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"The Creation according to Sufism" Serap Avanoğlu

The Creation according to the Quran, Hadith and Sufism
Serap Avanoğlu, 2017, Ankara
Here I will try to describe the creation theory of Sufism and God’s relation to the worlds (it is
used plural in the verses) again in relation to the Quran, the hadith and Sufi literature. Most
of the Quranic verses about the creation are enigmatic, the hadith also. There is a concept of
“hidden knowledge” in Sufism that only few people who have been given knowledge by God
can unveil; “We had taught him Knowledge from Our side” (Quran, 18:65”.
Sufis perceive the universe as the disclosure of the Truth or the Real from the Unseen, the
Unknown, the Undetermined and the Unlimited One to the multiple, the differentiated and
the delimited, and the human being as the isthmus that has access to the both aspects. Now,
we will look at the Sufi cosmology, i.e. Sufi insights into the origin and the process of
creation in more detail.
Now let us go over to some of the creation verses in the Quran,1 which are abundant and
what the Sufis make out of them. I picked up some of these and the Sufi comment expressed
in its cosmology will follow.
T he Qur'an depicts three modes of being; primordial, earthly life and afterlife. The following
verses suggest a primordial state, the first creation where God addressed the human being,
“took from the cloud”, and testified for the Lordship, known as covenant:
Does man not remember that We created him before, while he was nothing? (19:67) And
[mention] when We raised the mountain above them as if it was a dark cloud and they were
certain that it would fall upon them, [and Allah said], “Take what We have given you with
determination and remember what is in it that you might fear Allah.” And [mention] when
your Lord took from the children of Adam - from their loins - their descendants and made
them testify of themselves, [saying to them], "Am I not your Lord?" They said, “Yes, we have
testified.” [This] - lest you should say on the day of Resurrection, ‘Indeed, we were of this
unaware.’” (7:171, 172).
An earthly one, an unfolding of creation:
Say, "Do you indeed disbelieve in He who created the earth in two days2 and attribute to Him
equals? That is the Lord of the worlds.” And He placed on the earth firmly set mountains
Some evoke recent scientific findings as far as I am familiar with them through documentaries on YouTube.
Note that the time markers are relative. Day is the often used time marker in the Quran denoting to various
spans of time.: “He regulated the affair of the heaven to the earth; then it will ascend to Him in a day (the)
over its surface, and He blessed it and determined therein its [creatures'] sustenance in four
days without distinction - for [the information] of those who ask. Then He directed Himself to
the heaven while it was smoke. And He completed them as seven heavens within two days
and inspired in each heaven its command. And We adorned the nearest heaven with lamps
and as protection. That is the determination of the Exalted in Might, the Knowing. (41:9-12).
Have those who disbelieved not considered that the heavens and the earth were a joined
entity, and We separated them and made from water every living thing? […]And We placed
within the earth firmly set mountains, lest it should shift with them, and We made therein
[mountain] passes [as] roads that they might be guided. And We made the sky a protected
ceiling, but they, from its signs, are turning away. And it is He who created the night and the
day and the sun and the moon; all [heavenly bodies] in an orbit are swimming. (21:30-33).
“Have they not looked at the heaven above them - how We structured it and adorned it and
[how] it has no rifts?” (50:6). And the heaven We constructed with strength, and indeed, We
are [its] expander (51:47). What is [the matter] with you that you do not attribute to Allah
[due] grandeur while He has created you in stages. Do you not consider how Allah has
created seven heavens in layers, And made the moon therein a [reflected] light and made
the sun a burning lamp? And Allah has caused you to grow from the earth a [progressive]
growth. Then He will return you into it and extract you [another] extraction. And Allah has
made for you the earth an expanse That you may follow therein roads of passage.' " (71:1320). 3
The creation and the procreation of human being is described in quite detail. There is no
mention that the female was created from the male’s rip as in the Bible. The verses below
describe her/his4 relation to God in every instance and in Spirit that He breathed into
him/her, and the relationship among the nations and tribes as knowing one another and
being righteous:
And We did certainly create man out of clay from an altered black mud. And the jinn We
created before from scorching fire. And [mention, O Muhammad], when your Lord said to
the angels, "I will create a human being out of clay from an altered black mud. And when I
have proportioned him and breathed into him of My spirit, then fall down to him in
prostration." (15:26). That (is the) Knower (of) the hidden and the witnessed, the All-Mighty,
the Most Merciful, The One Who made good everything He created, and began (the)
creation of man from clay. Then He made his progeny from an extract of water despised.
Then He fashioned him and breathed into him from His spirit and made for you the hearing
and the sight and the feelings. (32:7-9). Verily We created man from a product of wet earth;
then placed him as a drop (of seed) in a safe lodging; then We fashioned the drop into a clot,
then We fashioned the clot into a little lump, then We fashioned the little lump into bones,
then clothed the bones with flesh, and then produced it another creation. So blessed be
Allah, the Best of Creators!” [23:12-14] He (is) the One Who created you from dust, then
from a semen- drop, then from a clinging substance, then He brings you out (as) a child; then
measure of which is a thousand years of what you count” (Quran, 22:47), “Ascend the Angels and the Spirit to
Him in a Day, its measure is fifty thousand years. (Quran, 70:4). “He will say, ‘How many years did you tarry on
the earth?’ They will say, ‘We tarried there for a day or part of a day. Ask those able to count!’ He will say, ‘You
only tarried there for a little while if you did but know!” (Quran, 23:112-114).
The translations here are from the Sahih International (https://quran.com/).
Quran sometimes address both women and men, sometimes as in the verses here only men. It is told in the
hadith tradition that a woman complained the prophet that only men were addressed in the verses and after
that both were addressed.
lets you reach your maturity, […]and lets you reach a term specified, and that you may use
reason. He (is) the One Who gives life and causes death. And when He decrees a matter, then
only He says to it, "Be," and it is. (40:67-68) He (is) the One Who created you from a soul,
single and made from it its mate that he might live with her. And when he covers her, she
carries a burden light and continues with it. But when she grows heavy, they both invoke
Allah, their Lord, “If you give us a righteous (child), surely we will be among the thankful.”
(7:189) Oh mankind! Indeed, We created you from a male and a female and We made you
nations and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, (the) most noble of you near
Allah (is the) most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah (is) All-Knower, All-Aware.5
Lastly a folding back of creation, and the souls being paired (maybe with their primordial
ones?) being faced with what they have done:
The Day when We will fold the heaven like the folding of a [written] sheet for the records. As
We began the first creation, We will repeat it (21:104). When the sun is wrapped up [in
darkness], And when the stars fall, dispersing, And when the mountains are removed. And
when full-term she-camels are neglected, And when the wild beasts are gathered, And when
the seas are filled with flame. And when the souls are paired. And when the girl [who was]
buried alive is asked, For what sin she was killed. And when the pages are made public, And
when the sky is stripped away, And when Hellfire is set ablaze, And when Paradise is brought
near, A soul will [then] know what it has brought [with it]. (8:1-6). And you see the
mountains, thinking them firmly fixed, while they will pass (as the) passing (of) the clouds.
(The) Work (of) Allah Who perfected all things (27:88). Indeed to Allah (belongs) whatever
(is) in the heavens and on earth. Verily, He knows what you (are) on. And the day they will be
returned to Him, He will inform them of what they did. (24:64).6
Among the hadith, we find these: A companion of Muhammad asked him: “Where was our
Lord, Rab before He created the heavens and earth?” He responded: “He was (in) the clouds
– no air was under Him, no air was above Him, and He created His Arch (upon the water),
then He ascended, over it.”7 The following hadith and the explanation of it by the son in law
of the prophet, Ali who is named “the gate to knowledge” is often quoted by Sufis: The
prophet was asked about the beginning of creation, he said, "First of all, there was nothing
but Allah, and His throne was over the water, and He wrote everything in the Book and
created the Heavens and the Earth.” When Ali was mentioned about this hadith, he said, “it
is still the same”, meaning there was still nothing but Allah. About the end of the universe as
we know it, the prophet said, “The sun and the moon will be folded up on the Day of
About God’s relation to the created, these verses are remarkable:
The translations here are from corpus.quran.com.
The translations of the last two verses are from http://corpus.quran.com/ .
Âmâ here translated as cloud also means blindness and is related to the unknowable singularity. Arsh
translated here as Arch also means Radiance, Throne and Dominion. Some translate the word istiwa that is
translated here as ascension as “turn to” or “mount” or “rise over” or “overpower”. And whatever is in
brackets are said to be implicit in the meaning of the sentence but not directly there.
And to Allah belongs the east and the west. So wherever you [might] turn, there is the Face
of Allah. Indeed, Allah is all-Encompassing and Knowing. (2:115). Vision perceives Him not,
but He perceives [all] vision; and He is the Subtle, the Acquainted (6:103). God is the Light of
the heavens and the earth. The Parable of His Light is as if there were a Niche and within it a
Lamp: the Lamp enclosed in Glass: the glass as it were a brilliant star: Lit from a blessed
Tree, an Olive, neither of the east nor of the west, whose oil is well-nigh luminous, though
fire scarce touched it: Light upon Light! (Quran 24: 358).9
It is not easy to understand what is meant with the above depictions. I will try to decipher
them with the help of Sufi literature. The primordial state is understood as the original state
with God without physicality. Ibn Arabi says things are nonbeings in their original state, they
are also called possible beings in line with Avicennan terminology. They have been enfolded
in themselves in the knowledge of God with their realities “concealed”, of which God knows
but they do not. “I know what you disclose and what you used to conceal” (Quran, 2:33). Ibn
Arabi calls them in their state of nonbeing as known to God, ayan-i-thabita, translated as
established potentialities or immutable entities. As these potentialities are in God’s
knowledge, they are the knowledge of God of Himself. He discloses them with His Light, He
is the Light that cannot be perceived but makes perceivable. Whatever is with God does not
change, so this state is still existent in timelessness.
On another level, there is the unfolding of the creation in time and space, a descent from the
heavens. This happens in stages of multiplication, determination and materialisation, from
the undetermined subtle unity towards limited, multiple, changing densities. The levels of
life on earth beginning from the water are minerals, plants, animals and lastly human beings.
Human being is the last to come into being on earth after having passed through all the
stages, and hence carrying everything that was before her/him in his physicality and soul.10
Based on the Quran, the hadith and contemplation, Sufis suggest that the creation is a selfdisclosure of Haq, the Truth, the Real. There is nothing in being but God as Ibn Arabi puts
Translation by Yusuf Ali.
The esoteric meaning of this verse according to the 14 th century Sufi al-Qashani: “The glass is the Heart, the
lamp is the Spirit, the tree, from whose oil the glass is lit up - like a 'glittering star' - is the Self. The niche for the
lamp is the body” (al-Qashani 1991: 25).
There was an idea of natural selection: In the 9th century, al-Jahiz remarked, "Environmental factors
influence organisms to develop new characteristics to ensure survival, thus transforming them into new
species. Animals that survive to breed can pass on their successful characteristics to their offspring."
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2009/feb/27/islam-religion-evolution-science. accessed:
23.10.2017. And on the evolutionary ideas of Tusi (13th.c.), see:
it.11 Yet, nothing encompasses the Real but it encompasses everything, i.e.; it is subtle,
transcendent, not graspable, and beyond the confines of our limited understanding or our
mental constructs of it, and immanent and intimate. The emergence is continuous and multilayered in each moment. God sustains it from going back to nothingness, being is in a state
like a kind of pulsation between enfolding (immanent, contracting) and unfolding (expanding
in time and space).
Every surah of the Quran begins with the verse Bismillahi Rahman er-Rahim, In the Name of
God the Most Compassionate, All-Merciful. The prophet Muhammad is addressed: “And We
have not sent you but (as) a mercy for the worlds.”(21:107). The Quran says “call upon God
or call upon the Merciful, whichever you call upon Him belongs the most beautiful Names.”
(17:10). Ibn Arabi says that the Merciful is synonymous with God, it includes all the Names
and God’s Names are His Self. The Mercy is the life giving Spirit of God and the breath that
the Merciful breathes in beings and called the “Breath of the All-Merciful”. As it is the breath
that makes up words, and the All-Merciful creates uttering “Be” as in the above quoted
verses, the creatures are words of God, an overflowing manifestation from the All-Merciful
as He embraces all things. All the love and compassion and knowledge and whatever powers
we have are God’s Names, or of God, and our true love is directed to God, and our
knowledge is the knowledge of Him. His breath and hence Names are our and every
creature’s relations to Him.12
The Name Haq denotes to such aspects as The First, The Last, The Hidden, The Invisible, The
Inward, The Concealed, The Manifest Outward, The Visible. God is Hayy, the Living and Life
Giver, the Everlasting, the One who is aware of Himself13 and Qayyum, the Self11
For a through study of Ibn Arabi’s understanding of the creation and its relationship with God see William
Chittick’s “The Self-disclosure of God: Principles of Ibn Arabi’s Cosmology”, State University of New York Press,
1998. And for a shorter treatment Souad Hakim’s “Unity of Being in Ibn 'Arabî - A Humanist Perspective”. He
also compares Ibn Arabi’s view with other philosophical, mystical traditions.
William C. Chittick, The Anthropology of Compassion, Reproduced from the Journal of the Muhyiddin Ibn
'Arabi Society, Volume 48, 2010. http://www.ibnarabisociety.org/articles/anthropology-ofcompassion.html.accessed : 22.10.2017.
Oludamini Ogunnaike, Shining of the Lights and the Veil ofthe Sights in the Secrets Bright: An Akbarī
Approach to the Problem of Pure Consciousness. P. 44. “(The Living) is the Name that enables the other six
‘Mothers of the Names’ (The Knowing, the Hearing, the Seeing, the Speaking, the Willer, the Powerful) to
subsist. The degree of al-Ḥayy is the most tremendous degree among the Names, since it is the precondition
for the other Names. You cannot say of a dead thing that it is Knowing, Seeing, or Willing. The meaning of alḤayy is ‘the one who is aware of himself’, for the dead person is one who has no awareness of himself. AlQayyūm is the Self-Subsistent, that which subsists only in itself, not through another, and through which all
Subsisting, The Existent upon Whom all others depend to exist. Some commentators
understood the Names as fixed entities like the Platonic Ideas, but a seventeenth century
Sufi, philosopher Mulla Sadra had another theory where only the Ahad, the singular
unknowable is fixed and except this aspect everything including the Names are open to
fluctuations, mutability upon which the principle of the universe is based on. araştır kaynak
Emanation theory of Sufism explains creation in phases of unfolding without changing
anything in the Essence, through plane to plane; from subtle and undetermined towards
dense and determined which are simultaneously present. This Divine Creation of what is in
the knowledge of God is self-disclosure, the manifestation of the Real, veiling the Essence.
According to a hadith “God has seventy thousand veils of light and darkness; if He were to
remove them, the radiant splendours of His Face would burn up whoever (or whatever
creature) was reached by His Gaze.” The unveiling of the Sufis is related to these veils, and it
is as much as God reveals it to them; “We have removed from you your cover, so your sight
today is sharp.” (Quran, 50:22). When Sufis say unveiling, it is not only an observation for
them, it is also learning about the meanings and how to use the knowledge. The Sufis
interfere sometimes before something comes into realisation in the phenomenal world. For
the ones whose selves subsist with the Truth, the planes of existence that are subtler then
our daily perception are open most of the time.
The division of planes may show some differences in terminology or small differences in
string from Sufi to Sufi. Abd al-Karīm al-Jili (1365-1424) considers the Being in three grades
with at least forty sub-grades: the first is the transcendent, the absolute unknowable
Essence with no unfolding or determination at all, the most hidden, gayb’ul-gayb.14 The
second grade is when the unfolding and determination begins. It is called the liminal grade
or Isthmus, which itself has grades of unfolding; Allah, Haq, the Truth, the Breath of Mercy
(also called Âmâ, the Cloud, Rab, the Lordship), the Originator, the Names and Attributes,
others subsist. Just as the Names all subsist through al-Ḥayy, everything subsists through al-Qayyūm, the SelfSubsistent. So we have the Self-Subsistent Life, the Self-Subsistent awareness and Qayyum, The SelfSubsisting, The Existent upon Whom all others depend to exist.”
There are two concepts denoting to unseen in the Quran; gayb and batin that some translate both as the
invisible. Gayb refers to the unknowable, concealed while batin means the inward, esoteric, spiritual, invisible.
Quran says that it addresses those who believe in gayb. Batin is among the names of God which is knowable as
it is emergent. Yet also the created has this aspect of gayb, which is known to God and its tidings, secrets are
revealed to the prophets and messengers by revelation (Quran, 3:44, 179).
the possible beings, the world of spirits, the world of angels and the world of Imagination.
Human being’s maximal horizon of knowledge begins somewhere in this grade depending on
her/his ability or the receptivity of her/his locus as Sufis call it. And the third grade is the
phenomenal realm Halq, where the possible beings become actual.15
Ibrahim Hakki’s (1703- 1780) division has four grades but seven planes. The names he gives
to them echo the Quranic terminology and the seven heavens mentioned in it: the nondetermination include Unity, Darkness (Âmâ) and the Divinity. The first determination is
called the Plane of Power, the second determination includes the World of Spirits and
Isthmus, and the third determination is the World of Witnessing.16 For Izutsu, God’s most
hidden Essence, the unmanifest Absolute is in âmâ. Then comes the manifest Absolute, “the
Unity of multiplicity at the ontological stage of Divine Names and Attributes […] 'Oneness (of
Many)'.”17 It is the first level of differentiation or the first determination and “[t]he ‘first
determination’ means the self-manifestation of the Absolute to itself as a unifying point of
all the Divine Names.18 It is the realm of beatific vision, and the boundary of human vision.
Knowledge in this realm is the knowledge of things, as God knows them.
Abd al-Karīm al-Jili, Varlık Mertebeleri, Furkan Kitaplığı, 2006:10-12.
Toshihiko Izutsu 1983: 108, note 9
ibid.: 216, note 15.