Spiritual Nourishment

The Celestial Journey of Gnosis

A Spiritual Manual Written by Ayatullah Mirza Jawad Aqa Maleki Tabrizi for Ayatullah Shaykh Husayn Gharawi Isfahani

Mīrzā Jawād Āqā Malekī Tabrīzī

Translated by D. D. Sodagar


Translator’s Note

It is not often that we have the opportunity to read the letter of a genuine spiritual master written to a great scholar, philosopher, and faqīh.  The letter whose translation follows is a rare specimen of mystical guidance and as such must be duly appreciated by all those who aspire to spiritual advancement.  It is a gem of a spiritual manual that expresses succinctly the fundamental guidelines and practices that the spiritual wayfarer must follow to achieve spiritual perfection.

The two figures associated with this letter—Āyatullāh Mīrzā Jawād Āqā Malekī Tabrīzī, the writer, and Āyatullāh Shaykh Muĥammad Ĥusayn Gharawī Işfahānī, the recipient—are two very well-known and highly respected Shia scholars.  The writer, who died on the day of Eid al-Adha in the year 1343 AH (c. June 19, 1925), was a prominent student of Āyatullāh Ākhūnd Mullā Ĥuseynqulī Hamadānī.  He is the author of three very important spiritual texts: Liqā’ allāh (Seeing God, which is being translated into English by this lowliest), Asrār al-şalāh (The Mysteries of Prayer), and al-Murāqabāt (Spiritual Observances).  Imam Khomeini attended the spiritual lessons of Mīrzā Jawād Āqā for only a short time, opting instead to pursue his mystical training under the tutelage of Āyatullāh Shāh’ābādī.  In his last years, however, Imām Khumeynī divulged to Āyatullāh Khāmene’ī that he regretted leaving Mīrzā Jawād Āqā’s classes.

Āyatullāh Shaykh Muĥammad Ĥusayn Gharawī Işfahānī (d. c. December 14, 1942) was a great scholar in Najaf and one of the three principal teachers of uşūl al-fiqh (the principles of jurisprudence) of his time, the other two being Muĥaqqiq Nā’īnī and Āqā Žīā’ ‘Irāqī.  His methodology and thought are characterized by a very strong philosophical flavor, and his texts are celebrated for their deep insight, although they are very difficult to comprehend.  ‘Allāmah Ţabāţabā‘ī and Āyatullāh Bahjat were two of his prominent students, and they both held their teacher in very high esteem.  Although he was a teacher of uşūl, and that is what he is mainly known for, he was also a deeply spiritual person, and this is evident both in the influence he had on his students and also in the correspondence he kept with the great spiritual masters of his time, namely Mīrzā Jawād Āqā Malekī Tabrīzī and Sayyid Aĥmad Karbalā’ī (the latter being the spiritual master of ‘Allāmah Ţabāţabā‘ī’s spiritual master, ‘Allāmah Sayyid ‘Alī Qāžī).

The present letter has been transcribed and preserved, as far as I am aware, by two of ‘Allāmah Ţabāţabā‘ī’s greatest students: ‘Allāmah Ĥasanzadeh Āmulī (may God prolong his life) and the late Āyatullāh Pahlawānī.  ‘Allāmah Ĥasanzadeh relates that on the evening of Wednesday, Sha’ban 21, 1388 AH (c. November 13, 1969), he visited ‘Allāmah Ţabāţabā‘ī at his house.  After talking about some personal issues, he asked about Mīrzā Jawād Āqā.  Allamah then explained that Mīrzā Jawād Āqā had written a spiritual manual for Shaykh Muĥammad Ĥusayn Kumpānī (the more popular name by which Āyatullāh Gharawī Işfahānī was known).  The latter was careful to only show it to those he thought were qualified to see it.  Shaykh Muĥammad Ĥusayn Kumpānī gave the manual to only two of his students to transcribe, one of them being ‘Allāmah Ţabāţabā‘ī.  On the aforementioned night, ‘Allāmah Ţabāţabā‘ī lent his own manuscript copy of the spiritual manual to ‘Allāmah Ĥasanzadeh to transcribe a copy for himself.[1]  The copy Allamah provided to ‘Allāmah Ĥasanzadeh, which is identical to the one recorded by Āyatullāh Pahlawānī (see his Rasā’il irfānī (Qom: Tashayyu‘, 1390 AH(Solar)), pp. 293-298) lacks the greetings and the personal passages that opened Mīrzā Jawād Āqā’s original letter, containing only the part dealing with the spiritual instructions.  That is precisely what is translated below.

Before beginning the translation, I would like to say something about the picture attached to this article.  The picture shows Mīrzā Jawād Āqā wholly immersed in prayer.  This is the only picture of Mīrzā Jawād Āqā, to the best of my knowledge, and it has survived owing in large part to ‘Allāmah Ĥasanzādeh's curiosity.  As to how it was obtained, he explains that when he first learned about Mīrzā Jawād Āqā, he tried finding Mīrzā Jawād Āqā’s students.  After asking around, he was finally led to Ĥujjat al-Islam Ĥāj Sayyid Ĥusayn Faţimī Qommī, Mīrzā Jawād Āqā’s most prominent student.  The latter was very ill and bedridden when ‘Allāmah Ĥasanzādeh met him.  After sitting in his company for a short while, he noticed a very striking portrait on the wall.  He asked whose picture it was and was told by his host that it was in fact Mīrzā Jawād Āqā.  Ĥujjat al-Islam Faţimī then explained that Mīrzā Jawād Āqā was averse to being photographed.  So one day, one of his students suggested to take a picture of him while he was in prayer, for when he prayed he was utterly absorbed in his prayer and became oblivious to his surroundings.  That is how they were able to take the picture.  May God bless his soul and enable us to follow the spiritual path that he traversed.


Mirza Jawad Aqa's Spiritual Manual, Which He Wrote for the Benefit of Ayatullah Shaykh Husayn Gharawi Isfahani

In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful.

May I be sacrificed for you….[2]

Concerning [your request for guidance on] how to relinquish preoccupation with mundane affairs and [your grievance for] not attaining to the Truth, which you have written and have asked this destitute to offer instructions conducive to your [spiritual] attainment [to the Truth], this slave—though lacking any qualification in this regard—did previously elucidate extensively to you the truth of that which is needed for traversing these realms [of spirituality] and some of the consequent results.  And due to my intense eagerness to be united with my friends in all the realms, I provided most liberally, as far as I knew, the essence and crux of the necessary measures needed for this journey.  Yet, here I will repeat once again what I have learned regarding this topic.

The desired route for traversing the path of gnosis has been identified as the route of self-knowledge.  For, so long as one’s self has not advanced beyond the imaginal realm (‘ālam mithāl),[3] it cannot attain to the intellective realm (‘ālam ‘aqlī), and so long as it does not attain to the intellective realm, it cannot achieve true gnosis and cannot reach the [desired] destination.  Thus, for accomplishing this purpose, the blessed [Āyatullāh Ākhūnd Mullā Ĥuseynqulī Hamadānī (Mīrzā Jawād Āqā’s spiritual master)] (may God reward him on our behalf with the greatest rewards He grants to teachers) would instruct that one had to reduce one’s food and sleep a little more than what was considered normal so as to weaken the animal aspect and strengthen the spiritual aspect.  The measure he offered for this was, first, that one ought not consume more than two meals a day, not even snacking in between.  Second, one must eat no sooner than an hour after feeling hungry and should stop eating before feeling full.  These two instructions concern the quantity of food.  As for the quality, in addition to observing the well-known directions [as specified by reports in the corpus of tradition], one must avoid consuming too much meat.  That is, one should not eat meat for both meals, and two or three days a week, one should avoid eating meat altogether, neither for the day meal nor for the evening meal.  If possible, one ought to refrain from eating for pleasure.  And one must avoid falling into the habit of consuming snack foods.  Should he occasionally feel an especially strong craving for some snacks, he should make istikhārah[4] to decide whether he should indulge the craving.  And if possible, he should persist in fasting the three days of the month [whose fasting is strongly encouraged].[5]  As for reducing sleep, he would say that one must sleep six hours a day.  And, of course, the wayfarer must be very persistent in containing his tongue and shunning the company of the spiritually negligent.  These measures suffice in weakening the animal aspect.

As for strengthening the spiritual aspect, first, the wayfarer must bear in his heart a constant concern and grief for not having attained to the destination.  Second, he should strive as far as he can to be constantly engaged in dhikr[6] and contemplation,[7] which are the two wings one needs to take flight on the celestial journey of gnosis.  The most effective forms of dhikr are (1) the most significant of the morning and night formulas as specified in reports [in the corpus of tradition][8] and (2) the most significant of the ta‘qībāt[9] as prescribed in reports recorded in the corpus of tradition.[10]  (3) More effective yet is the bedtime dhikr as specified in the reports in the corpus of tradition.  And it is especially important that the spiritual wayfarer go to bed in the state of ţahārah.[11]  And he would strongly emphasize midnight waking (shab khīzī).  He would recommend [waking up] three hours [before the morning adhān] during the winter and an hour and a half during the summer.  Furthermore, he would emphasize the significance of saying dhikr yūnusīyyah in the sajdah position[12] and would say that it should not be neglected.  The more one repeats this dhikr in sajdah, the more effective it is.  The minimum that it ought to be repeated is 400 times.[13]  He would stress the great results he had seen, and this slave too has experienced the results.  Several other individuals have also confided in me their experiencing the benefits of this dhikr.  Also, when one recites the Qur’an, one’s intention should be to offer the reward to Prophet Muĥammad.

As for contemplation, he would say that the novice should reflect on death.  The novice would reflect on death until Ākhūnd Mullā Ĥuseynqulī would judge by the novice’s state that he had become sufficiently stupefied (gīj) from observing these [preliminary] instructions, thus gaining the eligibility [to advance].  At this point, Mullā Ĥuseynqulī would make him aware of the imaginal realm, if he himself had not already become aware on his own.  Then the novice would spend several days, day and night, reflecting on the fact that whatever he perceived and whatever he thought was himself and was not external to him.[14]  If this becomes a constant state (malakah), the novice perceives himself in the imaginal realm; that is, he grasps his reality as it is manifested in the imaginal realm.  After this stage, Mullā Ĥuseynqulī would instruct the novice to change the object of his contemplation and, dispelling all forms and shapes, reflect on nothingness.[15]  If the student succeeds in adopting this awareness as a constant frame of mind (malakah), the dominion of gnosis over him is established, in which case he will witness with the strongest sense of bliss the luminous manifestation of his reality in the absence of any form or limitation, and it would be better if he witnesses this reality in a state of trance (jadhbah).  Once the wayfarer finds his way to advancement in the supernal realms, he starts seeing the results as he advances.[16]

As for the order of the realms through which one is to ascend, the first is the realm of nature from which one ascends to the imaginal realm and thereafter to the realm of the spirits and the true lights.  Of course, you are better aware of the philosophic proofs for these realms.  It is interesting that the prayers that ought to be said in the sajdah that is prescribed for the fifteenth night of the month of Sha’ban, which is roughly the time your letter was received, allude to these three realms.  The infallible imam [who prescribes this sajdah] directs us to say [in the said sajdah], “My interior, my imagination, and my exterior prostrate before You.”  True gnosis obtains when all three levels [of selfhood][17] vanish, and the reality of sajdah is but [the] dissipation [of selfhood], for it is with the dissipation of one’s self at all three levels that one subsists by God.  May God grant us and all our brothers for the sake of Mohammad and his pure house this spiritual realization.

Yes, praise be to God, I am not deprived of the blessing of praying for my brothers, and I have made praying for you and some other brothers a nocturnal ritual.

By the way,[18] the stage at which contemplation on the imaginal realm reaches its perfection and so one must turn to eradicating forms is when one becomes intuitively aware and witnesses immediately the truth [of the realm of the true lights] or, if one does not become intuitively aware, when one reflects on that higher truth until thought turns to intuition, and when this happens, the wayfarer must eradicate shapes and forms and reflect on nothingness until his higher [formless and shapeless] reality dawns.


[1] See Ĥasan Ĥasanzādeh Āmulī, Hezār-o yek kalameh, third edition (Qom: Būstān Ketāb, 1381AHSolar), vol. 3, pp. 5-29. [Translator]


[2] This endearing phrase is the opening sentence of the letter.  Yet, as explained in the Translator’s Note, the remainder of the personal part of the letter was not recorded by Allamah Tabatabai.  This omission is here indicated by an ellipsis. [Translator]


[3] Islamic cosmology and philosophy postulate three hierarchically arranged realms of existence: (1) the material realm (which is termed ‘ālam mulk or ‘ālam nāsūt), (2) the imaginal realm (which is termed ‘alām malakūt, ‘ālam mithāl, or ‘ālam khīāl), and (3) the intellective realm or the realm of absolute disembodiment (which is termed ‘ālam jabarūt, ‘ālam ‘aqlī, or ‘ālam tajjarud tāmm).  (There is, of course, a forth realm, ‘ālam lāhūt, which is the realm of divinity, transcending all levels of created existence.)  The basest realm is the material realm.  These three realms are existentially interconnected, as all existence is the emanation of the divine light, which flows downward, so to speak, from the Godhead to form the three realms of existence.  The material realm is the realm of matter and form, and because there is matter there is motion, change, and consequently time.  The imaginal realm is the realm of matter-less forms.  These are bodies that partake of forms but are devoid of matter, and so are more perfect than the bodies of the material realm.  Since this realm is devoid of matter, it is impervious to change, motion, and time.  The imaginal realm is sometimes referred to as “the realm of imperfect disembodiment” as the beings there lack matter, a fundamental feature of material bodies.  The intellective realm, which is also referred to as “the realm of complete disembodiment” (‘ālam tajarrud tāmm), is the realm of beings entirely detached from all shapes and forms.  It is the realm of pure light, and the beings here are universal intellects.  The human being has the potential of ascending through these realms of existence and acquiring complete disembodiment. [Translator]


[4] Istikhārah (sometimes translated, somewhat erroneously and definitely inadequately, as bibliomancy) is a ritual procedure whereby one, using the Qur’an or a subĥah (a rosary-like ritual instrument with a total of a hundred and one beads for keeping count of devotions and prayers), determines what course of action one should pursue when in doubt. [Translator]


[5] These three days are the first and last Thursdays and the middle Wednesday of every lunar month.  The middle Wednesday is the first Wednesday following the first ten days of the month. [Translator]


[6] Dhikr, literally, means remembrance, mindfulness, awareness.  Religious parlance, however, gives it a more extended meaning.  In the Islamic parlance, dhikr can refer to devotional utterances and formulas, in which case it is specifically termed dhikr lisānī—or verbal dhikr.  Or, it may refer to being aware and mindful of God, in which case it is termed dhikr qalbī—that is, the dhikr of the heart. [Translator]


[7] Dhikr here specifically indicates verbal dhikr [see previous note], and contemplation signifies self-vigilance (murāqabah). [‘Allāmah Ţabāţabā’ī, as quoted in Pahlawānī, Rasā’il irfānī, p. 296]


[8] Devotional texts prescribe numerous formulas that can be said as diurnal and nocturnal devotions.  Yet, there are several that spiritual masters emphasize above the others.  A few examples follow.

1.    Reciting Surah Tawhid 11 times after the morning prayer and before going to bed.

2.    Reciting the following prayer 3 times in the morning and 3 times at night:

اللهم مقلب القلوب و الابصار ثبت قلبی علی دینک و لاتزغ قلبي بعد اذ هديتني و هب لي من لدنک رحمة إنک أنت الوهاب و أجرني من النار برحمتک اللهم امدد لي في عمري و أوسع علي في رزقي و انشر علي رحمتک و إن کنت في أم الکتاب شقيا فاجعلني سعيدا فإنک تمحو ما تشاء و تثبت و عندک أم الکتاب

3.    Reciting the following formula 10 times before sunrise and sunset:

لا إله إلا الله وحده لا شريک له له الملک و له الحمد يحيي و يميت و يميت و يحيي و هو حي لا يموت بيده الخير و هو علی کل شيء قدير

4.    Reciting the following prayer three times before sunrise and sunset:

اللهم اجعلني في درعک الحصينة التي تجعل فيها من تريد


[9] Ta‘qībāt are the prayers and formulas prescribed for recitation following the diurnal canonic prayers.  An accessible text for reading the ta‘qībāt is Shaykh Abbas Qommī’s Mafātīĥ al-janān, the first part of which contains a fairly extensive collection of the ta‘qībāt. [Translator]


[10] One notices an emphasis here on the fact that all the devotions, formulas, and adhkār (plural of dhikr) that the spiritual wayfarer performs and says must be based on and derived from credible reports in the corpus of tradition.  The most elevated and effective gnostic methods and techniques for spiritual advancement were provided by the infallible imams, and there is nothing legitimate that can be added.  Self-styled, pseudo mystics, dervishes, and sufis who prescribe devotions and formulas not sanctioned by reports in the corpus of tradition commit a grave sin and mistake in doing so and only cause greater confusion and spiritual disorientation for their disciples. [Translator]


[11] Ţahārah literally means purity and cleanliness.  In Islamic canon, however, it denotes the state of canonic and spiritual purity that is obtained by making ablution, which can take two forms—wužū and ghusl.  Most canonically prescribed acts of devotion, whether obligatory or supererogatory, require ţahārah to be valid.  Moreover, there are a number of non-devotional actions—such as entering a mosque and touching the printed phrases of the Qur’an—that require ţahārah to be permissible; otherwise, they would constitute a sin. [Translator]


[12] The position of sajdah is a peculiarly Islamic form of prostration that requires one to rest the forehead, both palms, both knees, and the big toes of both feet on the ground while keeping the rest of the body away from the ground. [Tranlsator]


[13] It is important that we bear in mind that these instructions—whether it be the three-hour midnight waking prior to the morning prayer or repeating dhikr yūnusīyyah 400 times in sajdah—are addressed to a pious scholar who is not exactly a novice.  For the true novice such practices would obviously be too extreme.  In his Tadhkirat al-muttaqīn, Āyatullāh Shaykh Muĥammad Bahārī Hamadānī (a fellow student of Mīrzā Jawād Āqā who also received spiritual guidance from Ākhūnd Mullā Ĥuseynqulī Hamadānī) advises the novice to repeat mainly istighfār—the prayer of repentance (astaghfirullāha rabbī wa atūbu ilayh: أستغفر الله ربي و أتوب اليه).  Dhikr yūnusīyyah is for the intermediates, and when one starts saying it, one should definitely start with 100 and not more.  I would suggest that those who wish to start saying dhikr yūnusīyyah make istikhārah to determine if it is appropriate for them to start. [Translator]


[14] That one’s perceptions and imaginations are oneself is a philosophic truth.  One can never truly sense and observe the external material world.  That which we truly perceive is that which occupies our imagination, and so our direct contact is with our own imagination and that which we truly perceive is our imaginary world.  Our imagination makes a sun in the shape of a disc, and that is the sun that we perceive.  How could our perception truly grasp the external Sun in its objective greatness?  But since the images in our mind form so quickly upon encountering external phenomena, we assume that our perception is identical with the encountered phenomenon, whereas it is in reality a figment of our own imagination.  When the wayfarer comes to this realization and reflects on this truth, he becomes detached from the external world and instead embarks on introspection.  It is at this point that the wayfarer perceives himself in his own imaginal realm, and this is the first stage of disembodiment (tajarrud).  In this stage, he may find himself seeing his body lying on the ground while he is outside his body.  In some instances, he may become utterly oblivious of his body, so much so that he may think he has lost his body.  In other instances, he may become entirely obliviously of himself altogether. [‘Allāmah Ţabāţabā’ī, as quoted in Pahlawānī, Rasā’il irfānī, p. 297]


[15] To reflect on nothingness is to reflect on the truth that we are not independent beings.  This is what Muslim gnostics mean when they say all things other than God are nonexistent.  Everything exists due to His existence.  This can be likened to a curtain that is being moved.  The curtain is in motion, but it is actually the hand of the person moving that is the subject of motion, not the curtain.  That is what the concept of divine unity in agency (tawĥīd af‘ālī)—which postulates that the actions of all beings are ultimately God’s actions—signifies.  The concept of divine unity in attributes (tawĥīd şifātī) can also be reduced to the assertion that only God exists, for when creatures are described as partaking of the attributes of hearing and seeing, it is actually God that is the origin of these attributes.  And finally, the concept of divine unity in essence is also an extension of this gnostic assertion, for it is only His Essence that can be characterized as independent. [‘Allāmah Ţabāţabā’ī, as quoted in Pahlawānī, Rasā’il irfānī, p. 297]


[16] As such, he would no longer have to depend on a spiritual master. [Translator]


[17] The three levels of selfhood are material selfhood, imaginal selfhood, and intellective selfhood. [Translator]


[18] This paragraph seems to have been an afterthought, a postscript. [Translator]