Muhammad as the Pole of Existence



Muhammad as the Pole of Existence
By Professor CARL W. ERNST

Carl W. Ernst is a specialist in Islamic studies, with a focus on West and South Asia. His published research, based on the study of Arabic, Persian, and Urdu, has been mainly devoted to the study of Islam and Sufism. His most recent book, Following Muhammad: Rethinking Islam in the Contemporary World (UNC Press, 2003), has received several international awards, including the 2004 Bashrahil Prize for Outstanding Cultural Achievement [pictured left].




- I'd like to thank Professor Carl W. Ernst for graciously responding to my email request and granting me permission to publish his outstanding Sufi and Islamic related articles. Professor Ernsts' extraordinary articles are A MUST READ for anyone interested in Sufi and Islamic related studies, and the relationship between Vedantic and Yoga practitioners of Hinduism and Muslim Sufi mystics in Medieval India. To read from a rich selection of his must read articles, please see my previous post: Professor Carl W. Ernst's Selected Sufi Related Articles -

Muhammad as the Pole of Existence
By CARL W. ERNST

The peculiar concerns of modern society tend to furnish the lenses through which figures like Muhammad are viewed today. That is, modern biographies of the Prophet tend to see him chiefly as a leader responsible for establishing a movement, the significance of which is to be gauged mainly in terms of its social and political impact. His prophetic role is often understood primarily in terms of the establishment of ritual and legal norms that in principle governed the habits of an emerging Islamic civilization. The modern European concept of multiple religions carries with it assumptions about a contest between major religions for establishing a dominant position in the world today. Thus a prophet who is viewed as the founder of one of the world's major religions is inevitably seen in retrospect, mostly as a key player in this historic struggle. This observation holds both for non-Muslim Euro-Americans alarmed about the very existence of Islam, and for Muslim triumphalists who take refuge in Islam as an anti-colonial identity. Modern reformist Muslims tend to downplay suggestions that the Prophet could have had any extraordinary status beyond ordinary human beings, and the Protestant inclinations that characterize much of the contemporary climate of opinion on religion (for Christians and non-Christians alike) reinforce the notion that Islam is a faith that lacks the supernatural baggage to be found, for instance, in Catholic Christianity. The legacy of anti-Islamic polemics among Christians since medieval times has also helped focus attention (mostly negative) on Muḥammad as a political and military leader.From such a socio-political perspective, it therefore might seem surprising that Muḥammad has also been seen for centuries in a quite different light, as the prophet whose spiritual and cosmic role is the most important aspect of his career.


Far from being viewed as a mere postman who delivered a message that happened to be of divine origin, Muḥammad, for a considerable portion of premodern Muslims, was the primordial light through which God created world, viewed in semi-philosophical terms as the “Muḥammadan reality.” The ascension of Muḥammad into the heavens and the divine presence, possibly alluded to in a couple of passages in the Qur’ān, became a major theme defining his spiritual supremacy as “the seal of the prophets.” Muḥammad was described as a human being of perfect beauty, immune from sin, whose life was marked by miracles testifying to his extraordinary status. He became the focus of a speculative prophetology, which, particularly in the hands of mystical thinkers of the Ṣūfī tradition, drew upon the metaphysical concepts of philosophers like Ibn Sīnā to formulate a cosmic understanding of Muḥammad's role in relation to the emerging notion of sainthood (walāya). Concomitantly, the Prophet became increasingly invested with the power of intercession for the souls of the faithful on Judgment Day, a concept that would have wide repercussions on popular religious practice. This salvific power of Muḥammad became tangible in the form of devotional performances of literary texts in different languages, as well as the dreams and visions through which both elite mystics and ordinary believers could have direct access to the spirit of the Prophet. For these mystical understandings of the Prophet Muḥammad, we are particularly indebted to the research of Annemarie Schimmel, whose work is the standard reference on this subject.

Muhammad as Light

Since the literature on the Prophet's mystical qualities is vast, it will be convenient to begin with a short text that illustrates a number of important themes occurring in later Muslim piety. This is one of the short essays in rhyming Arabic prose composed by the early Ṣūfī and martyr, al-Ḥallāj (d. 922), entitled Ṭā-Sīn of the Lamp. Without dwelling on the esoteric letter symbolism alluded to in the first words of the title, one can quickly recognize the powerful imagery of light that occurs throughout this passage, presenting Muḥammad as the vessel through which the light of God is communicated to humanity. Moreover, Ḥallāj makes it clear that Muḥammad not only is foremost among humanity's elite, the prophets, but also has a transcendental status beyond the confines of space and time. While Ḥallāj securely anchors the career of Muḥammad to the Sanctuary of Mecca and the historical context of his companions such as Abū Bakr, he nevertheless identifies the actions of the Prophet as transparent reflections of the will of God and even as an indication of his unity with God: A lamp appeared from the light of the hidden realm; it returned, and surpassed the other lamps, and prevailed. A moon manifested itself among the other moons, a star whose constellation is in the heaven of secrets. God called Muḥammad "illiterate" (Q 7:157) to concentrate his inspiration, "man of the Sanctuary" to increase of his fortune, and "Meccan" to reinforce his nearness to Him. God “opened his breast” (Q 6:125), raised his rank, enforced his command, and revealed his full moon. His full moon arose from the cloud of Yamāma, his sun dawned in the environs of Tahama, and his lamp radiated a mine of generosity. He only taught from his own insight, and he only commanded his example by the beauty of his life. He was present before God and made God present, he saw and informed, he cautioned and warned.

No one has seen him in reality except his companion, (Abū Bakr) the Confirmer. For he was in agreement with him, and then he was his companion, so that no division would occur between them. No one really knew him, for all were ignorant of his true description. "Those to whom We gave the Book know Muḥammad as they know their own sons, but there is a division among them, who conceal the truth although they know it" (Q 2:146). The lights of prophecy emerged from his light, and his lights appeared from the light of the Hidden. None of their lights is brighter, more splendid, or takes greater precedence in eternity, than the light of the Master of the Sanctuary. His aspiration preceded all other aspirations, his existence preceded nothingness, and his name preceded the Pen, because he existed before all peoples. There is not in the horizons, beyond the horizons, or below the horizons, anyone more elegant, more noble, more knowing, more just, more fearsome, or more compassionate, than the subject of this tale. He is the leader of created beings, the one “whose name is glorious (Aḥmad)" (Q 61:6). His nature is unique, his command is most certain, his essence is most excellent, his attribute is most illustrious, and his aspiration is most distinctive. How wonderful! How splendid, clear and pure, how magnificent and famous, how illuminated, capable, and patient he is! His fame was unceasing, before all created beings existed, and his renown was unceasing before there was any "before" and after any "after," when no substance or colors existed. His substance is pure, his word is prophetic, his knowledge is lofty, his expression is Arabic, his direction of prayer is "neither of the East nor the West" (Q 24:35), his descent is paternal, his peer (Gabriel) is lordly, and his companion (Abū Bakr) is of his people.

Eyes have insight by his guidance, and inner minds and hearts attain their knowledge through him. God made him speak, the proof confirmed him, and God dispatched him. He is the proof and he is the proven. He is the one who polished the rust from the mirror of the suffering breast. He is the one who brought an eternal Word, timeless, unspoken, and uncreated, which is united with God without separation, and which passes beyond the understanding. He is the one who told of the ends, and the end of the end. He lifted the clouds and pointed to
“the house of the Sanctuary” (Q 5:97). He is the perfect one, he is the magnanimous one, he is the one who ordered the idols to be smashed, he is the one who tore away the clouds, he is the one sent to all humanity, and he is the one who distinguishes between favor and prohibition. Above him, a cloud flashed lightning, and beneath him, lightning flashed and sparkled. It rained and brought forth fruit. All sciences are but a drop from his ocean, all wisdom but a spoonful from his sea, and all times are but an hour from his duration. Truth exists through him, and through him reality exists; sincerity exists through him, and companionship exists through him. Chaos exists through him, and order exists through him (cf. Q 21:30). He is "the first" in attaining union and "the last" in prophecy, "the outward" in knowledge "and the inward" in reality (Q 57:3). No learned man has attained to his knowledge, and no sage is aware of his understanding. God did not give him up to His creation, for he is He, as I am He, and “He is He.” Never has anyone departed from the M of Muḥammad, and no one has entered the Ḥ. (As for) his Ḥ, the second M, the D, and the M at the beginning: the D is his permanence (dawām), the M is his rank (maḥall), the Ḥ is his spiritual state (ḥāl), and the second M is his speech (maqāl). (God) revealed his proclamation, He displayed his proof, “He caused the Criterion (the Qur’ān) to descend” (Q 3:4), He made his tongue speak, He illuminated his paradises, He reduced his opponents to impotence, He confirmed his explanation, He raised his dignity. If you fled from his field, then where would be the path when there is no guide, you suffering one? For the wisdom of the sages, next to his wisdom, is “shifting sand” (Q 73:14).

The density of the qur’ānic allusions that Ḥallāj summons to evoke his mystical portrait points to what was already in his time a tradition of deep interiorization of scripture combined with speculation about the text's relationship with the messenger who delivered it. The theme of Muḥammad as light seems to be anticipated in the Qur’ān, where the Prophet is called "a shining lamp" (sirāj munīr, 33:46), a phrase to which Ḥallāj clearly refers by the title of his treatise. Several other qur’ānic texts dealing with light have also been frequently understood as symbols for the Prophet Muḥammad, particularly the famous "light verse" (24:35), where the eighth-century interpreter Muqātil understood the “lamp” (miṣbāḥ) mentioned there to be once again a symbol for the Prophet as the vessel of the divine light. Likewise, sura 93, "The Morning Light" (al-ḍuḥā), was convincingly interpreted as an address to the Prophet. The stage had been set for the interpretation of Muḥammad as the light of the world by Ḥallāj's teacher and predecessor, Sahl al-Tustarī (d. 896), who explicitly states that Adam was created from the light of Muḥammad: When God willed to create Muḥammad, he displayed from his own light a light that he spread through the entire kingdom. And when it came before (God's) Majesty it prostrated itself, and God created from its prostration a column of dense light like a vessel of glass, the inside being visible from the outside and the outside being visible from the inside. In this column of light Muḥammad worshiped before the Lord of the Worlds a thousand thousand years with the primordial faith, being in the revealed presence of the invisible within the invisible realm a thousand thousand years before the beginning of creation. And God created Adam from the light of Muḥammad, and then Muḥammad from the clay of Adam; and the clay is created from the column in which Muḥammad worshiped.

The key to this striking image of the light of Muḥammad is clearly his emanation from the divine light and his priority over Adam as the beginning of the sequence of prophecy. As Schimmel has observed, the subsequent elaboration of the symbolism of the light of Muḥammad owes a great deal to the Andalusian Ṣūfī master Ibn ʿArabī (d.638/1240) and his interpreter ʿAbd al-Karīm al-Jīlī (d. ca. 810/1408), and there are numerous reflections of this doctrine in poetry composed in Arabic, Persian, and other languages.4 On a more abstract level, this light symbolism merges into the notion of the "Muḥammadan reality" (al-ḥaqīqa al-Muḥammadiyya), which in turn is interpreted in terms of the "perfect human being" (al-insān al-kāmil), combining both a cosmic and a revelatory function that is inherited by the prophets and, eventually, the Ṣūfī saints. In dramatic terms, most striking aspect of the spiritual itinerary of the Prophet is undoubtedly his ascension (miʿrāj) into the heavens, and that voyage is commonly merged into the account of his night journey (isrāʿ) from Mecca to Jerusalem, which becomes the point of departure for the heavenly journey. Muslim interpreters have typically seen two Qur’ānic texts (17:1-2, 53:1-18) as the locations for these events. A large narrative tradition has emerged on this topic, beginning with stories found in the standard Ḥadīth collections, but expanding beyond that to encompass a broad range of texts in various languages, which may be fruitfully compared with the heavenly journeys found in other religious traditions of the Near East. Some of these texts are accompanied by extraordinary miniature paintings depicting the story’s celestial landscapes and encounters with angels and prophets.


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Muhammad as the Pole of Existence
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