Recording of the above musicians playing in Damascus, 2009.
Why is it that I still have to work at shaking off the belief that to be religious is to be solemn and pure? Is it the earnestness of sermons I have heard from pulpits, the celibacy of the more devout, or a primal fear of an all-knowing, all-seeing God that led me to think a line can be drawn between religiosity, the authentically spiritual and the profane, the everyday?
I have been able to let go of any personal commitments to an institutional religion. This has been liberating. But I maintain a sustaining belief in ‘grace’, in the connectedness of all beings, in the power of love. And I look for opportunities to feed those beliefs.
More than a decade ago, an elderly Japanese man with an intelligent, gentle manner presented me with a copy of “The Tao of Poo” by Benjamin Hoff, and upon reading it I realised how much Poo Bear and I had in common, and so I became a Taoist. (This was not an overnight conversion. On one census form I wrote next to “religion” – Christian/Taoist. And despite being comfortable with the label Taoist now, my understanding of and my relationship with the world beyond my senses is always evolving. )
Being a Taoist isn’t beyond me as I don’t really know what it means, and I don’t feel the need to know. There are no scriptures (I think), just cryptic verses from the Tao Te Ching which I may or may not understand. It doesn’t really matter. (Fortunately, I haven’t met another Taoist who will test my knowledge of the philosophy. Or is it a religion?) I’ve learnt to trust the ‘Universe’, perform those tasks which are in front of me as best I can, live in the moment, and not struggle against ‘nature’.
The trust I feel seems to have something in common with Islam, which can be translated as “surrender”. But with my cultural and intellectual baggage, with my “Poo” nature, I could never become a Muslim. Though I can say “inshallah” (if God wills it) and “humdalla” (thanks and praise be to God) with quiet conviction.
Despite all this letting go of conventional religions, I wish to maintain a respect which is true for worshippers of the various denominations and sects within those religions. My only knowing one language, my being disinclined to study theology does not help me in this endeavour.
However, visiting Damascus has opened a door not only to Saint Paul and Straight Street, to mainstream Islam, but also to Rumi’s poetry and the mystery and wonder of the Whirling Dervishes.
I first visited the Omayyad Palace Restaurant (down a narrow cobblestoned laneway barely 20 paces from the Umayyad Mosque) in December 2008 to hear these musicians and to see the young boy and the tambourine player whirl. They perform every night and their audience are mostly groups of European tourists attracted to the restaurant by its rich interior, the delicious buffet dinner and the dancing.
I assume as well as being entertainers the three are Sufis. And I know the men have day jobs. The oud player is a philosophy teacher and his friend an assistant engineer. In an effort to be respectful, solemn and intelligent, I asked the teacher what his philosophy of life was. Never being able to quote conversations, I can only report that he said something like “he doesn’t trouble himself with holding on to money”. It is an approach to life I adopt easily, particularly when I travel, as I almost believe I have a magic pudding bag of money to distribute in music and book shops, to young Iraqi refugees who clean my shoes, gaunt looking widows in black, on meals in courtyard restaurants, and on thirst quenching drinks of lemon and mint with ice.
The owner of the restaurant gave me permission to record the music, but the musicians themselves were initially bemused by my little recorder sitting on the table next to them. They laughed, burped and got on with chatting, sometimes on their mobiles, while tuning their instruments and voices. They began a tune, didn’t complete it, sang of messages written on the leaves of trees to distant lovers. And the customers gave attention to their cutlery, food, and conversation until the whirling began.
If they were true disciples of Rumi (as they probably are), I might have gotten a fart as well as a burp, since, like Taoists, Sufis appear to accept without embarrassment the existence of the divine and the profane; there is a natural play between the two. This mixing of the mystical, the search for a greater truth through dance, and the human, the basic, strikes a chord within me.
These entertainers, Sufis, take me gently into the world of Islam, and hopefully into a friendship I can sustain with religion.
Thanks for visiting this page and for your comment. I agree with you. It is definitely not necessary to be religious to be good. One of the most courageous and kindest people I’ve met was a teacher in China; she was or had been a communist. However, she was someone who could be awestruck by beauty in literature, art and music. (Karen Armstrong might view that sense of awe as a ‘religious’ experience.) Anyway, she risked her career to support me, passing letters secretly between me and my Chinese fiance (this was at the end of the Cultural Revolution).
And without a doubt religion has been used to identify a tribe and to divide and rule. From Malcolm Fraser’s biography, I’ve learnt about the ugly sectarianism stirred up in Australia by PM Billy Hughes during WW1. I witnessed the results of that as a school kid in the 1950s, when Protestant and Catholic kids threw stones at each other. Now, very ugly sectarianism is being stirred up on a much bigger – much more lethal scale – across the ME for political reasons. The Islam I encountered in Syria and the Muslims I befriended expressed an Islam that was gentle, true I believe to the spirit of the religion as expressed by the prophet Mohammad. However, something extremely aggressive and brutal is being stirred up by some clerics, principally by ones outside Syria with Wahhabi, Salafi, or Muslim Brotherhood connections and with direct or indirect links to the very rich and very powerful. And their fatwas which basically call for genocide are not condemned. If a war is to be engineered, this is one useful ingredient. In a way, Pauline Hanson did something similar in Australia, stirring up ugly tribal, rather than religious, loyalties.
How could a war be engineered without this resort to religion? I don’t know. Do powers resort to a racism or tribalism which is perhaps innate but unacknowledged? Reports suggest there could be a war this century between the US and China. Will it be religion or race and tribe that determines which side we in Australia take? And the ‘liberalism’ that John Pilger has written about is a ‘religion’ in a sense, do you think?
I believe some of the bravest and finest people in Syria today (millions of them) get strength from their faith. This faith does not lead them to kill and cry out “God is great” (only a very small minority of people do that; unfortunately, weapons, money and a drive to kill provide them with a ‘voice’). The faith of the vast majority of Syrians (across all the religions and sects), I believe, is one which keeps them fixed on a belief in peace, reconciliation, and love. Syrians do often use that word ‘love’ – love for their fellows no matter what their religion as well as love for their country. I trust in that ‘religion’. Let’s hope another which is based on greed and fear, money and power, doesn’t dominant this century.
Guest said 5 months ago
“But I maintain a sustaining belief in ‘grace’, in the connectedness of all beings, in the power of love. ”
ACTUALLY YOU NEED NO RELIGION TO BE GOOD, AND BELONGING TO A RELIGION DOES NOT GUARANTEE YOU ARE GOOD. MORE OFTEN THAN NOT, THE CONTRARY, AS HISTORY AND PRESENT DAY SHOWS.