Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Rabia of Basra

"Religion is a field unplanted except by those who accomplish an interest from it - return.
If it were not from fear of hell, none would worship any god;

And if not for the expected rewards, they would deny God."
- Khalil Gibran


Fortunately, and occasionally, some come to live another religious reality.

Rabia al-Adawiyya, a woman and a mystic from Basra of the late 8th century, is one such person.
Her early and formative life was most difficult. She was orphaned as a child, kidnapped by slave traders, sold for six silver pieces and only freed her when her master was astounded by her saintly conduct.

Over time, and to free herself from all enslavement, Rabia pursued the most difficult of roads: the freedom to worship the Divine without temptation, distraction or ulterior motive. "I will not serve God like a labourer in expectation of wages," she said, and went on to transform herself from a suffering child of Basra to an ascetic, and then to most ardently seek her freedom through the Sufi way.

Asceticism is not encouraged in Islam, a religion that puts much more emphasis on being a normal member of society, and providing service to the development of humans. Yet, Rabia shirked the regular life. She had few belongings, carried a stick and wore an old patched mantle and worn sandals. She would spend the night praying on the rootops of her city, and denied herself motherhood and love for a man.

Even though she thwarted the normal life and embraced a more radical road, it may be that "the imbalance of the thoughtful is much better than the conservatism of one who takes no thought." (1)

Indeed, her extremism came from a noble and intense source: a wish to worship out of complete freedom, and out of her own (and not any other) choice.

What little we know of her life comes to us by way of Farid al-Din Attar, a major Muslim luminary who lived in the 12th and 13th centuries. He devotes a chapter to Rabia in his Tadhkirat al-Auliya (Memorial of the Saints) - a compilation of biographical anecdotes from the lives of Islamic mystics.

Ever since her death, Rabia has been revered among her own kind as one of the most realized of beings. She has come down through history as a beacon to all who suspect, or know, that there is a greater reality than the ironclad materialism and seductive ideologies that we often embrace. Rabia was also an exemplar to people, both now and at the time, that the path of knowledge was not just something restricted to men.

Today, she is most well known for her saying, that was sure to have inspired Gibran to his:

"My Lord, if I am worshiping you from fear of fire, burn me in the fires of hell;
and if I am worshiping you from desire for paradise, deny me paradise.
But, if I am worshiping you for yourself alone, then do not deny me the sight of your magnanimous face."

(1) Much of the material for this entry is drawn from the book, ¨First Among Sufis - The Life and Thought of Rabia al-Adawiyya¨, by Widad El Sakkakini, 1982

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Echoes from Ugarit

In 1972, after 15 years of research, Dr. Anne Kilmer (professor of Assyriology at the University of California, and a curator at the Lowie Museum of Anthropology at Berkeley), transcribed one of the oldest known pieces of music notation in the world.

Clay tablets relating to music, written in the cuneiform "Ugaritic" language (with both Hurrian and Akkadian influences), were excavated in the early 1950s at the ancient Syrian coastal city of Ugarit at what is now Ras Sharma. Ugarit is considered the birthplace of the modern alphabet.

One text contained a complete hymn, both words and music and is the oldest known preserved music notation in the world. The tablets date back to approximately 1,400 BC and contain a hymn to the moon god's wife, Nikal. Remarkably, the tablets also contain detailed performance instructions for a singer accompanied by a harpist as well as instructions on how to tune the harp.

From this evidence, Professor Kilmer and other musicologists have created versions of the hymn.

One of these adaptations, came to life in a performance in Atlanta recently. The instrumental piece is entitled, Echoes from Ugarit and was performed by Syrian pianist and composer Malek Jandali along with The Ludwig Symphony Orchestra.

Many thanks to one of our readers who brought the story to our attention.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Emotional Brain

Part of the huge task of trying to resolve conflicts in the Middle East is getting past the perceptual barriers that stand in the way of properly seeing these conflicts for what they really are.

Longstanding traditions of diplomacy focus on state and interest-based negotiations, or an emphasis on concrete issues, for example, in the Arab-Israeli conflict, on resolving borders or settlements in the West Bank. These approaches are understandable because they are based on familiar institutions and methods. However, they assume that since we don’t see other potential causes of conflict, that they must not be there.

As we have indicated in previous posts, despite the best intentions of conflict resolution specialists, these efforts often fall short. This is because attending strictly to “issues” does not take into account the deeper human dynamics that give rise to those issues in the first place.

Unacknowledged are the psychological and cultural aspects of conflict, which are fundamental and which, if properly understood, may hold the keys to improved conflict resolution.

The role of excessive emotion in Middle East cultures, for example, is a factor that is virtually unrecognized or brought to bear in studies involving conflicts in the region. And yet emotion is one of the most salient factors, playing a crucial role in helping to instigate and maintain political conflict between human groups.

Cycles of revenge, exacting punishment, and an inability to see beyond the needs of one’s own group - actions and reactions between Israel and its Arab enemies today - are all driven by excessive emotional states.

Discoveries in the behavioral sciences allow us to see why the key to understanding and resolving conflicts lies in understanding our brains, and in our emotional brains in particular:
  • Our emotional brains date back to the earliest life forms on Earth and evolved to help ensure our survival.
  • Extreme emotional arousal results in primitive thought patterns and triggers the fight-or-flight response, creating a mindset that sees the world in either/or, black and white, and good or bad terms.
  • Being in a highly aroused emotional state prevents us from seeing subtle distinctions and shades of grey that are the mark of intelligent or evolved thought, and that more accurately depict reality.
  • Too much continual emotional arousal creates a state of ignorance in people and makes individuals susceptible to indoctrination and brainwashing
All violent conflicts, and acts of inhumanity and discrimination have as their hallmark high emotional arousal among humans. It is therefore easy to understand how a region like the Middle East, with its emotionally charged culture and complex politics, continues to be embroiled in so many ongoing difficulties.

However, this idea has not been embraced because it does not fit into our constructs of the world. We are not educated from an early age to know how our brains work and so we passively accept that all forms and degrees of emotion are simply an acceptable part of being human. The idea that excessive emotion may be to blame for many problems may also seem simplistic, and a leap from the hard interests that we usually equate with politics.

If we were all taught from an early age about the consequences of excessive emotional arousal and the need to temper those emotions, we might stand a chance to greatly reduce the periodic tides of conflict that arise between peoples - movements that bring with them waves of debilitating excessive emotion that literally drive the conflict and block the road to effective resolution.

As it stands - and in some cultures at that - we only view excessive emotion as a problem only if it seriously disrupts our interpersonal relationships. In cases like these we may seek out counseling or attempt to learn things like “anger management”.

But what about on a collective level?

Certainly, in cases of war and violent conflict, our group relations are more than disrupted. Is there also not a desperate and dire need for something akin to anger management among groups when it comes to certain international, interethnic, and inter-religious relations?

If people could be more cognizant of the power and damage of extreme emotions, they could better manage them, making their lives more fruitful both for themselves and for their neighbours, near and far.