The Sufi states of Contraction and Expansion

Shaykh ‘Umar as-Suhrawardi has dedicated chapter 61 of his ‘Awârif al-Ma’ârif to the description of inward states of the Sufi path. Two of these states are now presented.

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.

The shaykhs have talked about both of these states and have given indications about their characteristics. Their reality has however not been unveiled to me, because they only gave indications. An indication can only be satisfactory to an initiate. I however, wish to deal with both of them in some detail. This is something a seeker may be on the outlook for. A seeker may like to receive a detailed explanation.

God knows all! You should know this: Contraction and expansion take place during a specific time period and they may start at a certain point in time. This point in time is to be found in the beginning of the state of special love. They are not to be found at the end and not before the beginning of the state of special love.

NB: It is necessary to explain something first before continuing with the translation. The shaykh discusses the common (‘âmm) kind of love (mahabba) and the special (khâss) kind of love in the beginning of chapter 61 of his book. Common love is love for a human being and is considered to be a spiritual station according to several Sufi shaykhs. Special love is a state. It is the love for God. Shaykh Suhrawardi describes both types of love in quite some detail, ending with a verse of shaykh Mansur al-Hallaj:

I am the One Whom I love
And the One Whom I love, is I.
We are two souls descended in one body.
If you see me, then you see Him;
And when you see him, then you see us.

Now I’ll continue the translation about contraction and expansion:

When you experience common love, whose existence is based on faith, then you do not experience contraction nor expansion, but only fear (khawf) and hope (rajâ’). It may appear that you experience something of the state of contraction or of expansion, and you think it is one of these two states, but this is not the case. It is like this that you experience some sorrow and you explain this to be contraction, and you may experience some cheerfulness, and this you wrongly consider to be the state of expansion.

Sorrow and cheerfulness are arising out of the lower soul and its substance. Its qualities continue to exist as long as there is a commanding part therein and thus merriment and cheerfulness belong to it. Sorrow is the glow of the fire in the furnace of the lower soul and cheerfulness can be compared to the accumulating rushes of the lower soul, just like bouncing waves of the sea of nature.

When however you ascend from the station of common love to special love, you will experience a state, you will become the ‘owner’ of a heart and you’ll now have a reprimanding soul (instead of a lower soul which may incite you to evil). Now the state of contraction may be experienced, which may alternate into the state of expansion. This is, because you have left the step of faith and have risen to the step of certainty and the state of special love. God may let you experience now contraction and then expansion.

Wasiti has said: “He contracts you, away from what is yours and expands you into what is His. Nuri has said: “He contracts you by Himself and expands you for Himself”.

You should know that you experience contraction because of being dominated by the (reprimanding) soul and that you experience expansion because of the heart being the dominating faculty. As long as the soul is reprimanding then this soul may be either dominating or not dominating, and from this point of view contraction and expansion belong to it.

The ‘owner’ of a heart is veiled by light, because of the (active) existence of his heart, while the ‘owner’ of a soul, because of the (active) existence of his soul is veiled by darkness. In case you rise above his heart and leave its veil behind, then you’ll be no longer chained by this state and you cannot experience it anymore. You’ll experience neither contraction nor expansion as long as you are free of the (aforementioned) existence of light, i.e. your heart and you’ll experience the nearness (of God) without the veil of your soul or your heart.

When you’d descend from (the higher states) of annihilation (fanâ’) and permanency (baqâ’), then you’d return to the light of the (active) existence of your heart, and then you’ll once again experience contraction and expansion. When you’d no longer descend from annihilation and permanency, then you’ll no longer experience contraction and expansion.

Faris says: “At first there is contraction and then there is expansion; later on there is neither contraction nor expansion. This is because contraction and expansion are there during your existence, but not together with annihilation and permanency.

To continue: Contraction is every now and then the punishment for the immoderateness of expansion. This is because, when the divine impulse influences your heart and then fills your heart with comfort, happiness and joy, your soul secretly witnesses all of this and then appropriates its portion. When the impact of the (divine) impulse thus reaches the soul, then the nature of the experience changes, the level of the expansion changes and it is (merely) gaiety what you’ll now experience. This gets answered with contraction as a punishment.

When you reflect on what happens, then each contraction comes about because of the activity of the soul and its qualities. When you would have disciplined and trained your soul, and when it would act in the right way and when it would not bring about boundless claims and defiance, then the ‘owner’ of a heart would not experience contraction and would continue to experience comfort and nearness (to God).

The preservation of the balance and that which blocks the door of contraction can be found in the word of God (in Qur’an 57:23):

In order that you not despair over what has eluded you
and not exult over what He has given you.

As long as the impulse of joy remains at the level of the spirit and the heart, it will not be changed into something less subtle and the recipient will not experience contraction, all the more because the impulse of joy because of turning towards God is of a delicate nature.

When you however do not take your refuge in turning towards God, then the soul is lying in ambush and takes its portion of this joy. This however is forbidden in regard to what has been given to you. This is why at certain times you may experience contraction. This is one of the most subtle sins bringing about contraction. There are however in the soul, because of what moves it and because of its qualities, many (other) impulses which cause contraction.

Fear and hope are neither lacking with the one who experiences (the higher states of) contraction and expansion nor with the one who experiences (the higher states of) nearness (to God) and awe (hayba, i.e. awe of God). Both (fear and hope) necessarily belong to faith and cannot lack. Contraction and expansion, on the other hand, are lacking if you have not moved beyond faith and this is because you then have not reached the level of the heart, nor the level of annihilation, permanence and nearness (to God) in case you have been freed of the level of the heart.

Sometimes you may experience an inward contraction and expansion without you being aware of its cause. The cause of contraction and expansion is however only hidden to that person who has only a limited spiritual knowledge and who has no mastery of the knowledge of states and stations. The one who has mastery of the knowledge of states and stations is aware of the cause of contraction and expansion.

At times the cause of contraction and the cause of expansion appear to be similar, just like the hardship of contraction appears to mirror the joy of expansion. You only can have knowledge about these things when your heart is properly directed.

N.B.: Before dealing with the final part of the teaching of shaykh as-Suhrawardi about contraction and expansion it is useful to mention three levels of development of the soul he hints at. The third stage of development is mentioned by him in this concluding part.

1. an-nafs al-ammâra: the headstrong soul inciting you to evil.
2. an-nafs al-lawwâma: the reprimanding, the admonishing soul.
3. an-nafs al-mutma’inna: the tranquil, peaceful soul.

Shaykh as-Suhrawardi continues thus:

The one who no longer experiences contraction and expansion and has risen above them, (know that) his soul is at peace. That is why no sparks of fire are produced by this soul. There are no accumulating waves anymore caused by the wind of desires in the sea of its nature.

Sometimes such a person may still experience contraction and expansion in his soul, without transcending this soul. This is because his peaceful soul and his heart have the same nature. Contraction and expansion may therefore come about in the peaceful soul, while neither contraction nor expansion belong to the heart. This is because the heart is being fenced off by the rays of the spirit and continues to experience the peace of the nearness (of God). That is why contraction and expansion are no longer there.