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The Form and Function of Sufi Mystical Visions

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Vassar College

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  1. Introduction
  2. The Sufi path
  3. Constituting the unitized experience
  4. The universe of instruments
  5. A veritable manifestation/theophany
  6. The field of dream interpretation
  7. The solitary retreat
  8. The guidelines determined by al Sha'rani regarding his 'dreams of instruction'
  9. Conclusion
  10. Works cited

Experience of direct union with God is most often reported to be of an ineffable nature that transcends any means of description. Mystical visions, however, afford the subject of such experiences the ability to interpret, through the hermeneutics of religious symbolism, what might otherwise be incomprehensible to the rational mind. In the Islamic Sufi context, visions most commonly take the form of important religious figures; Allah, the Prophet Muhammad, angels, saints and a devotee's shaikh are symbols likely to manifest their presence in mystical visions. Symbolism is not limited to discrete characters in Sufi life, however; abstract and personal metaphors occur as well. These symbols serve as relatively concrete entities upon which to hang the ultimate and inexpressible truths to which mystics claim to gain access. Using firsthand accounts of Sufis (classical masters and modern novices alike), and contemporary analytical methodologies, this paper will examine the process of training that facilitates mystical experience, as well as the psychological principles which govern the content and interpretation of the visions themselves.

[...] [It is] one forty-sixth part of prophecy (Katz, Dreams and visions represent the lifting of the veils (kashf) that is the object of Sufi practice. In her essay analyzing the cognitive approach to visionary experience, Marcia Hermansen writes that ?unveiling is said to occur through self-purification in the course of spiritual exercises under the guidance of a master (shaikh). These veils, which are primarily psychological, are progressively removed until the final barrier, the self or ego, no longer stands as an obstruction between the mystic and the unitized experience of the divine The state of kashf is of paramount importance to Sufi life, and according to some, to Muslim life as well. [...]

[...] This argument is lent credence by the fact that, in the case of Sufi mysticism, people from various time periods, geographies, and cultures have realized shared experiences. The question that remains, however, is whether these ?accomplishments' are meaningful outside of the limited context of one tradition, or if they indicate the existence of some truths that do not pertain merely to one scriptural and iconographic history, but rather to a universal reality. In the words of Levi-Strauss, there is a binary opposition between the human world and the divine or higher level, it is mediated by the possibility of knowledge or gnosis from the higher order which may be obtained by the mystic (Hermansen, It is, therefore, in the realm of mysticism that an answer might be found regarding what it means to be- outside the bounds of culture, gender, or religion- truly human. [...]

[...] This is an example of ?lucid dreaming,' defined by Hermansen as a state which we can recognize that we are dreaming while the dream is still happening In the realm of mystical experience, the modern concept of lucid dreaming illustrates ibn-al Arabi's statement that Gnostic awareness leads to the understanding that one is a ?dreamer in the state of ordinary wakefulness (Chittick, With the aid of her shaikh's guidance in the halvet, Özelsel has apparently grasped and made use of this inter-conscious ability which serves as both a sign of- and tool for- further removal of the veils. [...]

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