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Ghayba (Absence)

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

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Literally meaning disappearance and no longer being existent, ghayba (absence) denotes that the heart has cut its relationship with the corporeal world in order to give itself to exclusive devotion to God. Although derived from the word ghayb, which means being not present, ghayba (absence) signifies self-annihilation and no longer having a relationship with the surrounding world, despite being present.

Travelers to the Truth experiencing absence no longer have any interest in the laws that are in force in the life of existent beings and the conditions in which they find themselves. They have completely freed themselves from the states that belong to the carnal self under the dazzling shower of the Divine gifts which have come uninterrupted to invade their hearts. In this state they are unaware of how and where they are or even of their own existence. Because of the intensity of the Divine manifestations that they experience, they no longer can see although they look, they can no longer hear although they listen, and they are lost in feelings of wonder while thinking. For them, there is no difference between presence and absence. This can be partly explained by the analogy of the women who, when they saw the Prophet Joseph, were so struck by his beauty that they cut their hands. Joseph's beauty could only be a shadow of the shadow of His Beauty, reflected from beyond many veils. If seeing Joseph's face caused presence to change into some degree of absence, it does not require much explanation how the burning manifestations of the Divine Beauty can dazzle the eyes and bewilder minds.

Presence and absence change places, one turning into the other, only when initiates separate themselves from everything else other than the lights of His Essence. In this state, they feel and think of Him only and restricts their eyes to observing His manifestations exclusively. By so doing, they feel enveloped in His Presence completely and no longer see or hear whatever takes place and whatever is said. If, under the influence of some attributes of human nature, initiates come to see and hear things and happenings-which is called a "return"-all things other than God come into view and their hearts suffer an eclipse, without receiving light from the real Owner of light. They can free themselves from this eclipse by perfect love of and yearning for Him and by perfect resolution.

Like contraction and expansion, there can be long or short tides between feeling enveloped by God's Holy Presence and feeling eclipsed from Him. Feeling enveloped by His Presence is sometimes understood as being synonymous with witnessing Him in His manifestations, sometimes as witnessing His signs, and sometimes as self-supervision. This station may cause an initiate to slip from the straight path because of the intensity of God's manifestation of Himself with all His Names throughout the universe and with some of His Names on an individual thing or being in particular. So, both this station and the manifestations received in it must be viewed in the light of the Prophetic way. Otherwise, initiates who feel pervaded by these manifestations may go so far as to claim that they have seen the Divine Being Himself.  Provided that one does not confuse the Essence of the Divine Being with His invading manifestations and utter words of pride that are incompatible with the rules of Shari'a, feeling enveloped by the Presence of the Divine Being means living in the shadow of the Realm of the Holy Presence, and is pure spirituality that has almost nothing to do anymore with the physical or animal dimension of our existence. Hafiz al-Shirazi[1] says:

If you, O Hafiz, desire to always feel
enveloped by His Holy Presence;
Never be heedless or unmindful of Him.
If you desire meeting with your Beloved,
Renounce the world and the worldly people.

These words of Hafiz are also important in expressing our understanding of austerity. Shaykh al-Akbar Muhyiddin ibn al- 'Arabi shares the same consideration: "A heart's feeling enveloped by God's Presence depends on its distance from people."

The state which is called absence in respect to ourselves and presence in respect to God, the Truth, has degrees according to the level of an initiate:

  • A lover of God leaves no room in the heart for anybody other than Him; fixes the gaze on Him only and continues normal relations with other things or beings only because of Him; feels, sees, and hears something of Him in whatever is encountered during the spiritual journeying.
  • An initiate mindful of the rules of the way combines knowledge and this state in the depths of the spirit. In other words, at the horizon reached, knowledge has become for the person second nature or a state. Having been saved from the error of entanglement in knowledge that is mere information (i.e. has not yet become a state), and from the heedlessness arising from a state not based on knowledge, the initiate is favored with absence from the created and with the Presence of the Creator.
  • A friend of God who has risen to the station in which everything is seen as annihilated in the Divine Being, not only feels the state and station attained, but is also so immersed in the manifestations of the Essence of the Divine Being that even His Names and Attributes are no longer discerned as such. The person may unburden him or herself with words that sometimes suggest the transcendent Unity of Being, sometimes the Unity of the Witnessed. Sometimes it may even occur that the uttered words imply a sort of pantheism or monism. It should not be forgotten that this arises from a confusion of the truth with something that is a total experience and that is tasted by the spirit. 'Abd al-Nafi' expresses his feelings belonging to the station where one can easily fall into wonder and amazement, as follows:

Look on, what is this amazing state!
I wonder whether it is absence.
Reason cannot perceive this ocean-like state;
It is not possible to resist its waves.

This station is also that in which one knows the Divine Being with Himself, beyond knowing Him with His Names and Attributes. In this station, one knows the Divine Being with Himself, infers His Existence from Himself, and reaches Himself by Himself. One considers Him as the First and the Last, the Outward and the Inward; not as a spirit or a body, not as an essence or an accident, but rather as being absolutely free from occupying a place, from eating and drinking, being contained by time, changing and transforming, having form and color. In this station, which is one of the highest stations and where one is at risk of lapsing and falling, one considers the All-Holy Being beyond all concepts of modality and hopes to view Him with the wonder-stricken eyes of the heart.

Our Lord, do not let our hearts swerve after You have guided us, and bestow upon us mercy from Your Presence. Surely You, only You, are the (Munificent) Bestower.

And give peace and blessings to our master Muhammad, who is one ever turning to God in contrition, and on his family and Companions, who are all honored and righteous.


[1] Hafiz al-Shirazi (1230-1291) is the greatest lyric poet of Persia, who took the poetic form of the ghazal to unparalleled heights of subtlety and beauty. (Trans.)