by Bahram Jassemi

Reprinted from the Journal of the Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabi Society, Volume XXXVIII, 2005. An earlier version of this article was originally presented at a symposium of the Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabi Society in Oxford.

The Dimensions of the Mystical Journey

"You should know that man has been on the journey ever since God brought him out of non-being into being"[1]

The Shaykh al-Akbar, Ibn 'Arabi, describes the state of being of the man on the journey in his Risâlat al-Anwâr and points out that it is only possible for man to cease journeying in the fifth abode (mawtin), namely in Paradise or in hell. The six mawatin (abodes)[2] are ordered as follows:

This order summarises the phenomenology of the mystical journeys and also their ontology. If man has been on the journey since the Day of Alast and does not relinquish this state of travelling except in Paradise or in Hell, then he is ontologically a traveller, an existence that moves from one world to the other. This is the first fact that must be known by the sâlik (traveller). It is also necessary for him to know that there is no security on the journey. Thirdly, the traveller may only seek at each mawtin that which is required of him by that mawtin; thus he should not aim for fanâ' (annihilation) if he is not at the station of fanâ', and so on. Should he try to do so, the waqt – that is, the anchoring of his own being in his present state – will be broken. This is of the utmost importance for the Sufi, because he is said to be "the Son of his Time" (as-sufi ibn al-waqt). From a metaphysical viewpoint, the attainment of the reality of Union is through the conscious realisation of the intended vision, in other words that he sees his own non-being in the light of the One.[3]

The question now arises as to why a person, a Sufi, should choose deliberately to embark on the mystical journey when he is ontologically on that journey in any case. Such a question forms a paradox inasmuch as the solution to the mystery appears when both sides of the paradox are considered simultaneously,[4] a fact that at first sight appears confusing. The Shaykh al-Akbar stressed, however, that man must first become fully aware, in order that he may travel with his whole being. For the traveller to find out where he stands, he must also incorporate a further journey within the ontological journey. The Shaykh made it clear, furthermore, that the mystery can be penetrated only by addressing the paradox, not merely by thought, but rather with all of one’s actions and interactions. The end of the conscious and intentional journey is the degree of baqâ' (subsistence), and this is attained after "re-emerging".[5]

In this article we will briefly examine the various forms of the mystical journey. The forms of the journey may be divided into the following fundamental types: tartîb (the way of Levels) and wasâ'it (by means of an intermediary), which are both also known as tarîq â'm (the general way), and the form of the special aspects, tarîq wujûhi khâs. There is a further form, qâb qausayn au adnâ' , which will be included together with the form of the special aspects. It should be mentioned that the ways of tartîb and wasâ'it are based in principle on the guidance of a shaykh, whereas that of the special aspects may also be undertaken alone, such that the seeker is plunged into a metaphysical space by means of sudden and immediate contact with the a'yân-ath-thâbitah (the fixed entities or archetypes). The degree, intensity and depth of perception within that world determine the seeker’s future station.

1. The mystical journey through Tartîb (the way of the Levels/degrees)

This form of the journey moves through various marâtib (levels or degrees), and the traveller must recognise and pass beyond certain veils of light and darkness, one after another, until he comes to a degree appropriate to his own excellence. The level that befits each person is to be found in the sûr (trumpet /horn), and the basis of this is stated in the Qur'an as follows: "None of us there is but has a known station".[6] It should be remembered that the levels are ontological, which is to say that being and non-being form two poles, and it is between these that the Divine is mirrored (huwa lâ huwa). The identification of each seeker with one of these levels is equally his respective state of consciousness of the level or station where he currently stands, if it is possible to speak of "standing" in this sense at all – given that the seeker cannot and must not stand still.[7] Seen from without, the sâlik is at a particular maqâm. From within he identifies himself with the level of being that is completed by certain of the Divine Names. This level then forms his consciousness, his identity, his being.

The Risâlat al-Anwâr describes a type of journey that is not identical with the traditional way as described by Abû Nasr al-Sarrâj Tûsi or Qushairy, nor is it based on the relationship of a shaykh and a student. Nonetheless, I consider such a journey to be a way through the marâtib (levels). The seeker progresses step by step; he examines each step, without obtaining a direct and immediate relationship to his 'ayn ath-thâbitah. Ibn 'Arabî classifies this journey under khalwa (retreat) and describes how the seeker first unveils the world of the senses. The next degree is the unveiling of the imaginary world (khayâl), so that the world of meanings (ma'nâ) becomes visible. Later he sees how life spreads through the bodies. In the following stages he reaches a state from which he may be informed of his own martabah (level/degree). After this he comes to see the forms of all mankind, then he arrives before the Throne of the All-Compassionate (sarîr). From this point on he knows all things according to Reality and not as the ordinary person sees them. Then he is himself unveiled; he is invisible to himself, his self is nowhere to be found, there is no trace of being in him (fanâ'). The next principal stage is his returning to himself and his remaining (baqâ') in that which he is. He is brought back to the world of the senses.

When reading this text, one notices that it is a description of the way into the sûr (horn) whose form is a reversal of that of the emanation of all things from the Divine. The wide part of the horn contains the amâ' (the Cloud) and the narrow part the earth. The forms of all things are contained in the sûr, as the word suwar (forms, images) implies. It should be remembered that the horn is called al-barzakh as-sûrî (the intermediate world of the forms).[8] The fact that, after finding himself before the Throne of the All-Compassionate, the sâlik is given knowledge of all things and then becomes hidden from himself, shows that his human consciousness has been lost at this degree. He no longer finds and feels himself, since his own consciousness was that of a person, an observer, whereas here there is no longer any observing, no more considerations of duality. His consciousness/existence is now, rather, identical to the forms that are manifested in the sûr. Consequently there remains "no trace of being in him", and this clearly refers to worldly being in the sense that we normally experience it. For how can a person re-emerge if there is no longer any trace of being in him? This is in turn a paradox.

When the traveller reaches the Throne of the All-Compassionate he has arrived at the first bodily form that encompasses the entire universe. He witnesses here the full extent of the Divine Compassion in the form of effusion, that is to say that "everything that you have seen up to now you will see all the more in him".[9] And this is the recognition of the Holy One who bestows His Compassion on the traveller.

After this begins his journey in the subtle world of the spirits, which cannot be reached by men. For this he becomes veiled and annihilated. The Divine Compassion returns him to his being by means of the Beautiful Name hayy, since he no longer possesses any will or strength of his own. He has become a "non-being" in the subtle world of the spirits. Only when he has attained baqâ' (subsistence) is he able to experience the ordinary world again. He can even re-experience all that has happened to him, but, as the Shaykh al-Akbar stresses, in another form.

From a phenomenological perspective the experiences in the sûr (horn) differ from those of the phenomenal world. In the former, one is witness to imaginal forms that constitute the basis of Being as a vast but imperceptible system that can never be comprehended. Here one experiences processes that are controlled by that system and with which one must align oneself, having made this journey once only. He who returns is no longer the same person that he once was. He does not even need to speak, because the intensity of the experience of finding himself before the sarîr has left him nothing that can be spoken about. The Shaykh al-Akbar gives important information on this phenomenon.[10] It follows that "silence" (samt) is not an everyday act but rather a status that is reached by only a small number of people, particularly in the case of attaining silence of the heart.

2. The mystical journey through wasâ'it (by means of an intermediary)

There is a Man who is a being with two aspects or faces: al-insân al-kâmil. He is the most important connecting link that joins man with God across the bridge of love. He is a mirror in which all the Names of God are reflected and become apparent. He is the comprehensive separating Word (kalama-fâsilah-jâmi-a)[11] and his station is ahadîyyah.[12] He is able to intervene in creation, since he stands on the dividing line between hazrat ilâhî and hazrat kaunî. Consequently he is also the shaykh or pir through whose aid the sâlik may look upon the Divine. He serves as the mirror. Important here is the fact that the Perfect Man has two aspects, the divine and the human, and the theory of the walî is based on this fact. Walî is God the Great in the general sense Who, as the Friend, stands close to every believer. In a specific sense he is the perfect man who, as the friend of God, is also the friend of any believer. This is the walî khâs,[13] who can intervene in being itself. The Pole or qutb is nothing other than the walî who oversees the whole world and who himself closes at night the door of mankind left ajar, while he opens the door of the Beloved.[14]

This forms the basis on which the relationship between shaykh and student is founded. What the student learns from his shaykh is seeking or sulûk. The sâlik travels through various maqâm, while remaining under the instruction of the shaykh. Accounts vary considerably as to the number of the maqâm, but that given by Abû Nasr al-Sarrâj Tûsi is generally accepted. He names the seven stations[15] of the journey through which a sâlik must pass under the guidance of the shaykh. The shaykh is the master, the walî, the mirror and the intermediary, and maintains a constant dialogue with the student. Shaykh and student face each other like two mirrors, each reflecting the light of the other. These reflections inspire and purify the heart of the student until he is in a position to reach the maqâm by his own efforts, albeit with the guidance of the shaykh.

Mention should also be made at this point of the spiritual state (hâl). Hâl is a gift from the Divine grace; it cannot be obtained by one’s own will. Depending on the situation of the traveller it is possible that hâl may be given to him in the form of wârid (inrush). Such states always arise in pairs, in opposition and complementarily:[16] for example, first a state of qabz (contraction) is reached, and then after a certain time the state of bast (expansion) is given. It is of the greatest importance that these opposing and complementary states arise in pairs, since one of them counteracts the other. Both are aspects of a cosmic event that gives the traveller the impulse necessary for his journey. If only one of them were to occur, the traveller would remain forever in that state.

From this cosmic event the seeker receives the tajallî (Divine manifestation), which may take one of two forms: tajallî jalâl (manifestation of Majesty) or tajallî jamâl (manifestation of Beauty). All that comes from Beauty (jamâl) is from His Gentleness (lutfîyyah); whatever comes from Majesty (jalâl) is from His Severity (qahrîyyah). The origin of both of these are His Names jamîl (the Beautiful) and jalîl (the Majestic). The cosmic event described above is an interplay between these two names: at one moment the world goes into non-existence (ma'dûm) through the Name jalîl, and at the next moment it comes into existence (maujûd) through the Name jamîl. Since the Name jamîl is under the order of the Name az-zâhir (the Manifest/Outward), which in turn is under ar-rahmân (the All-Compassionate), man experiences the qualities and actions of this form more often. The Name jalîl, on the other hand, is under the Name al-bâtin (the Nonmanifest/Inward) and generally remains in sitr, or concealed. Thus the Divine does not manifest as jalâl in this world. In this case the seeker receives only the states resulting from the characteristics and actions of this Name, such as qabz.[17]

Seen thus, the traveller does not remain in a single state; his heart vacillates and moves between states within a matter of seconds. This situation is known as taraddud (vacillation), and has four principal types: jahl (ignorance, stopping), shakk (doubt), zann (surmise) and ilm (knowledge). All that effuses from the Unseen arrives in the heart and gives rise to further changes of state. 'Abd ar-Razzâq Kâshânî gives a series of definitions concerning the heart.[18] The Shaykh al-Akbar acknowledges the heart as the place of knowledge, and in this regard it is larger even than ar-rahmân, the Divine Compassion. Only the ahl Allâh (the people of God) are aware of this fact and follow closely the khawâtir (incoming thoughts) that manifest in their hearts as tajallî. Ibn 'Arabî names the state of sajdat al qalb (prostration of the heart before the Divine) as the highest state of bliss.[19] The importance to the Sufi of the purity of the heart (tahârah) should be noted here. The purification of the heart is a recognition of the realisation of God, of the knowledge of tawhîd (Unity), of the knowledge of the beautiful Names of the Divine (asmâ' husnâ) and of the knowledge of all in this world that is conjoined to the Divine.

Despite all that has been said here about the heart and its importance for the mystical journey through marâtib, however, we should not forget that, owing to the particular role it plays, the heart is a place of direct communion with God. The address of the Divine is "cast" into the heart directly, without any intermediary action by the shaykh. Furthermore, unveiling (kashf) is nothing other than the moving aside of the layers or veils that come between the heart and the light of the Unseen.

The metaphysics of Mullâh Sadrâ Shîrâzî can more accurately be called a metaphysics of the heart.[20] The metaphysics of the heart contains a psychological system in which the heart is seen as an intermediate station that binds together the nafs (human nature/ego) and the rûh (spirit). When the nafs has reached perfection through re-education, it passes over to the heart. When the level of the heart reaches perfection, the consciousness of the heart is attained. This is the longing for Union. Only from the level of the spirit does the movement forward then begin towards the mystery (sirr).

3. The mystical journey as the way of the special aspects (tarîq wujûhi khâs)

One of Ibn 'Arabî’s commentators, Khârazmî, describes this way as follows: "This path leads by way of the relationship of the man to the Divine Presence through his own 'ayn ath-thâbitah (fixed entities)".[21] Such a relationship occurs directly and without any intermediary, and its basis is set out by the Qur'anic verse "yuhibbihum- wa-yuhibbûnahû"(Q. 5: 54, Al-Mâ'idah). This is to say that since God loved Man in pre-eternity, and since the love of Man for God is also ultimately from God, there exists the possibility of a direct relationship to God through the heart of Man. "The sâlik (traveller) is not concerned with the stations and degrees here, except when he returns from the Divine to the human".[22]

We know that the a'yân ath-thâbitah are the forms in Reality of the Divine Names, and Khajah Parsa, another of Ibn 'Arabî’s commentators, says that when a man can see these, he has seen the Divine Itself.[23] The a'yân ath-thâbitah are the degrees, the names and the qualities of God and are engraved in the heart of every person. They are the foundation of the relationship of the Divine to the human and vice versa. Each person may come to recognise the Divine according to his own 'ayn ath-thâbitah, and the Divine also recognises each person according to these forms that are carried within each.

The tajallî (manifestation) is accordingly a wholly personal tajallî, and consequently there is no general tajallî. This fact was pointed out by 'Ayn al-Quzât Hamadânî prior to his martyrdom in the year 1131: "The Names of God the Great are countless. You should look into your own pocket if you want to find out what you have been granted of them all … He will manifest Himself to you (tajallî) from the degree of the Names … in each heart He keeps a different secret, and to each heart He tells a different secret."[24] We know that the Sufi masters have called this way "the way of sirr (the mystery)".[25]

From a psychological perspective, the manifestations of God form an entirely personal Divine form for the person’s innermost consciousness. Metaphysically, this relationship to the Divine occurs at the level of the wâhidîyyah (Oneness) and not at that of the ahadîyyah (Uniqueness); the manifestations witnessed by the sâlik are thus those of his own rabb and not of Allâh. Accordingly, such recognition of the Divine is limited to the rabb al-khâs (the particular Lord). Each person knows Him according to the form that he desires and loves, and to the extent of his istiîdâd (preparedness) and his ideals. This is what Ibn 'Arabî means by khalaq al-haqq fil-iîtiqâd (God created in Belief).

It should be remembered here that from pre-eternity, since the Day of Alast, the Divine Names have been impregnated with shauq (yearning) to be manifested. All the Names of God that are not yet known remain in huzn (sorrow, grief) of ardent desire prior to tajallî; they seek a majlâ (place of manifestation), and this place is the heart of a believer with istiîdâd (preparedness).[26] Viewed thus, such recognition is each person’s empirical experience of God.

Clearly, then, no person is capable of being the place of manifestation of all the Divine Names. No person can allow multiple Divinities to enter him simultaneously. It is, however, possible for different tajallî to take place one after the other. Each tajallî arrives differently, reveals itself differently and changes the person in a new way. The Shaykh al-Akbar thus said that there is no repetition in the manifestation.[27] In no case can the dhât (the Divine Essence) be perceived, since this is at the level of ahadîyyah and beyond the realm of the human.

Another of Ibn 'Arabî’s commentators, Shaykh Heydar Amulî, described this form of sulûk as sulûki mahbûbî (journey as the beloved). He speaks of it thus: "… Sulûki mahbûbî does not depend upon knowledge, practice, words and actions …"[28] He adds that attainment occurs even prior to the sulûk. He compares this to the other form, sulûki muhibbî (journey as the lover) that only brings the seeker to his aim after long mujâhadah (endeavour) and khalwah (retreat) under the guidance of the shaykh.

Amulî gives a wonderful description of miîrâj (spiritual ascent) that we also know as qab qausayn au adnâ. This is a maqâm of which only such chosen ones as the Prophet are capable. It consists of a circle formed of two arcs. One arc is the qaus bâliqah (the arc of ascent); the other is qaus nâzilah (the arc of descent). The traveller undertakes his journey in this circular form, continually moving from wujûb (the necessary) to imkân (the possible) and other like movements. Despite this, he is capable of discrimination. The highest maqâm that he can reach on this journey is the degree of au adnâ (even closer), in which discrimination is also no longer possible. This is the miîrâj of the prophets.[29] It is clear that this state cannot be reached through mujâhadah and marâtib; it is the status of the chosen ones, and happens only by Divine favour. Within a short time the traveller experiences countless unveilings (kashf) that would be too much for "ordinary" people to withstand and would drive them to madness. In this sense a "chosen" person is he or she who is capable of undergoing such experiences and remaining healthy and collected. So seen, this mystical experience is the highest level of initiation for seekers in Sufism.

Excursus

The mystical journey is the form of practice of the Sufi way (tarîqa). Every person who feels awakened and has begun to marvel at Being (hayrah) accordingly feels called to begin to follow the way of the transcendent. And this is only the beginning. The Sufi learns first to know himself, since an insight gained without knowledge of who he is cannot be a true witnessing of the Divine. For this the adept seeks a shaykh (or is "called" by the shaykh) who can help him to change his inner structure by means of re-education, to conform to the Unseen and to develop the taste (zauq) he requires for the long journey. From the first steps, Love begins, since if there is not Love his steps are counted, and the adept will find no strength to continue on the way. The deeper he swims in this ocean, the greater becomes his yearning for realisation of the Holy. This in turn precipitates more Love. Notwithstanding which of the ways he takes, whether by the degrees (marâtib) or by direct and immediate inrush (wârid) of the Divine, the eye of the heart ('ayn al-qalb) now sees the contours of that which was sought, made possible by relationship with the Highest.

Ibn 'Arabî’s legacy to us is a detailed description of the Way that is like a map of the inner journey through the Beautiful Names of God and their manifestations (tajallî) in existence. These are signs (âya) and milestones for the seeker, by which he may step from one station (maqâm) to the next. When the seeker has reached the point at which he can enjoy the Divine Gentleness (lutf) in its totality, he is worthy to appear before the Throne of the All-Compassionate (sarîr ar-rahmân), in obliteration (mahw) and veiled from himself, such that no trace of existence remains in him. This is the highest point that he can reach. Then the All-Compassionate endows him with the Name the Living (hayy) and he is returned to existence. From this moment he remains forever in this state of baqâ' (subsistence).

It hardly need be mentioned that prayer and dhikr are the constant companions of the traveller; without these he cannot bring the Divine Names into his awareness and internalise them. Only when these are internalised can the internal upheaval come about that places the traveller in a position to undergo the process of realisation of the Divine insight. The other function of prayer and dhikr is to deepen the Divine Love, which is a further important aspect of the mystical way. This Love lends the seeker a deep feeling of security, closeness and certainty that may be called tawakkul. Without this, the seeker finds himself lost in the labyrinth of the ways. With tawakkul, however, the seeker may align himself to that Face that does not become lost. For,

kullun shaii hâlik illâ wajhahu

Everything is annihilated except His Face.[30]

1. Ibn 'Arabî, Risâlat al-Anwâr, ed. Najîb Mayil Hirawî (Maula Publishers, Tehran, 1996), p. 57.

2. Ibid., p. 156.

3. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Die Erkenntnis und das Heilige (Diederichs, 1990), p. 414. For the phenomenological interpretation of this term see also Bahram Jassemi, Der Weg der Liebe (Verlag Videel, Niebüll, Germany, 2003), p. 26.

4. The great anthropologist and cybernetics theorist Gregory Bateson has suggested an interesting solution to this. In his book Mind and Nature (Dutton, New York, 1979) he points out that the world "is a slowly healing tautology". If the inner consistency of a tautology is torn, it is moved up to the next level of abstraction. Thus also are the eternal realities (forms).

5. Risâlat al-Anwâr, p. 166. The traveller begins with the unveiling (kashf) of the world of the senses, so that he may see through the walls. At the penultimate degree he becomes obliterated (mahw) and no trace of worldly existence remains in him. Then he re-emerges.

6. Wa mâ minnâ illâ lahû maqâmun ma'lûm. (Q. 37: 164, As-Sâffât)

7. To stand still is tantamount to a relapse, a situation that Sufis strive to avoid.

8. Risâlat al-Anwâr, p. 166. For a detailed interpretation, see also William C. Chittick, The Self-Disclosure of God: Principles of Ibn al-'Arabî’s Cosmology (Albany, NY, 1998).

9. Risâlat al-anwâr, p. 166.

10. Ibn 'Arabî, Hilyah al-abdâl, ed. Najib Mayil Hirawi (Maula Publishers, Tehran, 1996), p. 12: "… And the hâl (state) of samt (silence) is the station of wahy (revelation), and silence is the consequence of Divine insight …". Ibid., p. 11: "... to him, who is silent both in speech and in the heart, the mystery (sirr) will be unveiled, and God manifests himself to him (tajallî)."

11. 'Abd ar-Razzâq Kâshânî, Sharhi-Fusûs (Cairo, 1321H), p. 11.

12. Ibn 'Arabî, 'Anqâ' mughrib (Cairo, 1975), p. 42.

13. Ibn 'Arabî, Futûhât al-Makkîyyah. Commentary by Mohsen Jahângîrî (University of Tehran, 1996), p. 468.

14. From a well-known Rubai by Abû Said Abu al-Khayr.

15. Abû Nasr al-Sarrâj Tûsi, Kitâb al-luma'fi tasawwûf, ed. R.A. Nicholson (Jahan Publishers, Tehran, 2003).

16. Bahram Jassemi, Der Weg der Liebe, pp. 24–7.

17. Ibn 'Arabî, Futûhât al-Makkîyyah. II, p. 542. Commentary by Mohsen Jahangîrî: p. 357.

18. 'Abd ar-Razzâq Kâshânî, Istilâhat al Sufîyyah, ed. Dr Jafar (Tehran, 1976), p. 168.

19. Futûhât al-Makkîyyah. III, pp. 302–3.

20. Henry Corbin, Osman Yahya, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Histoire de la Philosophie Islamique (Amir Kabir Publishers, Tehran, 1973). Dr Mishkat ad-Dînî, Philosophy of Sadr ad-Dîn Shîrâzî (Agah Publishers, Tehran, 1999). It should be mentioned that sirr or khafi (the veiled) of the Sufis is equivalent to the mystery. This is also the level of wahdânîyyah (fayz ath-thânî = The Second Emanation).

21. Taj-iddin Hossein ibni-Hassan al-Khârazmî, Sharhi Fusûs al-Hikam, ed. Najib Mayil Harawî (Maula Publishers, Tehran, 1996), p. 30.

22. Ibid.

23. Khâjah-Muhammad-Pârsâ, Sharhi Fusûs al-Hikam, ed. Jalil Messgar Nejâd (Tehran, 1987).

24. Letters of 'Ayn al-Quzât Hamadânî, ed. Dr Monzavi and Dr Osseiran (Asatir Publishers, Tehran, 1998), book 1, pp. 269–70.

25. Al-Khârazmî, ibid., p. 30. He also mentions here that the Greatest Shaykh calls this way the way of shattâr. In Sufi psychology this degree is equated with khafi (the basis of the soul), at which shuhûd (the contemplative witnessing of the Divine) is possible. See also Bahram Jassemi, Die Psychologie der Liebe im Sufismus (unpublished).

26. Najmi-al-dîn Râzi, Marmûzâti Asadî dar Mazmûrâti Dawûdî, ed. Shafii Kadkanî (Tehran, 1973).

27. Lâ-Takrâr fiîl-Tajallî: Ibn 'Arabî cites this saying from Abû Tâlib Makkî see Osman Yahya: Futûhât al-Makkîyyah, Vol. IV, no. 248 (Cairo, 1975).

28. Shaykh Seyyed Heydar Amulî: Kitâbi Nass il Nusûs, ed. Mohammed Resa Jauzi (Rozaneh Publishers, Tehran, 1996), p. 115.

29. Ibid., p. 83. A poetic description of this journey may be found in Al-Isrâ'ilâ Maqâm al-Asra'by Ibn 'Arabî, ed. Dr. Ansari (Tahuri Publishers, Tehran, 1997).

30. The Qur'anic term wajhallâh (the Face of God) is the externalisation of the Divine Names and Qualities at all levels of being, and is thus the structure of the universe. See Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Die Erkenntnis und das Heilige, p. 438.