Sense Can Come Only From the Sacred

‘The omnipresent Nietzschean or Sartrean chimera which proclaims that man can liberate himself totally, from everything, can free himself of tradition and of all pre-existing sense, and that all sense can be decreed by arbitrary whim, far from unfurling before us the prospect of divine self-creation, leaves us suspended in darkness. And in this darkness, where all things are equally good, all things are also equally indifferent. Once I believe that I am the all-powerful creator of all possible sense, I also believe that I have no reason to create anything whatsoever. But this is a belief that cannot be accepted in good faith and can only give rise to a desperate flight from nothingness to nothingness.

‘To be totally free with respect to sense, free of all pressure from tradition, is to situate oneself in a void and thus, quite simply, to disintegrate. And sense can come only from the sacred; it cannot be produced by empirical research. The utopia of man’s autonomy and the hope of unlimited perfection may be the most efficient instruments of suicide ever to have been invented by human culture.’


« La chimère nietzschéenne ou sartrienne, tellement répandue parmi nous, selon laquelle l’homme peut se libérer totalement, se libérer de tout – de toute la tradition et de tout sens préexistant– et qui proclame que tout sens se laisse décréter selon une volonté ou un caprice arbitraires, cette chimère, loin d’ouvrir à l’homme la perspective de l’autoconstitution divine, le suspend dans la nuit. Or dans cette nuit où tout est également bon, tout est, aussi bien, également indifférent. Croire que je suis le créateur tout-puissant de tout sens possible, c’est croire que je n’ai aucune raison pour créer quoi que ce soit. Mais c’est une croyance qui ne se laisse pas admettre de bonne foi, et qui ne peut que produire une fuite enragée du néant vers le néant.

« Être totalement libre à l’égard du sens, être libre de toute pression de la tradition, c’est se situer dans le vide, donc éclater tout simplement. Et le sens ne vient que du sacré, parce qu’aucune recherche empirique ne peut le produire. L’utopie de l’autonomie parfaite de l’homme et l’espoir de la perfectibilité illimitée sont peut-être les outils de suicide les plus efficaces que la culture humaine ait inventés. »

Leszek Kolakowski, ‘La revanche du sacré dans la culture profane,’ translated by Agnieszka Kolakowska, in Le besoin religieux, 1973

Nationalisms, Globalisms, and Their Alternatives

A symbolic depiction of Ukrainian nationalism, c. 1920

While the world probably doesn’t need any more commentary on the recent American election, I’d like to offer some anyway, though in a way that looks at happenings beyond the US to the rest of the world, where we see related patterns unfolding according to local particularities and conditions. While the US is its own case, it is also part of an interconnected world, the ties of global capitalism, human movement, globalized classes, elites, and political structures, and other things working to move American realities in directions broadly congruent with other, often quite different, parts of the world. My thoughts here—which are reflective of the halting directions my political thought have been taking as of late, but should not be interpreted as final or fully coherent—are springing off an article by Jonathan Haidt from back in the summer, but which is rather prescient and worth reading in its own right. What follows here, then, are three interlinking thoughts precipitated by, but in some cases sharply diverging from, Haidt’s article.

One, while right now the dominant options are either liberal ‘cosmopolitan’ globalism or some form of nationalism, within the framework of nation-states (whether more autonomous or more directed from supra-national entities being at question) and of some form of globalized (if not globalist) capitalism, those are not in fact the only options. To give but one example, Continue reading “Nationalisms, Globalisms, and Their Alternatives”

Notes Towards a Theory of Modernity, and Other Things

The following are some thoughts and outlines of theory that aim at encapusalating some of my developing thought on human social order, the dynamics of historical change (particularly in the modern world, as we call it), and so on, which do not really ‘fit’ into my own academic work, but which lie behind how I think about the pre-modern world and my role as an observer and shaper of historical knowledge, which is always knowledge intimately tied up with the present. These are quickly assembled thoughts-out-loud, but I hope they prove of interest and use to the reader who takes the effort to navigate them.

1. On Discontinuities and Disorder: One of the problems that particularly marks our age—by which I mean the last half century or so, though with extensions backwards through the era of Western industrialization—is the problem (which is also a potent problématique) of radically discontinuous time scales within conjunctive social, political, economic, and ecological systems and processes. While technical advances and developments, be they in socio-political organization, economic systems, or actual technology, have moved many aspects of life on this earth into incredibly high-speed trajectories, they have been unable—and are most likely necessarily unable—to effect such transformations across the board. In fact, many of the most salient and vital processes, systems, and exigencies remain on time scales similar to or the same as during any period of post-agricultural revolution human history, and in some cases—particularly ecological and geological aspects—pre-human time scales. If our technics allow, for instance, for rapid, unpredictable socio-political disintegration, it is not clear that they encourage symmetrical forms of re-integration and re-formation, processes which are slow and unsteady, and which tend to require periods of relative stability and, crucially, extended time scales. One of the results of these discontinuities, I think, has been the rapid cyclical processing of global history, with periods of incredibly rapid formation and development along many metrics, followed by equally incredible periods of collapse and destruction. The succeeding periods of re-integration and re-building tend to automatically have the seeds of their dissolution built into them, accelerating the cycle. Of course, different societies have had very different responses to this process due to vastly differing historical circumstances and contingencies, but all societies have been subject to it, and it is possible that we are seeing, in this very historical moment, convergences towards a single unitary period of dissolution, with no clear route forward afterwards. Technics are growing more and more integrated and rapid, obliterating many quotidian time scales, yet proving incapable of shoring up or replacing many of the social systems, ecological processes, and interpersonal relationships that they are helping to either obliterate or destabilize. We are faced with a situation in which stable, resilient systems are necessary more than ever, but the tools and exigencies at our disposal increasingly trend in the very opposite direction.

2. What I am Trying to Do: The sort of theoretical position, the philosophical-political vantage point I am seeking in what I think and write, is a stance that seeks, Continue reading “Notes Towards a Theory of Modernity, and Other Things”

Thoughts, Occasional to the Day, and Unsolicited

Indulge me, dear reader, some of my out-loud thinking, taken from my common-place book, where I jot down, in a sort of haze of free-form association and reckless philosophizing, unbound by genre or affiliation, and often indirectly occasioned by the dreary roll of the day’s headlines, my scattered ideas and attempts to corral my thoughts and emotions into something coherent-ish, and, perhaps, of interest to others…

1. One knows not to indulge in O tempora tropes, knowing that one’s own age is ultimately not really all that different from any other. At every age there are madnesses at the center, and the madnesses of the periphery, the strange and terrible machinations of the human heart spilling out of the prevailing discourses and modes of behavior, at once shocking, at once emerging from what is normative and central.

2. It is best not to begrudge people their fantasies, their naivety, their willful, unreasonable optimism. If people were in the habit of dealing with reality, and not their delusions, it would be utterly crippling for most. Perhaps it is better to imagine a world in which things work out they way you imagine they will—by the time the time comes and they don’t turn out that way, the infinite flexibility of human thought and perception will not be perturbed, but will merely adapt its future-looking vision, untroubled by prophets proved wrong, cheery—or apocalyptic, cheery in their own way to our odd little minds—prognostication unfulfilled, and forgotten, new ones replacing. Human memory is akin to the cellular structure of our bodies: seemingly stable and self-reproducing, but constantly in flux, dying and being reborn to meet the passage of time, the perils and presses of biology, heading towards a biological end but a spiritual and historical afterlife and extension elsewhere and in others, transformed. Memory—particularly our memory of the future—is largely unstable and flexible, at once incongruent with the world as it is and yet malleable to what the world turns out to be, or what we come to remember the world having been. The material traces, the psychic echoes…

3. I suppose it makes me a conservative in the technical, and not the ideological sense, in that I no longer suppose—and in the back of my mind, I have never supposed—that history moves on some progressive, teleological line, without terrible (or wonderful—who knows) and fundamentally unforeseen feedback loops built into that movement, which can, in time or suddenly or both, send history into new and unexpected directions, directions that belie any talk of ‘progress’ or unidirectional (or bidirectional) movement. History, time, is a welter, and there is no telling how things will move, what will become.

Proceeding from this conviction—or, I would say, observation—is the congruent conviction that for many ‘problems’ there is in fact no ‘solution.’ If time, human societies, ecology, history, so on, are infinitely complex, malleable, their ontology at once visible and invisible to us, driven by logics and processes known only to God, as it were, then why should we expect our lives capable of division into neat moral binaries, or liable to neat solutions and resolutions? That is not to deny the possibility of moral certainty, in propositional terms, or even in a deep sense of the self before the world and God: but when we attempt to arrive at a ‘social’ morality, at a morality that is dispersed, woven into our human and natural ecologies in ways that preclude personal reckoning and analysis: then we enter territory for which ‘ambiguity’ is too mild a term.

Value judgments need not collapse utterly, but we are more in the realm of tragedy and comedy wherein the sheerness of the world, its apart-from-us-ness, is the primary operative reality. In the face of everything, then, what is best…? Prayer, sorrow, the momentary discoveries of good and gladness, small comforts perhaps, unless joined to a conviction, in the movement of prayer, liturgy, and the pin-points of sanctity, human and natural, that beyond our immediate, history-bound ken, there is God, there is an eternal stability in eternal movement, as unpredictable as that of this world, but in a movement of fundamental goodness and wholeness, moving Itself and us and all towards a fulfillment beyond, behind, our temporal knowledge, into an unending, ever expanding Completion.

On True Spiritual Seclusion and Exercise

Bridging the gap between how we intuitively understand words and concepts and how people in the past, or people in the present but in quite different cultural-linguistic worlds from us, understood those same words and concepts is often a difficult task. In the text I’ve translated here from the great early-modern Ottoman Damascene mystical philosopher, poet, and traveler (to name but three of his occupations) ‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī (164-1731), we encounter both dissonances of meaning endemic to the gap between our time and his, as well as dissonances that ‘Abd al-Ghanī introduces. Easily one of the most fascinating and versatile thinkers of early modern Islam, ‘Abd al-Ghanī simultaneously defended the practices and concepts of Sufism, especially as embodied in the thought of Ibn ‘Arabī, while also frequently refashioning them and integrating them into a wider-ranging philosophy of Islam that embraced the rapidly changing world of early modernity, against the puritanical, ‘fundamentalist’ strains of Islam that fitfully circulated in the Ottoman world. In addition to defending the legal validity of smoking, coffee-drinking, dancing, musical performances, and other activities, ‘Abd al-Ghanī generally argued for a broad social ethic that rejected moralism and morality policing, instead encouraging positive, indeed tolerant social interactions across class and confessional lines. This is not to say that he advocated some sort of proto-liberalism or modernism: as is clear from the following text, ‘Abd al-Ghanī did not reject the practice of the sharī’a or traditional theological beliefs. But what he did with those beliefs and how he interpreted them in doctrine and practice could be quite surprising and even innovative (a term he would not have appreciated, I should note). His often bold textual moves can be quite jarring at times- as they no doubt were in some cases for people in his own day.

This text is the bulk of a letter ‘Abd al-Ghanī sent, in April of 1678, to one Mulla Aḥmad of Hayrabolu, in what is now the European portion of Turkey (it was evidently conveyed by friends of ‘Abd al-Ghanī, as the note at the end indicates). In it our author discusses ‘true’ and ‘metaphorical’ acts and states, in so doing reversing the ways in which we tend to speak now (though reflecting language C.S. Lewis used in some of his works): the really real seclusion (khalwat, a type of ascetic withdraw for spiritual purposes) takes place within the self and in relation to God and through Him the rest of the world; that of the body and in relation to physical society is merely ‘metaphorical,’ obtaining reality through its contact with the true practice of seclusion. And so on- ‘Abd al-Ghanī explains it pretty well, I think, though this English translation does not convey the word-play and subtlety of the Arabic original- always a problem in translation, especially in religious-philosophical language such as this. But so it goes- ‘Abd al-Ghanī would no doubt argue from such a state to the ultimately metaphorical nature of language, realized only through connection with the truly Real.


And I have heard regarding you, O brother, that you are firmly fixed in your religion, desiring conformity with the command and the prohibition, and I love you for that. And I love for you what I love for my own self: that you enter into the path of inner piety (ṭarīqat al-taqwā al-bāṭiniyya), so that the interior and exterior be made perfect for you. What I mean by ‘inner piety’ is your crossing from the outward ordinances to the knowable realities, so that you witness through the eye of spiritual perception that every motion out of the motions of canonical prayer and other than those from among the acts of worship possess a lordly sign (ishāra)  and merciful secrets. And every ordinance from the ordinances of the sharī’a has an application in the exterior and an application in the interior. The sharī’aic ordinance (ḥukm) is a body, while the divine wisdom (ḥikma) is the spirit of that body. Do not be content with the bodies apart from the spirits, and do not be distracted from the bodies by the spirits: rather, bring together the exterior and the interior.

And let my friend—God, exalted is He, give him peace—know that there is no recourse for that besides entering into sharī’aic seclusion (khalwat) and doing sharī’aic spiritual exercises. And I mean by ‘seclusion’ only your solitude in witnessing the true Doer apart from the metaphorical doer, then the witnessing of the true One Described, apart from the metaphorical one, then the witnessing of the true Existence, apart from the metaphorical existence. And persist in this witnessing so that the senses and the intellect are fully immersed. This is true spiritual seclusion. As for the metaphorical seclusion, it is that you enclose your body in a ḥalāl house and ḥalāl sustenance, and cut off your sight interiorly and exteriorly from all that is outside that house by negation or affirmation, until you find the true seclusion, then come out of the metaphorical seclusion.

Among that which brings you to this is your concern for and your paying attention to the books of the knowledge of Sufism, such as the books of Ibn ‘Arabī, Ibn Sab’īn, al-‘Afīf al-Tilimsānī, and the like of them—God hallow their spirits—after washing the spiritual sight of the dirt of rejection of any of them, so that the door of their luminescent secret is opened for the heart, and the reality of their stationing upon the stations of the Muhammadan sharī’a is unveiled for the heart. And it knows that they are knowledge of it in the most perfect sense, acting according to it without innovation (bid’a) in the exterior or interior. And someone is not veiled from them through unknowledgeable rejection of their path, unreflexively being against them due to uncritical imitation [of anti-Sufi views], or from being fearful in regards to others due to his not understanding their doctrine, hiding in his [public] disavowal with faith in their doctrine without thinking evil of them—that is more beneficial for him, if such a person is not an enemy of that which he does not know. Junayd, God be pleased with him, said: ‘Faith (al-īmān) in the doctrine of this group is wilāya.’ Meaning, with neither understanding nor critical objection. For every entity among the learned has technical vocabulary which they use but others do not know, so accusing them of error without awareness of their technical vocabulary is itself a mistake. And there is a people who understand the doctrine of Sufism in accordance with the Book and Sunna, even if the exterior of the.doctrine appears to be in opposition. Its people always exist—to God belongs praise in every place and time! The one who licitly seeks them, finds them. ‘Licit seeking’ is sincere devotion, trust in God, thinking evil of the lower self, and the non-existence of thinking evil of others, whoever it may be, and submission to God in every place of His judgement and His decree, good and ill. As for the practitioner of innovationist seeking, he is not benefited by anyone he meets, even a prophet from among the prophets, upon them be peace.

And I mean by ‘exercise’ (riyāḍa) whenever I mention it, the directing of the soul towards the attaining of the realities and their habituation in every state, little by little. And that is by attachment to the clear Truth (al-ḥaqq), then by being characterized by it, then by ultimate realization—that is real spiritual exercise. As for metaphorical bodily exercise by the limiting of the eating of food and the drinking of water, as he—peace be upon him—said: ‘The sufficiency of the son of Adam are morsels which suffice his loins,’ so it is an excercise seeking other than itself, not for its own sake. It is constituted in the whole and is an aid for the fulfillment of the spiritual exercise, and is what does not go to excess and so lead to corrupt imaginings, so becoming a harmful interdicted thing—for this reason the jurists discuss it in their books.

So I have explicated for you seclusion and its conditions, real and metaphorical, and its like, exercise, but we hastened the matter due to the closeness of the travel of the brothers to you. God guide us and you on a straight path, and upright religion, in every moment, to the hour of death.

‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī, Risāla 6, in Wasā’il al-taḥqīq wa rasā’il al-tawfīq, edited by Samer Akkach, in Letters of Sufi Scholar (Leiden: Brill, 2010), 116-119. Translation by Jonathan P. Allen, 2014, no rights reserved.

Advice for the Journey

In the vast field of medieval Arabic and Persian literature, it is not hard to find authors whose works seem all but impenetrable, cloaked in difficult syntax, obscure vocabulary, and constant, often infuriating motion from one perspective to another, full of occluded subjects, ambiguous referents, and unattributed references. ‘Azīz Nasafī, who seems to have lived at some point in the 13th century in what is now Uzbekistan, was not such a writer. Rather, his treatises, which defy easy categorization, are concise yet clear, carefully constructed with a pedagogical eye towards learners of varying skill levels; he is often humorous, drawing upon ‘real-world’ analogies in illustrating theological points. Some sources refer to him as a ‘Sufi,’ though this is a problematic characterization, as should be clear from the excerpt from one of his short treatises which I’ve translated and presented below, the Zubdat al-haqā’iq. He incorporates elements from the discursive tradition of Sufism, and had some sort of relationship or affiliation with a shaykh of the Kubrayi tariqa- but that is about the limit of it. He does not present himself as a Sufi shaykh, and his incorporation of Sufi material is selective. Likewise, he was clearly conversant with multiple streams of philosophy; his own particular philosophical perspective was a sort of monism, similar, but not dependent upon that of the rather more famous ibn ‘Arabi. But it would probably be inaccurate to simply call him a philosopher and be done with it.

And so on we might go with all of the conventional designations for thinkers and religious folk of this period- categories become rather difficult, if not impossible, to apply. He himself, in several of his treatises, deflects categorization: he instead tells his readers that his purpose is to present the teachings of multiple ‘schools’ of thought and practice, trying hard not to bias the reader in one direction or another. And, perhaps surprisingly given much of what we think we know about the Islamic middle ages, he is generally quite successful in his ecumenical endeavor. In the end, though, he does make sure that the most important things are clarified, the things that the spiritual seeker, he believes, cannot dispense with.

Regardless of how we classify him, ‘Azīz Nasafī was clearly a prolific enough author, with a deeply humane vision of religious and ethical practice, a vision he wished to impart to a wide audience. And he did reach a wide audience- his texts circulated far and wide, from South Asia to Southeastern Europe, both in their original Persian and translated into other vernaculars. Despite his relative obscurity in life, his texts and the mystical-ethical vision they contained have found considerable reception. I hope this short text, taken from the final section of the final chapter of the Zubdat, imparts a glimpse of that vision, as our author describes the sort of conduct the spiritual seeker ought to engage in, and what she ought to avoid, and how to truly become ‘an inhabitant of heaven.’

Finally, for more information on this figure, see the quite good Encyclopedia Iranica article on him: Nasafi, ‘Aziz.

O dervish! If you yourself are not able to arrive at the limit of spiritual stations, or spend the entire day in gazing upon the divine attributes and the spiritual stations, or persist in contemplating what no eye has seen nor ear heard nor thought entered the human heart, or always dwell in the highest heaven and in closeness to the Divine Presence in the station of absolute proximity, in the witnessing and the encountering of the Beauty of the Divine Presence, the Possessor of Magnificence—well, at least strive that you be saved from hell and become an inhabitant of heaven!

O dervish! Everything that falls into the salt mine becomes salt, and everything that falls into a filthy place becomes filthy—dirt from dirt, purity from purity! First of all you make yourself pure so that everything that comes from you is pure.

O dervish! Don’t obsess about praying a great deal, nor about fasting a lot. Don’t obsess about making the ḥajj a lot—just do what is obligatory. Don’t obsess about expanding your vocabulary, don’t obsess about reading lots of stories, don’t obsess about increasing in philosophical knowledge—just be content with the necessary amount. Rather, you should be concerned with being honest and good-hearted, for the torment of the folk of hell is mostly from dishonesty and bad-heartedness, while the comfort of the inhabitant of heaven is from honesty and good-heartedness. It is necessary that your inner self become honest and good-hearted so that you be delivered. For if you bind yourself with affectedness, you are in hell. It is necessary that you become such that, all day, goodness and comfort [towards others] spontaneously pour out of you. Do not be like those who all day, evil and pain [towards others] pour out of them. Their inner selves have become the doing of dishonesty and evil. Your inner self must be honesty and the doing of goodness.

O dervish! You will be ornamented with the characteristics of God when you entirely act with goodness, neither desiring compensation for yourself nor imposing obligation; rather, you take the obligation upon yourself. For bad-heartedness is when all day you cause pain to people and desire pain in people, whether by word, deed, or property. When you know the meaning of evil, it is necessary that you be far from it!

Good-heartedness is when all day you desire comfort for people and all the time cause comfort for people, whether by word, deed, or property. When you know the meaning of good-heartedness and bad-heartedness then know that everyone who is honest and good-hearted is delivered from hell and becomes an inhabitant of heaven. Then, if you seek either remaining [in this state] or a higher degree—it is well and good, in view of the fact that for the inhabitant of heaven everything that she achieves in this world or the other, her heaven becomes more expansive, while for inhabitant of hell everything she achieves in this world or the other, her hell becomes tighter.

O dervish! From the beginning to the end of spiritual journeying, this little treatise suffices for the spiritual wayfarers.

 ‘Azīz Nasafī, Zubdat al-haqā’iq.


Theories of Time and Space

You can get there from here, though
there’s no going home.

Everywhere you go will be somewhere
you’ve never been. Try this:

head south on Mississippi 49, one-
by-one mile markers ticking off

another minute of your life. Follow this
to its natural conclusion- dead end

at the coast, the pier at Gulfport where
riggings of shrimp boats are loose stiches

in a sky threatening rain. Cross over
the man-made beach, 26 miles of sand

dumped on the mangrove swamp- buried
terrain of the past. Bring only

what you must carry- tome of memory,
its random blank pages. On the dock

where you will board the boat for Ship Island,
someone will take your picture:

the photograph- who you were-
will be waiting when you return.

Natasha Trethewey, ‘Theories of Time and Space,’ in Native Guard: Poems, 2006.