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And We shall show them Our signs in the horizons and in themselves.

Sūra 41:53

When I was teaching the history of religions at the Islamic Faculty of Divinity in Ankara in the 1950s, I tried to explain to my students Rudolf Otto's distinction between the mysterium tremendum and the mysterium fascians—the Numen that reveals itself under the aspect of awe-inspiring majesty and fascinating beauty. Suddenly one of the students stood up and said proudly: ‘But, Professor, we Muslims have known that for centuries. God has two aspects: His jalāl—majesty, power and wrath—and His jamāl—beauty, kindness and mercy.’ Ever since then, the idea of approaching Islam from a phenomenological angle has been on my mind, all the more because I kept finding that Islam was badly (if at all) represented in the few major books in this field, as though historians of religion still needed the admonition of the eighteenth-century German thinker Reimarus:

I am convinced that among those who accuse the Turkish religion of this or that fault, only a very few have read the Alcoran, and that also among those who indeed have read it, only a precious few have had the intention of giving the words the sound meaning of which they are capable.

For many historians of religion, Islam, a latecomer in history, is still not much more than ‘a Christian heresy’, as it was repeatedly called for centuries until the time of Adolf von Harnack, or else an anti-Christian, inhuman, primitive religion—ideas which one now encounters rather frequently, owing to the political situation in the war-torn Middle East and the rise of fundamentalist groups. However, the problem is how to give an accurate picture of a religion that stretches from its cradle, Arabia, to the east through major parts of Asia, into central China and Indonesia and the Philippines, and to the west over Turkey and part of the Balkans to North Africa and its Atlantic borders; that appears in various parts of Black Africa and gains new converts in the traditional Christian areas such as Europe and America, partly as a result of the increasing number of immigrants from the Muslim world, partly also by conversion to this or that branch of Islam, Sufism, pseudo-Sufism, or fundamentalism alike; a religion whose sacred script is revealed in Arabic, but whose participants have composed and still continue to compose innumerable works—theological and literary, catechisms and poetry, newspapers and historical studies—in a plethora of languages among which Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Urdu and Swahili boast an inexhaustible treasure of high and popular literature, not to mention the other idioms—with Arabic still ruling supreme in the religious sphere. Nobody can follow up the ever-increasing number of publications in the various fields of Islamic studies either, and thus the researcher feels handicapped and somewhat hopeless when trying to write about Islam, to find a structure that could do justice to this often maligned religion, and to embed it into the general history of religions.

It is certainly possible to learn about Islam by using the vertical, that is, historical method, and the study of its history is refined day by day thanks to documents that come to light from the enormous but barely tapped sources in libraries in East and West; a hitherto overlooked inscription in a mosque in Zanzibar or a Muslim poem in a south Indian idiom can open surprising insights into certain historical developments, as can a completely fresh look at the very beginnings of Islamic civilization.

One can also use cross-sections to attempt to categorize different aspects of Islam by type of religion. Here, the traditional contrast of ‘prophetic’ and ‘mystical’ religions as elaborated by Nathan Söderblom and Friedrich Heiler offers itself comfortably, with Islam apparently constituting a paradigm of a ‘prophetic’ religion which, however, is tempered by a strong strand of legalism on the one hand, and mysticism in its different forms on the other hand. One can also study it from a sociological viewpoint and look at the human condition; at sects and social groups; the relation between master and disciple; at trends to universality and to expansion by either mission or war. If one approaches it by applying the different concepts of the Divine, one will find an uncompromising monotheism which, however, sometimes turns into ‘pantheistic’ or monistic trends by overstressing the oneness of the Divine.

Again, one may ask about its attitude towards the world—whether it is world-negating, like Buddhism (an attitude that appears among the early Sufis), or world-dominating, like mainstream normative Islam. What are its psychological peculiarities; and how does the Muslim react to the encounter with the One God—is one moved predominantly by awe, fear, hope and love, or does one simply feel unshakable faith and trust?

All these approaches are valid and offer the researcher ways to understand a religion, in this case Islam, somewhat better. However, more than other branches of scholarship, the study of religion is beset with difficulties, the most important one being the necessity of formulating one's stance on the object of one's research while at the same time suspending judgment, since one is dealing with something which, after all, constitutes the most sacred area in the lives of millions of people. Can one really deal with religion—in general or in its specific forms—as if one were dealing with any other object of study, as is nowadays claimed by many historians of religion? Personally, I wonder if a completely objective study of religion is possible when one respects the sphere of the Numinous and the feeling of the otherworldly in one's approach, and realizes that one is dealing with actions, thought systems and human reactions and responses to something that lies outside purely ‘scientific’ research.

It is therefore difficult to remain distanced when dealing with religion, and the personal bias of the researcher cannot but be reflected in the study—a bias which, in my case, certainly leans more towards the mystical and poetical trends inside Islam than towards its legalistic aspect, which, in any case, is not the topic dealt with here (although it would be most welcome to interpret the refined Islamic legal system and its applications in a comprehensive comparative work).

In the rare cases where historians of religion have ventured to include specimens of Islamic culture into their phenomenology, the lack of linguistic skills is sadly visible, and the tendency to rely upon largely outdated translations has led to strange shifts in emphasis, such as the disproportionate use of old translations of Persian poetry, in which the imagery of sacred intoxication and ecstasy abounds. These phenomena certainly have their place in Sufism, but should be viewed in relation to the ideals of mainstream Islam.

Nevertheless, I believe that the phenomenological approach is well suited to a better understanding of Islam, especially the model which Friedrich Heiler developed in his comprehensive study Erscheinungsformen und Wesen der Religion (Stuttgart 1961), on whose structure I have modelled this book. For he tries to enter into the heart of religion by studying first the phenomena and then deeper and deeper layers of human responses to the Divine until he reaches the innermost sacred core of each religion, the centre, the Numinous, the deus absconditus. Heiler always liked to refer to Friedrich von Hügel's remark that the spirit awakens when coming into contact with material things. That is, the highest spiritual experience can be triggered off by a sensual object: a flower, a fragrance, a cloud or a person. Islamic thinkers have always pondered the relation between the outward manifestations and the Essence, based on the Koranic words: ‘We put Our signs into the horizons and into themselves’ (Sūra 41:53). For the Muslim, everything could serve as an āya, a sign from God, and the Koran repeats this truth over and over again, warning those who do not believe in God's signs or who belie them. The creatures are signs; the change between day and night is a sign, as is the loving encounter of husband and wife; and miracles are signs (cf. Sūra 30:19–25): they all prove that there is a living God who is the originator of everything. These signs are not only in the ‘horizons’, that is, in the created universe, but also in the human souls, that is, in the human capacity to understand and admire; in love and human inquisitiveness; in whatever one may feel, think, and experience. The world is, as it were, an immense book in which those who have eyes to see and ears to hear can recognize God's signs and thus be guided by their contemplation to the Creator Himself. Sensual and spiritual levels meet through and in the signs, and by understanding and interpreting them one may be able to understand the Divine wisdom and power; one will also understand that, as the Koran proclaims repeatedly, God teaches by means of comparisons, parables and likenesses to draw the human heart beyond the external, peripheral faces of creation.

For one has to keep in mind that spiritual aspects of life can be revealed only by means of sensual ones—the wind becomes visible only though the movement of the grass, as the nineteenth-century Indo-Muslim poet Ghālib sings; the dust which we may see from far in the desert hides the rider who stirs it up; and the foam flakes on the surface of the ocean point to the unfathomable abyss. These signs are necessary, for the human heart longs to catch a glimpse of the Divine—even though God is beyond all forms and imagination—and yet one hopes to ‘touch’ the Numinous power in some way or another: does one not respectfully kiss the copy of the Koran in which God's word is written down?

Everything can become an āya, a sign, not only the verses of the Koran which are called by this very name. To be sure, it is not the ever-hidden deus absconditus but the deus revelatus who can be found through them, He, who reveals His will through His word; who has talked through the prophets; and whose guidance leads humankind on the right path to salvation. The Muslims understood that everything created praises the Creator with its own lisān al-ḥāl, the silent eloquence—for this is the purpose for which they were created. Thus, the entire universe could be seen, as it were, in a religious light: that is why every human act, even a seemingly profane one, is yet judged from religious viewpoints and regulated according to the divinely revealed Law.

Cultic and ritual duties too could be interpreted beyond their external importance as signs towards something higher: prayer is the loss of one's small self in communion with the Holy, or the sacrifice of one's soul before the overpowering beloved Lord; pilgrimage points to the never-ending journey of the soul towards God; fasting teaches one to live on light and praise, as do the angels; and thus each and every outward ritual form could become a sign of spiritual experience. But even those who see only the ‘husk’ and dutifully fulfil the external ritual will still feel themselves to have obeyed God and thus prepared themselves for the way that leads to happiness in the Hereafter, for surrender to God and/or His word is the meaning of the word islām.

Likewise, symbolic actions could serve to illuminate certain spiritual aspects of Islam: hence the Prophet's casting some sand and pebbles against the enemies in the battle of Badr (624), upon which Sūra 8:17 was revealed (‘You did not cast when you cast…’), which indicates that the one who has been absolutely obedient to God can act, so to speak, through God's power.

There is no doubt that previous religions have left their traces upon Islam, for every religion has adapted trends and systems from earlier strata of religious life that seemed to express its own concerns, and the colourful bushes of folk Islam with their often scurrilous flowers have grown from the same root as the straight tree of normative Islam. The tension between the two major aspects of Islam— the normative-legalistic and the popular, mystically tinged one—forms a constant theme in Islamic cultural history. The way in which Islam has taken into its embrace variegated forms and strange elements, especially in the Indian and African contexts, is fascinating—as much as the normative traditionalists dislike these developments and regard them as contradicting the pure monotheism which is expressed and repeated thousands of time in the shahāda, the profession of faith, and in Sūra 112, the final word of the Koran about the God who is One, neither begetting nor begotten.

In both aspects, Islam knows the concepts of the sacred power—baraka, blessing power2—and this word will occur frequently on the following pages, for not only has the holy person baraka, but also the black stone of the Kaaba radiates it, and the copy of the Koran is filled with blessing power, as is the sacred Night of Might (cf. Sūra 97), in which the first revelation took place.

In order to give a form for a cross-section through different phenomena of Islam, the model used by Friedrich Heiler appeared to me most convenient and clearer than that of Gerardus van der Leeuw, admirable as his collection of material is. Heller's book and approach has been severely criticized by some scholars; it has also been summarized in English with an undue emphasis on the Christian part of it, which resulted in a lop-sided picture that lacks the stupendous breadth of Heiler's material. To offer an idea of Heiler's model, I give overleaf the fine summary by J. J. Waardenburg (1973) in his Classical Approaches to the Study of Religion, vol. 1.

The model of the concentric rings may seem somewhat artificial; but, strangely enough, it was prefigured more than a millennium ago in the work of Abū'l-Ḥusayn an-Nūī (d. 907), a mystic of Baghdad, and apparently also by his contemporary al-Ḥakīm at-Tirmidhī.3 Based on Koranic verses, Nūrī invented a circular form which leads, as does Heiler's model, from the external encounter of the sacred to the innermost core of religion, thus showing that there is no deity but God. His fourfold circles read as follows:

The breast, ṣadr, is connected with islām (Sūra 39:22)—that is, in our model, the institutional, external element of religions.

The next circle mentions the heart, qalb, as the seat of īmān, ‘faith’ (Sūra 49:7): the heart is the organ through which true faith, the interiorization of a mere external acceptance of a religious form, can be achieved; it is thus the organ for the spiritual aspects of religious life.

The fu‘ād, the inner heart, is the seat of ma‘rifa, intuitive, ‘gnostic’ knowledge (Sūra 53:11); that means that, here, the divine, immediate ‘knowledge from Us’ (Sūra 18:65) can be realized.

Finally, one reaches the lubb, the innermost kernel of the heart, which is the seat of tawḥīd (Sūra 3:190), that is, of the experience that there is only the One who was and shall be from eternity to eternity without a companion, visible and tangible only when He reveals Himself to humankind.

All the outward manifestations, the different forms of revelations, are signs. The word about God is, in Rūmī's lovely phrase, like ‘the scent of heavenly apple trees’ (M VI 84). The externals are as necessary as the breast to enclose the mysteries of the heart, but the Essence of the Divine remains forever hidden; the human being can only seize the hem of His favour and try to find the way to Him through His signs.

The similarity between Nūrī's four circles of religious experience and Friedrich Heller's circular structure seems to indicate to me that there is a way that is at least to a certain extent legitimate for my undertaking; for, as the early Sufis liked to recite:

wa fi kulli shay’in lahu shāhidun

Yadullu ‘alā annahu wāḥidun

In everything there is a witness to Him;

that points to the fact that He is One.

Everything—from the stone to the dogmatic formula—calls out Quaere super nos, ‘Seek beyond us!’ The plurality of signs is necessary to veil the eternal One who is transcendent and yet ‘closer than the neck vein’ (Sūra 50:16); the plurality of signs and the Unicity of the Divine belong together. The signs show the way into His presence, where the believer may finally leave the images behind. For ‘everything on earth is perishing but His Face’ (Sūra 28:88).

  • 1.

    For general surveys, see Charles J. Adams (1967), ‘The history of religions and the study of Islam’ Willem Bijlefeld (1972), ‘Islamic Studies within the perspective of the history of religions’ J. Jacques Waardenburg (1980), ‘Islamforschung aus religionswissenschaftlicher Sicht’ idem (1978), ‘Official and popular religion in Islam’ and James E. W. Royster (1972), ‘The study of Muhammad. A survey of approaches from the perspective of the history and phenomenology of religion’.

  • 2.

    Joseph Ghelhod (1955), ‘La baraka chez les arabes ou l'influence bienfaisante du sacré’.

  • 3.

    Paul Nwyia (1970), Exégèse manque et langage mystique, p. 326ff.; cf. also al-Ḥakīam at-Tirmidhī (1958), Al-farq bayna'ṣ-ṣadr wa'l-qalb…, ed. N. Heer.