Mysticism, according to Evelyn Underhill is “The great spiritual current that goes through all religions”1. Mysticism seeks to understand the nature and relationship of the human soul and God. The mystical aspect of Islam is known as Sufism (tasawwuf) and in practice is the seeking of an intimate relationship with God through meditative practice or the behaviour of self-denial, the ultimate aim, to achieve union with God.
Sufis want to know God in the heart, as a lover and a friend and, as God is an immaterial entity the union can only be achieved emotionally. In the mystical idea, humans gain knowledge of God not through rational thought or religion but with the fusing of the soul to the divine world. Thirteenth century prophet, Jalal al-Din Rumi explains, “All the hopes, desires, loves, and affections that people have for different things … fathers, mothers, friends, heavens, the earth, gardens, palaces, sciences, works, food, drink … he saint knows that these are desires for God and all those things are veils. When men leave this world and see the King without these veils, then they will know that all were veils and coverings, that the object of their desire was in reality that One Thing … They will see all things face to face. “2 In order to embrace the love of God, Sufis must disregard the material world that the rest of us so readily and unquestioningly inhabit.
The Sufi mystical path has several stages and is open to each and every Muslim who wishes to connect their soul with the divine. The whole of life is spiritually one in its source, goal, beginning and end, with the divine manifest in all our souls (though the soul was created before, and is separated from the body). The attempt to attain unity with God is all the more desirable when earthly matter is deemed evil; no incentive is left, other than for anything other than mystical behaviour.
Sufis take the “For man was created weak”3 aspect of the Quran seriously; scripture like it proves to Sufi’s the evil status of matter. There are contradictions though in other parts of the Quran: “Thy Lord said to the angels: I will create a vicegerent on earth”4. Although this is an inconsistency within the Quran, rather than within Sufism itself, it doesn’t give Sufi’s a clear textual backing. We might bear in mind though that if this is the case for Sufis then it will be the case for the Orthodox Muslims too.
So, bearing this in mind, a key understanding for the mystics may be that “We are nearer to him than the jugular vein”5 Such revelations are of great importance to Sufis in giving them an insight into their relationship with God, though they too are also good at expressing themselves: thirteenth century mystic Jalal al-Din Rumi explains that, “All the hopes, desires, loves, and affections that people have for different things — fathers, mothers, friends, heavens, the earth, gardens, palaces, sciences, works, food, drink — the saint knows that these are desires for God and all those things are veils.
When men leave this world and see the King without these veils, then they will know that all were veils and coverings, that the object of their desire was in reality that One Thing… They will see all things face to face. ” Our earthly desires are fanciful yet are always seeking a truth that is God. Sufi mystics are highly regarded and specially remembered and revered long after their deaths. Rabi’a Al-‘Adawiyya and Al-Hallaj provide us with very interesting examples of how mystical experience had so overcome them that to Sufism’s logical extent, existence came to have no meaning for them.
Their experience explains a lot about the ideas and ideology of the mystical tradition. Commentaries on Rabbia and her works have been passed down through devotees, historians, translators and commentators for almost thirteen centuries. Our picture of her is created by these scholars and coupled with the passage of thirteen centuries; the picture may well be an accordingly anachronistic one. Her work that was not already poetry seems, through these mediums and the “refinement of re-telling” 6 to have become such.
In this instance however, we might suggest that the accounts of how talented or prolific she was as a writer are greater affected than our understanding of the mystical path which she followed, it being easier to alter what she left us than what she did. Our understanding of Rabbia doesn’t suffer through our appreciation of her relative poetic merits but it does if she didn’t write them. For our purposes it is necessary to take what we know of Rabbia subjectively and in doing this, we might come to recognise her as a brilliant proponent of Sufi mysticism.
Through her poetry, ethic of self-discipline and emotional devotion to Allah she created in herself an icon of Sufi devotion, highly regarded throughout Islam. Islam has embraced Rabi’a, despite frowning on, not so much the fact that she was a woman, but unmarried life and withdrawal from society as a path to God. Rabbia was a slave who, was seen by her master praying one night (after a hard days work, at the expense of her sleep) and who saw a bright light above her head, so the story goes. He released her immediately and she, in turn, moved to the desert.
As people became aware of her and her holiness, they began beating a path to her door in search of spiritual direction. She was the recipient of numerous marriage proposals. Upon receiving one of them she replied, “I’m not interested, really, in “possessing all you own,” Nor in “making you my slave,” Nor in having my attention distracted from God even for a split second. “7 Even love on earth was incomparable to the love she shared with God. The love expressed in her verse, whether it existed or not (why should we be disinclined to believe her? ) is the essence of this mysticism. “If I die for love, before completing satisfaction,
Alas, for my anxiety in the world, alas for my distress, O Healer (of souls) the heart feeds upon its desire, The striving after union with Thee has healed my soul”8 The love and devotion expressed in this verse is the essence of the mystical. There is no rational or formal relationship with God, just love. Love rarely reconciles itself with rational thought and interestingly, in his incomprehensible nature, neither does God. It is romantic for us to think of this (unconventional female) mystic completely absorbed in her love for God, and expressing this through beautiful poetry.
Poetry is one of the most highly esteemed vehicles for expressing emotion, what better way for Rabia to get her message across? Rabia helps us see that the Sufi tradition is not about the regularity with which Muslims pray or how closely they follow the rules extracted from the Quran, but is about the raw emotion Sufi’s feel for God. Al-Hallaj, another prominent Sufi was killed for his devotion to the mystic quest. Louis Massignon gives us an authoritative account of Al-Hallaj in his book of the same name. He was one of Islam’s most controversial writers and teachers.
Because he was the embodiment of the Muslim experience, Mansur’s life and death represent to many, a reference point in Islamic history. Al-Hallaj was fascinated with the ascetic way of life, in his teens he memorized the Quran and began retreating from the world to gather with other like minds to study Islamic mysticism. He travelled and soon apprentices began to follow him. The situation in which al-Hallaj taught and wrote was shaped by social, economic, political, and religious stress, which eventually led to his arrest.
Sufism was new at the time, and provoked extensive opposition from the Muslim orthodoxy. Sufi masters considered his sharing the beauty of mystical experience with the masses undisciplined at best, disobedient at worst. It wasn’t long before the political leaders made a case against him. Al-Hallaj was considered an “intoxicated Sufi,” who became so enraptured in ecstasy by the presence of the Divine that he was prone to losing his personal identity, blurring the lines between the Divine and the Man.
During his arrest he experienced one of these breaks and uttered: “Ana al-haqq,” or “I am the Truth” (or God). An inappropriate statement to make in the Islamic tradition. He spent 11 years in confinement in Baghdad, before being brutally tortured and crucified. Witnesses were believed to have stated that al-Hallaj was strangely serene while being tortured, and sincerely forgave his persecutors. He is referred to as “Love’s Prophet. ” Al-Hallaj is one of the most influential Sufi writers and an important character in Islamic history. I saw my Lord with the eye of the heart. I said: “Who art Thou? ” He answered: “Thou. “9 By proclaiming, “I am the truth” he had achieved the Sufi goal in that he “felt himself to be God incarnate in the world”10. He was so overcome with his mystical existence that he felt, to the logical Sufi extreme that he was God. There has been a certain tendency for Christians to view Sufism as an Islamic derivative of Christian mysticism. Islam appears to be sensual, physical and practical these aspects all being manifest in Islamic law. How can Sufism reconcile itself with this?
The Christians seemed to think that it couldn’t and mysticism within Islam could trace itself back to the sophisticated Christian tradition and the Holy Ghost. 11 This may be true in certain instances, Al-Muhasibi, for example, has been shown to have borrowed heavily on the new testament for various sayings and commendations of the Sufi life… the practice of wearing woollen garments… is said to have been done in imitation of Christian hermits”, though how recognition and borrowing of ideas can make a religion inferior to the lender is odd.
The examples we have looked at of Rabbia and al-Hallaj serve to discredit this idea, in fact the Sufi idea stands up very well on its own: “In a human being is such a love, a pain, an itch, a desire that, even if he were to possess a hundred thousand worlds, he would not rest or find peace. People work variously at all sorts of callings, crafts, and professions, and they learn astrology and medicine, and so forth, but they are not at peace because what they are seeking cannot be found.
The beloved is called dilaram because the heart finds peace through the beloved. How then can it find peace through anything else? “12 To treat Sufism as a derivative of Christianity deprives Islam of an integral part of its spiritual nature. Sufi practice seeks to achieve a goal of oneness and absorption into God. They seek to attain the state humanity was in before creation13. To achieve this as Rabbia and Al-Hallaj claimed they did, it is necessary to regard emotion, love and spirituality as all-important and all else irrelevant.
Few, if any people will deny the existence of emotion despite its un-quantifiable nature and its defiance of physical definition. Many people, regardless of their religion believe that God is emotion or our collective spirit, in that idea and especially in the examples we have looked at, the heart and love are the keys to understanding, despite their un physical nature “For the reality that is the goal of the mystic, and is ineffable, cannot be understood or explained by any normal mode of perception; neither philosophy nor reason can reveal it.
Only the wisdom of the heart, gnosis, may give insight into some of its aspects. “14 To share in the love of God and to attain existence on a spiritual plane where it is possible to interact with him, the role of the ‘heart’ is obviously crucial. Another important point to remember is that in the world, of evil matter, all that is then not evil, is emotion. Perhaps the legacy that Rabia and Al Halaj have left us with, is of love and emotion.
They did not teach us practical lessons or how to do our best, but simply, how to feel; perhaps this is why they are still so well regarded. Our hearts and souls are individually and collectively the sources of our love. By feeling their relationship with God emotionally, at the expense of all else, the Sufi’s are quite radical in their approach to him. It is a kind of religious anarchism; the only necessities are the heart and the soul, whilst nothing else matters. Sufis use their hearts to direct their emotions towards God; its importance is not partial but total.