Rumi, Reason and Shi'ism
I was reading my Arabic translation of Rumi’s Mathanwi over the weekend. (Admittedly, it is originally in Farsi, which should mean that English would do quite as well as Arabic, but for me, all respect to the Reynold Nicholson translation which I cannot judge not knowing Farsi, it’s not. Arabic is just a better language for poetry, with its multiplicity of overlapping words reflecting shadows and subtleties of meaning, even as English is a better word for law, with its clarity and straightforwardness.) Anyway, the whole thing is a series of rhyming couplets more or less, not really tied into some sort of entirely coherent narrative, though it does have recurring themes, one of which is the place of reason and knowledge, which Rumi quite obviously thinks of as having its limitations, in a broader Islamic world at the time that was far more enamored of reason as the means to know God and God’s Will than Rumi was. Hence, a telling passage is one that reads as follows:
Reason will say, as Gabriel has, “O Ahmad, if I take one step further, surely I will burn.”
So leave me, and advance. This is my limit—advance, captain of my soul, without me.
(Remember this is Farsi translated to Arabic translated to English so apologies for stylistic awkwardness). Reason to faith, as the angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad (Ahmad is a reference to the Prophet Muhammad). Once the teacher, the one who guided and led and transmitted the Revelation, now the one who can go no further, who has to leave Ahmed to advance on his own, for reason brought him so far, and the rest is not for the angels, but for men. I always found something rather beautiful in this passage, something resembling Kierkegaard’s Leap, though not precisely the same (reason, after all, begins the inquiry which gets Muhammad far enough to advance on his own).
Yet I thought this was worth mentioning in this morning’s post, because it is quite evident that orthodox Usuli Shi’ism as it is taught in the seminaries of Najaf and Qum alike would read a passage like this quite differently. (If they bothered to read it at all. I get no sense that anyone in Najaf thinks or cares about Rumi. He is a figure of some pride in Iran, however, though probably not Qom. Still, even Ahmadinijad sings his praises, so who knows. I don’t spend my time in these places asking them about Sufi saints, I figure it’s not likely to get me much by way of useful information.) In contemporary Shi’i dogmatic renditions, reason likewise has a limited role, but quite a different one, and the angel leaving the Prophet would be a metaphor to invoke a very different type of departure demanded of each believer.
Reason for the jurists, essentially, brings one to Islam, and specifically Shi’i Islam. If you sit down and think about it, the theory runs, if you just apply neutral reason, free of bias and uncontaminated by circumstance, you will see that there must be a God, that Islam is the religion of his Revelation, and that Shi’ism is the correct, true path within Islam. Leave aside the politicized rhetoric about how our Sunnis are our brothers, nay, extensions of ourselves, and get clerics (not the highest jurists, hard to get them to speak with such specificity for very long) to start discussing specifically theology, and this becomes very obvious, very quickly. Why does the West think we Muslims are all terrorists? They are equating Islam with its deviant branches, let them look to Shi’ism and they will be disabused of this. And so forth.
Now I do find this ironic on so many levels. This uncontaminated reason is itself contaminated, borrowed quite extensively from Aristotle, for one thing. But I’m not a jurist, just an academic, so no reason to dwell on that. Anyway, once you get this far as a believer, reason generally disappears under the theory. That is to say, you accept Revelation, you accept Shi’ism, you accept the role of the jurists in expounding doctrine, and here, you really have to drop reason. Now you more or less have to listen to what the jurist has to say. Not because he can deploy reason better than you to expound on legal rules—reason is in theory the fourth source of law in Shi’i Islam, but it is a source more honored in the breach than the observance.
So you don’t trust the jurist because he can reason better than you can. You trust him because he has studied where you haven’t. He has learned the source material, and the means and methods, and he can deploy those methods even as a doctor can deploy her methods to remove a tumor from your body. Not because of reason, but because they know things you don’t. I don’t mean they are claiming to be nothing more than efficient automatons, obviously you have to use considerable intelligence to unearth a legal rule, even as, say, a navigator must use intelligence to find their way with a sexton across the ocean based on the positions of the stars and nobody wants an idiot removing a malignant tumor. It takes skill and a sharp mind of course. It doesn’t take open ended “reason.” Your intelligence is deployed not to construct a legal rule when the material seems to offer two potential answers, your intelligence is deployed to find the one proper and correct rule based on the methods and means that are authorized. And then you follow that rule even if it seems “unreasonable”. Just as you consent to a dude with a white coat saying they are going to split your belly open and take something out, not because it sounds reasonable, but because you know the doctor understands things you don’t. (The dominant metaphor I’ve heard in Najaf and Qum alike delivered to us layfolk is always the doctor.) So even as “Gabriel” leaves “Ahmad” because to continue to insist on reason would land Gabriel in the fire, so reason must submit to the protectors of the doctrine who will tell you what’s best.
Lots of ways to read Rumi I suppose, though I’ll stick with mine. Makes something magnificent of Faith, I think.