Thursday, May 1, 2008

Elephants & Falcons: What do we mean by "mysticism" and "Sufism"?

How does one explain Sufism?

Annemarie Schimmel opens her classic _Mystical Dimensions of Islam_ (Chapel Hill, 1975) by describing Sufism as "so broad protean that nobody can venture to describe it fully." To explain this ambiguity and diversity, she applies Rumi's famous story of the blind men who, as each one placed his hand on a part of an elephant, described the elephant in disparate ways: one, like a throne; another, like a fan; the next, like a water pipe; one, like a pillar. None grasped the whole. (Schimmel, p. 3) Like an elephant, Sufism resembles a single organism, but one composed of parts that while interrelated, exhibit differences and diversity. Sufism’s diverse parts are joined in the way a body is organically united as one. In this sense, Sufism is a set of different-yet-related phenomena sharing not so much a single essence, but as Ludwig Wittgenstein might have suggested, a “family resemblance.”

Some linguists assert that the English words "mystic" and "mystery" stem from the Greek _myein_ to close the eyes. Others claim it derives from mystes "initiate." How strange to call Sufism by a name that means to close the eyes, when Sufis cite the Prophet's hadith of Gabriel, to describe Sufism as "doing the beautiful" (_ihsan_), taken to mean, as the Prophet explained, "_Ihsan_ is to worship God as if you see Him, for if you don't see Him, He sees you." Truly the eyes have it. As the Qur'an al-Karim says, "No vision can take Him in, but He takes in all vision." (6.103). This, is often called "opening the eye of the heart."

If we return to Schimmel's definition of mysticism, we are greeted with her statement that "In the widest sense it may be defined as the consciousness of the One Reality -- be it called Wisdom, Light, Love, or Nothing." (p. 4) She writes that mysticism is only known through "the wisdom of the heart, gnosis." She describes it in terms of a "spiritual experience that is neither sensual nor rational..." (p. 4)

Then, following Evelyn Underhill’s classic model of Christian mysticism , Schimmel outlines the stages of the journey, the alchemy of transformation, the unfolding of love. First, a mystic is guided by the inner light which shines increasingly brightly as one “polishes the mirror of the heart.” (p. 4) After a purification (_via purgativa_) one receives illumination (_via illuminativ_a) by which one receives love and gnosis which lead to the experience of mystical union (_unio mystica_). Mystical union, Schimmel writes, may be either “experienced and expressed as loving union, or as the visio beatifica” in which the veil of ignorance is lifted and one sees the primordial light or “the essential identity of God and his creatures.” (p.4)

Schimmel establishes a criterion for mysticism before venturing to describe Islam's mystical dimension: "Mysticism can be defined as love of the Absolute -- for the power that separates true mysticism from mere asceticism is love...This love can carry the mystic's heart to the Divine Presence." (p. 4) And in this sense she likens love to a falcon.

Mystics, she writes, have used three images to describe their experience: (1) the path, e.g., as described in allegories such as the “Pilgrim’s Progress” or the “Heavenly Journey;” (2) alchemy, i.e., transforming the “base material” of life into spiritual “gold,”; and (3) love, in which one channels the natural energies of erotic longing toward God. This means one applies – or transfers -- ordinary eros from one’s usual objects and persons of human desire to God. Erotic love, provides the model, called by some Sufis “metaphorical love” (_‘ishq-i majazi_ [Schimmel, pp. 287-293]). One may see that this model of “metaphorical love” parallels the process that Plato described as the “Ascent to Absolute Beauty.” (_Symposium_, pp. 209e-212c).

Schimmel then distinguishes two classes of mysticism: the Mysticism of Infinity and the Mysticism of Personality. It is this second type that we find more often among most – though not all -- Sufis, expressed especially in the mode of the lover yearning for the Beloved. (p. 5)

Some may reach the goal through gnosis, some through love, others through asceticism, and some by rapture. The root is the mutual love between God and human beings: "...people He loves and who love Him..." (5.54) It is the remembrance of the first moment of consciousness, the Day of God's Question (Yawm Alast): "Am I not your Lord?" To which we all as humans drawn forth from the loins of Adam replied, "Yes, we do so witness." (7.172)

Junayd (d. 910) succinctly expressed the heart of Sufism in this most helpful and vivid way, as eight qualities exemplified in eight apostles:

1. the generosity of Abraham;
2. the acquiesence of Ishmael;
3. the patience of Job;
4. the [silent] symbolism [i.e., “signing”] of Zacharias (Sura 3.36; 19.2);
5. the strangerhood of John the Baptist;
6. the pilgrimhood of Jesus;
7. the wearing of wool by Moses; and
8. the poverty of Muhammad. (from Schimmel, pp. 14-15)

Of Sufism's path of loving devotion, Hujwiri (d. 1073) wrote: "Sufism is the heart being pure from the pollution of discord...Love is concord and the lover has but one duty in the world, namely to keep the commandment of the beloved, and if the object of desire is one, how can discord arise?.... He that is purified by love is pure (_safi_), and he who is purified by the beloved is a Sufi." (quoted in Schimmel, pp. 15-16)

Thus in the film, "I am a Muslim; I am a Sufi," the dervish singer Sain Zahoor (who can be found on YouTube) when asked, "Are you a Sufi?" gently places his hand on his heart and says, "No, I only sing the songs of the Sufi masters."

Somebody asked Abu Hafs: “Who is a Sufi? He answered: “A Sufi does not ask who a Sufi is.” (Schimmel, p. 2)

As the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote in his _Tractatus Logicus_, it is that "of which one must be silent, of which one cannot speak."