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The Quintessence of Religions

By - Mar 4, 2012 - Category Lectures - Print Print - Version française

Leili Anvar

Ostad Elahi delivered the main thrust of his conception of wisdom in a prayer entitled “The Quintessence of Religions”. Leili Anvar chose this angle to shed some light in a concrete and personal way on some of the subtlest aspects of this thought which, while taking root in the mystical tradition, reverses the prevailing trend by replacing reason at its rightful place in the process of spiritual perfection. The question of evil, the meaning of true ethics and true humanness and the importance of faith are among the themes dealt with in this analysis.

Leili Anvar is Lecturer in Persian Literature at the Institut national des langues et civilisations orientales in Paris and a specialist in mystic poetry. This lecture was given on 10 September 2011 as part of a symposium organised by the Fondation Ostad Elahi around the question “What wisdom for our times?”.


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10 comments

  1. d Mar 06, 2012 6:29 pm 1

    She speaks really fast! We need someone to transcribe the text. Can someone do that like the other posts?

  2. adissam Mar 12, 2012 5:33 am 2

    Here is an excerpt that moved me :

    “The purpose of these things I tell you is not to recount stories but to give sound advice. I would never tell someone to do something before I have put it into practice and tried it out for myself. And I would not express an idea before I have completely investigated it to a point where no one could object to it, whether in this world or the next. I have imitated no one and everything I say is the result of my own observations and my own experiences. I have summed up the quintessence of all religions in a few words and I have made it available to all who seek the Truth.”

  3. Kal Mar 14, 2012 8:23 pm 3

    Thank you for posting this wonderful lecture. I had previously read Ostad Elahi’s “The Quintessence of Religions” as a poem / prayer, but I had never realized the depth and immensity of what I was reading until I saw this impressively amazing and descriptive breakdown of the text. The realization that wisdom is attainable through the quintessence of religion, which is essentially, reason, faith and active practice, is eye-opening to say the least.

  4. Saga Mar 15, 2012 3:25 pm 4

    Day of Human Solidarity
    What Wisdom for Our Times? Symposium, 10 September 2011
    The Quintessence of Religions according to Ostad Elahi- Part 1
    Leili Anvar Lecturer in Persian Language and Literature, INALCO

    Ostad Elahi is one of the great unknown wise men of the 20th century. A great wise man as much for his thought as for the way he led his life,-especially the way he led his life, the way he drew from his own life a thought he then transmitted, a thought of wisdom. The fact that he is not very well known, is proof of his wisdom. For during his lifetime, many wanted to make him known as a musician –he was an immense musician, a master of the Kurdish tanbur- but also as a mystical thinker. Many people came to see him from Iran, where he lived, from Europe or from the USA, urging him to make himself known. Every time he answered: “You may use the teachings I give you but do not refer to me by name.” Isn’t such self-effacement a sign of great wisdom? So here we have a mystical wise man –even if these words may seem to contradict each other- whose thought emphasizes the necessity to develop one’s sound reason in order to know oneself and thereby know Truth. To this end, Ostad Elahi holds that the proper field of operation is our own self, interacting with society. This is why he himself lived an active social life and always recommended an active social life. No true wisdom can be reached otherwise. He was a musician but also a magistrate. What these two domains have in common is self-control, exactitude and the desire for truth. The desire for truth in a genuine musician being expressed as deep sincerity. His whole life was oriented toward the quest for truth and more fundamentally the practice of truth. I hope to show this in my commentary on a brief text of his. For Ostad Elahi, wisdom is above all something that one must practice. What brought me to Ostad Elahi – me, a specialist of mystical Persian love poetry, which is often closer to emotion than to reason- is precisely that: here is a man who in the midst of the 20th century took the wealth of spiritual and mystical tradition that had formed him – and God knows how rich the Iranian spiritual tradition is, and how familiar Ostad was with it, and how vast his knowledge of it was- in order to draw a conclusion that was completely unheard of, especially in the Iranian context. That is, that classical mysticism puts the cart before the horse, so to speak, because it begins with love by rejecting reason, relying on emotion to reach self-knowledge and the knowledge of God. Whereas Ostad Elahi insists on just the opposite: for him, it is sound reason that will eventually lead to the experience of divine love. So, his approach took a direction that is completely opposite to the one favored by the tradition he was born into. What he thrived for throughout his life, for himself and in his teaching, was the quintessence of religions. This explains the title of the text I’m about to discuss. He wrote it in Persian in the form of a poem: it sums up the quintessence of religions. Note that in his oral teachings, Ostad insisted on something that shows how important it was for him to find a quintessential formula that would allow the individual to develop, to live in society and at the same time to progress toward God. All these elements fit together in our text. Ostad Elahi once said: “The purpose of these things I tell you is not to recount stories but to give sound advice. I would never tell someone to do something, before I have put it into practice and tried it out for myself. And I would not express an idea, before I have completely investigated it to a point where no one could object to it, whether in this world or the next, I have imitated no one and everything I say is the result of my own observations and my own experiences. I have summed up the quintessence of all religions in a few words and made it available to all who seek Truth.” Here then is the quintessence of religions:

    If the essence of Religion is what you seek
    Then embrace these principles and beliefs
    First, put your faith in God
    Peerless and unique, visible to none
    Without partner, birth or mortality

    You may say my talk would have been more appropriate to our morning session. Because it begins with God, what’s more, a unique God, peerless, endowed with all the attributes that characterize Him in all monotheisms. We shall see that this includes not only Judaism, Christianism, and Islam, but also Zoroastrianism, which was the ancient religion of Iran. In the end, Ostad Elahi returns to the idea of God, yet this might be best translated as “divine”, for in Ostad Elahi’s thought, “God” is a concept that is too much associated with particular dogma. It would be better to speak of “the divine”, or more precisely, “the One”, which relates to the idea of Truth. I’ll leave this aside as we are more interested now in the part that follows.

    Second, consider every being in every time as good
    For at their origin none are bad
    It’s not the agent, but the act which results in evil
    Strive therefore to eliminate such deeds

    This short formulation appears to be very simple and to be stating the obvious, but I would like to point out that a whole metaphysics unfurls itself here. Beyond the concept of God, and of the Beyond, you can see that the first thing Ostad Elahi brings forth in this quintessence, the first practical thing he speaks about in this quintessence of religions, is the question of evil. Later we’ll see how this relates to the question of the good. In the beginning there is God, in the end we come back to faith. Yet, at the heart of this text, is the question of evil and good. Because effective wisdom must answer these two fundamental questions: What is evil? What is good? What should I not do? What should I do? Why should I not do it? Why should I do it? That is finally what wisdom is all about. But also- and this is very interesting- Ostad calls upon us to change our vision: “none are bad”, he says. When I said earlier that a whole metaphysics unfurls itself here, I meant that Ostad Elahi is clearly among those who believe that evil does not really exist. Evil is an accident. It does not exist in itself. Why? Precisely because of the foundation that was mentioned in the beginning: because there is a divine Creator, a being who brought into existence all creatures, who is absolute goodness, and who does not create evil. Evil is the prerogative of humans, it is the result of their acting malevolently. Ostad thus enjoins us to change our vision and basically to…consider the beam in our own eyes rather than the mote in our neighbour’s. Now this is very interesting. On the one hand, it is said that we should see no evil: if someone commits an evil act, only the act is evil, not the essence of the person. But on the other hand, against such acts it is our duty to fight. Note, however, that this does not mean that we should fight against those who do evil; it means we should fight against the impulses to do evil that we all bear in ourselves. So here we have the first step in ethics, the first step in wisdom, which is also the basis for the development of what Ostad Elahi calls “sound reason”: avoiding evil. We can see how this brings us directly to the question of the good. Let me just say, in relation to the issue of religion which was much discussed this morning, that in the ancient Iranian religion- that Ostad Elahi knew very well and that he quoted in his writings several times- there is a maxim by Zoroaster saying that in reality the life of a true human being, a life well lived, a life of wisdom, boils down to three points: to speak good, to do good, to think good. And actually, even before saying good, doing good and thinking good, one should avoid saying evil, doing evil, and thinking evil. These three points are expressed very clearly in Ostad’s conception of evil. Now, what about the notion of good? What does “good” mean, really?

    As for those who are deemed good in any capacity
    You must respect them as they are known to be
    Third, in every time and in every place
    The beneficence that the wise contemplate,
    That establishes order and comfort for society,
    That originates from what is Right,
    Practice it for yourself and for others
    And avoid everything that is contrary to it.

    Several points are worth noting here. The first concerns the beneficence that the wise contemplate. The organization of this very conference by the Ostad Elahi Foundation is an excellent idea, because the purpose of our discussions (on the prospects of a common wisdom) is precisely to ask: what is this “beneficence that the wise contemplate?” This project is entirely in line with Ostad Elahi’s thought. It is in line with what I have said before about this quest, the way he paid attention to all the traditions, to all that has been said by the figures of wisdom, the divine messengers, the great spiritual figures of the past in order to draw therefrom the quintessence, and above all, teachings that may be used in our everyday lives, in relation to ourselves, to others and to the divine. In any case, the word “wise”, translated from the Persian “âqel” refers to those persons who practice “aql”, which precisely means “reason”. The wise man then is eminently reasonable. I do not have time to develop this point here, but there is a striking convergence between Ostad Elahi’s thought and Socrates’ regarding the articulation of reason, and also on the question of faith to which Ostad returns at the end of this text.

    Beyond that, any belief that you should choose
    That does not contradict these stated rules
    Shall be acceptable provided that you observe
    With faith the precepts you so preserve.
    Nour Ali (Ostad Elahi) researched and found this to be
    The quintessence of religions most certainly.

    The question of faith, here, is fundamental. I will discuss it in two sentences, in the relation to the end of this immensely important dialogue called The Republic- when Socrates says, in response to someone who asks him what justice is: “I cannot prove mathematically what justice is, have faith in my words, put them into practice, then you will become dear to yourself and to the gods.” Well Ostad Elahi says exactly the same thing. There is no opposition between reason and faith, not at all. Faith is actually the foundation on which sound reason develops and at the same time the human fulfillment everyone seeks. He also says “how easy to be a human animal, but how hard it is to become a human being.” So here is a text that is very simple in appearance but that proves very subtle when one sets out to put its details into practice and ultimately become wise- I leave aside here the issue raised by Anne Baudart, who said we shall never become wise, at least not in this world. Ostad indeed gives us a step by step approach and most of all, he tells us that wisdom is above all action. Faith and beliefs are one thing, but what is most important is the way the topic is introduced: “if the essence of Religion is what you seek”, only to be followed by action words, verbs such as to fight, to do, to act. . . Thus, at the heart of the text, lies what is most important: practice. Ostad holds all three: reason, faith and practice. I believe it is along these three lines that Ostad Elahi’s conception of wisdom unfolds.

  5. d Mar 17, 2012 12:59 pm 5

    Great! Thanks Saga. God bless you.

  6. HSH Apr 23, 2012 12:27 pm 6

    Dear Saga,

    Thanks so much for your complete transcription which I have copied to my system to be able to read it carefully offline. I hope this was OK from your side.

    Sincere Regards / HSH

  7. Saga Apr 24, 2012 7:23 pm 7

    Thank you d and HSH, glad that I could be helpful!

  8. k Jul 24, 2012 11:38 pm 8

    Sometimes I don’t understand the distribution of the “votes” for the different posts. For example in my opinion this post should have more votes (compared to some under posts).

  9. Jean-Jacques Stern Jul 31, 2012 11:32 pm 9

    @k : That’s the thing about votes: they are unpredictable! And the point is precisely to get some kind of “measure” of how people feel about a post. The fact that they do not comply with any particular “opinion” is hardly a surprise…

  10. adi Sep 22, 2012 3:41 am 10

    “I cannot prove mathematically what justice is, have faith in my words, put them into practice, then you will become dear to yourself and to the gods.”

    I noticed that after several years this little faith helped me to get going, followed by a very gradual increase in understanding, tentative of practice, and then growing interest,…

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