~ An essay by Jeremy Henzell-Thomas
Please note that if I refer to God as He, there is of course no gender identity attached to that. The Divine Reality is of course beyond gender. It’s a problem with the way the pronouns work in English and it extends also to the use of the noun ‘man’ or ‘mankind’ to refer to humankind. Sadly, the way the pronoun excludes the feminine does tend to reinforce a patriarchal conception of God, and I have tried wherever possible to avoid the use of a pronoun altogether, but in some cases, especially when quoting from the Qur’an, this was not possible. So please don’t be repelled by my use of the Divine He. I assure you I don’t believe that God is a man, and I have no hidden patriarchal intentions.
So, what is spiritual imagination? Let’s start with just imagination.
The dictionary tells us that this is the ability to form images or pictures in the mind, or think of new ideas. So it’s the faculty that enables us to tell stories, write novels, to visualize and envisage, and also to envision the possibility that something good might happen in the future. We are often called upon to imagine a better future, but not in the sense of some utopian fantasy, rather in the sense of describing how a positive vision of that future might be realized, especially in the interest of young people, who are the future. And the new buzz word is to re-imagine, to revise or reform an outdated view of the world. To continually update our guiding myths and stories about ourselves, our societies and the wider world, and this takes imagination.
There’s a very good little book by Alex Evans entitled The Myth Gap: What Happens When Evidence and Arguments aren’t Enough. He says that:
…once upon a time our society was rich in stories. They united us and helped us understand the world and ourselves. We called them myths. In this time of global crisis and transition – of mass migration, inequality, resource scarcity and climate change – it is only by finding new myths, those that speak to us of renewal and restoration, that we will navigate our way to a better future. It is inspiring stories, rather than facts and pie-charts, that have the power to animate us and bring us together to change the world.
That is why the Greta Thunbergs of the world make such waves, and why they are also attracting so much abuse online. But from whom? Well, the best description of these detractors I have seen is that they are those ‘who see their obsolescence hurtling towards them.’ In other words, all those (and it’s often sad, scared old men) disturbed by the visionary ideals of the young. Well, I would say to them, ‘Your time’s up.’ History is stacked with examples of the old guard redoubling its efforts to resist impending change or even retreat to the olden days.
Now you may well ask, what has all this talk about re-imagining the future and changing the world got to do with spiritual imagination, which surely has more to do with mystical awareness and personal transformation than radical, progressive politics. As the Qur’an tells us: God does not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves [13:11].
Well, there seems to me to be a very clear connection between the idea of re-imagining the future and the evolutionary development of collective human consciousness. In fact the essence of this re-imagining is captured so well in the very different language of Ibn ‘Arabi, the great thirteenth-century Sufi mystic, also known as the Shaykh al-Akbar, the ‘Greatest Shaikh’, who had an incalculable influence on Islamic spirituality.
In his great work Futuhat al-Makiyya, or Meccan Illuminations, Ibn ‘Arabi writes of what he calls the never-ending process of Self-Manifestation (Self with a capital S to indicate the Divine Reality). By this he means that the Divine reveals itself in an ever-expanding creative process of renewal, and, in his words, ‘this matter has no end at which it might stop’. In other words, Divine Revelation is continually being renewed at every moment in every unique human soul and in the furthest horizons of creation. What an amazing thought to reflect on! Or one can say, it is continually being re-imagined, because it is our spiritual imagination that gives us the ability to become aware of the way in which the Divine discloses itself within ourselves, within others, and within all of creation. This level of imagination is also often called creative imagination in relation to Ibn ‘Arabi, and also the imaginal faculty. And if I can introduce two more terms at this point, we can also refer to this process of divine disclosure as theophany, or tajalli. I’ll try not to burden you with too many terms, but they are really useful in helping us to grasp essential meanings.
Ibn ‘Arabi also uses the vivid word ‘unveiling’(kashf) to express so concretely the idea of disclosure, revelation or manifestation. Different qualities are continually being unveiled, even though the ultimate Source of them is single, unchanging, immutable. And it is the spiritual imagination that enables us to see this unveiling of the Divine reality within the created world, the emergence of what is hidden into the light. It is the bridge between the world of meanings and the world of forms, sometimes called the intelligible and sensory worlds. In other words, the spiritual imagination is the faculty of symbolic vision and understanding that enables us to read the signs (ayat) that point to the existence and beneficence of the Creator. As the Qur’an tells us, We will show them our signs on the furthest horizons and within themselves… [41:53]. This is why myths and stories have such power – they bring underlying archetypes of meaning into concrete form and engage with the higher emotions. And the signs are not only visible with the eye, but are also audible and tangible, and their fragrance can also be smelt.
As Mevlana Rumi says:
The gifts of lovers to one another are,
In respect to love, nothing but forms;
Yet, they testify
To an invisible love.
And we can see spiritual imagination not only in terms of personal spiritual development, but also as the means of advancing the collective evolution of mankind. In other words, the awakening of spiritual imagination in ourselves is a gift that we can offer to others.
We are not isolated individuals, but as we know from advances in modern science, we are all intimately interconnected because everything in existence emerged from being entangled in the Singularity. Everything we think, feel, say and do reverberates instantaneously in every corner of the universe, because interconnection is not dependent on the speed of light, it is non-local.
If you take a sample of someone’s DNA and place it in a test tube enclosed in a vacuum in the next room from where that person is sitting, and then expose him or her to suggestions which arouse positive or negative emotions, the DNA in the test tube will tighten with the donor’s experience of negative emotions, and expand with the experience of positive emotions. This same experiment has been replicated with the DNA placed 30 miles from the donor, and the same instantaneous effects have been observed. No time delay. No doubt, the same results would be observed if the DNA was placed on Mars, or in another galaxy. And that reverberation is actually not dependent on the DNA. It transcends individual genetic identity, and has a collective resonance with all human history.
So, given our interconnection and our immersion in the collective, we can see spiritual imagination as including a deep awareness of the way humanity evolves through successive shifts in consciousness. Various visionary thinkers have concluded that we are now on the cusp of just such a major shift. If you want to look into this in more detail, I recommend the work of Jean Gebser, Ken Wilber and Richard Tarnas, amongst many. The essential feature of this shift is a moving away from a mode of consciousness rooted in the thinking mind and the way it tends to analyse, atomise, segment and fragment reality, to a more integral awareness, a state of unitive consciousness that draws on the totality of our faculties.
And this idea of a re-imagined, emergent consciousness has taken hold in many progressive contemporary movements, both in counter-culture and increasingly in the mainstream. Richard Tarnas writes eloquently of what he sees as ‘an epochal shift in the contemporary psyche’ which he says can be discerned in ‘the increasing sense of unity with the planet and all forms of nature on it, in the increasing awareness of the ecological and the growing reaction against political and corporate policies supporting the domination and exploitation of the environment, in the growing embrace of the human community, in the accelerating collapse of long-standing and ideological barriers separating the world’s peoples, and in the deepening recognition of the value and necessity of partnership, pluralism, and the interplay of many perspectives’. Relationship and inter-connectedness are the hallmarks of this new mode of developing consciousness. Tarnas also connects it to what he calls the emergence of feminine values, and the re-union or integration of the two fundamental polarities in creation: the feminine and the masculine.
I’ve tried to capture so far the positive aspects of the vast range of the faculty of imagination from visualization and creative thought to its higher spiritual counterpart, but I’m also well aware that it can also refer to the belief that you think something exists or is true when it is not actually real or true, but a fantasy, delusion and even hallucination. I remember my Granny saying of me when I was a young boy, ‘J, you have such a vivid imagination’, but that was not always meant as praise or admiration.
So we’ve identified three ascending levels of the imagination: the imaginary, the imaginative and the imaginal.
I recently watched a YouTube video of Peter Levine speaking at a Science and Non-Duality conference. Levine is a pioneer in the field of collective trauma and trauma healing. He described how he was sitting having a coffee during a break, and he looked up and had the distinct sense that Albert Einstein was sitting opposite him. He had a real sense of Einstein’s wild shock of hair. Strange as this was, Levine denied that it was either a hallucination or a product of what he called the ‘active imagination’. In other words, in the terms I am using, it was neither imaginary nor imaginative. It was what I would call an imaginal perception, similar in some ways to the stuff of dreams, though not a ‘vision’ in the sense we normally understand that term. Levine felt the encounter was so real he actually ordered two more coffees, one for himself and another for Einstein, much to the bewilderment of the waitress, who suggested he drink the first one before ordering another.
The spiritual imagination is not a cogitating, thinking faculty working with abstract concepts. It’s not ‘head stuff’ but a faculty of concrete perception, of deep seeing within the heart, and knowing through direct experience. Mevlana Rumi calls this the ‘kernel’, in contrast to what he calls the ‘husk’ of the intellect. As the eleventh-century philosopher, theologjan and mystic Al-Ghazali said, the way to spiritual certitude (yaqin) is through ‘tasting’ (dhawq), or ‘savouring’. And it’s no accident that the English word ‘savour’ (meaning ‘taste’, ‘relish’) comes from the same root that produced the Latin sapientia, ‘wisdom’.
In the same way the word ‘idea’ actually comes from a root that originally meant ‘to see’. It gave us Latin videre, to see, and those English words like ‘video’ and ‘vision’ that come from that. The word ‘white’ comes from the same root through Celtic , and literally means ‘easily seen’. So, the underlying concept is that of ‘seeing’ not ‘thinking’.
In talking about the spiritual imagination I’ve already brought in the wisdom of Ibn ‘Arabi, but let’s go a bit further in his company.
Ibn ‘Arabi’s own prayers for the seven nights and days of the week are now available in English in the book Ibn ‘Arabi: The Seven Days of the Heart, and throughout the prayers there are references to two fundamental aspects of existence: on the one hand, the visible realm, that which is witnessed (shuhud), the world of creation (khalq); on the other, the invisible realm, that which is Unseen (ghayb). On the one hand, what is manifest (zahir), and on the other, what is hidden (batin). Between the two realms, in Ibn ‘Arabi’s teaching, there lies an isthmus (barzakh), an inner space, interworld or threshold which both joins them together and keeps them separate: it is the place where meaning takes on form and forms are given meaning. He calls it the world of imagination (khayal). It is a realm where the Magnificence and the ravishing Beauty of the Divine Presence is witnessed and perceived by inner sight.
Let me now introduce two more essential terms that help us to understand the faculty of spiritual imagination. These are tanzih (incomparability) and tashbih (similarity). According to the Sufis, human reason alone cannot encompass the human relationship to God. The Divine Reality must also be understood, not by thinking about it, but ‘as if’ we see it or perceive it. Reason tends to recognize a God who is infinitely distant and difficult of access – as the Qur’an says, utterly remote in His limitless glory [59:23] – i.e. unfathomable, indescribable, transcendent, incomparable (tanzih). But the Sufis complemented this by another point of view, that God is also immanent, present, intimately close to us, or, as the Qur’an tells us, with you wherever you are [57:4], and closer to you than your jugular vein [50:16] (or as the Quakers say, ‘that of God in everyone’). The Sufis stressed that the recognition of tanzih in seeing God as utterly Remote, Incomparable and indivisibly Singular, must be balanced by the awareness of tashbih, Divine Intimacy, Presence, and Multiplicity or Diversity.
Ibn ‘Arabi taught that awareness of God’s intimate closeness to us, requires a full understanding of the ‘as if’, and this can only come through the imagination (khayal). And that is why parables are so central to so many religious and spiritual traditions. The Qur’an asserts that it strikes similitudes or likenesses (amthal, the plural of mithal), because parables that make use of allegory and metaphor illustrate and bring to life core teachings, making the abstract concrete, and the unfamiliar familiar. This is precisely one of the gifts of the spiritual imagination, which occupies the middle realm between the world of the senses and the world of ideas. It is precisely what Al-Ghazali meant when he said that knowledge gained by tasting was as concrete as if one had actually touched an object.
In explaining the meaning of the highest level of faith (that is ihsan, the level that encompasses excellence and beauty), the Prophet Muhammad is reported to have said: ‘It is to worship God as if you see Him, for if you do not see Him, He surely sees you.’
In times of religious fundamentalism, it is the remote aspect of God (tanzih) that tends to be over-emphasized, since it inclines to Majesty, Justice, Severity, and Wrath, and can lead to entrenchment in rigid dogma and authoritarian patriarchy. In the face of this, there needs to be a major rebalancing towards tashbih, towards that vision of the Divine Reality that adores Beauty and Mercy. And that rebalancing is already enshrined in the Divine saying (hadith qudsi) attributed to the Prophet and so beloved of the Sufis: My Mercy prevails over My Wrath.
All this confirms what I have already quoted from the shaykh – that spiritual imagination is the unveiling of the Divine Reality, the awareness of the Presence of the Divine in all things. It is a universal faculty that opens a window for each and every one of us to the possibility of direct experience of the Divine Reality that goes beyond doctrinal theology, inherited or acquired beliefs, authoritarian intermediaries (usually men) or the mechanical performance of formal ritual. As Mevlana Rumi urges us, ‘The house without a window is hell; to make a window is the essence of religion.” To make a window – that is what the spiritual imagination does.
And let’s be clear that formal ritual, as in the performance of prayer, can of course either be a mechanical act or the opening of that very window.
In speaking of the tradition of the Prophet that he felt ‘delight in the ritual prayer’ Mevlana Rumi said that when he turned to God in prayer:
The window of the soul opens,
and from the purity of the unseen world,
the rain of divine grace and the light
are falling into my house through a window
from my real and original source.
I am sure you will know that a stunning exhibition of the works of William Blake, the great eighteenth-century artist, visionary, poet and mystic, has recently opened at the Tate Britain in London, and the theme of spiritual imagination might well be defined in his famous lines:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
Or in the inspiring words of William Law, the eighteenth-century theologian and mystic whose insights greatly influenced many of the leading philanthropists and reformers of his time:
This world with all its stars, elements, and creatures, is come out of the invisible world; it has not the smallest thing or the smallest quality of anything but what is come forth from thence.
This is the vision of the spiritual imagination, entirely at one with the insight of the great Sufi Mahmoud Shabistari, who wrote:
Know that the whole world is a mirror; in each atom are found a hundred blazing suns. If you split the centre of a single drop of water, a hundred pure oceans spring forth. If you examine each particle of dust, a thousand Adams can be seen.
There are two books in spiritual traditions: the written book of divine revelation, and the displayed book of nature, the book that is brimming over with luminous signs which offer a continual reminder that in those signs we can see the living Presence of God in the created world. As the Qur’an tells us:
To God belong the east and the west.
Wherever you turn, there is the face of God.
And Mevlana Rumi often describes the splendours of theophany, how God discloses himself in all things:
The scent of the garden and roses keeps on coming,
the scent of that kind Friend keeps on coming.
My Friend is scattering pearls to me,
and the ocean’s water keeps on rising up inside me.
I look upon the image of His rose garden
and keep on seeing the field of brambles softer than silk.
But Mevlana is always clear that although the spiritual imagination enables us to smell the fragrance of the roses, see the pearls, touch the silk, and feel the water, he always takes the signs back to their Essence and Unicity in the transcendent reality. The spiritual imagination is not meant to make us fall in love with the world. Far from it. Nor is it meant to make us put all our energy and vision into changing the world. Our destiny is not to become hedonists, and nor is it to become obsessed with activism.
The spiritual imagination is the bridge that enables us to face in both directions, like the Roman God Janus. The signs have their beauty but they point to their original source, the Divine Beloved. As Ibn ‘Arabi says: It is that Beloved ‘who is revealed in every face, sought in every sign, gazed upon by every eye, worshipped in every object of worship, and pursued in the invisible and the visible.’
Let me now ask two questions: How do we ignite and nourish the spiritual imagination? How do we know when spiritual imagination is active?
How do we ignite and nourish the spiritual imagination?
For me, there are nine essential ways to awaken spiritual imagination:
1. Relationships, with intimate partners, family (including our ancestral heritage), friends, spiritual companions – just think of what the encounter with Shams opened for Rumi, or how famous muses unlocked creativity in great poets or other creative artists.
2. Immersion in nature. As the ‘Displayed Book’, the natural world is replete with beautiful and majestic ‘signs’ which point to the existence, presence and beneficence of the Creator. Spiritual imagination is also related to the faculty of tawassum [Qur’an 15:75] which enables us to read the observable signs in nature and derive spiritual nourishment from them.
3. The imaginative dimension of one’s inner life, particularly the world of dreams, which have been so important in my own life.
The first dream I remember was when I was about 8 years old. I was in a chariot drawn by a black and a white horse riding through the sky. I knew that I had to balance the two horses exactly with very subtle use of the reins. There came a moment when I did so, and the chariot took off making a huge arc through the heavens. Many years later, when I was in my 40s, I dreamt that I was sitting at the head of a table in the school where I was teaching at the time, and I suddenly stood up and said with great urgency, ‘We have to unite the opposites.’ The effect of this statement was to lift my body clean off the floor. The second dream of course mirrors the first and both are about the spiritual imagination, the bridge that unites the opposites, the black and the white, the unconscious and the conscious, the visible and the invisible, the manifest and the hidden, the immanent and the transcendent. I see this every day when I walk to the Chalice Well in Glastonbury. The symbol of the Well is the vesica piscis, which depicts the intersection of two circles, creating that inter-space or interworld for the meeting of opposites. For me, it was my dreams that helped me to see this union of the contraries (called in alchemy the conjunctio appositorum) as the core of my ‘mythos’, my own story, the inner work I have to do. And through opening the spiritual imagination, in dreams or other ways, we can discover for ourselves our own mythos, our own purpose in this life. As Mevlana Rumi said, ‘Everyone has been made for some particular work, and the desire for that work has been placed in every heart.’
4. All forms of creative expression, music, singing, poetry, writing stories, dance, the visual arts, cookery. And gymnastics too, as a fine discipline of balance and poise. And this brings us to the failure of our education system, something we could discuss at length. I call this the ‘schooling regime’ which has devalued the imagination by a continual narrowing of the curriculum that has relegated the humanities, languages, and the creative arts, all those subjects that help to feed the imagination.
There are various reasons for this. One is the dominance of ‘stage’ theories in developmental psychology which assume that the highest form of intelligence is the operation of reason and logic, and their influence on several generations of educators has ensured that schools, even primary schools and kindergartens, see their job as weaning children off their reliance on their senses, their imagination and their intuition, and encouraging them to become deliberators and explainers as fast as possible.
The other reason for the narrowed focus on literacy and numeracy (linguistic and logico-mathematical intelligences) is the intention of the establishment to turn children into cogs in an economic machine, children who are dependent, conforming, materialistic, and lacking in curiosity, imagination, self-knowledge and powers of reflection. This is the modern equivalent of the worst of Victorian education geared to the production of a regimented, empire-serving army of uncritical ledger clerks and petty officials. Now it no longer serves the colonial empire but the kleptocracy, the super-wealthy corporations and individuals who effectively control the world.
We need children with imagination who can also resist dependence on the false images of themselves created by social media and peer group pressure.
5. Being open to difference and diversity; reaching out to engage with other types of cultural and ethnic identity, other ways of seeing ourselves and the world. As the Qur’an tells us, We have made you into tribes and nations, so that you may come to know one another [49:13]. This may include the best kinds of travel, what I would call conscious travel, immersing oneself deeply in the vibration of a place and its people, not the bucket list mentality of ‘100 Places to Visit before you Die’. Conscious travel is not about consuming, but connecting. It’s not taking 100 pictures of the Rose Window in a Gothic Cathedral and posting them on Instagram, but being present and contemplating with awe and reverence the sacred beauty and majesty of that sight. It is opening that very Rose Window through the spiritual imagination.
6 Participation in what Jean Houston has called ‘teaching-learning communities in stimulating, supporting and evoking each other’s highest sensory, physical, psychological, mythic, symbolic and spiritual capacities.’ In such a community, she says, ‘education is an adventure of the soul in which our personal themes become joined with those of universal reality’.
7. Opening the right hemisphere of the brain. Our culture has given too much prominence to the left side, the side of analysis, logic and language, and neglected the more intuitive, visual, imaginative and holistic side. One way to fire up the right side is to use memory techniques that convert verbal material into visual imagery. It always amazes me that techniques like this are not taught as a matter of course to schoolchildren who have to remember so much stuff. If we had time, I could show you how to remember and repeat 40 or more items in the right order, even though the human short term memory is only seven items. You simply connect them together in a story line which you visualize.
8. Making use of ways to bypass the fixed thinking of the conditioned mind. There are several ways and methods both in folklore and in various spiritual traditions. These include koan-training in Zen Buddhism, meditating on a riddle, a paradox or a conundrum so as to loosen dependence on reason and provoke an intuitive leap, a flash of enlightenment. A famous one is ‘What is the sound of one hand clapping.’ Another, ‘What is the colour of the wind?’
There is also the body of humorous tales about the legendary figure Mulla Nasrudin, the wise fool or clever prankster, known throughout the Middle East. These stories may be understood at any one of many depths, not only as joke and moral, but also, like the koan, as a means of shifting habits of thought that get in the way of more subtle states of consciousness.
One such story goes like this: Nasrudin used to take his donkey across a frontier every day, with the pannier loaded with straw. He admitted to being a smuggler when he trudged home every night, so the frontier guards searched him again and again, sifted the straw, steeped it in water, even burned it from time to time. Meanwhile he was becoming visibly more and more prosperous. Then he retired and went to live in another country where he met one of the customs officers years later. ‘You can tell me now, Nasrudin,’ he said. ‘Whatever was it that you were smuggling when we could never catch you out?’ ‘Donkeys,’ said Nasrudin. Much more than a simple joke. It emphasizes that direct mystical experience of the Truth is something much nearer to us than is realized. Believing that it is far off and hard to find is a barrier which stops us seeing that it is present and immediately accessible to us through the spiritual imagination.
9. Dedicated spiritual practice in whatever tradition draws you: prayer, invocation, meditation (in Sufism we have all three: salat, zhikr, muraqaba) but always going beyond mechanical ritual to immersion in a living conversation with the Divine Beloved. As Ibn ‘Arabi would say, that conversation occurs when the listening heart is opened by stilling the mind. And that’s the key – all the nine windows I’ve suggested are about opening a conversation, a relationship.
Ibn ‘Arabi himself says that the space between the seen and the Unseen is where the one who prays is invited not to give a monologue but to converse, so it is a place of relationship. Real prayers, he says, take place in this isthmus between the visible world which is present to us, and the invisible, which is absent from us. The third person (he or she) denotes someone who is not there, while the first and second persons (I and you) refer to those present and visible. To enter into conversation with God is to step from absence into Presence and this transforms the absent One (conventionally ‘He’) into the One present (‘You’), so that He may be directly addressed. And ‘You’ is of course beyond gender.
In the same way, my own exploration of dreams over many years has shown me that one does not impose a fixed interpretation on a dream. One enters into a conversation with it and with others, and through that it reveals successive meanings that also evolve over time.
How do we know when spiritual imagination is active?
I remember walking the Malvern Hills most days for nine years, practising zhikr as I walked, and I often used to pray inwardly that I would meet a wali, a friend of God, on those hills. I often associated that wali with Ibn ‘Arabi, because I once had a dream in which I was led to understand that I was on the way to meeting him. Well, I cannot say that I actually met him on those hills, or anywhere else, but there are many ways of meeting someone, and I am sure that all of us who love Mevlana Rumi, even though we may not claim to have actually met him, have indeed met with him and joined our hearts to his through the Tradition that he gave us, and through those who have transmitted it to us. Such meetings are beyond time and place.
The same goes for all great teachers and illuminators of the heart, and also for the mentors and role models who may be very important to us as young people. It’s sad to see so many of our young people following trivial celebrities on social media, whose greatest ambition is to take the best selfie or have a bottom like Kim Kardashian’s. Such failure of the imagination!
At the Threshold gathering at Gaunts House last August I talked a little about the experience of feeling the entrance of Spirit. That is what happens when the spiritual imagination is ignited. I suggested that we become aware of the entrance of Spirit, however one describes it: Holy Spirit, Higher Power, or as one person described it, ‘That overwhelming thing that happens’. I think we’ve all noticed that at certain moments a palpable Presence descends, a kind of inner hush and awe and intimate embrace that pervades the group.
One of the most striking ways in which I have come to know that the spiritual imagination is active is the experience of synchronicity, the term coined by Carl Jung to describe the coming together of two events that are apparently unrelated but which are connected at a deeper level. I seem to have got into the habit of having regular experiences of synchronicity, and there is some evidence that more and more people are having such experiences. Immediately after I’d noted down the story about Levine and Einstein, I went onto Facebook and the first post in my feed was a quote from Albert Einstein: ‘The intuitive mind’, he said, ‘is a sacred gift, and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.’
So let me finish with one of the most memorable experiences of synchronicity I have had, one which also connects so beautifully with the role of music in awakening the spiritual imagination.
Driving on the M4 on my way to Heathrow to catch my flight to Bonn for the conference on Islamic education, I was listening to a CD of one of the last piano sonatas of Beethoven, a composer intimately associated with the city of Bonn. I was listening to the closing bars of the last movement of one of those sonatas, a climax that I have always found intensely moving. It expresses with unparalleled beauty the inner serenity attainable by one given the grace to transcend hardship after heroic struggles. For me, the music audibly distils the essence of the Qur’anic promise that after hardship comes ease [94:5–6]. We need to remember that Beethoven had struggled with deafness for most of his life, and at the time he wrote the last piano sonatas he was stone deaf. He could hear his own music only in his head.
As I listened, overcome with the beauty of the music, my eyes filled with tears, and I said out loud, ‘Beautiful! Beautiful!’ And I thought, how on earth could this music, so deeply human and so essentially spiritual, be haram? How could a work of art that uplifts the human soul be forbidden to us?
And at the very moment that I said and thought these words, a sleek and gleaming black limousine, perhaps a Mercedes, suddenly appeared on the slip road to the left and joined the motorway just ahead of me. It had the distinctive presence of something out of the ordinary, something of special excellence. I had the feeling that it too was bound for the airport. At that moment I experienced the entry of Spirit, ‘that overwhelming thing that happens’. My eyes caught its rear number-plate. It was a personalised number plate of only five capital letters which leapt out at me and made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. And the letters? J A M I L. The Arabic word for Beautiful. The very word I had just spontaneously uttered in response to the sublimity of the music. Immediately I had spoken the word, the word itself in Arabic had appeared out of the blue in front of me.
Of course, sceptics who seek to deny the existence of the Unseen would say that this was a mere coincidence. The same kind of people argue that the development of complex proteins from basic molecules came about through random events, even though statisticians tell us that the degree of probability of this happening is equivalent to the likelihood that a hurricane sweeping through a junkyard could randomly assemble a complete jumbo jet.
No, this was not a coincidence. It was what the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung would have called an example of ‘synchronicity’, a coming together of two events which are apparently unrelated but which are connected on a deeper level. Our existence is governed by an underlying Unity (tawhid), and everything is ultimately interconnected. At moments of inspiration or exaltation, the authenticity of what we are experiencing can be affirmed by just such a moment of synchronicity when a window opens into the ghayb, and something ‘out of the blue’, from the inner, hidden world (batin) enters the outer, apparent world (zahir). When it happens, it has the force of revelation, and there is complete certainty (yaqin) about its authenticity.
~ Jeremy Henzell-Thomas is an independent researcher, writer, speaker, educational consultant, and Visiting Fellow at the Centre of Islamic Studies at the University of Cambridge.