Saturday, January 19, 2008

Islamic Mysticism

I have always been baffled by Islamic mysticism, known as Sūfism. My reason for this (if one can have reasons for being confused) is that there are two Islamic doctrines that seem to contradict it. First, Muhammad is believed to be the last prophet. That means that there is no further revelation from God until the end of the world, according to Islam. But if God is not revealing anything further, it's difficult to see how there can be any room for mystical experience.

Second, according to Islam God is completely transcendent. He has absolutely no direct contact with human beings. Even Muhammad didn't receive the Qur'an from God, but from an angel who had, in turn, received it from God. But mysticism means experience of the absolute. So how in the world can there be any experience of God? Basic Islamic doctrine seems to rule it out. "Islamic mysticism" seems to me to be an oxymoron.

The reason I'm interested in this is because people tend to be confident in their religious beliefs because of religious experiences they have had which affirm them. The reason why many Christians believe that Jesus rose from the dead, for example, is not because they have done an in-depth analysis of historical Jesus research, but because they have personally experienced Jesus as a living reality. Giving such people an abstract argument to the contrary is not a strong enough impetus to counter their experience. But with Islam, such experiences are largely ruled out of court. So why are some Muslims willing to commit horrendous crimes such as suicide bombings? How can they be so confident that their worldview is correct if that worldview entails that they do not and cannot experience God, and as such, can receive no personal sanction of their beliefs by him? It seems to me that such confidence is closer to political extremism than religious devotion.

At any rate, I recently read A History of Islamic Philosophy by Majid Fakhry, and he discusses this at one point. At first, he makes several points against Sūfism, including my second one.

Mysticism, defined as the attempt to reach out to the infinite and to be identified with it either through some kind of connaturality, as in Christianity, or through the total destruction of personal identity and the reversion to the primordial condition of undifferentiated unity, as in Hinduism and Buddhism, is discouraged by many teachings of the Islamic religion. First, the concept of the absolute transcendence of God "unto Him nothing is like," as the Koran express it [42:11], militates against the spirit of close or intimate relationship with God. Second, the ritual basis of the cult, with its rigid stipulations and forms, excludes the possibility of the unfettered reaching out to a reality beyond without conditions or restrictions. Third, the Islamic concept of the unity or continuity of man's life in this world and the next makes the "divorce" between finite and infinite existence in the form of withdrawal from the world much more difficult. The Muslim believer is called upon to accept this world of transient existence (dār fanā’) and cling to it, almost as much as he is called upon to seek the everlasting kingdom (dār baqā’) beyond and cling to it.

Fakhry goes on, though, to suggest that there are some other Islamic doctrines which allow some form of mysticism.

However, the Koran and the Traditions present another picture of the God-man relationship and the life-to-come which is very different from the one just outlined. Thus God is represented in this perspective as closer to the believer than "his jugular vein" (Koran 50, 15), and is so omnipresent and omniscient as to witness man's every deed and read his every thought. The ephemeral goods of this life are said to be utterly worthless in comparison with the everlasting goods of the life-to-come.

Moreover the spectacle of God's final judgment is drawn in such graphic and awe-inspiring terms, particularly in the early Meccan Sūrahs, that the reader is overwhelmed with the sense of the futility and wretchedness of man's estate in this life. Fear (al-khauf) not unnaturally became the chief expression of piety (wara‘, taqwā) and the token of a genuine religious vocation in the early centuries of Islam.

I'm just not sure, though, that these considerations overrule the problems mentioned above. Someone can be very close to you in a sense, but this doesn't necessarily entail the possibility of direct communication. By way of contrast, Judaism and Christianity both affirm that God is as close to the individual person as she is to herself, and that there is further no barrier preventing direct contact. So both of these two other religions allow for mystical experience, while Islam does not.

To conclude: I have always been baffled by Islamic mysticism.

(cross-posted at OregonLive)


Anonymous said...

Read Sufism by Williams Chittick to actually get a clue about what you're talking about.

Thank you.

Tragic Clown Dog said...

Well, thanks for the reference, but my point is not about the nature of Sufism per se. Rather, I'm making the philosophical point that there seems to be a contradiction in any attempt to experience something in a system where such experiences are ruled out of court a priori. Perhaps Chittick's book addresses this, but this is at least a huge tension in Sufism, and this is why it has always existed on the fringes of Islam. In fact, most Muslims consider it heretical for precisely the reasons I've mentioned.