The Dark Night of the Heart

We all know the expression dark night of the soul. There is an experience at the level of the heart. With heart I mean the spiritual faculty and not the physical heart. The dark night of the heart implies an experience of contraction (qabd). We have already discussed the subject in some detail by means of the teachings of a Suhrawardi shaykh.

Shaykh ‘Umar as-Suhrawardi has dedicated chapter 61 of his ‘Awârif al-Ma’ârif to the description of inward states of the Sufi path. To them (the states) belong contraction (qabd) and expansion (bast), two noble spiritual states. God spoke (Qur’an 2:245):

And Allah gives contraction and expansion.

As you can read contraction is a gift. A gift of God is called a hâl in Sufi terminology, which is different from the fruit of self-work, which is called a station or maqâm. It is not an easy experience, but this dark night of the heart helps you to cope with more advanced experiences along the Sufi path.

The experience of contraction can be rather frightening. It may be quite overpowering. Some travellers along the Sufi path are tempted by this frightening experience to abandon their quest. A murid needs to remember the above Qur’anic text and realize that contraction and expansion are from God. He or she should put complete trust in God and be content with whatever happens.

Data Ganj Bakhsh, as the author of the Kashf al-Mahjub is popularly known, once experienced a prolonged state of contraction. It was quite a hard time for him. He visited all kinds of blessed places, but the state of contraction did not leave him.

One day he arrived at a serai. When he came out of his room, some dervishes made fun of him and started to throw rotten fruits at him. He remained unmoved by this humiliating and silly act. Shortly after this incident the state of contraction disappeared.

Contraction and expansion point both to two of the 99 most beautiful names of God, i.e. al-Qâbid and al-Bâsit.

Al-Qâbid is the Constrictor, the One Who Withholds, the Restrainer. The Chishti pir has given the advice that in order to emulate the name, you should take to patience in hard times and in straightened circumstances, and invoke the help of God to avert the crisis in life, treating every hardship as a test.

Shaykh Ruzbihân Baqlî writes about qabd and bast in his Unveiling of Mysteries. Contraction resembles a negative spiritual state, a ‘dry spell’ or a dark night of the heart (the shaykh often uses ‘breast’ instead of ‘heart’). He does not see contraction as a fall from grace, but as an experience of the Divine aspect of majesty. Contraction is according to him just as important as expansion.

He informs us that contraction is a response to the Divine attributes of majesty and expansion is a response to the Divine attributes of beauty:

“These are two noble states for the gnostics. He gives them contraction with the wrath of unity, the accumulated lights of greatness, and the mounting of magnificence in their hearts, so that they are removed from the qualities of humanity”.

“When he gives them expansion with the beauty and loveliness of the attributes and the delight of speech with Him, he gives them intoxication and purification with the state of ecstasy, so that they dance and listen to music, speaking and giving”.

“The principle of contraction is the annihilation of the conscience in eternity, while the principle of expansiveness is the subsistence of the conscience in the witnessing of post-eternity”.

As contraction and expansion are states given to us, this gift never manifests itself in the exactly same way with different persons. The Giver of the gift never repeats Himself and the reception of the gift gets ‘coloured’ by the recipient of the gift.

That is why these two states are often described in different ways by different Sufis. Here is an example of a different description:

“Expansion: God’s manifestation of Himself through the workings of His attributes, as contrasted with contraction, the non-manifest state of the essence in its immutable transcendence”.

Here is a different description by shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabi in his booklet dealing with Sufi terminology:

“Contraction: The state of fear in the present moment. It is called a subtle feeling coming upon the heart that is produced by an intimation of punishment and blame. It is also called the sharpest experience of the moment (in a marginal note is added: of the heart”.

“Expansion: In our usage [it signifies the state of] one who encompasses all things, while nothing encompasses him. It is called the state of hope. It is also called a subtle feeling produced by an intimation of acceptance, mercy and intimacy”.

We notice that the shaykh compares these two states of the heart, with two states of the soul (nafs), i.e. fear and hope. Some consider these two states to be the foreshadow of the ultimate transformation of egoistic tendencies and the abiding in God.

Shaykh ad-Darqawi writes in one of his letters that the Sufis “are such that their hearts find the moment of hardship the same as the moment of ease. They find the moment of illness the same as the moment of health. They find the moment of affliction the same as the moment of well-being. They find the moment of poverty the same as the moment of wealth. They find the moment of abasement the same as the moment of elevation. They find the moment of contraction the same as the moment of expansion, and so on”.

Shaykh ad-Darqawi has told a curious anecdote dealing with the expansion of his consciousness. The number of his caps increased:

I was in a state, which was a very intense combination of spiritual intoxication and sobriety as, one evening; I entered the mosque, which contains the tomb of Husayni Sharif. It was just the hour of sunset and the muezzin was calling to prayer form the roof of the sanctuary. I was wearing an old cloak made of pieces of cloth patched together and on my head was three caps, equally old; one on top of the other, for such was my inclination at the time.

“Now into the depths of my consciousness there came the idea that I needed a forth cap and at that very moment the muezzin came down with from the roof, running and laughing. A stork, carrying this cap off to her nest, had let it fall on him. As he came towards me laughing with the cap in his hand, I said to him, ‘Give it to me, for God’s sake, it is meant for me!’ And seeing that I was already wearing three caps just like it, he gave it to me.

“For men in a state of spiritual sincerity it is always like that; everything which is manifested in their hearts immediately makes its appearance in the sensory world. God’s curse be on those who lie!”