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Sufi cosmology

Sufism : Sufi cosmology

Although there is no consent with regard to Sufi cosmology, one can disentangle various threads that led to the crystallization of more or less coherent mythic cosmological doctrines. The first is based on purely Quranic notions of the Afterworld (Ahiret), the Hidden (Ghayb- sometimes associated with “hidden” or “invisible” dimensions of human existence, but, more frequently with the state of God before creation or Unmanifest Absolute. Another term for the latter is “Amma”, ie. Divine Darkness) and seven-storeyed Universe explicitly referenced in the Qur’an (and cherished in prophet Mohammad’s “Miraj” or ascent to the God’s face -- the powerful spiritual motif that inspired generations of later Sufis and ordinary believers). However, these relatively simple Quranic concepts that gave basic structure to Islamic worldview had soon become exposed to Neoplatonist and Gnostic influences, as well as Zoroastrian religious imagery. As a consequence, Sufism developed a welter of frequently contradictory cosmological doctrines. Nevertheless, one can point out to a few basic features:

One of the most influential early Sufis, Mansur Al-Hallaj (martyred in 922. C.E. for the supposed adherence to the heterodox doctrine of “hulul” or incarnationism, according to which Divine nature can take possession or overwhelm human nature) exposed the psychospiritual doctrine of “two natures”. Technical terms were “Lahut” for the Divinity, and “Nasut” for humanity). Ironically, it seems that Al-Hallaj only affirmed the separateness between God and Man: his two natures are polar principles that cannot be mixed or fused. From these rather simple metaphors, Sufis later developed an intricate Kabbalah-like cosmology.
Suhrawardi Maqtul (martyr), the highly imaginative Iranian philosopher from 12th century C.E. completed this variant of cosmology. Although nominally not a Sufi (Suhrawardi Maqtul is the founder of Ishraqi or Illuminationist school of Islamic philosophy), his expansion and revision of rudimentary concepts early Sufis had bequeathed to their esoteric posterity played the crucial role in forming the dominant Sufi mythic cosmological Weltanschauung. In his visionary cosmography old Hermetic Ptolemaic cosmos of seven onion-like spheres has dissolved and a vast spiritual universe was revealed to the later generations of Sufis. Abstract concepts of “Lahut” and “Nasut”, designating fuzzy metaphors for divinity and humanity, have grown into full-fledged worlds, or dimensions of existence, quite similar to quasi-emanationist “worlds” of Neoplatonism and Kabbalah. Shihab al-Din Suhrawardi Maqtul imagined two more worlds between physical (Alam-I-Nasut) and Divine (Alam-I-Lahut): imaginal or subtle world, corresponding to Western medieval “mundus imaginalis”- Alam-I-Malakut (literally, “world of Angels”) and world of power, Alam-I-Jabarut, resembling Platonic Nous or “world of archetypal ideas”, the source of other worlds two rungs “down” in the emanationist ladder. So, fourfold emanationist universe was conceived in this spectacular cosmography- to stay with the Sufism for later generations. The fifth “world” was equated with unknowable God’s essence and named Alam-I-Hahut (the world of “He-ness”: etymologically, Arabic root word for God with attributes or Manifest Absolute is Al-Lah or “the Divinity” (hence Lahut) and Hu (“He”) for Unmanifest Absolute, naked essence of Godhead nothing can be said about (similar to Christian polarity of Deus revelatus and Deus absconditus, or Hindu notions of Saguna and Nirguna Brahman).
Yet other schools of Sufi thought came under Neoplatonist influence and operated with concepts like Aql-I-Awwal (Primary Intellect) and Nafs-I-Kulli (Universal Soul), which strictly correspond to the emanationist scheme of Plotinus and his followers.
This, as well as other, more orthodox variants of Quranic Sufism, also adopted Hermetic scheme of Ptolemaic spherical cosmos with planetary spheres serving as worlds of the created universe. The fixed stars (originating in ancient Sumero-Mesophotamian tradition) were a sort of limit of Hermetic cosmos: beyond lay the Quranic “Arsh” or God’s throne. Such a picture was integrated into Sufi mythic cosmography and is very similar to the image of the universe one can find in Dante’s “Divine Comedy”.

Sufi cosmology

The Sufi cosmology is not a uniform and coherent doctrine. But, reading various authoritative texts, one can see that practitioners of Sufism were not much bothered with inconsistencies and contradictions that have arisen due to juxtaposition and superposition of at least three different cosmographies: Ishraqi visionary universe as expounded by Suhrawardi Maqtul, Neoplatonic view of cosmos cherished by Islamic philosophers like Ibn Sina/Avicenna (and later assimilated into majestic metaphysical edifice of Ibn al-Arabi) and Hermetic-Ptolemaic spherical geocentric world. All these doctrines (and each one of them claiming to be impeccably orthodox) were freely mixed and juxtaposed, frequently with confusing results- a situation one encounters in other esoteric doctrines, from Hebrew Kabbalah and Christian Gnosticism to Vajrayana Buddhism and Trika Shaivism.