The Challenge Of Esoterism

Aside from bequeathing to Sufism the distinctive institution of the khaanqaah, the influence of Karraamism on Islamic mysticism is indirect. It should be remembered that Ibn Karraam's movement was not mystical sensu stricto. However, the violent asceticism of its exponents, which cast such a spell over the working classes of Khuraasaanian towns such as

Nishapur, provoked an epochal reaction amongst mystics in the ninth century. With Hamdun al-Qassar and Abu Hafs 'Amr al-Haddadi at their head, their distinctive teaching emphasised the rejection of all spiritual ostentation (riya'), against the histrionic otherworldliness of the Karramite ascetics. Spiritual striving was for God alone, or it was worthless. In the case of Hamduan, this radical ''introversion'' might even involve actively seeking social blame, in line with the verse in the Qur'an which praises those who ''struggle in the path of God and do not fear the blame of a blamer'' (5:54). The new tendency emanating in particular from the mystics of Nishapur was thus known as the Mal-amatiyya, the People of Blame.29 The Malamati ethic was fraught with danger. It predictably led some would-be mystics to legitimise outright antinomianism, and so threatened to discredit Sufism within Islam. Interpreted sincerely and conscientiously, however, the Malamati ethic remains a constant and moving undercurrent of Sufi spirituality and hagiography. 'Abd al-Rahman al-Sulami (d. 1021), author of one of the earliest esoteric commentaries on the Qur'an, formalised and structured Malamati spirituality in his Malamati Treatise (Risalat al-Malamatiyya), and in the school of Ibn 'Arabi, the highest of all saints are in the Malamati ranks.30

Exponents of the Malamatiyya were thus urged, through the negative example of the Karraamiyya, to objectify what marked out a truly ''esoteric'' askeasis from its exoteric analogue. Their askaesis was wholly introverted and had no one but God for witness. The Malamata mystics are part of a larger convulsion which characterises Sufism in that period. Sufism (as the mystical movement was presently generalised) could not disguise a certain asymmetry between its teachings and wider religious norms. This asymmetry was visible in many areas, from Sufism's involved paraliturgical practices and the audacity of its goals, to its characteristic media. The pursuit of the Prophet's ''good example'' (uswa hasana) by Sufis unsatisfied with simple conformity to his precedent (sunna) in the routines of daily life, seemed to trespass on the very uniqueness of the Last Prophet. From the ninth century, for example, there were Sufis who spoke frankly of emulating the Prophet's ascen-sion.31 Saintly thaumaturgy - denied by Mu'tazilites but accepted unhesitatingly by the masses32 - seemed to rival prophetic thaumaturgy. Neither was the supreme goal of the Sufi gnostic simply the fulfilment of the religion's legal obligations with a view to posthumous salvation, but was additionally God-realisation (ittisaf), no less, while alive. And the gnostic's encounter with God was expressed in Sufism in a unique medium, the theopathic locution. In such utterances, it was claimed that God Himself spoke through the mystic in enigmas akin to the ambiguities (mutashabihat) found in the Qur'an. Like the qur'anic ambiguities, these locutions were to be accepted by the mass of believers in good faith, leaving their interpretation to an elite. Thus, in Carl Ernst's words, they shockingly amounted to a virtual ''supplementary canon, formed by the uninterrupted contact which God maintains with the elect''.33 The most famous ecstatic who brought such readings of Sufism into the open, forcing the issue of their asymmetry with exoterism, was undoubtedly Mansur al-Hallaj.

There had already been trials of Sufis under the Abbasids, notably that of Abu'l-Husayn al-Nuri and his companions c. 878. The mystical ''lover'' Sumnun (d. 910) had fallen foul of certain authorities for his amorous way of talking about God. Ahmad al-Kharraz (d. 899) was exiled from Baghdad at this time on account of his work The Secret (Kitab al-Sirr), and later, after an eleven-year residence in Mecca, he found himself expelled again. But it is clearly the furore centring on Hallaaj and his two trials (913 and 922) under the Abbasid caliph al-Muqtadir, which marks the moment when the tension most momentously broke surface.

What doctrines were specifically at stake in these persecutions? It appears that the Nuri trial was founded on a vague allegation of zandaqa (crypto-Manichean heresy). This was enough provocation for the Hanbalite jurist Ghulaam al-Khalail to persuade the authorities to have him arrested and tried. For a figure like Khalil, Nuri's doctrine of divine love suggested an outrageous intimacy between creature and God, and implied an intolerable anthropomorphism. It is important, however, that when questioned by the chief judge of Baghdad, Nuarai spoke in particular about the saints who ''see by God and hear by God'' (the idea of ittisaaf), causing the judge to weep with emotion. The same principle was the recurrent issue in the Hallaaj trials. In the first of these, the main charge was that Hallaaj had claimed divine lordship for himself and taught incarnationism (hulual), by which the authorities concluded that the wandering thaumaturge was posturing as a messianic figure (mahda).34 This was deeply threatening to the state at a time when the extremist Shai'ite movement known as Carmathianism was in the air. In the second trial, although Hallaj's alleged replacement of the Hajj was decisive in his condemnation from the point of view of orthopraxy, nevertheless the vital issue from the viewpoint of orthodoxy was probably again ittisaaf. It was the seizure of a text on this subject among Hallaaj's effects which initially provoked the caliph to hand him over for cross-examination, and Hallaj's ''thesis of [God's] witness'' (qawl bi'l-shahid) was the subject of a special session during the proceedings. In this last doctrine, it was claimed that witnessings (shawaahid) of God are obtainable in the person of the saints (ahl al-ikhlas), who thereby become persuasive evidence of God in the midst of creation, drawing mankind to Him.35 Hallaj evidently claimed as much for himself: ''If you do not know Him, then at least know His signs! I am that sign and I am the Truth [ana'l-Haqq]!''36

It must be noted that Hallaj himself rejected the concept of hulul. But a unio mystica, in some sense, clearly lies at the heart of his teachings. Hallaaj thus describes the realised saint as a manifestation (zuhur) of God, but ''not an infusion [hulul] in a material receptacle [haykal juthmani]''.37 The distinction is important and clearly eluded Hallaj's persecutors. The point is surely that through the saint's self-annihilation there is a thinning of the existential veils which hide God from the world, so that God in His infinity and transcendence may be contemplated through the saint, as the sky may be glimpsed through a window. There is no suggestion here of God incarnating, through a kenotic ''descent'' into an earthbound individual. Indeed, a recurring note of Hallaj's Tawhsin is that God and the creature never combine. Be that as it may, the very notion of God-realisation, whatever its interpretation, appalled the Hanbalites, and obliged Sufis who used such language to qualify and carefully explain what they meant. A more circumspect view was that the saint was ''invested'' with one or another divine name or attribute (sifa). This was the so-called sifata mysticism, initially developed by Hallaj's disciple Abu Bakr al-Wasita (d. c. 932) and popular in later Sufism. Another way in which the unitive experience of the mystic was explained was through the Sufi concept of baqh' (''enduring''), whereby the earthly adjunct of the mystic was readmitted subsequent to his annihilation (fanh') in God - readmitted, however, in the light of that experience. The great contemporary mystic Junayd (d. 910), whose epistles are marked by a preoccupation with this whole problem, explains baqa' as follows: ''[The mystic] is present in himself and in God after having been present in God and absent in himself. This is because he has left intoxication with God's omnipotence [ghalaba] and comes to the clarity of sobriety.''38 Junayd goes so far as to emphasise that the famous ecstatics like Bistaml had all passed away only ''in their imagination'' ('ala al-tawahhum).39 His insistence on the subjectivity of the experience of annihilation and the imperative of passing beyond it to a reinstatement of the creature-creator distinction became a feature of so-called sober (sahwi) Sufism, and was later enshrined in the doctrine of wahdat al-shuhud (''the unity of witnessing'', subjective theomonism).

ThE rescue of INTEgRAlITY

Junayd thus heralds a reaction. His earlier observation of the Nuri affair probably made him wary of Hallaj's strident form of esoterism, and many accounts point to his censure of Hallaj's outspokenness. It is not a matter of Junayd being more scrupulous in upholding the Shari'a, for Hallaaj himself was allegedly extremely meticulous in his religious observance and renounced all legal mitigations and concessions (rukhas). Nonetheless, Junayd makes a reassertion of what has been referred to earlier as the Islamic genius for integrality, and he marks the beginning of a concerted effort to express Muslim esoterism in a way which contributed to, rather than undermined, the wider religion. Junayd's mysticism of ''sobriety'' perhaps received its strongest expression in a tradition of Sufism affiliated to the Hanbalite legal rite, though he himself had in fact adhered to the (presently defunct) rite of Abu Thawr al-Kalbai. Hanbalism's strict rejection of any superimposition on the Qur'an and hadith yields a form of Sufism in impeccable conformity with the consensual foundations of the tradition. This kind of Sufism might explore the tradition's agreed norms with eminently abnormal intensity, but it may never violate them in the name of esoterism. In keeping with Junayd's emphasis, Sufism has always had a significant Hanbalite and Zahirite manifestation in figures like Junayd's contemporaries Ruwaym and 'Amr al-Makka, and later figures like Khwaja 'Abdallah Ansari and the great 'Abd al-Qadir al-Jalam. Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya, disciple of Ibn Taymiyya, would in due course be responsible for documenting this Hanbalite tradition of Sufism.40

The period from the later tenth to the eleventh century saw the production of a series of compilatory works and manuals, ever since viewed as classics, aimed at organising and defending the mystical movement. Unity was imposed on the different regional traditions, technical terms were defined, standard hagiographies were put together, and above all Sufism was shown to conform to ''orthodox'' Sunnai creeds and to be rooted in the Qur'an and the precedent of the Prophet and the first Muslims. The five key works in question were the Arabic Food of Hearts (QUt al-qulUb) by Abu Talib al-Makka (d. 966), the Book of Gleams (Kitab al-Luma') by Abu Nasr al-Sarraj (d. 988), the Disclosure of the Way of the People of Sufism (al-Ta'arruf li-madhhab ahl al-tasawwuf) by Abu Bakr al-Kalabadha (d. c. 990), the Generations of Sufis (Tabaqat al-Sufiyya) by Abu 'Abd al-Rahman al-Sulama (d. 1021), and the Persian work Unveiling the Veiled (Kashf al-mahjub) by 'Ala al-Hujwm (d. 1071 or 1072).

These texts represent a watershed, and a distinction should be drawn between the pre- and post-compilatory periods. An important result of such texts was the imposition of homogeneity. The term ''Sufi'' appears to have applied originally only to the Baghdad school, while the eastern tradition used the term Malamati, or hakim (sage), for its representatives.41 Especially noteworthy is the inclusion in these texts of formal SunnI creeds. For example, Kalabadhi's Disclosure contains a lengthy preliminary section (chapters 5-30) which amounts to a detailed statement of Sufism's orthodoxy and conforms to the conventional order of Islamic catechisms ('aqa'id): first, correct teaching on the divine attri-butes,secondly, correct teaching on the Beatific Vision, and thirdly, correct teaching on theodicy.

Arberry claimed that Kalabadhi's creed was modelled on al-Fiqh al-Akbar II,42 so named by Wensinck and identified by him as a Hanbalite creed of the ninth or tenth century.43 But Watt has dismissed Wensinck's thesis, identifying this creed as basically Hanafite in char-acter.44 The facts that Kalabadha was later listed as a famous Hanafite jurist,45 and that Hanafism was the prevalent rite in the Saamaanid realm where he lived, confirm that the real dogmatic background of the Disclosure's creed is Hanafism. Whatever the case, it propounds many of the core teachings of Sunm kalam as formalised in Ash'arism and to a lesser extent in Maturidism. It affirms that God has eternal attributes which are ''neither He nor other than He'' (a typically Ash'arite formula), and that these attributes are akin to God's essence in their unknowability: ''As His essence is not caused, so His attributes are not caused: to attempt to display the eternal is to despair of understanding anything of the realities of the attributes or the subtleties of the essence [of God].'' This is the same ''apophatic assertion'' (al-ithbat bi-ghayri'l-tashbah) of the divine attributes (versus the ''apophatic denial'' of them typical of Mu'tazilism) that was seen earlier in Tustari's formulation. It is typical of Ash'arism. Kalabadha adopts the same attitude in regard to the critically important attribute of Speech. Sufis, he claims, hold that God's Speech is ''an eternal attribute of God contained in His essence, in no way resembling the speech of created beings''. The author discusses the status of the Qur'an at some length, and concludes that since God affirms for Himself the attribute of Speech (e.g. Qur'an 4:162) and God's attributes must be eternal because He is eternal, therefore, the divine Speech cannot consist of letters and sounds since this would make it contingent and temporal. Nevertheless, by a kind of epocha, the Qur'an is affirmed to be truly God's Word and uncreated. What is interesting about such passages46 is that they read like pure kalaam, and are not

''mystical theology'' in any obvious sense, though Kalaabaadhai may quote Sufis in support of his position.

In his discussion of the visio beata, Kalabadhi again uses a typical kalaam combination of scriptural texts and rational arguments to make another, essentially Ash'arite, affirmation: believers will have a true vision of God in the hereafter, but without any modality (kayfiyya) or circumscription.47 Finally, the treatment of theodicy is typically Ash'arite. Jabrism (the theory of absolute compulsion) is formally denied but there is an affirmation of God's creation of every act of the creature as well as of its capacity (istita'a) in acting. Kalabadhi, moreover, disapproves of the typically Mu'tazilite doctrine that God is determined by questions of welfare (maslaha).48

Credal statements like Kalaabaadhai's became a stock feature of a certain kind of Sufi literature, from Makki's Food of Hearts to Ghazali's Revival (which contains the Jerusalem Epistle, an Ash'arite catechism). It is simplistic to maintain that such creeds are artifices to win acceptance from the Shara'a-minded, planted within works aimed at smuggling Sufism into ''mainstream'' Islam. Rather, such creeds are in the end symptomatic of the Sufis' own conviction that Sufism lies at the very heart of the religion, and is sine qua non for its spiritual vitality. It is the figure of Abu Hamid al-Ghazali who had the decisive historical role in bearing out this claim. He stands, above all, for the full confirmation of mysticism's centrality to Islam as a living theocratic civilisation.


This is not the place to rehearse the details of Ghazali's life. Elsewhere in this volume, David Burrell has described how he came to confirm the centrality of Sufism through terrible inner traumata.49 The result was that Ghazali made his famous flight from Baghdad, dedicating himself to the contemplative disciplines of Sufism.

Ghazaalai hyperbolises when he expresses himself in terms of an actual disavowal of the exoteric sciences. For the fruit of his conversion was of course a bold attempt to revive these very sciences through Sufism, as expressed in the title of his major work, The Revival of the Religious Sciences. Ghazaalai thus aimed to generalise Sufism, in keeping with the spirit of integrality. He wanted Sufism to pervade society, guaranteeing its spiritual vitality. He wished, in other words, for a restoration of the primitive theocratic ideal of Islam: a society grounded in the living presence of God, in place of the (at best) nomocratic aspirations of the society he saw around him. It is noteworthy that in one of his last works, the famous O Youth, Ghazali proposed that Sufism, euphemised as the ''science of the states of the heart'', was an ''individual duty'' (fard 'ayn) on Muslims and not merely a ''duty of sufficiency'' (fard kifaya).50 Muslim society should not, in other words, be content to leave the internalising of religion to select individuals. This is breathtakingly radical. Yet it is closely mirrored in the de facto pervasion of Muslim society by organised Sufism in the period from the twelfth century onwards. With the propagation of the great Sufi orders (turuq), a huge proportion of Muslims were involved in the mystical movement, albeit many as affiliates (mutashabbihun) or ''partakers in the blessing'' (mutabarrikun) of one or another order.

Ghazall's is of course the consummation of a much older relationship between Ash'arism and Sufism. It is a story whose origins even pre-date Ash'arl himself, and go back to the prefigurations of Ash'arism in earlier counter-Mu'tazilite theology. In the century before Ash'arl, al-Harith al-Muhasibl (d. 857) had been a figure of central importance in the formation of the Baghdad school of Sufism, but was also a selfconsciously orthodox exponent of kalam. Like Ash'arl later, Muhasibl proposed combating Mu'tazilism on behalf of the ahl al-hadath by using the dialectical tools of kalam in works like his (lost) Reflection and Induction (Kitab al-Tafakkur wa'l-i'tibar). He was severely criticised for his approach by his contemporary, Ibn Hanbal, for whom all kalam was innovatory and suspect. Later, when Ash'arl's school emerged as a major force, a central figure like the aforementioned Ibn Khaflf could be both a well-known Sufi and a committed Ash'arite. This combination of Suf-ism and Ash'arism triumphed ultimately under Ghazall's patrons, the Seljuks, the major Sunm Turkish power operating in Iran, Iraq and Anatolia from the mid-eleventh century to the end of the twelfth (and to the beginning of the fourteenth century in Anatolia). Within the Seljuk context, Ghazala is generally seen as completing the project already under way in the previous generation with al-Qushayn (d. 1072), whose widely influential Treatise (Risala) and esoteric commentary on the Qur'an assume an Ash'arite dogmatic framework. Even under the Seljuks, however, Sufism and Ash'arism did not prevail without tribulation. Despite Seljuk patronage of Sufism through the construction and endowment of khaanqaahs, the trial and execution of Sufis were still not unknown, as in the case of 'Ayn al-Qudat al-Hamadham (d. 1131). Again, while Ash'arism became the official theology of the Seljuk domains, promoted in the newly founded Nizamiyya colleges all over the eastern lands of Islam in centres like Baghdad, Nishapur and Merv, the theological school had earlier been persecuted and banned by Tughril-Beg's Mu'tazilite vizier, Kundurai, up until the latter's death in 1063.

But Ash'arite Sufism was undoubtedly the main intellectual bequest of the Seljuks to Islam. Its influence was primarily felt through the spread of Ghazaalai's own works. Ghazaalai became a normative voice in large areas of the Sunm Muslim world, and the Revival, his magnum opus, became a text on which many Sufis founded their entire spiritual programme. There are many examples of this. It is known, for instance, that the Revival was the basic textbook of Ibn Hirzihim (d. 1165), teacher of the great North African saint Abu Madyan. A major figure in Persianate Sufism like Hamadhaanai was thoroughly devoted to the Revival (at least, earlier in his career, before he took up more Avicennan ideas). But Ash'arite Sufism also continued to have major representatives without any obvious dependence on Ghazaalai. The great visionary and mystical exegete, Ruzbehan Baqla (d. 1209), was strongly Ash'arite in his theology, as is clear from his credal work Road of Monotheism (Maslak al-tawhad). In other texts, it is fascinating to see Ash'arite terms and ideas transposed by Baqla into a purely mystical context. For instance, the difficult kalam issue of the visio beata is explored anew, no longer as an episode of the eschaton, or of the Prophet's ascension, but insofar as Baqlai himself claims to have encountered God ''in the most beautiful of forms'' in the privacy of his own home. He explains: ''In my ecstasy and spiritual state my heart did not remember the story of anthropomorphism and abstraction, for in seeing Him, the traces of intellects and sciences are raised.''51 Baqla typically uses the Hanbalite and Ash'arite formula ''without how'' (bi-la kayf) in such visionary contexts: ''He transcends change in His singleness and cannot be encompassed by His creation. I was watching God, awaiting the unveiling of attributes and the lights of the Essence, and God manifested His eternal face ''without how'' to my heart;it was as though I was looking at Him with the external eye, and the hidden world shone from the appearance of His glory.''52 Yet another representative of the synthesis under discussion is Abu Hafs al-Suhrawarda (d. 1234), whose work became the basic textbook of institutional Sufism in the Persianate world, but who also systematically defended Ash'arism against Hanbalism. Finally, in the Arab world, there is an example in the third master of the influential Shadhili order, Ibn 'Ata' Allah al-Iskandari (d. 1309), whose Ash'arism was largely drawn from the Book of Guidance (Kitab al-Irshad) of Ghazala's teacher al-Juwaym. Iskandari's manual on invocation (dhikr), and his mystical aphorisms bear the unmistakable imprint of Ash'arite doctrine and terminology.

Clearly the term ''Ash'arism'' needs to be modulated when used in regard to Sufi thinkers like these. Ghazala, for instance, has standard Ash'arite works which fall outside of Sufism altogether, like his Just Mean in Belief (al-Iqtisad fi'l-i'tiqad). He presents an analogous level of Ash'arism even in certain Sufi contexts, notably in the creed contained in the Jerusalem Epistle. This level of Ash'arism is purely catechistic, and is not Sufi sensu stricto, though it may pave the way for Ghazala's mystical discourse. It should by no means be confused with the tran-scendentalised Ash'arism proper to that discourse.53 It is Ash'arism in the latter sense which is of real interest to us in the study of thinkers like Ghazala.

This transcendentalised Ash'arism must be exemplified. It is well known that a cornerstone of Ash'arism is atomism, according to which the world is made up of indivisible substances (jawahir), which have no innate power of duration (thubut/baqa'), and instead must receive it as an external accident directly from God at each moment of their existence. The structure of time itself, according to Ash'arism, is atomistic (compare the ''chronons'' postulated by certain modern physicists). Time too consists in nothing but discrete unextended moments (awqat, or anat = ''nows''). This Ash'arite doctrine is clearly meant to articulate God's omnipotence. For it denies, at each point in the duration of anything non-divine, that it has any intrinsic power of existence. God alone has such a power. Put differently, Ash'arism protests that we are quite right to ask at each point in the endurance of something, why it is there at all. Since it was not there in the past, it is never itself sufficient grounds to explain its presence. It must in fact be made present, ab extra, at every point of its duration. This leads to a radical occasionalism: the denial of secondary causes. The predictability, through time, of the cause-effect chains from which the world appears to be woven, in fact depends on ''God's custom'' ('adat Allah/sunnat Allah = potentia ordinata versus potentia absoluta) and is not part of the intrinsic nature of the so-called cause and effect. Indeed, the Greek concept of ''nature'' (physis = taba'a) is condemned outright by Ash'arism. God thus becomes the sole and absolute cause (mukhtari') of the universe in its totality throughout its history. Creation is not restricted to a first moment of time, but the universe is perpetually created for as long as it is present in existence.

This occasionalist doctrine was developed by Ash'arism to confirm God's absolute power, against Mu'tazilism, which insisted that God, through surrender or delegation (tafwld), might invest created beings with a capacity of their own. Created beings in Mu'tazilism have a certain independence. If this dialectical context partly explains the emergence of the Ash'arite teaching in question, it took on a life of its own in Sufism. For instance, a figure like Ghazaalai harnesses it to Sufi ethics, when he recommends in O Youth that the best cure for ostentation is to keep in mind that people are really just inanimate objects (jamadat).54 But this is as yet a relatively modest application of the Ash'arite teaching. Ghazaalai has much bolder uses for it, completely shifting the emphasis from causality to ontology, from denying power to creatures to denying existence itself to them, from occasionalism to theomonism. Thus, in Ghazaalai's exegesis of the verse of the Qur'an ''Everything is perishing except His Face'' (28:88), he explains that it is not a matter of things perishing at some particular moment or other, but that they are perishing unceasingly and at every moment. This is a mysterious way of saying that created data have no ontological status of their own at any time, and therefore, that insofar as we speak of existence at all, it is a theophany. Ghazali is quite frank about his drift, for he now says, ''the only existent is the Face of God'' (fa-yakunu'l-mawjudu wajha'llahi ta'ala faqat).55 While the original Ash'arite context is perhaps implied by Ghazaalai's reference to ''moments'', there has been a bewildering transition. The discontinuous, cipher-like atomic substance (jawhar), which Ash'arism stripped of all influence but still formally maintained as the ground of the cosmos, has wholly dissolved. Ibn 'Arabai makes the same transition in the chapter on the prophet Shu'ayb in his Bezels of Wisdom (Fusus al-hikam). The Ash'arites, he says, are on the right lines in their doctrine. But they fall short in maintaining the theoretical distinction between accidents and substances within the cosmos. In fact, the whole cosmos is a ''sum of accidents'' (majmu' al-a'rad), involving nothing substantial. Insofar as we can speak of substance, it is not part of the cosmos, but is God Himself. God, not ''atoms'', is then the real ground of the cosmos. In this way, as Ibn 'Arabai puts it, ''from the sum of what is not self-subsistent has come about what is self-subsistent... and what does not endure for two moments has come to endure for two moments''.56

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