The Sufi Aesthetic Dimension


Poet and writer

The ocular and oneiric visions of the human being shape a duality between the hidden and the present that forms the basis of Sufi aesthetics. This is how experience of revelation emerges, which imposes a discourse beyond rationality, founded on metaphor. This is, in effect, a form of clairvoyance that, just as in surrealism, goes beyond the limits of appearance to access real meaning. Poetry is, therefore, a form of subjective and interior thought that helps the human being to reach the inner world of things. Thus, Sufi and surrealist writings, apparently so distanced from each other, are experiences of access to the absolute based on myth and symbol; in other words, on the profoundest and most unconscious part of the human being.

Perhaps contemplating communicates to those who contemplate

what is not said by any expression

or contained in any interpretation.



If we start from the idea that God is only known as God, or that only God knows God, the human being’s knowledge of God will always need to exceed and renew itself to continue to be at the level of what it seeks to know: the unlimited character of God, His infinitude1. As God is an ongoing mystery, knowing Him will obligatorily be an ongoing discovery. Therefore, there is something hidden which remains hidden, that exists by and for itself, and which cannot be given definitive form, because it is beyond all knowledge. Language, therefore, cannot contain it; it can transmit an idea of it, or an experience of its vision and comprehension, but its transmission will be indirect in any case; in other words, through image, symbol, sign and allusion.

However, given that the human being is not a simple thing, nor a simple history, but rather carries within him something that goes beyond himself, his identity will be found within the hidden. The human being is a product of history, but as he is concealed he goes beyond history. This hidden aspect is at the same time an absolute presence: it is manifested, visible through manifestations which are no more than signs of the hidden. The hidden is, moreover, different to what we call the unknown, as the unknown can be known in itself, while the hidden cannot be exhausted by knowledge, or the latter does not completely embrace it. Everything we know about the hidden are images, but this, in itself, remains hidden.


The hidden / presence is the field in which human ocular and oneiric visions move. It is the field of revelation (kaxf) on which Sufi aesthetics is raised. This aesthetics has two foundations: the first, that the attempt to discover the hidden only leads to a greater need to attempt it, as the human being only manages to know the threshold of what remains unknown and invites him to know it. It is as if the more he knows the more ignorant he is and the greater the desire to investigate the hidden. The second foundation consists of the fact that the experience of revelation imposes, in order to be expressed, a discourse that escapes from the chains of rationality and logic, and from the chains of normal common sense, in addition to freeing itself from doctrinarian theology and the norms of religious law. It is something that is unspeakable, indescribable. It is from another level.


Add to this that the aesthetics of Sufism is also founded on contradiction, which means that everything is expressed at the same time in its opposite, death in life, life in death, day in night, night in day. The extremes thus join together in complete unity: movement and repose, reality and imagination, the strange and the familiar, light and dark, interior and exterior. The Sufi unites the interior and the exterior, the subject and the object, the hidden reality and the luminous reality, to achieve a state of superior consciousness, which is not manifested to a specific individual but to all individuals. Thus unity between visible world and invisible world is the unity of opposites and one of the aesthetic foundations of Sufi writing. In this way, we see that the aesthetics of Sufism pushes the human being to continuously advance beyond the limited, the known. In this advance it is necessary to unceasingly renew himself to always be present, to be ready at all times to walk towards the unknown.


What path does Sufism use for revelation? The answer lies in the fact that Sufism distinguishes, at the cognitive level, between reason and the heart. The former serves to know the external world, the world of phenomena, and the latter for knowledge of the interior, of the real world. It distinguishes, therefore, between the world of religious law and the world of truth. Reason has its own method: analysis, argumentation. And the heart also has its own method: intuition, illumination and taste. Therefore, Sufism rejects rationalist methodology. But not only rejects its methodology, but also the system of life founded on its values, with the intention of better inserting itself in the undelimitable and infinite.

Sufism, as an attitude, upsets the order of the exterior world and its instruments of knowledge and, as expression, alters the usual order of language. This means that the Sufi does not establish rational relations between himself, nature and the things of nature, as he considers it as a set of symbols, images and allusions, and the relations he strikes up with all of this are cordial (of the heart), in the Sufi sense of the term.

Revelation is manifested or expressed with a language that occurs as emanation, dictate or theopatic expression, in the almost total absence of censorship of reason, although, despite this, in the experience of Sufi writing there is nothing gratuitous, as there is always an enthusiastic will for revelation. This experience is sometimes manifested in expressions, terms and images that those who see them from outside, or through the eyes of religious norms, denominate deviation or charlatanism. It is an experience that goes beyond the partial to reach the total and exceeds the material-spiritual and exterior-interior duality, in pursuit of a unity in which illumination is united with action and ecstasy with living practice.

Sufi writing is an experience that does not offer abstract philosophical ideas, but states and atmospheres. It is a writing that does not narrate or teach but awakens things and sets off its mysteries. According to this aesthetics, poetry is like a breeze scattered over the world, in which creativity is an emanation that disseminates life in all things and in which the limits are dissolved between the self and the other, between the subject and the object, harmonising the extremes.


In Sufi writing the self and the non-self are dissolved in a dialectical movement that transforms the human being into a dynamic of profound knowledge of existence and fusion with its mysteries. This is why this writing seems to go beyond literary language. It is as if it were language that capture what is beyond nature, or a secret rite beyond language. Thus this writing seems to expect the unexpected, seems like a desire that it is not satisfied when realising the desired, but rather upon realising it thirst and anxiety are further intensified. When we enter the horizon of this writing we wonder if language here is listening or touching, true revelation or immersion. In fact, everything in it seems like a symbol, dream and allusion. Night, in this writing, is not night as such but rather an allusion to another light, just as death is not death but rather another life.

This is made clear in the theopatic locution (xath), which is a copious flow lit up in an unknown continent of the human being, fought and repressed especially by religious “reason”. The strange thing is that this “reason”, which believes in genies and in invisible worlds and beings, does not believe, however, in the existence in the body of a world which is not seen or known by reason. The xath is the discovery of this immense continent full of the surprising and the dazzling, of the infinite. It is, therefore, an explosive force that destroys the different forms of accustomed thought and the habitual forms of expression and writing. It is a kind of transgression with which the human being recognises interior and invisible nature and goes beyond the logic and its value. However, normative religious reason understands that the transcendent in nature, in the metaphysical and in the human being is stopped in prophetic revelation and that it is exclusive to it. This is why the writing must remain within the frontiers of the known and the evident; otherwise it would enter into competition with prophecy and possibly come to belie it. This brings us to affirm that the aesthetics of the Sufi text, just like that of the surrealist text, is fundamentally based on metaphor (mayaz). Both are eminently non-normative texts: the first transgresses religious norms and the second institutional, cultural and social norms. And, insofar as metaphor is supposition, it offers no emphatic response, but is, in itself, an ambit of friction of semantic contradictions. The metaphor does not generate, therefore, more than new questions. From the cognitive point of view it is a factor of concern and confusion, not of certainty and calm. This explains why the metaphor is fought, in the heart of Arab culture, within the religious ambit above all. There is still a dominant tendency that either rejects hermeneutics, in other words, the metaphor, understanding the religious text literally, or accepts it, but with conditions that do not allow the appearance of any answer that contravenes religious norms. In both cases the text has a priority that must be accepted. And hermeneutics is, according to this tendency, no more than the confirmation of everything that corresponds to what the text offers directly and literally. Hermeneutics is here a kind of analytical operation to confirm the text and its content, not to be questioned, or interpreted in a way that contradicts the literal evidence and religious norm.

Poetics of the metaphor lies in its non-referentiality; that is, in its condition of invention, as if it were always a start and lacked a past. As energy generator of questions it renews the human being, as it renews thought, language and relations with things. It is a dynamic of negation of present existence seeking another existence. Every metaphor (mayaz) is transit (tayauz): just as in metaphor language goes beyond itself, reality expressed by language goes beyond itself, also through language. Thus, metaphor connects us with the other dimension of things, with their invisible dimension.

Given all of this, metaphor naturally demands a dynamic reading parallel to its dynamism; that is, an always revised reading. The reading that insists on the comprehension of the text only literally or externally contradicts the very nature of language, given that literalness kills language, both in form and in meaning, apart from also annihilating the human being and his thought. On this level we can say that the text is its interpretation. Put another way, there is no metaphor, or no interpretation, of that text with which we seek to cognitively reach definitive truths, as happens with religious, scientific and mathematical texts. Religious people are the staunchest enemies of metaphor. They are interested in what they call the truth and they preach it like something absolutely evident. But metaphor is imaginary, which means, in the view of these religious people, that it is useless and meaningless.

Nevertheless, for the Sufis and for the surrealists metaphor is not only a question of style, it is also clairvoyance. Arabic writing explained the cause of the metaphor saying that when the soul meets with a discourse of incomplete meaning, which is characteristic of metaphor, it wishes it to be completed. If it finds itself faced with a discourse of complete meaning, as happens in non-metaphorical writing, this desire is extinguished (al-Jurjani).2 Just as the known generates a desire towards the unknown, metaphor generates the desire to achieve complete meaning, to leave the finite to go on to the infinite. This means that writing is constituted in Sufism, and in surrealism, on a language that provokes the desire to search, to question, to know the unknown and to enter the dynamic of the infinite. It thus responds to infinitude in knowledge and expression.


Dealing with metaphor brings us to deal with the form. And the form in its turn sends us to the profound meaning of experience of both Sufi and surrealist writing. This is what reveals God (the meaning), or what eliminates the veil that exists between us and Him, thus being able to see Him and unite us with Him. However, the unveiling (kaxf) here does not mean intensifying the brightness of the meaning, or making it come from a state of concealment to a state of presence but of weakening the intensity of its manifestation so that he can be seen. The more intense the solar sparkle and radiation are, the less we can stare at the sun; that is, the sun is hidden from view. In this sense, we can understand the Sufi assertion that “from the intense manifestation comes concealment.” The form is, therefore, like a fine transparent cloud that veils, making it possible for it to be seen and “manifesting itself” to whoever looks.

The appearance of meaning is concealment, because the fact that meaning appears in a form implies that its light has been veiled, as the form is limitation of the unlimited. Moreover, the meaning (God) is not hidden so that we can say that he is made present or manifested, but rather His presence is permanent and absolute. When we see Him in a form we do not see Him, but rather our own form in Him. And the form is that of whoever looks not of what is looked at. The meaning hides when it is manifested and is manifested when it hides, although it does not hide with anything external to it, but with its own light. Concealment is, as we have said, a result of an intense manifestation: its light is dazzling, making it impossible to stare at it, and even look at it.

From this perspective, the form is a light condensed by the omnipotence and will of the meaning (God) in order to prepare with it the knowledge of His essence, His attributes and His names. The form is definition of the meaning (God), because the meaning is hidden due to its extreme subtlety and is imperceptible and unknowable. As the form is veiled, at the same time it takes us back to the light of the meaning and to the darkness of the universe. The form-universe is a cloud that covers the sun of the meaning, but it is also a path towards it. It is the manifested that points towards the hidden. Therefore, whoever is content to look towards the form within the limits of sensitive appearance will see the meaning as darkness and will be linked to darkness, while whoever goes beyond these limits and penetrates its interior will see the meaning in its true light and in its true being.

On this level, the form is the salvation of the sensitive universe, as when the light of meaning dawns this universe burns and disappears. When the subtle appears, the dense disappears. To this responds the order given by God to Moses when, in order to see him, he asked him to look towards the mountain, but the mountain could not be seen due to the scarce light manifested: the human being cannot see the meaning (God) within the sensitive world other than through the form; in other words, through the density of the sensorial. The form is, therefore, the place of attributes and densities. Through the attribute we know the essence, and through the dense we know the subtle.


Ibn ‘Arabi considers that the spiritual world is manifested in sensitive forms, and says about the genies,3 for example:

“When a genie appears in a sensitive form it is trapped by the sight, as it cannot escape this form while it is being looked at specifically, although this is so from the point of view of the human being. If the perceiver traps him and continues looking at him without the genie having anywhere to hide, this spiritual entity shows him a form behind which he hides like a curtain. Then, the observer imagines that that form moves in a determined direction and follows it with his eyes, but, by following it with his eyes, the spiritual entity escapes and hides. Upon hiding, the form disappears from the sight of the observer who visually pursued it, given that such a form is, with regard to the spiritual entity, like the light that spreads everywhere with regard to a lamp, so that if it hides its body from the lamp the light disappears, which is exactly what happens with the cited form of the genie. Anyone who knows this and wishes to capture that spiritual entity does not follow its form with the sight. This is one of the divine secrets that are only known from information that comes from God. The form is but the essence of the spiritual entity; even more, it is itself, although the form is found in a thousand places, or in all places, or has different figures. When one of these forms is eliminated and dies in appearance, the spiritual entity moves from life in this world to limbo (barzaj), just as we move when we die, and nothing will be said of it in such a low world as ours. These sensitive forms in which the spiritual entities are manifested are called bodies.”

We can understand the form as shadow. In religious tradition, God spreads shadows on the Earth. A well-known hadiz reads that “the sovereignty (sultan) is the shadow of God on the Earth,” as, according to Ibn ‘Arabi, he “is manifested in all the forms of the divine names that form part of the earthly world, and the Throne is the shadow of God in the beyond.”4 The shadow depends on the form, from which it emanates sensitively and spiritually. The feeling is limited, determines and impoverishes; thus, the spiritual shadow of the spiritual form is more potent and richer than the feeling.

Creatures also have shadows that embody God. In this respect, these shadows are those that inhabit the world. The idea of the shadow is explained with the separation of Muhammad from his Creator: upon separating, the place of the separation was filled with his shadow, given that in the world the vacuum does not exist,5 his separation is through light, and he is through the manifestation, given that, when the light shone directly on Muhammad, his shadow extended filling the place where he had separated. The shadow indicates that he is still united to his Creator. Muhammad is thus visible for whom he separated from, that is, for the human being, and is present before whom he separated from, that is, the Creator. This shows the truth of the assertion that Muhammad is everywhere.

We can understand the form as a product of the relation between agent and patient, with the agent here being the equivalent to the father, who is the spirit, and the patient to the mother, who is nature; that is, the place of transformations. The father is, therefore, at the top, and the mother, at the bottom. In the physical human union between father and mother, the union is the form of the generating spiritual fusion produced between the pen and the tablet kept [in the sky] (the place and ambit of writing), or between the First Intellect and the Universal Soul; if we observe the symbol of the writer (the First Intellect) and the purpose of the writing (to offer knowledge = the coitus of physical union) we clarify the meaning of the expression “God created Adam upon His own form” [prophetic hadiz] and the meaning of the divine [Koranic] expression on the creation of things with the Be! (kun). The letter kaf and the letter nun of this word are the First Intellect and the Universal Soul; in other words, two premises united by a nexus hidden in the word kn, which is, as Ibn ‘Arabi says, the letter waw [u] omitted so that the two consonants meet. From both premises of kun we deduce a kind of conclusion: the form. Between the pen and the tablet, a meaningful coitus is produced that generates a sensitive sign: letters. This is how we understand the saying of Imam al-Sadiq6 that God first created letters: the sensitive sign deposited on the tablet is the water of knowledge (= creation), symbolised by the water that flows in the uterus. The meanings deposited in the letters are like the spirits deposited in the bodies of the children.

Moreover, when the father and the mother (the man and the woman) meet, the pen hides and invisibly ejects the semen in the uterus, because it is secret. From this point of view, the coitus is equally secret. The form is the result of relations, whether in the physical world or in that of words; that is, it is true transformation. In the world of words, the speaker is the father, and the listener is the mother, and language is the nexus that links them (coitus) and the result of the comprehension by the listener, the child: the new form or transformation. In the world of the physical human union, the father transforms and the mother is transformed, while coitus is the act of transformation and the child the result of this act.

The perception of the forms is only a mode of transgressing the habit of visual perception. This is how it is illustrated by the account of the glorification of God realised by the stones that the prophet Muhammad holds in his hands. The stones have glorified God since they were created by him, but hearing them is something extraordinary in relation to the hearing, but not in relation to the stones.7

Muhammad possesses two qualities: knowledge and action. With the action he grants the forms, which are of two kinds: the sensitive manifested forms, like the bodies, figures and colours linked to them, and the spiritual hidden forms, which are those found in sciences, concepts and desires. The quality of the knowledge here is the father, because he is the agent, while the quality of the action is the mother, as she is the patient. The forms emerge from both qualities. Consequently, the form is symbol of knowledge, not of identity or of existence. With the form, the human being embodies the meaning in the soul, embodiment that facilitates the expression of this meaning to a faculty that is in the imagination. Ibn ‘Arabi says that

“the embodiment of the form pushes the human being to stare until understanding all its meaning. If the meaning enters into the mould of the form and the figure, it is desired by the senses and opens to contemplation and enjoyment, which leads to the realisation of what is set out by this figure and embodied by this form.”8


Let us say that the form is the approximation of the distant or, even, the close that keeps the meaning at a distance. But the close is not only in the light but is also in the hidden, and in distance. The infinite comes from this integrating dialectic between revelation and concealment, between form and meaning, between closeness and distance. It is as if thought always begins at this separating line between meaning and form, which is like the line that separates light from shadow. However, the human being is always attracted towards the meaning or light. And the fact is that vision “is defined” but “does not exist.” Vision, therefore, is only the threshold of something which is beyond it: the hidden. At the zenith of vision, the human being sees his thirst for what he has not yet seen increases. Vision is a dynamic of infinitudes: the arrival point shows us the distance and thirst more than closeness and satiation. And closeness is a flash of lightning in which distance seems even more distant. The closest is death: death that annuls earthly life and establishes the other life, which is death with regard to shadow-earth world, but life with regard to light-the beyond. To absent oneself from shadow is to be present in the light. Death is light: it is the true existence. The past is light, the present is the intermediate state-form, and the future is death: eternal life. But the past here is not a point that happened or ceased, but a root, an origin before the human being. In this respect, the past is a future that came, the present a future that is coming and the future a future that will come. Time is this movement of shadow-light that measures hidden-evident existence. And existence is but the permanent movement of the dialectic between the hidden and the evident, between the evident and the hidden (the manifested-the hidden, the hidden-the manifested).

The human being is an intermediate stage (barzaj), a bridge between shadow and light, whose existence is supported on the transit towards the light. He lives off his eternal desire for transit. It is as if he existed between two limits: he cannot live without something hidden before him which shows him his limitation, neither can he go towards life without a form which, upon seeing it, shows him what unites him with the hidden. The hidden is what goes beyond the human being, but at the same time it is what surrounds, supports and invigorates him. It is that horizon that only exists when you walk towards it. When walking, the hidden comes closer, but it comes closer to appear even more distant, so that the human being seems so limited as if he had not been created. Herein lies his burning desire to die, in other words, to be born.

The only thing that awakens, mobilises and pushes the human being to overcome his limits is what resembles him. And the similarity that unites the human being and God is, precisely, the form. The form, attributed to God, is something unknown and unreachable for knowledge and, attributed to the human being, something known that receives light from the unknown. The form awakens our desire, but escapes our perception. There is no union between the human being and the form, between something and its equivalent, but between the human being and what transcends him, between the limited and the unlimited, between the evident and the hidden that remains hidden. The human being only unites with the unknown which remains unknown. This union is like the fall of a drop of water in an endless river, not the union of one limit with another, or of one body with another, or of one thing with another. Upon perceiving a similar form the human being heads towards the perception of the meaning; that is, towards the union with what does not resemble him. He must link with a limit in order to reach the unlimited. The human being is of the earth, from which he never separates other than to unite with it. Discovering the meaning is discovering, in the universe, what is similar to the human being: fragility and change. It is as if the human being does not achieve eternity other than by destroying time, as if he only inhabits the place he abandons.


Ibn ‘Arabi analyses the relationship that exists between the meaning and the form from the point of view of letters, and observes that the letter kaf of the word al-kawn (being) is a shadow of the word kun (be!), because this last word is an essence (dat) whose shadow is the being, and that the letter waw in the word huwa [he, it, He]). When we write the letter waw as we pronounce it (“w-a-w”), Ibn ‘Arabi thinks “that the first waw is the waw of the ipseity (huwia: essence, identity) and that the second waw is that of kawn (being), as the letter alif (a) interposed is the veil of uniqueness (ahadia)”9.

The manifestations symbolise either the form (sura) or the hiya (the she). She is Him but He is not she: the form is the meaning, but the meaning is not the form. Ibn ‘Arabi says that the “he” (huwa) is not the “she” (hiya), and when it is so it is only when creating the ideal form, thereby it is “he” in act and “she” in the making, being the letter ha’ the element that unites the “he” with the “she”, just like the cause that unites two premises. There was only the “he” without anything accompanying it, but we read in one of Ibn ‘Arabi’s dialogues with God the following: “Oh, He, when the elements that form us distanced us in a state of absence […] we asked for help and you helped us, we asked for inspiration and you inspired us, we asked for knowledge on how to enter it, and you gave it to us, and therefore we woke on a sea without shores in Muhammad’s Ark […]. Bewildered, we asked for forgiveness, and then, He exclaimed: ‘My servants! You asked me for a room in which nobody but me sees me. I am on the Cloud (ama) and nothing is with me and, given that there is nothing with me, I am in your being. This sea on which you are is your cloud, therefore if you went through your cloud you would reach my Cloud, although you will never go through your cloud and you will never reach Me. You are only on your cloud. This cloud is the ‘he’ that you possess, as the form demands of you that in which you are.’ And I said: ‘Oh, He is the He, what do I do in the He?’ To which he answered: ‘Drown in He…’”10 The “he” as such lacks existence; neither does the “she” as such possess existence, nor does the letter ha’ as such possess existence […]; but the ha’ moves both the “he” and the “she”, finding each other thanks to the letter ha’ and thereby existence is created. This is why this meeting is expressed with two letters, the letters kaf-nun: “Our word for a thing when We intend it, is only that We say to it, Be (kun), and it is” [Koran, 16:40]. The thing [from the cited Koran passage] is the “she”, “when We intend it” is the “he”, “We say” is the “he”, and kun the cause which unites them. The kaf of kun is the “he” and the nun of kun is the “she”. And Ibn ‘Arabi adds: “And given that the letter waw is elevated and high, we turn it into husband, thereby the ‘he’ is the husband; and as the ‘she’ is elevated in terms of its influence and low for the kasra [vowel i, which is written below the letter], we call it the letter ya’ and turn it into the family, so that the ha’ occupies the place of the [divine] Message (al-risala) and the ‘he’ the place of Gabriel [angel who communicates the Message]. Then the norms, laws, stanzas and secrets of this blessed union appeared.”11


In this way, Sufi writing helps us understand three issues on writing in general which are behind the transformation of Arabic poetic writing. The first, that poetry is not a lexical game that takes words as decorative or ornamental materials without emotive or philosophical weight outside what the pure free game possesses. On the contrary, poetry is something that goes beyond the simple formal game. It is passion and action at the same time. It is the dynamic of feeling and thinking of the human being when understanding things and establishing relations with them. It is a mode of consciousness and, therefore, it is necessarily a mode of thought. Just as in the poem we find the extremes from the point of view of matter or meaning, we also find, by convergence, feeling and thought. The second, that what we denominate exterior, material or physical reality is no more than an aspect of existence, specifically its most limited aspect. What we call life or existence is something far broader. Therefore, the poets who reduce their interest and expression to the first aspect are in the end only concerned about what is within sight of all and do not express anything more than what everyone knows. Their attitude is that of a naturalism that does not see in the tree the interior movement of its root, its sap and its growth, but only the branches, leaves and fruit. Even though what is behind nature is another part of nature.

The third issue tells us that what we call truth is not found in the world of immediate phenomena other than in its scientific-positivist form. The truth is, in contrast, a mystery hidden within things, hidden in their interior world. The human being can reach it, but only through specific cognitive methods, which are not positivist or “scientific.” Faced with the visible in the world, the invisible emerges, and faced with the objective, the subjective emerges.

However, to overcome the formal game, the external reality, immediate physical appearance, we require a radical change in the methods of knowledge that can achieve total liberation through liberating what the religious, political and social institution asphyxiates, represses or marginalises: the dynamic of the subjective-interior world, with its emotions, desires and dreams, with its unconsciousness, with its instincts, aspirations and repressions, and with everything that the culture of the body demands in overcoming the culture of the “spirit” and, especially, its religious forms.

If the culture of the external, according to the religious, political and social institution, is limited and easy to define, the culture of the internal is unlimited and impossible to define. And if the language expressed by the first culture is also limited, and definable, the language expressed by the second is unlimited and escapes all definition. Therefore, we call the first of the two languages logical, direct and clear; and the second, emotional, dark and metaphorical. The first takes into account the things and represents them, while the second awakens and enriches them.


Sufi writing is an experience of access to the absolute, which, on the other hand, is observed in the greatest creators of all times. The myth and the symbol are two ways of approaching vaster profundities and of seeking the most reliable meaning. The return to myth is a kind of return to collective unconsciousness, to what goes beyond the individual; it is a return to human memory and its legends, to the past understood as a form of unconsciousness. And all of this is a symbol that overcomes the relative in pursuit of the absolute. In the poetic expression of language, the ideas do not appear by themselves, as in philosophy, but in their relations with other ideas.

The symbol, or myth, is the meeting point between the exterior and the interior, between the visible and the invisible. So they are both a point of irradiation, a dynamic centre that expands in all directions. And, at the same time, they both express different levels of reality in their totality. This allows the poet not only to reveal what we do not know, but also to recreate what we do know, by linking it to the dynamic of the unknown and the infinite. Thus, poetry is, on this level, knowledge.


But what is the symbol according to the Arabic language? Symbol (ramz) means allusion (ixara), and allusion is one of the processes of signification (dalala). For the thinker and man of letters al-Jahiz, designation does not only take place through words, but also through allusion. Symbol is, therefore, a rapid signification, hidden and indirect. Qudama b. Ja’far approached the symbol in this way:

“The speaker uses the symbol in his discourse when he wishes to hide something from the mass of the people and only communicate it to some; to this end, he gives the word or letter the name of a bird, wild beast or any other species, or one of the letters of the Arabic alphabet, and communicates it to whoever wishes to know, so that this expression will be comprehensible for both, but symbolic for others. In the books of the ancient wise men and philosophers there are many symbols, used by Plato more than any of them. In the Koran there are symbols of things of great value and immense importance that contain the knowledge of what will be [in the future]… These things are symbolised with the letters of the Arabic alphabet and with other elements, such as the fig, olive, dawn, the antiquities, the afternoon, the sun, as the imams who are the depositories of the knowledge of the Koran have been informed about such symbols.12

In terms of allusion, Qudama b. Ja’far says that it is abbreviation, indicating that the symbol is also abbreviation. And he defines allusion as follows: “that a few words (lafz qalil) include many meanings (ma‘anin kazira), suggesting them or insinuating them.”13 According to this definition, the symbol is a meaningful suggestion. And Ibn Raxiq, in developing the concept of symbol / allusion, noted that the allusion (ixara) is, in all kinds of verbal discourse, a meaningful suggestion (lamha dalla), an abbreviation, an insinuation (talwih) known synthetically and whose meaning is far from what the verbal expression shows.14

In this way, the symbol is based, in the Arabic language, on the abbreviation and the distancing of the meaning in respect to the evidence of verbal expression. Poetry, consequently, does not explain or clarify, but rather, as al-Buhturi says, “suggests and merely alludes.” Its comprehension requires interpretation. It is, therefore, obscure (gámid) by its very nature. Abu Ishaq al-Sabi expressed it this way: “The most excellent poetry is obscure poetry, that which only gives you its theme after a long delay.”15 And al-Yuryani noted:

“Implanted in the character that is achieved after being requested, intensely desired or yearned for, its attainment is far more pleasant, as it occupies a more subtle and sublime place in the soul which appreciates it and loves it much more.”16

Al-Jurjani himself distinguished between the obscure and the complicated: “The complicated (al-mu‘aqqad) in poetry and language is not reprehensible because it requires thought about the phrase,” but because its author

“makes your thought stumble at his will, sows your path towards the meaning with thorns, making your way towards him intricate, and perhaps even divides your thought and disperses your criteria to the point that you do not know where you come from or how you search.”17

Mallarmé did not go beyond this when he spoke about the obscurity of poetry. In one case or another it seems, therefore, that poetry, just as it is practised by the great creators, is a dynamic aimed at knowledge of the unknown, in which the culture of the body is put before the culture of reason and in which spontaneity (badaha) and natural creativity (fitra) are put before logic and analysis. This is, precisely, the foundation on which surrealist writing is based.


We can describe the experience of the writing, the experience of the self that writes, as an experience of death, in the Sufi sense of the expression: death in terms of social exteriority at all its levels and relations to gain access to the life of cosmic interiority. Therefore, it is necessary to go beyond the exterior, to destroy it. It is necessary to go beyond the language of the external, to undo it. One of the symptoms of decadence of poetic writing in the modern world is, precisely, the supremacy of the language of the external; that is, the supremacy of the conventional definitions and terms.

To go beyond the world of exteriority (al-záhir) we have to make use of the same language: intoxicating it. We must intoxicate language with the same intoxication of experience. In fact, every Sufi writer has the primordial objective of discovering a “cosmic language” that expresses the correspondence between the infinite (the meaning) and the finite (the form). This language speaks without mediation of reason. It abducts the reader and moves him to the infinite. Just as the Sufi “becomes intoxicated,” language is intoxicated. The Sufi creates in the language a special intoxication within the horizon of his own intoxication. The only thing that expresses the intoxication of the human being is a language which is also intoxicated. Therefore, language must also come out of itself, just as the Sufi comes out of himself.

This intoxicated language is metaphorical language (mayaz). With it we make it possible for what is in another place, in the hidden or in the interior, to pass (yayuz) on to our exterior world. Thus this language allows us to put the infinite in the finite, as Baudelaire said. The hidden, the infinite, the unknown, is not a point at which, when we arrive, knowledge stops; on the contrary, the hidden is dynamic, whenever we discover something about it, it multiplies what demands to be discovered. It is impossible to know the hidden definitively. Therefore, here, language, even if it achieves intoxication, does not establish “real” but metaphorical relations between the self and the other, the self and the hidden, the self and the universe.


According to Sufi experience, metaphor is a bridge that unites the visible and the invisible, the known and the hidden. And given that the aim is to reveal the unknown, the form is, strictly speaking, pure creation. Consequently, the form is not mimetic, a product of comparison and analogy, but results from the approximation and meeting of two worlds distanced from each other that make a unit. Thus, the form is not artifice, or expressive technique. Put another way, it is not eloquence or rhetoric, it is primordial; it springs from the same dynamic from which poetic intuition comes. The strength and richness of the form lie in the quality of the relations it creates or discovers between these two worlds, relations that, despite everything, do not allow rational apprehension of the form; in other words, they make its domestication and conditioning to realistic sensitive perception impossible. The form is realistic, however, as it reveals the original, the essential, although at the same time escapes tangible reality by alluding to what goes beyond this reality. So it is not description, but penetrating and revealing light; a course towards the unknown. In this sense, it produces a clash and demands a new sensitivity. This leads us to understand how poetry, in Sufi experience, is not literature in the usual sense of the term, but a question about the human being and existence, and the desire to change the shape of the world. It is, in short, a reformulation of the human being and existence. And the form, transit (tayauz) and change.

This also leads us to say that, at the level of expression, dream, clairvoyance, theopatic locution (xath) and madness, are, within Sufi poetic experience, other mediums-languages which language explores to achieve a richer, more profound and global unveiling of the human being and existence. All these means of discovery are a path for capturing truths that cannot be captured by logic or reason. The latter only captures the sensitive, or only the abstract, so that the forms born from it are cold, because reason separates the visible from the invisible, while the forms of Sufi metaphor unify the sensitive and the abstract, the exterior and the interior, the known and the unknown. In Sufi metaphor, the form is not an isolated part of a given phrase or expression, is not born from the desire for adornment, persuasion or incitement, with which it would leave us on the surface of reality. No, the form in Sufi metaphor is an organic part of a greater whole: it is people, places, subjects, events, actions. It puts us into contact with symbol and myth, as it is born out of both this ascendant and descendent dialectics between God and the human being, between the invisible and the visible reality. Therefore, it is a form replete with dream and irrational elements, such as magic, delirium, madness, theopatic expression and ecstasy.

The invisible, the hidden, is the most profound in Sufi experience because it is the foundation. Therefore, a concern with the visible is no more than a concern with the surface or the shell. The soul is not surface; it is endless expansion in the profound and the horizon at the same time. The value of expression will therefore depend on the degree to which it unveils this expansion and its relations; in other words, of the extent to which it reveals the dimension of infinitude that exists in the human being and the world.

This eternal dynamic of unveiling of the infinite brings with it the continuous destruction of the forms or, put another way, they do not remain fixed in a single form. The form, just like the image, is pure creation, it is not fabricated or taken. It is not a suit or a wrapping, or a container: it is space (fada’). It is the movement and the order of our ideas. It is the structure of the relation existing between words. In short, the external is not what speaks in metaphor, but rather the internal; neither is it the form that writes but the meaning. In metaphor, the Sufi is another, is another objective while being the same. Therefore, it is not him who pronounces the meaning and writes it in the form, but it is the meaning that pronounces it to him and writes it. It is not him who thinks and writes, but rather he who is thought and written: “On me pense,”Rimbaud will say later.


With the strength of metaphor and its language, the Sufi creates his “ideal” world, a world perceived and captured with the imagination and experienced like the world of events characteristic of intra-history. In the relation between the interior and the exterior, between the hidden and the manifested, is where the vision of the most profound interior events originates. In this relationship, which is very similar to a two-sided mirror, the perceptible fuses with the imperceptible in such a way that the one-dimensional exteriority is no longer the only point of reference where the psychological-spiritual fact is articulated. This relationship becomes, among the Sufis, the very essence of the creative imagination. Thus, the creative imagination, which is the reciprocal space in which the perceptible and the imperceptible cross, summarises the macrocosm; in other words, the whole cosmos, in the microcosm of the human being.

The creative imagination makes the body transparent, given that the imagination itself becomes this “other” world reached through Sufi knowledge. The body becomes an element for the creation of the imaginary structure of the place, a mystical and lyrical dimension of the interior that is reflected in the exterior space recreating it according to its own form. In this sense, poetry is the imaginary dimension that recreates the exterior world according to the interior form of its creator. The Sufi develops the macrocosm in his body, which is the microcosm, experiencing his body, already transparent through the effect of the creative imagination, as the original and primitive field of the possible.

The microcosm (the body), experienced as formable outline, becomes anteriority of the place, of the universe. The latter conserves a close link with the imaginary place of the transparent body. And the body, experienced as foundation and origin, brings together in its metaphorical figure the ideal and the real. The human being is, in fact, the unity of the ideal with the real. Therefore, the body, understood as the field of the possible, is the place of transmutations of the perceptible. This reflecting of the interior in the exterior is precisely the transfer of the witnessed knowledge: in this knowledge, born out of imaginary perception, the “mysteries” of the universe are discovered, which are cognitive revelations unattainable for positivist knowledge.

For the Sufi, the world of the ideal is not an imaginary or illusory world, but is manifested, just as it is in truth, as a real world rooted in the very essence of the phenomenical world. In the world of the ideal the spiritual is materialised and the material is spiritualised, which is only visible with the eye of the imagination. Here, the Sufi is “its sameness” and “its otherness” at the same time. The contradictions disappear. The perceptible world becomes presence of the One. The real meets with the metaphorical and the two unite in imaginary forms that express interior events. The poetics of Sufi writing springs from this mystical unity and becomes transforming erotic language. In this way, the world and everything that exists, is experienced as manifestations of the One. Outside the One there is no existence. Within this unity the immanent is not incompatible with the transcendent. This is what we understand by annulment of the contradictions, or by “the supreme point” of the surrealists.

It is knowledge completely free of the prefabricated and not subject to predefined rationalist values. Gnostic-imaginary perception is the perception of things in their entirety and in their original-authentic forms. It is also the place where knowledge of the indescribable is born and the unspeakable is said. This perception is broader than the positivist, given that the latter is imprisoned in the temporal mathematical limits and in those of spatiality and quantity, and thus only gives us a partial and superficial knowledge of things.

In the creative imagination, therefore, the perceptible and the imperceptible are transmuted: the first ascends, the second descends. This is the dialectics of the meeting between corporal love and spiritual love from which Sufi love is born. A love that achieves a supreme degree of existence and consciousness: the lover united with the beloved in an unlimited love. The Sufi feels liberated: goes outside himself, outside the natural and sensitive limits (goes outside himself to enter, far more extensively and profoundly, himself).

Loving experience is, consequently, a cognitive experience (love is knowledge) which reveals to the Sufi the secrets of existence. With love, the heart becomes the eye thanks to which the One contemplates itself and, also thanks to love, thought becomes light that illuminates the field of interior vision. Love is at the same time, just like knowledge, a starting point for experience, as well as its path and goal. We believe, therefore, that the intoxication produced by religion of the love in the soul of the Sufi is a kind of feeling or consciousness of the cosmic. It is an illuminating consciousness that shows us that the human being lives on another level of existence (the Unity of Existence), as if he were a member of a human society of another kind. Add to this a state of moral intoxication and joyful elevation, and that the intoxication is an indescribable state. All of which is also linked to the intuition of permanence and eternity. Sufism is, on this level, “the religion of love,” as Ibn ‘Arabi says. And, therefore, the meaning of what is identity changes.


According to the prevailing cultural category, identity is a closed entity with respect to which the other only exists insofar as it becomes detached from its own identity and transforms and merges into it. Identity, whether it brings you closer to the other to confuse with it or refutes it to distance from it. This turns the universe into a waste deposit of mutual refusals and denials and creates, in the human, a false universality, a universality of master and slave, of who refutes and is refuted, and generates, in the historical, a universality of the benefit and a consumerist technique, and in the cultural, a standardising universality which abolishes freedom and creativity. To truly come into the universe we must come out of this identity. And I do not know anything more profound that enlightens us in this movement than the Sufi experience.

Identity, according to this experience, is on-going receptivity. The self is a perpetual motion in the direction of the other. For the self to reach the other it must go beyond itself. Or in other words: the self travels towards its deepest being only insofar as it travels towards the other and to its deepest being, given that, in the other, the self finds its most perfect presence. The self is, paradoxically, the non-self. From this perspective, identity is like love; it is continuously created. This is why the Sufi says: “I am not I,” when he is in a state of maximum perception of himself. Which is what Rimbaud repeats in his own manner: “I is other.” That is, it is as if the Sufi and Rimbaud said in unison: I am, I live, I think, thus I am other, I am not I.


The Sufi experience teaches us that the expression of truth made by the being, or what we suppose is the truth, does not exhaust the truth; indeed, it does not even say it, it only alludes to or symbolises it. The truth is not in what is said, or in what it is possible to say, but rather in what is not said, in what cannot be expressed. The truth lies in the enigmatic, in the hidden, in the infinite. In this aspect, the Sufi experience continues the old and rooted Gnostic tradition that believes that the human being cannot, luckily for him, know the mystery, the mystery of the human being and the universe; such a tradition starts with Gilgamesh, the one who “saw everything” and realised that truth does not lie on what he saw and knew but on what he could not see or know, and involves hermetic tradition and the Eleusinian mysteries. Perhaps it is this that pushes Sufism to the experience of the limits, to work hard to transform the very body into dynamic expansion, suspending the action of the senses, as well as annulling reason, with the end of reaching the unknown-infinite, which will be resumed by Rimbaud and, later, by surrealists. Thus the body becomes an entity of ecstasy and enlightenment, matter becomes diaphanous and the barriers between the human being and the unknown, that is, the “true hidden truth”, vanish.

Through the relationship with the unknown and the invisible, both language and life and the self and the other resemble metaphor and metaphorical dialectics. Hence, the self is the other and it is no longer the individual self which speaks, but the super-self, the universal self hidden in the individual. This great creative instant is not subjective but the subject itself is the object, as it is the other and the universe at once, or as “the macrocosm is included within it.” The fact of naming, of writing at the level of the cosmos, means that we explore the essential, the luminous, the very close and the very distant, that which I call the immanent transcendent, the “macrocosm.” This macrocosm is not an abstraction or separated. It is here and now, materialised in what Pascal called “the thinking reed” (the human being).18 The universal cosmic is, in itself, no more than the particular subjective experienced in its plenitude and specificity. From this point of view, the universe is this integrating sphere-vault in which the singularities of creation embrace each other.


[1] A first version of this text was published in Sufismo y surrealismo, Ediciones del Oriente y del Mediterráneo, Madrid, 2008.

[2] Abd al-Qadir Al-Jurjani (d. 1078) is one of the great classical Arab rhetoricians, with works such as Asrar Al-Balagha (The Secrets of Rhetoric) and Dala’il Al-I‘jaz (Intimations of Inimitability).

[3] The difference between genies, angels and humans is, from the point of view of creation, that genies are “spirits blown into winds, angels are spirits blown into lights and humans are spirits blown into human appearance (axbah)” (Ibn ‘Arabi, Al-Futuhat al-Makkaa, v. II, from the Beirut edition, Daral-Fikr, no date, 4v (Spanish version by María Marrade, Ibn ‘Arabi, Tratado del Amor, Barcelona, Edicomunicación, 1988).

[4] Ibid, p. 152.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Sixth Shiite Imam, called Ja’far b. Muhammad al-Baqir al-Sadiq (the reliable), who was born and died in Medina and stood out for his determined promotion of writing and the compilation of books.

[7] Ibn ‘Arabi, op. cit, p. 155.

[8] Ibn ‘Arabi, Inxa’ al-dawa’ir, La production des cercles [The Description of the Encompassing Circles],Paris, Éditions de l’Éclat, 1996, pp. 5-6.

[9] Ibn ‘Arabi, Kitab al-mim wa-l-waw wa-l-nun [The Book of the Letters Mim, Waw and Nun], in Rasail Ibn ‘Arabi, Beirut, Dar Sadir, 1997, pp. 9-10.

[10] Ibn ‘Arabi, Kitab al-ya’, [The Book of the Letter Ya], in Rasail Ibn ‘Arabi, Beirut, Dar Sadir, 1997, p. 13.

[11] Ibn ‘Arabi, Kitab al-ya’, op. cit., p. 11.

[12] Qudama b. Ja’far, Naqdan-natr [Prose Criticism], Cairo, 1933, pp. 61-62.

[13] Qudama b. Ja’far, Naqd al-shi’r [Poetry Criticism], Leiden, 1956, p. 90.

[14] Ibn Rashiq, Al-‘Umdah fi mahasin al-shi’r wa adabihi wa naqdihi [The Mainstay Concerning Poetry’s Embellishments, Correct Usage, and Criticism], Beirut, Dar al-Yil, no date, p. 206.

[15] Cited by Ibn al-Azir, Dia l-Din (Mosul, 1163-Baghdad, 1239), al-Mazal al-sa’ir [The Prevailing Model], ii, Beirut, 1990, p. 414.

[16] Al-JurJani, Asrar Al-Balagha [Secrets of Eloquence], Cairo, 1977, p. 118.

[17] Ibid., p. 125.

[18]Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature, but he is a thinking reed.” (Pascal, Blaise, Thoughts).