These are transcripts of lessons on “Reality of Revelation and Religious Experience” delivered by Shaykh Haider Hobbollah once a week in 2021.
Lesson 6 – May 18th, 2021
In the last lesson we briefly spoke about wilāyah, how it is different from Prophethood, and the concept of the Muhammadan Reality. In this lesson, we will describe the mystics’ view on revelation itself.
Revelation in the View of Mystics
Mystics believe revelation is a kind of religious experience but of greater value and significance. The experience of the Prophet (p) in terms of revelation is not an empirical experience, nor even intellectual, rather its apprehension is beyond the intellect.
Ibn al-‘Arabī in his al-Futūḥāt divides knowledge into three: ‘Ilm al-‘Aql (knowledge of the intellect), ‘Ilm al-Aḥwāl (knowledge of the states), and ‘Ilm al-Asrār (knowledge of mysteries). He says:
علوم الأسرار و هو العلم الذي فوق طور العقل و هو علم نفث روح القدس في الروع يختص به النبي و الولي
Knowledge of mysteries is knowledge beyond the intellect, and it is the knowledge which the Rūḥ al-Quds breathes into the heart and is specific for the Prophet or a saint.1
When he speaks about the faculties of the Prophets (p), he speaks of the following faculty:
و هي قوة يوجدها اللّٰه في بعض عباده من رسول و نبى و ولي تعطي خلاف ما أعطته قوة العقل حتى إن بعض العقلاء أنكر ذلك و الشرع أثبته و نحن نعلم أن في نشأة الآخرة قوى لا تكون في نشأة الدنيا و لا يحكم بها عقل هنا و لا تنال إلا بالذوق عند من أوجدها اللّٰه فيه و تحصل لبعض الناس هنا
It is a faculty which Allah creates in some of His servants, from the messengers, prophets and saints, which grants them that which is against what the faculty of the intellect grants them. Some intellectuals reject these matters while the Shar‘ affirms it, and we know that in another realm there is a faculty which does not exist in the worldly realm and the intellect cannot make a judgment regarding it here and it cannot be acquired except through spiritual experience by those in whom Allah creates it, and some humans attain it here.2
It is for the aforementioned passage and others like it that some believed Ibn al-‘Arabī denied the law of non-contradiction and considered it to be a principle only applicable in our realm. Revelation thus is a type of mystical vision or a spiritual unveiling – a kashf – but it is of the highest degree. The mystics believe when angels descend on the Prophets, especially Prophet Muhammad (p), they do so with the permission of the Prophet (p) and this happens in the realm of similitude and matter.
Consider this text of Imam Khūmaynī from his ta‘līqāt on the commentary of Fuṣūṣ al-Ḥikam:
اعلم انّ الميزان فى مشاهدة الصّور الغيبيّة هو انسلاخ النّفس عن الطّبيعة و الرّجوع الى عالمها الغيبى فيشاهد اوّلا مثالها المقيّد و بعده المثال المطلق الى الحضرة الأعيان بالتّفصيل الّذى يشير اليه المصنّف و الأنسلاح قد يكون فى النّوم عند استراحة النّفس عن التّدبيرات البدنيّة فبقدر صفاء النّفس يتّصل بالعوالم الغيبيّة فيشاهد الحقائق الغيبيّة فعند ذلك يتمثّل تلك الحقيقة فى مثالها حسب عادات النّفس و مأنوساتها فيحتاج الى التّعبير فكذلك ما وقع عند اليقظه لأهل السّلوك من المشاهدات الّا انّ الكمّل مثل الأنبياء عليهم السّلام يمثّلون الحقائق فى مثالهم حسب اختيارهم و من المثال ينزلونها الى الملك لخلاص المسجونين فى عالم الطّبيعة فتنزّل الملائكة فى عالمهم المثالى و الملكى حسب قوّة روحانيّتهم و كمالها فروحانيّة النّبىّ هى المنزلة للملائكة الرّوحانيّة فى المثال و فى الملك
Know that the criterion for witnessing the unseen forms is the detachment of the soul from nature and returning to its unseen realm. There it will first witness its limited similitude and then its absolute similitude until it reaches the presence of the (immutable) entities with the details that the author has pointed towards.
Detachment at times happens during sleep while the soul takes a break from managing the affairs of the body, and depending on the purity of the soul it connects with the unseen real and witnesses the unseen realities. Those realities are then represented to the soul in accordance with its own habits and affinities and require expression to be conveyed. Likewise, at times [detachment] happens while awake for the wayfarers during their mystical witnessing, however, the perfect ones such as the Prophets (p), are able to witness these realities in similitudes according to their own choice. They then send this similitude to the corporeal realm to free the imprisoned ones in the material realm.
So the angels descend upon them (p) in their realm of similitude and matter, in accordance with the spiritual strength [of people] and their degree of existential perfection. The spiritual station of the Prophet (p) is the place of descent for the spiritual angels in the realm of similitude and in the corporeal realm.3
Elsewhere he writes:
ليس علم الأنبياء بالأحكام من قبيل الإجتهاد فانّهم عليهم السّلام يستكشفون الحقائق من الأطّلاع على ما فى علم الحقّ او اللّوح المحفوظ حسب مراتبهم
The knowledge of the Prophets with respects to law is not ijtihād, because they (a) uncover realities by accessing the Knowledge of the al-Ḥaqq or the Preserved Tablet (al-Lawḥ al-Maḥfūẓ), in accordance with their status.4
Since the Muhammadan Reality is the first emanation and the Prophet Muhammad (p) is at the highest degree of its existence, all later Prophets (p) also attain their knowledge through his (p) grace. Ibn al-‘Arabī writes:
فكل نبي من لدن آدم إِلى آخر نبي ما منهم أحد يأخذ إِلا من مشكاة خاتم النبيين، و إِن تأخر وجود طينته، فإِنه بحقيقته موجود و هو قوله صلى اللَّه عليه و سلم: «كنت نبياً و آدم بين الماء و الطين». و غيره من الأنبياء ما كان نبياً إِلا حين بُعِثَ
Every single prophet from Adam to the final Prophet takes only from the niche of the Seal of the Prophets (khātam al-nabiyyīn), even though his (p) physical existence comes last—indeed, by his own reality he is (abidingly) existent—as his words relate: “I was a prophet when Adam was between water and clay.”5
This is why the rest of the Prophets are considered the vicegerents of Prophet Muhammad (p).
In essence, the Prophet (p) has two existences: a divine – lāhūtī – existence and a human – nāsūtī – existence. Imam Khūmaynī also affirms this in Miṣbāḥ al-Hidāyah and other works. Though we do not want to get into comparative studies and will leave it for the audience to research, but this is also what many Christians believe regarding Jesus.
From all of this we understand that for the mystics, revelation is the descent of the immutable and fixed entities (al-a‘yān al-thābitah) from the Muhammadan Reality to the material realm. Or yet in other words, the relation between the Ruḥ al-Quds of the Prophet (p) and the Nafs of the Prophet is revelation, and the angels assist in this relationship – with the permission of the Prophet (p) himself – by descending on the Nafs of the Prophet (p) in this world.
This may sound very strange to us, but the mystics believe the angels descend on the Prophet with the permission of the Prophet himself, unlike what most Muslims understand. For the mystics, the general understanding of the Muslims is the understanding of the exotericists (ahl al-ẓāhir) which is that angels descend on the Prophet with the permission of Allah (swt). The entire mechanism of revelation differs in the worldview of the mystics.
This is why when Ibn al-‘Arabī interprets the verse which refers to the Quran as a dhikr – a remembrance – he says this is exactly what it is for the Prophet (p). The Quran is a reminder for the Prophet (p) with respect to what he (p) has already witnessed as the Perfect Man at the highest degree of the Muhammadan Reality. He says in al-Futūḥāt:
إن هو إلا ذكر لما شاهده حين جذبناه و غيبناه عنه و أحضرناه بنا عندنا فكنا سمعه و بصره ثم رددناه إليكم لتهتدوا به في ظلمات الجهل و الكون فكنا لسانه الذي يخاطبكم به ثم أنزلنا عليه مذكرا يذكره بما شاهده فهو ذكر له لذلك و قرآن أي جمع أشياء كان شاهدها عندنا مبين ظاهر له لعلمه بأصل ما شاهده و عاينه في ذلك التقريب الأنزه الأقدس
It (the Quran) is merely a reminder of that which he (p) already witnessed when We pulled him and hid him from himself and brought him (p) in Our presence, so we were his hearing and sight. Then we returned him towards you so that you may be guided through him from the darkness of ignorance and being. So we were his tongue by which he (p) would address you, then we revealed upon him a reminder to remind him (p) of what he witnesses, and for that, it was a reminder for him (p). The Quran, is the gathering of things which he (p) had witnesses with Us, clear and apparent for him due to his (p) knowledge of the fact of what he (p) witnessed and observed during that proximity with the Most Surpassing, Most Holy.6
Quran in the View of Mystics
Quran is an existential reality as it is the Knowledge of Allah that descends through the different degrees of existence until it reaches the level of meanings and words. Imam Khumaynī says in his commentary on Du‘ā al-Saḥar:
فإن للقرآن منازل و مراحل و ظواهر و بواطن، ادناها ما يكون في قشور الألفاظ
The Quran has levels, stages, ẓawāhir and bawāṭin, the lowest of that is in the form of words.7
Ibn al-‘Arabī writes in al-Futūḥāt:
فصار القرآن برزخا بين الحق و الإنسان و ظهر في قلبه على صورة لم يظهر بها في لسانه فإن اللّٰه جعل لكل موطن حكما لا يكون لغيره و ظهر في القلب أحدي العين فجسده الخيال و قسمه فأخذه اللسان فصيره ذا حرف و صوت و قيد به سمع الآذان
So the Quran becomes an isthmus between al-Ḥaqq and man. It appears in his (p) heart in a form that is different from the form in which it appears on his (p) tongue because Allah has ordained a law for every place which the other place is not bound by. It appears in the heart as a single entity, which the imaginative faculty embodies and partitions, thereafter the tongue takes it so it turns into letters and sounds, its perception restricted to hearing of the ears.8
This is one of those passages due to which some accused Ibn al-‘Arabī of believing that the text of the Quran is a construct of the Prophet (p) – similar to what Dr. Abdulkarim Soroush proposed.
Quran is therefore the Knowledge of Allah, hence it is the elucidator (tibyān) for everything. The Prophet (p) had witnessed it at the stage of the Muhammadan Reality, and in this latter manifestation of it in the material realm, it turns into meanings and words. Most mystics, therefore, do not say the theologians misunderstood revelation, rather they say their understanding is very deficient because the Quran in this realm was the very last and the lowest existential degree of it.
Explaining different phenomena through the framework of greater and lower degrees of existence is a common approach used by the mystics. For example, when Ibn al-‘Arabī speaks about the worship of the calf by Bani Israel, he says they were not worshiping the calf rather they were worshipping God. He cites [17:23] as evidence where Allah (swt) says He has decreed no one can worship anyone other than Allah. Ibn al-‘Arabī believes this decree is ontological (takwīnī). The problem of Bani Israel was that they were ignoring the command of the Prophet (p) who was asking them to worship in a way where their object of worship was beyond the manifestation of God in this material realm. One can refer to al-Futūḥāt, al-Fuṣūṣ and other treatises where he has discussed this specific matter in detail.
How Mystics Understand the Quran
Given how mystics understand the phenomenon of revelation, how does that impact their interpretation of the Quran? The mystics have very specific hermeneutics to interpret the Quran. The Mu‘tazalis believed if the prima-facie of the Quran goes against the intellect, then you resort to a figurative interpretation – the idea of majāz, but the mystics approach it in a different way by saying the Quran has a bāṭin – an esoteric aspect – and this bāṭin is its reality. However, this reality cannot be reached through words rather one can only reach it by purifying their soul and allowing it to connect with the higher existential levels of the Quran since there are no words at that level.
The apparent aspect – ẓāhir – of the Quran is merely a manifestation of the bāṭin of the Quran, and there is no contradiction in the two. Some mystics accuse the Mu‘tazalis of ignoring the ẓāhir with their theory of majāz, whereas the mystics believe we must take on both the ẓāhir and the bāṭin, however, one must approach the latter through a different method. Yes, in the past certain groups who would resort to the bāṭin would do so at the cost of ignoring the ẓāhir, but Ibn al-‘Arabī was against this.
Another important point to note is that for the mystics, words do not convey authorial intent, rather the authorial intent conveys to us what the words mean. In other words, a mystic will say we must go to the higher realms in order to first understand what the author meant, and then read the words of the Quran to understand what the words mean. It is for this reason why some may find some of their interpretations and esoteric explanations very strange and also why they do not care much about the probative force of how the ‘Urf – customary conventions – understands the Quran. In this approach, it is not important for the prima-facie to be in line with the meaning, as long as the words or sentences have the potential to carry that meaning. This is why sometimes even the slightest connection between a meaning and a word is enough for them to interpret the verse in that manner.
As you can imagine this is a very brief summary of the view of the mystics on revelation and how they understand the Quran. We cannot say justice has been done to their view, but the details are far too exhaustive and extensive to cover in these lessons.
We will mention a few observations that are applicable both on the mystics and as well as Sadrian philosophers because the latter is very similar to the former.
1. Mystics say we perceive these realities through knowledge by presence. To this we say, we cannot accept or reject their claim because we have not experienced anything as such and hence cannot comment on it, and neither have they offered any evidence for it. Personally, I am not convinced of their overall description, although I cannot reject it, even if they did experience such a thing and perceived it, it is only binding upon them and proof for themselves as long as they cannot establish evidence for it for others.
This reminds me of what Shahīd Ṣadr says in his discussion on ṭalab and irādah in legal theory, where he mentions five different opinions on the subject. When he reaches the fifth opinion which is of the Sufis and mystics, he simply says:
والخامس مبني على تصور صوفي لا نفهمه
And the fifth view is based on the conceptual perception of the Sufis which we do not understand.9
If they do not have an argument for their claims and much of it is based on mystical visions, then there is nothing we can say to them because they are not offering anything to others who have not gone through that experience to substantiate their position.
2. Some have said the Sadrians in one place have said the Prophet (p) received revelation from the angels, but in their more mystical explanations they take the approach of the Perfect Man and the Muhammadan Reality. In other words, there is an apparent inconsistency in their works.
However, I think Sadrians can respond to this objection and we have alluded to it in our explanations earlier.
3. Most critics have said, where is the image of revelation that Sadrian philosophers and mystics have made, in the Quran, sīrah of the Prophet and in the ḥadīth? This is an objection made by theologians, but also certain contemporary philosophers. If the Prophet (p) is technically sending revelation on himself, then what is he getting stressed about?
Mystics have tried to address this concern, and have offered different explanations. For example consider what Imam Khumaynī says:
و لا ينافى ذلك ما حدث لهم من الأضطراب و شبه الأغماء عند نزول الوحى فانّ ضعف اجسامهم الشّريفة عن تحمل ظهور الأرواح المجرّدة فيها غير قوّة مقام الرّوحانيّة و الجنبة الألهيّة الولويّة
This is not in conflict with what would occur with them such as severe agitation or a type of loss of consciousness when revelation would descend, because the weakness of their noble bodies with respects to them being recipients of the immaterial angels is different to the strength of their spiritual states and their divine sacred dimension.10
Nevertheless, religious texts do not seem to depict this image of revelation. If you respond to them with this critique, they will consider you from the Ahl al-Ẓāhir. In many cases, engaging in dialogue with mystics is very difficult or it results in a dead-end.
4. I believe it is not possible for the Sadrians or the mystics to prove with an argument based on their epistemology whether the actual text of the Quran is from the Prophet (p) or from Allah (swt). All they can do is explain the phenomenon and the nature of this text, regardless of whether it is from the Prophet (p) himself or from Allah (swt).
We do not deny that the views of Sadrian philosophers and the mystics can resolve a lot of issues, especially the problems Fārābī fell into, but this does not necessarily prove the truth of their view.
We have so far given a brief description of revelation according to different prominent schools of thought within Islam. In the next lesson, we will look at some other opinions as well.
Sayyid Ali studied in the seminary of Qom from 2012 to 2021, while also concurrently obtaining a M.A in Islamic Studies from the Islamic College of London in 2018. In the seminary he engaged in the study of legal theory, jurisprudence and philosophy, eventually attending the advanced kharij of Usul and Fiqh in 2018. He is currently completing his Masters of Education at the University of Toronto and is the head of a private faith-based school in Toronto, as well as an instructor at the Mizan Institute and Mufid Seminary.
- Al-Futūḥāt al-Makkīyyah, vol. 1, pg. 31.
- Al-Futūḥāt al-Makkīyyah, vol. 4, pg. 168.
- Ta‘liqāt ‘ala Sharḥ Fuṣūṣ al-Ḥikam, pg. 36.
- Ta‘liqāt ‘ala Sharḥ Fuṣūṣ al-Ḥikam, pg. 194.
- Fuṣūṣ al-Ḥikam, vol. 1, pg. 63.
- Al-Futūḥāt al-Makkīyyah, vol. 1, pg. 56.
- Sharḥ Du‘ā al-Saḥar, pg. 38.
- Al-Futūḥāt al-Makkīyyah, vol. 3, pg. 108.
- Buḥūth fī ‘Ilm al-Uṣūl, vol. 2, pg. 29.
- Ta‘līqāt, pg. 37.