(Copyright Spiegel-Verlag, 31/2007.)

The Shadow

All this talk (on other pages of this site) about transcendence, spiritual elevation and experiences of ascent is fine, but we have to start at the beginning by cleaning out the ground level, or even the basement. This means we have to get our hands dirty and work. No free lunches!

In these post- (or post-post) modern times we have become accustomed to talking about the self and identity as if these had just been discovered. Yet the Sufis were already there and beyond, more than a thousand years ago.

In Islam, “purification of the self” (tazkiya al-nafs) is very important, and has been elaborated into a science by the Sufis. The raw material for this purification process is the self in its natural condition, the self at basement level—the Base Self.

The Base Self is defined in the Koran as “the self which always commands (or compels) to evil” (12:53), where its Arabic name (nafs al-ammara) comes from. The Base Self is the dark side of human nature. It is our inner demon, the hidden self, the beast within, that silently and ceaselessly plots our downfall. The Base Self is like gravity, always pulling the human spirit down to earth, whereas the spirit’s innate tendency is to soar. The higher we jump, the harder we fall, so there is no rest until this enemy to top all enemies is dealt with.

From "The Incredible Hulk" (Copyright Universal Pictures/Marvel Comics, 2003.)

There are many depictions in Western literature and cinema of how the Base Self overcomes the human spirit and takes over the total personality. Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Grey, Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis are all examples of this. And let's not forget the many transformations of human beings into vampires, werewolves, and a plethora of other unsavory creatures.

In Western psychology, it was Carl Gustav Jung who came closest to describing the Base Self in a manner similar to the Sufis. Jung called it “the shadow.” “By shadow,” he said, “I mean the 'negative' side of the personality, the sum of all those unpleasant qualities we like to hide, together with the insufficiently developed functions and the content of the personal unconscious.” He posed a profound riddle: “How do you find a lion that has swallowed you?”

Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual's conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. [M]an also has a shadow side to him, consisting not just of little weaknesses and foibles, but of a positively demonic dynamism.

We carry our past with us, to wit, the primitive and inferior man with his desires and emotions… Taking it in its deepest sense, the shadow is the invisible saurian tail that man still drags behind him. [In an instant, a] gentle and reasonable being can be transformed into a maniac or a savage beast. One is always inclined to lay the blame on external circumstances, but nothing could explode in us if it had not been there. As a matter of fact, we are constantly living on the edge of a volcano, and there is, so far as we know, no way of protecting ourselves from a possible outburst that will destroy everybody within reach.

[T]he acceptance of the shadow-side of human nature verges on the impossible. [The shadow] is unreasonable, senseless, and evil. The hero's main feat is to overcome the monster of darkness…

[The shadow works by projecting its own undesirable traits on others.] A man who is unconscious of himself acts in a blind, instinctive way and is in addition fooled by all the illusions that arise when he sees everything that he is not conscious of in himself coming to meet him from outside as projections upon his neighbour. Just as we tend to assume that the world is as we see it, we naively suppose that people are as we imagine them to be… [W]e still go on naively projecting our own psychology into our fellow human beings. In this way everyone creates for himself a series of more or less imaginary relationships based essentially on projection.

The shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscious of it involves recognizing the dark aspects of the personality as present and real. This act is the essential condition for any kind of self-knowledge. If a man is endowed with an ethical sense and is convinced of the sanctity of ethical values, he is on the surest road to…examin[ing his] conscience and thereby [discovering] the shadow.

If you imagine someone who is brave enough to withdraw all his projections, then you get an individual who is conscious of a pretty thick shadow…Such a man knows that whatever is wrong in the world is in himself, and if he only learns to deal with his own shadow he has done something real for the world. He has succeeded in shouldering at least an infinitesimal part of the gigantic, unsolved social problems of our day.[1]
Yet we find scarcely any mention―and even less conception―of higher levels of selfhood in Western science or culture. These higher levels, seven in all (or nine, depending on how one counts), are first named in the Koran, whence Sufism inherits them.




(Carnal or Base Self)

(ammara) (12:53)























or safiya)

(91:7, 9)

These higher levels of selfhood each have their distinctive signs, attributes, and difficulties as the spiritual pilgrim proceeds on the Journey.

The Base Self in Mythology

As Joseph Campbell implies, one of the keys to understanding fairy tales and mythology (and science fiction!) is that every monster is a symbol for the Base Self. Greek mythology is particularly replete with monsters of this kind. The hero must prove his mettle by besting the beast in mortal combat. Difficult though this may be, it is the loftiest of callings. “It is only,” says Campbell, “those who know neither an inner call nor an outer doctrine whose plight truly is desperate; that is to say, most of us today, in this labyrinth without and within the heart.”

The labyrinth. “The true calling of man,” said Aldous Huxley, “is to find the way to himself.” Our lives, this whole world, are all mazes, as Jorge Luis Borges might say, but in the context of Greek mythology, one is reminded at once of the labyrinth that King Minos of Crete ordered Daedalus, the archetypical scientist, to construct. Daedalus did such a good job that no one who got into it could ever get out. Therein was placed the Minotaur, a savage chimera with the head of a bull and the body of a man. Each year, youths and maidens from Athens would be cast into the maze, there to wander in vain until they were found and devoured by the Minotaur.

Theseus decided to change all that. When he arrived at Crete, the king’s daughter, Ariadne, fell in love with him. In order to save Theseus from the labyrinth, she approached Daedalus, who gave her a ball of (golden) thread. When Theseus entered the labyrinth, he attached one end to the door, and unraveled the thread as he moved in deeper.

From "The Storyteller: Greek Myths," S01E01 (1991)

To vanquish and purify one’s self: this is the hero’s journey, the adventure to beat all adventures. Furthermore, as Campbell points out, we do not risk the adventure alone; for the heroes of all time have gone before us; the labyrinth is thoroughly known; we have only to follow the thread of the hero path.

And…where we had thought to slay another,
we shall slay ourselves;
where we had thought to travel outward,
we shall come to the center of our own existence;
where we had thought to be alone,
we shall be…
…with all the world.[2]

In the following video, we have a composite of two famous mythological themes. The monster the hero fights is the Hydra, known for having seven or nine heads. If any one of the heads is cut off, two heads sprout in its place. (In the Book of Revelation, 12:3, Satan is described as a great red dragon with seven heads.) Since it was Hercules who vanquished the Hydra during his Twelve Labors, one’s first inclination is to identify the hero with him, until one notices that the treasure being guarded is the Golden Fleece, the goal of another mythological cycle: Jason and the Argonauts.

From "Jason and the Argonauts" (Copyright Morningside Productions, 1963.)

Now in the original myth, the guardian monster of the Golden Fleece was the Serpent of Colchis, a critter of quite a different brood from the Hydra. Never sleeping, ever watchful, this serpent of innumerable coils was put to sleep by Medea’s potion and invocation before Jason could claim the Fleece.

Yet both the Hydra and the Serpent draw attention to important qualities of the Base Self, which is wide awake and watching for its chance even when we are asleep­―which is practically all the time, considering that we are asleep even when we are awake! And the more we try to defeat it, the more it springs back, redoubled.

The Base Self is well-nigh indestructible. To kill the Base Self is the most fiendishly difficult job in the world. Like the liquid-metal robot in Terminator 2 (1991), the Base Self almost magically reconstitutes even after it is, as it were, riddled with bullets, frozen, and blown to smithereens:

From James Cameron's "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" (Copyright Studio Canal, 1991-2009.)

In the fairy tale "Sleeping Beauty," the prince must first overcome the terrible dragon before he can revive his beloved princess with a kiss:

From "Sleeping Beauty" (Copyright Walt Disney Productions, 1959.)

The Two Don’ts

As can be seen from our examples, no attack is effective against the Base Self unless the sword is plunged into its heart. But what is the “heart” of the Base Self? What will subdue it? Who has this priceless knowledge?

In this materialistic culture of ours, people are apt to disdain anything they receive free of charge. Because some of the best things in life are free, they tend to look down upon them, realizing their worth only, and almost always, after it is too late. The great secret to besting the Base Self was freely explained by the Master almost every day―which is why few indeed who heard him heeded his advice. It was free pecisely because it is priceless―those who have no use for it won’t pay for it, while for those who would and could use it, it is so valuable that no price could be sufficient, if they only knew. This great transmission reveals to us the secret of bringing the Base Self under control. At first it will appear mundane, even trivial. Yet all the great saints, from Rumi to Ibn Arabi, became saints only after they mastered the two points to be explained below.

Of course, Sufis have used the technique of eating, drinking and sleeping sparingly in order to keep the Base Self weak and hence manageable. Likewise, one should indulge in periodic self-examination, self-criticism, and calling oneself to account. (A Saying of the Prophet: “Call yourselves to account before you are called to account.”)

But even these are of little avail unless the following conditions are met:

When it comes to wealth and lust, do not take what is not rightfully yours.

Illicit gain. Anything that you have not earned or has not been given to you as a gift is forbidden. This is why you need a job, to earn your keep honestly by the sweat of your brow.

Illicit sex. All extramarital sex with others is prohibited. (Marriage in the sense it has been used since time immemorial—legally, to a spouse of the opposite sex.) This means you must resist the temptation of low-hanging fruit. As the Master said, “don't even think about it.” Theano, the wife of Pythagoras and also his spiritual successor, knew the score. She was asked how much time is necessary for a woman to become pure after sexual intercourse. She replied: “If it is with her husband, she is pure immediately; if it is with another, she never is pure.” Of course, this holds true for the man as well. “Marriage,” said George Bernard Shaw, “combines the maximum of temptation with the maximum of opportunity.” What more do you want?
“Whoever observes these two points,” said the Master, “and performs the Five Daily Prayers, let them come to me and I will pin the promotion to sainthood on their lapel.” And he said, “If you shut these two doors, your Base Self is dead.”

Unless these requirements are met, there is no way to purify the Base Self. But suppose you just came upon this, and hadn’t previously known about it—which, of course, you couldn’t have. Then, all one has to do is to make a solemn vow from this moment on. To repent with a sincere repentance. “To say, “My God, I hereby resolve not to take what is illicit nor touch what is illicit.” And from then on, not to break that vow.

Furthermore, we must understand that the Base Self cannot really be destroyed. It or its residue is operative even as one climbs through all the levels of the self, which is why the monster has seven or nine heads instead of just one. Therefore, no matter how accomplished one is, and what one’s station of selfhood may be, these two don’ts must always be observed diligently at every level.

There. I’ve given you the two essentials, the keys to deconstructing the Base Self. Use them wisely, and you won’t regret it. Nor will you find them divulged so clearly anywhere else, with the exception of one or two books related to the Master.

[1] Summarized from http://psikoloji.fisek.com.tr/jung/shadow.htm, which in turn is summarized from Jung’s Collected Works.
[2] Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, Bollingen Series, 2004 [c. 1949], p.23. The last part is so good that I’ve formatted it as poetry. (Italics and emphasis added.)


In order to understand the Ascension, we first need to know something about the Spiritual Journey of the Sufi.

Take a look at the video below.

(From "Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief." Copyright Twentieth Century Fox, 2010.)

The Empire State Building in Manhattan, New York, was long considered the tallest building in the world. Here, in the space of seconds, we see the Spiritual Journey (which can take many years and even a lifetime) encapsulated in a nutshell. Our hero, the Traveler, enters the Path. He walks on the Straight Path until he encounters the Gatekeeper (night guard), who is also the Teacher. The Master looks him over. If he is found worthy, the Teacher gives him the keys that will enable him to reach Floor Omega, which lies beyond physical space. Although not depicted in the video, the disciple continues to walk the Straight Path until he reaches the elevator. This part of his journey can also be likened to the horizontal leg of the Prophet’s Ascension, his trip from Mecca to Jerusalem. When the time comes, the Ascension in the vertical direction (orthogonal to all dimensions) begins.

Below is another symbolic/metaphorical depiction of an Ascension (meeraj). Please bear in mind that such an Ascension is not physical (in three dimensions) but spiritual.

(from Walt Disney's "Atlantis: The Lost Empire")

(Copyright Walt Disney Productions, 2001.)

By loving God, by befriending God (wali: Friend of God or Saint, plural awliya), by obeying His instructions and shunning His prohibitions, the heroine draws closer to God, until she becomes the recipient of Divine Attraction (jazba). She undergoes an Ascension (meeraj) in which she is "beamed up" to God, resulting in Attainment/Joining/Union (wuslat). There have been many woman Saints in Islam, among whom the most famous is Rabia al-Adawiya.

The central core symbolizes the Essence (Zat) of God, who is Light (Koran 24:35). It also symbolizes His Absolute Unity (Ahadiyah or Wahdah). The stone slabs circulating the core are the "masks of God": they symbolize His Attributes (Sifat), after which His Names (Asma) are named. The Attributes (and thus, Names) proceed ("emanate") from the Essence of Absolute Unity. Since they constitute the beginning of Multiplicity, this stage of the Descent is termed Wahidiyah or Wahdaniyah. From these, in turn, proceed the myriad creatures in the universe, constituting Multiplicity (kasrah).

After Absorption into the Godhead (Annihilation in God, called fana fi Allah by the Sufis), the heroine returns to the world (baqa bi Allah). She is, however, totally transformed (tabdil, whence comes abdal), and has reached a condition totally incomparable to anything else in the universe. She has attained a state of Divine Perfection (kamal), and become a Perfect Human Being (insan al-kaamil).



This is a symbolic/metaphorical depiction of an Ascension (miraj) as experienced by the person who undergoes it.

(from Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey")

(Copyright Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), 1968.)

As a footnote: For comparison, watch the following as well. (This, too, is to be regarded simply as symbolic.)

(from Robert Zemeckis's "Contact")

(Copyright Warner Bros. Pictures, 1997.)


Many prophets and saints have experienced Ascension (meeraj or miraj), of which the greatest and most illustrious is that of Mohammed, the Prophet of God. The Prophet was first taken from Mecca to Jerusalem during the Night Journey (Isra), on a heavenly steed called Buraq which is reminiscent of Pegasus, the flying horse. From there, the Prophet began his spiritual ascent orthogonal to the four-dimensional space-time continuum. He traversed the Seven Heavens, until he reached the Paradise of the Essence, where he was granted communion with God Himself.

The Ascension, or Heavenly Journey, has been depicted on various occasions in Islamic art. In almost all of them, the Prophet is seen mounted on his heavenly steed, surrounded by various angels, and wrapped in the flame of Supreme Enlightenment. Note that his face is almost always hidden by a veil, in recognition that no image could do justice to that radiance.


This is a symbolic/metaphorical depiction of a death-rebirth experience.

(from Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey")

(Copyright Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), 1968.)

The death-rebirth experience is prefigured in the Prophet's sayings: "Die before you die," and again: "People

are asleep, they wake up when they die." The Star-Child, eyes wide open, that appears at the end

symbolizes the Spirit-Child (tifl al-maani) or the Child of the Heart (walad al-qalb), mentioned by such Sufis

as the Grand Sheikh Abdulqader Geylani.


[T]he Jewish Cabalists...thought that a work dictated by the Holy Spirit was an absolute text: in other words, a text in which the collaboration of chance was calculable as zero... nothing can be contingent in the work of an infinite mind.

Jorge Luis Borges, “The Mirror of Enigmas”

The Holy Spirit[1] has brought down the Koran from your Lord in all truth.
The Koran, 16:102


In that beautiful Arabian Nights tale, “Aladdin’s Lamp,” the evil magician instructs Aladdin to descend into the Cave of Wonders. “Touch nothing,” he warns, “except the Lamp.”

Once within the cave, Aladdin is confronted with riches beyond belief, even the tiniest portion of which would suffice to make anyone wealthy. Yet he must concentrate on his task and emerge, as he eventually does, laden only with the Lamp.

A fine fairy tale, you might say, evoking memories of childhood and nostalgia for things past? Not according to the Sufis.

Rather, the mystics of Islam would say that the cave is a metaphor for the world and its wonders. “Touching” the world is attachment to anything therein. The Lamp stands for the Heart (the spiritual counterpart of the physical heart). And polishing the Lamp means purifying the Heart. Now what happens when the Lamp is polished? Out comes the Genie of the Lamp, ready to fulfill our every wish.

“Genie,” of course, comes from the word jinn, which derives from the word jann, meaning “hidden.” (In Scandinavian folklore, too, the fairy folk are called huld or huldre, meaning “hidden” in Norwegian.) In the same way, jannah, the Arabic word for Paradise, is a walled (hence, hidden) garden, as is indeed “Paradise” itself, deriving from the Persian Pairi-daeza (Pairi surrounding, daeza wall, implying a garden enclosed with walls, still common in the Middle East).

What do we make of the story, then? We must “go placidly among the noise and haste,” remaining
unattached to the world and its myriad allures, and concentrate on polishing our Hearts. When the Heart is sufficiently purified, the power or Power hidden within will manifest itself.

According to the Sufis, the Heart is the seat of God, as is apparent from the Holy Saying of the Prophet: “The heavens and earth cannot contain Me, but the Heart of My believing servant does.” But how do we do polish the Heart? A verse from the Koran provides the clue: “Only by the invocation of God do hearts find solace” (13:28).

Here is a gem from the Koran that any cursory reading might easily overlook. The language of the Koran is very clear, leading to the impression that one can understand it straight away, yet the multidimensional meanings of each Arabic word practically insure that some of the meanings will remain hidden to us.

The Difficulties of the Koran

Just the other day, for example, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the second Sacred Verse revealed to the Prophet had a deeper, unsuspected meaning. It is said there that “God created man of a blood clot (alaq)” (96:2). Now this is usually interpreted as being a reference to an embryo, which clings, as a blood clot might, to the inner wall of a womb. But one of the meanings of alaq, as of the closely related alaqa, is “affection, love.” Right after God exhorted the Prophet to “Read,” therefore, He was telling him that He had created humankind with affection and love. This is a much more meaningful sense of the second verse as it pertains to humanity, for many other creatures besides human beings also grow from embryos.

The deceptive simplicity of the Koran, combined with the personal predilections of translators, make the task of understanding the Koran a well-nigh insuperable one, especially in translation. Every translation of the Koran, the meanings of which are manifold and multidimensional, is a one-dimensional projection (a “shadow”) of it in another language. If we attempt to read it as we would a newspaper or fairy tale, we shall end up highly undernourished. No pain, no gain. Any better understanding of the Koran would require years of study, and certainly the numerous commentaries on the Koran would have to be consulted.

Even in the Prophet’s time, his Companions were hard pressed to understand every verse. Sometimes the Arabic language itself fell short, and words form other languages had to be borrowed, which the Prophet would then proceed to explain in the Koranic context. The Occasions of Revelation, namely the circumstances leading to the revelation of a particular Verse, also were, and still need to be, meticulously studied. But since fools rush in where angels fear to tread, every Tom, Dick or Harry now attempts to read the Koran expecting immediate full comprehension. Good luck.

A Brief Look at Modern Physics

Before we say anything further about the Koran, we shall have to take a brief detour through modern physics, especially quantum physics. The reason may not be immediately apparent, but this excursion is necessary nevertheless.

Quantum mechanics is holistic. In holism, a system is more than the simple sum of its parts, the system as a whole determines in an important way how the parts behave. (Perhaps, for this reason, it should rather be called “quantum organics.”) This was inherent even in Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, because we cannot observe a particle without disturbing its state. This was also why Heisenberg said that the simple categories of “objective” and “subjective” had broken down. At least one physicist, David Bohm, was led by this to a “new notion of unbroken wholeness which denies the classical idea of analyzability of the world into separately and existing parts.…Rather, we say that inseparable quantum interconnectedness of the whole universe is the fundamental reality, and that relatively independent behaving parts are merely particular and contingent forms within this whole.”[2] In recent decades, terms such as inseparability, entanglement and nonlocality have become stock items in the lexicon of quantum physicists.

Einstein was not quite at home with quantum theory, but perhaps he would have found a deeper meaning in it if he had known of its recently-recognized implications. In his time, quantum theory was regarded as basically probabilistic, whereas Einstein argued that “The Lord God does not play dice with the universe.” Perhaps he would have been better impressed with the notion of an undivided cosmos. In 1935, Einstein, together with Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen, published an article on why he could not consider quantum mechanics complete. He and his co-authors outlined a thought-experiment which seemed to imply that “spooky action at a distance” was possible, which they dismissed out of hand. (For this reason, the conjecture was referred to as the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen or EPR paradox.) Yet in 1982, Alain Aspect actually performed the experiment, and proved that action of this kind was indeed, apparently, taking place. To quote Michael Talbot,

Aspect and his team discovered that under certain circumstances subatomic particles such as electrons are able to instantaneously communicate with each other regardless of the distance separating them. It doesn't matter whether they are 10 feet or 10 billion miles apart. Somehow each particle always seems to know what the other is doing. The problem with this feat is that it violates Einstein's long-held tenet that no communication can travel faster than the speed of light.[3]

It has been said that quantum physics is “irreducibly nonlocal.” That is, it allows for faster-than-light connections. This, however, is problematic, because the universal speed limit of light has held up under a broad range of experiments. To account for this discrepancy, David Bohm theorized that there was a hidden “Implicate Order” underlying physical phenomena. This conception avoids the pitfall of faster-than-light communication.

The Holograph

To illustrate what he means by Implicate, or enfolded, Order, Bohm uses the example of a holograph (or hologram). Split a beam of laser light, allow one part to be reflected off an object—for example, a rose—recombine the reflected and unreflected parts, train them on a photographic plate, and you obtain a holograph.

The holograph of a rose is very different from the photograph of a rose: it does not look anything like the rose at all. In fact, it does not remotely resemble any object, but is an abstract pattern of interference fringes. Yet when one shines a beam of laser light through the holographic transparency, one obtains a three-dimensional image of the rose.

Figure 1. A hologram (left) and the image it produces (right). The transparency on the left is a hologram, but it displays no discernible shape. It reveals the image of a fiery-red car which has been "enfolded" into the transparency, however, when illuminated by red laser light from the right (not in picture). Even a small part of a holograph yields the entire image when illuminated, as shown below.

3-D imaging, however, is hardly the most conspicuous feature of a holograph. Cut the holograph of the rose in two, shine a laser beam through either part, and the whole image of the rose reappears, albeit reduced in size. Repeat the process of cutting, the result does not change. In fact, information about the entire rose has been encoded into every tiniest section of the holograph. Now, let us return to Bohm:

The hologram does not look like the object at all, but gives rise to an image only when it is suitably illuminated. The hologram seems, on cursory inspection, to have no significant order to it, and yet there must somehow be in it an order that determines the order of points that will appear in the image when it is illuminated. We may call this order implicit, but the basic root of the word implicit means ‘enfolded’. So in some sense, the whole object is enfolded in each part of the hologram rather than being in point-to-point correspondence. We may therefore say that each part of the hologram contains an enfolded order essentially similar to that of the object and yet obviously different in form.

As we develop this idea, we shall see that this notion of enfoldment is not merely a metaphor, but that it has to be taken fairly literally. To emphasise this point, we shall therefore say that the order in the hologram is implicate. The order in the object, as well as in the image, will then be unfolded and we shall call it explicate.[4]

In this view, the principle behind a hologram applies to the universe at large. Information about every part of the universe is enfolded into every other part. In other words, at bottom the universe is undivided, indeed indivisible. If we use the word “atom” in its original sense (a- no, tom parts), the universe is the only true atom.

But this is precisely the vision of the famous Sufi, Ibn Arabi. His conception, based on actually experienced mystical states of consciousness, is called the “Unity of Being” (wahdah al-wujud). That is, all of existence is one, an indivisible whole. To us, this is theory. To the Sufis, it is a fact of immediate experience.

The Koran as Symphony

Let us now return to the Koran. According to Professor Ziauddin Sardar,

The Qur'an is definitely not a linear text. For example, the first verses revealed to the prophet Muhammad are not at the beginning but at the start of the 96th chapter of the Qur'an (96:1-5). The last revelation comes in the third verse of the fifth (5:3) of the Qur'an's 114 chapters, known as surahs. Moreover, the Qur'an does not deal with its subjects in one place but in several places, dropping them suddenly and then picking up later in the text. It says one thing on one subject in one place, and something quite different on the same subject elsewhere.

What we can all agree on is that the structure and style of the Qur'an is complex. It defies expectations of being a simple story and therefore raises questions about how and why it is structured as it is and what we should understand from this arrangement.

Sound plays a very important part in the structure of the Qur'an. Before it was a written text, the Qur'an existed as sound; this is why it is often compared to an epic poem. But I like to think of it in terms of a musical symphony. Just like the notes in a symphony may be repeated, so the verses in the Qur'an are frequently repeated. Just as misplaced notes may play havoc with the whole symphony so a misreading of the Qur'an leads the whole text to be out of sync. This is why Muslims pay so much attention to the correct reading of the Qur'an. …

I find the complexity of structure and style of the Qur'an insistently points to necessary relationships, to the need to think of things not in separate compartments but as involved and integrated with each other. In contemporary terms, I think, the Qur'an invites us to take a multidimensional rather than a one-dimensional approach to all aspects of life.[5]

Goethe’s views on the Prophet and the Koran

Carlyle had ranked the Prophet of God among his heroes. Goethe, in his West-Eastern Divan, did not hesitate to call him the “Head of created beings.” Goethe was a holistic thinker who believed that all of nature is one. He also wrote: “If Islam means submission to God, We all live and die in Islam," “I try to remain in Islam,” and “we have to remain inside Islam, (that means: in complete submission to the will of God)...”

In fact, the name of Goethe’s Divan, as well as its following lines:

To God belongs the East
To God belongs the West
Northern and southern lands
Rest in the peace of His hands

were inspired by the Koran, where God is called the “Lord of the two Easts, and Lord of the two Wests” (55:17). (The “two” here refers to the material and spiritual realms.)

Similarly, in relation to Mohammed and the Koran, Goethe’s view was: "He is a prophet and not a poet and therefore his Koran is to be seen as a divine law and not as a book of a human being.” We can see here that Goethe was prepared to go much further than many Westerners in accepting Mohammed as a prophet and the Koran as divine law.

A Man for All Times

Professor Michael Hart, who made a special study of the most influential men in history, selected the Prophet of God as the highest-ranking person. Here is how Hart explains his choice:

My choice of Muhammad to lead the list of the world's most influential persons may surprise some readers and may be questioned by others, but he was the only man in history who was supremely successful on both the religious and secular levels. …

[T]he influence of Muhammad through the medium of the Koran has been enormous. It is probable that the relative influence of Muhammad on Islam has been larger than the combined influence of Jesus Christ and St. Paul on Christianity. On the purely religious level, then, it seems likely that Muhammad has been as influential in human history as Jesus.

Furthermore, Muhammad (unlike Jesus) was a secular as well as a religious leader. In fact, as the driving force behind the Arab conquests, he may well rank as the most influential political leader of all time. …

The Arab conquests and Islam are two different things. The Arabs of the time used Islam to justify the spread of their hegemony. But they could not have done this in the absence of Islam and of Arab unification, both of which were due to the Prophet. (Islam pronounced all Muslims brethren. Once the Arabian peninsula was Islamized, the disparate Arab tribes were united as never before by this precept.) Hart again:

It is this unparalleled combination of secular and religious influence which I feel entitles Muhammad to be considered the most influential single figure in human history.[6]

Like Hart, Professor Harold Bloom, a prominent literary and cultural critic, felt compelled to rank Mohammed among the hundred greatest geniuses in history. “No one else,” writes Bloom, “has given us a text in which God alone is the speaker.” That he lists Mohammed among geniuses points to the fact that, like many others before him, he implicitly delegates authorship of the Koran to Mohammed. But anything further would imply that the good professor had become a convert, which would be too much to ask.

The Literary Aspects of the Koran

Thus, Bloom proposes to treat the Koran as literature. Let us oblige him, quoting just enough to follow his argument and discern his style:

The Koran has little in common with the Talmud, but, as an interpretation of the Hebrew patriarchs and prophets, it seems to me highly persuasive.

...even Moses does not occupy as solitary and crucial a position in Judaism as Muhammad does in Islam. It is therefore something of a puzzle for the non-Muslim reader that so little sense of Muhammad's individual personality is conveyed by the Koran, as opposed to the overwhelming sense of the God's nature and disposition.[7]

This is because the Prophet has made himself totally transparent to God and His message: there is no "Muhammad" therein, only God speaks.

Urgency of course is also a frequent mark of the Hebrew Bible and of the New Testament, but rarely is the pace so relentless as it is throughout the Koran.

[Even the God] of Muhammad's earlier Meccan suras is already...the biblical God of Abraham, Noah, Moses, and Jesus, the Jewish Christian God who is paradoxically both wholly transcendent and wholly immanent.

There is a rhetorical finality and completeness to the Koran, as well as an awesome apparent simplicity that at first makes the reader impatient of commentary. The Hebrew Bible, in whole as in part, is a very difficult text, and much in the New Testament is confused and contradictory, while the Koran somehow appears to be stunningly open and clarified, massively self-consistent, and extraordinarily coherent.[8]

This apparent simplicity must be accompanied by a caveat: no matter how well we think we understand it, the Koran is more like a textbook of advanced calculus, and must be approached in that spirit. Verse 3:7 tells us that some verses are clear, easily understood (muhkam), while others are allegorical (mutashabih). Only God knows their true meaning, and only those well-grounded in knowledge can understand them.

In my own experience as a reader of literature, the Koran rarely makes a biblical impression on me, particularly of an aesthetic sort. Sometimes, as I immerse myself in reading the Koran, I am reminded of William Blake or of Walt Whitman; at other moments, I think of Dante... [These three] approximate a divine voice, which is what we hear incessantly in the Koran. ... The Koran is a vast, prophetic prose poem, one that emphasizes the centrality and continuity of the prophetic tradition. [It] is both a renewal of tradition and a breakthrough into what will come beyond tradition, which must mean beyond prophecy itself. Here, the Koran is mysterious, and perhaps legitimates the Islamic mystics, the Sufis...[9]

To clarify: the Prophet combined both prophethood (nubuwwa) and sainthood (wilaya) within himself. Prophethood has ended, but sainthood continues. Back to Bloom:

For what is the Koran? It is anything but a closed book, even if it is the seal of prophecy. As much as the Bible, or Dante, or even Shakespeare, the Koran is the Book of Life...it is a universal book, again as open and generous...as the masterworks of Shakespeare or Cervantes. The Sufis found their center in sura 24:35, a sublime passage on the God as light, and a paean to the persuasive universalism of the poet-prophet Muhammad.[10]

Here Bloom quotes from the translation by Ahmed Ali:

God is the light of the heavens and the earth.
The semblance of His light is that of a niche
in which is a lamp, the flame within a glass,
the glass a glittering star as it were, lit with the oil
of a blessed tree, the olive, neither of the East
nor of the West, whose oil appears to light up
even though fire touches it not,--light upon light.
God guides to His light whom He will.
So does God advance precepts of wisdom for men,
for God has knowledge of every thing.

Bloom next comments on this famous Light Verse:

It is a perfect poem in itself, a miracle and yet natural, and in no way sectarian: "light upon light." The niche may be the heart of Muhammad, or finally any discerning heart: "God guides to His light whom He will." That blessed olive tree, neither of the East [n]or of the West, is everywhere and nowhere, wherever and whenever a purified vision alights. Purely as a provocation to aesthetic appreciation, this celebrated rhapsody to light is comparable only to crucial theophanies in Dante and Blake, and to biblical and post-biblical apostrophes that invoke a liberating illumination. Not least, this rapture is an epitome of the Koran, another evidence of its authentic status as a central book for everyone.[11]

Ocean of Prophetic Eloquence

Professor Arthur J. Arberry, who made one of the most well-regarded translations into English of the Koran, was likewise impressed by its eloquence. “I have been at pains,” says Arberry, “to study the intricate and richly varied rhythms which—apart from the message itself—constitute the Koran's undeniable claim to rank amongst the greatest literary masterpieces of mankind. ... This very characteristic feature—‘that inimitable symphony’ [M.M. Pickthall]—has been almost totally ignored by previous translators; it is therefore not surprising that what they have wrought sounds dull and flat indeed in comparison with the splendidly decorated original. For the Koran is neither prose nor poetry, but a unique fusion of both.” He continues:

The reader of the Koran, particularly if he has to depend upon a version, however accurate linguistically, is certain to be puzzled and dismayed by the apparently random nature of many of the Suras. This famous inconsequence has often been attributed to clumsy patchwork on the part of the first editors. I believe it to be rather of the very nature of the Book itself. In many passages it is stated that the Koran had been sent down ‘confirming what was before it’, by which was meant the Torah and the Gospel; the contents of the Jewish and Christian scriptures, excepting such falsifications as had been introduced into them, were therefore taken as true and known. All truth was thus present simultaneously within the Prophet's enraptured soul; all truth, however fragmented, revealed itself in his inspired utterance. The reader of the Muslim scriptures must strive to attain the same all-embracing apprehension. The sudden fluctuations of theme and mood will then no longer present such difficulties as have bewildered critics ambitious to measure the ocean of prophetic eloquence with the thimble of pedestrian analysis. Each Sura will now be seen to be a unity within itself, and the whole Koran will be recognized as a single revelation, self-consistent to the highest degree.[12]

Indeed, the Prophet referred to the suras (chapters) of the Koran as “my books.” Perhaps it would be more accurate, therefore, to regard the Koran not as a single book, but as a collection of 114 books. Arberry hoped that “some faint impression may be given of its dramatic impact and most moving beauty” by his “interpretation, poor echo though it is of the glorious original.”

The Koran as Indra’s Net

According to Hindu mythology, an artificer once manufactured a splendid net of jewels, each reflecting the others and the reflections of their reflections, and so on to infinity. The image of this dazzling, this magnificent, net is nothing but a metaphor for the universe itself. But equally, we now begin to perceive that it is a metaphor for the Koran as well. The Koran may be structured in the same way as the universe: it may be holographic.

In his last book, Professor Norman O. Brown turned his attention to “the Apocalypse of Islam,” where he focused on the Koran in connection with James Joyce’s masterpiece, Finnegans Wake:

The apocalyptic style is totum simul, simultaneous totality: the whole in every part. Marshall Hodgson, in The Venture of Islam—still the outstanding and only ecumenical Western history—says of the Koran, "Almost every element which goes to make up its message is somehow present in any given passage." Simultaneous totality, as in Finnegans Wake. Or, more generally, what Umberto Eco calls "The Poetics of the Open Work": "We can see it as an infinite contained within finiteness. The work therefore has infinite aspects, because each of them, and any moment of it, contains the totality of the work." Eco is trying to characterize a revolution in the aesthetic sensibility of the West: we are the first generation in the West able to read the Koran, if we are able to read Finnegans Wake. In fact Carlyle's reaction to the Koran—"a wearisome confused jumble, crude, incondite; endless iterations, long-windedness, entanglement"—is exactly our first reaction to Finnegans Wake. The affinity between this most recalcitrant of sacred texts and this most avant-garde of literary experiments is a sign of our times. Joyce was fully aware of the connection...

In both the Koran and Finnegans Wake this effect of simultaneous totality involves systematic violation of the classic rules of unity, propriety and harmony; bewildering changes of subject; abrupt juxtaposition of incongruities.

Hence, it does not matter in what order you read the Koran: it is all there all the time; and it is supposed to be all there all the time in your mind or at the back of your mind... In this respect the Koran is more avant-garde than Finnegans Wake, in which the overall organization is entangled in both the linear and the cyclical patterns the novel is trying to transcend.[13]

Here one is also reminded of “holopoetry,” developed in recent times by Eduardo Kac. Another similarity that Brown finds with Finnegans Wake is that language buckles under the weight of the message:

In the Koran as in Finnegans Wake there is a destruction of human language. To quote Seyyed Hossein Nasr: “...Many people, especially non-Muslims, who read the Quran for the first time are struck by what appears as a kind of incoherence from the human point of view. It is neither like a highly mystical text nor a manual of Aristotelian logic, though it contains both mysticism and logic. It is not just poetry although it contains the most powerful poetry. The text of the Quran reveals human language crushed by the power of the Divine Word.”[14]

Some Sufis might even aver that the heavenly archetype of the Koran, the “Mother of the Book” or “Guarded Tablet,” constitutes the DNA of the universe itself. God’s light (and God is Divine Light, “the Light of the heavens and the earth”), passing through the prism of the Guarded Tablet, projects the universe (after passing through multiple layers of existence) as a four-dimensional spacetime bubble. This Cosmic Blueprint then becomes actualized in the myriad phenomena that meet the eye.

It is as if William Blake, in his famous lines, had the reading of “the Reading” (for this is what the “Koran” means) in mind:

To see the world in a grain of sand
And heaven in a wild flower;
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity
in an hour.



[1] That is, Gabriel (2:97).
[2] David Bohm, “On the Intuitive Understanding of Nonlocality as Implied by Quantum Theory,” Foundations of Physics, vol 5, 1975.
[3] Michael Talbot, "The Universe as a Hologram," http://twm.co.nz/hologram.html, acc. Jan. 30, 2008.
[4] David Bohm and Basil Hiley, The Undivided Universe, London: Routledge, 1993, pp. 353-4.
[5] http://blogs.guardian.co.uk/quran/2008/01/nature_and_style_of_the_quran.html.
[6] Michael H. Hart, The 100: a Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History, New York: Citadel, 2000 (revised ed.), c1978, pp. 3-10.
[7] Harold Bloom, Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds, New York: Warner Books, 2002, pp. 143-153, esp. 148ff.
[8] Ibid., 150, 152.
[9] Ibid., 153.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid., 154.
[12] A.J. Arberry, The Koran Interpreted, London: Oxford U. Pr., c1955, p. xi.
[13] Norman O. Brown, Apocalypse and/or Metamorphosis. Berkeley: University of California Press, c1991, pp. 88-90.
[14] Ibid., p.90.


—If the doors of perception were cleansed, every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern.

William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

—To be awake is everything.

Gustav Meyrink, The Green Face

Who was Ahmet Kayhan, my Master?

We shall discover the answer at the end of this text.

In what follows, we shall attempt to unpack the meaning of some sayings belonging to Mohammed, the Prophet of God.

1. The Prophet said: “This world is the prison of the faithful.”

2. The Prophet said: “People are asleep, they wake up when they die.”

Right now, as you are reading this, you imagine you are awake. No! You are asleep, and dreaming.

3.The Prophet said: “Die before you die.”

We can infer, then, that the Prophet is telling us to WAKE UP before we die.

The Koran says: “God wishes to purify you completely,” “to lead you out of darkness into light.” (33:33, 33:43)

(Sleep is traditionally associated with darkness, consciousness with light. There are various levels of consciousness, and the light of the midday sun, as psychologist Carl Gustav Jung also noted, stands for superconsciousness.)

And: “God is the Light of the heavens and the earth… Light upon light.” (24:35)

Now, what does the Prophet mean when he says that “this world is a prison”? The first and trivial meaning, of course, is that the faithful will go to Heaven in the next world, compared to which this world is indeed a prison.

But is that all?

In order to shed light on this question, we turn to Plato’s famous story, the Allegory of the Cave (henceforth referred to simply as “the Cave”).

The Sufis held Plato in the highest regard, referring to him as “the divine Plato.” They even claimed that the Prophet Mohammed said: “The divine Plato was a prophet, but his people didn’t know it.”[1] We are about to find out why they did so.

What Dostoevsky’s account of the Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov is for literature, that Plato’s account of the Cave in The Republic is for philosophy. The 20th-century philosopher and mathematician, Alfred North Whitehead, once observed that the whole of western philosophy in the last 2500 years “consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” And in like manner, we would not be far wrong if we said that the entire philosophy of Plato consists of a series of footnotes to the Cave. So the Cave is that important.

As everyone knows, Plato learned what he knew from his teacher Socrates, whom Plato always writes about. Of course, it is not obvious what precisely is Plato’s gloss and what genuinely belongs to Socrates, but we won’t let that little twaddle stand in our way.

As the dialog seems a bit outdated, what follows is a fanciful conversation as it might occur today. The clay animation below gives some idea of what Plato is talking about. The original version of the allegory is reproduced in an Appendix.

Plato’s Cave Today

Plato and Socrates were observing Earth from their vantage point in the Great Beyond.

“You know,” said Socrates, “now that humanity has reached the twenty-first century, I think your allegory of the Cave needs an upgrade to a newer version.”

“Pardon me, Master,” said Plato, “but wasn’t the allegory originally yours?”

“So many centuries have passed that memory fails me,” mused Socrates. “Besides, people call it by your name. But I’ve been thinking about this, and I’ve come up with something viable, I believe. Listen up and see how you like it.

“There’s this psychologist who decides to perform a long-term study on perception management. Accordingly, his university leases a small movie theater, or maybe they allocate an auditorium for the project, and a bunch of orphans are recruited as subjects for the experiment.”

“I don’t know,” said Plato. “They have laws against child experimentation nowadays.”

“The university arranges permission somehow,” snapped Socrates. “anyway, don’t interrupt me so I can tell the whole story to the end.”

“In the theater,” he went on, “the subjects are strapped to rows of comfortable seats in an auditorium. Behind this large chamber is the projection room. From here, a movie is projected with a movie projector onto a large projection screen at the front of the seats. I’m sure you’re familiar with the mechanism?”

“A powerful arc light projects images on celluloid film streaming in front of it onto the screen.”

“Exactly. Caterers attend to the needs of subjects during intermissions. At least two decades pass, during which the subjects are constantly exposed to movies during their waking hours. That reminds me, aren’t children exposed to TV for about the same period these days?

“Now, the psychologist is interested in the long-term effects of perceptual distortion. Of course he could, through displaying proper movies to his subjects, give them a pretty good idea of what is going on in the outside world. But because of his chosen field, everything the subjects watch is out of whack. They are mostly shown shadows of objects instead of the objects themselves, or weird abstract surreal designs, and hear only reverberating echoes instead of direct sounds. And so the years pass. In time, the subjects lose all recollection of the outside world.”

“That’s a strange image, and those are strange subjects,” said Plato, “though I can see the parallels with your earlier Cave allegory.”

“They’re not much different from us, you’ll see,” replied Socrates. “Having no other experiences, the subjects try to form a consensus reality from their perceptions. To them, the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows, abstract images and echoes.”


“Finally, the day comes for the psychologist to release a subject. He leads her out of the auditorum’s entrance into the foyer. What will happen? When the subject emerges from the auditorium door, and looks towards the light, she will suffer sharp pains. The glare will distress her, and she will be unable to see the realities themselves while, in her former state, she had seen only their shadows. Then, if the psychologist tells her that what she saw before was an illusion, but that now, when she is approaching nearer to being and her eye is turned towards more real existence, she has a clearer vision, what will be her reply? And you may further imagine that the psychologist is pointing to the objects as they pass and requiring her to name them, won’t she be perplexed? Won’t she fancy that the shadows she formerly saw were more real than the objects that she is now shown?”

“Definitely,” concurred Plato.

“And if she is compelled to look straight at the light, won’t she have pain in her eyes which will make her cringe and turn away? She will refuse to gaze at the objects of vision which she can see. The shadows she was accustomed to, she will conceive to be in reality clearer than the things which are now being shown her.”


“Next, she is reluctantly dragged out into the street, and held fast until she's forced into the presence of the sun itself. Won’t she likely be pained and irritated? When she approaches the light, her eyes will be dazzled, and she will not be able to see anything at all of what we now call realities.”

“Not immediately, anyway.”

“First she will need to get used to the sight of the world outside. At first, she will see the shadows best. Next, the reflections of men and other objects in the water, and then the objects themselves. Then she will gaze upon the light of the moon, the stars, and the starry sky. At first, she will see the sky and the stars by night better than the sun or the sunlight by day.”


“She will be able to look at the sun last of all, and not merely at reflections of it in the water. Then she will see the sun in its own proper place, and will contemplate it as it is.”


“She will then understand that it is the sun which produces the seasons and the years. That it is the benefactor of everything in the visible world, and in one way or another, the root cause of all things which she and her friends have been accustomed to behold.”

“Clearly, she would first see the sun and then reason things through.”

“And when she remembers her previous condition, and what passes for wisdom in the cinema and her fellow subjects, don’t you think she would count herself lucky to be out of there, and would pity those she left behind?”

“Certainly, she would.”

“And supposing they had got into the habit of ranking each other on those who were quickest to observe the fleeting shadows and images, to remark which of them went before, which followed after, and which were together, and who were therefore best able to predict what comes next. Do you think that she would care for such honors and glories, or envy those who won first prize? Wouldn’t she consider it better to be free even though poor in the outside world, rather than return to the measly prizes of that dark theater?”

“Yes, I think she would suffer anything rather than return to those false notions and live that miserable life.”

“Next, the psychologist returns our subject to her previous condition. Wouldn’t her eyes be full of darkness at first?”

“Of course.”

“And suppose there were a contest, and she had to compete in measuring the shadows with the subjects who had never been taken outside, while her sight was still weak, and before her eyes had become steady―and the time which would be needed to acquire this new habit of sight might be considerable. Wouldn’t she seem ridiculous? Her companions would say of her that out she went and in she came, minus her eyes. That it was better not even to think of going out. And if one of them tried to free another and lead him out to the light, let them only catch the offender, and they would put him to death.”

Plato wiped a tear from his eye. “What’s the matter?” said Socrates. “Master,” said Plato, “that is precisely what they did to you! You were tried, convicted, and sentenced to death, for supposedly ‘corrupting’ the youth of Athens. What I call enlightenment, they called corruption!”

“Now, now, my son,” replied Socrates, “it’s all in the distant past. I remember how distressed you were as I drank the poison hemlock, but even then you were more disturbed than I was. We have to face the vicissitudes of life with equanimity. We all had to die someday, and we did. Death spares no one.

“Anyway, let me finish my allegory update. The movie theater is our observable world or the world of the senses, the arc light is the sun, and the journey outside is the ascent of the soul in the spiritual world. The idea of God is apprehended last of all. As our good friend Plotinus pointed out after you came over to this side, the sun in the parable symbolizes God. His light is seen only with an effort, and when seen, He is also understood to be the Universal Author of all things beautiful and right; indeed, of all things. God is the source of light and of the sun in this visible world. He is the immediate source of reason and truth. And this is the power upon which whoever would act rationally, either in public or private life, must have his eye fixed.”[2]

The Sufi version

As it happens, there is also a Sufi version of the Cave:

A woman was sentenced to life imprisonment as the result of a crime she committed. The woman, who was pregnant, gave birth to a baby in her cell when her term was full. We shall call the child Evan, for reasons to be explained below. Because she had no relatives outside, she raised the child in her cell. The child reached the age of fifteen without any knowledge of the external world.

One day, a wise man was branded as a thought criminal and placed in the same jail. When he met Evan, he thought to himself: “God must have sent me here for Evan’s sake.” The sage began teaching the child. Since Evan was very intelligent and clever, they made quick progress. The more Evan’s knowledge grew, the more the questions did as well. For his part, the sage was very happy about these questions. Evan was quick at learning, digesting, and wanting to see the truth.

Evan’s mother, however, was not happy. If Evan ever learned the whole truth, she might lose her only child. So she was opposed to the sage teaching Evan. But the sage wanted to deliver the child from this cloistered existence which, he thought, Evan had not done aything to deserve.

When Evan had learned enough, the sage said: “I have one last lesson to teach you. But I leave it up to you to fulfill its requirements. The choice will be yours.” The child said, “I’ll do what I can.”

“In that case, follow me,” said the sage. He took the child to the jail’s main exit and showed Evan the external world. Up to that moment, the sage had given abstract knowledge and shown some pictures. But now, Evan was observing the outside world in person, and beholding the beauties contained therein. The child asked: “I don’t know why I’m here. Can I leave?”

The wise man said: “You can leave this place and gain your freedom, which is your birthright, whenever you want. There is no reason for you to stay here.”

Evan was overjoyed, but then the child’s eyes clouded over: “What about my mother?”

“Your journey with her ends here,” said the sage. “From now on, you should live your life freely. But if you want to be liberated from this prison, you should be prepared for combat.”

Evan asked: “Sir, I have no enemies. Whom shall I fight against?” The sage replied: “Against your own self. You must leave behind everything that obstructs your freedom. This isn’t easy. Even if you leave it, it won’t let go of you, just like your mother. Winning freedom is possible only with a strong will, patience, and constant struggle. This is called a war without a peace. It doesn’t end till the goal is reached.”

Evan looked one last time at the cold walls of the jail, mourned all those long years of imprisonment, and resolved, no matter how much Mother would beg, to start a new life on the outside.

We have imprisoned ourselves with our own consciousness, and locked the door to our cell with our own hands.[3]

That’s the story. Now, we have called the child Evan for two reasons. First, this name can be given to both boys and girls, and hence is gender-free. Second, the meaning of Evan in Celtic is “young warrior.” In the original Sufi story, the child is called Mujahid, which also means “warrior, struggler.” Considering the young age of the child, Evan seemed a fitting choice.

Asleep in a Cave

Once the story of the Cave is told, Socrates/Plato goes on to explain his ideas of justice and the form of the good. The Cave siginifies much more than that, however. For it is first and foremost a tale of spiritual education, even more than an intellectual one. It describes the soul’s ascent in the spiritual world, finally perceiving that all things owe their existence to the “sun,” which, as Plotinus well realized, symbolizes God, whom both he and Plato called "the One" (Gk. to En, Ar. al-Ahad). As such, the provenance of the Cave would appear to be Ancient Egypt, where both Socrates and Plato are claimed to have spent many years. Plato himself said he respected the wisdom of the Egyptian priests. The Prophet’s Ascent (meeraj) is the archetype for all spiritual ascents of this kind.

We can easily see that the Cave, associated with philo-sophia or “the love of wisdom,” has relevance for religion, spirituality, and mysticism as well.[4] Although philosophy was originally part and parcel of this whole package, starting with Plato’s student Aristotle, it became a separate specialized discipline. We have to go back to Plato and the pre-Socratics to recover the roots of philosophy, which, being “a series of footnotes,” it is never wholly divorced from.

On the second quotation from the Prophet, “People are asleep, they wake up when they die,” the following excerpt from Gustav Meyrink’s The Green Face sheds light. Here, waking up is equivalent to emerging from the Cave:

Man is firmly convinced that he is awake; in reality he is caught in a net of sleep and dreams which he has unconsciously woven himself. The tighter the net, the heavier he sleeps. Those who are trapped in its meshes are the sleepers who walk through life…indifferent and without a thought in their heads. Seen through the meshes, the world appears to the dreamers like a piece of lattice-work: they only see misleading apertures, act accordingly, and are unaware that what they see are simply the debris of an enormous whole. These dreamers are not, as you may perhaps think, dwellers in a world of fantasy and poets. They are the everyday men, the workers, the restless ones, consumed by a mad desire for restlessness. [In the end, all their efforts come to naught.] They say they are awake, but what they think life is, is really only a dream, every detail of which is fixed in advance and independent of their free will.

There have been, and still are, a few men who have known that they were dreaming.[5]

“Who dies once, does not die again”[6]

Finally, we come to the third saying attributed to the Prophet, “Die before you die.” As Plato points out, perfect knowledge of the Real is impossible in this life, so philosophy is a preparation for dying and being dead.[7] What happens when you do this? Examples are so scarce that it is hard to generalize. But for the Sufis, it means going through a death-rebirth experience where you are reborn in a way radically different from your earlier constitution.

In his Mystery of Mysteries, the Grand Sheikh Abdulqader Geylani, one of the greatest Sufis, draws attention to the words of Jesus: “Unless a man is born again, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God” (John 3:3). “What is meant by this,” says the Grand Sheikh, “is birth in the world of meaning, the spiritual world.” Geylani also sheds light on another saying of Jesus: “Unless one is born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God” (John 3:5). He says that the first birth, from water, refers to birth into the physical world. This follows directly from the Koranic verse: “We have formed man of mixed water” (76:2). The second (spiritual) birth, he says, makes a human being “twice-born”: “Birds, too, are twice-born. In its first birth, the bird consists of an egg. If it is not reborn, leaving its shell behind, it can never fly.” And the same applies to human beings.

In the 1999 underground cult movie, The Matrix, Neo (played by Keanu Reeves) dies and is resurrected with a Sleeping-Beauty kiss by Trinity. After that, he can fly, freeze bullets in mid-air, and do various astounding things.

Many have already remarked the obvious parallels between The Matrix and Plato’s Cave.[8] The Virtual Reality world Neo inhabits before he resurrects is a “dream world,” “a prison for your mind” as his mentor Morpheus calls it, and is very similar to Plato’s Cave. Once he awakens, he can see the reality of the Matrix as a computer program, as streams of digits instead of the images it conjures. His vision has penetrated to the underlying reality.

And to the Sufis, a deeper (or higher) reality is what it’s all about. Because The Matrix incorporates Gnostic elements, the real world Neo wakes up to is a “desert of the real.” An evil Artificial Intelligence keeps humanity in chains, dreaming in the virtual world, while it sucks off the life energies of humans. The Gnostics used to think that God, who is good, could not have created human suffering, so there had to be a lesser, demonic demiurge who acted as Creator god. Both Gnostics and The Matrix are pessimistic in this respect. But for the Sufis, the world—or worlds—one wakes up to, can only be superior to the present one. The Sufis are an optimistic lot. When we are purified completely, we emerge from darkness into light, not into a deeper darkness.

Ahmet Kayhan

And if you want the answer to that perilous question: “Who was Ahmet Kayhan?” He was one who helped all of those who were lucky enough to come into his presence to perceive a Cave (or a Matrix)—to the extent of their abilities—in an era when such a traditional perception seemed to have been buried with the ancients. And he did this with humility, wisdom, and unselfish love.


Our story begins one fine day in the agora (town square). Socrates is talking to Glaucon, Plato’s brother:

Socrates: And now, let me show in a parable how far our nature is enlightened or unenlightened: Imagine human beings living in a cave, which has an opening towards the light and reaching all along the den; here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads. Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets.

Glaucon: I see.

S: And do you see men passing along the wall carrying all sorts of vessels, and statues and figures of animals made of wood and stone and various materials, which appear over the wall? Some of them are talking, others silent.

G: You have shown me a strange image, and they are strange prisoners.

Like ourselves; and they see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave?

True; how could they see anything but the shadows if they were never allowed to move their heads?

And of the objects which are being carried in like manner, they would only see the shadows?


And if they were able to converse with one another, would they not suppose that they were naming what was actually before them?

Very true.

And suppose further that the prison had an echo which came from the other side, would they not be sure to fancy when one of the passers-by spoke that the voice which they heard came from the passing shadow?

No question.

To them the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images.

That is certain.

(It is a bit difficult to grasp the physical environment Socrates is describing. The following illustration will provide better insight about the setting of the Cave.)

Socrates: And now look again, and see what will naturally follow if the prisoners are released and disabused of their error. At first, when any of them is liberated and compelled suddenly to stand up and turn his neck round and walk and look towards the light, he will suffer sharp pains; the glare will distress him, and he will be unable to see the realities of which in his former state he had seen the shadows; and then conceive some one saying to him, that what he saw before was an illusion, but that now, when he is approaching nearer to being and his eye is turned towards more real existence, he has a clearer vision, -what will be his reply? And you may further imagine that his instructor is pointing to the objects as they pass and requiring him to name them, -will he not be perplexed? Will he not fancy that the shadows which he formerly saw are truer than the objects which are now shown to him?

Far truer.

And if he is compelled to look straight at the light, will he not have a pain in his eyes which will make him turn away to take and take in the objects of vision which he can see, and which he will conceive to be in reality clearer than the things which are now being shown to him?


And suppose once more, that he is reluctantly dragged up a steep and rugged ascent, and held fast until he's forced into the presence of the sun himself, is he not likely to be pained and irritated? When he approaches the light his eyes will be dazzled, and he will not be able to see anything at all of what are now called realities.

Not all in a moment.

He will require to grow accustomed to the sight of the upper world. And first he will see the shadows best, next the reflections of men and other objects in the water, and then the objects themselves; then he will gaze upon the light of the moon and the stars and the spangled heaven; and he will see the sky and the stars by night better than the sun or the light of the sun by day.


Last of all he will be able to see the sun, and not mere reflections of him in the water, but he will see him in his own proper place, and not in another; and he will contemplate him as he is.


He will then proceed to argue that this is he who gives the season and the years, and is the guardian of all that is in the visible world, and in a certain way the cause of all things which he and his fellows have been accustomed to behold.

Clearly, he would first see the sun and then reason about him.

And when he remembered his old habitation, and the wisdom of the den and his fellow-prisoners, do you not suppose that he would count himself lucky on the change, and pity them?

Certainly, he would.

And if they were in the habit of conferring honours among themselves on those who were quickest to observe the passing shadows and to remark which of them went before, and which followed after, and which were together; and who were therefore best able to draw conclusions as to the future, do you think that he would care for such honours and glories, or envy the possessors of them? Would he not say with Homer, “Better to be the poor servant of a poor master, and to endure anything, rather than think as they do and live after their manner”?

Yes, I think that he would rather suffer anything than entertain these false notions and live in this miserable manner.

Imagine once more such a one coming suddenly out of the sun to be replaced in his old situation; would he not be certain to have his eyes full of darkness?

To be sure.

And if there were a contest, and he had to compete in measuring the shadows with the prisoners who had never moved out of the den, while his sight was still weak, and before his eyes had become steady (and the time which would be needed to acquire this new habit of sight might be very considerable) would he not seem ridiculous? Men would say of him that up he went and down he came without his eyes; and that it was better not even to think of ascending; and if any one tried to free another and lead him up to the light, let them only catch the offender, and they would put him to death.

No question.

(And indeed, the story proves prophetic, for Socrates is tried, sentenced to death and poisoned with hemlock in the end for trying to enlighten the city’s youth.)

This entire allegory, you may now append, dear Glaucon, to the previous argument; the prison-house is the world of sight, the light of the fire is the sun, and you will not misapprehend me if you interpret the journey upwards to be the ascent of the soul into the intellectual world according to my poor belief, which at your desire I have expressed, whether rightly or wrongly God knows. But, whether true or false, my opinion is that in the world of knowledge the idea of good appears last of all, and is seen only with an effort; and, when seen, is also inferred to be the universal author of all things beautiful and right, parent of light and of the lord of light in this visible world, and the immediate source of reason and truth in the intellectual; and that this is the power upon which he who would act rationally, either in public or private life, must have his eye fixed.[9]


[1] Kane Eflatuni ilahi Nebiyyen velakin cehile kavmehu (Turkish transliteration), Niyazi Misri, Hizriya-yi Cedida. Conversely, Nietzsche described Mohammed as an Arab Plato (Ian Almond, The New Orientalists, London: I. B. Tauris, 2007, p. 201).
[2] With apologies to Plato, Socrates, and all their fans. Adapted from Plato, The Republic, Book VII, 514a-521b, http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/plato/rep/rep0700.htm.
[3] http://www.yazete.com/Kurtulus-yolu_43709.html
[4] “…mystical theology, or perhaps better, a doctrine of contemplation, is not simply an element in Plato's philosophy, but something that penetrates and informs his whole understanding of the world." Andrew Louth, Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition, New York: Oxford University Press, 1981, p. 1. Louth refers to “the religious dimension of Plato’s thought” on p. 2.
[5] Quoted at http://www.freespeechproject.com/green.html.
[6] Saying of the Prophet.
[7] Phaedo, 64A, in Louth, loc. cit.
[8] Notably: -John Partridge, "Plato's cave and the Matrix," in Christopher Grau (ed.), Philosophers Explore The Matrix, New York: Oxford U. Press, 2005, pp. 239-257.
-William Irwin, "Computers, Caves, and Oracles: Neo and Socrates," in William Irwin (ed.), The Matrix and Philosophy: welcome to the Desert of the Real, Peru, Ill: Carus Publishing, 2002, pp. 5-15.
-Lou Marinoff, "The Matrix and Plato's Cave: Why the Sequels Failed," in William Irwin (ed.), More Matrix and Philosophy, Chicago, Ill: Open Court, 2005, pp. 3-11.
[9] Plato, The Republic, Book VII, 514a-521b, from http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/plato/rep/rep0700.htm.