Syncretic Judeo-Christian Theophanic
Overtones in Sharafuddin Maneri’s
Victor Lobo and Rajendra Chenni
The word ‘syncretism’ is derived from modern Latin ‘syncretismus,’ a transliteration of Greek ‘synkretismos,’ meaning “Cretan federation” [syn + Krēt-, Krēs Cretan]. The first known use of the word occurs in Plutarch’s (1st century AD) essay on “Fraternal Love” in his Moralia (490ab) - probably based on sugkretos, Ionian form of sugkratos, meaning “mixed together” - to indicate a “federation of Cretan cities” for mutual defense. He cites the example of the Cretans, who compromised and reconciled their differences and came together in alliance when faced with external dangers. And that is their so-called ‘Syncretism.’ Syn·cre·tist is a noun or adjective, and syn·cre·tis·tic is an adjective.
“Syncretism” as I see it, is the combination of different (often contradictory) forms of belief or practice. It may involve the merger and analogizing of several originally discrete traditions, especially in theology and mythology of religion, thus asserting an underlying unity and allowing for an exclusive approach to other faiths. In brief, it is the fusion of two or more originally different inflectional forms which gives rise to the amalgam of a third one. Syncretism occurs commonly in expressions of arts and culture (eclecticism), politics (syncretic politics) as well as in literature (syncretic literature).
‘Theophany’ is derived from the Medieval Latin theophania, and/or from Ancient Greek theophaneia - a combination of two Greek words theo means ‘god,’ and phainein or phan means ‘to show forth, to reveal, to make shine.’ Literally theophany refers to the appearance of god or a deity to a being. Theosophically it is the divine voice representing God’s manifestation. The adjective theophanic or theophanous is a manifestation or appearance of God or a god to human person(s). The term has been used to refer to appearances of the gods in the ancient Greek and Near Eastern religions. The Epic of Gilgamesh is probably the earliest treatise with theophanic overtones, and the Iliad is the earliest literary work with theophanies in the Greek Classical tradition, which later gets reflected in other Greek mythologies as well.
In Greek tradition, Theophania or Theophanies was an annual festival in spring at Delphi celebrating the return of Apollo from his winter quarters in Hyperborea, which culminated with a display of an image of the gods to worshippers, usually hidden in the sanctuary. Later Roman Mystery religions practised similar displays of images to the excited worshippers. There are times in history when divine or heroic epiphanies were experienced, either in dreams or as a waking vision, which often than not led to the formation of a cult, or an act of worship with a commemorative offering. Traditional Biblical analysis prompted the scripture scholars to view theophany as an unambiguous divine manifestation to the humans, where unambiguous implies God revealing Himself to the humans. Otherwise, the more general term hierophany is used.
Hierophany (from the Greek hieros means ‘sacred,’ and phainein means ‘to show’ or ‘to reveal’ or ‘to bring to light’) signifies the manifestation of the sacred, especially in a sacred place, object, or occasion. Hierophany appears frequently in the works of the religious historian Mircea Eliade as an alternative to the more restrictive term ‘theophany’ (an appearance of a god), which is used to separate the sacred from the profane - by virtue of its connection with locality, the sacred is no longer absolute, because the otherwise abstract absolute has limited itself in order to become manifest. Thus, in a paradoxical sense, hierophany is an act of divine or sacred veiling because of the inherent necessity for self-limitation. Because only some aspect of the divine or sacred can be manifested, such manifestations may be named after the aspect revealed, e.g. theophany (of divinity), kratophany (of power), Christophany (pre-incarnate appearances of Christ) and angelophany (appearances of angels).
According to Mircea Eliade, religion is based on the distinction between the sacred (God / gods, mythical ancestors, etc.) and the profane. For traditional people, myths are the ‘breakthroughs of the sacred or the supernatural into the world’ - that is hierophany. In the hierophanic myths, the sacred assumes the form of ideal models (the actions and commandments of gods, heroes, etc.), which in turn gives the world value, direction, and purpose: ‘The manifestation of the sacred ontologically founds the world.’ As per this view, for true reality to be possible, all things need to imitate or conform to the hierophanic sacred models. To traditional humans, things acquire their reality and identity, only to the extent of their participation in a transcendental reality.
Theophany is very significant in literature, especially apocalyptic literature. It has gained greater significance in the Judeo-Christian Bible, which refers to the unambiguous manifestation of God to the humans - a sense sign revealing the divine presence. In Indo-European roots, especially in Christian literature, Theol is the manifestation of a deity to a human person in a visible form but need not be material. In the Bible, theophany is a part of the apocalyptic genre of literature having its roots in Greek mythology. The Bible contains innumerable apocalyptic narratives or poetic allusions of divine revelation to humans, such as, God speaking to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:9-19); the divine manifestation to Moses amidst the unconsumed burning bush (Exodus 3:1-2) - these tend to follow a literary pattern with Canaanite roots - God appears, frequently as divine warrior or king, surrounded by fire or in splendor (Deuteronomy 33:2), sometimes riding like Baal upon the wind and clouds (Psalms 18:10; 68:33; 104:3), and the recipient is given a revelation or call. Elijah’s encounter with God in a ‘still small voice’ rather than in earthquake, wind and fire (1 Kings 19:9-18) may represent a rejection of Canaanite imagery associating God with the forces of nature. The inter-testamental usage stems from Ezekiel 1, is a central text for the Jewish apocalyptic and mystical tradition, but now the divine manifestation takes place in heaven rather than upon earth, as the culmination of the seer’s ascent to heaven (1 Enoch 14:8-25; Revelation 4:1-11). Elsewhere in the New Testament, more traditional echoes of the language of theophany are heard in the narratives of Jesus’ baptism (Mathew 3:17), transfiguration (Mathew 17:1-8), and Paul’s conversion (Acts of the Apostles 9:1-9).
And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him: And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. (Mathew 3:16-17)
For the first time Sahal al-Tustari (818-896 C.E.), a Persian Sufi and early classical mystic, the spiritual son of Dhul-Nun al-Misri, and the teacher of Mansur al-Hallaj cum Muhammad ibn Salim, who founded the Salimiyah Muslim theological school used the concept of theophany (tajally) in Sufi literature, that too only in the context of Paradise, which later Sufis used for a terrestrial vision of God. Recent research has revealed that in early Islam God’s speech was not restricted to the Qur’an, rather He was seen as speaking in the first person through Mohammed in sayings collected outside the Qur’anic text. Even when utterances attributed to Mohammed didn’t seem to reflect God’s speech, an authority was accorded in the eighth century which equaled the Qur’an. The tradition of God speaking in the first person was a ninth-century Sufi invention to suit their own purposes. Originally Islam was seen as a harsh and cold intrusion, which was later given mildness and warmth by Sufism - a foreign borrowing.
In recent years, however, it has been shown that the Traditions used by the Sufis, and notably those of the ‘sacrosanct Tradition’ (hadith qudsi) type, which present God’s own speech, are not likely to be any later in origin than the others in the ninth-century collections. Our chances of determining that a given tradition was really originated by Muhammed are non-existent, unless new evidence is discovered. But the Sufi Traditions seem to be as early as the rest, and probably belong to what now appears as the main source: the large-scale production of Traditions in Iraq from the beginning of the eighth century. Most probably, as the new religion of Islam was gradually built up from its Jewish-Christian base - whether this base was there at the very start, or was subsequently borrowed, or was spontaneously recreated - it produced on the one hand legal Traditions out of Jewish materials in the Babylonian Jewish community in Iraq; and on the other mystical Traditions out of Christian materials in the Nestorian Church in Iraq.
Accordingly Theophany, a Judeo-Christian Biblical genre syncrerically made inroads into Sufi literature. al-Ghazzali’s following piece clearly reflects the theophanic overtones:
One day the Prophet Abraham invited a person to dinner, but when he learned that he was an infidel he canceled the invitation and turned him out. Immediately the Divine Voice reprimanded him, saying, “You did not give him food for a day even because he belonged to a different religion, yet for the last several years I am feeding him in spite of his heresy. Had you fed him for one night, you would not have become poor on that account.
Originally, Abraham is Biblical figure in the book of Genesis, who is syncretically incorporated into the Qur’an. The above theophanic story is purely a Sufi concoction. There are other theophanic traditions, in which God is not presented as speaking through the agency of the prophet Mohammed alone, give Sufism both its direction and boundary: ‘Poverty is my glory,’ and ‘There is no monasticism in Islam’ are some of them.
Sharafuddin Maneri (1263-1381 C.E.), a Sufi mystic from Bihar is widely known for his Maktubat or Letters (1346 C.E.) on various spiritual topics, which became a basic Sufi text in khanqas (monasteries) throughout India. His works include, Sharafuddin Maneri: The Hundred Letters (1980), Khwani-i Pur Ni’mat: A Table Laden with Good Things (1348-50), and In Quest of God: Maneri’s Second Collection of 150 Letters (1367-68). All these belong to the malfuz genre of Sufi literature, i.e. a record of occurrences during Sufi assemblies in question-answer mode. This type of Sufi literature attained an early prominence in India on account of the great reluctance of the early Chishti saints to put pen to paper, thus resulting in what is currently the best and most highly esteemed malfuz produced in India, Fawa’id ul-Fu’ad. Theophany, a Judeo-Christian biblical genre syncretically came into Sufi literature had its spell on Sharafuddin’s mystical writings, is clearly spelt out in his following literary piece:
“Abu Ali Siyah said: ‘One day, according to the sacred tradition, I was shaving my pubic hair.’ I said to myself: ‘O Ali, this is the member which is the root of all lust, and has thrown you into so many calamities. Get rid of it, so that you might acquire release from its wickedness!” I heard a voice which said: ‘O Ali, you are encroaching on My domain. One member is not of greater dignity than another in My estimation. If you yourself get rid of it, I can place in every hair of your body what I have placed in only one member.”
Sharafuddin says that an earnest desire with constant effort to master one’s carnal soul is a necessary precondition for divine manifestation or theophany. According to him, self-struggle is not an end in itself, but it opens the way to divine illuminations. Mystics who sought God through ascetical practices were granted divine manifestations. For, one cannot be filled with God as long as he is filled with self. Sharafuddin’s “The Perfect Formula” says that ‘to have union with God one has to pass beyond the confines of his human nature.’ For, God has to be disclosed to the inner vision, which is beyond the physical vision, and indeed, beyond his natural intellectual vision as well. Of course, this is the Christian mystical theology with Platonic overtones, which Sharafuddin has assimilated into his mystical literature, and it gets confirmed when he quotes: When Khwaja Bayazid inquired, in intimate converse with God, “My God, what is the way to thee?” a voice from heaven gave this reply: “Pass by your selfish soul and come!” Further, Sharafuddin quotes Abu Bakr Furak, who, when decided to go all by himself and give himself up wholly to devotion in some mountainous region, heard a voice: “O Abu Bakr, since you have been enlightened by God Almighty about so many matters of advantage to people, why have you abandoned God’s slaves?” He returned and once again began to reside among people. In The Hundred Letters the second letter written on “Repentance” Sharafuddin says:
He then heard a voice within him say, “You submitted yourself to Me and I forgave you your sins. Again you were unfaithful and spurned Me. Now I have given you time to repent. If you wish to return, I shall receive you in peace.”
No doubt, being a mystical writer Sharafuddin had deep faith in the divine voice and the following anecdote confirms his belief in theophany:
Someone was in a wilderness, perishing from thirst and saying: “There are so many oceans of water, and here am I perishing with thirst!” A voice from the Unknown was heard to say: “I have thrown so many prophets and saints into a destructive wilderness and, at My own good pleasure, have destroyed them, showing My power by having some crows pick their eyes out of their sockets! If anyone wishes to raise his voice to object, then I shall place this seal of punishment on his tongue: ‘He cannot be questioned about what He does’ (Qur’an surah Al-Anbiya’ 21:23). ‘All crows belong to Me! All righteous men are Mine too! Who can interfere with Us?”
All the above theophanies comprise one-way communication - from the divine to the human - God speaks and humans listen. But Sharafuddin’s following anecdotes encompass a two-way communication - a theophany of divine-human conversation:
A man asked God for a son. A hermaphrodite was born to him. He said: “O God, I asked You for a son, but You have given me a hermaphrodite.” He heard a voice: “I know how to give, but you do not know how to ask!”…Once Khwaja Junaid had a fever. He prayed: “O God, restore me to health!” A voice was heard: “Why do you impose yourself between you and Me? Do you think I do not know what should be done on your behalf? This worry is for others, not for you!”
The two-way theophanic conversation is apparent in Sharafuddin’s narration of Shibli’s mystical experience - a divine-to-human revelation:
The voice of God came: “What is it that you desire? And who is your beloved?” A cry arose: “You are our Beloved!” There was a voice from heaven that said, “Undoubtedly it is you who are My loved ones and My friends!”
Usually, in Judeo-Christianity and also in Sharafuddin theophany is between the two worlds - celestial and terrestrial. In other words, it is between the heavenly divine and the earthly human. However, at times theophany takes place within the circumference of the celestial world itself, i.e. between God, angels and so on, which the following creation account clearly brings out:
There was an uproar in the kingdom when the turn of the richly endowed Adam came. The angels said: “What has happened, that so many thousands of years of our praising and glorifying God have been thrown to the wind, whereas this creature of clay has been exalted and raised above us?” A voice said: “Do not look at his form of clay! Look rather at the sacred trust given to him! ‘He loves them, and they love Him’” (Quran surah Al-Ma’idah 5:54). The fire of love has been enkindled within their hearts and a voice came, saying, “Might and victory belong to God!” Thereupon all hearts were consumed by fire; everyone melted in the intensity of love. What is this? Just as He is not restricted, neither is His work!
Further, Sharafuddin’s following passage vividly brings out theophany in the celestial world between the spiritual entities:
When the Devil fell, Gabriel and Michael wept for some time. A voice came: “What is the matter with you that you are weeping so profusely? He himself knows what is happening.” They said: “O Lord, we cannot be saved from Your deception.” A reply came: “You should both be wise! Don’t feel safe from My deception!” Behold the One who has no need!
The uniqueness in the above passage is that of attributing terrestrial human qualities and emotions to the celestial spiritual entities, who are beyond human attributes. For, emotions like weeping are human attributes limited to the physical world. However, in mysticism the mystic’s imagination can reach far beyond the human sphere to the divine sphere and envisage the ‘divine drama’ with human perceptions. Following is an extra-Qur’anic literary piece by Sharafuddin having triangular theophany - God, Archangel Gabriel and the human devotee:
One auspicious evening an order reached the Archangel Gabriel, “Go down to the world tonight and have a look around!” He went and found everyone sound asleep, except for an old man who was an idol worshiper. He was sitting in front of an idol, lost in worship, with his head bowed low. With great devotion he was soliciting the idol for things he needed. Gabriel wanted the divine command to destroy this man and thus wipe his defiling presence from the face of the earth. “O Gabriel,” said a heavenly voice, “even if he does not recognize Me as his Lord, still I consider him one of my slaves!” On another auspicious evening an address came to Gabriel, “Go tonight also and see who is asleep and who is awake.” Gabriel went and saw, standing on one leg, in the niche of a mosque, and plying the Lord with a hundred petitions, the same old man, “Do you recognize him?” asked the voice. “He is the one who was lost in prayer before the idol. Today, a stranger has become a friend, and one ignorant of Me has become filled with knowledge of Me.”
Speaking on the all-pervading cum all-encompassing nature of theophanic manifestation Urabe-no-Kanekuni says, “Even in a single leaf of a tree, or a tender blade of grass, the awe-inspiring Deity manifests itself.” As in Judeo-Christianity, Sharafuddin too deploys various theophanic literary genres to communicate divine manifestations cum illuminations to the humans, which, the critics perceive to be a means to impose human precepts with divine sanctions - a syncretic mystical literary phenomenon.
 Canaanite (kay’nuhnit - a Semitic term) is the ancient name of a territory and its inhabitants that included parts of what is now Israel (with occupied territories) and Lebanon.
 Baal (bay’al) is a Canaanite god. The Semitic word ‘baal’ means owner, or husband, or lord.
 Mystical dimension in Islam.
Julian Baldick, Mystical Islam: An Introduction to Sufism, I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd., London, 1989, p. 27.
James Fadiman & Robert Frager (ed.), Essential Sufism, Castle Books, New Jersey, 1997, p. 63.
 Paul Jackson SJ (trans.), The Way of the Sufi: Sharafuddin Maneri, Idarah-i Adabiyat-i Delli, Delhi, 1987, p. 217.
Paul Jackson SJ (trans.), In Quest of God: Maneri’s Second Collection of 150 Letters, Gujarat Sahitya Prakash, Anand, 2004, p. 30.
Paul Jackson SJ (trans.), Sharafuddin Maneri: The Hundred Letters, Paulist Press, New York, 1980, p. 398.
Ibid., p. 17.
Ibid., p. 230.
Ibid., pp. 328-29.
Ibid., p. 132.
Ibid., p. 182.
Paul Jackson SJ (trans.), In Quest of God: Maneri’s Second Collection of 150 Letters, Gujarat Sahitya Prakash, Anand, 2004, p. 23.
Paul Jackson SJ (trans.), Sharafuddin Maneri: The Hundred Letters, Paulist Press, New York, 1980, p. 61.