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

Jun 29, 2012, 2:56 PM

To divest mysticism of reason and rational reasoning is tantamount to renouncing mysticism. Rationality and mysticism are two lights granted by God to the human being: the light of reason and rationality is reflected in mysticism and the spiritual knowledge of the heart. Light cannot contradict light, they, rather, reaffirm and support one another. Fundamentally speaking, the way of mysticism passes through reason. 

The spiritual knowledge of the heart is reason perfected reason that has gained direct contact with the Active Intellect, the Logos. The tradition of the Prophet acknowledges reason as the highest authority, and so pristine mysticism must necessarily conform to reason. Mundane, coarse reason is invited to participate in the spiritual feast of mysticism and intuition so that in this divine and revelatory feast it may grow to maturity, leaving the juvenile state of hylic and potential reason (‘aql hayulani, bi-l-quwwah) behind so as to advance to the stage of “acquired reason” (‘aql bi-mustafad) and from there-by ascending through the levels of the “hidden mystery” (sirr-i khafi) and the “most hidden mystery” (sirr-i akhfa)-to the level of “immediate reason” (‘aql shuhudi). In other words, one must free oneself of the “narrow reason” (aql juzwi), whose sole function is to make calculations and plans for the improvement of the material life, so as o obtain the luminous, immaterial, and unitive intellect. This is the same truth that is expressed in this line of verse:

These utterances of “we” and “I” are on account of the intellect (‘aql) and the shackle (iqal);

In the solitude of the intoxicated, there is no “we” and “I”. (Ibid.)

“Philosophical reason,” though possessed of significant value from an epistemological point of view, is incapable of entering into the “chamber of intuition” and the feast of existence” on its own account. For this, it must seek he assistance of mysticism in order to acquire the status of “immediate reason.” For,

He is eternally the absolute king,

Settled in his abodes of dignity.

Thence he cannot condescend to enter the mind;

How may the intellect of creatures reach where he is? (Attar Nayshaburi)

The second reason for which is important to speak of rational mysticism is that from the viewpoint tradition of the Prophet, the spirituality that is at odds with the sound, innate, and perfected intellect, thus lacking  rational basis,  is null and void. For, that which is higher and superior cannot refute that which is lower and inferior. As such, true mysticism cannot denounce and discredit reason.  A mystical interpretation of existence, God, and the human being is necessarily acceptable to the intellect. The “is” and “ought” of “pristine mysticism”, which is consequent on spiritual wayfaring, though on a higher plane than that of “immediate reason”, is nevertheless in accord with it, without their being any contradiction between the two modes of knowledge that would require to negate the intellect and its cognitive faculties. It is, on the contrary, the function of mysticism to compel the intellect to elevate its efforts to attain to a higher level of knowledge.

The pristine mysticism exemplified by Prophet Muhammad (my God’s peace and blessings be upon him and his household) possesses features that are approved by the mature and unbiased intellect, for it is free of any extremist tendencies and instead is rich with knowledge and justice. Furthermore, the interpretive and formal language of pristine mysticism is rationalistic, and it is for this reason that the language of philosophy has come to serve as the conduit for the expression of the signs, visions, and intuitions of mysticism. And it is in this light that mysticism functions as a source for opening new horizons and introducing new questions for theosophical metaphysics. This truth accounts for the close affinity that rational reasoning and mysticism achieved in Mulla Sadra’s “metaphilosophy” (hikmat-I muta’aliyah), which successfully demonstrated the inseparability of the two modes of knowledge when viewed from the vantage of the sacred knowledge derived from the Quran and the tradition of the Prophet’s legitimate heir (‘itrat).

Pristine mysticism as exemplified by the Prophet is not vulnerable to the harms posed by reason-evading and jurisprudence-averse tendencies. As such, the theoretical and practical errors that characterize the false mysticism, which oppose the judgments of reason and prescribe practices that violate the principle of moderation, are not to be found in the context of the pristine mysticism of Islamic. Mysticism as exemplified by the Prophet embraces reason rather than opposing it; it praises reason rather than vilifying it. The message of Islamic mysticism is,

I granted the intellect a provision of wine,

Then did I set it in motion on the highway of existence (Hafiz Shirazi, ghazal no.143);

Take this immature intellect to the tavern,

That red wine should bring its blood to a boil (ibid., ghazal no. 120).

It is reported that the Noble Prophet thus advised Imam `Ali;

 O `Ali, when God`s slaves strive to draw near to Him by means of righteous deeds, you should strive to draw to Him by means of reason, that you may surpass them (Tabrisi, 1411, p.251)                                                                                                                                                                            

At this point, I shall specify a number of the elements that are characteristic of rational mysticism as exemplified by the Prophet, in both its theoretical and practical aspects. An exhaustive enumeration of these elements is, of course beyond the scope of the present article, and so only the most important will be treated herein.


1. The Two Confessions

As explained above, the Prophet identified true mysticism with two confessions of inability. One pertains to the aspect of the true knowledge of God; in respect to which the highest achievement of the human being aspiring to know God is to realize his inability in appropriately comprehending the Divine Essence and the Names and Attributes of Grandeur and Beauty of the Absolute Transcendent Person (hadrat-i ghayhi mutlaq), acquiring knowledge of whom is possible (see Jawadi Amuli, sarchishmih-yi andishih, vol. 5, pp. 65-66 and Tahrir tamhid al-qawa’id, pp.42-45). To reach the level of understanding, however, is a great feat and is possible only for those who remain steadfast on the path of spiritual wayfaring. This confession of incompetence should not be construed as contradicting what is said of the greatest mystics-namely, that they succeed in immediately comprehending the truth of the Absolute Unqualified Existence-for this latter comprehension belongs to the Plane of Unicity (maqam-i ahadiyyat), not to the Plane of the Essence (maqam-i dhat), which bewilders all and eludes any attempt at its comprehension (Jawadi Amuli, Tahrir tamhid al-qawa’id, pp 386-394).

The second confession of inability concerns the aspect of obedience and submission to God, for no one can claim to be able to worship God as He deserve. Of course, it must be pointed out that this ultimate level of comprehension, which consists in truly grasping one’s inability in knowing and worshipping God, is a blessing granted by the grace of God to the aspirant who desires to know and worship Him. But alas! Contingent and finite being cannot comprehend necessary and infinite existence and the aspirant who seeks to know and worship God cannot apprehend He who is truly deserving of being known and worshipped, for it is impossible that the encompassed (mubat; i.e., the human being) should comprehend the Encompassor (mubit; i.e., God), whether this be in point of knowledge or of worship. Hence, the possessor of the most perfect intellect, the guide of the path, he who is the embodiment of the Straight Path, Prophet Muhammad (may God’s peace and blessings be upon him and his household) proclaimed, “We know You not according as You are and worship You not according as You deserve” (Bihar al-anwar, vol. 98, p. 23), thus dispelling the delusion one may harbour in believing that gaining knowledge of the Divine Essence (kunh-i dhat-i ilahi) and worshipping the Truth of Truths (haqiqat ul-haqa’iq) is possible, for where the Absolute Light shines, there is naught but that vanishes into obscurity and nothingness.....

To be continued