Radical Love: Teachings from the Islamic Mystical Tradition
Translated and Edited by Omid Safi
Hardback: Yale UP, 2018
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Reviewed by Gwen Gustafson-Zook
It is said that an inscription of “Bani Adam” (Children of Adam), written sometime before the 13th the century by the Persian poet, Sa’di, is inscribed somewhere in the UN Building in New York City. A translation of this beloved poem is found in the final section of Radical Love: Teachings from the Islamic Mystical Tradition. In this collection, the poem is titled “Humanity and Suffering” and reads,
Humanity are members of one body
Created out of the same essence
when one member of the body
others remain distraught
unfeeling to the suffering of others
of the name human
SA’DI (d. 1291 CE)
Ten years ago I stood at the mausoleum of Sa’di of Shiraz in Shiraz, Iran along with other Westerners who were engaged in a Peacebuilding Learning Tour. We quietly approached the tomb of Sa’di while Iranians and tourists alike respectfully touched or kissed the stone tomb of this beloved Persian poet. Surrounded by ornate and beautiful tile and mosaic work forming a high arch over this obviously sacred space, the whole of the mausoleum radiated an air of beauty and love, encircled on all sides by rose gardens. Standing on what was for many “holy ground,” I was keenly aware of my ignorance as to the import of this profound Persian poet. I had grown up in the West, well read in theology and the history of the Christian Church but woefully uneducated in the theology and history and spirituality of the Islamic world (even though significant parts of the geography and culture and history of these traditions overlapped in profound ways). Nevertheless, in this beloved Sa’di poem the similarity in thought to the teachings of the apostle Paul was obvious, particularly the fourth chapter of the first letter to the church of Corinth: “Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many… If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.”
This similarity in thought sparked my curiosity in the face of my ignorance surrounding the Islamic mystics and poets, so often revered spiritual guides for many Muslims. How much more of Persian thought, Iranian thought, Islamic though resonates with Christian thought? With the exception of the few translations of Jalaluddin Rumi and a few books of Hafez, I was hard pressed to find easily accessible material that offered a glimpse into this world of Islamic mysticism. Until now.
Radical Love: Teachings from the Islamic Mystical Tradition, translated and edited by Omid Safi, offers the thoughtful collection I have been looking for, revealing a breadth of the beautiful and fascinating teachings of the Islamic mystics for our reflection and education. Drawn from a range of sources, including the Quran, Sacred Hadith, and a variety of poets and sages, this beautiful book explores the theme of radical love in four verses: God of Love, Path of Love, Lover and Beloved and finally, Beloved Community. Each section draws from a variety of sources to create a mosaic of words and images that reveal glimpses of the profound love at the heart of Islamic mysticism.
The substantial introduction to this book gives helpful context for entering into these four aspects of radical love. This concept of radical love draws its energy from a desire for God above all else. “The mystics who seek God as a Beloved before all else, above heaven and hell, above salvation, spoke to God in intimate whispers and prayers overflowing with radical love…” (xx). This radical devotion, love and desire for God alone make up this path known as “Eshq.” This is a fiery love that cannot be contained, but rather flows out of any container designed to contain it. This is the radical love of mystics and dreamers, lovers and poets. And while this love is a mingling of Divine love with the love of humanity, this radical path is that which leads to God alone. Therefore, while quite often poetry of love focuses on romantic love, the love that is encountered and embraced along this path is not limited to romantic love. It is much broader. “…for the mystics, love is light. Love comes unabashedly, radiantly, in a thousand different shades and colors that still blend into One. There is love of the friend, the neighbor, the child, of the parent, the lover, the stranger, of God and the prophets, of saints and sinners, love of the self, love of the enemy, of nature, of realms seen and unseen. And more. For these mystics, love is fire. It is a purifying fire that burns away selfishness, greed, anger, ego and leaves behind nothing but God.” (xxii). The love spoken of here is not limited to emotion or feeling. It comes closer to an experience of God released into our realm of existence with overwhelming Presence. This expansive understanding of radical love requires the language of poets to grace us with glimpses of the Holy.
Radical Love: Teachings from the Islamic Mystical Tradition is a thing of beauty. Omid Safi has offered the Western world a sublime gift in the translation and compilation of these sacred and moving texts. Without a doubt, this book is a significant resource for anyone interested in learning more about the Islamic mystical tradition. Those interested in the intersections of the theology of love between Islam and other faith traditions (particularly Christianity) will find Radical Love to be invaluable. And those mystics among us who are drawn to the language of poetry as a carrier of sacred wisdom will be richly rewarded by slowly and solemnly imbibing in the mystical language of love herein, returning to this book over and over again until the words turn into reality and one finds oneself drunk with love.
Gwen Gustafson-Zook is Pastor at Goshen College in Goshen, Indiana.