Teacher, Student, Text, and the Control of Knowledge in Early Modern Damascus

The Damascus Room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a winter reception room (qa’a), dating to c. 1707 (Met 1970.170). Once part of a home in Damascus before its disassembly and transportation to New York City in the 1930s, this room resembles the reception hall of a well-to-do Ottoman family in early modern Damascus, though some elements were added later or otherwise modified. ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s house may well have contained a room, if not quite of this opulence, along these lines, for the greeting and hosting of guests.

Introduction: ‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī (1641-1731), a frequent presence on these pages, embodied many roles and identities over the course of his long life, a life that spanned major transformations in the nature of the Ottoman Empire in which he lived, as well as changes occurring in the wider world of early modernity. For many during his lifetime, and even more so after his death, he was a preeminent, even the preeminent ‘friend of God’- saint- of his age. His role as a major theological and philosophical thinker, author, and teacher was often seen as an aspect of his sainthood, the sheer scope of his literary productions and teaching activities, instructing all sorts of people in all sorts of subjects, as evidence of his special relationship with God. The passages that I have translated below are taken from the expansive biography written by ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s great-grandson, Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad al-Ghazzī (1760-1799), titled Wird al-unsī wa-al-warid al-qudsī fī tarjamat al-ʻārif ʻAbd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī. One of the longer chapters of this work consists of biographical entries, some brief, some quite long, of ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s many disciples and students, demonstrating the shaykh’s numerous social ties and relationships as well as the geographic reach of his instruction and saintly reputation.

The entry translated here- aside from the introductory paragraph, which I will summarize- concerns one Muṣṭafá Ṣafī al-Dīn al-‘Alwānī (1696-1779), a member of the ‘ulama of the city of Hama, descendant of a sixteenth century sufi saint, but whose later career was primarily based upon his skill as a poet and littérateur. In 1722 he came to Damascus from Hama in the company of his primary teaching shaykh, one Muhammad ibn Maḥmūd al-Ḥabbāl, taking up residence in the Bādharā’iyya madrasa. They both went together to visit ‘Abd al-Ghanī, who by 1722 was advanced in years and well established reputation-wise as both a saint and scholar. Our account picks up with Muṣṭafá meeting ‘Abd al-Ghanī for the first time.

Commentary follows the translation, but a few explanatory words will guide the reader unfamiliar with some of the conventions and terminology. Muṣṭafá wants to ‘read’ a book under ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s supervision, which entails, following a long-standing convention in the Islamic world (with analogues elsewhere in medieval and early modern Eurasia) whereby one would study a book by writing it down for one’s self or even memorize it, reciting back what one had written or memorized to the author, who would then grant an ijāza, a ‘certificate,’ stating that the student had properly received the text in question and was authorized to transmit it himself (or on occasion herself). The sessions in which this process took place could also allow the author to explicate and clarify the text. The verb that I alternatively translate as ‘read’ and ‘recite’ is qara’a, a particularly multivalent verb, which can also have the meaning of ‘study,’ as it in fact does here.

A stained glass window that once decorated an Ottoman home in Syria or Egypt, made at some point in the 18th century (Met. 93.26.3).

Translation: Love of [‘Abd al-Ghanī] seized the whole of his heart, so he returned to him and sought permission to read under him, asking which book [he should read]. The Master (al-ustādh) said to him: “Read our book on the oneness of being named al-Wujūd al-ḥaqq.” Then the Master gave him a quire (kurrās) from out of his own copybook, saying to him, “Write it down in your own handwriting, lesson (dars) by lesson.” He specified to him that the time of the lesson would be on Friday after the ṣalāt, and that every week he would read one lesson. [Muṣṭafá] would take the notebook and write it down in it. So it occurred that every Friday he would go to the Ṣālaḥiyya [neighborhood] and enter the house (dār) of the Master after the ṣalāt, kiss the hand of the Master and sit down. Then the Master would raise his head from writing and say, “Recite.” He would recite, then kiss his hand and go. He did this for a while, though his shaykh, al-Ḥabbāl, did not know about it. One day this Shaykh al-Ḥabbāl entered [Muṣṭafá’s madrasa] room, previously mentioned, began leafing through his loose pages and books, and found the book of the Master, al-Wujūd al-ḥaqq, in his possession, he having written out a goodly portion of it. He asked him about it, and he told him that he was reading the book under the Master’s supervision and so forth. Al-Ḥabbāl said to him by way of advice, “My son, you are not ready to read the like of this book, you don’t have the disposition for understanding the books of ḥaqā’iq [‘esoteric’ theology]. If you want to receive something from the Master and derive blessing from him, read under him a book on the technical terms of hadith, and get an ijāza from him—that much will suffice you.” So [Muṣṭafá] complied with his words. In accordance with his custom on Friday he went with a portion of what he had written out to the Master, this time from the book Sharḥ al-Nukhba [by Ibn al-Ḥajar (1372-1449)], on the knowledge of technical vocabulary. He entered into the Master’s presence, kissed his hand, and sat down. The Master did not raise his head from his writing, and did not say anything to him! He remained looking at him until the ‘aşr adhān [call to prayer] of that day, and the Master arose, prayed the ‘aṣr ṣalāt, then after completing his prayer looked at [Muṣṭafá] and said, “Ya Sayyīd Muṣṭafá, we do not instruct save our own books, and if you wish to read under us then read our books!” He did not expand upon those words any further. Muṣṭafá understood that what he had intended to ask of the Master had been revealed to him by way of unveiling, and he resumed his completion of the recitation of the aforementioned book.’ Continue reading “Teacher, Student, Text, and the Control of Knowledge in Early Modern Damascus”

The Shaykh and the Wrestlers

Wrestlers in a Persianate context, similar to that of the story below, as depicted in a sixteenth century Safavid illumined copy of Sa’di’s collected works (Walters W.618.31B)

Sufism has developed over the centuries a vast technical vocabulary, with many elements filtering out into wider Islamic (or, better, ‘Islamicate’) societies and languages. One of the more difficult terms that makes up this stock of words describing sufi practice and theology is the Arabic word himmah, taken into Persian as himmat. Its basic lexical meaning is, per Steingass’ Persian dictionary, ‘Inclination, desire, resolution, intention, design,’ with the additional meanings of ‘ambition, aspiration; mind, thought, attention, care; magnanimity; power, strength, ability; auspices, grace, favour.’ The sufi usage of himmah encompasses all of these: when a shaykh is said to possess or wield himmah, we might say that he exerts the power of his mindful intention, power which is invested in him by virtue of his relationship with God. It’s a bit like ‘the Force’ in Star Wars, in that through the use of his himmah the advanced master is able to psychically- so to speak- manipulate things in the physical world outside of his body, similar to the way a Jedi master might employ the Force to move objects or change a person’s thoughts or will.

The ambiguity of himmah is not simply the case of being at a remove from the original languages of sufism- it’s clear from the sources that medieval and early modern sufi authors felt a need to explicate what precisely was meant thereby to contemporary audiences. The story I’ve excerpted and translated below comes from a Persian-language collection of lives of Inner Asian Naqshbandī saints, entitled Rashaḥāt-i ʻayn al-ḥayāt, by Fakhr al-Dīn ʿAlī ibn Ḥusayn Wāʿiẓ Kāshifī Ṣafī (1463 – 1532-3). The story is part of longer clarifying discussion by Kāshifī about himmat, as an introduction to the miracles of the important fifteenth-century Naqshbandī saint Khwāja ‘Ubayd Allāh Aḥrār. It also speaks, by the by, to a major component of wider Persianate culture during this period and afterwards, namely, the role of wrestling, a sport which provides the setting for the miracle story.

From a somewhat earlier period, two wrestlers, as depicted on a 13th century Ilkhanid tile (Walters 48.1283)

One day we came to the wrestling-grounds where two people were wrestling—one was powerfully and immensely built of frame, while the other was weak and scrawny of body. The big fellow was making easy work of the weak one, so that we felt merciful towards him, and I said to Mawlānā Sa’d al-Dīn [Kashgārī], ‘Use your power of mind (himmat) and send out a thought (khāṭir) so that that weak one can triumph over that powerful one!’

He replied, ‘You pay heed, and we will also lend aid.’ So his thought turned in that moment to the weak one, and in a flash the weak one was invested with great strength so that he was able to extend his arm and with dexterous skill lifted the powerful-framed man from the ground, hoisted him overhead, then threw him down into the dust of the ring. A great exclamation went up from the crowd, the men watching amazed and bewildered by what had transpired, none of the spectators aware of the secret of it.

ʻAlī ibn Ḥusayn Kāshifī Ṣafī, Rashaḥāt-i ʻayn al-ḥayāt, ed. ʿA.A.’ Muʿīniyān (Tehran: Bunyād-i Nīkūkārī-i Nūriyānī, 2536/1977-8), v. II, 517.


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Dervish Muḥarram Finds Himself in Strange Straits

Portrait of a Sufi Deccan
While not an Ottoman production, this illustration of a sufi in contemplation (presumably), which comes from the 17th century Deccan, provides a good approximation of dervish dress and deportment in many parts of the Islamic world during this period. (Met. 57.51.22)

It was related to me than when [Muḥarram al-Rūmī’s] shaykh instructed him in the Third Name [1], he began hearing all of the existent things speak to him, even when he needed to urinate—but he heard every place in which he sat in order to relieve his need speaking to him in an eloquent tongue, so he went from there to another place, but found it to be just the same, so instead he held back his urine to the point that he was close to perishing. He turned to his shaykh through his spiritual energy (himma) and beheld him with his eyes, even though there was a great spatial distance between them [2]. His shaykh said to him, ‘ Muḥarram! Do what you need to do and don’t be in anguish!’

ʻAbd al-Raʼūf ibn Tāj al-ʻĀrifīn al-Munāwī, al-Kawākib al-durrīyah fī tarājim al-sādah al-Ṣūfīyah: ṭabaqāt al-Ṣūfīyah, (Bayrūt, Lubnān: Dār Ṣādir, 1999), iv: 512-513. Translation by Jonathan Parkes Allen, 2018.

Sofra close up

[1] Muḥarram al-Rūmī (who lived in the late 16th into early 17th century in Ottoman Cairo; ‘Rūmī’ indicates Anatolian origin) was a Khalwatī (Tur. Halvetî) dervish, a ṭarīqa in which disciples were taught seven successive divine names, each with particular forms of dhikr, spiritual stations, and powers associated with them. The third name mentioned here is ‘‘ (‘He’).

[2] I have translated himma here as ‘spiritual energy,’ an approximation at best, since it also has the idea of ‘intention, will, and zeal,’ all of which contribute to this technical usage found in sufism. Continue reading “Dervish Muḥarram Finds Himself in Strange Straits”

Turn Toward a Sacred Precinct Filled With Acceptance

‘Ā’isha al-Bā’ūnīyah (d. 1517) was a female Sufi master from Damascus, living in the twilight years of Mamluk rule and the very beginning of Ottoman control of the region. She is one of the most prolific, if not the most prolific, female Muslim writer in the pre-modern era, writing treatises, poetry, devotional literature, and the like, including a mawlid-text (a text in celebration of Muhammad’s birth) that would prove to be of enduring popularity. The following is a poem from her diwan that is representative of her deeply emotional and affective piety and poetic style.

Mamluk-era polychrome tile (c. 1420-1459), Damascus.

When I sought union from the one I love,
His majesty replied that there was no path to Him.

So, I closed my eyes that had tried so hard to see Him,
while in my heart, desire burned with separation’s fire.

I was about to meet my death, when He was kind,
and sweetly spoke to my heart, saying:

‘If you want union from Us, be true to Us,
set aside all else, strive for Us, and be humble.

Leave yourself and come to Us with Our true love and grace.
Make that your means to Me.

Draw near to Us, be devoted to Us; don’t fear rejection.
Turn toward a sacred precinct filled with acceptance.

There, you will find providence draws you to Us,
bringing sweet union,

And you will leave there all but Us
and appear in a station where true men alight.

You will behold lights of power, and in their intensity,
the shadow of difference will go and disappear.

You will pass away, nothing to preserve you save Our splendor,
as you behold, truly, the climax of desire.

Then you will abide with Us, Our servant,
pure, chosen by Us for Our secrets forever!’


‘Ā’isha al-Bā’ūnīyah, Fayḍ al-Faḍl wa-Jam’ al-Shaml, translated by Th. Emil Homerin, in Emanations of Grace: Mystical Poems by ‘Ā’isha al-Bā’ūnīyah (Louisville: Fons Vitae, 2011), 64.

Mystical Insight and Everyday Life in Early Modern Aleppo

Below is a short story from a biography of one of the most important Muslim saints of early modern Ottoman Aleppo, Abu Bakr ibn Abi al-Wafa’ (1503-83). Abu Bakr was a majdhūb saint: someone who has been ‘seized’ by divine ‘attraction,’ as a result acting in often aberrant and socially unacceptable ways (Abu Bakr lived on trash-heaps, had a following of feral dogs, and liked to whack people with his staff, for instance), but believed to have special access to divine insight and revelation. Abu Bakr’s tomb and surrounding complex would become a center of Aleppo’s spiritual life (as well as serving for some time as the headquarters of the Ottoman governor), his reputation built in part by stories like the one reproduced here. However, I selected this particular story due to its giving us a peek into everyday life in Ottoman Aleppo for ordinary people, men and women. Note particularly, as you read the story, the importance of textiles: in our industrialized world of mass produced clothing, the expense and ensuing value of seemingly basic textiles for pre-modern people is hard to grasp. Yet, as this story indicates, simply keeping one’s children properly clothed could be a major struggle for non-elite, working people; unfortunately, not everyone could count on the prescient generosity of a charismatic saint.

A 17th century Ottoman cushion cover, though probably rather more ornate than anything Jamāl would have owned or aspired to.

Jamāl al-Khādim related that he visited [Shaykh Abū Bakr al-Majdhūb] once. The shaykh gave Jamāl his shirt and outer garment and said: ‘Put these shirts and trousers aside for your children!’ But Jamāl, who at the time was not married, said: ‘Ya sīdī, I don’t have any children!’ So the shaykh hit him with his staff and said, ‘You lie! [1] I can hear their voices!’ Some of those present said, ‘Take them from the shaykh, whether you have children or not!’ Jamāl said: ‘I fear accusing the shaykh of deceit,’ so he took them and intended to use them as a funeral shroud for himself when the day came. He stuck them in with the stuffing of a cushion (mikhadda), then forgot about them. Time passed, Jamāl got married, they had children, and these clothes were still forgotten. His wife sought from him shirts for his children, but he replied: ‘I have nothing! But perhaps God will give us a blessing.’

He spent several days in great distress on account of his children. But then he came home one day to find brand-new shirts upon his children, and asked: ‘Where did you get these?’ His wife answered: ‘I washed the cushion, and I pulled out the stuffing so as to clean it too, and found linen shirts and outer garments!’ Jamāl wept, remembering the mystical foresight (kashf) of the shaykh.

Abu al-Wafa’ ibn ‘Umar al-‘Urdi, Ma’adin al-dhahabfi al-a’yan al-musharrafa bi-him Halab, ed. ‘Abdullah al-Ghazali( Kuwait, 1987), 52-53.

[1] Here Abu Bakr addresses Jamāl in the feminine, not the expected masculine; this was one of Abu Bakr’s ‘specialties,’ through which he marked off his socially aberrant, and hence spiritually liminal, place in the world.


For more on this fascinating saint and the world of Ottoman Aleppo, see the following:

Watenpaugh, Heghnar Zeitlian. “Deviant Dervishes: Space, Gender, and the Construction of Antinomian Piety in Ottoman Aleppo.” In International Journal of Middle East Studies 37, no. 4 (2005): 535–65.
_______. The Image of an Ottoman City: Imperial Architecture and Urban Experience in Aleppo in the 16th and 17th Centuries. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2004.

Come to the Banquet of God!

It is also transmitted that to begin with Qāḍī ‘Ezz al-Dīn was extremely opposed to the samā’ [devotional, ecstatic dance and recitation] of the dervishes. One day [Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī] Mowlānā, having become greatly aroused with passion, came forth from his madrasa while performing the samā’. He entered the chamber of Qāḍī ‘Ezz al-Dīn and, shouting at him and grabbing him by the collar, he said: ‘Get up! Come to the banquet of God!’ He then dragged him to the gathering of ‘the lovers’ and revealed to him what was appropriate to ‘Ezz al-Dīn’s capacity. The latter tore his robe and joined in the samā’, spinning about and letting out shouts. In the end, he came to experience devotion and become a disciple in complete sincerity.

Shams al-Dīn Aḥmad-e Aflākī, Manāqib al-‘ārifīn, trans. by John O’Kane, 75.

Journeying Through the Veils

The below passage is from an introductory ‘handbook’ of Sufism in Arabic by the seventeenth century Aleppine Sufi Qāsim al-Khānī (d. 1697). His description here is hardly original, rather, it represents the shifting through and representation of centuries of Sufi thought and practice. At times his writings reflect a concern with theological ‘deviance,’ a particularly acute concern for Sufis like him who sought to defend and perpetuate the long tradition of Sufism- including the many theo-philosophical developments of the thirteenth century, such as those associated with Ibn ‘Arabi. Many of these beliefs and practices came under increasing scrutiny in the Ottoman Empire and elsewhere from the sixteenth century onward, even if such critiques did not become truly mainstream until much closer to our own age. al-Khānī seeks to defend such beliefs as ‘oneness of being,’ while also decrying allegedly incorrect interpretations of such beliefs, for instance here:

That which benefits the wayfarer in his journey is witnessing (shuhūd) of oneness of being not its gnosis. Witnessing is a state (ḥāla) necessarily realized from struggle, privation, successive exercise, lowliness, poverty, and need. And this state does not benefit the wayfarer unless there is with it following of the Shari’a, for if there is not with it following of the Shari’a, then it is damning zandiqa [heresy or deviance].

The passage below is less concerned with fending off theological error; rather, it presents a pretty traditional Sufi understanding of spiritual journeying: the passage through successive ranks of ‘veils’ preventing human cognizance and connection with God. As it is written in a straight-forward, pedagogically-inclined manner, I will leave off further commentary of this fine example of early modern Sufi teaching.

And the greatest of the veils that are between the servant and his Lord are the veils of sins, because they are darkness. As for veils other than them, to be sure the servant should hasten to dispel them, although they are luminescent, not totally veiling the servant. For the likeness of the veil constituted by sins is the likeness of an encompassing wall between you and your goal, and you cannot see essence or trace, due to its preventing, nor shape—which is different from the luminescent veils. They are like glass, with what is behind them being seen, obscuring and revealing by their increase or decrease. If the glass is increased greatly, then the intended object behind it is hidden, though the hiddenness of what is behind the wall is not the case here—at least the shape of the object can be discerned. All of this is what can be seen with the eye of the senses.

The heart is likewise. So long as its eye, which is called discernment (al-baṣīra) is veiled by the darkness of disobedience, which is called overcoming, imprinting, and sealing, it does not see anything of the lights of the Unseen, and has no awareness of what sin and evil does to it.

Then if one turns from what one is in, the veils of sins are lifted from his heart, and he beholds divine things, and begins to feel fear concerning his punishment, and hopes for reward, and persists in obedience to God, and turning away of evil deeds. Now he is veiled with luminescent veils, which are his dependence upon these deeds, for he now believes that he is the one who brings them into existence.

Then, after that, God lifts this veil from him, through the blessing (baraka) of acts of obedience, and he sees that the grace upon him belongs to God, for God causes him to be successful in these deeds, and that he is insufficient in giving thanks for them, and that the effective Giver is God. If God desires of someone good, he invests him with the garment of pious fear (taqwa) so as to make sound his presentation before His presence—and nothing of good or evil is by the hand of the servant, rather, all is by the hand of God.

Then, when this veil is lifted from his heart, he imagines that he has attained to God, for there is spiritual delight in this station. But if the hidden subtleties encompass him, this veil too is raised from him, and he does not cease cutting through the veils, one after another, as per the arrangement of stations and gates as in this book, until he attains to true station, the stopping place of the Most Veiled—so understand!

Do not believe, because of the likeness of the veils to panes of glass, that God is a thing which can be seen by the perceiving eye—for He is free of that. God take in hand your guidance!

Qāsim al-Khānī, al-Sayr wa al-sulūk ilā malik al-mulūk

Sufi Air Delivery

[The Sufi shaykh] Abū Turāb al-Ramlī: He was setting out from Mecca with his companions when he said to them: ‘You will go on the road to Jeda, while I go on the road to Tubuk.’ They said: ‘The heat is oppressive!’ He said: ‘No help for that—but, when you get to Ramla, go into the house of So-and-So, our friend!’ When they arrived in Ramla, they went into his house. He brought them four pieces of broiled meat, and a hawk swooped down from the sky and snatched one of the pieces. They said, ‘Well, that wasn’t meant for us,’ and ate the remaining pieces. When, after two days, Abū Turāb came, they asked him: ‘Did you find nothing on the journey?’ He answered: ‘No, rather, on such-and-such day a hawk tossed a piece of hot broiled meat to me!’ They said: ‘Well then, we have eaten together, for it was snatched from us.’ Abū Turāb said: ‘True, it was thus!’

From Jāmī (1414-1492), Nafaḥāt al-uns ḥaḍarāt al-quds

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.