The Gates of Paradise

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم

Times of Illusion: Darkness


The final instalment of this series focuses on phenomena which lie beyond our certainty and understanding; the mystery of forces such as evil, darkness, doubt and the seeming arbitrariness of creativity. It is impossible to imagine a human experience without these.

I would like to thank Charles Upton for his graciousness in responding extensively to my questions. The subtle pointers within his words prod the mind and spirit to resist complacency when reflecting on the unique chance an incarnation as human presents to us as both individuals and a collective in this age.



In your experience and in your view, how does one find security in faith, when one has many doubts? Particularly when the community or social spaces for certain discussions do not exist or are consistently attacked for being deviant.

If you are seeking for faith, then somehow, somewhere, you already possess it; like the man with the demonically-possessed son said to Jesus, “I believe, Lord! Help thou mine unbelief.” Cynicism is the death of faith, but doubt is a sign of it. If food did not exist you would never be hungry; if faith did not exist you would never feel doubt, because doubt is the hunger for certainty.

If the world, the contemporary social collective, can get along perfectly well without faith, then why does it try so hard to crush it? What’s it afraid of? It doesn’t try to crush computer gaming, for example, because it knows that computer gaming is unreal and therefore is not threatened by it. But it certainly is threatened by faith. Why? Hasn’t the world been spectacularly successful in establishing social stability, humane mores, a feeling of security and inner peace, and a sense of the meaning of life without appealing to a faith in God? Hasn’t the worldview of materialism, the belief that human beings are no more than biological machines, established a greater respect for human dignity and a more enlightened collective morality? Hasn’t the unlimited pursuit of pleasure, self-aggrandizement, money, power, popularity, and above all distraction, finally reconciled us to living in world without spirituality, and banished the fear of death? Aren’t we all happy now?

The worldly person embraces materialism because (no matter how absurd this notion might be) it seems to prove that the world has created itself. And if the world has created itself, then maybe I have created myself too. If so, that means that I must also have both the right and the power to be totally self-determined, which of course would include the ability to indefinitely defer the moment of death. All this is obviously a total fantasy, but if death is inevitable then fantasy is our only hope. Not a real hope, of course, but something that at least might give us a good chance to keep ourselves and our terror sedated until we are fortunate enough to die in our sleep.

If you suspect that another reality exists outside this prison of un-reality, then most likely it does exist, because all the powers and resources and technologies of this fantasy world, all its “weapons of mass distraction”, which have done their utmost to prevent such a notion from ever occurring to you, have failed to do so. And if they have failed, then there must be something both more powerful than they are and realer than they are.

Initially this sense of a different reality will be a very private thing, a thing that drives you to seek solitude, as Muhammad sought it on Mount Hira. When you love someone you want to be alone with them, and when you are it’s as if all the rest of the world never existed. Abraham too left the vast organized human collective of Mesopotamia, traveled alone into the wilderness, and found his Friend. Here’s the poem I wrote about it:

If you were not my Secret,

How could I ever have found you,

Among the tents?

If I were not your own Secret, jealously guarded,

How could I ever have submitted

To being called Your friend?

When I knew myself alone,

Exiled from the world,

I discovered your secret Name

Inscribed on the Guarded Tablet.

When I emerged from that solitude,

To lose myself in tribes and armies,

You felt my loss.

You searched for me everywhere,

Found me in my exile,

And named me Your friend.

At Your command I raised my right hand

To slay my only son—

I looked again, and he was Thou.

I dropped the knife.

When we sat together on a cushion of grass

Inside the Walled Garden of the Mysteries,

Eating from our own vine and fig tree

And talking to our heart’s content,

The desert, shimmering white and yellow

On the horizon beyond us

Stood in need of the clear Arabic tongue.

In love you led me

Into the barren places of the earth.

In anger you drove me, with slaps and bitter words

Toward the chamber of Night

Where you were waiting for me already,

Watching over my sleep,

The rising and falling of my breast,

Till the mazes of the stars and the night of time

Passed over, and the morning came.


Art seems to place the individual at the centre, and often forgets that not only are ideas and possibilities objects of our knowledge, but that we are objects of His knowledge. Where would you draw the fine line between artistic expression and the darkness of the self-indulgence which is inherently chaotic and soul-sucking?

I will try to answer this question from the standpoint of my own art, the art of poetry. To begin with, poetry has nothing to do with self-expression. What starts with “myself”, considered apart from the rest of reality, also ends with myself. And what begins and ends with myself can be of no real interest to anybody else, nor will it necessarily be of much interest to me either; if it is possible for me to bore or disgust others, it is equally possible for me to be bored and disgusted in my own presence. And to the degree that I remain sealed within my own particular concerns, obsessions, tastes, hankerings and fixed ideas, unwilling to grant the authority and dignity of authentic being to anything outside myself, then boredom and disgust—and also fear—will most likely be my companions. Poetry, unless we include childish fantasy and incoherent mumbling (“language poetry” for example) in the definition of it, exists to express truths. A truth is something that, in the words of Beat Generation poet Lew Welch, “goes on whether I look at it or not”. There are truths of the metaphysical world, truths of the natural world, truths of the human world, even truths of the emotional and psychological state and configuration of the poet him- or herself. But even when the poet is writing about himself, he is not writing as himself, at least not in biographical terms. Unless his own states have become as objective to him as the facts of history or the stars in the sky, he’d better keep his mouth shut.

In some ways poetry is the end of the line—the line being the creative act of God. God brings forth the universal order; inspired by the exalted archetypes and constants of that order, and in some cases under the direct inspiration of God Himself, the poet creates. Moved by the meanings and ironies, the joys and tragedies of human life, or by the beauties and terrors of the natural world, all of which spring from these primary archetypes, the poet creates. Intrigued by the drama of human history, its triumphs and its crimes—which also reflect the actions of God, both His mercy and His wrath, both His guidance and His dark misdirection of those who reject that guidance—the poet creates. True to the existential reality of his or her own experience, its precise qualities beyond all conceptual overlay and analysis, the poet creates.

Or does he? Has not God already created everything? Is He not the Creator of all things visible and invisible, both of all the words human beings have said, and all the numberless things that no-one has ever said, or even thought of? The world, human society, our bodies, our ability to think and feel, all these come to us as gifts—or as curses—from a Source that absolutely transcends us; even the atheist, if he or she is honest, must admit this much. So the poet can in no way be a creator in the same sense that God is, or even a “co-creator”, as if God were in need of partners and helpers to achieve His ends. The poet, if anything, is a sub-creator, one who creates not by deepening and expanding being, like God does, but rather by picking and choosing from what That One has already provided so as to express and apply His bounty in more limited and specific worlds. And by the time the universal creative impulse has descended as far as human words, and crossed the lips, tongue and teeth of the poet, it has nowhere else to go—nowhere but back, through the response of the listener—and up, after that, through a thousand unknown listeners in invisible worlds—to the Source that first released it.

Kierkegaard posited three ontological levels, in descending order of reality: the spiritual, the moral and the aesthetic. Human words may praise and characterize and petition and invoke the Divine; this is the spiritual level. They may also motivate human action in the name of a moral ideal, or prohibit actions that violate this ideal; this is the moral level. Lastly, they may simply render the perceived qualities of things, of the objects of the world, of the innumerable states of human consciousness and affection; this is the aesthetic level. Below the aesthetic, below the sensual or affective surface of things, nothing remains but the inarticulate, the inchoate, the obscure. Situated on the lowest level of the hierarchy of being, the aesthetic is perfectly situated to reflect the highest; the bare existential confrontation with the qualities of existing things may suggest the bare contemplative encounter with the Names and Attributes of God and the metaphysical order, and the Ground of Being itself. Nonetheless, the aesthetic apprehension of already-existing things is situated at the furthest ontological point from the Divine Reality that the world of form allows for. The poet is balancing on the brink of non-entity; if he falls, he is lost. And his only way of avoiding this fall is for him to dedicate his art, even though it is ontologically situated at the opposite pole from Primal Reality, to the contemplation and expression of the truths this Reality both conceals and reveals. He or she need not do this in specifically religious or metaphysical terms; all that is required is that the poet, having gazed into the abyss of non-entity, now turn his or her poetic attention in exactly the opposite direction, toward the point from which everything is arriving, not the point into which everything is departing and disappearing.

One of the most gratifying compliments that any poet can receive is: “You said exactly what I would have said if I had known how; you spoke not instead of me, but for me”; thus a true corollary of vox populi vox dei may in fact be vox poetae vox populi. If the poet does not know, because he has not been able to confront, the sentiments and convictions, the challenges and delegated works, the enemies and allies, the wounds and imperatives of his own soul, he cannot speak with authority to move, inform and illuminate others; he can never reach any kind of authenticity because he is no author. Yet if he does not recognize the Mysterium Tremendum in the Cave of his Heart as the First Author and Speaker of all things, including the single soul he must now turn to so as to find his proper matter and form, then he is no author either, only a thief. He is a thief who has stolen a subtle and magnificent device containing untold knowledges and destinies and warfares—things he must redeem from that clenched and paralyzed untoldness precisely by telling them—but stolen it in total ignorance of what that device is, what it is capable of, and the skills he must acquire to put it to proper use, the result being that he simply hammers it down to its component parts so he can sell it for scrap.

Poetry can be numbered among the final reverberations within the soul of God’s creative act. The poetic art extends the Divine creativity far and wide within the human psyche, both individual and collective; it carries that Truth out of which, according to the Noble Qur’an, all things are made, to its ultimate psychic limits—in other words, as far as the threshold of unreality, evil and non-existence. This is the great danger of poetry, to both the poet and the society around him, and the reason why the practice of it, outside of a traditional liturgical context, carries inevitable spiritual perils—as witness the alcoholism, drug addiction and suicide of so many poets in modern times. Poetry is the language of the gods. The poet, however, is not a god but a man—a man who has, as it were, stolen the Divine fire, the ability to create icons, living images of truth. If his skill is great enough, these icons will inevitably command belief—not in the form of assent to clear and true doctrine, but in terms of the kind of emotional and intuitive allegiance that only clear and true doctrine deserves. Consequently, if the iconic forms wrought by a poet are not objectively true as well as subjectively convincing, he has arrogated to himself the godlike power to determine what is true by saying it, and perverted that power. Only God can legitimately say what is to be true; if a poet attempts to do so outside of His inspiration and permission, he has become what Plato, in the Republic, calls a “liar.” And this is a form of demonic invocation. In the words of the Qur’an, from the surah “The Poets”: Shall I inform you upon whom the devils descend? They descend on every sinful, false one. They listen eagerly, but most of them are liars. As for the poets, the erring follow them. Hast thou not seen how they stray in every valley, and how they say that which they do not? Save those who believe and do good works, and remember Allah much, and vindicate themselves after they have been wronged? To say something but not do it is to extend the name and image of Reality into imaginative forms that one has neither the power, the integrity, nor the right to realize. It is to create phantasms, to go into debt to Reality Itself, and thereby to wrong oneself, sometimes mortally. Poetry is boast, only action is proof; the poet who vindicates himself after having wronged himself is the one who has paid, with spiritual warfare and suffering, the debt he incurred when he arrogated to himself the Divine power of creative speech

If we know that God sees us, we can see; if we know that God speaks, and that we ourselves are one of His infinite words, unique and never to be repeated, then we can speak.

Social Justice

You have a past in activism, especially during the 60’s. Why do you believe there is such tension between political activism and religious practice? Surely they both have the same goals at heart, which is the transcending of the ego for instance?

Spiritual practice and principled activism are not necessarily incompatible, but you can’t say that they always have the same goal. Activism in a good cause can help you to transcend egotism because it requires you to serve something greater than yourself. Spiritual practice, on the other hand, requires you to serve God alone, until your separateness, your self-identity, is ultimately annihilated in Him—and those who try to give the degree and kind devotion to social or political action that is owed only to God are basically idolaters, even if such action is defined as being in service to religion. Religion is the best of pursuits and the worst of idols. We owe total devotion to God, but we do not owe total devotion to any social agenda, even the best of them; that’s why the Greater Jihad is has precedence over the Lesser. If you know God’s will for you, and if that will includes some type of social action at a particular point in your life, then this Lesser Jihad serves the Greater one. On the other hand, if the Greater Jihad ends up serving the Lesser due to an attempt to take hold of spiritual forces and apply them to worldly agendas, then the Spiritual Path has been inverted, and Luciferian magic has taken its place. In addition it is important to realize that the Lesser Jihad can still serve the Greater whether you win or lose the particular struggle you are involved in, since full acceptance of the outcome of a given effort—just like acceptance of God’s command to act, whatever the consequences—is precisely how activism serves ego-transcendence. But if you get involved in social action out of self-will, or through idolatry of a leader or movement that you put in the place of God, then you are building up your ego, not deconstructing it. Collective egotism is still egotism, and it is all too easy to hide your ego in a social movement, especially one that requires a degree of self-sacrifice, so as to avoid facing it directly and transcending it. You may even hope to make the supreme sacrifice, to die as a martyr—but if you die after committing horrible crimes, the fact that you committed them in the name of God will not save you from the Fire.

My first real activist period was in the 1980’s, when my wife and I, as elders of a Presbyterian church in California, participated in the Sanctuary Movement for Salvadoran refugees and the effort to prevent U.S. military intervention in Central America. In 1988 I converted to Islam and was initiated into my first Sufi order; that’s when I began to concentrate on the purification-of-soul I desperately needed after the excesses of the 60’s psychedelic counterculture and its aftermath, including the ambiguities of Leftist revolutionary politics and the peace movement. Until 2013 I believed that my activist period was well behind me, since I could see no social movement that was not either hopelessly impotent, eaten up with contradictions, or already co-opted. But that year I became involved, as editor, with the publication of a book by Dr. John Andrew Morrow (Ilyas ‘Abd al-‘Alim Islam) entitled The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World. The covenants of the Prophet with various Christian communities, which Prof. Morrow has rediscovered in obscure monasteries and collections and sometimes newly translated, also providing powerful arguments for their validity, uniformly state that Muslims are not to attack peaceful Christian communities, rob them, stop churches from being repaired, tear down churches to build mosques, prevent their Christian wives from going to church and taking spiritual direction from Christian priests and elders, etc. On the contrary, the Prophet commands Muslims to actively protect these communities “until the coming of the Hour.” In response to Dr. Morrow’s resurrection of these documents I conceived of an initiative—the Covenants Initiative—which invites Muslims to subscribe to the theory that the Covenants of the Prophet are legally binding upon them today. Since then the Covenants Initiative has become an international movement; the Covenants Initiative declaration has been signed by Dr. Mohamed Mostafa Gameaha, media representative of Al-Azhar, and by many others. The Islamic Society of North America has recently endorsed it, along with the Grand Muftis of Jerusalem and Abu Dhabi, and Dr. Morrow’s book has been presented to Pope Francis, and has received endorsements from the Eastern Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch and the Patriarch of Jerusalem. All of this was totally unexpected, but when it arrived I accepted it immediately and completely. The only dreams I ever had of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, came to me after the Covenants Initiative appeared. Nonetheless I would give up the Initiative like a shot if I saw good evidence that it was interfering with my Sufi path. (Anyone who wants to know more about the Covenants Initiative or sign the declaration can go to )

“The Fall of Lucifer”

In speaking of the Fall of Lucifer, would I be correct in saying that his mistake then, was believing the creation of his existence meant he was a separate self-aware entity and could be completely and wholly independent of His Creator?

Is the concept of mortality central to this test? The separation from God we experience on this plane means we don’t remember where we came from and the majority of us question where we will go when we die?

Lucifer’s mistake or transgression was that he opposed God’s will to create the universe, to manifest Himself on levels lower than pure Spirit. Like the heterodox Gnostics of late antiquity, he accepted Transcendence but not Immanence, the Absolute but not the relative as the necessary manifestation of the Absolute. In the course of this process of manifestation he descended from the undifferentiated Unity of all possibilities within the Absolute Essence to the level of individual self-awareness, which was necessarily related to the first appearance of God as an external Object. This, however was not the Fall; it was not a transgression because it was in line with God’s creative will. The transgression leading to the fall of Lucifer happened when he refused to accept his “demotion” from identification with Formless Absolute to the level of self-conscious individuality, because this also required Him to accept God not as his own Absolute Essence but rather as his Lord—a Lord to which he could now only relate through submission and servanthood. If he had accepted his new ontological status and made islam to his Lord, he would have immediately been restored to union with the Essence—but (like many followers of New Age doctrine) he rejected this step since it seemed to require him to accept a God who was somehow less than Absolute—not to mention the fact that, due to his Luciferian pride, the idea of servanthood and submission was distasteful to him. So instead of obediently worshipping the new manifestation of God as Lord of the Worlds, he looked within himself to find the higher Divinity, the Absolute Essence, with Whom he had been totally identified in the “time” before he existed as a self-reflexive individual. But because he had rejected servanthood, all he could now find within the depths of his own being was his ego, which he falsely identified with the Absolute Essence he had once been united with; so instead of worshipping God he ended up worshipping himself; this is how he fell. And by that fall, as you say, entered the delusion that he could be independent of his Creator.

So, in a certain sense, Lucifer did remember where he came from; he remembered the Absolute Essence. The thing he forgot or didn’t realize was that the Absolute Essence cannot really be lost departed from or abandoned since it embraces everything and is the ultimate Essence of everything, and consequently that the Lord/servant relationship takes place not apart from the Essence but within the matrix of It. Our human forgetfulness, our ghaflah, is mostly on a different level. The human race, having been cast out of Paradise, has forgotten not only the Absolute Essence, but also God as Lord of the Worlds, Owner of the day of judgment. We take the world presented to us by our five sense as effectively absolute (or at least as absolute as anything is likely to get); consequently we treat it as if it were self-sufficient, a closed system that was somehow capable of creating itself, no matter how illogical such a notion may be. This is what’s known as “materialism” or “scientism”. And the inescapable other side of materialism, of the belief that the world is self-created, is egotism, the belief that you are self-created, and therefore that you have all the rights a creator could claim. This is the condition of the Nafs before she is pacified and educated, before she submits to Allah in knowledge and love. Someone in this condition will alternate (like Nietzsche likely did, who preached the religion of the Nafs) between a feeling of omnipotence, as if he or she were the creator of the world, and one of helplessness, as if he or she were a mere puppet of material conditions; often these two feelings will co-exist, leading to great confusion and inner contradiction. The way out of this dilemma is I will show them My signs on the horizons and in their own souls until they are satisfied that this is the Truth. Is it not enough for you, that I am Witness over all things? As this aya’ begins to dawn upon the Heart, the idea that you are creating the world or that the world is creating you will begin to give way to the intuition that there is One Cause for whatever happens either in the inner self or the outer world, that this Cause is sending its Waves through self and world simultaneously. When the Jungians, and many New Age teachers as well, speak of “synchronicities” or “significant coincidences”, understanding them as signs, the Reality these synchronicities are the actual signs of is Allah in His Name Al-Shahid, the Universal Witness.

Charles Upton, a Sufi poet, author, metaphysicist and veteran of the counter-culture, developed an interest in metaphysics via ‘mythopoeia’, and having survived the social upheavals of the Sixties, and the psychic allures of New Age occultism, awakened at the end of the Eighties to the esoteric teachings of the traditionalists, eventually becoming initiated into Sufism. I first came across Charles Upton’s work after taking a book out from the local library entitled ‘Findings in Metaphysic, Path and Lore’ (Sophia Perennis, 2009). His critique of New Age occultism and modernism is his best-known work and is published under the title, ‘The System of the Antichrist: Truth and Faleshood in Postmodernism and the New Age’ (Sophia Perennis, 2001). Sophia Perennis has published many other books by Charles Upton. His most recent book ‘Day & Night on the Sufi Path’ (Sophia Perennis, 2015) was published last year. He is also the founder of an international movement of Muslims to combat terrorism and defend persecuted Christians called ‘The Covenants Initiative’. He lives with his wife, Jennifer, in Lexington, Kentucky. 

This is the final instalment of four parts of the Times of Illusion series exploring the intersection between New Age thought and established understandings of Islam through the lens of Traditionalism and Sufism.

  1. God in the New Age
  2. Thoughts Become Things
  3. The Power of Myth
  4. Darkness



Times of Illusion: The Power of Myth

Myths are stories. Stories of the human experience. Stories of the Universe and its existence. Those we intuitively tap into and give shape to with our words, experiences and emotions. Myth underlies all of philosophy, theology, spirituality and even science. It is the elephant in the room, the unsaid assumption behind all the questions and answers, meaning making and knowledge seeking in which we engage every minute.

Do we delude ourselves when we seek a universal narrative (whether we be believers or atheists)? For example, I can’t help but feel that myth is intimately tied to time as a linear concept. There is a beginning, middle and end to myth. In which case, where does it all end? This creates some contradictions between New Age and “traditional” thought.

Our modern day New Age “myths” are inherently evolutionary. They seem to imply that we as a species are only getting better; that man-made destructions are the inevitable growing pains of a New Age. But then, religion and its eschatology implies that we live through entropy, and only unravel our spiritual potency as time itself unwinds, getting weaker and more misled.

I first came across Charles Upton’s work after taking a book out from the local library entitled ‘Findings in Metaphysic, Path and Lore’ (Sophia Perennis, 2009). I asked him a series of questions centred on the conflicts between New Age and religious thought, including the ones on myth and narrative touched on above.

The answers have been presented in interview format in a series of 4 blog posts entitled ‘Times of Illusion’, of which this instalment is the penultimate post.

  1. God in the New Age
  2. Thoughts Become Things
  3. The Power of Myth
  4. Darkness

Charles Upton, a Sufi poet, author, metaphysicist and veteran of the counter-culture, developed an interest in metaphysics via ‘mythopoeia’, and having survived the social upheavals of the Sixties, and the psychic allures of New Age occultism, awakened at the end of the Eighties to the esoteric teachings of the traditionalists, eventually becoming initiated into Sufism. His critique of New Age occultism and modernism is his best-known work and is published under the title, ‘The System of the Antichrist: Truth and Faleshood in Postmodernism and the New Age’ (Sophia Perennis, 2001). Sophia Perennis has published many other books by Charles Upton. His most recent book ‘Day & Night on the Sufi Path’ (Sophia Perennis, 2015) was published last year. He is also the founder of an international movement of Muslims to combat terrorism and defend persecuted Christians called ‘The Covenants Initiative’. He lives with his wife, Jennifer, in Lexington, Kentucky.


How do we intellectually reconcile the need for narrative in our personal lives, often feeling we are at the centre of the Universe with the fact that in the vast expanse of existence, our lives are meaningless? The Qur’an says: ‘whatever you do is for your own benefit, God does not need His servants’.

Where did you get the idea that “in the vast expanse of existence, our lives are meaningless?” As human beings, as bearers of the Trust, we reflect all the Names of God. The sizes of the stars and the distances between the galaxies are nothing but material magnitudes; they have nothing to do with intrinsic meanings of things. Our lives are supremely meaningful because only human beings can discern meaning. To the degree that we live in our egos we have no center, so we are condemned to live on the contingent, mutable surface of things. But considered in terms of the Fitra, the primordial human nature, each of us is the center of the universe—not by our personal history, but by our “theomorphic” nature as human beings. Whosoever killeth a human being for other than manslaughter or corruption in the earth, it shall be as if he had killed all mankind, and whoso saveth the life of one, it shall be as if he had saved the life of all mankind. (Q. 5:32). Nowadays the idea that “man is the measure of all things” is seen as foolish arrogance. But the truth is, we really are the measure of all things, because only we—not the rocks, not the animals, not the stars—can see the universe as a unified system composed entirely of signs of its Creator. To see it like this is precisely our function in the divine economy. The notion that the human being is “the center of the universe” is also posited by modern physics, with varying degrees of accuracy, in terms of the “strong” or “weak” Anthropic Principle, based on the discovery that the constants and parameters of the universe are finely “tuned” so as to make the human form not only possible, but necessary. One of the best books on this, at least from the biological perspective, is Nature’s Destiny by Michael Denton.

It is natural for us to need “narrative” in our lives because we are real human beings with real destinies; the annihilation of self-identity over the course of the Spiritual Path should never be taken to mean that we are worthless or meaningless, but as an act of supreme gratitude by which we return the precious gift of existence to the One Who gave it. Until recently most people thought of themselves as having a “life story”; the idea that our lives are meaningless collections of random events is a fairly recent development; it is evidence of the degeneration of humanity in the latter days. The electronic media are a big factor in training us to see things this way. We are now in the time when human beings have become as thickly-scattered moths (Q. 101:4), depleted of substance and without stable form. It is true that Allah doesn’t need us, but he has nonetheless willed us. If He didn’t care for us, if He didn’t wish for us the greatest good, He would never have sent the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, and the Noble Qur’an.

To perceive ourselves as occupying the Center of the universe is in no way arrogance, since only those who have transcended egotism are capable of seeing God as their own Center, and knowing that Center as equally present (virtually or actually) in all other human beings, and ultimately in all things. The arrogant individual, on the other hand, is wrapped up in himself, unable to see the Divine Center in others because he can’t see It in himself. The eye of his Heart is blind; he lives only on the shallow, agitated the surface of life.

I was a big fan of Joseph Campbell’s work at one point but sensed a huge piece missing from his studies; namely God. He puts the individual at the centre of the universe, implying that his redemption alone is intimately tied with the redeeming of humanity writ large. He almost likens this to Prophethood. You have also implied that the idea of evolution of consciousness (which seems to be the foundation of New Age philosophy) does not make rational sense as it implies something missing from the conception point of creation.

Campbell was important to me too, and I still believe that a good understanding of comparative religion and mythology is an important part of being well educated in today’s world. But Campbell was uncertain as to the objective validity of his knowledge in terms of God and the metaphysical order; that’s why I moved on to a study of the writers of the Traditionalist/Perennialist School, who understand that the doctrines of the various religions are pointing, from their providentially varying perspectives, to a single metaphysical order and a single Absolute Reality. Campbell, like many people, apparently believed that a grand synthesis of all religions and all myths would coincide with the unification of humanity—though I once heard him say in a taped lecture: “I’ve studied all the myths and religions but have never made a real commitment to any one of them; consequently I will never be a saint.” From my point of view such a unification, in which all the religions would be relativized and lose their independence, would necessarily be a hegemony of the globalist elites leading to the regime of Antichrist. A unification of the world’s religions could only take place either under an essentially secular authority, or under the authority of a “counter-traditional” elite (to use René Guénon’s term) administering a false, humanly-contrived One World Religion.

To the degree that Campbell associated redemption with the individual, he was right: only individuals, not collectives (religious or otherwise) can be redeemed. God is the Transcendent Center of universal Being, but the human form, as God’s khalifa, is the center of the created Universe. We can nonetheless effectively lose or betray this position through the kind of arrogance that makes us forget we are not only khalifa but ‘abd—God’s slave. Lo! We offered the Trust unto the heavens and the earth and the hills, but they shrank from bearing it and were afraid of it. And man assumed it. Lo! he hath proved a tyrant and a fool. (q. 35:72). The raison d’être of any religious collective is to provide conditions conducive to the redemption of as many individual souls as possible. But as for the redemption of humanity as a whole, no religion has ever had this as its goal—except perhaps Buddhism, which speaks of the Enlightenment of all sentient beings, though it does so in terms of the universal compassion of the Bodhisattva who vows to enlighten them, not necessarily as a true collective possibility. As you say, I do not see the spiritual evolution of the human collective as such a possibility, and it would certainly appear that the spiritual degeneration of humanity, as predicted in the Bible, the Qur’an, the Hindu Puranas and even the Buddhist scriptures, is what’s actually happening. A lot of the impetus behind the New Age movement has to do with the denial of this depressing fact and the attempt to replace it with faith in a perpetually-expected “paradigm shift”, even though all the basic collective paradigm shifts I’ve seen in my lifetime have been toward greater spiritual degeneration and social chaos.

The word “evolution” does not mean “progressive growth” but “unwinding”. Any religion is most complete, spiritually speaking, in the era of its first revelation, after which it “evolves” not by adding to its spiritual potential, but by unwinding or unpacking the various potentials hidden or implied in that first revelation. After a revelation’s entire potential is actualized in time and history, it is exhausted—or would be except for various partial “redresses” or “renewals” sent by Providence.

If the idea of the evolution of consciousness is inherently flawed, how does the concept of Ages work? There are also others who state that we are at the end of this present cycle of manifestation. Does this not mean that the next stage will be more advanced?

The doctrine of the Ages is probably most clearly expressed in Hinduism, though it can also be found in Greco-Roman mythology, among the Hopi, the Mayans, the Lakota, and in various African tribes. It is also alluded to, though not so explicitly, in the Bible and the Qur’an. In the traditional doctrine, the ages that make up an entire cycle of manifestation (usually but not always four in number) are devolutionary, not progressive, as if they were an illustration of the concept of entropy posited by the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The collective receptivity of humanity to Divine Reality is greatest in the first or Golden Age, whereas the last age, the Age of Iron we are now living in, is the one most resistant to spiritual perception. The earlier ages have a more spacial quality, the later ones are more eaten up by time, which continues to accelerate as the cycle winds down, till at the end we have hardly enough time to breathe, and the very passing moments seem in the process of being torn apart from one another. This end is rapidly approaching. The next age—or rather the next cycle of manifestation—will be in the next world, the world after death, and how we live our lives while we are here on earth has everything to do with whether it will be more advanced or more retarded. We often think of a posthumous life as less real than life in this world, less expressive of the human drama—a kind of ghostly existence where “real” life is over and done with. But who is to say that our life in this world, both individual and collective, is not in some sense the “afterlife” of an earlier life, an earlier world? Human eternity cannot be measured by earthly time. I believe that our life on earth is one step in a chain of real worlds, not abstract realms of disembodied existence but higher worlds of form, and that we travel through these worlds by an ongoing process of death and resurrection. That at least was Guénon’s view. This does not describe the reincarnation of a single human soul in different human bodies (which Guénon denied), but the transmigration of what we now experience as our human consciousness through ever higher (or lower) worlds, until it is either consciously identified with the Absolute via the pole of forma or Essence, or ultimately dissolves into the unconscious substratum of things via the pole of materia or Substance, thus making its return to the Absolute through darkness rather than light.


‘Seeing Through the Veil – The ecstatic pilgrim breaks through the veil of the material world, of which even the visible stars are a part, and perceives the glorious workings of the heavens.’ [The Book of Alchemy, Francis Melville]


Times of Illusion: Thoughts Become Things

When you get some distance from a thing, you start to see how you might have overestimated its significance. I questioned that about this series. ‘Times of Illusion’, I thought to myself, ‘isn’t that a bit exaggerated?’.

I’d had a good month since the last instalment; encountered beauty, meaning and stimulating conversation.

But I also saw the news. Watched the lifeless and bloody limbs of children flailed across debris littered with the remnants of weapons making their beneficiaries billions. I witnessed the lies and doublespeak transmitted around the world via the media – the work of individuals committed in identifying with the part of themselves that supposes This Is It. The part that says: the world is all there is and ever will be, existence is a matter of Survival of the Fittest. And Power is God.

Most common is the struggle of normal people in between these two polarities, the ones making up the bulk of the Earth’s population. Those Just Going About Their Day. Here, we are all witness to the daily pettiness, insecurity, drama, fear, anxiety, hatred and callousness. But there are those who try to guide us towards a Higher reality by prodding us to be more compassionate, more courageous, bolder and less self-pitying.

And so, I retained the conviction that as much as we engage ourselves in the reality of this world, (namely that it isn’t Heaven, that it in facts manifests more of Hell, if you take the view that injustice towards one innocent being is not worth the happiness of thousands), it is mired and enmeshed in illusion. The ways we live life seem so meaningless and mindless when we consider that we will actively enjoy all this palaver for about 6 or 7 decades and then pop off. And I maintained the absolute certainty that we were called here to do something More. Perhaps to elevate our spirits and birth the truth of the latent potential within us and all of existence.

So, I kept the title.

This part of the series touches on the power of our mind, both conscious and subconscious. New Age works have been invaluable in bringing this to the forefront of our consciousness with texts like ‘The Secret’, and the popularity of the ‘Law of Attraction’. However, many rightfully point out that a lot of it seems like cheap magic, geared towards the gaining of transitory goods and materials. Vision boards seem to exist only to glue your dream house with a swimming pool and a Ferrari on. But we can’t deny that the power of our mindset can and does change the game, completely.

I brought these thoughts to Charles Upton, a Sufi Poet, Metaphysicist, author and veteran of the counter-culture, after reading his book ‘Findings: In Metaphysic, Path & Lore’ (Sophia Perennis, 2009).


In the chapter ‘A Dialogue on Magic’ with Kamal Southall you touch on the topic of thought forms, saying ‘I suspect that thought-forms might be described as impersonal energies configured in such a way that they invoke conscious entities’. I have suspected that the ‘Law of Attraction’ works this way. Why do you feel it may be contrary to morality to use thought forms or other spiritual energies to manipulate reality or access alternative dimensions of being?

I would not necessarily say that it is contrary to morality, only that it is unwise from the standpoint of the Spiritual Path. Nonetheless it can become a violation of morality if one has received a call from Allah to give up such practices, to submit to His will and follow Him on a deeper level than before, and one is unwilling or unable to make that sacrifice. Since “acts are judged by their intent”, people attracted to using thought forms and subtle energies should be clear on why they want to do this. To make life more interesting? To search for truth? To gain power? Many times all three motives are involved. It ought to be obvious that to seek “spiritual development” for entertainment purposes is very immature, and that childishness when dealing with energies powerful enough to “manipulate reality” is extremely dangerous. A better motive is the search for truth, but such a search must be disinterested; if it is not, the “truth” one discovers will simply confirm one’s pre-conceived notions, so nothing will really have been learned. It you expect to search for truth and find it, you’d better get ready to follow it when it appears. As for the quest for power, this is the first step on the road to magic, not the Spiritual Path; the two must never be confused. In the course of walking the Path various “thought forms” will likely appear and various subtle energies be encountered; God can certainly employ these realities, and often does. These things are not problematic in themselves; the real problem is the intent to “manipulate reality.” Reality, Al-Haqq, is another name for God; whoever thinks that he or she can manipulate God is a profound fool, and will reap the consequences of this foolishness. One of the cardinal rules in Sufism is: “Don’t seek spiritual states; seek Allah.” Spiritual states (the ahwal) are sent by God, in His own time and for His own purposes; they are gifts, not acquisitions. If we hold on to and identify with these gifts instead of seeking the Giver Himself, then we turn them into idols, into veils that will hide the Truth and lure us into many dangers. Attempts to access “alternative dimensions of being” on our own slim authority will usually lead us into realms that are primarily psychic, not Spiritual. Psychic realities are never entirely free of subjectivity; the psychic plane is a kind of collective subjectivity based on beliefs, impressions, experiences. The Spiritual plane, on the other hand, is based on objective Truth because it is a direct reflection of God, who is objective Truth. The Spiritual plane is the world of the Angels; the psychic plane is the world of the Jinn, and the Jinn are a very unreliable bunch. Some are true Muslims who submit to Allah; others are demons who are in rebellion against Him. But even the Muslim Jinn are dangerous to encounter, since dealings with them may open up one’s psyche in such a way that the demons can come in later. The Jinn are also highly fascinating and diverting; it is very hard to responsibly fulfill one’s spiritual and material duties if one has become addicted to the kind of psychic experience they offer. Such experience may be able to teach you useful lessons about the structure of subtle reality and your own psychic tendencies, but nine times out of ten this sort of knowledge makes true ma’rifa, Spiritual knowledge, harder to attain, because psychic experience is immensely distracting. If you dedicate yourself to following God’s will, everything you really need to know about subtle realities and the state of your own soul will present itself in the least dangerous and the most useful way, and in God’s own time. So as I general rule I would say that a person who has not been able, or willing, put God first in his or her life should concentrate on fulfilling practical, interpersonal and social duties, and not mess with thought forms and subtle energies.

How do you explain the fact that we seem to be using a lot of these techniques subconsciously? Aren’t they a part of our inherent human nature?

You can’t really use a technique unconsciously. The psyche, the soul, the Nafs, is doing what it’s doing, whether or not we are conscious of it. It’s true that the Nafs is in touch with higher realities, psychic realities, even Spiritual ones. What it is initially incapable of doing, however, is submit to Allah, Who is Reality Itself; to begin with it is manipulative, not submissive. While we remain unconscious of its doings, which largely determine how we relate to the world and other people, it presents itself to us as inevitability, as fate. The same sorts of things keep on happening to us for mysterious and unknown reasons, over and over again; we feel helpless to prevent them or control them. That’s why it’s a very good idea to become as conscious of the Nafs as possible. One thing that really helps in this process is to have a set of external standards to follow, like the shari’ah, which the Nafs will initially oppose because she doesn’t like to be told what to do. If we can be vigilant and watch for the ways in which she sabotages our efforts to follow these external standards, we can begin to get an idea of what she is and how she operates. The other way of becoming conscious of the Nafs is through awareness of our dreams and an understanding of dream symbolism, which is a whole science in itself. Here a familiarity with the scriptures and myths and art and poetry of the world is a great help—and if we are committed to a particular religion, then the scriptures and art and wisdom-writings of that tradition will increasingly become our central guides for dream interpretation. This interpretation goes way beyond the simple notion that to dream of A means that B will soon happen to you. Symbolism is a language in itself, a language made mostly of images but sometimes also of words. A dream symbol is there to tell you something. On one end of the spectrum it is saying something about your present life and the present condition of your Nafs; on the other, it may be revealing something about the nature of Reality itself, about the Names and Attributes of God, how they operate and what they require of us.

So the idea is to become more and more conscious of the nature and activities and habits of the Nafs, which on one level is the psyche itself, and on another is identifiable with the ego, which is partly conscious and partly unconscious. The Nafs-as-ego is made up of all the things you identify with, in both the outer world and the inner one, all the things that go to make up your sense of who you are and what the world is. It is this very sense of self that must progressively be constructed on the Spiritual Path (slowly, step by step, certainly not all at once) until the Presence of Allah finally takes the place of “me”. And as you become increasingly conscious of the Nafs, its powers and its knowledge, the point will come where you will need to make a decision: are you going to submit to Allah and place the Nafs in His hands so that His Spirit can pacify it and educate it, or are you going to adopt its “techniques” and try to use them, on the basis of self-will rather than submission to God, to advance your own agendas? The one who fully commits to the first alternative is on his or her way to sainthood; the one who fully commits to the other path, in a misguided attempt to attain freedom and self-determination by manipulating the Nafs rather than being manipulated by her, has begun to train as a saher, a sorcerer. The first path leads to the Garden, the second path to the Fire—not only after death but in this very life. If you think that you can use the Nafs to fulfill your desires you have failed to realize that it is the desires of the Nafs that are being fulfilled, not the desires of your Fitra, your true humanity. The Nafs is vastly more powerful than you are, and also immensely deceptive. If you believe you can control her, that you can hitch her to your wagon and drive her wherever you want to go, she will be all too happy to agree with you that this is possible and encourage you to attempt it. She will make you think you can have power over her, precisely so as to get power over you; this is very easy for her. (Demons operate the same way; whoever has opted to use the Nafs as a source of personal power has in fact invoked them). To be a slave of the Nafs is to be in bondage; to be a slave of God is to be free.

Can you explain a little about the different ontological levels of being? You imply we seem to be accessing these when we really shouldn’t be when dabbling in these things. What exactly is going on here, in your view?

 Different ontological levels, different levels of being, are what they are; we can’t avoid them or escape them because they are what we are made of. The simplest scheme of such levels is fourfold: the material plane, the psychic plane, the Spiritual plane, and the Divine, each of which is capable of further divisions—though the discernment of “hierarchy” in the plane of the Divine does not compromise the Unity of God since its purpose is to conceive and express the implications of this Unity, not to posit any intrinsic divisions in It. To become aware of these different planes of Being, to be able to differentiate one from the other, is immensely helpful on the Spiritual Path, probably even necessary. Problems develop, however, when we try to access these higher levels of Being in order to use them. Each higher level is causal to all the levels below it. A healer may be able to heal the physical body through balancing and strengthening the energy-body; a more powerful healer may access even higher levels than that, levels where difficulties may exist that have produced those imbalances in the energy-body in the first place, which have in turn affected the physical body. This way of accessing higher levels of being for healing purposes is lawful for those who are called to it, though it is not without its dangers. But in terms of the Spiritual Path, our attention should be on Allah, the highest “level” that includes all the others, the Absolute Reality. Anything less involves the error of shirk, of attributing partners to Allah by acting as if He needed help from the Jinn or the Angels or from whatever forces or beings or ontological levels you have decided to access in an attempt to do His work for Him. The best way is to responsibly fulfill your material and social duties, and to pray to and remember Allah. Once these two poles are established, which are the base and the crown of the Hierarchy of Being, then the power of Allah and the angels of Allah will begin to move between them, doing precisely what He commands, not what we would prefer or what we think would be best. He is the One who knows what is best; He is the One whose wishes do not merely affect reality, but are reality.

Hypothetically how would one undo the damage caused by spiritual attacks when one has been on this path of little or no protection? I believe many people of my generation have already opened ourselves up to these influences and may wonder what to do next.

 The mass experience of spiritual attack is due to the fact that the door to the psychic plane is wide open, both individually and collectively, and it can’t be closed again over night. The first need is not to open it any wider. Ideally you should access the Spiritual plane first, and leave it up to God what psychic experiences he wants you to have or what sensitivities He wants you to develop. In our time, however, this is easier said than done, since the psychic plane has already been forcibly pried open on a mass level by the electronic media, by the shock of wars and social breakdown and environmental destruction and electromagnetic pollution and inhuman technology, by the release of nuclear energy, by various psycho-physical techniques and poorly-guided yoga practices, by the use of psychedelic drugs, and by God knows what else. So the first step is to give up seeking psychic powers, replacing this quest with the attempt to remain conscious of God’s real presence under all circumstances. You will likely not be able to do this in any constant way, at least to begin with, but your sincere intention will not go unrewarded; at least you can keep remembering more and more often to ask Him what He wants for you. Secondly, you must stop using the “powers” (or weaknesses) you’ve already acquired—and a big part of this work will simply be learning to mind your own business, to renounce curiosity about everything and everybody under the sun, and replace it with vigilance in listening for God’s commands. This may be difficult, since some of these powers will have become “second nature” to the point where you aren’t fully conscious of employing them, or can’t imagine how you could function without them; psychic powers acquired not as gifts of God but through self-willed attempts to develop them are a true addiction. A friend of mine once worked counseling alcoholics. He would tell them: “It’s so hard for you to give up alcohol because alcohol saved your life.” Of course it was killing them at the same time, but it nonetheless appeared at one point as a coping-mechanism that worked when nothing else would. The same is often true of psychic powers. A Native American shaman was once asked by anthropologists, “Why did you decide to become a shaman?” His answer was, “Because I was afraid of shamans.” You can get drawn into the world of magic and psychic technologies simply out of a misguided attempt to protect yourself from psychic attack. And while some psychic protection techniques can be helpful in the short term, they often do little to repair the rips and tears in the “etheric” or energy-body that make you vulnerable to demonic incursions, or simply too permeable to any and all psychic influences, good bad or indifferent, to the point of serious confusion; they may even make your condition worse in the long run. Some spiritual healers apparently have the ability to repair holes in the energy-body, but finding the right practitioner is a very uncertain proposition, and there’s no-one I can personally recommend. Ultimately, you can’t heal psychic damage by psychic means, only by Spiritual means. Instead of fighting the fire of psychic pollution with the fire of the Jinn (even the good, healing Jinn), you need to fight it with the water of God’s mercy. Ultimately this means embarking on the Spiritual Path as a lifetime commitment, hopefully with the help of a true spiritual master and a true lineage—though finding a true master and lineage, while separating them from the cynical charlatans and the well-meaning lunatics, is a whole other struggle and may take quite a while. Meanwhile, as you to Allah to protect you and guide you to the people He wants you to be with for the good of your soul, you can employ the specific techniques of spiritual protection that every religion provides. In Islam these include the invocation audu-bilahi min ash-shaytan al-rajim, reciting the last two surahs of the Qur’an, etc. Beyond that, be constant in your prayer and your remembrance of Allah, listen for His guidance, and be ready to act on it.


Charles Upton, a Sufi poet, author, metaphysicist and veteran of the counter-culture, developed an interest in metaphysics via ‘mythopoeia’, and having survived the social upheavals of the Sixties, and the psychic allures of New Age occultism, awakened at the end of the Eighties to the esoteric teachings of the traditionalists, eventually becoming initiated into Sufism. His critique of New Age occultism and modernism is his best-known work and is published under the title, ‘The System of the Antichrist: Truth and Faleshood in Postmodernism and the New Age’ (Sophia Perennis, 2001). Sophia Perennis has published many other books by Charles Upton. His most recent book ‘Day & Night on the Sufi Path’ (Sophia Perennis, 2015) was published last year. He is also the founder of an international movement of Muslims to combat terrorism and defend persecuted Christians called ‘The Covenants Initiative’. He lives with his wife, Jennifer, in Lexington, Kentucky.

This blog post is the second instalment of a four-part series entitled ‘Times of Illusion’ touching on contemporary New Age thinking and its intersections with ‘traditional’ spirituality or religion. The format of the series is as follows:

  1. God in the New Age
  2. Thoughts Become Things
  3. The Power of Myth
  4. Darkness

 The next post will touch on ‘The Power of Myth’; namely, the psychological, spiritual and personal implications of a universal narrative.

Times of Illusion: God in the New Age

The world feels increasingly apocalyptic. In these times of confusion, the line between truth and deception is maddeningly blurred. Traditional refuges such as community, religion and even family no longer provide the security blanket generations before us could rely on. Nevertheless, the impetus towards spiritual matters resists, only growing desperately. Unsurprisingly, the most recent ‘answers’ of New Age philosophy find themselves co-opted as further tools for the severing of our spiritual power from their material responsibilities.

Charles Upton, a Sufi poet, author, metaphysicist and veteran of the counter-culture, developed an interest in metaphysics via ‘mythopoeia’, and having survived the social upheavals of the Sixties, and the psychic allures of New Age occultism, awakened at the end of the Eighties to the esoteric teachings of the traditionalists, eventually becoming initiated into Sufism. His critique of New Age occultism and modernism is his best-known work and is published under the title, ‘The System of the Antichrist: Truth and Faleshood in Postmodernism and the New Age’ (Sophia Perennis, 2001). Sophia Perennis has published many other books by Charles Upton. His most recent book ‘Day & Night on the Sufi Path’ (Sophia Perennis, 2015) was published last year. He is also the founder of an international movement of Muslims to combat terrorism and defend persecuted Christians called ‘The Covenants Initiative’. He lives with his wife, Jennifer, in Lexington, Kentucky.

I first came across his work after taking a book out from the local library entitled ‘Findings in Metaphysic, Path and Lore’ (Sophia Perennis, 2009). It shed light on the many diversions I had taken since my disillusionment with institutionalized religion. I felt a need to find out more and contacted him with a set of questions, which he so graciously responded to in great depth, patience and detail.

The answers will be presented in interview format in a series of 4 blog posts entitled ‘Times of Illusion’. They will be presented as follows:

  1. God in the New Age

  2. Thoughts Become Things

  3. The Power of Myth

  4. Darkness


Asalaamualaikum Charles, I wanted to say thank you for writing ‘Findings in Metaphysic, Path & Lore’. I have struggled with faith as a result of depression and vice versa and ended up stopping prayer for a number of years. Since reading your book, I feel as if my heart has softened, and my awareness of God has been unlocked again a little, so that I felt duty bound and in awe of my responsibility as a human being to surrender to Him; and I began to pray again. For this I thank God, and I thank you for your eloquence, honesty and commitment to thoroughness. I believe many of us are looking for the information, but most importantly, the explanations which you offer in your work.

Walaikumasalaam Maira. The whole reason for religion is to help us sense the Presence of God more constantly and in a genuine way, a way that touches the knowing heart. Without that it becomes either a meaningless burden that we will eventually throw off, or an ideological imperative that drives us to every extreme I’m very glad if something I wrote reminded you of that Presence.

There are many other reminders; ultimately every person, every object, every moment is one of the ayat, the Signs of Allah. And every sign is not just something we attend to; it is also an eye through which Allah tends to us, through which He sees us in our particular way of relating to that particular sign of His Presence. And to know that we are known is to know the Knower.

People seem to need more explanations now than they once did. Various kinds of spiritual sophistication are getting more and more common; at the same time, faith is getting weaker. Sophistication can never entirely replace faith, yet it needs to be taken into account.

New Age philosophies seem to imply that God is a mere layer on our own stand-alone ‘Godhood’ [that we are able to use our connection with Him to serve us as opposed to the other way around]. But you say that ‘Allah doesn’t ride us-he carries us.’ A subtle but colossal distinction.

To put it simply, there is no god but God, and we are not God. God is Absolute, Infinite and Perfect. We are totally dependent upon Him; He is not to the slightest degree dependent upon us. We are limited in knowledge, in compassion, in power; He is not. Our image of God, on the other hand, partakes of our own limitations, and so could be considered as a layer superimposed on God’s stand-alone Godhood. The God we perceive based on our own limitations is indeed limited, since He is (in one sense) the shadow of our limited ego cast upon the Absolute Essence. This is what Ibn al-‘Arabi called “the God created in belief”. This God-image, however, is not only a veil; it is also, by God’s mercy, an avenue of access to the real God behind it, Who is inconceivable to human consciousness, even though every single thing we see or experience—in ourselves, in the world or in the higher worlds—is just one more attempt to conceive of Him, based on one of His infinite Names, His merciful Self-revelations to us.

And we ourselves are His most complete Self-revelation, the synthesis of all His Names. We are His manifestation, He is our Essence; it is by this that we carry the ammanah, the Trust. Now obviously this begins to sound like the New Age notion that “we are all God.” The difference is that the New Age tends to negate servanthood. The New Age believer wants to claim God as his or her Essence before accepting Him as his or her Lord. We must begin by understanding that God is absolutely other than everything we think we are. We are limited by form while He is infinitely beyond form—and limited form can never become one with the Infinite Formless. We must serve God because form must serve the Formless, seeing that the Formless is the origin of form. Perfect servanthood is not union of our form with God, however, but the annihilation of our limited form in the face of God. God is our Essence not because we limited and form-bound beings are all really God inside; He is our Essence because only He has the right to claim Being for Himself. His Being is intrinsic; our being is on loan from Him and is nothing without Him. When this is realized, our claim to possess being, our self-ownership, our belief that we have a right to define ourselves and determine ourselves, is annihilated in Reality itself, in the Real Being of God. And if we still exist after that, it is only because He wills it—because He wishes to manifest the totality of His Names in the mirror of our nothingness.

Anyway, this is how the Sufis talk.

How does one distinguish between the Ayats of Allah, and the Signs that New Age thinkers like Paulo Coelho, Carlos Castaneda and Deepak Chopra talk about? There seems to be a confusing level of overlap.

The question here is, what kinds of signs are you looking for? If your quest is for personal power, then signs may appear that will direct you deeper into that entanglement. If your quest is for knowledge of God, and of His command for you, then you will increasingly discern signs that will bring you this kind of knowledge and insight. Ultimately everything in both your inner consciousness and in the outer world is a sign of Allah; the universe is composed of nothing but such signs. I will show them My signs on the horizons and in their own souls until they are satisfied that this is the Truth. Is it not enough for you, that I am Witness over all things? [Q. 41:53]. Maybe some New Age teachers are seeking signs like this, at least some of the time, but if they have not recognized that submission to God, love of God and knowledge of God—of the One Absolute Reality (not just “the universe” or “life-energy” or “the quantum field” or whatever)—are the essence of the spiritual life, then they are not reliable guides.

What is the difference between prayers (such as du’a, canonical prayer and the prayer of the heart) and the things which seem prayer-like in their nature and even feeling, such as positive visualisations and the law of attraction?

The difference lies in who is considered to be the performer of action, God or the human individual. Petitionary prayer, canonical prayer and prayer of the heart, though they must pass through an individual phase where we seem to be performing them, are based on the recognition that ultimately only God is the Doer. To petition God posits Him as the One able to answer prayer.

Canonical prayer posits Him as the One with the right and the power to issue commands, in this case the command to pray five times a day. And the essence of prayer of the heart is to concentrate on His Presence through His Name. The law of attraction is simply the fact that what we can receive from God, whether it arrives from the outer world or from the inner consciousness, is based on our state. This law is universal and everything that happens is an instance of it; consequently we can’t stand apart from it and use it as a technique to get what we want. As the Peter O’Toole character of Lawrence of Arabia said in the movie of the same name, “You can do whatever you want, but you can’t want whatever you want.” We may practice creative visualization and watch as the image in our mind seems to attract something corresponding to it from the outer world; this makes us feel powerful and liberated for a moment. But did we have any control over the desire itself, over what thing we wanted from the world, the thing that determined what specific visualization we chose to practice? And if you can’t control your desires, is developing the power to fulfill them necessarily a good thing? Every true du’a, on the other hand, is not only directed to God, but came from God in the first place. When you are moved to ask God for something, it is because He has told you, “ask Me for something.” If you want something so badly that there is no way you can renounce your desire, your only recourse is to travel into that desire and get to the root of it. Idolatry is the belief that this or that limited thing, person or situation can give you what only God can give. You may think you want a house, a car, a good job, a generous lover; God, however, wants to give you Himself. But if you can’t really see that yet, then all you can do is release your desire to God. That’s what du’a really is: not trying to get God to fulfill your desire, but releasing your desire to God. If you can give up your desire to Him, asking only for His will, not yours, to be fulfilled, then you have begun to recognize God as the ultimate Source of all your deepest desires, and to learn how to receive His Will for you as what is best for you, as the only thing that can really fulfill you. That Will may carry with it a house, a car, a good job, a generous lover, but these things will no longer be idols; your attention will be fixed on the Giver, not the gift. And He may give you something even greater than what you imagined you wanted. Sometimes His gifts will have a shocking quality, a flavor of jalal or rigor, because if He wants to give you something really large and powerful He must first destroy your little contracted ideas of yourself and the world so you will have room for it—and the death of our idols always entails suffering. Nonetheless His Mercy has precedence over His Wrath, which means that His Wrath, if we accept it in true submission, is the very thing that will clear the way for His Mercy.

The simplest way of telling the difference between true prayer and various psychic “technologies” is to ask whether, in terms of a particular practice, God is considered to be active or passive. Is He defined as a supernatural resource of Truth and Power who does not act on His own initiative, as something we can tap for the energy and insight to fuel our own agendas but who requires nothing from us and is not intentional with regard to us, a reality to whom we owe nothing,? Or does He take the initiative in His dealings with us, in His roles as Creator, Guide and Judge? If the human practitioner is defined as active and God as passive, then we are dealing with magic. On the other hand, if God is defined as active and the human practitioner as one who must choose either to be receptive to this activity out of obedience, or to reject it out of self-will, then we are in the presence of prayer. I don’t mean to imply that we should simply be passive in relation to God, like a puppet to the puppetmaster; true receptivity is not dull and passive but actively responsive and obedient. God requires us to act in response to His commands, and to widen and deepen our insight in response to His Self-revelations. But if we define God, or whatever is put in the place of God, as something simply to be “accessed” or “tapped” or “manipulated” or “commanded to appear”, then we are magicians not mu’minin, sorcerers who foolishly believe that it is possible to control a power more powerful than we are in order to increase our own power. (See the contradiction?)

The next instalment of this series ‘Thoughts Become Things’ will focus on the way that the New Age ‘Law of Attraction’ has arguably infiltrated many spiritual and religious schools, opening individuals up to spiritual attack and defencelessness on the one hand while serving as an initiation into the realm of the Spirit on the other. 

cd794507ff9d7f1d7eb3e190f0074e20[Courtesy of Beyonce, Lemonade – The Visual Album]


I’m about to turn 25 years old. A segment of time so small, it probably wouldn’t even be an unassuming atom in Mount Everest within the grander scheme of time, which is the existence of the Universe. Adding on the years to complete my projected life expectancy (let’s take it to be 75 years old) doesn’t do much to amplify that infinitesimally small space. It’s still only a drop of ocean water.

Being present in the only moment we are alive isn’t easy. We have memory, and we have imagination. Who we are today isn’t ephemeral and transient; we have scars, nostalgia, and reminiscences to prove it. Things that happened, people we met, pains and disappointments, achievements and celebrations. We set goals, harbour dreams, cultivate the emotions and butterflies that bring purpose and excitement to the years ahead of us. What psychologists call ‘Self Continuity’[1]

Yet, life isn’t a dichotomy between being in the moment OR dragging the thread of existence from the past through the present and into the future.

I was at a wedding recently. I didn’t want to be there. I felt restless, sensory overload. I needed to be preoccupied, distracted somehow. I was disturbed by the intensity of my need to engage my body, or my mind out of the circumstances current to that moment. There was nowhere else to go. I did what I usually do when thoughts race and surroundings are trapping. I turned my attention outward to my surroundings, focusing on the life force of the living, breathing people around me. The vibrancy and vitality of the colour and decorations; the sound of the music – religious devotionals intermixed with bhangra songs laden with innuendo.

Emotionally, I craved the end of the event. I wanted to be in bed with a good book and a cup of hot green tea with honey. I focused in on my Dad meeting and greeting old friends. Saw my brother, grown and mingling with new people, forming acquaintances. The music tumbled over and over itself in the background. I looked at my nails, blue tie-dye pattern similar to distressed denim. I looked over at the bride, heavy with decoration.

It dawned on me then that the event was already over. Everyone was both unborn and passed away. We were all on a boat headed towards the same destination, ‘at some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour’[2].

Partly, the restlessness comes from a desire to do something, to exert some influence, to hold some form of reign over my surroundings. To prove I am worthy of the miracle of life; express my aliveness. As I grow older, I realise what a futile endeavour this is.

It’s an experience I think is most aptly summed up by Aleister Crowley (whatever you think of his philosophy, politics and practices, I think this extract is a relatable summation of the human condition and its repeated yearning for the transcendent):

‘…I was appalled by the idea of the futility of all human endeavour. Suppose, I said to myself, that I make a great success in diplomacy and become ambassador to Paris. There was no good in that – I could not so much as remember the name of the ambassador a hundred years ago. Again, I wanted to be a great poet. Well, here I was in one of the two places in England that made a specialty of poets, yet only an insignificant fraction of the three thousand men in residence knew anything about so great a man as Aeschylus. I was not sufficiently enlightened to understand that the fame of the man had little or nothing to do with his real success, that the proof of his prowess lay in the invisible influence which he had had upon generations of men. My imagination went a step further. Suppose I did more than Caesar or Napoleon in one line, or than Homer and Shakespeare in the other- my work would be automatically cancelled when the globe became uninhabitable for man. I did not go into a definite trance in this meditations; but a spiritual consciousness was born in me corresponding to that which characterizes the Vision of the Universal Sorrow, as I learnt to call it later on. In Buddhist phraseology, I perceived the First Noble Truth- Sabbe Pi Dukkham- everythin is sorrow. But this perception was confined to the planes familiar to the normal human consciousness. The fatuity of any work based upon physical continuity was evident. But I had at this time no reason for supposing that the same criticism applied to any transcendental universe. I formulated my will somewhat as follows: ‘I must find a material in which to work which is immune from the forces of change.’ I suppose that I still accepted Christian metaphysics in some sense or another. I had been satisfied to escape from religion to the world. I now found that there was no satisfaction here. I was not content to be annihilated. Spiritual facts were the only things worthwhile. Brain and body were valueless except as the instruments of the soul.[3]

Superficially, you can read this as a man who knows he will never be immortal, eternal, as famous or as powerful as he wants to be. You can also read this as a man who has completely unravelled the concept of time in relation to his own existence. If we hold on to time, our lives are indeed meaningless and futile.

But within this world, there is a material within which all things work, live, behave, live and die. This material or existence is immune from the forces of change. It was here before we were born, and it will be here after we die. It was there before the Big Bang, in the potentiality of that explosion and it will be there no matter which cataclysmic or cosmic event hails the destruction or expansion of the Universe as we know it. This Source, holds everything together. We emanated from this Source. And so, the parts of us that are outside of space and time can operate within this material in order to stay true to our timelessness, our exemption from the magnetic pull of the distractive idiosyncrasies, anachronisms, and embellishments of the generation, the time zone or period, that we reside within.

I looked on at the wedding with a rare experience of nostalgia, a memory that I was living and breathing within, a part of the future hope that the family involved had held within their hearts. Without consciously thinking about it, or framing every moment in this narrative, just a realisation is enough to let go of each moment thereafter. As humans, we are forgetful. Nietzsche said ‘When we are tired, we are attacked by ideas we conquered long ago.’ No doubt, I’ll find myself visiting this experience again when I am depleted, restless and exhausted with my searches.

Living in the present moment is powerful, revitalizing and energizing. Transcending the present moment, allows us to work within this world, to be in the world, connected to the material Reality of all that surrounds us, but not to be of it.


[1] Sani, F. (2010). Self continuity: Individual and collective perspectives. Psychology Press.

[2] Vladimir Nabokov quoted in: Yalom, I. (2008). Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Dread of Death. Britain: Piatkus Books.


Semi-Null Moment

The sky above me is dark and spinning, pockmarked with white stars, deep dark brown clouds being ushered across by the hand of God; a backdrop of navy blue skies. I think of computer animated cosiness and happy endings.

I’m a head, floating, eyes closed, and I can see all this through the film of my eyelids. It’s a sight I am familiar and well acquainted with.

What possessed me to take this route anyway, this walk out of the chaotic monotony of my house?

An urge. Inspired no doubt by books of mysticism, purposely built to stir the chemicals of a beating biology – my heart- and urge it outwards of its lock-up in its chest.

They work, those words of the mystics. The ageless remnants of innumerable lost psyches in the barren deserts of their own (or our) ancestral imagination, clinging to the nothingness. Calling out to us, the living, to wake up to the cosmic movement that still includes us as its part.

Because one day, we will melt into it – the nothingness, the black sky amongst the stars. The space between the atoms.

My fingers still smell like curry, and I’ve washed them twice. My headscarf is scratching itself against my skin where the hair has come loose, irritation.  I’m catatonic, and quite self-aware of the paralysis, making for an odd but curious situation. I’m trying to get this gunky feeling out from within me. It seems to be stored up, as if for an emergency, till the crown of my head. So I lay motionless and look at my nails, little flakes of skin sticking up around the base of them like disparate blades of grass on the field of my epidermis. Skin –

Skin is the largest organ in the body, covering the entire organism. GCSE Science revision. Everything alive is an organism – MRS NERG (movement, respiration, sensitivity, nutrition, excretion, reproduction and growth). What is THIS then.

I think I will talk to someone – no that’s wrong, because I know I won’t talk to someone. I tell myself I will talk to something, I will write some thing. I will write it accurately. I will put this feeling, this thing inside me, (and it seems to have invaded my surroundings too) into words. I scratch blackness with biro onto the corners of the paper then write:


Seconds leak; mouth closes

Time bruises.

Secures and decomposes, the spirit turns black and

inertia has the martyrdom and generosity of compost-


a bright light burns at the pit of the coffin’s encasement – lllumination cradling dirt

The End;

fill life with noise.

Life is the burden. Free will; a trust.

Eternity hangs in the balance

and the acceptance is received by Submission.

Will I make the move?

Will You?

Voices in my head; attack each other, laugh, mocking.

‘She wants change.’ ‘She wants the same.’

Then One: ‘She doesn’t know what she wants.’

[December 2011]

I’m dismayed at the banality of what I write. It doesn’t even make sense without being in it. Disjointed. What. Why do I sound so depressed? It’ll be another year before I realise it’s because I am. Another year before I am aware of the existence of mental illnesses- another year after that year before I believe it.

After these words are on the page, and there is some sense of release, I ask myself what I feel inclined to do now. Now that my body is following, or rather listening to, my heart and we’re trying to communicate with each other after all the time that has passed in our past of born divorce. I get up.

I walk out the door and I go for a walk. I don’t know where I am going but I know it is dark outside. I walk down the street, and its ok, because this part is familiar. Then I turn up the road and I feel a sense of excitement like wow I’m really doing this: I don’t know what ‘I’m actually doing – but – it    is    happening. There isn’t a purpose, what an absurdly loving buzz. Everything seems new.

Rushes of fear as I walk past the pubs, shadows seem scare-y. A cloaked figure going down the path by a church reignites forgotten fears of the worst conspiracy theories – stories I’d buried long ago and laughed at since. Illuminati. It doesn’t help that I know that I am different, somehow – abnormal. And people like me were born to be attacked and removed, like viruses. Glitches in a Matrix.

Déjà vu.

So we become professional unpaid actresses.

I reach a point of pitch blackness. A residential cul-de-sac, no light pollution. The lamp posts here don’t exist. It’s a little crew of houses on a sloping hill. I walk down the slope unassuming and I’m overpowered by the sky. It is endless above me and it seems to be engulfing me. The darkness is relentless, aggressive, silent, evil, benign. I look up, and I see.

The three kings. I see them. That must be them in a neat row above, and the rest look completely muddled and confounding. They all mix with each other and there’s no left or right or top or bottom. Except the three kings, lined up tight. I smile at them and I feel myself making an O with my mouth in amazement. An expression to be seen by no one- not even myself. It feels more honest than anything I’ve ever done.

I want to spend my life like this.


My phone’s ringing. I text her with the reject option – ‘don’t worry darling, I’m just on a walk. Be home soon. Xxxx’


I put it out of sight. And walk back. This time I know the way, and all I’m thinking of is the sky I’ve just seen. The stars. The three kings, revered – coordinates used for navigation. I feel intimate with the ghosts of those who once lived – in the presence of nothingness. Not absence. Nothing and everything are really the same thing, you see.

‘I travel through the landscape searching for why, but the question follows everywhere I go like the sky.’ – Akala

The same sky over a prison, through its bars. The same sky shining down on a box with a man inside, labelled ‘solitary confinement’. The same sky over rapists. The same sky over Prophets. The same silent witness, watcher, compassionate, silent complicit, accomplice, bystander, silent.

The Bastardization of Mental Illness

Media Diversified

by Maira But

The killer in the recent Charleston shootings is already having his horrific racist actions deconstructed under the guise of mental health problems. Already, his case is being treated as nuanced and complex, his history, upbringing, personality and background are being dealt with gently, with a judge even sympathising with his family for what he has done. And as always, we think, why does this same level of sympathy and empathy not translate to any for brown and black people? For any non-white, person of colour?

At the same time we are flaccidly unsurprised. Yet the gall with which the double-standards are being applied is becoming increasingly explicit, if it wasn’t so already. Dylan Roof decked out in a bulletproof vest was…

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‘Moving at God’s Speed’

The People's playground

By Maira Butt

maira's photo choice

I’m a lifetime member of that cursed and denigrated group: the dreamers. Always imagining, thinking, wishing, hoping, craving, thinking of a world that doesn’t exist but that you live to prove should. The usually poisonous term used to dismiss our thoughts, aspirations and actions is ‘naïve’ or the one I personally most loathe, ‘idealistic’. This results in a curious outcome: the most ‘romantic’ amongst us sometimes become the most critical, cynical and subversive. When the world is not the way you feel it deserves to be, and no amount of realist talk or conjecture can coax your head out of the clouds, you have no choice but to create the circumstances you need to survive. Often this means going against every single thing you have ever been taught. Questioning every single assumption and conventional wisdom you encounter, to find the one that allows you to…

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The One

This piece was originally posted on the site: entitled ‘Why I Stopped Wearing Hijab’ on 19 November, 2014.

‘For action is subordinate, possessing no value in itself. The value is in that to which it is subordinate.’ – Imam Al–Ghazali

I remember sitting in the [Islamic Society] ‘Sister’s Circle’ on ‘Sincerity’ shortly after starting University. For years I had felt a divine Love growing inside me, but as was always the case in my life, I did not want to commit. As the speaker spoke gentle but firms words on God, devotion, the world, the heart, the Qur’an, my heart beat faster. It was during this circle that I felt a whisper of conviction emerge within me, after years of seeking truth and learning about Islam. This certainty was ‘La Ilaha Ill-Allah’- ‘There is no deity worthy of worship, except God’.

When I decided to wear Hijab, it was my acceptance of a singular devotion to God, a declaration of being a Muslim, a concentration of intention and above all, an expression of Love for the Divine, the One I was unconditionally bound to. I felt grateful and honoured every morning as I wrapped it around my head.

Three years later, I sat in solitude and silence for the first time during Itikaf in the last 10 days of Ramadan. I felt a terrifying awareness of the inescapable nature of my own soul and its Creator. I knew intuitively that I’d be sat in the darkness of a black hole for a while thereafter, as I grappled with the question ‘Can there be rules in Love?’ I admitted that I felt restricted in my practice, and yearned for more. I knew that there were ups and downs on the road to the Lord, but I was too impatient to accept them. I wanted to be back on the High. Immediately. But the fire was burning out, I no longer held a Centre from which to connect to the Absolute.

Religion has always been a visceral experience for me, rather than an intellectual ‘belief system’ or decision-making/decision-filtering mechanism. As an addictive personality, I tend to take things to an extreme, I fall in Love. In my enthusiasm, I had raised my faith to a superficial and inflexible ‘height’, one that I could not keep up with. I had become obsessed with the Signs and lost sight of what they were pointing to.

Following months of deliberation, I removed my Hijab and sought to find God again. Admittedly, my decision appears crude in its finality. I decided the cure for complacency and confusion was to go back to the basics. I felt there was no point in religion for me, if there was no instinctual connection to God, so I decided to start from scratch. Removing my Hijab was single-handedly the most painful decision I have ever had to make. It was a companion, and I miss it deeply.

There were moments that I felt I would have to leave Islam altogether. I remember watching Newsnight when an outraged young Muslim woman screamed at a homosexual man to either accept the tenets of Islam as generally practiced or leave. I felt she was speaking to me, with my perspectives on the Hijab. My face burned in shame, maybe she was right. Maybe my worldview was no longer compatible with the faith. This quickly turned to anger. No mortal had the right to judge so severely on behalf of God.

‘You will not attain the reality of faith before you come to regard all people as foolish in God’s religion.’ – Ibn Umar

Why would I leave if I still held on to my Shahadah? If I had left, I would have succumbed to a popular vision of the religion, not the orientation of Love and devotion to God which had brought me to it in the first place. Yes, I needed to recalculate and reconsider a few things I had taken for granted. But I was adamant that I had just as much of a right as anybody else to worship God and call Him Allah, whilst connecting through the Qur’an and prayer.

The centrality of the position given to Hijab, in modern day Islamic discourse, is one that simultaneously terrifies and bores me. It terrifies me because God is rarely mentioned unless He is having words of judgement and intolerance put in His mouth. It bores me, because I can’t get myself worked up about assessing the intimate decisions of others or justifying my own. To me, the question ‘is Hijab compulsory?’ is based on the false premise that any act of worship can be psychologically enforced. Nothing is compulsory. Of course, it is our duty to raise one another up, but this duty can’t be carried out without justice, surely. Without treating the individual before us as autonomous. This is why worship is so great, it is wilful.

‘There is no compulsion in religion: true guidance has become distinct from error, so whoever rejects false Gods and believes in God has grasped the firmest hand-hold, one that will never break. God is all hearing and all knowing.’ (Qur’an 2:256)

We all have within us our Fitrah, the purest aspect of our soul which knows only one thing; and that is its dependency on its Source. In my view, this is Tawheed in its most immediate and paradigm-shattering form. It is accessible to every human being without exception. The inaccessibility of spirituality in the turbulent world we live in is worrying, and a shame. A brief introduction to Sufism assured me that it was ok to stay and take faith at my own pace. When someone would approach Maya Angelou declaring themselves ‘Christian’, she would retort ‘already?’ Becoming a ‘Muslim’ is similarly a lifelong endeavour. I have learnt to find a balance between patience and impatience with myself. I know now that the path is not linear, there is no need to rush because the End is inevitable. Every step I take is one closer to Him, and one closer to Home.

‘We are not going in circles, we are going upwards. The path is a spiral; we have already climbed many steps.’ – Herman Hesse

This is why I remain Muslim. Because for me, Allah is the Truth. In the eye of the Hurricane that is this world, He is the rope I hold on to, till it all blows over.

I was asked to write this piece by Philippa around a year ago. The topic is still a slight wound in my psyche, one I wish I could heal and find comfort in. And I am not exaggerating when I say, that there is literally nobody else I can think of for whom I would be willing to recount my thoughts on this topic (on which I could write a book). I have felt the confusion of old friends as they appear offended by what look to them like fickle decisions. Yet, I have felt only curiosity and an intellectual interest on her part. Therefore I write this for her. Thank you darling. May Allah bless you always. Ameen.

The Dissertation

Notes To Self

You want to switch from situating your research within the context of neo-liberalism to locate it within a post-colonial framework. This is because your longstanding belief that the world’s problems were solely due to class has been shaken. Your understanding was incomplete without the awareness that racism infused every pore of the arrogance which created the hierarchical divisions you have always resented. You are reading ‘Things Fall Apart’ by Chinua Achebe and your heart is being broken piece by piece.  You walk down the stairs of your terraced house in the middle of a street in Burnley, England and it dawns on you how far you are from the place which gave you your skin colour, your nose, your hair and so much of your culture. The place which forces itself on your tongue even when you speak English; your Brit-Asian accent. For a split second you feel utterly stranded…

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