Sufism and Image Psychology

by Akhter Ahsen, Ph.D.

Sufism has a long past which is futuristic in essence. Its earliest roots are traceable in Greek philosophy from which it moved on toward a visionary direction which is reflected in its special notion of the Present as presence of God itself. A Sufi's Present is perpetual illuminations from the Ishraq, an irradiation, which is God's own face like the day emanating from the Darkness. This Darkness is the hidden most of all hiddennesses and Ishraq its irradiation is all light, all Presence. This is affirmed in the exact parallel between the Greek terms Eide and Eidos and the Sufi usage of the words Ain and Aiyan. The Eide in the Greek language is connected with seeing and Ain in the Arabic language means literally the "eye." The Sufis use the term Ain for the inner essence of a thing and more specifically for the universal image of the thing eternally existing in God. The term Aiyan al-thabitah means eternal ideas existing in God. They are said to be really real.

For the Sufis the deepest part of the self is not abstract and remote, but a felt intuition, basically imagistic, which is living and breathing like a true being. Sufis have always talked about both absence and presence of God imagistically in a poetic way. They have taken the abstract to the heart of the visual language. Thus the hidden most part of all hiddennesses is what enfolds the visible, like the black locks of the beloved's beaming face. For the Sufis the truth is not remote but right in front of our eyes.

Historically, Sufism is not only connected with Greek thought, but also with Zoroastrianism as well as Hinduism. The symbolism of the Ishraq comes from the Zoroastrian notion of Shamash, which is the sun. In this context, one is reminded of the famous Shams, Rumi's mystic friend in Iran who met his death at the hands of his persecutors. His life was death and darkness and light, all held together in one moment. One thinks of the Vedic tradition expressed in the Upanishads: Andeh temah (Ignorance is like the blind man's inert darkness). Vidya yam rata, (wisdom is the long perpetual night like death).

The tradition of Zikr in Sufism poignantly represents this pain and release, a heating of the body through recitation of the sacred names of God which contain Ishraq, the irradiating images of God. In the Sufi tradition fire is not worshipped but lived through Zikr, until the self is completely consumed in this heat. Various stages of this heat represent mental conditions of presence and absence of desire, fear, ecstasy and their respective hidden forms and perceptions. So the mystical heat is hot, warm and cold as during various stages of the Zikr as the body of the person offering himself in the Zikr. This is the same fire in Solomon’s Temple which was kept burning the year round and was in essence the all consuming fire of God, the holocaust, which left no trace behind of what had been offered. The most eloquent expression of this sacrificial tradition in Sufism is Sohrawardi whose fate was similar to Shams.

The doctrine of Ishraq (illuminations) is closely connected to both Sohrawardi and Ibn Arabi and has a perceptual loyalty of the poets across the Islamic world who use this metaphor of joy and pain. The status of suffering in the Greek notion of Eidos was never artificial, or accidental, nor was it in Sufism. Plato himself mentioned how Eidos is abused when it enters into this world. This notion was carried forward from the Greeks by the Christian monks who were very active during the period Sufism took roots in Islam. The Sufis place this suffering in the middle of the Zikr while going through the heatedness of the passion as the soul reaches the center of God, from where the light begins to emanate from the Darkness. There is a very close parallel here between Christian passion and the fire in Sufism.

The Sufi usage of Ain and Aiyan means God’s face coming out of the darkness like the irradiation: whatever we see around God. The ultimate meaning of the Sufi inspiration is the world is God’s own face. This tradition moved on from Plato to Plotinus, who was called by the Sufis, the Shaikh al-Unani, the Greek master. The Sufis who hold Sohrawardi, in the highest honor, call Ibn Arabi, Shaikh al-Akbar, the greatest of the masters.

Plotinus came after Aristotle and his statement of the principles of reason and objectivity which later on during the Renaissance had became a rigidly rationalistic tradition practiced in the developing sciences. However, at the end of this tragic road of rationalism we find Thomas Aquinas who rejected rationalism and who famously pointed out that the Self goes forth into objects and brings them inside. Historically, this new thinking later on emerged in the scientific researches of the Marburg school in Germany, where E.R. Janesch directed the experimental tradition in psychology toward eidetic investigations. It was a happy return to the Greek Eidos after a long tragic period of rationalism both in philosophy
and sciences.

My own work in Image Psychology developed the study of the eidetic further beyond where the Germans had left it as a result of the Second World War. I particularly pursued the eidetic in clinical, mythological and educational areas. I showed that the eidetic encompasses all the levels of the mind and is a reliable instrument of knowledge and transformation of life. The most fascinating part of the eidetic is, of course, its empathic dimension, being an image which like a living being, empathizes into the subject as much as the subject empathizes into it. The two, subject and object, join together in the experience as if through a shared fate. For this reason, the eidetic is a natural vehicle of illuminations where the deepest embraces the ordinary. In the eidetic the daily life is enriched through what is revealed in it through the empathy process, which lies in its cave. Empathy at the level of social participations and interchange is the ability to identify with and understand another person's feelings or difficulties. It is the experience of being eye to eye, heart to heart and toe to toe with another human being at a specific instant of knowing the person. Through empathy, we attain knowledge of others by way of direct personal awareness of their experience using these living images. We are all born with this natural capacity. When we watch a movie, we enter into empathy with the actors on the screen. When friends share their joy and sorrow with us, their joy and sorrow enters us. In that moment of sharing, we become one with our friends and our separateness vanishes.

Empathy breaks down narcissism. One of the special qualities of the Self, according to Thomas Aquinas, is that the Self extends itself into outside objects and brings them inside. There is an implied unity of intention in this dual process. According to the Greeks, the objects already have that intention and a feeling of unity with the Eidos. The Self coming from the Eidos has the same intention. This is where the link of empathy and the eidetic is, a quality inherent in the Eidos. Eidetic images, for this reason, carry a universal intention in them and Image Psychology that was developed from them has vast implications in clinical, educational and general living, including the interfaith dialogue.

Eidetic Imaging

Eidetic Images are the detailed visual, physical and emotional snapshots that form spontaneously in response to significant life experiences. They differ from memories, dreams, daydreams, and consciously constructed visualizations. They are concrete imprints of our mind's response to the real events. A fundamental difference between eidetics and other forms of psychotherapy is that with eidetic imaging a person is able to see a situation more concretely and clearly, experience the emotions connected to it, and have an immediate understanding of themselves. In traditional therapy the therapist tries to help find the meaning. The Eidetic is a self-revealing and self-empowering technique. Being a precise method, and a diagnosis, all in one, it allows us to gain access to parts of our consciousness that would otherwise be locked away from awareness. The method reveals our true genius. Eidetic imagery as a tool can: provide instant insight into our minds and the people around us; break fixed perspectives on how we see and respond to others; tap into unrealized talents, strengths and power that have been dormant; move us from negative emotions to positive ones.

Eidetic imaging enables us to see clearly other people's perspectives without our own emotional filter and releases us from fear of the unknown in personal relationships. The connection of the approach with the Greek Eidos and the Sufi view of the world as the very face of God (Presence as the presented picture) should be obvious to the inquiring reader.


Ahsen, A. (1977). Psycheye: Self-analytic consciousness. New York: Brandon House.

Ahsen, A. (1992). Imagery of prayer: A pilot experiment on concepts and content. Journal of
Mental Imagery. 16(3&4), 1-72.

Ahsen, A. (1994). Hot and cold mental imagery: Mind over body encounters. New York: Brandon

Dr. Akhter Ahsen is the originator of Image Psychology and author of more than 30 books on imagery. Web site:

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