After posting the explanation of the allegory of the play ‘Una’ yesterday, a very interesting statement appeared unexpectedly in a letter written by Ibn ‘Abbad of Ronda.* A student had addressed this twelfth century Sufi master with many doubts about his spiritual practice, and in the course of his long reply, Ibn ‘Abbad wrote: “One of the mystics has said, “That which you worship is the first thought that comes to your mind when you are suffering anxiety.”
In explaining the allegory of the sculptor, Hazrat Inayat Khan was giving a picture of the process of every worshipper. Religion may provide the believer with a form–or the form of ‘no form’–towards which worship may be addressed, but the individual always shapes belief according to his or her own understanding. It has been said that “God made man in his own image, and man, being a gentleman, returned the favour.” This has been taken as a cynical dismissal of the value of worship, but the Sufi will see some wisdom in it, for each person’s divine Ideal is unique to themselves. (And for this reason, the Sufi sees no purpose in arguing or discussing about belief. As Hazrat Inayat said when someone questioned him about his belief, “Your belief is for you; my belief is for me.”)
What we may find particularly inspiring in the explanation of the allegory is the transition of the ideal from something lifeless, a mere sculpture no different from an idol of stone, to something living, so completely alive that it can restore life to the worshipper who has sacrificed her life for her ideal. In this transition, by which one’s ideal is no more a mere concept but comes to life, the path of the seeker finds its fulfilment. In the Gayan is the saying, “Make God a reality, and God will make you the Truth.”
Considering that the ideal is not something static, but an ‘artistic work in progress,’ the student might then want to ask, “What is the state of my ideal?”–and the answer can be found in the advice of Ibn ‘Abbad: when we face anxiety, when troubles loom, the first thought that comes to our mind will show what the nature of our ideal may be. If the thought is of a living Presence to Whom one can turn for help and guidance, well and good. If other thoughts arise, then perhaps we need to do more work in the studio.
*Ibn ‘Abbad of Ronda (1333–1390 CE) was born in what is now Spain, and later moved to Morocco, where he spent most of his life. He was a major Sufi theologian of his time, and the 20th century scholar Miguel Asin Palacios has suggested that he was a major influence on and precursor of St. John of the Cross.