Random reflections on Islamic Mysticism and Divine Attributes

Chittick’s exposition of the differences between conventional Islamic theologians and mystics – in terms of conceiving God – is helpful in tracing one strand of theological underpinnings of the rivalry still existent between these two camps, whereby the former continues to criticize practices associated with the latter, and the latter accuses the former of preoccupying themselves with hollow legalities while disregarding the true essence of faith. The divergence appears to be as old as the formative period of Islamic thought: orthodox theologians, while maintaining God’s transcendence, opposed the mystics’ attempt to conceive God in terms of imagery in the Quran which ascribes human qualities to God. The mystics’ response to it was that it is best to conceive and recognize God in God’s disclosure of himself: His qualities which He reveals in the Quran. Mystics’ emphasize on the third level of Islam (three levels being, Islam: submission, Iman: faith, Ihsan: doing what is beautiful), that is Ihsan, which translates into ‘doing what is beautiful’ but is explained by the Prophet to mean living and worshipping as if you see God, and if not that, then God sees you. This symbolism attached with ‘seeing God’ was something unacceptable to the orthodox school which maintained that such mundane attempts to perceive God must be given up. In this backdrop, I found it interesting to note that the motivating force behind both the Islamic mystic and the orthodox beliefs has been tawhid – the oneness and uniqueness of God. One contemporary group staunchly opposed to sufi beliefs calls itself muwahiddun (people of tawhid). Mystics on the other hand, consider union with God, the attainment of highest spiritual state, as a final realization of tawhid, and therefore tawhid is as central to mysticism, which is also evident in Ibn Arabi’s theory of wahdat al-wujud or Bulleh Shah’s verse ‘It’s all in One contained’.  Even though the orthodox camp frames its objection to the popular practices of shrine-visiting in terms of alleged violation of tawhid, this disagreement perhaps deals with finer points related to the permissibility of intercession, and not because (ideally) shrine-based practices violate tawhid.

Another point I found worth highlighting is the mystics’ overwhelming emphasis on the jamal (beauty) –based attributes of God including love, mercy, beauty, generosity , even though God has also revealed his jalal (awe-inspiring)- based qualities, such as power, majesty, absoluteness. This emphasis can be seen in the light of the mystics’ aforementioned belief that God must be recognized in his own disclosure of Himself, in which context, the verse “My mercy takes precedence over my wrath” is given significant attention. Mystics’ ceaseless emphasis on the God’s ‘gentle’ qualities, and the presence of this duality of God’s characteristics reminded me of this interesting discussion by S. H. Nasr whereby he maintained that this duality in the principles of Divine Nature is manifested at the microcosmic level as male and female: such that “God is both Absolute and Infinite. Absoluteness and Majesty, which is inseparable from it, is manifested most directly in the masculine state, and Infinity and Beauty in the feminine state” and human, by virtue of being made in God’s reflection possesses complementarily both qualities, however Infinity is more feminine and Absoluteness is more masculine; root of both femininity and masculinity are to be found in Divine Nature, which transcends the duality between them by virtue of God being neither male nor female. In the same vein, Ibn Arabi highlighting the notion of divinity in the female face went to the extent of saying that “man’s contemplation of God in woman is the most perfect”. This telling comment ties in with Schimmel’s observation about vernacular poetry and spiritualization of medieval folk tales whereby she observed that in Arab culture love for God is represented by the motif of a man’s longing for a beautiful woman. This contrasted with the Indo-Muslim tradition (Heer, sassi, sohni, or even virahini) in which the human soul is represented by a woman who yearns for the Divine Beloved represented by a male. This difference across cultures between the symbolisms of gender to depict divine love is quite remarkable; in any case, the Arabic conception shows that the Islamic understanding of God is not confined to a patriarchal image. As far as sufis’ apparent overwhelming emphasis on divine qualities of gentleness, mercy and bounty overshadowing his severity, wrath and justice is concerned, Samani and Maybudi, while recasting the entire story of creation and Adam’s fall in the language of love, note that even the ‘severe’ qualities of God have to be appreciated in the path of Love: “Love in his heart drove him to embrace the full wealth of the divine attributes, not just the gentleness of proximity and union… Adam knew that he could not become a lover without pain and suffering.” Thus the relationship between God’s gentle and awe-inspiring qualities, and the human’s relationship with both of them in the sufi framework seem more complex than it appears in the first glance.

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