Except from the book MANIFESTO OF TRANSDISCIPLINARITY by Basarab Nicolescu

Translation by Karen-Claire Voss

The process of the decline of civilizations is one of enormous complexity and its roots lie deeply buried in the most profound obscurity. Of course one can find multiple after the fact explanations and rationalizations without ever successfully dispelling the feeling that there is an irrational element at work in the very heart of the process. From the great masses to the great decision makers, the actors in a very well-defined civilization, even if they become more or less aware of the processes of decline, appear powerless to stop the fall of their civilization. One thing is certain: a great unbalance between the mentalities of the actors and the inner needs of the development of a particular type of society always accompanies the fall of a civilization. Although a civilization never stops proliferating new knowledge, it is as if that knowledge can never be integrated within the interior being of those who belong to this civilization. And after all, it is the human being who must be placed in the center of any civilization worthy of the name.The unprecedented increase of knowledge in our era renders the question of how to adapt our mentality to this knowledge a legitimate challenge. The challenge is enormous because the influence of the Western style of civilization throughout the planet is so pervasive that its downfall would be the equivalent of a planetary conflagration far exceeding the destruction which we suffered in the two world wars.Within the framework of classical thought, the only existing solutions for escape from a declining situation are a social revolution or a return to a supposedly “Golden Age”.

Social revolution has already been experienced in the course of the century now coming to an end and its results have been catastrophic. The New Man turned out to be only a sad, empty man. No matter what cosmetic ameliorations the concept of “social revolution” undergoes they will never be able to erase from our collective memory that which has actually been experienced.

The return to a Golden Age has not yet been tried, for the simple reason that the existence of a Golden Age in the first place has not been established. Even if one supposes that a Golden Age did exist in time immemorial, such a return would necessarily have to be accompanied by an interior dogmatic revolution , the mirror image of the social revolution. The different religious fundamentalisms which cover the surface of the earth with their black mantle are an evil portent of the violence and blood which would burst forth from this caricature of authentic “interior revolution.”

As always, there is a third solution. This third solution constitutes the object of the present manifesto.

Harmony between mentalities and knowledge presupposes that these known facts would be intelligible, comprehensible. But can such understanding exist in the era of the disciplinary big bang and relentless specialization?

In our time, a Pico della Mirandola is inconceivable. Today, two specialists in the same discipline must make a serious effort in order to understand their respective results. There is nothing especially troubling about this in so far as it is the collective intelligence of the community attached to this discipline which makes it progress, not simply a single brain which must necessarily know all the results of all his colleagues’ brains, clearly an impossibility. Today there are hundreds of disciplines. How can a theoretical particle physicist truly dialogue with a neurophysiologist, a mathematician with a poet, a biologist with an economist, a politician with a computer programmer, beyond mouthing more or less trivial generalities? Yet, a true decision-maker must be able to dialogue with all of them at once. Disciplinary language is an apparently insurmountable barrier for a neophyte, and each of us is a neophyte in some area. Is a modern tower of Babel inevitable?

Perhaps a Pico della Mirandola in our time could be conceivable if he took the form of a supercomputer into which one could load all the known data which has been generated by all existing disciplines. This supercomputer would be capable of knowing everything while understanding nothing. Its user would be no better off than the supercomputer itself. The user would have immediate access to any results from any discipline, but would be incapable of understanding their meanings, still less of making connections between the results of different disciplines.

This process of “Babelization” cannot continue without putting our own existence into danger because a decision-maker becomes increasingly more incompetent regardless of his or her intention. Without exception, each of the major challenges of our era — for example, the challenge of formulating an ethics adapted to the contemporary world — require more and more compe tencies. However, it is obvious that even a group comprised of the best specialists from all the various disciplines would only be able to develop one generalized incompetence, for the simple reason that the sum total of competencies is not competence: on the technical level, the intersection between different domains of knowledge is an empty ensemble. Now, what is a decision maker, individual or collective, if not capable of taking into account all the givens of the problem being examined?

The indispensable need for bridges between the different disciplines is attested to by the emergence of pluridisciplinarity and interdisciplinarity around the middle of the 20th century.

Pluridisciplinarity concerns studying a research topic not in only one discipline but in several at the same time . For example, a painting by Giotto can be studied not only within art history but within history of religions, European history, and geometry. Or else Marxist philosophy can be studied with a view toward blending philosophy with physics, economics, psychoanalysis or literature. The topic in question will ultimately be enriched by blending the perspectives of several disciplines. Moreover, our understanding of the topic in terms of its own discipline is deepened by a fertile multidisciplinary approach. Multidisciplinarity brings a plus to the discipline in question (the history of art or philosophy in our examples), but we must remember that this “plus” is always in the exclusive service of the home discipline. In other words, the multidisciplinary approach overflows disciplinary boundaries while its goal remains limited to the framework of disciplinary research .

Interdisciplinarity has a different goal from multidisciplinarity. It concerns the transfer of methods from one discipline to another . One can distinguish three degrees of interdisciplinarity: a) a degree of application . For example, when the methods of nuclear physics are transferred to medicine it leads to the appearance of new treatments for cancer; b) an epistemological degree . For example, transferring methods of formal logic to the area of general law generates some interesting analyses of the epistemology of law; c) a degree of the generation of new disciplines . For example, when methods from mathe matics were transferred to physics mathematical physics was generated, and when they were transferred to meterological phenomena or stock market processes they generated chaos theory; transferring methods from particle physics to astrophysics produced quantum cosmology; and from the transfer of computer methods to art computer art was derived. Like pluridisciplinarity, interdisciplinarity overflows the disciplines but its goal still remains within the framework of disciplinary research . It is through the third degree that interdisciplinarity contributes to the disciplinary big bang.

As the prefix “trans” indicates, transdisciplinarity concerns that which is at once between the disciplines, across the different disciplines, and beyond all discipline. Its goal is the understanding of the present world , of which one of the imperatives is the unity of knowledge.

Is there something between and across the disciplines and beyond all disciplines? From the point of view of classical thought there is nothing, strictly nothing: the space in question is empty, completely empty, like the vacuum of classical physics. Even if it renounces the pyramidal vision of knowledge, classical thought considers each fragment of the pyramid which is generated by the disciplinary big bang as an entire pyramid; each discipline claims that it is sufficient unto itself. For classical thought, transdisciplinarity appears absurd because it does not appear to have an object. In contrast, within the framework of transdisciplinarity, classical thought does not appear absurd; rather, it simply appears to have a restricted sphere of applicability.

In the presence of several levels of Reality the space between disciplines and beyond disciplines is full just as the quantum vacuum is full of all potentialities: from the quantum particle to the galaxies, from the quark to the heavy elements which condition the appearance of life in the universe. The discontinuous structure of the levels of Reality determines the discontinuous structure of transdisciplinary space , which in turn explains why transdisciplinary research is radical ly distinct from disciplinary research, even while being entirely complementary. Disciplinary research concerns, at most, one and the same level of Reality ; moreover, in most cases, it only concerns fragments of one level of Reality. On the contrary, transdisciplinarity concerns the dynamics engendered by the action of several levels of Reality at once . The discovery of these dynamics necessarily passes through disciplinary knowledge. While not a new discipline or a new superdiscipline, transdisciplinarity is nourished by disciplinary research; in turn, disciplinary research is clarified by transdisciplinary knowledge in a new, fertile way. In this sense, disciplinary and transdisciplinary research are not antagonistic but complementary.

The three pillars of transdisciplinarity — levels of Reality, the logic of the included middle, and complexity — determine the methodology of transdisciplinary research .

There is an interesting parallel between the three pillars of transdisciplinarity and the three postulates of modern science.

In spite of an almost infinite diversity of methods, theories and models which have traversed the history of different scientific disciplines, the three methodological postulates of modern science have remained unchanged from Galileo until our day. Only one science has entirely and integrally satisfied the three postulates: physics. The other scientific disciplines only partially satisfy the three methodological postulates of modern science. However, the absence of rigorous mathematical formalization in psychology, history of religions, and a multitude of other disciplines does not lead to the elimination of these disciplines from the field of science. At least for the moment, not even an exact science like molecular biology, can claim a mathematical formalization as rigorous as that of phys ics. In other words, there are degrees of disciplinarity which can respectively take into account more or less completely the three methodological postulates of modern science.

Likewise, the process of more or less completely taking account of the three methodological pillars of transdisciplinary research generates different degrees of transdisciplinarity . Transdisciplinary research which corresponds to a certain degree of transdisciplinarity will be closer to multidisciplinarity (as in the case of ethics); one which corresponds to another degree will be closer to interdisciplinarity (as in the case of epistemology); and that corresponding to yet another degree will be closer to disciplinarity.

Disciplinarity, multidisciplinarity, interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity are like four arrows shot from but a single bow: knowledge .

As in the case of disciplinarity, transdisciplinary research is not antagonistic but complementary to multidisciplinarity and interdisciplinarity research. Transdisciplinarity is nevertheless radically distinct from multidisciplinarity and interdisciplinarity because of its goal, the understanding of the present world, which cannot be accomplished in the framework of disciplinary research. The goal of multidisciplinarity and interdisciplinarity always remains within the framework of disciplinary research. If transdisciplinarity is often confused with interdisciplinarity and multidisciplinarity (and by the same token, we note that interdisciplinarity is often confused with multidisciplinarity) this is explained in large part by the fact that all three overflow disciplinary boundaries. This confusion is very harmful to the extent that it functions to hide the different goals of these three new approaches.

Although we recognize the radically distinct character of transdisciplinarity in relation to disciplinarity, multidisciplinarity, and interdisciplinarity, it would be extremely dangerous to absolutize this distinction, in which case transdisciplinarity would be emptied of all its contents and its efficacy in action reduced to nothing.

The complementary character of disciplinary, multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, and transdisciplinary approaches is demonstrated in a stunning way, for example, by the accompaniment of the dying . This relatively new approach to the dying is extremely important because in recognizing the role of our death in our life, we discover hitherto unsuspected dimensions of life itself. Accompanying the dying is greatly enriched by transdisciplinary research because deeper understanding of the present world must pass through deeper understanding of the meaning of our life and of our death in this world which is ours.


(The International Center for Transdisciplinary Research (CIRET)

“Life is easy” Essay by Jon Jandai

To be given life is the ultimate gift. When we are first born we have the right to cry or laugh. When we grow up we have the freedom to choose the way we want to be. Humans were born with rights equal to every other living thing but because of our unlimited desire human life is often of less quality than most other animals.

A small bird wakes up early in the morning singing a song waking the other birds, merrily looking for food, spending a short time to get all the bugs and grain she needs to fill her small stomach, then spending the rest of her time playing, singing, and courting. She spends a few days to build her beautiful nest. She doesn’t work too much to get the food she needs everyday. Her life is easy. She has a lot of time to play and enjoy living together with the other birds.

Humans have small stomachs as birds do. Just to have enough to eat we too do not have to work a lot in one day. If we want to build a house, we can build one in a few weeks. We can then have a lot of free-time in our life to play and enjoy life together as well. Now days people choose to work very hard, at least 8 hours per day. They work like machines just to have some food to eat even though the food they eat is not good quality. They eat the old plants and animals that have been dead many months in a can or in frozen packages. They have to live in a crowded house like a termite. If they want their own house they have to spend at least one half of their life or maybe all of their life to work for that house. Life is busy and hectic all the time.

We can see only complications with no space for beauty and freedom. We create suffering for ourselves because we don’t know the purpose of life. We are blinded and our soul turns to darkness. We can’t see beauty. We can’t enjoy living. We have only fear growing in our minds everyday. We begin to distrust other people. We cannot be friends with others around us, even relatives or family members. Our lives are lonely, even though the world is full of people. Even though we have a lot of material goods and wealth we still feel like it’s not enough. Even thought other people give us love, we still don’t trust them. We are even disturbed by the rooster’s morning call and we’re proud to say in the middle of this confusion and suffering that this is development and we are civilized.

Why do humans choose to live their life in a difficult and complicated life like this? What do we receive from our hard work all our life? Why is the simple and peaceful way not attractive to people? Life is easy, why do we make it hard?

If we think we are the most clever animal in the world, why do we make our life full of bitterness and suffering more than any other animal? Why do we have to work harder than other animals? Why do we make our lives so boring? Why don’t we have time for our kids and family or even time for ourselves? These are the instincts of all life. In 24 hours we spend more than 10 hours struggling with what we call work or said nicely, “making a living”. We spend on average less than hours sleeping and 2.5 hours a day eating, maybe .5-1 hour bathing/dressing. This leaves 3 hours left for ourselves and our family in our day. Mostly we spend this time intoxicating ourselves with entertainment such as drinking, going to parties, shopping, watching movies or watching TV. Even on our day off we love to spend the time on entertainment. We don’t see the importance of spending time with family or ourselves because we think we don’t have time. So we are not different from machines or robots because we have lost our heart and soul.

Our kids are like our pets. We take care of them enough to feed them and keep them safe but we neglect to think about their mind and soul. Kids want to be loved and cared for and to feel close to their parents but we think it’s a burden so we push them away by sending them to pre-school. Then we appease ourselves by telling ourselves we’ve done the best by them by giving them good food and expensive schooling so we can have more time to give to working and we can tell ourselves that we work for our kids. But we don’t know if the kids want what we give them or not. We assume we have given the best to them. If the kids know how to compare, they must be jealous of other animals like ducks seeing their whole family playing and looking for food together. But to be born as a human kid is so lonely. They become orphaned even though they have parents. They spend more time with strangers than their parents.

We are losing our instincts. We are destroying the system of life which our ancestors developed and lived successfully with for many thousands of years. Now we become the only animals that work this hard. Even in the past people didn’t work as hard or long as they do now except slaves and prisoners. What made people see slavery as progress or development? What is the reason people choose to live like this? Life is easy, why do we choose to make it so hard and complicated? What makes us think life has no choice when in fact we have a lot of choice?

Click on the link to Pun Pun in the “Lifestyle” section of my link section to learn more about this unique community.

Kalam of the Age


by Dr. Adi Setia of Himpunan Keilmuan Muda (HAKIM)

The “kalam of the age” (kalam al-‘asr) is the systemic deconstruction of all the western sciences and their reconstruction from within the conceptual framework of the Worldview of Islam, by which, along the way, some of these sciences may be seen to be discardable altogether, while others reexamined, remodified, restructured and redirected to serve the higher purposes of the divine Law (Maqasid al-Shari‘ah), i.e., to serve the true purpose of our life as Muslims in this world.

Do not let our present preoccupation with the puerile, incoherent ramblings of the Wahhabis and the neo-Mu’tazilis divert us from drawing creatively from the profound lessons of traditional classical kalam to meet head on the real challenge of the age, the challenge of a subtle and sophisticated secularism, materialism and nihilism systemically imparted into minds and hearts of Muslim students, researchers and scholars in Western and Western-type universities.
This call of the kalam of the age is precisely the call which Shaykh Afifi al-Akiti and Dr. Hisham Hellyer are inviting us to heed in their jointly authored article, “The Negotiation of Modernity through Tradition in Contemporary Muslim Intellectual Discourse: The Neo-Ghazalian, Attasian Perspective,” in Wan Mohd Nor Wan Daud & Muhammad Zaini Uthman, eds., Knowledge, Language, Thought & the Civilization of Islam: Essays in Honor of Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas (Kuala Lumpur: UTM, 2010), pp. 119–134.
In light of this consideration, the study of the Ghazalian Tahafut and its creative re-articulation in contemporary philosophical, sociological and scientific terms, should be made fardu ‘ayn on all who are studying, teaching, researching or practicing the western sciences. For the real intellectual battleground for Muslims in the modern age is not puerile neo-Wahhabism or neo-Mu’tazilism, but the neo-Dahrism of the western sciences which they all gleefully imbibe, including those who are right now sitting at the feet of the great living shuyukhs of our time in Syria, Jordan, Yemen, Morrocco, Tarim, Malaysia and India, drinking from the wellsprings of tradition.
They gleefully imbibe the western sciences without fathoming the subtle neo-Dahrism lurking within these sciences because they lack the conceptual framework to be able do so. And this “conceptual framework to be able do so” is the kalam of the age, and the mutakallimun of this age need to develop and elaborate it. When I say “gleefully,” it is the gleeful innocence and naivete of those who do not have a clue as to what they are actually imbibing as “education” or “knowledge” or “skills” in modern universities. Yes, gleeful, precisely because they are unwitting intellectual victims of that grand, elaborate charade called science, technology and economics. The Tabah Foundation nanotech “position paper” is one instance, another is a “sufi” biomedical friend who fail to see anything wrong with vivisection, or that one with his MBA studies and forthcoming Wall Street job, or the thousands teaching, researching and working in so-called Islamic Banking and Finance. At IIUM I can multiply these instances to the thousands by first hand experience.
The great task of these students and scholars is to approach these western sciences investigatively (tabayyun) by systemically constructing and elaborating a conceptual or intellectual framework through which the tradition can be brought to bear creatively and critically on the western sciences, or shall they go on allowing the tradition to be intellectually impotent and acquiescently silent in the face of an arrogant and aggressive neo-Dahrism? The fault then lies not within the tradition but within their own minds and hearts. What I say here is nothing new, for even the conscientious thinkers of the West are making this very same indictment of their own intellectual edifice (“wa shahiduu ‘alaa anfusihim”) such as Heidegger, Serge Latouche, et al.
Knowing the tradition alone is not enough, for the carriers of this tradition must also know how to read the “situation of the age” (ahwal al-‘asr) that they may bring the former to bear creatively and critically on the latter, and thereby avoid falling into the pitfalls of nihilistic neo-Dahrism (call it evolution, progress, historicism, growth, development, whatever). I’m calling it neo-Dahrism, so we may be shocked to real intellectual and educational action and not reduce the kalam discourse to merely a means to whack the puerile Wahhabis; let them be childish with their silly ramblings, but we simply have to move on. The Wahhabis and the neo-Mu’tazilis are mosquitoes, and at times we have to really smack them, but the neo-Dahris are the real monsters, but where are our kalam champions to be called into mortal combat against these monsters?
The whole problem with neo-Dahrism is that it does not present itself to us as heresy and we don’t see it as such, but to see it as such is to revive the kalam jadid of the Ghazalian Tahafut and the Fakhrurazian Matalib. Failing to do so may not necessarily render us formal neo-Dahris (i.e., self-conscious believers in secular progress), but we’ll be neo-Dahris in practice all the same because the neo-Dahrist disciplines we imbibe in the universities present themselves to us as value-neutral objective truth, and we are gullible enough to accept that presentation, lock, stock and barrel. In brief the heresy of the age demands a kalam of the age to expose its true face to all thinking Muslims who care enough about reviving the tradition and organizing their personal, communal & civilizational life on it.

In the Name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful

This is an extract from Imam Ghazali’s Munqidh min al-Dalal (Deliverance from Error)

When I had finished my examination of these doctrines I applied myself to the study of Sufism. I saw that in order to understand it thoroughly one must combine theory with practice. The aim which the Sufis set before them is as follows: To free the soul from the tyrannical yoke of the passions, to deliver it from its wrong inclinations and evil instincts, in order that in the purified heart there should only remain room for God and for the invocation of his holy name.

As it was more easy to learn their doctrine than to practice it, I studied first of all those of their books which contain it: “The Nourishment of Hearts,” by Abu Talib of Mecca, the works of Hareth el Muhasibi, and the fragments which still remain of Junaid, Shibli, Abu Yezid Bustami, and other leaders (whose souls may God sanctify). I acquired a thorough knowledge of their researches, and I learned all that was possible to learn of their methods by study and oral teaching. It became clear to me that the last stage could not be reached by mere instruction, but only by transport, ecstasy, and the transformation of the moral being.

To define health and satiety, to penetrate their causes and conditions, is quite another thing from being well and satisfied. To define drunkenness, to know that it is caused by vapors which rise from the stomach and cloud the seat of intelligence, is quite a different thing to being drunk. The drunken man has no idea of the nature of drunkenness, just because he is drunk and not in a condition to understand anything, while the doctor, not being under the influence of drunkenness knows its character and laws. Or if the doctor fall ill, he has a theoretical knowledge of the health of which he is deprived.

In the same way there is a considerable difference between knowing renouncement, comprehending its conditions and causes, and practicing renouncement and detachment from the things of this world. I saw that Sufism consists in experiences rather than in definitions, and that what I was lacking belonged to the domain, not of instruction, but of ecstasy and initiation.

The researches to which I had devoted myself, the path which I had traversed in studying religious and speculative branches of knowledge, had given me a firm faith in three things—God, Inspiration, and the Last Judgment. These three fundamental articles of belief were confirmed in me, not merely by definite arguments, but by a chain of causes, circumstances, and proofs which it is impossible to recount. I saw that one can only hope for salvation by devotion and the conquest of one’s passions, a procedure which presupposes renouncement and detachment from this world of falsehood in order to turn toward eternity and meditation on God. Finally, I saw that the only condition of success was to sacrifice honors and riches and to sever the ties and attachments of worldly life.

Coming seriously to consider my state, I found myself bound down on all sides by these trammels. Examining my actions, the most fair-seeming of which were my lecturing and professorial occupations, I found to my surprise that I was engrossed in several studies of little value, and profitless as regards my salvation. I probed the motives of my teaching and found that, in place of being sincerely consecrated to God, it was only actuated by a vain desire of honor and reputation. I perceived that I was on the edge of an abyss, and that without an immediate conversion I should be doomed to eternal fire. In these reflections I spent a long time. Still a prey to uncertainty, one day I decided to leave Baghdad and to give up everything; the next day I gave up my resolution. I advanced one step and immediately relapsed. In the morning I was sincerely resolved only to occupy myself with the future life; in the evening a crowd of carnal thoughts assailed and dispersed my resolutions. On the one side the world kept me bound to my post in the chains of covetousness, on the other side the voice of religion cried to me, “Up! Up! Thy life is nearing its end, and thou hast a long journey to make. All thy pretended knowledge is naught but falsehood and fantasy. If thou dost not think now of thy salvation, when wilt thou think of it? If thou dost not break thy chains today, when wilt thou break them?” Then my resolve was strengthened, I wished to give up all and fee; but the Tempter, returning to the attack, said, “You are suffering from a transitory feeling; don’t give way to it, for it will soon pass. If you obey it, if you give up this fine position, this honorable post exempt from trouble and rivalry, this seat of authority safe from attack, you will regret it later on without being able to recover it.”

Thus I remained, torn asunder by the opposite forces of earthly passions and religious aspirations, for about six months from the month Rajab of the year A.D. 1096. At the close of them my will yielded and I gave myself up to destiny. God caused an impediment to chain my tongue and prevented me from lecturing. Vainly I desired, in the interest of my pupils, to go on with my teaching, but my mouth became dumb. The silence to which I was condemned cast me into a violent despair; my stomach became weak; I lost all appetite; I could neither swallow a morsel of bread nor drink a drop of water.

The enfeeblement of my physical powers was such that the doctors, despairing of saving me, said, “The mischief is in the heart, and has communicated itself to the whole organism; there is no hope unless the cause of his grievous sadness be arrested.”

Finally, conscious of my weakness and the prostration of my soul, I took refuge in God as a man at the end of himself and without resources. “He who hears the wretched when they cry” (Qur’an, xxvii. 63) deigned to hear me; He made easy to me the sacrifice of honors, wealth, and family. I gave out publicly that I intended to make the pilgrimage to Mecca, while I secretly resolved to go to Syria, not wishing that the Caliph (may God magnify him) or my friends should know my intention of settling in that country. I made all kinds of clever excuses for leaving Baghdad with the fixed intention of not returning thither. The Imams of Iraq criticized me with one accord. Not one of them could admit that this sacrifice had a religious motive, because they considered my position as the highest attainable in the religious community. “Behold how far their knowledge goes!” (Qur’an, liii. 31). All kinds of explanations of my conduct were forthcoming. Those who were outside the limits of Iraq attributed it to the fear with which the Government inspired me. Those who were on the spot and saw how the authorities wished to detain me, their displeasure at my resolution and my refusal of their request, said to themselves, “It is a calamity which one can only impute to a fate which has befallen the Faithful and Learning!”

At last I left Baghdad, giving up all my fortune. Only, as lands and property in Iraq can afford an endowment for pious purposes, I obtained a legal authorization to preserve as much as was necessary for my support and that of my children; for there is surely nothing more lawful in the world than that a learned man should provide sufficient to support his family. I then betook myself to Syria, where I remained for two years, which I devoted to retirement, meditation, and devout exercises. I only thought of self-improvement and discipline and of purification of the heart by prayer in going through the forms of devotion which the Sufis had taught me. I used to live a solitary life in the Mosque of Damascus, and was in the habit of spending my days on the minaret after closing the door behind me.

From thence I proceeded to Jerusalem, and every day secluded myself in the Sanctuary of the Rock. After that I felt a desire to accomplish the pilgrimage, and to receive a full effusion of grace by visiting Mecca, Medina, and the tomb of the Prophet. After visiting the shrine of the Friend of God (Abraham), I went to the Hedjaz. Finally, the longings of my heart and the prayers of my children brought me back to my country, although I was so firmly resolved at first never to revisit it. At any rate I meant, if I did return, to live there solitary and in religious meditation; but events, family cares, and vicissitudes of life changed my resolutions and troubled my meditative calm. However irregular the intervals which I could give to devotional ecstasy, my confidence in it did not diminish; and the more I was diverted by hindrances, the more steadfastly I returned to it.

Ten years passed in this manner. During my successive periods of meditation there were revealed to me things impossible to recount. All that I shall say for the edification of the reader is this: I learned from a sure source that the Sufis are the true pioneers on the path of God; that there is nothing more beautiful than their life, nor more praiseworthy than their rule of conduct, nor purer than their morality. The intelligence of thinkers, the wisdom of philosophers, the knowledge of the most learned doctors of the law would in vain combine their efforts in order to modify or improve their doctrine and morals; it would be impossible. With the Sufis, repose and movement, exterior or interior, are illumined with the light which proceeds from the Central Radiance of Inspiration. And what other light could shine on the face of the earth? In a word, what can one criticize in them? To purge the heart of all that does not belong to God is the first step in their cathartic method. The drawing up of the heart by prayer is the key-stone of it, as the cry “Allahu Akbar’ (God is great) is the key-stone of prayer, and the last stage is the being lost in God. I say the last stage, with reference to what may be reached by an effort of will; but, to tell the truth, it is only the first stage in the life of contemplation, the vestibule by which the initiated enter.

From the time that they set out on this path, revelations commence for them. They come to see in the waking state angels and souls of prophets; they hear their voices and wise counsels. By means of this contemplation of heavenly forms and images they rise by degrees to heights which human language can not reach, which one can not even indicate without falling into great and inevitable errors. The degree of proximity to Deity which they attain is regarded by some as intermixture of being (haloul), by others as identification (ittihad), by others as intimate union (wasl). But all these expressions are wrong, as we have explained in our work entitled, “The Chief Aim.” Those who have reached that stage should confine themselves to repeating the verse—What I experience I shall not try to say; Call me happy, but ask me no more. In short, he who does not arrive at the intuition of these truths by means of ecstasy, knows only the name of inspiration. The miracles wrought by the saints are, in fact, merely the earliest forms of prophetic manifestation. Such was the state of the Apostle of God, when, before receiving his commission, he retired to Mount Hira to give himself up to such intensity of prayer and meditation that the Arabs said: “Mohammed is become enamored of God.”

This state, then, can be revealed to the initiated in ecstasy, and to him who is incapable of ecstasy, by obedience and attention, on condition that he frequents the society of Sufis till he arrives, so to speak, at an imitative initiation. Such is the faith which one can obtain by remaining among them, and intercourse with them is never painful.

But even when we are deprived of the advantage of their society, we can comprehend the possibility of this state (revelation by means of ecstasy) by a chain of manifest proofs. We have explained this in the treatise entitled “Marvels of the Heart,” which forms part of our work, ‘The Revival of the Religious Sciences.” The certitude derived from proofs is called “knowledge”; passing into the state we describe is called “transport”; believing the experience of others and oral transmission is “faith.” Such are the three degrees of knowledge, as it is written, “The Lord will raise to different ranks those among you who have believed and those who have received knowledge from him” (Qur’an, lviii. 12).

But behind those who believe comes a crowd of ignorant people who deny the reality of Sufism, hear discourses on it with incredulous irony, and treat as charlatans those who profess it. To this ignorant crowd the verse applies: “There are those among them who come to listen to thee, and when they leave thee, ask of those who have received knowledge, ‘What has he just said?’ These are they whose hearts God has sealed up with blindness and who only follow their passions. Among the number of convictions which I owe to the practice of the Sufi rule is the knowledge of the true nature of inspiration. This knowledge is of such great importance that I proceed to expound it in detail.

The Reality of Inspiration: Its Importance for the Human Race

The substance of man at the moment of its creation is a simple monad, devoid of knowledge of the worlds subject to the Creator, worlds whose infinite number is only known to him, as the Qur’an says: “Only thy Lord knoweth the number of his armies.”

Man arrives at this knowledge by the aid of his perceptions; each of his senses is given him that he may comprehend the world of created things, and by the term “world” we understand the different species of creatures. The first sense revealed to man is touch, by means of which he perceives a certain group of qualities—heat, cold, moist, dry. The sense of touch does not perceive colors and forms, which are for it as though they did not exist. Next comes the sense of sight, which makes him acquainted with colors and forms; that is to say, with that which occupies the highest rank in the world of sensation. The sense of hearing succeeds, and then the senses of smell and taste.

When the human being can elevate himself above the world of sense, toward the age of seven, he receives the faculty of discrimination; he enters then upon a new phase of existence and can experience, thanks to this faculty, impressions, superior to those of the senses, which do not occur in the sphere of sensation.

He then passes to another phase and receives reason, by which he discerns things necessary, possible, and impossible; in a word, all the notions which he could not combine in the former stages of his existence. But beyond reason and at a higher level by a new faculty of vision is bestowed upon him, by which he perceives invisible things, the secrets of the future and other concepts as inaccessible to reason as the concepts of reason are inaccessible to mere discrimination and what is perceived by discrimination to the senses. Just as the man possessed only of discrimination rejects and denies the notions acquired by reason, so do certain rationalists reject and deny the notion of inspiration. It is a proof of their profound ignorance; for, instead of argument, they merely deny inspiration as a sphere unknown and possessing no real existence. In the same way, a man blind from birth, who knows neither by experience nor by information what colors and forms are, neither knows nor understands them when some one speaks of them to him for the first time.

God, wishing to render intelligible to men the idea of inspiration, has given them a kind of glimpse of it in sleep. In fact, man perceives while asleep the things of the invisible world either clearly manifest or under the veil of allegory to be subsequently lifted by divination. If, however, one was to say to a person who had never himself experienced these dreams that, in a state of lethargy resembling death and during the complete suspension of sight, hearing, and all the senses, a man can see the things of the invisible world, this person would exclaim, and seek to prove the impossibility of these visions by some such argument as the following: “The sensitive faculties are the causes of perception. Now, if one can perceive certain things when one is in full possession of these faculties, how much more is their perception impossible when these faculties are suspended.”

The falsity of such an argument is shown by evidence and experience. For in the same way as reason constitutes a particular phase of existence in which intellectual concepts are perceived which are hidden from the senses, similarly, inspiration is a special state in which the inner eye discovers, revealed by a celestial light, mysteries out of the reach of reason. The doubts which are raised regarding inspiration relate (1) to its possibility, (2) to its real and actual existence, (3) to its manifestation in this or that person.

To prove the possibility of inspiration is to prove that it belongs to a category of branches of knowledge which can not be attained by reason. It is the same with medical science and astronomy. He who studies them is obliged to recognize that they are derived solely from the revelation and special grace of God. Some astronomical phenomena only occur once in a thousand years; how then can we know them by experience?

We may say the same of inspiration, which is one of the branches of intuitional knowledge. Further, the perception of things which are beyond the attainment of reason is only one of the features peculiar to inspiration, which possesses a great number of others. The characteristic which we have mentioned is only, as it were, a drop of water in the ocean, and we have mentioned it because people experience what is analogous to it in dreams and in the sciences of medicine and astronomy. These branches of knowledge belong to the domain of prophetic miracles, and reason can not attain to them.

As to the other characteristics of inspiration, they are only revealed to adepts in Sufism and in a state of ecstatic transport. The little that we know of the nature of inspiration we owe to the kind of likeness to it which we find in sleep; without that we should be incapable of comprehending it, and consequently of believing in it, for conviction results from comprehension. The process of initiation into Sufism exhibits this likeness to inspiration from the first. There is in it a kind of ecstasy proportioned to the condition of the person initiated, and a degree of certitude and conviction which can not be attained by reason. This single fact is sufficient to make us believe in inspiration.

We now come to deal with doubts relative to the inspiration of a particular prophet. We shall not arrive at certitude on this point except by ascertaining, either by ocular evidence or by reliable tradition the facts relating to that prophet. When we have ascertained the real nature of inspiration and proceed to the serious study of the Qur’an and the traditions, we shall then know certainly that Mohammed is the greatest of prophets. After that we should fortify our conviction by verifying the truth of his preaching and the salutary effect which it has upon the soul. We should verify in experience the truth of sentences such as the following: “He who makes his conduct accord with his knowledge receives from God more knowledge”; or this, “God delivers to the oppressor him who favors injustice”; or again, “Whosoever when rising in the morning has only one anxiety (to please God), God will preserve him from all anxiety in this world and the next.”

When we have verified these sayings in experience thousands of times, we shall be in possession of a certitude on which doubt can obtain no hold. Such is the path we must traverse in order to realize the truth of inspiration. It is not a question of finding out whether a rod has been changed into a serpent, or whether the moon has been split in two. If we regard miracles in isolation, without their countless attendant circumstances, we shall be liable to confound them with magic and falsehood, or to regard them as a means of leading men astray, as it is written, “God misleads and directs as he chooses” (Qur’an, xxxv. 9); we shall find ourselves involved in all the difficulties which the question of miracles raises. If, for instance, we believe that eloquence of style is a proof of inspiration, it is possible that an eloquent style composed with this object may inspire us with a false belief in the inspiration of him who wields it. The supernatural should be only one of the constituents which go to form our belief, without our placing too much reliance on this or that detail. We should rather resemble a person who, learning a fact from a group of people, can not point to this or that particular man as his informant, and who, not distinguishing between them, can not explain precisely how his conviction regarding the fact has been formed.

Such are the characteristics of scientific certitude. As to the transport which permits men to see the truth and, so to speak, to handle it, it is only known to the Sufis. What I have just said regarding the true nature of inspiration is sufficient for the aim which I have proposed to myself. I may return to the subject later, if necessary. I pass now to the causes of the decay of faith and show the means of bringing back those who have erred and of preserving them from the dangers which threaten them. To those who doubt because they are tinctured with the doctrine of the Ta’limites, my treatise entitled, The Just Balance, affords a sufficient guide; therefore it is unnecessary to return to the subject here.

As to the vain theories of the Ibahat, I have grouped them in seven classes, and explained them in the work entitled, Alchemy of Happiness. For those whose faith has been undermined by philosophy, so far that they deny the reality of inspiration, we have proved the truth and necessity of it, seeking our proofs in the hidden properties of medicines and of the heavenly bodies. It is for them that we have written this treatise, and the reason for our seeking for proofs in the sciences of medicine and of astronomy is because these sciences belong to the domain of philosophy. All those branches of knowledge which our opponents boast of—astronomy, medicine, physics, and divination-provide us with arguments in favor of the Prophet.

As to those who, professing a lip-faith in the Prophet, adulterate religion with philosophy, they really deny inspiration, since in their view the Prophet is only a sage whom a superior destiny has appointed as guide to men, and this view belies the true nature of inspiration. To believe in the Prophet is to admit that there is above intelligence a sphere in which are revealed to the inner vision truths beyond the grasp of intelligence, just as things seen are not apprehended by the sense of hearing, nor things understood by that of touch. If our opponent denies the existence of such a higher region, we can prove to him, not only its possibility, but its actuality. If, on the contrary, he admits its existence, he recognizes at the same time that there are in that sphere things which reason can not grasp; nay, which reason rejects as false and absurd. Suppose, for instance, that the fact of dreams occurring in sleep were not so common and notorious as it is, our wise men would not fail to repudiate the assertion that the secrets of the invisible world can be revealed while the senses are, so to speak, suspended.

Again, if it were to be said to one of them, “Is it possible that there is in the world a thing as small as a grain, which being carried into a city can destroy it and afterward destroy itself so that nothing remains either of the city or of itself?” “Certainly,” he would exclaim, “it is impossible and ridiculous.” Such, however, is the effect of fire, which would certainly be disputed by one who had not witnessed it with his own eyes. Now, the refusal to believe in the mysteries of the other life is of the same kind. As to the fourth cause of the spread of unbelief—the decay of faith owing to the bad example set by learned men—there are three ways of checking it.

(1) One can answer thus: “The learned man whom you accuse of disobeying the divine law knows that he disobeys, as you do when you drink wine or exact usury or allow yourself in evil-speaking, lying, and slander. You know your sin and yield to it, not through ignorance, but because you are mastered by concupiscence. The same is the case with the learned man. How many believe in doctors who do not abstain from fruit and cold water when strictly forbidden them by a doctor! That does not prove that those things are not dangerous, or that their faith in the doctor was not solidly established. Similar errors on the part of learned men are to be imputed solely to their weakness.”

(2) Or again, one may say to a simple and ignorant man: “The learned man reckons upon his knowledge as a viaticum for the next life. He believes that his knowledge will save him and plead in his favor, and that his intellectual superiority will entitle him to indulgence; lastly, that if his knowledge increases his responsibility, it may also entitle him to a higher degree of consideration. All that is possible; and even if the learned man has neglected practice, he can at any rate produce proofs of his knowledge. But you, poor, witless one, if, like him, you neglect practice, destitute as you are of knowledge, you will perish without anything to plead in your favor.”

(3) Or one may answer, and this reason is the true one: “The truly learned man only sins through carelessness, and does not remain in a state of impenitence. For real knowledge shows sin to be a deadly poison, and the other world to be superior to this. Convinced of this truth, man ought not to exchange the precious for the vile. But the knowledge of which we speak is not derived from sources accessible to human diligence, and that is why progress in mere worldly knowledge renders the sinner more hardened in his revolt against God.”

True knowledge, on the contrary, inspires in him who is initiate in it more fear and more reverence, and raises a barrier of defense between him and sin. He may slip and stumble, it is true, as is inevitable with one encompassed by human infirmity, but these slips and stumbles will not weaken his faith. The true Moslem succumbs occasionally to temptation, but he repents and will not persevere obstinately in the path of error.

I pray God the Omnipotent to place us in the ranks of his chosen, among the number of those whom he directs in the path of safety, in whom he inspires fervor lest they forget him; whom he cleanses from all defilement, that nothing may remain in them except himself; yea, of those whom he indwells completely, that they may adore none beside him.

Source: From: Charles F. Horne, ed., The Sacred Books and Early Literature of the East, (New York: Parke, Austin, & Lipscomb, 1917), Vol. VI: Medieval Arabia, pp. 99-133. This was a reprint of The Confessions of al-Ghazali, trans. by Claud Field, (London: J. Murray, 1909)

Scanned by Jerome S. Arkenberg, Cal. State Fullerton. The text has been modernized by Prof. Arkenberg. This text is part of the Internet Medieval Source Book. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts related to medieval and Byzantine history. Unless otherwise indicated the specific electronic form of the document is copyright. Permission is granted for electronic copying, distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal use. If you do reduplicate the document, indicate the source. No permission is granted for commercial use. Paul Halsall, September 1998

Faraz Rabbani

MMVIII © Faraz Rabbani and SunniPath.
All rights reserved



Here is a tale of a child raised by his widowed mother in the time of the great Hasan al-Basri. She was a pious, devout Muslim who would regularly attend Imam Hasan’s Quran dars. She valiantly tried to raise her son on the correct path, but unfortunately when he reached the age of adulthood, he gained control of his inheritance and fell in with the wrong crowd. With seemingly limitless funds at his disposal, he sinned his youth away. And all throughout, his mother, a devout servant of Allah (swt), would constantly implore him to return to the right path. But he constantly refused, choosing instead to follow his nafsi whims and desires.

Many times she brought him to Hasan al-Basri, who would calmly and politely admonish him, but to no avail. Even the words of the great Imam could not bring about the desired affect. Years passed and Imam Hasan grew to tire of his wayward shenanigans and resolved that maybe Allah (swt) had simply not written for the boy to be guided. Yet, the mother remained steadfast, as only a mother could, in her wishes to reform her one and only child.

Every morning, when he would return from his nights of mischief, she would call on him to make amends with his Creator and return to the path of righteousness. As he got older and due to the effect of his foolhardy ways, sickness befell him and he became bedridden. Having squandered his wealth, seeing the weakness of his once sturdy body, and with death lingering around the corner, only then did he realize the error of his ways.

His unrelenting mother was by his bed, reminding him that it was never too late to repent. Even though his worldly life was wasted, he still had the chance to salvage his afterlife with sincere atonement, she repeated to him. Sensing his mortality, his heart finally softened and he responded with a query, “After a life of sin, I don’t know how to repent. Can we go to Imam Hasan?” Sensing a bit of hope, she excitedly replied, “My dear son, you are too sick to walk and I am too old to carry you, but I will rush and beckon him to come here.”

When she reached him and requested his company with her son, he remembered the countless failed efforts and quickly wrote him off, “My dear sister, I have the Quran lesson for which I must prepare. Over a thousand students will come and I owe it to them to properly present my lesson. Besides, your son has consistently ignored my advise, rejected any efforts to reform and basically rejected the message of Islam so many times that I fear he is beyond assistance. “Should I not spend my time for those who are coming to seek the knowledge, who have shown a keen interest, who are trying to please their Lord? I’m sorry but at this time, I really cannot make it.”

Dejectedly, she quietly whispered to him, “Then at least when the angel of death visits him, can you come to our home and lead the Janaza prayer over him?” He sharply rebuked her, “Throughout his entire life, I have never seen your son pray a single prayer, fast a single day, attend a single Juma’a. I fear that he has left the ranks of the Muslim and thus, I am sad to say that praying over him would not be permitted.”

With a broken heart, she returned home to inform her dying son of the tragic response by Hasan al-Basri. Upon hearing that even the great Imam Hasan refused to pray the Janaza over him, he burst into tears and made his dying wishes, “Oh my mother, I have lived a life of shameless sin and indulgence. I have wronged everyone that I have known. I have disappointed you and I have disappointed my Lord. So please, when I die please do not bury me in the company of Muslims, for I fear that they will be undeservedly disturbed by my cries of pain and misery.” And with his weeping mother by his bedside, he continued, “And before you bury me, please take my corpse, tie it to the wild dogs on the street, and let it be dragged through the streets where my final fate in this life will match my eternal fate in the hereafter.” With that he breathed his last breath. And at that same moment, a knock came on the door. Startled, the grieving mother got up to answer it and found Hasan al-Basri standing there. He explained, “As I was preparing my lesson, I fell asleep and it was then that I heard a voice say ‘Oh Hasan, what kind of wali are you of Mine, that you have refused to pray the Janaza over another wali of Mine?’”

How great is the mercy of Allah!


This story takes place at a time when piety, trust and righteousness was quite prominent in the lives of the people. In every town there were numerous Ulema (scholars) and pious men, especially in Baghdad, which at the time was the seat of the Islamic State. It was a gathering place for the jurists, scholars of hadith, and the saints. In this city among all these pious people, was one Abu Abdullah Al-Andalusi (rah), who had thirty khanqahs (spiritual retreats) in Baghdad. In addition he was a well-known scholar and muhaddith and it said that the number of his disciples was 12,000. He knew 30,000 hadiths by heart, and could recite the Quran in all the various ‘Qiraats’ ( Ways of recitation).

On a certain occasion he was going on a journey and was accompanied with a large crowd of attendants among whom were the well-known Junayd Baghdadi (rah) and Shibli (rah). Hadrat Shibli (rah) continues the story: “Our caravan was travelling along quite nicely, safely and comfortably until we passed by an area where Christians were residing. It was already time for Salaah (Prayer), but because of the unavailability of water, we had not performed it yet. When we reached the Christian village, a search was made for water. We went about the village and discovered the town had many temples, sun-worshipping altars, synagogues and churches. Some of them worshipped the sun, some were worshipping the fire, and some were directing their pleas at the cross. We passed all this and reached the outskirts of the town, where we found a well and a few girls drawing water for people to drink.”

Shaykh Abu Abdullah’s (rah) eyes fell upon one of the girls who stood out from the rest through her exquisite beauty. She was dressed in beautiful clothes and adorned in jewelry. The Shaykh (rah) asked the other girls who she was. They replied: “This is the daughter of our chief”. The Shaykh (rah) replied: “Then why did her father degrade her to such an extent that she has to sit by the well and give people water to drink?”

The girls replied: “He does not want her to sit around and be proud and boastful of her father’s possessions”. Hadrat Shibli (rah) says: “The Shaykh (rah) sat down with his head bent forward and remained silent like that for three days. At the time of Salaah he would perform his Salaah.” On the third day becoming despondent with his situation, I decided to speak to him. I said: “O Shaykh, your mureeds (disciples) are very worried and perplexed at this continued silence of yours. Please speak to us. What is the problem?”

The Shaykh (rah) replied: “My beloved friends! For how long can I keep my condition hidden from you? My heart has become filled with love for the girl we saw the day before yesterday. So much has this love filled me that it is in control of all my limbs. It is not possible for me under any circumstance to leave from here.” Hadrat Shibli (rah) replied: “Our leader! You are the spiritual guide of all Iraq. You are known for your piety, knowledge and virtues. Your disciples number over 12,000. I beg you through the Holy Quran not to disgrace us.” The Shaykh (rah) replied: “My beloved friends, your lot and my lot has already been sealed by fate. The cloak of sainthood has been removed from me and the signs of guidance have been taken away from me. What has been predestined has come to pass, now I am nothing.” Saying this the Shaykh (rah) started weeping bitterly.

When the people heard of our return, they turned up in large numbers at the outskirts of the city to come and meet the Shaykh (rah) . They saw that he was not with us and asked about it. We told them the entire story. There was a lot of sorrow and crying. Many fell down in prayer begging Allah to guide the Shaykh (rah) to the right path and return him to his former position. In the meantime all the khanqahs were closed down. We were still talking about the Shaykh’s (rah) tragedy one year later when we decided to visit that town again and find out how he was. A group of us set forth and after inquiring, were told that he was in the woods looking after pigs. We said: “Allah protect us! What has happened? The villagers told us that he had proposed marriage to the daughter of the village chief. The girls father had accepted the proposal on the condition that he would look after the pigs.”

“With tears streaming down our eyes, we went to the woods where he was rearing pigs. We saw him with a string of sacred beads around his neck. He stood leaning on a staff as he watched the pigs, standing in the same way in which he stood when he used to deliver the Khutbah (Sermon) for us. This was like rubbing salt into our open wounds.”

When he saw us coming towards him he bent his head in shame. We came nearer and said “Assalamu Alaykum.” He replied: “Walaykumus salaam”. Then Hadrat Shibli (rah) asked: “Shaykh (rah) inspite of your knowledge and virtue what is this that has happened to you?” The Shaykh (rah) replied: “My brothers! I am now no longer driven by my own choice and will. Whatever Allah has desired for me, He has done with me. After having brought me so near to His door, He has now thrown me very far away from Him. Who is there that can overturn the decree of Allah? O my brothers, fear Allah’s power and wrath. Never become proud and arrogant regarding your knowledge and virtues. Then turning towards the heavens he said: “O my Lord, I never expected that You will make me so disgraced and despised and send me away from Your door.” Then he began crying bitterly and appealing to Allah.

Seeing the Shaykh (rah) in such hopelessness, they left for Baghdad. However on the way they saw the Shaykh (rah) in front of them coming out of a river, where he had just performed a bath. In a loud voice he said: “I bear witness that there is none worthy of worship besides Allah and I bear witness that Muhammad (sallahu alayhi wa sallam) is the Messenger of Allah”

The Shaykh (rah) asked us for pure clothing to wear. He then started performing Salaah after which he was asked the reason why he was put through such an intense trial? The Shaykh (rah) replied: “When we arrived in the village and saw the temples, synagogues and churches and we saw fire-worshippers busy worshipping things other than Allah, a pride overtook my heart. I thought that these people were so foolish to worship lifeless things. At that time I heard a voice inside me saying: ‘This Imaan* (Faith) that you have, is not part of your virtue or good qualities. All this is merely Our favors upon you. Do not consider your faith to be of your own choosing, that you can now look down upon these people with despising eyes. And if you so wish, We will test you now.’ At that moment I felt as if a dove had left my heart and flew away. That was in fact my Imaan* ( Faith).”

Hadrat Shibli (rah) relates: “Thereafter our caravan arrived in Baghdad with great joy all around. All of his mureeds were extremely happy that the Shaykh (rah) had reverted to Islam. He resumed his activities in Tasawwuf, Tafseer and Hadith. The Khanqahs were reopened and in a short while, his mureeds numbered over 40,000.”

It is of utmost importance for one to avoid thinking of others as being inferior to him. They should always remember the advice of Shaykh Shahabuddin Suhrawardi (rah), the spiritual guide of Shaykh Saadi (rah): “Never become self-conceited and never look down upon anyone else.”

*Imaan: Usually translated as faith, but it must include the following faculties: Sincerity, truthfulness, knowledge, certainty, love and submission.

Beyond Hope

(Orionmagazine.org) THE MOST COMMON WORDS I hear spoken by any environmentalists anywhere are, We’re fucked. Most of these environmentalists are fighting desperately, using whatever tools they have—or rather whatever legal tools they have, which means whatever tools those in power grant them the right to use, which means whatever tools will be ultimately ineffective—to try to protect some piece of ground, to try to stop the manufacture or release of poisons, to try to stop civilized humans from tormenting some group of plants or animals. Sometimes they’re reduced to trying to protect just one tree.

Here’s how John Osborn, an extraordinary activist and friend, sums up his reasons for doing the work: “As things become increasingly chaotic, I want to make sure some doors remain open. If grizzly bears are still alive in twenty, thirty, and forty years, they may still be alive in fifty. If they’re gone in twenty, they’ll be gone forever.”

But no matter what environmentalists do, our best efforts are insufficient. We’re losing badly, on every front. Those in power are hell-bent on destroying the planet, and most people don’t care.

Frankly, I don’t have much hope. But I think that’s a good thing. Hope is what keeps us chained to the system, the conglomerate of people and ideas and ideals that is causing the destruction of the Earth.

To start, there is the false hope that suddenly somehow the system may inexplicably change. Or technology will save us. Or the Great Mother. Or beings from Alpha Centauri. Or Jesus Christ. Or Santa Claus. All of these false hopes lead to inaction, or at least to ineffectiveness. One reason my mother stayed with my abusive father was that there were no battered women’s shelters in the ‘50s and ‘60s, but another was her false hope that he would change. False hopes bind us to unlivable situations, and blind us to real possibilities.

Does anyone really believe that Weyerhaeuser is going to stop deforesting because we ask nicely? Does anyone really believe that Monsanto will stop Monsantoing because we ask nicely? If only we get a Democrat in the White House, things will be okay. If only we pass this or that piece of legislation, things will be okay. If only we defeat this or that piece of legislation, things will be okay. Nonsense. Things will not be okay. They are already not okay, and they’re getting worse. Rapidly.

But it isn’t only false hopes that keep those who go along enchained. It is hope itself. Hope, we are told, is our beacon in the dark. It is our light at the end of a long, dark tunnel. It is the beam of light that makes its way into our prison cells. It is our reason for persevering, our protection against despair (which must be avoided at all costs). How can we continue if we do not have hope?

We’ve all been taught that hope in some future condition—like hope in some future heaven—is and must be our refuge in current sorrow. I’m sure you remember the story of Pandora. She was given a tightly sealed box and was told never to open it. But, being curious, she did, and out flew plagues, sorrow, and mischief, probably not in that order. Too late she clamped down the lid. Only one thing remained in the box: hope. Hope, the story goes, was the only good the casket held among many evils, and it remains to this day mankind’s sole comfort in misfortune. No mention here of action being a comfort in misfortune, or of actually doing something to alleviate or eliminate one’s misfortune.

The more I understand hope, the more I realize that all along it deserved to be in the box with the plagues, sorrow, and mischief; that it serves the needs of those in power as surely as belief in a distant heaven; that hope is really nothing more than a secular way of keeping us in line.

Hope is, in fact, a curse, a bane. I say this not only because of the lovely Buddhist saying “Hope and fear chase each other’s tails,” not only because hope leads us away from the present, away from who and where we are right now and toward some imaginary future state. I say this because of what hope is.

More or less all of us yammer on more or less endlessly about hope. You wouldn’t believe—or maybe you would—how many magazine editors have asked me to write about the apocalypse, then enjoined me to leave readers with a sense of hope. But what, precisely, is hope? At a talk I gave last spring, someone asked me to define it. I turned the question back on the audience, and here’s the definition we all came up with: hope is a longing for a future condition over which you have no agency; it means you are essentially powerless.

I’m not, for example, going to say I hope I eat something tomorrow. I just will. I don’t hope I take another breath right now, nor that I finish writing this sentence. I just do them. On the other hand, I do hope that the next time I get on a plane, it doesn’t crash. To hope for some result means you have given up any agency concerning it. Many people say they hope the dominant culture stops destroying the world. By saying that, they’ve assumed that the destruction will continue, at least in the short term, and they’ve stepped away from their own ability to participate in stopping it.

I do not hope coho salmon survive. I will do whatever it takes to make sure the dominant culture doesn’t drive them extinct. If coho want to leave us because they don’t like how they’re being treated—and who could blame them?—I will say goodbye, and I will miss them, but if they do not want to leave, I will not allow civilization to kill them off.

When we realize the degree of agency we actually do have, we no longer have to “hope” at all. We simply do the work. We make sure salmon survive. We make sure prairie dogs survive. We make sure grizzlies survive. We do whatever it takes.

When we stop hoping for external assistance, when we stop hoping that the awful situation we’re in will somehow resolve itself, when we stop hoping the situation will somehow not get worse, then we are finally free—truly free—to honestly start working to resolve it. I would say that when hope dies, action begins.

PEOPLE SOMETIMES ASK ME, “If things are so bad, why don’t you just kill yourself?” The answer is that life is really, really good. I am a complex enough being that I can hold in my heart the understanding that we are really, really fucked, and at the same time that life is really, really good. I am full of rage, sorrow, joy, love, hate, despair, happiness, satisfaction, dissatisfaction, and a thousand other feelings. We are really fucked. Life is still really good.

Many people are afraid to feel despair. They fear that if they allow themselves to perceive how desperate our situation really is, they must then be perpetually miserable. They forget that it is possible to feel many things at once. They also forget that despair is an entirely appropriate response to a desperate situation. Many people probably also fear that if they allow themselves to perceive how desperate things are, they may be forced to do something about it.

Another question people sometimes ask me is, “If things are so bad, why don’t you just party?” Well, the first answer is that I don’t really like to party. The second is that I’m already having a great deal of fun. I love my life. I love life. This is true for most activists I know. We are doing what we love, fighting for what (and whom) we love.

I have no patience for those who use our desperate situation as an excuse for inaction. I’ve learned that if you deprive most of these people of that particular excuse they just find another, then another, then another. The use of this excuse to justify inaction—the use of any excuse to justify inaction—reveals nothing more nor less than an incapacity to love.

At one of my recent talks someone stood up during the Q and A and announced that the only reason people ever become activists is to feel better about themselves. Effectiveness really doesn’t matter, he said, and it’s egotistical to think it does.

I told him I disagreed.

Doesn’t activism make you feel good? he asked.

Of course, I said, but that’s not why I do it. If I only want to feel good, I can just masturbate. But I want to accomplish something in the real world.


Because I’m in love. With salmon, with trees outside my window, with baby lampreys living in sandy streambottoms, with slender salamanders crawling through the duff. And if you love, you act to defend your beloved. Of course results matter to you, but they don’t determine whether or not you make the effort. You don’t simply hope your beloved survives and thrives. You do what it takes. If my love doesn’t cause me to protect those I love, it’s not love.

A WONDERFUL THING happens when you give up on hope, which is that you realize you never needed it in the first place. You realize that giving up on hope didn’t kill you. It didn’t even make you less effective. In fact it made you more effective, because you ceased relying on someone or something else to solve your problems—you ceased hoping your problems would somehow get solved through the magical assistance of God, the Great Mother, the Sierra Club, valiant tree-sitters, brave salmon, or even the Earth itself—and you just began doing whatever it takes to solve those problems yourself.

When you give up on hope, something even better happens than it not killing you, which is that in some sense it does kill you. You die. And there’s a wonderful thing about being dead, which is that they—those in power—cannot really touch you anymore. Not through promises, not through threats, not through violence itself. Once you’re dead in this way, you can still sing, you can still dance, you can still make love, you can still fight like hell—you can still live because you are still alive, more alive in fact than ever before. You come to realize that when hope died, the you who died with the hope was not you, but was the you who depended on those who exploit you, the you who believed that those who exploit you will somehow stop on their own, the you who believed in the mythologies propagated by those who exploit you in order to facilitate that exploitation. The socially constructed you died. The civilized you died. The manufactured, fabricated, stamped, molded you died. The victim died.

And who is left when that you dies? You are left. Animal you. Naked you. Vulnerable (and invulnerable) you. Mortal you. Survivor you. The you who thinks not what the culture taught you to think but what you think. The you who feels not what the culture taught you to feel but what you feel. The you who is not who the culture taught you to be but who you are. The you who can say yes, the you who can say no. The you who is a part of the land where you live. The you who will fight (or not) to defend your family. The you who will fight (or not) to defend those you love. The you who will fight (or not) to defend the land upon which your life and the lives of those you love depends. The you whose morality is not based on what you have been taught by the culture that is killing the planet, killing you, but on your own animal feelings of love and connection to your family, your friends, your landbase—not to your family as self-identified civilized beings but as animals who require a landbase, animals who are being killed by chemicals, animals who have been formed and deformed to fit the needs of the culture.

When you give up on hope—when you are dead in this way, and by so being are really alive—you make yourself no longer vulnerable to the cooption of rationality and fear that Nazis inflicted on Jews and others, that abusers like my father inflict on their victims, that the dominant culture inflicts on all of us. Or is it rather the case that these exploiters frame physical, social, and emotional circumstances such that victims perceive themselves as having no choice but to inflict this cooption on themselves?

But when you give up on hope, this exploiter/victim relationship is broken. You become like the Jews who participated in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

When you give up on hope, you turn away from fear.

And when you quit relying on hope, and instead begin to protect the people, things, and places you love, you become very dangerous indeed to those in power.

In case you’re wondering, that’s a very good thing.

Derrick Jensen is the author of A Language Older Than Words and The Culture of Make Believe. His essay in this issue is excerpted from Endgame, published in June 2006 by Seven Stories Press and used here with permission.