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Studies in Islamic Mysticism

By Reynold A. Nicholson

Religion, Revelation and Prophecy

Religious belief may be defined as man's thought about God, and we have learned that all things and thoughts in the universe are attributes of God, i.e., aspects in which He reveals Himself to human minds. Moreover, the attributes are identical with the Essence in so far as they are nothing but the Essence regarded from every possible point of view. Therefore God is the essence of all thought; and all thought is about God. In the light of such principles the author's philosophy of religion is easy to understand.

Divine worship, he says, is the end for which all things are created 1, and therefore belongs to their original nature and constitution. The different forms of worship result from the variety of Names and Attributes by which God manifests Himself in creation. Every Name and Attribute produces its own characteristic effect. For example, God is the true Guide (al-Hádí); but He is also the Misleader (al-Mu?ill), for the Koran says, "Allah shall lead the wicked into error." He is the Avenger (al-Muntaqim) as well as the Forgiver (al-Mun‘im). If any one of His Names had remained ineffectual and unrealised, His self-manifestation would not have been complete. Therefore He sent His prophets, in order that those who followed them might worship Him as the One who guides mankind to salvation, and that those who disobeyed them might worship Him as the One who leads mankind to perdition 2.

All God's creatures worship Him in accordance with His will, and every form of worship expresses some aspect of His nature. Infidelity and sin are effects of the Divine activity and contribute to the Divine perfection. Satan himself glorifies God, inasmuch as his disobedience is subordinate to the eternal will. Yet some aspects in which God shows Himself, such as Majesty and Wrath, are relatively less perfect than others, such as Beauty and Mercy. And, again, the more completely and universally the idea of God is presented in any form of worship, the more perfect that form must be. Religions revealed through a prophet contain the fullest measure of truth, and amongst these the most excellent is Islam.

Jílí mentions ten principal "religious" sects from which all the rest are derived 3. It is an odd catalogue, comprising (1) the Idolaters or Infidels; (2) the Physicists, who worship the four natural properties, namely, heat, cold, dryness and moisture; (3) the Philosophers, who worship the seven planets; (4) the Dualists, who worship light and darkness; (5) the Magians, who worship fire; (6) the Materialists (Dahriyyún), who abandon worship entirely; (7) the Brahmans (Baráhima), who claim to follow the religion of Abraham; (8) the Jews; (9) the Christians; (10) the Mohammedans.

The author proceeds to explain that God is the truth or essence of all these forms of belief 1. The Infidels disbelieved in a Lord, because God, who is their essence, has no lord over Him, but on the contrary is Himself the absolute Lord. They worshipped God according to the necessity of their essential natures. Idolaters worship Him as the Being who permeates every atom of the material world without infusion or commixture. God is the "truth" of the idols which they worship, and they worship none but Him. This is the mystery of their following the Truth in themselves 2, because their hearts bore witness to them that the good lay in their so doing. On account of that spirit of belief in the reality of their worship, the thing as it really is shall be revealed to them in the next world. "Every sect is rejoicing in that which it hath" (Koran, 23, 55), i.e., here they rejoice in their acts, and hereafter they shall rejoice in their spiritual states. Their joy is everlasting 3. Therefore, even if the Infidels had known the torment which they must suffer in consequence of their worship, they would have persisted in it by reason of the spiritual delight which they experience therein; for when God wills to punish any one with torment in the life to come, He creates for him in that torment a natural pleasure of which his body becomes enamoured; and God does this in order that the sufferer may not have an unquestionable right to take refuge with Him from the torment, but may remain in torment so long as the pleasure continues to be felt by him. When God wills to alleviate his torment, He causes him to lose the sense of pleasure, and he then takes refuge in the mercy of God, "who answers the sorely distressed when they pray to Him" (Koran, 27, 63) 4.

Similarly, the Physicists really worship the four essential attributes of God, namely, Life, Knowledge, Power, and Will; the Philosophers worship His names and attributes as manifested in the planets; the Dualists worship Him as Creator and creature in one; the Magians worship Him as the Unity in which all names and attributes pass away, just as fire destroys all natural properties and transmutes them to its own nature; the Materialists, who deny the existence of a Creator and believe in the eternity of Time, worship God in respect of His He-ness (Huwiyya), in which He is only potentially, but not actually, creative; the Brahmans worship Him absolutely, without reference to prophet or apostle 1.

As regards the future life, since all worship God by Divine necessity, all must be saved. But the seven sects above-mentioned (unlike the Jews, Christians and Moslems, who received their religions from a prophet) invented their forms of worship for themselves. Consequently, they are doomed to misery hereafter. That which constitutes their misery is the fact that their felicity, though ultimately assured, is far off and is not revealed to them until they have suffered retribution. On the other hand, those who worship God according to the mode ordained by a prophet enjoy immediate felicity, which is revealed to them continuously and gradually. It is true that the Jews and Christians suffer misery, but why is this? Because they have altered God's Word and substituted something of their own. Otherwise, they would have come under the rule that God never sent a prophet to any people without placing in his apostolic mission the felicity of those who followed him 2.

Here, perhaps, it will not be inopportune to give some details of the author's eschatology. We must remember that in his view all experience is perception by the human spirit of the nature and destiny eternally stamped upon it. "I Myself am Heaven and Hell."

"Life" denotes the spirit's contemplation of its bodily form: the spirit assumes the form of the object contemplated, just as sunbeams falling on green or red glass take the form and colour of the glass. After death, i.e., after the withdrawal of the spirit's gaze from the body, the spirit remains wholly in the spiritual world, while wearing the same corporeal aspect as it had before 1. Those mystics who deny the resurrection of the body are in the wrong. "We know by Divine information that bodies are raised from the dead with their spirits." The death of the spirit consists in its detachment from the body and resembles the dreamless sleep which is akin to not-being 2, since the sleeper has neither perception of the sensible nor vision of the unseen 3.

During the intermediate state (barzakh) between death and resurrection every one moves in a world of phantasy (khayál) peopled by the forms, ideas, and essential characters of the actions which he or she committed in their earthly life 4. The drunkard quaffs fiery wine in a cup of fire; the sinner whom God has forgiven passes into forms of good works, each fairer than the last; and he whose good works have been done in vain becomes imbued with the form of his eternal fate, ever-changing images of woe which his resurrection shall reveal to him as realities 5. The present, intermediate, and future states are one existence (wujúd wá?id), and you by virtue of your inmost nature (huwiyya) are the same in them all, but while the things of this world are free (ikhtiyárí), the things hereafter are determined by what happens here 6.

The world, having been created, must die: its death is its passing away (faná) under the might of the Divine Reality which manifests itself in the guise of individuals; and its resurrection is the manifestation of that Reality with the signs foretold in the Koran 1. The universal or greater resurrection (al-sá‘atu ’l-kubrá) includes the particular or lesser resurrection (al-sá‘atu ’l-?ughrá), i.e., the resurrection of every individual, and their signs correspond. For example, Dajjál (Antichrist) is an emblem of the flesh (nafs): as Dajjál shall be slain by Christ (the Spirit of God, Rú? Allah), so shall the flesh be destroyed by the spirit (rú?) 2. Again, the coming of the Mahdí, who shall reign for forty years, symbolises the perfection of the Perfect Man uniting and consummating the forty grades of existence 3. God beholds this world through the medium of Man; therefore, after the Resurrection, it will not exist otherwise than in God's knowledge, even as Paradise and Hell exist in His knowledge to-day. But when Man shall have been removed to the next world, God will behold Paradise and Hell through him, and they will then exist actually 4.

God created the Form of Mohammed (al-?úratu ’l-Mu?ammadiyya) from the light of His Name the Almighty Maker (al-Badí‘u ’l-Qádir), and regarded it with His Name the All-subduing Giver (al-Mannánu ’l-Qáhir); then He displayed Himself to it in His Name the Gracious Pardoner (al-La?ífu ’l-Gháfir). Thereupon, because of this illumination, it split in two halves, and God created Paradise from the half on the right hand, and Hell from the half on the left hand 5.

Jílí's description of the Eight Paradises is not specially interesting 6. In the first Paradise good works are rewarded, in the second good thoughts and beliefs concerning God. The third, which is gained solely by Divine grace, surpasses all the rest in magnitude and contains persons of every religion, sect, and nationality. Theoretically it is possible for any human being to enter this Paradise, if such fortune be vouchsafed to him in some Divine illumination, but the author adds: "We saw in mystical vision that only a few of each sect are there 1." The four highest Paradises have no trees, pavilions, or houris, and are inhabited (except the highest of all) by contemplatives and saints in an ascending scale of holiness. The floor of the eighth Paradise is the roof of the Throne of God (al-‘Arsh). Thither none may come—for it is the Paradise of the Essence, "the Lauded Station" (al-Maqám al-ma?múd) which, as the Tradition tells us, was promised by God to Mohammed.

With the people of Paradise every idea immediately becomes an object of sensation. When Adam, whose form is a copy of the form of Mohammed, went down from Paradise, he lost the life of his form, i.e., the power of materialising his thoughts. In the present world this power depends on the spirit, and since most of mankind are dead spiritually, belongs only to mystics endued with God's everlasting life 2.

Hell is the manifestation of Divine Majesty (jalál). When God created the Fire, He revealed Himself to it seven times, appearing each time in a different Name. These theophanies clove the Fire into seven valleys, which are the limbos of Hell. 3.

Pantheism cannot allow evil to be permanent. Jílí cites the Tradition, "My Mercy preceded My Wrath," and infers that while the latter attribute is a mode of Divine Justice, Mercy is essential and prevails in the end 4. Hell, according to him, is a temporary state 5, and not necessarily an altogether undesirable one. Of course, he had been there in his visions, and he tells of a meeting with Plato, "whom the formal theologians account an infidel, but I saw that he filled the unseen world with light, and that his rank was such as few amongst the saints possess 1." Some of the damned are more excellent than many of the Paradisal folk: God has placed them in Hell, that He may be revealed to them therein 2. Jílí expatiates on the variety of pleasures enjoyed by those who burn in the Fire 3. Some feel a pleasure comparable to the joy of battle, for although the soldier is conscious of pain he often has a keen delight in the fray into which " the Lordship lurking in his soul " impels him to plunge. Another of their pleasures resembles that felt when any one rubs an itch, even if he should chance to break the skin. Then they have subtler pleasures, like the self-satisfaction of the fanatic who persists in a wrong way of thinking, or the philosopher's happy sense of superiority in preferring his own wretched condition to the rich man's luxury and ignorance.

Their states are diverse: some, notwithstanding that they suffer the most intense torment, would not exchange it for Paradise; some long for a breath of the air of Eden and a draught of its water; some, having no pleasure in their pain, feel the utmost bitterness of loathing in themselves.


It is well known that Mohammed asserted the essential unity of Revelation. From the beginning of the world, as he believed, one and the same faith had been revealed to mankind through a succession of prophets, of whom he himself was the last. Abraham, Moses, David, and Jesus taught the same religion, the religion of Islam. It followed, in the first place, that the Pentateuch, the Psalms, and the Gospel are identical in substance with the Koran, and secondly, that since the Jews and Christians would neither accept Islam nor acknowledge Mohammed as the prophet foretold in their books, they must be giving a false account of what these books actually contained. The argumentum ad homines needed firm handling. Uninspired Moslems would rather say that the books in their present form are corrupt or incomplete. From quite another standpoint the ?úfís agree with their Prophet that the Word of God is essentially one. For them, indeed, all that exists is His Word, which is revealed to His prophets and saints under different aspects and in varying degrees of perfection. The historical and temporal is only a symbol of the mystical and eternal revelation. As, in the former, Christianity occupies the middle place between Judaism and Islam, so in the latter, where these religions typify the progressive ascent of the soul to God, the Illumination of the Names is denoted by the Pentateuch, the Illumination of the Attributes by the Gospel, and the Illumination of the Essence by the Koran 1.

No one who reads the Insánu ’l-Kámil can fail to discern that its author was profoundly influenced by Christian ideas, though it is not always possible to separate these from the Jewish, Gnostic and other elements with which they are intermingled 2. I need only allude to the Trinitarian basis of the Divine nature 3 and the prominence given to the Holy Spirit as the source and, in relation to man, the organ and sustaining principle of spiritual life 1. Jílí criticises the Christian doctrine, but so mildly and apologetically that one passage of his work is declared by the Moslem editor to be an interpolation which only a heretic could have written 2. The Pentateuch, he says, was sent down to Moses in nine tables 3, two of which, containing the mysteries of Lordship and Power, he was forbidden to communicate to any one; and as the Jews remained ignorant of their contents, Moses was the last of that people to gain perfect knowledge of God. On the other hand, both Jesus and Mohammed revealed the mystery of Lordship; but whereas Mohammed cloaked it in symbols and made it an esoteric matter 4, Jesus proclaimed it openly, with the result that his followers became infidels and worshipped him as the third of three Divine Persons, namely, the Father, the Mother, and the Son 5. This form of Trinity, by the way, appears in the Koran 6; it is not a grotesque blunder on the part of Mohammed, but a Christian heresy which still survives amongst the tribes of the Syrian desert 7.

While Jesus spoke the Truth allegorically, the Christians have taken his words literally 1. Polytheists as they are, God after punishing them for their error will pardon them because of the inward sincerity of their belief, for " they acted in accordance with the knowledge which He bestowed upon them: therefore blame them not, since their polytheism was essentially belief in One God (al-si?ru ’l-‘álí) 2." It is this sentence and others of like tenor that the editor would erase, and we can understand his indignation, though Jílí is simply applying to a special case the monistic doctrine which has been explained already. Of all non-Islamic religious communities he holds that the Christians are nearest to God, for while they worship Him in Jesus, Mary, and the Holy Ghost, they assert the indivisibility of the Divine nature and that God is prior to His existence in the created body of Christ. Thus they recognise the two complementary sides of true belief concerning God, namely that from the one point of view (tanzíh) He is above all likeness and that from the other (tashbíh) He reveals Himself in the forms of His creatures 3. But, in addition to the grave error of anthropomorphism (tajsím), they are at fault in restricting the Divine self-manifestation to these three. God said, "I breathed My Spirit into Adam 4," and here the name "Adam" signifies every human individual 5. The contemplation of those who behold God in Man is the most perfect in the world. Something of this vision the Christians possess, and their doctrine about Jesus will lead them at last, "when the Thing shall be discovered as it really is 1," to the knowledge that mankind are like mirrors set face to face, each of which contains what is in all; and so they will behold God in themselves and declare Him to be absolutely One 2.

Jílí concludes his work with a mystical interpretation of Islam, "the crown of religions 3." Much of what he says has no interest except for specialists, e.g., his definitions of technical terms used by ?úfís and his explanations of the esoteric meanings which he finds under every detail of Mohammedan ritual. He is careful to guard against antinomianism. Certain ?úfí saints claimed to have outdistanced the prophets 4, but Jílí decides in favour of the latter. He admits that saintship—the revelation of the Divine attributes to man—is the essence of prophecy, and that the prophet qua saint is superior to the prophet quâ prophet. Every prophet has "the prophecy of saintship" (nubuwwatu ’l-wiláyat), although some, like Jesus and al-Kha?ir, have nothing more 5; others, like Moses and Mohammed, have also "the prophecy of institution" (nubuwwatu ’l-tashrí‘), i.e., they were sent to promulgate and establish a new religious code. The ?úfí Shaykhs, whom God brings back from the state of trance (faná) in order that they may guide the people to Him, are vicegerents (khulafá) of Mohammed and, as such, are invested with "the prophecy of saintship" and bound to observe the laws of the last of the institutional prophets, Mohammed, who in both respects is supreme and unique 6. Jílí must be called a pantheist in so far as he takes "There is no god but Allah" in the sense of "Nothing really exists but the Divine Essence with its creative and creaturely modes of being." These modes are unified in the abstraction of intellect as well as in the mystic's flight to God, but the author of the Insánu ’l-Kámil is neither a pure philosopher at any time nor an ecstatic always. "Perception of the Essence," he writes, "consists in thy knowing that thou art He and that He is thou, and that this is not identification or incarnation, and that the slave is a slave and the Lord a Lord, and that the slave does not become a Lord nor the Lord become a slave 1." Even the Perfect Man is a reality (?aqq), not the Reality (al-?aqq) which displays itself in the mirror of his consciousness as God and Man 2.

131:1 Koran, 51, 56.

131:2 K II. 98 foll.

131:3 K II. 100.

132:1 K II. 101 foll.

132:2 Cf. Koran, 47, 3, where it is said of the Infidels that they followed Falsehood, and of the Believers that they followed "the Truth from their Lord," i.e. the Revelation given to Mohammed.

132:3 This is inferred by the author from the form fari?ún (which implies continuance) in the Koranic text.

132:4 K II. 101.

133:1 Therefore the book which the Brahmans ascribe, as the author supposes, to Abraham did not come to them from God but was written by Abraham himself. Jílí says that it contains five parts. The fifth part on account of its profundity is forbidden to most Brahmans. He adds: "It is notorious among them that those who read this fifth part invariably become Moslems."

133:2 K II. 104.

134:1 Ibnu ’l-‘Arabí says (Fu?ú?, 211) that after death the spirit receives an immortal body homogeneous with the world to which it has been translated.

134:2 Cf. p. 117.

134:3 K II. 71, 15 foll.

134:4 So long as the spirit remains in the barzakh, i.e., limited by the properties of the body, it does not enjoy full freedom. Only after the Resurrection is it entirely free to act according to its nature, i.e., to seek good or evil in conformity with its state in the present life (K II. 72, 20 foll.).

134:5 K II. 73, 2 foll.

134:6 K II. 74, 2 foll. As to the question of free-will, see p. 102, note 4.

135:1 K II. 64, 21 foll.

135:2 K II. 69, 2.

135:3 K II. 69, 7 foll.

135:4 K II. 65, 8 foll.

135:5 K II. 38, 15 foll.

135:6 K II. 44, 18 foll.

136:1 K II. 45, 12 foll.

136:2 K II. 47, 18 foll. According to Ibnu ’l-‘Arabí (Fu?ú?, 90 foll.), the gnostic (‘árif) creates by means of his meditation (himma) ideas which have an objective existence in sensation, phantasy, or higher planes of perception. His creative power differs from that of God, inasmuch as his consciousness is not universal, i.e., it does not comprehend every plane of perception simultaneously. Cf. Massignon, Kitáb al-?awásín, p. 183.

136:3 K II. 40, 21 foll.

136:4 K II. 39, 10 foll.

136:5 "Whenever God creates torment (‘adháb) by Hell-fire, He also creates in the sufferers the power of enduring it, for otherwise they would perish and so escape. Hence, their skins are periodically renewed (Koran, 4, 59), and they receive fresh powers of endurance, in virtue of which they feel a presentiment of new torments; but the powers with which they endured the former torments do not cease, inasmuch as these powers are given to them by God, and God never takes back His gifts. Thus their powers of endurance p. 137 continue to grow, until there appears in them a Divine power which extinguishes the Fire, because no one is doomed to misery after the Divine attributes become manifest in him" (K II. 38, 6 fr. foot and foll.). Elsewhere, on the ground that Hell-fire is an eternal object of God's knowledge, Jílí denies that it is extinguished absolutely (M 44 b). "You may say, if you -wish, that it remains as it was, but that the torment of the damned is changed to pleasure" (K II. 40, 2).

137:1 K II. 43, 9.

137:2 K II. 44, 15.

137:3 K II. 43, 16 foll.

138:1 K I. 104, 1 foll.

138:2 Naturally, the main original source is Philo, from whom many parallels might be quoted. The Logos, made in the image of God, is described both as an ?ρχ?τυπος ?δ?α and as a seal (σφραγ?ς, χαρακτ?ρ) impressing itself on things. He is called an archangel, the instrument (?ργανον) of creation, the heavenly man (cf. Corinthians, 15, 45 foll.), God's interpreter and prophet ?ρμηνε?ς κα? προφ?της). As a mediator between man and God, he is compared with the High-priest (?ρχιερε?ς) who, like the Moslem saint, passes away in God: "he shall be no man when he goeth in to the Holy of Holies," according to Philo's rendering of Leviticus, 16, 17 (Siegfried, Philo von Alexandria, p. 224 foll.).

138:3 Cf. Ibnu ’l-‘Arabí's verse (Tarjumán al-ashwáq, XII. 4): "My Beloved is three although He is one, even as the (three) Persons (of the Trinity) are made one Person in essence"; and his statement that of all the Divine names only three are cardinal, viz., Allah, al-Ra?mán, and al-Rabb (op. cit. p. 71). For his doctrine of "triplicity" (tathlíth) see Appendix II.

139:1 Massignon points out (Kitáb al-?awásín, p. 134, note 3) that in the treatises of the Ikhwánu ’l-?afá, (Bombay, a.h. 1306, Iv. 107 fol.) "the in-breathing of the Spirit" (nafkhu ’l-Rú?) is mentioned as a doctrine specially characteristic of Christian mysticism.

139:2 K I. 105. Ibnu ’l-‘Arabí (Fu?ú?, 176 foll.) is more critical and orthodox than Jílí.

139:3 Amongst the matters contained in the fourth table Jílí mentions (K I. 101, 13 foll.) the science of High Magic (al-si?ru ’l-‘álí), which resembles the miracles of the saints and does not depend on drugs, formulae, etc., but solely on the magical powers in man. "In the way of Divine unity," he says, "I have had some experience of this, and if I had desired I could have assumed any shape in the world and done any deed, but I knew it to be pernicious and therefore abandoned it. Then God endowed me with the secret potency which He placed between K and N" (i.e. His creative Word, Kun =" Be!").

139:4 There is a Tradition to the effect that Mohammed, on the night of his ascension, received three kinds of knowledge: one kind (external religion) he was commanded to impart to his people, another (the spiritual doctrine) he was left free to communicate or not, and the last (concerning the mysteries of the Godhead) he was forbidden to divulge. Some, however, learn it by mystical revelation (K I. 99, 10 foll.).

139:5 K I. 97, 15 foll. According to Jílí, the Gospel was revealed to Jesus in Syriac, and its opening words are Bismi ’l-ab wa ’l-umm wa ’l-ibn, "In the name of the Father and the Mother and the Son" (K I. 105, 15 foll.).

139:6 Kor. 5, 116.

139:7 Musil, Arabia Petraea, III. 91.

140:1 "The Christians supposed that the Father was the Spirit (al-Rú?), the Mother Mary, and the Son Jesus; then they said 'God is the Third of Three,' not knowing that 'the Father' signifies the Name Allah, and that 'the Mother' signifies the Ummu ’l-Kitáb ('the Mother of the Book,' an expression generally understood as meaning the fundamental part of the Koran), i.e., the ground of the Essence, and that 'the Son' signifies the Book, which is Absolute Being because it is a derivative and product of the aforesaid ground" (K I. 105, 17 foll.).

140:2 K I. 106, 2.

140:3 K II. 105, 16 foll.

140:4 Koran, 15, 29. Jílí declares that the entire Gospel is contained in this verse, and that the Moslems alone have fulfilled the true doctrine of the Gospel, which is "the manifestation of the Creator (al-?aqq) in the creatures (al-khalq)."

140:5 K I. 107, 1 foll.

141:1 At the Resurrection.

141:2 K II. 105, 20 foll.

141:3 K II. 106, 4 foll.

141:4 K I. 105, 6 foll. Jílí cites an assertion of the superiority of the saints by his ancestor, ‘Abdu ’l-Qádir al-Jílání.

141:5 On the other hand, Ibnu ’l-‘Arabí says that the Jews believed in Jesus until he, as an apostle, reformed the Mosaic law (Fu?ú?, 205).

141:6 K II. 109, 5 foll. Cf. Fu?ú?, 34 foll., 203 foll.

142:1 K 2. 29, 16 foll.

142:2 K I. 26, 5 from foot. So the Logos of Philo is θε?ς, but not ? Θε?ς (Bigg, Christian Platonists of Alexandria, 2nd ed., p. 42, note 2). Cf. Ibnu ’l-‘Arabí, cited by Massignon, Kitáb al-?awásín, p. 284.



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