Boundlessness and Enclosures

• Apr 16th, 2009 • Category: Works By Soroush

(Forms and Formlessness 5 )

This is the published version of the last of a five-part series of talks given by Dr Soroush under the general heading “Surat va bi-Surati” (Forms and Formlessness). This fifth part was published in the November-December 2001 edition of the now-banned journal Aftab.  It also includes the question and answer session that followed the talk.


This time, I would like to talk about what Mowlana Jalaleddin Rumi’s conception, impression and understanding of religion was; what religiosity meant to him; and what role religiosity played in his life and in shaping his personality.

From the elements and components of religious knowledge, we’ve chosen to look at the theory of God.  In the divine and Abrahamic religions, the richest element is the element of divinity, and all the concepts that prophets brought us obtain their meaning with reference to this pivotal concept.

When I discussed the Prophetic mission, as well as on other occasions, I drew your attention to the fact that the most important thing that all prophets – and especially the noble Prophet of Islam – did was to give people’s lives a new meaning and fulcrum.  Prophets didn’t change the outward shape of people’s lives.  They didn’t even bring them a new rationality.  They didn’t instigate a rational rupture in people’s knowledge. No, the important thing that they did was to take people’s faces and turn them from one direction to another.  They redirected people’s eyes to new vistas and poured a new meaning into the terminology and vocabulary of people’s lives.  This was the main thing that prophets did.  And the new meaning and the new fulcrum was, precisely, the concept of God and godliness, which arrived on the scene, took pride of place and gave a new meaning to all the previous husks and outward appearances.

So, whenever we speak about religious understanding, we will not have said all that there is to say and we will not have completed our investigation unless we refer to this extremely important and determining concept and explain where we stand with respect to it.  This also holds true about our own personal religiosity.  Whenever someone wants to examine what the nature of their own religiosity is and to what extent they’re truly religious and observant, they have to look at their own relationship with God and see what kind relationship they have established, in their heart and soul, with what they know as God.  This is the pivotal component of religiosity and everything else is woven around it and nourished by it.  Whenever someone wants to assess their own religiosity, they shouldn’t look at the extent to which they perform the ritual prayers and observe outward rites;  they should look at their heartfelt relationship with what they know as God (although rites and rituals are also important in their own place).  This relationship also determines an individual’s conduct and seeps into their actions.  It makes them sensitive to religion’s prescriptions and proscriptions.  It affects their moral conduct and demeanour.  The fulcrum of religiosity and the inward element of religiosity and religious observance is the extent to which God is present in one’s being and the extent to which one has internalized spirituality and godliness.  This is where religiosity in the true sense manifests itself.

This godliness and spirituality has to be measured and examined in the case of Rumi and in the case of anyone who has religious experiences, such as prophets.  The main point as far as Rumi was concerned – and he expressed it in numerous ways – was that this world is the world of forms.  Not just the material world, but also the world of our concepts, cognition and perception is the world of forms, whereas God is formless.  And our world of forms originates from that formlessness.


The sea and the jug


The relationship between this world and God is the relationship between forms and formlessness:  “Form emerged from that Formlessness / And, in the end, it is to This that we return”.

Rumi conveyed and expressed this idea in very many ways; the idea that the world of the Almighty is formless and featureless, whereas this world is the world of forms and features;  that reflection about the Almighty bewilders us because knowledge attaches itself to forms, facets and features.  When we’re faced with a featureless being, we can only react with bewilderment.  Bewilderment means drowning in something that we cannot grasp conceptually and cognitively.  In our encounter with God, we’re bewildered.  Mystics like Rumi even advised people not to spend too much time seeking apparent learning, especially philosophy and theology, because it would rob them of bewilderment and give them a false sense of understanding causes.  These fields claim to teach people the secrets and causes of events.  Hence, in these fields, the world leaves behind formlessness and featurelessness, and appears in the guise of forms, features and chains of causes and effects, robbing people of bewilderment.  Rumi was of the view that this loss of bewilderment reduces one’s knowledge of God; a knowledge that is intermingled with bewilderment or is bewilderment.

As to how forms emerge from formlessness, this is one of the world’s secrets; a secret that we can recognize as such without understanding it in depth and unravelling it fully.  This is something of which the mechanism, routes and channels are totally hidden to us.  We know, in brief, that limited beings have come forth from a boundless Being and are reliant on Him and belong to Him.  But the means of this coming forth and the means of this reliance and belonging are hidden to us.  This is, precisely, the boundary or meeting point between the natural and the supernatural, and it is an area that is laden with secrets.  One example of this secret-laden area is the relationship between the body and the soul.  And a bigger example is the relationship between nature and the supernatural or the physical and the metaphysical, and, in particular, the relationship between something that has a form and something that lacks form, something that is delineated and something that is not delineated, and the way in which one can emerge from the other.

The form that we’re talking about here doesn’t only apply to material forms; it applies to all forms and anything that’s delineated and defined, even scientific and conceptual notions.  All the concepts that we have are defined, specific concepts. This is what we mean by delineated and defined; any concept that we have consists of that concept and not some other concept.  Since God is infinite, formless and boundless, no form or delineation can apply to Him.  Any concept is that concept itself;  it cannot step beyond itself.  This is what we mean by having a form and being defined.  A human being is a human being; a human being isn’t a pigeon.  And a pigeon isn’t a sparrow.  And a sparrow isn’t a pigeon. Any being is that being.  This is what we mean by defined.  But God is not defined;  i.e., we can’t say God is this and nothing but this. He’s everything.  This is what formless means in God’s case.  You cannot draw a line around God and say:  God is within this perimeter and, beyond the perimeter, there are other things, such as human beings, trees, material entities and so on.  This isn’t the case.  You cannot draw any kind of boundary around God.  You cannot say:  Up to this point is God’s terrain and, beyond this point, it’s not God’s terrain.  In this sense, God encompasses everything.  Everything is within Him and within His being.  If we view things in any other way, we’ve limited God.  In Rumi’s words:  “Everything that you can imagine is worldly / and that which you cannot imagine is God”.

The fact that God cannot appear in our imagination means that none of the concepts that we have corresponds to Him; no concept can encompass Him fully and tell us everything about Him.  If it were otherwise, then God would be delineated and have a form.  Being delineated and having a form is inconsistent with God’s boundlessness.  This is why God is beyond our thoughts and imagination.  We just have a name to denote God, but the name cannot delineate Him.  Hence, in the actual world, we have no name that can convey God’s substance and we have no concept that reflects His being.  We’re like people who hear a faint call from a distance.  Be that as it may, we know that all these forms and defined things have come forth from that undefined being.  This is why our mysticism bears so much affection for things that have no specific shape or form but can take different shapes.  The language of mysticism is a figurative and allusive language.  It speaks of forms so that, through them, you can learn about the formless. Things such as water, light and even the wind have been some of these favoured means, because light itself, on the face of it, has no specific shape or place but it can take different shapes.  The same is true of water.  Water, in itself, has no boundary or form but it can be poured into vessels, thus taking different shapes.  This is why Rumi was so fond of light and water and the sea and the sun.  People who were unfamiliar with Rumi’s thought have said in some of their writings that Rumi acquired his love of the sun’s light from Mitraism and Zoroastrianism and the like.  Observations of this kind are very superficial.  It’s even been said that Rumi loved Shams-e Tazbrizi because he was named after the sun (shams) and that this shows that, in the back of his mind, Rumi had Zoroastrian views and so on.  These suggestions show a lack of familiarity with Rumi’s spirit and thought.  Light is dear to Rumi because it is formless.  It is something that seems to have no boundaries but can take different shapes.  Water or the sea is dear because it is formless and extends boundlessly in every direction, because it is translucent and gentle, because it is forgiving. But it can take different shapes.

“If you pour the sea into a jug / the amount that you have will last you a day”

This is precisely the tale of God and this world.  It is as if each one of us and each and every being is like a jug and God has poured Himself into each jug in keeping with its size. The bigger the jug, the bigger its share of godliness and fellowship with Him.

“The one light of the sun / divides up into every house / If the walls come tumbling down / then, the believers will all stand as one”

The same can be said of the relationship between the sun and houses.  When we build houses, the light is divided up, a bit shines into this house, another bit shines into the next house and so on.  But if we remove the walls and the enclosures, a single light will appear and we’ll become acquainted with light’s unity, vastness and boundlessness.


Numerousness, dissonance


“Eyes are like coloured  bits of glass / unto which shine the rays of the sun / be the glass red, yellow or green / so the sun’s rays will appear therein”

The sun’s light is uniform, but when it passes through a prism or, in Jaami’s words, when it passes through coloured bits of glass, it appears in these colours.  Hence, we have different colours because light has acquired an external definition, delineation and form, but before taking on these forms, it was colourless.  This is the same formulation that we saw in Rumi too:  “When colour colourlessness seizes / Moses comes to blows with Moses / When we return to that colourlessness / Pharaoh is reconciled with Moses”.

Colourlessness is seized by colour; in other words, it becomes coloured.  The colours that we see in this world are the delineations of colourlessness, which is originally undelineated.  This is why someone like Rumi loved light.  Light symbolizes a colourless, undelineated, boundless being, which is broken up into pieces when it is seized by size, delineation and colour, so that it becomes afflicted with numerousness and even opposition and dissonance.  But this numerousness and dissonance is incidental and can be resolved.  When you look at the essence, you see that there is none of this numerousness and dissonance.  This is also true of water and the sea.  “We’re from the sea and to the sea we flow / We’re from above and to there we’ll float / We’re not from this place nor from that / We’re from nowhere and to there we’ll go”.

“Above” means beyond numerousness and opposites.  The prime, distinguishing feature of this world is that it is a world of numerousness and opposites. It is a world that is afflicted with dissonance; you’ll either see numerousness in it or individuals/things that are clashing and in conflict.  But when you transcend this and rise above it, you’ll arrive at a level and an aspect of the world that doesn’t display any of this numerousness and dissonance.  “We’re from above” means that we’re forms – as we said earlier – that have emerged from formlessness. And it goes without saying that we’ll be returning to whence we came.

Closeness and farness, left and right, north and south are all attributes of the delineated world that we live in.  The world from which this world has emerged has no south or east or west.  These are attributes that come into being in this world.  Anything that admits of opposites belongs to this world.  There is absolutely nothing in the world “above” that can take on the hue of opposites;  otherwise, it wouldn’t be formless.  Anything that can be the opposite of something else – even if it is kindness – is this-worldly.  When we talk about God’s love, it isn’t a love that’s defined as the opposite of hate;  it is of another fabric, which doesn’t admit of numbers or opposites. The same can be said of God’s unity.  When we say that God is One, this oneness is not the kind of oneness that can be contrasted with two-ness or three-ness.  Otherwise, God’s unity would be a numerical unity;  whereas, God’s unity is a “non-numerical unity” as Western philosophers would put it or  “true unity” as our philosophers would say.  True oneness means a kind of oneness that cannot be contrasted with two-ness;  otherwise, it would fall into the realm of opposites and step into the world “below”.  God’s unity is non-numerical, just as any other attribute of God belongs to the world “above” and is beyond this-worldly numbers and opposites. This was why Rumi loved the sea and water.  The sea gives us a sense of boundlessness.  The sea has many attributes that make mystics love it.  It is not only boundless,  it is also awesome and forgiving.  It is also impervious to human life.  It is also deep and full of secrets.  But one of the reasons why it is emblematic to mystics is that, whilst it is formless, it can take on different forms.  This quality makes it impossible for mystics to overlook the sea and water.

“Undulate, undulate, for we’re a sea of dictums / other than love, other than love, we have no purpose.”

Being a sea of dictums is the attribute of a mystic; undulating endlessly, being boundless and striving to move closer to boundlessness and formlessness.  On the basis of this metaphor, we can also understand our mystics’ utterances about perishing. Perishing means a drop of water joins the sea. This doesn’t mean that the drop perishes;  it means that it becomes submerged in something that’s boundless.  Perishing doesn’t mean being destroyed.  What kind of longing would this be for us to have?  Being destroyed means losing all the excellent qualities that we have, which would amount to no excellence at all.  The height of excellence is when we preserve our excellent qualities whilst, at the same time, joining a boundless excellence.  This is what perishing means. Perishing doesn’t by any means mean disappearing, ceasing to exist and being reduced to zero.  Even on those occasions when mystics have spoken about the disappearance of attributes, they’ve been referring to the disappearance of human attributes; that is to say, the veils and impediments that prevent people from connecting to boundlessness.  A shadow that moves into light or a drop of water that joins the sea; these are the metaphors that our great mystics have used for vanishing and perishing.


The reed pipe


The first metaphor and image that you come across in Rumi’s Masnavi is the reed pipe.  Why was the reed pipe so dear to Rumi and why did he liken himself to it?  A great deal has been written on this subject and many different views expressed, but the clearest and most plausible is that Rumi saw himself in the guise of a reed pipe:  “Listen to this reed pipe’s plaints / and the tale of separation that it tells / since they chopped me off of the stem / I’ve intoned every human being’s laments”.

Why did Rumi see himself as a reed pipe?  Because he saw God as the wind or a breeze.  This, too, is an emblem of formlessness.  It is an unknown, coming from we-know-not-where.  You just feel it brushing against your face.  You don’t see anyone.  You can’t see the wind.  You can’t grasp it in your hand.  But you can sense it; you can understand that something is happening and that a wind is brushing against your face, especially so because, on occasion, it carries the scent of the beloved.  And, in addition to its boundlessness and formlessness, which, for mystics, makes it an emblem of the beloved – like water and the sea and light and the sun – the wind can also take on a delineation;  that is to say, it can take different forms.  And it does this when it enters different-sized reed pipes;  just like when water enters different-sized jugs and just like light that can shine through different-coloured bits of glass.  You find precisely this quality in the wind and in a breath:  “The breath that the piper blows into the pipe / isn’t the size of the piper but the pipe”.  This is precisely the point that Rumi has focused on.  He says:  I’m speaking; the piper is breathing into the pipe.  The breath is formless and undelineated, but the moment it enters the pipe, it becomes delineated.  It takes on a form and shape.  So, you hear different tones and tunes.  Hence, you mustn’t think that what comes out of the pipe is exactly what went into it.  Something undelineated goes into the pipe and something delineated comes out of it: “The breath that the piper blows into the pipe / isn’t the size of the piper but the pipe”.

What Rumi is telling us is this:  The piper is blowing – the breath is formless and undelineated – and, in this way, I speak.  The moment the breath enters the reed pipe, it becomes delineated and creates different tunes.  So, you mustn’t imagine that what goes into the pipe is precisely what comes out of it.  Something undelineated goes into the pipe and something delineated comes out of it.  The sound that comes out of the pipe is in keeping with the pipe not the piper, who has blown an undelineated breath into the pipe.

But can we reach that undelineated boundlessness?  Yes, but only when we’ve relinquished being a pipe.  But can we relinquish being a pipe?  This was mystics’ eternal longing.  They’d say:  Would that this pipe didn’t exist so that we could hear the sound straight from the piper’s mouth.  Would that there was no intermediary in the form of the pipe.  But, if we lost our attributes and ceased to be a pipe, then, we’d be in the position that Khayyam described:  “The secrets of eternity neither you can know nor I / the explanation is one that neither you can read nor I /  The phrases all come to us from behind a veil / and when the veil falls away neither you remain nor I”.  To want this is to want the impossible.  When we exist, the veil exists.  In fact, we and the veil are one and the same.  If we long for the impossible and ask that the veil falls away, we’re asking that we cease to be:  “You’re your own veil, Hafez / fall away”.  These are things that our mystics have conveyed to us in various ways.

So, one’s breath or the wind is another symbol of the beloved for our mystics and we find it, in particular, in Rumi’s works.  It is a very expressive metaphor, revealing the extent of human beings’ closeness to God.  It is as if human beings, especially prophets and those who love God, are pipes held to God’s lips.  “If I sidle up to my breath-maker’s lips / like a reed pipe, I’ll tell so many tales”.

When does the reed pipe start to speak?  When it is next to and close to the breath-maker’s lips.  Two ideas are conveyed here:  one is a kind of proximity and communion, and, the other, is the action and the blowing of the breath.  Hence, these two things are needed for the reed pipe to start telling its tales.  This is what Rumi is saying to us:  The words of prophets, lovers, mystics and people who have stepped into the blaze pour forth when they are in close proximity to their breath-maker’s lips.  It is in these circumstances that, in Rumi’s words:  “I have ever so many things to say / Should I speak or should I refrain?”  But when they move away from the breath-maker’s lips, they dry up, they fall silent; even that delineated wind and breath doesn’t blow and flow through them.

In Rumi’s works, you find many references to eating and feasting on light:  “If you ever eat the victual of light / You’ll come to scorn ovens and bread”.  He advises us to be like eyes so that we can feast on light.  He says that light is the food of angels.

As for the wind, it is really a strange thing;  that is to say, for mystics, it gives a sense of being far away from home, of drifting and being lost, of being on a journey and also of boundless and featurelessness.  You find its aspect of drifting and being lost in Hafez when he said:  “The poor wind and I are as lost as two drifters / I’m drunk from the magic of your eyes and it, from the scent of your hair”.  You find its aspect of featurelessness in Rumi (as in the breath that is blown into the reed pipe).  And you can find its aspect of being far away from home and being on a journey in the contemporary poet Sohrab Sepehri’s  works (e.g. “And I’m a traveller, O, incessant winds / take me to the immensity of leaves’ edifice”). I want to use this as a footbridge to the deepest layers of mystical thinking about God.  Here, you gradually sense that a mystic’s view of the sea, light and the wind is a divine and godly view.  The mystic sees and reads subcutaneous layers in these things that ordinary eyes cannot see and read.  And these are only the things that these great figures have perceived and recounted to us.  These are the things that have been highlighted by them.  I want to tell you this:  everything is like the light, the wind and the sea of which they speak.  If Rumi had been drawn to other aspects of the world, he would have drawn our attention to these other aspects in the way that he did the sun and the sea.  The Masnavi contains nearly 2,000 references to water, the sea, light and the sun.  This repetition reveals Rumi’s preoccupation with these things.  It shows very clearly that, in the daily shining of the sun, he saw the manifest face of God.  If he made love to the light, he was making love to God. If he went to stand by the sea, he stood on the shore of God’s being;  not metaphorically, but truly.  “Mystics have a collyrium that you must seek / then, your eyes will find the sea like a stream”.

Rumi had collyrium-daubed eyes;  so, everything that he saw revealed otherworldly things to him.  He didn’t argue that the existence of this-worldly things proved the existence of God, in the way that philosophers do.  He didn’t see the sea and the sun and conclude, on this basis, that there must be a God who created the sea and the sun.  He did believe this, but there was more to what he was saying:  “O my friend, would you choose sugar over the sugar-maker? / Do you prefer the moon to the moon-maker? / Leave the sugar! Leave the moon! / There’s so much more to what He is and what He makes!”


Cause and effect?


Rumi said that God makes sugar and all that’s sweet, of course;  but what he said went beyond these things.  He didn’t reason from the existence of the wind, the sun and water to the existence of God.  To him, these things were God.  Just imagine, if God wanted to descend from “above” and to go on a walkabout, what form would He appear in?  Rumi’s answer was: in the form of the sea, the sun, the wind.  You will find this point in the scientific works of Kepler, who was someone who worshipped the sun and was something of a mystic:  if God wanted to choose a seat and a position for Himself in this world, no seat and no position would be as suitable as the sun.  For a Christian like Kepler, it would not be too strange to think of God turning up and taking up a position in the material world.  But for us Muslims – with the pristine notion that we have of God – of course it is inappropriate and unpalatable to think of God setting up house on a planet or a star or in any material location. But if we take a more mystical view and opt for a simplified way of expressing ourselves – which, of course, distorts the meaning to some extent – we can say that, from the perspective of someone like Rumi, if God were to appear in this world in some material form, He would undoubtedly appear as light or the sea.  The best way in which God could reveal Himself would be in the form of the sea, light, the sun, the wind or air. It is in this sense that a mystic becomes enchanted with these things.  Symbolizing or representing something means having some kind of affinity and closeness to it and being like it in some way; conveying some information about it. And the information is not rational-reasoned information, but perceived-intuited information; so that, if you sit next to it, you get a whiff of the unseen beloved’s scent.

For Rumi, if God were to appear in some form, what could be better than the sea?  What better than light and the sun?  What better than the wind?  So, when the wind blew against his face, when light shined on his eyes, when he stood by the sea, it was as if God Himself was standing there in full majesty; not standing beyond them, but standing in them.  In this way, he would find himself directly and personally face-to-face with the formless beloved who had, for the time being, appeared in this form.  This is what we call the elucidatory or mystical perspective.

As I’ve said before, when Rumi addresses God, when he speaks of his relationship to God, he resorts to various examples and illustrations.  One illustration is the relationship between spring and a lush, green garden.   Rumi says that God is like spring, which has no shape or form.  But when it manifests itself, it appears as trees, grass, flowers and the scent of spring.  These things are the apparent form of spring, but spring itself is eternal.  Trees, grass and flowers may wither away and die.  This or that garden may blossom and perish.  But formless spring is eternal and determining, and it always manifests itself in some form or another.  Another example is joy.  Joy has no shape or form that you can think of.  But, when it appears, it takes the form of laughter.  God is joy, which is formless.  When the joy takes on a form, when it appears in some guise, it appears as laughter.

We can say one of two things about these two relationships; i.e., the relationship between laughter and joy, and between a garden and spring.  First, we can say that the laughter is the result of or, as philosophers would put it, the effect of joy.  The joy first appears in someone, as a cause;  then, they break into laughter.  Secondly, we can say that the laughter is not the effect of joy; it is joy that has taken on a form.  It is something formless that has taken on a form. It is not a question of a relationship between cause and effect, but a relationship between a thing and the thing itself.  There’s a difference between these two relationships. An effect is not the same thing as its cause;  it comes forth from it.  This is what philosophers maintain at any rate. Or let’s say it is the prevalent view among philosophers and theologians.  We’ll set aside Mulla Sadra’s school of thought for the moment, because Mulla Sadra’s view in this respect is very similar to mystics’ views.  For now, we’re looking at cause and effect in Peripatetic philosophy.  Here, there is a cause and there is an effect.  The effect is separate from the cause.  But it is totally dependent on the cause in terms of its origin.  In other words, the effect will not occur in the absence of the cause.  If we say, laughter is the effect of joy and a lush garden is the effect of spring, we’re saying that there are two things that are separate, but that the second (the effect) is dependent on the first.  This is our understanding of our relationship with our parents.  We are their effect, but we are separate and independent beings.  But they were the precondition for our coming into existence.  In other words, were it not for them, we wouldn’t exist.  But, if we say that laughter is joy that has stepped down from its elevated position to move closer to us, here, we have nothing other than a descent.  Joy hasn’t created something that is other than itself;  it has simply stepped down and descended a bit in order to become accessible to us.  Here, it is a relationship between a thing and the thing itself, not a relationship between a thing and an other.


Mystics versus philosophers


Mystics are of the view that this world is not the effect of God, it is a descent or stepping down by God.  In other words, God has brought Himself down a bit in order to be accessible to us.  You will find exactly this view in Mulla Sadra’s school of thought.  God brings Himself down to the level of objects and performs the same actions as the objects do.  In fact, objects are nothing other than or separate from God.  How could we possibly imagine that there could be objects that God would then bring Himself down to reach? This is an unacceptable idea.  His descent is the coming into existence of the objects.  It is not as if the objects first exist and then He descends to their level.  His descent is the coming into existence of the objects down below.  If we take this perspective, then, the notion of cause and effect falls away and is replaced by the notion of pure reality and attenuated reality (as mystics would put it).  This world is the attenuated form of pure reality;  in other words, we have a thicker level and a thinner level.  When the thicker, purer Almighty descends and becomes attenuated, He appears in the shapes and forms that we see all around us.  In Rumi’s words, Truth and Reality didn’t increase when God created the world; nothing exists now that didn’t exist before.  The fact that God created things doesn’t mean that these things were added to the universe, although this may be the commonly-held view.  We say:  There was a time when there was God and nothing else;  now, there is God and millions of other things.  This is the commonly-held view.  But Rumi says:  In the act of creation, God didn’t add anything to God/Truth/Reality.  God is still God and everything is as it was.  Before, there was God and nothing but God;  now, too, it is the same.  The world is filled with one being – not billions of beings – and that being is God.  It is our plurality-seeing vision that gives us the sense that there are billions of beings in the world.  The world is filled with just one being, everything else is within Him and part of his layers and gradations.  This was one of the reasons – although not the only reason – why Rumi was so irritated by philosophers and theologians’ preoccupation with cause and effect.  Rumi would say that the word “cause” should not be applied to God and that if someone rises high enough, in terms of gradations of religiosity, he will reach a level where he won’t ask about a prime cause or unmoved mover.  This was one of Rumi’s disagreements and quarrels with philosophers and theologians.  He said: You philosophers and theologians worship the prime cause or the unmoved mover, but that’s not who we worship.  “Unmoved mover” is an Aristotelian term and it was also taken up and used by Muslim philosophers.

Peripatetic philosophy maintained that, if we probe further and further in this world, which is the world of causes and effects, we’ll arrive at the cause of causes; i.e., the cause that is the first in the chain of causes and is not itself the effect of any cause.  Philosophers maintained that that this cause of causes or the unmoved mover was what prophets had presented to people as God – although no prophet had used the word “cause”.  And if you read the Qur’an, you won’t find a single instance of this word in it.  This kind of philosophical terminology doesn’t exist in the Qur’an.  Expressions such as “necessary existence”, “self-existence”, “unmoved mover” and the like were coined by philosophers.  But philosophers would conflate or equate what prophets had said and the terminology that they (philosophers) used.  They would say:  Prophets haven’t mentioned “unmoved mover” or “necessary existence”, but the God that they invited us to worship is the same thing as the unmoved mover or the self-existent being.  In other words, philosophers equated these two things.  This sparked off a protracted dispute between philosophers and mystics and religious chroniclers over whether this equivalence was valid or not.  In fact, this is how the question arises as to whether religion can be made philosophical or understood philosophically.  You take one concept (“God”) and you replace it with another concept (“unmoved mover” / “self-existent being”/ “prime cause”) and you say that the two are one and the same.   This being the case, it makes no difference whether you say, “I worship the unmoved mover” or “I worship All-Knowing, All-Hearing, All-Seeing, Merciful God”.  This was the philosophers’ view.  On the other side stood our religious chroniclers and, especially, our mystics, who strongly opposed this view.  It has been stated in the shari’ah that God’s names are preclusive.  That is to say, people cannot just invent new names for God;  they must stop at the names that the Lawmaker has stated and not go any further.  It has been stated in religion that God is Merciful and, so, we describe Him as Merciful.  The same can be said of “All-Hearing”, “All-Seeing”, “Almighty”, “All-Knowing” and so on.  But we’re not allowed to add other names to these.  “The unmoved mover” hasn’t been mentioned in the shari’ah.  Can you think of any prayer that begins with, “O, Unmoved Mover!  O, Prime Cause!”?

Our mystics have said that, since God’s names are preclusive, we mustn’t give him any other names or address Him by any other names in our prayers.  We have to limit ourselves to the names that we find in our religion.  There is a rationale to them.  God has even been called Most-Learned but He hasn’t been called a teacher; this isn’t one of God’s names.  I’m not saying that God is not a teacher, but addressing God as “O, Teacher!” is, on the face of it, inappropriate.  Of course, if we go by what our mystics and chroniclers have said, All-Hearing and All-Seeing do appear as God’s names.  And hearing and seeing are two of our senses.  But touching has not been mentioned.  We don’t address God as “O, All-Touching!”  As to why we can say “All-Hearing” but not “All-Touching”, there must be some hidden rationale.

Someone like Rumi and other mystics would speak out against the designations that philosophers and theologians had coined for God.  They were of the view that these terms and expressions produced an impression and an understanding of God that would drive away the mystical and prophetic impression and understanding, and would prevent people from arriving at a true grasp of God.  Rumi said:  “Once a man has been born again / upon causes he’ll stamp his feet / He’ll pray not to the prime cause / Causes will form no part of his creed”.

By communing with God, purifying his being and striving to become a Perfect Man, a man can be born again.  “Born again” is a Christian notion.  In the Bible, Christ is quoted as having said it several times.  Those who are born again will go to heaven.  Rumi said that someone who is born again will shun causes and cast away the idea of God as the prime cause.  “He’ll pray not to the prime cause.”


God’s unity


But why isn’t God the prime cause?  One reason – the one that Rumi has in mind in these verses – is that presenting God as a cause brings in an aspect of determination.  Rumi says that cause is something that, want it or not, produces an outcome.  A cause cannot prevent its own outcome from happening.  Fire burns and if it doesn’t burn, it’s not fire.  Fire causes burning.  And light causes illumination.  You can’t say:  Sometimes light feels like illuminating things and sometimes it doesn’t feel like it.  If light is light, it will per force illuminate.

Mystics, such as Rumi, say that if we call God a cause, we impose a kind of determination on Him.  We bind His will and tie His hands, so to speak.   We also find this idea in the Qur’an: “The Jews have said, ‘God’s hand is fettered.’ Fettered are their hands and they are cursed for what they have said. Nay, but His hands are Outspread; He expends how He will.” (Al-Ma’idah, 64) The Jews said that God’s hands are tied;  once He’s created the world, He can no longer impinge on it.  The Qur’an curses them and says that it’s the Jews’ hands that are tied; God’s hands are open.  No cause or effect or law or rule bars God.  We can’t say that when God come up against this or that philosophical rule, He must back down and submit to it.  And we can’t say that there are imperatives that govern His being which He cannot escape.  These statements conflict with God’s omnipotence.  This was why Rumi said that God cannot be called the prime cause.  But there’s another reason too:  God’s relationship to this world is not the relationship of cause and effect.  If it were, then the “otherness” that I mentioned earlier would apply to God.  Since God’s relationship to this world is not one of cause and effect, the question doesn’t even arise as to whether this cause “has its hands tied” or not.  God’s relationship to this world is the relationship between a transcendent being and an attenuated/descended being. This attenuated/descended being is the same as that transcendent being and the transcendent being is the same as the attenuated/descended being.  That which is up there and that which is down here are one and the same.  Sometimes He comes down and shows Himself in particular forms and sometimes He ascends and goes off into the distance.

So, as I said, the entire realm of existence is filled with a single being and this being is God.  You will find this same notion in Mulla Sadra, because his school of thought is very close to Muhyiddin Arabi and Rumi’s mystical school of thought.  Mulla Sadra said: Some people think that God’s unity means that we have one God and numerous other beings.  But this is numerical unity and, in effect, it amounts to polytheism.  God’s unity means:  This house has only one occupant and that occupant is God.  There’s no one standing beside Him. It is He who appears in different guises and forms.  Hence, this world is God manifest; it is not the effect of God.  In other words, God has manifested himself through this world.


Reading the world


Now, having completed the above preliminaries, we must pass through an important gate.  If this world is the manifestation of God – rather than the effect of God, in the Peripatetic sense of cause and effect – then, our encounter with this world and the lessons and meanings that we derive from it will be different.  A philosopher’s job is to argue from effect to cause.  They say that effects have a contingent existence.  Things that have a contingent existence require something that has a necessary existence.  In this way, they prove the existence of the necessarily existent or the self-existent being.  Then, they say that this self-existent being is what prophets have presented to us as God.  This is the course that philosophers follow.  They don’t read the world like something that has meaning;  they discover a relationship between something known as “effect” and a different thing known as “cause”.   But if we set aside the philosophical approach and take up the mystical approach, we’ll see this world as the manifestation of God.  God has become manifest in the world in the form of me, you, a leaf, a tree, the sky, the sea, the sun and so on.  This is Rumi’s view.  When I see the sea or the sun or anything else, whether ugly or beautiful, whether innocent or wicked, I have to be able to read God in it.  In this way, God’s relationship to this world becomes the relationship of meaning to words, not the relationship of cause to effect.  No meaning’s relationship with a word is one of cause and effect.  Meaning doesn’t create a word and a word isn’t meaning’s effect.  Meaning is a spirit within the word;  meaning lies in the heart of a word.  We don’t seek to understand sentences by imagining that the words are the effects of meanings;  rather, we read the meanings that lie within the words and the sentences.  And in order to read the meanings within words, we have to learn the language.

In order to know the meaning of an English sentence, you have to know the English language;  otherwise, no matter how hard you stare at the words, you’ll only see unyielding, lifeless forms. In order to understand Rumi’s poetry, you have to know Persian well;  otherwise, you’ll only see meaningless words.

If the world’s relationship to God is the relationship of word to meaning (which is the relationship that mystics have spoken of) – rather than the relationship of cause to effect – then, your task becomes one of interpretation or hermeneutics.  That is to say, the task of discovering meaning, not the task of discovering causes, nor the task of discovering the laws of this world, whether scientific laws or philosophical laws.

In order to discover meaning, you have to know the language.  You can’t understand a sentence unless you know the language.  Hence, when we look at this world and want to understand its meaning, we have to know its language.  This brings us to the threshold of the elevated notion that mystics have offered us; viz., the means whereby we can see and read God in this world.  This notion rests on the assumption that God’s relationship to the world is the relationship between a transcendent being and an attenuated/descended being.  If you assume that the relationship is one of cause and effect, you’ll have joined the ranks of philosophers, who are, of course, very respectable people because their way, too, is a way of discovering God and following Him.  But if you’re proceeding on the basis of the assumption that God is a formless being that has acquired form and that it is He who is sitting in the cage of forms, then, the question of correlation arises.  The breath that the piper blows into the pipe takes on the shape of the pipe.  When you look upwards, the breath is formless, when you look downwards, it has a form.  Hence, it is the same breath, but on two different levels.  If you’re proceeding on the basis of this assumption, you have to say that there is a correlation between this lower level and that upper level; it’s not just a question of cause and effect.  That upper being has reduced itself in order to sit at this lower level.  It is a bit like topology.  When you change a shape or a surface, regardless of how elastic it is, there are some constants.  There is a correlation between this being, in its reduced form, and that being, which has no size or boundary or form or definition.  It is the discovery of this correlation and knowing the language of this correlation that brings us to interpreting this world.  From then on, we see the world as a text, with God sitting in every single line and word.  But we can only read the book if we know the language.  Hence, we don’t discover God using arguments; we simply see Him.  We see that God is walking, God is shining, God is speaking and so on.  Here, it is a question of the collyrium-daubed eyes that Rumi spoke about: “Mystics have a collyrium that you must seek / then, your eyes will find the sea like a stream”.

Rumi distinguished the sense or senses that allow the discovery of God from the five senses that we use in our daily lives, and said:  “For the health of these senses, the doctor will help / but for the health of those senses, seek your Friend”.  The ordinary senses are found in animals too, but the sense that Rumi was talking about is a different kind of eye and mind, which understands the language of the world and sees God everywhere.  It is in this context that we can understand the poem by Sheikh Mahmoud Shabestari in which he said:  “O Muslim, if you knew what an idol is / You’d know that your creed is to worship it”.  This is a mystical notion, presented in a philosophical form.  It represents the deepest monotheism and the profoundest knowledge of God.  This is what mystics meant when they said: When we view things from that elevated position, belief and unbelief are indistinguishable.  When we view things from that elevated position, beauty and ugliness are indistinguishable.  When viewed from above, it makes no difference what God has created in this world, because all beings speak equally of God;  nay, they are His manifestations in the world.  But I must issue a warning here.  The above ruling is for the rare individuals whose eyes have been opened; otherwise, people have no right to say that belief and unbelief are one and the same.  There were many people who used the true words of the great mystics, but applied them to achieve false ends. The words themselves, albeit poorly expressed by us, are true to their very core.  But they are only appropriate for those who have acquired those collyrium-daubed eyes and have reached that state.  Everyone else must pursue their ordinary lives and view themselves under the canopy of numerousness and dissonance.  Unless and until someone has – in the very depth of their being – gone beyond this numerousness and dissonance, they must consider themselves condemned to this numerousness and dissonance and behave towards others in this same light.  It is only when individuals become elevated that they can abandon the distinctions that others draw.

In sum, to mystics, this world consists of words, the meaning of which is God.  The relationship is the relationship between the manifest and the manifestation, not between cause and effect.  These forms are the formless that has taken on features and definitions;  it is the transcendent being that has stepped down and become attenuated.  If this is the case, then, one has to interpret the world.  In other words, one has to view the world as a text that demands interpretation, not as a being whose laws one must discover.


Question and answer session


Q.  What does the Qur’an mean when it speaks of creation?  Does creation not give a sense of cause and effect?

A.  This is an important exegetical point. We have the notion of creation in the Qur’an. For example, “Surely your Lord is God, who created the heavens and the earth,” (Jonah, 3)  Philosophers have taken creation to mean what they understand by cause;  i.e., they have more or less equated the Creator with cause and the created with effect.  Of course, this is also the conventional and ordinary understanding of it.

Philosophers designated God “the unmoved mover” or the prime cause.  They maintained that creation means that God is the cause of this world.  So, since they viewed the notion of creation in this mould, any problem pertaining to cause also extended to this sphere.  When you use a mould, you have to submit to its logical corollaries and consequences.  Everything – whether positive or negative – that had been said about cause had to and did apply to the question of creation.

There’s no doubt that we conventionally understand the notion of creation in the sense of causality.  Even if we set aside all the meticulous points that philosophers have made about causality, we can understand causality in a simple sense here.  After all, God has done something to make this world appear.  And this simple meaning can be found in the notion of creation.  But the truth of the matter is that we have no reason to believe and no one has presented any reason demonstrating that creation is an instance of causality.  We have no reason to believe that God caused the world and that the world is His effect.  This is just a conventional understanding of the notion of creation.  This is very similar to the question of “the seven skies”.  There are references in the Qur’an’s to God having created “the seven skies”. Many exegetes in the past used to say very simply and sincerely that these seven skies were the seven planets of the Ptolemaic system of astronomy.  It was only Fakhr Razi who suggested a weak possibility that the seven skies may not refer to the Ptolemaic system, although even he viewed this possibility with trepidation.  And other exegetes objected to his suggestion and said that these kinds of quibbles were the thin end of the wedge. So, no one took Fakhr Razi’s suggestion seriously and it acquired no followers.  But, in the contemporary world, we see that all modern exegetes try to extract something from that quibble in order to present a scientific interpretation that corresponds to modern findings and to explain that “the seven skies” of the Qur’an does not correspond to the Ptolemaic system.  More or less the same thing has happened on the question of causality.  This is one illustration of the ruling that I’ve set out in The Contraction and Expansion of Religious Knowledge:  Quite naturally, sincerely and unwittingly, exegetes harmonize their interpretation of scripture with the learning of their own age.  They proceed on the basis of the assumption that the learning of their own age is correct.  And this learning forms the framework of their thinking and understanding; a framework that they cannot abandon.  This has always been the case, whether in the interpretation of the Qur’an or the Bible or in the interpretation of any other text.

A philosopher whose mind is filled with the notion of causality and who sees everything as a chain of causes and effects will, naturally, see the relationship between God and the world as an instance of cause and effect.  Of course, we’re not saying that this view is wrong;  we’re saying that we have no reason to believe that it is necessarily the case.  This is one interpretation, one reading and one possible understanding of the relevant verses.  But there may well be many other understandings.  But a philosopher who sees the world as a system of causes and effects – and who thinks that it is self-evident that it should be viewed in this way – will naturally see the notion of creation, too, as a cause and effect relationship.

Francis Bacon, the English philosopher who is considered to be the father of empirical science, said: It is self-evident that the Earth is stationary!  All scholars have used the learning that seemed self-evident in their own age to understand the world and interpret scripture.  This has held true for everyone, including Muslims.

Mystics and the followers of Mulla Sadra’s school of transcendental philosophy offered a more subtle notion of creation.  Based on this notion, even if the relationship between God and the world is one of cause and effect, it isn’t so in the sense that Peripatetic philosophers defined causality; it can instead be viewed and understood in a subtler way.  Whereupon, we have yet another interpretation and reading of the relevant verses. And if, at some future date, a more meticulous meaning of the relationship between God and human beings is discovered by mystics or philosophers – a meaning that then becomes certain and self-evident to them – the new meaning may well be read back into the words of these verses.   And this is quite natural.  This is how different readings arise.  And anyone who says that some things are self-evidently the case – and, therefore, do not admit of different readings – is unwittingly offering his own reading.  Someone else might respond by saying that some of these things are not self-evident or that what’s self-evident to you is not self-evident to me.

Some people seem to think that they can step above the different readings and issue a ruling from up there.  But this is an exercise in futility.  The whole point is that anything that we say is just one more reading.  If someone says that they are speaking from a higher level than all the different readings and that all these readings must surrender to what they are saying, then, they’re failing to understand the whole concept of multiple readings.   Trying to step above and beyond these readings is like looking into a mirror and saying: What we see in the mirror is beyond all mirrors!

When we want to see ourselves, we have to look in the mirror.  So, whenever we speak about ourselves, we’re in fact speaking about the image that we’ve seen in the mirror.  You can never say:  Forget about the mirror, because I want to talk about myself minus the mirror.

There’s no image without the mirror.  If there’s an image, then it’s an image in the mirror.  And if there’s no mirror, then there’s no image and there’s nothing to talk about.

The different readings are the images of us that appear in the mirrors of our understandings.  If you want to dispense with understandings and readings, then, of course, there’s nothing to quarrel about.  But as soon as we begin to talk and to express our views, our utterances and views become one reading among the many readings.  So, there’s no meta-language or meta-paradigm.  That is to say, there’s no model that stands above and beyond all other models and allows you to comment on all the models below it.


Q.  Is someone who denies the existence of God, who doesn’t accept God at all, equal to someone who believes in God?

A.  This depends on our philosophical stance on mistakes.  We believers and God-worshippers are of the view that people who deny God’s existence are either making a mistake or they’re being malicious.  In other words, either they’ve failed to understand the truth or they’ve understood it but are denying it maliciously.  For the moment, we’re talking about the former;  i.e., someone who is making a mistake, not someone who is being malicious. Why has this person made this mistake?  There are a number of elaborate theories in philosophy about the means whereby mistakes occur and they are very interesting theories at that.   There’s no denying the fact that we human beings do make mistakes;  both theoretical mistakes and practical mistakes.  We also know that we don’t want to make mistakes.  That is to say, there’s no such thing as a deliberate mistake, because if it’s deliberate, then it’s not a mistake;  it just shows that the person who made the mistake knows it’s wrong but doesn’t want to admit it.

At any rate, we all hope that we won’t make mistakes and that we’ll grasp the truth.  Be that as it may, we do make mistakes;  in fact, we’re wrong more often than we’re right.  The history of human knowledge shows that our mistaken ideas and misconceptions far outnumber our correct ideas.  But why is this the case?  There are various theories in this respect.  There’s Bacon’s idols; there’s Descartes’ theory, which sees it as the will interfering in reason; there’s the theory of our own philosophers which sees at as grasping accidentals instead of essentials. Allameh Tabataba’i wrote a beautiful piece on this subject entitled:  The nature, means and basis of mistakes in perception.

The gist of Allameh Tabataba’i’s argument – setting aside the philosophical terminology – is that mistakes are failures to recognize something or a (mis)taking of one thing for another.  For example, you say: “I saw Hassan today.”  Later, you realize that, in fact, it wasn’t Hassan.  But why does the mix up occur?  One of the causes is the existence of similarities.  Maybe the person that you saw resembled your friend, Hassan, so you took him for Hassan.

Another reason why we make mistakes is that our wishes and desires step in.  That is to say, you may have been wishing that you’d run into Hassan, maybe because there was something you wanted to tell him.  Just as your eagerness to see Hassan may make you dream of him, you may experience a similar state while you’re awake and imagine that someone who looks like Hassan is in fact Hassan.  Or the other person may not even resemble Hassan, but your imagination may so impinge on your eyesight and your concentration that you confuse someone else with Hassan.  This is what Descartes argued.  He said that the interference of the will (in the broad sense) in reason and perception leads to mistakes.  If we can cut the link between the will and reason, then we can prevent mistakes.  This, at any rate, is one argument.

So, to answer your question, if we set aside malice, we have to say that the person who doesn’t believe in God is failing to recognize God.  That is to say, he’s seen God but he hasn’t realized that it’s God.  It’s exactly as if you’d see Hassan, but hadn’t realized that it’s Hassan.

Stace, the English philosopher, says that Buddhists have the experience of God, but they don’t have the concept of God.  In other words, it’s a question of someone who has reached God but hasn’t realized it.  One of the greatest services that prophets rendered to us was to tell us:  What you’ve seen and found is God.

In the words of Feiz-Kashani:  “One day I’ll reach the beloved’s embrace, said I / Look well, you may have reached it already, came the reply”.

This is what they mean when they say that God is innate.  It means He’s with you.  You’ve discovered Him many times.  You’ve seen Him.  You’ve shaken hands with Him.  You’ve sat next to Him.  But you didn’t realize it.  Prophets introduced Him to us and said:  This is God.

Before the advent of prophets, many theisms lacked underlying theories.  That is to say, there was a god but it didn’t have a name.  They didn’t realize that it was God.

When, after a many-year separation, Joseph’s brothers reached him, he said: Do you remember what you did to your brother?  The moment he said this, their minds sped back many years.  Joseph’s words acted like a spark to their memories and they said: “Art thou indeed Joseph?” (Joseph, 89)  They suddenly recognized him and realized that this was the brother who they thought had gone forever.  It is the same with God.  You suddenly say:  Is that really you?  Are you the God that I’d failed to recognize?

In short, there are veils.  When the veils are pushed away, God can take His rightful place and it becomes clear that He was always with us but we didn’t know it.

Another cause of the failure to recognize God consists of particular motives and desires.  That is to say, the relevant person doesn’t want to see God.  Prophets have spoken about this.  Some people don’t want to see God because it is hard and it has corollaries and consequences.  When a guest comes to stay with you, it affects the way can you behave in your own house.  In the guest’s presence, you can’t appear and behave in any old way you like. You have to be presentable and behave correctly.  When God, who is such an immense guest, enters your life, your life really changes.  Otherwise, knowledge of God is just a hollow claim.  Some people understand the corollary of this knowledge.  They realize that, when God appears, they have to behave correctly.  So, they prefer not to acknowledge His existence at all.  They don’t see Him because they don’t want to see Him.

Another explanation is that someone may think that something that isn’t God is God.  In other words, they equate a being that is the product of superstition with the God that the prophets have spoken about.  They then reject that being and think that they’ve rejected God.

In sum, there are a host of reasons why people remain in a state of unbelief.  Of course, I’m talking about people who think things through and have theories about things.  Otherwise, someone might be totally ignorant or not have reached a level where they can think things through for themselves, which is an altogether different matter.


Q.  You said that God has no place or location.  So how do you explain the Prophet’s Ascension?

A.  The Prophet’s Ascension to heaven didn’t mean that the Prophet went from somewhere where there was no God to a place where there was God.  God is everywhere.  The sky is the sky for us.  The earth is the earth for us.  The earth is close to us.  The sky is far from us.  But there’s no near and far for God.  These concepts apply to us, not to God.

It has been said in the Qur’an and our religious narratives that Jonas went into a whale’s stomach.  The Prophet said that Jonas’s experience was like an ascension.  Jonas went into the whale’s stomach and discovered some hidden truths and the Prophet ascended to the heavens and saw some hidden truths there.  Don’t judge things by the up and down that applies to us.  Above the earth and below the earth are locations that apply to us;  they don’t apply to God.

The Prophet’s Ascension was a spiritual experience; an experience of the hidden, supernatural aspects of the world.  Every prophet had an ascension.  We are, more or less, only acquainted with Prophet Muhammad’s ascension.  This is the only one that has been recounted to us and we are familiar with some of its details.  But every prophet had an ascension.  No one can become a prophet without having an ascension and a spiritual experience; a spiritual experience that consists of the discovery of the hidden secrets of the world.  This may take the form of the discovery of the supernatural world and the world of angels.  Or it may take the form of the discovery of the inward layers of human beings.  Or it may take some other form.  It depends on the personality of the relevant prophet.  But all these are forms of ascensions, at any rate.  They are all spiritual experiences that form the basis of prophethood.  And God remains beyond place and location, and spiritual experiences occur in that non-place.

Translated from the Persian by Nilou Mobasser


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