Fana’: Sufism’s Notion of Self-Annihilation, or How Rumi Can Explain Why Nirvana is Samsara in Mahayana Buddhism
Sufism is the mystical side of Islam. And for those who know something about Sufism, it is perhaps no small surprise that it cohabitated well with various aspects of Hinduism and Buddhism in Indic lands, even having a hand, along with Hinduism, in the birth of Sikhism. This post will work to show why there are some commonalities between certain notions in Sufism, Buddhism, Vedantic Hinduism. And then try to say something about what this could have to say to us today in the so-called ‘west.’
But what might Buddhist notions of enlightenment, particularly in the Mahayana form in which “nirvana is samsara,” similar to what in Deleuze’s philosophy might be called ‘identification with the virtual,’ have to do with Sufism?
The notion of fana’, commonly translated from Arabic as annihilation or obliteration, provides a potential point of contact between Sufi practices and Buddhist notions of nirvana, a word which, in Sanskrit, derives from the type of extinction one sees when one snuffs out the flame of a candle. Are there similarities between these notions, ones which might be constructed without radically oversimplifying the issues at hand?
On the surface, ‘annihilation’ and ‘extinction’ might seem similar. But what a Buddhist extinguishes is craving, while what a Sufi annihilates is themselves before God. And yet, as will become clear, there are crucial parallels that can help us see the ways in which what these traditions have to teach us today have crucial resonances within and through their very real differences.
How does one achieve fana’? One remembers, and this remembering, or dhikr, often also translated from Arabic as recitation, can take many forms. Essentially, one puts oneself into sync with some original pronouncement made by God, for the universe is the speech of God, God speaks the world into being (according to the Qu’ran, by the word “Be!”), and when we remember one of God’s actions, we do so by having our action in some way coming into sync with God’s, by repeating this aspect of his recitation. And since God is beyond time and space, while we are not, God’s action is always before, during, and after ours, our actions are never initiatory, but merely remembrances of God, the one who brought about all that is, even that which is in the future. All potentials are in God, as we were, and will be.
Beyond Judeo-Christian Notions of the Divine
It is worth noting, how different the notion of God implicit in the Islamic context is from that presupposed in a Judeo-Christian context. For in many ways, this notion so God is much more similar to that of the Buddha described in my preceding post on Tibetan Buddhist Tsong Kapa, than seen in the west.
Firstly, the Prophet Muhammed is quite different than Jesus in contemporary Christianity, no matter which form. Islam is quite clear, in all its manifestations, that Muhammed is a human being, and is not a divine incarnation like Jesus is believed to be by most Christians. And while God may have aspects like that of the God of the Jewish scriptures, redescribed by Christians as that of ‘God the Father,’ these are merely manifestations of this God. What makes Islam distinct is that there God is much more a force or principle, a divine power to be. A father-like God wouldn’t be head of the Godhead, but rather, more something like what Christians tend to call ‘the Holy Spirit.’
And Jesus is just a prophet, which is to say, a man, as is the Prophet Muhammed. In fact, Henry Corbin, a prominent expositor of Islamic beliefs, argues that it is the very notion of the incarnation that leads Christianity to kill the visionary power of theophany which he sees as so essential Islam, its foundation in interpretation of the world via gnosis. Without getting into this in greater detail, it’s worth saying that in Islam, no human can be God, and in fact, the very notion is problematic. All humans are God in a sense, but no human can ‘be’ God, and limit God in this way.
What’s more, rather than have priests or Jesus or saints intercede for you, there is a direct relation to God, leading some colonial powers to describe Islam as a “religion without priests.” It is you before the supreme force of the universe, of which we are all but pale shadows.
Then again, in Shi’a Islam, there are Imams, but these are guides and teachers, and while they may become something like the western notion of a saint after they die, these are more manifestations of God’s attributes, like Bodhissatvas emanating from the Buddha, than distinct beings that can help get us things like the saints of Catholicism. For while some may pray to these ‘friends of God’ for specific things, the purpose of prayer in Islam is not generally of the form of a request.
Dhikr: Coming into Sync with God
But if prayer in Islam isn’t a form of request, what exactly is it? As opposed to a request, prayer is seen as a mode of dhikr, it is the repetition of one of God’s acts that places one into sync with some aspect of God. And this is why, for many Sufis, music, dance, and poetry are forms of dhikr. For the world is like a melody or dance or poetry which God creates inside of himself. In many accounts, God has all the pre-existent potentials or forms for what comes to be residing with him for all eternity, and it is God’s vibration of these by his breath in recitation that brings the world from potential into existence. When we vibrate ‘in sync’ with God, we are simply more God-like.
And when this happens, there is less of ‘us’ there, and more of God. When this happens particularly well, we are obliterated, annihilated, in a state of fana’. That is, God works through us, and as many Sufis would say, in this state, my hearing is that of God, not my own, my sight is that of God, not my own, etc. Of course, some traditionalists in Islam have called this heresy. And many famous Sufis were persecuted and even executed for statements like these, the most famous of which was Hallaj, about whom I’ll say more in a moment.
Bur first a little more on fana’ itself. Fan’a, according to Chiddick, takes on some distinctly Buddhist overtones:
“This entrance into “non-existence” is a return to the original human situation, when we dwelt at peace with God before creation. This is the state that is sometimes called the “annihilation” of the ego’s limitations and the “subsistence” of the true self…One must throw oneself into annihilation, which in fact is the fullness of Being. As Rumi reminds us, “We and our existences are all nonexistences, / but You are absolute Existence, appearing as annihilation”… Dhikr is an alchemy that transmutes perception and awareness into utter joy.” (Chiddick, Sufism, 109, 129, 132).
One aspect of this experience which is distinct to Sufism, however, and quite distinct from Buddhism, is the emphasis upon the ecstasy, intoxication, and erotic love in the evocation of this state. According to Chiddick:
“After long struggle on the path of discipline and self-purificaton, the seekers may be opened up to the effusions of divine love, mercy, and knowledge…This is the stage of true intoxication, but it is not the final stage of the path…They had reached the still-further stage, “sobriety after drunkenness,” which is the treutn to the world after the journey to God. In traveling to God, the seekers undergo total transformation, but now they come back with helping hands. They began as stones, they were shattered by the brilliance of the divine light, and now they have been resurrected as precious jewels…The two higher stages…that is, “intoxication” and “sobriety after intoxication” – correlate with the famous expressions fana’ and baqa,’ or annihilation and “subsistence”…The annihilation of obstacles and impediments…they now see what subsists after the annihilation of idols and false selfhood…The terms annihilation and subsistence are derived from the Koranic passage, “Everything upon the earth is undergoing annihilation, but there subsistes the face of your Lord, Possessor of Majesty and Generous Giving” (55:26-7)…When travelers reach the perfection of their own capacity, created in God’s image, they experience nothing but the negation of egocentric, separative reality and the affirmation of God-centered, unitive reality… annihilation is the negation of something that never truly was…” (Chiddick, Sufism, 43-4).
Fana’: Annihilation, or Nirvana Before God?
In regard to what I’ve been discussing in recent posts, the potential resonances with Buddhism here are profound. None of which is to say that there were actually influences between these two distinct devotional traditions, though it is possible that this was the case in one form or another, particularly because Shi’ite Islam and Shi’ite forms of Sufism developed in a Persian context, one which had much more interchange with the world further East in which Buddhism developed than the more Sunni oriented western ends of Islam. But putting aside any claim to historical influence, it’s worth examining the resonances, whatever their cause, in greater detail.
And this notion of fana’ in fact has quite a lot in common with the Mahayana notion that nirvana is samsara. For in fact, it seems that after the experience of fana’, one doesn’t leave the world, but integrates fana’ into the world of baqa’, or subsistence, becoming the vessel of God, yet living one’s life, but without craving the idols it presents to one that can separate one from God. And in the process, our relation to the world changes, it becomes a relation of of seeing all as what Nagarjuna calls shunyata, translated from Sanskrit usually as ‘nothingness’ or ’emptiness,’ a relation with the aspects of the world which is beyond reification, for everything is simply an aspect of God, which is what Deleuze would call the open-whole, which is to say, the virtual, a principle of infinite creativity.
But perhaps Chiddick has invested a Buddhist twinge to his reading of these classical texts? Not likely, for according to Seyyed Hossain Nasr, Chiddick’s Ph.D. supervisor, “the annihilation of annihilation (fana’ al-fana’), which is also called subsistence (al-baqa’) in God” (Garden of Truth, p. 135). But perhaps it is best to let famed Persian Sufi poet, and founder of a Sufi order, speak to this from the thirteenth century.
Meditating on one of the primary statements of faith in Islam, the Shaddah, which states, “There is no God but God, and Muhammed is his Prophet,” a statement which often serves as a point of departure for meditation on the negation and affirmation of aspects of the world which describes God’s relation to them, Rumi says the following in one of his poems in regard to God’s love of the world:
“Love is the flame which, when it blazes up, burns away all except the everlasting Beloved,
It slays “other than God” with the sword of no god. Look carefully: After no god, what remains? There remains but God, the rest has gone.
Hail, O Love, great burner of all others! It is He alone who is first and last, all else grows up from the eye that sees double.” (Rumi, cited in Chiddick, Sufism, 84).
All of which is to say, all that seems distinct from the open-whole of God, the ‘no god,’ is the ‘but God,’ the relation to context, everything is both itself and beyond, a notion which Deleuze describes as the disjunctive synthesis of the virtual with itself in the process of differ(c)iation into actualization. Returning to Islamic notions, God others in relation to himself, he dances the universe into being, or, to use the notions of Sufi philosopher of Ibn Arabi, God literally dreams the world into existence. When we see with dual eyes, we see the various things of the world as both distinct from God, and as aspects of God.
And this brings us back to Hallaj, the Sufi who was executed for heresy. Here his famous statements are described in prose by Rumi:
“When Hallaj’s love for God reached its utmost limit, he became his own enemy and he naughted himself. He said, “I am the Real,” that is, “I have been annihilated; the Real remains, nothing else.” This is extreme humility and the utmost limit of servanthood. It means, “He alone is.” To make a false claim and to be proud is to say, “You are God and I am the servant.” In this way you are affirming your own existence, and duality is the necessary result. If you say, “He is the Real,” that too is duality, for there cannot be a “He” without an “I.” Hence the Real said, “I am the Real.” Other than He, nothing else existed. Hallaj had been annihilated, so those were the words of the Real.” (Rumi, ctd. in Chiddick, Sufism, 21).
This notion of naughting oneself, to identify with the Real to the point of channeling it, is to lose one’s ego, this is certain, and to act in a state the Taoists call wu-wei, which while often translated as “inaction,” is perhaps best thought of as, as many commentators have argued, as ‘no unnecessary action.’ One is in sync with God, and so one acts as an appendage of God, or rather, God acts through you. You are yourself, you still think, act, know, but doubled to oneself and hence without self, self-and-non-self.
But why describe this unity, as Rumi just did, in terms of duality, as he did previously, in terms of “dual eyes”? Here is another famed Islamic philosopher, al-Ghazali, describing what is meant by these “dual eyes”:
“The gnostics [Sufis]…see by direct eye-witnessing that there is none in existence save God and that Everything is perishing but His face … each thing… is perfishing from eternity without beginning to eternity without end … when the essence of anything other than He is considered in respect of its own essence, it is sheer nonexistence. But when it is considered in terms 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 toward its Giver of Existence. Hence the only existent is the Face of God. So each thing has two faces, a face towards itself, and a face towards its Lord. Considered in terms of the face of itself, it is nonexistent, but considered in terms of the face of God, it exists. Hence there is no existent but God and His face. (al-Ghazali, ctd. in Chiddick, Sufism, 57-8).
This is a strange duality indeed. For if everything in the world is dual, it is split between itself, and that which unifies everything as its aspects, which is to say, the non-dual. This is a non-duality which has duality as one of its aspects. To put this in other terms, the Real has its dreams as its aspects. And we, and all that exists, are simply the dreams of this most Real, the only Real, which is God.
Unveiling the Veil: Metaphysics of Non-duality in a Sufi Context
Or veils. The notions of ‘veil’ and ‘face’ are used frequently in Sufi imagery to discuss these issues, and the paradoxes proliferate. According to to Sufi commentator Mustamli,
“The self is the veil of the Real…The sum of all that has been said about the veil is that everything that busies the servant with other than the Real is a veil, and everything that takes the servant to the Real is not a veil” (Mustamli, ctd, in Chiddick, Sufism, 183-4)
And so the self, and all its cravings, all the things its believes are distinct like itself and its cravings, keep us from God, which is to say, the Real. Here is another Sufi theorist, Niffari,
“Your veil is yourself, and it is the veil of veils. If you come out from it, you will come out from the veils, and if you remain veiled by it, the veils will veil you.” (Niffari, ctd. in Chiddick, Sufism, 189)
But Niffari has a complex metaphysics here, and the parallels to Buddhism are striking:
“The forms seen by the eyes and perceived by rational faculties… are all veils, behind which the Real is seen… Hence the Real remains forever absent behind the forms that are manifest in existence… The entities of the forms that are manifest in Being – which is identical with the Real – are the properties of the possible entities in respect of the states, variations, changes, and alterations that they have in their fixity… But the Real does not change from what He is in Himself… The veils remain forever hung down. They are the entities of these forms… All this – praise belongs to God! – is in actual fact imagination, since it is never fixed in a single state. ” (Niffari, in Chiddick, 191-2).
God is the only thing which remains fixed, which, like the Lacanian Real, returns always to its place, that which repeats its difference eternally as what Ibn Arabi would call “recurrent creation,” for in fact, God recreates the cosmos at every instance with his breaths. He is the storehouse of potentials, and the goad to development, the lure to creativity, the God as described in Whitehead’s cosmogeny. And when we see this, when we come to dream in sync with him, our veils are lifted. According to Niffari:
“God has made you identical with his curtain over you… When someone achieves obliteration [fana’], his reliance on the occasions [the events of the world] is obliterated, not the occasions themselves… The occasions are veils that were established by God that wil never be lifted. The greatest of these veils is your own entity. “Your own entity is the occasion of the existence of your knowledge of God, since such knowledge cannot exist except in your entity. It is impossible for you to be lifted, since God desires for you to know Him. Hence He “obliterates” you from yourself, and then you do not halt with the existence of your own entity and the manifestations of its properties … There is no veil and there is no curtain. Nothing hides Him but His manifestation… Nothing is nonmanifest. The lack of knowledge has made it non-manifest… In other words, what you seek in the nonmanifest domain is manifest… He said to me: Once you have seen Me, unveiling and the veil will be equal” (Niffari, in Chiddick, 192, 194, 198, 199)
If unveiling and veil are equal, which is to say, if nirvana is samsara, then what is needed is simply to “see” Him. Which is to say, what al-Ghazali calls this second sight, which is to say, to see everything as an illusion because it fades. What is the only thing that doesn’t fade? The Real, that which is more existent than any particular thing. But what exactly is this Real like?
Sufism’s Complex Cultural Context, and Thoughts on Where to Start Reading
I’ll say more about this complex nature of God in a Sufi context in my next post. But to bring this post to a close, I’d like to first say something about how the notions articulated above are necessarily partial in relation to the terrain of Sufism as a cultural entity as a whole.
Saying something about Sufism is a difficult enterprise, and yet, it is more difficult to ignore the complex of practices, beliefs, institutions, theories, and more that together offer a wealth of insights that contemporary philosophy is silly to ignore. But as with my recent posts about Indic thought, or Buddhism, Islam in its various modalities, and Sufism in particular, are difficult to write about in the way that one would, say, write about Bergson. Bergson was a single human, wrote a limited set of texts, and while complex, we have the texts and can study them. But a notion like Sufism, Buddhism, Vedanta, these are cultural formations that include texts, practices, people, theories, and these vary over time, place, and culture, in ways that have a ‘family resemblance’ to each other, but not necessarily a unifying essence, such as is generally the case when an individual, ie: Bergson, creates a set of theories on the world.
Such difficulties come up whenever one tries to speak about a cultural movement comprised of many individuals only acting somewhat in concert. For example, writing about Surrealism. But trying to write about Sufism, as an outsider, is infinitely more difficult. I possess none of the complex of assumptions and contexts which I might have growing up within this culture, all of which I might bring to a Sufi text in order that it might speak to me. And these contexts might make my entire mode of relating to texts, or to notions of time and space, radically different.
For an example of such a situation, Robert Thurman tells the story of the difficulty he had with a university press when he tried to explain that the text upon which his work was based was written by a person who was a reincarnation of another. And hence, the dates that pertained to the text, and the name of the author, were not those recognized by western, non-Buddhist academics, but should be those recognized by Buddhists, who see the author of the text, and the dates appropriate to its composition, as pertaining to the original person recincarnated, not the vessel into which they were reincarnated later. Thurman’s point is that in a lifeworld in which reincarnation is a recognized fact of life, it is simply wrong to date and name things otherwise, and his university press should acknowledge this plurality of ways of relating to the world.
While this example is drawn from Buddhist scholarship, it applies to the study of any type of worldview, and with devotional worldviews, those which may have different criteria of what counts as real for almost anything, well, the pitfalls are many.
When trying to learn about Sufism, there are many types of texts available, and the issues surrounding the attempt to learn about Sufism are similar to those encountered when trying to learn about any devotional tradition. Some of the texts on Sufism are devotional, which is to say, oriented to those who either are Sufis, or want to become Sufis. Others are devotional, but written by other Muslims who see Sufism as a threat. Often these are split between Islamic modernists, who often see Sufism as a threat, full of medieval mystical beliefs which can keep the Islamic world from joining the modern world, with its clear divisions between faith and reason. There are also fundamentalists who view Sufism as a set of deviations, based on teachings that stray from the original writings and sayings of the Prophet, as codified in the Qu’ran and the hadith (the sayings of the Prophet). Of course, this all depends on what one considers an authoritatize reading of this large corpus, and like all fundamentalisms, often depends upon a highly selective literalism. Then there are those who want to detach Sufism from Islam, who see it as having more in common with the mystical tradition of other devotional traditions than with Islam, often pointing to the ways in which Sufism and Hinduism found ways to overlap in Indian tradition. Many of these writers wish to extract Sufi mysticism from Islam, and use it to develop new mystical discourses and practices.
But then there is scholarly literature, and that varies widely as well. There is some written in a scholarly vein by believers, and this has a different tone than those written by interested non-believers. And of these, some emphasize the external aspects, such as the history of Sufism, how its beliefs changed over time and place, how it developed into institutions and ‘lodges,’ texts and shrines, government support or condemnation or even persecution, etc. Others concentrate on the structure of belief, and yet others still focus on texts alone.
Lately I’ve found several sources helpful. The work of Carl Ernst, such as Sufism: An Introduction to the Mystical Tradition of Islam (2011), is great at describing the external manifestations of the tradition, while that of William Chiddick, such as Sufism: A Beginner’s Guide (2007), concentrates more on the internal belief systems themselves. Then there’s the complex legacy of Henry Corbin, unavoidable for anyone in the west trying to study Sufism today, about whom I’ll write another post shortly. While his works are always worth reading, it’s important to realize that he’s a philosopher who articulated his own views through various Sufi ideas, and while he was greatly in sympathy with aspects of Sufism, his views are unique in their own right, and often inflect his articulations of Sufi notions. Either way, Corbin was essential bringing Sufi and Shi’ite notions to attention to the West during the period of the 50’s-70’s.
I also really enjoy the works of Seyyed Hossain Nasr, such as The Garden of Truth: The Vision and Promise of Sufism, Islam’s Mystical Tradition (2007). His works are wonderful introductions from within the tradition. Garden of Truth is written by a believer, and it shows, the work is touching, personal, and clearly written in a “devotional” context. I found it difficult to sync up with this type of text at first, because of its devotional tone, until I’d read the more detached, scholarly materials.
Now, however, I find it really refreshing, intense, and wonderful. And it truly gives you a sense of how this tradition feels from the inside, in a way that is full of very different insights than the Chiddick, Ernst, or Corbin. These writers aren’t as much interested in the soul of the reader, but more with presenting information and ideas. Nasr believes that Sufism is one of the great gifts to the world by God. Nasr taught at Tehran University with Corbin before the Iranian Revolution, and while there he supervised Chiddick’s Ph.D. dissertation. Chiddick is currently at StonyBrook, and Nasr at George Washington, Corbin passed away in 1978.
Nasr is not only a prominent writer on Sufism and Islam in general, but is a representative of the school of the “perennial philosophy,” which argues that all the major religions not only have a mystical side that share related philosophies, but that there are many paths to God, all with more in common than otherwise, as reflected in fuzzy set of philosophical and devotional traditions from around the world. I’ll say more about what is often called “perennialism” or “traditionalism” (perhaps a misleading name for this approach) in future posts, but it often associated with names like Rene Guenon, Aldous Huxley, Corbin, Fritjof Schuon, and Ananda Coomaraswamy. In many ways, this school is a rigorous, scholarly and devotional approach to world devotional systems and philosophy that is the serious counterpart of New Age fluffiness, even if it couldn’t be more different in its seriousness and rigor.
Either way, reading Nasr is such a joy, because it’s great to see someone quote the great texts of Sufism, and in the next breath, quote Shakespeare, or obscure references from other faiths as well, like the writers of the Kaballah, Christian mystics, etc., and take them all seriously, and with deep reverence and erudition to what they have to say. Here’s a man who truly believes there are many paths to God, and they are all God’s gifts to the world, so long as they don’t lead to hatred, disparagement of the paths of others who are sincere and try not to hurt others, etc. Basically, an approach to God that’s about love and learning, rather than controlling others.
Reading through these works, I’m amazed at the sheer difficulty of trying to say anything about Sufism that’s not simply overgeneralization, despite the fact that I think contemporary philosophy needs to speak about Sufism and what it has to teach us today. But is Sufism the shrines and saints, the genealogies and rituals, the lodges and Sufi orders, the political and social history, or is it a set of texts, practices, beliefs? Music, poetry, dance, philosophy?
And as Ernst shows, is even the notion of Sufism as distinct within Islam perhaps a product of colonialism itself? Might the attempt by westerners to know something about Sufism be simply an exercise in the west coming to know its own misreadings of a much more complex set of social phenomenon? This is certainly to some extent true. However, it does seem that the colonial discourse on Sufism impacted the discourses within the Islamic world, and as such, Sufism has become a structure which now exists as such in our post-colonial world, even if it was not necessarily a distinct object within the Islamic world before this, but rather, a diverse set of practices that may only have this much in common with the shifts in Islam during and after the colonial period. All of this shows how difficult it is to even speak about Sufism in a way that doesn’t radically oversimplify.
And yet, learning the difficulty of speaking about something shouldn’t stop one from saying anything. Rather, it should be a prelude, or postscript, but there is a danger in not saying anything. For the fear of speaking radically limits the extent to which Sufism can speak to us today. And this tradition, which is so much about listening to the world for what it has to say, and then to try to articulate what it is saying to you, is perhaps best understood as a call, a call from the world, for us to hear it and be spoken by it.
And so it is with humility that I attempt to have anything to say here, and yet, I must speak. Sufism speaks through those that hear its call. And so, if I get it wrong, and I must get it wrong, I can only hope the melody is musical in a way which resonantes with some aspect of the spirit of what it is trying to say through an imperfect instrument like myself.
And so, this post is necessarily an extreme simplification, and the notions I want to extract from a few thinkers, texts, practices, and traditions, are an attempt to simply find some way in which the Sufi tradition can blast us out of the simplicity of our view of it, and of the sense that it is somehow beyond the purview of what philosophy today, in the west or elsewhere, should consider as having something vital to say.