Grace in Islam and Beyond

Adapted from the longer essay “Let the Ocean Carry.”

One common characteristic of Oriental religious texts is that the more beautiful and poetic they are, the less clear they are on doctrine. In Islam, however, we are fortunate to have a common source and inspiration for all the centuries of Islamic poetry and art: the Qur’an. Just as scholars were obliged to justify their theories in Qur’anic ayahs, so too were poets and writers who desired to have a voice in mainstream Islam. While there was always room to explore theology and faith, there were certainly limits to how far basic teachings could be stretched.

In the Golden Age of Islam, from the 11th-13th C in the Roman Calendar, these limits were frequently tested as various schools of thought and belief were transformed from somewhat heretical fringe groups to elements of mainstream thought. With Sufism, called “the apprehension of divine realities,” by the 9th-century mystic Ma’ruf of Karkh, this is certainly the case. In search of this ultimate goal of religious life, the Sufis taught, the seeker must live a life of simplicity and sincere spiritual striving. Though Sufi paths are multiple and teachings widely varied, the basic goal is shared: of ultimate bliss and everlasting life in the ecstatic contemplation of Divine Beauty. This can be taken to extremes that  seem to deny basic teachings of Islam on shari’a, practical matters of how one should live, ranging from how and when one should pray to rules of marriage, social order, and even taxation. Some Sufis might accuse shari’a of distracting men from their true goal, to draw close to God; likewise, many men of the law would accuse Sufis of mystical excess and encouraging social disorder. Those men of the law who also practiced Sufism had to carefully tread the line between ‘apprehension of divine realities’ and promoting social concord. These men were the ‘responsible Sufis,’ writers and political leaders such as ibn Tufayl.

Ibn Tufayl was a 12th-C Muslim scholar and political leader in Andalusia. A true renaissance man, he was a physician, philosopher, theologian, religious scholar, political leader, and man of God. Ibn Tufayl served as court physician and later Prime Minister under the Almohad Sultanate from 1164-1185. A society man, his views and philosophy were influenced by Avicenna, al-Ghazali, and the best thinkers of his day. Due to his education and prominent position in society, ibn Tufayl’s writing can be seen as representative of mainstream medieval Islamic philosophy.

In the 12th C, Sufism and orthodox Sunnism became inseparable, partly due to the influence of al-Ghazali, ibn Tufayl’s predecessor. Ibn Tufayl’s work has strong Sufi characteristics, and demonstrates the close linking of the two traditions. Indeed, ibn Tufayl was a self-styled responsible Sufi, one who warned against pseudomystical excesses

and through his writing sought to promote two spiritual paths for the common man and for spiritual and intellectual elites. The common man was bound by shari’a and had no need for deeper spiritual discover – and in the 12th-C worldview, did not have the capacity. Intellectual and spiritual elites, however, were eligible to seek the more advanced spiritual practices taught by Sufism. Writing for these spiritual elites focused on logic, rationality, dry metaphysics, and practices of meditation and austerity in their recommendations for the spiritual path. They emphasized personal striving on the path to the Divine, even to the exclusion of allowing Divine agency. While the religion of the common man teaches to abide by the law and trust in the grace of God,

the religion of elites teaches its readers how to do it themselves.


Among Ibn Tufayl’s masterworks is The Story of Hayy ibn Yaqzan,

an allegorical fable containing main elements of medieval Islamic philosophy. The tale describes the life of Hayy, a boy raised by animals on a lonely tropical island. Never having seen humans, Hayy gradually develops a philosophy and spirituality that brings him close to God in a manner paralleling traditional Islamic mysticism. Hayy studies the natural world and sciences, typing and categorizing plants and animals and inductively determining the defining characteristics of the lower and higher orders of beings. Hayy’s focus moves from rude material objects to living beings to the heavenly bodies. In Islamic science, this is the hierarchy assigned to the natural world, with the celestial spheres acting as the bridge to the spiritual world.

Hayy eventually develops a philosophy and primitive theology based on distinction between dull matter, the universal forms which animate and define the material world, and the ‘Necessarily Existent Being’ which is the ultimate universal form. Hayy begins to move away from his study of material nature, focusing his heart and mind in meditation on God. He whirls like a dervish in imitation of the celestial bodies in ecstatic orbit of the Divine and sits in silent ascetic meditation for hours on end, bending his mind on contemplation of the Divine. After seven years of such meditation, he meets Absal, an exiled villager from another island. Absal befriends Hayy and realizes that this savage’s spirituality is remarkably similar to his own understanding of the Divine, though he was educated through all the richness of Islamic tradition.

As The Story of Hayy ibn Yaqzan focuses so much on Hayy’s personal endeavor and self-development on the path of Divine realization, one may neglect the important role of grace in that process. It is there nonetheless, and it is demonstrated as an essential component of spiritual development in Islam in the narration of ibn Tufayl, in the writings of his contemporaries, and in the Qur’an itself.

The main place of grace in the spiritual development of the aspiring mystic, according to ibn Tufayl and Suhrawardi, is in being granted communion with the Divine. Throughout the mystic’s journey, Divine grace helps to further one along the path, as though the Divine reciprocates for the sincere effort of the seeker.

But these scholars and mystics most clearly express the role of grace when, after much time and effort bent in meditation on the Divine, the advanced mystic is granted communion with the Divine: the apprehension of Divine realities that is the goal of the spiritual journey.

Grace is an essential component of the striving mystic’s spiritual development. Sufi scholars clearly explain seven stages on the spiritual journey which take into account both endeavor and grace. The stages are curiosity, love, understanding, detachment, experience of ecstatic unity, awe, and immersion in the Divine.

These stages of spiritual development are achievable to some extent by personal endeavor, following the teachings of the sheikh, self-examination, and rigorous practice. However, Divine grace is essential for the full realization of each station. This is emphasized to the extent that stations are given two different terms, hal (state of being) and maqam (station as on a path or journey). Maqam can be termed the platform of realization achievable by individual striving; only with Divine grace, however, can that station become the aspirant’s hal.

A similar spiritual journey is described in the allegorical Language of the Birds, a 12th-C poem by Farid ud-Din Attar. The hoopoe, representing a Sufi master, leads a motley assortment of birds to on the quest for the Divine. Thousands of birds begin the journey across seven valleys, each with increasing difficulty and requiring a greater level of commitment on the spiritual path. Thirty birds eventually reach the eighth mountain, so high “its top reached the sky” (Suhrawardi 24): a bridge to the spiritual world. They desire to fly into that spiritual sky, but after all their struggle, they are still bound by the fetters of the senses. They are told, “only He who put them on you can remove the fetters from your legs” (25). Only by Divine grace can they fully renounce the fetters of the material world and submerge their consciousness in the Divine.

A series of seven stages is shared in many spiritual traditions. In Dante’s La Divina Commedia, there are seven levels of Inferno and seven levels of Purgatorio before Paradiso is reached. Virgil, reason, can lead Dante through the seven hells, but he can only go so far. Only Beatrice, love and grace, can lead Dante through the gates of Paradiso. He prays to Beatrice:

Of all that I have looked on with these eyes

Thy goodness and thy power have fitted me

The holiness and grace to recognize.

Thou hast led me, a slave, to liberty

By every path, and using every means

Which to fulfil this task were granted thee,

Keep turned towards me thy munificence

So that my soul which though has remedied

May please thee when it quits the bonds of sense. Canto xxxi, 79-93.

In Gnosticism, the seven realms take on a darker cast: they are seven spiritual worlds ruled by seven demigods to keep the living beings trapped in the material world and away from their Divine home. Even Gnosticism teaches grace in God’s call to the soul to return to the spiritual world. And in Hinduism there are seven heavenly realms and seven hellish realms, inhabited by living beings according to their natures.

In early Islam, the seven stages are quite literal: the Prophet is led by Jibreel through seven heavens to the throne of God. By ibn Tufayl’s time, however, they have become less tangible, as seven stages of the mind and spirit.

All of these religious traditions teach both moral responsibility and acceptance of grace on the spiritual path. These two elements may be emphasized to greater or lesser degree depending on circumstance. At the time of Rabi’a in 8th-C Basra or Rumi in 13th-C Persia, Divine presence and grace were highly emphasized. In the vast 12th-C Caliphate, where social concord was of predominating importance and man’s social and technological advancement was highly esteemed, personal endeavor was more in vogue even for spiritualists. At neither time, however, do sincere spiritualists forget the importance of both sides of the spiritual path. Even when grace is hidden from view, it is there.

2 thoughts on “Grace in Islam and Beyond

  1. What is the longer essay, “Let the Ocean Carry”? Is it a paper written by you or someone else?
    Your comparisons of different traditions is intriguing.


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