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Michael Sebastian Noble-From Fakhr al-Din al-Razi’s‘Hidden Secret’-Part 2: Spiritual Fitness

Ceiling of the western iwan of the Shah Mosque (Imam Masjid) – Isfahan. Picture by ‘Islamic history and travel’.


Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA is the second part of a series devoted to some key excerpts from Fakr al-Din al-Razi’s ‘Hidden Secret’ (al-Sirr al-Maktüm), in the exciting ground-breaking study of Michael-Sebastian Noble, ‘Philosophising the Occult, Avicennan Psychology and the ‘Hidden Secret’ of Fakr al-Din al-Razi’, De Gruyter-2021.

Note: Al Razi’s quotations in Michael-Sebastian Noble’s translation are in italic. The rest is his scholarly apparatus and exegesis.

‘The fulfilment of those conditions relating to the management of the body and those relating to the soul’s disposition serves but one aim: to remove all distractions which may arrest the soul’s attention so that it can focus on connection with the celestial spirits.’ (From Chapter 6. part 7. foreword)


6-7.2. Fortification of the Brain and the Heart: al-Sirr

The effects of such dramatic reduction in food intake would no doubt be debilitating, causing deficiencies in the heart and the brain: this imbalance would thus thwart connection with the celestial spirits just as much as the excessive consumption of food. Razi lists three means of correcting this imbalance and fortifying the soul, which are available to the adept observing this spiritual regimen. The first involves: ‘Fortifying the soul by means of perfume. For fragrant scent greatly fortifies the heart and mind in such a way that the soul is not required to manage it in the way it is required to mange eating, so the fortification occurs without distraction.

The second stratagem involves the use of simple, bright joyful visuals’ (al-mubsarat al-basita al-mudi’a al-bahija) that uplifts the spirit. They must not however be so attractive as to distract the soul from its focus. They must therefore be simple in their arrangement and cannot involve intricate patterns: ‘They must be simple. For, were the wall of a house is painted with intricate patterns of many colors then souls would be distracted by their contemplation and would be cut off from their objective. For this reason it is prohibited to place a man afflicted with delirium in a painted house.’

They must employ bright colors which, deriving from light, provide the soul respite from its privations: ‘The second condition is that they must be bright and that is because by its very nature, light is beloved, whilst darkness is something which frightens the soul; for this reason, he who is stuck by melancholia is always in a state of fear; when the soul sees light it relaxes (insharahat), is strengthened, and finds rest.

Moreover, they should be as joyful as they are bright:

‘…since colours are of two types: illuminating and bright (mushriqa wa-mudi’a) like pure white, yellow, pink, and green; and dark (muzlima) such as black, ambergris, and grey. Gazing on bright colours imbues the heart with joy and since the colors closest to light and simplicity is white, the Prophet, on whom be peace, said: “the best clothes are white.” ‘

But so that the use of a visual object does not defeat the purpose of fortifying the soul and maintaining its focus on the matter at hand, it is stipulated that:

Yearning for something else should not be consequent on gazing upon it for were that the case then the soul would be distracted with that consequence just as when the gaze falls upon the form of a beautiful human, the desire is stirred; or just as when the gaze falls upon gold and silver and fine clothes, then covetousness is stimulated.

The third stratagem involves:

‘Fortifying the soul through music (sama): this is because sound in itself cannot be described as pleasant or ugly. For, were any sound just to be extended just as it is, no pleasantness would there be in: rather delight arises only when it moves from high to low (al-intiqal min hadd ila thaqil) and vice versa. For pleasantness in reality arises from how it occurs to the soul when it compares some sounds to others; this pleasantness only arises when the soul is engaged and we have already explained that the human soul is innately disposed towards love of perception (majbul ala hubb al-idrak). So, when it hears comely sounds, the two phenomena occur to it and the attainment of that which is beloved is delightful. So, it follows that music is a principle for the purification of the heart and brain. know, moreover, that these maters only bring benefit in the course of spiritual discipline if used sparingly, like salt in food. were they employed excessively such that the soul becomes distracted by them, then they would be an obstacle in the way of the goal. Thus, is the discourse on how to abstract the soul and strip it away from its habits (al-ma’lufat); and let that be a gradual, not excessive, process or the soul will be unable to endure it.’

The description in ‘al-Sirr’ of the methods for the soul’s fortification during this period of fasting anticipates Razi’s commentary on ‘al-Isharat’ 9:8. The content however has been differently arranged. In ‘al-Sirr’, Razi divides those requirements which must be fulfilled to ensure the success of spiritual discipline into those which cannot and those which can be secured by the aspirant’s individual efforts. The requirements which falls into the later category, as in ‘al-Sirr’, are further divided into those which relate to the physical regulation of the body and those which relate to the disposition which the aspirant must nurture in his soul. It is to the description of physical regulation that we now turn our attention.

Physical regulation involves the ‘relinquishing of superfluities and the correction of necessary things (tark al-fudul wa-islah al-daruriyyat). The former entails the exercise of self-restraint towards the acquisition of objects of desire such as wealth, reputation, power and knowledge of the kind which does not avail the soul propinquity to God. The realisation of this station (maqam) is difficult, for such pleasures are immediately present, whilst the pleasure of intellect is not (gha’ib); the former pleasures are familiar to us whilst the latter are unfamiliar; and the former, with which we are intimately familiar, must be sacrificed if the latter are to be realised.

The ‘necessary things’ which are to be corrected relate to those things which feed stimuli to the five external senses. He treats sensory objects in the following order: taste, sight, hearing, smell, touch. All are to be modified and controlled in the pursuit of the disciplining of the soul. The objects of taste (al-madhuqat) are given priority only insofar as the equilibrium of the body, and thus the soul, is profoundly affected by the physical nourishment on which it depends: the state of the stomach often determines the soul’s sensitivity or coarseness. The soul preoccupation with the digestion of large amounts of food constitutes an impediment to its engagement with the intellectual world. ‘the original direction of prayer (al-qibla al-asliyya). Conversely, if the stomach is empty for any length of time, the major organs become enfeebled and imbalanced; the soul becomes confused; thought agitated; and the intellect loses its equilibrium. With respect to nourishment therefore, a diet comprise small portions of high quality food is recommended. The careful selection of high quality food targets the needs of the body’s major organs, freeing the soul from the imbalances of malnourishment and the sloth of excessive consumption.

Objects of vision (al-mubsarat) are divided into colours and bodies and are discussed firstly in terms of the general effects they exert on the soul, and then specifically as visual foci of contemplation. Colours are divided into those which are bright (mushraq), a category which include pure green, red, yellow and white; and those which are dark (muzlama) such as black and brown. Gazing at bright colours: ‘gives succour to the spirit; gladdens the heart; and delights the soul. For, light is the object of the spirit’s love and desire. And gazing at dark colours disturbs the spirit and aggrieves the heart.

The aspirant must therefore ensure his abode and his clothing are those colours which fortify the spirit, compensating for the privation it must endure as a consequence of spiritual discipline. Complex patterns of variegated colours (muqush daqiqa mukhtalita) are to be avoided: ‘since the soul becomes preoccupied with their contemplation, and increases in exhaustion. It is for this reason that doctors prevent those struck by delirium (al-musarsamin) from gazing at patterns (nuqush).

As a general rule: ‘When a color is closest to simplicity and purity, then it is the most apt. And that colour is pure white. It is for this reason that the most beloved of garments to the Messenger of God was white.

Bodies are divided into those whose contemplation inculcates nothing but yearning for divine gnosis; and those whose contemplation, whilst according some advantage in the mystical pursuit, often entail the unfortunate consequence of inflaming carnal desires (shahwa). Bodies which fall into the first category includes scenes of natural beauty, contemplation of which fosters wonder at the divine wisdom of their creation; the second category includes ships, palaces and servant-boys (ghilman).

In relation to audible objects, Razi focuses on the capacity of poetry, when accompanied by music, to inflame the soul’s ardour for the objects of its love, isolating it from all other preoccupations. As for the objects of olfaction, two observations are offered. Firstly, seeing that the quality of air is one of the six factors which influences change in constitution of the body, the aspirant is advised to make his abode in the desert where the air is constantly clean and pure; and secondly, the use of fragrance (tib) provides support for the major organs. Finally, Razi uses the sense category of touch to advocate the use of fasting as a mean of curtailing carnal desires, marriage merely being a concession to those who find such a practice too arduous.

End of part II


To be continued

Michael Sebastian Noble-From Fakhr al-Din al-Razi’s‘Hidden Secret’-Part 2: Spiritual Fitness

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