BY DR. MAROOF SHAH
There is a commonly repeated complaint that prayers don’t help and God’s number is unreachable. One of the characters of Fazl Ilahi’s recently published The Signs thus gives expression to this complaint: “’God doesn’t help and reward good people. Have you seen Him helping, huh? The thing that doesn’t exist, how can it come to your rescue? Now, when you feel deprived from all sides, you reflexively create the margin for God, or the signs that you talk about. It’s psychological. Blame goes to the mystery and uncertainty of this world that forces you to run for and catch shadows.’ He smiled. ‘You actually don’t need God, you need the will to believe that things can, and surely will, improve if you keep on trying, but you know, people tend to lose hope in themselves. As they get neck deep in crisis, they withdraw into inaction, and pinning hope on something beyond that will ultimately come to their help.’”
Against this is the consensus of believers and saints and scriptures that one may state in Biblical terms as “Knock and the door shall be opened.” Fazl Illahi deftly presents this through a complex tale involving characters seeking to decipher mysterious signs or events in their lives. For the novelist there is a boat that may ferry us to home/”Mother”/God. In fact it is already ferrying in right direction as God is the boatman for those who surrender self will and duly heed the signs. Our tragedy consists in not trusting boatman or advising him to move as we will/wish.
The keys to smooth drive/dive are faith in non-self and prayer that melts will in love. “Did you ever feel like searching God like your mother?” as Fazl’s character asks. If yes, one finds Him. In fact it is more correct to say that God finds us the moment we are ready. The very quest to seek Him is itself a sign that one has been chosen to undertake it. Our discontentment with the given state of affairs and decision to seek the deeper meaning is evidence enough that we have found the footprints that are guiding us now to the destiny. We are all seekers, including those who think they have exhausted their search and found nothing worthwhile or no sign. It might well be one’s halt in the “dark night of the soul.” How is explained by Simone Weil the detailed discussion of whom we reserve for some other occasions and here only note in passing that for her “atheism that endures the emptiness of God’s absence is a purification. Doubt is not incompatible with faith, for faith is not identical with belief; it is ‘loving in the emptiness’; it is ‘fidelity to the void.’”
The consensus of prophets, saints, traditional philosophers, believers and wisdom traditions states that there are no facts, only symbols full of meaning for those who see. From everywhere we are surrounded by hordes of angels who remove the obstacles in our path. Traditionally it is believed that our guardian angels are constantly watching us, caring for us (not for our desires but us, what is worthy of care in us). If we are caught in difficult situations, God sends special envoys in the form of angels or Green man Khizr – about which Dr G.Q. Lone has written a book length study – to help us. (Many amongst us can vouch for having received such help.) If He doesn’t, our consequent suffering may well be of use to the soul and in any case we are cared. The world of events constitute signposts/invitation cards from the Other/God/Being to keep the game on. To claim I have found is to drop out of the game. Nothing has exhaustive meaning in itself and as such can only be a sign. Herman Hesse observed “I have always believed, and I still believe, that whatever good or bad fortune may come our way we can always give it meaning and transform it into something of value.” And “Meaning and reality were not hidden somewhere behind things, they were in them, in all of them.” This is what believers and especially mystics have been witnessing and as such they don’t feel lonely in this world. Their unshakable faith in providence propels them through any storm in life. Prayers can accomplish anything and any miracle according to reports from believers. To pray is to dial a special number that unfailingly replies our queries through signs or silence that dissolves queries. In purely rational terms, none knows the secret of any event in every sense or can banish mystery from any occurrence. Faith has worked for countless people and there remains room for it. The “language game” of faith, as Wittgenstein would put it, works. The question if it really corresponds to objective state of affairs can’t/needn’t be answered in purely rational terms. Fazl’s endeavour is to show that “language game” of signs also works. And signs call for attention. Haven’t we been heedless or casual in reading them? Every event/heartache/disappointment/humiliation/trouble is a sign. Face experience in every hue squarely, as if invited by us and one finds one’s home. In fact uncertainty we encounter erases the will or interpreting self and that is finding home. But one needs to note a caveat noted by Hesse’s Dimean, that “One never reaches home, but wherever friendly paths intersect the whole world looks like home for a time.” Permanent home is nowhere and everywhere for those who cease seeking/possessing and trust being.
Herman Hesse, one of the most influential writers exploring modern man’s spiritual quest and obstacles in the path, has noted: “Let God speak within you, and your thoughts will grow silent. You are anxious because your path leads away from mother and home. But every step and every day lead you back again to the mother. Home is neither here nor there. Home is within you, or home is nowhere at all.” Fazl Ilahi brings his wide readings to come up with such felicitous formulations: “I implored each night, kneeling and looking towards the starry firmament, seeking answers. But God chose silence. I questioned my teacher about God’s silence. He told me God spoke in the language we couldn’t hear, and to understand his language we are required to stay silent until we begin to listen. That day on, I forgot to speak even to my only friend in the orphanage, and during our class interactions. I was beaten by people around meant to manage the orphanage for not replying to urgent queries. I was harassed in my class by teachers. But I was determined to equal God’s silence and unknot his language.…My own silence, I felt, was gradually, and at once, penetrating into the silence of the universe and silence of my own self. And I understood that only silence contained the whole essence, and language only broke the essence into fragments of notion.”
The problem is we have interiorized inadequate conceptions regarding God, providence, guidance, heaven and hell and then find ourselves burdened with unanswered questions or problems. The point is that God’s care may well consist of not caring for our whims or attachments to familiar landscapes or relationships that bind us or obstruct our encounter with the Void within where what is called God/Heaven meets us. One recalls Hesse’s Siddharta, “I had to experience despair, I had to sink to the greatest mental depths, to thoughts of suicide, in order to experience grace.” Or as Fazl’s character puts it: “In this world of affliction, each one of us feels to be the most afflicted, until we start cursing our stars, and then, we happen to meet our alter ego riddled with greater affliction than us, thrashing home the point that each one is burdened with what he can bear.” How is explained in The Signs: “To find Him I was told to travel from the silence of the tongue to the silence of the mind, from the silence of the mind to the silence of the soul, and from silence of the soul to the soul of the silence.” If we really understand what God stands for we will not have any complaints or even impatient petitions. We would understand how silence of the stars or “deaf” heavens may itself be part of the answer we need. The problem is the agitated mind/craving and the way to solution is nafs al-mutma’innah. As Hesse puts it “We must become so alone, so utterly alone, that we withdraw into our innermost self. It is a way of bitter suffering. But then our solitude is overcome, we are no longer alone, for we find that our innermost self is the spirit, that it is God, the indivisible. And suddenly we find ourselves in the midst of the world, yet undisturbed by its multiplicity, for our innermost soul we know ourselves to be one with all being.”
Fazl’s lucid prose attempts to explore universal symbols or signs in a Kashmiri setting marshaling the mystical resources of the land and people to communicate what is quintessentially human and thus universal. It is the wisdom of the East in general and Kashmir in particular that he seeks to present in contemporary idiom and as such should interest anyone struggling with the questions of faith or meaning or identity. One should not expect anything new in wisdom literature but appreciate refreshing way in which old or timeless insights of saints and sages are distilled and summoned for helping souls caught in the ambiguous world where one fails to read signs as Fazl notes or one finds with Hesse’s Dimean that it is very difficult to live in accord with the promptings which came from our true self. It is heartening to greet a new novel that we can’t circumscribe as yet another work on Kashmir or politics but treats, in line with works on wisdom literature, problems in a way and idiom that anyone, anywhere could identify or engage with.
Dr. Mohammad Maroof Shah is an author and Columnist, interested in the the interface of philos¬ophy, literature, religion and mysticism