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Nothingness and Extinction in Unity: the Path of a Sufi

Nothingness and Extinction in Unity: the Path of a Sufi

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of the human self and yields a conception of nothingness as the ideal of human


A pivotal idea of Islamic mystical thinking in which clear influences from

Hinduism have been traced, is that of extinction in unity (Arabic: al-fanâ’ fi’ltauhỵd). It was mainly expressed by Abu Yazid al-Bastami and by the martyr

Mansur al-Hallaj in the ninth century CE, and, as part of a more sophisticated

and mature synthesis, by al-Ghazali in the eleventh and Ibn-Arabi between

the twelfth and the thirteenth century. Both al-Bastami and al-Hallaj but also

al-Ghazali in the eleventh century were stongly influenced by Abu’l Qasim

al-Junayd (ninth century CE).

A leading figure in the history of sufism, al-Junayd speaks of the need to

isolate the temporal from the eternal as a presupposition of getting any genuine

knowledge and grasping God’s unity. Majid Fakhry describes al-Junayd’s position as follows: “Once this isolation of the temporal from the eternal has been

completed and the creature has been reduced to his primordial condition as an

idea in the mind of God, man becomes dead unto himself and alive unto God

and this, as al-Junayd has put it, is the essence of the mystical experience.”10

With al-Hallaj we have a further development of this understanding through

the concept of “ain al-jam” (“essence of union”). The esence of union is the

state in which the sufi’s being is saturated by the divine presence. As described

by Majid Fakhry, “. . . all the actions, thoughts, and aspirations of the mystic

are wholly permeated by God.”11

According to the moderate al-Junayd, “essence of union” should not be

thought of as annihilation of the self and identification with God, but, in

Fakhry’s wording “. . .rather in its elevation to joyful and intimate communion

with the Beloved.”12

Radicals such as al-Bastami and al-Hallaj, though, took no heed of alJunayd’s warning. They crossed the Rubicon into pantheism by failing to

draw the very distinction which he was so careful about. Thus in its historical development, tasavvuf has had to confront and solve the thorny issue of

pantheism. The latter could not but be a scandal for any monotheistic tradition.

Al-Ghazali’s contribution to the easing of this tension has been of chief importance. Combining in his person the shrewd adept of theology (kalam) and

jurisprudence (fiqh) with the sufi, al-Ghazali constitutes, in our view, a remarkably comprehensive intellectual figure. Despite his momentous attack against

the Islamic Neoplatonism of thinkers like al-Farabi and Ibn Sina, al-Ghazali

himself adheres to the metaphysical framework of Neoplatonism in his mystical work. In his Mishkat al-Anwar (The Niche of Lights), al-Ghazali introduces

a hierarchy of beings, reminiscent of neoplatonic emanation, in which God

is the Supreme Light. Other beings receive their light from God, so they can

be called “luminous” in a derivative or metaphorical sense. The closer they

are to Him, the more luminous they are. Within this scheme of things human



beings occupy a distinct position. Majid Fakhry illustrates al-Ghazali’s view

as follows: “Man occupies a unique position in this hierarchy. Not only did

God create him in His likeness, but He has made him a “compendium” of the

whole universe. The divine image in him has been inscribed by God Himself,

hence only he who knows himself can attain to a knowledge of his Lord, as a

Sufi tradition has it. However, this image is merely that of God the Merciful

(al-Rahman), not God the Lord, since the latter can never be portrayed or expressed in created terms. This is the divine mystery, which, al-Ghazali insists,

can only be expressed metaphorically or figuratively.” (My italics)13

Two points from the excerpt above stand out, in our view. First, the unmistakably neoplatonic character of the assumption that I have to know myself in

order to know God. Quite reminiscent of Saint Augustine’s notion of memoria,

it also calls to mind the neoplatonic scheme of exitus and reditus. The latter

imparts that the being of man emanates from the One (exitus) but then wishes

to return to its source (reditus). For a human being, self knowledge involves

knowledge of one’s source of existence, ultimately, that is to say, knowledge

of God.

Secondly, and more interestingly, one sees al-Ghazali’s distinction between

God the Lord and God the Merciful. God the Lord absolutely transcends human

knowledge. It is out of mercy and compassion for His creatures that God wishes

to make Himself known. Consequently, God the Merciful opens Himself to human comprehension. In this way, a steep path for climbing through successive

levels of reality is offered to human beings. At the end of this journey it is possible for them to see God as pure unity. According to al-Ghazali, those who

succeed in reaching such a higher understanding see nothing apart from God.

They are immersed into a vision of divine unity (Arabic: tauhid) in which their

own self has been annihilated (Arabic: al fana).

In this context, the neoplatonic aspiration of returning to where one came

from is served by the destruction of the self in order for the self to reach its

authentic and ultimate form of existence.

Al-Ghazali is very careful to stress that what the mystic achieves is not identity with God but the awareness that ultimately there is no other Being apart

from Him. In connection to this point, Fakhry presents the following evaluation in a quotation from A. J.Wensinck’s La pensée de Ghazali: “Ghazali does

not see in existence anything save the Unique Being, who for some unknown

reason has at one moment of eternity figured out and realized a world which

possesses in itself neither existence, nor the power to act. According to pantheism, God does not exist except through the universe. According to Ghazali the

universe does not exist at all.”14

We can conclude then, that the tasavvuf ideal as illustrated by al-Ghazali

suggests that the human being is to find his or her real self in nothingness. The

ordinary picture of the world which we get in human life is due to the fact that



the true nature of God is concealed. In our world of experience in space and

time we only get a limited understanding of the nature of being as fragmented

and multiple. So the sufi has to leave this fragmented reality behind and reach

an understanding of true unity.

Consequently, the perspective of the sufi appears quite similar to existentialism in its discouraging the building of a fixed human identity based on

immutable essence. The self has to be annihilated in order to be genuine.

At the same time, we hope to have made it clear by referring to Al-Ghazali,

that tasavvuf’s nothingness is not emptiness, but fullness of being. This is

a crucial difference from the intrinsic meaninglessness of the existentialist


How are we to compare this picture of nothingness with Sartre’s nothingness? They both associate “nothingness” with a human being’s authentic self.

They both locate their ultimate, authentic human condition within this nothingness which is at the very center of their ontological framework. However, for

Sartrean existentialism nothingness signifies the radical possibility of freedom

and involves the run of consciousness away from anything other than itself.

Thus for Sartre, nothingness is the situation where the world is an object to

me, and where my consciousness stands as an ontological buffer zone between

my pour-soi being and the other, the en-soi beings. In tasavvuf, by contrast,

nothingness is the point where the person and the world coincide. The world

is not objectified by my consciousness, for my atomic consciousness becomes

extinct within the world. On the other hand, the world cannot objectify me,

either, given that “it” is indistinguishable from myself.

Gürsoy’s attempted comparison between existentialist ethics and the ethics

of tasavvuf may strike some as odd: for after all, it is a parallelism between an

atheistic philosophy such as Sartrean existentialism and the mystical tradition

of a monotheistic religion such as Islam. So how can one create one’s own

values and remain autonomous within a monotheistic perspective? Aren’t the

values and the ethical standpoint of a tasavvuf follower already given in the

most definite way within Islamic faith? One of Gürsoy’s interlocutors asks a

question very close to this.15 Prima facie, such a world seems to be at the

antipodes of the Sartrean existentialist universe: in the latter I am authentic

only in so far as I succeed in not allowing any element of the world to project

itself and its own evaluations upon me.

We would now like to address the following: does the sufi make his own

values himself? As we saw, he aspires to reaching a state of being where all

distinction between the self and the world is lifted (“extinction in unity”).

This is an ideal shaped within a particular way of life which transcends the


As such, it appears to be at the antipodes of Sartre’s understanding of

freedom. So is the sufi’s existence less free and authentic than that of



existentialist heroes such as Sarte’s Roquentin or Camus’s Mersault? But first

a caveat: we are not going to discuss the question whether a religious believer

may be autonomous in the ethical sphere or whether, on the contrary, following

a religious faith is in itself a compromise of one’s freedom. We shall, rather,

focus on the ways in which existentialism on the one hand, and tasavvuf on the

other, understand the relation between the human self and what is other than

the self, the world. Hopefully this will shed a different light onto the question

asked above.

If we look at Sartre’s basic thesis we see a real dichotomy between the self

and the world. Far from been an integral part of whom I am, the world threatens my freedom and challenges my authenticity. I am radically free because I

can always escape the world’s impositions and I am my authentic self when I

succeed in keeping the world at bay.

In the light of the above, this dichotomy may be seen as a reiteration of the

Cartesian one. But fine distinctions are called for here. The opposition with

which Sartre works is not of the same kind as Descartes’s and Sartre has himself been critical of Cartesian dualism.16 As we have seen, Cartesian solipsism

is an epistemic solipsism which insists that, for all I know, it is always possible for me to be utterly wrong about the existence of the “external” world or

the mental life of other beings. Sartre’s perspective, by contrast, can be better grasped by Dilman’s term “affective solipsism”, introduced earlier in the

present work. This term successfully captures the rejection of affective attachment and interaction with the world. Such connections are seen by Sartre as

encroachment upon one’s freedom and expressions of an alienated self.

Dilman is certainly right in keeping the two kinds of dualism distinct.

However, and especially for the purposes of comparison with tasavvuf, it remains fair to say that the existentialist perspective, just like the Cartesian one,

is a perspective which looks at reality from the point of view and through the

prism of the individual. It follows into the steps of the Cartesian model, in

which the self is to be conceived in isolation from social and historical existence. Given that this is a central leitmotiv of Western modernity, we consider

it plausible to say that Sartre’s existentialism and theory of the self constitute a

typically Western perspective.

6. T A S A V V U F , E S S E N T I A L I S M A N D O U R B E I N G


In this last part of the chapter we shall attempt a comparison between

Wittgenstein’s suggestive remarks presented in the third part above and

Kenan Gürsoy’s understanding of tasavvuf. We hope that in so doing an



alternative to the problems posed by Sartre’s and Camus’s existentialism will


In dialogue VI. of Etik ve Tasavvuf, entitled “Tradition and Morals” (In

Turkish: Gelenek ve Edeb),17 Gürsoy and his interlocutors explore the issue of

freedom. The question posed at the outset is whether in the context of tasavvuf

the effort towards actualization of the self, along with the ethical quest undertaken, are freely chosen or not. That is to say: does tasavvuf enforce a

pre-determined ideal, external to the person? Is it plausible to suggest that in

tasavvuf a human being shapes his or her own personal way towards realizing his or her own authentic existence? The implied contrast with Sartrean

existentialism is clear.

In response to the question introduced above, Gürsoy’s main line of arguing

is that in tasavvuf, just like in existentialism, existence precedes essence. This

means that the self is not a static given built on finite positivities. It is always on

the making. One is engaged in a perpetual effort to realize oneself, to become

who he or she is.

Moreover, on Gürsoy’s view, the self cannot be shaped on the basis of any

essence. The latter is by definition something abstract and deprived of a real

context. As such it cannot account for the very individuality of man. According

to Gürsoy’s analysis, individuality is a dynamic reality, consisting not merely

in worldless consciousness but also in a network of relations with all other

beings in the universe.

Human beings relate to their fellow human beings, animals, and all of nature.

They are also related to God. Gürsoy stresses that tasavvuf’s mode of relat˙

ing is love, a love which culminates in the love of God (Turkish: Ilahi


Moreover, he maintains that God confers upon the sufi understanding of being

a distinctive dynamism. Reference to God completes the intrinsic directionality

of being with a real sense of a target outside oneself. This marks a very deep

difference from Sartre and Camus’ existentialism. In Gürsoy’s view, the latter

is doomed to failure because the absence of God deprives the self from genuine

direction and imprisons consciousness inside itself.19 Thus, freedom becomes

something to which one has been “condemned”, rather than something to be


7. C O N C L U S I O N

At this juncture, it is important to realize that tasavvuf sees the way towards the

fulfillment of being in clearly non essentialist terms. Each one of us forms his

or her own path towards the ultimate reality, Hakikat. This path is to be understood in very personal terms. No general description of it could ever be offered.

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