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Studies in Islamic Mysticism

By Reynold A. Nicholson

Essence, Attribute, and Name

The Absolute Essence (Dhát), or the Essence of God, is that to which names and attributes belong in their real nature, not as they appear in existence 1. It denotes the self (nafs) of God whereby He exists, for He is self-subsistent. It is endowed with all the names and ideas which His perfection demands. Amongst these are infinity and incomprehensibility. No words can express or hint what the Essence is, since it has no opposite or like. In its absoluteness it annuls all the contradictions which, as the universal ground of individualisation, it includes 2.

I am convinced that It (the Essence) is non-existence, since by existence It was manifested 3.
Thought hath beheld It from afar as a power exerting itself in existence.
It is not other than a wall, wherein is set for thee a store of treasures. I am that wall, and It is the hidden treasure—hidden in order that I may find it by digging.
Take It then, to be a body in respect of an outward form (which It assumes), while to that body It is a spirit, that thou mayst regard it (the body).

God made Its comeliness (?usn) complete 1, and by the beauty (jamál) of God It became celebrated (known to all).
It never subsisted (as an object) but in thee alone 2: perceive the Word (Amr) 3, that thou mayst see its diverse forms 4.
I am the existent and the non-existent and the naughted and the everlasting.
I am the awared and the imagined and the snake and the charmer.
I am the loosed and the bound and the wine and the cupbearer.
I am the treasure, I am poverty, I am my creatures and my Creator.
*     *     *     *     *     *
Neither affirm my existence nor deny it, O immortal one!
Do not suppose thyself different from me or deem thyself the eye of my eye-corners.
*     *     *     *     *     *
And say, "That am I, yet in respect of my qualities and natural dispositions That I am not 5."

Jílí defines the attribute (?ifat) of a thing as that which conveys knowledge of its state to the understanding 6. The attributes of the Essence are the forms of thought by which it is manifested and made known. In the world of appearance we distinguish the forms from the reality underlying them, but the distinction is not ultimate: the attributes in their real nature are identical with the Essence which manifests itself as "other," i.e., under the aspect of externality, to our perceptions 7. What is called in theology the creation of the world is just this manifestation, accompanied by division and plurality, of the Essence as the attributes, or of Being as the object of thought; and in reality the Essence is the attributes (al-Dhát ‘aynu ’l-?ifát). The universe is an idea—"such stuff as dreams are made on," although the idea cannot properly be differentiated from the "thing-in-itself," except for convenience of understanding. Here let me translate part of the 57th chapter, "Concerning thought (khayál), how it is the material (hayúlá, ?λη) of the Cosmos 1."

Thought is the life of the spirit of the universe: it is the foundation of that life, and its (Thought's) foundation is Man.
To him that knows Thought through the power of the Almighty, existence is nothing but a thought.
Sensation, before its appearance, is an object of thought to thee, and if it goes it resembles a dream.
And, similarly, the time during which it is felt inheres in our consciousness upon a foundation (of thought).
Be not deceived by sensation, for it is an object of thought (mukhayyal), and so is the reality (which every form expresses) and the whole universe,
And likewise, to him that knows the truth, the worlds of malakút and jabarút, and the divine nature (láhút) and the human nature (násút).
Do not despise the rank of Thought, for it is the very gist of the notion 2 of the Being who disposes all.
Know that Thought is the origin of existence and is the essence wherein God is manifested perfectly. Consider your own belief in God and in His having the attributes and names which belong to Him. Where is the locus (ma?all) of this belief, in which God is made manifest to you? It is Thought. Therefore we said that Thought is the essence wherein He becomes manifest in perfection. If you recognise this, it will be plain to you that Thought is the origin of the whole universe, because God is the origin of all things, and their most perfect manifestation occurs nowhere but in a locus which is the origin (of His manifestation); and that locus is Thought. Mark how the Prophet considered the sensible world to be a dream—and dream is a thought—and said, "Mankind are asleep, and when they die, they awake," i.e., the reality in which they were during their earthly life is manifested to them, and they perceive that they were asleep. Not that death brings a complete awakening. Forgetfulness (ghaflat) of God prevails over those in the intermediate state (barzakh) and those in the place of Judgment and those in Hell and Paradise, until God reveals Himself to them on the Hill to which the inhabitants of Paradise go forth and behold Him. This forgetfulness is the sleep (mentioned by the Prophet). The universe, then, has its origin in a thought, and for this reason Thought determines the individuals therein: all, whatever their sphere of existence, are determined by Thought. For example, the people of this world are determined by thought of their life as it is now or as it shall be hereafter; in either case, they are forgetful of presence with God (al-?u?úr ma‘ Allah): they are asleep. He that is present with God is awake according to the measure of his presence.…The sleep of the inhabitants of the next world is lighter, but although they are with God in respect that He is with all beings and says (in the Koran), "He is with you wheresoever ye be," yet are they with Him in sleep, not in waking. One that, by divine predestination, enjoys in this world what shall at last be shown on the Hill to the people of Paradise, so that God reveals Himself to him and he knows God—that man is (truly) awake. If you perceive that those in every world are judged to be asleep, then judge that all those worlds are a thought, inasmuch as Sleep is the world of Thought.


The comparison with dream-experience does not imply that the universe is unreal, but that it is reality as presented to itself through and in the cosmic consciousness of the Perfect Man, which holds all the attributes of reality together. This, we have already noted, is the central doctrine of the work before us. Other men lack such consciousness: they regard the sum of attributes constituting the "material" world as something different from the Essence and from themselves.

In the unitive state there is immediate perception of the Essence, but no mystic perceives the attributes as they really are: you can feel intuitively that you are He, that the Divine essence is consubstantial (‘ayn) with your own, and thereby attain to knowledge of the Essence; you cannot, however, perceive and know the attributes of the Essence any more than you can perceive and know the qualities latent in yourself, which are only visible in their effects. Consequently it may be said that the Essence is imperceptible, in the sense of its being identical with the attributes 1.

The name (ism) objectifies the named (musammá) in the understanding, pictures it in the mind, presents it to the judgment, moves it in reflection and keeps it in memory 2. It serves to make unknown things known; therefore, its relation to the named is that of the outward to the inward, and in this respect it is identical with the named. Some things exist in name and not otherwise; thus, the existence of the ‘Anqá 1 is entirely nominal: the "named" in this case is not-being. God, on the contrary, is real Being; and just as our knowledge of the ‘Anqá is derived from its name, so we reach knowledge of God through the name Allah, in which all the Divine names and attributes are comprised 3.

God made this name a mirror for man, so that when he looks in it, he knows the true meaning of "God was and there was naught beside Him," and in that moment it is revealed to him that his hearing is God's hearing, his sight God's sight, his speech God's speech, his life God's life, his knowledge God's knowledge, his will God's will, and his power God's power, and that God possesses all these attributes fundamentally; and then he knows that all the aforesaid qualities are borrowed and metaphorically applied to himself, whereas they really belong to God 4.

The Divine names are either names of the Essence, e.g., al-A?ad (the One), or names of the attributes, e.g., al-Ra?mán (the Merciful), al-‘Alím (the Knowing). Each of them—except al-A?ad, which transcends relationship—brings forth the effect (athar) inherent in that particular aspect of the Essence of which it is, so to speak, the embodiment. Good and evil, faith and infidelity, all mundane life, thought, feeling, and action proceed inevitably from the Divine names 5.

89:1 K I. 18.

89:2 Cf. the passage (I. 20, 23 foll.) translated on p. 83.

89:3 The concept of existence involves non-existence as its logical complement. God, in virtue of His name, "the Outward" (al-?áhir), is identical with all existing objects, while in virtue of His name, "the Inward" (al-Bá?in) He is non-existent externally. Cf. the saying of Hegel, "Being and not-Being are identical," i.e., no distinctions are absolute.

90:1 Jamál denotes the attribute of Divine Beauty, ?usn its outward manifestation. Cf. Jílí's verse (in his ‘Ayniyya):

90:2 In Man, the microcosm.

90:3 I.e. the Logos.

90:4 K I. 8, 18 foll.

90:5 K I. 9, 11 foll.

90:6 K I. 27, 26.

90:7 Cf. K I. 81, 2 foll.

91:1 K II. 32, last line. Khayál is imaginal thought (phantasy). It includes all that is perceived by the mind in an ideal or material form. Mystics hold that God reveals Himself in five planes (?a?arát): (1) the plane of the Essence, (1) the plane of the Attributes, (3) the plane of the Actions, (4) the plane of Similitudes and Phantasy (khayál), (5) the plane of sense and ocular vision. Each of these is a copy of the one above it, so that whatever appears in the sensible world is the symbol of an unseen reality. Cf. Fu?ú?, 110.

91:2 ?aqíqa, i.e., the attributes by which Pure Being is individualised.

93:1 K I. 28, 21 foll.

93:2 K I. 21, 4 fr. foot.

93:3 Cf. the theory and practice of dhikr. The doctrine that the "named" is revealed by means of the name, which is its obverse or outward self, has played a great part in ?úfism.

93:4 K I. 22, 20 foll.

93:5 Cf. Ibnu ’l-‘Arabí's definition of ism (Ta‘rífát of Jurjání, ed. by Flügel, p. 293) as "the Divine name that rules a passing state of mystical feeling p. 94 (?ál)," and the definitions of terms like ‘abdullah, ‘abdu ’l-Ra?ím, ‘abdu ’l-Malik, etc., in the I??ilá?átu ’l-?úfiyya of ‘Abdu ’l-Razzáq al-Káshání, ed. by Sprenger, p. 91 foll.



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