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The Sufi Aesthetic Dimension

Adonis. Poet and writer

The ocular and oneiric visions of the human being shape a duality between the hidden and the
present that forms the basis of Sufi aesthetics. This is how experience of revelation emerges,
which imposes a discourse beyond rationality, founded on metaphor. This is, in effect, a form
of clairvoyance that, just as in surrealism, goes beyond the limits of appearance to access real
meaning. Poetry is, therefore, a form of subjective and interior thought that helps the human
being to reach the inner world of things. Thus, Sufi and surrealist writings, apparently so
distanced from each other, are experiences of access to the absolute based on myth and symbol;
in other words, on the profoundest and most unconscious part of the human being.

Perhaps contemplating communicates to those who contemplate

what is not said by any expression
or contained in any interpretation.

If we start from the idea that God is only known However, given that the human being is
as God, or that only God knows God, the human not a simple thing, nor a simple history, but
being’s knowledge of God will always need to rather carries within him something that
exceed and renew itself to continue to be at the goes beyond himself, his identity will be
level of what it seeks to know: the unlimited found within the hidden. The human being
character of God, His infinitude.1 As God is an is a product of history, but as he is concealed
ongoing mystery, knowing Him will obligato- he goes beyond history. This hidden aspect is
rily be an ongoing discovery. Therefore, there at the same time an absolute presence: it is
is something hidden which remains hidden, manifested, visible through manifestations
that exists by and for itself, and which cannot which are no more than signs of the hidden.
be given definitive form, because it is beyond The hidden is, moreover, different to what
all knowledge. Language, therefore, cannot we call the unknown, as the unknown can be
contain it; it can transmit an idea of it, or an known in itself, while the hidden cannot be
experience of its vision and comprehension, but exhausted by knowledge, or the latter does not
its transmission will be indirect in any case; in completely embrace it. Everything we know
other words, through image, symbol, sign and about the hidden are images, but this, in itself,
allusion. remains hidden.

1. A first version of this text was published in Sufismo y surrealismo, Madrid, Ediciones del Oriente y del Mediterráneo,
Madrid, 2008.
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The hidden/presence is the field in which In this advance it is necessary to unceasingly

human ocular and oneiric visions move. It is renew himself to always be present, to be
the field of revelation (kaxf) on which Sufi ready at all times to walk towards the un-
aesthetics is raised. This aesthetics has two known.
foundations: the first, that the attempt to dis- What path does Sufism use for revelation?
cover the hidden only leads to a greater need The answer lies in the fact that Sufism distin-
to attempt it, as the human being only man- guishes, at the cognitive level, between reason
ages to know the threshold of what remains and the heart. The former serves to know the
unknown and invites him to know it. It is as external world, the world of phenomena, and
if the more he knows the more ignorant he is the latter for knowledge of the interior, of the
and the greater the desire to investigate the real world. It distinguishes, therefore, between
hidden. The second foundation consists of the the world of religious law and the world of
fact that the experience of revelation imposes, truth. Reason has its own method: analysis,
in order to be expressed, a discourse that es- argumentation. And the heart also has its own
capes from the chains of rationality and logic, method: intuition, illumination and taste.
and from the chains of normal common sense, Therefore, Sufism rejects rationalist method-
in addition to freeing itself from doctrinarian ology. But not only rejects its methodology, but
theology and the norms of religious law. It is also the system of life founded on its values,
something that is unspeakable, indescribable. with the intention of better inserting itself in
It is from another level. the undelimitable and infinite.
Sufism, as an attitude, upsets the order
The experience of revelation imposes a of the exterior world and its instruments of
discourse that escapes from the chains of knowledge and, as expression, alters the usual
rationality and logic order of language. This means that the Sufi
does not establish rational relations between
Add to this that the aesthetics of Sufism is himself, nature and the things of nature, as
also founded on contradiction, which means he considers it as a set of symbols, images and
that everything is expressed at the same time allusions, and the relations he strikes up with
in its opposite, death in life, life in death, day all of this are cordial (of the heart), in the Sufi
in night, night in day. The extremes thus join sense of the term.
together in complete unity: movement and Revelation is manifested or expressed with
repose, reality and imagination, the strange a language that occurs as emanation, dictate
and the familiar, light and dark, interior and or theopatic expression, in the almost total
exterior. The Sufi unites the interior and the absence of censorship of reason, although,
exterior, the subject and the object, the hidden despite this, in the experience of Sufi writing
reality and the luminous reality, to achieve a there is nothing gratuitous, as there is always
state of superior consciousness, which is not an enthusiastic will for revelation. This experi-
manifested to a specific individual but to all ence is sometimes manifested in expressions,
individuals. Thus unity between visible world terms and images that those who see them from
and invisible world is the unity of opposites outside, or through the eyes of religious norms,
and one of the aesthetic foundations of Sufi denominate deviation or charlatanism. It is an
writing. In this way, we see that the aesthetics experience that goes beyond the partial to reach
of Sufism pushes the human being to continu- the total and exceeds the material-spiritual and
ously advance beyond the limited, the known. exterior-interior duality, in pursuit of a unity
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in which illumination is united with action and believes in genies and in invisible worlds and
ecstasy with living practice. beings, does not believe, however, in the exist-
Sufi writing is an experience that does not ence in the body of a world which is not seen
offer abstract philosophical ideas, but states or known by reason. The xath is the discovery
and atmospheres. It is a writing that does not of this immense continent full of the surprising
narrate or teach but awakens things and sets and the dazzling, of the infinite. It is, therefore,
off its mysteries. According to this aesthetics, an explosive force that destroys the different
poetry is like a breeze scattered over the world, forms of accustomed thought and the habitual
in which creativity is an emanation that dis- forms of expression and writing. It is a kind
seminates life in all things and in which the of transgression with which the human being
limits are dissolved between the self and the recognises interior and invisible nature and
other, between the subject and the object, har- goes beyond the logic and its value. However,
monising the extremes. normative religious reason understands that
the transcendent in nature, in the metaphysical
Religious “reason”, which believes in and in the human being is stopped in prophetic
genies and in invisible worlds and beings, revelation and that it is exclusive to it. This is
does not believe in the existence in the why the writing must remain within the fron-
body of a world which is not seen or tiers of the known and the evident; otherwise
known by reason it would enter into competition with prophecy
and possibly come to belie it. This brings us
In Sufi writing the self and the non-self to affirm that the aesthetics of the Sufi text,
are dissolved in a dialectical movement that just like that of the surrealist text, is funda-
transforms the human being into a dynamic mentally based on metaphor (mayaz). Both
of profound knowledge of existence and fu- are eminently non-normative texts: the first
sion with its mysteries. This is why this writing transgresses religious norms and the second
seems to go beyond literary language. It is as if institutional, cultural and social norms. And,
it were language that capture what is beyond insofar as metaphor is supposition, it offers no
nature, or a secret rite beyond language. Thus emphatic response, but is, in itself, an ambit
this writing seems to expect the unexpected, of friction of semantic contradictions. The
seems like a desire that is not satisfied when re- metaphor does not generate, therefore, more
alising the desired, but rather upon realising it than new questions. From the cognitive point
thirst and anxiety are further intensified. When of view it is a factor of concern and confusion,
we enter the horizon of this writing we wonder not of certainty and calm. This explains why
if language here is listening or touching, true the metaphor is fought, in the heart of Arab
revelation or immersion. In fact, everything culture, within the religious ambit above all.
in it seems like a symbol, dream and allusion. There is still a dominant tendency that either
Night, in this writing, is not night as such but rejects hermeneutics, in other words, the
rather an allusion to another light, just as death metaphor, understanding the religious text
is not death but rather another life. literally, or accepts it, but with conditions that
This is made clear in the theopatic locution do not allow the appearance of any answer that
(xath), which is a copious flow lit up in an un- contravenes religious norms. In both cases the
known continent of the human being, fought text has a priority that must be accepted. And
and repressed especially by religious “reason”. hermeneutics is, according to this tendency,
The strange thing is that this “reason”, which no more than the confirmation of everything
32 The Sufi Aesthetic Dimension

that corresponds to what the text offers directly of metaphor. They are interested in what they
and literally. Hermeneutics is here a kind of call the truth and they preach it like something
analytical operation to confirm the text and its absolutely evident. But metaphor is imaginary,
content, not to be questioned, or interpreted in which means, in the view of these religious
a way that contradicts the literal evidence and people, that it is useless and meaningless.
religious norm. Nevertheless, for the Sufis and for the sur-
Poetics of the metaphor lies in its non-ref- realists metaphor is not only a question of style,
erentiality; that is, in its condition of invention, it is also clairvoyance. Arabic writing explained
as if it were always a start and lacked a past. the cause of the metaphor saying that when
As energy generator of questions it renews the the soul meets with a discourse of incomplete
human being, as it renews thought, language meaning, which is characteristic of metaphor,
and relations with things. It is a dynamic of it wishes it to be completed. If it finds itself
negation of present existence seeking another faced with a discourse of complete meaning,
existence. Every metaphor (mayaz) is transit as happens in non-metaphorical writing, this
(tayauz): just as in metaphor language goes be- desire is extinguished (al-Jurjani).2 Just as the
yond itself, reality expressed by language goes known generates a desire towards the unknown,
beyond itself, also through language. Thus, metaphor generates the desire to achieve com-
metaphor connects us with the other dimension plete meaning, to leave the finite to go on to the
of things, with their invisible dimension. infinite. This means that writing is constituted
in Sufism, and in surrealism, on a language that
Poetics of the metaphor lies in its provokes the desire to search, to question, to
non-referentiality; that is, in its condition know the unknown and to enter the dynamic
of invention, as if it were always a start of the infinite. It thus responds to infinitude in
and lacked a past knowledge and expression.
Dealing with metaphor brings us to deal
Given all of this, metaphor naturally de- with the form. And the form in its turn sends
mands a dynamic reading parallel to its dyna- us to the profound meaning of experience
mism; that is, an always revised reading. The of both Sufi and surrealist writing. This is
reading that insists on the comprehension of what reveals God (the meaning), or what
the text only literally or externally contradicts eliminates the veil that exists between us and
the very nature of language, given that literal- Him, thus being able to see Him and unite us
ness kills language, both in form and in mean- with Him. However, the unveiling (kaxf) here
ing, apart from also annihilating the human does not mean intensifying the brightness of
being and his thought. On this level we can say the meaning, or making it come from a state
that the text is its interpretation. Put another of concealment to a state of presence but of
way, there is no metaphor, or no interpreta- weakening the intensity of its manifestation
tion, of that text with which we seek to cogni- so that he can be seen. The more intense the
tively reach definitive truths, as happens with solar sparkle and radiation are, the less we can
religious, scientific and mathematical texts. stare at the sun; that is, the sun is hidden from
Religious people are the staunchest enemies view. In this sense, we can understand the Sufi

2. Abd al-Qadir Al-Jurjani (d. 1078) is one of the great classical Arab rhetoricians, with works such as Asrar Al-Balagha
[The Secrets of Elocuence] and Dala‘il Al-I‘jaz [Intimations of Inimitability).
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assertion that “from the intense manifestation it. It is the manifested that points towards the
comes concealment.” The form is, therefore, hidden. Therefore, whoever is content to look
like a fine transparent cloud that veils, making towards the form within the limits of sensitive
it possible for it to be seen and “manifesting appearance will see the meaning as darkness
itself” to whoever looks. and will be linked to darkness, while whoever
The appearance of meaning is concealment, goes beyond these limits and penetrates its
because the fact that meaning appears in a form interior will see the meaning in its true light
implies that its light has been veiled, as the and in its true being.
form is limitation of the unlimited. Moreover, On this level, the form is the salvation of
the meaning (God) is not hidden so that we can the sensitive universe, as when the light of
say that he is made present or manifested, but meaning dawns this universe burns and dis-
rather His presence is permanent and absolute. appears. When the subtle appears, the dense
When we see Him in a form we do not see Him, disappears. To this responds the order given
but rather our own form in Him. And the form by God to Moses when, in order to see him,
is that of whoever looks not of what is looked he asked him to look towards the mountain,
at. The meaning hides when it is manifested but the mountain could not be seen due to the
and is manifested when it hides, although it scarce light manifested: the human being can-
does not hide with anything external to it, but not see the meaning (God) within the sensitive
with its own light. Concealment is, as we have world other than through the form; in other
said, a result of an intense manifestation: its words, through the density of the sensorial. The
light is dazzling, making it impossible to stare form is, therefore, the place of attributes and
at it, and even look at it. densities. Through the attribute we know the
essence, and through the dense we know the
The form is the salvation of the sensitive subtle. Ibn ‘Arabi considers that the spiritual
universe, as when the light of meaning world is manifested in sensitive forms, and says
dawns this universe burns and disappears about the genies,3 for example: “When a genie
appears in a sensitive form it is trapped by the
From this perspective, the form is a light sight, as it cannot escape this form while it is
condensed by the omnipotence and will of the being looked at specifically, although this is so
meaning (God) in order to prepare with it the from the point of view of the human being. If
knowledge of His essence, His attributes and the perceiver traps him and continues looking
His names. The form is definition of the mean- at him without the genie having anywhere to
ing (God), because the meaning is hidden due hide, this spiritual entity shows him a form
to its extreme subtlety and is imperceptible behind which he hides like a curtain. Then,
and unknowable. As the form is veiled, at the the observer imagines that that form moves in
same time it takes us back to the light of the a determined direction and follows it with his
meaning and to the darkness of the universe. eyes, but, by following it with his eyes, the spir-
The form-universe is a cloud that covers the itual entity escapes and hides. Upon hiding, the
sun of the meaning, but it is also a path towards form disappears from the sight of the observer

3. The difference between genies, angels and humans is, from the point of view of creation, that genies are “spirits
blown into winds, angels are spirits blown into lights and humans are spirits blown into human appearance (axbah)” (Ibn
‘Arabi, Al-Futuhat al-Makkaa, vol. II, Beirut, Daral-Fikr, no date).
34 The Sufi Aesthetic Dimension

who visually pursued it, given that such a form given that in the world the vacuum does not
is, with regard to the spiritual entity, like the exist,5 his separation is through light, and
light that spreads everywhere with regard to a he is through the manifestation, given that,
lamp, so that if it hides its body from the lamp when the light shone directly on Muhammad,
the light disappears, which is exactly what hap- his shadow extended filling the place where
pens with the cited form of the genie. Anyone he had separated. The shadow indicates that
who knows this and wishes to capture that he is still united to his Creator. Muhammad is
spiritual entity does not follow its form with thus visible for whom he separated from, that
the sight. This is one of the divine secrets that is, for the human being, and is present before
are only known from information that comes whom he separated from, that is, the Creator.
from God. The form is but the essence of the This shows the truth of the assertion that Mu-
spiritual entity; even more, it is itself, although hammad is everywhere.
the form is found in a thousand places, or in all
places, or has different figures. When one of God is manifested in all the forms of the
these forms is eliminated and dies in appear- divine names that form part of the earthly
ance, the spiritual entity moves from life in this world, and the Throne is the shadow of
world to limbo (barzaj), just as we move when God in the beyond
we die, and nothing will be said of it in such
a low world as ours. These sensitive forms in We can understand the form as a product
which the spiritual entities are manifested are of the relation between agent and patient,
called bodies.” with the agent here being the equivalent to
We can understand the form as shadow. the father, who is the spirit, and the patient to
In religious tradition, God spreads shadows the mother, who is nature; that is, the place of
on the Earth. A well-known hadiz reads that transformations. The father is, therefore, at the
“the sovereignty (sultan) is the shadow of God top, and the mother, at the bottom. In the physi-
on the Earth,” as, according to Ibn ‘Arabi, he “is cal human union between father and mother,
manifested in all the forms of the divine names the union is the form of the generating spir-
that form part of the earthly world, and the itual fusion produced between the pen and the
Throne is the shadow of God in the beyond.”4 tablet kept in the sky (the place and ambit of
The shadow depends on the form, from which writing), or between the First Intellect and the
it emanates sensitively and spiritually. The feel- Universal Soul; if we observe the symbol of the
ing is limited, determines and impoverishes; writer (the First Intellect) and the purpose of
thus, the spiritual shadow of the spiritual form the writing (to offer knowledge = the coitus of
is more potent and richer than the feeling. physical union) we clarify the meaning of the
Creatures also have shadows that embody expression “God created Adam upon His own
God. In this respect, these shadows are those form” (prophetic hadiz) and the meaning of
that inhabit the world. The idea of the shadow the divine (Koranic) expression on the creation
is explained with the separation of Muhammad of things with the be! (kun). The letter kaf and
from his Creator: upon separating, the place the letter nun of this word are the First Intel-
of the separation was filled with his shadow, lect and the Universal Soul; in other words, two

4. Ibid., p. 152.
5. Ibid.
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premises united by a nexus hidden in the word The perception of the forms is only a mode
kn, which is, as Ibn ‘Arabi says, the letter waw of transgressing the habit of visual perception.
[u] omitted so that the two consonants meet. This is how it is illustrated by the account of the
From both premises of kun we deduce a kind glorification of God realised by the stones that
of conclusion: the form. Between the pen and the prophet Muhammad holds in his hands.
the tablet, a meaningful coitus is produced that The stones have glorified God since they were
generates a sensitive sign: letters. This is how created by him, but hearing them is something
we understand the saying of Imam al-Sadiq6 extraordinary in relation to the hearing, but not
that God first created letters: the sensitive sign in relation to the stones.7
deposited on the tablet is the water of knowl- Muhammad possesses two qualities: knowl-
edge (= creation), symbolised by the water that edge and action. With the action he grants the
flows in the uterus. The meanings deposited in forms, which are of two kinds: the sensitive
the letters are like the spirits deposited in the manifested forms, like the bodies, figures and
bodies of the children. colours linked to them, and the spiritual hid-
den forms, which are those found in sciences,
In the world of words, the speaker is the concepts and desires. The quality of the knowl-
father, and the listener is the mother, and edge here is the father, because he is the agent,
language is the nexus that links them and while the quality of the action is the mother,
the result of the comprehension by the as she is the patient. The forms emerge from
listener both qualities. Consequently, the form is symbol
of knowledge, not of identity or of existence.
Moreover, when the father and the mother With the form, the human being embodies
(the man and the woman) meet, the pen hides the meaning in the soul, embodiment that
and invisibly ejects the semen in the uterus, facilitates the expression of this meaning to
because it is secret. From this point of view, a faculty that is in the imagination. Ibn ‘Arabi
the coitus is equally secret. The form is the says that “the embodiment of the form pushes
result of relations, whether in the physical the human being to stare until understanding
world or in that of words; that is, it is true all its meaning. If the meaning enters into the
transformation. In the world of words, the mould of the form and the figure, it is desired
speaker is the father, and the listener is the by the senses and opens to contemplation and
mother, and language is the nexus that links enjoyment, which leads to the realisation of
them (coitus) and the result of the compre- what is set out by this figure and embodied by
hension by the listener, the child: the new this form.”8
form or transformation. In the world of the Let us say that the form is the approxima-
physical human union, the father transforms tion of the distant or, even, the close that keeps
and the mother is transformed, while coitus the meaning at a distance. But the close is not
is the act of transformation and the child the only in the light but is also in the hidden, and
result of this act. in distance. The infinite comes from this inte-

6. Sixth Shiite Imam, called Ja’far b. Muhammad al-Baqir al-Sadiq (the reliable), who was born and died in Medina and
stood out for his determined promotion of writing and the compilation of books.
7. Ibn ‘Arabi, op. cit., p. 155.
8. Ibn ‘Arabi, Inxa’ al-dawa’ir [The Description of the Encompassing Circles], La production des circles, Paris, Éditions
de l’Éclat, 1996, pp. 5-6.
36 The Sufi Aesthetic Dimension

grating dialectic between revelation and con- which, upon seeing it, shows him what unites
cealment, between form and meaning, between him with the hidden. The hidden is what goes
closeness and distance. It is as if thought always beyond the human being, but at the same time
begins at this separating line between meaning it is what surrounds, supports and invigorates
and form, which is like the line that separates him. It is that horizon that only exists when
light from shadow. However, the human be- you walk towards it. When walking, the hid-
ing is always attracted towards the meaning or den comes closer, but it comes closer to appear
light. And the fact is that vision “is defined” even more distant, so that the human being
but “does not exist.” Vision, therefore, is only seems so limited as if he had not been created.
the threshold of something which is beyond it: Herein lies his burning desire to die, in other
the hidden. At the zenith of vision, the human words, to be born.
being sees his thirst for what he has not yet seen
increases. Vision is a dynamic of infinitudes: the Vision is a dynamic of infinitudes: the
arrival point shows us the distance and thirst arrival point shows us the distance and
more than closeness and satiation. And close- thirst more than closeness and satiation
ness is a flash of lightning in which distance
seems even more distant. The closest is death: The only thing that awakens, mobilises and
death that annuls earthly life and establishes pushes the human being to overcome his limits
the other life, which is death with regard to is what resembles him. And the similarity that
shadow-earth world, but life with regard to unites the human being and God is, precisely,
light-the beyond. To absent oneself from the form. The form, attributed to God, is some-
shadow is to be present in the light. Death is thing unknown and unreachable for knowledge
light: it is the true existence. The past is light, and, attributed to the human being, something
the present is the intermediate state-form, and known that receives light from the unknown.
the future is death: eternal life. But the past The form awakens our desire, but escapes our
here is not a point that happened or ceased, but perception. There is no union between the hu-
a root, an origin before the human being. In man being and the form, between something
this respect, the past is a future that came, the and its equivalent, but between the human
present a future that is coming and the future being and what transcends him, between the
a future that will come. Time is this movement limited and the unlimited, between the evi-
of shadow-light that measures hidden-evident dent and the hidden that remains hidden. The
existence. And existence is but the permanent human being only unites with the unknown
movement of the dialectic between the hidden which remains unknown. This union is like
and the evident, between the evident and the the fall of a drop of water in an endless river,
hidden (the manifested-the hidden, the hid- not the union of one limit with another, or of
den-the manifested). one body with another, or of one thing with
The human being is an intermediate stage another. Upon perceiving a similar form the
(barzaj), a bridge between shadow and light, human being heads towards the perception of
whose existence is supported on the transit to- the meaning; that is, towards the union with
wards the light. He lives off his eternal desire what does not resemble him. He must link
for transit. It is as if he existed between two with a limit in order to reach the unlimited.
limits: he cannot live without something hid- The human being is of the earth, from which
den before him which shows him his limitation, he never separates other than to unite with it.
neither can he go towards life without a form Discovering the meaning is discovering, in the
Quaderns de la Mediterrània 37

universe, what is similar to the human being: He exclaimed: ‘My servants! You asked me for a
fragility and change. It is as if the human room in which nobody but me sees me. I am on
being does not achieve eternity other than the Cloud (ama) and nothing is with me and,
by destroying time, as if he only inhabits the given that there is nothing with me, I am in
place he abandons. your being. This sea on which you are is your
Ibn ‘Arabi analyses the relationship that ex- cloud, therefore if you went through your cloud
ists between the meaning and the form from you would reach my Cloud, although you will
the point of view of letters, and observes that never go through your cloud and you will never
the letter kaf of the word al-kawn (being) is reach Me. You are only on your cloud. This
a shadow of the word kun (Be!), because this cloud is the He that you possess, as the form
last word is an essence (dat) whose shadow is demands of you that in which you are.’ And I
the being, and that the letter waw in the word said: ‘Oh, He is the He, what do I do in the He?’
huwa (he, it, He). When we write the letter To which he answered: ‘Drown in He.’”10 The
waw as we pronounce it (“w-a-w”), Ibn ‘Arabi “he” as such lacks existence; neither does the
thinks “that the first waw is the waw of the “she” as such possess existence, nor does the
ipseity (huwia: essence, identity) and that the letter ha’ as such possess existence; but the ha’
second waw is that of kawn (being), as the let- moves both the “he” and the “she”, finding
ter alif [a] interposed is the veil of uniqueness each other thanks to the letter ha’ and thereby
(ahadia).”9 existence is created. This is why this meeting
The manifestations symbolise either the is expressed with two letters, the letters kaf-
form (sura) or the hiya (the she). She is He nun: “Our word for a thing when We intend
but He is not she: the form is the meaning, but it, is only that We say to it, Be (kun), and it
the meaning is not the form. Ibn ‘Arabi says is” (Koran, 16:40). The thing from the cited
that the “he” (huwa) is not the “she” (hiya), Koran passage is the “she”, “when We intend
and when it is so it is only when creating the it” is the “he”, “We say” is the “he”, and kun
ideal form, thereby it is “he” in act and “she” the cause which unites them. The kaf of kun
in the making, being the letter ha’ the element is the “he” and the nun of kun is the “she”.
that unites the “he” with the “she”, just like And Ibn ‘Arabi adds: “And given that the let-
the cause that unites two premises. There was ter waw is elevated and high, we turn it into
only the “he” without anything accompanying husband, thereby the ‘he’ is the husband; and
it, but we read in one of Ibn ‘Arabi’s dialogues as the ‘she’ is elevated in terms of its influence
with God the following: “Oh, He, when the and low for the kasra [vowel i, which is written
elements that form us distanced us in a state of below the letter], we call it the letter ya’ and
absence […] we asked for help and you helped turn it into the family, so that the ha’ occupies
us, we asked for inspiration and you inspired the place of the [divine] Message (al-risala)
us, we asked for knowledge on how to enter it, and the ‘he’ the place of Gabriel [angel who
and you gave it to us, and therefore we woke on communicates the Message]. Then the norms,
a sea without shores in Muhammad’s Ark […]. laws, stanzas and secrets of this blessed union
Bewildered, we asked for forgiveness, and then, appeared.”11

9. Ibn ‘Arabi, Kitab al-mim wa-l-waw wa-l-nun [The Book of the Letters Mim, Waw and Nun], in Rasail Ibn ‘Arabi, Beirut,
Dar Sadir, 1997, pp. 9-10.
10. Ibn ‘Arabi, Kitab al-ya’ [The Book of the Letter Ya], in Rasail Ibn ‘Arabi, Beirut, Dar Sadir, 1997, p. 13.
11. Ibn ‘Arabi, p. 11.
38 The Sufi Aesthetic Dimension

In this way, Sufi writing helps us under- pearance, we require a radical change in the
stand three issues on writing in general which methods of knowledge that can achieve total
are behind the transformation of Arabic liberation through liberating what the reli-
poetic writing. The first, that poetry is not a gious, political and social institution asphyxi-
lexical game that takes words as decorative ates, represses or marginalises: the dynamic of
or ornamental materials without emotive or the subjective-interior world, with its emotions,
philosophical weight outside what the pure desires and dreams, with its unconsciousness,
free game possesses. On the contrary, poetry with its instincts, aspirations and repressions,
is something that goes beyond the simple for- and with everything that the culture of the
mal game. It is passion and action at the same body demands in overcoming the culture of the
time. It is the dynamic of feeling and think- “spirit” and, especially, its religious forms.
ing of the human being when understanding
things and establishing relations with them. Poetry is passion and action at the same
It is a mode of consciousness and, therefore, time. It is the dynamic of feeling and
it is necessarily a mode of thought. Just as in thinking of the human being when
the poem we find the extremes from the point understanding things and establishing
of view of matter or meaning, we also find, by relations with them
convergence, feeling and thought. The second,
that what we denominate exterior, material or If the culture of the external, according to
physical reality is no more than an aspect of the religious, political and social institution,
existence, specifically its most limited aspect. is limited and easy to define, the culture of
What we call life or existence is something far the internal is unlimited and impossible to
broader. Therefore, the poets who reduce their define. And if the language expressed by the
interest and expression to the first aspect are in first culture is also limited, and definable, the
the end only concerned about what is within language expressed by the second is unlimited
sight of all and do not express anything more and escapes all definition. Therefore, we call
than what everyone knows. Their attitude is the first of the two languages logical, direct
that of a naturalism that does not see in the and clear; and the second, emotional, dark and
tree the interior movement of its root, its sap metaphorical. The first takes into account the
and its growth, but only the branches, leaves things and represents them, while the second
and fruit. Even though what is behind nature awakens and enriches them.
is another part of nature. Sufi writing is an experience of access to the
The third issue tells us that what we call absolute, which, on the other hand, is observed
truth is not found in the world of immediate in the greatest creators of all times. The myth
phenomena other than in its scientific-positivist and the symbol are two ways of approaching
form. The truth is, in contrast, a mystery hidden vaster profundities and of seeking the most reli-
within things, hidden in their interior world. able meaning. The return to myth is a kind of
The human being can reach it, but only through return to collective unconsciousness, to what
specific cognitive methods, which are not positiv- goes beyond the individual; it is a return to
ist or “scientific.” Faced with the visible in the human memory and its legends, to the past
world, the invisible emerges, and faced with the understood as a form of unconsciousness. And
objective, the subjective emerges. all of this is a symbol that overcomes the rela-
However, to overcome the formal game, tive in pursuit of the absolute. In the poetic
the external reality, immediate physical ap- expression of language, the ideas do not appear
Quaderns de la Mediterrània 39

by themselves, as in philosophy, but in their alphabet and with other elements, such as the
relations with other ideas. fig, olive, dawn, the antiquities, the afternoon,
The symbol, or myth, is the meeting point the sun, as the imams who are the depositories of
between the exterior and the interior, between the knowledge of the Koran have been informed
the visible and the invisible. So they are both about such symbols.”12
a point of irradiation, a dynamic centre that In terms of allusion, Qudama b. Ja’far says
expands in all directions. And, at the same time, that it is abbreviation, indicating that the sym-
they both express different levels of reality in bol is also abbreviation. And he defines allusion
their totality. This allows the poet not only to as follows: “that a few words (lafz qalil) include
reveal what we do not know, but also to recreate many meanings (ma‘anin kazira), suggesting
what we do know, by linking it to the dynamic them or insinuating them.”13 According to
of the unknown and the infinite. Thus, poetry this definition, the symbol is a meaningful
is, on this level, knowledge. suggestion. And Ibn Raxiq, in developing the
But what is the symbol according to the concept of symbol/allusion, noted that the
Arabic language? Symbol (ramz) means allusion allusion (ixara) is, in all kinds of verbal dis-
(ixara), and allusion is one of the processes of course, a meaningful suggestion (lamha dalla),
signification (dalala). For the thinker and man an abbreviation, an insinuation (talwih) known
of letters al-Jahiz, designation does not only take synthetically and whose meaning is far from
place through words, but also through allusion. what the verbal expression shows.14
Symbol is, therefore, a rapid signification, hid-
den and indirect. Qudama b. Ja’far approached The return to myth is a kind of return
the symbol in this way: “The speaker uses the to collective unconsciousness, a return to
symbol in his discourse when he wishes to hide human memory and its legends
something from the mass of the people and
only communicate it to some; to this end, he In this way, the symbol is based, in the Arabic
gives the word or letter the name of a bird, wild language, on the abbreviation and the distanc-
beast or any other species, or one of the letters ing of the meaning in respect to the evidence
of the Arabic alphabet, and communicates it to of verbal expression. Poetry, consequently, does
whoever wishes to know, so that this expression not explain or clarify, but rather, as al-Buhturi
will be comprehensible for both, but symbolic for says, “suggests and merely alludes.” Its compre-
others. In the books of the ancient wise men and hension requires interpretation. It is, therefore,
philosophers there are many symbols, used by obscure (gamid) by its very nature. Abu Ishaq
Plato more than any of them. In the Koran there al-Sabi expressed it this way: “The most excel-
are symbols of things of great value and im- lent poetry is obscure poetry, that which only
mense importance that contain the knowledge gives you its theme after a long delay.”15 And
of what will be [in the future] […] These things al-Jurjani noted: “Implanted in the character
are symbolised with the letters of the Arabic that is achieved after being requested, intensely

12. Qudama b. Ja’far, Naqd an-natr [Prose Criticism], Cairo, 1933, pp. 61-62.
13. Qudama b. Ja’far, Naqd al-shi’r [Poetry Criticism], Leiden, 1956, p. 90.
14. Ibn Rashiq, Al-‘Umdah fi mahasin al-shi’r wa adabihi wa naqdihi [The Mainstay Concerning Poetry’s Embellishments,
Correct Usage, and Criticism], Beirut, Dar al-Yil, no date, p. 206.
15. Cited by Ibn al-Azir, Dia l-Din (Mosul, 1163-Baghdad, 1239), al-Mazal al-sa’ir [The Prevailing Model], Beirut, 1990,
p. 414.
40 The Sufi Aesthetic Dimension

desired or yearned for, its attainment is far more it. It is necessary to go beyond the language of
pleasant, as it occupies a more subtle and sub- the external, to undo it. One of the symptoms
lime place in the soul which appreciates it and of decadence of poetic writing in the modern
loves it much more.”16 world is, precisely, the supremacy of the lan-
Al-Jurjani himself distinguished between guage of the external; that is, the supremacy of
the obscure and the complicated: “The compli- the conventional definitions and terms.
cated (al-mu‘aqqad) in poetry and language is To go beyond the world of exteriority (al-za-
not reprehensible because it requires thought hir) we have to make use of the same language:
about the phrase,” but because its author intoxicating it. We must intoxicate language
“makes your thought stumble at his will, sows with the same intoxication of experience.
your path towards the meaning with thorns, In fact, every Sufi writer has the primordial
making your way towards him intricate, and objective of discovering a “cosmic language”
perhaps even divides your thought and dis- that expresses the correspondence between
perses your criteria to the point that you do the infinite (the meaning) and the finite (the
not know where you come from or how you form). This language speaks without media-
search.”17 tion of reason. It abducts the reader and moves
him to the infinite. Just as the Sufi “becomes
We can describe the experience of the intoxicated,” language is intoxicated. The Sufi
writing, the experience of the self that creates in the language a special intoxication
writes, as an experience of death, to gain within the horizon of his own intoxication.
access to the life of cosmic interiority The only thing that expresses the intoxica-
tion of the human being is a language which
Mallarmé did not go beyond this when he is also intoxicated. Therefore, language must
spoke about the obscurity of poetry. In one case also come out of itself, just as the Sufi comes
or another it seems, therefore, that poetry, just out of himself.
as it is practised by the great creators, is a dy- This intoxicated language is metaphorical
namic aimed at knowledge of the unknown, language (mayaz). With it we make it possible
in which the culture of the body is put before for what is in another place, in the hidden or in
the culture of reason and in which spontane- the interior, to pass (yayuz) on to our exterior
ity (badaha) and natural creativity (fitra) are world. Thus this language allows us to put
put before logic and analysis. This is, precisely, the infinite in the finite, as Baudelaire said.
the foundation on which surrealist writing is The hidden, the infinite, the unknown, is not
based. a point at which, when we arrive, knowledge
We can describe the experience of the writ- stops; on the contrary, the hidden is dynamic,
ing, the experience of the self that writes, as whenever we discover something about it, it
an experience of death, in the Sufi sense of the multiplies what demands to be discovered. It
expression: death in terms of social exteriority is impossible to know the hidden definitively.
at all its levels and relations to gain access to Therefore, here, language, even if it achieves
the life of cosmic interiority. Therefore, it is intoxication, does not establish “real” but
necessary to go beyond the exterior, to destroy metaphorical relations between the self and

16. Abd al-Qadir Al-Jurjani, Asrar Al-Balagha [The Secrets of Eloquence], Cairo, 1977, p. 118.
17. Ibid., p. 125.
Quaderns de la Mediterrània 41

the other, the self and the hidden, the self cannot be captured by logic or reason. The latter
and the universe. only captures the sensitive, or only the abstract,
According to Sufi experience, metaphor is a so that the forms born from it are cold, because
bridge that unites the visible and the invisible, reason separates the visible from the invisible,
the known and the hidden. And given that the while the forms of Sufi metaphor unify the
aim is to reveal the unknown, the form is, strict- sensitive and the abstract, the exterior and the
ly speaking, pure creation. Consequently, the interior, the known and the unknown. In Sufi
form is not mimetic, a product of comparison metaphor, the form is not an isolated part of a
and analogy, but results from the approximation given phrase or expression, is not born from the
and meeting of two worlds distanced from each desire for adornment, persuasion or incitement,
other that make a unit. Thus, the form is not with which it would leave us on the surface of
artifice, or expressive technique. Put another reality. No, the form in Sufi metaphor is an
way, it is not eloquence or rhetoric, it is primor- organic part of a greater whole: it is people,
dial; it springs from the same dynamic from places, subjects, events, actions. It puts us into
which poetic intuition comes. The strength and contact with symbol and myth, as it is born out
richness of the form lie in the quality of the of both this ascendant and descendent dialectics
relations it creates or discovers between these between God and the human being, between
two worlds, relations that, despite everything, the invisible and the visible reality. Therefore,
do not allow rational apprehension of the form; it is a form replete with dream and irrational
in other words, they make its domestication elements, such as magic, delirium, madness,
and conditioning to realistic sensitive percep- theopatic expression and ecstasy.
tion impossible. The form is realistic, however,
as it reveals the original, the essential, although The form is realistic, as it reveals the
at the same time escapes tangible reality by original, the essential, although at the
alluding to what goes beyond this reality. So same time escapes tangible reality by
it is not description, but penetrating and re- alluding to what goes beyond this reality
vealing light; a course towards the unknown.
In this sense, it produces a clash and demands The invisible, the hidden, is the most
a new sensitivity. This leads us to understand profound in Sufi experience because it is the
how poetry, in Sufi experience, is not literature foundation. Therefore, a concern with the vis-
in the usual sense of the term, but a question ible is no more than a concern with the surface
about the human being and existence, and the or the shell. The soul is not surface; it is endless
desire to change the shape of the world. It is, expansion in the profound and the horizon at
in short, a reformulation of the human being the same time. The value of expression will
and existence. And the form, transit (tayauz) therefore depend on the degree to which it
and change. unveils this expansion and its relations; in
This also leads us to say that, at the level other words, of the extent to which it reveals
of expression, dream, clairvoyance, theopatic the dimension of infinitude that exists in the
locution (xath) and madness, are, within Sufi human being and the world.
poetic experience, other mediums-languages This eternal dynamic of unveiling of the in-
which language explores to achieve a richer, finite brings with it the continuous destruction
more profound and global unveiling of the hu- of the forms or, put another way, they do not
man being and existence. All these means of remain fixed in a single form. The form, just
discovery are a path for capturing truths that like the image, is pure creation, it is not fabri-
42 The Sufi Aesthetic Dimension

cated or taken. It is not a suit or a wrapping, or a sion that recreates the exterior world accord-
container: it is space (fada’). It is the movement ing to the interior form of its creator. The Sufi
and the order of our ideas. It is the structure of develops the macrocosm in his body, which is
the relation existing between words. In short, the microcosm, experiencing his body, already
the external is not what speaks in metaphor, but transparent through the effect of the creative
rather the internal; neither is it the form that imagination, as the original and primitive field
writes but the meaning. In metaphor, the Sufi of the possible.
is another, is another objective while being the
same. Therefore, it is not him who pronounces In the world of the ideal the spiritual
the meaning and writes it in the form, but it is materialised and the material is
is the meaning that pronounces it to him and spiritualised, which is only visible with
writes it. It is not him who thinks and writes, the eye of the imagination
but rather he who is thought and written: “On
me pense,” Rimbaud will say later. The microcosm (the body), experienced as
With the strength of metaphor and its formable outline, becomes anteriority of the
language, the Sufi creates his “ideal” world, a place, of the universe. The latter conserves
world perceived and captured with the imagi- a close link with the imaginary place of the
nation and experienced like the world of events transparent body. And the body, experienced
characteristic of intra-history. In the relation as foundation and origin, brings together in its
between the interior and the exterior, between metaphorical figure the ideal and the real. The
the hidden and the manifested, is where the human being is, in fact, the unity of the ideal
vision of the most profound interior events with the real. Therefore, the body, understood
originates. In this relationship, which is very as the field of the possible, is the place of trans-
similar to a two-sided mirror, the perceptible mutations of the perceptible. This reflecting
fuses with the imperceptible in such a way that of the interior in the exterior is precisely the
the one-dimensional exteriority is no longer the transfer of the witnessed knowledge: in this
only point of reference where the psychologi- knowledge, born out of imaginary perception,
cal-spiritual fact is articulated. This relation- the “mysteries” of the universe are discovered,
ship becomes, among the Sufis, the very essence which are cognitive revelations unattainable for
of the creative imagination. Thus, the creative positivist knowledge.
imagination, which is the reciprocal space in For the Sufi, the world of the ideal is not an
which the perceptible and the imperceptible imaginary or illusory world, but is manifested,
cross, summarises the macrocosm; in other just as it is in truth, as a real world rooted in the
words, the whole cosmos, in the microcosm of very essence of the phenomenical world. In the
the human being. world of the ideal the spiritual is materialised
The creative imagination makes the body and the material is spiritualised, which is only
transparent, given that the imagination itself visible with the eye of the imagination. Here,
becomes this “other” world reached through the Sufi is “its sameness” and “its otherness”
Sufi knowledge. The body becomes an element at the same time. The contradictions disappear.
for the creation of the imaginary structure of The perceptible world becomes presence of the
the place, a mystical and lyrical dimension of One. The real meets with the metaphorical and
the interior that is reflected in the exterior the two unite in imaginary forms that express
space recreating it according to its own form. interior events. The poetics of Sufi writing
In this sense, poetry is the imaginary dimen- springs from this mystical unity and becomes
Quaderns de la Mediterrània 43

transforming erotic language. In this way, the the field of interior vision. Love is at the same
world and everything that exists, is experi- time, just like knowledge, a starting point for
enced as manifestations of the One. Outside experience, as well as its path and goal. We be-
the One there is no existence. Within this lieve, therefore, that the intoxication produced
unity the immanent is not incompatible with by religion of the love in the soul of the Sufi is
the transcendent. This is what we understand a kind of feeling or consciousness of the cosmic.
by annulment of the contradictions, or by “the It is an illuminating consciousness that shows
supreme point” of the surrealists. us that the human being lives on another level
It is knowledge completely free of the of existence (the Unity of Existence), as if he
prefabricated and not subject to predefined were a member of a human society of another
rationalist values. Gnostic-imaginary percep- kind. Add to this a state of moral intoxication
tion is the perception of things in their entirety and joyful elevation, and that the intoxication
and in their original-authentic forms. It is also is an indescribable state. All of which is also
the place where knowledge of the indescrib- linked to the intuition of permanence and
able is born and the unspeakable is said. This eternity. Sufism is, on this level, “the religion
perception is broader than the positivist, given of love,” as Ibn ‘Arabi says. And, therefore, the
that the latter is imprisoned in the temporal meaning of what is identity changes.
mathematical limits and in those of spatiality According to the prevailing cultural cate-
and quantity, and thus only gives us a partial gory, identity is a closed entity with respect to
and superficial knowledge of things. which the other only exists insofar as it becomes
detached from its own identity and transforms
With love, the heart becomes the eye and merges into it. Identity, whether it brings
thanks to which the One contemplates you closer to the other to confuse with it or
itself and thought becomes light that refutes it to distance from it. This turns the
illuminates interior vision universe into a waste deposit of mutual refusals
and denials and creates, in the human, a false
In the creative imagination, therefore, the universality, a universality of master and slave,
perceptible and the imperceptible are trans- of who refutes and is refuted, and generates, in
muted: the first ascends, the second descends. the historical, a universality of the benefit and
This is the dialectics of the meeting between a consumerist technique, and in the cultural,
corporal love and spiritual love from which Sufi a standardising universality which abolishes
love is born. A love that achieves a supreme freedom and creativity. To truly come into the
degree of existence and consciousness: the lover universe we must come out of this identity.
united with the beloved in an unlimited love. And I do not know anything more profound
The Sufi feels liberated: goes outside himself, that enlightens us in this movement than the
outside the natural and sensitive limits (goes Sufi experience.
outside himself to enter, far more extensively Identity, according to this experience, is
and profoundly, himself). on-going receptivity. The self is a perpetual
Loving experience is, consequently, a cogni- motion in the direction of the other. For the
tive experience (love is knowledge) which re- self to reach the other it must go beyond itself.
veals to the Sufi the secrets of existence. With Or in other words: the self travels towards its
love, the heart becomes the eye thanks to which deepest being only insofar as it travels towards
the One contemplates itself and, also thanks to the other and to its deepest being, given that,
love, thought becomes light that illuminates in the other, the self finds its most perfect
44 The Sufi Aesthetic Dimension

presence. The self is, paradoxically, the non- it is this that pushes Sufism to the experience of
self. From this perspective, identity is like love; the limits, to work hard to transform the very
it is continuously created. This is why the Sufi body into dynamic expansion, suspending the
says: “I am not I,” when he is in a state of action of the senses, as well as annulling reason,
maximum perception of himself. Which is with the end of reaching the unknown-infinite,
what Rimbaud repeats in his own manner: which will be resumed by Rimbaud and, later,
“I is other.” That is, it is as if the Sufi and by surrealists. Thus the body becomes an entity
Rimbaud said in unison: I am, I live, I think, of ecstasy and enlightenment, matter becomes
thus I am other, I am not I. diaphanous and the barriers between the hu-
man being and the unknown, that is, the “true
Through the relationship with the hidden truth”, vanish.
unknown and the invisible, both language Through the relationship with the unknown
and life and the self and the other and the invisible, both language and life and
resemble metaphor and metaphorical the self and the other resemble metaphor and
dialectics metaphorical dialectics. Hence, the self is the
other and it is no longer the individual self
The Sufi experience teaches us that the ex- which speaks, but the super-self, the universal
pression of truth made by the being, or what we self hidden in the individual. This great creative
suppose is the truth, does not exhaust the truth; instant is not subjective but the subject itself is
indeed, it does not even say it, it only alludes to the object, as it is the other and the universe at
or symbolises it. The truth is not in what is said, once, or as “the macrocosm is included within
or in what it is possible to say, but rather in what it.” The fact of naming, of writing at the level of
is not said, in what cannot be expressed. The the cosmos, means that we explore the essential,
truth lies in the enigmatic, in the hidden, in the luminous, the very close and the very distant,
the infinite. In this aspect, the Sufi experience that which I call the immanent transcendent, the
continues the old and rooted Gnostic tradition “macrocosm.” This macrocosm is not an abstrac-
that believes that the human being cannot, tion or separated. It is here and now, materialised
luckily for him, know the mystery, the mystery in what Pascal called “the thinking reed” (the
of the human being and the universe; such a human being).18 The universal cosmic is, in itself,
tradition starts with Gilgamesh, the one who no more than the particular subjective experi-
“saw everything” and realised that truth does enced in its plenitude and specificity. From this
not lie in what he saw and knew but in what he point of view, the universe is this integrating
could not see or know, and involves hermetic sphere-vault in which the singularities of crea-
tradition and the Eleusinian mysteries. Perhaps tion embrace each other.

18. “Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature, but he is a thinking reed.” (Blaise Pascal, Thoughts).