Mysticism and Religion

fanaie1There is a close connection between mysticism and religion. However, the nature of their relation is debatable. Is mysticism a religious phenomenon? What is the relation between them? Can mysticism be found outside of religion? Is mysticism compatible with any worldview? The answer to these questions depends on our definition of mysticism. In my view, mysticism is a religious phenomenon. The heart of mysticism is experiential knowledge of God and love of Him, and its three essential elements are belief in God, life after death and a life according to the will of God.


 Mysticism and Religion

                                                       Mohammad Fanaei Eshkevari



There is a close connection between mysticism and religion. However, the nature of their relation is debatable. Is mysticism a religious phenomenon? What is the relation between them? Can mysticism be found outside of religion? Is mysticism compatible with any worldview? The answer to these questions depends on our definition of mysticism. In my view, mysticism is a religious phenomenon. The heart of mysticism is experiential knowledge of God and love of Him, and its three essential elements are belief in God, life after death and a life according to the will of God.


  What is Religion? 

In order to reach a clear opinion on the relation between mysticism and religion it is necessary to have an adequate understanding of religion and its essential elements.  There is no consensus about what constitutes the essence of religion.  A growing tendency in the modern time looks at religion as a kind of feeling and experience.

            According to Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1843) it is impossible to identify religion either with metaphysics or morals, or with a mixture of the two. Even though metaphysics and morals have the same subject matter as religion, e. i., the universe and the relationship of humanity to it, they are not identical. Metaphysics categorizes things, explains the existence and necessity of what exists, and seeks to discover the general laws of the world.  Morality deals with our duties as human and our relationship to the universe.  Religion must not do these tasks.  It is not the highest philosophy, of which metaphysics and morals are subordinate divisions.[2]

                        In his view, religion is a kind of feeling.  The concept of feeling in Schleiermacher is ambiguous.  Sometimes he uses the term “sense” by which he means sensibility.  Sensibility for the Infinite is to like the Infinite.  The problem is that sensibility cannot be prior to knowledge of the Infinite; it is impossible to like something without having some kind of awareness of it.  We cannot have a feeling for the Infinite without having the idea of the Infinite in our mind. Thus human nature as an intelligent reality is the true seat of religion.

            Another difficulty with this theory is that, since feeling is only a subjective element in experience, it cannot be the basis for religion.  This view negates any objective value for religion.  It is on the basis of this theory that Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872) concludes that since you perceive God by feeling, he is only in your feeling.

            Paul Tillich (1883-1965) thinks that “feeling” among psychologists is a psychological function and, therefore, the word “feeling” implies that faith is a matter of merely subjective emotions. But “feeling” according to Schleiermacher “is the impact of the universe upon us in the depths of our being which transcends subject and object.”[3]  A feeling of unconditional dependence is different from the subjective feeling of the individual, for all subjective feelings are conditioned.

            Tillich suggests that it would be better for Schleiermacher to speak of the intuition of the universe.  The more proper term is “religious experience,” which indicates “the presence of something unconditional beyond the knowing and acting of which we are aware.”[4]

            William James, like Schleiermacher, sees feeling as the deeper source of religion. James said that dogmas, creeds, and metaphysical theologies are provoked by religious experience.  He defines religion as “the feelings, acts and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.”[5]

However, religion is not equal to religious feeling or experience.  An essential element in religion is belief.  It is belief in the unseen, in the supernatural ground of being, in the ultimate reality, God.  But religious belief is different from philosophical and scientific belief.  It is associated with devotion, commitment, and practice.  Charles Peirce (1839-1914) puts it as a living belief, “a thing to be lived rather than said or thought.”[6]

Wilfred Cantwell Smith asserts that the modern Western notion of religion as a system of beliefs and practices is a product of the eighteenth century.  In the past, it was used in the sense of proper piety, holy affections, the relationship between human beings and God, monastic life and the like.[7]  However, all these are based on a system of belief. Therefore we can identify three dimensions of religion as cognition, affection, and volition; or belief, emotions, and conduct.[8]

Religion (at least in its Western theistic, prophetic notion) is a system of belief and practice that is revealed by God and announced by a prophet.  Religious experience is a state or event in the inner life of a believer.  The essence of religion is revelation of God’s word, and religiosity must contain at least three elements: belief in God and life after death, and obedience to God.  Of course, this kind of characterization excludes many belief systems and ways of life from being defined as religion, such as Marxism and humanism.  A tradition such as Buddhism is controversial in this regard since it is not easy to decide about the idea of deity in this tradition.  According to some, Hinayana Buddhism does not recognize a God.[9]


Is Mysticism a Religious Phenomenon?

Sometimes mystical experience and religious experience are treated as a single reality.  But usually scholars distinguish religious experience from mystical experience and religion from mysticism, even though they are closely connected.  What distinguishes mystical experience from mere religious experience is the fact that the former is involved in unitary vision, a deeper and a more advanced and rare state of consciousness.  Religious experience depends less on preparation and training and therefore is more common than mystical experience.

            Frits Staal rejects the idea that mysticism is a religious phenomenon.  In his view, mysticism has nothing to do with God or gods.  He argues that some religions such as Theravada Buddhism and Jainism, are atheistic.[10]

            According to Walter Stace, there is no single answer to this question.  If “religion” is understood as “one or other of the recognized world religions,” mysticism is not essentially a religious phenomenon.  If by “religion” one means “the feelings of the holy,” mysticism does involve religious feeling.[11]  He is inclined to say that mystical experience is not a religious experience; mysticism essentially is not a religious phenomenon, even though it may be associated with a religion.  The connection of mysticism with religion is subsequent.  Some assume mysticism as a religious phenomenon, and define mystical awareness as ‘union with God.’  Stace insists that ‘union with God’ is not more than one interpretation among many.  The essence of introvertive mysticism, he claims, is ‘the undifferentiated unity’ which has no religious content. A Buddhist, for example, interprets it nontheistically. Though a mystic, Plotinus (204/5-270) did not belong to any recognized religions. Stace rejects the necessary connection of mysticism and religion as a system of belief; however, he admits the idea that mysticism involves the feeling of the holy, the divine.  This feeling may be regarded as a religious feeling.

            To Stace, mysticism is independent of all organized religions, though they are linked together because “both look beyond earthly horizons to the Infinite and Eternal, and because both share the emotions appropriate to the sacred and holy.”[12]

However, another view is that mysticism is the vital core of religion.  William James considers mysticism as ‘the root and center of religion.’  In his view, “One may say truly . . . that personal religious experience has its root and center in mystical state of consciousness.”[13]  According to Pratt, “While it would indeed be untrue to assert that only the mystical are genuinely religious, it is safe to say that all intensely religious people have at least a touch of mysticism.” [14] In Underhill’s view, religion and mysticism are so connected that “no deeply religious man is without a touch of mysticism; and no mystic can be other than religious, in the psychological if not in the theological sense of the word.”[15]  Paul Tillich also admits that mystical experience and rational interpretation are in all religions.[16]

            As Tillich suggests, faith and mysticism do not contradict each other; they are compatible and even interdependent.  If one of them is considered as an element of the other, they will be compatible.  In mystical experience a finite being experiences the presence of the infinite.  Faith, which is the experience of the spiritual presence, the divine, is mystical, for it goes beyond the subject-object distinction.  According to Tillich, mystical experience contains faith, for in both cases the person is “grasped by the Spiritual presence,” however they must not be taken as identical.[17]

            Radhakrishnan also insists on the close connection of mysticism and religion.  In his view, “Spirituality is the core of religion and its inward essence, and mysticism emphasizes this side of religion.”[18]  Both mysticism and religion are “the admission of mystery in the universe.”[19]  Contrary to Stace, Radhakrishnan believes that “Mysticism is opposed to the naturalism which categorically denies the existence of God and the dogmatism which talks as if it knew all about Him.  Both agree in abolishing all mystery in the world.”[20]  In fact, mysticism is considered as a form of religion which lays stress on the personal experience of God.

Mysticism is the essence and root of religion and provides a sound ground for the unity of all religions.  Inge writes:

“Mysticism is singularly uniform in all times and places. The communion of the soul with God has found much the same expression whether the mystic is a Neo-platonic philosopher like Plotinus, a Mohammadan Sufi, a Catholic monk or a Quaker.  Mysticism, which is the living heart of religion, springs from a deeper level than the differences which divide the Churches, the cultural changes which divide the ages of history.”[21]


The Tension between Mysticism and Religion

To Stace, mysticism is not essentially a religious phenomenon; it can combine even with atheism.  In response to Stace, one can say that, even though interpretation is not identical with experience, and it is possible that different people interpret the same experience differently, this does not mean that all interpretations are equally valid.  How can the experience of transcendence and the divine be combined with materialistic metaphysics?  Mysticism and religious beliefs, particularly belief in God, are so connected that Mcfadden says, “Strictly speaking, there are no mystics among the Buddhists since they do not acknowledge an Absolute.”[22]  Mysticism has to do with the experience of divine, so it cannot be consistent with atheism, a theory that rejects the divine.  It is true that mysticism is not restricted to one specific religious tradition; however, it cannot be combined with any metaphysics.  Mystics emerge out of religious communities, even though sometimes they challenge the established religious authorities. We know that challenging a specific religion or a specific understanding of a religion is not the same as challenging the religion as such.

Some scholars have restricted mysticism to organized religions.  Gershom Scholem remarks, “There is no mysticism as such, there is only mysticism of a particular religious system, Christian, Islamic, Jewish mysticism and so on.”[23]  This implies that people such as Plotinus, who do not belong to any organized religion, cannot be considered as mystics.

           Stace claims that mysticism is not genuine in Christianity, and Jesus was not a mystic; otherwise he would have set mystical consciousness at the center of Christianity.  It is only a minor strand, which “comes into later Christianity as a result of influences which had their sources in Greece, not in Palestine.”[24]

What we should notice in this regard is that mysticism is a universal phenomenon found almost everywhere inside organized religions as well as outside of them.  Christian mystics frequently refer to the Bible to support their ideas.  Sufis in Islam insist that their sole source is the Qur’an and the teaching and example of the Prophet Mohammad.  In formulating mysticism as a theoretical science like any science, mystics learn from the human heritage regardless of differences in worldview.  Moreover, influence by paganism does not give mysticism a pagan identity.  It may be true that mystics are influenced by non-religious worldviews; however, historical influence is not the only factor in defining the nature of mysticism.  If a religion does not have the ground of mysticism in itself, foreign elements cannot enter into it so deeply.  Mysticism in religious traditions has its root within the religion, even though it may be influenced by others in the formulation of its doctrine or in its path.   Mystics do not borrow their ideas from pagans uncritically.  They try not to adopt those elements that are against their religious teaching.  The same thing happened when Christian and Muslim theologians faced Greek philosophy.  Christian and Islamic theologies are influenced by Greek philosophy and Neoplatonism in their specific argumentation and systematization and in some philosophical theories, but not in their essential religious beliefs, such as belief in God.

          Furthermore, this is not the only theory on the origin of mysticism.  Some like W. R. Inge and N. Berdyaev hold that mystical union is the essence of Christianity.  Although some may think that the Bible contains no mysticism, Christian mysticism, nevertheless, sees its origins in the teachings of Jesus, in St. John’s Gospel, in experiences mentioned in Revelation, in St. Paul, and in the Psalms.  In Owen’s view, Christian mystics’ beliefs are what they learned and grew up with from their childhood.  And those few mystics who departed from orthodox beliefs have done so as a result of philosophical or theological speculations, not as a result of mystical experience.[25]

        In Christianity, scriptures have an undeniable influence on the mystics’ language both in its content and form.  The same is true with regard to Jewish mysticism.  There are many passages in the Old Testament that are powerful enough to inspire a mystical tendency, for example, the verse that says:  ‘Moses, Moses! Do not come near; put off your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground’ (Exodus 3:5).  The following is another example: ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you’ (Jeremiah 1:5).  The source of Islamic mysticism, as mentioned before, is the Qur’an and the tradition of the Prophet and Imams.  As Massignon says, the Qur’an is the main textbook of Sufi sciences and the key for their Weltanschauung.[26]  Most, if not all, of the mystical ethical concepts of Sufism are derived from basic Islamic teachings.

        As we saw, Stace insists on the independence of mysticism from religion. Some orthodox from inside the religions and some seculars from outside the religions go further, and think that mysticism and religion are incompatible.  David Knowles says, “The mystics’ vision and the normal Christian adherence to precise dogma have often been contrasted or declared incompatible.”[27]

            There are various grounds for orthodox believers to view mysticism with skepticism. Mystics’ paradoxes, their dubious and semi-heretical utterances, carelessness of some Sufis with regard to shari’a, their esoteric interpretation of the Qur’an, and their incorporation of unfamiliar customs such as dance are some of these grounds.  The chief among these reasons is the status of God in mysticism and religion.  The core of mysticism is union with the Ultimate, or fana’ in Allah, whereas in theology there is an unbridgeable gulf between the Creator and creatures.  Therefore religious experience is considered numinous, which is different from mystical.  As Smart says, “The mystic goal is non-dual,” whereas “dualism between God and man is the very essence of numinous discourse.”[28]

            However, union with God can be interpreted in a way that is compatible with the religious conception.  Many mystics interpret unity as the unity of love and will, not ontological unity.  Eckhart cites Augustine who said, “Whatever a person loves a person is.  If he loves a stone, he is a stone; if he loves a human being, he is a human being.  If he loves God–I dare speak no further.”[29]  In this interpretation the distinction between the Creator and creatures remains untouched.

            Another source of alleged incompatibility between mysticism and religion is thought to be the mystics’ distinct approach to life and ethics.  Mysticism “ignores the moral requirements that are part of the very fabric of their religious traditions.”[30]  It is also said that mystical ethics is derived from mystical experience and has no necessary relation to revelation, historical incarnation and atonement.[31]  In sum, it is argued that mysticism stands in clear opposition to religion in view of fundamental issues such as world, life, morality, God, and revelation.  Some theologians such as E. Brunner and R. Niebuhr think that mysticism is anti-Christian, it is closer to pagan gnosis.  Others such as J. W. Oman and P. E. More see in it the danger of pantheism.

       However, one can claim that genuine mysticism reinforces morality and a positive attitude toward life.  There have been individual mystics whose life and teachings with regard to morality and life are open to criticism, however this is not a necessary concomitant of mysticism; rather one may say it is a deviation from it. As for pantheism one can say that it is not the only or even the predominant interpretation of mystical unitary vision.

            The mystics’ different approaches to religion should not always be understood as deviations from religion; religion can be understood in different ways, one of which is mystical.  The mystics’ personal revelation is not always in agreement with the orthodox understanding of religion.  Their new ideas sometimes disturb orthodox believers.  Mystics are more concerned with the inner dimension of religion while respecting its outer and apparent dimension.  Deviation from orthodox interpretation does not make mysticism heretical.  Mystical experience, according to many scholars, is a subclass of religious experience.  Even those mystics such as Plotinus who are outside of a specific organized religion are not irreligious; they believe in God and the realm of transcendence, a spiritual life and a presence in the world.  This belief is the heart of religion.  Mysticism may also have different forms and aspects.  Rejection of some form or aspect of mysticism does not imply the rejection of mysticism.  One may say that the difference between religious experience and mystical experience is a matter of degree, not of kind.  In this regard Parrinder writes, “The religious experience of the ordinary believer is in the same class as that of the mystic, the difference is one of degree but not of kind.”[32]


Mysticism and Religious Teachings 

No doubt mystics in all religions, particularly Abrahamic religions, follow the teachings of their own religions, even though they may have different interpretations. For example belief in God and life after death are two basic principles in these religions and also basic in mystical trends within them.  The ultimate goal of mystics is meeting, proximity or union with God which implies a happy life after death. Moral principles are also elemental in mystical path. Sufis are also careful to follow religious canon law and rituals or the ways of worshipping (shari‘a/fiqh/jurisprudence).  Shari‘a, or revealed law, is an essential part of the religious life in Islam, without which the religiosity of one’s life is under question.  In Judaism also, religious law is fundamental.

            Sufism made the distinction between shari‘a, the Islamic law, tariqa, the Sufi path, and hqiqa, the truth.  Truth is the end of the spiritual journey which goes through shari’a and tariqa.  Shari‘a is the broad path all people are obliged to take as the minimum requirement for salvation.  Tariqa is a narrow path; it is only for those who are capable and willing to take it. All grate Sufis emphasized on the importance of shari’a and announced that those who do not observe shari’a are wrong. Mysticism is seeking the truth through observing shari‘a and tariqa. Tariqa alone is not enough for salvation and attaining the truth. “No path can exist without a main road from which it branches out; no mystical experience can be realized if the binding injunctions of the shari‘a are not followed faithfully first”.[33]  According to Muslim mystics, Sufism is the true knowledge of the divine law both in its external and internal aspects.  In their view, religious law (shari‘a) is a candle on the path (tariqa) through which one can attain truth (haqiqa).  A Sufi must conform to shari‘a, “Since his individual human nature will always remain passive in relation to Divine Reality”.[34]  In this system, mysticism is a deeper understanding of religion.

            The ultimate end of both religion and mysticism is nearness to God, which is the ultimate happiness.  It is not reasonable that their ways toward God be in the opposite direction.  Observance of shari‘a is so important in Sufism that a criterion for distinguishing the righteous guide (murshid) from a false claimant in the path of mysticism is “the degree to which murshid observes, in all affairs that concern him, the relevant ordinances of the shari‘a.  If there is even the slight deviation from the shari‘a then clearly the individual in question is a false claimant.”[35]


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[1]. This paper is presented in the seminar on dialogue between Shi’a Muslims and Mennonite Christians at Conard Grebel University Colledge in Waterloo, Ontario, Canad in may 30, 2007, and published in On Spirituality, (Ontario: Pandora Press, 2010), pp. 87-98.

[2] . See, Schleiermacher, On Religion.

[3] . Tillich, 1968, 392.

[4] . Tillich, 1968, 396.

[5] . James, 31.

[6] . Peirce, vol. VI, p. 306.

[7] . Smith, ch. 2.

[8] . Organ, 417.

[9] . Stace, 43.

[10] . Staal, 185.

[11] . Stace, 341.

[12] . Stace, 343.

[13] . James, 379.

[14] . Pratt, 14.

[15] . Underhill, 70.

[16] . Tillich, 1951, vol. I, p. 9.

[17] . Tillich, 1951, vol. 3, p. 242.

[18]. Radhakrishnan, 61.

[19] . Radhakrishnan, 61-62.

[20] . Radhakrishnan, 62.

[21] . Inge, 25-26.

[22] . Mcfadden, 2477.

[23]. Scholem, 6.

[24]. Stace, 343.

[25]. Knowles, 73.

[26]. Massignon, 45.

[27]. Knowles, 72.

[28] . Smart, 340.

[29] . Eckhart, 302.

[30]. Horne, 26.

[31]. Wainwright, 223.

[32] . Parrinder, 191.

[33] Schimmel, 98.

[34] . Burcckhardt, 22.

[35] . Algar, 29.