Grandfather’s Oven

خام بدم پخته شدم سوختم
I was raw, I was cooked, I was burned!

I arrived rather late in a caravanserai in Konya. That’s why I saw Munir Shah the next morning. I noticed him reading a book and I wondered what book he was reading. A few hours I saw him again. He was sitting on a bench opposite the mosque with the maqam of Hazrat Shamsuddin Tabrizi. He was reading the same red coloured book. The third time happened to take place in the Meram gardens of Konya. I went there because I had read the description of these gardens by Evliya Çelebi. He writes that these gardens are situated on the eastern side of the Meram Mountain. The people of Konya go there to enjoy the beauty of the gardens and songs of the birds.

Munir Shah was once again reading the same book. He noticed me and smilingly showed me its title. He told me that he enjoyed reading everything that Sidi Titus Burckhardt had written. “I’m now reading” – he said – “the chapter on the oven. The text has both a literal and a symbolical meaning”. Munir Shah then showed me an illustration of an oven in the form of a small tower surmounted with a dome. “This dome looks a little bit like the dome on top of the türbe of Mawlana Rumi,” Munir Shah added. “The real oven” – he continued – “is none other than the human body. It is a simplified image of the cosmos”.

“Don’t consider the body, only to mean the physical body. When Khwaja Hafez speaks about the heart, he may mean the physical heart, but also to the subtle heart, like in these lines:

دلا ز نور ریاضت گر اگهی یابی
چو شمع خنده زنان ترک سر توانی کرد

O heart, if by means of spiritual practices you gain awareness,
You can smilingly renounce your head like a candle”.

I wanted to know why he was so interested in ovens. Munir Shah, however, responded by asking a question: “What is the most important element in the oven?” I, of course, answered: “It’s fire!” I continued by mentioning some of its qualities like burning, rising upwards, and purifying. I became enthusiastic by speaking about the several types of fire in our heart, but Munir Shah stopped me: “You have forgotten the light-giving quality of fire! As to the heart, are you aware that the Sufis experience seven levels of development of the heart?” I remained silent. He then said that a traditional oven consists of an earthen oven, ash-pit and glass vessel. This is a threefold envelope, just like what the Sufis teach us about the breast, the heart and the pericardium. The threefold envelope of the oven refers to some of the envelopes or levels of human consciousness.

He added: “By, the way, my name is Munir Shah. I was born in the city of Torun. This very beautiful city is one of the best-kept secrets in Poland, although that may change because nowadays it is a Unesco World Heritage site. When tourists start to come in large numbers, soon they will be able to drink coffee from mugs containing an image of Nicolaus Copernicus while enjoying the local gingerbread”.

“When I was about 20 years old, I had a dream about my grandfather’s oven. This is my dream: I was a child and visited my grandfather and grandmother during a cold winter. My grandmother was baking gingerbread and after eating it all of us started to sit warming our feet against the oven, while we covered our legs with a blanket. Grandfather then started to tell all kinds of stories”.

“Two years later a stranger visited my parents. He introduced himself as a ‘traveller’. He talked all night with my father. When he left, he said to me that he considered my father to be a hidden saint. He added that my father was the lieutenant of a Chishti Sufi who is active in the village of Taos. When my father died I somehow felt the need to meet this Chishti pir”.

“It was a long journey to Taos. The last part was especially difficult as there was no bus leaving to Taos. That is why I had to walk for a couple of hours in the heat of the desert surrounding Taos. When getting very near Taos, I saw something unusual. A kind of desert crab, reminding me of the crabs near the Baltic Sea, was in great danger. Very many ants were attacking it. I picked it up, shook off some of the ants and put it down at a safe place”.

“When I finally arrived in Taos and asked people to direct me to the Sufi shaykh, new difficulties presented themselves. Someone said about this pir that he had died, another said that he had left Taos in order to travel, while being interested to take me to another place where I could stay at a price. I was too tired to really pay attention to them. An old man came to me and said: ‘Water is free!’ Of course, I accepted the water he offered me and with his directions, I easily reached the house of the Chishti pir”.

“It was already late in the evening but immediately a meal was prepared for me. Afterwards, I was directed to a sleeping place on the roof. I had never slept on a roof, but I found out that it was a very pleasant and cool place for sleeping. When the temperature dropped in this desert surroundings, a man appeared with a blanket so I could protect me against the sudden cold. In the morning the shaykh asked me to join him during breakfast. After drinking some tea in silence, he turned to me and said: ‘I know you wish to know what the meaning is of your dream about your grandfather’s oven’. You can imagine that I was very surprised that he knew about my dream”.

“Things are not always what they appear to be”, he started to explain. “When you crossed the desert near Taos, you explained everything in familiar terms. You thought you recognized a crab in the desert, but in fact you picked up a dangerous scorpion. But, unconscious or not, you have saved its life. That’s why you may have reached your destination safely. Let’s now turn to the meaning of your dream”.

“The meaning of the oven corresponds to your level of inward development. Your ‘oven’ spreads too little warmth, i.e. your vital and creative forces still need to be awakened. You are in need of fire. You are, in fact, afraid of fire. That’s why life will test you by fire. You are raw!”

“The shaykh then more or less stopped. He could have explained much more, but he knew it would be pointless. He, however, recited the following lines:

No fear will remain if you set out on the way,
Not now; now it is much better to stay.

No fear will you remain of the fire of hell,
This your purified soul and heart will tell.

When pure gold gets melted in the fire of oven’s blaze,
Nothing can burn away, of impurity remains no trace.

“After taking a shower, unaware that I used too much water, I decided to leave, not knowing that the first test by fire immediately would come”.

“As I was hungry, I started to eat my bread soon after leaving Taos. It was not so tasty as my grandmother’s gingerbread, but because ginger is a warming spice, eating a gingerbread is not a good idea in a desert. Suddenly, an eagle swept down at a speed of 20 or 30 miles an hour and snatched up my bread. It was all my food! I immediately found out that in my hurry to leave, I had been so stupid to forget to take water with me. I thought of returning to Taos, but, in my pride, I decided against it. If people would ask me how I had crossed the desert, I would only tell them ‘by walking’, something hard to believe”.

“After only half an hour of walking in the desert, I saw a startling scene. Huge dust devils were spinning across the dry earth as if they were whirling dervishes. The heat increased and increased. It was as if I was moving about in an oven. Now, so many years later I learned that the traditional oven of my grandfather can be used to start a process called calcination. Calcination refers to heating for the purpose of removing impurities or that which is not stable. The process of sublimation serves to transform that which is ignoble into something that is pure. The things which take place at an unconscious level need to be transported to your awareness”.

“The oven is an instrument to mature. The fire in my oven still needed to be aroused and then tamed in order to serve inward contemplation. The fire in my oven happened to be unsteady and violent, in other words, my insights were fragmentary, my intentions were impulsive and I couldn’t control my emotions. My oven contained too little ash. Ash, after all, can no longer be set on fire, that is to say, it is no longer attainable by passions”.

“All these reflections came later. Now I experienced the heat of the desert of Taos. I should have turned back to Taos when seeing the dust devils, but I did not. In case I had followed the instructions of the Chishti pir, I would have had the time to reflect. Whoever contemplates, learns. Whoever stabilizes, grows. When you rapidly move, it becomes more difficult to observe things. When things rapidly move, you judge them differently to what those things really are. It is said about the fire which is in an ember, when you circle it rapidly, it becomes a ring of fire. The reason for this is the lack of stability”.

“When your state is stable, you can experience the serenity that is necessary to observe what is around you, such as the Divine light. I was far from stable in the desert of Taos. The light and the heat of the sun increased even further, so that it appeared as if the sun started to circle like a dancing dervish. When I was completely exhausted, I started to hallucinate. I suddenly was sitting in a circle of dervishes wearing Afghani clothes. This circle of dervishes was all around high wooden cube. Its height was such that I couldn’t see the dervishes sitting behind it”.

“An extremely tall man appeared from behind the wooden construction. He was even taller than a tall European. He was wearing a large green dervish mantle. His face could not be seen, because it was covered by a green veil. He then recited some lines in Dari which, to my surprise, I could understand:

My friend is visiting this place.
May he come again and again!
I shall heat up the furnace,
May he come again and again!

I must have fainted. When I opened my eyes, I saw a nurse standing near my bed. She told me that I was safe. A man, who called himself Mudawi al-Kulum, had brought me to the hospital after finding me dehydrated in the desert”.

Munir Shah, of course, wished to thank this man who had saved his life, but the nurse said that the stranger didn’t wish to be thanked. It simply was la mano dos Dios. After recovering somewhat, Munir Shah returned to Taos by taxi in order to spend more time in the company of the Chishti murshid. I have asked Munir Shah to tell me more about this second visit. He then put the red coloured book written by Sidi Burckhardt back in his bag and took out a diary. The following remarks have been taken from the descriptions in this notebook. I have presented them as a continuous story, skipping the many days, weeks, months and years that ‘nothing’ appear ed to take place.

When Munir Shah entered the house of the Chishti pir, he was welcomed by a woman who started to sing about the taste of love:

Love is a burning thing
And it makes a fiery ring
Bound by wild desire
I fell into a ring of fire.
I fell into a burning ring of fire.
And it burns, burns, burns
This oven’s fire.
This oven’s fire.

After hearing her beautiful voice, he went to the kitchen to see if food was available. After receiving a cup of tea, Munir was asked to help to prepare the meal for the evening. When taking the meal together with all the dervishes, the shaykh gave some food from his own plate to Munir.

After the meal, the shaykh started to talk. The dervishes, while sitting in a semi-circle, listened to him. In the midst of this suhbat, the shaykh suddenly turned to Munir, saying that he was happy that the Healer of all wounds had helped him to recover. He added that he wanted to talk to him in private about three kinds of fire.

The first kind of fire can start when you begin to contemplate. The second type of fire may affect your heart when your contemplation becomes methodic. Suddenly, the shaykh started to tell about his journey to India. When he was in Tiruvannamalai, he met a yogi. The yogi performed a certain contemplation practice, but could not attain the inner consciousness beyond a certain level. This yogi was unaware of the difference between self-work and gift. The third kind of fire is a gift. It implies a sudden illumination of your heart brought about by a Divine manifestation. This gift also increases the capacity of your subtle heart.

The notebook contained a commentary about a response of the shaykh dealing with a theoretical question by Munir Shah. When he asked the shaykh if there were even higher types of fire, the shaykh didn’t say that such questions shouldn’t be asked. With a smile، he said: “Munir Shah, you should never listen to people who explain things, rather than do!”

“You, Munir Shah, remind me of your father! There is a proverb in your Poland that says in translation: ‘A real human being is hidden’. Such people don’t call attention to themselves. They are the guileless, the world is safe from them, they are not recognized among the people by some grand worship act, but they also don’t profane that which is sacred, secretly or openly”.

“Their hearts are safeguarded from other than God entering them, by God they stand and by God they observe, from God they take and in God they put their trust. Their souls are safeguarded from themselves and thus they don’t know their own selves. They eat food, walk in the markets and mix with the people of their country in the local dress”.

“Your father once stayed for a long time in Varanasi. Whenever your travel would take you to India, you should try to visit a Chishti dervish in Varanasi. He is a great scholar and is a man who talks a lot and who likes to explain things. Ask him about Dede Attanur!”

“Attanur Sahib is a Yunusi dervish. He is, like the prophet Jonah, particularly active in mastering his instincts and responses to anger. He experiences that the fire of anger clouds his heart. He examines all of his acts, random thoughts and mental compulsions at the end of every day. After reflecting on all this, he purifies his intentions in such a way that in the day to come he would not intend anything but what God orders him to do. Attanur Sahib constantly observes his heart”.

“During the time you’re here, work in the kitchen. Another wazifa will be to make notes about teachings or remarks that attract you when reading books in our library. Some study is useful for a dervish”

Here are some of the quotes taken from Munir Shah’s notebook:

  • A human being has been called the heart of the world because the heart is in the middle and has knowledge of all the parts, while the parts know nothing about the state of the heart.
  • The reality of the seeker’s heart becomes stronger, the soul becomes serene and levelled, then the branch joins the root, the particular joins the universal, the conditioned joins the absolute, the property of gathering dominates over separation and multiplicity becomes included in unity.
  • My [the Prophet’s] companions are stars; whomsoever anyone of you follow, you’ll be rightly guided.
  • Fire is water.
  • Noah was the owner of an oven that originally belonged to Adam. This oven caused the flood. The fire on the Day of Judgment will again come from this legendary oven. ‘Fire’ represents the pride of Noah’s contemporaries, while ‘water’ symbolizes the humility after being punished.
  • The oven [tanur] that ‘gushed forth’ in Qur’an 11:40 represents the break of dawn or that the face of the earth would gush forth. According to some tanur refers to the highest or best place on earth.
  • The etymology of tanur [oven; furnace]:

Nawwara [to light] from the root ن و ر [the root reads as nur or light].
Tanawwara [to be lit; to be illuminated; to receive enlightenment.
Tanawwur [illumination; enlightenment].

  • A melting furnace is perhaps the most powerful symbol of the power of fire. All the energy of fire is used to make something: This could mean an ongoing project or the presentation of a new idea, while being ‘awake’.
  • When it’s said that love dwells in the heart, this assumes a relationship between soul and body similar to the one, which, in a much more subtly graduated manner, lies at the basis of the alchemical symbol of the oven.
  • Alchemical symbolism never have the complete spiritual ‘extinction’ of the individual in view, as in the fana al-fana’i and the unio mystica of the Sufis. This is because alchemy is based upon a purely cosmological vision and therefore can only be transposed indirectly to the meta-cosmic or divine realm.

You’ll remember that the Chishti pir in Taos gave the advice to visit Dede Attanur. Munir Shah has been able to find Dede Attanur in Varanasi. How? He simply received the address by mailing to Dede Attanur himself. Which mail address? It took some time before Munir Shah realized that he had to mail to Dede@Tanur. It so happens that Munir related nothing about Dede Sahib in his notebook. He only told that when he was walking in Varanasi, he was attacked by a dog with rabies.

In order to recover, Munir Shah went to the Himalayas in order to benefit from its pure air. Something miraculous took place when he arrived in the mountains. He saw a yogi floating to a hut higher up the mountain, instead of walking to that spot. When he arrived at the hut, the yogi with a mischievous smile told Munir Shah that this outward show only took place for the benefit of those whose state was still raw. The yogi emphatically added: “Return immediately to your hometown in Poland!”

“You have been eating sweets and honey for quite some time. Your heart will soon be dominated by a station of sorrow. You’ll eat bitter colocynth. It is a matter of life or death to return to Torun. A severe test is awaiting you.” After Munir Shah’s arrival in Torun, he had a number of dreams related to this test. He made a call by phone to the Chishti pir in Taos to inform him about these dreams.

Munir Shah saw himself in Noah’s ark during a severe storm. He was alone in this ship. It didn’t sink. When commenting on this dream, the pir of Taos only said that this dream was related to the dream about the oven. Munir then related another dream about the prophet Jonah. According to the Chishti pir, he must have had a dream in between the dream about Noah and Jonah.

The intermediary dream was about meeting Mullah Nasruddin, who presented his book to Munir. Mullah Nasruddin then asked Munir: “Do you know what this means?” Munir had not given an answer. The Chishti pir remarked that this dream contained a strong warning for Munir: “You have a certain ability and potential, but you are not using it in a correct way”.

Munir continued by describing his dream about Jonah. He was standing in front of three graves. A man asked him which of these three graves was the one of the prophet Jonah. Munir replied by rubbing his hand in the dust of one of these graves. With this hand, he rubbed his head, which brought about a short ecstatic experience. “This means”, said the Chishti pir, “that like Jonah in the whale you’ll perform a very unusual retreat. Your retreat will last forty days. It will be extremely difficult, but remember that you were on Noah’s ark and this ship didn’t sink!”

You don’t have to be an Abilio Quaresma to guess what happens next. Munir Shah became seriously ill, because of rabies. You’ll remember that he was bitten by a rabid dog. Munir Shah had not received the appropriate medical care after his rabies exposure. The rabies virus can infect the central nervous system. The virus can cause disease in the brain which can ultimately result in death.

Munir Shah was rushed to the hospital. The anesthesiologist administered curare to put him in an artificial coma. You may know about curare that curare was used as a paralysing poison by many South American indigenous people. What the anesthesiologist didn’t discover, was that during his coma Munir was constantly aware of what took place around him. As he was paralysed he couldn’t move, but he was able to hear everything that was said near his bed. During forty days he experienced a retreat in hell.

Munir Shah’s notebook describes the experienced emotions in key terms, like fear, worry, boredom, anger, insecurity and submission. Munir found it difficult to adopt the right attitude. Things got better when he stopped worrying about how long it would last. He discovered that each day has enough trouble of its own.

The Sufis, moreover, had taught Munir Shah: این هم میگذرد – “This too is passing!” Munir’s not self-chosen retreat ended after forty days, when he was taken out of his coma by the anesthesiologist. A wiser, but sadder Munir emerged from this experience. A feeling of insecurity accompanied him for a long time after his recovery. When he phoned the Chishti pir in Taos to tell him what happened, his murshid told him: You were raw and now you are cooked!”

When skipping several years as described in Munir Shah’s notebook, we find him in Riga. Riga is not only one of the most beautiful cities in the Baltic states, but it is a hidden pearl among all European cities. The city lies on the Gulf of Riga at the mouth of the Daugava river. The historical kernel of Riga, known as Vecriga, goes back to the Middle Ages. It is also noted for its Jugendstil architecture and the 19th-century wooden buildings. After an adventure near a certain wooden house, Munir Shah has stopped making notes, but let’s turn first to something that happens near the Daugava river.

When walking along the Daugava river, a very dramatic scene took place. Munir saw a man who threatened to jump from a bridge. The man told the assembled crowd that he had been pushed to the brink. “Do you wanna tell me what’s going on in your life?” – Munir Shah addressed the man. “Can we go get a cup of coffee or something?” he adds.

The man appeared to listen, but then a beggar started abusing the man by calling him a coward, adding: “Jump! Jump! Jump!” The crowd took over and everyone started yelling: “Jump! Jump! Jump!” It is said that if you save one human being, you save a complete nation. Munir Shah simply walked towards the man, took him by the hand and guided him away from the danger.

Munir has made several notes about the very beautiful wooden architecture in Riga. This is however also taken from his notebook: “People fear the combination of wood and fire for a good reason. Historically, wood has been the main construction material in many places across the world; whole cities were built from wood. The archives hold many records of cities that have burned to the ground at different points in time; in the densely built cities the fire could swiftly jump from one building to another”

I don’t need to explain what exactly happens when wood meets fire. One day, many years later than the incident near the Daugava river, Munir was once again making a long walk in the city of Riga. He then saw a wooden house on fire. The burning house was built in a part of Riga where the houses are built stacked upon another.

One of these tiered houses was fully ablaze. A small girl was standing on a balcony of this house. The situation seemed impossible. The girl would burn. There was no way out. It would take too long for the fire brigade to arrive. The only person nearby who could do something was Munir Shah, because, perhaps due to the early hour, no one else was around.

A big fig tree near the burning house had branches that drooped down over the house. The only way to reach the child was by climbing this tree. Two problems need to be mentioned. Munir Shah, like each normal person, was conscious of the danger to get too close to a fierce fire. You should also know that Munir Shah was afraid of heights. But to cut it short, if Munir Shah would do nothing, the girl would die.

The notebook doesn’t show at all that Munir Shah was the personification of a capable hero. You, of course, will have understood that Munir did climb the fig tree, but he did so in a very clumsy way. His fear didn’t leave him when climbing. Munir Shah, however, faced his fears and saved the child!

When all this took place in Riga, the Chishti pir was studying the Maqalat of Hazrat Shamsuddin Tabrizi where Mawlana Rumi’s mentor says: “I have a heated state. No one has the capacity for my state. […] Some day, if that state should strike against him, he will have the capacity for it”. The pir in Taos then recited aloud by heart: “The fruit of my life is no more than three words:

خام بدم پخته شدم سوختم
I was raw, I was cooked, I was burned!

You are of course aware that he was not referring to Mawlana Rumi, but to the state of someone who many years ago has had a dream about his grandfather’s oven.