Islamic Mysticism in the Near Eastern Region

The syncrestic religious groups in the Near East have adopted oral methods of transmission and maintain a particular level of secrecy due to the esoteric content of their faith and the consequent risk of persecution. Most members of the syncretistic religions are often left uninformed about their beliefs, yet they distinctly class themselves as religious adherents to Islam. Similarities between their traditions include their close relationship with Shi’ism, particularly Ismail’i, while also singing, dancing or chanting to hymns and poetry. Pre-Islamic traditions by the Turcoman tribes, Nestorian Christianity and even Buddhism together with the accompaniment of Persian and Zoroastrian beliefs all working within the social complexity of isolation, diaspora and migration for religious heresy adds to this intricacy. It is said that the steady conversion of many Christians in Anatolia to Islam introduced Gnostic elements that spawned the creation of a unique community of Muslims. Parallels between Near Eastern syncrestictic cosmogony and Christianity can perhaps be dated back to the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 that generated the gradual migration and invasion of Anatolia by the Turks, while the Oghuz people under the Seljuk’s expanded their population until the region became predominately Turkish. Although cosmogonic traditions vary between each heterodox group in and around the Fertile Crescent and Anatolia, religious views of angels and the universe together with accounts of the symbolic and mythological tales about God or the Divine Essence provide evidence of their unique similarities. Persecution by the Ottoman Empire for their religious heterodoxy isolated and ultimately developed a unique community and an orally transmitted tradition. It is important to elucidate the basic tenets of these heterodox communities within and around the Fertile Crescent in order to compare their unique relationship to one another.


Bektaşi – Turkey

The Bektaşi are a Sufi dervish order originating from the Balkan region who acknowledge the twelve Imam’s (Twelver Shi’i) and venerate both ‘Ali and the sixth Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq.[1] The tarikat or Bektaşi Brotherhood particularly view Haci Bektaş Veli as a saint. Haci Bektaş Veli was a Persian mystic from the 13th century and author of the Makalat, his own discourses and teachings that were religiously and spiritually progressive for his time, particularly since he was sympathetic to the poor living conditions and the rights of women.[2] It is often claimed that Haci Bektaş Veli fought against Arab influence over Islam and attempted to release the oppressed rural and impoverished from the exploitation by the elite, preaching “[a] version of Islam which synthesized Sunni and Shi’i beliefs with Muslim and Christian religious practices.”[3] There are claims that Mustapha Kemal was himself a Bektaşi that consequently established a strong political link between the Bektaşi and the Kemalists, but the legitimacy of the argument is weak.

Although similarities between Alevi and Bektaşi exist particularly because of the mystic Haci Bektaş and Pir Sultan Abdal whom they both revere,[4] there are clear differences. “Her ne kadar, Bektaşi ve Alevi, her iki topluluk da, kendilerini Haci Bektaş’a bagliyor ve ayni kokenden geliyor olsalar da, erkan oldukca farklidir.”[5] Unlike the Alevis who were persecuted and consequently isolated, the Bektaşi Order had considerable protection by the Ottomans and contact with the administration.[6 Bektaşi leadership can be offered upon completion of a degree and while being more theologically scriptualised or codified, any person who wishes to join the order are permitted to convert, a clear difference to Alevis who must be a talip or belong to a dede lineage. “Alevism and Bektaşism share neither the same geographical frameworks nor possess the same internal mechanisms and rules… Bektaşism is dominantly Balkan, while Alevism finds its origins in Anatolia. Bektaşism has been mainly urban, while the Alevism was, until recently, mainly rural.”[7]

While most social and religious duties are held by a dede who guides the various prayers and rituals at the cem house, the head of a tekke (dervish lodge) is led by a baba.[8] The tekke at Hacibektaş was once a place of ritual servitude but has now become a museum and a place of ceremonial gathering. It contains the monastery (maydin evi) which is where most of the services are held, but it also has an ekmek evi that includes the women’s quarters and a bake house (or an aş evi which is the kitchen) as well as an area for guests staying at the lodge (mihman evi).[9] Their religious beliefs incorporate a unique blend of Islamic and Christian elements, such as tying Muhammad, ‘Ali and Allah into a trinity or distributing wine, bread and cheese to new members (murshid or aşik), which is “probably a survival of the Holy Communion as practiced by the Artotyrites.”[10] The Bektaşi distinguish rank through the number of folds in their white cap. “The number four symbolises the “four gates”: shari’a [şeriyat], tarika, ma’rifa, hakika and the four corresponding classes of people: ‘abid, zahid, ‘arif, muhibb; the number twelve points to the number of imams. Particularly characteristic are also the twelve-fluted taslim taşi, which is worn around the neck, and the teber (double-axe).”[11]

As mentioned, the Bektaşi had considerable protection by the Ottoman Empire particularly because the Janissaries appreciated the similarity the order had with Christianity. Esra Ozyurek states that between the 16th and the 19th centuries, the Ottomans embraced the Bektaşi Order and made it the central religious organisation of the Janissaries, until 1826 when many Janissaries were killed and the Bektaşi Order made illegal. Like the Alevi, the Bektaşi allow women to participate in rituals and often sing and dance to hymns, bestowing great favour to ‘Ali and also Shah Isma’il among others. A translated version of a nefes poem is as follows:

I took the mirror to my face
Ali appeared to my eye…
He is Jesus and Christ
He is the refuge to the believers
He is the Shah of the two worlds
Ali appeared to my eye
Ali is the pure, Ali is the clean
Ali is the hidden, Ali is the manifest
Ali is the first, Ali is the last
Ali appeared to my eye
Ali is the life, Ali is the Beloved
Ali is the religion, Ali is the belief
Ali is the merciful, Ali is the compassionate
Ali appeared to my eye.[12]


Alawi – Syria

The endeavour to further understand the Alawi (traditional known as Nusayr’i) of Syria has increased over recent decades, particularly because most of the political and military elite are from an Alawi background. An ethnic minority numbering three million, the Alawis are mainly populated around the rural mountains of the Latakia region in Syria (75%) with a small proportion in urban cities of Syria; they can also be found in Lebanon and Israel (after the capture of the Golan Heights). Groups of Arab speaking Alevis who distinctly trace their lineage to the Alawi in Syria are located in southern Turkey (particularly Hatay and Adana) and though they share a similar name and other practices, the Alawi in Turkey do not correspond or affiliate with the Alevis of Anatolia.

Like many of the heterodox communities, little is known of their origin and mixed views are often reiterated, although it has been claimed that the Alawi are remnants of the ancient Canaanite people who were influence by Christianity and Isma’iliyyah Islam before adopting Arabic as their primary language.[13] It has been claimed that the sect developed during the mid-ninth century in Iraq under Muhammad B. Nusayr al-Namiri who revered the tenth Shi’i Imam[14], yet unlike the Anatolian Alevis who were Turcoman that converted to Islam, the Alawis were Arabs that similarly converted. “The Alawites in Syria… had already established their religious sect during the tenth century in Jabal Ansariyya near Latakia. Their secret faith is described as a blend of ancient Syrian or Phoenician paganism (mainly the worship of the triad: the sun, the moon and the stars or sky), possibly influence by various Christian Trinitarianism… and largely manifested in a Shi’i-Ismaili fashion with adherence to Imam Ali, Prophet Muhammad’s first cousin and son-in-law, and to Salman al-Farisi, one of Mohammad’s Persian followers.[15]

Because of their esoteric religious beliefs, the Alawi have experiences centuries of poverty, isolation and persecution by the Sunni elite in the region. The greater risk of violence forced the Alawi to practice taqiya much more rigorously than Alevis. The use of particular codes or jargon in their scriptures can only be understood by the initiated who are orally taught the socio-dialect and the meaning behind the content, while some manuscripts have little information about the divine charactic of ‘Ali, though it is widely known to be an integral part of Alawi belief. Most Alawi members are often excluded from the traditions and practices, especially women who are considered incapable of comprehending the vast scale of their beliefs. Sulaiman Efendi al-Adhani (b. 1834/1835) published the kitab al-bakurat as-Sulaimaniya fi kashf asrar ad-diyanat an-nusairya that discusses the origin of myth in Alawi tradition and contains narrative accounts of their cosmological structure and ideas.[16] According to Alawi beliefs, God revealed himself to the world seven times, each time as a different figure accompanied by two others.[17] With the divine triad and the transmigration of souls, it is believed that ‘Ali was thus an incarnation of God, accompanied by Muhammad and Salman al-Farsi.[18] Tord Olsson provides some valuable information about the religious doctrines and esoteric content of the Alawi community that is gradually slipping into the hands of researchers.

Q[uestion] 1: Who is our Lord, who has created us?
A[nswer]: He is our master, the commander of the faith, the prince of the bees, ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib, and he is god, of whom (it holds true that) there is no god except him, the merciful, the compassionate.[19]

The initiated can only be male and both his parents must also be Alawi. Both the Shi’i and Alawi regard Nahj al-Balagha (Peak of Eloquence), a collection of sermons and sayings written by or attributed to Ali, as critical to their religious beliefs. A dede is quite different to a hoca used in Alawi communities, particularly southern Turkey. A dede practices tarikat while a hoca would prefer the practice of şeriyat. Anyone can become a hoca and often learn or teach in Arabic, while a dede must be born into a family lineage. “They have additional specialized functions: a hoca reads the nikah before the consummation of a marriage and it is a hoca who leads the burial service cenaze and intones hymns, ilahi, over the body as it is laid to earth.”[20]

The community are split into four tribal divisions or associations, namely Khayyatun, Haddadun, Matawirah and Kalbiyyah.[21] While only men can be initiated into Alawi rites, there are no particular patrimonial or lineage requirements and any Alawi man can be initiated to become a tribal leader; most tribal leaders still retain a level of power amongst the rural and uneducated. The Alawi communities in the urban or coastal areas in Syria are fragmented, particularly because of their loose tribal associations and their previous dominance by the Sunni or Christian elite, sharply contrasting with the Alawi tribes in the mountainous regions who hold stronger tribal and religious ties. Nevertheless, the last several decades have shown a new and emerging Alawi community developing in both rural and urban environments, particularly due to education and career opportunities, something I shall further elucidate in another post.


Ahl-e Haqq – Iran

The Ahl-e Haqq (or Yarsan) is an Iranian based esoteric community primarily situated in western Iran, but also Iraq and Turkey, while being scattered amongst the mountains in Geran, Kermanshahan and western Azerbayjan. Most adherents are from a Kurdish or Lak (an ethnically unique Persian group closely related to Kurdish) ethnicity. It is difficult to determine the exact genesis of the religious order and white it is generally agreed that they began under the leadership of Sultan Sahak during the late 14th or early 15th century, there are hardly any sources that can directly prove this.[22] Similar to Alevis, the Ahl-e Haqq believe in the interconnectedness of ‘alam-i batin (inner world) and ‘alam-i zahir (outer world).[23] Like most of the syncretistic religions of the Near East, the Ahl-e Haqq believe in dunudunu or the transmigration of souls as well as mazhariyyat or the manifestation of the divine essence (God or zat-I haqq) in human beings. “The division of beings into two distinct categories is perhaps a later development of Zoroastrian ideas. The sacrifice of the cock has been several times connected with the corresponding Jewish rite, while the biblical names (Dawud, Musi) may have come through the intermediary of the Qu’ran.”[24] The etymology of the name Ahl-e Haqq translates to, ‘followers, or people of the truth, the divinity.’[25] Unlike the Alawi who worship ‘Ali and revere Sultan Sahak (who is also used as an avatar in Yezidi traditional commentary), conversely the Ahl-e Haqq worship Sultan Sahak and revere ‘Ali.

The Ahl-e Haqq texts such as the Tadhkira’i A’la, the Shah-nama-ye Haqiqat and the Ilam-e Haqiqat explain tales of the genesis of the universe together with the light of God. It also similarly speaks of the ‘pearl’ that the Yezidi use to describe the divine essence. Zat-I haqq or the divine essence was originally hidden in a pearl in the ocean of the universe, and this divine essence transformed into Khavandgar (creator) in the first cycle of divine manifestation (the decond is ‘Ali before the cyclic cosmogony establishes the shari’at (Islamic law), the tariqat (ritual teachings) and ma’rifat (knowledge of divine reality) until finally manifesting in Sultan Sahak who established Ahl-e Haqq.[26] A collection of kalam (sacred hymns) can be found in the book Kalam-i Saranjam (conclusion) sid to be written by the angel Pir Musi, a companion of Sultan Sahak who was charged with recording the actions and behaviour of people, though this elusive text written in Gurani is difficult to obtain.[27] Like the Alevis, the Ahl-e Haqq do not follow the pillars of Islam and have instead adopted their own methods of ritual and practice. “Instead they have their own sacred universe and their own rituals, which centre on the jam (lit., assembly) when they chant their sacred hymns (kalam), play their sacred lute (tanbur), make offerings of food, and share a sacrificial meal,” while adhering to religious secrecy or sir (mystery).”[28]

The Ahl-e Haqq have sayyids or direct descendants of Sultan Sahak and have eleven different holy lineages called khandan (house) each headed by a pir.[29] What differentiates them from other syncretistic religions, however, is that common members of the community can obtain high-ranking religious positions while not obtained the sacred texts, instead relying on a kalam-khan or one who can recite the kalam orally without the text.[30] Publication of Borhan al-Haqq (demonstration of truth) by Nur Ali Elahi, a Persian jurist and philosopher, describes the historical and theological of the Ahl-e Haqq and provides valuable information about their rituals, rites and beliefs.


Yazidi – Iraq

Most Yazidi reside in the province of Mosul, settling particularly in the mountainous areas of Jabal Sinjar and Shaikhan, and while most Yazidi communicate officially in Kurdish, small communities can be found in Armenia, Georgia, Syria and Turkey.[31] The Yazidi believe in unique cosmogony and myths about the genesis of the universe, angels and prophets, since their “[t]heology and mythology, particularly cosmogony, show traces of a non-Islamic tradition which may be of ancient Iranian origin.”[32] Like most heterodox communities, the Yazidi were separated and persecuted from the Muslim world that intensified during the Ottoman period through their centralisation and sunnification policies against heterodox communities. It is difficult to trace the historical emergence of Yazidism, but “[i]t seems that Yazidism, an indigenous Kurdish faith influence by Zoroastrism, was revived by ‘Adi b. Musafir (c. 1075 – 1162), an Arab Sufi shaikh whom the Yazidi regard as the saintly founder of their religion.”[33] Like many of the hetrodox communities, hymn (kawl) are often used to orally channel their affection for the prophets and saints and illustrate their religious beliefs.

The Yazidi believe in the one God and seven archangels, haft surr or the “Seven Mysteries”.[34] The most revered archangel is the Ta’use-e Malak (Peacock Angel). The peacock angel known also as Melek Tawus or Azra’il has been labelled seytan (devil) by the wider Islamic community, although the Yazidi deny this assertion. They believe that human beings were created through Adam, without Eve, claiming that while “Christians, Jews and Muslims were sprung from Adam and Eve, their own patriarchs were descendants of a certain Shahid, the son of Adam alone”.[35] The Yazidi text, Meshef Resh, tells the tale of how God created the White Pearl and the bird Enfer, before the haft surr are formed through this white pearl sitting on the back of Enfer. The Yazidi sharply contrast the love for ‘Ali unlike most of the other syncretistic religions, instead venerating Yazid b. Mu’awiya (particularly in Sinjar), the second Ummayad Caliph and son of Muawiya B. Abi Sufyan, known to be the cause of the martyrdom of Hasan and Huseyin.[36]

It was once prohibited to read and write amongst the Yazidi that consequently created a unique oral and syncretistic tradition encapsulated within a tribal and hereditary social order with strong ties to kinship; the Yazidi hierarchical divisions also include the requirement or custom to only marry within the tribe. Worldwide horror at the violent death of a young Yazidi girl, stoned by the community due to her apparent intentions to marry a non-Yazidi and filmed on camera by the youths present, expose the simplicity to breach moral law because of such a custom. There are bavs or bras (tribal sections) that function as the main political units for the Yazidi.


Druze – Lebanon

Similar to the Alawi, many members of the Druze community are unaware of the secret doctrines of the religion and only those who are initiated are allowed to learn the esoteric content of their unique faith. Persecution forced the Druze to isolate themselves in rural or mountainous areas of southern Lebanon where their religion flourished and spread to Israel (Galilee) and Syria (Aleppo). The Druze religion began in the 11th-century during the Fatamid empire under the leadership of Hamza ibn-Ali, where in Cairo the Caliph al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah became revered as an incarnation of God.[37] As the Druze believe in the transmigration of souls, they claim that successive reincarnations of al-Hakim will gradually allow him to return and re-establish the Druze movement. The Druze have combined their belief in the ta’wil (esoteric secrecy) and the tanzil (outer meaning) through their reverence of al-Hakim who, along with Hamza ibn ‘Ali after establishing missionaries within the Fatamid Empire, disappeared.[38] Leadership was later given to al-Muqtana Baha ad-Din whose collected writings and epistles together with those of Hamza ibn ‘Ali developed the foundation of Druze scriptures, even though persecution turned the order into a secret religion.[39] “Like Druze, Shi’a and Alawis they [Alevi] practiced dissimulation and secrecy about their religion (taqiya).”[40]

The dynamics of contemporary Druze communities are highly individualised, whereby “[e]veryone “knew” or interpreted the meaning or function of every social interaction… everyone was enmeshed in it.”[41] There are hierarchical divisions in traditional Druze communities, not only between the initiated or the ‘uqqal (sage) and the non-initiated or juhhal (ignorant), but also spiritual hierarchies amongst the ‘uqqal.[42] The juhhal have no spiritual obligation and merely adhere to the basic tenets of communal obligation, while the ‘uqqal work as mediators if there are any social conflicts. They are highly respected for being the guardians of the esoteric and secret content. “Through their attendance at meetings in the khilwe (prayer house) on Thursday and sometimes Sunday evenings, the ‘uqqal are responsible for maintaining the spiritual well-being of the community in which they live.”[43] Spiritual hierarchies amongst the ‘uqqal or okhtyar (old man) – who must wear distinct clothing with a laffi (red and white turban) – can be observed by the wearing of the headdress and whether one has a beard or moustache. Since the Druze believe in transmigration of the soul, women are viewed to play a crucial role in birth and the transcendental process of reincarnation, although they are not particularly allowed to participate in initiation or religious hierarchy.

[1] C.E. Bosworth; H. Pearson; JD Pearson; E. Van Donzel; P.J. Bearman; J. Van Lent; H.U. Qureshi. Op. Cit., 1162
[2] Ibid., 1162
[3] Olsson, Ozdalga and Raudvere, op. cit., 152
[4] Irene Melikoff, Haci Bektas Efsaneden Gercege Ceviren: Turan Alptekin (Istanbul: Cumhuriet Kitaplari, 2004) 290. Pir Sultan Abdal is a famous poet – “Hatai etkileyici ve surukleyici (charismatique) bir kisilik olmakla birlikte, Betasi-Alevi sairler icinde en taninan vee n evilen suphesiz Pir Sultan Adbal’dir.”
[5] Ibid., 255
[6] Stewart, op. cit., 135
[7] Ibid., 177
[8] Mahmud Faksh. “The Alawi Community of Syria: A New Dominant Political Force.” Middle Eastern Studies 20 (1984): 133–153
[9] C.E. Bosworth; H. Pearson; JD Pearson; E. Van Donzel; P.J. Bearman; J. Van Lent; H.U. Qureshi. Op. Cit., 1162
[10]Ibid., 1162
[11]Ibid., 1162
[12]Olsson, Ozdalga and Raudvere, op. cit., 152
[13] Faksh, op. cit., 135
[14] C.E. Bosworth; H. Pearson; JD Pearson; E. Van Donzel; P.J. Bearman; J. Van Lent; H.U. Qureshi. Op. Cit., 146
[15] Olsson, Ozdalga and Raudvere, op. cit., 152
[16] Ibid., 177
[17] Faksh, op. cit., 135
[18] Ibid., 135. Salman al-Farsi was a companion of the prophet Mohammad.
[19] The sources are from the kitab ta’lim diyanat an-nusairiya.
[20] White and Jongerden, op. cit., 44
[21] Faksh, op. cit., 137
[22] Hosseini, Z. Mir, “Inner Truth and Outer History: The Two World of the Ahl-I Haqq of Kurdistan” International Journal of Middle East Studies, 26 (1994) 268
[23] Ibid., 267
[24] C.E. Bosworth; H. Pearson; JD Pearson; E. Van Donzel; P.J. Bearman; J. Van Lent; H.U. Qureshi. Op. Cit., 263
[25] Hosseini, op. cit., 267
[26] Ibid., 271
[27] Ibid., 268
[28] Ibid., 268
[29] Ibid., 270
[30] Ibid., 270
[31] Fuccaro, Nelida. “Communalism and the State in Iraq: Yazidi Kurds (c1869 – 1940) Middle Eastern Studies (35:2, 1999) 1.
[32] C.E. Bosworth; H. Pearson; JD Pearson; E. Van Donzel; P.J. Bearman; J. Van Lent; H.U. Qureshi. Op. Cit., 314
[33] Fuccaro, op. cit., 10
[34] Ibid., 314
[35] Driver, op. cit., 201
[36] Fuccaro, op. cit., 15
[37] J. Oppenheimer, “Culture and Politics in Druze Ethnicity”, 1:3 (1977) 623
[38] Ibid., 623
[39] Ibid., 623
[40] Zeidan, op. cit., 2
[41] Louise E. Sweet, “Visiting Patterns and Social Dynamics in Eastern Mediterranean Communities” Anthropological Quarterly, 47:1 (Jan., 1974) 113
[42] Oppenheimer, op. cit., 624
[43] Ibid., 624

A History of the Eclipse: The Birth of Science

A solar eclipse is a clear demonstration of celestial mechanics as the position of the moon and the sun temporarily shadows the sunlight on earth, and indeed for centuries has led to a number of mythologies that attempt to explain the geometry of the unknown universe and where civilisations and formidable historical figures came to greatly influence the study of science and astronomy as we know of it today. The ancient Babylonians, Egyptians and Chinese were so entrenched in these myths that they formed methodical processes aimed at calculating and predicting occurrences and did so with great accuracy that led to the development of the necessary instruments to aid in their observational techniques. For instance, the Babylonians believed that the solar eclipse could potentially be a bad omen that would predict the death of the King and this fear evoked constant study that soon thereafter established the 223 month Saros cycle of eclipses, something that we still use today. Have eclipses prompted astronomers and philosophers to theorise celestial geometry and planetary motion that ultimately enhanced scientific tools prior to the invention of the telescope by Hans Lippershey in 1608 and led to what is known as science?

Several shadows are formed between the earth and the moon that occurs during both lunar and solar eclipses, the latter a result when the moons’ shadow hits the earth, though the sun is four hundred times larger than the moon. During a total solar eclipse, this shadow is called an Umbra,[1] whereby the very center of the shadow’ core is blocked by the moon as it eclipses the sunlight and as this ends, the shadow becomes an Antumbra that forms the lighter section of this shadow. During an annular solar eclipse, when the light source contains a larger diameter due to the distance of the moon during an Apogee (when the moon is at its farthest distance on the elliptical from the earth), the moon appears smaller and thus silhouettes the heat of the outer edge of the sun, forming a visible ‘ring of fire’.[2] When the moon’ distance from the earth is at a Perigree and therefore at its closest range, it enables a total eclipse as the diameter roughly matches and covers the entire sun.[3] It is estimated that a total solar eclipse in a location only occurs once every several hundred years and being an exceedingly rare phenomenon and difficult to predict only added to the mysteries of the heavens.[4]

Prior to the use of the telescope, astronomers recorded their observations using a number of tools, once such being the Armillary Sphere or the Spherical Astrolabe that was used both as a teaching tool and to aid observations. Aristotle, notwithstanding his vast array of knowledge on a number of subjects, included in his curriculum vitae the title of amateur astronomer and authored On the Heavens that observed the material nature of the cosmos through concentric celestial spheres. For Aristotle, the world is both celestial and terrestrial, with the latter sphere composed of changing and chaotic elements of fire, water, earth and air that is surrounded within a perfect and unchanging celestial universe. His theories of motion and cosmology dominated the subject for centuries and remained similar to that of Eudoxus (c 337 BC) who stated that with the earth being the center of the universe, rotating spheres on individual axis moved at various speeds and angles around the earth.[5] As the earth is spherical in shape, it remains stationary as the sun, moon and planets rotated around the earth and the motions of these spheres carried all celestial activity including the fixed stars and ecliptic rotations. As Aristotle’ work survived and being highly influential unlike many of his predecessors, his cosmological views remained dominant until Ptolemy wrote Almagest, a voluminous encyclopedia of astronomy that summarised all knowledge of astronomy available at the time. He also had his own version of a planetary system that was based on the notion of spheres but instead adopted a preference for circular eccentricity or a circular shape of the ellipse (equant) that rotates at various speeds.[6] Accordingly, his system also abandoned Earth’ positon as the center of the system and thus changed the centuries-old influence of Aristotle.

However, prior to Aristotle’ astronomical accounts the Ionian philosophers perhaps beginning with Thales of Miletus (c624 BC) who is said to have predicted the solar eclipse of the 585 BC[7] became highly influential in the development of natural philosophy. According to Herodotus, this solar eclipse had such a powerful influence that the war between the Lydians and the Medes came to an end when they viewed the eclipse as a sign and a warning from the gods.[8] While the Egyptians and Babylonians had already formed extensive observations of the night sky, the latter in particular employing the Saros that determines periodicity of eclipses governed by a repetitive cycle spanning 18 years, 11 days and 8 hours and enabled them with the skill to predict eclipses,[9] they were restricted by the superstitions and myths formed in their pagan rituals that viewed these eclipses as bad omens, particularly for the ruling class. The Greek philosophers were empowered with more intellectual maneuverability that established a better scientific approach to astronomy that was instead viewed to be governed by natural laws; what made up the universe was material rather than supernatural and the Armillary Sphere exemplified this as a teaching tool. Thales studied geometry in Egypt and this mathematical knowledge was brought back to Greece as he soon thereafter became credited to developing a number of advancements in the subject that attempted to explain unknown astronomical concepts. The earth, for instance, was a large mass floating on water and earthquakes were evidence of oceanic turbulence. Thales stated that the material that formed the universe was water (our dark matter) and is the fundamental element that all the material world. Cosmological theories continued with his followers such as Anaximander and Anaximenes that questioned the origin of the universe. Anaximenes took it one step further, purporting that the element that forms water – air – is the building block of all material things and water is merely the compressed form of this element.

Anaximander was far more interesting as he purported that the universe was formed by a chaos of infinite opposites (such as hot and cold) and his cosmological model of the universe was intriguing to say the least, suggesting a cylindrical earth surrounded by wheels of fire from the sun that we are able to see through holes that rotate past us. This period is clearly marked a great many discussions on the physics of the universe that attempted to explain the appearances of celestial objects, when things are static or dynamic, constant or eternal. Hipparchus (c190 BC) discovered the precession of the equinoxes by using the solar eclipse by estimating the distance of the moon from the earth.[10] The Armillary Sphere were devices that enabled a demonstration of the rings that represented the celestial spheres and attached to them were fixed globes set to an elliptical axis and were “sometimes mounted on handles, but often were set like globes into cradles so that the sphere could be adjusted to represent the heavens as seen from any latitude.”[11] A number of spheres continued to be developed and adjusted from Ptolemy to Copernicus as an instrument to explain and observe equatorial coordinates and through Aristotle moved into the Islamic world.

The cosmological and astronomical theories during this period nevertheless contained the practice of supernatural and mystical influences that viewed the heavens as practical tools for predicting events throughout the passage of time. While methods of observations and the tools that strengthened how they recorded data steadily advanced, the observations continued to be shrouded by such celestial mysteries that evoked a sense of fear and awe. In China, for instance, the Emperor had control of the heavens and therefore predicting eclipses and other activities (lifa) along with the study of astronomical phenomena (tianwen) played a powerful role in his position as supreme leader.[12] Without an orderly understanding of astronomical event, it was viewed as a bad omen and a sign of problems ahead. China is attributed as having the first record of a solar eclipse (c. 2134 BC).[13] Like the ancient Hellenistic astronomers, China also used their own version of an ancillary sphere and took it even one step further by developing a mechanically powered globe using a sophisticated haudralic system during the Han Dynasty.[14] However, Shen Kuo (c1095) who is said to have developed the magnetic-needle compass did so following his observations of planetary motions and by using the models of solar eclipses was able to verify that celestial objects were in fact round.[15]

While such celestial activity was during the time of the Egyptians and Babylonians shrouded with pagan mysticism, astronomy soon thereafter through Saint Thomas Aquinas enabled the world to view Aristotelian cosmology through a Christian lens, one clearly visible when Copernicus’ model that the earth revolves around the sun was met with denunciation by the dominant Catholic influences of the time. Scholastic astronomy was introduced to medieval Europe from the Islamic Golden Age following the decline of the Roman Empire and the new Ottoman Empire steadily controlling the Middle East and North Africa attained access to the library of Alexandria and thus the work of the ancient Greeks, translating them into Arabic and improving a number of astronomical models that advanced an understanding of the elliptical movements of planets and the moon. Translations of the Arabic to Latin enabled Aristotelian and all scientific writing to move into Europe when the Christians conquered the Moors in Spain and Aquinas successfully incorporated Aristotelian philosophy into Christendom. Thinkers such as Casanus began to combine theological influences to cosmological theories, purporting that the universe is infinite and that there was no specific location of space, instead space was everywhere. The subject of eclipses developed intense interest during the Islamic Golden Age as Islam required a sophisticated approach to prayer that required the correct direction toward Mecca during important periods of sunrise and sunset together with the calendrical system of the moon that inevitably enhanced the study and the equipment thereof including sundials and quadrants.[16] However, it is the Equatorium that was developed by Ibn al-Samh and al-Zarqali and translated in Castille under the patronage of King Alfonso X[17] in the book Libros Del Saber De Astronomia (Books of the knowledge of astronomy)[18] that assisted with astronomical calculations.

It is clear that studies of the solar eclipse prior to the development of the telescope have led to a great many developments in the study of astronomy and science as a whole. As the ancient Hellenistic community of philosophers approached the subject with more freedom of religious constraint, natural philosophy contributed vastly to the subject that even included mathematical advancements, such as the Pythagorean Theorem where the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the square of the remaining sides of a triangle. Pythagoras himself believed that reality is formed through numbers or that the material world can be reduced to simple numbers and by bringing with him the knowledge from the Babylonians that the earth is spherical in shape, visible during a curved shadow on the moon during eclipses, changed the study of astronomy and ultimately influenced the development of the study of science as we know today.

When I first heard of the eclipse in the United States in 2017 as I was in Hawaii, I never really thought that this celestial phenomenon could have had such a profound historical influence on the study of science. While the subject evoked many mythologies, mythologies even present today with theories of biblical Armageddon that the eclipse has stirred, there is no doubt that the motion of the moon around the earth, the sun and planetary models that attempted to explain geometric orbits from spheres to water, mathematical to theological, changed the face of history and enabled the beginning of the study of western science. While the origin of the universe continues to remain impossible to answer – I myself am controversially of the opinion that the origin of the universe is in God – the material world that we experience nevertheless can be scientifically explained without it being shrouded by theological superstition and bad omens. I think we can use science to quite easily predict that if Armageddon were coming, it is likely because of the United States along with many other countries that are ruining the earth without needing the book of revelations to tell us that.

 

[1] Martin Mobberley, Total Solar Eclipses and How to Observe Them, Springer Science & Business Media (2007) 38
[2] Nicholas Nigro, Knack Night Sky: Decoding the Solar System, from Constellations to Black Holes, Rowman & Littlefield (2010) 206
[3] Op. Cit., Mobberley, 39
[4] Michael Borgia, Human Vision and The Night Sky: How to Improve Your Observing Skills, Springer Science & Business Media (2006) 112. It is good to note that total solar eclipses occur regularly (every 18 months) but in one given location will span over 300 years.
[5] Richard Jones, The Medieval Natural World, Routledge (2013) 30
[6] Michael Zeilik, Astronomy: The Evolving Universe, Cambridge University Press (2002) 34
[7] Lisa Rezende, Chronology of Science, Infobase Publishing (2006) 21
[8] William Hales, Chronology and Geography, C.J.G. & F. Rivington, (1830) 71
[9] https://eclipse.gsfc.nasa.gov/SEsaros/SEsaros.html
[10] Lloyd Motz and Jefferson Hane Weaver, The Story of Astronomy, Springer (2013) 45
[11] John Lankford, History of Astronomy: An Encyclopedia, Taylor & Francis (1997) 34
[12] Frances Wood, Great Books of China (2017) in Almanac or Tongshu (c 1000 – c 600 BCE)
[13] Aaron Millar, The 50 Greatest Wonders of the World, Icon Books (2016)
[14] Joseph Needham, Science and Civilisation in China: Volume 3, Mathematics and the Sciences of the Heavens and the Earth, Cambridge University Press (1959) 458
[15] Ancient China’s Technology and Science: Compiled by the Institute of the History of Natural Sciences, Chinese Academy of Sciences. Foreign Languages Press (1983) 153
[16] Ludwig W. Adamec, Historical Dictionary of Islam, Rowman & Littlefield (2016) 393
[17] Roshdi Rashed, Encyclopedia of the History of Arabic Science, Routledge (2002) 256
[18] Belén Bistué, Collaborative Translation and Multi-Version Texts in Early Modern Europe, Routledge (2016) 65

The Poetic Landscape of Rumi

Inside this new love, die.
Your way begins on the other side.
Become the sky.
Take an axe to the prison wall.
Escape.
Walk out like someone suddenly born into colour.
Do it now!
You’re covered with thick cloud.
Slide out the side. Die,
And be quiet. Quietness is the surest sign
That you’ve died.
Your old life was a frantic running
From silence.

I died several years ago now. I gave up on struggling to impress an insatiable world that is never satisfied, devoting hours of my attention to futile hopes or participating in trivial social games that deceived others and myself alike all for the sake of a fleeting, transient applaud or pat on the back. I decided to become myself and for a time I hid away, closed the door as I despairingly heard the loud screams echo within that silence, the pangs of conscience merely an anxious symptom of the withdrawal from a false reality that I feverishly believed to be real. It took time, slowly but surely the sounds softened and a quietness brought within me a sense of calm that I began to actually hear myself, the still waters glistened as the sun rose over the horizon and bred warmth into my bones. A real peace came over me and with it a real happiness where I could see as things were, that I could feel as I should and no longer sensed tension against my own nature. I found the balance from within and my happiness was no longer dependent on others. I found the love for me through my love for God. The silence became music.

I have long had some trouble with poetry. When Plutarch published Quomodo Adolescens Poetas Audire Debeat where he cautioned that “[m]any the lies the poets tell” the idea that poetry used as a tool to corrupt the truth certainly resonated. Indeed, there are many from personal experience who have attained the skills of rhyme, verse and form and speak of love and wisdom, but they themselves are far from being wise or loving people as they borrow and adorn themselves with fake poetic trinkets. Language is weak from protecting itself from such corruption. However, as we filter through and separate the greats, we do find ourselves holding the works of Robert Frost, Alexander Pushkin and Rumi who use parables within their poetry, where the fictitious prose exposes a moral truth and enables one to makes sense of and reason their own subjectivity. They provide access through ones own imagination en-route toward this repository of emotions and feelings that previously never had a language.

There is no doubt that poetry is embedded in Persian culture and indeed the tradition dates back centuries, remaining a powerful influence both socially and politically that provides insight into how such symbolic allusions and mystical allegories express a unique interpretation of meaning and identity. While the influence of poetry in the region dates back to the pre-Islamic era, a cultural revival during the Seljuq Empire – while short-lived – managed to revive Persian poetry that flourished in the region for centuries to come. Works by philosopher and theologian Al-Ghazali and vizier Nizam al-Mulk set the stage for this revivification that continued into the Ottoman Empire. Nasir ibn Khusraw as well as early mystics of the Sufi order Abdullah Ansari of Herat and Baba Taher of Hamadan introduced what later became a prominent method to interpret the mystical experience and unity with God that simple language could not correctly allude to. Indeed, the great poet and writer Nizami Ganjavi wrote epic love tales including Khosrow and Shirin about the love of King Khosrow with the Princess Shirin of Armenia, but also Layla and Majnun or what has become famously known as Romeo and Juliet in the west. Such epic tales of love and tragedy was already entrenched in Persian culture at the time but became further popularised and exercised considerable influence on later poets. While I could easily add a very long list of famed poets from the region, there is no doubt that Jalaluddin Rumi stands at the forefront in popularity.

When I remember your love,
I weep, and when I hear people
Talking of you,
Something in my chest,
Where nothing much happens now,
Moves as in sleep.

All our lives we’ve looked
Into each other’s faces.
That was the case today too.

How do we keep our love-secret?
We speak from brow to brow
And hear with our eyes.

In the early thirteenth century, Rumi was born to a well-respected and privileged family of theologians and became a student to one of his own father’ disciples Sayyed Termazi that gave him learned access to the Qur’anic traditions and spiritual landscape of Sufism. While he became a scholar and teacher of Islamic jurisprudence at a very young age, it was not until his meeting with the wandering dervish Shamsuddin of Tabriz (known as Shams) that he experienced the spiritual epiphany that awoken the deeper repository of aesthetic expression in the forms of poetry. Their friendship was very unique and indeed the brotherly love, the difficulties, and even the tragedy between them inspired Rumi to write a great deal dedicated to Shams, including his masterpiece Diwan-e Shams-e Tabrizi. It is clear that this deep, spiritual awakening led Rumi to understand the universality of love, a grace given by God and this ecstasy and wonderment of the experience made him express his deep appreciation for Shams by providing with the wisdom and insight to enable access. There are layers that describe various expressions of love in objective forms that explore the ultimate union with the external world, that brotherly love, erotic love, and familial love merely deliver this euphoric power as fragments of the love of God, the very Form of Love itself, as within the first Kalima of Islam that writes ‘there is no reality but God.’

Hail Love, hail Love, because Love is divine
It is tender, it is beautiful and benign
What passion, what passion, we are burning like the sun
It is hidden and obscure, it is an obvious sign.
We’ve fallen, we’ve fallen, it is hard to rise up
We know not, we know not, this complex chaotic design.

Thus everything comes from this reality or Zikr where we remember the love of God by the variety of forms that we express one to another. While the love that is formed in friendship initiates the removal of the infantile ego and commences the conscious experience of caring for and loving someone external to oneself and to thus start experiencing reality, this capacity is clearly fortified when one experiences the longing founded in erotic love. This feverishly impassioned experience between two people solidified by the admiration for one another and a longing to unite with them inspires a state of real happiness that brings us closer to this ultimate reality where everything is God. This genuine engagement between two lovers can be seen in Rumi’ fascination for the love between Queen of Sheba and King Solomon, of how the virgin Queen changed the heart of a man who had many lovers and to finally see what genuine love meant. King Solomon represented a man of wisdom and of high intelligence, but his life had slipped as he fell victim to a world of beautiful yet intellectually lacking women that he soon gave up on his own mental gifts. Queen of Sheba’s dedication to wisdom was clear when she came to test him and they both glimpsed within one another a mirror of themselves that awoken the inspiration for this euphoric feeling in love. If a person is a book, locked away and hidden, it is clear that the genuine union between the love of two people supplants a wholeness and a euphoric happiness as though one is finally seen, unlocked and read by another.

I’ve come to take you
With me
Even if I must drag you along
But first must steal your heart
Then settle you in my soul

I’ve come as a spring
To lay beside your blossoms
To feel the glory of happiness
And spread your flowers around

I’ve come to show you off
As the adornment of my house
And elevate you to the heavens
As the prayers of those in love

I’ve come to take
A kiss you stole away from me
Either return it with grace
Or I must take it by force

You’re my life
You’re my soul
Please be my last prayer
My heart must hold you forever

For Rumi, the ultimate panegyric is reaching this honesty and awareness, to break free from the encapsulated smallness of a mind that follows convention. If I were to eliminate such environmental and epistemic influences over my thoughts and emotions, what would ‘I’ have left but a brain, which is merely a tool that vehicle my rather fleeting existence. His work Masnavi narrates powerful rhyming couplets of a spiritual and religious nature that attempts to illustrate the attainment of the love of God or the Divine, to feel the existence of God by embracing the didactic that we are inherently evil. We must overcome this immorality by welcoming the theistic wisdom founded with in the scriptures through the denial of the carnal and material in praise of moral reflection that enables one to reveal our very nature and the ecstasy that one can attain when reaching this state of wholeness with God. Whether this experience is entirely mystical is challenging as this inspiration could merely be an innate awareness that recognises our own state of nature, to transcend externally influenced perceptions and become conscious of our own capacity to think independent of material considerations.

If you want what visible reality
Can give, you’re an employee.
 
If you want the unseen world,
You’re not living your truth.

Both wishes are foolish,
But you’ll be forgiven for forgetting
That what you really want is
Love’s confusing joy.

Gamble everything for love,
If you’re a true human being.
If not, leave
This gathering.

Half-heartedness doesn’t reach
Into majesty. You set out
To find God, but then you keep
Stopping for long periods
At mean-spirited roadhouses.

While there are a number of verse forms used including Masnavi, Ruba’i, Qazal and Qasideh, it would be unreasonable to categorise Rumi as a poet of forms, indeed he transcends such distinctive rules and uses poetry as a way to express the subject or content of his feelings rather than making any calculable effort. For instance, Ruba’i are quatrains or stanzas using a particular meter that nevertheless can alternate rhythmically, the Ruba’iyyat by famed Persian poet Omar Khayyam resonates with his philosophical and mathematical background. Khayyam, rather conversely to Rumi, had a very logical approach to reality perhaps owing to his mathematical and philosophical nature where the content of his poetry takes a more material and existential approach to reality and the disillusionment wrought by the futility of existence, parallel to Epicurean thought and the poetry of Lucretius. Rumi, on the other hand, could be clearly seen as a deist and describes the importance of removing oneself from the material world. Indeed, for Rumi, freedom requires the courage to let go of all worldly attachments and become one not only with reality – reality being Nature – but by becoming one with yourself, to lose all the mental and emotional dictates that one believes is reality and to become absorbed in the nature of our very being.

Birds make great sky-circles
Of their freedom.
How do they learn it?

They fall, and falling,
They’re given wings.

Thus the use of the aesthetic is coming from an embedded song that sings the movement of his emotions, the words and meters merely the rhythm and the harmony that enables a voice and language for such feelings. It is why there is much debate and controversy relating to the translations of his poetry by Coleman Banks – author of numerous books on Rumi including The Essential Rumi – and that while having popularised Rumi to the western world, he appears to take his own subjective interpretation of this content and form it into a translation. It is difficult to ascertain whether this is merely a form of Orientalism as expressed by Edward Said where the West culturally misrepresents the Middle East. For instance, Bernard Lewis who – having the title of scholar and historian of the Middle East whereby historians require a strong understanding of culture and beliefs – has never, in fact, stepped foot into the Middle East; he has even gone so far as to advise the Bush Administration related to foreign policy in the region. It is highly unusual to read the translations by Banks for this reason as it cannot interpret the peculiarities of both the Persian language and the special use of imagery specific to the culture. Visiting a tomb in Konya or watching the Whirling Dervishes would not enable one to embrace the allusions and references to the Qu’ran, Sufism and other imagery embedded into the Persian language that provokes an emotional effect that other languages are unqualified to translate. Whatever the case, Rumi remains a poetic giant in the landscape of theistic devotion and the subject of love.

Book Review: Ethical Writings of Maimonides

For centuries, from Aristotle to Confucius, Aquinas and Thoreau, moral philosophers have endorsed the idea that a balanced, moderate regularity of character is an important step towards genuine happiness, that excess or deficiency of any sort and the failure to attain a principled attitude toward guiding and cultivating the self toward this mean will lead to the reverse. Thus, one who leads a life attempting to walk down this dutiful path toward a balanced and constant frame of mind is demonstrative of a noble and even a superior person. As said by Socrates, “with his eyes fixed on the nature of his soul, naming the worse life that which will tend to make it more unjust and the better that which will make it more just… all other considerations he will dismiss, for we have seen that this is the best choice.”[i] This choice to lead a life of virtue and justice and abandoning all that is vulgar, vulgarity being interpreted as “the masses and the most vulgar seem – not unreasonably – to believe that the good or happiness is pleasure. Accordingly they ask for nothing better than the life of enjoyment,”[ii] will allow one to adopt a standard that will link them closer to what is beautiful, namely love and honesty.

So what constitutes perfect virtue? Is it defined by the strength of individual will? Is it how one determines right from wrong, the capacity to overcome the influence of a defective ego, the intelligence and the confidence to be autonomous by engaging independently with the world around them? Is it to identify and distinguish the kind of moral values that are functional, valuable and aesthetical, of what is prohibited, useful and authentic, to be capable of ascertaining intent and to act on and maximise moral principles? It is simply the strength of will, the capacity to overcome the proclivity of the ego and the wayward pleasures of our instinctual drives, to recognise the scope of the activity of leading a morally virtuous life by searching for the golden mean. It is to be courageous enough to deliberately abandon a false environment and find the veracity and sense of honour to pursue a life of virtue, to maintain and personify it. “True virtue can only be grafted onto principles, such that the more general they are, the more sublime and noble they become,”[iii] thus distinguishing between the subjective aesthetic toward a universal aesthetic, the former having the possible inclination to waywardness as it remains dependant on the moral disposition of the individual.

It is for this reason that the disposition of the individual and obtaining the correct character traits necessary to reach true virtue is indispensable. Moses Maimonides discussed in detail the importance of this mean in several of his works including Hilkhot De’ot or the Laws Concerning Character Traits and Eight Chapters aside from his more famed work in Guide of the Perplexed. All of which can be found in the Ethical Writings of Maimonides (Moses ben Maimon), edited by Raymond L. Weiss with Charles Butterworth. Maimonides (1138 – 1204) was born in Cordoba, during the short-lived Moorish Almoravid Dynasty that ruled over present-day Morocco and Spain. Known as Rambam, he trained as a physician that later enabled him to become court physician to the Sultan Saladin and was well versed in medicine both in reading and in writing. His writings stretched out to include Rabbinic Law and Jewish Philosophy and his influence as a scholar has maintained his place as authoritative figure in Jewish law and ethics. His metaphysical and epistemological writings are included in his prolific repertoire but his studies on ethics and virtue exemplify the type of obedience and dedication required to preserve the divine wisdom and the t’amei ha-mitzvot that explained the reasons for the commandments.

According to Maimonides, there exists two types of moral standards in an individual, namely those that are pious and those that attempt to find the golden mean, the former considered to be obligatory since such a characteristic is required to encourage the subjective poise required to engage in the middle way.[iv] In his Laws Concerning Character Traits (27-59), he traverses through eleven commandments that attempt to direct one toward the equilibrium required to reach a state of moral virtue that epitomises the ‘right way’ or as said by Solomon, “Ponder the path of thy feet, and let all thy ways be established.”[v] All people have different character traits, different personalities and dispositions, whereby one person may have the calm that another may not as they become intensely angered and impatient. One can be lazy and gluttonous while another ascetic by nature. Maimonides writes about eleven commandments that include 1. to imitate God, 2. to cleave to those who know of God, 3. to love your neighbours, 4. to love converts to God, 5. not to hate brothers, 6. to rebuke, 7. not to put (anyone) to shame, 8. not to afflict the distressed, 9. not to go about as a talebearer, 10. not to take revenge, 11. not to bear a grudge. “The right way is the mean in every single one of a man’s character traits” (29). The golden mean is to find the balance toward establishing a good character indicated by the way they conduct their affairs, by being humble and loving. It is to reach for ‘wisdom’ by finding the mean between the extremes of our character traits before sensibly and continuously practicing until it becomes firmly established.

For Maimonides, it is wisdom to walk in the way of God, to seek the path that leads to God and therefore replicate the virtues or commandments and test your obedience to God as exemplified in the Old Testament. To become “slow to anger and abundant in loving-kindness, just and righteous, perfect, powerful and strong… and a man is obliged to train himself to follow them and to imitate according to his strength.”[vi] It is to uproot the flaws that one may have and ‘cure’ the ailment of immorality by training oneself to understand opposites. If one is wealthy and has a conceited attitude, he should clothe himself in worn-out, shabby garments that will endure him with much degradation until the haughtiness has left him and he is humbled. Whatever the problem may be that causes one to lose the way of this required balance, the individual should move themselves toward the other end of the same extreme until reaching that unaffected balance. As said by David Hume, “[t]he richest genius, like the most fertile soil, when uncultivated, shoots up into the rankest weeds.”[vii]

Although he discusses aspects of one’s personal conduct, including the way that one may eat or drink, sleep and have sexual intercourse, there is one particular aspect that merits further discussion and that was his view on cleaving to those who lead the way of wisdom. “[A] man needs to associate with the just and be with the wise continually in order to learn [from] their actions,”[viii] and by associating with fools one will ultimately enable evil to prosper within. Accordingly, evil is living without adequate care or thought to this measure of behaviour. The human being, says Kant, is aware of the moral law but has failed to incorporate it into his or her maxim, and is thus fundamentally evil.[ix] Regarding the conduct of ones affairs and perfecting eating habits, the way he or she engages with body and desires, and the consistent consciousness to dedicate oneself to moral well being is not simply for the happiness that it enables but also as a way to keep his or her body healthy and strong. There misery therewith when surrounded by the wrong people will prevent one from conducting their affairs correctly. In On the Management of Health (105-113), any such undesirable people and overindulgence leads to excessive mental and physical health issues where strength is spent and “his life and eyes dimmed”[x] or conversely, improving his character traits by cleaving to those who are wise, modest and righteous, his soul ultimately becomes tranquil.[xi] In similar vein, Confucius states that one should, “make conscientiousness and sincerity your leading principles. Have no friends inferior to yourself. And when in the wrong, do not hesitate to amend.”[xii] But it is not merely the afflictions physically, but the afflictions of the soul and the impact of the misery, anxiety and despair that befall people. The remedy is to enable the soul to eliminate the passions and learn to compose oneself ethically and morally by becoming subservient to what is righteous and good. “Thus the passions will diminish, [obsessive] thoughts will disappear, apprehension will be removed, and the soul will be cheerful in whatever condition a man happens to be” [109].

While it is possible that the ego could choose the wrong people to have and thus misconstrue what it means to be surrounded by the right people, the general rule of propriety is that self-development and dedicating oneself to a life of wisdom would enable the faculty accurately observe right and wrong conduct in others and ourselves. The propriety of character and how people conduct themselves and their affairs is a matter of observation and since depravity of character is expressed through impropriety and the product of their behaviour seen by the fruits they produce, the clarity of choice becomes simplified. Those who embody moral virtue and right or wrong behaviour, who – as Mencius expounds – feels a sense of shame[xiii] and is reverently careful in his conduct and affairs is clearly one of right character and mind. This standard establishes a virtuous culture or environment where members equally possess the same will to moral virtue that enjoin to equally share in the development of principles, a formula known as the Kingdom of Ends.[xiv] For Maimonides, “Certain actions necessarily stem from one soul and other actions from another soul” that therefore exemplify the importance of relations with our fellow community.

In Eight Chapters (59-105), Maimonides critically explores piety and the discipline that encompasses morality. Good moral habits initiates the formation of ethics; by obtaining good moral habits, it becomes that very connection between moral virtue and the social and political. Written as an introduction to Pirqei Avot (Chapters of the Fathers), he attempts to isolate the permissible and erroneous and the relevance of been rational as n instrument to become empowered to control the appetitive desires. The soul has the power but disobedience through transgressions and the highly imaginative fails to enable the will to become subservient to moral virtues. “For example, moderation, liberality, justice, gentleness, humility, contentment, courage, and others.” (65) This disobedience becomes a disease to the soul that is seen externally in the body, taking pleasure in things that are not good for the body and the mind and never reaching physical excellence. His references to statements made by Solomon enables clarity on his combined efforts to involve Biblical connections to his ethical and medicinal approaches.

And the reason for living a life dedicated to finding the Golden Mean? Virtue – which is mental health – and the golden mean are necessary for a healthy life. In his Letter to Joseph (113-129), that he writes to his disciple Joseph Ibn Aknin, it is to lead by example and develop a pattern of excellent. The chapter provides some extraordinary insights into the man himself, about his vision and his enormous commitment to his moral objective. “In sum, if you are indeed my disciple, I want you to train yourself to follow my moral habits” (120). His affection and criticisms shed an amazing light on his dedication to justice and his love of knowledge, or as St. Thomas Aquinas states, “Love takes up where knowledge leaves off.”[xvii] Love is the unity formed through knowledge and establishes a state of happiness resides, making knowledge fundamental to this development. Through Rabbinical law and adherence to the commandments along with the dedication to attain a balance of mind will the adherent become suffused with love. It is not simply the mean itself that supplies the individual with the tranquillity required to be happy, but the righteous ability to discern the right time and way to think and behave, to rationally approach ones own emotions.

By improving your character and reaching a state of clarity in mind and reason, one will enable the qualities necessary to reach the balanced standard that Mainmonides expects. In the Guide of the Perplexed (129-155), which is one of his most famous works, is to guide those possessing positive character traits by learning to understand God. The work is addressed to Joseph ben Judah and elucidates ways of overcoming the disillusionment and existential angst of philosophy and law by understanding the differences between the practical and the subjective or speculative. Having strong theoretical foundations and thus continuously ameliorating knowledge, one can uncover the mental capacity necessary to acquire to attain a solid understanding of themselves and the world around them. That laws are not natural but necessary to manage the natural. “The Law as a whole aims at two things: the well-being of the soul and the well-being of the body. As for the well-being of the soul, it consists in the multitude’s acquiring correct opinions corresponding to their respective capacity” (139). The final chapters, Treatise on the Art of Logic (155-165) and The Days of the Messiah (165-177) continue along with the same themes. By distinguishing biblical themes such as the world to come, formulations that deal with immorality and the benefits of the laws particularly the coming messianic era will provide one with an understanding of repentance. “It has become known that the life of the world-to-come is the reward for performing the commandments and is the good that we merit if we have kept the way of the old referred to in the Torah” (169). Discussing the instrument of logic as a necessary condition of the mind in order to appreciate the correct approach of practical reasoning and to think and behave correctly remains an important aspect to the power of rational thought.

I was compelled to his work for my love of history whether it is ancient or medieval, in this case the latter. I have a strong appreciation for literature such as the Ethical Writings of Maimonides that promotes the value of ethics and the moral concerns relating to our conduct and behaviour. His criticism is harsh, views absolute and his beliefs that the actions of our soul, our intent, the choices that we want to make and whether we are thinking correctly formulate the groundwork necessary to compel the right choices that we act out in reality. The book provides additional insight into rabbinical literature and the significance of moral laws that authoritatively posit the necessity of moral conduct. By finding the golden mean and teaching oneself to discover a proper balance of thought and behaviour, compelled by our desire to lead a virtuous life, Maimonides believes that we can reach both physically and mentally excellence in health and in moral virtue.

[i] Plato, Republic [618e]
[ii] Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics from I.M.N. Al-Jubouri’ History of Islamic Philosophy, (2004) 74
[iii] Immanuel Kant, Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime, 2:217
[iv] Raymond L. Weiss, Ethical Writings of Maimonides, Dover Publications New York (1975), 7
[v] Proverbs 4:26
[vi] Weiss and Butterworth, op. cit., 30
[vii] David Hume, Moral and Political Philosophy, Simon and Schuster (2010)
[viii] Weiss and Butterworth, op. cit., 46
[ix] Immanuel Kant, Religion within the Bounds of Mere Reason, 6:32
[x] Weiss and Butterworth, op. cit., 40
[xi] Ibid., 43
[xii] Confucius, The Analects, Chapter XXIV
[xiii] Menicius, Bk. vii., pti., c.vii., v i.
[xiv] Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, 4:439