We’re currently producing a show featuring Jean Vanier, a wise old man who has spent his life doing charity work with mentally disabled individuals around the world. Although he’s Christian, his words and his gentleness are unsettling in their beauty and have given me plenty to think about as a Muslim. His notions of God’s vulnerability, in particular, make me understand the word islam better than I ever have. (I’m going to delve into the kind of theological matters I don’t typically discuss. I mean, yes, I do talk about religion often enough, but my own spiritual bent is difficult for me to pin down, even though I’m coming from an Islamic perspective. So I’ll be talking about God as a reality more than I usually do. That’s even uncomfortable for me to do because I think God is something that we are incapable of talking about well using language. It’s awkward, and language is limiting because of its precision and linearity. I’ll be addressing that awkwardness in this post, as well.)
Mr. Vanier’s theology about God’s vulnerability comes from his own life’s work and the generosity that that has demanded from him. He talks about the need to live in relation with others, to engage actively in gentleness and honoring the body through acts of tenderness. These are concepts that he practices in the communities he has set up to welcome and care for individuals who are often treated as pity cases and “poor little people.”
Often, we create distance between those in pain and ourselves. We aren’t comfortable with seeing the pain in others. We don’t know how to deal with it. Their pain terrifies us and shames us and we are left crippled. We are left crippled.
Drawing from that, Mr. Vanier explains that the love and compassion that is at the heart of his work, relating to others in pain, is about acknowledging this vulnerability in ourselves so that we can be in relation with the vulnerability of others. It follows that love itself is a state of vulnerability. Loving someone is opening yourself up to that person, lowering your defenses.
And if we imagine as God being infinite in love and compassion (in Islam, we would refer to the Divine Names ar-Rahman and ar-Raheem—the Most Merciful and the Most Compassionate), and if we understand that love is an state of openness and vulnerability, therefore God’s infinite love also generates a kind of divine vulnerability, a heightened sensation of our pain.
Approaching The Beloved
These are controversial ideas, mystical ideas. To me, they echo things I know about the Jewish mystic tradition of Kabbalah, about the Kabbalistic vision of how the universe was created when a kind of primordial divine void erupted within God. More importantly, I’m starting to understand how the idea of love functions at the core of Sufi theology in Islam.
In Islam, Sufism is perhaps the tradition that is most conversant about the idea of love. A lot of poetry refers to The Beloved—a title ascribed to God. Poets go on an on about how pained they are by the separation from God, about how they yearn to be closer to God. Some of the poetry even borders on the erotic in its description of longing. Again, mysticism does things with language that are unsettling to more orthodox, pragmatic conceptions of God and faith.
Truth be told, as deeply drawn as I have been to Sufi ideas, I’ve had a bit of trouble finding a way in. So much of Islam is focused on law, perhaps similar to Judaism in that aspect. Law doesn’t quite grab the heart—at least not mine.
On the other hand, I am drawn to the deeply mystical idea of ihsan, a state of moral beauty or virtue that we are meant to attain, something that exists beyond acts of faith or even doctrines of belief, which are both preliminary stages of spiritual growth. The ideal of ihsan refers to living with a supreme awareness of God, almost living in a state of grace, so to speak.
But in all the Sufi talk of love, which builds on concepts like ihsan, where is the way in? Where does the idea of love even come from in Sufi thought, or in Muslim thought? One of the starting points for me are the Divine Names I mentioned above, realizing that these are the Divine Names we invoke most often in daily prayer. We are continually calling upon God’s mercy and compassion.
The stubborn self
Still, as a typical Western individualist, I have had a very difficult time wrapping my head around the word islam itself. As I understand it, this Arabic word derives from the word peace and refers to surrender. The usual context of peace—namely as the opposite of war—helps us to understand how surrender can be related to the idea of peace. There are further shades of meaning. Surrender derives from peace, peace from surrender. In the Islamic context, this means surrendering one’s will and being to God.
It’s hard to square that with Western humanistic concepts where “man is the measure of all things.” Being so Western myself, I’ve had a tough time really understanding how surrender, in the Islamic sense, could even be a positive thing. Much of atheism derives from the idea that we must free ourselves from imaginary shackles, from servitude to the authority of tradition, from mental slavery to idols of our own creation. So in that sense, surrender is hardly an action one ought to pursue.
But I think if we look at the idea of love in Sufi thought, and the role of divine compassion in Islamic piety, and we relate this back to the idea of love being about vulnerability, I think it all starts to make sense. Surrender is about vulnerability. It’s about lowering our defenses—like love. And in that sense, I now understand how surrender really is a positive act. Surrender isn’t an act of passivity. It’s an act of trust. It’s an act of love. You open yourself up to the one who you know—you know in the core of your being—has truly limitless love. Now I understand that. Now I understand why Sufism places so much emphasis on love, on approaching the Beloved.
I used to imagine love in the Sufi sense as deriving from the idea of surrender as a sublimation of one’s own will. It may still be very much part of that line of thought. But there is nothing so cut and dried in the poetic language of Sufi theology. There’s a lot of emphasis on the control of one’s ego (or self-aggrandized individuality), on annihilating one’s self, on removing all the barriers imposed by the human mind so we can be closer to God. I read Buddhist ideas into much of this, and I don’t think that’s necessarily a wrong reading, since meditative practice in Buddhism is meant to lead to the snuffing out the ever-burning flame of one’s own selfhood and the anchors that selfhood creates to a world of desire and pain. Annihilation is a supremely positive thing, the doorstep of Awakening.
Like Buddhism, Islam places a seemingly “negative” act (surrender) at its core. It’s paradoxical. So, too, is the idea that a God of infinite love could be in a kind of infinite pain seeing the state of the world, a world this all-powerful God could also easily make perfect in the flash of a supernova.
But if we imagine surrender as a state of openness and existential compassion, then that means that we are striving to truly live in that state of grace that ihsan refers to. Ihsan is about acting as if we could see God before us. And if we’re surrendering through acts of love and vulnerability and loyalty, and if we are continually in that state of surrender, we are continually in a state of love. (Rumi: “Wherever you are, whatever you do, be in love.”) Imagine how that would affect our actions in the here and now. Being a loving person, a generous person, a loyal person, a sincere person at all times.
So some of these rather “touchy-feely” concepts of Sufism and Islam aren’t really just a bunch of hippie nonsense (though there is some of that, too, to be sure). This idea of surrender through the vulnerability of love has been at the core of Islam thought since the beginning. It’s prefigured in the word islam. A muslim (intentional lowercase m) is, etymologically, a person who surrenders. It isn’t about being part of a religious institution or having a particular religious identity. It’s about being an embodiment of someone in love. Maybe that’s why I find public displays of faith as difficult to witness as public displays of affection. Actually, I mind PDAs less than most people do. But conversely, I find it tough to watch someone’s private relationship with the Divine. Love is about intimacy, and intimacy needs safety and privacy.
I think that’s why I have a difficult time, similarly, talking about my religious thoughts out loud, or being “religious” (in the traditional sense) in a public way. It just feels odd to me. Maybe I’m not the type to shout on rooftops (I always worry I’ll disturb someone). I am, though, someone who can walk down the street feeling drunk on love, hearing music in the rustling of leaves and in the way the sun hits my face. And Sufis do so love being drunk. If I’m named after a city of poets and a wine, I ought not be any different.