A few days ago I wrote a few blogs on Islam based on what I have been learning in Karen Armstrong’s book, The History of God, about the three religions of the book, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. I want to add what I have learned after reading her chapter on mysticism. I realize that nowhere are these religions more closely linked than in their mystic traditions. This makes total sense to me. The mystic’s experience of the divine is even one step further from doctrinal ideas about God than those of the philosophers. “The mystical experience of God has certain characteristics that are common to all faiths,” Armstrong writes. As she tells of mystic beliefs and practices, the similarities are striking among these three as well as other religions such as Buddhists and Hindus.
The aim of all mystics is to experience the divine in some way. They believed that God is beyond all human ideas of God which sets them apart from the theologians who spend lots of verbiage on explaining God. God is incomprehensible so the search is a journey into the unknown and the searcher will never arrive. The Prophet Muhammed, though primarily concerned with the establishment of a just society, had mystical leanings. But the mystic tradition in Islam was carried out primarily by the Sufis. As Islam started to see itself as the one, true faith (sound familiar?), Sufis remained true to the Koranic vision of the unity of all rightly guided religion. Interestingly, many revered Jesus as the prophet of the interior life. An appreciation for the “many roads to God” typifies mystics, but this was true of Sufis in particular.
Sufis used techniques and disciplines to achieve consciousness not unlike mystics of other faiths. To the basic ritual requirements of Muslim law they added practices of fasting, night vigils and chanting the Divine Names as a mantra. Armstrong said that this “sometimes resulted in behavior which seemed bizarre and unrestrained, and such mystics were known as ‘drunken Sufis’.” But the practices had a core intent – to destroy the ego, which stood in the way of finding one’s true self and to achieve a sense of God, which is only that…a sense.
Beginning this chapter, I was looking forward to reading about Rumi, a mystic whose poetry I have come across and find wonderful. He was one of the “bizarre” Sufis referred to above. Jabal ad-Din Rumi was the founder of the “whirling dervishes”. I am not sure I ever took these spinning tops seriously, but now I may take up spinning myself. Maybe little three-year-olds know some secret about finding God in their dizzy exuberance. Did Jesus not say to come to him like the little children?
Rumi taught that the mystic is “engaged in a ceaseless struggle to distinguish the compassion, love and beauty of God in all things and to strip away everything else.” This fits perfectly with what I have read of his poetry. What is interesting is that the word for this inner struggle is jihad, the word that we who look at the Muslim world from the outside, associate with terrorists who find glory in military struggle with their enemies. Muslim mystics perceive jihad much like those in the Christian tradition who see scriptures about the end times as an allegory for the believer’s inner victory over the evil within themselves.
As I continue to read this very interesting and intelligent book, I am becoming more and more aware that religious extremists who seem to dominate the news, are only one faction of something much bigger. If only more of us, regardless of our religious affiliation, could realize the unity realized by our mystics. Perhaps we don’t have to throw away our doctrines, for they may help us to sort things out, but we do need to hold them loosely and humbly. After all, as Paul told the Corinthians, love is the most important thing. Some might even suggest that love is the only thing.