Interreligious Study of Mysticism and Spirituality
1. Since “spirituality” and “mysticism” can mean different things in different faith traditions—or even within the same faith tradition—it will be an important first step to devote some time early in our meeting to understand what is meant by these terms in different faith traditions and how do the participants understand these terms. The English terms used here are also somewhat vague and general and one of them—“spirituality”—actually has no real equivalent in Islamic terminology. Thus, when one translates them back into Arabic, one gets taşawwuf” for mysticism, but there is no corresponding term for spirituality, which is derived from “spirit” (rūḥ), which is a specific constituent of our existence, breathed into the human body, but as far as knowledge of this subtle substance is concerned, the categorical reminder of the Qurʾān is instructive: They ask you concerning the spirit. Say, it is from the command of my Lord. And from the knowledge you are given only a little. (Al-Isrā’ 17: 85).
2. The Qurʾān uses the word rūḥ for spirit. It is from the root r-w-ḥ, meaning among other things, wind; to blow; to fan; fragrant shrubs to sniff; spirit; the jinn; the angels; the evening; to go home; to return after the day’s toil; to bring livestock home; to rest. Of this root, seven forms occur 57 times in the Qurʾān: rūḥ (spirit) appears 21 times. “Spirit” is a creation of Allah and its true nature is known to Him alone.
3. There are different shades of meaning associated with the Qurʾānic term “Spirit”. The angels are spiritual beings, they are also called rūḥ. The archangel Jibril, who is the Angel of revelation, is called in the Qurʾān , al-Rūḥ (The Spirit, Sūrah Maryam 19: 17), Rūḥ al-Qudus (The Sacred Spirit, al-Baqarah 2: 87; 253, al-Māʾidah 5: 110; al-Naḥl 16: 102) and ar-Rūḥ al-Amīn (The Trustworthy Spirit, Al-Shuʿarāʾ 26: 193).
4. Jesus’ birth took place in a miraculous way. His mother Maryam (may peace be upon her) was a virgin. Allah sent the Angel Gibril to her who gave her the good news that she will bear a child by the Command of Allah in a miraculous way. Then she conceived Jesus. This conception took place after the announcement of the Spirit—Gibril—peace and blessings be upon him. It is for this reason that Jesus is also called in the Qurʾān Rūḥun minhu (a Spirit from Him, see al-Nisāʾ 4: 171). The Qur’an also came to the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) through the Angel Gibril and thus the Qur’an is also called Rūḥan min amrina (al-Shūrā 42: 52). In Surat Al-Qadr, Gibril is specifically mentioned as al-Rūḥ.
5. Thus when one wishes to understand the meaning of “spirituality” in Islam, one first needs to understand that “spirit” is not “soul” in Islamic terminology and while there is a solid body of scholarship related to the spiritual path one travels in order to return to God in a sanctified manner, spirituality is not something separate from the religion itself; in fact, it is part and parcel of every single deed one performs.
6. It is common place to say that Islam is as much orthopraxy as it is a definite body of beliefs. Thus the concern of Islam is that human beings should have a very high degree of consciousness of God—taqwa in Islamic terminology. Since the Qur’an rejects, even condemns, asceticism understood as a way of life which shuns life and its normal paths, its emphasis on a spiritual path is not outside this world but within it. The real place for the growth of spirituality is in the midst of life and not in solitary places of spiritual hibernation.
7. From the Islamic point of view, therefore, the sphere of activity of the religious life dealing with practices is charted out in such a manner that spirituality is embedded in every act.
8. In addition to this, there is a specific way, generally denoted with capital “W”. The Way often refers to taṣawwuf, that is mysticism . Taṣawwuf is over and above what is considered as obligatory religious practices.
9. It can be said that two paths to God exist for all people: path of salvation and the path of sanctification. For those who seek no more than the minimum, the basic tenants of religion suffice: this is enshrined in the Qurʾānic doctrine of those who believe and do the righteous deeds, a phrase that occurs often in the Qurʾān.
10. But those who desire more than the average person, who want and yearn for intimate knowledge and a very close relationship with God, whose yearning is for higher and greater degrees of closeness to God, there is the path of spiritual practices enshrined in the Way.
11. The Way is, therefore, not something in contrast to the path that everyone is supposed to take, a path that the Qurʾān calls the Straight Path—al-ṣirāṭul mustaqīm—but something in addition to this. That is why, a maxim of Islamic spirituality states that there is no ṭarīqa (Way) without Sharīʿah (path defined by the obligatory religious rites and beliefs).
12. It is not possible to go into details of the Way here, but in general, it should be noted that the Way has stations and states. It can be said that there many “Ways”, ṭuruq; each with its specific outward form and practices, but they all have the same goal: attainment of sanctity.
13. In many mystic orders, stations and states have been well-documented and the novice is led by a master through the stages on the Way. A common description can be said to contain the following stations: (i) certainty; (ii) repentance; fear and hope; patience and gratitude; detachment and reliance; love and contentment.
14. Dense veils stand between ordinary human beings and the Creator. Dense veils signify various ailments afflicting the heart. Al-Ghazālī (d. 1111) dealt with these in his magna opus Iḥyāʾ ʿulūm al-Dīn (in the book entitled “Ruinous Things”). In short, these ailments of the heart make a human being a slave of his or her own passions and divert attention from the Real; in essence, passions take the place which should have been occupied by God. The Qurʾān asks: Have you seen he who has taken his passion for his God?(Q 25:43). This can become a form of idolatry.
15. The most insidious and hence the most dangerous form of idolatry is what he Sufis designate by the term riyāʾ, ostentation. Ostentation is the opposite of Sincerity, ikhlāṣ.
16. The Qurʾān states that on the Day of Judgment, humanity will be divided into three groups: the foremost of the foremost; the people of the right hand; and the people of the left hand (Q 56). For the foremost of the foremost, the elect of the elect, there remains nothing but God upon Whom their attention is focused. The differences can be understood by taking the example of repentance—the first step on the Way, without which there is no journey. But repentance would mean different things to different travellers.
17. For the common people, repentance is to turn away from whatever is wrong in one’s behavior and resolve never to repeat such acts. Thus conformity to the religion in practice. For the seeker, the repentance is to abandon habitual comforts and neglectfulness and resolve to adhere to the Sunna—the practices of the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace—as much as possible, both in acts of worship and, more difficult still, in behavior toward others. “The common people repent from sins,” said Dhuʾl-Nūn (d. 859), “but the elect repent from distraction.” For the elect of the elect, repentance is nothing short of total severance of all attachment to created beings and exclusive concentration on the Real. Imām al-Ḥaddād, one of the greatest mystics of eighteenth century said: “For the men of God who divest themselves of all attachment to the worlds, sin is to attend to other than God, whatever that other may be. We see them fearfully fleeing to God and seeking refuge in Him from states which, if experienced by others, would be considered great devotions.”
18. Since all of this is to be anchored within the context of a normal life, the Way is exceedingly hard. By “normal life” this is meant a life lived amidst others, in relationship to them and not a life lived in isolation from the rest of humanity.
19. As to the questions dealing with the relationship between spirituality and mysticism and which is to be preferred, it is clear from the above that in Islam, the minimum requirement is to follow the path of religion, but there are additional paths which are available to everyone who desires to attain higher states of proximity and sanctity.
20. While one recognizes that each faith tradition would have a hierarchy of this sort, and certain insights can be useful by learning about spiritual paths in different religion, I am not sure if one can actually “share” and “borrow” from other faith traditions. At least this is true in the case of Islam where specific practices of the Way are intimately attached to a hierarchical order, with the Prophet of Islam at the beginning of each path and numerous specific and well-known individuals occupying significant roles along the Way.
21. Thus, the practice of a spiritual path is intimately linked to a belief system as well as to the hierarchy of other travellers on the Way. In addition, each Way has specific routines, practices, techniques, and although one can learn about these theoretically, one cannot practice them profitably without belonging to that particular Way.
22. Indeed, mysticism and spirituality are significant common ground between different religions, for all religions deal with matters of spirit and one’s relationship with God, both of which are common to all Divinely revealed religions, which are based on a Prophetic persona and sometimes on a Book and a Prophet. I think what is important for this group is to discuss in some detail the inner aspects of each represented religion and from this sharing there may emerge many common strands.
23. “What questions should be tackled as part of a responsible exposition of these issues within an interreligious context, particularly one associated with leadership?”
24. I think this is the core question for this group. Once we have explored major aspects of each faith tradition in relation to spirituality and mysticism and charted a general path of major concerns, then we can begin to see common elements and that commonality, there will be enough material to focus on within the context of an interreligious discourse as well as leadership. For instance, it may be that there will be certain expectations from leaders of each religious tradition in terms of guiding the community and/or individuals on the Way. We can then discuss tasks, challenges and difficulties in this process as a common denominator. There may also be some common areas of concern in leadership roles which deal with authenticity and rituals. Another common area may be the relationship between these religious practices and a global scientism which does not even recognize the spirit, not to talk of the spiritual Way and its role in the modern world.