Wednesday, December 20, 2006

'Eastern Quest' in Islam (Article)

Shi'ite, Sufi, Nizari and other forms of Iranian-influenced Islam introduced Zoroastrian concepts of the "Eastern Quest" into their theosophical systems.

Although the Eastern Quest in Islam spoke more of an inward, spiritual journey, it was derived from beliefs that also outlined a geographical reality for the spiritual pilgrimage. In Persian literature, this can be found, for example, in Kai Khusrau's final journey to Kangdez in the Orient. This voyage portrayed in works like the Shahnama is an historical matter involving also geopolitical relations with the kings of Turan, Chin, Machin, etc., and not merely a mythical adventure.

In the East is the Malakut, which can mean the "Realm of Angels" or the "Realm of Kings" from the root malak meaning either "angel" or "king." Malakut is generally thought of as a bridge between Mulk, the mundane world, and Jabarut, the divine kingdom. Although most often thought of by Western interpreters as "imaginal," and in Islamic commentaries often as beyond the perception of physical senses, Malakut has some aspects of an axis mundi.

Nurbakhsh compared the journey to the Malakut and through its various stages with the pilgrimage to Mecca, the journey from the Al-Aqsa Mosque to Jerusalem, and other sacred earthly journeys.

Sea Crossing

The ancient Egyptian story of the Shipwrecked Sailor tells of a meeting between the sailor and the Lord of Punt in an island in the middle of the sea. Punt, which could be used as a general name for regions that traded with Egypt, in this case probably refers to the sources of spices and perfumes that the Lord of Punt claims were products of his isle. So Punt was the (Nusantao) eastern source of the aromatics that came into the port later known to the Greeks as Rhapta.

The Eastern Quest in Islam also involves crossing oceans, either metaphysical or real in nature. In the Sufi masterpiece Conference of the Birds by Farid al-Din Attar, thousand of birds set out toward the East to find the Simurgh, the King of Birds. They meet many obstacles along the way and by the time they reach the island of the Simurgh, only thirty birds are left. They find out at the end that what they were seeking was themselves, as si murgh means "thirty birds" in Persian. However, this journey toward self-realization also involved a physical "return to the source."

Punt, or the eastern location with that name, had many of the characteristics we find in other earthly paradise lands. It was wanting of nothing, and on the isle was found a friendly and hospitable king. It was a land rich in aromatics and precious metals. And it was located in a fiery island on the sea.

But Punt for all its idyllic conditions is a real place, a real source of trade products. As with Penglai and Dilmun, there appears to be some attempt at attracting people to visit the region. The fangshi wizards, for example, in China encouraged voyages to Penglai. The equivalent of the fangshi among Islamic mystics would be the Ishrâqîyûn "Easterners" or "Eastern Theosophers."

According to our supposition of a long-standing Nusantao trading war, the rival kings followed polices of attraction in a conflict fought on both mundane and spiritual planes. That the opposing kings might have, on occasion, portrayed themselves as divine or divine incarnations is not that unusual for the time or place involved.

Aspects of divine kingship in this region can be found at all levels. For example, in eastern Indonesia, there are numerous kings of small domains, who have lofty titles like "Great Lord," "Lord of the Earth," "Head of the Earth," "Descendent of the Sun," etc. These kings represent or, more accurately often embody, the local deities of the people.

Among the Austronesian reconstructions for "king, prince, chief, etc." is the prototype for datu, which probably originally meant either a leader of a village or network of villages, or a captain of a ship or fleet. "Datu" might be related to similar words meaning "to reach a destination, to arrive" or more revealingly "to be able to reach a destination." The datu, thus as a ship captain, was required to span space and time -- in the form of ikat or canoe-days -- to reach the target of the navigator. This model of the "sea king" or royal guide/captain is also found widely in quest-type literature. Prester John, for example, in the original version rules on an island in the Indies, and it has been argued here that a real East Indian king took on the role of geographical and navigational informant to encourage nations into his trading regions.

"The Concourse of the Birds" from The Conference of the Birds, painted by Habib Allah in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Circa 1600. (

A journey to the East is a return to place of the origin of life, the world and even physical matter as opposed to spiritual essense. Esoterically, the Eastern Quest is an inward pilgrimage to find the true or original self.


In the ancient kingdom of Lusung, the interchangeable words malak and malay mean "awareness, knowledge," and someone with these qualities is a "knowing one."

The Ishrâqîyûn propounded a dualist philosophy with deep eschatological beliefs. Although the Eastern Quest for them was a metaphysical affair taking into account the required pilgrimages of Islam, it can be argued that they still stressed the geographical importance of the East (Mashriq). We might find the historical reality of the Ishrâqîyûn in relation to the notices of the Sayabiga and Zott along the Persian Gulf coasts during the early centuries of Islam.

Iranian theosophical thinking penetrated into medieval Europe primarily through the works of Albumasar and the al-Balkhi school of astronomy and philosophy. Albumasar was known as the "auctor in astronomia" in Europe, and translations of his work began in the early 12th century, or just shortly before Prester John first appears on the scene.

Grail literature that arises near the end of the 12th century tells in many accounts of the origin of the Holy Grail in India or the Indies, and of its eventual return to that land. The location of the Grail in the Indies also compels one toward the Eastern Quest -- toward Eden and the land of aromatics -- in a manner that appealed to the knighthood societies of Europe at the time.

As in the Conference of the Birds, the Grail is primarily the object of the quest, and it is through the quest itself that one attains knowledge.

One can view the Eastern Quest then as a return to the place of primordial origin. That location can be the inward source of one's own origin, but to people for whom time and place had great meaning, returning to the actual physical location accomplished a more intimate and complete reunion often thought of as simultaneous with inner realization.

Come you lost Atoms to your Centre draw,
And be the Eternal Mirror that you saw:
Rays that have wander'd into Darkness wide
Return and back into your Sun subside

-- Mantiq at-Tayr (Conference of the Birds) by Farid ud-Din Attar (1177 CE)

Paul Kekai Manansala


Baldick, Julian. Mystical Islam: An Introduction to Sufism, I.B.Tauris, 2000.

Corbin, Henry and Joseph H. Rowe (translator). The Voyage and the Messenger: Iran and Philosophy, North Atlantic Books, 1998.

al-Din Attar, Farid . The Conference of the Birds: a philosophical religious poem in prose, Penguin Classics, 1984.