Universal Dimensions of Islam Part 1

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Dimensions of Islam.

Patrick Laude.


One of the fundamental problems of our contemporary world has been judiciously referred to as a "clash of the uncivilized."1 This conflict has been particularly acute in the encounter between certain mainstream elements of the secular West-with which one must aggregate, at least outwardly, a few zones of resilient Christian ident.i.ty and emerging neo-Christian cultures-and some of the most visible contemporary expressions of people and societies for whom Islam is the predominant principle of collective ident.i.ty. In the West, one of the praiseworthy responses to such tensions and oppositions has come from those who have called for a better "understanding" of Islam. Here, understanding is not meant to refer to a full acceptance, but to a sufficient grasp of the inner and outer "logic" of Islam, as well as to a degree of recognition of its spiritual and moral values. Perhaps paradoxically to some, such a capacity to understand others presupposes an inner att.i.tude which has everything to do with the degree to which one has a.s.similated the core principles of one's own civilization. This holds true, needless to say, on any side of the civilizational "divide." There is no civilization formed by the sacred that does not ultimately lead its most discerning representatives to perceive in some measure the relativity of its own exclusiveness, at least in petto. To this extent, to be "civilized" amounts almost as much to recognizing the intelligence and beauty of other civilizations as it is to fathom the foundations of one's own; the latter being, in fact, the precondition, if not the guarantee, for the former.

The writings collected in this volume make the case for a vision of Islam as a religion and civilization intrinsically equipped to address universal human predicaments, and converging thereby with the highest spiritual expressions of all authentic religious heritages. They point to fundamental "universals" of Islam, such as the doctrine of Unity and "unification" (tawhid), the essentialness of Divine Mercy, the inclusive and integrative nature of the Muslim concept of prophecy, the Islamic ability to a.s.similate various cultural and ethnic languages, and the capacity of Islamic mysticism to serve as a spiritual bridge between diverse religions. They include now cla.s.sic essays by "founding fathers" of the Perennial Philosophy, testimonies from spiritual figures of Sufism, and contemporary studies of Islam and Sufism by experts and younger scholars of religion. Finally, as the universal language par excellence, poetry could not but be included in this volume.

The universal dimensions of Islam refer to the dimension of breadth as well as depth. They pertain to both form and essence.

On the level of form, there is to our mind no better way of pointing out this universality than by quoting Schuon's a.s.sertions that "Islam . . . has given a religious form to that which const.i.tutes the essence ["substance" in the original French] of all religion"2 and that "Islam . . . aims to teach only what every religion essentially teaches; it is like a diagram of every possible religion."3 The simplicity of the form renders it accessible to any man or woman, and therefore potentially to all of mankind. It speaks to all capacities and levels of understanding. It also allows for its manifestation through diverse cultural contexts, from Sub-Saharan Africa and the Balkans to India and China.

From another point of view-notwithstanding the expansive potentiality of Islam's schema-like form-other aspects of its form have placed limits on Islamic expansion. This is particularly true when referring to the Bedouin and Arab cladding, as it were, of the message. Such a cladding is not the best means of "exporting" Islam, as it enters into conflict with psychological and cultural traits predetermined by other civilizational "logics". Be that as it may, this twofold aspect of the Islamic form may correspond to the distinction, on the one hand, between form as an expression of divine essence, or "archetypal form," and, on the other hand, form as a providential but necessarily exclusive clothing of human culture.

On the level of the essence of the message, the princ.i.p.al element of Islam's universality undoubtedly lies in its doctrine of Unity, understood either from an exoteric or esoteric perspective. From an exoteric standpoint, the universality of Islam is to be found, in a sense, in the aforementioned "schematic" aspect of its affirmation of one supreme G.o.d as opposed to many divine manifestations. The Qur'an and the traditional teachings and interpretations of its message have shown the way of universality through the affirmation of a metaphysics of the Unity of Divine Reality and through the corresponding affirmation of a divine recognition of other traditional faiths. They have done so to the extent that it is possible within the context of a religion, that is to say, within an exclusive belief system. Esoterically, tawhid opens onto the metaphysics of essential Unity, which the various spiritual and traditional languages couch in so many "syntaxes," either affirmatively or apophatically, objectively or subjectively, doctrinally or methodically.

Thus, Islam arrives at the religious paradox of founding the providential legitimacy of its own exclusiveness on the very principle of its overall inclusiveness; a paradox that lies at the core of the unity of Islam, while being the source of its diversity throughout all times and places.

Patrick Laude.


1 The expression was coined by Zaid Shakir in the context of recent inter-cultural polemics, especially relating to Samuel Huntington's claim of a so-called "clash of civilizations."

2 Frithjof Schuon, Roots of the Human Condition, "Outline of the Islamic Message" (Bloomington, IN: World Wisdom, 2002), p. 81.

3 Frithjof Schuon, Spiritual Perspectives and Human Facts, "Contours of the Spirit" (Bloomington, IN: World Wisdom, 2007), p. 68.


Outline of the Islamic Message.

Frithjof Schuon.

The enigma of the lightning-like expansion of Islam and its adamantine stability lies in the fact that it has given a religious form to what const.i.tutes the essence of all religion. It is in this sense that some Sufis have said that, being the terminal religion, Islam is ipso facto the synthesis of the preceding religions-the synthesis and thereby the archetype; terminality and primordiality rejoin.

On the surface of Islam, we find some features of the Bedouin mentality, which quite obviously have nothing universal about them; in the fundamental elements, however, we encounter as it were religion as such, which by its essentiality opens quite naturally onto metaphysics and gnosis.

All metaphysics is in fact contained in the Testimony of Faith (Shahadah), which is the pivot of Islam.1 Exoterically, this Testimony means that the creative Being alone is the Supreme Principle that determines everything; esoterically, it means in addition-or rather a priori-that only Beyond-Being is the intrinsic Absolute, since Being is the Absolute only in relation to Existence: this is the distinction between tma and Maya, which is the very substance of esoterism. "Neither I (the individual) nor Thou (the Divine Person), but He (the Essence)": it is from this Sufi saying that the p.r.o.noun "He" has often been interpreted as meaning the impersonal Essence; and the same meaning has been attributed to the final breath of the Name Allah.

After the Testimony of Faith comes Prayer (Salat), in the order of the "Pillars of the Religion" (Arqan ad-Din): the human discourse addressed to the Divinity, which is of primary importance since we are beings endowed with intelligence,2 hence with speech; not to speak to G.o.d, yet to speak to men, amounts to denying G.o.d and His Lordship. The intention of primordiality, in Islam, is manifested by the fact that every man is his own priest; primordial man-or man in conformity with his profound nature-is a priest by definition; without priesthood, there is no human dignity. The meaning of prayer is to become aware-always anew-of total Reality, then of our situation in the face of this reality; hence to affirm the necessary relationships between man and G.o.d. Prayer is necessary, not because we do or do not possess a given spiritual quality, but because we are men.

The Testimony and Prayer are unconditional; Almsgiving (Zakat) is conditional in the sense that it presupposes the presence of a human collectivity. On the one hand it is socially useful and even necessary; on the other hand it conveys the virtues of detachment and generosity, lacking which we are not "valid interlocutors" before G.o.d.

As for the Fast (Siyam)-practiced during Ramadan-it is necessary because asceticism, like sacrifice in general, is a fundamental possibility of human behavior in the face of the cosmic maya; every man must resign himself to it to one degree or another. Indeed, every man, whether he likes it or not, experiences pleasure, and thus must also experience renunciation, since he chooses Heaven; to be man is to be capable of transcending oneself. At the same time, Islam is well aware of the rights of nature: all that is natural and normal, and lived without avidity and without excess, is compatible with the spiritual life and can even a.s.sume in it a positive function.3 n.o.bility is here the awareness of the archetypes, and above all the sense of the sacred; only he who knows how to renounce can enjoy n.o.bly, and this is one of the meanings of the Fast.

Unlike the Testimony of Faith, the Prayer, the Fast, and to a certain extent Almsgiving, the Pilgrimage, and the Holy War are conditional: the Pilgrimage depends on our capacity to accomplish it, and the Holy War is obligatory only under certain circ.u.mstances. We need not take into consideration here the fact that every obligation of the religion-except for the Testimony-is conditional in the sense that there may always be insuperable obstacles; the Law never demands anything impossible or unreasonable.

The meaning of the Pilgrimage (Hajj) is the return to the origin, thus what is involved is a living affirmation of primordiality, of restoring contact with the original Benediction-Abrahamic in the case of Islam. But there is also, according to the Sufis, the Pilgrimage towards the heart: towards the immanent sanctuary, the divine kernel of the immortal soul.

In an a.n.a.logous fashion, there is, along with the outer Holy War (Jihad), the "Greater Holy War" (al-Jihad al-akbar), that which man wages against his fallen and concupiscent soul; its weapon is fundamentally the "Remembrance of G.o.d" (Dhikru 'Llah), but this combat presupposes nonetheless our moral effort. The all-embracing virtue of "poverty" (faqr) is conformity to the demands of the Divine Nature: namely effacement, patience, grat.i.tude, generosity; and also, and even above all, resignation to the Will of G.o.d and trust in His Mercy. Be that as it may, the goal of the inner Holy War is perfect self-knowledge, beyond the veilings of pa.s.sion; for "whoso knoweth his soul, knoweth his Lord".

To return to the Testimony of Faith: to believe in G.o.d is to believe also in that which G.o.d has done and will do: it is to believe in the Creation, in the Prophets, in the Revelations, in the Afterlife, in the Angels, in the Last Judgment. And to believe is to acknowledge sincerely, drawing the consequences from what one believes; "belief obligates", we could say. Whence the crucial importance, in the thought and sensibility of Islam, of the virtue of sincerity (sidq), which coincides with "right doing" (ihsan), whether it be a question of religious zeal or esoteric deepening.4 Theologically, one distinguishes faith (iman), practice (islam), and their quality (ihsan), the "right doing", precisely; and this right-doing, according to a Muhammadan saying, consists in "worshipping G.o.d as if thou seest Him; and if thou dost not see Him, He nonetheless seeth thee".

Translated by Mark Perry.


1 "There is no divinity if not the (sole) Divinity (Allah)." This may be compared with the Vedantic formulation: "Brahmais real, the world is an appearance."

2 We could say "endowed with reason", but it is not reason as such which counts, it is integral intelligence of which reason is only the discursive mode.

3 This is what is expressed and in principle realized in every religion by the formulas of consecration such as thebenedicite or the basmalah.

4 Echoing the parable of the talents, Saint James in his Epistle says that "to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin"; which is to say that G.o.d requires even wisdom of him who possesses it potentially; whence the inclusion of esoteric spirituality (tasawwuf) in ihsan.

Sufism and Mysticism.

t.i.tus Burckhardt.

Scientific works commonly define Sufism as "Muslim mysticism" and we too would readily adopt the epithet "mystical" to designate that which distinguishes Sufism from the simply religious aspect of Islam if that word still bore the meaning given it by the Greek Fathers of the early Christian Church and those who followed their spiritual line: they used it to designate what is related to knowledge of "the mysteries". Unfortunately the word "mysticism"-and also the word "mystical"-has been abused and extended to cover religious manifestations which are strongly marked with individualistic sub jectivity and governed by a mentality which does not look beyond the horizons of exotericism.

It is true that there are in the East, as in the West, borderline cases such as that of the majdhub in whom the Divine attraction (al-jadhb) strongly predominates so as to invalidate the working of the mental faculties with the result that the majdhub cannot give doctrinal formulation to his contemplative state. It may also be that a state of spiritual realization comes about in exceptional cases almost without the support of a regular method, for "the Spirit bloweth whither It listeth". None the less the term Taawwuf is applied in the Islamic world only to regular contemplative ways which include both an esoteric doctrine and transmission from one master to another. So Taawwuf could only be translated as "mysti cism" on condition that the latter term was explicitly given its strict meaning, which is also its original meaning. If the word were understood in that sense it would clearly be legitimate to compare Sufis to true Christian mystics. All the same a shade of meaning enters here which, while it does not touch the meaning of the word "mysticism" taken by itself, explains why it does not seem satisfactory in all its contexts to transpose it into Sufism. Christian contemplatives, and especially those who came after the Middle Ages, are indeed related to those Muslim contemplatives who followed the way of spiritual love (al-maabbah), the bhakti marga of Hinduism, but only very rarely are they related to those Eastern contemplatives who were of a purely intellectual order, such as Ibn 'Arabi or, in the Hindu world, ri akaracharya.1 Now spiritual love is in a sense intermediate between glowing devotion and knowledge; moreover, the language of the bhakta projects, even into the realm of final union, the polarity from which love springs. This is no doubt one reason why, in the Christian world, the distinction between true mysticism and individualistic "mysticism" is not always clearly marked, whereas in the world of Islam esotericism always involves a metaphysical view of things-even in its bhaktic forms-and is thus clearly separated from exoteri cism, which can in this case be much more readily defined as the common "Law".2 Every complete way of contemplation, such as the Sufi way or Christian mysticism (in the original meaning of that word), is dis tinct from a way of devotion, such as is wrongly called "mystical", in that it implies an active intellectual att.i.tude. Such an att.i.tude is by no means to be understood in the sense of a sort of individualism with an intellectual air to it: on the contrary it implies a disposition to open oneself to the essential Reality (al-aqiqah), which transcends discursive thought and so also a possibility of placing oneself in tellectually beyond all individual subjectivity.

That there may be no misunderstanding about what has just been said it must be clearly stated that the Sufi also realizes an att.i.tude of perpetual adoration molded by the religious form. Like every believer he must pray and, in general, conform to the revealed Law since his individual human nature will always remain pa.s.sive in relation to Divine Reality or Truth whatever the degree of his spiritual identification with it. "The servant (i.e. the individual) always remains the servant" (al-'abd yabqa-l-'abd), as a Moroccan master said to the author. In this relationship the Divine Presence will therefore manifest Itself as Grace. But the intelligence of the Sufi, inasmuch as it is directly identified with the "Divine Ray", is in a certain manner withdrawn, in its spiritual actuality and its own modes of expression, from the framework imposed on the individual by religion and also by reason, and in this sense the inner nature of the Sufi is not receptivity but pure act.

It goes without saying that not every contemplative who follows the Sufi way comes to realize a state of knowledge which is beyond form, for clearly that does not depend on his will alone. None the less the end in view not only determines the intellectual horizon but also brings into play spiritual means which, being as it were a pre figuring of that end, permit the contemplative to take up an active position in relation to his own psychic form.

Instead of identifying himself with his empirical "I" he fashions that "I" by virtue of an element which is symbolically and implicitly non-individual. The Qur'an says: "We shall strike vanity with truth and it will bring it to naught" (21:18). The Sufi 'Abd as-Salam ibn Mashish prayed: "Strike with me on vanity that I may bring it to naught." To the extent that he is effectively emanc.i.p.ated the con templative ceases to be such-and-such a person and "becomes" the Truth on which he has meditated and the Divine Name which he invokes.

The intellectual essence of Sufism makes imprints even on the purely human aspects of the way which may in practice coincide with the religious virtues. In the Sufi perspective the virtues are nothing other than human images or "subjective traces" of universal Truth;3 hence the incompatibility between the spirit of Sufism and the "moralistic" conception of virtue, which is quant.i.tative and in dividualistic.4 Since the doctrine is both the very foundation of the way and the fruit of the contemplation which is its goal,5 the difference between Sufism and religious mysticism can be reduced to a question of doctrine. This can be clearly expressed by saying that the believer whose doctrinal outlook is limited to that of exotericism always maintains a fundamental and irreducible separation between the Divinity and himself whereas the Sufi recognizes, at least in principle, the essential unity of all beings, or-to put the same thing in negative terms-the unreality of all that appears separate from G.o.d.

It is necessary to keep in view this double aspect of esoteric orientation because it may happen that an exotericist-and particularly a religious mystic-will also affirm that in the sight of G.o.d he is nothing. If, however, this affirmation carried with it for him all its metaphysical implications, he would logically be forced to admit at the same time the positive aspect of the same truth, which is that the essence of his own reality, in virtue of which he is not "nothing", is mysteriously identical with G.o.d. As Meister Eckhart wrote: "There is somewhat in the soul which is uncreate and uncreatable; if all the soul were such it would be uncreate and uncreatable; and this somewhat is Intellect." This is a truth which all esotericism admits a priori, whatever the manner in which it is expressed.

A purely religious teaching on the other hand either does not take it into account or even explicitly denies it, because of the danger that the great majority of believers would confuse the Divine Intellect with its human, "created" reflection and would not be able to conceive of their transcendent unity except in the likeness of a substance the quasi-material coherence of which would be contrary to the essential uniqueness of every being. It is true that the Intellect has a "created" aspect both in the human and in the cosmic order, but the whole scope of the meaning that can be given to the word "Intellect"6 is not what concerns us here since, independently of this question, esotericism is characterized by its affirmation of the essentially divine nature of knowledge.

Exotericism stands on the level of formal intelligence which is conditioned by its objects, which are partial and mutually exclusive truths. As for esotericism, it realizes that intelligence which is be yond forms and it alone moves freely in its limitless s.p.a.ce and sees how relative truths are delimited.7 This brings us to a further point which must be made clear, a point, moreover, indirectly connected with the distinction drawn above between true mysticism and individualistic "mysticism". Those who stand "outside" often attribute to Sufis the pretension of being able to attain to G.o.d by the sole means of their own will. In truth it is precisely the man whose orientation is towards action and merit-that is, exoteric-who most often tends to look on everything from the point of an effort of will, and from this arises his lack of under standing of the purely contemplative point of view which envisages the way first of all in relation to knowledge.

In the principial order will does in fact depend on knowledge and not vice versa, knowledge being by its nature "impersonal". Although its development, starting from the symbolism transmitted by the traditional teaching, does include a certain logical process, know ledge is none the less a divine gift which man could not take to himself by his own initiative. If this is taken into account it is easier to understand what was said above about the nature of those spiritual means which are strictly "initiatic" and are as it were a prefiguring of the nonhuman goal of the Way. While every human effort, every effort of the will to get beyond the limitations of individuality is doomed to fall back on itself, those means which are, so to say, of the same nature as the supra-individual Truth (al-aqiqah) which they evoke and prefigure can, and alone can, loosen the knot of microcosmic individuation-the egocentric illusion, as the Vedantists would say-since only the Truth in its universal and supra-mental reality can consume its opposite without leaving of it any residue.

By comparison with this radical negation of the "I" (nafs) any means which spring from the will alone, such as asceticism (az-zuhd) can play only a preparatory and ancillary part.8 It may be added that it is for this reason that such means never acquired in Sufism the almost absolute importance they had, for instance, for certain Christian monks; and this is true even in cases where they were in fact strictly practiced in one or another ariqah.

A Sufi symbolism which has the advantage of lying outside the realm of any psychological a.n.a.lysis will serve to sum up what has just been said. The picture it gives is this: The Spirit (ar-Ru) and the soul (an-nafs) engage in battle for the possession of their common son the heart (al-qalb). By ar-Ru is here to be understood the in tellectual principle which transcends the individual nature9 and by an-nafs the psyche, the centrifugal tendencies of which determine the diffuse and inconstant domain of the "I". As for al-qalb, the heart, this represents the central organ of the soul, corresponding to the vital center of the physical organism. Al-qalb is in a sense the point of intersection of the "vertical" ray, which is ar-Ru, with the "hori zontal" plane, which is an-nafs.

Now it is said that the heart takes on the nature of that one of the two elements generating it which gains the victory in this battle. Inasmuch as the nafs has the upper hand the heart is "veiled" by her, for the soul, which takes herself to be an autonomous whole, in a way envelops it in her "veil" (ijab). At the same time the nafs is an accomplice of the "world" in its multiple and changing aspect be cause she pa.s.sively espouses the cosmic condition of form. Now form divides and binds whereas the Spirit, which is above form, unites and at the same time distinguishes reality from appearance. If, on the contrary, the Spirit gains the victory over the soul, then the heart will be transformed into Spirit and will at the same time trans.m.u.te the soul suffusing her with spiritual light. Then too the heart reveals itself as what it really is, that is as the tabernacle (mishkat) of the Divine Mystery (sirr) in man.

In this picture the Spirit appears with a masculine function in relation to the soul, which is feminine. But the Spirit is receptive and so feminine in its turn in relation to the Supreme Being, from which it is, however, distinguished only by its cosmic character inasmuch as it is polarized with respect to created beings. In essence ar-Ru is identified with the Divine Act or Order (al-Amr) which is sym bolized in the Qur'an by the creating Word "Be" (kun) and is the immediate and eternal "enunciation" of the Supreme Being: ". . . and they will question you about the Spirit: say: The Spirit is of the Order of my Lord, but you have received but little knowledge" (Qur'an, 17:84).

In the process of his spiritual liberation the contemplative is reintegrated into the Spirit and by It into the primordial enunciation of G.o.d by which "all things were made . . . and nothing that was made was made without it" (St. John's Gospel).10 Moreover, the name "Sufi" means, strictly speaking, one who is essentially identified with the Divine Act; hence the saying that the "Sufi is not created" (a-ufi lam yukhlaq), which can also be understood as meaning that the being who is thus reintegrated into the Divine Reality recognizes himself in it "such as he was" from all eternity according to his "principial possibility, immutable in its state of non-manifestation"-to quote Muyi-d-Din ibn 'Arabi. Then all his created modalities are revealed, whether they are temporal or non temporal, as mere inconsistent reflections of this principial possibility.11 Translated by D. M. Matheson.

My heart has become capable of every form: it is a pasture for gazelles and a convent for Christian monks, And a temple for idols, and the pilgrim's Ka'ba and the tables of the Torah and the book of the Koran.

I follow the religion of Love (adinu bi-d-dini al-hubb): whatever way Love's camel take, that is my religion and my faith."

Muhyiddin Ibn al-'Arabi.


1 There is in this fact nothing implying any superiority of one tradition over another; it shows only tendencies which are conditioned by the genius and temperament of the peoples concerned. Because of this bhaktic character of Christian mysticism some orientalists have found it possible to a.s.sert that Ibn 'Arabi was "not a real mystic".

2 The structure of Islam does not admit of stages in some sense inter mediate between exotericism and esotericism such as the Christian monastic state, the original role of which was to const.i.tute a direct framework for the Christian way of contemplation.

3 It will be recalled that for Plotinus virtue is intermediate between the soul and intelligence.

4 A quant.i.tative conception of virtue results from the religious con sideration of merit or even from a purely social point of view. The qualitative conception on the other hand has in view the a.n.a.logical relation between a cosmic or Divine quality and a human virtue. Of necessity the religious conception of virtue remains individualistic since it values virtue only from the point of view of individual salvation.

5 Some orientalists would like artificially to separate doctrine from "spiritual experience". They see doctrine as a "conceptualizing" antic.i.p.ating a purely subjective "experience". They forget two things: first, that the doctrine ensues from a state of knowledge which is the goal of the way and secondly, that G.o.d does not lie.

6 The doctrine of the Christian contemplatives of the Orthodox Church, though clearly esoteric, maintains an apparently irreducible distinction between the "Uncreated Light" and the nous or intellect, which is a human, and so created faculty, created to know that Light. Here the "ident.i.ty of essence" is expressed by the immanence of the "Uncreated Light" and its presence in the heart. From the point of view of method the distinction between the intellect and Light is a safeguard against a "luciferian" con fusion of the intellectual organ with the Divine Intellect. The Divine Intellect immanent in the world may even be conceived as the "void", for the Intellect which "grasps" all cannot itself be "grasped". The intrinsic orthodoxy of this point of view-which is also the Buddhist point of view-is seen in the identification of the essential reality of everything with this "void" (unya).

7 The Qur'an says: "G.o.d created the Heavens and the earth by the Truth (al-aqq)" (64:3).

8 Sufis see in the body not only the soil which nourishes the pa.s.sions but also its spiritually positive aspect which is that of a picture or resume of the cosmos. In Sufi writings the expression the "temple" (haykal) will be found to designate the body. Muyi-d-Din ibn 'Arabi in the chapter on Moses in his Fuu al-ikam compares it to "the ark where dwells the Peace (Sakinah) of the Lord".

9 The word ru can also have a more particular meaning, that of "vital spirit". This is the sense in which it is most frequently used in cosmology.

10 For the Alexandrines too liberation is brought about in three stages which respectively correspond to the Holy Spirit, the Word, and G.o.d the Father.

11 If it is legitimate to speak of the principial, or divine, possibility of every being, this possibility being the very reason for his "personal unique ness", it does not follow from this that there is any multiplicity whatever in the divine order, for there cannot be any uniqueness outside the Divine Unity. This truth is a paradox only on the level of discursive reason. It is hard to conceive only because we almost inevitably forge for ourselves a "substantial" picture of the Divine Unity.

The Universality of Sufism.

Martin Lings.

Those who insist that Sufism is "free from the shackles of religion"1 do so partly because they imagine that its universality is at stake. But however sympathetic we may feel towards their preoccupation with this undoubted aspect of Sufism, it must not be forgotten that particularity is perfectly compatible with universality, and in order to perceive this truth in an instant we have only to consider sacred art, which is both unsurpa.s.sably particular and unsurpa.s.sably universal.2 To take the example nearest our theme, Islamic art is immediately recognizable as such in virtue of its distinctness from any other sacred art: "n.o.body will deny the unity of Islamic art, either in time or in s.p.a.ce; it is far too evident: whether one contemplates the mosque of Cordova or the great madrasah of Samarkand, whether it be the tomb of a saint in the Maghreb or one in Chinese Turkestan, it is as if one and the same light shone forth from all these works of art."3 At the same time, such is the universality of the great monuments of Islam that in the presence of any one of them we have the impression of being at the center of the world.4 Far from being a digression, the question of sacred art brings us back to our central theme, for in response to the question "What is Sufism?",5 a possible answer-on condition that other answers were also forthcoming-would be simply to point to the Taj Mahal or to some other masterpiece of Islamic architecture. Nor would a potential Sufi fail to understand this answer, for the aim and end of Sufism is sainthood, and all sacred art in the true and full sense of the term is as a crystallization of sanct.i.ty, just as a Saint is as an incarnation of some holy monument, both being manifestations of the Divine Perfection.

According to Islamic doctrine, Perfection is a synthesis of the Qualities of Majesty and Beauty; and Sufism, as many Sufis have expressed it, is a putting on of these Divine Qualities, which means divesting the soul of the limitations of fallen man, the habits and prejudices which have become "second nature", and investing it with the characteristics of man's primordial nature, made in the image of G.o.d. Thus it is that the rite of initiation into some Sufi orders actually takes the form of an invest.i.ture: a mantle (khirqah) is placed by the Shaykh over the shoulders of the initiate.

The novice takes on the way of life of the adept, for part of the method of all mysticisms-and of none more than Islamic mysticism-is to antic.i.p.ate the end; the adept continues the way of life he took on as novice. The difference between the two is that in the case of the adept the way, that is, Sufism, has become altogether spontaneous, for sainthood has triumphed over "second nature". In the case of the novice the way is, to begin with, mainly a discipline. But sacred art is as a Divine Grace which can make easy what is difficult. Its function-and this is the supreme function of art-is to precipitate in the soul a victory for sainthood, of which the masterpiece in question is an image. As a complement to discipline-we might even say as a respite-it presents the path as one's natural vocation in the literal sense, summoning together all the souls' elements for an act of unanimous a.s.sent to the Perfection which it manifests.

If it be asked: Could we not equally well point to the Temple of Hampi or to the Cathedral of Chartres as to the Taj Mahal as a crystallization of Sufism? the answer will be a "yes" outweighed by a "no". Both the Hindu temple and the Christian cathedral are supreme manifestations of Majesty and Beauty, and a would-be Sufi who failed to recognize them and rejoice in them as such would be falling short of his qualification inasmuch as he would be failing to give the signs of G.o.d their due. But it must be remembered that sacred art is for every member of the community in which it flowers, and that it represents not only the end but also the means and the perspective or, in other words, the way opening onto the end; and neither the temple nor the cathedral was destined to display the ideals of Islam and to reveal it as a means to the end as were the great mosques and, on another plane, the great Sufis. It would certainly not be impossible to point out the affinity between the particular modes of Majesty and Beauty which are manifested in both these Islamic exemplars, that is, in the static stone perfections and in their dynamic living counterparts. But such an a.n.a.lysis of what might be called the perfume of Islamic spirituality could be beyond the scope of a book of this nature. Suffice it to say that the Oneness of the Truth is reflected in all its Revelations not only by the quality of uniqueness but also by that of h.o.m.ogeneity. Thus each of the great theocratic civilizations is a unique and h.o.m.ogeneous whole, differing from all the others as one fruit differs from another and "tasting" the same all through, in all its different aspects. The Muslim mystic can thus give himself totally, without any reserve,6 to a great work of Islamic art; and if it be a shrine he can, by entering it, put it on as the raiment of sanct.i.ty and wear it as an almost organic prolongation of the Sufism which it has helped to triumph in his soul. The same triumph could be furthered by the temple or the cathedral; but he could not "wear" either of these-at least, not until he had actually transcended all forms by spiritual realization which is very different from a merely theoretic understanding.

Sacred art was mentioned in that it provides an immediately obvious example of the compatibility between the universal and the particular. The same compatibility is shown by the symbolism of the circle with its center, its radii, and its circ.u.mference. The word "symbolism" is used here to show that the circle is being considered not as an arbitrary image but as a form which is rooted in the reality it ill.u.s.trates, in the sense that it owes its existence to that reality, of which it is in fact an existential prolongation. If the Truth were not Radiant there could be no such thing as a radius, not even a geometric one, let alone a spiritual path which is the highest example. All radii would vanish from existence; and with this vanishing the universe itself would vanish, for the radius is one of the greatest of all symbols inasmuch as it symbolizes that on which everything depends, namely the connection between the Divine Principle and its manifestations or creations.

Everyone is conscious of "being at a point" or of "having reached a point", even if this be no more than consciousness of having reached a certain age. Mysticism begins with the consciousness that this point is on a radius. It then proceeds by what might be described as an exploitation of this fact, the radius being a Ray of Divine Mercy which emanates from the Supreme Center and leads back to it. The point must now become a point of Mercy. In other words, there must be a deliberate realization or actualization of the Mercy inherent in the point which is the only part of the radius which one can as yet command. This means taking advantage of those possibilities of Mercy which are immediately available, namely the outer formal aspects of religion which, though always within reach, may have been lying entirely neglected or else only made use of exoterically, that is, considering the point in isolation without reference to the radius as a whole.

The radius itself is the religion's dimension of mysticism; thus, in the case of Islam, it is Sufism, which is seen in the light of this symbol to be both particular and universal-particular in that it is distinct from each of the other radii which represent other mysticisms and universal because, like them, it leads to the One Center. Our image as a whole reveals clearly the truth that as each mystical path approaches its End it is nearer to the other mysticisms than it was at the beginning.7 But there is a complementary and almost paradoxical truth which it cannot reveal,8 but which it implies by the idea of concentration which it evokes: increase of nearness does not mean decrease of distinctness, for the nearer the center, the greater the concentration, and the greater the concentration, the stronger the "dose". The concentrated essence of Islam is only to be found in the Sufi Saint who, by reaching the End of the Path, has carried the particular ideals of his religion to their highest and fullest development, just as the concentrated essence of Christianity is only to be found in a St. Francis or a St. Bernard or a St. Dominic. In other words, not only the universality but also the originality of each particular mysticism increases in intensity as the End is approached. Nor could it be otherwise inasmuch as originality is inseparable from uniqueness, and this, as well as universality, is necessarily increased by nearness to the Oneness which confers it.

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Universal Dimensions of Islam Part 1 summary

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