Grounding Religion in Mysticism

Reading Rashid Nazki’s Siriyyat

Srinagar, Publish Date: Apr 20 2017 12:13AM | Updated Date: Apr 20 2017 12:13AM
Grounding Religion in MysticismFile Photo

Religions have had a bad press for some reasons for last few centuries. It is perceived by critics of religions that they intimidate, they require belief without or even against evidence, build their case on fear or hope while despising intelligence, are ever on war with healthy instincts, side with the oppressors, make people sleep or daydream, require following so many laws that most fail to observe and cause unnecessary guilt, censure freedom of thought in the name of blasphemy laws, tell incredible stories if taken only literally, are vulnerable to violent, misogynist, fundamentalist readings and divide people. There is a famous essay “Why I am not a Christian?” by Russell and less famous (notorious) book Why I am not a Muslim? by Ibn Warraq (both to be read along with rejoinders from Warren Rachele and Pervez Manzoor respectively). A few other equivalents against other religious positions have also been published. We find on internet proliferating material on Ex-Muslims, Ex-Christians refuting equally proliferating stories of converts to Islam and Christianity. Given all these points and seemingly unending debates of new atheists and huge industry of polemical debates amongst religions or sects, more and more people are saying goodbye to religion. Education has been more or less secularized globally. More educated minds are less likely to be believers as modern education raises ten thousand doubts regarding narratives and practices associated with religions. Religious symbols from beards to scarfs are often suspect even in some Muslim countries, not to speak of secular West. Helpless God fearing parents are watching their children drop away from religions. And losing grip of religion other problems like lack of orientation or meaning and consequent trivialization of life, depression are not uncommon. And a desacralized world is dehumanizing. Is there a way out? Could religions be salvaged or people salvaged from the crisis of religions getting discredited? Is it possible to tackle secular critique of religions, calmly, unapologetically, convincingly? Could one be perfectly rational and best educated without losing one’s religion? Could one let go of certain accretions that have come to be associated with religion? Yes. By turning to the heart of religion which is mysticism and rejecting, for good, any claim that suspects esoteric/symbolist/metaphysical exegesis of religion or that makes religion the criterion of judging metaphysics and mysticism. The Prophet brought book and wisdom and perfected ethics. Mysticism and metaphysics are included and by definition have the priority in establishing the case and place of religion in life. Metaphysics/mysticism is the Sun that illuminates the moon called religion. Mysticism is the fragrance and fruit of a flower called religion. The inner religion of moral, intellectual and spiritual elite is called mysticism. Religion is marriage and mysticism is love that makes it a joy. Metaphysics is the fire of the burning bush and the Sun of truth that burns the weaker mortals who need screened, filtered soothing light of religion. Religion is the veil of a houri or bride called mysticism. Those who want to dispute this need to first attend to the very definitions of intellect, reason, hikmah, Haqq, felicity, virtue, wujud, firdous.  Mysticism includes and transcends religion but doesn’t negate it.  Esotericism is what satisfies our deepest moral, intellectual and spiritual longings and questions. It is illumination, ecstasy, joy, tasting, realization. What is noteworthy is that there is no such book as Why I am not a Mystic or Why I am an Ex.Mystic. We find major modern world writers and philosophers clearly stating their rejection of different religions. However almost all of them affirm  some commitment to what can loosely be called mystical dimension of religion/s. What is so attractive about mysticism that we find hardly any renegades though there are, by lesser minds, some criticisms of mystical position. Hegel, Bradley, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Whitehead, Derrida, Levinas – to name some of the most influential philosophers have all been characterized in more or less mystical terms. From Proust to Mann to Kazanzakis to Camus to Beckett to Ionesco we find advocacy of mysticism or some appropriation of it.  From Lucas to Benjamin to Zizek and Eagleton we find within Marxist/left leaning camp mysticism implicitly or sometimes explicitly in the background. Almost every great epic, love story, philosophy, na’t, hamd, art work, myth has a mystical element or symbolism that contributes to its perennial appeal.

However, what is really troubling is that some people think mysticism is alien to religion – for instance, Sufism is alien to Islam. Some religions are mystically oriented or have a mystical dimension and other don’t. Mysticism is thought to lead to rejection of sacred law or respect for prophetic authority. Sufism is also blamed for Muslim decadence and political quietism.  Now all these apprehensions and criticisms even though rehearsed by some famous names have been amply refuted by more careful scholarship recently. The books on Sufism by William Chittick, Titus Burckhardt, Annemarie Schimmel, S.H. Nasr, William Stoddart and some other scholars have now made obsolete these charges. If you find people still giving attention to old charges of Ibn Taymiyyah and others against key doctrines and practices of Sufism, it only shows they haven’t heard of new scholarship that has convincingly refuted exotericist and Orientalist charges regarding orthodoxy, authenticity, primordiality and essentially Islamic roots of Sufism. What remains living in Ulama’s critique of Sufism seems to have been mostly taken care of by mainstream Sufi authorities themselves. However, we must appreciate the dialectics of Urafa-Ulama conflict. Ulama have been doing a valuable service by alerting us to the dangers in many accounts of mysticism – in quietist, escapist, overly ascetic/indulgent, antinomian and sentimental appropriations of mysticism. Dr. G. Q. Lone’s scholarly work Mutalayae Tasawwuf underscores this point admirably. We should not underestimate some insights in the critical literature from Ibn-ul-Jowzi and Sirhindi to U.G. Krishnamurti to Steven Katz to Ken Wilber. In the hands of lesser or weaker mortals, mystic way is vulnerable to serious dangers from moral and social and biological viewpoints and we must thank providence for the serious critiques of certain elements in what goes by the name of mysticism or Sufism. 

 It is heartening to note that Kashmir’s gifted poet and scholar (we have very few good scholars of mysticism in Kashmir and that accounts for popularity of long discredited notions in certain groups regarding Sufism) Prof. Rashid Nazki’s long awaited doctoral work on Mysticism titled Siriyyat (first part) is finally out. Its importance lies in summarizing much of the best scholarship on some of the above mentioned points and making a very strong case for Mysticism and its Islamic expression Sufism. It makes religion a subset of mysticism and its tone is not apologetic but bold and attacking. It is those who make sainthood and prophecy incompatible, trade legalism, fail to see the Prophet as the exemplary model of Sufis, turn blind eye to metaphysical and symbolic/esoteric dimensions of scripture, ignore ten thousand things in connection with philosophy of religion and lastly assume self righteous posture regarding their construction of Ad-Deen which need to be defensive.  Nazki takes head on all the major theological critics of Sufism and refuses to buy any of their arguments. His is scholarly, though brief, introduction to mysticism in world religions with more detailed treatment of Sufism. Some more points that are not popularly known from this timely work include:

(a) Sufis have been the voice of conscience and socio-political activism throughout.  A great number of Sufis including Shahbuddin Suharwardi and Najmuddin Simnani took up arms against the Mongols. They fought excesses of Umayyids and Abassids and scholastic rationalism. They have been the true saviours of Islamic spirit. Nazki quotes Ghazzali’s famous declaration that Sufi path/approach is the best – an assertion seconded by almost all great philosophers and writers and majority of Ulama/religious scholars and hadees scholars in every age. Scholastic, juristic, rationalistic paths are denied lazzat-i-deedar/certainty and have an element of taqleed and intellectual-spiritual laziness.

(b) Originally, after the death of Ali (RA) what was called Shiism, was really Sufism. He quotes Nasr: “From the Shiite point of view Shiism is the origin of what later came to be known as Sufism. But here by Shiism is meant the esoteric instructions of the Prophet. The Asrar which many Shiite authors have identified with the Shiite concealment ‘Taqiyyah.’” And adds that the doctrine of Imamism converges with the doctrine of Perfect Man in Sufism, and that Shiism and Sufism are united in their view of Noor-i-Muhammad and Maqami-Mehmood. However, later Shiism opposed Sufism (though it nurtured Irfan that is essentially Sufism’s more metaphysical and esoteric core) for making Imam dispensable.

(c) It is Mu’tazilites who charged Sufism for now largely discredited view that wujudi Sufism compromizes distinction between Creator and creation. 

(d) Kharjites were the first critics of Sufism.

(e) Three Imams of Fiqh – Abu Hanifa, Shafi and Ahmed Ibn Hanbal are also important figures in Sufi history. (No less a personality than Attar has defended this view)  (However some Sufis have questioned this appellation.)

 Although Nazki reads too much in wujoodi-shuhudi binary and takes the side of Shuhudi Sufism and seeks to interpret Abdul Qadir Jilani and many others in its terms, misconstrues Ibn Arabi’s position of superiority of sainthood as if implying underemphasizing prophetic station, fails to avoid old Orientalist genealogical view that emphasizes borrowings from alien traditions in mainstream Sufism, he succeeds in his larger aim of introducing and defending against detractors orthodoxy and perennity and Islamicity of Sufism. I hope this work, along with  Zikr-i-Habib is enough for his smooth posthumous journey. Nazki Saheb! Rest in peace. Kashmir remembers you.