Fana and Pathologizing: Sufi Ego-Annihilation and James Hillman’s Idea of the Suffering Soul
by Michael Bogar

“All things in creation suffer annihilation (fana) and there remains
the face of the Lord in its majesty and bounty.”   ~ Qur’an, Sura 55:26—27

” . . . dying is an integral part of the rebirth fantasy.”    ~ James Hillman

Sufis use the Arabic word fana, which has been translated “to annihilate,” as referring to the painful obliteration of the human ego which keeps one from experiencing the infinite God. This Sufi notion of fana has some connections with James Hillman’s archetypal psychology, specifically his idea of pathologizing, which he describes as “the psyche’s autonomous ability to create . . . disorder, abnormality, and suffering in any aspect of its behavior and to experience . . . life through this deformed and afflicted perspective . . . [is] necessarily . . . central to [soul-making]” (Re-Vis. 55-57).

Japanese scholar Toshihiko Izutsu describes fana as “the total nullification of the ego-consciousness, when there remains only the absolute Unity of Reality” (in Schimmel, p. 143). The goal of fana is tawhid or spiritual union with Allah, and the journey demands an unmaking before there can be a re-making. This mystical journey involves three main steps on the way to completion: shariat, tariqat, and haqiqat or ma’rifa (gnosis)[i].

Shariat refers to the broad road providing specific requirements for what should and should not be done, covering every facet of divine life. Tariqat denotes a narrow footpath branching off of the main road of shariat, designated specifically for an individual adept to follow, addressing the need for a spiritual method. Tariqat typically specifies a particular school of Sufism and Master Teacher from an established mystical tradition. German scholar and Harvard professor Annemarie Schimmel, who has written extensively on Islam and Sufism, clarifies the link between shariat and tariqat:

The tariqa, the ‘path’ on which the mystics walk, has been defined as “the path which comes out of the sharia, for the main road is called shar’, the path, tariq.” This derivation shows that the Sufis considered the path of mystical education a branch of that highway that consists of the God-given law, on which every Muslim is supposed to walk. No path can exist without a main road from which it branches out; no mystical experience can be realized if the binding injunctions of the shariat are not followed. (Mystical 98)

The third step is haqiqat, referring to the hidden mystical essence of the soul and the true inner Reality beyond all transient states. The term haqiqat is used interchangeably with ma’rifa, referring to the existential gnosis of the One True God. These three steps are not presented to humans as a kind of New Age spiritual buffet allowing one to pick and choose what he/she wants. Each is absolutely necessary. The end of this journey results in fana—the dissolution of the finite self in the fire of God’s eternal attributes resulting in blissful union. Sufis view fana as a first step in preparation for the state of experiencing union (tawhid) with God.[ii]

Hillman says that the human soul is “led to a knowledge of itself through . . . death . . . . By beginning with the symptom . . . pathologizing turns the entire psyche upon a new pivot: death becomes the center, and with it fantasies that lead right out of life” (p. 111). He goes on to assert that soul-making is founded upon suffering and death, making it clear that new psycho-spiritual experiences of reality require a psychological dying:

Only when things fall apart do they open up into new meanings; only when an everyday habit turns symptomatic, a natural function becomes an affliction, or the physical body appears in dreams as a pathologized image, does a new significance dawn. . . . an archetypal psychology can never leave its base in pathography. . . . Having forced the reality of the imaginal upon one, pathologizing leaves one marked by its imprint. A piece of the person has been struck by the Gods and drawn into a myth and now cannot let go of its mad requirements (p. 111-12, italics mine).

Hillman emphasizes the role of Psyche as the “enforcer”—one is “struck by the Gods.” This is not the result of reading a self-help book or making a New Year’s resolution. This is troubling symptomatic activity in the psyche—divine madness—aimed at soul-making, Similarly, in Sufism, the fana experience of ego obliteration is not mediated by the human self, but by the metaphysical Reality itself—the human ego is simply the recipient of obliteration. Allah as Unity, transcending the subject/object split, works to minimize if not completely eliminate the salvific role of the finite ego—recognizing that God is God and no created thing has existence or non-existence in itself.[iii] A similar idea is found in Hillman’s notion of soul-making through “dehumanizing”:

The problems of the psyche were never solved in classical times nor by archaic peoples through personal relationships and “humanizing,” but through the reverse: connecting them to impersonal dominants. The dominants in the background permit and determine our personal case histories through their archetypal case histories which are myths, the tales of the Gods. . . . (Loose Ends, p. 143)

Hillman’s “impersonal dominants” refer to numinous Powers (Presences) beyond the human personality. In other words, soul-making is ultimately accomplished by the archetypal gods behind the myths which work in and on the human personality. Hillman consciously intends to negate all psychological approaches which emphasize the human self.[iv] He wants to abolish the modern emphasis on the heroic ego as having ultimate control in soul-making. Nothing reminds us of this fact more than the experience of annoying, ego-dissolving symptoms via a chronic awareness of death and dying:

Our symptoms, however, can save us from this [egoistic] literalism. . . . Symptoms remind us of the autonomy of complexes; they refuse to submit to the ego’s view of a unified person. Moreover, nothing makes me more certain of my own metaphorical existence—that I too am a personification whose reality depends on something other than my own will and reason—than depersonalization . . . or in Plato’s words—in the hands of the Gods. The mythic perspective toward myself and my existence can begin right in psychopathology: my own person with all its personal passions and experiences can evaporate. It does not depend on “me.”(Re-Vis., p. 49)

Elsewhere Hillman discusses the psychotherapeutic process and the troublesome but potentially beneficial pathologizings which lead analysands to suicidal thoughts and urges: “Where the death experience insists on a suicidal image, then it is the patient’s ‘I’ and everything he holds to be his ‘I’ is coming to its end” (Suicide and the Soul, p. 75). In other words, there is something native to the human psyche that requires the fana of the “I” before new life may emerge. This suggests that all of life’s experiences, especially the so-called “negative” and painful, contribute to the development of the soul. The suicidal urge is a metaphor for the end of the self.

Hillman speaks of pathologizing as a feeling of being overcome by a kind of divine psychosis—an idea that is also found in the Sufi understanding fana. Schimmel wrote: Fana . . . may consist of being absent from [one’s] own [ego] attributes, so that he appears to be really mad and to have lost his reason” (p. 143).

Muslim mystics were sometimes referred to as majdhub (the attracted one), a word also given to persons who were adjudged to be mentally deranged or “thrown out of the way of normal behavior by the overwhelming shock of an ‘unveiling’ . . . completely lost and submerged in divine unity” (Schimmel, p. 105). In the Qur’an we see that the early Meccan opponents accused Mohammed of being mad: “Nay, but he (whom you call a mad poet) has brought the truth; and he confirms the truth of (God’s) messengers” (Qu’ran 37:37).[v] Plato called the divinely inspired creative poets “mad.” Jesus was accused of being insane: “Now Jesus went home . . . a crowd gathered.  When his family heard this they went out to restrain him,  for they said, ‘He is out of his mind.’”(Mark 3:20-21)

From this brief survey we see points of identity between the Sufi experience of fana (ego disintegration) preceding tawhid (union with God) and Hillman’s notion of pathologizing as required for soul-making. However, we must keep in mind that there are glaring differences between Islamic metaphysics and Hillman’s archetypal depth psychology. Islamic fana seeks to raise the devotee up into the spiritual heights of light and union with The One True God; Hillman on the other hand describes a polytheistically-induced descent into psychological darkness with no specific metaphysical objective. Corbin scholar Tom Cheetham underscores these differences in The World Turned Inside Out. Interestingly Cheetham briefly addresses how Hillman attempts to reconcile his psychological relativity with Corbin’s Sufi-based metaphysical spirituality. Hillman, in what seems to be a conciliatory gesture, calls his “pathologizing” of psyche an “operational mode” rather than a “metaphysical ontology” (pp. 67-70), recognizing room for both. Corbin saw the Islamic realm of mundus imaginalis—God’s pure light—as distinct from Psyche.

 Hillman neither invalidates metaphysical systems nor the religious person’s distinction between absolute good and evil, but beckons us to always add another perspective, allowing the logos of psyche to stand alone as having value and purpose apart from any metaphysical system. In Re-Visioning Psychology Hillman writes:

Possibly pathologized events would not be so wrong were they viewed less from positions borrowed from material medicine and spiritual religion. Here our intention is not to replace either the idea of illness or the idea of sin, nor to question the authenticity of medical and religious perceptions of the psyche. Our aim is to see them . . . as perspectives, while maintaining another view that differs from theirs and is psychological. Were we able to discover its psychological necessity, pathologizing would no longer be wrong or right, but merely necessary, involving purposes which we have misperceived and values which must present themselves necessarily in a distorted form . . . Our attempt to envision pathologizing psychologically is to find a place for it, a way of accepting it, in general and as a whole. . . . We must begin with psychopathology as it is. (p. 57, italics mine).

Hillman steps gingerly around this topic, seeking not to diminish or demolish Sufi metaphysics, yet to establish a distinct place for a logos of the soul (Psyche-logos) and her necessary and even divine symptoms of suffering.

In conclusion, keeping the critical differences in mind, we can see that Islamic fana and Hillman’s soul-making idea of pathologizing both recognize the importance of self-dissolution via divine suprahuman Source(s) for psycho-spiritual purposes. As the Islamic world becomes better explicated and understood by Western theologians, scientists and psychologists, we will discover more parallels and even some fresh insights from their ideas.


[i] Marifa means knowledge and is the term used by Sufi Muslims to describe mystical intuitive knowledge of spiritual truth reached through ecstatic experiences, rather than revealed or rationally acquired knowledge.

[ii] Some students of world religions make comparisons between fanā and Buddhist and Christian notions of the troublesome obliteration of ego, while several Muslim scholars insist that fanā is unique to Islam. It is not my place to make a final judgment on this observation.

[iii] An analogy, albeit inadequate, of this journey might be seen in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. The evil Lord Sauron (selfish desire) is on the verge of dominating Middle Earth. Frodo, the chief protagonist, enters the narrow path (tariq) and takes a long perilous journey to throw the One Ring (ego) into the volcanic crater at Mount Doom, but at the last moment gives in to the will of the Ring (ego), claiming it for himself. The hideous Gollum, a pathetic symbol of one possessed by the encircling ring of ego, fatefully wrests the Ring from Frodo’s grasp and fatefully stumbles over the edge of the fiery mountain, tumbling into the obliterating pit of fire. Gollum, along with the Ring, is destroyed. Gandalf the Wise cries: “The realm of Sauron (selfish desire) is ended!…The Ring-bearer has fulfilled his Quest” (928). The annihilation of the Ring of Power (ego) swept away all traces of the dominating will of Sauron, a symbol of self-obsessed desire and finite human will. The final stage of Frodo’s journey to destroy the Ring (ego) occurs fortuitously through this unforeseeable turn of events. This accords with the Sufi notion that the object of obliteration, the personal ego, is not ultimately accomplished by the subject, but by a Power (Allah) greater than the subject. The spiritual aspirant, like Frodo, must put himself on the trail (tariq), but does not accomplish the final act of ego obliteration. Here is a mythic example of fanā.

[iv] For Hillman, soul-making is not self-help.

[v] See also Qu’ran 34:46


Works Cited

Cheetham, Tom. The World Turned Inside Out: Henry Corbin and Islamic Mysticism. Woodstock: Spring Journal,   2003.

Hillman, James. Loose Ends. Dallas: Spring Publications. 1975.

—. Re-Visioning Psychology. 1975. New York: Harper Perennial. 1995.

—. Suicide and the Soul. 1965. New York: Harper and Row. 1997.

The Koran. Trans. M.A.S. Abdel Haleem. New York: Oxford UP, 2005. Print.  

New International Version (NIV) of the Bible. Barker, Kenneth L., gen. ed. Grand     Rapids: Zondervan, 2002.    

Schimmel, Annemarie. Mystical Dimensions of Islam. Chapel Hill: North Carolina Press, 1975.


Michael Bogar has taught courses on religion and spirituality at the graduate and undergraduate levels and has a proven ability to inform and inspire students ranging from the informal amateur to the serious scholar. Students frequently comment on his depth of scholarship and personal, humorous approach. He has two masters degrees in theological and religious studies and is completing a Ph.D. in Myth and Depth Psychology.