The Mirror of the Heart

The following is from the opening pages of the superb treatise on Sufism, practical and theoretical, by Najm al-Dīn al-Rāzī Dāya (1177-1256), entitled Mirṣād al-‘ibād ilā ’l-mabdaʾ wa ’l-maʿād. Dāya was a disciple of another, rather more famous Najm al-Dīn, the one known as al-Kubrā; Dāya studied the Sufi path under him in the city of Nishapur. However, unlike his master, Dāya seems to have been little concerned with the practice of taking on disciples. Instead, in the course of his wandering life- from Central Asia to Anatolia to Tabriz to Baghdad, all during a period of intense and often violent change and dislocation in the region, with the Mongol invasions being the most famous of these changes. The period in which Dāya lived was also a period of incredible productivity in Sufi circles: many of the intellectual and organizational formations pioneered during the era would continue to deeply shape the practice of taṣawwuf up to the present. Two of Dāya’s works would become part of this long-term legacy: the work excerpted here, and the tafsīr to which he contributed, described in my previous post.

Unlike the tafsīr composed by al-Kubrā’s disciples, Dāya’s most famous work, the Mirṣād al-‘ibād, was composed in Persian, which was quickly becoming a central language of intellectual life across many Muslim communities, and not just in regions that were historically Persian-speaking. Dāya’s magnum opus, for instance, was composed in Konya, in Anatolia, under Seljuk Turkic patronage. Of course, Arabic remained the ‘first’ language of Muslim intellectuals, Sufi or otherwise, and would continue to be given at least nominal priority, even as more and more works were produced in Persian, and, in time, other vernaculars, including different Turkic dialects (themselves influenced heavily by the diffusion of Persian). In the excerpt given here, wholesale Arabic phrases are incorporated, without being translated (which is not always the case- many later authors will translate or expansively paraphrase almost all Arabic material in their works). However, alongside the direct quotation of Qur’an and hadith in Arabic is another feature deeply ingrained in Persian Sufic texts: the use of poetry, which in time would appear even in Arabic treatises as authoritative texts closely behind hadith in authoritative value.

As for the content of this excerpt: Dāya’s stated intention is to show the reader the incredible glory of human nature and potential, potential that must be ‘unlocked,’ or perhaps more fittingly, hammered back into shape. In the cosmology and anthropology he unfolds here- itself a piece with similar intellectual currents au courant among other thirteenth-century Sufis- the human person is the center of the created cosmos, and more. It is in the fully-realized human heart that the divine essence and attributes is truly manifest and refracted, as it were, to the rest of creation. The heart is, for Dāya, the supremely deiform aspect of the human person: but it must be refined through the careful tutelage of spiritual masters before it can shine with its primordial splendour. Here we see the deeply social setting of taṣawwuf: for the full realization of this high anthropology, particular human relationships are necessary. The return to the cardial deiform shape, the cosmic centrality, for which humans were created is possible: but it is only truly realized in the presence and under the care of an already-realized master, a Friend of God. And, for Dāya at least, it must occur gradually, as he makes clear in the final lines of this introduction.

Finally, a note on the remainder of the text, which in printed edition comes in at some 300 plus pages: after some further introductory material, Dāya presents some essential cosmology. This is followed by a description of the proper path to true gnosis, from basic adherence to the shari’a, adherence to a master, and, ultimately, divine realization. Next, Dāya turns to an examination of different sorts of human ‘types,’ which neatly leads into a concluding chapter on the different sorts of Sufis and Sufi organizations, which include people from the top of human society down to the ‘working classes.’

The purpose of the existence of the human person is gnosis (ma’rifat)[1] of the essence and attributes of God, just as David asked: O Lord, why did You create the creation? He said: I was a hidden treasure and I lovingly wished to be known, so I created the creation that I might be known.[2] True gnosis comes only from the perfect human person, notwithstanding the fact that in servanthood the angels and jinn are participants with humans—but as for the human person, he is distinguished from all other beings by the bearing of the burden of the trust (amānat) of gnosis that [is described in the verse] Verily, We offered the trust to the heavens and the earth, et al.[3] The intended meaning of ‘heaven’ is the folk of heaven, meaning, the angels; by ‘earth,’ the folk of earth, meaning, the animals, the jinn, and the devils; by ‘mountains,’ the folk of the mountains, meaning, the wild creatures and the birds. Out of these, none are capable of the burden of the trust except the human person, because, out of all His creation, it is the human soul that is the mirror of the beauty and majesty, which makes manifest the divine Presence, and is the point of manifestation of the universality of the attributes [of God]. [The words] He created Adam in His own image are an indication of this.

The quintessence of the soul of the human person is the heart, and the heart is the mirror, and each of the two worlds are the covering of that mirror. And the manifestation of the totality of the attributes of the beauty and majesty of the divine Presence are by means of this mirror that is We will show them Our signs on the horizons and in their souls. In this vein it is said:

The purpose of the being of mankind and jinnkind is the mirror/ The object of sight in the two worlds is the mirror.

The heart is the mirror of the beauty of the  King of Kings/ And these two worlds are the covering of that mirror.

And when the soul of the human person, which is predisposed for mirrorhood (āyina-gī), finds pedagogical upbringing (tarbiyat) and arrives at completion, it witnesses the manifestation of the totality of the attributes in itself, the soul itself recognizing why it was created. Then the reality of He who knows himself knows his Lord is realized, and he again knows what he is, and for whom the secret of grace and beneficience is found, just as [it is said]:

O copy of the divine book that you are!/ O perfect royal mirror that you are!

Outside, nothing in this world is/  From yourself, in seeking, is everything that you wish.

But until the soul of the human person arrives at the perfect degree of the limpidity of mirrorhood, he must engage in much journeying and struggle. This only be means of the main thoroughfare of the sharī’a and the true ṭarīqa,[4] and only by gradation. It is just as iron must be first extracted from a mine, then fashioned and shaped through skill and learning of various sorts which they manifest, just as transmitted by the master of the craft, before it can become a mirror.

The human person is in the beginning a mine of the iron of this mirror, for humans are mines, like mines of gold and silver. That iron must be, brought forth from the mine of the being of the human person through sound oversight (ḥusn-i tadbīr), and through pedagogical upbringing , so that you arrive at the degree of mirrorhood, by gradation and gradual advance.


[1] Gnosis being the special, experiential knowledge/comprehension of God, distinct from more discursive, rational reason, ‘ilm. The two are not necessarily opposed so much as they represent, in classical taṣawwuf, hierarchical degrees of knowledge.

[2] Probably one of the most famous and most cited of hadith among Sufis, this is a so-called hadith qudsi, or ‘sacred’ hadith, attributed directly to God. Its import for establishing Sufi cosmology is pretty evident, even apart from the expansions of meaning interpretation provides.

[3] A partial citation of Q. 33.72. The entire verse runs: Verily, we offered the trust to the heavens and the earth and the mountains, but they declined to bear it and were afraid of it. The human person accepted it; he is oppressive and ignorant.

[4] These two terms are frequently paired in Sufi texts, in order to emphasize the necessity of both the ‘external’ religious ‘path’ (the literal meaning of shari’a) and the ‘internal’ religious way (tariqa also meaning path or way): in other words, the whole gamut of Islamic practice, not just legal obligation or mystical practices.

Lions, Pomegranates, and Sufi Saints

The following are more stories from ʻAbd Allāh ibn Asʻad al-Yāfiʻī’s collection of hagiographic tales, Khalāsa al-Mafākhir Fī Manāqib al-Shaykh ʻAbd al-Qādir, which I discussed previously here. The first few stories have to do with different saints, not ‘Abd al-Qādir himself. However, they reflect similar themes in the previously translated stories: the translocational capacity of the true saint, his bodily control, both over himself and over the bodies of others; his penetration of the minds of others; and his ability to manipulate nature for the benefit of his disciples. And while these rather entertaining and often amusing tales probably do not strike us in the modern world as elevated discourse akin to other forms of Sufi writing (say, Ibn ‘Arabī), they do include important Sufic vocabulary and seek to inculcate theological and mystical doctrine. The relationship between ‘interior’ and ‘exterior’ is stressed in them, as peoples’ interior states correlate directly with and indeed determine exterior happenings. The supreme example of this interior-exterior dynamism is the exalted saint, who has mastered his interior states and is therefore able to draw upon divine power in shaping ‘exterior’ events. Of course, it is also plausible that pious tales such as these functioned as much for entertainment as anything else—there being no necessary sharp demarcation between entertaining tales and pious, even pedagogical tales, either in our own age or in previous ones.

Addendum: I have added two more stories, both of which have to do with ‘Abd al-Qadir’s control over the magical forces of the unseen, particularly the jinn. They are pretty self-explanatory: in the first, ‘Abd al-Qadir knows how to manipulate the unseen forces of the world, as his instruction in the making of a magic circle indicates; but this knowledge is predicated upon his own saintly power, and not merely technique. Likewise, his contact with the ‘men of the unseen’ is because of his saintliness, his integral connection with the cosmos. The message of all such stories, besides the obvious intention of emphasizing the saint’s prophylactic power and intercessory worth, is to argue for the deep integration of the divinely-inspired saint with the entirety of the cosmos, seen and unseen. Again, the purification and divinization of the saint’s interior reflects on his relationship to the exterior world (and to the hidden world, which is both interior and exterior at once).

 Ḥikāya 89:

According to Shaykh al-‘Ārif Billah Abū Ḥafṣ ‘Umar ibn Maḥmud al-Maghrabī, God be merciful to him, who said: I was sitting with Shaykh Abū al-Barakāt ibn Ṣukhr in the side of the zāwiya,[1] and the impulsive thought[2] occurred to me of grilled meat in hot wheat bread.[3] So the impulsive thought increased in me; while I was like that suddenly a lion[4] came into our midst, and in his mouth was bread. He sat down by Shaykh Abū al-Barakāt, who said to him: ‘Go and put it in the hands of Shaykh ‘Umar.’ So the lion came and put it down and passed on by. In it was grilled meat and hot bread. Scarcely a moment had passed when a dusty, disheveled man descended to us from the air! As soon as I saw him, the desire for the meat and the bread went from me. The man went to the bread that had been brought by the lion, and ate it and everything wrapped in it. Then he sat down and related something to Abū al-Barakāt, then went back into the air from whence he had come. Shaykh Abū al-Barakāt said to me: ‘O Shaykh ‘Umar! The desire that gripped you was not yours, rather, it belonged to the man whom you saw. The man is among the pampered ones: if any impulsive thought arises in his soul, his impulsive thought does not cease until it is fulfilled. At this moment he is in the land of farthest China.’

Ḥikāya 90:

According to Shaykh al-‘Ālam al-Muqrī’ Abū al-Fataḥ Naṣr, who said: I went out one day in autumn with Shaykh Abū al-Barakāt from the zawīya to the mountain, and with him was a group of Sufis. Then he said: ‘Today we want sweet and sour pomegranates!’ And he had not even finished his words when all sorts of trees in this valley and mountain were filled with pomegranates. So he said to us: ‘Here you are! Pomegranates!’ So we picked from it many [fruits], and and we were picking pomegranates from apple, pear, and apricot trees, and other sorts. And we took from one tree both sweet and sour pomegranates, eating a great deal of it, until we were satisfied. Then we departed, and after an hour we returned, but the shaykh was no longer with us and we did not see a single pomegranate upon the trees!

Ḥikāya 91:

According to Shaykh al-Aṣīl Abū Muḥammad ‘Abdallah ibn Abū Mufraj ‘Abd al-Raḥman ibn al-Nāsik Abū al-Fataḥ Naṣrallah ibn ‘Alī al-Hamawī al-Shībānī, God be merciful to him, who said: I heard my father say: My father was walking along the edge of the mountain on a violently windy day, and a wind caught him and he fell. Shaykh Abū Barakāt was sitting facing the mountain, and he pointed with his finger in [my father’s] direction, so his place was fixed in the air between the summit of the mountain and the ground below, and he did not move to the left or the right, up or down, so that it was as if someone was grasping him and keeping him from moving. And he remained like that for an hour. Then the shaykh said: ‘O wind! Rise with him to the roof [or: surface] of the mountain!’ So the wind rose gently with him, as if someone were carrying him, until he arrived at the roof of the mountain.

Ḥikāya 94:

According to Shaykh al-Ṣalāḥ al-Majd ibn Sa’adān al-Wasṭī, God be merciful to him, who said: I was present in the majlis of Shaykh Isḥāq Ibrāhīm al-‘Azab, God be pleased with him, and he was talking with his companions, saying in one of his discourses: ‘My Lord has given me free disposal concerning everyone who is present to me, so that no one stands, sits, or moves in my presence save that I have governing jurisdiction over him.’ Then I thought to myself: ‘Ha! I will stand if I wish, and sit if I wish.’ Then the shaykh cut off his discourse, pointed at me and said: ‘If you are capable of it, stand!’ So I started to rise in order to stand, but I was incapable of motion—I [remained] as one sitting! So I was carried to my house upon the backs of men. I was incapable of moving about, and this condition remained for a month. I knew that it was because of my opposition to the shaykh. So I contracted repentence with God, and said to my family: ‘Carry me to the shaykh!’ They did so, and I said: ‘O my master! It was but an impulsive thought!’ Then he rose to stand, took me by the hand, and then he walked and I walked with him, and what was in me left.

Ḥikāya 95:

According to Shaykh al-Ṣāliḥ Abū al-Farj ‘Abd al-Ḥamīd Mu’ālī ibn Halāl al-‘Abādānī: I heard from my father a story he related from his father who said: I heard Shaykh al-‘Azab, God be pleased with him, say: ‘No one visits us (yazūrunā: a quasi-technical term for visiting a Sufi shaykh, or the tomb of a saint)  unless we want him to.’ So he [the relator’s grandfather] said: So I intended to visit him one time, and an impulse arose in me of this sort so that I said to myself: ‘Ha! I will visit him if he wants it or not.’ Then when I came to the door of the living-place [of the shaykh], I saw a mighty lion—he frightened me with his gaze! Then he bared his teeth at me, so I turned on my heels and fled! And my impatience had increased—or he [the relator] said, my fear—and I was used to hunting and killing lions, so when I was a ways away I stopped, and watched the lion: people were entering and leaving and he did not oppose them—they didn’t even see him, it seemed to me. The next day I came back, and he was in his same place, acting the same way, and when he saw me he stood up before me, so I fled from him. This was my condition in relation to the lion for a month: I was incapable of entering or even getting close to the door. So I went to one of the shaykhs of the Baṭā’iḥ[5] and complained to him about my condition, so he said: ‘Look within yourself for which sin has brought this about.’ So I mentioned to him my impulsive thought, and he said: ‘It has come from it—and the lion which you saw is the state (ḥāl) of Shaykh Ibrāhīm.’ He [the relator’s grandfather] said: So I sought God’s forgiveness, and intended repentance from my opposition. So I went to the living-quarters, and the lion stood and entered in, going to the shaykh and those mingling around him, and was hidden from me. And when I came before the shaykh, he said to me: ‘Welcome, O penitent one!’

Ḥikāya 96:

According to Shaykh Abū al-Ma’ālī ibn Masu’ūd al-‘Irāqī al-Tājir al-Jawharī, who said: I intended to travel one year to the land of the Persians for business, so [before setting out] I sent a pledge to Shaykh Ibrāhīm, and he said to me: ‘If you fall into hardship, call on my name.’ Then, when we were halfway through the stony wastes of Khurāsān, a band of robbers (literally, a ‘force,’ ḥīl) came out against us, and they seized our goods and carried them off in their hands, and we watched them go.[6] I remembered the words of Shaykh Ibrāhīm, but I was in a group of [mu’tabirīn—Shi’i?] among my companions, so I was embarrassed to mention the name of the shaykh with my tongue, so instead the cry for help from him pervaded me secretly—and my inner thoughts had not concluded when I saw him from afar upon a mountain; in his hand a staff with which he was motioning towards those robbers, so that they came with all our goods and surrendered them to us. And they said to us: ‘Proceed freely, rightly guided ones! We have a piece of information for you.’ We said: ‘What is it?’ They replied: ‘We saw upon the mountain a man, a staff in his hand with which he was motioning towards us to return your goods—and the wide expanses seemed narrow to us out of fear of him, for we perceived destruction for whoever opposed him. And there was one among us who had divided off [for himself] part of your goods, but with his staff [the shaykh] drove him back until he rejoined us—then we perceived him and thought that he must be from heaven!’[7]

Ḥikāya 115

According to Abū Sa’īd ‘Abdallah ibn Aḥmad al-Baghdādī who said: One of my daughters, named Fāṭima, who was a virgin, went up to the roof of our house and was kidnapped; she was then sixteen years old. So I immediately went to Shaykh Muḥya al-Dīn ‘Abd al-Qādir and told him of it. He said to me: ‘Go tonight to the ruins of Karkh (a suburb of Baghdad) and sit upon Khamis Hill, then trace around yourself a circle on the ground, saying as you trace it: In the name of God in accordance with the intention of ‘Abd al-Qādir. Then when the gloom of night comes, there will pass by you groups of jinn in different forms—but do not be frightened of their might. Then, when dawn is nigh[8] there will pass by you their king in the midst of an army of them, and he will ask you: What do you need? So say to him: ‘Abd al-Qādir sent me to you. Then tell him about the affair of your daughter.’ So I went and did as he commanded me. There passed by disquieting forms from among them [the jinn], but none were able to get close to the circle I was in. And troop after troop of them did not cease passing by until their king came, riding his steed, and before him were all his peoples. He stopped opposite the circle and said to me: ‘What do you need?’ I said: ‘‘Abd al-Qādir sent me to you.’ He got down from his steed, kissed the ground, and sat down outside the circle; those with him sat down also. He said: ‘What is your affair?’ So I told him the story of my daughter, and he said to those with him: ‘Who did this?’ But they did not know who did it, until one came with a demon (mārid), and she [the daughter] was with him, and it was said to him: ‘This one is from the demons of China.’ Then [the king of the jinn] said to him: ‘What possessed you to kidnap someone who is a loyal follower of the Pole [of the Saints] (al-quṭb)?!’ He replied: ‘The idea took hold of me.’ So he commanded him to be struck on his neck, and he gave me back my daughter, then I said: ‘Have you ever seen anything like tonight in your obedience to ‘Abd al-Qādir?’ He said, ‘Yes—he looks from his house to the demons that are in the furthest part of the earth. So they flee from fear of him to their dwelling places. Verily, when God raises a Quṭb, He gives him power over man and jinn.’

[Abū al-‘Abbās] said: I was lying up on top of the roof of the madrasa on Saturday night, between dinner and sunset, on the ninth of al-Rabī’ al-Ākhir, the year 552, and it was summertime. Our master Muḥya al-Dīn ‘Abd al-Qādir came before me, facing the qibla. And then I saw in the sky a man flying about in the air like an arrow. Upon his head was a fine turban, with an ‘adhiba [?] between his shoulders, the whitest of clothing upon him, and an apron around his waist. When he drew near to the Shaykh’s head, he dropped like an eagle descending on its prey, until he sat before him and greeted him. Then he went back into the air until he disappear from my sight. So I stood up and asked the Shaykh about him, and he said: ‘You saw him?’ ‘Yes,’ I answered, and he said: ‘He is one of the men of the roving unseen world, upon them be peace.’

ʻAbd Allāh ibn Asʻad al-Yāfiʻī, Khalāsa al-Mafākhir Fī Manāqib al-Shaykh ʻAbd al-Qādir, ed. by Aḥmad Farīd al-Mazīdī (Sirīlānkā: Dār al-Āthār al-Islāmīyah lil-Ṭibāʻah wa-al-Nashr, 2006), 168-169, 172-174, 190-191.

[1] A sort of Sufi retreat or meeting place, sometimes also a shrine.

[2] Khāṭir: In Sufic terminology, a khāṭir is a thought that ‘arises’ in one, without any intention on the person’s part, and often without the person’s control, though a person may choose to act upon the impulsive thought. It often has a negative valence, but not always. In this story, the impulsive thought is apparently linked to mystical, quasi-magical capacities, presumably granted to a supreme saint (here, a Chinese saint of some sort!).

[3] The theme of food, seen here and in several other antecdotes translated below, was already an old one in Sufi lore. Sweets, grilled meat, and bread appear again and again. See for instance several stories of al-Ḥallāj compiled and translated by Massignon: For further instances, see footnote 110 at p. 118, op. cite.; and Abū Ṭalib al-Makkī, Qūt al-Qulūb, Vol. II , 42; and the short Sufi story translated here. Finally, see Shazad Bashir, Sufi Bodies: Religion and Society in Medieval Islam (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011),

[4] This story and another further along feature lions linked to a Sufi saint (or saints, as here); besides the obvious symbolism of a powerful, majestic animal, the lion might also carry ‘Alid symbolism.

[5] ‘The Marshlands’—the area around the ‘Iraqi city of Wasit.

[6] A reminder of the often precarious nature of travel and commerce in the Middle Ages…

[7] The saint who works wonders from afar is a common theme in medieval hagiography the world over; the theme of the saint’s effective power being summoned by mention of his or her name is likewise common. In this story, part of the emphasis would seem to be upon the universal availability of the saint’s summoned power: even though the story-teller is ashamed to publicly invoke the saint, his invocation of the holy man ‘secretly’ (a term that has a double meaning in Sufi discourse, it should be noted) demonstrates both the saint’s awesome power and his clemency.

[8] Waqt al-saḥar; a slight change of vocalization would give waqt al-siḥr, time of magic or sorcery, not incidental I suspect.

Too Much Tafsir and Tarikh

The following little story is related in al-Sharazuri’s entry on the famous exegete and  historian al-Tabari. As you could gather from the story, al-Tabari’s two most renowned works were his massive tafsir and his equally massive history (tarikh) of the world, with a particular emphasis upon the parts he knew best, of course (the image above is taken from a later, partially illumined copy of his history). As the humorous story below demonstrates, he could have made both far longer. That, at least, was the perception of later scholars (like al-Sharazuri, who lived hundreds of years after al-Tabari) who had come to see al-Tabari as one of the crowning jewels of Muslim scholarship- though, this story might also insinuate, such an ability might be more than ordinary scholars could handle…


Al-Qadi Abu ‘Umar ‘Ubid Allah ibn Ahmad al-Samsar and Abu al-Qasm ibn ‘Aqil al-Waraq said that once Abu Ja’afar al-Tabari said to his disciples: ‘Are you in the mood for commentary on the Qur’an (atanshatun li-tafsir al-Qur’an)?’ They replied: ‘How long is it going to be?’ He said: ‘Thirty thousand pages,’ to which they replied: ‘This would use up entire lifetimes before it could be completed!’ So he condensed it to approximately three thousand pages. Then he said to them: ‘How do you feel about a history of the world from the time of Adam up to our own time?’ They replied: ‘How long is it going to be?’ So he said what he had said about the commentary, and the replied in the same way, to which he said: ‘Good Lord! Ambition is dead.’ So he condensed it in the same fashion as he had condensed the commentary.

Al-Sharazuri, Ṭabaqāt al-Fuqahāʼ al-Shāfiʻīyah