The Many Voices of Enlightenment

“What’s in your head — throw it away! What’s in your hand — give it up! Whatever happens — don’t turn away from it.” That’s how a 10th-century Persian spiritual master — Abu Said ibn Abil-Khair was his name — defined the Islamic devotional practice known as Sufism. Countless other definitions have been proposed since, almost as many as for Islam itself.

Light of the Sufis: The Mystical Arts of Islam at the Brooklyn Museum;above, “Portrait of a Sufi,”Deccan India, 17th century.

Religions and spiritual movements are complicated things, and accurate descriptions of them are bound to be contradictory. Sufism, like Islam, is both mystical and practical, embracing and exclusionary, pacific and assertive, ascetic and sensual, free form and discipline bound. Such oppositions aren’t a problem. They generate the unifying friction that makes culture tick.

But complexity also makes us nervous. We have an itch to neaten it up, flatten it out. So we do. The West tends to see all Islam as fundamentalist, bellicose and puritanical, and Sufism as a sexy, proto-New Agey, un-Islamic departure. At the same time a fundamentalist Muslim minority rejects Sufism, with its world-touring dervishes, tippler poets and pop stars, as a Western-pandering perversion of Islamic tradition.

Clearly neither side is prepared to take the let-go-and-change option that Abu Said suggests is the Sufi way. But art, by default, does take it. Taken piece by piece, art can be ideologically arm-twisting. But collectively it is disordered enough to give equal time to many voices. And many voices is what you find in a tiny, exquisite show called “Light of the Sufis: The Mystical Arts of Islam” in the newly reinstalled Islamic galleries at the Brooklyn Museum.

While global politics has made Islam part of our consciousness, we hear little about Sufism and its long history. The term “sufi” probably derives from an Arabic word for wool, referring to the rough garments once worn by Middle Eastern ascetics. Certain followers of Sufism were called “dervishes,” a term related to a Persian word for poor.

It seems likely that Sufism initially developed a few centuries after the prophet Mohammad’s death in 632 A.D. as a back-to-basics alternative to the extravagance of the early Islamic imperial courts. In response to it a group of like-minded Muslims set materialist moderation, if not outright renunciation, as a goal. They advocated turning away from the world and toward spiritual illumination. Muhammad, enraptured by God, was their role model, and a passage from the Koran known as “Light Verse” was a primary text:


“Allah is the light of the heavens and earth. His light may be compared to a niche that enshrines a lamp, the lamp within a crystal of starlike brilliance. Light upon light; Allah guides to his light whom He will.”


A Koran page handwritten in light — that is, in gold and silver inks on a sheet of parchment dyed deep blue — is the exhibition’s oldest work, dating from the 10th or 11th century. Seen by candlelight, the words, which describe the rewards of Paradise, would have glinted against the dark ground like constellations in a night sky.

Luxury versions of glass lamps found in homes were created for mosques. A 14th-century Egyptian example, enameled, gilded and inscribed with quotations from the “Light Verse,” is in the show, on loan from the Metropolitan Museum. So is a 16th-century brass candlestick inscribed with lines in Persian about the attraction of moths to a flame, a metaphor for a soul’s ego-extinguishing passion for God.

And as often as not, spiritual yearning is expressed in terms of erotic attraction. One of the grand romances of popular Arabic literature was the Romeo-and-Juliet tale of Majnun and Layla, who fell in love. When Layla’s father married her off to some else, Majnun lost his mind. Delirious with ardor and despair, he refused to eat or sleep, and wandered the countryside for years like a wild man.

“A Princely Figure and a Dervish,” by Isfahan.

In some versions of the story Layla dies in a distant country, and he pines away in grief. In other accounts, like the one illustrated in a 17th-century Indian painting in the show, the two are reunited, at which point, exhausted with privations, Majnun dies in his beloved’s arms. In both cases he is a prototype of the Sufi who has gone the whole, extreme way to become, in the words of the poet Farid al-Din Attar, “a dead body, a nonexistent heart and a soul scorched away,” an ego reduced by love to an ash on the arm of God.

Not everything about Sufism was so unworldly. For some adherents poverty was more a spiritual than a physical condition, and tokens of it could be sumptuous: a beggar’s bowl cast in silver and inlaid with jewels; Korans in gilded bindings; light-reflecting lusterware tiles to decorate tombs.

The air of ordinary life permeates Sufi writing. The verses of the great 13th-century poet Mawlana Jalal-al-Din Rumi are sprinkled with kitchen references, off-color jokes, gossipy banter and market talk: “With God, you get the best deal; he buys your dirty fortune and gives you in exchange light of the soul.”

Institutional Sufism today has corporate dimensions. What began as a reformist spiritual impulse had become an economic and political force. One of the outstanding pieces in Brooklyn’s Islamic gallery reinstallation — organized, like the Sufi show, by Ladan Akbarnia, the museum’s associate curator of Islamic art — is a large 19th- or early-20th-century painting depicting the Battle of Karbala, a violent episode in the dispute between the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam, and one in which Husayn ibn Ali, a pious grandson of the prophet, died a martyr’s death.

The relationship of Shiism and Sufism, two powerful minorities, has been troubled, even hostile, particularly under orthodox Shiite-dominated governments in Iran, where Sufi mysticism was officially disdained. At the same time certain Sufi orders have closely associated themselves with Shiism. In doing so, Sufism puts into practice a principle of universal spiritual embrace and also shows itself adept in navigating the ways of the world.

But that worldliness, while real, is also circumscribed. Sufi literature tells us that 70,000 veils of light and darkness separate people from God. The Sufi’s task is to find a way through those veils. That’s a full-time job and a confounding and fearful one when light and darkness become the same.

Some Sufis have spoken of Black Light, the light of bewilderment, a light so bright that it has the effect of a blackout: everything familiar disappears, “like the flame of the candle in the presence of the sun,” as Rumi puts it. The idea is that God is now so blindingly near that all else becomes invisible. He is a vision of everything and nothing, and the devotee is immersed in it. The moth becomes one with the flame.

Few practitioners attain so radical a state of absorption. But the desire to find lightness of heart — to have old spirit-killing depressions and anxiety-causing attachments melted away — continues. Sufism is very much part of any full definition of Islam today. And today is where “Light of the Sufis” leaves us, with two contemporary works.

One, called “Prayer Stone 5,” is by Pouran Jinchi, an artist who was born in Iran and now lives in New York City. It consists of overlaid rubbings that Ms. Jinchi took of two carved stones in a Shia shrine in the holy city of Mashhad in Iran. One stone was inscribed with the name of Allah, the other with prayers for peace directed to a revered leader in the Shia line of spiritual succession.

In and around the lacelike patterns left by the rubbings, Ms. Jinchi has added something of her own: words from Muslim daily prayers written over and over in a minute calligraphic hand, their repetition being the physical equivalent of the Sufi practice of constantly reciting the names of God.

The second work, called “Fragments of Light 2,” is by Kelly Driscoll, who lives in Brooklyn. It is made up of verses by Rumi etched onto sheets of clear glass that have been bound into a book. The volume, transparent from first page to last, forms a natural link to the Koran page that opens the show. And it gives the final word to a great Sufi singer of spiritual passion, who also happens to be a best-selling poet in the United States and who once summed up his entire life in three short, ardent laser-beam phrases: “I burned, and burned, and burned.”

“Light of the Sufis: The Mystical Arts of Islam” remains on view through Sept. 6 in the newly reinstalled Islamic galleries at the Brooklyn Museum, 200 Eastern Parkway, at Prospect Park, (718) 638-5000, brooklynmuseum.org.

sumber : Surau Kita

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