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On Prophecy and Time

A Trialogue: Part One

Pir Zia Inayat-Khan, David Spangler, and William Irwin Thompson

Dear Pir Zia,

I have been thinking lately about planetary culture and an earlier age of esoteric syncretism in the Convivencia in medieval Spain. I would say that the Sufis—and not the Italians!—actually brought us the Renaissance. Their Middle Eastern music and Persian poetry influenced the returning Crusaders like Guillaume of Poitiers and the later troubadours such as Arnaut Daniel in Provence, and from there the influence spread to Italy to Cavalcanti and Dante. Ibn Arabi’s cosmology influenced Dante, as did the Hadith of Mohammed’s journey to heaven and hell, but to protect himself from the Church, Dante stuck Mohammed in hell to appear completely Christian and unheretical. The poets, musicians, and artists of the early thirteenth-century Renaissance before the Black Death knew that Andalusia, Majorca, and Sicily were the gateways of Islam into the soul of Europe. Just look at this picture from King René‘s Book of Love (1456) of the chivalric knight from Sicily and you see the Sufi emblem of the winged-heart atop his helmet and on the coverings for his horse.

You can also see in the troubadour Arnaut Daniel’s famous poem Sestina that the lady in the heart is the esoteric figure of the inner feminine—Tara in the East and the Donna of the Cathars in the West. The whole poem is about an esoteric practice of meditation, as I make clear in my translation since most literary scholars are not conversant with this.

Sestina by Arnaut Daniel

The firm vow that enters me through my heart

no beak can strip away nor fingernail

of slanderer tear, cursed in his lost soul.

I dare not strike these branches with my stick;

instead of more family relations,

I’ll know the joy of orchard and chamber.


When I reflect in my inner chamber,

I find none but the Lady in my heart,

closer than one’s family relations.

No member but trembles down to the nail,

and like the infant awed by the stick,

I fear to be overcome by soul.


Would that she with body and not with soul

received me secretly in her chamber,

but that would injure me more in the heart

than if she beat me with a wooden stick.

Who leaves there never enters her chamber!

I shall be near her as finger and nail

and not be chastised by my relations.


Not even the mother of all relations

would I love like the Lady of my soul.

She’s as intimate as finger and nail.

If it pleases her I’m in her chamber

then she’ll make love of me in the heart,

better than a strong man with a weak stick.


Since dry twig has turned spring flowering stick,

Adam’s stem has branched in all relations.

Never so fine a love entered my heart,

nor was before in my body or soul.

Whether she is out or in her chamber,

I’m no farther than finger is to nail.


As close as two boards hammered with a nail,

or as far as bark is to the rough stick,

is My Lady to my excoriate heart.

She is all—tower, palace, and chamber.

I can renounce all other relations,

with her in paradise inside my soul.


            Arnaut plucks this song with a single nail

            for those in the still chamber of the heart

            who have stopped breeding dying relations

            to turn a soul from a flowering stick.


All of which, is to say, Pir Zia, that I think the Sufis will need to do it again and serve to create a planetary Renaissance by transforming the Islamist fundamentalist threat into a positive cultural transformation. Just don’t get yourself killed like Hallaj or Suhrawardi!

Islam rejected the Gutenberg Galaxy and Modernism—that interlocking causal system of the Scientific Revolution, Dutch capitalism and bourgeois democratic revolution, and mass distributed printed books. But now Muslim terrorism has adopted the Internet to inspire young men to violent Jihad and women to suicide bombings, so electronic society is now part of the Unmah. In this new planetary culture of East and West, we urgently need a new transformation of the Abrahamic religions and not new versions of Holy Wars, Crusades, and Inquisitions.

Dear William,

Yes! In Count Jan Potocki’s Manuscript Found in Saragossa a colony of Moors secretly resides in a system of caves deep inside the Sierra Moreno Mountains.These Muslim troglodytes are a fitting symbol, I think, of the traditions that “went underground” when the Reconquista overtook the Convivencia in medieval Spain.Their persistence is a largely unrecognized but crucially important factor in the cultural formation of Europe.

The Western assimilation of Sufi knowledge is difficult to track because the debt is rarely acknowledged in the original sources. A remarkable exception is Ramon Lull’s introduction to his Book of the Lover and the Beloved, in which he credits the Sufis with supplying the inspiration for his meditations on love. (I wonder to what extent Lull’s chivalry was informed by Sufi chivalry, or futuwwa. His Book of the Order of Chivalry was a seminal work in the theoretical elaboration of knighthood.)

Dante is an interesting case. The “sweet new style” that he shared with Guido Cavalcanti appears not so new after all when seen in the context of classical Arab love lyrics (such as the Diwan of Majnun), the Persian mystical “School of Love,” and the romantic psychology of Andalusian poets and aesthetes like Ibn Hazm (in his Ring of the Dove). As you point out, Cavalcanti’s initiatory sect of Fedeli d’Amore has its spiritual roots in Sicily, where a century earlier Frederick II corresponded with the Sufi hermeticist Ibn Sab’in and commissioned an Arabic translation of Merlin’s prophecies.

Dante’s angelology is steeped in the Islamic Neoplatonism of al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, al-Ghazali, and Ibn Rushd, and as you rightly say, his heavenly ascent in the Comedy is modeled on the mi’raj of the Prophet Muhammad. So it is a matter of grim irony that he portrays Muhammad (peace be upon him) mangled and split open in the eighth circle of hell. Maybe, as you say, this was to camouflage his Sufi leanings, though I wonder, since he had the audacity to put popes in hell as well.

My friend Omid Safi suggests in his new book that Dante’s portrayal of Muhammad is a malicious parody of the ninety-fourth chapter of the Qur’an, “The Opening Up,” which describes how God opened the Prophet’s chest and purified his heart. In any case, Dante is a good example of how attraction and repulsion coincided in the encounter between Orient and Occident in the Mediterranean basin. Another example is Ariosto, whose hero Orlando vanquishes Saracen warriors while pining for the Muslim princess Angelica.

So yes, I fully agree that cultural and spiritual contacts between Christendom and Islam in Andalusia and the Levant set the stage for the Renaissance. And I agree that if esoteric undercurrents could flow amidst the ideological fervor on both sides of the Crusades, they can flow again amidst Global Jihad and the War on Terror. To tap that flow is Seven Pillars’ reason for being.

In Eschenbach’s romance (borrowed from the Moorish astrologer Flegetanis), Parzival attained the Grail when he reconciled with his Muslim half-brother.Today I think the Grail’s price is higher. The rifts that we have to heal are not only religious and cultural; they are also ecological and spiritual. Your Entelechy and David Spangler’s Incarnational Spirituality are, to me, harbingers of the integrated worldview of the coming Renaissance.

With very best wishes,


On Prophecy and Time: Part Two

William Irwin Thompson is a poet and cultural philosopher who has made significant contributions to cultural history, social criticism, the philosophy of science, and the study of myth. Early in his career he left academia to found Lindisfarne, an association of creative individuals in the arts, sciences, and contemplative practices devoted to the study and realization of a new planetary consciousness, or noosphere. Thompson lived in Switzerland for 17 years and describes his most recent work, Canticum Turicum, as “a long poem on Western Civilization, that begins with folktales and traces of Charlemagne in Zurich and ends with the completion of Western Civilization as expressed in Finnegans Wake and the traces of James Joyce in Zurich.” With mathematician Ralph Abraham he has designed a new type of cultural history curriculum based on their theories about the evolution of consciousness. Thompson now lives in Portland, Maine.

Read more about William Irwin Thompson

David Spangler is an internationally known spiritual teacher and writer, and was instrumental in helping establish the Findhorn Foundation community in northern Scotland in the late 1960’s early 1970’s. Since then David has traveled widely within the United States and Canada giving classes, workshops and lectures. His themes have included the emergence of a holistic culture, the nature of personal sacredness, our participation in a coevolving, co-creative universe, partnering, and working with spiritual realms, our responsibility to the earth and to each other, the spiritual nature and power of our individuality, and our calling to be of service at this crucial time of world history. Many of these themes come together in his primary work, which is the development of a spiritual perspective and practice called Incarnational Spirituality.

Read more about David Spangler

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

12 August 2010

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