Innate Perception and the spiritual journey in philosophy of illumination

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Mush has been written on the spiritual journey of man and the Sufi encounter with the path of love and knowledge. Suhrawardi follows the traditional views of the spiritual path and man’s quest for gnosis (marifah). What is different in Suhrawardi’s approach is the symbolism he employs to allude to the centrality of various components of the Sufi path in particular asceticism.

In his A Day A mong Sufis Suhrawardi’s describes the conversation of a Sufi master and novice in a Sufi house (khaniqah). Following a series of questions and answers between master and disciple that offers a concise and profound understanding of the medieval cosmology, the master indicates that he regards all such conversation as vain. Using astronomy as an example, the master indicates three different modes of knowing , two of which are not reverent to one’s spiritual path.

A. “Asceticism “ and “Separation” as the condition of inner eyes
Those who reflect upon the heavens, the master says, are of three types: a group of them see the cosmos through the external eyes and see a dark sheet with several white does on it. These are the commoners and this much the animals see too. Another group see the cosmos through the eyes of the cosmos and these are astronomers ….but there are those who do not see the secret of the heavens and starts through intellection [ reasoning] (istidlat) these are seekers.

The salik asks the master how “the eye” “opens with which one can see reality. In one the most unique examples of Sufi symbolism and an exquisite literary style, Suhrawardi offers a prescription for asceticism. Because the significance of this passage further establishes the role and place of asceticism in the overall school of ishraq, we present the translation of the entire section.

I asked the Shaykh, “I do said, “You have indigestion. Fast for forty days then drink laxative so you may vomit and your eyes may open.” I asked, “What is the prescription for that laxative?” He said “The ingredients of that are attained by you.” I said “What are the ingredients? He said, “Whatever is dear to you from wealth, property, possessions and the pleasures of the body and such things are ingredients of this laxative. For forty days eat pure but little food ….If you must use the bathroom soon, then the medicine has been effective, your sight will be illuminated, and if the need arises, for another forty days fast and use the same laxative so it may work this time too. If it does not work, apply it time and time again, it will work…

I asked the Shaykh, “Once the inner eye is opened, what does the seer see? The Shaykh, said, “Once the inner eye is opened, the external eyes and lips should be shut and the five external senses should be silenced. The inner senses should begin to function so that if the patient grasps, he may do so through the inner hand and if he sees, he with the inner eye and if he hears, he hears with the inner ear and if he smells, he with the sense … [then] he sees what he sees and when he sees.

B. Inner Purity as the condition of Innate Perception
In this most interesting analogy, Suhrawardi clearly shows the integral relationship between the spiritual yearning, the role of the master and his supervision to cure the disease of the soul and place of asceticism. in this. In the above narrative the seeker’s inability to open his inner eye is analogized as indigestion. In the forty days of fasting, known among the Sufis as chillah, an attempt is made to contain the desires of the ego (nafs). This attempt is regarded by most Sufis to be the cure of spiritual illnesses and so is analogized as a laxative, that which flushes out impurities. To allude to the worldly attachments which prevent openning of the intellect, Suhrawardi uses the image of indigestion.

Perhaps the most important part of the passage id the allusion to the existence of a relationship between the external and internal senses. For Suhrawardi the attainment of knowledge begins by sense perception and as the process of inner purity continues, one begins to understand through the inner senses. Suhrawardi identifies the external senses with the “ Women’s quarter” and the limitations of the senses perception as bondages of the children’s world. He who free himself and penetrates the Women’s quarter”, Suhrawardi tells us, may arrive at the “man’s quarter,” a condition that is necessary for the understanding of the incorporeal world ( alam- i tajarrud).

B. “self –guarding” as the Transition from childhood
In his work, On the State of Childhood, Suhrawardi continues this theme and equates his past- when he attained knowledge only through sense perception- with childhood. Alluding to the necessity of initiation, a child meets who teaches him the esoteric sciences. However, the child reveals the secrets to the uninitiated, thereby casting the pearl of esoteric sciences before the swine unpreparedness which results in the loss of what he had learning. Self-guarding remains an essential part of the spiritual path, necessary to the transition from the childhood and the acquisition of knowledge through the senses.

Again in the treatise, Suhrawardi calls for the abandonment of all attachments and he considers worldly desires to be a veil and a hindrance to the awakening of the inner senses. Acknowledging the difficulty of detaching oneself from wealth, position, etc, Suhrawardi states:

I asked the Shaykh if there is anyone who can give up all that he has Shaykh answered, “A true human is who can”. “I asked “if he has nothing how does he live?” Shaykh replied “He who thinks like does not give up anything, but he who give up everything does not think like this.”

Knowing the truth therefore requires the functioning of the inner senses which does not happen unless one detaches himself from his worldly possessions. To explain the nature of knowledge that is attained by the inner senses, Suhrawardi gives the example of the inability of a child to understand the pleasure that is derives from sexual intercourse.

C. Spiritual maturity as the condition of attainment for inner senses
Just as physical maturity is needed for sexual intercourse, spiritual maturity is required for the attainment of
knowledge through the inner senses. On the Sufi path, spiritual maturity comes through initiation, ascetic practices and observance of the moral codes if Islam. The pleasures of experiencing the incorporeal world through the inner senses (alam al-dhawq) are so great that the inner self of the Sufi yearns to burst open. It is inner joy which is the basis of Sufi music, dancing (sama ). Poetry and art.

To explain Sufi dancing through the inner senses, Suhrawardi says: The soul took away that ability from the ears, it [ the soul] says, you [ears] are not worthy to hear this music. The soul deprives the ear from hearing and hears itself since in the others world, hearing is not a function of the ear.

It is man’s inner yearning for the transcendent that makes him wish to dance like a bird who wants to fly while taking its cage with it. The sufi, too, in his attempt for spiritual flight, carries his body with him.

In the later part of On the State of Childhood, Suhrawardi goes through various Sufi practices such as shaking of the sleeves, throwing away of the Sufi garment, fainting during sama and drinking water following the sama, In each case, Suhrawardi offers his interpretation by means of neo- Platonic scheme.


suhrawardi and illumination school


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