The Pearl

Gulshan-i Raz, the “rose-bower of mystery”, is a collection of poetical dialogues between a Sufi Sheikh, Sheikh Mahmoud Shabestari, and a student, Rukh al-Din Amir Harawi. Sheikh Shabestari was himself a student of ibn ‘Attar, author of the famous Conference of the Birds, and ibn ‘Arabi, a Spanish Sufi and prolific writer. The Gulshan-i Raz follows in the style of these earlier works. It is bewildering and witty, full of meaningful but distracting symbolism. It contains profound pearls of wisdom and rosebuds of realization, mere hints at the authors’ deeper mystical experiences and meditations.

Written in the early 14th century in Persia, Gulshan-i Raz is in the format of mystical questions and equally mysterious answers. One such question, though seemingly esoteric, hardly beats around the proverbial rosebush. When the metaphors, symbology, and theology are unpacked, it quickly becomes apparent that this is no softball question. It asks about the very heart of Sufism:

What is that sea whose shore is speech?
What is that pearl which is found in its depths? (562)

This question, and the answer that follows, inquire about the ‘true knowledge’ that Sufism teaches: the pearl. Like other mystic paths, Sufism teaches that beyond the outer trappings and common teachings of religion, there is a deeper understanding of the Divine and a strong personal, loving connection to the Divine available to the dedicated seeker. Only through surrender to a spiritual master (sheikh), renunciation of worldly attachments, and years of spiritual practice and study can the seeker begin to approach the divine mysteries taught in such traditions. We will first address ‘true knowledge’ in this poem as it signifies the set of teachings and then turn to the ‘true knowledge’ of the nature of the soul in its relation to the Divine.

In Sufi teachings, this ‘true knowledge’ is often strongly contrasted with ‘ordinary religion.’ Here, true knowledge is described as the pearl at the bottom of the ocean. On the seeker’s journey to find the essence of religion, the shore is but the first step, the surface level. It is ordinary religion; it is superficial understanding; it is “dictionary, etymology, syntax and accidence” (579); it is everything that is said about faith but never deeply experienced; and, in the radical interpretation of Sufism, it is the shari’a itself. One may stay on the shore, never finding that deeper, symbolic understanding of faith, or dive into the sea, seeking deeper religion. The search may be in vain; the diver may never find the pearl of true knowledge. If he does, through rigorous application of logic, stripping away egoistic self-image, attachments to the material world, and theological confusion, he discovers his true, divine nature.

In another reading, this discussion of “that sea whose shore is speech” (562) describes the nature of the soul. In this reading the shore is the person, appearing as an individual. “The shore is your body, the sea is Being,” the Sheikh tells us (574). That vast ocean of the Divine Being present in the universe, present in every person, is obscured by our ego, by our petty habits and speech, by those character traits that separate us from other persons and distract us from our true nature. By turning inward in contemplation (by diving into the ocean of Being), we can find that pearl, that “sweet knowledge of faith” (582). Realization of our true natures is the sweetest knowledge and the goal of the Sufi path.

Indeed, this pearl is of Divine origin. The Sheikh describes how innumerable oysters rise to the surface of the ocean, and a rain descends

… at the command of The Truth [al-Haqq].
There fall some drops into each shell’s mouth,
And each mouth is shut as by a hundred bonds.
Then each shell descends into the depths with full heart,
And each drop of rain becomes a pearl. (570-572) 

The rain or mist that become pearls are of Divine origin. They represent souls, commanded by the Divine

to descend to the material world. The journey of the soul – of hiding and discovery, of becoming enmeshed in veils and of stripping away the veils – is important to the soul’s development. The primal, naive soul is immature. In the material world – in the metaphorical oyster at the depths of the ocean – that the raindrop, the soul, develops into a Pearl. Gaining knowledge of mankind and of the material world is what brings the capacity of the human soul to fruition.

This sort of journey is described in similar terms in other religious traditions. In the Acts of the Apostle Thomas of Gnostic origin, the allegorical Hymn of the Pearl parallels the Sheikh’s story. Thomas narrates the story of an otherworldly Prince who descends from the kingdom of his Father (the heavenly realm) in search of the Pearl. He descends into Egypt, a common metaphor for the material world, and despite his precautions falls into the stupor of those living in the material world. “I forgot that I was a king’s son and served their king. I forgot the Pearl for which my parents had sent me. Through the heaviness of their nourishment I sank into deep slumber” (Jonas 114), the Prince says mournfully. But his heavenly parents sent a message to the bewildered Prince, reminding the Prince of his true nature and of his mission. “I remembered that I was a song of kings, and that my freeborn soul desired its own kind” (114). This parallels the awakening of the spiritual seeker, the Sufi realizing that within him is a Pearl – or the awakening of the archetypal folk hero.

The Prince boldly dives into the ocean and grapples with the serpent who protects the Pearl. The serpent, like the dog common in Sufi allegory, represents the beastly material nature: the ego, the desire for sensual pleasures, the appetite, all the fleshly wants that keep the Prince from finding the Pearl. In a practice remarkably similar to Sufi zikr, the Prince “charmed it to sleep by naming over it my Father’s name” (115). He reclaims the pearl and retraces his steps to the heavenly kingdom,  exchanging his “filthy and impure garment” for the “robe of glory” (115), his true inheritance. After this journey and struggle, the Prince realizes his true nature: “As I now beheld, it seemed to me suddenly to become a mirror-image of myself… And the image of the King of kings was depicted all over it” (115). The Prince born into the spiritual realm had the innocence of youth, knowing nothing else. After experiencing the material world and claiming the Pearl, our of his own choice and endeavor, he now realizes his Divine nature in a more mature manner.

The essence of Sufi teaching is that the human soul

is ultimately nondifferent from the Divine. The metaphor of the Pearl, trapped within the oyster, or of the ocean of Being (the Divine) within the shore of the Body is neatly captured in the utterance of the 9th-C mystic al-Junnayd, who ran through the streets of Baghdad in an ecstatic state of union with the Divine, proclaiming, “beneath this robe there is only God.”

Al-Junnayd taught fana, the annihilation of one’s ego (or oneself) in search of closer union with the Divine. He expected a high level of discipline and asceticism from practitioners, teaching that the seeker should “purge from the heart every wish to follow the path of common men” (Abdul Haq 34).

However, al-Junnayd, and Sufism in general, do not teach complete abandonment of ‘ordinary religion,’ of Shari’a and of day-to-day observance. Among al-Junnayd’s nine precepts for the practitioner was “to follow the Prophet in the matters of the Shari’a” (Abdul Haq 42). And Sheikh Shabesteri reminds his student that “without a husk the kernel ripens not. From external knowledge grows the sweet knowledge of faith” (582). Despite the implications of mystic teachings that one should neglect all other teaching, Sufis teach that one should adhere to standard religious practices and ethics. Mystical experience does not happen all by itself. It is made possible by a framework of shari’a, of regulatory principles, of contemplation and study, and of understanding.

The Sheikh’s poem tells us that though many oysters receive Divine raindrops, few become pearls. This metaphor tells us that only some have the mental and emotional abilities to go beyond surface impressions and seek deeper understanding of religion, of the Divine, and of their own Selves. Indeed, al-Junnayd believed that the Sufi path was for spiritual elites, not the common man. It is for those whom, with knowledge and acceptance of shari’a, the teachings of Islam, and the nature of the material world, desire the mystical understanding of God. With this knowledge, they can follow in the footsteps of Hayy ibn Yaqzan, of ibn Tufayl, of Shabestari, and of so many Sufi masters and find the Pearl within the human spirit: the sweet transcendental knowledge hidden in the many joys and sorrows of the material world.

Sources

Ansari, Muhammad Abdul Haq. “The Doctrine of One Actor: Junaid’s View of Tawhid.” The Muslim World 1 (1983): 33-56.

Jonas, Hans. The Gnostic Religion. Boston: Beacon Press, 2001. 113-116.

Shabestari, Sa’d ud Din Mahmud. Gulshan I Raz. Trans. E. H. Whinfield. Lahore: Iran-Pakistan Institute of Persian Studies, 1978.

ibn Tufayl, Abu Bakr Muhammad. The Story of Hayy ibn Yaqzan. Trans. Jim Colville. New York: Columbia UP, 1999. 3-65

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