Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Night of Qadr

I knew an Alim at the Madrasah Jamiah who was the light of his age. He was very wise, versed in many philosophies and sciences. Beyond these inner qualities, he was physically strong and handsome. His words were measured and articulate, his manner appealing, and all who knew him respected him. At last, his reputation attracted the interest of a local dignitary who, having met the Alim, recommended him to the Prince of Samarkand. The Prince called the Alim before him, verified for himself the man’s merits exactly as I have described them, and took him in his service to tutor his children. Over time, the Prince referred to the Alim for his advice on all matters of state. His advice was always sound, and the Prince’s affairs prospered.

This Alim however was unused to the dangerous intrigues of a prince’s court. The envious disliked him whom their prince favored. Upon the prince’s lips, every good thing imaginable, every wise decision, every happy outcome was thanks to this Alim. Such words, however, only confirmed in the envious their hatred for the Alim and they plotted against him. Yet every plot of which they conceived, however devilishly contrived, however perfectly executed, never had the intended effect. Instead, with every passing year, the Alim’s honors but grew and the Prince rewarded him richly, at last making him his Vizier.

Sadly, however, the Alim, giving his counsel to the Prince, advised something that the Prince disliked. Suddenly, the Prince’s demeanor became fiercely hostile. He stripped the Alim of his titles, confiscated his property, and banished him from court.

I saw the Alim again many years later. His physical strength had fled him, and his features were emaciated. Whatever position he had taken, he was robbed of it. Whatever money he made, was stolen from his hands. The Prince had spread terrible rumors about the Alim, and no one would associate with him. Unable to rely on the generosity of his friends, who feared displeasing the Prince more than honoring their obligations of friendship, he was forced to beg for his bread.

Yet when I spoke to him, I saw that his qualities were unchanged, that the rumors were untrue. I took him into my care for a while, fed him, and looked after him while he regained his strength. When I spoke disparagingly of the Prince or of the unkind treatment he had received, the Alim was quiet, and sometimes smiled. Astonished by this, I said, “How can you smile? You who were once honored and revered for your wisdom have been cast down from power, deprived of property, denied even of scraps from those who once praised you. Yet you, on the verge of starvation, not long from death, you act as though none have wronged you, as though you still wear a robe of honor, as though you are still at the highest position in a prince’s service. How did you arrive at serenity on the road of ruin?”

The Alim said, “The man I was in the Prince’s service, as I was at the Madrasah Jamiah, as I was as a student, still I am that man. I do not curse the wind for blowing, the sun for shining, the world from turning. For they are as they are. So life is as it is. It makes no difference whether I am buried in tatters or in a robe of honor, if I die at the palace or in the dust. Every road we take in life is at last the road of ruin.”

To this, I replied, “So you are reconciled to the whims of fate or to cruel and undeserved treatment at an enemy’s hands?”

The Alim answered, “There is no fate. And if I am broken on the wheel, there is no wheel.”

Seeing that I did not understand, he recited:

Those who stand aloof still bend to His command.
Those who trust in luck are bound to His decree.
For every night is the Night of Qadr.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Night Journey

Many years ago, during the festival celebrating the Night Journey of Muhammad, I went to Shiraz to pay homage to Sa‘di at his shrine there. But at that shrine, I felt unmoved.

That night, which was the night of the festival, the whole city was alight, and I wandered the streets until I came to another shrine, unlit and uncelebrated. This was the shrine to one for whom remembrance and homage were also due, but against whom the fickle crowd had turned. They had destroyed this shrine, and among the broken walls and rubble I lingered sorrowfully, reflecting on the vagaries of fate.

The night became long and cool and I drew my legs up to my body to stay warm when I heard, on the broken pavement, another soul drawing near. I turned my head to him, and saw the ghostly figure of Sa‘di Shirazi. I said to him, “Why does your shade wander here? Why not haunt your own shrine instead, or the roads on which you traveled?”

The apparition said, “I have no need for self-commemoration. But I have need to commemorate this One.” Saying this, he gestured to the ground strewn with shattered stone, and tile, and glass. “If it is not still beautiful, still it is His.”

Though the sea is very great,
It is a droplet to the Sun.
And if the sea should shine,
To whom is commemoration due?
The book is for the reader,
Not the author.
The throne is for the King,
Not the other way around.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Houri's Skirt

In the Buddhist temple I stood before a statue of the bodhisattva, Kuanyin. Looking up from my place, I saw that I stood in the very spot where her gaze was falling. I abruptly left the temple.

A friend tugged my sleeve and said, “Why are you fleeing from a statue?”

I said, “When the eyes of heaven are upon you, how can you conceal your shame?”

The one who truly knows himself
Will not befoul the Houri’s skirt
By clinging to her hem.
The punishment of fire
Is his rightful place.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Poisoned Well

On the road to the city of Rayy, I met a man who assailed all those who passed by with violent words and vile opinions. Though most averted their eyes and walked on silently, if more briskly, I stopped and stood before him. He continued his harangue and said, “Nothing is more foul than the Jew! His customs are alien. He drinks the blood of innocents for his rites, and poisons our wells!”

I said, “Tell me of these rites. I am a little acquainted with Jewish custom and know of none for which human blood is required.”

He said proudly, “I have no specific knowledge of these rites. For the wise have said: sometimes it is best not to know too much of a thing.”

I answered, “This is true, but there is never merit in ignorance, and no virtue in slander.”

If he shuts his eyes, he is blind.
If he stops his ears, he is deaf.
Would that he were only mute!

The son of Mary cannot raise the corpse who says,
“I am not dead!”