A lecture by Prof. James Morris, Professor of Religious Studies, presented at an international symposium on the occasion of Ostad Elahi’s centennial, and published in Les Cahiers d’Anthropologie, No. 5, Presses de l’Université de Paris-Sorbonne
Ostad Elahi was born in a small traditional Kurdish village that he often invokes when recounting his childhood experiences. At that time, people would rarely leave their villages, and their religious lives were almost entirely based on native habits and customs. Religious representatives would relay models of belief and behavior, which would slowly evolve over the centuries. A few mystics and their adherents would renounce material life to devote themselves to spirituality. The significant advances of the 20th century (in the fields of technology and communications, and in terms of socioeconomic conditions) gradually undermined and eliminated this thousand-year-old framework of life and religion. Humanity has entered the era of the “global village.” Today, religious beliefs can neither remain isolated in a private circle, nor be rejected due to their antiquity. In these circumstances, we should first think about the nature of spirituality and the purpose of human beings in general in a manner that corresponds to the present times.
During his lifetime, Ostad Elahi, as so many people today from all religious and cultural backgrounds, sought to find answers for this new setting. This search has resulted in two different approaches: some have endeavored to set aside all religious traditions of the past and have created a new world based “exclusively” on ethics and devoid of any spiritual foundation, while others have sought to escape these novel challenges by superficially founding closed religious groups that rely on the (imaginary) certitude and reassurance of pre-modern religious traditions. To assess the importance of the results of these two approaches, it is sufficient to review our daily realities.
Ostad Elahi proposes yet a third method for dealing with these global changes, one that is based on a profound understanding of our religious heritage as well as our new situation in the modern world. This approach not only reveals and observes the shared spiritual quintessence of all religions, but it also sets forth the practical and ethical role of religions in different realms of life, which is the topic of this symposium.
In response to personal and practical questions posed to him, Ostad Elahi gradually developed and expanded upon what we could call a “general perspective on the spiritual heritage of humanity.” To clarify this general perspective, he distinguishes between the shared essence and spiritual goal of all the monotheistic religions on the one hand, and their external ordinary dimension that only relates to our material and social lives, on the other. For example, he states:
The religions differ only in their secondary aspects; otherwise, their fundamental objective and principles are the same.
We will once again return to the importance Ostad Elahi attributed to this common spiritual dimension and foundation of the religions, for the unity and global inclusivity of his approach is based upon this very dimension. However, we need to first discuss several practical concepts relating to life in society, which is just as fundamental.
The first and most evident of these concepts is the necessity of tolerance and mutual understanding in all areas of life. Without this tolerance and the multitude of religious perspectives, no one can freely set out on his or her particular spiritual path, or even fully experience its veracity. In this respect, Ostad Elahi repeatedly stated that all religions are respectable and none should be negated.
The second notable concept—given the specific socioreligious customs and practices of his religious environment—is Ostad Elahi’s constant emphasis on the equality of men and women:
Women are equal to men in every respect . . . There are many women whose spiritual ranks are even higher than that of the prophets.
This statement is not just a slogan, but rather a spiritual principle with a vast background that he himself fully applied as reflected in many of his sayings.
In Ostad Elahi’s teachings, once we implement a principle in the manner prescribed and with a practical objective, it will lead us to a deeper spiritual reality. For example, emphasis on the ethical necessity of religious tolerance and the equality of men and women is related to the profound spiritual objective of universal love and empathy, a goal that is cited in all religious traditions.
This is why in response to the question, “What is the meaning of mysticism?” Ostad Elahi replies:
When you consider all prophets and saints as legitimate and no longer differentiate among the religions, you have entered the realm of mysticism. When you see everyone as a mystic, then you have understood the meaning of mysticism.
Or simpler yet:
That which you desire for yourself, so should you desire and do for others; and that which you do not desire for yourself, you should refrain from desiring for or doing onto others and defend them against it. Therein lies the sum and substance of religion.
The third fundamental concept implicitly derives from this last point: Ostad Elahi emphasized the ethical and spiritual necessity of living in the midst of society and interacting with others. We will discuss later the profound reasons behind this principle, as it directly relates to the performance of spiritual actions. Ostad Elahi personally observed this principle of living in society by leaving behind his mystical seclusion to assume the difficult task of serving as a judge.
Finally, the fourth concept is personal responsibility: the complete and indelible responsibility that accompanies us in every aspect of our lives. This point may provide the answer to a question that often crosses the minds of those who are introduced to Ostad Elahi’s system of thought: “Why didn’t he seek to attract followers who could propagate his way of thinking, something that other spiritual figures have done?” There are many answers to this question. But we can start by referring to what Ostad Elahi has emphasized on numerous occasions—namely, that each person has a responsibility to search for the truth, and no one can shirk this responsibility or transfer it onto the shoulders of another.
If we were to summarize Ostad Elahi’s way of thought, we could say that the question of “the soul and the search for the truth” comes first and foremost. In responding to the questions of others, the topics that he discusses—whether related to supernatural and theoretical matters or more directly related to the application of spiritual matters—revolve around the central issue of research. And this research, as he often reiterates, is related to several fundamental points:
Truth is knowing what we are, where we have come from, what duties we have here, and where our ultimate destination lies. To access the Truth, we must devote ourselves to the pursuit of this knowledge and seek to understand it through practice.
The central axis of mysticism rests on the comprehension of why we have been created, the duties that are incumbent upon us, and the purpose of our existence.
Our duty and goal should be to act upon divine precepts and reach perfection.
Ostad Elahi constantly reminds us that our fate as human beings, notwithstanding its many spiritual challenges and responsibilities, is necessarily part of a much vaster process of perfection that concerns the whole of creation:
The process of perfection from minerals to plants, from plants to animals, and from animals to humans is a natural progression . . . due to their angelic souls, human beings must themselves endeavor to reach the Source, whereas minerals, plants, and animals are aided by nature in undergoing their process of perfection.
According to Ostad Elahi, the human soul or “self’ is a unique composite and the point of convergence of two entirely different dimensions: first, the individual “celestial soul” or eternal mind that carries the “divine breath” and is in constant communication with the Source, and second, the terrestrial soul that is mortal and human-animal, comprised of the unique and individual combination of previous animal, plant, and mineral souls whose effects have permeated the body in accordance with the principle of the process of perfection. From Ostad Elahi’s standpoint, the fusion and combination of these two dimensions of the soul and the animal self within the body is not a trap or prison from which one should seek to escape. On the contrary, it is this complex combination that creates an exceptional earthly opportunity through which the celestial soul can gradually acquire the capacity to learn and evolve until it fully blossoms spiritually.
Ostad Elahi always emphasized that the path culminating in the true realization of our spiritual nature necessarily begins with research and the progressive awareness of the soul, or, in other words, the “self”:
The soul constitutes our true existence; the body is merely a vehicle and not our true existence. One who reaches perfection enters the Ocean of Truth, yet each particle retains its individuality.
Setting out on any journey without knowing at least a little about the goal is an impossible task. Therefore, from Ostad Elahi’s perspective, the goal of the spiritual journey is the process of perfection. The following saying aptly summarizes the close connection between this spiritual goal and the various practical obligations that are inherent to this spiritual journey:
The extent to which a person can distance himself from the impulses of the imperious self and draw closer to the realm of humanity is directly proportionate to the degree of his perfection . . . a perfect human being does for others what he desires for himself, and defends others against that which he does not desire for himself. This is much easier said than done . . . it requires self-control 24 hours a day and acting as one’s own judge.
There are also more succinct sayings from Ostad Elahi that relay this spiritual disposition in the form of concrete ethical actions.
A true human being is one who rejoices in the happiness of others and shares in their sorrows.
Life in this world revolves around one principle: respect for the rights of others.
A spiritual student must maintain equilibrium among these four spheres: the material world, the hereafter, the body, and the soul.
As the realization of this goal is quite difficult and can induce a state of temporary fatigue, it is important to recall what Ostad Elahi has said regarding the importance of faith, spiritual conviction, and self-control before seeking to implement these practical recommendations.
There are peaks and valleys for everyone, albeit in varying degrees. We should seek to acquire self-control by deflecting hardships. Once we have gained control over our inner self, everything will become easier for us.
We should not relinquish our will to destiny, but rather we should subject destiny to our own will—that is, to resign to God and to distance ourselves from anything that is contrary to His contentment to such an extent that destiny becomes irrelevant.
Some of the most important practical lessons in spirituality that are common to all religions have been recounted in the following saying:
The principles of all religions are founded upon several pillars: restraint and charity, contemplation and prayer, purity of intention, and sincerity with God.
After explaining the role of restraint and charity, Ostad Elahi continues as follows:
Contemplation and prayer: the condition here is to be attentive to the Source, and not to merely recite certain phrases from prayer books or other prescribed formulas. . . . Pure intention: this means wanting for all beings that which we want for ourselves, and abstaining from doing unto others that which we do not want for ourselves. . . . When these four pillars are observed, we become purified, emerging from our animal state and transforming into a true human being. The natural inclination of a true human being is to always strive to have a positive impact. . . .
Of course, everyone realizes that speaking of these principles is one thing, and putting them into practice is something entirely different! Before citing other sayings by Ostad Elahi that describe the path culminating in self-knowledge and divine knowledge, we should clarify a point that may create a seeming conflict between this metaphysical interpretation of the “true self” accompanied by a contemplative approach on the one hand, and its practical, ethical, and religious lessons which, as we have seen, run contrary to a purely contemplative life spent away from society, on the other. Why, then, does Ostad Elahi constantly emphasize that an active and responsible social life in the midst of this world is necessary for the process of acquiring self-knowledge? It is because we cannot know our selves or polish our hearts unless we undertake the tensions and challenges of an active life in this world that will serve to reflect our image onto us.
Therefore, life in society is the most effective and beneficial environment or school for discovering and purifying the true essence of our soul. Ostad Elahi recounts his own experience in this regard in the following anecdote:
One evening around sunset, I was overcome with a special spiritual state and sought to engage in my personal devotions in solitude.
Subsequently, he describes with a sense of humor how the clamor of the neighbors forced him to the roof, and how a chain of events eventually led him to walk the streets toward a distant mausoleum, though in the end he never did manage to find a secluded site to engage in his devotions. He concludes this anecdote as follows:
In the end, that special state was lost, and despite my best efforts I wasn’t able to realize my solitude. I thought to myself: ‘Oh Lord, You’re still testing me? So be it; as You will.’ It then came to me: ‘Solitude is not to be sought in some physical place, but within your own heart.’ Later, I was made to understand that the intent of this experience was to stop me from becoming socially withdrawn. Indeed, I had become increasingly reclusive as of late, despite my professional standing, which required that I participate in social functions and gatherings.
Solitude is best sought from within, not in seclusion. We should remain active in society but shield ourselves against its ills. It is no great feat to be virtuous in seclusion (avoiding gatherings, going to movies, or socializing in general); what counts is to be in the midst of society while still remaining virtuous.
The awareness that the constituent principles behind these practical recommendations form the core pillars of the process of perfection enables a better appreciation for the importance of an active life in this world to acquire self-knowledge. These fundamental principles can be summarized in three main points: First, saying, seeing, and wanting what is good; second, the relentless struggle against the visible and concealed attacks of the animal self; and third, constant attention to the Source. In reality, these three points invoke the inseparable elements of the singular “work” required in the process of perfection, as working on any one of them necessarily brings the other two points to the fore. The first principle, which Ostad Elahi constantly refers to, consists in gradually saying and wanting what is good until we can eventually see the good in everything:
One who considers himself a spiritual student should adopt these three principles:
Saying good: we should say what is good and refrain from backbiting and slander, as well as indecent speech such as profanity and cursing.
Seeing good: we should not see anyone or anything as bad, and strive to see everything as good. . . .
Wanting good: Everything good that we want for ourselves we should likewise want for all of humanity. We should not curse or resent others, nor should we envy or begrudge them, much less seek vengeance, etc.
This fundamental principle, reiterated over and over by the holy prophets and saints, appears simple on its face. As soon as we begin to practice it, however, we are confronted with the second important theme in Ostad Elahi’s teachings—namely, the difficult struggle between the celestial soul or “mind” and the terrestrial soul or “animal self” (also known as the imperious self), with all of its countless ruses and stratagems. The inescapable struggle to gain control over this dimension of our existence, which is inherently in conflict with our divine transcendental nature, is a central theme in all religious traditions. But Ostad Elahi’s methodology for working on this issue entails important clarifications that are distinguishing features of his spiritual teaching.
At the outset, Ostad Elahi emphasizes the necessity of constantly strengthening the celestial soul, and not weakening the terrestrial soul. In other words, true asceticism is not the weakening of the body, but rather the harmonious and balanced development of all dimensions of our existence.
The strength of the [celestial] soul is proportionate to the extent of its dominion over the terrestrial soul. . . . The way to strengthen the soul is to recognize its dignity and to become fond of its rank until things become second nature to us, meaning until we come to detest anything that is contrary to the soul’s dignity.
The third essential theme in Ostad Elahi’s spiritual and practical teachings is being “attentive to the Source.” Of course, as he has pointed out himself, this theme is present in every level of our spiritual lives. To begin with, the following is applicable to all religions:
The goal and ultimate result of all prayers and devotions can be summarized in two points:
i) Constant attention to the Source; and
ii) Striving to understand what to do to attract His contentment.
Intention is the main condition in prayer. Whatever religion or creed we may hold, once we become attentive to the Source our prayer will be accepted, whatever language we may invoke.
In spirituality as in social life, attention to the Source is a fundamental principle. In this regard, Ostad Elahi states:
To establish a connection, we have to be attentive to the Source regardless of the state we are in. We must be attentive to the point that we adopt benevolence as our guiding principle in every instance, and refrain from all that is bad.
If being attentive to the Source plays a pivotal role in the most basic levels of religious life, it becomes even more important as the soul gradually matures on the path toward self-knowledge and divine knowledge.
It is hoped that this general overview of Ostad Elahi’s spiritual teachings has successfully conveyed the meaning of a spiritual theory that is characterized by stringent ethics and practice within the framework of a universal approach. As Ostad Elahi himself stated during the final years of his life:
I have left nothing unsaid; all that is required is a comprehension of the subject matter and willpower.
If this picture of Ostad Elahi’s teachings is reminiscent of certain sacred scriptures or precepts of the great religions, it should come as no surprise, for one of the points that Ostad Elahi repeatedly returns to is that the fundamental principles of spiritual truth are uniform and universal, with all the prophets and saints setting forth these principles in ways that were beneficial to their contemporaries.
Yet traditional portrayals of this unique truth might appear ambiguous due to incorrect modifications or interpretations during their transmission, or as a result of invoking language that is unusual or symbolic in nature.
As more of Ostad Elahi’s writings are gradually translated and published, we can take note that he is able to directly guide one toward the truth, without having to resort to the use of vague symbolism or problematic notions. In fact, he clarifies that which has remained ambiguous or nonexistent in past traditions, and refocuses our attention once more on the universal “essence” of the divine religions and the principles and truths they share in common. In short, he always explains theories and their resulting principles in such way that they become comprehensible to everyone.
In conclusion, let us not forget that there are other effective means for establishing a spiritual connection, such as the use of music, for instance, in which Ostad Elahi was also a master, but we did not have the opportunity to discuss them during the course of this lecture. Perhaps the specific impact of his music can facilitate the comprehension of one of his last sayings more profoundly than my talk otherwise might:
I have spoken to each person within the limits of his or her understanding, but I have not yet told anyone what lies in my heart.