The Herbert W Mason Fellowship
New Works
Verse Narratives
Translations & Scholarship
Audio Book
Audio Library of Congress
My Blog
About the Author

A Guest of Islam

An essay by Herbert Mason

The subject of Islam first entered my consciousness in the fall of 1957. I was living in France and reading numerous works of fiction and non-fiction, including Albert Camus’ THE STRANGER. The heat of the sun over Algeria had sufficient power over my imagination to lead me to others’ writings of the so-called “Algiers Group”.

Such ‘pied-noir’ authors as Albert Memmi, Jean Amrouche, Jean Pelegri and Camus, along with Muslim authors Kateb Yacine and Mohammed Dib, evoked and enlarged the physical landscape and deepened the psychological and political perspectives that formed my first impressions of a civilization whose literary and historic origins would become my scholarly preoccupation for the next fifty years. Two of those authors, Jean Pelegri and Mohammed Dib, both exiles living in France, became close personal friends.

In 1959, when I met in Paris the noted French Islamologue of the College de France, Louis Massignon, I participated at his urging in a pilgrimage held in Brittany at the site of an ancient Celtic dolmen shrine and attended by both North African and French men and women as one of many ‘actions’ for an end to the war in Algeria,  I became acquainted further with Muslims, their cultures, and their aspirations.

My association and, dare I say, apprenticeship in serious study to Professor Massignon, led me to a beginning acquaintance with the origins of Islam in the Arab Middle East. I discovered through him and his works, together with the works of other French, German, British, Dutch, Italian, Spanish, Arab, Iranian and Turkish scholars, the sources, secondary and primary, of the various traditions, modes of expression, historical and religious consciousness, internal and external crises, patterns of assimilation and renewal, and efforts in recent times of reconstitution from within and encounters with reconstituters arriving from without.

Doctoral studies in Near Eastern Languages and Literatures, pursued in the States but still under the guidance of Professor Massignon’s method of inquiry into the other’s sources and in his spirit of guestship in the other’s land, determined my academic future and travel experience. It also conditioned me to a greater acceptance of my own limitations in the face of an ever expanding subject rather than emboldened me with a presumption of knowledge or a would-be missionary’s vision of intellectual suzerainty over another’s supposed archaic historical and spiritual heritage.

Over the next fifty years I became a visitor and guest in Muslim countries, in cities, towns, villages and private homes of friends and new acquaintances. I have never presumed to be an expert on Islam or any Muslim civilization, nor have I been in a position like Massignon to demonstrate more than a textual student’s fluency in Arabic; and I have elicited more than once a jovial indulgence from a Moroccan or an Egyptian taxi driver in response to my directions given in lofty Quranic idiom. I consider myself by preference to be a kind of silent if not invisible traveler, who comes and goes with awe and curiosity but little to offer or impose. I have enjoyed the presences and generosities of hosts. I have learned that certain kinds of inner social foundations can generate and safeguard generosity and kindness to strangers, especially if it isn’t taken advantage of or doubted for its sincerity.  Massignon said of his way that he sought nothing but to be a guest, not someone trying to “annex” another’s goods or thoughts unto himself. “I have learned,” he wrote,” that creativity in thinking and building something together is possible when there is no desire for annexation on anyone’s part.”

One of my University Professor colleagues, British poet Geoffrey Hill, wrote in his long poem THE ORCHARDS OF SYON:

To be an unrivalled
Linguist is the deeper hope --  MASON
Regarding Massignon  -- a spirit
That divines the source.

He told me that this thought followed a lecture I had given to our students and some faculty on Louis Massignon. It came as a surprise and a sensitive recognition of our journey together.


I still feel the heat of the sun over Algeria, and later in the 70s and 80s I experienced variations on its theme in Morocco, Egypt and Iraq.

What I have absorbed from that initial heat is something much more inward than culture and more personal than theology. After having been a student and, I say most modestly, a teacher of Islamic history, Arabic historiography, Muslim classical institutions, certain Arabic and Persian literary treasures, and on a few experimental occasions a translator of texts, taken from olden times and modern. I discovered, as had Louis Massignon, whose major work LA PASSION D’AL-HALLAJ I translated into English for the Bollingen Series, the ultimate relevance to my life of the lives and writings of certain early Muslim mystics.

My initial reflection on Islamic mysticism, drawn from early Muslim collections of biographies and writings of its most notable practitioners (by Sulami,d. 1021; Hujwiri, d. 1071; Qushayri, d. 1072; and Attar, d. 1220), is that it developed from a sincere desire of individuals to become truly faithful Muslims by seeking to know the God of the Quran more deeply. While the governing word of membership in the Islamic community was rightly said to be ‘iman’ (faith), some members by its second century added to ‘sidq’ (sincerity) ‘zuhd’ (self-purification) and even ‘hubb’ (love) as precursory ‘ahwal’ (inner states) for undertaking the ‘safar’ (journey) toward ‘ma’rifa’ (knowledge of God). The Quranic inspiration for such seeking appears evident from the seekers’ repeated quotations from the Holy Book to justify their motivations, behaviors, and goals.  This mystical tradition thus  is considered by the mystics themselves as rooted in the religion of Islam. Some mystics, when asked ‘What is ‘tasawwuf’ (Sufism or the seeking of ‘ma’rifa’), answer with the three words: ‘shar’iah’ (the Sacred Law of the Quran}, ‘tariqa’ (the mystic path of states and stages of spiritual discipline and growth), and ‘haqiqa’(the realization of the ultimate goal).’Ibadat’(worship and obedience to the law) is essential thus and acts as the stabilizing factor of any individual quest. While you have in the earliest period what might be called extreme utterances of asceticism by Hasan of Basra. d. 728, and of love by Rabi’a, d. 801, by the third century, the head of the ‘sahw’(sobriety) school in Baghdad, Junayd, d. 910, if rivaled earlier by Bayezid Bistami, d. 874, leader of the ‘sukr’ (intoxicate) school originating in Khurasan,  established by practice and teaching the preeminence of ‘ibadat’ as the main stream of procedure for Muslim mystics. To be sure, the ‘ulama’ (scholars of Islamic Law, traditions of the Prophet, and guardians by ‘ijma’ (consensus) of matters legal and religious of the community) remained suspicious of even the most traditionalist of the mystics, as did the Caliphs and Vizirs and other governmental upholders of the faith. The latter were especially suspicious because the mystics’ message had its moral and socio-political side, for it often scored worldliness, arrogance, greed and corruption, of which leaders were sometimes guilty, as being violations of God’s will and of the Islamic ‘ummah’s’ (community’s) divinely prescribed rules.

Hasan of Basra himself spent some time under house arrest for reminding an Umayyad Caliph and a regional governor of al-‘Iraq of their respective presumptive and brutal exercises of power that contributed in his mind to the outbreak of dissident movements and persistence of sectarianism which dominated his era and violated the principle of ‘Tawhid” (God’s unity and goal for His community to realize).

Junayd, whose highly prosperous and materialistic era included flagrant excesses of caliphal and vizirial self-indulgence and misappropriation of the public treasure, as well as violent internal maneuverings for power and external challenges to the ruling Abbasid dynastic authority, cautioned those novices  under his guidance to ‘sabr’ (patience) and ‘samt’ (deeper silence), because of the danger he felt to the whole tradition of Sufism if individuals should speak out publicly and incur the wrath of those in power. It was indeed this era in which the most dramatic confrontation between mysticism and public authority in the early history of Islam occurred.

Husayn ibn Mansur known as ‘al-Hallaj al-Qulub’, (the carder or reader of hearts), d. 922, had been in his youth both a seeker of deeper knowledge of God and a protester for social justice in the community. On more than one occasion he had raised the ‘sayha b’il-Haqq’( the outcry for justice and truth). He had not adhered to Junayd’s counsel and had been warned by him of the likely consequences he would face in this world. Further, he had not followed the ‘murshid/murid’ (master/disciple) relational norm established by that time, according to Hujwiri and other biographers, and had “left his guide without permission”. He was headstrong, passionate and individualistic in his devotion to his ‘muhibb” (Beloved). He construed his “Only One’s will as inspiring and calling for passionate response to, not retreat from, community violations and human suffering. He traveled widely (throughout Iran, to India and even China), gathering disciples wherever he went among those seized by his rhetoric, hungering for his message, and convinced of the sincerity of his love for ‘al-Haqq” (God as the Truth). He was three times a pilgrim to Mecca but for those who couldn’t make the pilgrimage he urged the building of symbolic ka’bas in their homes to fulill that legal obligation. He was hunted down, imprisoned for nine years, brought to trial by legal authority supported by many of the ulama, found guilty of violating the teaching of the Quran on the pilgrimage and for a statement alleged to him of ‘Ana’l-Haqq’ (I am the Truth), was condemned to death and executed March 26, 922. The booksellers were ordered to bring his books forward for public burning. His head was carried to the Persian Samanid cities of Khurasan, where he had several disciples, including the vizir Bel’ami, who was the translator into the new Persian language of Farsi of the great Quran commentator and historian Tabari, a contemporary of the martyr. Al-Hallaj was thus officially dead, but as time has shown not forgotten. The circumstances and forces in play leading up to the horrific and historically unprecedented outcome of this Persian Arabic speaking poet and mystic’s capture and death is carefully documented in Louis Massignon’s magnum opus. On one level this historic figure’s death deepened certain  attitudes and lines previously drawn around the issue of authority (religious and secular) in Islam; on another, his surviving odes and utterances suggest new ones that have inspired modern Arab, Persian and Turkish playwrights and poets to find in his outcries and love of God themes of relevance today.

Among his sayings were the following: “O people! When al-Haqq (God) takes possession of a heart, He empties it of all else but Himself; and when He keeps a man for Himself, He ruins him for all else but Himself. When He lovingly desires a servant, He incites His other servants to enmity against him, so as to bring him closer to Himself.” (AKHBAR 36) And  “Love as long as it is hidden feels in danger, and it gains confidence only when it faces (danger).”(DIWAN,M.24,line 1)

He expresses the theme of love’s totality found in the writings of a number of his mystic predecessors, but he emphasizes particularly his theme of strength received from the Beloved when one ceases to hide His reality from others.

A 20th Century Egyptian poet, Salah ‘Abd al-Sabur, drew on the 10th Century martyr’s totality of devotion to a higher principle than himself and on his heroic facing of danger to fashion his play MAS’AT AL-HALLAJ  (The Tragedy of al-Hallaj).
In one scene Hallaj is speaking with his disciple, the celebrated but fearful mystic Shibli, about the existence of evil in the world.

Hallaj: Suppose we manage to avoid the world. How shall we deal with evil then ?
Shibli: Evil? I am confused. What do you mean by “evil”?
Hallaj: The poverty of the poor;
The hunger of the hungry.
In such eyes as theirs, I see a glow
Which means something --- something ---
but I don’t know what.
Words glow in their eyes; I am not sure
What they mean.
Sometimes I think I read there:
“Now you see me:
But you are afraid to see me.
God curse your hypocrisy.”
And sometimes I think I read there:
“Pity wilts in your eyes.
You fear that your pride
May become known.
May God forgive you.”
Then, tears may come to my eyes; or I
may suffer.
But what fills my heart with fear,
What rends my soul with fear and sorrow,
Is the sight of eyes lowered in agony,
Asking in silence, inquiring:
“Where is God?”
And the chained prisoners, a mad guard
stands over them,
Whip in hand;
Who knows who put it there ? Not he ---
He raises it over the backs of his charges,
Men and women enchained, forgetting the
freedom which they lost.
They look at authorities as though at gods,
forsaking God
Slaves!  Mockery!
Listen, my friend!
Evil has conquered the world.
Tell me, how can I close my eyes to the
And not wrong my own heart ?

           And later:

Poverty is not the longing of the hungry for
food and the naked for clothing.
Poverty is the soul oppressed;
Poverty is the use of deprivation to humiliate
To kill love and plant hatred.
(Translated by Khalil I. Semaan)

Sabur, who spent time in prison in Cairo for his own Sayha b’il-Haqq against “authorities”, presented al-Hallaj as a socialist activist as much as a mystic, seeing in his “tragedy” both states, shall we say, realized. In his own preserved utterances the mystic said to Shibli and another disciple Ibn Ata: “The rung I am on isn’t the highest rung on the mystic ladder. That belongs to God alone..” Sabur believed from the contemporary sources that this mystic’s trial was political masked behind the legal pretext of heresy, an excuse of the times for getting rid of someone supposedly inciting the people to revolt against the state. Hallaj was thus to him “modern” and a witness for his times.

Ibn ‘Arabi (d. 1240) regarded him as being of the highest order of mystic “lovers of God” and, immodestly, as a forerunner of himself. Rumi (d. 1273), currently one of the most widely read poets in the United States, refers often to Hallaj as one whose “passion” (as Attar calls his martyrdom) sticks as a bone in his spiritual throat. He also spoke of the alleged saying of ‘Ana’l-Haqq’ as being humbler than ‘Abdu’llah’, for he no longer knew himself apart even so much as a servant from God.  Neither of Islam’s probably two greatest mystics considered him a social activist, but entirely as a heroic mystic of God’s love.

Hallaj himself wrote: “I have seen my Lord (rabbi) with the eye of my heart, and I said: who are You. He said: You.”   (ra’aytu rabbi bi ‘ayni qalbi fa qultu man anta qala anta) (DIWAN, M. 10).

And: “The attainment of union is both abyss and joy, and the ensuing separation both release and destruction. One swings back and forth between two aspirations, one clinging to the veils of Timelessness, the other foundering in the sea of nothingness.”(AKHBAR 30).

And: “And even if, in the shadow, abandonment seizes you, move out into the light of the heart’s peace.” (DIWAN, M 4, line 4).

And: “I do not cease swimming in the seas of love, rising with the wave, then descending; now the wave sustains me, and then I sink beneath it; love bears me away to where there is no longer any shore.” (DIWAN M 34, lines 1-3).

In sum, the early Muslim mystics, as looked back upon by Ibn ‘Arabi, Rumi and Attar, the author of the classic spiritual journey toward realization of the truth about oneself and eternal life, THE CONFERENCE OF THE BIRDS, were radical individual souls unequivocal in their devotion to God, but were also witnesses in their own distinct ways on behalf of ‘tawhid’ for the Muslim community. They believed in their transcendent God and in their civilization. Their “speaking out” and expressions of personal ascent in Ibn ‘Arabi’s sense and religious and cultural eclecticism in Rumi’s in no way inclined them toward political sedition or sectarian divisiveness. Those mystics lived through periods deeply influenced by violations of unity of the Islamic community from within and without and by acts of terrorism and brutality. Their ‘shawq’ (yearning) as their utterances and lives clearly made known was in witness of God’s plenitude, guidance and compassion for humanity.

In terms of particular specialized knowledge, I thus refer to these early Muslim mystics as persons who continue to teach me much. I learn perpetually from studying and teaching their works of the need to dispense with certain aspects of myself, to delete unnecessary personal baggage that grows moldy in its basement of misdirected goals and speculations, in deference to a quest for what sometimes is simple and spontaneous understanding of things as they are. We are not static beings; we experience transforming states and stages. We acquire a taste for patience and mutual sociability. In both of these conditions we even find, as Rumi says, anticipations and hints of eternity.


Now to the present, which is so collectively catastrophic for the peoples of the Middle East and for so many victims of poverty and violence on all continents, as to paralyze and render us deaf to individual calls for justice and peace, whether coming from the distant past or immediate in terms of time.

In our time I believe that Louis Massignon, whose research and writing contributed so much to our knowledge of these early Muslim mystics, would shout the “sayha b’il-Haqq” for justice and truth. He had in October 1961 uttered the “Cri d’Antigone” on behalf of Algerian workers shot by French police and thrown into the Seine, as a cry for the rights of all to proper burial (LE MONDE, Oct. 19). Previously, he, together with Francois Mauriac and Jean-Paul Sartre, had led a massive demonstration in the Palais Royale in Paris against the “fratricidal war” in Algeria. He would stand now together with Muslim, Jewish, Christian and secular friends as a defiant contrast to all the useless media noise and official demonizing declarations issuing from all sides. His ‘Bulletins’ from the period recognized all sides, perpetrators and victims, as human. Throughout his writings there is a self-emptying yearning for a better humanity, which is what all those dedicated to truth and justice urge when confronted with falsehood and evil.