Islamic Mysticism

Part 9 of 12 in the series Spiritual History

There is a well known story from the life of the Prophet Muhammad, about a mysterious visitor (an angel called Gabriel) who came to him and sat next to him to quiz the Prophet. Gabriel asked Muhammad about levels of spirituality, to which the Prophet answered there were three:

  1. Islam (religious tradition in submission to Allah) – action
  2. Faith (the belief in the cosmic Love of God) – belief
  3. Loveliness (‘ihsan’ mystical awareness) – experience of spiritual union/ecstasy

This third and highest quality the Prophet identified as existing where we experience/see the Divine nature, and to recognize that the divine is intimately connected with us.

The foundation of Islam (the attestation to Divine Unity, the performance of the prayers, the pilgrimage to Mecca, the paying of the alms tax, the fast of Ramadan) is the layer of religiosity. Above that is faith, and above faith is the spiritual and mystical layer of spiritual beauty, for ihsan is literally the realm of actualizing and realizing beauty and loveliness (husn), of bringing beauty into this world and connecting it to the All-Beautiful. ‘Ihsan’ is also known as mysticism.

From the beginning of Islamic history (800 CE), this realm of ihsan was sought by the mystics of Islam, the Sufis and also formed a powerful companion to the legal dimension of Islam (sharia). Indeed, many of the mystics of Islam were also masters of legal and theological realms.

The cultivation of inward mystical beauty and outward compassionate action were linked in many of important Islamic institutions. In comparing Islam with Judaism, the mystical dimension of Islam was much more prominently widespread than Kabbalah.

Unlike the Christian tradition, the mysticism of Islam was more socially available. Sufis were — and remain — social and political agents who went about seeking the Divine in the very midst of humanity.

The most influential of all Muslims were and remain mystics.

  • The Prophet Muhammad was of course a mystic.
  • Mawlana Jalal al-Din Balkhi, known to Turks as Mevlana and to Americans as Rumi, remains the most beloved of all Sufi poets, whose Masnavi was perhaps the only work ever compared directly with the Quran. Rumi is the most widely read poet on the planet.
  • Ibn ‘Arabi, the Spanish Muslim sage, remains the most widely read metaphysician, and his school of “Unity of Being” (Wahdat al-wujud) has been both influential and controversial from Spain to Indonesia.
  • The most important Muslim theologian, al-Ghazali, identified the realm of Sufism as the highest Islamic quest for knowledge, one that dealt most directly with other-worldly matters.

Who are the Sufis?

Sufism or Taṣawwuf (Arabic: الْتَّصَوُّف) are names for Islamic mysticism, for those Moslems who seek to find divine truth and love through direct encounters with God.

This is achieved through devotional practices:

Sufi Whirling is an active meditation or body prayer where the dancer seeks to abandon egos or personal desires, by listening past the music, focusing on God, and spinning one’s body in repetitive circles, which has been seen as a symbolic imitation of planets in the Solar System orbiting the sun.

Muraqaba or Meditation is the LISNing to the inner voice, knowing that such LISNing is reciprocated : “The most favored level of faith is to know that God is in love with your soul, wherever you may be” or as Rumi says

Dhikr ceremonial celebration and gratitiude to God, including singing, dancing, playing music, incense, ecstatic awareness and trance.

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