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Heaven Is Not a Zip Code

Omid Safi

What if we have gotten Heaven all wrong?

Many Christians, Muslims, and some Buddhists imagine a heavenly place as an eternal reward for the faithful. While this place is often described as a garden of serenity and tranquility, we often see many faithful arguing about who can and cannot have access to this place in ways that are in no way serene and tranquil. Not only do we argue about the place, we also argue about who can get in, and who is locked out.

What if we have it all wrong?

Some mystics have actually dared to ponder that. They realize that it is not about heaven as a place, but about a heavenly state of being, a state of the heart.

One of these mystics, a famous 8th-century Iraqi lover of God, Rabia, is remembered as having gone through a city in the middle of the bright day with a lit torch in one hand and a bucket of water in the other. It’s a paradoxical image, this woman who combines the opposites of water and fire. The puzzled people of the city asked Rabia what she was doing. Rabia responded that with the lit torch she was going to burn down heaven, and with the bucket of water she was going to quench the fires of hell—so that people would have no reason left to worship a god other than God.

There have always been a few who are in it not for the garden, but for the Gardner; not for heaven, but for the Lord of Heaven.

How do we get back to looking beyond salvation and getting into Heaven, and arguing over who can (and cannot) get into Heaven, and reflect more about being in a heavenly state here and now, already in union with the Divine Beloved?

One mystic who did so was the great, incomparable Rumi. Rumi, the great master of love poetry, was also a deep lover of the Qur’an. In fact, he called his masterpiece (the Masnavi) the “Unveiler of the Qur’an” (kashshaf al-Qur’an), an erotic metaphor that compares the scripture to a beautiful veiled bride. The bride of scripture has to be unveiled (kashf) before a love-union can take place.

In his masterpiece, Rumi offers a brilliant reading of the Qur’an, in which he imagines heaven to be not a “place” that we enter, but nothing short of a state of being taken inside the heart of fellow human being. He focuses on a beautiful passage of the scripture in which God addresses the tranquil souls of those who are about to enter Paradise:

O soul at peace!
Return to your Lord,

You well-pleased with God,

God is well-pleased with You.

Enter in my servants

And enter My heavenly garden.
(89:27-30)

It’s a simple and beautiful passage, often recited in funerals to offer a prayer that the departed will be among those with whom God is pleased, and will enter the heavenly garden (Jannat).

There is the beautiful reciprocity of a human being reaching a state of joy and tranquility with God: we’re pleased with God, God is pleased with us. This state is characterized by pleasure.

The magical mystical twist, the “Rumi take,” comes in a brilliant mystical reading of the simple Arabic preposition “in” contained in the phrase, “Enter in my servants and enter My heavenly garden.” Yes, it really does depend on what the definition of “in” (Arabic, fi) is.

Most people read the verse as “Enter in, my servants.” In other words: Come on in, y’all… and enter God’s Heavenly garden.

Rumi reads the same verse literally: “Enter in my servants, and enter my Garden.” As in “Enter into my servants, and you’ve entered my Garden.” Enter inside my servants, and you’re already in Heaven.

In Rumi’s poetry, there are dozens of references to “come on in,” “come inside,” and many of them harken back to this beautiful interpretation.

Heaven is not a place. Heaven is to be found inside the hearts of those who are already at peace with God. When one of these souls loves us and takes us inside their hearts, we are taken into a heavenly state.

Heaven is not a zip code. Heaven is a not a place with walls and pearly gates. No guardians to keep us in, or out. We ourselves are the guardians keeping ourselves out of that heavenly state.

Heaven is about a state of peaceful tranquility. If and when we achieve it, including here and now, we are already in the Garden.

We alone can reach this state, yet we do not reach it alone. It is possible that we cannot reach it alone. We reach it when we take in other human beings into our hearts’ inner paradise, and when others take us into their hearts.

There’s a beautiful tale of a man who went to see a sage. The sage lived on top of a hard-to-get-to mountain. When the man climbed the mountain, he saw the sage sitting in meditation, in a blissful state of serenity. He approached the sage and asked: “What is hell?”

The sage looked at the man, still huffing and puffing from the climb, and said, “Why would I reveal such secrets to someone as fat, ugly, and immature as you?”

The man turned red in anger, and uttered some nasty words to the sage. The sage took a deep breath and said to the man, “Feel the heat rising from inside you. That heat, that anger, that resentment—that is hell.”

The man understood what the sage had done. He sat down next to the sage, and took in a deep breath. He felt the breath enter in his heart center, and come out of the heart center. His complexion changed. His heart’s beating slowed down to a tranquil state. The sage put his hand on the man’s arm, looked at him with the glance of compassion, and said, “This feeling of tranquility, this calm, this peace, my friend, this is heaven.”

What if we can cultivate an awareness of heaven not as a place that we go to somewhere after death, but rather as a state of having a tranquil heart that we can—and must—achieve here and now?

What if what we are meant to do is not to get into heaven but to get heaven into us?

Prof. Omid Safi is a weekly columnist for On Being. Read more of his columns at onbeing.org.

Image credit: Herd of Deer in an Autumnal Grove, circa 951-968 A.D., Wikimedia Commons

Omid Safi is Associate Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill where he specializes on Islamic mysticism (Sufism), contemporary Islamic thought, and medieval Islamic history. He received his PhD from Duke University (2000). Before coming to UNC he was an Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Colgate University in Hamilton, NY. Safi is the Chair for the Study of Islam at the American Academy of Religion. He is also a member of the advisory board of the Pluralism Project at Harvard University. His book The Politics of Knowledge in Premodern Islam, dealing with medieval Islamic history and politics, was published in 2006. His translation and analysis of Rumi’s biography is forthcoming from Fons Vitae.

Read more about Omid Safi

Comments (3)
  • Thank you, Professor Safi, for this beautiful article. I hope this will be another step in helping people understand the deep, rich mystical beauty in the Sufi/Islamic traditions. 

    don salmon
    http://www.remember-to-breathe.org

    — Don Salmon on March 10, 2015

  • Lovely to read you here, Omid. We first met at OnBeing, and I enquired of your hosting tours to Turkey.  Someday. So beautiful, so necessary your writing to help our hearts soften, our minds open.  Thank you.

    — Katharine Weinmann on March 20, 2015

  • its true in the friends of Allah we find the truth

    — Seema Hamid on March 25, 2015

9 March 2015

Tagged Under
mysticism, revelation, meditation, peace, The Great Mystery, faith, Our Sacred Heritage, God, Rumi, silence,
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