The Ghayb – Seeing the Unseen in Sufism
The Ghayb or Unseen is the Unknown. For the student, the Guru or Sufi Master represents the Unknown. The Supreme Knowledge or gift of the Sufis is to find and enter the Ghayb, but to do is a prolonged test of character, of self-belief, having the ability to overcome invisible obstacles it is the place without proof.
To be in the Ghayb is to be lost to the world. This has a positive benefit. To all intents you are invisible; people will not understand your intents, words and actions. You are protected from black magicians, who cannot enter, and so cannot find or harm you.
My teacher would use the phrase, ‘knowing the unknown’. This is the supreme power, to know something that is unknown means that nobody can teach you, for otherwise it would be known!
The Ghayb is vast; in the West it is seen as the Abyss, which is placed below the Supernal Triangle on the Tree of Life. Since the Tree of Life is concerned with the Known, the Abyss is a place of fear and danger, it gives us the illusion of orderliness and structure to spiritual realms that does not exist in reality. From the Unknown is projected the Known. In Tarot terms, the Fool card is closest to the concept.
With the guidance of the Sufi Master, we enter the Unknown, but of course we do not see this! In the Ghayb there are no signposts, no means of guidance, no way of knowing if one has progressed, and how far. There are no spiritual frames of reference. Meister Eckhardt wrote about the Cloud of Unknowing. In its negative psychological form, you know what you do not want, but you have no idea what it is that you do want. Many people are in this state – they have lost sight of who they are. Thus, the first stage is to know Oneself, which is beyond Knowing.
In other words, there are relative levels of the Ghayb. Until recently, I thought that ‘Knowing the Unknown’, i.e. learning without being taught, was the primary understanding of the Ghayb, but there are other levels that the Sufi Master is able to go beyond. The experience (which I had during a dhikr), feels vast, there are no edges, just as astronomers have problems with grasping the size of the universe, and where it begins and ends. However, when the spiritual power and knowledge is strong enough within the Sufi, it is possible to go beyond the Ghayb, which is an area of knowledge, and knowing. In fact, once above and beyond the vastness of the Unknown, into the Known, is perceived as contracting to something that is small in contrast to the vastness of the Known, and it is possible to go ‘around’ the edges of the Ghayb. To be in this profound Knowingness is still beyond the comprehension of others, since they of course are either outside or inside the Ghayb. Working beyond the Ghayb leads the Sufi Master into places where miracles can happen.
Sufism and Islam recognises that there is an Imam of the Time, who is associated with knowledge of the ghayb. Knowledge is beyond time and space, and for the most part it is unverifiable to the seekers. Seekers who demand proof will be disappointed.
Perceiving the Unknown
There are three main perceptions:
Dreams are a powerful method of learning and study. Dreams lead the aspirant into realms that are not available in waking consciousness. In the early stages, and for many years, dreams often have a disturbing fearful quality, for it is here that the invisible spirits have form. We discover how to deal with spirits in the same way that children learn how to deal with other children and adults as they grow up. Dreams lead us onto the Path of Right Action in Dreams.
Ilham is intuition or direct perception. It is knowing within one’s being about knowledge that is imperceptible to others. It is very easy to miss the knowledge from Ilham. Ilham takes the student onto the Path of Right Action in the Waking State. The inspiration of Ilham is found in Sufi Poetry.
Kashf relates to Unveiling or uncovering, here referring to the uncovering or unveiling of the Unknown. Higher levels of Kashf take the Sufi to see the Divine.