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My Tongue has a Right over Me

 

It was a book, a blue covered book inscribed with gold letters – our first gift in Iran. This book was to become one of our favorites and several of its lines found their way into my daily prayer. Our new book was The Psalms of Islam written by Ali bin al-husayn, the great grandson of the Prophet of Islam. William Chittick, the translator of this book from the Arabic, introduces it as “…the oldest prayer manual in Islamic sources and one of the most seminal works of Islamic spirituality of the early period.” It also served as one of our texts in our course on Islamic mysticism.

 

Following are a few lines representing some of the prayers of this book.

“Here am I, addressing myself to the breezes of Thy freshness and tenderness,

having recourse to the rain of Thy generosity and gentleness,

fleeing from Thy displeasure to Thy good pleasure

and from Thee to Thee,

hoping for the best of what is with Thee,

relying upon Thy gifts…” p.498

 

Appended to these prayers is The Treatise On Rights, also attributed to Ali bin al-husayn.  Reference to this Treatise surfaced frequently in conversations with our Iranian scholar friends. Although they understand the individuality aspect of human rights in the modern West, they tend to see human rights in the context of community. Rights are not only seen as my right but as the right of another over me, or in other words, my duty toward another. Freedom then has value, not only as individual freedom to do what I want, but the freedom to choose to follow the way of God and the freedom to choose to serve the community. One of the greatest rights is the right of my body, mind, soul or self over me – to be treated with respect and to realize the intent of the divine.  

 

Some examples from the Treatise are:

“The right of the tongue is that you consider it too noble for obscenity, accustom it to good, refrain from any meddling in which there is nothing to be gained, express kindness to the people, and speak well concerning them.” p.7

 

“The right of your neighbor is that you guard him when he is absent, honor him when he is present, and aid him when he is wronged. You do not pursue anything of his that is shameful; if you know of any evil from him, you conceal it. If you know that he will accept your counsel, you counsel him in that which is between him and you. You do not forsake him in difficulty, you release him from his stumble, you forgive his sin, and you associate with him generously. And there is no strength save in Allah.” p. 12

 

“The right of the adversary who has a claim against you is that, if what he claims against you is true, you give witness to it against yourself. You do not wrong him and you give him his full due. If what he claims against you is false, you act with kindness toward him and you show nothing in his affair other than kindness; you do not displease your Lord in his affair. And there is no strength save in Allah.” p. 13.  

 

In Psalm 34 of David we read:

Keep your tongue from evil,

  and your lips from speaking deceit.

Depart from evil, and do good;

  seek peace, and pursue it. (NRSV)

 

Indeed, my tongue has a right over me.

 

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The Swaying Cypress

It was a struggled from one summer to the next gradually learning the Persian language and then our next task was reading and translating Persian poetry. The metaphors of Hafez, a 14th century poet, were like a new language within a new language but little by little they gained a foothold in our soul. We were studying a poem one day which contained this line, “…with a display of beauty the cone shaped cypress came with graceful stride.” What did this mean? Our teacher, in Persian, tried to clarify the meaning and even drew a picture hoping to penetrate our sluggish minds. Over several months this metaphor slowly gained a foothold in our bones.

            There is an evergreen tree- a tall perfectly shaped thin cone which gracefully bends in the wind. We saw these trees first in Shiraz, in south eastern Iran, and then also in southern California and Florida. These trees which gracefully sway in the wind inspired the paisley print seen on table cloths in Iran and elsewhere. As we watched these trees swaying in the wind we knew them to be the poet’s metaphor for the beauty of the divine beloved. Indeed, of the twenty Persian poems translated in our book, eight of them have this metaphor.  The following is from page 121:

How many were the

  winks and nods of this world,

when our swaying cypress came,

  moving with splendor and grace.

In other words, the enticing beauties of this world are nothing compared to the beauty of our beloved.

            In our Christian tradition the tree is a symbol of fruitfulness and strength and in the Persian poetic tradition it is a metaphor for

the enchanting beauty of the divine. 

 Image

 

Cypress from Wikipedia

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It is you, not I

We had just concluded an evening meal, fruit, tea and hospitable conversation. As I stood to leave our Iranian host told me in Persian, “you are in my heart”. Then as I was putting on my coat he repeated, “you are in my heart”. And finally as we shook hands at his doorway he said again, “you are in my heart” and to make certain I understood, with an effort he repeated in his Iranian-English, “you are in my heart”.
Why did he not say, “I enjoyed our conversation” or even “I love you”? What is the difference in expressing one’s respect or admiration by saying, “You” in place of “I”? “You are in my heart” rather than “I love you”. Is it possible that in a genuine expression of respect and devotion the focus is no longer on “me” or “I” but on “you”, the one with whom I experienced joy? “You are in my heart.”
Rumi, a 13th century Persian poet, explores this “You” – “I” relationship in the following poem:
A person comes and knocks at a friend’s door,
who calls out, “who are you, O trusted one?”

“It is I”. And the friend says, “leave!
This is neither time nor place
for someone still raw.”

That person left, burned
by the grief of separation;
cooked well done in its flame.

A year later that person returned
and with fearful honor
knocked at the door.

The friend called out, “Who is there?”
The answer this time, “It is you,
O charming friend.”

“Since, you are me, come in!
for two “I’s” do not fit in this house.”

Hafez, a 14th century Persian poet adds to this discussion in the final line of a ghazal where he advises himself:
Between the lover and the beloved
there is no separation.
You, yourself are a veil of “I”ness.
Hafez, pull that curtain aside!

In as similar manner Hafez counsels himself in another ghazal:
O God come and take
me from myself.
with you, no one will hear from me
the words, “I am”.

Rumi and Hafez take us beyond our ordinary conversation. We humans speak with the different metaphors of “I” and “You” but in the realm of the “real” the differences fade. In a similar manner the Hindu greeting nameste can have the meaning: “I honor that place where you and I are essentially the same.” And Jesus says in the Gospel of John: “You, father are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us…”
Those words, “You are in my heart” still bounce around in my soul.

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Two Birthdays and a Book

 

During our first spring in Iran, Good Friday occured very near the date of Ashura. Like Good Friday, Ashura, remembers the suffering and death of another on our behalf. In Islam, Imam Husayn, a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, died for his faith and the themes of the Ashura cerimonies are similar to those of Good Friday. It was a holy time for us experiencing the close proximity of these two events – like visiting the place where all religions find their roots.

This year something similar happened. On January 20 our Iranian Muslim friends celebrated the birth of their Prophet. One of these friends wrote us this note:

“I read your book during the time between the birthday of Christ and the birthday of the prophet of Islam. Wonderful! Thank you very much! I love your vivid descriptions, but my favorite part was your translation of Hafez! Excellent work!”

Hafez, one of the most loved poets of Iran, wrote in the 14th century and his mystical writing carries truth known both in Christianity, Islam and many other religions. Our friend’s statement makes us wonder again about that common place where all religions find their roots.

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“Welcome to Iran” for congress

Lugging two bulging suitcases we head for the Hart Senate Office Building. The first day goes OK but on the second day we are stopped and have to shift our books into tote bags to get through security. We had extended conversations with nine congressional aides and shorter visits with ninety-one other senate staffers as we presented each with a book, “Welcome to Iran!”. “This is not a political statement, it is about the people of Iran. The Iranians love their parents and their children, they love the taste of chocolate, they love their country – they are just like us.” Everyone gratefully accepted a different perspective on Iran.

Thanks to sixty different peacemakers here in the United States who donated books, we were able to distribute two hundred books to all senators and to some members of the House of Representatives. May God’s justice and God’s peace flourish.

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To Forgive is Better

We are sipping hot tea as we sit on the Persian carpets of our friends when we are joined by an Iranian scholar from Tehran. He is more jovial and rounder than our other acquaintances. He joins us in drinking tea and after some time of joking and laughing, he eases himself up, opens his bag and takes out a large two volume set of books. He gives these to us and then begins to joke with our host about whether he or our host would get the most credit for this good deed. These two volumes contained all the six books of Rumi’s famous MASNAVI.

Our conversation then becomes more serious as he begins to give us a lesson on the importance of forgiveness in the Qur`an. He begins by saying that throughout the Qur`an God is referred to as the “the all forgiving, the all merciful”. He then quotes from the following three verses. The first two are from the earlier revelations while the Prophet was still in Mecca and the final one was revealed later in Medina. On the basis of the following three verses, among others, he says, “in the Qur`an retribution is allowed but to quell one’s anger is better, to forgive is better yet, and to do good to those who abuse you is the best. For God loves the benevolent.”

Good and evil (conduct) are not equal.
Repel (evil) with what is best.
(If you do so) behold, the person
Who between you and he was enmity,
will be as though he were a sympathetic friend. Qur`an 41:34

As for him who endures patiently and forgives
that is indeed the steadiest of courses. Qur`an 42:43

Hasten towards your Lord’s forgiveness
And a paradise as vast as the heavens and the earth,
Prepared for the God fearing,
Those who give in both ease and adversity,
And suppress their anger,
And excuse (the faults) of the people,
For God loves the charitable. Qur`an 3:133 and 134

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Iran

Our Iranian Brother

We were visiting Shiraz, a large city in south western Iran. We had met with a group of university professors, visited places honoring the Persian poets, Hafez and Saadi, and enjoyed the quiet of a beautiful mosque. As we were finishing supper we noticed three young Iranian men, in the hotel lobby, watching us. One of these young men came to us, greeted us with, salam, handed a clean sheet of paper to one of the twelve North Americans with us, and with eager expectancy requested that he write what he believed. Doug took the paper, sat silently, taking the request seriously, and then wrote, “I believe in love and compassion” which was then translated into Persian. Mohammad received the writing, smiled and wrote his response, “In the name of the holy. Honorable friend, I believe this, that we from all nations and countries are brothers and sisters”. There ensued a lively discussion of friendship building which stretched our ability to keep up with translation.

This heart warming experience both supports and is supported by a quote from former Senator Richard Lugar in a recent personal letter: “You have testified, correctly, that student-exchange programs make a big difference in building peace and understanding and in strengthening national security efforts. It was exciting to receive a copy of your book “Welcome to Iran!” and to learn much more about the depth of your understanding of so many persons you lived with and assisted.”

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