Symbolism as a bridge between Islam and Tantra (article)


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Each religion has a unique history and commands its own set of tenets and practices, often overlapping in certain respects with that of another religion. This common ground, in fact, makes possible inter-religious dialogue and, in some instances, leads up to syncretism. Yet the potential for the dialogue in most cases doesn’t result in fusion, the very variety of religions suggests impregnability of what differentiates them. One of the reasons of that is a conservative nature of religion and, respectively, its tendency to look onto itself from its own standpoint. This can be fairly explained in more details with the help of psychology, sociology, and other disciplines, but it’s not the purpose of this writing. Its actual goal is to illustrate how conservatism of a religion might impede it from discovering completely new dimensions within its customary pool, which would connect it to a much broader ocean of the context.

In a sense, it’s a privilege of mystics to forge new religions or to blaze new trails in already established ones, but their language is often too symbolic, and even if their experiences are canonized, generally there isn’t much clarity among religious believers about what these other-worldly men and women had actually meant. For them, mystic language might be just a beautiful allegory or they can even try to bring it down to earth and interpret in a comprehensible way. In any case, they don’t tend to compare symbols across various religions in order to understand their own. But sometimes, the results of such a comparison might be surprising, and religious traditions that share a little or virtually nothing turn out to be not so incompatible, at least on a symbolic level. Islam and Tantra, which one wouldn’t normally put on the same plane, serve as such an example. There is bunch of koranic verses – ayahs – and the saying of Prophet Muhammad – hadith – that might seem more or less a random choice for Muslim believers, but would be a constellation of coherently tied elements if tantric perspective is applied. To illustrate Muslim viewpoint, I will use Koran in translation of Marmaduke Pickthall and tafsirs by Mufti Shafi Usmani and Shabbir Ahmed, and then I will proceed to interpreting the very scriptural passages, but making a start from Tantra, largely from Sahaja Yoga’s perspective.


Here goes the ayah, which is the cornerstone for the analysis, followed by other ayahs and the hadith along with their traditional interpretation in Islam:

Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The similitude of His light is as a niche wherein is a lamp. The lamp is in a glass. The glass is as it were a shining star. (This lamp is) kindled from a blessed tree, an olive neither of the East nor of the West, whose oil would almost glow forth (of itself) though no fire touched it. Light upon light. Allah guideth unto His light whom He will. And Allah speaketh to mankind in allegories, for Allah is Knower of all things (24:35)

Of the particular interest are light, niche, lamp, blessed tree, an olive neither of the East nor of the West, and olive oil. Traditionally, light is referred to guidance bestowed upon believers by Allah, or instinctive predisposition of every human being towards righteous conduct. For some interpreters, light stands for the holy Quran. Accordingly, niche signifies a person and lamp – his or her heart as a receptacle of light. Mentioning of blessed tree and its oil is interpreted as follows:

“…This is an endorsement that olive and its tree is blessed by Allah and is beneficial and useful. Scholars have commented that Allah has instilled many a benefits in it. Olive oil is used in the burning of lamps. Its light is the brightest and clearest as against any other oil. It is eaten as a fruit and its oil is used in cooking. The interesting part is that there is no need of any machine for the extraction of its oil. When the fruit is ripe, the oil comes out automatically...” (Mufti Shafi Usmani, Maariful Quran)

Lo! Those who believe and do good works, theirs will be Gardens underneath which rivers flow. That is the Great Success. (85:11)

Gardens signify the paradise, the abode promised by Allah to the righteous, while rivers flowing beneath Gardens don’t have any special connotation with respect to their inferior point, which is critical in further analysis.

By the Star when it setteth, your comrade erreth not, nor is deceived; nor doth he speak of (his own) desire. It is naught save an inspiration that is inspired, which One of mighty powers hath taught him, One vigorous; and he grew clear to view, when he was on the uppermost horizon. Then he drew nigh and came down till he was (distant) two bows' length or even nearer, and He revealed unto His slave that which He revealed. The heart lied not (in seeing) what it saw. Will ye then dispute with him concerning what he seeth? And verily he saw him yet another time by the lote-tree of the utmost boundary, nigh unto which is the Garden of Abode. When that which shroudeth did enshroud the lote-tree, the eye turned not aside nor yet was overbold. Verily he saw one of the greater revelations of his Lord. (53:1-18)

Lote-tree of the utmost boundary is interpreted as “the state of bewilderment” (Shabbir Ahmed, The Quran as It Explains Itself), “the point where the human intellect is left with nothing but astonishment” (ibid). It is also believed that its roots are located on the sixth heaven whereas its crown – on the seventh, by the Throne of Allah, in Gardens.

Lo! The righteous shall drink of a cup whereof the mixture is of Kafur, a spring wherefrom the slaves of Allah drink, making it gush forth abundantly (76:5-6)

In that day other faces will be calm, glad for their effort past, in a high Garden, where they hear no idle speech, wherein is a gushing spring (88:8-12)

Idle speech is generally understood as a “senseless speech” (ibid), and gushing spring as a never-ending flow of Allah’s mercy, the heavenly bliss.

Lo! Hell lurketh in ambush, a home for the rebellious. They will abide therein for ages. Therein taste they neither coolness nor (any) drink save boiling water and a paralysing cold (73:21-25)

As the ayah suggests by itself, sinners are doomed to torments in hell ranging from the extreme cold to the extreme heat. Just the reverse, the paradise is envisioned as a place with the most comfortable coolness.

Narrated Abu Huraira: The Prophet said: "…Everything of a human body will waste away, perish, or decay except the last coccyx bone, and from that bone Allah will reconstruct the whole body (Sahih Al-Bukhari, vol.6, Hadith 338)

According to Islamic tradition, the coccyx bone, or sacrum bone, is to provide the basis for reconstruction of the whole physical body in times Al-Qiyamah, when all human beings ever lived are supposed to come off the earth and face the final judgment of Allah.


Now, what is the significance of all these pieces put together if interpreted in the context of Tantra? First, I’d like to make a brief overview of Tantra and then proceed with the interpretation.

Tantra is not a particular religion; rather, it’s a religious philosophy under which umbrella many practices in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and some other religious currents might find their place. Each practice has its own peculiarities, but all of them share the idea of interplay between divine masculine and feminine principles in the universe and pursue liberation or enlightenment by proper realizing these principles on a microcosmic human level. Of great significance, especially in Hindu Tantra, is feminine energy Kundalini that is believed to connect an individual consciousness to the cosmic one. There’s no consensus about the nature of Kundalini (it varies from the sexual to the devoid of any sexuality) and even her location in a physical body (e.g. sacrum bone, belly, brains), but her intermediary role in sublimation is hardly contested. This assumed human ability to reflect and engage in much broader cosmic processes found its expression in various charts, where a man is presented as a complex system of energy centers and channels. For my purposes, I’d like to make use of fairly classical chart of seven energy centers – chakras, and three major energy channels – nadis:

[here supposed to be an image of the chart, try to google "subtle body"]

According to the idea behind this chart, and basically it’s a Sahaja Yoga perspective (I will further explain my choice), Kundalini resides in the sacrum bone. She is supposed to pass through the central energy channel – Sushumna nadi (other two channels are Ida nadifrom the left and Pingala nadifrom the right) and all chakras aligned along it,pierce the top of the head, and reach the seventh chakra – Sahasrara, whereby establishing the cosmic union with the divine masculine principle - Shiva. After the union is established, the heart chakra, where Shiva is reflected, gets launched in a way to manifest this reflection, and that is how the enlightenment is supposed to occur.


Now, I’d like to superimpose this particular perspective upon the ayahs and the hadith. It promises to be the most subjective part, but the match, in my mind, is so perfect that it’s worth presenting.

Interpretation of light as divine guidance, niche as human, and lamp as heart coincides with that of Islamic tradition, except that the light is viewed as the divine masculine principle – the guidance in its most manifested and intense form. As for blessed tree, olive neither of the East nor of the West, and olive oil, they gain a special significance and are far from being interpreted mundanely. The position of the olive between the East and the West suggests some central location, and keeping in mind that its oil is critical in kindling the light, the association with the central channel Sushumna nadi and Kundalini at its base arises by itself. Besides, the metaphysical essence of olive oil is emphasized in Quran as it’s said to burn and enlighten lamp, the heart, without touching of physical fire.

The significance of the lote-tree of the utmost boundary isalso in accordance with Islamic tradition, as when Kundalini reaches the seventh chakra Sahasrara – the Gardens – a person is supposed to be in state of deep bewilderment and astonishment. Another feature of that – thoughtless awareness – comes to stand for having no idle speech. Gushing springis now to symbolize Kundalini along with olive oil, as Kundalini’sascent to the point of Sahasrara is associated with sensation of inexpressible bliss. The coinciding number of the highest heaven in Islamic tradition and the highest chakra, which is seven, is also worth pointing out.
The rivers flowing beneath the Gardens are basically interpreted as energy channels, as one can see on the chart, Sahasrara is the only chakra that is above and not intersected by any channels.

The comfortable coolness of the paradise might refer both to the subjective perception of a cool flow, when Kundalini comes out of the head, and the state of balance between energy channels (neither cold nor heat), which is actually the precondition of Kundalini’s successful ascent. Accordingly, the extreme cold and heat signify the state of misbalance between energy channels. The left channel Ida nadi is believed to be responsible for emotions and memories, its nature is tamas, the quality of inertia and disintegration, and it’s closely associated with cold. On the contrary, the quality of the right channel Pingala nadi is rajas, the action, and heat is its pertinent state. So, when it’s overheated due to excessive activity, or when Ida nadi is too cooled down as a result of deepening into emotions and the past, the whole subtle system comes into misbalance. It’s also implied that tendencies leading to the misbalance are rooted one way or another in moral misconduct, and eventually this state entails physical and/or psychological problems.

The role of sacrum bone as a place where Kundalini is located sheds new light on the hadith. The literal resurrection from the sacrum bone is now understood as spiritual rebirth that results from awakening of Kundalini.
And finally, if we interpret all these pieces from Tantra’s perspective, the following ayah takes on a special significance:

O company of jinn and men, if ye have power to penetrate (all) regions of the heavens and the earth, then penetrate (them)! Ye will never penetrate them save with (Our) sanction (55:33)

Penetration to regions of the heavens and the earth carries two implications. First, it comes to symbolize Kundalini’s ascent to the uppermost level of Sahasrara chakra, or Gardens. Second, it’s not a commonplace experience, rather it’s something very special that can be sanctioned only by the Divine.
the conclusive part of the article:

"Now, the reason I preferred Sahaja Yoga’s perspective to anything else is its most complete matching to the point: location of Kundalini in a sacrum bone, no allusion to any sexual setup of her awakening, perception of coolness, thoughtless awareness and the state of bliss she brings about. Furthermore, and it’s my little secret, by virtue of practicing Sahaja Yoga I came to have experienced that, so all these explanations are backed up with something substantial, not merely pranks of a theorizing mind.

I’m sober enough not to overestimate this particular analysis, especially its role in promoting inter-religious dialogue or even total rethinking of Islamic tradition by its adherents. But I hope that it might deconstruct some solid structures in conventional understanding and bring to the forefront the limitedness of a human mind, which is often very audacious to convince itself in having grasped the absolute truth and satisfied enough to withdraw from further pursuit. But the critical condition of grasping the truth is humility and openness rather than their opposites. At least, my humble experience suggests so."