William Chittick

American philosopher, writer and translator

William C. Chittick (born June 29, 1943) is an American Muslim philosopher, writer, translator and interpreter of classical Islamic philosophical and mystical texts. He is best known for his work on Rumi and Ibn 'Arabi, and has written extensively on the school of Ibn 'Arabi, Islamic philosophy, and Islamic cosmology. He is a Distinguished Professor in the Department of Asian and Asian American Studies at Stony Brook University.


  • Few concerns are as central to Islam as the search for knowledge (‘ilm). In the Koran God commands the Prophet, by universal Muslim consent the most knowledgeable of all human beings, to pray, “My Lord, increase me in knowledge!” (20:114). Muslims must imitate him in this quest. “Are they equal,” asks the Koran, “those who know and those who know not?” (39:9). The answer is self-evident. Hence, as the Prophet said, “The search for knowledge is incumbent upon every Muslim.”'
    • The Sufi Path of Knowledge, (1989) p. 147.
  • Knowledge is the most all-encompassing of the divine attributes, which is to say that “God is Knower of all things” (Koran 4:176, 8:75, etc.). “Not a leaf falls, but He knows it” (6:59). Nothing escapes His knowledge of Himself or the other. “Our Lord embraces all things in knowledge” (Koran 7:89). The only attribute said to have the same all-encompassing nature is mercy, which is practically identical with existence.’ “Our Lord,” say the angels in the Koran, “Thou embracest all things in mercy and knowledge” (40:7).
    • The Sufi Path of Knowledge, (1989) p. 148.
  • The Koran commonly refers to the knowledge brought by the prophets as “remembrance” (dhikr) and “reminder” (dhikra, tadhkir), terms that derive from the root dh-k-r. The Koran calls itself by these words more than forty times, and it refers to other prophetic messages, like the Torah and the Gospel, by the same words. The basic Koranic understanding of the necessity for a plurality of prophets is that Adam’s children kept on falling into heedlessness and forgetfulness, which is the shortcoming of their father. The only cure for this shortcoming is the remembrance that God provides by means of the prophets.
    • Sufism: A Beginner's Guide, (2000) p. 63.
  • If forgetfulness and heedlessness mark the basic fault of human beings, dhikr (remembrance) designates their saving virtue. Just as forgetting God leads to the painful chastisement of being forgotten by him, so also remembering God leads to the joy of being remembered by him: "Remember Me, and I will remember you" (2:152)... God sends the prophets in order to remind people of the Covenant of Alast. They do so by reciting God's signs and mentioning their debt to him. People should respond to the prophets by remembering God, an act which demands that they mention him in prayers of glorification and praise (thus affirming both his tanzih and his tashbih). Those who respond in this manner are the people of faith, since to have faith is to recognize or remember the truth of tawhid in the heart, to mention it with the tongue, and to put it into practice by following the instructions brought by the prophets.Those people who fail to make the correct response are the truth-concealers. Although they recognize the truth in their hearts, they deny it with their tongues and refuse to follow the prophets' instructions. This, in short, is the drama of prophecy and the human response. All of it is connected explicitly by the Koran to the word dhikr, or to closely related words derived from the same root (such as dhikra, tadhkira, and tadhakkur).
    • The Vision of Islam, (1994) p. 135.
  • Like the philosophers, Sufis aimed explicitly at overcoming the forgetfulness endemic to the human “soul” or “self” (the same word nafs is used in both senses). Like them they offered broad overviews of reality rooted in metaphysics (ilahiyyat, “the divine things”) while describing the human soul as a microcosm, created in the “form” (sura) of God. God, as the possessor of “the most beautiful names” (Quran 7:180), is “the most beautiful Creator’ (Quran 23:14) who “formed you and made your forms beautiful” (Quran 40:64, 64:3). Both Sufis and philosophers held that the soul’s original divine form, created in the “most beautiful stature” (Quran 95:4), corresponded perfectly with God and the macrocosm. The soul, however, had fallen out of balance because of forgetfulness and the misuse of free will, so it needed purification and rectification.... Repeatedly the Quran asks it's readers to heed the signs. “In the earth are signs for those with certainty, and in your souls, What, do you not see?” (51:20-21). It rebukes them for not employing their seeing, hearing, understanding, and witnessing to perceive the signs: “They have hearts but do not understand with them, they have eyes but do not see with them, they have ears but do not hear with them” (7:179). It pays close attention to the soul’s diverse attributes and character traits (akhlaq), praising the beautiful and condemning the ugly. Some forms of Quran commentary - an activity undertaken by specialists in every school of thought - interpreted many verses as allusions (isharat) to the manner in which the soul experiences the divine presence while climbing the ladder toward realization.
    • Religious Experience in Traditional Islam in The Cambridge Companion To Religious Experience, (2020) p. 135-137
  • The first function of the prophets is to “remind” people of their own divinely given reality. In speaking of this “reminder”, the Quran employs the word dhikr and several of its derivatives (é.g., dhikra, tadhkir, tadhkira). Moreover, it calls the human response to this reminder by the same word dhikr. The “reminder” that comes from the side of God by means of the prophets calls forth “remembrance” from the side of man. The use of the one word for a movement with two directions—from the Divine to the human and from the human to the Divine—is typical of the Quran’s unitary perspective. Here in fact there is only one motivating force, and that is the Divine activity that makes manifest the good, the true, and the beautiful, even if it appears to us as two different movements. Moreover, the Quran also makes it eminently clear that “remembrance”—the human response to reminder—does not mean simply to acknowledge the truth of tawhid. The word itself also means “to mention”. On the human side, dhikr is both the awareness of God and the expression of this awareness through language, whether vocal or silent.
    • On the Cosmology of Dhikr in Paths to the Heart: Sufism and the Christian East (2002), p. 49.
  • If dhikr represents both the function of the prophets and the proper human response to the prophets, guidance (huda) represents the divine attribute that is embodied in the prophets. It sums up in a single word both God's motivation for sending the prophets and their activity in the world. If the opposite of dhikr is forgetfulness and heedlessness, the opposite of guidance is misguidance (idlal) and leading astray (ighwa). Just as the prophets incarnate God's guidance, so also the satans incarnate the quality of misguidance and error...Besides Satan, others are also said to be the source of misguidance. Among these is caprice, which we have already met as the worst of all false gods: "Follow not caprice, lest it misguide you from the path of God" (38:26).
    • The Vision of Islam (1994) p. 138-139.
  • To be human is to be born with the fitra, which is an innate recognition of tawhid that is represented mythically by the Covenant of Alast and the Trust. There is nothing extraneous or superadded about this fitra—it is precisely what makes people human. But the fitra tends to become obscured by upbringing and circumstances, and then people become less than human. They are "deaf, dumb, blind—like the cattle; no, even further astray." Dhikr is the all-important remedy that makes possible the actualization of the fitra. Dhikr is both God's merciful response to heedlessness, and the human response to God's mercy.
    • The Vision of Islam, (1994) p. 136.
  • The idea that human beings recognize tawhid innately is often expressed by using the term fitra, which is commonly translated as "primordial nature" or "innate disposition."...The Koran employs the word fitra itself only once, along with the verb form of the word. Here we translate the verb as "bring forth." The Koran is addressing Muhammad and, by extension, every Muslim: "Set thy face to the religion as one with primordial faith—the fitra of God according to which He brought people forth. There is no changing the creation of God. That is the right religion, but most people do not know. [Set thy face to the religion] by turning to Him. And be wary of Him, and perform the salat, and be not one of those who associate others with Him." (30:30-31) Here the Koran connects religion with the nature that human beings were given when they were created. By being human, they have accepted the Trust and entered into the Covenant of Alast. They were taught the names, created in God's form, and singled out for God's vicegerency.
    • The Vision of Islam, (1994) p. 127-128.
  • In short, already in the Koran and the Hadith, we find the idea that human beings are created with an innate capacity that allows them to understand things as they really are, but this capacity is clouded by the human environment. The function of the prophets is to “remind” (dhikr) people of what they already know, while the duty of human beings is simply to “remember” (dhikr). Having remembered, they return to the innate capacity from which they have never really become separate.’ If the human spirit knows God and affirms tawhid at the moment of its creation, this is because this spirit is not completely separate from God. In describing the creation of human beings, the Koran says that God molded Adam’s clay with his own two hands, then blew into him of his own spirit. The spirit is God’s breath, and Muslim thinkers were well aware of the implications of the metaphor. Breath is different from the breather; yet it is also the same, since a person without breath is a corpse. The divine breath that animates human clay is not identical with God, nor is it completely different. Human beings are near to God through their spirits, but they are far from him through their bodies made out of clay. The qualities of spirit and body lie at opposite extremes. The spirit is perfect, luminous, alive, rational, aware, intelligent, powerful, desiring, speaking; in short, it possesses all the attributes of God. But the body displays none of these qualities to any perceptible degree. It is merely earth and water, which represent the lowest of created things. When God blows the spirit into clay, this gives rise to the soul or self (nafs), which is an intermediate reality that possesses qualities of both sides. Hence the soul—which is the level of ordinary awareness—lies between light and darkness, perfection and imperfection, intelligence and ignorance, rationality and irrationality, awareness and unawareness, power and weakness. Within the soul, the innate capacity is represented by the luminous qualities of the spirit that are only dimly present. Actualizing the innate capacity in its fullest measure is seen as the goal of human existence. The soul must be transmuted such that its darkness becomes fully infused with spiritual light.
    • Between the Yes and the No–Ibn al-‘Arabi on Wujud and the Innate Capacity in The Innate Capacity: Mysticism, Psychology, and Philosophy (1998), pp. 97-98.
  • The potential infinity of the objects of human knowledge goes back to the fact that the creatures have already been “taught” this knowledge, for it is latent in the cosmos through God’s nearness or self-disclosure to all things. Since we already know everything, coming to know is in fact a remembrance or recollection (tadhakkur). In the process of explaining this, Ibn al-‘Arabi refers to the “taking (of Adam's seed) at the Covenant” (akhdh al-mithaq), when the children of Adam bore witness to God’s Lordship over them before their entrance into the sensory world. The Koran says, “When thy Lord took from the children of Adam, from their loins, their seed, and made them testify touching themselves: ‘Am I not your Lord?’ They said, ‘Yes, we testify’” (7:172).
    • The Sufi Path of Knowledge, (1989) p. 54.
  • The verse of Alast continues by explaining God's purpose in calling everyone to witness: ""Lest you say on the Day of Resurrection, "As for us, we were heedless of this," or lest you say, "Our fathers associated others with God before us, and we were their offspring after them. What, wilt Thou destroy us for what the vain-doers did?"" (7:172-73) Interpretations of this verse differ, but many authorities maintain that it means that on the day of judgment, people will be held responsible for recognizing the truth of tawhid, whether or not they have heard the message of a prophet. However, they will not be held responsible for the specific teachings of a prophet if such teachings have not reached them.
    • The Vision of Islam, (1994) p. 127
  • Many Muslim thinkers refer to the lost heart by the Koranic term fitra or “original creation.” Fitra is the divine form that God bestowed upon Adam when He created him; or, it is the divine spirit that, according to the Koran, God blew into the clay of Adam in order to bring him to life. Any discussion of “origins” in Islam has everything to do with explaining how God created the universe in stages, beginning with the invisible divine spirit, the breath that God blew into Adam. This spirit is called by many names, such as the First Intelligence, the Supreme Pen, and the Muhammadan Spirit. It is a single reality that is aware of all things and gave Adam his knowledge of all the names, Or, we can say that the First Spirit is the creative command of God, his word “Be!” to all things.
    • The Traditional Approach to Learning, Sacred Web: 18, (2007) p. 44
  • Every attribute of God is found in the innate disposition (fitra) of the human being. The path to perfection involves bringing these attributes out from hiddenness to manifestation.
    • The Self-Disclosure of God, (1998) p. xxiii.
  • The key to the Islamic intellectual tradition is precisely the intellect, which is nothing but the soul that has come to know and realize its full potential. Inasmuch as the soul possesses this potential, it is often called fitra or innate disposition. If we employ the language of the Qur’an, the fitra is the very self of Adam to whom God “taught all the names” (2:31). It is the primordial Adam present in every human being. At root, it is good and wise, because it inclines naturally toward tawhid, which stands at the heart of all wisdom and forms the basis for the acquisition of true knowledge of God, the universe, and the self.
    • Science of the Cosmos, Science of the Soul, (2007) p. 29.
  • To the extent that people fail to actualize their fitra, they remain ignorant of who they are and what the cosmos is. To the degree that they are able to actualize their fitra, they come to understand things in their principles, or in their roots and realities. In other words, they grasp things as they are related to God or as they are known to God. They do not remain staring at phenomena and appearances. Rather, they see with God-given insight into the real names of things. These names subsist eternally in the divine intelligence, which is the spirit that God blew into Adam after having molded his body from clay.
    • Science of the Cosmos, Science of the Soul, (2007) p. 29-30.
  • The human spirit is also God's spirit. The Koran attributes the spirit breathed into Adam to God with the pronouns “His” (32:9) and “My” (15:29, 38:72). Hence this spirit is called the “attributed spirit” (al-ruh al-idafi), i.e., attributed to God, a term which suggests its ambiguous status, both divine and human at once. The spirit possesses all the spiritual or angelic attributes, such as luminosity, subtlety, awareness, and oneness. Clay stands at the opposite pole of the existent cosmos: dark, dense, multiple, dispersed. No connection can be established between the one and the many, the luminous and the dark, without an intermediary, which in man’s case is the soul, the locus of our individual awareness. The spirit is aware of God, though not of anything less than God. But we—at least before we have refined our own souls —have no awareness of the spirit. Clay is unaware of anything at all. The soul, which develops gradually as a human being grows and matures, becomes aware of the world with which it is put in touch in a never-ending process of self discovery and self-finding. Ultimately it may attain to complete harmony with the spirit.
    • The Sufi Path of Knowledge, (1989) p. 17.
  • The primacy of thought is made explicit in the first half of the Shahadah, the testimony of faith: “There is no god but God.” This is the one truth upon which all of Islam depends. The tawhid that is expressed here is not contingent upon the facts and events of the world. It is essentially a thought, a logical and coherent statement about the nature of reality. In the Qur’anic view of things, tawhid guides the thinking of all human beings inasmuch as they are true to their innate disposition (fitra). Every messenger from God came with tawhid in order to remind his own people of their humanity. In this way of looking at things, true thought is far more real than the bodily realm, which is nothing but the apparition of thought. This is not to say that the external world has no objective reality, far from it. It is to say that the universe is born from the consciousness, awareness, and thought of the divine and spiritual realms.
    • Science of the Cosmos, Science of the Soul, (2007) p. 41.
  • It should be obvious that by real thought I do not mean the superficial activities of the mind, such as reason, reflective thinking, ideation, cogitation, and logical argumentation. Rather, I mean the very root of human existence, which is consciousness, awareness, and understanding. The Islamic philosophical tradition usually referred to this root as ‘aql, intelligence. Thought in this sense is a spiritual reality that has being and life by definition. In contrast, the bodily realm is essentially dead and evanescent, despite the momentary appearance of life within it. Intelligence is aware, but things and objects are unaware. Intelligence is active, but things are passive. Intelligence is living, self-conscious, and dynamic, but things are empty of these qualities in themselves. In its utmost purity, intelligence is simply the shining light of the living God, a light that bestows existence, life, and consciousness on the universe. It is the creative command whereby God brought the universe into being, the spirit that God blew into Adam after having molded his clay, and the divine speech that conveys to Adam the names of all things.
    • Science of the Cosmos, Science of the Soul, (2007) p. 41-42.
  • To lose the ability to see with the eye of tawhid means to fall into seeing with the eye of shirk, or associating other gods with God. If the Qur’an considers unrepented shirk the one unforgivable sin, this is no doubt because it entails an utter distortion of human understanding, a corruption of the human fitra, and an obscuration of the intelligence that is innate to every human being.
    • Science of the Cosmos, Science of the Soul, (2007) p. 47.
  • The growth of the human soul, the process whereby it moves from darkness to light, is also a growth from death to life (hayat), ignorance to knowledge (‘ilm), listlessness to desire (irada), weakness to power (qudra), dumbness to speech (kalam), meanness to generosity (jud), and wrongdoing to justice (qist). In each case the goal is the actualization of a divine attribute in the form of which man was created, but which remains a relative potentiality as long as man does not achieve it fully. All the “states” and “stations” mentioned earlier can be seen as stages in the process of actualizing one or more of the divine names.
    • The Sufi Path of Knowledge, (1989) p. 17.
  • On the one hand, human beings return to God by the same invisible route followed by other creatures. They are born, they live, they die, and they are gone, no one knows where. The same thing happens to a bee or an oak tree. This is what Ibn al-‘Arabi and others call the “compulsory return” (ruju idtirari) to God. Whether we like it or not, we will travel that route. “O man, you are laboring toward your Lord laboriously, and you shall encounter Him!” (Koran 84:6). On the other hand human beings possess certain gifts which allow them to choose their own route of return (this is the “voluntary return,” ruju ikhtiyari). Man can follow the path laid down by this prophet or that, or he can follow his own “caprice” (hawa) and whims. Each way takes him back to God, but God has many faces, not all of them pleasant to meet. “Whithersoever you turn, there is the Face of God” (2:115), whether in this world or the next.
    • The Sufi Path of Knowledge, (1989) p. 20.
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