Compassion according to Sufi Masters

Saadi – Short essay by Dr. Seyed Mostafa Azmayesh for the Contempletative Seminar in Hyderabad, India, during January 2016

The Persian poet Sa’adi – In Sufism you will find a long history of applied compassion according to the descriptions of some of the great Masters of Sufism like Fariddudin Attâr1, Mawlana Jami2 or Nezâmi Ganjavi3 and especialy Sa’adi Shirazi4 in their stories and poetries.

A Sufi Master’s deep understanding of love is to experience unity with God and His creation and creatures. When seekers start to follow their path towards unity their heart is touched by a feeling of deep longing, which they might not be able to explain. They feel an attraction to their Master and connect consciously to the stream of light to which their Master is connected by reaching his hand in order to be initiated. By connecting to their own heart during daily life the seekers rest in connection to the heart of their spiritual Master and the stream of love.

Bit by bit their soul grows like a little bird in an egg until it becomes mature enough to spread its wings and leave the hard shell of the egg. Under the guidance of their Master the little birds will accomplish exercises that contribute to their growing. The „food“ of the soul-bird is pure vibration, emanating from the connection to the Master and by exercising specific rhythms of the substantial path. These rhythms can be played on instruments like Daff, Dâyereh or Tombak, or be recited, murmured, or silently performed concentrating on the heart beat of one’s own heart. The rhythms are contained in numerous Sufi poetries and can be presented live by an experienced Qawal. They are also innate in the names of God. And as it is known, there are many names of God like Haq (reality), Hoo (the One) or the Compassionate One (ar-rahim).

The first part of the Koran, whose verses were composed in Mekka, in fact are hymns and meditative prayers, which should be recitet in the correct rhythm in order to carry out the right effect on the heart. In fact, the original and authentic meaning of the word Islam according to the Sufi tradition and according to the meaning of the word is: the path from soghm to selm namely, from illness (soghm) of the heart to the health (selm) of the heart. Once Sufis have put some effort in their development to reach this kind of health of the heart, they will attain a kind of certainty about their spiritual reality or entity. They thus start to realize, that they are a mere dweller and guest of these earthly bodies. The Sufis know about their mission and need not believe something which they do not experience by themselves.

Thus, by different means – as keeping the heart connection to the Master, feeding one’s own heart by applying rhythms that propagate vibrations, personal dhikrs5 and collective Samâ6 ceremonies, doing a balance of one’s own thoughts, emotions and deeds during the day (the technique of mohassebeh) – the Sufis clean the perturbations („dust“) that cover their heart until their heart is pure, shiny, and calm.

But there is more. And this has to do with compassion.
In one of his most famous poetries Sa’adi proposed a condition for being human.

Bàni âdam azâye yek digarand
Ke dar âfarinesh ze yek goharand
Cho ozvi be dard âvarad roozegâr
Degar ozvohâ ra namânad gharâr.
To kaz mehnate digarân bi ghami
Nashâyad ke nâmat nahand âdami. 

Human beings are members of a whole,
In creation of one essence and soul.
If one member is afflicted with pain,
Other members uneasy will remain.
If you’ve no sympathy for human pain,
The name of human you cannot retain! –

That is, according to the poetry by Sa’adi compassion is a highly esteemed quality and a necessity for the qualification as a human being.

And how do the Sufis develop compassion? Where does the compassion come from? According to the Sufis, compassion arises from the heart and it is a consequence or rather an accessory phenomenon of applied action.

We have a story of Sa’adi about empathy that visualizes what this means. On one of Sa’adi’s extended travels through the Near East of 13th century, he reached Damaskus during a drought and famine and the inhabitants of the city were close to starving. Wherever he walked in the streets of Damaskus he saw people looking miserable and close to starvation. Finally, he met an old friend who had come to riches in that city and was a very wealthy man. He looked into his face and saw how pale and yellow his skin was and questioned him. „My friend what has happened to you? You look just as miserable as those poor people around you! Your face is haggard and yellow is your skin. How do you feel?“ The friend replied: „With all these ill people around me I came to become as ill as them. Their illness affects me, I feel their sorrow and pain. Now I am filled with their grief.“

Sa’adi reflects on this encounter and comes to the conclusion that it is not enough to feel the pain of others in a passive or receptive manner but to enter into action and do something about the situation that causes pain to others. So obviously, the rich man could have gone one step further and instead of only feeling the pain he could have spent the money to organise food for the poor and miserable people who were on the verge of starvation.

Here, Sa’adi describes the principle of javânmardy. This principle means: it is not enough to feel a situation, it needs to be understood, but it is not enough to understand a situation, there needs to follow an adequate action to it according to each person’s abilities and possibilities. This a holistic perspective to compassion according to the Sufi Masters.

Another story tells about Shibli7 who is said to have brought a sack with flour to a Sufi Khanegâh8 and when he opened the sack an ant was running helplessly from left to right. Shibli became sad about the situation of the ant as he was sure to have deprived her of her home and companions. During that night, he could not sleep at all and decided to not sleep and pray and to instead deliver the ant back to its home. And thus he did.

In this story there is a lesson about compassion. The fate of the little animal affected the man and he placed the pain of a being higher than his vow to pray or his body’s need to sleep and entered into action to end the pain.

Many stories that can be found in books and scripts of Sufi Masters visualize lessons and principles in a simple form. In this case we learn that for Sufis it is not important to be advanced or powerful or to have many adherents but to apply the teachings in daily life – even if that means being respectful towards an ant.

This fact contributed to the historical reality that some mighty rulers chose Sufis as their advisors. Masters like Hafez9 and Sa’adi did not praise and hail their Sultans but kept on challenging them with unexpected thoughts in order to make them learn to find a balance, to learn the art of a measured reign and not to be cruel and harsh and severe upon people.

According to all these great Sufi Masters, compassion is an applied art of spiritual awareness in daily life.

1 Known as a poet and Sufi theoretician (scholar) and hagiograph from Nishapour, a major city of medieval Khorasan, north-eastern Iran. Attâr lived during the 12th and 13th century. His formal name was Abū Ḥamīd bin Abū Bakr Ibrāhīm. He became more than 100 years old. He is most known for his work The Conference of the Birds.
2 Affiliated to the school of ibn Arabi. Greatest theologian-poet of the 15th century. Jami is known for his achievements as a scholar, mystic, writer, composer of numerous lyrics and idylls, historian, and the greatest Sufi poet of his time. His formal name was Mawlanā Nūr al-Dīn ‚Abd al-Rahmān or Abd-Al-Rahmān Nur-Al- Din Muhammad Dashti.
3 Persian romantic epic poet of the 12th century, born in Ganja in the great Seldjuq Empire, nowadays Azerbaijan. Nezâmis formal name was Jamal ad-Dīn Abū Muḥammad Ilyās ibn-Yūsuf ibn-Zakkī, called Ilyās. 
4 A 13th century Sufi Master and poet well known for the quality of his writings and for the depth of his social and moral thought. Sa’adi had been traveling widely and had many encounters with a variety of people so he gained deep experiences. His formal name was Abū-Muhammad Muslih al-Dīn bin Abdallāh Shīrāzī.
5 Dhikr or zikr or zekr: reciting a name of God like Allah Hu (the unique all-embracing quality of God).
6 Musical ceremony supervised by a Master in order to strengthen the common consciousness.
7 A mystic of Persian origin who served at the court before he embarked on the path of love as it is reported in a rather exalted way. Abu Bakr Shibli lived during 9th and 10th century. His Master was Junayd Baghdadi.
8 A place of gathering of the Sufi.
9 Famous Persian Sufi poet (14th century) from Shiraz, who inspired one of Germanys most renown thinker and poet Johann Wolfgang Goethe

© Dr. Seyed Mostafa Azmayesh, Paris, January 2016 


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