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The metaphysics of interfaith dialogue

Apr 11, 2010, 9:10 PM

(Friday, 9th April 2010 issue)
Sufi Perspectives on the University of the Qur'anic Message

The shift from "theological" Tawhid to "ontological" Tawhid is one of the hallmarks of another great representative of the school of ibn 'Arabi, Sayiid Hydra Amuli (d.787/1385), in whose works one observes a remarkable synthesis between Shiite gnosis and Sufi metaphysics. He refers to the "folk of the exterior" (abl al-Zabir) who pronounce the formula la ilaha illa Allah in the sense conveyed by the following Qur'anic verse, an exclamation by the polytheists of the strangeness of the idea of affirming one deity: "Dose he make the gods one God? This is a strange thing" (38:5). This monotheistic affirmation is, for Amuli, the essence of the Tawhid professed by the folk of the exterior, and is called "theological" Tawhid (al-Tawhid al-uluhi). In contrast, the "folk of the interior" (abl al-batin) negate the multiplicity of existences, and affirm the sole reality of divine being; their formula is: "There is nothing in existence apart from God (laysa fi al-wujud siwa Allah)," and they cite the verse "Everything is perishing save His Face" (28:88) in support. This, Amuli maintains, is "ontological" Tawhid (al Tawhid al-wujudi)

Despite appearing to be the concern only of mystic with another worldly and introspective orientation, such metaphysical perspectives on the central Qur'anic message of Tawhid are in fact highly pertinent to the theme of dialogue. In particular, the implications of Tawhid with respect to notions of "self" and "other" are potentially of considerable value in helping to overcome one of the key obstacles to authentic and fruitful dialogue in today's multi-religious world. This obstacle consists in a notion of "identity" or "Selfhood" that has become opaque, congealed, or reified. When the self is regarded as the absolute criterion for engaging with the other, there arises a suffocating notion of identity which feeds directly into chauvinism, bigotry, and fanaticism-qualities that are expressed by the Arabic word ta'assub. In its root meaning, this word graphically conveys the self-indulgence that constitutes the life-blood of all forms of fanaticism; the verb ta'assaba primarily signifies binding a cloth around one's head. One becomes literally self-enwrapped, each fold of the cloth compounding the initial preoccupation with one's own congealed frame of identity; one becomes imprisoned within a mental "fabric" woven by one's own prejudices, and as the head swells, the mind narrows.

If the "I" be identified in a quasi-absolute manner with the ago, the family, the nation, or even the religion to which one belongs, then the "other" - at whatever level-will likewise be given a quasi-absolute character. It is precisely such exclusivist notions of "Self" and "other" that contribute to the dynamics of suspicion and fear, fanaticism, and conflict. The metaphysics, or science, of oneness, on the other hand, dose not so much abolish as attenuate, not equalize but situate, all limited conceptions of identity. It serves to relativize every conceivable degree of identity in the face of the Absolute; in other words, it ensures that no determinate, formal conception of the self is absolutized' or "worshipped," however unconsciously, as an "idol. The metaphysics of integral Tawhid can be regarded as the most complete and effective antidote to fanaticism insofar as it undermines this idolatry of selfho" od, a type of idolatry tersely summed up in the Qur'anic question: "Has thou seen him who maketh his desire his god?" (25'43; almost identical at 45:23).

In the Qur'an, God says to Moses at the theophany of the burning bush, Inni ana Allah - "Truly I, I am God" (20:12).  The following extremely important comment is made on this by Ja'far al-sadiq (d.148/665), Shi'ite Imam, regarded also in the Sufi tradition as one of the "poles" (aqtab) or supreme authorities of the early generations. This comment comes in a Tafsir that was to have a profound influence both on the unfolding of the genre of esoteric exegesis, and on the articulation and diffusion of Sufi metaphysical doctrines:

It is not proper for anyone but God to speak of Himself by using these words Inni ana. I (that is, Moses, according to al-Sadiq's commentary) was seized by a stupor and annihilation (fana) took place. I said then: "You! Are He who is and who will be eternally, and Moses has no place with you nor the audacity to speak, unless you let him subsist by your subsistence."

This expresses a theme of fundamental importance in Sufi metaphysics, or in that dimension of the Sufi tradition that pertains directly to gnosis, ma'rifah. The primary focus of ma'rifah is God conceived of as al-Haqq, the True or the Real, in the face of which the individual "I", on its own account, is reduced to naught. Human subjectivity is strictly speaking nothing when confronted by the divine "I". Another important early Sufi, al-Kharraz, defines ma'rifah in relation to this principle of the one-and-only "I-ness" of God: "Only God has the right to say' '''. For whoever says 'I' will not reach the level of gnosis.

It is difficult to over-emphasize the importance of this perspective in both the speculative metaphysics and the spiritual realization proper to Sufism. If the Qur'anic presentation of the principle of Tawhid predominantly stresses the objective truth  of the message, Sufi spirituality finds its apotheosis in the realization of the subjective concomitant of this message, this subjective element being, paradoxically, the very extinction of individual subjectivity, expressed by the term fana. One might almost say that the truth of Tawhid is realized in direct proportion to the realization of fana, or to the realization of the realities that flow from the attainment of this state; on the other hand, to the extent that one falls short of the realization of one's nothingness, one cannot escape the "sin" of idolatry (shirk): the setting up of "another" as a "partner" or "associate" of the one-and-only Reality, the "other" being one's own self.

The truth which Tawhid declares is thus, from this perspective, radically different from the truth of dogmatic theology, of propositional logic, or of empirical fact: this truth is the intelligible face of an infinite Reality, a reality which cannot be exhaustively defined or confined by any words, a Reality before which the individuality as such is extinguished. Thus the greatest of all sins is identified by the Sufis not in moral but ontological terms: it is the sin of one's own separative existence. Commenting on the words of the Qur'an which describe the qualities of the believers, those who avoid the worst of sins (42:37), Kashani writes, "those sins are constituted by their existence (wujudatihim), and this is the most despicable of the qualities of their souls, which manifest through actions in the station of effacement." In relation to the plea for forgiveness at 2:286, Kashani comments, "Forgive us the sin of our very existence, for truly it is the gravest of the grave sins (Akbar al-kaba'ir)." He then cites the following lines of verse:

When I said I have not sinned, she said by way of response,

"Thine own existence is a sin to which none can be compared."

The relationship between the "truth" of Tawhid and the soul of the individual is thus elevated beyond the spheres of morality, theology, and all formal thought as such. The soul does not "Acquire" some cognitive content that is called "knowledge of divine unity"; rather, it is very manifestation as soul precludes or contradicts the full, mystical realization of that unity. Ibn "Arabi quotes Junayd: "when He is there, thou art not, and if thou art there, he is not."

The exoteric notion of a conceptual truth which, qua notion, is appropriated by the individual is here inverted: according to Sufi gnosis, it is the reality alluded to by conceptual truth that assimilates the individual to it. On the other hand, there is the effacement of the individual before a truth whose fulgurating reality infinitely transcends all conceptually posited notions, principles, and dogmas; and on the other, there is the entrenchment of the individuality by the appropriation of a truth whose very conceptual form can become a veil over the reality it is supposed to reveal, and which is it raison d'etre. In relation to the words of the verse describing the hypocrites as those who are wandering blind in their rebellion (2:15), Kashani refers to one of the characteristic properties of hypocrisy as being "the acquisition of gnoses (ma'rif) and sciences (ulum) and realities (baqa'iq) and words of wisdom (hikam) and divine lawa (shara'i), only in order to adorn the breast with them, so that the soul might be embellished thereby". All knowledge and wisdom, even if divine in origin, can be so many veils if they contribute not to the effacement but to the glorification of the individual soul.

To be continued 

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