Life – An Exalted Destiny – Aga Khan III

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Metaphysics and Virtue in Sufism — Titus Burckhardt

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In Sufism, Metaphysics is always linked to spiritual realization

by Titus Burckhardt

Sufi doctrine possesses several branches, the two most important of which are the domain of Universal Truths (Haqâ’iq) and the domain relating to the human or individual stages of the spiritual way (daqâ’iq); in other words, metaphysics (the science of principles, or of the Principle) and virtue (the “science of the soul”). Needless to say, these two domains are not in watertight compartments. Metaphysics by definition includes everything, but in Sufism it is always linked to spiritual realization. Cosmology, which is derived from metaphysics, applies to both macrocosm and microcosm. Thus, there is a psychology which has a cosmic application and a psychology which, by analogy, applies to the soul or the inward constitution of man.

In order to be perfectly clear, it is necessary to dwell at some length on this relationship. Apart from the two domains of Haqâ’iq and daqâ’iq just mentioned, one can also distinguish, in the realm of doctrine, three principal domains, namely, metaphysics, cosmology, and spiritual psychology. These correspond to the ternary: “God, world, and soul” (Metacosm, macrocosm, and microcosm). Cosmology can thus be conceived both as the application of metaphysical principles to the cosmos (this is the contemplation of God in the world) and, analogously, as the application of metaphysical principles to the human soul.

A complete cosmology necessarily includes the microcosmic reality of the soul; and no spiritual psychology can detach the soul from macrocosmic principles. In the fabric of the cosmos there is no radical break. In its own fashion, discontinuity does exist; it is what it is. But discontinuity is barely conceivable apart from a principle of unity that bridges the gap, and without the background of a continuity that manifests it. Thus, for example, the apparent discontinuity between individuals — the relation of their respective centers of consciousness — is only the mark of their unique Essence, which transcends “vertically” the “horizontal” plane of their common nature.

In itself cosmology is an analytical science in the original meaning of this term, for it reduces every aspect of the cosmos to the underlying principles, which, in the last analysis, are the active and the passive poles: the “informing” principle (active), and the plastic, receptive substance—or materia prima—(passive). The integration of these complementary principles in primal Unity belongs to the realm of metaphysics, and not to cosmology.

It has just been said that Sufi psychology does not separate the soul from either the metaphysical or the cosmic order. The link with the metaphysical order provides spiritual psychology with qualitative criteria that are wholly lacking in profane psychology, which studies only the dynamic character of psychic phenomena and their immediate causes. When modern psychology pretends to be a science of the hidden contents of the soul, it nevertheless remains restricted to an individual perspective, because it possesses no means of distinguishing psychic forms that reflect universal realities, from forms that may appear “symbolical” but are no more than the vehicles for individual impulses. The so-called “collective unconscious” has nothing to do with the true source of symbols; it is nothing but a chaotic depository of psychic residues, rather like the mud of the ocean bed which retains traces of past ages.

For profane psychology the only link between the macrocosm and the world of the soul lies in the impressions that reach the soul through the door of the senses. Sufi psychology, on the other hand, takes account of the analogy between the macrocosm and the human microcosm. To this order of ideas belong such sciences as traditional astrology, the symbolism of which has sometimes been used by some Sufi, as well as by some Christian, masters.

The Sufi path can be considered as a way towards knowledge of oneself in conformity with the saying of Mohammed: “He who knows himself (nafsa-hu), knows his Lord”. In the last analysis, this knowledge applies to the Divine Essence, the immutable Self (Huwîya), and thus transcends both the cosmological and the psychological perspective. At a relative level, however, since it concerns one’s individual nature, knowledge of oneself necessarily includes a science of the soul. This science is also, in a sense, a “cosmology”. It is first and foremost a discernment or discrimination with regard to the elements of the soul.

To demonstrate how discrimination with regard to the soul is inspired by cosmological principles, certain very general criteria of inspiration (wârid) may be mentioned. But first of all, it must be made clear that inspiration is understood here, not in the sense of prophetic inspiration, but in the sense of the sudden intuition that is normally provoked by spiritual practices. This inspiration may have very different sources. It is only of value when it comes from the timeless center of the being, in other words, from the ray of Universal Intelligence that connects man with God.

“Inspiration” is deceptive when it comes from the psychic world, be this the individual psyche and its subtle ambience, or the subhuman world and its satanic pole. On the other hand, the inspiration that comes from the Universal Intelligence, and thus from God, always communicates an understanding that illumines the ego, and at the same time relativizes the latter by dissipating its illusions.

Inspiration that comes from the individual psyche is the voice of some hidden passion; it has something egocentric about it, and is accompanied by pretentiousness, direct or indirect. As regards inspirations that come from the satanic pole, these invert hierarchical relationships and deny higher realities.

Impulsions that come from the individual or collective soul invariably fix on the same object—the object of some desire— whereas a satanic influence merely makes use of a passion: what it really seeks is not the object of the passion, but the negation of spiritual reality; that is why the devil, whenever his argument is destroyed, always deflects discussion by changing the “theme”. He argues only to trouble man, whereas the passional soul still possesses a certain logic, which permits its impulsions to be directed into legitimate channels by sufficiently strong arguments. Satanic impulsions, on the other hand, must be rejected in toto. The three tendencies in question (angelic, unregenerately human, and satanic) correspond respectively to reintegration in the Divine Essence, centrifugal dispersion, and a “fall” into infra-human chaos. These three tendencies have their analogies in the universal order. Hinduism calls them sattva (the upward or luminous tendency, “lightness”), rajas (the horizontal tendency, “expansiveness”), and tamas (the downward or darksome tendency, “heaviness”).

It may be surprising that so many Sufi books deal with the virtues, when Knowledge (ma‘rifa) is the goal of the spiritual way, and perpetual concentration on God is the sole condition for reaching it. If the virtues are considered essential, it is because no mode of consciousness can he regarded as being outside total Knowledge—or outside Truth—nor can any inward attitude be regarded as indifferent. The “vision of the heart” (ru’yat al-qalb) is knowledge of the whole being. It is impossible for the heart to open itself to Divine Truth as long as the soul retains, even unconsciously, an attitude that denies Truth; avoidance of such an attitude is always precarious, since the soul (nafs) is a priori governed by egocentric illusion, which by definition presupposes a blind spot.[1] All of this amounts to saying that the science of the virtues, which applies Divine Truth to the soul, directly concerns spiritual realization. Its criteria are exceedingly subtle; it cannot be summarized in a moral code, and its formal fixations are no more than paradigms. Its object, spiritual virtue, is so to speak a “lived symbol”, the right perception of which depends on a certain inward development. This is not necessarily so in the case of doctrinal understanding.

In a certain sense the Sufi method consists in the art of keeping the soul open to the influx of the Infinite. The soul has a natural tendency to remain enclosed in itself, and this tendency can be compensated only by a contrary movement acting on the same plane; this movement is, precisely, virtue. Metaphysical Truth as such is impersonal and motionless; virtue translates it into a “personal” mode.

Spiritual virtue is not necessarily a social virtue in a direct sense, and the external manifestations of one and the same virtue may differ according to the circumstances. Thus some Sufis have shown their contempt for the world by wearing poor and tattered garments; others have affirmed the same inner attitude by wearing sumptuous raiment. In a Sufi of the latter kind, the affirmation of his person is in reality a submission to the impersonal truth that he incarnates; his humility lies in his extinction in an aspect of glory which is not his own.

Even if Sufi virtue formally coincides with religious virtue, it nonetheless differs from it in its contemplative essence. For instance, the virtue of gratitude, for the mass of believers, is founded on the memory of benefits received from God; it implies a feeling that these benefits are more real than any sufferings. In the case of the contemplative, this feeling becomes certainty: for him, the plenitude of Being, present in every fragment of existence, is infinitely more real than the limits of things, and some Sufis have gone so far as to feel joy in what, for others, would only be a painful negation of themselves.

The spiritual virtues are, as it were, the human supports for Divine Truth (Haqîqa); they are also reflections of that Truth. Now any reflection implies a certain inversion in relation to its source: spiritual poverty (faqr), for example, is the inverse reflection of the Plenitude of the Spirit. Sincerity (ikhlâs) and veracity (sidq) are expressions of the independence of the mind or Intellect from tendencies of the soul, while nobility (karam) is the human reflection of Divine Greatness. In these “positive” virtues, the inversion lies in the mode and not in the content, which means that they are, so to speak, saturated with humility, while their prototypes are made of majesty and glory.


1. Nevertheless, man always has a certain awareness of any falsity in his attitude, even if this has not come to him through reason. It is said in the Koran: “Verily man is conscious of himself (i.e., of his soul), even though he may offer excuses.” (75:13) The man who wishes to realize Divine Knowledge while despising virtue, is like a thief who wants to become righteous without restoring his theft.


The chapter above was originally in Titus Burckhardt’s An Introduction to Sufi Doctrine,
first published in English in 1959 but now out of print. It was included in
The Essential Titus Burckhardt: Reflections on Sacred Art, Faiths, and Civilizations
(World Wisdom, 2003), a collection of writings from the wide range of work done by
this important Perennialist author, translator, and editor. The book was edited by William Stoddart.
The full book An Introduction to Sufi Doctrine, will be published in a new edition by World Wisdom.

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Quran, 13:28

ألا بِذِكْرِ اللهِ تَطمَئِنُّ الْقُلُوبُ

“Verily! In the remembrance of Allah do hearts find contentment.” - Quran, 13:28

Prophet Muhammad

Prophet Muhammad:

‘Ali is ‘as my own soul’ (ka-nafsi).

He said to ‘Ali, ‘You are from me and I am from you (anta minni wa ana minka).’

‘Truly, ‘Ali is from me and I am from him (inna ‘Ali minni wa ana minhu), and he is the wali (patron/spiritual master) of every believer after me.’

Hazrat Ali

12. When some blessings come to you, do not drive them away through thanklessness.

13. He who is deserted by friends and relatives will often find help and sympathy from strangers.

Imam Ali Sayings

Imam Jaffer Sadiq

لاَ يَكُونُ شَيْءٌ فِي اْلاَرْضِ وَلا فِي السَّمَاءِ إِلاَّ بِهذِهِ الْخِصَالِ السَّبْعِ: بِمَشيئَةٍ وَ إِرادَةٍ وَقَدَرٍ وَقَضَاءٍ وَ إِذْنٍ وَكِتابٍ وَأَجَلٍ. فَمَنْ زَعَمَ أَنَّهُ يَقْدِرُ عَلى نَقْضٍ وَاحِدَةٍ، فَقَدْ كَفَرَ.

“Nothing occurs in this earth and in the heaven except with the following seven stages: Will, intention, destiny, decree, permission, book and implementation. Then whoever thinks that he can reduce any of these stages, then indeed he has disbelieved.”

- Imam Jaffer Sadiq, Usul al Kafi, vol. 1, p. 149

Rumi on Ramadan

The month of fasting has come, the emperor’s banner has arrived; withhold your hand from food, the spirit’s table has arrived. The soul has escaped from separation and bound nature’s hands; the heart of error is defeated, the army of faith has arrived. Fasting is our sacrifice, it is the life of our soul; let us sacrifice all our body, since the soul has arrived as guest. Fortitude is as a sweet cloud, wisdom rains from it, because it was in such a month of fortitude that the Koran arrived. …Wash your hands and your mouth, neither eat nor speak; seek that speech and that morsel which has come to the silent ones.


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Aga Khan jokes

Aga Khan Speech Brown University May 1996:

"Looking around this colorful gathering, I recall helping in the choice of the Aga Khan University's regalia. Our research into Islamic traditions of academic dress revealed that an academic's rank determined the height of his hat. The higher the rank, the taller the hat. The senior most professors therefore appeared taller than their students even when sitting down. I have just learnt that my friend Neil Rudenstein, the President of Harvard has given instructions that all Harvard hats are to be heightened by at least a foot. This has caused havoc in the Ivy League which is now debating resolution MAHH96, standing for Maximum Allowable Hat Height. My academic standing and that of President Gregorian, should be evident from the hats that we are presently wearing!"

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