Sufism, Mysticism, & Anthropology

(Note: I’ve written this essay for a class, hence its more academic tone. However, it covers some of my personal and scientific interests in religion.)

To approach Islam – let alone Sufism – anthropologically assumes that a religion which predates social science can be investigated using tools and categories that were developed centuries after the origin of that religion. Quite understandably, many view this pursuit with skepticism. It is especially difficult for some who adhere to a religion to see their own religion in anthropological terms. Since this essay will tackle the thorny question of whether sufism is mystical in some sense usefully grasped anthropologically, it seems the logical starting-point to ask what it even means to ask that question.

What is anthropology and how does it study religion? As a social science, anthropology studies aspects of human existence that are deemed as culture, with a useful example being marriage and kinship systems. A political science might study marriage, but it is more distant from its central concerns with institutions of government. A sociology might study marriage also, but focus on its function and emphasize statistics. So very loosely, anthropology of religion is the qualitative study of the cultural phenomena of a religion.

However, it has often been objected that anthropology in particular carries the burden of Western civilization’s biases, perhaps most notoriously in Edward Said’s 1978 classic, Orientalism. Said wrote. “How does one represent other cultures? What is another culture? Is the notion of a distinct culture (or race, or religion, or civilization) a useful one, or does it always get involved either in self-congratulation (when one discusses one’s own) or hostility and aggression (when one discusses the ‘other’)?”1 Not too long ago, Western societies were as suffused with religion as contemporary Islamic cultures. Secularism is a relatively recent phenomenon most wholly embraced, or at least claimed as such, by educated classes. Secularism is still directly contested in the United States by religious movements aimed at “taking America back for God.”

The attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 have to be mentioned here, if only to explicitly criticize the way this event has rendered Western study of Islam politically charged. Just as some Protestants blame all Catholics for the Inquisitions, many in the West blame all Muslims for the actions a tiny group of extremists. This criticism of prejudice extends both directions. If it is invalid for Westerners to caricature Muslims as terrorists, it is invalid for Muslims to caricature all Westerners as Crusaders. Studying Islam from a Western vantage point does require ruthless self-criticism by Westerners, certainly, but as our world becomes ever more interconnected, engagement is unavoidable. That engagement needs to be undertaken with some basic commitment to accuracy and objectivity, but always realizing that no social science is ever going to attain some friction-free perspective.

Thus, the perspective of this essay originates from a specific student observer of religion, science, and politics. To approach the question of Sufism and mysticism, this observer will draw on that history, but also seek to be as accurate, objective, and understanding of what is being investigated as possible. In our post-9/11 world, the “clash” between the Islamic worlds and the U.S. is fraught not only with the recent past, but with the legacy of centuries past. While objectivity is certainly important, the motivation of the investigator is also relevant. As a person with both a religious and secular frame of reference, seeking to better understand Sufism is undertaken in the hope that greater mutual understanding and constructive interchange between differing cultures is possible. That some interchange will increasingly take place is practically a inevitability. Whether it can be approached constructively is an open question that can only be answered as we go forward.

Documentary footage2 of Sufi practices offer a multi-sensory experience of phenomena that are often more abstractly described in anthropological texts. Rooms filled with men chanting Allah’s name as their heads sway convey a vivid passion. As a former Pentecostal, I could not ignore the obvious parallels between the behaviors on the screen and those in which I have enthusiastically participated. The word, “enthusiasm” has literal roots that translate as “filled with God.” The narrator and translators of the Sufi documentary repeatedly report descriptions of these practices as seeking to be filled with love for God, even a union with Allah. While “mystical” is a common term used, the word that seems to better capture key elements is “ecstatic.” A room full of Buddhist monks silently meditating is mystical in a quite dissimilar way, as would be a contemporary unprogrammed Quaker meeting.

Perhaps both ecstatic and contemplative practices are species of a singular mystical genre? A case for their unity is found in the theories of Eugene d’Aquili and Andrew Newberg on “neurotheology.” Newberg and d’Aquili base their work on the autonomic nervous system, in which the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems each regulate the body’s systems via contrasting pathways and responses. The parasympathetic system can be classed as “quiescent” and functions most actively during periods of rest or inactivity. The sympathetic system is classed as “arousal” and spurs movement and reactions. These systems inhabit a single body and interact throughout the day in numerous situations. In the case of religious practice, extended activation of one system or another prompts a reactive feedback from the suppressed system. This feedback triggers in most cases an intense sense of bliss or reverie, floating disembodied sensations, and a loss of the sense of space and time. From these two basic distinctions of quiescent and arousal, Newberg and d’Aquili categorize 5 neurological phases that they hypothesize correlate to mystical experience:

1) Hyperquiescent, which accompanies “slow ritualistic behavior” such as quiet chanting or meditation. 2) Hyperarousal, that occurs during more energetic ritual practices such as dancing or singing. 3) Hyperquiescent with eruption of the arousal system, which occurs after extensive engagement in quiescent rituals result in triggering of the suppressed neurological arousal pathways. 4) Hyperarousal with eruption of the quiescent system, in which extensive stimulation via energetic rituals results in triggering the suppressed arousal system. 5) Simultaneous Hyperarousal/Hyperquiescent, this last category describes a state reached after prolonged engagement with either state 3 or 4 and results in the most complete loss of the sense of boundaries between self and physical space-time.3

Is such a categorization useful for an anthropological investigation of Sufism? To the extent that anthropology aims at a “thicker” grasp of religion that situates specific practices and experiences within a detailed understanding of that religion, this neurotheological hypothesis is at best a beginning point. Research into neurotheology has continued since the 1999 publication of Mystical Mind, and Newberg has stated that research into Sufism definitely is part of the long-term research program. 4

Perhaps another limitation of studying “mysticism” is that the term itself has a history that is very much bounded by the history of the Christian religion. While Islam and Christianity both claim to arise from a common Abrahamic root, they have traversed very different trajectories that pose obstacles to mutual understanding. Even within Christian thought, mysticism is a complex topic and the term can be used unhelpfully to either marginalize or over-value some aspects of Christian history and practice. Even more so, identifying Sufism as Islamic “mysticism” seems a move to be undertaken cautiously. That Sufism differs from what might be called conventional Islamic practices centered on the Five Pillars of Islam and mosque participation may be less obvious than it has been made out by some Westerners. Christian mystics in many cases were implicitly or explicitly criticizing the mainstream of the Church for a lack of spiritual vitality. Certainly, Some Sufi practices have been criticized by some Muslims in the name of orthodoxy, but in other cases Sufism is embraced in the very same name of being faithful to the Quran, and in others as a corrective to superficial religious practice.

It does finally seem quite compelling for a researcher into religion to be clear about one’s limitations, whether in sympathetic or critical relation to the object of study. Perhaps the ideal is to conceptualize such research as part of an ongoing dialogue across boundaries. Our world is increasingly interconnected and one might expect this to continue, barring some unforeseeable disaster. Long distance travel and communications give Westerners an access to the planet and its myriad cultures we inhabit that is certainly unprecedented in history. This privilege is both a blessing and potential curse we must exercise as wisely as we can.

1 Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1978.

2 Dumon, Dirk, et al. I am a Sufi, I am a Muslim. Princeton: Films for the Humanities and and Sciences, 1996.

3 d’Aquili, Eugene, & Newberg, Andrew. The Mystical Mind: Probing the Biology of Religious Experience. Minneapolis: Fortress Pr. 1999.

4 Newberg, Andrew, & Waldman, Mark Robert. How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist. New York: Ballantine Books, 2009.


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