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The metaphysics of interfaith dialogue:

Apr 16, 2010, 4:57 PM | Article By: Alhaji Ousman M. Jah

Sufi Perspectives on the Universality of the Qur'anic Message

We have here the definition of hidden, as opposed to over, shirk, polytheism, or "associationism:" this is the shirk that, even while affirming theological Tawhid, violates ontological Tawhid. Overt, evident, or legalistically defined shirk means simply associating other gods with God, attributing "partners" to him in divinity; while hidden, subtle, and spiritually defined shirk means implicitly attributing to God a "partner| in being, namely, oneself. The only remedy for this subtle form of polytheism is fana. It is fana ultimately, which enables one to see through the artificial walls-individual and collective-that surround the ago, and which allows one to perceive in all its plenitude the truth that there is nothing real but god. It is not difficult to appreciate what the implications of this principle are in relation to the requirements for effective dialogue with the "other;" in the light of these absolute values, it becomes difficult to shut oneself up within the blindingly evident relativity of one’s ego, this diminution of egocentricity being essential for reality engaging with, and opening oneself up to, the “"other," defined both in terms of the human and the divine.

It might however be objected here that such sublime metaphysical ideals and spiritual states they call forth can be the concern only of a small number of mystics. And highly accomplished one at that. Can ordinary people concerned with dialogue and coexistence in the modern world really benefit from such perspectives? We would readily answer in the affirmatives. For not only do the principles in question-even on the discursive plane-help dissolve the fixations on selfhood that give rise to pride and arrogance, on the individual and collective level, but also, more directly, the key Qur'anic verses from which these principles and perspective flow can bring about, in the heart of the receptive reader, a penetrating sense of the ephemerality of all things, including, crucially, the ego and its manifold extensions.


Two of the most important of these verses are the following:

- Everything is perishing except His Face (or Essence) (28:88).

- Everything that is thereon is passing away, and there subsisteth but the Face of thy Lord, possessor of Glory and Bounty (55:26-27).

It should be noticed here that the words indicating the ephemeral nature of all things-halik, perishing, and fan, "passing away" or "evanescing" - are both in the present tense: it is not that things will come to naught or perish at some later point in time; they are in fact, here and now, |extinguishing" before our very eyes. In the treatise entitled kitab al-fana' fi'lmushahada ("the book of extinction in contemplation") Ibn Arabi writes that the elimination of "that which never was" is tantamount to the realization of "that which never ceased to be." That which will not be is already "not," in a certain sense, and one grasps this not only in the ineffable moments of mystical experience, but also in the very measure that one understands the following principle: reality is not subject to finality, cancellation, extinction, non-being. That which is absolutely real is that which is eternal: it is the Face of thy Lord that, alone, subsisteth; conversely, all that which is impermanent is, by that very fact, unreal in the final analysis.

Reflection on the verses above, then, can heighten the sense of the relativity of all things-and, pre-eminently, of the ego, with all its pretensions and extensions-in in the face of the one, sole, exclusive reality. Instead of allowing an egocentric conception of selfhood to be superimposed onto religion and even onto God-both of which are then "appropriated" by the ego- such a perspective helps to engender the opposite tendency: to see the ego itself sub specie aeternitatis. What results from this perspective on the ego is a more concrete apprehension of its essential limitations: the contours that delimit and define the ego are more vividly perceived against an infinite background. Thus, what is in question here is not so much a vaguely mystical notion of universal illusion, but a concrete, realistic and effective sense of spiritual proportions. The existential limitations and the psychological pretensions of the ego are cut down to size, and a consciously theocentric focus replaces the all too often unconsciously egocentric one: nothing is absolute but the Absolute. Herein lies the first major lesson given by Sufi gnosis to those engaged in dialogue, a negative one, that is, the negation of egocentricity as a source of pride, exclusivity, and fanaticism.

As for the second lesson, this is the positivity which flow the complementary aspect of gnosis. For the verses quoted above not only assert the exclusive reality of God; they also contain a subtle allusion to the inclusive reality of God. The face  of God , which alone subsist, is not only the transcendent, divine Essence, in relation to which all things are  nothings, is also immanent presence which pervades and encompass all things, constituting in fact their  true being. Before focusing on the verse "everything perisheth except his face" and in particular on the important and illuminating interpretation of it given by Ghazzali, one should take careful note of the following verses, which refer to this complementary, inclusive dimension of the Divine reality.


- And unto God belong the East and the west; and wherever you turn, there is the face of God (2:115).

- He is with you, wherever you are (57:4}

- we are nearer to him {man] than the neck artery {50:16}

- God cometh in between a man and his own heart {8:24}

- Is he not encompassing all things? {41:54}

- He is the First the Last, and the Outward and the Inward {57:3}


Each of these verses contain the seeds of the most profound spiritual doctrines; and each has given rise to the most fecund meditation upon that most mysterious of all realities’ the immanence of the Absolute in all that exists- the inalienable presence of the transcendent, one-and-only reality within the entire sphere of relativity, of all that which is, from another point of view other than God." Ali ibn Talib, the first Shi'ite Imam and one of the primary sources of what later crystallized as Sufism, sums up the mystery in these terms: God is "with every thing, but not through association; and other than every thing, but not through separation." Nothing that exists can be altogether separate from the all-encompassing reality of God; and yet this reality has no common measure with anything that exists. His Oneness both includes and excludes all things; hence the affirmation of God's immanence within the world-His being "with every thing" - dose not imply any diminution of his transcendence; and conversely, the affirmation of god’s transcendence above the world-his being "other than every thing" – dose not imply his absence from the world.

Returning to the last of the verses cited in the group above, "He is the First and the Last, and the Outward and Inward," the Sufi shaykh Mawlay al-Arabi al-darqawi relates the following incident, which we can take as an indirect commentary on the verse. He writes that he was in a state of remembrance "when he heard a voice recite the words of the verse." I remained  silent, and the voice repeated it a second time, and then a third, whereupon I said: as to the First, I understand, and as to the last, I understand, and as to the Inwardly hidden, I understand; but as to the Outwardly manifest, I see nothing but created things. Then the voice said: 'if there were anything outwardly manifest other than him self, I should have told thee.' In moment I realized the whole hierarchy of absolute being."


To be continued