Seek His Essence

What is aspiration? The aspirer and Aspired are one.
In my path, the lover and the Beloved are one.
They say to me: ‘Seek His Essence!’
How to seek? The seeker and the Sought are one!

در مذهب ما محب و محبوب یکیست
رغبت چه بود راغب و مرغوب یکیست
گویند مرا که عین او را بطلب
چه جای طلب طالب و مطلوب یکیست

Shah Ne’matullah Wali [1331-1431]

When Shah Ne’matullah Wali, the founder of the Ne’matullahi Sufi tariqa became about one hundred years old, he climbed out of the window of our world and travelled to the next world.  This king of the dervishes is also known as a writer. His literary activities continued until he had reached a very advanced age:

The Living and Eternal، ٰOne has given
To His servant 97 years of pleasant life.

نود و هفت سال عمر خوشی
بنده را داد حی پاینده

I like to tell something about the life and work of Shah Ne’matullah Wali, who opened the window of his ne’mat [blessings] to all seekers:

We are like the ocean and people are our waves;
That’s why we are associated with everyone.

I’ll start with a description of a visit of Edward Granville Brown to the dargah of Shah Ne’matullah Wali. He was very hospitably received by the dervishes of the Ne’matullahi tariqa in September 1888.

Edward has visited the dargah of Shah Ne’matullah Wali in Mahan at the end of a stay of a year amongst the Persians. An Iranian friend tells him:

“Sahib, it is all arranged; you will go to Mahan and perform your visitation. I have found an old man, a regular ‘desert-walker’ [biyaban-gasht], who will bear you company and show you the way”.

Edward continues:

“The silent march to Mahan [for the old guide stalked on before me with swift untiring gait, only looking round now and again to see that I was following him] was pleasant in spite of its monotony. Never had my horse carried me so well as on this our last journey together. Once again my spirit was refreshed and rejoiced by the soft night air and the shimmer of the moonlight on the sand-hills, until the sky grew pale with the dawn, and the trees and buildings of Mahan stood clear before us”.

Eighty-five years later, I have made the same journey across the desert during the day. It took me about an hour by bus. It is understandable that Edward travelled during the night, this to avoid the scorching heat of the sun in the desert during the day.

When seeing the trees and buildings of Mahan, I also had a joyful experience, because of a refreshing wind coming from the snow-capped mountains near the oasis of Mahan.

Edward went straight to the dargah of the great Sufi, situated in the Ni’matullahi khanaqah. A Sufi khanaqah serves as a centre in which the qualified may receive instruction in the highest form of knowledge, the knowledge by personal experience.

It is the place where kindred souls meet. Shaykh Yahya Suhrawardi says about the aforesaid qualified men and women:

“Don’t withhold words from the fit. The unfit themselves, from the words of the people of truth, become weary…”.

The dargah complex in Mahan has an extremely beautiful design. Eternal archetypes of spiritual and celestial qualities are reflected through temporal forms.

These temporal forms serve therefore as a bridge between the qualitative, abstract world of the imagination and the quantitative artefacts of man.

When you enter the dargah complex you immediately see forms as garden, courtyard, porch, gateway and dome. The garden and the courtyard are a recapitulation of the archetype of Paradise.

The entrance takes place by a porch and a gateway, the form of which serves as an ‘opening’, a start of the Path.

Shaykh Sa’di, for example, divided his Gulistan or Rose Garden, into eight chapters or ‘entrances’ [singular: bab].

Imam al-Ghazzali writes that the heart has two gates, one opening outwards, which is that of the senses, and one opening inwards towards the Divine world, whereby the heart receives inspiration.

The dome is a shape of vital imagery wherein attributes of centre, circle and sphere are fully realized. The form of the dome can be associated with the Spirit, which surrounds and pervades all being, much as the dome encompasses its enclosed space and the vault of heaven embraces all creation.

The passage of this Spirit from the vault apex, symbolizing Unity, is viewed as being downward and expansive; or as upward and contractive, towards Unity.

In case you wish to learn more about the Sufi tradition in Persian architecture then The Sense of Unity by Nader Ardalan and Laleh Bakhtiar will be a very inspiring source of insight for you.

When the visit [ziyarat] to a Sufi dargah gets performed by a dervish, he formally will greet the present shaykh as well as all dervishes of his circle and says:

“By God, nothing but God! A visit to the door of the hearts takes place!”

We went straight to the shrine” – says Edward – “and were admitted without difficulty in company with other pilgrims. One of the dervishes attached to the shrine read the ziyarat, or form of visitation. After having visited the various buildings connected with the shrine, I returned with the dervishes to their kahve-khane [coffee-house or guest-chamber] where I had tea and slept till noon”.

About two hours before sunset, after another cup of tea, I bade farewell to the kindly dervishes, mounted my horse, and started homewards with my guide, well-pleased with Mahan and its people, and disposed to regard as a gratuitous slander that cynical verse:

Mahan an earthly Paradise would be, [I know right well],
If you could clear its people out and shake them into hell.

بهشت روی  زمین است خطه ماهان
بشرط آنکه تکنش دهند در دوزخ

Let us turn to a description of the life of Shah Ne’matullah Wali. Shah Ne’matullah Wali had during his childhood already a great capacity for understanding inward truths and conveying mystical meanings:

Know for certain that the knowledge in which my heart received instructions,
Was not taught anywhere.
What a shaykh at the age of thirty after forty days of retreat never realized,
Was revealed to me at the age of three.

After a study of outward knowledge taking years of his life, he concluded:

I see all the teachers of exoteric knowledge to be full of learning without any application.
They waste their lives while being active in discussion, chatter and empty disputation.

That’s why he embarked on a series of travels in order to find a Sufi master:

“When a dervish appeared somewhere, I hurried in complete sincerity to be in his company, remaining vigilant and watchful under his training and guidance so that the true reality of his inward state would appear to me. When, however, I perceived by the grace of God, my own intoxication to be greater than his, this dervish would also see this and would stop trying to exercise his spiritual domination over me”.

Upon first seeing the Yemenite shaykh ‘Abdullah al-Yafi’i, the young seeker saw himself to be a drop and the shaykh an ocean. He had found his murshid, whose spiritual lineage went back through three generations to shaykh Abu Madyan.

He joined the circle of shaykh al- Yafi’i in Mecca when he was twenty-four years of age, and stayed with him until the death of his murshid. Most probably it was this shaykh, who frequently described the Sufis as ‘kings’, who bestowed the title of Shah upon Ne’matullah.

Sufis in Asia often refer to great masters as kings, because they rule the hearts of those who follow the heart. A Shah is said to symbolize the perfect and perfecting human being [ensan-e-kamel-e-mukammel]. It sakes a true seeker to arrive at the Path of the king.

In later years, Shah Ne’matullah Wali wore a crown [taj] with twelve segments:

Oh you who wear the mantle of the people of the heart,
Know that the crown is made up of twelve segments:
Renounce greed, hate, wrath and spite.
Renounce vanity, fault-finding, pride and lust.
Renounce harm to others, food, drink and destructive actions.

After the death of his pir, Shah Ne’matullah Wali resumed his travels. The world can function as a teacher as well. When Shah Ni’matullah Wali identifies the world with the Supreme Name of God, he has something different in mind. He says:

“The world is for the gnostic [‘aref] the Supreme Name of God [‘esm-e-a’zam], because this name embraces the meaning of all the names. Its locus of manifestation [mazhar] is universal being, i.e. the Perfect Human Being [ensan-e-kamel]”.

The travels of Shah Ne’matullah Wali brought him first to Egypt, where he spent a period of retreat in the cave on Mt. Mukattam that had been used for the same purpose by a Bektashi Sufi.

He then travelled through Syria and Iraq to Azerbaijan, meeting shaykh Sadruddin, the progenitor of the Safawid dynasty. He presented himself as a murshid and the head of a new tariqa in Transoxiana:

“Whoever turns away from our assembly, is eternally the companion of regret”.

The last period of his life was by far the most fruitful. Apart from his murids in Kerman, he had several thousand students in Shiraz. According to N. Hanif, a somewhat later poet, Khwaja Hafez of Shiraz, is said to have condemned Shah Ne’matullah Wali obliquely for his claims to spiritual eminence in the ghazal that begins:

“Might those who transmute the soil with their gaze also glance briefly at us?”

Shah Ne’matullah Wali might have appreciated the irony of this statement, but always did his utmost not to hurt others:

During all my life a single ant
Was never offended by me.
As long as I’ve been, I’ve been so.
And as long as I’ll be, I’ll be so.

He lived nearly a hundred years. He died in Kerman:

Ne’matullah gave up his soul to the Beloved and left.
He fell down, drunk, at the tavern door and left.
This Sayyed of ours was one of God’s elect servants.
Say then: “Here was a Shah, free from this world, who left.
When, from the Truth, he heard the call ‘Return!’
He surrendered his soul with his heart
And, living from His Love, left.

Shah Ne’matullah Wali wrote profusely. Many hundreds of treatises have been attributed to him. He has written a poem that has become very popular, because it is couched in a prophetic strain.

He may have visited the world of prefiguration to observe future events in our world. This is what he wrote himself about it:

I don’t speak these words from the stars,
But I see them from the Creator.

از نجوم این سخن نمی گویم
بلکه از کردگار می بینم

His Diwan consists for the most part of verses expounding wahdat al-wujud – the unity of being. The impact of the teachings of the school of shaykh Ibn al-’Arabi is clearly discernible in his work.

When Shah Ne’matullah Wali was a young man and still was occupied with the study of exoteric knowledge, he memorized the Fusus al-Hekam – The Ringstones of Wisdom – from the Andalusian shaykh.

This influence can clearly be shown in his following poem, wherein the line near the end [starting with: I said that the whole world is His imagination] echo this first line from the Fusus al-Hekam:

Indeed the whole world is imagination, while He is the Real in Reality.
Whoever understands this, knows all the secrets of the spiritual path.

Here is the complete poem of Shah Ne’matullah Wali:

The Point appeared in the circle and was not; rather it was the circle produced by the Point.
The Point in its revolution becomes the circle in the eyes of him who measured the circle.
Its beginning and end came together when the Point measured the completion of the circle.
When the circle was completed, the compass put its head and feet together and rested.
We are all without Being, without Being; we are without Being and You are the One Who Exists.
I said that the whole world is His imagination; then I saw: His imagination is Himself.
No other sayings, better than the words of our Sayyed Ne’matullah, can be heard.
After presenting the Persian text I’ll give some indication of its meaning:

نقطه در دایره نمود و نبود
بلکه آن نقطه دایره بنمود
نقطه در دور دایره باشد
نزد آن کس که دایره پیمود
اول و آخرش به هم پیوست
نقطه چون ختم دایره فرمود
دایره چون تمام شد پرگار
سر و پا را به هم نهاد آسود
به وجودیم و بی وجود همه
به وجودیم ما و تو موجود
همه عالم خیال او گفتم
باز دیدم خیال او ، او بود
خوشتر از گفته های سید ما
نعمت الله دگر سخن نشنود

Shaykh Mahmud Shabestari presents the same images in his Gulshan-e-Raz:

All of this world is an imagined existence.
It’s like one point whirled round in a circle.
Go and whirl round a single spark of fire,
And you’ll see that the circle comes from whirling.

You’ll remember the advice in the poem at the very beginning of this article: “Seek His Essence!”The point symbolizes the Essence, the circumference of the circle the Divine names. Shah Ne’matullah Wali states in another poem:

Know that the Named is One and the names a hundred thousand,
That Being is one, but its aspects are a hundred thousand.

The central point can be seen as the One, while each of the points of the circle symbolize the many creatures. The radius implies the ‘movement’ towards manifestation.

While seeking the Essence, states shaykh Lahiji, the Sufi experiences that the existence of all creatures depends on the One and understands that outside the existence of the One, nothing really exists. The independence of creatures is nothing but an imaginary one.

The Sufi path is a path of growing certainty. The circle symbolizes the Knowledge of Certainty. The path leading to the Essence, consists of the movement from the circumference to the point in the centre of the circle. This radius is called the Eye of Certainty.

The highest attainment, the Truth of Certainty belongs to those who reach the innermost centre of the circle. The Sufis often explain the difference between these three kinds of certainty by taking fire as a symbol of the Truth. To attain Knowledge of Certainty is to know fire after hearing its description.

To realize the Eye of Certainty is to know fire by seeing its flames. The highest attainment, the Truth of Certainty, belongs to those who know fire from having been consumed therein.

When you know that God exists, then you possess Knowledge of Certainty, having knowledge from afar. When the theophany of Divine attributes gets manifested to you, then you possess the Eye of Certainty, although you are still standing on the shore of the ocean.

When you receive the theophany of the Divine Essence and are a witness thereof, you possess the Truth of Certainty and you experience union.

A final way to understand the circle [shari’at], radius [tariqat] and the point in the centre of the circle [haqiqat] can be given by means of the following teaching of Shah Ne’matullah Wali:

The knowledge of the theory of religion is shari’at.
When put to practice, it becomes the Sufi path, tariqat.
And when you sincerely combine theory and practice,
Solely for the sake of God, that’s Reality, haqiqat.

Shaykh Shabestari writes:

Shari’at is the shell,
Reality the kernel.
Between these two lies the Path.

Shah Ne’matullah Wali studied these words of shaykh Ibn al-’Arabi:

“When God willed in regard to His beautiful names that His Essence should be seen, He caused them to be seen in a microcosmic being”.

You are that microcosmic being! The Path that you need to walk leads to that essential knowledge and realization, which integrates your being, which makes you realize what you are and makes you be what you know.

Where is God? Shah Ne’matullah Wali says about the Essence of Reality [‘ayn-e-haqq]:

Anywhere you point your finger to, that’s God.
How can He ever be located, where He is or where He is not?

هر جا که تو انگشت نهی عین حق است آن
ز ان نیست معین که کجا هست و کجا نیست

How to seek His Essence? How to find Him? It takes place by wajd, i.e. the illumination of your innermost consciousness by an influx of inspiration, the fragrance of which reaches the heart.

Before showing what Shah Ne’matullah Wali writes about wajd let’s deal with this Arabic word. It means both ecstasy and finding. Wajd is derived from the root w-j-d.

Wajada means to find, to obtain, to experience, to suffer [because of passion and ecstasy] and to be existent. Finding is an attribute which subsists in the human finder, whereas its realization is an attribute subsistent through al-Mawjud, the Found, the Existent One.

Human qualities disappear before the appearance of the Shah of Reality. Shah Ne’matullah Wali says about wajd:

“In the beginning, it is a blazing fire; in the end it is the transformation of finding into existence”. Another Sufi said: “Finding is the letting go out of your hands of your personal being in the Divinely Found [or: Existent One]”.

وجد از دست دادن وجود به موجود است

Shah Ne’matullah gives this warning about outward show:

You show yourself to be among those who ‘find’, when you are not.
Do not pretend to be before your friends, what you are not.

خود را به اهل وجد نمائی و  آن نئی
با ری چنین مکن بر یاران چنان نئی

Shah Ne’matullah Wali explains something else:

“Knowledge that unveils [‘elm-e-kashfi] is more complete than spiritual state [hal]. The Prophet was asked to seek increase in knowledge: ‘Say: My Lord increase me in knowledge’ [Qur’an 20: 114]. Knowledge that unveils is to acquired knowledge as the wellspring is to a mirage”.

Shah Ne’matullah Wali gives this advice:

The knowledge that purifies you of I and we
Is called by the man of God sacred knowledge.
If you wish to be purified of all this dirt,
Stand up, wash your garment of existence and come!

علمی که ترا پاك کند از من و تو
ما۶ القدسش نام کند مرد خدا
خواهی که حدث پاك شود از تو تمام
بر خیز و بشو جامه۶ هستی وبیا

Move away from your ego and discover your heart, or as Shah Ne’matullah Wali says: “Your heart is the mirror of the Divine Presence”. And: “Whatever you desire, seek it in your heart”.

Expansion of the heart quality can be given to you when you try to be a useful member of society. Shah Ne’matullah Wali spent his free time engaged in farming. He made his occupation a model for his students to imitate.

He thus demonstrated to them that the most excellent way to purify the heart and the lower self is by service to society and by kindness to other beings. His murids were supposed to be mindful of God all the time:

My friend! Remember God and recite His name constantly!
If possible, work within your work!


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