Sunday, 6 October 2013

Like a Snake

We take love for granted.  As a word, it may be irredeemably debased: spell it "luv" or "lurve" and you're probably all the way there.  People talk about the distinctions Ancient Greek was able to make between types of love (eros, agape, philia, and storge) but other words are available to us in English, too, and did the Greeks have a word for whatever treacly state of mind is conveyed by the typical Valentine's Day message, I wonder?  But, words aside, the thing itself -- whether it's a feeling, an instinct, a need, a propensity, or a gift -- is an essential part of our humanity.

I was reading a group review of some recent books on Sufism in the TLS (Eric Ormsby, TLS 2/8/2013) and was fascinated by some of what was written.  The operning sentence, for a start:  "The eighth-century Sufi master al-Hasan of Basra was reported to have smiled only twice in his long life, both times at funerals".  That made me laugh, but it also made me think, especially when I then read this:  "In another dictum Hasan is quoted as saying that God 'hates the world' and indeed, to such an extent that He 'has not looked at it once since He created it'".  I found it unsettling to try to imagine an interior life based on such a fundamental fear and loathing.  Yet a rejection of the world as a seductive illusion, and a seeking for salvation through various degrees of self-denial and self-harm is a common impulse in most, if not all, of the world's religions.

I think most of us in the West have a lazy view of Sufism as a sort of Islamic mysticism, using music, dance and song as routes to ecstatic divine communion.  It seems this is both true, and untrue.  Apparently, the roots of Sufism lie in the bitter soil of that ascetic contempt for the world ("like a snake: beautiful to look at but toxic to the touch" -- Hasan again).  But at some point the idea of a love affair between God and humanity flourished, and the drums and flutes and songs took over from the whips and spikes.  Those of us who enjoy the poetry of Rumi (albeit generally in the Coleman Barks translation) are perhaps only seeing half of the story.

It is often strongly emphasised by popular archaeologists that those first Neolithic settlers 12,000 years ago -- the ones who first denatured wild animals so as to make slaughtering them simpler and more convenient, the ones who invented cities and thus created enemies, wars, and bad neighbours -- were people, just like us. But were they? You have to wonder: has love always been in the world?  When did humanity start to model its best behaviour on the child who nurtures a puppy, rather than the child who takes pleasure in torturing a cat to death?  Were there millennia of systematic cruelty and abuse of the weak by the strong before some crucial enlightenment or evolution of fellow-feeling tipped the balance, or have love and empathy been a fundamental human impulse all along?

We'll never know, of course. Hasan and his hair-shirted brethren probably don't care either way.  To a world-hating fanatic of whatever stripe all pleasures are snares and delusions, and life a series of tests to be passed as painfully as possible. What's love got to do with it?

One thing is certain, though: a contempt for this world, a fear of imaginary divine tyrants, and a baseless belief that the only authentic life begins after this one has finished -- preferably as miserably as possible -- have not prevented the greatest acts of human love, such as the advance of medicine, public sanitation, free education, and the removal of real tyrants from the real world.  Not to mention music, dance, and song.


Anonymous said...

There was a member of the Kuwaiti parliament who, while I was working in Abu Dhabi, tried to get music banned from Kuwait's schools, on the grounds that it was the work of the devil.

My sense of empathy breaks down here - I am utterly unable to imagine how anybody could believe that.


Mike C. said...


I always have to remind myself that our very own puritans shut down the theatres and, for while, cancelled Christmas (gasp!) -- all for what they considered the best of reasons. Of course, that was 350 years ago...