Calling on God as a Friend

Thursday, February 23, 2017 - 5:00 am

Calling on God as a Friend

The mystics of Islam have a lovely way of referring to God not only as Lord, but also as a Beloved, even as a Friend.

These seekers state that in public they refer to God as Lord, but in their intimate whispers they call on God as “the Friend” (doost).

What does it mean to befriend God?

What does it mean to look at God not merely as a Lord (with us humans as subjects) but instead look at our relationship with God through a lens of love, one of friendship?

How would it change our prayer if we approached God as a loving friend?

This is precisely one of the great gifts of the Islamic tradition. It is never an either/or approach, but always a both/and, a cosmic and exuberant yes! to all the possibilities. God is both The Lord, the Creator of all creation, the transcendent King and, simultaneously, the intimate friend, the beloved who mingles with us closer than the beating of our own heart.

The luminous souls of the saintly path are referred to as God’s friends (awliya’), a lovely description of their rank. They have attained God’s friendship, and God is revealed as their friend. Friendship is face-to-face, heart-to-heart, eye-to-heart. Friendship is intimate, enduring, and faithful.

I wanted to share some insights on what befriending God looks like by sharing a few pearls from the lovely friend of God, Abu‘l-Hasan Kharaqani, who passed on to the eternal realm in 1033. The names of Hafez and Rumi are well known to many seekers, but lesser known are these giants on whose shoulders Rumi and Hafez stood. It’s worth remembering that we don’t get Everest without the Himalayas, and we don’t get towering giants like Rumi without a whole community, a whole tradition of lovers who called on God as a friend.

Kharaqani was a simple and humble man who came from a very modest background. He was not a scholar, nor did he possess perfect command of Arabic. He called on to God in his mother tongue, Persian. It was his friendship with God that sustained him. Kharaqani said:

Sustenance of the friends of God is through friendship with God.

He experienced much sorrow in his life, including having his children pass away, but it was the friendship with God that brought him joy. He described this joy as one that was more precious than any and all acts of ritual worship.

Many have tried to describe the spiritual path through a thousand and one metaphors. These friends of God simply said that the path is to be “at ease with God.”

For Kharaqani, this friendship was a mutual seeking. God is seeking us as we are seeking us. God yearns to befriend us as we seek God. Kharaqani talks about a dream he had one night:

One night I saw God Almighty in a dream.
I said to God:
“It’s been sixty years that I have spent
in the hope of being your friend,
of desiring you.”

God Almighty answered me:
“You’ve been seeking me for sixty years?
I’ve spent an eternity
to eternity
befriending you.”  

One of the stories from Kharaqani gives an indication of the loving, tender, even humorous friendship that he shared with God. This is possible for all of us, if we walk on the path of befriending God. Kharaqani tells us that one night, in the middle of his late-night prayers being whispered to God, he heard the voice of God coming at him in a stern fashion: “Do you want Me to reveal to people all of your shortcomings, so that they stone you?” Kharaqani, undaunted, talked back to God: “My friend, my beloved Lord, do you want me to tell the same people that you love them so much that you could never put a single one of them in hellfire? If I do that, they are going to stop all this prayer and fasting.”

There was a pregnant pause, and the voice of God said — more softly — to Kharaqani:

“You say nothing;
I say nothing.”

This friendship, this tenderness, this befriending was not just for Kharaqani. It was and is for all of us who tell these tales again and again through the last millennia. We, too, yearn for a friendship with the Lord of the Cosmos, who becomes our intimate beloved.

It was Kharaqani who said:

“Whoever falls in love passionately, a radical love that spills over, finds God.”

This befriending of God did not stop with God, but had to change the way that we interact with God’s creation. For Kharaqani, and for all of us who yearn to befriend God, to be a friend of God meant to befriend humanity, regardless of their faith or status. On the entrance to his shrine is inscribed this beautiful simple poem.

Whoever comes here

Do not ask them
their faith

They deserve a daily bread
in my house

Of course!

Since they were worthy of a soul
in God’s court

What a joy to be a friend of God.
What a joy to become a friend of God.
What a joy to discover God having waited an eternity to befriend us.

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is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Thursday.

He is Director of Duke University’s Islamic Studies Center. He is the past Chair for the Study of Islam, and the current Chair for Islamic Mysticism Group at the American Academy of Religion. In 2009, he was recognized by the University of North Carolina for mentoring minority students in 2009, and won the Sitterson Teaching Award for Professor of the Year in April of 2010.

Omid is the editor of the volume Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism, which offered an understanding of Islam rooted in social justice, gender equality, and religious and ethnic pluralism. His works Politics of Knowledge in Premodern Islam, dealing with medieval Islamic history and politics, and Voices of Islam: Voices of Change were published 2006. His last book, Memories of Muhammad, deals with the biography and legacy of the Prophet Muhammad. He has forthcoming volumes on the famed mystic Rumi, contemporary Islamic debates in Iran, and American Islam.

Omid has been among the most frequently sought speakers on Islam in popular media, appearing in The New York TimesNewsweekWashington Post, PBS, NPR, NBC, CNN and other international media. He leads educational tours every year to Turkey, Morocco, or other countries, to study the rich multiple religious traditions there. The trips are open to everyone, from every country. More information at Illuminated Tours.

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  • So often, as with many things you share Omid, I am weeping into my coffee this morning. Thank you for the beautiful truths you share.

    • Omid Safi

      Oh dear Hillary. It’s the tenderness of your own heart that you see reflected. Blessings…..

  • sydney

    This was powerful. Thank you for sharing more insight into the Islamic tradition. I can feel the love come through the words.

    • Omid Safi

      Thank you Sydney. It’s my joy and pleasure to share these jewels.

  • I’m with Hillary. As ever, thank you Omid.

    • Omid Safi

      Thank you Naomi! 🙂

  • Jesse Burke

    The heart grows ever fonder.Thanks Omid.

  • CamMannino

    I’m not a believer of any faith but I never stop seeking. I recently read Father James Martin’s book “The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything.” Surprisingly, his view of God is very similar to Kharaqani’s. Love the ‘you say nothing/i say nothing” story. Thank you for your insights.

  • LenMinNJ

    In Jewish scripture, in Song of Songs, God and Israel are not just friends, but beloveds.

    If we are friends and beloveds of God, how can we be other to our fellow man? The Western Galilee Medical Center in Nahariya (Israel), several miles from the Lebanese border, has treated around 1550 Syrian civilians in the last four years.

  • Rita

    I am so grateful for you, Omid Safi. I so look forward every week to your gentle, love-filled, wisdom-filled, God-full reflections. I continue to be delighted, affirmed, and encourged by the beauty and parallels in your reflections and those of my other favorite spiritual writer, Richard Rohr. I wish Krista would do an episode with the two of you! Thank you.