Mystics of Islam
by Reynold A Nicholson
VI — The Unitive State
"The story admits of being told up to this point,
But what follows is hidden, and inexpressible in words.
If you should speak and try a hundred ways to express it,
'Tis useless; the mystery becomes no clearer.
You can ride on saddle and horse to the sea-coast,
But then you must use a horse of wood (i.e. a boat).
A horse of wood is useless on dry land,
It is the special vehicle of voyagers by sea.
Silence is this horse of wood,
Silence is the guide and support of men at sea."
[The Masnavi of Jalaluddin Rumi. Abridged translation by E H Whinfield, p. 326, — RAN.]
No one can approach the subject of this chapter — the state of the mystic who has reached his journey's end — without feeling that all symbolical descriptions of union with God and theories concerning its nature are little better than leaps in the dark. How shall we form any conception of that which is declared to be ineffable by those who have actually experienced it? I can only reply that the same difficulty confronts us in dealing with all mystical phenomena though it appears less formidable at lower levels, and that the poet's counsel of silence has not prevented him from interpreting the deepest mysteries of Sufism with unrivalled insight and power.
Whatever terms may be used to describe it, the unitive state is the culmination of the simplifying process by which the soul is gradually isolated from all that is foreign to itself, from all that is not God. Unlike Nirvana, which is merely the cessation of individuality, fana, the passing-away of the Sufi from his phenomenal existence, involves baqa, the continuance of his real existence. He who dies in self lives in God, and fana, the consummation of this death, marks the attainment of baqa, or union with the divine life. Deification, in short, is the Moslem mystic's ultima Thule [in literature, the furthest possible place in the world. Thule was the northernmost part of the habitable ancient world — E. Britannica.].
In the early part of the tenth century Husayn ibn Mansur, known to fame as al-Hallaj (the wool-carder), was barbarously done to death at Baghdad. His execution seems to have been dictated by political motives, but with these we are not concerned. Amongst the crowd assembled round the scaffold, a few, perhaps, believed him to be what he said he was; the rest witnessed with exultation or stern approval the punishment of a blasphemous heretic. He had uttered in two words a sentence which Islam has, on the whole, forgiven but has never forgotten: "Ana 'l-Haqq" — "I am God".
The recently published researches of M. Louis Massignon [Kitab al-Tawasin (Paris, 1913). See especially pp. 129-171. — RAN] make it possible, for the first time, to indicate the meaning which Hallaj himself attached to this celebrated formula, and to assert definitely that it does not agree with the more orthodox interpretations offered at a later epoch by Sufis belonging to various schools. According to Hallaj, man is essentially divine. God created Adam in His own image. He projected from Himself that image of His eternal love, that He might behold Himself as in a mirror. Hence He bade the angels worship Adam (Kor. 2:82), in whom, as in Jesus, He became incarnate.
"Glory to Him who revealed in His humanity (i.e. in Adam) the secret of His radiant divinity,
And then appeared to His creatures visibly in the shape of one who ate and drank (Jesus)."
Since the 'humanity' (nasut) of God comprises the whole bodily and spiritual nature of man, the 'divinity' (lahut) of God cannot unite with that nature except by means of an incarnation or, to adopt the term employed by Massignon, an infusion (hulul) of the divine Spirit, such as takes place when the human spirit enters the body. [Massignon appears to be right in identifying the Divine Spirit with the Active Reason (intellectus agens) which, according to Alexander of Aphrodisias, is not a part or faculty of our soul, but comes to us from without. See Inge, Christian Mysticism, pp. 360, 361. The doctrine of Hallaj may be compared with that of Tauler, Ruysbroeck, and others concerning the birth of God in the soul. — RAN.] Thus Hallaj says in one of his poems:
"Thy Spirit is mingled in my spirit even as wine mingled with pure water.
When anything touches Thee, it touches me. Lo, in every case Thou art I!"
"I am He whom I love, and He whom I love is I:
We are two spirits dwelling in one body.
If thou seest me, thou seest Him,
And if thou seest Him, thou seest us both."
This doctrine of personal deification, in the peculiar form which was impressed upon it by Hallaj, is obviously akin to the central doctrine of Christianity, and therefore, from the Moslem standpoint, a heresy of the worst kind. It survived unadulterated only amongst his immediate followers.
The Hululis, i.e. those who believe in incarnation, are repudiated by Sufis in general quite as vehemently as by orthodox Moslems. But while the former have unhesitatingly condemned the doctrine of hulul, they have also done their best to clear Hallaj from the suspicion of having taught it. Three main lines of defence are followed: (1) Hallaj did not sin against the Truth, but he was justly punished in so far as he committed a grave offence against the Law. He "betrayed the secret of his Lord" by proclaiming to all and sundry the supreme mystery which ought to be reserved for the elect. (2) Hallaj spoke under the intoxicating influence of ecstasy. He imagined himself to be united with the divine essence, when in fact he was only united with one of the divine attributes. (3) Hallaj meant to declare that there is no essential difference or separation between God and His creatures, inasmuch as the divine unity includes all being. A man who has entirely passed away from his phenomenal self exists qua his real self, which is God.
"In that glory is no 'I' or 'We' or 'Thou'.
'I', 'We', 'Thou', and 'He' are all one thing."
It was not Hallaj who cried "Ana 'l-Haqq", but God Himself, speaking, as it were, by the mouth of the selfless Hallaj, just as He spoke to Moses through the medium of the burning bush (Kor. 20:8-14).
The last explanation, which converts Ana 'l-Haqq into an impersonal monistic axiom, is accepted by most Sufis as representing the true Hallajian teaching. In a magnificent ode, Jalaluddin Rumi describes how the One Light shines in myriad forms through the whole Universe, and how the One Essence, remaining ever the same, clothes itself from age to age in the prophets and saints who are witnesses to mankind.
"Every moment the robber Beauty rises in a different shape, ravishes the soul, and disappears.
Every instant that Loved One assumes a new garment, now of eld, now of youth.
Now He plunged into the heart of the substance of the potter's clay — the Spirit plunged, like a diver.
Anon He rose from the depths of mud that is moulded and baked, then He appeared in the world.
He became Noah, and at His prayer the world was flooded while He went into the Ark.
He became Abraham and appeared in the midst of the fire, which turned to roses for His sake.
For a while He was roaming on the earth to pleasure Himself.
Then He became Jesus and ascended to the dome of Heaven and began to glorify God.
In brief, it was He that was coming and going in every generation thou hast seen,
Until at last He appeared in the form of an Arab and gained the empire of the world.
What is is that is transferred? What is transmigration in reality? The lovely winner of hearts
Became a sword and appeared in the hand of 'Ali and became the Slayer of the time.
No! No! for 'twas even He that was crying in human shape, 'Ana 'l-Haqq'.
That one who mounted the scaffold was not Mansur though the foolish imagined it.
[Hallaj is often called Mansur, which is properly the name of his father. — RAN.]
Rumi hath not spoken and will not speak words of infidelity: do not disbelieve him!
Whosoever shows disbelief is an infidel and one of those who have been doomed to Hell."
Although in Western and Central Asia — where the Persian kings were regarded by their subjects as gods, and where the doctrines of incarnation, anthropomorphism, and metempsychosis are indigenous — the idea of the God-man was neither so unfamiliar nor unnatural as to shock the public conscience very profoundly, Hallaj had formulated that idea in such a way that no mysticism calling itself Mohammedan could tolerate, much less adopt it. To assert that the divine and human natures may be interfused and commingled [Hulul was not understood in this sense by Hallaj (Massignon, op. cit., p. 199), though the verses quoted above readily suggest such an interpretation. Hallaj, I think, would have agreed with Eckhart (who said, "The word I am none can truly speak but God alone") that the personality in which the Eternal is immanent has itself a part in eternity (Inge, Christian Mysticism, p. 149, note). — RAN], would have been to deny the principle of unity on which Islam is based. The subsequent history of Sufism shows how deification was identified with unification. The antithesis — God, Man — melted away in the pantheistic theory which has been explained above. [See The Oneness of God. — Ed.]
There is no real existence apart from God. Man is an emanation or a reflection or a mode of Absolute Being. What he thinks of as individuality is in truth not-being; it cannot be separated or united, for it does not exist. Man is God, yet with a difference. According to Ibn al-'Arabi [Massignon, op. Cit., p. 183. — RAN] the eternal and the phenomenal are two complementary aspects of the One, each of which is necessary to the other. The creatures are the external manifestation of the Creator, and Man is God's consciousness (sirr) as revealed in creation. But since Man, owing to the limitations of his mind, cannot think all objects of thought simultaneously, and therefore expresses only a part of the divine consciousness, he is not entitled to say Ana 'l-Haqq, "I am God". He is a reality, but not the Reality. We shall see that other Sufis — Jalaluddin Rumi, for example — in their ecstatic moments, at any rate, ignore this rather subtle distinction.
The statement that in realising the nonentity of his individual self the Sufi realises his essential oneness with God sums up the Mohammedan theory of deification in terms with which my readers are now familiar. I will endeavour to show what more precise meaning may be assigned to it, partly in my own words and partly by means of illustrative extracts from various authors.
Several aspects of fana have already been distinguished. [See Fana — Ed.] The highest of these — the passing-away in the divine essence — is fully described by Niffari, who employs instead of fana and fani (self-naughted) the terms waqfat, signifying cessation from search, and waqif, i.e. one who desists from seeking and passes away in the Object Sought. Here are some of the chief points that occur in the text and commentary.
Waqfat is luminous: it expels the dark thoughts of 'otherness', just as light banishes darkness; it changes the phenomenal values of all existent things into their real and eternal values.
Hence the waqif transcends time and place. "He enters every house and it contains him not; he drinks from every well but is not satisfied; then he reaches Me, and I am his home, and his abode is with Me" — that is to say, he comprehends all the divine attributes and embraces all mystical experiences. He is not satisfied with the names (attributes), but seeks the Named. He contemplates the essence of God and finds it identical with his own. He does not pray. Prayer is from man to God, but in waqfat there is nothing but God.
The wakif leaves not a rack behind him, nor any heir except God. When even the phenomenon of waqfat has disappeared from his consciousness, he becomes the very Light. Then his praise of God proceeds from god, and his knowledge is God's knowledge, who beholds Himself alone as He was in the beginning.
We need not expect to discover how this essentialisation, substitution, or transmutation is effected. It is the grand paradox of Sufism — the Magnum Opus wrought somehow in created man by a Being whose nature is eternally devoid of the least taint of creatureliness. As I have remarked above, the change, however it may be conceived, does not involve infusion of the divine essence (hulul) or identification of the divine and human natures (ittihad). Both these doctrines are generally condemned. Abu Nasr al-Sarraj criticises them in two passages of his Kitab al-Lumi, as follows:
- "Some mystics of Baghdad have erred in their doctrine that when they pass away from their qualities they enter into the qualities of God. This leads to incarnation (hulul) or to the Christian belief concerning Jesus. The doctrine in question has been attributed to some of the ancients, but its true meaning is this, that when a man goes forth from his own will and enters into the will of God, knowing that his will is given to him by God and that by virtue of this gift he is severed from regarding himself, so that he becomes entirely devoted to God; and this is one of the stages of Unitarians. Those who have erred in this doctrine have failed to observe that the qualities of God are not God. To make God identical with His qualities is to be guilty of infidelity, because God does not descend into the heart, but that which descends into the heart is faith in God and belief in His unity and reverence for the thought of Him."
In the second passage he makes use of a similar argument in order to refute the doctrine of ittihad.
Hujwiri characterises as absurd the belief that passing-away (fana) signifies the loss of essence and destruction of corporeal substance, and that 'abiding' (baqa) indicates the indwelling of God in man. Real passing-away from anything, he says, implies consciousness of its imperfection and absence of desire for it. Whoever passes away from his own perishable will abides in the everlasting will of God, but human attributes cannot become divine attributes or vice versa.
- "Some have abstained from food and drink, fancying that when a man's body is weakened it is possible that he may lose his humanity and be invested with the attributes of divinity. The ignorant persons who hold this erroneous doctrine cannot distinguish between humanity and the inborn qualities of humanity. Humanity does not depart from man any more than blackness departs from that which is black or whiteness from that which is white, but the inborn qualities of humanity are changed and transmuted by the all-powerful radiance that is shed upon them from the divine Realities. The attributes of humanity are not the essence of humanity. Those who inculcate the doctrine of fana mean the passing-away of regarding one's own actions and works of devotion through the continuance of regarding God as the doer of these actions on behalf of His servant."
In another part of his work Hujwiri defines 'union' (jam') as concentration of thought upon the desired object. Thus Majnun, the Orlando Furioso of Islam, concentrated his thoughts on Layla, so that he saw only her in the whole world, and all created things assumed the form of Layla in his eyes. Some one came to the cell of Bayazid and asked, "Is Bayazid here?" He answered, "Is any one here but God?" The principle in all such cases, Hujwiri adds, is the same, namely:
- "The power of fire transforms to its own quality anything that falls into it, and surely the power of God's will is greater than that of fire; yet fire affects only the quality of iron without changing its substance, for iron can never become fire."
Then he quotes these verses of Hallaj:
- "That God divides the one substance of His love and bestows a particle thereof, as a peculiar gift, upon every one of His friends in proportion to their enravishment with Him; then He lets down upon that particle the shrouds of fleshliness and human nature and temperament and spirit, in order that by its powerful working it may transmute to its own quality all the particles that are attached to it, until the lover's clay is wholly converted into love and all his acts and looks become so many properties of love. This state is named 'union' alike by those who regard the inward sense and the outward expression."
"Thy will be done, O my Lord and Master!
Thy will be done, O my purpose and meaning!
O essence of my being, O goal of my desire,
O my speech and my hints and my gestures!
O all of my all, O my hearing and my sight,
O my whole and my elements and my particles!"
The enraptured Sufi who has passed beyond the illusion of subject and object and broken through to the Oneness can either deny that he is anything or affirm that he is all things. As an example of 'the negative way', take the opening lines of an ode by Jalaluddin which I have rendered into verse, imitating the metrical form of the Persian as closely as the genius of our language will permit:
"Lo, for I to myself am unknown, now in God's name what must I do?
I adore not the Cross nor the Crescent, I am not a Giaour nor a Jew.
East nor West, land nor sea is may home, I have kin not with angel nor gnome,
I am wrought not of fire nor of foam, I am shaped not of dust nor of dew.
I was born not in China afar, not in Saqsin and not in Bulghar;
Not in India, where five rivers are, nor 'Iraq nor Khorasan I grew.
Not in this world or that world I dwell, not in Paradise, neither in Hell;
Not from Eden and Rizwan I fell, not from Adam my lineage I drew.
In a place beyond uttermost Place, in a tract without shadow of trace,
Soul and body transcending, I live in the soul of my Loved One anew!"
The following poem, also by Jalajuddin, expresses the positive aspect of the cosmic consciousness:
"If there be any lover in the world, O Moslems, 'tis I.
If there be any believer, infidel, or Christian hermit, 'tis I.
The wine-dregs, the cup-bearer, the minstrel, the harp, and the music,
The beloved, the candle, the drink, and the joy of the drunken — 'tis I.
The two-and-seventy creeds and sects in the world
Do not really exist: I swear by God that every creed and sect — 'tis I.
Earth and air and water and fire, nay, body and soul too — 'tis I.
Truth and falsehood, good and evil, ease and difficulty from first to last,
Knowledge and learning and asceticism and piety and faith — 'tis I.
The fire of Hell, be assured, with its flaming limbos,
Yes, and Paradise and Eden and the Houris — 'tis I.
This earth and heaven with all that they hold,
Angels, Peris, Genies, and Mankind — 'tis I."
What Jalaluddin utters in a moment of ecstatic vision Henry More describes as a past experience:
For some Sufis, absorption in the ecstasy of fana is the end of their pilgrimage. Thenceforth no relation exists between them and the world. Nothing of themselves is left in them; as individuals, they are dead. Immersed in Unity, they know neither law nor religion nor any form of phenomenal being. But those God-intoxicated devotees who never return to sobriety have fallen short of the highest perfection. The full circle of deification must comprehend both the inward and outward aspects of deity — the One and the Many, the Truth and the Law. It is not enough to escape from all that is creaturely without entering into the eternal life of God the Creator as manifested in His works. To abide in God (baqa) after having passed-away from selfhood (fana) is the mark of the Perfect Man, who not only journeys to God, i.e. passes from plurality to unity, but in and with God, i.e. continuing in the unitive state, he returns with God to the phenomenal world from which he set out, and manifests unity in plurality. In this descent
- "How lovely" (he says), "how magnificent a state is the soul of man in, when the life of God inactuating her shoots her along with Himself through heaven and earth; makes her unite with, and after a sort feel herself animate, the whole world. He that is here looks upon all things as One, and on himself, if he can then mind himself, as a part of the Whole."
"He makes the Law his upper garment
And the mystic Path his inner garment",
for he brings down and displays the Truth to mankind while fulfilling the duties of the religious law. Of him it may be said, in the words of a great Christian mystic:
'Afifuddin Tilimsani, in his commentary on Niffari, describes four mystical journeys:
- "He goes towards God by inward love, in eternal work, and he goes in God by his fruitive inclination, in eternal rest. And he dwells in God; and yet he goes out towards created things in a spirit of love towards all things, in the virtues and in works of righteousness. And this is the most exalted summit of the inner life." [Ruysbroeck, quoted in E Underhill's Introduction to Mysticism, p. 522. — RAN]
- The first begins with gnosis and ends with complete passing-away (fana).
- The second begins at the moment when passing-away is succeeded by 'abiding' (baqa).
He who has attained to this station journeys in the Real, by the Real, to the Real, and he then is a reality (haqq). [See Pantheism above. — Ed.] Thus travelling onward, he arrives at the station of the Qutb [see Invisible Hierarchy. — Ed.] which is the station of Perfect Manhood. He becomes the centre of the spiritual universe, so that every point and limit reached by individual human beings is equally distant from his station, whether they be near or far; since all stations revolve round his, and in relation to the Qutb there is no difference between nearness and farness. To one who has gained this supreme position, knowledge and gnosis and passing-away are as rivers of his ocean, whereby he replenishes whomsoever he will. He has the right to guide others to God, and seeks permission to do so from none but himself. Before the gate of Apostleship was closed [i.e. before the time of Mohammed, who is the seal of the prophets. — RAN], he would have deserved the title of Apostle, but in our day his due title is Director of Souls, and he is a blessing to those who invoke his aid, because he comprehends the innate capacities of all mankind and, like a camel-driver, speeds every one to his home.
- In the third journey this Perfect Man turns his attention to God's creatures, either as an Apostle or as a Spiritual Director (Sheykh), and reveals himself to those who would fain be released from their faculties, to each according to his degree: to the adherent of positive religion as a theologian; to the contemplative, who has not yet enjoyed full contemplation, as a gnostic; to the gnostic as one who has entirely passed-away from individuality (waqif); to the wakif as a Qutb. He is the horizon of every mystical station and transcends the furthest range of experience known to each grade of seekers.
- The fourth journey is usually associated with physical death. The Prophet was referring to it when he cried on his deathbed, "I choose the highest companions". In this journey, to judge from the obscure verses in which 'Afifuddin describes it, the Perfect Man, having been invested with all the divine attributes, becomes, so to speak, the mirror which displays God to Himself. Ibn Al-'Arabi wrote:
"When my Beloved appears,
With what eye do I see Him?
With His eye, not with mine,
For none sees Him except Himself."
The light in the soul, the eye by which it sees, and the object of its vision, all are One.
We have followed the Sufi in his quest of Reality to a point where the language fails. His progress will seldom be so smooth and unbroken as it appears in these pages. The proverbial headache after intoxication supplies a parallel to the periods of intense aridity and acute suffering that sometimes fill the interval between lower and higher states of ecstasy. Descriptions of this experience — the Dark Night of the Soul, as it is called by Christian authors — may be found in almost any biography of Mohammedan saints. Thus Jami relates in his Nafahat al-Uns that a certain dervish, a disciple of the famous Shihabuddin Suhrawardi,
- "Was endowed with a great ecstasy in the contemplation of Unity and in the station of passing-away (fana). One day he began to weep and lament. On being asked by the Sheykh Shihabuddin what ailed him, he answered, 'Lo, I am debarred by plurality from the vision of Unity. I am rejected, and my former state — I cannot find it!' The Sheykh remarked that this was the prelude to the station of 'abiding' (baqa), and that his present state was higher and more sublime than the one which he was in before."
Does personality survive in the ultimate union with God? If personality means a conscious existence distinct, though not separate, from God, the majority of advanced Moslems say "No!" As the raindrop absorbed in the ocean is not annihilated but ceases to exist individually, so the disembodied soul becomes indistinguishable from the universal Deity. It is true that when Sufi writers translate mystical union into terms of love and marriage, they do not, indeed they cannot, expunge the notion of personality, but such metaphorical phrases are not necessarily inconsistent with a pantheism which excludes all difference. To be united, here and now, with the World-Soul is the utmost imaginable bliss for souls that love each other on earth.
Jalaluddin Rumi writes:
"Happy the moment when we are seated in the Palace, thou and I,
With two forms and with two figures but with one soul, thou and I.
The colours of the grove and the voice of the birds will bestow immortality
At the time when we come into the garden, thou and I.
We shall show them the Moon itself, thou and I.
Thou and I, individuals no more, shall be mingled in ecstasy,
Joyful and secure from foolish babble, thou and I.
All the bright-plumed birds of heaven will devour their hearts with envy
In the place where we shall laugh in such a fashion, thou and I.
This is the greatest wonder, that thou and I, sitting here in the same nook,
Are at this moment both in 'Iraq and Khorasan, thou and I."
Strange as it may seem to our Western egoism, the prospect of sharing in the general impersonal immortality of the human soul kindles in the Sufi an enthusiasm as deep and triumphant as that of the most ardent believer in a personal life continuing beyond the grave. Jalaluddin, after describing the evolution of man in the material world and anticipating his further growth in the spiritual Universe, utters a heartfelt prayer — for what? — for self-annihilation in the ocean of the Godhead.
"I died as mineral and became a plant;
I died as plant and rose to animal;
I died as animal and I was man.
Why should I fear? When was I less by dying?
Yet once more I shall die as man, to soar
With angels blest; but even from angelhood
I must pass on: all except God doth perish.
When I have sacrificed my angel soul,
I shall become what no mind e'er conceived.
Oh, let me not exist! For Non-existence
Proclaims in organ tones, 'To Him we shall return.'"