BOOK EXCERPT: A Sufi Tale of Zekr – The Judgment of God
We were all seated in the walled garden, waiting for the Master to appear and begin the zekr. After ten or fifteen minutes, Shaykh Amir al-Haadi, our Master, came down and joined us. All stood immediately as he appeared, and he seated himself on the sheepskin rug, and then commanded us to sit once more. When all were settled, tea was immediately served to him. He sipped it out of courtesy, and then began to speak:
“O darvish !” he said, his piercing glance encompassing all within the circle. “When God created mankind, all of them claimed to love Him, so He created the pleasures of the world, and nine-tenths of them immediately deserted Him, and there remained but one-tenth. Then God created the glory of paradise, and nine-tenths again deserted Him, and only one-tenth of the tenth remained. And then He imposed upon those that were left one particle of affliction, and nine-tenths of these also fled from Him.”
The Master paused to light his pipe, sighing with the exhalation of the smoke. “Such is the lot of humanity,” he said, “torn between pleasure, hope, and despair. Yet those that remained, that tenth of a tenth of a tenth, are the Elect. They did not desire the world, nor seek after paradise, nor flee from suffering. It was God alone they desired, and though there is imposed on them such suffering and terror that even the mountains tremble, they do not abandon their love and devotion. They are indeed God's servants and true lovers.”
Many tears answered his words, and he went on: “To follow the path of Love is indeed to be a servant, unto Him and to your fellow creatures, so they may also find their way. Thus came the word of God's Mercy into the heart of Dhu'l-Nun the Egyptian, as it was related long ago.
“And God said unto him: ‘If there come to you one sick through separation from Me, heal him, or a fugitive from Me, seek him out, or afraid of Me, then reassure him, or wishing union with Me, then show him favor, or seeking to approach Me, encourage him, or despairing of My grace, help him, or hoping for My loving-kindness, give him good news, or with right thoughts of Me, then welcome him, or seeking to know My attributes, guide him. And if one who is injured asks help of you, give it to him, but if he is doing evil in despite of loving-kindness, then remonstrate him, or if he is forgetful of it, then remind him, and if he goes astray, search for him. For you have I predestined for My work, and you have I appointed for My service.”
The words filled our hearts to bursting, and burn in my memory even now. Never had I heard such power in the Master, nor found his voice so moving. Many cried Allah, Allah, weeping openly in supplication and gratitude.
The Master then raised his right hand and the cries and weeping subsided. He called for music, and this night Ali's ney was joined by Rami's tar , and many others held dafs . One of the older darvishes even brought out an ancient tombeck, a small barrel-like drum made of mulberry wood and goatskin, which is held under the arm.
The ney began to sing it's longing, and the strings of the tar softly twined its hope around each phrase. Soon the rhythm of the dafs became faster, and voices were raised to the beat of many clapping hands.
And Rami began to sing one of the Master's poems:
Hear, O darvish , the song of Love
the unending tale of the heart.
God whispers “Be!” and infinity
takes eternal flight.
Love commands the darkness to depart,
and the world to arise in light.
Mountains, seas and stars bear witness,
The east wind cries out on the wing.
La Illaha illa Allah,
O Sufi, the universe sings.
Forgive the clumsy rhyme of my translation; the original is more elegant by far. What is lost, however, may be heard in the drums and clapping hands and every voice now raised in the driving harmony, repeating the shahada , the bearing of witness, that La Illaha illa Allah : There is no God, but God.
Ney and tar were stilled as the rhythm of drums and hands and voices went on and on, until the very walls shook with it, and every heart beat to it, and each cell of the body sang in joy and remembrance and longing:
La Illaha illa Allah! La Illaha illa Allah!
Ten minutes went by, twenty, thirty, until throats were raw and hands were swollen, and tears mingled with the blood of the heart. At last, the Master raised his hand and the drums abruptly stopped on the last beat.
The shouts died slowly away, but many wept and their sobs mingled with the moans of those who had been overcome and were being revived.
In the first instant of silence the Master calmly lit his pipe and began to speak.
“Why do you weep and tremble so?” he asked. “For what reason do you moan and sigh?”
“Allah!” many shouted.
“Indeed!” the Master replied. “God alone is the ultimate source of the heart's joy and sorrow, both the pain and the cure. The soul remembers this as a drop remembers the sea, and so longs the more for that Ultimate Union. All you will learn on the path is but a reflection of that truth, for all true knowledge is remembrance. Thus we polish the heart with tears, that it may reflect only the light of His mercy and compassion.
“So it is, and so it was long ago, when the Qalandar met the bandit chief...”
So began the Master's last tale. It was an unexpected one, for the hour was late, well past the time of farewell. But we settled ourselves to listen, knowing that the Master does nothing without purpose.
The Master puffed once more on his pipe and said:
“Not so long ago, as time is counted, there came to a certain oasis far in the western desert a faqir . He was a Qalandar , a wandering darvish, who had walked the deserts of Africa and Arabia for many years, seeking only solitude wherein he could remember his Creator and contemplate the Divine mysteries. His virtue and faith, his submission to the will of God, had been rewarded with tranquility of spirit, and his sincerity and devotion on the path of Love was such that the Hidden had been revealed to his heart, and he had become a Wali , a Friend of God.
“Now it came to pass that one night the faqir wandered into an oasis and lay beneath a palm tree to rest before the midnight prayer. Unknown to him, however, another man lay under a nearby tree, also making camp for the night.
“And the other man was a notorious bandit, once the feared chieftain of a band of robbers, who had for years plundered the spice caravans and waylaid rich merchants on their way from the coastal cities to the inland towns. The outcry against his merciless raids, had at last reached the ears of the Sultan and he had ordered his soldiers to hunt down the band and destroy them. Many were thus caught and beheaded. Many others deserted their chief out of fear that they would also share the fate of their comrades.
“Eventually, this evil man found himself alone. His purse was now empty, every last stolen coin having been spent, and he was a hunted criminal with a price on his head. Even his former allies, those dishonest merchants who had bought his stolen goods, closed their doors against him. They also feared lest the wrath of the Sultan fall upon their necks. And so he had fled for many days across the desert and come at last to this oasis where, tired and hungry, he sat beneath a tree and cursed his wretched fate.
“Now I ask you, which of these two men is the greater, and which the less? Whom has God blessed and whom has He cursed? No, do not answer! You do not know the answer, for you are not their judge. The Creator alone is the judge of His creation.
“ Munkir and Nakir , however, the angels who question the dead when they are assigned to the grave, looked upon the scene of the two men and sighed. ‘Surely,' said Munkir ‘here at least the true gold may be seen from the false. These two may be judged, though their end is not yet come. God will have the greater, and Satan the less.'
“‘Alas! It must be so,' agreed Nakir . ‘True gold is the most rare, and therefore are the fields of paradise spacious indeed, while the halls of Hell are filled to bursting, overflowing even the deepest pits.'
“Now God perceived the thoughts of His servants, and spoke to the hearts of the two angels. ‘ Verily, thou hast pronounced their just fate ,' He said. ‘ Yet woe unto mankind had I created the world by justice alone. Am I not the Merciful and Compassionate? Behold! I will visit them with sleep and visions so that thou shall know the truth of My creation.'
“Thus the Lord sent sleep and mighty dreams to the faqir and the wretched thief. And lo, the Qalandar awoke in hell, even into the midst of the great fires of the pit. And the bandit chief arose in Paradise, where he stood among the saints before the very Throne of God.”
The Master laid down his spent pipe and sipped his tea. His eyes searched our faces over the rim of the glass.
“Is it mercy to send the worst of man to heaven?” he asked. “Or justice to send the best of man to hell?”
No one dared answer.
“Good!” he said. “To cleanse the heart of judgment is to discern the Way of Love. And such was the lesson of Munkir and Nakir .
“For they beheld the faqir awaken in the very midst of Hell, and saw that most worthy of men rise up naked as the fires burned his flesh and the cries of tormented souls pierced his ears. Yet he felt no pain at the touch of the flames, and showed neither surprise nor fear. His thought was only of his Beloved, and no affliction was great enough to sway his love. He sat among the fires and the torment as a darvish , and in a voice clear and strong he began to sing.
“‘La Illah illa Allah! La Illaha illa Allah!'
“The fires blazed furiously as the song began and then dimmed to smoldering embers, and the burning mountains trembled at the Holy Name. Now the tormented souls ceased their wailing to listen, for the name of God is not uttered in the pits. Then there was no other sound to be heard but his, and the song went on and on until the very foundations of Hell were shaken, and the damned souls began to feel a spark of forbidden hope.
“Surely Hell would have fallen into ruin had not Satan himself appeared and begged the faqir to depart. But the old man would not move, for he had walked many years on the Path of Love, and the Beloved's Will was his will, whether it be paradise or eternal fire.”
The Master paused for a moment to again sip the tea beside him. He did not look at us until he began the tale again.
“And what of the thief?” he asked, when the glass was empty. “This chieftain of bandits who was once so feared and terrible, and who had fallen into wretchedness and misery, the fate of all such men in the end.
“God caused the two angels to perceive his vision also, and they saw him rise and stand robed in white, trembling amidst the host of heaven before the Throne of Almighty God. And the angel Gabriel spoke unto him.
“‘By the mercy of the Lord, thy Creator, thy earthly deeds are forgiven thee,' he said. ‘Come now and be at peace.'
“And now the truth filled his heart, and great wonder, and every veil fell from his eyes; and he saw with clear sight the Majesty and Beauty of His Compassion, and he wept.
“And the Lord God spoke unto him, and said: ‘O man, fear not. For thou canst not fall so low that I cannot raise thee up.'
“And fear left the thief. He knelt and prostrated himself before his God and wept. On and on flowed the endless tears of his wasted life, until they became the very waters of mercy and would not cease; and the feet of the saints were washed by his tears.
“He would have wept for eternity had not the vision ended and the two men abruptly awakened. Then the thief saw the faqir as he stood, and came to him still weeping from the dream. And the faqir perceived all that had befallen them and embraced him, and they prayed together at the midnight hour even unto the dawn. Much befell them afterwards, for the thief became the disciple of the faqir .
“And Munkir and Nakir , who had perceived but the tiniest particle of the unending mercy of God, bowed before their Creator in submission, and in shame of their rash condemnation. For surely beyond the comprehension of men and angels is the Judgment of God.”
Many wept anew at the tale, and were weeping still when the Master spoke once more. “O darvish! Remembrance of God is food for the soul. It is a salve for the wounded heart. From the first step, the zekr begins to loosen the grip of the past, and slowly, slowly the burdens of the nafs are emptied. Bit by bit, the weight of self-absorption and greed and enmity are cast off and left behind, and as the load is lightened, the journey is more swift. Though fear and sorrow may blind you in the beginning, do not despair. Truth is as a bright light come to darkness. The eyes of the heart must open slowly to see.”
The gentle words, spoken out of the deep well of his loving-kindness, awakened my own tears. And many others, whose tears had already dried, wet their cheeks anew.
And even in the midst of our longing, the Master looked on us with compassion, and through the window that is between heart and heart flashed the light that separates hope from despair. He began to sing:
O Beloved, Your arrows sting the heart
Unmercifully. Yet I shall ever be
A relentless target
To the golden bow and endless quiver.
Allah! Allah! Allah!
No sorrow has Haadi but You,
No hope but You, no joy but You,
You are the pain, and You are the cure!
Each heart was touched by the tenderness of the song, and through our tears we joined our voices to the refrain:
Allah! Allah! Allah!
You are the pain, and You are the cure!
And so it was that by an alchemy older than the stars, our tears were slowly mingled with joy, and our blood was transformed into the most intoxicating of wine. Slowly, slowly, we became as drunkards, reeling and clapping our hands as the elixir raced through our veins from the very heart of love.
And we sang of the pain that was born with the creation of the world, and the hope of joy that we may find before its end. On and on we sang until our tears were exhausted and the Master slowed the song and brought it to an end. It was nearly the midnight hour.
“Allah!” we shouted for long moments afterwards, as blood and breath grew calm and we slowly descended into sobriety. The Master himself then led us in the night prayer.
We stood before the eastern window and called upon God, the Merciful and
Compassionate. We bowed to His mercy and prostrated ourselves to His will, and as we stood once more the moon shone on our faces, but the Master was bathed all in silver light, as if in the very smile of the Beloved.