Mesocosm

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More Fitting to be Friends: Islam and Europe

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One of the greatest works of European literature to come down to us from the Middle Ages, or indeed from any age, is Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Arthurian Romance Parzifal, written early in the thirteenth century.

We don’t know much about von Eschenbach, though he identifies himself as “something of a Minnesinger” in his book. Minnesingers are the German equivalent of the troubadours of Provence, those famous composers of verse and rhyme who filled Europe’s coffers with splendid poetry celebrating love and its virtues.

Here is a bit of verse written by the Occitan troubadour Arnaut Daniel, whom Dante referred to as “the better craftsman.” In this translation of L’Arua Amara, Ezra Pound rendered his Provençal into English:

Shield of Parade, c. 1500
Image (c) Barnaby Thieme

The bitter air
Strips panoply
From trees
Where softer winds set leaves,
And glad
Beaks
Now in brakes are coy,
Scarce peep the wee
Mates
And un-mates,
   What gaud’s the work?
   What good the glees?
What curse
I strive to shake!
Me hath she cast from high,
In fell disease
I lie, and deathly fearing. (1)

 
This excerpt exemplifies the themes of nature and the open road that properly belong to the troubadour’s heart, along with mortal concern for his idealized beloved, whose lack of favor is worse than icy death.

We can see in this poem an unambiguous shift in emphasis from Europe’s tradition of poetry praising God and king. Daniel holds nation and piety to be of less import than a glance from his beloved:

Pope and Emp’ror I count asses;
Let See and Domain combine them;
From them to her I’d revert
    Who doth burn my heart and frost it,
Yet if she mend not her paces,
Kiss me ere New Year and melt
For my death to hell she’s fleeting. (2)

The poetic imagination of the troubadours, combined with the rich heritage of Celtic imagination, swept through Europe in the High Middle Ages, transforming its art and literature forever. In Arthurian romance we can see these two influences blend, with the troubadour lending Guinevere and Isolde to the idiom, and the Celt supplying fairydom, imperiled queens in enchanted castles, dragons, elves, and dwarves.

This genre of Arthurian romance reached its apex in the hands of two German masters, Gottfried von Strassburg (died c. 1210), who left us the story of Tristan and Isolde, and Wolfram von Eschenbach (died c. 1220), who supplied Europe’s greatest account of the quest for the Holy Grail in Parzifal.

Early thirteenth-century Europe was a lively place. In 1210, the Franciscan Order was established, and in 1216, Saint Dominic founded his order of Friars. Frederick II Hohenstaufen, called by Nietzsche the “first European,” was king of Germany and Holy Roman Emperor. He was a powerful force for the secularization of European polity, and a generous patron of the arts. He would briefly recapture Jerusalem for Christendom, after its knights had been driven out in 1189, by Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub, known to Europe as Saladin.

Kneeling Knight
London, c. 1350

This was the landscape in which Parzifal was composed. Its story is primarily concerned with its hero’s spritual transformation, as he seeks for the Holy Grail to bring renewal to the land. It is a wonderful and profound story, but here, I’d like to focus a bit on Parzifal’s family.

His father Gahmuret, the story goes, was king of Anjou in France. After establishing himself as a great knight, he traveled east as far as Baghdad, where he came into the service of the Baruch, or ruler, and distinguished himself greatly during the siege of Alexandria.

After leaving Iraq, Gahmuret wandered the Middle East until he came to the fictional land of Zazamanc, which was encircled by a hostile army. In true courtly fashion, Gahmuret came to the aid of Belacane, the Moorish queen of Zazamanc.

Gahmuret and Belacane fell in love and married, and their son, Feirefiz, combined his mother’s dark hue with his father’s whiteness. Von Eschenbach describes him as a blend of dark skin and light, mottled, like a magpie.

Now, through the course of many adventures, Gahmuret eventually returned to France, where he would marry his second wife Condwiramurs, and father Parzifal. He died, leaving Parzifal in his mother’s care, and the boy grew up ignorant of his heritage.

In time, Parzifal became a knight like his father, and served in the court of King Arthur, where he became involved in the quest for the Holy Grail. And much later, near the end of our tale, Parzifal came to face the army of his brother Feirefiz in battle, with each unknown to the other.

They met in solo combat on the field. Their battle raged and raged, and for the first time, each had met his equal. At length, Feirefiz threw his sword into the forest and called for parley, and they learned that they were brothers. At the discovery of their common heritage, “Parzival found treasure trove, the most precious he had ever lit on.” (3)

Recall that Feirefiz is the son of a Moorish queen. In von Eschenbach’s time, the Islamic Moors still ruled Spain, as they had centuries. The tide turned against the Muslims in Europe only at the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212, around the time Parzifal was written. And here we have a great European hero, whose father served the ruler of Baghdad, around the time the Crusading Knights were expelled from Palestine, and his beloved brother is a Muslim. This is really quite extraordinary.

Conference of the Birds (detail)
Manuscript Cover, painted by Habib Allah
(click to enlarge)

If we take a closer look at the tradition from which von Eschenbach sprang, we will see that he is himself, in a sense, a half-brother of a Muslim tradition.

In the early thirteenth century, far from Germany, another great poet was setting down his own masterwork. The Perisan Sufi poet Farid ud-Din Attar was then composing The Conference of the Birds, in which a collection of fowl travel together to a far-off valley, in search of the King of Birds, the mythical Simorgh – a kind of phoenix, if you will. This wonderful allegory describes the Sufi path to union with God, with each valley along the way representing a stage of the contemplative path.

Like the troubadours and Minnesingers, Attar had little use for piety. In a long anecdote related in Conference, Attar tells the story of the Sheikh Sam’an, who lived a good Muslim life until he fell in love with a Christian girl in his travels. In many ways, the story is a mirror image of the story of Gahmuret in Parzifal.

In one shocking turn, the Sheikh’s friends and students urge him to return to his religious life, and he replies “Where is her face / That I may pray toward that blessèd place?” (4) He is actually suggesting that instead of praying toward Mecca and the Kab’aa, he will pray toward the face of his beloved.

In Europe, we find a close parallel to this episode in von Strassburg’s Tristan. The young lovers Tristan and Isolde bravely face death and damnation in the name of their love. In one episode, the two flee into the woods, and make their conjugal bed into an altar, substituting their erotic union for the sacrament of communion.

Now, I do not want to overstate the degree of toleration shown in the thirteenth century. The tale of Sheikh Sam’an is a cautionary tale, and he not only ends up returning to Islam, but converts his Christian love as well. Likewise, Feirefiz converts to Christianity before taking a bride in Parzifal.

Nevertheless, the sense of these episodes is unmistakeable. Parzival’s reconciliation with Feirefiz plays a decisive roll in the climax of the work, and much is made of his dual coloration, converging in a single man like a yin yang. In Attar’s Conference, the love of Sam’an for the Infidel is described at far greater length, and with far greater vitality and attention, than his perfunctory return to religious norms at the end.

In both cases, there is a sense of passing through your opposite and returning to yourself at a higher stage, and it involves the heart’s recognition that something is different, and something is the same.

Attar holds that the true love of God leads the aspirant past piety, through the gates of blasphemy, and into actual communion with the holy source. Piety is rooted in our socially-constructed idea of what God must be like, and it leads to the socially-consecrated image of God. True love for God, like the love of Tristan and Isolde, dares all, even damnation, in its ravenous hunger for the divine. He writes:

Islam and blasphemy have both been passed
By those who set out on love’s path at last;
Love will direct you to Dame Poverty,
And she will show the way to Blasphemy.
When neither Blasphemy nor Faith remain,
The body and the Self have both been slain;
Then the fierce fortitude the Way will ask
Is yours, and you are worthy of our task.
Begin the journey without fear; be calm;
Forget what is and what is not Islam;
Put childish dread aside – like heroes meet
The hundred problems which you must defeat. (5)

Compare this to Arnaut Daniel’s verse, which we saw above:

“Pope and Emp’ror I count asses;
Let See and Domain combine them;
From them to her I’d revert.”

This dramatic similarity is not a coincidence. The points of contact between the Muslim world and the world of Christendom were many and varied, and the encounter with the Sufi Dervishes left a deep mark on the European imagination. The celebration of love by the troubadours and Minnesingers may well carry the stamp of the Sufi poets. Anyone who has encountered Jalāl ad-Dīn Rumi knows him to be the very voice of love’s song:

You are my life, you are my life, my life; you are my own, you are my own, my own.
You are my king, worthy of my passion; you are my candy, worthy of my teeth.
You are my light; dwell within these eyes of mine, O my eyes and fountain of life!
When the rose beheld you, it said to the lily, “My cypress tree came to my rose garden.”
Say, how are you in respect to two scattered things! your hair, and my distracted state?
The rope of your hair is my shackle, the well of your chin is my prison.
Where are you going, drunk, shaking your hands? Come to me, my laughing rose! (6)

Compare to Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan:

When the two lovers perceived that they had one mind, one heart, and but a single will between them, this knowledge began to assuage their pain and yet bring it to the surface. Each looked at the other and spoke with ever greater daring, the man to the maid, the maid to the man. Their shy reserve was over. He kissed her and she kissed him, lovingly and tenderly. Here was a blissful beginning for Love’s remedy: each poured and quaffed the sweetness that welled up from their hearts. (7)

The links between the courtly tradition of the troubadours and the Sufis have long been remarked, and it is in fact possible that the word “troubadour” itself is derived from an Arabic root tarab, meaning “to sing.” The thirteenth century appears to have been a time of love’s glory in much of the world, for it was then that Jayadeva wrote his sumptuous Gītagovinda in India, which we considered in an earlier post.

Not only were the crusading knights in frequent contact with Islamic ideas – a historical reality visible in mythopoetic guise in Gahmuret’s trip to Baghdad – but many of the greatest Sufi masters lived in Andalusian Spain. Ibn ‘Arabi (1165-1240), widely regarded as the greatest Sufi philosopher, lived in Spain while von Eschenbach was writing. His work would come to exert a tremendous influence on Dante. In his comparative study The Legacy of Islam, R. A. Nicholson catalogs some of the features of the Divine Comedy that correspond to Ibn ‘Arabi’s descriptions, including “The infernal regions, the astronomical heavens, the circles of the mystic rose, the choirs of angels around the focus of the divine light, the three circles symbolizing the Trinity – all are described by Dante exactly as Ibnu’l-‘Arabi described them.” (8)

The knowledge of classical antiquity was alive in Arabic translation when it had been forgotten by Europe, and it was largely through contact with the Muslim world that the intellectual worlds of Greece and Rome were rediscovered in the West, triggering the Renaissance. For example, Thomas Aquinas (died 1274), one of the most important theologians in the history of Christianity, relied heavily on the Muslim philosopher Ibn Roschd (Averroes) for his interpretation of Aristotle.

Cowl worn by St. Francis
Santa Croce, Florence

Saint Francis of Assisi (died 1226) was a troubadour before he became a renunciate and founded a new monastic order. The Sheikh Idries Shah has made a persuasive argument that Francis used Sufi poetic imagery in many of his writings, including his famous “Canticle of the Sun,” written in 1224. Francis tried three times to travel to the East – first to Syria, then to Morocco, and last to Damietta in Egypt, where he met with and greatly impressed the Sultan Malik el-Kamil. (9)

Our cursory review here could be dramatically extended, but I trust the point has been made. Many of the masterworks of the European tradition were written in dialog with the world of Islam. The poetical, narrative, and religious imagination of the High Middle Ages, which established a legacy that continues to underlie European culture to this day, is of mixed heritage.

It is more important than ever to keep this in mind, when so many forces are at work in the United States and Europe that dehumanize Muslims in the cultural imagination. The image of Islam evokes for many Europeans and Americans the shadow of the West, appearing as the embodiment of the irrational, the totalitarian, the fanatic, the Terrorist – the barbarians at the gates.

But as von Eschenbach saw and sang 800 years ago, Muslims are not evil, or good, but a blend of the dark and the light, like everyone else.

There is always the possibility that if we throw off the sword, and take off our respective masks, we may find that we are brothers and sisters of the same father. We may find, as Parzifal and Feirefiz saw at once, “It was more fitting for them to be friends than bitter enemies.”

References
1) Pound E. “L’aura Amara,” from Pound; Poems and Translations. The Library of America. 2003. pg. 489.
2) ibid., pg. 493.
3) von Eschenbach W. Parzival. trans. by Hatto, AT. Penguin Classics. 1980. pg. 372.
4) Attar FUD. The Conference of the Birds. trans. by Darbandi A, and Davis D. Penguin Classics. 1984. pg. 61.
5) Attar FUD., pg. 57.
6) Rumi JAD. Mystical Poems of Rumi 2. trans. by Arberry AJ. The University of Chicago Press. 1979. pg. 50.
7) von Strassburg G. Tristan. trans. by Hatto, AT. Penguin Classics. 1960. pg. 200.
8) Nicholson RA. op. cit. Campbell J. Creative Mythology; The Masks of God. Penguin Books. 1968. pg. 129-30.
9) Shah I. “The Sufis and Francis of Assisi.” http://www.reformation.org/franciscan-sufis.html. Retrieved April 16, 2012.

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Written by Mesocosm

April 16, 2012 at 10:59 am

Religion and Mysticism

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Shiva Dakshinamurti
Image (C) Barnaby Thieme

There exist, generally speaking, two basic postures with respect to spiritual phenomena. The religious attitude is oriented toward collective ritual participation in a shared set of symbols, with the primary aim of assimilating individuals into a system of sentiments, values, and prohibitions. The mystical attitude is concerned with the direct experience of a domain that lies beyond the ordinary realm of thoughts, values, and judgments. It does not pertain to particular things, but to being itself.

It is an empirical fact that religious symbols vary widely from culture to culture. Their transmission can be tracked historically, and in each society in which they appear, they are interpreted in the light of that society’s priorities and values.

To take one example, compare the goddess Inanna in Sumer, Ishtar in Babylon, Isis in Egypt, Venus in Rome, and the Blessed Virgin in the Christian church. These figures are variations on the same motif, sharing associations with the morning star, the lion, the dove, love, and war. Each is the mother or consort of a lunar god who dies and lives again; Inanna is paired with Damuzi, Ishtar with Tammuz, Isis with Osiris, Venus with Adonis, the Virgin with Christ. (In what sense is Christ a moon god? one might ask. But note how long he rested under the earth before returning to life.)

The historical transmission of this goddess is well-known – she spread with the technologies of the city, including writing, mathematics, astronomy, and large-scale irrigation agriculture, from Mesopotamia to Egypt, and then throughout the Mediterranean. The basic structure of the symbol remained intact, but the personality of the goddesses changed substantially, reflecting the values of each societies into which she passed. For the earthy and prelapsarian Sumerians, Inanna is sexually voracious, associated with ritual prostitution and the seduction of heroes, while the Virgin Mary embodies the opposite tendency.

This example illustrates a general principle found in the comparative study of religions, that religious symbols have a particular valence and belong to the sphere of moral valuation represented by the local group. They represent specific attributes, which are determinate – they are either this, or that. An affirmation of the religious symbol therefore become an affirmation of the group and its collective values, and participation in religious rituals brings one into alignment with the group. This social function of religious symbols may shed light on why this goddess spread with the newly-developed city and its new requirements for social adjustment.

Now, it is also an empirical fact that mystical experiences are universal in character, resembling one another throughout the world and lacking local inflection. The mystical attitude is not oriented to any particular things, but to the fact of Being in itself.

Mystical symbols differ fundamentally from religious symbols in that they refer to a domain that lies beyond the values of the social group in which they are expressed. They refer to an experience beyond language, beyond thought, beyond speech, and beyond belief. In opposition to the particularity of religious symbols, we can evoke the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upanishad, which says that the sacred ground of Being is “not this, not that”.

The Kena Upanishad evokes the transcendent mystery in its contemplation of the holy Brahman:

If you think that you know well the truth of Brahman, know that you know little. What you think to be Brahman in your self, or what you think to be Brahman in the gods – that is not Brahman. What is indeed the truth of Brahman you must therefore learn.

I cannot say that I know Brahman fully. Nor can I say that I know him not. He among us knows him best who understands the spirit of the words: “Nor do I know that I know him not.”

He truly knows Brahman who knows him as beyond knowledge, he who thinks that he knows, knows not. The ignorant think that Brahman is known, but the wise know him to be beyond language. (1)

The symbols of mysticism either transcend dualities, or bring them together. Compare our Virgins and libidinous goddesses above with the goddess who speaks in the Gnostic poem Thunder, Perfect Mind, recently discovered in a manuscript dating to the fourth century CE in Nag Hammadi:

For I am the first and the last.
I am the honored and the scorned.
I am the whore and the holy.
I am the wife and the virgin.
I am (the mother) and the daughter.
I am the limbs of my mother.
I am a barren woman
who has many children…. (2)

Song of the Lark (detail)
Jules-Adolphe Breton

The mystical goddess of Thunder, Perfect Mind transcends the local variations of the goddess we discussed above – she encompasses the reality to which these local variants refer, through their particular frame of reference. She is the universal, not the particular, and like all deities in mystical traditions, she is evoked by uniting signs, such as the coincidentia oppositorum, or union of opposites. I took a look at the union of opposites motif in early Indo-European religious poetry in an earlier post.

In the mystical experience, the sense of an individual self or ego drops away, leaving an experience of union with an Absolute that is uncreated, eternal, peaceful, indescribable, and ultimately meaningful. The features of these experiences have been cataloged by many authors, such as William James in the “Mysticism” chapter of his marvelous The Varieties of Religious Experience.

People who report experiences of this sort are often transformed by them, and they may begin to act and think in reference to a mode of reality that is difficult for us ordinary monkeys to understand. There are many delightful iconoclasts in the mystical traditions of the world, who scoff at merely-religious symbols. Take this prayer by the Tibetan Tantric master Drukpa Kunley, which I have long prized:

I bow to the fornicators discontented with their wives;
I bow to crooked speech and lying talk;
I bow to ungrateful children;
I bow to professors attached to their words;
I bow to gluttonous gomchens;
I bow to philanthropists with self-seeking motives;
I bow to traders who exchange wisdom with wealth;
I bow to renunciates who gather wealth secretly;
I bow to prattlers who never listen;
I bow to tramps who reject a home;
I bow to the bums of insatiate whores.

An interesting example that may be closer to home for some readers is Job of the Old Testament. Through his trials, he comes to know a God who is beyond the sphere of human understanding and judgment in every sense. And note that the majority of the book contrasts Job’s experience of God’s unveiling with the religious perspective represented by his friends, who have come to comfort him. They remain convinced that Job must have done something to deserve the terrible things that befell him. That is, they can only interpret Job’s problems with respect to their own provincial ideas of justice and fairness. They represent the conventional religious wisdom as it is embodied by the group, and as is so often the case with the conventional wisdom, they are totally wrong.

The great poet Rumi speaks in the Sufi symbolic language of being “drunk on the divine,” and in this poem he ultimately refers to his beloved companion and mentor, Shams:

I know nothing of that wine – I’m annihilated.
  I’ve gone too far into No-place to know where I am.
Sometimes I fall to the depths of an ocean,
  then I rise up again like the sun.
Sometimes I make a world pregnant,
  sometimes I give birth to a world of creation.
Like a parrot, my soul nibbles on sugar,
  then I become drunk and nibble the parrot.
I can’t be held by any place in the world,
  I know nothing but that placeless Friend.
I’m a drunken rascal, totally mad –
  among all the rascals, I make the most noise.
You say to me, “why don’t you come to yourself?”
  You show me myself, I’ll come to it.
The shadow of the Phoenix has caressed me so much
  that you’d say I’m the Phoenix, he’s the shadow.
I saw beauty drunk, and it kept saying,
  “I’m affliction, I’m affliction, I’m affliction.”
A hundred souls answered it from every direction –
  “I’m yours, I’m yours, I’m yours!
You are the light that kept on saying to Moses,
  “I’m God, I’m God, I’m God.”
I said: “Shams of Tabriz, who are you?”
  He said: “I’m you, I’m you, I’m you.” (3)

The words of many masters are echoed in this poem. “You show me myself, I’ll come to it,” reminds me of Bodhidharma’s admonition to his student Hui-k’o “Bring me your mind, and I will put it to rest.”

Or you might think of the great Sufi master Mansur al-Hallaj, who executed before Rumi’s time for saying “There is nothing wrapped in my turban but God.”

Or you might hear echoes of the goddess of Thunder, Perfect Mind, speaking in Rumi’s voice, telling him, and you, and everyone: “I’m you, I’m you, I’m you.”

Not the you that you cherish and protect, but the you that you truly are.

References
(1) Swami Prabhavananda, and Manchester F, trans. and ed. The Upanishads; Breath of the Eternal. New American Library. 1957. p. 31.
(2) Meyer M, ed. The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. HarperOne. 2007. p. 372
(3) Chittick WC. Sufism; A Beginner’s Guide. Oneword Publications. 2000. p. 117

Written by Mesocosm

March 16, 2012 at 9:11 am