Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Mysticism in the Qur'an

This post is the second summarizing my notes taken in the Koran Reading Group organized by Amy Peikoff. See the first post, for a bibliography.

GENERAL NATURE OF THE QUR'AN. The Qur'an is an anthology of sermons which, Muslims believe, God revealed to Muhammad c. 610-632. Muhammad recited them to his followers and others in Mecca and Medina. The Qur'an covers subjects ranging from the nature of God to rules of inheritance. Sprinkled throughout the Qur'an are elements of every branch of Islam's crude philosophy -- its metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and politics.

God is the cause of everything (2:29, 117). Principles of God's nature -- particularly His omnipotence (2:20), omnipresence (7:7), and omniscience (2:29, 32) -- comprise the metaphysics of Islam. Further, this all-knowing God is wise (24:18); He is clear in his revelations (27:1); He wants men to understand (23:80); He says belief is crucial for attaining Paradise (23:10-11; 29:56-58); and He sends Truth (23:90). The Qur'an is thus intently concerned with human cognition.

ISLAM'S NEED FOR MYSTICISM. The Qur'an assumes ideas motivate human actions, but God's perfect ideas are in a supernatural realm (16:2, 25:6) beyond man's grasp. To convey those ideas to severely limited human minds here in the natural realm, God relies on mysticism. That is the only way to bridge the gap between God and man.

Islam's theory of man is a second factor requiring mysticism. Man has a corrupt nature (16:61), a nature that hinders his ability to understand (especially the "Unseen," as implied at 13:9). Man has a "soul ... prone to evil" (12:53). Man has arisen from a "fluid despicable" (77:20). Though created by God with great potential, man becomes the lowest of the low (95:4-5). Man sees himself as self-sufficient, but he is not (96:6-7). Man is easily manipulated by Satan (12:42, 12:100). In the final judgment, "Man will be evidence against himself" (75:14)."If God were to punish men according to what they deserve, He would not leave on the back of the (earth) a single living creature," Muhammad says (35:45).

In summary, the problem for man is that "God knows, and ye know not" (24:19). The solution is a mystical relationship between God and man. God tells Muhammad (who will speak to other men): "The Qur'an was sent down by Him Who knows the Mystery that is in the heavens and the earth" (25:6). The supernatural requires the mystical.

OBJECTS TO BE "KNOWN" MYSTICALLY. For Islam, as presented in the Qur'an, what sort of ideas must mysticism convey to man? Man must have as guides at least three ideas: God exists; God's apostle is Muhammad; and the Light which God has sent down through Muhammad to man is trustworthy (64:8). Once man has mystically acquired those fundamental ideas, beyond doubt, man needs only to look to the Qur'an and traditional descriptions of Muhammad's life for guidance.

FAITH AS ACCEPTING IDEAS. The Qur'an does not explicitly define faith. Inference from numerous uses of the term leads to the conclusion that the term/concept "faith" in the Qur'an (at least in Ali's translation) matches the usual meaning elsewhere: Holding an idea without evidence or even contrary to the evidence of the senses. In his footnote 983 to verse 6:158, translator and commentator Ali confirms that meaning. He defines faith as "the belief in things which you do not see with your eyes but you understand with your spiritual sense." This meaning is partly confirmed in passages such as 13:9, in which God "knoweth the Unseen." Man is limited to his senses, so God can know other things that He can either keep to himself or reveal mystically. Man must either reject them or accept them on faith.

As in Christian literature, Ali's English translation of the Qur'an uses the word "faith" in two meanings: (1) the act of accepting an idea without evidence; and (2) the set of ideas to be accepted. An example of the latter appears in 59:9 ("adopted the Faith").

The last point is that faith, as acceptance of ideas without evidence, is not the same thing as the source of the ideas. God, of course, is the ultimate source of all things, including ideas. What are the intermediate sources through which God conveys ideas to man?

REVELATION AS A SOURCE. God has several ways to mystically convey Truth to man. Revelation is the main one. The Qur'an itself is a collection of God's revelations to Muhammad. The messenger who brought those revelations to Muhammad was the angel Gabriel (also called "The Spirit of Faith and Truth," 26:192-194). Muhammad, in turn, recited each revelation to an appropriate audience in Medina or Mecca. (The Arabic word al-qur'aan means "the recitations".) Some audiences were "Believers" (5:99, 104-105). Other audiences were Jews (4:153-161), Christians (2:138-140), or pagans such as the Quraish (54:43-46), Muhammad's own tribe of origin.

The Qur'an itself tells readers (3:7) that some of its revealed verses are "fundamental" (to be taken literally) and others are allegorical. The allegorical passages have hidden meanings known only to God. "Men of understanding" will nevertheless grasp the meaning. The Qur'an does not tell readers how they will come to understand. In the Qur'an, "understanding" is a synonym for "mystical insight," the methodless method of coming to know something.

SIGNS AS A SOURCE. The God of the Qur'an presents "Signs" as a source of ideas in the form of indirect communication from God to man. An example comes from 2:164: "Behold! In the creation of the heavens and the earth; in the alternation of the Night and the Day; in the sailing of the ships through the Ocean for the profit of mankind ... -- (here) indeed are Signs for a people that are wise." (Sometimes the term "Signs" refers to verses in the Qur'an, as at 8:31.)

In Sura 6, God identifies three levels of cognition, each for a different audience. God says, "We detail Our Signs for people who know [6:97] ... people who understand [6:98] ... [and] people who believe [6:99]." According to translator Abdullah Yusuf Ali (n. 928, p. 318), God is making a distinction: Knowing is for people who merely look at the Signs in the world around them, which is nature; understanding is a higher form of cognition, one required to grasp mysteries; and believing is the highest form of cognition, faith, which brings us closer to God. All three levels of Signs are mystical; they are not functions of reason.

HEARTS, INSPIRATIONS, VISIONS, AND DREAMS AS SOURCES. The Qur'an mentions other intermediate sources of ideas. One is the heart. When God penalizes some individuals, He "set[s] a seal on their hearts," blocks their hearing, and veils their eyes (2.7). The exact meaning of "heart" here is not clear. In Muhammad's time was it synonymous with soul? Was it thus a conflation of emotion, thought, and the "voice" of the subconscious -- as it was among some prephilosophical Greeks? (For the latter, see E. R. Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational.)

Second, God sometimes uses "inspiration" -- sending a "spirit" into someone -- as a way to download information into an individual's mind. Inspiration is thus a form of revelation (as at 41:6). God chooses to send inspiration (of His "Command") to only a few individuals; He then directs them to warn others.

Third, the Qur'an also notes a use of interpretation of daytime visions (12:43) and nighttime dreams (12:44). Perhaps these are holdovers from Muhammad's pagan culture.

RELATED PHENOMENA. Islam includes several supernaturalist phenomena related to cognition, but Muslims have no choice about these.

1. GOD DOWNLOADS STATES OF MIND. God sometimes downloads a state of mind into a particular individual. "It is He Who sent down tranquility into the hearts of the Believers, that they may add Faith to their Faith, " says Muhammad at 48:4; and, at 58:22, the Qur'an says, "For such [individuals] He has written Faith in their hearts, and strengthened them with a spirit from Himself."

2. GOD MANIPULATES THE SENSES. At the Battle of Badr, early Muslims faced pagan enemies. God distorted the pagans' sense-perception and therefore their assessment of the strength of the Muslim army (3:13, 8:43-44), causing the pagans to miscalculate and lose the battle.
(Before the battle, God also made the Muslims more confident than the sense-perceptible facts would have justified.) Combining this interference in sense-perception with God's omnipresence and His inscrutable (arbitrary) decision-making explains why Islam has an epistemology of philosophical skepticism (the notion that we cannot know anything using sense-perception and reason). In the Islamic worldview, faith -- especially in fundamental ideas -- is not merely desirable but required.

accuses nonbelievers (some of whom refuse to abandon sense-perception in favor of 
faith) of lacking the power of hearing and seeing -- for example, at 11:20, 24, and 28. At 12: 108, God tells Muhammad to say that the evidence for the existence and power of God is as "clear as the seeing with
one's eyes" (12:108).

CONCLUSIONS. The Qur'an shows God sending philosophical and other messages to man through a variety of sources: God's revelations in the verses of the Qur'an itself; Signs of various kinds; the human heart; visions; dreams; and inspiration.

God expects Believers to accept on faith all the ideas that come from those sources. Further, by implication but never explicitly, God undercuts man's reason. God does so by manipulating man's senses (the basis of reason); by insisting on man's moral corruption as an implied corruption of man's ability to think for himself; by controlling states of mind; and by reminding man ceaselessly that God knows all, both the seen and the unseen, a task impossible for man.

Islam, as presented in the Qur'an, is saturated with mysticism. An iron chain connects the metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and politics of Islam. God is the first link. Mysticism is the second link; it connects God to Islam's altruism and statism. Mysticism is thus indispensable to the religion of Islam.

Burgess Laughlin

Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith, at

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Qur'an: Notes from a First Reading

Acknowledgment. I am grateful to Amy Peikoff, JD, PhD (, for organizing the Koran Reading Group (KRG). It ran from May to September, 2011; it met, for a nominal fee, weekly for an hour on audio through Webinar and in emails through Google Groups; and it achieved its goals: to do a slow, scheduled reading of the Qur'an and Robert Spencer's commentary on it, especially noting passages used by jihadists today to justify their attacks on non-Muslims. KRG also fulfilled my individual purposes: to become acquainted with the Qur'an as a whole and to learn Islam's view of reason and mysticism, as stated or implied in the Qur'an.

Definition. The Qur'an is the holy scripture of Islam, which is the religion of submission to the one, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent God whose final apostle was Muhammad. Muslims believe that God revealed every word of the Qur'an to Muhammad, who then recited the revelations to his followers, who in turn recorded them in their memory and in individual writings.

The Early History of the Qur'an. Following are the major milestones in the development of the Qur'an. Unless specified otherwise, all items come from "Muhammad," Glasse, CEI. (See Bibliography at the end.)

570 -- Birth of M. in Mecca, near w. coast of Arabia. (p. 279)

590? -- In Syria, on a caravan trading expedition, M. meets a Christian monk who tells M. that M. is a prophet. (p. 280)

605? -- M. has visions. (p. 280)

610 -- M. receives his first revelation, in a cave near Mecca. (p. 280)

632, March -- M. receives his last revelation, three months before his death. (p. 284)

632-656 -- Under the direction of the first three caliphs (Abuu Bakr, 'Umar, and 'Uthmaan), Muslims (such as M's secretary, Zayd ibn Thaabit) collect and sort written copies of M's recitations of individual revelations. ("Koran," CEI, p. 230) The edited collection, an artifact of human action, is the Qur'an, developed, Muslims believe, by God at the beginning of time.

The Organization of the Qur'an. The Qur'an consists of 114 primary divisions, the suras (chapters). The compilers of the Qur'an generally arranged the suras by length, with the longest suras first. Each sura, in turn, is divided into verses of one or more lines. For example, Sura 110 ("Help") has three verses. As usual, after the first line, God speaks to Muhammad:

In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.

1. When comes the Help of God, and Victory,

2. And thou dost see the People enter God's Religion in crowds,

3. Celebrate the Praises of thy Lord, and pray for His Forgiveness: For He is Oft-Returning (in Grace and Mercy).

The italicized line at the start is one of the standard invocations. In the last line, the translator and commentator, Abdullah Yusuf Ali, inserted the words in parentheses to make explicit the meaning he thinks is implicit in the Arabic text.

The Style of the Qur'an. The Qur'an is poetic, but the lines have variable lengths and meters. The text is sometimes austere and emotive, but often repetitive, bombastic, and authoritarian.

The Muslim View of the Qur'an. Muslims believe the Qur'an is perfect theologically, doctrinally, historically, and poetically. No one, Muslims believe, can evaluate it by an external standard; the Qur'an is the standard of judgment, says Muslim scholar Cyril Glasse, "Koran," CEI, p. 228.

The Philosophy of the Qur'an. A philosophy, even in implicit form, is a set of fundamental principles about: the nature of reality (metaphysics), how we can know that reality (epistemology), what we should do (ethics), and how we should relate to each other in society (politics). Philosophical detection reveals the philosophy of Islam as presented in the Qur'an.

In the Qur'an, the metaphysics of Islam is supernaturalist, positing the existence of (1) an omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, most merciful, most gracious, and vengeful being, who is otherwise ineffable, who has knowledge not available to man through man's limited faculties, and who created man knowing ahead what each individual will do, yet holding the individual -- not his Creator -- responsible for failure; and (2) two worlds, this natural world, which manifests God, and the other world, the world of heaven and hell, which is the world of the hereafter, that is, the world in which the souls of dead men continue after life on earth.

In the Qur'an, the epistemology of Islam is mystical. The Qur'an rarely acknowledges the existence of reason, and, even then, only by implication and in truncated form. The Qur'an implies that reason is impotent to develop an ethics that will guide man not only for this life but for man's efforts to secure a happy life in the supernatural realm. Man needs mysticism to gain knowledge of what to do. The forms of mysticism appearing in the Qur'an are many: faith in God; revelation from God to man; reading "signs" of God in nature or in miracles; and others. (Quranic mysticism will be the subject of the second post in this series).

In the Qur'an, the ethics of Islam is altruist, that is, focused on The Other not oneself as the primary beneficiary of one's actions. In the Islam of the Qur'an, in the supernatural realm, The Other is God; in the natural realm, this world, The Other means society, especially family, but also the ummah, the Muslim community, including the needy.

In the Qur'an, the politics of Islam is theocratic, that is, supporting a government that implements God's ethics. The Islamic political system, shown in the Qur'an in incipient form under Muhammad's reign, is a direct inference from the central Islamic principle, the doctrine of unicity: one God, one message, one set of rules for living for all individuals, everywhere, and at all times.

Sura 1, the first chapter of the Qur'an, is unusual in being a short chapter at the beginning of the Qur'an and in being spoken by God's worshippers not by Muhammad or God speaking through Muhammad. Sura 1 suggests the first three elements of the philosophy of Islam.

1. In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful

2. Praise be to God, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the Worlds;

3. Most Gracious, Most Merciful;

4. Master of the Day of Judgment.

5. Thee do we worship and thine aid we seek.

6. Show us the straight way,

7. The way of those on whom thou hast bestowed Thy Grace, those whose (portion) is not wrath, and who go not astray.

Supernaturalism is shown by the invocation of God. He has created this world on earth and another realm of heaven and hell. God did more than create this world back in time; readers of the Qur'an learn later, that God also sustains the world from moment to moment and can change it at any time. Mysticism is suggested here, by implication, in that praising God requires faith in God's existence and nature, and explicitly in that God's followers must have faith in His Word, worship Him, and seek His aid for humans in this world. Altruism is implied in the focus on God, who will tell us how to live ("the straight way"), which includes our duties to others, as Muhammad explains in later suras.

Conclusions. From reading the Qur'an, I have reached two conclusions. First, Islam's holy scripture, which is essentially a collection of ad hoc sermons, is written in such a way that it makes Islam one of the "cafeteria" religions. (Two other examples are Christianity and Judaism.) A reader can easily pick elements to fit his already formed approach to life, and ignore or downplay contradictory elements. This is why some Muslims can be personally pacifistic and others can be at war with the infidel world around them.

Second, Islam is definitely a religion, which is a mystical worldview consisting of a metaphysics, an epistemology, an ethics, and a politics -- all meant to apply universally, that is, to everyone, everywhere, and at all times. Islam is not an ideology, which is an application of a universalist worldview (religion or philosophy) to a particular milieu for the purpose of developing a strategy suitable to changing current society. It is also true, however, that Islam's holy scripture, the Qur'an, shows Islam's model man, Muhammad, engaged in political action in the form of warfare, negotiation, deception, enslavement, and execution of opponents. Those and other elements shape the various Islamic ideologies active today.

As presented in the Qur'an, Islam is a rotting log from which various ideological mushrooms grow. All are poisonous, some more quickly than others.

Burgess Laughlin

Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith, at


Ali, Abdullah Yusuf, editor, translator, and commentator,The Qur'an: Text, Translation and Commentary, 3rd ed., Elmhurst (New York), Tahrike Tarsile Qur'an, Inc., 1938 (1934, 1st ed.), 1862 pages. Muslims I met at Portland State University, Oregon, in 2000, recommended this translation and commentary. Robert Spencer also recommends it as an acceptable translation and mainstream commentary. Approximately one-third of each page is Arabic text, one-third is English translation, and (in small type) one-third is footnotes that explain the meaning of items such as place names; provide background information; and interpret the often terse and confusing verses.

Glasse, Cyril, The Concise Encyclopedia of Islam, New York, HarperCollins, 1989, 472 pages. (Later editions are called The New Encyclopedia of Islam). The entries vary from a single paragraph to several pages; they include cultural, theological, and historical terms. Aids to readers include photographs and maps. The author is an articulate Muslim familiar with Western criticisms of Islam.

"Revelation Order of the Qur'an," (in the address, "revealation" is the site creator's misspelling). This Muslim site presents the most widely accepted Muslim view of the proper traditional order of the chapters and verses. The site then lists the 114 suras in chronological order, the sequence, Muslims say, in which Allah sent the suras down to Muhammad.

Spencer, Robert, "Qur'an Commentary," Spencer is a Christian activist and opponent of jihadist Islam. He summarizes the Qur'an, sometimes verse by verse, explains implications of some of the texts (for example, on jihad), and helps the reader integrate the disorganized elements of Islam in this holy text. In this commentary, Spencer generally describes rather than evaluates. He does not critique any element of Islam that also appears in Judaism and Christianity -- for example, supernaturalism, mysticism, and altruism.