Our modern word chemistry comes from the Arabic for alchemy, which is not a pseudoscience or primitive science but rather a recognition that all of the cosmos shares in the same ultimate substance. Alchemists knew that each of us have something in us that is base like lead; yet everything in us that is cheap and base can be illuminated and become “gold”-like. Alchemy was ultimately the art of illumination and transformation. As Rumi says, it is through this radical love that the bitter becomes sweet, the thorn turns into a rose, the pain contains healing, and the dead come to life.
Ultimately, this radical love is channeled through humanity. It has to be lived and embodied, shared and refined not in the heavens but right here and now, in the messiness of earthly life. The path to God goes through that most difficult of beings, the human being. God is easy. We as human beings are hard.
Rumi’s biography tells the story beautifully. He had a devotee who was born as a Christian named Seryanus, and took the name Aladdin (‘Ala al-Din) as a Muslim. Seryanus, pulled by the magnetic flame of love that burns through Rumi, had converted to Islam and attempted to learn Rumi’s language, Persian. Yet like so many of us who have attempted to express our deepest yearning and highest aspiration in a second and third language, he kept using the wrong words in Persian. Like Victorian English that distinguished between calling a human being “lord” and calling God “Lord,” Persian had words that could refer to the lord of a village or Lord of the cosmos. The poor simpleton Seryanus kept referring to Rumi as “Lord.” Some fanatical people in town dragged him before a judge, putting him through an inquisition, wondering why he was calling Rumi—a mere mortal—by the exalted title “Lord.” Seryanus, flustered, retorted: “I always do this. I am so sorry, I didn’t mean to call him Lord.” The judge, momentarily satisfied, held off and said: “What did you mean to call him?” Seryanus confidently answered: khodaa-saaz, “God-maker”!
Justified in the accusers’ belief that Seryanus was in fact a heretic, the judge was willing to sign off on having the new convert put to death. Seryanus said again:
I always do this. I am so sorry.
I call him God-maker, because he makes God . . .
He makes God real to me.
Before I met him, God was a name that I called upon by blindly following others.
I know that God is real.
The history of Islam, like the histories of all religious traditions, is filled with these human beings who make God real, make love real, and let love shine.
From Radical Love by Omid Safi. Published by Yale University Press in 2019. Reproduced with permission.
Omid Safi, professor of Islamic studies at Duke University and a columnist for On Being, is a frequent commentator on Islam. He has published numerous books, including Memories of Muhammad.