Monday, January 04, 2010

States, Stations, Stages, and Practice

To borrow a phrase from fractal mathematics, the Sufi path tends to be ‘self-similar’, rather than ‘self-same’, when considering the experience of different individuals. In other words, since every human being is unique, even while sharing in the general set of properties which differentiate human beings from other species of being, and since the tajalli of Divinity (the descent or rupture of Divine modalities into manifested form) do not repeat themselves in any self-same manner, one cannot necessarily speak of suluk, or spiritual travel, as consisting of a linear sequence of states (hal) and stations (maqam).

Different individuals have outlined the path in varied ways which reflects their own experience of suluk rather than necessarily reflecting some set of hard and fast steps which must be taken in a ‘just so’ order. Thus, some people say the Sufi path consists of ‘x’ number of states and ‘y’ number of stations, while other commentators say that tasawwuf entails ‘r’ number of states, and ‘t’ number of stations.

In addition, there are, sometimes, disagreements about whether a certain stage of spiritual travel involves a hal or a maqam. Again, such variation in opinion are more indicative of the differences which people bring with them to the path than they are necessarily reflective of ‘truths’ independent of human engagement of reality.

Generally speaking, a hal is characterized as a temporary spiritual condition in relation to which intentional effort of striving has not been expended or directed, and, therefore, comes as a gift of Divinity. Maqam, or station, on the other hand, is often characterized as more permanent than are hal, and, as well, are said to be spiritual conditions for which struggle and striving must be exerted in a concerned manner. As such, maqam tend to be described as spiritual conditions which must be earned, while hal are not earned, per se.

However, since spiritual effort does not cause spiritual progress, but is, at best, a necessary condition, then, whether one is talking about states or stations, these are both gifts of God and could not be experienced or sustained without Divine succor. Moreover, although there are instances in which individuals who are not on any particular spiritual path are recipients of Divine Grace in the form of this or that manner of hal, the likelihood of undergoing one or another spiritual hal tends to be increased when one is actively and sincerely pursuing the mystical path under the guidance and care of an authentic shaykh.

Yet, one might keep in mind that the Qur’an stipulates: “If Allah were to take humankind to task for their wrong-doing, God would not leave hereon a living creature, but God reprieves them to an appointed term.” (16:61) So, whether one is talking about hal or maqam, neither is deserved but comes by the Grace of Allah.

Finally, some expressions of hal are longer lived than are other manifestations of hal. Therefore, whether one believes one is talking about a condition of hal rather than maqam may be somewhat arbitrarily decided.

Spiritual conditions share some of the same qualities as dreams. This is especially so in the sense that both dreams and spiritual conditions require the presence of insight by an experienced guide or knowledgeable and Divinely supported individual in order to properly appreciate the nature of what is transpiring through either the dream or a given spiritual condition.

Najm al-Din Razi (may Allah be pleased with him), in his book: The Path of God’s Bondsmen from Origin to Return uses the example of fire to illustrate the complexity of the problem. Someone who is traversingthe path of tasawwuf may see the attribute of fire and, depending on the nature of one’s spiritual condition, this attribute will have a different meaning in different states and stations.

For some, the appearance of fire is an indication that the quality of anger is dominant. For others, the presence of fire may signify the light of zikr or the individual’s ardor for the spiritual quest. For still others, the fire may exemplify the presence of guidance as with the Prophet Moses (peace be upon him), or it may give expression to the quality of devilry as with Iblis. And, for still other individuals, the quality of fire may symbolize the condition of gnosis or love or witnessing. There also are additional modalities of fire which indicate the presence of other manner of states and stations.

The attribute of fire is but one of many, many qualities which may emerge within an individual’s experience and serve as a tell-tale sign of a person’s spiritual condition. However, as with dreams, insight is needed to understand the significance of the presence of a given quality.

Similarly, when an individual passes through stations involving the attributes of clay, water, air, fire, firmaments, heavenly bodies, the malakut (or soul) of the planets and the stars, animals, and a thousand other realms, different kinds of tajalli may be manifested according to circumstances and an individual’s spiritual condition. Just as there is no reliable book of dream interpretation in which all one has to do is scour the index for a given dream and, then, proceed to the page with ‘the’ correct interpretation, so, to, there is no standard dictionary of spiritual states and stations which always are manifested in the same way across individual experiences.

I recall, once, when my shaykh, Dr. Baig (may Allah be pleased with him), talked about such matters. He indicated that in very special cases - and he referred to such instances as being among the most supreme of spiritual conditions - an individual may traverse the journey of suluk and not have even one ‘mystical’ or anomalous, non-ordinary experience. These are individuals from whom God has kept secret the nature of their own spiritual condition.

Many people speak about the alleged great differences between, say, the doctrine of Wahdat-i-Shuhud (the Unity or Oneness of Witnessing) and Wahdat-i-Wujud (the Unity or Oneness of Being). In fact, great controversies have been instigated on the basis of such differences of approach to the hermeneutics of experience, and, yet, again, I remember that my shaykh, Dr. Baig (may Allah be pleased with him), said that after all was said and done, there really wasn’t much difference between the two.

I might add a brief note at this point to indicate that Dr. Baig (may Allah be pleased with him) wrote his doctoral dissertation on the life and teachings of Ahmad Sirhindi (may Allah be pleased with him). The latter shaykh was a champion of the doctrine of Wahdat-i-Shuhud. One of the examiners for Dr. Baig's (may Allah be pleased with him) thesis was no less an authority than A.J. Arberry who considered the thesis to be the best exposition of the Sufi path to be written in the English language up to that time.

Following many of his 40-day seclusions, Dr. Baig (may Allah be pleased with him) would set about revising and improving his thesis on the basis of what had been experienced and disclosed during the previous period of seclusion. In many ways this was a life-long project for him which never saw the light of day - that is, it was never released to either the general public or even to his mureeds.

Among other things, the process of constant revision in the light of subsequent experience is a hallmark of the path. This process of needing to continuously revise one's understanding represents one of the reasons why one should refrain from speaking about the path as if it were a static thing in which one can sum up its components in some simple, linear fashion.

When I first stepped onto the path, more than 30 years ago, I must confess that my head was filled, to a certain extent, with ideas of ‘wondrous deeds, powers, exalted, non-ordinary states of consciousness, and other such artifacts of ignorance. Dr. Baig (may Allah be pleased with him) had an interesting way of dealing with such nonsense.

To those who came to the path from a very conceptually- laden direction - treating the Sufi Path as if it were just another species of philosophy about which one could read, learn, and debate - Dr. Baig (may Allah be pleased with him) would assign some treatise of one, or another, Sufi Shaykh which was of such a difficult nature that the individual would soon come to the realization that he or she didn’t really know much of anything, irrespective of how much they had read. To others, such as myself, whose heads were preoccupied with other-worldly states and stations, he would assign the book Introduction to Islam by Dr. Muhammad Hamidullah (may Allah be pleased with him) which was quite excellent, but very down-to-earth, dry, and rooted in practicality.

Many people are familiar with the following prayer of Ra’bia of Basra (may Allah be pleased with her). “O Lord, if I worship Thee out of desire of Paradise, then, deny me Paradise, and if I worship Thee out of fear of Hell, then, throw me into Hell, but if I worship Thee out of love for Thee and Thee alone, then, grant me Thy vision.”

Without wishing to criticize this great saint - because I really am not fit to carry her sandles (if she had any) - nevertheless, I do have a question. Why make the last part of the prayer conditional?

Is not Divinity present in the state and/or station of sincere love? Is not Divinity present in every aspect of experience, and, indeed, experience is not possible without giving expression to the underlying play of Divine Names and Attributes which makes such experiences possible and provides them with their structural character?

The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is reported to have said: “This world is prohibited to the people of the next world, and the next world is forbidden to the people of this world, and they are both forbidden to the people of Allah.”

Seekers are seeking what? They are seeking something beyond what they believe to be present, and, yet, what they are actually seeking - as a poem of Hazrat Muin-ud-deen Chishti (May Allah be pleased with him) points out - is with us night and day ... hiding in plain sight. And, yet, we go seeking - from horizon to horizon - for what is already present.

Instead of seeing Divinity, we see veils. The veils, of course, mark the presence of Divinity, as well, but we want an unveiled look at Divinity, when, in truth, we can only see what God has given us the capacity to see at any given time or instance.

All practices - from: shahadah, to: prayers, zikr, fasting, seclusion, fatiha, hajj, contemplation, meditation, sacred turning, various forms of charitableness, service to the shaykh, and the performance of good deeds - have one thing in common: namely, the realization and expression of truth. Each kind of practice engages the truth, reality, Haqq from the perspective of its own form and character.

When we exclude practices, then, we cut ourselves off from ways of engaging different facets and dimensions of the truth. As one friend of Allah said, ‘there are many keys to spiritual realization, if one key does not work, then, try another’ - and one might add, if it is not already implicit in what was said, one should not just try a given key once but on many different occasions, because one never knows when all the tumblers will fall into place and be receptive to the use of a given key.

Similarly, each state and station serves as a locus of manifestation for the kind of truth to which such a state or station gives expression. The truth of expansion is not the truth of contraction. The truth of patience is not the truth of repentance. The truth of longing is not the truth of arrival. The truth of love is not the truth of dependence. The truth of difficulty is not the truth of ease. The truth of chastisement is not the truth of ascension.

Yet, when one weaves together all of these different modalities of truth in the form of experiential tajalli, then, an individual approaches the fullness of truth as a limit, and in mathematics, as in life, a limit is a function which approaches more and more closely to a given point, without ever reaching that point except, theoretically, at infinity. However, in the latter case, the Qur’an has something of relevance to say here: “and over every lord of knowledge, there is one more knowing.” (12:76)

The truth - reality - cannot be exhausted. It is infinite, and, consequently, there are no set of stages, states, or conditions which can encompass the infinite.

We engage truth according to our essential capacity, fitra, or ‘ayn al-thabita. We engage truth according to the condition of being veiled which constitutes our spiritual condition and degree to which our spiritual potential has been realized.

Different individuals have different capacities. The spiritual capacity of the Prophets is not the spiritual capacity of non-Prophetic saints, and the spiritual capacity of ordinary believers is not the spiritual capacity of the saints, whether Prophets or other manner of awliya. Moreover, within these different categories of human beings, there are gradations - as indicated in the Qur’an: “We have made some of these prophets to excel others” (17:55) and, “We raise by grades (of Mercy) whom We will.” (12:76)

Mind, heart, sirr, ruh, kafi, and aqhfah are potentials of fitra. Consequently, these potentials cannot exceed their limits.

On one occasion, the son of Ahmad Sirhindi (may Allah be pleased with him) came to the shaykh and presented something of a conundrum to the shaykh. The young man indicated that he had an experience in which he seemed to rise higher than the station of the Prophets, and, since this contradicted what was understood to be possible, the young man was confused by the experience.

Ahmad Sirhindi (may Allah be pleased with him) resolved the problem in the following manner. He said that associated with every human being, there are two points - one marking the station of origin and the other marking the station of ascension.

He further indicated that, on occasion, the ascension of a non-Prophet might rise higher than the station of origin of a Prophet. However, in no case would the station of ascension of a non-Prophet ever rise higher or approach the station of ascension of a Prophet of God.

Thus, for each of us, the station of origin and the station of ascension are fixed within the degrees of freedom which are permitted by Divinity. Consequently, the ways in which mind, heart, sirr, kafi, ruh, and aqfah are given expression depends on the character of the fitra or fixed form in question.

Some people define heart, mind, spirit, and soul in ways which are all-inclusive. In other words, for such people, the heart constitutes our entire potential for realizing the truth, and, then, they proceed to describe different stages, states and stations of the heart which outline the path to ultimate realization - such as: (a) breast, (b) qalb, (c) the aspect of the heart which is preoccupied with the love of human kind; (d) fo’ad (the seat of vision), (e) the dimension of the heart which gives expression to an exclusive love for Divinity; (f) the core of the heart which involves spiritual kashf or unveiling concerning the realms of the unseen about which angels have no knowledge; and, finally, (g) mohjat al-qalb which, when realized, gives expression to the lights of Divine attributes.

Other people do this in conjunction with the nafs. For example, people speak in terms of: (1) nafs-i-ammara (the soul which commands to evil); (2) nafs-i-mulhameh (the soul which is inspired by God with knowledge of lewdness and God-fearing; (3) nafs-i-lawwama ( the reproachful soul); (4) nafs-i-mutma’inneh (the tranquil soul); (5) nafs-i-radiya (the contented soul in which God is well pleased with them, and they are well-pleased with God); and, (6) nafs-i-safiya, the pure soul.

Others talk about the attributes of the spirit: (1) luminosity (with its branches of hearing, speech, and vision); (2) love (with its branches of sincerity, yearning and seeking); (3) knowledge (with its branches of will and cognition); (4) forbearance (with its branches of modesty, tranquility, dignity, and endurance); (5) familiarity or uns (which gives expression to a primordial intimacy with one’s Creator and encompasses the branches of compassion and pity);(6) permanence or baqa (with its branches of persistence and steadfastness); and, finally, (7) life (with its branches of intelligence and understanding).

However one parses human nature - and, therefore, irrespective of where in one’s theoretical typography one locates such faculties as mind, heart, sirr, ruh, kafi, and aqfah - there have been different practices which have been recommended by shaykhs down through the ages as aides to drawing out the potential of such faculties. For example, the practice of zikr is often mentioned in conjunction with the qualities of the heart - as the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is reported to have said: “There is a polish for everything which takes away the rust of that which is polished, and the polish for the heart is the remembrance (zikr) of God.”

Nevertheless, there are many forms of zikr, and different shaykhs go about this in different ways. Zikrs vary in length, content, whether they are open-ended (said as many times as one likes), or closed-ended), said aloud or quietly, as well as the time of day and circumstances in which they are said.

Moreover, the nature of zikr may not be encapsulated within a certain Quranic formula. In other words, since every event is a word in the lexicon of the All Merciful which is Self-referential, there are many ways of doing remembrance which are not necessarily tied to the saying of phrase or ayat from the Qur'an.

Furthermore, some may suppose one can remove a zikr from the context of its spiritual ecology and the zikr will continue to operate with the same efficacy as is the case when that zikr is recited within the context of a specific spiritual ecology - that is, having a relationship with an authentic shaykh in a given silsilah. This is not necessarily so, and one proceeds at one’s own risk.

Another practice is that of muraqabah. This is described, alternatively, as a careful watching of, or over, of the condition of the heart or as an emptying out of the sirr which, when the latter is operating properly, is said to guard the heart from being receptive to any influences which are other than the remembrance of God.

Alternatively, there is the process of fana in which - seemingly sequentially, but, in reality, these are all different variations on the same theme - one ‘passes away’ in a loving awareness of one’s shaykh, the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), and, ultimately, Divinity. There is no one way or no one set of steps which leads to the evaporation of self (small-s)-awareness.

Ahmad Sirhindi (may Allah be pleased with him) described the process of fana in the following way. If one is outside at night on a clear evening and far from the lights of a city, one can see the stars very clearly. But, when the sun rises, the starts are no longer visible to the naked eye due to the over-powering radiance of the sun.

Similarly, when something of the reality of one’s shaykh, the Prophet, or Divinity rises in one’s consciousness, then, awareness of the self disappears. Yet, the self still exists just as the stars continue to exist despite being rendered invisible by the presence of the sun.

There are many ways to help an individual to struggle toward fana. There are many ways to induce an individual to remember Allah. There are many ways to assist a person to empty the sirr of all other influences other than Allah and to keep a close watch on the condition of the heart. There are many ways to illumine the heart. There are many ways to traverse the stations of repentance, longing, dependence, sincerity, gratitude, patience, piety, and love.

How does one clean and furnish a house? One uses whatever works as long as such means fall within the code book for permissible house cleaning practices, and as long as the method of equipping the house takes into account the structural limitations of that house .

Similarly, there is no set recipe for spiritual realization, although there are a variety of general guidelines which are intended to be used in flexible ways within variable contexts. Everything depends on the nisbath or relationship between an authentic shaykh and the seeker.

Whatever is given, whatever is undertaken, the purpose is always to provide one with another opportunity to engage the Real and to revise one’s understanding of the True and to act in accordance with what one knows on the basis of what has been disclosed to one through direct experience. There are many ways, God willing, of helping to transform the nafs, or purify the heart, or illumine the spirit. These ways are overlapping, reinforcing and not mutually exclusive in the sense that, for instance, what helps the heart, helps the nafs to transform, and the spirit to be enlivened, and, similarly, what transforms the nafs also has benefits for the heart and spirit, and so on.

Ultimately, the only thing which really matters is the presence of Divine Grace. Talk of methodology, states, stations and stages have their place, but one should never confuse the surface phenomenon for the Realities which make such contingencies possible.

One follows the teachings and practices of a shaykh because, God willing, these have the capacity to help open us up to the barakah which courses through these practices and teachings as extensions of the presence and support of a silsilah rooted in the Prophetic tradition. These practices and teachings are the excuses which Divinity uses to extend different kinds of blessings to us, and through these blessings our understanding and behavior are affected.

Once, back in my days of even greater ignorance, I happened into a store in a rural area and, along with some friends, got an ice cream cone - one which was hand-scooped by one of the employees of the store. The ice cream cone I got was enormous, and I muttered words to the effect of: “Boy, I’ll have to remember this place.” The person behind the counter responded with: “You should remember the person who gave you the cone.”

Many people think aboutf the Sufi path as a supply depot from which one can acquire whatever one needs in the way of teachings, practices, and format in order to be able to make progress on the spiritual path. In truth, as with the ice cream story above, one needs to remember the person through whom one gets whatever one gets for it is the person who, by the Grace of Allah, makes all the difference ... not the place.