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Sufi perspectives on the universality of the Qur'anic message

Apr 30, 2010, 2:32 PM | Article By: Alhaji Ousman M. Jah - Founder and Secretary General

Thus we see that in the Qur'anic perspective, every single thing, by dint of its very existence, "praises" and "glorifies" its Creator: its existence constitutes its praise. Every created thing bears witness to, and thus "praises", its creator; the existence of every existent "glorifies" the bestowed of existence. But more fundamentally, the existence of every existing thing is not its own, this existence "belongs" exclusively to that reality for which it severs as a locus of theophany (mazhar); there is no "sharing", "partnership", or "association" in being - on ontological shirk, in other words. Thus we return to the metaphysics of oneness: nothing is real but God. Each thing in existence has two incommensurable dimensions: in and of itself a pure nothingness; but in respect of that which is manifested to it, through it, by means of it-it is real. This is the import of the interpretation given by Ghazzali to the verse cited above, "everything is perishing except His Face" (28:88). It is worth dwelling on the commentary he provides upon this verse; for it contains, arguably, some of the most radically esoteric ideas of his entire corpus, and also sums up many of the themes expressed thus far.

The commentary comes in his treatise entitled Mishkat al-anwar ("The Niche of Lights"), which takes as its point of departure the famous "light verse".

God is the light of the heavens and earth. The similitude of His light is as a niche wherein is a lamp. The lamp is in a glass. The glass is as it were shining star. (The lamp is) kindled from a blessed olive tree, neither of the East nor of the West, whose oil would almost glow forth through no fire, touched it. Light upon light. God guided to his light whom He will. And God striked similarity of mankind. And God know all things (24:35)

Ghazzali commentary on this verse identifies the one, true light of God as the one, true being: darkness is nonexistence. The following statement on the nature of existence forms the backdrop for the commentary on 28:88, which is our focus here:

Existence can be classified into the existence that a thing possesses in itself, and that which it possesses from another. When a thing has existence from another, its existence is borrowed and has no support in itself. When the thing is viewed in itself, and with respect to itself, it is pure non-existence. It only exists in as much as it is ascribed to another. This is not a true existence ... Hence the Real Existence is God, just as the Real Light is He.

Then comes the section entitle Haqiqat al haqa'iq ("The Reality of realities"), which describes the ascent of the Gnostics, the knower of God,"from the lowlands of metaphor to the highlands of Reality." They are given a direct vision of the truth that there is none in existence save God, and that every thing is perishing except His Face. (It is) not that each things is perishing at one time or at other time or the other time, but that it is  perishing from eternity without beginning to eternity without end. It can only be so conceived since, when the essence of anything other than He is considered in respect of its own essence it is sheer nonexiztence. But when it is viewed in respect of the "face" to which  existence flows forth from the First, the Real, than it is seen as existing not in itself but through the face  turned  to its giver of existence. Hence the only existence is the Face of God. Every thing has two faces: a face toward itself, and a face toward its Lord. Viewed in terms of the face to of itself, it is nonexistent; but viewed in terms of the Face of God, it exists. Hence nothing exists but God and His Face.

Ghazzali then make an important distinction within the category of these gnostics who "see nothing in existence save the One, the Real." One grope is said to arrive at this vision 'irfanan' ilmiyyan, that is, as a mode of cognitive knowledge; and another group posses this vision dhawqan, that is, as a mystical state of "tasting". The essential vision is the same, but the depth of assimilation, the mystical attunement to the reality perceived, differs. This distinction helps to underscore the epistemological value of affirming principles of a metaphysical and mystical order, even if the plenary realization of those principles eludes the rational faculty. Reflection and meditation on the principles alluded to can bring about at least some degree of cognitive apprehension of the ultimate realities in question: realities that remain ineffable inasmuch as they are predicated on the extinction of the individually and thus on the transcendence of all modes of cognition proper to the individual subject as such. Ghazzali continues with a description of those who experience this transcendent extinction. Plurality disappears for them, as they are plunged in "sheer singularity" (al-fardaniyya al-mahda):

They become intoxicated with such intoxication that the ruling authority of their rational faculty is overthrown. Hence one of them says, "I am the Real!" (and al-Haqq), another, Glory be to me, how great is my station! " ... when this state gets the upper hand, it is called "extinction" in relation to the one who possesses it. Or rather, is it called "extinction from extinction", since the possessor of the state is extinct from himself and from his own extinction. For He is conscious neither of himself in that state, nor of his own unconsciousness of himself. If he was conscious of his own unconsciousness, then he would (still) be conscious of himself. In relation to the one immersed in it, this state is called "unification" (ittihad) according to the language of metaphor, or is called "declaring God's unity" (Tawhid) according to the language of reality.

We return to the relationship between fana' and tawhid, between extinction and, not only "declaring God's unity" which is but one aspect of tawhid, but more essentially, the "making one", according to the literal meaning of the verbal noun tawhid. One might also translate Tawhid as "the realization of oneness", the "making real" of the actual reality of oneness, through the elimination of all multiplicity.    

Earlier, the divinely willed plurality within the human race was referred to: it is God who divided mankind up into nations and tribes, "so that ye may know one another". Is there not a contradiction, it might be asked, between the extinction of phenomenal multiplicity presupposed by the deepest level of tawhid, and the affirmation of human plurality called forth by the will of God? One way of transforming this apparent contradiction into an expression of spiritual profundity is by returning to the notion of the "face" within each thing that constitutes the real being of that thing. Those Sufis who are extinguished to their own particular "face"-extinguished from their own non-existence-come alive to the Divine face that constitutes their true reality, the immanence of God's presence within them, and also within all that exists: "wherever ye turn there is the Face of God". Now it is precisely that Divine aspect-in all things and in all other nations and tribes - that comes into focus when this level of tawhid is grasped aright. One does not have to experience the grace of mystical annihilation to comprehend the principle; as Ghazzali put it, one can arrive at this principle not only dhawqan, by way of "taste", or mystical experience, but also rifanan ilmiyyan, as a mode of cognitive knowledge. If the mystical realization of this principle bestows a "taste" or mystical experience but also irfana hilmiyyan as a mode of cognitive knowledge. If the mystery realization of this principle bestow a "test" of tawhid, we might say, following on from Ghazzali, that an intellectual assimilation of the principle bestows a "perfume" of tawhid. As ibn 'Arabi puts it, the Gnostics cannot explain their spiritual states (ahwal) to other men; they can only indicate them symbolically to those who have begun to experience the like. A conceptual grasp of these deeper aspects of tawhid might be said to constitute just such a beginning. If the ultimate, mystical degree of tawhid is realized only through extinction, the lower, conceptual degrees imply at last that beginning or prefiguration of mystical extinction which consist in self-effacement, in humanity. Now and in intellectual assimilation of this vision of unity together with a moral  attunement to the humility that it demands, is certainly sufficient to dissolve the egocentric knots that constitute the stuff of ta?assub, of all forms of fanaticism.

To be continued.