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Rational Mysticism: The Pristine Mysticism of Islam as Exemplified in the Life and Ethos of the Prophet

Jun 22, 2012, 2:48 PM

Mysticism is one of the paths to divine knowledge that may be attained through leading a spiritual life and practicing spiritual exercise approved by reason and sanctioned by religion. The principal source on which this mode of knowledge relies is the spiritual purification and catharsis of the heart. Practically, this involves various levels and stations of a spiritual journey to the final station of union with the Lord and becoming God-like in character. Mysticism so defined-which encompasses the journey from the self to God, from multiplicity to unity-is exemplified by the tradition of the Prophet (s) and his ethos, in its practical as well as its theoretical capacities. A defining element of mysticism as practiced by the Prophet, however is it conformity to reason and rationality. In the mysticism of the Prophet, reason (‘aql) love (‘ishq), intelligence (fahm) and intuition (shuhud), ratiocination (burhan) and gnosis (irfan), intellectual  cogitation (suluki fikri) and spiritual wayfaring  (suluki amali) are compatible, for each is assigned its rightful place in the corresponding  level of existence. The fruit of such mysticism is that reason is enriched by intuition and intuition is reinforced by reason. It reconciles spiritual practice with social participation, esoteric spirituality with political leadership, and the pursuit of divine knowledge with the concern for social justice.

Mysticism is a distinct mode of knowledge that obtains by means of intuition (shuhud) and becoming (shudan), existential poverty (faqr) and annihilation (fana), comprehension (shinakht) and passion (shiyda i), wayfaring (suluk) and union (wusul). It is the introvertive path of grasping (yaftan) that pertains to the inner sanctum of the soul and not the extrovertive path pertaining to the external world. Mysticism belong s to the category of experience, whose realization is consequent on freeing one’s existence and the substance from materiality. The locus of mysticism is the heart; its means of attainment is spiritual purification; its final end is proximity to and union with God. The central subjects of mysticism are divine unity and divine authority or, in other words, God and the perfect human being. It is acquired by becoming indifferent to the material and physical world and aspiring toward the spiritual and supernatural realm by observing the path of religion (shari’at) and committing oneself to obedience to God (ubudiyyat). Mysticism involves fathoming the mysteries, progressing from knowing of possessing, from ilm al-yaqin (lit.,” knowledge of certainty”) to ayn al-yaqin (lit., “certainty itself”) and, subsequently, to haqq al-yaqin (lit, “reality of certainty) and, ultimately, to bard al-yaqin (lit., “frost of certainty). It is only by traversing the divine pathway (tariqat), ascending the spiritual levels (maqamat), and progressing through the wayfaring stations (manazil) that mysticism can be comprehended.

Thus, mysticism consists in experiencing and conveying this experience-the former of which is designated as practical mysticism and the later as theoretical mysticism. In this light, theoretical mysticism offers a spiritual account of the cosmos, a mystical worldview. Practical mysticism, however, is the introvertive, unitive and innate experience itself. “Is” and is not” constitute the subject-matter is theoretical mysticism, whereas the “ought” and “ought not” of spiritual wayfaring determine the manner and method of progressing through the stations of spiritual perfection in practical mysticism for the purpose of achieving the “unseen victories” (futubat-i ghaybi) so as to arrive at the noble summit of “pure and utter unity” (tawbid-i nab wa kamil). As such, the purpose of the “pristine mysticism” is to establish order in the relationship between God and the human being, to offer directions for “that which is direction-less” in an effort to see the Beloved, and it is this effort that is termed spiritual wayfaring.

In defining mysticism, the great mystics have said, “The mystic is he who witness God, His Essence, Attributes, and Acts. So mysticism is the state by means of which this act of witnessing is expressed” (Kashani, 1370, vol. 2, p. 104). That is, the mystics are those invited and summoned by God to witness the Names of His Essence, Its Attributes, and Its Actions. Furthermore, mysticism is an experiential-rather than discursive-mode of knowledge. Mysticism is being consumed by the fire (sukhtan), being aflame (gudakhtan); it is beholding (mushahadah), and coming into contact (muwajahab). It is not constructing (sakhtan), not uttering words (guftan), not grasping by the mind (shinakhtan), not conversation (mushafahah).

Shaykh al-Ra’is Abu Ali Sina thus defines a mystic:

He who turns his thought to the sanctity of Divine Majesty (quds al-jabarut), constantly seeking the rays of the light of the Truth in his inner sanctum (sirrih), is designated as a mystic. (See Abu ‘Ali Sina, 1374, p. 400; Mutahhari, 1380, vol. 2. Pp. 143-172; and Hasanzadih Amuli, 1379, pp. 243-245.)

Elsewhere, in view of the mystical stages of advancement, he asserts,

Mysticism beings with separation (tafriq), denunciation (nuqd), abandonment (tark), and rejection (rafd). It is then enriched by multiplicity (jam)-the multiplicity of the attributes of reality that belong to the Essence of the only true Agent (dhat al-murid bi al-haqq)-thereafter leading to unity. Afterwards, it is cessation (wuquf). (Abu Ali Sina, ibid., p. 419)

Therefore, we may come up with this concise description of mysticism: mysticism is to ascend toward the Realm of Divine Sanctity (alam-i quds), expose oneself to the Source of Absolute Light, undergo a substantial shift from oneself to God, thus plunging into the Sea of Unity, being annihilated in God (fana’i fi-llah) and thereafter subsisting in Him (baqa’i bi-llah).

But despite the various insightful and profound descriptions of mysticism offered by the great and eminent mystics, we are introduced to a sweater and more satisfying mysticism-the “pristine mysticism”-on studying the teachings of the Prophet and his tradition and ethos. Mysticism viewed from the perspective to the Prophet-the perfect human being who is also the medium through which perfection is granted to others-is to confess one’s inability in comprehending the reality of God and His Divine Names Beauty (asma’i jamal) and Grandeur (asma’i jalal) and in worshipping and obeying Him-the One who alone is worthy of worship and love-as He truly deserves. As such, mysticism in its theoretical capacity consist in the admission of the mystic that “We do not know You according as You are” (Majlist, 1363, vol. 8, p. 146 and vol. 68, p. 23) and in its practical capacity it involves his admission that “We do not worship You according as You deserve.” For, the identity (huwiyyah) of the Absolute Unqualified Existence (mutlaq-i al bi shart-i maqsami) is the ‘anqa whose capture eludes the theologian, the philosopher, and the mystic alike. Ali (peace be upon him) says, “The heights of resolve cannot reach Him and the depths of intelligence cannot fathom Him” (ibid.). This profound truth is acknowledged by the mystics as well: “But as for the Divine Essence, bewildered are therein all of the Prophets and the friends of God” (Qaysari, 1416, pp. 69-70).

As such, mysticism is to view the world in a unitive light, to become one with existence; it is to see the cosmos and the human being from the vantage point of unity if divine manifestation (wahdat-i tajjali), unity of unveiling (wahdat-i shuhud), and unity of existence (wahdat-i wujud), which is the way in which the true mystics view the world. The end of mysticism is to apprehend “absolute unity and unity absolute” (mahd-i tawid wa tawhid-i mahd), which is so eloquently expressed in this prayer by the Prophet: “O God, the blackness in my eye [the pupil], my imagination, and the whiteness in my eye [sclera] adore You.” In this succinct prayer is expressed the wayfarer’s utter annihilation in God-his actions, his character, and his essence all being subsumed in this annihilation. Muhaqqia Tusi thus elaborates on this topic: “Tawhid is to attest to unity and to act according to it. The former is a requirement of faith, the latter of the highest level of knowledge”  (ibid.) in the words of Qaysari, “You ought to know-may God help you-that reaching God is in two ways: theoretical and practical. The practical is contingent on the theoretical” (Qaysari, 1357, p. 35). That is, the mystic must first attain-in a gradual manner and by advancing through the spiritual stages-to a point where he sees naught but God, or, as expressed in these profound words by Allamah Jawadi Amuli, “Mysticism is the journey to God, in thought and in practice” (Jawadi Amuli Tafsir tasnim, 1379, vol. 1, p. 487).


From what has been said in the above, it should be sufficiently clear why the title of the present article is “rational mysticism”. For, first, the pristine mysticism of Islam, far from being averse to reason and in defiance of it, espouses all of the rational perfections, both in its theoretical and practical capacities. In accordance with the general rule that the more perfect subsumes within itself the less perfect, true mysticism are not mutually exclusive: reason is present-in a simple from that is immune to multiplicity-in mysticism and the spiritual knowledge of the heart.


To be continued