hu_small_navy2.gif (33115 Byte)

As-salamu alaikum wa rahmatullahi wa barak‚tuhu 




Symbolism in Sufism

The divine truth was at times revealed to the mystic in visions, auditions, and dreams, in colours and sounds, but to convey these nonrational and ineffable experiences to others the mystic had to rely upon such terminology of worldly experience as that of love and intoxication--often objectionable from the orthodox viewpoint. The symbolism of wine, cup, and cupbearer, first expressed by Abu Yazid al-Bistami in the 9th century, became popular everywhere, whether in the verses of the Arab Ibn al-Fari, or the Persian 'Iraqi, or the Turk Yunus Emre, and their followers. The hope for the union of the soul with the divine had to be expressed through images of human yearning and love. The love for lovely boys in which the divine beauty manifests itself--according to the alleged Hadith "I saw my Lord in the shape of a youth with a cap awry"--was commonplace in Persian poetry. Union was described as the submersion of the drop in the ocean, the state of the iron in the fire, the vision of penetrating light, or the burning of the moth in the candle (first used by Hallaj). Worldly phenomena were seen as black tresses veiling the radiant beauty of the divine countenance. The mystery of unity and diversity was symbolized, for example, under the image of mirrors that reflect the different aspects of the divine, or as prisms colouring the pure light. Every aspect of nature was seen in relation to God. The symbol of the soulbird--in which the human soul is likened to a flying bird--known everywhere, was the centre of 'Attar's Manteq ot-teyr ("The Birds' Conversation"). The predilection of the mystical poets for the symbolism of the nightingale and rose (the red rose = God's perfect beauty; nightingale = soul; first used by Baqli [died 1206]) stems from the soul-bird symbolism. For spiritual education, symbols taken from medicine (healing of the sick soul) and alchemy (changing of base matter into gold) were also used. Many descriptions that were originally applied to God as the goal of love were, in later times, used also for the Prophet, who is said to be like the "dawn between the darkness of the material world and the sun of Reality." (See religious symbolism.)

Allusions to the Qur'an were frequent, especially so to verses that seem to imply divine immanence (God's presence in the world), such as "Whithersoever ye turn, there is the Face of God" (surah 2:109), or that God is "Closer than your neck-vein" (surah 50:8). Surah 7:172--i.e., God's address to the uncreated children of Adam ("Am I not your Lord" [alastu birabbikum])--came to denote the pre-eternal love relation between God and man. As for the prophets before Muhammad, the vision of Moses was considered still imperfect, for the mystic wants the actual vision of God, not His manifestation through a burning bush. Abraham, for whom fire turned into a rose garden, resembles the mystic in his afflictions; Joseph, in his perfect beauty, the mystical beloved after whom the mystic searches. The apocryphal traditions used by the mystics are numerous; such as "Heaven and earth do not contain me, but the heart of my faithful servant contains Me"; and the possibility of a relation between man and God is also explained by the traditional idea: "He (God) created Adam in His image."

Theosophical Sufism

Sufism, in its beginnings a practical method of spiritual education and self-realization, grew slowly into a theosophical system by adopting traditions of Neoplatonism, the Hellenistic world, Gnosticism (an ancient esoteric religiophilosophical movement that viewed matter as evil and spirit as good), and spiritual currents from Iran and various countries in the ancient agricultural lands from the eastern Mediterranean to Iraq. One master who contributed to this development was the Persian as-Suhrawardi, called al-Maqtul ("killed"), executed in 1191 in Aleppo. To him is attributed the philosophy of ishraq ("illumination"), and he claimed to unite the Persian (Zoroastrian) and Egyptian (Hermetic) traditions. His didactic and doctrinal works in Arabic among other things taught a complicated angelology (theory of angels); some of his smaller Persian treatises depict the journey of the soul across the cosmos; the "Orient" (East) is the world of pure lights and archangels, the "Occident" (West) that of darkness and matter; and man lives in the "Western exile." (See theosophy.)

At the time of Suhrawardi's death the greatest representative of theosophic Sufism was in his 20s: Ibn al-'Arabi, born at Murcia, Spain, where speculative tendencies had been visible since Ibn Masarrah's philosophy (died 931). Ibn al-'Arabi was instructed in mysticism by two Spanish woman saints. Performing the traditional pilgrimage to Mecca, he met there an accomplished young Persian lady who represented for him the divine wisdom. This experience resulted in the charming poems of the Tarjuman al-ashwaq ("Interpreter of Yearning"), which the author later explained mystically. Ibn al-'Arabi composed at least 150 volumes. His magnum opus is al-Futuhat al-Makkiyah ("The Meccan Revelations") in 560 chapters, in which he expounds his theory of unity of being.

The substance of theosophic Sufism is as follows. According to the Hadith qudsi, or "holy tradition"--"I was a hidden treasure and wanted to be known"--the absolute, or God, yearned in his loneliness for manifestation and created the world by effusing being upon the heavenly archetypes, a "theophany (a physical manifestation of deity) through God's imaginative power." The universe is annihilated and created every moment. Every divine name is reflected in a named one. The world and God are said to be like ice and water, or like two mirrors contemplating themselves in each other, joined by a sympathetic union. The Prophet Muhammad is the universal man, the perfect man, the total theophany of the divine names, the prototype of creation. Muhammad is the "word," each particular dimension of which is identified with a prophet, and he is also the model for the spiritual realization of the possibilities of man. The mystic has to pass the stages of the Qur'anic prophets as they are explained in the Fusus al-hikam ("Bezels of Wisdom") until he becomes united with the haqiqa Muhammadiya (the first individualization of the divine in the "Muhammadan Reality"). Man can have vision only of the form of the faith he professes, and Ibn al-'Arabi's oft-quoted verse, "I follow the religion of love wherever its camels turn," with its seeming religious tolerance means, as S.H. Nasr puts it: "the form of God is for him no longer the form of this or that faith exclusive of all others but his own eternal form which he encounters." The theories of the perfect man were elaborated by Jili (died c. 1424) in his compendium Al-insan al-kamil ("The Perfect Man") and became common throughout the Muslim world. (See theophany.)

Ibn al-'Arabi's theosophy has been attacked by orthodox Muslims and mystics of the "sober" school as incongruent with Islam because "a thoroughly monistic system cannot take seriously the objective validity of moral standards." Even the adversaries of the "greatest master" could not, however, help using part of his terminology. Innumerable mystics and poets propagated his ideas, though they only partly understood them, and this circumstance led also to a misinterpretation of the data of early Sufism in the light of existential monism. Later Persian poetry is permeated by the pantheistic feeling of hama ost ("everything is He").

Ibn al-'Arabi's contemporary in Egypt, the poet Ibn al-Fari, is usually mentioned together with him; Ibn al-Fari, however, is not a systematic thinker but a full-fledged poet who used the imagery of classical Arabic poetry to describe the state of the lover in extremely artistic verses and has given, in his Ta'iyat al-kubra ("Poem of the Journey"), glimpses of the way of the mystic, using, as many poets before and after him did, for example, the image of the shadow play for the actions of the creatures who are dependent upon the divine playmaster. His unifying experience is personal and is not the expression of a theosophical system.