VIRGINIA DEL RE McWEENY
VIRGINIA DEL RE McWEENY
The day will come when, after harnessing space, the winds, the tides, gravitation, we shall harness for God the energies of love. And, on that day, for the second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.
Among so many great events, there is one phenomenon which, in the eyes of posterity, may well overshadow everything that has been discovered in radiation and electricity: the permanent entry into operation, in our day, of inter-human affinities the movement, irresistible and ever increasing in speed, which we can see for ourselves, welding peoples and individuals to one another.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin1
While attending some of the Dialogues between Science and Religion in Pari, my mind went to the great mystical (or Sufi) Persian poets of the Middle Ages I had been recently writing about2 (from an entirely literary angle) and to their position vis-à-vis science. Also, some ongoing scientific and political developments have made me think of the many different roads travelled by human thought, of the ‘other’—as compared to science and ‘reason’—ways of experiencing the material and the immaterial world, different approaches that keep reappearing, sometimes in startlingly unexpected forms, building unimagined bridges between apparently irreconcilable worldviews and modes of knowing, and between past and present.
I asked myself: what is—or was—the relation between Sufism and science? Is coexistence possible or even some sort of conciliation? Can the paths of science and mysticism cross in the modern world? Can we even pose such a question? Because, of course, to speak in the same breath of mysticism and science sounds, at first, altogether absurd.
Two main considerations persuaded me that the question about Sufism and science is not futile. One was the fact that Sufism, or Islamic mysticism, is a widespread spiritual movement in the modern world. Although it rests on a longstanding tradition of great masters, poets and philosophers, which reached its peak in the period between the 10th and the 16th centuries AD, there are traditional and modern Sufi groups and Orders, with many thousands, sometimes millions of adepts3. One of the best known and popular among the Western public is the modern syncretistic kind of Sufism, especially the International Sufi Movement and the International Sufi Order whose adepts draw inspiration from the teachings of their Master, Hazrat Inayat Khan (Pir-o-Murshid Inayat Khan, 1882-1927)4, in an effort of ideal synthesis between East and West. Thus, Sufism is still an enduring, significant power, not only within the Islamic religious context, from which it arose and to which it firmly belongs, but as a source of inspiration for those people who strive to transcend the particular doctrines and dogmas of positive, organized religions, accepting only those common essential elements in them whereby souls share the same spiritual pursuit—what Teilhard De Chardin refers to, poetically, as the inter-human affinities. And certainly their endeavour responds to a particularly pressing need in a world where differences and destructive conflict threaten to defeat all endeavours towards peace.
This discrete, yet extremely influential presence seemed to me one good reason that justified the question about Sufism and modern science and the ethical and philosophical problems it poses.
The second, perhaps more important, reason that can lend legitimacy and relevance to the question, even for non-scientists like me, is that science today, or, more simply, many scientists, no longer eschew issues that are frankly metaphysical, and appear, in fact, anxious to find ways of reconciling scientific pursuits and faith in a transcendent reality. We can all see how the need for meaning becomes more and more desperate as the frontiers of knowledge move farther and farther and seem to fade away altogether, and the limitations of human reason appears in all its anguishing evidence.
Sufism and science, then: let’s say first of all that Sufism, classic or modern, does not reject the world’s physicality and the reality of sensorial objects; nor does it deny or despise the pure sciences, nor scientific discoveries and technological advancement, nor philosophical and theological speculation. It does not refuse or even dispute all that, but stands outside it, transcending it in the name of a quality, a different essence of human knowing and experiencing, where the object of enquiry and the informing /normative principle coincide, eluding absolutely the ‘investigation of reason.’ Essentially, Sufism pursues sapientia rather than scientia. The mystic’s truth and the scientist’s truth, in all places and at all times, diverge profoundly in their object, in their aims and in their methods. The mystic’s quest is for the direct apprehension of Truth, i.e., the Godhead, while scientists pursue the truth that can be attained through their intellect and their tools; the mystic’s methods are the refining of the heart, those of the scientist the refining of tools and techniques of intellectual investigation. The only laws in the mystic’s field of enquiry are the heart’s desire, the renunciation of the selfish Ego, and above all, Love. Sufism is in fact also described as ‘the heart’s science’ or ‘the path to God through love. As Rumi, the greatest mystic poet of Islam, said:
Though it be as precious as pearl or coral, reason’s enquiry
is all different from the soul’s search! […]
The enquiry of reason and of the senses—let it be known—is about
causes or effects:
the soul’s enquiry is through wonder or miracle.
The Soul’s light came: it did not stay: O you who want to be enlightened,
[do not look for] either ‘consequence,’ or ‘premiss,’ or ‘implication’ or ‘exclusion.’
Because the seer whose light now resplends, has no need for arguments,
nor for somebody to lead by a stick [like a blind man]5
Rumi’s lines explain perfectly and synthetically the attitude of the mystic towards ‘rational’ science. (But let’s note, in passing, how the terms he uses reveal an excellent knowledge of the technical terms of Logic.)
The Sufi path does not coincide with the path of science: and this is true of all mysticism. The objects of their searches could not be farther apart: the scientist moves in the physical world to observe it and investigate its laws, and to put them, where possible, to the use of humankind. The mystic lives in the world, and yet moves towards a hidden reality, a sphere to which he knows he belongs and to which he longs to return. Finding that truth, however, implies entering a dimension where human space and time are utterly meaningless. Science, as we see it today, demands proofs and verification, demonstration under well-established rules and procedures and, while it does not admit limits to its possibilities of investigation in the physical world, is very careful to keep away from ‘absolute truths.’ Mystics—as well as religious believers, and even lovers and poets—speak of things that by definition escape human reason and its means, and of which no scientific demonstration is possible. And yet, today’s Physics is again posing questions about the Ultimate Causes, as does Biology, whose frontiers seem to be recklessly getting closer and closer to the origin of life, to creation.
Not being a scientist myself, I won’t even marginally touch upon scientific topics, nor shall I attempt comparisons or links not only arduous in themselves but, most probably, historically unjustifiable. Having said that, two or three points in two great poets of the classic era of Sufism, Rumi and Jami, and in some Sufi philosophers such as Shurawardi—the Master of Illuminativism—seem to be extraordinarily topical and relevant in the context of a possible discussion about Sufism and modern science, as they find striking ‘correspondences’ with ideas expressed by some modern scientists. I will present them here just as possible points for reflection, like sparks from a past that suddenly seems very close.
First a brief digression: a whole page of the cultural Sunday supplement to the Italian newspaper Sole 24 Ore (a very close equivalent to the British newspaper Financial Times), dated January 16, 2005, carried—in block letters—a question: What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it? This was the year’s ‘edge’ question John Brockman had just put online (www. edge.org) to a great number of intellectuals. The Italian paper published 9 out of the 120 answers Brockman got: one by a writer, two by physicists, two astrophysicists, two biologists and two psychologists. Each one of them admitted to a belief—that is, an absolute certainty—in something he/she cannot offer scientifically valid proofs or demonstrations for, even within his/her own field. Some were writing in a slightly embarrassed or semi-playful tone, but none of them was shocked by the question, nor denied its legitimacy. Perhaps it is true that we all have strong certainties about non-demonstrable, even irrational things, and also that to deny this fact is actually the most irrational of all our beliefs.
To my surprise, two of the answers made me think immediately of the Sufi: Leon Lederman, Physicist and Nobel Laureate, said he believes in the essential beauty of Nature, though he cannot prove it scientifically. I quote from his answer:
‘To believe without knowing it cannot be proved (yet) is the essence of physics. Guys like Einstein, Dirac, Poincaré, etc. extolled the beauty of concepts, in a bizarre sense, placing truth at a lower level of importance.’Ledermann goes on to tell of the ‘pain [in the scientific community] at the loss of simplicity and harmony…whenthe long respected law of mirror symmetry was violated by weakly interacting but exotic particles’: a pain ‘alleviated by the discovery of the failure of particle-antiparticle symmetry’ which seemed to restore ‘a new and more powerful symmetry.’ ‘How silly of us’—he says—’to have lost confidence in the essential beauty of nature!’ and concludes: ‘Surely,’ we now believe, ‘there is in store some spectacular, new, unforeseen splendour in all of us.’ She [the Creator] will not let us down. This we believe, even though we can’t prove it.’
David Buss, a psychologist, believes—against all odds—firmly in love: this is what he says:
I’ve spent two decades of my professional life studying human mating. In that time, I’ve documented phenomena ranging from what men and women desire in a mate to the most diabolical forms of sexual treachery. […] But throughout this exploration of the dark dimensions of human mating, I’ve remained unwavering in my belief in true love.
While love is common, true love is rare, and I believe that few people are fortunate enough to experience it. The roads of regular love are well traveled and their markers are well understood by many—the mesmerizing attraction, the ideational obsession, the sexual afterglow, profound self-sacrifice, and the desire to combine DNA. But true love takes its own course through uncharted territory. It knows no fences, has no barriers or boundaries. It’s difficult to define, eludes modern measurement, and seems scientifically wooly. But I know true love exists. I just can’t prove it.
As Ahmad al-Ghazali (see below) said a long time ago, ‘the distinctive orientations of love are incidental. By its essence, it transcends all directions because it need not turn into any direction in order to be love.’
Now, Beauty and Love are two fundamental tenets of Sufism that find justification and support in Muhammad’s saying, ‘God is beautiful and loves Beauty,’ and are inextricably connected to one another. Rumi endlessly sings of Love and Beauty in Nature and in the human being, as do Attar and Jami in their verses. To contemplate Beauty is to Love, and vice versa: there lies the way to Knowledge and to the union with the Godhead. The ‘faithful lovers’ (some will remember the fedeli d’amore of medieval times) render their divine service to Beauty by contemplating it as the greatest of all theophanies. Ahmad Ghazali (the great Persian mystical preacher, brother of Abud Hamid Ghazali, the theologian who is somehow considered responsible for the end of scientific research in Islam) writes a celebrated treatise on Love, Sawanih6. But being a mystic does not mean, then as now, being deaf to ‘rational’ knowledge and to the physical nature of the world. Indeed the great mystics of the so-called golden age of Islam were often learned men, well versed, not only in theological and philosophical matters, but in Mathematics, Astronomy and the natural sciences, such as Medicine, Botany, and Geography (the Philosophia Naturalis sciences, all at the time classified in hierarchical order under Theology). Hamadani, Ahmad Ghazali’s favourite disciple was a mystic and a judge, a mathematician, and a philosopher.
But the Sufis, rather than following the devouring need to describe the world and its phenomena and explain their causes through intellectual means, choose the other road open to those who are anxious to ‘understand’ the Universe: they merge themselves in its indescribable beauty until they are totally penetrated by the sense of the divine presence, the emotion of Baraka, that mixture of wonder, adoration and awe, which comes from the contemplation of the unutterable harmony of the Whole and the sign of the One.
From the intellectual standpoint, what today is known as the ‘intelligent design’ behind the phenomenal world is for the Sufis an undeniable and sufficient datum: the creation is the work of God, the One, from whom everything derives. Indeed there is often in Sufism an attitude, a sensibility that could easily be described as pantheistic: not only the Whole comes from the One, but the One is the Whole. This attitude did actually expose them more than once to accusations and to capital sentences for blasphemy and heresy.
However, leaving alone religious belief and theological thought, there are some interesting points in the ‘philosophers of Illumination’ (Najm Razi, Suhrawardi, Najm Kobra, and Mohammad Lahiji, whose writings are somehow a prelude to the work of the great theologian and master of Islamic gnosis, Ibn al-‘Arabi) and some ideas about the Creation, Nature, Man and Evolution in Rumi, which appear at least, shall we say, intriguing, in the light of modern science.
For many Sufi mystics, saturated with the metaphysics of great philosophers, such as Ibn al-‘Arabi, the created world is brought into existence by the desire of uncreated Beauty to express itself, to be known. Jami sings:
Such urge arose first from Eternal Beauty.
She moved Her tent outside the sacred bounds
Revealed Herself to souls and to horizons.
A different face appeared in every mirror.
Her Being was discussed in every place.
Jami, Yusuf va Zuleika (transl. J.T.P. De Bruijn)
Hidden behind the veil of mystery, Beauty is eternally free from the slightest stain of imperfection. From the atoms of the world, He created a multitude of mirrors; into each one of them He cast the image of His Face; to the awakened eye, anything that appears beautiful is only a reflection of that Face.
Jami, (transl. A. Harvey and E. Hanut)
From all eternity the Beloved unveiled His beauty in the
solitude of the Unseen;
He held up the mirror to His own face, He displayed His
loveliness to Himself.
He was both the spectator and the spectacle: no eye but His
had surveyed the universe.
All was One, there was no duality, no pretence of ‘mine’ or
The vast orb of Heaven, with its myriad incomings and out
goings, was concealed in a single point.
The Creation lay cradled in the sleep of non-existence, like a
child ere it has breathed.
The eye of the Beloved, seeing what was not, regarded non
existence as existent.
Though He beheld His attributes and qualities as a perfect
whole in His own essence,
Yet he desired that they should be displayed to Him in another
And that each of His eternal attributes should become manifest
accordingly in a diverse form.
Therefore He created the verdant fields of Time and Space
and the life-giving garden of the world,
That every bough and fruit might show forth His various
The cypress gave a hint of His comely stature, the rose gave
tidings of His beauteous countenance.
Wherever Beauty peeped out, Love appeared beside it;
wherever Beauty shone in a rosy cheek, Love lit his torch
from that flame.
Wherever Beauty dwelt in dark tresses, Love came and found a
heart entangled in their coils.
Beauty and Love are as body and soul; Beauty is the mine
and Love the precious stone.
They have always been together from the first: never have
they travelled but in each other’s company.
Jami, (transl. R. A. Nicholson)
Fazil, the Turkish poet (d. 1811) explains these lines as follows:
Beauty, wherever we find it, in human beings, in minerals or plants, is the manifestation of the Godhead to itself. The Godhead is Absolute Beauty; the objects where we perceive beauty are, so to say, as many mirrors of it, and each of them reveals a fragment of its divine Essence. And being of divine origin, that Beauty exercises a subtle influence on the beholder, arousing their sense of love, through which they will finally be allowed to enter into communion with God.
Jami’s words can obviously be appreciated simply as beautiful poetry on its own merit; but, as we have seen, their meaning rests on a very profound philosophy of Creation whose roots can be found in Islamic theosophy and, further back, in Hermetism, Neoplatonism and in the old Iranic religions. Take for instance the recurrent symbolism of the mirror: on the one hand, it is connected to the typical Sufi concept of the heart as the mirror of true reality, i.e., the inner reality, as opposed to the external reality, that is pursued and perceived by the senses and by the discursive intellect. The human intellect, that setting on tortuous and treacherous tracks, loses sight of the Absolute Truth, the One, and thus becomes guilty of arrogance, of hubris. As David Peat7 reminds us, today’s scientists, when formulating a theory or making an observation, do not take into account their inner being, nor their own ethical needs.
On the other hand, the mirror is naturally connected to the idea of light, as the instrument that reflects and refracts Light; and the One is Light. Allah is ‘The Light of the Heavens and of Earth,’ and is ‘Light upon Light’ (Koran, XXIV, 35). Light and all that is related to it is an essential symbolic key in the Sufi mystical lexicon (as well as in mysticism in general). Light is warmth, love, fire, consummation in passion: the moth—in a frequent metaphor in the mystics’ language—cannot stay away from the candle and dies burning in its flame. Christian mystics speak of the ‘ocean of light’ and of the ‘blinding light in the moment, unio mystica.’
The modes of this Light that contemplates itself and that, entirely freely, i.e., ‘as an act of Love,’ creates the World and in the end its masterpiece, the Human Being, are part of a complicated ‘metaphysics of light and colours’ whose exponents are Suhrawardi, Najm Razi, Najm Kobra and Mohammad Lahiji. Light also enters in the fundamental Islamic idea of the Perfect Man, The Man of Light, in this context.
Clearly, the metaphysics of Light is inscribed in the sphere of the via mystica ad deum, but there are aspects of it that seem to echo modern physics concepts. On the surprising presence of the Black Light and of light without matter I shall briefly quote the great scholar Henry Corbin, who has written profoundly on this subject8.
The dimension of superconsciousness [as Corbin calls it] is symbolically heralded by the ‘black light’; according to Najm Razi and Mohammed Lahiji, this constitutes the highest spiritual stage; according to Semnani, it marks the most perilous initiatic step, the stage immediately preceding the ultimate theophany, which is heralded by the green light. [….] The idea of the ‘black light’ (Persian nur-e siyah) is above all what obliges us to distinguish between two dimensions which could not be accounted for by a one-dimensional or undifferentiable unconscious. To the extent that the mystical language comes to ‘symbolize with’ physical experience, it seems that the latter perfectly illustrates the idea of a polarity not so much between consciousness and the unconscious as between a superconsciousness and a subconsciousness.
There is one darkness which is matter and there is another darkness which is an absence of matter. Physicists distinguish between the blackness of matter and the blackness of the stratosphere.
On the one hand there is the black body, a body that absorbs all light without distinction of color; this is what is ‘seen’ in a dark furnace. When heated, it passes from black to red, then to white, then to white-red. All this light is light absorbed by matter and re-emitted by it. This is also so in the case of the ‘particle of light’ (the man of light) absorbed in the dark well which according to Najm Kobra and Sohravardi, is compelled by the fire of the dhikr to liberate the particle, to ‘re-emit’ it. This then is the black figure, the well or dark furnace; it is the lower darkness, the infraconscious or subconscious.
But there is another light, a light-without-matter, which becomes visible when released from this already made matter that had absorbed it. The darkness above is the blackness of the stratosphere, of stellar space, of the black Sky. In mystical terms, it corresponds to the light of the divine Self in-itself (nilr-e dhat).
In 1997 William C. Gough9, published an interesting article on the possible scientific value of some fundamental Sufi concepts, among which precisely those related to Light. But, as far as I know, his article does not refer to this ‘light without matter, nor to the Black Light.’
The theosophy of Illumination of Shihāb al-Din al-Suhrawardī is a complex and fascinating system: in the words of Annemarie Schimmel0: ‘for Suhrawardi “existence is [equal to] light.”’ This absolute light reaches the created world through innumerable vertical and horizontal orders of angelic entities. The archetype of humanity among the angels is Gabriel, and all things are brought to life by the sound of Gabriel’s wings. It is Man’s task to recognize the existential light and to come close to it: the more human beings get free from the obscurity of their Ego and let themselves be permeated by light, the closer they get to the Godhead.
The reference to ‘the beating of Gabriel’s wings,’ so poetically suggestive in itself, is obviously rich with neoplatonic and gnostic reminiscences and goes back even to Zoroastrian angelology, as well as to the angels of Judaism and Christianity. But it can also remind us of a biologist and physicist of our time, Rupert Sheldrake, who actually caused a sensation when he spoke of the possible existence of angels, not metaphorical, but real, as superior intelligences operating in our universe. Right or wrong in the scientific sense, Sheldrake is a clear example of the attempts at conciliation that many modern scientists are making between rationalism and spirituality. They are people for whom the unexplainable cannot be just something ‘not yet explained or discovered.’
On this point I’ll quote Sheldrake again later, but let’s first go back to angels for the moment: Hal Blacker11, who interviewed the scientist in 1996, tells how he ‘met pioneering biologist Rupert Sheldrake the night he and theologian Matthew Fox celebrated the publication of their new collection of dialogues, The Physics of Angels. I knew that Sheldrake was not afraid to challenge orthodoxy by entering realms of thought usually eschewed by other scientists. A former Research Fellow of the Royal Society and former Director of Studies in biochemistry and cell biology at Clare College, Cambridge University, his most unorthodox work is not easily dismissed, even by his more traditional peers.’ ‘Rupert Sheldrake’ writes Blacker, ‘showed a quality that is rare in men of his intelligence and breadth of knowledge—a pervasive humility and respect for what is not known and for that which it may never be possible for the intellect to grasp.’
Here is Sheldrake speaking in Blacker’s interview:
Right from the beginning, since my book A New Science of Life was published, my aim has been to try to find a wider picture or paradigm for science that is not constricted to an inanimate, mechanistic view of things.
…One approach to this ‘bigger picture’ is the idea of the whole universe as a living organism…Then the next question that arises is: Well, if the universe is alive, if solar systems are alive, if galaxies are alive, if planets are alive, are they conscious?
And is the kind of life that may exist in the cosmos more conscious than ourselves, or do we have to assume it’s a great deal less conscious than ourselves? Are we the smartest beings in the universe? Now the usual answer of science is yes. I think that’s a very improbable assumption. So, if we come to the idea of many forms of consciousness, if the galaxy has a life and a consciousness, then it would be a consciousness far greater than our own—greater in extent, greater in its implications and power, and greater in the spread of its activities. This, from the point of view of science, is a ridiculous idea, because science has wiped out consciousness from everything in the universe except human brains.
But in the Christian tradition, in the Jewish tradition, and in all traditions, there is the idea of many beings with greater levels of consciousness than our own. In the Western traditions, they are called angels. So, in my book with Matthew Fox, The Physics of Angels, our aim was to explore what the Western tradition actually has to say to us about angels, and see what relevance that might have in the context of the new cosmology.
My interest is in a new view of science in which we see the universe as alive and in an exploration of what all things, and then this human consciousness here, the traditional view is that there are many, many other levels and kinds of consciousness in between. It’s not that you leap straight from divine consciousness to human consciousness, with nothing but brute matter in between. It could mean you see that there are forms of consciousness above the human consciousness12.
But, to go back to Sufism: how can the scientific method, the inviolable principle of demonstrability and verification of all hypotheses, and the permissibility, for the sake of knowledge, of all scientific exploration, be reconciled with the world of the undemonstrable par excellence, with the direct knowledge of the Godhead, with the via mystica?
I have already quoted Rumi’s lines on ‘reason’s enquiry,’ but here I would like to focus on the words ‘wonder’, ‘thaumaturgy’—the reverential emotion in the face of something miraculous, take us back to the word baraka and do not in any way contrast with the feelings expressed by the scientists in their creative work. The perception—indeed the need for harmony and beauty in their pursuits have been and still are constant factors for many of them—for Einstein, for instance, just to mention the most famous among them13.
Rumi speaks of the ‘two kinds of human intelligence’:
There are two kinds of intelligence: One acquired,
as a child in school memorizes facts and concepts
from books and from what the teacher says,
collecting information from the traditional sciences
as well as from the new sciences.
With such intelligence you rise in the world.
You get ranked ahead or behind others
in regard to your competence in retaining information.
You stroll with this intelligence
in and out of fields of knowledge, getting always more
marks on your preserving tablets.
There is another kind of tablet, one
already completed and preserved inside you. A spring
overflowing its springbox. A freshness in
the center of the chest. This other intelligence
does not turn yellow or stagnate. It’s fluid, and it doesn’t
move from outside to inside through the conduits of
This second knowing is a fountainhead from within you, moving out.
Rumi, Mathnavi 14
Since analysis and logic have proved themselves to be such efficient tools in the advance of scientific knowledge, [writes F.C. Happold15] there has been a tendency among the heirs of Western European culture more and more to regard them as the only valid tools of knowledge. They are, however, not the only tools of knowledge.
Our medieval ancestors acknowledged two valid ways of knowledge. The first was through ratio, i.e. discursive reason, the second through intellectus. The word ‘intellectus’ is not easy to define exactly. It carried something of the meaning of intuition or creative insight or imagination, in the sense Blake used that word. Intellectus they considered a higher faculty of the mind than ratio; one capable of bringing men to a more profound knowledge than could be gained through discursive reason.
The status of intuition, creative insight, imagination, call it what you will, is an acknowledged one. It is recognized not only by the mystic, the poet, and many philosophers, but also by the scientist. It was one of the eminent of quantum physicists, Max Planck who wrote in his autobiography: ‘When the pioneer in science sends forth the groping fingers of his thoughts, he must have a vivid, intuitive imagination, for new ideas are not generated by deduction, but by an artistically creative imagination.’
Rupert Sheldrake, on his part, says, at the end of his conversation with Blacker (see above) ‘it’s not a particular set of ideas or doctrines that constitutes science. It’s a method of inquiry, the idea of building on what has gone before and exploring by experiment, and also openness to new ideas. And that, I think, is completely compatible with a spiritual view of things. I don’t think you can prove some of these spiritual truths by scientific means. Science is a limited method of inquiry. It looks at the repetitive aspects of the natural world, so its sphere of interest is relatively confined. Spiritual experience would involve the limits of consciousness and the nature of consciousness. So spiritual inquiry has a broader sphere and science a narrower sphere. But I don’t see any incompatibility between the two.’
Can then the two ways co-exist, has the conflict between the two modes of knowing no reason to be, can science and faith in the unprovable accept and respect each other’s sphere, the difference without the contrast?
To quote Happold again: Unlike the materialists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, twentieth-century scientists no longer regard their domain as all-inclusive, embracing everything in heaven and earth: They recognize that it is confined within relatively narrow limits. The results of recent specialist scientific activities have compelled them to conclude that it is necessary to consider orders of reality which are not amenable to the techniques and vocabulary of science. The scientist now […] does not consider it inconceivable, indeed it seems to fit in with his experience, both as a man and a scientist, that in those regions of personality which lie outside the orbit of normal consciousness the categories of time and space may be inappropriate and that man in his wholeness dwells in a realm that comprehends infinity. The world of his normal experience may be illusion, not in the sense that it does not exists or is necessarily mere appearance, but in that what he perceives is only a section of a greater whole and, wholly or in part, the mental construction of a limited group of perceptions16.
Happold was writing in 1970. I do not know if his words about the composition of the conflict between scientific truth and the ‘other’ truth, between the two ‘methods’ of knowledge are too optimistic at the level of our everyday, concrete experience. The choices that the new boundaries of science and technology pose to all of us require much more than a respectful distance between the two areas of ‘enquiry,’ and the risk of a global head-on ideological clash seems to be steadily increasing.
I come now to the last point in Rumi’s thought that sounds rather extraordinary in the light of modern science. Once again, we are in the heart of Rumi’s ‘oceanic’ mystic encyclopedia, his Mathnavi:
I died as mineral and became a plant,
I died as plant and rose to animal,
I died as animal and I was Man.
Why should I fear? When was I less by
Yet once more I shall die as Man, to soar
With angels blest; but even from angelhood I must
pass on: all except God doth perish. When I have
sacrificed my angel-soul,
I shall become what no mind e’er conceived. Oh,
let me not exist! for Non-existence
Proclaims in organ tones. ‘To him we shall return.’17
Elsewhere Rumi explains this (mystical) theory of evolution:
First Man entered the world of inorganic things. From that stage he passed to the vegetable kingdom where he spent many years remembering nothing of his previous status, so radically opposed to the present one. And then, as he went on from the vegetable world to the animal world, the vegetable kingdom where he had lived was utterly wiped out of his memory, except for his mysterious attraction towards plants, especially in the season of Spring and of gentle flowers, like a child attracted to his mother. And then the Creator, whom you well know, guided him from the animal to the human state. Thus he moved from a boundless country to another, until he became intelligent and wise and powerful, remembering nothing, now, of his old souls. But he still must migrate from this human intelligence, away from this intellect made of greed and selfishness, he must flee and contemplate a hundred thousand intelligences more beautiful and sublime18.
Now, with all due difference, of course, science has for a long time accepted the idea that neither human beings, nor other animals, nor plants sprung suddenly into existence; the Chimpanzee genomic map, we are told, shows a striking similarity to that of Man. Some feel outraged and diminished by this fact, as the old arrogance of the ‘lord of the Earth’ refuses to die…
In fact, the true dividing line between those who believe in God and the atheists is whether there is a supreme being who designs and orders, however remotely and indirectly, the universe, including human beings, or if everything is just the result of blind Chance.
The idea of the ‘First Motor,’ the universal and eternal Mind or Spirit from whose creative impulse all the material and immaterial world came into existence in its variety of forms and phenomena was familiar to medieval philosophers and even now does not—again, with all due differences—contrast with the conscience of scientists who have a religious belief. And some biologists see evolution in a way that perhaps the ancient mystics—and even less present-day mystics—might not reject. I am thinking of Teilhard de Chardin, a scientist (biologist and anthropologist) and a Christian mystic (but the Catholic Church didn’t like his theories at all). He said, ‘To ask if the universe is still developing means to decide whether the human spirit is or is not undergoing evolution. Now, to this question, I would answer, without any hesitation: yes.’
On Teilhard de Chardin’s thesis, F.C. Happold19 writes:
As seen within the time process, evolution takes the form of a series of unfoldings: from the building up of the universe, through the formation of the earth, to the appearance of life on this planet. Through countless ages the evolution of living forms has gone on, until the next stage, that of the emergence of Man, was reached, first the pre-hominids and finally homo sapiens.
With the appearance of the human line a new form of biological existence emerges; there is, in effect, a new creation. This new creation is characterized by the emergence of the power of reflection. Father Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, in his Phenomenon of Man, coins the vivid word hominisation to describe this leap in the evolution of life. With the appearance of man, instinct is more and more supplemented by the greater and greater interiorization; the within more and more predominant. Invention more and more replaces chance as the controlling evolutionary direction of attraction and repulsion supplants that primitive type which operated at the levels of pre-life and the lower forms of life. […].
The process of evolution may thus be envisaged as the adding of successive ‘layers,’ or ‘envelopes’ to the globe. With the appearance of homo sapiens to the biosphere, i.e. of life, is added the noosphere, the envelope of thought, another ‘membrane to the majestic assembly of telluric layers”
If this picture of the course of evolution be a true one, what line may evolution be expected to follow? May it not be the growth of an ever-higher form of consciousness, spreading out ever wider and wider, until it embraces more of mankind, a greater and greater intensification of noogenesis, an expanding interiorization and spiritualization of man, which will result in an ability to see aspects of the universe as yet only faintly glimpsed? And, if that be so, may we not see in the mystics the forerunners of a type of consciousness which will become more and more common as mankind as and higher up the ladder of evolution? It is not an irrational hypothesis20.
Not surprisingly, Teilhard’s hypotheses met violent opposition not only from the Church, but from most of the scientific community as well. And yet, they have been recently taken up again by several scientists; in Italy, for instance, by L. Galleni, the Professor of General Zoology at the University of Pisa.
And here again is Rupert Sheldrake on the same theme of creation and evolution:
The old idea of the earth as dead has given way to Gaia, the idea of the living earth. The old idea of the universe as uncreative has given way to the idea of creative evolution; first in the realm of living things, through Darwin, and now we see that the whole cosmos is in creative evolution. […] Creativity is not blind chance. It’s only blind chance if you start with the materialist dogma that it has to be blind chance. Alfred Russel Wallace, who, together with Charles Darwin, discovered the principle of natural selection and founded evolutionary theory, ended up with the idea that evolution is guided by intelligent spirits, that the creative side of evolution is guided by an immanent creative intelligence, or many kinds of intelligences, within the natural world. And that’s just as compatible with the evolutionary facts as the neo-Darwinian dogmas. However, even if evolution is guided by intelligent spirits or by intelligence immanent in nature, that doesn’t necessarily mean that this intelligence is working in accordance with an overall master plan—or that human cultural evolution is guided by an intelligence immanent in human beings. Every innovation, every gadget that’s invented, every new advertising slogan, every new piece of music or work of art that’s made is guided by a creative intelligence. But that doesn’t mean that we know where we are going. It doesn’t mean that these creative intelligences are working in accordance with some master plan for the destiny of humanity. Mostly, they are working in accordance with much more short-term goals.
For me, it’s an open question as to whether the intelligence that underlies the creativity in life is working in accordance with some fixed goal for the end of evolution. I don’t get that impression. If you look at the diversity of life—several million species of beetles, for example, on this planet—you get the impression that there’s a kind of creativity for its own sake, a proliferation of form and variety. It’s not at all clear why there should be so many millions of species of beetles.
Only in the Jewish religion, and in derivative religions like Islam and Christianity, do you have this very strong emphasis on process and time. And now the West comes up with evolutionary theory, and suddenly it turns out that this is the process not just of biological life on earth but of the entire universe. Is this a vast cultural projection and justification of our religious assumptions? Or is it a fantastic confirmation of them from science. It’s hard to know which.
We started by wondering if speaking of Sufism and modern science made sense and, if so, what the relation could be. I have tried to point out affinities in thoughts and intuitions, ‘correspondences’ that seem to create bridges across the centuries, connecting cultures and worldviews at first sight utterly alien to each other.
Here is one more correspondence: perhaps Teilhard De Chardin may provide an answer:
By means of all created things, without exception, the divine assails us, penetrates us and moulds us. We imagined it as distant and inaccessible, whereas we live steeped in its burning layers…God reveals Himself everywhere, beneath our groping efforts, as a universal milieu, only because He is the ultimate point on which all realities converge. Each element of the world, whatever it may be, only subsists, hic et nunc, in the manner of a cone whose generatrices meet in God who draws them together (meeting at the term of their individual perfection and at the term of the general perfection of the world which contains them). It follows that all created things, every one of them, cannot be looked at, in their nature and action, without the same reality being found in their innermost being—like sunlight in the fragments of a broken mirror—one beneath its multiplicity, unattainable beneath its proximity, and spiritual beneath its materiality. No object can influence us by its essence without being touched by the radiance of the focus of the universe21.
Rumi or Jami couldn’t have expressed it better in their verse, I think.
1Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, ‘The Evolution of Chastity’ in Toward the Future, Peking, 1934, London: Collins, 1975: 86-87; ‘The Sense of Man’ in Toward the Future, Indian Ocean, 1929.
2 Virginia Del Re McWeeny, Persia Mystica, Poeti sufi dell’età classica, edizioni ETS (serie Philosophica), Pisa, 2004.
3To mention only a few: Qâdiriyya, active mainly in the Middle East; Naqshbandiyya in the Middle and Far East; Chistiyya, in the Indian subcontinent; Shâdhiliyya, in North Africa and the Middle East. In Italy, the Jerrahi al Halveti of Genoa is a well-established Sufi tekke (Order): one of its objectives is the Christian- Islamic interreligious dialogue.
4Musician, initiated at the school of Nizani—a branch of the Sufi order Chistiyya, founded by Nizam-ud-Din Aulia (1238-1325).
5Mathnavi, I, vv1390-1397
6Tr. by N. Pourjavady as Sawanih: Inspirations from the World of Pure Spirits, the Oldest Persian Sufi Treatise on Love, London and New York, 1986.) Ahmad al-Ghazali died in 1126
7Physicist and philosopher, a disciple and friend of David Bohm, is the author of many books on science as well as creativity, synchronicity, Jungian theory, science and art, and non-European cultures. He is founder and director of the Pari Centre for New Learning <www. Paricenter.com > in the village of Pari, between Siena and Grosseto, Toscana, where he lives with his family.
8idem, op. cit. (see e.g., ‘The Man of Light in Iranian Sufism,’ Ch. V. The Black Light; § 1. Light Without Matter, p. 100)
9’Science and Sufism,’ by William C. Gough, William C. Gough, President Foundation for Mind-Being Research. Published in the Proceedings of the Fourteenth International Conference on the Study of Shamanism and Alternate Modes of Healing, held at the Santa Sabina Center, San Rafael, CA, Aug 30-Sept. 2, 1997
10Annemarie Schimmel, Ssufismus, Eine Einführung intdie islamiche Mystik, C.H. Beck Verlag, Munchen, 2000. A. Schimmel is the author of many famous studies on Rumi’s poetry and imagery, as well as on aspects of Iranian Sufism.
11Intervista di Hal Blacker a Rupert Sheldrake, on the occasion of the publication of The Physics of Angels, by Matthew Fox and Rupert Sheldrake, Harper, San Francisco 1996, (online on www.Maybe Angels). see also: R. Sheldrake: A New Science of Life,1981; The Evolutionary Mind, Park Street Press, paperback ed. 2001; Seven Experiments that could change the world. Inner Tradition. 2002. David Peat mentions Sheldrake in his autobiography, Pathways of Chance, Pari Publishing; It. tr., I sentieri del caso, Di Renzo Editore, Roma, 2004, p. 96, and in The Blackwinged Night, Perseus Publishing, 2000, p.163.
12’Maybe Angels: A Confluence of Imagination and Rational Inquiry.’ An interview with Rupert Sheldrake by Hal Blacker
13A. Zee, Fearful Symmetry: The Search for Beauty in Modern Physics, Princeton University Press, 1999
14Mathnavi, vv 1960-1968 (Nicholson ed.)
17From E.G. Browne, A Persian Anthology, 1927 (Nicholson, Mathnavi, IV 2881); the final line refers to the motif of the return of all human being to Adam, to the positive non-being, in the abyss of the Deus Absconditus. (A. Bausani, Rumi’s quatrains)
21Teilhard De Chardin, The Divine Milieu, Collins and Harper &Row Inc.