Mysticism transcends religious definitions

Islamic, Christian and Jewish faiths each have their own mystic elements.

By Sumayya Ahmad

Published: Wednesday, April 21, 2004


Mysticism, which is defined as an immediate consciousness of the transcendent or ultimate reality or God, is a religious phenomenon that has occurred across many faiths, including Islam, Christianity and Judaism.

On Monday, the Office of Religious Life put on the program "Mysticism across the Religious Spectrum," featuring three speakers for the three Abrahamic faiths who illuminated the topic in an academic light.

The event highlighted the practices of Sufism, or Islamic mysticism, Christian mysticism in Catholic faiths, as well as Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism. The speakers discussed how these traditions are practiced, their similarities and the experiences that mystics have encountered.

Megan Reid, assistant professor of religion, spoke about Sufism. Sufism has been part of mainstream Islam for centuries, and began as a formal tradition in the 13th and 14th centuries, she said. "Sufism is a belief in the return to a God who we were at one point were very close to, but are now separated from," she said.

"Sufism has been an interpretive tradition, as response to a scripture. Muslim mystics tend to respond to the Quran (Muslim holy book) predominantly."

Sufis would often take phrases from the Quran and interpret them in a variety of ways, Reid said. For example, the line "Everywhere you turn, there is the face of God" has been explained in many ways by Sufi poets and mystics.

Sufis believe that spiritual enlightenment is always a product of hard work, she said. Some of the ways in which they practice is contemplation of particular words of phrases of the Quran, fasting and bodily exercises such as spending all night in prayer.

"There is a belief of a possibility of extinguishing yourself, and all there is is the consciousness of God," she said.

Reid also said that Sufism currently has a massive worldwide following, both abroad and within the United States. In fact, Reid said that the best-selling poet in America is Rumi, one of the most famous Sufi poets who lived in the 13th century.

Kabbalah is another mystic tradition that has received a lot of attention in mainstream America. Professor Eitan Fishbane of Hebrew Union College spoke about Kabbalah.

"Mysticism in Judiasm is a particular way of looking at the world," he said. "It sees the world as reverberations of the divine presence."

Kabbalists believe there is more to what is real than what meets the eye, Fishbane said. The Jewish scripture, the Torah, is at the very core of Jewish mystical tradition.

"The Torah and the Hebrew Bible as a whole is a text that was subjected to detailed and unending scrutiny to illuminate various meanings," he said. "To Kabbalists, to encounter the text was to encounter the state of God."

Kabbalists practice mysticism in various ways, including meditating on specific letters, closing their eyes and seeing the letter dancing and saying various prayers in order to enter into a divine consciousness, Fishbane said.

Many Kabalistic traditions were influenced by Sufism, since many "like-minded" people lived in the same Middle Eastern region during the time Kabbalah was being established, Fishbane said.

USC religion professor Sheila Briggs, whose emphasis is history and theology in the West, spoke about Christian mysticism. She said that not all branches of Christianity talk about mystical traditions and it is mostly found within older branches of Christianity, such as Catholicism and Episcopalism.

"Mystics in the Christian traditions have two important experiences," she said. "One is the visionary experiences, which can be related to sight or hearing, which is often seen as an awakening and the use of an inward sight.

"The other is the contemplative union with God, where the destiny of the soul is to return to its source."

Briggs said that Christ tends to be central in the visionary experiences of mystics and is often seen as the link between ordinary human beings and God.

Unlike Islamic and Judaic mysticism, Briggs said that Christian mysticism does not respond to a literary interpretation of scriptures. Mystics were always under question for being heretics, she said.

"There was a potential conflict between what is the mystics vision of God and what the Church teaches God to be," she said.

Briggs said mystics often joined monasteries and also underwent disciplines of the body. Like Sufis, Christian mystics also fasted and performed breathing exercises.

It is very noticeable that in Christian traditions, mystics were women who were often of low standing in society, Briggs said.

"These were women who had very little access to the positions of authority in the Church," she said. "Some say that someone very unworthy can have this experiences and there is a great emphasis on humiliation. They recognize how lowly they are, but they were still recognized by God."