Leading PostsMarch April 2005

Clinging to false Hopes

Future Islam

The dismissal of the Muslim nation from world leadership and her subsequent decline since then have made the common Muslim cling to false hopes, at times amounting to Shirk. Today the entire Muslim world is infested with pre-Islamic superstitions regarding amulets, mystical charts and a host of irrational beliefs about the supposed power of these amulets that one often encounters, in some way or the other, in most Muslim homes. These charts, claiming their roots in the Quran have in fact suspended the very function of the Quran, to approach it as a book of guidance. And this has brought us to an age of Jaheliyyah once again, conditioning our minds to think not in terms of reason but clinging to the paradigm of superstitions, and a set of unfounded and irrational belief system.

We feel that the entire school comprising Quranic signs, amulets and charms came up in Islam under the direct impact of Judaism. The notion that the esoteric meaning of the Torah can be accessed if the Hebrew alphabets are arranged in a particular way was fairly widespread. Geometric figures have also hidden powers, provided one knows the art of arranging them. Sephiroth (numerical emanations) is, in fact, a description of God’s multifarious qualities. As God is neither male nor female, it encompasses both the forms. God is the root number where all other numbers are hidden. All the numbers between one and ten were employed in the creation of Adam of innocence, before he experienced fall. The Kabala tells us that the world created before the creation of the heavenly Adam could not survive because it lacked some sort of numerical balance.

According to its Sufi commentators, the Torah is an embodiment of God’s female form that should be understood at four levels of meaning: peshat (literal), remezi (symbolical), derash (allegorical), and sod (mystical). In the Genesis, the description of the creation of the universe is understood by the mystics in such a way as though God has created the world with the help of words. According to this way of thinking, the whole business of creation was conducted with the help of three words: (alif/ air, meem/water, and sheen/fire. In the breathing of human beings and in the veins of the universe, these three letters create their miracles. This view claims that concentration and reflection on these three basic letters establishes the rapport of a human being with his Creator through a spiritual bond. Instead of taking them simply as receptacles of some meaning they should be taken as a tool to merge with the Almighty, to lose one’s identity in His identity. The numerical value attached to each Aramaic letter and its magical power led the Jews to the wrong belief that with the help of the magical powers possessed by these letters they would not only be able to come closer to God, but also after knowing the secrets of their power in different combinations, they would themselves be able to simulate God’s experience.

Like his predecessor, Rabbi Akiva, Ibrahim Abul Afiya says the following about this spiritual experience:

“After deep concentration and profound reflection on the letters, you would feel as though the hair on your head had stood on their ends… there is vibration in your blood .. and your whole body is shaking … your limbs are getting numb and … you would feel as though some external soul has entered your body … that would strengthen you from inside and that would spread through your veins … it is like a scented perfume that would envelop you from head to toe.”
(Abraham Abulfia, Sefer ha-Tzeruf, tr. Aryeh Kaplan, Bibliotheque Nationale ms. No. 774, and Jewish Theological Seminary ms. No. 1887, Quoted in Perle Besserman, The Shambhala Guide to Kabalah and Jewish Mysticism, Massachusetts 1997, p.37)

In the writings of some Jewish mystics, for example, in Sefer Yetzirah, the arrangement of the three basic letters, i.e., alif, meem and sheen was reversed. The devotees were told to read these three letters in the reverse order, and while they do so, they should think about their additional qualities in their imagination, for example sheen/fire with convulsions, meem/water with peace and contentment, and alif/air with the silence of Nothingness.

The view is that the creation of the universe came into effect by ten commands from God, as the phrase, “And God said …” occurs ten times in the Torah. As these commands were manifested in the form of letters, the mystics tended to believe in the magical powers of letters. They thought that the art of proper arrangement of these letters would link them to God; some even thought that this art might equip them to be co-creators with God.
(See, Kaplan, Aryed. Jewish Meditation, New York, 1985, pp. 74-75)

The Cabbalistic process of understanding the numerical value of letters has special importance in the understanding of the Torah. According to it, this magical or exclusive knowledge of the Torah is meant for the select few. The three known processes of this art are as follows: first, Gemaria, where the numerical value of the letters is determined; the second is Notarikon, when the first and the last letter of the word are considered important; the third is Temurah which is, in fact, related to the special meaning of letters when they are arranged in the form of geometrical figures. In Muslim sources also, the art of attaching numerical value to letters operates more or less in the same way. Some people think that jafar is related to Imam Ja’far Sadiq though these personalities had nothing to do with this secret art. If we make a comparative study of the historical evolution of the art of numerical value among Muslims and the practice of this art by the Israelites, it becomes clear that all this trickery and sleight of hand had their origin in the aberrations of the Israelites. Even in the case of later scholars like Shah Waliullah and Ashraf Ali Thanawi, one finds recommendations for the yoga-like spiritual exercises or reading the two Quranic verses in conjunction with each other, which demonstrate the amazing impact of the rabbi literature on them. This reached them through the writings of old mystics.

We would like to remind you the process of zikr that we have described in the chapter on mysticism and urge you to compare the methods of loud and quite mutterings of Allah’s anme ( zikr-e jali and zikr-e khafi) with the method of meditation propagated by the famous Jewish mystic of Spain, Ibrahim Abul Afia, in the thirteenth century. This will underline the great impact of alien methods on the structure of the Sufi method of worship and meditation. According to Abul Afia, the status of the letters of the Torah is that of a black spark that has been etched on the paper against the white background. The whole Torah can be delineated in a special arrangement of seventy two sacred letters that can be found in the four letters of Yod-Heh-Vav-Heh. Abul Afia said that these four letters should be brought into action during meditation in the following way:

Take the name of each letter and breathe deeply; do not take breath between two letters. Rather, take as deep a breath as possible and then pause or relax in the next breath, repeat this with every letter. In other words, take two breaths with each letter – one while pronouncing the letter, and the second one for pause and relaxation; and each breath should comprise both breathing in and breathing out. Do not use your lips while pronouncing the word as you breathe in and breathe out. Rather, you should adopt a method whereby the articulation of the letter should be in harmony with exhaling.
(Quoted in Perle Epstein, Kabbalah: the Way of Jewish Mystic, p. 96)

In Abul Afia and other mystics, the method of meditation is, in fact, based on the hypothesis that there are different centres of energy hidden in the human body that can be activated through four sacred letters of Aramaic. Shah Waliullah and other Muslim mystics exhort the devotee to imagine during meditation that the sky is overcast with white clouds, and sparks of heavenly light are raining down from the sky, soaking his whole body. The Islamic scholars and researchers regarded it just as a kind of psychological training. However, in the Jewish world of the twentieth century, when the writings of secular thinkers such as Martin Buber, Walter Benjamin, Gershom Scholem, Issac Bashevis Singer, Moshe Idel, Franz Kafka have pulled away the veil of magic from the face of Cabbalistic literature, it is no longer difficult for us to understand that the non-Quranic methods of observing the Truth prevalent among Muslims were borrowed from Jewish mystic tradition. According to the Jewish mystic Issac of Akku, if the devotee imagines the basic elements like air, fire and mountain in such a way so as to experience Moses’ vision of the Truth, he can reach such heights in his meditation when his eyes would see the sky and the earth in such a way that their combined entity would seem to him to be a huge void. Now he should imagine a circle in this void, and then go on etching letters from the Torah in it. While doing so, he should feel as though those letters were vividly illuminated against the background of white paper. The devotee would feel that slowly a mist was gradually covering the dazzling letters, making it difficult to distinguish one thing from another. This is the stage of Nothingness where nothing exists besides God. The Jewish scholars and mystics had very close contact with Islamic cultures in the Abbasid Baghdad and Muslim Spain. In the light of this, it is not unreasonable to assume that the Zohari mysticism had its impact on Muslim thinking in this sphere.

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