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Bayazidian Sufism: Annihilation Without Ritual

    by Dr. Alireza Nurbakhsh

    The sign of God's love is to bestow three attributes on His lover:
    A generosity like that of the sea,
    a kindness like that of the sun, and,
    a humility like that of the earth.
    - Bayazid

    Sufism has always been presented as a practical, yet at the same time, transcendental school: 'practical' in the sense that it deals with disciplines that lead to enlightenment and 'transcendental' in the sense that it transcends the outward aspects of any given religion. In no sufi more than Bayazid are these two qualities manifested. Among the early sufis of Islam, Bayazid (d. 875 AD) played a pivotal role in the formation of sufi doctrines and practices which were later adopted and expanded by Sufis such as 'Attar and Rumi.

    Little is known of Bayazid's life. He lived most of his life in Bastam, a city in the northeastern part of Iran. He is said to have spent thirty years wandering, during which he completed the sufi path, but very little has been recorded of this period. Though he left little if any writing behind, there are many stories and anecdotal sayings attributed to him in sufi literature, particularly in such classical texts as Hujwiri's The Unveiling of the Hidden (Kashf al-mahjub) and 'Attar's Memorial of the Saints (Tadhkirat al-awliya).

    Religious beliefs and rituals, by and large, do not play an important role in our contemporary western culture. Most of us go through our daily routine without thinking about religion or being affected by any aspect of it. But it is important to remember that the situation was very different in Bayazid's time. A person's life then was, to a large extent, determined and governed by religious beliefs and rituals, and one's main purpose and preoccupation in life was to be attuned with the divine either for its own sake, or at a lower level, in order to satisfy worldly or mundane desires.

    Bayazid died in 875 AD in his hometown of Bastam where Islam, as in other parts of the Islamic world, played a major role in people's lives; almost everyone then tried to live in accordance with its rules and rituals. Daily ritual prayer, fasting, pilgrimage to Mecca and giving alms were as important and real to those people, as for example, it is to us that our children have a good education. Bayazid felt that this sort of religious life was far too superficial and hypocritical, for it was all geared towards the salvation of the individual in this world and the hereafter. For Bayazid, the conventional religious attitude is tainted with self-interest and ego, for it is ultimately construed for the sake of one's ego. But, according to Bayazid, the realm of the ego is the opposite of that of God.

    Let's begin with Bayazid's understanding of God. The following story appears in Hujwiri's Kashf al-mahjub, the oldest Persian treatise on Sufism:

    It is related that Bayazid said: "I went to Mecca and saw a House standing apart. I said, 'My pilgrimage is not accepted, for I have seen many stones of this sort.' I went again, and saw the House and also the Lord of the House. I said, 'This is not yet real unity.' I went a third time, and saw only the Lord of the House. A voice in my heart whispered, 'O Bayazid, if you did not see yourself, you would not have been an idol-worshipper even though you saw the whole universe, but since you see yourself, you are an idol-worshipper blind to the whole universe. 'Thereupon I repented, and once more I repented of my repentance, and yet once more I repented of seeing my own existence'.
    Adapted from Hujwiri 1976, p. 108
    Hajj is a sacred ritual that all Moslems are obligated to perform at least once in their lifetime. At the time of Bayazid this was perhaps the ultimate goal in life. The journey was extremely harsh and, in fact, most pilgrims didn't know if they would ever come back. Like everyone else, Bayazid takes up this journey with eagerness. But unlike almost everyone else, he also approaches it with utmost seriousness. Since he is going to the house of God, it is only natural for him to expect that he will see God. Anything short of seeing God is not good enough for him. But he arrives only to see an ordinary house built with stones and mud. He is clearly dissatisfied. He makes a vow to himself that he will continue making the pilgrimage to Mecca until he sees God. At this point he has probably immersed himself completely in all sorts of litanies, remembrances, recitations, prayers and anything else that will make him forget the house — the world in other words — and bring him closer to God. After his third trip, he finally sees the Lord, or at least thinks that he has seen the Lord. He is joyous and content at this point, but clearly the Lord is not. God tells Bayazid that He doesn't care if he sees the world or not. He only cares if Bayazid doesn't see himself. And it's only when he ceases to see himself that Bayazid can truly say that he has seen God.

    Bayazid repents first from thinking he has seen God, and second he repents from that repentance for this is just another manifestation of his being; finally, he repents from seeing his own existence altogether.

    Bayazid comes to understand the difference between the god of one's imagination and the Real God. The former is constructed perhaps by immersing oneself in meditation and contemplation of the divine to the point that one becomes completely oblivious to the rest of the world. Clearly, this is not satisfactory, for the simple reason that one's imagination is self-serving. It constructs a god out of one's psychological need or possibly as a projection of one's ideals. But ultimately it is constructed for one's own sake. Bayazid sees this flaw in his own pursuit of God. The Real God is not self-serving. He is independent of one's wishful thinking and imagination. To make sure that he will not be wrapped up again in his foolish imagination, God lays down the condition for Bayazid's encounter with the Real: Do not see yourself. In another place, Bayazid says: "I saw God in a dream and asked Him what is the path towards You? He replied, Abandon yourself and you are already there." (Attar 1976).

    "Do not see yourself!" means pursuing God without any hidden agenda, without making any deals and in particular without any thought of yourself. Yet, at the same time, God is telling Bayazid that the path towards Him is very practical. It's not and should not be muddled by Bayazid's imagination and elliptical thinking. In order to avoid seeing himself, Bayazid has to do something. No amount of thinking and imagining will help him negate his ego. This is the very practical side of Bayazidian Sufism: doing as opposed to thinking and imagining.

    But what kind of 'doing' did Bayazid — or for that matter God — have in mind for the negation of the ego? After all, going on a pilgrimage is a form of doing. One has to get on one's feet and travel from one place to another and in those days one had to undertake such an enterprise knowing full well the harshness involved in it. For Bayazid, ritualistic acts, necessary though they may be, are not a good means of abandoning or negating one's ego. In performing a religious ritual one is not putting one's ego on the line. As far as the ego is concerned there is no risk involved. But for Bayazid if one does not challenge or trouble the ego, most likely one is not on the path to God.

    How, though, does one go about doing such things? From the stories about him one can gather that there are two ways of going against the ego, though they are not separate but rather very much intertwined. These are selfless service and kindness to others on the one hand and attracting the blame of others on the other. Consider the following story concerning the meaning of selfless service in Bayazidian Sufism. Again, this story happens in the context of yet another pilgrimage to Mecca. This is no accident, as Bayazidian Sufism is always a reaction to conventional ritualistic practices:

    In one of his pilgrimages to Mecca there was such a shortage of water that people were dying of thirst. Bayazid came across a place where people were gathered around a well, so thirsty that they were fighting among one another. In the middle of all this commotion he saw a wretched dog that was clearly dying of thirst. The dog looked at Bayazid and somehow conveyed to him that Bayazid's real mission should be getting water for the dog. He came up with a plan and began announcing, "Does anyone want to buy the merit of a hajj pilgrimage in exchange for some water?" Not receiving any response from people, he began to increase his part of the bargain, raising his hajj journeys to five, six, seven and finally to seventy in exchange for some water. At last, someone said that he was willing, giving Bayazid the water in exchange for the merits of seventy hajj journeys. It is at this point in the story that Bayazid's ego gets him into trouble. Right after the transaction took place, he began to feel proud of his action and pleased with himself for doing such a noble act of selflessness. Full of himself and proud of his action, Bayazid put the bowl of water in front of the dog, but the dog did not accept the water and turned away. Now a man of Bayazid's caliber looks for the divine message even from a dog, and Bayazid felt sorely ashamed of himself for his pride. At this point, he heard a message from God, "How long are you going to say I have done this and I have done that? Don't you see that even a dog does not accept your charitable act?" At once, Bayazid repented of his act of self-seeing.
    Adapted from Aflaki 1983, vol. II, p. 671
    The selfless service alluded to here is not just a charitable act. It is not on a par with giving money to a charity or doing volunteer work for the poor and the needy. It is far more subtle and difficult than that. True selfless service begins when one does not feel proud of one's act of charity and is complete when one is not conscious of oneself as the agent of that charitable act. True selfless service as it was realized by Bayazid is a major way to get rid of the ego.

    In the following story, we get yet another example of how Bayazid goes against his ego by means of a simple act of kindness:

    One night Bayazid was passing through a cemetery in Bastam when he came across a young nobleman playing a lute. Upon seeing the youth, Bayazid exclaimed, "There is no power and force in the world other than God's." Thinking that Bayazid was criticizing him for playing music in the cemetery, the young man hit Bayazid on the head with his lute thereby breaking both Bayazid's head and his own musical instrument. Upon returning to his quarters, Bayazid summoned one of his disciples and gave him some money and sweets and told him to go to the young man's house and tell him tile following: "Bayazid asks your forgiveness for what happened last night and requests that you use this money to buy another lute and then eat this sweet to remove from your heart the sorrow over the lute's being broken." When he heard this message, the young man realized what he had done and went to Bayazid to apologize.
    Adapted from 'Attar 1976, p. 117
    To return an act of aggression with kindness is to go against the ego. Our ego wants revenge or at least some kind of compensation when we are wronged. But for Bayazid, to seek compensation is to play into the hands of the ego, thereby becoming further removed from God.

    The second major way to overcome the ego for Bayazid is to attract other people's blame and to disgrace oneself in the eyes of society. This may sound pretty silly to us now. Why would anyone want to disgrace himself? In our contemporary western culture, the emphasis is on the promotion and glorification of the ego, not its demise. But first, let's examine an example of what Bayazid means by attracting the blame of others:

    In the city of Bastam where Bayazid made his home, there lived a very respected and venerable ascetic. He enjoyed Bayazid's circle, though he never became one of his disciples. One day he said to Bayazid, "0 master! For the last thirty years I have been fasting from the world and keeping vigils at night, but I have to be honest with you: I do not find in myself that knowledge you have been talking about, though I acknowledge your wisdom and I would like to understand it." Bayazid replied, "O Sheikh, even if you continue your ritual prayer and fasting for the next three hundred years, you would still not be able to understand the smallest portion of this wisdom." "Why?" asked the ascetic. "Because you are a prisoner of your own ego," responded Bayazid. "Is there any remedy for my condition?" asked the ascetic. "There is, but you won't be able to do it," replied Bayazid. "I promise I will accept whatever you suggest, for I have been seeking this knowledge for years," insisted the ascetic. "Then," continued Bayazid, "You must first take off your ascetic clothes and wear rags instead; let down your hair and go sit with a bag full of walnuts in a neighborhood where people know you best. Then call all the children around you and tell them, I will give a walnut to whoever smacks me on the face, two walnuts for two smacks and so on'. After you finish with that neighborhood, go to other neighborhoods until you have covered the whole town. This is your remedy." Completely bewildered and shocked the ascetic cried, "Glory be to God! There is no god but God," which was a way of expressing amazement in those days. "If an unbeliever had uttered these words," Bayazid declared, "he would have become a Moslem, but by uttering such words you have become an unbeliever!" "But why?" asked the ascetic. "Because in saying those words, you worship yourself not God," replied Bayazid. "Please give me some other counsel, Bayazid," pleaded the ascetic. "This is your only remedy, and as I said, you would not be able to do it," responded Bayazid.
    Adapted from 'Attar 1976, pp. 112-113
    In Bayazidian Sufism, one has to get rid of the pseudo-personality that one has created for oneself. We all want to be accepted and respected by others. Most of the time we are led by society and our own cultural norms to create a false sense of ourselves. In our modern culture, not many people care to create a superior moral personality for themselves on the basis of religion. But in Bayazid's time the acceptable personality that everyone aspired to was a religious one. Our own culture, however, does not promote religion or being pious. Success is defined and measured differently now — in terms of wealth, fame and position in society. To follow Bayazid in his search for the Truth, we have to demolish this pseudo-personality, and his way of demolishing it is by means of public disgrace. Everyone should judge you a madman, phony, or hypocrite. This is the price one has to pay for the Bayazidian Truth.

    Bayazid is not saying that a person should drop out of society — for him that is the easy way out. On the contrary, he is asking people to continue doing whatever they are doing and do it to the best of their ability. 'Seeing the world' is nothing other than enjoying the world, appreciating the beauty of the world. God doesn't want Bayazid to be an ascetic. "See the whole world, but don't see yourself," was what God told Bayazid. And here we see a profound ethical principle: Do what you may, but do it selflessly.

    Another example of Bayazid's shattering of the acceptable image created for him by his society is provided in the following story:

    Upon hearing that Bayazid was returning from his pilgrimage to Mecca, the people of Bastam went to the city's gate to welcome him with honors and reverence. For a little while, Bayazid went along with what the crowd expected of him, but he soon realized he had to put a stop to it. It was the month of Ramadan and everyone was fasting, so of course, they expected Bayazid to be fasting as well. Instead, he took a piece of bread from his bag and began eating it. No sooner did he do this than all the people around him left in disgust.
    Adapted from Hujwiri 1976
    Bayazid is warning us here about the dangers of identifying with what we do or what we project about ourselves. The only way we can make sure we are not attached to the sense of self that we have created for ourselves is to attract other people's blame, to make ourselves disgraceful. According to Bayazid, if it is the Truth we are after, then we should let others shatter this false image we have created for ourselves.

    I have been talking so far as if it is up to the individual to act disgracefully. Yet there is another crucial factor in this process of ego-annihilation in what I have coined 'Bayazidian Sufism', and that is the role of a master or guide. The manner in which an individual is blamed or disgraced in a given society cannot be chosen by the individual himself because when it comes to dislodging our own ego's hold, we have no idea what the best way is to accomplish this. We may be tricked by the ego itself into choosing an easy way out, or the disgrace may turn out to be so harsh that we can no longer function as a productive member of the community. It is the master, and the master alone, who has the wisdom and foresight to prescribe the right dose of blame for us, just as Bayazid did for the ascetic.

    This also holds true of Bayazidian selfless service. Without the love of another, in this case one's master, it is impossible to embark on the path of selfless service. It is no accident that in great love stories, the lover always engages in a number of selfless acts solely for the sake of the beloved, sometimes risking his or her own life without any hesitation or fear. Our love for another person makes us blind to our own selfish desires and egotistical tendencies. The spiritual path is no different. It is the love of our master or guide that allows us to embark on the path of selfless service. If this love is taken away, we will be faced with our own ego's false piety and pride in the service we may do for others, the way Bayazid was when he put the water in front of the dog.

    The importance of having a master in Bayazidian Sufism is emphasized in the following story with which I would like to end this article:

    Rumi has said that the true disciple always puts the master above everyone else. Someone once asked one of Bayazid's disciples: "Who is greater, your master or Abu Hanifa?" "My master," replied the disciple. "Who is greater, Abu Bakr or your master?" "My master," again replied the disciple. "Who is greater, the other companions of the prophet, or your master?" "My master," replied the disciple once more. "Who is greater, the prophet Muhammad or your master?" "My master," replied the disciple yet again. "Well then, who is greater, God or your master?" "I have seen God in my master and know of nothing other than my master," replied the disciple for the last time.
    Aflaki 1983, vol. I, p. 297
    Hujwiri, 'Ali b. 'Uthman al-Jullabi. 1976. The Kashf al-mahjub: The Oldest Persian Treatise on Suflsm. Edited by R. A. Nicholson. London: Luzac and Company Ltd.

    'Attar, Farid al-Din. 1976. Muslim Saints and Mystics. Translated by A. J. Arberry. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

    Aflaki, Shams al-Din Ahmad. 1983. Manaqibal-'arifin. Two volumes. Edited by Tahsin Yaziji. Tehran: Donyay-c Ketab.

    Article taken from Sufi Journal, Issue 46, 2000