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

Sep 14, 2012, 11:50 AM

Islamic mysticism as exemplified by the Prophet makes its way to perfection through the passageway of reason, having reason all along at its side. As such, Islam sees no contradiction between heart and mind, reason and love rational knowledge and intuitive insight. It rather views these two poles as complementary. After explaining the three types of holy war (jihad)-the “lesser war” (jihad-i asghar, which is the war that is fought with the outward enemies from among men), the “middle war” (jihad-i awsat, which is the war fought within one’s soul between the armies of vice and virtue, between piety and iniquity, geed and moderation, knowledge and ignorance), and the “greater war” (jihad-i akbar, which is, as defined by the mystics, the war between love and reason)-Allamah Jawadi Amuli remarks,

When the human being attains to the level of love, he realizes that true reason is sublime reason that he is now possessed of and that the reason that others [those who have not attained to the level of love] speak of is actually an impediment, which they falsely assume to be reason. (Jawadi Amuli, Tafsir mawdu’i quran majid, vol. 11, p.71)


Purification of the Soul and Purgation of the Heart 
It is reported that Abu Dharr al-Ghaffari once asked the Prophet if there were teachings in the Quran that also existed in the books of the previous prophets. The prophet answered positively, adding that the importance and merit of self-purification was a universal and timeless principle pertaining to human nature that every prophet of God had taught and stressed. A well-known saying from the Prophet reads, “Your staunchest enemy is the soul that lies in between your two sides” (Majlisi, op. Cit., vol. 67, p. 36).

2. The Ways to Attain Divine Authoity
The following is an edifying conversation between the Prophet (may God’s peace and blessings be upon him and his household) and Abu Dharr al-Ghaffari (may God be pleased with him):

The Prophet: “O Abu Dharr, do you wish to enter paradise?”Abu Dharr: “yes, may my father be sacrificed for you.”The Prophet: “Curtail your worldly aspirations, remind yourself constantly of death, fear God according as He deserves.”Abu Dharr: “O Prophet of God, do we not all fear God?” The Prophet: “that is not fear. To fear God is to never forget the grave and the decay it contains, to be mindful of your belly and what you pour therein, to be cognizant of your head and the thoughts you fill it with. And whosoever wishes to attain God’s grace much relinquish the splendour of this world. If you observe these instructions, you will attain divine authority [wilayag allah].” (Majlisi, op. Cit., vol. 77, p. 83)

The above conversation underscores a number of points as enumerated below:

That we must repress our worldly and corporeal  aspirations;

That we must reflect on death and anticipate the Resurrection on the Day of Judgment;

That we must fear God, which requires that we remind ourselves of death and the grave, that we tame our belly and restrain our appetite, that we rein in our thoughts, in a word, that we practice self-vigilance (muraqabat-i nafs);

That we must liberate ourselves from out attachment to the  world and its pleasures;

That we can attain divine authority-which is consequent on union with God and annihilation in Him-if we observe the above instructions (see Jawadi Amuli, Wilayat dar quran, pp. 118-121 and Tafsir mawdu i quran majid, vol. 11, pp. 275-289)

3. To Flee Sin
Of the injunctions that must be observed in the context of pristine mysticism, the most central and efficacious is to grasp the true nature of sin, to avoid sin, and, ultimately, to flee sin, or, in the words of the Prophet, the intoxication of sin, for sin intoxicates the intellect and undermines the soul’s spirituality. Hence, the Prophet’s exhortation to Ibn Mas’ud: “Beware of the   intoxication of sin” (Majlisi, op. cit., vol. 74, p. 92). The ultimate source of sin is self-love, infatuation with the world, and neglect of the remembrance of God. As such, the mystic is ever-attentive to the admonishments of his soul and those of revelation and strives to refrain from sin at every level.

4. Mysticism That Improves Life vs. Mysticism That Quells Life
Islamic mysticism as exemplified in the ethos of the Prophet permeates and enriches every aspect of human life-the personal, the domestic, and the social. The Prophet’s noble and kind treatment of his family and his generous and benevolent interaction with the society aptly illustrate that Islamic mysticism embraces life in all its aspects, including the social aspect. The Prophet infused his unitive worldview and motivation into every facet of human life. Thus, his solitude and social participation, his love of God and sympathy for humankind, his rationality and philanthropy all manifested the same all-encompassing spirituality. That he proclaimed, “He who starts his day and is indifferent to the affairs of his fellow Muslims is not a Muslim” (Majlisi, op. Cit., vol. 17, p. 337), is a clear proof that his mysticism was one that embraced the social life and not one that shunned it. This understanding of Islamic mysticism is further reinforced when we consider how the Prophet reprimanded the likes of ‘Uthmann ibn Maz’un and ‘Abdullah Ibn ‘Umar (for taking up eremitic practices that were more serve than what Islam had sanctioned) and how struggled to establish social justice.

5. Mysticism Centred on Obedience to God
The irradiate centre of pristine mysticism as exemplified in the ethos of the Prophet consists of divine unity, in point of theology, and of absolute obedience to God, in point of practice. The latter is a constant and inseparable feature of mysticism, and as such the spiritual wayfarer must observe God’s commandments as a means of spiritual perfection as the traverses the path and by way of gratitude once he has completed the journey to God. Having said this, the correct reading of verse 99, Surah Hijr (“And worship your Lord so that certainty shall come to you”), in light of verse 7, Surah Hashr (“What the Prophet bring you, you must seize, and what he forbids, you must relinquish”), is that certainty), is that certainty is a privilege that is consequent on worship, not that is it the limit of worship after which worship is no longer necessary (see Jawadi Amuli, Tafsir mawdu ‘i quran majid, pp. 137-138). As such, mystical perfection can never serve as an excuse for the abandonment of one’s religious duties.

The Prophet’s life and ethos epitomize obedience to God and divine unity in their most complete manifestation. God praises the Prophet as His slave; it was on account of this characteristic that the Prophet was appointed for undertaking the final loftiest divine ministry; and it was on account of his characteristic that God summoned him and took him on the Nocturnal Ascent (mi’raj), for the Quran thus describes this event: “Glorified is He who carried His slave by night from the Sacred Mosque to the Farthest Mosque” (17:1). Thus, from the vantage of the Muhammadean mysticism, obedience to God is the fulcrum and axis of the human being’s mystical ascent to divine union.


The pristine mysticism of Islam is an inclusive and all-encompassing spirituality that is in accord with the human being’s nature, both in its cognitive and its intuitive capacity. It satisfies the essential needs of the human being and elevates him to the height to human perfection and the summit of absolute divine unity. The mysticism exemplified by the Prophet centres round divine unity and the perfect human being, and for this reason it cultivates spiritual exaltation alongside spiritual equilibrium at every level of the mystical path. Reason constitutes the beginning and end of the spiritual journey if undertaken in accordance with Muhammadean mysticism, for reason is the substance of humanity and the inner authority implanted by God in human nature. The final fruit of mysticism and the highest level of spiritual perfection is the attainment of sublime and intuitive reason.

In this light, Islamic mysticism does not require anything that would be incompatible with reason, much less contradict it. In fine, the determining factors of rational mysticism as exemplified in the life and ethos of the Prophet can be summed up as follows: rationality; promotion of social justice; exaltation and equilibrium; enhancement of human life in the personal, domestic, and social arenas; inclusiveness; universality; timelessness; and the capability to serve as the basis for building a world civilization.

The End.