The Sufi Path of Light

The Sufis are lovers of light. That is why some flashes of light will be shown in the parts below.

Flash 1

In 1183 a young man, a ragged dervish, entered Aleppo. There his learning and his magical powers drew the attention of all. The prince grew to love him and became his disciple. The other learned men, jealous of his ascendancy, complained of him to the king, the great Saladin. The king feared that his son would be led into heresy, and he knew that heresy bred sedition. Twice he ordered his son to kill the dervish. Heartbroken the prince at last complied. The dervish’s disciples fled, and their names were forgotten. In Aleppo people remembered him, remembered the power of his personality and his speech and how he had sought to revive the Divine wisdom of the Ancient and thereby make the age luminous and how he had perished in the attempt. “His knowledge was greater than his prudence,” they said.

But he had also left books behind – brilliant allegories of the mystical and philosophical life, powerful treatises of philosophy summarizing and pointing beyond the Peripatetic philosophy and his school, even prayers.

Above all there was a masterly book called THE PHILOSOPHY OF ILLUMINATION, a metaphysics of light and darkness, finished one September evening in 1186 as the seven Ptolemaic planets drew together on the western horizon of Aleppo. Its interpretation, he promised, was with “him who will arise with the Book,” but here was no such person, or else he was lost to history when the dervish’s disciples fled. In succeeding centuries some scholars in each generation sought to bring life to the dry bones of the master’s writings and to follow the arduous mystical path that led to an intuitive understanding of his philosophy of illumination. And a few still do.

Source: John Walbridge in his “The Wisdom of the Mystic East” dealing with shaykh as-Suhrawardi and Platonic Orientalism.

Flash 2

Shaykh as-Suhrawardi came to Aleppo and took lodgings in the Madrasat-al-Halawiya. At that time its mudarris was the Sharif, the head of the Hanafites, the late Iftikhar ad-Din. When shaykh Suhrawardi attended the class and argued with the jurists, he was dressed as a dervish and had only an ewer and a wooden staff, so no one knew him. But when he entered the discussion and stood out among the ‘ulama’, Iftikhar realized that he was learned, so the later got out a robe of watered taffeta, a gown, a coat and a large turban, and said to his son:

“Go to this dervish and say to him, ‘My father sends his salaams to you and says that you are an ‘alim and that you attended the class with the ‘ulama’. He has sent you something to wear when you come’.”

When his son came to shaykh Suhrawardi and said to him what he had been bidden to say, the latter was silent for a long time and said: “My boy, leave these rags and do something for me”. He took out a Badakhshan ruby that looked like a pomegranate the size of a chicken egg. No one had one like it, either in size or colour. He said:

“Go to the bazaar and advertise this stone. Whatever you are offered, do not undertake to sell it until you have told me”.

So when he arrived in the bazaar, he sat by the ‘arif (assistant market supervisor) and advertised the gem. The offers finally reached 25,000 dirhams, so the ‘arif took it to al-Malik az-Zahir Ghazi (the ‘prince’ in the previous flash, who was at that time governor of Aleppo), the son of Salahaddin (the one who later on ordered his son to kill shaykh Suhrawardi).

The governor was astonished at its shape, colour and beauty, so he raised the bid to 30,000 dirhams. The ‘arif said:

“I’ll go down to the son of Iftikhar and tell him”.

When the son told to shaykh Suhrawardi what had been bid for the gem, the shaykh then took the gem, placed it on a rock and struck it with another stone until he shattered it. He said to the son of Iftikhar:

“Take these clothes and go to your father. Kiss his hand on my behalf and say to him,
‘If I had wanted clothing, I’d not have been prevented from getting it’.”

Quoted with some changes from pp. 52-3 from “The Leaven of the Ancients. Suhrawardi and the Heritage of the Greeks” by John Walbridge.

Flash 3

Shaykh Suhrawardi wrote for 3 kinds of people:

1. Those not yet ready to understand philosophical arguments. These are popular Peripatetic works, like “Temples of Light” which have received a number of western translations plus commentaries.

2. Those capable of philosophical argument but not equipped to understand the highest aspects of his illuminative philosophy. These are his allegorical stories, which are written for murids on the Sufi path. A number of western translations plus commentaries have appeared. Next to these stories advanced Peripatetic works have appeared. They are written for a dual audience: Peripatetic philosophers and ‘intermediate’ students of his ishraqi philosophy. I’m not quite sure, but perhaps is his “The Book of Radiance”(Partow Nama) which exists in a parallel English-Persian text, an example of this category.

3. Those capable of learning the highest teachings from him. The beginning part of his Hikmat al-Ishraq belongs with the advanced Peripatetic works together with some criticisms of the Peripatetics. The remainder is written symbolically in the language of light and darkness. French, German and English translations plus commentaries have seen the light of day. It is meant for the disciple, and its true interpretation is unwritten, as it is in the hands of “him who arises with the Book”.

Shaykh Yahya as-Suhrawardi was both a philosopher as well as a mysic. This has created lots of problems for his translators who either emphasized the philosophical aspect of his work or the Sufi part. Sometimes they completely disagree with one another in their interpretation of his teachings.

I am however convinced that the sincerity of a seeker is stronger than the disadvantage of a poorly translated work, because (s)he’ll receive the necessary light.

Flash 4

The two books mentioned above (“The Leaven of the Ancients” and “The Wisdom of the Mystic East”) are complementing one another, and that is why a third book of John Walbridge can also be recommended. It is “The Science of Mystical Lights. Qutb al-Din Shirazi and the Illuminationist Tradition in Islamic Philosophy”; Harvard University Press.

The third book pays attention to the life and times an important commentator, i.e. Qutb al-Din. It proceeds with a chapter on Suhrawardi’s science of lights discussing it in detail during about 50 pages. The book then proceeds with paying attention to The Pearly Crown, dealing with illuminationists elements in the commentary. The final chapters deal with the soul and the “World of Image” and a conclusion which tells about the value of this philosophy. There are 6 appendixes one of which deals with the possibility that shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabi influened the commentator Qutb al-Din.

Up to a certain extent you can notice from the above account and by browsing in the others books of Walbridge , that next to information right on target this material also contains many details which may supply interesting information but which is not always of practical value.

There is a difference between trying to walk the path of shaykh Yahya as-Suhrawardi and collecting information about his philosophy. It is possible to drown in the details, so perhaps it is best to keep the main work of the shaykh the Hikmat al-Ishraq as a guide-line along which other books can supply some necessary explanation and nothing more.

People like John Walbridge and Hossein Ziai stress the philosophical idea of the shaykh, while Henri Corbin and Seyyed Hossein Nasr stress his “mystical” qualities. The two groups combined present a more truthful picture of the Illuminationist teachings, while each group has its own shortcomings like personal biases, etc. The personal sincerity of a seeker offers sufficient compensation for these flaws.

A Chishti pir we’ve met in Ajmer has never explicitly mentioned to us the teachings of shaykh Yahya as-Suhrawardi. He however at times spoke about possible experiences dealing with light. This had however more to do with the teachings of shaykh Najmuddin Kubra and Mawlana Jami about light. This pir was able by means of his glance to supply light to his murids.

It can be said that for a beginner with a practical interest in this path it is necessary to have a spiritual guide. Shaykh Fariduddin ‘Attar tells:

Dar saaye pir shaw ke naabinaa
Aan awlaatar ke baa ‘asaa gardad

Sit in the shadow of a master,
For the blind are better off with walking sticks.

Shaykh Yahya as-Suhrawardi however also (i.e. next to accepting the above) states: “There may be, on the other hand, people who are capable of intuiting many problems without a human teacher. Therefore, it is not farfetched that there exist some people with powerful intuitions who may learn much of the sciences in but a short period of time” (“The Book of Radiance”; p. 80).

Flash 5

Shaykh Yahya as-Suhrawardi explains the following in his “Hikmat al-Ishraq” concerning the generosity of the Light of Lights:

Generosity is giving that which is appropriate without expecting any recompense. If you seek praise or reward, then you work for a wage, as you do when you seek to be free from blame and the like. But there is nothing more generous which is light in its own reality. By its essence it reveals itself to and emanates upon every receptive one. The True King is He Who possesses the essence of everything, but Whose essence is possessed by none. He is the Light of lights.

The Chishtis often repeat this teaching:

The lover of God should be charitable like the river,
generous like the sun
and hospitable like the earth.

The quality of the sun to be emulated, is that in its generosity it shines on everyone and does not expect anything in return. A Chishti pir had the habit of translating the word ‘arif (someone with deep inward realizations; a gnostic) by means of the term “enlightened”. He quotes Khwaja Mo’inuddin Chishti thus:

The enlightened showers like the sun his rays of light on all the world.
The whole world is lit bright by his light.

Shaykh Yahya as-Suhrawardi uses the words Sahib-e-basirat (the owner of inward vision) for the enlightened in his Persian “The Book of Radiance” (Partow Nama). We are indeed in need of such people!

Flash 6

Shaykh Yahya as-Suhrawardi explains that the path leading to knowledge of God has 3 main stages: the beginning, the middle one and the final. At each stage a special kind of light is experienced by the traveller, beginning with flashes of light and ending with the most intense experience of the Light of the heavens and the earth.

The light that illuminates your heart at the intermediate state is called serenity (sakina). It is an inner light that you may experience on the path of ma’rifa (deep inward knowledge of the Divine).

The shaykh claims that it shines upon your heart and stays for a while, and he adds that it brings about serenity in the heart. There is even more, because according to shaykh as-Suhrawardi the possessor of this serenity is endowed with the power of clairvoyance, so that you are able to read the minds of other people and know about unseen events. He makes it clear that the possessor of sakina is enabled to hear supernatural speech and is inspired by divine words.

You can easily understand that these experiences can also confuse you and can be a source of misguidance. That is why a murshid is needed to direct you towards that which is truly important for your inner development. What is more important? The answer: To move in the direction of the higher stages of the path, so that you may experience light upon light.

Source: “The Light of Sakina in Suhrawardi’s Philosophy of Illumination”; pp. 1-28 by Dr. Nasrollah Pourjavady.

Flash 7

All the sages (Shaykh as-Suhrawardi mentions among the Sufis Hazrat Bayazid of Bastam and shaykh Sahl at-Tustari) walking the path of the doctrine of illumination have expressed themselves symbolically in an encoded language. Symbols are configurations of an intermediary world, which is the only way to represent higher worlds. Shaykh Suhrawardi walks the path of light with companions who lived many centuries before him. He writes this in his “Hikmat al-Ishraq”:

I have all who walk in support on God’s path for support in everything that I have taken into account of the Pure Lights (or beings of Light), as well as all the rest. This high knowledge was indeed the ultimate experience (dhawq) of Plato, the Imam and leader of those who have wisdom, a man endowed with great force and interior light.

Such was also the case with Hermes before him, the Father of all sages, up to Plato himself, and also eminent philosophers, pillars of theosophic wisdom, like Empedocles, Pythagoras and still others. However, the doctrine of these ancient sages was presented in the cipher of symbols, so there is no refuting it. When someone claims to have an argument with the exoteric appearance (zahir) of their doctrines, then their true intentions are never encountered, because symbols cannot be refuted.

However, the basic oriental doctrine, the one concerning Light and Darkness, the doctrine that constitutes the very teachings of the sages of ancient Persia, such as Jamasp, Frashaoshtra, Bozorgmehr and still others before them is founded precisely on symbol. This was not the doctrine on which the impiety of the dualistic Magi (Majus) or Mani’s deviation was founded.

Source: Henri Corbin’s “En Islam Iranien” volume 2; pp. 51-2.

Flash 8

The above flash has been commented upon. It starts with a critical attitude towards the dualistic Magi. Here it is:

The doctrine of Orientals (ahl al-Sharq) is founded on the symbol. The sages of ancient Persia professed the existence of two Principles (asl) of which one is light and the other darkness. These are respectively the symbols of being in its necessity and being in its non-necessity. Light represents (qa’im maqam) necessary being, Darkness that of non-necessary being. The absolute first Principle never redoubles itself into two principles, one Light and the other Darkness.

This no penetrating mind has ever maintained and it was also the weighty reason that the elite of the sages of Persia (fozala Fars) fathomed the depths of the ontological sciences. This is why our Prophet (Mohammed) said in their praise: ‘Science will be suspended from the Pleiades and the men of Persia will attain it’. Their high sciences and their doctrines are precisely those that Suhrawardi has revived in the present book.

It was apparently also the ultimate experience of the elite of the Greek sages, because the two communities (Greek and Persian) agree on this principle. Those (the Persians) were, for example Jamasp, Zoroaster’s diciple, Frashaoshtra (the brother of Jamasp and Zoroaster’s father in law) and more recently Bozorgmehr (he was the chief physician and minister of the Sassanid king Khusraw Anushravan). Their predecessors were the kings Gayomart (the primordial Man), Tahmuras (a legendary hero), Fereydun, Key Khusraw and Zoroaster, a number of high ranking kings and prophets.

Certainly, various vicissitued have ruined their high sciences; the most disastrous even was the loss of their sovereignty and the loss of their books by the fire caused by Alexander. However, after attaining certain aspects and noticing their agreement with things that appear to spiritual perception and intuitive vision (kashfiya shohudiya), the author has tested their excellence and laboured to achieve it.

Source: Ibid.; pp 52-3.

Flash 9

Attainment in this field is not required without satisfying a rigorous requirement. Shaykh Yahya as-Suhrawardi formulates this in an impressive way:

Briefly, the Hakim muta’allih (sophianic sage) is the one for whom the body has become like a tunic, which is now taken off and then put on again. No one can be counted among them when this sacrosanct leaven is ignored [the shaykh refers to the double leaven of the sages of ancient Persia and the Pythagoreans as mentioned in flash 7], and this dressing and undressing [of the body] has not been tested.

After that they can rise to the light, if they wish. If it so desires, it manifests itself in any form it wants to. As for the power granted to them, it is actualized by the light of the Orient, when it embraces one’s self (al-nur al-shariq ‘alay-hi).

Don’t you see that iron brought to incandescence by the action of the Fire resembles it, bright from its brilliance and burning from its flames? So the soul, spiritual in essence, when it submits itself to the action of the Light and clothes itself in the robe of the rising dawn, also produces the effect and action of the Light by itself.

It becomes a sign and things happen at its beckoning. It imagines and things will come about according to the image imagined. Imposters (the wizards) seduce through juggling. The enlightened ones, the Perfect ones, whose love attaches itself to what is free from all evil, these come about through the spiritual action of the Light, because they themselves are the children of the light.

Finally shaykh as-Suhrawardi states it exactly: These things can only be really understood concerning what happens in the “intermediate Orient”, i.e. the imaginal world.

Source: English translation of ibid. by Hugo M. van Woerkom; pp. 42-3, with some minor changes.

Flash 10

Shaykh Yahya as-Suhrawardi informs us thus:

“Whoever knows philosophy (hikmat), and perseveres in thanking and sanctifying the Light of Lights, will be bestowed with the Royal Light of Gloru (khorrah-e-kayani) and with the Royal Splendour of Light (farr-e-nurani), and – as we have said elsewhere – Divine Light will further bestow upon him the cloak of royal power and value. Such a person shall then become the natural Ruler of the Universe. He shall be given aid from the High Heavens, and whatever he commands shall be obeyed; and his dreams and inspirations will reach their uppermost, perfect pinnacle. And God knows best what is true”.

Source: “The Book of Radiance”; pp. 84-5 with some minor changes.

Flash 11

Shaykh Yahya as-Suhrawardi informs us thus:

“Dreams occur when your animal soul is transformed and moves away from the outer senses affecting the inner senses. And if you continually meditate upon the heavens and abstains from pleasures, including food – save in amounts that are needed for survival – and pray at night, holding vigils and read much of the Divine revelation and free your mind through thinking good thoughts and, at times, put the soul to test and carry out inward conversations with God in the High Heavens and praises Him, then lights like dazzling flashes of lightning shall be cast upon you”.

“You’ll then experience such things without interruption so the lights will appear to you even in times other than those when you are meditating. You may also behold pleasant shapes. A tremendous dazzling flash may beckon your soul to the unseen realm. Luminosity more radiant than the light of the sun shall fall upon the sensus communis, thus causing you to experience pleasure”.

Source: “The Book of Radiance”; pp. 83-4 with some minor changes.

Flash 12

This continues from flash 11:

“These Flashes and Lights are no theoretical knowledge and no intellectual representations. No indeed, these are hieratic irradiations (i.e. of the spiritual world). The spiritual world is all the lights in a state separate from matter. There is absolutely no limit, in power and splendour, to the Light of the Necessary Being and of Intelligence.”

“For souls in the other world it is far more manifest than perceptible objects are seen in this world. It is a Light more splendid than other splendours of light. The light of spiritual beings is not something that is added to their essence; no, they are Light, Light in a state separate from matter, as the luminous sage-philosophers claim after their own visionary experience”.

Source: Henri Corbin’s “En Islam Iranien” volume 2; p. 96 and p. 62 of the English translation by Hugo M. van Woerkom.

Flash 13

You probably will not know the “Risalat Qawanin Hikam al-Ishraq ila kull as-Sufiya”. It is a composition containing maxims of illumination addressed to all the Sufis. The author, shaykh Abu al-Mawahib ash-Shadhili was born presumably in Cairo. He has long been remembered because of his qualities as a teacher and preacher of elegance, piety, devotion and righteousness. His domicile was near the Azhar University on the roof of which he had a place of retreat (khalwa).

So deeply engrossed he was in his writings, discourses and meditations that a kind of intoxication always seemed to govern his physical being. Therefore, while walking and swaggering about the Azhar mosque, he often drew from men various kinds of comments. To some he seemed but an idiot, to others a very holy person.

His critics were largely motivated by jealousy. On one occasion his enemies found him while he was visiting a certain mosque. They attacked him until his head was wounded and bleeding. To this he only responded with smiles, saying:

“Truly, you are my masters and I am your servant!”

It is also reported that he used to say that if you desire to depart from your evil brothers, see to it that you first depart from your wicked qualities.

Once he paid a generous sum of a hundred dinars to a tutor who had taught his son two sections of the Qur’an. Astounded at the handsome reward, the tutor suggested that he only deserved part of that sum for his services. At that the Shadhili shaykh withdrew his son from that school and remarked:

“This is a teacher who thinks too much of worldly goods!”

His ideas about ishraq can be summed up as follows: He once declared that whatever degree of ‘illumination’ the seeker after truth may attain, is the result of remembrance (dhikr), which illumines the mirror of the heart. All that reveals God to you is light and all that fails to reveal Him is darkness.

Source: “Illumination in Islamic Mysticism” by Edward Jabra Jurji; pp. 21-22.

Flash 14

Shaykh as-Suhrawardi presents us with this light-bestowing prayer and may all of us benefit therefrom:

O Deity of the worlds! O eternally Subsistent!
Strengthen us with the light,
Maintain us in the light,
Assemble us under the light.
Make the end of our pursuits in accord with Your will.
May our ultimate aim be the one which prepares us to meet You.
We have troubled our souls,
Though You are never avaricious with Your superabundance.
Those who are imprisoned in darkness
Stand at Your portal awaiting mercy
And seeking liberation from captivity.[…]
Bless us in our remembrance [of You]
And remove evil from us.
Give success to the right-doers.
Peace be on the Chosen and all his family.

Source: p. 77 of “The Illuminative Philosophy” of the Mevlevi shaykh Isma’il of Ankara.