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Islamic Mysticism


The mystical dimension of the Islamic religious tradition has roots in the divinely revealed text of the Koran. One passage often pointed to in this regard is the "Light Verse" (24:35), in which God is described as the Light of a blessed lamp, lit by a burning oil "neither of the East nor the West." One episode from the Koran, involving the prophet Moses, provided key evidence for the mystics' claim that an unseen world runs parallel to our own. The story describes Moses' meeting and deferring to one whom God had taught knowledge from His "own presence" (18:65). The understanding is that the prophets have their exoteric missions and knowledge, but that esoteric knowledge has a parallel, if not superior, position.

The earliest mystical practices seem to have been ascetic, probably based on earlier Syrian and Iraqi Christian models. The term Sufism, for example, probably derives from the early mystics' practice of wearing wool (suf). A lost collection of biographies of ascetic women from the eighth and ninth centuries has been recovered. This work, by al-Sulami (d. 1021), presents themes such as scrupulous attention to God's law; excessive crying and fainting in response to one's guilt or to God's love; sincerity and control of the material appetites. These and the many other collections of ascetic exemplars that followed could evoke the prophet Muhammad's own spiritual retreats and supererogatory praying, as preserved in the Koran and the Tradition as precedents.

The concern with the self in this ascetic environment gave rise to theories of spiritual exercise that the aspirant would pursue in order to progress along the path to wisdom, purity, or even the presence of God. Among the most influential teachers and writers of the early period were Hasan al-Basri (d. 728), al-Muhasibi (d. 857), and the poet al-Bistami (d. 875). The tenth and eleventh centuries saw efforts at systematizing these paths, with the composition of a series of manuals describing and explaining such experiences as "extinction of the self in God," "trust in God," "certainty," "sincerity," and "repentance." These manuals (by al-Makki, d. 996; al-Hujwiri, d. 1071; al-Qushayri, d. 1074; and others) also present the mystical teachings of prominent Sufi masters.

Mystical thinking among the Shi'a also begins early. The sixth imam of the Twelver tradition, Ja'far al-Sadiq (d. 765) is taken by the Shi'a (and certain Sunni Sufis) to have been a master of esoteric teaching. The very concept of Shi'a leadership, or imama, included esoteric or mystical elements. The vibrant mystical tradition among the Twelver Shi'a, which came to be recognized as one of the religious sciences, would be known as 'irfan (literally, "knowledge").

The twelfth and thirteenth centuries saw the rise of the Sufi brotherhoods, or turuq (singular, tariqa). The most prominent are probably the Qadiriyya, the Shadhiliyya, the Rifa'iyya, the Naqshbandiyya, and the Chistiyya. As an institution based on the teachings and model of a saintly founder, each tariqa would give rise to its own devotional practices, mystical doctrines, and literature. Central among these practices are the dhikr, or remembrance of God—a ritual group recitation of the name(s) of God. Along with dhikr goes the stylized recitation of long prayers, usually passed down from the founder of the order. Mystical doctrines vary widely. One issue that has been debated recently among scholars is that of "neo-Sufism." This is the term given to the perceived shift in Sufi practice, from about the middle eighteenth century, which inflated the role of the prophet Muhammad as a figure of devotion. This shift also challenged the traditional structures of the established Sufi brotherhoods and saw itself as reformist.

The heyday of Islamic mystical thought, however, took place outside the brotherhood organizations. Independent thinkers such as Ruzbehan Baqli (d. 1209), Najm al-Din Kubra (d. 1221), Ibn 'Arabi (d. 1240), Ibn al-Farid (d. 1235), and Jalal al-Din Rumi (d. 1273), provided dynamic mystical perspectives on God, creation, and existence itself. Also, the Koran could be illuminated by mystical exegesis. Ruzbehan Baqli's writings describe dramatic visions of the divine and the intense experiences these provoke. He also defended the phenomenon of ecstatic utterances (shatahat), for which the early Sufi al-Hallaj (d. 922) in particular had been known. Much of this defense rests on the notion that mystical language must be recognized as a reflection of the essentially nonverbal reality that is mystical experience. Kubra's innovative interpretation of the soul's mystical ascent associated certain colors with the levels of experience leading to sanctity.

Ibn 'Arabi's thought introduces a hermeneutic based on the assumption that an interpretation based on mystical insight is as true as that from any other human perspective. His elaboration of a qualified "oneness of being," that is, the recognition that only God's existence stands, has had an immense influence on the mystical tradition. The concept of sanctity (walaya) was to undergo dramatic elaboration in his writings. Ibn al-Farid, poet and mystic, composed some of the most sophisticated verses ever in the Arabic language. His great poem, the Ta'iyya, reframes classical images such as love and drunkenness to point to the mystic's experience of and devotion to the divine. The Persian poet Rumi made an even larger impact with his epic the Mathnawi. This collection of fables and wisdom tales presents a sophisticated and humane perspective, which although mystical in approach has a universal appeal.

These thinkers introduced and elaborated a set of concepts that constitute the touchstones of Islamic mysticism. One of these is an extension of the idea of the Light of the prophet Muhammad. This is the Muhammadan Reality, which gave the Prophet a cosmic and existential role to play—quite a leap from the earliest understanding of the man in Islamic tradition. The Muhammadan Reality stands between God and creation, an intermediary similar to the Universal Intellect of the Neoplatonists. The "oneness of being" concept has remained debated, but a fruitful subject for speculation up to the present. The concept of sanctity, and in particular the theory of the identity and nature of the "seal of saints" has provoked much thought among later mystics.

Richard McGregor

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Intuitionist logic to Kabbalah