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Sufi cosmology and psychology

Arvan Harvat

The purpose of the present essay is to clear a heap of misunderstanding that has accrued around the Sufi concept of "latifa" ( pl. lataif ). As an adjective, the Arabic word latif means "subtle". During later development ( 12-17 centuries C.E. ) of Sufism, particularly in the area of Iran, Turkestan, Afghanistan and India, a welter of elaborate and frequently conflicting systems of esoteric psychology and physiology had developed; partly generated by endless musings of Sufi contemplatives over Qur'anic verses and hadith in search of cognitive clarification of visionary experiences; or, less likely, due to Hindu-Buddhist cultural exposure and influence.

The author has an obligation to demarcate his presentation from other, equally frequent ( or more frequent ) elaborations that have, regardless of best intentions, succeeded ( apart from enriching our vocabulary and glimmmers of penetrating analyses, particularly when set in a comparative perspective ) mostly in creating a quicksand-like confusion.

Therefore: 1. This article will not discuss dated Sufi archaic cosmology, which had arisen from the marriage of Hermetic spherical Ptolemaic cosmos and Neoplatonic notions that had percolated through Ikhwan ul-Safa and philosophers like Al-Farabi and Ibn-Sina/Avicenna.  This particular variant constitutes one of the two strands in Ibn-Arabi's comprehensive theosophy ( the other one being almost exclusively Neoplatonic in inspiration ); this one serving as a theoretical basis for spiritual discipline in many tariqas/Sufi orders, where a stage in  progression and purification of the "soul" ( terms will be defined later ) corresponds to a sphere/"planet" in Ptolemaic universe ( Halveti, Mevlevi & other orders. ) It would take us too far to delve into intricacies of the two doctrines, which under closer examination turn out to be irreconcilable and contradictory.

2. The following text will use Arabic and Persian technical terms only insofar as they constitute basic building elements of the exposition. Also, parallels with other esoteric doctrines will be drawn just to illustrate common bonds of spiritual experience.

3. This is not a historical review, nor a textbook on the particular aspect of Sufi contemplative life. So, only sketchy references on the most influential figures and practices will be found.

   The plan of the essay is as follows:

1. To give an overview of Sufi cosmology and psychology ( these two overlap to the degree that an exposition of one without the other would invalidate the entire effort ).

2. To analyze the so-called Lataif Sitta and its role in Sufi spiritual life. Also, various dubieties will be concisely addressed, as well as some historical milestones.

The author has tried to use the most authoritative and explicit literature he has yet found. Although these works exhibit familiar "fuzziness" and indeterminacy in approach, they by far surpass more popular and "alluring" fictions and treatises of Idries Shah or A.H.Almaas.

Sufi cosmology
Sufi psychology
The Lataif

printed reference References:

Mir Valiuddin: Contemplative Disciplines in Sufism
Mir Valiuddin: Quranic Sufism
Javad Nurbaksh: The Psychology of Sufism The Sufi Journal, 1994-1995
Titus Burckhardt: Amazon com Introduction to Sufi Doctrine
Henry Corbin: Amazon com History of Islamic Philosophy

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page by Arvan Harvat
page uploaded 6 February 2000, last modified 6 September 2004