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A Forward-Looking World Culture

A Talk Given at the Sufi Conference, October 8, 2008

Pir Zia Inayat-Khan

“Where am I in my journey on the spiritual path? Where have I been? Where am I now? And in which direction am I going?” These seem to me such vital questions. And the question itself is more important, perhaps, than any answer. To keep the question alive, to keep inquiring, to keep looking, witnessing, experiencing, this is crucial for all of us; not to fall asleep on the journey, but rather, as Christ said on the eve of the crucifixion, “Stay awake!”

These questions are important to us not only as individuals but also collectively. Our species must ask itself: “Where have we been, how far have we come, and where are we now? What is the situation on Earth? And what is the path forward?” If we do not ask these questions, we drift unconsciously, randomly. Yes, grace still reaches us. But we have lost the opportunity to participate consciously and purposefully in the destiny of the planet. And is there any other reason for us to have incarnated in the first place? Did we incarnate to make a collection of pleasant objects, to be entertained, to pass our time? No, we came with a driving force that propelled us into embodiment out of the surging throngs of angels, for the opportunity to descend here, to the frontier of the divine self-disclosure, to participate on the crest of the wave of God’s self-discovery, to take part in the awakening of the very fabric of the Earth.

Where are we on our spiritual path as a species? When we look around the world today, we see much that is amiss. As a nation, we have been at war for years now. And we are deep in debt. We are beginning to see the effects of living beyond our means, of getting out of balance. We are in debt to other nations. We are in debt to other species. We are even in debt to future generations. The whole Earth is in a fever. The temperature is rising. The effects of our over-consumption, our insatiable hunger, is despoiling the planet, and we are anxious and afraid, living under the shadow of weapons of mass destruction, weapons now capable of destroying the whole human race, indeed the whole system of life on Earth. The stakes are rising. History is speeding up. And yet we are drifting. And yet we do not ask the basic questions: “Where are we in our path?” and “Where are we going?”

Now amidst all of the portents of danger there are also the most remarkable signs of hope. We have come a long way. Civil rights, democracy, an egalitarian society in which each human being is respected, recognized as equal under the law; a world in which we are discovering cultures so different to our own and yet which carry in their depths the same essential truths of the human experience, uniting us in the awareness that humanity is one field of life. We are united from the vantage point of the planetary perspective, symbolized in the image of the planet Earth from space, an image that truly represents the myth of our time. There is tremendous possibility, tremendous blessing and opportunity in our midst, and there is an awakening. As recalcitrant and rigid as are the forces of the old order, the forces of strife and competition and ruthless exploitation of the Earth, the power of these forces pale in comparison to the creativity, the inspiration, the passion that is beginning to well up. And it wells up in response to a cry. It wells up in response to the depth of despair that is the symptom of our forgetfulness, our fragmentation, our alienation. It is as if the anima mundi itself cries out.

And this is the cry that every prophet has heard. The prophet resonates so acutely with this cry that, through the medium of the prophetic soul, it stirs the very depths of creation. Creation is born of loving-kindness, and when its deeper currents are stirred it cannot but respond with a disclosure of divine compassion, a disclosure of guidance emanating from the inner core of reality. The prophet becomes the conduit of this quality of being and must then translate it into words and forms that people can hear and come together around. It is the legacy of the prophets that is our greatest inheritance, but all too often we have clung to the outer form of such a legacy, made an idol of it, and prided ourselves for our attachment to a tribal identity, a religious ideology. And in so doing we have missed the whole import of the prophetic legacy. The prophetic legacy is one single lineage that spans the globe. It cannot be torn apart and divided asunder. To do so is a tragedy. And what is so awesome is to live at such a time when we can see the Earth as one, when we can access the heritage of all of the world’s divinely revealed traditions, recognize the unity of those traditions, and recognize that the same divine guidance that informed each prophetic dispensation is available to us today and is the source that we need. The problems that we have created cannot be resolved by means of the mentality that has created these very problems. We need to excavate a deeper, vaster, fuller source of guidance, a source of guidance that collects, synthesizes, and integrates the profoundest sacred visions of the whole experience of humanity’s evolution.

There was a visionary saint of the 12th century, a Sufi named Shihab-al-Din Yahya Suhrawardi, who felt the urgency, the necessity of this impulse to unify the streams of wisdom. He drew inspiration from Egypt, from Greece, from Persia, and he was deeply inspired by the revelation of the Islamic message, the Qur’an. He wrote these words in the prologue to his magnum opus, the Hikmat al-Ishraq, The Wisdom of Illumination:

In every seeking soul, there is a portion, be it small or great, of the light of God. Everyone who strives has intuition, be it perfect or imperfect. Knowledge did not end with one people, so that the doors of heaven are shut behind them and the rest of the world is denied the possibility of obtaining more. Rather the Giver of Knowledge who stands at the “clear horizon is not stingy with the unseen.” [Qur’an 81:23-24]. The most evil age is the one in which the carpet of striving has been rolled up, in which the movement of thought is interrupted, the door of revelations bolted, the path of visions blocked. [Suhrawardi, The Philosophy of Illumination, trans. John Walbridge & Hossein Ziai]

Suhrawardi is quoting here a verse of the Qur’an, “God is not stingy with the unseen.” That should be our motto: God is not stingy with the unseen! Guidance abounds however lost we might become individually and as a society. The way forward exists. The divine vision is generous. The only real danger to us is if we should roll up the carpet of striving, if we should block the movement of thought, close the door of revelations, terminate the path of visions.

When we do ask ourselves where we are going we may think: I have undertaken incarnation to be part of the great drama of life’s unfoldment, and I find myself year after year becoming jaded, cynical, depressed. But suddenly there is glimmer of a memory of the purpose which brought me to Earth, and also the anticipation that I shall leave this planet, sooner or later, perhaps tomorrow, and then I will ask myself, “What did I come to this world to experience? Have I experienced it? And what did I come to offer? What work of my hands will I leave behind? What message will my life have sent?” We are constantly inscribing our signature on the tablet of nature. What is that signature? What is our vision of the good, of the possible, that our life enacts and embodies, and brings into reality? Imagine the privilege and responsibility implied by the fact that we, endowed with will, have the power to alter reality. This whole mad experiment of life on Earth is not something for which we are merely the bystanders. The direction it takes depends upon my, your, our volition. And the opportunity is not an endless one; we have a number of days. What do we want? What do we really want? When we have left this Earth, what legacy do wish to have left? What kind of planet do we wish to have served?

There have been times in human history when these questions have been asked and human beings have come together to step outside of the narrow conditioning of their immediate experience and to seek to embrace the fullest extent that they could encompass of the whole gamut of life experience on Earth; moments when humans have gathered together to sum up the epitome of human knowledge, of human experience. This has taken at times the form of a house of wisdom. In Baghdad, the Bayt al-Hikma assembled mathematical knowledge (and in doing so produced algebra), the wisdom of the ancient sages of Mesopotamia, and indeed insights from as far as Hindustan in an effort to sum up the quintessence of the human experience. In Alexandria such a similar effort was made; in Fatehpur Sikri also.

Now today we are here in the country that is a microcosm of the world, the fusion of innumerable cultures. But all too often we merely drift along, observing random details but missing the big picture. Billions and billions of dollars are allocated to aggressive military strategizing, while all of the resourcefulness and creativity that exists lies in wait to be galvanized, to be put to the service of a positive planetary future. What are the precious cultural and spiritual resources that may be brought to bear on the challenges we face? What is the way forward?

As a small contribution to this great enterprise, some friends and I have begun to form a house of wisdom. We use the name Seven Pillars, which refers to Sophia, Lady Wisdom, who speaks in the Book of Proverbs, and says, “I have built my house. I have raised my Seven Pillars. I have spread the table.” It is an invitation from Wisdom to come together in dialogue, in collaboration, to look upon the challenges and opportunities in our individual lives and in our collective lives, and to seek the answers that come from the heart of the human experience.

I would like to end with a poem about wisdom I have written very recently. The poem comes out of the sense of living day to day in the awareness of the prophets, beings of splendor, beings of truth and power and beauty, whose presence I always seek to feel directly; because I know that when I feel the presence of these beings, it enables me to more fully embody my own purpose and my own destiny. Reading in the Bible, I came across a verse which beautifully articulates the sense of being surrounded by the prophets as witnesses. It is in the Letter to Hebrews, where the question is asked, “What is faith?” And the answer comes in the form of the stories of the prophets. And in the end it is asked, “surrounded by so vast a cloud of witnesses,” what is our responsibility? “A cloud of witnesses”—that is the Biblical phrase that resonated with me so powerfully. I felt I had to give some expression to this inspiration from the perspective of the whole planetary lineage of the prophets.

A Call to Wisdom

And what is wisdom? Wisdom is seeing the whole in the parts, and in the whole, seeing the holy.

It is for their wisdom that the prophets and prophetesses of the past are remembered.

By wisdom we receive the universe as the revelation of the eternal and infinite inscribed on the scroll of time and space.

By wisdom Adam and Eve were led to taste the fruit of knowledge, and to step from the narrow garden of innocence into the wide world of experience.

Wisdom made Inanna descend to the depths and rise again, to die in darkness and to resurrect in the spring of life.

By wisdom Rama befriended the monkey Hanuman, and by wisdom Sita found solace in all green things.

Wisdom made Krishna dance with a hundred gopis and each danced with him alone.

By wisdom Radha tasted the essences of separation and union and the shades between.

By wisdom Shiva took his seat high above the world, and by wisdom Parvati brought her yogi Lord down to hearth and home.

By wisdom Buddha beheld emptiness in form and form in emptiness, and made love, compassion, joy, and peace his practice.

With wisdom Abraham welcomed weary travelers under the wings of the Shekinah. By wisdom Sarah saw without eyes and Hagar heard without ears.

Wisdom made Zoroaster answer the call of Mazda, to stand against the right of might and for the right of light.

By wisdom Moses led the tribes of Israel from bondage, and by wisdom, Miriam sealed their freedom with song.

By wisdom Mary gave her fiat to the incarnation of spirit, and wisdom made Jesus plead in Gethsemane, “Stay awake with me.”

Wisdom carried Muhammad beyond the galaxies and returned him to Earth to point a finger toward the Oneness of Being.

Others too, countless others, could and should be named. Men and women of every continent and era who quenched their mortal thirst at the fount of creation only to find themselves filled with the unquenchable thirst of the immortal Creator.

In the name of the One they lived, and loved, suffered and died, and in devotion to the One they live on.

And what of ourselves? Having so vast a “cloud of witnesses” around us, we must shake off our slumber and awaken to wisdom. Not in the placid hereafter but here in the seething flux of life’s dream.

This shifting dreamscape is the place of tryst. Here the One without second, seeks intimate converse with an other who is no other than the selfsame, ceaselessly seeking, endlessly finding, ever transforming yet everlastingly changeless One.

Please see our podcast Accessing Prophetic Sources & Wisdom Traditions to listen to audio of this talk.

Pir Zia Inayat-Khan is a scholar and teacher of Sufism in the lineage of his grandfather, Hazrat Inayat Khan. He received his B.A. (Hons) in Persian Literature from the London School of Oriental and African Studies, and his M.A. and Ph.D. in Religion from Duke University. Pir Zia is founder of Seven Pillars House of Wisdom, and also of Sulūk Academy, a school of contemplative study with branches in the U.S. and Europe. His most recent books are Saracen Chivalry: Counsels on Valor, Generosity and the Mystical Quest and Caravan of Souls: An Introduction to the Sufi Path of Hazrat Inayat Khan, both published by Sulūk Press, an imprint of Omega Publications.

Read more about Pir Zia Inayat-Khan

Comments (1)
  • Toward the One. “We must shake off our slumber and awaken to wisdom”. Thanks for the written reminder Pir Zia.

    — Johnny on June 1, 2009

4 March 2009

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revelation, wisdom, prophecy, Suhrawardi, destiny,
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