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Mysticism in Sufi Islam  

David Cook

Sufism is the major expression of mysticism in Islam. While Sufism developed out of the fusion of Qur’anic ascetic tendencies and the vast fund of Christian (and other) mystical sayings present throughout the classical world, by approximately the 10th century it had become a uniquely Islamic feature. Major writers such as al-Ghazali and Ibn al-ʿArabi took this heritage and molded it both into a normative tradition for Islam as a whole (by wedding it to the Prophet Muhammad’s life experience) and, in the case of Ibn al-ʿArabi, into completely new spiritual paths. These interpretations of mysticism were critical in the vast conversion to Islam that happened during the period 1000–1800. Although other factors were involved as well, including trading by Muslims and the Islamic educational system, this conversion happened largely at the hands of the Sufis, especially holy men and healers, and thus the Muslim world is still largely Sufi or Sufi-influenced. Starting in the 19th century, however, and culminating in the mid-20th century, large numbers of Muslims abandoned Sufism, accusing it of being fundamentally anti-Islamic and even polytheistic. Today although Sufis still constitute the bulk of world Muslims, and they are visible throughout the non-Muslim world as well, their belief system is under attack as never before.

Article

Mystics, Shamans, and Visionary Arts  

Marjorie Mandelstam Balzer

Diverse theories and cases are associated with artistic expression attributed to mystical experience. To showcase variety as well as underlying commonalties, the intersecting experiences of mystics, shamans, and visionary arts builds on understanding shamanic altered consciousness in multiple time periods, attunement to nature manifest through art and sacred sites, and modernist impulses beginning in the 20th century. Cases range from prehistoric cave paintings of Chauvet and Lascaux to contemporary shamanic rituals of Siberia, from oracles, amphitheaters, and firewalking in Ancient Greece to the calendrical mysteries of Egypt, Stonehenge, Crete, and Mesoamerica. The cosmology-saturated paintings of Wassily Kandinsky and the mystical mountains of Nicholas Roerich can be productively juxtaposed, since these artists created resonating movements of global followers. For deeper analysis, insights of artists, including poets and epic singers, into their creative processes can be combined with analytical literature on spirituality and visionary arts. Focus on roots of shamanic consciousness and on cases selected from cultural anthropology and art history shifts analysis away from famous examples of religious art within organized religions. Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, and Zoroastrian mystical traditions should be celebrated, but not at the expense of fluid and open-minded definitions of spirituality in the arts. This shifted gaze enables some conventional distinctions to be dissolved, for example, that between “art for art’s sake” and art that may result in individual and communal healing. In some interactive contexts of mystical artistic expression, distinctions between artists and their perceivers may also dissolve. In sum, mysticism and art are “eye of the beholder” phenomena. Experiences of mystics, shamans, and artists can be viewed as having significant interconnections without overgeneralizing about mysticism, shamanism, or the arts.

Article

New Spiritualities in Western Society  

Adam Possamai

Various social and cultural changes from modernity to late modernity have been key to the appearance and development of new spiritualities in Western society. The often-contested term of “new spiritualities” is often liked with other no less contested ones such as “mysticism,” “popular religion,” “the New Age,” and “new religious” movements. Further, if the expression new spiritualities or alternative spiritualities took off outside of institutionalized religions in the Western world, this term is now re-used by these institutions within their specific theology. As new spiritualities are becoming mainstream in the first quarter of the 21st century, they are having a low-key impact on post-secularism (i.e., a specific type of secularism characteristic of late modern societies).

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The Politics of Spirituality and Secularization in Western Modernity  

J. Brent Crosson

Contrary to many of the predictions of secularization theory, religion seems to be at the heart of political contests in avowedly secular nation-states. While religious identities seem to define many modern polities or political orientations, “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR) has arisen as a growing identification that eschews these forms of “organized religion.” The politics of the spiritual in contemporary worlds points toward neoliberal emphases on flexible labor and self-making, but also indexes a longer genealogy of the categories of religion and superstition in colonial contexts. From Reformation invectives against superstition to colonial regulations against superstitious practices, a history of the distinction between “true” and “false” religion has informed the more recent separation of spirituality from religion proper. Emerging in the 19th century, movements emphasizing personal spirituality in opposition to organized religion both extended post-Reformation visions of true religion while also adopting some of the very practices that European reformers had deemed false religion. To complicate matters further, the notion of religion that spirituality came to oppose also contradicted what scholars have deemed a “Protestant” theological bias in the formation of the modern category of religion. This bias asserts that personal dispositions rather than outward manifestations are the essence of religion, but the “organized religion” that spirituality opposes is defined precisely by outward manifestations of structure and power. In this way, spirituality both extends and rejects the contradictory poles of the modern category of religion as both the essence of community and an eminently personal affair. Spirituality does not simply foreground these shifting poles of religion and not-religion in the modern era, but also highlights contemporary transformations in the category of politics itself. The emphasis on personal experience and self-transformation in “spiritual but not religious” movements points toward a similarly therapeutic register in movements for restorative justice or human rights. No longer confined to the realm of collective contests for state power, contemporary politics often speaks in the psycho-juridical register of spirituality.

Article

Religious Syncretism and Art in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries  

Ori Soltes

Religious and cultural syncretism, particularly in visual art in the Jewish and Christian traditions since the 19th century, has expressed itself in diverse ways and reflects a broad and layered series of contexts. These are at once chronological—arising out of developments that may be charted over several centuries before arriving into the 19th and 20th centuries—and political, spiritual, and cultural, as well as often extending beyond the Jewish–Christian matrix. The specific directions taken by syncretism in art is also varied: it may be limited to the interweave of two religious traditions—most often Jewish and Christian—in which most often it is the minority artist seeking ways to create along lines consistent with what is created by the majority. It may also interweave three or more traditions. It may be a matter of religion alone, or it may be a matter of other issues, such as culture or gender, which may or may not be obviously intertwined with religion. The term “syncretism” has, in certain specifically anthropological and theological circles, acquired a negative connotation. This has grown out of the increasing consciousness, since the 1960s, of the political implications of that term in the course of Western history, in which hegemonic European Christianity has addressed non-Christian religious perspectives. This process intensified in the Colonial era when the West expanded its dominance over much of the globe. An obvious and particularly negative instance of this is the history of the Inquisition as it first affected Jews in late-15th-century Spain and later encompassed indigenous peoples in the Americas, Asia, and Africa. While this issue is noted—after all, art has always been interwoven with politics—it is not the focus of this article. Instead “syncretism” will not be treated as a concept that needs to be distinguished from “hybridization” or “hybridity,” although different modes of syncretism will be distinguished. Syncretistic preludes to visual artists in the 19th and 20th centuries, suggesting some of the breadth of possibility, include Pico della Mirandola, Kabir, and Baruch/Benedict Spinoza. Specific religious developments and crises in Europe from the 16th century to the 18th century brought on the emancipation of the Jews in some places on the one hand, and a contradictory continuation of anti-Jewish prejudice on the other, the latter shifting from a religious to a racial basis. This, together with evident paradoxes regarding secular and spiritual perspectives in the work of key figures in the visual arts, led to a particularly rich array of efforts from Jewish artists who revision Jesus as a subject, applying a new, Jewishly humanistic perspective to transform this most traditional of Christian subjects. Such a direction continued to spread more broadly across the 20th century. The Holocaust not only raised new visual questions and possibilities for Jewish artists, but also did so from the opposite direction for the occasional Christian—particularly German—artist. Cultural syncretism sometimes interweaves religious syncretism—which can connect and has connected Christianity or Judaism to Eastern religions—and a profusion of women artists in the last quarter of the century has added gender issues to the matrix. The discussion culminates with Siona Benjamin: a Jewish female artist who grew up in Hindu and Muslim India, attended Catholic and Zoroastrian schools, and has lived in America for many decades—all these aspects of her life resonate in her often very syncretistic paintings.

Article

The Revival of Yoga in Contemporary India  

Suzanne Newcombe

The word yoga refers to a multifaceted array of beliefs and practices. Yoga is twinned with sāṃkhya as one of the six orthodox darshanas (worldviews) of Hindu philosophy, with Patañjali’s Yogaśāstra having been codified by around the 5th century of the Common Era. A distinct body of texts known as the haṭhayoga corpus appears around the 11th century and emphasizes physical practices most likely used by ascetic communities. The ultimate aim of yoga is described by various words (e.g., kaivalya, samādhi, mokṣa, etc.); it is often described as an experience of an individual soul’s uniting with the divine, and/or becoming liberated from the material world. These historical precedents have continuities with contemporary yoga practices, and for many Indians today, yoga is understood as the essence of Indian spirituality. Yoga, however, took on new meanings in the late colonial period, becoming a mental, physical, and ethical discipline to aid in the struggle for an independent Indian nation state; a scientific, evidence-based practice to improve health and well-being; and a template for the evolution of an individual as well as humanity as a whole. At the same time, yoga kept an association with liberation and the realization of the ultimate nature of reality. In the early 21st century, all these meanings remain current in the Indian context, where yoga is continuing to experience a revival. In India, yoga is understood as a unique and valuable cultural resource that has the potential to revitalize both an individual’s health and the Indian nation-state, being an exemplar of the unique insights that Indian traditions can give to the rest of the world. Despite a notable shift in what is understood by yoga in the modern period, yoga continues to be a multivalent and increasingly popular practice in contemporary India.

Article

Rudolf Otto and the Concept of the Numinous  

Stuart Sarbacker

The contemporary academic study of religion has its roots in conceptual and theoretical structures developed in the early to mid-20th century. A particularly important example of such a structure is the concept of the “numinous” developed by the theologian and comparativist Rudolf Otto (1869–1397) in his work, The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-Rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and its Relation to the Rational (1923). Building on the work of Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), Friedrich Schleiermacher (1772–1834), and Jakob Fries (1773–1843), Otto developed the concept of the numinous—a “category of value” and a “state of mind”—as a way to express what he viewed as the “non-rational” aspects of the holy or sacred that are foundational to religious experience in particular and the lived religious life in general. For Otto, the numinous can be understood to be the experience of a mysterious terror and awe (Mysterium tremendum et fascinans) and majesty (Majestas) in the presence of that which is “entirely other” (das ganz Andere) and thus incapable of being expressed directly through human language and other media. Otto conceives of the concept of the numinous as a derivative of the Latin numen, meaning “spirit,” etymologically derived from the concept of divine will and represented by a “nodding” of the head. Otto argues that understanding the numinous in a satisfactory way requires a scholar to draw upon their own experience of religious sentiments, given its non-discursive and direct nature; this becomes a point of contention among later secular scholars of religion. In later works, such as Mysticism East and West: A Comparative Analysis of the Nature of Mysticism (1932), Otto gives numerous examples of the ways in which the concept of the numinous can be applied cross-culturally to traditions beyond Christianity, such as Hinduism and Buddhism. Otto’s theories regarding the numinous have been extremely influential in the development of the academic study of religion in the 20th and 21st centuries, as evidenced by the impact they had upon scholars such as Carl Jung, Mircea Eliade, and Ninian Smart, whose works were instrumental in the formation of religious studies as a discipline. Jung cites the concept of the numinous extensively with regard to his theories on the breakthrough of unconscious material into conscious awareness. Eliade’s work The Sacred and Profane: The Nature of Religion (1959) takes Otto’s concept of the numinous as a starting point in the development of its own theory; Eliade’s use of the category of the “sacred” might be considered derivative of Otto’s larger conception of the “holy” (das Heilige). Eliade’s work, like Otto’s, has been extensively criticized for postulating a sui generis nature of both the numinous and the sacred, which are viewed by Eliade as irreducible to other phenomena (historical, political, psychological, and so forth). Smart’s influential “dimensional analysis” theory and his scholarship on the topic of world religions is highly informed by his utilization of Otto’s theory of the numinous within the contexts of his cross-cultural reflections on religion and the development of his “two-pole” theory of religious experience. The concept of the numinous continues to be theorized about and applied in contemporary academic research in religious studies and utilized as part of a framework for understanding religion in university courses on world religions and other topics in the academic study of religion. In part through the work of Eliade, Smart, and other scholars—Otto included—who have found a popular readership, the term has been disseminated to such a degree as to find common usage in the English language and popular discourse.

Article

Scientific Approaches to Mysticism  

Stephen Kaplan

The title “Scientific Approaches to Mysticism” reveals half the task and belies the other half—namely, which of the sciences and whose mysticism are to be considered. Is it Capra’s tao of physics, Bohm’s holomovement of undivided wholeness, or Saver/Rabin’s limbic correlates of mystical ecstasy? Is it Freud’s psychoanalytic oneness of nursing at the breast, or Goodall’s evolutionary biology of mystical wonder? Numerous mystics have presented us with a cornucopia of mystical experiences, and many sciences have been employed to analyze mysticism. Any effort to create a singular scientific approach to an “imagined singular mysticism” is doomed to vagueness. Specifics matter, and they matter in the scientific approaches to mysticism. A scientific study of mysticism must first clarify what mysticism means—namely, a conscious experience in which one feels that the normal subject-object boundaries manifest in waking consciousness are altered, presenting a state of unity, union, or interrelationship. This definition of mysticism is broad enough to encompass nature mysticism, theistic I–Thou mysticism, and various forms of non-dualistic mysticisms ranging from experiences of the oneness of Being to the awareness of the emptiness of becoming. Each of these broad categories of mysticism must be refined by examining the particular tradition in which it manifests. As such, the scientific study of mysticism cannot assume, for example, that all Christian mystics, proclaiming the ultimacy of a personal communion with the Trinitarian god, are uttering the same thing, nor that non-dualistic mystics from different traditions, such as Christianity and Hinduism, are saying different things. The scientific study of mysticism must immediately confront the threat of reductionism, in which “mystical experience” is reduced to some elemental explanation such as, “it is only one’s brain.” This threat of scientific reductionism has long been elicited by the knowledge, for example, that the intake of drugs is correlated with mystical experience; more recently, this threat of reductionism has been intensified by the knowledge that we have machines that measure the neural patterns associated with individuals having mystical experiences, and we have machines that can allegedly induce mystical experiences. Stepping beyond the psychological, cognitive, and neuropsychological approaches to mysticism, the connections between mystical experience and physics have also been drawn. Relativity and quantum theories have become the hermeneutical tools to analyze and interpret the declarations of all sorts of mystical experiences. These studies of mysticism tend to present parallel explanations of the world. Evolutionary theory and biology also offer different angles of approach to the study of mysticism proposing explanations, for example, which relate mystical experience to the evolutionary chain of being or to techniques for transcending present limitations.

Article

Spirituality  

Louise Nelstrop

This article details spirituality and the three main approaches that are found in academic and popular literature—theological, historical-contextual, and anthropological. It traces the etymology of the term and how thinking on it has developed. It offers carefully chosen case studies that show its use in the anthropological approach—the largest and fastest growing category.

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Spirituality and Contemporary Art  

Rina Arya

The artworks under discussion detail the scope and breadth of art that can be described as spiritual by virtue of its revelatory, revitalizing and contemplative capacities. Rather than interrogating the relationship between art and religion, more pertinent questions in the contemporary age are: What is the nature of the dialogue between art and spirituality, how do the two come together, and what form does the meeting take? The range of multimedia brings novel forms of encounter that occur outside the gallery and other spaces and involve audio-visual and other means of articulating the spiritual. These new forms make different demands on viewers; they create greater intimacy (often through immersion), both physically and psychologically, and one of the consequences of having greater intimacy can be a heightened awareness that increases presentness and a sense of embodiment. What we learn is that there are potentially as many interpretations of spirituality as there are viewers.

Article

Sufism in the Modern World  

Marcia Hermansen

Sufism, the mystical expression of the Islamic tradition, has been for centuries a major cultural, social, political, and, of course, religious influence in diverse Muslim cultures. With modernity Sufism has been subjected to increased criticism, and in some cases repression and violent hostility, on the part of certain Muslim opponents. From another direction, secularizing reformers such as President Kemal Atatürk (d. 1937) of Turkey view Sufism as a repository of decadent behaviors and superstitions that are incompatible with modern values and rationality. It is also noteworthy that, in response to internal and external reactions to violent extremism especially post-9/11, political leaders in Muslim majority countries such as Morocco and Pakistan have attempted to promote Sufism as a potentially moderating and peaceful influence and therefore encouraged it in their societies. This approach has also been promoted by Western political interests that present Sufism as a moderating counter to violent extremism. These latter examples highlight the importance of the modern nation-state as it engages with Sufism and its institutions, especially in the postcolonial period. Pre-modern forms of Sufism emphasized pledging allegiance (bay‘a) to a spiritual master and affiliating with a Sufi order (Arabic: ṭarīqa, pl. ṭuruq). Being part of a Sufi order was thus a communal, as well as a personal, commitment, and the hierarchy and sense of belonging they entailed led the orders to play an important social, and in some cases, political role. With modernity, esoteric elements of Sufi thought, as well as traditional folk practices of making vows and faith healing, along with earlier social forms of clientage and patronage, have become less relevant in increasingly urban environments. Some scholars of Sufism have therefore characterized the modern era as a time of decline and degeneration in Sufi social and political influence, as well as in Sufi intellectual production and literary and artistic creativity. However, expectations that Sufism is on the wane are challenged by observations of how Sufis have adapted to changing circumstances in modernity, both in Muslim-majority societies and in the West. For example, some scholars document a Sufi renewal involving the rise of charismatic teachers and practices and the reach of new global networks. Sufi teachings are promoted through Internet sites and social media, while today’s Sufi teachers may draw on 20th century Western psychological frameworks to explain the spiritual and therapeutic impact of Sufi practices on individuals. Meanwhile Sufi ideas are disseminated to broader publics through music videos, conferences, and other cultural events, such that Sufism in these new configurations continues to inspire significant, if more diffuse, loyalties, both locally and globally. In an age of networking and social mobility, flows of individuals and ideas have created new transnational spheres for the influence and impact of Sufism. At the same time local conditions vary considerably in shaping its diverse contemporary expressions and adaptations.

Article

Varieties of Spirituality: A Western Philosophical Analysis  

Joseph Kirby

In works like What Is Ancient Philosophy and Philosophy as a Way of Life, French classicist Pierre Hadot argues that, in the ancient world, the word philosopher was used primarily to refer to people who transformed their way of living through spiritual practices—and not, as in the modern world, to someone devoted to the reading and writing of specifically philosophical texts. Along similar lines, in You Must Change Your Life, German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk argues that the concept of religion should be replaced by a concept of spiritual practice, or anthropotechnics, the regimens of spiritual training whereby human beings strive to shape themselves through repetitive actions. Importantly, both of these thinkers are attempting to revive spiritual practice not only as scholarly concept but also as a living exhortation, for human beings to once again take up the crucible of disciplined self-transformation. That being said, the ancient understanding of spiritual practice remains radically different from the way spiritual practice manifests for a contemporary thinker like Sloterdijk. This difference, in turn, stems from a profound disagreement concerning the nature of reality itself. Generally speaking, ancient philosophers understood reality to be fundamentally harmonious, peaceful, and good—and within this vision, spiritual practice was understood in terms of reconnecting to this fundamental goodness. In modern thought, by contrast, reality is generally understood to be fundamentally violent, chaotic, and ultimately indifferent to human flourishing—and within this alternative view, spiritual practice is then understood in terms of the cultivation of self-control, as part of a larger cultural project to transform the indifferent natural world into a comfortable human home. As for ancient spiritual practice and its concomitant cosmology, these are criticized from the modern perspective as being nothing more than a flight into illusion, motivated by terror at the as-yet-uncontrolled world of nature. If the modern critique of ancient spiritual practice begins with a critique of cosmology, the ancient critique of modern cosmology would begin from the opposite side of the spectrum, with a critique of modern spiritual practice. More precisely, the ancient practitioner would argue that modern cosmology is actually the result of a flawed approach to spiritual training. This critique turns on the location of what Hadot calls practical physics within the ancient curriculum of spiritual development. In short, the widespread historical narrative, whereby the infinite depths of space and time only became thinkable after Copernicus and Galileo, is actually not true; people have been contemplating the way human life appears from the perspective of the infinite abyss for thousands of years, and the moral upshot of this practical physics was the same in the ancient world as it is now: to inculcate a sense of humility, shared vulnerability, and universal human solidarity. In the ancient world, however, this perspective was not seen as the single, scientific truth of the human condition, but rather was understood as an imaginative spiritual exercise. Moreover, this exercise was itself set within a larger curriculum of training that began with the practice of selfless moral discipline. This is because the ego-dissolution that arises from this “view from infinity” can be spiritually dangerous, leading to a sense of fatalism or even nihilism—the idea that the only good is the power to ensure our own pleasure and survival within a fundamentally meaningless universe. According to the ancient philosophers, however, this conclusion, and the abyss of terror, as well as the sense of ontological despair often experienced by modern people, would be the logical results of an incorrect approach to spiritual training: namely, the precocious dissolution of the ego in the infinite, but without the preliminary cultivation of a relatively selfless ego that can peacefully endure its own dissolution. By the terms of this ancient curriculum, meanwhile, the proper pursuit of these two sides of spiritual life—moral selflessness and self-dissolution—would eventually give way to the experiences that Neoplatonists referred to with the word metaphysics, and which 3rd-century theologian Origen describes in terms of the experience of infinite love.

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Visualization in Hindu Practice  

Sthaneshwar Timalsina

Broadly, visualization stands for a specific mode of imagination in which certain objects or concepts are “viewed as” or “viewed in light of” something else. In the religious context, something is “discovered” as the sacred in the process of visualization. In essence, what constitutes an object or image as sacred is the way this entity is encountered through visualization: it is this act that provides a surplus of value to the entity. When we visualize something, we activate multiple cognitive mechanisms and the added meaning is gained through metonymic and metaphoric structures. The new value of an entity or the discovery of new meaning is often a consequence of the blend of the existing inputs. Historically, ritualized visualization evolved in the Hindu context alongside the Vedic rituals and later became a central feature of everyday Hinduism. Tantric traditions in particular utilize visualization to gain greater access to the mechanism of the mind. Studying visualization thus not only reveals how an imaginative life meshes with reality in constituting the sacred, but it also demonstrates the power of imagination in transforming everyday reality.