The Ocean of the Soul: Man, the World, and God in the Stories of Farid Al-Din 'Attar

By Hellmut Ritter; John O'Kane | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FOURTEEN
CONTENTEDNESS AND POVERTY

Whoever only takes an amount of the goods of the world which is absolutely necessary to maintain life and perform the religious duties, in so doing practices the virtue of contentedness (qanā ʿat) and, on a higher level, fulfills the voluntarily adopted ideal of poverty (faqr).

The virtue of contentedness and the ideal of poverty do not have an exclusively Islamic religious origin. They already constitute elements in ethical philosophy in Late Antiquity. For this reason ancient wise men frequently appear as chief figures in the stories of ʿ Aṭṭār which treat this subject, and furthermore it follows that the reward for virtue by no means always turns out to be religious gains such as eliminating one's ties with the present world in favor of the hereafter, or in mystical terms, diminishing the barriers separating the bondsman from God. Instead, the gains envisaged may well belong to the domain of general human or philosophical ideals of life. Among them is above all freedom from other people, remaining unencumbered by the burden of gratitude, a burden which benefactors impose on those who are dependent on them. In addition to this outward freedom there is also internal freedom. The contented and voluntarily poor man feels elevated above the lower drives of covetousness, acquisitiveness and greed which enthrall and dominate worldly men, and especially above the craving for power which preoccupies rulers. We have already seen in stories where at times ancient wise men, at times Ṣūfī shaykhs, beggars and fools, criticize the lords of the world, how the above views together with the ideals of Ṣūfīsm, which is really the religion of the poor people, lend a new, heightened self-importance to the poor man, the beggar, who in the Ṣūfī poets for the first time comes to speak, in contrast to the aristocracy, the rulers and their followers—a self-importance which expresses itself in such pithy sentences as: "The beggar is the true king." (See above p. 119). The religious factor in these views emerges into the foreground at the point where the con-

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