This paper is focused upon the Quran as a source of inspiration for interfaith dialogue. The Quran is indeed unique among the revealed scriptures of the world in the explicit manner in which it refers not only to dialogue between adherents of different faith-communities, but also to the divine ordainment of religious diversity, and, in consequence, to the spiritual validity of these diverse religious paths, which are presented in the Quranic discourse as so many outwardly divergent facets of a single, universal revelation by the unique and indivisible Absolute.
Reza Shah-Kazemi is founding editor of the Islamic World Report, he studied International Relations and Politics at Sussex and Exeter Universities before obtaining his PhD in Comparative Religion from the University of Kent in 1994. He has authored and translated several works, including Paths of Transcendence: Shankara, Ibn Arabi and Meister Eckhart on Transcendent Spiritual Realisation (forthcoming, State University of New York Press), Doctrines of Shi?i Islam (I. B. Tauris in association with The Institute of Ismaili Studies, 2001), Avicenna: Prince of Physicians (Hood Hood, 1997) and Crisis in Chechnya (Islamic World Report, 1995). He has edited a number of collective volumes including Algeria: Revolution Revisited (Islamic World Report, 1997) and published over a dozen articles and reviews in academic journals. Formerly a Consultant to the Institute for Policy Research in Kuala Lampur, Malaysia, Dr Shah-Kazemi is at present a Research Fellow at The Institute of Ismaili Studies where he is preparing a new, annotated translation of Nahj al-Balagha, the discourses of Imam ?Ali.
Truly those who believe, and the Jews, and the Christians, and the Sabeans—whoever believeth in God and the Last Day and performeth virtuous deeds—surely their reward is with their Lord, and no fear shall come upon them, neither shall they grieve.
This paper is focused upon the Quran as a source of inspiration for interfaith dialogue. The Quran is indeed unique among the revealed scriptures of the world in the explicit manner in which it refers not only to dialogue between adherents of different faith-communities, but also to the divine ordainment of religious diversity, and, in consequence, to the spiritual validity of these diverse religious paths, which are presented in the Quranic discourse as so many outwardly divergent facets of a single, universal revelation by the unique and indivisible Absolute.
It would be a relatively straightforward task to let the Quran speak for itself, by citing one after the other such verses as that used in our epigraph, verses which relate to these universal themes; the result would be, we believe, a compelling argument in favor of religious dialogue, based on the metaphysical premise that the different revealed religions are truly and effectively paths to salvation. But such a presentation, however immediately intelligible it might be to some, would leave out of account the diverse ways in which the verses in question are, and have been, interpreted.
What follows, therefore, is a presentation of these key verses from a particular point of view, that adopted by those most steeped in the spiritual and mystical tradition of Islam, Sufism. For Sufi expositions of the metaphysical and spiritual dimensions of the Quranic revelation can be of inestimable value to all those engaged in religious dialogue, and to those, in particular, who see the different religions not so much as mutually exclusive and inevitably antagonistic systems of dogmatic belief, but rather as so many “paths to the heart”.*
The most eloquent and compelling contemporary expression of such a view of the religions of the world is to be found in the corpus of Frithjof Schuon (d.1998).1 In asserting the validity of Schuon’s principle of the “trancendent unity of religions”, from the point of view of the Islamic tradition as a whole, Seyyed Hossein Nasr’s “Islam and the Encounter of Religions” is an important point of reference.2 After describing the encounter between Islam and other religions on different planes—historical, legal, theological, philosophical, and scientific—Nasr writes that it is on the level of Sufi esoterism that the most profound encounter with other traditions has been made, and where one can find the indispensable ground for the understanding in depth of other religions today. The Sufi is one who seeks to transcend the world of forms, to journey from multiplicity to Unity, and from the particular to the Universal. He leaves the many for the One, and through this very process is granted the vision of the One in the many. For him all forms become transparent, including religious forms, thus revealing to him their unique origin.3
This unique origin is described as the “Centre where all the radii meet, the summit which all roads reach. Only such a vision of the Centre,” Nasr continues, “can provide a meaningful dialogue between religions, showing both their inner unity and formal diversity”.4
The present paper takes this affirmation as its point of departure. Specifically, in the first part of the paper, the aim is to show the ways in which key Sufi themes of gnosis or ma’rifaharise organically out of meditation and reflection upon particular Quranic verses, and to allude briefly to some of the implications of these themes for interfaith dialogue or simply dialogue as such. In the second part of the paper, the aim is to show how a spiritual appreciation of the essence of Islam, based on Sufi exegesis of particularly direct Quranic verses, opens up a path leading to the heart of religion as such, and how such a conception, in turn, helps to situate particular religious traditions within a spiritual universe defined by “quintessential Islam”—that is, Islam understood as universal submission to God, rather than only as a particular religious denomination. In the process, we hope to stress the importance of those Quranic verses which deal with the universality of the religious phenomenon, to show that it is in the hands of the Sufi commentators that the deeper meanings and implications of these important verses are brought to light, and to relate the principles derived from this encounter between Sufi spirituality and Quranic universality to themes germane to dialogue.
As regards spiritual exegesis of specific verses, we shall be drawing from a small number of eminent representatives of the Sufi tradition, such as Ibn Arabi, Ghazzali, and Rumi, but our principal source of esoteric commentary is that written by Abd al-Razzaq Kashani (d.730/1329), a distinguished representative of the school of Ibn Arabi. This commentary has played a role of great importance in the tradition of esoteric commentary in Islam, its renown having been amplified in recent times as a result of its erroneous attribution to Ibn Arabi.5 Its value lies principally in the fact that it presents a complete exegesis, chapter by chapter, of the Quran, and it does so from an uncompromisingly esoteric perspective. It thus leads us, according to Pierre Lory, “to the very root of the Sufi endeavour: the encounter with the holy word, and the spiritual force proper to it, not only on the level of meaning, but in the most intimate dimension of the meditating soul”.6
The Metaphysics of Oneness and Dialogue with the “Other”
What is meant by the phrase “the metaphysics of oneness” is the metaphysical interpretation given by the Sufis to the fundamental message of the Quran, the principle of tawh expressed in the creedal formula: L⠩l⨡ ill⦣39;Ll⨠—no god but God. Whereas theologically the statement is a relatively straightforward affirmation of the uniqueness of the Divinity, and the negation of other “gods”, metaphysically the formula is read as an affirmation of the true nature of being: no reality but the one Reality. Kashani comments as follows on one of the many verses affirming the central principle of tawh namely, 20:8: “All⨬ there is no god but Him”: “His unique essence does not become multiple, and the reality of His identity derives therefrom, and does not become manifold; so He is He in endless eternity as He was in beginningless eternity. There is no He but Him, and no existent apart from Him.“7 We have here not only an affirmation of the oneness of God to the exclusion of other gods, but also, and more fundamentally, the affirmation of a unique reality, which is exclusive of all otherness, or rather in relation to which all otherness is unreal.
The shift from “theological” tawhto “ontological” tawhis one of the hallmarks of another great representative of the school of Ibn Arabi, Sayyid Haydar Amoli (d. 787/1385), in whose works one observes a remarkable synthesis between Shi’ite gnosis and Sufi metaphysics. He refers to the “folk of the exterior” (ahl al-z⨩r) who pronounce the formula L⠩l⨡ ill⦣39;Ll⨠in the sense conveyed by the following Quranic verse, an exclamation by the polytheists of the strangeness of the idea of affirming one deity: “Does he make the gods one God? This is a strange thing” (38:5). This monotheistic affirmation is, for Amoli, the essence of the tawhprofessed by the folk of the exterior, and is called “theological” tawh(al-tawhal-ul?). In contrast, the “folk of the interior” (ahl al-bn) negate the multiplicity of existences, and affirm the sole reality of Divine being; their formula is: “There is nothing in existence apart from God (laysa fi’l-wuj?wa’Ll⨩”, and they cite the verse “Everything is perishing save His Face” (28:88) in support. This, Amoli maintains, is “ontological” tawh(al-tawhal-wuj?).8
Despite appearing to be the concern only of mystics with an otherworldly and introspective orientation, such metaphysical perspectives on the central Quranic message oftawhare in fact highly pertinent to the theme of dialogue. In particular, the implications oftawhwith respect to notions of “self” and “other” are potentially of considerable value in helping to overcome one of the key obstacles to authentic and fruitful dialogue in today’s multi-religious world. This obstacle consists in a notion of “identity” or “selfhood” that has become opaque, congealed, or reified. When the self is regarded as the absolute criterion for engaging with the other, there arises a suffocating notion of identity which feeds directly into chauvinism, bigotry, and fanaticism—qualities that are expressed by the Arabic word ta’assub. In its root meaning, this word graphically conveys the self-indulgence that constitutes the life-blood of all forms of fanaticism; the verb ta’assaba primarily signifies binding a cloth around one’s head.9One becomes literally self-enwrapped, each fold of the cloth compounding the initial preoccupation with one’s own congealed frame of identity; one becomes imprisoned within a mental “fabric” woven by one’s own prejudices, and as the head swells, the mind narrows.
If the “I” be identified in a quasi-absolute manner with the ego, the family, the nation, or even the religion to which one belongs, then the “other”—at whatever level—will likewise be given a quasi-absolute character. It is precisely such exclusivist notions of “self” and “other” that contribute to the dynamics of suspicion and fear, fanaticism, and conflict. The metaphysics, or science, of oneness, on the other hand, does not so much abolish as attenuate, not equalize but situate, all limited conceptions of identity. It serves to relativize every conceivable degree of identity in the face of the Absolute; in other words, it ensures that no determinate, formal conception of the self is absolutized, or “worshipped”, however unconsciously, as an “idol”. The metaphysics of integral tawhcan be regarded as the most complete and effective antidote to fanaticism insofar as it undermines this idolatry of selfhood, a type of idolatry tersely summed up in the Quranic question: “Hast thou seen him who maketh his desire his god?” (25:43; almost identical at 45:23).
In the Quran, God says to Moses at the theophany of the burning bush, Innna’Ll⨭-“Truly I, I am God” (20:12). The following extremely important comment is made on this by Jafar al-Sadiq (d.148/765), Shi’ite Imam, regarded also in the Sufi tradition as one of the “poles” (aqt⢩ or supreme authorities of the early generations. This comment comes in a tafshat was to have a profound influence both on the unfolding of the genre of esoteric exegesis, and on the articulation and diffusion of Sufi metaphysical doctrines:
It is not proper for anyone but God to speak of Himself by using these words innn⮠I [that is, Moses, according to al-S⤩q’s commentary] was seized by a stupor and annihilation (fan⦣39;) took place. I said then: “You! You are He who is and who will be eternally, and Moses has no place with You nor the audacity to speak, unless You let him subsist by your subsistence”.10
This expresses a theme of fundamental importance in Sufi metaphysics, or in that dimension of the Sufi tradition that pertains directly to gnosis, ma’rifah. The primary focus of ma’rifah is God conceived of as al-Haqq, the True or the Real,11 in the face of which the individual “I”, on its own account, is reduced to naught. Human subjectivity is strictly speaking nothing when confronted by the divine “I”. Another important early Sufi, al-Kharraz, defines ma’rifah in relation to this principle of the one-and-only “I-ness” of God: “Only God has the right to say ‘I’. For whoever says ‘I’ will not reach the level of gnosis.“12
It is difficult to over-emphasize the importance of this perspective in both the speculative metaphysics and the spiritual realization proper to Sufism. If the Quranic presentation of the principle of tawhpredominantly stresses the objective truth of the message, Sufi spirituality finds its apotheosis in the realization of the subjective concomitant of this message, this subjective element being, paradoxically, the very extinction of individual subjectivity, expressed by the term fan⦣39;.13 One might almost say that the truth of tawhis realized in direct proportion to the realization of fan⦣39;, or to the realization of the realities that flow from the attainment of this state;14 on the other hand, to the extent that one falls short of the realization of one’s nothingness, one cannot escape the “sin” of idolatry (shirk): the setting up of “another” as a “partner” or “associate” of the one-and-only Reality, the “other” being one’s own self.
The truth which tawhdeclares is thus, from this perspective, radically different from the truth of dogmatic theology, of propositional logic, or of empirical fact: this truth is the intelligible face of an infinite Reality, a Reality which cannot be exhaustively defined or confined by any words, a Reality before which the individuality as such is extinguished.15 Thus the greatest of all sins is identified by the Sufis not in moral but ontological terms: it is the sin of one’s own separative existence. Commenting on the words of the Quran which describe the qualities of the believers, those who avoid the worst of sins (42:37), Kashani writes, “Those sins are constituted by their existence (wuj?him), and this is the most despicable of the qualities of their souls, which manifest through actions in the station of effacement.“16 In relation to the plea for forgiveness at 2:286, Kashani comments, “Forgive us the sin of our very existence, for truly it is the gravest of the grave sins (akbar al-kab⦣39;ir).” He then cites the following lines of verse:
When I said I have not sinned, she said by way of response,
“Thine own existence is a sin to which none can be compared.“17
The relationship between the “truth” of tawhand the soul of the individual is thus elevated beyond the spheres of morality, theology, and all formal thought as such. The soul does not “acquire” some cognitive content that is called “knowledge of divine unity”; rather, its very manifestation as soul precludes or contradicts the full, mystical realization of that unity. Ibn Arabi quotes Junayd: “When He is there, thou art not, and if thou art there, He is not.“18
The exoteric notion of a conceptual truth which, qua notion, is appropriated by the individual is here inverted: according to Sufi gnosis, it is the reality alluded to by conceptual truth that assimilates the individual to it.19 On the one hand, there is the effacement of the individual before a truth whose fulgurating reality infinitely transcends all conceptually posited notions, principles, and dogmas; and on the other, there is the entrenchment of the individuality by the appropriation of a truth whose very conceptual form can become a veil over the reality it is supposed to reveal, and which is its raison d’괲e. In relation to the words of the verse describing the hypocrites as those who are wandering blind in their rebellion (2:15), Kashani refers to one of the characteristic properties of hypocrisy as being “the acquisition of gnoses(ma’ⲩf) and sciences (‘ul?nd realities (haq⦣39;iq) and words of wisdom (hikam) and Divine laws (shar⦣39;i’), only in order to adorn the breast with them, so that the soul might be embellished thereby”.20 All knowledge and wisdom, even if Divine in origin, can be so many veils if they contribute not to the effacement but to the glorification of the individual soul.
We have here the definition of hidden, as opposed to overt, shirk, polytheism, or “associationism”: this is the shirk that, even while affirming theological tawh violates ontological tawh Overt, evident, or legalistically defined shirk means simply associating other gods with God, attributing “partners” to Him in Divinity; while hidden, subtle, and spiritually defined shirk means implicitly attributing to God a “partner” in being, namely, oneself. The only remedy for this subtle form of polytheism is fan⦣39;. It is fan⦣39;, ultimately, which enables one to see through the artificial walls—individual and collective—that surround the ego, and which allows one to perceive in all its plenitude the truth that there is nothing real but God. It is not difficult to appreciate what the implications of this principle are in relation to the requirements for effective dialogue with the “other”; in the light of these absolute values, it becomes difficult to shut oneself up within the blindingly evident relativity of one’s ego, this diminution of egocentricity being essential for really engaging with, and opening oneself up to, the “other”, defined both in terms of the human and the divine.
It might however be objected here that such sublime metaphysical ideals and the spiritual states they call forth can be the concern only of a small number of mystics, and highly accomplished ones at that. Can ordinary people concerned with dialogue and coexistence in the modern world really benefit from such perspectives? We would readily answer in the affirmative. For not only do the principles in question—even on the discursive plane—help dissolve the fixations on selfhood that give rise to pride and arrogance, on the individual and collective levels, but also, more directly, the key Quranic verses from which these principles and perspectives flow can bring about, in the heart of the receptive reader, a penetrating sense of the ephemerality of all things, including, crucially, the ego and its manifold extensions.
Two of the most important of these verses are the following:
Everything is perishing except His Face [or Essence] (28:88).
Everything that is thereon is passing away; and there subsisteth but the Face of thy Lord, possessor of Glory and Bounty (55:26-27).
It should be noticed here that the words indicating the ephemeral nature of all things—h⬩k, perishing”, and f⮬ “passing away” or “evanescing”—are both in the present tense: it is not that things will come to naught or perish at some later point in time; they are in fact, here and now, “extinguishing” before our very eyes. In the treatise entitled Kit⢠al-fan⦣39; fi’l-mush⨡da (“The Book of Extinction in Contemplation”) Ibn Arabi writes that the elimination of “that which never was” is tantamount to realization of “that which never ceased to be”.21 That which will not be is already “not”, in a certain sense, and one grasps this not only in the ineffable moments of mystical experience, but also in the very measure that one understands the following principle: Reality is not subject to finality, cancellation, extinction, non-being. That which is absolutely real is That which is eternal: it is the Face of thy Lord that, alone, subsisteth. Conversely, all that which is impermanent is, by that very fact, unreal in the final analysis.
Reflection on the verses above, then, can heighten the sense of the relativity of all things—and, pre-eminently, of the ego, with all its pretensions and extensions—in the face of the one, sole, exclusive Reality. Instead of allowing an egocentric conception of selfhood to be superimposed onto religion and even onto God—both of which are then “appropriated” by the ego22—such a perspective helps to engender the opposite tendency: to see the ego itself sub specie aeternitatis. What results from this perspective on the ego is a more concrete apprehension of its essential limitations: the contours that delimit and define the ego are more vividly perceived against an infinite background. Thus, what is in question here is not so much a vaguely mystical notion of universal illusion, but a concrete, realistic and effective sense of spiritual proportions. The existential limitations and the psychological pretensions of the ego are cut down to size, and a consciously theocentric focus replaces the all too often unconsciously egocentric one: nothing is absolute but the Absolute. Herein lies the first major lesson given by Sufi gnosis to those engaged in dialogue, a negative one, that is, the negation of egocentricity as a source of pride, exclusivity, and fanaticism.
As for the second lesson, this is the positivity which flows from the complementary aspect of gnosis. For the verses quoted above not only assert the exclusive reality of God; they also contain a subtle allusion to the inclusive reality of God. The Face of God, which alone subsists, is not only the transcendent, Divine Essence, in relation to which all things are nothing; it is also the immanent presence which pervades and encompasses all things, constituting in fact their true being. Before focusing on the verse “Everything perisheth except His Face”, and in particular on the important and illuminating interpretation of it given by Ghazzali, one should take careful note of the following verses, which refer to this complementary, inclusive dimension of the Divine reality.
And unto God belong the East and the West; and wherever ye turn, there is the Face of God (2:115).
He is with you, wherever you are (57:4).
We are nearer to him [man] than the neck artery (50:16).
God cometh in between a man and his own heart (8:24).
Is He not encompassing all things? (41:54).
He is the First and the Last, and the Outward and the Inward (57:3) .
Each of these verses contains the seeds of the most profound spiritual doctrines;23 and each has given rise to the most fecund meditation upon that most mysterious of all realities, the immanence of the Absolute in all that exists—the inalienable presence of the transcendent, one-and-only Reality within the entire sphere of relativity, of all that which is, from another point of view “other than God”. Ali ibn Abi Talib, the first Shi’ite Imam and one of the primary sources of what later crystallized as Sufism, sums up the mystery in these terms: God is “with every thing, but not through association; and other than every thing, but not through separation”.24Nothing that exists can be altogether separate from the all-encompassing reality of God; and yet this reality has no common measure with anything that exists. His Oneness both includes and excludes all things; hence the affirmation of God’s immanence within the world—His being “with every thing”—does not imply any diminution of His transcendence; and conversely, the affirmation of God’s transcendence above the world—His being “other than every thing”—-does not imply His absence from the world.
Returning to the last of the verses cited in the group above, “He is the First and the Last, and the Outward and the Inward”, the Sufi shaykh Mawlay al-Arabi al-Darqawi relates the following incident, which we can take as an indirect commentary on the verse. He writes that he was “in a state of remembrance” when he heard a voice recite the words of the verse. “I remained silent, and the voice repeated it a second time, and then a third, whereupon I said: ‘As to the First, I understand, and as to the Last, I understand, and as to the Inwardly Hidden,25 I understand; but as to the Outwardly Manifest, I see nothing but created things.’ Then the voice said: ‘If there were any outwardly manifest other than Himself, I should have told thee.’ In that moment I realized the whole hierarchy of Absolute Being.“26
The voice declaring that there is nothing outwardly manifest in the world of “created things” other than the being of God can be seen here as providing a commentary on the meaning of God as al-Z⨩r, “the Outward”, or “the Evident”. Likewise, the following remarkable affirmations by Ibn Ata’illah al-Iskandari, an earlier Sufi master in the same tarh as Mulay al-Arabi, the Shadhiliyya, can also be read as an exegesis on the meaning of Gods name, al-Z⨩r:
The Cosmos (al-kawn) is all darkness. It is illumined only by the manifestation of God (zuh?-Haqq) in it. He who sees the Cosmos and does not contemplate Him in it or by it or before it or after it is in need of light and is veiled from the sun of gnosis by the clouds of created things (al-ⲩ. That which shows you the existence of His Omnipotence is that He veiled you from Himself by what has no existence alongside of Him.27
If, in one respect, God veils Himself from His creatures by Himself, in another, more fundamental respect, He reveals Himself to Himself through His creatures. The central idea here is that of the manifestation (zuh?ajallof Divine reality in, through, and as the forms of created things, the cosmos in its entirety. Every phenomenon in creation thus constitutes a locus of manifestation, a mazhar for the zuh? tajallf the Real, the means by which the Real discloses itself to itself through an apparent “other”. Herein, one might venture to say, lies the ultimate metaphysical archetype of all dialogue. What we have here is a kind of “dialogue” or communication between different aspects of the Absolute, a dialogue mediated through relativity.
The idea of the self-disclosure of the Absolute to itself by means of the relativity of “the other” lies at the very heart of Ibn Arabi’s metaphysics.28 The whole doctrine of this disclosure of God to Himself is summed up in the opening lines of Ibn Arabi’s most commented text, Fus?-hikam. The chapter entitled “The Ringstone of the Wisdom of Divinity in the Word of Adam” (Fass hikma il⨩yya falima ⤡miyya) begins:
The Real willed, glorified be He, in virtue of His Beautiful Names, which are innumerable, to see their identities (a’y⮩—if you so wish you can say: to see His Identity (‘ayn)—in a comprehensive being that comprises the entire affair due to its having taken on existence. His Mystery is manifest to Himself through it. The vision a thing has of itself in itself is not like the vision a thing has of itself in another thing, which will serve as a mirror for it.29
Man alone reflects back to the Absolute all, and not just some, of the Divine qualities; it is for this reason that man is the “valid interlocutor”, the receptacle and the mirror of the Divine qualities, the “other” to whom and through whom these qualities are revealed. The function, then, of an apparent “other”, at the level of Divine self-disclosure of itself to itself, is to make possible a particular mode of self-knowledge. One recalls here the holy utterance, or hadquds0 so fundamental to Sufi spirituality: “I was a hidden treasure, and I loved to be known (fa ahbabtu an u’raf), so I created the world.” If the creation of the world springs from a Divine love for a distinct mode of self-knowledge, the Quran indicates that the differentiation, within mankind, in respect of gender, tribe, and race, likewise serves an essentially cognitive function:
O mankind, truly We have created you male and female, and have made you nations and tribes that ye may know one another. Truly the most noble of you, in the sight of God, is the most Godfearing (49:13).
Distinction and difference are here affirmed as Divinely willed,31 and as means by which knowledge is attained. One should note that the word used in the phrase “that ye may know one another” is ta’ⲡf?d the word for being “known” in the had of the “hidden treasure” isu’raf—both words being derived from the same root, ‘arafa. There is thus a clear connection with ma’rifah, spiritual knowledge or gnosis, the essence of which is expressed in the famoushad, “Whoso knows himself knows his Lord” (man ‘arafa nafsahu faqad ‘arafa rabbahu). Thus, knowledge of self, knowledge of the other, and knowledge of God are all interwoven, and should be seen as complementary and mutually reinforcing, each element having a role to play in the plenary attainment of ma’rifah.
The verse cited above is often given as a proof-text for upholding the necessity of dialogue, establishing the principle of peaceful coexistence, and indicating the divine ordainment of human diversity. Now while it does indeed support such principles, the import of the verse is deepened, its message is made the more compelling, and its scope more far-reaching insofar as it is consciously related to the metaphysical principle of self-knowledge through self-disclosure. Thus, dialogue here-below—a dialogue rooted in the sincere desire for greater knowledge and understanding both of “the other” and of oneself—can be seen as a reflection of, and participation in, the very process by which God knows Himself in distinctive, differentiated mode; that is, not in respect of His unique, eternal essence, but in respect of the manifestation of the “treasure” comprised or “hidden” within that essence, yielding the perpetually renewed theophanies of Himself to Himself through an apparent “other”, the “seeing of Himself as it were in a mirror”.
Another Quranic verse that can be given as a support for this perspective on the cognitive function of creation is the following:
I only created the jinn and mankind in order that they might worship Me (51:56).
In his Kit⢠al-Luma’, Abu Nasr al-Sarraj (d. 378/988) reports the comment on this verse given by Ibn Abbas: the word “worship” here means “knowledge” (ma’rifah), so that the phrase ill⠬i-ya’bud?except that they might worship Me) becomes ill⠬i-ya’rif?except that they might know Me).32 This interpretation is given also by several other prominent Sufi authorities, as well as some exoteric scholars.33 The very purpose of the creation of man thus comes to be equated with that knowledge of God which constitutes the most profound form of worship. But it is not just man that, in coming to know God, participates in the Divine dialogue, that is, the Divine self-disclosure of itself to itself; in fact, there is nothing in creation that does not obey the ontological imperative of “making known” the Divine treasure, even if it is the prerogative of man alone to “know” the Divine treasure, which he does in two ways: through correctly reading all the signs of God or the manifestations of the “hidden treasure”; and through knowing the essence of his own soul:
We shall show them Our signs on the horizons and in their own souls, so that it become clear to them that He is the Real (41:53).
As regards the objective signs on the horizons, the Quran refers repeatedly to the universal law of “making known” the hidden treasure, doing so in reference to a broadly conceived notion of praise and glorification:
All that is in the heavens and the earth glorifieth God; and He is the Mighty, the Wise (57:1).
The seven heavens and the earth and all that is therein praise Him, and there is not a thing but hymneth His praise, but ye understand not their praise (17:44).
Hast thou not seen that God, He it is Whom all who are in the heavens and the earth praise; and the birds in flight: each verily knoweth its prayer and its form of glorification (24:41).
He is God, the Creator, the Shaper out of naught, the Fashioner. His are the most beautiful names. All that is in the heavens and the earth glorifieth Him, and He is the Mighty, the Wise (59:24).34
Thus we see that in the Quranic perspective, every single thing, by dint of its very existence, “praises” and “glorifies” its Creator: its existence constitutes its praise. Every created thing bears witness to, and thus “praises”, its Creator; the existence of every existent “glorifies” the bestower of existence. But, more fundamentally, the existence of every existing thing is not its own; this existence “belongs” exclusively to that reality for which it serves as a locus of theophany (mazhar); there is no “sharing”, “partnership”, or “association” in being—no ontological shirk, in other words. Thus we return to the metaphysics of oneness: nothing is real but God. Each thing in existence has two incommensurable dimensions: in and of itself a pure nothingness; but in respect of that which is manifested to it, through it, by means of it—it is real. This is the import of the interpretation given by Ghazzali to the verse cited above, “Everything is perishing except His Face” (28:88). It is worth dwelling on the commentary he provides upon this verse; for it contains, arguably, some of the most radically esoteric ideas of his entire corpus,
and also sums up many of the themes expressed thus far.
The commentary comes in his treatise entitled Mishkⴠal-anwⲠ(“The Niche of Lights”), which takes as its point of departure the famous “light verse”:
God is the light of the heavens and the earth. The similitude of His light is as a niche wherein is a lamp. The lamp is in a glass. The glass is as it were a shining star. [The lamp is] kindled from a blessed olive tree, neither of the East nor of the West, whose oil would almost glow forth though no fire touched it. Light upon light. God guideth to His light whom He will. And God striketh similitudes for mankind. And God knoweth all things (24:35)
Ghazzali’s commentary on this verse identifies the one, true light of God as the one, true Being: darkness is nonexistence. The following statement on the nature of existence forms the backdrop for the commentary on 28:88, which is our focus here:
Existence can be classified into the existence that a thing possesses in itself, and that which it possesses from another. When a thing has existence from another, its existence is borrowed and has no support in itself. When the thing is viewed in itself, and with respect to itself, it is pure non-existence. It only exists inasmuch as it is ascribed to another. This is not a true existence…. Hence the Real Existent is God, just as the Real Light is He.35
Then comes the section entitled Haqt al-haq⦣39;iq (“The Reality of realities”), which describes the ascent of the gnostics, the knowers of God, “from the lowlands of metaphor to the highlands of Reality”. They are given a direct vision of the truth
that there is none in existence save God, and that everything is perishing except His Face. [It is] not that each thing is perishing at one time or at other times, but that it is perishing from eternity without beginning to eternity without end. It can only be so conceived since, when the essence of anything other than He is considered in respect of its own essence, it is sheer nonexistence. But when it is viewed in respect of the “face” to which existence flows forth from the First, the Real, then it is seen as existing not in itself but through the face turned to36 its giver of existence. Hence the only existent is the Face of God. Each thing has two faces: a face toward itself, and a face toward its Lord. Viewed in terms of the face of itself, it is nonexistent; but viewed in terms of the Face of God, it exists. Hence nothing exists but God and His Face.37
Ghazzali then makes an important distinction within the category of these gnostics who “see nothing in existence save the One, the Real”. One group is said to arrive at this vision “irf⮡n ‘ilmiyyan, that is, as a mode of cognitive knowledge; and another group possess this vision dhawqan, that is, as a mystical state of “tasting”.38 The essential vision is the same, but the depth of assimilation, the mystical attunement to the reality perceived, differs. This distinction helps to underscore the epistemological value of affirming principles of a metaphysical and mystical order, even if the plenary realization of those principles eludes the rational faculty. Reflection and meditation on the principles alluded to can bring about at least some degree of cognitive apprehension of the ultimate realities in question; realities that remain ineffable inasmuch as they are predicated on the extinction of the individuality, and thus on the transcendence of all modes of cognition proper to the individual subject as such. Ghazzali continues with a description of those who experience this transcendent extinction. Plurality disappears for them, as they are plunged in “sheer singularity” (al-fard⮩yya al-mahda):
They become intoxicated with such an intoxication that the ruling authority of their rational faculty is overthrown. Hence one of them says, “I am the Real!” (ana’l-Haqq), another, “Glory be to me, how great is my station!“39? When this state gets the upper hand, it is called “extinction” in relation to the one who possesses it. Or rather, it is called “extinction from extinction”, since the possessor of the state is extinct from himself and from his own extinction. For he is conscious neither of himself in that state, nor of his own unconsciousness of himself. If he were conscious of his own unconsciousness, then he would [still] be conscious of himself. In relation to the one immersed in it, this state is called “unification” (ittih⤩ according to the language of metaphor, or is called “declaring God’s unity” (tawh according to the language of reality.40
We return to the relationship between fan⦣39; and tawh between extinction and, not only “declaring God’s unity”, which is but one aspect of tawh but, more essentially, the “making one”, according to the literal meaning of the verbal noun tawh One might also translate tawhs “the realization of oneness”, the “making real” of the actual reality of oneness, through the elimination of all multiplicity.
Earlier, the divinely willed plurality within the human race was referred to: it is God who divided mankind up into nations and tribes, “so that ye may know one another”. Is there not a contradiction, it might be asked, between the extinction of phenomenal multiplicity presupposed by the deepest level of tawh and the affirmation of human plurality called forth by the will of God? One way of transforming this apparent contradiction into an expression of spiritual profundity is by returning to the notion of the “face” within each thing that constitutes the real being of that thing. Those Sufis who are extinguished to their own particular “face”—extinguished from their own non-existence—come alive to the Divine face that constitutes their true reality, the immanence of God’s presence within them, and also within all that exists: “Wherever ye turn there is the Face of God.” Now it is precisely that Divine aspect—in all things, and in all other nations and tribes—that comes into focus when this level of tawhis grasped aright. One does not have to experience the grace of mystical annihilation to comprehend this principle; as Ghazzali put it, one can arrive at this principle not only dhawqan, by way of “taste”, or mystical experience, but also ‘irf⮡n ‘ilmiyyan, as a mode of cognitive knowledge. If the mystical realization of this principle bestows a “taste” of tawh we might say, following on from Ghazzali, that an intellectual assimilation of the principle bestows a “perfume” of tawh As Ibn Arabi puts it, the gnostics cannot explain their spiritual states (ahw⬩ to other men; they can only indicate them symbolically to those who have begun to experience the like.41 A conceptual grasp of these deeper aspects of tawhmight be said to constitute just such a beginning. If the ultimate, mystical degree of tawhis realized only through extinction, the lower, conceptual degrees imply at least that “beginning” or prefiguration of mystical extinction, which consists in self-effacement, in humility. Now an intellectual assimilation of this vision of unity, together with a moral attunement to the humility that it demands, is certainly sufficient to dissolve the egocentric knots that constitute the stuff ofta’assub, of all forms of fanaticism.
Elsewhere, Ghazzali gives this telling description of ta’assub. He writes that it “usually comes together with man’s disregard of his neighbor, and of his opinions, and the taking root in his heart of certain ideas which become so much a part of him that he fails to distinguish between right and wrong”.42 What results, on the contrary, from an apprehension of the deeper implications of tawhis a heightened, spiritual discernment: that is, not just a moral judgment between right and wrong, but also a presentiment both of one’s own nothingness before the Divine reality, and also of the innate holiness, the Divine “face”, within the neighbor. The transcendent, Divine reality before which one is extinguished is known to be mysteriously present within the “other”. One observes here the spiritual underpinning of that crucial relationship, so often stressed in Sufi ethics, between humility and generosity, between self-effacement and self-giving; the first being a kind of fan⦣39; in moral mode, and the second being a moral application of tawh Respect for one’s neighbor is thus deepened in the very measure that one is aware of the Divine presence, which is at once within and beyond oneself, and within and beyond the neighbor. Herein, one might say, resides one of the spiritual foundations of adab, or “courtesy”, understanding by this word the profound respect, if not reverence, for the “other” that constitutes the true substance of all outward, socially conditioned forms of etiquette, good manners, and propriety towards the neighbor. One sees that it is not so much “religious pluralism” as “metaphysical unity” that establishes a deep-rooted and far-reaching tolerance, one which is not only formulated as a rule, to be obeyed or broken as one will, but which is organically related to an awareness of the Divine presence in all things, an apprehension of the inner holiness of all that exists.
Islam: Quintessential and Universal Submission
In this second part of the paper we would like to begin by stressing one aspect of the meaning of the word “Islam”, its literal meaning, that of submission, and to show how, from a Sufi perspective on the Quran, this meaning is tied to a conception of the essence of religion, or to “religion as such”,43 which takes precedence over such and such a religion.
According to one of the most highly regarded translators of the Quran, Muhammad Asad, the word “Islam” would have been understood by the hearers of the word at the time of the revelation of the Quran in terms of its universal, and not communal, meaning. In a note on the first use of the word muslim in the chronological order of the revelation (68:35), he writes: Throughout this work, I have translated the terms muslim and islam in accordance with their original connotations, namely, “one who surrenders [or “has surrendered”] himself to God”, and “man’s self-surrender to God”.... It should be borne in mind that the “institutionalized” use of these terms—that is, their exclusive application to the followers of the Prophet Muhammad—represents a definitely post-Quranic development and, hence, must be avoided in a translation of the Quran.44
He asserts that when the Prophet’s contemporaries heard the words islam and muslim, they would have understood them in this original sense, “without limiting these terms to any specific community or denomination”.45 This meaning emerges clearly from many verses containing the words muslim and islam. In the following verse, the principle of universal submission is equated with the religion of God:
Seek they other than the religion of God (dAll⨩, when unto Him submitteth whosoever is in the heavens and the earth, willingly or unwillingly? And unto Him they will be returned (3:83)
Kashani helps to situate with the utmost clarity the nature of this religion of God. He does so in his esoteric exegesis on two sets of verses. First, in relation to a verse which declares that the religion bestowed upon the Prophet Muhammad was the very same religion which was bestowed upon his predecessors:
He hath ordained for you of religion (min al-d that which He commended unto Noah, and that which We reveal to thee [Muhammad], and that which We commended unto Abraham and Moses and Jesus, saying: Establish the religion, and be not divided therein (42:13)
He hath ordained for you of the religion, [that is] the absolute religion (al-dal-mutlaq), which God charged all the prophets to establish, and to be unanimous, not divided, with regard to it. This is the principle and root of religion (asl al-d, that is, tawh justice, and knowledge of the Resurrection, as expressed by [the phrase] “faith in God and the Last Day”. This is other than the details of the revealed Laws, by which they [the prophets] differentiate this [root of religion]; this differentiation occurs in accordance with what is most beneficial in [the different situations]—such as the prescription of acts of obedience, worship, and social intercourse. As God Most High says, “For each We have appointed from you a Law and a Way (5:48).46
The difference between the “absolute” or unconditional religion (al-dal-mutlaq) and the different forms this unique essence may take is then described by Kashani in terms of permanence and immutability. He continues: “So the right religion (al- dal-qayyim) is tied to that which is immutable within knowledge and action; while the revealed Law is tied to that which alters in respect of rules and conditions.” The nature of this unchanging religion, together with its essential connection with the primordial nature of the human soul, the fitrah, is expounded by Kashani in an illuminating commentary on the following crucial verse:
So set thy purpose for religion as one with pure devotion—the nature [framed] of God, according to which He hath created man. There is no altering God’s creation. That is the right religion (al-din al-qayyim), but most men know not (30:30).
So set thy purpose for the religion of tawh and this is the path to the Real ... or religion in the absolute sense (al-din mutlaqan). That which is other than this is not “religion”, because of its separation from the [way which leads to] attainment of the goal. The purpose [or “face”, al-wajh, in the verse being commented on] refers to the existent essence, with all its concomitants and accidental properties; and its being set for religion is its disengagement from all that which is other than the Real, its being upright in tawh and stopping with the Real, without heeding its own soul or others, so that his way will be the way of God; and his religion and his path will be the religion and path of God, for he sees nothing but Him in existence.47
Then follows this comment on the primordial nature, the fitrah, fashioned by God:
That is, they cleave to the fitrat All⨬ which is the state in accordance with which the reality of humanity was created, eternal purity and disengagement, and this is the right religion (al-din al-qayyim) in eternity without beginning or end, never altering or being differentiated from that original purity, or from that intrinsic, primordial tawh48
The fitrah is described as being the result of the “most holy effusion” (al-fayd al-aqdas) of the Divine Essence; and no one who remains faithful to this original nature can deviate from tawh or be veiled from God’s reality by the presence of phenomena. Kashani cites the had, “Every baby is born according to the fitrah; its parents make it a Jew, a Christian.” But then he adds this important point: “It is not that this underlying reality changes in itself, such that its essential state be altered, for that is impossible. This is the meaning of His words: there is no altering God’s creation. That is the right religion, but most men know not.”
The following verse (30:31) reads: “Turning to Him; and do your duty to Him, and establish worship and be not of those who ascribe partners.” The “turning” to God implies for Kashani a turning away from all otherness, from the “demons of fancy and imagination” and from “false religions”; it implies also the disengagement and detachment from the “shrouds of created nature, bodily accidents, natural forms, psychic properties”. As regards the last part of the verse, he comments as follows: “‘Be not of those who ascribe partners [or ‘be not of the polytheists’].... through the subsistence of the fitrah, and the manifestation of I-ness (zuh?-an⦣39;iyya) in its station.“49 Here the ontological limitation of the fitrah and its “station” is indicated by Kashani. For the fitrah presupposes an individual soul, of which it is the most fundamental model, pattern, or prototype; as such, it cannot but uphold that I-ness or egoic nucleus that must, from the point of view of absolute oneness, be transcended; and it is only transcended by fan⦣39;. Despite this ontological shortcoming attendant upon the operative presence of the fitrah, it is clear that for Kashani it is only through fidelity to the fitrah that one can open oneself up to that ultimate form of Islam which is constituted—or rather sublimated—by fan⦣39;.
At the level of human knowledge, however, the fitrah is conceived as a fundamental, or “constitutional”, affinity between the deepest dimension of the human soul and the ultimate realities expressed through Divine revelation; it is the purest texture of the substance of the soul that resonates harmoniously with the most profound truths conveyed by the revealed word. This harmonious reverberation translates spiritual affinity into mystical unity—the realization, through fan⦣39;, of the ultimate degree of tawh as described above in reference to Ghazzali’s exegesis of “everything is perishing except His Face” (28:88).
The mystery of this affinity between primordiality and revelation—between the knowledge divinely embedded a priori within the soul, and the knowledge divinely bestowed a posteriori upon the soul—seems to be alluded to in the following verse: “Truly there hath come unto you a Prophet from yourselves” (9:128). The literal meaning here, as addressed to the immediate recipients of the revelation, is that the Prophet is one of them: a man, not an angel, an Arab, not a foreigner, and so forth. But the word minkum, “from you”, also carries a deeper significance. One also has this verse: “The Prophet is closer to the believers than their own selves” (33:6) Again, the literal meaning refers to the precedence of the Prophet, his greater right or claim over the believers than they have over themselves. But the deeper meaning emerges as a different, and equally legitimate, reading of the word minkum. The word also appears, as noted earlier, in a verse with a similar import: “For each We have appointed from you a Law and a Way (shir’atan wa minh⪡n)” (5:48). Not only the Prophet, but the revealed Law and the spiritual Way he brings—all seem already to be, in essence, within the human soul. To follow the Prophet, to abide by the Law, to follow the Way he traces out is to follow, not some rules arbitrarily imposed from without, but a call from within; it is to follow one’s own deepest nature. It is for this reason that the Quran refers to itself in several places as a “reminder” or as a remembrance (dhikr):
And it is nothing but a reminder to creation (68:52 and 81:27).
We have not revealed unto thee this Quran that thou shouldst be distressed, but as a reminder unto him that feareth (20:2-3).
Nay, verily this is a reminder, so whoever will shall remember it (74:54-55).
This understanding of the meaning of the word minkum is a possible but by no means exclusive one. It does flow naturally, however, from a fundamental principle of Sufi spirituality. For our purposes here it suffices to cite the engaging simile offered by Rumi, by which he explains the verse:
In the composition of man all sciences were originally commingled so that his spirit might show forth all hidden things, as limpid water shows forth all that is under it ... and all that is above it, reflected in the substance of water. Such is its nature, without treatment or training. But when it was mingled with earth or other colors, that property and that knowledge was parted from it and forgotten by it. Then God Most High sent forth prophets and saints, like a great, limpid water such as delivers out of darkness and accidental coloration every mean and dark water that enters into it. Then it remembers; when the soul of man sees itself unsullied, it knows for sure that so it was in the beginning, pure, and it knows that those shadows and colors were mere accidents. Remembering its state before those accidents supervened, it says, This is that sustenance which we were provided with before.50 The prophets and the saints therefore remind him of his former state; they do not implant anything new in his substance. Now every dark water that recognizes that great water, saying, “I come from this, and I belong to this”, mingles with that water…. It was on this account that God declared: Truly there hath come unto you a Prophet from yourselves.51
Near the end of the Discourses, this theme is expressed again, this time in more intimate terms:
Those who acknowledge the truth see themselves in the prophet and hear their own voice proceeding from him and smell their own scent proceeding from him. No man denies his own self. Therefore the prophets say to the community, “We are you and you are we; there is no strangeness between us”.52
It is clear from these passages that Rumi, referring to the prophets in the plural, regards the prophetic mission as one and the same, despite the different forms taken by that message. In the Mathnawthis principle is expressed in many different places. One striking example is his poetic comment upon the words of the Quranic verse “We make no distinction between any of them [God’s prophets] (2:136; and at 3:84). Under this verse as a heading come the following couplets:
If ten lamps are present in (one) place, each differs in form from the other:
To distinguish without any doubt the light of each, when you turn your face toward their light, is impossible.
In things spiritual there is no division and no numbers; in things spiritual there is no partition and no individuals.53
The conception of essential or absolute religion, explicitly affirmed by Kashani and implicit in so much of Rumi’s writing, is predicated on a clear vision of the spirit of faith which transcends all the forms that religious traditions assume. Before elaborating upon this vision with reference to particular Quranic verses, it is important to mention very briefly the Quranic encounter between Moses and the mysterious personage, not mentioned by name in the Quran, but identified by tradition with al-Khidr. Even in its literal aspect, the story alludes to the distinction between the form of religion and its transcendent essence, between exoteric and esoteric knowledge. In this encounter certain forms of the law and social convention are violated by al-Khidr, who is questioned and criticized as a result by Moses. After committing three acts that flout outward norms, al-Khidr tells Moses of the realities hidden beneath the surface of each of the situations in which the acts take place, realities revealed to al-Khidr by direct, Divine inspiration.54
One of the uses to which Ibn Arabi puts this story reinforces its already esoteric nature. Al-Khidr becomes the personification of the station of nearness (maq⭠al-qurba), a station which is identified with plenary sanctity (wal),55 while Moses personifies the law-giving prophet, or prophecy as such (nubuwwa). In Ibn Arabi’s perspective, sanctity as such is superior to prophecy as such, because, as he explains in the chapter of the Fus?der the heading of Seth, “The message (al-ris⬡) and prophecy (al-nubuwwa)—that is, law-giving prophecy and its message—come to an end, but sanctity (al-wal) never comes to an end.“56Sanctity is higher because the knowledge proper to it is universal, and prophecy is lower insofar as the knowledge comprised within it is delimited by a particular message: “Know that wal is the all-encompassing sphere, thus it never comes to an end, and to it belong [the assimilation and communication of] universal tidings; but as for law-giving prophecy and the message, they terminate.“57 But it is a question of principial priority and not personal superiority: sanctity is more universal than prophecy, but the prophet is always superior to the saint. For, on the one hand, the prophet’s sanctity is the source of the sanctity of the saint; and on the other, every prophet is a saint, but not every saint is a prophet:
When you observe the prophet saying things which relate to what is outside the law- giving function,58 then he does so as a saint (waland a gnostic (’ⲩf). Thus his station as a knower and a saint is more complete and more perfect than [his station] as a messenger or as a legislative prophet…. So if one says that that the saint is above the prophet and the messenger, he means that this is the case within a single person, that is: the messenger, in respect of his being a saint, is more complete than he is in respect of his being a prophet or messenger.59
According to Ibn Arabi, then, the encounter between Moses and al-Khidr is understood microcosmically: al-Khidr represents a mode of universal consciousness within the very soul of Moses, one which surpasses his consciousness qua prophet, whence the disapproval by the prophet of the antinomian acts of the saint: “He [al-Khidr] showed him [Moses] nothing but his [Moses’s] own form: it was his own state that Moses saw, and himself that he censured.“60 Ibn Arabi’s conception of wal is a complex and controversial one, but it does cohere with the esoteric implications of the Quranic narrative of the encounter between Moses and the mysterious person who was given “knowledge from Us”. This narrative, together with its amplification in Ibn Arabi’s conception of sanctity, clearly alludes to the relativity of the outward law in the face of its inner spirit, and the limitations proper to the law-giving function as opposed to the universal dimensions of sanctity. There is a clear and important relationship between this universal function of sanctity and the “absolute” or “unconditional” religion referred to above, that religion which is above and beyond all the particular forms—legal, confessional, social, cultural, and psychological—that it may assume.
Now, to consider more explicit Quranic verses describing or alluding to this quintessential religion:
Say: We believe in God and that which is revealed unto us, and that which is revealed unto Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac and Jacob and the tribes, and that which was given unto Moses and Jesus and the prophets from their Lord. We make no distinction between any of them, and unto Him we have submitted (3:84).
Then comes this verse:
And whoso seeketh a religion other than Islam, it will not be accepted from him, and he will be a loser in the Hereafter (3:85).
Now whereas this last verse is understood, from a theological point of view, as upholding the exclusive validity of “Islam”, defined as the religion revealed to God’s last Prophet, and, as will be discussed below, as abrogating other verses which point to a different conclusion, it can also be seen as confirming the intrinsic validity of all the revelations brought by all the prophets mentioned in the previous verse. “Islam” thus encompasses all revelations, which can be seen as so many different facets of essentially one and the same self-disclosure of the Divine reality. Both senses can in fact be maintained as “valid” interpretations, according to a key hermeneutical principle of Ibn Arabi: namely, that it is not tenable to exclude the validity of an interpretation of a verse which is clearly upheld by the literal meaning of the words.61 It is one of an indefinite number of meanings that are all “intended” by God to be derived from the words of the verse. No one interpretation is right and true to the exclusion of all others. Furthermore, applying a distinctively Akbarian metaphysical principle, we could say that to exclude the exclusivist reading is in turn to fall into a mode of exclusivism.62Thus a truly inclusivist metaphysical perspective must recognize the validity of the exclusivist, theological perspective, even if it must also—on pain of disingenuousness—uphold as more compelling, more convincing, and more “true”, the universalist understanding of Islam.
This universalist conception of religion is linked to the innate knowledge of God within all human souls, or within the soul as such, and to the universal function of revelatory “remembrance”—that innate knowledge which is re-awakened within the forgetful soul by Divine revelation. The following verse establishes with the utmost clarity the fact that knowledge of the Divine is inscribed in the very substance of the human soul at its inception, and is thus an integral dimension of the fitrah:
And when thy Lord brought forth from the Children of Adam, from their reins, their seed, and made them testify of themselves [saying], Am I not your Lord? They said: Yea, verily. We testify. [That was] lest ye say on the Day of Resurrection: Truly, of this we were unaware (7:172).
At the dawn of creation, then, knowledge of the Divine lordship, the reality of the Absolute, and all essential truths deriving therefrom is infused into the human soul—into all human souls, all Children of Adam, without exception. Another way of presenting this universal fact, with the stress on the spiritual substance of these principial truths, is given in these verses:
And when thy Lord said unto the angels: Verily I am creating a mortal from clay of black mud, altered. So, when I have made him and have breathed into him of My Spirit, fall ye down, prostrating yourselves before him (15:28-29).63
Thus, it is this spirit of God, breathed into man that constitutes, according to the Quran, the fundamental, irreducible substance of the human soul. It is for this reason that the angels are commanded to prostrate to him. The act not only proceeds from obedience to the command of God, but also is an acknowledgement of the breath of God that articulates the Adamic substance—the reason for the command, one might say.
One can understand the truths comprised within the Divine Spirit, which is “breathed” into the soul, in terms of the “names” taught to Adam by God, in virtue of which his knowledge transcends that of all other beings, including the angels. The story of the creation of Adam, the transcendent knowledge proper to the human soul, the Fall, and the means of overcoming the consequences of the Fall—all these fundamental principles are given in the following verses in a manner which succinctly presents both the universality and necessity of Divine revelation:
And when thy Lord said unto the angels: Verily I am placing a viceroy (khalh) on earth, they said: Wilt Thou place therein one who will do harm therein and will shed blood, while we, we hymn Thy praise and sanctify Thee? He said: Surely I know that which ye know not. And He taught Adam all the names, then showed them to the angels, saying: Inform Me of the names of these, if ye are truthful. They said: Be Thou glorified! We have no knowledge save that which Thou hast taught us. Truly Thou, only Thou, art the Knower, the Wise. He said: O Adam, inform them of their names, and when he had informed them of their names, He said: