Times of Illusion: Darkness
by Maira Butt
The final instalment of this series focuses on phenomena which lie beyond our certainty and understanding; the mystery of forces such as evil, darkness, doubt and the seeming arbitrariness of creativity. It is impossible to imagine a human experience without these.
I would like to thank Charles Upton for his graciousness in responding extensively to my questions. The subtle pointers within his words prod the mind and spirit to resist complacency when reflecting on the unique chance an incarnation as human presents to us as both individuals and a collective in this age.
In your experience and in your view, how does one find security in faith, when one has many doubts? Particularly when the community or social spaces for certain discussions do not exist or are consistently attacked for being deviant.
If you are seeking for faith, then somehow, somewhere, you already possess it; like the man with the demonically-possessed son said to Jesus, “I believe, Lord! Help thou mine unbelief.” Cynicism is the death of faith, but doubt is a sign of it. If food did not exist you would never be hungry; if faith did not exist you would never feel doubt, because doubt is the hunger for certainty.
If the world, the contemporary social collective, can get along perfectly well without faith, then why does it try so hard to crush it? What’s it afraid of? It doesn’t try to crush computer gaming, for example, because it knows that computer gaming is unreal and therefore is not threatened by it. But it certainly is threatened by faith. Why? Hasn’t the world been spectacularly successful in establishing social stability, humane mores, a feeling of security and inner peace, and a sense of the meaning of life without appealing to a faith in God? Hasn’t the worldview of materialism, the belief that human beings are no more than biological machines, established a greater respect for human dignity and a more enlightened collective morality? Hasn’t the unlimited pursuit of pleasure, self-aggrandizement, money, power, popularity, and above all distraction, finally reconciled us to living in world without spirituality, and banished the fear of death? Aren’t we all happy now?
The worldly person embraces materialism because (no matter how absurd this notion might be) it seems to prove that the world has created itself. And if the world has created itself, then maybe I have created myself too. If so, that means that I must also have both the right and the power to be totally self-determined, which of course would include the ability to indefinitely defer the moment of death. All this is obviously a total fantasy, but if death is inevitable then fantasy is our only hope. Not a real hope, of course, but something that at least might give us a good chance to keep ourselves and our terror sedated until we are fortunate enough to die in our sleep.
If you suspect that another reality exists outside this prison of un-reality, then most likely it does exist, because all the powers and resources and technologies of this fantasy world, all its “weapons of mass distraction”, which have done their utmost to prevent such a notion from ever occurring to you, have failed to do so. And if they have failed, then there must be something both more powerful than they are and realer than they are.
Initially this sense of a different reality will be a very private thing, a thing that drives you to seek solitude, as Muhammad sought it on Mount Hira. When you love someone you want to be alone with them, and when you are it’s as if all the rest of the world never existed. Abraham too left the vast organized human collective of Mesopotamia, traveled alone into the wilderness, and found his Friend. Here’s the poem I wrote about it:
If you were not my Secret,
How could I ever have found you,
Among the tents?
If I were not your own Secret, jealously guarded,
How could I ever have submitted
To being called Your friend?
When I knew myself alone,
Exiled from the world,
I discovered your secret Name
Inscribed on the Guarded Tablet.
When I emerged from that solitude,
To lose myself in tribes and armies,
You felt my loss.
You searched for me everywhere,
Found me in my exile,
And named me Your friend.
At Your command I raised my right hand
To slay my only son—
I looked again, and he was Thou.
I dropped the knife.
When we sat together on a cushion of grass
Inside the Walled Garden of the Mysteries,
Eating from our own vine and fig tree
And talking to our heart’s content,
The desert, shimmering white and yellow
On the horizon beyond us
Stood in need of the clear Arabic tongue.
In love you led me
Into the barren places of the earth.
In anger you drove me, with slaps and bitter words
Toward the chamber of Night
Where you were waiting for me already,
Watching over my sleep,
The rising and falling of my breast,
Till the mazes of the stars and the night of time
Passed over, and the morning came.
Art seems to place the individual at the centre, and often forgets that not only are ideas and possibilities objects of our knowledge, but that we are objects of His knowledge. Where would you draw the fine line between artistic expression and the darkness of the self-indulgence which is inherently chaotic and soul-sucking?
I will try to answer this question from the standpoint of my own art, the art of poetry. To begin with, poetry has nothing to do with self-expression. What starts with “myself”, considered apart from the rest of reality, also ends with myself. And what begins and ends with myself can be of no real interest to anybody else, nor will it necessarily be of much interest to me either; if it is possible for me to bore or disgust others, it is equally possible for me to be bored and disgusted in my own presence. And to the degree that I remain sealed within my own particular concerns, obsessions, tastes, hankerings and fixed ideas, unwilling to grant the authority and dignity of authentic being to anything outside myself, then boredom and disgust—and also fear—will most likely be my companions. Poetry, unless we include childish fantasy and incoherent mumbling (“language poetry” for example) in the definition of it, exists to express truths. A truth is something that, in the words of Beat Generation poet Lew Welch, “goes on whether I look at it or not”. There are truths of the metaphysical world, truths of the natural world, truths of the human world, even truths of the emotional and psychological state and configuration of the poet him- or herself. But even when the poet is writing about himself, he is not writing as himself, at least not in biographical terms. Unless his own states have become as objective to him as the facts of history or the stars in the sky, he’d better keep his mouth shut.
In some ways poetry is the end of the line—the line being the creative act of God. God brings forth the universal order; inspired by the exalted archetypes and constants of that order, and in some cases under the direct inspiration of God Himself, the poet creates. Moved by the meanings and ironies, the joys and tragedies of human life, or by the beauties and terrors of the natural world, all of which spring from these primary archetypes, the poet creates. Intrigued by the drama of human history, its triumphs and its crimes—which also reflect the actions of God, both His mercy and His wrath, both His guidance and His dark misdirection of those who reject that guidance—the poet creates. True to the existential reality of his or her own experience, its precise qualities beyond all conceptual overlay and analysis, the poet creates.
Or does he? Has not God already created everything? Is He not the Creator of all things visible and invisible, both of all the words human beings have said, and all the numberless things that no-one has ever said, or even thought of? The world, human society, our bodies, our ability to think and feel, all these come to us as gifts—or as curses—from a Source that absolutely transcends us; even the atheist, if he or she is honest, must admit this much. So the poet can in no way be a creator in the same sense that God is, or even a “co-creator”, as if God were in need of partners and helpers to achieve His ends. The poet, if anything, is a sub-creator, one who creates not by deepening and expanding being, like God does, but rather by picking and choosing from what That One has already provided so as to express and apply His bounty in more limited and specific worlds. And by the time the universal creative impulse has descended as far as human words, and crossed the lips, tongue and teeth of the poet, it has nowhere else to go—nowhere but back, through the response of the listener—and up, after that, through a thousand unknown listeners in invisible worlds—to the Source that first released it.
Kierkegaard posited three ontological levels, in descending order of reality: the spiritual, the moral and the aesthetic. Human words may praise and characterize and petition and invoke the Divine; this is the spiritual level. They may also motivate human action in the name of a moral ideal, or prohibit actions that violate this ideal; this is the moral level. Lastly, they may simply render the perceived qualities of things, of the objects of the world, of the innumerable states of human consciousness and affection; this is the aesthetic level. Below the aesthetic, below the sensual or affective surface of things, nothing remains but the inarticulate, the inchoate, the obscure. Situated on the lowest level of the hierarchy of being, the aesthetic is perfectly situated to reflect the highest; the bare existential confrontation with the qualities of existing things may suggest the bare contemplative encounter with the Names and Attributes of God and the metaphysical order, and the Ground of Being itself. Nonetheless, the aesthetic apprehension of already-existing things is situated at the furthest ontological point from the Divine Reality that the world of form allows for. The poet is balancing on the brink of non-entity; if he falls, he is lost. And his only way of avoiding this fall is for him to dedicate his art, even though it is ontologically situated at the opposite pole from Primal Reality, to the contemplation and expression of the truths this Reality both conceals and reveals. He or she need not do this in specifically religious or metaphysical terms; all that is required is that the poet, having gazed into the abyss of non-entity, now turn his or her poetic attention in exactly the opposite direction, toward the point from which everything is arriving, not the point into which everything is departing and disappearing.
One of the most gratifying compliments that any poet can receive is: “You said exactly what I would have said if I had known how; you spoke not instead of me, but for me”; thus a true corollary of vox populi vox dei may in fact be vox poetae vox populi. If the poet does not know, because he has not been able to confront, the sentiments and convictions, the challenges and delegated works, the enemies and allies, the wounds and imperatives of his own soul, he cannot speak with authority to move, inform and illuminate others; he can never reach any kind of authenticity because he is no author. Yet if he does not recognize the Mysterium Tremendum in the Cave of his Heart as the First Author and Speaker of all things, including the single soul he must now turn to so as to find his proper matter and form, then he is no author either, only a thief. He is a thief who has stolen a subtle and magnificent device containing untold knowledges and destinies and warfares—things he must redeem from that clenched and paralyzed untoldness precisely by telling them—but stolen it in total ignorance of what that device is, what it is capable of, and the skills he must acquire to put it to proper use, the result being that he simply hammers it down to its component parts so he can sell it for scrap.
Poetry can be numbered among the final reverberations within the soul of God’s creative act. The poetic art extends the Divine creativity far and wide within the human psyche, both individual and collective; it carries that Truth out of which, according to the Noble Qur’an, all things are made, to its ultimate psychic limits—in other words, as far as the threshold of unreality, evil and non-existence. This is the great danger of poetry, to both the poet and the society around him, and the reason why the practice of it, outside of a traditional liturgical context, carries inevitable spiritual perils—as witness the alcoholism, drug addiction and suicide of so many poets in modern times. Poetry is the language of the gods. The poet, however, is not a god but a man—a man who has, as it were, stolen the Divine fire, the ability to create icons, living images of truth. If his skill is great enough, these icons will inevitably command belief—not in the form of assent to clear and true doctrine, but in terms of the kind of emotional and intuitive allegiance that only clear and true doctrine deserves. Consequently, if the iconic forms wrought by a poet are not objectively true as well as subjectively convincing, he has arrogated to himself the godlike power to determine what is true by saying it, and perverted that power. Only God can legitimately say what is to be true; if a poet attempts to do so outside of His inspiration and permission, he has become what Plato, in the Republic, calls a “liar.” And this is a form of demonic invocation. In the words of the Qur’an, from the surah “The Poets”: Shall I inform you upon whom the devils descend? They descend on every sinful, false one. They listen eagerly, but most of them are liars. As for the poets, the erring follow them. Hast thou not seen how they stray in every valley, and how they say that which they do not? Save those who believe and do good works, and remember Allah much, and vindicate themselves after they have been wronged? To say something but not do it is to extend the name and image of Reality into imaginative forms that one has neither the power, the integrity, nor the right to realize. It is to create phantasms, to go into debt to Reality Itself, and thereby to wrong oneself, sometimes mortally. Poetry is boast, only action is proof; the poet who vindicates himself after having wronged himself is the one who has paid, with spiritual warfare and suffering, the debt he incurred when he arrogated to himself the Divine power of creative speech
If we know that God sees us, we can see; if we know that God speaks, and that we ourselves are one of His infinite words, unique and never to be repeated, then we can speak.
You have a past in activism, especially during the 60’s. Why do you believe there is such tension between political activism and religious practice? Surely they both have the same goals at heart, which is the transcending of the ego for instance?
Spiritual practice and principled activism are not necessarily incompatible, but you can’t say that they always have the same goal. Activism in a good cause can help you to transcend egotism because it requires you to serve something greater than yourself. Spiritual practice, on the other hand, requires you to serve God alone, until your separateness, your self-identity, is ultimately annihilated in Him—and those who try to give the degree and kind devotion to social or political action that is owed only to God are basically idolaters, even if such action is defined as being in service to religion. Religion is the best of pursuits and the worst of idols. We owe total devotion to God, but we do not owe total devotion to any social agenda, even the best of them; that’s why the Greater Jihad is has precedence over the Lesser. If you know God’s will for you, and if that will includes some type of social action at a particular point in your life, then this Lesser Jihad serves the Greater one. On the other hand, if the Greater Jihad ends up serving the Lesser due to an attempt to take hold of spiritual forces and apply them to worldly agendas, then the Spiritual Path has been inverted, and Luciferian magic has taken its place. In addition it is important to realize that the Lesser Jihad can still serve the Greater whether you win or lose the particular struggle you are involved in, since full acceptance of the outcome of a given effort—just like acceptance of God’s command to act, whatever the consequences—is precisely how activism serves ego-transcendence. But if you get involved in social action out of self-will, or through idolatry of a leader or movement that you put in the place of God, then you are building up your ego, not deconstructing it. Collective egotism is still egotism, and it is all too easy to hide your ego in a social movement, especially one that requires a degree of self-sacrifice, so as to avoid facing it directly and transcending it. You may even hope to make the supreme sacrifice, to die as a martyr—but if you die after committing horrible crimes, the fact that you committed them in the name of God will not save you from the Fire.
My first real activist period was in the 1980’s, when my wife and I, as elders of a Presbyterian church in California, participated in the Sanctuary Movement for Salvadoran refugees and the effort to prevent U.S. military intervention in Central America. In 1988 I converted to Islam and was initiated into my first Sufi order; that’s when I began to concentrate on the purification-of-soul I desperately needed after the excesses of the 60’s psychedelic counterculture and its aftermath, including the ambiguities of Leftist revolutionary politics and the peace movement. Until 2013 I believed that my activist period was well behind me, since I could see no social movement that was not either hopelessly impotent, eaten up with contradictions, or already co-opted. But that year I became involved, as editor, with the publication of a book by Dr. John Andrew Morrow (Ilyas ‘Abd al-‘Alim Islam) entitled The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World. The covenants of the Prophet with various Christian communities, which Prof. Morrow has rediscovered in obscure monasteries and collections and sometimes newly translated, also providing powerful arguments for their validity, uniformly state that Muslims are not to attack peaceful Christian communities, rob them, stop churches from being repaired, tear down churches to build mosques, prevent their Christian wives from going to church and taking spiritual direction from Christian priests and elders, etc. On the contrary, the Prophet commands Muslims to actively protect these communities “until the coming of the Hour.” In response to Dr. Morrow’s resurrection of these documents I conceived of an initiative—the Covenants Initiative—which invites Muslims to subscribe to the theory that the Covenants of the Prophet are legally binding upon them today. Since then the Covenants Initiative has become an international movement; the Covenants Initiative declaration has been signed by Dr. Mohamed Mostafa Gameaha, media representative of Al-Azhar, and by many others. The Islamic Society of North America has recently endorsed it, along with the Grand Muftis of Jerusalem and Abu Dhabi, and Dr. Morrow’s book has been presented to Pope Francis, and has received endorsements from the Eastern Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch and the Patriarch of Jerusalem. All of this was totally unexpected, but when it arrived I accepted it immediately and completely. The only dreams I ever had of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, came to me after the Covenants Initiative appeared. Nonetheless I would give up the Initiative like a shot if I saw good evidence that it was interfering with my Sufi path. (Anyone who wants to know more about the Covenants Initiative or sign the declaration can go to www.covenantsoftheprophet.com )
“The Fall of Lucifer”
In speaking of the Fall of Lucifer, would I be correct in saying that his mistake then, was believing the creation of his existence meant he was a separate self-aware entity and could be completely and wholly independent of His Creator?
Is the concept of mortality central to this test? The separation from God we experience on this plane means we don’t remember where we came from and the majority of us question where we will go when we die?
Lucifer’s mistake or transgression was that he opposed God’s will to create the universe, to manifest Himself on levels lower than pure Spirit. Like the heterodox Gnostics of late antiquity, he accepted Transcendence but not Immanence, the Absolute but not the relative as the necessary manifestation of the Absolute. In the course of this process of manifestation he descended from the undifferentiated Unity of all possibilities within the Absolute Essence to the level of individual self-awareness, which was necessarily related to the first appearance of God as an external Object. This, however was not the Fall; it was not a transgression because it was in line with God’s creative will. The transgression leading to the fall of Lucifer happened when he refused to accept his “demotion” from identification with Formless Absolute to the level of self-conscious individuality, because this also required Him to accept God not as his own Absolute Essence but rather as his Lord—a Lord to which he could now only relate through submission and servanthood. If he had accepted his new ontological status and made islam to his Lord, he would have immediately been restored to union with the Essence—but (like many followers of New Age doctrine) he rejected this step since it seemed to require him to accept a God who was somehow less than Absolute—not to mention the fact that, due to his Luciferian pride, the idea of servanthood and submission was distasteful to him. So instead of obediently worshipping the new manifestation of God as Lord of the Worlds, he looked within himself to find the higher Divinity, the Absolute Essence, with Whom he had been totally identified in the “time” before he existed as a self-reflexive individual. But because he had rejected servanthood, all he could now find within the depths of his own being was his ego, which he falsely identified with the Absolute Essence he had once been united with; so instead of worshipping God he ended up worshipping himself; this is how he fell. And by that fall, as you say, entered the delusion that he could be independent of his Creator.
So, in a certain sense, Lucifer did remember where he came from; he remembered the Absolute Essence. The thing he forgot or didn’t realize was that the Absolute Essence cannot really be lost departed from or abandoned since it embraces everything and is the ultimate Essence of everything, and consequently that the Lord/servant relationship takes place not apart from the Essence but within the matrix of It. Our human forgetfulness, our ghaflah, is mostly on a different level. The human race, having been cast out of Paradise, has forgotten not only the Absolute Essence, but also God as Lord of the Worlds, Owner of the day of judgment. We take the world presented to us by our five sense as effectively absolute (or at least as absolute as anything is likely to get); consequently we treat it as if it were self-sufficient, a closed system that was somehow capable of creating itself, no matter how illogical such a notion may be. This is what’s known as “materialism” or “scientism”. And the inescapable other side of materialism, of the belief that the world is self-created, is egotism, the belief that you are self-created, and therefore that you have all the rights a creator could claim. This is the condition of the Nafs before she is pacified and educated, before she submits to Allah in knowledge and love. Someone in this condition will alternate (like Nietzsche likely did, who preached the religion of the Nafs) between a feeling of omnipotence, as if he or she were the creator of the world, and one of helplessness, as if he or she were a mere puppet of material conditions; often these two feelings will co-exist, leading to great confusion and inner contradiction. The way out of this dilemma is I will show them My signs on the horizons and in their own souls until they are satisfied that this is the Truth. Is it not enough for you, that I am Witness over all things? As this aya’ begins to dawn upon the Heart, the idea that you are creating the world or that the world is creating you will begin to give way to the intuition that there is One Cause for whatever happens either in the inner self or the outer world, that this Cause is sending its Waves through self and world simultaneously. When the Jungians, and many New Age teachers as well, speak of “synchronicities” or “significant coincidences”, understanding them as signs, the Reality these synchronicities are the actual signs of is Allah in His Name Al-Shahid, the Universal Witness.
Charles Upton, a Sufi poet, author, metaphysicist and veteran of the counter-culture, developed an interest in metaphysics via ‘mythopoeia’, and having survived the social upheavals of the Sixties, and the psychic allures of New Age occultism, awakened at the end of the Eighties to the esoteric teachings of the traditionalists, eventually becoming initiated into Sufism. I first came across Charles Upton’s work after taking a book out from the local library entitled ‘Findings in Metaphysic, Path and Lore’ (Sophia Perennis, 2009). His critique of New Age occultism and modernism is his best-known work and is published under the title, ‘The System of the Antichrist: Truth and Faleshood in Postmodernism and the New Age’ (Sophia Perennis, 2001). Sophia Perennis has published many other books by Charles Upton. His most recent book ‘Day & Night on the Sufi Path’ (Sophia Perennis, 2015) was published last year. He is also the founder of an international movement of Muslims to combat terrorism and defend persecuted Christians called ‘The Covenants Initiative’. He lives with his wife, Jennifer, in Lexington, Kentucky.
This is the final instalment of four parts of the Times of Illusion series exploring the intersection between New Age thought and established understandings of Islam through the lens of Traditionalism and Sufism.