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

Aug 24, 2012, 12:41 PM

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

9. Rational Mysticism

In the mysticism exemplified in the ethos of the Prophet, reason is an integral element, being present alongside intuition, although there are limits to its comprehension.

The principal purpose of the ministry of God’s prophets was to perfect the intellect, for there is nothing that is more valuable: “God did not appoint a prophet or a messenger unless he had perfected his reason and until his reason was superior to that of his people” (Kulayni, op. cit., vol. 1, p. 11). The intellect is indispensable: it is necessary prior to, concurrent with, and subsequent to mystical experience. The role of the wisdom of the intellect in relation to intuitive and mystical knowledge is similar to that of logic in relation to conventional discursive knowledge. Mulla Sadra Shirazi makes the following observation in his magnum opus concerning this subject:

You must know that the intellect is a correct criterion; its judgments are indubitable and free of falsehood, for it is just and it is impossible that injustice should come of it. (Mulla Sadra, Asfar, vol. 2, p. 323)

In the same vein, Ibn Turkah remarks,

We cannot positively affirm that the intellect is utterly incapable of grasping those visions and comprehensions that are on a high level than the intellect. Yes, there are certain esoteric things which the intellect cannot reach on is own but it can reach them and grasp them by the aid of another faculty that is superior to it. But after it has reached them [by the aid of the faculty of intuition], it can comprehension. The same holds true of the intellect’s grasp of the particular objects of sense, for in order to reach them, it is in need of another faculty that is in this case [as opposed to the case of mystical intuition] inferior to it, but after it has grasped them, it comprehends them just as it comprehends the direct objects of its comprehension. Thus, the other objects of its comprehension [i.e., those that it comprehends by the mediation of another faculty], just as they are grasped [immediately] by that faculty, they are also grasped by the intellect albeit the aid of that particular faculty. (Hasnzadih Amuli Tashih wa ta’liq tmhih al-qawa’id, p. 219).

Thus as explained by Ibn Turkah, the intellect does possess the capacity to comprehend the esoteric truths that constitute the scope of intuitive knowledge, the only qualification being that it cannot grasp them immediately but must rely on the higher faculty of the soul, which is that of intuition. And the same truth applies to the intellect’s grasp of the particular objects of sense; only in the former case the immediate cognitive faculty is superior than the intellect whereas in the latter case, the immediate cognitive faculty is inferior.

Of course, the key to the comprehension of mystical vision and intuitions is the purity of the soul’s multiple levels of existence and the balanced temperance (I’tidal-I mizaji) of both body and soul. Once the soul becomes detached (mujarrad), it can then purify and perfect the intellect. The vast wealth of Islamic knowledge and divine wisdom suffice to show the reason can be complemented and enriched by intuition and that intuition can be confirmed and supported by reason (for more on this, see Mulla Sadra, op. cit.,vol. 9, pp. 234-337; Futubat makkiyyah, section 381; and Majmu’ih musannafat shaykh ishraq, vol. 2, p. 216).   

Ibn ‘Umar relates that after reciting the verse “that He my test you to ascertain which of you are best in conduct” (Quran 11:7 and 67:2), he asked the Prophet (may God’s peace and blessing be upon him and his household), “What is the meaning of that, O Prophet of God?” The Prophet replied, ”That He may test to see which of you are best in reason” and continued “and which of you are besting refraining from sin and in obedience to Him” (Tabataba’I, op. cit., vol. 10, p. 185). This answer indicates that the intellect is the instrument for attaining perfection and nobility and it is the criterion in accordance with which “the best in conduct” are distinguished, for to qualify for this exalted status one must possess a perfect character and perform righteous deeds. Therefore, all the factors related to mysticism-spiritual exercise, love, intuition, and the supernatural powers of the mystics and the friends of God-must be weighed on the scale of the intellect-the intellect that is purified through faith and nourished by revelation-so as to determine their truth or falsity, for after all, affirmed by the above-quoted answer from the Prophet, the intellect is the only authority capable of judging the efficacy or harm of actions in leading one to or way from God.  

Now if a self-styled mystic violates the requirements of Islamic morality and ethics, fails to undertake the obvious obligations imposed by Islamic doctrine, engages in frivolous and lewd conversation, and eats without concern for the rules set by Islamic law-is it reasonable, to consider him a mystic or, worse yet, a master of mysticism? What does the intellect judge concerning those who flout the most basic religious injunctions decreed by the Prophet (may God’s peace and blessing be upon him and his household)-such as the impermissibility of obtaining one’s wealth through unlawful means, backbiting, slander, calumniation, arrogance, faultfinding, and violating the rights of others-and, with the pretext of having gained insight into the esoteric substance of faith and the wisdom transcending the spiritual code of conduct of the mystical  path, neglects his religious duties and scoffs at those who take them seriously? Are these so-called mystics to be commended or condemned?

What is to be said of a mysticism that discourages its adherents from participation in the society and politics, from being concerned with the welfare of others, and from striving to better the lives of needy and instead promotes lethargy, seclusion, and antisocial tendencies? Is this genuine mysticism or is it an antinomian mockery of it?

It is not true that the Quran-the greatest and enduring miracle of the Prophet (may God’s peace and blessing be upon him and his household)-exhorts the faithful to fight the enemies of God and to struggle in the way of knowledge? Is it not true that it stresses the importance of the esoteric and the exoteric, the inner and the outer, the concern for the pleasure of God and for the wellbeing of humankind, nobility and knowledge, obedience and benevolence simultaneously?

It is not our belief that the ethos of the Noble Prophet (may God’s peace and blessing be upon him and his household) exemplified true mysticism in its full and most exalted from? Why is it then some flaunting a perverted, unrealistic, and unbalanced conception of mysticism, relinquishing the pristine mysticism, relinquishing the pristine mysticism of Islam? Why is it that people tend to either one extreme or the other: Some championing spirituality at the expense of social participation, others sacrificing spirituality in the name of social activism? Can we agree with these misconstrued and lopsided conceptions of mysticism?  

The mysticism practiced by the Prophet was one that extolled knowledge and love, passion and motivation, obedience to God and accountability, struggle and loyalty, sacrifice and selflessness, nobility and determination, dedication and persistence. The mysticism of the Prophet promoted self-sacrifice and peace. It is the mysticism of recluses that shuns society and politics. What is central to mysticism as exemplified in the Prophet’s ethos is to stand up for God (qiam-I li-llah) and to seek His pleasure, which is in itself the greatest reward? In Islam, mysticism is founded on rationality and reason and enriched by spirituality; in Islam logic and love, reason and intuition, faith and science, knowledge and passion, rationality and obedience, mysticism and justice are inextricable intertwined.

To be continued