12th-Century Persian Philosopher Offers Insight Into Sufi Mysticism

How Ayn al-Qudat described the essence of reality and continues to influence us nearly a millennium later

12th-Century Persian Philosopher Offers Insight Into Sufi Mysticism
Illustrated by Joanna Andreasson for New Lines

In the 12th century, a major Persian philosopher and near-contemporary of Abu Hamid al-Ghazali produced influential works on philosophy and mysticism, including the Arabic title “The Essence of Reality,” which he wrote in three days at the age of 24, less than a decade before he was executed for “heresy.”

Ayn al-Qudat was also a theologian, poet, jurist and Sufi master. He lived in the heyday of the Seljuqs, a major Turko-Persian Sunni empire that ruled over a large area of Asia from Anatolia, Syria and the Hejaz in the west to Transoxania in the east. Born into a scholarly family in 1097 in Hamadān in western Iran, the young Ayn al-Qudat was distinctively precocious, particularly in Islamic philosophy and theology, law, mathematics and Arabic literature. When he was a teenager, his books became popular in both literary and intellectual circles, and he was eventually appointed as the main judge of Hamadān in his mid-20s.

Ayn al-Qudhat rose to prominence as a Sufi master after the death of his own spiritual guide, the famous Ahmad Ghazali (d. 1126), who was the younger brother of the well-known Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111). Thus, alongside his already existing role as a teacher of the Islamic sciences who would give multiple public lessons in Hamadān each day, Ayn al-Qudat now had the added responsibility of being a spiritual guide for his many disciples, some of whom were employees of the Seljuq court.

At the height of his influence and intellectual powers, Ayn al-Qudat attracted the attention of the Seljuq regime for his public condemnation of their corrupt administrative practices, a critique he voiced in his letters to his students and from the pulpit in his capacity as chief judge of Hamadan, an office of high visibility and public influence. Since the Seljuqs constructed their legitimacy around the consensus of the religious scholars, Ayn al-Qudat’s condemnation of them was an obvious problem. Thus, the Seljuqs sought to put an end to their troubles and had Ayn al-Qudat imprisoned in Baghdad on alleged charges of “heresy.” They eventually had him executed in 1131 at the tender age of 34.

Ayn al-Qudat’s brilliance as a Sufi master and philosopher comes through in the few of his works that have survived in Arabic and Persian. These writings proved to be very influential in both pre-modern and early modern Islamic contexts—that is, associated with regions in which Muslims are culturally dominant but not specifically with the religion of Islam, stretching from Iran and Central Asia to Ottoman lands and British India. A translated excerpt from “The Essence of Reality” offers a rare and accessible opportunity to interact with the Sufi mysticism that influenced his era and the worldview of philosophers who came after him.

“The Essence of Reality” is the first full-on philosophical exposition of mysticism in the Islamic intellectual tradition and contains remarkably lucid explanations of the problem of the eternity of the world, how existence is in a constant state of flux and how God is with things but nothing is with God. All of these discussions are seamlessly tied into Ayn al-Qudat’s most important argument, namely that the knowledge of the Sufi mystic stands beyond conventional rational knowledge, and is the result of “tasting” (dhawq). In short, he says that God is not only to be known by the mind but to be experienced by the heart and tasted by the soul — and the only way this can be done is if one trains one’s mind until it cannot go any further. Then, one has to devote oneself to prayer and the remembrance of God (dhikr) until one attains proximity to God and can thereby come to have a more intimate knowledge of the divine.

In the chapters excerpted here, Ayn al-Qudat encourages his readers to reflect on mirrors, since this practice will readily reveal to them the true situation of the cosmos: that all things, like forms in mirrors, have a certain kind of reality to them but are fundamentally unreal, and this because everything other than God is impermanent. For those whose inner sight has been opened, Ayn al-Qudat argues, they can even see the forms that stand outside mirrors, along with their own selves, as ultimately evanescent and transitory.

—Mohammed Rustom

Chapter 42: An Example Using Mirrors

From the perspective of reality, everything in existence is transitory, and the only thing that remains is the face of the Living, the Self-Abiding. It is just like a transitory form in a mirror—only the form outside the mirror remains insofar as general observation is concerned, satisfied as it is with sensory imagery. In the eyes of the recognizer, the form outside the mirror is also transitory, just like the form inside the mirror, with no distinction between them.

Chapter 43: The Mirror of the Intellect

A mirror is a tremendous example for those who are intelligent. If you look into one properly and still do not have many of your difficulties resolved, you do not deserve to be considered intelligent. By my life! When an intelligent person looks into a mirror, he is beset by tremendous problems and comes to doubt many things he had taken for granted. Nevertheless, many difficulties will be resolved. If the forging of mirrors was the only benefit to be derived from iron, that alone would testify to the truth of God’s statement, “And We sent down iron which has great might, and benefits for people. ”How can it be otherwise, given that the benefits derived from iron include those that would make even mirrors look insignificant, despite the fact that mirrors contain many tremendous wonders, which the intellect cannot enumerate? In reality, mirrors function as “mirrors” for the intelligent, since in them they can see the form of the intellect, which is incapable of perceiving many realities. This should be sufficient testimony for you of the fact that the intellect can barely perceive many sensory objects that are in plain sight, let alone intelligibles that are hidden. Spend a great deal of time looking into a mirror if you want to witness your intellect’s incapacity. How fine an aid it is for the intellect to see its own incapacity and its deceit in making long-standing claims about its ability to perceive the realities of divine matters!

I do not deny that the intellect has the disposition to perceive many great, recondite matters. I am just unimpressed when it steps outside of its scope in its claims and seeks to go further than it can.

Chapter 44: The Forms in Mirrors Are Relations

In a mirror, an imprinted form appears that corresponds to the form outside of it. At first glance, the intellect makes a distinction between the existence of the form outside of the mirror and the one inside it, with the first preceding the second. It is inconceivable for anyone to doubt this. The actual existence of the form inside the mirror goes back to a relation, which comes about in a specific way, between the form outside the mirror and the mirror itself. When the eye sees the relation that obtains between the two, it perceives the form inside the mirror as nonexistent in relation to the existent reality of the external image. But the intellect never doubts that the form inside the mirror is not independent and existent in its essence—it does not have an existence of its own. Rather, it is an existent in relation to four things: (1) the mirror, (2) the external form, and (3) the relation that obtains between them when (4) seen by the eye. That is, when this relation terminates, the existence of the form inside the mirror also terminates. Intelligent people know that this form does not have an existence of its own. If we conceive of the existence of the mirror, or of water, or of anything corresponding to them that produces images of forms, and conceive of them as unchanging, not a single one of us would fail to perceive that the existence of the forms inside the mirror derives from a form outside it, and this is because no other body, such as clay, plaster, and the like, shares the special attribute that belongs to mirrors and water. But when the form outside the mirror changes, the relationships between it and the mirror also change—and that is when the form inside the mirror changes in accordance with the change of the form outside it, in one and the same manner. An intelligent person would not even bother to doubt that the form inside the mirror comes from the existence of the form outside it, and that the existence of the latter precedes the former in terms of hierarchy, not in terms of time.

Chapter 45: A Note on the Limits of the Intellect

The intelligent person should truthfully ponder this: If the mirror were not existent and if someone were told about how he could see forms imprinted in it, would he believe in the existence of such a thing or not? I do not think that a single fair-minded person who looks at this clearly would doubt that he would not believe in the existence of such a thing. He might even set out to prove its impossibility by way of demonstration, and it would indeed be impossible for there to be flaws in his proof. Now, consider this, and do not be so quick to reject what your weak intellect cannot grasp: the intellect was created to perceive some existents just as the eye was created to perceive some existents; but the eye is incapable of perceiving objects of smell, hearing, and taste. Likewise, the intellect is incapable of perceiving many existents. To be sure, what it perceives are limited and restricted in relation to the many existents it cannot perceive. Moreover, in relation to God’s beginningless knowledge, all existents are like specks in relation to His Throne. But these specks in relation to the Throne are things in some sense, whereas all existents in relation to God’s knowledge are nothing at all! I only mention this out of fear that your weak intellect would hastily say, “The intelligibles are infinite, so how can you say they are restricted and yet infinite?” For the One in whose eyes each existent is restricted—and indeed is nothing!—such a proposition is not of great consequence. The beginningless divine attributes, such as power, desire, knowledge, and the generosity that flows onto the forms of existents, are the only things in God’s eyes that are impossible to be restricted. This generosity is a concomitant of the divine essence, and since the essence is perfect and above perfection, there is no doubt that the generosity which requires that nonexistents be dressed in the robe of existence is a concomitant of the divine essence, just as, for example, necessity is a concomitant of the essence. The divine essence would be deficient were it bereft of this generosity. It is like the sun: When it illuminates the horizon, its illumination is an aspect of its perfection. The sun would be deficient if this attribute did not exist in it and something was needed in order to perfect its luminosity. But to God “belongs the loftiest description in the heavens and the earth, and He is the mighty, the wise.”

Chapter 46: Mirrors and the State of Dreaming

The people of intelligence take lessons from mirrors from many different perspectives, and it is nearly impossible to enumerate them. One lesson is that, when they look into mirrors, they witness the reality of God’s words, “All things perish, except His face,” and the Prophet’s statement, “People are asleep; when they die, they awaken.” They know that the relationship between the existence of the earthly and spiritual realms to the face of the Living and the Self-Abiding is like the relationship between forms inside mirrors to forms outside of them. For there is no reality to the existence of the earthly and spiritual realms—their existence comes from the existence of the face of the Real, the one to whom existence truly belongs. Some, or rather most people, think that the existents they behold in this world have true existence. But when the relation between their eyes and these sensible existents is negated, the veil will be lifted from their eyes and the delusion disclosed. They will then awaken from their state of sleep and come to know with certainty that “All things perish, except His face” (unless of a course there is another existent that has always abided through God’s subsisting face and is thereby also endless thanks to the existence of the Self-Abiding and His everlastingness!). At that time, from the very depths of the Throne, people will be summoned with His words, “Whose is the sovereignty this day? It is God’s, the One, the Paramount.” They will witness this in a way that leaves no room for doubt. Those who study these statements and do not understand the realities of their meanings should hesitate before rejecting them. For indeed, beyond these statements lie wondrous mysteries that speech cannot expound, nor can their reality be expressed through explanation.

Adapted from “The Essence of Reality: A Defense of Philosophical Sufism,” Library of Arabic Literature, NYU Press 2022 (original translation by Mohammed Rustom, introductory essay adapted for publication)

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