My journey to Islam started with Leonard Cohen. In his album, Recent Songs, Cohen writes of being influenced by Attar and Rumi[i]. The lyrics were so beautiful and evocative, I had to find out whom these intriguing names belonged to.
Recently, as a Sufi colleague and I were reflecting on Cohen’s music, it was suggested to me that part of its appeal lies in how he combines the erotic with the mystical, the dark with the light, particularly so in a song like “Hallelujah”.
Here’s an example:
Your faith was strong but you needed proof.
You saw her bathing on the roof;
her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you.
She tied you to a kitchen chair,
she broke your throne, and she cut your hair,
and from your lips she drew the Hallelujah.[ii]
Here we have a flesh and blood woman from the Bible, Bathsheba, who transforms into something more numinous. It is often this way with the women in Cohen’s songs. But aren’t we all greater than ourselves, giving each other glimpses of a Truly Existent One? Rumi says of womankind:
She is not that kind of beloved most imagine;
she is a ray of God.
She is not just a created,
she is creative.[iii]
The Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings upon him) said, “Three things have been made beloved to me in this world: women, fragrance, and prayer, which is the delight of my eyes”. He also said, “Marriage is half the faith”[iv], and it has even been suggested that Muhammad’s journey through the seven heavens (the Miraj), occurred whilst making love to his beloved wife, Khadijah.
Commenting on Muhammad, another great Sufi, Ibn Arabi, writes:
…the Apostle loved women by reason of perfect contemplation of the Reality in them. Contemplation of the Reality without formal support is not possible, since God, in His Essence, is far beyond all need of the Cosmos. Since, therefore, some form of support is necessary, the best and most perfect kind is the contemplation of God in women.[v]
These are perspectives from heterosexual men, but we might infer that men can also be a locus of divine manifestation. All three of these men recognised women as spiritual seekers: the subject could be woman; man the object.
Cohen once said of marriage:
I think marriage is the hottest furnace of the spirit today. Much more difficult than solitude, much more challenging for people who want to work on themselves. It’s a situation in which there are no alibis, excruciating most of the time… but it’s only in this situation that any kind of work can be done.[vi]
Cohen’s spirituality requires we get down into physicality, that we “search the darkness” as Rumi puts it. Like Cohen, the Sufis never present us with an abstracted love divorced from material existence, as these intriguing lines from Yunus Emre attest:
Torah, Psalms, Gospel, Quran –
what these books have to say,
we found in the body.[vii]
We are offered a vision of a love which unites heaven and earth, and all opposites; a vision which has its roots in the Quran:
Consider the night as it conceals
and the brilliance of the day;
consider the creation of male and female;
truly your aims are diverse.
So the one who gives and stands in awe of God
and sincerely affirms that which is best,
We will indeed ease for him/her the path to bliss.
But the one who greedily withholds what is given,
considering himself/herself self-sufficient,
and betrays the good,
We will indeed ease for him/her the path to misfortune…[viii]
In the Mathnawi, Rumi describes an argument between a Bedouin and his wife. At one moment, we side with the husband, in the next our sympathies shift to the wife, as if we are watching Divine Grace migrate from one to the other, so that neither can claim to be “self-sufficient”. The argument ends with a third power, the Divine, entering their relationship and balancing them from above.
Cohen often explores the tragic consequences that result when we upset the balance between the Divine Feminine and Masculine, whether in our romantic relationships, within the crucible of our own selves, or in our interactions with the world at large. He once said of his haunting song “The Gypsy’s Wife”:
…it’s a song about the way men and women have lost one another, that men and women have wandered away from each other and have become gypsies to each other. And the last verse says:
And there is no man or woman you can touch,
but you who come between them will be judged.
In other words, even though we are in the midst of some kind of psychic catastrophe, it’s not an invitation to take advantage of it.[ix]
Yet paradoxically, Cohen often witnesses grace flowing into our lives despite our insufficiencies in love, and even because of them. It was David’s desire for Bathsheba that led to his greatest sin: arranging for her husband, Uriah, to be killed by the enemy on the frontline of battle, so he could possess her. But David’s coming between this husband and wife ultimately leads to a flood of remorse, the influx of Mercy, and finally “Hallelujah!” And his union with Bathsheba also led to the birth of Solomon, the prophet of wisdom. The light came borne on the darkness.
As for being tied to a kitchen chair for a haircut, it suggests both the Overpowering (the Jalal) and the Nurturing (the Jamal). The kitchen is the place where we are fed and sustained, and the image evokes being groomed by the Divine Feminine. If our power is being removed like Samson’s when his hair was cut, it is because it is overweening. It is God who belongs on the throne, not the human ego (nor a patriarchy that suppresses the feminine).
Perhaps this explains the popularity of the song: we live in a society that encourages us to place our egos firmly on the throne. Yet the deepest wish of all our hearts is to see the ego dethroned (the aim of the Sufi path). Relationships of all kinds make a crucible in which this can potentially happen, but perhaps the marital relationship adds a white heat like no other.
Part 2 of this article, “Guests of Love: Leonard Cohen and the Sufis”, can be read here.
[i] “I owe my thanks to…Robert Hershorn, who, many years ago, put into my hands the books of the old Persian poets Attar and Rumi, whose imagery influenced several songs, especially The Guests and The Window…” From the liner notes of the album Recent Songs.
[iii] Mathnawi I, 2444–2448, trans. Kabir Helminski and Ahmad Rezwani
[iv] Both sayings are Hadith
[v] The Bezels of Wisdom, trans. R.W.J. Austin
[vi] Interview with Paul Williams, 1975
[vii] The Drop that Became the Sea, trans. Kabir Helminski and Refik Algan
[viii] Quran, Surah al-Layl, 92: 1–10, rendered by Camille Helminski
[ix] The Song of Leonard Cohen, documentary film of his 1979 tour