these matters, and the revelation was the most important and only source necessary. Their process, known as اجتهاد (Ijtihad), involved the Quran acting as the primary text, then consultation of the Hadiths, then the scholars’ consensus, attempting to use analogies, before reaching a ruling (fatwa).

The fourth theological group, (the other three being المعتزلة, the Mu’tazilites, the Ash’arites and the Islamic Jurisprudence), are the mystical Sufis. This spiritual way of Islam focuses on the individual, and it is a practical way of reaching the Truth, in other words, God (everything else is a mirage). This attempt to reach One-ness requires the abandonment of materialism, through singing, dancing, chanting; Sufis put emphasis largely on personal experiences, and the idea of الذوق (taste). In this sense, the Sufis have their own language, and thus their own interpretations of the revelations. In contrast to the other three groups, the Sufis are not trying to reach the Lord through analyses but through practical means.

Regarding the topic of cosmology, the Mu’tazilites believed that God first created the atoms, and then He bestowed the attributes/characteristics upon them, therefore creation was able to differentiate. In this sense, the attributes are not static, and can change between states. Dirar Ibn Amr argued differently- he argued that although atoms were first created, and then with attributes bestowed upon them by the Lord, they did not change after this. According to, this is because if an atom has certain attributes, it cannot combine and thus cannot change its state. Al Nazzam and Abu Bark Al-Asamm argued the atoms as mathematical points. In line with this, then, they should be continually “indefinitely visible”, and then God bestowed the third dimension attributes- which is followed by combination and therefore changing states. The Mu’tazilites focused strongly on the topic God’s Unity, which includes and led to other questions – such as if the Quran is created or not.

If the Quran is created, that means there must be an end. This, then, leads to the discussion of God’s attributes. The Mu’tazilites believed that there is God’s Essence, and then there is God’s Attributes. The “Essence” (صفات الذات) cannot be separated from him, they argued, and this included knowledge, ability/power (قدره), life (حياه), and also existence. Therefore, these essences are identical to him, while the attributes (صفات الأفعال), are related to the acts and deeds (i.e. speaking, willing) He does, and so they have a time and place. Therefore, following this line of thought, they believed the Quran must be created, as speaking is an attribute that has a time and place. It must therefore be accidental, and also have a time and place.

The major issues discussed by these four theological groups were- the topic of Divine Will, توحيد (God’s Unity), the question of “who can commend the good and bad”, and “who will be a sinner?” The main discussion of the Mu’tazilites was God’s Unity, which they used to defend their faith against atheists. His attributes, according to them, are just different from us, so therefore even talking or comparing about his attributes makes one an atheist. This is supported by the aya (verses in the Quran) “God is unique/none is like him” which negates certain attributes are his to prove his One-ness. They believed the Quran is created, due to the aya “we have made in Arabic, the Quran” (italics mine). The word “made” is emphasised here because this means that it was created.

Personally, my beliefs and method of thinking would fall more along the lines of the Mu’tazilites, rather than the Al’asharites, as the defenders. The fact that they are defenders defines the epistemological issue I have with their perspective, in that they are aiming to defend the revelation first and foremost, whereas the Mu’tazilites do not have this “burden”, if you will, but rather can focus solely on pursuing the “unshakable Truth”. In this sense, the Al’asharites are therefore constrained in their ability to think, as all their lines of thought, ideas, discussions, must be based on and stem from the underlying assumption that the revelations are not to be questioned. After all, as Socrates famously quipped, “the only thing I know, is that I know nothing.”

Dancing Dervishes

Whether you believe there is a God, Gods, or that there is nothing else other than us, or that everything is just waves, vibrating on some form of energy, or that there are infinite other realms, or that we are merely simulations – whatever it is, they are all attempts to understand the universe around us, indeed, how we came to be, and why.

Often times my friends berate me for going off on what they call “philosophical” tangents, laughing and saying “oh there she goes again” or “this is too philosophical for me right now”. Yet isn’t philosophising merely the act of being a human? A self-aware, conscious human, that is. To speculate, to theorise, yes, to philosophise- about our existence- is this not the most common and fundamental thing of man? For a man not to wonder where he came from, well, he must not truly understand what it means to be alive-  how miraculous it is, that we are here, conscious, self-aware; that all of this around us, is here. I’m not sure if I envy that man. For those angry atheists (of which I used to be one) – name a culture or time where man didn’t have some form of a “religion”? What is culture without religion? At what point do you draw the line between culture and religion? Granted, they have some different elements, but the point is they are inextricably intertwined. Ergo, religion should not be scoffed at, dismissed, or ridiculed- neither should philosophy.

Yet there is an age old argument between philosophy and religion. Many philosophers were persecuted or executed for their condemned thoughts on monotheistic religions. Perhaps most famously, poor Socrates, for not believing in the god of the state, condemned to drink hemlock. The list is too long to go through here. In the Islamic world, during the Islamic Golden Age, many philosophers began to use allegories, which led to what we now call the philosophical allegory. This is a tool, a weapon, of philosophers to use, a clever, sly, way, to theorise, stipulate, ponder upon the wonders of the universe without being clad by the iron fist of certain religions. It is similar to the hidden transcript method used by the persecuted Uyghurs in the North-West of China, who practice Islam and are heavily controlled and abused by the government. Here a religious minority, persecuted for their beliefs, uses linguistic tools in their defiance against the wrath of a nation-state, while, ironically, philosophers in the Islamic Golden Age, persecuted for their beliefs used philosophical allegories, to continue to express their ideas without being prosecuted for it by religious entities. Examining the history of man, it may be still up for debate whether war is natural or not, but one thing is clear – man has always persecuted one another for each other’s beliefs.

And so, one of these many ways of pondering about the universe that is particularly intriguing, and beautiful, to me, is Sufism. It is the mystical, spiritual way of understanding Islam, with most of them being Sunni. Sufism emphasises ridding oneself of one’s ego, of materialism, in order to become one with God. Due to their rather spiritual take on Islam, Sufis are often looked down upon by many Muslims, some even believing they are heretical, others believing many of them are on drugs, or crazy. The Islamic State and other extremist Sunni groups condemn them as heretical. In 2017 235 or more were killed in a Sufi mosque bombing in Northern Sinai.

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These dervishes would twirl for up to twenty minutes without stopping, shedding layers of their brightly coloured clothing. This symbolises the ridding of materialism that Sufis believe is necessary to become one with God. near the end, the boys went into a trance- raising their arms as they faced the heavens, lost (Sufi Concert, Cairo)

One of my favourite films, Bab’Aziz – The Prince who Contemplated His Soul, is a Tunisian film about a blind dervish traveling with his granddaughter towards a massive Sufi gathering. This is one of the few pieces of art, that is authentic and that I would recommend for anyone slightly interested in Sufism, or just anyone looking at different paths to facing and understanding the world and the universe. This is a film that deconstructs many misconceptions about Islam, and about Sufism.

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“You’d think he’s contemplating his image at the bottom of the water.”
“Maybe it’s not his image. Only those who are not in love see their own reflection.”
“So what does he see?”
“He’s contemplating his soul.”

“Hassan: But there can’t be light in death because it‘s the end of everything.

Bab’aziz: How can death be end of something that doesn’t have a beginning? Hassan, my son, don’t be sad at my wedding night.

Hassan: Your wedding night?

Baba’aziz: Yes. My marriage with eternity.”

———————————————————————

The people of this world are like the three butterflies
in front of a candle’s flame.

The first one went closer and said:
I know about love.

The second one touched the flame
lightly with his wings and said:
I know how love’s fire can burn.

The third one threw himself into the heart of the flame
and was consumed. He alone knows what true love is.

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Bab’aziz and his grand-daughter in the film, “Bab’aziz”. 

This brings me to Rumi. Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, Persian, of the 12th century, is one of the most read poets in the world. Referred to typically as Rumi, his works have been translated into countless other languages, and has influenced Turkic, Iranian, Turkish, Azerbaijani, and other literatures. And, yes, he was a Sufi mystic. His master, Shams of Tabriz, is often pondered about what the nature of their relationship was – merely student and teacher? friends? lovers? I believe all, their love transcended these categories, they had the deepest, purest, form of love- in all of its being. These are some books I have on Rumi, Shams, and Sufism; given to me by someone very special, and that I know will aid anyone in their journey, regardless of the nature of their journey:

  • Discourses of Rumi – Jalaluddin Rumi
  • Fiih Ma Fihi – Jalaluddin Rumi
  • 40 Rules of Love by Elif Shafak

Finally, the moth and flame metaphor, which is said to describe certain parts of Sufism. It is said to describe the relationship between Man and God, or between Shams and Rumi, or to symbolise self-transformation, as the moth’s annihilation occurs again and again as it is always drawn to the flame- the annihilation is said to depict the passing into the Divine (fana) on the Sufi path. Or perhaps the love affair of the soul of the human with That Which We Cannot Understand, which is also Everything. Some call it God. others call it Nothingness.

Moth: I gave you my life.
Flame: I allowed you to kiss me.
-Sufi Master Hazrat Inayat Khan

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