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The quintessence of religions according to Ostad Elahi: reflections (2)

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After reflecting on the question of God and what “putting one’s faith in that One” truly means, we continue here our series on Ostad Elahi’s poem “The Quintessence of Religions” with a second excerpt from Leili Anvar’s commentary of this text, which was originally published (in French) in the proceedings of the symposium “Quelle sagesse pour notre temps ?”. This second excerpt examines the question of “evil”.

A starting point for reflection is suggested at the end of this article. As usual, please do not hesitate to share your thoughts, examples and experiences in the comments section.

About the “Quintessence of Religions”
(excerpt 2: The question of evil)

“[…] Second, consider every being in every time as good
For at its origin none is evil or malevolent
It’s not the agent but the act from which evil is conceived
Strive, in short, to combat such deeds […]”

The first practical point Ostad Elahi raises in this “Quintessence of religions”, is the question of evil. The ethical injunction here is based on a particular metaphysical claim, namely that evil does not exist in itself[1]. The initial premise of a Being that has created all creatures through the outpouring of His grace[2], a Being that is all-powerful and benevolent, that is absolute Goodness, and that creates no evil, excludes the idea that a creature could be evil in virtue of its “essence”. In other words: evil is “accidental”. Evil is brought about by men when they use their will to achieve goals that are contrary to Goodness and Truth. While the freedom and responsibility of humans reveal themselves through the possibility of making such choices, wisdom consists nonetheless, when observing evil, in dissociating the act from the person. The point is to avoid judging others through an essentialist interpretation of their actions, for it is impossible for anyone to know what lies in the hearts of other people:

“I recommend that you refrain from ever judging anyone [judging a person’s essential nature], for you will not be able to answer at the time of your Accounting. Only God knows the real truth of every being and can judge them. We don’t even know ourselves; how, then, can we judge others?” (Words of Truth, 441, draft of the forthcoming English translation)

What matters to Ostad Elahi are the practical consequences of a philosophical reflection on evil. Holding one’s judgment requires having worked on one’s perspectives and thoughts. We find here an echo of Zoroaster’s famous maxim regarding “seeing the good” and “thinking what is good”, or as it may be reformulated, “seeing things correctly”, “thinking correctly”, that is, in a way that does justice to things. For sages are certainly not naïve or unaware of reality. They see and consider things as they are but without being judgmental, with clarity but without bitterness. Wisdom therefore begins with a shift in our perception of others and of ourselves. Shifting perspectives actually enables us to change our substance, to clarify our self, to purify it from its darkness, from the smoke that covers it, from the opaque veil of ignorance that obscures a clear vision of reality:

“Each person perceives the external world according to his own inner state, for the outside world is but a reflection of what transpires within us. The effects of seeing, thinking, and speaking good are reflected back onto us, illuminating our hearts and causing us to see our surroundings in a pleasant rather than gloomy light.” (WoT, 422, draft of the forthcoming English translation)

Observing manifestations of evil should neither lead to nihilism or despair, nor be a justification for judging others. Instead, it should serve to turn our gaze within, and to engage in an active fight: “Strive, in short, to combat bad deeds.” This is not a call to combat those who commit such deeds, placing ourselves as moral judges—rather, it is an invocation to combat the effects of evil in this world with goodness, and also (and more importantly!) to combat the impulses of evil that reside in ourselves. Bahram Elahi comments on this line as follows: “Striving to combat refers here to the duty to combat the evil that resides in each of us and that stems from the imperious self. Everyone has the duty to fight against their own imperious self, to reduce, at their level, the flux of evil.” (WoT, 472, footnote [translated from the French])

In the end, any wisdom endeavour should begin by answering these two fundamental questions: “What is evil? What is good?”, or in other words, “What should I avoid doing and what should I do? And why?” Any decision based on these questions then becomes ethical, and for any of our actions, we should be able to tell whether accomplishing them was acting in a good way or in a bad (or evil) way. The French philosopher Paul Ricœur puts it as follows:

“For action, evil is above all what ought not to be, but what must be fought against. In this sense, action inverts the orientation of looking at the world. Myth tends to pull speculative thought back toward the origin of things. From whence comes evil? it asks. The response, not the solution, of action is to act against evil. Our vision is thus turned toward the future, by the idea of a task to be accomplished, which corresponds to that of an origin to be discovered.” (Figuring the Sacred: Religion, Narrative, and Imagination, Fortress Press, 1995, p. 259)

The first step in any ethical approach, which is also the first step in wisdom and the basis for the development of what Ostad Elahi calls “sound reason”, is to avoid evil as much as possible: to fight against one’s impulses, change one’s gaze, resist the temptation to do evil. Or, as the text continues: “to avoid” that which is contrary to what is good. This is the first step leading to Goodness. In order to “say what is good, do what is good and think what is good”, it is first necessary to learn to avoid speaking evil, doing evil and thinking evil. “Not doing” is indeed at the foundation of ethics, as can be observed in the very composition of the ten commandments (Old Testament, Exodus 20, chapter entitled “The Decalogue”, and also in Deuteronomy 5) that set the founding law of the three major monotheisms. In fact, out of the ten divine “commandments” or “sayings”, eight are negative injunctions: “Thou shalt not kill”, “Thou shalt not steal”, etc. It would thus appear that the first movement, that makes up the foundation of moral law, consists in withholding, in fighting against the impulse to do evil that is in the hearts of all humans. Ostad Elahi aligns himself with this approach when he describes the battle against the imperious self (as the pillar of spiritual perfection)[3]:

“Battling the imperious self means to renounce its impulses and desires through the force of one’s faith and willpower.” (WoT, 95, draft of the forthcoming English translation)

“Renouncing” means “saying no” to injunctions that are contrary to those divine principles which form the basis of human values and are recognized as such not only within religious and spiritual traditions but also in secular law. The imperious self is this entity that exists within each of us and pushes us to transgress ethical principles:

“May God protect us from the imperious self, which seeks to deceive us however it can, whether by concocting various ruses and justifications, fabricating endless arguments, or assuming countless guises.” (WoT, 93, draft of the forthcoming English translation)

For all these reasons, it is clear that while it is theoretically almost impossible to define evil, it is indispensable to be able to recognize it in practice. The goal of the ethical principles that form the practical core of all religions is none other than to propose a chart of good and evil. Because in order to really practice what is good, it is essential to know of the possibility of evil and to have experienced the temptation of evil. For Ostad Elahi, evil as an ethical issue only has meaning within the general framework of the rights that are inherent to all creatures. These rights imply in turn a number of duties. Ostad Elahi considers that no right is ever lost and that the immortal soul shall be held accountable for all its transgressions, by virtue of the precise mathematical count inscribed in its very substance. Speaking in terms of rights signifies that avoiding evil is above all avoiding transgressing the rights of others, or in other words “not do unto others what you would not wish done unto you”, which is the matching piece of the universal Golden Rule: “do unto others what you would wish done unto you.” Ostad Elahi returns ever so often in his teachings to this universal maxim as a foundation of ethics and wisdom, from whence stems the very notion of the good.

>> Reflection <<

We constantly judge the actions and behaviours of others (family, friends, colleagues, etc.), especially when we find those actions or behaviours questionable. However, what often happens in such cases is that others themselves become the targets of our judgements. We condemn them, in their very essence, on the basis of observations that can only be incomplete. Have you ever tried, as suggested in the text, to tone down your judgments by dissociating the act and the person? Or by trying to shift perspectives in order to see “the good” in the other person? Were you able to observe some results?

Did you then also try to change the way you perceive yourself in order to better diagnose “evil” in yourself, i.e. the different manifestations of the imperious self?

Feel free to share your thoughts, examples and experiences in the comments section.

[1] ^On this subject, see WoT, 136. This idea that evil does not exist in itself can also be found in Plotinus, when he criticizes gnostic dualism, opposing a principle of evil to a principle of good. See in particular Treaty No. 9 (VI, 9): “The Good or the One”, in The Essential Plotinus, trans. Elmer O’Brien (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1964).

[2] ^On this subject, see Knowing the Spirit, State University of New York Press, 2007, p. 53, and WoT, 18: “Existence is an immense act of grace bestowed upon beings by the Necessary Being. Just as the sun’s rays illuminate its surroundings, so too does His grace, with the difference that divine grace is willed and flows from His munificence.”

[3] ^“The imperious self can thus be considered as a rebellious agent of intelligent destructive desires of the terrestrial soul or id.” Bahram Elahi, The Path of Perfection, Paraview, 2005, p. 43.

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  1. PS Nov 26, 2017 8:00 pm 1

    I find my expectations from close family members and friends are the main source of my judgments and all the bitterness. The ideal scenario that I create in my mind is formed around me. It doesn’t take into account their limits and resources, their struggles and personal issues.

  2. Alex Nov 27, 2017 3:00 am 2

    On the question of diagnosing evil in myself and identifying different manifestations of the imperious self, I believe I have made some minor progress in the process of identifying a weakness recently.

    I have been trying to work on a character weak point for a while now, and have set a weekly target for myself to try to overcome it. Ever since I seriously set up my action plan, the moments in which this character weak point arises and is about to expose itself have become ever so tangible to me. I can feel an urge within me that is extremely hard to control, it makes me forget about the lessons I learned and the tactics I know in order to resist the pressure. It is an extremely joyful event, when you truly are able to convince yourself to not follow through when the ‘potential of evil’ arises (this happens far too seldom). On the flipside, the feeling of regret and shame I feel when I’m not able to control myself is hard to put in words.

    1. A. Nov 28, 2017 9:01 am 2.1

      >On the question of diagnosing evil in myself and identifying different manifestations of the imperious self, I believe I have made some minor progress in the process of identifying a weakness recently.

      That must have a led you to feel elated, maybe (?) Because that is what happens to me sometimes, when I get to know myself a little better.

  3. A. Nov 28, 2017 8:55 am 3

    >However, what often happens in such cases is that others themselves become the targets of our judgements.

    That often happens with my eldest son, aged 16. He often has a atrocious behavior, irreverent, aggressive, patronizing, disdainful, and especially, verbally violent with me. Often he attacks me for no apparent reason. My very presence disturbs him, irritates him because he perceives me as a source of constraints in connection with several unhealthy behaviors (going out until 5 AM, spending hours watching movies every single day, etc…).

    However it has dawned on me that his violent reactions are also due to the fact that I developed a grudge and some resentment towards hime because of his behavior. We are in a vicious circle. I consider him an aggressive animal, egocentric, disdainful. I do not limit myself to judging his actions. In my mind his very essence is the focus of my judgment and, on top of that, I try to seek vengeance. When I refuse him certain things, I feel a certain pleasure (“now I am going to make you pay for your atrocious behavior”). The more he feels (subconsciously) that I am not benevolent toward him, the more he can’t stand me. I need to break the vicious circle.

  4. tom Nov 28, 2017 2:38 pm 4

    Yesterday, i was waiting for the bus after a long day at work. The bus was directly on the other side of the street, the designated bus waiting area, and the driver was simply waiting for the designated time to come and pick us up (i waited at the first stop on the bus’s route). It was an extremely cold night, and a lot of people were waiting and shivering on the street. The bus was so close; the driver could have easily just come and waited on our side of the street and had us come into the bus as he waited for the right time (some drivers do this anyway). Considering how cold it was, it would have been great had he decided to do this, but he was evidently oblivious. I was quite angry, and when he finally did come and pick us up, I did not confront him (not out of humility or kindness, simply because I am not a confrontational person), but I decided to not do my usual greeting and smile as a way of punishment, and just hurried onto the bus and got a seat. As I sat down, I saw the driver with a big smile greeting other passengers as they got on, and i was surprised to see how sincerely warm and friendly he was. At that moment, this article regarding dissociating the person from the act came into my mind. For me, it was such a clear example of what Ostad means when he says that ‘It’s not the agent but the act from which evil is conceived’. Had I thought about this, I would have realized that the driver was not maliciously trying to keep us in the cold, but was simply oblivious. No matter what his reasons were, I should have shown kindness and goodness as he showed to others because there was no harm in doing so; and it would have been the right thing to do. This simple example for me was a real life example of this verse in Ostad’s poem.

    1. adissam Dec 03, 2017 8:35 pm 4.1

      Thanks for sharing this experience. It seems to illustrate how our expectations affect us.

    2. adissam Dec 03, 2017 9:35 pm 4.2

      “No matter what his reasons were, I should have shown kindness and goodness as he showed to others…”

      I’d argue for a different reasoning in this situation; what about: “No matter what his reasons were, I should have shown kindness and goodness as [a way to fight against my imperious impulse of retaliation]” ?

    3. adissam Dec 03, 2017 9:56 pm 4.3

      About resentment and retaliation.
      I was holding a grudge against someone and we ended up meeting again. He was doing a presentation. It was the second test for me several weeks after the initial event.
      Thinking back about this situation, I could have shown my bitterness by not interacting during the presentation, but thanks to God, all my resentment was gone and I was able to participate as usual.
      He probably also realized that and took great care in answering my questions. We were both fighting inside, I guess.
      At the end, we met in the corridor and I greeted him out of respect owing to his rank and even apologized for not being in the right group that day (because he had made a comment about that earlier). I was so pleased that all my bitter emotions were gone.

  5. NAGHME Dec 04, 2017 6:39 am 5

    I feel very connected to these words, this really spoke to me. I needed this. Thank you. There is a saying – ‘we see the world not as it is but as we are’. I have suffered my whole life from being way too judgmental of others. It’s only lately that I have been learning about how the ego works and the damage it can cause, and that I have been seriously paying attention to my judgmental ways and trying to correct them. When I had a long, hard look at myself and started to identify the negative traits that translate into actions every day, and how they all stem directly from my imperious self, I was staggered. I judge people who are violent and malicious, but that is a reflection of who I am. I judge violence and malice within myself. Those are traits that I will not tolerate within myself, therefore I do not tolerate them in others.

  6. Juliet Feb 28, 2018 4:37 am 6

    Thanks for the great article. After reading it, I tried to dissociate the act and the person in a particular situation. The person is an extended family member and her behaviors bothers me a lot. She is so pushy. She insists on doing things for me that I really don’t need it. For example, I was going to have a big party and she insisted to come to my house the day before the party in order to help preparing the food. This is while I wasn’t even at home that day. Although I had told her hundreds of times that she could help me in other ways, she didn’t accept it and she came to my house that day without me being there! I have experienced many situations like this with her. After reading the article, I tried to dissociate her actions from her as a person. I told myself that there was no doubt that she was kind and wanted to help and that these kinds of actions didn’t mean that she was a bad person. But I can’t really stop thinking about the many unpleasant situations she has put me in. I have tried to limit my relationship with her but since she is a relative, I feel bad about it. How can I separate her assertive behavior from her as a person?

    1. angie Mar 19, 2018 2:47 am 6.1

      I would be so glad to have someone helping me out before a “big party”. If she were older it’d be even better, she could come to the party and make sure everything went fine. She’d be like a guardian angel!

      1. Juliet Mar 26, 2018 2:16 am 6.1.1

        I don’t think any woman likes another woman coming to her house before a party to help especially when her husband is home and not herself!

      2. angie Mar 29, 2018 10:21 pm 6.1.2

        I see. It’s quite a different context. I was thinking about an old auntie stopping by to help out. That would be quite nice.

        Anyway, the moral of the story: “don’t jump to conclusions, you might not know the entire story”

    2. Saga Mar 24, 2018 7:08 pm 6.2

      Hi Juliet,
      Try doing nice things to do this person and see if your relationship changes. Also, no one should have the key to your place if you don’t want them to have it, so you can set those kind of boundaries by taking the key back, that’s your right. Also, try telling that person in a nice way how you feel, maybe like: “I really want to try doing big things on my own and when you help me then I feel like I’m not able to do this on my own.” Thank them and tell them that you appreciate their help, but also be firm and say that you will ask them for their help if it is needed. My grandmother used to leave me voice messages that were always angry like: “How come you don’t answer, call me right away!” and it always put me in a bad mood. So one day I told her in a very gentle way how it stressed me out to receive messages like that and to my surprise she didn’t get insulted and never did that again. Sometimes we think people should know what we are thinking, but they don’t until we say it. Just make sure it’s in the nicest way possible.

      1. Juliet Mar 26, 2018 2:18 am 6.2.1

        Thanks for your advice. I will try them. By the way, she doesn’t have a key. She came to my door and my husband was home and he opened the door for her!

      2. Saga Mar 27, 2018 10:50 am 6.2.2

        Oh I see! Then perhaps your husband needs to back you up in this as well, so you can be a united front. It would be really interesting if you wanted to share what happens after you’ve tried these or other ways to tackle the situation.

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