Sainthood, Revelation, and Epistemology

(The following post is a conclusion to a series of translations and accompanying short essays on ‘Abd al-Qādir al-Jīlānī’s writings and historical afterlife; it is meant to be read in succession to those, which you may find here, here, and here.)

The following excerpt from the third discourse in ‘Abd al-Qādir al-Jīlānī’s Futḥ al-Rabāniya is an extended treatment of ‘sainthood,’ on the one hand, and the nature of revelation and perception of the divine on the other. The passage is a little denser and at time difficult than the others translated here; as such, my translation of this text is therefore more tentative and, I think you will find, rougher, than usual. However, the basic gist is clear enough: the ‘friend of God’ occupies a special, indeed unique and exalted place, among God’s creatures. Such status has its benefits, which ‘Abd al-Qādir describes; crucially, it is generated by and sustained through the saint’s singular devotion to God. More important than any temporal powers or benefits, however, is the activation of one’s ‘inner eye,’ and even beyond that, the unmediated vision of God.

This is decidedly ‘Sufic’ material, I think, both in vocabulary and overall meaning and implied praxis (though see below for its particularly Ḥanbalī ‘spin’). It is also interesting to note the ways in which ‘Abd al-Qādir refers to himself, particularly in light of the later hagiographical traditions that built up around him. He definitely makes claims for himself: namely, claims for his own proximity to God and the realization of divine knowledge, perhaps even ‘sainthood,’ in himself. Rhetorically, however, these claims are made in order to bolster his preaching: as I have tasted the divine truth, so you can and ought to taste it, is the gist of ‘Abd al-Qādir’s claims for himself. Making such claims or proclamations also helps to resolve a central problem in ‘Abd al-Qādir’s preaching: the disconnection between the true ‘friends of God’ and the rest of creation. If one is to be ‘cut off’ from everything that is not God, how is one to ‘return’ to the world, and why? The saint, or ‘friend of God,’ is able to do so because he has realigned himself, away from ‘this world’ towards God alone. He can ‘report’ on the state of the friend of God and summon others to that state, without slipping back into ‘the world.’ As for any further ‘powers’ the saint might claim—miracles and the like, the stuff of later hagiography—while ‘Abd al-Qādir is not here concerned with such things, and makes no such claims overtly for himself, they do not seem to be ruled a priori.

That said, this discourse is firmly rooted in ‘Abd al-Qādir’s own historical exigencies and concerns as a good Ḥanbalī preacher. In discussing revelation, he first demarcates the distinction between prophet and friend/saint: prophets receive ‘the word’ (which we might well capitalize: the Word), while saints receive ‘report’—ḥadīth. That is, while the word and the report are both important and authoritative, the word is prior and possesses a greater definitiveness than report. As for the word/Word, ‘Abd al-Qādir takes up an issue that had caused all manner of controversy a few centuries before: the createdness of the Qur’an, an issue which served as a flashpoint for controversy over the place of kalām, revelation, reason, and governmental authority in religion, among other things. Here our homilist is concerned with defending the doctrine of the uncreated Qur’an by disavowing the legitimacy of arguing about it. While he includes a little defense of ibn Ḥanbal and his confrontation with the caliph, ‘Abd al-Qādir’s primary concern is to redirect potential energy spent in theological arguments towards what truly ‘benefits’ one: the singular pursuit of God and devotion to Him. Implictly argued as well, I think, is the idea that rational theological investigation is supplanted by the ascetic striving for the presence of God, which will lead to the full vision of God, a vision (implicitly here possible in this life) possible only for the ‘lovers’ of God, those who behold with ‘hearts unveiled.’

3rd Session [Excerpts]

The saints/friends of God (awlīya’ Allah) in their connection to people are deaf and blind to you, in that when their hearts are close to God they do not hear other than Him, and do not see other than Him. He bestows closeness upon them, and covers them in reverence, and benefits them with love as reward for their love. They are between the majesty and the beauty (al-jalāl wa al-jamāl); they do not incline to the left or the right; theirs is ‘facing’ without a ‘behind.’ Human, jinn, and angel serve them, and all sorts of creatures serve them in wisdom and knowledge. Grace nourishes them, and intimacy quenches their thirst. From the food of His grace they eat, and from the draught of His intimacy they drink. They are distracted from listening to the talk of people; they are worlds apart. They command the people what God commands and forbid the people what God forbids. According the Prophet, peace and prayer be upon him, they are the true heirs. Their occupation is the turning of people back to the door of God; they convey His definitive proof to them. They carry out things in their proper place and time, they give everyone his proper due, not violating anyone’s rights, not sating their own selves or natures. They love in God, and they hate in God. All of them are His; they have no participation in other than He. Whoever has this perfected for him, has friendship perfected for him, and there is realized for him salvation and felicity, and humans, jinn, angels, earth, and heaven love him.

O hypocrite! O servant of the creation, of the means, forgetful of God! Desire that this fall into your hands for your good, not for honor and might for yourself. First, surrender, then repent, then know, do, be purified—and if not, you are not rightly guided. Listen! There is no enmity between me and you other than that I speak the truth, but your love is not for the religion of God. I have been brought up in the difficult way of life of the teaching of the shaykhs, of exile and of poverty—if there is manifest from me to you a word, take it as from God, for it is He who makes me to speak it. If you come over to me, come over stripped of yourself, of your lower self, of your passions. If you have sight, then behold me also stripped [of these things]—but your illness is your emaciated understanding, O seeker of my friendship and benefit from me. My state has nothing to do with people, this world of the next. So however turns to me, accompanies me, thinks well of me, and does what I say, God willing, he will be thus.

God instructs the prophets in His word (bi-kalāmihu), while He instructs the saints with His report (bi-ḥadīthihu), and the report is inspiration (al-ilhām) in their hearts, for they [the saints] are the trustees of the prophets, their successors, their servants. God spoke: He spoke to Moses, the speech uncreated, speech of the indication of the unseen, speech by speaking he understood, reaching his intellect without intermediating means. And He spoke to our prophet Muḥammad, peace and prayer of God be upon him, this Qur’an, the firm rope of God, which is between you and between your Lord. He sent it down through Gabriel, upon whom be peace, from the presence of God through the heavens, sending it down to His Prophet, peace and prayer of God be upon him, as was said and reported. It is not permitted to deny that and argue about it. O God! Guide all, turn all [to You], and have mercy on all.

It is related about the Commander of the Faithful, al-Mu’taṣim bi-Allah,[1] God be merciful to him, that he said at the time of his death: ‘O God! I repent of what I did against Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal. With my whole being, I did not take up anything of his affair—it was other than me that took that up.’

O poor one! Leave off speaking about what does not benefit you, abandon fanaticism for madhhab,[2] and busy yourself with what benefits you in this world and the next! You will behold through the proximity of your experience—remember my word, you will behold at the transfixion, with no helmet upon your head, which thing completely wounds it [?]. Empty your heart of the cares of this world, as you are captivated by it through proximity—do not seek the good of this life in it, in what falls into your hand. As the Prophet, peace and prayer of God be upon him, said: ‘[True] life is the life of the next world.’

Diminish your expectation, and there will have come to you renunciation (al-zuhd) in this world, because renunciation, all of it, is the diminishment of expectation. Part company with the companions of evil, and cut off friendship between yourself and them, rather, persist in friendship between yourself and the righteous. Part company with proximity on your part if they are the companions of evil. If they are the companions of good, still maintain distance. For everyone whom you love in friendship, there arises a relationship between you and him—so keep a watch on who you love in friendship.

O servant! Seek guidance through the workmanship of God, meditate upon Him through His workmanship, and you will be united to the Craftsman. The knowing, possessed of certainty believer has exterior eyes and interior eyes. He sees with his exterior eyes what God has created on earth, and he sees with his interior eyes what God created in the heavens. Then the veil is lifted from his heart so that he sees Him without likeness or conditioning, so that he becomes close, loving [towards God]—and nothing is kept from the lovers, in that the veil is lifted from the heart stripped of the creation, the lower self, one’s nature, the passions, and Satan. [God] sets forth the keys of the treasuries of the earth out of His hand; in His presence stone and mud are equalized. Be comprehending and meditative in regards to what I say, and understand: I speak with the inner heart of the word, with its essence, with its interior, the sincerity of its [inner] meaning.


[1] Reigned 833–842; succeeded his brother al-Mā’mūn, who had initiated the so-called Mihna, actions intended to consolidate an official ‘orthodoxy’ in theology, more or less along Mu’tazila lines. The issue of the createdness of the Qur’an was one of the central points of dispute in the course of the Mihna. After initially continuing al-Māmūn’s policies, al-Mu’taṣim changed course, as indicated in this short report.

[2] Madhhab here could mean either legal ‘school,’ or, perhaps more likely, theological ‘school,’ given ‘Abd al-Qādir’s targeting of ‘deviant’ theological opinions.

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