Wednesday, May 23, 2007


I have been reading Karen Armstrong's new religious history, "The Great Transformation." I love her books and have read them all. This newest book fills a gap in the history books as it is an explanation of what is called The Axial Age. The Axial Age is a peculiar stage in human history, from approximately 800 BCE to 200 BCE, when the major regions of the civilized world; Greece, China, India and the Mesopotamian Basin all shifted how they approached religion. It was an age when numerous prophets suddenly appeared in all four regions and began to talk of the inner world. It is a great book. But it is not what I wanted to talk of other then as a starting point.

As I read the book I cannot help but reflect on what I see happening around me. One of the things that I hear frequently is the need for a return to tradition. That puzzles me. I wonder what tradition they mean. How far back should we go? Humans are funny, funny peculiar that is – not funny ha ha, about tradition. A tradition needs to be only a week or so old and we will assume it has permanence. A tradition that is a hundred years old seems hoary with meaning and one a thousand years old, no matter how much it may have been modified in the intervening years, well that is awesome. It never ceases to amaze me that, just because someone a thousand years ago wrote something, it must be full of inner meaning that we today cannot possibly totally understand but we know it is significant. What if it was just stupid? There are a couple of these ancient tomes that I have read that are just that – stupid. Yet they are revered texts. Oh well.

As I read the book and learn how our solid traditions evolved I wonder why we think they have value. As Ms. Armstrong explains so well, but which any thinking person should already realize, traditions are cultural responses to changing conditions and values. They are the way that a culture defines itself in that moment. In and of themselves they mean nothing other than as a cultural response.

One of the things that I really liked about my teacher, Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan, and his teachings was that, though he would use historical references and an extensive knowledge of the ancient Sufi's, he always insisted that what he was about was the creation of a new paradigm. He continually stated that we are the mid-wives of the Holistic Age (his word for what we usually call the New Age). I would think that means that we are obligated to stretch ourselves out and discover what has not been yet done.

Now I hear that we should return to tradition.

As a Sufi I feel that it is my job to not only know what has been done in the past but also to respond to the future energy pulling us forward. Anything else is turning ones back on the future, embracing the past and creating a comfortable cocoon which protects us but has no value to evolution. But it is scary; after all the future is essentially unknown. Oh, you might get some precognition I suppose. Lots of people do but the wholeness of it is unknown since, in the real world sense, it has not happened.

I think that a lot of people do sense something unfolding and are trying in various ways to make it clear. That happens in all sorts of ways; from nostalgic yearnings for Lemuria to crop circle divination to whatever seems neatest to the individual. It is difficult to just let the future unfold. Since it has not happened yet, though the potential is there, we do have options. We can pretend we know what it is. We can retreat to a traditional model that ignores this new energy and reassures itself that all is well. We can notice the small indications that are appearing in the remote depths of our consciousness and be glad. We can be scared. Oh there are all sorts of things that we can do.

I suppose that a part of this advice to return to tradition might be to get people to actually read some of the old material. Another thing that never ceases to amaze me is people believing that the individual they believe is responsible for their current state sprang full blown from the brow of Zeus or something similar without having done any study of his own. For instance, there is a cult of personality for Hazrat Inayat Khan. Some otherwise very intelligent people seem to believe that what he spoke about was all his. It never seems to occur to them that most of what he taught was a restating of normal Sufi thought made palatable for the Western ear. He took out most of the cultural references from the Middle East and India and substituted European and American cultural references. Anyone who has done any reading of the ancient's will realize this. That he was brilliant is a given but let's not go too far. So maybe it would be good to get people to read some of the ancient material and figure this out for themselves.

I am now very curious to hear what others might feel about what I have written above. I am still in a state of speculation about this and am just beginning to form my ideas. Any contributions? More to come!

Love & Blessings, Musawwir


Amidha said...

Musawwir, my daughter is reading up for college in the Fall, and reminded me of some wonderful books about the shift from Orthodox Judaism--and parrticularly, Hasidism--to what has since been called "Reform" Judaism. These novels, The Chosen and The Promise, by Chaim Potok, make a deeper point about what tradition means, because they take place as WW II is coming to an end, and the few Jews who are left begin to come to the US. These are people who nearly died for their tradition, and they often watched their famlies brutally murdered or used for fatal "experiments" in the Holocaust of Nazi Germany. Given what they've been through, they are not interested or willing to break with tradition. To them the tradition is God's will and God's revelations, and it must not be changed.

Murshid says that everyone is in the place they need to be. Some people need tradition and, yes, a very narrow faith in their lives. It means a lot to them. Others, in groups like the ones you and I are a part of, are more and less willing to leap into the future, being pulled by it, instead of pushed by the past (paraphrasing Pir Vilayat here, of course).

Tradition seems to be a way of codifying the unspeakable, that which is so precious and perfect in one's own devoted conception as to make one willing to live and die for it. That seems very beautiful to me, even if I cannot do it myself. And as it is preserved, of course, it becomes available to the future, which recreates it through those who cannot bear its constraints.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps the desire for a return to tradition speaks of a desire for more structure or a more solid anchor. I was raised in a tradition, but in those youthful days I saw nothing but the outward appearance, and it meant nothing to me. I have since come around to a place of great respect for all traditions, but now I see them with more dimensions, and I appreciate the discipline that adherence to a tradition can support. It has been said, for example, that you can't have Sufism without Islam, appealing to the discipline that the structure of the specific practice provides, particularly in community. I'm sure the practice of tradition can provide much for the mystic heart, and I say that as sort of a freelance spiritual practitioner, yearning for the very discipline of which I speak, but wanting very much to aoid the dulling effect of over exposure to a traditional practice...

Denis D.

molly said...

Hi M,
As i read your entry, the questions and responses that come to mind are interesting. I am curious as to what specific tombes you find unremarkable. As far returning to tradition, I observe some people taking great satisfaction and comfort in that. Perhaps people don't like where they are and are looking for "the good old days". Perhaps others find a reason to look back towards tradition again in order to build a firmer foundation. Even the practices we receive as mureeds emanate from a fairly recent tradition, yet they work.

Perhaps it depends upon the use of what's available, and whether we become attached to that, or we learn to let it grow into a "newer" form.

Reading this reminded me of something i loved to hear my grandmother say, "'twas ever thus".

darwi said...

Hey Phillip,

I was thinking a lot about this issue after reading your blog. Maybe because one tradition I want to keep and restart around the western world is Hospitality.
I don´t mean going somewhere in the past or to give meaning to something meaningless or that we don´t even get, but to rehabilitate those traditions that makes us human.
Hospitality is one tradition that makes us human and we have had that for long time in a way is what up there celebrates as Thanksgiving.
Hospitality in México is still a tradition, a tradition that makes us feel proud and for what we are known all over the world. Hospitality and also to acknowledge the otherness of the other is this make sense. And maybe if we recover those traditions that have sense for us and our culture here and now, if we recuperate those traditions that make us human we can stop looking for senseless traditions elsewhere. Just because we crave something that we can not even recognize
So… I agree almost completely with you but your text somehow walked me there and I wanted to comment it here.

Jules said...

Greetings Everyone,
For me it is hard to quantify what tradition is. Tradition as i see it is knowledge and sometimes the application of that knowledge. Verbal transmission of belief systems that maybe localised customs, religious scriptures or political doctrines, that have been accepted and passed on from one generation to the next. They exist to give people understanding of the events and times that they live in, they can empower people and give them hope.
Some believe some traditions evolved through love, need, hope, and some through the usurption of power (catholic church! , bestill my typing fingers)
Love Always Jules

Sarala said...

I'm reading this quite later than it was written, yet the reading is timely for me. I have a roommate for the summer who is from Egypt, and as you can imagine, we enjoin hours of exploration of each others' histories, beliefs and traditions. So I have been thinking and wondering much lately about what is it that makes people - as individuals and as a social group - cling to some traditions while flowing along in continuous evolution of others?