5. Muslim Understandings of the Spiritual and Mystical Life


Muslim Understandings of the Spiritual and Mystical Life

Conducting the Lesson


Lesson Opening:

It is recommended that those not familiar with Islam listen to the audio ‘Fundamentals of Islam’ on the Elijah website before the lesson.

Write the terms ‘Religion’, ‘Spirituality’ and ‘Mysticism’ on the board.

Explain that the first term is probably the most difficult for Muslims. It implies a life other than a religious one, yet Islam says all of life is encompassed by religion.

Provide list of key words to be explained in the video:

Ruch, Nafs, Galb, Aqel, al-Din, Sawuf, Sufi, Shahada, Fikr

Watch video.

After watching video, try to fill in definitions.

Discussion: Does the imagery of climbing the mountain resonate with you? Is this an image that can be applied to all religions and cultures or is there something specifically Muslim about it?

Do you think that the problem of language is ‘mere semantics’ or does it indicate a deeper difference between Islam and other religions? What did you see or hear that distinguishes Muslim approaches to spirituality from your own/ from other religions?


Text study:


Dr Muzzafar Iqbal:

In order to be authentic, in order to take the discussion into a different tradition, we have to deal with different terminology. And that is where diversity of this group will manifest itself – because when I translate these terms into Arabic – ‘spirituality’ and ‘mysticism’ – I do not get meaningful categories for both of them. Therefore, I have to draw a different diagram here. This is the ‘being’ as manifested on the human plane. So I will call this being ‘the human’ at the human plane – the one you are dealing with – you, me and everyone else who is walking, talking, here on this earth. This being is contained in this body. So there is this outer circle: body, which is a container. Within this body, we have four distinct elements, and first being ‘ruch’ . This is roughly translated as the ‘spirit’. Now, in addition to the spirit, we have what we call ‘soul’, or the ‘nafs’, and the nafs is of two types. But in the middle of the body, the middle, in the centre of being, the focal point, is the galb, the heart. And tying the cognitive faculties is the ‘aqel’, which is intellect.

Now, if we translate these terms systematically, ‘religion’, I do not get a corresponding term because we have the term ‘al-din’, which has many meanings. But the meaning we are talking here is ‘the path’, the path that one takes, which normally translate as ‘religion’ in English but that does not correspond. ‘Spirituality’ does not give us anything corresponding here in Islamic terminology, because ‘spirituality’ is dealing with ‘spirit’ and the spirit is something about which we are told absolutely nothing. Spirit is an element about which the Koran says you have been given the knowledge but very little. However, it is the ‘mysticism’, the term that we are using, ‘mysticism’, for which we have a very systematic body of scholarly knowledge that we call ‘sawuf’. So ‘mysticism’ tasawuf, ‘suf’ and ‘sufi’, so ‘sufi’ being the mystic and ‘suf’ coming from the clothing, the rough clothing. This term, of course, is very fundamental to any kind of understanding of Islamic, what we call, ‘spirituality’. Although there is no such thing as religion without spirituality, in the sense of following the path, the religion. Now, everyone who has pronounced the Shahada, everyone who has proclaimed that there is no God but Allah and Muhammed is his prophet, enters the fold of Islam. But there is no concept of Islam, of being a Muslim, without having that whole structure of the Pillars of Islam. ‘Mysticism’, and this is a beautiful definition that comes from a mystic himself, Junayd, may God shower His mercies on him, who said that the mystic is the one who does not deal with anything that is other than God. The mystic is the one who has no business with anything that is other than God.  So he is fully, totally, completely serving God, waking, sleeping, in all forms of his being, at all times of his being. The generality, the great masses – it is not a pre-requisite – once you have pronounced the Shahada, that there is no God but God and Muhammed is his prophet, you are in the fold. You are a Muslim, you are by definition, then you return to fikr, the fundamental nature of human beings. You have already entered that state. What one does in addition to that is to strive to leave aside things that are not even God-related. And that is something that not everyone is called upon to do, that is something not given to everyone, that is something everyone can strive for it, we can hope to do that, but going back to the circle in which we have the nafs  – and I said there are two kinds of nafs, two kinds of souls: one that incites us to evil things and the other the tranquil soul. And the achievement of all of this is to subdue the bad nafs [Arabic] and go to the tranquil spirit. Then, this is the final state of those about whom the Koran says, ‘They will be told that you are pleasing to God and God is pleasing to you.’

If you want to reach to the top of the mountain there are several ways of climbing the mountain and the destination is the same. And each of these paths, they have their own ways of purifying the soul to get to the top of the mountain. And there are stages through which the human soul goes – so one feels the stages as one walks through the path going to the mountain top: the stages of being sad; the stages of being in ecstasy; the stage of being extremely tired; the stage of feeling alienated from everything other than God Himself; the stage of (ahava) love, at which point the one in that stage is just filled with love for everything .  So there are 40 stages on the path and the final stage is the total annihilation, the disappearance of the self, the disappearance of the consciousness that I am a separate being – this dissolving of the self, the dissolving of the consciousness of the nafs, of the being, of the consciousness of being something separate from everything else that  has been created.

To what external evidence can we objectify the stages of being so that it does not mean some kind of shallow, personal experience that no one else can share?

Rabbi Alon Goshen-Gottstein: So let me propose the following diagram to capture what you’re saying: this is Religion, this is Mysticism, which we know in this case as tasawuf, and let’s put here a square, instead of a circle. The reason I say it’s a square: this square right now is an unknown – this is the unknown of the heart.

Dr Muzzafar Iqbal: The fundamental thing is the heart.

Rabbi Alon Goshen-Gottstein: It could very well be that this is what spirituality is about – it’s the heart and its intersection. Maybe not – we’ll re-visit this. But you’re alerting us that you want to start not with some external category but with the categories that arise from your tradition. The term ‘mysticism’ you recognize; you also recognize something central to the spiritual life that you have a term for which is ‘heart’ and we are asking does this relate or does it not relate to other things.

Dr Muzzafar Iqbal: What happens to the constituents of our being?

Rabbi Alon Goshen-Gottstein: Let’s broaden the square to include all those things that make up the daily life of struggles with who you are, what you are, the good part of you, the bad part of you, how you deal with that, how you reach the heart. We’ll include all that under  ‘the heart’.

Shaikh Kabbani: So human beings – I like to go through these circles in order to maybe be a little bit different but to shed more understanding if you want to look at it from a different religion.

The atom consists of what? It consists of mass plus electrons.. and neutrons and the others.. making here an atom.

So, human beings .. it is mass plus energy.

So to have a perfect human being, then you have a circle.

That circle that consists for every human being through religion. So you have here ‘religion’. That religion – I am speaking here according to Islam – that religion consists of two kinds [of things that] the Prophet described – as a religion as a whole. But he described the obligations – in every religion you have to have .. the 5 [Pillars] – prayers, fasting and all that you know about religion – the obligation plus belief. So these are two circles. So in the obligation and belief here you reach the perfect human being, who is going to be equal to these together. Obligations and belief [comprise] moral excellence. To come to moral excellence, which is the perfect human being, so this is the complete circle. The moral excellence will be the centre, which is Mysticism, in my understanding, and this is the nucleus of the perfect human being, which is moral excellence. This is where the human being [is], on the circle, outside, and here, the empty spaces, are the radiuses. Every person on earth is a human being on the circle, taking, going to the centre, going to Mysticism, which is moral excellence, through his spirituality, and body. So spirituality and body are within this circle. A body, as he explained, brother Muzzafar, has the soul, which is of two kinds, the good one and the bad one, as God mentioned in the Holy Koran. That’s where every human being is on the circle, on the outside, and these are different, infinite number of radiuses which go to the centre. As much as you are going on a spiritual path, as much as you are coming near Mysticism. And Mysticism is the highest level of enlightenment. The answers cannot be known. But it can be known by the names and  attributes that it can be described with. So we have 99 names, beautiful names and attributes, that can be infinite, because in every human being, God has created a name. It’s not only 99. Because every one of us has a different mind, has a different idea and different mentality that he can live with it. So, these different names are those who point to that essence and these 99 names can be the highest level of enlightenment, which the seekers are running to know.

Rabbi Alon Goshen-Gottstein: It is not clear. Are you aiming to get to the centre? Because the 99 names are on the periphery of the circle.

Shaikh Kabbani: No, the 99 names DESCRIBE that [say, the heart] – they are the description of the centre, of God.

What is important is not to come to God through your [compulsory] prayers . The Prophet, peace be upon him, said, [Arabic], ‘As long as my servant approaches me through voluntary worship, I will love him.’ So he didn’t say ‘with obligations’. Obligation in every religion is an obligation you have to do. He said with ‘voluntary worship’ – with generosity, with love of people, sick people – visiting them, giving  them money, whatever you do of goodness through your life, other than your obligations. God will love you and when He loves you and He will be your ears, that you can hear with, He will be your eyes, that you can see with, He will be your tongue, that you can speak with, He will be your hand that you can sense with, He will be  your feet that you can walk with. The manifestation of the beautiful names and attributes will come over him. That time, you can say, is something beyond the earth.