Revelation and Inspiration

Poets write inspired poetry, but from where do they receive this inspiration? And how to become the recipient of inspiration? A disciple of the Iranian poet Sa’ib once composed the following absurd verse:

Seek for the bottleless wine from the wineless bottle!

Sa’ib immediately responded with the following:

Haqq râ zi dil khâlî az andîsha talab kon
Seek for the Truth in the heart, which is empty of thought.

Hâfiz is considered to be one of the greatest among the Sufi poets. A Chishtî pîr made it clear that this famous poet was not always considered to be a good poet: “It so happened one day that Hâfiz was ridiculed to such an extent that he could not bear it. The sensitive heart of the poet was hurt. He felt full of sorrow and sadness. The depth of his despair led him to the tomb of a saint named Bâbâ Kûhî. In a state of submissive sadness he prayed at the tomb.

That night in a dream he saw a saint who put a morsel in his mouth and said to him: “why be sorry and sad? Go! Now the gates of knowledge are open to you”. On enquiry, he was surprised and happy to learn that the saint was none other than Hazrat ‘Alî himself.”

“After this strange and startling experience he composed a poem that very day, which referred to what had happened in his dream”.

The morsel he had received in his mouth symbolized inspiration (ilhâm). The first lines of this very poem are these ones:

Yesterday, in the early morning, I was freed from anger and strife,
And in the darkness of that night, I was given the elixir of life.

Shaykh Sahl at-Tustarî – one of the most important Sufis of all times – teaches that there is a knowledge of unseen realities, which God only imparts to a select few of His creatures. He mentions three categories of knowledge (divine knowledge from our Lord, knowledge by means of light, knowledge of the essence) and four different ways in which God imparts knowledge. These are: Revelation (wahy), theophany (tajalli), knowledge directly bestowed by God (‘indî) and ‘knowledge from the divine presence (ladunnî).

He often speaks of divinely bestowed knowledge, while using the image of light: “By the light of His guidance hearts witness Him in confident abandonment to Him due to a light from His light, by which He singled them out in His pre-eternal knowledge. Thus they do not speak except with guidance, and their inner perception is solely directed towards that guidance. So those who are guided (by this light) are never left by it. Thus they are witnesses to it, because they are never absent from it.

The shaykh was asked: “What is revelation (wahy)?” He answered: “It is mastûr (i.e. concealed from all save those who are designated to receive it). […] It can also carry the meaning of ilhâm (inspiration)”. There is a difference between wahy (revelation) and ilhâm (inspiration).

Wahy is the revelation of God given to prophets. Wahâ means to indicate, reveal, suggest, point out, put a thing into (the mind), despatch a messenger, inspire, speak secretly, hasten, make a sign, suggest with speed, write, say something in a whisper tone so that only the hearer hears it clearly but not the person standing close to him. The root w-h-y and its forms appear almost 80 times in the Qur’ân.

Ilhâm, which means literally ‘to make swallow’ or ‘to make gulp down’ refers to messages given to the friends of God. These messages may be given for individual inspiration. The term ilhâm appears once in the Qur’ân in its verbal form alhama, where it is said [see Qur’ân 91:8]:

(God) “caused (the soul) to swallow down (alhama) her evil and be mindful”.

The above rather literal translation has often been replaced by translations like:

(God) “inspired it with knowledge of evil and be mindful”.

The term ta’yid, divine assistance is also of importance. It is like the more common ma’ûna or inspiration (like ilhâm). Ta’yid is derived from the verb ‘ayyada, which occurs 3 times in the Qur’ân with the Holy Spirit:

We gave Jesus, son of Mary, clear arguments and strengthened (inspired, supported) him (‘ayyadnâhu) with the Holy Spirit.

The terms associated with the root w-h-y and its first-form verbal noun wahy often refer to a specific auditory and/or visual message, which the prophet reports exactly as he perceives it. The one receiving ilhâm however, does not necessarily transmit a word-for-word message or report a specific visual message from God.

The Islamic scholar Jurjânî states that a prophet may also receive ilhâm, but distinguishes ilhâm from wahy. Ilhâm is received in the heart, whereas wahi signifies the external presence of an angel. He writes: “The prophet is one who receives a revelation (ûhiya ilaihi) through an angel or is inspired (ulhimnu) in his heart or is informed in a true dream; the messenger (rasûl) is distinguished by the special revelation (wahy) which is superior to the revelation of the prophet. For the messenger is one to whom Gabriel is revealed (or reveals: ûhiya or awhâ); he is distinguised in bringing down (tanzîl) a Book from God”.

The term awhâ can be found in Qur’ân 16:68 in which the bees are said to receive revelation:

And my Lord revealed (awhâ) to the bee […].

The Commentators explain this as a kind of instinct. Shaykh al-Muqaddasî shows us what the bee says: “Urged by divine inspiration, I surrender myself in my works to the grace it is intended I attain. My wax and my honey are the product of both my knowledge and my work. Wax is the result of my labours; honey forms the fruits of all I have been taught. […] If it is allegories that you seek, there is one of value to be found in my condition. Reflect on this: you can only gain my favours by submitting with patience to the suffering from my sting”.

Some in the Islamic world began to blur the boundaries between revelation and inspiration, often by interpreting revelation (wahy) using the concept of inspiration (ilhâm). The enigmatic Qur’ânic 42:51 states:

And it is not for man that God should speak to him
except by revelation (wahy)
or from behind a veil
or by sending a messenger
who reveals (yûhî) by His command what He pleases.

Zamakhsharî comments on this Qur’ânic sign that wahy is inspiration (ilhâm) and casting into the heart or a dream, as God revealed (awha) to the mother of Moses and to Abraham in the sacrificing of his son.

This blending of revelation and inspiration was taken up by the Sufi al-Ghazzâlî, who, quoting the same Qur’ânic sign, writes that the only distinction between revelation and inspiration is the privilege in wahy of witnessing (mushâhada) the angel who casts knowledge into one’s heart.

The Pure Brethern clarify: “The speech of angels is by hints and indications, while human speech is by verbal expressions and words. However as for the meanings, they are shared by all. The prophets receive revelation (wahy) and information from the angels through hints and indications […]. They bring these meanings by the tongue, which is an organ of the body which every community has, in its own language and by words which each community knows.”

The Islamic philosopher Ibn Sînâ, who is known in the west as Avicenna, speaks of an imaginative form of wahy in which the prophet can hear the voices of angels and see angelic forms. He uses both wahy and ilhâm to describe a specific intellectual form of prophecy, whereby one with great capacity for conjunction with the Active Intellect is inspired (yulham) concerning everything that can be known. For him, prophecy is the natural development of a gifted intellect and imagination. Avicenna does not seem to preserve any remnants of the distinction between wahy and ilhâm.

The philosophical tradition also makes use of the terms wahy and ilhâm, but they reinterpret these terms with their Neo-Platonic sensibility. Al-Fârâbî speaks of wahy from the First Cause, through the mediation of the Active Intellect to the intellect and imagination of the prophet. This highest level of prophecy, which al-Fârâbî terms wahy is a natural phenomenon that a person gifted with both a powerful intellect and a powerful imagination achieves at the height of his or her intellectual development. Al-Fârâbî does not spell out the two forms of prophecy. However, in practice he reserves the term wahy for the prophecy of someone who has perfected his or her intellect, whereas he uses the term nubuwwa for the ordinary form of prophecy in which a person need only have a powerful imagination.

Let us return to the Sufis… Shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabi writes about his masterpiece the ‘Meccan Openings’: “By God, there is not a single letter which was not written under divine dictation, lordly projection or spiritual inspiration in the very depths of my being […]. My purpose has been to free myself from an inspiration that burns my heart and crushes my chest.”

Shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabi explains that the revelations of the Qur’ân cannot be considered as closed. He ‘received’ a number of Qur’ânic signs in a cemetery in Seville to which he was accustomed to withdraw. The daughter of shaykh ‘Ali has
given this description that God spoke with shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabi during his solitary retreats. The shaykh himself tells:

The descent of the Qur’an into the heart of the servant is the descent of God into him; God then speaks to him from his innermost consciousness and in his innermost consciousness (min sirrihi fi sirrihi).

The shaykh experienced this on several occasions. During a retreat he received a number of verses from the Qur’an. He explains that the Prophet received revelation in three different modes. One of these modes can be experienced by the friends of God. It is said that shaykh Bayazid Bastami did not die before he had retained the entire Qur’an, which doesn’t mean that he knew the Qur’an by heart.

Shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabi tells that he had experienced the third mode in his early stages. His shaykh al-‘Uryabi has also experienced this. He added that in fact the Qur’an never stops travelling towards the hearts of those who preserve it. This travel will never stop as long as the Qur’an will be recited silently and aloud. Several people of the Sufi path have explained to him that they had preserved the Qur’an in their hearts or certain verses thereof without a teacher learning this to them. Such people, even if their language is not the Arabic language, find the Qur’an in their hearts pronounced in the Arabic language just like it is to be found in the copies of the Qur’an.

He also gives an example of a somewhat other kind which is quite easy to understand:

When your ear hears the master put a verse into it, God makes it descend on your heart and the disciple preserves it. If the heart of the last mentioned one is distracted by a preoccupation, the master repeats it and the descent repeats itself. The Qur’an is thus always occupied in descending. In case someone says that God has made the Qur’an to descend on him, he does not lie, because the Qur’an never stops travelling towards the hearts of those who preserve it.

Shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabi deals with this subject in detail in § 18 and § 19 of his “Book of the Unveiling of the Effects of the Journey”.

The shaykh makes it clear that the Prophet received revelation in these modes:

1. He received it in its aspect of furqan during the Night of Power. Furqan implies the book by means of which everything is distinguished; each matter is clearly explained.

Furqan means separation. It separates everything in clear and distinct domains.

2. He received it as qur’an throughout the month of Ramadan. While furqan differentiates, qur’an reunites.

Qur’an implies bringing together. It brings together all the revealed scriptures that were sent down before it and thereby all knowledge of God.

3. He received it in a period of 24 years in a shower of stars.

This descending in a shower of stars is a direct perception of the original revelation, which can be experienced by the friends of God.

I am reminded of the following anecdote: Shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabi has had a dream wherein he married with all the stars. An interpreter of dreams living in the Maghreb to which shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabi had just travelled to, referred to this dream by saying: “This is a measureless ocean and the one who has seen the vision shall have revealed to him knowledge of the highest things, of mysteries, of the properties of the stars, such as will be shared by no one in his time”. Then he was silent for a while after which he said: “If he who saw the vision is in this city, it can be none other than the young Andalusian who came here”.

This direct perception of the original revelation is not similar to the memorization of the Qur’an. Although it is ALSO possible that shaykh Bayazid was able to recite the complete Qur’an by heart, you should explain it differently. You may remember that the Prophet himself has been described as a walking Qur’an. Shaykh Bayazid was also a walking Qur’an. He preserved all its teachings by practising them in every day life.

The descend of the Qur’an in the heart of the friends of God imbibes them with the word of God. This transforms them into powerhouses of blessings for their surroundings.

A Chishti pir made it clear that he had received sura al-Kawthar (The Abundance) from his own murshid. He passed it on to a murid. This very pir often had dreams concerning the Qur’ân.

The above is enough to reflect on for some time, so let us stop commenting on revelation and inspiration.