the West comes to grips with the terrorist attacks and threats,
there is a strong temptation to see things in simple terms
of Good and Evil. But before we are stampeded into a “clash
of civilisations,” we need to step back for a moment and examine
the real forces at work. Islam is undergoing its own crisis,
with many conflicting voices clamouring to be heard. The angry
cries for Jihad threaten to drown out the saner counsel of
Islam’s living mystics, the Sufis. What follows is one attempt
to clear the air, in the hope that disaster might be averted.
abound. Amidst all the uproar it is easy to forget that in
Arabic, “Islam” means “surrender,” and that it is derived
from the same root word as “peace.” Those who are disposed
to dismiss religion itself as an irrational scourge are happy
to see this as just another case of religious hypocrisy. After
all, if we add up all the casualties caused by holy wars,
crusades, inquisitions, and other battles taken up in the
name of God, the endless line of corpses would seem to give
the lie to religious claims of a higher morality or compassion.
religions are founded on the fear of the many and the cleverness
of the few,” Stendhal cynically observed. But, as Oscar Wilde
noted: “Who is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything
and the value of nothing.” While religions have failed to
live up to their own ideals, the same charge can be levelled
against Democracy, Communism, Humanism, Monarchy, Science,
and every other means of human self-organisation and inquiry.
Of this we can be sure: no sooner will a model for social
benefit be formulated than a dozen uses will be found to employ
it for social ill. Social institutions – by their very nature
– become arenas for the exercise of power and greed: the forces
of the reptilian brain which take us back to Step One, over
and over again.
despite the abysmal record of folly and destruction, there
is an enduring human need for a sense of spiritual connection
to something greater than ourselves. Religions may be imperfect,
but they have nevertheless provided a moral anchor for billions
of people throughout history. Even if a believer’s faith be
relatively unsophisticated and dependent on others’ say so,
when sincerely held, it does offer some sense of connection
with the Universe. This is no small thing, but it hardly exhausts
there is clear testimony that some individuals and groups
have been able to fully realise the kernel of truth that too
often lies slumbering within the religious husk. Anyone who
has given sincere attention to the accounts and writings of
genuine mystics, such as Meister Eckhart, Ibn ‘Arabi, or Plotinus,
cannot fail to see that a higher consciousness, which encompasses
both the Infinite Source of Being and the human individual,
consciousness, as a direct and authentic experience, does
not depend for its existence on theological or religious doctrine.
Indeed, mystics say that this consciousness itself clarifies
and illuminates doctrine.
as theological and social structures built around the realisations
of their founders, must accommodate themselves to and address
the traditions and customs of the cultures in which they evolve.
Had Jesus been born in a Chinese manger or had Buddha been
enlightened while sitting under Newton’s apple tree, the religions
that followed in their wake would have been far different
affairs. In order to better understand the current state of
Islam, a brief look at its origin and evolution is in order.
is no question that Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam, was a
profound mystic whose lot it was to be born into a Bedouin
tribal society shaped by intense family ties, trading routes,
localised pagan gods, and relatively primitive cultural forms.
The Qur’anic message, articulated by Muhammad in poetic Arabic,
was received in discreet parts over the course of 22 years
– years marked by attacks on the Prophet and his small band
of followers by other hostile tribes.
communion with the Real was called upon to provide guidance
to the Muslims as they struggled to defend their faith amidst
war and social chaos. As observed by some Qur’anic scholars,
such as Fazlur Rahman, some passages of the Qur’an are addressed
to a specific time and place, while others are of a more universal
nature. This is important to note, as it accounts for some
of the seeming contradictions between verses, as well as the
problems that arise when verses are quoted out of context.
But in any event, the Qur’an’s identity as a dialogue with
the Supreme Being is so intertwined with the circumstances
of its birth that, to this day, Muslims only consider a Qur’an
to be the Qur’an if it is in its original Arabic. All translations
into other languages are merely “interpretations” and inexact
is an admirable attempt to preserve fidelity in transmission,
though one wonders if even this devotion to the original text
isn’t a case of closing the barn door after the mule is gone.
For the special value of a living mystic or prophet is the
dynamic nature of their expression of the Real, to which they
have access. The Qur’an’s words in the absence of Muhammad’s
living interpretation, like Jesus’s parables without his own
commentary, are susceptible to a dogmatic crystallisation
induced by the limited understanding of later followers who
risk mistaking their own piety for insight.
early attempt within Islam to head off a decline in
religious practice following Muhammad’s death, was the collection
and preservation of hadiths (quotations from the Prophet),
among which are the hadiths qudsi (Prophetic quotations
conveying messages from God, given outside of Qur’anic passages).
Hadiths typically contain testimonies, by the Prophet’s companions,
of Muhammad’s suggestions and judgments on the details of
daily life and specific questions of practice, law or family
concerns. The hadiths qudsi are understood to provide an extra-Qura’nic
source of Divine guidance. A secondary source of information
is the “Sunna,” a recording of the Prophet’s own personal
habits and practices, including quite intimate reports by
even preserving the specifics of the Prophet’s interpretations,
insights and behaviours still finds them anchored to their
time and place. At the same time, there is much dispute
over various hadiths’ authenticity, with many being suspected
of later manufacture for partisan purposes.
institutionalisation, once the Prophet was gone, saw Muhammad
defined as the most perfect exemplar of Islam, with all questions
of right behaviour and scriptural meaning referred back to
his own statements and behaviour, or to the Qur’an. The best
means that later Ulema (scholars and jurists) could
suggest in rendering decisions was “analogy” and “consensus
of the community” – processes that have left little room for
creative insights or inspired interpretations.
Muhammad served his community as resident mystic, prophet,
commander in chief, and social arbiter, Islam – again, in
taking him as its exemplar – developed an ideal of theocratic
rule as its civilisation grew. As in Medieval Christianity,
there was little sense of separate spheres for religion and
civil society – Islam was “a way of life.” The combined figure
of Sultan (Ruler) and Caliph (Religious leader), though hardly
consistent throughout the succession of Islamic empires, was
in place in the final centuries of the Ottoman Empire, only
to collapse along with the implosion of the Ottomans following
WWI. The Caliphate was abolished by Ataturk in his effort
to constitute a secular Turkish republic on the ruins of the
inroads made by European colonialism in the waning decades
of the Ottomans, and particularly post-WWI, helped stir the
pot of Arab nationalism, Pan-Arabism, and radical Islam, all
of which arose in response to the splintering of Islamic civilisation.
There was no single Islamic solution put forth that commanded
universal support. A multitude of Islams, ethnic nationalisms,
and dictatorial regimes carried the day.
is this sequence of events that brings us to the present reality
of a decentralised and dispirited Islamic world mourning its
former glories, riven along nationalist and sectarian lines,
resentful of previous Western colonialism, and defensive towards
an encroaching globalisation that promises to be more pervasive
and invasive than mere colonialism ever was.
lightning rod for Muslim resentment towards this state of
affairs has come to be symbolised, for better or worse, in
the creation of Israel, in what was previously Palestine.
What was seen by Jews as a refuge from Nazi persecution, and
by the Zionists as the fulfilment of a scriptural and political
dream, was seen by many Muslims as an exclusionary Western
wedge, achieved by Haganah, Irgun, and Stern Gang terrorism:
an ethnically-defined state disenfranchising its former residents,
and a surrogate for the present Western superpower, the USA.
The Israeli/Palestinian blood-feud, terrible enough in itself,
has metastasised throughout the Muslim body, taxing the Islamic
immune system, and readily diagnosed as the underlying Western
cancer which can be blamed for every painful social malady.
stated at the beginning, ironies abound. The very virtue that
enables millions of Muslims to feel a brotherhood across national
and racial divides – the sense of an Umma (community)
of believers – also fuels the presumption of extremist Islamic
terrorists to represent the whole of Islam in their assault
on the West. In truth, bin Laden and Co. (or Islamic Jihad
or Hezbollah) no more represent Islam than the judicially-selected
Bush regime represents the whole of Western democracy. Behind
each camp’s stated purposes and PR, loom the reptilian brain’s
Will to Power – the opposite of the mystic’s realisation and
of the stated goal of most religions: surrender to the will
devoid of the mystic’s link to the Real, may not save us –
in fact when religion is used as a rationale to wage political
warfare, it may condemn us to a hell on earth of its own creation.
But that doesn’t mean that we should turn our backs on the
spiritual impulse toward realisation and human perfection
that lies at the root of religion. The survival of Sufism
within the broader confines of Islam is a significant case
is a term coined by Western orientalists for the mystical
path in Islam, commonly known as tasawwuf by Muslims.
I’ll continue to use it here for the sake of simplicity. Sufism
isn’t a sect or subgroup within Islam, so much as it is an
expression of the mystical understanding underlying Islam.
Muhammad’s roles of prophet, commander in chief, and social
arbiter, it was his vocation as mystic that preceded and subsumed
his other responsibilities. According to Sufi tradition, Muhammad
acknowledged Ali, his nephew and son in law, as his spiritual
successor, i.e., as the one Muslim within his inner circle
who had also been blessed with a potent mystical awakening.
Because the roles of spiritual and political leader had been
combined in Muhammad, they became the object of the power
struggles following the Prophet’s death. Those struggles eventually
resulted in the division between Sunni and Shia Islam, though
that need not concern us here. Suffice it to say, that for
most Sufis, Ali represents the continuation of the mystical
impulse within Islam, and nearly all Sufi brotherhoods trace
their initiatory lineage back to Ali.
operating premise of Sufism is that the mystical consciousness
(but not the Prophetic role) of the Prophet and Ali is possible
for others. The encounter with the Real – in which the dynamic
paradox of the Infinite and the finite, the Absolute and the
particular is known and experienced – is not relegated to
the distant past or possessed by a designated few, but is
within the capacity of everyone, should they so desire.
mystics have usually occupied a position in tension with established
religion, because their dynamic relationship with the Infinite
has often placed them at cross-purposes to the theological
certainties promulgated by religious authorities. It is to
Islam’s credit that it made more room for its mystics than
did Christianity, its chief rival. This leeway was sometimes
due to the patronage of Sultans who were interested in tasawwuf,
and sometimes due to the popular support that some saints
enjoyed. This is not to say that Sufis were always honoured
or even tolerated. They were sometimes persecuted as heretics,
executed or merely silenced; but whether welcomed or deplored,
they were able to pass along their wisdom and methods from
generation to generation.
predominant means of this transmission was through Sufi brotherhoods
or Orders (tariqas) – caretakers of continuous lines
of teaching methods derived from the founding inspiration
of a particular mystic. Unlike Christian contemplative monastic
orders that demanded celibacy and a sequestered life, the
Sufi tariqas were generally composed of everyday people, with
families and outside professions. Thus, up to the present,
the Sufis have provided a street-level access to mystical
Rumi, whose mystical poetry has enjoyed great popularity in
the West in recent years, is the best known representative
of Sufism. His emphasis on Love as the key entry-point to
communion with the Divine has led many people to assume that
this is true of all Sufism. However, just as Yoga can be subdivided
into several parallel paths to the Divine, including Hatha
(physical), Jnana (mental), Bhakti (devotional), etc., so
each Sufi order has its own flavour and emphasis, derived
from its founding saint. Still, whatever their emphasis or
methods, all Sufis share the ultimate goal of a spiritual
awakening or “opening,” where the seeker comes to intimate
knowledge of the Real.
may sound terribly remote from anything of practical value,
especially if one imagines this awakening to be a state of
everlasting bliss which renders its recipient incapable of
dealing with mundane affairs. However, Sufism teaches the
need for the mystic to “descend” again into daily life, where
he can function in normal situations while maintaining an
expanded awareness. This is truly the path of Muhammad, who
from the mystical point of view stands as exemplar for the
“completed human:” one who is both physically and spiritually
alive, and able to interpret his own Qur’an.
individuals light the way for others, often serving inconspicuously
as conduits of inspiration and encouragement. A pharmacist
in Istanbul, a shopkeeper in Fez, a poet in Damascus – there
is no predicting where one may find those who are called “friends
movements originate out of a form of spiritual inspiration
themselves. Despairing of the decadence and corruption they
perceive in the present expression of their Faith, the fundamentalists
– as their name suggests – try to return to the pure fundamentals.
“religions of the Book” – religions based on revealed scriptures
– this commonly takes the form of cleaving even closer to
scriptural authority. But rejecting the succeeding centuries
of religious evolution, and not privy to dynamic interpretation
of the founder or of mystics, the fundamentalists commonly
opt for the most literal readings of their holy texts. And
when those texts are as ambiguous and nuanced as the Qur’an,
this can lead to confusion and incoherence, thinly veiled
result is a proliferation of mini-Caliphs or Popes, certain
of their own purity and the truth of their interpretation,
cut off from scholarly commentary and discourse, and contemptuous
and dismissive of all who disagree. In eras of profound change
and discord, the fundamentalists reduce the Infinite Source
of Being to a static icon created in their own image, in a
tragic reversal of the creative process.
who kill and terrorise in the name of God demonstrate their
own distance from any real connectedness with the Whole. This
is the dilemma of Islam at the dawn of the 21st century. The
Umma of believers are themselves held hostage by the
terrorists who claim to represent them. As Zia Sardar has
written in The Observer (UK - Sept 23, 2001): “. .
. all good and concerned Muslims are implicated in the unchecked
rise of fanaticism in Muslim societies. . . . We have been
silent as they proclaim themselves martyrs, mangling beyond
recognition the most sacred meaning of what it is to be a
Muslim. . . . The terrorists are among us, the Muslim communities
of the world. . . . And it is our duty to stand up against
Prophet affirmed that “Allah’s Mercy supersedes his Wrath.”
(Hadith al-Qudsi). One can only hope that the moderate Muslim
majority will draw upon the wisdom of those within their own
tradition who know that Mercy intimately and find the courage
to stand up.
Jay Kinney, 2001. Jay Kinney is the co-author, with Richard
Smoley, of Hidden Wisdom: A Guide to the Western Inner
Traditions (Penguin/Arkana, 1999). He is editor of The
Inner West (forthcoming from J.P. Tarcher, 2002). More
of his writings can be found at http://www.gnosismagazine.com.