Sufis and Kabbalists and their reciprocal influence (1/4)
Religions and the Conception of God
Religions do not have the same conception of God. The Christian triune God is not the God of the Qur’ân or the Torah, and the personal God of the three monotheistic religions is not Brahman, the impersonal Absolute of Hinduism, who coexists with thousands of gods from whom he emanates; while Buddhism is a religion without God, although it is rich in deities. [i]
These different perceptions of the divine and the religious traditions they have created have been conditioned by the history, culture, and language of the countries where they were born. But beyond these differences, all religions worship the same divine reality, but each in its own way. And there is a kinship between the paths of the Neoplatonist, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Taoist, and Buddhist mystics. [ii]
Representing the highest form of spirituality, mysticism is a personal quest for the hidden God who resides in the heart of each person through the practice of an asceticism aimed at detaching oneself from the world. For Plotinus (205-270 AD), a Neoplatonic mystical philosopher, man belongs to the illusory matter through his body but he is a fragment of the supreme intellect and the creative logos through his soul. Salvation for him can result only from the recognition of his true nature which is accessible only if one manages to rise above the sensitive condition until the ecstasy, meeting with the divine, source of all happiness towards which the soul melts after being purified. “I try to make go up the divine which is in us to the divine which is in the universe“, were his last words.
For the philosophical school of Vedanta, the self (atman) is of the same nature as Brahman, the ultimate undifferentiated reality. It advocates the theory of absolute oneness and the equivalence of all religions. Its greatest master, Ramakrishna, declared that he had reached the Absolute through each of the great mystical traditions, thus indicating that for him, all paths lead to the same unutterable reality. One of his paths is Zen Buddhism, which leads to enlightenment through sitting meditation in the Buddha posture. Taoism is a religious and mystical philosophical doctrine that conceives the Tao as a cosmological principle, and a suprasensible and ineffable absolute that can be accessed through techniques of breath control and concentration, the first step in a long process that includes increasingly demanding asceticism. [iii]
In Judaism, the Kabbalah is an esoteric and mystical trend that aims to decipher the book of the creation of the world by the unknowable God. In the West, Christians were slower to develop a mystical tradition compared to the Byzantines and Muslims. Master Eckhart (1260- 1328) developed a metaphysical mysticism advocating a detachment from everything that is not God. For him, it is a question of allowing the man to become by grace what God is by nature. The mystical and contemplative part of religion is greater in Orthodoxy than in Catholicism. Orthodox mysticism traces its origins in the experience of the Desert Fathers of the purification of the soul through the prayer of the heart allowing communion with God in solitude. A great figure of monastic spirituality, Saint John Climacus (579-649) formulates the doctrine of hesychasm: perpetual prayer of the soul devoted to contemplation, far from the world, in silence. From there, one can reach perfect indifference to the things of the earth, it is the ultimate degree before the union with God. [iv]
Muslim mysticism, Sufism, is influenced by Christian monasticism, Persian enlightenment, Hindu ecstasy, and Jewish Kabbalah. “The spiritual state of baqâ’ (pure “subsistence” out of all form), to which Sufi contemplatives aspire, is the same as the state of moksha, the deliverance of which Hindu doctrines speak, as the extinction (al-fanâ) of individuality, which precedes “subsistence” is analogous to nirvana. Just as in Buddhism one rises by degrees to the highest points of the annihilation of individuality by following a path consisting of eight parts, the “noble path”, so Sufism also has its path, its tarîqa, with degrees of perfection. It aims to personally relive the spiritual truth of the Prophet’s message through the mystical path (tarîqa), beyond the literal data of the revelation (sharia). It represents the esoteric aspect of Islam, which is distinguished from exoteric Islam in the same way that the direct contemplation of spiritual – or divine – realities is distinguished from the observance of laws. Love is central to the teachings of Sufi masters, who consider the spiritual station associated with it to be one of the most distinguished.
Another element common to all Sufis is dhikr/zikr or “invocation,” which consists of remembering God, particularly by repeating his name in a rhythmic manner or in traditional formulas from the Qur’ân, such as the shahâda. Dhikr/zikr is considered a soul-cleansing practice, as the name of Allah is deemed to have a kind of theurgic value that is mystically ardent, Ibn Arabi [v] developed a metaphysical doctrine based on the absolute uniqueness of being “wahdat al-wujud” which is in line with Neoplatonic philosophical monism and the Hindu doctrine of non-duality between the Whole, the Brahman, and the individual expressed in the mantra “tat vam asi” (“this is you”).
Judaism and Islam: two parallel religions and cultures
Judaism and Islam have in common their attachment to the Law as an organizing framework, having recourse to canonical textual sources and to the interpretation of these texts as a foundation for practice. Among the commonalities is the existence of a special day of the week devoted to prayer, a highly spiritual and at the same time a highly codified rite, which emphasizes the proclamation of the Divine Oneness and the glorification of God. Fasting as a total abstention from food is a common requirement in Judaism and Islam. Of course, there are also differences: they turn to different places to pray, for example. It is also necessary to insist on the essential place of charity in Jewish and Muslim life. [vi]
On the point of similarity between Islam and Judaism, David Steinberg writes: [vii]
‘’As Islam developed it became, by far, the major religion closest to Judaism. The most obvious common feature is the statement of the absolute unity of God which Muslims repeat five times each day, and Jews at least twice. Judaism and Islam are unique in having systems of religious law based on oral tradition which can over-ride the written laws and which does not distinguish between holy and secular spheres. In each, similar logical systems are used for deriving religious law, and in both cases a similar responsa literature developed in Iraq during the same period. Both Judaism and Islam consider the study the study of religious law to be a form of worship and an end in itself, and both picture God as studying in heaven. According to the Encyclopedia Judaica: ‘’The fundamental similarity of Judaism and Islam, both based on religious laws in principles, methods, and legislation, caused parallel developments in later centuries. ‘’ Probably the only major Islamic belief that Judaism would find unpalatable would be the recognition of Muhammad as the last and greatest of the prophets.’’
A specific Jewish culture has developed as a result of its integration in Muslim countries. [viii] The synagogue is a good example of the originality and closeness of the Islamic civilization. It has thus gone from being a strictly interior and hidden place of worship, according to tradition, to an Israelite temple symbol of emancipation and integration into modern society. The synagogue of Toledo, called Santa Maria, for example, offers a real kinship with Almohad architecture, sumptuous inside and austere outside. Also, the Hebrew poetry in Muslim Spain (711-1492), in Cordoba in the tenth century, seems to be the combined product of classical Arabic poetry and the language of the Bible for Masha Itzhaki. Andalusian music is another example, [ix] as is Judeo-Persian literature. [x]
Muslim and Jewish philosophers played an essential and even crucial role in the transmission of its philosophy and knowledge to the Christian West. Their golden age in the Middle Ages is marked by Avicenna (980-1037), Averroes (1126-1198, commentator of Aristotle), or Maimonides (1138-1204). [xi]
Several examples of mutual influences are finally developed: Karaites and Mu’tazilism, the reception of Greco-Arabic sciences in Hebrew from the 12th to the 15th century, or the relations between Shiism and Judaism.
Judaism and Islam have in common their attachment to the Law as a framework of the organization, having recourse to canonical textual sources and to the interpretation of these texts as a foundation of practice. Among the commonalities is the existence of a special day of the week devoted to prayer, a highly spiritual and at the same time highly codified rite, which emphasizes the proclamation of the Divine Oneness and the glorification of God. Fasting as a total abstention from food is a requirement common to Judaism and Islam. The essential place of charity in Jewish and Muslim life must also be emphasized. [xii]
The Bible precedes the Qur’ân. Thus, any deviation from the earlier scriptures it refers to must be read as an intentional modification. The “We have sent down to you the reminder [the Qur’ân] that you may make clear to men what was sent down to them [the earlier scriptures] – perhaps they will reflect” (16:44):
‘’We raised the Messengers earlier with Clear Signs and Divine Books, and We have now sent down this Reminder upon you that you may elucidate to people the teaching that has been sent down for them, and that the people may themselves reflect.’’
بِالۡبَيِّنٰتِ وَالزُّبُرِؕ وَاَنۡزَلۡنَاۤ اِلَيۡكَ الذِّكۡرَ لِتُبَيِّنَ لِلنَّاسِ مَا نُزِّلَ اِلَيۡهِمۡ وَلَعَلَّهُمۡ يَتَفَكَّرُوۡنَ
The first links between Jews and Muslims from the 5th Sura onwards, which excludes any principled rejection of Judaism, since it recognizes the authenticity of the Jewish covenant and authorizes the conviviality of Muslims with the Jews.
Many parallels can be drawn between Hebrew and Arabic, two Semitic languages. For example, the consonant system in both languages is comparable and they share a considerable amount of common vocabulary. In view of their grammatical and lexical similarity, it is not surprising that phenomena of mutual linguistic contact and influence existed from the earliest days of classical Islam. [xiii]
We also note the influence of Arabic linguistics on Hebrew linguistics, especially in the field of syntax. Judeo-Arabic was spoken from the first centuries of our era, well before the advent of Islam. Moreover, the Jews of Iran spoke Judeo-Persian from the 8th to the 20th century. Finally, the linguistic concept of Semitism, developed by linguists, has been exploited by racist ideologies.
Mystical currents have always accompanied religions. Without recourse to mystics many of them would have, over the course of history, been transformed into inert rituals, if not dissolved. When the established religions (the three monotheisms) found themselves facing what they perceived as repeated failures of mystics emerged within them who sought to take “direct instructions from the source” and have the Way confirmed. Their mysticism is thus for religion a form of emergency procedure in times of crisis and a form of revitalization. [xiv]
The ways of operating will be different depending on whether the mystic is Jewish, Christian or Muslim because the strategies of these three monotheisms are different. But because the earthly torment of these three religions is identical – to pursue a world of justice and peace here below, for all – their mystics have been observed, copied, contradicted or constructed from reciprocal borrowings, without abandoning the objective that gave birth to them, to save their own Revelation. [xv]
The convergence of Sufism and Kabbalism
The mystical currents naturally show profound divergences due to differences in religious references. Both Judaism and Islam give a central place to the Book sent by God. It is through a book (Torah, Qur’ân), that God makes himself known. The book – and the language that carries it – become not only a means of knowledge but also effective vectors of the divine force, and paths of encounter with the Most High.
Thus, Jewish Kabbalah presents itself as a mysticism of the Word. The great works of the Kabbalah – the Sefer Yetsira or the Zohar, the teachings of Isaac Luria (16th century) – bear witness to this: the world – and therefore man – has the structure and even the consistency of a word. In Islam, similar currents were born; they culminated in the monumental work of Ibn al-‘Arabî (1165-1240), [xvi] based on the idea of a cosmic outpouring of the word / divine breath creating the totality of the worlds. But here again, if there is a rapprochement, there is no identity: the collective role of the Jewish people as the vector of the divine Word has no equivalent in Sufism. Islam is a religion of individual salvation. Therefore, the concern for cosmic redemption – which appears in Jewish mysticism as in Christian spirituality – is not expressed.
Sufism and Kabbalism are two mystical traditions that emerged in different cultural contexts. Sufism is a mystical tradition in Islam that focuses on the search for spiritual union with God. Kabbalism, on the other hand, is a mystical tradition of Judaism that explores the mysteries of creation and the universe. [xvii]
Although these two traditions have distinct differences, there are points of convergence between Sufism and Kabbalism. One of the common aspects between these two traditions is their approach to divinity as an absolute and transcendental reality, which can be experienced through mystical and spiritual practices. [xviii] Both traditions also recognize the importance of inner knowledge and spiritual enlightenment, which can be attained through practices such as meditation, prayer, mantra recitation, and contemplation.
In addition, both Sufism and Kabbalism have a deep understanding of the nature of time, space, and human existence. They recognize that the universe is a profound mystery, which can be understood in part through inner knowledge and direct experience of divine reality. [xix]
There are also similarities between Sufi and Kabbalist teachings on the relationship between human beings and divinity. Both traditions affirm that humanity is created in the image of God and that the ultimate goal of the human being is to come closer to God and find unity with Him.
In this regard, Uthman Khan writes: [xx]
‘’While today’s politicians are provoking hatred and desperately trying to drive each other into the Mediterranean Sea, it is important that Muslim and Jewish leaders realize the closeness of their faiths and vie towards practicing a shared version of their respective paths, at the least acknowledgement of the similarities within Judaism and Islam over Christianity. Knowing that the heart and souls of Islam and Judaism are so closely connected and originate from one source it is very odd that the two religions can be at war. To envision peace, the answer is to rebuild the golden age harmony when the Muslim and Jews lived together in agreement and respect; the time of the collaborative migration of the Jews and Muslims out of Spain in 1212; the welcoming of the Jews within the ottoman empire known though letters documenting the Rabbis telling the Jews to leave the European persecution and come to Ottoman Turkey; the help offered by the Muslims to save many Jews from the holocaust. Spirituality is just one path that has shown this harmony, but the links between Islamic Sufism and Jewish Kabbalah deserve to be studied and celebrated, and efforts should be made to resolve the enigmatic history of their parallel and common pathways.’’
Finally, it is important to note that the convergence between Sufism and Kabbalism does not mean that the two traditions are identical or interchangeable. Each tradition has its own history, its own theology, and its own practice. However, the convergence between these two traditions can offer rich and varied perspectives on the nature of divine reality and the paths that lead to its direct experience. [xxi]
You can follow Professor Mohamed Chtatou on Twitter: @Ayurinu
[i] Hestevold, H. Scott. “The Concept of Religion.” Public Affairs Quarterly, vol. 5, no. 2, 1991, pp. 149–62. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40435777
[ii] Waardenburg, Jacques. “Religion between Reality and Idea: A Century of Phenomenology of Religion in the Netherlands.” Numen, vol. 19, no. 2/3, 1972, pp. 128–203. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/3269741
[iii] Merkur, Dan. ‘’Mysticism’’, in International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences (Second Edition), 2015, pp. 168-171.
Abstract: Mysticism consists of a practice of religious ecstasies, together with ideologies, ethics, rites, myths, legends, magics, etc., related to the ecstasies. Mysticism is institutionalized in 90 percent of human societies. Mysticism occurs not only in scripture-based religions, but also in oral religious traditions, where it is known as shamanism, vision quests, spirit possession, spirit mediumship, and prophetism. In oral religions, mystics often assume leadership positions as intermediaries between the numina and the social group. Because book religions invest authority in scriptural exegetes, mystics are marginalized and typically seek politically innocuous ecstasies. In other cases, mystics aspire to authority and become would-be prophets. The contents of mystical experiences may be subdivided into narrative and unitive ecstasies. Both occur in states both of trance and of reverie. Trances reify imaginations as hallucinations and delusions, whose uncritical validation devalues perceptible reality and promotes dissociative philosophies and behavior. Reveries are instead self-evident as heurisms. Mystics have traditionally sought metaphysical transformations, but positive psychological growth has been demonstrated in a few cases.
[iv] Pak, Pyong-Gwan. “The relevance of mystical spirituality in the context of today’s ‘spirituality phenomenon’.” Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, vol. 15, no. 3, summer 2012, pp. 109+. Gale Academic OneFile, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A349609897/AONE?u=googlescholar&sid=bookmark-AONE&xid=a745a2cd
[v] Chtatou, Mohamed. ‘’Ibn ‘Arabi And The Search For Humility And Purity – Analysis’’, Eurasia Review, March 6, 2020. https://www.eurasiareview.com/06022020-ibn-arabi-and-the-search-for-humility-and-purity-analysis/
[vi] Schwartz, Stephen. ‘’Islamic Sufism and Jewish Kabbalah: Shining a Light on Their Hidden History’’, Huffpost Religion, December 5, 2011. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/stephen-schwartz/sufism-andkabbalah_b_989875.html
[vii] Steinberg, David. ‘’Islam and Judiasm: Influences Contrasts and Parallels’’, House of David. http://www.houseofdavid.ca/isl_jud.htm
[viii] Chtatou, Mohamed. ‘’ The Shared Beliefs of Muslims and Jews in Morocco – Analysis’’, Eurasia Review, July 5, 2022. https://www.eurasiareview.com/05072022-the-shared-beliefs-of-muslims-and-jews-in-morocco-analysis/
[ix] Chtatou, Mohamed. ‘’Jewish Music and Singing in Morocco’’, Eurasia Review, September 1, 2022. https://www.eurasiareview.com/01092022-jewish-music-and-singing-in-morocco-analysis/
[x] Cole, Peter. The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain, 950-1492. Princeton, New Jersey : Princeton University Press, 2007. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7rvzk.
[xi] Mcgaha, Michael. ‘’The Sefer Ha-Bahir and Andalusian Sufism’’, Medieval Encounters, Volume 3. Issue 1, 1997. BRILL.
[xii] Chtatou, Mohamed. ‘’Jewish-Muslim Conviviality in Morocco – Analysis’’, Eurasia Review, December 29, 2022. https://www.eurasiareview.com/29122022-jewish-muslim-conviviality-in-morocco-analysis/
[xiii] Larsen, Mille. ‘’Arabic VS Hebrew – How Similar Are The Two Semitic Languages?’’, Auto Lingual, https://autolingual.com/arabic-vs-hebrew/
[xiv] Wasserstrom, Steven M. ‘’Sefer Yesira and Early Islam: A Reappraisal’’, Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy, Vol. 3 (1), pp. 1-30, 1994.
[xvi] Chtatou, Mohamed. ‘’Ibn ‘Arabi and the Search for humility and purity’’, op. cit.
[vii] Laato, Antii & Pekka Lindqvist (eds.). Encounters of the Children of Abraham from Ancient to Modern Times. Series: Studies on the Children of Abraham, Volume: 1. Leiden, Brill, 2010.
Synopsis: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam – the Children of Abraham – constitute the spiritual foundations of Western civilization. They affect the interactions of entire nations and individuals, though their history is often understood as one of conflict and controversy. The present volume documents past encounters and confrontations, though it also shows that the history of the three faiths is not merely one of conflict but also one of co-existence and dialogue. The rich shared theological traditions of the Abrahamic religions provide positive encouragement to present-day meetings between their followers. The book contains 16 contributions by scholars from various fields of religious studies. It should appeal to everyone interested in interreligious encounters.
[xviii] Fenton, Paul B. “Judaism and Sufism,” in The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Jewish Philosophy, ed. Daniel H. Frank & Oliver Leaman. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003, p. 201.
[xix] Huss, B. ‘’“A Remarkable Resemblance:” Comparative Mysticism and the Study of Sufism and Kabbalah’’, in: Sedgwick, M., Piraino, F. (eds.) Esoteric Transfers and Constructions. Palgrave Studies in New Religions and Alternative Spiritualities. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2021.
[xx] Khan, Uthman. ‘’The Influence of Islamic Sufism on Jewish Kabbalah’’, Mathaba. https://mathabah.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/Sufism-Kabbalah.pdf
[xxi] Block, Tom. ‘’Abraham Maimonides: A Jewish Sufi’’, Sufi Magazine, London, England, Winter 2001. http://tomblock.com/shalom_jewishsufi#_edn3.