Knowledge, Unity, and Tolerance: The Sufism of Mahmud Shabistari

David Fideler

Posted Nov 29, 2002      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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MAHMUD SHABISTARI (d. 1340), one of the greatest poets of the Sufi mystical tradition, was born into an age oddly reminiscent of our own. Shabistaris lifetime was a period of wars and catastrophes, episodes of religious violence and persecution; yet it was also a time of peace, religious tolerance, and great spiritual flourishing. During the time of the Mongol invasions of Persia, there were episodesof massacre, genocide, and terror; in some places there were mass exterminations of entire cities and different manifestations of sectarian fanaticism. Yet eventually under Mongol rule, various faiths were allowed to peacefully coexist, at least in a spirit of indifference, if not all-encompassing tolerance.[1]

It is against this violent, peaceful, and paradoxical backdrop that medieval Persian Sufism emerged and flourished, and the greatest works of Persian Sufi poetry were produced. This was the age of Rumi (1207Җ73), whose family fled westward from present-day Afghanistan to Turkey in order to avoid the Mongol invaders, and it is the age of Shabistari, whose Rose Garden of Mystery (Gulshan-i raz) is considered one of the greatest works of Persian Sufism. Shabistari possessed a unique genius for summarizing the profound and often complex teachings of Sufism in a beautiful, aphoristic, and concise fashion, which often leaves the reader speechless when the deeper meanings of his verse are grasped. While Shabistaris verses may seem simple at first glance, they contain so much inner meaning and Sufic lore that Lahiji wrote an eight-hundred-page commentary on the Garden of Mystery, published in small type. Shortly after it was written, the importance of ShabistariҒs Rose Garden was widely recognized, and within a couple hundred years no fewer than thirty commentaries had been written on it by other Sufi mystics.

Despite the immediate backdrop of the Mongol invasionsand perhaps some way in response to itחShabistaris time was truly the Golden Age of Persian Sufism. During this period various Sufi orders were established, khanaqahs or Sufi meeting houses could be found in most every city, zhikr was established as a ceremony of divine remembrance, and there was an outpouring of literary activity which resulted in some of the greatest mystical poetry ever written. In the words of Leonard Lewisohn, during this period ғIslam was established on a Sufi foundation in Persia.[2]

ShabistariԒs Rose Garden of Mystery was written in response to seventeen questions of Harawi, which were posed to the Sufi masters of Tabriz. Written in a state of inspiration, Shabistaris Rose Garden addresses each question, and the complete version of the poem is written in one-thousand rhyming couplets. This present version, gracefully translated by Florence Lederer, presents central excerpts from ShabistariҒs complete work, arranged by theme, with a clarity and directness that transmits the inner spirit of The Secret Rose Garden. For the English-speaking reader, this edition represents a lucid and concise introduction to the world of the Persian Sufi poets and their symbolism.

Sufism is a mystical path of love, knowledge, and experience. According to a popular formula, Jalaluddin Rumi is known as the Pole of Love, while the great metaphysical writer Ibn Arabi (1165і1240) is known as the Pole of Knowledge. Love and knowledge are the two wings of the Sufi, which enable him or her to glimpse the divine Source and begin the return journey to God or the Beloved. Both love and knowledge are required, for without knowledge it is possible to lose your way; and without the power of love it is impossible to get off the ground. Ultimately, the highest state of knowledge is love, and the highest state of love is a type of knowing. For the Sufi, these states of love and knowledge are not theoretical, but experiential, and if fully pursued lead to a ineffable dimension that is even beyond love, knowledge, and experience, in which the lover tastes union with the Beloved. This is the highest dimension of which Shabistari speaks, and it is his intentionlike that of Rumi and Ibn בArabito point his readers in that direction.

Shabistariגs work is an expression of Ibn Arabiђs metaphysical vision, set forth in the language of Persian poetry. As S. H. Nasr has noted, The Rose Garden of Mystery is the synopsis of all Sufi doctrineӔ as expounded by Ibn Arabi, ѓexpressed in verses of celestial beauty that have become the common heritage of the Persian-speaking people.[3] The thing that binds Rumi, Ibn ԑArabi, and Shabistari together is not merely their ideas or language, but the experience which inspires their work. For Sufis, all three figures are authentic mystics or gnostics, who have truly seen into the divine and compassionate Light that exists at the heart of their own Islamic tradition, at the heart of all genuine religions, and at the heart of Reality itself. What other people take on faith or hearsay, they knew directly, and they tell us that such experience is open to all people at all times. But such experience comes with a price. We often think of love as being something wonderful or sweet, but at its core it is a consuming flame and, as Rumi says, the door of unmitigated love is devastation.Ӕ[4]

In terms of such experience, Sufis speak of three levels of CertaintyӔ (yaqin): the Lore of Certainty, the Eye of Certainty, and the Truth of Certainty. As Martin Lings points out, if we take the element of fire to represent the Divine Truth, the Lore of Certainty involves someone hearing an account, like those who heard Mosess report of the Burning Bush. The Eye of Certainty belongs to those who, more than just hearing, have actually seen the light of the flames, like Moses as he approached the Burning Bush. But ғthe highest degree, that of the Truth of Certainty, belongs to one whose knowledge of fire comes from being consumed by it.[5] In this sense, Rumi, Ibn ԑArabi, and Shabistari are not philosophers, theologians, or theoreticians, but individuals who tasted or were burnt by the Truth of Certainty, and who were permanenty changed by that encounter. And for those of us who only hear or see, they unanimously bring back reports of the One Light that exists at the heart of all things. At its center the Islamic tradition is based on a vision of Divine Unityדthere is no god but God; there is no reality but Supreme Realityԗand Rumi, Ibn Arabi, and Shabistari all experienced the reality behind the affirmation.

In the words of Rumi, writing in medieval Turkey:

What shall I do, O Muslims?
I do not recognize myself . . .
I am neither Christian nor Jew,
nor Magian, nor Muslim.
I am not of the East, nor the West,
not of the land, nor the sea.
I am not from natureђs mine,
nor from the circling stars.
I am neither of earth nor water,
neither of wind nor fire.
I am not of the empyrean,
nor of the dust on this carpet.
I am not of the deep, nor from behind.
I am not of India nor China,
not of Bulgaria, nor Saqsin;
I am not of the kingdom of Iraqain,
nor of the land of Khorasan.
I am not of this world nor the next,
not of heaven, or of purgatory.
My place is the placeless,
my trace is the traceless.
It is not the body nor is it the soul,
for I belong to the soul of my love.
I have put duality away
and seen the two worlds as one.
One I seek, One I know,
One I see, One I call.
He is the first, He is the last.
He is the outward, He is the inward.
I know of nothing but Hu, none but Him. . . .[6]

Quite independently, Ibn Arabi, son of Andalusian Spain, professes the following:

Oh marvel! A garden amidst the flames!
My heart has become capable of all forms:
For gazelles, a meadow, for monks, a monastery,
A temple for idols, the pilgrimђs Kaba,
The Tablets of the Torah, the Book of the Koran.
I profess the religion of Love, and whatever the diction
Taken by its mount, Love is my religion and my faith.[7]

And finally, from the clime of Persia, Shabistari offers the following report, seen through both the Eye and Truth of Certainty:

ѓI and ԓyou are but the lattices,
in the niches of a lamp,
through which the One Light shines.
ԓI and ԓyou are the veil
between heaven and earth;
lift this veil and you will see
no longer the bonds of sects and creeds.
When ԓI and ԓyou do not exist,
what is mosque, what is synagogue?
What is the Temple of Fire?

The fact that medieval Islamic mystics could present such a universal vision might be surprising to Westerners unfamiliar with Muslim spirituality, but Islam has always possessed this universal dimension of spirituality from the time of the Prophet Muhammad onward, and it has been cultivated and expressed especially in the writings of the Sufis. Muhammadԗwho has always been regarded as the greatest Sufistressed the divine mercy, compassion, and Unity of God. Muhammad said that דthe paths to God are as numerous as human breaths,[8] and the Koran affirms that all ԓPeople of the Book of good conscienceԗmeaning Jews, Christians, and otherswill achieve salvation.[9] Islam, which comes from a Semitic root meaning דpeace, means literally means surrenderԗsurrender to God, the ultimate source of life and reality. For this reason, all the earlier prophets, like Adam, Moses, and Jesus, are seen as being Islamic or Muslim, for they had truly surrendered to God, and thus became vessels of divine insight, inspiration, and teaching.[10]

Not long ago, a contemporary Sufi teacher living in a small West Bank town in Palestine, told his Jewish visitors that the true followers of the Prophets Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad are completely united, with no strife between them, since we all share the same God.Ӕ[11] This vision and reality was affirmed not only by the Prophet Muhammad, but also by Rumi, Ibn Arabi, and Shabistariїand has always been affirmed by every true Sufi, regardless of time or place.

Mirrors and Veils: The Worldview of Shabistari

According a tradition of the Prophet, God said, I was a hidden treasure that desired to be known, so I created the world.Ӕ[12] Already perfect and lacking nothing in itself, the Source overflows out of love and abundance to bring creation, the many worlds, and knowledge into being.

Owing to this divine act, the very cosmos is an outpouring and reflection of God, as are the souls of all created beings. In Islamic tradition, each human soul at birth possesses a divine pattern or blueprintӔ (fitra) that is in harmony with both God and the cosmos. Because of our essential, harmonious nature, each human soul begins life in a state of surrender to the divine, but the original self is soon tampered with by parents, education, and social conditioning so that a type of amnesia or forgetfulness occurs.[13] Once drawn into forgetfulness, the world appears as a veil, obscuring our vision of deeper realities; but if we look at the world inrecollection of its Source, the world becomes a mirror, reflecting the beauty and attributes of God. Some people just look at things but never see, and the purpose of the Sufi path is to awaken slumbering perfection so the world, the soul, and the divine can all be seen in their true light and proper relation.

Veils and mirrors play an important role in Sufi symbolism, because God is both hidden and revealed at the same time, depending on ones state of perception. Shabistari can rightfully refer to the manifest world as a ғdream world and a ԓmirage, in the sense that it is shifting, changing, and impermanentԗand everything is perishing, save His Face.Ӕ[14] On the other hand, while the world is only a shadow of Absolute Reality, All is pervaded by Absolute Being / in its utter perfection,Ӕ mirroring the Koranic teaching that wherever you turn, there is the Face of God.Ӕ[15] In this way, Shabistari gives poetic expression to the teachings of Ibn Arabi, who stressed the Unity of Being and the ancient idea that the cosmos is a reflected image of God or the Real (al-Haqq):

Your eye has not strength enough
to gaze at the burning sun,
but you can see its brilliant light
by watching its reflection
mirrored in the water.

So the reflection of Absolute Being
can be viewed in this mirror of Not-Being,
for non-existence, being opposite Reality,
instantly catches its reflection.

Know the world from end to end is a mirror;
in each atom a hundred suns are concealed.
If you pierce the heart of a single drop of water,
from it will flow a hundred clear oceans;
if you look intently at each speck of dust,
in it you will see a thousand beings.
A gnat in its limbs is like an elephant;
in name a drop of water resembles the Nile.
In the heart of a barleycorn is stored an hundred harvests.
Within a millet-seed a world exists.
In an insectђs wing is an ocean of life.
A heaven is concealed in the pupil of an eye.
The core in the center of the heart is small,
yet the Lord of both worlds will enter there.

For Ibn Arabi and Shabistari, while impermanent and fleeting, the world is a living mirror of the divine, as is humanity. The divine qualities or beautiful Names of God are dispersed throughout the universe, reflected in the structure of the cosmic Koran,[16] but it is only in humanity that the divine Names are reflected in their totality. ѓGod created Adam in his form so that creation might be complete and God could know himself through humanity. As Lahiji notes in his commentary on the Rose Garden of Mystery,

the divine command of creation required the reflective characteristic of the mirror of the Cosmos, and Adam [the spirit of humanity] was the very principle of reflection for that mirror and the spirit of that form . . .

The underlying cause of this phenomenon is that the cosmos had reached the full extent of its completion which was the purpose of creation, having attained its total realization in the human form. Although every particular object amid all the various parts of the cosmos is a theophanic receptacle manifesting (mazhar) one of the divine Names, man alone manifests the totality of these Names, for man is a theophanic receptacle of the Name Allah, the Name which is a comprehensive epitome of all the other divine Names. No other being so comprehensively manifest the totality of the divine Attributes as man. . . . Without man the Face of God (wajh-i Allah) would not be shown forth to the world; rather, only certain aspects of other Names would be revealed.[17]

In the Sufism of Ibn ԑArabi and Shabistari, the archetype of realized humanitythe דPerfect Man (al-insan al-kamil) or ԓCompleted Humanԗis also the living heart and model of the universe itself.[18] Certain rare individuals, the true Friends of God, realize their full humanity and display the ninety-nine names of God in their life and being. In this way, a fully developed human being is destined to become a perfect mirror of God and the Muhammadan Light.[19] Through this ripening, God, creation, and the universe are all brought to completion and fruition, for the underlying desire of the perfect treasure wishing to be knownӔ is realized through the human mirror of awareness. According to Sufis over the centuries, the initial key to this operation is stepping outside the egoismof the habitual self so that something higher or deeper can enter. All the divine qualities of God exist innately within the soul at birth,[20] and by finding the right path, with the help of God, these qualities may be awakened and made active.

Approaching the One Light

You are a Christian because you believe in Jesus, and you are a Jew because you believe in all the prophets including Moses. You are a Muslim because you believe in Muhummad as a prophet, and you are a Sufi because you believe in the universal teaching of Gods love. You are really none of those, but you are all of those because you believe in God. And once you believe in God, there is no religion. Once you divide yourself off with religions, you are separated from your fellowman.җBawa Muhaiyaddeen [21]

In a world often fragmented by doctrinal disputes, cultural differences, clever but shallow ideologies, and obsessions with greed and the egoism of personal status, Sufisms emphasis on Unity, Love, and the spiritual integrity of the divine and natural worlds understandably strikes a resonate chord with many individuals who are drawn to explore the deeper aspects of life. Sufis themselves have claimed that Sufism is not ғa religion or ԓa philosophy, but the very essence of religion itself. Hundreds of years ago the Persian poet ԑAttar wrote, Know with the Science of Certainty that tomorrow, before the Divine Gates, the seventy-two sects will be only one.Ӕ[22] And as the Sufi teacher Lex Hixon once noted, In the global civilization of the present, as in ancient epochs, Sufism is a secret, unifying, and renewing current that flows through the ocean of human consciousness, subtly touching all religions, cultures, and souls.Ӕ[23]

While our world problems seem intractable and there are plenty who would like to blame decades of violence in the Mideast on religion,Ӕ it may well be that only the adoption of a truly religious perspectiveand the compassion that flows from itחwill ever bring peace to the war-torn areas of our planet, so that the necessary violence of life can express itself in less harmful ways. The Sufi teacher and poet Jalaluddin Rumi counted Muslims, Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians among his students, and the mystic ultimately passes beyond the limitations of doctrinal formulation to directly taste the One Light at the heart of reality and human life. Because of this, it is not unrealistic to think that Sufism, rooted in the Islamic and Abrahamic traditions, with its emphasis on the One Light at the heart of all religions, could playa significant role in reestablishing a deeper level of understanding between Christians, Jews, and Muslims, not only in the Mideast, but everywhere. According to a popular saying, the closer you get to God, the more all religions look the same,Ӕ and as Shabistari notes, when the One Light is apprehended, outer religious differencesדthe bonds of sects and creedsԗfall away. When that happens, we all discover our common humanity, our common bond, and our common need for spiritual community. In this sense, we only need to remember the high and vibrant culture of Andalusian Spain during medieval times, when Muslims, Jews, and Christians lived together in harmony for hundreds of years, and richly cross-fertilized the daily lives and cultural worlds of one another.


[1] For the historical, spiritual, and literary background of Shab-istarהs work, see Leonard Lewisohn, Beyond Faith and Infidelity: The Sufi Poetry and Teachings of Mahmud Shabistari (Richmond, Surrey: Curzon Press, 1995).

[2] Lewisohn, Beyond Faith and Infidelity, p. 83.

[3] S. H. Nasr, Sufi Essays(London: Allen and Unwin, 1972), p. 99.

[4] ғThe way of love is not a subtle argument. The door there is devastation. Translation from Coleman Barks and Michael Green, The Illuminated Prayer (New York: Ballantine, 2000), p. 12.

[5] Abu Bakr Siraj ad-Din (Martin Lings), The Book of Certainty: The Sufi Doctrine of Faith, Vision, and Gnosis, revised edition (Cambridge: Islamic Texts Society, 1992), p. 1.

[6] Poem from the Divan-i Shamsi Tabriz, translated by Kabir Helminski in The Ruins of the Heart: Selected Lyric Poetry of Jelaluddin Rumi (Putney: Threshold Books, 1981), pp. 22Ԗ23.

[7] Ibn Arabi, Tarjuman al-Ashwaq (The Interpreter of Desires), 11.12і15; translation by Claude Addas/Peter Kingsley in Claude Addas, The Quest for the Red Sulphur: The Life of IbnArabi (Cambridge: Islamic Texts Society, 1993), p. 211.

[8] Hadith.

[9] Koran 2:62 and 5:69.

[10] ѓAbraham was not a Jew, nor yet a Christian; but he was an upright man who had surrendered (musilmun) to God (Koran 3:67). ԓTruly, religion with God is surrender (al-islam) (Koran 3:19). From an Islamic perspective, God revealed the Torah, the Gospel of Jesus, and the Koran (see 5:44Ԗ48). But Muhammad said, Speak to everyone in accordance with his degree of understanding,Ӕ and the necessity for multiple religions and religious languages is acknowledged in the Koran: For each We have appointed a law and traced out a path, and if God had wished, verily He would have made you one peopleӔ(5:48).

[11] Leah Greens article on the Compassionate Listening GroupҒs meeting with Sheikh Abu Saleh in the small Palestinian town of Deir Kadis was first published in the November/December 2002 of Fellowship. The article is available at

[12] Hadith al-Qudsi.

[13] For a discussion of fitra, the blueprint of the original self,Ӕ see Shaykh Fadhlalla Haeri, Cosmology of the Self (Capetown: Hidden Treasure Press/Zahra Publications, 1997), pp. 6 ff.

[14] Koran 28:88.

[15] Koran 2:115. As Shabistari writes, this world is a ray of light from the Truth, and within it the Truth is concealed.Ӕ

[16] In Islamic mysticism there are actually two Korans or divine books. One Koran is the written scripture that was revealed to Muhammad; the other Koran is the divine order of the cosmos, A book inscribed on a parchement unrolledӔ (Koran 52:23). As William Chittick notes, ֓The Koran employs the word sign to refer not only to the phenomena of the cosmos but also to its own verses. Just as the Koran is Gods book displaying His signs or verses, so also is the cosmos His book, and the special knowledge given to the folk of unveiling has to do with their God-given ability to read this bookҔ (The Self-Disclosure of God: Principles of Ibn al-Arabiђs Cosmology [Albany: SUNY Press, 1998], p. 5).

[17] Lahijis commentary on The Rose Garden of Mystery, translated by Leonard Lewisohn in Beyond Faith and Infidelity, p. 160. Lewisohn offers an entire chapter on the relationships between Shabistari and Ibn ґArabi. As he notes, with the possible exception of ӑIraqi, Shabistari was ԓthe foremost author to introduce Muhy al-DԔn Ibn Arabiђs ideas and terminology into Persian poetry(p. 143). For a translation of ԑIraqis Lamaґat, which is an excellent companion to the work of Shabistari, see Fakhruddin Iraqi, Divine Flashes, trans. by William Chittick and Peter Lamborn Wilson (New York: Paulist Press, 1982).

[18] On the Perfect Man in Ibn ёArabi, see William Chittick, The Self-Disclosure of God: Principles of Ibn al-Arabiђs Cosmology (Albany: SUNY Press, 1998), p. xxiiixxv. See also Titus Burkhardt, An Introduction to Sufi Doctrine (Lahore: Sh. Muhammad Ashraf, 1959), chapter 6.

[19] In the Greek tradition of the early Christians, the primordial outpouring of harmony, intelligence, and creative light֗which is nothing short of the cosmic blueprintis the Logos or דWord. But for Muslims, this principleԗthe very pattern of all creationis known as the Muhammadan Light. This Light has existed as the first creative act of God from preeternity, and it is through the faculty of this Light that all the earlier prophets were inspired. Before time began, as the Light emerged from the Source and glanced back at its Origin, like a mirror, it uttered in recollection: דThere is no god but God (La ilaha illa-llah). And like a laser beam reflected off another mirror, God echoed back with the reply: ԓMuhammad is the messenger of God (Muhammadun Rasulu-llah). Other names of the Muhammadan Light include the Reality of Realities, the Breath of the All-Merciful, the First Intellect, the Most Exalted Pen, andԗin relation to humanitythe Perfect Man. While Sufis have great respect for the historical Prophet, the essential nature of Muhammad, as Logos, is seen as a universal principle.

[20] As William Chittick writes, דEvery attribute of God is found in the innate disposition (fitra) of the human being. The path to perfection involves bringing these attributes out from hiddenness to manifestation (The Self-Disclosure of God, p. xxiii).

[21] Quoted in Barks and Green, The Illustrated Prayer, p. 14.

[22] Cited in chapter 14, ԓNew Light on Sufi Science: Gnostic Unveiling and Awakening, in Atom from the Sun of Knowledge by Lex Hixon Nur al Jerrahi (Westport: Pir Publications, 1993).

[23] Hixon, Atom from the Sun of Knowledge, p. 314.

This is an introduction to the recently published new edition of The Secret Rose Garden
of Shabistari. Please visit the excellent site of the Sufi Studies Society of West Michigan Published in The American Muslim with permission of the author.