[Reader-list] Is Islamic Mysticism Really Islam? - A Huffington Post article

Chintan Girish Modi chintan.backups at gmail.com
Fri Apr 1 10:14:12 IST 2011


*Is Islamic Mysticism Really Islam?*

By Omid Safi

Author, 'Memories of Muhammad: Why the Prophet

Posted: 03/30/11 12:22 AM ET

There is a lovely story from the life of the Prophet Muhammad, remembering
that a mysterious visitor came upon him and his companions. The visitor,
later revealed to be the archangel Gabriel, proceeded to sit intimately next
to Muhammad and quiz the Prophet. He asked Muhammad about three increasingly
higher and deeper levels of religiosity, which the Prophet answered
sequentially as Islam (wholehearted submission to God), Faith and, lastly,
Loveliness (*ihsan*). This third quality the Prophet identified as
worshipping God as if we could see the Divine, and if we cannot, to always
remember that God nevertheless sees us.

The sequence is fascinating, as it reveals that what we think of as Islam
(the attestation to Divine Unity, the performance of the prayers, the
pilgrimage to Mecca, the paying of the alms tax, the fast of Ramadan) mark
only the very first layer -- though the foundational layer -- of
religiosity. Above that is faith, and above faith is the spiritual and
mystical layer of spiritual beauty, for ihsan is literally the realm of
actualizing and realizing beauty and loveliness (*husn*), of bringing beauty
into this world and connecting it to God, who is the All-Beautiful.

Throughout Islamic history, this realm of ihsan was most emphatically
pursued by the mystics of Islam, the Sufis. Historically, this mystical
realm of Islam formed a powerful companion to the legal dimension of Islam
(sharia). Indeed, many of the mystics of Islam were also masters of legal
and theological realms. The cultivation of inward beauty and outward
righteous action were linked in many of important Islamic institutions. In
comparing Islam with Judaism, the mystical dimension of Islam was much more
prominently widespread than Kabbalah. And unlike the Christian tradition,
the mysticism of Islam was not cloistered in monasteries. Sufis were -- and
remain -- social and political agents who went about seeking the Divine in
the very midst of humanity.

After the Prophet Muhammad, many of the most influential of all Muslims were
and remain mystics. Mawlana Jalal al-Din Balkhi, known to Turks as Mevlana
and to Americans as Rumi, remains the most beloved of all Sufi poets, whose
Masnavi was perhaps the only work ever compared directly with the Quran. Ibn
'Arabi, the Spanish Muslim sage, remains the most widely read metaphysician,
and his school of "Unity of Being" (*Wahdat al-wujud*) has been both
influential and controversial from Spain to Indonesia. The most important
Muslim theologian, al-Ghazali, identified the realm of Sufism as the highest
Islamic quest for knowledge, one that dealt most directly with other-worldly

Nor was the practice of Islamic mysticism limited to intellectuals and
poets. At the level of popular practice, some of the Sufi shrines received
as many (if not more) annual visitors that the Mecca does for the Hajj
pilgrimage. Entire Muslim-majority regions (Iran, Turkey, South Asia,
Sub-Saharan Africa, etc.) came to develop understandings of Islam that are
and remain inseparable from mystical understandings of Islam. Much of the
higher dimensions of Islamic aesthetics (calligraphy and poetry) have been
inseparable from Sufism.

And yet, today, the word "Sufi" is a highly suspect one for many modern
Muslims, and even thinkers and preachers whose frameworks and anecdotes are
permeated with those of the mystical dimension of Islam eschew the mere
mention of the word Sufi, either not wanting to alienate their suspicious
audience or not wishing to "erode" their authority by connecting their
teachings to anything other than the Quran and the example of the Prophet.

So how did such a powerful and beautiful dimension of Islam come to be
viewed with such suspicion by so many Muslims?

The marginalization of Sufism came about through an initially unlikely
perfect storm, an alliance of European Orientalists and
conservative/modernist Muslims, whose agenda in demarcating Islam from
Sufism ironically supports that of certain New-Agey Universalists who sought
to extract Sufism out of Islam. Let's explore this somewhat odd association
a bit more closely.

The Orientalist scholars (whose approach began in Europe and dominated much
of the American scholarly engagement with Islam) based their approach on a
study of Islam that privileged "classical" legal and theological Arabic
texts from 800-1100 C.E. Of all those texts, the most important ones were
held to be the ones closest historically to the "foundational" period. The
Orientalists became interested in Sufism very early on, almost as early as
their translations of the Quran. They found themselves attracted to the deep
beauty and wisdom of Sufi poetry, particularly from Persian. Quite
inconveniently for them, they were also committed to a bifurcated view that
divided the world into Semitic (Arabs and Jews, characterized primarily by
law, monotheism, and dry deserts) and Indo-Europeans (Hindus, Europeans and
Iranians, who lived through philosophy, art, mysticism and logic). The
Orientalists had no problem thinking that entire blocks of humanity share
certain "mentalities" and "temperaments" connected to their languages. Even
though they admired the poetry of mystics like Sa'di, Hafez and Rumi, they
could not admit that Muslims (who were "Semitic" after all) could come up
with such beauty, mysticism and poetry. Therefore, the Orientalists decreed
that Sufism must be "un-Islamic" and due to Christian, Persian, Hindu or
Neoplatonic "influences" -- anything but Islam, anything but the experience
of Prophet Muhammad in encountering God, which is what the Sufis have always
claimed as the primary source of their inspiration!

The Muslim conservative/modernists (what we broadly refer to as the Salafi
tradtion) came to have a profound distrust of what might be termed "the
tradition(s) of Islam," believing that the historical tradition of Islamic
scholarship -- and the scholars who had been the authoritative interpreters
of Islam -- were increasingly irrelevant to the historical trials and
tribulations through which 19th and 20th century Muslims were suffering.
They wanted to remain pious and observant Muslims, but believed that the way
to return to the "glory days" of Islam was to "return" to the original
spirit of vitality and authenticity of Islam, before the influence of
"foreign ideas" crept into Islam, sapping its authenticity. These foreign
ideas they equated both culturally (the contribution of Persians, Indians,
Turks, etc.) and intellectually (the traditions of philosophy, mysticism and
all non-scriptural sciences).

The idea for the Muslim modernists was that the remedy for Islam consisted
of a textual return "away from the blemishes ... of the later phases" back
to "yearning for truth" of the founders of Islam. In this, they found
themselves oddly in full-agreement with the orientalists. They came to be
suspicious of many traditions of Islamic thought and practice that developed
through time, including that of Sufism. Perhaps most polemically, they
identified Sufism as having contributed to a corrupt and inward-looking
mentality that allowed the colonial powers to dominate Muslims. Throughout
Islamic history, particular Sufi ideas and practices (such as the "Unity of
Being," certain meditation techniques and commemoration of the Prophet's
birthday) had always been contested by other Muslims. It was in this modern
and modernist context that the whole of Islamic mysticism came to be viewed
with great suspicion as being un-Islamic if not outright anti-Islamic.

So where do the New Agers come into play? It was only in the 20th century
that human beings became capable of uttering a sentence like "I'm not
religious, I'm spiritual." Historically all religious traditions have had
mystical dimensions, and their mystical traditions have arisen within the
very depth of each tradition, partaking of its key symbols and emulating the
spiritual experiences of its main exemplars. It was in this modern context
that a deep and new suspicion of the outward forms and institutions of
religion was cultivated, with people who believed that they were on the edge
(or already inside) a "New Age" of human consciousness. It was these new
Agers who, dissatisfied with their own experiences of Judaism and
Christianity, turned "East" to the mystical traditions of Buddhism, Hindu
traditions and Islam to obtain the mystical truth that they so yearned for
-- without necessarily wanting to adopt the legal and institutional aspects
of those traditions. In many cases, the engagements were complicated by
colonial politics, as the "eastern" traditions of wisdom were connected to
colonized countries that many of the same Westerners looked down upon, even
as they were fascinated by them.

So what we have had for the last few decades is a situation of Orientalists
and Salafi Muslims seeking to construct a "real Islam" that is untainted by
Sufi dimensions, and many new agers seek to extract a mysticism that stands
above and disconnected from wider, broader and deeper aspects of Islam.

Yes we have learned that the human yearning for the Divine, for beauty, for
love and for loveliness is too deeply engrained in the human spirit to be
partitioned off or exiled. Today, many Muslims world-wide are increasingly
dissatisfied with what they see as dry as stale bread interpretations and
practices of Islam, and want -- and demand -- something more spiritual and
more beautiful. They know about the deep spiritual experience of the Prophet
Muhammad, who came face to face with God, and they too yearn for their own
spiritual experiences.

All Muslims seek to emulate the Prophet Muhammad. The Quran reminds them
that if you love God, follow Muhammad. The mystically oriented among Muslims
take the emulation a bit more literally: If Muhammad arose to have his own
face-to-face encounter with the Divine, they too aspire to rise in the
footsteps of the Prophet, to have their own meeting with God. As it was said
of the great Rumi, they too want to be "off-springs of the soul of
*Omid Safi is a Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North
Carolina. He is the Co-Chair of the Islamic Mysticism Group at the American
Academy of Religion, and the author of 'Memories of Muhammad: Why the
Prophet Matters' (HarperOne, 2009).*

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