Islam places creativity and art at the centre of human existence. Everything humans produce has an aesthetic quality, even the way we drive or speak. Art is the ability to generate beauty and we can all be artists in whatever we do, by doing it beautifully. This is ihsan. For example, our relationships need the quality of ihsan. Sound relationships are creative, and are based on the recognition of others’ souls. Human beings are the summit of creation, not to exploit others but to help the rest of creation to flourish. The Muslim as khalifa is a gardener, an artist, a carer of ophans. If we behave in these beautiful ways we will naturally embue our surroundings with beauty, just as the “classical mosques were built in the form of peoples’ souls” (1) as natural expressions of beauty rather than deliberate artistic creations.
Human beings have a special ability to distill and recycle beauty, meaning that we take the beauty of the natural world in through our senses, receive inspiration from the spirit (ruh), and then +add+ to the beauty of the natural world through our artistic creations. This cycle of creativity is the true source of sustainability.
Al-Ghazali said that “True art is in hearth and earth” (1). Abdal Hakim Murad (AHM) comments that ‘earth’ represents the natural realm and ‘hearth’ represents the human realm. The natural world, particularly its mineral and vegetal forms, provides inspiration for Muslim art. The human form is not a basis for Muslim art and AHM criticises Michelangelo as a “pagan restoration” – not monotheistic. AHM said there is something ‘theophanic’ about the human face which naturally draws our attention and changes the nature of a space, therefore human images are not suitable in a place of worship. However, even with regard to the mineral and vegetal, Muslims go beyond the outward forms and observe the underlying archetypes. In mosques we rarely see actual pictures of flowers or trees, but instead we see patterns of sacred geometry which abstract the underlying archetypes from the natural world and create serenity in our hearts.
(1) Abdal Hakim Murad, Al-Ghazali Retreat 2012
(2) ‘Contentions’, 17th set, number 2
In the ‘Nicomachean Ethics’ Aristotle writes: “If, then, there is some end of the things we do, which we desire for its own sake (everything else being desired for the sake of this), and if we do not choose everything for the sake of something else (for at that rate the process would go on to infinity, so that our desire would be empty and vain), clearly this must be the good and the chief good. Will not the knowledge of it, then, have a great influence on life? Shall we not, like archers who have a mark to aim at, be more likely to hit upon what is right? If so, we must try, in outline at least, to determine what it is, and of which of the sciences or capacities it is the object. It would seem to belong to the most authoritative art and that which is most truly the master art. And politics appears to be of this nature; for it is this that ordains which of the sciences should be studied in a state, and which each class of citizens should learn and up to what point they should learn them; and we see even the most highly esteemed of capacities to fall under this, e.g. strategy, economics, rhetoric; now, since politics uses the rest of the sciences, and since, again, it legislates as to what we are to do and what we are to abstain from, the end of this science must include those of the others, so that this end must be the good for man. For even if the end is the same for a single man and for a state, that of the state seems at all events something greater and more complete whether to attain or to preserve; though it is worth while to attain the end merely for one man, it is finer and more godlike to attain it for a nation or for city-states. These, then, are the ends at which our inquiry aims, since it is political science, in one sense of that term.”
Aristotle defines politics as the master art with the other arts and sciences its servants. Politics is responsible for prioritising the other arts and sciences and allocating resources to them. In recent years the political structures of the state have abdicated this role to ‘the market’. In effect, political power has been transferred to the market, meaning the banks and global financial institutions.
The financial markets allocate resources to the most financially lucrative trades, those with the highest rates of return. They prefer to pay no attention to the human or environmental effects of these trades. Our political system is the rule of money, where money chases ever more money with little regard for anything else, and all other ends are subservient to this. Money has incorrectly become an end in itself.
We need to replace this pathological system with an alternative politics which allocates resources where they will benefit people and the environment. To accomplish this we need alternative definitions of wealth, based around human well-being and the true value of the natural world.
The spirit is impractical. The spirit is of no use. It cannot be used. Any attempt to use the spirit contravenes its nature. Impractical spirituality is based on this recognition. Rather than try to use the spirit, impractical spirituality enjoys the beauty of spirit for its own sake.
To directly seek practical applications of the spirit such as ‘spirituality in the workplace’ is to miss the point. Sure, we can appreciate the beauty of the spirit anywhere: in the home, workplace, in the car, or on a plane — but attempts to put the spirit to use in those places are like trying to form water into a chair.
Better to let the spirit use us, because the spirit is not ours to command. In Arabic the path of the spirit (ruh) is called Ruhaniyat.
“They ask thee [Mohammed] concerning the spirit. Say: “the spirit comes by command of God. Only a little knowledge of it is given to you, (O men!)” Qur’an 17:85
I would like to compare attitudes to religion across three periods of history: the traditional period, the modern period, and the post-modern period. Religions are generally associated with the traditional period, when they held sway, whereas the modern period is characterised by religion’s loss of dominance. It should be noted that different people, countries and areas of the world are at different points in the cycle: even within the same city it is possible to find modern and even post-modern people living in close proximity with traditional people.
Religion has survived in the modern period, although it has lost its dominance. Modern religion has different characteristics from traditional religion. A good place to find a systematic characterisation of modern religion is Donald Lopez’ book “A Modern Buddhist Bible” where he writes:
“Certainly, modern Buddhism shares many of the characteristics of other projects of modernity, including the identification of the present as a standpoint from which to reflect upon previous periods in history and to identify their deficiencies in relation to the present. Modern Buddhism rejects many of the ritual and magical elements of previous forms of Buddhism, it stresses equality over hierarchy, the universal over the local, and often exalts the individual over the community. (p.ix)”
Lopez also points out that modern Buddhism, like other modern expressions of religion, seeks to associate itself with the ideals of the European ‘Enlightenment’ such as “reason, empiricism, science, universalism, individualism, tolerance, freedom and the rejection of religious orthodoxy” (p.x).
Regarding the modern notion of progress which identifies “the present as a standpoint from which to reflect upon previous periods in history and to identify their deficiencies”, this is in sharp contrast to the traditional religious notion of degeneration (found in both Islam and Buddhism), which views the original teaching / revelation period (via the Prophet Mohammed and the Buddha respectively) as the ‘Golden Age’ and all subsequent generations as degenerating, more or less steeply, in virtues and accomplishments. Modernism is enamoured with the idea of progress and views the present as the most progressive age, looking down upon the ‘backwardness’ of previous ages, even the times of Mohammed and the Buddha.
The trick with modernism, as with all ideological prisms, is to recognise it as such from within. It appears so neutral, so objective, yet it is anything but. For example, the project of presenting Ibn Arabi’s philosophy to a ‘modern’ audience presupposes that such an audience even exists – in fact ‘modern’ times may be over, and the assumptions of modernism may be as (ir)relevant as the assumptions of Victorian Christianity.
Unlike modernism, post-modernism is not opposed to traditional religion. Post-modernism is basically looking for good stories (texts) and religions provide these (though it is worth noting that post-modernism prefers to relativise rather than accept any one story’s claim to absolute truth). The real strength of post-modernism comes from inhabiting the text: only by immersing oneself in the text and appreciating it from its own perspective can the story exert its full weight and narrative drive. Modernism, weighed down by its positivist agenda and burden of ‘objectivity’, can never cross the threshold of the religious text – it can only view it as a ‘spectacle’, like a tourist visiting Westminster Abbey. That is why modernists cannot truly appreciate religion.
Like traditionalists, post-modernists can and do step over the threshold of participation, and experience the force of the religious text. In this respect both are the “blind followers” so derided by modernists. The difference is that, unlike traditionalists, post-modernists retain a ‘knowing’ attitude (almost like Orwellian double-think) which enables them to simultaneous immerse themselves in and retain distance from the text.
The concept I want to introduce is the Hegelian concept of ‘Geist’. When talking at a macro level about the rise and fall of civilisations or empires, the concept of Geist can be illuminating.
The point is that all national, religious and organisational success factors that can be identified by conventional study are secondary factors, the manifestations of Geist. The primary cause of success is Geist itself and the secondary factors are, in a sense, incidental. Even if an organisation possesses many of the factors that have made other organisations successful in the past, it will not be successful without Geist.
There is an analogy here with religious forms such as rituals, which are ‘left over’ by the movement of Geist. They may have been very useful at one time but, unless they continue to be infused by Geist, they become empty vessels.
How then can organisations deliberately tune into Geist? Leaving aside the moral questions for now, it is possible as Pierre Wack showed while working for Shell. His spiritual training with Gurdjieff allowed him to tune into macro scenarios like the coming Opec oil shock. But Geist (Arabic: Ruh) cannot be placed at man’s disposal – rather, we are at its disposal.
Most men, even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them. Their fingers, from excessive toil, are too clumsy and tremble too much for that. Actually, the laboring man has not leisure for a true integrity day by day; he cannot afford to sustain the manliest relations to men; his labor would be depreciated in the market. He has no time to be anything but a machine. How can he remember well his ignorance — which his growth requires — who has so often to use his knowledge? We should feed and clothe him gratuitously sometimes, and recruit him with our cordials, before we judge of him. The finest qualities of our nature, like the bloom on fruits, can be preserved only by the most delicate handling. Yet we do not treat ourselves nor one another thus tenderly. Some of you, we all know, are poor, find it hard to live, are sometimes, as it were, gasping for breath.
Henry Thoreau, ‘Walden’
The two founding figures of Kashmiri Sufism are Sheikh Nooruddin Noorani (1377 – 1440 CE) and Sheikh Ali Hamadani (1314 – 1384 CE). Both of them are said to have encountered a female Hindu yogini called Lal Ded (1320 – 1392 CE) who was in the habit of wandering around naked.
One story of Lal Ded mentions how she was teased by a number of children. A nearby cloth merchant scolded the children for their disrespect. Lal Ded asked the merchant for two lengths of cloth, equal in weight. That day as she walked around naked, she wore a piece of cloth over each shoulder and, whenever she was met with respect or scorn, she tied a knot in one or other cloth. In the evening, she brought the cloths back to the merchant, and asked him to weigh them again. Both cloths were equal in weight no matter how many knots were in each, showing that respect and scorn have no weight of their own.
It is said that, when Sheikh Nooruddin Noorani was born, initially he wouldn’t feed from his mother. After 3 days, Lal Ded arrived and suckled him herself. She said to the baby that, since he hadn’t been ashamed to be born, why should he be ashamed to drink from his mother’s breast?
According to another story, when Lal Ded encountered Sheikh Ali Hamadani she jumped into a tandoor (clay oven) and, when the Sheikh lifted the lid, Lal Ded came out dressed in flowers. When she was asked why she was dressed for the first time she replied saying “Today I saw a man for the first time”.
These stories are related to the differing attitudes of Kashmiris to the two Sheikhs: Sheikh Nooruddin is revered by both Hindu and Muslim Kashmiris alike as a harmonizing force, the embodiment of Kashmiriyat. Sheikh Hamadani, revered by Kashmiri Muslims as a saint and true man (Insan Kamil), is resented by some Hindus as a Muslim supremacist.
The Kashmiri Sufi poet Shams Faqir paid tribute to Lal Ded (Lalla) in the following poem:
O you enlightened one,
Recognize the vital air and attain gnosis
To realize God:
Real worship is performed
In life’s workshop itself:
What the holy scriptures truly mean
By “the house of idols”;
Lalla achieved the fusion
Of her vital air and ether,
And thus realized God;
Sodabhai (on the other hand) got lachrymose,
What would he ask of the stone image?
Lalla dropped the pitcher of water
Inside the house of idols
And attained god-realization:
Intoxicated (as a mystic) she contrived
To bathe at the confluence of ‘sixteen rivers’,
And she built a ‘bridge’
Across the ocean of temporal existence;
She knocked off the Devil’s head
And gained self-recognition;
The ‘unskilled carpenter’,
Having built the palace in wilderness,
Learnt a lesson from Lalla!
She had to bear with the stone
Her mother-in-law kept concealed
In the plate of rice served to her
(She stood to gain from this austerity);
Lalla went to Nunda Rishi’s to teach him her doctrine –
What the rinda mystics call gnosis (irfaan);
She played ‘hide and seek’ with Shah Hamdan
And had a direct ‘encounter’ with God;
O, you learned Shams,
The sun does not have a shadow;
Lalla ascended to heaven like a cloud,
Realize God (as she did).
Lal Ded: The Great Kashmiri Saint-Poetess
Edited by: Dr. S. S. Toshkhani
Proceedings of the National Seminar
Conducted by Kashmir Education, Culture and Science Society,
B-36, Pamposh Enclave, New Delhi – 110 048
November 12, 2000
In the Beshara translation of ‘Kernel of the Kernel‘, the great Andalusian Sufi Ibn Arabi writes: “It is essential to know that as there is no end to the Ipseity [Selfhood] of God or to His qualification, consequently the Universes have no end or number, because the Universes are the places of manifestation for the Names and Qualities. As that which manifests is endless, so the places of manifestation must be endless. Consequently, the Quranic sentence: “He is at every moment in a different configuration,” (Q55:29) means equally that there is no end to the revelation of God.” (ch. 3, p10) Alternative translations suggest that Allah is always in a different “work” rather than “configuration”.
Anyway, the point is that Beshara emphasises the Oneness of the universe with God. For Beshara, God is the substance of the universe. Everything we experience is God Himself in a different configuration. I would like to explore this idea, and contrast it with what I perceive to be the more orthodox Islamic interpretation that the Creator is separate from His creation. What does this imply about reality, about substance? If only God is Real, then anything other than God must be illusory. Does this mean that the creation is illusory? If we consider that “everything is perishing but His Face” (Q28:88) then this surely confirms that only God is Real, and that everything else, being impermanent, is illusory?
In ‘Kernel of the Kernel’ Ibn Arabi describes ‘five presences’ (ch 3), saying that all “these [myriad] universes are encompassed by the five presences”. The first presence is a station of God in which “no qualification or name is possible . . . Whatever word is used to explain this station is inadequate because at this Presence the Ipseity [selfhood] of God is in Complete Transcendence from everything, because He has not yet descended into the Circle of Names and Qualities. All the Names and Qualities are buried in annihilation in the Ipseity of God”. This station of Transcendence is how we think of God prior to creation. Moreover “When Hazreti ‘Ali heard the Hadith “At that time God was in a state such that there was nothing with Him.” he added, “Even at this moment He is still so.”” (ch 3). So Ali seems to be advancing the orthodox Islamic view of God as Transcending the creation.
The subsequent presences are the creation, starting with the reality of Muhammad (2nd presence), the degree of the angels (3rd presence), the universe of galaxies (4th presence), ending with the perfect man (5th presence). Orthodox Islam would consider these separate from God, but Beshara considers them One with God. One Beshara friend used the analogy of water: the 1st presence is described as “the Ocean-Deep point” and the subsequent presences are Rivers and Tributaries flowing from this Ocean. According to this view, all the Presences have the same Substance: God.
This Beshara view clearly emphasises immanence over transcendence. The strength of this view is that the mystical experience is one of closeness to God within His creation — the sense of immanence. However, I suggest that we can happily explain the creation as a series of signs pointing to God and the mystic as an adept sign-reader, so that there is no need to posit God as the Substance of creation. In fact, because the creation is illusory it has no substance, in my view.
When I say that created things are illusory, the best comparison is a rainbow. A rainbow is an appearance that depends on causes and conditions: if the necessary causes and conditions such as sunshine and rain are gathered then a rainbow appears. All created things are like this: each depends on its specific causes and conditions, and the Primary Cause is God. If any necessary cause or condition is absent then the thing does not come into creation. Because every thing is impermanent, sooner or later one of its sustaining causes will cease and the thing will disappear. This is why everything is illusory.
Another way of expressing the same idea is to say that created things lack essence. For example, if we look at a coffee table and we try to find its essence — the coffee table ‘in itself’ — we will not be able to find it. We might try to find this essence in the table legs or the table top, but we will not succeed. However, if we are satisfied with the mere appearance of the coffee table then it will function perfectly well for us: we can put books and magazines on it. By saying that things are illusory I am not saying that they don’t function. We may dream about driving a car, and the dream car may function perfectly as a car, but when we wake up we realise it was an illusion.
These lines of reasoning come from the Buddhist tradition, but I believe they are universally valid. When God finished the Quran by saying “This day I have perfected your religion” (Q5:3) He did not negate all the truths of previous religions. I believe that Islam contains or is compatible with all the key truths of the previous great religions such as Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, Christianity and Judaism.
One of Buddhism’s key strengths is its path of negation (via negativa), its philosophical reasoning that challenges our sense of what is fixed and strips away illusion, leaving . . . emptiness. This emptiness is a negative phenomenon (a lack or void) without positive qualities or attributes — we cannot say (predicate) anything true about emptiness. As emptiness is the ultimate truth taught by the Buddha he could not describe himself as a Prophet — how can there be a Prophet of emptiness?
Nevertheless, the Buddhist path of negation is consistent with the theological via negativa of Thomas Aquinas and Maimonides, who both realised that it is impossible to say anything ultimately true about God. We can say what God isn’t (He isn’t a coffee table), but ultimately we cannot say what God is. This is the truth of Ibn Arabi’s first presence: “No qualification or name is possible at this station. Whatever word is used to explain this station is inadequate”. (ch 3)
So, created things are illusory because they arise in dependence upon their causes (including God), their parts and their names. Nevertheless, we do not normally relate to things as illusory. in fact we often grasp at created things as permanent, having fixed essence or self, as independent, and existing from their own side. According to Buddhism this self-grasping ignorance is the origin of suffering and the engine of samsara / maya.
From a Sufi point of view, if we use the example of our self, we see that our mistaken view of our self as independent from God, as existing from its own side, is the ignorance which obscures / prevents gnosis. Only if this false view of self is annihilated (fana) by God can we come to know God. We can see clearly that God is not one with the false self which we perceive in ignorance.
This same reasoning applies to all our other mistaken perceptions: insofar as I perceive trees, cars, tables etc as existing independently of God then I am mistaken – I am perceiving things that don’t really exist – I am trapped in maya. However, if I negate my mistaken perceptions, and come to see the trees, cars and tables as depending on God, then my awareness is correct.
The problem with oneness is that it is tempting to apply it to the things I normally see, which are false. It is necessary to negate these things first, to annihilate them in God. Only once they have been annihilated can they arise again (baqa) in Truth. At this point it is meaningful to describe them as One with God. But if we prematurely apply oneness to the false things that appear to the mistaken mind prior to annihilation, we will create a barrier between ourselves and God. (May Allah guide and protect us all.)
In his book “Indian Philosophy” (p215), Richard King succinctly explains the concept of oneness according to Advaita-Vedanta. Taking the word Brahman as meaning God, the passage supports your view of the world as unreal if seen as independent of God, but real if seen as dependent. The passage also seems to support my view that we must negate the unreal before we can perceive the real.
“[The great Advaita-Vedanta philosopher] Sankara makes three major statements:
1. Brahman is real
2. The universe is unreal
3. The universe is Brahman
“The third statement is meant to explain the significance of the first two. The world is unreal as such, that is, as the world, but it is real in so far as it is seen as non-different from Brahman – the ground of existence. Clearly Sankara does not wish to imply that the world is absolutely unreal in the sense of being without any basis in reality. As he states in his famous commentary on the Brahma Sutra: “As the space within pots or jars are non-different from the cosmic space or as water in a mirage is non-different from a (sandy) desert . . . even so it is to be understood that this diverse phenomenal world of experiences, things experienced, and so on, has no existence apart from Brahman.” The world cannot be completely unreal then since it is a manifestation of Brahman. However, at the same time the world is not real in the same sense as Brahman, that is, from the level of ultimate truth, because it is subject to change. Only Brahman is real in this ultimate sense. Implicitly then, one can talk of three levels:  the unreal or delusory,  that which is real on a practical or empirical level and  ultimate reality.”
The challenge, as I see it, is to strip away the mistaken appearance of independence from practical [level 2] phenomena. In Buddhism this mistaken appearance is known as ‘dualistic appearance’ because practical truths normally appear mixed with a mistaken appearance of independence. They must undergo a process of experiential negation / deconstruction / annihilation before they can they appear unmistakenly as mere practical truths, mere dependent arisings.
The concepts of Divine transcendence and immanence describe humanity’s relationship with God. They can be simplified to separation and proximity.
Listen to this reed as it is grieving; it tells the story of our separations.
“Since I was severed from the bed of reeds, in my cry men and women have lamented.
I need the breast that’s torn to shreds by parting to give expression to the pain of heartache.
Whoever finds himself left far from home looks forward to the day of his reunion.”
These are the opening lines of Rumi’s spiritual epic, the Masnavi (trans. Williams 2006). Indeed, separation / transcendence is the starting point for much theology. Yet Divine proximity / immanence is also key. In the Quran, God says of His relationship with man:
“We are nearer to him than his jugular vein” (Q50:16).
How can God be both separate from and close to us, transcendent and immanent? The relationship or distance between a person and God is not fixed. In a Hadith Qudsi, God says:
“Take one step towards me, I will take ten steps towards you.
Walk towards me, I will run towards you.”
If we take this to its extreme, at what point does the gap close between God and man? If we continue taking steps towards God and God continues running towards us, do we ever meet or, as Rumi suggests, achieve ‘reunion’? Some Sufi mystics such as Bayazid Bistami and Mansur Al-Hallaj have achieved states of union with the Divine, and the question “Who was greater, Muhammad the Prophet or Bayazid Bistami?” caused Rumi to swoon on his first encounter with his mystical initiator Shamsuddin.
“While the Prophet said: ‘We do not know Thee as it behoves!’, the Sufi Bāyezīd Bisṭāmī called out: ‘Subḥanī’, ‘Praise to me!’ If we are to believe legend, it was the contrast between these two utterances that awakened Mawlānā Rūmī to the spiritual life. Rūmī, so it is told, fainted when listening to Shams’s shocking question about whether Bāyezīd or the Prophet was greater, a question based on the two men’s respective sayings that express the human reactions to the meeting with the Divine. The tensions between the two poles of religious experience, that of the prophet, who knows his role as humble ‘servant’, and that of the mystic, who loses himself in loving union, became clear to him.” Annemarie Schimmel, ‘Deciphering The Signs Of God’ (Gifford Lecture)