Insurgency of Love

• Nov 18th, 2008 • Category: Works By Soroush

Years ago, when, in my courses on ethics, I was explaining Aristotle’s theory of moderation and speaking about the vice of going to one extreme or the other and the virtue of “the just mean” – in those same years, I also embarked on a serious study of Mowlana Jalaleddin Rumi’s Masnavi and entrusted my heart to the quintessence of that ardent mystic’s teachings.

I began with Book 1. I placed the slave girl’s hands in the hands of the king, and I fell into step with the merchant as he headed off to India. On the way there, I recalled the lovelorn songs and entreaties of the merchant’s parrot who said: Oh, while you’re there with the truest love / Here, I sip from the goblet of grief / Oh, where are those pledges and promises? / Where are the vows from thine sweet lips? / How I adore the peevishness and the gentleness / I, oddly, adore both the bitter and the sweet / This is no nightingale but a fire-eating whale / and it feels as joys all of love’s discontents

I could see that – through love – the parrot was gradually turning into a fire-eating whale, burning the good and the bad like a blaze, devouring the big and the small like a whale, and causing such scandal and havoc as to bellow to itself: Halt your deluge of words or else / you’ll bring about scandal and ruin

And then it would reply to itself: Why ever should I fear ruin or wreckage / when beneath the wreckage I’ll find the Lord’s treasures? / How sweet to drown once you sink into truth / Churned over and under like a crashing wave / Is it more joyful on the sea’s surface or well beneath? / Is its arrow more piercing or its shield? / O, surely the lover’s life lies in death / he’ll only discover his heart once he’s given it away

It struck me that this love truly caused devastation and ruin, and that, at the very least, it led to ruin in the realm of ethics. If Aristotle, the Greek ethicist, was the wisest of the wise who called for the pursuit of the happy medium and the avoidance of unseemly highs and lows, this scorched swallow from Khorasan, who was the past master of love, was inviting people to drown and to be churned over and under unreservedly, and valued the complete abandonment of moderation above any finely-measured etiquette.

Not just Aristotle’s wise moderation, but also Al-Ghazzali’s fearful resignation bore no relationship to the brazenness of the spiritual master from Balkh, and his ardent impertinence shattered in one fell swoop both the ethics of moderation and the cage of resignation, and pointed the way to a new morality.

Although this was my first encounter with Rumi being churned over and under, drowning in and becoming at one with the sea, uncaring whether he was tossed up or down, abandoning heart and soul to the waves, becoming ravaged with love, casting off all fear, ablaze with restlessness, contemptuous of moderation and recklessly ravenous, it was not to be my last encounter. The ambulant storm in Jalaleddin’s being also travelled through his tongue. The churning over and under that was a quality of his being was also constantly on his lips, and how can it ever be otherwise? What happens in our being is reflected in what we say. It was not for nothing that the words sugar and sweetness were also always on Rumi’s lips; his whole being was brimming with sweetness and if they had spread out the sweetness that existed within him throughout the world, the oceans would have turned into sherbet: Thine sweet coquetry and thine mock frown / has sweetened the universe and forever may it be so!

Surely an upheaval had to have become insurgent in his being for him to have uttered the near-riotous expression “churned over and under” so frequently. I grew even more convinced of this when I saw that Hafez, that great master from Shiraz, had only ever used this expression in one single instance in his poetry and that even this one instance occurred in a cold, preachy, non-evocative poem which clearly bore the mark of youth on its brow: O unknowing one, strive to know, for / if you don’t know the way, how can you be a guide? /… / If the light of truth shines on your soul / by God, you’ll become more pleasing than the sun / … / When the foundations of your being are churned over and under / Don’t imagine that things will go all awry

I also examined the works of 20 other poets, ranging from Sa’di to Anvari, Sana’i, Attar, Khaqani, Sa’d-e Salman, Jaami, Forughi and so on. Much as I churned their works over and under, I found no sign of “a discourse of being churned over and under”. It was as if the fire in Rumi’s spirit and the burning in his being had made the mad blood of insurrection flow through his works.

Rumi first learnt of the quality of insurrection and resurrection from the Qur’an, which was an event that “crushed and exalted”; that is to say, it churned you over and under, turned you upside down, wrecked you and built you anew. Then, Rumi experienced this upheaval and resurrection in his companionship with Shams-e Tabrizi. He was dead and he came to life. He was tears and he became laughter. He was mortal and he became eternal. And he was so churned over and under that, had he been Joseph, he would have become fecund.

And then he saw this insurgency in every mystic’s being and realized that, until someone underwent this resurrection, rising anew from the soil of their being and being reborn, they would not join the ranks of the friends and companions of God: Within them churns a hundred resurrections / the very least of which can inebriate every neighbour / the noble bring us light and heat / the abject bring us disgrace and deceit

The very least benefit that the insurrection burning in mystics’ being can bring for their cohorts and the people in their vicinity is to inebriate and warm them temporarily. Their presence and their words have such heat and sweetness that, through the dense veil cast by the passage of centuries, they can still fill enthusiasts’ beings with joy and set them whirling and dancing.

Rumi also saw the Prophet as resurrection incarnate, so that when people used to ask Prophet Muhammad when the Day of Resurrection was to occur, he would reply, I am resurrection: Why do you speak in the future tense? / Why ask upheaval when upheaval will occur?

This being churned over and under and this experience, sight and taste of resurrection so enraptured Rumi that he never stopped begging for it to be repeated: Not a stream bubbles out of my being / No lush green revitalizes my body / Neither a refreshing sip from the cupbearer’s jug / nor a cry of longing beckoning me / A resurrection that brings mountains crashing down / shuns me and leaves me just as I am / Where, oh, where is the zeal that digs so deep / as to shatter and level every peak?

Yes, seeing resurrection was a precondition for tasting resurrection and Rumi’s collyrium-daubed eyes had enabled him to see resurrection.

Look at Hafez and how he uses “resurrection” as a steed to take him to his poetic and roguish destination: The fear of resurrection of which the preacher speaks / is the tale of the horror that separation will bring

Or: Tie a goblet to my shroud so that on Judgment Day / I can drink away the fear that Resurrection conveys

Sa’di spoke in even more diluted terms and with even greater earthly distraction: Would that I’d see her again on Judgment Day / for her sins, I’d gladly accept the punishment

Or: Shed blood though you may, I’ll turn a blind eye on Judgment Day / A friend’s a friend, come what may

How vast the distance between these niceties and that insurgent being, whose blood throbbed with upheaval and whose words beat with the pulse of life; whose sweet existence chased all bitterness away and made the finest sugar grow.

Rumi’s love, too, was a riotous love that crushed and exalted. And this lifted him above and differentiated him from all other lovers throughout the ages. Shams-e Tabrizi gave him the gift of the religion of love and, from then on, like a cat in a sack of love, he bounded high and low, leapt here and there, and stirred up a veritable insurrection: I’m a cat set loose in a sack of love / one moment, I’m high up, and the next, very low / lovers reel in a torrential flood / where the water takes them, that’s where they go

The sack would on occasion grow as vast as an ocean and it would churn the fleet-footed cat from Balkh over and under like a big whale caught in a tide, and give him a taste of the riotous turbulence and the contractions and expansions of the ocean of love.
It is hardly surprising that the fish was such a prominent image in Rumi’s poetry, for, a fish is the epitome of the absence of attachments and total abandonment to water. What could better portray the undulating and trusting being of Rumi, the thirsty lover? And the ocean, which was at times calm and contracting, and, at times, tumultuous and expanding, and brimming with water, the source of life and fish’s refuge, the supplier of pearls and the bringer of rain, immense and unified, was like the purest love that provided “bread, water, garments, medicine and sleep” to thousands of fish.

Love and resurrection are most beautifully intertwined in the story of “the lover from Bokhara and Sadr-e Jahan”. It is here that our mystic from Khorasan first uses the expression “insurgency of love”. The story is an account of Rumi’s frame of mind and a full-length mirror of his tall spirit. It is a tale of the anxieties and passions of union and separation, and the churning over and under of his moods and actions.

The lover from Bokhara is Rumi himself, who walks into the jaws of peril and is not frightened by the beloved’s heartlessness. He tells the well-intentioned people who counsel him against foolhardiness: Heartless though my beloved may be / Bokhara beckons and back to it I must go

Rumi is the thirsty man, crazed with dropsy, for whom water equals, at one at the same time, the quest and perdition: As I’m dropsical, water will kill me / ‘though I know this, water draws me ever near / though my hands and stomach may become distended / my love of water will in no way be lessened

Rumi is also the guest of the mosque from which no one emerges alive and the beggar who has lofty aims: He said: I’ll consider my body as lowly and valueless / What matter if a treasure chest is minus a single pearl? / Mosque! If you become my Karbala and resting place / You’ll turn into the Ka’ba of my every quest / Brother! I have no fear of blazing flames / I’m not a log that burns away and perishes

And “the idiot” who has set his heart on perdition and submitted to the imminence of death, the man who has wisely fled danger but is drawn again to love’s providence, the trusted master and the wealthy mufti who has been humbled by love is Rumi himself: You were the lord of the land, a gentleman / you were trusted, an engineer, a master of every man / You fled danger with a thousand tricks / Did idiocy bring you back or providence? / You, who studied all of Mercury’s mysteries / now, see providence make a mockery of all intelligence

And the anguished lover, who flees all the counsels, who has abandoned his lessons on jurisprudence for the anguish of love and has fled all the learned masters of Shafe’i and Hanafi jurisprudence is, again, Rumi himself: He said: Please halt all your counsels / …/ Whilst my love pangs just grow and grow / Of what use to me are Shafe’i and Abu-Hanafi’s lessons?

And, ultimately, his meeting with the beloved represents “the insurgency of love” which he portrays with fiery eloquence: O seraph of the insurgency of love / O epitome of love and lover of love / As I hover between tears and speech / Should I speak or should I weep? / If I speak, my tears might vanish / But if I weep, how can I praise and cherish? / Saying this, the frail lover began to weep / the sight of him bringing tears to every lord and serf / As his body was wracked by sob after sob / the people of Bokhara gathered round / some spoke, some wept and some laughed / man, woman and child all gathered around / And the sky gently whispered to the earth / If you’ve never seen the tumult of resurrection, look and see / Resurrection Day’s roll has now been unfurled / It’s laid bare the secrets of the universe / Reason is dumbfounded at this ardour and passion / incapable of judging what’s more moving: union or separation

And this is only the first staging post of the insurgency of love. It contains seventy two madnesses which, were they to be revealed, would make the skies tremble with entreaties and prayers.

But one point still remains. The insurgency of love connects everything from passion to resurrection to the ocean to mountains, fish, cats, whales, waves, drowning, and highs and lows. It turns them all into the members of a single happy family. Be that as it may, one guest still seems to be missing and that is “sugar”. This turbulent ocean which is filled with whales that are constantly being tossed and turned; this foaming mass that is bestirred and bestirring, is neither salty nor bitter; it is sugary through and through.

This tumultuous resurrection not only turns death into life but also sweetens all bitterness. And Rumi was right to say: Love is the master and, I, the mastered / I’m the sweetest sugar with the passion of love

“Sugar”, “sweetness” and “halva” are recurring words in his poetry and this can only be because the poet himself had been filled with a sweetness that seeped into his words. How can a grief-stricken mind produce joyful poetry? How can sweetness flow out of bitterness? Love had daubed his eyes with a collyrium that made him see the Master of the world as a sweet-seller who keeps dispensing sweets and somehow never runs out: At dawn your love took this tired heart to a place / which lies beyond dawn, beyond night, beyond day / What a sweet-seller I have who sells me sweets / And never turns me away or runs out of sweets

Even when lovers are in low spirits and things are in a state of contraction, it is a sweet death and the sweet-seller is never far away: We are the foes and the beloved is the one who kills us / Drowning in the ocean, the waves come and kills us / It is with the sweetest pleasure that we relinquish our lives / For it is with halva and sugar that the king kills us / Let the doubters fear, the one who is pious knows no fear / For he nails his self to the cross like Jesus

One night I saw his churned-over being, face aglow, laughing with the most inebriated sweetness as he returned from a nightly banquet with the beloved. Helplessly, I borrowed some of his own verses and recited them to him: What lies in your heart, O, wonder, how sweet your smile / Who were you with last night to be grinning like dawn? / It’s true that, from the first, God created you to smile / But, today, your smile is like no other smile / You’re the purest musk perfuming the air / You’re the sun, greeting the moon with a smile / When all the trees are autumnal and dead / From what orchard are you with your blossoming smile? / Sing me the last few verses in your inebriated way / You, who bewitch me with your blameless smile

So, if one night, you, too, dream of an inebriated whale, who is dancing about in a tumultuous ocean made of the sweetest wine like a fleet-footed cat, now, bounding up and, now, bounding down, who is laughing and spreading sweetness all around, there is no need for you to go to an interpreter of dreams. The interpretation is “Rumi”!

“How lovely is the nod and wink of a dream that is better than wakefulness!”

Delivered at Maryland University, USA, September 2007

Translated from the Persian by Nilou Mobasser


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