Letting Go of God

Dreyfus said that a lot of students in his class on Heidegger (which is standing room only and students waiting outside the door to get in) would fail because Heidegger is incredibly difficult to understand.  Dreyfus warned students that if they don’t have the appropriate philosophical background, they need to consider dropping the class. My philosophical background is limited so chances are, I’d fail his class.  But if I was in school at Berkeley and if there were no Berkeley Webcasts and I had the opportunity to take his class, I’d willingly take the risk.

My interest in philosophy is far more spiritual than it is academic. In specific, I am interested in philosophical ideas that merge with mysticism. Since the Enlightenment, academia has lumped mysticism in with magic, sorcery, the supernatural and all things irrational. This is tragic because authentic mysticism is intensely rational. Yes, it is also considered to be transrational, but the stepping stone to transrational thought is rational thought, not irrational thought.  (For the sake of clarification, let’s use A.R. Lacey’s definition of rationalism – any view appealing to reason as a source of knowledge or justification.)

Mysticism flirts with atheism because transrational thought makes the question of the existence of God irrelevant.  Mysticism is NOT an atheism, however, because it does not make the claim that God does not exist.  However you answer the question, “Does God eixst?” (“yes, there is a God” or “there is no God”) – merely points back to the question itself. Both atheists and theists have made the question important by insisting they hold the “right” answer, but mystics consider the question irrelevant because mysticism is rational. “God” (by any other name) cannot be known rationally, therefore any rational question about God does not apply. It makes no sense, whatsoever, to insist upon the existence or non-existence of God. If you insist upon God’s existence, then you are likely more into supernaturalism and magic than authentic mysticism. If you insist upon the non-existence of God, then chances are you worship rationalism in the same way theists worship a supernatural God. True, a lot of mystics use the term “God” to point to what is transrational.  But this does not mean they “believe” in the term.

In The Gay Science, Nietzsche presents the parable of the madman. This madman runs out into the crowds exclaiming “God is dead”, and realizes he is at least 300 years too early for people to understand what he is saying.  Nietzsche isn’t telling theists that God is dead.  He’s telling secularists that God is dead.  Atheists may claim there is no God, but they don’t yet understand that God is dead.  Human beings created an ideology based on a concept that served humanity relatively well for centuries. The concept is no longer viable because we killed it. As Dreyfus said in his Existentialism in Film and Literature class, we abstracted it out of existence.  And as long as we believe in objective truth, we are forced to maintain a belief in a God’s eye view that has the ability to see this truth. Secularists haven’t eliminated God.  On the contrary. The role of God has been reassigned to science and reason. God is dead, but we don’t yet know it.

Many years ago, I was having great difficulty maintaining a belief in God and went through a frantic journey trying to find out everything I could about the history of the Bible, the history of the Jews, the history of Rome, Greece, and whatever else I thought might help. Through a series of connections with various bloggers (mostly on the now defunct Vox), I ended up at Hubert Dreyfus’ “Existentialism in Literature and Film” class I just mentioned. This sent me on an entirely new trajectory.

These days, I can say with confidence that I do not believe in God.  That is not to say I don’t think God exists. I simply think the question is irrelevant. I can’t even begin to tell you how long or how scary it has been for me to admit this to myself. There have been years of darkness associated with this admission because I simply have not wanted to acknowledge God’s death.

I think what was most difficult was letting go of the belief that there is an objective truth waiting to be discovered. I really thought I’d figure it out one day – that it all would make sense…

I still have so much to unlearn!

The Terror of History: Lectures 14-15 (Mysteries of the Renaissance, Hermeticism, Astrology, and Magic)

Magic, astronomy and alchemy had an especially huge influence on the Italian Renaissance. Part of what the Renaissance was concerned with was discovering the most ancient forms of knowledge (“deep time”). The culture in Italy was much different from the rest of Europe. It was never truly “medieval”. Knowledge of classical forms, as well as Roman culture, were not as distant for Italians as they were for other countries. The Renaissance had its beginnings with Francesco Petrarch, who insisted on the studies of the humanities which required a move away from Aristotelian philosophy and metaphysics. The emphasis was now on rhetoric and ethics. Those influential in the Renaissance wanted to recover the greatness of the classical past. They saw themselves, and the times they were in, as a rebirth of ancient culture.

The Renaissance spread throughout Europe. While historians often emphasize the rational nature of the movement as progressive, it was more true to say it looked to the past, not the future. Kabbalah became extremely important, ancient languages were studied, and many Renaissance scholars argued that the deepest form of knowledge could only be found in the deepest past. The more ancient, the better.

Ancient alchemical, astrological and magical texts made their way to the west through the Arabs. They were translated into Latin and because only a few scholars were interested in them, they did not make their way into the popular culture except in distorted superstitious forms. When Greeks started migrating to Europe after the Ottoman Conquest of Constantinople, they brought with them more ancient texts.

Astrology had ancient roots, going back to the beginnings of civilization in Mesopotamia. Astrology was very popular during the Renaissance. It had the validity of science and was accepted by leading scholars of the 15th and 16th centuries as having intellectual importance. In 1524, an alignment of the planets brought fear to many Europeans. Anti-astrological literature became popular as a way to debunk the fears. While some of this anti-astrological literature was warranted, other astrologers were doing a fantastic job of tracking the stars which allowed Kepler and other scientists to make use of their work.

Alchemy was, at its core, the search for the philosopher’s stone, the key to all knowledge and understanding. It was a form of chemistry with roots dating back to the Babylonians and Chaldeans. The language of alchemy during the 15th and 16th centuries closely resembles that of religion and mysticism, and its practitioners were a variety of people, from charlatans to serious scientific experimenters to religiously inspired thinkers. Alchemy involved the meeting of opposites. It was a precursor to chemistry and modern medicine.

Magic also played an important role in the 15th and 16th centuries. The boundaries between science and magic were very fluid during this time period. Like alchemy and astrology, magic was an esoteric pursuit. There was also a very clear distinction between demonic and beneficial magic.

Hermeticism was the most important tradition during the 15th an 16th centuries. It was essentially a combination of astrology, alchemy and magic. It came out of a tradition that supposedly dated back to before Moses, based on a set of texts thought to be from the Egyptian god, Hermes Trismegistus. (In truth, they dated back to 2nd Century Christianity.) Hermetic ideas entered literature and other art forms during this time period. Iconographic representations became popular, as well.

The most important hermetic text was Asclepius and the Corpus Hermeticum. Both contained a strange mixture of Gnostic philosophy, magic and astrology. The origins of the universe described in them coincided with that in the Old Testament, which gave them credibility and authority. Because they drew from so many different traditions, they were thought to provide a coherent view of knowledge.

The man responsible for translating the texts was Marsilio Ficino. He also interpreted Plato’s texts and offered his own philosophical ideas and theories about the astrological aspects of hermeticism. He discussed the relationship of plants and the power of the stars, as well as the use of talismans and stones. He also discussed the connection of certain types of behavior (eating certain foods or listening to Orphic music) with what he called the fifth essence. He claimed that as the planets moved, they created music – the music of the spheres. (Turns out he was right about this!!) To be receptive to this music, he prescribed exercises for the practitioners of hermeticism to gain knowledge of the universe and spirituality.

Over time, hermeticism gained great prestige in Western culture. For instance, John Donne’s work draws heavily on the astronomical and metaphysical language of hermeticism. But after the 18th century, when the correct dating and authorship of the hermetic texts became known, it became marginalized, although it did continue to be was considered important in some circles.

The Terror of History: Lectures 4-8 (Mysticism)

Intro. to Mysticism

Is mysticism a superior form of grasping reality, or is it just another way to escape the terror of history? It’s not so clear because many of the mystics are very convincing that they have experienced reality.

We in the West have a very deeply ingrained sense of self (“I”). Mystics attempt to move away from the “I” and its demands and try to discover a deeper self. This is done through withdrawal and introspection, which brings about dramatic change that eventually transforms the individual into a new being.

The search involves either immanence or emanation. Emanation says God is on the outside so the mystics journey is upward and outward. Immanence means that God is within so the journey is inward. Most Western mystics practiced Emanation. (Immanence presented the problem of heresy.)

Common symbols of mystics are pilgrimage, love (often in the form of courtly love), and the attainment of perfection,

The mystic undergoes five stages:

  1. Awakening
  2. Self-knowledge/purgation – usually involves a return to the natural self but can also involve various acts of contrition.
  3. Illumination (hearing voices, seeing visions, automatic writing…)
  4. Surrender (dark night of the soul)
  5. Ecstasy (union with God). It is an involuntary act.

Mysticism in the 12th Century

Hildegard of Bingen.

Hildegard of Bingen was born around 1098 into an aristocratic family with important political and social connections with the ruling elites in Bingen. She was literate and was well versed in both science and theology. (Most women were not educated in her day.) She made contributions to the medical field and presented what could be called a “feminist interpretation” of scientific evidence. She held an important place in the scientific culture of her day. She also composed music.

She was the first mystic to discuss Eve and Mary and the role of women in the church. She claimed Eve was the true mother of mankind, and that men and women held equal roles in conception. (Remember, this was back in the day when women were considered to be nothing more than incubators of what the man had to offer her.) She had a vision of a mystical pillar which joined Mother Mary to God.

Saint Bernard of Clairveaux.

Saint Bernard of Clairveaux is one of the most important historical figures of the 12th century. He was born around 1090 and entered Citeaux, the mother house of the Cistercian Order after a spiritual conversion. Citeaux and the Cistercian Order were founded to escape the growing wealth and materialism of the Church. They mimicked the ascetic practices of the Desert Fathers.

Bernard argued that freedom was a gift from God and that it requires man to love God completely. (But because our freedom is a gift, we are not free.) There are four stages of love…

  • self-love
  • the love of God
  • the sweetness of the love of God
  • surrender to God

Mysticism in the 13th Century

This was the time of the growth of urban societies and the rise of the bourgeoisie, which created tremendous change. Mass and the liturgy were formalized. Latin, although it was no longer used by the people, became the formal language of mass, and the priest would face the altar, away from the people, deliberately creating a sort of wall between the people and the Church.

Saint Francis of Assisi.

St. Francis was born around 1182. His father was a rich merchant. After being wounded in a war, Francis made a transformation. He was commanded by God to “rebuild his Church” and he took this to mean he was to rebuild the Church of Saint Damian, which he did.

After a public confrontation with his father, Francis removed all of his clothes and gave them to his father, claiming he no longer wanted the association to money his father represented. He traveled through Central Italy, gathering disciples, and gained approval for his Order. (Pope Innocent III had a vision that it was Francis who saved the Church from falling.)

Important messages:

  • Sanctity of poverty and the renunciation of wealth.
  • An awareness of nature and the presence of God in the world.
  • An emphasis on the manger which represents the humanity and vulnerability of Christ.
  • A new type of teaching to “infidels” who need love. (Rather than raging war against them.)

He was betrayed by his order (they agreed to the owning of property and teaching in universities) and so he withdrew to Mt. Verna where he received the stigmata. Shortly afterward, he wrote "The Canticle of the Sun" while waiting to die.

Dante Alighieri.

Dante was born around 1265 to a patrician family in Florence. When he was 9, he had his first encounter with Beatrice which had a profound and lasting impact on his later life. Because of political factors, Dante was exiled from Florence which was extremely difficult for him. His exile led to the writing of La Vita Nuova and later, The Divine Comedy which provides a guide to the culture and politics of medieval Europe and the Italian city-states of the early 14th century. The Comedy is the pilgrimage of a mystic from sin and despair to a vision of God. The end of The Comedy shows a mystical union with God that is deeply influenced by an Aristotelian worldview.

Jewish Mysticism

This lecture focuses on The Zohar, considered to be one of the most important Kabbalistic texts ever written. No one is sure how to date it. Gershom Scholem claims it was written in late 13th century Castile. More religious scholars claim it was an earlier text. (You run into the same problems with the authors of the New Testament. The religious folks tend to date texts earlier than history scholars.)

Scholem says that Jewish mysticism was far less “feminine” than its Christian counterparts. (For instance, the marriage between soul and God do not take place in Judaism as they do in Christianity, no bridal bed, etc.)

The Zohar says the commandments given to Moses are a mixture of confirmation and denial. (Do this, don’t do that.) It also claims the scriptures can be interpreted in 4 ways:

  • peshat (simple interpretation)
  • remez (allusion)
  • derash (homilitic)
  • sod (mysteries behind the words of sacred texts)

The ten sefiroths are a step by step plan for revealing the divine and are arranged hierarchically from God to man.

  • kether – consciousness of God
  • hokhmah – wisdom of God
  • binah – intelligence
  • hesed – God’s love
  • din – judgement
  • tifereth – God’s beauty
  • sefirah – divine victory
  • hod – glory
  • yesod – justice
  • malkuth – the feminine principle

This is a movement from the unknowable to the knowable (the transcendental to the understandable). Man is the focal point by which emanations of God return to God. One returns to God through repentance (teshubah).

Also important is the doctrine of the seven heavens, seven earths, seven earthly paradises, and seven hells.

The Kabbalah had a significant impact on the West, especially upon the Italian Renaissance (and on Dante). The Kabbalah was an esoteric practice meant only for a few initiates, but it spread throughout the Christian world among scholars in the 14th century. Many of the most important scholars in early modern Europe were deeply influenced by the Kabbalah. The power of letters and numbers also took on significance throughout the West which caused the Kabbalah to become linked to a magical tradition.

Mysticism in Early Modern Europe

In the 16th and 17th centuries, developments in learning (especially in the sciences), the emergence of economies of scale, rapid political centralization, and religious conflict undermined the power of the ancient religious traditions. There was a growing interest in detachment from the world and an increase in mystical activity, despite the growing materialism. Many scholars, even though they were scientists, maintained a deep commitment to transcendence and the divine. People everywhere were searching for a spirituality that could counter the growing materialism.

Mysticism during this period was expressed differently by Catholics and Protestants. Protestants tended to be wary of Catholic mysticism and expressed transcendence as a direct experience of God, usually through scripture.

St. Ignatius Loyola.

St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuit society, wrote The Spiritual Exercises which had a strong martial quality.

St. Teresa of Avila.

St. Teresa of Avila, born in 1515 to a family of aristocrats, joined the Carmelite Order which had become a very opulent in her day. She attempted to reform it by making it more ascetic. (The entire Roman Catholic Church was undergoing reform at this time thanks to the Protestant Reformation.) She was hugely influential on the literary world. George Eliot’s Middlemarch, for instance, was heavily patterned on Teresa’s story.

St. John of the Cross.

John of the Cross was born in 1542 and wrote Dark Night of the Soul which explains his mystical experiences and acts as a guide to help others lose their sense of self. He says God can be known in 5 ways:

  • through self-knowledge
  • by seeing the world
  • through faith
  • through the via negativa – going beyond the knowable
  • by union with God

Quick Summary

Mysticism in the West provided authority to those who would not otherwise have it, especially women. Also, mysticism was always on the brink of what was considered heretical. There was the continual threat that a mystic would be turned over to the Inquisition or other authority. What was seen as mystical during one period would have been viewed as heretical by a different period because the difference between heretics and mystics was political.

The Terror of History: Lectures 2-3 (Introductory Lectures)

Western Society is associated with science and reason, but it is also the home of widespread belief in the supernatural, those who wait for the Apocalypse, and repeated acts of barbarism.

Prof. Ruiz says that we Westerners have a deeply held belief in “the terror of history” and it is this belief that is the “underbelly” of Western Society. The belief is that the world is essentially about disorder and emptiness and that human beings are constantly on the edge of doom. Because we see history as terrifying, we try to escape it by various means, including withdrawing through transcendental means or by creating scapegoats out of non-conformists and outsiders, blaming them for the “catastrophe of existence”.

Ruiz explores the terror of history through mysticism, heresy, and apocalyptic movements. These are all forms of cultural and popular history. A conflict that has existed in the West for quite some time is that between the Apollonian and the Dionysian ideal. On the one hand, we have a need for order (Apollonian). On the other, we wish to obliterate the self and become one with the world (Dionysian).

Europe experienced an extraordinary social transformation between 1000 and 1700 which paved the way for mysticism, millenarian agitation and a belief in witchcraft.

In 1000, there was a tripartite hierarchy that was thought to be inspired by God. Society consisted of priests and monks, defenders of society (knights, etc.), and workers (peasants). The economy was primarily agrarian, however towns and cities were just beginning to emerge.

By the 12th century, cities and urban societies were on the rise. This created a shift away from the agrarian economy to commercial activity and the growth of the bourgeoisie. New notions of secular time were also introduced. (Prior to this, people believed the “end of time” was around the corner which is almost impossible for us to understand, today.)

The economic changes of the 12th century created the late medieval crisis which threatened to destroy all developments of the previous centuries. By the late 15th and 16th centuries, the economy was in full recovery. This new understanding of the economy led to capitalism. The new powers of wealth destroyed the social order, and a new social order came into being that was far more inflexible than what had existed in the past.

One of the most important changes was the new attitude toward the poor. The poor used to be considered the select children of Christ, but by 1300, the poor were increasingly persecuted and policed. Political changes also took place leading to the rise of the state which had a huge influence on the making of the “terror of history”. Kings began centralizing power which created new definitions of inclusion and exclusion as well as communal identity.

In order to control the nobility, whose power had been usurped by the kings, the kings made alliances with the bourgeoisie. A state “monopoly of legalized violence” (coined by Max Weber) developed. Taxation, conscription, standing armies and extensive bureaucracies were the instruments for centralized power and the rise of the rational state.

Religion was, of course, the alternative to reason and an escape from the terror of history. All the Abrahamic faiths in the west underwent radical change during this time, and this had a dramatic impact on the Western world.

In the 10th century, the papacy was corrupt and little more than a plaything of the aristocracy. The priests and monks were illiterate and did not observe their vows. Ecclesiastical offices were sold to the highest bidder. And Church involvement with the feudal structure caused problems.

A powerful reform movement took place in the 10th and 11th centuries which led to a rebirth of mysticism as well as heretical and millenarian movements. During this time period, the papacy gained an unchallenged position of authority. By the 14th century, the papacy was challenged by the growing power of kings. This shift in power had dramatic consequences.

The Protestant Reformation led to a permanent split in the Christian world, which led to a new way of thinking about the world. This caused the Catholic Church to restructure its boundaries. Behavior that may have been tolerated prior to the Reformation was now a target for persecution.

The changes between 1000 and 1700 transformed the awareness of God and the world. Courtly love in the 12th century played a role in the development of mystical traditions. There is also a relationship between the Renaissance of the 12th century with the emergence of new heresies. In the 13th century, the Aristotelian worldview had taken hold. Universities and the spread of literacy were also underway. This led to the Scientific Revolution which had a significant impact on European thought and helped shape the fate of magic (and religion, but not as much).

Mysticism is part of high culture. We know about it because people wrote about it, which means they were educated and literate. Heresy can be a part of either high culture or popular culture. Millenarian movements, however, are always part of popular culture.

It is important to always keep in mind that our knowledge of the historical popular culture is tainted by the mediation of high culture. (We learn about the historical popular culture by reading what the high culture has to say about it.)

Mystical Tradition: Lecture 36 – Final Thoughts on Mysticism Series

Final notes from Timothy Luke Johnson’s Great Courses lecture series,  Mystical Tradition: Judaism, Christianity & Islam

The evidence for mysticism in the Abrahamic faiths is broad and it exists at the beginning of each tradition all the way through to the present.

Within each tradition, the mystic views the world as an affect of some cause.  Through a process of personal transformation, it is possible to access the cause itself. For the mystic, realizing God is realizing the authentic self.  It cannot be defined, but it can be reached.

Mysticism looks very much like pantheism, but all three traditions caution against misperceiving the creation for the creator.  The highest point of mysticism is the return to what is ordinary, not the “achievement” of mystical states.

Mystics provide an apophatic challenge to a world that claims self-sufficiency and the ability to explain everything in minute detail.  The problem is that technology, commerce and communication have conspired to create a view of the world that is profoundly materialistic.  Technology creates a homonized universe where people seldom come into contact with what is other than themselves and the individual is privileged over the community.  Tradition is obsolete.  What is novel is valued over wisdom.

There have been all kinds of religious reform movements in the West in recent times, but they are largely caught up in how to make the world outside reflect an image of God, rather than how God within can be more fully realized.  Much of what passes for mysticism in the contemporary world cannot stand up to classical mysticism because contemporary “mysticism” is largely about gaining material/psychological well-being rather than demanding the critical posture of classical mysticism necessary for personal transformation.  Personal transformation is not the same thing as personal well-being.

I think this is what Huston Smith is so desperately trying to call to our attention – we’re losing a valuable world view.  What claims spiritual depth is often a much more shallow, watered down, materialistic version of spirituality than what classical mysticism offers.  I think this is exactly what Nietzsche realized, too.   The esoteric is barely even recognized in the contemporary world view, and when it does happen to be touched upon, it is almost completely dumbed down into a goal to be achieved for the personal acquisition of well-being.  There is nothing wrong with wanting well-being.  But to confuse psychological well-being with self-actualization as understood by the mystics is tragic.

Mystical Tradition: Lectures 29-35 – Sufi Mysticism

Notes on Sufi mysticism from Timothy Luke Johnson’s Great Courses lecture series,  Mystical Tradition: Judaism, Christianity & Islam

Sufism is the dominant form of mysticism in Islam.  It is often difficult to say whether Sufism is authentically Muslim or if it just wears the garb of Islam.   No one is quite sure what influenced it, either.  There was a gnostic sect in Iraq known as the Mandians that may have influenced Sufism.  Or it could have been influenced by Neo-Platonists.  Or maybe Manichaeism which arose in Persia.  Iraq was also the center of Jewish mysticism (Merkabah Mysticism) so it could have been influenced by that.  Or, it could have been a reaction to the rigidity of the time.

Dr. Johnson thinks the most likely influence is the universal impulse for personal transformation that is seen in all religions.  This search always takes on the symbols in which it finds itself.

According to Sufis, one must move past appearances to find what is most real (al Haqq).  The empirical world is not what is most real.  It is illusory.  The goal of the path (which is understood internally) is unity with that which is most real.  Ordinary empirical existence camouflages that which is most real.  This camouflage is what is known as “The Veil”.  One must move past appearances to find what is most real.  This is what it means to “Pierce the Veil”.

The Sufis have a threefold path of self-transformation.

  • knowledge
  • love
  • prayer

The Sufi’s progress is marked by definite stages (stations) and is described as a caravan. You cannot rise from one station to another until you have fulfilled the provisions of the first.  A state is a gift from Allah over which the Sufi has no control.  A state could be an ecstatic mystical experience, for instance. States are bestowed, stations are attained.

Early Sufi mysticism is similar to Jewish Merkabah mysticism – there is much referent to going into the heavenly places and receiving knowledge.   Rabi ‘a al-’Adawiyya al-Qaysiyya (717-801) was an important early female Sufi and probably the most notable among all the female Sufis.  There was gender equality among the Sufis, thanks in part to Rabi’a.   The sayings of this woman resemble those of the Christian sayings of the Desert Fathers.  They are very short sayings.  Rabi’a lived a life of extreme poverty and trust in Allah.  Stories of miracles began to accumulate around her.

There was a spectacular spread of Islam in its first centuries.  With this spread came an explosion of intellectual energy and innovative speculation in philosophy and theology.  Muslims were making major contributions in every field – math, literature, science, medicine, and this contribution was far exceeding that made by the Christians of that time.  Islam’s greatest brilliance was in the 10th-12th centuries.  It took a while for Europe to catch up.

But there were also tensions in Islam.  Several questions caused quite a bit of division among Islamic thinkers.  Could ijtihad (free inquiry) be applied as much to the doctrines of Islam as to its law?  Is the Quran and Hadith internally coherent, or are they coherent with other knowledge?  Was there any possibility of reconciling the rational inquiry associated especially with Greek philosophy and the highest achievement of human intelligence, but found among idolaters and the Quran, which is directly from God and therefore must bear all truth in itself?  Were there limits to the Sufi experience for it to remain in Islam?

There was an early theological dispute between faith and works: How can Allah be all powerful but hold humans accountable?  This is especially problematic in Islam because the omnipotence of God is so stressed.  Judgment is on the basis of what humans do.  So how can God be both just and powerful?  Perhaps God must be weak and just?

There were three stances taken on this topic.  The Mu’tazila Party took the rationalists approach.  God’s justice must logically be measured by human reason and the human understanding of justice.  Therefore, the Quran is not an eternal word, but only a human word.  The Orthodox Party appealed to Allah as known through the Quran as an absolute measure.  We know justice from what Allah does, and human reason must conform itself to what Allah actually does.  The Quran is therefore eternal and not subject to eternal reason.  Abu’l Hasan al Ash’ari (874-936) applied free inquiry (reason) to faith but still made faith the measure.  He did this by distinguishing the physical Quran as a finite expression of the eternal word of Allah.  This was a compromise position for a problem that is impossible to resolve completely.

Al Ghazzali sought to resolve many of the intellectual tensions and suffered a spiritual crisis in his obsession to do so.  Deliverance from Error (1100) is akin to Augustine’s Confessions (both are spiritual autobiographies).  Al Ghazzali was a student of law, theology and philosoophy.  He was professor and Dean of Nizamiyah University in 1091 and would lecture to as many as 300 students at a time.  He wanted to find out what constitutes certainty in knowledge which eventually led him to become a skeptic for several months in 1095.  Then he became Sufi.  The certitude that al-Ghazzali finally realizes – “I saw that Sufism consists in experiences rather than in definitions and that what I was lacking belonged to the domain, not of instruction, but of ecstasy and initiation.”   His experience of the Sufi way brought him a kind of certitude.  He discovered that it is located in the heart, not in the mind.  Al Ghazzali adopts an epistemological position that resembles that of Democritus or Epicurus  which is also later adopted by David Hume – all that philosophers can actually see are atoms interacting at random, not real causation.  Philosophy does not give rational certainty because ultimately, it can only provide opinion.  For Al Ghazzali, this means it is Allah alone that causes everything.  Therefore only faith gives secure knowledge of what is real.  Mysticism is the inner meaning of the system, but the Sufi must stay within the exoteric framework of the Shari’ah (law).  The mystic is answerable to the Shari’ah because the patterns of law for the community can itself be a source of inquiry for mystic knowledge.  The Sufi mystical way is an intensification of the Shari’ah way of life.

Ibn al’Arabi is another great Sufi master (1165-1240).  He was born in Spain which was a center of Muslim culture at the time.   He compared Jesus’ ability to raise people from the dead to Gabriel’s utterance of the Quran.  It is Breathing.  His writing is reminiscent of the Kabbalah (the one and the many) and he represents a form of gnosis.

Jalal ad-Din Rumi (1207-1273) is probably the best known of all Sufi masters.  He said that Allah is the God of all, both good and evil, and it all goes toward creating a masterpiece, a beautiful tapestry.  Rumi’s religion is one of love.  He founded the Mawlawi Sufiorder that spread throughout Turkey and played a very large role in Turkey’s culture and history.  The order is known for its singing, dancing, and Whirling Dervishes and has always been led by a descendant of its founder.

Europe launched 2 Crusades against Islam in the 13th century, but by this time they had been in Europe for a very long period of time, a time period equivalent to the American Revolutionary War to Ronald Reagan.  It was during this time period that Muslims started making their way into North Africa.  And they remained influential in North Africa for centuries (think Julian of Norwich to Thomas Merton).  It’s an ancient civilization by the time of later Sufi mystics.  The Islamic way of life is deeply entrenched in North Africa.

Among the Sufis that greatly influenced this Islamic way of life is Umar ibn al-Farid (1181-1253).  He was a member of the Shafi’i school which emphasized ijtihad – free & critical inquiry.  He was a remarkable poet who lived as a Hermit.  Ibn al-Hasan (1997-1258) founded the Shadhiliyyah Order which resembled a Third Order (lay people) in Christianity.  The Emphasis was on right thinking and right practice and it was a merging of Islam and Sufism.

Ibn Ala’illah (1250-1309) wrote The Book of Wisdom.  He said that the way of the Sufi is not one of instant gratification.  One must move through stages or stations to receive more mystical states.  One should not be longing for special psychological experiences if the fundamental groundwork has not been laid. “The Real is not veiled from you.  Rather, it is you who are veiled from seeing It; for were anything to veil It, then that which veils it would cover It.  But if there were a covering to It, then that would be a limitation to Its Being; Every limitation to anything has power over it.  And He is the omnipotent, above his servants…. The devotees and the ascetics are alienated from everything only because of their absence from God in everything.  Had they contemplated Him in everything, they would not have been alienated from anything.”  For Ala’illah the ascetic is someone who starts off being hard on himself and ends up being hard on everyone else.  The ultimate point of musticism is to be able to have compassion and understanding of all that is.  One is not simply looking at Realy.  One is looking at Reality with Allah’s eyes.

The last North African Sufi Master mentioned by Dr. Johnson is Ibn ‘abbad of Ronda (1332-1390).  He said that the knowledge that comes from the mystic way is diametrically opposed to the Law in the Shari’ah.  Therefore, those who get caught up in the specifics of the Shari’ah are missing the point of the Shari’ah which is the mystic way – the internal transformation of the person.

Then there are the Sufi Saints of Persia and India…

Islam was in Persia from the start.  Khwaja Abdullah Ansari (1006-1089) was extremely conservative intellectually and spiritually.  He was a member of Hanbali, a 9th century conservative legal school that only recognized the Quran and Hadith.  He wrote against the use of ijtihad and was actually imprisoned for a time because he was such a hyper-literalist.  “If the teacher says Allah has a hand, then Allah has a hand.”  He wasn’t capable of great poetry, but there is no mistaking his poetry for the longing of God.  He provides a mystical counter example to Sufism.

At another extreme is Fakhruddin Iraqi (1213-1289) who was a child prodigy that traveled widely.  He actually met Rumi and several other famous Sufis.  His primary interest was esoteric gnosis.  He wrote remarkably gorgeous poetry.  As with Teresa of Avila claiming to be a speck of foam in a vast ocean, Iraqi used the ocean to denote unity with God for waters merge and become One.

Nizam ad-Din Awliya (1242-1325) grew up in intense poverty and down-played the miraculous in favor of humanitarianism.  There is a repeated emphasis in his teaching on directed service and sharing of material possessions amongst people.  There is also a strong emphasis on hospitality and paying attention to manners.

Sharafuddin Ahmad ibn Yahya Maniri (1263-1381) was known as the Spiritual Teacher of the Realm.  He left his wife and children to pursue a life of celibacy.  He found a teacher and escaped into the woods.  After many years, he was persuaded to be a teacher.  He built a center where he taught until his death. The Sufi movement had an internal progression.  It was said to start with Adam and all the prophets were Sufis who wore the cloak that had been bestowed upon them by their predecessors.  Moses and Jesus were in this sense Sufis.

Sufism in the 20th century has been directly affected by modernity, just as Jewish and Christian mysticism.  Sufism, to rationalists, represented everything backwards about Islam.  It appeared way too otherworldly and out of touch with the modern world.  At the same time, it was very threatening to conservative Muslims because Sufism advocated a conversation between Islam and philosophy and science.

Conservative Muslims attack what they consider to be the pantheism of Sufism.  Islamic reform has been constantly moving toward the Exoteric and away from the personal transformation advocated by the Sufis which has made it very difficult for Sufism to find a place within Islam since modern times. It has become quite popular among non Islamic western spiritualists, however.

Fatimah al-Yashrutiyya (1891-1978) was born when her father, the Shaykh Ali Nur al-Din Yashruti was 100 years old.  She was orphaned at the age of 8 but her father had encouraged her and many other girls to follow the way of Sufis and she dedicated herself to the Sufi path.   She was invited to submit a paper on Sufism at a conference in Houston, which she did.  It was subsequently published and provides an example of how Sufism has made it’s way into the wider world.

Idries Shah (1924-1996)  was born in India and has traveled world wide as a Sufi Master.  He presents Sufism as a cognitive mastery that predates and transcends Islam.  In a sense, he de-Islamicized Sufism.   Inayat Khan (1882-1927) was also born in India and claimed Sufism transcended all religion.  He is the Founder of Universal Sufism and the Sufi Order International.

Thomas Merton had read Alawi and was deeply fascinated.  Huston Smith saw Sufism as the key to a philosophia perennis which priveleges spirituality over religion.  The idea is that religious convictions divide people but spirituality unites them and Sufism offers an appropriate candidate for a world embracing spirituality.

Mystical Tradition: Lectures 26-28 – A Brief History of Islam

Notes on Islamic mysticism from Timothy Luke Johnson’s Great Courses lecture series,  Mystical Tradition: Judaism, Christianity & Islam

Mohammed as Prophet and Mystic

The politics of the west tend to ignore the significance of Islam in the world.  Christians, in particular are guilty of a deep bias toward Islam.

However, Islam embraces all ethnic groups in the world and there are key beliefs that connect it with Christianity and Judaism.

  • There is one God.
  • This one God, Allah, has created the world.
  • Allah has revealed himself to humans in history through commandments.
  • Humans are to respond to Allah in faith and obedience.
  • On the basis of that conviction individuals either face an eternity of heaven or hell.

Islam traces its beginnings to Adam.  Muhammed (570-632 CE) is the founder of Islam.  His name means “highly praised”.  It is difficult to derive a biography of Muhammed.  In order to do so, the Quran must be supplemented by the Hadith. The Hadith are stories concerning the Prophet Muhammed.  There were 200,000 stories by the year 800 CE.   Al-Bukari (810-870) managed to bring the 200,000 stories down to 73,000 stories which was much more manageable, but is still a lot to wade through.  The technique he used to do this was very similar to the Jewish technique that was used for the Talmud.

Islam came about because there had been a major dislocation in pre-Islamic Arabia from rural life to urban life.  Both were primarily polytheistic, but there were also dissident groups of Christians (those shunned by orthodoxy, of course) and Jews.  (The Quran has elements of the Gospel of Thomas).  The Ka’bah was controlled by wealthy families in Mecca and was a polytheistic idol.

Muhammed was a member of the Quraish tribe and was an orphan.  He was raised by an uncle who managed a well called ZamZam.  It was associated in lore with the well owned by Hagar and Ishmael.  This is how Muslims trace their Abrahamic descent.  Muhammed  became the business manager of a woman who was several years his senior and married her (Kadijah) in 595.  Kadijah was immensely important. She was an immediate and powerful supporter of the prophet emotionally.  She had a cousin who happened to be a Christian.  And she offered financial stability which enabled Muhammed to pursue his religious vocation.

Muhammed was disturbed by the religious and social immorality of the cites.  In 610, he had a mystical experience that was mediated by the angel Gabriel.  It was Kadijah who helped Muhammed understand the significance of his experience – that Muhammed was being called to be a prophet and to proclaim that Allah, alone, is God to all people.  All should submit to Allah for all of their life (islama – submit).

In Mecca, he was mocked for 12 years so his message had little success.  He therefore left Mecca and went to Medina.  This flight from Mecca to Medina is known as the Hijrah.  Those who went with him are called immigrants.  Those who welcomed him are known as helpers.   Hijrah is the first date of the Muslim calender in 622 CE.  This is an important date because it is when the message was finally accepted.  In 629-630 CE, Muhammed conquered Mecca with 10,000 troops.  He returned to Medina and died in 632 CE.

Some things that set him apart from other prophets in the Abrahamic faiths is that he was not an ascetic, he was not a monk (there are no monks in Islam), and he died with many wives.

The great miracle associated with Islam is the Quran which is known as the mother of all books.  It is thought to be the literal word of Allah as dictated to the illiterate Muhammed.   The dictation began on Mt. Hira in 610 with a recitation throughout the 9th lunar month of Ramadan.  It was memorized by the Prophet’s followers as he recited it and it was not written down until after his death.  It was standardized under the third Caliph Uthman in 651 and 652.  There is no narrative structure.  It is all revelation, poetry, legal materials, etc.  There is no story in it whatsoever.   It contains both Jewish and Christian materials, but it thoroughly reworks them.

The House of Islam

God and humans are in relationship.  Islama is full submission…

  • submission of the mind
  • submission of the will
  • submission of the heart

The relationship of Islama to God is what leads to peace (salam).

Rather than trace Christianity to Moses – Paul traced it back to Abraham in Galatians.  Muhammed does the same thing…  “Abraham was not a Jew, nor yet a Christian, but he was an upright man who had surrendered (to Allah), and he was not of the idolaters.  Say: Allah speaketh truth.  So follow the religion of Abraham, the upright.  He was not of the idolaters.”

Muslims are said to be descended to Abraham by Ishmael through Islama [submission] to God.  “I bear witness.  There is no God but Allah.  And I bear witness Muhammed is the Rasul [ambassador, messenger, representative] of Allah.”  Muhammed embodies the message of Allah to the people.  This is a very simple compared to the complicated creed of the Christians.

The Fatihah (opening) of the Quran…

Praise be to Allah, Lord of the worlds, the Beneficent, the merciful, owner of the Day of Judgment, Thee Alone do we worship; Thee alone do we ask for help.  Show us the straight path, the path of those whom thou has favored; not the path of those who earn thine anger nor of those who go astray.”

The path is for those who submit, not for those who shirk.   (Shirking is to neglect, to forget, to wander away, to stray – it is the opposite of Islama.)

The monotheism of Islam is strict and radical.  Giving partners to Allah, in any form is forbidden.  Humans are God’s special creation and reflect Allah.  All humans are created equal in Allah.

The Quran is the final interpretation just as Muhammed puts the final seal on prophecy.  According to Muslims, Jews and Christians shirk.  They have corrupted their scriptures which is why a definitive prophecy is required.  Jews make two mistakes.  They do not recognize Jesus as a prophet and they make Torah equal to God.  Christians shirk by making Jesus a partner of Allah.  Jesus is a prophet of Allah.  Jesus has a place in heaven and bypassed death (probably based on gnostic gospels circulating at the time).  But for Muslims, Jesus remains only human.  “It becometh not Allah to have a Son.”  Jesus is not divine and Christians who make Jesus divine are shirking.  They have given partners to Allah.

In Islam, there is a tension between universality and particularity.  Islama is open to all, yet Muhammed must be recognized as the prophet.  The Quran can be read by all, but only in Arabic.  There are no rituals of initiation in Islam.  All you must do is slowly recite the Shahadah with intention and consciously mean it.  If you do this, then you are a Muslim.

There are five pillars of observance…

  • Confessions of faith
  • Prayer of salat
  • Obligatory alms/zakat (sharing of possessions)
  • Practice of fasting during Ramadan
  • Pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj)

The Shi’a

85-95% of Muslims adhere to the Sunni tradition.  (Sunni means custom).  However, there are distinct schools of interpretation of “The Law” (Shari’ah).   Within the Sunni tradition, there are several schools of thought that arose to interpret the law and all are recognized. However, the Shi’a party of Muslims (10-15% of Muslims world-wide but are the majority in Iran – 95% and Iraq – 65%),  have a very different view than that of the Sunni.  The Sunni maintain a non-mystical, secular understanding of succession.  For the Shi’a, there are no legitimate successors from any of the Sunni sources.  For Sunni’s, the Imam is the leader of prayer.  For the Shi’a, the Imam is an authority.  According to the Shi’a, and Imam has to be related to Muhammed.  Therefore the Shi’a view the Sunni as illigitimate because of how they regard the successors.  This means the Shi’a are allowed to carry out jihad on the Sunni.

The Shi’a believe it is not just the message that is needed, but the messenger that is needed to protect the message – a personification of the message.  Therefore, the prophet must designate a leader from the family.  (This is similar to the idea of Christian incarnation and Jewish Tzadddik.)  There are sects within Shi’a.  Twelvers are the majority of Shi’ites.  They recognize 12 Imams (this is found mostly in Iran).  Muhammed al-Mahdi is thought to be the 12th Imam.  He has simply removed himself although in the eyes of others, he died in 873.  According to the Shi’a, he will return.  There is another sect known as Seveners because they only recognize7 Imams.

This once again makes a point Johnson brings up frequently: The more central a symbol, the more cause for religious division.

I’ll move on to the Sufis tomorrow.  That’s where the real fun begins!!!