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Old college paper on Sufism

Symbol and Metaphor as Divine TrajectoryMystical writing is an obscure and often esoteric subject that tends to evade intellectual scrutiny.  Whether in be poetry or prose, the ideas contained are claimed to be pointers towards linguistically inexpressible truths.  For this reason, the quality, relative truthfulness, and usefulness of any mystical writing seems somewhat beyond the bounds of logical analysis.  On the other hand it can be judged and discerned on a more personal intuitive level according to one’s own experience.  Experience itself contains a truthfulness that demands a conformation of appearance to reality.  In this sense the adequacy of any mystical system or poem’s ability to express the experience depends on its ability to give the experience.  Sufism is an excellent mystical tradition to expound on this point, since it has a rich literary history of both poetry and prose.  By examining some Sufi literature, we can see belief take different forms, but in every case the connotation is that the reality it describes is both transcendent and immanent, thus making analogy possible but analysis of the forms misleading without experience of their referents.            

On the surface of mystical writing there is the obvious level of belief.  Most mystics would not want to be thought of as philosophers, though, because of certain connotations that come with that word.  We can examine certain mystical writing and see a definite belief system at work; but the intended effect in mystical writing is usually not of an intellectual nature, despite the fact that the medium of the art is linguistic/ intellectual.  “Hermeneutics is not a rational process, but an encounter with the divine self-disclosure, an opening of the heart towards infinite wisdom”(Chittick 30).  This is a common attitude among mystics and artists alike concerning their work, but one may see academic and comparative analysis to have a different purpose, apart from a mystical engagement of the text.  While rational process is indeed necessary for comparative analysis, it is useless when dealing with mystical texts if not accompanied by abandonment to the irrational imaginative realm where the relationship between sign and thing become known.  Rational process is useful in communicating correlations, but only after the meaning has been apprehended creatively with the madness Sufis called “the logic of the heart” (Wilson and Pourjavady 4).            

In Sufism, no other writer involved himself more extensively in rational process than Ibn al-‘Arabi.  When comparing his philosophy and the similar philosophy of Suhrawardi, with Sufi poets one may believe there is a different motive behind the two genres, but there is a subtle confession in Ibn al-‘Arabi’s work, which explains his strange emphasis on categorization.  Compared with the love poetry of Sufis, the philosophy (or theosophy) of seems to expound a different viewpoint entirely, not just a shift in emphasis.  For instance, the relationship between God and the cosmos in most Sufi Poetry is like the relationship between a lover and his beloved.  The beloved is transcendent and the lover cannot ever reach him.  This creates an infinite longing, like “the longing of the shore to embrace the whole ocean” (Schimmel 268).  It is this longing and suffering, this tragedy of existence that seems to be at the heart of Sufism, especially the poetry.  It is through this yearning that Sufis come closer to God.  The idea of mystical union is a touchy subject in Sufism, but there is an internal logic that allows for mutual viewpoints to exist.  This is where Ibn al-‘Arabi comes in as our guide.            

Ibn-al’Arabi did not just analyze, he also wrote beautiful poetry.  “My heart embraces ever form”(Wilson and Pourjavady 9), is a line expressing his professed ability to see the divine in every form.  His professed state is the key that binds the whole thing together, in every sense of the phrase.  “A barzakh stands between and separates two other things, yet combines the attributes of both”(Chittick 14).  The barzakh is also used to refer to the realm of imagination and is a name of the perfect man.  This intermediary realm is the world of archetypes, of myth, where sign and thing are united.  In a sense existence itself is a barzakh because it stands between Being and nothingness.  The Logos it is often called, (which has different connotations), is the word through which all things were made.  The names of God are like molds through which light becomes radiance in nothingness.  

This concept had to be discussed before the issue could be addressed, namely, the reason behind the seemingly contradictory language of Ibn-al’Arabi when compared with most Sufi poetry.  He has often been accused of twisting the lover/beloved metaphor around and drying up the passion that fires the Sufi love poetry in his highly academic works.  To see him in a clear light one must understand his professed state as “the perfect man”.  This need not be taken literally as his belief in his own superiority but more correctly, his concern is with this in between realm, with existence.  He is thought of as a teacher of teachers.  He expounded an elaborate system that was not intended to convey the longing of man for God.  Even his poetry has the feel of a different kind of longing.  His interpretation of a longing God summed by this verse: “I was a hidden treasure and wanted to be known, so I created the world” (Schimmel 268), is an aspect of the path that used to be rarely spoken about in the Muslim world before Ibn-al’Arabi’s day.  This passage represents the point of view reversal taken by mystics who are returning, having been “found”.             

This is a paradoxically confusing area of mysticism, but the reality being described is still the same.  Poetry is the best way to communicate and hopefully give the experience to someone because the mind isn’t as easily bogged down with concepts.  The experience of art, like that of the beginning mystic, is reaching that reality through the forms; but for the barzakh, the true artist, and for all mystics who dwell in that reality, the forms they are concerned with are different yet the same.  To them, the forms are themselves divine, reflecting God, and reflecting themselves.  Therefore Ibn al-‘Arabi’s poetry of love is a love for creation, for he sees God in all forms.  His elaborate systems are for navigating the unknown; they are in a sense, the Names of God.  This is only for mystics who have been annihilated, and therefore dead, and returning.  “The Return takes place in a dimension of reality different from that of the Origination” (Chittick 19).            

 The idea of the Return is the most interesting dimension of mysticism and the most esoteric.  Few understand its implications, and the very few have the guts to explore its infinite manifestations.  It is, however, central to the understanding of Ibn al-‘Arabi to attempt an understanding.  The role of the prophets are pretty liberal in Ibn al-‘Arabi’s system, and that of a lot of the Persian Sufi Poets work, such as Attar.  They seem to accept the validity of the prophets of other religions as valid for the corresponding people of that culture.  The idea of the Muhammadian Light is often synonymous with the idea of barzakh.  The referent of both terms is the intermediary dimension of imagination.  The idea makes perfect sense as metaphor for life after death (or annihilation).  The prophets intervene and act as guides back to god.  Many paths lead back towards God, but he has many faces not all pleasant.  If the wicked die, their return trip is going to be hell, as they catch all their evil deeds on the return ten fold.  It is in this imaginal realm that “all the works of a person will be given back to him in a form appropriate to the intention and reality behind the work, not in the form of the work itself” (Chittick 29).  The prophets are kind of like good poetry, creating a bridge of Word to ensure safe passage across that dark sea.  Everyone must return eventually, but the Prophets represent a direct channel ascending straight to the Real Light.  

Not all paths lead directly towards God, and it is on this Return that we have the choice to go our own way, to delay affirmation, so to speak.  This alternate route home is an exploration of the many names and different intensities that inhabit the infinite barzakhs that fill the chasm between worlds.  “The degrees of light’s intensity are practically limitless.  Every degree can be a person’s way station (manzil), but a “way station” exists only for the traveler to move on to the next.  The journey goes on forever”(Chattick 35).  The work of Ibn al-‘Arabi and Suhrawardi seem to map out these names and way stations.  The language they use is different because the function of their work is to provide a map for exploration rather than use analogies to induce the experience.  In both cases the writing is meant to connect us with that mystical reality, but the poetry is meant to induce knowing, while the prose is meant to help understand, (although there is no final understanding, as the finite cannot ever embrace the infinite).            

The line between prose and poetry is imaginary like all lines, and in some Sufi writers like Ghazali, we see them combined.  The idea is that the line of the barzakh is the line of existence, where the transcendent meets the immanent, and the Real meets the imaginary.  This is the mirror that reflects every thing, beyond which is the Real and transcendent infinite being, complete in itself.  This mirror is in some sense every thing, but in a more limited sense, or perhaps more complete sense, it is like a mystical poem.  To analyze it’s meaning is to analyze your self.  So to truly understand it’s meaning, one must know one’s self, His self.  Then one sees that even Ibn-al’Arabi’s exhaustive analyses are poetry.  For true analysis, if it is to be real (He and not He), must take part in creation; meaning must be imagined.  It is only here that connections between symbols can be induced.  For simple deduction is simple Not He, a mere playing with apparitions; the Real Analysis is the experience of the symbols as Reality.  


Chittick, William C.  The Sufi Path of Knowledge: Ibn al-‘Arabi’s Metaphysics of Imagination.  Albany , NY : State University of New York Press, 1989, pp 1-30. Lamborn, Peter and Pourjavady, Nasrollah trans. The Drunken Universe, An Anthology of Sufi Poetry.  New Lebanon New York . Omega Publications. 1987. Schimmel, Annemarie. Mystical Dimensions of Islam. Chapel Hill . University of North Carolina Press. 1975.