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The Mystical Face of Muhammad, the Last Messenger of God

No religion is complete without an ecstatic dimension. Something in human beings wants to keep religion from being simply ritual, purely rational, solely ethical, and only theology. So a corrective eventually expresses itself in the form of mysticism (tasawwuf). Mysticism is not the religion; it is an inescapable element in all authentic religions. As Paul Tillich used to say, ecstasy and mysticism prevent religion from becoming "moralized love and intellectual faith."

Most religious founders combine these dimensions in their love and thought. They emphasize that our relationship to the divine includes both thinking and acting correctly and experiencing God directly.

This was certainly true of Muhammad, upon him be peace. Sufis base their devotional expression and spiritual direction on the example of the Prophet. Muhammad was the original Sufi! They immediately point to his prayer life; his direct encounter with Allah on Mount Noor; his spiritual pilgrimage in his late thirties, which led to his "Night of Power", and finally to his "Night Journey," a classical mystical experience which took him to heaven to talk with previous prophets and into the presence of Allah Himself. The hadith is replete with spiritual wisdom and meditational guides which were as much a part of Muhammad's legacy to his followers as his political and ethical guidance.

Annemarie Schimmel, in her comprehensive book on Sufism, Mystical Dimensions of Islam, relates how surprised westerners are to discover the mystical qualities in Muhammad. She states that the western image of Islam "emerged during hundreds of years of hatred and enmity in the Christian world." From this tradition has come a picture of Muhammad as, at worst, a sword-wielding religious zealot and, at best, a shrewd and sensuous politician. Yet from the beginning Sufis knew him to be a deeply pious and spiritually earnest man, a man who not only desired to bring Allah's salaam to earth, but also experience direct access to Allah.

Sufis provide the "inner dimension" of Islam, the personal esoteric, inward path (tariqa) as compared with exoteric, public, outward Shariah. The former, "God and the person," is the inner essence; the later, "God and society," is the exterior clothing. The former if the "fire"; the later is the "fireplace." Obviously both are needed for a valuable religious tradition. One without the other would be spiritually self-destructive.

Sufism is not, as often stated by westerners, a sect of Islam. It is, rather, a dimension found in and compatible with all manifestations of Islam, whether Sunni or Shiite, no matter what the Muslims are, intelligentsia or peasant, urban or rural. . . .

In summary, faithful Muslims who are not Sufis obey God and believe that God is merciful and will reward them according to their righteous deeds. The goal is to enjoy life in this world and prepare for the world to come. They diligently perform the five pillars and this aids them in "remembering Allah." However, their self-renunciation and abstinence do not go beyond their expected duties and obligations.

Sufis, on the other hand, passionately yearn for God. Their remembrance is total, a struggle (jihad) to be united with Divine Love. The Sufi's goal is not to perform certain rituals and hope thereby to become closer to God; the goal is to be united to God without any mediation whatsoever. A Sufi does not neglect action but sees action as a completion. There is a sense in which Sufis see themselves as "fulfilled Muslims."

Ira G. Zepp Jr., A Muslim Primer, University of Arkansas Press, 2000, p. 115-20

weblink / Prophet Muhammad was the original Sufi

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