Pantheistic Tendencies in Islamic Mysticism

The following are excerpts from A History of Islamic Philosophy by Majid Fakhry, 3rd edition (pages 248-257), related to the pantheistic tendencies in Islamic mysticism.

'[T]here is little in the early Sufi ideal of life for which a basis cannot be found in the Koran and the Traditions, and Massignon is probably right in asserting that "from the Koran continually recited, meditated upon and practiced, Islamic mysticism proceeds in its origins and its development." The concepts of religious poverty (faqr), meditation (fikr, dhikr), fortitude (sabr), renunciation (zuhd), and even the love of God and His contemplation can be shown to be a logical development from that other-worldly strain in the Koran to which we have already referred. What might be rightly regarded as a non-Islamic component of Sufism is the tendency in the writings and practices of the earliest Sufis to go beyond the ritual aspect of the religious law (al-Shariah) and to reach out to a reality (Haqiqah) that thoroughly transcends it. It signifies that in this process of reaching out, not only the law, but even Muhammad, as the vehicle of divine revelation, are dispensed with and the believer desires a direct fellowship or communion with God.'

'Despite those inherent tendencies, the early mystics remained generally firm in their adherence to orthodoxy. Even al-Junaid, who had sown the seeds of a unitary mysticism conditioned by Hindu concepts of the self, did not draw all the possible logical consequences that later and bolder spirits were to draw.

Of these bolder men who became so "intoxicated" with divine love that they could not help taking the final step across the pantheistic abyss, the two best known in the ninth century are al-Bistami (al-Bastami) and al-Hallaj.'

'Whatever the constructions that have been put upon them by later scholars, al-Bastami's "extravagances" (shatahat) bear on the general mystical themes of ecstasy or union with God and imply a clear presupposition of self-deification.'

'The Hindu influence on this type of mysticism has been shown by Zaehner to be unmistakable. There is a clear link to Vedantic metaphysics not only in the case of al-Bastami's Indian master, al-Sindi, who taught him some "ultimate truths", but also in the very complexion of his thought and its "nihilistic" implications. Al-Bastami lived at a time in which the revival and systematization of Vedantic thought itself was being actively pursued by Shankara (d. 820) and his school. His ecstatic utterances, such as the already quoted "Glory be to me" (Subhani) or "I am Thou" or "I am I," all purport to assert his total self-identification with the divine and have numerous parallels in the Upanishads and the Vedanta. Perhaps the wildest of all his utterances in the one in which he speaks of his search for God: he could not find God and therefore took His place on the Throne.'

'How a Muslim could make such extravagant claims that placed him almost above God and yet go unscathed in the ninth century is truly surprising. However, a note made by later authors gives us the clue to this problem. When al-Bastami was accused of laxity in the performance of his ritual duties, we are told, he resorted to the expedient which other Sufis also employed: affected madness. This device apparently saved his life as well as the lives of numerous fellow Sufis.

There was one ninth-century Sufi, however, who was not willing to resort to this dodge, and the price he paid for his extravagances was very high. Al-Husain b. Mansur al-Hallaj...'

'[The] condition of personal communion with the I-Thou is what he called the 'essence of union' ('ain al-jam'), in which all actions, thoughts, and aspirations of the mystic are wholly permeated by God. But, according to him, this union did not result, as it had in the case of al-Bastami, in the total destruction or nullification of the self, but rather in its elevation to joyful and intimate communion with the Beloved.'

'[He] was finally convicted on the charge of blasphemy by decree of a canonical jury... and was countersigned by the caliph. ...[A]lthough he had been ordered to be whipped and decapitated by the caliph, in an excess of zeal, the vizier ordered him to be whipped, mutilated, crucified, decapitated, cremated, and his remains scattered to the four winds. Nothing like this had ever happened in the whole history of Muslim piety.'

However, these pantheistic tendencies were soon countered by post-Hallajian mystics, who were too eager to make mysticism compatible with orthodoxy:

'The great figures in the history of post-Hallajian mysticism, such as al-Ghazali and Ibn Arabi, addressed themselves primarily to the task of systemization or synthesis.... [al-Ghazali] A man of greater learning and intellectual earnestness than any of his masters, he pledged his full support to orthodoxy and bent his efforts to bringing everything he cherished into harmony with it.... Without divorcing himself explicitly from the extravagant Sufis referred to earlier, and whom he sometimes reproaches for divulging what ought to have remained secret, al-Ghazali like his master al-Junayd artfully skirts the pantheistic abyss without falling into it. His mysticism might then be looked upon as an attempt to give the monotheistic ideal of Islam a greater degree of metaphysical cogency.'


Komal said…
This is all very interesting, but perhaps the term 'pantheistic' is not appropriate here? Pantheism is the view that the universe is God, or that nature is God. This is just mysticism, and a mystical tradition that still emphasizes God's transcendence rather than His immanence. If anything, it's the opposite of pantheistic!

Pantheism = God is completely immanent

Orthodox Monotheism = God is completely transcendent

Panentheism = God is both immanent and transcendent
Awais Aftab said…
Fakhry used Pantheist. I guess Panentheist would be more appropriate.
Komal said…
Actually in this case it doesn't even seem panentheistic. Since they're not so much concerned with the presence of God on Earth -- and in fact seem to be denying it -- it seems they see God as transcendent.
Awais Aftab said…
You are right. The dominant theme seems to be a union and self-identification with the divine. This very well might be an influence of Hindu mysticism, but the pantheistic (or panentheistic view) is not really expounded.
stumblingmystic said…
The Sunni orthodoxy (including Imam Ghazali) is vehemently opposed to panentheism, as far as I understand. In particular, they deny the very possibility of Divine incarnation, which is a central theme in Hinduism. Basically, they stop at the Advaita Vedanta realization of moksha -- the nondual realization -- in which the world appears to be an illusion. This is not panentheism (nor pantheism), but rather monism. There is only One Self, and nothing else is real. Imam Ghazali basically stops there.

Ibn Arabi is more of a panentheist and many of his ideas are quite similar to Hindu ideas, including the concept of the Qutb, the occult center, which is similar to the Avatara idea in Hinduism.

Sri Aurobindo is a monistic panentheist, in that he speaks of the One Self manifesting itself in many different forms in the world.
Read it a couple of days back. You might find it interesting. "The Reality of Tasawwuf In the Light of the Prophetic Model."
Komal said…
"In particular, they deny the very possibility of Divine incarnation, which is a central theme in Hinduism."

And Christianity ;)

Without incarnation, spirituality makes little sense to me. The incarnation (the idea of it, as well as a particular one) was what drew me to spirituality in the first place. An incarnation is God's ambassador on Earth, without whom our understanding of God's love will always be limited (more limited than it is with the incarnation, at least).
stumblingmystic said…
Incarnation is the highest form of Divine Love.

I could never believe in a God who couldn't or wouldn't incarnate to bear the ignorance of the world in order to evolve and uplift it.

The more I think about it, the more I have to conclude that I would have always abandoned Sunni Islam in the end, even if it had been taught to me in a more enlightened manner, simply because its core conception of God is so metaphysically inadequate.
Meera said…
Interesting post. I got to learn some very nice incidents here about Islamic mystics, a few of them I was not aware of.

Fakhry tells us of the pantheistic tendencies of these mystics but does not elaborate on why these should be called so - especially when most philoshophical terms, and hence 'pantheism', are wrought with confusions and can be very easily misunderstood. But...I have a reason to believe that Al Hallaj was a pantheist if not a panentheist. From his poems, one feels that he believed in an essential Unity or Singularity or Oneness in the universe, which he called God or the Essence and desired union and self-annihilation with this One. The result of this union with Unity is evinced in his mystical declaration (not really an utterance) of 'I am Thou.' So Fakhry is, in a way, justified in using this pantheist label.

Here is a poem by Al Hallaj that has pantheistic strokes:

"Before" does not outstrip Him,
"beyond" does not interrupt Him . . .
"When" does not stop Him. . .
"Behind" does not limit Him . . .
"After" does not cause Him to pass away . . .
"Is" does not bring Him into being
"Is not" does not deprive Him from Being . . .
His pre-existence preceded time,
His being preceded non-being,
His eternity preceded limit . . .
If thou sayest "before", before is after Him . . .
If thou sayest "where", His being preceded space . . .
He is hidden in His manifestation, manifest in His concealing.
He is outward and inward, near and far.

A couple of lines from another poem:

What earth is this so in want of you
they rise up on high to seek you in heaven?

While the lord remains among them in every turn of time
abiding in their every condition every instant.

This one is sheer beauty and joy, not for poetry per se, but for the fact that I am witnessing a union of soul here:

I am the One whom I love, and the One whom I love is myself.
We are two souls incarnated in one body.
if you see me, you see Him,
if you see Him, you see us.

Thanks Awais. Your post made me think about Al Hallaj much sooner than I had planned :)
stumblingmystic said…
Panentheism and monism are not exactly the same thing. What Hallaj, etc. represent is really monism or monistic acosmism -- that there is only One Being, and nothing else is Real. Some links you might find useful:
stumblingmystic said…
Monistic panentheism inherently indicates a dynamic side to the Divine -- the Divine is dynamically relating to creation, and creation is dynamically co-creating with the Divine. Think Alfred North Whitehead and Sri Aurobindo.