There was once a violent, ignorant and idolatrous king. One day he swore that if his personal idol accorded him a certain advantage in life, he would capture the first three people who passed by his castle and force them to dedicate themselves to idol-worship.
Sure enough, the king’s wishes were fulfilled, and he immediately sent soldiers on to the highway to bring in the first three people whom they could find.
These three were, as it happened, a scholar, a Sayed (descendant of Mohammed the prophet) and a prostitute.
Having them thrown down before his idol, the unbalanced king told them of his vow, and ordered them all to bow down in front of the image.
The scholar said, “This situation undoubtedly comes within the doctrine of ‘force majeure’. There are numerous precedents allowing anyone to appear to conform with custom if compelled, without real or moral culpability being in any way involved.” So he made a deep obeisance to the idol.
The Sayed, when it was his turn, said, “As a specially protected person, having in my veins the blood of the holy prophet, my actions themselves purify anything which is done, and therefore there is no bar to my acting as this man demands.” And he bowed down before the idol.
The prostitute said, “Alas, I have neither intellectual training nor special prerogatives, and so I am afraid that, whatever you do to me, I cannot worship this idol, even in appearance.”
The mad king’s malady was immediately banished by this remark. As if by magic he saw the deceit of the two worshippers of the image. He at once had the scholar and the Sayed decapitated, and set the prostitute free.
Godliness cannot be reduced to an image: that is one of the fundamentals of Sufi experience – I will not say Sufi philosophy, because there exists nothing like Sufi philosophy. It is an experience, not a speculation. It is a vision.
The Sufi vision says: godliness cannot be reduced to any image, metaphor, symbol or sign, although down through the ages the human mind has been trying to reduce the divine to something which man can worship, which man can handle, which man can cope with. That has been one of the oldest desires of the human mind: to put the divine in human categories so that it can be managed, manipulated, so it can be in your hands. The Sufi experience is that this is sacrilege, this is sin. The very effort to reduce the divine to an image is to falsify reality.
In the first place, why do we want the ultimate to be reduced to an idol? The very enormity of existence baffles us. The very infinity, and we feel we are falling into an abyss. Out of fear man creates a God, a small god, small like man. Out of fear man creates God in his own image and then he feels at ease. To feel at ease with the enormity of existence, you will have to disappear. Either disappear into the infinity of existence or create a manageable God. Create a temple in your home, let the divine be reduced to an image – then you can forget the enormity, the hugeness, the immensity.
Because of the eternal silence of existence, man wants to create a song to sing. The song may be of the Vedas or of the Koran; it doesn’t matter. Sound is consoling, silence frightening. The image feels human, part of our world. Imageless godliness is superhuman, it is beyond us. Unless we go beyond ourselves, we cannot meet the true godliness. To avoid that meeting, to avoid that transcendence, we create a small god of our own. We start having dialogues with our created god, man-made, manufactured by the human mind. We worship, we pray, we do rituals and we are happy. It is a kind of dream, it is not entry into reality. Your temples are barriers to the divine, not doors. They pretend to be doors, but they are not. And your ideals, your images, your philosophies, your continuous effort to fill the emptiness of existence with words, philosophies, systems, are nothing but creating a false security around you.
Existence is insecurity. To be with the ultimate is to be constantly in danger. To move into godliness is to move into the unknown and the unknowable. That frightens, that scares. One starts losing oneself. One wants to hold back. One wants not to look into the enormity. Then those small gods created by yourself or by your priests out of your cunning, cleverness, skill, are of great help. They are false because you have created them.