Mysticism and Dialogue among Cultures

ssdsThere is no one single agreed-upon defini­tion of mysticism. Each tradition and school of thought defines mysticism in a spe­cific way. However, we can find important common elements in the thought of all those who speak of mysticism. Sometimes mysti­cism in its wider sense is used as a synonym for spirituality. Mysticism in its all forms goes beyond the ordinary sensory appear­ance of the world. It assumes an inner and hidden realm of reality that is larger, wider and more real than the apparent world. The same thing is true for human beings. Mystics try to surpass human appearances, going beyond them to the depth of human reality and seeing dimensions, needs, activities and ideals beyond their counterparts in material everyday life.

Mysticism and Dialogue among Cultures

by Mohammad Fanaei Eshkevari

(Dr. Mohammad Fanaei Eshkevari is Pro­fessor of Islam ic Philosophy and Mysticism at the Imam Khomeini Education and R esearch Institute, Qom, Iran, an also a Lecturer in ICAS Jakarta-Indonesia)

There is no one single agreed-upon defini­tion of mysticism. Each tradition and school of thought defines mysticism in a spe­cific way. However, we can find important common elements in the thought of all those who speak of mysticism. Sometimes mysti­cism in its wider sense is used as a synonym for spirituality. Mysticism in its all forms goes beyond the ordinary sensory appear­ance of the world. It assumes an inner and hidden realm of reality that is larger, wider and more real than the apparent world. The same thing is true for human beings. Mystics try to surpass human appearances, going beyond them to the depth of human reality and seeing dimensions, needs, activities and ideals beyond their counterparts in material everyday life.

Mysticism looks at the world and human beings in a way different from that of nor­mal outlooks (whether they be ordinary, scientific or philosophical), and requires tendencies, behaviors and a way of life that in certain ways is different from ordinary alternatives. Mystics try to bring harmony between the inner aspect of human beings and the inner aspect of the world.

Unifying vision, esoteric tendency, seeking spiritual perfection, love, hope, contentment, tranquility, self-knowledge, optimism, striv­ing for liberation from the slavery of desires, self purification, prayer and contemplation are among the most common elements in most if not all of the mystical traditions.

Mysticism can be divided into two very broad categories: theistic and non-theistic. In theistic mysticism, to which this article refers, the real and original being (the Truth/ al haqq) is God. There is no other indepen­dent being. If anything else exists, it must be a manifestation of Him. Any human perfec­tion is due to proximity and connection with God, referred to by some mystics as annihi­lation into or unity with Him. This can be attained through contemplation, love and purification of heart.

The tendency towards mysticism is a trans­cultural and trans-religious phenomenon. It is part and parcel of all civilizations, tradi­tions and religions. The effects of mysticism can be seen in various dimensions of human life, such as culture, literature, art, and architecture. Its tremendous effect can also be seen in some individual lives. This kind of spiritual feeling is a general phenomenon. Thus, one may say that the tendency toward a kind of mysticism/spirituality is a genuine and natural impulse in human beings.

A deeper form of this feeling, which appears in specific individuals in specific situations, is called mystical experience. Though mys­tical experience does not happen to every individual, the experience is a widely recog­nized phenomenon occurring in all cultures and civilizations with more or less similar characteristics. William James mentions four common distinguishing features of mysti­cism: ineffability, noetic quality, transiency, and passivity.1

The object of this experience, i.e., the reality that is experienced, is more or less similarly described in various mystical traditions, being called such things as unity, life, infin­ity, knowledge, greatness, eternity, immate­riality, and being beyond human understanding.

In theistic religions, particularly the Abra­hamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), both mystical knowledge/feeling and its object are clearly defined. Mystical knowledge is a kind of inner, immediate and intuitive awareness different from ordinary sensory and intellectual knowledge. The object of this awareness is God and truths related to God. The feeling of dependence to God is imprinted in human nature (fitrah). Knowledge of the deeper layers of the truth and the experience of this reality comes about through the grace of God and the purification of heart only to rare and for­tunate individuals.

Despite the common elements of mysticism in the various traditions, the differences between these traditions are also undeniable. For instance, there are real differences between Islamic mysticism and Christian mysticism. The difference between the mys­ticism of the Abrahamic traditions and Indian mystical traditions is much deeper.

Commonalities among Mystical Traditions

However, the commonalities between the various mystical traditions are over­whelming. One may say that the essence of mysticism is one essence that is manifest everywhere in a variety of ways. It is one face reflected in various mirrors. It is one rain whose water takes different shapes in different containers.2 One and the same experience may be expressed and interpreted in different ways due to differences in cul­ture, religion and mindset. Sometimes these differences are like the disagreements of the group of people who touched an elephant in a dark room and reported it differently.3 Or they are like the quarrels of a group of peo­ple over buying the grape that came about due to their ignorance of each other’s lan­guages.4 They say different things, but they want the same thing. Some of their differ­ences are superficial, but their commonality is substantial. Of course, it does not mean that all expressions and interpretations are the same and equally accurate. What is important for us in the issue of dialogue are the profound communalities between the various traditions. At the very least, no mys­tical tradition encourages animosity, hatred, violence, separation, selfishness, injustice, cruelty and aggression.

We know that one of the greatest tragedies in human life is the suffering inflicted on human beings by human beings. Unfortu­nately, animosity, cruelty, injustice, aggres­sion, war, occupation, murder, torture, rape, and plunder, etc., are everyday facts of life. No natural disaster such as an earthquake, flood, typhoon, wild animal attack, etc., causes more destruction to humanity than humanity itself. In conflicts those who have more power are victorious. Their logic is that might is right. Ironically it is said that human beings are the only animals blessed with reason, but at times this reason is used to rationalize atrocity.

The motives behind these actions are self­ishness, self-interest, and achieving more power, wealth or pleasure. Sometimes the root of the problem is ignorance. Differ­ences in beliefs and values do not them­selves lead to conflict, but in the soil of ignorance and moral corruption they can be major sources of problems.

Divine prophets through religious teaching about the presence of God, religious laws and regulations, strengthening faith and moral virtues, have tried to educate people and reduce the amount of corruption and conflict. There have also been wise people in different societies who have tried to bring solutions to these problems. They have employed different devices such as ethical principles, law, and social order to control the violators of human rights. Each of these

attempts has had its effect on improving the human situation and reducing its suffering.

However, even among civilized people there is always some difficulty in peaceful coexis­tence and mutual understanding. Dialogue is a way to exchange ideas, promote mutual understanding, solve disputes, and bring closeness of heart and unity, as well as work together to achieve common goals. Dialogue can have different bases, such as common interest, common culture, language, ethnic­ity, or religion, each of which can help to achieve the goal in a limited way.

What I am emphasizing here is dialogue based on the common human tradition of mystical feeling and awareness. Rarely do individuals lack spiritual feeling, and rarely does a culture or civilization lack a mystical tradition. It seems that spiritual feeling is one of the most fundamental and solid founda­tions for brotherhood, mutual understanding and unity. From this point of view, the root of understanding and friendship is not in material interests or conventions and con­tracts, but rather in the deepest layer of the heart and the very essence and reality of humanity. This deep common tendency and experience, love and enthusiasm for one real­ity and eagerness to connect to it, and feeling of having the same origin and destiny, will cut animosities and conflicts off at the root and strengthen friendship, brotherhood and love.1 Mysticism is a solid ground for attain­ing human ideals in a variety of ways.

Conflict

Conflicts are rooted in selfishness, and mys­ticism is against any kind of self-centered­ness. The essence of the mystical life is love, which means forgetting the ego and melting into the other. If all people realize that they have the same origin, the same beloved, and the same ideal, and that they are traveling toward the same destination, they will not feel separation and strangeness, let alone animosity.

Conflicts arise out of following selfish desires, whereas all mystical traditions insist on resisting selfish tendencies and being lib­erated from slavery to them. If both sides in any conflict refrain from following their self­ish desires, many conflicts will be solved or dissolved.

Conflict results from setting up differences— multiplicity. It occurs between me and he or she, us and them. Mysticism denies this kind of multiplicity and duality, and provides a unitary vision. This vision makes us one and connects us to one and the same source and origin. It fills all gaps. Conflict comes from ignorance, prejudice, intolerance, and impa­tience, whereas the fruit of mysticism is insight, tolerance, and patience.5 And finally, conflict only takes place in the absence of truth, beauty and the good, while mystical life is nothing but a search for the truth, beauty and the good.

The project of dialogue on the basis of a common human mystical heritage suggests that we all begin from our common mystical spiritual insights and discover our common spiritual heritage, after which we will realize that all our genuine motivations, needs, val­ues and ideals are the same. We have similar feelings and experiences, similar concerns and attachments, even though we express them differently. We have the same journey and the same destiny, we all reject slavery to desires, we all love God and worship Him, we know that love of God is not sepa­rate from the love of neighbor6, and we all follow the same fundamental moral princi­ples. On the basis of these commonalities and similarities we should draw close to each other,7 talk sincerely and in friendship, exchange our insights and experiences, try to solve our problems, correct our misunder­standings, help one another live better lives and walk the path toward salvation and happiness.8 The essence of this dialogue is a mutual call toward God, the source of all being and existence, values and beauties, in a wise and compassionate way.9

Undoubtedly, this kind of dialogue brings us closer together, strengthens our common feelings and experiences, and makes us more united. Then we will see the blessings of the All Merciful and the manifestation of His light in our lives.

Through such dialogue we can begin to understand and improve our common expe­rience and begin to see the manifestations of this common tradition in various realms of life—in our thought, morality, science, art, media, economy and politics—as we dis­cover how to bring the essence of spirituality into all dimensions of life.10

Notes

I should thank Laurie and Matthew Pierce for their kindly editorial help and references to the Bible.

William James, Varieties of Religious Experience

(1907), N.Y.: Penguin Book, 1982, pp. 380–381.

“He sends down out of heaven water, and the wadis flow in its measure” (The Holy Qur’an, XIII: 17).

As seeing it with the eye was impossible, (each one) was feeling it in the dark with the palm of his hand.

The hand of one fell on its trunk: he said, “This creature is like a water-pipe.”

The hand of another touched its ear: to him it appeared to be like a fan.

Since another handled its leg, he said, “I found the elephant’s shape to be like a pillar.”

Another laid his hand on its back: he said, “Truly, this elephant was like a throne.”

(Rumi, The Mathnawi, Book Three, translated by R. A. Nicholson).

Again Rumi describes:

“A certain man gave a dirham to four persons: one of them (a Persian) said, “I will spend this on angur .”

The second one was an Arab: he said, “No, I want ‘inab, not angur, O rascal!”

The third was a Turk: and he said, “This (money) is mine: I don’t want ‘inab, I want uzum.”

The fourth, a Greek, said, “Stop this talk: I want istafil.’

These people began fighting in contention with one another, because they were unaware of the hidden meaning of the names. In their folly they smote each other with their fists: they were full of ignorance and empty of knowledge.

If a master of the esoteric had been there, a revered and many-languaged man, he would have pacified them;

And then he would have said, “With this one dirham I will give all of you what ye wish” (The Mathnawi, Book Two).

The Bible states that the fruit of God’s Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith­fulness, gentleness and self control (The Holy Bible, Galatians 5:22–23).

Jesus said: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost com­mandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (The Holy Bible, Matthew 22:37–40).

The Holy Qur’an says: “Say people of the Book! Come now to a word common between us and you, that serve no one but God. . . .” (III: 64).

We should “encourage one another and build up one another . . . live in peace with one another. . . . encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with everyone” (The Holy Bible, I Thessalonians 5:11–14).

Imam ‘Ali in a letter to Malik Ashtar, who was appointed as the governor of Egypt, tells him to treat people kindly, and “do not stand over them like greedy beasts who feel it is enough to devour them, since they are of two kinds, either your brother in religion or one like you in creation” ( Imam ‘Ali Ibn Abi Talib, Nahjul Balaaghah. Maryland: Ahlul-Bayt Assembly, 1996, Letter 53, p.239.)

“Call thou to the way of thy Lord with wisdom and good admonition . . .” (The Holy Qur’an, XVI: 125).

Resources for further reading

Roy Mottahedeh, The Mantle of the Prophet: Religion and Politics in Iran.

New York: Pantheon, 1985.

Mohammad Khatami. Islam, Liberty and Development. Binghamton, NY: Binghamton University, Institute of Global Cultural Studies, 1998.

Seyyed Hossein Nasr. Sufi Essays. Chicago: KAZI Publications, 1999.

Wright, Robin. The Last Great Revo­lution: Turmoil and Transformation

in Iran. New York: Vintage Books, 2000.

Christopher de Bellaigue, In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs. A Mem‑

oir of Iran. New York: HarperCollins, 2004.

Dr. Mohammad Fanaei Eshkevari is Pro­fessor of Islam ic Philosophy and Mysticism at the Imam Khomeini Education and Research Institute, Qom, Iran.

Leave a Reply