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

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