The Bawa Muhaiyaddeen Fellowship
Inner and Universal Meanings of Islam
Reprinted from the Harvard Divinity Bulletin. Harvard University / The Divinity School / Dec. 1982 - Jan. 1983 Volume XIII Number 2
The frail old man lies peacefully on his bed. Whirring overhead, a fan cools the modest room where, due to fragile health, he has spent almost the entirety of two years. It is evening time in Sri Lanka, the island nation off India formerly called Ceylon. The day's tropical heat has given way to soothing nocturnal breezes that waft through the capital city of Colombo.
The elderly man is suddenly impelled to sit up. As he strains to rise, two of the young Americans sitting at his bedside gently support His Holiness Bawa Muhaiyaddeen. Folding himself into cross-legged posture, he asks someone to fetch "Radio Tambi" - radio little brother.
I hasten in, expecting the moment has arrived for another interview. Since coming to Colombo two weeks earlier, I have taped half a dozen sessions with Bawa for broadcast on the ecumenical American radio series, "Kindred Spirits."
Sitting on the floor before him, one is drawn into timeless eyes. Bawa lights
up. "My love you, my tambi," he begins smilingly. Bawa's Tamil is translated
simultaneously into English by the wife of a local physician. "You have been
asking me about Islam." His voice is tender.
"To act out the qualities of truth, and to embrace with true love, that is Islam. The tired hearts, the hurt ones, to embrace them with love, and give them the milk of love, embrace them face-to-face, heart-to-heart, in unity, that is Islam. To comfort the hearts that are hurt. All will not accept this. A few people who have found clarity might accept this as Islam. If you understand this, that will be good."
The centenarian sage is very weak. He has been patiently fielding my barrage of journalistic questions. They are asked mostly from the standpoint of an American audience -for whom the term "Islam" has often meant television images of captive-taking, scary mobs and medieval mores. Part of my interest in Bawa was spurred by an article published in Time magazine at the height of the Iranian hostage crisis. It featured his vigorous dissent against the Ayatollah Khomeini.
Bawa maintained that the actions represented by Khomeini as Islamic could not have been further opposed to the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed and the Qur'an, the sacred scripture of Islam. Wrote Bawa to the Ayatollah: "About five hundred years ago, a number of Persian Sufis, mystics and exalted people lived in Iran. The books of wisdom they have written still exist. You should at least read them. Because of these people, the land flourished with God's wisdom. But today, Iran has changed into a nation of war, where women, children and men are incited to take up arms, to shout that they are going to kill and shed blood, and to cry out for vengeance. Do not teach your followers hostility and fighting; teach them to have faith in God."
Bawa Muhaiyaddeen is a man of peace. It shows in his unlined face, and it is
reflected in the harmonious integration of his students, who sat with me on the
floor during the Sri Lanka interviews this past summer. I remember noticing the
colorful array in attendance one night: Hindu women with dotted foreheads,
Buddhist monks in orange robes, Muslims wearing prayer hats, and the Christian
and Jewish students who had come from the Bawa Muhaiyaddeen Fellowship of the
United States based in Philadelphia. The result is an atmosphere of great
warmth, and the richness born of cross-fertilization. Bawa has anointed the
small gathering, "God's funny family." It testifies to the universal appeal of
the Islam that he teaches.
From Bawa's viewpoint, Islam, as the most recent of the great religions, culminated the prophetic lineage originating with Adam. The Qur'an embraces equally the teachings of Moses, Jesus and Mohammed. In all, Sufis (Islamic mystics) count twenty-five key messengers, each of whom carried successive pieces for the great jigsaw puzzle of human consciousness. It is from this continuum that Bawa draws his ecumenical love.
The mystical dimension he teaches not only promotes unity among followers of all religions in the world, but points to an inner meaning as well. The outer form of Jesus is thus seen as an "example" of the inner Jesus who dwells as the soul of every human being; the outer Moses as each person's wisdom; the outer Mohammed as each one's light. This neatly proves the folly of religious bigotry. For if people were to deride any of these prophetic traditions, it would be as if they misunderstood themselves.
Islam, in Bawa's phrase, "is not just for Muslims." It is instead the
essential core of all humanity. "Everything is Islam. If God's teaching is
there, it is Islam. Bringing man out of ignorance and darkness, step by step is
The need to look within is a constant thread through Bawa's explanations. On the path defined by Bawa, spiritual seekers are conducting an internal investigation. Their microscope is the faculty of wisdom - which distinguishes light from darkness in our lives - and the finer its lens, the greater the intricacy one can appreciate. The specimen being examined here is oneself, and just as modern scientists keep detecting hints of still subtler properties of the atom, so there is no end to self-inquiry for mystics. If the formless power called Allah can be found within, certainly it is research enough to last a lifetime.
I found it poignant when in one of our interviews Bawa applied this principle to the problem of literal interpretation of scriptures. I had asked about the Qur'anic penalty for thievery - severing of the thief's hand - or for murder decapitation. Bawa was quick to clarify the inner significance:
"At the time of Mohammed, no hands were cut off and no heads were cut off. Later on, the people interpreted it literally and brought about this kind of "justice." If you just cut off someone's hand, he'll steal with the other! It's the desire in one's heart that must be cut off. The real meaning of Islam is to forgive. Whatever wrongs were committed, you must forgive for the next moment."
Bawa became animated. "If you want to understand Islam, you really must learn
it from a wise man. If you want to understand iman (perfect faith),
Allah, His qualities, determination and certitude, you really have to understand
the Qur'an from someone who understands Allah. You can get some kind of
little thing from him, some kind of peace and tranquility. Because Islam is a
vast ocean. Allah has called it a vast ocean, and each (Qur'anic)
letter has 70,000 meanings. Each dot has 70,000 meanings. That's why the
Qur'an is called the ocean of ilm (divine knowledge). The
Qur'an is an everlasting treasure that has enough wisdom for so many
ages. It is according to the extent of your intelligence and your faith, and
according to the extent of your iman, that the Qur'an can give
you the explanation."
Bawa Muhaiyaddeen was indeed very gracious with this western "Radio Tambi." Although plainly worn down from a lifetime of service to Sri Lanka's poor, ill and hungry, although limited by a sickly body, he frequently tired me out with elaborate facts and meanings.
Over a total of six weeks, we discussed many facets of the Sufi understanding
of Islam. Of all my questions, the one that seemed most to frustrate Bawa
concerned the impression held by many westerners of Islam as a warlike
He described the events surrounding Mohammed in seventh century Arabia, where corruption, idolatry and the practice of burying new-born females alive were prevalent. The Prophet's proclamation of one omnipotent God was deemed a religious and financial threat to those who conducted statue-worshipping ceremonies.
According to Bawa's account, Mohammed's followers were attacked without provocation, their families were killed, and their property was stolen. But the peace-loving Prophet prohibited their fighting back. Finally, the Angel Gabriel appeared before Mohammed with word from God that self-defense would be permissible, but only under the strictest conditions.
Ruled out were injury to women and children, destruction of property, and
battle with anyone who had not directly attempted assault. If a foe fell
wounded, one was required to cease fighting and immediately provide
"It is not the sword that conquered," said Bawa, "it is the love that conquered. The truth, wisdom, compassion, equality, peace, tranquility, the considering of others hunger as one's own - it is these qualities that conquered the land, not the sword - the qualities of patience, contentment, surrender and all praise to Allah. Now if a fault is committed at this minute, it is not remembered the next second. It is forgiven on the spot. That revenge is not carried on. And then you go on doing Allah's duty. And if we have committed any wrong, then we must ask forgiveness for what we have done, and the next minute we praise Allah. This is Islam. This is the true Islam. This is the Islam that Mohammed was teaching."
On November 6, Bawa emerged in a wheelchair from a British Airways jet in Philadelphia. He has returned to the United States for an extended visit in response to hundreds of requests from his "funny family" here.
Bulletin reader David Freudberg is Executive Producer of Kindred Spirits, a national radio program exploring human spirituality. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts and has published extensively in the Washington Post.