God: A Human History by Reza Aslan

God: A Human History by Reza Aslan

Author:Reza Aslan [Aslan, Reza]
Language: eng
Format: azw3
ISBN: 9780553394726
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Published: 2017-11-07T05:00:00+00:00

Rumi (seated on horse) meeting Shams. Folio from Jâmi al-Siyarby Mohammad Tahir Suhravardî.

Topkapi Palace Museum / Wikimedia Commons / public domain

Born around 804 C.E. in the town of Bastam in northeastern Iran, Bayazid came from a family of Zoroastrian priests who had converted to Islam not long after the Arab invasion of Persia and the fall of the Sassanian Empire in 651 C.E. He began his formal education within the Hanafi school, where he steeped himself in the theology of tawhid, the concept of Divine Unity, and the enigma of God’s eternal attributes.

Something about the nature of these inquiries left Bayazid disturbed and deeply unsatisfied. He abandoned his formal education and struck off on his own in search of a more intimate experience of God, one that could not be taught in any school. He eventually fell under the influence of a group of Sufis led by a Persian mystic named Sahl al-Tustari.

As a spiritual movement, Sufism defies categorization. Its chief concern is with seeking direct access to God, which is why Sufis tend to rebuff the traditional concerns of Islamic law and theology in favor of an unmediated experience of the divine. Sufis are unconcerned with the debate over whether the Quran should be read literally or figuratively. Instead they argue that the Quran has two distinct layers of meaning: There is the external layer that all Muslims can access simply by reading the scripture and interpreting it for themselves, and there is a secret, hidden layer that only a select few can comprehend, and then only through the kind of intuitive knowledge that comes from a lifetime of prayer and meditation. The external layer helps the believer to learn about God; the hidden layer allows the believer to know God.

It was precisely this desire to know God that led Bayazid to join this Sufi order. Day and night Bayazid meditated, desperately trying to unlock the secret truth he thought was concealed in the concept of tawhid. And then one day it came to him, shaking him to his core. He jumped out of his seat and cried out in ecstasy: “Glory be to Me! How great is My majesty!”

To those who heard these words, Bayazid had uttered the most shocking heresy. He was, in no uncertain terms, calling himself God. Actually, such statements had become fairly routine among a certain group of Sufi mystics sometimes called the Drunken Sufis because of their propensity for making similar ecstatic utterances. Bayazid’s master, al-Tustari, himself once famously said, “I am the proof of God,” while another of his fellow disciples, Mansur al-Hallaj, was crucified for having run out into the streets of Baghdad shouting, “I am the Truth!”9

But while most Muslims assumed these Drunken Sufis were associating themselves with the divine, to Sufis like Shams, such statements concealed an even more startling, and more consequential, proclamation about the very nature of reality. Indeed, it was the recognition of that reality—the ability to understand intuitively what Bayazid, al-Tustari, and al-Hallaj meant by their words—that formed a kind of initiatory rite into Sufism.


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