The recently posted piece of poetry by Umar Ibn al-Farid speaks of being ‘free from the idolatry of difference.’ What could that mean? Is there some wisdom in the phrase that can help us on our journey?
Generally speaking, and of course to those who do not worship idols, ‘idolatry’ has a negative meaning. It indicates worshipping some form, a statue, for example or some painted image, in place of the formless and infinite One, adoring something inanimate in place of the living source of all Life. When the Prophet Mohammed was giving the message of unity, one highly significant act was to clear all the idols from the sanctuary of the Kaaba. The sanctuary had been a sacred space for many centuries, and over the years the images of hundreds of gods had accumulated there, but under the direction of the Prophet all the idols were taken out and destroyed. The lesson was that no form can contain the never-ending grace and glory of the Unseen and we do a disservice to the Divine presence if we see it only in a limited form.*
The phrase of al-Farid, ‘the idolatry of difference,’ takes this lesson even further. In a time when the world is becoming less and less religious, people may think that they are far from idolatry; we may even congratulate ourselves that this is one ‘sin’ at least we do not commit! But until we have risen, in the words of the prayer, ‘above the distinctions and differences that divide man,’ we are still approving some parts of the infinite cosmos, and rejecting others. All need to eat, but there is that which will sustain us and that which feeds our vanity. We wear clothing, but much of what we wear is not to protect us from the elements but to proclaim that we are different from others, and presumably, in our view, special and in some way better. The poem by Seng Ts’an said something similar:
A tenth of an inch’s difference,
And heaven and earth are set apart.
When we indulge in preferences, the patterns of light and shade in creation take on a great importance to us; some parts are good, even heavenly, and some are infernally bad. And because the patterns are experienced in the world of limitations, they are constantly changing. Even the desirable islands of light are encircled by the depressing inevitability of alteration.
Then, what can we do about this? The lesson of al-Farid, as it is the lesson of all the masters, saints and prophets, is: Toward the One! When we drop our idolatry of differences, our temporary identity ceases to matter and by becoming nothing we become possessor of everything. In practical terms, there is a simple technique that one could try, a method of changing our view of those around us. We may not state it to ourselves in this way, but everyone feels that they are the center of the universe; we sit at the center of a web of impressions, sensations, thoughts, memories and feelings that is our world. Others pass through this world, sometimes as passersby, sometimes as welcome guests, sometimes as invaders. The method is simply to look at each person you encounter and say to yourself: the center of the universe. The clerk in the shop? The center of the universe. The person hurrying past us in the metro? The center of the universe. The beggar, the friend, the lifelong enemy? All and each, the center of the universe.
It is a technique that not only allows us to understand others more clearly and compassionately, but it also shows us the nature of our own illusion. In time we may come to see that our ‘differences’ are not so important after all, and that is a great step forward.
*Nevertheless, the Sufi avoids criticising anyone’s form of worship. Hazrat Inayat Khan told the story of the believer in the Unseen God who asked an idol worshiper how he could prostrate himself before a piece of lifeless stone. The idol worshiper replied, ‘If I have sufficient faith, even this stone will answer my prayers. And if you lack faith, no amount of prayers to the Unseen will have any effect whatsoever.’