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The Spiritual Journey of Noah

This text is an English translation of a Khutba (sermon) given in Spanish by Sidi Hashim Cabrera, specifically Khutba 4 from the book ‘Khutbas of Dar-as-Salam‘. The Quranic translations are by Muhammad Asad, but I have done the translation from Spanish myself and am responsible for any errors. I have left many of the key Arabic terms untranslated, as per the original sermon. A key term is ‘maqaam’ meaning ‘spiritual station’. Another key term is ‘nafs’ meaning ‘soul’.

The maqaam of Nuh [Noah], peace be upon him, is the beginning of the spiritual journey, of the interior voyage. It is the purification that our body needs to regain its natural luminosity. In this maqaam our Tahara is established, the deepest and most pervasive ablution or ghusl. This purification by water is the test that assays us, that prepares us, giving us the necessary strength and knowledge to be able to live the Revelation in our own being and thus be able to develop as conscious creatures.

Allah gives us form in the womb of our mothers. We evolve within the placenta, floating in nourishing, protective, hospitable water. In this way our Sustainer prepares us to receive light in the world of shadows where we must be born. In this maqaam, within our mothers, we experience another light, a light that is tinged with the blue of water, a light now screened by an animal skin, maternal and human.

According to Semnani, within our energetic body of light, the latifa related to this maqaam is called latifa nafsiya, and it is the subtle organ that governs the organic and vital soul, the sensing soul, the centre from whence surge the desires and passions. In the Qur’an it appears under the term nafs ammara, the commanding I (Sura 12, Aya 53). Of this nafs ammara Allah says, in relation to the human being, it “undoubtedly incites evil.” Is it the I of the senses, which lends credibility and reality to what our eyes see and our ears hear, and nothing more than that. It is the unconsciousness associated with entropy, it is a raw nafs, an unpolished I that overflows in waves without limit, which is always trying to find expression, the form it might be, a torrent of energy.

Our basic humanity is undergoing its test of maturity, the maqaam where the nature of our voyage is decided. Traditional medicine is very familiar with the purifying effect of this subtle center. To restore the energy balance lost by disease it is necessary to rid the belly of fire through cold water on the skin, causing a thermal reaction. The medicine of Nuh is a medicine of health as it works on the causes of chaos, of imbalance, which is always excessive fire, heat, inside of a human being who is essentially water. It is about restoring thermal equilibrium, levelling the balance between the internal and external through water. This tempers us, but we must be willing to withstand the cold on our skin during the journey.

It is precisely this nafs ammara, this impulse which overflows into chaos, toward entropy, that the Revelation of Nuh tries to redirect within us, initiating an inner journey that will transform us until, in the best case, as Allah wishes, we become a nafs motma’yanna, the calm soul that Allah gifts us in the Qur’an, in Surah Al Fajr:

“O thou human being that hast attained to inner peace! (28) Return thou unto thy Sustainer, well-pleased [and] pleasing [Him]: (29) enter, then, together with My [other true] servants (30) yea, enter thou My paradise!” (Qur’an, Sura Al Fajr, verses 27-30)

To make the voyage through this night of chaos, from the darkness of the senses to the luminous perception of Fajr, of the spiritual dawn, of Ishraaq, it is necessary to understand the deep meanings of the revelation of Nuh, peace be upon him, to understand the purificatory meaning of conscious servanthood and submission to Allah.

Desire is life and life is heat that expands. Humans distract ourselves with the names and this distraction ends up altering our own sensibility. Our senses don’t only get drunk on chemical substances but are intoxicated by thoughts and images, and so our experience is degraded. We became a turbid consciousness, possessed of insufficient clarity to distinguish between what we’re seeing and what, without control, we imagine and project. Our heat stops expanding and gets locked inside, and our skin is cooled. We experience a walled-up combustion in the belly, an imprisoned energy in a moulded, permeable body of clay.

Turbidity is a resistance to the passage of light through water. They are impurities, ashes of light, but they are also living organisms because water is the placenta of our Earth. Life arises and grows like a light passing through the water, a white light that reveals blue bands, luminous blue, fluid and undulating. Interestingly they are the same symbolic colours that Christianity assigns to the Immaculate Conception. Light passing through the waters is the Revelation that Allah performs through His messengers, peace be with them. In this case Nuh, who brings the revelation of our spiritual birth, our first experience as creatures in a state of submission and as believers, as muslims and mu’mins, Alhamdulillah.

Adam became the first muslim when he submitted to Allah by making Tauba to Him. Nuh is the first mu’min because he is the first human to feel an inner recitation, a certain Revelation from Allah, an awareness of the Real in his heart. Nuh, peace be upon him, warned his people and pointed the way to submit to Allah, to worship Him, trying to bring them into the light, to show them Tawhid, but the dignitaries refused to acknowledge the truth and they fought against him, like all the prophets after him, with the same or similar arguments: “this man is nothing but a man like yourselves … if Allah had wanted to convey a message he would have performed miracles,” etc.

In ‘Sura Al Mu’minoon’ we find Nuh receiving the Revelation while feeling the rejection of his people: 23:26 Said [Noah]:

“O my Sustainer! Succour me against their accusation of lying!” (23:27) Thereupon We inspired him thus: “Build, under Our eyes and according to Our inspiration, the ark [that shall save thee and those who follow thee]. And when Our judgment comes to pass, and waters gush forth in torrents over the face of the earth, place on board of this [ark] one pair of each [kind of animal] of either sex, as well as thy family – excepting those on whom sentence has already been passed -; and do not appeal to Me [any more] in behalf of those who are bent on evildoing – for, behold, they are destined to be drowned! 23:28 “And as soon as thou and those who are with thee are settled in the ark, say: ‘All praise is due to God, who has saved us from those evildoing folk!’ (23:29) “And say: ‘O my Sustainer! Cause me to reach a destination blessed [by Thee] – for Thou art the best to show man how to reach his [true] destination!'” 23:30 In this [story], behold, there are messages indeed [for those who think]: for, verily, We always put [man] to a test.” (Qur’an, Sura Al Mu’minoon, verses 26-30)

Certainly there are many messages in this story. One of these is the crude expression of a fracture in humanity. Internal division forms part of the creation of the human being who, upon being made a confidant in the names of things, apparently loses Tawhid in the stare of the other but may be redirected through the consciousness of Allah, through the Tawhid of islam and iman up to the unitary and elevated light of ihsan. The wound may be closed but we must preserve awareness, cultivate it, because consciousness cannot be imposed but arises and grows in the nucleus of the human heart. But there are people who are refract the Light, who are closed to His message.

Allah, Subhana wa Ta’ala, wants to purify the community and admonishes Nuh, telling him not to plead for those who are bent on denying the truth and on evil-doing. On these has already been rendered judgement, precisely because their hearts have been closed and sealed. Nuh pleaded for them not out of naivety but out of compassion and kindness, out of the desire that all souls might be saved; not for nothing his mission was to build a ship and save the entire animal soul: a pair of animals of each species and his own human family. The surviving human being survived complete with his animal soul, organic and functional, but now it is a soul tested with submission to Allah and comforted with His Protection, with His aman [sic]. Whosoever can’t endure the test doesn’t just remain veiled to Reality but also his vital soul fades prematurely until it stops fluttering.

Nuh receives the Revelation while feeling the rejection and hostility of his own people, his own family. The maqaam of Nuh is the journey that we have to make from maqaam to maqaam, from prophet to prophet, until the luminous circle of Revelation is complete, crossing the great waters, the toughest circumstances. Along the way we acquire a spiritual force that arises in us and makes us mu’minoon, while we are immersed in adversity, feeling hostility and resistance from others and from ourselves.

Sailing in the ship of Nuh implies transcending the names, concepts and images, transcending one’s own vision. This navigation of light, crossing the great waters, feeling the moisture on our skin, is the first happening of the soul, the nafs, its first experience of the luminous and subtle world. It is the time when Allah blows Suruh [sic] into the gestating being and grants the dignity of being truly human. From this moment Allah is preparing us to face the moment of our earthly birth, the passage from the water world to the world of air, so that we may finally pass through the skin of our mothers. From that transcendental moment the ship sails on the waters against the current, scanning the horizon outside, trying to find the source from whence arise the waves and tides of appearance, until it finds calm.

It is the ‘hero’s journey through the night’ that Carl G. Jung describes to refer to the journey of consciousness through the dark sea of the human unconscious. It’s the return of Ulysses to his homeland on board a boat to whose mast he is tied: the hero’s ears are sealed with wax so that the Jinni do not distract him from his return and do not make him mad. But Nuh, peace be upon him, cannot cover his ears because it is Allah who talks to his heart and reveals the du’a that all who dwell in this maqaam must say. Nuh neither wants nor is able to cover his ears because he is a true prophet, the first of the messengers after Muhammad, peace be upon them. Because the soul of Muhammad was created before that of Adam and because in the Qur’an of Muhammad are all our du’as:

“O our Sustainer! Make us arrive at a destination blessed by You, for it is You who best shows man how to reach our true destiny! Amin”

The maqaam of Nuh brings us awareness of our voyage, of its scope and meaning. It is the awareness of our condition in the face of Reality. We submit or rebel. There is no half-stepping. The waters flood in and there is no longer any time for repairs. Those who climb into the boat of consciousness are saved, unbelievers inevitably drown because they are veiled with the things of the world, with their names and images, and do not realize that the waters overflowed a while ago. And this is what we perceive when we sail in this boat of the mu’minoon . . . we feel the desperate expressions of the unbelieving like a fire in the belly and our skin feels a chill, because we are human and we are affected by everything that affects humanity and creation.

Not only do we mu’minoon not cover our ears but we heed these desperate cries and see in them the expression of the immense power of Allah, Subhana wa Ta’ala, that does what it wants with the human heart. But we mu’minoon have already boarded the ship and we listen attentively to the recitation of Nuh:

“(11:41) So he said [unto his followers]: “Embark in this [ship]! In the name of God be its run and its riding at anchor! Behold, my Sustainer is indeed much-forgiving, a dispenser of grace!” (11:42) And it moved on with them into waves that were like mountains. At that [moment] Noah cried out to a son of his, who had kept himself aloof [from the others]: “O my dear son! Embark with us, and remain not with those who deny the truth!” (Qur’an, Sura Hud, verses 41-42)

The caliphate, the realization of the promise of Allah in the human being, began its evolution in the ship of Nuh. It Is the first caliphate of the ummah because until that point the community had lived without guidance or direction, it was just a vital humanity abandoned to an irreversible dissolution, to entropy, gone astray through language. Then Allah arouses a luminous khalifa in us, a prophet who will guide us through the trial, who will purify us until we arrive at a doorway where every member of our community will eventually become a khalifa of Reality, a khalifa ullah. The mu’min navigates by the name of Allah and moors the ship with His name. This is the ship of fools [. . .] of Allah, of the enlightened who are saved because they feel that everything depends on His power, because they discover His compassion and His light in every heartbeat, Alhamdulillah.

Nuh, peace be upon him, is sailing with us as we listen to the Revelation that Allah is performing through him. The Nuh of our being is the consciousness of our essential vitality and the urgent need to purify ourselves, to separate the coarse from the subtle, to restore our balance in the world. It is the maqaam of the overall health of our body, because it is the balance of light in water, the key to the balance between the internal and the external, a corporeal manifestation of our submission.

We are created from a qutb, from an axis that opens up an intense polarity until there is a splitting into pairs of our kidneys and glands which, for balance, are required to compensate for the heat and the entropy in the midst of water. And all this leads to different states, maqaams which are like these giant waves that the Quran describes. The Revelation of Nuh, peace be upon him, makes us voyagers through the maqaams, pilgrims from light unto Light. Alhamdulillah.

Nuh carries us across the great waters, guides us in the night sea. He shows us the compass indicating the direction of our journey, our qibla. Such guidance is not, in this case, to the geographical east or the east of the Orientalists, but to the east where the Light of lights dawns, towards the Ishraaq. Nuh takes us from the west of the shadows, from the twilight of fire, darkness and ignorance.

During his journey in this maqaam, Suhrawardi witnessed the appearance on the horizon of the Star of Yemen, Suhail or Canopus, which rises “on some wispy clouds woven by the spiders of the elemental world, in the world of generation and dissolution.” The Star of Yemen points us to the east of spiritual dawning, the direction in which the Fountain of Life is found.

It was this bright wink which Muhammad felt, peace [and blessings] be upon him, when he said, “I feel the Breath of the Merciful coming from the direction of Yemen.” The Prophet, peace be upon him, was referring to the spiritual light of his contemporary gnostic who lived in that land, a salih called Oways al Qarani who knew him without ever having physically seen him, and whom the prophet also knew in the same way. Oways had no visible human teacher but this didn’t stop him from feeling the Guide inside him. For that reason seekers without a visible guide call themselves owaysis.

The appearance of the Star of Yemen during the spiritual journey means that we have already abandoned the west of the shadows, that now we are crossing over to our true destination which is none other than the Fountain of Life, the Light that is neither from the east nor the west and which burns without having been touched by fire. Light upon Light. Allah, Subhana wa Ta’ala, enlightens whom He will.

Allahumma: Draw us to Your presence in the ship of Nuh. Oh Allah: We are grateful for the wisdom that is hidden in Your trials. We ask strength, courage and dedication to live in the maqaams that You decree for us. Make us understand the luminous meaning of our difficulties, show us the Star of Yemen. Amin

Reflection on God’s name ‘Al Azim’


Review of the chapter ‘Al Azim’ from the book ‘The 99 Names of God’ by Daniel Thomas Dyer

I find myself drawn to Allah’s names of majesty and wrath such as al-Azim, the Tremendous. Daniel chooses strong words and images on these pages: earthquakes, sinews, mountains, cracks and dust.

Through the cracks wrought by earthquake and mountain-splitting, there is always the leavening of light, which Daniel invokes using a Leonard Cohen quote. Daniel could have gone back to Rumi for the original but it is in the spirit of this wonderful book to embrace variety and diversity wherever possible.

Just as light brightens cracks, the book reminds us how the awe expressed in the Prophet Muhammad’s earnest prayer of submission was softened, by his allowing his beloved grandsons Hassan and Hussein to climb and play on him as he prayed.

Meditating on Daniel’s picture of a wall destroyed by an earthquake to reveal the name ‘Allah’ behind, I recall the Hadith Qudsi “I am with those whose hearts are broken for My sake” and I dig out these words of Rumi: “Wherever there is a ruin there is hope for a treasure – why do you not seek the treasure of God in the wasted heart?”

I recall the powerful idea of being broken (shikast) as an initiatory stage on the path to God, which seems closely related to al-Azim. Daniel echoes the question from the Qur’an: Who could give life to bones that have crumbled to dust? It will be inspiring for readers to contemplate the answer.

I think that The 99 Names of God by Chickpea Press is a tremendous achievement, and I hope it will bring light and hope to many people.

Humanism and Religion

It is possible to be both religious and a humanist. For me, humanism means attributing weight and importance to the individual human experience. Historically, some religious practioners have neglected the individual experience of themselves and others, preferring to prioritise the literal religious doctrine in all circumstances. However there is not necessarily a contradiction between religion and humanism.

An example of a non-humanistic approach to Buddhism would be to treat all individuals like pebbles on a beach and, rather than consider their own individual circumstances, encourage them simply to adhere to Buddhist doctrine in the expectation that it will resolve their problems. On the other hand, a humanistic approach would encourage the practice of meditation as a form of compassionate, internal listening, a pre-requisite for the sensitive integration of Buddhist teaching in your life.

In Islam, the Qur’an contains the verse “We will show them Our signs on the horizons and within themselves until it becomes clear to them that it is the truth.” (Q41:53). The Arabic word for ‘signs’ is also used to refer to Qur’anic verses themselves. Therefore we can understand that in Islam there are three principal loci of revelation: the natural world (‘horizons’), the psyches of individuals (‘within themselves’) and the Qur’an. 

In recent years there have been movements in the Islamic world to reconcile modern understanding of the natural world (science) with Qur’anic revelation, and there is also a long-standing humanistic current in Islam which reconciles individual psychology with revelation. For example, the 13th century poet Rumi was both steeped in Qur’an and sensitive to individual experience, comparing the human psyche to a guest house and suggesting that we (the hosts) treat all our guests (cognitive, emotional & spiritual states) with kindness and respect. 

“This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.”

— Jelaluddin Rumi,
translation by Coleman Barks

Sufism And The Two Truths

Blue sky with clouds

Two key concepts in Sufism are ‘fanaa’ and ‘baqaa’ meaning annihilation and subsistence in Allah. These root words appear in the Qurʾān. “Everyone upon the earth will perish (fānin), and there will remain (yabqá) the Face of your Lord, Owner of Majesty and Honor.” (Surat al-Rahman 55:26-28). In Sufism, ‘fanaa’ refers to the annihilation of the individual ego or self (‘nafs’) in Allah and ‘baqaa’ refers to whatever is left, remains, or subsists once the ego has been annihilated. In this short piece I want to use the Mahayana Buddhist doctrine of the two truths to help explore the concepts of ‘fanaa’ and ‘baqaa’.

The two truths are revealed in the Buddhist ‘Heart Sutra’ which states: “form is empty, emptiness is form.” Form and emptiness stand for the two truths: conventional truth and ultimate truth. In the terms of the verse from Surat al-Rahman, the ultimate truth (‘fanaa’/emptiness) is the fact that only Allah is Real and that everyone else “will perish” while the conventional truth (form) is “everyone upon the earth”. The annihilation of form to reveal emptiness is known as the ‘first profundity’ and it is revealed in the words “form is empty” and “Everyone upon the earth will perish (fānin)“.

The second profundity is revealed in the words “emptiness is form” and “there will remain (yabqá) the Face of your Lord, Owner of Majesty and Honor“. In ‘Heart of Wisdom’ Lama Geshe Kelsang Gyatso writes “Whereas the first profundity of a phenomenon is the phenomenon’s emptiness . . . the second profundity is the phenomenon’s being a manifestation of emptiness.” This means that, once everyone has been annihilated in emptiness, any phenomenon that appears must be a manifestation of emptiness. Geshe Kelsang offers two analogies to illustrate this, the gold coin and the blue sky: “The underlying nature of the coin is gold; it is the gold itself that appears in the form of a coin. Clearly, the coin that appears to us is not separate from its gold and could not exist without it. We can say therefore that the coin is a manifestation of its gold . . .  [likewise] a sky that is completely clear appears to us as blue. We know that the actual nature of the sky is merely empty, just as the space around us is empty. Although the sky appears to be a blue canopy, if we travel towards it we shall never encounter a blue object; there is only space. Nevertheless, when we look at the sky we see blue and we point to this blue as being the sky. We can say therefore that the blue we see directly is a manifestation of an empty sky. Thus, from an empty sky, blue manifests. Similarly, from the emptiness of form, form manifests.”

Created objects that appear to the mind following ‘fanaa’ are conventional truths: they are true because they are recognised as having no existence from their own sides being utterly dependent on the Creator, but they are not ultimate truth because they are not the Creator. Strictly speaking, objects that appear to the mind before ‘fanaa’ are neither conventional nor ultimate truths rather they are falsities because the ego mistakenly believes that they exist from their own sides independently of the Creator, like idols that need to be smashed.

Tell Me What I Want, What I Really Really Want

Sun and Moon

Knowing what we and others truly want is an important part of self-knowledge (1). The phrase ‘know thyself’ was carved into the temple at Delphi. However, the humanism of the modern and post-modern world has led to a novel quest for self-knowledge that places the human being at the centre, not God. “The post-modern definition of the human subject is frail and shifting” (2). The Enlightenment project has collapsed under its own weight – there is no ‘internal arbiter’ that can support its weight. It is no longer an intellectual project; it has degenerated into consumerism and commercialisation. How do we know what we want without an internal arbiter? Modernity encourages us to want a plethora of things. “What do I want?” can be difficult to answer. There is little consensus among people about what they want and what is good for society. How far can the human subject stretch and bend before it breaks? We are now so far away from the natural order. Technology is a method to avoid experiencing the world and nature. For example, central heating allows to avoid experiencing cold in winter.

Self-knowing itself is like a mirror looking at a mirror – there needs to be an ‘other’. God created Adam AND Eve because Adamic perfection requires the other. Mutual need is the basis for self-knowledge. Writ large, this becomes human society. Following on from this, we see that the Sunnah cannot be solitary, it must be in Jumu’ah. The key to self-knowledge is mercy to others, based on knowledge of who they are and their needs.

The community in Jumu’ah points to another sort of humanism, which originated on the day of Alast when the entire constellation of human souls was gathered in the presence of Allah. The collective, humanistic prototype of Alast is contrasted with the individual humanistic prototype of Adamic perfection. In congregational prayer the Imam represents Adamic man while the Jumu’ah represents the re-creation of the congregation of Alast, all facing the Qibla, hearts at one, all equal and in harmony. The Jumu’ah is the primal model for conflict resolution. The Madinah mosque reshaped the hearts of the nomadic Arabs. Their hearts engaged with one another through “the miracle of Jumu’ah”.

How do we know what is best for other human beings? Through the ability to empathise and engage in “basic human intersubjectivity”. Empathy must be accomplished through close observation of external behaviour because Allah has given us privacy of thoughts. The Auliya’s ability to deduce inner states from external signs is reliable. Should we accept the consensus of what people prefer or move to a universal standard? Muslims defer to what Allah swt has determined is best for others. Muslim Sharia is appropriate for end times, the ‘turba magna’ or time of great upheaval. Every generation is worse, though this cycle of spiritual entropy is not a constant degeneration, it is more like a spiral staircase. In this degenerate age we see human beings “entranced by matter”.

Islam has a primordial quality. As the ‘deen ul fitra’ it helps to reconnect people with fitra, with the natural world. It is “divine spiritual technology” for these unnatural times. The Qur’an is telling us to engage with nature at a deep level, to intuit the source of nature. Islam activates the recipient core of man. The Qur’an says “these are signs for people who know”. Faith is a natural condition, it is not about assent to propositions. The rituals of Islam serve to reconnect us with fitra and nature. For example, halal slaughter helps to reconnect us with animals, to reestablish our primordial relationship with animals. There has to be divine consent for slaughtering animals – a “momentous act”. True halal animal husbandry contrasts with modern inhumane methods of industrial farming. The Hajj reconnects us with the primordial landscape: circles, plains, wells. Salat reconnects us with the natural cycles of the sun and moon. The Muslim belief in Jinni is also a part of primordial humanity – but there is no need to engage with the Jinni.

(1) Abdal Hakim Murad, contention 3. set 17: “You will only discover what you truly wish for when you wish for what is best for other human beings”.

(2) Abdal Hakim Murad, Al-Ghazali Retreat 2012, Alqueria de Rosales, Spain

Impractical Spirituality

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


Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi

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: [1] the unreal or delusory, [2] that which is real on a practical or empirical level and [3] 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.

Understanding God’s Oneness

The key insight of monotheism is God’s Oneness and unique fitness to be worshipped. In Islam, the understanding of God’s Oneness or Unity is known as Tawhid. Statements of God’s Oneness typically emphasise transcendence – the fact that God cannot be compared to anything within creation. For example, Sura Al-Ikhlas (chapter 112 of the Qur’an) says:

Say, He is God, the One,
God the Eternal,
He neither begets nor is begotten
And there is none like him.

From the point of view of Tawhid it is not advisable to represent God in ways that associate or mix him with created entities. Monotheists object to the visual depiction or representation of God because any picture or statue of God necessarily contradicts God’s Oneness, as many divine characteristics are necessarily excluded from any picture or statue. Also, any picture or statue necessarily associates or mixes God with created entities such as human or animal forms, or even subtle objects like light. On the other hand, verbal descriptions (i.e. names such as ‘Merciful’. ‘Powerful’, ‘Just’, ‘Wrathful’ etc.) do not necessarily exclude other divine characteristics and therefore do not contradict God’s Oneness, nor do they necessarily associate God with created entities. In the Torah the commandment against idolatry (arabic: shirk) reads:

“You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” (Exodus 20:4).

The key words here are ‘make’ and ‘form’, meaning that the commandment relates to pictures and statues, because words are not ‘made forms’, unless we really stretch this phrase. However, the dangers of idolatry do not entirely disappear simply by prohibiting the making of forms of God. When we use words to describe God’s qualities there is the danger that we may overemphasise some at the expense of others, to the point where we even fragment God in our own minds. Perhaps this disease can affect those who greatly overemphasise God’s Wrath because, as a hadith qudsi tells us, the inscription on God’s throne reads: “My Mercy precedes My Wrath”. To deny God’s Mercy is a serious misunderstanding, warped and partial.

Although many names for God are valid, it is preferable not to use names that might associate God with created things. Moreover, certain names belong to God and must be not be used for any other being or entity, for example “Possessing Supreme Power” or “The Lord Who Looks Down In Mercy”. It is not appropriate to use these names to describe or worship any other being. My own spiritual path has led me from a form of polytheistic worship in which I used to mistakenly associate other beings with those names, to a position (Islam) in which I now believe these names just apply to God. However, I believe that I received some blessings even in the earlier stage, because these names always belong to God and, even if we think we are worshipping other beings through these names, we are really worshipping God. Ascribing these names to other beings than God is a form of idolatry and is seriously not recommended, though God in His Mercy may choose to accept the prayers of someone who uses these names in ignorance. However, once this person realises that God is One, and that these names belong to God, he or she must certainly stop worshipping any other being through them.

Some Hindus and Buddhists practise a mystical form of monotheism because they realise that all the apparent manifestations of God are in fact illusions, and that there is only one God. Annemarie Schimmel describes mystical monotheism as

“the secondary monotheism in which, starting from polytheistic tendencies, at last theological speculation comes to understand that one single reality underlies all the varied manifestations which are called deities, and reaches the conclusion to explain the manifold gods and goddesses only as functions of the One Divine Being; this type of monotheism may also result from mystic experiences in which the seeker finds himself united with the profoundest depths of the Divine, and regards, thus, the deities only as emanations from the Most high indivisible Essence; or in prayer man chooses one out of the great number of gods and turns towards him in faith and trust as if only he be effective; or different deities become united for purposes of cult and rite or as a result of the political unification of two peoples with different objects of worship. But this kind of monotheism which is characteristic of the ancient religions of Egypt, Babylon, India, etc., is always deductive; it does not make a clear cut between the One and the many, and admits the existence of deities besides the Highest Being.” Gabriel’s Wing, p87

Schimmel contrasts this mystical, deductive monotheism with prophetic monotheism:

“It was prophetical experience in Israel (plus Christianity) and in Islam which realized the overwhelming uniqueness of God besides whom all those whom man might have adored until then were nothings and which cannot tolerate the worship of any other than that God who reveals Himself in the individual life and in history. Mystic monotheism may include all forms of reality because there is nothing existent but God and everything is a part of His life; but prophetic monotheism is always exclusive . . . . that is why the negation in the beginning of the Muslim creed la ilaha illa Allah—there is no god but God.”  (ibid)

The key characteristic of prophetic monotheism is that it negates deities: “there is no deity but the Deity”. Mystical monotheism proposes a unification of deities but does not negate deities, because they are still regarded as valid objects of worship. For this reason many adherents of prophetic monotheism believe that mystical monotheism is an inadequate understanding of the Deity, whose very existence negates deities.

Tawhid is the profession of the Absolute Oneness of the Deity, the establishment of the Deity as the Absolute who negates deities. One way of understanding the negating function of the Absolute is by studying dialectic reasoning. In dialectics, a thesis gives rise to its reaction, its antithesis, which contradicts or negates the thesis, and the tension between the two is resolved by means of a third position, the synthesis. The synthesis, however, it not merely a combination of the thesis and antithesis, rather it is a completely new entity which may be utterly different from both thesis and antithesis, but which nevertheless resolves their tensions, so that it utterly negates both thesis and antithesis.

Imagine two religious teachers, both of whom are polytheists, but who disagree about a particular deity in the pantheon: one teacher claims the deity is supremely good; the other believes the deity is supremely evil. How to resolve the tension between them? Sweep away the whole pantheon and realise that there is no god but God. In a sense, God is the inevitable conclusion or ‘synthesis’ arising from the thesis and antithesis set up by the polytheists – but God is not deduced from their premises or their deities, nor does God unite their deities, instead God negates their deities through Absolute Unity.

God is One in a similar way that the universe is one. The universe is the totality of all physical phenomena; God is the Totality, the Whole. God’s Wholeness is the source of all holiness and well-being. God is the Absolute in whom all opposites and contradictions are resolved. God is One because there is no other. God is One because no truth contradicts any other truth – they are all aspects of the Truth. By the same token, no goodness or virtue contradicts any other aspect of goodness or virtue, they are all aspects of the greatest Good. God is the Unity to whom the apparent multiplicity points. Sufis seek the signs of God within multiplicity: everything has a side facing toward God; everything points to the One God, and we delight in that recognition. God is Love.

The goal of Sufism is to know God in this life. All Muslims believe that we will meet God in our future life, especially on the Day of Judgement. However Sufis believe that it is possible to meet and know God in this life. My Sufi friend Abdullah advised me to “make friends with God before you die”. The Sufi saints (awliya) are the friends of God, who have achieved intimacy with God in this life.

Indicting The Self

The story of the Indian Buddhist master Atisha and his insulting cook sheds light on the practice of indicting the self. When Venerable Atisha took Buddhism from India to Tibet he also took a rude cook with him who was in the habit of insulting Atisha. The Tibetans, who held Atisha in high esteem, were astonished at the cook’s behaviour and offered to find a replacement but Atisha told them that he needed this man. Everyone else was so polite and respectful to Atisha that this rude, contemptuous cook was a precious resource.

Atisha was a practitioner of training the mind, a special branch of Buddhist practice that subsequently became known in Tibet as lojong. Practitioners of training the mind are very skillful at transforming adverse conditions into the spiritual path – at making positives out of negatives. The heart of this practice is indicting the self. This is what Geshe Chekhawa means when he says “gather all blame into one” in Seven Verses of Mind Training. Atisha and his followers, known as the Kadampa Geshes, recognised that all of our problems, suffering and unhappiness are caused by our false sense of self-importance. Therefore it is appropriate to indict or blame this false sense of self.

Atisha’s cook was a valuable resource because he reminded Atisha of the negative aspect of himself while everybody else was busy venerating and respecting him. Because Atisha was a humble spiritual practitioner he would not have lightly dismissed the cook’s insults, thinking “I will accept these insults patiently but really I know that they are false.” Instead, Atisha would have considered the insults carefully, examining his own self for faults. If the cook accused Atisha of arrogance, heartlessness, or fakery then Atisha would have scrutinised himself, suspecting that the cook may be right. This is why the cook was such a precious resource. Atisha advised us not to think about our own good qualities but instead to think about the good qualities of others, and not to think of the faults of others but instead consider our own faults and purge them as if they are bad blood.

If we do not indict our false sense of self-importance it will inflict misery on ourselves and others. The Koran calls the self (Arabic: nafs) in its raw state “the self that commands to evil” (Sura 12:53). The next state is the “self-accusing self” (Sura 75:2). This corresponds to the Kadampa practice of gathering all blame into one. The self-accusing self is our conscience, which is able to objectively see our own faults. Objectivity is key, because it is important not to turn the practice of indicting our self into a process of beating ourselves up, causing low self-esteem. We should identify and analyse our own faults, skillfully turning negative situations into opportunities for personal growth, but we shouldn’t invent faults that aren’t there. Atisha would have taken his cook’s insults seriously, and checked to see whether he really had the faults he was being accused of. However, if he concluded that the fault wasn’t present then he wouldn’t have engaged in caustic over-analysis or self-berating.

By gathering all blame into one through indicting the false sense of self, we reach the stage the Koran calls the self “at peace” (Sura 89:27). We achieve a happy and peaceful mind and are no longer subject to misery and fear, because we have eliminated its root cause, our false sense of self-importance.

Politics and Religion

The two basic points are 1) every religion has a valid political dimension 2) every religion has suffered from being harnessed to political interests which have no basis in religion.

Buddhism has a valid political dimension. The Buddha gives clear advice to rulers in the Kutadanta and Cakkavatti-Sihanada Suttas. Islam and Judaism have more obvious political dimensions because both Mohammed and Moses were law-givers. The Qur’an and Torah both provide the bases for legal systems to govern polities of various shapes and sizes.

The Qur’an and the Torah both combine the eternal and the temporal, and this reveals the nature of politics. God is eternal and Truth is eternal, but the actual, temporal conditions in which man finds himself are far from God. Man must find a way back to God so, through the prophets, God reveals His spiritual truths and His laws for good-living.

Politics is an aspect of humanity’s collective striving for good. In our political activity we should be guided by the religious truths to which we are the heirs, but we must not make the mistakes of over-literalism, dogmatism, sectarianism, etc. which have so bedevilled our civilisation.

Within the Islamic world the Islamist tendency over-emphasises the political dimension of Islam at the expense of the spiritual. Because it is has lost connection with the loving aspect of God it is prepared to contemplate or perform violence and terrorism to accomplish its sectarian goals. Islamism has more in common with Trotskyism than it does with Islam.

Although Islamism is a corruption of Islam, this does not mean that Muslims should withdraw entirely from the political sphere. On the contrary, it is important that Muslims who are in touch with the spiritual heart of their religion should be socially and politically engaged, in order to reduce the space available to Islamists. Muslims have an important role to play combating the ever-strengthening tide of greed, materialism, addiction, violence and environmental destruction. Organisations like Christian Aid provide an example of how religious people can make vital contributions if they engage with the key political issues of our time.