Universe of the Breath
The Universe of the Breath
And remember when thy Lord said
unto the angels:
The Qur'anic verse above reveals in a very condensed form the entire mystic relationship between Allah and His human creation. He says that He made the human being out of the elements and then breathed life into the body. The Qur'anic words used here are significant.
Allah uses the word nafas for His own breath, and He uses the word Ruh. for His own soul. These same words are used to mean the human breath and human soul--confirming the fact that we are originally from Allah, of Allah, for Allah, and in the end will return to Allah.
Of all of the physical realities that have a bearing upon health, that which is least often considered in medicine and healing is the breath. The breath has the following important relations with health:
1. It is the agent upon which the divine permission (idhn) is borne.
2. Breath is responsible for conveying the divine attributes from the heart to the various centers of the mind, body, and soul.
3. Breath creates the equilibrium and harmony of the temperaments of the body.
4. Breath carries life-supporting elements from the exterior of the body to the interior physiological functions.
Breath is not synonymous with air, nor with oxygen. Breath is that which emerges from the divine origin and has as its essence the temperament of the celestial realms. Breath is a luminous substance, a ray of light; breath is the life force of Allah Himself!
Breath is the regulator of joy, sadness, delight, anger, jealousy, and other emotions. Both the quantity and quality of breath have a definite and direct effect upon human health. This is so because various physical events can alter or in a sense cover over the divine essence that is being conveyed on the breath. Industrial pollutants, alcoholic beverages, and various foods can all intermingle with the breath and disturb its intended purity of action.
All of these actions are changed by age, climate, and habits. An example will make this clear. When one experiences great depression, there is a weakening of the natural powers and a concentration of the breath. This concentration causes a violent aggregation of the breath, which consequently obliterates part of the natural heat and gives rise to an imbalance of coldness. Depending upon how prolonged the depression is, the cold imbalance can extend into one or many organs of the body, thus producing varying degrees of disease.
The emotions of dread and the effects associated with great and impending danger also dissipate the natural heat. Anger will cause an increase in the amount of yellow bile essence created. If the anger is sustained, the diseases associated with excess yellow bile will occur.
Therefore, medicines must be chosen for their effect on the breath and its temperament (or its altered temperament). This is why compound medicines are frequently used, to balance not only the physical symptoms but also the underlying temperaments of the physiological essences and the essences of the breath.
This is also why flower essences, in the form of attars, are so effective in producing cures. It is vital that they be given at the same time as medicines that strictly affect the physical symptoms. Flowers have the greatest capacity to rebalance the breath and the internal essential temperaments.
The breath is the nexus between our Creator and ourselves. The healing methods of the Sufis have placed more importance upon the breath than on any other factor of life.
In February 1979, I received a letter from my old friend Yunus Maharaj, the head of the families who attend to the dargah of our Chishti headquarters at Ajmer. "Man does not come to earth to stay forever," he wrote. My heart was pounding, knowing what was to follow. "Hazrat Maulana Sufi Darveesh Wahiduddin Begg completed his breathing practices on the 12th of Rabia al-Awwal, A.H. 1400. It was an auspicious time, just after sunset. The day was more auspicious still: it was the birthday of the Prophet (s.a.w.s.)." Although there were many feelings I experienced in association with the passing of my shaykh (may Allah cover him with mercy), I was struck by the unique view Yunus Maharaj had expressed to me: that life, considered from its beginning to end, is one continuous set of breathing practices. This is the view of the Sufis.
The Holy Qur'an, in addition to all else that it may be, is a set of breathing practices. In fact, the very first command of Almighty Allah was to recite the Qur'an. The first verses that were revealed by Gabriel to Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.s.) were as follows:
Iqra' bismi Rabbik alladhi khalaq
Recite! In the name of Thy Lord
The Arabic word iqra' is rendered here as "recite" because it means to read from some book, from actual letters. Now, the Prophet (s.a.w.s.) was an ummi, an unlettered one who could not read or write, so the command seemed puzzling, even terrifying, to him at the time. But the Holy Prophet (s.a.w.s.) was able to memorize each of the verses as it came to him, and thus could "read" it from his memory, although actual physical written copies were produced during the lifetime of Muhammad (s.a.w.s.).
One of the Companions of the Prophet related this comment by Muhammad (s.a.w.s.) on the value of reciting the Qur'an: "Reciting the Qur'an out of memory carries one thousand degrees of religious merit, while reading the Qur'an from the Book itself increases [the merit] up to two thousand degrees."
The benefits and effects of reading the Qur'an are like a seed that eventually sends out twigs, branches, roots, and leaves of sustenance in every direction. The Hadith state: "Whoever reads the Qur'an and acts upon what is contained in it, his parents will be made to wear a crown on the Day of Judgment, the brilliance of which will exceed that of the sun, if it were brought down into your houses." So, if that is the reward for the parents, what do you think is the reward for the person who acts upon it himself?
The most important consideration regarding the Qur'an is that Allah states in the Book that it is not of human origin; it consists of the actual pre-eternal, uncreated speech of Allah Himself. As such, no other book exists which carries the degree of perfection and balance in its words. Even the most disinterested observer cannot fail to be impressed upon hearing the Qur'an recited. It is of surpassing beauty, melody, and majesty.
Another important point about the Qur'an is that within the first seven lines, virtually all of the sounds that occur in Arabic are uttered. One of these letters is ghayn, which when uttered causes a kind of growling, guttural sound in the back of the throat. Each letter sets off a vibratory pattern that travels in a specific direction, lasts a specific duration, and produces specific physical, mental, and spiritual effects. The sound of the letter ghayn (and also kha, 'ayn, and others) is usually not made in the English language. This means that the effects associated with such letters are not felt unless one recites the Arabic. It is a bit curious that most of the sounds that occur in Arabic and not in English are associated with the sounds of choking in English!
Even more important, the various combinations of vowels and consonants combine to stimulate and disperse the divine attributes throughout the body of the reciter in perfect measure. One of the attributes is al-Ghafur (the Forgiver), which contains the letter ghayn. One who never recites this letter is deprived of the full measure of forgiveness in his or her own soul.
There are three basic vowel sounds in Arabic: the letters alif, waw, and ya'.
All languages utilize these three basic long vowel sounds, and they can be thought of as universal harmonic constants, uttered not only by humans, but by every being in Creation. Once one has become attuned to these sounds, one can listen in on the conversations of all of nature!
The vibrations of these three sounds have different effects. The long vowel sound of a travels downward and stimulates the heart, the repository of divine attributes. The long e travels upward and stimulates the pineal gland, which is not fully understood by Western science, but is felt to be responsible for activation of the life forces. And the long sound of u resonates on the outer rim of the pursed lips, and intermingles with the idhn of Allah, as His permission for our lives unites with our inhaled and exhaled breaths.
These sounds are not particularly sung or spoken, but are expressed in a special recitation, which is achieved correctly after some time of reading from the Qur'an. In time, these sounds resonate their essence in the tone box of the soul. This may seem a vague manner of expressing such things, but until and unless one experiences it, such descriptions must suffice.
In addition to the foregoing considerations of sound and breath, the Qur'an contains yet another unique feature that transforms it into a full set of breathing practices.
Appearing as punctuation marks in most editions of the Holy Qur'an (although not in editions for native Arabic speakers, who already know them) are various marks in the text. One set of these markings is called waqf, which means "pause" and indicates where the reciter must stop and take a full breath. The main waqf mark is a small circle, as shown by an arrow in the following line:
Main Waqf Marks in Surat al-Fatihah
As an example, in Surat al-Fatihah, which opens the Qur'an, there are seven of these marks, placed after each of the seven ayats, or verses. One who is reciting at the elementary stages must stop whenever coming to this mark. This pause forces each line to be of a specified length, which is the same length as it appeared in the original form revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.s.).
However, realizing that some persons have greater capacity than others, Allah has allowed several forms of recitation of the Qur'an, each appropriate to a different capacity for breath and spiritual evolution. Thus, additional marks occur, allowing several of the ayats to be recited without the main pauses. Thus, the length of time of recitation may be as short as a few seconds or as long as two minutes.
The correct seven main breath pauses for the opening surah are reproduced in the accompanying illustration. Anyone who is learning the Qur'an does so by initially following these main breath pauses.
The signs inside the circles indicate the number of the ayat. The marks above the circles designate which of the stops are compulsory to obey and which can be gone past. The sign of lam-alif means that to stop is necessary, although it can be optional. When encountering this sign, one may continue on past all lam-alifs, until one arrives at the sign of ta, which marks the compulsory stop for the second level of reciting.
Another mode of reciting allows reciting past the ta as well, stopping only when the sign of 'ayn appears over the circle. Thus, one may recite the entire Surat al-Fatihah using seven breaths, three breaths, or one breath. In some of the ayats, these breath pauses allow for recitations lasting almost two full minutes. It is indeed astonishing to hear the Qur'an recited in this manner.
Furthermore, there are additional levels of recitation which involve prolonging the breaths and focus upon certain vowels and consonants. One would of necessity require years to attain complete mastery of the modes of reciting the Holy Qur'an. Persons attaining this mastery are called qari', and have committed the entire Qur'an to memory by this stage.
For the Sufi aspirant, the first requirement is knowledge of the correct modes of reciting the verses of the Holy Qur'an. The ascensions of ecstasy produced thereby can only be imagined. There are more than a few reports of shaykhs expiring while engaged in listening to a recitation of, or them-selves reciting, the Holy Qur'an. Shaykh Bayazid Bistami (r.a.) once noted that it was the greatest mystery to him that the person who recited the call to prayer did not die from it.
Obviously, not every person, particularly a novice, can achieve full recitation of the Qur'an within a short time. In order to accelerate the effects of the Qur'an--in its effects upon body, mind, and soul--the Sufis resort to use of the divine names, which condense and compress the effects of longer recitations into a brief space.
It is here that we step off into the realm of the divine realities, where only true and great faith will sustain one.