Friday, 13 November 2009

Going Round in Circles, Sufism in Glastonbury

Although Glastonbury is too small to whirl in, none-the-less, surprisingly, enough people shuffle carefully around in the right circles for a form of Westernised Sufism to flourish. This then, is a rough, simplified, non-inciting exploration of Islam and Sufism through the lens of the Alternative Types. 

Sufism is the mystical, very twiggy branch of Islam, responsible for inspiring much of the secondary growth of Islam across the world, yet persecuted for over a millennium by some of the harder-nosed religious orthodoxy for sounding intoxicated, not reading the Qu’ran in precisely the three, four or seven different ways allowed and for writing love poetry like pink khirqah-wearing girls. Sufis are normally very accepting and understanding about it all, preferring to smile in a thoughtful way, be nice and calmly side-step the thornier issues, leaving them more time to dreamily contemplate beautiful youths and get closer to the Beloved.

Seeking the Beloved has to be carefully achieved in case a mystical truth discovered on the way to bliss reveals ideas at odds with the Qur’an. This would be blasphemous and of course, blasphemy is still one of the worst sins ever, on a par with deciding Islam isn’t for you after all. Sufis have walked the fine line adeptly, adroitly and advisedly over the long years.

Originally, Sufism was the response to a need for spiritual depth lost in the drier interpretation and perceived worldliness of early Islam. They were known as Those Who Cry A Lot. In spite of this, Sufis got over it and moved on and they still explore that self-same mystical yearning, this time with a strong un-quivering lip. 
As with any follower of Islam, Sufis believe in the Way revealed through the Last Prophet and written down as the Qur’an. This is Allah’s last unveiling of all truth, only in Arabic, finally and for all time, that’s it, there you go, that’s your lot. For quite a while, that was enough for everyone- Caliph, beggar and desert nomad. But then, two centuries later, along came the Hadith, compiled from the well-remembered sayings, thoughts and perfect actions of Mohammed (peace and love be with him). And then, later still, the precipitous, un-climbable range of life-defining laws, the Sharia*.

Even so, the Sufi couldn’t resist adding a vast amount of poetic garnish, and thank the Beloved they did. For they created some of the most exquisitely profound, transcendent and heart-lifting prose and poems ever written down by a human. It is this quality more than any other that initially called Glastonbury hippies to the woolly folds of Sufism. 

It can be difficult for any would-be Sufi to decide which of the many lineages of Sheikhs they feel drawn to follow. Like breakfast cereals, Sheikhs are all slightly different, all slightly the same, with more or less similarly attractive packaging, each offering an equivalent spiritual nutritional base. It’s just about spotting the tastiest amongst the many sugary breakfast cereals on offer.

Lacking any form of spiritual insurance brokerage, the would-be Sufi may have to read many labels before reaching out for the right one.
Once poured into the empty bowl, so to speak, the chosen Master will begin to instruct his student by speaking at length and in detail about how to interpret the difficult, potentially opposing and confusing bits of Sufi and mainstream Islamic writing in the safest way. For he who would know Allah talks much. Then after years of learned thought and poetry, close to final understanding, the student may find their deep need to reach beyond words becoming unbearable. For he who would know Allah becomes silent. The chosen Sheikh then takes a step back, acting as a guide by dropping an occasional pithy insight for the student to follow. Eventually, if all goes well, the aspirant gets to bathe in the eternal love of Allah, (may His name appear in all manner of vegetables and fruit) and become Sufi proper.

Obviously, being a Sufi is kind of intrinsically bound to the experience of being a Muslim and has always been at the root of the Sufi faith. But the slow journey of traditional Sufism would never excite the buyers in the modern get-enlightened-quick religious marketplace of the West. A cleaned up, simplified, user-friendly Universal Sufism however, that down-played an observance of the Qu’ran and all that stuff, concentrating instead on the mystical journey towards universal love and poetry most certainly would. The pill is further sweetened by the thrill of getting a new name, a slinky headscarf and copious amounts of hibiscus tea without ever having to learn Arabic. This certainly helps in hitting the spiritual spot. It has actually become a studied fashion statement amongst some of the more spiritually discerning Glastafarian women. As one was heard to say, “This hijaby thing is so cool and decorous that now I just wouldn’t be seen out without it. And it works like magic. Men only see the headscarf and not the woman under it. That should keep their out of control, twisted, depraved,godless lust firmly in their hearts where it belongs. ”

* The iron constraints of Sharia, the unchangeable medieval system of Islamic laws can be made to fit everyone living in the modern world, even if there needs to be a judicious but kindly pruning of fingertips or chopping down of height first. Think on this.

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