Dr. Peter Riddell delivered a lecture on Divine Immanence and Transcendence during a CIU course. Here, Riddell presents the important difference between divine immanence and transcendence in relation to Sufism (and the Sufi path: tariqa) compared to other forms of Islam.


  Here starts the auto-generated transcription of Dr. Peter Riddell’s Lecture: Divine Immanence and Transcendence


Welcome back to understanding the Quran. We’re moving on now to a new topic and indeed the remaining lectures in this course will concern themselves with different aspects of Sufism. Now this topic is a little more comfortable than the last topic where we considered Muslim attitudes towards people of the people of the book. In the case of Sufism, there are many themes here which are controversial within Islam, but which at times hearken to to Christianity a little. There are certain resemblances which account for Norman Anderson, the great Christian scholar, the evangelical scholar of Islam, making the comment that Sufism was the most attractive face of Islam.


Now, initially, the first topic we’re going to look at in connection with Sufism is divine imminence and transcendence, And down the centuries, Muslims have debated the nature of Allah. Now while an orthodox view is to see Allah as a transcendent and distant judge and authority, Sufis have sought a different understanding of Allah in it’s more in in its more extreme form, Sufism has sought communion with Allah to the point of becoming aware of a union with Allah. Now the readings of this lecture, of lecture 15, provide different perspectives on the Sufi quest, and you will see some quite different and hear some quite different approaches from what we encountered in earlier lectures where we were dealing with a much more textual textually literalist approach to Islam. In the readings for this lecture, I provided you with an excerpt of writing from Anne Marie Schimmel, a great very prominent Western scholar of Sufism. William Chittick is another very prominent Western scholar of Islam, and we have a selection from him, and we also have selections from some writers who originate from Southeast Asia, and I will say more about them when we get to those slides.


One of the key distinguishing features of Sufi approaches to commenting on the Quran is that Sufis argue that the text of the Quran is multilayered in terms of its potential meaning. And here they are, of course, in a situation of potential conflict with more literalist hadith based approaches to Koranic interpretation. Let’s take the example of Jafar as Sadegh, a very prominent early Sufi writer. He argued that there are actually four levels of meaning of the Koranic text now just think of a Koranic verse and we read the verse we read its surface meaning and a literalist more hadith based approach would be to take the surface meaning as the only meaning. Now according to this writer, Jafar Asadegh, he says, well, there are four levels of meaning to that verse.


He says, at one level, there’s the level of expression, and that’s for the common person. That really is the literalist surface meaning that we described. But then he said, apart from that, each verse can be interpreted as an illusion, which is for the elect, for the specially trained Muslims, who are especially trained to interpret the deeper meaning of the verse. But even beyond that, he says, there is a subtle meaning, and that is very restricted. It is only available for the saints.


Only the saints of Islam will understand that meaning of the particular verse in question. And, ultimately, even beyond that, there is the level of the realities where the meaning of the Quranic verse at this level is only available to prophets. So take any verse in the Quran, and it can be understood either in terms of its expression, which is surface for the masses, illusion for the specially trained or the elect, subtle meaning for the saints, and realities for the prophets. You can see it’s a very different approach to Quran interpretation. And if you can if you refer back to the reading materials from the lectures on tafsir, on exegesis, you will find that there is a link there to the commentary by Atustari Atustari Sahal Atustari, who died in 896.


That is a Sufi commentary, and it’s the earliest surviving complete commentary on the Quran by a Sufi. So read that as you go through verses in the context of these next few lectures. I’d like you to stop the recording now and watch the film Ghazali’s last. It’s a short film available on YouTube, and I have provided a link to the film on the Moodle page. Watch it and consider the content.


Moving on, the kind of meditations which are contained in the film that you’ve just seen by by the film Ghazali’s last, those kinds of meditations arise from a process of thinking and contemplation linked with certain favored Quranic verses. Now for Sufis, there are particular Quran verses that they especially favor as providing a window into the Sufi quest. 1 of the most favorite verses is surah 50 verse 16, which reads as follows. And we have already created man and know what his soul whispers to him, and we are closer to him than his jugular vein now this is a very important verse for Sufis because this is one of the few verses in the Quran which talks about the closeness of God generally speaking in the Quran affirms Allah as a transcendent deity, as a distant creator God who is sovereign, who has authority, who is judge, not a God who is intimate and close. But this particular verse refers to God being closer to a person than his jugular vein, and this is a favored verse among Sufis.


Another favored verse is the very famous light verse, and I’d like to read this now in detail. As we go through it, just think about the imagery, which is quite extensive within this short verse. Surah 24 verse 35 is the light verse. Allah is the light of the heavens and the earth. His light, in terms of a similitude, is like a niche in which there is a lamp.


The lamp is in a glass, the glass as it were a brilliant star that is being kindled by a blessed olive tree that is neither eastern nor western. Its oil would all but light up even though no fire touched it. Light upon light. Allah guides to his light whomever he wishes, and Allah strikes similitudes for people, and Allah has knowledge of everything. Now what does that mean?


The reference to similitudes is interesting. Really, what’s meant there is kind a kind of parable parables. But what is meant by a lamp, a niche, a brilliant star, a blessed olive tree? What is meant by that? Well, Sufis have exercised their minds down the centuries thinking about this verse.


It’s one of their favorite verses. And as we go through this verse, I’d like you to take particular note of how Sufis are interpreting in a way which is not based on the surface context, the surface meaning of the verse. Because quite simply, in this verse, if you merely limit yourself to the surface meaning, you’re left in a state of confusion as to what it means. Now Al Hallaj was a very early Sufi. He died in 9/22.


He was actually executed for blasphemy. He left behind writing through his disciples, and in his exegesis of the light verse, he interpreted the imagery of the light as the light of inspiration, intimate prayers, certainty of faith, and glorification. So you see, this Sufi scholar is taking a keyword from the verse, light, and asking, contemplating, meditating on what the meaning might be. This is no longer surface meaning interpretation, drawing on the hadith. It’s a very different style.


According to Sufi commentators, possible sources of the light are God, the prophet, and the heart of the believer. So this question of what is the light that’s referred to in this verse is a cause of great discussion among Sufi commentators with different conclusions reached. Some say the light is God, some say the light is Mohammed, and some say the light is the heart of the believer. Similarly, there are various interpretations for the blessed tree. Some say that the blessed tree is the lineage of Mohammed, the spiritual experiences of Mohammed, and Mohammed him or Mohammed himself.


We mustn’t forget the importance of the tree symbol in tracing lines of spiritual descent in the various Sufi orders and we’ll see an example of that shortly in in another slide. But there we have another debate. Is the blessed tree the lineage of Muhammad? Or is the blessed tree the spiritual experiences of Mohammed, or is the blessed tree Mohammed himself? Sufis have debated that.


And this slide gives you a kind of tree, the kind of tree that’s very very popular among Muslims in general but especially Sufis. A kind of line of descent beginning with Mohammed and going down to a particularly Sufi scholar or saint at the bottom of the page. Between Mohammed and that Sufi scholar are a range of other names that forms a kind of spiritual genealogy. Now light upon lice, that phrase occurs in this verse. What does that mean?


Well, light upon light is interpreted by ecstatic Sufis. They’re Sufis who engage in a kind of ecstatic worship, and we’ll be seeing an example of that shortly. Light upon light is interpreted by such as the lover of Allah being extinguished in the divine realization, the lover of Allah merging and being extinguished in within God himself. You see, we’re hearing a very different kind of voice here, very different kind of preoccupation by Sufi Muslims. Now, in Sufi commentaries on this verse, the issue of Mohammed arises.


Where how does Muhammad feature in this verse? Well, some Sufi commentaries suggest that the reference to the lamp is to the name of Mohammed, to the word Mohammed. The niche that’s referred to refers to Mohammed’s breast. The light upon light refers to Muhammad as guide. That’s another version, another possible interpretation.


And you get a sense as to how Mohammed is being elevated above this simple man prophet, which he is regarded by in in orthodox Islam, obviously elevated, but nevertheless clearly human who lived and died. For Sufis, Mohammed tends to assume a greater status, especially for the more extreme versions of Sufism. And we will encounter later the perfect man notion, which is often associated with the person of Muhammad, and one can see how that could be a result from the process we’re going through at the moment. So I’d like you to digest the material we’ve just looked at and ask yourself a question, how does this Sufi engagement with differ from the methods of Koranic exegesis encountered in lesson 14 on the people of the book? When we discussed the people of the book, we were looking at interpretation of the Quran.


We were looking at how other texts interpreted those verses in the Quran about the Christians and the Jews. How does this kind of exegesis now by Sufis differ from the kind of exegesis we saw in the slides on people of the book? Welcome back to understanding the Quran. We’re continuing on with the theme of divine imminence and transcendence, which relates to the broader topic of Sufism. We’re going to be dealing with, various themes in this lecture, and we’re drawing on, our reading materials, both what is online, but also on a broader corpus of literature, which I’ll be recommending as we go through.


The name of Ibn Rushd or Avarus is very famous in both Islamic history and western history because he was a philosopher who really sat across the 2 great faiths in terms of his influence. In, the work which we’ve encountered several times, in our course, by Ghahalmat Gachi, the Quran and its exegesis, there is a translated section, from Ibn Rushd, in which, he makes reference to allegorical exegesis. And he’s he explains that allegorical exegesis converts the meaning of an expression from the literal to the figurative. There is both an inner and an outer meaning because the natural talents, he says, of people are different, and their abilities in regard to the affirmative function of reason deviate from one another. So this is getting to the crux of the problem.


That is that are Muslims going to interpret the Quran? Are they going to understand the Quran in a literal way? Do they look at the surface meaning and take that as the the meaning of the text? Or do they do they look beyond the surface meaning, and then do they move from the literal to the figurative as puts it? Do they look at the outer meaning only, or do they look for an inner meaning?


Now we discussed this in the last lecture with the 4 level interpretation of Jafar Asadegh, who suggested that there were 4 levels of meaning to each chronic verse. And this statement by Ibn Rushd is affirming that idea of there being different levels of meaning to each verse. Now a very famous Sufi, commentator was Abdulazak Kashani. There are excerpts of his writing in Gachi’s book, the Quran and its exegesis, and I would refer you to that. Also, you can go online and find some of his writings there.


I also draw your attention on our Moodle page to a link I’ve provided to an article called the famous scholars of Sufism by the one umah.net, group. And that’s quite a useful listing of the main names in the history of Sufism. So that will provide you with, a useful who’s who in a sense of, of Sufism down the ages, and Kashani’s name figures there. Now Kashani suggests that God’s throne is equal to the heart of Mohammed, that the throne on which God sat is actually the heart of Mohammed, not in a literal way, but in a figurative way. And it’s that’s interesting because for two reasons, actually.


It’s interesting because it shows the allegorical side of Sufi interpretation. So when they encounter the reference to God’s throne in the Quran, their thoughts can go to the heart of Mohammed. But it’s also significant because it points to the ever rising significance of Mohammed beyond human proportions, and this was part of of the Sufi project, the Sufi experience, that Mohammed for whom orthodox hadith based Muslims is a a man, a prophet, but nevertheless, a man who lived and died. For some Sufis, he was elevated to greater proportions. Kashani encounters the expression take off thy sandals in surah 20 verse 12, And he suggests that thy sandals is taken to mean your soul and your body or your 2 temporal forms of existence.


Since when one is free from soul and body, one is free from both forms of existence. Now again, allegory reigns supreme here. The Quran verse, the surface meaning is take off thy sandals. The literal meaning is take off sandals. The allegorical mean meaning is take off your soul and your body or your two forms of existence.


Coming back to Anne Marie Schimmel, who appears on your middle page, with, her piece of writing entitled what is Sufism. She writes in another one of her books, the triumphal sun, she writes, if man loves god’s creation in patience and gratitude, he acts as a true monotheist because he sees in the world nothing but an expression and manifestation of god’s creative power. But if he loves creation for its own sake, he becomes an infidel, an idolatrist. So you can see again how Sufi thinking is moving beyond the literal, moving beyond the here and now to a greater level of meditation and contemplation and allegory. Another key name in Sufism is Jalaluddin Arumi, and I would encourage you to pause and do some research into the life of Rumi.


No study of Sufism is complete without reading about Jalaluddin Rumi. Now he proposed a theology of opposites. He suggested that things can only be known through their opposites. So god is the merciful and the wrathful. He is grace and wrath.


And when you read, Rumi’s writing, you often get this sense of of opposites. I’d like to move from general discussions of Sufism, which we’ve had so far, to focus on Southeast Asia, a particular context, a particular time, a particular group of people. Because this provides us with a small window into the big tapestry of Sufism. We’re moving to northern Sumatra to the region of the north of Sumatra, present day Aceh. In the late, 16th, early 17th century, the period when the sultanate of Aceh was at its greatest extent.


Now one of the greatest writers and very earliest Sufi writers to emerge from that period was a man by the name of Hamza Fonsuri, and I’ve provided you on the Moodle page a translation of one of his poems. Hamza was a very prolific poet and writer. He wielded a great influence on in the 16th century within the area of Aceh, and his followers continued on to write about him. One was Shamsudin Asamatrayi. He wrote a commentary on, one of Hamza’s poems.


So the poem I’ve given you is poem 31, and Shamsuddin wrote a commentary on that poem. So pause the recording now and go to your Moodle page and read Hamza’s palm number 31. Now in commenting on Hamza’s poem 31, shamsudin as Samatrayi writes, the essence of man is God most high. Essentially, man is the only lord. There is no question of return to him nor in fact of coming from him for coming and return presupposed 2 entities.


How could there be any question of return and coming since we and God most high are of one being. Now you can imagine how potentially inflammatory such a statement was. We and god most high are of one being. That cut right across this standard orthodox dualistic notions of the clear separation between creator and created, and it provided full fuel for a great polemic, which took place in Aceh in the 7th century. Shamsudin Shamsudin, promoted in his writing the notion of 7 grades of being.


He wasn’t the first to develop this. He had taken this from earlier Muslim writers from India and from the Middle East, but he promoted it in the area of Southeast Asia. The grades of being were ahadia, the essence of god that was uncreated and eternal, wahda, the attributes of god that were uncreated and eternal, multiplicity and unity, still unity but multiple within unity, wahidea, the names of God that were similarly uncreated and eternal. So so far the first three grades were uncreated and eternal. Then we move on to grades 4 to 7, the world of the spirits, alam al arwa.


They are created in particular. God’s being is manifested at this stage. Alim Al Metha, the world of ideas, they are created in particular with God’s being manifested at this stage. Alem Al Auj Sam, the world of bodies, similarly created in particular with God’s being manifested. And finally, Radem Al Insan, the world of man, the most outward grade that is created in particular, gods being manifested.


Now between the 1st grade, the ahadid, the essence of god, and the 7th grade, alim alinsan, the world of man, there are these various grades of being. And the question became, were these grades of being considered as manifestations of God? Were they God or were they separate levels of existence? And there was the debate. That was the debate among Sufis.


Some Sufis saw all as being 1, all as simply being part of God. God was all. So man was part of God. Man was God, in other words. And this was a key cause of great debate and great polemic among Muslims in Indonesia, but also in the Middle East as well.


I’ve given you an excerpt on the middle page of a piece of writing by Nuruddin Araniri called the proof of the truthful in refuting the index. And in this piece of writing, this man Araniri, he reacts quite violently against what we have just read because he saw it as blasphemy. I’d like you to pause your recording and read the the excerpt from Ranieri entitled the proof of the truth truthful, and at the same time, read the other excerpt by him called Jawahir. Now this whole debate between Shamsuddin on the one side and Araniri on the other side is well discussed by Vakili in Studia Islamica, and I will give you now a summary of Vakili’s discussion. Now he summarized Ranieri’s opposition to Hamza and Shamsuddin.


He suggested Ranieri, the later scholar who was reacting to the earlier writers, he suggested that they were pantheistic, suggesting that God’s essence is completely imminent in the world. He accused them, Hamza and Shamsudin, of believing God to be a simple being. He accused them of believing the Quran to have been created. That goes back to an earlier debate in Islam. And he accused them of believing in the eternity of the world because the world, in their view, he said, was simply part of god.


You get a sense as to the great polemic that took was taking place over this. And although we’re focusing on Indonesia, 17th century at the moment, This debate went on at different points in different parts of the Muslim world as well. De Graaf, who is a another scholar, he noted that Hamza had declared that prayers and fasting were unnecessary, but that ritual prayer or salat was a useful device to practice unification with god. This was another point of tension between the two schools of of of thought here. In that Hamza and Shamsuddin were accused of downgrading Sharia law and the public, the the the legal requirements of the faith in in favor of a more esoteric meditative approach.


Now in his article, Wakili studies various angles on this on this, debate. He studies the writings of, Sayed Nagibul Atas, who is a very famous scholar who writes on this question. And Vakili clears Hamza of Araniri’s accusations. So Vakili’s conclusions are that Hamza was in fact not, guilty of pantheism as he had been accused of by Ranieri. I’d like you to read the materials yourself and to read your own conclusions.


You have the poem by Hamza, poem 31. You have the 2 pieces of writing by Ranieri. You’ve read both of those. What do you think? What do you think of Ranieri’s accusation of Hamza?


Do you believe that Hamza was guilty of pantheism, of collapsing all into the godhead, or not? Relevant to this whole debate is the doctrine of Wahdatas shuhud, And I’ve given you an article by William Chittick on the website there about the. There are 2 kinds of wahdat, which were in opposition here, and this represents again part of the debate within Sufism. Al Hallaj, the Sufi scholar who had been executed in 9/22, had developed a doctrine of wahdatashuhud called unity of witness. That was based on the idea of signifying the identification of and witness to god within the heart of the believer.


A later doctrine was which you have addressed in the writing by William Chittick. He addresses this doctrine, the, which refers to a monistic view of the creation whereby all creation was seen as an inevitable manifestation and component part of the deity, and the mystical experience merely accentuated the individual’s realization of this fact and his discovery of his own godly attributes. So the difference here relates really to monism and dualism. Did this Sufi quest allow for all to become God, or did the Sufi quest allow for god to be active in his creation and part of his creation, but nevertheless still separate from his creation. And this was the debate within the Sufis.


Some Sufis were more extreme, arguing along the lines of extreme that all was God and God was all, whereas others issuing a doctrine of, a unity of witness, still maintained a measure of dualism in their perspective on the relationship between God and his creation. I referred earlier to the late Christian scholar of Islam and law, sir Norman Anderson, who described Sufism as the most attractive face of Islam. Do you agree? Why? Why not?


And in particular regard to our own faith, in what distinctive ways should Christians engage with Sufi Muslims in contrast with non Sufi Muslims. We’ve spent a lot of this course talking about non Sufi approaches to understanding the Quran and to the primary texts based on a more literalist or sometimes philosophical approach. But with Sufis, it’s a whole different ball game. How would you respond to Sufis, to what we’ve seen so far, in a way which would be different from your response to other kinds of Muslims? We will pick up the Sufi question again in the next lecture.