While I was unpacking a box of books I came across an interesting set of seven treatises written by various philosophers. One treatise that caught my eye was a commentary on a sentence in the introduction of a treatise written by Jalāl al-Dīn Muḥammad al-Dāwānī called Risālah al-zūrāʾ, which discusses origination and return (al-mabdaʾ wa al-maʿād). What is interesting about this commentary, which is also written by al-Dawānī himself, is that it elucidates a particular phrase that he begins Risālah al-zūrāʾ with when he says in praise of the Prophet (saw): “And blessings from Him on His station, which encompasses all of His Attributes (wa al-ṣalawāt minhu ʿalā martabatihi al-jāmiʿah li-jamīʿ ṣifātihī).” This irregular statement caused questions amongst some of his contemporaries and so the treatise is in response to those criticisms in which al-Dawānī clarifies what he meant by it. It seems that the critic was as Ṣūfī Shaykh by the name of Mullā Quṭb al-Dīn ʿAbd Allāh b. Muḥyīal-Dīn b. Maḥmūd Anṣarī according to an entry on al-Dāwānī in Qāḍī Nūr Allāh’s Majālis al-muʾminīn. He is famous for a collection of about 500 mystical letters which have been published under the title Makātīb ʿAbd Allāh Quṭb ibn Muḥyī. According to some biographers Quṭb al-Dīn was Dawānī’s teacher, although others consider this a mistaken attribution due to his absence on al-Dawānī’s own list of teachers in his treatise Anmūdhij al-ʿulūm. The confusion arises due to the mention of a Quṭb al-Dīn on that list, but it seems that this teacher may have been Quṭb al-Dīn Muḥammad Kūshkārī. Thus al-Dawanī and Quṭb al-Dīn were probably contemporaries.
In another commentary al-Dawānī wrote on the same treatise he explains the circumstances around its authorship. He had intended to make the visitation of the shrine of Imām ʿAlī in Najaf and in Baghdād he saw the Imām (as) in a dream. The Imām (as) spoke to him with special grace and attention. When he awoke from this dream he began to write Risālah al-zūrāʾ. But he was unsure of the topic he should write about. He remembered the famous ḥadīth of the Prophet (saw) which said: “I am the city of knowledge and ʿAlī is its gate”, and so he decided the treatise would be about knowledge. After he completed is visitation to Najaf and Karbalāʾ he began teaching Suhrawardī’s Ḥikmat- al-ishrāq to a worthy student and while explaining the text he began discussing issues of unveiling (kashf) and mystical taste (dhawq) upon which his student asked him to author a treatise in which he discussed those issues. He wrote the treatise for his student and comments that he was certain that the origin of the success he was offered was because of that visitation and this is why he named it Zūrāʾ(a place in the east of Baghdād) as that was the name of the place in which he had the dream. This story illustrates the importance of religious experience for some authors in their writing process. While al-Dawānī’s experience was subjective an unverifiable, his treatise remains for others to read and critique.
There were three problems Quṭb al-Dīn had with al-Dāwānī’s statement.
- The first was that to make things the degrees of God would mean that God has degrees and therefore is divisible and that is an attribute of creation. God is unlimited and simple. It is only once He is limited that He can be differentiated, and once He is limited He can be divided into parts or grades. This is clearly a problem as scriptural sources reject any understanding of God that enables division.
- The second critique was that if the reality of the Prophet was a level of God then blessings would not be from God to him (saw) but rather from Him to Himself.
- The final criticism was that no created being encompasses all of God’s attributes as there are some, like essential necessity, that belong only to God.
Al-Dāwānī begins his response by stating that the type of reality he is about to elucidate is not really captured in words, rather it is beyond the imagination or intellect. It is not appropriate therefore to worry about those who misunderstand or reject such expressions, or even to be happy about their acceptance, such that effort should be depleted in insisting on their truth. Caveats such as these are usual in mystical texts and can prove frustrating for non-mystics genuinely attempting to understand the purport of statements made by mystics. Elusive language loses meaning for those outside of the mystical tradition, yet mystics seem particularly aloof when asked for a clear explanation. But, this seems to be a presupposed aspect of mystical writing. It is elusive because language is primarily used to navigate the corporeal world. It is because of a correspondence between the material and the immaterial that a level of elucidation is possible in the first place. However, it is clear that language is not broad enough to clearly interpret the metaphysical. After this introductory point, al-Dawānī attempts to explain the meaning of his expression.
He builds his answer on a number of principles. The first principle is that all existent beings indicate towards the existence of a Creator to whom can be attributed the attributes of perfection. Created beings therefore are manifestations of their Creator. Al-Dawānī equates this to the acts of praise and glorification that all created beings perform, which is a reality expressed in the Qurʾān (see 17:44). The second principle is that every particle in the created realm manifest some of the Divine Attributes. In truth everything manifests all of the Divine Attributes but for most beings there are some Attributes that are more manifest than others. The specificity of which Names are more manifest is also due to the realm that those created beings are in, as each realm dictates the manifestation of certain Names over others. Humans manifest all of the Names of God, without some being so manifest that they hide others entirely, as their soul encompasses all of the realms of existence. The soul has aspects related to the corporeal, imaginal and intellectual realms. This is what differentiates the human from other beings. The difference between humans is how balanced the Names are.
The reality of praise is the manifestation of the Attributes, praise is manifest in each existent being as they are the words of God which indicate His Beauty. The perfect human is the most beautiful word and the highest level of Divine praise, such that praise doesn’t manifest in a more perfect way. It is God’s own praise of Himself. The perfect human indicates towards the Divine Attributes in a way that no other creation does and this is why the Prophet (saw) has the flag of praise as well as names that are all derived from the root of praise like Aḥmad. So in the expression, “And blessings from Him on His station, which encompasses all of His Names (wa al-ṣalawāt minhu ʿalā martabatihi al-jāmiʿah li-jamīʿ ṣifātihī) the Prophet (saw) is the complete praise as he indicates all of the Names. The meaning of the phrase would be: “And blessings from Him upon a station from among the stations of His praise which encompasses all of His Attributes.” This answer sufficiently deals with the first two critiques of Quṭb al-Dīn, but what about the third? Does the statement “…which encompasses all of the Attributes” include those Attributes that are exclusive to God like Necessity?
Al-Dawānī wraps up his treatise by explaining that the Names may manifest in different loci but they will manifest according to the capacity of their specific locus of manifestation. When they manifest essentially, they are all necessary and without limit. But when they manifest in a contingent being, they manifest accordingly. So while the prophetic station does manifest all of the Attributes, it does not do so in a necessary way as that is only possible for God.
May Allah send His greatest blessings on the greatest of His creations
Shaykh Zoheir Ali Esmail has a Bsc in Accounting and Finance from the LSE in London, and an MA in Islamic Studies from Middlesex University. He studied Arabic at Damascus University and holds a PhD from the University of Exeter in the philosophical and mystical readings of Mulla Sadra in the context of the schools of Tehran and Qum.