Allegory of the Pen

بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ

The following is the  “Allegory of the Pen”, originally by Imam al-Ghazali (r.a.).

A certain devotee who was on the way to illumination saw a piece of paper with lines written on it.  “Why,” asked the devotee, “Have you blackened your bright face?”

“It is not fair to take me to task,” replied the paper.  “I have done nothing.  Ask the ink why she has sallied from the inkstand, where she was quite at ease, and forcibly blackened me.”

“You are right,” said the devotee, who then turned to the ink and enquired of her.

“Why do you ask me?” she said.  “I was sitting still in the inkstand and had no mind to come out, but this truculent pen rushed at me, drew me out and scattered me over the page.  There you see me lying helpless, go to the pen and ask him.”

The devotee turned to the pen and interrogated him about his high handedness.

“Why do you trouble me?” answered the pen.  “Look, what am I?  An insignificant reed.  I was growing by the banks, off silvery streams amidst shady green trees, when lo, a hand stretched at me.  It held knife which uprooted me, flayed me and separated my joint, hewed me, cleaved my head, then chopped it off.  I was sent headlong towards the ink and have to serve abjectly.  Do not add insult to my injuries, go to the hand and ask him.”

The devotee looked at the hand and asked, “Is it true?  Are you so cruel?”

“Do not be angry sir,” replied the hand.  “I am a bundle of flesh, bones and blood.  Have you ever seen a piece of flesh exerting power?  Can a body move of itself?  I am a vehicle used by one called vitality, he rides on me and forces me round and round.  You see a dead man has hands but cannot use them because vitality has left them.  Why should I, a mere vehicle be blamed?  Go to vitality and ask him why he makes use of me.”

“You are right,” said the devotee and then questioned vitality.

“Do not find fault with me,” answered vitality.  “Many time a censurer himself is reproved while the censured itself found faultless.  How do you know that I have forced the hand?  I was already there before he moved and had no idea of the motion.  I was unconscious and the onlookers were also unaware of me.  Suddenly an agent came and stirred me.  I had neither strength enough to disobey nor willingness to obey him.  The action for which you are taking me to task, I had to do according to his wish.  I do not know who this agent is; he is called will and I know him by name only.  Had the matter been left to me, I think I would have done nothing.”

“All right,” continued the devotee.  “I shall put the question to will and ask him why he has forcibly employed vitality, which of its own accord, would have done nothing.”

“Do not be in too great a hurry,” exclaimed will.  “Perchance I may give you sufficient reason, His majesty the mind sent an ambassador named knowledge, who delivered his message to me through reason saying, ‘Rise up, stir vitality.’  I was forced to do so because I have to obey knowledge and reason but I know not why.  As long as I receive no order I am happy, but the moment an order is delivered, I dare not disobey.  Whatever my monarch might be, a just ruler or a tyrant, I must obey him.  On my oath, as long as the king hesitates or ponders over the matter I stand quite ready to serve, but the moment his order is passed, my sense of obedience, which is innate, forces me to stir up vitality.  So you should not blame me.  Go to knowledge and get information there.”

“You are right,” consented the devotee and proceeding, asked mind and its ambassadors, knowledge and reason for an explanation.

Reason excused himself by saying he was a lamp only but knew not who had lit him.  Mind pleaded his innocence by calling himself a mere tabula rasa.  Knowledge maintained that it was simply an inscription on the tabula rasa, inscribed after the lamp of reason had been lit.  Thus he could not be considered to be the author of the inscription, which may have been the work of some invisible pen.

The devotee was puzzled by the reply, but collecting himself, he spoke thus to knowledge: “I am wondering in the path of my inquiry, to whomsoever I go and ask the reason, I am referred to another.  Nevertheless, there is pleasure in my quest, for I find that everyone gives me a plausible reason.  But pardon me, sir, if I say that your reply, knowledge, fails to satisfy me.  You say that you are a mere inscription recorded by the pen.  I have seen pen, ink and tablet.  They are of reed, a black mixture and of wood and iron respectively.  And I have seen lamps lit with fire, but here I do not see any of these things and yet you talked of the tablet, the lamp, the pen and the inscription.  Surely you are not trifling with me!”

“Certainly not,” returned knowledge, “I spoke in right earnest.  But I see your difficulty.  Your means are scanty, your horse is jaded and your journey is long and dangerous.  Give up this enterprise, as I fear you cannot succeed.  If, however you are prepared to run the risks then listen.  Your journey extends through three regions.  The first is the terrestrial world, its objects – pen, ink, paper, hand, and so forth, are just what you have seen them to be.  The second is the celestial world, which will begin when you have left me behind.  There you will come across dense forests, deep wide rivers and high, impassable mountains, and I know not how you would be able to proceed.

Between these two worlds there is a third intermediary region called the phenomenal world.  You have crossed three stages of it — vitality, will and knowledge.  To use a simile, a man who is walking is treading the terrestrial world; if he is sailing in a boat he enters the phenomenal world; and if he leaves the boat and swims and walks on the waters, he is admitted in the celestial world.

If you do not know how to swim, go back!  For the watery region of the celestial world begins now, when you can see that pen inscribing on the tablet of the heart.  If you are not of whom it was said, ‘O you of little faith wherefore did you doubt?’ - Prepare yourself for, by faith, you shall not simply walk on the sea but fly in the air.”

The wandering devotee stood speechless for a while then turned to knowledge saying, “I am in a difficulty.  The dangers of the path which you have described unnerve my heart, and I know not whether I have sufficient strength to face them and to succeed in the end.”

“There is a test for your strength,” replied knowledge.  “Open your eyes and fix your gaze on me, if you see the pen that writes on the heart, you will in my opinion, be able to proceed further on.  He who crosses the phenomenal world, knocks at the door of the celestial world,
then sights the pen which writes on the hearts.”

The devotee did as he was advised but failed to see that pen because his notion of a pen was that of a pen of reed or wood.

Then knowledge drew his attention, saying, “There is the rub.  Do you not know that the furniture of a palace indicates the status of its Lord?  Nothing in the universe resembles God, therefore His Attributes are also Transcendental.  He is neither body nor is He in space; His Hand is not a bundle of flesh, bone, and blood.  His Pen is not of reed or wood.  His Writing is not from ink prepared from vitriol and gall.  But there are many who ignorantly cling to an anthropomorphic view of Him.  There are few who cherish a Transcendentally Pure Conception of Him and believe that He is not only Above All material limitation but even Above the limitation of metaphor.  You seem to be oscillating between this two views, because on the one hand you think of that God is Immaterial, that His Words have neither sound nor shape, on the other hand, you cannot rise to the transcendental conception of His Hand, Pen and Tablet.”

Do you think that the meaning of the tradition, ‘Verily God Created Adam in His Own Image,’ is limited to the visible face of man.?  Certainly not; it is the inward nature of man seen by the inward sight, which can be called the image of God.  But listen, you are now at the sacred mount, where the invisible voice from the burning bush speaks:

Exodus 3:14
14 … “I am the God Who Is…”


“Verily, I am thy Lord!  Therefore (in My presence) put off thy shoes...” (Surah ThaHa:12)”

The devotee, who listening with rapture, suddenly saw as it were a flash of lightning; there appeared working the pen, which writes on the hearts, formless.  “A thousand blessing on thee, O knowledge, who has saved me from falling into the abyss of anthropomorphism.  I thank thee from the bottom of my heart, I tarried long, but now, adieu!”

The devotee then resumed his journey.  Halting in the presence of the invisible pen, he politely asked the same question.

“You know my reply,” answered the mysterious pen.  You cannot have forgotten the reply given to you by the pen in the terrestrial world.”

“Yes, I remember,” replied the devotee, “but how can it be the same reply, because there is no similitude between you and that pen?”

“Then it seems you have forgotten the tradition, ‘Verily God Created Adam in his Own Image.’”

“No, sir,” interrupted the devotee.  “I know it by heart.”

“And you have forgotten the passage in the Qur’an:

… and the heavens will be rolled up in His Right Hand … (Surah az-Zumar:67)”

“Certainly not!” exclaimed the devotee.  “I can repeat the entire Qur’an by rote.”

“Yes, I know, and as you are now treading the sacred precincts of the celestial world, I think I can now safely tell that you have simply learnt the meaning of these passages from a negative point of view, but they have a positive value and should be utilised as constructive at this stage.   Proceed further and you will understand when I mean.”

The devotee looked and found himself reflecting upon the Divine Attribute, Omnipotence.  At once, he realised the force of the mysterious pen’s argument, but, goaded by his inquisitive nature, he was about to put the question in the Holy Being, when a voice like the deafening sound of thunder, was heard from above, proclaiming:

He cannot be questioned for His acts, but they will be Questioned (for theirs). (Surah al-Anbiya’:23)

Filled with surprise the devotee bent his head in silent submission.  The Hand of Divine Mercy stretched towards the helpless devotee; into his ears were whispered in zephyr tones:

And those who strive in Our (Cause) ― We will certainly Guide them to Our Paths ... (Surah al-‘Ankabut:69)

Opening his eyes, the devotee raised his head and poured forth his heart in silent prayer: “Holy art Thou, O God Almighty: Blessed is Thy Name, O Lord of the Universe!  Henceforth, I shall fear no mortal: I put my entire trust in Thee.  Thy Forgiveness is my solace; Thy Mercy is my refuge.”


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