I have read Victor Danner’s (Abd al-Jabbar’s) translation of Kitab al-Hikam (Sufi Aphorisms) by Shaykh Ibn ‘Ata’allah several times, but when I started this time, saw that a friend had written a few commentaries on the first several hikma (aphorisms) and posted them on his Facebook page. Then, another friend invited me to a lecture by Shaykh Ninowy in which he commented on various hikma.
It occurred to me to attempt to write commentaries myself, not with the thought of publishing them, but as a way of focusing my attention on them by writing personal commentaries. Having started that process, it occurred to me I might want to publish the commentaries. A friend suggested I put them on a blog, even if they are not edited yet, with the realization they can be revised from time to time when and if I get an editor.
These aphorisms are especially meaningful to me because Shaykh Ibn ‘Ata’allah is in the silsilah of spiritual masters with whom my own spiritual master is affiliated. And I have visited the tomb of Shaykh Ibn ‘Ata’allah in Cairo on several occasions since 1992.
Reading the Kitab al-Hikam has enriched my spiritual life. Reading with concentration is helpful, but even then, some seem to pass by without leaving a trace. I decided to linger over each one and wait until I could think of something to say about each one.
So, I present these commentaries to you, incorporating Victor Danner’s annotations from his footnotes, knowing that the writing of them has been and will continue to be of great spiritual value to me.
These commentaries are written for an audience that has an understanding of tasawwuf (Sufism). But, for readers who may not be familiar with Sufi terminology, I am providing a few basic definitions.
Dhikr: This means the invocation of God’s name, or one His names, as a method of remembering God’s presence and reality. “Remembrance” is another translation of this Arabic word, as well as “mention.” The ritual practice of dhikr is the central practice of Sufism. According to Sufi understanding, invoking God’s name opens your heart (intellect) to God’s Presence and allows God to enter your heart and purify your soul. There are many names of God in Islam, often it is said there are 99 names, and the ritual recitation of any of them is a form of dhikr. There are similar ritual practices in other religions, such as the Eastern Orthodox Christian recitation of the Jesus Prayer.
Faqir (or faqira’- feminine; fuqara’ – plural): One who is following a spiritual path under the guidance of a spiritual master (Sufi shaykh). The word derives from the word faqr (humility). Faqir may also mean “poor,” thus, someone poor in spirit.
Hadith: A saying of the Prophet Mohammed. Something that his immediate companions heard him say, and wrote down. Often there are several versions of the written hadith, similar to different versions of Gospel accounts of Jesus’ sayings. Hadith are distinctly different from Mohammed’s recitations of verses of the Qur’an. When a verse was revealed to him, he immediately memorized it and taught it to several of his disciples. For many years all of the Qur’an was orally memorized by many of his followers. There were virtually no variations because the verses were in a poetic form, and thus easier to memorize. A hadith qudsi is a hadith of a statement by Mohammed through which God speaks in the first person. “I was a hidden treasure, and I loved to be known, so I created the world.” There is no question that Mohammed was speaking these words as direct statements by God through him. But still, the hadith qudsi are distinct from Quranic verses, and there are variations in the written accounts of these hadith, reflecting different recollections of those who heard the Prophet say these things, or perhaps because the Prophet said them on different occasions in somewhat different forms.
Nafs: The human soul or ego. The “s” does not imply a plural in transliterations of Arabic words. But, in fact, the human soul is understood to have various elements, from the lowest elements, which lead us to perform evil acts, to our highest elements, which open us to the Divine.
Shaykh: The spiritual master of a group of Sufi disciples. The word shaykh is also used in Arabic cultures to designate an old man (and sometimes a middle aged man) who is worthy of respect for some reason, but who is not necessarily a spiritual master. Throughout my writings, I refer to specific shaykhs by their tariqah names, but not their given, public names, to respect their privacy. Some Sufi shaykhs are public about their roles as spiritual masters; others are private, and you may only discover their function when you have been found to be a candidate for discipleship.
Tariqah: The way or the path. But it also means a particular group of disciples of a shaykh who follow the same path; thus, it refers to the group as a whole, sometimes referred to as a Sufi order.
Zawiyah: This means the prayer room, or house or structure where the Sufi’s gather to perform their liturgy, including of course, the dhikr. It can also refer to a branch of a tariqah, which has divided into various distinct groups, usually after the death of a shaykh.