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.


Vice and Virtue

The following translation is another excerpt from the philosophical-mystical Qur’an commentary of ‘Abd al-Razzāq al-Kashanī (d. 730/1329), previously discussed here. In this excerpt, which is ostensibly related to a large chunk of verses from Sura al-Nur (Q. 24), most of which have to do with ‘legal’ matters. Our commentator, however, takes these verses as an opportunity to expound upon the nature of vice and virtue and proper moral behavior and nature. In the Western Latin exegetical tradition, similar material might fall under the label of ‘tropological’ exegesis. In the tropological mode, a commetator seeks to locate the moral meaning or message behind a particular passage, usually for the purpose of presenting a lesson or example for good behavior. In this case, al-Kashanī is interested, first of all, in expounding on the ‘ontology’ of good and evil acts, reflective of his general philosophical-mystical purpose. Secondarily, his ontological exposition serves to draw out a moral message and a warning against the cultivation of vice.

Readers familiar with Western Latin moral philosophy and theology from the same period in which al-Kashanī is writing will probably recognize some common themes and concepts. This is, of course, not accidental: al-Kashanī is drawing upon many shared elements, particularly those often labeled ‘neo-Platonic.’ Of course, the paths taken by al-Kashanī on the one hand and Western philosophers and theologians on the other were quite different in many ways, and the systems and final forms which they created and used varied considerably. In al-Kashanī’s case, his philosophical commitments are filtered through and transformed by his engagement with the mystical theology of Ibn ‘Arabi. In this passage, however, the Great Master’s influence is not especially evident; philosophical language and concepts, creatively interpenetrated with the Qur’anic text and concepts, are front and center.

[From] Those who come with a lie to His words, Theirs is forgiveness and noble sustenance: verily, the magnitude of the matter of falsehood, and the harshness of the threat (al-wa’īd) attached to it—in that no other matter of disobedience is so harshly dealt with, and the seriousness of the punishment for it, in that neither adultery nor murder are treated so seriously: this is because of the magnitude of the vileness, and the weight of the disobedience. It is in relation to the potency (al-quwa)[1] that is its origin (maṣdaruhā). And the condition of the vices, in veiling their practitioner, diverts away from the divine presence and the holy lights, and is involvement in physical destruction, a darkened gulf in view of the disharmony with its locus of manifestation. For the more that the potency that is [a vice’s] origin and its initiatory source is exalted, the vice that derives from it is all the worse through opposition. For vice is what stands opposite virtue, and when the virtue is especially exalted, what stands opposite it as vice is especially base. Lying is the vice of the potency of speech, which is the most exalted of human potencies. Adultery is the vice of the desiring potency, murder is the vice of the irascible potency. On account of the exaltation of the first [the potency of speech] over the other two [lying] increases the baseness of its vileness.

And that is because man is man on account of the first [potency of speech], as it raises him to the higher world, and it turns him to the divine side, and is his attainment for mystical knowledge and miraculous wonders, and is his acquisition for good deeds and happiness. He is by it, so if is corrupted by the overcoming of satanic influence upon it, and is veiled from the Light by the overwhelming of darkness, it becomes a great unhappiness, and incurs the punishment of the Fire. For it is the stainer and the total veil: Nay, rather, it stains their hearts, what they have acquired; they will be on that day veiled from their Lord. (Q. 83.14-15) And for this the eternity of the punishment is necessary, and the persistence of the torment is by the corruption of belief apart from corruption of deeds, as God does not forgive that one associate another with Him, though He forgives all other than that to whomever He wills.

As for the other [potencies], as each of them traces back in its external manifestation to the reigning potency of speech, then perhaps [the vice] is effaced by its [the potency’s] reassertion, and it subjects it to itself through the stilling of its agitation and the calming effect of its sovereignty through the overwhelming of the strength of the light. It exercises sovereignty over [the vice] naturally, like the state of the censuring soul during repentance and contrition. Or, perhaps [the vice] persists through obduracy, and the abandonment of seeking forgiveness. In these two states the vices of the two [potencies] do not overcome the station of the mystical secret, nor the locus of [divine] presence, or intimate conversation with the Lord, nor do they overstep the bounds of the heart, nor bring about the veiling of primal human nature from reality, inverting through variance with these, except that you see the satanic temptation towards humanity, making him further from the divine presence than the predatory and the beastly, and further from his own natural capacity. For man, by the rootedness of the vice of the potency of speech becomes satanic; rootedness in the vices of the other two cause him to become animalistic, like a predator or beast—and every creature is morally sounder and closer to joy than Satan.[2] And for this reason God said: Shall I reveal to you upon whom the satans descend? They descend upon every lying, evil one (Q. 26.222).

And He forbids here from following the footsteps of Satan, for verily the perpetration of the like of these vile deeds is only through following after him and obeying him. And [Satan’s] companion is part of his army and his following, but is even baser and lower than him; he is cut off from the grace of God which is the light of right guidance; veiled from His mercy which is the overflowing of perfect grace and happiness. He is accursed in this world and the next, odious towards God and the angels. His limbs bear witness against him; he changes their forms, their outward manifestation is made unseemly by the wickedness of inner essence and soul, entangled in filth. Verily, the like of this wickedness does not originate save from the wicked, as God said: Wicked women belong to wicked men. As for the good who are free of the vices, their originates from them good and virtue—Theirs is forgiveness, through the veiling of their attributes by the divine lights, and noble sustenance, from the mystical meanings and the mystical knowledge found in their hearts.

[1] This word might also be translated as ‘faculty’ or ‘capacity.’

[2] Translating al-shayṭān as ‘Satan’ is problematic, as the term can mean both the individual, singular Satan familiar to Western religious discourse, as well as ‘satans,’ or evil spirits of the sort usually referred to in English as ‘devils’ or ‘demons’ (the latter word being especially apropos, as one often encounters, especially in Sufi writings, the idea of ‘personal’ satans, malevolent daemons as it were). I have tried to preserve the ambiguity by translating al-shayṭān as ‘Satan’ when the singular individual is referred to; ‘satans’ when the evil spirits are meant. See Andrew Rippin, ‘S̲h̲ayṭān.’ Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition. Brill Online , 2012.