Al-Awwal (The First), Al-Ahir (The Last) Az-Zahir (The All-Outward), Al-Batin (The All-Inward)

by Fethullah Gülen on . Posted in Key Concepts in the Practice of Sufism-3

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Al-Awwal (the First) means the One Who is the First of all, without having a beginning, and Who brings all other existent things and beings into existence. Meaning the Last, with no end at all, al-Ahir (the Last) is the One in Whom everything ends while He has no end, as described in the verses:

Everything is perishable (and so perishing) except His "Face" (His eternal Self). (28: 88)

All that is on the earth is perishable; but there remains forever the "Face" of your Lord, the One of Majesty and Munificence. (55: 26–27)

The One Who is the First and the Last is also the All-Outward, Whose existence is more manifest than the existence of everything else and Who causes the hearts and spirits of all existent things and/or beings to be aware of all His Attributes, while all these existent things and beings indicate themselves only to the extent of their bodily existence; and He is the All-Inward, Who cannot be comprehended because of His Honor and Grandeur and the intensity of His manifestation.

The First and the Last are mentioned in the Qur'an as contrasting Names, like day and night, Paradise and Hellfire, or believers and unbelievers. When we use the First for the Divine Being, we mean the Necessarily Existent One Who exists by Himself eternally without having a beginning and Who is infinitely independent of all things and beings. The Prophetic saying, "There was God and nothing existed besides Him,"[1] denotes God's eternal existence without a beginning. Some add to this hadith, "Now it is the same as it was then."[2] If, by this addition, they mean that God exists necessarily and by Himself, while the existence of all other things and/or beings depends on Him, there is no harm in it. But if they mean that only He exists and all other things are only fancied or imagined things, we cannot accept such an erroneous statement because it is a fundamental rule that "things have established realities or real essences (appointed for each by Divine Knowledge)."

The Divine Being is the First, Who exists eternally (in the past) before all other things and beings; He is the Last, Who will exist eternally, sending things from existence into non- existence and bringing "some thing that is non-existent" into existence, and in Whom everything else is bound to end; He is the All-Outward, Whose existence is the most apparent in every word of (the book of) existence; He is the All-Inward, Who is infinitely beyond all existence and on Whose Existence all things and events depend. He simultaneously is the First, the Last, the All-Outward, and the All-Inward, without being one being different from being the other. Being the First, He is eternal in the past exclusively, and being the Last, He is eternal in the future, particularly to Himself. His determinations and decrees as the First appear according to His Knowledge in His being the Last.

He is the First eternally (in the past) and the Last everlastingly. He existed when there was nothing else besides Him; He will eternally outlive all things and beings, which are bound to perish and which suffer continuous appearance and disappearance. Everything belongs to Him, coming from and ending in Him, but He is absolutely free from coming into existence or going into non- existence.

He exists eternally without coming into existence;
That is, He exists without having a beginning.
Nor is there an end for Him.
It is He Who creates, and by Him does everything subsist.
All of existence has been created from a light with Him;
He said, "Be!" and everything was from a pure light.

He is the First in that He creates and favors, and the Last in that He has mercy and forgiveness for His servants, preparing palaces of eternal happiness for them. He is the First in that He guides and the Last in that He rewards guidance. He is the First in that He has no beginning, is the Necessarily Existent Being, the Unique, and the One of Unity; He is the Last in that He is absolutely free from decay or going into non- existence.

Those who are favored with the manifestation of the Name "the First" dive into the depths of the past and writhe in torment about what their judgment from Destiny will be; but the Name "the All-Outward" leads them to consider God's favors of belief, submission, and excellence in action, and to come to understand that their acts of worship are, in fact, the duties of giving thanks for those and other favors, thus strengthening their hope. A heart absorbed in the manifestation of the Name "the All-Inward" feels continuous wonder and astonishment in the face of thousands of enigmatic events; through the breezes of mercy blowing in through the windows of the Name "the Last," they feel relieved of worries and find themselves in a delightful horizon of awe that opens on eternity.

All the existent worlds have a beginning on account of God's being the First, and an end on account of His being the Last. When we consider eternity in the past, we experience wonder and amazement; and when considering eternity in the future, we shudder with fear and anxiety. Supposing the Prophet Muhammad, the truthful reporter, upon him be peace and blessings, had told us nothing about the signs of the end of time, the Resurrection, Paradise, and Hell, and so on, we would have been without words for eternity, both in the past and in the future.

He is both the First and the All-Inward, and the Last and the All-Outward. With all the stages of their existence, everything belongs to Him and goes back to end in Him; with respect to its creation, being fashioned and equipped, and its subsistence, existence is in His disposal and control. He is the First because He is God and everything is a result of His manifestations.

Whatever exists and happens consists in a dot created by God;
All those stars contained in a mustard seed were fashioned by God.
Everything exists by the All-Outward and All-Inward Truth's giving it existence;
No one truly knows what the beginning is.
Ismail Haqqi Bursavi

He is the Last; all spiritual journeys end in Him and everything goes back to Him. He is the All-Outward for the book of existence, the exhibition of things, the palace of the universe clearly expresses Him with all its signs, indications, and witnesses. He is the All-Inward, and all the ranks in existential realms of spirituality end in Him. There is nothing beyond Him, nor can the concept of beyond be in question for Him. The end of any spiritual journeying has always been marked with the truth expressed in, So he was (so near that there was left only the distance between) the strings of two bows (put adjacent to each other), or even nearer (than that) (53: 9).

However, He is not an Outward One whose identity we can know, nor an Inward One that is completely unknown. By contrast, as He is an Outward One beyond our sensations, conceptions, and imagination, He is also an all-transcending Inward One. If we do not consider Him as the All-Inward when we think of Him as the All-Outward, we will have to attribute all the manifestations of His Essence, Attributes, and Names to things and events themselves. If, on the other hand, we ignore all the evidence and witnesses of His Existence while thinking of Him as the All-Inward, we will deviate into the acceptance of a universal, pervasive Spirit. On account of what all things point to as well as the manifestations of His Names and Attributes, He is an All-Outward observed on the face of the book of the universe, and an all-transcending Inward beyond all sensations. He is an All-Outward One with the dazzling magnificence of His Honor and Grandeur shining through His works, and the most Inward of the inward with His imperceptible Identity; an All-Outward with His creativity, sustaining, and favoring, which we observe on the breast of existence, and an All-Inward Who causes us to disappear and die; an All-Outward with the showers of His favor and grace throughout the universe, and an All-Inward Who is impossible to see or meet. In short, He is both the First, and the Last, and the All-Outward, and the All-Inward—simultaneously.

These Names may vary in the areas of their manifestations until their points of intersection are reached. The event of the Prophet Moses and Khadr is an example of this.[3] One of these two persons is a few feet ahead of the other on account of his duty or mission, while the other is a few meters before the other because of the service he represents. When some subtle points of Divine acts came to be discovered at the end of the mysterious journey of these two men of lofty horizons, they finally agreed on the matters about which they had previously been arguing, and even though they no longer continued their journeying, it became clear that the outward and inward aspects of existence and Divine acts are never incompatible with each other.

We can approach this point from another perspective, which is as follows:

Every act and event occurs on the horizon of the Divine Name the All-Outward from the realm of the created toward the realm of the Creator, within the frame of a certain sphere. One appointed as a guide in this sphere is dutiful in training or educating people in a certain way so that they can develop their potentials and be guided toward God, the Ultimate Truth. On this horizon, the Name the All-Inward executes the judgments of Destiny independent of causality, such as causing living beings to die. Even though death occurs as the result of a physical cause, it is absolutely inevitable for every living being as a judgment of Destiny. So, from the perspective of the way he followed as a Prophet and his spiritual profundity, the Prophet Moses, upon him be peace, is a distinguished one who has the duty of guiding people to earn Divine approval and eternal happiness, while Khadr, upon him be peace, is another distinguished one whose duty pertains, like that of the Angel of death, to the inner aspect of human life and existence, in which physical causes have only a nominal part or no part at all. One of these two great persons is a religious guide and representative, and the other seems to be a link between Destiny's judgments and whatever takes place in human life. Their missions are complementary to each other:

The outward and inward are two dimensions of a unity, know O brother;
As are the first and last counterparts of each other.

The Names the All-Outward and the All-Inward manifest themselves primarily in the Qur'an and the Sunna, and these manifestations are observed or followed through religious life. On account of the Divine commands for life and the creation and operation of the universe, the whole universe is the language, translator, and realm of the reflection of the Name the All-Outward, while the Name the All-Inward is its spirit and meaning.

The universe is a grand book of God throughout;
Whatever letter you study, you see its meaning is God.
Recaizade Mahmud Ekrem[4]

The manifestation of the Name the All-Outward as Divine religious commandments finds its greatest representative and implementation in the political leader of Muslims, while that of the Name the All-Inward is represented by the spiritual Pole, who is the commander of the realm of spiritual truths. The outward is the manifestation of the inward in the corporeal realm, and the inward is the inner dimension of the outward. If the "All-Hidden Treasure," which is inward, had not manifested Itself, It could not have been known, nor would all those dazzling beauties throughout the universe have been observed, nor could the meanings in the horizon of the Name the All-Inward have been read. The Treasure of the inward has breathed itself out through the outward, which has consequently become an ornate envelope for the inward. It is a multi-dimensional, splendid envelope, which is described in Imam al-Ghazzali's famous saying: "It is not probable that there is a universe more beautiful than the present one."

Despite the clarity of the matter, some deviating ideologies—which have tried to distort even matters that are so clear that there can be no different understanding or interpretation—have separated the outward from the inward and made strange, unreasonable, and religiously unacceptable interpretations of the inward, thus attempting to muddy Islamic thought. Many such distorted interpretations have their sources in ancient Greek philosophy, Indian belief and thought, Hermeticism, and the doctrines of the Sabaeans. Whether knowingly or unknowingly, many of us Muslims have been influenced by such distorted thoughts and approaches and have suffered doctrinal deviations.

Some among the Muslims have labeled with literalism and belittled the manifest commandments of the Qur'an and the Sunna and the sincere, scholarly deductions concluded from these two basic sources by the profound, righteous scholars in the early centuries of Islam. Carried away by the desire to make fantastic interpretations, they have even attempted to give different, unacceptable meanings to the fundamental, explicit rules and principles of Islam. They have regarded Prayer as the way followed by the common people to reach God and claimed that it is not necessary for those who "have followed the way of inwardness and reached God." They have also looked upon the Prescribed, Purifying Alms with the same distorted approach, considered the Pilgrimage as an attempt by the common people to be united with God, seen Fasting as meaningless suffering, viewed avoidance of the religiously forbidden things as folly, and tried to drive everyone to what is nearly a bohemian life.

Such approaches and considerations were first produced in such currents or centers as Jami'ism, Adhamism, Haydarism, Babaism, Shamsism, Qarmatism, and certain schools of Ismailism,[5] and then transported, to some extent, into some Sufi lodges and madrasas. They have interpreted the Qur'an and Prophetic Traditions arbitrarily, considering even the explicit verses of the Qur'an and Prophetic Traditions as symbolic expressions, interpreting them like interpreting dreams. Such movements of dissent and corruption, which began with Ibn Saba',[6] were continued in increasing dimensions by Maymun of Ahwaz,[7] and grew into flames with Barqai; they became so great a problem that they shook Islamic life at its foundations with Hasan Sabbah.[8] Finally, everything ended in complete freedom from religious responsibilities.

According to such approaches, the explicit meanings of the Qur'anic verses and Prophetic Traditions are not valid and should never be followed. Continuing with this argument, what we must regard and follow are the inner, esoteric meanings, and only those who are specialists in the esoteric dimension of the Religion can know them. They also claim that believing that God has Attributes means accepting as many gods as the number of Attributes that have been ascribed to Him. All-Glorified He is, and absolutely exalted, immeasurably high above all that they say (17: 43). They also claim—God forbid such claims!—that God is powerful not because He has Power but because He gives others power—I do not even know what they mean by such assertions. They consider other of His Attributes from this viewpoint.

Like other false beliefs and thoughts which have been inherited from ancient philosophers, the so-called "Doctrine of Ten Intellects" is one of their false doctrines. According to this, God first created a First Intellect, and then, through this, a First Soul. When the Soul demanded the perfection of the Intellect, it needed an action, which, in turn, caused the generation of celestial spheres. The movement of these spheres generated coldness, heat, moisture, and dryness. These "four basic elements" caused the coming about of three earthly classes of existent things and/or beings, namely inanimate objects, vegetation, and animals. According to this view, this process continued until humankind came into existence. We seek refuge in God from such corrupt thoughts.

Referring existence to a First Intellect and substituting the Prophets for what some call the Perfect or Universal Men is something that is common to all false systems of beliefs and thoughts. We should add to these two assertions their fully esoteric interpretation of the Qur'an and the Sunna. Furthermore, some other assertions, or doctrines, or practices, such as giving letters meanings that are incompatible with the Shari'a or sound reason, pursuing wonder through abstruse or ambiguous expressions, giving a sense of mystery to whatever they do with ceremonies resembling those of some secret societies, and pretending to do all such things for the sake of the Religion and religious life have deceived the masses, who are unaware of the essential reality of the Religion and religious life.

Their incorrect interpretation of religious worship and obedience and their attitudes giving the impression that they are encouraging sin and immorality have made many people indifferent to good moral standards and religious rules, finally leading to anarchy. Since such approaches corrupt hearts and spirits gradually, those who are unaware of the spirit of the Religion have fallen into this accursed net unawares, and have not been able to recover. What follows are some indications of this dangerous process:

  • Recognition and choice: Recognizing and choosing the targeted person well as far as their capacity for understanding is concerned. Simple-minded ones who have no correct knowledge of the Religion and are able to be deceived are chosen.
  • Gradual education and training: Conquering the hearts of the audience through gradual education and training.
  • Throwing into doubt: Causing the audience to doubt the truths and cardinal beliefs of the Religion, and directing them to rituals other than the worship of God.
  • Dependence: Making the acceptance of candidates dependent on certain conditions.
  • Holding one's tongue: Getting candidates to promise that they will never tell their secrets.
  • Persuasion: Persuading candidates that whatever they hear from the leader is a Divine inspiration.
  • Separation: Causing those who are believed to be fully aware of the "esoteric dimension" of the Religion to ignore the apparent meanings of the Qur'an and to abandon the daily religious practices.
  • Complete freedom: Leading candidates to a belief in complete freedom from religious responsibilities.

The truth is that, like creation, the Religion has both outward and inward dimensions for the Unique, All-Absolute One is both the All-Outward and the All-Inward. Nothing in and concerning existence is unknown to Him, because He is the All-Outward; He is also the All-Inward, therefore He has full knowledge of whatever concerns humans during their whole lives, decreeing good for the good, righteous ones, and punishment for the evil, sinful ones as declared in: (The will of) God came upon them from where they had not reckoned (it could come) (59: 2).

As mentioned above, the Religion of Islam has both outward and inward dimensions based on its two basic sources, the Qur'an and the Sunna, and on the principles deduced from them by eminent scholars in the early ages of Islam. The Shari'a has rules and principles for perfect spiritual education, and it disciplines people with respect to their feelings, thoughts, attitudes, and actions. In addition, it contains necessary knowledge for the entire life of humans with all its aspects. For example, it provides sufficient rules for human religious responsibilities, such as physical purification, the Prayer, fasting, the Prescribed Purifying Alms, Pilgrimage, and jihad (striving in God's cause); in addition, daily acts or transactions, such as buying and selling, employment, commerce, business, building and running companies, and administration are covered by the Shari'a, as well as penalties, whether those established by God Himself in the Qur'an, or by the Messenger in the Sunna, or by scholars based on the unchanging principles laid down by the Qur'an and the Sunna. These constitute the outward aspect of the Shari'a. The Shari'a also has rules and principles for the mental and spiritual education and perfection of humans, expressed in certain concepts such as confirmation, belief, certainty, sincerity, knowledge of God, love of God, submission to God, placing one's trust and reliance in God, commitment and resignation to God, recitations, repentance, penitence, and contrition for errors, reverence and fear of God, patience, contentment, nearness to God, intense love for God, ecstasy, immersion in God, modesty, exaltation and glorification of God. These constitute the inward aspect of the Shari'a. There is no and can never be conflict between the outward and inward aspects of the Shari'a. Rather, the two are dimensions of a single reality and they complement each other.

On the Sufi way, initiates ignore their existence with respect to their egos or annihilate their egos in God's Existence. They are content with God's decrees and faithful to their promises, paying no attention to anything other than God and inwardly burning with the yearning to observe the Divine "Face" in the other world. Nothing here is contrary to the principles that have been established by the Qur'an and the Sunna. On the contrary, these are the rules that ought to be observed so that we can lead a life at the level of the heart and spirit. They are originally based on the Qur'an and the Sunna.

In short, a religious life is incumbent upon every responsible being, and it is only possible by following the Shari'a. Metaphysical discoveries and spiritual pleasures are favors that come in return for the sincerity of initiates without their demand. Following the Shari'a and reaching a certain level of spiritual life or spiritual profundity are not mutually exclusive; rather, they complement one another as two dimensions of the same reality.

What an initiate first feels of the inward is certain manifestations of the Divine Names and Attributes. This has been called "the inward relative." So long as an initiate advances toward the end of this spiritual journey, manifestations from the Realm of Divine Essence begin to invade their conscience. This state has been called "the most inward within the inward." There are many who reach the horizon of the inward, but few can go deep into "the most inward of the inward" and, therefore, few have knowledge of the mysteries of Divinity.

Let us put an end to this highly subtle, ambiguous matter with the comprehensive approach of Bediüzzaman Said Nursi. According to him, the outward dimension of creation is called the mulk (the corporeal dimension of the Divine kingdom), while its inner dimension is the malakut (the absolute, incorporeal dimension of the Divine kingdom). The relationship between a human being and his or her heart is an example of these two aspects or dimensions of existence or the Divine kingdom. With respect to the corporeal dimension, a human being is an envelope and the heart is its contents. With respect to the absolute, incorporeal dimension, the heart is an envelope while the human being is the contents. This same relationship also exists between the Supreme Divine Throne and the universe. The Supreme Divine Throne is a combination of the manifestations of the Divine Names the First, the Last, the All-Outward, and the All-Inward. With respect to the Divine Name the All-Outward, the Supreme Divine Throne represents the mulk and is the envelope of creation, while with respect to the Name the All-Inward, It is the malakut or the heart or contents of creation, and the universe is the mulk or the envelope. Considering the Divine Name the First, the Supreme Divine Throne is indicated by His Supreme Throne was upon the water (11: 7), which points to the beginning of existence. In respect of the Divine Name the Last, the ceiling of Paradise is the Supreme Throne of the All-Merciful, which alludes to the finality of everything. As a result, being the combination of the manifestations or the all-encompassing mirror of the Divine Names the First, the Last, the All-Outward, and the All-Inward, the Supreme Divine Throne encompasses the whole universe.

O God, the Lord of the seven heavens and the Lord of the Supreme Throne, our Lord and the Lord of everything; the One Who sent down the Torah, the Gospel, and the Qur'an; the Splitter of the grain and fruit stone—there is no deity but You! I seek refuge in You from the evil of everything, which You hold by its forelock.

You are the First, without any preceding You; You are the Last, there is none to succeed You. You are the All-Outward, with none being above You; and You are the All-Inward, with nothing more penetrating than You. Forgive us whatever evil we have done, so that You may not call us to account for anything. Surely You are powerful over everything, and ever responsive to calls. And bestow blessings and peace upon our master Muhammad and his Family and Companions, altogether.

[1]al-Bukhari, "Tawhid" 22; Ahmad ibn Hanbal, al-Musnad, 4:431. (Tr.)

[2] adh-Dhahasi, Siyar 'Alamin an-Nubala, 18:474. (Tr.)

[3] (al-) Khadr is he with whom the Qur'an recounts (18: 60–82) the Prophet Moses made a journey to learn something of the spiritual realm of existence and the true nature of God's acts in the world. It is controversial whether he was a Prophet or a saint with a special mission. It is believed that he enjoys the degree of life where one feels no need for the necessities of normal human life. (Tr.)

[4] Recaizade Mahmud Ekrem (1847–1914) was one of the important literary figures of the declining years of the Ottoman Turkey. He was a novelist, and dramatist and a poet. (Tr.)

[5] Jami'ism, Adhamism, and Shamsism were certain deviating sects that in order to gain following, attributed themselves to important saints Mawlana 'Abdu'r-Rahman ibn Ahmad al-Jami' (1414–1492), Ibrahim ibn Adham (d. 782), and Shams at-Tabrizi, who had a great influence on Jalalu'd-Din ar-Rumi, respectively. Haydarism is a branch of Nusayrism following Shaykh Haydar 'Ali, who lived in the fourteenth century. They deified 'Ali, the Fourth Caliph, and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, upon him be peace and blessings. Babaism appeared in the thirteenth century in central Anatolia and was founded by Baba Ishaq and Baba Ilyas, who claimed Divine Messengership. They caused a great revolt against the Anatolian Seljuk State. Qarmatism was the deviating Batini (esoteric) sect founded by Hamdan Qirmit or Qarmat. They caused revolts and shed much blood during the second half of the ninth century and the first quarter of the tenth century. They were even able to found a short-lived state in Bahrain. Ismailism was another esoteric sect which claimed the imamate of Ismail, the eldest son of Imam Ja'far as-Sadiq, whom the Shi'a Imamiyya accepted as their sixth Imam. Muslim theologians and historians point out that the followers of some of those and similar other sects such as Qarmatism were in fact materialists and atheists and defended and pursued a hedonistic life. (Tr.)

[6] 'Abdullah ibn Saba' was a hypocrite from Yemen. He caused great dissent among the Muslims during the caliphate of 'Ali, the Fourth Caliph. He went so far as to claim 'Ali's divinity. (Tr.)

[7] Maymun ibn Daysan al-Qaddah al-Ahwazi lived in the eighth century. He was one of the founders of the movement of Batiniyya (Esotericism). (Tr.)

[8] Hasan (ibn) Sabbah (d. 1122) was one of the most famous figures of the Batiniyya sect. He made the Alamut castle, situated in a precipice between Tehran and Qazvin in western Iran, his base in 1090. They spread great terror and assassinated many important religious and political figures in the Muslim world. Finally, the Mongol armies destroyed them and their castle. (Tr.)