Sunday, October 23, 2005

Religion, Deen, Authenticity, Experience . . .

Let us begin with the word "religious." There are a number of ways in which this word can be understood.

For example, in one sense, the ‘religious’ concerns any belief system which, on the one hand, reflects upon the meaning of existence vis-a-vis human beings, as well as in conjunction with the rest of the universe, and, then, on the other hand, speaks about the nature of the link between the parties of the first part with ‘Reality’ in some absolute sense of this latter referent. Often, a word such as "God" or "Jehovah" or "Yahweh" or "Allah" (or many other possibilities) is used to name this Reality, but such a word is not absolutely necessary as long as there is an understanding that there is some essential or fundamental Ground which not only underwrites the existence of the universe and the inhabitants of that universe but which has some sort of relationship with the universe that has been established - a relationship which stands in need of critical explication either through philosophical, scientific, psychological, sociological, anthropological, and/or theological disciplines.

There is, yet, another sense of the ‘religious’, however, which, initially at least, is not primarily about belief systems per se. Instead, paramount importance is placed on the role which phenomenology or the experiential has in revealing various levels of non-conceptually mediated connectedness between the physically observable universe and the whole of Reality.

In this latter approach to the religious, the rational mind plays, at best, a secondary and after-the-fact role. In fact, within the perspective of this second broad approach to the ‘religious’, the rational mind needs to be transformed and brought into harmonious alignment with much more essential faculties of knowing and understanding.

In this latter approach to the ‘religious’, there may be post-experiential attempts to gauge the meaning, purpose, value, or significance of some given aspect of phenomenology which appears to have trans-rational, non-ordinary, and essentially transformational currents running through such an experiential field, but these attempts at reconstruction are derivative and not always to be trusted as being accurately reflective of what actually is going on in the realm of phenomenology.

Both of the previous senses of the ‘religious’ are from the human side of things. In other words, whether one approaches the ‘religious’ primarily in terms of a "belief system" or in terms of phenomenological encounters with the ‘Real’, or some combination of these two modalities of engagement, we are talking about what human beings are thinking or experiencing about their link with Being considered as some sort of whole, all inclusive, totality of possibility.

There is a third sense of the ‘religious’ which is not human-centered but Real-centered. In this sense of the ‘religious’, how human beings think about, or feel toward, or believe in, or interpret, or experientially engage existence takes a back seat to the way things actually are, and the task becomes a matter of realizing, according to capacity, the truth of ‘what is’.

In Islam generally, and the Sufi Path, in particular, this process of Real-centered, staged, realization is known as "Deen". Deen is the process of discovering the essential nature of our being, and the term which is used in relation to this essential nature is "fitra".

Deen is not ‘religious’ in either of the first two senses of this latter term. That is, Deen is not a belief system, nor is it something which places primary emphasis on experiences or phenomenology of a certain kind. Deen is a process of taking or guiding one back to, and bringing to fruition, original, essential nature.

Systems of belief may spring up in relation to Deen, and, as well, there may be certain kinds of non-ordinary, trans-rational phenomenology which are experienced while engaged in the ‘way of deen’, but neither of these is synonymous with Deen, nor can ‘Deen’ be reduced down to being functions of either, or both, of these senses of the ‘religious’, or some combination thereof.

"Religion" and "religious" are man-made words serving human purposes - sometimes doing so in a useful fashion and sometimes doing so in a problematic fashion. Both of these words carry a great deal of conceptual, emotional, and historical baggage, and, as a result, this tends to interfere with coming to understand the nature of either ‘Deen’ or ‘fitra’ from the perspective of the ‘Real’.

Consequently, to try to equate Sufism with "authentic religious experience" may not put us as much on the ‘right’ track as some authors might suppose. At the very least, the notion of the ‘religious’ needs to be properly qualified along the lines suggested above.

Now, lets take a look at the word "authentic." a phrase the certain authors offer as something which may be synonymous with the meaning of "Sufism". To begin with, "authentic" is a term which implies there is a standard or set of standards through which the character of something can be judged as being "authentic" ... as opposed to being ‘inauthentic’.

There are several ways to approach this question of standards. For instance, one could set forth some set of criteria that is to be used in differentiating the authentic from the inauthentic, and this would require, in turn, a discussion of why one set of criteria was selected rather than some other such set.

Another possibility is to begin with the contention that every experience is "authentic". In other words, in as much as experiences are lived by someone, they are, in some sense, links to what is, or part of what is, or expressions of what is, and, consequently, all experiences constitute potential clues in any given individual’s attempt to try to understand what the significance or meaning of such experience is.

This way of looking at things assumes that irrespective of what one takes to be the ultimate nature of life or truth or reality, nevertheless, all experience - no matter how trivial or exalted, no matter how sordid or noble - has value because all experiences generate data which can be used for reflection, inquiry, exploration, critical analysis, and so on, concerning the nature of existence. This shifts the focus away from the issue of "authenticity" and, instead, directs attention toward the challenge of trying to uncover the meaning and/or purpose and/or significance of our experience - whatever that experience may be.

All experience has the capacity to teach. The question, then, becomes whether, or not, we will learn what experience has to tell us about ourselves and the universe in which we rooted.

Earthly existence is constrained by two outer boundary markers - birth and death. In between these two boundary markers is a journey of experience which, according to the Sufi masters, will either take one toward realizing what is at the heart of this journey, or will lead one away from this sort of realization.

In this context, guidance becomes a matter of assisting an individual to work toward developing a sense of discernment concerning experience and, therefore, how to evaluate this experiential realm in terms both of what will bring one closer to the aforementioned realization as well as what will generate problems, confusion, obstacles, and so on with respect to the issue of realization. All experience is authentic, and all experience is valuable, but one needs to be able to evaluate experience in terms of its ability to assist or hinder essential realization concerning the journey of life.

Sufi shaykhs work with a person wherever that individual may be within her or his journey of experience. They don’t tell the person that such-and-such an experience is authentic or inauthentic - rather, they say that all of the individuals experiences are authentic, and, then, proceed to help the individual understand just what they are authentic expressions of ... the lower self, the body, the world, the spirit, satanic suggestion, the heart, this condition, that stage, this state, that problem, and so on.

The Sufi path is a very long journey. If one had to wait just for the possible experiences of essential realization before labeling something "authentic", then, seemingly, most people who step onto the Sufi Path would, for the most part, be immersed in a process which is deemed to be overwhelmingly inauthentic (a rather depressing thought, to say the least) and, therefore, of questionable value. Yet, what makes all of the experiences of this journey valuable is the role they play in pointing out the direction to travel if one hopes to attain realization concerning the significance of the journey as a whole.

This brings us to the third facet of the phrase "authentic religious experience" - namely, "experience" - which certain authors advance as a possibly synonymous expression for "Sufism", or, at least, an equation that may help get us started on the right track. And, in view of the stress given above to the idea that all experience has authenticity, one might suppose it is correct to suggest that the Sufi Path is about "authentic religious experience". However, such is not the case.

Since, as pointed out previously, all experience has a quality of authenticity, to contend that the Sufi Path focuses on ‘authentic religious experience’ doesn’t get one very far. In fact, as important as experience is, what is more important is the character or condition of the ‘channels’ through which experience flows.

Experience is not an end in itself but is a means to an end. The end is to return to the potential of one’s Origins and realize that potential so that experience serves, and gives expression to, the purpose for which the potential exists.

The nature of experience is colored, shaped, and oriented by many factors. Physical condition, emotional states, motivational forces, conceptual biases, beliefs, values, spiritual commitments (or lack thereof), and so on, all modulate the character of experience.

Therefore, one can distinguish between, on the one hand, experience and, on the other hand, the faculties or forces or factors which modulate experience. We learn from experience when there is some sort of alteration in the process which modulates experience and, as a result, permits experience to be understood in a different way than previously had been the case.

Experience is valuable because of the implications, hints, clues, and so on, it carries with respect to our capacities to modulate experience. Experience is valuable because of the way it tends to lead to reflection concerning the factors which color, shape, and orient experience.

To be sure, reflection and thought, for example, have experiential components. However, the capacity for thought, reflection, and awareness (or emotion, or motivation, or sensation, or spirituality) are not experiences, per se, but the generators, modulators and processors of experience.

The quality or character of experience won’t change until different dimensions of these capacities alter the manner in which experience is processed and/or understood. The emphasis here is not on experience, per se, but on the processes surrounding experience and out of which experience arises.

If one wishes to change the quality or character of experience, one must, first, change one’s modality of engaging such experience. The Sufi Path uses experience as a tool with which to probe that which surrounds experience and, thereby, shapes, colors, orients and qualifies experience.

The Sufi Path is not about producing certain kinds of experiences. Instead, it is a way of helping an individual to tap into different dimensions of the very faculties and capacities through which experience is processed.

Whatever experiences may come, the Sufi emphasis is on processing or engaging or understanding those experiences in a manner which is an increasing function of the fully realized essential nature or ‘fitra’ of the individual. Experiences will look after themselves if only we will look after that which modulates and processes them.

‘Deen’ is the exploratory journey of transformation of the channel-ways through which experience flows. Experience in the absence of such transformation will always remain authentic, but one may never come to understand the significance, nature, and purpose of such experience since one needs a transformed ‘self’ to appreciate that experiential authenticity is a spectrum of possibilities pointing beyond the horizons of experience, per se, back to the Ground out of which all experience arises.

In truth, the "animating spirit of the Islamic tradition" speaks for itself, and all authorized Sufi teachers know this. "Wherever this spirit flourishes" Muslims are alive to their own spiritual possibilities, and to the extent Muslims fall away from this spirit, Muslims and Muslim civilization (not Islam) become "desiccated and sterile", if they survive at all.

Deen, which is the animating spirit of Islam, is God given. It can never become desiccated and sterile.

Failure is entirely on the human side of things. Muslims fail in their pursuit of, and commitment to ‘Deen’.

The latter is incapable of bringing about the failure of anyone who is sincerely committed to its principles and methodology. Indeed, the One Who has established ‘Deen’ as a means of realizing the truth about human nature, has an inherent predisposition to be inclined to, and responsive toward, expressions of sincerity in the pursuit of Deen.

1 comment:

Mohammad Barkeshli said...

look, i need help. there, right off the bat. i want to become a sufi (this urge has come to me becuz of my readings of Rumi) but i just need help in the process. currently im Shi'a.
i heard u cud only learn sufism from a dervish. no posts, no books, and supposedly no scholars are expected to teach me anything. i just need to commiunicate with a sufi. email me, or leave a comment on my blog (dont mention readers dont rlly like it)