Kashf al-Mahjub a Window to the Mind and Doctrines of Ali b. Uthman al-Jullabi al- Ghaznawi al-Hujwiri

The highest pinnacle of knowledge is expressed in the fact that without it none can know God.

(al-Hujwiri p. 12) 

Ali b. Uthman al-Hujwiri (d. 1072 A.D. 465 A.H.) was a venerated Sufi saint of his times, and his shrine at Lahore in Pakistan is still one of the most popular pilgrimage sites in the country. Among his followers in South Asia he is better known as Daata Ganj Baksh (the provider of forgiveness). Besides being one of the foremost saints involved in propagation of Islam in South Asia, al-Hujwiri was also a premier scholar of Sufi theosophy. His book Kashf al-Mahjub is one of the most comprehensive treatises on Sufi praxis and its relationship with Islam. The book was evidently written in Lahore, in response to certain questions addressed to him by a contemporary townsman, Abu Said al-Hujwiri. In Kashf al-Mahjub al-Hujwiri not only cites various Sheikhs’ and mystical brotherhoods’ views on Sufism, but also discusses and synthesizes what he reports on to construct a complete system of Sufi doctrines and praxis. It is the breadth of references collected in the book, and scholarly commentary and analysis of those references that to my mind make the book invaluable reading for any student of Sufism.

Although al-Hujwiri was a Sunni and ostensibly a practicing Hanafite, he still managed to reconcile his belief in the advanced Sufi doctrine of fana (annihilation) with his Hanafite theological background, while managing to avoid the label of pantheism. Most of the Muslims in general and in South Asia in particular, subscribe to the Sunni, Hanafite school of jurisprudence and Islamic practice. Through his book we get an idea of how strict theological background can be reconciled with a sober shade of Sufism. We also get an idea of how a sober shade of Sufism can be reconciled with some of the practices like sama, associated with more intoxicated brands of Sufism. The book is a remarkable study in cautious, almost diplomatic, bridge building between theology and theosophy, sobriety and intoxication. I believe herein lies al-Hujwiri’s appeal as a saint to his numerous followers–his teachings could allow Muslims a deeper mystical experience of God, that comes through Sufism, while at the same time not putting them in conflict with the dominant social theocratic discourse. The following is an analysis of this remarkable balancing act that al-Hujwiri performed in Kashf al-Mahjub. His modes of argumentation as well as his positions on various Sufi doctrines provide us valuable insights into his incisive but diplomatic mind.

Before getting into the details of al-Hujwiri’s specific views on various matters relating to Sufism and formal Islam, it would be relevant to view his basic method of argumentation. Throughout the book Hujwiri demonstrates a complete mastery of the Socratic method of deductive argumentation. In that respect I disagree with Nicholson’s description of Kashf al-Mahjub as something providing a purely “Persian flavor of philosophical speculation.’[1]  I do not know too much about the Persian flavor of philosophical speculation, but I believe it would be unfair to not recognize the deductive logical reasoning in the Socratic tradition underlying al-Hujwiri’s philosophical speculation. An example of such reasoning is in the following quotation refuting the assertion that there can be complete annihilation of the material self within the divine being2:

I ask all who proclaim such tenets: “What difference is there between the view that the Eternal is the locus of the phenomenal and the view that the phenomenal is the locus of the Eternal, or between the assertion that the Eternal has phenomenal attributes and the assertion that phenomenal has eternal attributes?” Such doctrines involve materialism (dahr) and destroy the proof of the phenomenal, or that what is created may be commingled with what is uncreated. If, as they cannot help admitting, the creation is phenomenal, then their Creator also must be phenomenal, because the locus of a thing is like its substance; if the locus (mahall) is phenomenal, it follows that the contents of the locus (hall) are phenomenal too. In fact, when one thing is linked and united and commingled with another, both things are in principle as one.

(al-Hujwiri p. 244)

In the above quote the a prioripremise is that God is Eternal and the created universe is phenomenal and that the two are fundamentally different entities, which cannot mingle together. If the above premise is granted then there is no room for complete annihilation because humans are phenomenal and the Creator is Eternal. “Eternal cannot be the locus of the phenomenal and vice-versa. By this very simple deductive reasoning Hujwiri rejects the possibility of complete annihilation. At another place3

If reason were the cause of gnosis, it would follow that every reasonable person must know God and all who lack reason must be ignorant of Him; which is manifestly absurd.

(al-Hujwiri p. 268)

Here if one were to grant the premise that gnosis follows from reason, then all those who possess reason must have gnosis. Since all who have reason do not have gnosis then the statement must be rejected. Throughout the book, al-Hujwiri takes certain a prioripremises and applies them to objective statements, and if the statements do not fulfill the logical requirements of the premise then he rejects them. On another occasion he uses similar deductive logic to demonstrate the independent essential importance of prayer4 :

I Ali b. Uthman al-Jullabi assert that prayer is a divine command and is not a means of obtaining either ‘presence’ or ‘absence’, because a Divine command is not a means to anything. The cause of ‘presence’ is ‘presence’ itself, and the cause or means of ‘absence’ is ‘absence’ itself. If prayer were the cause of or means of ‘presence’, it could be performed only by one who was ‘present’, and if it were the cause of ‘absence’, one who was ‘absent’ would necessarily become ‘present’ by neglecting to perform it. But inasmuch as it must be performed by all, whether they be ‘present’ or ‘absent’ prayer is sovereign in its essence and independent.

(al-Hujwiri p. 301)

The above may sound like a play on words, as most deductive reasoning does, it seems clear however that al-Hujwiri is writing in the tradition of some of the other philosophical masters, who always found deduction to be the choice mode of argumentation when establishing the primacy of say justice in case of Socrates or prayer in case of Hujwiri.

al-Hujwiri’s Perspective on Major Sufi Doctrines

The treatise Kashf al-Mahjub can be broadly divided into two parts–the first part is on major Sufi doctrines and praxis, and the second part is concerned with demonstrating the role of Sufism in relation to basic Islamic practices. This section specifically addresses the first of the two parts. al-Hujwiri goes at length to discuss some of the prevailing doctrines of Sufi tariqahs and then offers insightful commentary on some of their basic tenets. He identifies eleven schools of Sufis–he agrees with the doctrines of ten of them and rejects one of them–Hululis–as a renegade school holding erroneous and blasphemous beliefs. Following is the list of some of the major doctrines discussed by him. The list is not comprehensive by any means but it comprises some concepts and doctrines that I consider to be important in understanding Sufism.

On Sainthood

The discourse on sainthood (wilayat) takes place under the description of the school of Sufis called Hakimis, the followers of Abu Abdullah Muhammad b. Ali al-Hakim al­Trimidhi. al-Hujwiri takes the school’s emphasis on sainthood as his take off point for a deeper discussion of the concept. He declares the concept of sainthood to be the universally accepted foundation of Sufism and knowledge of God. Sainthood, in his opinion, is integral to the theory of Sufism, and therefore must be understood to understand Sufism. A saint or wali is a friend of God, he is free of sin and his whole life and being is dedicated to doing the One’s bidding5

.. . . God has saints (awliya) whom He has specially distinguished by His friendship and whom He has chosen to be the governors of His kingdom and has marked out to manifest His actions and has peculiarly favored with diverse kinds of miracles (karamat) and has purged of natural corruptions and has delivered from subjection to their lower soul and passion, so that all their thoughts are of Him and their intimacy is with Him alone.

(al-Hujwiri pp. 2 12-213)

al-Hujwiri gives a rebuttal to the Mutazilite claim that all humans are equal and ordinary in the eye of God, by saying that if the saints are not especially privileged then prophets too, who are human may not be especially privileged. Since prophets clearly are privileged, then the principle of equality is violated, and if it is violated in case of prophets it cannot hold in case of the saints either. Saints are sent to this world to preserve and manifest the prophetic evidence through gnosis and and good works. Saints are aware of their sainthood and their special place with God, and since they are divinely protected they are not susceptible to human sins like vanity and apathy. A saint desires God for His own sake to the exclusion of everything else6 :

Do not covet anything in this world or the next, and devote thyself entirely to God and turn to God with all thy heart. To covet this world is to turn away form God for the sake of that which is transitory, and to covet the next world is to turn away from God for the sake of that which is everlasting

(al-Hujwiri p. 217)

A saint becomes indifferent to all states of the lower soul (nafs) e.g. fear, hope, security and grief and his vision becomes steadfast in the vision of the Author of the states. It is then that sainthood is revealed to the person. Saints also have certain miracles associated with them. Although al-Hujwiri goes into a long discussion of the miracles and their significance, suffice it to say for our purposes that they are only a confirmation of the miracles bestowed upon the prophets7. Also, prophethood starts where sainthood ends; all prophets are saints but not all saints are prophets. Saints are generally bound to perform religious duties like everybody else except under rare fleeting states (hal), when they are also beyond human condition and therefore not answerable for their deeds as humans. What is a temporary hal of a saint is a permanent state (maqam) of the prophet. Also, saints and prophets are superior to the angels because they have to fight their human failings to do God’s bidding whereas angels—naturally–have no such problems.

On Intoxication and Sobriety

The discourse on intoxication and sobriety arises out of the description of the intoxicated followers of Abu Yazid Tayfu b. Isa b. Surushan al-Bistami, also known as the Tayfuris. Here al-Hujwiri expresses his preference for sobriety by calling it the perfection of intoxication8

Intoxication then, is to fancy one’s self annihilated while the attributes really subsist; and this is a veil. Sobriety, on the other hand, is the vision of subsistence while the attributes are annihilate; and this is actual revelation.

(al-Hujwiri p. 187)

However, having placed himself squarely within the sober camp of Sufis, in his last chapter al-Hujwiri proceeds to approve of and even encourage some very non-sober Sufi practices like sama(audition). His rules for sama seem to encourage extreme intoxication as is evident from some of the following quotations:

Although the rending of garments (during sama) has no foundation in Sufism and certainly ought not to be practiced in audition by anyone whose senses are perfectly controlled–for in that case, it is mere extravagance–nevertheless, if the auditor is so overpowered that his sense of discrimination is lost and he becomes unconscious, then he may be excused (from tearing his garments to pieces); and it is allowable that all the persons present should rend their garments in sympathy with him9 .

(al-Hujwiri p. 417)

You must not exceed the proper bounds until audition manifests its power, and when it has become powerful you must not repel it, but must follow it as it requires: if it agitates, you must be agitated, and if it calms, you must be calm; and you must be able to distinguish a strong natural impulse from the ardor of ecstasy (wajd)10

(al-Hujwiri p. 419)

Although the above statements seem contradictory (and this is not the only contradictory position he takes) with his earlier position in favor of sobriety, in a classic al-Hujwiri fashion he declares that this dancing is not dancing at all but in fact a dissolution of the soul after reaching a state, which cannot be explained in words11.  He even seems to encourage feigning wajd (tawajud),the apparent rationale being that once one gets used to the outward routine of wajdone will be able to cultivate the habit of getting into wajd12. The only way to reconcile the two opposing positions is by understanding the basic tenet of his writings on Sufism–that men of religion invariably seek benefit from their every action, if samaproduces spiritual elevation then it is lawful, if it arouses base desires then it is unlawful, and the men of religion would only do it to gain spiritual advantage13.

On the Lower Soul (nafs)

 al-Hujwiri makes it clear at the very outset that self-mortification (tazkiyah-e-nafs)to control the lower soul is eminently desirable since the lower soul and obedience to it is the cause of all evil. The controversy however, arises over whether self-mortification is a means and direct cause of union with God, or can union only be attained through divine will? Self-mortification being a human act can only accomplish the human end of gaining control over the lower soul, which is a worthy goal in any event14 according to al Hujwiri. He considers the controversy a purely semantic one. In his view self-mortification is ordained by God through His apostle and His book. It is an essential act of obedience, which is a first step towards seeking union with God. A human’s actions cannot have value until God wills them to have value, therefore if the objective is union with God, then if there is God’s will and there is sincerity on part of the human, there can be union. Self-mortification of those that God loves is not their own human actions, but rather God’s actions through them, and in that case self-mortification can be a cause of union with God. Self-mortification in and of itself cannot cause union with God though it can be a means to it 15. “The purpose of mortifying the lower soul is to destroy its attributes, not to annihilate its reality16.” This position is consistent with al-Hujwiri’s classic position that there is no absolute free will and there is no absolute determinism. Human’s are free to do as they please as long as there is God’s will involved. The exact nuances of this position are admittedly beyond my understanding at the moment and mercifully also beyond the scope of this paper.

On Annihilation (fana)

The discourse on annihilation has its beginnings in the description of the Kharrazis, and it continues in one form or another through the description of the Khafifis, Sayyaris and Hululis, into the chapters on the unveiling of the Gnosis of God and tawhid. The citation given above with regard to the phenomenal and eternal nature of humans and God, to demonstrate the deductive logical thinking of al-Hujwiri should also be instructive on his position on the issue of annihilation and subsistence. He dismisses the concept of annihilation as physical annihilation of a human into God, as pure heresy and blasphemy. Annihilation in his view is the annihilation of the egotistical self when confronted with the spiritual vision of God’s glory, and consequent complete humility. It means indifference to passion and reason and apathy to any desires. A Sufi who has achieved annihilation, in Hujwiri’s conception sounds like a robot who has no self will but only what his master decrees17 .

when anyone acknowledges the unity of God he feels himself overpowered by the omnipotence of God, and one who is overpowered (maghlub) is annihilated in the might of his vanquisher; and when his annihilation is rightly fulfilled on him, he confesses his weakness and sees no recourse except to serve God, and tries to gain His satisfaction (rida). And whoever explains these terms otherwise, i.e., annihilation as meaning “annihilation of substance” and subsistence as meaning ‘subsistence of God (in Man),’ is a heretic and a Christian, as has been stated above.

(al-Hujwiri p. 246)

There are two related concepts of absence (ghaybat) and presence (hudur) that al-Hujwiri introduces in his discussion of the Khafifis. ‘Absence’ involves the sorrow of being veiled from the beloved One, while ‘presence’ involves the joy and ecstasy of revelation. The following anecdote attributed to Junayd as quoted by al-Hujwiri conveys the difference between the two terms very well18.

It is related that Junayd said: “For a time I was such that the inhabitants of heaven and earth wept over my bewilderment (hayrat); then, again, I became such that I wept over their absence (ghaybat); and now my state is such that I have no knowledge either of them or of myself.” This is an excellent indication of presence.

(al-Hujwiri p. 25 1)

Two more relevant but subtle concepts are those of ‘union’ (jam) and ‘separation’ (tafriqa). Simply stated whatever is the result of self-mortification is ‘separation’ and whatever is a result of divine grace is ‘union’, basic notion being that one is united with God at a deeper internal level but one is separated from God because one still has to perform the religious duties essential for all, thereby implying a separation19 .

His saints are united by their inward feelings and separated by their outward behavior, so that their love of God is strengthened by the internal union, and the right fulfillment of their duty as servants of God is assured by their external separation.

(al-Hujwiri p. 255)

 al-Hujwiri vigorously denounces the Hululis for their inability to grasp the subtleties of annihilation discussed above. The Hululis’ position that annihilation is tantamount to incarnation, commixture or transmigration is considered repugnant to the spirit and the letter of the religion of Islam. Annihilation is a very subtle concept involving numerous very fine distinctions, as discussed above. To make it out to be something that may serve as a license to be anything less than an obedient Muslim, according to al-Hujwiri, is pure heresy.

There is a familiar middle ground that al-Hujwiri takes on the issue of annihilation, assiduously avoiding any appearance of impropriety, and explaining away any inconsistencies with very subtle logical arguments. Although, he appears to be contradictory at times in his actual prescriptions for action and understanding, but he is never contradictory in his basic premises about the eternal nature of God, the phenomenal nature of the universe and the impossibility of the two ever coming together. He is careful never to equate one with the other. The entire section on Sufi doctrines also demonstrates his preoccupation with inner attitudes and relative lack of concern for outward forms and specific actions. He builds a very fine logical system of Sufi doctrines, and then turns to the next challenge of integrating that system into the broader rubric of Islamic praxis.

Al-Hujwiri on Islamic Religious Duties

With respect to Islamic religious duties, al-Hujwiri carries over his paramount concern for inner attitudes, as a precondition for consummation of any religious duty. Gnosis of God (ma ‘rifat Allah) is the basis for all religious knowledge for the ‘worth of everyone is in proportion to gnosis, and he who is without gnosis is worth nothing20.’ All the religious duties laid upon humans are most respectable when they are conducted through the passive state of gnosis for through gnosis one knows that all human actions are really metaphorical and God is the real agent21.

He it is that imposes the obligation of piety, which is essentially gnosis; and those on whom that obligation is laid, so long as they are in the state of obligation, neither bring it upon themselves nor put it away from themselves by their own choice: therefore Man’s share in gnosis, unless God make him know, is mere helplessness22 .

(al-Hujwiri p. 269)

The following discourses on Islamic tenets must be viewed in the above context.

On Unification (Tawhid)

According to al-Hujwiri real unification consists of asserting the unity or singularity of God and then having perfect knowledge and cognition of His unity. To know and assert unification one would have to: assert and know that God is eternal; know that there cannot be any mingling or connection between His created phenomenal world and Himself; give up any worldly stations or pleasures of the lower soul; and turn one’s whole attention towards God, for to concern oneself with anything worldly would only serve as a veil23. To put it simply it seems that affirmation of unification (tawhid) is an inevitable road to gnosis. Unification in al-Hujwiri’s conception cannot be consummated without a spiritual, gnostic contemplation of God and his mysteries.

On Prayers

On prayers al-Hujwiri has a very simple point of view; God commands us to do it and we, his humble servants, have no choice but to do it. He however vigorously takes issue with the popular conception that prayers can be a means to finding God. He ascribes this conception to the novices, or the fool’s multitude, which takes on outward trappings e.g. ritual purification in place of inner repentance and prayer in place of self-mortification, as a means to attaining God. He has stated throughout the book that gnosis and associated inner spiritual disciplines and exercises are the only way to approach God. Ritual prayers, like many other divine commands are not a means to anything, as is indicated in the above-cited quote about prayer. It is an outward discipline, which must be done by all, but is more preferable when one, who is annihilated through the love of the One, takes immense pleasure in doing. He ties in his discourse on ritual prayer to a discourse on love (mahabbat).He maintains that when one loves God, one’s attributes are annihilated and the essence of the Beloved is established. This inevitably leads to the lover’s unquestionable obedience to the commands of the Beloved24. The commands of the Beloved, like prayer, become the pleasure of the lover, and to suggest that one is exempt from God’s commands at any stage of love is pure heresy.

On Alms (Zakat) and Fasting

With regard to Alms al-Hujwiri’s position is again very simple and straight-forward, it is God’s command and we must fulfill that command. He does however emphasize that one must have knowledge of why one should give or receive alms, because as in all preceding matters, one has an obligation to gain knowledge of the theory of giving alms. In his view even taking alms is as good as receiving alms, as long as it is done with the view of relieving a brother Muslim of his essential responsibility of giving them. In any case one with the knowledge of God is not going to be attached to worldly goods. Therefore giving and receiving of alms would not mean anything to the person in terms of parting with or gaining any worldly goods, it would only be useful insofar as it is done with the view of doing what God commands us to do25.

Fasting also falls within the same category as prayer and alms. Here al-Hujwiri declares that a gnostic is in a perpetual state of fasting, because he has turned away from all worldly goods including nourishment. Fasting may be done during the month of ramadan to gain recompense from God for something, because He has declared ramadan and fasting in that month as His, and for which He will give recompense26. However a preferable mode of fasting is when it is done without an eye towards recompense and is a manifestation of renouncing self-will and ostentation. Some of the Sufi saints in fact, only ate when food was put in front of them, otherwise they were so occupied with God that the thought of food did not enter their minds for days on end. According to al-Hujwiri, food must be withheld from the lower soul to make it grow weak and to subdue it. One must however still eat periodically to keep soul and body together. Prolonged fasts are a miracle, which is specifically given to chosen people including the apostle and selected saints. Others along the path can only exercise a certain discipline in eating and nourishment, so as to train the body to reach higher levels of privation and therefore spiritual cleanliness.

On Pilgrimage (Hajj)

About the pilgrimage al-Hujwiri maintains that it is a duty towards God but it is useless if it is just a physical act without any contemplation of God27 .

Anyone who is absent from God at Mecca is in the same position as if he were absent from God in his own house, and anyone who is present with God in his own house is in the same position as if he were present with God in Mecca. Pilgrimage is an act of mortification (mujahadat) for the sake of obtaining contemplation (mushahadat), and mortification does not become the direct cause of contemplation, but is only a means to it. Therefore, inasmuch as a means has no further effect on the reality of things, the true object of pilgrimage is not to visit the Kaba, but to obtain contemplation of God.

(al-Hujwiri p. 329)

On surface al-Hujwiri seems to take a very liberal and contextual view of this duty towards God. But on closer scrutiny this is also consistent with his position on other matters, i.e., an action is meaningless without the inner purpose of gaining knowledge of God, which to his mind is the only relevant knowledge. The object of the exercise in this context is contemplation of God, the Ka’aba and the associated rituals, as well as the effort of getting there are only metaphorical symbols for the real purpose of getting the believers to (1) renounce attachment to worldly goods, (2) contemplate God to the exclusion of everything else, and (3) to mortify themselves to gain control over the lower soul28.

If they are bound to visit a stone, which is looked at only once a year, surely they are more bound to visit the temple of the heart, where He may be seen three hundred and sixty times in a day and night.

(al-Hujwiri p. 327)

Or as Abu Yzid as quoted by al-Hujwiri said29

On my first pilgrimage I saw only the temple; the second time I saw both the temple and the Lord of the temple; and the third time I saw the Lord alone.

(al-Hujwiri p. 327)

Adding anything to the above feels superficial and unnecessary to me.

To conclude, like other Sufi masters al-Hujwiri is at a loss to make a distinction between Islam and Sufism because in his conception Sufism is so integral to the religion that any distinction is inconceivable to him. On a first reading his positions on all the issues seem a remarkable exercise in balancing the rigid dictates of the orthodoxy with the deeper and outwardly more flexible teachings of the Sufi way. The union with God is possible, but there are these caveats one needs to be aware of; one can reach union with God through self-mortification but that is not sufficient in and of itself; one should be sober but certain intoxicated actions undertaken with sober objectives are quite desirable; saints, like prophets, are God’s representatives on earth, but not quite like the prophets. These are in summary the expositions of al-Hujwiri on some aspects of Sufi thought. Similarly in case of the tenets of Islam: tawhid is essential to profess but one must also be knowledgeable of it and use it as a means of gaining union with God; prayer is essential but they are an expression of obedience and not a means to anything; zakat and fasting are essential but more importantly are just manifestations of indifference to worldly desire and obedience to God, and above all Hajj is important only if one uses it to contemplate God. But when one views all of the above positions in their entirety and within the context of the logical and theosophical structure that he builds they seem entirely consistent. In his theosophical structure knowledge is the precondition for knowing God. By knowledge he means knowledge of God through revelation and not the knowledge gained through reason. Gnosis is the paramount attribute of a true Sufi who is also the most exalted Muslim. So if the objective is perfection of faith then works, sincerity and knowledge of the underlying gnostic basis of the faith are absolutely imperative.

A gnostic (wali Allah) is ultimately aiming to achieve a level where, he no longer has free will, and the will of God becomes his will. This is the objective that, according to al-Hujwiri, all Sufis should aspire towards–while being aware of the technical misconceptions that may detract them from the true path. The book seems to be addressed primarily to the students of Sufism and not to the general public. It is difficult to conceive how he would have expected the lay public of his time (or even today) to appreciate the subtleties of his logic, and sophistication of his thought. The introduction and conclusion to the book are however, a little inconsistent with the rest of his message. In his introduction he declares that he is indifferent to worldly honors, but then he complains bitterly about somebody else claiming credit for his writings, thereby denying him the prospect of keeping his name alive through those works. This contradiction undermines his authority when he asks others to reject worldly stations30. Secondly in the conclusion to his book he asks all to pray for him to have a vision of God in paradise31.  This again undermines his authority when he urges others to seek God for His own sake without any regard for a worldly or an eternal reward. I am somewhat at a loss to explain inconsistencies like these, except perhaps that in the translation the spirit of what he meant has been lost. Despite these problems, Kashf al-Mahjub is a fine piece of scholarship, not only on account of its value as a chronicle of Sufi thought but also for its logical and philosophical robustness.


[1] Nicholson, Reynold A. transl. of al-Hujwiri, Ali b. Uthman al-Jullabi, 1967: The Kashf al-Mahjub: The

Oldest Persian Treatise on Sufism, for E.J.W. Gibb Memorial by Luzac and Company ltd.

London, UK, p. xii.

2 al-Hujwiri, p. 244.

3Ibid. p. 268.

4Ibid. p. 303.

5 Ibid. pp. 211-213.

6 Ibid. p. 217

7  Ibid. p. 220

8 Ibid. p. 187.

9 Ibid. p. 417.

10 Ibid. p. 419.

11 Ibid. p. 416.

12Ibid. p. 415.

13Ibid. pp. 401-402.

14Ibid. p. 201.

15 Ibid. pp. 203-205

16Ibid. p. 207.

17 Ibid. p. 246.

18Ibid. p. 251.

19 Ibid. p. 255.

20Ibid. p. 267.

21 Ibid. p. 276.

22Ibid. p. 269.

23Ibid. p. 282.

24 Ibid. pp. 311-312.

25 Ibid.pp. 315-319.

26 Ibid.p. 320.

27Ibid. p. 329.

28Ibid. p. 327.

29 Ibid.

30 Ibid. p. 2

31Ibid. p. 420.

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Death of Hallaj: Murder or Suicide? Questioning the Necessity of Physical Annihilation Following a Mystical Annihilation.

Tis the flame of love that fired me,

Tis the wine of love inspired me.

Wouldst thou learn how lovers bleed,

Hearken, hearken to the Reed.

(Jalal-ud-Din Rumi)

Destroy the Ka’ba of your body that it may resuscitate, created anew

(Hallaj in Massignon, p. 172)

Abu’l-Mughith al-Husayn bin Mansur bin Mahamma al-Baydawi, better known as Mansur al-Hallaj is one of the most controversial figures in the history of Sufism and Islam.  His teachings, life, and death form an extremely important turning point in the history of tasawwuf (the Sufi way).  Here I review the events surrounding the death of Hallaj and problematize the popular assertion that Hallaj’s physical death was a necessary corollary to his mystical annihilation.  It is a common practice to view historical and literary tragedies as something inevitable, and even desirable.  The tragic end of Hallaj, like that of Socrates, is popularly understood to be something that the protagonist desired and actively planned.  I question this interpretation of the tragedy of Hallaj and suggests that perhaps there was nothing inevitable let alone desirable about Hallaj’s physical annihilation.

I start with the premise that sainthood and mystical maqam are important elements of human civilization, which have served to enrich human spiritual experience.  Sainthood and its scholarly investigation are therefore inherently important.  In the words of Louis Massignon[i]:

One can schematize the life of a social group by constructing the individual life curves of each of its distinct members according to their relations in the external environment, but it is useless to make it out to be the aggregation of these without having noted in it certain unusual individual curves, blessed with unique points corresponding to the “interior experiences” of certainties (and even of anguish) by which they have “found” some “psychic resolvent” in their adventures in this environment.  Having first become intelligible “dramatic situations” for those, they become unraveled for others afterwards.

(p. xxiii)

The mysticism of Hallaj may be a very personal experience for him, and his life, trial and execution may also be part of a personal, even heroic, project with a divine objective, but in light of the above conception of history, and significance of great lives, those personal experiences of Hallaj take on a transsocial and transhistorical significance[ii].  Saints like Hallaj symbolize in the corrupt and perishable world, the incorruptible and fearless presence of a sacred truth, and in Massignon’s formulation their sufferings serve as a symbolic substitute for the sufferings of the mass of humanity, almost like Jesus[iii].  But that begs the question; is the suffering of the saint, inevitable, necessary or even desirable?  Massignon seems to think that ‘it is only through the mortal suffering of the desired trial that he (Hallaj) can reach Union with the One’[iv]. Addressing the question on a theosophical plain is beyond my competence, but I would like to address the question by teasing out Hallaj’s own views on the matter by not just limiting myself to what he generally said, but also what he did when faced with the trial and ultimate execution.

There is little doubt that Hallaj had indeed attained the ultimate mystical maqam of fana, much before his arrest, and execution.  In fact, Hallaj stands as a towering example of a mystic who had annihilated his self in the will of the One and had therefore attained hulul (infusion) into the divine.  The most commonly attributed saying to him of ana’l-Haqq (I am the Truth=My ‘I’ is God) is the most celebrated and most vilified manifestation of his complete and utter annihilation.  Hallaj probably meant the phrase to signify his intentional complete union in love with the divine One, who then in spirit takes over his personality and will and therefore, enables him to say ‘I’, the divine ‘I’, because there is no spiritual difference between Him and I[v].  This total self renunciation was in essence the height of humility where the subject had denied his self and subsumed it within the bigger Self of God.  There was considerable denunciation of Hallaj for articulating and even advertising his fana and hulul, both on mystical and legal grounds.  Hallaj had no qualms about announcing his mystical state to the rest of the world.  Some of his public pronouncements like the following are evidence of his mystical exhibitionism.

O people! save me from God! For he has robbed me from myself, and He does not return me to myself! I cannot witness to Him the respect due to His presence, for I am afraid of His forsaking (me). He will leave me deserted, forsaken, outlawed! and woe to the one who feels deserted after the Presence and abandoned after the Union!

(p. 142)

Hallaj wept after this declaration and the crowd wept with him[vi].  On another occasion he declared[vii]:

O people! When the truth has taken hold of a heart, He empties it of all but Himself! When God attaches Himself to a man, He kills in him all else but Himself! When He loves one of His faithful, He incites the others to hate him, in order that His servant may draw near Him so as to assent to Him!

But what happens to me? I no longer feel the least breeze of His Presence, nor the last reach of His glance! Alas! And here are so many people who begin to hate me, now!

(p. 143)

Hallaj sounds almost intoxicated in the mystical love of the divine One and the contemplation of His glory.  The forcefulness of his speech betrays his almost compulsive drive to vocalize his experience of the Glory.  Yes there are plenty of mystical objections to him, but not so much on the content of his mysticism but on his willingness to vocalize his experience.  The Sufi objections can be summarized as follows[viii]:

  • He comprehended wahdat al-shahud i.e. that the beauty of the world testifies that God appears in everything.  Hallaj having gained this comprehension should not have declared it openly.
  • He comprehended wahdat al-wujud i.e. nothing exists but God.  He got a glimpse of this powerful concept and damned himself by declaring it before it was time.
  • He understood sirr al-muta, i.e., God delegates the setting in motion of the universe to a leader from the hierarchy of saints, and he being one of the saints, should have remained hidden.
  • He understood sirr al-rububiya i.e. the secret of supreme power.  God, is the author of each personal act in every intelligent being: and when the being divulges this secret he steals from God and therefore deserves punishment.

All of the above objections recognize the exalted mystical station of Hallaj, but take issue with his breaking the Sufi discipline of silence (spiritual elitism?), through public pronouncements of his experiences.  It was precisely this public declaration of his mystical doctrines (for lack of a better word) that also made him so politically dangerous to the corrupt Abbaside vizirs like Hamid and Ali ibn al-Furat.  The depredations of the Abbaside bureaucracy in the form of surplus accumulation (taxation) and the apparent waste of public money on the extravagant life styles of the rich and famous had deeply embittered the general public, especially in Baghdad.  The orthodox religion symbolized by the theologians, jurisconsults, ulema (religious scholars), and Qadis (religious jurist) was a subject of spiteful satire by the general public in those times (much the same as now), as is evident from some of the following popular street sayings of those times–“the Qur’an reciter is greedy, sodomite, vainglorious, and hypocritical”[ix] or “Mecca suits only the one who brings faith to it or his purse”[x].  Within this very cynical and almost rebellious social melieu Hallaj’s impassioned declarations perhaps sounded like the only sincere voice in the midst of of hypocritical crowing by the officially sanctioned ulema and Sufis.  No wonder Massignon speculates that Hallaj came to “this crafts proletarian milieu (of Baghdad), as much out of compassion for humble people as out of a desire to rally quasi Shi’ites to his own spiritual and mystical form of mahdism.”[xi]

Hallaj understood that the manasik al-Hajj in Mecca usher one into a deifying mystery of love, “because they call forth ‘the descent of divine forgiveness’ to Arafat”[xii].  He knew that the ritual was only symbolic on Arafat and could only be consummated by him in Baghdad by going into the street and compassionately provoking the people and exposing himself to death[xiii].  Hallaj stated that Satan is right in counseling human nature to destroy the Temple in order to worship the One who is all alone and all present[xiv].  The religious implications of such declarations are quite clear, but the logical inferences for society and the rotten edifice of the corrupt and hypocritical Abbaside empire of the tenth century were potentially catastrophic, and these implications were not lost upon Hamid and ibn al-Furat.

There are many instances of Hallaj’s challenging people to kill him in the suq (bazaar) of Baghdad e.g. according to Husayn ibn Hamdan he was heard saying, with a sense of foreboding[xv]

It is in the confession of the Cross that I will die;

I no longer care to go to Mecca no Medina

(p. 144)

Hamdan reports the following dialogue between himself and Hallaj when Hallaj was asked as to what he means[xvi]

He (Hallaj) said: “That someone will kill this cursed one!” and he pointed his finger at himself.  I (Hamdan) asked, “Is it permitted to incite people to kill?” He said, “No, but I incite them to be sincere in their faith, for, in my case, the putting to death of this person is their duty, and if they wish to do it to me, they will be recompensed”

(p. 144)

The above quote shows that not only was Hallaj on the one hand sharing his mystical experience with the lay public for reasons discussed above, but on the other hand, he was very deliberately challenging the dominant legal orthodoxy connected with Islam in the popular conception.  This reference to the law rings very similar to the Socratic reference to the sanctity of the laws of the city in Plato’s short dialogue Crito. Both of them also had, metaphorically speaking, similar charges against them–‘not believing the gods of the city, and corrupting the youth of the city’.  But whereas Socrates had the higher calling of Justice to violate the laws of the city, Hallaj had the higher calling of divine love to flaunt the laws of religious orthodoxy.  However as we shall see, unlike the romanticized and stoic Socrates, Hallaj often acted in a very human way through his apprehension, trial and final execution.

When the initial arrest warrants of Hallaj were put out in 298/910 AD, knowing what was afoot, Hallaj promptly made good his escape from Baghdad to Sus in Ahwaz (Modern day Iran).  He was captured three years later, almost by accident, and upon apprehension refused to acknowledge his identity–A very human act of a person who, all said, probably loved life as well as God.  He probably knew that he had powerful enemies who would extract a terrible revenge[xvii].  He endured his initial trial with fortitude and dignity, and was then thrown in prison for another nine years, before his enemies could build enough political and legal inertia to finally get rid of him. In prison he continued his preaching as before and wrote prolifically.  Like a true believer and a revolutionary his voice was not tempered down and he never compromised on any of the principles he had espoused earlier.

There were the following broader and specific charges against Hallaj in his second and final trial in 921-922.

  1. ifsha’ al-karamat, i.e. Magic and sorcery with which he supposedly fooled people.
  2. da’wat al-rububiya, i.e. pretensions to being God or God’s deputy.
  3. zandaqa i.e. the thesis of hulul, which was considered blasphemous by the Zahiri ibn Dawud.  The orthodox considered it blasphemous for him to declare that it is better to “proceed seven time round the Ka’ba of your heart[xviii][xix]” than to actually go to the physical Ka’ba in Hijaz.

The first two charges served to build the inertia of legal opinion again Hallaj.  It was the last one about the destruction of the Ka’ba that finally lead Qadi Abu Umar the presiding judge for the trial to declare shedding of his blood legal.  The earlier charges had been held in abeyance because of the Shafi’ite Ibn Surayj’s fatwa, which denied the canonists any competence in judging the matters of the heart and mysticism[xx].  However the final evidence, the letter he had written to Shakir b. Ahmed urging him to destroy the (Ka’ba of his body) to rebuild it in wisdom, was interpreted to mean that he was urging the physical destruction of Islam’s holiest shrines, and was therefore a zandaqi whose blood could be spilled with impunity.

The final outrage against justice and good sense, whereby Hallaj’s statements were taken completely out of context and misrepresented to condemn him drew a spirited response from him.  By some accounts he vehemently protested and declared[xxi]:

my back is forbidden (to your whip), my blood inviolable (haram); you are not allowed to use this interpretation to render shedding it lawful; my religion is Islam, my rule of conduct is tradition (sunna), founded on the acknowledged superiority of Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, Ali, Talha, Zubayr, Sa’d, Sa’id, AR ibn Awf, and Abu Ubayda ibn al-Jarrah.

(Massingon p. 268)

Massignon has reason to interpret the statement as coming from a person who was, in a very human way, terror stricken in the face of his impending fate.  He had not accepted the full horror of the sacrifice for which he had yearned (perhaps rhetorically) so much[xxii].  Being a perfect Sufi and somebody who had achieved fana perhaps he should have been above these fears, but he was not, because in the end he could not turn away from his essential humanity.  God perhaps lived in his spirit, but Hallaj still had a human body.  Even if Hallaj’s obvious attempts at evading arrest and then execution can be interpreted to have some deeper spiritual meaning, that meaning can only be that in his understanding, perhaps his execution, was not a necessary corollary to his spiritual annihilation.  Also it seems somewhat strange to justify the injustice done to him by thinking of it as a logical or theosophical necessity.  Hallaj too was quite aware of the injustice being done to him[xxiii]:

I weep to You for the Souls whose witness (Hallaj) now goes–beyond the ‘where’ to meet the very Witness of Eternity.

I cry to You for the Word of God, which since it perished,–has faded into nothing in our memory;

All have crossed (the desert), leaving neither well nor trace behind;–vanished like the Adites and their lost city of Iram;

And After them the abandoned crowd is muddled on their trails,–blinder than beasts, blinder even than she-camels.

(p. 283-284)

I cannot articulate better than the above verses the sense of frustration and futility for Hallaj, who believed that so much still remained to be done to propagate the Word of God, which may be lost by his execution.  His alliteration of the passing of the witness (himself), the Word of God, and those passing through the desert and leaving nothing behind, is a very sad lament indeed, on his own impending passing away. He protests that he meant to rid people of their blindness, he meant to leave something behind, but the injustice done to him is probably going to have him leave the world with an unfinished task and no signs behind.  Hallaj was right in that he did leave an unfinished task, a victim of forces beyond his human control, but he left plenty behind.  Just compare the number of people who remember him and those who remember Hamid, al-Fustar, Abu Umar or even Muqtadir.  He was happy in a selfish way to finally get his physical being out of the way to finally meet the One, but in a characteristic of proximity to divinity, he was also consumed by compassion for humanity who he was now going to leave behind.


[i] Massignon, Louis, 1994. Hallaj: Mystic and Martyr, translated by Herbert Mason, abridged edition, Princeton University Press: Princeton, NJ, USA, p. xxiii.

[ii] Ibid. p. xxiv

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Encyclopedia of Islam, new edition.

[vi] Massignon, 1994: p. 142.

[vii] Ibid. p. 143

[viii] Ibid. pp. 60-70.

[ix] Ibid. p. 130.

[x] Ibid. p. 132.

[xi] Ibid. p. 142.

[xii] Ibid. p. 162.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Ibid. p. 172.

[xv] Ibid. p. 144.

[xvi] Ibid

[xvii] Ibid. p. 214.

[xviii] Ibid. p. 262.

[xix] Encyclopedia of Islam, new edition.

[xx] Massignon 1994, p. 266.

[xxi] Ibid. p. 268.

[xxii] Ibid. p. 274.

[xxiii] Ibid. pp. 283-284