I’m on a strict diet of Persian poetry lately and remembered a book I had titled The Hand of Poetry: Five Mystic Poets of Persia. It includes an introduction to each by Inayat Khan, one of the first people to bring Sufism to the West as far back as 1910. Like the Hassidic Jews, the Gnostic Christians, the Zen Buddhists, the Hindu Yogis, Islam’s Sufi’s are the mystic, esoteric branch of the mother ship religion, accenting first-hand experience of the divine over mere faith and worship. The five poets represented in the book—Sanai, Attar, Rumi, Saadi and Hafiz— all lived in the 12th-14th centuries and wrote ecstatic poems to God addressed as “the Beloved, the Friend, the Guest.”
In his introduction to Hafiz (from a lecture in 1923), Inayat Khan writes:
There was a time when a deep thinker and free thinker had great difficulty in expressing his thoughts and that time has not altogether ceased. But in some ways, there seems to be much more freedom of expression in this age than in ancient times. In that time, anyone who expressed his thought freely about life and its hidden law—about soul, God, creation, manifestation, met with great difficulty.
The difficulty was that religious authorities of all kinds governed…and therefore, those who attained the esoteric understanding always had difficulty telling it to the people. Many were persecuted; they were stoned, they were flayed, they were put to death. All sorts of were inflicted on them and in this way, the progress of humankind was retarded. Today we do not see this…
Hmm. That was in 1923. Nazi Germany, Stalin’s purge, Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Khomeni’s Iranian revolution had yet to come. Writers sent to Siberia, artists sent to be rehabilitated, music and dance outlawed in Iran (if there is an earthquake there, it would be from these singing, dancing poets turning over in their graves!).
I appreciate Inayat Khan’s optimism back in 1923 that the Dark Ages are behind us and I do believe that the moral arc of the universe not only bends towards justice, but toward beauty, sustainability, communal harmony, individual self-expression, spiritual liberation and other qualities that are good for children and all living things. Just a few weeks ago, there was a progressive growth spurt in the U.S. as the Confederate flag came down, a President spoke truth and sang!, a ruling body voted for love and the Pope brought science and religion together for a long-needed conversation. As Hafiz says; “Let’s toast every rung we’ve climbed on Evolution’s ladder!”
But there clearly is some regressive gene at play that is pulling people off the ladder and knocking down the ladder itself and it cannot be ignored. How did Iran go from Hafiz’s dancing ground to a repressive regime? Why did that Confederate flag fly for 150 years in South Carolina and need a mass murder in a church for people to pay attention? Women in Afghanistan in the 70’s and 80’s held jobs in universities and hospitals and more and in comes the Taliban to make it a crime to be out on the street alone. (Read Husseini’s A Thousand Brilliant Suns for that horrific story).
In my lifetime, there have been remarkable landmarks— The Civil Rights Act, the feminist movement, the crumbling of the Berlin Wall, the end to apartheid in South Africa and Mandela elected, Obama elected, the recent Supreme Court gay marriage decision and more.
All worthy of toasting the next rung up on Evolution’s ladder. But all demanding a deeper commitment to keep that work going, for the Limiters are everywhere and in every time and too often armed with guns and big money. And so, it always comes back to Education, Education and did I mention? Education. Awareness. Conversation. Showing that it’s more fun to be free and loving than fearful and full of hate.
And when we’re in doubt or despairing or in need of inspiration, when we need a hand to climb the next step on Evolution's Ladder, may I recommend something?