Polarization around the Character of 'Ali ibn Abi Talib
Martyr Murtada Mutahhari
Chapter 8: The Best Means for Refining the Soul
The previous discussion on the subject of love and affection was an introduction, and now we want gradually to draw a conclusion. The most important part of our discussion – it is in fact the foundation of our discussion -is whether love and affection for those near to God, and devotion to persons of excellence, is an aim in itself, or whether it is a means for refining the soul, reforming one’s morals, and acquiring human virtues and excellences.
In animal love, all the interests and endeavor of the lover is towards the form of the loved one and the harmony of the loved one’s limbs and the color and beauty of the skin, and these are instincts which pull and attract man. However, after the satisfying of the instinct, these fires have no brightness, become cool, and are eventually extinguished.
But human love, as we have said, is life and vitality; it engenders obedience and loyalty. This is the love which makes the lover resemble the loved one, makes him try to be a manifestation of the loved one and a copy of the loved one’s behavior, just as Khwajah Nasiru’d-Din at-Tusi says in his commentary to Ibn Sina’s Kitabu ‘l-isharat wa ‘t-tanbihat (Book of Directives and Remarks)
(The love of) the soul is that whose source is the essential resemblance of the soul of the lover with the soul of the beloved. Most of the lover’s delight is in the characteristics of the beloved which precede from the soul of the beloved . . . It makes the soul tender, yearning and ecstatic and gives it a delicacy of feeling which detaches it from the distractions of the world. 23
Love pushes towards similarity and resemblance, and its power causes the lover to assume the form of the beloved. Love is like an electric wire which joins the being of the beloved to the lover and transfers the qualities of the beloved to him; and it is here that the choice of a beloved is of fundamental importance. Thus Islam has given much importance to the subject of finding a friend and taking a companion. There are many verses (of the Qur’an) and sayings (of the Prophet and the Imams) in this domain, because friendship causes resemblance, creates beauty and brings imprudence. Where its shines its light it sees the defect as art, and the thorn as rose and jasmine.24
In some of the verses (of the Qur’an) and sayings (of the Prophet and Imams) a warning is given about frequenting and befriending unwholesome and rotten people, and in some of them a call is made to pure-hearted friendship.
Ibn `Abbas said:
“We were in the presence of the Prophet when it was asked: `Who is the best companion?’
“That person who when you see him, you are reminded of God; when he speaks, your knowledge increases; when he acts, you fall to thinking of the hereafter and the Resurrection.’ “25
Mankind is in dire need of the elixir of love for pure and virtuous people, so that love may be cultivated, and so that love for such people may create a resemblance and similarity to them in mankind.
A variety of ways have been recommended for reforming one’s morals and refining the soul, and various methods have come into existence, one of which is the Socratic method. According to this, man must reform himself by way of his intellect and his own devising. A man should first of all find complete faith in the benefits of the purification of, and the harm of confusion in, the morals, and then, one by one, find the blameworthy qualities with the instrument of his intellect – like someone who wants to pick out the hairs from inside his nose one by one, or like a farmer who, by his own hand, pulls out the tares from the furrows of his land, or like someone who wants to clean his wheat of small stones and soil by his own hand – and then cleanse these bad qualities from the harvest of his being. According to this method, one must gradually remove moral depravities by patience, perseverance, careful reckoning and applied thought, and purify the gold of one’s being from false coin. Perhaps it should be said that it is not possible for the intellect to acquit itself of this task.
Philosophers seek to reform morality by thought and reckoning. For example, they say that purity and continence are the cause of man’s honor and character in the eyes of people, and greed and avarice are the consequences of hardship and inferiority; or they say that knowledge is the consequence of power and ability, knowledge is like this and like that, knowledge is “the seal of the kingdom of Solomon”, knowledge is the light along man’s path which illuminates the pitfalls in his way; or they say that envy and malevolence are spiritual sicknesses, from which evil consequences will result as far as society is concerned; and so on.
There is no doubt that this way is a correct way, and this means is a good means; but we are talking about the balance of the value of this means in comparison with any other means. Just as a car is, for example, a good means, but when it is compared to an airplane we must examine carefully the extent of its value.
First of all, we have no argument with the value of the way of the intellect as regards guidance, that is to say from the point of view of how far so-called intellectual reasoning reveals reality in the matter of ethics, how far it is true, and in conformity with the facts, and is not faulty and erroneous. We will only say this much, that there are countless philosophical schools of ethics and education, and this problem has still not passed beyond the boundaries of discussion and argument as far as reasoning is concerned. Moreover we know that the Sufis are all in agreement when they say:
“The leg of the reasoners is of wood; a wooden leg is very infirm.” 26
At the moment, our discussion does not concern this aspect; instead it concerns how far this way can reach.
The mystics and people of the spiritual journey have recommended the way of love and fellowship in place of following the way of the intellect and reasoning. They say that one should find a perfect being and hang the halter of love for, and fellowship with, him round one’s heart, since this is both less dangerous that the way of the intellect and reasoning, and also swifter. By way of comparison, these two paths are like the old-fashioned way of doing something by hand and the way of doing it by machine. The effect of the power of love and fellowship on the doing away with moral vices from the heart is similar to the effect of chemicals on metals; for example, an etcher removes what is unwanted on his plate by the application of strong acid, not by using a nail or the point of a knife, or anything like that. However, the effect of the intellect in reforming moral evils is like the work of someone who wants to separate iron-fillings from dust by hand; how excruciating and troublesome that would be! If he had a powerful magnet to hand, perhaps he could separate them with one sweep. The force of love and fellowship gathers the vicious qualities like the magnet and castes them away. The mystics believe that love of, and fellowship with, purified and perfect individuals is like an automatic apparatus which gathers the vices together by itself and ejects them. If the state of being attracted finds the right object, it is one of the best states, and it is this which refines and bestows exceptional qualities.
Truly those who have taken this path want to reform their morality through the strength of love, and they have relied on the power of affection and fellowship. Experience has shown them that companionship with the pure and fellowship and love for them has affected their spirits to an extent which reading hundreds of volumes on ethics has not.
Rumi has related the message of love by the complaint of the reed; he says:
“Whoever saw a poison and anecdote like the reed? Whoever saw a sympathizer and a longing lover like the reed? Whoever’s garment is torn by love, is entirely cleansed of covetousness or blemish. Hail, O Love, that bringest us good gain – O physician of all our ills.” 27
Sometimes we see some great person whose followers imitate him even in the way of walking, dressing, meeting with people and gesturing. This imitation is not voluntary, it is automatic and by the force of nature. It is the strength of love and fellowship which has influenced all the elements of the lover’s existence and has made him resemble his beloved in every one of his states. This is why every human being must search for a man of reality and truth for his own reformation, and devote himself to him so that he can truly reform himself.
“If there is the desire for union in your head, O Hafiz, you must become like clay in the craftsman’s hands.”
When a man who, however much he may at first have decided to be pious and do good deeds, again falls prey to weakness in the fundamentals of his aspiration, finds love and fellowship, that weakness and lethargy will then go away, and his resolution will become firm and his ambition strong.
“Love of the good ones unscrupulously took away heart and religion; the rook in chess cannot take as much as a beautiful face can capture. Do you imagine that Majnun became deranged by himself? It was the glance of Layla that transported him among the stars. I did not find my way alone to the source of the sun, I was a mote, and love for you bore me up. It was the curve of your eyebrow; it was your heavenly hand, which circled round in this revelry and drove my heart insane?” 28
History tells of great persons in whose spirit and soul a revolution was created by love and fellowship with a perfect one – at least according to the idea of their followers. Mawlana Rumi is one of such persons. He was not from the first so consumed (by love) and full of commotion. He was a scholar, and was calmly and quietly engaged in teaching in a corner of his town. But from the day that he encountered Shams-a Tabrizi and the desire for fellowship with him seized his heart and soul his manner completely changed and a fire flared up inside him. It was like a fuse which has fallen into a gunpowder store and bursts into flames. He was, apparently, a follower of Ash’arism, but his Mathnavi is without doubt one of the greatest books in the world. All the poetry of this man is surging, in movement. He composed the Divan of Shams in memory of his desire, his beloved; and in the Mathnavi too, he mentions him a great deal. We see Mawlana Rumi in the Mathnavi searching after something, but as soon as he remembers Shams a wild storm brews up in his spirit, and roaring waves surge up in him; he says:
“At this moment my soul has plucked my skirt;
He has caught the perfume of Joseph’s vest.
(He said 🙂 “For the sake of our years of companionship,
Recount one of those sweet ecstasies,
That earth and heaven may laugh,
That intellect and spirit and eye may increase a hundred fold. “
“The one who is far from his beloved is like an invalid who is far from the doctor.
How should I describe (not a vein of mine is sensible) That Friend who hath no peer.
The description of this severance and this heart’s blood Do thou at present leave over till another time.
Do not seek trouble and turmoil and bloodshed:
Say no more concerning Shams-a Tabrizi.”29
And this is the fitting meaning of what Hafiz said:
“The nightingale learnt its song by the favor of the rose, otherwise there would not have been
Any of this song and music fashioned from its beak.”
From this we can infer that exertion and being drawn, or action and attraction must go together. Nothing can be accomplished from effort without attraction, just as being drawn where there is no effort; will not reach its aim.
23. Sharh Kitab al-isharat wa ‘t-tanbihat, Tehran, 1379 A.H., vol.3, p.383.
24. As for love, there are blemishes also. Among these is the fact that the lover, as a result of his preoccupation with the goodness of his beloved, is heedless of the beloved’s defects:
Love of anything brings blindness and deafness.
“Anyone who loves something, his sight becomes defective and his heart sick.” (Nahju ‘l-balaghah).
Sa’di wrote in his Rose Garden (Gulistan):
“For everyone it is the same, one’s own mind seems perfect and one’s own child beautiful.”
This bad effect is not inconsistent with what we said earlier on, i.e., that the effect of love is a sensitization of the intelligence and perception; sensitization of the intelligence means that it brings man out of slow-wittedness, and actualizes his potential. However, the bad effect of love is not that it dulls man’s wits but that it makes man heedless and the question of intelligence is different from that of heedlessness. Very often, as a result of the preservation of a balance in sensibilities, dim-witted persons are less prone to heedlessness.
Love makes the understanding more keen, but the attention one-sided and one-tracked. Thus, we said before that the property of love was singleness, and it is as a result of this singleness and focality that the defect arises, and attention to other things diminishes.
What is more, not only does love cause defectiveness, but it shows the defects as something good; for one of love’s effects is that wherever it shines its light, it makes that place seem beautiful, it turns one speck of goodness into the sun. It even makes black seem white and darkness light. As Vahshi said:
“If you sat in the ball of my eye, Naught would you see but the goodness of Layla”.
And it is perhaps for this reason that love is unlike knowledge, which is completely a function of what is known. Love’s inward and psychic aspect is greater than its outward and real aspect; that is to say, the equilibrium of love is not a function of the scales of goodness, but more a function of the scales of the potentiality and essence of the lover. In fact, the lover has an essence, a matter, a latent fire which is seeking an excuse, an object. Whenever it happens to encounter an object and finds compatibility – the secret of this compatibility is still unknown, and that is why it is said that love is unreasonable – this inner potentiality manifests itself and creates goodness according to its own ability, not according to what exists in the beloved. This is what the sentence above refers to when it says that the lover sees the defect of the beloved as art and the thorn as rose and jasmine.
25. Biharu ‘l-anwar, vol. 15, bk. 10, p.51 (old edition).
26. Rumi, Mathnawi, bk.l
28. `Allamah Taba’taba’ i.
29. Adapted from Nicholson’s translation of Rumi, Mathnavi, bk.1