by Tooba Khokhar, UK
In the calamity of poverty lies
A kingly secret
– Rumi, ‘On the Path of Love Sublime’
Once upon a time there lived a king who in his old age wished to be free of the heavy task of ruling his kingdom, and so decided to divide it into three and give a third to each of his three daughters. But in order to gain her third each sister had to testify to her love of her father. Goneril the eldest came into her element and sleazed on about how her love went “beyond what can be valued, rich or rare” while her sister Reagan coolly concurred that Goneril had expressed “my very deed of love”. The youngest, sweetest sister Cordelia could however give no answer that would satisfy her father, old King Lear and could only say “I love your majesty according to my bond no more nor less”. Her artlessness enraged Lear, inured as he was to the flattery of his courtiers. He didn’t stop to think beyond words, beyond flattery and outward appearances. He didn’t stop to think what the word “bond” meant to Cordelia.
The tragedy of Shakespeare’s play is of course Lear’s slow and painful realisation of the falseness of Goneril and Reagan’s love and of all appearances. As soon as the two received their halves of the kingdom (Cordelia being exiled), they began to tire of their father and turned against each other. Lear’s eyes also slowly opened to the reality of the world outside court: to its poverty and brutality. This folk tale is an ancient one however it captures a very modern fear: living in such a material world, what does ‘love’ mean any more? Stripped of all of our wealth, are we of any value to anyone? We cushion ourselves with houses filled with things but do we really know ourselves? And each time we walk past a homeless person on the street, or see destitution around us do we not think as Lear did when he saw a mad beggar “Is man no more than this?”
Let’s turn to an Islamic story for wisdom. Once a Sufi sheikh approached the great poetess and Companion of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), Rabia al-Basri (ra) and inquired of her the secret to her “inner light” and contentment. She replied:
Great sheikh, I simply spin coarse cotton thread;
I sell this and am satisfied to get
Two grains of silver – though I never yet
Held both these grains together in my palm,
But one in each hand. I fear the harm
That follows from the clink of coin on coin,
The sleepless nights when sums of money join.
– From ‘Rabe’eh and the two grains of silver’ in Attar, The Conference of the Birds
The message of Hazrat Rabia’s words and of Islamic teachings is not to fear and forsake wealth itself but to never get too enchanted by the ‘clinking of coins’. We live in a society mesmerised by this tune and harsh global inequality is one of the tragic realities of our times. Such an addiction is utterly destructive for us spiritually. For the tune can deafen our ears to the reality of things, to love, to the ‘heartbeat of the elements’, to the meaning of the word “bond”, to human compassion.
Islam provides a solution rich with wisdom. As Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad (aba) reminded us in his most recent Friday Sermon (6.11.15), the Holy Quran states that
‘Never shall you attain to righteousness unless you spend out of that which you love; and whatever you spend, Allah surely knows it well.’(3:93)
The benefits of this guidance are twofold. Firstly through giving away (excess) wealth, we learn to dis-attach ourselves from money. Secondly through giving this wealth to charity, we are made to think of the plight of the poor and a bond of brotherhood is fostered amongst the various strands of society. So Islam directs us towards a way of thinking about money that is spiritually beneficial and economically ethical.
So the ‘kingly secret’ Rumi speaks of is in being liberated from the tune of the clinking of the coins and turning to what Shakespeare termed “the thing itself” i.e. what really matters: love, self-realisation and compassion.
Tooba Khokhar is studying Arabic and Persian at the University of Cambridge. She blogs at closetothesourceblog.wordpress.com