I love quoting wise sayings — it takes the hard work out of sounding intelligent. But there’s one wise saying from the Sufi tradition that, at first, had me perplexed:
“Trust in God but Tie Your Camel.”
I get the first part. I believe in God, sort of, depending whether we’re talking about the bearded gentleman on a cloud with only a harp for company, or a limitless, all pervasive Cosmic Consciousness imagining the Universe into being. I'm going with the second one. With that proviso, I have no problem trusting that the Creator of the Universe knows what he, she or it is doing. Trust in God? No problem.
It was the camel part that had me puzzled, primarily because I do not possess a camel. What am I supposed to do? Trust in God without tying my camel? That seems risky.
So I consulted my risk assessment officer at my insurance company. He informed me that under my policy I am not covered for the consequences of ignoring wise Sufi sayings. This was hardly reassuring. And I still did not know whether, in the unlikely event that someone were to lend me a camel, it would it be right morally, or even legally, for me to deprive this harmless animal of its liberty by tying it.
And there was another problem. Allah put people all over the world, but not camels. There are entire countries which are camel free zones. If everyone in the world is required to have an actual camel in order to follow this wise advice, there will not be nearly enough camels to go around.
Then, in a moment of religious revelation, it dawned on me that perhaps the wise Sufi sage was using the camel as a metaphor. What if this is not all about camels? What if he used camels as an example because the Bedouin tribes, who were his main target audience at the time of writing, were seriously into camels. For them, lack of camels was not an issue. Unlike me, they all had camels.
Everything that is Not a Camel
So this wise saying is not actually about camels. It's about something else. Understanding this felt like illumination.
Until I began to wonder which thing other than a camel we might be talking about. After all, practically everything in the universe is not a camel. Was I supposed to trust in God and tie everything? That seemed kind of hard. And it made even less sense than not tying a non-existent camel.
What if, for example, my bit of everything were a grand piano? Not everyone knows this, but pianos are the heaviest objects in the universe. Once we had to move my piano and it was incredibly difficult. I was pretty sure that it was made of the same material as neutron stars. We pianists know that pianos are highly reluctant to be moved anywhere so there is clearly no need to tie a grand piano. If I were to do so, some of my so-called friends might think I'm crazy!
This was hopeless. I needed to clear my head, so I went for a walk to get some fresh air. I went outside, closed the back door behind me, and headed down the path by the forest. Then I stopped in my tracks as it struck me! The door! I'd forgotten about the door! The door was the camel! I rushed back to the house to write this down before I got confused again.
Phew! Untangling metaphors sure is hard work!
Let me explain.
A Very Cunning Door
Now I know what you’re thinking. You were probably paying attention to my story, in which case you noticed that I actually did close the door behind me when I left our house. In other words, I did tie my camel. So you’re wondering what’s the deal?
Our back door is no ordinary door. This is a very cunning door. It likes to pretend to be closed while the latch is not actually engaged so that when you’re asleep it might open wide and run about all wild and free. To make sure it is really closed you have to give it a firm extra push so that the latch clicks into place.
Telling us to tie our camel, or, and this is the key point, so pay close attention.. or, to close the back door properly, was the wise sages way of advising us to take reasonable precautions in life, rather than carelessly enabling avoidable accidents, thus compelling our Cosmic Dad, who, as number one Dad of the universe is contracted to take care of all of his children, even when they behave like idiots and forget to tie their camel or to close the door properly, to look out for us all the time. And since God is probably a busy person, this could be quite an inconvenience.
I personally suspect that God thought up this wise saying himself and whispered it in the Sufi sages ear in the hope that he/she/it, (i.e. God) wouldn’t have to come rescuing careless children every five minutes.
Which brings us to the matter of lion’s noses. I have a real life example of how to judiciously apply this wise principle of camel tying.
I live in California, in a big house by the forest. It (the forest, not the house) does not contain camels. However, California’s forests do accommodate many other interesting animals. Notably, you guessed it, mountain lions. These big cats are very shy and reclusive. So eager are they to remain undetected that they have multiple aliases. They are variously known as panthers, cougars, pumas and occasionally, somewhat inaccurately, as wombats. OK. I made that last one up — just checking to see that you’re paying attention.
Mountain lions are not nearly as big or dangerous as African lions. Nevertheless, they are extremely strong and about big enough to kill you if they really want to. In my own experience they very seldom do this. For example, after fifteen years in California, I have not been killed by a mountain lion even once. But I do want to make it clear that if a mountain lion really wanted to kill you, it probably could. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Still, there's no cause to worry unduly. I’ve been hiking in the forest here regularly for years and I’ve only seen a mountain lion once, from a distance. So it’s generally pretty safe around here. Unless you’re a deer. A couple of years ago a mountain lion killed a doe just across the road from our house. So my advice is, if you live around here, no matter how often people tell you to, don’t be a deer.
Still, even though I am not a deer, I prefer to not tempt fate. Every night, before I go to sleep, I check that the back door of our house is closed properly by pushing it firmly until it clicks. If I didn't do this, why, any passing mountain lion could easily just push our door open with its nose and come in and take a well deserved nap on our couch.
Some of my so-called friends mock me for taking this precaution. They make untoward remarks about ‘paranoid behavior’. One of them was even unkind enough to suggest that I am a lunatic. But I care not. I merely cite our new favorite wise saying about camel tying, thus validating the wisdom of my behavior. This is the act of a devout man who doesn’t want to cause God unnecessary bother by inviting large carnivores into the house. i.e. Not a paranoid lunatic.
Would you like an example of actual obsessive paranoid behavior? Matthew, my best buddy from my wayward youth in New Zealand, has an extreme phobia of wetas.
Wondering what a weta is? You know Weta Studios that created the special effects for Lord of the Rings? They specialize in scary costumes and models of monsters. The studio name was inspired by the most terrifying native animal in New Zealand, the weta. Check out this picture and be freaked out.
Imagine a cross between a tiger, a hippopotamus and a cricket, with a generous dose of science fiction and horror. In my otherwise absurdly safe and pleasant homeland, wetas are common — as children we’d come across them often. I’ve seen one more than 4 inches long!
My paranoid and irrational friend, Matthew, has such a fear of wetas that every night, (after tying his camel, obviously) he pulls back all the covers on his bed to ensure that no weta has crept inside. I can understand that someone might do this at the age of ten, but we’re talking about a grown man here. He runs his own software company for Heaven's sake! Yet he still feels compelled to check for monsters in his bed every night! So sad.
So don’t start thinking of unkind things to say about me just because I respect Sufi wisdom and take the perfectly sensible adult precaution of ensuring that a real mountain lion does not wander in from the real forest and push open the door of our house in the night with its actual lion nose.
So I implore you, pay attention to those wise, divinely inspired Sufi sages and don’t forget to tie your camel. And, if you are not fortunate enough to possess a camel, at least make sure you lock the lions out.