Unity in Diversity: Mysticism, Messianism and the Construction of Religious Authority in Islam

  • Book Title:
 Unity In Diversity
  • Book Author:
Orkhan Mir-Kasimov
  • Total Pages
  • Book Views:
  • Click for the  
PDF Direct Download Link
  • Get HardCover  
Click for Hard Copy from Amazon



No living organism can survive without an efficient mechanism of adaptation to the changing environment. this also holds true for such complex socio-cultural organisms as religious communities and related civilizations.

the survival of a religious community is closely related to the issue of religious authority. religious authority is what initiates a religion and maintains the link with its original impulse throughout its history. no religious community can exist without some form of religious author-ity, which determines the principles of organization of this community so that the original impulse may be preserved and perpetuated, and which ensures the adaptation of these principles to changing historical circumstances. the central idea of the present volume can be most gener-ally expressed by these questions:

what are the concrete mechanisms of change and adaptation of religious authority in Islam, and how do they work? how did they manage to maintain muslim civilization as a living organism through the innumerable hazards, divisions and devastations of time? of course, my goal here is not to give a comprehensive answer to such vast questions, but to bring together some materials which, I hope, will contribute to the ongoing discussion of this topic.1

 In the next few pages, I will attempt to frame this question within a reflection on the con-struction of religious authority in Islam and on the relationships between its various conceptions, or “patterns.” I will argue that the complexity and diversity of these patterns strongly contributed to the efficient adaptation and survival of Islam as a whole. further on, I will detail the focus and the structure of the present volume.

the original impulse that founded Islam as a religion was the revelation received by the Prophet muḥammad. this revelation constitutes, ultimately, the only source of religious authority in Islam. any claim on religious authority in the following periods had to prove its link with this source. from the earliest times, there emerged three fundamen-tal approaches to the question of the preservation and the adaptation/ interpretation of the original impulse of the prophetic revelation.2

one of them, which could be characterized as “rationalist,” including specu-lative theology and later philosophy, favored reason as the trustworthy instrument for the adequate understanding and application of the revela-tion and, in some cases, even as a means of an independent access to its source. another approach was based on the idea that the influx of the rev-elation continued, in one form or another, after the physical death of the Prophet, which made it possible, either by means of spiritual discipline and initiation (Ṣūfism), or

through the transmission of sacred knowledge along a noble bloodline (shīʿism), to get into living contact with the source of prophetic revelation and receive prophetic or similar guidance at any point in history, either spiritually or through the intermediary of a living human person. In various formulations, this idea is essential for all forms of Islamic mysticism.3

 mysticism so defined encompasses a broad spectrum  of groups and movements, from moderate Ṣūfism to many forms of politi-cally active messianism. the third, traditionist approach implied the idea that the living revelation ceased with the death of the Prophet muḥammad, and consequently stressed the rigorous transmission of the word and let-ter of the revelation as it took place in the time of the Prophet, that is, of the Qurʾān and of the accounts related to the pristine community, in particular those concerning prophetic words and deeds.4

In the centuries following the death of the Prophet, these three basic patterns of religious authority came to be combined, in various proportions depending on schools, within what can be called the “jurisprudential” pat-tern, which emphasized religious law (sharīʿa).5 the law came to be con-ceived of essentially as the means of perpetuating the prophetic model. therefore, its application to the administration of the muslim community in general, and of every muslim’s life in particular, ensured continuous conformity to the prophetic model and, consequently, to the principles of the prophetic revelation. living according to the law guaranteed one’s salvation in the hereafter. the “jurisprudential” pattern drew heavily on the traditionist approach to religious authority:

 the Qurʾān, the Word of god, and the tradition (ḥadīth), containing the accounts of the words and the deeds of the Prophet, gradually edited in canonical compilations, constituted two primary sources of the law, religious knowledge (ʿilm) par excellence.6 Jurists ( faqīh pl. fuqahāʾ) derived concrete principles and applications of the law from this sacred knowledge. therefore, the guard-ians and transmitters of the texts, the experts of traditional ʿilm (ʿālim  pl. ʿulamāʾ) and jurists took on, within this jurisprudential paradigm, the role of bearers of religious authority.

from a functional point of view, the jurisprudential pattern proved the most efficient for the long-term administration of the muslim community. In periods of relative stability this pattern predominated in most major communities or political formations of the muslim world. the sunnī configuration of the jurisprudential pattern emerged and consolidated in the abbasid period, and was substituted for the mystical and messianic pattern that was active during the transition from the umayyads to the abbasids, as well as for the rationalist pattern implemented by the early abbasid caliphs.

 the most important branches of the shīʿī community, guided during the first centuries of Islam by the divinely inspired and infallible Imāms succeeding the Prophet—that is, according to the “mys-tical” pattern of authority as defined above—adopted, in different circum-stances, versions of the jurisprudential pattern that were roughly similar to that of the sunnī majority.

this transition from the mystical to the juris-prudential pattern happened after the occultation of the twelfth Imām in the twelver branch of shīʿism, and was institutionalized and significantly developed after the rise of twelver shīʿīsm to the status of the official creed of the state under the safavids in 907/1501.7

In the Ismāʿīlī branch, the development of a system of jurisprudence took place soon after the foundation of the fatimid caliphate (297/909–567/1171).8 In the following pages, I will mostly refer to the sunnī configuration of the jurisprudential pattern, making adjustments for other versions when necessary.

traditionalism provided the jurisprudential pattern with two sources of the law, the Qurʾān and the tradition, which ensured its link with the original event of the prophetic revelation.9 however, in changing histori-cal circumstances, the life of the muslim community could not be effi-ciently administrated by the mere reproduction of the sanctified early practice.

therefore, in addition to the Qurʾān and the tradition, which conveyed respectively the Word of the revelation and the model of the pristine community, the jurisprudential pattern had to integrate a legiti-mate mechanism of change and adaptation. such a mechanism should make possible not only the reproduction, but also the active authoritative production of the law, including its application to new cases not covered by the foundational texts. since the prophetic revelation was the only source of religious authority in Islam, this mechanism of adaptation could be legitimate only if it was hic et nunc supported by the revelation, by the authority of the Prophet.

 from a functional point of view this meant that, outside the period of prophetic revelation, any legitimate mecha-nism of adaptation inherent to any given pattern of religious authority in Islam could work only if a part of this living revelation was extended and brought into the present of the community. the authority of the prophetic revelation could not remain entirely in the past;

it had to accompany the community throughout history, providing infallible guidance in a new and changing environment. the transmission of foundational texts alone was not enough to provide an authoritative answer in new circumstances and to guarantee an efficient adaptation in accordance with the revelation.10 the jurisprudential pattern provided the solution to the problem of authoritative adaptation by enhancing the two scriptural sources of the law with a third source, the consensus (ijmāʿ).

It was admitted that the consensus of the muslim community on any given issue cannot diverge from the revelation, and has therefore the same degree of authority and infallibility as the scriptural sources. this development was further sup-ported by the apocryphal ḥadīth’s attributed to the Prophet, such as: “my community shall never agree upon an error.”11

 If the primary importance of the scriptural sources in the jurisprudential pattern can be viewed as the continuation of the traditionist conception of religious authority, the integration of the consensus as the third source of the law strongly relied on rationalist methods. the consensus was, in reality, reached when all leading jurists of the community came to the same conclusion on a given issue in their independent exercise of reasoning (ijtihād) on the basis of scriptural sources.

from this general outline, it could be concluded that the jurisprudential pattern emerged as a synthesis of two basic patterns of religious authority mentioned in the beginning of this Introduction. to put it very roughly, the traditionist pattern ensured the preservation of the model of the pris-tine community, while the rationalist pattern provided the mechanism of its adaptation. What about the third, mystical pattern of authority?

mystics were much closer to traditionists than rationalists.12 In a sense, mysticism can be viewed as an extension of the traditionist approach to the question of religious authority and its transmission. traditionists relied on the chain of trustworthy transmitters (silsila) for the transmission of religious knowledge (ʿilm), in the form of reports, from the source of the prophetic revelation. this chain supported (isnād) the authenticity of the link with the original source. mystics did not reject this literal concept of transmission but, for them, it conveyed only the external (ẓāhir) aspect of the revelation.

In order to realize the fullness of the religious experi-ence, this external aspect should be matched by the internal (bāṭin). the reports concerning the words and acts of the Prophet should be accom-panied by the transmission of some form of prophetic inspiration, which originally engendered these words and actions, and could therefore lead to their innermost meaning (ḥaqīqa).13 this form of prophetic inspira-tion constituted the initiatory knowledge which completed and extended the traditionist concept of ʿilm.

consequently, the traditionist concept of isnād/silsila was extended to include the chain of spiritual transmission parallel to the literal one, the chain of spiritual masters, who could be physical persons or spiritual entities.14

this parallelism between traditionalism and mysticism provided the basis for the close interpenetration of these two currents, and the sub- sequent involvement of mystics into the jurisprudential pattern. the founding of the sunnī legal schools is strongly marked by mystical motifs and, at least in Ḥanbalism, the most traditionist of them, mystical inspi-ration (ilhām) apparently was not completely excluded from the list of legal sources.15 many known mystics practiced as jurists, and inversely, many eminent jurists and traditionists were affiliated with some form of mysticism.

however, though the jurisprudential pattern succeeded in integrating to some extent all three basic patterns of religious authority, this integra-tion had its limitations. the control of the preservation and adaptation of the authoritative law was the backbone of the jurisprudential pattern. any interference with this mechanism was perceived as vital threat not only to the jurisprudential pattern as such but, to the extent that this pat-tern came to dominate the life of the most of the muslim community, to the integrity of Islam as a whole.

as we have seen, the mechanism of authoritative adaptation of the jurisprudential pattern relied on the principle of ijmāʿ which, in a sense, made it possible to re-actualize the authority of the original prophetic revelation at any given point in his-tory and thus guarantee the infallibility of the adaptation necessary at this point.16

Both rationalist and mystical patterns contained alternative ways of re-actualizing the revelation: philosophers claimed that it was possible to attain the source of the prophetic revelation by means of reason, while mystical idea of continuous revelation left open the possibility of intui-tive access to the same source. When these aspects of the rationalist and mystical approach interfered with the authority of ijmāʿ, they were vehe-mently rejected. even if this contradicted, in a sense, its own need to re-actualize the prophetic revelation and use its authority for the adaptation and change in the law, the jurisprudential pattern stated that the revela-tion ended with the Prophet muḥammad.17

most of hallmarks of heresy in mainstream muslim heresiographical works, and especially such clichés as “exaggeration” (ghuluww) and “anti-nomianism” (ibāḥa), refer in fact to the aspects of the “continuation of the prophecy” paradigm that did not necessarily contradict the concept of religious law itself, but certainly contradicted the jurist’s monopoly on authority as the guardian of the law. this seems to hold true for such central articles of “heresy” as any form of the doctrine of transmigration, which implied the idea of the transmission of the spiritual influx linked to the source of the revelation and its manifestation in physical persons in the course of history;

related doctrines of the manifestation of the divine in humans, including the direct expression of divine speech through the tongue of an inspired mystic (shaṭḥ), or the abandonment of the exter-nal (ẓāhir) prescriptions of the law on the pretext of perfect knowledge of their innermost meaning (bāṭin). the material of tradition that could support such views was either interpreted metaphorically, declared out of reach of human reason or censured as untrustworthy.18

 several articles in this volume demonstrate that a closer look at the doctrines and motiva-tions of the persons and groups accused of “exaggeration” and “antino-mianism” often shows that their actual divergence with the mainstream doctrines was much less than claimed by external sources. the hostility of the latter was often triggered by political, not doctrinal motivations.

It is tempting to describe this relationship between the aspects of the three basic patterns of religious authority that were integrated into the…….

To read more about the Unity In Diversity book Click the download button below to get it for free

Report broken link
Support this Website

for websites