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 Perspectives On Early Islamic Mysticism
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Sara Sviri
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About the Book – Perspectives on Early Islamic Mysticism

This monograph explores the original literary produce of Muslim mystics during the eighth–tenth centuries, with special attention to ninth-century mystics, such as al-Tustarī, al-Muḥāsibī, al-Kharrāz, al-Junayd and, in particular, al-Ḥakīm al-Tirmidhī. Unlike other studies dealing with the so-called ‘Formative Period’, this book focuses on the extant writings of early mystics rather than on the later Ṣūfī compilations.

These early mystics articulated what would become a hallmark of Islamic mysticism: a system built around the psychological tension between the self (nafs) and the heart (qalb) and how to overcome it.

Through their writings, already at this early phase, the versatility, fluidity and maturity of Islamic mysticism become apparent. This exploration thus reveals that mysticism in Islam emerged earlier than customarily acknowledged, long before Islamic mysticism became generically known as Ṣūfism.

The central figure of this book is al-Ḥakīm al-Tirmidhī, whose teaching and inner world focus on themes such as polarity, the training of the self, the opening of the heart, the Friends of God (al-awliyāʾ), dreams and visions, divine language, mystical exegesis and more.

This monograph thus offers a fuller picture than hitherto presented of the versatility of themes, processes, images, practices, terminology and thought models during this early period. The volume will be a key resource for scholars and students interested in the study of religion, Ṣūfī studies, Late Antiquity and Medieval Islam.

Sara Sviri is Professor Emerita at the Department of Arabic and the Department of Comparative Religions of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She had also taught at the Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies, University College London and at The Institute of Jewish Studies, University of Oxford.

Her fields of study include Islamic mysticism, mystical philosophy, comparative aspects of Early Islam, the formative period of Islamic mysticism, Medieval Jewish mysticism and the mystical wisdom of Ibn al-ʿArabī. Her book The Taste of Hidden Things: Images on the Sufi Path was published in 1997. Her comprehensive Sufi Anthology was published in Hebrew in 2008. The Arabic version of the Anthology came out in Beirut by Manshūrāt al-jamal (2016).

Faces of al-aqq

The name and the named

Al-Ḥallāj’s famous cry anā ‘l-aqq (“I am the Truth”) is familiar to readers of Ṣūfī sources and textbooks. The tragic fate of this intoxicated mystic is also well known, although the details of his execution are still debatable: was he crucified or hanged? Was he punished because of this and other scandalous utterances or because he was a political threat to the Abbasid regime in Baghdād?

Whatever the answers to these questions, it is obvious that by such a pronouncement, at least in the minds of its hearers, al-Ḥallāj dared to trespass the realm of divine names; moreover, he dared to appropriate a divine name to himself: I am al-aqq [!] And this, indeed, was scandalous.1

In this chapter, I shall look into meanings and applications of this divine name. From the outset, I note its extraordinary history: Among Ṣūfīs, it became the most popular from among the divine names, often substituting the supreme name ‘Allāh.

Linguistically, its meanings are complex: does it indicate the abstract concept of aqīqa, ‘truth’, and could thus, especially in its ‘divine’ function as ‘Name’, indicate Ultimate Truth, Reality? Or does it primarily associate – as is clearly implied by its plural form uqūq – with the semantic field of law and order, justice, duty, and the moral code? From the outset, therefore, I note the two disparate ‘faces’ (wujūh) of this ‘name’: the metaphysical versus the legalistic.

The grammatical nature of the word aqq, too, renders it susceptible to two different readings: is it an adjective or a noun? As a divine name, al-aqq may be interpreted as a substantive, ‘the Truth’, but in some Qurʾānic occurrences, such as Allāh mawlāhum al-aqq (“Allāh their true Lord” – Q.6:62, 10:30) – it evidently functions as an adjective.

As for its applications – contrary to the conventional Ṣūfī use of al-aqq as the divine name par excellence, what can we make of the contemplative vision of al-Ḥakīm al-Tirmidhī, in which al-aqq, rather than a divine name, is envisaged as a ‘power’ within God’s cosmological hierarchy; a ‘power’ assigned a special position as mediator between God and human beings and in charge of preserving law and order?

Indeed, my interest in al-Ḥakīm al-Tirmidhī’s idiosyncratic mystical vision, while pondering the disparate faces of al-aqq, yielded the following understanding: Based on the semantic association of the verbal root -q-q with law, order and justice, al-Ḥakīm al-Tirmidhī has drawn a binary paradigm in which al-aqq is visualized as the ‘personification’ of the divine aspect of ‘justice’ (ʿadl).

Moreover, in this binary paradigm, al-aqq is situated vis-à-vis a counterpart, the divine aspect of ‘mercy’ (rama, fal). The analogy of these polar antonyms with the Rabbinic notions of dīn and raamīm (Law and Mercy), God’s dual measures, is hard to avoid.2

To the best of my knowledge, within early manifestations of mystical Islam, a binary paradigm, based on the personification of divine names, is unique to al-Ḥakīm al-Tirmidhī.3 Nevertheless, in several of its characteristics it carries echoes of late antique, pre-Islamic traditions, especially tinged with ‘gnostic’ ideas and terminologies. In what follows, I further ponder these questions.

‘The true’ or ‘the truth’?

Traditionally, al-aqq is one of the ninety-nine ‘beautiful names’ of God (al-asmāʾ al-usnā). Although unanimously revered as a divine name, its meaning does not escape exegetical queries. In several Qurʾānic verses, al-aqq can be understood as an attributive adjective related to God: in Q.10:30, for example (wa-ruddū ilā Allāhi mawlāhum al-aqq) it can be straightforwardly understood as “their true Lord”.

Arberry chooses to render it somewhat vaguely as two distinct appositives: “They shall be restored to God, their Protector, the True”. In other verses, al-aqq functions as a predicate of Allāh, implying, as it were, an identity – at least syntactically – between the two. As for the two occurrences in Q.22:6, 22:62 and 31:30, dhālika bi-anna Allāha huwa ’l-aqq, Arberry renders al-aqq as a substantive: “That is because God, He is the Truth”; and Q.24:25: wa-yaʿlamūna anna ‘llāha huwa ‘l-aqq al-mubīn –”and they shall know that God is the manifest Truth”.4 Clearly, this ambiguity stems from the dual

syntactical function of the word aqq: it can be used as either a substantive or an adjective. Furthermore, due to the vast semantic field which the word al-aqq covers – it may relate to concepts such as truth, justice, law, duty, ‘what is dueetc. – there inheres in it also a semantic complexity making an unequivocal grasp of its meaning difficult to ascertain. Lastly, but importantly, the

relationship the ‘divine names’ bear to the ‘divine essence’ opens up a theological and exegetical quandary whether God could be identified with anything other than Himself; in other words, whether God could be conceived as Truth in the first place.

Such traditional prudence can be found, for example, in a modern work titled God of Justice, in which Daud Rahbar (d. 2013) challenges the understanding of al-aqq as substantive, arguing that the abstract concepts of ‘truth’ or ‘reality’, by which certain European translators of the Qurʾān chose to translate al-aqq, impose upon it a metaphysical abstraction which is not implied by the original verses.5

Thus, for example, Q.20:113, Allāhu huwa ’l-aqq, according to Rahbar, should not be understood as “Exalted then be God, the Truth” as in E.H. Palmer’s translation which he cites; but rather as Allāhu huwa [al-ilāh] al-aqq: “God is the true [God]”, namely, as an adjective of an elliptic noun.6

 Linguistically, Rahbar’s observation is legitimate, yet behind it lurks an intention to be in line with traditional exegesis; namely, to avoid any suggestion that God could be identified with anything other than Himself. Such a perspective will shun any implied identification of Allāh, even linguistically, with anything, be it metaphysical and abstract or concrete.7

And yet, in Ṣūfī literature, the name al- aqq – linguistically a stand-alone nominative – was the most widespread and beloved from among all other divine names; in fact, it became the name of God par excellence.8 How, then, did this come about? This grammatical exposition may seem detached from the mystical perspectives at the heart of my enquiry.

However, in laying it down, my wish is to argue that, beyond the linguistic-ideological divide between modern translators and commentators, there also stretches an older divide – based on two disparate radical perspectives – among the mystics themselves.

 I refer to the two concurrent mystical perspectives concerning al-aqq, both radical when compared with traditional perspectives: the one of the third/ninth-century Baghdād Centre of al-Junayd, most probably nurtured by monistic (i.e.

Neoplatonic) ideas; the other the distinctive vision of al-Ḥakīm al-Tirmidhī, most probably nurtured by binary traditions which were widespread in Late Antiquity.

‘Neoplatonic’ monism in classical Ṣūfism: al-Junayd, al-Ḥallāj and the Ṣūfī compilations

As L. Massignon suggests, the traces of the special status accorded to al-aqq in Ṣūfī circles lead to the early third/ninth-century Baghdādī centre headed by Abū ‘l-Qāsim al-Junayd (d. 297/910).9 The appearance and consolidation of this Ṣūfī centre coincides with the circulation of philosophical translations from Greek (via Syriac) into Arabic.

What relates to my enquiry here is the fact that in Arabic translations of philosophical works at the beginning of the ʿAbbasid era, as well as in original philosophical treatises in Arabic inspired by these translations, the concept of al-aqq/al-aqq al-awwal is employed to denote the ultimate, or first, Reality-Truth.

Thus, for example, in an epistle titled The First Philosophy (Kitāb al-Falsafa al-ūlā), the early philosopher Yaʿqūb b. Isḥāq al-Kindī (d. c.250/873) – whose philosophy, in retrospect, may be labelled Neoplatonist – writes to the Caliph al-Muʿtaṣim bi-llāh (d. 227/842):

Every existent derives the cause of its existence and permanence from al-aqq … The noblest and most elevated philosophy in rank is the ‘first philosophy’, namely, the knowledge of the first ‘true one’ (al-aqq al-awwal), for this is the cause of every ‘true thing’ (wa-ʿillat wujūd kull shayʾ wa-thabātihi al-aqq wa- ashrafu ‘l-falsafa wa-aʿlāhā martabatan al-falsafa ‘l-ūlā aʿʿilma ‘l-aqq al-awwal alladhī huwa ʿillat kull aqq).10

This statement echoes the pseudo-Aristotle text known as The Theology of Aristotle (Uthūlūjiyya Arisū), which had been translated into Arabic by al-Ḥimṣī, al-Kindī’s disciple, and was then redacted by al-Kindī himself. As is well known, this text, unbeknown to al-Kindī’s contemporaries, is, in fact, based, on Plotinus’s Enneads.11

In the tenth chapter of this Neoplatonic text, titled “Concerning the First Cause” (fī ‘l-ʿilla ‘l-ūlā), one reads:

The pure One (al-wāid al-maḥḍ) is beyond perfection and completion (huwa fawqa ‘l-tamām wal-kamāl) […] The Intellect has become perfect and complete because it was generated from the Pure True One that is beyond perfection (wa-innamā āra ‘l-ʿaql tāmman kāmilan li-ʾannahu mubtadaʿ min al-wāid al-aqq al- maḥḍ alladhī huwa fawqa al-tamām).12

It is within the Baghdādī Ṣūfī circle of Abū l-Qāsim al-Junayd (d. 298/910), and especially in the writings of al-Junayd himself, that we may find early evidence for the use of al-aqq to denote God as the ultimate, eternal Reality-Truth.13 The following passage, culled from one of al-Junayd’s Epistles, is illuminating.

 In The Book of the Covenant (Kitāb al-Mīthāq), referring to Q.7:172, al-Junayd describes the enigmatic nature of the primordial ‘being’ of the pre-created souls and their total dependence on al- aqq. He writes:

[…God] Glory be to Him declared that He had addressed them [the pre-created souls] when they had not been, except in Him being for them (wa-hum ghayr mawjūdīn illā bi-wujūdihi lahum); for their being had been for al-aqq, without being for themselves (idh kānū wājidīna lil-aqq min ghayr wujūdihim li- anfusihim). At that stage al-aqq had been by al-aqq, in a sense [of being] that cannot be known to anyone but Him and that is attained by none but Him.14

Al-Junayd’s Rasāʾil are replete with statements that imply the mystical, paradoxical nexus of the existence of human beings with the ultimate transcendence of al-aqq. Whether these statements were inspired by contemporary philosophical thought cannot be ascertained.

It is obvious, however, that for al-Junayd, in a fashion reminiscent of contemporary philosophers, al-aqq refers to the Ultimate Truth, the Eternal Reality, the Source of Being.

This may have laid the ground for the third–fourth/ninth–tenth- century mystics of Baghdād, mostly al-Junayd’s disciples, who elevated this name above others. Among his disciples, at least for a period of time, was al-Ḥallāj, whose ecstatic utterance (shaṭḥ) anā ‘l-aqq, “I am al-aqq”, became the best known, or rather the most notorious allusion to the possibility of a nexus between divine and human realities to the point of identification.

This utterance, which is incorporated in the sixth section of al-Ḥallāj’s Kitāb al-awāsīn, daringly expresses the idea that the traces of al- aqq, the divine reality, are to be found in the human existence. He thus writes:

If you do not know Him (in lam taʿrifūhu) Know His traces; (fa-iʿrafū āthārahu)

I am that trace (wa-anā dhālika ‘l-athar) I am al-aqq (wa-anā ‘l-aqq)

For I have never ceased (li-annī mā ziltu abadan) Being real by the Real (bil-aqq aqqan).15

Such ecstatic utterances (shaaāt) resulted not only in al-Ḥallāj’s trial and execution, but also in his condemnation by his fellow Baghdādī Ṣūfīs, most notably by al-Junayd himself.16 Strikingly, in his Epistles, al-Junayd expresses his mystical vision of timelessness and spacelessness with boldness remarkably similar to that of al-Ḥallāj. For example, in a letter to Yaḥyā b. Muʿādh al-Rāzī (d. 258/872), al-Junayd showers upon his recipient profuse blessings pointing to the latter’s primordial, eternal state of existence beyond time and space (al-azal, al-azaliyya). He writes:

May you abide in timelessness, be witness to timelessness in its timelessness (Fa-lā zilta fī ‘l-azal shāhida ‘l- azal fī azaliyyatihi). May the Eternal always be your support for that [of your eternity] which has passed (wa-lā zāla ‘l-azal yakūnu laka muʾayyidan limā zāla minka). Then you will be in the state in which you were before you were (fa-kunta bi-aythu kunta kamā lam takun) … In this state – where is He, whose ‘wherenesshas no ‘where’? (fa-ayna mā lā ayna li-aynihi).17

As for the perplexing question of God’s ‘whereness’ (ayna), al-Ḥallāj’s poetic verses read extraordinarily similar to al-Junayd’s articulation. Al-Ḥallāj writes: “For You, ‘where’ has no ‘where’/there, where You are, there is no ‘where’ (fa-laysa li ‘l-ayni minka aynun/wa-laysa aynun bi-aythu anta)”.18

Al-aqq in the elevated sense of God as Ultimate Reality and Truth has proliferated in the Ṣūfī compilations of the fourth/tenth century, often in citations of earlier mystics of the third/ninth century. A telling example is culled from Abū Naṣr al-Sarrāj’s (d. 378/988) Kitāb al-Lumaʿ.

In the chapter devoted to the explanation of special idioms (alfā) current in Ṣūfī parlance, al-Sarrāj explains the idiom ‘al-aqq bi ‘l-aqq li ‘l-aqq’ thus: “al-aqq is Allāh” (fal-aqq huwa Allāh ʿazza wa-jalla).

He then goes on to cite Abū Saʿīd al-Kharrāz (d. 286/899), who describes man’s intimacy with God in these words: “A worshipper, placed with al-aqq, by al-aqq, for al-aqq […] (ʿabd mawqūf maʿa ‘l-aqq bi ‘l-aqq li ‘l- aqq […])”, for which al-Sarrāj offers an unequivocal interpretation: “With Allāh, by Allāh, for Allāh”.19

Al-Sulamī, too, in his aqāʾiq al-tafsīr, records exegetical statements such as the following, commenting on Q.13:39, yamū Allāhu mā yashāʾu wa-yuthbitu: “Allāh obliterates what He wills and establishes [what He wills]”. Abū Bakr al-Wāsiṭī (d. c.320/932), substituting Allāh with al-aqq, says: “There are those for whom al-aqq strives and has obliterated them from their lower selves by His Self (minhum man jadda bihim al-aqq wa-maāhum ʿan nufūsihim bi-nafsihi)”.20

In fact, the diffusion of al-aqq as the divine name par excellence in al-Sarrāj’s and al-Sulamī’s works reflects a deep-rooted and well- established use in classical Ṣūfī lore at large.

semantics and mystical linguistics

Alongside the abstract metaphysical sense of Truth and Reality, aqq has also an ethical-legalistic connotation. The verbal root -q-q is intrinsically associated with legal and moral religious concepts such as judgement, justice and moral conduct. Etymologically, it can be linked to its Hebrew cognate, which means ‘to engrave’, ‘to give out laws’, as, for example, in Ezra 7:10: “For Ezra had prepared his heart to seek the Law of the Lord […] and to teach statutes and ordinances [in Hebrew: oq u-mishpat] in Israel” (NKJV).21 In Arabic, derivatives of the root -q-q occur profusely in sources pertaining to the

 religious Islamic lore to denote rights and duties, dues, and divine precepts, as well as the religious law at large. God’s precepts, legal and moral, are named uqūq Allāh – the duties which man is obliged to

fulfil towards God; whereas uqūq al-nās and uqūq al-nisāʾ are rights and duties between man and his fellow men and women.22

The early Qurʾān commentator Muqātil b. Sulaymān (d. 150/767), in his al-Wujūh wal-naāʾir fī ‘l- Qurʾān al-ʿaīm (Meanings and Aspects in the Venerable Qurʾān), devotes to al-aqq a special entry, in which he draws out of Qurʾānic passages eleven meanings of the term, among them Allāh [!], the Qurʾān, Islam, justice (adl), sincerity (idq), guidance (hudā), religion (dīn) – all in opposition to il, namely false, falsehood, and hence polytheism (shirk).23 Likewise, in Taḥṣīl naāʾir al-Qurʾān (Attaining the Qurʾānic Connotations), al-Ḥakīm al-Tirmidhī assigns to al-aqq an entry in which, similarly to Muqātil, he enumerates the term’s various connotations (wujūh).24 An examination of the two works side by side reveals that, first, al-Tirmidhī was indeed acquainted with Muqātil’s work to the point of somewhat simulating it; second, al-Tirmidhī’s work, in fact, challenges Muqātil’s methodology.

For the former, merely listing the various semantic connotations (wujūh, naāʾir) of a term is pointless. One rather needs to examine the connotations of a word in order to look for its unifying meaning, since all connotations of a specific word relate to a single essential meaning that lies at its root.

Thus, for example, the first entry in both Muqātil’s and al-Tirmidhī’s works is guidance (al-hudā). Muqātil lists seventeen different connotations and al-Tirmidhī fifteen (although in the introduction to this entry he says that he will propose eighteen). At the end of his list, al-Tirmidhī makes the following statement:

All these things, which have become meanings with sub-meanings, resort to one word [only]; for al-hudā [essentially] means the leaning of the heart towards God.

(fa-marjaʿ hādhihi ‘l-ashyāʾ allatī ārat wujūhan dhāt shiʿab ilā kalima wāida li-anna ‘l-hudā huwa maylu ‘l- qalb ilā ‘llāh).25

All connotations of a concept, therefore, stem from one single source, or rather, in his own idiom, from one single ‘word’.26

In this light, al-Tirmidhī defines al-aqq as that which inheres in everything within the framework of God’s command, by which God imposed worship upon men (al-aqq qad tamakkana fī kull shayʾ min amri ‘llāh alladhī taʿabbada bihi ‘l-ʿibād); namely, al-aqq is the divine command that programmes all man’s activities.27 The following connotations, he writes, inhere within the concept of al-aqq: 1) God;28

2) the monotheistic principle of tawīd;29 3) the mission of the prophets (al-risāla);30 4) the prophet Muḥammad;31 5) the Qurʾān;32 6) the religious law (al-sharīʿa);33 7) duties and rights towards God by which man is bound (uqūq Allāh);34 and 8) duties and rights of man towards his fellow man (uqūq al- nās).35

In toto, these semantic aspects point to the association of al-aqq with all pragmatic and ethical aspects of the religious life. According to al-Tirmidhī, therefore, from the single fundamental concept (kalima) of al-aqq, both God’s command and man’s corresponding response issue.

The idea of a single, fundamental meaning at the root of all connotations of al-aqq, reflects yet another layer in al-Ḥakīm al-Tirmidhī’s teaching of the nature of al-aqq: Rather than a sheer abstract concept, it becomes a personified divine power, a hypostasis commissioned by God to instruct, supervise and guide man’s conduct in all levels of life. Such personification, which al-Tirmidhī exhibits throughout his works, singles him out from among his contemporaries.

Al-aqq and the friends of God

Al-Ḥakīm al-Tirmidhī was neither a philosopher nor a theoretician. The ideas which he laid down in his works, he claimed, were the product of mystical ‘seeing’ rather than intellectual speculation – in fact, those who talk about things divine out of rehearsed knowledge. However, to reconstruct his vision of al-aqq methodically req

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