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A Mystical Swim

These thoughts emerged after reading Ziauddin Sardar’s Desperately Seeking Paradise (Granta, London, 2004), particularly chapter four ‘The Mysteries of Mysticism’. This chapter is deliberately and playfully left without an overall conclusion; but Zia does indicate that the path of mysticism is not for him. In other parts of the book, he reminds his fellow Muslims of the essential spirit of the Prophet Muhammad: ‘his spirit of generosity, love and tolerance, his insistence on forgiving those who persecuted and oppressed him, the respect and devotion he showed to the elderly, the children and marginalized in society, his concern for justice, equity and fair play, his dedication to inquiry, knowledge and criticism’. These, he says, are the traditions Muslims should emulate and promote in their children.

He has not had a great deal of success. Instead, he notes sadly, the greater likelihood is of modern Islam producing ‘narrow-minded bigots absolutely certain that their way is the only way of living’ and, of course, of serving God.

Christians were once equally fanatical. Some still are.

I first met Zia at the 80th birthday celebration in the Said Business School in Oxford of our mutual friend Jerry Ravetz. Jerry is a Cambridge philosopher of science and mathematician, also of Trinity College, to which I belonged for years, but he is the real deal. As a distinguished Oxford academic, Jerry has pioneered the mathematics of risks, co-invented the idea of ‘post-normal science’, and was one of the first scholars to explore the social problems of scientific knowledge. He was also amongst the first to question the truth of global warming: not because he believed it could not be happening, but because he found its data and predictions uncertain.

He is, therefore, a fully-fledged member of The Awkward Squad. I should have realized that Zia must be another. As usual (and this is usual), I felt too unimportant to speak with him, and missed this opportunity. More recently, I read Desperately Seeking Paradise, and amongst other important insights, I am infinitely grateful to discover that Islamic theology has a place for me.

It is to be found in that branch of Islam called Sufism, which traces its origin back to the most trusted companion of Muhammad, Abu Bakr, and to Muhammad’s cousin, Ali. I have therefore some claim to be recognized, in both Sunni and Shia Islam, as what Sufis refer to as one who has experienced direct knowledge of God.

There is precedence. My closest Christian colleague would seem to be the great Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas, who, in the very last year of his life, appears to have had a similar experience to mine. In Italy in 1273, after a lifetime creating a vast scholarly compendium on the correct behaviour of Christians - still mandatory for priestly candidates to study to this day; and, incidentally, a mediaeval counterpart to Islam’s Sharia – it appears to have occurred to him one night as prayed alone in his cell. The next day he could only tell his secretary, who begged him to leave some record of it for future theology – or, indeed, to illuminate the world. ‘I cannot’, Aquinas replied, ‘because all that I have written seems now like straw to me (mihi videtur ut palea)’. One is irresistibly reminded of the use of straw most familiar to him in his time: that it is thrown into stables in order to absorb dung.

What Zia needs to know, the quest he undertakes in Desperately Seeking Paradise, is how the essential spirit of Islam can be recaptured for our time. I believe I can tell him.

The primary obstacle to experiencing God directly is exactly that which was explained to Zia in a simple sentence by a Sufi teacher: ‘You must empty your mind of all you know’. This is clearly what I was forced to do in a small bedroom of the army psychiatric hospital forty years ago. Sardar was surprised, but also doubtful: ‘Wiping oneself clean of information and knowledge seems a perilous path, a giant leap into the void, even if the objective is a form of wisdom’.  

I may reassure him that it is not such a ‘perilous path’, nor is it ‘a giant leap into the void’. Both of these overly dramatic assumptions betray a fear of being never able to return to normal life. But they also betray an even more elemental fear: that of discovering that a ‘normal life’ is essentially not more interesting than an insect’s. Both may be guided by habit alone: from birth to death.

We may suppose that it was what Aquinas learnt that night in his cell. His secretary found him in tears. Could it be that after a lifetime of working on a rational proof of the existence of God and the purpose of life, acclaimed for centuries since as ‘the Angelic Doctor’ and as the greatest Christian theologian, that he may have asked in his prayer: ‘What more, dear Lord, do I need to know?’

What if this admission of deep humility and trust opened to him, not more extensive objective wisdom, but the deepest subjective wisdom: the realisation, in the most spectacular fashion, that we are all, fundamentally, of God.

I rather hope that he may have had a similar experience to mine. But remember that this would have been three centuries before Galileo built his telescope and discovered that Jupiter has moons and Saturn has horns! How bewildering to a thirteenth century mind - and how terrifying - to learn that the universe is greater than any heaven ever imagined: and is filled with stars. Could this be what caused Aquinas’ tears: his realization that there is no Summa Theologica, nor any formula, however pious; but also no scientific method, however careful, which can disclose this truth for everyone? That it can only be discovered subjectively? That science cannot grasp or deal with it, precisely because it is not objective truth? Much of history is also subjective.

My first intimation of this realisation emerged when I was invited to take an evening class at a teachers’ training college in Georgia in the United States. I had supposed that the lesson would last 45 minutes. I was horrified to discover that I was expected to talk for over three hours. I had talked for over an hour about teaching mathematics, when the professor who was my host realised that I was running out of material.

‘Now’, he suggested kindly, ‘why not talk to us about your ideas of identity’.  

I was astonished. The majority of my audience were ladies: mainly black ladies, mainly mothers, mainly working mothers, mainly in their late thirties or early forties, mainly giving up precious evening hours with their family to achieve a bare qualification to become teachers themselves. They sat in rows, arms folded, amply bosomed, and very dignified. Some of their grandparents had certainly been slaves. 

These were people to be deeply respected: and the night before my host and I had agreed that this topic was like a box of grenades. They would have very clear ideas about their identity. As I had discovered all those years before, some Catholic and Protestant Irish find their different identities reasons to kill. I had found since then that children who feel their identity is being threatened can hate others and their teachers. Recently events have shown that they can kill too.

‘Well,’ I began somewhat nervously. ‘Everyone has first what I call a Mass identity: male, female, child, adult, old. Asian, African, European, American, Japanese. And then those related to belief: Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Animist, Atheist, and so on. These are rarely important enough,’ I said, ‘for people to kill or be killed for them alone.’ But they can.

‘And then everyone has a social identity. These are given to us by societies. They are believed to define exactly who you are. Even more important, they are likely to define who you think you are’.

My audience of mainly black, middle-aged, working-class mothers, aiming to become teachers, now looked as if they disliked me a lot. Their social identity had always filled their lives: as does ours. Many had clearly never looked for any other: except possibly to hope, as they filled their chapels and their churches with prayer and song, that this might be how God would know them.

‘Is it possible,’ I continued, ‘that you have another identity: an identity entirely personal and private: an identity that only you know?’

By now the silence was intense. ‘That is what I mean,’ I said, ‘by your intrinsic identity. It is not decided by where you are born, by your family, tribe, nation, or religion. It is entirely private. It belongs to you only. You must be aware of it privately, protect it, and you must help it to grow.’

I did not suggest that this could be how God would know them. My host told me later that I had made an impression: but no-one asked me how to help it to grow. At that time I would have been hard pressed to answer. We talked of other things: mainly, I remember, of chickens.

Since then, however, I have become convinced that the most serious obstacle to achieving this sense of identity is our addiction to habit: and that this characteristic, which we share with all other species, is all the more dangerous in us because we confuse our habits with morality. As established religions are also mainly social habits, they can fall into both categories. They can be major obstacles to recognizing intrinsic identity. They can also create beliefs about social identity which declare other beliefs heresy.

The learning of habits is essential to our survival. But in our species the habit of learning habits has evolved into an addiction so powerful that it can paralyse cultures for millennia. Like many addictions induced by recreational drugs, addiction to habit creates a preferred state of regressed childhood for millions of people who want only to be told what to do; what to think; how to act; what to like and what to avoid or dislike - whilst being assured that all that they are doing, thinking, acting, is what God – or, in the atheist version (for, of course, there is an atheist version) history - will eventually reward them for doing. A present state of euphoria is actually sufficient in itself.

Zia reports being told on the same occasion: ‘three snakes harm human beings: to be intolerant and impatient with the people around you; to be dependent on someone you cannot leave; and to be controlled by your ego.’ Let me try and describe the three snakes in modern terms.

A solipsist, for example, is a person who believes that he alone has the right to exist: that the universe only exists to support his life. He is very likely to be impatient of others: to believe that, although they are decidedly unimportant, scarcely human, they can still irritate by refusing to acknowledge his importance.

The empathic human mind belongs to a person who believes it can share the emotions and thoughts of other human minds, and that it must act to show its identification and care for them. It is unlikely to examine itself objectively: but it may insist that it can - and must - do this for others.

Cultures, societies, nations can be solipsistic or empathic. Usually the two characteristics are mixed: but I am sure examples of extremely solipsistic or empathic cultures - and nations - will easily occur to you. They are equally important in an individual context, when they must only be prevented from swallowing each other.

To this extent: I agree with the Sufi.

Meanwhile, the cognoscenti amongst you will know that Zia’s ‘leap into the void’ was suggested in the 19th century as a cure for existential anxiety by a permanently unhappy but very influential Danish Christian theologian called Søren Kierkegaard, who suggested that people might cure their anxiety by making a ‘leap of faith’.  It is not apparent that this succeeded for Kierkegaard; or, since his time, whether it was a success for anyone else. I imagine that it is rather similar to leaping into the sea holding an anchor. If they had been able to meet, I am sure the Sufi would have warned him to empty his mind of everything.

To make Sardar’s leap without holding onto one’s faith and to return, even if disappointed, with wit and soul intact, requires both serious solipsistic strength and great empathic courage.

What may often be very bad for cultures is essential for the individual.

Great solipsistic strength means accepting, at least as a working condition, that there is one universe; and that this universe, and everything and everyone in it, is yours; and that you are an agent of God.

Amongst other occasionally awkward consequences, this means that you never need be deceitful or lie.  It does not mean you cannot do either. It only means that both will be beneath you. (This used to be called noblesse oblige)

Great empathic courage might appear to be a contradiction. But this is only if the first condition is rejected. Otherwise, everyone you will meet belongs to you: just as you, and they, belong to God. You can learn from their emotions and their thoughts as if they are your own. Neither can ever harm you. They can certainly never harm God. The whole notion of heresy is ridiculous. It belongs to lesser egos.

So those are the two, and possibly the three, snakes.

When wondering how to finish this, it occurred to me that persuading people to empty their minds, and leap, must be very similar to persuading small children to swim. Next day I approached a swimming instructor, whose infant pupils were splashing and diving around her like manic tadpoles, and asked for two minutes of her time. I explained the background to my question, which she accepted as perfectly appropriate, then asked her: ‘What is it that persuades your pupils to let go of the side of the pool and learn to swim?’ She answered at once: ‘Their confidence in me.’

Which seems to be the final piece of our puzzle.

Aquinas had certainly a great burden of ideas in his head, the most important of which he had spent decades painstakingly refining or creating himself. But he must also have had an uncommon confidence in his instructor to let it all fall: and then to declare it was all straw.

Everything means e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g.

Colin Hannaford, who teaches mathematics, is one of creators of the ‘Socratic Methodology’, which encourages pupils to learn the value of mathematical and scientific arguments but not necessarily their absolute truth, by discussing them with each other.