Studies : Sufism pt. 2 Texts

Studies : Sufism
SignsVeils & The Symbolic Photograph
"records of encounters with God   
in the little details of everyday life."
Studies project #8 - Part 2, Text Excerpts from William Chittick's book: Sufism

Studies : Sufism  ~  Signs, Veils, The Symbolic Photograph
click here  Part I : Introduction & Photographs
click here  Part II : Text Excerpts from William Chittick's book: Sufism  [forthcoming]
click here  Part III : Commentaries 

Below you will find my selection of text excerpts from William Chittick's book Sufism.  Perhaps I have taken too liberally from his book, but I do so with overflowing gratitude and appreciation to Professor Chittick, for I have found his book very enlightening, and it has helped me in addressing the question of how I might situate my Studies photographs in relation to traditional ideas about "Sacred Art."

Photography, for me, is without question a spiritual practice; thus I have chosen passages from Sufism which seem to relate to my own ideas and experiences about my creative process in general, and more specifically to my Studies photographs, many of which do indeed function for me as a form of Sacred Art.  In the final Part III of my project I will attempt to comment on some of the material below in relation to selected images from the first part of the project.

Please note: the theme headings I use below are mostly my own, though I have presented the material mostly in the order in which Professor Chittick presents it in his book, Sufism.  Much of the material is direct quotes, though some are paraphrases or slightly edited versions of his writings--this done in the spirit of being brief and adding necessary contextual issues as necessary.  In any case: I encourage you to read William Chittick's book, Sufism.  It is an excellent, brief, but very rich and thought provoking introduction to Sufism, which is a very complex, mysterious and beautiful mode of being.

Text excerpts 
from the book 
Sufism by William Chittick

Sufis believe that the goal of right activity and correct understanding--the twin structure of Islam, the Quran and the Sunnah (the tradition of Hadith--the Prophet's sayings and actions)--was transformation of the soul, achieving inner conformity with "the Real", the Supreme Truth, Absolute Reality, God Himself.

Assimilating one's soul to the Quran's Divine Word was a goal of Sufism based on the model established by the Prophet.  One of the most famous prayers of the Prophet was Make me into light.

Oh God, place in my heart a light, in my hearing a light, 
in my sight a light, on my right hand a light, 
on my left hand a light, before me a light, 
behind me a light, above me a light, 
below me a light.   
Make me into a light."

The Quran is itself the light (64:18) ~ revealed by the Light of the heavens and the earth (24:35) ~ to bring forth mankind out of darkness into light (14:1).

When this veil is rent and a door opens in the heart, 
like springs toward like.  Light rises toward light, 
and light comes down upon light . . .

A lamp burning with the oil of an olive tree 
 which is neither of the East nor the West,  
bursting into flame even though fire
touch it not . . .  And it is 
light upon light.
Qur'an 24:35    

The traditions of Sufism, writes William Chittick, involve three Quranic themes:  submission, faith, and "doing the beautiful."  Doing the beautiful is to "worship God as if you see Him, for even if you do not see Him, He sees you."  At the very center of those who are traveling the Sufi Path there is the "heart" which is associated with doing the beautiful "in the depths of the soul."  Beautiful acts must well up from within the heart of the seeker spontaneously, before mental articulation and physical activity.

It is living in the heart, says Prof. Chittick, that allows the Sufi, the True seeker, to fulfill his or her quest: to be near to God.  

"Right seeing" was of primary importance to the Sufis, who took the Prophet Muhammad as their model.  The Prophet's famous prayer, Oh God, show us the things as they are, expresses the desire of the Sufis to see God in everything.  Seeing with the core or with the "Eye" of the heart was the way to see things "as they are" because seeing with the eyes of mere sense perception, or with the eyes of reason could not accomplish the necessary goal.  Chittick writes: "The eye of reason knows nothing of God's presence because its analytical approach can only dissect endlessly and reach the conclusion that God is nowhere to be found."  I like very much this next, related comment by Chittick also: "Reason knows absence, but imagination tastes presence."

Love is of course directly associated with the Beautiful and the Heart, and it is love, according to the Quran, that is the true basis for God's continual creation of the world and all His creatures.  One of the most quoted sayings of the Prophet in Sufi texts is the Hadith:  "I was a hidden Treasure, so I loved to be known.  Hence I created creatures that I might be known." 

Chittick explains how the greater the love, the greater the degree of participation in the divine image, and thus the greater degree of human perfection.  This love is expressed in Sufism especially through the beauty disclosed in the arts, and especially in music and in the imaginative poetry of the great Sufi poet-saints such as Rumi and Hafiz.  [See my photography project Illuminations]

The Sufi view of reality is based in the revelations of the Quran and in the Hadith, the reported sayings of the Prophet.  "(There) is no god but God" discerns between the absolute and the relative, between God and "everything other than God" which is the entire universe--all of creation, all creatures.  Nothing has true existence except God.  Everything we perceive is a veil.  Only the light of God's guidance can allow us to see the truth behind the darkness of unreal things.

The Quran calls its own words and verses, and other divine revelations, "signs."  Indeed, God's universe is a sacred "book" and so all of creation, all things, all creatures are "signs" by which God is continually disclosing His own divine reality.  As the Quran states: "Wherever you turn, there is the face of God" (1:115).  God's Prophets and His perfected beings, or saints see God in everything.  

Chittick revises his definition of Sufism continually throughout the book.  He says Sufism is the name for doing what is beautiful and striving after spiritual perfection, which is Union with God.  One begins by "Worshiping God as if they see Him" until eventually one comes to "worshiping God while seeing Him."

Dhikr --Remembrance of God-- is the primary practice of Sufism.  Remembrance leads to the transformation, the purification of the ego and the opening of the heart.  When the door of the heart opens, when one sees God within the heart as one's self, then all veils are lifted; one sees God in all created things.  Dhikr is a practice of awareness, of constantly being conscious of the spiritual journey, the intention that motivates the seeker, and the bringing of the teachings into actuality.  Sufism, then, could be defined, writes Chittick, as the interiorization and the intensification of Islamic faith and practice.  It's goal is the full and perfect embodiment of the Truth: "I am God" - "I am the Real."

God loves to be known, He loves His presence to be perceived by His creatures, however to most people God is hidden, invisible.  Sufis take Dhikr very seriously, and practice it very intensely and dutifully.  The practice can take many forms, but saying God's name over and over, outwardly and inwardly, is the primary practice.  Reciting the Quran is a form of Dhikr, and the constant studying, contemplating, and interpreting the Words of, the many Names and attributes of God, and the Hadith of the Prophet are forms of Dhikr.  

Prof. Chittick says that imagination can be defined as the innate ability for the soul to perceive the presence of God in all things.  "Wherever you turn, there is the face of God" (2:115).  Chittick says the Sufis took the Prophet's teaching of ihsan - "to worship God as if you see Him" - as a reference to the power of imagination.  Through the methodical concentration on "the face of God" as revealed in the Quran, the Sufis strengthened the as if in the Prophet's words with the aim of reaching the stage of "unveiling," which is the supra-rational vision of God's presence in the world and in the soul.  The great Sufi sage Ibn 'Arabi (d.1240) asserts that "unveiling" is a mode of knowledge superior to reason.  Chittick adds: the eye of imagination [the "Eye" of the heart] revels in God's presence, unlike the the eye of reason which, as I have already mentioned above, eventually reaches the conclusion that God is nowhere to be found.

Ma'rifa, a term that literally means "knowledge" or "recognition" is often used in classical Sufic texts.  This term refers to a special, deeper knowledge of things that can only be achieved by personal transformation.  For example, the hadith "He who knows himself knows his Lord" demands a simultaneous acquisition of both self-knowledge and God-knowledge.  The Sufi texts repeatedly tell us, writes Chittick, that this kind of knowledge cannot be found in books.  Rather, it is already present in the heart, for God has placed it there at the time of creation, but it is hidden deep beneath the dross of ignorance, forgetfulness, outwardly oriented activity, and rational articulation.  Imaginal perception, in this regard, is much more powerful and useful than rational, sensory perception.  To more accurately define Ma'rifa it is important to emphasize, says Chittick, that this is the kind of knowledge that comes direct from within the self, in other words, from God; it is divine knowledge that flows freely in the open heart, and most perfectly in the purified heart.

We live in a dualistic world.  Everything must be one thing or another, but paradoxically God is both nothing and everything, both near and far, both transcendent and immanent, both absent and present, both this and not-this.  Many Sufis maintain that true understanding of God can only be achieved through perplexity and bewilderment, awe, wonder and astonishment.  We cannot see God with sense perception, for, truly speaking, God is the only Seer.  Bewilderment is that which is beyond the mind, beyond the senses; its a taste of the never-ending bliss of paradise.

Once the seeker loves God, they will be loved by God in return.  The Prophet says: "When I love him, I am his hearing with which he hears, his sight with which he sees, his hand with which he grasps, and his foot with which he walks."  Chittick says the Sufis focus intensely on the words "I am" in the Prophet's saying, and the Sufis remind us that God is already our hearing, our seeing . . . The problem, say the Sufis, is not God's nearness to us, for "He is closer than our juggler vein"; the problem is our nearness to God, which we cannot see.  The way the Sufis act on this problem is to devote oneself to the Prophetic model, for it is said that the Prophet had perfectly assimilated the Quran; he had become the living character of the Quran.

The Quran tells us that after God created Adam "He taught him the names, all of them" (2:31).  God taught Adam language at the time of his creation (and He teaches all human beings language at the time of their creation), thus our Soul contains all of God's knowledge, all the Names of everything He created.  But naming pertains to separation and multiplicity, to the rational discernment that allows us to experience ourselves as different from another.  All names are bodies, but on the other hand, the names also have fixed archetypes in the Celestial, Eternal, Guarded Tablet.

In the Sufi view, the difficulty of our situation arises from the fact that we have forgotten that God taught us the names at the beginning, when He created Adam, and that, in order to know the significance of the names, in order to perceive the realities behind the names, we have to know the names as God breathed them into Adam.

Inasmuch as the world and all things within it are isolated from their divine source, they are distorted, dark, and disoriented.  But the same world, and the same things, when considered as the signs of God, are the shinning rays of the "risen Sun."  Those who can "see" celebrate the blessedness of all things.  In order to learn how to see God in oneself and in all things, one has to learn how to remember, and be aware of God constantly.

The Sufis say that by becoming aware of things in the outside and inside worlds as Names (forms) of God, and by understanding that our seeing is His seeing, we can transcend, abase or annihilate the ego that separates us from our own divine essence.  The saints live in this constant state of ego annihilation, this state of constant blissful Oneness with God.

"There is no lover and no beloved but God" says Ibn 'Arabi.  Lovers grasp this when they reach the point of seeing God in everything that exists.  "The soul sees that it sees Him only through Him, not through itself.  God is the lover and the beloved, the seeker and the sought."  Thus love for any creature or thing can only be love for the Creator, or God, though He be "veiled" to those who love.  When their love is complete the lovers live in the joy of experiencing their own Union with the One who is both lover and beloved.  It is the pain of separation which brings us to the burning longing for love, that is to say, God.

It is through the things and creatures of the world that God's Names, His "Hidden Treasures" are manifested.  The Sufis say without the created world and the creatures, God would be alone; Nothing would exist but pure blinding light, with no one to look and nothing to be seen.  All creatures, things and events of the universe are "signs" since each contain and display traces of God's names and attributes.  And "everything in ourselves" is a sign of God.

All of Chapter 8, which is entitled "Images of Beatitude" is devoted to the writings of Baha Walad (d.1230) from his Ma 'arif.  The following words are Prof. Chittick's:

Baha Walad's writings are records of encounters with God in the little details of everyday life. . .  a series of personal "I" statement meditations, each beginning with a phrase or verse from the Quran, or a hadith, or a recollection.

Baha Walad constantly tells us that every sweet and desirable thing in both worlds [inner and outer] rises up from the experience of God's presence.  For Baba Walad as well as for Rumi, the vision of God in all creation takes place in infinite variety and never-ending joy.  Both attempt to describe the diversity of forms within which they perceive the divine self-disclosure, and it is here that poetical imagery is born.  The vision of God takes place at the level of "thought" -- which as Rumi makes clear, is identical with "imagination."  So the mind of the seer becomes a fountain of fresh and ever-renewed images overflowing into language.

Baha Walad describes how his thoughts take on imaginal form in many of his passages.  One soon reaches the conclusion that everything he says fits into a radiant tapestry woven of the ceaseless images of God's self-showing.


Following, now, are three excerpts from Baha Walad's Ma 'arif.  I am grateful to Prof. Chittick for making this early Sufic writing so generously available in his book Sufism:

These words of my thoughts, like green herbs and saffron--from which breast have they sprung up? . . .  Then I saw that God is working alone behind this curtain of the Unseen. . .  No one becomes cognizant of how He works. . .  Then I saw that the world is like a house . . . that God has brought out.  He has sent out my meanings on its inside, like aware individuals . . .  My substances are like the walls of the houses, within which the meanings walk.  The world is sweet for those who find it like Eden.  After all, how should I not be happy?  God does all my acts.  He by Himself makes and gives being to my earth, my air, and all my atoms.  I see that all my parts are happily leaning on God's act . . .

I saw that the parts of my thoughts, my courses of action, and my perceptions are like birds, and sparrows and gnats standing up straight before God. . .  He Himself bestows upon them life and He bestow upon them taste, so that each of these birds might open up its wings to ease . . .  He showed me a hundred thousand many-colored flowers.  Then He opened up the parts of the flowers and showed me a hundred thousand green herbs and flowing waters and blowing winds, and He opened up the winds and showed me a hundred thousand freshnesses. 


I keep entering into the remembrance of God and the meaning of God, for the meaning of God is better than all.  . . . The more the tongue moves in uttering the remembrance of God, the more the heart opens up and the more that precious things appear within it.  It is as if the remembrance of God is the east wind bringing news of the Beloved.  It delights the earth . . . by filling it with gardens and orchards.  Water flows before the door of every house of the body, and blossoms pour down in the meadow of each organ and part. . .    If your inward self also looks cleanly and clearly it will become aware . . .  and find that very joy.  ~  Now, utter the remembrance of God so much that you see God. . . .  When your veils are torn by the remembrance of God, you will see. 


Prof. Chittick writes:  Baha Walad sees the same significance that is stated in the famous hadith, "God has seventy veils of light and darkness; were He to lift them, the glories of His face would burn away everything that the eyesight of His creatures perceives."

Chittich frequently compares the rational methodology of the Kalam experts (Islamic scholastic theologists) against the Sufis' recourse to imagination.  The Kalam abstracts God from the world.  "He is too transcendent to see," they say.  The theological vision of the Sufis, on the other hand, which was so popular in pre-modern times, and which is now, according to Chittick, becoming popular again in our contemporary world, is about actually experiencing God. If lovers cannot have the beloved in their embrace, says Chittick, at least they want to keep the beloved in mind.  The mental picture must be beautiful, attractive, and captivating in order to be lovable.  It must encourage intimacy and constant remembrance.

The Sufis affirm the dual nature of the world, and Adam's expulsion from Eden was necessary, they say with compassion, for duality makes it possible for God to be loved and to have His creatures love Him, remember Him, and ultimately to return to Him.  The separation creates longing for God in His creatures, and it makes Union possible.

Chittick says the following is the most reliable Hadith regarding the veil: "God's veil is light.  Were He to remove the veil or veils, the glories of His face would burn away everything that the eyesight of His creatures perceives."  

It is God who removes the veil, not the creature.  Sufis agree with the notion that God cannot be seen with the sensory eyes and the rational mind.  But they do believe that God can be seen by the unveiled heart, for God is immanent.  When the ego is annihilated, God is at last seen . . .  but not with the sensory eyes.  God is seen with the Eye of the heart.

Veils have many names: the veil of Rust, the veil of clouding, the veil of reason, the veil of knowledge, sense perception, desire, will . . .  Everything is a veil except pure knowledge, that which rises up from inside the heart.  Pure knowledge is not a veil.  And the Sufis say this knowledge can only be gained by completely emptying the heart of everything that has come from the outside.

Ibn 'Arabi says that people can never see anything but images. "The whole universe, in all its temporal and spatial extent, is nothing but an incomprehensibly vast image of God's knowledge, a single infinite veil over the one divine Face."

The mark of lovers is high aspiration (himma) . . . Love means to be free of everything in the created world and to choose God.  It is to serve God, nothing else.  Human beings alone were created such that they can love God in His infinite, all-comprehensive reality . . . When they focus on God by realizing tawhid, they escape the limitations of possessing certain attributes rather than others. . .  If human beings are to aspire to God, they need to be able to differentiate between God and all else.  The key to human love and perfection is a discerning heart, one that sees God in the midst of the confusing multiplicity of creation."

One of the earliest Sufi writers, Niffari (b. 970) says that through "the light of God's guidance" an opening of "the door to unveiling" will occur for the seeker.  Thus, Niffari says "Wish not for that which cannot be wished for!  Instead, ask God to sprinkle something of His light on your essence."

We will conclude this collection of excerpts from William Chittick's Sufism with the mysterious words of Niffari regarding the veil and unveiling:

He said to me:  Once you have seen Me, unveiling and the veil will be equal.

He said: You will not stand in vision until you see My veil as vision and My vision as veil.

He said: O My servant!  There is a veil that is not unveiled, and an unveiling that is not veiled.  The veil that is not unveiled is knowledge of Me, and the unveiling that is not veiled is knowledge of Me.

He made me stand in the veil.  Then I saw that He has veiled Himself from a group through His creation. 

He said to me: No veil remains.  Then I saw all eyes gazing at His face, staring.  They see Him in everything through which He veils Himself, and when they lower their gaze, they see Him in themselves.


This project was published on September 1, 2016

Studies : Sufism ~ Signs, Veils, The Symbolic Photograph

click here   Part I : Introduction & Photographs
click here   Part II : Text Excerpts from William Chittick's book: Sufism
click here   Part III : Commentaries 

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