Mystical Marriage

Nekah-ye-ma’nawi oftaad dar din
Jehaan raa nafs-e-kolli daad kaabin

A mystical marriage was celebrated in religion.
The Universal Soul gave the earth as a dowry.

I have visited Lahore in Pakistan a number of times. During one of these visits I went to Shaikh Muhammad Ashraf, one of the local publishers to buy some books. I noticed another customer whose pile of books was as large as mine and we started to talk. During a meal together I found out that he belonged to a Pakistani Sufi order. I told him that I had bought The Secret Rose Garden of shaykh Mahmud Shabistari. The above quote is from this book which has become one of my favourite Sufi books.

As above, so below! Sometimes the ‘above’ and the ‘below’ are very close as has been the case when my marriage took place during the ‘urs (= wedding) of Khwaja Mo’inuddin Chishti. On Monday the 6th of Rajab 627 A.H (21st of May 1229 A.D.) Khwaja Mo’inuddin Chishti, after the night prayers, went into his room and closed the door. He did not permit anyone to enter this room. All night long the people outside heard a mystic sound coming from this room. At the approach of dawn the sound was not to be heard. When the door remained closed at the time of the morning prayers, his murids thought that this to be very unusual. In short, when the door was opened the found him dead:

He was a beloved of God
And he died in the love of God.

Shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabi discusses the mystical marriage which occurs when Being comes together with the non-existent possible thing to produce the existent possible thing. In certain of his poems the shaykh describes the ‘above’ in terms like the successive heavenly spheres. The celestial dome is created as a combination of Nature on the one hand with the Active Intelligence and the Universal Soul. He described the combination of the two in terms of the sexual act during marriage:

Jimaa’un be-unthaa qila fihaa tabi’atun
Tawallada ‘anhaa kullu maa dabba aw daraj

A sexual union with a female known as Nature,
Though which was born all that crawls or walks.

In his cosmology the shaykh speaks of marriage between the fathers and mothers. The above and the below or the heavenly and earthly qualities of the fathers and the mothers are the tools through which God creates the human universe: The spirits are all fathers, while Nature is the mother, since Nature is the locus of transmutations. When the spirits turn their attention to the pillars – the elements – which are receptive towards change and transmutation, the children, the minerals, plants, animals and jinn – become manifest in Nature. The most perfect of these is the human being.

The Chishti Sufis have studied the ‘Awaaref al-ma’aaref of shaykh Suhrawardi who describes the mystical marriage between two parents, the spirit and the soul. They give birth to the rational soul. He adds this: “From the resting of the spirit in the soul the heart was engendered. By this heart I mean the subtle heart whose place is the lump of flesh. But the lump of flesh belongs to the World of Creation, while this subtle reality belongs to the World of Command”.

Shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabi describes the effect of the mystical marriage, i.e. the gendering of the macrocosm, in terms of the primordial sexual act. He often alludes to the sacred tradition where God says:

I was a hidden treasure and I loved to be known,
So I created the world in order that I might be known.

The divine I is the first ’father’ and the hidden treasure (not yet manifest as pure possibility) is the first ‘mother’, while love is the creative force, resulting in the ‘child’ (creation). In this mystical marriage the divine attention turning to the possible thing results in an offspring by conferring existence to the entity of the possible thing. The primordial union thus takes place between different parts of the divine. God is both feminine and masculine in this description.

Sa’diyya Shaikh explains that in the narrative of shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabi, the origin of all creation is God’s desire and love: “Macrocosmically, the heady power of divine love and desire catapults the process of God’s staggering self-disclosure and manifestation”. She adds that the same divine desire shimmers through the shaykh’s portrayal of the love between men and women. He also uses analogies of pregnancy, labour and birthing to describe God’s primordial generativity. Both men and women have equal and full access to the complete state of the Universal Human Being, “the individual who manifests all the divine attributes in perfect harmony”.

The union between the male and female primordial forces can be represented in the figure of the Hermetic Androgyne. Titus Burckhardt describes the mystical marriage as the ‘chemical marriage’: “The marriage of Sulphur and Quicksilver, Sun and Moon, King and Queen, is the central symbol of alchemy”. He presents us with a picture of the Hermetic Androgyne – King and Queen at the same time – standing on the dragon of Nature, between the tree of the Sun and the tree of the Moon. The Androgyne has wings and carries in its right hand a coiled snake and in its left hand a cup with three snakes. Its male half is dressed in red and its female half in white. Here is a somewhat different picture of the Hermetic Androgyne:

Sidi Ibrahim Izz al-Din, the Sufi name of Titus Burckhardt, explains that the two forces of human nature (the Sulphur and Quicksilver of the alchemical work) lie at the same level, there is nevertheless a difference of rank. “The masculine pole (Sulphur) can be said to be placed above the feminine (Quicksilver). All active knowledge belongs to the masculine side of the soul and all passive being to its feminine side, thought-dominated (and therefore clearly delimited) consciousness can in a certain sense be ascribed to the masculine pole, while all involuntary powers and capacities connected with life as such, appear as an expression of the feminine pole.

The above should not be explained in the sense that the masculine (“above”) is superior in value compared to the feminine aspect, as both dimensions exist within one reality. Above and below are mutually constitutive and can only be conceptualized in relation to one another, symbolizing the creative relationship between complementary divine dimensions. The fact that many classical Sufi authors and many historical alchemists are men has caused this terminology which to the modern reader may sound to be a mistaken, traditional stereotype.

Sidi Ibrahim, when reflecting on the masculine and feminine poles, continues by stating that this distinction resembles the one made by modern psychology between the conscious and the unconscious. He states that true union of the two powers of the soul can only take place at that point where the supra-formal spirit, the Divine Ray, touches their common level: “This means, however, that what man regards as his own ‘I’ can never become the axis of a real ‘integration’, for, according to all spiritual traditions, the ‘I’ which modern psychology regards as the real kernel of ‘personality’ is precisely the barrier which prevents consciousness from being flooded by the light of Pure Spirit, or, in other words, which hides the Spirit from our consciousness”.

Sidi Ibrahim concludes that the ‘chemical marriage’ is “not an ‘individuation’, at any rate not in the sense of an inward process by means of which the ego imprints on a wave of collective instincts its own particular form – a form necessarily limited, both temporally and qualitatively. It may well be that the influx of hitherto unconscious influences may widen the ego-consciousness, for this lies within the range of an ordinary sublimation in the psychological sense of the word. Nevertheless this has quite definite limitations, which are in fact those of ordinary ego-consciousness”.

“Human consciousness can only attain dominion over the undulating sea of the unconscious with the awakening of a creative power within which derives from a higher sphere than that of ego-consciousness”. Sidi Ibrahim says that this higher sphere is in itself pure undivided light. This light is inaccessible to psychological observation. Psychology is subject to reason and reason can no more penetrate beyond itself to its luminous source, than a mirror can throw light on the sun. It is therefore quite vain to wish to describe the chemical or mystical marriage in psychological terms.

The marriage of the masculine and feminine forces finally merges into the marriage of Spirit (the Sun, Sulphur, the King) and soul (the Moon, Quicksilver, the Queen), and as the Spirit is the divine in the human according to the Corpus Hermeticum, this last union is related also to the mystical marriage: “Thus one state merges into another. The realization of the fullness of the soul leads to the abandonment of soul to Spirit”.

He also states a similar thing to what the Chishtis have said about the ‘urs (wedding) and death, i.e. that the symbolism of marriage is closely related to death. According to some representations of the ‘chemical marriage’ the king and queen, on marriage, are killed and buried together, only to rise again rejuvenated. That this connection between marriage and death is in the nature of things, is indicated by the fact that, according to ancient experience, a marriage in a dream means a death, and a death in a dream means a marriage.

Sidi Ibrahim explains this correspondence by the fact that any given union presupposes an extinction of the earlier, still differentiated state. In the marriage of man and woman, each gives up part of his or her independence, whereas, the other way round, death (which in the first instance is a separation) is followed by the union of the body with the earth and of the soul with its original essence.

Let us finish with once again quoting the words of shaykh Mahmud Shabistari, but once in the context of some other poetical lines:

The sun’s wisdom flows like the rule of a just king.
One can’t say if its effects are from without or within.

When the elements come together in perfect balance,
The rational soul fell in love with their beauty.

A mystical marriage was celebrated in religion.
The Universal Soul gave the earth as a dowry.

Primary sources:

Shaykh Mahmud Shabistari: Gulshan-e-Raz; ed. Husayn Muhyiuddin Elahi Qomshahi; Tehran; 1386.

Shaykh Shamsuddin Muhammad Lahiji: Mafatih al-I’jaz fi Sharh-e-Gulshan-e-Raz; ed. Dr. Muhammad Barzigar Khalighi & E. Karbasi; Tehran; 1388.

Secondary sources:

Shabistari, Mahmud: Garden of Mystery; tr. Robert Abdul Hayy Darr; Cambridge; 2007.

Other translations:

La Roseraie du Mystère suivi du Commentaire de Lahîjî; tr. Djamshid Mortazavi & Eva de Vitray-Meyerovitch; Paris; 1991
The Secret Garden; tr. Asadullah ad-Dhaakir Yate; London; 1986.
The Secret Garden; tr. Johnson Pasha; New York; 1974.
The Secret Rose Garden of Sa’d-ud-din Mahmud Shabistari; tr. Florence Lederer; Lahore; n.d.
Gulshan i Raz – The Mystic Rose Garden – The Persian text, with an English translation and notes, chiefly from the commentary of Muhammad bin Yahya Lahiji; Lahore; 1880.
Tertiary sources:

Burckhardt, Titus: Alchemy; Shaftesbury; 1986.
Lewisohn, Leonard: Beyond Faith and Infidelity – The Sufi Poetry and Teachings of Mahmud Shabistari; Richmond; 1995.
Murata, Sachiko: The Tao of Islam – A sourcebook on gender relationships in Islamic thought; Albany; 1992.
Shaikh, Sa’diyya: Sufi Narratives of Intimacy – Ibn Árabi, Gender and Sexuality; Chapel Hill; 2012.
Sharib, Dr. Zahurul Hassan: Khawaja Gharib Nawaz; Lahore; 1975.