Sunday, February 10, 2008

Hallaj: Mystic and Martyr

Even in condensed form, Louis Massignon's (1883-1962)description of the 10th century milieu that produced Al Husayn Ibn Mansur al Halla, known as Hallaj - 'the carder of consciences', is exhaustive and exhausting. But I was fascinated by this story of the man some regarded as a saint and others considered a heretic or madman.

Herbert Mason's "Hallaj - Mystic and Martyr" (1982, Princeton University Press)is an abridged English translation of French Islamologist Massignon's landmark four volume, 1500 page, five- decades-in-the-writing work "The Passion of al-Hallaj".

The book requires more interest about this period of Islamic history and more patience for long, abrupt departures from the narrative than many readers possess.

Massignon's prose is at turns ponderous and breathless. pass by in feverish half-page sentences littered with parenthetical and bracketed asides. Explanations about arcane and esoteric aspects of religious life mix with details of the Caliphate's annual budget. Over this backdrop Massignon's Hallaj moves like a bright comet.

For all it's scholarship, this is a very personal work. It was a verse attributed to Hallaj that first captivated Massignon: "Two moments of adoration suffice in love, but the preliminary ablution must be made in blood." It was Hallaj, Massignon contended, who helped guide him in his darkest hours, leading him from agnosticism to, of all things, Catholicism.

Hallaj was born in the Arabicized south of Iran at a time when Islam was still spilling across Asia. His grandfather, in fact, had been a Zoroastrian. He was drawn at a young age to the mystics and to 'the spiritual exile' of Sufism - which he would later abandon, "worn out by spiritual dryness and by the hypocritical fraternal correctness of those hermits who cultivate their perfection sealed off from reality."

After spending time in prayer and self denial in Mecca, Hallaj began to write and preach publicly, wandering and gaining followers. In each region he visited, he was called by a different name: "The aesthetic", "the nourisher", "the enraptured", "the dazed".

His travels took him through much of Iran, to India and into the Turkish areas where he is credited with helping to introduce Islam. He drew crowds by performing what many considered to be miracles (producing food out of thin air, increasing his physical size, etc). Apparently Hallaj made no claim to being a miracle worker. He said he performed his tricks in order to attract people to his message.

Hallaj's home was in Baghdad and Massignon creates a fascinating picture of the city teeming with the sacred and the profane: preachers holding forth in front of mosques and markets and vying for influential converts in high society, slave traders with troupes of performing women, "dream-like creatures, supposed to stimulate people's desire for aesthetic diversion...only to destroy through the lure of the feminine face..."

The rivalries of Islamic sects, the economic discontent of the masses and the political intrigues of the court combined to make Baghdad a city thrumming with tension. It was into this atmosphere that Hallaj stepped.

In Massignon's description, Hallaj preaches like a man possessed: "He cries out his joy at having reached, and having in his possession, 'the One who is at the heart of ecstasy'..."

Hallaj tears the veil of secrecy from the Sufi's lonely communion and shows the masses a man who has lost himself in God. What others preached as theory, Hallaj made real. He aroused awe and excitement among the displaced people who lived in the squalid margins of Baghdad life.

He interpreted Quranic verse and Islamic traditions in a way that puzzled some and infuriated others. Despite his denials, his followers believed he could raise the dead. His ecstatic behavior, was, to them, a sign that God spoke through him. He himself said, "Who is it but God who writes, since I am no more than the hand that serves him as an instrument?"

Hallah's most dramatic and famous proclamation was "Ana'l Haqq" - "I am the truth" (or "I am God") - a statement meant to express his oneness with the creator.

For his accusers this was enough to condemn him for "encroaching on the rights of God."

Religious leaders considered his popularity a threat and political leaders saw him as a catalyst for the people's discontent and a threat to the social order. Others withheld judgment: "What should I say about a man who in jurisprudence knows more than I do, and who in mysticism speaks a language I do not understand?"

As Reynolds Nicholson wrote in "Studies in Islamic Mysticism", Hallaj's crime was, "in actively asserting a truth which involves, religious, political and social anarchy."

Hallaj sought not adulation but condemnation and death at the hands of those who disagreed with him: "A man who is zealous for his religion is dearer to me, and dearer to God also, than a man who venerates a creature," he said. "What will you say to yourself...on the day when you see me hanging on the gibbet and killed and burned? Yet that will be the happiest day of my life."

Despite this claim, Hallaj fled when he was first ordered arrested. Later captured, he was imprisoned for eight years - but still allowed to write and receive followers.

Massigon describes how Hallaj's fate was decided in the "piestic riot" of his religious detractors and the political machinations of the Caliph's court. In a brief retrial, "this same aesthetic who had preached in vain that God must be loved first and foremost, that the holy war of the Law against idolatries must be waged against our own consciences, making us abandon all of our riches" was sentenced to death by lashing, dismemberment and decapitation and finally burning - his ashes scattered.

His execution in 922 AD was a public event accompanied by much interest and tumult. It's said he was led laughing to his death. Near the end he uttered the words: "Here I am now in the dwelling place of my desires."

There are two lives intertwined in this book: Hallaj and Massignon. After a half century of delving into his subject's story, Massignon wrote, "Not that the study of Hallaj's life yielded to me the secret of his heart. Rather, it is he who fathomed mine and who probes it still."