Friday, December 14, 2012

Is there an experiential Islam?

by Salman Hameed

Or may be all of Islam is experiential? I was thinking about this while reading an opinion piece in today's NYT by T.M. Luhrmann. She has a new book out called When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Relationship with God (it looks fantastic and it is on my reading list). The focus of her book is Vineyard church (a sub-group of Evangelical Christianity in the US) and how their members see their relationship with God. So for example, they may actually have coffee with God. Here is how she explains it:
I am an anthropologist, and in recent years I have been exploring a kind of American evangelical Christianity that seeks to enable its followers to know God intimately. These evangelicals talk about the Bible as if it is literally true, but they also use their imagination to experience the Bible as personally as possible. They talk about getting to know God by having coffee with God, or asking God what shirt they should wear in the morning. A man from Horizon Christian Fellowship in San Diego told me that “the Bible is a love story, and it is written to me.” It is a style of evangelical Christianity with many followers: perhaps a quarter of all Americans.
So that got me thinking if some Muslims have a similar relationship with Allah? I know Barelvi's in South Asia do have a belief that Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is "hazir" (present) in many places - and can appear in mosques etc. But I think this would qualify as doctrinal (as is the case of Transubstantiation - the turning of the substance of blood and wine into the body and blood of Jesus - in the doctrine of the Catholic Church). There have also been instances where people (including rulers) have claimed to have a conversation with the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) in their dreams  (for example, the in the dream of the 12th century Seljuk ruler of Syria, Nur ad Din-Zangi). But I can also see that this is all related to the Prophet, and an encounter with Allah may be considered blasphemous.

But what about something akin to speaking in tongues, as is the case in some Evangelical groups? Just curious see if some Muslim groups already exist that practice an experiential form of Islam and/or if some will evolve in places (like sub-Saharan Africa) where there is a constant interaction and competition  between Islam and Evangelical Christianity?

In any case, Luhrmann makes an interesting pointing about why many follow this kind of Christianity and why some oppose it:
I am no theologian and I do not think that social science can weigh in on the question of who God is or whether God is real. But I think that anthropology offers some insight into why imaginatively enriching a text taken as literally true helps some Christians to hang on to God when they are surrounded by a secular world.
First, this way of knowing God involves what social scientists would call “active learning.” These evangelical churches invite worshipers to enter Scripture with all their senses. Here, for example, Richard Foster, a popular theologian, explains how to “live the experience” of Scripture: “Smell the sea. Hear the lap of water against the shore. See the crowd. Feel the sun on your head and the hunger in your stomach. Taste the salt in the air. Touch the hem of his garment.” To Christian critics of these practices, they are a distortion of the Scripture, because they add to the text more than is actually there — your own memories of a summer by the seaside, the feel of heavy robes. To a social scientist, these practices ask that the learner engage in the most effective kind of learning: hands on and engaged. 
Second, these practices make the experience of God personally specific. Vivid, concrete details help people to get caught up in a world that is not the one they see before them — and the more particular the details, the more powerful the involvement. Richly described settings — Narnia, Middle-earth, Hogwarts — become places that people can imagine on their own. Of course someone like J. K. Rowling might be horrified that readers have written tens of thousands of stories that carry on the lives of her characters, just as some evangelicals are horrified by other evangelicals who cozy up to God over a beer and chat with him in their minds. But social science suggests that details like these do make what must be imagined feel more real. 
Which position you take depends on whether you are more worried about heresy or atheism.
Read the full article here


Not so anonymous after all said...

I don't know what you mean by 'experiential'. But for me, if someone thinks he / she can have coffee with God, then he / she is psychotic.

I don't know why people want to know so much about a being whose form or essence (Dhat in Arabic) we cannot even imagine.

Dreams are different. We can dream of almost anything. That is not the same as knowing for what we see in our dreams will also be what is familiar to us.

For example, if someone from a tribe has never heard of and has no idea what a volcano might be, I will not say he can ever dream of a volcano, unless he has some supernatural influence on him.

This is the reason why I believe the question "Who created God?" is meaningless. We cannot ask "Who created God?" if we do not know God was created. :) I have touched on this topic in my book.

Thanks, Salman for reviving my thoughts. I love it.

Salman Hameed said...

Here - I refer to experiential as having claims of direct contact with the divine. So for example, the example of having a conversation with God as well as speaking in tongues. I know that within Islam, people talk about the presence of God. My question was whether for some this presence is more physical than abstract (you may have an abstract definition of God - but there are others who may disagree with that). This is the reason I brought up the Barevli tradition of "hazir" - but I can also see why that particular tradition is doctrinal rather than experiential (as defined above).

Anonymous said...

Maybe I am digressing! Is there a difference between experiential Islam and esoteric Islam?

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