Three meanings of remembrance in Sufism

In Sufism the phrase ‘remembrance’ has great significance, yet it is not always clear what is meant by the phrase. Such unclarity might be because the meaning of the phrase is purposefully left somewhat ambiguous so that it can be applied to various levels of spiritual state and practice. The most literal meaning of remembrance as found in the Quran is to worship the One Great God, and this worship involves both a form of heartful practice and a cognitive recognition of the reality of God’s Greatness and Compassion. The sufis also use the term remembrance to denote a spiritual state of directly realizing God in one His Qualities, besides using the term to denote a particluar form of practice or worship.

I will suggest that there are three different meanings in the idea and practice of remembrance, though these meanings are obviously related. I will name one kind of meaning cognitive, another kind of meaning aesthetic, and the other meaning I will call volitional. I am not fully content with these names, but they are are only names designating different kinds of meaning and it is the meanings which are really important. None of these meanings involve the act of remembering as that term normally means, because one is not actually remembering some thought or experience of the past but instead one should be having a direct cognition or experience in the present moment. One significance of the term remembering might be that one needs to remember to practice in a special way, and it also has a significance in that one is often forgetful of this practice or the state it involves, or that one is often forgetful of God but should be remembering God.

I will first describe the cognitive meaning of remembrance. I call this cognitive because it involves a cognitional understanding of God, or a recognition of God’s Attributes, and this form of understanding involves the intellect and thought. In the exoteric level of Islam, remembrance primarily denotes an expressed affirmation of God’s Attributes, as well as an affirmation of submission to God the Great, all of which is founded on faith. The sufi meaning of remembrance goes further from mere affirmation and faith, as it also means a direct understanding of God’s Attributes which is founded on direct intuition or insight, not just blind faith. So remembrance, in the cognitive sense, is an understanding of what God is - to the best of one’s intelligent capacity. Most sufi teachers point out the philosophical impossibility of knowing God in its ultimate Essence or in its full Comprehensiveness, so they say that at best we can know God’s metaphysical Attributes or God’s Qualities as found in human experience.

The metaphysical attributes of God can be divided into transcendent and immanent understandings. The transcendent attributes cannot be directly experienced per se, but are only intelligently presupposed as necessary truths. For example, it is presupposed that the final Essence and Fullness of God ultimately must be beyond human cognition. God is greater than anyone can imagine or realize, and God is ultimately greater than we are. Of course, there would be no direct cognition of this greaterness, yet there can be an intuitive understanding that this Greaterness is so. On the other hand, the immanent attributes are those which can be directly recognized in manifest reality, though the Source of these must still be transcendent in the ultimate Mystery. That is, the immanent attributes move through the manifest world and can thus be recognized and understood. For example, God’s Love, Intelligence, and Guidance can be directly cognized and understood.

So the cognitive meaning of remembrance is to directly recognize and acknowledge the various immanent qualities of God, discovering these in the world around us and also in ourselves. And as well, there is the cognition that the ultimate Essence and Fullness of God is beyond our knowing grasp. Though some sufis say that even this, this ultimate Essence and Fullness of God, is knowable because the microcosm in essence reflects the Macrocosmic Essence, or because the Ocean drop is nonetheless Ocean Essence, such that God and the knowable essence of self are essentially the same. But leaving aside this question of knowability, we can at least say with certainty that there is much to be directly cognized regarding the divine Qualities found in the world and in the self; so this discovery must be a significant part of our spiritual purpose here in life, which involves a deepening of insight and understanding.

Next I will describe the aesthetic meaning of remembrance, which is more of a direct experience than cognition. The aesthetic experience of God Immanent is actually beyond a cognitional, intellectual understanding. The cognitional understanding is a knowledge ‘that’ God is real or ‘that’ certain Divine Qualities exist, while the aesthetic experience is an immediate experience ‘of’ God or Divine Qualities. The aesthetic spiritual state is an opening of awareness to how Divine Being (God) is presently revealing Itself, either in the experienced world or in the experience of self. It is the discovery of how God is expressing outwardly and inwardly. The senses are involved in the outward experience of divinity, while introspection is involved in the inward experience. The discovered expression of God may involve particular people, things or places, or it may be the direct experience of Divine Presence and Its Divine Qualities manifesting in the world and through the self. This realization of the manifesting Divine Qualities, such as love, beauty, power, or intelligence, is a direct aesthetic experience and not merely an intellectual thought-recognition (though the thinking intelligence would be needed to describe the direct aesthetic experience).

One finds the Divine in life, outward and inward. This is distinctly different from experiencing the Divine as transcendent from the world or self, which would be impossible since that would be beyond our direct experience. In fact, any thought of God that is beyond immediate and immanent experience could only be an imagination based on conditioned association or supposition. We cannot actually know or have in mind the transcendent absolute reality of God, and thus any image or thought of absolute God can only be something conjured up in our imagination or reasoning. The only possible experience of God would have to be a manifestation/expression or a quality of divinity, either in the outer world or through oneself. This would be an immanent form, expression, or quality of God. So the aesthetic practice is to experience God immanent in the world, through others or through oneself.

In aesthetic experience, the intellect has to give way to an immediate experience, or meditation, or communion with the divine radiance discovered in the world around us or the spiritual qualities emerging from within oneself. This discovery is not a thought cognition, nor is it an abstract knowledge or an abstract thinking form of understanding. It is a direct and immediate experience of the radiant divinity itself. One is experiencing God in a particular manifestation, with open heart and consciousness. This is an emersed experience in the divine radiance of the particular manifestation perceived. One may also have immediate experience of Divine Presence, Love or some other Divine Quality, enfolding the world or emerging through oneself. This may be described as an abstract feeling, but it is nonetheless a real and immediate experience, not just a thought or supposition.

In the aesthetic practice/experience one opens the mind and heart to something or someone, and then embraces this in one’s heart of love. Particular forms, living beings, phenomena or events may reveal radiant divine qualities, and this radiance is directly experienced. One is fully present and open hearted in the presence of divinity radiating from this manifestation. In this way, the divine radiant qualities permeate the whole unity of one’s experience. Love and Divine Presence is primary, while thought is secondary. One can also open to Divine Presence in general, which permeates the whole space around us.

Some mystics have described particulars as God, saying that God is found in this and that, or that wherever one turns there is God. Theologians have argued that this would then be a statement of pantheism or even idolotry. But this mystical statement simply means that God reveals itself through various particulars, or that God’s expression is found in the world. It does not mean that any particular event or manifestation is the sum total of God or identical to the absolute God Being. The absolute Subject of God is still distinct from the pluralism of its expression. The mystic, though, might realize that God as the One Transcendental Subject is behind and radiating through the particular expression found in the world. From this direct experience and the meaning of its description, the mystic is right in saying that God is here in this particular form, or that here is God, or that one may find God anywhere in the world.

For example, one might meet a woman who is beautiful both physically and in her character, and who shows intelligence and artistic talent in many ways, and who is caring and giving, and who expresses herself with refinement and love, as well as having many other good qualities. This woman would then be a radiant expression of God, and being in her presence would be a divine experience, and it would be a knowing of God’s expression. One might feel an appreciation for this expression or maybe even experience an aesthetic rapture, but it would be silly to worship this person or think of this person as the absolute God. God is here, but God is not consummated in this person or in this experience. The same could be true for a beautiful performance, or a beautiful garden, or seeing a loving act of generosity, or hearing intelligent or wise words. God can be found expressing anywhere, though it is easier to experience Divine Immanence in those actions and things which have exceptionally beautiful or loving qualities. Some manifestations have greater divine quality than others, so it is not true that God is equally expressive in all things. Thus we should seek out the finest expressions of divinity and seek to perfect the divine qualities inherent in ourselves.

Next I will describe the volitional meaning of remembrance. This is our volitional orientation to God, the Absolute. This is affirming our relationship with God Absolute, our relationship with God Transcendent, with God the Source of manifestations and expressions. Here we surrender to what is Beyond, or to the Being that is becoming. We surrender to the Invisible becoming visible. We worship the Absolute Being that is beyond human cognition, the unknowable Source of all that is cognizable, but we have no image of this Source or Absolute Being. The practice here is simply a recogized orientation or relationship to the Source of unfolding manifestations. This recognized orientation, or actually a volitional surrendering orientation, is true worship. So the keys here are orientation and surrender, which is the fundamental meaning of worship. The other significant aspect of worship, or right orientation, is gratefulness. That is, one is sincerely grateful for the Source and Its divine expressions.