Exploring Platonic and Hermetic
currents in Al-Junayd's thought

     In this essay we'll explore Platonic and Hermetic strains in A-Junayd's thought, not out of mere academic interest in analyzing intellectual concepts, but because Al-Junayd's teachings on Platonic dialectic and Hermetic unification provide us effective means of understanding important concepts and implementing significant procedures relating to the mystical life.

     Al-Junayd (830-910 CE) was considered by some to be the Imam 1 of the World in his time, Master of the Sufis, and "Diadem of the Knowers." One of the unusual aspects of Al-Judayd--and others within the Sufi tradition--is that they remained devout Muslims while at the same time following the Perennial Tradition.

     We have seen this same characteristic in other Perennialist teachers:
  • "Ibn El-Arabi [a Sufi master] confused the scholars because he was what is called in Islam a conformist in religion while remaining an esotericist in inner life. Like all Sufis he claimed that there was a coherent, continuous and perfectly acceptable progression between formal religion of any kind and the inner understanding of that religion, leading to a personal enlightenment." 2

  • The Cambridge Platonists continued to define themselves 3 as Christians in an era when orthodox Christianity had all but destroyed any vestige of truth in this religious tradition.

  • In the twentieth century, Rufus Moseley 4 remained an orthodox Christian while also living and teaching as a Perennialist savant. Rufus was a person who had unquestionably achieved the state of "obliteration," the final stage of the experience of unification which we're exploring in this essay. Rufus was so absorbed in Jesus that he was clearly in two worlds at the same time. He would be speaking to an individual or a group and suddenly begin communicating with Jesus simultaneously. His books testify to his continual absorption in Jesus.

"I have lived in the consciousness that to have Jesus in me and for me to abide in Him is of such infinite worth that nothing must be allowed to break, even for an instant, this ineffable union."

Rufus Moseley, Manifest Victory

     It's difficult for us to appreciate that until very recently in both the East and West, any exploration in the spiritual dimension had to take place within an organized religion, or the explorer might be branded as heretical and evil--and injudiciously murdered by "the Righteous." This makes it necessary, in the case of such persons as Al-Junayd, St. John of the Cross, and Meister Eckhart, among others, to separate the elements in their lives and writings which were required or engendered by orthodoxy and the elements primarily free from such constraints.

     Al-Junayd lived in Baghdad during the ninth and tenth century, a time in that part of the world much like the period in thirteenth century Europe when the Roman Catholic Inquisition tortured and murdered "heretics." Reactionary Muslims brought to trial all the Baghdadi Sufis, including Al-Junayd, on the pretext that they were heretics. Al-Junayd was fortunate in being able to claim, justifiably, that he was simply a Jurist by profession and thus escaped persecution. But one of Al-Junayd's own students and associates, Hallaj, was executed as a heretic.

     An extraordinary facet of the Perennial Tradition is that no understanding or knowledge is ever lost with a true participant in this heritage. Each genuine member of this tradition possesses the understanding of what Plato, Jesus, Boethius, and Rumi taught, on to the last Perennialist sage. Yet each savant adds to the conjoint wisdom her own individual manifestation and adaptation of the elemental Perennial Truth.

     In every Perennialist savant, it's usual to find strains of Platonic and Hermetic thought, and this is true of Al-Junayd. Perennialist teachers do not copy the doctrines of previous savants or the concepts of other religions. Ultimately the source of Perennialist information and understanding on any issue or concept, is the personal experience of the Perennialist, not prior or contemporary literary formulations which are only one of the historical manifestations of knowledge. Scholastics assume that there is no interior source of knowledge and try to discover literary borrowing and superficial artistic inspiration.

     Dr. Ali Hassan Abdel-Kader's discussion of Al-Junayd's personality and writing provides a particularly useful example of this Scholastic predisposition. Finding unmistakable strains of Platonic thought in Al-Junayd's writings, he can only explain it in this manner:
"The contact of the early muslim mystics with Neo-platonic philosophy made possible the development of a mystical system in Islam, with its discipline and its terminology, thus giving the opportunity for the emergence of mystical schools around the personalities of the early and later sufi thinkers." 5
     Sufi Perennialists such as Al-Junayd and Rumi, did not require an acquaintanceship with Neo-Platonic or Christian thought to develop their understanding of mystical concepts and practices. Their own capability for inner inspiration provided the means by which they discovered and formulated original mystical doctrines and exercises.

The Transcendent Phenomenon of Adaptation of Teaching

     It's important to realize what a unique approach to teaching the Perennial Tradition embodies. Non-Perennialist books on philosophy, religion, mysticism, or the occult are the results of teachers of a specific era borrowing from the ideas and practices of former thinkers and creating a syncretism of doctrines and procedures which they then represent as their own new system.

     Perennialist teaching material and teaching methods are, on the contrary, the outcome of creative adaptation to contemporary needs of the identical stream of Perennialist truth by the initiated teacher. Certain material within the tradition becomes superseded and a Perennialist teacher does not repeat it in its original form just because it had been used at an earlier time.

     Each Perennialist teacher will arrive at a different embodiment of the fundamental truths, not because she is borrowing from her predecessors and building her own philosophical system on the basis of their ideas, but because the needs of her students, relative to their own time and place in history, require new compilations and applications.

      Perennialist masters do not build scholastic "systems" as in traditional philosophy, vast metaphysical infrastructures of closely-argued theses and emotionally-charged harangues against opponents. Perennialist teachers make genuine inner contact with the Essence of the Perennial Tradition and the Originating Impulse indicates what and how instructional material is to be formulated and implemented.

     Dr. Abdel-Kader appears to have an inkling that Al-Junayd might have done more than merely borrow the impetus and concepts of Neo-Platonism to form his own mystical concepts and practices.
"His [Al-Junayd's] vast and many-sided learning and his clarity of thinking enabled him to absorb this variety of thought and teachings of his period, and to transform them through the medium of his personality, and, by adding his own ideas and experiences, to reach his own mystical way and his own philosophical system." 6

"I have found in the free romantic spirit of the poets more of what I am feeling after than I have in the philosophers and theologians. More than any other mortals the poets have succeeded in giving glimpses of the shape of things to come. Plato, a poet as well as a philosopher, gave me idealism in such a perfect form that his appeal has been tremendous. It was while reading Plato that I had my first experience of being lost in the beauty of the ideal realm."

J. Rufus Moseley, Manifest Victory

The Surprising Platonic Strain Within Al-Junayd's Thought

     Most scholars who examine Al-Junayd's writings fail to discern any Platonic strain within his thought and practice. To his credit, Dr. Abdel-Kader picks up on some of these elements, though he fails to discern fully their significance for Al-Junayd's way of thinking and his spiritual procedures.

     Al-Junayd's primary teacher was his uncle, Sari as-Saqati, who had at one time been a merchant but later deliberately chose to lead the life of a mystic.

"With regard to the teaching which as-Saqati imparted to al-Junayd, it seems that he carried on discussions with him and put questions to him as Socrates did with his pupils. Al-Junayd says: 'When as-Saqati wants me to profit by his teaching he puts questions to me.'   . . .
"If we wish to picture the relationship between as-Saqati and al-Junayd, we may compare them with Socrates and Plato.  . . .  As-Saqati spoke on the problems of sufism in an almost platonic dialogue. He used to hold discussions, put up questions and lead his circle to an appreciation of the issues involved. He was without question a practising sufi." 7
         Sari as-Saqati appears to have been the founder of the Sufi School in Baghdad, which had as its main point of interest the concept of Unification (Tawhid). The members of the school were hence called "The Masters of Unification" (Arbab al-Tawhid). The Baghdadi school was also renowned for its eloquence. Al-Junayd, therefore, as a student, met many of the outstanding Sufi teachers of his time as they visited Baghdad and joined in his uncle's discussion circle. He was able to benefit from a comprehensive academic training with teachers from all the major disciplines.

         Among Al-Junayd's other teachers, one of the most influential was Harith Al-Muhasibi. Al-Junayd wrote and spoke about Al-Muhasibi a good deal, one day bringing Al-Muhasibi to his discussion room. Al-Muhasibi encouraged Junayd to ask questions. "I said: 'I have no questions to ask you.' Then he said: 'Ask me about anything that comes into your mind.' Now questions crowded in on me, and I asked him about them and he gave me answers to them straight away. Then he departed to his house and set them down in writing.'" 8

         Dr. Abdel-Kader comments on this event as one in which "both the Shaykh [Al-Muhasibi] and young pupil [Al-Junayd] profited from the mutual exchange of views. Al-Junayd put his questions to Harith and thus opened both for Harith and for himself the road to new fields of thought. There is little room for doubt that al-Harith found these discussions stimulating and inspiring and that it was his custom, after a new point had been argued, to take to his pen and record, with that clarity, facility and simple style for which he is justly famous, the conclusions which had been reached." 9

         As we examine the nature of these dialectical interchanges between Al-Junayd and his teachers, it's clear that they contain the essential characteristics of Platonic dialectic, as we have had prior occasion to explicate this mystical science.

         Of the two methodologies Al-Junayd and the other Baghdadi Sufis used in dialectical interchange the first was to select a topic or concept for group discussion, something on the order in which the participants in Plato's Symposium chose the topic of Love. Each participant would put forward his or her understanding of the essence of the concept, with discussion of each contribution occurring as the interchange transpired.

         When the renowned Sufi Abu Hafs met with the spiritual leaders of Baghdad, including Al-Junayd, they agreed to investigate the essence of generosity. Al-Junayd began by saying that he conceived of generosity as "not regarding your generosity and in not referring to it yourself." Abu Hafs next offered his view by saying: "How well the Leader has spoken, but in my opinion generosity consists in doing justice and in not demanding justice." Al-Junayd said to his disciples: "Rise, for Abu Hafs has surpassed Adam and all his descendants in generosity."

         The spirit in which these dialectical interchanges took place appears to have been very similar to that embodied by Socrates in his claim of ignorance.
    "Characteristic of the atmosphere in which these thinkers lived is Junayd's feeling that the knowledge of the Divine was so vast and high that his circle and he himself possessed only a small fragment of it, and even of this they could share out and explain only a little. He hints that there may have been a decline in such knowledge from the previous generation even to his time.   . . . In the olden days we used to gather together to talk with one another about many-sided knowledge. Nowadays, nobody cares for it or asks me about it." 10
     The second primary method of dialectic was interchange through correspondence. Sometimes the two or more correspondents exchanged questions, answers, and reflections with one another in serial order. In other instances, letters took the form of stories of dialogues, with one or more persons represented in a letter investigating significant issues through interchange. At times, in his correspondence with other Sufis or his students, Al-Junayd would put one part of his thought into the mouth of a scholar and the other part into the mouth of a wise man, developing a dialogue between the two.

    "The scholar then said to him: 'O, wise man, you have spoken of the very matter which was in my mind and attained to the uttermost doubts which exercised me. What is more, you have described things whose value I perceived but dimly. This I regard as both grace and mercy from God to me. Surely, God has made you the means of bringing to my notice essential matters the gift of which is God's grace to me through your agency. Were it not for this gift I should have been lacking in understanding and like those whom you have described. By means of your sincere teaching you have enabled me to avoid their errors and misunderstanding.'   . . .

    "Then spake the wise man and said: 'Rejoice in that God has opened for you the gate of questioning and enabled you to couch your questions clearly.   . . .   Know, then, that the genuine scholar, prior to starting his searches for God, must in the first place have the right attitude and the correct objective. He must constantly observe what is taking place within his soul, and keep close watch on his desire to seek God as it emerges." 11
         Al-Junayd held the same view of primordial man as Plato--that he had experienced a unitive being in God prior to his descent into terrestrial existence. In an astounding passage in his writings, Al-Junayd interpreted a verse in the Koran from this perspective.

         The passage in the Koran [7, v. 166, 167] says:
    "When thy Lord had brought forth their descendants from the loins of the Sons of Adam and made them to witness concerning themselves, 'Am I not,' said He, 'our Lord?' They said: 'Yes! we do so testify.'"

         In his Risala, Al-Junayd interpreted this passage as follows:
    "In this verse God tells you that He spoke to them at a time when they did not exist, except so far as they existed in Him. This existence is not the same type of existence as is usually attributed to God's creatures; it is a type of existence which only God knows and only He is aware of. God knows their existence; embracing them he sees them in the beginning when they are non-existent and unaware of their future existence in this world. The existence of these is timeless."
         In this same passage, Al-Junayd declaims that the very essence of human beings is in their dialectical interchange with God.
    "When He called them and they answered quickly, their answer was a gracious and generous gift from Him; it was His answer on their behalf when He granted them their being, their function being that of participants in dialectical interchange with God. He gave them knowledge of Him when they were only concepts which He had conceived. He then wished it, and made them like seeds which He transformed at His Will into human seeds, and put them in the loins of Adam.   . . .

    "Who existed, and how could he have existed before he had existence? Did anyone answer to God's question other than the pure, fine and holy souls in accordance with God's Omnipotence and Perfect Will?"

    "Before we had our becoming here, we existed There, men other than now; we were pure souls. Intelligence inbound with the entire of reality, not fenced off, integral to that All.   . . .   Then it was as if One voice sounded. One word was uttered and from every side an ear attended and received and there was an effective hearing; now we are become a dual thing, no longer that which we were at first, dormant, and in a sense no longer present."

    Plotinus, Enneads, V I, 4.14

    The Concept of the Unitive State In Al-Junayd's Thought

         In previous essays we've explored the realization of the unitive state through spiritual baptism and unitive consciousness. The phenomenon of unitive consciousness was first introduced to the world through the Hermetic embodiment of the Perennial Tradition. As we've seen, the Sufi school at Baghdad had as its major theme this same concept of Unification or Unitive Consciousness (Tawhid). Humans, said Al-Junayd, long to return to their pre-existent state of unity with God. Through achieving the mystical state of Tawhid, a person can realize re-unification with the Divine.

         Al-Junayd practiced a specific form of meditation through which he was able to enter into interchange with God. He recognized that one of the fruits of this unity with the Divine was receiving inspiration. When he was asked by his friend Ibn Surayj where certain exalted ideas came from, he replied: "God inspired me and put the words into my mouth. They come neither from books nor from study. They are grace from God." When Ibn Surayj asked how he attained this insight, Al-Junayd said: "It comes from my communion with God for forty years."
    "For al-Junayd in his elevated state the ephemeral world did not exist. Al-Junayd achieved mystical union with a Godhead that was timeless, untrammelled by earthly conceptions, unshackled by intellectual considerations, Himself so beyond human description that contact with Him was ineffable." 12

    " One can develop to the point that one can leave one's physical form whenever one wants and go to the world of Divine Majesty, where one's ascent reaches the highest horizons. . . . Then, whenever one looks at one's essence one delights because one sees the light of God radiating upon oneself. This stage, however, is still incomplete.

    "When one goes still further one passes beyond even this stage, one becomes such that one does not think of one's own essence and one's consciousness of self is obliterated. This is called Major Annihilation. When one forgets oneself and forgets forgetting, it is called Annihilation in Annihilation.  . . .  One reaches perfection only when cognition is lost in the object of cognition, for whoever delights in the act of cognition as well as in the object of cognition has, as it were, two objects. One is 'abstracted' when one leaves behind cognition for the object of cognition. When the last traces of corporeal humanity are expended, it is the state of Obliteration. . . "

    Shihab al-Din al-Suhrawardi, The Mystical and Visionary Treatises

         Other members of the Baghdadi Sufi School--the Masters of Unification--experienced this same unitive state. Abu-Yazid described this condition in a cryptic phrase: "There is nothing in this garment of mine except God." In a manner similar to Plato's dialogue on love, the Symposium, the Baghdadi school held that love (Mahabba) is a primary means of achieving unity with God. One of the Baghdadi Sufis, Qushayri, expressed it in these terms:
    "Mahabba is a condition which man feels in his heart, too subtle to be expressed in words. This subtle spiritual state leads the worshipper to recognize the greatness of God, instills in him the desire, above all things, to please God, makes him unable to tolerate God's absence, induces in him constant excitement at the thought of God; he finds no rest without God and feels an intimate comfort in continual thought of Him.   . . .   It is more to the point to describe the man who knows mahabba as being completely lost and overwhelmed in the beloved, than to refer to the relationship as one of possession. If the lover were described as submerged in the beloved, it would be more adequate than if they were described as being together." 13
     Al-Junayd described the state of unification in these terms: "In this state of absolute purity he has lost his personal attributes; by this loss he is wholly present (in God). By being wholly present in God, he is wholly lost to himself. And thus he is present before God while absent in himself; absent and present at the same time. He is where he is now, and he is not where he is." 14
     The state of unification involves transcendental dialectical interchange:
"Where are you when God has taken you entirely to Himself and has received before Him that of you which He desires? When He has granted you the indulgence of His communion and favoured you with the ability to answer Him? In this state you are spoken to and you speak; you are asked about yourself and you ask questions. The words communicated are as unique pearls, testimony upon testimony, a cloud of witnesses multiplying continually, harbingers of divine grace." 15
     The mystic, however much he delights in the state of unification with God, returns to share his newly-found wisdom and serve humankind in the manner revealed to him.
"He is himself, after he has not been truly himself. He is present in himself and in God after having been present in God and absent in himself. This is because he has left the intoxication of God's overwhelming ghalaba (victory), and comes to the clarity of sobriety, and contemplation is once more restored to him so that he can put everything in its right place and assess it correctly. Once more he assumes his individual attributes, after Fana [oblivion]. His personal qualities persist in him, and his actions in this world, when he has reached the zenith of spiritual achievement vouchsafed by God, become a pattern for his fellow men." 16

"The Path is not to be found except in human service."


1 Imam: spiritual leader or guide

2 Idries Shah, The Sufis, p. 143

3 To be accurate, we must refer to the Cambridge Platonists as Esoteric Christians, since they defined Christianity in completely different terms than the orthodox, sacerdotal Christian dogmatists.

4 I had the privilege of meeting and briefly studying with Rufus Moseley in the 1950s, and have continued to study his material.

5 Ali Hassan Abdel-Kader, The Life, Personality and Writing of Al-Junayd, Luzac & Company, London, 1962


6 Ibid., p. 34

7 Ibid., pp. 9, 11

8 Ibid., p. 19

9 Ibid., pp. 19, 20

10 Ibid., p. 37

11 Ibid., pp. 137, 139

12 Ibid., p. 32

13 Ibid., p. 38

14 Ibid., p. 66

15 Ibid., p. 56

16 Ibid., p. 90


Ansari, Muhammad. "The Doctrine of One Actor: Junayd's View of Tawhid." Islamic Quarterly 27, no. 2 (1983): 83–102.

Arberry, Arthur. Sufism: An Account of the Mystics of Islam. London, 1968.

Ess, Josef van. Theologie und Gesellschaft im 2. und 3. Jahrhundert Hidschra. Berlin and New York, 1997, vol. 4, pp. 278–288 and index under "Ğunaid."

Knysh, Alexander. Islamic Mysticism: A Short History. Leiden, 2000. See pp. 52–56.

Singh, Darshan. "Attitudes of al-Junayd and al-Hallaj Towards the Sunna and Ahwal and Maqamat." Islamic Culture 58, no. 3 (1984): 217–226.

Al-Zuhayr. Al-Imam al-Junayd, Damascus, 1994.