An in-depth look into the five realms in Islamic mysticism and spirituality.
A Study of the Five Realms in Islamic Mysticism: The Quran and Narrations [Long Read]
An in-depth look into the five realms in Islamic mysticism and spirituality.
Islamic mysticism is an esoteric approach to the Qur’an and the sunna of the Prophet. However, this statement does not mean that mysticism is separate from its apparent meaning in the Qur’an and the sunna. Rather, the relationship between the two meanings is hierarchic with one encompassing the other. In other words, one verse gives us an apparent meaning while the other gives us a deeper meaning, and the same holds true for the different realms.
In Islamic mysticism, the whole existence is consisted of and finds meaning in five realms. The Qur’an and sunna are one of the main sources for proving the existence of these realms.
This paper is an effort to provide strong arguments from the Noble Qur’an and the narrations for those who deny these realms – the knowledge of which is based in Islamic mysticism – and argue that there is a lack of solid proof from the Qur’an and the narrations on the side of the mystics in this field. This study addresses those who seek a scholarly approach to this topic providing explicit proof for the different realms from verses of the Quran and narrations. It is also aimed at those who are interested in mysticism and want to have access to the verses and narrations on the topic of the different realms.
It is noteworthy to mention that the last of the five realms will not be discussed in this paper because we as human beings do not have any doubts about its existence. The fifth realm is the material universe in which we live which has time, space, and matter.
When it comes to the transliteration of the Arabic letters to English, the correct pronunciation of those words in the Arabic language has been used. It has also been taken into consideration how a person who might be unfamiliar with the Arabic language can pronounce it easiest and most correctly.
The topic of the realms of existence is a very crucial yet deep matter. Here, each realm will only be briefly introduced so that we can delve into the details of the realms in coming chapters. The whole of existence consists of five realms. We will begin with the “strongest” or most important realm and go “down” towards the weakest. All these realms are interconnected like a circle within a circle.
- The First Determination (Ta’ayyun al Awwal) is the knowledge of Allah about Himself. The knowledge of the essence about the essence (‘ilm adh dhāt bi dhāt).
- The Second Determination, (Ta’ayyun ath thānī), is the knowledge of Allah about Himself and His attributes and characteristics.
These two realms are called internal realms, because they do not have an external reality, but they are actually different levels of awareness and knowledge about Allah.
- The Noetic Realm (‘Ālam al ‘Aql) is the first of three external realms, the most powerful and the creator of all other realms.
- The Imaginal Realm (‘Ālam al Mithāl) is the second of three external realms and the creator of the material realm. This realm is also called the Intermediate Realm (Barzakh). This is the realm which all the souls depart to for reckoning before Judgment Day.
- The Material Realm (‘Ālam al Mādda) is the third realm and the weakest of all the realms. This is the universe with its estimated 400 billion galaxies wherein we are located in.
We also have the Status of the Essence (Maqām adh Dhāt) which is not counted as a realm but is seen as a reality that is viewed as existing outside the spheres of the realms. This “Status” is a level of awareness and knowledge that is limited to Allah only and no messenger or Imam or mystic can reach. Thus, the two Determinations together with the Status of the Essence are levels of awareness and knowledge at different levels.
Following is a summary of Islamic ontology according to Islamic mysticism. Ontology or ‘ilm al wujūd is a branch of metaphysics that deals with the Nature of Being. The discussion about Islamic ontology always starts with the beginning of creation, and the purpose of the creation. What was the purpose of Allah in creating these realms in the first place? The famous ḥadīth al qudsī about the purpose of creation may provide us a response to that question. The mystics usually mention this ḥadīth,
“I was a hidden treasure and loved to be known, so I created.”
Because of Allah’s immense grace, mercy and love, it would be an impossibility not to create. For had He not created, He would not have been those exact attributes with which we define Allah; the Most Graceful, the Most Generous, the Most Merciful. Thus, He created everything (all the realms).
He was a hidden treasure and when He “turned on the lights” through creating the Muhammadan Reality, He became known.
What was the light (nūr) or radiance? The light was the Prophet Muhammad and Ali. The prophet said:
“Ali and I are from the same light/ radiance.”
“Ali and I are the two fathers of this nation.“
“Ali and I are from the same tree.”
But what about our creation? What purpose did that have? We can add this verse from the Qur’an which says:
وَمَا خَلَقْتُ الْجِنَّ وَالْإِنْسَ إِلَّا لِيَعْبُدُونِ.
I have not created the jins (supernatural creations) and the humans except that they would worship Me. Adh Dhāriyāt (The Scatterers), 56
According to the interpretations of scholars, the word “worship” here means “to know”. So even here Allah wants to make Himself known to the creation out of love and grace. Hence, we could say in regards to the above-mentioned verse, “except that they would know Me.” Another verse which can be added is the verse which talks about the philosophy of two crucial dimensions within human life, death and life, which says:
خَلَقَ الْمَوْتَ وَالْحَيَاةَ لِيَبْلُوَكُمْ أَيُّكُمْ أَحْسَنُ عَمَلًا
He who created death and life, to test you, as to see which of you is better in conduct.
What we understand here is that the whole purpose of the creation of death and life, according to this verse is for Allah to see who is the best in actions and deeds in this world, and judge accordingly and give you your due in the Hereafter. This “due” is created by your hands.
The Essence of Allah
Before anything else, it is necessary to discuss The Essence of Allah (dhā-tullah) due to the importance of this topic. Note that the topic of the Essence of Allah is not a realm but rather a “status” which is a level of awareness and knowledge which is limited to Allah only and which no messenger or Imam or mystic can reach to. Thus, the two Determinations together with the Status of the Essence are levels of awareness and knowledge at different levels.
Before going to the realms, we will begin by discussing the topic of the ‘Status of the Essence.’
AL MAQĀM ADH DHĀT (The Status of the Essence):
This status is not considered a realm in itself; rather, it is the essence of Allah. This “Status” is a level of awareness and knowledge which is limited to Allah only and which no messenger or Imam or mystic can reach to. Thus, the two Determinations together with the Status of the Essence are levels of awareness and knowledge at different levels.
Imam Ja’far says: “The one who contemplates about the essence of Allah becomes a disbeliever.”
من أفكر في ذاتِ اللهِ تَزَنْدَق.
They will never encompass anything of His knowledge. ṬāHā, 110
لا يُحيطونَ به علماً.
The prophet said: “We were not able to know you the way you deserved, and we were not able to worship you the way you deserved.”
قال رسول الله; ما عَرَفناك حق معرفتك و ما عَبَدناك حق عبادَتِك.
The mystic scholars say that the word, or the name Huwa (He), in some verses of the Qur’an should not be taken as a pronoun, but that it is actually referring to the “Status of the Essence of Allah”, al Maqām adh Dhāt. Verses where Huwa (He) is mentioned as a name of Allah and not as a pronoun are the following:
Say: He (huwa) is Allah, the One and Unique. Al Ikhlāṣ (The Sincerity), 1
قُلۡ هُوَ اللّٰهُ اَحَدٌ
There is no god but He (huwa), the All-Mighty, the All-Wise. Āli ‘Imrān (The Family of ‘Imrān), 18
لَاۤ اِلٰهَ اِلَّا هُوَ الۡعَزِيۡزُ الۡحَكِيۡمُؕ
The narration of Imam Ali is also referring to that name when he uses the Huwa, or He for Allah:
“Oh He, oh whoever is not He, except He.”
یَا هُوَ یَا مَنْ لا هُوَ إِلَّا هُوَ
These are instances where the “He” is not used as a pronoun, but as a name for the status of the essence of Allah.
We will now start with the non-creational realms which have to do with “the knowledge of Allah”. These are basic divisions the mystics have made to comprehend Allah better.
A General View of the Five Realms According to Mysticism
The First Determination
The Second Determination
The Noetic Realm
The Imaginal Realm
The Material Realm
The five realms are divided into non-creational and creational realms. Therefore, we are talking about two basic divisions here.
- The first division (the non-creational realms) includes: The First Determination and the Second Determination which are basically a division of how we look at Allah’s knowledge of Himself, His attributes and His creation.
- The second division (creational realms) includes: The Noetic Realm, the Imaginal Realm and the Material Realm.
These realms are like Russian dolls “positioned” within each other. The Material Realm with its estimated 400 billion galaxies is within the Imaginal Realm and encompassed by it. The Imaginal Realm in its turn is -together with the Material Realm – within the Noetic Realm, or encompassed by it.
The Noetic Realm is the inner dimension of the Imaginal Realm, while the Imaginal Realm is the inner dimension of the Material Realm. From another perspective, the Material Realm is the outward dimension of the Imaginal Realm, and the Imaginal Realm is the outward dimension of the Noetic Realm, while the Noetic Realm is the outward realm of the Determinations.
The Non-Creational Realms
TA’AYYUNĀT – The Determinations (The Different Levels of Awareness by which the Mystic Comprehends Allah):
The First Determination and the Second Determination are basically a division of how we look at Allah’s knowledge of Himself, His attributes, and His creation. The Mi’raj of the prophet is a clear proof for these realms, he continued after the realm of ‘aql (the Noetic Realm) towards the Determinations.
The First Determination:
The word Aḥadiya is used for the first Determination, and that word is derived from chapter Ikhlāṣ (Sincerity), verse one.
This is the station where the knowledge of Allah is only about Himself without taking any of His other attributes into consideration. Allah is Allah; period.
Say: “He is Allah, the One and Unique”. Al Ikhlāṣ (The Sincerity), 1
قل هو الله احد.
Other verses which are used for the First Determination are,
Then he approached and came closer. An Najm (The Star), 8
ثم دنا فتدَلّى
Until he was two bows’ length away, or nearer. An Najm (The Star), 8
فكان قابَ قوسينِ او أدنى.
Or even nearer.
This verse in chapter The Star, has to do with the famous Mi’rāj -the heavenly ascension of the prophet- to the celestial realms, and even further. He went until he reached the Determinations. This single verse is divided here into two parts. One is relevant to the First Determination, which is “or even nearer”, while the other part is about the Second Determination “Until he was two bows’ length away.”
The following is a verse in relation to the First Determination;
With Him are the Keys of the unseen, none knows them except He. Al An’ām (The Cattle), 59
و عنده مفاتِحُ الغيب لا يعلَمُها إلا هو.
In maqām adh dhāt (the Status of the Essence), the mafātīḥ (keys) are the manifestation of the Essence. In the First Determination, ‘the Keys’ are the Names of the Essence. In the Second Determination, ‘the Keys’ are the Names, the Attributes, and the permanent archetypes. Mafātīḥ is plural for the word miftāḥ, a plurality or multiplicity which is with Him. A multiplicity which ends with Allah. Multiplicity in unity and unity in multiplicity.
The realm of the Imaginal compared to the realm of the material realm is ghayb (unseen), and these two realms compared to the Noetic realm are considered as ghayb or unseen. So this plurality or multiplicity (Mafātīḥ) ends in the singularity or unity of Allah. How?
This Multiplicity gathers in the person who is khalīfa-tullāh or Ḥaqīqa-tul-Muhammadiya. He is the “filter” of Allah’s manifestation or Names. That reality is the link between creation and Allah.
The Second Determination:
The word Wāḥidiya (واحدية) is used for this realm.
The Second Determination is ‘the knowledge of Allah about himself and all of His attributes and Names.’ They all exist here, in this realm.
In the Second Determination, we have three main pillars that form the foundation of the Second Determination.
- The Divine Names,
- The Permanent Archetypes or Fixed Entities, (al A’yān ath Thābita) and
- Destiny and predetermination (Qaḍā and Qadar), which are part of the Fixed Entities.
We will begin with the Divine Names, and try to explain them and their importance.
These Names are divided into:
- The Names of the Essence (asmā-udh-dhātī from dhā-tullah),
- The Names of the Attributes (asmā-uṣ–ṣifāt from ṣifā-tullah) and
- The Names of the Deeds/acts (asmā-ul-af’āl from af’ā-lullah).
What is a Divine Name According to Islamic Mysticism?
A divine name is; dhāt + ṣifa= ism which means;
Essence + attribute= Name
In other words, the essence multiplied by an attribute would be equal to a name. In another perspective we see that the Names of Allah are also compared with the different realms:
- The Names of the Essence to the First Determination.
- The Names of the Attributes to the Second Determination.
- The Names of the Deeds to the realms of creation (the three realms).
Not all Names are equal. They are ranked differently:
- The number one ranking Name is Allah, the highest of all Names. It includes all the Names in itself.
- The number two ranking group of Names are the four general Names, Ḥayy, Qādir, ‘Ālim and Kalām. The most general Name among these names is al Ḥayy, because all the Names go back to this one single Name which means the Living.
- All the other Names fit in the third rank or group.
When these Names actualize themselves, creation comes into being. The manifestation of these names is the cause of creation. To make it tangible:
You could be, and have the potential to be a grandfather, but you have not yet become a grandfather. It actualizes only when you get a grandchild.
The above mentioned example resembles the relationship between the Divine Names in the Second Determination and their manifestation in the creation – the realms.
From another perspective are these divine Names also divided into two major categories with the titles of, the Majestic Names (Jalāl) and the Beautiful Names (Jamāl). All the divine Names are divided accordingly under these two Names and everything which exists in the creation is the manifestations of these two Names.
The following is a verse in relation to the Divine Names;
He is Lofty in Degrees, Owner of the Throne. Al Ghāfir (The Forgiver), 15
رفیع الدرجات ذو العرش
The term Rafī’ ad Darajāt (Lofty in Degrees), is sometimes translated to the Elevator of Degrees, which in Arabic would be, Rāfi’ ad Darajāt (the Elevator/ Exalter of Degrees), which changes the meaning to “the One who exalts or elevates”. The correct term here is the former. An example is, the degrees of human beings. But the term Rafī’ ad Darajāt (Lofty in Degrees), is used for someone who enjoys those high degrees himself, and is the owner of those degrees. Hence, Allah is using this term for Himself. He is the one who is Himself Lofty in degrees. The word Rafī’ (Lofty) can be used as Rāfi’ (Elevator/ Exalter), but the primary meaning according to its appearance is that He Himself is Lofty in Degrees.
The problem which some interpreters have had with this verse is because of the word “degrees”, darajāt. How can something which is One, and non-material have degrees? The mystics’ response is, Allah has manifestations and Names and these manifestations and Names find different degrees which all – due to the essence of Allah – are lofty. Thus, the Degrees of Allah are nothing except the manifestations and Names of Allah. Why? Because there is no existence except His existence, and it is He who is revealing and expressing Himself in these manifestations, and it is He who gives all those degrees. The very reason that He is present in all these degrees makes it possible to say that He is the one who is Lofty in Degrees.
In Du’ā Kumayl we read;
“And in Thy Names which have filled all the foundations of all things.“
و باسمائك التي ملاءت اركان كل شي
This is again alluding to the fact that the Names of Allah have filled up all things in all the realms. Everything in the creation goes back to one of the divine Names of Allah. This verse from Du’ā Kumayl has one single meaning and interpretation, and that is that all things in the realms function as a manifestation of Allah.
The following is a verse in relation to the Second Determination. In chapter an Najm (The Star), verse 8-9 says:
At a distance of two bows length.
The following is a verse in relation to the destiny (Qaḍā) and the free will of human beings;
And He knows best the rightly guided. Al An’ām (The Cattle), 117
و هو أعلم بالمُهتدينَ. الأنعام 117.
The sentence that comes from Me cannot be changed. Qaf, 29
ما يُبَدَّلُ القولُ لَدَيَّ. ق 29
And I am not unjust to the servants. Qaf, 29
و ما انا بظَلّامٍ لِّلْعبيدِ. ق 29
And they used to wrong themselves. An Naḥl (The Bee), 118
و لكن كانوا أنفُسَهم يَظلِمون. النحل 118
Allah wronged them not. Āli ‘Imrān (The Family of ‘Imrān) 117
و ما ظَلمَهُمُ اللهُ. آل عمران 117
The Realms of Creation – The Three Realms
- The Noetic Realm
- The Imaginal Realm
- The Material Realm or our whole material universe with the estimated 400 billion galaxies. This last realm will not be spoken of here, because there are no doubts about its existence for us human beings.
General Verses Related to the Two Non-Material Realms
And what is this life of the world, except amusement and play! Verily, the home of the Hereafter, that is THE Life indeed, if they but knew. Al ‘Ankabūt (The Spider), 64
The home of the Hereafter is alluding to the Imaginal and Noetic Realm. Rashī-dud-dīn Meybūdī (d.1136 AD) says in his mystical interpretation of this verse:
“This life which is amusement and play is tasty for someone who does not know anything about the goodness of the next life.”
He regulates all affairs, from the heavens, to the earth. Then it ascends to Him on a Day the length of which is a thousand years by your count. As Sajda (Prostration), 5.
What is meant with heavens here, are the celestial, non-material realms, which are the inner dimensions of the material realm and Allah is the manager of these realms. The pronoun “to Him”, is referring to Allah and not to the “heavens”, and that makes it very clear that this “heaven” is of a celestial existence, because of the reason that Allah is not located or limited to a physical heaven. And by arguing that the verse is referring to a physical heaven, you would have thus limited Allah. This celestial heaven (the Noetic and the Imaginal Realm) has the stores of everything and of all existence. Everything we receive in this material realm comes from these two celestial realms.
And in the heaven is your livelihood, and what you are promised. Adh Dhāriyāt (The Spreaders), 22
This verse is in no way indicating to a worldly livelihood, but to a livelihood which comes from the realms “above”. Because if the verse was indicating rain and a material livelihood with food, cattle and stocks involved, the verse would have said “and in the earth is your livelihood,” because truly everything we have is from the earth. So this verse is not referring to rain, but to a “heaven” which has everything which we have in this material universe and also is the root source of everything we have. That “heaven” send down whatever descends upon us in this material realm. The verse says:
There is not a thing but with Us are its stores, and We send it down only in precise measure. Al Ḥijr (The Rock), 21.
Everything which exists in our realm exists in its most perfect form in the other realms and especially in the Noetic Realm, and all that which exists there descends upon us in the material realm and so does the livelihood of the human beings. Thus we can conclude that the “heaven” which is referred to here is a celestial heaven. The existence of everything, has to descend from an “upper realm”, and human beings’ livelihood is also from that source. ‘Abdur Razzāq Kāshānī (d. 1329 AD) says in his mystical interpretation of this verse:
“There is no existence without its treasures being with Us in the realm of Destiny (Qaḍā). He started with engraving His image in the Mother of the Book, which is the same as the Universal Intellect. Later, He engraved His face in another treasure by the name of the Universal Soul, which is the same as the Protected Tablet. Then other treasures came into being which were called heavenly souls, and from them came the worldly heavens, which is also called the Tablet of Destiny. In the worldly heavens it received its form and shape and precise measure.“
The Noetic Realm
The Noetic Realm gives its “grace”- fayḍ – to all the other realms. What we mean by grace is that all the other realms were created by the Noetic Realm and everything ascends from that realm to our realm. Everything that exists in our material realm exists in its most perfect form in the Noetic Realm. The Noetic Realm and everything in it, is immaterial without any form, space, time, size or color, and can be compared to the intellect of the human being which has the same characteristics. The Noetic Realm is not separate from the noetic beings; rather, the Noetic Realm is those noetic beings. The Noetic Realm holds those beings within itself.
The same holds true for the Imaginal and material realm such that when the existence of an imaginal or a material being is proved, their realms are proven as well. According to the philosophical school of Mullā Ṣadrā, the Noetic Realm is the first “external” creation of Allah and from it everything else is created. All the other dimensions or realms are created by the Noetic Realm. According to Islamic philosophy and Islamic mysticism, it is an impossibility for Allah to create multitudinous, it goes against His essence, the One and the Only. Thus the first creation of Allah must be ‘one,’ wāḥid. This is a golden rule in Islamic philosophy which is derived from the rule of “That which is one will not emanate/ produce except one.”
Thus, Allah creates only one creation (the Noetic Realm) which in its turn creates everything else with the permission of Allah and with His presence in all creation. The Noetic Realm with all its majestic power and dominance is fully dependent on and in need of Allah and does not have an independent creation. This is the only commonality of the Noetic Realm with other creations and realms. The Noetic Realm is the effect or result (ma‘lūl) of the cause (‘illa), and in this case the cause is Allah, and because Allah is the One, al Wāḥid, He creates or emanates one thing only, which is the Noetic Realm.
The Noetic Realm gives its “grace”, fayḍ, to all the creations and realms. Our existence and our universe, and the Imaginal Realm is because of the descendent Noetic Realm. A question that may come up here is: How does the Noetic Realm create the Imaginal Realm and the Imaginal Realm in its turn the material realm with all its details? How does the Imaginal Realm take shape? The answer to this question is, as stated formerly, these realms do not have time, space or motion. They are sheer actuality (fi’līya-tul-maḥḍa), and this means that the Noetic Realm only issues or produces the Imaginal Realm ‘instantly’, “be and it is,” as stated in the Noble Qur’ān.
According to Islamic mysticism, the first creation is not the Noetic Realm but Nafa-sur-Raḥmān, the Breath of the Merciful. It is this “breath” which has created everything from the “internal realms to the external realms”. The Breath of the Merciful is sometimes compared to a rolling curtain falling down and containing or encompassing all the realms within it, both the spiritual divine realms in the presence of Allah and the three external realms which we mentioned in this article.
Philosophical terms for this Realm: Arwāḥ – Spirits, ‘Aql – Noetic, Malā’ika – Angels.
‘Irfānī or mystical terms: Amr – Order, Malakūt – Kingdom, Ghayb – Unseen.
Qur’anic and ḥadīthī terms: Amr – Order, Qalam – Pen, Malak – Angel.
The verses in the chapter an Najm/ the Star, which has to do with the Mi’rāj (the heavenly ascension) of the prophet, talks about realms above the Noetic Realm. Realms where the angel Jibrā’īl could not enter. According to the narrations, the holy prophet reached such a lofty level that even the archangel Jibrā’īl, which dwells in the realm of angels or the Noetic realm, could not pass. This level which the prophet could embark on was the Determinations.
The following is a verse in relation to the Noetic Realm:
“His is the creation, and His is the command.” Al A’rāf (The Heights), 54.
The word command (amr) is referring to the Noetic Realm.
Indeed, I swear by what you see. And by what you do not see. Al Ḥaqqa (The Reality), 38-39.
What is meant here with “what you see”, is the material realm, and “by what you do not see”, is the Imaginal and Noetic realm.
A question that might be asked here is; ‘How does the Noetic Realm effect my life here on earth? What value does the knowledge about the Noetic Realm have for me?’
The answer is: Issues like goodness and evil (khayr and sharr) on our planet has a direct relationship with our deeds, and our deeds in its turn have a direct influence on the Noetic Realm which gives back what is due to human beings’ actions. It gives back its feedback in the form of goodness or evil according to human beings’ deeds and actions and according to what they deserve. So everything we do and how we act in every given situation is given back to us in a cycle of goodness or evil from the Noetic Realm. The Qur’ān says:
And if only the people of the cities had believed and feared Allah, We would have opened upon them blessings from the heaven and the earth; but they denied [the messengers], so We seized them for what they were earning. 
And further: And fear a trial which will not strike those who have wronged among you exclusively.
The lady of the two realms Fatima-tuz-Zahra said:
‘The one who sends up to Allah his pure and sincere worship, Allah, Mighty and Exalted, sends down for him that which will be of most benefit to him.’
When you understand this holistic reality of human’s deeds and its relationship to the divine, and how the divine or the “heavens” give back to humans what is their due in blessings or in punishment, you might change your actions and thoughts towards others and how you behave towards the whole universe. In Hinduism they call it Karma, a belief which is in common with Islam. Whatever you do, you do it for yourself. Whatever evil you do comes back to yourself and whatever good you do comes back to yourself. Every incident on earth and every incident – good or bad – in between human beings has its impact and effect on the Noetic Realm which in its turn gives back what is your due and nothing else except your own due according to the divine rules of Allah. So there is a mutual relationship between the realms and our deeds.
A question we might have here is, ‘then what do you say about all those good and pious people who have never harmed anyone and were still oppressed and murdered? Is that also the impact of the Noetic Realm?’ the answer is that the innocent and good people who are oppressed and murdered by vicious people is the exclusive result of the deeds of these vicious people. This has nothing to do with these good people being afflicted by evil coming to them from the Noetic Realm. So we should not confuse those two issues. But the Noetic Realm will give these innocent people their due too in the next realm and they will not despair. The knowledge about the realms in Islamic ontology is a necessity if you want to comprehend the mutual relationship between the incidents of our planet and the Noetic Realm. The only person who can understand this is he who has acquired this knowledge.
The verse of the Qur’an further says:
You will find no change in Allah’s system. Al Aḥzāb (The Parties) 62.
The verses of the Qur’an and the narrations mention spirits or angels assigned for actions and beings in the world, for mountains, winds, thunders, lightning’s, clouds and etc. The witnessing of the earth and the creatures, the conversations of the heavens and the earth with the human being, all of this shows that all creatures and all of creation are submitted and devoted to Allah with complete understanding and free will. All of creation have a free will, and with that free will they submit to Allah.
The verse of the Qur’an says:
So glory be to Him in whose hand is the dominion of everything. Yāsīn, 83.
And the verse says:
The seven heavens and the earth and all that is therein praise Him, and there is not a thing but celebrates His praise, but you understand not their praise. Truly He is Oft Forbearing, Most Forgiving! Al Isrā (The Night Journey) 17:44
This verse is used as a proof for those who believe that all creatures have a spirit. All creatures in the material realm, from minerals, stones, plants, animals, stars, planets, galaxies, humans, and even all the different human organs, each one of them have a spirit of their own. A general rule is that everything which is from the pure nature of Allah, or created by Allah, has a spirit.
The verse in relation to the realms is;
All praise is due to Allah, the Lord of the realms (worlds). Al Fātiḥa (The Opening), 2.
It is very clearly stated here that we have different realms, be it on this planet earth with its different worlds of plants, animals and humans or be it the different stages of human development, from a sperm up to birth and at the end death, or be it the different realms we are talking about in this paper. All these interpretations cope with each other in perfect harmony. Allah encompasses everything, and is the manager (rabb) of the realms.
The Imaginal Realm
The Imaginal Realm is said to enjoy both the attributes of the Noetic Realm and that of the material realm. This realm is an immaterial realm but the beings within it have forms, shapes, colors and all the other characteristics of the material realm except being physical or having time, space and motion. This realm is also compared to human dream with all of its features and attributes. The Imaginal Realm (Mithāl) is most famous for being called the Intermediate Realm (Barzakh).
Philosophical terms for this realm:
Nafs – Soul, Khayāl – Imaginable, Mithāl – Imaginal.
Qur’anic and ḥadīthī terms: Barzakh – Intermediate, qabr – the Grave.
This realm is divided into jism al laṭīf (subtle body) and jism al mithāli (imaginal body). Where the jism al laṭīf (subtle body) is of the highest rank in this realm.
This realm is basically an intermediate realm between the Noetic and the material realms, and works as a filter to build a connection between the Noetic and the material realms. The word “Imaginal” or “Imaginable” should not be mistaken with the word “imaginary”, as something which is fantasy or not real or does not have any reality.
The Embodiment of Deeds, Thoughts, and Words
- The embodiment of the spirits who descend from the Noetic Realm to the Imaginal Realm happens here, like the embodiment of the angels. The angels can also receive a physical body in the material realm, like in the example of the people of prophet Lūṭ, were everyone could see the physical embodiment of the angels, without knowing that they were angels. Or in the example of Jibrā’īl coming in the image of a companion of the prophet by the name of al Kalbī, where everyone saw him without knowing that he was an angel. Other non-physical descentions of the angel is in the case of Lady Maryam were the angel Jibrā’īl was embodied, (with an imaginal body) before her, or in Lady Fātima’s case were the angel ‘Izrā’īl was embodied to her, and the same for the holy prophets Ibrāhīm and Muḥammad (Ṣ).
- The embodiment of your deeds, thoughts and your moral traits happens here.
- The embodiment of non-material realities or truths like knowledge happens here in this realm. The reality of knowledge for example gets embodied in the shape of milk here, as we are told according to the narrations which have reached us from the prophet’s Mi’rāj (the heavenly journey).
- The visions of prophets and great personalities along the course of history are seen here.
- But from another perspective the opposite happens here too, the release of the spirit from the body, the non-embodiment, which aids the wayfarer or the mystic on his journey to the other realms or in the case of the prophet, on his Mi’rāj.
All the creatures from the material realm have an imaginal existence in the Imaginal Realm. The minerals, stones, plants, animals, stars, fruits and galaxies, all have an imaginal existence because all of them have a spirit.
The seven heavens and the earth and all that is therein praise Him, and there is not a thing but celebrates His praise, but you understand not their praise. Truly He is Oft Forbear, Most Forgiving! Al Isrā (The Night Journey) 17:44
Verses From the Quran about the Imaginal Realm
And behind them is a barrier (Barzakh), until the Day they are resurrected. 23:100
He placed between them a barrier (Barzakh), and an impassable boundary. 25:53
Between them is a barrier (Barzakh), which they do not overrun. 55:20
On the Day when the secrets are disclosed. Aṭ Ṭāriq (The Nightly Visitor), 9
This verse is referring to the Imaginal Realm, were all your inner secrets will be unveiled.
Think not of those slain in the way of Allah as dead. Indeed they are living, and with their Lord they have their sustenance. Āli ‘Imrān, The Family of ‘Imrān (3:169)
The verse clearly states here that the martyrs in the way of Allah are living, they are alive, and that they get their sustenance from the Almighty. This sustenance is in the Imaginal Realm.
Thus, through a firm word, Allah grants firmness to the believers both in this world and in the Hereafter. As for the wrong-doers, Allah lets them go astray. Allah does whatever He wills. Ibrāhīm (14:27)
The “Hereafter” in this verse is referring to the Imaginal and the Noetic Realm.
All these verses are indicating that there is another realm straight after death to which the spirit will journey towards and that realm has nothing to do with the Judgment Day, or the Resurrection.
They are exposed to the Fire every morning and evening; and when the Last Hour will come to pass, a command shall be given: “Admit the Pharaonites to an even more severe chastisement.” Mu’min, Believer (40:46)
This verse is explicit proof for the torment of Barzakh, which has often been mentioned in the traditions as the torment of the grave. Allah has – in clear words – mentioned two stages of the torment, a lesser torment, which is being given now to Pharaoh and his people before the coming of Resurrection, and this is what they are presented before the fire of Hell morning and evening. It strikes terror in their hearts and they see the Hell which they will have to enter ultimately. After this when Resurrection comes, they will be given the real and greater punishment which is destined for them.
In other words, they will be hurled into the same Hell, which they are being made to witness – since the time they were drowned till today – and will continue to witness it until the Hour of Resurrection. And such a treatment is not especially meant for Pharaoh and his people. All the wrongdoers continue to witness the evil end, from the hour of death until Resurrection, which is awaiting them.
Someone asked Imam Ṣādiq about this verse, and his response was that this verse has to do with the Intermediate realm and that on Judgement Day, the punishment will be worse and more severe.
Narrations about the Imaginal Realm – AHadith
The narrations about the Imaginal Realm are so many in number that we will only mention some of them, and anyone who is interested can and find the many narrations which exist about the Imaginal Realm by conducting a small research. One point to notice here is that all the narrations which talk about the “grave” or qabr, have to do with the Imaginal Realm. The “pressure of the grave”, the “questions of Nakīr and Munkar”, the horrorful things, or the beautiful things you will see, which is in reality your own bad or good deeds embodied, are all here in this realm.
البرزخ هو امر بین امرین و هو الثواب و العقاب بین الدنیا و الآخرة و هو قول الصادق علیه السلام و الله ما اخاف علیکم الا البرزخ.
The Intermediate Realm is a state/condition between two states – reward and punishment – between this world and the hereafter, and this is the word of Imam Ṣādiq who said; I swear by Allah, that I am not afraid for your sake (the followers of Ahlul Bayt), except for the level of the Intermediate realm between this world and the hereafter.
In another narration, Imam Ṣādiq says;
والله اتخوف علیکم فی البرزخ. قلت ما البرزخ؟ فقال: القبر منذ حین موته الی یوم القیامة.
“I am worried for your sake (the followers of Ahlul Bayt) in the Intermediate Realm. The narrator asked, ‘Where is the Intermediate Realm?’ The Imam said, “The grave. Life in that realm continues from the time you die until Judgment Day.”
One Barzakh with Two Different Perspectives
According to the mystics, we have one intermediate realm with two different perspectives.
The Nuzūlī Barzakh – the descending intermediate realm – is what we previously called the Imaginal Realm. Why is it called “descending”? Because the perspective here is an ontological one. It starts from the Status of the Essence downwards to the two Determinations and descending to the Noetic Realm and further to the Imaginal Realm. The view here is basically an “up to down” perspective. This should not be confused with the spiritual journeys of the ascending Barzakh.
The Su’ūdī Barzakh, the ascending intermediate realm is a spiritual journey that is within you and within all human beings. This is called the Su’ūdī Barzakh, the ascending intermediate realm. Why is it called “ascending”? Because it is seen from a spiritual perspective, where the wayfarer is travelling “upwards.” A human who is in the material realm looks upward and journey’s “upwards.” The view we have here is basically a “down to up” perspective.
The researcher conducted this research because of the gap which existed in resources available on this topic in the English language. With that said, there is still room for much more work to be done in this field. What we have tried to prove here is that the five realms mentioned have logical (‘aqlī), textual (from the Qur’an and sunna) and spiritual arguments (shuhūd) proof and that it is not something which some mystics just “made up”. These realms should be taken seriously because of the huge impacts they have on our realm in the form of our creation and also in the form of the result we get for every single deed we do in this realm.
As previously said, we will receive our befitting due according to our actions, thoughts, and words from the other realms. You do bad, you will see bad; you do good, you will see good. Thus, the realms are interconnected in a united existence.
The First and the Second Determinations – the division between which was made by mystics to better comprehend the “mind of Allah” or the ‘knowledge of Allah’ – starts with the knowledge of Allah about His own essence, and continues with Allah’s knowledge about His Names and Attributes. We also have the Fixed Entities in the Second Determination, which is the knowledge of Allah about everything. Past (māḍī), future (mustaqbal) and present (ḥāl) are all the same here, so is knowledge (‘ilm), knower (‘ālim) and the known (ma’lūm).
The Divine Names – “location” – are also here which when they become apparent the external realms come into existence. These were the two internal realms which in reality is in the existence of Allah. The three external realms are the creation of the Divine Names which have been apparent and they were:
The Noetic Realm (‘Ālam al ‘Aql), also called the realm of command (amr), spirits (arwāḥ) or angels (malā’ika) is as previously said, pure spiritual light without any form, shape, colour, or size. This realm has only one single dimension which is the spiritual one. The beings here are all pure spirits and that includes the angels which also are spirits made of spiritual light. We also argued that everything which exists in other realms also exists in its true and most perfect form here. The believers who reach the Noetic Realm will enjoy a “spiritual form” of paradise, and the dimension of hell does not exist here according to Mullā Ṣadrā’s school of philosophy; but according to ibn ‘Arabī’s school of mysticism, hell and paradise exist in all the realms.
The Imaginal Realm (‘Ālam al Mithāl) is known with several names some of which are, the imaginable (khayāl) and the intermediate (barzakh) realm. This realm, as previously said, is like our dreams and has the same attributes as our dreams namely shape, colour, form, and size without being physical. In this realm there are two dimensions, hell and paradise, soul and spirit. Here, one can feel both pleasure and pain. It is in this realm that we have the paradise and the hellfire which the religious text, the Qur’an and the sunna, talk about.
The Material Realm (‘Ālam al Mādda), also known as the world (dunyā) has all the physical attributes like colour, form, shape and size. It also has two non-material dimensions to it which is called the soul and the spirit. Therefore, this realm has three dimensions. It has a physical form, a soul and a spirit. In fact all the 400 billion estimated galaxies and everything in it has spirits.
The Noetic and the Imaginal Realm are also called the ‘Hereafter’ in the religious text. Both these realms will continue existing after the ‘Great Day of Judgement,’ and only the material realm will perish or “transform” to a more perfect form which is called the ‘imaginal,’ mithālī, realm.
We also talked about the Status of the Essence. This “Status” is a level of awareness and knowledge which is limited to Allah only and which no messenger or Imam or mystic can reach to. Allah encompasses everything not only by knowledge but also by its existence. What does it mean that Allah encompasses everything with its existence? It means that all of creation, everything there is except Allah has ‘poverty of being’ – faqr al wujūdī – and that in turn means that all things do not have an independent existence but that they are in fact sheer dependence and that their dependence goes back to the source which is Allah.
We also proved all the five realms of existence from the Noble Qur’an and the narrations, where we said that the three external realms are different levels of existence while the two Determinations (the two internal realms) are levels of ‘awareness and knowledge’ about Allah which the mystics have divided into two realms to better understand Allah.
Another topic that was mentioned was the first creation of Allah, the Breath of the Merciful or the Muhammadan Reality. We said that according to Islamic mysticism, the Breath of the Merciful is the first creation which Emanated from Allah, and that “Breath” created everything else. All the five realms exist because of that single ‘Breath’ of the Merciful.
The topic of the realms of existence is a very complex one that has many deep angles. This paper was an effort to cover the most important parts. The researcher hopes that other scholars will raise further questions in this field through reading this work so that more research can be conducted on this topic.
Wa minallāhi Tawfīq – and from Allah is All Success
This article was originally posted on Iqra Online here.
Acknowledgments: Professor Shāmilī, Professor Gurjiyān, Shaykh Khalfān, Dr. Azariyān, Dr. Ja’fariyān, and Dr. Faḍlī
 A narration told by the prophet but which Allah is addressing the people. It is not considered to be a verse from the Qur’an.
 What is meant here is the figurative meaning of this expression which means by the creation of the Muhammadan Reality, everything else came into existence. Further information can be found in the coming sections of this work.
 Rawḍa-tul-Wā’iẓīn, vol.1, p. 129.
 ‘Ila-lush-Sharā’i, vol.1, p. 128
 Du’ā an Nudba, the Supplication of Lament.
 Chapter al Mulk, the Kingdom verse 2.
 Al Kāfī, Kulayni, vol. 8 p. 22
 Biḥār al Anwār, Majlisi, vol. 68 p. 23
 Shaykh Ṣadūq, Tawhīd, p. 89. Yazdanpanah, Foundations and Principles of Theoretical Mysticism. p. 278.
 Other words which we could use for the Determinations are the Entifications, the Presence, and the Domains.
 These Names mean: The Living, the Powerful, the Knower, the Word.
 Qayṣarī, Sharḥ al Fuṣūṣ al Ḥikam, p. 13
 Yazdanpanah, Foundations and Principles of Theoretical Mysticism. p. 286.
 A famous supplication in the school of Ahlul Bayt, written by Imam Ali.
 Noetic means intellect. The Noetic realm is called intellect for several reasons some of which are the following:
- The intellect is an invisible reality like the spirit and the angels.
- The first thing which was created according to a ḥadīth was the First Intellect (‘aql al awwāl), which is the realm of Intellect or the Noetic realm.
- The angels are created of an intelligible light, in other words, the same kind of light which created the intellect.
 The mystical interpretation of the Noble Qur’an, by Rashī-dud-Dīn Meybūdī (d. 1136 AD), Vol. 2. P. 881
 It is a wujod si’ī from the word wus’a, an expandable existence. It is like a big curtain which Allah created and encompasses all the five realms, and all these different realms are different patterns on that curtain which has different intensities and weaknesses.
Nafs al kulli (the Universal Soul) is a manifestation of Allah which created all the different realms. It is second in rank after the Great Spirit or the First Intellect in the Noetic Realm. The Great Spirit includes all the realities in itself, while the Nafs al Kulli separates the realities or truths. The Great Spirit is the general version of the Universal Soul, while the Universal Soul is the detailed version of the Great Sprit.
 Commentaries on the Wise Qur’an by ‘Abdur Razzāq Kāshānī (d. 1329 AD), vol. 1, p. 599.
 According to Islamic mysticism we have two other realms, excluding those three realms which we have mentioned here. Those two realms are in the presence of Allah, so they do not have any external creation. They are called the First and the Second Determination.
 Kun fayakūn, chapter Yāsīn, verse 82.
 The First and the Second Determination within Allah.
 The archangel Gabriel.
 Al A’rāf (the Heights), verse 96 (7:96).
 Al Anfāl (the spoils of war), verse 25. (8:25).
 Tambih al Khawāṭir, v. 2, p. 108
 Chapter Hūd, 81. Chapter al Ḥijr, 51-65.
 Chapter Maryam, 17
 Chapter al Ḥijr, 51-65.
 Biḥār al Anwār, Majlisi, vol, 56, p. 209.
 Two angels appointed to ask questions related to faith.
 The interpretation of Nūr ath Thaqalayn, vol 3, p. 553.
 Biḥār al Anwar, Majlisi, vol. 6, p. 218.