In this post I return to the subject of Hermeticism and its relation to Sufism, which I had been intending to do for some time. My earlier essay on the subject, “From Hermeticism to Sufism,” can be found in The Secret of Islam (2003) and also in the online book, Science, Knowledge, and Sufism, available elsewhere on this site. This post can be considered as an addition to that.
In the Introduction to his Hegel and Hermeticism (New York: Cornell University Press, 2001), Glenn Alexander Magee gives a concise summary of Hermeticism (Part 3: “What is Hermeticism?” pp.8-14). I wish to build on this by using quotations from the Grand Master of Sufism, Ahmet Kayhan. These can be found in my own Teachings of a Perfect Master (2012).
What Does God Need?
Pointing out that “Hermeticism is difficult to define rigorously”, Magee concentrates on “one essential feature that I shall take as definitive of Hermeticism.”
Hermeticism constitutes a middle position between pantheism and the Judaeo-Christian conception of God. According to traditional Judaeo-Christian thought, God utterly transcends and is infinitely distant from creation. Furthermore, God is entirely self-sufficient and therefore did not have to create the world, and would have lost nothing if He had not created it. Thus the act of creation is essentially gratuitous and unmotivated. God creates out of sheer abundance, not out of need. This doctrine has proved dissatisfying and even disturbing to many, for it makes creation seem arbitrary and absurd.
Pantheism, on the other hand, is equally dissatisfying, for in pantheism everything becomes God, and there is no God beyond the sum of all things.
Hermeticism is a middle position because it affirms both God’s transcendence of the world and his involvement in it. God is metaphysically distinct from the world, yet God needs the world to complete Himself.
In other words, God is both transcendent and immanent, or, to use the corresponding Sufic concepts, God is both incomparable to creation and similar to it. Hence, God has Attributes of incomparability (sifat al-tanzih) that set Him apart from created things, and also Attributes of similarity (sifat al-tashbih), from which the attributes of created things are themselves derived. So choosing only one of these complementary aspects neglects the other. One of Ibn Arabi’s favorite quotations from the Koran is the Sacred Verse: “Nothing is like Him. He is the Hearer, the Seer” (42:11). Here, in one single Verse, we have this complementarity in a nutshell.
But what about God “needing” creation? Master Kayhan puts it this way:
Why did God create the human being? In order to let Himself be found. So that the human may say, “God exists.”
God is not in need of anything. Yet He does have one need. What is that? Nobody knows God. God created man in order to be known.
Notice, first, that the question: “Why did God create the universe?” is being answered here. Another way of phrasing this question is: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” which is the fundamental question of philosophy.
Second, God “needs” to be known. And for this reason, human beings are created, for only human beings are endowed with the capability to know God fully, in the way He deserves to be known. No other sentient or conscious entity possesses this ability—not even angels, exalted though they are. It follows from this that the rest of the universe is created as a dwelling place for man, as a “supporting cast” for human beings. In Sufism, Homo sapiens is that valuable.
Of course, Master Kayhan is here referring to the well-known “Hidden Treasure” Holy Tradition, attributed to the Prophet (in which God speaks in the first person singular): “I was a hidden treasure. I desired to be known, hence I created Creation so that I would be known.” In the original, “desired to be known” occurs as “loved to be known” (fa ahbabtu an ‘urafa), so the entire universe was created out of this love. It is in this sense that the act of creation is a need, a desire, a longing.
As Master Kayhan explains,
He says, “I created everything for you, and you I created for Myself.”
The universe has an owner. His name is God. Let’s eat, drink, have children, suffer their worries, and get out of here. Is this all we came here for? We came to search for the owner of the universe. You haven’t found the master of the house yet. We need to find the owner of the cosmos. And for this, calmness is necessary, patience is necessary, work is necessary.
In other words, the universe is the setting for a vast Treasure Hunt, in which the Hidden Treasure is God.
Now what does Hermeticism say about this? Back to Magee:
Hermeticists not only hold that God requires creation, they make a specific creature, man, play a crucial role in God’s self-actualization. Hermeticism holds that man can know God, and that man’s knowledge of God is necessary for God’s own completion.
This, of course, brings to mind the Sufic “arc of ascent.” God created the universe in an “arc of descent” (qaws al-nuzul), manifesting in entire creation. Now, the human being has to complete the return trip to God, and this is called the “arc of ascent” (qaws al-‘uruj). And how does one perform this ascent? Through God-knowledge (Gnosis: marifat-Allah) or knowledge of God, that is, by getting to know God.
Magee quotes from the third-century A.D. Corpus Hermeticum:
“For mankind this is the only deliverance, the knowledge of God… Who is more visible than God? This is why he made all things: so that through them all you might look on him.”
One is reminded here of a couplet by the famous Sufi poet, Niyazi Misri:
There is nothing more apparent than God
He is hidden only to the eyeless.
Magee quotes from Hermeticism scholar Garth Fowden:
“Not only does Man wish to know God, but God too desires to be known by the most glorious of His creations, Man.” In short, it is man’s end to achieve knowledge of God (or “the wisdom of God,” theosophy). In so doing, man realizes God’s own need to be recognized. Man’s knowledge of God becomes God’s knowledge of himself. …
In the standard Judaeo-Christian account of creation, the creation of the world and God’s command that mankind seek to know and love him seem arbitrary, because there is no reason why a perfect being should want or need anything. The great advantage of the Hermetic conception is that it tells us why the cosmos and the human desire to know God exist in the first place.
This Hermetic doctrine of the “circular” relationship between God and creation and the necessity of man for the completion of God is utterly original. It is not to be found in earlier philosophy. But it recurs again and again in the thought of Hermeticists…
Of course, Magee cannot be expected to know that Sufism had already spoken of these matters long ago, and that Hermeticism may be viewed as an earlier incarnation of Sufism.
Hermeticism is also very often confused with Neoplatonism. Like the Hermeticists, Plotinus hold that the cosmos is a circular process of emanation from and return to the One.
—In other words, the Sufic arcs of descent and ascent mentioned earlier.
As Fowden notes: “Hermetic initiation seems to fall into two parts, one dealing with self-knowledge, the other with knowledge of God.” It can easily be shown, simply on a theoretical level, that these two are intimately wedded. To really know one’s self is to be able to give a complete [account] about the conditions of one’s being, and this involves speaking about God and His entire cosmos. As Pico della Mirandola puts it, “he who knows himself knows all things in himself.”
Here we arrive at the famous Tradition of the Prophet: “He who knows his self knows his Lord.” For as we mentioned above, God created the entire universe as a life-support system for Man. This means that Man cannot be conceived or understood without the context of the universe. He cannot exist apart from the air, the sun, the water that sustains him, the earth below that nurtures him, the starry sky above. He is not a “bag of skin” isolated and divorced from the rest of existence. To repeat: “I created everything for you, and you I created for Myself.” Without knowing this, Man goes heedlessly from death to death. But knowing this, Man also knows his Lord.
Back to Magee:
Salvation for the Hermeticists was, as we have seen, through gnosis, through understanding. This could be attained only through hard work, and then it could be attained only by some.
And here is Master Kayhan:
Always work, serve, don’t stay idle. Together with knowledge. Always to work.
What does God say? “I love those who work. I help those who work.” That’s all. To work, both materially and spiritually. What do we need? We need to persevere. To continue in every task. Not to abandon it. To be brave and hopeful—“I’m going to succeed in this task!” If you do this, you will be successful. God says, “If you want from Me, work. Be more hopeful.” Be hopeful physically and spiritually.
From the Corpus Hermeticum:
“it is an extremely tortuous way, to abandon what one is used to and possesses now, and to retrace one’s steps towards the old primordial things.”
From the Koran:
“We have come from God and we shall return to Him” (2:156).
“God loves those who purify themselves” (2:222).
“As for those who struggle in Our cause, surely We guide them in Our paths” (29:69).
From the Corpus Hermeticum:
“All those who heeded the proclamation … participated in knowledge and became perfect [or “complete,” teleioi] people because they received mind. But those who missed the point of the proclamation are people of reason [or “speech,” log<ik>on]…”
In Sufism, we have the contrast between the Perfect Human (insan al-kaamil) and the People of Speech (ahl al-kaal). The first is truly realized, the latter are stuck at the level of mere words. They are the opposite of, more generally, the People of States (ahl al-hal).
In order to clarify this difference, let me relate a Sufi story, the first time I am putting it down in print. After the illustrious mystic Mawlana Rumi met up with Shams, Rumi was showing Shams some books he had studied from. At that time they were standing beside a pool. Shams snatched the books out of Rumi’s hands and threw them in the pool.
Rumi exclaimed: “What have you done? One of those books was given to me by none other than the author himself, the great Jami!”
“Oh, is that so,” said Shams, and pulled the books out of the pool. They were soaked. He made a pass with his hand above and beneath them, and handed them to Rumi. Now they were dry as a bone: not a drop of wetness, no smearing of the ink, not a sign of warping that comes from the immersion of paper in water.
Rumi couldn’t believe his eyes. “Master, what is this?” he asked.
“All this,” said Shams, pointing to the books, “is tittle-tattle (kiyl u kaal). Ours is the Science of States (ilm al-hal).”
The Mysteries of the Universe
Hermeticists do not rest content with the idea of an unknowable God. Instead, they seek to penetrate the divine mystery.
My God, thank you for giving these seven organs [two each of eyes, ears and nostrils, one mouth]. This [the head] is the Mount Sinai of Moses [7:143]. From the neck upwards, there are seven visible organs. There are a thousand, a million, invisible organs. …
This head is the antenna of the eighteen thousand worlds, it’s the antenna of the Torah, the Psalms, the Gospel and the Koran. …
A Sacred Saying: “I did not fit in anyone’s Heart but the Heart of the Perfect Faithful.” Nobody says “Don’t do it,” He says, “Work and become,” for heaven’s sake! Work. Yes! Let’s work and do it. Don’t wait for God from afar, bring Him close.
As Above, So Below
For the Hermeticists, says Magee, everything is intimately connected. This finds expression in their famous maxim: “As above, so below.” This lays the basis for the unity of the cosmos.
The most important implication of this doctrine is the idea that man is the microcosm, in which the whole of the macrocosm is reflected. Self-knowledge, therefore, leads necessarily to knowledge of the whole.
Likewise, the sources of Sufism tell us that “the universe is man writ large, man is cosmos in the small.” As al-Qashani says, for example, “Man is a Small Universe, while the universe is a Big Man.” In a poem, Ali the Fourth Caliph expressed it this way:
Your remedy is within you, but you do not sense it.
Your sickness is from you, but you do not perceive it.
You presume you are a small entity,
but within you is enfolded the entire Universe.
Is Hermeticism Dead?
Many people may lament the fact that such an admirable system as Hermeticism is now extinct, that it has been consigned to the dustbin of history along with so many other schools and philosophies.
And yet, Hermeticism is not dead. It survives in its most sophisticated form. It lives on in Sufism.