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Rational Mysticism: the Pristine Mysticism of Islam as exemplified in the life and ethos of the Prophet

Sep 7, 2012, 12:09 PM | Article By: Alhaji Ousman M. Jah

In the following report the Prophet offers six instructions, which accommodate the human being’s rational and spiritual as well as personal and social aspects. Mu’awiah ibn ‘Ammar reports that the sixth imam related that one of the passages of the Prophet’s advice to Imam ‘Ali was as follows:

O ‘Ali, I advise you concerning certain qualities that you must realize in yourself. Take this advice from me (then addressing God, he said, “My God, help him”). (1) The first is honesty (sidq); never utter a lie. (2) The second is integrity (wara); never commit an act of treachery. (3)  The third is fear of God, great is His remembrance, as through you see Him. (4) The fourth is to weep often in awe of God; for ever tear there shall be built for you in paradise a thousand houses. (5) The fifth is to give your blood and wealth in the cause of your faith. (6) The sixth is to adhere to my tradition in prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. As for prayer, [you are to perform] fifty rak’ahs [daily]. As for fasting, [one must fast] three days in every [lunar] month: the first Thursday of the month, the Wednesday of middle of the month, and last Thursday of the month. As for almsgiving, you should give until you doubt whether you are being wasteful, without actually being wasteful. Perform the mid-night prayer; perform the mid-night prayer, perform the mid-night prayer. Perform the mid-night prayer, perform the mid-night prayer, and perform the mid-night prayer. Recite the Quran in whatever circumstance you may be. Raise your hands in prayer [when you utter ‘God is great”] and let them face the qiblah. Brush your teeth every time you make wudu.  I exhort you to practice the moral virtues and to shun the moral vices. Should you fail to abide by these instructions, blame only yourself? (Rawadah al-kafi, p. 79 and Majlist, op. cit., vol. 74, p. 68)

This report illustrates that the mysticism exemplified by the Prophet was one that centered on God, the Resurrection, and obedience to Him. The virtues praised in the context of this mysticism are, among others, fear of God, sincerity, piety, personal integrity, adherence to the tradition of the Prophet, persistence in the performance of the obligatory and supererogatory prayers, recitation of the Quran, spending the latter part of the night in prayer and supplication, reforming one’s character in conformity with the moral virtues, keeping a decent and pleasant appearance while also striving for the purification of soul, abiding vigorously by the injunctions of Islamic law, sincere concern for those in need of help, and maintaining one’s honor and self-esteem.

It is reported that the Prophet said to Imam ‘Ali, “O ‘Ali, there are four traits that if present in one, one’s faith is complete: honesty (al-sidq), gratitude (al-shukr), modesty (al-haya’), and kindness (husn al-khulq)” (Mu’izzi Malayiri, 1412, vol. 14, p. 285).

It is reported that Abu Dharr al Ghaffari requested the Prophet to give him some advice, whereat the Prophet replied, “I relied you to be kind and taciturn, for these two are the lightest virtues on the body but the weightiest on the scale of the Day of Judgment” (Hindi, op. cit., p. 664).

The conclusion that we may draw from the above is that mysticism as defined by the Prophet encompasses a broad scope of values and is possessed of three characteristic: it is inclusive, universal, and eternal. Mysticism thus defined is in conformity with the human nature and acceptable to reason; it accommodates the pursuit of justice in human society and promotes sympathy among humankind; it is concerned with the welfare of humankind; it is balanced and exalted at the same time; it reinforces religious law rather than opposing it; it seeks to advance human perfection; it cultivates dignity and self-esteem, condemning the false mysticisms that posit self-denigration as a virtue. In a word, Islamic mysticism is such as should it be appropriately introduced, it would appeal to the hearts and minds of all people in spite of their differences.

It was this mysticism that the Prophet exemplified in his personal, domestic, and social life, for he was “the greatest exemplar,” the most perfect personification of all human virtues, the vessel of spiritual bliss and felicity, and of God’s grace and effusion of mercy. In the language of Muslim mystics, the Prophet is the “Complete Muhammadean Truth,” the greatest manifestation of God, who descended to this world to perfect every facet of human life: spiritual, intellectual, social, and political. As such, the mysticism exemplified by the Prophet was not one that opposed science or reason that shunned the political and social arenas that promoted seclusion. On the contrary, the pristine mysticism of Prophet Muhammad denounces eremitism and antisocial tendencies, just as it condemns secularism and spirituality-and religious-averse tendencies.  These characteristics make Islamic mysticism the most perfect spiritual model for human life, which, instead of undermining the foundations f social life, imparts spirituality to it, thereby cultivating a social order based on divine unity and authority, on religious law and spirituality.

The Noble Prophet-whom Islamic mysticism reveres as the “Incarnate Reason” (‘aql-I mumaththal), the “First Emanation” (sadir-I awwal), and the “Absolute Nous” (‘aql-I kull)-on numerous occasions reminded the Muslims of the important role of reason and its practical and theoretical capacities that ought to be realized. In order to better demonstrate the Islamic perspective on the function of the intellect, it would help to consider a few sayings by the Prophet in this relation:

“For every thing there is a vehicle and the vehicle of man is the intellect” (Majlisi, op. cit., vol. 1, p. 95);

“For everything there is a purpose, and the purpose of worship is reason”;

“For every journey there is a tent in which people seek sanctuary, and the tent of the Muslim is reason” (Riyshahri, 1381, p. 3874, no. 13355).

What we may infer from these sayings is that the intellect is the human being’s vehicle by means of vehicle he can journey towards the Eternal Abode. Reason is the impetus that enables him to proceed on this path, thus ensuring that his advance does not cease. One equipped with a sound intellect progresses ceaselessly in the pursuit of theoretical and practical perfection.

The Prophet of Islam identifies reason as the purpose of worship. In the words of ‘Allamah Jawadi, “The human being worships so as to become intelligent, for the intellect is in need of worship in its inception as well as its sustenance” (Jawadi  Amuli, “Tafsir mawdu’I quran majid, vol. 9, p. 152). That is, the intellect in its fledgling state cause one to be elevate in knowledge, obedience to God, and spiritual development, and these in turn strengthen and reinforce reason, elevating its existential level. Thus, reason is instrumental in every stage of obedience and it is present the start and to the end.

In his reply to Sham’un ibn Lawi, the Noble Prophet is reported as having said:

Indeed the intellect (‘aql) is the yoke (‘iqal) that keeps ignorance in check, for the soul is like the wildest of animals; if it is not restrained, it shall run amuck. Thus, the intellect is the yoke that restrains ignorance.” (Majlisi, op. cit., vol. 1, p. 117)

‘Allamah Jawadi Amuli enumerates 133 functions for the intellect whose effects reach the theoretical and practical aspects of the entire spectrum of human knowledge and spirituality. He then counts 29 problems that can be caused by the absence of reason (see Jawadi Amuli, Adab-I fanay-I mugarraban, vol. 2, pp. 26-70).

Another saying reported from the Prophet concerning the importance of reason is, “Man’s constitution rests on his intellect, and he who lacks reason lacks faith” (Nahj al-fasahah, vol. 2, p. 661). Thus, pristine mysticism, which is one of the integral components of the pristine faith, is unrealizable without reason. For, it is only by the aid of reason that the human being can achieve a correct understanding of faith and of how to lead a faithful life. Equipped with the understanding, he carries out his actions in light of the religious insight he has acquired, is careful to safeguard the pure knowledge that proceeds from the profound depths of faith, and holds fast to the genuine morality and spirituality of Islam. In so doing, the believer secures his inner mystical endeavor from deviation and distortion; from being affected  by vulgar conceptions of religion that tend to stress its literal, exoteric, and mundane facet to the exclusion of the sublime, esoteric, and profound essence of religion; and from other visible and hidden hazards to which the spiritual life is vulnerable.