Islamic mysticism; Sufism and Irfan Self-realisation to achieve perfection

Islamic mysticism; Sufism and Irfan Self-realisation to achieve perfection

- in Lectures

191c6604-f67d-4081-9b8f-c9c410813235Open Discussions /Gulf Cultural Club 


Islamic mysticism; Sufism and Irfan 

Self-realisation to achieve perfection 


*Sheikh Saeed Bahmanpour: Irfan as a way to self-knowledge 

**Mahmoud Mustafa: The two schools of Rumi and Ibn Arabi 

***Dr Ali Paya: A Critical Assessment of the Epistemological Status of Irfan (Mysticism)  


They may have worshipped in their own ways in the mountains of the Levant or the caves of Arabia and Persia in the middle ages, but Sufis and Irfanis are still present in force in the 21st century world. Their dervishes, tariqas, dhikr circles, sama or khanqah dominate the world of mysticism. It is a world of spiritual focus that attempts to circumvent excessive materialism and aspires to achieve the purity of soul, the cleansing of the inner and the subjugation of evil desires. Within the realm of Islamic mysticism rose great sufi mystics like Rumi and Ibn Arabi whose names surface in modern literature especially in the West. What is it that makes spiritualism capable of attracting the diversities of  the modern world? What is it within the religious orders that provides modern mysticism with the religious, artistic and media credentials?  

13th February, 2017 

Chairman: Today we have three really great speakers to talk on this topic of self realisation  to achieve perfection. Before  I introduce the speakers I just want to open the debate and put it on the floor. In his book on ethics, politics and spirituality Iman Khomeini talks about social participation as a requisite for contact with the self. He continues: “Just as some people would imagine that contact with the self involves self denial and uprooting of instincts some of us have supposed that combat with the self means withdrawing from society, seclusion and confinement to a corner. This running away from the people in order to attain security is indeed against the teachings of our religion and its values and has gradually assumed an aspect  of value for itself in working as a manifestation of perfection.” Very important comments. 

In this day and age of materialism the free end culture which has taken over morals and music and movies we try to get our spirituality by listening to music and watching movies. The new religion of Los Angeles also promotes spirituality devoid of God, again open for discussion whether one can have spirituality without the God factor. 

As a preamble  I will say the  dervishes, tariqas, dhikr circles, sama or khanqah dominate the world of mysticism. It is a world of spiritual focus that attempts to circumvent excessive materialism and aspires to achieve the purity of the  soul, the cleansing of the inner and the subjugation of evil desires. Within the realm of Islamic mysticism rose great sufi mystics like Rumi and Ibn Arabi whose names surface in modern literature especially in the West. What is it that makes spiritualism capable of attracting the diversities of the modern world? What is it within the religious orders that provides modern mysticism with the religious, artistic and media credentials?  

65c12604-6fed-4328-ab0d-0abd5a565b2eShaykh Mohammad Saeed Bahmanpour: Greetings to all, salam aleikum. My topic is about the way of erfan as a way to self knowledge. There is a slight difference when we want to accurately use  terms like erfan and Sufism. Usually Sufism is something that is developed in the Sunni world although we have some sort of splash  of it in the Shia world. In the Shia world we did not have Sufis or people of insightful knowledge. I better call erfan insightful knowledge different from what we get from our experience. It is not something which is acquired by the mind. It is something which is acquired by a different faculty of human existence which we call the soul or the Quran calls the heart which is the heart of human existence. The soul is the heart of human existence. 

The aim of erfan is to acquire marifa. Marifa is the insightful knowledge which is not gained through human and bodily senses. It should be gained through another faculty in human existence in human beings. 

What is that? The aim of erfan is to know God and the way to know God is to explore inside. We all must have heard that erfan is a journey. It is not a journey outwards. The journey outwards is science and philosophy. We have this journey outwards though experience from the senses, contemplation and rationalised thought. This is philosophy and science. It is a journey outside. 

Erfan is a journey inside because through the journey outside you cannot know God. You can see his signs. You can rationally deduce that there is  a God. Look at the harmony in creation, look at everything that we see in its place. Then we deduce that there is a God. This is the journey outside. 

To know God per se we need a journey inside of ourselves and that is why self knowledge would become very important because it is only through the self and the soul  that you can have that kind of marifa. It is not by looking out that you can gain it. 

Why? Because it is always a problem to know God. God is the creator of time and space. How can you by your sensual faculties find something that is outside time and space? We have one verse in the Quran which is used very much my mystics. “The eyes cannot catch him but he catches the eyes.” 

A few hadiths from Imam Jaffar Al Sadiq say  the imagination cannot catch him. Whatever you imagine about God is your creation. So it is impossible for us to grasp, to comprehend what God is  except through something which is not sensual, which does not come through the eyes or the ears, which does not come through your senses. It does not come through your mind and rational understanding. 

In Islam there is such a huge controversy about whether we  will see God when we are resurrected on the day of judgement or not. There are some sects who say we will see God with our own eyes. Others say it is impossible. How can you see something out of  space and out of time with your eyes? Never ever. Seeing is possible by another faculty that you have. It is not seeing. It is perceiving. Yes we can perceive God but we cannot see him with our eyes. This perception is something which the mystics are after in this world. They want to feel his presence in their hearts.  

You can never see a sound. The eyes are not made to see sounds. You can only hear the sounds. You have never hear a colour because color can only be perceived by the eyes. You cannot see or hear God. You can only perceive him with your heart. And how can you do that? You can go deep inside yourself. You can explore your own self. That is why I say that it is a  journey inside. You go inside yourself and he will be reflected so to speak. 

All the terms which are used are sensual terms because we do not have any other terms. That is why the mystic usually uses mysterious and coded language. When they communicate with each other they know what they mean because they have the same experience inside themselves. That is very attractive for many people who really want to know God. 

Everything in this world is like that. We never get reality.  The reality of things is not known to us. Yes we get the description, we get the qualities, we  get the size the length the harshness the softness. All these things we get. Whatever is perceived by the senses we get it? But the reality of it, as Ibh Sina, said we can never get it.  What is this which is in front of me? I can explain some features of it. The reality of things is only known by that faculty which we call the soul or the heart. 

There is an interesting hadith from Imam Jaffar Al Sadiq which says that this is the beginning of irfani and Sufi thought in the whole of  Islam. He says that the Quran is based on four levels.  It is based on expression, on illusions, on subtle meanings and on real meanings. He also said expression is for the general public for us. We need it, we understand it, we rationally analyze it, we do a critical analysis by a rational method. This is for the ordinary people. 

And there is something beyond that which is not grasped by rational analysis. It is grasped by the saints and those who get very close to God. What  erfan is after is the perception of God and of course perception of the soul. 

I have a couple of sayings which allude to what I have mentioned here. For example in the Quran we have: “Allah witnessed that there is no God but him.” It is not  that Allah sits there on his throne and says the shahada. It is knowledge which could be perceived in the world. The angels perceive it and those who are given knowledge. There is a category of people mentioned in the Quran who are given this insightful knowledge, a knowledge which is not perceived by the senses. 

All the Shia imams were reciting this. What they ask it is very important.  Give me a total severance from everything towards you that I am only attached to you. By having the grace of looking at you our hearts become enlightened. They talk about the eyes of the heart, not the eyes of the head. Until the eyes the heart perceive though the veil of light and reach to the source and experience that.  Our soul becomes suspended to the dignity of your holiness. 

There is another very famous expression by Imam Ali. These expressions were there right from the beginning of Islam. “The saints, the friends of God (someone who has totally submitted to him and is in a sense managing everything by trust in him) look into the hidden side of his love.  This is not possible through the sensual faculties. 

I will finish with one statement from the Prophet. This type of perception was common to all the Prophets. To make this faculty work is difficult. It means investing time, energy and study and then contemplation and reflection.  There are no words to talk about these things. Mystics know what they are talking about. They know what is the meaning of  enlightenment, the meaning of the light of God shining through the heart. It is not physical at all. But they understand what it means. 

40eba362-7dce-4712-834b-a85bdca156dbMahmoud Mostafa: I will share some things about tasauf and I will talk about the journey of the heart. I will mention some things from Rumi and Ibn Arabi. I would like to begin by saying that tasauf is a science of the purification of the heart. It has its references. It is rooted in proven practices that come from Imam Ali down the chain of transmission. It is a way for us to get to know ourselves, to understand inner meanings and to purify our hearts and get rid of the entanglements of the false self. 

So this science has certain clear methods that everyone must understand to undertake. The first is  the remembrance of God: zikr Allah.  Remembrance, this practise of the zikr is the way  the heart becomes purified of its distractions. The human being is asleep and we are pre occupied with the matters of this world: our work, our possessions – all of these things make up a cage which enslaves us to spend all our energy on these things. The zikr emancipates us from these bonds and gives us the opportunity to come to know something other than the limitations of our lives and the limitations of the world so it is very important. 

The second thing that is fundamental to tasauf is knowing oneself – who we really are. If you know God you have to know yourself. And the way to do that is to be honest and sincere. Sincerity and honesty are the two things that take us into the presence of God. All of us agree that we have to be honest and sincere. No one would say I do not want that. I want to be something else. To know ourselves, be honest and sincere are the three practices. 

We practice deception ourselves, we pretend, we act out, we try to impress people, we endear ourselves to people from whom we want something or have something that we want. All of these things make us dishonest and insincere. Tasauf gives us the opportunity to stand in truth and to find the courage to be witnesses over ourselves and to chose the tools to combat our suffering. 

The tools are the basic practises of our faith: salat is a key practise  for all of us to realise these things which I just mentioned. Fasting is another really important practise that takes on different meanings when you are on this path. Most people think of these practises as rules to follow for which they gain credit and if they don’t follow them they will lose credit and go to hell. 

Iman Ali describes this as the religion of the slaves or the religion of the merchants: bargaining to get to  heaven. I will make a deal with God and then I will actually be successful in that. 

Tausaf takes us to the religion of the free person who worships God not because they want to be famous but for his sake alone. A Sufi or a seeker on this path pursues these practices for very different reasons. Salat is not the way to avoid punishment but to get closer to the truth, a way to purify the mind, a way to reach inner silence so that true meanings can become manifest and so that we can see things in a very different way  to the way in which we are accustomed to seeing them. 

It is the same thing with fasting. People do not just do it during Ramadan. They do it throughout the year. They do it every week or every other day. There are many, many ways to do it.  Fasting is very important because it helps to quieten our inner chat and get us to the point where if we are really fasting in the true way we reach inner silence and we realise that we are safe from the fears which dominate us. Every person is afraid of dying. Fasting brings us face to face with that. If we do not eat and drink the body gives us a signal that we are going to die. If you keep doing this you will die. That opens something up in us. It cracks open a shell. 

It is the same with all the other pillars of our faith. We can see them from a different point of view for a different purpose and that purpose is reaching inner truth. The schools, the traiqas, are all of one source.  They have variations because everyone has what is called the mashaf, the source of  drink. Not everybody resonates to the same kinds of things.  The Sufi schools are there for the inclinations of different people. 

The school of Mulana Rumi is rooted in love, love is the great transformer.  This is what turns us into human beings. We learn to be more about love. The school of Ibn Arabi is also about love.  It is more about knowledge because it has such esoteric aspects to it.                                                             But Ibn Arabi as far as I know was also drowned in the ocean of love. With regard to his inner journey there is a very famous saying by him: “When I reached the destination I came to know that I was nothing but servant hood without a trace of knowledge of God in me. And this is the description of the state of the human being, the nafs that has really surrendered to its rab. It no longer competes.  

Whether we realise it or not we are constantly competing with God. We want to be God. We think we know how the world should be, how my life should be, how people should treat me. What I deserve what I don’t deserve. This is like a secret competition with our Lord. We do not want to surrender. We think we can do a better job. So we are always complaining, always making demands.  Ibn Arabi described how the ultimate destination is to become nothing but slaves, a servant to the divine and to free our souls of this desire for rabania which is shirk.      

When you see the whirling dervishes this is a practise of the Malawi school. If you go on this path you will learn this practise and this is a form of worship.  It really is a form of deep worship and service. If you understand its meaning then you will see why I say that. The dervish is whirling and understands how the universe is. The entire universe is turning and the axes for the dervish is the heart which  symbolises God.  The entire creation is evolving around God. He is going in that posture. His right hand is turned up   and his left hand is turned down and he is receiving the blessing and constantly bestowing it upon the world. It is a reminder that we are a channel. We are not the ones who determine Baraka we are receivers and we are channels of divine manifestation. 

The constant turning is around the heart and constantly receiving and bestowing. You do not keep anything. Your hand is open and it passes through. There is a lot more to this ritual which we don’t have time to describe. But this is a profound practise of worship. You can’t turn if your mind is somewhere else. You will fall down and you will not be able to do it. You have to be present in order to do it.  

You also have to be aware of the breath because in zikr you have to be aware of your breath and how you breathe and how to carry the name of God on your breath. There are many other practices. Some of them are specific to certain schools and some are common across all the schools.  The purpose of tasauf is to bring us to human completion. I will not say to perfection because perfection can deceive and can feed the false nafs. 

To be completely human is to reach that state that Ibn Arabi talked about, to become a pure servant of God. It does not mean that we do not have faults or that we will not make mistakes but it means that in our hearts we know God and we know who we are. And we  start trying to compete with God and we have to seek forgiveness. That is the story of Adam. The human being when he wakes up seeks forgiveness. That is the purpose of all Sufi and irfani schools to get us to that place where we can return to our rab. 


64d9cef3-1d46-4f0a-8a4c-6f21b45aad4bDr Ali Paya: My short talk is going to be quite different from what you just heard from my two dear colleagues. I am in almost full agreement with most of the previous speakers but  I am going to be critical. This may not go down well with a good number of the audience here and I apologise for that. 


Today we are talking about the importance of the heart. My mysticism, or whatever you call it,  suffers from a defective epistemological model. That model could of course be improved and it is my hope that by the end of this talk I suggest some ways of moving towards developing a more effective epistemological model for mysticism. 


Let me very briefly give you a caricature of the theories of knowledge throughout the centuries. So I am going to take you on a very long journey in time and space from 2500BC until the present time. If you want to categorise different theories of knowledge generally speaking we can say that five different models have been introduced. 


There are thinkers who are saying that we acquire knowledge through the testimony of our senses. Let’s call them empiricists. The rest are suggesting no. Reason alone is not  enough to take us to understanding reality. Plato and Decartes were representative of this trend of thought. John Dodge, Bishop Barclay and Bishop Hume also represented them. The third trend is represented by sceptics. The sceptics are saying that there is no possibility of ever acquiring knowledge. Forget about it. Just lead an ordinary life and do not be ambitious about acquiring knowledge. The fourth group are saying that we are not quite sure whether or not acquiring knowledge is possible. These are agnostics. Agnostics have not yet decided whether acquiring knowledge is humanely possible or not. The fifth school is the school of mysticism. Mystics are saying that first of all acquiring knowledge is possible and secondly it  is not what uneducated philosophers were thinking of. That is not knowledge. That is conjecture if you like. Acquiring knowledge is possible but it does not happen either through the mind or through the senses. It is something which is called either the soul or heart. By means of the truth we will be able to acquire knowledge. 


I am going to dispute this. I am going to say that mystics themselves should reconsider what they are claiming. What is my reason for saying this? Let me highlight three different important defects in the epistemological theory of mystics. All mystics are suggesting that the final stage, the highest station is to acquire certainty. And as long as you have not achieved that your journey has not yet been completed. 


I am going to disappoint my mystic colleagues by explaining to them that in the light of extensive developments in epistemological issues. We now know that certainty is not now an epistemological category. It is a category which belongs to personal psychology. And the reason for that is clear. Knowledge always deals with an internal audience. Knowledge is all about reasons. Certainty can however be used by external causes. Think about brain washing. Think about propaganda. Think about inducement of drugs. You can easily attain the state of certainty by external causes. But this is not knowledge. Knowledge only relies on the power of reason and arguments and only that. 


Secondly mystics, as was suggested earlier, maintain their best tool for acquiring knowledge is neither the senses nor that mind. It is an inner tool which is called intuition. Intuition is that which takes you directly to God’s presence or helps you to directly face reality. But even that is not correct because intuition involves existential experiences and they are completely distinct from epistemological categories.  When we are in the realm of epistemology and theory of knowledge there is always a distance between the subject of knowledge and the object of knowledge and that distance cannot be breached. 


Intuition happens when we are being confronted face to face with reality. Mystics call it a unification between the subject and the object. That unification cannot  be known to the realm of epistemology. In epistemology there is always that distance.  


Now when mystics have these experiences of unity they are relying on themselves. In the stage of unity between the subject and the object there is no object and no subject. There is just one unity which is the process of becoming. Only then that experience which is always short lived at least for ordinary human beings.  


In those moments the prophet  is united with God.  When that experience of unity ends then the subject retains his or her identity and in that situation he or she is in a position to reflect on what happened to him or her. What has happened has gone and cannot be recreated again.  What is gone is gone forever. 


So that experience cannot be relived but that experience can be reconstructed. But there is a huge difference between reconstruction and reliving and experience. Reconstruction  only happens through the concept of our language and our memory. The better our memory the richer our language, the better  the reconstruction we will be able to make out of that experience. 


Now that experience is not reality because  reality is always infinitely many times richer than our best reconstruction of it. Our reconstruction  is always a human reconstruction. And what are we? We are fallible individuals with limited cognitive abilities. Our reconstructions cannot match the richness of reality.  Reality is always infinitely richer than our best reconstructions. Those reconstructions could serve us as raw material for developing new theories about reality. 


A further defect of the  mystical approach.  I am not against mysticism, I actually  am very much in favour of mysticism and there are plenty of good lessons to be learnt from mysticism. The theory of meaning by which mystics are dealing with is not well developed.  Each mystic has his own theory. The end result is that different meanings can be attached to the same words.  


A good example is Ibn Arabi who produces layers upon layers of meaning. He was a genius without doubt. He was able to take you from a very simple thing to the deepest levels of meaning and open up vistas in front of you which you could not have been able to dream of. And yet after being delighted by those beautiful meanings you  may ask what is the reference of all these interesting ideas, especially in the light of the fact that there are different meanings which can be attached to those texts. 

Let me tell you what my suggestion is to remedy those defects. First we must all recognise that we are all fallible individuals and as fallible individuals we must not compete with God. No one, not even the prophets, could claim that they know reality as it is. Only God can say so. 

For us mortals we must be more modest. The most we can claim is that whatever I say about reality is a mere conjecture, a mere hunch. I have constructed that hunch with the sincerest hope of that corresponding to reality but there is no guarantee for that. 

So all knowledge pursuits are done by us creating conjecture and projecting it into reality and asking reality to correct us. This is something which mystics do in their inner talks with God almighty. This is something which is commendable but they must be clear about the fact that their assertion, whether they have been presented to it through the purification of the heart of by their minds or testimony of the senses their perceptions are mere conjectures and that means they can be imperfect, incorrect and false. 

They must understand that the journey to acquiring knowledge is a never ending journey. We accumulate knowledge by means of correcting our past mistakes because we may be mistaken even in our most sincere existential  experiences.  When you have an experience and you come back to yourself the most that you have is your own reconstruction. And the reconstruction could always be imperfect, false. 

We move towards a different understanding of reality, God, by learning through our mistakes and learning from the mistakes of others. But how do we correct our own mistakes? You are all familiar with the notion of the blind spot a concept which has been taken from physics. It is what has been applied to epistemology. Your field of vision makes an angle of about70 – 80 degrees. Outside this angle  I cannot see. On the fringe of the angle I can only see in a very hazy way. At any one time I can only concentrate on one object. 

So what about those things which are outside my field of vision and I cannot see? If I cannot see I cannot know. This means that there is no hope for me to get knowledge about them. Here comes the importance of dialogue. When I enter into a dialogue the other persons’ field of vision enters those things which he can see but which I cannot see. And I can help him with my field of vision. And as we enter into more dialogue with more individuals the greater are our chances of correcting our field of vision. 

Mysticism is a valuable tool. It is not perfected yet but it cannot be moved towards perfection or completion provided mystics start learning from others as well and enter into a dialogue with others including philosophers of knowledge. 



**Shaykh Mohammad Saeed Bahmanpour is the director of inter-faith relations at the Islamic Centre of England. He studied sociology at the  LSE and Tabatabai University of Tehran where he obtained a Master’s degree.  His interest in sociology was not an intrinsic interest but to answer a call from within to know more about religions. In 1999 Shaykh Mohammad Saeed Bahmanpour joined Cambridge University to teach as a visiting lecturer in the Faculty of Oriental Studies. Later he was appointed as the principal of The Islamic College in London which has both seminary and university degrees on its educational programs. His fields of interest are theology, Islamic mysticism, and Qur’anic sciences and exegeses, including its history and compilation. He is also interested in the history of Jesus and Mary from an Islamic perspective and has written a screenplay about the life of Mary based on Islamic sources, which was made into a successful movie. Another of his works on Christian history was the screenplay about The Seven Sleepers of the Cave (Ashab al-Kahf). Shaykh Bahmanpour has authored several books including Muslim Identity in the 21st Century, ed. (2001), The Idols Will Fall (2010), The Blessed Tree: The Life and Times of Fatima Daughter of Muhammad (2011) and Towards Eternal Life (2015). 

***Mahmoud Mostafa has been devoted to the study and practice of Tassawuf isnce 1995. In the course of his development, he received teachings from Sufi shaikhs in the USA, Turkey, Syria, South Africa, and Egypt and follows the Mevlevi path of Jalaluddin Rumi under the guidance of Shaikh Kabir Helminski. In addition to extensive study of the Quran and Hadith, he has also studied the works of Imam Ali, Rumi, Ibn Arabi, and other Sufi masters. He has facilitated Sufi circles, Quran study groups, and participated in inter-faith dialogues. He has been involved in the translation of several books, including The Book of Hadith, The Mevlevi Wird, The Light of Dawn, and Women of Sufism.  

***Dr Ali Paya is a Professor of Philosophy at the Islamic College (UK) and a Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Department of Politics and International Relations, School of Social Sciences, Humanities and Languages, at the University of Westminster (UK). He has authored, co-authored, edited and co-edited many books and academic papers in English and Persian. Dr Paya completed his PhD from the University of London. 




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