Go beyond the level of ego, beyond me vs. you reflections from Sura Yasin (3)
Sura Yasin is well-known for the story of three messengers narrated early in the chapter: “And set forth unto them a parable – [the story of how] the people of a township [behaved] when [Our] message-bearers came unto them.” (Q. 36:12)
The Quranic stories are all tips of an iceberg. These specific stories are told for a universal lesson applicable to all. So let us read this one attentively, for a lesson intended to us all, and applicable for us, here and now.
As usual, the Quranic story line minimizes details, the Quran only narrates what we need for our guidance, for our spiritual growth. What is further striking to me is that this is the only story in the Quran where there are no names at all: an unnamed town where two unnamed messengers are sent, and then a third to support the two. Lack of any names further emphasizes that the story applicable to all of us. No wonder someone like Ibn ‘Arabi read this story as a story directly about human self: the town refers to a human person, who is populated with various feelings, needs, capacities. Indeed one can say each person is a universe in herself, so that in Sura Fatiha, when I recite “Thee alone we worship, and from Thee alone we seek help,” “we” refers, among other things, me and all the universe within me! The three messengers are the heart and the spirit, and the intellect, says Ibn ‘Arabi.
Of course, reading the story as speaking about our inner world is not an alternative to reading the story in the macro level, as an interaction between actual human messengers and the town they are sent to. The Quranic story can be read in both ways simultaneously, both calling us to heeding the messengers sent throughout history as well as the messengers we see each day, from the trees on the road to all the infinite variety of events unfolding before us.
The story starts with noting that first two messengers, and then a third one is sent. This reminds that we do not get the message in the first round usually, and need repeated messages. The first part of the story focuses on the interaction between these messengers and the townspeople. (v. 13-19) What is interesting is that the messengers’ message seems to consist of merely: “Behold, we have been sent unto you!” (v. 14, similar to v. 16-17) And the townspeople respond by rejecting their messengership, insisting that the Merciful does *not* send messages (v. 15). There is a back and forth between the messengers and the people here. I used to find this conversation a bit circular, why does not the messengers give some more content and evidence, and why is our Creator narrating this back and forth between “yes, we are messengers,” and “no, you are not”? (The messengers in reality must be providing all this, as the second part of the story shows, but what is striking is that at this point the Quranic passage does not reveal those.) I did not know how such conversation is relevant or helpful?
On closer attention, I see that it is actually very profound. For this part of the story highlights again the attitudes that we may have and how they are crucial to the way we perceive the world around us and open up ourselves to mercy.
For instance, look at the confidence of the townspeople: the Merciful did not send down anything. It is striking that they would refer to the Merciful, and yet insist that the Merciful does not talk to them, does not send signs and messages to them. What kind of mercy is that? Someone who cares about you and yet does not bother to respond to your deepest needs for meaning and eternity. There is a contradiction in the very statement, is not there? Well, such contradiction is actually very familiar to us.
Let us think of our personal lives. Don’t we, who believe in a Merciful Creator, frequently go through situations and nod our head disapprovingly, being upset, hurt, disappointed, depressed, or angry at an event and do not see any wisdom in it? We do not see any message in such situations that we dislike or misunderstand…We then think our challenge as believers is to be patient through such “nonsense.” Yet, this idea of “patiently” struggling our way through “nonsense” amounts to saying that the Merciful does not send messengers. It is just like the townspeople in the story, “patiently” denying that the three people are not messengers and the Merciful does not send any messages.
Thus, the question whether the Merciful sends us caring messages is the crux of the matter. That is why, it is all about attitude in the first part of the story, i.e. in the part where the messengers and townspeople converse. The townspeople are so closed to the idea of messengers, that they see the messengers as a bad omen. They are so angered at the messengers that they want to stone them. Such attitude of the townspeople corresponds to our frequent attitude toward our messengers, including inner messengers (feelings, conscience, intellect,) as well as outer messengers, events and situations. We take their life-giving messages from the Merciful as criticism and attack. When we are in the level of the ego or the nafs, it is not about receiving guidance and growth, it is about me vs. them.
I am always right vs. they are wrong.
This is the level of ego. When locked up in the level of ego and self-defense, there is no way to benefit from the messengers. From this perspective of the ego, there can be no good in the events befalling us, we can only be victims of the messengers. We tell to our conscience, our feelings and the situations we encounter: “you are against me,” and we are victim: ‘you bring us bad luck.’ (see v. 18) In this mindset, regardless of what they say, all we want to do is to stone them, to silence them.
Yet, we can also shift the grounds, and recognize that the Merciful does send messengers to make us grow and flourish. If there is genuine mercy displayed in this finite and passing world, it must be coming from somewhere, from a source of Mercy. And such Merciful will not leave us in darkness, He will not let random events hit us mercilessly. If we can see this, then we can rejoice in the news of the messengers, instead of being fixated on ignoring and silencing them.
The townspeople also tell the messengers “you are mere human (bashar) like us!” (Q. 36: 15) That is, they do not see in the messengers anything more than themselves, as if the messengers are also there for their own ego. This reminds me of Pharaoh’s attitude to Moses. (Q. 7:110; 20:63; 26:25). Pharaoh, as an example of being hardened in ego level accuses Moses as waging a power struggle against him in disguise. Since he operates in that level, he insists that Moses is there to harm him, to snatch away the land from him. When we imprison ourselves in the level of ego, we only think ill of the messengers, and resist them at our own expense.
This accusation is something that I also use when I lose track of who I am. When I feel that my life is just mine, instead of a beautiful intricate calligraphy pointing to the One beyond me, then I think that everyone else is like that. Whenever I close myself to the Divine, I become blind to the signs of the One around me. Hence, I resist all the messengers who come to point to the One, bearing messages from One. It is the logic of me vs. them. This is just like when Satan saw Adam as a mere product of clay, unworthy of reverence, missing the spirit breathed into Adam. Satan must have first underestimated himself, thinking that he is mere fire, and then he missed recognizing the spirit of Adam.
In contrast, the messengers do not take the townspeople’s rejection personally. For them, it is not about “me vs. you” Instead, they emphasize that their duty is just to deliver the message of God. The messengers do not take responsibility for the townspeople’s choices. For, no one can take responsibility for someone else’s choices! Nor do the messengers buy into the idea of bad luck brought on someone because of someone else: it is all result of one’s own choices. “Are you calling being reminded as bad luck? Verily, you are wasting [your own selves.]” (v.19) This means to me that if I feel bad things are going on because I am the victim of someone else, I should think over again. Instead of blaming the situation, instead of feeling victim of bad luck, let me look at my attitude. Let me ask, can it be that my victim feeling is a result of my resistance to the messengers, to the messages of my God communicated through my life journey?
If we relax these hard guards and open up, then the messengers can help us. If we do not shut up the doors and lock ourselves in the level of ego, then we can raise above the levels of the heart and the spirit. It is not about me being right all the time, in fact it is not about being right. It is about appreciating asma al husna that emerges through my life story and other lives in the universe.
And why be afraid of recognizing that I was wrong? I may well have been abusing myself, wasting myself, depriving myself of tasting various manifestations of God’s beauty and mercy. Why not change my wrong direction when the messengers point the way? Indeed, why shall I lament my previous hunger when I find delicious sustenance? It is even better! Let us prefer being elevated to being left in ego level. (After all, as the verse prefacing the story notes, this is a finite world, we live and die, and why insist on locking ourselves up: Verily, We shall indeed bring the dead back to life; and We shall record whatever [deeds] they have sent ahead, and the traces [of good and evil] which they have left behind: for of all things do We take account in a record clear. (v.12) )
And as you go higher and expand your perception, ego is not negated, rather it is transformed for the better, it also gets purified and grows. It rejoices in the fact that it is not about itself but about becoming a mirror to the One. Indeed, after having highlighted the plight of people who close themselves off to the messengers,the story now turns to the case of such person who heeds the messengers. A man comes running from the end of the town... (v.20) ~Yamina Bougenaya (thanks to Isra Yazicioglu for editing)