Posted February 21, 2003
The Foundations of Islamic Religious Experience
by Father Renard, S.J.
Taken From Spirituality Today
Father Renard, S.J., received his Ph.D. in Islamic studies in 1978 from Harvard University. Since
then he has been teaching at St. Louis University in the Department of Theological Studies and
part-time in the Department of Art and Art History.
As we approach the twenty-first century, few challenges loom larger in the search for justice and
world peace than the achievement of mutual understanding among nations, cultures, and
religious traditions. For people who profess faith in a sovereign God, few responsibilities are
more urgent than that of moving toward a sympathetic appreciation of other faiths. The more our
world grows, the more rapidly it seems to shrink, so that we must at the very least learn to cope
with the fact of diminishing religious and cultural elbowroom.
One of the increasingly visible features on the international landscape is the religion known as
Islam, with its nearly three-quarters of a billion adherents. A major question for Christians with
respect to Islam is this: How can we begin to learn about so massive and expansive a
phenomenon without resorting to the convenient but unjust stereotypes one hears so often,
caricatures that amount to little more than a new form of religious bigotry or racism?
Three more specific questions present themselves. First, what do Muslims have in common with
other avowedly religious people across the world? Second, how do Muslims define themselves
as a distinct community of faith unique among religions? And third, what possibilities for
spiritual growth has Islam offered historically to the individual believer? The image of a spiritual
journey will provide a framework within which to respond to these questions.
As citizens of the world, Muslims discern God's signs in nature, the broad terrain on which they
journey. As members of a unique community of faith, they discover God's signs preeminently in
their scripture, the Qur'an, and in their history; this scripture and history map out for them the
main road, the "straight way." As individual believers, Muslims look for God's signs within
themselves, where the signs mark off the path each person must walk before God. In all three
instances the signs are illumined by the light of God's all-encompassing revelation. Believers
strive to respond to that revelation by taking one more step across the terrain of creation, down
the "straight way" of Islam's special history, and along the path of personal sanctification and
self-knowledge, all in a journey back to the Lord of the universe.(1)
Both the imagery of God's threefold revelation and that of journey and light are rooted in the
Qur'an. "We will show them Our signs on the horizons and in their very selves, until it becomes
clear to them that it is the Truth" (41:53). And: "On the earth there are signs for those of firm
faith, and in your very selves. Will you not then see?" (51:20-21). In addition, the Arabic term
that is used for "verse" of scripture (ayah) also means "sign," thus suggesting that the Qur'an also
is one great sign replete with more specific signs. In response to each of the three questions I
have posed above, I will introduce further texts of the Qur'an that unite all three elements of the
imagery of journey, sign, and light.
If readers are willing to accept the possibility that God has spoken, and continues to speak, to
human beings who are not Christians, let them read on. My premise here is that, for reasons
known only to the Creator, God has desired to make his word known to a faith community
whose members call themselves Muslims. He is not some "other" God who speaks Arabic,
Persian, Turkish, and a host of other tongues which Muslims speak all over the globe. For the
Arabic word Allah simply means "God," the very Deity to whom we pray.
Now to the first question: How do Muslims perceive and respond to God's signs on the horizons?
SIGNS ON THE HORIZONS
Behold, in the heavens and the earth are signs for those who believe. And in your creation, and
all the wild creatures He has scattered over the earth, are signs for a people of firm faith. And the
alternation of night and day, and the sustenance that God sends down from the sky, quickening
thereby the earth after her death, and the ordering of the winds -- these are signs for a people
who understand. (Qur'an 45:3-5)
Divine revelation in nature appears in Islam's scripture as the "terrain" on which the journey of
humanity takes place, the heavens and the earth as alluded to in the word horizons. Human
response at this level we may characterize as a universal or cosmic experience expressed in a
creation -- inspired language and system of symbols that describe the journey of all creation
from God and back to God. According to an Islamic tradition, called a "Sacred Saying," God
once said: "I was a hidden treasure and I desired to be known, so I created the world." In that
world all nonhuman creatures are essentially "muslim" in that they "surrender" to God by their
very nature. Human beings must make the choice as to whether they will surrender.
Once they choose to submit and respond gratefully (thus becoming muslims through their
response of "islam", human beings rather naturally express their response in ritual and symbol
that are at once common to other religious traditions and also distinctively Islamic. In
themselves these practices are not uniquely Islamic, but they bear an Islamic stamp to the extent
that they are integral to the faith-response of a community explicitly gathered by God's
revelation as delivered through Muhammad in the Qur'an. This aspect of Islamic religious
experience we will take up in the next segment of this discussion. For now, let us look at some
of the ritual and symbolic ways in which Muslims express their response to the "signs on the
Fasting is a nearly universal religious practice. Each year, during the lunar month of Ramadan
(movable in relation to our calendar), Muslims break their regular life-patterns by abstaining
from food and drink from dawn to sunset each day, a period that averages fifteen to seventeen
hours. The discipline of refraining from creation's means of sustenance is a reminder of one's
greater need of God, a need that even creation itself cannot fill. It presupposes that one is also
refraining from forbidden words and actions and thoughts, such as envy or hatred. Compassion
for those who habitually suffer from hunger, greater ability to go against one's own less noble
tendencies, and the removal of obstacles in one's relationship to the Creator are among the most
desired effects of the fast.
Almsgiving likewise is commonly practiced among religious people the world over. Muslims
have the conviction that creation is not a permanent possession, but merely given to humankind
as a "loan." That conviction prompts the response of sharing God's own wealth. Muslims "give
God a loan" in return and seek to steward creation by giving freely what they have freely
received. The root meaning of the word for almsgiving in Arabic, zakat, is "to purify oneself," in
the sense that one must strive never to lay claim to what belongs only to God. One must not
"overflow one's banks" by imagining he or she is the source or owner of created goods.
Almsgiving is therefore meant not to give a person the good feeling of being generous, but to
remind the Muslim of who first gave all to him or her.
Before each of the five daily prayers, Muslims perform a ritual ablution. It is another facet of the
purification that almsgiving presupposes. The action involves the use of that universal symbol of
cleansing -- water. But if water is not available, one may use sand or pebbles. The important
thing is to make use of some earthy object as a physical reminder of the overall, inner and outer,
purification that is itself an integral part of a proper relationship with God and his creation.
Daily ritual prayer with its orientation toward Mecca is another way of expressing a right
relationship to the created world. Mecca is a symbolic axis of the world, a spiritual center, the
meeting place of heaven and earth from which all creation radiates. Orientation to one of the
cardinal points of the compass or to a particular "spiritual center" (such as Jerusalem in Judaism,
for example) is evidenced in many major religious traditions. When Muslims pray together on
Friday at noon, or whenever they gather in a mosque for congregational prayer, they express
their right relationship with each other by lining up in rows as they face Mecca. Finally, the five
daily ritual prayers sanctify time as well as space, as a round of concrete reminders that morning,
noon, and night are a gift of God.
Pilgrimage to Mecca, ideally to be made once in a lifetime if one possesses good health and
sufficient means, is meant to acknowledge the unity and absolute equality of all. It is the symbol
par excellence of the journey of God's people back to the source. Including such rituals as
change of garb and cutting of hair, the journey gives physical expression to the need for a change
of heart and mind. Pilgrim goals vary from one religion to another, but they are all symbolic of
the journey to the center of creation.
According to Qur'an 6:39, "those who reject Our Signs are deaf and dumb and in profound
darkness. God allows to go astray whom He will, and He places on the Straight Way whom He
will." One of the Qur'an's most beautiful images provides both a background and a foreground
against which to appreciate the Muslim response to signs on the horizons:
God is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The likeness of His Light is as a Niche [the symbol
of orientation to Mecca on the back wall of every mosque, as well as a symbol of the human
heart] in which there is a lamp. The lamp is within a glass which is like a shining star enkindled
from a blessed olive tree, neither of East nor West, whose oil would glow almost of itself even if
no fire touched it. Light upon Light! And God guides to His Light whom He will. (Qur'an 24:35)
THE QUR'AN AS SIGN
These are the signs [verses] of the clear Scripture. We have sent it down as an Arabic Qur'an.
Perhaps you will understand. (Qur'an 12:1-2)
Muslims believe, as do Christians, that the most significant events in human history are precisely
those events that define their history. If the "signs on the horizons" describe the terrain in which
God reveals himself, the historical fact of the Qur'an as revealed to Muhammad between 610 and
632 is for Muslims the opening to the main road on which they as a community journey. "Lead
us along the Straight Way," Muslims pray five times daily and on the many other occasions
when they recite the opening chapter of the Qur'an. One might describe Muslims' response to
God's revelation in "an Arabic Qur'an" as a communitarian experience expressed in a
confessional (or kerygmatic) language and symbol-system. Their experience is that of being
Muslims in a world where most people are not. Terms of membership are definitive; although
there is a good deal of latitude in practice, for we are talking about a tradition that crosses many
ethnic and cultural boundaries, they call for a deliberate choice either for or against
How do Muslims define themselves as a unique community of faith? What is distinctively
Islamic about Islam? Reduced to the most fundamental terms, to be a Muslim is to adhere to
God's revelation in the Qur'an as spoken by the Prophet Muhammad. "We have sent a Messenger
into your midst and from among you, to recite [that is, make a Qur'an, a recitation] to you Our
Signs . . . and to teach you the Book and Wisdom" (Qur'an 2:151). But if the matter were all that
simple, I would probably not have written this article, and surely no one would be reading it.
History has a way of making life enormously complicated.
During the course of nearly fourteen centuries, Islam has come to embrace a remarkable variety
of cultural and ethnic entities. As the world of Islam expanded, it became more and more
evident to Muslims that neither the text of the Qur'an, nor the paradigmatic words and deeds of
Muhammad enshrined in the community's collective memory, corresponded item for item with
the new issues that surfaced with changing times and circumstances. Therefore, the two prime
sources of Islamic tradition, the scripture and the Prophetic Example (called the Sunnah in
Arabic), had to be adapted and reinterpreted continually. Islam's religious history is the
composite story of how those adaptations and reinterpretations have unfolded.
In order to appreciate something of the Islamic experience of unity in diversity, it will be
necessary to explore some of the implications of Muslims' evolving understandings, first, of the
Prophet Muhammad and the issue of leadership and authority as it arose after the Prophet's
death; and, second, of the Qur'an and the problems attendant on the need to implement it in daily
Islamic life. I shall introduce each of these considerations with an appropriate text from the
Qur'an, so as to situate both the Prophet and the Qur'an in the context of our journey, sign, and
light imagery. We turn, then, to the role of the Prophet and the question of community
He [God] is the One Who sends manifest Signs to His servants, that He might lead you from the
depths of darkness into the Light .... O you who believe! Be mindful of your duty to trust in His
Messenger, and He will bestow on you a double portion of His Mercy: He will provide for you a
Light by which you shall walk and He will forgive you .... (Qur'an 57:9 and 28)
It was one thing to trust in God's messenger while he lived; it was yet another to know whom to
trust as Muhammad's successor. Muhammad's death thrust the young Muslim community into a
protracted debate over the criteria of legitimate succession, a debate that gave rise to a diversity
of opinion that would also have serious implications for the practical implementation of Qur'anic
legislation, as we shall see shortly.
According to sources compiled as much as two or three centuries after the Prophet's death in
632, two predominant approaches to the problem of succession emerged. One group held that
the Prophet had named his son-in-law Ali to be his caliph ("successor," "vicar"). The other,
convinced that Muhammad had made no such appointment, opted for an elective procedure. Abu
Bakr, Muhammad's father-in-law, emerged as their choice. Ensuing developments are much too
involved to detail here. In brief, the group that supported Ali came to be known as the Shi'ah
(that is, party) of Ali. Those who backed Abu Bakr formed the nucleus of what is known now as
the "People of the Sunnah and the Assembly," or the Sunni Muslims.
The distinction between Sunni and Shiite is not the only mark of diversity within Islam. Within
each of these groups there are significant subdivisions. I will mention the most important
variations among Sunnis shortly, in the context of variant interpretations of the Qur'an. Here I
would like to give a brief sketch of the two principal Shiite groups.
Major differences between the two largest segments of Shiite Islam crystalized around the
second half of the eighth century. Until that time, both agreed that the authority to lead the
community was vested in a hereditary succession of six descendants of Muhammad, beginning
with Ali. In 765, the sixth Imam, or spiritual leader, died; and a dispute arose over who would be
his legitimate heir. One group pledged allegiance to the sixth Imam's older son, even though he
had died before his father did. They effectively terminated the official line of succession with
this seventh Imam, and hence are known as "Seveners" (or Isma'ilis, after the seventh Imam,
Isma'il). The Seveners are now found, for example, in East Africa, Pakistan, and India, and are
headed by the Agha Khan.
A second faction chose to follow the man whom the sixth Imam designated after the death of
Isma'il. This faction continued the line of succession down to the disappearance of the twelfth
Imam in 873. Hence, they are now known as the "Twelvers." They constitute the vast majority of
the population of Iran and about half that of Iraq. Shi'ism has been Iran's state religion since the
sixteenth century. For both the Seveners and the Twelvers, religious experience has been
decidedly millenialist. A strong messianic hope awaits the return of the last Imam (either the
seventh or the twelfth), who will inaugurate a new age in which all believers will benefit from
the Imam's redemptive suffering and that of the whole family of the Prophet. However, to say
that Shiite spirituality is very much involved with the concept of redemptive suffering is not to
say that Shiites are motivated by some sort of "martyr complex," as the news media have often
alleged in recent years. "Martyr complex" simply does not do justice to the willingness people
have shown, in many ages and in many religious traditions, to die for what they believe in.
What I have said thus far is but a superficial glance at some immensely intricate historical
developments; but we must move on to consider the Qur'an.
It is not fitting that God should speak to a human being except by inspiration [a technical term
used for the revelation given to a prophet], or from behind a veil, or by the sending of a
Messenger to reveal, by God's leave, what God wills .... And thus We have, by Our command,
sent an inspiration to you [Muhammad]. You knew not what the Scripture was, nor what the
Faith was. But We have made it [the Qur'an] a Light by which We guide such servants of Ours as
We will. And truly you [Muhammad] guide them to the Straight Way, the Way of God, to Whom
belongs whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on earth .... (Qur'an 52:51-53)
The light of the Qur'an's guidance is the primary touchstone against which Muslims must judge
the authenticity of their faith and action. Some texts of the scripture provide explicit regulations
regarding matters of personal and social morality as well as ritual. But the Qur'an is not
primarily a legislative handbook. Very early in Islamic history, local communities faced issues
on which the book gave no specific ruling. The most pressing problem for the community was
then, as now, how to interpret the sacred text in such a way as to preserve its spirit and still
respond to new needs.
From about the late seventh century, the community as a whole began elaborating various
interpretative principles and procedures. Schools of thought, each with its own peculiar
emphasis on one or another aspect of legal reasoning, began to take shape. All agreed that the
Qur'an and the Prophetic Example (Sunnah) were fundamental; but the schools differed in the
relative stress they placed on community or scholarly consensus, private opinion, and analogical
reasoning. By the end of the ninth century several distinct and formally constituted legal
methodologies had come into being. Today, Sunni Muslims consider the four extant schools --
the Malikite, Hanifite, Hanbalite, and Shafi'ite -- equally acceptable and "orthodox." More than
one school may be found in a given Islamic country, but one generally predominates; for
example, Morocco, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Indonesia are dominated, respectively, by the
schools listed above. In cases for which no explicit solution can be found either in the Qur'an or
in the Sayings of Muhammad (Hadith), the Sunni schools usually leave the final decision to
scholarly or community consensus, rather than to the judgment of an individual legal authority.
Shi'ites, who do not recognize the Sunni schools of law, vest overriding legal competence in
some individual whom they consider to be divinely sanctioned by reason of a spiritual-genealogical link to Muhammad, via the descendants of Ali.
The point I want to make is that Islam is not now, and never has been, the monolithic religion
many outsiders have thought it to be. For although the historic revelation of the "straight way"
demands an exclusive commitment to a single and unique community of faith, the meaning of
that original call has for many centuries been variously interpreted. Hence, it is neither fair nor
accurate to equate Khomeini's approach to Islam with that of Sadat, or that of Qaddafi with that
of Pakistani President Ziya al-Haqq or Wallace D. Muhammad, a leading figure in the World
Community of Islam in the West.
All things considered, we may say that the Islamic religious experience of God's signs in the
historic scripture, revealed through the historic personage Muhammad, has been mediated
through the community's ongoing experience of reinterpretation as required to keep the spirit of
both the primordial revelation and the paradigmatic leader alive and growing.
SIGNS WITHIN THE INDIVIDUAL
On the terrain of creation, God lays open the main road of the Muslim community's unique and
exclusive history. Believers discover and set out on that road in the company of others. But
Islamic tradition has not denied the individual person either the right and exhilaration or the
requirement and risk of exploring and journeying alone before God. Community supports the
individual's desire to acknowledge God's signs, for God has created an affection between the
hearts of believers such as all the riches on earth could never effect (Qur'an 8:63); but the choice
must be made and renewed in the solitary heart.(4)
The individual experiences the light of faith, which God casts into the core of his or her being, as
a personalized gift, often articulated in mystical language and symbol-system. The expression is
"mystical" in the sense that it describes, in Hodgson's definition of mysticism, an "inward
personal experience, more or less transitory as an event but enduring in relevance, which is felt
to express or lead to a special authoritative and normative relation between individual and
cosmos."(5) The term includes much more than ecstatic experience, but it does not rule out
experiences that are usually associated with the "great mystics" of any religious tradition.
An important and sometimes controversial element in Islamic tradition has been the Sufi Path.
Although Sufism has witnessed the development of a great variety of formally constituted
religious orders, the Sufi Path is not itself an institution. It is the personal counterpart to the
main road of the revealed law (called the Shariah) which circumscribes the Islamic community
as a whole. Both in the more technical handbooks on Sufi doctrine and practice and in the
intensely personal poetry of some of Islam's "great mystics," the individual appears as a wayfarer
on a course designed uniquely for him or her. It is the journey of a love relationship between
servant and Master, creature and Creator. Authors of Sufi manuals elaborated a number of
psychospiritual typologies to describe the various "stations" and "stages" along the path. But they
all agree that intimate knowledge of God is the crucial ingredient in the experience. (I must
point out here that I know of no clear connection between classical forms of Islamic Sufism and
the "Sufi Numbers" or "Enneagrams" that have gained some popularity in recent years.)
Guidance along the path comes ultimately from God, as does the community's guidance along
the main road. Sometimes, however, the wayfarer needs counsel tailored to individual
temperament and gifts. The theory and practice of spiritual direction in Islam are highly
developed. That topic would require its own treatment elsewhere; but it is definitely a matter we
Christians, and especially Catholic religious, could very profitably explore. Muslims not
formally affiliated with religious orders, as well as members of orders, have sought and received
spiritual direction from a shaykh (spiritual guide) either in person or by letter. Some of the
material needed for a thorough study of the subject is beginning to be made available, and there
is much more still to be edited and translated.
Sufism's emphasis on individual religious experience, on the ability to recognize and interpret
the "signs within the self," has had considerable influence on the broader range of Islamic
popular piety. Whether for good or ill, the growing popularity and esteem of certain early Sufi
shaykhs soon transformed some of them into saints in the eyes of the people. A cult of the saints
grew up, often encouraging pilgrimages to a holy person's tomb in the hope of receiving boons
and miracles of all kinds. Sunni Islam has never officially sanctioned the cult of the saints the
way Shi'ite Islam has recognized popular reverence at the tombs of the Imams, but both
devotional practices appear very much a part of popular piety and are probably here to stay for a
What I have proposed here is a synthetic model. Nowhere do the primary Islamic sources
analyze Islamic religious experience precisely this way. This model is therefore a reconstruction;
but the materials -- the language and imagery of journey, sign, and light -- are Islamic in
inspiration. So long as one is aware of the limitations inherent in such models, they can be
drafted appropriately into service as vehicles for cross-cultural understanding. Even so, the
reader may as yet see no realistic way of setting out on the journey described in these pages. It
may seem impossibly compromising, perhaps bordering on an outright betrayal of one's
allegiance to Christianity. In the sequel to this article I will offer some reflections as to how
twentieth-century Christians can go forth on this journey, knowing that, although it is not
without its terrors, it will also have rewards as yet untold.
In his The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1975), Marshall G. S. Hodgson has suggested a three-part model for
understanding Islamic religious experience. He describes three "components in devotional
religious experience and behavior." Here I have amplified his scheme, associating the
components with foundational texts from the Qu'ran and integrating the components with the
Qu'ran's imagery of journey, sign, and light. As Hodgson says of the three components, they "are
not mutually exclusive -- indeed, they presuppose each other -- but they mark different moments
of spiritual experience. Each of these components [corresponding to the three questions I have
posed] may be determinative in a devotional tradition, or even in an individual devotional life,
and the other two subordinate to it; and to the extent that it is so, that component determines the
overall mode of the devotional experience and behavior" (vol. 1, p. 363).
What follows corresponds to Hodgson's "paradigm-tracing" component, in which "ultimacy is
sought in enduring cosmic patterns, in recurrent nature (including social nature)" (vol. 1, p. 363).
At this level, Islamic religious experience may be said to include features common to all
"religious experience," such as a sense of sacred space and time, the use of rites of purification,
natural symbols, myth, and so forth. A phenomenological approach to the study of religion might
be inclined to describe Islam entirely in such terms.
Hodgson's "kerygmatic" component, in which "ultimacy is sought in irrevocable datable events,
in history with its positive moral commitments" (vol. 1, p. 363). Whereas the first component
relates to the level at which a member of any religious tradition can recognize experiences
shared with virtually every other religious person on earth, the second refers to the experience of
belonging to a specific confessional community. In this instance the community is that of Islam
with its historical beginnings in the Qu'ran and the forging of a body of believers who pledged
their exclusive allegiance to one another. This is a component perhaps more important in the
prophetic monotheistic traditions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) than in religions such as
Hinduism and Buddhism, though adherents to the latter also experience themselves as members
of a more or less clearly defined community of faith.
This relates to Hodgson's "mystical" component, in which "ultimacy is sought in subjective
inward awarenesses, in maturing selfhood" (vol. 1, p. 364). Non-Muslims often assume that
Islam is a mass-religion in which the individual founders in a sea of predetermination. That
assumption is based on a caricature of Islam, a view that regards the "God of Islam" as a despot
whose autocratic whims and arbitrary exercise of omnipotence make smoking stubble of human
choice and responsibility. God does not despise the individual; for it is the individual Muslim
who must make the choice of belief or infidelity and, in the end, account for that choice. Muslim
writers in modern times have been increasingly attentive to the issues of human freedom and
Ibid., vol. 1, p. 396.