Articles and Translations

Reality and Image in the Tafsīr of Kubrā and Rāzī

Paul Ballanfat

Paul Ballanfat studied Philosophy and Islamic Studies as well as Arabic, Turkish and Persian. He currently teaches at Galatasaray University in Istanbul, Turkey. He has concentrated on Sufism in Persian and Turkish culture, and is author of several books in French, including translations of Ruzbehan Baqli Shirazi’s The Spirits’ Procession, The Unveiling of Secrets and Najm al-din Kubra’s The Blossoming of Beauty and the Scents of Majesty. His most recent books are Messianisme et sainteté: les poèmes du mystique ottoman Niyazi Misri (Paris 2012) and Unité et spiritualité: le courant Hamzevi-Melami dans l’empire ottoman (Paris, 2013). [/]


Articles by Paul Ballanfat

Reality and Image in the Tafsīr of Kubrā and Rāzī



We have never been so surrounded and permeated by images as we are at the beginning of the twenty-first century. For Islam the problem is all the more fundamental for being completely hidden, or perverted, by a reverse understanding of the relationship between the photographic and cinematographic image, corresponding to the industrial logic of infinite reproduction and to the needs of state control of populations, and exhibition painting, original and regarded as sacred. Not so very long ago, Islam forbade representations of living beings in its places of worship and took a very dim view of secular representations such as miniatures, and in particular portraits, forcing the Ottoman Sultans to have themselves painted on the quiet. Now, it is no longer possible today in the Muslim world to take a step, to speak or even to take part in a private meeting without someone thrusting his camera in your face to record your presence and to prepare for himself the deferred pleasure of contemplating his own item in the exhibition. We see also the capitals of the Muslim world teeming with portraits of leaders great and small, even in the mosques I have seen, in the mihrāb of the great Mosque of the Imam in Isfahan, photographs stuck to the wall of the two Guides of the Revolution, Khomeinī and Khāmenei.

This has led me to ask questions on the nature and function of images, and this seems to be an urgent need in our time of extreme confusion. The notion of representation occurs frequently in the tafsīr by Kubrā and Rāzī. It even plays a strategic role in the conceptual framework underlying the whole analysis of the Qur’anic text. Indeed, the tafsīr unceasingly opposes reality and metaphor in matters relating e.g. to faith, life, sincerity, man etc. So it seemed to me that in order to address the problem of man in the image of God, and the question of vision, it would be appropriate also to reflect on the nature of image.

Before engaging in the analysis, it is fitting to say something about the text which will serve as the basis of these reflections. The work is a commentary on the Qur’an [jointly] attributed by tradition to Najm al-dīn Kubrā (d.1220-21).[1] Authorship of the text is particularly problematic. A number of specialists attribute it exclusively to Najm al-dīn Rāzī (d.654/1256), a disciple of Kubrā by the intermediary of his spiritual son Majd al-dīn Baghdādī (544-607/1149-1219 or 616/1219), who was igno­miniously executed by order of ‘Alā’ al-dīn Muhammad Khwārazmshāh.[2] It seems in fact that a number of elements of the tafsīr resemble passages of the Manārāt al-sā’irīn by Rāzī. Some passages are even found verbatim in both works, meaning that they have been borrowed by one text or the other. It is not however possible to be certain that the author has borrowed passages from the Manārāt, for the opposite is also possible. Moreover, there is no guarantee that the passages occurring in the Manārāt are also by Rāzī’s hand. Indeed, we find in this latter work by Rāzī that passages of Kubrā’s text are quoted with no reference to Kubrā, a feature which we find in other Kubrawī authors. Thus one can legitimately assume that Rāzī could have borrowed these passages in the tafsīr to put them in the Manārāt. In addition, there are numerous incoherencies in the tafsīr. Some ideas are contradictory, with the scale of spiritual organs being presented in two opposing forms, Kubrā’s (nafs, qlb, ruh, sirr), and Rāzī’s (nafs, qlb, sirr, ruh, khafi). This is also true of other elements such as the interpretation of certain Qur’anic verses characteristic of Kubrā’s style being present in the tafsīr, and interpreted in the opposite way in the Manārāt al-sā’irīn. These elements, which will be more closely argued and presented in the critical edition, lead me provisionally to consider that the commentary on the Qur’an must originally have been written by Kubrā. This is borne out by a note in a manuscript of another treatise which I saw in Istanbul, and that Rāzī must have added his own considerations in the course of reading when he judged it necessary. Sometimes he did not hesitate to tack on whole sections borrowed from other tafsīrs without acknowledgement, notably for example Sulamī’s at the end of the twelfth Sūra, Yūsuf.

In order better to understand what is at stake in the question of image in the tafsīr attributed to Kubrā, we must first show in what way the question is central to him. In addition, we must note that this centrality is notably expressed by the fact that he proposes only very few explanations of the relationship between image and reality. It is hence a question both central and only glimpsed. The fact is that this is the problem which influences our author’s whole analysis of the Qur’an. Indeed, he rests his whole analysis on the opposition between shadow and light, metaphor and reality. Thus, existence in the world below is a shadow, out of which it is appropriate to go to find the light. Bodily existence is an exile in which the Adamic spirit was confined because he was unable to resist the insatiable curiosity of his soul, which pushed him on to approach the Tree of Paradise, which is for our author the “Tree of Love”. He thus succumbed to what may be seen as a trick by God, Who, knowing the greed of the soul for new sensations, and his attraction to the forbidden, placed the Tree in the way of Paradise by attaching a Keep Out notice. In this way, man could only renounce immediate satisfaction in paradise to follow the way of agony and ordeal which would lead him into the vilest depths. Man thus finds himself stretched between two extremes, the lowliness of his earthly condition and his desire to escape from there to higher regions. He is in reality composed of two substances body, which belongs to the world of created beings, and spirit, which is a privilege coming directly from God and which belongs to the world of Order. Understanding man is therefore strictly dependent for our author on a dual concept of existence. In fact, we shall see further on that this existence also has intermediate degrees. The duality of the human condition is well expressed in a statement by Kubrā according to which the body is in exile and the spirit in its homeland (T.VI.76).

This very dualistic view of existence entails a hard view of the relationship between body and spirit, between the body and the heart. Each of these seeks to kill the other, and salvation for the heart consists in putting the soul to death with the sabre of sincerity. Thus, man appears as the location of a fight to the death, the stakes of which are existence in the true sense, or real existence. Existence in the world is thence only the metaphor for real existence, a sort of caricature which badly imitates reality. This is the framework in which we must understand the antitheses on which the discourse of Kubrā in his tafsīr rests. Man is plunged into the darkness of his bodily existence, and this prevents him from attaining the reality of his existence, which he expresses thus, “Your existence is a veil between me and my Beloved, and it is all the fault of my existence” (T.V.28). It is that as the spirit it is light, and as the body it is darkness. To this opposition between the darkness and the light, there corresponds the opposition between image or form and meaning or reality. In this way he may say for example, “He put light into the hearts, and darkness into the souls. Light and darkness belong to the world of meanings, which is the world of order. But heaven and earth belong to the world of form” (T.VI.1). In the same way, Kubrā develops another opposition between imitation and reality, for example between imitative faith and real faith, and considers that imitation is the open door to impiety. We may also say that this particular reading of the human condition rests in the last analysis on the relationship between light and shadow, reality and image, and in the end, although he only suggests it, between existence and the created being. It is, then, into this framework that it is appropriate to set the problem of the form of man conceived in the image of God, which Kubrā interprets in a particular way which is not exactly of the order of the image, and obliges us to clarify this idea.


Man in the Image of God

The Hadīth of the Prophet, “God created Adam in His image” (T.II.26), is well known and regularly quoted by all the mystics. The translation of this saying raises a problem. It rests crucially on a certain interpretation of the word sūra, which can have several meanings. Our tafsīr gives an interpretation which removes the idea of image. He suggests understanding the saying in the form, God created Adam “according to His attribute”. And God gave to man in the measure of his weakness an examplar of each of the attributes of His Beauty and Majesty so that he might contemplate in the mirror of the attributes of his soul, the perfection of the attributes of his Lord, as the Prophet said, “He who knows his soul, knows his Lord” (T.II.26). This passage is crucial to the understanding of what Kubrā has in view in his interpretation of this Hadīth. Adam is not only in the image of God, for it would be necessary either to re-evaluate the status of the image to include the Adamic privilege relative to all creatures, or to exclude man totally from Reality, and make of him only a simple representation, which would automatically render mystical knowledge inconceivable. In fact, as Kubrā reminds us several times over, in clearly Neoplatonic tones, nothing can be known except by itself, which in the present case means that man can know God, which is the Divine plan in creation, only in so far as man is the same as God. Thus the interpretation of this Hadīth needs us to build the relationship of sameness between man and God.

This resemblance is not of the order of the image. It is therefore not properly speaking a resemblance, i.e. a correspondence between two modes of appearance. It is rather a matter of a sort of complex identity. Kubrā’s phrase reveals the fact that man is provided with God’s attribute. This endowment makes man the repository, the support, of the attributes of God. From this viewpoint, there is identity with God. But this identity is complex. The difference resides in the fact that on the one hand the essence of God is unified with His attributes from all eternity, and that in the essence the attributes are thus mixed together. With man, on the other hand, the attributes are given to a created being, which implies a temporal difference and, moreover, with him attributes are distinguished from each other, as we see from the distinction between the attributes of beauty and majesty. This means that God can make His attributes differ from the essence by making them, as it were, leave Him to clothe a creature. The attributes are in fact the very basis of creation. Thus, Kubrā explains that the reason for creation is the manifestation of His beauty and majesty. “God has placed the creatures as mirrors relative to each other, to manifest there His attributes by perfection, save man, who is the most perfect of the creatures by his capacity, beauty and character of mirror” (T.VI.73). Thus the exit of the attributes from the essence is a manifestation, a showing-forth by which God intends to show something of His essence, since it is the essence which shows through the attributes. Man, invested with the attributes even in the mode of difference, is ipso facto the place of manifestation of the attributes of God. It is even insofar as he exists in a manner differentiated from God’s existence it is only of God that we can say that He is the existence (wujūd) and He Who exists (mawjūd) according to Kubrā that man can be the place of manifestation of the attributes of God, by his own perfection. The other creatures are indeed also places of manifestation of the attributes. Moreover, he tells us, the creatures are mirrors and have truly speaking no other function, so much so that the meaning of creation is completely contained in his reflective nature. Aside from this, the most surprising thing in all that Kubrā says, is the idea according to which creatures are mirrors in relation to each other. They thus form a reflective network, perhaps a sort of panoptic, which in its global nature expresses the totality of the attributes. It is that among other things which makes the difference between the creatures and man. Only he reunites the totality of attributes within himself and only he can truly be the manifested Divine perfection, while the creatures are each the expression of a limited number of Attributes.

Man’s two differences, temporal leap and plurality, make him the manifestation par excellence, in particular in the person of Muhammad, who is the light, and whom God names light, giving him His own name. This specificity of man causes him to be behind the Divine essence and his own essence. This implies that the Divine perfection of which he is the bearer, is a perfection in process of becoming, which he has to take charge of himself, like “the pupil who adds colour to the drawing of the master”, says Kubrā (T.IV.88). The showing-forth of the attributes thus allows them to be set out in detail, both because they are different from each other, at first unknown, then given to know, and at last known, and because they deploy themselves in their infinite plurality in form, that is to say as image. We shall return to this. Man is the place of the showing-forth of perfection because he possesses three specific qualities: the capacity to receive the Divine attributes, beauty, and finally the quality of reflecting. The capacity to receive the Divine attributes makes direct reference to the weakness of man. It is this weakness which drives me to translate isti’dād as capacity and not as aptitude. Man is the weakest of creatures because he is empty in himself. The central place of man is his heart. This is in the image of the Supreme Name of God, the hā’ of Allah, which in Arabic script forms a circle. This circle is at once a sign of the capacity of the circle to encompass everything, and also of its essential emptiness. It is this place without place, whose centre is hidden, and this is why in the vision of the Circle of God, it seems to Kubrā to be without a centre, unlike the others.[3] The emptiness of man is what allows him to receive all the Divine attributes, and this emptiness is his own heart, which is the visible face of the essence of God, or again the written trace of the primordial breath, of the sympathy which is the expression of Divine Love. It is to the extent that man is by nature not encumbered by a pre-established disposition, like the angels for example, that he has at one and the same time the capacity to incorporate the Divine behaviour and is able to descend right to the bottom of creation, there to discern the Attributes in the guise of the forms and to remind them of their origin. This is a point to which Kubrā returns un­ceasingly and sometimes in a very precise way in his prophet­ology, that the prophet is not elected by predisposition or personal merit but is, on the contrary, elected by the free grace of God and His compassion. In short, it is in his native weakness that man finds himself elected and not by defined qualities. In other words, man has the supreme quality, that of being without qualities.

The other aspect of his weakness is the duality of man which we have already mentioned. It is at once corporeal, subject to the imperative of the creative Word, “kun!” and spiritual, belonging to the universe of order which precedes the created being, which makes him belong to the Divine existence. On the one hand he possesses a constitution which makes him the ladder of being, thus allowing him to discern the totality of being; and on the other, he possesses a supreme quality which belongs to God and allows him to surpass the angelic world.

God created the world according to seven types which are the places of manifestation of His signs and He brought them together in Adam, adding an eighth with which He conferred privilege on Adam. “I breathed into him of My Spirit”, so that he might be the place of manifestation and he who manifests the mirror of the existence of all His signs, attributes and essence. (T.III.33)

This is why Kubrā states that God created Adam in His image, i.e. “according to the constitution of a mirror in which His essence and attributes manifest”. This duality makes him the place par excellence in which the problem arises between interior (bātin) and exterior (zāhir). For this reason the angels could not perceive from the start who Adam was, and Iblis turned away from him, stating his own superiority and merit to be the lieutenant of God on earth instead of Adam. The beginning of the Sūra al-Baqara allows Kubrā to show this weakness of man, and the privilege which it confers on him. The angels perceive in Adam his bodily nature, his fundamental weakness which prevents him from complying with the orders of God. Adam is unplaceable. They do not perceive in him his spiritual dimension, the eighth privilege which belongs only to him and which allows him to receive the knowledge of the names. Adam is par excellence the creature in whom is present the hidden and the manifest, the first and the last, i.e. at once the absolute hiding of the essence and its manifestation in multiplicity, like the pre-eternity of the essence and Its endless eternity.

Thus, man cannot really be considered as the image of God, or as being in the image of God. He is rather the place in which the images manifest. He possesses by reason of his emptiness an existence which relates him to God, and which makes him co-belong to His essence without mixing with it, which brings about all the ambiguity of the matter. This is why the angels are wrong about him, and then discover by the Divine election that they can adore God better through him, for he is placed above them between the essence and the angelic realm. In fact he occupies the place of al-Rahmān, the name nearest to the essence, intermediate between this and the name al-Rahīm, i.e. intermediate between the existence of the sole existent, the essence of God, and creation.[4] This is also why Kubrā understands the end of the spiritual journey as a total annihilation in God, and an incorporation of the Divine characteristics, and not as a simple, realised attestation of the Divine Unity.

God taught the names to Adam and made the angels prostrate before him so that they might know by certain knowledge that God made of His essence and attributes the mirror able to receive the epiphany of His attributes of beauty and majesty, according to the saying of the Prophet, “God created Adam and manifested Himself in him”. By theophany He taught him the incorporation (takhalluq) of His characteristics (akhlāq), qualification by His attributes, which is the secret of the lieutenancy as reality, for the mirror is the successor of the one who is epiphanised in him.

Adam possesses above all creatures the privilege of being an envelope, the heart which Kubrā compares to a well in his Fawātih al-Jamāl. The sign of this is given by the fact that God teaches Adam all the names, while the angels can only be informed about some of the names, and in particular not the names of the essence and of the attributes which are an Adamic privilege. Thus, God clearly manifests the weakness of man by conferring upon him a second time the knowledge which propels him beyond the angels, his detractors who become his helpers. But by the same act he confirms the exclusive rank of Adam, lieutenancy over the world, or, more exactly, the designation of Adam as successor of God. Man is thus placed immediately behind God. This succession rests entirely on the idea that man is the mirror of God. Being this mirror means for Kubrā that he embodies the very characteristics of God, and that he is qualified by His attributes. It seems thus more than a support and image. He is not ephemeral as an image might be. He possesses a real tenor or stature, a reality, because he participates in the existence of God. He receives the Divine characteristics by virtue of reality and not only as a place of showing forth. The coming out of the attributes has the paradoxical consequence of conferring on man a definitive existence with the Divine essence. By that, he is the successor. It is through man, insofar as he is the mirror, that created being finds a reality, and is as it were raised above its condition, in man. “Man contemplates in the mirror of creatures the attributes of God of which he has the privilege which no other than he can observe and he contemplates in the mirror of his soul the attributes with which he has been gratified and he sees nothing but them” (T.VI.73).

This specific nature (teneur) of man appears plainly in the fact that he is associated with the divine contemplation. His constitution as a mirror does not reduce him to being a mere support for the contemplation of God seeing Himself. Certainly, Kubrā says that only God can be called cognisant (‘ārif), but man is also designated as re-cognisant (muta’ārif).[5] This means that man participates in the knowledge of God, even if it is in a different manner. Man thus contemplates the attributes of God both outside himself in the creatures and within himself, and thus discovers that the exteriority of things is in fact in him, so that all he can contemplate, the sky, mountains etc., are in him, precisely because he is the place of manifestation of the attributes. From this fact, his role as lieutenant or successor of God on earth consists in bringing together all of the creatures, in their real form, in himself, and thus to realise the Divine creation in himself. Now, he was the only one to be able to accomplish this task because of his extreme weakness, and this weakness gave him the aptitude to descend into the depths of the corporeal world. It was indeed necessary for him to descend into the lowest depths of the world of being, so that he could bring the things back from there to their origin. By his capacity to be affected by evil, by bodily darkness, he is able to make germinate the real meaning of this inferiority, by perceiving in everything the presence of the attributes of God, when he has freed himself from his corporeality and polished his heart. “When the mirror of the heart is freed from the rust of animal nature and when the spiritual nature has polished it, removing the dirt from it, when it is illuminated by the lordly light, the patterns of what happens in the two worlds are reflected in him and he contemplates actions in the light of God” (T.IV.41).

However, he can only see these things if God manifests Himself in him, for vision is a gift and not something acquired. There again we find the idea of human weakness combined with the idea of a mirror, which sees only if it is given something to see. Adam is the mirror of God because God epiphanises in him by light. The beauty of Adam is due to the gift of light which illuminates his heart. In his Fawātih al-Jamāl, Kubrā explains that if the establishment of God on His throne is in majesty, His establishment upon the heart is in beauty such that the traveller tastes compassion and grace.[6] Now the experience of beauty is precisely that of love, by which the traveller discovers in himself the presence of the Divine light and brings back his captive light from the corporeal darkness into the primordial light which has been conferred upon him by God. The beauty of Adam is thus the manifestation of Divine beauty in him. If he contemplates the attributes in the creatures and in himself, it is in order to perceive the beauty of them and thus to make grow in himself the love which leads him into the Divine intimacy and allows him to realise the love of God for him. For this love is the secret of creation, as the hadīth qudsī shows, “I was a hidden treasure and I loved to be known, so I created the creatures for them to know me.” Thus, love appears to Kubrā as “One of the attributes of God poured out from the normative, pre-eternal will which remains by His essence by which He decreed the creation of the universe and what it contains.”[7] The beauty of Adam is his immediate link with the love of God, and it is the clear sign of his intimacy with God. His heart is the place of the realisation of the love of God for him, which allows him to contemplate the beauty of the attributes in his own beauty. “God conferred the names upon Adam, made the angels prostrate before him, gave him the enjoyment of paradise and the company of Eve until he could contemplate the beauty of God in every beautiful thing. Then he made the Tree of Love grow before him and forbade it him” (T.II.36). The contemplation of beauty is from then on the supreme experience of love in which he discovers the absolute anteriority of the love of God for him. At first a lover for God, he discovers himself loved by God, thus reversing the order of creation which becomes the goal of the love of God in him. His beauty becomes truly the mirror of his Lord’s beauty, when he discovers, in the mystical experience of the perception of coloured lights, his divine double facing him, a theophany which is his witness in heaven. Then, “The grace of his existence is the mirror of the beauty of Him Who gratifies, as his gratitude is the mirror of the beauty of the Thankful” (T.II.53). In love, the passage from metaphorical existence to real existence is brought about. “Metaphorical existence is that of the lover, and real existence is that of the beloved”, says Kubrā (T.V.3). Through love, the beauty of God is brought about in His lover, so that he in turn becomes the beloved of God, radiant with His beauty. If the mystic completes his journey in the visionary experience of beauty, love being the result of knowledge, then spiritual realisation happens through the image. What, then, of the relationship between reality and vision?


Vision and reality

Henry Corbin’s studies of Kubrā have shown to what extent in Kubrā’s work vision plays a role of the first order in spiritual achievement. This is why Kubrā’s mysticism integrates the description of the forms and colours of light which we meet in the course of the spiritual journey. These lights are at once a realisation and a guide in the training of disciples, and their description remains characteristic of the Kubrawī school, giving rise to more and more perfected theories, set out for example in the prologue of Simnānī’s tafsīr. We may sum up the importance of vision in this sentence of Kubrā’s tafsīr, “Vision is worship (‘ibāda)” (T.IV.101). This sentence includes in its definition both the worship of God and the religious practice which is rendered to Him. This is why he can state, for example, that “prayer is the form of the rapture of God and the assumption of the believer in order for him to be enraptured by Providence forever.” What gives such importance to vision, is the idea that, in one way or another, vision is always a looking towards God, and “looking towards You is worship.” Vision would be impossible without Divine intervention as we have already pointed out. For Kubrā, man possesses by and in himself no aptitude for seeing. What confers privilege on vision, in comparison with all other experience, is that it manifests clearly that it does not belong to the one who is endowed with it, and that it is a pure gift to the extreme weakness of the lover, who divests himself of everything for his beloved. It is the very proof of the total emptiness of man. Vision is intimately bound to light. Without light, there would be no vision. It is not just that in order to see, light is needed to illuminate things, even if “We see the signs of God only by His light” (T.VI.37). Vision for Kubrā is vision of light itself. This is why the mystics can state that they see nothing without seeing God as well, God being light. Now, one of the great principles which guide the understanding of Kubrā, as he recalls several times over, is that a thing can only be known and perceived by itself. Thus, it is because light was conferred on man that he can also see the light of God, finding in it his most fitting good. It is the presence within him of light which makes man not only a support for the knowledge of God, but an actor who participates in this knowledge, bringing it about by his re-cognition, as we have already mentioned. Kubrā, very classically, takes up Sahl Tustarī’s idea that the light within man is the Muham­madian light. God is light. The Prophet was also named Light by God. Muhammad is thus the first thing that God made to appear by the light of His power, so that the Muhammadian light was the first created thing, from which the universe was drawn out (T.V.15). Now the Universe of Spirits, he further says, is the universe of lights. The presence of light in man is the presence of the spirit which God breathed into man on account of the eighth gift, and which is his exclusive privilege. Spiritual realisation through vision is thus conditioned by the vision of light in the heart. For that, it is a matter of opening the door of the spirit to Divine grace, and that of the heart to the spirit, in order for light to descend gradually, to illumine the heart and then the soul and to envelop the whole of creation in His vision (T.VI.76). As Kubrā says, “The body is in exile while the spirit is in its homeland” (T.VI.76). The spirit does not leave the vicinity of God. It remains in His intimacy illuminated by His light. The body is not only in exile, it is the exile of the heart, for it separates it from its Lord by its darkness. Bodily existence is the veil which separates man from his beloved, it is his very mistake (T.V.28). The need then will be to free the heart from the soul by sacrificing the soul with the knife of sincerity in order to tear the veil which cuts the heart off from vision, and to bring it back to its homeland, which is the world of the light of the spirits. Then, by vision, the heart attains to real existence and thanks its Lord with true gratitude, for “the reality of gratitude is the vision of the Gratifier” (T.IV.147). Kubrā thus describes the process of vision, which is descent from light and return of the things to their origin, in these terms,

God epiphanises in the heart by some of His attributes and the reflection of lights of the lordly condition appears in the mirror of the heart, so that they reflect from Him and illuminate with their rays the passion of the soul, and it places itself according to the luminosity of His rays upon the earth of the breast. Then the demon and the soul know the blessing of God accorded to the spirit and contemplate the traces of God’s graces with them, but they hide what they contemplate with darkness and enmity. (T.II.140)

We have already mentioned the passage in which Kubrā explains that God has placed light in the hearts, and darkness in the souls. Light and darkness belong to the world of meanings, which is the world of order. But heaven and earth belong to the world of form (T.VI.1). This passage rests on the opposition of form and meaning, a very classical distinction from Greek philosophy. Kubrā thus distinguishes the world of meanings which is also the world of order (amr) and the world of forms which is the world of created being (kawn). The whole question thus consists in linking form and meaning and elucidating the relationship to vision. From the start, the tafsīr distinguishes between two aspects of the perception of prophetic revelation the form (sūra) which is that which is recited, and the reality (haqīqa) which is that which men have recognised (ma’rifa) and believed in (T.II.4). We attain to the reality of prophetic revelation by the unveiling of the veils of the ego-ness of existence so that we may contemplate its form and reality in the revelation. These two elements together make up real faith, which is light (T.II.20) after which men free themselves from the rank of faith in favour of the rank of conviction (īqān). Thus faith brings together form and reality, form being a first staging post towards reality, and reality does not do away with form. A long passage in the tafsīr demonstrates the nature of vision, describing the relationship between form and reality.

This raises the problem of image in the contemplation of the “masters of contemplation”. The case of Moses who saw a fire (Qur’an 20:10) is the opportunity for Kubrā to clarify the phenomenon of the diversity of spiritual states (T.II.25). Kubrā considers that the fire seen by Moses was the light of the right direction which God had sent him. The problem of the interpretation of the fire implies a specific relationship between form and meaning which at the same time takes account of the specific content of the vision and justifies the hermeneutics of mysticism. For our author, those who are endowed with contemplation perceive the various states which are accorded to them in a single form. Moses is one of these. In a form which is always single fire he sees various meanings. Contrasted with this experience of the masters is the contemplation of those who occupy an intermediate level. These do not see the diversity of meaning in form. For them, a form is attached to a single meaning, so that the same form always means the same thing, and contemplation must pass from one form to another to change meaning. They thus have a static idea of contemplation, while the masters have a dynamic of it. This distinction supports another distinction which Kubrā establishes when he compares Muhammad to Abraham, love (mahabba) to confidence (khulla). Muhammad is for him the prophet of states, for these are the pure acts of liberality of God (mawāhib), while Abraham, who is inferior to him, is the prophet of spiritual stations, which imply the retention of the I of the mystic with his Lord (T.III.97).

Thus the tendency to singleness of meaning of form is rev­elatory of an unaccomplished stage of mystical experience. There is at this stage both a substantiation of form and a forgetfulness of temporality proper to visionary experience. The intermediate stage shuts the mystic into the world of form and makes him lose sight of the subtle relationship between form and meaning in the mystical experience. Forms have in fact no meaning in themselves. They are just shadows dependent on light, as our tafsīr says elsewhere. Form has no other intention than for there to be something to see, i.e. it is relative to the visionary experience. It is exactly that that the example of Moses and the fire recalls. The fire is given to be seen by a theophany in the heart which opens the plane of the meanings of forms. This opening confers on the mystic a multiplicity of states across which he perceives the multiple meanings of forms.

The traveller sees light in the form of a fire, as Moses contemplated the light of right direction in the form of a fire. At times the fire is that of the attribute of anger, at other times it is the demonic attribute, and at still others, the fire of love which rests in objects which the soul loves and consumes, now it is the fire of God. (T.II.25)

In the end, as we have already said, the mystic perceives in things nothing other than the diversity of the attributes of which the things are created, so that the completed visionary experience is the perception of the diversity of meanings in oneself. “The traveller who has arrived finds in every fire the taste of another, different one” (T.II.25). To shut oneself up in form, to think that from form we attain a single meaning, comes back to not perceiving in forms the beauty of the attributes in their diversity, and to not seeing one’s Lord in the multiplicity. Moreover, the visionary experience is in the case of Moses closely dependent on the moments of perception. If the form is ever the same, the meanings of it vary according to the moments of the states. There again, it is a matter of the temporality of theophany. Indeed, theophany takes place in time, for, as we have already said, the status of man as mirror is inseparable from duration, brought about by the departure of the attributes from the Essence, so that all visionary experience is always structured by time, which of course varies from the world of spirits to the visible world.

The explanations which Kubrā gives further on, shed more light on the relationship between the thing and its meaning (T.II.25). All that we contemplate in this world below has form. Form is thus the condition of his perception because it is by form that we identify perception. But it also has a real meaning (ma’nā haqīqī) in the hidden world, and this is why the Prophet asked God to show him things as they are. According to Kubrā,

We get the form of things and their reality in the other world, but their meanings and realities are predominant. The form of the thing gives itself to be seen in the other world by its essence and we know it in such a way that the name and form are the way they were, but its taste is different from what you knew of it.

To make himself better understood, Kubrā takes the example of blood, the form of which does not change according to the world below and the other world, but which is like musk in the other world. So, the form remains always the same. Vision does not reject the forms. On the contrary, it rests on the forms. But it differs according to the plane in which it is situated. In the lower world, form dominates over meaning, so that meaning disappears behind form and form seems to be immanent in respect of it. This means that the traveller in mid-journey perceives only the immediate meaning of the forms in his visions. On the other hand, in the other world, the form refers back to another meaning which is hidden in the world below. We may easily recognise in this idea something similar to the concept of ambiguity (iltibās), which Rūzbehān Baqlī amplified considerably.[8] Nonetheless, what is of interest in what Kubrā shows, resides in the fact that he maintains the form, which is from then on only a simple garment. It remains in vision even if its meaning changes. It possesses then a sort of necessity which does not depend only on its meaning. The function of vision consists then in raising form to the level of its subtle reality, where it is dominated by its meaning and spiritual reality, offering these to the view, and thus escaping being hidden far from the light of God. “Vision comes about in a subtle form (sūra latīfa) which the imagination has increased in accordance with the purity of the moment and the highness of the station” says Kubrā (T.II.106).

Our author also explains the relationship of form to its subtle form in another passage of his tafsīr, on the subject of the vision of the planets, which occupies no negligible place in his Fawātih al-Jamāl:[9]

God has created no thing in the world of forms without its having a correspondent (nazīr) in the universe of meanings, and He has created no thing in the universe of meanings, which is the other world, without its having a reality in the universe of the real which is the mystery of the hidden world. In the same way God has created no thing in the two worlds without its having an image and an exemplar in the universe of man. If you understand that, know that the image of the throne in the universe of man is his heart […] and that of the pedestal is his secret conscience. (T.II.255)

This allows us to understand better what Kubrā has in view when he speaks of the different levels of manifestation of the thing. As we have already mentioned, Kubrā distinguishes three planes of being: the world of forms or visible world, the other world, or hidden world and the real world or mystery of the hidden world (ghayb al-ghayb). There is a correspondence between these worlds insofar as a thing in the world of forms refers to a meaning in the hidden world and a reality in the real world. We may thus better understand the Prophet’s prayer, asking to be shown things as they are. For him, it is a matter of rising up to the real world where the realities of things are. The accomplished traveller is thus the one who crosses these different universes and ties together in himself the form to the meaning and then to its reality. That is the object of the visionary experience which corresponds to the growth within of the spiritual organs of the heart up to the secret conscience whose instrument is visionary concentration (himma). It is this which allows him to visualise his own physical reality in the form of light, which allows him to perceive the meaning and then the reality of his own being, as he explains in the Fawātih al-Jamāl.[10]

Visionary concentration is the faculty which leads to the divine existence beyond the created being. It gathers the heart in the vision of things through the union of the light which descends from the throne and the light which rises from the heart, then leads to the annihilation of these two lights in God, so that there remains only God. It thus allows things to be gathered together in vision and to be brought back to their different planes of being, putting their three dimensions, form, meaning and reality, truly into correspondence. Now this staged gathering together is interior to man, for, as Kubrā says in the extract quoted above, man possesses within him an image and an exemplar of each of the things, so that man, by his visionary concentration, makes the ascent of his being by passing through the triple dimension of things. As Kubrā says, “Contemplation comes about in the first place by figures and images, then by the essences when the realities are purified.”[11] The three degrees which the traveller travels correspond to the three degrees of spiritual realisation which he describes at length in his Fawātih al-Jamāl.[12] The division into form, meaning and reality bears witness that mystical experience for Kubrā is not exhausted by meaning. Knowledge can be completed only by an understanding of the meaning of things. The reality of knowledge rests on visionary experience which is inseparable from forms. Thus, he avoids the trap of an abstract interpretation of knowledge which would remove from it its very substance. This is all the more so, as for him, it is in love that the spiritual journey is really achieved, knowledge being only one aspect of it. Thus contemplation of form cannot be removed from spiritual experience without annihilating it. Nonetheless, form also possesses the ability to lead the mystic astray in its immediacy.


The value of form

Kubrā systematically contrasts imitation and reality, shadow and light. These oppositions are founded on the idea that form in its immanence can shut man in. But in fact man is the only one who can experience the immanence of form, that is, with the furthest limit of corporeal nature, because he is thrust into the body and has the images of things within him. He may thus forget the planes which give meaning to form and stop at its immediate appearance. This is the whole meaning of imitation. In effect this means modelling his behaviour on his exterior appearance without taking his interior into account. It denies things all transcendence, and to limit them to their immanence, thus ignoring their structure. At the same time it loses the sense of form, which consists precisely in being the open ladder onto the inner world of theophany. “We arrive at impiety by imitation” (T.II.213). Imitation reduces existence to metaphor, annihilating the created character of things. In fact, the characteristic of things is to be created, that is being adventitious, new. Now this adventitiousness implies a creator and in itself constitutes a theme for meditation, edification for the man who knows how to look. Reproduction suppresses the luminosity of things and the creative power of visionary concentration. Now, things, as we have said, have a content. God created them, Kubrā tells us, with a correspondent in the world of meanings and in the real world. Thus, each thing is in itself a ladder, through which the light of God is manifested, and this is why man can and must perceive the attributes in every thing. Thus every thing is an icon. This is why Kubrā can see even in imitation a certain merit beyond its faults. As he had said about ostentation in the Fawātih al-Jamāl, he considers that the impious, whom light touched on the day of the primordial pact, can return to their Lord by imitating their fathers, and believe in such a way that God will forgive them (T.IV.167). The form of the light which God poured over the spirits is the Prophet himself, and this light was sent to the bodies. Thus, the forms are the place of manifestation of the light and can by their very nature lead to the first light. Besides, the meaning of the spiritual journey is to go beyond the immediate appearance of things to discover their hidden reality. And it is in discovering the inner light of things in the hidden world that we attain to real existence, for “The truth of the spiritual struggle is to remove metaphorical existence” (T.II.216).

In one passage of the tafsīr, Kubrā tackles the problem of the relationship of form to real existence. “In heaven, the believers have ‘wives’ who are the epiphany of the attributes of ‘pure’ beauty and majesty of conjecture and imagination, and ‘We shall bring them in’ by rapture from the shadow of metaphorical life into the ‘fresh shadow’ (zill zalīl) of real existence which has no metaphor in waiting” (T.IV.57-8). This comes from the fact that

Metaphorical existence is for you a (deposit) trust which comes from God, in the same way that the existence of the shadow is metaphorical by relation to the sun, and it is a trust which comes from the sun into the shadow. If the sun manifests to the shadows, it tells them in the language of state: “the sun commands you to return the trusts to their owners, so that the shadows are annihilated and the sun remains.” In the same way, if the sun of the Lordly Condition addresses the shadows of the existence of the soul, heart and spirit, and says in the language of munificence: “God commands you to return the trusts to their owners!”, the shadows are annihilated, that which is other disappears, and the traces are effaced so that The Unique, The Rigorous remains.

This passage forms the summing up of the mission with which man is charged. It also shows the particular relationship of form to reality, or even of the created being to existence. Kubrā maintains here the importance of metaphorical existence, of that existence which is like a copy of the real existence in the world of forms. It is not simply fantastical. It is a trust, which is particularly important when we take into account the role which this idea plays in Sufism. There is a certain continuity from metaphorical to real existence well marked out by the two shadows, the shadow of metaphorical existence and the thicker or fresher shadow of real existence.[13] The idea of shadow refers here to the relationship between being and existence. Man is at first in metaphorical existence, in other words, in shadow. The shadow is relative to the sun. It depends utterly on the sun. Let the sun disappear and the shadow disappears. Shadow is not the obscurity of darkness. It has a definable, identifiable appearance. It is always relative to an object which it accompanies, and of which it is a sign. For that reason, shadow is not entirely nothing. It is analogous to form in the world of being, insofar as it is in effect created by the sun and by that fact belongs to the sun which is its owner: the sun has rights over the shadow. Shadow has no meaning other than in the sun; for it is this trust given in all confidence to man, who is not its owner. The idea of a trust refers to law. It implies a contract, at least a moral one, agreed between the owner and the one to whom it is entrusted.

The metaphorical existence with which man has been entrusted implies then, on man’s part, that he has to do something with that existence to remain faithful to the meaning of what has been entrusted to him by maintaining the wholeness of the sum entrusted, and to be responsible for the confidence placed in him. So the metaphor is not just non-being, and it should not be rejected in its immanence. To shut it up within the immanence would be nothing other than giving up the sum deposited, that is, not seeing the link which unites metaphorical existence and real existence, a link which is seen by visionary concentration in the form of the light which descends from the throne to rejoin by love the light which arises from his own heart.[14] The sum lodged is transitory, for the period until repayment. This is the whole meaning of the order to return the shadows to their owners. Forms appear thus, as does the metaphorical existence with which man is invested, like shadows to be brought back to their realities, the meaning and reality of which rule them in the hidden world and the mystery of the hidden world. Man’s mission is to return the forms to their reality, all the way to the attributes, by vision, and thus to fulfil God’s vow to know himself through His creation.

This is why this passage mentions contemplation and the betrothed. It is indeed in contemplation that man is united with the objects of his contemplation, and becomes that pure vision immersed in what is given to be seen, i.e. the attributes. This contem­plation ends up in realities stripped of the imagination. If imagination was important in the elevation to subtle form, as we have seen, it becomes an obstacle in the accomplishment of man’s duty. He must perceive the attributes in their simplicity and purity for, through them, he must rejoin the Divine essence. Thus, imaginal vision is only a stage in vision, for vision must rid itself of imagination to attain its goal. The meaning of this return is to realise a pure affirmation of the Unity (tawhīd). This is the meaning of returning the shadows to their owner. Bringing the forms back to their reality leads the mystic to make real in himself for God the return of creation to the pure Divine essence which presents itself in His names. Mention of the Names of God is no more fortuitous than the mention of the transition from the language of states to the Lordly language. The realised mystic becomes the manifestation of the supreme name of God, the hā’ whose heart is form and which is wholly invocation. It is that which constitutes real existence, which can be attained only by rapture and which corresponds to a thicker shadow, shadow upon shadow or, we might say, annihilation upon annihilation. Metaphorical existence, like shadows, are not annihilated by this. They are elevated to the level where they acquire existence itself, the existence which belongs only to God. Shadows are therefore the moment of departure of the essence into creation to know itself and thus they remain as forms reconciled with their meaning, pure icons of Beauty revealed in love.

The meaning of the mission of man is especially well recalled in another passage which again uses the image of the painter and his work in connection with fate and destiny.

Destiny (qadar) is like the painter’s premeditation of the image in his mind, and fate (qadā’) is like the fact that he depicts this image to his disciple with graphite, making the disciple add the colour according to the master’s outline. The same applies to what is acquired and to choice. In the matter of choice, the disciple does not depart from the master’s outline. In the same way, the servant cannot depart from fate and destiny, but he can go from one to the other.

Man is thus in relation to his destiny, as the student is in relation to God. He cannot depart from the master’s outline, but he adds colour on instruction. One cannot explain better than Kubrā the notion of the role and responsibility of man in the completion of the destiny of creation. He is nothing, as we have already said, in the face of God: a mere support, or an image. He is the place and actor of the creative will, adding his vision to the form. He thus gives body to the form by bringing it back to its meaning, that is, by illuminating the form since light is life and colour is that very aspect by which life becomes seen. This is why vision is the instrument for bringing forms to light, and why it is achieved by coloured lights of many hues, such as the vision of the life of the heart which is coloured green.

Through his rapture, man is raised from metaphorical existence to real existence. He thus uncovers the complexity of the structure of things. We have seen one aspect of this. But beyond meaning and reality there is still a link between the thing and the Divine essence. To explain the mystery of the thing in its relationship with God and knowledge, our tafsīr continues with the image of the painter and the painting. “God has instituted for each thing which is, a visible aspect (shahāda) which is bound to it and a mystery (ghayb) which is bound to it. Now, He has placed a key for the mystery of each thing which opens the door of the hidden world of that thing according to its aspect.” (T.VI.59), but God alone has the knowledge of the keys, for it is He Who is their Creator.

It is like the painter in relationship to an image. Each image that he paints has an aspect (its appearance), and a mystery (the know­ledge of painting) and a key which opens the door to the know­ledge of the painting. None but the painter may use the pen as he pleases. God is the painter, the paintings are those of the diverse created beings, both hidden and accessible to witnessing. Now, the aspect of every picture is its nature and its being, its mystery is the knowledge of its creation and beingness (takwīn) and the calamus of its painting, which is the key which opens the door of the knowledge of its beingness, is the invisible reality (malakūt). It is by the calamus of the invisible reality of each thing that the being of each thing is, and the calamus of the invisible reality is in the hand of God.

We see well there how the author of the tafsīr elaborates on the link between the essence and things. He describes the things using the metaphor of the painting and the painter. Creation emanates from the Divine power. It rests on the power to bring about being. Things have several levels, one of which is beyond man’s reach. They have a visible aspect which is manifested according to the spiritual level in the visible world and in the other world. The thing has an outer aspect. This appears differently according to the planes of being, as a body or, relative to the world here below, according to the aptitude to perceive it by sensibility, according to the property which allows it to be used. The thing also has an inner aspect, as a spiritual entity, inasmuch as it differs from the objects of the senses, as meaning, inasmuch as it is hidden from the senses, or, again, by its hidden reality by which it dwells within being (T.VI.75). All its elements make up its aspect, that is, what it gives to be seen by itself. We understand by these metaphors that form is also image. Indeed, if God is the painter and created reality is painting, its first function is to provide for seeing, which justifies the primacy of vision in spiritual experience. But in the image there are mul­tiple aspects. The appearance of a thing is only one part of its reality. Beyond its appearance is its mystery, which is the know­ledge of its beingness. Kubrā carefully distinguishes the being of a thing, that is, the fact that it has a nature, from that in it which makes it be. He thus constructs the idea of an ontological difference between the strictly ontic plane and the ontological plane. Its being is none other than its appearance, and to know the thing really means seeing it. The image thus has substance which subsists which can be the medium for a real spiritual experience. It allows, by the fact of its being there, a reaching beyond the immediacy of the datum of the thing, its “there is-ness”, the ontological plane of its bringing about being (faire-ètre). Thus, the created thing is a lower plane which is the place of veiling and unveiling. For on the one hand the thing unveils its being, and by doing so, veils the ontological plane of its bringing about being, which is its mystery. On the other hand it opens up the perspective of grasping with its being the mystery which makes it be.

The strictly ontic plane goes beyond simple sensibility. Certainly the appearance of the thing is firstly what is offered to the senses and for using, but there is also an inner dimension which is the consequence of its sensible aspect. It is thus by aesthetic contemplation, grasping the beauty of the thing by love and its degrees, that we discover the ontological plane of the thing, its mystery. This plane is that of knowledge. In other words, perceiving the thing on the ontic plane is not all that there is to knowing it. Only grasping the bringing about being in the thing is of the order of knowledge. Now this knowledge belongs to God, for it is a closed universe which depends on the Divine will and which is of the order of the act. Realisation of bringing about being is thus a Divine secret which contains the hidden reality of things, which he identifies with the calamus by which God brings them into being. That is the greatest difficulty. We can access things in their being by vision, but to grasp how things are with God in the creative will is inconceivable. This particularity is expressed by the opposition already mentioned between the multiple and the single.

In the same way that things are varied, the invisible reality of things is varied. The invisible reality of each thing is linked to its image and for that reason He brought together the keys and unified the mystery. For the mystery is the science of bringing about being (takwīn), which is unique in all of the things, whereas multiplicity reigns in the invisible reality as in the regions of the forms. By the science of bringing about being He knows that which is on land and sea, for by this He made being. Earth is the world of the appearance and form, and the sea is the universe of mystery and the invisible reality. (T.VI.59)

The multiplicity of the hidden reality of things corresponds to the multiplicity of their appearance. The hidden reality of things is multiple. It is also given to be seen insofar as it forms the ontological plane for the understanding of things. But the mystery belongs to the essence, because it is the very bringing about of being itself. It is only on the plane on which bringing about being takes place in the hidden realities of things, that it can be grasped. Mystery is, however, the key to this understanding so that there can be no knowledge of it without going through the essence itself in its creative act, which merges with it and encompasses the creation.

This hidden reality refers then to power. It is the first created plane and immediately precedes the world of forms. “The invisible reality is one of the first things created from nothing, by the order, ‘Be!’ (kun), ‘When God was and there was nothing with Him’, and that which is other is created. That which is created by the Order is called order, and that which is created from something, is called creation” (T.VI.75). The difference between the two planes of creation rests on the distinction between agent and patient, between existence and being.


Existence and Being

The reflection on the relationship between form and its hidden reality which we have seen sketched out above, refers to the difference between being and existence. This distinction is not properly speaking developed as such in the tafsīr. It remains a question to be addressed, and it is for us to elucidate in such a way as to show how the problem has built up little by little, even if it is too soon to address it.[15] The distinction between existence and being tallies with the distinction which Kubrā makes between the world of order and the world of creation, that is, the world of being. It also confirms the difference between the act which arises from power, or from real existence, and the created being which belongs to form, or to metaphorical existence. The passage from one to the other through existence in its duality is conveyed by Kubrā’s ambiguous use of the word wujūd, meaning both body and existence, and which refers both to the egoism of the traveller, of which he must rid himself, and to the ipseity of God, in which he must annihilate himself. We thus have a series of oppositions which allow us to glimpse the problem of existence. The divine power interior to the essence is the power to bring into being, that is to make visible in things the inner attributes of the essence. Things have a model which is their hidden part, their malakūt, in the universe of order. In this respect, they are truly real. Their reality is their identity with the Divine order, the kun, which immediately precedes the thing which is the kun in the passive, and appears as being (kawn). There is then no pre-existing model of the things in the essence, which would precede their being. Kubrā intends to preserve the unity of the act of bringing into being. Simply in this act there is opening of time, so that bringing into being is necessarily difference. He implies a distance between the act and its effect. There is then no need of a mimetic outline in order to understand creation as we do for instance in art, where it is considered that the work is the expression of a thought which has preconceived the things. Besides, it is striking to note that in the examples which Kubrā draws from painting, he does not mention a preliminary reflection. He limits himself to pointing out that the master presents the disciple with the outline of the things, thus making the idea and the act of bringing about being identical. The two are thus not different. The kun is the act by which the reality of the things and the things themselves come into being. We must also remember in this connection that, as we have seen above, the meaning of the things is located between the forms and the hidden realities, which they do not, therefore, precede. The knowledge of God thus embraces all that exists for, as our author points out, it is identical to the kun, to the creative act. God has no need for a preliminary model to bring about being. For Him, to know is to bring into being.

The identity between knowledge and the kun is moreover the reason why the accomplished mystic is invested with the power to bring into being, as appears in the Fawātih al-Jamāl. This power rests precisely in the word, especially in the empty circle of hā’, which is the matrix of creation. The accomplished mystic attains this inner empty space which is the power to bring things into being and which, moreover, has no need to be full, since the occupation of being is only the consequence of bringing into being. The fullness of being is the extension of space and time in the unceasingly renewed pouring forth of things. This is why there is a double plurality, that of the forms acted on by order and belonging to the world of created being, and that of the hidden realities which constitute order and which are real existence because they are the very presence of power as such. This singular power of the mystery which opens the door of the plurality of the hidden realities, is manifested in the singularity of the light which is opposed to the plurality of the shadows (T.II.253). Now, even knowledge is a light which comes from the light of oneness (T.II.253). Light, let us remember, is the name of God which He gave to the Prophet, and the Prophet is the one from whom the spirits and the things were created. Kubrā elsewhere calls him “The father of spirits” and distinguishes him from Adam, “The father of bodies”. The Prophet is also the only one of the prophets who was truly able to annihilate himself from the darkness of his own existence and subsist (baqā’) in the light of the existence of God (T.II.254). Thus the mystery appears as light itself, which is none other than power, and this is why it is, for example, referred to as the life of the heart. We may then without risk draw out the consequences of what Kubrā says, by stating that the world of order is none other than the world of spirits, the world which is not subject to the humiliation of being, as Wāsitī used to say, which was repeated by Rūzbehān Baqlī. And, as the Prophet is the single light from which issue the plurality of the lights of the spirits, he corresponds to the power interior to the essence, which spreads out in creation, compassion on the worlds or, rather, compassion which unfurls itself as creation to show forth the love of God. At the same time, we may already sense that the ladder of creation must spread out in a prophetology in which the presence of the prophets in heaven marks the levels of compassion as creation,[16] which anticipates the Simnānian reading of prophetology.

In one passage, Kubrā briefly addresses the degrees of existence thus:

The kingdom of existence is made up of degrees in which there is, on the one hand, existence which accepts disappearance (fanā’), and non-existence which is the kingdom of the created being and of corruption. And there is the existence which accepts sub­sistence, which does not disappear and does not fall into nothingness. This is the kingdom which accepts created being, but not corruption. Within existence, there is real existence which admits neither created being nor corruption. This is the realm of angels and man, the realm of subsistent existence. However, the person of man does accept disappearance, but his spirit does not; like the angels, the world of spirits, the angelic realm, and this is the other world. Finally there is the honour of real existence which accepts neither created being nor corruption, which God grants to whom He wills, of the prophets and saints.

The difference between being and existence appears clearly there. We may easily distinguish the planes of being noted earlier, except that here Kubrā adds the idea of corruption. The world of forms is therefore this world of created being, acted upon and subject to the law of generation and corruption. Above this is an intermediate other world which is also of the order of being, but which is not subject to corruption. Lastly, there is this world of the spirits, which is neither of the order of being, nor is it subject to corruption, for it belongs only to being. This is the world of existence which has an additional degree which belongs only to man, the honour of real existence. We must note in this arrangement the intermediate place of man. As body, he belongs to the world of forms, but as spirit he is located in the world of hidden realities. This duality allows him to link together the forms and realities. This capacity is a privilege of man which is wholly realised in the person of the Prophet and those among the saints who follow him. For in following him, they are enlightened with his light and in their turn enlighten the whole of the creation of order, all the way to created being.


Images and Representations

Thus they attain the inner emptiness of which we have already spoken much, and which is that of the power which goes through them when, having become pure lamps of translucent glass, their existence is annihilated and lets the Divine light pass through without obstacle. It is this point which will allow me to end by tackling the problem of the status of images, especially religious imagery. Kubrā elaborates an instructive comparison on this matter when he compares Moses’ Ark of the Covenant, in which the pacifying revelation (sakīna) is deposited, with the real presence of the sakīna in the hearts of Muhammad’s community. First of all, the Ark of the Covenant is material, “it can be handled”, so that even enemies can “seize it, make it unclean”, and indeed, “consecrate it to idols”. Form or image can thus be turned to any use, for, as we have seen, it is at once veiling and unveiling. On the other hand, “the Ark of the hearts of believers” is spiritual, belongs only to its masters, and is transmitted from one to the other without any one being able to claim it for himself alone, not even “an angel brought close or even a sent prophet”. It is “between the fingers of His Majesty and His Beauty”, in accordance with the hadīth, “The heart of the believer is between two of the fingers of the Very Merciful” (T.II.248). In the same way, there are fragments of the Torah in the Ark, while “God has written faith in the hearts” of the community of Muhammad, where the whole Qur’an is kept.

All this then concerns the very materiality of the realities of faith. They are external, giving rise to forms and may ipso facto enclose man in their materiality because they are in the measure of him who gives them meaning. But the tafsīr goes further in addressing the problem of images. He states that there would be images of the prophets in the Ark, which directly refers to pious imagery, and which is all the more surprising in that Judaism proscribes the representation of living beings, and a fortiori of prophets. He still contrasts to this the fact that, for the Community of Muhammad, “In the hearts of the believers there are empty spaces (khalawāt) in which nothing is found but God.” Image is not condemned here. It is simply returned to its proper limits. It is not safeguarded. It is a veil between the servant and God. However, it has a religious function in the framework of very precise prophetic revelations, in this case that of Moses of whom he says elsewhere that it is the first in relation to that of Muhammad which is the last, whereby they maintain a very close relationship. In addition, they add an extra form to the bodily existence of man and so constitute an excess. In this sense they constitute a primordial religious form, one which allows their iconic dimensions to be seen in representations. This avoids confinement in idolatry, as another Kubrawī, strongly influenced by Ibn ‘Arabī, Mahmūd Shabistarī, (d. c. 1339-40), was later to recall.[17] But if we can understand the theophanic dimension of images, seeing in them the presence of the sakīna, it is no less the case that they enclose the presence of the sakīna in a materiality which limits its efficaciousness. Indeed, the revelation which these images bring remains fatally external and makes it extremely dependent on circumstances, that is, it makes it fragile. It then needs an instrumentum to protect it from all threat and remains dependent on the good disposition of the men to whom it manifests. Moreover, these images fill up the empty spaces.

This point is crucial for our tafsīr. The possibility of revelation interior to the heart rests on the negation of all divinity other than God. The strength of invocation, its capacity to give birth to the visionary concentration in the heart of the mystic, depends on its power to create emptiness. Indeed, the formula of invocation is finally resolved in the primordial breath of the hā’ of the name Allah, which is at the same time the Supreme Name and the very form of the heart. For Kubrā, the singularity of Muhammad is to reveal and truly open the door of the heart. He thus manifests the essential emptiness of the heart. It is this emptiness, the circle of the hā’, which allows God to reveal Himself as He is in the heart and to enlighten it with His love. Thus, the strength of the invocation resides in the suppression in the heart of any image, as Kubrā’s Fawātih al-Jamāl shows in a very clear way.[18] It is in exactly the same sense that a later Kubrawī, Shams al-Dīn Lāhījī (d.912/1506-07), was to interpret the necessity of emptying the heart for the angels to visit it.[19] Accordingly, if image has a religious function, it is limited. It is not to be proscribed, but the community of Muhammad has the privilege of the empty space, the absence of image, which allows it to be invested with the creative power of forms. This emptiness of the heart is none other than the capacity of man, that is, the blank disposition which in itself is nothing and owns nothing. There, the absence of images is not a legal prescription, but a fact which is realised through spiritual education when the mystic, by continuous invocation, succeeds in detaching himself from the world and its representations to become a pure receptacle, the container of clear glass which gathers the light and thus perceives the angelic forms descending into it to bring it revelations. It is in this sense that invocation pacifies the heart – by emptying it of what darkens and torments it, leaving it to its first emptiness and ready to receive the Divine Light.

Translated from French by James Lees.

Reprinted from the Journal of the Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi Society, Vol. XXXV, 2004. An earlier version of this paper was presented at “Man in the Image of God”, the 18th annual symposium of the Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi Society in the UK, held in Oxford, 30 March to 1 April 2001.


[1] I am using several Istanbul manuscripts and a personal copy which I use as a base reference. I am currently preparing a critical edition and this is why, instead of quoting folios, I have preferred here to quote the Qur’anic verses commented on in the tafsīr, in order to be able to find with ease references in the future edition.

[2] On this question, refer to the introduction to my translation of the Fawātih al-jamāl by Najm al-dīn Kubrā, Les éclosions de la beauté et les parfums de la majesté [Flowerings of Beauty and Perfumes of Majesty] (Paris, 2001), pp.40 ff. For discussion of the attribution of the tafsīr, see for the time being my article "La prophétologie dans le ‘Ayn al-hayāt, tafsīr attribué à Najm al-dīn Kubrā et Najm-i Rāzī", [Prophetology in the Qur’anic commentary attributed to N. Kubrā]", in Mystique musulmane, parcours en compagnie d’un chercheur Roger Deladrière (Paris, 2003).

[3] On this point see my translation of Kubrā’s Fawātih al-jamāl: Les éclosions de la beauté et les parfums de la majesté (Nimes, 2001), pp.94-5.

[4] See Éclosions de la beauté, pp.111-12.

[5] Ibid., p.166.

[6] Ibid., p.181.

[7] ‘Ayn al-hayāt, commentary on Qur’an 2:165.

[8] On this concept, see my works, Quatre traits inédits de Rūzbehān Baqlī Shīrāzī [Four unedited treatises of Rūzbehān Baqlī Shīrāzī] (Tehran, 1998), pp.28-41.

[9] Éclosions de la beauté, pp.204-6.

[10] Ibid., pp.118-21.

[11] Ibid., p.148.

[12] "The third degree, that of reality, may thus be assimilated into that of servitude (‘ubūda) and of visionary certainty"; ibid., pp.213-14.

[13] We note that this reference to shadow could also be attached to the idea of black light which Najm-i Rāzī considered to be the highest light in the spiritual experience. See on this matter the whole chapter devoted to Najm-i Rāzī then to Black Light in the work of Lāhījī by Henry Corbin, L’homme de lumière dans le soufisme iranien [The Man of light in Iranian Sufism] (Chambéry, 1971), pp.37-38, 2003.

[14] Éclosions de la beauté, p.159.

[15] I addressed this problem in my introduction to the Fawātih al-Jamāl and tried to open it up to a wider perspective in order to discover the origin. I am thinking particularly of Wāsitī, whom Kubrā quotes elsewhere, Éclosions de la beauté, pp.58-62.

[16] See on this subject my article "La prophétologie dans le ‘Ayn al-hayāt, tafsīr attribué à Najm al-dīn Kubrā et Najm-i Rāzī", in Mystique musulmane, parcours en compagnie d’un chercheur Roger Deladrière, Paris, 2003.

[17] See on this subject L. Lewisohn, Beyond Faith and Infidelity (Richmond, 1995), pp.87-8.

[18] Éclosions de la beauté, pp.148-9.

[19] Lāhījī must doubtless have had in mind this passage from the tafsīr, as he makes explicit reference to the sakīna in the commentary in which he demonstrates the necessity of emptying the heart of all image, Mafātih al-i’jāz fī sharh gulsham-i rāz (Tehran, 1368), pp.139.