The Sufis and William Blake: When Islamic Mysticism and English Romanticism Intersect
By Anouar El Younssi
Morocco World News
Philadelphia, August 17, 2012
William Blake’s poetry and paintings are extremely fascinating, innovative, and controversial with regard to their “prophetic” nature. Personally, I find Blake a very intriguing personality and his works very appealing. He is deeply invested in the “infinite realms” of the spirit and the imagination and is, therefore, very skeptical of the physical world, as perceived through the five senses. Blake is a passionate critic of empiricism’s ability to lead humanity to “real” knowledge – to “wisdom.” For Blake, the Poetic Genius, rather than the physical senses, is the faculty through which human-beings are to perceive “real” knowledge of this mysterious life and of the divine, sublime realms. Such views of Blake’s expressed in his poetry (and paintings) echo the views of a number of Muslim sufis, such as Ibn-Arabi, Al-Ghazali, Al-Bistami, Rumi, and others –mystics who believe in the existence of an infinite spiritual reality to be attained through a faculty that transcends the five senses.
These Sufis, like Blake, believe in the unity of all being or existence. Their ultimate goal is to become one with the Divine. Interestingly, there are so many affinities between Blake’s visionary, prophetic works and writings/sermons of a number of Muslim Sufis. The affinities of Blake’s mystical views with the Muslim Sufi tradition are too powerful to ignore. They are enlightening in that they waken our consciousness to core human concerns, which go beyond artificial differences in language, culture, skin color, nationality, religious beliefs, and so on. Exploring and highlighting those similarities is indeed a good step in healing –or at least alleviating – the unfortunate divide between the so-called Muslim World and the West today.
Both William Blake and the Muslim Sufis are extremely invested in the binary: reality-appearance. J. W. Morris states that according to Al-Ghazali, a very influential Muslim scholar and Sufi, “the deeper reality of the human situation –of din as the ultimate inner connection of every soul with its Divine Source and Ground – is perceived quite differently by those fully accomplished human beings who can actually begin to ‘see things as they really are’” (297). Those who live or experience or have a taste of this deeper reality –which is to be contrasted with a surface reality – are endowed with the faculty that allows them to see and comprehend the essence of things and phenomena that engulf the human situation and experience.
Martin Lings states that the Holy Book of Islam –the Qur’an – itself has both a surface meaning and a deep meaning (29). In other words, the Qur’an answers to both modes of existence and understanding, the apparent and the ultimate – the surface and the deep. From this perspective, the Qur’an caters for the needs of the entire Muslim community and, at the same time, serves the spiritual needs of a select minority, what Lings calls “a spiritual elect.” Lings provides two illustrative Quranic verses: “Guide us along the straight path” / and “Verily we are for God and verily unto Him we are returning” (qtd. in Lings 27-28).
The two verses appeal to the majority of the believers, but they have a special status for the Sufis, mystics thirsty to spiritually dissolve in God’s “presence.” The outside meaning of “the straight path” in the first verse above refers to following the Islamic law (29); however, its inside meaning refers to “the way of most direct approach to God, so much so that the word tariqah (way) has by extension the meaning of Sufi order or brotherhood” (28). The second verse (“Verily we are for God and verily unto Him we are returning”) has a special place for the Sufis, for its inside meaning is so vast; the verse speaks about the process of returning to God, after stressing that all is for God.
The entirety of the Sufi tradition is centered on this Qur’an verse, for “Sufism is nothing if not a movement of return, an ebb, and by the” Sufi standards the majority of the believers, though “facing in the right direction,” are stationary, not on the returning move (Lings 28). Even the jargon of the Sufis reflects this Qur’anic verse. Sufi masters and other central Sufi figures are called in Arabic “salikun,” which literally means “travelers” (28). They are travelers on a spiritual journey towards the infinite realm of God. The outside meaning of the verse, however, refers to “the passage through a pious life towards death” (29).
Like the Sufis, William Blake is deeply invested in this deeper, ultimate reality, this infinite realm that is to be found and experienced within us, rather than without, through a faculty that lies within, which he calls “the Poetic Genius.” Johnson and Grant state that in his All Religions are One and There is No Natural Religion, Blake contends that the Poetic Genius, which is “the guiding spirit of humanity,” is the faculty through which human-beings can “conceive the divine” (3). For Blake, the Poetic Genius is the only true and viable faculty of knowing, without which human-beings are doomed in ignorance and darkness vis-à-vis the Divine and the Sublime. In his other poem, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Blake has the Hebrew prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel confirm that this Poetic Genius “is the source of all perceptions of God.” Blake, the controversial English poet, contends that the Prophet Isaiah did not receive “the voice of God” through any of the physical senses/organs, but through another channel: the Poetic Genius. This channel grants access to that spiritual, non-physical, non-organic realm and hence is superior not just to the senses but to reason as well.
Interestingly, Blake’s Poetic Genius echoes the notion of “Active Imagination” theorized by the highly influential 12th-century Muslim Sufi, Muhyiddine Ibn Arabi. Frederica Halligan states that Ibn Arabi’s “Active Imagination” is the key to perceiving the Divine; it “is situated metaphorically at the organ of the heart” (276). The heart here by no means refers to the material heart, but is rather a gateway to the “infinite” realm. Indeed, Ibn Arabi labels the Sufi mystics as the scientists of the heart. This is in agreement with the Qur’anic verse – “It is not the eyes that are blind but the hearts”– which cautions the faithful to the blindness of the heart, not of the physical eye. The heart is also a gateway to the realm of the imagination. For Ibn Arabi, the Active Imagination acts as a link between the physical world and the infinite divine world; it “perceives events, figures, presences directly, unaided by the senses” (qtd. in Halligan 276).
For Ibn Arabi, God employs “the human faculty of imagination for Self-revelation, entering human consciousness through the ‘door’ of imaginative processes” (277). This Active Imagination of Ibn Arabi’s sounds nothing but Blake’s Poetic Genius. It encompasses every act of imagining – conscious and unconscious – and hence remains so broad. Ibn Arabi also talks about a sub-category of the Active Imagination, what he calls “the autonomous imagination,” which designates the “special locale of dreams, fleeting images, and spontaneous visions, which were commonly reported by the Prophet Muhammad” (pbuh) as well as by a number of Sufi mystics, including Ibn Arabi himself (277). This autonomous imagination is contrasted with the conscious imagination that every person is capable of exercising while awake. Blake has indeed an extremely powerful and rich conscious imagination, to say nothing of his alleged autonomous imagination, i.e. his reported daylight “visions.”
Like Blake, Ibn Arabi criticizes excessive reason; he believes that heavy investment in “rational thought actually blocks the process of being open to spontaneous imaginal processes” (qtd. in Halligan 278). Muslim Sufis, like Ibn Arabi, try to temporarily suspend their rationalization with a view to achieving perception “through the inner imaginal pathways” (278). For Blake and Ibn Arabi respectively, the Poetic Genius and Active Imagination are indeed far more superior to reason. The two faculties are so vast and infinite, whereas reason is very limited and has the tendency to mislead and deceive. The fact that a number of scientific theories and ‘facts,’ formulated based on pure rationalization, have proven to be wrong is concrete proof of the limitedness and the tendency to faultiness characteristic of reason. Bottom line, reason is not to be trusted completely. This doesn’t mean that we should reject it entirely, for its value and usefulness is unquestionable. A typical Sufi mystic, unlike the layman, is skeptical of reason, given his/her extreme, unorthodox life style. A Sufi would vote wholeheartedly for imagination, to the detriment of reason.
Blake’s Poetic Genius and Ibn Arabi’s Active Imagination bear striking similarities to the qalb component of the mind in traditional Islamic thought. Yasser Ad-Dab’bagh says that traditional Islamic thinkers see the mind as consisting of two different components: the ‘aql –reason – and the qalb –which literally means ‘heart,’ but does not refer to the physical heart (552). This again echoes the Qur’anic verse: “It is not the eyes that are blind but the hearts.”
If the heart or, to use the Blakian jargon, the Poetic Genius, is blind, then one cannot perceive the Infinite and the Divine. For Lings, Sufism can be summarized in the phrase “heart-wakefulness,” with the heart being “the center of the soul . . . [and] the gateway to a higher ‘heart’, namely the Spirit” (48). The famous/infamous and controversial Sufi Al-Hallaj is reported to have said: “I saw my Lord with the Eye of the Heart. I said: ‘Who are thou?’ He answered: ‘Thou’” (49). What Al-Hallaj perhaps meant is that he was one with God, rather than being God himself. He achieves that unity with the Divine through the agency of the non-physical heart, which Blake would call the Poetic Genius.
In one of the sayings of Prophet Mohammad (p.b.u.h.), God says: “My earth hath not room for Me, neither hath My Heaven, but the Heart of My believing slave hath room for Me.” We see here the importance given to the heart. The saying above demonstrates the infinite vastness of the human heart and its potential ability to receive or host God’s divine presence. We can see why Blake, whose views bear striking similarities to the Sufis’s, was so infuriated with Locke’s “blank slate” theory, which excludes all that infinite beauty that inherently dwells within human-beings. John Locke’s empiricism would not account for that infinite realm which dwells in the heart.
Blake emphatically speaks of the infinite world within each one of us, human-beings. He rejects Locke’s views “that the mind is a blank tablet on which sensory data are registered” (Johnson and Grant 4). Blake here is in agreement with the Sufis and with the Qur’an as regards the existence of the human species in some form in a certain mode of life prior to its coming to the physical world through physical birth. In other words, the history of the human-being does not start from the moment of birth, but is rather infinite and is not dependent on the physical body. Thackston notes that the Qur’an underscores that “before the creation of serial time and space, before God’s fiat that brought the cosmos into being, the undifferentiated souls of potential mankind slumbered as an idea within God in the unfathomable recess of infinity” (xviii). The Qur’an passage in question is as follows:
And (remember) when thy Lord brought forth from the Children of Adam, from their reins, their seed, and made them testify of themselves, (saying): Am I not your Lord? They said: Yea, verily. We testify. (That was) lest ye should say at the Day of Resurrection: Lo! of this we were unaware. (Pickthall 7:172)
This Quranic passage challenges the validity of Locke’s “blank slate” theory. For the Sufis, this theory is intolerably wrong and ridiculous. Common sense tends to reject this theory: We clearly observe an inherent difference in the behavior of newly-born babies. The Qur’an passage is also reminiscent of William Wordsworth’s poem “Ode (There Was a Time)” (297-302). The poem basically discusses the concept of pre-existence for the human species. He says that “The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star, / Hath had elsewhere its setting / and cometh from afar” (299). That is, the source of our soul is infinite and its scope and realm is infinite, too. In this poem, Wordsworth glorifies children and sees them as possessing some of that primordial purity and gleam, and hence are much closer than adults to that pure ideal world of pre-existence. Wordsworth also states that “Heaven lies about us in our Infancy!” (299). As an adult, veiled from that beautiful divine realm, Wordsworth cries: “Whither is fled the visionary gleam? / Where is now, the glory and the dream?” (298). We are left to wonder how children and babies access and experience “real knowledge.”
Al-Ghazali outlines two possible ways in which real knowledge can be reflected on the mirror of the qalb: “acquisition and inspiration/revelation” (qtd. in Ad-Dab’bagh 556). For Al-Ghazali, the truth seeker may receive “mystical revelation” in the form of “dream-visions” while asleep; he notes that revelation through “day-visions” is rare, though (556). However, Abu Yazid Al-Bistami, who is considered by many as a radical Sufi for his controversial and allegedly blasphemous statements, claims to have frequent visions, not necessarily in sleep. His public statement “Glory to me” remains very controversial within the Islamic tradition (Sells 21). On his mystical union with God, he is reported to have said:
Once, he [God] took me up, placed me before him, and said to me: “O Abu Yazid, my creation would love to seek you.” (qtd. in Sells 215)
The mystical visions of Abu Yazid Al-Bistami remind us of William Blake’s mystical daylight visions. In his childhood, Blake viewed the world through “a visionary gleam”; at the age of nine, he said that he saw “a tree filled with angels” while going on a walk and later on spoke of seeing a host of angles “walking in a field among workers as they gathered in the hay”; and at the age of fifty, he reported having seen “the rising sun as an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying Holy Holy Holy is the Lord God Almighty” (qtd. in Eaves, et al). For Blake, “true divinity originates within human nature as it awakens to its visionary capacity” (qtd. in Johnson and Grant 3). Indeed, visions are of paramount importance to both Blake and the Sufis. And they are to be perceived from within through a special faculty – the Poetic Genius, the Heart, the Active Imagination.
To close, the commonalities between Blake and the Muslim Sufis in general are fascinating; and they alert us to an ultimate unity in all traditions, beliefs, and philosophies that seek to uncover or experience the mystery of the human life.
Ad-Dab’bagh, Yasser. “The Transformative Effect of Seeking the Eternal: A Sampling of the Perspectives of Two Great Muslim Intellectuals –Ibn Hazm and Al-Ghazali.” Psychoanalytic Inquiry 28.5 (2008): 550-59.
Blake, William. “All Religions are One and There is No Natural Religion (1788).” Blake’s Poetry and Designs. Eds. Mary Lynn Johnson and John E. Grant. New York: Norton, 2008. 3-7. Print.
“The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790).” Blake’s Poetry and Designs. Eds. Mary Lynn Johnson and John E. Grant. New York: Norton, 2008. 66-82. Print.
Eaves, Morris, et al. “William Blake (1757-1827).” The William Blake Archive. Blakearchive.org, 1996-2010. Web. 10 August 2012.
Halligan, Frederica R. “The Creative Imagination of the Sufi Mystic, Ibn ‘Arabi.” Journal of Religion and Health 40.2 (2001): 275-287.
Johnson, Mary Lynn and John E. Grant, eds. Blake’s Poetry and Designs. New York, Norton, 2008. Print.
—. Introduction. Blake’s Poetry and Designs. Eds. Mary Lynn Johnson and John E. Grant. New York: Norton, 2008. xiii-xv. Print.
Lings, Martin. What is Sufism? Berkeley: U of California P, 1975. Print.
Morris, James W. “Imaging Islam: Intellect and Imagination in Islamic Philosophy, Poetry, and Painting.” Religion and the Arts 12.1-3 (2008): 294-318.
Pickthal, Muhammad Marmaduke. The Meaning of the Glorious Quran. Islamawakened.com, n.d. Web. 10 August 2012.
Sells, Michael A., trans. and ed. Early Islamic Mysticism: Sufi, Qur’an, Mi’raj, Poetic and Theological Writings. New York: Paulist Press, 1996. Print.
Thackston, W. M. Jr., trans. Signs of the Unseen: The Discourses of Jalaluddin Rumi. Putney: Threshold Books, 1994. Print.
Wordsworth, William. The Major Works. Ed. by Stephen Gill. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1984. Print.
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