A symbolic depiction of Ukrainian nationalism, c. 1920

While the world probably doesn’t need any more commentary on the recent American election, I’d like to offer some anyway, though in a way that looks at happenings beyond the US to the rest of the world, where we see related patterns unfolding according to local particularities and conditions. While the US is its own case, it is also part of an interconnected world, the ties of global capitalism, human movement, globalized classes, elites, and political structures, and other things working to move American realities in directions broadly congruent with other, often quite different, parts of the world. My thoughts here—which are reflective of the halting directions my political thought have been taking as of late, but should not be interpreted as final or fully coherent—are springing off an article by Jonathan Haidt from back in the summer, but which is rather prescient and worth reading in its own right. What follows here, then, are three interlinking thoughts precipitated by, but in some cases sharply diverging from, Haidt’s article.

One, while right now the dominant options are either liberal ‘cosmopolitan’ globalism or some form of nationalism, within the framework of nation-states (whether more autonomous or more directed from supra-national entities being at question) and of some form of globalized (if not globalist) capitalism, those are not in fact the only options. To give but one example, the recent resurgence of indigenous American assertion and resistance, symbolized and embodied in the Standing Rock movement, presents a form of anti-globalism that is not ‘nationalist’ (or ‘rightist’) in the conventional sense, but embraces and draws upon particularity, a form of ethnic solidarity, respect for and continued use of tradition, and respect for place and collective past, without aspiring to possession of a nation-state, the rituals of nationalism, or the temptation of xenophobia. We could point to any number of indigenous movements around the world, or inter-related struggles for peasants’ rights, food sovereignty, and the like, most of which are grouped under a ‘left’ rubric but are in fact more complicated than that. While they may ‘speak’ some of the language of liberalism and of universalisms, they also speak in indigenous registers and traditions, out of an attachment to place, ‘tribe,’ and ‘particularity,’ against the forces of both nationalism and globalism. Dismissing these movements and peoples as ‘reactionary’ or ‘backwards’ not only betrays a lack of empathy but, more importantly I think, a lack of imagination for what is possible once we begin thinking past the confines of existing political philosophies and cultural configurations.

Second, one of the reasons for the enduring, indeed seemingly irrepressible nature of nationalism over the past hundred and fifty plus years, is that it is in general explicitly closer to human reality than are internationalist and globalist ideologies (something Haidt suggests in his article). That is not to say that nationalisms do not depend upon abstractions, constructions, and all manner of schemes to create, regularize, and defend the abstractions within them. They do, and scholars have spent a great deal of time dissecting and detailing the ways nation-states do this work. The nation-state is a construct of power and a construct of imagination. But—and this is the crucial point—while a given nationalism might have mythical abstractions, and even universalist pretensions in its ideological genetic material, those abstractions and pretensions do tend to recognize certain fundamental truths about human beings, truths that globalists also embody (in different ways) but do not, or cannot, so explicitly recognize, often seeing them as obstacles to ‘progress.’ Humans are embodied, contingent creatures. Humans build social relationships through face-to-face interactions, and are predisposed to care more for other, often related (whether through blood ties or fictive kin formations) human beings than for abstracted groups or ‘humanity’ at large. Humans inhabit particular places and form their psychic landscapes through those places. For most of humanity, including in the present, ‘home’ is a concrete, spatially fixed location in the world, with its own cultural dynamics, ecological systems, and sets of human relationships, regulated by unspoken custom. Human relationships are strongest within a certain numerical limit, and humans find it easiest to relate to people similar to them. While industrialization and the rise of the nation-state have introduced immense changes and disruptions to how humans experience the world and their home, or homes, in it, much of that basic reality remains, even as it has become transmuted into new and different and often decomposing forms.

Now, it should go without saying that nationalism maps but imperfectly onto those human realities. In fact, it must often struggle against many of those facts of human nature, but it does so with a close and open eye to them, to integrating the psychic drives and bodily formations into the needs of the nation-state. Nationalism must always strike a balance between preserving, and appropriating, attachments to real particulars—home, family, locale, landscape, linguistic practices—and subsuming or even destroying those particulars in the national project, particularly when localized identities refuse to congeal into the ‘nationality’ under construction. The construction of ‘race’ is one such construction, ultimately abstract and indeed empty, but lining up with deeply embedded and embodied human ways of being and doing, even if its potency requires reinforcement and locating within a nation-state project. Unlike, for the most part, globalism, nationalism ‘knows’ to speak human languages and to at least project the appearance of human scale. It must maintain its ties to the human and particular, it must always draw upon the concrete, the personal, the customary, even if in the process all of those things are reduced to so much rubble. Globalism, on the other hand, while it has its own particular language and customs, either tends to reduce cultures outside the metropole to romantic artefacts or cooks them down into legible and regulated ‘identities’ that may exist under globalism through the rubric of ‘diversity.’ But it cannot appeal to particularities and local ties and ‘parochial’ concerns in the way nationalism can, and this makes it weak outside of those spheres economically and culturally representative of globalism and cosmopolitanism. A liberal globalist might confront ‘Islamophobia,’ but he is unlikely to actually defend Muslim gender constructions or valorize Islamic forms of devotion.

Finally, it is important to recognize that globalism and the ‘cosmopolitanism’ that underwrites it are not in fact truly ‘global’ or ‘cosmopolitan,’ but expressive of, and expressed in, particular situations and places, supported by economic and political force—something that has been true since colonial times and continues to be true today (and there is a vast literature on the paradoxes and resources to violence that earlier forms of liberal ‘cosmopolitanism required and expressed).  In fact it would be better to speak, as with nationalism, of plural globalisms, unified analytically by shared traits and tendencies—mutually intelligible registers and dialects of one language, perhaps. The cultural-social ‘homes’ of these globalism(s) are almost overwhelmingly in major cities and their ‘satellites,’ particularly universities, but also, and increasingly, online—a ‘place’ of a different sort, but still a place with many of the same functions and contours as literal socially-conditioned and created spaces. While liberal globalists might find contingent allies in many places—particularly among migrant members of ethnic minorities—the core inhabitants of the liberal globalist ‘world’ tend to be middle-class and up, often of European descent but not necessarily so, ‘secular,’ and spatially mobile within limits. While they may move from London to New York, or from Princeton to Portland (and may have their natal origins almost anywhere), there are clear ‘tracks’ of localities along which the ‘global citizen’ moves and recognizes herself. Just as there are geographic routes, there are also clear and recognizable ideological and cultural routes, overlapped with practices and beliefs that are shared among all permutations of liberal globalists. As with any broad analytical grouping, globalists are heterogeneous, even as they aspire to universalism and abstraction (a unifying characteristic, even if they vary greatly otherwise). They can afford not to feel threatened by immigration for two reasons beyond ethical or ideological considerations: one, by its nature ‘global’ citizenship assimilates people from every background (like many imperial or quasi-imperial systems in the past), provided they accept the dominant tenets and cultural practices of the particular subgrouping into which they assimilate. Two, globalists occupy the upper echelons of economic life, which translates into cultural and socio-geographic stability. While their political power might fluctuate, since America and Western Europe remain committed to albeit weak forms of democratic governance, their economic and cultural situation has so far evaded any serious assaults, even if the penetrative power of globalist hegemony is unlikely to extend much beyond its economic-geographical enclaves.

In conclusion, both ‘nationalism’ and ‘globalism’ are in their own ways quite strong and quite entrenched. Right now nationalisms are pretty clearly ascendant politically, though things could change from one place to another. Globalisms are not going away, of course, and as long as global capitalism—the economic envelope that makes all forms of globalism possible—continues to be the strongest and most viable form of economic organization, globalisms will also thrive in their native habitats. But the liberal universalisms espoused by globalists, and the political forms enacting them, are probably going to continue to run into interference, particularly as globalists find themselves locked in battle with nationalists—a situation that is not actually a necessary one, as Haidt suggests in his article. Globalists must have recourse, if they are to win political fights, to at least some of the languages of nation, particularity, and so on, mixed with the appeals to abstract and universal values that are more native territory (nationalists, too, it should be noted frequently have appeal to universal values and beliefs—the difference being more one of emphasis and centering than of mere matters of inclusion or exclusion). But such appeals, even if they reflect the social reality of globalist life, tend to undermine the stated ideological foundations, and anyway mostly work best on insiders (just like nationalist language). A better solution, though, I have to admit, for now a less likely one, is to explore possibilities outside of this dualism, outside of the givens of nation-state, global capital, liberal hegemony, and centralized power.

The following are some thoughts and outlines of theory that aim at encapusalating some of my developing thought on human social order, the dynamics of historical change (particularly in the modern world, as we call it), and so on, which do not really ‘fit’ into my own academic work, but which lie behind how I think about the pre-modern world and my role as an observer and shaper of historical knowledge, which is always knowledge intimately tied up with the present. These are quickly assembled thoughts-out-loud, but I hope they prove of interest and use to the reader who takes the effort to navigate them.

1. On Discontinuities and Disorder: One of the problems that particularly marks our age—by which I mean the last half century or so, though with extensions backwards through the era of Western industrialization—is the problem (which is also a potent problématique) of radically discontinuous time scales within conjunctive social, political, economic, and ecological systems and processes. While technical advances and developments, be they in socio-political organization, economic systems, or actual technology, have moved many aspects of life on this earth into incredibly high-speed trajectories, they have been unable—and are most likely necessarily unable—to effect such transformations across the board. In fact, many of the most salient and vital processes, systems, and exigencies remain on time scales similar to or the same as during any period of post-agricultural revolution human history, and in some cases—particularly ecological and geological aspects—pre-human time scales. If our technics allow, for instance, for rapid, unpredictable socio-political disintegration, it is not clear that they encourage symmetrical forms of re-integration and re-formation, processes which are slow and unsteady, and which tend to require periods of relative stability and, crucially, extended time scales. One of the results of these discontinuities, I think, has been the rapid cyclical processing of global history, with periods of incredibly rapid formation and development along many metrics, followed by equally incredible periods of collapse and destruction. The succeeding periods of re-integration and re-building tend to automatically have the seeds of their dissolution built into them, accelerating the cycle. Of course, different societies have had very different responses to this process due to vastly differing historical circumstances and contingencies, but all societies have been subject to it, and it is possible that we are seeing, in this very historical moment, convergences towards a single unitary period of dissolution, with no clear route forward afterwards. Technics are growing more and more integrated and rapid, obliterating many quotidian time scales, yet proving incapable of shoring up or replacing many of the social systems, ecological processes, and interpersonal relationships that they are helping to either obliterate or destabilize. We are faced with a situation in which stable, resilient systems are necessary more than ever, but the tools and exigencies at our disposal increasingly trend in the very opposite direction.

2. What I am Trying to Do: The sort of theoretical position, the philosophical-political vantage point I am seeking in what I think and write, is a stance that seeks, first of all, to background my own ethical or other concerns, at least for the moment, and to instead to try to understand the composition and movement of human life within existing historical spaces—particularly, in a contemporary political context, the space of ‘modernity’/modernity (see below for the logic of this bifurcation). At the same time I am necessarily engaged in critiques of existing orders and structures, to be sure—the very need for critical discourse implies as much—but I must aim for not so much an objective stance as once that is open across possibilities and that is aware of, to put it hyperbolically, everything.

Such a stance could not hope to rid itself of ideological traces and ethical concerns, of course, but it must strive to first foreground them in awareness and then to place them aside, while being aware as far as possible of their traces on one’s self and one’s observations and analytical conclusions. Also, one might point out—and she would not be inaccurate in the observation—that such a theoretical stance is also a political stance, and that it is a political stance of some privilege, or at least of displaced ethical and political necessity or duty. Not all people can, or are able to, afford themselves the pleasure of observation at a certain distance, of trying to background their ideological drives, which are often borne out of very real and pressing exigencies of daily life and struggle. Yet, I would counter or suggest rather that even the most existential struggle (and sometimes struggles that present themselves as existential in fact are not…) needs the benefit of displaced observation, of attention to what is possible, to what is actually existing, and to the dynamics of human action and situation described without the distortion, at least for the moment, of explicit ethical or ideological configuration.

Human life unfolds within multiplicity, with divergence, displacement, disorder, from the biological level on, all constituting and being constituted in the human person in and through the relationships that each human person, and all persons en toto, form and are formed by. The work of the both each person and of larger societies (and inter-workings of societies, the enfolding of cultures and structures and systems of order and coordination) is to coordinate and to make orderly these seemingly infinite ‘inputs,’ conflicting claims of order, sense datum, discourses, and possibilities. The goal of the theorist observer is to locate the logics—usually un-perceived and un-known to the agents themselves—the strategies, the processes, the rejected possibilities, which humans use and are used by in structuring order into the potentially destructive heterogeneity of life. The best theorists will sense in all of this great wonder: the wonder at the seemingly miraculous continuance of life, the ways in which humans come to structure their lives and multiplicitous relationships even, perhaps especially in, the midst of forces of disorder and destruction, be they extra- or intra-human. It is in this wonder that the border between the work of the social theorist and observer and that of the philosopher proper and theologian is met, I think, a border that is certainly porous (and which is traced elsewhere in the theoretical landscapes in which we labor, borders tending to be not merely etchings in one spatial or imaginal-theoretical place, but visible and reproduced across the landscapes they mark), but which has a defensible ontological basis. If we on the social science side of the humanities are given the task of understanding the workings of the human world (and, increasingly, the non-human world), and of the dynamics and logics underlying those workings, we are still left, at this boundary of wonder, with the metaphysical, as it were, underpinnings of all that we survey. If we become aware of the creative drive, the self-organizing principle, or whatever we wish to call it, that is manifest up and down the cosmos, including our human worlds, then we may wish to identify it and to explore it. But the other side of the border, while we in other capacities may investigate, is terrain not ours to claim. We must have the humility of recognizing the limitations of our particular science, the places to which our investigations can come, the gaps and absences and barricades we will encounter. This is not to say they are unknowable (though some perhaps are, at least for us), but that the technics for knowing them, the epistemic routes, are otherwise.

For our attempts at knowledge are themselves a part of the great mesh of the world, in which being and coming into being structured and animated by multiplicity and unicity are mixed up in our constituting and our very observations. This goes without saying, yet we tend to forget it, deliberately sometimes, more often in the breach.

3. The Contradictions of ‘Modernity’/Modernity: Underlying modernity, as one of its key structuring ‘logics’ or rather contradictions (to wrest Marxist language away for my own use here) is the contrast between egalitarian, leveling, often libertarian impulses, ideologies, and sentiments, on the one hand, which reject hierarchy, social, class, and other forms of differentiation, alongside the sorts of political-social structures that also mark modernity and whose generation and sustenance—but also undermining and mutation—are paradoxically bound up with and conditioned by the very sentiments of egalitarianism, social leveling, and personal liberty (themselves not entirely cohesive approaches or sentiments, of course) they are often meant to express and defend. Of course, there are many other logics that give rise to the extreme structuration, hierarchical division, subordination, centralization and monopolization of power, and so on, that characterizes so much of modernity, many of them largely unrelated to the egalitarian and liberal sentiments and ideas that also animate and flow within the body of modernity as it is actually realized in the world. No theory or political ideology or plan of action has been able, or is likely to be able, to resolve this fundamental contradiction, a contradiction which tends, over time, to vitiate every political organization, every ideologically principled platform, regardless of which ideological tradition of modernity it stems from, or under which economic structure it is expressed. Hierarchy inevitably re-emerges, differentiation of power and status not only does not diminish but in fact tends towards acceleration and rigidification and reification, only to provoke a reaction on the part of people and political movements inculcated with a desire for leveling, for the egalitarian, in short, for all the promise of the animating ideological creatures of our age, be they liberal democracy, communistic socialism, anti-colonial nationalism, and so on. Even as the political expressions of these ideological constructions (though construction is probably too strong a word here) transform into socio-political structures and traditions of governance and economic order, their very success in inculcating anti-hierarchical, libertarian, and egalitarian concepts and sentiments and desires in the governed populace tends to ensure their undermining and replacement in time.

This cycle of reaction is not predictable, however, for the simple fact that ‘modernity’ (and here the marking off by quotes is most applicable) is everywhere and always met with deeply heterogenous situations and penetration, its localized and historically contingent manifestations never fulfilling the sort of theoretical neatness and demarcation an observer might desire or an ideologue might strive for. The ways in which discourses of egalitarianism or liberation or individualism are actually expressed and realized in given peoples at given times will never quite match the sort of theoretical, heuristic rendering I have just given. But, because the theoretical construct of ‘modernity’ is not simply heuristic but points to very real, if fluid and heterogeneous, structures, processes, bounded discourses, and traditions, we can identify general tendencies and trends, cyclical (or at least cyclical-seeming) patterns that manifest across historical circumstances. The logics of the modern state, for instance, tend towards reproductability across circumstances, even when those circumstances do not in fact lend themselves to such a reproduction. Codified and hierarchically ordered knowledge and practices have the ‘benefit’ of being, or at least appearing to be, transferable, giving a certain stability to what we call ‘modernity,’ even as the cultural practices and distributed social arrangements and ideological configurations tend towards greater fluidity and less cohesion. Economic structures as well, which are bound up with the political and the ecological, tend to have a stability and reproductability that makes them strong carriers of discourses and practices of modernity.  Finally, in any given circumstance modernity/‘modernity,’ with its paradoxical pairing of egalitarian impulse and hierarchically ordered centralization, is not the only operative discourse, or even the most powerful, but tends to be in competition and hybridization with many other discourses, some predating it, some having arisen (or being in the process of generation) concurrent with it, in its orbit but not subordinate. The current locus classicus for this facet of modernity is the rise of Islamic reformism and Islamism, where the discourses and technics of both statist, rationalizing modernity and its egalitarian, leveling twinned impulse, meet within the powerful discourse of Islamic reformism, a discourse with genealogical roots other than those of modernity (at least in the immediate sense—both ultimately can be traced to the dual inheritance of Judaic and Hellenic religion and culture). One could reproduce this example across the globe, each instance taking its own configurations, these shared contradictory impulses and structuring principles appearing again and again, with similar political and social results.

This ‘complex’ of contradictions appears in these very words I have typed: I am simultaneously deploying my individual power of analysis, my self-authorization (or so I and my reader might assume or want to assume), on an ostensibly ‘democratic’ technical platform, open to all (in theory) and open to critique from anyone and everyone. Yet at the same time, in making my argument from a position of personal authority, authorized by my society’s insistence on individualism and egalitarianism, I am also deploying highly structured, highly hierarchicalized discourse—the sorts of words I use, the ways in which my arguments are built, the ways in which I reference or do not reference others and the traditions in which I inhere, and so on. Hence my critique, or my critique presented as an observation, is structured by and indelibly marked by the traces of the very discourse I am critiquing, and it has, so far as it has any power effect at all, a similar effect within the configuration of relationships within which my fragment of discourse exists. Hence the power of ‘modernity,’ and the difficult of speaking it and around it and beyond it. I suspect that it is the very heterogeneity of modernity, and the ultimate limitations of its hegemony, that provide the openings, as it were, for critiques such as this, even as critiques operate very much from within, if not entirely within. There is always a plurality of discursive space, no matter the situation, no matter how seemingly fenced in and hegemonically determined.

Indulge me, dear reader, some of my out-loud thinking, taken from my common-place book, where I jot down, in a sort of haze of free-form association and reckless philosophizing, unbound by genre or affiliation, and often indirectly occasioned by the dreary roll of the day’s headlines, my scattered ideas and attempts to corral my thoughts and emotions into something coherent-ish, and, perhaps, of interest to others…

1. One knows not to indulge in O tempora tropes, knowing that one’s own age is ultimately not really all that different from any other. At every age there are madnesses at the center, and the madnesses of the periphery, the strange and terrible machinations of the human heart spilling out of the prevailing discourses and modes of behavior, at once shocking, at once emerging from what is normative and central.

2. It is best not to begrudge people their fantasies, their naivety, their willful, unreasonable optimism. If people were in the habit of dealing with reality, and not their delusions, it would be utterly crippling for most. Perhaps it is better to imagine a world in which things work out they way you imagine they will—by the time the time comes and they don’t turn out that way, the infinite flexibility of human thought and perception will not be perturbed, but will merely adapt its future-looking vision, untroubled by prophets proved wrong, cheery—or apocalyptic, cheery in their own way to our odd little minds—prognostication unfulfilled, and forgotten, new ones replacing. Human memory is akin to the cellular structure of our bodies: seemingly stable and self-reproducing, but constantly in flux, dying and being reborn to meet the passage of time, the perils and presses of biology, heading towards a biological end but a spiritual and historical afterlife and extension elsewhere and in others, transformed. Memory—particularly our memory of the future—is largely unstable and flexible, at once incongruent with the world as it is and yet malleable to what the world turns out to be, or what we come to remember the world having been. The material traces, the psychic echoes…

3. I suppose it makes me a conservative in the technical, and not the ideological sense, in that I no longer suppose—and in the back of my mind, I have never supposed—that history moves on some progressive, teleological line, without terrible (or wonderful—who knows) and fundamentally unforeseen feedback loops built into that movement, which can, in time or suddenly or both, send history into new and unexpected directions, directions that belie any talk of ‘progress’ or unidirectional (or bidirectional) movement. History, time, is a welter, and there is no telling how things will move, what will become.

Proceeding from this conviction—or, I would say, observation—is the congruent conviction that for many ‘problems’ there is in fact no ‘solution.’ If time, human societies, ecology, history, so on, are infinitely complex, malleable, their ontology at once visible and invisible to us, driven by logics and processes known only to God, as it were, then why should we expect our lives capable of division into neat moral binaries, or liable to neat solutions and resolutions? That is not to deny the possibility of moral certainty, in propositional terms, or even in a deep sense of the self before the world and God: but when we attempt to arrive at a ‘social’ morality, at a morality that is dispersed, woven into our human and natural ecologies in ways that preclude personal reckoning and analysis: then we enter territory for which ‘ambiguity’ is too mild a term.

Value judgments need not collapse utterly, but we are more in the realm of tragedy and comedy wherein the sheerness of the world, its apart-from-us-ness, is the primary operative reality. In the face of everything, then, what is best…? Prayer, sorrow, the momentary discoveries of good and gladness, small comforts perhaps, unless joined to a conviction, in the movement of prayer, liturgy, and the pin-points of sanctity, human and natural, that beyond our immediate, history-bound ken, there is God, there is an eternal stability in eternal movement, as unpredictable as that of this world, but in a movement of fundamental goodness and wholeness, moving Itself and us and all towards a fulfillment beyond, behind, our temporal knowledge, into an unending, ever expanding Completion.

Bridging the gap between how we intuitively understand words and concepts and how people in the past, or people in the present but in quite different cultural-linguistic worlds from us, understood those same words and concepts is often a difficult task. In the text I’ve translated here from the great early-modern Ottoman Damascene mystical philosopher, poet, and traveler (to name but three of his occupations) ‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī (164-1731), we encounter both dissonances of meaning endemic to the gap between our time and his, as well as dissonances that ‘Abd al-Ghanī introduces. Easily one of the most fascinating and versatile thinkers of early modern Islam, ‘Abd al-Ghanī simultaneously defended the practices and concepts of Sufism, especially as embodied in the thought of Ibn ‘Arabī, while also frequently refashioning them and integrating them into a wider-ranging philosophy of Islam that embraced the rapidly changing world of early modernity, against the puritanical, ‘fundamentalist’ strains of Islam that fitfully circulated in the Ottoman world. In addition to defending the legal validity of smoking, coffee-drinking, dancing, musical performances, and other activities, ‘Abd al-Ghanī generally argued for a broad social ethic that rejected moralism and morality policing, instead encouraging positive, indeed tolerant social interactions across class and confessional lines. This is not to say that he advocated some sort of proto-liberalism or modernism: as is clear from the following text, ‘Abd al-Ghanī did not reject the practice of the sharī’a or traditional theological beliefs. But what he did with those beliefs and how he interpreted them in doctrine and practice could be quite surprising and even innovative (a term he would not have appreciated, I should note). His often bold textual moves can be quite jarring at times- as they no doubt were in some cases for people in his own day.

This text is the bulk of a letter ‘Abd al-Ghanī sent, in April of 1678, to one Mulla Aḥmad of Hayrabolu, in what is now the European portion of Turkey (it was evidently conveyed by friends of ‘Abd al-Ghanī, as the note at the end indicates). In it our author discusses ‘true’ and ‘metaphorical’ acts and states, in so doing reversing the ways in which we tend to speak now (though reflecting language C.S. Lewis used in some of his works): the really real seclusion (khalwat, a type of ascetic withdraw for spiritual purposes) takes place within the self and in relation to God and through Him the rest of the world; that of the body and in relation to physical society is merely ‘metaphorical,’ obtaining reality through its contact with the true practice of seclusion. And so on- ‘Abd al-Ghanī explains it pretty well, I think, though this English translation does not convey the word-play and subtlety of the Arabic original- always a problem in translation, especially in religious-philosophical language such as this. But so it goes- ‘Abd al-Ghanī would no doubt argue from such a state to the ultimately metaphorical nature of language, realized only through connection with the truly Real.


And I have heard regarding you, O brother, that you are firmly fixed in your religion, desiring conformity with the command and the prohibition, and I love you for that. And I love for you what I love for my own self: that you enter into the path of inner piety (ṭarīqat al-taqwā al-bāṭiniyya), so that the interior and exterior be made perfect for you. What I mean by ‘inner piety’ is your crossing from the outward ordinances to the knowable realities, so that you witness through the eye of spiritual perception that every motion out of the motions of canonical prayer and other than those from among the acts of worship possess a lordly sign (ishāra)  and merciful secrets. And every ordinance from the ordinances of the sharī’a has an application in the exterior and an application in the interior. The sharī’aic ordinance (ḥukm) is a body, while the divine wisdom (ḥikma) is the spirit of that body. Do not be content with the bodies apart from the spirits, and do not be distracted from the bodies by the spirits: rather, bring together the exterior and the interior.

And let my friend—God, exalted is He, give him peace—know that there is no recourse for that besides entering into sharī’aic seclusion (khalwat) and doing sharī’aic spiritual exercises. And I mean by ‘seclusion’ only your solitude in witnessing the true Doer apart from the metaphorical doer, then the witnessing of the true One Described, apart from the metaphorical one, then the witnessing of the true Existence, apart from the metaphorical existence. And persist in this witnessing so that the senses and the intellect are fully immersed. This is true spiritual seclusion. As for the metaphorical seclusion, it is that you enclose your body in a ḥalāl house and ḥalāl sustenance, and cut off your sight interiorly and exteriorly from all that is outside that house by negation or affirmation, until you find the true seclusion, then come out of the metaphorical seclusion.

Among that which brings you to this is your concern for and your paying attention to the books of the knowledge of Sufism, such as the books of Ibn ‘Arabī, Ibn Sab’īn, al-‘Afīf al-Tilimsānī, and the like of them—God hallow their spirits—after washing the spiritual sight of the dirt of rejection of any of them, so that the door of their luminescent secret is opened for the heart, and the reality of their stationing upon the stations of the Muhammadan sharī’a is unveiled for the heart. And it knows that they are knowledge of it in the most perfect sense, acting according to it without innovation (bid’a) in the exterior or interior. And someone is not veiled from them through unknowledgeable rejection of their path, unreflexively being against them due to uncritical imitation [of anti-Sufi views], or from being fearful in regards to others due to his not understanding their doctrine, hiding in his [public] disavowal with faith in their doctrine without thinking evil of them—that is more beneficial for him, if such a person is not an enemy of that which he does not know. Junayd, God be pleased with him, said: ‘Faith (al-īmān) in the doctrine of this group is wilāya.’ Meaning, with neither understanding nor critical objection. For every entity among the learned has technical vocabulary which they use but others do not know, so accusing them of error without awareness of their technical vocabulary is itself a mistake. And there is a people who understand the doctrine of Sufism in accordance with the Book and Sunna, even if the exterior of the.doctrine appears to be in opposition. Its people always exist—to God belongs praise in every place and time! The one who licitly seeks them, finds them. ‘Licit seeking’ is sincere devotion, trust in God, thinking evil of the lower self, and the non-existence of thinking evil of others, whoever it may be, and submission to God in every place of His judgement and His decree, good and ill. As for the practitioner of innovationist seeking, he is not benefited by anyone he meets, even a prophet from among the prophets, upon them be peace.

And I mean by ‘exercise’ (riyāḍa) whenever I mention it, the directing of the soul towards the attaining of the realities and their habituation in every state, little by little. And that is by attachment to the clear Truth (al-ḥaqq), then by being characterized by it, then by ultimate realization—that is real spiritual exercise. As for metaphorical bodily exercise by the limiting of the eating of food and the drinking of water, as he—peace be upon him—said: ‘The sufficiency of the son of Adam are morsels which suffice his loins,’ so it is an excercise seeking other than itself, not for its own sake. It is constituted in the whole and is an aid for the fulfillment of the spiritual exercise, and is what does not go to excess and so lead to corrupt imaginings, so becoming a harmful interdicted thing—for this reason the jurists discuss it in their books.

So I have explicated for you seclusion and its conditions, real and metaphorical, and its like, exercise, but we hastened the matter due to the closeness of the travel of the brothers to you. God guide us and you on a straight path, and upright religion, in every moment, to the hour of death.

‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī, Risāla 6, in Wasā’il al-taḥqīq wa rasā’il al-tawfīq, edited by Samer Akkach, in Letters of Sufi Scholar (Leiden: Brill, 2010), 116-119. Translation by Jonathan P. Allen, 2014, no rights reserved.

In the vast field of medieval Arabic and Persian literature, it is not hard to find authors whose works seem all but impenetrable, cloaked in difficult syntax, obscure vocabulary, and constant, often infuriating motion from one perspective to another, full of occluded subjects, ambiguous referents, and unattributed references. ‘Azīz Nasafī, who seems to have lived at some point in the 13th century in what is now Uzbekistan, was not such a writer. Rather, his treatises, which defy easy categorization, are concise yet clear, carefully constructed with a pedagogical eye towards learners of varying skill levels; he is often humorous, drawing upon ‘real-world’ analogies in illustrating theological points. Some sources refer to him as a ‘Sufi,’ though this is a problematic characterization, as should be clear from the excerpt from one of his short treatises which I’ve translated and presented below, the Zubdat al-haqā’iq. He incorporates elements from the discursive tradition of Sufism, and had some sort of relationship or affiliation with a shaykh of the Kubrayi tariqa- but that is about the limit of it. He does not present himself as a Sufi shaykh, and his incorporation of Sufi material is selective. Likewise, he was clearly conversant with multiple streams of philosophy; his own particular philosophical perspective was a sort of monism, similar, but not dependent upon that of the rather more famous ibn ‘Arabi. But it would probably be inaccurate to simply call him a philosopher and be done with it.

And so on we might go with all of the conventional designations for thinkers and religious folk of this period- categories become rather difficult, if not impossible, to apply. He himself, in several of his treatises, deflects categorization: he instead tells his readers that his purpose is to present the teachings of multiple ‘schools’ of thought and practice, trying hard not to bias the reader in one direction or another. And, perhaps surprisingly given much of what we think we know about the Islamic middle ages, he is generally quite successful in his ecumenical endeavor. In the end, though, he does make sure that the most important things are clarified, the things that the spiritual seeker, he believes, cannot dispense with.

Regardless of how we classify him, ‘Azīz Nasafī was clearly a prolific enough author, with a deeply humane vision of religious and ethical practice, a vision he wished to impart to a wide audience. And he did reach a wide audience- his texts circulated far and wide, from South Asia to Southeastern Europe, both in their original Persian and translated into other vernaculars. Despite his relative obscurity in life, his texts and the mystical-ethical vision they contained have found considerable reception. I hope this short text, taken from the final section of the final chapter of the Zubdat, imparts a glimpse of that vision, as our author describes the sort of conduct the spiritual seeker ought to engage in, and what she ought to avoid, and how to truly become ‘an inhabitant of heaven.’

Finally, for more information on this figure, see the quite good Encyclopedia Iranica article on him: Nasafi, ‘Aziz.

O dervish! If you yourself are not able to arrive at the limit of spiritual stations, or spend the entire day in gazing upon the divine attributes and the spiritual stations, or persist in contemplating what no eye has seen nor ear heard nor thought entered the human heart, or always dwell in the highest heaven and in closeness to the Divine Presence in the station of absolute proximity, in the witnessing and the encountering of the Beauty of the Divine Presence, the Possessor of Magnificence—well, at least strive that you be saved from hell and become an inhabitant of heaven!

O dervish! Everything that falls into the salt mine becomes salt, and everything that falls into a filthy place becomes filthy—dirt from dirt, purity from purity! First of all you make yourself pure so that everything that comes from you is pure.

O dervish! Don’t obsess about praying a great deal, nor about fasting a lot. Don’t obsess about making the ḥajj a lot—just do what is obligatory. Don’t obsess about expanding your vocabulary, don’t obsess about reading lots of stories, don’t obsess about increasing in philosophical knowledge—just be content with the necessary amount. Rather, you should be concerned with being honest and good-hearted, for the torment of the folk of hell is mostly from dishonesty and bad-heartedness, while the comfort of the inhabitant of heaven is from honesty and good-heartedness. It is necessary that your inner self become honest and good-hearted so that you be delivered. For if you bind yourself with affectedness, you are in hell. It is necessary that you become such that, all day, goodness and comfort [towards others] spontaneously pour out of you. Do not be like those who all day, evil and pain [towards others] pour out of them. Their inner selves have become the doing of dishonesty and evil. Your inner self must be honesty and the doing of goodness.

O dervish! You will be ornamented with the characteristics of God when you entirely act with goodness, neither desiring compensation for yourself nor imposing obligation; rather, you take the obligation upon yourself. For bad-heartedness is when all day you cause pain to people and desire pain in people, whether by word, deed, or property. When you know the meaning of evil, it is necessary that you be far from it!

Good-heartedness is when all day you desire comfort for people and all the time cause comfort for people, whether by word, deed, or property. When you know the meaning of good-heartedness and bad-heartedness then know that everyone who is honest and good-hearted is delivered from hell and becomes an inhabitant of heaven. Then, if you seek either remaining [in this state] or a higher degree—it is well and good, in view of the fact that for the inhabitant of heaven everything that she achieves in this world or the other, her heaven becomes more expansive, while for inhabitant of hell everything she achieves in this world or the other, her hell becomes tighter.

O dervish! From the beginning to the end of spiritual journeying, this little treatise suffices for the spiritual wayfarers.

 ‘Azīz Nasafī, Zubdat al-haqā’iq.


You can get there from here, though
there’s no going home.

Everywhere you go will be somewhere
you’ve never been. Try this:

head south on Mississippi 49, one-
by-one mile markers ticking off

another minute of your life. Follow this
to its natural conclusion- dead end

at the coast, the pier at Gulfport where
riggings of shrimp boats are loose stiches

in a sky threatening rain. Cross over
the man-made beach, 26 miles of sand

dumped on the mangrove swamp- buried
terrain of the past. Bring only

what you must carry- tome of memory,
its random blank pages. On the dock

where you will board the boat for Ship Island,
someone will take your picture:

the photograph- who you were-
will be waiting when you return.

Natasha Trethewey, ‘Theories of Time and Space,’ in Native Guard: Poems, 2006.

Medieval Sufis were extremely diverse in terms of doctrine, practice, style, social status, and manner of life. As a result, establishing a common thread or unifying theme can be difficult. The  author of the work excerpted below, ʿAbd Allāh b. Muḥammad b. ʿAlī ʿAyn al-Quḍāt Hamadānī (d. 525/1133), is no exception. Educated in all of the ‘classical’ courses of study of his time, from law to tafsīr to literature, Hamadānī came to embrace a rather idiosyncratic form of Sufism, resulting in accusations of Ismai’ali ‘heresy’ from his political enemies. Perhaps in part due to such accusations, coupled with political and social conflict Hamadānī found himself embroiled in, our author was executed in 1133 at a relatively young age (some sources give his age as thirty-three, others a somewhat older age). Before his execution—which had echoes of the execution of the famous martyr of Baghdad, al-Ḥallaj—Hamadānī wrote numerous treatises, poems, and letters. While some have not come down to us (for instance, he was said to have partially completed a Qur’an tafsīr, which has not survived), a considerable portion of his corpus has been passed down, including a trove of letters, a lengthy philosophical-theological treatise in Arabic, and his Persian handbook of Sufism, the Tamhīdāt, which I have excerpted from and translated here.

Hamadānī deals with two important themes in medieval Sufism: the question of personal epistemology, as it were, and the importance of the spiritual shaykh. His answers to these questions, while drawing upon an already well-established tradition within Sufism, also display his own interpretations and ideas. Certainly Hamadānī is eager to root his arguments in both Qur’an and hadith, while giving both a decidedly different interpretation than would be likely be found among more ‘exoteric’ interpreters. Indeed, the arguments put forward here—for the epistemological veracity of the illumined, properly disposed heart, and the absolute vitality and power of the spiritual master—found resistance and even violent condemnation among some of the non-Sufi ‘ulama of Hamadānī’s era, and afterwards; nor did all Sufis accept positions such as these, either. That is to say nothing of some of Hamadānī’s quite radical and even transgressive positions enumerated elsewhere in this treatise; he is quite comfortable with neo-Platonic philosophy and its theological implications, for instance. However, this work does not seem to have been primarily intended as an apologetic; it seems to have been aimed at initiates or potential initiates into the mystical path of Islam. It is ostensibly addressed to one ‘Aziz, an enquirer into Sufism; implicitly, it is directed to all who are sympathetically interested in the esoteric dimensions of religion. It is written in Persian, not Arabic, thus representing a relatively early vernacular work of Sufism; the language is clear and eloquent, without being overly obscure or excessively Arabicizing. That said, this text is still aimed at possessors of at least a middling education, people capable of reading and more or less understanding the Arabic of the Qur’an and hadith (italicized in my translation).

For more on Hamadānī, his life and works, see Hermann Landolt, ‘‘Ayn al-Qudat Al-Hamadani,’ in The Encyclopaedia of Islam (Third Edition), 2009, Brill Online, ed. Gudrun Krämer, Denis Matringe, John Nawas and Everett Rowson. (E.J. Brill), available (for free!) here; and Carl W. Ernst, Words of Ecstasy in Sufism. SUNY Press, 1985.

Do you understand, O ‘Aziz? The scent from this hadith—The believer is the mirror of the believer—adheres to this subject. For everything that one does not know but wishes to know, there are to ways available [to come to know it]. The first is that by one’s own heart (dil) one ascend, through contemplation and deliberation, until he attains to the right knowledge of the matter. Muhammad—upon him peace—said about this: Consult your heart for legal opinions (istafti qalbaka), verily, your seeking of legal opinion are the muftis. He said: all that is brought before it, the place and mufti of that ought to be sincerity of heart. If the heart gives a fatwa, it is the command of God—do it; if it does not give a fatwa—leave it off.  It is manifest that Verily, the angel has a portion, and the satan has a portion. Whatever the heart gives as a fatwa is divine, and whatever it rebuts is satanic, and the occurrence of these two portions (dū lamma) is in all bodies, among both believers and unbelievers. Our deeds become difficult in that regard when our mufti is the commanding lower self (nafs-i amare) that is the soul commanding evil (Q. 12.53). Everyone whose mufti is the heart is God-fearing and happy, while everyone whose mufti is the lower self (nafs) is a loser and unhappy. If someone does not have the aptitude or predisposition to know [religious knowledge] by means of his own heart, he must seek the heart of someone else and ask of someone with this aptitude—So ask of the people of remembrance if you do not know (Q. 16.43), so that someone else’s heart becomes your mirror.

O friend, hearts are divided into two divisions: the first is that which stands facing what the Pen of God has written upon it: God wrote in their hearts faith (Q. 58.22), and the right hand of God is the scribe. Then whatever he does not know by means of the elevation of his own heart he will come to know. The second division, however, neither attains nor has aptitude to stand facing the Pen of God. When such a one seeks out and comes to know from one whose heart is a mirror and tablet for the Pen of God, he knows from this that it is God who is seen in the mirror of the  soul of the spiritual master (pīr). The spiritual master sees himself in the mirror of the soul of the disciple (murīd), while the disciple sees God in the mirror of the spiritual master’s soul.

And it is like all that we said: all who are sick arise and go to a physician each one seeking a cure. The physician gives them different prescriptions in view of the assuaging of different diseases. If someone says, ‘These different prescriptions are due to the ignorance of the physician,’ he has spoken in error, and this speaker is ignorant of the fact that the difference of prescriptions occurs due to the difference of diseases. For diseases are of various sorts, and prescribing for all diseases with one disease in mind would be ignorance and error. Those who understand what has been said understand the matter. For the formal cause of religion and of the Islam of form is of one sort. Islam is built upon five. The essential prescriptions [of Islam] are fixed, which are the five prescriptions that are the healing and curing of all believers. As for internal works and the illumination of the heart, they are unbound and innumerable. Without doubt, every spiritual master must act as an adroit physician who treats the disciple, and for every different disease command a different medicine. For all those who have abandoned cure and physician it is better that they go under the disease, for If God knew of any good in them, He would have made them hear (Q. 8.23). So it is necessary to travel the Path with an adroit physician; in accordance with the consensus of the shaykhs—God have mercy on their souls—it is a legal obligation. Because of his they say: Whoever has no shaykh has no religion. The shaykh also has obligations, to accept successorship (khilāfat) and to teach disciples the obligations of the Path. If you desire from God the best of perfection, listen to His words: It is He Who made you khalifs on the earth and raised some of you over some of you in ranks. And in proof of internal successorship (khilāfat-i bāṭin) in another place He says: He will make them succeed them as He made those before them to succeed (Q. 24.55).

ʿAbd Allāh b. Muḥammad b. ʿAlī ʿAyn al-Quḍāt Hamadānī

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