When nature speaks: A conversation with the Sufi Master of Alâwiyya

Editor’s note. Ecologically-grounded thinking and the relations between religious communities and nature across Indonesia and beyond have become central issues here at CRCS. In an effort to share this research and advocacy, the CRCS website has published articles on religion and ecology, including such topics as rainforest and indigenous religionsenvirontmentalist movements in Indonesia, and ecotourism and adat ecology. The following is part of this series and meant to further cultivate ecological awareness, with this one specifically based on an Islamic worldview. We are grateful to the Yogyakarta-based writer Elisabeth Inandiak for this valuable contribution.
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 “Slavery is any system in which principles of property law are applied to people, allowing individuals to own, buy and sell other individuals, as a de jure form of property.” In this definition of “slavery”, if we replace the word “people” with “nature”, we must admit that our modern societies are perpetrators of mass slavery. We have turned natural resources, especially water, into our own exclusive property, and thus given ourselves a “legal right” to exploit them without limit. Even seeds, which are the source of all forms of life, have been now patented by conglomerates. However, modern science is discovering that water has memory and that plants can communicate and cooperate with each other. Scientists are actually rediscovering what sacred texts tell us. We must therefore learn again how to “read” them.

To gain insights for this “rereading”, I transcribe here my conversation with Sheikh Khaled Bentounes, the spiritual leader of the Sufi path (tariqa) Alâwiyya, which was founded in 1909 in Mostaganem, Algeria, by his great-grandfather, Sheikh Ahmed al-‘Alâwi (1869-1934) who is considered a saint and a revitalizer of modern Muslim thought. A few years ago, when I asked Sheikh Bentounes about Baruch Spinoza’s famous phrase, Deus sive Natura (“God or Nature”), he told me, “This is a profound subject. Before questioning me, you should nurture your reflection.” He handed me several admirable texts by his great-grandfather, including Al-Abhâth al-‘Alâwiyyah fi ‘l-Falsafah al-Islâmiyyah or the Philosophical Investigations (1918).

We began our conversation in November 2014 in Algeria, after the Oran International Women’s Congress for a Culture of Peace, at his home in the small port city of Mostaganem, the location of the Djanatu al-Arif or Garden of Knowledge, the well-known sustainable development foundation. We continued our dialogue in the winter fog of Lyon in France where Sheikh Bentounes participated for the fourth consecutive year in a meeting between imams and bishops of France, and then later via Skype between Yogyakarta and Geneva, where L’Association Internationale Soufie Alâwiyya (AISA) has become an officially accredited partner of the United Nations’ Economic and Social Council (Ecosoc).

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In Chapter Fourteen of Philosophical Investigations entitled “The Reason Why Some Modern Philosophers Reject the Idea of God”, Sheikh al-‘Alâwi writes:

Thus the Philosopher acquires the certainty that everything is related, that the effects depend on their causes and that Nature itself acts on its elements. However, he cannot fail to feel that beyond all he has known, something else endowed with great power still exists. But despite the intuition of this Other-thing, he continues to state that it is still only Nature.

 So, according to Sheikh al ‘Alâwi, God is not nature?

Indeed, God is not nature. Nature is the emanation of God, the mirror in which He mirrors Himself. When we talk about nature, we limit ourselves to what is visible, corporal; to what is material. But in God’s creation, there is something else, called antimatter, that is not visible. The invisible and the visible are both parts of creation. Surah An-Nur of the Quran describes Allah as the light of the heavens and the earth. He is the Light. The cosmos, the universe, nature are inscribed in this divine light that gives them their way of being and of becoming, and at the same time of destroying, renewing themselves.

Are creation and nature one and the same?

Creation and nature are extensions of one another. They are like the body and the soul. The body is what is visible, the soul what is invisible but intelligible. Does nature have a form of intelligence? Yes, in the Quranic tradition, nature has a form of intelligence. It speaks and acts. Whether it be the sun, the stars, the animals, the atoms, all are animated by a form of intelligence, and this intelligence is divine.

So there’s no such thing as the inanimate?

No. Everything receives a form of life from this divine light. In the third chapter of Philosophical Investigation of Sheikh al’Alâwî, you will find an answer to your question. Sheikh al’Alâwi quotes the Qur’an: “Allah has caused you to grow out of the earth like plants, then He will return you into it and extract you out of it” (Q. 71: 17-18). Sheikh al’Alâwi then elaborates: “Therefore it is permissible to say that animals are merely plants that have been parted from the earth and that eat from above, and that plants are merely animals that have been fixed to the earth and that eat from below.”   

When people in Indonesia, for instance, make offerings to the ocean, to springs or to volcanoes, it is perceived by some religious groups as idolatry. Is this a problem?  

There is a misperception when it comes to worship or adoration. In Islam—but we can also say this about monotheism in general—we address God as the principle of fundamental unity; worship is addressed to God, to God alone. In the Quranic tradition, man, in his natural state, is considered a manager, not a predator. Not only do we depend on the mineral, vegetable and animal realms, but they are also our origins; they are inscribed in us, so we must respect them. We do not worship nature as a proper entity, but we must have a relationship with it as managers with leniency. That is why we speak of the Quranic tradition as the “natural tradition”.

But these offerings to the ocean, to springs or to volcanoes are often not an act of worship but of thanksgiving, a symbolic way of returning to nature a tiny part of what it has given to us humans. Through these rituals, humans remain aware that they must respect nature, not degrade it or exploit it excessively.

This is why, in the spiritual tradition, every being is respected as such. A bird, an ant… We have in the Qur’an the Surah An-Naml or Chapter of the Ant which gives us an allegory on how an ant talks with Solomon. Seeing Solomon pass by with his soldiers, an ant calls the other ants: “Enter quickly into your dwellings that you not be crushed by Solomon and his soldiers passing by while they do not see you” (Q. 27:18). Solomon, who is both king and prophet, hears the words of this tiny insect. His awareness of Life is so deeply embodied in him that it gives him access to the universality of the language of creation. Then he stopped his army to give the ants time to get back into their anthill. Solomon’s greatness in the Quran is thus rendered by the respect he has for life, even the life of an ant. We deduce from this that the Quranic tradition calls for respect for all forms of life. Life comes from one of God’s names which is Al-Hayy, the Living. By respecting the Living, we respect God. But adoration is exclusively for Him.

In the same Surah, Solomon says that mankind has been taught the language of birds and all wisdoms that have come. Can birds transmit wisdom to humans?

In his Wisdoms, Sheikh al-‘Alâwi answers somehow your question: “Who is right, the flower imagining God as a perfume or Aristotle conceiving God who thinks eternally? Aristotle and the flower do the same thing: one divinizes his thought, the other his fragrance. Both are right (…) for God is everything, and every part of creation sees Him only from a tiny angle.”

Surah 99 (1,4) says: When the earth is shaken with its [final] earthquake…  That Day, it will report its news…”

Yes, the earth speaks. In other surahs, the sun and the moon are speaking, and even the first interstellar clouds do. When God summoned creation, He said “be it” and it became creation. There is a relationship, a link between God and His creation. Creation understands God and God understands creation, but it is from Him that creation gets its initiative, its life, its shape.

In the Islamic tradition, is there a warning about the sacred value of seeds that could be helpful to oppose the patents on life (seeds) practiced today by agro-industrial corporates?

There is no answer as such, but if you think about it, seeds are part of the human heritage. No being can seize it because it is a divine gift. We just pass it on from generation to generation. In the prophetic tradition, if I plant a tree or sow seeds today, and these seeds, this plant or this tree grow and bear fruit and another being than me, bird, human or animal, feeds on it, I receive a spiritual retribution which lifts me up and brings me closer to God. There can be no stranglehold over something that has been given to us by nature, therefore by God. We can only enjoy it and pass it on after us for the benefit of all, humans as well as other creatures.

And this is how we share this gift that has been given to us. Seed banks are the property of humanity and no country, no elite should take them for itself. Every seed contains a holy and extraordinary virtue, barakah. He who shows no respect for it and for the food that is produced from it, puts himself at risk of terrible punishments. On every grain of wheat it is written: There is no god but God. This simple wisdom leads to awakening in humans the sacred meaning contained in every living things, including in the grain of wheat whose value is not only nutritional.

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Among the astonishing texts that Sheikh Bentounes advised me to read is this allegory taken from an encyclopedia of sciences compiled in Baghdad in the 10th century, Rasâ’il Ikhwân al-Safâ’, [Epistles of the Pure Brethren and Sincere Friends]. Epistle 22 tells the following fable: On an island near the equator, in the Green Sea, reigns the wise king of the Jinns. The animals live there in peace among themselves. On a ship carried by the storm, men land on the island, find it pleasant in everything, settle there, domesticate the animals and consume them. The animals that manage to escape human greed consult each other and decide to go complain to the king. The king summons the intruders. Their first argument is that God created animals for human enjoyment. They report on their cities, their political structures. To that, the animals mention the bees as a model of social organization and justice. They accuse men of being deeply harmful in that they do not follow the moral and religious rules of which they are so proud. And if beasts have become ferocious, it’s because of humans whose violence is infinitely more serious. Moreover there are hermits who prefer to live in the company of wild animals. Men are so much enslaved to evil that animals should be their masters … But before the king of the jinns, they assert supremacy: “Who obeys us, obeys God.”

This allegorical trial of men by animals sounds like the trial of religious excesses that have diverted, for their sole benefit, the divine message of the relationship between men, other creatures and nature.

Very true. The philosophy of the Pure Brethren embodies the spiritual message which religions have gradually hidden by cultivating only external aspects: ritualism, dogmatism and today ideologies.

But these excesses are not new, the text dates from 969. Obviously it’s a very old trend.

Yes, and we are now paying very dearly with what is happening. Take the water. After the clash of civilizations, which is none other than the clash of ignorance, we’re getting ready for a new clash: that of the war of water. Inspired by the wisdom of our ancestors who had made water a sacred element, we should nurture our reflection to try to establish a new relationship with it. Because we have forgotten the daily miracle provided by its benefits. It has become a commodity, a coveted raw material. Water is the mother of all humanity, the provider of strength and balance, beauty and dreams. Its appropriation by one group to the detriment of others should make us reflect deeply on the future. The problem of water at the beginning of the 21st century, of its management and distribution among all, affects the human conscience to the greatest extent and will put international solidarity to the test. The issue of water challenges us to face the possible sterility of our planet as well as that of the minds and souls of its inhabitants.

How is this epistle 22 of the Pure Brethren perceived in the Muslim world?

It is totally unknown. It exists however in Arabic and Persian, and it has been translated into French, but only by academics. It is now completely hidden, forgotten. The more we move forward in time, the more corruption/distortion increases. For the Hindus, we are now in the Iron Age cycle. From cycle to cycle, the further away from the source, the more the truth is hidden. But this eclipse of the truth will sooner or later come to an end, there will be a renewal because humankind will have reached such a state of corruption that it will be forced to return to a quest for meaning. We will have to reconnect with this vision of the One that we have externalized, as if God were somewhere out there. Because let us not forget that the finality is not so much the unity of God as the unity of humanity. Because if God is one, I am one. But if I am one, creation is one. Multiplicity itself embodies a fundamental principle of unity. Namely, everything is made of the same elements: the sun, the galaxies, the earth, and, in the earth, even the smallest grain of dust, and on the tree, even the tiny leaf that falls,–all of it is part of this game of the Living that transforms itself, that is reborn of itself, that hides and then discovers itself.[]

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Read the Indonesian translation of this conversation: Ketika Alam Bicara: Percakapan dengan Mursyid Tarekat Alawiyah

Image courtesy: Elisabeth Inandiak

This post is also available in: Indonesian

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