The World is Beautiful
An interview with Sheikh Tosun Bayrak al-Jerrahi
by Carter Phipps
WIE: What does it mean to be in the world but not of it?
SHEIKH TOSUN BAYRAK: Let me answer that question by telling you a story. Ibn Arabi, who is considered to be the greatest sheikh in Sufism, was traveling to Mecca, and he passed through Tunisia. In Tunisia he was told that there was a holy man living there who he must visit. This holy man was a fisherman who lived in a mud hut on the beach and caught three fish a day, no more, and he gave the bodies of these fish to poor and hungry people. He himself boiled the heads of the fish, and just ate the heads. He did this day after day, year after year. He was living the life of a monastic person, a person who has divorced himself from the world totally, and, of course, Ibn Arabi was very impressed with this discipline. So he talked to the fisherman and the fisherman asked, "Where are you going? Are you going to pass through Cairo?" Ibn Arabi nodded and the fisherman said, "My sheikh lives there. Will you please visit him and ask him for advice for me, because all these years that I have been praying and living humbly like this, I haven't received any advancement in my spiritual life. Please ask him to give me advice."
Ibn Arabi promised him that he would, and so when he arrived in Cairo, he asked the people in the city where this sheikh lived and they said, "Do you see the huge palace on the top of the hill? He lives there." So he went to this beautiful palace on the top of the hill, knocked on the door, and was received very well. They brought him into a large, luxurious waiting room, gave him food to eat, and made him comfortable. But the sheikh had gone to visit the king. And Sufis don't normally visit kings or people in high positions. It's forbidden because they can become an additional curtain between us and God, an additional attachment to the world.
While Ibn Arabi was in this luxurious room waiting for the sheikh, he looked out the window and saw a procession coming. The sheikh was riding a beautiful Arabian horse and was wearing a big turban, diamond rings, a fur coat, and had a whole honor guard of soldiers at his side, and he arrived with great pomp at the palace. But he was a very nice man, and came and greeted Ibn Arabi warmly, and they sat down and started talking. At some point in the conversation, Ibn Arabi said, "You have a student in Tunisia." And the sheikh replied, "Yes, I know." And Ibn Arabi said, "He asked for your spiritual advice." "Tell my student," the sheikh said, "If he's so attached to this world, he's never going to get anywhere."
So this was confusing to Ibn Arabi, but on his trip back, he stopped in Tunisia. He went to the fisherman there, who immediately asked, "Did you see my sheikh?" "Yes, I saw your sheikh," he replied. "What did he say?" asked the fisherman. And Ibn Arabi, looking uncomfortable, said, "Well, your sheikh, you know, he lives in great pomp and great luxury." The fisherman replied, "Yes, I know. What did he say?" So Ibn Arabi told him: "He said as long as you're so attached to this world, you are never going to get anywhere." And the fisherman cried and cried. "He's right," he said, "each day, when I give those three fish bodies to the people, my heart goes with them. Each day, I wish I could have a whole fish instead of just a head, while my sheikh lives in great luxury but doesn't care at all about it. Whether he has it or not, it doesn't touch him."
That's what it means to be in the world but not of the world. It means that, as Sufis, we are supposed to be out in the world participating in the world, but not falling in love with the world. There is a hadith [a saying of the Prophet Muhammad] that tells us: The world is your friend if it reminds you of God, and it is your enemy if it makes you forget God.
WIE: One Sufi mystic is quoted as saying, "To leave the world is not to abstain from property, wife, and children, but to act in obedience to God and to set the things of God above those of the world."
TB: Exactly. Another hadith tells us that when Allah ordered the world, he spoke to the world, saying, "World, the one who becomes your servant, treat him as the worst of slaves. Beat him. Make him work hard and when he dies, crush him. But if he becomes my servant, care for him well and when he dies, hug him like a mother would hug her child."
That means that if you are the servant of Allah, then the world is going to be your servant and obey you and make you rich and everything else. And when you die, it will hug you gently like a mother caressing you. But if you forget Allah and become the servant of the world, then the world is going to whip you, kick you, and make you work like hell. And when you die, it's going to crush you.
WIE: What exactly do you mean by "the world"?
TB: Your wife, your children, your home, your work, your money in the bank, your position in the company, your political aspirations or affiliations, your bed at night, your shower in the morning, your breakfast—everything!
WIE: There's a word in Arabic, dunya, which also means "the world" or "worldly life." It seems that it's often spoken about as something negative or as something that tempts us away from the path.
TB: You're right. Many people think in those terms, but let me make a correction, it's important to understand this distinction. If dunya makes you forget your Lord, if it makes you forget where you came from, what your function is, and where you are going, if it makes you a fool, then it is your enemy. But if it reminds you that this is just a passage, this is just a place for tests, this is just a place to prove that you are doing what you were created for, then it is a good place, a good thing, and a wonderful friend.
WIE: Would it be accurate to say that for most of us, the world tends to be the former, tends to be that which draws us away from God?
TB: It is not the world's fault. It is your fault. It's not the devil's fault. It is your attachment to the world. The world is beautiful. Allah has made it beautiful. Every spot of it is a reflection of him. He has never created anything ugly.
You see, the Sufis believe that creation is simply a mirror. When there is nothing in front of the mirror, it reflects nothing. But Allah is in front of it, so all of creation is a reflection of him. We see his attributes, the attributes of God, reflected in the mirror of creation. And that's what we are. Everything in creation is Allah's attributes. It's not Allah, but it is from Allah. So there is nothing wrong with the world. It is your fault that you make a god of it. It's not the world's fault.
WIE: Many Sufi sheikhs have had wives and families, owned businesses, and some are even said to have been great sultans. What is it that enables a sheikh or a dervish or any spiritual seeker to live amidst all the complexities and temptations of the world and still do the right thing? How can we act in the world in a way that expresses nonattachment to the world?
TB: The answer to that question is very simple. A young German lady asked that question to my sheikh, Sheikh Muzaffer [Ozak] Efendi, and he said, "My daughter, we are very fortunate, because we have got a book in our hands, the Qu'ran, which we believe is from Allah, from the Lord." The Bible is equivalent to a hadith. In other words, it tells us what Jesus did and what Jesus said. But we believe that the Qu'ran was revealed by Allah and brought word by word, letter by letter, dot by dot, to the prophet Muhammad. Through his blessed lips it came out, and not a dot of it has changed for the last one thousand five hundred years.
We actually have three touchstones to find out whether our actions are right or wrong. But you must act! You cannot sit on your behind, because then you're dead. Now if the action corresponds to what Allah tells you to do in the Qu'ran, it's definitely the right action. It is said that in the Qu'ran there are a thousand things to do and a thousand things not to do. I certainly don't know all of them. I know perhaps a hundred things, and even those often depend on interpretation. So this touchstone, this test to see whether your action is real gold or fake, is a difficult one.
The next touchstone is the imitation of the prophet Muhammad. Although he lived one thousand five hundred years ago, the prophet Muhammad was never alone, and everything he did and said was recorded. None of it was inconsequential—the way he drank his water, the way he made love to his wives, the way he went to the bathroom. There are hundreds of thousands of hadiths of things which he said and did, and these are easier to understand, because no interpretation is necessary.
The third touchstone is your conscience. You have to ask your conscience, "This action that I'm about to do, is the result going to be beneficial for the world—for him, for her, for me, for the grass, for the cat, for the turtle? Or is it going to be the opposite, is it going to cause pain and hurt?" If it is beneficial, it's right; if it is not beneficial, it's wrong.
What all of this boils down to is that we are here to ceaselessly do right action. I just returned from a trip to Iraq to help with some of the suffering there. I visited orphanages and hospitals and was able to donate money to help a great many people who are suffering, especially children. And while I almost never talk about my personal experiences, my experience there still lingers with me, because a strange thing happened. During my few days in Iraq, I was not there. Action was there, things were happening, but it was as if I was not there. And I felt that that was my great, great reward which I received. And for me that suffices.
WIE: Maybe that's the best kind of action in the world.
TB: I hope so. Action without being there. We have a saying in Turkish. It is hiç, which means "nothing." And that's the goal.
WIE: Is it ever necessary to retreat or to step back from our involvement with the world in order to deepen our own spiritual contemplation?
TB: There are beautiful stories about the prophet Muhammad where he would be so lost and immersed in these intense spiritual states that he wouldn't even recognize his own wife Aisha. He would say, "Who are you?" and she would say, "Aisha," and he would reply, "Who is Aisha?" You see, he wasn't there. He was so far away that he didn't even know his own wife. But then there were other times when he would rest his blessed head on the thigh of his wife and say, "Aisha, caress my head." So even he needed a little comfort. You have to come back to the world. We are in this body, you see, and it needs things. You have to come back.
WIE: In your own life, you were a very successful artist, but you gave up your career, gave up fame and fortune to devote yourself to the spiritual life. What was it that compelled you to leave your own life behind and take that step?
TB: Actually, both my wife and I were artists, and we felt very strongly that it was feeding our egos. Art, art exhibitions, and the consequences of being accepted and successful are incredible food for your ego, which is the Sufi's enemy. The final straw was when we went to Rome to visit a friend, a sculptor, and there was a very pretty young girl there whom my friend introduced me to. And she was so adoring to me. She said, "Ohhh, I know you. I love your art." She was completely praising me, and I saw the ego suddenly rise up and say, "Aha! This beautiful, spiritual girl is telling you that you are a great artist." So I said, "Oh, my God! That's it. It's over." I hit the ego on the head and decided I was finished with it all.
WIE: In the Sufi tradition, what is the ideal relationship to the world for those who have gone very deep into the spiritual life?
TB: I'll just say that what I myself do and what I ask my students to do is to find their place in the world, or I should say their duty, their function in this world. And when they find it, they should do it as best they can. And they should ask for Allah's help in finding it and doing it. For example, when a person wants to go to college and study certain things, they often take aptitude tests. So in a much larger and more complete sense, we have to pass ourselves through aptitude tests and find out what we have been brought into this world to do, and then we must do it as best we can. I think that's how one's relationship should be to the world.
Thirty years ago, if somebody would have told me that I was going to be a Sufi and a sheikh, I would have laughed and said, "What are they talking about?" Therefore, you cannot say that I did it. Finally, Allah has to do it for you. That is why when we pray, we open our hands. If your hands are open and something drops into them, you can catch it. But if they're not open, you can't. It falls away. So you have to be open, and that's all that you can do. I don't even say open your heart. You have to open yourself, everything—your body, your mind, your potential. You have to keep everything open and somehow hope to receive direction and indication as to what your function is. And once you find your function, I think then you will also find yourself through your function.
WIE: As you've said, Sufism isn't generally known as a spiritual tradition that emphasizes renunciation of the world. But, in the Sufi tradition, does renunciation play some role in the quest for spiritual union? I've read many stories by Sufi mystics that detail the dangers of the "deceiving" world with its "limitless tricks" and that encourage the seeker to fly away from it on the "wings of prayer." That seems to suggest that renunciation or removal from the world offers the surest and safest path to the realization of spiritual freedom and communion with God.
TB: In our discipline, we don't agree with this. On the contrary, I would go so far as to say that renunciation is a sin. Renunciation means that I am thirsty and he, Allah, is offering me a glass of water and I say, "No thank you." That's a sin! For instance, Allah offers to reduce our prayers when we are traveling. And some idiots say, "No. I will continue making my prayers as if I'm not traveling." That's an insult. It's a sin. Because Allah offers you a gift and you say, "No, keep your gift." It's arrogance in the extreme, this renunciation business. This isn't just my opinion; this is the opinion of the Sufis. You should take whatever it is you receive, and you should put it to good use. If you don't want it, give it to somebody who needs it! I have, praise to Allah, enough money. But if he gave me a million dollars today, I'm not going to refuse it. I'm going to take it and I'm going to give it to the ones who need it and keep some for myself too. I'll buy myself a new car instead of an old one, and maybe a $150 pair of shoes. That would be the day!
So there is no going to the monasteries, no climbing up the Himalayas, no pouring ashes on your head and sitting cross-legged on nails. You have to go out into the world and participate. For example, my own teacher, Sheikh Muzaffer, loved to eat, loved good food. And he had a young wife, whom he loved very much. He used to say, "Money—there should be a lot in your pocket, but none in your heart."
WIE: What about the example of Jesus? He is considered to be a Sufi prophet and yet he encouraged people to leave the world behind and follow him.
TB: In Arabic, we call Jesus "Ruhullah," the spirit of God—or more accurately "Ruhu min Allah," which means not the spirit of Allah, but the spirit from Allah. Jesus was pure spirit, you see, and a human being cannot be pure spirit. His method of teaching was not by example. In fact, whoever tried to imitate him got eaten by the lions, or lost in the dark chambers of monasteries or convents which were not good for anybody. His message was not through imitation, but through what he said. So I don't agree with you that the teaching of Christ was to abandon the world. It is just that some people tried to follow his example, which is absolutely impossible to follow. But his teaching is possible to follow.
WIE: Today there is a growing spiritual movement in America that has been very critical of traditional spiritual paths and teachings, specifically those that emphasize a separation between the world and a transcendent God. This new philosophy claims that even the most mundane aspects of our worldly lives are inherently sacred and can potentially become the vehicles for spiritual awakening. Books on such subjects as sacred sexuality, sacred sports, and spirituality in the workplace are becoming more and more popular, blurring the lines between what is considered to be spiritual and what is considered to be secular. In her recent book The New American Spirituality, Elizabeth Lesser writes, "The bliss of the world is no less spiritual than the bliss of transcendence," and goes on, "We can indeed ‘follow our bliss' as we follow the spiritual path, whether that bliss is . . . reading a holy text or running a marathon." So my question is: Are the proponents of this new spirituality on the right track? In the end, what exactly is the difference between a holy life and a worldly life? Is there any difference at all?
TB: What they say is, in a sense, true. If, in running the marathon, you feel that the force in you which permits you to run is from God, the ground which you are running upon is from God, and the breath which you inhale and exhale is from God, then this experience is indeed more important than reading the Bible in vain. But they're not teaching this, you see. What they say is taken from the scriptures; it's true. But their intention, by saying that a marathon is equal to the Qu'ran, is to abolish the Qu'ran. Their premise is right, but their actions and their intentions are wrong.
You see, there is nothing new in the world. But they think that because we're living in the twenty-first century, things have changed. Nothing has changed. The same thing is valid now as was valid for the caveman, except, of course, that life was simpler. Life became more complicated, but we still have the same sized brain. And we have the same good and bad, right and wrong, sweet and bitter, dark and light—everything has existed for a long time. The camel became the airplane, but everything is the same. At the time of Jesus, all these problems that we have today existed. Read the Bible. The villains were there. The thieves were there. The murderers were there. The politicians were there. Everybody was there, doing the same thing! So what makes people think that new solutions have to be found? What makes them think that they know better than Jesus? They're arrogant, and that's the problem.
WIE: Would you say that in the Islamic teachings, our daily lives in the world are sanctified through our ongoing voluntary submission and surrender to the will of God?
TB: It's not as simple as that. Submission, yes, but cognizant submission. Not blind submission. That's the difference between the orthodox and the mystic. The orthodox blindly submits, and in blindly submitting, imagination may intervene. While the Sufi, the mystic, tries to understand and submit, and therefore taste what he is eating. The orthodox eats at McDonalds and then goes to a French restaurant and eats beef bourguignon. To him, it's the same thing. He doesn't taste it, he just submits, he eats. But the Sufi chooses. The hamburger tastes bad and he recognizes that, so he goes and eats the beef bourguignon. He tastes his religion and he understands what he's doing. He submits willingly and knows that one thing doesn't taste good and the other does. That's the difference.
WIE: In the "new American spirituality," instead of that kind of cognizant submission to a higher authority, many people are speaking about self-authority—where it is up to us to pick and choose as we see fit from among the world's wisdom traditions, to find our own methods and spiritual practices that suit our lives in the world.
TB: There you go kaputski. There you go crazy. There you go arrogant. You're saying: I know better than God. I know better than Jesus. I know better than Moses. I know better than the sheikhs. You see, we are forbidden to say "my." We are forbidden to say "me." This is my idea. This is my concept. This is my right. This is my wrong. Forget it, it's just anti-discipline. This is self-glorification, making your own self your God. And that's deadly. And those people, they die. They're living zombies. They live this life with imagination, with no concept of truth, no concept of reality. They live in their imagination, and they die in their imagination and they will wake up when they die and say, "Oh, my God, what have I done to myself?"
For 6,000 years in Judaism, for 2,000 years in Christianity, for 1,500 years in Islam, hundreds of thousands of saints and spiritual teachers have devoted themselves to this, and they have found and refined the relationship of the human being to the world, to life, to the hereafter. And here comes this man or this woman who studies a little psychology, a little philosophy, and rejects the whole thing. Millions of people, intelligent people, devout people, have made this their specialty. We are living in a period of specialty, but those people were super-specialists. And their documents are here, their words are here, their principles are here. It's not even worth discussing.
May Allah help these people. That's all that I can say. And may Allah forgive them.
WIE: I have one last question. At what point on the spiritual path are we ready to be of service to the world?
TB: At the beginning, in the middle, and at the end. This is in the Qu'ran. Allah said that "I have created man so that he can make ibadat to me." Ibadat means "service." But it also means "worship." So the true worship is in service. Allah said that "I have created man so that he serves me." But God doesn't need service. On the contrary, he is our servant. Every minute of our lives, we are being served. I inhale; he makes me inhale. I exhale; he makes me exhale. He brings me coffee; he makes me drink the coffee. Twenty-four hours a day, to all of us—from the microbe to the highest specimen of this creation—he's in continuous service. So what does he mean when he says that he has created human beings so that they would serve him? In short, he means to serve his creation. If we are the supreme creation, then we have to serve those in creation who are like us, who are in need, or who are under us. That's the purpose of our creation.
So as I said, service should be from the moment you are born until the moment you give your last breath, but you have to find out in what way. That's what's most important. We have to find out in what manner we are supposed to serve.
WIE: Based on everything you've said, it seems that in the Sufi view, the ultimate expression of our spiritual lives is found in the world. I wanted to ask you about this because in some of the great traditions, East and West, they say that what we are looking for is found in the afterlife or in some future birth.
TB: No. Hell is here. Paradise is here. Everything is here.