By Ibrahim B. Syed, Ph. D
There are parallels in Sufism and in quantum theory. A view of the world is very similar to the views, held by Sufis and modern physicists. In contrast to the mechanistic world view of the Westerners, for the Sufis all things and events perceived by the senses are interrelated, connected, and are but different aspects or manifestations of the same ultimate reality. For Sufis “Enlightenment” is an experience to become aware of the unity and mutual interrelation of all things, to transcend the notion of an isolated individual self, and to identify themselves with the ultimate reality.
An exact science is expressed in the highly sophisticated language of modern mathematics, whereas Tasawwuf is based on meditation and insists on the fact that Sufis’ insight cannot be communicated verbally. Reality as experienced by the Sufis is completely indeterminate and undifferentiated. Sufis never see the intellect as their source of knowledge but use it merely to analyze and interpret their personal Tasawwuf experience. The parallel between scientific experiments and Tasawwuf experiences may seem surprising in view of the very different nature of these acts of observation. Physicists perform experiments involving an elaborate teamwork and a highly sophisticated technology, whereas the Sufis obtain their knowledge purely through introspection, without any machinery, in the privacy of meditation or Dhikr. To repeat an experiment in modern elementary particle physics one has to undergo many years of training. Similarly, a deep Tasawwuf experience requires, generally, many years of training under an experienced master. The complexity and efficiency of the physicist’s technical apparatus is matched, if not surpassed, by that of the mystic’s consciousness-both physical and spiritual-in deep Dhikr. Thus the scientists and the Sufis have developed highly sophisticated methods of observing nature which are inaccessible to the layperson.
The basic aim of Dhikr is to silence the thinking mind and to shift the awareness from the rational to the intuitive mode of consciousness. The silencing of the mind is achieved by concentrating one’s attention on a single item, like one’s breathing, the sound of Allah or La Ilaha Illallah. Even performing Salat is considered as Dhikr to silence the rational mind. Thus Salat leads to the feeling of peace and serenity which is characteristic of the more static forms of Dhikr. These skills are used to develop the meditative mode of consciousness. In Dhikr, the mind is emptied of all thoughts and concepts and thus prepared to function for long periods through its intuitive mode. When the rational mind is silenced, the intuitive mode produces an extraordinary awareness; the environment is experienced in a direct way without the filter of conceptual thinking. The experience of oneness with the surrounding environment is the main characteristic of this meditative state. It is a state of consciousness where every form of fragmentation has ceased, fading away into undifferentiated unity.
Insight into Reality
Sufism is based on direct insights into the nature of reality, and physics is based on the observation of natural phenomena in scientific experiments. In physics the model and theories are approximate and are basic to modern scientific research. Thus the aphorism of Einstein, “As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.” Whenever the essential nature of things is analyzed by the intellect, it must seem absurd or paradoxical. This has always been recognized by the Sufis, but has become a problem in science only very recently, e.g. ‘Light’ as wave or photon or duality of light. Great variety of natural phenomena belonged to the scientists’ macroscopic environment and thus to the realm of their sensory experience. Since the images and intellectual concepts of their language were abstracted from this very experience, they were sufficient and adequate to describe the natural phenomena.
However the atomic and subatomic world itself lies beyond our sensory perception. The knowledge about matter at this level is no longer derived from direct sensory experience, and therefore our ordinary language, which its images from the world of the senses, is no longer adequate to describe the observed phenomena. As we penetrate deeper and deeper into nature, we have to abandon more and more of the images and concepts of ordinary language. Probing inside the atom and investigating its structure, science transcended the limits of our sensory imagination. From this point on, it could no longer rely with absolute certainty on logic and common sense. Quantum physics provided the scientists with the first glimpses of the essential nature of things. Like the Sufis, physicists were now dealing with a non-sensory experience of reality and, like the Sufis, they had to face the paradoxical aspects of this experience. From then on therefore, the models, and images of modern physics become akin to those of Tasawwuf of the Sufis.
Scientists realized that our common language is not only inaccurate, but totally inadequate to describe the atomic and subatomic reality. With the advent of Relativity and Quantum mechanics in modern physics it was very clear that this new knowledge transcends classical logic and that it cannot be described in ordinary language. Similarly in Tasawwuf it has always been realized that reality transcends ordinary language and the Sufis were not afraid to go beyond logic and common concepts. The problem of language faced by the Sufi is exactly the same as the problem the modern physicist faces. Both the physicist and the Sufi want to communicate their knowledge, and when they do so with words their statements are paradoxical and full of logical contradictions. These paradoxes are characteristic of all who practice Tasawwuf and since the beginning of the 20th century they are also characteristic of modern physics.
Duality of Light
In Quantum Physics, many of the paradoxical situations are connected with the dual nature of light or – more generally – of electromagnetic radiation. Light produces interference phenomena, which is associated with the waves of light. This is observed when two sources of light are used resulting in bright and dim patterns of light. On the other hand, electromagnetic radiation also produces the “photoelectric” effect: when short wave length light such as ultraviolet light or x-rays or gamma rays strike the surface of some metals, they can “knock off” electrons from the surface of the metal, and therefore it must consist of moving particles.
The question which puzzled physicists so much in the early stages of quantum theory was how electromagnetic radiation could simultaneously consist of particles (that is of entities confined to a very small volume) and of waves, which are spread out over a large area in space. Neither language nor imagination could deal with this kind of reality very well. Sufism has developed several different ways of dealing with the paradoxical aspects of reality. Works of Attar, Hafiz, Ibn Arabi, Rumi, Bastami, etc show they are full of intriguing contradictions and their compact, powerful, and extremely poetic language is meant to arrest the reader’s mind and throw it off its familiar tracks of logical reasoning. Heisenberg asked Bohr: Can nature possibly be so absurd as it seemed to us in these atomic experiments?
Whenever the essential nature of things is analyzed by the intellect, it must seem absurd or paradoxical. This has always been recognized by the Sufis, but has become a problem in science in the 20 the century. The macroscopic world is in the realm of our sensory experience. Through this sensory experience one can draw images, intellectual concepts and express them in a language. This language was sufficient and adequate to describe the natural phenomena. The Newtonian mechanistic model of the universe described macroscopic world. In the 20th century the existence of atoms and subatomic particles or the ultimate “building blocks” of nature was experimentally verified.
The atomic and subatomic world itself lies beyond our sensory perception. The knowledge about matter at this level is no longer derived from direct sensory experience, and therefore our ordinary language, which takes its images from the world of the senses, is no longer adequate to describe the observed phenomena. As we penetrate deeper and deeper into nature, we have to abandon more and more of the images and concepts of ordinary language. From this point on, it could no longer rely with absolute certainty on logic and common sense. Quantum physics provided the scientists with the first glimpse of the essential nature of things. Like the Sufis the physicists were now dealing with a non-sensory experience of reality and, like the Sufis, they had to face the paradoxical aspects of this experience.
According to the Sufis, the direct mystical experience of reality is a momentous event, which shakes the very foundations of one’s worldview that is the most startling event that could ever happen in the realm of human consciousness (as-Shuhud). Upsetting every form of standardised experience some Sufis describe it as “the bottom of a pail breaking through.”
Physicists in the early part of the 20th century felt much the same way when the foundations of their world-view were shaken by the new experience of the atomic reality, and they described the experience in terms which were often very similar to those used by the Sufis. Thus Heisenberg wrote: “…recent developments in modern physics can only be understood when one realizes that here the foundations of physics have started moving; and that this motion has caused the feeling that the ground would be cut from science.” The discoveries of modern physics necessitated profound changes of concepts like space, time, matter, object, cause and effect, etc., and these concepts are so basic to our way of experiencing the world, that the physicists who were forced to change them felt something of a shock. Out of these changes a new and radically different world-view is born which is still in the process of formation. Quantum theory implies an essential interconnectedness of nature. Quantum theory forces us to see the universe not as a collection of physical objects, but rather as a complicated web of relations between the various parts of a unified whole. This is the way the Sufis have experienced the world.
The Sufis seem to be able to attain non-ordinary states of consciousness (Shuhud) in which they transcend the three-dimensional world of everyday life to experience a higher, multidimensional reality. In relativistic physics if one can visualize the four-dimensional space-time reality, there would be nothing paradoxical at all. The Sufis have notions of space and time, which are very similar to those implied by relativity theory. In Tasawwuf, there seems to be a strong intuition for the “space-time” character of reality. The Sufis have experienced a state of complete dissolution (Fana) where there is no more distinction between mind and body, subject and object. In a state of pure experience, there is no space without time, no time without space, they are interpenetrating.
For the physicist the notion of space-time is based on scientific experiments whereas for the Sufi it is based on Tasawwuf. The relativistic models and theories of modern physics are illustrations of the two basic elements of Tasawwuf world-view-the Tawhid of the universe and its intrinsically dynamic character. Space is curved to different degrees, and time flows at different rates in different parts of the universe. Our notions of a three-dimensional Euclidean space and of linear flow of time are limited to our ordinary experience of the physical world and have to be completely abandoned when we extend this experience. The Sufis talk about an extension of their experience of the world in higher states of consciousness, and they affirm that these states involve a radically different experience of space and time. They emphasize not only that they go beyond ordinary three-dimensional space in meditation, but also - and even more forcefully-that ordinary awareness of time is transcended. Instead of a linear succession of instants, they experience an infinite, timeless, and yet dynamic present. In the spiritual world there are no time divisions such as the past, present and future; for they have contracted themselves into a single moment of the present where life quivers in its true sense.
Einstein showed the mass-energy equivalence, through a simple mathematical equation, E=mc*2. Physicists measure the masses of particles in the corresponding energy units. Mass is nothing but a form of energy. This discovery has forced us to modify our concept of a particle in an essential way. Hence particles are seen as "Qunata" or bundles of energy. Thus particles are not seen as consisting of any basic "stuff." But energy is associated with activity, with processes, which means that the nature of subatomic particles is intrinsically dynamic and they are forms in four-dimensional entities in space-time. Therefore subatomic particles have a space aspect and a time aspect. Their space aspect makes them appear as objects with a certain mass, their time aspect as processes involving the equivalent energy. When subatomic particles are observed, we never see them as any substance; but what we observe is continuously changing patterns of one to the other or a continuous dance of energy. The particles of the subatomic world are not only active in the sense of moving around very fast; they themselves are processes. The existence of matter and its activity cannot be separated. They are but different aspects of the same space-time reality.
The Sufis, in their non-ordinary states of consciousness, seem to be aware of the interpenetration of space and time at a macroscopic level. Thus they see the macroscopic world in a way which is very similar to the physicists' idea of subatomic particles. For the Sufis "all compounded things are impermanent" - Fanah. The reality underlying all phenomena is beyond all forms and defies all description and specification, hence to be formless, empty or void. To the Sufis all phenomena in the world are nothing but the illusory manifestation of the mind and have no reality on their own.
The principal theories and models of modern physics lead to a view of the world, which is internally consistent, and in perfect harmony with the views of Tasawwuf. The significance of the parallels between the world-views of physicists and Sufis is beyond any doubt. Both emerge when man inquires into the essential nature of things-into the deeper realms of matter in physics; into the deeper realms of consciousness in Tasawwuf-when he discovers a different reality behind the superficial mundane appearance of everyday life. Physicists derive their knowledge from experiments whereas Sufis from meditative insights. The Sufi looks within and explores his or her consciousness at its various levels. The experience of one's body is, in fact, often seen as the key to the Tasawwuf experience of the world.
Another similarity between the physicist and the Sufi is the fact that their observations take place in realms, which are inaccessible to the ordinary senses. To the physicist the realms of the atomic and subatomic world; in Tasawwuf they are non-ordinary states of consciousness in which the sense world is transcended. Both for the physicists and the Sufis, the multidimensional experiences transcend the sensory world and are therefore almost impossible to express in ordinary language.
Quantum Physics and Tasawwuf are two complementary manifestations of the human mind; of its rational and intuitive faculties. The modern physicist experiences the world through an extreme specialization of the rational mind; the Sufi through an extreme specialization of the intuitive mind. Both of them are necessary for a fuller understanding of the world. Tasawwuf experience is necessary to understand the deepest nature of things and science is essential for modern life. Therefore we need a dynamic interplay between Tasawwuf intuition and scientific analysis.