“This world of imagination is the world of eternity; it is the divine bosom into we shall all go after the death of the vegetated body. This world of imagination is infinite and eternal, whereas the world of generation, or vegetation, is finite and temporal. There exist in that eternal world the permanent realities of every thing we see reflected in this vegetable glass of nature.” – William Blake
You may have seen the movie “What dreams may come”. It gives a depiction of what happens to a husband and his wife after death. When the two of them were still alive, then the place where they first met became a place of their happiest memories, a place they often fondly remembered, a place they wanted to return to. After the death of the husband he sees and visits this place of his dreams. In his afterlife his former thoughts, ideals, etc. have become his actual surroundings. So the afterlife shows a reversal: his inner processes when he was still alive have become his outside surroundings. This is a depiction of what the sufis say about the ‘alam al-khayal, the world of imagination where we’ll be after death. I have been told that sufis have been helping in the design aspects of the aforementioned movie.
It so happened that a painter exhibited his latest painting. It was a partridge. All visitors admired the quality of the painting. When a cat saw the painting it was so realistic that the cat wanted to attack the partridge. Then Ibn al-‘Arabi entered to see the painting. The artist asked him what he thought of it and he said that he thought it to be very beautiful, but… ‘But what?’ – asked the painter. Then the sufi pointed out a mistake in regard to the proportions of the painting. The painter then kissed the hand of the shaykh and said that he had made the mistake on purpose to see if anyone would notice it.
Not only is this a reference to the creative name of Allah, the Fashioner, but it is also showing something that an artist and a sufi have in common: the faculty of imagination (khayal). It is tempting to say more about Persian miniatures who depict the world of the imagination or to compare the music of the Sufis with aspects of this world, but then this would call for a separate description.
Imagination is the key to the world of imagination (‘alam al-khayal). This world has been created by Allah as an intermediary between the world of the spirit and the world of the body. Why? Because of the fact that the power of governing of the body has been given to the spirit and as the essences of spirits and bodies are completely different it is impossible to have a direct relationship between them. So a barrier (barzakh) has been created between the two.
The journey that ‘we’ make has a descending and an ascending mode. Descending: before birth the soul travels through the world of the spirit and the world of imagination. Ascending: returning to Allah through the world of imagination and the world of the spirit. This returning does not only take place after death, but also during dreams and it is part of your spiritual development.
The world of imagination partakes of the attributes of both worlds next to it. That is why in dreams we can have access to this world as spiritual realities which cannot be perceived in themselves are ‘clothed’ in subtle matter, so that is why we can see things in this world. There are two levels in this ‘alam al-khayal. One of them is closer to the world of the spirit and the other is closer to the world of the body. The imagination in the highest level is absolute while the imagination at the other level is limited. Everything manifested in the higher level of the world of imagination corresponds totally and correctly to the world of the spirit from which it gains its existence. But the lower level is coloured by the nature of the receptacle, e.g. by the mental faculties of the person who perceives it.
In exercising their imagination most people see images which are delimited by their own selves and circumstances. In contrast the perfect men have overcome their individual limitations; what they contemplate at the lower level corresponds exactly to the higher level. Therefore what they see is true.
So if we have a dream wherein it is made clear to us that we should sacrifice our oldest son, then we should be careful with its interpretation. When the prophet Abraham had such a dream its meaning was different.
You may remember that the prophet Muhammad (Allah’s blessings and peace be upon him) got a visit from a man dressed in very white clothes who asked him about islam, iman (faith) and ihsan (excelling in virtue). How could his clothes be so white as he must have made a long travel through the desolate hot areas around Mecca? It was in fact the angel Gabriel whose body was an imaginary one.
When he asked about ihsan, the prophet said that ihsan is ‘to worship Allah AS IF you see Him, for if you do not see Him, He sees you’. The use of the words AS IF make it clear that imagination is the instrument used in this contemplation of God.
As the eye – or better said the purification of the faculty of seeing – is the key to contemplation, likewise the faculty of imagination is the key to the ‘alam al-khayal. There are in fact seven faculties of the soul:
1. Common sense
6. Irascible appetite
7. Concupiscible appetite.
So you should not think that imagination is the same as fantasy. As there is more beyond the world of imagination, likewise imagination should not overpower all the other faculties. The ‘king’ of the inner senses should be the common sense and then imagination (under the domination of the common sense) will be used in a balanced way.
The experiences of the ‘alam al-khayal are in a way the opposite of those of the ordinary world. In our everyday world you have a fixed exterior and changing thoughts and states. In the world of the imagination you experience the reverse thereof. Your changing states create an ever-changing outward surroundings. This can be experienced after death, but the truth hereof is also known during dreams. In case you are afraid in your dream, you will find yourself in a situation wherein you will be attacked. Your first seeing of thorns and later on roses are the outside manifestations in the dream-world of your alternating states. This almost fluently and quickly changes into different situations you have to face in your dreams originating in your lusts, hopes, certainty, love, etc
It is interesting to read what Jean During, the foremost Western authority in the field of sufi music has to say about the world of imagination in connection to sufi music. A musical note can be seen as something that has the same properties as the images of the world of the barzakh, the world of the imagination.
You may also visit in your dreams, in your visions, before this life or in the life hereafter one of the two cities in the world of imagination which are called Jabalqa and Jabarsa:
Jabalqa is the world of archetypes (mundus archetypus) located to the East and turned towards the spiritual entities; it is the interworld (barzakh) between the suprasensory world and the world visible to the senses. It contains all the archetypes of the universe and thus of necessity is an immense city. Jabarsa, to the West, is the world of the image, the interworld in which the spirits dwell when they have left the world of earthly existence.
It deals with an intermediary world, so the city is not found by means of ordinary geography. One can visit it in dreams, when awake by means of the faculty of imagination (but in both cases it is better to travel with a visa) and after death.