William Chittick on Islamic Mysticism

Farah at her blog has done a remarkable thing by selecting some excellent quotes from an essay called “Islamic Mysticism” by William Chittick

Full Text.


The fact that specialists are wary of generalizations in no way hinders the mistaken perception of most people in the West that there is a clearly defined something out there called “Islam.”

If, however, we have any interest in understanding the relationship between current events and the Islamic tradition, we should never forget that Muslims have histories, cultural divergences, and differences in belief and practice every bit as complex as those of Christians.

I do not wish to deny that the word “mysticism” has an honorable pedigree and still retains something of its ancient meaning. Webster’s gives the first meaning as “the experience of mystical union or direct communion with ultimate reality.” Putting aside “mystical union,” which begs the question, we are left with “the experience of direct communion with ultimate reality.” Surely those who have any sympathy with religion would agree that religion, without some sort of communion with ultimate reality, would have nothing to distinguish it from a merely human construction. It would be an ideology, or a political agenda, or an illusion.

In short, “mysticism,” as I would prefer to understand it, stresses the fact that many religious people have been seriously and intimately engaged with ultimate reality, or, at the very least, that they have been engaged with a quest for communion with that reality. In this sense, the word does not imply “vague speculation” or “belief without foundation” unless, of course, one takes the position– common enough these days–that there is no such thing as “ultimate reality.” If that is one’s belief, then the quest to achieve communion with a nonexistent entity is certainly stupid and misguided.

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