Illumination & Ecstasy

GOD, who is described in the Koran as “the Light of the heavens and the earth,” cannot be seen by the bodily eye. He is visible only to the inward sight of the ‘heart.’ In the next chapter, we shall return to this spiritual organ, but I am not going to enter into the intricacies of Sufi psychology any further than is necessary. The ‘vision of the heart’ (ru’yat al-qalb) is defined as “the heart’s beholding by the light of certainty that which is hidden in the unseen world.” This is what ‘Ali meant when he was asked, “Do you see God?” and replied: “How should we worship One whom we do not see?” The light of intuitive certainty (yaqin) by which the heart sees God is a beam of God’s own light cast therein by Himself; else no vision of Him were possible.

“‘Tis the sun’s self that lets the sun be seen.”

According to a mystical interpretation of the famous passage in the Koran where the light of Allah is compared to a candle burning in a lantern of transparent glass, which is placed in a niche in the wall, the niche is the true believer’s heart; therefore, his speech is light and his works are light and he moves in light. “He who discourses of eternity,” said Bayazid, “must have within him the lamp of eternity.”

The light which gleams in the heart of the illuminated mystic endows him with a supernatural power of discernment (firasat). Although the Sufis, like all other Moslems, acknowledge Mohammed to be the last of the prophets (as, from a different point of view, he is the Logos or first of created beings), they really claim to possess a minor form of inspiration. When Nuri was questioned concerning the origin of mystical firasat, he answered by quoting the Koranic verse in which God says that He breathed His spirit into Adam; but the more orthodox Sufis, who strenously combat the doctrine that the human spirit is uncreated and eternal, affirm that firasat is the result of knowledge and insight, metaphorically called ‘light’ or ‘inspiration,’ which God creates and bestows upon His favourites. The Tradition, “Beware of the discernment of the true believer, for he sees by the light of Allah,” is exemplified in such anecdotes as these:

Abu ‘Abdallah al-Razi said:

“Ibn al-Anbari presented me with a woollen frock, and seeing on the head of Shibli a bonnet that would just match it, I conceived the wish that they were both mine. When Shibli rose to depart, he looked at me, as he was in the habit of doing when he desired me to follow him. So, I followed him to his house, and when we had gone in, he bade me put off the frock and took it from me and folded it and threw his bonnet on the top. Then he called for a fire and burnt both frock and bonnet.”

Sari al-Saqati frequently urged Junayd to speak in public, but Junayd was unwilling to consent, for he doubted whether he was worthy of such an honour. One Friday night he dreamed that the Prophet appeared and commanded him to speak to the people. He awoke and went to Sari’s house before daybreak, and knocked at the door. Sari opened the door and said: “You would not believe me until the Prophet came and told you.”

Sahl ibn ‘Abdallah was sitting in the congregational mosque when a pigeon, overcome by the intense heat, dropped on the floor. Sahl exclaimed: “Please God, Shah al-Kirmani has just died.” They wrote it down, and it was found to be true.

When the heart is purged of sin and evil thoughts, the light of certainty strikes upon it and makes it a shining mirror, so that the Devil cannot approach it without being observed. Hence the saying of some gnostic: “If I disobey my heart, I disobey God.” It was a man thus illuminated to whom the Prophet said: “Consult thy heart, and thou wilt hear the secret ordinance of God proclaimed by the heart’s inward knowledge, which is real faith and divinity”–something much better than the learning of divines. I need not anticipate here the question, which will be discussed in the following chapter, how far the claims of an infallible conscience are reconcilable with external religion and morality. The Prophet, too, prayed that God would put a light into his ear and into his eye; and after mentioning the different members of his body, he concluded, “and make the whole of me one light.” {The reader should be reminded that most, if not all, mystical Traditions ascribed to Mohammed were forged and fathered upon him by the Sufis, who represent themselves as the true interpreters of his esoteric teaching.} From illumination of gradually increasing splendour, the mystic rises to contemplation of the divine attributes, and ultimately, when his consciousness is wholly melted away, he becomes transubstantiated (tajawhara) in the radiance of the divine essence. This is the ‘station’ of well-doing (ihsan)–for “God is with the well-doers” (Holy Quran: 29.69), and we have Prophetic authority for the statement that “well-doing consists in worshipping God as though thou wert seeing Him.”

I will not waste the time and abuse the patience of my readers by endeavouring to classify and describe these various grades of illumination, which may be depicted symbolically but cannot be explained in scientific language. We must allow the mystics to speak for themselves. Granted that their teaching is often hard to understand, it conveys more of the truth than we can ever hope to obtain from analysis and dissection.

Here are two passages from the oldest Persian treatise on Sufism, the Kashf al-Mahjub of Hujwiri:

“It is related that Sari al-Saqati said, ‘O God, whatever punishment thou mayst inflict upon me, do not punish me with the humiliation of being veiled from Thee,’ because, if I am not veiled from Thee, my torment and affliction will be lightened by the recollection and contemplation of Thee; but if I am veiled from Thee, even Thy bounty will be deadly to me. There is no punishment in Hell more painful and hard to bear than that of being veiled. If God were revealed in Hell to the people of Hell, sinful, believers would never think of Paradise, since the sight of God would so fill them with joy that they would not feel bodily pain. And in Paradise there is no pleasure more perfect than unveiledness. If the people there enjoyed all the pleasures of that place and other pleasures a hundredfold, but were veiled from God, their hearts would be utterly broken. Therefore it is the way of God to let the hearts of those who love Him have vision of Him always, in order that the delight thereof may enable them to endure every tribulation; and they say in their visions, ‘We deem all torments more desirable than to be veiled from Thee. When Thy beauty is revealed to our hearts, we take no thought of affliction.'”

“There are really two kinds of contemplation. The former is the result of perfect faith, the latter of rapturous love, for in the rapture of love a man attains to such a degree that his whole being is absorbed in the thought of his Beloved and he sees nothing else. Muhammad ibn Wasi‘ said: ‘I never saw anything without seeing God therein,’ i.e. through perfect faith. Shibli said: ‘I never saw anything except God,’ i.e. in the rapture of love and the fervour of contemplation. One mystic sees the act with his bodily eye, and, as he looks, beholds the Agent with his spiritual eye; another is rapt by love of the Agent from all things else, so that he sees only the Agent. The one method is demonstrative, the other is ecstatic. In the former case, a manifest proof is derived from the evidences of God; in the latter case, the seer is enraptured and transported by desire: evidences are a veil to him, because he who knows a thing does not care for aught besides, and he who loves a thing does not regard aught besides, but renounces contention with God and interference with Him in His decrees and acts. When the lover turns his eye away from created things, he will inevitably see the Creator with his heart. God hath said, ‘Tell the believers to close their eyes’ (Holy Quran: 24.30), i.e. to close their bodily eyes to lusts and their spiritual eyes to created things. He who is most sincere in self-mortification is most firmly grounded in contemplation. Sahl ibn ‘Abdallah of Tustar said: ‘If any one shuts his eye to God for a single moment, he will never be rightly guided all his life long,’ because to regard other than God is to be handed over to other than God, and one who is left at the mercy of other than God is lost. Therefore the life of contemplatives is the time during which they enjoy contemplation; time spent in ocular vision they do not reckon as life, for that to them is really death. Thus, when Bayazid was asked how old he was, he replied, ‘Four years.’ They said to him, ‘How can that be?’ He answered, ‘I have been veiled from God by this world for seventy years, but I have seen Him during the last four years: the period in which one is veiled does not belong to one’s life.'”

I take the following quotation from the Mawaqif of Niffari, an author with whom we shall become better acquainted as we proceed:

“God said to me, ‘The least of the sciences of nearness is that you should see in everything the effects of beholding Me, and that this vision should prevail over you more than your gnosis of Me.'”

Explanation by the commentator:

“He means that the least of the sciences of nearness (proximity to God) is that when you look at anything, sensibly or intellectually or otherwise, you should be conscious of beholding God with a vision clearer than your vision of that thing. There are diverse degrees in this matter. Some mystics say that they never see anything without seeing God before it. Others say, ‘without seeing God after it,’ or ‘with it’; or they say that they see nothing but God. A certain Sufi said, ‘I made the pilgrimage and saw the Ka‘ba, but not the Lord of the Ka‘ba.’ This is the perception of one who is veiled. Then he said, ‘I made the pilgrimage again, and I saw both the Ka‘ba and the Lord of the Ka‘ba.’ This is contemplation of the Self-subsistence through which everything subsists, i.e. he saw the Ka‘ba subsisting through the Lord of the Ka‘ba. Then he said, ‘I made the pilgrimage a third time, and I saw the Lord of the Ka‘ba, but not the Ka‘ba.’ This is the ‘station’ of waqfat (passing-away in the essence). In the present case, the author is referring to contemplation of the Self-subsistence.”

So much concerning the theory of illumination. But, as Mephistopheles says, “grau ist alle Theorie“; and though to most of us the living experience is denied, we can hear its loudest echoes and feel its warmest afterglow in the poetry which it has created. Let me translate part of a Persian ode by the dervish-poet, Baba Kuhi of Shiriz, who died in 1050 A.D.

  “In the market, in the cloister–only God I saw.

In the valley and on the mountain–only God I saw.

Him I have seen beside me oft in tribulation;

In favour and in fortune–only God I saw.

In prayer and fasting, in praise and contemplation,

In the religion of the Prophet–only God I saw.

Neither soul nor body, accident nor substance,

Qualities nor causes–only God I saw.

I oped mine eyes and by the light of His face around me

In all the eye discovered–only God I saw.

Like a candle I was melting in His fire:

Amidst the flames out flashing–only God I saw.

Myself with mine own eyes I saw most clearly,

But when I looked with God’s eyes–only God I saw.

I passed away into nothingness, I vanished,

And lo, I was the All-living–only God I saw.”

 

The whole of Sufism rests on the belief that when the individual self is lost, the Universal Self is found, or, in religious language, that ecstasy affords the only means by which the soul can directly communicate and become united with God. Asceticism, purification, love, gnosis, saintship–all the leading ideas of Sufism–are developed from this cardinal principle.

Among the metaphorical terms commonly employed by the Sufis as, more or less, equivalent to ‘ecstasy’ are fana (passing-away), wajd (feeling), sama’(hearing), dhawq (taste), shirb (drinking), ghaybat (absence from self), jadhbat (attraction), sukr (intoxication), and hal (emotion). It would be tedious and not, I think, specially instructive to examine in detail the definitions of those terms and of many others akin to them which occur in Sufi text-books. We are not brought appreciably nearer to understanding the nature of ecstasy when it is described as “a divine mystery which God communicates to true believers who behold Him with the eye of certainty,” or as “a flame which moves in the ground of the soul and is produced by love-desire.” The Mohammedan theory of ecstasy, however can hardly be discussed without reference to two of the above-mentioned technical expressions, namely, fana and sama‘.

As I have remarked in the Introduction the term fana includes different stages, aspects, and meanings. These may be summarised as follows:

  1. A moral transformation of the soul through the extinction of all its passions and desires.
  2. A mental abstraction or passing-away of the mind from all objects of perception, thoughts, actions, and feelings through its concentration upon the thought of God. Here the thought of God signifies contemplation of the divine attributes.
  3. The cessation of all conscious thought. The highest stage of fana is reached when even the consciousness of having attained fana disappears. This is what the Sufis call ‘the passing-away of passing-away’ (fana al-fana). The mystic is now rapt in contemplation of the divine essence.

The final stage of fana, the complete passing-away from self, forms the prelude to baqa, ‘continuance’ or ‘abiding’ in God, and will be treated with greater fullness in Chapter VI.

The first stage closely resembles the Buddhistic Nirvana. It is a ‘passing-away’ of evil qualities and states of mind, which involves the simultaneous ‘continuance’ of good qualities and states of mind. This is necessarily an ecstatic process, inasmuch as all the attributes of ‘self’ are evil in relation to God. No one can make himself perfectly moral, i.e. perfectly ‘selfless.’ This must be done for him, through ‘a flash of the divine beauty’ in his heart.

While the first stage refers to the moral ‘self,’ the second refers to the percipient and intellectual ‘self.’ Using the classification generally adopted by Christian mystics, we may regard the former as the consummation of the Purgative Life, and the latter as the goal of the Illuminative Life. The third and last stage constitutes the highest level of the Contemplative Life.

Often, though not invariably, fana is accompanied by loss of sensation. Sari al-Saqati, a famous Sufi of the third century, expressed the opinion that if a man in this state were struck on the face with a sword, he would not feel the blow. Abu l-Khayr al-Aqta had a gangrene in his foot. The physicians declared that his foot must be amputated, but he would not allow this to be done. His disciples said, “Cut it off while he is praying, for he is then unconscious.” The physicians acted on their advice, and when Abu ’l-Khayr finished his prayers he found that the amputation had taken place. It is difficult to see how any one far advanced in fana could be capable of keeping the religious law–a point on which the orthodox mystics lay great emphasis. Here the doctrine of saintship comes in. God takes care to preserve His elect from disobedience to His commands. We are told that Bayazid, Shibli, and other saints were continually in a state of rapture until the hour of prayer arrived; then they returned to consciousness, and after performing their prayers became enraptured again.

In theory, the ecstatic trance is involuntary, although certain conditions are recognised as being especially favourable to its occurrence. “It comes to a man through vision of the majesty of God and through revelation of the divine omnipotence to his heart.” Such, for instance, was the case of Abu Hamza, who, while walking in the streets of Baghdad and meditating on the nearness of God, suddenly fell into an ecstasy and went on his way, neither seeing nor hearing, until he recovered his senses and found himself in the desert. Trances of this kind sometimes lasted many weeks. It is recorded of Sahl ibn ‘Abdallah that he used to remain in ecstasy twenty-five days at a time, eating no food; yet he would answer questions put to him by the doctors of theology, and even in winter his shirt would be damp with sweat. But the Sufis soon discovered that ecstasy might be induced artificially, not only by concentration of thought, recollection (dhikr), and other innocent methods of autohypnosis, but also by music, singing, and dancing. These are included in the term sama‘, which properly means nothing more than audition.

That Moslems are extraordinarily susceptible to the sweet influences of sound will not be doubted by anyone who remembers how, in the Arabian Nights, heroes and heroines alike swoon upon the slightest provocation afforded by a singing-girl touching her lute and trilling a few lines of passionate verse. The fiction is true to life. When Sufi writers discuss the analogous phenomena of ecstasy, they commonly do so in a chapter entitled ‘Concerning the Sama‘.’ Under this heading Hujwiri, in the final chapter of his Kashf al-Mahjub, gives us an excellent summary of his own and other Mohammedan theories, together with numerous anecdotes of persons who were thrown into ecstasy on hearing a verse of the Koran or a heavenly voice (hatif) or poetry or music. Many are said to have died from the emotion thus aroused. I may add by way of explanation that, according to a well-known mystical belief, God has inspired every created thing to praise Him in its own language, so that all the sounds in the universe form, as it were, one vast choral hymn by which He glorifies Himself. Consequently, those whose hearts He has opened and endowed with spiritual perception hear His voice everywhere, and ecstasy overcomes them as they listen to the rhythmic chant of the muezzin, or the street cry of the saqqa shouldering his waterskin, or, perchance, to the noise of wind or the bleating of a sheep or the piping of a bird.

Pythagoras and Plato are responsible for another theory, to which the Sufi poets frequently allude, that music awakens in the soul a memory of celestial harmonies heard in a state of pre-existence, before the soul was separated from God. Thus, Jalaluddin Rumi:

  “The song of the spheres in their revolutions

Is what men sing with lute and voice.

As we all are members of Adam,

We have heard these melodies in Paradise.

Though earth and water have cast their veil upon us,

We retain faint reminiscences of these heavenly songs;

But while we are thus shrouded by gross earthly veils,

How can the tones of the dancing spheres reach us?”

{E. H. Whinfield, abridged translation of the Masnavi, p. 182.}

 

The formal practice of sama quickly spread amongst the Sufis and produced an acute cleavage of opinion, some holding it to be lawful and praiseworthy, whilst others condemned it as an abominable innovation and incitement to vice. Hujwiri adopts the middle view expressed in a saying of Dhu ’l-Nun the Egyptian:

“Music is a divine influence which stirs the heart to seek God: those who listen to it spiritually attain unto God, and those who listen to it sensually fall into unbelief.”

He declares, in effect, that audition is neither good nor bad, and must be judged by its results.

“When an anchorite goes into a tavern, the tavern becomes his cell, but when a wine-bibber goes into a cell, that cell becomes his tavern.”

One whose heart is absorbed in the thought of God cannot be corrupted by hearing musical instruments. So, with dancing.

“When the heart throbs and rapture grows intense, and the agitation of ecstasy is manifested. and conventional forms are gone, this is not dancing nor bodily indulgence, but a dissolution of the soul.”

Hujwiri, however, lays down several precautionary rules for those who engage in audition, and he confesses that the public concerts given by dervishes are extremely demoralising. Novices, he thinks, should not be permitted to attend them. In modern times these orgiastic scenes have frequently been described by eye-witnesses. I will now translate from Jami’s Lives of the Saints the account of a similar performance which took place about seven hundred years ago.

“There was a certain dervish, a negro called Zangi Bashgirdi, who had attained to such a high degree of spirituality that the mystic dance could not be started until he came out and joined in it. One day, in the course of the sama‘, he was seized with ecstasy, and rising into the air seated himself on a lofty arch which overlooked the dancers. In descending he leaped on to Majduddin of Baghdad, and encircled with his legs the neck of the Sheykh, who nevertheless continued to spin round in the dance, though he was a very frail and slender man, whereas the negro was tall and heavy. When the dance was finished, Majduddin said, ‘I did not know whether it was a negro or a sparrow on my neck.’ On getting off the Sheykh’s shoulders, the negro bit his cheek so severely that the scar remained visible ever after. Majduddin often used to say that on the Day of Judgment he would not boast of anything except that he bore the mark of this negro’s teeth on his face.”

Grotesque and ignoble features–not to speak of grosser deformities–must appear in any faithful delineation of the ecstatic life of Islam. Nothing is gained by concealing their existence or by minimising their importance. If, as Jalaluddin Rumi says:

  “Men incur the reproach of wine and drugs

That they may escape for a while from self-consciousness,

Since all know this life to be a snare,

Volitional memory and thought to be a hell,”

 

let us acknowledge that the transports of spiritual intoxication are not always sublime, and that human nature has a trick of avenging itself on those who would cast it off.

THE MYSTICS OF ISLAM by Reynold A. Nicholson Routledge, Kegan Paul, London [1914]
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