Is Islamic Mysticism Really Islam?

Category: Faith & Spirituality, Featured Topics: Islam, Sufism Views: 5657

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 Allah , 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 matters.

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 Allah , 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 Allah , 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 Allah , 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 Allah . As it was said of the great Rumi, they too want to be "off-springs of the soul of Muhammad."

Source: The Huffington Post - Omid Safi

  Category: Faith & Spirituality, Featured
  Topics: Islam, Sufism
Views: 5657

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Older Comments:
The fundamental question, which this article fails to answer, is:
"Why is the Quran silent on this (supposed) mystic element of Islam?"

Salam Alayk. Firstly, the writter is boasting of those Islamic intallectuals, may Allay have mercy on them, as if they are our final authorities in Islam, as if they are perfect. the writter is advised, if sincerely he is searching for inner peace and eternal bliss islam provides, to painstankingly study the life of the prophet, his companions and their students; whether their partern of creed, worship and ascetism is in line with that of the sufis'. Infact we can say that the sufis ideas is alien to Islam. Even none of the four Imams of the Islamic school of taught that is widely accepted in the Islamic world has the sufi philosophy. This need to be known before deviding the muslims as salafis or sufis. Secondly, there is northing like founders of Islam, for Allah is the one that chose the name for us and it is said in the Quran that Islam is the religion of all the prophet of God. see sura baqora (Chapter2), suratul Maidah (Chapter 5), verse 5, Suratu Ibrahim. we as muslim should not think that what we feel or thought is the true version of islam to be practiced, for if it is ideal to go into seclusion, thinking about the devine and recieve inspirations on religious issues. then what now differentiate our religion fron christianity and judaism where religius leaders have devine knowledge above their subjects through inspirational method of this kind? Then of what benefit will the Quran and the teachings of Muhammad be amoung us. Thirdly, I will sincerely urge the writer to go and study Islamic Sciences and realise that for every sciences we have leading scholars whom Allah has blessed with profound knowledge in this regard. Studying their works addressing an islamic science, one will realise the mistakes of our noble scholars in that science, still appreciating their scholatic zeal, not abusing them. in this spirit, we will realise that they are humans proned to mistakes, not semi-gods to be followed blindly in matters of our religion.

As Islam is a complete relegion. Nothing can be added and subtracted from it. Mysticism is a different religion. Not Islam. Their followers are call sufi. They are am different from Muslims.

Like trinity in christianity, 'Islamic Mysticism' cannot be explain. When you ask for explanations you only get wordings(phrases) that confuse you the more.

Yes we have Hadith Sciences, Quranic Sciences and even Fiqh sciences, if you can give it that name, all to enable us understand our din; ISLAM. But when it comes to Aqidah, the foundation and the base of the din, no ijtihad is required, only obedience to the rule of LAILAHA ILLAL ALLAH MUHAMMADUR-RASULUL ALLAH, which explicitly means; OBEDIENCE TO ALLAH ALONE WORSHIPING HIM WITHOUT ASSOCIATING PARTNER(S) TO HIM; AND FOLLOWING PROPHET MUHAMMAD (SAW) IN TOTO (The ONLY creation of ALLAH that is worthy of this attribute). NO OTHER.

Any other creation can be subjected to scrutiny before he/she deserves our obedience. That is, we measure what this mahluq says or does using the scale of the Quran and Sunna(AHadith). If it agrees we take otherwise we leave it. Period.

The 'mystics' will want us to believe that there is a special form that a slave of Allah can achieve doing some certain forms of 'zikr' that will make you attain the position of Allah (waliyazu bil Allah) in this insignificant dunya. Google Ibn Arabi and be amazed to this indispicable theory that no sane human being will take even as fairy tales.

Our religion of Islam has been perfected as Allah states in the Glorious Quran and the Prophet confirmed in the hadith of Aisha the mother of the believers); NO ADDITION OR DELETION will be tolerated. Yes they can add or try to subtract; but the Din will be protected from their mischiefs cos Allah has promised to protect His Din till the end of times.

Subhanal-ALLAH, Walhamdulil-ALLAH, Walailaha illal ALLAH, Wal-ALLAHU Akbar.

It is interesting to note how many Muslims who may lack a deep
knowledge of the religion or of the history of their people and
religion can at times have a irrational hatred of the essence of their
very own religion which they claim to love at all costs without even
realising it.

Allah will be The Judge of the differences between pompous, self-
righteous adherents and sincere seekers of the soul of Islam. Mean
time, it'd be better to exercise humility, fair speech ... and race
to do good.

There is no doubt that as with all the other sciences of Islam, such
as those dealing with the Quranic sciences, Hadith, Fiqh etc, which
developed centuries after the advent of the Prophet (Peace be upon
him), Tasawwuf (Sufism) similarly developed in roughly the same period
as the science of spirituality.

Islamic Tasawwuf within the broad limits of Sharia brings life to the
Muslims heart. It is the water for the fertile soil of Islam.

It's all really quite simple at its essence


AND THE PROPHET (SAW) CLEARLY DEFINE WHAT ISLAM IS IN THE FAMOUS AND POPPULAR HADITH OF JIBREEL (AS) (Check the 1st Hadith in the 40 Traditions By Annawawi) The Prophet (SAW) also expalain CLEARY (no interpretation needed) what IHSAN is in that Hadith.





I want to preface my comments to say I am a student of Islam and I am not a Salafi, Allah being my witness as I say this, neither am I a Sufi. I have developed an understanding of Salafi thought and I have attended sufi circles and have an understanding of the inclinations and the aspirations of Sufis. With regards to this article - space may not permit detailed analysis - however I would say that it is very shallow to suggest that orientalists tried to de-couple Islamic mysticism from the shari part of Islam, because they could not admit that arab muslims were capable of deep mysticism and inner beauty because of their being semetic and connected to a certain family of languages, and that, for this reason the mystic culture must have been imported.
Is it not possible that the orientalists did in fact stumble upon the truth, that the mysticism of Muslims coming some generations after the Prophet was indeed imported?
One may well argue that the orientalists tried to highlight and give kudos to this very same mysticism, and paint it as being the only thing that was valuable in Islam, as part of an agenda to counter the Muslim posture that Islam was a full-spectrum solution to human challenges.
A second point: I think that it is bordering on dishonesty to somehow equate the orientalist position and intentions, however you look at it, with Salafi thought and intentions.
Another point: Were the Prophet's (sas) generation and the early generations not "endowed" with beauty and spirituality? This article would hint not. What about those who are not Sufis today - do they not have ehsan?
Lastly: What is the purpose of life? Why did Allah put us into this very physical world? What is Islam? Are we to live a life that we want to define for ourselves or a life defined by the life of the Prophet? What does Allah want from us? Is life to be a spiritual adventure tour? These are real questions in the heart of this student.

The way of thinking that we can reach to ALlah face to face like our messenger it`s a corrupt Islam .
We can reach to ALlah as he commanded us in Quran & need to follow the footsteps of our messenger & not of Sufis or Darvesh( Mystical Islam) .
We must respect the past Scholar of Islam who followed the Quran & Sunnah & not the inovators.
Islam was always modern never evern it became old in any centuries.People biforcated & made islam which suits them according to thier tradition.
Poetics thaught are just thaught what a poet thinks.

Let me ask anyone this who claim that what Sufis practice is right
- the Sufis who do the dervish dance claim they do because it brings them closer to Allah. Fair enough - if indeed prophet Muhammad (pbuh) practiced this it would be acceptable. But where is the evidence of this - there is no evidence because he never did this. The way to get close to Allah (swt) is by proper faith in his Oneness, praying 5x a day, charity, fasting, hajj. The way we get close to Allah (swt) is by following what prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said and did - not by what we think he meant.

As for poetry of Rumi and other sufis - they are deluded in thinking that their poetry can bring them closer to Allah (swt). If you want poetry than Qur'an is the one - Muslims need look no further than Qur'an to get closer to Allah. And let us try memorizing it. It is difficult but it can be done - I am from Ind/Pak, can't communicate with a 4yr old in Arabic but I have memorized 5 juz (with meaning) over 20 yrs and let me tell you, when I recite what I know it is awesome. Whatever it is that comes out in human body - hormones, stress relieve I don't know- but I get a feeling of intense peace. I don't get this from listening in taraweeh. So my point is that mans poetry serves no purpose other than to boost his own ego. Why would one want to praise Allah other than how he has praised himself in Qur'an.

Sufism is described by many as a mystic, fantasy experience. However, none of the twirling
or other mystic actions of sufis is ever proven by the prophet (s). That is what amazes me
is that these ways of sufis are made to sound so attractive and mystical and we forget that
religion is purely what God wants us to do whether it seems interesting/ mystical to us or
no. We cannot dictate terms of religion. This is His way and He commands! We need to get
our facts straight. May God guide us all.