Jam’ (absorption) literally means coming and bringing together. In the language of Sufism, it means fixing all one’s feeling, sight and consciousness on the Truth, to the extent that one is absorbed in Him and does not feel the existence of the world with all that is in it. To the degree of one’s knowledge of God, one only knows Him, feels Him, sees Him and is saved from preoccupation with anything else. If this meaning is approached from the concept of unity, it is the opposite of multiplicity; but if it is conceived of as one’s heart cutting off relations with all else save God, then its opposite is distinguishing (farq), which we, God willing, will deal with as a separate subject.
Absorption is a state or station belonging to those who have reached the final state of the spiritual journey. Travelers to the Truth who are honored with the gift of absorption always feel Him, know Him, and according to the level of the horizon and spiritual pleasures of each, can be aware or not aware of the people around them. But they always feel and are always conscious of the Truth and live as if charmed by observation of the meanings that belong to the Truth and that are reflected in everything. They always see the manifestations of His Names and Attributes in all things and events which they encounter. Thirsty for the Divine Being Himself, they fly around the manifestations of His “Face” like moths flying around a light. In tides of wonder and admiration, they cannot help but utter: Glory be to You, how exalted You are (as the Divine Being)!
Two stages further from this state of pleasure is absorption within absorption, which means a total absence for the travelers to the Truth. Travelers who find themselves in such a whirlpool of feeling are no longer aware of their own selves nor that of others. Totally detached from distinguishing, they are completely forgetful of all else save the Truth-as anybody except He is a shadow of the shadow of the light of His Existence-and turn to Him with all their being.
For initiates who base themselves on God’s absolute Oneness in all their views and considerations, everything is a shadow of the light of the Existence of the Truth. For one who is in the state of absorption, it is a shadow of the shadow of His Existence’s light, while one who is in the absorption within absorption only sees the rays of the manifestations of His “Face” in the name of the creation. Some scholars mention a further degree of absorption, which they call holy absorption. This is the rank which the verifying scholars of Sufism regard as the title of nearness to God, Who is nearer to us than ourselves, by means of supererogatory prayers. The travelers who have attained this level are conscious that it is God Who maintains them, and begin to observe everything more deeply and clearly with their innermost senses, which have become sharper than their external senses. They hear with their spirit, see with their power of insight, review and examine with their conscience, and have the opportunity to see the true faces of theoretical knowledge through the door half-opened by their inner vision and experience. This is the rank where travelers are favored with the full manifestation of the truth contained in He is the First, and the Last, and the Outward, and the Inward (57:3), and where they become polished mirrors that reflect it. The servants of God who have reached this farthest point either “travel in God” and rotate around themselves like the North Star, or are turning around their axis in their hearts while being in their bodies among people.
If they have attained the rank of absorption, it means that they have also been favored with “subsitence with God.” Those who hold this rank in the final stage of the journey, and who are abstracted from their own attributes in their absorption in God’s Attributes and from their own being in absorption in God’s Being, gain a new existence through subsistence with God. They begin to feel the bliss of eternality and breathe “absorption” in the delight of being aware that their acts have become lost in God’s acts. A stage further, when they observe that their attributes have been annihilated in the all-comprehensive Attributes of God, they become lost in the delight of experiencing absorption within absorption. Finally, as a result of their own being being obliterated in the face of God’s Knowledge and Existence, they leave themselves to the consideration of the holy absorption with inner vision and spiritual pleasures, and are immersed in the feelings of wonder upon wonder.
From another point of view, the act of observing the requirements or responsibilities of servanthood to God with the utmost care, devotion, and consciousness is called “distinguishing,” while being favored with a shower of Divine gifts that come unexpectedly as a reward for this “small capital”-small because the greatest capital is one’s being favored by God-is absorption. In view of this approach, those who have attained a higher spiritual state have observed that one who does not perceive “distinguishing” is ignorant of servanthood, while one who does not feel absorption is unaware of knowing God.
The Qur’anic statement (1:5), You alone do we worship, which expresses the individual consciousness developing into and translating the public consciousness, is a voice of distinguishing and servanthood, while You alone do we ask for help (1:5) is an expression of absorption and a declaration of human poverty and helplessness before God. Every initiate hears the voice of distinguishing at the beginning of the spiritual journey, and feels the pleasure of absorption at the end of it. The ultimate point, which only those endowed with a particular capacity can reach, is “absorption within absorption” and the “holy absorption.” While the former signifies God’s concentration of the manifestations of His Names on a certain object, the latter is a sign of the manifestation of His Names throughout the universe.
According to Kashani, distinguishing is the knowledge of God the Almighty and spiritual pleasures of those who have not yet been able to develop their theoretical considerations about God (I personally find this view unacceptable), while absorption is immersion caused by a concentration on the Creator without ever thinking of the creation, and absorption within absorption is the peak of seeing the creation as subsisting by the Creator. This final rank is also the rank of distinguishing above absorption. Since in this rank only God’s acts, Attributes and Essential Qualities are observed, the Absolutely True One, for those who have attained this rank, becomes the eyes with which they see, the ears with which they hear, and the hands with which they hold. For this reason, He attributes to Himself what they do by His will and leave and ignore the apparent causes. The Sufi scholars are of the opinion that the verse, (8:17), You did not kill them but God killed them, and when you threw, it was not you who threw, but God who threw, besides clearly mentioning a miracle of God’s Messenger, upon him be peace and blessings, alludes to this rank.
Absorption can never mean the unity of being-the unity (union) of God and the universe or God’s being identical with the universe-as pantheists claim, nor is distinguishing totally the opposite. The One Who is the Eternal is eternal, and the beings who are contained in time and come into existence within time are mortal and different from the Eternal One. The Creator cannot be and is not the same as the created. The relation between them is not that which comes from appearance; that is, the universe is not an apparent form of God. Rather, this relation is that between the Creator and the created. We can also see the creation as the totality of the manifestations of God’s Names. These manifestations are completely pure and transparent, while that which issues from the created is usually tangible. Human beings have both a pure, transparent aspect or dimension, and a dense/tangible one. This is why, as declared in the verse (17:84), Each being acts according to his own standard of measure, they can display behavior either according to their bodily dimension or according to their spirit. As they are composed of a body, a carnal self, and a spirit, they fix their eyes on nature and corporeality, while they carry inclinations toward spiritual, exalted worlds as well. By means of the ways of rising which the Shari’a has appointed and guaranteed, travelers on the way to God cut their relations with fleeting and decaying things and turn to eternity.
Whosever’s breast God expands and opens to Islam follows a light from his Lord (39:22).
So, when travelers to God turn to Him in submission, they travel in the exhilarating horizons with utmost self-possession and awareness under the guidance of the light of their Lord. Even though they may sometimes encounter confusion or bewilderment, they easily overcome these with the assistance of the never-deceiving leadership of the master of creation, upon him be peace and blessings. They always head for the sources of knowledge that God has determined and secured through Prophethood, and never fall into the errors committed by pantheists.
From another perspective, absorption has been dealt with under the rubrics of “absorption with respect to knowledge”, “absorption with respect to existence”, and “absorption with respect to the (Divine) Being Himself.”
Absorption in knowledge means that at the beginning of their journey, travelers to God base themselves on the knowledge that comes from, or that is obtained through, the proofs and indications of God. Then this knowledge develops from the certainty based on knowing into a certainty based on observation and finally into a certainty based on experience. However, only a shadowy degree of certainty based on experience can be reached in the world. Ultimately, this knowledge becomes pure knowledge from His Presence. Although it is the result of following the way of inference, it is not the same as the knowledge acquired through a proof originated in the outer world or in the human inner world. Not is it totally different either. It is a special gift of the Almighty to the free will with which God has endowed human beings, and which is in fact a simple means given to them for the execution of the Divine commandments. However, like all other Divine gifts, this gift is never proportionate to our free will. Like it, all other gifts of God Almighty are many times greater than what we actually deserve.
Absorption with respect to existence is when the travelers to God are perfectly aware in their consciousness of how things and events occur and how they are maintained. All of existence disappears from their vision to the extent that they are no longer aware of which direction is right and which is left. The conquerors of the heart, who walk in this station, feel only the rays of the Eternal Holy Existence and Knowledge and see all else as the motions of these rays. Provided manifestation is not confused with appearance, and shadow with the original, those who have attained this horizon feel or hear innumerable things and/or beings in every part of the universe invoking His Name, saying,
He is the All-Living, the Self-Subsisting (by Whom all subsist) (2:255).
Absorption with respect to the (Divine) Being Himself means that all the indications and proofs of God that originate in the outer and inner human world are no longer visible in the face of the light of knowledge of God and the spiritual pleasure that the Almighty lets flow into the hearts of travelers to Him. Some have regarded this rank as the final station of the spiritual journey. If they base this consideration on their constant turning to God during traveling from wakefulness to self-possession and thence to repentance, penitence and contrition one after the other, and on the relation between God and humankind as being the relation between the Creator and the created, and the Sole Object of Worship and the worshipper, and the Lord and the servant, there can be no objection. But, if they imply by absorption that things have no reality at all, and it is of no use or significance to use one’s mental faculties to infer from things and events the existence of God and therefore to acquire certain knowledge about Him, and that people are no longer responsible for the fulfillment of religious obligations after reaching some point in the spiritual journey, and that there is essentially no difference between I and you and He, then this is most definitely a total deviation in conception and creed. This can be either a fantasy of those who are pursuing “originality” for the sake of fame or a view held by some self-conceited pantheists and monists.
As for the Prophets and the pure, saintly scholars, they have regarded the way leading to the Infinite One as endless, and have experienced the final station one can reach in the journey along this way according to their capacity with the same solemnity, wakefulness, and consciousness as they experienced the beginning. They have always accepted that serving the Truth with the utmost humility is the goal of their lives. The Almighty ordered the master of creation, the most perfect in servanthood to Him, Worship your Lord until what is certain (to come, i.e. death) comes to you (15:99). By this, He both emphasizes that death marks the end of this responsibility and consoles the Messenger for the afflictions and tortures he was subjected to by reminding him of his meeting with God. Because meeting with God meant for him reaching certainty based on experience in his own, unique level.
O God! Make us among those of Your servants who pursue sincerity, whom You have favored with sincerity and purity of intention, who have achieved piety and abstinence from all forbidden things big or small, and whom You have made near to You, and who are pleased with You and whom you are pleased with. And let God’s blessings and peace be on our master Muhammad, the head of those whom You have favored with sincerity and purity of intention, and on his family and Companions, who were austere, near to God, and were pleased with Him and whom God was pleased with. Amen!
By M. Fethullah Gulen
 ‘Abd al-Razzaq al-Kashani (d. 1335) is one of the interpreters of Ibn al-‘Arabi. His Ta’wilat al-Qur’an is especially famous and important. (Trans.)