Putting aside the news of killings, repressions and revolutions taking place across the Arab World today, I am listening to an audio recording of Abu Hayan al-Tawhidi’s masterpiece “Divine Signs”, as I soar higher and higher with each new chapter.
This is a unique book; its subject matter being both delicate but simultaneously resounding and life-changing. It was written by al-Tawhidi (one of the most famous Islamic intellectuals of the 10th century). According to the renowned Islamic biographer and geographer Yaqut al-Hamawi, he is the “philosopher of adibs [intellectuals] and the adib of philosophers.” In his book “Mu’jam Al-Udaba” [Dictionary of Writers], al-Hamawi expressed surprise that al-Tawhidi and his work was not more renowned and respected.
Listening to al-Tawhidi’s work it is as if this great Arab writer, who is famous for his peerless prose, his wisdom and spirituality – which is akin to that of a Sufi – and his insights into life in general, is speaking about the suffering of the Arabs today, and the meaning of isolation and alienation.
We are in the age of Arab isolation. Arabs today feel isolated from their own homeland, even when they are physically present there. They feel estranged from their own selves, and from one another. Observe what al-Tawhidi wrote many centuries ago, it is as if he is speaking to us directly:
“It was said that: a stranger is someone who has been shunned by their loved ones. I say that: a stranger is someone who is in communication with his loved ones, a stranger is someone who has been forgotten by those who should be watching over them, a stranger is somebody called from nearby, a stranger is someone is strange in their estrangement, a stranger is someone with no kinsmen, a stranger is someone who has no share from the truth. If this is true, then we must weep over the state of affairs that has caused this malaise and brought about this estrangement:
Perhaps this shedding of tears would be a relief
From grief, or heal the call of nightingales
A stranger is someone who the sun has set upon; someone who is estranged from their loved ones; someone whose estrangement is expressed in their thoughts and actions; someone who justifies their coming and goings; someone who is estranged in their clothes and garments.
A stranger is someone whose description speaks of plight after plight; someone whose address denotes ordeal after ordeal; someone whose reality reveals itself from time to time. A stranger is someone you don’t recognize when you see; someone who is out of mind. A stranger is someone whose presence is unfelt and whose absence is felt.
A poet once said: “What excuse would you offer? No family, no home, no companion, and no abode.”
This great poet al-Tawhidi expresses himself using the language of intense agony of writing: “Your ribs are grilled with grief and sorrow; your liver is frayed with all kinds of disease and your soul is lost in a maze of regret and desperation. Reclusion has ceased to be a remedy and social gatherings are no longer enjoyable. The nights have grown heavy with weariness and the days have become slow with inescapable anguish. And above all, knowledge is no longer useful and actions are futile and unfulfilling.
So tell me: What should I cling to, who should I follow? What should I say? What should I think about? Where should I go?”
Even though this ancient Iraqi man of letters words incline towards pessimism, this is a pessimism that is based upon the importance and necessity of delving into your innermost soul, rather than waiting for some external salvation. It is conditional pessimism.
It is as if Al-Tawhidi looked through time with an amazing power of prophecy [to see the situation today]. His “divine signs” are dazzling, and capable of burning away the darkness we see today.
Reasons for estrangement might vary, but the fact remains that the pain of this is the same. You lose intimate contact with your surroundings and those around you. Salvation comes either through consciously distancing yourself from what is happening externally, or immersing yourself until the situation until you can deal with it….there is no middle path!
Or at least this is what we have understood from those that have come before.