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Fana Fi'llah (Annihilation in God)

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

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Fanâ fi'llah (annihilation in God) has connections with some of the other concepts that we have discussed. For example, sincere repentance requires annihilating one's resistance to acknowledging sin, asceticism requires annihilating carnal pleasures, the highest point of loyalty and love is the annihilation of the expectation for a pleasing life in both this and the other world, and absence (ghayba) as a result of intoxication is apparent annihilation. Each of these is an attitude, a feeling and state of pleasure for a traveler on the way to God, while being at the same time, with respect to the Divine Being, Attributes and Names, manifestations of the lights of the Divine Oneness in the sphere of contingent things and beings. Initiates live in tides of existence and non-existence. This life is known as devastation. Their melting away before the Existence of the Truth is known as destruction, and their feeling that their deeds are mere shadows of the acts of the One Who does whatever He wills is known as effacement. Devastation, destruction, and effacement are dimensions of annihilation. They remind one of the fact that everything other than He is a shadow of the True Existence and Knowledge, having no essential value inherent to itself. These states also function as a bridge between the relativity of truth and human perception, feeling and understanding.

The absolute truth never changes; it is always what it essentially is. Neither the assumptions of union or incarnation on the part of the Divine Being nor human absolute annihilation in God bear anything of the truth. Things and events are created by God. Human beings are His created servants, and He possesses absolute Existence and Knowledge. Every existent thing is a ray of the manifestation of His Existence and Knowledge, and humanity feels, witnesses, and interprets these manifestations. But humans can make mistakes, which should be corrected. Humankind are like the conductors of choirs singing the praises of the Creator. They interpret what constantly pours into their horizon or is presented to their view, reviewing it, and adding new melodies taken from the depth of their emotions and sensations. These melodies are sometimes in accord with the truth being played, but sometimes it happens that the state, pleasures, perceptions, and feelings are in discord with existence in their mirrors of perception and consciousness, resulting in a confusion of views of the Divine Oneness and multiplicity in contingent existence. Utterances such as "I am the Truth" (attributed to Hallaj al-Mansur), or "I am a denier if I pray, and an unbeliever if I do not" (attributed to Shibli), and "The Lord is the servant, and the servant is the Lord, so I wish I knew who is responsible for God's commandments" (attributed to Muhy al-Din ibn al-'Arabi), and "Who is the criminal, and what is the chastisement?" (attributed to Yunus Emre[1]), are examples of this confusion.

God knows the true intention and purpose behind such utterances. However, as far as I understand, while preparing for prayer, Shibli was surrounded by multiplicity. When the lights of the Divine Oneness surrounded him during prayer, he, as an obedient one who is seeking God but has been lost in the One, sought and obeyed, he might have voiced his feelings of wonder and astonishment with the phrase mentioned above. The utterance of Ibn al-'Arabi, which is apparently incompatible with Shari'a, must have been an expression of the pleasure of a similar state. Some common people, who are closed to such states of spiritual pleasure and who take such utterances as literal truth, without considering the state in which they are uttered, might suppose that people, after they have reached a certain level of spiritual awareness, are no longer answerable according to the Divine commandments. This view is nothing but a deviation from the true path. It is also wrong that certain people have accused of heresy and unbelief the great saints who made such utterances, which are the product of being lost in a state of spiritual bliss and which accordingly need to be interpreted.

If such words are the expressions of a mood of self-devastation and destruction that is beyond love and is identified with the pleasures of annihilation in God-and I believe that to be the case-the persons mentioned above who uttered such phrases should not be held to account for such words; these words must be interpreted. Those heroes of intense love should be perceived as representing and practicing the religion. It was reported that Hallaj al-Mansur used to perform a hundred rak'as of prayer every night, and that the others were also deeply devoted to the Almighty. Their words, which are apparently incompatible with the rules of the Shari'a, should be interpreted according to the basic principles of the Qur'an and the Sunna, and if they have uttered anything that cannot be reconciled with those principles, then a Muslim must, obviously, follow the guiding words of the Messenger, upon him be peace and blessings. However, these great persons are excusable because of the states that they were in when uttering such words; others who willfully imitate them, without sharing the same mood and spiritual state, will be held accountable. The author of the Lujja says:

If you are not together with the good ones in all your deeds,
What use will it be to you that you bear the same name as them.
One of the two Messiahs restores the eyes of the blind
While the other is one-eyed.[2]

Doing as the Prophets did in one's manners and acts is the way of saints, while blind imitation and following those who lead the way to the precipice is bound to end in spiritual death.

Jalal al-Din al-Rumi expresses the same thought in these words:

Do not compare pure, virtuous characters to yourself;
Though the words milk and lion are composed of the same letters (shir),
They are not at all the same.
If a perfected one holds dust in his hand, it turns to gold;
While if another, defective one holds gold in his hand, it becomes ashes.

Self-annihilation in God has been dealt with in the following categories by the Sufi scholars:

  • Annihilation in God's acts: Travelers to the Truth who have reached this horizon feel in every act that there is no true agent other than God. On the face of all their moments or conditions of poverty, weakness, helplessness, and need, they discern the traces of His Power and Wealth. They hear constantly the voice of the points of reliance and seeking help ingrained in the depth of their consciousness.
  • Annihilation in God's Attributes: Initiates who have reached this point feel that all lives, all knowledge and power, all speech, will, hearing and sight are rays of His Attributes of Glory and reflections of His Light. Seeing themselves without any innate power or strength, they are greatly astonished by the lights of the All-Holy One called by the All-Beautiful Names, and experience extreme wonder at feeling the All-Sacred One having All-Sacred Attributes, and always aspire to meet with Him beyond all concepts of modality.
  • Annihilation in the Divine Being: A person of truth who has reached the point of attaining a new existence in which all the directions are united into one direction falls into such a state that he or she cannot help but utter, "There is no really existent one save God." Those who have attained this state see all space and time as having existence in His Knowledge and proceeding from His Knowledge and perceive all existing things as manifestations of the lights of His Existence. Enraptured with the spiritual pleasures, they utter with every breath that everything is from Him, and regard annihilation in the light of His Existence as the price of being favored with existence.

Thus, as declared in the verse (37:96), "God has created you and all that you do," travelers to the Truth receive the first signal of annihilation with respect to the realm of acts. Saying, "Everything is from You, and You are the True Agent," they advance toward self-possession. Then, as pronounced in the Divine declaration (8:17), "When you threw, it was not you who threw but God who threw," they perceive their nothingness, melt away in the shadow of His Attributes and become mirrors reflecting the Attributes. Some even rise to the point where people and jinn begin to turn around them. If they are able to go further, they will go on as far as the realms beyond, as stated in, "There was God without there being anything that existed with Him. Now He is as He was before."[3] They feel themselves to be in an indescribable and all but unattainable state of pleasure, wherein their existence is transient and where they have wholly annihilated themselves on the way to permanence. Such a feeling is akin to that where a drop admits what its origin, capacity and end really is with respect to the ocean. It also denotes that everything subsists by His being the Self-Subsistent and the All-Maintaining and that nothing can come into existence or maintain its existence without being dependent on Him. So, transience and decay are essential to human nature; this is a fact of which everybody should be aware. Permanence is necessary to the Self-Subsisting One. When the journey comes to the end where the servants perceive this essential part of their nature and existence, the All-Holy Sovereign and Owner rewards them with permanence. In the language of Sufism, this favor is called annihilation in God and subsistence by God's Self-Subsistence.

The heroes that follow the way of the people of the Sunna wa'l-Jama'a and who are able to base all their views, words and manners on God's absolute Oneness, have always viewed annihilation in the endless ocean of Divine Knowledge and Existence according to the above considerations. They have meticulously observed the rules that issue from the Sphere of Divine Lordship, and the manners required by self-possession and wakefulness, even in states of intoxication and absence. Any extreme words or manners contrary to self-possession are not seen in their words and acts, even if the influence of the state and the signs of joy are witnessed. One of them says:

The moving tunes that come from the wooden instrument and
Which the singer plays come in fact from Him.

This means that such heroes of both annihilation and self-possession see that all things other than He are but drops from the endless ocean of the Divine Existence and, despite their self-possession, they cannot distinguish a drop from the ocean nor a particle from the sun nor the mirror from what is reflected therein because they are deeply immersed in God's Existence. As was once said,

O beloved, you have become a river ending in this ocean;
How difficult it is to distinguish between the ocean and the river!

They become lost in the ocean or in the heaven of the Divine Oneness or Unity into which they have abandoned themselves. Overpowered by the irresistible waves of the ocean and the depths of the heaven, they can neither see the shore nor find in themselves the power nor consciousness to come ashore.

Another one among those intoxicated ones, those who reached the horizon of annihilation in God and was favored with the gift of a new existence by the Lord, saw all existence like a mirror in which he was looking upon himself and in which he was intoxicated, said:

Sometimes He has condescended to appear arrayed like Layla,
And sometimes He has honored us in the form of Majnun.
When the Beloved One has stepped out of the privacy of the meeting room,
The decoration and ornament of the interior has become most apparent.

The heroes of immersion who have reached this highest point express their sensation of Divine Oneness, joy and pleasure, they express the favor of God's company, and the excitement of feeling Him by sometimes crying or screaming, sometimes by losing themselves and fainting, and sometimes by going into ecstasies and dancing. All of these happen during the spiritual journey on the hills of the heart. One of those who dove deeply into this ocean expressed himself in the flood of the ecstasies of his heart as follows:

I am such a falcon of love that
I have no place in either world.
I am such a phoenix of secrets that
I no longer display any trace of my essence.
I hunted the two worlds in a pleasant way
With my eyebrows.
Look and know that
I have neither an arrow nor a bow.
I have become a voice to speak
And an ear to listen.
But how strange it is,
For I have no ears nor a tongue.

The leading Sufi scholars have also dealt with annihilation in the following four categories:

  • Annihilation in renunciation of people: an initiate is saved from fear of people and from having expectations of them.
  • Annihilation with respect to the desires: this is the renunciation of selfishness and all worldly desires, aspirations, and bodily appetites.
  • Annihilation of will-power: total submission to God's Will.
  • Annihilation of reason: this is reason's submission to God in the face of the manifestations of the Attributes. This annihilation comes along with the astonishment and amazement which initiates feel even though they are unable to observe the criteria of thinking, judging, and acting that are valid in the sphere of causality. They usually cannot help but  voice this astonishment and amazement. For example, Junayd al-Baghdadi says: "For a certain time, the inhabitants of the earth and heaven wept for my amazement, and sometimes it occurred that I wept for their amazement. Now I am in such a state that I am aware of neither myself nor of them."

The amazement of Gedai is also worth noting:
I did not know myself as I see me now,
I wonder whether He is me or I am Him?
This is the point where lovers lose themselves;
I have burnt away, so give me water!

The words of the author of al-Minhaj demonstrate a deeper aura of love and amazement:

I do not know whether I am myself or Him.
I am in bewilderment, but I am sure I am not myself.
I am a lover or the one loved or love itself.
I am intoxicated from the cup of Oneness, and I am not myself.
What am I? Am I a phoenix with no fame or mark?
I am away from my home, and I am not myself.
I am transient in soul but permanent by the Beloved.
I am flying high, and I am not myself.

If we consider what annihilation is, these words are natural for a hero of annihilation. Annihilation means that they see, according to their level, none save God and set their hearts on Him alone. When they advance to the point where their inner and outer worlds, perception, and consciousness are illuminated with the knowledge of truth, then they begin to see clearly Who holds the reins of everything, and they always turn to Him in Whose Hand lie their existence and subsistence. Then, while they become more deeply immersed in truth by concentrating all of their thoughts on Him and endeavoring to reach Him, then they perceive that all existence is a manifestation of the light of His Existence. They reach the horizon of viewing all things and events differently with the consideration of Divine Oneness, and they are favored with being able to feel and interpret everything with the essential characteristics that the veil of corporeality hides. This can be regarded as the first step on the way of annihilation to the Truth.

Travelers on the way to the Truth take a further step and are able to perceive with the certainty of conviction that all the events in the universe, including human acts and endeavors, depend absolutely on God's Names and Attributes, and that everything has come into existence and has blossomed in the heart of these Sources. They also perceive that whatever happens happens by His Power and Strength and see more clearly the limits of their will-power in all of their deeds. Abandoning all shadowy existence, they take shelter in the protection and ownership of the True Existent One, and gain a new existence by Him.

If the traveler can take a further step, then he or she can feel with some certainty, a certainty that comes from experience, that all things and/or beings with their being, attributes and characteristics are transferred from their existence in God's Knowledge and clothed in external existence by His Power as a manifestation of His Existence. Becoming more profound in their feelings, the travelers are immersed in the vision of the truth that everything exists and subsists by Him. They perceive in their consciousness that the truth of (55:26), "All that (exists) is transient by nature (except He)," undulates throughout the universe like a flag, and everything created is bound to decay, and is maintained by the manifestation of God's being the Self-Subsistent and All-Subsisting One. They also feel in their consciousness that if a being suffers a moment's interruption of this manifestation, it will perish, and they reach a further horizon of perception of the Divine Oneness.

The first step belongs to the verifying scholars, the second to those traveling on the way to the Truth who have strong, inflexible will-power, and the third to those who have true knowledge of God and vision.

Those who are at the first step are annihilated to the extent of the depth of their consciousness of God and enter the way to "a revival after death." Those who have left this step behind experience absence and immersion with respect to their inner world by means of a spiritual vision and discovery; they find seclusion in crowds and silence in noise and uproar. Others, who have reached the third step, renounce all human desires and aspirations, and wherever they look are immersed in the manifestations of the Divine Knowledge and Existence; they feel fully surrounded by His signs, as stated in (2:115), To whatever direction you turn, there is the "Face" of God. Whatever they see, they feel awe when enveloped by His rays, and whatever they observe they feel astonished at the burning manifestations of His Face and they mention Him with many allegories.

When travelers to the Truth have gone beyond all these steps and have become heroes of annihilation in God, the colors of subsistence with God begin to appear to them from all horizons. They also go beyond one dimension of "there is no deity." This new dimension confronts them every moment during their journey and they reach a new dimension of "but God." Due to their taking larger steps and due to the uninterrupted shower of Divine favors, the universal Lordship and complete Subsistence begin to manifest themselves on their horizon. A time comes and they feel that His Throne has embraced the whole universe, and rising by the stairs of repentance, penitence and contrition, which comprise the way of turning to Him completely, they are immersed in the lights of His Divinity. They drown in the extraordinary pleasures of feeling awe and fear of Him in their acts of worship. They take a great pleasure in listening to the Divine Speech-the Qur'an. Finding themselves sometimes in the clime of self-possession that is embedded in fear, and sometimes on the hills of alertness that are embedded in awe, and sometimes in the oceans of mercy, they experience fear and expectation, sadness and rejoicing, all together at the same time, and try not to fall away from His door. Unburdening themselves to Him in every thought, concept, utterance and breath, they become heroes of following the Divine commandment (15:99), Worship your Lord until certainty comes to you (by death), and without being content with their worshipping, they advance further and further. They know that when they stop, both the way and the journey will come to an end, and they can no longer have the ambition of reaching their destination. For the journey is toward the Infinite One. Unending endeavor in this world is reflected as endless favors from the realms beyond.

Guide us to the Straight Path,  the path of those whom You have favored, not of those who have incurred (Your) punishment and condemnation, nor of those who have gone astray. And let God's blessings be upon our master Muhammad, his family and all of his Companions.


[1] Yunus Emre (1240-1320). One of the most famous Sufi folk poets who have made a great impact on the Muslim-Turkish culture. His philosophy, metaphysics and humanism have been examined in various symposiums and conferences on a regular basis both in Turkey and abroad. (Trans.)
[2] The poet refers to Jesus the Messiah, and the Dajjal who, it is reported, will appear before the end of time as a fierce opponent of Islam. The fact that he has one eye is usually interpreted to mean that he is blind to religion and the Hereafter. (Trans.)
[3] See, footnote: 64.