Tafakkur Three: Thought and Reflection
In his post on the ‘Qur’an as Classical Music’ Ali Eteraz says, ‘In other words, thought militates against “inner stillness.”’ It can, I agree with him completely, so what on earth am I talking about when I refer to reflection as a spiritual exercise. Beginning this series on tafakkur has become a challenge to investigate and comprehend more on the subject and I find several problems heading in my direction but also some fascinating resolutions that I will summarize later in my conclusion. First, an obvious question arises that demands attention: What is the difference between thought and reflection? While writing on tafakkur I have understood reflection to be something different to the noise of a busy mind. I have taken the translation of ‘tafakkur’ as ‘reflection’ from Professor James Morris in his translations of the work of Ibn ‘Arabi and I am happy to work with that as I have seen it translated likewise by other scholars.
If I understand the word ‘tafakkur’ as ‘reflection’ in English or ‘to reflect’ then I find it expedient to consider the definition of the word. Collins English Dictionary defines reflection as ‘careful or long consideration or thought’, and the definition of ‘to reflect’ as ‘to think, meditate, or ponder.’ So thinking is in there too, well it has to be doesn’t it? You could hardly reflect, or ponder, on anything without thoughts arising but is there a difference in the nature of thoughts, in other words is there such a thing as modes of thinking, just as there are various modes of knowledge according to the work of Sufi masters? It would make sense and the difference must be in the provenance of the thought. If I think about a problem and my mind becomes crowded with so many thoughts, half of which do not relate to the problem but are distractions, then my intention has no anchor and therefore no substantial trajectory; it dissipates in the noise of the mind or the imperatives of the moment. The origin of my thinking, in this case, is more likely to have been the lower nafs. However, if I reflect, as I understand it, then my intention is to open up to unthought possibilities and to receive the presence of the numinous that can speak to us because it is universally manifest, even within the thoughts we think. But of course it is veiled, and without kashf (unveiling) we can be oblivious to its presence because our soul is buried under the influence of a dominating mind. When this happens then we are not using the intellect as an instrument of our fitr (inherent spiritual nature) but are cowering under the arrogance and confusion of a faculty that is being allowed to step out of place. Ideally, the intellect should complement our fitr, be its servant. One of the ways this can be done is through reflection. This is how I understand tafakkur.
Now another question thrusts forward and I am not sure that it bears any linguistic relation to the Arabic ‘tafakkur’, it does, however, bear a direct relation, in mystical terms, to the fruits of tafakkur. This question relates to the other definition of ‘reflection’: How does the meaning that I have been using in my articles so far relate to its other usage, as in, a reflection in a mirror? Immediately the word ‘barzakh’ comes to mind. I am deferring here, back and forth from English to Arabic, take note Derrida! Now barzakh is a state that lies between two other states and contains characteristics of both, a liminal space if you will, and the reason that this word comes to mind when thinking of ‘reflection’ and ‘mirror’ is that Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi uses the example of a reflection in a mirror to elucidate what he means by the barzakh of the ‘alam al-khayal, or to say it in English as best I can (and no language can truly do justice to the Arabic of the Qur’an), the liminal space of the imaginal. Please bear with me, this is leading to my point, Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi points out that what you see when you look in a mirror is both yourself, and not yourself. Exactly the state in the barzakh, when the purely spiritual takes on form and the physical becomes ever changing as its inner state is exteriorized. Put more simply, this is the dwelling place of the soul. Now what occurs when the thinking person enters this space? I am suggesting the person is both thinking and not thinking because the activity of reflection, if successful, is a step in to the barzakh of the ‘alam al-khayal. A realm of being that is in itself a reflector of the inner state.
The conclusion I have reached, using ‘reflection’ rather than ‘thought’ as the translation of ‘tafakkur’ via Ibn ‘Arabi, and combining the two definitions of the word ‘reflection’ is that it is possible to arrive at a fresh perspective on the purpose of practising reflection. Moreover this semantic route takes me straight to the heart of the trajectory of the question posed by the Qur’an when it repeatedly asks whether we can see the wonders of creation, and if so then we should reflect on them, for they are all the Signs of God, ‘On the horizons and within the selves’. Humankind needs no further proof of the One for it is manifest around us, and within us. The entirety of creation, including ourselves reflects the reality of the Real as a mirror. Simultaneously we are required to reflect on that reality so our purpose as mirrors of the Real is more fully achieved. So for me the aim of reflecting on something is finally to be looking as if in a mirror, to see my own reflection, to see the mother who shouts at her child, she is me, so I learn not to judge harshly. Her child, yes that’s me too, so I stop shouting because I know how it feels. The husband who is too tired to go out, I see my face reflected in his, and understand. If I continue to see my reflection in the other then ultimately, Insh’allah, I ‘see’ the Creator for ‘Wherever you look there is the Face of God’, and suddenly there is no ‘other’, there is only the One.
The above represents my own reflections based on my reading and limited experience. I am grateful for any comments from those who have also addressed these themes.
Tafakkur Three: Thought and Reflection