Bismillaah ir Rahmaan ir Rahiim
In the name of Allah, The Merciful, The Compassionate
Spiritual Psychology On the Path of Sufism
By Fleur Nassery Bonnin
The path of Sufism necessarily has its own spiritual psychology within. For the person who walks the path, the early and middle stages of their path are characterised by attempts at self transformation under the guidance of a sheikh according to a large body of teachings of spiritual ontology and metaphysics that could be described in the modern language as spiritual psychology. Attaining knowledge of various levels of self has always been considered the central task in this endeavour. The following article draws on the work of scholar of Sufism Professor William Chittick, from his book Divine Love, where he in turn draws from the work of several Sufis, mostly from Persia (Iran) in the pre-classical period of Sufism, in particular Samāni and Maybudi (both from the 12th Century). Chittick opens his chapter on Spiritual Psychology as follows:
Philosophers and Sufis paid a great deal of attention to analyzing the nature of the human self. Avicenna and others wrote books on psychology, in Arabic 'ilm al-nafs, "knowledge of the soul." Given the routes that modern psychology has taken, it would be more appropriate to translate this term as "spiritual psychology," for its whole purpose was to help souls attach themselves to the realm of the spirit. As for Sufi teachers, they were typically spiritual psychotherapists. They taught disciples how to conform themselves to the models of human perfection set down by the prophets, taking Muhammad's Sunnah as the template for transformation by love (as Christians did with Jesus). In their reading, the Sunnah embraces not only the Prophet's outward and inward practices, but also the various dimensions of his self—his character traits, virtues, understanding, wisdom, love, and realization.
Qur'anic metaphysics outlines a dialogue between God and the souls yet to be brought into existence prior to creation. This crucial dialogue marks the beginning of the circular journey of the souls, from God's presence in pre-eternity, through the downward journey into creation and life in this world, followed by the return journey back to Him. For those who want to meet Him prior to their physical death, this dialogue acts as the anchor point for their spiritual psychology. Through various modes of remembrance, they hope to come back to their fitra, original disposition, that aspect of them who said: Yes, I testify (that you are my Lord). Samāni highlights not only the fact, but the implications of this dialogue thus:
O dervish! He created all existent things at the request of power, but He created Adam and the Adamites at the request of love. He created other things as the Powerful, but He created you as the Friend. First He spoke to you in the Beginningless: He mentioned you, then He named you, then He gave you recognition, then He made you appear.
Samāni immediately describes the ontological limit for this new creation. Its existence must, prior to creation accept its place in the Divine scheme where God is the only Real existent, all other existents are contingent upon Him. A deeper meaning here is that each person, as a contingent existent is already floating on the surface of His Being, like foam floats on the surface of the ocean.
On the day in the Beginningless when they beat the drum for the falcon of the mystery, this is how they beat it: "Annihilation for creation, and His subsistence! Nonexistence for creation, and His existence!"
There is a significant emphasis on the stories that illuminate the ontology of man. Of course, if you want to transform something, you must know its constituent properties in detail. What follows is a quote from Maybudi about qualities of the primary material for the human creature.
He was called Adam because he was created from the surface [adim] of the earth, drawn from every region. Thus He said, "We created man from an extraction of clay" [23:12]. In other words, he was extracted from every region— sweet and briny, soft and hard. In Adam's clay were salty and sweet, coarse and soft, so the natures of his children have become diverse. Among them are both sweet-tempered and bad-tempered, open and closed, generous and stingy, easygoing and difficult, black and white.
Samāni then provides some further commentary on the seemingly paradoxical honour of being created from dust.
The robe of honour on dust and clay is not trivial. We are the ones given eminence by Him. We are the ones pulled up by His remembrance, adorned by His gentleness, made present by His desire, lifted up by His will, made apparent by His artistry, put here by His bounty. He placed within us what He placed….Our work came forth from Knowledge, was displayed by Predetermination, has the mark of Desire, and carries the proclamation of Wisdom.
Continuing in a similar vein Samāni elaborates on the transformation that humble dust undergoes to become Adam, the being to whom the names of all things were given. Sufis understand the deeper level of meaning of Adam being given all the names to be that Adam was given knowledge of all things, hence from the perspective of spiritual psychology this highlights another crucial feature of the human, which is that there is a degree and type of knowing and knowledge within our being that far exceeds the knowledge that we learn in this life from outside of ourselves. However, part of the condition of coming to this world was that we were made forgetful of that knowledge.
When the spirit of that precious pearl Adam settled down in its lodging place at the command of the Faithful Spirit, the Real clothed him in the robe of knowledge, placed the crown of recognition on his head, put the bracelet of secrets on his wrist, and fastened the anklet of good fortune to his foot: And He taught Adam the names, all of them [2:31]. Surely God chose Adam [3:33].
Again, Samāni draws our attention to our constitutional duality, reminding us that we, like all things in creation, have a face toward this world and a face toward the spiritual realm. This, like the above point that we have knowledge of things that our ordinary understanding cannot access, needs to be understood in practical terms. The student on the path, salek, does not need therefore to create new concepts, rely on their normal thought processes or assume much significance in their outer self at all. All of what this spiritual psychology is pointing to is that our journey of transformation is one of stepping away from our outer (bodily and worldly) selves which are referred to in the above quotes as dust. What is apparent to us, our world, our bodies and our thinking and planning is ultimately dust. Dust that we cannot avoid, but dust that we must stop glorying in, protecting and investing in, if we are to be sufficiently available to be aware and face our other side, the higher spiritual side, in order to connect with our higher reality and in fact receive help from the Unseen Realm (ālam al Ghayb).
He compounded, arranged, and put together an individual, whom He called Adam. The density remained with the bodies and bodily things, and the lightness with the spirits.
O dervish! It was an infinite felicity that you were brought into existence from these two meanings that abide through these two essences. Had He not made you into an individual by taking lightness from the spirit and denseness from the dust, you would have been a bad example for the two worlds.
This last sentence from Samāni needs more explanation as it points to certain knowledge that we might, Inshallah go to in the next part of the article.
To show us what our primordial disposition really is, Samāni refers to the Qur'anic passage where God commands the Angels to prostrate to Adam. Recall to mind here that Sufis understand Adam to be the spiritual progenitor of all humans, hence what was real for him is real for all of us, even though time has passed and the world has encapsulated and separated us more and more.
O dervish! He said to the angels, "Prostrate yourselves before Adam," but this level, distinction, rank, and status did not belong to water and clay. It belonged rather to the sultan of the heart. In the core of Adam's heart was deposited one of the divine subtleties, royal secrets, and unseen meanings, a secret concealed by the curtain of Say: "The spirit is of the command of my Lord" [17:85].
He continues, enthralled with the co-presence of the extreme opposites of dust and something higher than the Angels, something that he ultimately attributes to God Himself.
O chevalier! All the intellectuals of the world are biting the fingers of wonder with the teeth of bewilderment: "Why is it that He loves this handful of dust and clay?" By the rightful due of the Real! He loves only Himself, for everyone who loves his own artistry loves himself.
What a marvellous business! He concealed a pearl in an oyster shell and stored a jewel in a box. With water and dust He prepared a citadel. Its spires of eminence could not be reached by the imagination of the others, so they talk only about the citadel's door. They knock on the clay and do not suspect. He made it of a clay of that sort so that they would lose their nerve by looking at it. Which pearl was it? The pearl of love.
Using jewels and pearls as metaphors, Samāni is pointing to something so wondrous inside the human that it attracts God's love. At one level as Samāni says, God loves His own artistry, yet we can take this up an octave by reminding ourselves of the verified Hadith (when God speaks through the Prophet): "He made Adam in His image". This opens a new horizon where it is not only His work, but He Himself that He loves in us. Of course it behoves us to remember the distinction between this Reality and dust! These two couldn't be more different and in Samāni's free rendering below he reveals God's requirement and relation to each.
In another passage, Samāni describes the qualities pertaining to the frames (qawalib), that is, the outer, bodily forms, as contrasted with those that pertain to the hearts (qulub), the inner, spiritual essences. He points out that the body needs to observe the Shariah and perform the commanded acts of obedience, but the heart must devote itself solely to God. The passage follows a discussion of the love established by the Covenant of Alast, which made clear to God's servants that they should be loyal to the Covenant. The body is loyal through servanthood, and the spirit through love.
"O frames, you belong to Me! O hearts, I belong to you!
"O frames, toil! That is what Lordhood requires from servanthood. O hearts, rejoice! Have joy in Me and sing of Me in remembrance. That is what unqualified love demands.
"O frames, yours is need! O hearts, yours is joy!
"O frames, do not let go of obedience! O hearts, obey none but Me!
"O frames, surrender the body on credit! O hearts, deal only in hard cash!"
Do you not see that when there is talk of the bodily frame, promises are made? [But as for him who feared the station of his Lord] and forbade the soul its caprice, surely his refuge will indeed be paradise [79:40–41]. But when there is talk of the heart, there is talk of hard cash: "I sit with him who remembers Me."
"I am with My servant's thoughts of Me."
He is with you wherever you are [57:4].
Beautifully weaving familiar terms into an almost poetic phrase, Samāni captures the difference in God's attitude between people of the outer and people of the inner. Spirituality, as described here is about a here-and-now encounter with God, whereas religion is about paying ones dues in advance so that they are rewarded in the hereafter.
At times Samāni describes the many attributes of Adam's greatness in terms of metaphors such as crowns and fine clothing etc to highlight his standing in God's eyes. However he is sure to correct that whatever attributes may be attributed to Adam, what really gives him any greatness at all comes not from himself;
"O Adam, beware, beware! Do not go after this tree!" But the decree had gone out, and the decree had the upper hand. As soon as Adam put that morsel in his mouth, the greatness of those ornaments fell away from him. Adam was left naked, with only the crown of Surely God chose Adam [3:33] and the robe of Then his Lord chose him [20:122]. Thus people will come to know that authentic greatness has no need for those trappings.
On the theme of the slip, and sinfulness in general, Maybudi and Samāni both take an ontological perspective, returning to those attributes that are basic to both God and man.
In the whole Qur'an, no verse offers more hope than this. He is saying, "Everyone does what comes from him, and from everyone comes what is worthy of him. The servant returns to sin, and the Lord returns to forgiveness."
Chittick comments that:
Maybudi finds a reference to the inevitability of human sinfulness and the simultaneous inevitability of divine forgiveness in the verse "Say: 'Each acts according to his own manner' " (17:84).
A beautiful commentary from Maybudi on this theme says:
It is reported that the servant will be given his book in his hand and he will see his acts of disobedience. He will be ashamed to read them out. The Real will address him and say, "On the day when you were doing that and you had no shame, I did not disgrace you but instead concealed it. Today when you are ashamed, how could I disgrace you?" This is what the Prophet said: "God does not curtain a servant's sin in this world to reproach him with it on the Day of Resurrection."
In a touching and illuminating analogy Maybudi takes our understanding of the Qur'anic aya "Each acts according to his own manner" a step further, by locating the origin for such 'mannerisms' in the timelessness of God's order. God knew what he was making and why.
The child goes outside and busies himself playing with the other children and dirties the clothes. He comes back home with dirty clothes, so he hides in a corner, distressed and bewildered. He keeps on saying, "Mother, I'm sleepy." The mother knows that the child is afraid of her rebuke. "Dearest," she says, "come. I sent you outside only after I had the soap and water in hand, for I knew what you would do."
Chittick refers to Maybudi's view of Satan and human sin.
Maybudi explains that Satan's whispering was a divine mercy. After all, human beings, created weak and forgetful, could not avoid sin, but God put the blame on Satan.
…for they sinned, but He turned the sin over to Satan's whispering.
Continuing with the notion of human sin, and its relation to God's love for man and the role of Satan, Chittick introduces the notions of the creative command and the religious command. The creative command covers those events that come to be directly as a result of God's command; "…Be, and it comes to be" (36:82). The creative command can never be disobeyed. Whereas the religious command is the more familiar commands of the scriptures and Hadith literature, as Chittick says below, the "do's and don'ts". For example humans are commanded to avoid certain things, and clearly we don't do that all the time, hence the religious command can be disobeyed.
The prophets invite people to truth and guidance, and the satans call them to falsehood and loss. Prophetic messages convey commands and prohibitions: "Do this, don't do that." Satans urge people to ignore the prophets and follow their own feelings and opinions. For their part, people have sufficient freedom to assume responsibility for obeying or disobeying.
The creative and religious commands often appear to be at odds. This was obvious to everyone, and it led theologians to engage in endless debates over issues like free will and predestination. If we pay close attention to Tawhid (unity of existence) and the creative command (Amre), all is predetermined. If we look at the religious command, people can choose whether to follow prophetic guidance. Typically, theologians concluded that human beings are neither totally constrained nor completely free. Everything goes back to God, but people have some responsibility for their own actions. Inasmuch as they are responsible, they will be called to account in the next world.
We are created weak by God's creative command and unable to always obey God's religious command! For Sufis like Samāni and Maybudi this points to God's mercy. Humans must try and at times they will inevitably fail, and when they fail they turn to God for both forgiveness and help. Our failing and His forgiveness are also part of the Creative Command.
One of the revealed books tells us that God said, "O child of Adam! You keep on returning to sins, and I keep on returning to forgiveness."
We might be tempted to ask the question; Why didn't God create humans able to carry out His religious command? One answer lies in understanding the goal of Sufi psychology. As alluded to above, humans already subsist in God but they don't know it and the goal of Sufi psychology is to gradually recognise this reality to varying extents. This is the specifically human journey, no other creature can take this journey, and whilst it is at times burdensome, it is also a journey into love. There are many issues blinding man from this love and recognition of his subsistence, one of the greatest is man's pride and his self reliance. What better method to show humans that they cannot progress on the spiritual path toward Tawhid (Unity) entirely on their own efforts and wits (which are other than God) than to allow them to fail in this regard and therefore gradually learn that they need to rely on God, the One, not only for His forgiveness but also for all their needs.
O chevalier! He placed the burden of His severity only on a handful of dust. "'Neither the heavens nor the earth embraces Me, but the heart of My faithful servant does embrace Me.' The Splendorous Throne cannot support the gaze of My majesty, and the Footstool cannot carry My beginningless prosperity. It is the secret core of the heart of Adam and the Adamites that carries the burden of contemplating Me."
It seems that in this love relationship between God and man, God loves Himself in man. God is always with His beloved man; "He is with you wherever you are" (57:4); "We are closer to him than his jugular vein" (50:16), but poor man is not aware of it. He has to make himself worthy by giving otherness up, and most importantly the otherness of his worldly self. Also as he is not conscious of that closeness he keeps looking for Him outside, while He is with him. It is clear that heart is the key. We all have this key, why can't we use it? This is the theatrical drama in which we play in the theatre of life, since we mistakenly use the heart as a place of emotion, attraction and love for things and people of this world instead of what it was designed for. He has pointed this out to us repeatedly as we have covered earlier in parts of this article. Only very few people hear the message!
This concludes part one of the article and in our next article we will continue with the soul's journey on the Sufi path of love.
Divine Love Islamic Literature and the Path to God by William C Chittick (2013) page 105 (Chittick)
ibid, page 78 (Samāni)
ibid, page 94 (Samāni)
ibid, page 62 (Maybudi)
ibid, page 53 (Samāni)
ibid, page 60 (Samāni)
ibid, page 114 (Samāni)
ibid, page 116 (Samāni)
ibid, page 116 (Samāni)
ibid, page 116 (Samāni)
ibid, page 116 (Chittick)
ibid, page 117 (Samāni)
ibid, page 74 (Samāni)
ibid, page 75 (Maybudi)
ibid, page 75 (Maybudi)
ibid, page 80 (Maybudi)
ibid, page 76 (Maybudi)
ibid, page 85 (Chittick)
ibid, page 85 (Maybudi)
ibid, page 88 (Chittick)
ibid, page 75 (Maybudi)
ibid, page 121 (Samāni)