Since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11, fear of the virus transmission has engulfed the world and stormed into places of worship.
Religious services, which gather large groups of people, have amplified the horror. In South Korea the country’s COVID-19 outbreak began from interactions of worshippers. A synagogue in New York was one center of the coronavirus outbreak in that city.
Across the world, religious leaders have struggled to keep their members safe from contagion by guiding their congregations on how to curb transmission. They made a hard and painful decision when announcing closure of churches, synagogues and mosques.
Similarly, Saudi Arabia has temporarily suspended pilgrimages to its holy shrines for foreigners, so has the Holy See in Vatican, home to the Catholic Church.
Last month, Christians across the world celebrated Easter away from families, friends and communities. Now during Ramadan, Muslims cannot perform fasting the way they did in yesteryears, when the communal moment of breaking the fast played the role of a liminal ritual, as sociologist Emile Durkheim noted.
The virus has prevented believers from visiting mosques, churches, temples and other houses of worship, which they regard as sources of comfort. For them the experience of the sacred is fundamental. There is such a thing as a sacred space, a space that permits one to discover the center of existence, the axis mundi (Mircea Eliade, Le Sacre et le Profane, 21 to 24).
In every religion the notion of a temple responds to certain fundamental conceptions regarding this sacred space, which is associated with a manifestation of the deity. To enter the temple or place of worship is to experience the presence of the deity, which requires silence, hence emptiness.
In interpreting the Bible story about an angry Jesus who drove out of the temple those who were selling and buying within the sacred precinct, German mystic master, Meister Eckhart, claims in his book Teacher and Preacher that Jesus simply wanted the temple to be empty.
Seeking the deepest meaning of this verse, Eckhart concludes that the temple symbolizes the human soul, which God created so much like Godself. For Eckhart, the human soul’s unique resemblance of God is concomitant with the unique capacity of the human soul to be the unique dwelling place of God. It is for this reason that Eckhart affirms God’s wish that the temple/soul be empty, so that there will be nothing in the temple/soul but Godself.
For Eckhart, the strong emotions that Jesus displays in this verse are directly reflective of the ardent desire of Jesus that every human soul actualizes its capacity to be truly empty, so that the divine in its nothingness could dwell in and fill this empty space.
The logic here is very straightforward. If the human soul is filled already with a myriad of things calling out to us for our undivided attention (meaning those who were buying and selling), then God will not enter it and dwell therein.
In Sufi tradition, it is told that Ibrahim bin Adham, one of the great sages, went on a pilgrimage. Despite seeking the Kaaba for 14 years through the ritual practices of nusk (sacrifice), he was unable to reach his goal. When he arrived at Mecca, much to his surprise, he found that the Kaaba had left its location and had gone to greet Rabia al Adawiya (a great woman Sufi) halfway on her journey from Basra and to welcome her.
Attar tells the story that Rabia visited Mecca. But having seen the Kaaba, she said, “Do I need the Kaaba? What am I to do with the Kaaba? I am not able to bear the Kaaba (man-ra istita’at Kaaba nist). For I, indeed, have approached so near unto God that I may claim the promises, ‘He who comes a handbreadth toward me, toward him will I go an ell,’ what is the Kaaba, then, to me?”
Attar’s story of Rabia is a very significant idea, even though this and other statements of an apparently unorthodox nature have led to accusations of heresy against Rabia by the opponents of Sufism. Here Rabia eliminated the image of Kaaba from her soul, because she wanted to find the One who built it. Thus, the materialistic meaning of pilgrimage developed and turned to be just an occasion to see Allah (Rampoldi, 2015, p. 69).
Rabia’s psychological and theological-philosophical path toward true divine love was a completely dematerialized experience going beyond religion as duty and law.
The concept of dematerialization of Islam, the experience of going beyond Kaaba and beyond the idea of hellfire and paradise to really love Allah because of Himself initiated by Rabia has influenced whole centuries of Islamic philosophy and mystical thinking.
The divine love is an achievement of spiritual dematerialized perfectness. Indeed, Rabia affirms that those who obey Allah because they fear hellfire are not true believers, since those who really love Him for Himself are not looking for any reward and act without being afraid of any punishment. Rabia revolutionarily transformed Islamic thought by her criticism of the sensual and material aspects of religion as we have already seen in her discourse on the Kaaba (Rampoldi, 12).
The elaboration and the mystical allegories above remind us that the true house of God is the heart of the human being. The Prophet Muhammad said, the throne of God is the heart of the faithful devotee.
In these times of challenge, we’d better go back to the heart; as Jalaluddin Rumi put it, “only from the heart can we touch the sky.”
Let’s follow Rabi’a to become the true mosque, the true church, the true temple, the true Kaaba. The outward excellence in ritual and ascetic practices always depends on deep states of inner spiritual knowledge.
Professor of religious studies at Sunan Kalijaga State Islamic University, Yogyakarta, and the author of newly published Ketika Umat Beriman Mencipta Tuhan (When men of faith create God), Gramedia, 2020.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.