(This article was published in Nimble Spirit Review, Nov 2004.)
The life and times of Muid ad-Din ibn al-Arabi, a Sufi master of the medieval age
Mysticism is ultimately rooted in the original matrix of religious experience . . . [It grows] out of man’s overwhelming awareness of God and his sense of nothingness without Him, and of the urgent need to subordinate reason and emotion to this experience.
Sufism, or Islamic mysticism, first arose in Syria and Iraq in the eight century CE. Arab conquerors, a century earlier, had taken Islam all over the Near East, which included lands with a long tradition of ascetic thought and eastern Christian monasticism -- a tradition that valued religious poverty, contempt for worldly pleasures, and a secret world of virtue beyond that of obedience to law; the Gospel of Christ, too, was interpreted metaphysically.
By the early eighth century, however, Islam had spread like wildfire. Notably, the invading Arabs did not proselytize by diktat. Instead, they remained focused on the time-honored spoils of conquest. So an obvious question is: Why did peoples with longer and richer religious traditions embrace Islam so readily? The answer, incidentally, also illuminates the context of Sufism.
In the seventh century, there were many dissident and alienated minorities in Byzantine lands who resented the “oppressive yoke of Constantinople, committed as it was to the defense of orthodoxy, especially since the reign of Justinian (527-565)”. In the Fertile Crescent and in Egypt, the Arabs were indeed welcomed as liberators by the locals -- the Arabs had not evolved a significant doctrine or law as yet to pose a parallel threat. “The religion of the Qur’an had such close affinities with both Judaism and Christianity that in the beginning it must have appeared more like a heretic Christian sect than a distinct religion.” Both the Christians and the Jews found their new masters more tolerant and unconcerned with fervent theology. Being outsiders, as well as a minority spread thin, the Arab colonials could not afford to behave any other way.
For the vast majority of locals, the reign of the Arabs, then, amounted to exchanging one set of masters for another, the deal made sweeter by the lower Arab taxation across the board -- lower still for those who converted to Islam. Besides, there were other, practical advantages of learning the language and methods of the new imperial government and its commerce. With the ongoing decline of organized Zoroastrianism, many Persians, too, particularly of lower castes, found an alternative faith with immediate social advantages.
In the early centuries, Islam therefore spread without a big top-down missionary drive -- if not an improvement, it was perceived as no worse by most converts. Besides, the act of conversion was easy, the Qur’an was the Word of God Himself, and more importantly, the new faith promised “no priests, no Church, no kings and no nobles, no privileged orders or castes of any kind, save only for the self-evident superiority of those who accept the true faith to those who willfully reject it.” In addition to this “pseudo-socialism,” which evidently appealed to many, the new faith called for a submission to the will of Allah, the one and only Creator, and outlined a complete way of life with rules of personal conduct, interpersonal relations, hygiene, clothing, and rituals. Hereafter, the law of the land would be based on the Qur’an -- the Shari’ah, or the well trodden path -- with no territorial-political limits to its jurisdiction, encompassing instead the community of all believers.