How Mysticism Entered Islam: Exploring The Sacred Texts Of Judaism & Christianity

Before embarking on this journey of how mysticism entered mainstream religions and Islam, let us revise some relevant Quranic concepts so that we could refer to them when required.

We normally believe that Iman (Belief) is about believing in something without a question, and translate it accordingly into English as “Faith”. However, this understanding of Iman is against the spirit of the Quran that expects, “momin are those who do not accept even the Signs of God (verses of the Quran) as if they were deaf and dumb.” (25:73). The Quran, therefore, repeatedly invites Muslims to think and reflect (34:46), considers it a huge injustice if they do not do so (10:43-44), and declares those who do not reflect worse than animals (8:22) and that they would rot in hell (67:9-10).

Quran defines wahy/revelation as an objective knowledge directly given to the Prophets of God. It had nothing to do with their own efforts or emotions (Quran 53:3), and they had no pre-warning about being the recipients of this knowledge (Quran 42:52; 28:86). Prophets could not control or modify any aspect of the revelation they received as was communicated to Prophet Muhammad (Quran 17:86; 10:15). Hence it was called word of God (Kalam e Allah) that had two modes of transmission to Prophets (through Gabriel; from behind a screen) and one for the rest of the humanity (through Books where revelations were recorded). God chose his Prophets on his own and whatever was revealed to them went into their Books/Scriptures such as the Quran; nothing was left outside as it was not a private conversation. The Quran does not discriminate between a Nabi and Rasool; both came with the message (Scripture/Book) and their role of its propagation.

Direct communication with God in the shape of revelation stopped with Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) as whatever God wanted to command as principles for His guidance for the humanity came to an end with the Quran (6:114-115; 6:34; 10:64; 14:27). When He took responsibility for the safekeeping of the Quran, He called it completion of the Deen/religion/way of life (Quran 5:3). Even if Quran had not used the words Khatimul Nabiyeen (Seal of Prophets) for Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), it was clear that the message had been concluded and locked; therefore, no further continuation of revelation or Prophethood were required. The Quran is absolutely clear that no Nabi/Prophet ever came without a message/scripture/book (brief or long); consequently, the idea of direct communication with God after Prophet Muhammad (and the Quran), in any shape or form, is a huge affront to the Quran.

The terms like Kashaf and Ilham are non-Quranic. Kashaf is not even mentioned in the Quran. As for as Ilham is concerned, it is once mentioned in Surah al-Shams (91:8). Ilham basically means to engulf something or to put an object inside something. This verse means that human self contains both potentials: to assimilate (do right) or to disintegrate (do wrong) after following or defying God’s commandments respectively. This word does not appear anywhere else in The Quran, and to draw any other meaning from it is academically incorrect. Therefore, to call communication with God Kashaf or Ilham or lesser-wahy instead of wahy is pure deception and a wicked attempt to break the Seal of Prophethood.

Jews and Christians did not possess the doctrine of the Finality of Prophethood. Therefore, they always waited for Someone, along with the possibility of further direct communication with God. In the Old Testament, where we find Prophets whom the Quran calls Ambia (Noah, Moses, David), several other characters (e.g. Jeremiah, Jonah, Haskell) are also mentioned whom the Jews called Nabi. The latter were in fact the high priests of the Haykel who used to do prophecies and foretold people, especially women, about their future. They believed a Nabi brought information from the unknown because he conversed with God directly. Similarly, Christians also called Companions of the Christ as Apostles; and believed that God talked to them. Hence, the revelations contained in the “Book of Jonah” are an important part of the Bible.

By the advent of Islam, there were four major religions: Judaism, Christianity, Magism (Zoroasterism), and Buddhism. It is unclear whether the latter two religions made any differentiation between revelation to a Nabi and Kashaf/Ilham to a mystic; but Judaism and Christianity did observe a distinction albeit a hazy one. Therefore, Jews considered Moses a different kind of Nabi as compared to Danial or Jeremiah but still called both as Prophets (the ones who foretold the future). However, Christians make a distinction between the revelation received by their Saints (e.g., John, Luke) and that received by Christ (also happened because he was part of the Trinity). Nonetheless, it would be clarified later that these distinctions were perhaps just technicalities.

Judaism was a simple religion until the destruction of the First Temple (586 BC) and being enslaved by the Babylonians. Subsequently, they went deeper and deeper into material and mental decline, which usually an ideal time for the appearance of mysticism. But it practically emerged much later when they came across Greek Philosophy in Alexandria. Philo Judaeus (25 BC) can rightly be considered the father of tasawwuf (It would actually be Plato, if we want to be very precise) or mysticism in religion. Under his influence, Torah’s teachings transformed into their presumed obvious and hidden meanings. Therefore, Zohar, the famous book of Jewish mysticism, claims how the real Torah is about its secret meanings, and one could experience God everywhere provided one had access to those meanings, and managed life accordingly. Torah used to be an open book for the Jews but it slowly became all about its hidden meanings and teachings.

It was claimed that the alphabets of Aramaic language had extraordinary properties and if they were linked and repeated in a specific way, real hidden meanings of Torah emerged. Similarly, it was affirmed in the Zohar that in addition to the Aramaic alphabets, numbers (1-10) also had their specific significance. If one found out the real denoting of these alphabets and numbers, secrets of the Universe would reveal themselves; and miracles could be performed. These are the actual origins of cultural/Sufi beliefs regarding: even/odd numbers; alphabets as source of personality-trait predictions (Prof. Rafiq Akhtar fame); and the Ism-e-Azam, etc. Therefore, in the relevant Jewish literature, you come across spectacular accounts of some rabbinic mystics. They would frequently interpret scriptures according to their spiritual perception, resolved life-problems based on dreams, and predicted the future.

This is the time when Jesus Christ was sent by God to rebel against this hegemony of Jewish priests over peoples’ personal lives and liberated the common man through his message of forgiveness, equality, and fair distribution of wealth. Not long after him, however, Christianity also drifted towards mysticism, initially because its adherents wanted to escape persecution.

After Christianity embraced mysticism, it became an organised system. Monasteries (Khanqahs) were established, with their rule and regulations formulated and implemented with harsh discipline. Different exercises for spiritual progress were invented as various monastic orders came into being. The basic tenant of this way of life was to give up everything (life, habits, thinking, ambitions, etc.) except spiritual well being. The best among them gave up speech, food, sex, light; stood on one leg or hung themselves upside down; some stood motionless with their hands in the air while others stared endlessly into nothing; but always ensuring complete surrender to the wishes of their teacher. St. Benedict (480-547 CE) had said, “…you immerse yourself in this light, which guides you…as you have no control over yourself. You are mad and wild to the outside world, but actually progressing spiritually until finally you become one with the Ultimate…”.

Adoption of the doctrine of “renunciation of the material world” entailed that the male and female inhabitants of these monasteries freed themselves of all societal values and controls. According to various historians, this gave way to extremes of idleness, depression, sex-addiction, and suicides when the monks & nuns were indoors, and to begging, theft, and violence when they went outdoors. Edward Gibbon (1776) writes how the Church took advantage of this scenario and invented various saints and attributed interesting miracles and myths to them, which gave rise to religious deception and over-optimism on one hand and brought a very bad name to Christianity on the other, “…silently expired in a superstitious age. But the East was distracted by the Nestorian and Eutychian controversies, which attempted to explain the mystery of the incarnation, and hastened the ruin of Christianity in her native land….”.

Since I am setting up my stall before I explore Sufi teachings; I am not diving very deep into the history of mysticism here. However, I would briefly mention what Hinduism was up to around this time. Perhaps the biggest proponent of Hindu mysticism was Shankar Acharya. He believed that the real knowledge was spiritual as the soul was permanent, and the outer world was temporary. God (Brahma) could not be understood except through mysticism; and everything else was just an illusion or a charade (Maya). He believed in the Unity of Being (Wahdatul Wajood) and the denial of material world to escape the trap of maya. He was followed by similar teachings from PatAnjali and Ramananj though the latter’s conception of Unity of Being was slightly different from Acharya. Much later, Bagatti Movement also rose to fame as a proponent of Hindu mysticism.

It is time we explore the entry of mysticism into Islam. Two Shiite concepts are worth examining for a start: Wilayat & Imamate.

Wilayat means power or authority and in Shiite theology, it is the authority invested in the Prophet and the Ahlul Bayt as representatives of Almighty Allah on this earth. They also believe that Ayat al-Wilayat (Quran 55:5) is about Hazrat Ali’s succession after Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and its extension from him to the subsequent Imams. Imamate is a related Shiite belief where all Imams are spiritual descendants of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) as leaders of Muslim community appointed by God. They cannot sin and are infallible, which means that they can interpret the Quran without making any errors. Most Shiites believe Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) chose Hazrat Ali as his successor, and after his death, they were led by twelve imams. The twelfth imam disappeared; he is being kept alive by God in hiding, and will appear one day and bring salvation to all the humanity. Ismaili Shiites, however, believe that imamate started with Hazrat Ali but the last hereditary Imam was the 7th Imam Ismail; and from then onwards each imam can choose his successor.  (to be continued)