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The Iron Rules, Number Three

Pir Zia Inayat-Khan

Editor’s note: Continuing our examination of various moral codes, Seven Pillars is pleased to present Pir Zia Inayat-Khan’s talks on the Iron and Copper rules of Hazrat Inayat Khan as an ongoing series. While this material originates from a Sufi context, it can be helpful to anyone who is looking for practical guidance on applying chivalric principles to the conundrums of everyday life. A new rule will be posted monthly until the series is complete.

The third rule is: My conscientious self, do not take advantage of a person’s ignorance.

Each rule begins with the words, “My conscientious self.” This means that the rule is a soliloquy, a conversation with oneself. It is not imposed by an external authority. The rule is the articulation of an ethical orientation. If that orientation resonates with one’s conscience, then the rule is a reminder to fully commit oneself, in all situations, to one’s ideal. If the orientation does not resonate, then the contemplation of the rule presents an opportunity to clarify one’s own ethical position. In neither case is the rule a dogma that demands adherence on the basis of an external authority. The only true authority is the illuminated human conscience.

An X-Ray of Homer Simpson's brain.
An X-Ray of Homer Simpson's Brain

Now to the rule:  Do not take advantage of a person’s ignorance. Of course the extreme form of taking advantage of a person’s ignorance is hucksterism, preying on people’s gullibility and misleading them to make a quick buck. Most of us are innocent of this. But there are subtler forms of taking advantage. 

In Creating the Person, Murshid1 speaks of what he calls “the persuasive tendency.” He says:

There is a tendency hidden behind human impulse, which may be called the persuasive tendency. . . . By this, people achieve for the moment what they wish to achieve. But in the end, the effect is the annoyance of all those who are tried by this persuasive tendency. Does it not show that to get something done is not so hard as to be considerate of the feelings of others? It is so rare that one finds a person in the world who is considerate of another person’s feeling, even at the sacrifice of getting his or her own desires done. Everyone seeks freedom, but for himself or herself. If one sought the same for another, one would be a much greater person. The persuasive tendency, no doubt, shows a great will power. And it plays upon the weakness of others, who yield and give in to it, owing to love, sympathy, goodness, kindness and politeness. But there is a limit to everything. There comes a time when the thread breaks. A thread is a thread, it is not steel wire. Even a wire breaks if it is pulled too hard. The delicacy of the human heart is not comprehended by everyone. Human feeling is too fine for common perception. A soul who develops his or her personality, what is (s)he like? (S)he is not like the root or the stem of the plant, nor like the branches or leaves. (S)he is like the flower, the flower with its color, fragrance and delicacy.

Murshid is speaking here of the tendency to argue, to cajole, to wheedle, to badger—in short, to do all within one’s power to change someone’s mind in the interest of personally benefiting. We all, at times, try to leverage our rhetorical skills to the best advantage.  When one feels the stakes are high, one argues one’s case tenaciously, with lawyerly intensity.

To “win” an argument one must downplay the weaknesses in one’s position and emphasize the strengths. Certain facts must be highlighted and other facts must be concealed. That which is congenial to one’s argument one plays up, and the rest is conveniently ignored.

We all have this tendency, more or less. It is just part of the rhetoric of speech, almost unavoidable. We always want to give the best reason for our decisions, our thoughts, and so on. But when this tendency takes an extreme form it becomes abusive. When one knowingly withholds critical information in a discussion, one is no longer contributing positively toward a mutually favorable resolution.

If the purpose of a conversation is a “meeting of minds”—and when should it not be?—then what is wanted is not the triumph of one point of view over the other, but rather a cognitive synthesis in which multiple facets of a subject are brought into harmony and the understanding of both parties is expanded.

When, on the contrary, one takes advantage of the blind spots in another person’s angle of vision, that which results is just a form of exploitation. Knowledge is power, and the manipulation of knowledge with the motive of self-interest can be tyrannical.

Of course secrecy is not in itself a negative or destructive force. In fact, it is a natural and necessary aspect of life. All of nature is a revelation of the mystery of the divine secret in successive stages of disclosure. If the pure, all-encompassing truth of reality were ever to be disclosed in its totality, the witness’s mind would melt. Neither you nor I could stand the force of the disclosure and survive. It is as a mercy to us that, “Allah hath seventy thousand veils of light and darkness.”

It is only as the human being’s capacity deepens and expands that the veils can be lifted, one by one. Not every moment is the right moment to express a finer perception, a realization of the soul. Secrets of the heart are not to be blurted out carelessly. The luminous darkness of silence nourishes and protects spiritual knowledge until its moment of expression has come. This secrecy is beautiful and empowering. It empowers not only oneself, but also the other. The Prophet, Saint, or Master who keeps the divine secret does so in a spirit of compassionate solidarity with all life, supporting the natural unfoldment of each being. This is just the opposite of the secrecy of the tyrant, who uses knowledge to dominate others. Both use power, but the tyrant uses power against others, whereas the Prophet, Saint, or Master uses power for and with others. The result is very different.

This commentary was originally presented during a session of Suluk Academy and is printed with permission from the Sufi Order International.

Pir Zia Inayat-Khan, Seven Pillars’ Founder and President, is the spiritual leader of the Sufi Order International, a mystical and ecumenical fellowship rooted in the visionary legacy of his grandfather, Hazrat Pir-o-Murshid Inayat Khan. Pir Zia is also the President of the Suluk Academy. Pir Zia holds a Doctoral degree in Religion from Duke University and is a recipient of the U Thant Peace Award.

Read more about Pir Zia Inayat-Khan

1. Hazrat Inayat Khan (1882-1927), the author of the Iron Rules.

30 April 2009

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