Episode 24: Mysticism

Mohamed Islam: Where does mysticism fit into Islam?

Abdel Wahab El Messeri: This is one of the most misunderstood terms in any language or culture. That is because of the extreme materialistic, rationalistic tendency that is in vogue. We believe in reason, materialistic reason. Reason that can deal only with reality through the five senses. That can deal only with the measurable. The immeasurable is outside its sphere. But let us look at human life: friendship, smiles, love of children, admiring a flower, hate of enemy, all of these are intangible. The materialistic mind cannot deal with it. Therefore it does not exist.

Mysticism is also one of these things that the materialistic mind cannot deal with, therefore it has maligned it. It has discredited it completely. It has been associated in the modern mind with hocus-pocus or magic.

Mysticism in Arabic is Tassawuf. It comes from the root word "Suf " meaning wool. Donning of woolen clothes was a sign of withdrawing from the luxury of the world, not renunciation of the world. (compare silk which stands for luxury).

There is always a thin line dividing Islamic Mysticism from a lot of heresies that are anti-Islamic. Islamic Mysticism does not shun the world or renounce it, it simply withdraws from some of its luxuries. Many of the mujahidin who defended the Islamic cause were mystics: e.g. Syed Al-Badawi: was instrumental in stopping the crusades, arousing the people to fight. Showing that he was not renouncing the world. Some have suggested that we classify mysticism not on the bases of ideology or doctrines, but the bases of their orientation to reality, the outcome of their mystic outlook. In case of Al-Badawi it resulted in better knowledge of the world, the self and God. Ultimately leading to virtuous action that resulted in stopping the invaders.

MI: What are the steps one take to become a mystic?

AWM: When we look at mystics we look at Doctrine and Method and Guidance: quest for the real. An all inclusive term. Usually a mystic experiences a crises of meaning . Pure reason is not enough. We need something else. After this crises of meaning there is a method for the search of the real. The philosophical bases of the search for the absolute real (God) You need guidance. First you must be guided by your heart, not mind. This might sound peculiar, antiscientific. But the whole Romantic movement in the West was a revolution that recognized the limitation of neoclassical reason, pure reason. They find that reason cannot decide what is good or bad. Mystics had to go with another method besides reason to find the absolute reality. The method vary from one school to another, there are many Mystical Orders (Tarika) or paths.

MI: When did mysticism begin in Islam?

AWM: From the very beginning some companions of the Prophet were so inclined. Some Quranic Suras suggest elements of Mysticism. The whole of mysticism in Islam depends on these Quranic texts as a way of providing divine sanction for their outlook. Al Faruqui sees mysticism as developing through different streams. This is the first stream. The second stream is a reaction. The third stream came later with Greek and Hindu influence . Dr. Louis Howard says the word Sufi come from the Greek word "sofia" Wisdom. So there were diversity of ideas from its origin. The Middle East Area always had this tendency to look for something besides reason. It has always been the hotbed of mysticism. Always dissatisfied with pure reason alone as a way of understanding reality.

MI: Is it because the Middle East is the cradle of all three religions, and when they were confronted with the material world, there was inevitably a clash?

AWM: The Middle East is an area with one of the richest in spiritual and cultural history. A person will look at the world through his cultural lenses. It is impossible to look at reality as if it were pure matter. You have specificity and individualism. Once you have such spirit and individualism, materialistic interpretations will never do. You see correlation and cultural richness, and religious tendencies that always has a certain mystical tinge to them, that can develop into full fledged mystical movements.

For the mystic to reach God he has to go through three stages:

1. Al-mahawia: Fear ( Judaism )

2. Al-muhaba: Love ( Christianity )

3. Al-ma’rifa: Knowledge ( Islam )

Islamic mystics have all three components. Islamic mystics have to live all religious experiences of all the religions - then the final flowering is not union with God, but better knowledge of God. Not becoming part and parcel of God. There is always a gap or field where interaction occurs. Knowledge based on Love. The more you know Him, the more you love him, the better you know Him. Knowledge here is not Union, - Wahidat Wujud, Unity of Being. But Wahidat Ash-shuhud, Unity of Consciousness. To many Muslim mystics wahidat wujud- or union, would be heretical, moving outside Islamic orthodoxy. In Islam it would be more of a consciousness of God not a union. It is a psychological not an ontological condition.

MI: Who were some of the major Mystics in Islam?


  1. Of course Al-Ghazali was the major theoretician of both Suni Islam and Islamic Mysticism. He unified the two streams.
  2. Also Halaj, who was a bit of a heretic, because he could not sustain the boundaries. He lapsed into a sense of unity with God.
  3. Rumi had his own mystical order. His movement is archetypical: He had a crises of meaning. There was a dark light. He withdraws. He rejects reason, seeing it has limits, and has to be complimented by the heart. He resorts to all kinds of exercises, eg. thikr.
  4. Shathali, was another mystic with his own order.
  5. Al-Bistami: He spent his life seeking God. When he found him he discovered that God was looking for him. God is closer to us than the Jugular vein.

MI: How is mysticism in Islam viewed today?

AWM: It has undergone some kind of decay in the 17th and 18th centuries. Ismail Al-Faruqi says that the early activism of the mystics was subverted completely by some kind of fatalism and determinism, which was the very opposite of the mystical spirit. When the invaders came (colonialists) they (Sufis) did not mobilize the masses. But any revival will have to come through the Sufi orders. They are still there. Mysticism is still believed in by the people. So if one can mobilize them they might come back to life, and bring life to the society.

Conversations on Islam