2.M.2a From the Qur’ān: Al-Wāqi‘ah (The Chapter of the Inevitable) Qur’ān–– 56: 10–40, presented by Muhammad Suheyl Umar


In the Name of God, the Infinitely Good, the All-Merciful

The Foremost are the Foremost. They are those who are brought near (to God) (muqarrabūn). Many among the first (generations) and few among the last….. and Companions of the right. Many among the first (generations) and many among the last.


Islam is spoken of in general throughout the Qur’ān as “the Way of God,” that is, the path ordained by God, which may be said to include both esoterism and exoterism. But “the Way to God,” mentioned only in these two suras, is clearly the esoteric path, and the causality hereis strengthened by the word “Reminder”– that which pro­duces remembrance (dhikr),which is itself the essence of Sufism.

By the time that Islam had become firmly established in Medina, the esoterists were already a minority. This is clear from a Revelation that came not long after the hijrah,which speaks of “a group of those that are with these” (LXXIII, 20) in reference to those of the companions who followed most closely the practices of the Prophet and who may therefore be considered to form a spiritual elect. Natural pleasures consecrated by praise and thanks were the dhikr of primordial man, and it was as a mode of remembrance of God. The golden mean of the Prophet, the balance between abstentions for the sake of God and natural pleasures spiritualized by gratitude to God and by intellectual perception of their Divine Archetypes, has always had a powerful strain of representatives among the Sufis– not the least illustrious.

All that these verses suggest is fully confirmed elsewhere, likewise at the outset of the Revelation. In another of the earliest suras (LVI), the Islamic community is spoken of as comprising two groups, “the Foremost” and “those on the, right.” This second group is the generality of believers, in contradistinction to “those on the left,” who are the damned. As to “the Foremost,” they are said to be “many among the first (generations) and few among the last,” whereas “those on the right” are “many among the first and: many among the last.” “The Foremost,” who are to be eventually the esoteric minority, are further described as “brought nigh (to God)” (muqarrabūn), a term used to distinguish the archangels from the angels. This nearness, we are told in another sura, means the privilege of having direct access to the fountain of Tasnīm.

A third group also is spoken of in the earlier Revelations, namely, “the Righteous” (al-abrār).This does not alter the main twofold division of the community, for the Righteous are given to drink a draft that has been flavored at Tasnīm (LXXXIII, 27–28), the same fount at which “the Nigh” drink directly. This suggests that the Righteous are following in the foot-steps of the Foremost and that their aspirations are set toward the station of nearness. In a parallel way, they are not yet fully realized; nonetheless, esoteric status is confirmed in another very early sura where they are said to drink a draft that has been flavored at the fountain of Kāfūr (LXXVI, 5–6). Those who are privileged to drink directly from this other supreme fountain are named “the slaves of God” (‘ibād Allāh).[10]

The Sufi, formed by the Qur’ān, has the obligation to be primordial not only in his aspiration to regain the original perfection of man– the preliminary goal of every mysticism– but also in what might be called “creation-consciousness.” It is reasonable to suppose that our first ancestors were of all men the least in need of being reminded how they and the world came into existence. If religion was not yet necessary, that was because the “ligament,” after which religion is named and which it seeks to renovate, was still vibrant. To use the traditional symbol of the tree as an image of the cosmos– both of macrocosm and microcosm– the first men were profoundly and directly aware of being attached to their Divine Root, and they extended this sub­jective certainty to all that surrounded them. Everything was an object of wonder, in virtue of the Transcendent Reality which it manifested, the Hidden Treasure which it had to make known. The failure to live up to that attitude– the failure to maintain the consciousness of the symbolic nature of each object, the choice of something for its own sake regardless of its archetype– was the cause of the fall.

Please proceed to 2.M.2b

Notes and References

[1] See Muslim, Birr, 115; Bukhārī, Isti’dhān 1.

[2] Let us see what does this Divine form imply. To put the issue in its larger perspective first of all one has to take into consideration the immense variety of creation and the special position that the human beings hold in the hierarchy of manifestation.

God produces an inconceivably enormous cosmos with an infinite diversity of created things. If we investigate the creatures one by one the task can never be completed but if we speak in general terms, it is possible to classify created things into categories. The cosmos can be divided into two basic worlds, the unseen and the visible, sometimes referred to as “the heavens and the earth”, or “the spiritual world and the bodily world.” We have mentioned during our discussions that there is a third world that is both similar to and different from these two basic worlds, called the “world of imagination”. If these three worlds represent the general structure of the total macrocosm, the human being can be called a microcosm, since three parallel domains are found within each individual: spirit, soul, and body.

When we want to look at other bodily creatures; that is, those physical things that fill the visible universe we find inanimate objects, plants, and animals. What is interesting for our purposes is how these three kinds of creature manifest the signs of God; the divine attributes that become visible through them. Which attributes become visible in inanimate objects? Perhaps the best way to answer the question is to say that more than anything else, inanimate objects conceal God’s attributes instead of revealing them. They tell us what God is not rather than what He is.

In contrast to inanimate things, plants display several obvious divine attributes. It is easy to see that plants are alive, and life is the first of the “Seven Leaders”, the seven divine attributes that predominate in creation. Plants have certain knowledge. They certainly have desire: they want water, sunlight, fertilizer, and they trace elements. If you treat them well and give them what they really desire– like nice, rich manure– they even show their gratitude by producing enormous crops; they are not ungrateful truth-concealers. Plants have power and can destroy stones and concrete, but they need time. But all these divine attributes are found rather feebly within plants, so tanzīh outweighs tashbīh.

In contrast, the divine attributes found in animals are much more intense. Moreover, animals add other attributes that are difficult to find in plants. The knowledge possessed by animals can be extraordinary, though it is always rather specialized. Bees can tell their hive-mates exactly where to find the best honey, but they don’t know much about vinegar. Monarch butterflies know the precise location of their valley in Mexico, but they cannot be trusted to take you to New York City. The animal kingdom represents an incredible diversity of knowledge and skills, divided among a vast number of specialized organisms. Desire is also clearly present in animals, but each species desires different things, and thus a great natural harmony is created where, as Rumi puts it, “Everything is both eater and eaten.”

Both plants and animals represent a tremendous variety of specific signs. Each plant or animal species is a special configuration of divine attributes that is not reproduced in any other species.

Human beings are a species of animal, and they share many characteristics with them. But there is one remarkable characteristic that differentiates them from all other animals: Each animal is what it is, with little or no confusion. But human beings are unknown factors. Each species of animals is dominated by one or a few characteristics. The human being is infinitely malleable. What then is a human being? What brings about this fundamental difference between human beings and other animals? Muslims answer these questions in many ways. The easiest approach within our current discussion is to investigate the nature of the relationship between human beings and the divine attributes. Every creature other than a human being is a sign of God in which a specific, limited, and defined configuration of divine attributes is reflected. In contrast, a human being reflects God as God. In other creatures, some divine attributes are permanently manifest while others are permanently hidden. In human beings, all divine attributes are present, and any of them can become manifest if circumstances are appropriate. The Prophet referred to this peculiar characteristic of human beings when he repeated the famous saying found in the Bible– a saying that has also played an important role in Jewish and Christian understandings of what it means to be human– “God created Adam in his own image” though we will employ “form” for “image,” in keeping with the Arabic text. Many authorities understand a similar meaning from the Qur’anic verse, “God taught Adam the name, all of them” (2:31). In effect, all things are present in human beings, because God taught them the names or realities of all things.

When it is said that everything is within human beings, this is not meant in a literal sense. The principle here is easy to understand if we return to the discussion of the divine names. God created the universe as the sum total of his signs. The signs explain the nature of God inasmuch as he discloses and reveals himself. What does he disclose? He discloses his attributes, such as life, knowledge, power, and speech. The cosmos in its full temporal and spatial extension – everything other than God – illustrates all God’s manifest attributes. Hence the macrocosm is an image, or form, of God.

The human being was also created in God’s form, embracing all God’s attributes. The difference between the whole universe and the human being is that the signs are infinitely dispersed in the universe, while they are concentrated into a single, intense focus in each human individual. The concentration of the attributes within human being makes people God’s vicegerents, that is, creatures who can perform the same functions as God, with all due respect to tanzīh. Human beings manifest all God’s attributes, but in a weakened and dim manner, demanded by the fact that, although they are similar to God in respect of having been created in his form, they are different in respect of spatial and temporal limitations. God remains infinitely beyond any human being.

God created human beings in his own form, which is to say that he taught them all the names. Adam had an actualized knowledge of these names, but he was still susceptible to temporary forgetfulness. The rest of the human race is born into a heedlessness that is more than temporary. The divine qualities are latent within them, but these qualities need to be brought out from latency and be embodied in people’s minds and activities.

God had created Adam to be his vicegerent. Vicegerency is the birthright of his children. However, they will only achieve the vicegerency if they follow the prophets. They must adopt the faith and practice given by God through the scriptures: “God has promised those who have faith and work wholesome deeds to make them vicegerents in the earth, even as He made those who were before them vicegerents” (24:55). To be God’s vicegerent means, among other things, to manifest all the divine attributes in the form of which human beings were created. Only by embodying God’s own qualities can human being represent Him. But we know that most people do not live up to their potential. Even if they do have faith and work wholesome deeds, they never become dependable servants of God, because caprice and heedlessness often make them ignore or forget their proper duties.

[3] Hinduism (Upanishads).

[4] Buddhism.

[5] Christianity (Augustine).

[6] Judaism.

[7] Islam (Qur’an).

[8] Carl G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections (New York: Pantheon, 1963), 325.

[9] No aspect of Islamic thought and practice has been more overlooked in recent studies of Islam than spirituality. For most observers in Western countries, Islam embodies three traits that are antithetical to liberal views of religious expression: traditionalism, legalism, and authoritarianism. The spiritual dimension of Islam is seldom mentioned except with respect to Sufis. This blindness to the spiritual side of Islam is the result of a prejudice. According to this view, ‘real’ Islam is traditionalistic and legalistic but not deeply spiritual. When Sufi spirituality is brought up, it is usually not as a religious perspective within Islam but rather as an importation of spirituality from the outside. Since Sufi spirituality is not seen as ‘real’ Islam, Sufism is often treated as a separate sect or even as a de facto alternative religion. The underlying premise of our perspective is that rather than an obstacle to a progressive Islamic social consciousness, Islamic spirituality is the necessary ground for all religiously directed action. Not only is spirituality the soul of Islam, but it also constitutes Islam’s most valuable contribution to world religions.

Meg Greenfield wrote in Newsweek, in 1979:

“We are heading into an expansion of the American relationship with that complex of religion, culture and geography known as Islam. There are two things to be said about this. One is that no part of the world is more important to our own well-being at the moment– and probably for the foreseeable future. The other is that no part of the world is more hopelessly and systematically and stubbornly misunderstood by us.”

Why is it that Islam is so “hopelessly and systematically and stubbornly”– three exceptionally severe adjectives –misunderstood by the west? One answer is that the west’s separation of church and state makes it next to impossible for it to understand people who not only lodge religious belief at the center of their individual conduct, but also at the center of their politics. This is indeed a major obstacle, but there are two others, the first of which again relates to politics. During most of their history, Muslims and Christians have been at odds, and rivals are not known for having the most objective views of each other.[9]

Once we think of them, these two causes of misunderstanding are obvious; but the third one is not. Religiously, people tend to fall into two categories. Some find the meaning they seek in religious forms– commandments, observances, and texts straightforwardly, largely literally, interpreted– while others, without bypassing or abandoning these, sense their provisional character and reach out for meanings that the forms contain but which cannot be equated with those forms. If we call the first type of person exoteric, out of his concern for meanings that attach to outward or manifest forms, the second type that is drawn to the meanings that underlie those forms conveniently designated esoteric.

[10] A designation that has two distinct meanings in the Qur’ān, one inclusive of all beings – even Satan is a slave of God – and the other, as in the present context, exclusive of all who have not realized the essence of slavehood, which is extinction in God. The slaves of God not only drink directly from Kāfūr but they cause it to flow at will, “making it gush forth abundantly.” This suggests a spontaneous and inevitable cause– effect connection between the “irresistible” emptiness of the slaves, in themselves the personification of spiritual poverty (faqr), and the extreme plentitude of Divine Riches symbolized by the fountain. “Seek to draw nigh unto Me by that which I have not.” By making nearness the result of poverty, these words of God to the Sufi Abū Yazīd Basṭāmi, often quoted by Ibn ‘Arabī, imply that “the slaves” are, in fact, “the brought nigh.”[10] The same identity, which is in the nature of things, is also implicit in one of the first commands addressed to the Prophet: “Prostrate thyself and draw nigh” (XCVI, 19), and in his commentary, “The slave is nearest his Lord when he prostrateth himself,” prostration being the posture of faqr.[10] Moreover, nearness to God has a double significance analogous to that of slavehood. Metaphysically speaking, nearness, like slavehood, is an inescapable fact that concerns everybody. This truth, already in the Divine Name al-Qarīb, the All-Near, is affirmed by the Qur’ān: “We are nearer to him (the dying man about whom ye are gathered) than ye are but ye see not” (LVI, 85). Mystically speaking, however, “He is Near to us; we are far from Him”[10] Only those who directly perceive the truth of nearness can be called near.