Solitude in Sufi Tradition
Islam is characterized by simplicity of doctrine and authority structure as well as a strong historical identify of its adherents with the community of believers originating in the tribal experience. While Islam shares these characteristics with historical Judaism, it has in common with Christianity a strong universalism and -- in the Shia tradition -- identification with saints and their shrines. Simplicity of doctrine provided a clear philosophical field for the development of mysticism, whether indigenous to Islam in the example of the Prophet Muhammad and the Muslim communitarian style or extrapolated from Greek and Eastern concepts and practice. Sufism developed Islamic mysticism as early as the 10th century (C.E.). Among Sufi practices is the use of solitude.
The mysticism of Sufi tradition is strikingly animated by its literary color, often expressed in stories, parables, and poems rather than didactic manuals. The philosophical tone is established by expressions such as 12th-century Sufi writer Attar in Conference of the Birds:
You are preoccupied with the outward shape of things, with the pleasures of a seductive form. Love of the rose has driven thorns into your heart. No matter how great the beauty of the rose, it will vanish in a few days, and love for something so perishable can only cause revulsion in the Perfect One. If the rose smiles at you, it is only to fill you with sorrow, for she laughs at you with each spring. Forsake the rose and her red color.
Aesthetics and emotional expression are amply filled by a life of devotion, maintains Sufi thought. The method is not simply adherence to prayer and ritual, however, but is fulfilled only in the complete apprehension of God. This is presented as the example of the Prophet Muhammad, who apprehended the divine in the revelation of the Quran, as summarized in Surah 97 titled "The Night of Power":
We revealed it on the Night of Power.
What will convey to you what is the Night of Power?
The Night of Power is better than a thousand months.
The angel and the Spirit descended therein, by God's permission.
That night is Peace until the rising of the dawn.
Furthermore, Quranic revelation took place when the Prophet Muhammad was on a 40-day retreat in a cave on Mt. Hira, clearly a solitary and meditative experience, which Sufi tradition considers an enjoinment by the Quran of a basic practice. But Mt. Hira is also a mystical experience, as is the intimacy with God shown in the night journey from Mecca to Jerusalem and into ascension, described in Surah 53 (13-18) titled "The Star":
And truly did he see him yet another time:
By the lotus tree of the utmost boundary,
Night unto which is the Garden of Abode.
When that which enshrouds covered the lotus-tree:
The eye was not turned aside nor yet was overbold.
Truly he saw one of the greater revelations of his Lord.
In contrast to the Judeo-Christian scriptures, similar experiences by the Prophet Muhammad over a succession of twenty-plus years convince the Sufi that direct relationship to God, with the Quran as practical model, comprises the essence of mysticism. Some ten centuries before the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and its insistence on ritual alone, Sufis elaborated the mystical theme and developed careful bounds to its expression.
Prominent among mystical writers was the Spanish-born Ibn Arabi, author of the Journey to the Lord of Power, the first important manual of Islamic mysticism. The work addresses the aspiring seeker. It begins:
I shall first describe (May Allah grant you success) the nature of the journey to Him, then the procedure of arriving and standing before him, and what He says to you as you sit on the carpet of His vision. Then the nature of the return from Him to the presence of his actions, with them and to Him. And I shall describe absorption in Him, which is a station less than the station of return.
But the first disposition must be solitude:
Seclusion from people will become inevitable for you and preference for retreat over human associations, for the extent of your distance from creation is the extent of your closeness to God, outwardly and inwardly.
Ibn Arabi explains that knowledge is sought within traditional devotions: ablutions, prayer, fasting, reverence. But, he says, "You are obliged to seek out more than this." After this comes "work," greater attentiveness, asceticism, and trust. After these stations only may come the fruits of holiness: performance of miracles and revelations. These gifts will not be granted typical seekers.
Ibn Arabi warns that control of the imagination and discipline are prerequisite to retreat. Spiritual discipline means training of character in the virtues mentioned above, plus endurance of indignities. But even with such preparations, the external world spoils retreat. (Retreat was literally conducted in one's house but the term is symbolic for self, too.)
When you withdraw from the world, beware of people coming to see you and approaching you, for he who withdraws from the people does not open his door to their visits. Indeed the object of seclusion is the departure from people and their society, and the object of departure from people is not leaving their physical company, but rather that neither your heart nor your ears should be a receptacle for the superfluous words they bring.
People unwittingly or otherwise convey worldliness by their idle interests, like dust on their cloaks shaken off in the house of the retreatant. Ibn Arabi continues:
Your heart will not become clear of the mad ravings of the world except by distance from them. And everyone who withdraws into his house yet opens the door to people visiting him is a seeker of audience and esteem, driven from the door of God ...
Protect yourself from the deceit of the self in this station, for most of the world is destroyed by it. So shut your door against the world, and thus the door of your house will be between you and your people.
Some recommendations for the retreatant are matters of practical moderation. Occupy the mind in dhikr, which is invocation, repetition, or remembrance of the names of God. Dhikr fills the mind and heart in a positive and sustaining way, warding off bad imaginings and weakness of will. Diet is to be fasting, excluding animal products, balancing satiation and excessive hunger. Even praying must not lead to excessive dryness or corrupt imaginings, for otherwise long delirious "ravings" result.
Ibn Arabi's manual describes the mystical ascent, prefacing each step with the felicitous phrase: "And if you do not stop with all of this, He reveals to you ..." This process is the aspirant's goal in retreat and solitude. Retreat and solitude provide an efficacious anticipation to the vagaries of mystical practice.
But even the pious Muslim with no particular aspiration to mysticism nevertheless derives piety and self-discipline from retreat and solitude.
For the Sufi adept, the "journey to the Lord of Power" was built into meditation whether as the formal forty-day retreat or in everyday daily practice. As Rumi puts it:
A bird that flies to heaven, although he never reaches heaven, still distances himself from the earth more and more with each moment, and flies higher than the other birds.
Paradoxes of Solitude
Retreat and solitude are practical means to an end in Sufi tradition. For the Sufi adept, the temptation to regularly escape family and society may have been strong -- the Sufi hall, lodge, or house, was the near equivalent of a men's club. But the injunction of the Quran is stronger: "Monasticism they invented but We ordained it not for them" (57, 27). Or as the Persian poet Saadi, criticizing the recluse, says:
He has established himself on a mountain,
So he has no work to do.
A man should be in the marketplace,
While still working with true Reality.
The Naqshbandi order of Sufism evolved a distinction between solitude (khalwat) and "solitude in the crowd" (khalwat dar anjuman). The formal 40-day retreat described by Ibn Arabi represents the practical solitude of withdrawal for the refreshment of self and senses, and for spiritual strengthening. The model is the Prophet Muhammad himself, and the utility of solitude is not controversial to the Sufi, accepted for centuries as a standard devotional practice.
Solitude in the crowd becomes the face of the self going about daily life. Constant consciousness of God in every circumstance preserves a disengagement from the world without disrupting the functions of society, which in turn are supposed to be based on Islamic ethics. The Quran identifies those who successfully practice "solitude in the crowd" as those "whom neither business nor profit distracts from the recollection of God" (24:37). Attributed to the Prophet Muhammad is a saying of himself (and as a model to others) that he has "two sides: one faces my Creator and one faces creation."
The insistence on solitude as a short-term pragmatic tool that cannot be an end to itself appears intrinsic to Islamic thought and society. Ibn Arabi himself notes that the Prophet Muhammad sought to
flee from seeing people, since he used to find himself oppressed and constricted having to see them. Had he gazed upon the face of God within them, he would not have fled from them nor would he have sought to be alone with himself. He remained like this until God came to him suddenly. After that he returned to creatures and stayed with them.
This point of view affects inward and outward dimensions of the self, with the inner dimension representing the inmost consciousness and the outward allowing attentiveness to God in the midst of the external world. "He who enters spiritual retreat with God does so only for this reason," says Ibn Arabi, namely, to strengthen the inner, the "cell of retreat," for the sake of the outer.
In Ibn Arabi, the solitude of retreat comprises withdrawal from creation. But because there is no absolute separation between states, not even ultimately between God and creation, the return to society (return to creation) is merely a vertical descent after an ascent to God. Thus,
for him whom God has given understanding, retreat and society (khalwa and jalwa) are the same. Rather, it may be that society is more complete for a person and greater in benefit, since through it at every instant once increases in knowledge of God.
But a seamlessness of solitude and society is predicated on the efficacy of retreat in enlightening the individual. Surrender of ego to God is the hallmark of all mysticisms. The Sufi goal of absolute identification with God automatically sets the priorities in daily life. "You belong to that which exercises authority over you," says Ibn Arabi. Presumably, this means society, which God has created as much as the individual. But it is a hard saying, and Ibn Arabi's description of the mystical ascent in Journey to the Lord of Power is palpably the desired infinitude of the soul's true longing.
The dilemmas and paradoxes of solitude among the Sufis themselves is evident in many stories by and about them, from Hallaj to Rumi and beyond. The theologizing of Ibn Arabi does not begin to capture the stresses of the Sufi saints torn between mystical love of God and decorum of deportment in household and society.
The gist of the Sufi dilemma is the inclination to solitude versus the Islamic enjoinment to society. As Carl Ernst notes of historical Sufism:
If Sufis were not to be isolated hermits, they had to interact with the affairs of society. Adopting poverty became an internal attitude of detachment rather than a purely external deprivation of possessions. Moreover, the Sufi adept, shayk, master, or "saint" experienced the paradox more profoundly, as scholar Bruce Lawrence has pointed out. "Living in isolation from the company of others, the saint must constantly attend to the needs of his fellow Muslims, evidenced by his disciples and visitors to his hospice."
Furthermore, the Sufi adept was necessarily married and the father of sons, but must (quoting Ernst) project himself "celibate in temperament and disposition." He might be "prone to ecstasy, whether in silent solitude or abetted by music and verse while in the company of other Sufis," yet he must perform all the external and obligatory rituals and duties of other Muslim men in a serious and decorous way.
Historically the station of the adept intensified, as his status brought him into contact with officials and men of power. Thirteenth-century Persian poet Saadi describes the paradox in his famous "Rose Garden": One of the pious saw in a dream a king in heaven and an ascetic in hell. Asking why this was so, this being the opposite of his expectation, the reply came that the king was in heaven for listening to ascetics, while the ascetic was in hell for listening to kings.
Carl Ernst summarizes:
Contrary to the subjective and individual character of mysticism as it is often understood in the modern West, Sufism requires that inner experience be coordinated with correct social interaction. ... This stress on the social dimension found its expression in the formulation of rules of conduct designed for use of a community. The form that these rules took was the enumeration of morals or ethical norms.
The rules governing the conduct of the Sufi lodge or hospice addressed meticulously relations to the master and among fellow disciples, communal life, ritual involving prayer, meditation, music, dance, fasts and foods, hospitality and comportment -- in short, all aspects of Sufi "monastic" life.
The use of solitude as discipline and means may have channeled deep individual and cultural expressions into daily life. Sufism as mysticism was devotional in a way paralleling Hindu Bhakti, but strictly regulated by Muslim and Quranic tradition. Yet who can doubt that the magnificent poetry of Sufi tradition so rich in mystical symbolism, sensual imagery, and Dionysian expression, was not itself a devotional expression that elevated Sufi practice as praise and extroversion, contrasted to the introversion of Western and Far Eastern solitude and silence. Hence the poet Saadi in his poet "Rose Garden":
Last night a bird cried out till dawn, ravishing my mind,
my patience, my strength, my thoughts.
The sound of my voice must have reached the ear
of a sincere friend.
He said, "I can't believe that a bird's call could drive you so mad.
I said, "It is contrary to human nature
that a bird sings God's praises
while I remain silent."
But the last words on the Sufi paradox of silence and solitude must be those of Rumi, the archetype of Sufi poetic expression. First he explores the meaning of silence, that is, of discretion in speaking to others about one's thoughts, aspirations, and experiences -- one of the concerns why Hallaj was martyred -- Hallaj who went about crying "I am God." Here are several representative passages in Rumi, however few:
Move outside the tangle of fear-thinking
Live in silence.
A white flower grows in the silence.
Let your tongue be that flower.
Between speaking and being present knowledge flows.
In disciplined knowledge, the path opens.
With wandering talk it closes.
A gnostic says little, but inside is full of mysteries,
crowded with voices.
Whoever is served that cup keeps quiet.
But among like-minded, keeping silence and solitude is not good.
Every prophet sought out companions.
A wall standing alone is useless,
but put three or four walls together, and they'll support a roof
and keep the grain dry and safe.
Rumi argues that the seeker needs others to share inspiration and drive. The path is arduous but full of the footprints of predecessors and contemporaries. The seeker confesses: "I'm like an ant gotten into a granary, ludicrously happy, and trying to carry away a grain far too large and heavy."
Rumi emphasizes the master-disciple relationship, attributing to the Prophet Muhammad this advice: "If you want spiritual poverty and emptiness, you must be friends with a shayk. Talking about it, reading books, and practicing don't help. Knowledge is only from soul receiving from soul." Again, the Prophet is made to say: "Do not practice solitude like Jesus. Be in the assembly and take charge of it."
But with the mercurial personality of Rumi, the alternative must be seen squarely. Rumi warns "about the dangers of imitating others in your spiritual life." For the individual already contains this spiritual wellspring. "Do not look for it outside yourself. You are the source of milk. Don't milk others." Seeking out others is like carrying a basket of fresh bread but asking others for a crust. It is like sloshing about in fresh river water while wanting a drink from the water bags of others.
In the end, writes Rumi,
What is worth more: a crowd of thousands
or your own genuine solitude?
Power over an entire kingdom -- or freedom?
A little while alone in you room will prove more valuable
than anything else that could ever be given to you.
SUGGESTED BIBLIOGRAPHICAL REFERENCES
Among introductions to Sufism is The Shambhala Guide to Sufism by Carl W. Ernst. Boston: Shambhala, 1997. Among the works of Ibn Arabi: Journey to the Lord of Power: A Sufi Manual on Retreat. New York: Inner Traditions, 1980. Among articles on Ibn Arabi: "Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi: The Beauty of Oneness Witnessed in the Emptiness of the Heart" by Cecilia Twinch (1997) available at http://www.ibnarabisociety.org/articles/twinch.html. Among translations of Rumi: The Essential Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks with John Moyne. New York:HarperOne, 1997. A modern account of a 40-day retreat is Forty Days: The Diary of a Traditional Solitary Sufi Retreat, by Michaela M. Ozelsel. Brattleboro, VT: Threshold Books, 1996; Boston: Shambhala, 1999, reviewed at http://www.hermitary.com/bookreviews/women.html#Ozelsel.