Interrogations of Tradition

My father is working on a new book that will be a series of short discussions of insightful thoughts of sages and spiritual leaders of the ages. Here is one of the chapters:

“Conceal your good deeds as you conceal your evil deeds.”

–Rabia of Basra (717?-801)

Rabia al-Adawiyya al-Qaysayyi was one of the great women saints of Islam.

How should we interpret her remark which has about it the tone of a warning? It disagrees with common practice and contradicts what seems to be plain logical common sense.

Our analysis, our explanation of our behavior – we’d hardly feel the need to call it a defense — would go something like this:

We don’t conceal our “good deeds,” because there seems no reason to deprive the community of benefitting from our good example, and we do conceal our “evil deeds,” not only because we have a right to defend our reputation, but also for the very good reason that public knowledge of our errors or failings or misdeeds serves no purpose.

How might Rabia respond?

As a renowned Muslim, she might fiercely retort, “Didn’t Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet, Peace be upon Him, say ‘Hide the good you do, and make known the good done to you’”?

And if she could have dipped into the future and heard the words of Meister Eckhart (1260?-1327?), she might retort, “And didn’t your Eckhart say ‘We are to practice virtue, not possess it’”?

We might discern two thrusts in the arguments of Rabia, Ali and Eckhart.

The first, originating in religious teachings, is simply the danger of egoism: the ‘inflammation’ of the personal ego which, according to all the spiritual traditions, comes between us and spiritual realization, whether that realization is defined as Salvation, as in the western traditions, or Enlightenment, as it is defined in the eastern traditions. In the former the danger is the sin of Pride, in the latter the error is called Ignorance. In both cases, the virtue being denied is Humility.

The second thrust originates right here in our daily lives, and it is very subtle indeed. It argues that any public knowledge of our lives, any public definition of our earthly performances, is a form of contamination. Why? Because God alone knows who we really are. It’s a question of where is the authentic tribunal.

“Whatever gets praise from the world goes unnoticed in heaven. Whatever goes unnoticed by the world is kept in heaven.” A saying of the Sikhs.

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