Though I’ve Broken My Vows a Thousand Times

9 March 2008
Unitarian Society of New Haven; Hamden, CT
Mr. Barb Greve

Aurangzeb the Hat Seller

There was a young man called Aurangzeb who used to roam from town to town selling hats for a living. One day he would be in one town and the next in another. One summer afternoon, Aurangzeb had just traveled across a vast plain, so he felt tired and wanted to take a nap in the jungle. He found a mango tree with lots of branches and cool shade. Placing his bag of hats beside him, he went to sleep.

Aurangzeb was fast asleep in no time. When he woke up after a refreshing nap, he found that there were no hats in his bag! ‘Oh, no!’ he said to himself and shook his head sadly, ‘Of all the people, why did the thieves have to rob me?’ Suddenly, he looked up and noticed that the mango tree was full of cute monkeys wearing colourful hats. He yelled at the monkeys and they screamed back. He made faces at them and they returned the same funny faces. He threw a stone at them and they showered him with raw mangos. ‘How do I get my hats back?’ Aurangzeb pondered.

Frustrated, he took off his own hat and threw it on the ground. To his surprise, the monkeys also threw their hats! Aurangzeb did not waste a second and hurriedly collected the hats and went on his way to the next town. Fifty years later, young Habib, grandson of the famous hat-seller Aurangzeb, who worked hard to maintain the family business, was passing through the same jungle. After a long walk he was very tired and found a nice mango tree with lots of branches and cool shade. Habib decided to rest a while and very soon was fast asleep.

A few hours later, when Habib woke up, he realised that all the hats from his bag were gone! He started searching for them and to his surprise found some monkeys sitting in the mango tree wearing his hats.

He was frustrated and did not know what to do, but then he remembered a story his grandfather used to tell him. ‘Oh, I can fool these monkeys!’ said Habib.

‘I will make them imitate me and very soon I will get all the hats back!’ Habib waved at the monkeys and the monkeys waved back at him. He blew his nose and the monkeys blew their noses.

He started dancing and the monkeys also danced. He pulled his ears and the monkeys pulled their ears. He raised his hands and the monkeys raised their hands. Then, he threw his hat on the ground. One monkey jumped down from the mango tree, walked up to Habib and said, ‘Do you think only you had a grandfather?’

Mulla Nasrudin preached on Fridays at the village mosque. One day, having nothing to preach about, he asked the congregation:
“Do you know the subject I am going to discuss today?”
“No” said the people.
“Then I refuse to preach to such an ignorant assembly. How could you not know given the events of the past week?” asked Nasrudin and left hurriedly.
Next Friday he went up the pulpit and asked: “Do you know the subject of my sermon today?”
People fearing a repetition of what had taken place a week before nodded and said: “Yes yes, indeed we know.”
“Well, then. There is no point in telling you what you already know”, said Nasrudin and left.
On the third Friday he ascended the pulpit and asked: “Do you know what I am going to speak about today?”
Not knowing what to say, some said yes and some said no.
“Then those who know can tell those who don’t”, said Nasrudin and left.(1)

Mulla Nasrudin is a satirical Sufi figure believed to have originated in Persia in the 13th Century. Sufi stories are often paradoxically simple and profound while also using humor to make their point. I appreciate this aspect of Sufism as much as I appreciate the ritualized practice of prayer.

Sufism, the mystical side of Islam, has “For thousands of years… offered a path on which one can progress toward the “great end” of Self-realization, or God-realization. Sufism is a way of love, a way of devotion, and a way of knowledge.

There is no single, systematic approach to Sufi teachings, and not all of its teachings can be communicated in words. The wisdom of Sufism can be found in stories, poetry, art, calligraphy, rituals, exercises, readings, dance movements, and prayer.

Sufism is often described as a path, suggesting both an origin and a destination. The aim of Sufism is the elimination of all veils between the individual and God. Traveling this path, one can acquire knowledge of Reality.” (2)

Thus Sufism has much in common with Unitarian Universalism. Both religions put a higher emphasis on the journey to the answers than on the answers themselves. But that is not all we have in common. We have some overlap in our history that perhaps helped to form our similarities. To understand these overlaps we must look back to a time and place in the world’s history called Al Andalus.

In the year 712 C.E. Muslims were expanding their empire through North Africa and Spain. As far as empire expansions go, this was a relatively non-violent expansion due to Qur’anic rulings requiring that mercy must be extended to surrendering opponents. The Qur’an further requires that conquerors must allow people of the lands they capture to continue practicing their faith of origin. As a result Jews, Christians, and Muslims worshipped peacefully side-by-side.

During the centuries of Muslim occupation, peace reigned in Al Andalus as it became a center of academic and cultural exchange. Together Muslim, Jewish, and Christian scholars worked to translate the classics from Greek and Hebrew into Latin.

By 1492 Trinitarian Christians had re-conquered Spain, driving out over 800,000 Muslims and Jews and destroying the peaceful collaborative culture that had existed in Al Andalus. But the lessons of the peaceful cultural exchange would continue on.

In 1511 Michael Servetus, one of our Unitarian martyrs, was born in northern Spain. Servetus was a bright young man, who came of age at a time in history when people were being killed for their beliefs. In 1531 Servetus published “On the Errors of the Trinity” challenging the doctrine of the established Church and was burned at the stake for holding to his beliefs 20 years later. But before he was killed, Servetus taught Ferenc Dávid, who would become the court preacher to Queen Isabella of Hungary.

Ferenc Dávid continued in Servetus’ line of thinking, finding no Biblical basis for the Doctrine of the Trinity. He is credited as the father of Unitarianism and perhaps best known nowadays for his declaration that “we need not think alike to love alike.”

Queen Isabella’s son John became King John Sigismund, the first and so far-only Unitarian king. In 1568 King Sigismund issued the Edict of Torda, which proclaimed freedom of religion for all people under his rule.

From Al Andalus to Transylvania, a spirit of religious freedom and cultural exchange existed in both Unitarianism and Sufism. And it was in this spirit of cultural exchange that I found myself sitting in a Sufi Dhikrullah, or Ceremony of Divine Remembrance. A dear friend of mine had invited me to observe the ceremony – I had no idea it would have such a profound impact on my life.

The room was nothing special – your standard multi-use carpeted room. As we arrived at the entrance we were asked to remove our shoes before entering. Once inside, we sat in a large circle on the floor – about 20 of us all told. The Sheik, or spiritual leader, sat at the front, if you can imagine a circle having a front. For the next four hours he led us first in a series of sung chants and later in a group whirling. For the group whirling, we stood, remaining in a circle with all facing to the right. We placed our left hands palm up at the small of our backs and our right hands in the hand of the person in front of us. Slowly we moved, stepping forward with our right foot and sliding our left to meet it. We continued our chanting while we whirled.

As if by some unspoken instruction, two members of the group broke from the larger circle and began to whirl alone inside the circle – it was wondrously beautiful. The end brought us spiraling out in such a way that we greeted each person in the circle, looking deeply into one another’s eyes and hearts before offering blessings and thanks. And when all had greeted and been greeted, we broke for a feast.

I left that night still holding the warm embrace of the holy presence that I had just felt. That embrace was palpable and as the days passed I yearned to feel it again. I asked my friend if I could join him at another Dhiker thinking that it would be months before they held another one. Imagine my surprise when he told me they held weekly gatherings.

I asked my friend to teach me about his Sufi order – the Nur Ashki Jerrarhi order. I learned that currently they have a woman as their Sheika and that they are queer-friendly. This was important to me, given my identity. My friend gave me a reading that has become one of the foundations of my spirituality – it matched up so well with our Universalist theology:

“Love is the bond that binds hearts, the basis upon which to build. If love is the foundation, your building will withstand all earthquakes and storms, and you may build it as high and wide as you please without it being in danger. Therefore, our Way is the Way of Love. Leave what is keeping you from following that Path and turn to follow it with perseverance, follow this path all the way to your destination…”(3)

I began to study more about Sufism. I learned that “The Sufi way is not a path of retreat from the world but a way of seeking the Divine while still actively engaged in the world. Engagement in the world provides opportunities for spiritual growth, opportunities to practice love, awareness, generosity, and nonattachment. The Sufi approach is summarized by Sheikh Muzaffer, a modern Sufi teacher: “Keep your hands busy with your duties in this world, and you heart busy with God.”(4)

I find comfort in the idea that such an intensive form of prayer and spiritual practice did not mean disengagement from the world. There is too much that needs doing in the world and I didn’t want to choose a spiritual path that would isolate me from the work at hand. Among the Unitarian Universalist teachings I value greatly is that prayer is lived through our actions. I didn’t want to lose that idea as I began to integrate a new spiritual practice into my Unitarian Universalist identity.

Thus I found great comfort in what is now one of my favorite stories, about Rabi’a al-Adawiyya, the famous Sufi mystic and saint. She lived in Basra, Iraq in the 8th century and the stories of her say she was consumed with the fire and love and longing for the Beloved, her name for Allah or the divine.

The story teaches that one day, Rabi’a was seen running, carrying fire in one hand and water in the other. They asked her the meaning of her action and where she was going. She replied, “I am going to light a fire in Paradise and pour water on Hell…”

I love both the symbolism and the idea behind Rabi’a’s actions. For me it is a reminder that we can’t get too complacent – that even in the moments when we feel we have reached enlightenment, there is still more work to be done – within our own beings (souls if you will) and out in the world we live in. On an internal level, for me this meant lighting a fire under my Unitarian Universalism and opening myself up to the possibility of connecting with a Divine presence. And on an external level, Rabi’a’s actions seem right in working order with my Unitarian Universalist values of full engagement with the interdependent web of which we are a part.

Another place where Unitarian Universalism and Sufism seem to overlap is in our willingness to see human beings as holy and flawed. Sufism teaches that it is inevitable that we will break our vows, thus what is more important is our intent to not break them and our willingness to return again and again to the Path. I am appreciative of this teaching – it helps me to not give up when I fall short of my vows.

The words from our first hymn this morning come from a Rumi poem, which when read in its entirety reads,

Come, come, whoever you are.
Wonderer, worshipper, lover of leaving.
It doesn’t matter.
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Come, even if you have broken your vow
a thousand times
Come, yet again, come, come.

I believe what Rumi is reminding us of in this poem is that not only will we break our vows, but that even when we do we are still welcome on the Path. Our vows can be broken in numerous ways – through broken promises to others or ourselves, but falling short of our intended goals, or by shutting our hearts to the world’s suffering.

As Sheik Ragip Robert Frager al Jarrahi writes in the introduction to his book Essential Sufism:

“Our hearts have become frozen, armored against the pain and suffering we have all experienced in this world. With the help of a devoted teacher and sincere [companions] along the path, we can defrost them.

Love, service, and compassion help us reopen our hearts and come closer to God. One of the greatest services we can perform is to help heal the injured hearts of others. Our hands are made to lift up those who have fallen, to wipe the tears of those who are suffering from the trials of this world. Sheikh Muzaffer also said, “A kind word or glance softens your heart, and every hurtful word or act closes or hardens your heart.”

And so I leave you with one final Sufi story, as told by Idries Shah :(5)

A small boy banged a drum all day and loved every moment of it. He would not be quiet, no matter what anyone said. Various people were invited by the neighbours to do something about the child. The first person told the boy that he would burst his eardrums, if he continued to make so much noise, – but this was too advanced an idea for the child. The second told him that drum beating was a sacred activity and should be carried out only on special occasions. The third offered the neighbours earplugs while the fourth gave the boy a book. Some of these cures worked for a short while, but none worked for long. A Sufi came along. He looked at the situation, handed the boy a hammer and chisel, and said, ‘I wonder what is inside the drum?’

May we each remember to follow the paths that keep our hearts open and our minds ready to hand over a hammer and chisel. May it ever be so.

Amin and Ashé.



(2) Fadiman, James and Robert Frager. Essential Sufism. (San Francisco: HarperCollins 1997) 1.

(3) Mawlana Shaykh Muhammad Nazim Adil Hakkani al-Kibrisi al-Naksibendi

(4) Fadiman, James and Robert Frager. Essential Sufism. (San Francisco: HarperCollins 1997) 35.

(5)Fadiman, James and Robert Frager. Essential Sufism. (San Francisco: HarperCollins 1997) 35.


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