Wednesday, September 23, 2009


Signs are the signatures which mark the presence of the dialectic of Divine Names and Attributes. Signs are the ephemeral traces of continuously novel manifestation of God's uniqueness.

Signs are the transitory forms that give expression to the Divine Will which is producing, scripting, staging and directing the passion play of existence. Signs are the visible waves of the Divine Ocean which come into being and then disappear in accordance with the currents and eddies of the Unseen realm.

Signs exist within us. They are as plentiful as the molecules from which our bodies are fashioned and shaped.

Signs are manifested through the physiological and biochemical processes which set the parameters of our biological being. Signs are inherent in the various aspects of the immune system which differentiate self from non-self. Signs mark the stages of embryological unfolding. Signs are conducted through every neural impulse and muscle contraction.

Our capacity for consciousness, choice, language, rationality, creativity, emotion, and spirituality are all signs. Our tendencies toward rebellion, doubt, and selfishness are also signs, as are our potential for submission, certainty and love.

Signs exist everywhere in nature. The mineral, plant and animal realms are replete with signs. The sun, the moon, the stars, the heavens, and the earth each give expression to numerous signs.

There are signs manifest in realms beyond the physical/material universe. There are worlds no human eye has seen, nor mind conceived, yet which are, nonetheless, signs. There are many different "species" of angels, each giving expression to particular signs. There are signs of the Unseen.

Signs are one of the ways in which God communicates with Creation. Different signs address different dimensions and levels of being.

Signs are appropriate objects of contemplation. Signs provide material for reflection. Signs have meaning, significance, purpose and value.

Signs place things in perspective. Signs give evidence of God's love, compassion, generosity, patience, power, transcendence, nearness, mercy, kindness, justice, richness, subtlety and independence.

Signs are indices of God's gifts and favors. Signs reflect Divine warnings.

Signs offer us hope, as well as give us reason to fear. Signs are about the future and the past and the present.

Signs existed for millions of years prior to the current "Information Age". Signs were being decoded long before the emergence of algorithms, semiotics and hermeneutics. Signs were when time was not.

Signs are mysteries to be unraveled. Signs are clues to the nature of existence. Signs are problems to be solved.

Signs are maps that point the way to essential identity. Signs are keys to purpose and meaning. Signs provide a forum for exercises in humility.

Signs are veils that both conceal and disclose the reality of things. Signs live in what can be said as well as what cannot be said.

Within us are different instruments for engaging different kinds of signs. The language of mathematics is one kind of instrument for, among other things, examining some of the signs of nature. However, not all signs are capable of being fit into the structures and functions of mathematics.

There are signs which can be detected through various kinds of scientific instruments but which we are not yet able to capture in mathematical language. On the other hand, not all signs can be seen through microscopes or telescopes or particle detectors and so on.

The language of dreams is another kind of instrument for exploring some of the signs which manifest themselves during the state of sleep. Such signs, when properly understood, can provide deep insight into our spiritual condition and the nature of our lives.

There are other spiritual instruments within us which are capable of carrying us beyond the realm of the signs of the world of dreams. These spiritual instruments can, with God's blessings, allow the individual to have access to the significance(s) of many different kinds of sign on many different levels of existence.

The Sufi is someone who has undertaken a journey to explore, study and try to understand the meaning and function of signs in the context of human existence. The Sufi is someone who seeks to merge horizons with the character or nature of signs to whatever extent one's capacity and God permit.

The Sufi is an individual who wishes to know what is entailed by the significance of signs on different levels. A Sufi also wishes to incorporate such knowledge into his or her life in a way that will constructively shape, color and orient behavior.


Neil said...

Please help me in my attempt to further understand Sufi Islam. As you have been discussing signs, I have a question about a statement which you have made: "signs are one of the ways in which God communicates with Creation. Different signs address different dimensions and levels of being." Please correct me if I am wrong, but based on my limited understand of Islam, Allah is transcendent and unknowable. If this is true, how/why would he choose to communicated with creation? How does Sufi Islam regard Allah's communication with creation and humanity?


Anab Whitehouse said...

Dear Neil,

Actually, from the perspective of both exoteric (general) and esoteric (Sufi) Islam, God is immanent as well as transcendent. The ninety-nine beautiful names -- including Allah [which means "al" (the) "lah" (God) -- give expression to the ways in which God relates to creation through both immanent and transcendent means. Sometimes these 'Names' are divided up into jamali (compassionate, forgiving, loving, magnanimous provider, etc.) sorts of attributes or jalali (rigorous, independent, One Who judges. etc.) kinds of qualities. There are facets of creation's relationship with Divinity which are knowable and there are certain facets of creation's relationship with Divinity which are unknowable [at least to creation].

The Sufis indicate that one can contemplate the Divine Names [or, more specifically, the realities to which those Names allude], but one should not seek to contemplate the Essence (Dhat) of Divinity -- an Essence which makes possible both the jamali and jalali qualities which are manifested in creation, but which is not knowable in Itself. Sufis believe that human beings are, in essence, Divine in nature, but we are not Divinity in Essence. In whatever way we are Divine in character, this does not exhaust what Divinity, in Essence, is.

The zikrs or chants which Sufis observe are one of the channels through which human beings and Divinity engage one another. But, God also communicates to our our hearts, minds, and souls through the many signs of creation -- signs which have meaning beyond the physical and/or biological nature of such signs. Like the Qur'an, the signs of nature are a revelation in themselves to those who have eyes with which to see and ears with which to listen.

God also communicates with human beings (and vice versa) through prayer, fasting, charity, seclusion, works of service to the community, and sacred journeys such as Hajj. All of these are signs which have their levels of meaning for those who have a receptive mind, heart, soul, and spirit.

I hope the foregoing is helpful.

Neil said...

This has been extremely helpful in my understanding of 'general' and Sufi Islam! I see now how Muslims view Allah's transcendence and interaction with creation and yet at the same time, Allah's unknowability in Essence.

Correct me if I am wrong, but it seems that Islamic(particularly, Sufi's), views of Allah--His Divinity, Essence, unknowability, transcendence, ways of communicating, etc.--are in many ways similar to Christianity. I know that according to the Christian doctrine of God, God is divine in Essence and although one may know him through Christ, it is incapable to totally understand His Essence. In addition, practitioners of the Christian faith attempt to communicate with God through fasting, prayer, service, etc.

I do not wish to downplay the differences in these two great faiths, but in reading your response, I was taken aback by similarities between these two faiths.

Anab Whitehouse said...

Dear Neil,

Apparently, I am going to have to post the following in several posts because i am getting a warning sign indicating that I cannot exceed 4,096 characters ... which I don't recall encountering previously. So, I will post my original posting in several installments.


In my opinion, the alleged differences between Islam and Christianity are more due to the hermeneutical bickering of all too many theological discourses than such differences are necessarily a reflection of any real difference between the two spiritual traditions.

Ibn al-'Arabi, one of the great Sufi mystics, indicated that when individuals concentrate on one of the Beloved of God -- such as Jesus (peace be upon him), or Moses (peace be upon him), or Muhammad (peace be upon him), then such individuals are known, respectively, as Isawi [Isa being the Arabic name for Jesus (peace be upon him)], Musawi (Musa being the Arabic name for Moses (peace be upon him)], and Muhammadwi ... the "wi" in each case being an indication of devotion to the spiritual personality preceding that suffix.

All such spiritual personalities are the ones that individuals choose to become aligned with during the search for God. Nevertheless, one need not be restricted to any one such spiritual personality, but, instead, one can and may choose to become aligned with any and all of them depending on one's circumstances, inclinations, interests, and history.

Before aligning himself with Muhammad (peace be upon him), ibn al-'Arabi was an Isawi -- that is, a devotee of Jesus (peace be upon him). Indeed, two of his earliest teachers were women who were themselves devotees of Jesus (peace be upon him).

Later, on his spiritual journey, ibn al-'Arabi became spiritually aligned with a number of other spiritual personalities. This did not mean that he no longer loved or respected those spiritual personalities with whom he had previously been aligned ... rather, he was merely furthering his spiritual education through association with other spiritual personalities -- both living as well as those who had passed away but with whom, under the right circumstances, one may become spiritually attuned in the form of this or that spiritual station and or set of experiences.

I was brought up in a Christian tradition. Yet, I never really came to love Jesus (peace be upon him) until after I became a Muslim via the Sufi path.

I do not love Jesus (peace be upon him) less now that I have learned some of what is involved in the process of approaching Divinity through the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). Rather, my love for Jesus, Moses, Muhammad, and all of the other 123,997 beings who have been sent by God (peace be upon them all) since human beings first walked on the face of the Earth [beginning with Adam [peace be upon him)] complement one another and enrich my spiritual experience and understanding.

Among the Sufi mystics, there is talk of three spiritual conditions -- namely, (1) fana fil shaykh, (2) fana fil Muhammad, and (3) fana fil Allah. The term 'fana' refers to the spiritual condition of passing away such that all of one's attention, focus, and love is directed toward the 'one' in whom one passes away. The term "fil" is Arabic for 'through' or 'in'.

So, one way in which the mystical path can be described is as a series of stations in which one spiritually passes away to everything except, in the first stage, one's shaykh or spiritual guide, and in the second stage, one passes away to everything except 'Muhammad' (peace be upon him) -- although in your case it would be, God willing, Jesus (peace be upon him), and in the third stage, one passes away to everything except God.

The goal is always God. The goal is always to realize one's essential relationship with God.

Anab Whitehouse said...

Part 2 [Please read the previous posting first]

However, there are many different ways of accomplishing -- God willing -- the foregoing goals (which are really different sides of the same spiritual coin). Problems begin when, due to ignorance and misunderstanding, people (whether Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Native American, or whatever one's predilection may be) start to claim that there is only one way to God.

Why shouldn't there be many commonalities between Christianity and Islam? They both come from the same Source and are intended to serve the same spiritual purpose.

Jesus (peace be upon him) was not a theologian. He was a practitioner of the spiritual way. Muhammad (peace be upon him) was not a theologian. He was a practitioner of the spiritual way.

We are attracted to their spiritual character and being ... not to any sort of theology which various people have tried to associate with their names. We are attracted to their way of love, forgiveness, patience, wisdom, generosity, perseverance, courage, dependence on God, piety, honesty, nobility, integrity ... there is nothing of theology in any of this.

One hears these days much about the term 'shari'ah' or Islamic law. Unfortunately, the vast majority of those who bandy this term about -- whether Muslim or non-Muslim -- have absolutely no understanding of what shari'ah actually entails ... and it certainly does not entail the harsh, dogmatic, cruel, and even hateful set of practices which some individuals are trying to impose on others in various parts of the world.

Shari'ah, literally means 'a place where water may be found' and, by extension, a path which leads to such a place. The 'water' is the spiritual elixir of the path which may be drunk, God willing, during one's journey to, and through, and by, and with Divinity -- however Divinity may be manifested in a given form (such as a spiritual guide, a Prophet, or Divinity in some sense) ... however, we can never realize more than what our essential capacity enables us to realize, and our spiritual capacity is always less than what God is.

Our spiritual capacity or 'fitra' is God's gift to each of us. It is not something which is earned, but is a pure expression of baraka or Divine generosity.

What is earned is the realization of that essential capacity ... although even here nothing is possible without God's assistance and support. But, each essential capacity is both different and similar to all other such spiritual capacities.

Each spiritual capacity is similar to all others in the sense that this constitutes our collective way of realizing God's presence in our lives, and, as a result, the spiritual practices which are intended to assist individuals to work toward realizing that potential tend to be very similar across spiritual traditions -- namely, fasting, remembrance, prayer, meditation, contemplation, seclusion, charitable works, and purification of the ego or nafs. But, each spiritual capacity is also somewhat different from all of the other spiritual capacities in as much as each individual is an individual dot in the Divine mural of Being, and all of these dots together give expression to the beauty of God's creation ... whether one realizes this or not.

Sadiq Alam said...

The post and the discussion in the comment sections, both are fascinating and beautiful.

may peace be yours.

Neil said...

Thank you. I have really appreciated this dialogue. I have been blessed through this to further my understanding of Sufi beliefs and practices. It has been interesting to see it's openness--something I think everyone may learn from.

Peace to all,

Anonymous said...