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Does Islam Have a Spiritual Dimension for the Spiritual Perfection of Man?


By Ali Unal


Man has innate inclination to know where he comes from, what his end will be, and what his purpose in life is

Man has innate inclination to know where he comes from, what his end will be, and what his purpose in life is. While traditional man had no difficulty in answering these questions and knew with certainty where he came from, why he was living and where he was going, modern man, under the heavy burden of modern life and the influence of modern conceptions, knows almost nothing of these essential problems arising from his very nature. This ignorance does not, however, change his situation: he, like the traditional man, is born and dies, and this fact has never changed nor will it do so, in spite of the ‘gigantic’ advancements in science and technology. The only difference is that what was once certainty has been replaced by doubt and fear.


He is a finite being contained by an infinitude

Man’s situation between these two fixed points, that is, birth and death, has not changed at all. He is still a finite being contained by an infinitude, who cannot escape being stirred by his very nature to an understanding of the Infinite and the Absolute. With regard to the Absolute and all the states of being which comprise the universe, man is what he has always been and always will be, one of the fairest creatures with the highest point of creation, yet with the potentiality to fall down to ‘the lowest of the low’.

According to the Qur’an, the process of creation is circular (As He brought you forth in the beginning so unto Him shall you also return. 7:29) in the sense that it ends at the point from where it started. The atheist is also of the same view, but he conceives matter, space and time or something presentable in terms of four dimensions as the point wherefrom the process starts and at which it also ends. Although matter is furthest from the state of perfection, he holds it, in its most chaotic condition, as the beginning and the end of the creation, which he deems as accidental and purposeless. Whereas according to the Qur’an, the existence starts with the highest state of perfection, and then proceeds down to matter, which has the least degree of perfection, and then again it turns back upward to the point from where it started.

He regulates the affair from the heaven to the earth, then shall it go up to Him in one day the measure of which is thousand years of what you reckon. (32:5)


Creation in the “Breath” of the Compassionate

This process is designed and administered by the Creative Will, and the Divine Grace and Compassion (rahma) is an a Priori factor in the manifestation of this Will. Therefore Compassion is the principle of the manifestation of the Infinite, so that the universe is called by the Muslim sufis ‘the Breath of the Compassionate’. Each particle of existence is immersed in this Breath, which endows it with a ‘sympathy’, with an ‘attraction’ to other beings, and above all with the source of the Breath, the Divine Compassion. That is why each atom of the universe is regarded as the theophany of the Divine Names and Attributes. Mahmud Shabstari, in his Gulshan-i Raz (The Mystic Rose Garden), expresses the Divine Being as manifested in everything, whether big or small:

Know the world is a mirror from head to foot,

In every atom a hundred blazing suns.

If you cleave the heart of one drop of water,

A hundred pure oceans emerge from it.

If you examine closely each grain of sand,

A thousand Adams may be seen in it.

In its members a gnat is like an elephant;

In its qualities a drop of rain is like the Nile.

The heart of a barley-corn equals a hundred harvests,

A world dwells in the heart of a millet seed.

In the wing of a gnat is the ocean of the life,

In the pupil of the eye a heaven;

What though the grain of the heart be small,

It is a station for the Lord of both worlds to dwell therein.

(Translated by E. H. Whinfield)


The Light of Muhammad is actually the theatre of the theophany of all the Divine Names and Attributes

Because existence is the manifestation of God’s grace or compassion, the order and hierarchy of creation begins with the highest and most comprehensive created entity, who is the compassion unto all worlds or beings, and the foremost in having within the fold of his existence all the excellences which are to be revealed in the chain of beings next to him in grade and elevation. This entity, being the most comprehensive in perfection and the embodiment of God’s Compassion, is presented in various terms but the most appropriate one is ‘the Light of Muhammad’ or ‘Reality of Muhammad’. Like sunshine radiating through everything from a molecule of water to the whole surface of the sea, and to the heavenly bodies, so the Light of Muhammad is actually the theatre of the theophany of all the Divine Names and Attributes, and the archetype of the cosmos.


The hierarchy of creation

The hierarchy of creation then unfolds itself in innumerable spheres of intellectual and angelical beings. In the Qur’an, they are termed ‘the Malakut’ or realms of unseen active spiritual and psychic entities. Each sphere is held by the one above it and this holds the sphere below it, ending in the four dimensional sphere known as material being. This is the lowest sphere which is held but has no holding faculty of its own at all, so it is termed in the Qur’an ‘Alam-i Mulk’ or ‘Alam-i Shadat’, the held-world or seen-world. This world forms the base of the hierarchy, the summit of which is the first and the most perfect and comprehensive entity. This base has nothing of the actual or the creative in it, but it is endowed with unlimited potentiality and recipience which forms the background of its upward and spiritually evolutionary movement.

Thus matter in its upward course begins with the simplest form of particles of atom and then proceeds towards the formation of atoms into nebulae and solar system, populated with inanimate and animate things, of plants, animals, man and other conscious and intellectual beings of various species, the nature and number of whom the Creator alone knows. So far as the earth is concerned, inanimate elements are employed by the Creator to develop into plants, thus being elevated to the simplest degree of life. Life evolves through plants and animals until it reaches perfection with man, who is the most complicated and the highest intellectual entity, into which matter has developed, and with which the hierarchy of creation returns to the point from where it started.


Man is endowed with the power of discovery and invention, and has been taught ‘the names’, which are the keys to the knowledge of all things

Man is endowed with the power of discovery and invention, and has been taught ‘the names’, which are the keys to the knowledge of all things. He is also gifted with the power to receive through his external and internal senses all that is manifested by God’s Will in the various spheres -terrestrial, celestial and supercelestial, and to reflect and reproduce all that he has received. Although man is at the summit of the hierarchy of creation on account of his celestial origin, he has to live upon the earth because of the vegetable and animal aspects of his existence. It is precisely because of these contradictory features of his being, the angelic nature and the terrestrial crust hiding the spiritual core, that man lives in this world and yet is bound by his own nature to transcend it.


Man is the bearer of the Supreme Divine Trust

The Qur’anic verse “Surely We created man of the fairest creature; then We reduced him to the lowest of the low” (95:4-5) defines the situation of man in this world in a manner that is at once perennial and universal. Man was created in the fairest stature, then he fell into the condition of separation and withdrawal from his celestial prototype, to a condition which the Qur’an calls the lowest of the low. Upon this point, a Muslim Sufi commentator writes that God created man as the most complete and perfect theophany, the most universal and all-embracing theatre of Divine Names and Attributes, so that he might become the bearer of the Divine Trust (amana) and the source of an unlimited effusion of light. He identifies ‘the lowest of the low’ with the world of natural passions and heedlessness. The grandeur of the human state, its great possibilities and perils, and the permanent nature of man’s quest after the Divine thus lie at the very root of human existence. Avicenna, a famous Muslim philosopher of the eleventh century, expresses in the following poem this idea that the human soul feels constrained to leave this world and to return to the angelic world from where it came:


Now why from its perch on high was it cast like this

To the lowest Nadir’s gloomy and dear abyss?

Was it God who cast it forth for some purpose wise,

Concealed from the keenest seeker’s inquiring eyes?

Then is its descent a discipline wise but stern,

That the things that it has not heard it thus may learn.

So ‘tis she whom Fate does plunder, while the star

Sets at length in a place from its rising far,

Like a gleam of lightning which over the meadows shone,

And, as though it never had been, in a moment is gone.

(E.G. Brown’s translation)


Finite forms in the cosmos reveal the traces of the Infinite

The cosmos continually reveals to man the eternal message of the Truth. Its finite forms reveal the traces of the Infinite. As Ali ibn Ali Talib said, “I wonder at the man who observes the universe created by God and doubts His existence.” The Qur’an says concerning this point:

To God belongs the Kingdom of the heavens and of the earth; and God is powerful over everything. Surely in the creation of the heavens and earth and in the alternation of night and day there are signs for men possessed of minds, who remember God, standing and sitting and lying on their sides, and reflect upon the creation of the heavens and the earth:

“Our Lord, You have not created this for vanity. Glory be to You! Guard us against the chastisement of the Fire. Our Lord, whomsoever You admit into the Fire, You will have abased; and the evildoers shall have no helpers. Our Lord, we have heard a caller calling us to belief, saying, “Believe you in your Lord!” And so we believe. Our Lord, forgive You us our sins and acquit us for our evil deeds, and take us to You with the pious. Our Lord, give us what You have promised us through Your Messengers, and abase us not on the Day of Resurrection; You will not fail the tryst.” And their Lord answers them: “I waste not the labor of any that labors among you, be you male or female -the one of you is as the other.” (3:189-195)

Man has need of revelation, which like the cosmos itself comes from the Infinite and the Absolute, and hence serves as the key for the unfolding of the mysteries of man’s own being as well as those of the universe. Revelation is in itself a gift that has descended from the Divine mercy to enable man to pass beyond the finite to the Infinite.


Revelation enables the human soul to make a journey from the outward to the inward, from the periphery to the center, from form to meaning, the journey which is none other than the mystical quest itself

Revelation enables the human soul to make a journey from the outward to the inward, from the periphery to the center, from form to meaning, the journey which is none other than the mystical quest itself. Because of the intimate relation the soul has with the cosmos, this journey is at once a penetration to the center of the soul and a migration to the abode beyond the cosmos. In both places the Divine Presence resides. Man, by following the ‘outer’ form of Islam, migrates into the inner and by the grace of God transcends the finite world to regain his primordial angelic state, and thus to complete the circle of creation. The spiritual path, as it exists in Islam, is one in which man dies to his carnal soul in order to be reborn in his angelic self.

Those who have found the Truth have found Him in their souls;

Those who have been detained half-way have been hindered by conjectures.

Who truly seeks will truly find Him, while the indolent can do neither;

For His slaves on their spiritual journey, He is the final destination.

The souls who do not recognize Him as friend, who do not die to themselves to be raised again in him,

The souls who do not die for His sake are utterly bereft and destitute.

Come, friends, let’s set out to reach the realm of the Beloved;

And let us see the rose of His beauty for a moment in light.

The world is pitiless and cruel, all around in fog and cloud;

It is but a loss and waste of time to stay here even for a short while.

We are travelers, and our home-coming is with Him alone; what an honor then to reach him; and

Faith is the only means of attaining this aim by His leave and grace.

As frequently pointed out in this book, Islam is the religion of unity and all the aspects of the Islamic doctrine and practice reflect this central and cardinal principle. The Shari‘a itself is a vast network of injunctions and regulations which relate the world of multiplicity inwardly to a single center, and which conversely is reflected in the multiplicity of the circumference. In the same way Islamic art always seeks to relate the multiplicity of forms, shapes and color to the One, to the center and Origin, thereby reflecting Tawhid in its own way in the world of forms with which it is concerned.


Sufism, being the inner dimension of the Islamic revelation, is the means par excellence whereby Tawhid is achieved

Sufism, being the inner dimension of the Islamic revelation, is the means par excellence whereby Tawhid is achieved. All Muslims believe in unity as expressed in the most universal sense possible by the Shadah, La ilahe ill’Allah, that is, there is not deity but God.

The whole program of Sufism, of the Islamic spiritual way, is to free man from the prison of multiplicity, and to purify him of any mental process or physical action which diverts his ego-center towards temporal and sensual desires. It is to cure him of hypocrisy and to make him whole, for it is only in being whole that man can become holy. Men confess the one God but actually live and act as if there were many gods. Thus they suffer from the cardinal sin of ‘polytheism’ or shirk, and from a hypocrisy whereby they profess one thing but act according to something different. Sufism seeks to bring shirk into the open, and thereby to cure the soul of this deadly malady. The aim and goal of Sufism is to integrate man at every level of his existence.

Such an integration is brought about by the harmonization of all the faculties, the body, the mind, and the spirit, and not through the negation of the intelligence which so often occurs with modern religious movements. The methods of Sufism base themselves upon the practices of the Shari‘a, and in particular, the daily prayers, which are a most powerful means of integrating man’s psychic faculties and harmonizing them with his corporeal being.

The main method of Sufism, in fact, is to extend the prayers so that they become continuous. This extension is not only quantitative, but also qualitative, that is, Sufism uses this quintessential form of prayer, the dhikr or invocation, in which all otherness and separation from the Divine is removed and man achieves Tawhid. With the help of dhikr, combined with appropriate forms of meditation or fikr, man first gains an integrated soul, pure and whole like gold, and then by means of dhikr, he offers his soul to God so as to return to him in ecstasy.

The man who has achieved this integration possesses certain characteristics discernible to everyone; it leaves its imprint even upon his outward appearance, which of necessity reflects his inner state. Such a person is first of all cured of all the maladies of the soul, not by having all tensions and complexes removed in the manner of modern psycho-analysis, but by having those tensions which arise from man’s urge and need for the transcendent realized and fulfilled. Moreover, such a man does not live a compartmentalized existence, his thoughts and actions all issue from a single center and are based on a series of immutable principles. In him, the Islamic ideal of unifying contemplation with the practical is realized. He does not act or think in the normal manner, rather his contemplation and meditation are combined in the purest and most intense activity. By virtue of his becoming integrated, he reflects the Divine Unity and becomes the total theophany of the Divine Names and Qualities. He acts and lives in such a manner that there is a spiritual fragrance and beauty about all he does and says. Somehow he is in touch with that baraka or Divine grace which runs through the arteries of the universe.

The man who has achieved integration has reached the goal of his life, and is cured forever of the fear of death, which is so destructive to modern man. He perceives that death is not total annihilation but merely a shifting from a state of lesser sensitivity to a higher one. Man belongs to God, and as stated in the Qur’an, the movement of every individual, as well as the societies of beings a whole, is toward God. Death is, therefore, nothing but a shift and change from one stage of existence to a higher one which ultimately terminates with God. Of man’s sensory faculties, whether external or internal, none is destroyed by death, on the contrary, all these become refined and sharpened. The only relationship which is severed by death is the direct relationship of the conscious ego with the outer material world, with which it is connected through external senses. The material life is a veil to human senses and consciousness; on the removal of this veil by death all the faculties are sharpened. This is confirmed by a tradition of the Holy Prophet, who said, “Men are at present in a state of sleep; they will awake when they die.” So death is actually an ascension, and therefore not something to be feared by the sincere Muslim but is a gate opening towards the higher realities and pleasures of existence. It is a transference from the dungeons of worldly life to the gardens of Paradise, and from the world of labor and troubles to the abode of rewards.

In a Prophetic tradition in which God speaks God says:

My servant draws near unto me by works of supererogation, so that I love him; and when I love him, I am his ear with which he hears through Me, and his eye with which he sees through Me, and his tongue with which he speaks through Me, and his hand with which he takes through Me.



Said Nursi, Mesnevi-i Nuriye, (‘Epitomes of Light’), Istanbul

M. Abdulfettah Sahin, Truth through Colours, Izmir, 1992

Emerald Hills of the Heart, Izmir 1998

S. Hussain Nasr, Sufi Essays, London

Three Muslim Sages, Cambridge, 1964

Science and Civilization in Islam, London, 1987

Mahmud Shabstari, Gulshan-i Raz, (Turkish trans.) Ankara

M. M. Pouya, Fundamentals of Islam, Karachi

M. Ibn al-Arabi, Shajarat al-Kawn, 1982

Ataullah Iskenderani, Hikmetler Kitabi, (Turkish trans.)1981

Martin Lings, Yirminci Yuzyilda Bir Veli (Turkish trans.)1980

Titus Burckhardt, Islam Tasavvuf Doktrinine Giris (Turkish trans)1982

Abdul-Karim al-Jili, Insan al-Kamil (Turkish trans) 1975

Abdul-Karim al-Qushairi, Qushairi Risalesi (Turkish trans.) Istanbul