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Zawq and 'Atash (Pleasure and Thirst)

by Fethullah Gülen on . Posted in Key Concepts in the Practice of Sufism-2

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Meaning the feeling of happiness and satisfaction, and enjoyment and amusement, zawq (pleasure) in Sufi terminology is one of the first breezes of Divine manifestation and one of the first gifts that appear from time to time on the horizon of witnessing the signs of God. It is also the invasion of the heart by which the "hidden treasury" of God is uncovered so that one can know Him by the rays of the Divine light, which we can call succeeding flashes of lightning. Furthermore, it is the first mansion where one can distinguish right from wrong. Yearning for lofty, elevated goals, for virtue, for sincerity and purity of intention in one's actions, can be regarded as the passport for entering this mansion.

As long as one maintains relationship with God faithfully and from the heart, one begins to feel in the depths of the heart the spiritual pleasure that we can also call "imbibing," but an "imbibing" without need for a cup or cup-bearer. This pleasure makes the travelers on the way to God intoxicated, according to their rank. As they feel the pleasure, they grow thirstier and desire more and more pleasure, with the result that thirst and satiation follow one upon another in the spirit. They express this state as Gedai did, who says:

O cup-bearer, in the fire of love,
I have burnt away, so give me some water!

This comes to the point where the travelers on the way to the Truth, their desire and yearning for Him ever growing, feel pleasure embedded in longing and satisfaction embedded in hunger. They burn with passion for the door that is ajar to be opened completely. The interruption of these favors is impressed on them like a fast, while the resumption of the favors is like a feast, and they murmur in expectation as Muhammed Lutfi Effendi[1] does:

Offer the wine of union: it is time to break fast;
Improve this ruin: it is time to display favors.

Another approach to thirst is to see it as such a longing and passion for the Truly Beloved and Desired One that the initiate aches intensely for satisfaction saying, "My liver has become roasted: will there not come help in answer to my sighs?"; the heart of the initiate overflows with love, burns away in flames, and his/her eyes scan the horizon in expectation of Their Lord Who offers them pure drink (76:21). However, so long as a loving initiate remains imprisoned in the lampshade of corporeality, the Truly Beloved One does not manifest Himself to him/her in His perfection. This is why the thirst of the yearning lover who still lingers between corporeality and spirituality increases more and more to the point of being consumed in the flames. The following couplets by Sa'di al-Shirazi[2] are truly beautiful in expressing such a degree of spiritual pleasure and thirst:

You show Your Face, then avoid showing Yourself,
Increasing thereby both demand for You and our heat.
Whenever I see the Beloved Who has seduced me into His love,
I am confused how to act, and bewildered on the straight path.
First He burns me in flames, then extinguishes with sprinkles of water,
This is why you sometimes see me in flames,
And sometimes drowned in water.

Just as ordinary pleasure with its painful and pleasant aspects impresses itself on other organs and parts of the body, so also this pleasure impresses itself on the heart and the conscience or on conscious human nature. God's Messenger declared: "One who is pleased with God as their Lord (The One Who sustains, administers, and brings up), who is pleased with Islam as their religion, and with Muhammad as their Messenger has tasted the pleasure of belief."[3] He sometimes expressed this pleasure with the words used to denote bodily pleasures, as in the hadith where he prohibited his Companions from fasting every other day: "I am not like you; my hunger and thirst are satisfied (by God in ways unknown to you)."[4] Whereas, the pleasure tasted by the heart and spirit as a result of spiritual life is purely spiritual, it is more constant when compared with ecstasy and feeds the heart and spirit with ever new radiations. As for ecstasy and stupor, they are gifts that come in certain states of the initiate's journeying and, despite their being dazzling, they emerge in proportion to the seeker's spiritual depth.

Pleasure also differs according to its sources. God's promise of Paradise, eternity, and a vision of Him, one moment of each being superior to thousands of years of worldly life spent in happiness, in return for belief, confirmation, and obedience, is one of those sources of pleasure. Without considering any of the material and spiritual or worldly and other worldly joys, the conscious human nature's pursuit of nearness to God and always feeling His company and Presence give another kind of pleasure. Completely freed from conceit and egoism, being favored with absolute nearness to God and feeling the uninterrupted pleasures of subsistence with God at the summit of seeing, hearing, and knowing Him alone, is another summit of taste. In short, everyone has their share in the spiritual pleasures in proportion to the degree of their belief, confirmation, and knowledge of the Almighty God.

It is when initiates feel indifference to bodily pleasures, when they are satisfied with them, it is then that they begin to feel constant thirst for spiritual pleasures. We can describe this as an unquenchable thirst. Initiates yearn more and more for the Divine gifts that an excellent guide will pour into their hearts through words and behavior, and feel their conscious nature open to an infinite degree to the knowledge and love of God and spiritual pleasures. Such a conscious nature or, rather, heart, which is its primary pillar, continuously yearns for God until it attains absolute nearness to Him. In time it is completely freed from the prison of corporeality and the density of bodily life and, favored with transcendence of time and space and flying in the heavens of the heart and the spirit, it constantly moves between thirst and satiation, expecting the doors that are slightly ajar to be opened wide.

When at last the disciple willing the Beloved and in love with Him becomes willed and loved by the Beloved, when illumined with His light, colored by His color, and, when, as a result of the burning manifestations of the Divine Existence, all things other than Him have been burned up, the true nature of existence shows itself. Beyond all states and appearances, the One, Unique Being is felt free from all qualitative and quantitative considerations and restrictions; He is the One Who creates all states and makes His servants go from one state to another, He is the one Who gives abundant favors, and the Creator of all acts and deeds. In the following verses, Jalal al-Din al-Rumi illustrates this highest degree of pleasure:

Drink such wine that the jar containing it should be the face of the Beloved,
And the cup in which it is offered be intoxicated with the wine itself.
Drink such wine from the cup of the Everlasting Face that
its bearer should be the One alluded to in Their Lord offers them pure drink.
When that wine is brought forth, it leads you to a purification
of the filth of corporeality at the time of intoxication.
How strange a drink, how exceptional a taste, how unusual a pleasure,
How nice a fortune, how great an astonishment, how peculiar a zeal!

Another Sufi, as if leading our hearts to taste the pure wine of pleasure, voices his feelings as follows,

See, all have been intoxicated when Their Lord offers them pure drink,
Four, five and seven; are all intoxicated by the Unending Majesty.

O God! Offer us of the wine of Your love and include us among those loved by You!

Let Your blessings and peace be on our master Muhammad, the master of all loved by You, and on his family and Companions, who are approved by You.


[1] Muhammed Lutfi Effendi (1868-1956) is one of the Sufi masters who lived in Erzurum. He has a Divan containing many beautiful, lyrical poems.
[2] Sa'di el-Shirazi (1215?-1292), the greatest didactic poet of Persia, author of the Gulistan ("Rose-Garden") and the Bostan ("Orchard"), who also wrote many fine odes and lyrics.
[3] Al-Muslim, "Iman," 56; Al-Tirmidhi, "Iman," 10.
[4] Al-Bukhari, "Sawm," 48; Al-Muslim, "Siyam," 55-56.