Quarterly                                                                       Issue No.20, May 2005
The Roots of Sufism


Rehman Faiz


While studying any theory of religious experience, mystical experience has to be taken into account as a very important aspect of the religious experience of mankind. In this regard mystical experience is a higher expression of all religious manifestation, as, most of the time a mystical experience merely amplifies the central feelings and spiritual zeal of the peak religious experience in a particular school of thought. If we confine mysticism to the peak religious experience of the mankind, we shall find that it consists of the response of our entire personality; its will, intellect and devotion to the Supreme Reality of the universe, which is absolutely recognized as the source and ground of our being.

Therefore, mystical experience is the sense of the presence of the Supreme Reality (God) all around and within us, and also a desire to hold communion with Him. This communion develops into the unison experience in some eminent and purified mystical souls. In its nature, mysticism is the immediate feeling of the unity of the self with the Supreme Reality (God). Nevertheless, mysticism is the fundamental feeling of Religion and religious life at its very heart and center[i]. As a unison experience, mysticism is a direct experience in which all distinctions are transcended, including that of the subject and the object.

Mysticism is a fairly frequent phenomenon in the history of both Philosophy and Religion. At one end mystical experience intensifies the central feelings of the peak religious experience, and on the other we can almost regard it as an inevitable stage in the history of every movement of thought that loses contact with the vital impulse which gave it birth. In some examples mysticism develops due to the process of tiredness; the thought process finding no further source of life and power in itself seeks to supply the deficiency by drawing outside sources. In other cases mysticism rises due to disconnection; the movement, being cut off from contact with its own source of life, seeks to tie up itself upon the external wisdom.

If we study the practical aspect of Religion, we find it imperative for human lives in two ways. Although both the aspects are different and distinctive in their nature yet they show close similarity and connection at numerous occasions. The first aspect of Religion belongs to the collective sense of society in which it provides strong basis to the unity and distinctiveness of a particular group of people. This individuality develops a collective sense of integrity for a religious group by means of the joint religious functions. It is the collective sense of distinctiveness, which in its intense examples, produces differentiation and separation and instigates religious fundamentalism and extremism.

The second aspect of Religion belongs to the inner life of the individuals, which arouses on to one’s soul as a great intuitive force and dignified spiritual wisdom. This is such a wonderful experience, which really gratifies the innermost and unconscious needs of a personality. Mysticism belongs to this second aspect of human life that demands purification and perfection of human soul and in this regard Mysticism is a common property of all the religions. Apart from the more distinct cases of mystical experience, it can clearly be established that all the genuinely religious persons enjoy some kind of mystical experience (in the form of a deep consciousness of God’s presence and the charm of the soul to access It).

The Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics distinguishes between two senses of the term mysticism. Firstly, the first hand direct experience of unity with God and secondly, the theo-mystical doctrine of the soul’s possible union with the Absolute or God.[ii] This assumes that the non-verbal mystical experience is different from any philosophy purporting to be mystical, and it would suggest a distinction between mystical experience and its expression in certain well-formulated philosophical theory. William James has given classical expression to this distinction.[iii]

There is an implicit suggestion in this distinction between experience and expression that any attempt to erect a philosophical structure on the basis of mystical experience is liable to be different from that experience.[iv] There are thinkers, such as Aldous Huxley, Evelyn Underhill, W. T. Stace, Rudolf Steiner and even W. R. Inge, who respect both, the mystical philosophy and mystical experience. And there are others who value mystical experience as the developed and higher form of religious experience, but who are unsympathetic towards any assertion of essential unity of the soul with the Supreme Reality.[v]

The later are those who have taken for granted the gap between mystical philosophy and mystical experience. The former group of philosophers also acknowledge this gulf, but for different reasons. According to thinkers like W. T. Stace and E. Underhill, mystical experience unanimously implies the essential unity of the soul and God. Moreover, as an experience of the Infinite and the Transcendent, the mystical experience is essentially ineffable. When the mystic tries to express it conceptually, he naturally takes up the concepts and terminology of his religio-cultural background for the simple reason that he has none else at this disposal. The later may or may not be sympathetic to the core of mystical experience, so that it is often described by the mystic himself in a very dogmatic language, as if the experience itself contained all the distinctions and details of a particular religious dogma.

Mysticism in Islam (Sufism)

In Islamic terminology the word Sufi is used for a mystic, which is most likely to be derived from the Arabic word “soof”, meaning wool. This is because of the Sufi habit of wearing woolen coats, a designation of their initiation into the Sufi order. The early Sufi orders considered the wearing of this coat as a resemblance to Isa Ibne Maryam (Jesus Christ). In reply to this, Ibne Taymiyyah said: “There are people who have chosen and preferred the wearing of woolen clothes, claiming that they want to resemble al-Maseeh ibne Maryam (Jesus Christ). Sufism is known as “Islamic Mysticism,” in which Muslims seek to find divine love and knowledge through direct personal experience of God[vi].

Sufism is defined as the experience of mystical union or direct communion with Ultimate Reality, and the belief that direct knowledge of God, spiritual truth, or Ultimate Reality can be attained through subjective experience (as intuition or insight).[vii] Sufism in its essence is a blend of the extracts from the deep spiritual experiences of different religions and religious doctrines. During the primary stages of Sufism, Sufis were characterized by their particular attachment to Zikr (remembrance of Allah) and asceticism (seclusion), as well as the beginning of innovated practices to foster religious practices. Yet even at the early stage of Sufism, before the maturity of the particular Sufi doctrines and structured orders, the orthodox Islamic scholars strictly opposed to this ‘foreign’ religious element in the structure of Islam[viii].

Though the roots of Islamic mysticism formerly were supposed to have stemmed from various non-Islamic sources in ancient Europe and India, it now seems established that the movement grew out of the early Islamic structure, developed as a counterweight to the increasing worldliness of the expanding Muslim community; only later were foreign elements that were compatible with mystical theology and practices adopted and made to conform to Islam[ix]. By educating the masses and deepening the spiritual concerns of the Muslims, Sufism has played an important role in the formation of Muslim society. Apparently opposed to the unexciting strictness of the lawyer-divines (Shari’ah), the mystics however, carefully observed the commands of the Islamic law (Shari’ah).

The introduction of the element of divine love, which changed plainness of orthodox Islamic decree into resourceful mysticism, is ascribed to Rabe’ah al-Adawiyah (died 801), a woman from Basra, who first formulated the Sufi ideal of unconditional devotion to God, without hope for paradise and without fear of hell. In the decades after Rabe’ah Basri, mystical trends grew everywhere in the Islamic world, partly through an exchange of ideas with Christian hermits[x] A number of mystics in the early generations had concentrated their efforts upon tawakkul absolute trust in God, which became a central concept of Sufism. At the same time the concept of divine love became more central, especially among the Iraqi Sufis. Its main representatives are Nuri, who offered his life for his brethren, and Sumnun “the Lover”.

Sufi thought was, in these early centuries, transmitted in small circles. Some of the Shaykhs (Sufi mystical leaders or guides of such circles) were also artisans. In the tenth century, it was supposed necessary to write handbooks about the tenets of Sufism in order to ease the growing suspicions of the orthodox. The abstracts were composed in Arabic by Abu Talib Makki, Sarraj, Kalabadhi and Qushayri in the late tenth century, and in Persian by Ali Hajveri in the eleventh century reveal how these authors tried to defend Sufism and to prove its orthodox character. It should be noted that the mystics belonged to all schools of Islamic law and theology of the times[xi].

The last great figure in the line of classical Sufism is Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (died 1111), who wrote, among numerous other works, the Ehya e Uloom ud-din (“The Revival of the Religious Sciences”), a comprehensive work that established moderate Sufism against the growing theosophical trends, which tended to compare God and the world and thus shaped the thought of millions of Muslims. His younger brother, Ahmad al-Ghazali, wrote one of the subtlest treatises (Sawanih; “Occurrences” [stray thoughts]) on mystical love, a subject that then became the main subject of Persian poetry[xii].

Sufism as a Common Property of the World Religions

If, for a precise analysis of Sufism, we seek out the common characteristic of Sufism in the mystical experience of the world religions, we will have to classify it into the introvert and the extrovert Sufism, as suggested by Rudolf Otto as the inward way and the outward way.[xiii] The extrovert Sufism looks for the ultimate Reality within and behind the multiplicity of the world.

The introvert, on the other hand, seeks the Divine within the depth of his soul by going beyond, not only the multiplicity of the senses but also all conceptual distinctions. To this we may add a third category of Sufi experience, called theistic mysticism by R. C. Zaehner. We would prefer to name this class of mystical experience as devotional Sufism for reasons to be explained later. The Sufi himself makes no distinction between these seemingly different approaches, as the intuitive mystico-unison experience is more or less the same, though it is often arrived at through quite diverse ways. Our own distinction between these various classes of mystical experience is, therefore, to search out the common characteristics of mystical experience in the different religions.

Extrovert Sufi Experience

Sufism emphasized early its freedom against a relatively strict theology. That’s why it could spontaneously affirm the universal presence of God in every being and everything. The mystic’s unifying vision is to be distinguished from the seemingly similar vision of a poet or an artist. The former not only sees the multiplicity as somehow one, he connects it up with the one spiritual reality; the unity of the multiple world being due to the fact of its being derived form, and dependent upon, the ‘One’:

“She appeared in phenomena. They supposed that these (phenomena) were other than She, whilst it was She that displayed herself therein.”

“She showed herself by veiling herself in them and She was hidden by the objects in which she was manifested, assuming tints of diverse hues in every appearance.”[xiv]

There is no need to negate the world of multiplicity in order to reach the ‘One’. The ‘One’ does not deny the many, but is both veiled and manifested therein. In a rather rare passage the Quran tells us, “Wherever ye turn, there is the face of Allah”.[xv] For the Sufi mystic this becomes a self-evident truth, verified by his innermost experience. So he exclaims:

“There is naught but Thee in the whole world. Everywhere in the universe it is Thy Face that we see. In whatever direction I turn my eyes, there art Thou. Without Thee there is nothing that there is”.[xvi]

The unity is achieved here neither by transcending the diversity, nor by deifying it. That’s why; the Sufi’s unifying vision is no more pantheism, as there is always a definite reference to the transcendent Being, without whom there would not be any multiplicity.[xvii] The Sufi comprehends the ‘One’, the multiplicity and himself into one unifying vision. Or rather, this unifying vision presupposes the Sufi’s oneness (Ittihad) with the Divine being.

At the experiential level this oneness may be so intense and overpowering that all distinctions of ‘I and Thou’ are transcendent, so that the Sufi not only finds himself unified with God, but feels that he himself is God. Some such experience led the Sufis to utterances, which appear shockingly blasphemous to the non-mystic, such as the ‘subhani’ of Abu Yazid and Anal Haqq of Mansoor. R. C. Zaehner has called such an experience as megalomania, whereas in fact it is just the opposite, as we shall see in the last part of this article. The Sufi, who is identified with the ultimate Reality, finds himself united with the whole creation. Or rather he ‘becomes’ the moving Spirit (or Self in the Vedantic language) of the entire creation:

“There was nothing in the world except myself besides me and no thought of besidesness occurred to me.”[xviii]

Such statements seem confusing and even irritating to the orthodox but if one could understand first that the unifying vision is a consequence and not prior to the unison experience and secondly, that it presupposes the negation of the lower self and does not magnify it, then it would be easier to understand those.

When we search out the corresponding characteristics of Extrovert Sufism, we find amazing similarities of experience in almost all the religions. However, we confine ourselves to two of those, Christianity and Hinduism.

In Western mysticism, the vision of ultimate unity is more an exception than a rule. The theological emphasis on the transcendence of God, as well as the wide use of via negativa by the introvert mystics, must have acted as deterrent in any experience that claimed to see God not only ‘within’ the world but also ‘as’ the world. Since it was not encouraged by the orthodox tradition, it remained more or less confined to the circle of poets and artists. In modern times Emerson has been a bold exponent of the vision of unity. Within classical mysticism the vision is more common among the introvert mystics than the theists, the reason probably being the greater esteem for theological beliefs among the latter, from which the former seem to be comparatively free.

Thus, according to Eckhart, “Ultimately is One and One is in all”: or rather, “The One is all in all”.[xix] It means the multiplicity being rooted in the ‘One’, all things are essentially one.[xx] If one upholds a concept of God as the Infinite and the Absolute, there is no way by which one can affirm Him to be an other to the soul, or for that matter, to the universe. Another introvert mystic, Nicholas of Cusa, draws the natural inference from the above:

“The infinite brooks no otherness for itself, since being infinite naught exists outside It… Infinite is alike all things and no one of them all”.[xxi]

There is no equation of the Infinite and the finite in the above; instead a beautiful balance is preserved between the transcendence of the Infinite to the world of multiple finites and Its immanence therein;[xxii] or rather, Its all-comprehending existence as being Infinite, nothing can be outside it.

When we study extrovert mysticism in Hinduism, like the Muslim and Christian examples, we find that the central vision of such mysticism is the same ‘unity’. The unity is realized as the expression of the one Reality within, behind and prior, or basic, to the multiplicity. Curiously, we find the most explicit expression of the unifying vision in Vedanta, commonly known for its negative methodology. That all things have their source or ground in Brahman, or that all this is Brahman, mean one and the same thing for the Upanisadic seer. For him, “The Infinite is indeed below. It is behind…It is every where.[xxiii] Often the term Isvara, implying the personal God, is substituted by the Lord.[xxiv ] Every creature, every object of the world is the self, the same Divine Being in different forms.[xxv] It is the vision of the immanence of Brahman Atman in the universe, as well as in the soul. It is also the vision of Brahman as the Cause, Substance or Ground of all existence.[xxvi]

The declaration of a substantial identity of Brahman and the world does not mean their identification, as the cause belongs to a higher degree of reality in Vedanta than the effect. Whatever the context, the Vedantic thinker is always conscious of the basic, rather the only reality of the cause Brahman.[xxvii] The perception of unity may occur in an intenser mystical state wherein the multiplicity disappears, as it were; or it may become a permanent state of mind which sees the one Real in everything and sees everything as permanent but the one Real. This vision of the one Real in all was a permanent state of experience with Sri Ramakrishna. In his words,

“I do see the Supreme Being as the veritable Reality with my very eyes. Why then should I reason? I do actually see that it is the Absolute Who has become all things around us. It is He Who appears as the finite soul and the phenomenal world.”

…“Now I see that it is He Who is moving about in different forms, now as an honest man, now as a cheat and again as a villain. So I say, Narayan in the form of an honest man, Narayan in the form of a swindler.”[xxviii]

We could not do justice to the mysticism of the unifying vision, if we understood it entirely in term of the extrovert’s search for unity outside himself. The mystic not only finds the ‘One’ behind and within the external universe, but also within himself. Then there comes a moment of realization when he finds that the ‘One’ experienced within his soul, is the same as the ‘One’, arrived at in the external search for unity.[xxix] This leads to a further experience of unification with the entire universe. In the Upanisads we have very graphic description of such a unison state: -

“Whoever knows the self as, ‘I am Brahman’, becomes all this universe. Even the gods cannot prevent his becoming this (universe), for he has become their Self”.[xxx]

Introvert Sufi Experience

The transcendence of the ultimate Reality to the world of multiplicity, as well as to the subject of experience, is more fully realized in the Sufi’s introvert experience than in the unifying vision of the extrovert Sufi. At first sight it seems self-contradictory that the experience, which affirms the unity of our innermost self with the Supreme Reality, also affirms the transcendence of all else by that Reality. Here comes the basic difference between the Sufi’s introvert and extrovert experience.

Sufis were confronted by strict Islamic lawyer-divines (Shari’ah) that based itself on the concrete basis of Quranic insistence on God’s unity and uniqueness. But the Quran has also proclaimed the nearness of God to man, and His intimate sure knowledge of man’s heart,[xxxi] which could imply God’s immanence therein. So, the Sufi experience transcended the meaning of the religious texts in a masterly way to suit the depth and intensity of the mystic’s inner experience. Entire Sufi mysticism cannot be characterized as monistic, but there is a definite tendency in most of the eminent Sufis towards a monistic interpretation of the universe and Sufi experience.

It was left for Ibne Arabi to develop a monistic worldview of a unique combination of the testimony of mystical experience and certain texts of the Quran. However, even Ibne Arabi is not as thoroughly a monistic as appears at first. His perfect man (Insan e Kamil) is a connecting link between the finite and the Infinite; but at the same time the very need of a connecting link dilutes the initial monism. Also, the creature is always distinguished from the Creator, the lover from the Beloved. It is true that in the unison experience the distinction is transcended, but it seems to be more a description of an existential state, than an enunciation of any ontological truth.

This is truer of other Sufis like Mansoor al Hallaj, who died for claiming, ‘I am the Truth’, affirmed an initial difference between the two, which is never fully transcended, not even in the state of liberation.[xxxii ] Jalaludin Rumi, on the other hand, seems to affirm an actual unification. The ‘I’ and the ‘Thou’ become one spirit[xxxiii ] in the experience of ittihad (oneness), says Rumi. And yet, Rumi’s general philosophy and approach can hardly be called monistic in the strict sense of the term. We have seen earlier how al Farid felt himself totally one with his Beloved, so that no distinction remained between the two. The most recurring statement in his work is to the effect that in the unison state he became his Beloved, and realized that the lover and the Beloved are one in essence.[xxxiv]

The experience of ittihad can be explained either existentially or ontologically; that is, either as a reliable report of what the Sufi felt in his unison state, or as implying the ontological oneness of the soul and God. Most of the mystical utterances of the Sufis are better understood from the existential or rather experiential point of view. Take for example, Ahu Yazid (Ba-yazid) who is famous, or rather infamous, for his monistic utterances. He claimed to have realized a complete identity between himself and God, so that he could exclaim, ‘Glory be to me, (Subhani)’. His mystical utterances confuse ignorant critics like R.C. Zachner. But all that he is claiming is an experience of being unified with, or transmuted into, God.

Farid ud Din Attar in his famous poem, Mantiq al Tayr, describes how the birds (seekers of God) reached their destination and were confused when they found that there was no distinction between the King, they were in search of, and themselves.[xxxv ] Not a single of these mystical utterances is made independently of the mystical experience of unity (ittihad). That means, they are not meant to enunciate ontological matters, but only to express the innermost experience of Sufi mystics.

But all experience, even the every day one, is inexplicable without some presuppositions of an ontological nature. Most Sufis explained the unison experience on a Platonic type of theory. It was argued that the soul existed before its creation as an eternal idea in the Wisdom of God or Logos, often described as the Spirit of Muhammad (PBUH). As such, man was very near to God, a part of His Consciousness or Knowledge before he was born. His mundane existence separates him from God and the mystic goal is, therefore, to seek to regain his previous status as an idea in God’s Knowledge (Ilm). Man’s existence, thus, is not outside God. God’s immanence in the soul was also recognized by most of the Sufis. The necessity of introversion of consciousness in order to realize God was repeatedly asserted, thus implying that the goal or the Beloved is within us.[xxxvi]

Most Sufis make a distinction between the lower individual self (nafs) and the spirit (Rooh), which is of the Divine essence, or is in some way a spark of God planted in the soul.[xxxvii] Sufis arc not always self-consistent, as is the case with all the mystics of the world. But the recognition of this Rooh or spirit, as distinct from the individual soul (nafs), the practice of speaking of it in singular,[xxxviii] coupled with the exultant expressions of the experience of oneness, would suggest that Sufism is not a mere description of unison experience, but implies an ontology which seeks to assert the essential unity of, or at least a very deep affinity between, the soul and God.

The orthodox training was too strong even for the Sufis. Therefore, such rational devices, as the theory of the soul being an idea in God’s Wisdom, or the Perfect Man being the essence of all those who have realized God, were adopted. But doctrines hardly ever do full justice to the spirit of religion, much less of mystical experience. Even then, if we wanted to point out the essence of the entire Sufi theory and experience, it would seem to be that God being the only Reality, every thing else is either non existent, or in some way a manifestation of God.[xxxix]

Whatever language the Sufi chooses to speak, so long as he is true to his inner experience, the purport of all his utterances may he summed up as: (a) God’s presence within the soul, (b) a certain affinity between the soul and God (variously experienced and expressed) and (c) God’s being the very Essence or ground of man’s being. There is a definite affinity between one’s being and the Cause or Ground of one’s being, that without which we would become naught. But the latter, for that very reason, can never be equated to the former.

Like Islam, while studying introvert mysticism in Christianity, we come to know that God’s indwelling the soul is universally recognized not only by the mystics proper,[xl] but also by all profounder religious souls. But the introvert mystic seeks to assert something more than this, when he proclaims the essential identity or unity between the soul and God. It was easier for Hindu mystics to do this as they were corroborated by their own texts. On the other hand, Western mystics were confronted by a more or less challenging theology, and yet they testified to the experience of an ultimate unity, wherein all the distinctions are transcended, including that of the subject and the object.

The transcendent mystical experience might be negatively interpreted as abstract unity, variously called the dark abyss, the darkness or the nothingness. But the same mystics, as Pseudo Dionysius, Eckhart and Ruysbroeck, have also given a positive content to this experience by affirming a universal core within their souls which is in some way identical, or at least united, with God.[xli ] The Christian introverts have often accepted the theological position and sought to interpret their unison experience in terms of the coming of Christ to the soul. But they could not always stick to such theological explanations and were led by the inner logic of their experience to the affirmation of a deep spiritual core of one’s being, variously named as the ground, apex or center of the soul. In the words of Eckhart, “There is something in the soul which is so akin to God that it is one with Him, it has nothing in common with anything that is created.”[xlii]

This deep center of the soul is a transcendent reality, beyond all distinctions and determinations and so naturally one with the transcendent ‘One’.[xliii] All through the history of mysticism there has been an implicit assumption that like alone knows like, if the mystic claims that he knows God, it would mean that the mystic knows or experiences God, not through the intellect or the ego, but through the light of God Himself.”[xliv] Since the mystic’s individuality is at least temporarily lost, he feels that he cannot describe the experience as seeing or knowing God, but as God seeing or knowing Himself. It is so, because nothing of his separate individual self remains during the mystical vision:

“When the soul plunges into the bottomless well of Divine nature, it becomes so one with God that she herself would say that she is God.”[xlv]

There is a famous passage of Eckhart which is often quoted by Western philosophers of religion as implying that the mystic experience of absorption in the Divine does not mean total loss of individuality. We quote the entire passage below.

“Let us see how the soul becomes God above grace. In the exalted state she has lost her proper self and is flowing full flood into the unity of Divine nature. But what, you may ask, is the fate of the lost soul; does she find herself or not? My answer is that it seems to me that, she finds herself... For though she sinks in the oneness of Divinity, she never reaches the bottom, wherefore God has left her one little point to get back to herself and find herself and know herself as a creature. For it is of the very essence of the soul that she is powerless to plumb the depths of her Creator. Henceforth, I shall not speak about the soul, for she has lost her name yonder in the oneness of the Divine essence, there she is no more called the soul. She is called infinite being.”[xlvi]

Western thinkers always quote the first half of the passage suggesting a definite difference between the soul and God. But what about the second half which calls the soul infinite being? In fact, almost all the Western mystics have distinguished this universal spiritual core from the individual soul. The bolder ones, as pseudo Dionysius and Eckhart, describe this core as Divine and in essence one with God. Others are less outspoken, but the purport of their teaching seems to be the assertion of a pure spiritual essence, or as they call it the apex, of the soul within the individual soul. St John of Cross, in no way an unorthodox mystic, even affirms that the center of the soul is God.[xlvii] Such statements are not merely contending the fact of God’s indwelling which even the orthodox would accept, but a deeper affinity of essence between the two.

Ruysbroeck is one such mystic who is comparatively free of theological determination and in whom the introverts via negativa is well harmonized with the mystical yearning for God. For him, the hope of the fulfillment of this yearning lies in the affirmation of a deep spiritual center of the soul which by its very affinity to God provides a meeting ground between the two.[xlviii] The assertion of a divine core within the soul is to be understood in the context of the experience of God as the very basis or essence of our being.

In a famous passage St. Augustine tells us how he entered within his soul and therein was the Light unchangeable. This Light was above his soul, because it made the soul. The Light is the same as Truth and Love and the soul knows it through love. Here Augustine affirms both the transcendence and the immanence of the Light unchangeable. What is more important, the transcendence of the Light is not due to its wholly other character, but due to the fact that It is the Source and Ground of the soul. Also, whatever gulf is left between the Light and the soul, the Creator and the created, is transcended through love.[xlix] William Law similarly speaks of a deep center of the soul that is essentially akin to God.[l]

When we seek introvert mysticism in Hinduism we find that the Eternal and the Infinite is often realized in contradistinction to the temporal and finite. But it is never experienced as a ‘wholly other’. The mystical experience, at least of introvert mystics, proclaims, if not identifies, essential affinity or unity of the individual soul with the Divine Soul. Indian mystic philosophers are outspoken in this filed. The four sentences of the Upanisads, supposed to contain their basic and highest teachings, proclaim this identity in unmistakable terms.[li] The individual soul is of the essence of the Atman and the Atman is the same as Brahman or the ultimate Reality of the world. The way to the Salvation (Moksa) is through the realization of the truth of the one self in all. When the soul de-identifies itself from its limited ego-centered existence, it realizes its divinity. This unison state is described in the Upanisads as one beyond all distinctions and relations, including those of the subject and the object. In a famous passage Yajnavalkya denies all experience of diversity in the unison state because, “When every thing has become the self what should one know and through what… through what my dear should one know the Knower?”[lii]

The Kena Upanisad expresses this truth by an apparent contradiction —“He who knows Brahman does not know It, whereas he who does not know It knows it.”[liii] It is so, as those who are vain enough to talk of their knowledge of Brahman are still on the level of what Bertrand Russel has called knowledge by description. But those who have reached the level of knowledge by acquaintance know Brahman directly, without any mediation of conceptual categories; rather, they know it by, in some way, becoming one with It. Thus, the knower of Brahman himself ‘becomes’ Brahman.[liv]

There is a suggestion of both transcendence and mystery in this conception of the ultimate Reality, as well as its correlative concept of unison experience as beyond all distinctions. But it is to be noted that the describability of the Atman-Brahman is denied, not because of Its wholly other character but because It is our very Self. The Self cannot be described, as it is the presupposition of all knowledge and experience. It is the basic assumption of knowledge that can neither be questioned nor proved, It being the Self of even one who would deny it.”[lv] At the same time, this Self is no subjective, finite, individual entity, but the universal, infinite Reality. The idea is carried to its logical conclusion by Samkara who denies the separate existence of the individual soul altogether.[lvi]

Instead of proclaiming an ontological identity of the individual finite self (jiva) with the Infinite, he explains this finite self as a complex, (albeit illusory), of two elements, the pure Universal Consciousness which is common to all and the individuating intellect and ego. The relation between the two elements is variously explained in Advaitic treatises, the details of which need not be gone into here. But it must be kept in mind that when the Advaitin talks of the identity of the Atman with Brahman, it is the aspect of pure Universal Consciousness within the soul that he is referring to and not finite individual soul.

Other thinkers, as Ramanuja and Vallabha, without going to the above extreme, proclaim an intimate relation between God and the soul. Ramanuja explains the relation as that between the soul and the body, the subject and its predicates, the whole and its parts. All these analogies are meant to enunciate (a) the immanence of God in the soul and the world, (b) the essential affinity of the two, (c) an inseparable relation between them and (d) a one way dependence of the soul on God. The Upanisadic text about the Inner Controller (Antaryamin)[lvii] expresses the entire Ramanujist approach in a nutshell.

Theoretically, Samkara’s monism is quite different from other interpretations of Vedanta but there is a basic similarity of approach; Samkara often explains the relation between Brahman and the individual soul on the one hand and the universe on the other, as that of inseparability (ananyatvam). He explains the term, ananya, thus—”When a thing cannot exist apart from something else, it is said to be non-separate from the latter.”[lviii] Not only all the mystics, but all men of religion would agree as to the truth that the finite world of things and beings has no being apart from the ‘One’. When the mystic affirms identity with, or better, non-separability (ananyatvam) from, the ‘One,’ he means to express the same truth that the ‘One’ is the very essence of his being and that he does not exist apart from the ‘One’. The metaphysical assertion as to one’s identity with the universal Reality must be understood in the above context.

During the Bhakti period the truth of God indwelling the soul is universally recognized. It is the constant refrain of all Kabir’s songs. Man is like the legendary deer who searches for the musk everywhere, while all the time it lies hidden within him. The path of Self-realization is as tough as a razor’s blade, says the Upanisad.[lix] It is indeed, as he mostly relies on his own powers to extricate himself from all falsehood and realize the Truth. This is to be sharply distinguished from the devotional mystic’s heavy reliance on God’s grace. Thus, the introvert mystic’s attitude towards the Deity is marked by a deliberate transcendence of emotions.

Devotional Sufism

In contrast, the mystics of the emotional type prefer a more intimate and personal concept of the Divine Reality. The deciding factor in their case is not philosophical consistency, but emotional satisfaction. The emotional need of the Sufi leads him to a more personal concept of God, which in turn gives rise to a more personal and intimate mystical experience. This brings us to a third type of Sufism, commonly known as theistic mysticism in the West.[lx] The choice of the name is rather misleading, as it seems to suggest as if the rest of mystical experience is not theistic. It all depends on how we interpret the term theism.

Theism is generally understood as referring to God, other than the soul. The God of introvert mysticism is neither personal in the strict sense of the term, nor an ‘Other’ to the soul. In as much as all mysticism posits a universal and transcendental Reality irreducible to the subject of experience, all mysticism is theistic to that extent. We would, therefore, use the term devotional mysticism for the experience under study in this article. The name is justified by the stress laid on emotional response to God in such a mystical experience. It compares well with our other category of introvert Sufism, with its greater emphasis on introvert or intellectual cognition. The devotional or theistic mysticism upholds the existential duality of the soul and God and its corollary, the transcendence of God.

When we study devotional Sufism, we find a striking similarity of approach and emotional tone between it and Bhakti mysticism. The same inner logic of mystical experience seems to be at work here, leading the mystic from the rational affirmation of the otherness and transcendence of God to the experience of final unity in the state of fana. It is important to understand that Sufis started with a more or less definite philosophy. The emotional approach of love or yearning is more primary or basic than the speculative one in Sufism, so that it is difficult to distinguish between the introvert and theistic types of mysticism within Sufism.

In fact, a study of Sufism demonstrates the futility of such superficial distinctions. Sufi love is so intense, one pointed and all absorbing that it naturally undermines the distinction between the lover and the Divine Beloved, which is initially presumed in the relation of love. As the love grows intenser, the consciousness of one’s separate existence fades more and more in the background, the center being occupied by the consciousness of the Divine Beloved only. Most of the Sufis, thus, prefer to describe their unison experience in terms of unity, rather than union. Unison experience, even when arrived at through the path of love, tends to transcend all distinctions of ‘I’ and ‘Thou’.

And yet, while almost all the Sufis affirm a loss of individual consciousness in the unison state, the description is mostly in terms of experience and need not imply a denial of distinction between the Creator and the creature at the ontological level. Even the more orthodox al Ghazali explained the mystical union in terms of experiential, though not ontological identity.[lxi] Thus, Sufism like Bhakti mysticism both affirms and yet transcends the otherness of God in mystical union. This would suggest that the otherness of God to the soul may be required for devotion or love of God, but it is very much reconcilable to the essential affinity or even unity of the two.

The supreme desire of a Sufi is meeting God and thus God is the supreme Object of desire and love, the Beloved par excellence. The Sufi isqai is very near to the Hindu prema of God, and seems to require both God’s otherness as well as His personal Being. Sufis liberally used the terminology of conjugal love, adopted legendary love stories and freely used analogies from mundane love in order to express the love and yearning of the soul for God.

Behind this free use of the analogy of mundane love lies the Sufi faith that all love is essentially one, whether directed to God or another human being. Slowly it came to pass that Sufis were talking of the face (rukh) and tresses (zulf) of the Beloved. Attempts were made, to interpret these terms in a spiritual sense. Whatever that may be, the use of terms and analogies taken from mundane love implies that even the love of the Divine is a personal relation, needing a personal Object of love.

Allah of the Quran is a truly transcendent God to whom even the application of the term Father is deprecated. But at the same time, in certain passages of the Quran Allah is described in frankly anthropomorphic terms. Though the Quranic theologians strive hard to explain away such passages, it may well indicate the need of the human mind to conceive the Divine in terms familiar to man, so that he can establish a personal relation with Him. Sufis only expressed the same need of the human mind in a bolder form when they conceived Allah as the Beloved.

Even the Sufis, like Mansoor al Hallaj and Ba Yazid, who do not use the love language of the later Sufis, report in detail their dialogue with God. God is a ‘Thou’ to them, a living Presence. In most of the Sufis the mystery of the Transcendent is somehow preserved along with the affirmation of Him as the Beloved.[lxii] That may mean that God is not personal in any determinate sense and the use of the term Beloved for Him mainly signifies God’s being the supreme Object of love, the Goal of the soul’s yearning, as also in some sense God’s being loving or love itself.

For Ibne Arabi love expresses the Divine Essence itself. Not only God is the supreme Object of love, God is himself Love. This Love or Essence of God indwells the human heart, so that, that which turns lovingly towards God, is the Divine Essence itself. In his own words, “Were it not for love (residing in the heart), Love (God) would not be worshipped.[lxiii] Here Sufis are pointing out a profound truth of religious experience, that love of God implies a God of love. All that a man of religion means by the personality of God is the character of God as Love or Grace itself. A man can fear or obey God, but cannot love Him unless he is convinced of God’s prior love for man.[lxiv]

Later Sufis, notable among them Mohammad Ibne Arabi, developed an intricate doctrine of Muhammad (PBUH) as the Word (Logos) of God. Logos is the creative, animating, rational Principle within God and contains all the ideas of existing and potential things. Logos is the Principle through which the Absolute manifests Itself. Sufi mystics identify Logos with the eternal Spirit of Muhammad (PBUH).

Yet this Logos or the eternal Spirit of Muhammad (PBUH) is no separate person in God, but identical with Him. The Perfect Man combines in him the eternal Spirit of Muhammad (PBUH) and its manifestation on earth as the prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Still the Sufi concept of Perfect Man is not the same as that of Christ, the latter being a distinct person, which the former is not. Only the inner logic, the need for a supreme personal being as an object of one’s love, is the same in both.

The profounder religious experience of the Sufis could not always maintain a distinction between the Spirit of Muhammad (PBUH) and Allah. The Divine ‘She’ of the Taiyyatul Kubra is said to be the Spirit of Muhammad (PBUH). But the entire poem can be better appreciated if the referent of the term ‘She’ is understood as the ultimate Divine Being Himself. Thus, neither the Christian mystics nor the Sufis could always maintain the distinction between the Godhead and the Logos posited in their creed. In the unison experience, wherein even the distinction between the subject and the Object is lost, the distinction between different Aspects or Persons within the one God could hardly be preserved.

In the case of Western mysticism the duality of the soul and God and God’s transcendence are emphatically asserted in the orthodox religion. The Christian religion conceived God as an other to the soul which, though created in the image of God, is neither immortal, nor pure. The preparation for mystical experience consists in purging the soul of all its innumerable sins and thus clearing the way for the working of God in it. Christian mystics mostly express even the mystical experience of union as the birth of Christ in the soul or visitation of Christ or God. Such similes suggest the otherness, or even externality, of God to the soul:

“Although He had often come in unto me, I have never perceived the manner of His coming... He did not come from outside, yet again He did not come from within, for He is good and I know that no good thing dwelleth in me.”[lxv]

The statement that, ‘no good thing dwelleth in me’, is a typical expression of the creature feeling. It emphasizes the distinction between the creature and the Creator, the lover and the Divine Beloved. And yet, love (of God) at the same time seeks to bridge the gulf between the two, which it has itself posited. This apparently paradoxical nature of the love of God can be better understood if we appreciate the bi-polar nature of religious experience.

Even the mystico-unison experience, as understood and expressed by the theistic mystics, is marked both by the consciousness of the individual of himself as the subject of experience and the tendency of this consciousness being lost into, or overwhelmed by, the consciousness of the Divine Object which, at least for the time being, completely holds the center of attention. Thus, theistic mystic at once asserts the existential or even ontological distinction between the subject and the object of religious experience and negates it on the basis of unison experience. With the return of normal consciousness, such a mystic is often left with the task of synthesizing the two poles of experience at the rational level.

The relation between the soul and God was often sought to be explained with the analogy of iron and fire that penetrates the iron fully, transforms and purifies it, but does not swallow up its separate existence.[lxvi] God indwells or even penetrates the soul, so that during the unison state no distinction between the two is experienced; but this does not negate the individual’s separate identity as a subject or center of experience. Mystics, as St. Teresa emphasize the distinct being of the two,[lxvii] while at the same time acknowledging the fact that during the unison state this distinction is transcended altogether. Others, as St. John of Cross, recognize the moment of the merger of the consciousness of the subject into that of the Object as a primary moment of mystical experience, while at the same time seeking to preserve the individual existence of the soul. In the words of St. John of Cross:

“The union shall be called the union of likeness which takes effect when two wills, the will of God and the will of the soul, are conformed together. The soul which has reached conformity and resemblance is perfectly united and supernaturally transformed in God... (Thus) in the merging of itself in God the spirit passes away and yet not wholly, for it receives indeed some attributes of Godhead, but it does not become God by nature…It is still a something which has been created out of nothing and continues to be thus everlastingly.”[lxviii]

Within Hinduism, Bhakti movement expresses the theistic or devotional mysticism at its best. Though it was divided into different schools or sects, purporting to follow different interpretations of Vedanta, (Advaita, Visisthadvaita etc.), basically the general ontology, as well as devotional approach, are the same in all the sects.

The Bhakti mystics never bothered about ontological intricacies, their sole concern being the love of God. Their approach was existential and emotional and above all direct. They wanted to ‘meet’ God not only without intermediary, but also without any encumbering ontological or theological beliefs. Very generally speaking, their ontology includes the otherness and transcendence of God, the concept of a personal God Who is an object of love and devotion, the concept of union with God as the aim of mystical path and its natural corollary, the affinity between the soul and God.

Also generally speaking, we may say that the general ontology of the Bhakti mystics is more or less the same as that of the Bhagavadgita. Its simple ontology, with its concept of a personal God and that of the soul as an aspect (amsa) of God, is best suited to the development of an attitude of devotion and love towards God. A part is existentially distinct from the whole and yet derives its being from, and is thoroughly dependent upon, the whole. The whole, being more primary, basic and even transcendent, can be an adequate object of love and devotion of the part. Ramanuja’s philosophy is more or less a development of this basic idea of the existential distinction between the soul and God and the basic dependence of the former on the latter. All the Bhakti saints of medieval India almost universally accept the ontological scheme of the Bhagavadgita and Ramanuja with minor variations.

Generally, there was no attempt at speculation about the ontological nature of the soul. The soul was referred to mostly from an existential or psychological point of view, that is, as a subject of experience, the devotee’s main interest being God and God alone. Whether the devotee loved God in the spirit of dasa bhakti (the devotion of a slave), or that of prema (conjugal love), the otherness of God was implicitly accepted. In the former case not only the otherness of God, but even a gulf between the two was recognized.

The experience and agony of separation from God is the recurring theme of Bhakti mysticism. The mythological stories of gopis (milk maids) and their frustrated love for Krisna were appropriated to express the love and yearning of the soul for God. The emphasis on viraha (separation) in Bhakti literature would seem to point to the gulf between the soul and God, which the devotee seeks to overcome, but does not always succeed to do so. At the same time, bhakti or love of God, which essentially consists in a hankering for God, implies a certain affinity between the two, as one can hardly wish to be united with a ‘wholly other’ God.

Different schools or traditions differently conceived the union. Often there was a preference for the continuation of duality, that is, preservation of the individuality of the soul during both the states of unison experience and Moksa or Liberation. Caitanya, one of the most passionate of medieval mystics, conceived the final goal as a state wherein the soul would enjoy the company of God as a friend and servant. The goal of mystical life was usually understood to be union (Milan) with God, which was variously explained as being near God, or becoming like Him etc. Love seems to need two, the lover and the Beloved.

Mira is another instance of such love. She loved Krisna with the passionate and one pointed love of a devoted spouse and repeatedly called Him to come to her. It was union, and not identification, with her Beloved that she hankered after. Tukarama rejected the idea of identity. He quarried, “What shall I do of Moksa wherein all distinction between the soul and God is obliterated and hence all joy of loving one’s Beloved?[lxxix] A distinction was often made between Moksa (Liberation) as Self-realization, as conceived in Advaita, and Moksa as union with God. For the devotee mystic, the latter was more desirable. Tukarama says at another place that for the sake of one glimpse of his Beloved, he would readily ‘kick’ (abandon) Moksa.[lxx]

This distinction seems to correspond well with the division between introvert and theistic mysticism by some Western thinkers. But in the case of Indian mystics this may not be taken as final. True, a devotee at first wants only the vision of God (darsan), which is quite a dualistic term. But as it happens, once the vision of God is achieved, the soul is overwhelmed by it and is so absorbed in what it encounters, that it loses itself therein completely. Once the experience of union is realized, the same Tukarama is baffled, for he finds now that all old relations have become meaningless. Even worship is impossible, as all means of worship have become identical with Him. In another very expressive abhanga Tukarama expresses unison experience as follows: “Deep has called unto deep and all things have vanished into unity. The waves and the ocean have become one.”[lxxi]

Though expressed in a typical mystical language, the idea is very clear. It is not ontological identity that is being affirmed, but experiential unity. As far as this unison experience is concerned, they do not mince words in affirming the total loss of one’s individuality therein. A popular legend tells us how Mira was absorbed bodily into the image of Lord Krisna. The legend itself may be untrue, but it is significant, as it tells us how even in the popular imagination the culmination of mystical path consists in one’s absorption into the Unity.

Sufism as the Universal Core of Religion

It is true, that the two approaches of devotional (theistic) mysticism and introvert mysticism are quite different at the start of the way. But somewhere at the end of the journey they meet and then the question of their difference becomes a matter of purely theoretical interest. Both ways seem to reach a stage, which can be described as unity or union wherein the seeker is somehow changed into the Object of the search. The theistic mystic may well start with the duality of the two, but his intense love for God bridges the gulf between the subject and the Object of love,[lxxii] so much so that at the end the subject appears to be transformed into the Object.

The theistic mystic at once affirms and then seeks to overcome the gulf between the soul and God through love. The introvert mystic recognizes the same gulf, not between the soul and God, but between the lower and higher souls, the higher soul being in some way continuous with God. He seeks to bridge the gulf between himself and God by transcending the lower soul or empirical self. For both, the mystical experience is a unison experience, realized through going beyond the experiences of the empirical self.

It is a simple principle that the more completely a man dies to the self; the more he begins to live in God.[lxxiii] This fact has been more or less recognized by all the mystics of the world. But it is very different from Rudolf Otto’s creature feeling. It is very important to remember that the mystic anticipates this death of the self not with fear but with hope, as this dying to the self results in the blessedness of union with God. When puzzled by her own unison experience St. Teresa appealed to her Father in heaven directly and He answered

“It (the soul) dissolves utterly, my daughter, to rest more and more in Me. It is no longer itself that lives, but I.”[lxxiv]

The simile of a drop of water being lost in the sea or in a casket of wine[lxxv] is a popular one in Western mysticism and is used to express the universal desire of the mystic to lose himself in God. Both, R.C. Zaehner’s equation of this desire to infantilism”[lxxvi] and Rudolf Otto’s attempt at explaining such an experience in terms of the traumatic experience of creature feeling,[lxxvii] are apparently mistaken. There seems to be an inner necessity about this need for self-negation in order to realize one’s unity with God.

In the words of Swami Rama Tirtha, “The lamp must burn in order that it may shine. So in order that it may live in God, the little ego, the outgoing tendency must stop”. He explains the same idea by the simile of the reed; it has to be hollowed before the Divine breath can be breathed into it.[lxxviii] Kabir expresses the same truth when he observes that when his ego (I) was there, then God was not; and now when God has come (to reside in his heart), then his ego is no more. All I-consciousness is lost in the one overwhelming consciousness of God.

Psychologically this experience may be explained as a shifting of the center of consciousness away from the narrow egoistic consciousness. And it is true for both kinds of mysticism. The introvert mystic experiences this change of consciousness from egoistic to an impersonal and universal consciousness and calls it deification. The introvert mystics in terms of Self-realization sometimes express the same experience. But though the terminology may be different, the basic experience is the same, as it is never the empirical self that is thus deified.

The devotional mystic has more or less the same experience and he explains it by such concepts as the birth of Christ in the soul or the visitation of God to it and so on. You give your self to God and you get God in return, says the theist, or better, the devotional mystic. You deny or transcend yourself and what remains is God himself, says the introvert.

A.J. Arberry refers to an incident in Abu Yazid’s life. Some visitor knocked at his door and called him by his name. The retort came from within, “Pass on, there is no one in this house but God.” Does it mean that he called himself God? Not at all. He did not call himself anything, for his little self was not there, only God was there, (as he is there in every other place and in every other heart, only we are not conscious of the truth).

Another characteristic utterance of Abu Yazid makes the above clear. “I am not I, I, because I am He, I am He, He.”[lxxix] Far from such utterances being expressions of megalomania or insanity, as accused by R.C. Zaehner, they express the most profound truth about mystical experience. None of the above mystics claims any identity between the individual soul and God. The unison experience is better explained by the relation of either, or till the ego is there at the center of consciousness, God consciousness cannot arise. When the ego is negated God consciousness becomes the central and basic fact of one’s mental life.

This truth is further expressed in the Sufi view of mystical experience as fana. fana literally means annihilation or passing away. In fact, it is anything but a negative experience. The Sufis were well aware of the psychological truth that, “When thou art occupied with thyself, thou remainst away from God”[lxxx]. Therefore the Sufi deliberately sets himself to get rid of his ego or lower self. A respected means thereof was the constant repetition of God’s name—Allah—till one lost all consciousness of one’s individual existence. For more lasting results, a much more severe and well-directed process of self-discipline was undertaken.

The purpose of the entire discipline was utter self-naughting, a complete negation or transcendence of even the slightest trace of the ego. The Beloved of al Farid tells him that his love is not acceptable to Her so long as he has not completely passed away from himself.[lxxxi] Al Farid then explains to his disciples how he sought to approach the Beloved by sacrificing himself, then how with entire insouciance he gave up any regard for the merit of that self-sacrifice, (lest it should strengthen his ego). As if that was not enough, he sacrificed even his desire for the Beloved and then he found that She, his Beloved, was his reward and that She loved and desired him.[lxxii] He adds that once he went forth from himself to her, he did not come back to himself.[lxxxiii]

In al Farid we find an impressive first hand account of the experience of fana. The value of the Sufi concept of fana lies in the fact that very few ontological or theological beliefs are used in the description or even explanation of the experience of fana. Most of the Sufi descriptions of fana seem to be purely from the existential point of view and have a universal appeal, which is lacking in these experiences, which come to us heavily clothed in some determinate theology.

Though the main stress in the Sufi concept of fana is on the need of self—naughting[lxxxiv], there is a definite reference to God as a transcendent Reality, even as an ‘Other’ to the soul. The mystic seeks annihilation of his individual self or ego (nafs), not as an end in itself, but as a means to be united with God. Many of the modern Muslim scholars deprecate any attempt at equating the concept of fana with that of Nirvana. They argue that while the latter seems to be an annihilation of the transmigratory self, without reference to any eternal Divine Reality, the Sufi concept of fana affirms not only God, but also a distinct essence of the soul.

Sufls differ among themselves as to the status of the soul in fana, the majority believing that the soul’s individual existence is not destroyed therein. According to the orthodox version, fana is a state, in which the soul is purified of all attachment to worldly things and the ego. It is further stated that fana does not mean loss of the essence, but only of the attributes of the ego. It means the annihilation of one’s will before the will of God.[lxxxv]

But the above must not lead us to the opposite error of interpreting fana in the dualistic terminology of orthodox writers. The concept of fana does imply annihilation or transcendence of the age. Sufis, like the Vedantins, distinguished the empirical self (nafs) from the spiritual essence of the individual (Rooh). While the Vedanta boldly affirmed the identity of this spiritual principle (Atman) with the Absolute (Brahman), the Sufi position on this issue is rather vague. But the profounder or we may say more advanced, of the Sufis are very clear as to the nature of the mystical experience itself.

“I said”, tells Abu Yazid of his dialogue with Allah, “Adorn me in Thy unity and clothe me in Thy selfhood and raise me up to Thine oneness, so that when Thy creatures see me, they will say we have seen Thee and Thou wilt be that and I shall not be there at all”.[lxxxvi]

“And”, I said, ‘I am through Thee’. He said, ‘if thou art through Me, then I am thou and thou art I’. I said, ‘No indeed, Thou art Thou, there is no good except Thee’.”[lxxxvii]

R.C. Zaehner sees in these utterances signs of Abu Yazid’s insanity. But any unprejudiced reader would see in them what we have found to be the core of mystical experience. We can note here firstly, the description of mystical experience in dialogue form suggests the taking for granted of the existential duality of the soul and God.

Secondly, the duality seems to be transcended in the unison experience. And thirdly, this unity is realized by a definite act of self-negation. The last seems to be the most important. In both the passages, and such passages can be multiplied at random, Abu Yazid affirms, ‘Thou wilt be there and I shall not be there at all.’ He even denies God’s suggestion as to their identity. It is not that Abu Yazid is God, but he is not there, only God is. In fact there is no good (real) except Him.

The Sufi doctrine of fana expresses the truth about mystical experience of every possible variety in a nutshell. It consists in self-naughting, not as a negative experience, but as a step to, or rather as an integral part of, unison experience. When the ego and its attributes are naughted, the individual does not cease to exist, instead, he exists in and through God.[lxxxviii] The experience of fana, thus, is closely associated with, or is one side of the medal of which baqa is the other side.”[lxxxix] The two together make one rich whole of unison experience.

Baqa’ means subsistence, that is, the mystic who has naughted himself subsists in and through God, or even ‘as’ God. Making allowance for the variety of interpretation, the experience itself seems to be clear enough. It is a state in which the mystic is lost to himself, (forgets himself), and is conscious of God alone. Abu Yazid describes the mystic life after the highest realization as—”When a man’s desire is united with the will of the Creator, then he wills with God’s will, he sees in accord with God and his soul is moved by God’s omnipotence.”[xc]

The above would readily be agreed upon as the core, as well as the acme, of all mystical experience by the mystics, belonging to diverse religo-cultural groups. St. Paul’s famous words, ‘I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me’, express the self same truth in strikingly similar terms too. The introvert mystic reaches this state by a deliberate self-transcendence through contemplation, while the devotional mystic arrives at the same goal through the easier path of self-surrender.

There is nothing half-hearted about this self-surrender. One has to give oneself fully and unconditionally to God in order to possess God, (or what is the same for the mystic, be possessed by Him). The difference between the introvert and devotional (theistic) mysticisms becomes still more superfluous, when we find such renowned introvert mystics, as Pseudo Dionysius and Eckhart, advocating sincere, spontaneous and entire surrender of oneself and all things to God.[xci]

Bhakti mysticism fully recognizes self-surrender as the means par excellence of unison experience. Bhakti treatises further developed the idea of the Bhagavadgita as to the need of self-surrender to God into the concept of prapatti. prapatti is complete resignation to God, coupled with the fullest trust in His saving grace. For the Bhakti mystic devotion to God consisted in a complete absorption in God, thinking of Him, talking of Him, working His works. And he found that a stage is reached when, “whatever he sees is God, and whatever he speaks is God. The whole body becomes filled with God.”[xcii] The mystic may realize that the self-reliance implicit in the introvert way is self defeating, as it feeds the ego which must be transcended and that transcendence can best be achieved through self surrender.

Sometimes these saints speak a language strikingly similar to the one familiar to the West. Tukarama tells us how when God comes to live in a man, he deprives him of everything, (all desires and affections).[xciii] As against the Advaitic view of self-realization, all the medieval mystics use such terms as union with God or God’s coming to reside in the soul, terms familiar to the Western world. But even here Hindu mysticism remains distinctive. The unison vision is described in close association with the vision of God as all:

“I see Thy feet everywhere. The whole universe is filled by Thee...Thou hast become everything to us, says Tuka... When I walk, I turn round about Thee, when I sleep, I prostrate before Thee.”[xciv]

The above has the merit of being completely free of any ontological or theological benefits. It is a clear and simple statement of how the soul’s unison experience, (soul’s being transformed into God) has resulted into the entire world becoming suffused with God. The soul is so united with or transformed into God that it can see and experience nothing but God. Here we learn how Sri Ramakrishna not only experienced each single living being as Narayana (Divine) himself, he felt all rationalization of it superfluous, as it was a matter of direct experience for him.

It is also noteworthy that almost all the mystics we have discussed above would be called theistic in the Western sense of the term, that is, they are the mystics who explain their experience with a definite reference to God. Yet, these mystics did experience their God not only within their heart, but also all around them. The living presence of God within and around them was an indubitable fact of experience to them which hardly needed any explanation in theological terms.

The same is true of Sufi mysticism, which is quite near to Hindu mysticism in its approach, vision and spirit:

In the market, in the cloister only God I saw.
In the valley, on the mountain only God I saw.
I opened my eyes and by the Light of His Face around me,
In all the eye discovered only God I saw.
Like a candle I was melting in His fire,
I passed away in nothingness, I vanished,
And lo, I was the All-living, only God I saw.

The above presents two visions, one of God ‘as’ all that the eye discovered, another of one’s identity with the All-living, as a result of the mystic’s prior passing away into nothingness. But these two visions are presented as integral parts of one unison experience, which can be described by a single phrase, ‘only God I saw’. A man, who transcends his ago, sees God within his soul and is unified with Him, and also sees Him within all that the eye discerns. Rather, he sees only God, whether he sees inside or outside himself.

The vision is susceptible to an extreme monistic interpretation, as well as a simple theistic one. The above experience is strictly comparable to the experience of God in the Hindu tradition as described by Kabir, Tukarama, Ekanath etc. The unifying vision may be only a first glimmering of the mystical truth in certain cases and then it would be the lowest stage of mystical path. But this should be strictly distinguished from the vision that sees God wherever the eye befalls, which is not the first stage, but the culmination of unison experience.

Within Christian tradition we have Eckhart who, as we have seen, declared that ‘all is one and One is all.’ Rudolf Otto has failed to give any reason why this vision of Eckhart should be subordinated to his vision of the Godhead as above being and non-being. Another lesser known mystic, Malavel, connects the unifying vision with the unison experience thus:

“From the moment in which the soul has received the impression of Deity in infused vision, she sees Him everywhere by one of love’s secret which is only known to those who have experienced it. The simple vision of pure love which is marvelously penetrating does not stop at the outer husk of creation, it penetrates to the Divinity hidden within.”[xcvi]

St. Paul’s vision of the Divine, as One in whom ‘we live, move and have our being’, is quite near to the Sufi’s direct experience of God in and around him. There is no reason why a profounder soul could not experience the Divine within the universe, having experienced It within the soul. Thus the mystic affirms both the transcendence of the ‘One’ to the many, as well as Its unity first and foremost with the soul, then with the entire universe.

An extrovert mystic might reach the ‘One’ through the multiplicity. An introvert starts with the ‘One’ and then reconciles the multiplicity to it. This reconciliation of the two involves an interpretative element, but only to the extent that there is an attempt at explaining the multiplicity on the basis of unity. The sense of universal harmony, the vision of one Real in all is a matter of direct experience.

Thus, we seem to arrive at an overwhelming consciousness of God being the All in all as the universal core of all mystical experience. It necessarily implies a negation of, or at least a shifting of the center of consciousness away from the ego consciousness (fana). The experience of fana can be regarded either as a stepping-stone to the unison experience, or as an integral part thereof.

In fact, the universal core of all mystical experience can be understood without any reference to the supra-rational unison experience, or even without reference to the mystical terminology of fana etc. It is just that the intenser the consciousness of the Divine presence, the vaguer the consciousness of oneself, or the more one succeeds in subduing or getting rid of one’s ego, the intenser, and profounder is the experience of the Divine.

In so far as the ‘One’ is realized after transcending the ego and all its associations and relations, the ‘One’ can be affirmed to be transcended, but the ‘One’ is also realized within the soul and at least in the case of many introvert mystics as the very essence or Self of the soul. Those who have the courage of their convictions see the ‘One’ around them also, even as they have experienced it within.

The core of mystical experience, we have tried to reach, cannot be explained in terms of transcendence or immanence. It is simply the overwhelming, all sweeping, intense consciousness of God as the only living Reality within and without. Some may go up to the end of the road; most prefer to stop midway, afraid to penetrate the dark abyss of oneness. But even they acknowledge that the overwhelming sense of God’s living Presence within and without is the core, as well as the culmination, of their mystico-religious experience.

Mysticism (Sufism) and Peace

The most important aspect of mysticism (Sufism) is the expression of global unity of the mankind without the divisions of race, color, creed or nation. In this regard, mysticism (Sufism) is just an expression of unconditional love to all of humankind. The earlier mystic movements of the history had produced the profound effects in their times and had swept across the ancient world from age to age. These popular mystic devotional movements shared some core doctrines and practices due to their great similarities of thought, creeds and devotion to humanity. Those great devotional movements swept like waves across North Africa, Europe and Asia. Some of these were the great Mysticism and Caroling Religious Fairs of the Middle Ages Catholic Europe, the Catholic Rosary Devotion to Jesus through Mary, and the popular Eastern Rite Catholic and Orthodox Christian practice of constantly reciting 'The Jesus Prayer'.

Later there was a great revival of the Rosary devotion to 'Jesus living in Mary', led by Saint Louis de Montfort in France, which spread like wildfire across Europe. Beside the great Catholic revivals led by Saint Francis of Assisi and other Christian Mystics of the 11th and 12th centuries, during the same era, was the rise of the Sufi Divine Love Tradition of Rumi, al Ghazali, Suharwardi and the Woman Saint Rabe’ah al-'Adawiyya (Basri). A central practice of this devotion was the invocation of the 99 Beautiful Names of Allah.

In Japan, the Pure Land Bhakti Buddhist Saints Honen, Shinran, Ippen and Nicherin eventually popularized the constant repetition of Amitabha Buddha's (HRIH's) Name as the 'Nembutsu', 'Namu Amida Butsu'. In Judaism Bridal Mysticism flourished from time-to-time in the form of devotion to Hashem, The Holy Name, and the Kabbalistic study of Shekinah (Peace). There was also a revival of related Jewish Spirituality in the 11th and 12th centuries, with the rise of Hasidic and Mediterranean Neo-Platonic Jewish Mysticism. All of these movements were actually historically related to mysticism, and had an inner or esoteric core of peace and humanity. All of these mystic Movements tended to unite the various lineages and sectarian offshoots of these great religions.

Thus from its very beginning, the Mission of mysticism was far more than the mere continuation of a single specific sectarian lineage within a particular religion. Nor was it merely a mission to unite all of the orthodox doctrines. Rather, the complete Mission of Mysticism (Sufism) was nothing less than the global mystic unity of all humanity...a unity transcendent to race, class, gender, language, education, occupation and even lineage, or creed...

So, in today’s world, when Religion is escalating as a primary cause of conflict and dilemma, the world needs once again the unblemished wisdom of mysticism. Thus, the differences in theology today need not be a barrier to our seeking to build pious human alliances with members of the historically related Great Religions and other sincere devotees of Divine Reality.


i. Mysticism in Religion, (Rider and Co., London, 1969), page 31

ii. Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, edited by James Hastings, (T & T Clark, Edinburgh, 1964), vol. 9, p. 83.

iii. “This overcoming of all the usual barriers between the individual and the Absolute is the great mystic achievement…so that there is about mystic utterances an eternal unanimity hardly altered by tradition and creed.”

“The fact is that the mystical feeling of enlargement, union and emancipation has no specific intellectual content whatever of its own. It is capable of forming matrimonial alliance with material furnished by the most diverse philosophies and theories…” Varieties of Religious Experience (The Modern Library, New York, 1929) p. 410, 416-17.

iv. James Bissett Pratt, Religious Consciousness: A psychological Study, (The Macmillan Co., New York, 1930), p. 407.

v. William Ernest Hocking, Meaning of God in Human Experience, (Yale University Press, New Haven, Oxford University Press, 1955, p. 350)

vi. Encyclopaedia Britannica

vii. Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary

viii. History of Philosophy in Islam, (1903), page 93-94 "Moslem Philosophy" in Hasting's Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics.

ix. Arabia the Cradle of Islam, 1912, p. 170. An Analytical Table of the borrowed elements of Islam is given on p. 178 of the same work.

x. 'Ikhwan as-Safa,' in Der Islam Vol. I, page 22

xi. Mysticism in Islam by Underhill, page 114-15

xii. Religious Attitude and Life in Islam, by D.B. Macdonald's (1909), page 159

xiii. Rudolf Otto, Mysticism East and West, translation by Bertha L. Bracey and Richenda C. Payne, (The Macmillan Co. New York, 1972, p. 61 & 73).

xiv. Ibnul Farid, Taiyyat ul Kubra, p. 245-46.

xv. The Holy Quran, Surah ii, Verse 115

xvi. Farid ud Din Attar, Jawahar al Dhat p. 99

xvii. Thou art the breath of life in both body and soul. In every form Thou dost manifest Thyself according to Thy will…Though, the Creator, art seen in the creatures, Spirit shining through gross matter…Though art the Divine Essence dwelling in the midst of each one of us…Though art the Sought and the seeker”. Attar Jawahar al Dhat p. 99

xviii. Ibnul Farid, Taiyyat ul Kubra p. 264

xix. Eckhart, quoted in Rudolf Otto’s Mysticism East and West, p. 64

xx All that a man has here externally in multiplicity is intrinsically one. Here all blades of grass, wood and stone, all things are one. This is the deepest depth.” Eckhart, ibid., p. 80

xxi. Nicholas of Cusa, quoted in Sidney Spencer’s Mysticism in World Religions, (Penguine Books, Middlesex, England; Baltimore, U.S.A., 1963, p. 242).

xxii. Nicholas of Cusa, The Vision of God, in F. C. Happold’s Mysticism: a Study and Anthology, (Penguine Books, Middlesex, England; Baltimore, U.S.A., 1963, p. 304.

xxiii. Chhandogya Upanisad VII. 25, from The Upanisads, translated by Nikhilanand, (George Allen and Unwin, London, 1963). All further references from the Upanisads are from the same edition.

xxiv. Isa Upanisad 1.

xxv. “Thou art woman, Thou art man, Thou art youth and maiden too. Though as an old man totterest along on a staff. It is Thou alone when born assumest diverse form.” Svetasvatara Upanisad IV. 5.

xxvi. Brhadaranyaka Upanisad II.I.20, Mundaka Upanisad II.I.1; Taittiriya Upanisad III.1.1.

xxvii. “Everything springs from the self, is dissolved in It and remains imbued with It during continuance. As it cannot be perceived apart from the Self, therefore everything is the Self.” Samkara, bhasya on Brhadaranyaka Upanisad II. 4.6, translated by Madhvananda, (Advaita Ashram, Calcutta, 1965).

xxviii. Sayings of Sri Ramakrishna, (Sri Ramakrishna Math, Madras, 1975, p. 316-17).

xxix. “I am indeed He, the purusa, who dwells there (in the sun).” Isa Upanisads 16.

xxx. Brhadaranyaka Upanisad II.1.20; Mundaka Upanisad II.1.1; Taittiriya Upanisad III.1.1.

xxxi. Sura II. 186, 1.16; vi. 60. etc.

xxxii. “I am whom I love and He whom I love is I.
We are two spirits dwelling in one body.
If though seest me though seet Him.”
Mansoor al Hallaj, quoted in Reynold A. Nicholson, Studies in Islamic Mysticism, p. 80.

xxxiii. Happy the moment when we are seated in the parlour with two forms and with two figures, but with one soul, Thou and I.” Jalaluddin Rumi, ibid., p. 80

xxxiv. “Both of us are in a single worshipper who in respect of the united state bows himself to his essence in every act of bowing.”
“My greeting to her is metaphorical; in reality my salvation is from me to myself”.
“For truly I and She are one essence.”
Taiyyatul Kubra 152-3, 333, 339, ibid., p. 231-32

xxxv. “And in the centre of the Glory there
Beheld the figure of themselves as it were,
Transfigured looking to themselves beheld
The figure on the Throne enmiracled,
Until their eyes themselves and That between
Did hesitate which sees, which was seen,
This That, That they, another, yet the same.”
Mantiq al Tayr or The Conference of Birds, in F. C. Happold, Mysticism: a Study and an Anthology, (penguine Books, Middlesex, England, Baltimore, U.S.A., 1963, p. 242.)

xxxvi. “Seek for the Reality within thine on heart, for Reality in truth is hidden within thee. The heart is the dwelling place of that which is the essence of the universe. Within the heart the soul is very essence of God. Like a saint make journey into thyself.” Attar, in Margaret Smith, cite., p. 94.

xxxvii. “Thou has a treasure within thy soul, a treasure hidden there by thy Friend.” Attar, in Margaret Smith, cite., p. 94.

xxxviii. “The faithful are many, but their faith is one, their bodies are numerous, but their soul is one.” Rumi, Mathanvi iv. 408, in R. A. Nicholson, Rumi, Poet and Mystic, (George Allen and Unwin, London, 1956), p.51.

xxxix. “To think oneself as an other to God is polytheism.” Taiyyatul Kubra 277, in R. A. Nicholson, Studies in Islamic Mysticism, p.220.

xl “I am as certain as I live that nothing is so near to me as God. God is nearer to me than I am to myself.” Eckhart, quoted in J. B. Pratt, op. cite., p. 475
“God is more inward to us than we are to overselves.” Ruysbroeck, Adornment of Spiritual Marriage II.3, in F. C. Happold, op. cit., p. 254

xli. “The first and highest unity of man is in God, for all creatures depend upon this unity for for their being, their life, their preservation: and if they be separated in this wise from God, they fall into nothingness and become naught. This unity is in us essentially by nature, whether we be good or evil.” Ibid. II.2, p.253.

xlii. Eckhart, Sermons, quoted in Sidney Spencer, op. cit., p.54.

xliii. “There is something in the soul which is above the soul, divine, simple, super essential essence, the simple ground in which there is no distinction, neither Father, Son nor Holy Ghost.” Eckhart, quoted in W. R. Inge, op. cit., p. 54.

xliv. “But for me to know God thus with nothing between, God must be very I, I very God, as so consummately one that this He and this I are one in thisness.” Eckhart, Sermons xcix, in F. C. Happold, op. cit., p. 242.

xlv. Tractate II, ibid., p. 244.

xlvi. Ibid., p. 243-44

xlvii. John of Cross, Living Flame of Love, Stanza 1, ibid., p. 331.

xlviii. “The spirit in its inmost highest part, that is, its naked nature, is an eternal dwelling place of God. That is why, the spirit in its essence possesses God, as God does the spirit, for it lives in God and God in it.” The Adornment of Spiritual Marriage II. 51, ibid., p. 255

xlix. “I entered into my inward self…and beheld with the eye of my soul…the Light unchangeable…The Light was above my soul, because It made it. O Truth who art Eternity and Love who art Truth! And Eternity who art Love! Thou art my God.” Confessions, Book VII, ibid., p. 198-99.

l. “The depth is called the centre, the fund or bottom of the soul. This depth is the unity, the eternity, I have almost said, the infinity of the soul.” William Law, quoted in Evelyn Underhill, op. cit., p.52.

li. “Ayamatma Brahma” (The Self is the Absolute), Brhadaranyaka Upanisad IV, 4.5. “Aham Brahmasmi” (I am Brahman), ibid. I. 4.10. “Tattvamasi” (Thou art That), Chhandogya Upanisad IV. 8.1. “Vijnanam Brahma” (Consciousness is Brahman), Taittiriya Upanisad III. 5.1.

lii. Brhadaranyaka Upanisad II. 4.1

liii. Kena Upanisad II.3.

liv. Mundaka Upanisad III. 2.9.

lv. “He is never seen, but is the Seer, He is never known, but is the Knower. There is no other Knower than He. He is your Self, the Inner Controller.” Brhadaranyaka Upanisad III. 7.23.

lvi. Samkara, bhasya on Brhadaranyaka Upanisad II. 1.20.

lvii. Brhadaranyaka Upanisad III. 7.3 ff.

lviii. Samkara, bhasya on Brahma Sutras. II. 1.14

lix. Katha Upanisad I.3.14

lx. See R. C. Zaehner, op cit., p.111ff., 135ff., 146ff.

lxi. “The key to it is the sinking of the heart completely in the recollection of God and the end of it is complete absorption (fana) in God.” Al Ghazali, quoted in W. Montgomery Watt, The Faith and Practic of al Ghazali, (George Allen & Unwin, London, 1953, p.60-61)

lxii. “Though for me gaze profound, deep awe hath hid Thy face, In wonderous and ecstatic grace, I feel Thee touch my inmost ground.” Al Junaid, Al Luma, quoted in A. J. Arberry, Sufism, p. 59. lxiii. Seem Rom Landau, The Philosophy of Ibne Arabi, (George Allen & Unwin, London, 1956, p.62ff.)

lxiv. God saith, ‘Allah of thine is my, ‘here am I’; and supplication and grief and ardour of thine is my message to thee. Beneath every, ‘O Lord’, of thine is many, ‘Here am I’, from Me.” Rumi, Mathanwi, ii. 189, in R. a. Nicholson, Rumi – poet and Mystic, p. 91.

lxv. Bernard, The Song of Songs 74.5, in F. C. Happold, Mysticism- A Study and an Anthology, p.205-06

lxvi. “As the iron is penetrated by the fire and yet each of them keeps its own nature, so in the union of soul and God, There is here a great distinction for the creature never becomes God, nor does God ever become the creature.” Ruysbroeck, quoted in W. T. Stace, Mysticism and Philosophy, p. 223.

lxvii. “It is plain enough what union is, in union two separate things become one.” Teresa, Life, ch. XVIII, in F. C. Happold, op cit., p.321.

lxviii. John of Cross, quoted in W. T. Stace, op. cit., p.222-23

lxix. Tukarama, abhanga 2709, quoted in S. K. Belvalker and R. D. Ranade, History of Indian Philosophy, (Poona, 1933), vol. VII., p.33.

lxx Ibid., 1128, p.305; Cf. abhangas 2884, 1116, 3308, 1589, p.330-31

lxxi. Ibid., 1815, p.303.

lxxii. John of Cross, The Living Flame of Love, Stanza1, in F. C. Happold, op cit., p. 331-32.

lxxiii. Imitation of Christ II. 12, in F. C. Happold, op. cit., p.274.

lxxiv Teresa, Life, ch, XVII, in F. C. Happold,op cit., p.323.

lxxv. “He forgets himself, he is no longer conscious of his selfhood, He disappears, loses himself in God and becomes one spirit with Him, as a drop of water drowned in a great quantity of wine.” Suso, quoted in Evelyn Underhill, op cit., p. 424.

lxxvi. See R. C. Zaehner, op. cit., p.40.

lxxvii. Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy, trans. By J. W. Harvery, (Panguine Books, Unwin, London, 1959).

lxxviii. In Woods of God Realization-The complete works of Swami Ram Tirtha (Ram Tirtha Pratishthan, Varanasi, 1946, part, IV, lecture 12 & 14.

lxxix. Kitab al Nur, quoted in A. J. Arberry, Revelation and Reason in Islam, p. 98.

lxxx. Abu Said Ibn E Abi Khayar, quoted in R. A. Nicholson, op cit., p.49.

lxxxi. Taiyyatul Kubra, 98, 102, in ibid., p.210.

lxxxii. Ibid. 168 to 173, pp. 215-16.

lxxxiii. Ibid., 206, p. 217.

lxxxiv. “Divest thyself first of self…clothe thyself with the garment of nothingness and drink the cup of self-annihilation until at last thou shall reach the world where thou art lost altogether to the self.” Attar, Mantaq al Tayr p. 234.

lxxxv. See article on fana in Encyclopedia of Islam, (E. J. Brill, Leiden; Luzac & Co., London, 1960, vol.2, p.52.

lxxxvi. Kitab al Nur, quoted in A. J. Arberry, op. cit., p.95.

lxxxvii. Ibid., p.101.

lxxxviii. “Annihilate yourself in Me and then enter the glory of eternal bliss. So shall you find yourself again in Me.” Attar, in Margaret Smith, op. cit., p.57.

lxxxix. Taiyyatul Kubra 490, in R. A. Nicholson, op.cit.,245.

xc. Kitab al Nur, in A. J. Arberry, op. cit., p.93.

xci. Divine Theology, ch. I, quoted in Sidney Spencer, op. cit., p.225.

xcii. Tukarama, abhanga 3942, in History, p. 306.

xciii. Tukarama, abhanga, 2583, ibid., p.306

xciv. Ibid., 1228, p.305

xcv. Baba Kuhi of Shiraj, quoted in R. A. Nicholson, Mystics of Islam, (G. Bell and Sons, London 1914, p.59).

xcvi. Malavel, as quoted in Eve

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