We were happy. Indeed, we gave little thought to the world as we sat the next night in a semi-circle around our Master, who had ordered a feast be prepared and that every darvish , every disciple, be invited to the khaniqah , the house of the Order.
To us, the Master, for all his fierce looks and often inexplicable behavior, is as dear as our fathers, for as they raised us from childhood to the ways of the world, he guides our steps on the tariqat, the way of the heart, the straight path of the Sufi.
Know, O men, that my Master is Shaykh Amir al-Haadi, of the ______Sufi Order, and there are none that may compare with him in wisdom and attainment: For he is known to be the Qutb of the age, the magnetic pole of the inward journey.
That irresistible attraction, I am now certain, was the cause of the events that began that night.
A joy unlooked for is twice welcome, it is said, and so we celebrated, for the Master rarely orders such a gathering.
I may not name any save those necessary to the tale, so I will say only that there were twelve men and fourteen women present, all that could attend on such short notice. The Master had excluded the children from this particular night, although they are ordinarily welcome. That there were three unmarried men present seems, upon reflection, a fact the Master may have somehow predetermined. I have been in his company long enough to have seen him perform many marvels of exactitude, which seemed at the time to be random occurrences but later proved to be precisely what was necessary.
After the evening prayer, while dinner was still in preparation, we gathered in the great walled garden to sit cross-legged upon the grass and wait for him to speak.
The lemon trees were in bloom and the fragrance of the blossoms refreshed our hearts; and there were roses and hyacinths in abundance amid a variety of flowers and plants arrayed among the cypress and plane trees, all holding in subtle balance the energies within the walls. It was an oasis in the arid climate, an architecture designed to reflect the cosmic order, even as the fountain at its center sends its endless ripples expanding unto the Infinite Source.
We sat, as is our way, with the right hand resting upon the left thigh, the left hand holding the right wrist, forming the Arabic word la , meaning "no." This is the no of negation, by which the darvish strives to empty the hands of worldly possessions and the heart of what has left the hands - a first step on the Path.
Those chosen to serve that night brought out a silver tray holding small glasses of dark tea and a bowl of sugar cubes, which some held in their mouths while sipping the tea. We were eager for him to begin, but he seemed in no hurry as he leaned against the trunk of the old almond tree, which he himself had planted many years ago, stroking his beard thoughtfully and filling an ancient, ivory-bowled pipe. No darvish would break the silence by speaking first, of course. Above the entrance to the garden was a framed aphorism written in flowing calligraphy: Silence, for breath is a Godsend .
Finally, after a few long puffs, he signaled Ali for music. Ali immediately took up his ney , his reedpipe, and Rami the double-bowled tar , tuning the strings carefully. Others produced various sized dafs , the shallow, goatskin drums played by hand. The Master, however, commanded that all the other instruments be silent. I wondered briefly at this, for celebrations are almost always filled with lively music and clapping hands and voices raised in song, but I soon lost all curiosity as Ali began to play an unusually haunting refrain on that most human-throated of instruments, plaintive as the call of the muezzin.
The breath of the ney sighed with the wind amid the trees, exhaling the textured feel of the night and the soft glow of the lanterns, opening our hearts like the moonflowers and night-blooming jasmine opening around us, and we began to drift into sama , the timeless reverie.
The longing of many hearts slowly filled the garden, brimming at last over the walls and drifting upwards toward the stars as the reedpipe lamented its separation from the reedbed as surely the soul laments its separation from Paradise.
As the last notes melted into the night and we slowly awoke to the world in which we had each been cast adrift, unstoppable tears stained our cheeks and watered the grass beneath us. Even the flowers in their nurtured beds seemed to weep their dew. Slowly, slowly, the unity of our yearning washed away and we became our separate selves again, all looking to the Master who sat with head bowed beneath the limbs of the old tree.
His eyes were clear and dry as he raised his head and peered around the circle, absorbing each of us in his glance.
"May the heart remember what the mind has forgotten," he said. "And now listen, those that have ears, to a tale of Solomon the King. Yes, Solomon, the mightiest and wisest ruler of the earth that ever was or shall be. Wealthy beyond measure was Solomon, and with such wisdom as only Allah may bestow.
"And lo, he commanded the wind, and both men and Jinn , birds and animals. All were servants unto him. Yet he lost favor in the sight of God, for neither wealth nor power nor wisdom brought him enlightenment.
"One day, while King Solomon was walking alone in the royal garden, he came upon Azrael , the Angel of Death, who was pacing back and forth with a most worried expression. Solomon knew well the face of the Deadly Servant, for with the sight given unto him he had seen Death often, hovering over battles, or in the tents of the ill and wounded. When Solomon asked what troubled him, the Angel sighed, saying that he had on his list of those destined for the next world two scribes of Solomon, the brothers Elihoreph and Alijah.
"Now Solomon was grieved at the thought of losing his scribes, for he had known them since childhood and loved them as brothers. So he ordered the Jinn to carry Elihoreph and Aljah to the fabled city of Luz , the only place on earth where Death has no power. Instantly the Jinn did as he commanded, but the two scribes died at the very moment they reached the gates of that city.
" The next day Azrael appeared before Solomon. The Angel of Death was greatly pleased and said, ' I thank thee, O King, for speeding thy servants to the place appointed. The fate destined for them was to die at the gates of that far city, but I had no idea how they were to traverse so great a distance.'
"Now the King wept exceedingly, torn between sorrow and wrath at the death of his friends and the inescapable doom of men. And Azrael wondered greatly at this.
' Why do you weep, O Lord of the World?'
' For the long friends of my youth who are with me no more,' said the King. 'Have you no pity for those whose life you end?'
' Pity?' exclaimed Azrael scornfully. 'You weep for the loss of their companionship. Your true sorrow is for yourself, and your wrath is truly self-pity. Alas, it has darkened your wisdom. Death is the most sublime gift of God, distilling from this life of fleeting joys and many sorrows that single drop which is the soul. Of such wine, O King, is poured the Sea of Light. Praise Allah that I, who am to you the Angel of Death, am in truth the Angel of Mercy.' "
The Master looked at each of us in turn, and then shook his head and smiled. A few others also smiled, but I did not, nor did the older darvishes . King Solomon? The Master had never before related this old story, at least not in any group I have been in, although he instructs us constantly in many and various ways, each according to what is necessary at that moment for their development. And this tale had always seemed quite charming and straightforward on its surface. I did not know what juice there was left to squeeze, though all such tales are said to have seven levels of meaning.
We waited for the Master to speak further, thinking he would illuminate his intent, but he said, "When Allah first commanded the spirit of life to enter the Body of Adam, it was afraid and did not wish to go. 'I fear this strange existence apart from you, Lord," it said. And God replied, 'Reluctantly shall you enter and reluctantly shall you depart.' And so it is. Death is inevitable, yet you fear it still. Your worldly selves tremble at the thought. But a Sufi asks for nothing and fears nothing, for he entrusts his life to God and gives all he has in humility.
" So, my brave and humble darvishes , should Solomon knock on the door this very night and bid you journey to a far country, who amongst you would step forth, even into danger and death, if that is your fate?"
For a moment, silence and blank faces were all that could be heard or seen as we looked at each other in bewilderment.
" Well, has no one an answer?" he asked, looking around the circle. " Has no one among you ears to hear?"
What was this? I wondered. Some riddle game he played, or a test of our progress to be made known by the answer?
" I would go!" exclaimed Ali, with a laugh. He must have believed the former.
" And I, also!" said Rami, his cousin. His sober expression showing that he thought the latter.
Many voices were raised then, declaring their willingness to go on such a journey with Solomon. But I held my tongue in the prison of its teeth, as it is said. Something about the Master's continence kept me silent. Rarely does he ask a simple question, and few seemed to take his tale seriously. I set my mind to wait, but to my astonishment heard myself asking: "Who on the Path is not already on such a journey?" Truly, I had not thought to speak, and certainly not in such a challenging tone.
There was not a sound in the room.
All eyes turned to me. I felt those sitting on my right and left move imperceptibly away, as from the coming of the lightning. The Master turned his face toward me as I sat frozen to the spot. His eyes locked with mine for what seemed a full turning of the earth, then he raised his head and laughed. I realized that I had not dared to breathe in the grip of those eyes, and exhaled with a mighty " Whew!"
Everyone roared with laughter. The consternation I felt put me to the blush, and the women pointed and held their sides.
The Master raised his hand for silence and looked at me once more.
"Who indeed? ...But do not be disconcerted, O Ishaq, at the laughter of your fellow travelers. Laughter is a gift, and so you have done them a service...and, " he said, smiling gently, " I perceive that it is the ruh , the innermost spirit within you that has spoken, moving for once past your more cautious mind. And rightly so! All here are on such a journey, though where the path will lead, each of you must discover alone.
"So fear not. If you have in the beginning been ordained to a noble destiny, you will attain it only with courage, and the baraka , the measure of grace you have each been given. What must be done, will be done..." He paused, looking first to Ali and then to Rami. "You, Ali, the first to speak, and you Rami, the second, and Ishaq too must go... Many threads are woven into this tapestry." He sighed, lowering his head and closing his eyes.
Immediately, there was a loud knock at the door.
Ali and Rami looked startled, and I felt the small hairs of my neck stand up. We heard no bell from the courtyard gate. Someone must have left it open. One of the women, Mojdeh, went to answer. I strained to hear the conversation through the house, but could not. The Master did not seem to have heard the knock, or paid no attention to it, but he looked up as Mojdeh returned to the garden with an odd expression on her face. Bowing formally, with her hand over her heart, she said, "Master, Solomon is here."