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Abdulwahid Van Bommel - The secret of the Masnavi

Abdulwahid Van Bommel

As a prominent figure of the Muslim community in Holland, Abdulwahid Van Bommel wrote different books about Islam, gave many lectures, was active on several fora and he still teaches pastoral healthcare in different places like the Islamic University of Rotterdam..

His works include translations of Rumi and Yunus Emre and books on love and sexuality, ethics and health care and humor.

Hanging out with hippies and beatniks, devouring literature, playing bass in a Jazzband, memorising quotes of the tao-teh-tsjing and becoming a Muslim in the Moluk community in july '67. I've put it in a random order as a quick sketch of Abdulwahid Van Bommel's younger years. The end result of these things was that he found his spiritual home in Sufism. Because of that he stayed in Turkey for four years as a student and member of the Naqsjibandi sufi brotherhood.

When he returned to Holland, he gradually became a key figure in the Dutch Muslim community. And eventually, a few years ago a Turkish friend asked him whether he didn't want to translate Rumi's Masnavi. At first he hesitated but three years later the very first Dutch translation of the more than 25 000 verses was a fact.

The Masnavi is probably the most important mystical work in the history of Islam. Reason enough, it seems, to unravel some of its secrets in a conversation with one of its contemporary translators.

Rumi wrote in the thirteenth century. Does the Masnavi still have something relevant to say in these times of globalization, economic crises, international wars and quick cultural changes?

Actually, Rumi’s time and age was quite like ours. He lived in similar circumstances. You had the Seljuks, the Mongols, the Byzantines, the Persians and the Arabs that all fought each other. And in between all political upheaval there was a lot of cultural exchange. You have to imagine that Baghdad was conquered by the Mongols in Rumi’s time. That must have had an enormous influence on the Muslims of his area.

Yet you won’t read a word about it in his writings. He must have known it of course since he belonged to that layer of society that was the first to hear about it and that discussed such things, but strangely enough, in his own works, he doesn’t mention it.

I think it was his way of trying to ‘keep the balance’, to uphold that equilibrium on a global scale in which one thing always invokes another. So he didn’t just build a worldview, but more specifically an internalized worldview that stays away from the corrupt world of war and violence.

All the elements we find in the cosmos are present within the human being. So we all are a small cosmos on our own.

He created a world in which we, as humans, can all feel connected to the cosmos. All the elements we find in the cosmos are present within the human being. So we all are a small cosmos on our own. Nowadays scientists say the same thing but Rumi realized it out of some mystical intuition.

Rumi brings deep mysticism to the people. That’s why he uses all the existing stylistic devices in the many anecdotes and stories of the Masnavi, but they are also followed by reflections that explain in long abstract reasonings how we are all one with God and how everything is one with God. In that way he offered a counterbalance to all the dinginess around us of always wanting to have-have-have. He opposed it with a mode of being that helps one to totally detach from it.

That’s understandable. Sometimes it seems completely useless to constantly restart the ‘societal fight’. The same discussions are often repeated and I sometimes feel it's better to simply point towards the spiritual dimension of existence and then leave it over to the individual to choose what he or she wishes to take from it.

That’s true, but on the other hand, certainly in these times, we shouldn’t forget to have an eye open for everything around us. We must keep our minds open to different philosophies, worldviews and elements of society. That brings a certain solidity in our thinking. The gnostic of the world is the gnostic of God.

Rumi eventually is a humanist. He wants to tell people that ‘meaning something to someone’ is the highest good.

Most certainly so. It simply remains a difficult discussion. Do you leave the chaos aside or do you take up the effort to try to bring some peace into it? To flee from the world has no use, but neither is it good to loose oneself in that world.

Rumi actually found a certain balance in that dilemma. He did confront the chaotic world of desire, greed and war with a spiritual process of ‘internalization’ but he also tried to bring that process as close as he could to the people. For him 'being spiritual' isn’t reserved for intellectuals or especially gifted people. That’s why he made it clear how your spirituality should bring you to the center of reality and that you shouldn’t turn your back on the world.

Rumi eventually is a humanist. He wants to tell people that ‘meaning something to someone’ is the highest good.

Nonetheless, besides such a 'humanism' Rumi above all focusses on a strong ‘divinism’? I invent the word somewhat, but I use it to refer to his constant striving for total unification with the divine.

I have to admit that I initially was quite skeptical about Rumi and his view on this matter. I had some resistance towards such a goal for in Sufism there’s a difference between the wahdat-ul wudjûd and the wahdat-usj-sjuhûd.

According to the wahdat-usj-sjuhûd – the idea of unity of perception, of which Ahmad Sirhindi is an important proponent – one can eventually only be a ‘witness’ of the divine. There remains a distinction between yourself and God and your connection to God is somewhat more ‘from the outside’. But in the wahdat-ul wudjûd they propose that total unification with the divine is possible. The Spanish sufi Ibn ‘Arabî is seen as an important promoter of this teaching. I am a Naqsjibandi myself however and that school of thought belongs to the wahdat-usj-sjuhûd, so that was also my view on the matter.

Yet when you started reading Rumi’s texts, he takes you along and something happens to you. One way or the other my resistance fell away and I experienced a deep unity.

So did you eventually choose ‘the way of unification’?

In the end it’s not really a matter of choosing one or the other. There might be different interpretations about the nature of the divine unity but there is no doubt about the fact of divine unity. And it increasingly becomes clear to me how little difference there is between those two paths. All in all it’s a very thin line that dissolves the moment you truly experience it. It’s just that you almost can’t express that experience with words.

The heart of the one who hasn’t crossed his own boundaries, still lies at the feet of the other.

What is so wondrous about Rumi is therefore that he has taken up the fight to say the unsayable. What moves us, what emotionally and spiritually makes us human, he tries to knead into its essence.

Something that for example really stuck to my mind was the thought that “the heart of the one who hasn’t crossed his own boundaries, still lies at the feet of the other.” Such an insight is not just a nice slogan. It expresses a different reality. It expresses a different reality. It points towards the difference between live of the senses and spiritual love. Love of the senses is love for what you see, hear, feel, experience, etc. Spiritual love means to partake in the universal love. Spiritual love is a reality that is joined by the whole of creation. It is not possessive. While all mental and organic love has something possessive and claims or demands something, spiritual love has none of that. Spiritual love goes beyond the individual. It is experienced ‘personally’ but it’s not private or personal.

Rumi therefore also doesn’t want to be occupied with spirituality in a bit of a bourgeois way. It’s a very serious matter for him and he wants to bring everyone to pure unity of love.

On the other hand it isn’t always strict seriousness. The Masnavi is also known for its funny anecdotes.

That’s true. One story I find very telling for example is the one about the scholar that passes a lake on a little ferryboat. The scholar hears the grammatical mistakes the ferryman is making and at a certain moment asks: “Did you actually finish your school?” The ferryman answers: “No, I haven’t gotten around to it because I had to work.” “Ah”, the scholar says, “than half of your life has been a waste.” Like that they peddle along but in the middle of the lake it turns out that the boat doesn’t have a very good bottom. Slowly it starts sinking. At that moment the ferryman asks the scholar: “Say, did you actually learn to swim?” The scholar answers: “No, I haven’t because I had to study.” “Ah,” the ferryman says, “then your whole life was a waste.”

Rumi also tells quite a lot of erotic tales by the way. That’s why he’s forbidden in certain circles. There is quite a daring scene for example in which a maid has found a way of having fun with a the donkey in the stable. On a certain day the lady of the house discovers it. The very sight of it brings a whole lot of phantasies to her mind. So she sends the maid on an errand and goes to the stable in excitement. What she hadn’t seen however is how the maid always slid a pumpkin around the penis of the donkey to make sure that the length of the penis was shortened. So when the lady of the house approaches the donkey she gets killed relentlessly the moment the donkey takes her fully. (Abdulwahid laughs.)

That last story I had heard before but I couldn’t believe it truly was in the Masnavi. Apparently it does and I can still heartily laugh with it, if for nothing else, because it’s a part of such a world famous mystical text. But what does it mean according to you? Is its message simply that we should learn to control our desire?

That’s a part of it, but a different layer of its meaning, I think, is that you shouldn’t just follow any role model. In the Muslim world that’s often made very attractive but Rumi makes it clear that you shouldn’t thoughtlessly mimic someone. You always have to comprehend how and why you have to do something. So you shouldn’t simply imitate a prophet or a saint.

Like this, Rumi’s stories have little fishing hooks. Like needles they stick to your mind.

They didn’t only stick to the minds of individuals. His texts also anchored themselves into history since his work had an enormous influence on a lot of Islamic literature, poetry and theology. Even now Rumi still ‘sells’ very well. Even in the West and among Christians. The way he constantly makes love with a big L the center of attention makes him attractive to a lot of non-Muslims as well. Because of that however, people often pretend sufism is ‘the beautiful side’ of islam that supposedly isn’t accepted by the mainstream. Even in Muslim environments they often claim that Sufism isn’t accepted by the wider Umma. But is that really so? Is Sufism as unaccepted as is often said? It seems to me that their is need for some nuance here.

Sufis often truly are a bit the beatniks of the Muslim society but within the Sufi world there are three categories. First you have the Sufis of the people. They mingle among the general public which gives them comfort, certainty and a social life. Then you have Sufis of the bazar. The sufi’s of the middle class so to speak. They finance quite a lot, from places of worship to social work, but in their spiritual gatherings they mingle less among the ‘normal public’. They have their own ‘lodges’ a bit. And then you have the Sufis of the universities who write big treatises about tasawuf. But that doesn’t mean that one group is higher than the other – neither spiritually nor in societal status.

Every country also has its own history with Sufism. In Algeria, for example, there was a Sufi that succeeded in rallying big parts of the people against the colonizer. In Iran Sufi’s were mainly driven out by the Ayatollah’s, in Egypte some received a grand status in society because of their work at certain universities, etc.

Rumi didn’t propose any plan with different levels. He realized that people make many mistakes but can also always stand up and once more embark on the search for unification.

That confirms something I had already noticed: in theory Sufism puts a great emphasis on the Islamic concept of the direct connection between the individual and God, yet throughout history, here and there it got taken up in the structures of society so that sometimes gradually certain hierarchies crept in.

That’s true. And in those countries where certain groups couldn’t claim a societal status, they sometimes sought to confirm their hierarchy in the 'spiritual world' in the sense that they try to show how they are the only ones that will be saved. So the language of the hereafter becomes stronger, because if you don’t have a hierarchy on earth you can always focus on a theoretical hierarchy in heaven.

But that’s of course not something specific for Sufis. You can for example see that it's also very attractive for young people around us. In Holland for example, Muslim migrants often don’t get many chances in the job market. It’s quite difficult for them to earn a good status in society. And then you get phenomena like the ‘fundi’s’ of Sharia4Holland and Sharia4Belgium. When you listen to their language and creeds, you immediately hear how narrow minded they are and how little they have comprehended of what Islam really teaches, but they do attract youngsters that are excited by gatherings at ‘secret places’. In such groups they receive a certain meaning within the hierarchy they create for themselves.

All of that sharply contrasts with Rumi’s Masnavi. His own Mevlevi order was strongly structured after he died, but that was because of his son, Sultan Valad. In his own texts you won’t find any hierarchy because Rumi actually takes the same stance Nelson Mandela once expressed when he said: “A saint is a sinner that keeps on trying.” Every time we wind up in the gutter, we can get up again. That’s Rumi's vision. So he didn’t propose any plan with different levels. He realized that people make many mistakes but can also always stand up and once more embark on the search for unification.


Abdulwahid’s Dutch Translation of the Masnavi can be obtained at the Turks Huis Amsterdam, Postbus 58070, Sextantweg 6 C, 1040 HB Amsterdam, Tel. 020 - 684 57 12

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