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The Allegory of the Pen

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Wikisource:Islam The Allegory of the Pen
by Abu Hamid al-Ghazālī
Translated in 1921 as part of Some Religious and Moral Teachings.

A certain devotee who was on the way to illumination saw a piece of paper with lines written on it. “Why”, said the devotee, hast thou blackened thy bright face?” It is not fair to take me to task replied the paper, “I have done nothing”. “Ask the ink why she has sallied forth from the inkstand where she was quite at ease, and forcibly blackened my face”. “You are right” said the devotee. Then he turned to the ink and enquired of her. “Why do you ask me”, she said, “I was sitting still in the inkstand and had no mind to come out but this truculent pen rushed at me, drew me out and scattered me over the page. There you see me lying helpless, go to the pen and ask him”. The devotee turned to the pen and interrogated him about his high-handedness. “Why do you trouble me”, answered the pen, “Look, what am I? an insignificant reed. I was growing by the banks of silvery streams amidst shady green trees, when lo: a hand stretched at me. It held a knife, which uprooted me, flayed me and separated my joints, hewed me, cleaved my head then, chopped it off. I was sent headlong towards the ink, and have to serve abjectly. Do not add insult to my injuries, go to the hand and ask him”. The devotee looked at the hand and said: “Is it true? Are you so cruel?” “Do not be angry, Sir” replied the hand, “I am a bundle of flesh, bones, and blood. Have you ever seen a piece of flesh exerting power? Can a body move of itself? I am a vehicle used by one called vitality. He rides on me and forces me round and round. You see, a dead man has hands but cannot use them because vitality has left them. Why should I, a mere vehicle, be blamed? Go to vitality and ask him why he makes use of me.” “You are right”, said the devotee, and then questioned vitality. “Do not find fault with me”, answered vitality, Many a time a censurer himself is reproved, while the censured is found faultless. How do you know that I have forced the hand? I was already there before he moved, and had no idea of the motion. I was unconscious and the on-lookers were also unaware of me. Suddenly an agent came and stirred me. I had neither strength enough to disobey nor willingness to obey him. That for which you would take me to task I had to do according to his wish. I do not know who this agent is. He is called will and I know him by name only. Had the matter been left to me I think I should have done nothing.” “All right”, continued the devotee, “I shall put the question to will, and ask him why he has forcibly employed vitality which of its own accord would have done nothing”. “Do not be in too great a hurry”, exclaimed will, “perchance I may give you sufficient reason. His majesty, the mind, sent an ambassador, named know, edge, who delivered his message to me through reason, saying: ‘Rise up, stir vitality’ I was forced to do so, because I have to obey knowledge and reason, but I know not why. As long as I receive no order I am happy, but the moment an order is delivered I dare not disobey. Whether my monarch be a just ruler or a tyrant, I must obey him. On my oath, as long as the king hesitates or ponders over the matter I stand quiet, ready to serve, but the moment his order is passed my sense of obedience which is innate forces me to stir up vitality. So, you should not blame me. Go to knowledge and get information there”. “You are right,” consented the devotee, and proceeding, asked mind and its ambassador, knowledge and reason, for an explanation. Reason excused himself by saying he was a lamp only, but knew not who had lighted it. Mind pleaded his innocence by calling himself a mere tabula rasa. Knowledge maintained that it was simply an inscription on the tabula rasa, inscribed after the lamp of reason had been lighted. Thus he could not be considered the author of the inscription which may have been the work of some invisible pen. The devotee was puzzled by the reply, but collecting himself, he spoke thus to knowledge: “I am wandering in the path of my enquiry. To whomsoever I go and ask the reason I am referred to another. Nevertheless, there is pleasure in my quest, for I find that everyone gives me a plausible reason. But pardon me, Sir if I say that your reply, knowledge, fails to satisfy me. You say that you are a mere inscription recorded by a pen. I have seen pen, ink, and tablet. They are of reed, a black mixture, and of wood and iron, respectively. And I have seen lamps lighted with fire. But here I do not see any of these things, and yet you talk of the tablet, the lamp, the pen and the inscription. Surely you are not trifling with me?” “Certainly not”, returned knowledge, “I spoke in right earnest. But I see your difficulty. Your means are scanty, your horse is jaded, and your journey is long and dangerous. Give up this enterprise, as I fear you cannot succeed. If, however you are prepared to run the risk, then listen. Your journey extends through three regions. The first is the terrestial world. Its objects pen, ink, paper, hand etc. are just what you have seen them to be. The second is the celestial world, which will begin when you have left me behind. There you will come across dense forests, deep wide rivers and high impassable mountains and I know not how you would be able to proceed. Between these two worlds there is a third intermediary region called the phenomenal world. You have crossed three stages of it, vitality, will, and knowledge. To use a simile: a man who is walking is treading the terrestial world: if he is sailing in a boat he enters the phenomenal world: if he leaves the boat and swims and walks on the waters, he is admitted in the celestial world. If you do not know how to swim, go back. For, the watery region of the celestial world begins now when you can see that pen inscribing on the tablet of the heart. If you are not of whom it was said: ‘O ye of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?’[1] prepare thyself. For, by faith you shall not simply walk on the sea but fly in the air”. The wondering devotee stood speechless for awhile, then turning to knowledge, began: “I am in a difficulty. The dangers of the path which you have described unnerve my heart, and I know not whether I have sufficient stength to face them and to succeed in the end”. “There is a test for your strength”, replied knowledge, “Open your eyes and fix your gaze on me. If you see the pen which writes on the heart you will in my opinion, be able to proceed further on. For he who crosses the phenomenal world, knocks at the door of the celestial world, then sights the pen which writes on hearts”. The devotee did as he was advised, but failed to see that pen, because his notion of pen was no other but of a pen of reed or wood. Then knowledge drew his attention, saying: “There’s the rub. Do you not know that the furniture of a palace indicates the status of its lord? Nothing in the universe resembles God, therefore his attributes are also transcendental. He is neither body nor is in space. His hand is not a bundle of flesh, bone, and blood. His pen is not of reed or wood. His writing is not[2] from ink prepared from vitriol and gall. But there are many who ignorantly cling to an anthropomorphic view of Him, there are few who cherish a transcendentally pure conception of Him, and believe that He is not only above all material limitation but even above the limitation of metaphor. You seem to be oscillating between these two views, because on the one hand you think that God is immaterial, that His words have neither sound nor shape; on the other hand you cannot rise to the transcendental conception of His hand, pen and tablet. Do you think that the meaning of the tradition “Verily God created Adam in His own image’[3] is limited to the visible face of man? Certainly not: it is the inward nature of man seen by the inward sight which can be called the image of God. But listen: You are now at the sacred mount, where the invisible voice from the burning bush speaks: ‘I am that I am;[4] “Verily I am thy Lord God, put off thy shoes”.[5] The devotee, who listening with rapture, suddenly saw as it were a flash of lightning, there appeared working the pen which writes on hearts-formless. “A thousand blessings on thee, O knowledge, who hast saved me from falling into the abysm of anthropomorphism (Tashbih). “I thank thee from the bottom of my heart. I tarried long, but now, adieu”.

The devotee then resumed his journey. Halting in the presence of the invisible pen, politely he asked the same question. “You know my reply” answered the mysterious pen, “You cannot have forgotten the reply given to you by the pen in the terrestial world”. “Yes, I remember,” replied the devotee, “but how can it be the same reply, because there is no similitude between you and that pen”. “Then it seems you have forgotten the tradition: Verily God created Adam in his own image”. “No, Sir”, interrupted the devotee, “I know it by heart”. “And you have forgotten also that passage in the Quran: “And the heavens rolled up in his right hand.”[6] “Certainly not”, exclaimed the devotee, “I can repeat the whole of the Quran by rote”. “Yes, I know, and as you are now treading the sacred precincts of the celestial world I think I can now safely tell you that you have simply learnt the meaning of these passages from a negative point of view. But they have a positive value, and should be utilised as constructive at this stage.[7] Proceed further and you will understand what I mean”. The devotee looked and found himself reflecting upon the divine attribute omnipotence. At once he realised the force of the mysterious pen’s argument, but goaded by his inquisitive nature he was about to put the question to the holy being, when a voice like the deafening sound of thunder was heard from above, proclaiming: “He is not questioned for his actions but they shall be asked”. Filled with surprize; the devotee bent his head in silent submission.

The hand of the divine mercy stretched towards the helpless devotee; into his ear were whispered in zephyr tones: “Verily those who strive in our way we will certainly show them the path which leads to us”[8]. Opening his eyes, the devotee raised his head and poured forth his heart in silent prayer. “Holy art thou, O God Almighty: blessed is thy name O Lord of the universe. Henceforth I shall fear no mortal: I put my entire trust in thee: thy forgiveness is my solace: thy mercy is my refuge.”

(Light may be thrown on the matter by consideration of the unity of God.[9] )

Original footnotes

  1. St Matthew XIV 55-31. “And in the fourth watch of the night he came unto them, walking on the sea. And when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were troubled saying, It is an apparition and they cried out for fear. But straightway Jesus spake unto them, saying: Be of good cheer, it is I, be not afraid. And Peter answered him and said: Lord, if it be thou, bid me come unto thee upon the water. And Peter went down from the boat and walked upon the waters to come to Jesus. But when he saw the wind he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried, saying,: Lord, save me. And immediately Jesus stretched forth his hand, and took hold of him and said unto him; O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?”
  2. Comp. Quran XLII 11: Nothing is like a likeness of Him. He is the hearing, the seeing.
  3. Comp. Genesis I 27.
  4. Exodus III 14
  5. Quran XX 12. It is generally supposed that Moses was ordered to take off his “leather shoes” out of respect for the sacred place. But Razi in his Commentary calls it an idiom and says that the Arabs used the word Na’al (shoe) [Editor: missing word] wife and family. The command to put off the shoes is therefore a metaphorical expression for making the heart vacant from care of family. See Tafsir-i-Razi vol. VI. 19. Stamboul edition.
  6. Quran XXXIX 97. The full text runs: And they have not honoured Allah with the honour due to him: and the whole earth shall be in his grip on the day of resurrection and the heavens rolled up in his right hand; glory be to him and may he be exalted above what they associate with him.
  7. Ghazzali has dealt with the question fully in his work entitled ‘Iljamal awam’. He says that every object has four stages of existence. To use a figure: “Fire” is (1) written on paper: (2) pronounced as Fire (3) burns; and (4) is perceived by the mind to be inflammable. The first two are purely conventional but have an educational value. Similarly the anthropomorphism of the passages of the Scriptures should be studied in the light of the above stages.
  8. Quran xxix 69.
  9. See Section vi of this book.

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