There is an Arabic word of which the root is suluk which signifies the archetype of wayfaring which is physical and spiritual at the same time. The purpose is ascension to the divine while leaving the illusions of selfhood behind. However, the concrete meaning of the root of suluk means “entering into” which is expressed by Ibn al-’Arabi (Sufi mystic), as the metaphor of a needle going through pearls to string a necklace together, and the entering of a traveler on a path. Ibn al-’Arabi begins chapter 189 of his book, Futuhat, with a poem of which this is an excerpt, “Wayfaring is the straightest (aqwam) path, if you keep straight, then you are a wayfarer on it.” It seems contradictory to use a metaphor of a strand of pearls to indicate a straight path, because a pearl necklace while stringing is straight, but once completed the ends are brought together into a circle. Time in our mortal human mind is a linear path from the beginning, past, present, future, and end. Furthermore, we are told in the Qur’an that the way of righteousness is “the straight path.”
The path of piety that we must stay on begins with our commitment to Allah, and then has as its goal paradise and reunion with Allah. However, creation whether physical or spiritual is structured upon spheres or circles. Life is in a constant cycle of birth, death, and resurrection whether in the natural world, or in our lives. The Qur’an mentions the circular cycles in almost every surah, and even states that once our earth and heavens have come to their fulfillment He will create a new heaven and a new earth. Additionally, the Qur’an teaches that if a community refuses to believe its messenger, then he can raise up a different people who will believe to replace the disbelieving community — this is rebirth and revival. So, the metaphor ‘Arabi uses is entirely correct — from the human viewpoint our path is straight, this is what we understand, but from His view all of creation is circular in never-ending patterns that are creative and eternally manifested through His Eternal Divine Being.
The alternative to the straight path is tayyah which means getting lost, wandering, and becoming perplexed (derived from the root, t-i-h, which refers to the desert or the “trackless wilderness.”)(1) Arabic words can have many meanings, which when the roots are compounded, a conglamoration of new meanings that fit together like a puzzle are derived, so another meaning for this root refers to both the act of perishing and becoming proud. When the understanding of the straight path is contrasted with wandering aimlessly about in the trackless wilderness it is easy to understand the spiritual imagery. Being perplexed is living in a state of confusion, and of not seeing by not understanding, or getting mentally directionally lost. The deeper understanding as provided by the additional meaning to the root t-i-h of pride certainly creates even clearer spiritual understanding of the nature of those who are lost in the spiritual landscape where there too many unclear or unmarked paths through the sand, or none at all. The greatest obstacle to spiritual growth is based in the ego that prefers to lead the self as opposed to intentionally with self awareness remaining on the clearer path to Allah and the truth. It is pride that distances us from Allah, which is the purpose of Satan — to lead us away from the truth and subsequently Allah. When we can’t let go of our self control because of our ego needs, then we have a challenging time of letting Allah have control of our lives. True submission to Allah is sacrificing “self” for His purpose. This doesn’t mean leaving our consciousness empty, for when we empty ourselves of our own selfish needs which are driven by the ego, then we leave openness that allows for the indwelling of Allah’s Spirit. The root word for Shaytan (Satan) is sh-T-n which means “to become distant.” Satan is the distancer who is far from Allah, and also whose intention is to keep humans at a far distance from Allah so he may destroy the blessed soul that Allah created for our benefit.
Shaytan was cast away from Allah because of his pride, which is symbolic of what occurs to us when we allow ego to drive us towards following our own desires — this always leads away from Allah. Both the Torah and the Qur’an describe the story of Moses who led the Israelites out of Egyptian slavery. However, their physical journey in the wilderness had twists and turns and was certainly not a straight path. If they had taken a straight path they would have arrived in the promised land much sooner. Again we see the imagery of a physical straight destination from point A to point B (Egypt to Canaan — the promised land), but instead with a wandering about in the desert seemingly with no logic or rationality to the path. When looking deeper, the straight path is spiritually superimposed upon the dangerous wilderness wandering. Allah’s intention was to grow His Chosen people to maturity before reaching the promised land. That was the true straight path — bringing a people who had fallen into distancing closer to Him. Additionally, the aspect of distancing is found in the story of Moses receiving the ten commandments from Allah on the top of a mountain, and while he was there with Allah, the people below on the plains had melted their gold jewelry and made a golden calf to worship. While the Prophet was away, the people did not “feel” the presence of Allah, and spiritually distanced themselves because their faith was not adequately developed at this stage of their journey. Another interesting aspect of this story is the carrying of gold jewelry with them on this journey which symbolically expresses their attachment to material things. Worshiping a golden calf is a transference of their attachment from material things to a false idol — which is exactly what material things are, for when we hold on too tightly to the material and don’t take care of the needs of others, then we have placed material things on the throne before Allah. So, turning away from the worship of Allah to other things is moving away from His protection towards the wilderness of no direction and no path.
This is the state our world is in today. Throughout the Torah, the Gospels and the Qur’an, are beautiful metaphoric images of wilderness areas being turned into places of flourishing by repentance and return to Allah. But, there is no straight path in the desert — it is an immense place of lonely landscape, barren with little life and difficult to find water or sustenance. The water of knowledge doesn’t flow there — it has dried up, and there are no fruit bearing trees. Human beings are wandering in trackless wastes, with no direction. And, any sense of direction they may have had is slowly eroding because they have allowed themselves to wander too far away from the truth. This is the wasteland of Satan; the place of bewilderment and confusion. Their hearts have become veiled and they cannot see due to the deceptive practices of the ego. They have distanced themselves from Allah, and no longer feel His closeness because he doesn’t come near when we draw away unless through another person’s intercessory prayer and even then a person may still ignore Allah’s beckoning. The doorway to the path, to enter into (suluk), will open when people return to Allah. Then the way will be made clear and the dry wilderness will begin to flourish with the understanding of the metaphor of paradise.
(1) The Secret of Voyaging, Ibn al-‘Arabi commentary by translator Angela Jaffray, p. 166, commentary relating to Ibn al-’Arabi’s Futuhat, ch 189
Poem: Islam, Where Are You?
Islam, where are you My son and daughter?
I have been calling you from the beginning of time,
where have you wandered?
I search for you in the depths of your heart
but only find a dark horizon,
where are you?
My messengers have been sent out
with their flame of goodness,
do you see it?
The path is before you,
but you keep turning away;
open your eyes to truth,
so that you may see it before you.
Listen with your ears, and see with your eyes
so that you may understand with your heart.
I am calling you home,
can you hear Me?
Islam, can you hear Me?
The dawn is breaking in the West,
do you understand?