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Interview with the Author
Anyone who is interested in theology and the traditions of the Christian Church will be aware of the works of Julien Chilcott-Monk. His own love of theology, as well as music, have been the foundation of Julien’s entire life, and his works span sectors of the faith from instructional to devotional – and even fictional.
Following an early education in the Royal Marines School of Music, Julien later formed the Vox Humana and Gregoriana choirs, which have been performing early sacred music for more than forty years. Speaking about his love of music, Julien said: ‘As soon as I could walk and talk I had a love of music. My father was a professional musician, a church organist and music master. He founded and conducted the Bath Symphony Orchestra just before the Second World War and conducted it until the early fifties. So, my grounding in music was from childhood and, consequently, I decided to audition for a place at the Royal Marines School of Music. I certainly received encouragement from my Father. In those days one could join up at the age of fourteen, which I did in 1960.’
Before he joined the Royal Marines, Julien’s family moved many times in support of his father’s musical work. Something that uprooted the boy each time and led to his rarely moving at all in his adult life. ‘As a consequence of my father’s work and constantly moving, I attended about seven or eight schools! We started off in Bath, and then moved to Perth, in Scotland, my father having been asked to found an orchestra there. He founded the Perth Symphony Orchestra when I was about five or six: I remember it very well.’
When Julien was about fourteen years old, his mother expressed the wish to return to Hampshire, where she had originally lived, just in time for Julien to begin his studies at the Royal Marines School of Music in Kent, at the Deal Barracks. But after a while, Julien’s mind turned to his love of the Church and he was released, after two years’ service, to attend theological college. However, far from a career as a clergyman, Julien ended up going into law and managing a Regional Common Law department of a Nationalised Industry for three decades but with his interests in theology and music running alongside his day job. He said: ‘We would deal with injuries to person and property caused by the industry’s activities. All these experiences I have been able to use in one way or another.’
In 1975 Julien formed Gregoriana choir and in 1995 combined it with Vox Humana choir remaining its musical director for forty-six years. The present pandemic has meant that in all those years that the choir has not been able to meet regularly, but, after a year of emails and virtual meetings, practices have resumed once more. Julien said: ‘It has been difficult to keep everyone together and interested. But you must keep a smile on your face. Humour has been most important – as it is at all times and in all walks of life!’
In 1996, restructuring loomed and Julien decided to apply for voluntary redundancy, which move enabled him to make music and theology full time occupations. Julien began to write and has published with many publishers, about fourteen well-received books so far, which are enjoyed and used for reference materials by Christians of many denominations. The books include Walking the Way of the Cross, which includes a preface by the Duke and Duchess of Norfolk and a foreword by the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, and The Path to Sainthood: John Henry Newman.
He is currently editing and completing a book on Newman by the late Jerome Bertram FSA Cong. Orat., and writing How Jesus Laughed (a work of literary fiction based on the Gospels) as well as a portrait of the actor and historian Robert Hardy. Julien said: They are not the sort of books that rival Harry Potter, but I have done something rather different with the fictionalised accounts of the Gospels and when Robert died, I thought I was in a good position to gather other people’s memories and accounts from his many walks of life. I first met him when I had been invited by Lord Montagu of Beaulieu to provide some mediaeval music for something they were doing to celebrate the 9ooth anniversary of the founding of the monastery there. Robert Hardy had been invited to narrate the evening: my choir was providing music for the interludes. Afterwards, I introduced myself and told him that I had written a script for something we were doing that was ideal for him. I had my fingers crossed at the time so I was surprised and relieved when he said “send it to me and I’ll let you know what I think.” It was a script I had written to accompany the twelfth century The Play of Herod in the character of a Dorset shepherd. Happily, he telephoned three days later: “I loved it – I’ll do it.” We ended up performing it in Romsey Abbey and in the Oxford Oratory. After that, we collaborated on a number of things not least when he performed Gerontius in my musical version of Newman’s great poem for chorus and two actors, which he did four times – in Winchester Cathedral, Christchurch Cathedral, the Oxford Oratory and Beaulieu Abbey. In that and in all the other things we had enormous fun right up until the time he died.’
In the early 2000s, Julien and his wife were received into the Catholic Church. And as with all things in his remarkable life, Julien approached the move with typical wit and wisdom, rounding off with the words: ‘It was a development of our faith, not an obliteration of all that went before. In life, all one’s experiences are going to prove useful in later life in some way or other. Nothing need be wasted: drawing on my experiences helps me do what I do now.’
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Interview with the Author
From the council estates of the Welsh Valleys to living with Jihadists in Afghanistan as a war correspondent and training recruits at Sandhurst, all the while with the numeracy skills of a four year-old due to an undiagnosed disability, it is safe to say that Professor Paul Moorcraft has triumphed against all odds.
World renowned for his deep knowledge of foreign affairs, Professor Moorcraft grew up on a salubrious estate in Ely, Cardiff as well as just outside Pontypridd.
In the 1950s Tom Jones was a semi-neighbour and his cousin was in his class at school, and like the Welsh pop star music was in Paul’s blood, shaping how he felt about the world from an early age.
“I would have been a professional musician if I had been good enough, I still sing at the drop of a hat and I used to read the New Musical Express like a bible, I was an NME man, not Melody Maker.
“I was the founder member of the Welsh Del Shannon Appreciation Society, Runaway was a big hit and it is standing joke. Jeff Lyne reckoned that he was one of the top three singers in the world so he not as bad as people make out.
“When I was younger I used to play any instrument that I could get my hands on; my father played the piano, he wouldn’t pay for lessons but said ‘if you are any good you’ll learn’.
“I joined the school orchestra and played the violin and joined a jazz band and played the guitar badly and so on. I loved music. I used to sing quite a bit in English and sometimes in Welsh.”
Music was certainly an escape for Paul, and the harsh environment of his childhood set him up as an ardent Welsh Nationalist, and for a life of observing some of the bleakest and most dangerous of circumstances.
He said: “It was a place where you were a snob if you wore socks. So it was a natural progression from there to working in the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan and so forth. “
Paul left home at 16 and drove cabs to allow him to study in the local Sixth Form while supporting himself. He also worked in the hardest local job: on the coke ovens of the steel works.
Over time he saved up enough money to take a place and Swansea University to do a three-year degree in history and politics, and later a MA at Lancaster which was connected to the Ministry of Defence.
A sporty young man, he then studied at The University of Cardiff for a teaching qualification in PE.
But all that studying cost money, and Paul continued to drive cabs, before getting a job at his local newspaper the Western Mail in advertising, which enabled him to get a company car.
Though in an advertising role, this was Paul’s first experience of journalism, at a paper to which he would later send dispatches from abroad for more than 40 years.
He said: “I was a passionate cultural nationalist and my long-term childhood sweetheart was Welsh speaking, and didn’t like speaking English to me, yet I had an intellectual interest in international affairs so I was always torn.”
In 1973 Paul was headhunted for an unlikely role for a Welsh Nationalist. Picked for the job because of his defence studies MA, he became a civilian training instructor at Sandhurst, rubbing shoulders with new British Army recruits and members of the Royal Family.
He said: “Sandhurst was an odd thing. Here’s this bloody ardent Welsh nationalist at Sandhurst, and there was a paradox, as I was teamed up with Captain Mark Philips, a member of the Royal Family!
“I fitted in at Sandhurst in terms of sport, I used to play rugby and was a good shot. But I was a troublemaker as a Welsh Nationalist, and I was asked to stand for Plaid Cymru against the Prime Minister for Cardiff South East which didn’t go down well.
“I’ve always believed in the idea of a federal solution for the UK, which is obvious because the union is breaking up now.
“I am sad about that in a way and I have some regrets, wearing my MOD hat, but I do understand the Welsh and the Irish and how they feel. It can only work for so long because the English elite have no time or interest or understanding of the four nations.”
Throughout his youth Paul travelled a lot: hitchhiking to Germany at the ages of 14 and 16, as well as taking part in overseas exchange schemes.
He realised he was good at languages so in the 1970s he travelled to Israel and stayed on a kibbutz, an interest in the country spawned by their revival of the Hebrew language, and how that could apply to Wales.
He said: “My family are English speaking, but I spoke Welsh as a political act, I tried to learn how they learned Hebrew quickly, the immersion method and I tried to learn how this could apply in Wales.
“I am not Jewish, but I was offered a scholarship to study at the Hebrew University, so I was there in 1975 and Arial Sharron was my patron, who later became Prime Minister.
“I am rather sympathetic to Israel, as I was interested intellectually in siege cultures and at university studied Israel, Rhodesia and South Africa. Eventually, I did a doctorate on these ‘siege cultures’.
“I understand why people believe in lost causes.”
And around this time this interest in siege cultures led to Paul’s first full time journalism by-lines, for Time Magazine.
Picking up the story he said: “I was in East Africa visiting a friend but realised that all of the action was in Rhodesia because there was a major war on, so I hitchhiked there and was immediately offered a job at the university where I started lecturing in politics. My five predecessors had been deported so I thought it was a good place to learn some of my craft because I wanted to write.
“So I started scribbling for the local newspaper the Rhodesia Herald, and then because of the Sandhurst background I started editing a magazine there.
“My first full time journalism really though was for Time.
“ When people ask me what you have to do to become a war correspondent I always say ‘you have to become an alcoholic, get divorced three times and give up all hope of having a holiday’, only two per cent are mad enough and bad enough to survive. I try and put people off, it is actually always ladies who ask me, as they want to become Marie Colvin.
“I actually knew Marie quite well, I had a soft spot for her but she did not reciprocate in any way.
“She was dangerous but she had a lot of integrity and worked hard, she was a thrill seeker, wouldn’t listen and like all crazy hacks never filled in her expenses in time!
“After about ten or twelve hours I’ve had enough and just want a beer, but she would just carry on.”
“I’ve always been really lucky, I was interested in military history which led to my selection for Sandhurst and I was interested in journalism and I got a job at Time magazine. But I’ve always made a point of being in the right place at the right time.
“Also, another thing I say when people ask me about how you become a war correspondent is ‘well you have to go to the most dangerous place on earth, learn some of the language and make a lot of contacts’. 99% of people are wise enough not to do that but the odd one will…”
While writing for Time, Paul also picked up international radio jobs for organisations including the BBC, when he lived in South Africa after Rhodesia, he was a TV presenter as he could speak English and some Afrikaans.
However Paul didn’t agree with the government and, unafraid to speak his mind, the stint only lasted for two years.
He then began covering wars around Africa and his natural instinct was to live with insurgents, which set him up for later on when he would live with Jihadists in Afghanistan.
He supplemented his income with work as a locum professor at universities including Cape Town and Durban to make ends meet as ‘journalism doesn’t always pay that well’.
And then Paul met the journalist Tim Lambon, who would become one of his closest friends and colleagues.
Speaking about Tim, who is the partner of fellow war correspondent Lindsey Hilsum, Paul said: “He was all the things I couldn’t be: he could fly planes, helicopters and was a weapons specialist, tough as nails and a crack shot plus a medic. He was a good person to be with.
“He’s Rambo and I’m Danny Devito and we have done a lot of things together.”
In 1984 the pair were recruited to produce some films in Afghanistan to mark the fifth anniversary of the Soviet invasions of the country.
This experience was both terrifying and life changing for Paul, who suffered an injury to his eye during a mortar attack, survived numerous attempts on his life, and also lost three stones in weight due to the tough conditions.
It was also the first time that Paul had led teams on a journalistic project in war time, and the horrors that they all encountered, coupled with the sense of responsibility for their safety, are factors that have stayed with him throughout his life.
He said: “Don’t tangle with the Russians is my experience because they killed every household that we stayed in.
“Literally six or seven or eight people at a time. We would leave and then the next day they would go in and wipe them all out.
“The most challenging thing in my life was working there and leading people who were ex–special forces, I had to be in charge and I didn’t lose a single person.
“I got every team out from the trips and I had to be in charge even though I was physically the weakest.
“It was really hard, we would go back to the village that we had been staying in, where the locals had been offering us hospitality. And there is nothing worse than going to house when two days before you have been staying there and in the interim the Russians had either bombed or sent in troops and slaughtered the whole household, including the women and children.
“The guys I was with had been special forces and were fairly used to witnessing killing on a wide scale, one of the guys had killed 22 people close up himself, so they were more resilient than I was.
“But I had to keep everyone together because there were 40 different insurgent groups and they were often ambushing each other and us.
“It was all round pretty tough, but I managed it and I was surprised.”
Throughout this time Tim Lambon kept a diary of the experience, and documented Paul’s leadership skills during the project. This was not always flattering, but rather than be offended Paul said that this kind of learning experience cemented their friendship and working relationship.
He added: “The diary was awful about me! But it was a fantastic experience to have a very professional person who was a very good soldier to observe my leadership, and instead of becoming enemies we became the closest of friends and went off on lots of missions together.
“Just the two of us. He must have had a morbid sense of humour!”
The experience in Afghanistan, being under fire two or times a day, almost made Paul give up war reporting for good, but together with Tim Lambon he continued to undertake missions and file reports.
“It was hard mentally and physically, physically you had to walk for hours a day with a Bergen, and I know I would never pass SAS selection.” He said: “I was quite good at Sandhurst and was physically fit, but I found that every man wonders about his own courage.
“Most young soldiers wonder that. I had been under fire quite a bit by the time I went to Afghanistan, but I had seen nothing like a superpower wiping out whole areas.
“And there Russians were having it all their own way because the Americans hadn’t yet introduced the surface to air missiles, especially the Stinger, and that completely changed everything.”
Paul went back to Afghanistan again with the British Army in 2002. “Because most of the officers there I knew from previous decades I was sleeping in the mess and went on patrol. Kids would come up and say ‘are the Russians back?”
Post 9/11, Paul’s services were required by the MOD again and in 2003 he was recalled to help out with media operations during the Iraq war; just before the war, he had travelled to Baghdad with the MP George Galloway to find out what was going on, and attempted to interview Saddam Hussein.
He added: “I went into Baghdad on the eve of the war, as it was the only way that I thought I would get to speak to Saddam was to go in with George.
“I interviewed him in the House of Commons and said ‘can you take me in with you?’ And he did. It was entertaining, and I don’t agree with George on all of his principles, but he is engaging and we got on well.
“I didn’t get to see Saddam but I got to see everyone else. We sneaked in through Jordan.
“Of course when I got back I was immediately contacted by the MOD who wanted to know what I had seen and done, but I had to be careful if you are a journalist with that because otherwise journalists are going to get killed everywhere.
“I always tried to separate my journalism from any contacts I had with the establishment or the armed forces.”
“Though I worked closely with people in other agencies, and secret services and understood how it worked as a journalist I never once got a penny paid as a journalist from the MOD.
“I did not break any confidences, and I never compromised my principles as a journalist.”
And speaking about how critical it was to maintain his journalistic integrity during this time, and the issues that international correspondents face, Paul added: “I think it’s very important that journalists separate their role. When I was in Iraq I worked in media operations, and how the military dealt with journalists, which is very different.”
But the Ministry of Defence work was compromising Paul ethically, and when his department was involved in the David Kelly affair he knew that he had to take a stand.
He said: “I felt that the MOD was trying to blacken the name of a ‘decent chap’. I walked out of the role that day foregoing any future career opportunities and his pension.”
His military career over, Paul set about doing what he describes as ‘making amends’ setting up a group of homeland security magazines, advising on international crisis management and setting up a centre of foreign policy analysis which advised countries including Sri Lanka and Sudan.
“This was my one-man way to exact change.
“I was so appalled at what the government was doing in Afghanistan and Iraq, because I had been in right at the start, I used to travel sometimes with the Secretary of State for Defence and had total access.
“I believed in the war against Saddam but had no illusions about thermonuclear weapons.
“So I thought I would try to do my own foreign policy work. It was my way of putting things right. We should never intervene in a non-humanitarian way in any country at all. Our intervention in Iraq was a monumental mess.”
As well as this Paul has always been in demand, as a television commentator and pundit, most recently on the Harry and Meghan drama unfolding in the news.
Paul’s charity work has always been a big part of his life too, particularly on the issue of dyscalculia, a condition which Paul was diagnosed with later in life, which means that he has the numeric abilities of a four or five year old.
He said: “ It is the numerical version of dyslexia. The inability to deal with numbers.
“Can you imagine calling out an air strike which I have done and having to read the coordinates on a map?!
“It got so bad in the Ministry of Defence that I used to have one of my assistants help me because I couldn’t remember the code to get into my own office.
“I was 50 and I kept it to myself, you can’t admit to people that you can’t count.”
After confiding his problems to a friend, Paul went to see Professor Brian Butterworth who was doing a study on super achievers who suffer from the condition. At their first meeting he was tested and found to have the lowest score of any adult ever tested.
He said: “He told me ‘you are not fit to even be a farm labourer you are basically moron level’, I said ‘thanks Brian, we are both professors but I have written more books than you!’ He said ‘that’s why I want you to come on board.’”
After this Paul took part in a TV appeal with Professor Robert Winston, raising awareness of the condition, which up until that point had resulted in a lifetime of Paul counting on his fingers under the table to work out simple sums during high-level meetings.
The Child of Our Time Series appearance saw Paul be tested and profiled on the show, helping to de-stigmatise the condition.
Paul wrote a bestselling book about the condition called It Just Doesn’t Add Up, and his work in the field has helped countless others deal with their own diagnosis and condition management effectively.
As well as this, Paul also lost his sight.
The 1984 mortar injury to Paul’s eye had affected his vision, but could still see and could drive as usual.
But in 2009 it was uncovered that Paul was suffering from a massive misdiagnosed brain tumour – the doctors had said it was glaucoma.
The tumour was the size of tennis ball and he had to undergo brain surgery, from which he only just survived.
He said: “I was completely blind, and was registered blind, I was given a white cane for a year. I didn’t completely see again but I do have a bit of vision back now. I can just about read thank goodness.”
But he still travels to war zones, taking a guide to, as Paul puts it, ‘help him spot the landmines’.
Paul’s current home is back in Wales, and as well as his dyscalculia work Paul advocates for other disabled travellers by sitting on the accessibility panel for Great Western Railway (GWR).
He said: “I did it before I lost my sight, the way disabled people are treated on trains is appalling, I don’t know how many times I have helped people out who are in wheelchairs, it’s abysmal.
“GWR got so tired of me complaining so they asked me to join their team, and I must say since I have been working with these guys they do put a lot of effort in, but our railways system is bad anyway. I would renationalise the railways.”
But what of the future of journalism? What does Paul think about the rise of social media and click bait headlines. Does the truth matter anymore?
Paul, who still lectures in journalism at a number of National Council For The Training of Journalists accredited universities still believes in the next generation’s ability to make a difference.
He said: “We all know that everyone is subjective but I believe in old fashioned journalism, if it is raining just go outside and see if it’s raining, not seek two opinions on whether it is raining or not?
“I use social media to promote some of my books, they didn’t like some of my views and I got trolls and pulled out of these things. I still there is a place for professional journalists and I have always called myself a ‘hack’ and I do believe that the old fashioned standards of journalism are important.
“I admire journalists, of course some are in it for the big hair and vanity, but most journalists, and especially foreign correspondents take enormous risks and the pay is not that good. There is a genuine belief in telling the truth.”
Paul has written numerous books about his experiences and conflicts, and his latest work entitled ‘The Jews Hitler Hated The Most’ is a historical investigation into the Jewish Special Forces who fought as part of the British Army during the Second World War.
Paul is a fellow of the Royal Historical Society, and the new book combines his historical and military expertise, as well as his experiential perspective on Israel.
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Sufism is considered the mystical side of Islam, the bearer of the hidden mysteries of divine revelation. In its essence, it is defined as a spiritual path and is translated into the existence of individuals through a rigorous process of self-education that aims to purify oneself of vices and thus to be softened by virtues.
The final goal of the Sufi mystic is to ascend to the heavenly heights, that is to say, to attain the highest possible consciousness that will enable him to gain access to the veiled knowledge of reality, the so-called esoteric knowledge, expressed in Arabic by the term al-batin, in addition to the apparent, exoteric side of that same reality, called ad-dahir.
The Sufi exercises an inner effort to transform himself, imbued with an ardent passion that takes him to his supreme condition in a spiritual journey of transcendence towards the effacement of the visible to the dazzling, that is to say, to the divine center of his Being from which the Truth, the Eternal, the Sublime and the Beautiful are apprehended. And in this journey of inner elevation, the Sufi aspirant considers Love as the highest of steps.
In Sura 18 (verses 65-82), Khadir, an enigmatic figure, the initiator of the prophets and saints, tests Moses three times by performing acts that seem to contravene the Law. Moses places himself under his obedience, but he soon becomes impatient and rebellious because he sticks to the external norms of the Law. Khadir, for his part, judges according to the profound reality of things: he explains to Moses the validity of his acts, then leaves him there. Thus the Qur’an indicates the superiority of inspired inner science over the religious data intended to govern the world of forms.
Sufism was born from the 8th century onwards in the East and more precisely in Iraq and Iran. Originally, the practice was an individual choice for asceticism, contemplation and prayer. As Muslim societies grew towards prosperity, the early Sufi mystics made the opposite choice, moving away from the urban centres to lead a secluded life in the valleys and deserts, far from earthly pleasures and in abstinence from opulence and luxury, in poverty and austerity.
From the 11th century onwards, Sufism emerged from its ascetic version as an individual experience to become a path of spiritual teaching, i.e., a path of spiritual initiation, known in Arabic as tariqa, and organized itself around the example of a master then called a sheikh who transmitted his spiritual influence to aspiring disciples called murid.
As an Islamic proverb testifies, there are several initiatory paths: “the paths to God are as numerous as the souls of men“. There are therefore several brotherhoods that will mark the history of Islam, such as the well-known brotherhood of dervishes that flourished in Ottoman Turkey and many others that were established in many countries, such as the Taybiyya brotherhood that became from the 17th century the most powerful Sufi brotherhood in Morocco, the brotherhood of Derkaoua founded in the 12th century or the brotherhood of Shadiliyya to which the famous Zaouïa Naciria of the Draa Valley in southern Morocco is linked.
The origin of the Sufi name, is tasawwuf in Arabic. It remains unknown and several hypotheses are being debated. Some believe that the term refers to the Arabic word suf, which means wool, in reference to the white woollen robe that was once worn by the disciples of this spiritual path, who in ancient times were themselves called faqir, which means poor, and then took the name of Sufi. For these faqirs, poverty was the robe of the pious man, the mantle of the expression of their piety.
Another thesis links the origins of the word tasawwuf to the very historicity of Islam, at the time of the Prophet Muhammad whose teachings attracted a group of scholars who were then referred to by the word sufiyya, meaning the “people of the bench.” These disciples had indeed taken the habit of sitting at the entrance of the Prophet’s mosque in Madinah. Thus, while waiting, they engaged in discussions on the search for development of the Being and devoted themselves to meditation.
A third thesis, which is not well supported however, notes the kinship of the word Sufism with the Greek word sophia which means wisdom or knowledge.
Sufism is an aspect of eternal, universal wisdom, and as such it has existed since Adam. From a historical point of view, it was incarnated in the body of the Islamic religion, which was born in Arabia in the 7th century. It can therefore be defined as the inner, spiritual dimension of Islam. In the Qur’an (57 :3), God is presented as being both External and Internal, Apparent and Hidden. However, for the Sufis, creation is in the image of God. Behind the world of appearances, forms, dogma, and law, there is therefore an inner reality (Haqiqa) which is its true foundation, and gives it meaning.
It is this reality that the Sufi tends to perceive, starting from the outer, peripheral norm, the shari’a, and progressing along the Initiatic Way (tariqa), which links appearance to essence, bark to core. This introspective process is traced in the Qur’an (51 :20) : “On earth there are signs for those who are endowed with sure vision. And in yourselves, do you not see ? ».
Access to spiritual realities, to the “only Real” God (al-Haqq, the major name of God in Islam), has as a prerequisite i.e. the loss of our illusions about the world and our own ego. It takes shape through inspiration and “unveiling“, which do not obliterate reason but transcend it. Inspiration is heir to prophetic revelation : it can fall to a simple being, foreign to the theologians’ elaborations. As for unveiling, it allows us to lift the veils that the sensitive world casts on man, and dispels the doubt associated with speculative sciences.
The Sufis have assigned several goals to their discipline. They agree on the need to purify the soul in order to be transparent to Allah and to acquire the “noble virtues” of the Prophet : “You are indeed endowed with a sublime character,” says the Qur’an to him (68 : 4). For most Sufis, purification is only a means, one must know Allah in order to worship Him better. However, one cannot know Allah as long as the ego interposes itself between Him and the human conscience : it is by extinguishing itself in Allah (al-fanâ’) that the initiate realizes that He alone is.
Doesn’t the profession of faith of Islam affirm that “there is no god but Allah”? For the Sufis, this formula means : “There is only Allah,” for the created and the contingent necessarily fade before the Absolute. The initiate, immersed in the Presence of God, then sees nothing apart from Allah, but once back among men, he must “subsist” in Allah (baqâ’), that is to say, see Allah in every being, in every manifested thing, which is more difficult… The Sufi therefore does not reject the world. “Beings were not created for you to see them, but for you to see their Lord in them,” says a Sufi. The Qur’an repeatedly urges man to decipher the “signs” (âyât), to know Allah by contemplating His manifestation : “We will show them Our signs in the universe and in themselves until they see that it is the Real [God]” (41 :53).
The journey of the Way (tariqa) involves too many tribulations and perils to be accomplished without the help of an experienced person. An ancient Sufi once said, “He who has no guide, has Satan as his guide.” Therefore, the practice of Sufism is inconceivable without the initiatory relationship between the sheikh and his disciple, which is similar to the relationship that the Prophet had with his Companions.
Various methods exist to lead the aspirant to spiritual realization. The retreat (khalwa), for example, used to last forty days or more, but it is now conducted over three days. The master or his representative must control the recluse, for the intense exercises he performs can be perilous for the psyche. The major spiritual support remains without a doubt the practice of dhikr, an Arabic term meaning both “remembrance and invocation of Allah.” In many instances, the Qur’an makes dhikr the best spiritual therapy and the highest form of worship (29 :45 ; 13 :28…). Only dhikr, in fact, makes it possible to fight against the amnesia that afflicts man, forgetting the Pact (mîthâq) sealed with God in pre-eternity. The invocation formulas are Lâ ilâha illâ Llâh (“there is no divinity but Allah“) or such a divine Name as : (yâ Hayy / “O Living One” …), and the “Name of Majesty”, Allah, which synthesizes all the others. Dhikr can be practiced alone or in a group, in a low or loud voice. Group dhikr sessions can bring together several thousand people. A spiritual “dance” then accompanies the movements of the soul, the best known in the West being the gyratory dance of the Whirling Dervishes, which symbolizes the rotation of the planets around the sun.For the Sufi, the music he hears is like an echo of the Divine Word and is a celestial harmony, like the sounds of the reed flute (ney) so prized by Rûmî (d. 1273), the great poet and founder of the Whirling Dervishes, because it reminded him nostalgically of the primordial state of union of man with his Creator.
Collective sessions of spiritual music (samâ’) were widespread in the land of Islam. Mystical poems were sung with or without instruments and provoked ecstasy and trance, even among the ulemas and muftis who attended. Nowadays, singing and music remain spiritual supports within the confraternity circles, and Sufi music ensembles perform all over the world, using at times their Trance music to heal mental disorders, chase evil spirits jinn or cleanse the soul from negative energy, like in the cases of the world-known Sufi music group of Jajouka from Morocco.
Sufism developed in the Sunni climate because it is based on the internalization of the Prophet Muhammad model, the Sunna. The fundamental master-disciple relationship only makes sense in reference to the Prophet, the Master of Masters, and every Sufi order finds its legitimacy in the “initiatory chain” that goes back to him. The Muslim saints are thus nourished by the blessed influx of divine grace (baraka,) of the one who is for them “the perfect Man”.
Sufism cannot be a marginal phenomenon in Islamic culture, as it strives to constantly maintain harmony between the exoteric and esoteric aspects of the Islamic message. Sufism illuminates the dogma and rites of Islam from within, giving them meaning. In the face of the growing influence of Muslim law over the centuries, the Sufis, who were often great ulemas, remind us that only the Spirit is able to enliven the forms and combat the sclerosis of Islamic thought. It is in this that they define their discipline as the living heart of Islam.
In the course of their spiritual experiences, the first Sufis, who appeared in Iraq in the ninth century, sometimes shocked the Muslim establishment. However, they learned from the trial of Hallâj (born in 858 and executed in 922), and some even condemned the disclosure of “divine secrets” because not all truth is good enough to be told. They tried to highlight the fundamental orthodoxy of Sufism : the Sufi path is marked by spiritual “stations” that all have their origin in the Qur’anic lexicon ; Sufism is none other than full, complete Islam, because it takes into account all the dimensions of the Islamic message.
Sufism has truly gained its rightful place in Islamic culture with Ghazali (1058-1111), an illustrious scholar who, after feeling a spiritual void, left all his functions to take the mystical path : he confessed at the end of his life that Sufism is the only discipline that enables him to reach Allah and merge with him, in the best of ways possible.
It was in the 11th and 12th centuries, a period during which many Christian monastic orders were born, that spiritual families were created in Islam. The light of prophecy had then gradually faded, and it was up to the Sufi sheikhs to take charge of the education of the faithful : specific supervision and appropriate initiation methods were put in place. The brotherhoods – which should rather be called “initiatory schools” – then responded to a need for spiritual and social structuring that the ulemas were unable to satisfy. After the capture of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258 and the collapse of the Abbasid Empire, only the Sufi networks offered a vision of the world that transcended the vagaries of history.
Some major brotherhoods and their birthplaces are : the Qâdiriyya (Iraq, 12th c.), the Khalwatiyya, (Caucasus, 14th c.), the Naqshbandiyya (Central Asia, 13th, 14th c.), the Shishtiyya (India, 13th c.), the Shâdiliyya (Egypt-Maghreb, 13th c.), the Mawlawiyya (“the Whirling Dervishes” : Anatolia, 13th c.) etc. These “motherways” were later divided into branches, which acquired greater or lesser autonomy and each branch bore the name of its founder, to which it sometimes added that of its initiatory source. For example, the ‘Alâwiyya (20th c.), came from the Darqâwiyya (early 19th c.), which itself had its origin in the Shâdiliyya (13th c.).
The mystical Muslim adopts the path of Allah’s Love to access the knowledge of God. For him, this elevation to the divine is possible here on earth and in existence itself. This is why he chooses to devote himself entirely to this experience which must lead him to the eternal Truth.
To reach this Truth, in the heart of the heights of consciousness, the Sufi neophyte takes an initiatory path, the tariqa, which leads him to discover within himself the premises of an ecstatic state. This is the beginning of the path of emancipation from one’s own limitations. The Sufi writings testify then that the soul of the mystical lover, leaving behind the ephemeral, rises towards the Sublime, and lets him see the Impenetrable :
“If you come to know yourself completely, if you can honestly and harshly face both your dark and your bright sides, you will reach a supreme form of consciousness. When a person knows himself, he knows God. “ (The book of Chams de Tabriz by Jalâl Ad-Dîn Rûmî, Persian mystic poet (1207-1273))
The Sufi’s preferred means of moving towards this point of consciousness is the dhikr rite, the practice of repetitive, litany-filled recitation of divine names or formulas from the Qur’an that places him in a state of contemplation of Allah, through the maintenance of a constant and meditative thought about Allah. Thus the mind of the postulant, submerged in the ocean of contemplation, is absorbed by the Divine Spirit. It is the accession to a state of abstraction, called in Arabic istighraq, from which the view of the beauty of the existence of the One is finally granted and one feels the sweet spiritual intoxication, called in Arabic sukr :
“This is what is required of a Faithful of love that God leads in this world through the degrees of human love to the ascent of divine love ; because in the garden of love it is one and the same love, and because it is in the book of human love that one must learn to read the rule of divine love“. (Song of Rûzbehân Baqlî Shîrâzî (1128-1209), a Sufi mystical figure, Persian poet and philosopher.)
The Sufi initiate is certain that the light of divine sublimity is incarnated in his soul through his heart, which explains why Love (‘ishq) and Tenderness (maHabba,) towards Allah, is the privileged path for him. He has faith in the mystical equation that structures Sufism : once he reaches the higher states and the attributes of the human, the evanescent creatures disappear and leave those of the Creator, the Permanent, to remain, for ever. In fact, the Sufi initiate becomes a divine sage, a connoisseur of Allah and an enlightened believer :
“If it is the Spirit who wins the victory over the soul (nafs), the heart will be transformed in him, and at the same time, will transmute the soul by the spiritual light that will spread in it. The heart then reveals itself as it really is, namely, as the tabernacle of the divine mystery (sirr) in man. ” (René Guénon, French intellectual (1886-1951))
After the early stages of ascetic experience, and once a theoretical and ritualistic corpus had matured, Sufism underwent a period of philosophical influence with the works of personalities such as Mohyed-Din Ibn ‘Arabi (1165-1240), a great Sufi and Andalusian philosopher nicknamed “the Greatest Master.” But the expansion of Sufism was above all linked to the progressive Islamization of the peoples conquered by the Arab armies, particularly in the Maghreb, where the building of the first mosques was intended to encourage the Amazigh tribes to adhere to the values of the new religion.
The fascination with Sufism lies in the fact that it is a spiritual Islam. It thus presents itself as a solution to the supremacy of the social dimension in Islam, i.e. the shari’a considered by the vast majority of Muslims as sacred and timeless, which constitutes an obstacle to the evolution of Muslim societies and hinders their transition to the modern age. In the West and particularly in France, where secularism is being put to the test in the face of this increasingly demanded body of legislation, encouraging Sufism is, for many, a way of moving towards a European Islam more compatible with the values of the Republic.
Sufism is also known to be a doctrine of tolerance and coexistence, which can only be seductive at a time when violence in the name of Islam is a cause for concern worldwide. This criterion of tolerance is attributed to it by the fact that it prevails over the spiritual dimension of Islam. However, in a spirituality, which has as its sole objective the worship of the divine, not only are all Islams equal, but all religions are equal. There is also the fact that Sufism sings the praise of universal love ; what better than love to counter violence and fanaticism ?
However, recognizing these positive aspects of Sufism should not prevent us from looking at it more realistically. It is important to emphasize that regardless of the universality of its discourse, Sufism is a doctrine that belongs to Islam.
Although Sufism is spiritual, it does not reject the social dimension of Islam, and this has been the case since the rapprochement between Sufis and jurists around the 12th century. The Sufi masters highlight the interest that their doctrine gives to the recommendations of Allah and his Prophet. Some like Ruzbehan and al-Ghazali were masters in jurisprudence. Sheikh Khaled Bentounes, the spiritual father of the Sufi brotherhood al-Alawiyya, wrote on this subject : “Islam, like any religion, has an outward appearance, made up of laws, doctrines, precepts, etc., which are the basis of the religion of the Sufi. But, the Sufis are not satisfied with this.”
As for the principle of love, Nacer Hamed Abu Zayd warns, in his book “Thus Spoke Ibn Arabi,” against the sublimation the Sufis have for Ibn Arabi as an icon of Sufi love. He used the latter’s texts to show that in particular circumstances he made statements that went against the principle of love he was singing about.
However, the most negative point of Sufism lies in its epistemological theory. It is based on principles that encourage neither intelligence nor rational thinking.
It is important to clarify that the rise of Wahhabism is not a consequence of the weakening of Sufism, but of the absence of a thought capable of taking a critical look at itself and at the Salafist and literalist doctrines on which it is based.
Thus, in order to combat Wahhabism, it is not enough to confront it with its sworn enemy, Sufism. To combat Wahhabism, one must value creative thinking and encourage reason as a rational faculty. However, Sufism belongs epistemologically “to the great theory, which finally brings together all Islamists, except for certain schools, considering that human thought cannot constitute access to knowledge and truth. ” (Cf. Razika Adnani, Islam : quel problème ? Les défis de la reforme, page 32.)
Sufi epistemology is based on the theory of the saints, based on the idea that knowledge is not accessible through intellectual speculation or sensitive perceptions. It can only be accessed through inspiration and spiritual revelation. It is therefore, once again, God who reveals the truth to those who have attained inner purity, that is, to the initiates, to the saints. He who receives the truth will seek neither to dismantle nor to explain it, but simply to pass it on.
With this theory, Sufism promoted superstition and the magical spirit, antipodes of creative and rational thought, which the Sufi brotherhoods, legitimate daughters of Sufism, spread among the people. The period of the flourishing of Sufism, between the 12th and 19th centuries, was one of poverty and decline for the Muslim world ; the value of a theory or idea is certainly measured by its effects on the reality of the people who believe in it and on their behavior.
Thus, the discourse on tolerance and love advocated by the Sufis, which can only be interesting, should not prevent us from taking a critical look at Sufism, from being cautious so as not to add a sleepiness of thought to that which already exists.
In Morocco as in its native lands, Sufism began its implantation through the dissemination of ascetic experiences carried by isolated personalities. Despite their withdrawal from the rest of the world, these Allah worshippers, these marabouts, facilitated the spread of Islam and the Arabic language in rural areas among the tribes, conveying the values of tolerance and self-improvement.
Since the 9th century, Sufism spread in Morocco through the spiritual influence of various personalities recognized as scholars, sages or saints and who organized around them the grouping of their faithful in brotherhoods implanted in all the territories of Morocco in the form of zaouïas, a true relay place of the religious teaching and the authority of the Sufi master, his disciples and later on his successors.
Sufism, via these brotherhoods and their zaouïas, imbued the entire Moroccan population with its spiritual and philosophical values, those that advocate the elevation of the individual, peace, tolerance and living together. But above all, the zaouïa became a focal point of religious authority and thus of structuring local society, particularly thanks to the social actions undertaken towards the most destitute and thanks to the economic power conferred by the progressive accumulation of wealth resulting from the payment of offerings by the faithful, and particularly with the establishment of the rite of the ziara.
The ziara is a periodic – often annual – pious visit that the faithful make to a holy place and its marabout. It is a day of recollection and prayer, but above all of renewal of the pact of trust and allegiance with the spiritual guide, and on this occasion a gift is made to him.
Little by little, stronger personalities established their authority around their spiritual radiance and thus their quality as sheikhs. Bearers of their religious legitimacy, their influence would naturally extend to the political, social and economic sphere of the territory where they were established. Over the centuries, and because the Amazigh tribes quickly understood the interest of being linked to these leading personalities, the cult of the marabouts became customary. These pious Sufis, both living and dead, became the object of worship by the crowds of the faithful among the Muslims and the Jews alike.
Throughout its history, Morocco is thus strewn with zaouïas, these places of teaching related to various Sufi brotherhoods such as the Zaouïa Tijaniyya, the Zaouïa of Illigh, the Zaouïa of Dila or the Zaouïa Naciria at Tamegroute in the Draa Valley.
Literally, the word zaouia means angle. This word also comes from the Arabic verb inzaoua which means “to withdraw.” In its essence, it is the place where the wise man welcomes his disciples and which also serves as a shelter to feed and house the most destitute. Qualified as friends of God, in Arabic Waliyu Allah, these wise men are usually called Sidi or Moulay which means my Master. The reputation and religious prestige of some of them was limited to one locality, while others extended their spiritual fame and religious influence to the whole of Morocco and even to a large part of Africa, like Tijaniyya Sufi order, to the point of becoming indispensable interlocutors and partners for the central authorities, first and foremost the Sultans or Presidents :
“None of us will have the empire, but none of us will have it without us.” (Moulay Tayeb son and successor of the founder of the Taybiyya brotherhood)
In fact, the zaouia became the real driving force of local society, where religious, social and, of course, political authority was exercised. This meshing of Morocco by these myriads of zaouïas greatly influenced the very organization of Moroccan society. Thus today the local administration relies on the functions of khalifa and muqaddam as a relay between the public authorities and the population. The khalifa was in fact the direct assistant to the Sufi Master, the sheikh, who was invested with some of his powers in his absence, and the muqaddam was the executor of the Sufi Master’s directives to the community of his followers, the true disseminator of the doctrine of his tariqa, and his brotherhood. The word sheikh, which was once used to designate the spiritual heart of the brotherhood, was even used to signify a high office of public authority in a given territory.
The mystical culture of Islam has deeply permeated the people and the elite of Morocco and its traces remain visible today through the remains of all those zaouïas whose names embroider the country with the sometimes flamboyant memory of these countless marabouts who have thus shaped the history of Morocco’s territories, and whose homage is still perpetuated around the mausoleum that houses their remains. While this reality bears witness to Morocco’s identity, it is also a sign of enthusiasm for the divine that animates the people and the structuring role of religion (both Islam and Judaism) in the construction of the country.
Thus Sufism becomes, as it expands, both an essential component of the religious identity of Moroccans and at the same time a framework for the growth and development of the country within the religious philosophy of tolerance, coexistence and communion.
You can follow Professor Mohamed Chtatou on Twitter: @Ayurinu
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Interview with the Author
From translating an Oscar nominated and Bafta winning documentary, to focusing on Amazing Women of the Middle East in her latest book, storyteller Wafa’ Tarnowska is inspirational in her own right.
Born in Beirut and educated at a French school, Wafa’ is fluent in five languages, and has used this amazing skill to great effect over the years as a radio broadcaster and storyteller, appearing at notable venues such as Tate Modern, Glastonbury Arts of Islam Festival and the Edinburgh and Emirates Festivals of Literature.
Her children’s book The Arabian Nights won the American Folklore Society Aesop Accolade, the Moonbeam Award Gold Medal and were named by Smithsonian Magazine as a ‘notable book for children’.
How did Wafa’ begin? Aged just 19, disillusioned and traumatised by the war in Beirut, Wafa’ left Lebanon to study in Australia at the prestigious University of Melbourne.
Speaking about what she describes as ‘the bravest thing I ever did’ Wafa’ said: “I had sixty dollars in my pocket and a one-way ticket. I had never been to Australia, I had only heard about it from my mother’s family there, but I had never actually lived in a western country for more than a month.”
“I had only travelled twice before in my life: to visit Egypt age 15 and stay with my aunt for the summer and to the UK aged 18, to live for a month at a strawberry picking camp in Norfolk to perfect my English. So, going to Australia was a huge travel experience. It was a one-way ticket.” “Also because of the war in Lebanon, the phone lines were destroyed, and the internet was not yet widespread. There was no functioning post either so I couldn’t write to my parents or talk to them for four years!!”
“So, the first time the phones were repaired, when my mother phoned me to Australia, I fainted!”
Wafa’ lived with her uncle’s family during the first year of her studies but then moved out working as a nanny and making cappuccinos. But in her third year at Uni, Wafa’ was headhunted by the then-fledgeling SBS radio station who wanted a translator who could speak perfect Arabic and perfect English. Wafa’ said: “Some migrants come to a country not knowing the language, I came knowing English, but I perfected the subtleties of the language in Australia, then started writing and thinking in English.”
“I spent five days a week at University and then at the weekend I worked at the radio station as a translator for the Arabic programme. I also had a 10-minute children’s show, storytelling children’s stories in Arabic with sound effects. It was great fun!”
“Eventually I became a full-time broadcaster. It was my first career and although I left it for several years, I am back broadcasting a show on Oneness Talk Radio called “Sufi Voices” which I am enjoying tremendously. It is worth mentioning that SBS is now one of the biggest radio stations in Australia broadcasting in 40 languages, but when I started there, there were only five, among them Arabic!”
After university, Wafa’ travelled to Lebanon to care for her mother who was sadly dying of cancer. While there, she met and married her then-Reuters journalist husband and had two children. When her children were still very young her husband was posted to Beirut, and while living there Wafa’ enrolled at the American University of Beirut to complete her Master’s degree. She said: “I applied because I had good grades and they were looking for mature-aged students, so it was the perfect fit. They even gave me a scholarship!”
Wafa’s work as a translator is highly regarded. Other than translating the Bafta and Cannes award-winning documentary “For Sama”, she has translated several documentaries, theatre plays, children’s books and two books for an audio publisher.
Before the French translation of “For Sama” was being presented at Cannes, Wafa’ worked with director Waad al-Kateab’s, who was keen to oversee every process of her film.
But it is as an author and storyteller that Wafa’ has truly found her passion and calling. She credits her love of this ancient skill to her beloved grandmother Hannah. She says: “The Arab world has a very strong tradition of storytelling. Being a “hakawati” (storyteller) is well-regarded. But usually, it is men in the public sphere and women in the private one. So, women would be the storytellers of the family, and men were the storytellers at the cafes.”
“My grandma was a brilliant storyteller. She was absolutely mesmerising. She was a petite ball of energy. She was the matriarch of our family and was hugely sociable. She continued dancing at weddings until her eighties with such joy for life. She was fantastic, and I adored listening to her. That’s why I dedicated my book The Arabian Nights to her because it is the opus of the most amazing storyteller on the planet: Scheherazade.” “I think I learned unconsciously how to do storytelling from my grandma and from the 200 plus stories in the Arabian Nights. Then with radio, you learn how to use your voice properly.”
“But the years went by, and I only ‘came out of the closet’ so to speak, when my own version of the Arabian Nights came out, because although I had written three or four books before that, the Arabian Nights were about traditional storytelling. And I’m still doing it!”
Wafa’s latest book Amazing Women of the Middle East: 25 Stories to Inspire Girls Everywhere seeks to elevate and empower young women the world over, and telling the stories of these brilliant women, has been an uplifting experience for her, her illustrators, and her readers.
Her heroines span eras of history from Nefertiti, to Cleopatra, to Queen Zenobia of Palmyra, to Empress Theodora, to Zahra Lari, the first woman to compete as a figure skater wearing the Hijab, showing that Middle Eastern women, like Wafa’, have been breaking glass ceilings for generations.
Wafa’ said: “This is the first of many books on amazing women I plan to write. My criterion is that they are passionate about something and they succeed in it. They don’t all have to be politicians or activists, or actresses.”
“My book is not about being a celebrity. Celebrity is very short-lived, but people who make a long-lasting impact are different, they are visionaries who see further than us, are of service to humanity and are in it for the long haul despite all obstacles.” She added: “In fact, there is a lack of role models not only for Arab women but for Black, Asian and Hispanic women as well.”
“Teenage girls and young women need to see many examples of people who look like them and share their background, who are succeeding and breaking glass ceilings.”
“The stereotypes of the angry Black woman, the feisty Latina, the meek Asian, and the downtrodden Arab woman must give way to images of diverse women who are leaders in their fields, are passionate about what they do and -most importantly- inspire others to do the same.”
Watch Video Interview with Wafa:
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Interview with the Author
Martin Palmer is a fearless, theologian, broadcaster, translator, environmentalist and to some fundamentalist Christians in the 1980s a forerunner of the Antichrist! Palmer is not afraid to speak his mind on religious, ethical, environmental and historical issues and appears regularly on television and radio. He has advised eminent world figures including The Pope, and has worked with The Duke of Edinburgh on environmental projects. A passionate religious scholar and committed Christian, Palmer has written or co-written a number of seminal books, including translations of Chinese texts, and The Dangerous Book.
In 2018 his translation of Romance of the Three Kingdoms was published by Penguin Classics. He has also worked with UNICEF and the UN, and leads FaithInvest, an international organisation which advises faith on moving their investments to more sustainable, environmental and ethical opportunities. The son of a Bristol vicar and agnostic mother who worked in psychiatric care, Palmer for a short time turned his back on his vicarage upbringing. His father knew that ‘God was love’ but his growing son never understood why, so in the typical fashion of a questioning young man set out to debunk the whole thing during his A-Level theology studies. He said: “We moved to Swindon when I was 15 and I became an atheist, I think when you grow up in a vicarage you have to become an atheist at some point because you’ve got to move away in the same way that you leave home.”
Martin wanted to study Geology at A-Level, but was unable to take the course because of a lack of interest among his peers. At that time he was ‘terrible’ at languages, so opted for Theology in an attempt to debunk the religion which had underpinned his childhood. He said: “I took theology having no idea what it was and fell in love with it. I went into it as an atheist and came out of it as somebody who realised that there was a voice there that I could not get rid of. “When I went into it we were studying the synoptic gospels and I thought great, I am going to bring historical and literary criticism to bear on these texts and show there is no Jesus, that this is all fake. “I went in to demolish the gospels. I thoroughly enjoyed myself stripping back the stuff, but in the end there was a voice I couldn’t ignore. “And then almost as soon as that happened Godspell the musical came out. That was very influential to me too because it got away from the stained-glass window Jesus that I have never believed in.” Before taking a place at university Palmer travelled to Hong Kong, and it is there that he learned the Chinese language, sparking in him a love and passion which shaped his life forever. Palmer went on to study Religion and Theology at Cambridge University and later travelled to China, and so his career began. He incorporated his love of the natural world, his fears for the future of the planet and his understanding of world religion into his work.
A recent project was creating the Education For Sustainable Development Tool Kit, which launched by the UN through UNICEF. Palmer and his team created the first-ever faith-based toolkit, to help motivate and inspire religious groups through gratitude. Palmer believes that the most pressing issue when it comes to our environment is our lack of gratitude and the perception of doom and gloom which he believes is unhelpful. He said: “The environmental movement has become like a bad religion, and a bad religion doesn’t give you hope, it tells you that you are sinful, wicked, bad and awful. “And the only hope you have is if you join this peculiar sect that will then tell you exactly what to do and think. “We should start by being thankful that we live on this amazing planet. When was the last time you heard a conservation group talk about thankfulness?”
For many years Palmer has advised and sought support from some of the most powerful religious and secular leaders in the world. And credits challenges from childhood with his ability to adapt and get the best out of many different types of people. He said: “He said: “We grew on a council estate on the outskirts of Bristol and that was very formative for me, because at home I spoke like this (well-spoken accent). “And I remember when we moved there when I was five, and after a week in my primary school, I realised that I was going to have to speak differently and I was going to have to swear. “And so I adapted, and one of my friends who is an anthropologist always says that’s why I can work with different religions because I grew up in two different cultures. That was quite challenging. “The reason I will be meeting with them is because they share some aspect of my own passions.
“Whether that is for faith or for the culture of for China. Or environment, history or religion in general, there is always a reason we are meeting. “I was brought up by good socialist parents who treat everybody the same, and very often my approach is to use a lot of humour and that’s quite a surprise to some people. “It was quite a surprise to The Pope, and it was quite a surprise to Prince Philip, but he can ‘out humour’ me, we have had some long joke-telling sessions. None of which we should probably repeat!” But, sometimes even master communicators get starstruck, and one religious figure got the better of Palmer, in an event which would lead to a long friendship. He said: “Only once have I ever been completely flustered, I’ve met the Dali Llama, I’ve met the heads of most major religions and so on. But I was really flustered when I met for the first time someone who became a beloved friend. “This was Kushok Bakula Rinpoche the 20th reincarnation of the Buddha’s disciple Bakula, and he was a royal prince from Ladakh in Northern India. “He had been one of maybe five Buddhist MPs in the early Parliament of independent India, and then in 1989 when he was already quite old, he asked if he could be made the Ambassador to Mongolia, because Mongolia was still then a Communist country, and his tradition of Buddhism which is essentially Tibetan is the same as Mongolian Buddhism so he thought ‘great I’ll go be the ambassador and this will mean maybe going to one formal dinner a week, the rest of the time I can sit in their national library which has the only surviving copy of the full Mongolian Tibetan sacred text and I can study’. “Within six months of his arriving Communism had been overthrown, the leader of what had been the Communist Party had become a Buddhist while studying atheism in Moscow, invited Kushok Bakula to become the head of the Buddhist movement in Mongolia and within six months there were 600 monasteries and temples! “So I was going to meet him in about 1992, and for various reasons he was back in India, so I agreed to meet him in a very simple hotel in Delhi, and all my Buddhist friends said ‘this is the real thing’, this is the most astonishing man. “So I went up and we were sitting having a nice cup of tea and I was literally lost for words! “I said, ‘it’s wonderful to meet you how are you?!’ and then thought ‘how are you?! How lame is that!’ “Anyway, he doesn’t speak any English so he has a translator, and the translator starts translating this and I was thinking ‘oh no please don’t let’s start again!’ “Anyway, then there is this long reply! I’m thinking ‘oh my God, he’s got cancer, he’s about to die, what have I said? What have I asked?! Have I just asked the 20th reincarnation if he’s not feeling very well?! “Then back comes the reply, and the translator says: “We are enjoying this life. Not as much as the 13th, but considerably more than the 9th! “And then we became the best of friends!”
Palmer is not afraid to speak his mind, and has garnered criticism from many evangelical Christian groups and detractors for this forthright views on the meaning and value of faith. When he translated Jesus Sutras, the oldest Chinese Christian text, Palmer’s depiction of a generous form of Christianity which absorbed and re-understood itself away from Judeo-Christian language and saw itself primarily Daoist with an element of Buddhist, he was branded overzealous by some. As well as being denounced in books and evangelical newspapers for his environmentalism, and multi-faith outreach, protestors tried to set fire to Canterbury Cathedral with Palmer and delegates inside at a multi-faith event.
During this time Prince Philip broke royal protocol to write an article which went into The Times and Evening Standard in his defence. And when speaking about those who criticise his work, Palmer said: ““The first time that really happened to me was in 1987. In 1986 with Prince Philip I’d done this big event in Assisi which was the first time the major religions came together with all the major environmental groups. “And it was an amazing achievement, it was extraordinary because we were live on 81 national television stations that day including China. Which was fascinating. “Then the next year I went to Berkeley in California to give a talk at a conference on Christianity and ecology, at the great theological college there which is a very liberal one. “And when I arrived at the airport they said ‘we do apologise but we are going to bring you in via the service entrance’. “When I asked why they told me that there were 500 people outside protesting about my talk! “They were fundamentalist evangelicals and they disliked me because I work with other religions and am a Christian, they say you can’t be a Christian if you work with other faiths because you should be denouncing other faiths. “The second reason was because I believe in saving the planet, and they believe that the Book of Revelation is coming true. “The Book of Revelation is a terrifying depiction of where we are headed, and in certain circles then, not so much now, it was believed that therefore Jesus would return quite soon, and that trying to stop the destruction of the plant was stopping Jesus coming back. “So, I was labelled a forerunner of the Antichrist which quite frankly was a little bit disappointing, I wanted to be the Antichrist, not somebody’s bloody forerunner, how wet is that!
“I am not mainstream by any stretch of the imagination, and that does rile and upset people.”