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Uways and his significance

Tuesday, May 20th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- exploring the importance to both Shias and Sufis of Uways Al Qarni, and of the Uwaysi transmission in Sufism ]

Uways, the destruction of whose shrine I described today in the first of two posts, was the man to whom the Prophet Muhammad entrusted his cloak on his death (a potent symbol ineed), a prototypical Muslim mystic, an early Muslim martyr who never physically met the Prophet — and the saint who gives his name to the Uwaysis, those Sufis who receive spiritual insight not from a living master but through a spiritual transmission from beyond…

Beyond what I can easily tell you, but where beyond is not for me to say…

Diving right in, then, here are two substantial gobbets from Patrick Laude‘s Malâmiyyah Psycho-Spiritual Therapy can also be found — in the same words, I think — in his book, Divine Play, Sacred Laughter, and Spiritual Understanding. Laude is currently Professor at Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar:

The figure of Uways Qarani is most representative in this respect. Farid al-Din ‘Attar tells us about him: “during his life in this world, he (Uways) was hiding from all in order to devote himself to acts of worship and obedience” (‘Attar 1976, p. 2). ‘Attar also relates that the Prophet had declared at the time of his death that his robe should be given to Uways, a man he had never met in this life. When ‘Umar looked for Uways during his stay in Kufa, he asked a native of Qarn (the home town of Uways) and was answered “there was one such man, but he was a madman, a senseless person who because of his madness does not live among his fellow countrymen (…) He does not mingle with anybody and does not eat nor drink anything that others drink and eat. He does not know sadness nor joy; when others laugh, he weeps, and when they weep, he laughs” (ibid., p. 29). We can already perceive here, in the case of an early mystic like Uways, the dual, and seemingly contradictory, spiritual vocation of ‘obscurity’ and ‘eccentricity.’ The unassuming figure of Uways is, at the same time, blatantly discordant in the social context. This discordant status that is often referred to as ‘madness’ is the mark of the irruption of a transcendent, vertical perspective within the world of terrestrial horizontality. It is akin to a negation of the negation: the Spirit ‘negates’ the distorted notions of the soul, the biases and comforts. When Uways finally meets with ‘Umar, he tells him that it would be better for him that “nobody (but God) would know him and had knowledge of who he was.” To remain incognito can be considered as the leaven of malamiyyah spirituality.

and in his footnotes:

In his Kitub ‘Uqala’ al-majanin, an-Naysaburi ranks Uways among four of the best-known “wise fools” with Majnun, Sa’dun and Buhlul. Cf. Dols, p.355.

Uways is also, and quite tellingly, the ‘patron’ of Sufis who do not have a living master: “The Sufi tradition has distinguished a special group of seekers: those whose sole link with the teaching is through Khidr himself. There are those rare Sufis who do not have a teacher in the flesh. (…) They have been given a special name: uwaysiyyun.” Sara Sviri (1997) p.98.

It is interesting to note that Uways Qarani is both a norm and a shocking exception in the world of early Islam. He is a shocking exception in so far as his asocial perspective and ascetic disposition took him away from the communal establishment of the ummah that is, in a sense, the very identity of Islam. Still, at the same time, Uways al-Qarani is referred to in at least two ahadith that make of him the spiritual pole of the community. Two interesting facts must be commented upon in this context: first, the Prophet declared that on the Day of Judgment and later in Paradise, God will give the form of Uways to 70,000 angels so that nobody could know, even in the thereafter, who is the actual Uways. This hyperbolic and symbolic manifestation of anonymity is quite suggestive of the principle of ‘invisibility’ that presides over the malamiyyah way. Secondly, when referring to Uways in connection with ‘Umar, ‘Attar carefully avoids any expression that would seem to give precedence to Uways over ‘Umar: “You should know that Uways al- Qarani was not superior to ‘Umar, but that he was a man of detachment vis-a-vis things of this world. ‘Umar, as for him, was an accomplished perfection in all his works.” (op.cit. p.31) ‘Umar’s perfection is defined in terms of presence and action in the world of men, whereas Uways’ perfection is understood in terms of separation from the world. Given its emphasis on equilibrium between the two worlds, Islam cannot extol Uways’ virtues to the point of “otherworldliness.” Moreover, the Prophet’s robe is no doubt a different kind of investiture than the line of succession in the khilafat: it points to a spiritual authority like the khirka (cloak) of the Sufi Shaykh; but this type of investiture and eminence must remain hidden.

This ‘madness’ is also related to the function of the American Indian ‘contrary’, Sioux heyokao or Hopi kochare, or the “grey one” of the Apaches, who embodies the apparently senseless reversal of terrestrial and social norms of behavior.


Thyere’s a lot packed into these two chunks of Laude’s — poetry, legend, hagiography, insight — and I’ve quoted them in extenso because they save me quoting shorter extracts from half a dozen other sources [ eg: 1, 2, 3, 4 ].

For a more detailed understanding, I should probably finesse my way to a copy of Julian Baldick‘s Imaginary Muslims: The Uwaysi Mystics of Central Asia.


A wise fool, then, in that global tradition of sacred folly which extends from Shakespeare‘s Lear’s Fool via Chuang Tzu to the Koshare of the Hopi rituals — and to the Sufis, a wali, a friend of the Beloved.


Doors within doors: Ibn Arabi, Henry Corbin and Tom Cheetham

Sunday, December 2nd, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron -- a response to, and endorsement of, Tom Cheetham ]

Interior of the Touba mosque


If I only had one book to take with me, I’d pick Henry Corbin‘s Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn Arabi, also available under the title Alone with the Alone. And I’d pick it, because — well, this poem of mine says it best:

No Place Special

I am baffled:
                 your muezzin calls me
with a call more resonant than any command
of sensible business, any
instrument, nay, of corporeal music,
to prayer in no place visible,
as if defining by example what
eyes in the back of the head might mean,
might see, ears on the inside
of the skull
mean, what
their music, not being
ears or eyes in the habitual sense at all.

        Not the sheer cliffs of fall
Of Hopkins’ poem, but cliffs sheer without any
word-hold by which to climb
celestialwards — as if
adamant, as if obsidian,
oblique to terrestrial gravity, this cliff
of hearing the call without seeing the mosque
without turning
around, inwards, some new way within.

I have ignored the lures, chased breath,
pressed my life into service, and —
as if a pressed life, even in service, were
death on display, a pinned butterfly —
withdrawn from pressing,
taken ease in the swell and ride
of life, loved much, seen
many to my great joy and felt richly
to my grief…
                  and the
muezzin yet calls, the baffle, the cliff
still between me and the attainment of garden,
tree and spring.

Corbin’s book is too high for me, but I feel the call. And Ibn Arabi — beyond my knowing.


Ibn Arabi is known as the Shaykh al-Akbar, the greatest shaykh, because his work towers higher and digs deeper into the soul than that of any other Islamic writer, saving only (perhaps) his contemporary the poet mystic Jalaluddin Rumi.

Stepping down from his heights, up from his profundities, we have in Henry Corbin an interpreter of great power — and since I find even Corbin requiring of me a depth of insight I can not yet grasp yet must read again and again across the decades, I am happy to have found his interpreter, Tom Cheetham.

And thus Tom Cheetham is a doorway for me into the doorway that Henry Corbin is to Ibn Arabi, himself a doorway into the profoundest mystery.


You can find Tom Cheetham’s four books here — I’d start with The World Turned Inside Out: Henry Corbin and Islamic Mysticism, and read them in the order of publication.

I have written this post to draw the attention of any who may be interested to Tom’s offer of an online seminar in Corbin’s work: The World of Henry Corbin – Online Learning.

I am considering the possibility of offering some kind of online learning program.
I would like to know:

(1) if there is interest,
(2) what topics people would be most interested in,
(3) what format or formats might be most useful, and
(4) whether people might be willing to pay a modest fee.

Any other comments or suggestions are welcome.

Contact me by commenting on this post or emailing me at
subject heading “Corbin Online Learning”

Very highly recommended.


Of ID cards and innermost mysteries

Thursday, November 29th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron -- just another angle on personal identity and ID, nudged on by two news pieces I saw today, and written to set the thought juices flowing ]

Life’s four deep questions are often listed thus: Who am I? Where did I come from? Why am I here? and Where will I go? We humans can spend a lifetime in search of the answers, and Paul Gauguin made three of them them the title of what some consider his greatest painting:

Paul Gauguin: D'où je viens, qui je suis, où je vais?


These are deeply personal questions — and now governments and bureaucracies everywhere would like to know the answers to them, too:


The poet Hopkins, in his tightly compressed way, teaches us that we are not our driving licenses, we are not files in a desk drawer or on a computer, we are not our photos, we are not numbers, we are not even our names, we are… that which is most natural to us, that which is most essential about us, what you might call our “true natures”:

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.

We selve, we go ourselves — most precisely, we deal out that being which dwells within us.

And to learn what that being is, that mystery which most richly propels us, is our life task.


In our desire to identify, classify, count and track everybody and everything, our governments and bureaucracies keep losing track (!) of the simple fact that a person’s person is that person’s innermost mystery.


Pussy Riot, Holy Foolishness and Monk Punk

Sunday, August 19th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron -- mystery beyond the senses, holy of holies behind the veil, altar beyond the iconostasis, and other considerations bearing on Orthodoxy, Pussy Riot, holy folly and monastic punk ]

Life is full of surprises.

glorious photo credit: choir punk by teosartori under cc license


Okay, I started fishing around the web the way I do because when I first ran across the Pussy Riot story, I kept seeing press reports that said the grrls had been protesting on the altar of Christ the Savior Cathedral [Russian Orthodox] in Moscow.


What surprised me about this was that the altar in an Orthodox church would be behind the closed doors of the Iconostasis, because what takes place on the altar is too mysterious for us to grasp through the unaided senses.

Aside: there’s a lot of religious “clash of civs” going on in the Pussy Riot affait, so let me untangle some of the interesting threads, and then see where that leads us.

You may recall that when Christ died on the cross outside the City walls, there was a parallel incident inside Jerusalem: “the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent” [Matt 27.51]. This could, it seems to me, be an involuntary gesture of mourning on the part of the earth and temple — but it also opens the holy of holies..

In very broad strokes then, there are three spaces in Orthodoxy, separated by two doors, and they correspond to three ways of knowing.

    • Outside the church, there’s the realm where the senses and rational mind can be pretty much relied on for the kinds of transactions that humans mostly engage in, food, drink, shelter, exchange of goods…
    • Passing in through the church door we are in a space of devotion, the nave, in which attention is focused on the second doorway, that of the iconostasis, where the icons are presented. Here the mental activity is typically one of prayer, and the icons are available to lead the senses and mind towards that which the mind cannot comprehend.



  • And passing, as only the ordained may, through the doors of the iconostasis into the Sanctuary, we enter the space of the altar and the sacramental transformation of the Eucharist — which neither rational mind nor senses can apprehend, and which is accordingly the realm of Mystery properly defined.

The Pussy Riot grrls are clearly dancing (and singing and prostrating and crossing themselves in the video) in front of the doors of the iconostasis — not “on the altar” — a big difference, which I would suggest is comparable in kind to the difference between human prayer and divine revelation.

No, they were not “staging an anti-Kremlin protest on the altar of Moscow’s main cathedral” [Telegraph], nor “performing what they called a ‘punk prayer’ on the altar of Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral” [ABC News].


By way of giving you some context, Eurasia Review has the religious politics:

The actions of Pussy Riot inspired indignation on the part of Church leaders and regime officials. Patriarch Kirill called their action a “mockery of a sacred place.” Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, said it was “blasphemy.” The women were described as “satanic devils” and “prostitutes” and there were calls for them to be ripped to pieces on the ancient execution site in Red Square.

What was lost in all this was the identification of the Russian Orthodox Church with the Putin regime. Putin’s inauguration was marked by the ringing of church bells in the Kremlin. Kirill held a special prayer service for his “health” and “success in government,” in the Cathedral of the Assumption in the Kremlin. In the Novodevichy Monastery, the nuns sang psalms round the clock for Putin’s health.

And then there was that 2009 London Times article:

The Russian Orthodox Church will choose tomorrow between three alleged former KGB agents as its next spiritual leader.

More than 700 priests, monks and lay representatives will decide who should become the new Patriarch in the first Church election since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The contest at Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow pits the favourite, Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, against two rivals who also rose through the heirarchy at a time when the Church was under strict Communist control.


Here are the lyrics to the “punk-prayer” Virgin Mary, Put Putin Away that they were singing:


Virgin Mary, Mother of God, put Putin away
?ut Putin away, put Putin away

(end chorus)

Black robe, golden epaulettes
All parishioners crawl to bow
The phantom of liberty is in heaven
Gay-pride sent to Siberia in chains

The head of the KGB, their chief saint,
Leads protesters to prison under escort
In order not to offend His Holiness
Women must give birth and love

Shit, shit, the Lord’s shit!
Shit, shit, the Lord’s shit!


Virgin Mary, Mother of God, become a feminist
Become a feminist, become a feminist

(end chorus)

The Church’s praise of rotten dictators
The cross-bearer procession of black limousines
A teacher-preacher will meet you at school
Go to class – bring him money!

Patriarch Gundyaev believes in Putin
Bitch, better believe in God instead
The belt of the Virgin can’t replace mass-meetings
Mary, Mother of God, is with us in protest!


Virgin Mary, Mother of God, put Putin away
?ut Putin away, put Putin away

(end chorus)

Here’s a linguistic comment, which I can neither affirm nor refute, from The Economist:

“The Lord’s Shit!” is a literal translation, while the expression “Sran’ Gospodnya” found in the lyrics is an equivalent of English “holy shit”, which is a totally diferrent matter.

And then there’s this:

But prosecutors sought to downplay the political angle and highlight the blasphemy, overriding the defense’s objections with the help of Syrova’s many “question disallowed!”

“Do you believe it acceptable to say ‘Holy sh*t!’ in the church?” a prosecutor asked a father of one of the defendants in the courtroom.

The man denied it, pointing out Russia’s ancient tradition of skomorokhi – traveling actors afforded the degree of freedom of speech that apparently exceeded that allowed to Pussy Riot. Of course, the skomorokhi sometimes faced burning at the stake, but this was not mentioned at the hearing.


Which brings us to the entire issue of holy fools in Orthodoxy…

The holy fools are understood to “feign madness in order to provide the public with spiritual guidance” — but I wonder if that’s a rationalization of behaviors that were simply sane, direct and challenging at the time. Consider this description from the National Catholic Register:

In Russian history the greatest of the “holy fools” was Basil the Blessed, a man so revered that the famous Cathedral in Moscow’s Red Square next to the Kremlin was named in his honor. Basil walked through Moscow wearing nothing more than a long beard. He threw rocks at wealthy people’s houses and stole from dishonest traders in Red Square.

Few doubted Basil’s holiness. Tsar Ivan the Terrible feared no one but Basil. Basil was also given to eating meat on Good Friday. Once he went to Ivan’s palace in the Kremlin and forced the tsar to eat raw meat during the fast saying, “Why abstain from eating meat when you murder men?” Countless Russians died for much less but Ivan was afraid to let any harm come to the saintly Basil.

And the grrls explicitly claimed the Holy Fools inspired their mode of protest:

Nadia said. “We were searching for real sincerity and simplicity, and we found these qualities in the yurodstvo [the holy foolishness] of punk.”

Well, there are similarities, and there are differences. The canonical Holy Fools were presumably orthodox in their beliefs, which the Riot may not be — but on the other hand, they are clearly “speaking truth to power” to use the admirable Quaker phrase.

Folly is a tad under-appreciated these days.


On the other hand, maybe it’s demonic possession. From the examination of “altar warden Vasily Tsyganyuk, classified as a victim because he claimed to have suffered psychological trauma as a result of the performance” during the trial:

VICTIM: “Those who are possessed can exhibit different behaviors. They can scream, beat their heads against the floor, jump up and down…”


VICTIM: “Well, no.”

JUDGE: “Stop questioning him about those who are possessed. Tsyganyuk is not a medical professional and is not qualified to render a diagnosis.”

Nah, not possessed — possession would be a medical diagnosis.


Hey — the name Pussy Riot is a riot — and riots are not always comfortable.

Who would have imagined the name “Pussy Riot” would appear on the digital tongue of Archbishop Cranmer — who only the other day was chastised for saying that British Olympic athletes had “given the nation a veritable golden shower of success after success” when the kind of golden shower he was thinking of was presumably the kind Zeus showered on Danae.

But the good Archbishop — or at least the conservative Christian blogger who has taken that name — has in fact been vociferous in support of the Pussy Tribe, their name notwithstanding:

This is foolish. If history teaches us anything about the murky fusion of religion and politics – the spiritual with the temporal – it is that you cannot persecute the prophets of truth without multiplying the message and spreading the cult. These women had no bombs or bullets: they are not terrorists, but anarchic artists. The more inflated and preposterous the charges laid against them, the more they are elevated to martyrdom. The longer they rot in prison at the behest of a puffed-up Patriarch, the more that martyrdom becomes a cause.

Pussy Riot have nailed their 95 Theses firmly to the door of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. You can’t kill a movement by crucifying the radicals.

That’s theology!

But look, ecclesial nomenclature can be ambiguous in its own right. The original Archbishop Cranmer was a Puritan divine, and Richard Hooker the latitudinarian divine who wrote the classic Of the Lawes of Ecclesiastical Politie.

I think we can be safely if secretly amused that one of Cranmer’s respondents in the Pussy matter has chosen the online moniker “The Judicious Hooker”. In fact he’s the one who posted:

I realise that YG was rather plain in the chancel department (praise God for the Laudian revival!) but the ‘prisoners of conscience’ were not dancing on the altar. The Orthodox Holy Table lies behind the iconostasis screen and access is confined to sacred ministers.

The Orthodox – of all Christians – still maintain the sense of the sacred. The Cathedral’s iconostasis – where icons of our Lord and his Saints are displayed for veneration – looks rather impregnable and its doors firmly shut against profanation.

But I digress, I contain multitudes, I know.


One of the more interesting blogs I’ve run across discussing the Putin Pussy event has been Khanya — here’s a taste:

Is there an Orthodox culture, and does it have anything to say about this?

Yes, I believe there is an Orthodox culture, and it is well expressed in one of the hymns we sing repeatedly in the Paschal season.

Let God arise, let his enemies be scattered
Let those who hate him flee from before his face.

Does that apply to Pussy Riot?

Yes, I believe it does.

But you have to come to the end of the hymn to see how it applies.

This is the day of resurrection.
Let us be illumined by the feast.
Let us embrace each other.
Let us call “Brothers” even those that hate us, and forgive all by the resurrection, and so let us cry:
Christ is risen from the dead
Trampling down death by death
And upon those in the tombs bestowing life.

So what do we call the members of Pussy Riot?


And what do we do with them?

Embrace them, forgive them by the resurrection and tell them that God loves them and we love them too.

That’s Orthodox culture.


Another insightful blog has been Registan, where Sarah Kendzior came at things from a different angle:

Media outlets that regularly cover Russian politics have noted how male Russian dissidents have been ignored as Pussy Riot draws world sympathy.

Removing Pussy Riot from the broader problem of political persecution in Russia is a mistake, but the case also raises specific questions about gender, media and politics.

In the same week that Pussy Riot was profiled in the New York Times style section, the Boston Review republished a 2010 interview with Hillary Clinton, in which she was asked who her favorite designer was. “Would you ever ask a man that question?” she snapped. “Probably not, probably not,” the reporter replied. The American media embraced Clinton’s riposte, reprinting it widely. But when it comes to foreign female dissidents, they promote the values Clinton rejects.


Meanwhile — and I mean meanwhile, since this has nothing directly to do with Pussy Riot, and a great deal to do with them in indirect ways — in my own beloved California:

In the wilderness of Northern California, Monks John and Damascene searched in hopes of finding a way to reach out to the Punk scene, which John had escaped. Seeing that the scene was full of kids that were sick of themselves and crippled by nihilism and despair, the Monks set out to give them the same hope that they found in Ancient Christianity. To do this, they decided to submit an article about Father Seraphim Rose in the popular magazine, Maximum Rock and Roll.

When Father Damascene read over the magazine, he knew that they would never publish something like it. Struggling to show truth to the darkened subcultures, they tried again, but this time only placing an ad for Saint Hermans Brotherhood. They got a response from the editor, saying “What the @#*% is a Brotherhood?” and the Monks were told “We only run ads for music and ‘zines*.” A light bulb went on and thus, Death to the World was born.

The first issue was printed in the December of ’94 featuring a Monk holding a skull on cover. The hand-drawn bold letters across the top read “DEATH TO THE WORLD, The Last True Rebellion” and the back cover held the caption: “they hated me without a cause.” …


The first issue, decorated with ancient icons and lives of martyrs inside, was advertised in Maximum Rock and Roll and brought letters from all around the world. People from Japan, Lithuania, and Ireland wanted to get their hands on this new radical magazine. The mailing list grew and grew and the ‘zine was distributed at punks shows and underground hangouts. It was photocopied and passed around by hundreds who wanted to read about the radical lives of the lovers of truth and the mystery of monasticism. It was estimated that at one time, there were 50,000 in circulation.

Father Paisius, who is a Monk at the monastery, said, “This subculture is raucous and deeply disturbed because of their own pain. They see life as worthless. We want to show them an ideal that is worth their life. These are marginalized youth who are wounded, and Death to the World is meant to touch with a healing hand that wound.”

Writing and putting together issues 1-12, the Monks lived in the forests of Northern California in the midst of deer, bears, mountain lions, and rattlesnakes, translating and publishing wisdom from the holy fathers and mothers of ages past. The Monks and friends of the monastery also went to rock concerts and festivals, distributing Death to the World ‘zines and t-shirts, together with icons and other books that the monastery published. The Monks did not put out any issues after issue 12, but they continued to share and hand out back orders of Death to the World.


That may be where the guy up there in the choir with the shocking pink mohawk comes in.


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