The Sacred Fire, by B.Z. Goldberg, , at sacred-texts.com
Marriage is my custom; and he who dislikes it does not belong to my people.—THE PROPHET.
THE mosque knows marriage but it still has to learn of love or romance. It wallows in sex but it has yet to discover woman as a human being with a personality of her own. Mohammed did not disdain receiving homage at the hands of women but he would not have it openly in his house of worship. He ordered them to carry out their liturgical exercises in the privacy of their homes. There, they were to be hidden from the stranger's eye, but ever accessible to the husband, their master, to delight his heart with sensuous pleasures.
Religious leaders are, as a rule, either negatively inclined toward sex or engrossed in it to the practical exclusion of all other matters. Mohammed was one of the exceptions. He wanted his sex naturally and wholesomely, but he desired it gluttonously. He was the insatiable prophet, standing apart from all others. Moses had a wife and two children. Little is heard of his sexual life or of his preoccupation with sex. In fact, legend relates that he separated from his wife after he had spoken to God and that his sister, Miriam, criticized him for it. Jesus was not
married and indicated a tendency away from sex. Mohammed made up for both of them. Sex was his one great delight. He never felt saddened or remorseful after indulgence in it as persons of a sensitive religious nature often do. He left his harem as wholeheartedly as he had entered it, to return when he was ready.
Only once was the soul of the great prophet disturbed. Mokawkas, the governor of Egypt, sent him a slave, Mary, of Coptic extraction. On the same day upon which he was to fulfill his marital duties with his wife, Hafsa, he took this Mary upon the very bed of his wife when she was out. This came to the knowledge of Hafsa, who raised such an unearthly storm that the prophet promised with a solemn oath never to touch Mary again. Mohammed was stirred to the creation of a sura, a chapter in the Koran, not for what he had done, but for what he so lightly forswore to do. It was an outcry against his oath and a holy preparation for its breach: "O prophet, why holdest thou that to be prohibited which God hath allowed thee? Seeking to please thy wives, since God is inclined to forgive and be merciful? God hath allowed you the dissolution of your oaths and God is your master and He is knowing and wise."
In fairness to the prophet, it must be said that he rarely took a privilege for himself that he did not grant to others. And, in the few instances in which he did, such as when he increased the number of his wives, his attempt to obtain special dispensation and his effort in making the point, show that his conscience was hurt thereby. He had ordered his disciples to have not more than four wives: "Take in marriage of such other women as please you, two, or three, or four, and no more." But no Mohammedan felt
more handicapped by this rule than Mohammed himself. Hence, he made Allah say in a later sura:
"O prophet, we have allowed thee thy wives unto whom thou hast given their dower, and also the slaves which thy right hand possesseth, of the booty which God hath granted thee; and the daughters of thy uncle, and the daughters of thy aunts, both on thy father's side and on thy mother's side, who have fled with thee from Mecca, and any other believing woman, if she gives herself unto the prophet; in case the prophet desireth to take her to wife. This is a peculiar privilege granted unto thee above the rest of the true believers . . . thou mayest take unto thee her whom thou shalt please, and her whom thou shalt desire of those whom thou shalt have before rejected; and it shall be no crime in thee."
Mohammed, as a rule, exhorted his followers to be free in the expression of their sex impulse: "Your wives are your tillage; go in therefore unto your tillage in what manner soever ye will." Even the fast must not keep the faithful from his "tillage": "It is lawful for you on the night of the fast to go in to your wives; they are a garment unto you and you are a garment unto them." Even when one had taken an oath to forsake his wives, he might go back to them, for God would forgive him: "They who vow to abstain from their wives are allowed to wait four months; but if they go back from their vow, verily God is gracious and merciful."
Sex was the greatest joy on earth for Mohammed and, when he was about to reward his followers in the hereafter, he found no greater recompense than the sensuous pleasures offered by the sexual impulse. The Judæo-Christian heaven is a place of absolute serenity. There are no passions of the
flesh or desires of the living in the heavenly abode. The sex element is reduced to a minimum, to a point in which it is ignored, if not entirely effaced. The greatest joy in the world to come is the presence of God—the bliss of the reflection of the Divine Presence. In short, it is a state in which the physical life is reduced to a shadowy existence, while only the absolute spiritual in man, that which he holds in common with the Divine, is active.
The paradise of the Moslem is a place of security among gardens and fountains. Here, the faithful will live in the prime physical condition they knew upon earth. The prophet promises that "they shall be clothed in fine silk and satin, and repose on couches adorned with gold and precious stones." There the prophet will espouse them to fair damsels. Youths that shall continue in their bloom forever shall go round about to attend them with goblets and beakers and cups of flowing wine. And there shall accompany them fair damsels having large black eyes, resembling pearls hidden in their shells, as a reward for that which they shall have wrought. But that is not all yet. That is only for one class of faithful Moslems. "There are others, companions of the right hand, and how happy they shall be! They will have their abode among Lotus trees, under an extended shade, near a flowing stream, amidst fruits in abundance. And they shall enjoy damsels raised on lofty couches, whom God has created as damsels of paradise by a peculiar creation." These damsels were created virgins and "how often soever their husbands shall go in unto them, they shall always find them virgins."
Mohammed sought to be generous to the female sex and to improve the condition of women. He taught his believers to "respect women who have borne you, for God is
watching you." Although he excluded women from participation in the religious rites in the mosque, he put them on the same basis as the males in forgiveness and reward before God: "Verily, the Moslems of either sex and the true believers of either sex . . . and the men of veracity and the women of veracity . . . and the humble men and the humble women . . . and the chaste men and the chaste women and those of either sex who remember God frequently—for them hath God prepared forgiveness and great reward."
The prophet forbade many customs that degraded the female sex. A man could not marry two sisters or the daughter of a woman with whom he had had sexual relations. A son could not inherit his stepmothers or do with them as he pleased. A girl under age could not be forced into marriage. The husband was to treat all his wives alike. He was to be kind to them, fearing to wrong them, for God knew well what was being done. At the wedding, the husband was to assign some dower or property to the wife to be hers should she be divorced. In fact, a woman could even inherit property, but only one half of the amount she might receive were she a man.
Considerate as Mohammed was of woman in some respects, he could not place her upon an equal plane with man in actual life. Before Allah no favors were to be shown to either sex. But in life "men shall have the preeminence above women, because of those advantages wherein God hath caused the one of them to excel the other," which, according to the commentators, were superior understanding and strength. Therefore, honest women will be obedient to their husbands and careful in their absence. They will restrain their eyes and preserve
their modesty. The veil should be their protection, and they are ordered to "cast their outer garments over them when they walk abroad." The prophet would allow his own wives to be spoken to only from behind a curtain.
So it was that Mohammed, the friend of women and their lover, treated them as might their worst enemy. He hung the veil over their heads and covered their faces for all time. He confined them to their own chambers and kept them out of the social, economic, and cultural life of the land. Woman was to satisfy the Moslem's passion and to raise his children. That was all her life had to offer her. Was it the prophet's personal experience that led him to introduce the veil and the harem into his faith? Possibly. We know that in his later years he became suspicious and jealous of his wives. He insisted upon their withdrawing into extreme privacy, thereby setting the law for others. On the other hand, there were some Persian influences that may have been at work here, for, in Persia, women had already been veiled and segregated. The Persian custom of veiling the women would naturally appeal to Mohammed and he may have borrowed it. However, the truth remains that women fared ill in the faith of the man who loved them well.
The fact that women were set apart and hidden from sight caused them to fall in the esteem of men. The injury brought insult in its wake. Women became unclean to the Moslem mind. If a man had touched a woman, he was required to purify himself before going to pray. The very act of touching a woman was looked upon as something of an offensive nature: "O true believers, when you prepare yourselves to pray, wash your faces and your hands unto the elbows and rub your heads and feet unto
the ankles . . . but if ye be sick, or on a journey, or any of you cometh from the privy, or if you have touched women, and ye find no water, take fine, clean sand and rub your faces and your hands therewith."
It was the design of the prophet to keep women in the harem, away from the public. His followers designed to have houses for public women. For along with the harem also carne prostitution into the life of the Moslem—where it had not existed before. Even the heart of the faithful was lonely at times, and he could not lay it open before wife or friend. Besides, all the women in one's harem might not possess the charm of a single prostitute—the lure of forbidden fruit. Man, being excluded from social intercourse with women outside of his wife and slave, sought the same in company with the prostitute. Mohammed used his influence against the institution in the Koran: "Draw not near fornication for it is wickedness and an evil way . . . the whore and the whoremonger shall ye scourge with an hundred stripes . . . the whoremonger shall not marry any other than a harlot or an idolatress . . . A harlot shall no man take in marriage."
La ilaha il Allah ve Mohammed resoul Allah. There is no god but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet. Here was a religious formula simple indeed, comprehensible to the simplest Bedouin. It was all there was to know. The rest was written in the book of the Koran. But what Bedouin wandering in the desert could ever read the Koran? La ilaha il Allah, take the sword and defend the new faith and do not be restrained by bloodshed. The belief in the prophet must prevail.
And the prophet fled from Mecca to Medina and was engaged in many wars. And many were the wars that his immediate successors were called upon to wage in the name
Click to enlarge
A Mohammedan fish nymph
of Allah and their leader. As the second century after the flight of the prophet dawned upon the Moslem sky, the sword was put back into the sheath, even if to remain there only temporarily. The faithful opened the book of the Koran to see what was written therein. And what did
they find? La ilaha il Allah ve Mohammed resoul Allah. There is no god but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet. And here was the law by which the Moslem was to live. He found in the Koran directions as to how to live, but very little as to what to live by. No less of a Mohammedan than Al Ghazzali said that not all verses of the Koran are adapted to stir the emotions. Rare and particularly sensitive must be the souls that can be thrown into religious ecstasy by reciting passages, such as "a man should leave his mother one sixth of his property and to his sister one half . . ."
And so it was that a hundred years after the flight of the prophet, one Abu Khair put on a garment of suf, or wool, and led many of the faithful into the road of the shadow, the mystic path that one takes to search for the God that dwells deep within him. They who followed him were known by their garments as Sufis. They came to know the prophet, not by his words in the Koran, but by the outcry of their own souls. They were the mystic souls that longed for something the barren monotheism and the rigid ritual of Mohammed could not give them.
But the Sufis did not leave the fold to start a faith of their own. Whatever they thought and felt they projected into the words and meanings of the Koran. They pushed asunder the barren walls of the Moslem faith and built wonderful palaces within them. Even Mohammed assumed universal proportions in their hands. Instead of being merely the husband of Khadijah, a man who suddenly heard the voice of God, he was identified with the primal element, the basic stuff of creation. He was called the Truth of Humanity, the Universal Reason, and the Great Spirit, as well as the Light of God and the Source of all Life. For
[paragraph continues] Mohammed existed before the creation of the world: "He that hath seen me hath seen Allah . . . I was a prophet while Adam was yet between earth and clay. There is no prophet after me . . ." Thus the prophet is made to speak by the Sufis.
Between Allah and the world of matter there are seventy thousand veils—their inner half light and their outer half dark. And down these seventy thousand veils the soul of man travels from the throne of Allah to the dust of the body. At every veil of light, the soul removes a divine quality; at every dark veil, it assumes an earthly one. As it is born upon earth, it cries out for sorrow. The child comes into the world weeping because its soul realizes that separation from Allah is now complete. In sleep, the child will often cry because it still remembers something of the splendours it has lost.
And so the Sufis came to teach man how to regain his contact with Allah and to travel back these seventy thousand veils unto the seat of glory. They are not concerned with the formal religious life, with the externals of ritual and moral law. They even excuse many sins like onanism, under circumstances. For they are seeking the union of man with God. Theirs is the journey back to God along the road of service and love and ecstasy, past union and other milestones along the way. First they must come to faria, the gradual passing away from one's own individuality; then to faqd, the entire loss of self and self-consciousness. When their own individuality has been effaced, they reach baja, where they abide in God, and wajd, where they find their source in God. There, the soul loses all its separatist tendencies and merges with the Divine
[paragraph continues] Presence. The spark re-enters and becomes part of the original fire.
And what is the motive, the force that drives the soul back to its source in Allah? It is Love; and worldly love is the bridge over which those must pass who seek the joys of the Divine Love. Love is the soul's divine instinct, the force that drives it on to realize itself. For the soul is born of God and, like Him, it existed before the creation of the universe. During its sojourn on earth it is but a stranger in exile, always yearning to return unto its source.
The Sufis hear the whisper of love at their pious gatherings. They claim that their clapping of hands and dancing and singing are all involuntary, the work of God manifesting itself through their bodies. They lay their heads upon the bosom of the Divine, who, in turn, rests His head on theirs. Man and God are found in mutual embrace. And as they lie there, the houris of paradise come down to earth and join them. They take them in their arms and tell them the mysteries of heaven and of love. It was of these mysteries that Nur-d-din sang:
"Heaven's giddy round from craze of Love was caught,
From Love's disputes the world with strife is fraught.
Love's slave be thou if thou would fain be free;
Welcome Love's pangs, and happy shalt thou be."
And it was to answer the call of love that Jalaluddin Rumi, the greatest mystic poet of Persia, instituted the mystical dances and began the order of dancing dervishes.
[paragraph continues] The gyrations of this order, like all Sufism, are symbolic, representing the revolution of the planets round the sun and the attraction of the creatures to their Creator. When Jalaluddin founded this order, he was carrying into effect the belief that ecstasy is the only way through which the soul can lose itself in union with God. For the dervishes, ecstasy can be induced by music, singing and dancing. When a Sufi hears sweet music, there is awakened in his soul the memory of the divine harmony in which he existed before his soul was separated from God.
The dervish lives with the sole purpose of recovering the soul's original unity with Allah. He can not leave his body, but he must refine and spiritualize it. Like raw metal heated in the fire to come out bright and pure, the dervish burns his body in the heat of passion so that he may come forth a spiritual being. The Sheikh tells the aspiring religious: "We shall throw you into the fire of Spiritual Passion, and you will emerge refined."
When the dervishes meet in prayer, they begin by singing hymns to Allah and moving their bodies first backward and forward, then from side to side. As their fervor increases, they begin to sigh, weep, and perspire profusely. Their pale faces assume a languid expression. In the course of the worship, two of the faithful take a number of sharp-pointed iron knives from niches in the wall and heat them in a brazier until they are fiery red. The Sheikh then blesses these instruments, and the delirious worshippers, seizing the hot irons, plunge them into their bodies, lick them with their tongues, or even hold them in their mouths. They continue in this religious fury, falling upon one another, until exhausted, they sink, unconscious, to the floor.
The Sheikh, walking among these men who have thus attained union with God, utters mystic prayers to recover their consciousness and anoints their wounds with his saliva. The dervish comes forth from his swoon, unconscious of his wounds in his eagerness for the moment when he will again be in union with his loved one. Jalaluddin was mindful of such ecstatic experiences when he wrote:
To the Sufis, death, the most cruel death imaginable, is the happiest thing in the world. It provides an escape for the soul imprisoned in the body, making possible the eternal union of the Lover and the Beloved. For this reason, they look upon Halladj as one of their greatest saints. He was a severe ascetic to whom were ascribed miraculous powers. Because his powers were feared, he was arrested, accused of heresy, and sentenced to death by violence. In the execution of the sentence, his hands and feet were cut off and his eyes and tongue torn from his head. As he lay dying, he smeared his cheeks with Iris blood, saying: "I do but perform the abtest—the ablutions of love should be made with blood."
To attain union with the Divine, Bayazid Bastami, a mystic of the ninth century, spent thirty years as a bare-footed ascetic in the deserts of Syria. And Rabia, the woman whom the Sufis called the Mother of God, was wont to torture her body by fasting and ascetic practices. All through the long night, she would remain at prayer, only to close her eyes for a few brief moments at the approach
of dawn. Once, after fasting for seven days and nights, she heard her emaciated body say: "O Rabia, how long wilt thou torture me without mercy?" But Rabia cared little for her body. She only prayed: "Consume with fire, O God, a presumptuous heart which loveth thee;" again, "My God, let me be so absorbed in Thy love that no other affection may find room in my heart." It was Rabia who sang:
The Black Stone