The Time of Science and the Sufi Science of Time
Physics used to teach us that space is a kind of absolute container, separate from the flow of time. In this classical or Newtonian conception, objects traveled through or remained stationary in space, which itself was not subject to change or to internal variations. The three dimensions of space were the same, always and everywhere. Galileo's observation of the moons of Jupiter would eventually lead to the fundamental assertion, so damaging to the prevailing Christian or traditional cosmology of the time, that in fact the laws down here on earth and the laws up there in the heavens are the very same. Our "space" as we experience it on earth, according to its inviolable coordinates of width, height, and depth, or the famous x, y, and z of the Cartesian coordinate system exists uniformly throughout the universe and is governed by the same rules. With the dismissal of the ether (the fifth element the celestial spheres were thought to be made of) and the adoption of an atomist theory, the physical vision of the universe was one of billiard balls colliding in a uniform and static vacuum, with things like electromagnetism and thermal energy thrown into the mix.
In this conception, time was a measure and nothing more, and was itself assumed to be constant and unchanging. One used time in frequency and velocity values, but time itself had nothing essentially to do with the nature of space and certainly nothing to do with physical objects themselves. The great paradigm shift in physics came with Einstein's special theory of relativity, which was later to be expanded upon in his general theory of relativity. In addition to showing that there is no absolute frame of reference for physical measurements, the theory also demonstrated mathematically that what we ordinarily think of as space and time are actually intertwining realities – or two aspects of the same reality. How we move through space changes how we move through time, at least depending on the point of observation. If I travel from Earth for a period of time near the speed of light and then return, a much longer period of time will have elapsed from Earth's frame of reference than will have elapsed from my own frame of reference, in some sort of space vehicle for example. Time also changes depending on how close I am to a strong gravitational field. A clock in orbit high above the earth, for example, will run slightly slower than an identical clock on the surface of the earth.
Now, many books have been written in the last few decades claiming that the teachings of Eastern religions such as Buddhism and the finding of modern physics, specifically quantum mechanics and relativity theory, are really the same, and much is made of the spiritual significance of this new physics.2 Though it is a topic for another forum, I believe that the perceived intersection of physics and mysticism or religion results from a sublimation of certain hypothetical assumptions of physical data on the one hand, and a denaturing of the spiritual doctrines on the other. That is to say, certain interpretations of the physical data, such as the idea that the observer influences the state vector collapse, and the notion of multiple universes arising out of the actualization of the wave function of particles, are nothing more than philosophical struggles on the part of physicists and laymen to come to grips with the data. They are not demanded by the data themselves, which is why many physicists who agree on the same data have sometimes wildly different models for accounting for those data.3 On the religious side, one comes across pat explanations of spiritual doctrines taken out of their traditional context, and Buddhism is reduced to a group of clever insights about our mind and the nature of the world.
Thus I want to be careful of including the findings of physics in a paper on the experience of time and non-time at a conference on Ibn al-'Arabī. I may joyously proclaim that Ibn al-'Arabī told us in the thirteenth century what physicists claim to have discovered only a few decades ago, but what happens when the scientists change their minds? After all, despite what the popular literature and movies tell us, there are enormous lacunae in physics, and for all we know the spatio-temporal conception ushered in by Einstein may one day itself be overturned by something as radically different. To give you some examples, quantum mechanics works for very small things, and relativity works for very big things, but at a certain point in between, for medium sized things, the theories become incompatible. This was the problem with Newtonian or classical physics: for many purposes the theory worked just fine, but physicists were puzzled because it did not work for all observed phenomena. Thus Newtonian equations will correctly predict how a baseball will travel through space, but it took relativity to correctly account for the orbit of the planet Mercury. Our present idea of gravity and the mass of the universe should have the universe flying apart, but since it does not actually do so, physicists posit dark matter, which accounts for 98 percent of the mass of the universe. The problem is since we cannot see or measure this dark matter, we do not know what it is, or really if it is there.
So why start a discussion of time at an Ibn 'Arabī Society gathering with physics? Firstly, despite the fact that classical physics is part of history as far as scientists are concerned, its world view still dominates the consciousness of the age. It is what is most typically taught in high school textbooks, and its assumptions are built into popular language about the subject. The next time you hear someone say "fundamental building blocks of matter" know that such a notion is completely classical in its origin. All our notions of mass, force, and energy are usually classical conceptions, that is to say conceptions beginning from the bifurcation of the world into measurable and subjective knowledge by Descartes, then Galileo's uniformity of the universal laws, and finally Newton's brilliant synthesis. Moreover, these ideas, together with the advent of the heliocentric model, was a major force, perhaps the most important force, in sidelining Christianity in the Western world. First the Church abdicated its claim to having knowledge of the natural world, and while it spent the next few centuries in the domain of moral and spiritual questions, scientists gradually reduced the world to physical bits, reduced man to a hyper developed animal, reduced animals to complex arrangements of atoms, and reduced consciousness to complex patterns of synaptic activity in the brain. Meanwhile the philosophers and pseudo-philosophers of scientism were busy trying to convince themselves and everyone else that truth was provided only by quantitative measurement. The rest was quality, which fell on the side of subjective feeling, and as we all were supposed to know, feelings are really just complex instincts, which somehow result from the structure of the brain, resulting from the structure of DNA, resulting from the happenstance arrangement of atoms.
Relativity theory and quantum mechanics overturned classical mechanics, which had itself overturned Christian cosmology. The paradigm shift ushered in by such figures as Einstein, Max Planck, and Neils Bohr is important because it destroyed the destroyer. Heliocentrism was erased, because from the point of view of relativity it is nonsense to say that the earth "goes round" the sun, as it is to say that the sun goes round the earth, because there is no fixed frame of reference to say which is going around which. The sun's gravitational field is stronger than the earth's, but the earth does pull on the sun, and because there is no absolute frame of reference anymore, then certainly it is correct to say the sun goes around the earth. Geocentrism actually comes out slightly ahead, since it at least corresponds to our experience from our frame of reference. From the point of view of science, however, we have lost both geocentrism and heliocentrism.
As for universal laws, we find that things do not behave the same everywhere. For example a clock seems to run at a different speed high above the earth. Light does not always travel in a straight line, but seems to bend from different points of reference, because space itself seems to bend and take on all sorts of shapes depending on the objects in it.
Then we discover that atoms are not mere little balls. Rather, it seems the only way we can properly describe what seems to be happening on very small scales is through various kinds of mathematical form, very unlike a little ball. The only reason scientists talk about wave-particle duality is because the measurements they get look sometimes like a particle, sometimes like a wave, but they never have nor ever will see what causes those measurements. The relationships between the "atoms" is mathematically incredibly complex and is more like threads in a tapestry than balls flying through space, but of course they are neither. The problem is further complicated by Bell's theorem, which shows entities like electrons to be connected, as far as we can tell, instantaneously even at distances too great for a light-speed communication to take place. This is important because relativity theory states that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light.
Thus the momentousness of heliocentrism, atomist theory, uniformity of spatial laws and time was shown to be not so momentous after all, but this is lost on popular thinking. Einstein certainly earned his own fame but did not manage to steal all of Newton's thunder. The most usual understanding of the natural world is still a classical one.
But I already cautioned myself about too great an enthusiasm for what the new physics teaches. Indeed it may be that the current paradigm is overturned, but it seems well-nigh impossible that any such a revolution will bring us closer to the classical conception that destroyed traditional cosmology in the West. We have already pushed the limits of what we can actually observe with our own senses, which is to say anything else we observe will be the effects of experiments together with the mathematical models based on the data of those experiments. Physicists' eyes are not more powerful than our own; their insight comes through the mathematical form they derive from the data. Such mathematical models are the very stuff of physical theory.
The significance of this is not that it elevates one theoretical model above another, but that it throws into sharp focus the fact that any model of what happens beyond the perceptible world is as good as any other from the point of view of science, so long as it correctly predicts the data. The problem with superstring theory, hidden variable theory, many-universe theory, is that they are all mathematical models based upon the exact same body of data, and they all predict the data equally well. These models are sometimes so wildly different that any pretense to some one great scientific conception of the universe must be seen as philosophical hubris. The precision of the data themselves and the success of the accompanying mathematics in predicting the behavior of the physical world on small and large scales – indeed the most successful scientific theory to date – paradoxically serves to undercut the assumption that the only real knowledge we can have of things is through scientific measurement. What we are measuring are things we can never perceive without a measurement. Classical mechanics usually dealt with ordinary scale objects. If the real knowledge we have of a baseball is the measurements we can make of it, we are still left with an object that at least corresponds to an object we actually experience, even if that experience is merely subjective or even meaningless from the point of view of science. An electron is an entity no one has, can, or ever will experience. Even if we never perceive a unicorn in fact, we could in principle.
The key reversal at play is the following: we measure quantum entities, but our knowledge of them is mediated completely by our ordinary experience of the world, by our pointer-readings, as Wittgenstein once remarked. I said that the new physics paradoxically undercuts classical bifurcation because it leaves us with the troubling proposition that our true scientific knowledge depends for its very survival upon the offices of our subjective, non-scientific experience. Actually, this was the case in classical mechanics as well, but the fact that quantum entities are wholly unlike ordinary entities makes the rigid bifurcation into a subjective world of quality and an objective world of quantity all the more absurd.4
The situation we are left with is this. The revolution of classical mechanics suffered a counter-revolution, the new physics, which neutralized the sting delivered by the heliocentric model, uniform space and time, and the classical atomist theory. Though this counter-revolution did not put traditional cosmology back in its place, it robbed the scientist of his ability to make absolute statements about what we can know. A man might be lulled into a kind of complacency about the baseball; perhaps the knowledge provided by scientific measurement is more true and reliable than his mere experience of the thing. This may not hold up to philosophical scrutiny, but overlap between the measured baseball and a baseball as one sees it gives the whole affair an air of respectability. But when the scientist tells us that true knowledge is measuring things that we cannot see, and that the scientist cannot see either, it begins to sound too strange to be believed. And of course, it is.
So unlike many of the popular ideas linking the new physics to traditional metaphysics, my assertion here is simply that science has exposed the fallacy of Cartesian bifurcation and the alleged supremacy of quantitative knowledge. Science has turned on itself, or more correctly, the data has betrayed philosophical scientism and exposed its limitations. We have quite literally come back to our senses.
If we actually pay attention to the difference between quantitative data and physical theory, we see that science has altogether lost the destructive power to make us denigrate our senses and the ideas we form from sensory experience. We know that what the scientist says about time is a model based on observations of the world, and that any number of such models possess equal validity, and all of them are subservient to the real experience of the human subject. Choosing one model above another is not a scientific decision, but a philosophical one.
Time, like space, is one of the most concrete aspects of our experience of the world. It is not an abstract entity such as an electron, but a reality so close and intimate that we stumble in defining it owing to its sheer obviousness. It is a mystery that baffles due to its clarity, not its obscurity. If a physicist says that time is not what we think but is actually this or that, we can agree in part and acknowledge that the reality may have aspects of which we are not aware. However, we always possess the powerful rejoinder that no matter what the data or theory, it has been formed on the basis of the physicist's ordinary human experience of time and observations taking place within that experience. Logically, it is impossible to negate the qualitative time of our own experience without undercutting the basis of the quantitative time derived through measurement, since no observation is possible without ordinary time and ordinary space. "Reification" is the problem we get when we put our theories of quantitative time above qualitative time in our hierarchy of knowledge. I may give a mathematical description of time utilizing perhaps a symbolic or allegorical use of geometric shapes, but then become trapped in my own provisional model. Even the word "linear" in linear time is a model. We make an analogy of some property of our experience of time to the properties of a physical line in space, i.e., being continuous and existing in two directions. But time is not a line, a line is a line. Having used the image of a line to enable us to talk about time in a scientifically useful way, we get trapped by an image which has taken on a life of its own, so to speak. Then anything other than linear time begins to seem absurd, a violation of time the way a loop is a violation of a line.
The Cartesian bifurcation which elevates quantitative measurement and theory while denigrating the real experience of qualities is ultimately absurd, because no model can repudiate the model-maker and continue to remain meaningful. It would mean that the model-maker's knowledge of what he is making a model of is dependent upon the knowledge provided by that very model itself. A bifurcationist physicist discerns a mathematical form in the data of the world, then says that this mathematical form is more true than the very perception he used to discern that mathematical form. If by this he meant that the world manifests laws present in the Intellect or Great Spirit, we could agree, since we perceive those laws by virtue of participating in that same intellect. But that is not an idea the philosophers of scientism would be willing to entertain.
Let me now leave off the space-time continuum of physics and come to the soul's qualitative and lived experience of these realities we call space and time. Space and time appear to us to be two modes of extension, or in simpler terms two ways in which things are spread out in relationship to each other. Spatially things are here and there, and temporally things are before and after. In another essay I discussed at length this notion of space and time as extension, and I do not wish to duplicate that discussion here.5 My purpose here is to establish a link between space and time that is not at all based on relativity theory, but arises from our living experience. Although in the classical conception which so often dominates our minds space and time are seen as two separate and unlike things, the truth is that time is impossible without space, and space is impossible without time. I do not make this assertion from the point of view of physical science, but from within the world of the metaphysics of Ibn al-'Arabī and similar metaphysical systems.
Let us first ask what the world would be like if there were only space, but no time. The first thing that we would notice is that change would become impossible. Think of a group of objects existing in space, and then think of them existing in a different arrangement. In order for them to go from the first arrangement to the second one, something has to happen. They have to at the very least traverse the distances necessary to arrive at the second arrangement, but how can they do that if there is only space and no time? Something has to ontologically link the two arrangements. Even if somehow they do not traverse the distance in between, the objects are still the same objects, and the only thing allowing us to call them the same objects in the two different arrangements is a reality that allows the objects to change but retain some kind of continuity. This connecting dimension is time.
Let us then ask what the world would be like if there were time but no space. Since there would be no spatial extension to observe, we would somehow have to measure time with our subjective experience in the absence of height, width, and depth. How would we know that there even was a course of time? Feelings have no dimension perhaps, but what about the rest of the soul? The images in our imagination, never mind the objects of the objective world, all have spatial extension, so we would have to disallow them in a world without space. That is to say, time implies a kind of inward space in the soul – a different kind of space to be sure – that makes it meaningful to speak of before and after, a referent that is constant in the face of change.
Let us as an exercise try to erase the words "space" and "time" from our minds and come back at the question. We notice that in life there are things that change and things that stay the same, and often the very same things seem to change and stay the same but in different respects. The baseball is the same baseball, both in the hand of the pitcher and in the glove of the catcher, but it is not wholly the same because some things about it are different, such as its location and its relationship to the things around it. We can talk about things that are constant and changing, or static and dynamic. (In Arabic the relevant terms are qārr and ghayr al-qārr.)
But I do not wish to encumber myself from the beginning with technical language. For now I simply have the "constant" and the "changing". I, too, am constant and changing. I am the same person but I am always becoming this or that, experiencing all sorts of colors and sounds and shapes in addition to my emotions, and yet the constant identity abides. In the statement, "I was sad, then I found my true love, and then I was happy," the then does not split the I into parts. It does not erase the identity.
Such paradoxes of the many in the one, and the one in the many, really form the basis of Ibn al-'Arabī's metaphysics, and make a good point of departure for an analysis of time and non-time. At the highest level, the mystery of the many and the one is the identity between the Ultimate Reality and the many things we usually think of as being real in and of themselves. The ontological status of things in relation to the ultimate reality is a question for metaphysics, but the mystery of the many and one also plays out in cosmology, meaning the study of the world in which the puzzles of constancy and change arise.
At the highest level of Akbarian thought, the manyness of the divine qualities is resolved in the unity of the supreme Self. This is not a unity of "before" and "after", where I might say that all qualities are happening right now; nor is it a unity of "here" and "there", where I might say that all qualities are in one place. Rather it is a unity of being, of identity. The Creator is not another being than the Just or the All-Merciful. They are unified in what they truly are, and mysteriously the world's illusory reality disappears in the face of this essential unity.
Now, Akbarians do not throw away manyness, but put it in its place, and from our point of view in the world the many divine qualities and their relationships to one another are of the greatest significance. The manyness of the qualities is unreal only for the supreme Self, but for us this manyness is as real as we are, so to speak. In fact, we depend on this manyness for whatever illusory reality we possess, because it is by virtue of the divine names and qualities and their relationships that the world comes to be. How, then, does this one in the many, many in the one, play out in the world?
There is no shortage of ideas that Ibn al-'Arabī and his school use to describe how the divine qualities give rise to the world. Some of the most important are emanation (fayd), self-disclosure (tajallī), identification (ta'ayyun). For this talk I want to use the symbolism of light, and the divine name "Light" or al-Nūr. Mystics and philosophers have often started with light, and its symbolism is so powerful because light is both what we see and what we see by. Light is both a means and an end. If we apply the symbolism of light to all knowledge, light is both what we know and how we know. It is, moreover, a symbol that Ibn al-'Arabī and his school often used as a metaphysical basis, the same way they could use the concepts of mercy and existence.
The Quran says, God is the Light of the heavens and the earth (24:35). The heavens and the earth are the realm of the constant and the changing, so let us say that God is the light of the constant and the changing, making God what we know the constant and the changing by. This leaves us to ask what the constant and the changing are. Each and every thing is, ultimately, a manifestation of a name of God. God knows His endless names, and this knowledge is the realm of the immutable identities, the al-a'yan al-thabitah. Each immutable identity is a special way in which God knows God, but God's knowledge of Himself is neither before and after nor here or there. It introduces neither distance nor duration between His names.
But if the identities are essences or forms in the knowledge of God that are separated neither by distances nor durations, how do we get to the situation where these identities, when they are in the world, do get separated by distance and duration? In God's knowledge the identities are immutable, but in the world they are what we are calling constant and changing. They are here and there, and they are before and after. The baseball is here, not over there. Or, the baseball is here now, but it was not here earlier. This does not happen in God's knowledge. The immutable identities are different but not apart. There is an immutable identity for the pitcher and an immutable identity for the catcher, but they exist eternally in God's act of knowing, fused but not confused, to borrow Meister Eckhart's language.
Akbarian cosmogenesis is a two-tiered emanation, or self-disclosure which first gives rise to the immutable identities in God's knowledge, and then externalizes or existentiates them in the world. There is a way in which these two identities, one manifest and the other unmanifest, are two different things, and another way in which they are simply the same thing viewed from two different points of view. When God's light illuminates the immutable identities – which we can reword and say when God as the Light meets with God as the Knower – the result is the world. In a sense the immutable identities are dark, because as independent beings they are nothing. They are only God's knowledge of Himself. The divine light is a gift that illuminates the identities and gives them their own reality. This light allows there to be something "other than God", this phrase "other than God" being Ibn al-'Arabī's definition of the world, because by being illuminated the identities can see each other, and see themselves, and by "see" I mean "know".
Now, in the world this light by which we are illuminated to each other is none other than the very realities of duration and distance. What we give the name "space" is a state of affairs where the forms of things exist in a kind of relationality to each other, separated and yet existing in the same domain and thus connected in a kind of continuum. What we give the name "time" is a state of affairs where forms exist in a different kind of relationality, where even a single given thing is able to be separated from its previous state and yet still be connected to those states by virtue of its being a single thing. Thus its states also exist in a kind of continuum. God's light in static mode is space, and His light in dynamic mode is time. The identities themselves are not space and time, for the identities are pure forms in the knowledge of God, but when God casts His light upon them they enter into the dance of spatial and temporal interaction we call the world. This light enables the realities of sound, color, shape, smell, feeling, number, mass, and energy to connect and manifest the forms. Light is the vessel, both in static and dynamic mode, upon which the identities journey in between the plenary darkness of God's knowledge on the one hand and the uninhabitable darkness of pure nothingness on the other.
This is one possible understanding of the divine saying where God says, "Do not curse time, for I am time." By cursing time, we are in reality cursing the light of God, which is identical with Himself. It is by God giving of Himself, of His light, that our existence as beings going through changing states is even possible. But it then follows that one could also say that God is space. Islamic metaphysics does not have, to my knowledge, a classification of space as it does of time. As I am sure will be widely discussed in this conference, there is a distinction made between sarmad, dahr, and zamān, or eternity, sempiternity, and ordinary time. But if what I am saying about the divine light is true, is it not equally true to say that God is space?
In the bodily world the divine light shines in a certain mode, far short of all the possibilities of divine illumination. The light is relatively dim, and though I see myself and others, I cannot see much, and the wholeness and connectedness of things is largely hidden in a darkness that is yet to be illuminated. The possibilities of this world are basically limited, at least in our ordinary experience, to the usual dimensions of space and time. Akbarian metaphysics teaches that the imaginational world, the world ontologically superior to the world of bodies, is more illuminated. In that world, the rules governing the constant and the changing, or distance and duration, are not the same. Remember that the imaginational world, like the world of bodies, is still a world of extension, which is to say that it is a world of manifested forms – of shapes, colors, duration, changing states. But because it is so luminous, the possibilities for the interaction of the constant and the changing are much greater. The forms in the imaginational world are indeed not limited by bodily space and time, though there is an imaginational space and an imaginational time. Recall the saying that the bodily world in relation to the imaginational world is like a ring tossed into a vast wilderness. Rūmī declares that there is a window between hearts, meaning that we are connected to each other at the level of our souls, both across space and across time. True believers can have dreams foretelling the future, and great saints can meet in spirit if not in body. These wonders do not take place by virtue of bodily existence, but by virtue of the imaginational world, the world of souls.
Not only do the conditions of space and time change from bodily to imaginational existence, but they change from this world to the next, from the dunyā to the ākhirah. This is what Dāwūd al-Qaysarī means when he says that there are some divine names whose governance of the world lasts for a certain duration. That is to say, there is a certain way in which the divine light manifests the forms in our ordinary earthly life, but at the end of the world the cycle of that kind of light, of that particular divine name, will come to a close. The hereafter will then be governed by another divine name, another kind of divine light. That which is impossible here will be possible there because the divine light will illuminate ever more possibilities for the interplay of forms and identities. Space itself will be greater and more infinite, time itself will be infused with greater barakah and potential for realizing the self-disclosures of God.
Thus far I have been discussing the ontological status of time together with space, because I think the two are inseparable insofar as they are two modes of the divine light as far as worldly existence is concerned. But what does the reality of time mean for the spiritual journey of the soul?
If we take Ibn al-'Arabī's metaphysics and cosmology to their logical conclusion, I believe we can say the following. God created us as a freely given gift, simply so that we who were not could be, that we who were nothing could be living beings. But at the same time God experiences all of our pains and our joys, our stupidity and our wisdom, our fear and our courage with us in a mysterious way. Recall the hadīth where God says, "I was sick, and you did not visit Me," (Muslim 4661) and the Quranic verse "Those who hurt God and His Messenger …" (33:57). Yet for God there is no pain, stupidity, or fear, because God is not confined to the moment of suffering. He knows the whole life. God does not move down the line with us as we do, although He lives what we live. God could never suffer as we suffer because for God there is no despair, no hopelessness. Hopelessness is the most human of sufferings.
For God, the pain is like the pain of separation we feel at the very moment we are running to meet our beloved. We are in fact separated, and the effect of running and the distance between us is a kind of suffering, but that suffering is totally redeemed by the hope we have, the certitude, that we have in the meeting with our beloved. The pain that God experiences with us is like the pain we experience while running to our beloved. It is not really a pain at all; it is a part of the fullness of the moment. God sees in our life, when we cannot, the abundance and perfection of our destiny in a way so perfectly complete that the so-called suffering is ever blessed and redeemed in the final reunion. We are not God, though, and so for us the experience of pain is not the same, but it is what it must be for a being God created for joy. When we become more like God, we suffer more in the way God "suffers", so to speak. We gradually experience and taste how death is just a flavor of life.
In us, God is always running to the beloved, He lives the separation in the total light of (re)union, death in the light of life, pain in the light of total bliss. We may think that we are just stamping our feet, out of breath, running to a horizon that never seems to come closer, but we are growing still.
To turn a nothing into a something like God is going to have to hurt sometimes, ripping open nothingness and pulling out a god-like being strand by strand, sinew by sinew, love by love, pain by pain, stupidity by stupidity … into bliss, wisdom, wholeness, and ever greater life.
Think of a pebble in the shoe of the running lover. If that lover had placed all his hope in a perfect shoe, a perfect foot to go in that perfect shoe with a perfect sock, all to create a perfect fit. If he longed for it and made it his great hope, a pebble in his shoe while he was running would crush him, reduce him to anger, despair, agony, humiliation.
But what does a true lover care about a pebble in his shoe? Does he even feel it? Would he care? Perhaps it would make for an even fonder memory of the reunion.
The Quran promises that "… in Paradise the believers shall neither fear nor grieve" (2:62), meaning that the light of God will so illuminate us that we shall see the beauty of all things past and of what may come. It is in the darkness and opacity of the past, the inability to grasp the greater harmony of what happens to us, that causes the pain of grief. In grief, we suffer from the past. In fear, we suffer from the future. When God's light shows us the way, we suffer from neither. The Quran does not deny the passage of time in Paradise, only the difficulties we experience on account of it in this world. Our memory is illuminated and causes us no more trouble, and our imagination, that faculty capable of reaching out to the future, can conceive of no cause for despair or hopelessness. The ignorance built into the darkness of the world simply cannot exist in the full light of God in Paradise. It is thus that the soul transcends time, not by leaving it but by conquering it.
Our destiny in this world is both static and dynamic, which is to say that we are a harmony of parts and of experiences, of aspects and states. We can understand easily that beauty in the spatial sense is the presence of unity in multiplicity, which is to say, of harmony in all its forms. Music is the classic example of dynamic harmony, of a harmony that not only exists statically in a chord for example, but also dynamically, in a progression of counterpoint and in the movements of a melody.
If the soul can conquer time and live in it in Paradise, what about here in this world? What enables us to wake up to the harmony of our destiny in this world and the next? Surely we must acknowledge that an awakening is called for, because we do grieve and fear, groping about in the dark while falling prey to unhappiness and despair. How can we become like God and experience reunion in separation? The Sufis indeed speak of taking on the divine qualities (al-ittisāf bi-sifātillāh), and this is done through the remembrance of God, the dhikr, in all its forms. It is through the dhikr that the light of God shines brighter and brighter upon the soul, transforming and purifying it. A Sufi shaykh has said that when the traveler looks back upon his life, he will see that dhikr as a kind of golden chain passing through all its states and experiences. This means that through the remembrance, practiced faithfully, the Sufi overcomes the vicissitudes of time.
And this brings us finally to the dimension of non-time, which from man's point of view, both in the spiritual life and in the hereafter, is the spirit, or the heart, or the intellect. The heart or spirit or intellect is the point in man where the divine light resides and can shine down into the soul. It is the mysterious divine spark, both created and uncreated, or as some would say, neither. The spiritual life is the wedding of the soul to the spirit, not the elimination of the soul. Remember that by virtue of being made in the image of God we all possess an intrinsic dimension of light ourselves. The illumination we receive is truly just an aspect of our own nature, as Ibn al-'Arabī says so clearly in the Fusūs. In the spiritual life, in the remembrance of God, the spirit or heart acts upon the soul, illuminating it, transforming it, untying its knots, turning it clear where it was once opaque. From the point of view of time, progress is made in tying together our temporal selves with our non-temporal selves so that the former can be transfigured by the latter. When the non-time or eternity of the spirit enters fully into the soul, the Sufi becomes ibn al-waqt, newly born in each moment. Wa Allāhu a'lam.
1. For a good general introduction to both special relativity and quantum mechanics, see Gary Zukav's The Dancing Wu Li Masters (New York, 2001).
2. Among the most popular of such books is Fritjof Capra's The Tao of Physics (Boston, 1999). Other titles include David Darling, Zen Physics: The Science of Death, the Logic of Reincarnation (San Francisco, 1996); Alan Wallace (ed.) Buddhism and Science: Breaking New Ground (New York, 2003); Matthieu Ricard and Trinh Xuan Thuan, The Quantum and the Lotus: A Journey to the Frontiers Where Science and Buddhism Meet (New York, 2001).
3. For example, the physicist David Bohm interpreted the data of physics as being consistent with a deeper level of reality, and in fact argued that a more profound wholeness is actually implied by the data. See for example his Wholeness and the Implicate Order (New York, 1980).
4. This point is argued fully in Wolfgang Smith's The Quantum Enigma: Finding the Hidden Key (Hillsdale, NY, 2005). A collection of essays also dealing with the new physics can be found in his The Wisdom of Ancient Cosmology (Oakton, VA, 2003), which touches on a wide assortment of questions relating to science and philosophy.
5. "On Beginning a New System of Islamic Philosophy," The Muslim World, 94:1 (January, 2004).