“Annihilation and Subsistence”: A Brief Commentary On The Islamic Notions of ‘Fana’ and ‘Baqa’

Many of the greatest contributions to the modern sciences have come from both ancient and classical thought traditions, with one of them being the Sufi tradition within Islam. In terms of human development and psychology, some of the greatest propositions and theories have emerged from this particular tradition. As a counterpart to the theory of “self-transcendence” that developed in Western psychology, the Sufi tradition developed its own notion of self-transcendence long before the Western tradition through the concept of “annihilation and subsistence,” which in the Arabic language is known as “Fana’ wa Baqa.”

As in Maslow’s notion of “self-transcendence,” the Islamic notion of “annihilation and subsistence” views the possibility of there being an ultimate psychological and spiritual state, beyond which there is no other achievable state. In this ultimate state, imperfect human attributes are essentially erased or “annihilated” and as a result “divine will” becomes one and the same as the individual will by enabling the individual to propagate a divine “discourse.” Certain scholars within the Islamic tradition consider Fana’ and Baqa to be the fostering of attributes and qualities which enable an individual to serve his or her community and to engage in public service. Other scholars simply view the process of “annihilation and subsistence” as a shelter for the contemplation of metaphysical realities. Thus, once a person enters into a state of “annihilation and subsistence,” he or she either remains in a state of metaphysical contemplation or is prompted to serve his or her broader community.

Fana’,” in a basic sense, is a return to simplicity but through a highly elevated spiritual state. One particular anecdote for the achievement of a lofty spiritual state through simplicity in the Sufi tradition is the case of the Sufi mystic Bayazid Bastami, whose vision of heaven affirmed his stature as someone who was able to achieve both “annihilation” and “subsistence” in God. Bayazid spoke of his vision by stating: “I was shown around the highest kingdom of Heaven and the lowest kingdom. A cry came: ‘Ask for anything thou desirest of all these so that I may give it to thee.” I said: ‘I desire nothing from all of these.’ He said: ‘Thou art indeed My servant!’”

The concept of “annihilation” and “subsistence” is implied only once in the Holy Quran in the fifty-fifth chapter, wherein it is stated: “All will be annihilated and will perish, and what remains and subsists is the Face of thy Lord, Majestic and Exalted.” Thus, the basic notion of this concept is that God is the only eternal being whereas all other beings are transient and impermanent. An individual who achieves both Fana’ and Baqa chooses “union” with the sole eternal being rather than choosing emotional and intellectual attachment to transient beings and entities. In turn, the “I” and “He’ duality is erased along with a dualistic form of thinking, which prompts the individual will to be congruent with the divine will. As one of the narrations of the Prophet Muhammad’s conversations with God suggests, Man then becomes the instrument of God’s will:

“My servant draws near to me by means of nothing dearest to Me than that which I have established as a duty for him. And My servant continues drawing near to Me through supererogatory acts until I love him; and when I love him, I become his ear with which he hears, his eye with which he sees, his hand with which he grasps and his foot with which he walks.”

Thus, “union” with the source of existence and “subsistence” therein through the “annihilation” of imperfect attributes is achieved primarily through devotional acts of worship such as charity, meditation, prayer, and public service in a consistent manner. This is indeed easier said than done, and as a result the seeker of “union” with the divine source of existence faces immense psychological obstacles in his or her path. But once achieved, “subsistence” in the eternal source of everything is the most secure psychological and spiritual state that an individual can enjoy. In turn, it is “union” with the eternal (Tawhid) which is the core and central concept of the Islamic philosophical tradition. The following is one particular definition of Tawhid as put forth by the Sufi mystic Abu’l-Qasim al-Junayd: “Unification is the separation of the Eternal from that which was originated in time.”

Moreover, what underlies Tawhid is a paradox, which is “unification” through “separation” from the transient and thus the elimination of parochial desires and pleasures. As Andrew Wilcox states:

“The paradox of the idea of unification being achieved by separation implies that one of these elements has no true reality; thus the Eternal, the Real (al-Haqq) must be separated from all that is created and ultimately unreal. So the seeker after unification with God (muwahhid) must strive to rid himself of all that pertains to the created realm in order to ‘taste’ (dhauq) the reality of the Eternal. The elements of the worshipper’s personality which derive from the created realm are his personal attributes of self-interest and ultimately his very awareness of all which is other than God.”

In turn, the exoteric aspect of Islam which consists of rules and rituals is merely a means to the end, with the latter being the esoteric essence and meaning of the entire religious scheme that consists of Tawhid and the “annihilation” of a dualistic mode of discourse and thinking. Therefore, idolatry (Shirk), which is considered to be the most severe transgression in the Islamic tradition, results from a sense of selfhood which stems from a denial of an eternal essence that permeates an otherwise transient and impermanent state of being. To think of anything other than God would constitute idolatry based on the Islamic notion of Tawhid. In a sense, Tawhid consists of the “annihilation” of dualistic thinking whereby a sense of selfhood dissolves and thus there is no distinction between one’s personal acts and the acts of both an immanent and transcendent “other.”

            Due to the outright complexity of its innermost concept, it comes as no surprise that Islam – with its obviously Platonic elements – is the most misunderstood philosophical and spiritual tradition in the world. The basic idea that underlies both philosophy and law in the Islamic tradition is that if everything manifests from one singular essence or substance, it then follows that everything can also be absorbed inward and towards that same singular essence or substance. Thus, absorption into the singular essence and source of everything – which is manifested through both attributes and physical forms – is the main feature of Islamic practice and thought. For anything to exist and to manifest itself, it must “subsist” in a particular essence or source. Thus, the ultimate spiritual state of Fana’ and Baqa consists of returning to the ultimate source of everything and being wedded to it for eternity. Even from a scientific standpoint, if one were to tap into a basic source, then perhaps one would also know the basic axiom and purpose of everything.

            One could perhaps contend that the general misunderstanding of Islam’s core concept, namely, Tawhid, arises from the fact that it is an experiential act and it cannot be conceived intellectually; thus, Tawhid cannot be understood without intuition or a divine vision. As an exegesis of the concept of Tawhid, the Sufi scholar Ibn Juzay once suggested that Tawhid equates to seeing created things as having no existence whatsoever. Tawhid is also perhaps a return to a primordial state of existence “before existence.” In this state, one’s sense of selfhood becomes non-existent. As a result, individual will reflects divine will. In turn, true “annihilation and subsistence” is when nothing is longed for or requested on the part of Man. Al-Ghazali wrote that God told Jesus the following: “When I look into the heart of a servant (of God) and see neither the world nor the Hereafter, I place My love there and I am the Superintendent of his preservation.”

            In the end, this ultimate spiritual state of Fana’ and Baqa has to be experienced and it cannot be discussed. There are no analogies or words that can effectively describe or express this psychological and spiritual state. It is also important to note that the interface upon which Fana’ and Baqa occur is the human heart, not the mind, for it is the heart which acts as the seat of the soul and in turn the soul is the seat of the intellect, according to ancient traditions. As one Sufi mystic has said: “Union is the revelation of the heart and the contemplation of the conscience.” Yet, it is often notions of “love” (muhabba) and “ecstasy” (ishq) which are employed to describe not only the psychological and spiritual state, but also the “discourse” that flows from such a state.

            In essence, the call to “obey” God is actually a call to “love.” As the Sufi mystic Mansur al-Hallaj wrote:

“The calling of love (muhabba) calls us to desire (shawq), the calling of desire to rapture; and the calling of rapture calls us to God! As for those who feel no inner incentive to answer this calling, their expectation will be frustrated; they waste their time in the deserts of deviation; they are the ones whom God does not think much of.”

Through love, the individual is attuned to a divine discourse and in turn the individual becomes a conduit for such a discourse. But in order for the discourse to flow through the individual, the self – or ego – must first be “annihilated.” Thus, both Fana’, which leads to the replacement of imperfect attributes with divine attributes, as well as the subsistent flow of a divine discourse through the individual (Baqa) are both acts of God and a manifestation of God’s will which in turn abrogate individual will. What occurs is essentially a reconfiguration of the individual into a conduit through which divine discourse can flow into a public sphere. As Mulla Sadra wrote: “Through God’s configuring, [the intellective existence] is the effuse of the last configuration.” One Sufi mystic speaks of reconfiguration in the following poem:

From self and selfhood’s strangling chain

God set him free; and then again

Clothed him in unsubstantial clay,

That he God’s mysteries might display,

So form from form must be withdrawn

At revelation’s dazzling dawn:

God’s sure and omnipresent will

Shall every heart with rapture fill.

            Thus, the ultimate proof of “annihilation and subsistence” and thus the achievement of the ultimate psychological and spiritual state is both the replacement of imperfect human attributes with divine attributes such as love, mental and physical purity, and wisdom, in addition to the possession of an inexhaustible flow of a particularly divine intellectual discourse. As a result, “annihilation and subsistence” cannot be attributed merely to human will. Rather, it must be attributed to an act of divine will whereby the individual is oriented toward the ultimate source of existence. Nevertheless, although one can declare with a certain amount of confidence that the basic axiom, purpose, and source of existence is the “existential witnessing of God,” one still remains at an impasse as to the deciphering of the basic “Essence of God.” Thus, the basic essence of the source for the attributes and the qualities of existence still remains a mystery and is still a matter of conjecture despite exhaustive efforts by one generation of philosophers and scientists after another in inquiring into this matter. As the Sufi mystic Abd al-Karim al-Jili wrote:

“Have I learnt all, globally and distinctly,

Of Thine Essence, O Thou, in Whom all Qualities are united?

Or is Thy Face too sublime for Thy Nature to be grasped?

I understand then that His Essence cannot be understood.

Far be it from Thee that anyone may fathom Thee, and far be it from Thee

That anyone ignore Thee, — Oh perplexity!”

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