Monday, March 05, 2007

Note on "Purification"

One of the Starlatch editorial projects I worked on was Hamza Yusuf’s translation and extensive commentary on Imam al-Mawlûd’s didactic poem, Matharat al-Qulûb, or Purification of the Heart. I enjoyed the experience with the book and with Sh. Hamza. (Working closely with an author has the unveiling effect of traveling. I remain fond of that engagement and have the highest regard for Sh. Hamza, whom I found to be a man of personal affability, a principled person who is learned and caring.)

I returned to “Purification” last night after a long absence. In less than ten minutes, I remembered something that had bothered me during the book project. In the book’s title there are two very nice words: “Purification,” the removal of character diseases (who doesn’t want that? Or at least say they want it?); and “Heart,” a favorite among songwriters. We all know what the heart is. The thing moves all the time in our chests, ticking or counting down—a vessel of secrets and vulnerabilities. The encounter with the text was, in many ways, a new experience. Beforehand, I was not well-versed with tracts on the science of purification, especially tracts hailing from North Africa, a text that is both pointed and subtle—a tome of the former republic of “Sufism.”

The translated text and the commentary—which pulled in many different sources—speak of the maladies of human character, like envy, greed, hatred, ostentation, love of praise, miserliness, heedlessness, false hopes, and more. The diseases are described, often accompanied by their etiologies, followed by guidelines on how to expunge them from our hearts. Frequently, however, the remedies prescribed involve contemplating the end results of these diseases and how ultimately, and often immediately, they turn on their holder like attack dogs. Envy and greed, for example, consume the envier and the avaricious, inviting ruin. And because we human beings are creatures of self-interest and instinctively avoid harm, we would want to shed those “things” whose harms (physical or metaphysical) are exposed upon close review.

The reader is asked to “contemplate” or to “reflect” or to seriously “ponder” what it means to have these diseases—exercises central to the art of “purification.” While I accept as true (as an abstraction and experience) that reflection is a muscular act of the mind that can produce remarkable effects, my issue is about what has been observed by people of both religion and secular concerns: reflection has become a vestigial organ. I’m talking about the kind of pondering that Imam al-Mawlûd may have been depending on when composing his poem, having the reasonable hope that his readers will “get it.” The remedies he suggests are mostly likely now too advanced for the primitives of the wikipedia generation, a growing population of citizens incapable of or unwilling to pull out the ear speakers and attempt mountain-top reflection.

This may sound elitist or even sentimental (i.e. dated), but that’s not my intention. In my experience as a teacher and a person who has worked with “youth,” the contradictions are obvious: a generation of Bluetooth and wi-fi connections (at home and almost all of the buildings of the university) who, for the most part, struggle with getting beyond surface. Stranded on integument, they have difficulty accepting the fact that long stretches of time engaged with a text or a concept is the only pathway for higher meaning.

So my recommendation, as part of the curriculum of spiritual growth and sacred reconnecting—you know, establishing the ligature (“lig” as in religion, which originally meant “reestablishing the bond between man and God”)—is a crash course in developing the habiliments required to make sense of time-honored texts and their messages especially vital for our day. The focus on the content of education is ineffective without an attempt to rewire intellectual tools required for meaningful living. (Sermon over.)

8 Comments:

Blogger officelurker said...

excellent observations!

Also, I would be very delighted to read about your dealings with Shaykh Hamza Yusuf!

3/05/2007 3:38 PM  
Blogger fromclay said...

Thanks, Lurk. My brief comment on Sh. Hamza was a side point. The larger issue is the loss of intellectual habiliments that used to be standard issue but are nonetheless required to make higher sense of texts pregnant with useful and powerful counsel.

3/06/2007 8:55 AM  
Blogger Ibraheem said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

3/06/2007 6:41 PM  
Anonymous Ibraheem said...

You are absolutely right. And by extension, one my immerse themselves in the dunya but they will never find true contentment.

3/06/2007 6:43 PM  
Anonymous Qushayri said...

You wrote: "establishing the ligature (“lig” as in religion, which originally meant “reestablishing the bond between man and God”)"

Could you explain the etymology of religion a bit more. For example, what then does the 'ion' in religion mean.

4/19/2007 6:07 AM  
Blogger fromclay said...

Qushayri, "- ion" as a suffix indicates that a word is a noun or has become a noun. "Vacate" is a verb, "vacation" a noun; "connect" a verb, "connection" a noun etc. "Religion" is said to have originated from "ligare," which means to bind (OED, Oxford English Dictionary), or "religare," which means to bind back, according to a common account. Hope this helps. Thanks for asking.

4/19/2007 12:11 PM  
Anonymous Qushayri said...

Thanks. Do you know of an Arabic word that means and conveys what the English word religion originally meant?

4/19/2007 7:57 PM  
Blogger fromclay said...

Qushayri, I don't know one off hand that has immediate correlation that "religion" conveys, although conceptually the Quran does make references to "holding tight to the rope of God": "And hold fast to the rope of God, all together, and do not separate" (3:103). But upon further inspection, it's likely that there is a correlate expression for "religion." Hope this helps. Thanks

4/21/2007 9:44 AM  

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