God’s-eye view. “A Flight Through the Universe,” by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, displays close to 400,000 galaxies, each with one or two hundred billion stars, some many times the mass of our sun. And please bear in mind that there are maybe a hundred billion of these galaxies. Click here for the 3D version (you will need anaglyph 3D glasses).
God… created [Mohammed] as a light within a column of light, a million years before creation… (Re 53:13)
(on the Light of Mohammed, in the first Sufi Commentary on the Koran)
(In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful.)
By the Fig and the Olive,
and Mount Sinai,
and this land secure (Mecca):
We indeed created Man in the fairest stature,
Then We reduced him to the lowest of the low,
Save those who believe and do good deeds, and theirs is a reward unfailing.
(The Fig, 95:1-6)
Over the centuries, a literal reading of the Fig Chapter in the Koran does not seem to have produced much light. Taking the words at face value has yielded references to trees and mountains, or at best, to the prophets with which these are related. The fig and the olive are associated with Jesus, Mount Sinai (quite naturally) with Moses, and the secure land or territory with Mohammed.
In what follows, I would like to suggest an alternative reading. I propose to treat the named entities as symbols. Perhaps this approach will yield a more satisfying explanation as to why God wishes to swear an oath by them rather than directly by the prophets involved. There are two reasons for this:
- God does not take an oath idly. Among other things, an oath in the Koran is intended to draw our attention to some subtlety which may otherwise be missed.
- The Koran has already named these prophets explicitly elsewhere. Why, then, refer to them obliquely here?
First, of course, we must define what we understand by “ symbol.”
To paraphrase Martin Lings, a symbol is a shadow or projection of a higher reality. It is a metaphor, a “bridge” (majaz) to understanding something that is more complex, elusive, and abstract.
A reality can be expressed by more than one symbol. Put another way, different symbols can point to the same reality. Similarly, the three-dimensional complex object (call it “Geb”) at the left has three different two-dimensional projections on three mutually perpendicular planes. So Geb can be represented by G, E, and/or B in two dimensions. Likewise, the object at right can be represented by U, D (or A), and T. (Front cover design, 20th Anniversary Edition of Douglas R. Hofstadter, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid .)
Let, us, therefore, investigate the items named in the chapter for their symbolic content, in the order of their appearance.
The first item on our list is the fig, from which the chapter (sura) also gets its name. What could it be referring to? Let us approach this question by means of the World Tree. (Added emphases are in bold.)
[The notion] of a cosmologically sacred tree, or tree of life, is found throughout the world. In the ancient Brahman tradition of India, and among Shamans of Central Asia, the sacred tree was considered the symbolic axis of the [world]. … The cosmic tree appears as an inverted tree with its roots in heaven growing downward towards the earth as depicted in the Upanishads of India and medieval Cabbalistic writings (Wikipedia, “Tree of Life,” 2013). A symbolic Mountain of Paradise and the four rivers of life are also motifs found beyond Persia.1
The idea of an erect [upright] and of an inverted Tree is met with over a range of time and space extending from Plato to Dante and Siberia to India and Melanesia.2
Of paramount interest to us is the identification of the World Tree with the fig tree:
the World Tree, the cosmic and supracosmic Tree of Life, which stretches along the length of the Axis Mundi [World Axis] passing through and connecting all of the created order—all worlds and beings—at the centre… is described in its inverted aspect in the Upanishads, ‘Its root is above, its branches below—This eternal fig-tree (asvattha)! That indeed is Pure. That is Brahma.’ … [And also in the] Bhagavadgītā, ‘Men tell of the changeless Fig-tree, with roots that upward rise and branches that descend’…3
“This is an eternal Ashwattha tree whose root is above, but its branches are downward. It is He that is called the Bright One and Brahman, and Immortality, and in Him are all the worlds established, none goes beyond Him. This is what you seek.”4
Ananda Coomaraswamy provides some more information:
the One Asvattha is identified with Brahman … A twofold division, cosmic and supracosmic, of the Axial Column … stands in part within the cosmos and in what is a greater part also out beyond the sky. … the Axis of the Universe is, as it were, a ladder on which there is a perpetual going up and down. … 5
The word Miraj (Ascension) literally means “ladder.” A chapter in the Koran is named “Ascensions.” “…the angels and the Spirit descend, by the leave of their Lord, for every errand” (97:4).
Coomaraswamy also reminds us that “This pillar is omnipresent and passes through the centre of every being.” Keith Critchlow adds that this ‘is described as a “ray joining every being to the spiritual sun”.’6 And Plato—whom a great Sufi, Jili, once saw in a vision as “filling the world with light”—compared man to an upside-down tree, whose roots are in the heavens and whose branches tend downwards to earth.7
Now a tree with its roots in heaven and its branches downwards is also known in Islam. It is called the Tree of Bliss or the Tree of Happiness (tūbā). Thus, we may read the Fig tree (in its inverted form) as an equivalent symbol of the Tuba tree.*
Another tree, the Shajarat-al Tūbā … is prominent in aḥādith [Sayings of the Prophet] and in the writings of later mystics. The Shajarat-al Tūbā was described by Ibn al-ʿArabī [the great Sufi mystic] in his Futūhāt al Makkiya as growing down from the roof of Heaven and penetrating all of the spheres of Heaven. … This tree he calls the Tree of happiness or bliss (tūbā)’ …8
The word tūbā (pronounced “two-baa”) occurs in the Koran (13:28) without reference to a tree. However, the tree of that name is well established in the Prophet’s Sayings: for example, “the Tuba is a tree in Paradise. God planted it with His own hand and breathed His spirit into it.”9
The inverted tree, with its roots in heaven and its fruits on earth, or (according to Ibn Arabi) growing down from the roof of Heaven and penetrating all of the spheres of Heaven. Right: picture of the Tuba Tree (circa 1900), with the 99 Beautiful Names of God written on its leaves and the Banner of Praise (liva al-hamd) of the Prophet on its right. Whoever holds on to one of its leaves (that is, recites one of God’s Names) is said to be pulled up to Heaven. At the bottom are the Eight Gates of Paradise.
Here is Ibn Arabi on the Tuba in his Meccan Revelations (Futuhat-ul Makkiya):
The Tree of Tuba compared to all other trees of Paradise is like Adam who was the origin of mankind, for when [God] planted and set it right, He blew of His spirit into it… He adorned it with decorations and garments that beatify their wearers. We are its earth as He has made ‘whatever is on the earth an adornment for it’ (18:7). It gave the fruits of Paradise all the truth they have, as a stone of date produces a palm tree, and the light which those fruits carry.10
Sometimes the Cosmic Mountain (see below) and the Cosmic Tree symbols are combined, as in the Scandinavian World Tree Yggdrasil. Of the Tuba Tree, Laleh Bakhtiyar states: “Tuba, in its macrocosmic form, grows at the uppermost limits of the universe. In its microcosmic form, its cultivation depend[s] upon the mystic. … Ibn ‘Arabi describes this symbol in both its forms. In its macrocosmic aspect, it is associated with the Cosmic Mountain on top of which the Cosmic Tree grows.”
The whole of the cosmos is seen as a tree, the Tree of Knowledge, which has grown from the seed of the Divine Command, “Be”. The Tree has sent down its roots, sent up its trunk, and spread out its branches, so that this world, the world of Symbols, and the world of Archetypes, are all contained by this Tree.
As the Tree is manifest in a macrocosmic aspect, so it is hidden in the microcosmic form. It is the symbol of wisdom which, through roots in meditation, bears fruit of the Spirit.11
Because the Tree of Bliss grows downwards from the roof of heaven, many domes of mosques and shrines in Islam have highly abstract, stylized representations of the Tuba. The dome itself symbolizes heaven. (Left: Tilla-Kari Medrassah at Registan, Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Right: interior of Taj Mahal mosque, India.)
The dome of this mosque is distinguished by the fact that the Tree of Happiness is depicted both on its exterior and its interior. Note the sunburst design with an eight-pointed star at its apex, and the daisy-like, mirrored spiral pattern. (Dome of Shaykh Lutfullah mosque, Isfahan, Iran.)
A Fibonacci Spiral is duplicated and the circular pattern is mirrored. When assembled, the result forms the pattern seen in sunflowers.
(The Tuba tree has also been associated with the Indian Kalpavriksha tree because it fulfills all desires.)
Finally, Henry Corbin equates the Tuba Tree with Ibn Arabi’s Cosmic Tree (shajarat al kawn): “…the Tuba tree; now, we know that this is the name of the tree that shades Paradise; it is the Tree of Being [another name for the Cosmic Tree].”12 But Ibn Arabi claims that this tree stands for the Perfect Human (see below). We have, then, established a link between the Fig and the Perfect Human, which is also the Light of Mohammed.
The treatment for the Olive follows closely upon that for the Fig. Let me quote from an earlier article:
In his treatise on Cosmic Unification (al-Ittihad al-Kawn, translated as The Universal Tree and the Four Birds), the famous Sufi, Ibn Arabi, equates the Universal Tree (al-shajara al-kulli) or World Axis with the Perfect Human Being. (Ibn Arabi’s other “tree,” the World Tree or Cosmic Tree (Shajarat al-Kawn), also symbolizes the Universal Human.) In addition, the Tree stands for eternal life, and is called the Tree of Life in some traditions. Another name for it is the Tree of Light (A. J. Wensinck, Tree and Bird as Cosmological Symbols in Western Asia (1921)). That light beam (also called the Ray of Creation) is, in Sufism, the first-created light, the First Intellect (Universal Mind) or the Light of Mohammed (these occur in the Prophet’s own Sayings). This is the light that is referred to in Genesis: “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” (Gen. 1:3).
For Islam, the olive is the central tree, The World Axis, a symbol of Universal Man and of the Prophet. The ‘Blessed Tree’ is associated with light, since its oil is used as lamp fuel. (The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols, p. 716.)
And this brings us to another part of the Light Verse: “[The lamp] is lighted from a Blessed Tree, an olive neither of the East nor of the West [hence of the center], whose light would well-nigh shine out even if it were not lit by fire” [hence self-luminous] (24:35).
The first Arabic letter, the Alif, also represents the Cosmic Pillar because of its shape. …13
Here we need only add that in Islam, the “Straight Path” to be followed (sirat al-mustaqim) is not only a road without bends, but also means the “Ascending Path” along the vertical axis, because of the root word qam (“to raise oneself”).14 Hence the Alif also represents the Straight Path itself, namely, elevation along the axis of consciousness or spirituality, which is perpendicular to all dimensions.15
Mountains, trees, and pointed man-made structures are all equivalent symbols for the Cosmic Mountain or Pillar of the Universe. (From left: Mt. Machapuchare, Nepal; pine tree; Wat Arun, Bangkok; Cheops Pyramid, Egypt)
According to psychologist Carl G. Jung, “The mountain stands for the goal of the pilgrimage and ascent, hence it often has the psychological meaning of the self.” 16
Mount Sinai is, of course, the mountain specific to Moses, but before we talk about that, we must talk about mountains in general, which lead to the archetype of the Cosmic Mountain.
What is the Cosmic Mountain? It is a mode of, or an alternate symbol for, the World Axis. It represents the cosmos. Not confined to the physical universe, it spans the whole of existence—“the eighteen thousand worlds,” as the Sufis call it.
At its base and beneath it are the various hells. Below the clouds that surround it, there is lightning, thunder and rain. But above the clouds it is always sunshine. According to scholar of comparative religion Mircea Eliade,
In several traditions, the Cosmos is shaped like a mountain whose peak touches heaven: above, where the heavens and the earth are reunited, is the Center of the World. This cosmic mountain may be identified with a real mountain, or it can be mythic, but it is always placed at the center of the world.17
The ziggurat was literally a cosmic mountain; the seven stories represented the seven planetary heavens; by ascending them, the priest reached the summit of the universe.18
As for the peak:
The summit of the cosmic mountain is not only the highest point of the earth; it is also the earth’s navel, the point at which the Creation began.19
According to Indian beliefs, Mount Meru rises at the center of the world, and above it shines the polestar. The Ural-Altaic peoples also know of a central mountain, Sumeru, to whose summit the polestar is fixed. 20
Mount Meru or Mt. Sumeru (“Beautiful Meru”), the Hindu conception of the Cosmic Mountain. Above are the heavens, below are the hot and cold hells. Its height was said to be more than a million kilometers, a large enough number in an age when people had not yet heard about billions of light-years. At the top is the City of Brahma (God).
The World Axis is considered to pass through the Pole Star, and the Center of the World to be its terrestrial footprint, because the axis of the Earth’s rotation points towards the Pole Star, “the center of heaven.” In this case, the Axis of the Universe becomes identified with the Axis of the Earth. Naturally, the situation depicted in this time-lapse photo can be observed everywhere north of the equator, so that on this basis, any location in the northern hemisphere can be called “the Center of the World” with equal justification. (The star cannot be seen from the southern hemisphere.) Please bear in mind that this is, again, symbolic. The Pole Star is also the star at the top of a christmas tree, which has the shape of a mountain.
As for the Sufis, they consider the mountain to represent the human body, and more specifically the head, with all its equipment (sense organs, brain, mind, etc.). For example, Yunus Emre 21 says:
Within a mountain, I beheld
The eighteen thousand worlds
where “mountain” means the body.
Now as for Mount Sinai, its story is too well-known for repetition. Moses retired there twice for forty days each, returning with the tablets on which the Ten Commandments were inscribed. What we shall focus on here is the Koranic version of what transpired on the mountain. When Moses was approaching the Burning Bush for the first time, he was instructed: “Take off your sandals” (20:12). According to Master Kayhan, “the sandals are his self.”
The really important event occurs when Moses implores God, “Let me see You.” God replied, “You cannot see Me. 22 But I shall manifest Myself to this mountain and if it can stand it, then you can see Me” (7:143). But the mountain shattered and Moses was knocked unconscious.
Here is what the Master had to say:
Mount Sinai is mentioned in the Torah, but it’s not a mountain – it’s Moses’ ‘mountain’! Moses’ Mount Sinai is his head.
Is there anyone who has seen this mountain, this Mount Sinai? Show me this mountain. Here is that mountain [the head], it’s this, this.
Let’s work on this mountain a little bit, okay? This head is the antenna of the eighteen thousand worlds, it’s the antenna of the Torah, the Psalms, the Gospel and the Quran. 23
Mount Sinai (left, otherwise known as Jabal Musa, the Mountain of Moses); Mount Hira (right, otherwise known as Jabal Nur, the Mountain of Light; so called because fires used to be lit on its summit as a beacon for travelers)
The Secure Land
The “land secure” has traditionally been accepted as Mecca and its environs. Here there are three noteworthy locations: Mount Hira, the Cave of Hira, and the mosque of the Kaaba.
Mount Hira and the Cave
We have already dealt with the case of Mount Sinai. The case of Mount Hira is quite similar. Both are versions of the Cosmic Mountain. Furthermore, the first is the retreat of Moses, the second that of Mohammed. And in that mountain there is a cave. It is where the Truth was revealed to the Prophet of God.
Traditionally, the cave has also been considered as a symbol for the Heart. 24 If we follow this line of reasoning, there is something quite remarkable about the Cave of Hira. It is a very small cave, more like a niche (mishkat) or alcove, barely enough for one person. There is an opening at the bottom of the cave, oriented towards the Kaaba. Light streams in through that crack. So the main entrance of the cave is for people, the far end is for light. And the same holds for the Cave of the Heart: one end is your side, through the other end enters Light (the Light of God).
The Master used to relate how the Prophet of God used to leave the bosom of his beloved wife, Khadija, and go to that cave to meditate. He told of his asceticism, his hardships. On at least one occasion, he added the following concerning the cave:
And in some parts of Sufism—and so it is in reality—Sufis consider this body a cave. They consider this body, from head to foot, a stupendous cave. The caves outside, you can visit those too, but before we do that, let’s build up this cave.
The spirit is in this cave.
Let’s appreciate the spirit, let’s appreciate this cave. [Pointing to his chest:] This is the great cave, the cave of the spirit/of life. The others are external caves. When we train the Base Self in this cave, it’s done. There is also the path [leading up to the cave], the Prophet of God comes by that path.
The cave of the body. Don’t sleep, think about this for two-three days, because you haven’t heard it [before]. This cave is the seat of the Real (of God), the seat of the Koran, the seat of the Prophet of God. If, together with the Prophet of God, we train this cave, we will progress, Godwilling.
What shall we do? I’m always telling you. From here [the neck] upwards, quit the Forbidden. Whether sight and hearing, smell, or food and drink, stop the Illicit. Down [there], stop Forbidden Lust. Do these two, and you’ll find that the cave is filled with light. Do this—I’m telling you for God’s sake.25
The “Cube” (Kaaba) is the world center for Hajj, the Pilgrimage of Islam. Of a series of “centers of the world,” it is the last and, according to Muslims, now the universally valid center. (The Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, where the Dome of the Rock now stands, was its predecessor.)
To recap “The Symbolism of the Center” from Mircea Eliade:
1. The Sacred Mountain — where heaven and earth meet — is situated at the center of the world.
2. Every temple or palace — and, by extension, every sacred city or royal residence — is a Sacred Mountain, thus becoming a Center.
3. Being an axis mundi, the sacred city or temple is regarded as the meeting point of heaven, earth, and hell.26
The Kaaba corresponds to the “navel of the earth” (omphalos) also found in other traditions.
The Kaaba is situated on the ‘axis of the world’ and its four corners are oriented towards the cardinal regions of the sky. The rite of circumambulation expresses with precision the relationship existing between the sanctuary and the celestial movement; it is accomplished seven times to correspond with the number of the celestial spheres. [The lowest of these “heavens” corresponds to the observable physical universe.] 27
Cities and sacred places are assimilated to the summits of cosmic mountains. … According to Islamic tradition, the highest point on earth is the Kaaba, because “the polestar proves that … it lies over against the center of heaven.”28
“Highest point” spiritually, that is.
According to the Ancient Chinese, Chen-Jen, the True Man or Real Man, connects heaven and earth, and hence is identified with the World Axis. It is the same in the case of the Perfect Human in Sufism:
Thus the seat (the Arabic Word is markaz, which strictly means ‘centre’) of the supreme Pole (called al-Qutb al-Gawth…) is described symbolically as situated between heaven and earth, at a point which is exactly over the Ka‘bah which, precisely, has the form of a cube and which is itself one of the representations of ‘the Centre of the World’. 29
Even more importantly, for Sufis the Kaaba is a symbol of the human Heart—not the physical heart that pumps blood, but its spiritual conjugate that keeps it beating. A Sufi story illustrates this nicely:
God said to David, “Build a house for Me.” David replied: “My Lord, you have no abode. You are beyond all and present everywhere. How should I build a house for You?” God said, “You are My abode. Keep My house free of everything other than Me.” So we should let nothing but God into our hearts. This is why the Prophet threw all idols out of the Kaaba, the House of God, and why it remains empty to this day: because it represents the condition our hearts should be in. As the Patriarch Abraham advises in Ibn Arabi’s Meccan Revelations:
“Make your heart like this Visited House, by being present with God in every state. Know that of all that you see, nothing contains the Real God except the heart of the believer, and that is you!” 30
(Note: This doesn’t mean we should love nothing else. We should love God more than anything else, love everything for the sake of God, and steer clear of the things God does not love. Paramount among these last: having other idols beside God, Illicit Gain and Illicit Sex.)
The Master said: “Mend a heart, you build the Kaaba. Break a heart, you wreck the Kaaba.” He also said:
My last will to you: Build a Heart, don’t break it. Don’t tear down the Kaʿba [the sacred sanctuary of the Heart]. Serve the Heart you’ve broken until you mend it. If you demolish the Kaʿba, how can you prostrate towards it?31
Like many others, I was brought up with a secular education. They taught us that Islam was the Five Pillars (saying the Word of Witnessing, performing the Prayer, Fasting, giving the Alms-tax, pilgrimage of the Hajj) and perhaps the Creed of Six Precepts. They didn’t teach us that Islam was also the above. Neither did they teach us the following:
If but once you break a heart
This Prayer you perform is void.
Even the seventy-two nations
Cannot wash your hands and face.
Knowledge is to know science
Knowledge is to Know Thyself
Whereas you don’t know yourself
What use is all this studying?
What you think for yourself
Think also for others
The meaning of the Four Books
Is this, if there is any.
Come, let us know each other
Let us make things easy
Let us love and be loved
Nobody survives this world. (—Yunus Emre)
Before going on, let us summarize the correspondences:
Fig: World Tree, Tuba Tree
Olive: World Tree, light
Mountain: body, head, World Mountain
Cave: body, Heart
Kaaba: Heart, World Center
The Universal Man
All this leads up to Verse 4 of the Chapter of the Fig: “We indeed created Man in the fairest stature.” This is what all those symbols have been referring to: the Universal Man or Perfect Human.
“Is Man a guest to the Universe, or is the Universe a guest to Man?” Master Kayhan posed the question, and he also supplied the answer (I am translating his speech about this for the first time):
If we look at its outward face, its appearance, Man is a guest to the Universe. First the Universe was created, then Man came. But on the other hand, God created the Light of Mohammed first, and created all the worlds from that. So the Universe came as a guest to Man.
He also wrote:
What are Man and Universe? The two are like twins, two lovers that complete each other. From another angle, Man and Universe are like a tree and its flower, its fruit.
What would the Universe do without Man? What would Man do without the Universe? The two complete one another. …
Man and Universe are like the two faces of a leaf; they can’t be separated.32
Alif, the Cosmic Pillar that some have viewed as the spinal cord of the universe. Although it is depicted above in the direction of the time axis, it should be kept in mind that it is orthogonal (perpendicular) to all dimensions, including time.
(Incidentally, note the resemblance of the cosmos, as depicted above, with the headpiece of a whirling dervish. Sufis also had a two-pleated “crown of Alif” which resembled the flame of a candle. A sharper-tipped version of this was called the “swordlike cap.”)
The candle of the spirit has such a flame
That it cannot fit under the bell-jar of the [universe].
The next verse (Verse 5) reads:
“Then We reduced him to the lowest of the low.”
And that is our sorry state today. This is the Fall of Man.
But fear not! For Verse 6 gives good tidings of our redemption: “Save those who believe and do good deeds, and theirs is a reward unfailing.” Another Chapter adds: “Surely Man is in loss, except for those who believe, do good works, and counsel Truth and patience to one another” (103:2-3).
So even in our fallen condition, the door of hope is open to all of us.
*But of course, God knows best. Even if this conjecture is incorrect, at least it has led us to the contemplation of sublime matters.
14. René Guénon, Symbolism of the Cross, Ghent, NY: Sophia Perennis, 1996 , p. 113.
21. Pronounced as “You-noose Am-ray,” with the ending “y” inaudible. Famous Turkish Sufi poet.
22. “But you cannot see My face, for no one may see Me and live.”—Exodus 33:20.
23. From Henry Bayman, The Teachings of a Perfect Master, Oxford, UK: Anqa Publishing, 2012.
24. René Guénon, Fundamental Symbols, Cambridge, UK: Quinta Essentia, 1995 , pp. 145-148.
25. Ahmet Kayhan, videotaped conversation, March 6, 1998. (This is being translated for the first time.)
29. René Guénon, Fundamental Symbols, pp. 79-80.
31. H. Bayman, The Teachings of a Perfect Master, p. 12.