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The Station of Light
By Namit Arora | Dec 2007
(This article was published in Nimble Spirit Review, Nov 2004.)
Mysticism is ultimately rooted in the original matrix of religious experience . . . [It grows] out of man’s overwhelming awareness of God and his sense of nothingness without Him, and of the urgent need to subordinate reason and emotion to this experience.
Sufism, or Islamic mysticism, first arose in Syria and Iraq in the eight century CE. Arab conquerors, a century earlier, had taken Islam all over the Near East, which included lands with a long tradition of ascetic thought and eastern Christian monasticism -- a tradition that valued religious poverty, contempt for worldly pleasures, and a secret world of virtue beyond that of obedience to law; the Gospel of Christ, too, was interpreted metaphysically.
By the early eighth century, however, Islam had spread like wildfire. Notably, the invading Arabs did not proselytize by diktat. Instead, they remained focused on the time-honored spoils of conquest. So an obvious question is: Why did peoples with longer and richer religious traditions embrace Islam so readily? The answer, incidentally, also illuminates the context of Sufism.
In the seventh century, there were many dissident and alienated minorities in Byzantine lands who resented the “oppressive yoke of Constantinople, committed as it was to the defense of orthodoxy, especially since the reign of Justinian (527-565)”. In the Fertile Crescent and in Egypt, the Arabs were indeed welcomed as liberators by the locals -- the Arabs had not evolved a significant doctrine or law as yet to pose a parallel threat. “The religion of the Qur’an had such close affinities with both Judaism and Christianity that in the beginning it must have appeared more like a heretic Christian sect than a distinct religion.” Both the Christians and the Jews found their new masters more tolerant and unconcerned with fervent theology. Being outsiders, as well as a minority spread thin, the Arab colonials could not afford to behave any other way.
For the vast majority of locals, the reign of the Arabs, then, amounted to exchanging one set of masters for another, the deal made sweeter by the lower Arab taxation across the board -- lower still for those who converted to Islam. Besides, there were other, practical advantages of learning the language and methods of the new imperial government and its commerce. With the ongoing decline of organized Zoroastrianism, many Persians, too, particularly of lower castes, found an alternative faith with immediate social advantages.
In the early centuries, Islam therefore spread without a big top-down missionary drive -- if not an improvement, it was perceived as no worse by most converts. Besides, the act of conversion was easy, the Qur’an was the Word of God Himself, and more importantly, the new faith promised “no priests, no Church, no kings and no nobles, no privileged orders or castes of any kind, save only for the self-evident superiority of those who accept the true faith to those who willfully reject it.” In addition to this “pseudo-socialism,” which evidently appealed to many, the new faith called for a submission to the will of Allah, the one and only Creator, and outlined a complete way of life with rules of personal conduct, interpersonal relations, hygiene, clothing, and rituals. Hereafter, the law of the land would be based on the Qur’an -- the Shari’ah, or the well trodden path -- with no territorial-political limits to its jurisdiction, encompassing instead the community of all believers.
But old habits die hard, and even as Islam spread, many converts, beneath a slim veneer of their new faith, persisted with asceticism and the inner life. What transformed asceticism into mysticism was something quite radical: an unabashed love of God. This transformation has been symbolically ascribed to a woman from Basra, Rabi’ah al-Adawiyah (d. 801?), among the first to articulate the mystic ideal of a disinterested love of God, as in her prayer below.
O God, if I worship Thee for fear of Hell, burn me in Hell, and if I worship Thee in hope of Paradise, exclude me from Paradise; but if I worship Thee for Thy own sake, grudge me not Thy everlasting beauty.
Other believers who were drawn to rational philosophy also found objective accounts of God unsatisfactory. They yearned for a God who was more immediate and sympathetic than the remote God of the philosophers and the legalistic God of the theologians (the ulema). Early Islamic mystics, or Sufis, thus evolved a more subjective notion of God: each of us can experience the divine differently; revelation is an event that unfolds within our soul; the soul by its own effort could reach out to the divine. A systematic destruction of the ego (fana) and surrender of self to God became central to the Sufi ideal: one who discards his ego to discover the divine presence at the heart of his own being would experience greater self- realization and self-control. “Man becomes dead unto himself and alive unto God.” Many practiced celibacy as a mystic ideal, flouting the example of matrimony set by Muhammad himself.
Such views were clearly antithetical to the religious establishment, for whom there was no other God but Allah and His one revelation to Muhammad. How dare man approach God with a spirit of intimacy rather than reverence, piety, and awe? The Sufi ideal of a direct encounter with God, silently bypassing the Prophet and the Qur’an, drew further ire. It proved to be an expensive proposition: many early Sufis are known to have feigned madness to escape punishment. Sufi thought, therefore, transmitted slowly in the early centuries, in small circles led by sheikhs, or Sufi mystical teachers. Mainstream Sufis nominally remained within the bounds of orthodoxy to avoid the hostility of Sunni theologians; they even avowed that the observance of the Shari’ah was indispensable.
Early Sufis came from all schools of Islamic law and theology; Sufism had true cross-sectional appeal. But a systematic reckoning of scripture and spirituality had to wait for al-Arabi’s bold and radical writings on mysticism. It was al-Arabi who exposed the immense chasm between orthodox faith and mysticism. Sufism, henceforth, had its own theological framework -- derived from the Qur’an, but inspired by, and much influenced by, far older traditions.
Al-Arabi was born in 1165 CE in Andalucia to an influential and religious family. He was educated in Seville, then an outstanding center of Islamic culture and learning. He studied traditional Islamic sciences with several mystic teachers who saw in him a marked spiritual inclination and exceptional intelligence; two of his uncles were Sufis. His teachers included two women -- Shams of Marchena and Fatima of Cordoba. It seems that
The latter was a spiritual mother to him; he speaks with devotion of her teaching, oriented towards a life of intimacy with God. An extraordinary aura surrounds their relations. Despite her advanced age, the venerable shaikha still possessed such beauty and grace that she might have been taken for a girl of fourteen [sic], and the young Ibn Arabi could not help blushing when he looked at her face to face. She had many disciples, and for two years he was one of them.
Al-Arabi didn’t follow any particular Sufi order for very long, and when he disagreed with the teachers, he disputed with them openly. He was briefly employed as a secretary of the governor of Seville when he led a profligate life, indulging in “carousels and merry pastimes,” before his reorientation to the Sufi path. He was helped in this by his first wife, whom he speaks of in terms of respectful devotion.
He traveled to various cities of Spain and North Africa in search of Sufi masters renowned for their spiritual progress. On one of these trips, al-Arabi had a dramatic encounter with the great Aristotelian philosopher Ibn Rushd (aka Averroës; 1126-98) which he related in Fusus al-Hikam, or The Bezels of Wisdom -- an account that reveals al-Arabi’s supreme self-confidence. It appears that “after the early exchange of only a few words . . . the mystical depth of the boy so overwhelmed the old [rationalist] philosopher that he became pale and, dumbfounded, began trembling.” In light of the subsequent course of Islamic philosophy, this encounter is often seen as the symbolic end of medieval Islamic rationalism.
According to Professor Henry Corbin, a leading modern authority on Islamic mysticism,
[Al-Arabi] knew that the triumph that he sought is obtained neither by the effort of rational philosophy, nor by conversion to what he was later to term a God created in dogmas. It depends on a certain decisive encounter, which is entirely personal, irreplaceable, barely communicable to the most fraternal soul, still less translatable in terms of any change of external allegiance or social quality. It is the fruit of a long quest, the work of an entire lifetime; al-Arabi’s whole life was this long quest.
Such a decisive encounter seems to have happened in Fez in the year 1198, as al-Arabi prayed in the Azhar mosque. He described the event as follows:
I saw a light that seemed to illuminate what was before me, despite the fact that I had lost all sense of front and back, it being as if I had no back at all. Indeed during this vision I had no sense of direction whatever, my sense of vision being, so to speak, spherical in its scope, I recognized my spatial position only as a hypothesis not as reality.
Al-Arabi explains that by this experience he knew that he had reached the Station of Light. Around the same time in Fez, he wrote, “I learnt of the Seal of Mohammedan Sainthood . . . where God acquainted me with his identity and revealed to me his mark.” 
Prompted by a dream, al-Arabi began a pilgrimage to the East in his thirties and never returned home, which, by then, was shrinking in the face of the Spanish Reconquista. His first stop was Mecca in 1201, where he claims to have received a divine commandment to begin his major work, al-Futuhat al-Makkiyah. It was also in Mecca that he met Nizam, a gifted and beautiful young woman who -- as a living embodiment of eternal wisdom and inspiration to him -- is said to have played a role much like that of Beatrice in Dante’s life, and for whom al-Arabi wrote a collection of love poems. One of the more accessible poems goes as follows.
When the orthodox establishment protested that such expression was not conducive to religious feelings, al-Arabi wrote a lengthy defense in which he said, “All our poems are related to divine truths in various forms, such as love themes, eulogy, the names and attributes of women, the names of rivers, places, and stars.” His daring “pantheistic” expressions soon drew upon him the wrath of Muslim orthodoxy, some of whom forbade the reading of his works even as others were elevating him to the rank of prophets and saints.
Who were his spiritual masters? Al-Arabi came into contact with nearly all the significant Sufi teachers of his day.
Yet . . . he never had more than one, and that one was none of the usual visible masters; we find his name in no archives; we cannot establish his historical coordinates or situate him at any particular moment in the succession of the human generations. Ibn [al-]Arabi was, and never ceased to be, the disciple of an invisible master, a mysterious prophet figure . . . Ibn [al-]Arabi was above all the disciple of Khidr . . . a hidden spiritual master.
From Mecca, he traveled to Egypt, Anatolia, Baghdad, and Aleppo. In each place, he seems to have found favor with the rulers who, for their own expedient ends, shielded him from the hostility of orthodox theologians (In Cairo an organization was formed with the express aim of assassinating him). As the story goes, the Seljuk ruler of Konya in Anatolia gave him a house. When a beggar called one day for alms, he gave away the house because “that was all he had to give.”
It was in Baghdad that he met Shihab al Din Umar al Suhrawardi, the great mystical philosopher of Persia, ten years his senior. Both of them bowed their heads for an hour without uttering a word to each other and then parted. When al-Arabi was asked his opinion of Suhrawardi he said, “He is imbued from head to foot with the norm of the Prophet.” Of al-Arabi, Suhrawardi said, “He is an ocean of divine truths.”
Al-Arabi did what the traditionalists had done all along: He returned to the Qur’an, but only to find expressions of the mystic ideal. Drawing upon Neo-Platonism, he created an elaborate theosophy by reinterpreting the Qur’an and the Hadith, or the traditions of the Prophet, who, al-Arabi claimed, was a mystic himself. He noted that in one Hadith, God said, “I was a hidden treasure and I desired to be known, therefore, I created the creatures in order that I might be known.” Man, al-Arabi said, is the embodiment of universal reason and the being in whom all attributes or perfections of God are reflected. God created man in His own image, and then designated him as His vicegerent on earth (khalifah). Other Suras claimed God to be closer to the believer than “his jugular vein” (Qur’an 50:15) and so omnipresent and omniscient as to witness man’s every deed and read his every thought. Clearly, man is of God and God is present in him.
According to al-Arabi, the path of man’s ascent to God -- and his union with God -- leads through various stages of spiritual progress. These stages include repentance, renunciation, trust in the divine, and perseverance, leading ultimately to a spiritual awakening. These are essentially stages in his knowledge of himself: “He who knows himself knows the lord.” The role of reason is to inform religious experience, to keep it on track. The rational soul discovers, experientially and intuitively, the absolute unity of the whole and its own identity with it; God’s existence cannot be proved by logic; we must concentrate on the particular word spoken in our own being. It was the same reality that all prophets spoke of; all men worshipped the same God in different forms; God does not belong to any one creed exclusive of all others. Al-Arabi’s religious pluralism is evident in his famous verse below.
My heart is capable of every form.
Al-Arabi’s metaphysics describes the world as a product of the divine self-reflection that prompts God to manifest himself in the things and phenomenon of the empirical universe. It even contains a charming and extraordinary creation myth (the Qur’an does not have one except a brief reference to God creating man from clay).
Know that when God had created Adam who was the first human organism to be constituted, and when he had established him as the origin and archetype of all human bodies, there remained a surplus of the leaven of the clay. From this surplus God created the palm tree, so that this plant (nakhla, palm tree, being feminine) is Adam’s sister; for us, therefore, it is like an aunt on our father’s side. In theology it is so described and is compared to the faithful believer. No other plant bears within it such extraordinary secrets as are hidden in this one. Now, after the creation of the palm tree, there remained hidden a portion of the clay from which the plant had been made; what was left was the equivalent of a sesame seed. And it was in this remainder that God laid out an immense Earth. Since he arranged in it the Throne and what it contains, the Firmament, the Heavens and the Earths, the worlds underground, all the paradises and hells, this means that the whole of our universe is to be found there in that Earth in its entirety, and yet the whole of it together is like a ring lost in one of our deserts in comparison with the immensity of that Earth. And that same Earth has hidden in it so many marvels and strange things that their number cannot be counted and our intelligence remains dazed by them.
Al-Arabi wrote hundreds of books. He even translated into Arabic a Persian translation of a Sanskrit text on Tantric Yoga. “It is probable,” writes one historian, “that no one [else] has written on a broader range of spiritual matters and certain that these have never been described in greater depth [by one person] . . . a vast body of esoteric knowledge, previously confined to oral transmissions, was committed to writing.”  What al-Arabi thought of his method of writing has little in common with the ethos of the modern, individualistic, ego-driven author making sense of his world:
In what I have written I have never had a set purpose, as other writers. Flashes of divine inspiration used to come upon me and almost overwhelm me, so that I could only put them from my mind by committing to paper what they revealed to me. If my works evince any form of composition that form was unintentional. Some works I wrote at the command of God, sent to me in sleep or through a mystical revelation.
The poet Jalal ad-Din Rumi (1207-73 CE) and his father crossed paths with al-Arabi on one journey. Rumi was quite young at the time but the father-son duo made a favorable impression on al-Arabi for he said, “There goes a sea followed by an ocean.”
By the time his long pilgrimage ended at Damascus in 1223, his fame had spread all over the Islamic world. He married three times in the course of his life and had three children and a stepson, Sadruddin Qunawi, who became his closest disciple and a continuing influence on Rumi. Venerated as the greatest spiritual master, al-Arabi spent the rest of his life in Damascus in peaceful contemplation, teaching, and writing. It was here that he composed one of the most important works of mystical philosophy in Islam: Fusus al-Hikam.
At this time, in certain private moments, he is also said to have entertained messianic pretensions, coveting the Seal of Mohammedan Sainthood, reserved for one who embodies the mystery of the revealed God in each age for the benefit of his contemporaries -- a public avowal might have been the last straw for the Sunni theologians. “Ibn al-Arabi was to die in Damascus in 1240, exactly sixteen years before the capture of Baghdad by the Mongols announced the end of a world.”  Later, when the Ottoman sultan Selim II took Syria, he built a lavish tomb upon al-Arabi’s grave on the Qasiyun Mountain which overshadows Damascus from the west. It was to become a place of pilgrimage.
The reflective mysticism of al-Arabi evolved quaint mutations in its popular form. He himself never founded a mystic order for he believed, “The man of wisdom, whatever may happen, will never allow himself to be caught up in any one form or belief, because he knows his own essence.” In fact, his thought was too abstruse and elusive for most. It was easy for the uninitiated and overzealous to misunderstand the ecstasy of a mystic master and his union with God. A few began severe self-mortification to cleanse their souls in order to receive God. Others resorted to saint worship, visiting tombs, and miracle mongering. To reduce worldly distractions, the aspiring mystic was expected to learn techniques of breathing, right posture, concentration, and the recitation of ritual mantras. Some Sufi orders (Tariqas) used music, song, and dance to enhance concentration (the whirling dervishes for instance), and their pirs (holy men) became heroes to the people. Detractors claim that Sufism, in this popular form, had a “narcotic effect” on the masses.
By the thirteenth century, a time of extreme political turbulence caused by Mongol raids from central Asia, Sufism had become the dominant mood in large parts of the Islamic world, particularly in southwest Asia, and remained so down to the nineteenth century. Wandering monks and mystics brought Sufi tenets to the country folks, whose faith soon became far removed from the complex niceties of theology and, of course, far more colorful. A characteristic expression was the communal Sufi brotherhood (e.g., Naqshbandiyya). Commentators on the works of Avicenna, al-Suhrawardi, al-Ghazali, and al-Arabi began harmonizing and integrating the views of the masters. Sufi poets like Rumi expressed the yearning of the lover, besides emotions of wonder and elation attendant upon the path to his union with God, in rich metaphor. Others used Bacchic and erotic imagery to symbolize the mystic union of the devotee with God. These became part of common culture, encouraged later by the Ottomans. Missionaries took Sufism to India which proved particularly amenable to it.  Sufi vocabulary infused a special charm to Persian and the related literatures of Turkish, Urdu, Sindhi, Pashto, and Punjabi -- their poetries, in turn, facilitated the spread of mysticism.
Medieval Islamic mysticism, with its focus on the inner life, also remained politically quietist -- mystic philosophers did not expound on the structure of authority or right governance. As long as temporal power remained nonintrusive, it went unnoticed: Caliphs could come and go, dynasties rise and fall. Like Islamic rationalism (Falsafah), Islamic mysticism (Tasawwuf) became a parallel current of thought to theological (Sunni and Shi’a) Islam, although with a much larger following and a rich folklore.
An old Turkish anecdote relates that a dervish one day went to the house of a rich man to ask for alms. The latter, to test the dervish’s piety, asked him to enumerate the five pillars of Islam. The dervish recited the declaration of faith (no God but Allah, Muhammad is the messenger of Allah) and went silent. “What about the rest, the other four?” the rich man asked. To this the dervish replied, “You rich men have abandoned pilgrimage and charity, and we poor dervishes have abandoned prayer and fasting, so what remains but the unity of God and the apostolate of Muhammad?”
The Arabian Nights abounds with wise and gentle dervishes always interceding on behalf of the little guy. The Islamic injunction of jihad too did not find support among the Sufis. On record is an account of a Bektashi dervish who, during the Ottoman war against the Habsburg empire in 1690,
. . . went among the Muslim troops when they were encamped for the night, and went from soldier to soldier saying: ‘Hey, you fools, why do you squander your lives for nothing? Fie on you! All the talk you hear about the virtues of holy war and martyrdom in battle is so much nonsense. While the Ottoman emperor enjoys himself in his palace, and the Frankish king disports himself in his country, I can’t think why you should give your lives fighting on the mountaintops!
The Indian mystic Guru Nanak (1469-1539 CE) of Punjab, regarded by later generations as the founder of Sikhism, squarely condemned the external authorities and the outward response demanded by orthodox Islam. He believed that “only those who perceived the inner reality of truth could achieve deliverance, and this end could be attained regardless of whether one were a Hindu or a Muslim. Those who followed this inner path are the true Hindu and the true Muslim as opposed to the false believers who continue to put their trust in ritual and pilgrimage, temple and mosque, Brahman and mullah, Shastras and Qur’an.” He offered the following words of wisdom to the orthodox Muslim of his age:
Make mercy your mosque and devotion your prayer mat,
Al-Arabi would surely have agreed. His mystical worldview does not engender ideas like competition, personal ambition, or democracy. Instead, it furthers a private, pacifist, and tolerant belief system. Such a spiritual notion of faith also flowered in Hinduism, Judaism, and Eastern Christianity, but barely so in Western Christianity. To the mystic-minded, “the physical world ... so real and absolute and unique [to those of Orthodox or Rational leanings], seems . . . one way of living among many others; in short, a small, chaotic, agitated, and rather painful frontier on the margin of immense continents which lie behind unexplored.”
Sufism, after centuries of being the most prominent current of Islam, was besieged in the modern age by the forces of secularism, nationalism, and modernism on one hand (Sufi orders were banned in Turkey in 1925) and on the other hand by the neo-orthodoxy of the Wahhabis in Arabia and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Nevertheless, it has often asserted its vitality, not the least as a progressive voice in the political and social realm.
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