Sunday, April 15, 2007


How is it possible to meditate on the universe within us and beyond us and not be overcome by a deep, abiding sense of the majesty, wonder, mystery, power, subtlety and beauty which pervades all manner of being? In fact, this sense of awe can be so overwhelming and touch the soul so intensely, most of us tend to keep it at a distance.

To the extent we allow ourselves to entertain such experiences at all, we often tend to permit them to surface only very briefly and in an attenuated manner. After all, these experiences tend to be counter-productive in the work-a-day world. Furthermore, compared to the intensity and depth of feeling involved in the experience of awe, one has difficulty reconciling this with the numbing way we often go about living our lives. Indeed, for a variety of different "reasons", we spend so much of our time living in a socially and individually constructed cocoon from which awe has been excluded, many of us no longer seem to be able to have any sense of awe whatsoever.

Many of us have lost contact with this dimension of our being. Human knowledge is said, by some, to be doubling every ten years or less. Some say this rate of doubling is accelerating. Yet, despite all of this accumulation of so-called knowledge, we know next to nothing about: memory, consciousness, intelligence, creativity, cosmic possibility, ecology, other galaxies, the origins of life, language, human identity, death, health or illness. The list could be extended indefinitely.We have many, many more questions than answers.

Moreover, whatever answers we do have are being updated all the time because we didn't get it right the first, second, third or fourth time around.Who are we? What are we doing here? Where do we come from? Where are we going? Is there any purpose to existence? What meaning do events have? Is truth discovered or invented? Are there any absolutes? What should one do with one's life? Why do some people die sooner than others? What is the nature of justice? Do we have free will?

For every declarative statement we make, we can come up with a multiplicity of interrogative rejoinders. We are awash in theories of all kinds: scientific, philosophical, theological, political, economic, artistic, historical, psychological, social and educational. However, there is a potentially gigantic difference between having a theory and knowing the truth of a matter.

The lifetimes of millions of people have been consumed with the battle to identify a few tentative conjectures before the onslaught of a raging sea of unknowns. Perhaps, in the light of the ephemeral nature of the rewards to be garnered from such a titanic struggle, the tendency of most of us to retreat into the banality of fashion, television, careers, sports, material acquisition, hobbies, movies, parties and various addictions becomes understandable.

To be sure, the more one understands, the greater can be one's appreciation for the incredible richness and intricacy of any given aspect of existence. Yet, even if we know little or nothing about the nature of things, we seem to have an intrinsic capacity to feel awe for the wonder and mystery and beauty of the worlds within and without us.

We look up into the sky at night and see the stars, the moon and some planets, and, providing we have not allowed ourselves to become desensitized, we can become engrossed just by witnessing these marvels, without necessarily understanding any of it. To be thrilled by the rippling, pulsating and cascading movements of the Northern and Southern lights requires absolutely no knowledge or understanding of the process of ionization.

In fact, from the perspective of Sufi masters, understanding the process of ionization in the upper atmosphere does not exhaust the realities which underwrite that physical phenomenon. The physical realm is only the most apparent realm of manifestation of a reality which goes far, far deeper than the purely physical.

We see a sunset or sunrise (with apologies to Copernicus et. al.), and we are transfixed. We experience the majestic, powerful presence of lightning, or tornadoes, or floods, or hurricanes or earthquakes, and we are humbled before them. We are moved by compassion, or empathy, or love, or beauty, or generosity, not because we necessarily understand these processes, but because we have the capacity to resonate with these forces.

We know what we know, even if we don't understand what we know. What we know is mystery and wonder and majesty and grandeur and beauty. What we know is what we feel with our hearts and spirits. What we know is laughter and tears and fear and joy. What we know are questions. What we know is awe.

Much of the foregoing comments concern the physical/material world or universe. Reality, however, extends beyond the realm of the material level of manifestation. In fact, the material world, as vast and nuanced as it is, is only a minuscule portion of what is.

In addition to the material/physical modalities of being, there are other levels which give expression to: the souls of things; the angelic realm; the realities of the Names and Attributes of God; the abode of fixed essences, and, finally, the truth and reality of God's Essence which transcends, and is entirely independent of, all the other realms. Indeed, all these other realms presuppose, and are dependent on, the Divine Essence, although the Divine Essence cannot be reduced to or likened to any of these other realms. The Divine Essence makes all of these other realms possible. Nonetheless, we cannot make any inference about the nature of the Divine Essence based on manifestations in these other realms.

According to the realized practitioners of the Sufi sciences, all of these realms which are a mysterious function of the unknowable Divine Essence are far more vast than the physical/material world. They are infinite in nature.There are Sufi practitioners who have journeyed to, and experienced, to varying degrees, these various realms. Some of it has been written or spoken about. The vast majority of such experiences, however, fall beyond language or description and, sometimes, even understanding. They are undergone, but, sometimes, this is about all that can be said about them.

These experiences often are characterized by, among other possibilities, a sense of inundation in raw, naked, overwhelming, mesmerizing, intoxicating, stupefying, powerfully intense awe. Such experiences of awe help color, shape, orient and modulate how the Sufi interacts with and perceives other human beings and, in fact, the whole universe. Awe generally becomes a powerful organizing force in the life of a Sufi. The richer and more intense and subtle one's experiences of awe, the greater is the potential for transformation of the life, thinking, understanding, feeling and activity of the Sufi.


Anonymous said...

Dear Bondsman of Allah,

As I was reading the text, in reality your soul, I noticed that I began to breathe deeply and felt as if I was participating in a prayer whose echoes continue to touch my being....

I was reminded and perhaps understood for the first time the timeless prayer of Muhammed Mustapha (pbuh) who begged that his 'awe' in Allah increase manifold....Ameen...Suma Ameen....

In Gratitude...

Manijhé said...

Dear Brother, thank you for picking such an important subject. At first I thought how wonderful it would be to use this article as an outline for devising a curriculum for modern schools. I enjoyed it so much that I also picked out a short quiz for myself over some questions that you wrote in there. It’s at the bottom of this comment. Please suggest any ‘updates’ to my answers! Now, the funny thing is that at first I answered all the questions with ‘I don’t know’, and then if I looked at it with a simplistic point of view, I got simple answers...

I must mention how pleasant it feels to find someone else feel the same awe. I was immediately reminded of the after-prayer experience, when you have said your salam to the angels on your shoulders and are talking to Allah in bliss and utter tranquillity. It’s in that place of heart when Allah reveals many secrets to us about things we once knew and forgot, and things we knew not and are inspired for the first time about.

Until I read your article, I used to think that our conversations are ego-centric in that we do make ‘declarative statements’ reflecting our way of learning. We are often told what we know rather than letting ourselves learn what we know. But then I read: ‘We know what we know, even if we don't understand what we know. What we know is mystery and wonder and majesty and grandeur and beauty. What we know is what we feel with our hearts and spirits. What we know is laughter and tears and fear and joy. What we know are questions. What we know is awe.’

I have little to say and much to reflect upon right now. Alhamdulillah. When I looked at the quiz again, I was left the same questions and their answers being ‘I don’t know’ again. I know there will always be discovery for answers and inspiration for creativity. I am inspired to make a painting based on this concept of ‘awe, knowing what we know’.

I will be back to check for more of your writings! Peace and prayers! Ma Salam

Who am I? Manijhé
What am I doing here? Making choices
Where am I from? Some celestial beginning
Where am I going? Towards understanding
Is there any purpose to exist? The question should ask itself
What meaning do events have? Feeling, making relationships, communication cosmic messages
Is truth discovered or invented? It is created and discovered
Are there any absolutes? Absolutely!
What should do with one’s life? Take it easy and help others make it easy
Why do some people die sooner than others? So we can value the time they are here, and understand the Absolute
What is the nature of justice? Relative to the intensity of intensions
Do we have free will? Subhan Allah

Manijhé said...

ps: Brother, in my life there is much need for an inspired heart to make great choices.

Being in awe of Allah subhanuhu wa ta'ala, I am blessed with new eyes and new abilities.