30×40 acrylic painting by Nisha Gupta;
Inspired by the poetic words of Roo Zine:
I am deep diving into an ocean cave. Training my lungs, my skin, my body to go deeper. Every time I close my eyes, deeper into my brain, my heart, my soul, my uterus, my music, my, art, my religion, my mission.
I want to fly away from here. But I cannot disappear, or save my village from the flood, or fly away with wings of gold whose jagged edges scrape the sky.
My body is being baptized by oxytocin. I am surrendering in this pond of hormonal comfort hijacking my basal ganglia paralyzing my phantom wings, and I’m falling, falling in sin, falling in sin, sincerely in love.
What do I do with this realization? What do I do with all this love that’s flowing through my veins? I unleash the truth which was treading lightly, to not awaken the beast inside. I learn how to squeeze back, I learn how to speak gently, I learn how to give although I owe nothing. Is this a quest for truth?
I accept that the path of universal love is a lonely path to tread—to return to the never-ending dark-light of the earth’s womb, the place where you can hear light and see sound.
Reclaiming Faith – Journeying into Mystical Sufism, a Religion for Lovers
Discovering hidden knowledge from the heart of Islam
For some Desi women, Eros is inseparable from Sufism, the mystical tradition of Islam which is embraced by spiritual seekers in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. Sufism started with the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and spread across Central Asia, Persia, and Africa, blending knowledge and philosophy from the mystical traditions and folk cultures of the Persians, Greeks, Hindus, Jews, and Muslims, generation by generation. Sufism respects the religious foundations of Islam as the first step on the journey of spiritual life: “one has to pass through some kind of religious discipline in order to transcend its ritualistic form and unite with God” (Dehlvi, 2010). But then Sufism invites Muslims to go deeper into the truth of their faith. This involves transcending the intellect and entering the ocean of the heart: “Love is the ocean of inner meaning, everyone is in it like fish. Ahmad is the pearl in the ocean–look, that is what I show” (Rumi, in Dehlvi, 2010). By plunging into the heart’s ocean and experiencing the depths of love, passion, longing, and heartbreak, Sufis discover the “hidden knowledge” of Allah (Dehlvi, 2010). Thus Islam’s spiritual path of Sufism is a romantic one, whereby the true way to merge with Allah is through the mystical experience of Love: “Intellect and love are made of different materials. Intellect ties people in knots and risks nothing, but love dissolves all tangles and risks everything. Intellect is always cautious and advises, ‘Beware too much ecstasy,’ whereas love says, ‘Oh, never mind! Take the plunge! Intellect does not easily break down, whereas love can effortlessly reduce itself to rubble. But treasures are hidden among ruins. A broken heart hides treasures” (Shafak, 2011).
Surrendering to the musical trance of the erotic
When discussing Sufi eroticism, the romantic poetry of Muhammad Jalaluddin Rumi comes to mind. As the story goes, Rumi became passionately devoted to his Sufi mentor Shams i-Tabriz. His heart opened from their companionship–from the knowledge they shared together and from the glimpses of God experienced through their love: “No one could tell with Rumi and Shams who was teacher and who was the student. Lover, beloved, and love became one thing with them. Images of transparency and particles, light upon light, the candle at noon, occur, images of breath merging with the sky” (Barks, 2003). But then one day Shams disappeared. Rumi’s heart broke like never before. From his heartbreak poured out poems about love, passion, desire, devotion, compassion, longing, and transformation through the power of Eros: “Love comes sailing through and I scream. Love sits beside me like a private supply of itself. Love puts away the instruments and takes off the silk robes. Our nakedness together changed me completely” (Rumi; in Barks, 2003).
Key to Islam is the notion of surrender. Among Sufis, this includes surrendering to the profound feelings sparked by Eros–feelings of desire, longing, ecstasy, desire, heartbreak, obliteration. By surrendering to Eros, we enter a mystical trance that cannot be understood by the intellect. Only music or poetry can capture fragments of this trance state experienced within the depths of the ocean. This is what it means to be a mystic: our previous state of consciousness is obliterated as we enter an ecstatic heart-state initiated by love. This mystical trance unites us with our ultimate Beloved, God; thus surrendering to Eros is surrendering to God. As Rumi describes: “Love comes with a knife….accept them in kind. Love is a madman, working his wild schemes, tearing off his clothes, running through the mountains drinking poison, and now quietly choosing annihilation…There are love stories and there is obliteration into love. You’ve been walking the ocean’s edge, holding up your robes to keep them dry. You must dive naked under and deeper under, a thousand times deeper! Love flows down… Let the cords of your robe be untied, Shiver in this new love beyond all above and below” (Rumi, in Barks, 2003). While some scholars urge us to read the sexual verses of Sufi poetry metaphorically, others suggest that Rumi’s repeated references of nakedness and copulation imply that the Sufi path to God blends spirituality with sexuality. This becomes all the more evident with explicitly sexual verses such as: “The girl jumped to the task knowing she would finally get to be alone with the master. She ran joyfully. She flew. Desire took them both/so quickly they didn’t latch the door. With great speed/they joined. When bodies blend in copulation spirits also merge…A mystic lover flies moment to moment. The fearful ascetic drags along month to month… Love is a quality of God. Fear is an attribute of those who think they serve God…People who repress desires, often turn, suddenly,/ into hypocrites” (Rumi, in Barks, 2003).
Transcending the moralism of sexual sin
As evident in the verse above, while orthodox forms of Islam espouse more rigid rules regarding sex, its mystical tradition often transcends this rigidity. The earliest Sufis did favor celibacy, including the revolutionary female Sufi saint Rabi’a al-‘Adawiyya who chose to remain unmarried and celibate to devote herself to her true Beloved, Allah. She channeled all her erotic longings into her love for God and, accordingly, is credited “for transforming Sufism into an ecstatic love mysticism” (Hoffman-Ladd, 1992). The trend of chastity shifted with Sufi saints such as Ibni al-‘Arabi, whose writing directly references the act of sexual intercourse as “the means for the mystic’s perfection” to enter blissful union with God. al-‘Arabi writes that those who surrender to sexual union and erotic pleasure–with a deep knowing about its spiritual dimensions– have been carefully selected by God: “He knows from the divine manifestation in sexual union what drives him to seek it and embrace it, for his worship cannot achieve for him or for any other gnostic more than can be attained by sexual union…He desires sexual union not for the sake of procreation, but only for pleasure. The consummation of sexual intercourse is itself commended in the Law…and the sexual act of the one in this spiritual station is like the sexual union of the people of Paradise, only for the sake of pleasure, for it is the greatest manifestation which has been hidden from men and jinn, except for those servants whom God has specially chosen for it” (al-‘Arabi, in Hoffman-Ladd, 1992).
Thus, rather than position sexual pleasure as sinful, much of Sufi poetry describes sexual pleasure as a window into mystical union with God. This includes Rumi, whose poetry continually urges us to transcend moralistic judgments about sex: “Be careful, Rumi suggests, about shaming sexual behavior in anyone who hasn’t yet had his or her fill of erotic trancing. Often, the closest we come to surrender is orgasm” (Barks, 2010). Rumi’s verses implore us to forgo rigid notions of “right and wrong” when it comes to lovers, including his infamous line: “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, There is a field. I’ll meet you there,” which suggests that true intimacy and oneness with God flourishes only when we transcend inflexible, dichotomous beliefs of bad or good, sin or saint. According to many Sufis, these judgments are not God-made but man-made (Youssef, 2016). In another poem Rumi writes: “What was wrong to you is right for him. What is poison to one is honey to someone else. Purity and impurity, sloth and diligence in worship,/these mean nothing to me. I am apart from all of that…I want burning, burning. Be friends with your burning. Those who pay attention to ways of behaving and speaking are one sort. Lovers who burn are another. Don’t impose a property tax on a burned-out village. Don’t scold the lover.” Since much of Rumi’s poetry is directed towards his passionate love of Shams, Queer Muslims find solace in these verses as an affirmation that, far from perpetuating the notion of gay sex as sinful, Sufism perceives homoerotic love to be sacred. The Eros between queer lovers can also be considered a mirror of God’s love (Ahmed, 2016).
Transcending rigid notions of sin can be symbolized by the Jinn, who are frequently mentioned in the Qur’an as “shape-shifting spirits made of fire and air” (Ettachfini, 2016). Jinn are spiritual entities simultaneously revered and feared by Muslims. Jinn are neither angel nor demon, but occupy an ambiguous gray-zone that transcends this dichotomy altogether: “Jinn are remarkable in their propensity towards neither good or evil. In Christianity, demons and evil spirits appear as entities carrying out Satan’s maleficent wishes, but neutral spirits like the jinn have no place. El-Zain believes that jinn have been robbed of the scholarly devotion they deserve, in part because they complicate the narrative of monotheism, what it means to believe in ‘the existence of intelligent spiritual entities without necessarily demonizing them.’ Jinn—different than both angels and the devil—oscillate between good and evil, making them all the more relatable” (Ettachfini, 2016). In the human world, Jinn manifest in different forms such as scorpions and snakes. And interestingly, Jinn are said to appear during sex between lovers: “Fluid in form and interpretation, jinn not only possess and converse with us, but they can also fall in love (or in bed) with humans. Pre-Islamic poet Ta’abbata Sharran once wrote about sleeping with a jinniyah (feminine form of jinn) in a poem called “How I Met the Ghul”: I lay upon her through the night, that in the morning I might see what had come to me, Behold! Two eyes in a hideous head, like the head of a cat, split-tongued, Legs like a deformed fetus, the back of a dog, clothes of haircloth or worn-out skins!” Jinn play a role in Muslim lovers becoming “possessed” by sexual desire, but their nature is mysterious, unable to be understood by simplistic notions of good vs evil.
Cherishing lovers as Divine and God as Beloved
Sufism rises above questions of right and wrong because what it really cares about is love. If a human’s actions are oriented towards love, then those actions are sacred. The Sufi mystic–the true friend of Allah–is therefore a lover. A lover seeks to merge their heart with the heart of other lovers. This is the greatest gift of existence, and this is the path of the Sufi: “When the ocean comes to you as a lover, marry, at once, quickly, for God’s sake! Don’t postpone it! Existence has no better gift” (Rumi, in Barks, 2003). There are many ways to experience this gift, including sexual love according to contemporary Sufi scholars (Haq, 2018). When two lovers merge, the heat of this union initiates an ecstatic alchemy through eshq, translated to mean “transformational love” (Milani, 2015). The ecstasy of this union cannot be expressed in any other way but the flow of poetry, the trance of music, the whirling of dancers in ecstasy. In Rumi’s poetry, his heart longs for ecstatic re-union with Shams. But Rumi knows that to merge with Shams is to enter a state of divine oneness with his true Beloved, God. “The longing you feel for this love comes from inside you. When you become the Friend, your longing will be as the man in the ocean who holds to a piece of wood. Eventually, wood, man, and ocean become one swaying being: Shams Tabriz, the secret of God” (Rumi, in Barks, 2003). Thus reclaiming erotic power as Desi women may involve reclaiming Islam’s mystical tradition of Sufism as a religion for lovers–where lovers are a metaphor for God, and God is the true Beloved: “I, you, he, she, we–in the garden of mystic lovers, these are not true distinctions” (Shams Tabriz, in Barks, 2003).
Essay by Nisha Gupta, with editorial feedback by Roo Zine.
This work was created while listening to “Paradice” by Roo Zine:
This painting and essay are inspired by the writing of Roo Zine, an Indian American Muslim singer, songwriter, and producer based in New York City, who explores digital media, sound design, and cultural impact. Her songs include “Demimonde” and “Paradice” which fuse electronic beats with the spiritual longings of Persian and Classical Hindi rhythms; her Paradice music video includes the classical Kuchipudi dance perfomance of Yamini Kalluri. Roo’s career began at the legendary Music Building where she designed and led community strategies focused on production and performance, for over two-hundred professional musicians who were tenants of The Music Building. During this time, she began to explore the experimental music and sound art scene, while also studying Persian and Classical Indian music. She has collaborated and studied with artists such as Luke Dubois, Michael Schumacher, and Samita Sinha to create compositions for multi-channel sound systems and video art. Roo has an M.S. in integrated Digital Media, with a concentration in sound design at NYU-Tandon School of Engineering.