Hi, I’m just trying to understand… In Sufism, how is their view of union with God compared to Catholicism? First when I found out they believe in annihilation of the self I thought they meant something like pantheism, but they deny this, and describe this as more like annihilation of human attributes… My questions are - do they believe that the persons essence changes to divine essence? And my second question, in the Church, I think we believe that we keep our personality in Heaven but we share in the life of the Trinity… There are mystics who gave their will to God, and God worked through them in their actions, but of course we stay human and keep personality even and the soul doesn’t change its essence. I read that God can do His operations in us but we keep human essence. How does this compare with Sufism??? Any knowledgeable answers would help… Thank you!
You’re referring to a sufi teaching called ‘fana’, which, although it means ‘annihilation’, it refers to annihilation of the nafs/ego. No, no part of the person who experiences fana becomes divine. There’s nothing divine about us. Ahmad Sirhindi, who was a prolific sufi apologist and writer, wrote a lot about fana. To be briefly summarise, he says, to the effect, that fana is a state in which a devotee’s consciousness of himself/herself is no longer present (as far as is humanly possible).
It’s a spiritual state of a very high calibur; one that very few people experience. You experience a level of closeness to God that’s beyond the average. Allah becomes the eyes with which you see, the feet with which you walk and the hand with which you strike. In other words, you remain conscious of God at all times, save for when you go to sleep. It’s like when you fall in love, only more potent. When you’re in love with someone, everything reminds you of them. Similarly, a muslim that experiences fana sees God’s hand in everything.
Seeing God’s creative work in all things is very different from saying that God is physically present in everything. When you look at a painting, you can see a reflection of the painter in it; you see the emotion he/she felt while painting it, you see the love and care they put into it and so forth. That’s a far cry than to say that the painter is physically present within the painting, which would be a kin to lunacy.
A pious man/woman doesn’t necessarily have to pray or read to have their faith increased-- anything and everything increases their faith because they have absolute trust in God, which is what we muslims call ‘tawakkul’.
So no, nobody becomes divine in any way. I’m ignorant of Catholicism, so it’s best for me to not try to compare anything I’ve said above to Catholicism. I don’t know if you guys have a branch of esoteric thought, so I won’t presume to speak on your behalf.
The person that, in this lifetime, experiences high levels of intimacy and goes through higher dimensions of faith is human the whole time. They are not less human than before their experience.
While I am a Catholic and not a Sufi, I have a long-standing interest in mysticism and so hope you won’t mind me giving your questions a bash…
I think that the thoughts of Al-Ghazali, the great Islamic philosopher of Sufism, are interesting in respect of this:
“…Now, when this state prevails, it is called in relation to him who experiences it, Extinction, nay, Extinction of Extinction, for the soul has become extinct to itself, extinct to its own extinction, for it becomes unconscious of itself and unconscious of its own unconsciousness, since were it conscious of its own unconsciousness, it would be conscious of itself. In relation to the man immersed in this state, the state is called, in the language of metaphor,’ Identity’; in the language of reality,’ Unification…”
- Al-Ghazali (c. 1058–1111), Islamic theologian, jurist, philosopher & Sufi mystic
Here Al-Ghazali explains what Sufis understand by fana.
The mystic in undergoing fana (self-annihilation) does not cease to exist as a person, as an identity in essence.
His individuality is rather deified through unconsciousness, an extinction to itself, even to the point of not being conscious of the fact of its own unconsciousness. It is a state of complete self-forgetfulness in the Divine. That is why Sufis so often employ the metaphor of “drunkenness” in their poetry.
He goes on to say that “metaphorically” the Sufi poets interpret this as “Identity” whereas in truth it is a “Unification” brought about by the loss of self-awareness.
Ghazali would not I think consider this to be a “fabrication” or “illusion”, rather he would consider it an ineffable experience that cannot ever be fully understood or explained but rather perceived/experienced directly, and also as being the natural outcome of complete absorption in God through love.
In the orthodox Sufi tradition, mystical union does transcend “I and Thou” and so it is non-dualistic however it is non-dualism of an experiential rather than of an ontological kind.
You need not fear pantheism from Sufis for this reason.
Fana I believe pre-dates Islam. It seems to trace its origins to the fourth-eighth century AD Syrian mystics of the Nestorian and Syrian Orthodox Churches. Muslims encountered these ascetics after the conquest of Syria.
One of those mystics, was St John of Dalyatha, also known as John Saba. Here is his description, taken from passages from two of his letters and one discourse that I’ve joined together:
“…The ground on which I have been proceeding has been altered before me. My intelligence has been astonished by the marvel which You provoke and henceforth I know myself as not existing…My soul from then on was remaining as if in annihilation but without passing away. Friends were blotted out of my heart, unloved as enemies from of old. When I became weak, for a time He left me like this, amazed at Him and what is His. From that time I was existing without mind as non-existing, without perception, without vision, and without hearing, but in amazement and great stillness. There is no movement or knowledge there since in the experienced one knowledge has forgotten itself and even how to know…[The soul] is supremely illumined again and penetrates into the holy and greatly resplendent light. It gets absorbed in the glory of vision and is amazed. [Then] everything is lifted from its sight as being non-existent, and [the soul] forgets itself, being united to the light of the glory of the Majesty. It is captivated by its beauty and sees the glorious Hypostases [of the Trinity] through knowledge, that is, through unknowing, which is higher than all knowledge and all those who know…”
- Saint John of Dalyatha (8th century), Letter 4,16; Discourse 8
Orthodox Christian mystics were therefore having spiritual experiences akin to fana before the advent of Islam and undoubtedly early Muslim ascestics took inspiration from them.