by Navid Zaidi
One way of establishing connection with Reality is through sense-perception. The other way is through direct association with that Reality as it reveals within the soul.
Sense-perception must be supplemented by what the Quran calls Fuad or Qalb, meaning ‘heart’. The ‘heart’ is a kind of intuition or insight.
The heart feeds on the rays of the sun and brings us into contact with aspects of Reality other than those open to sense-perception.
The Sufi’s experience is not a special supernatural faculty. It is rather a mode of dealing with Reality in which sensation, in the physiological sense of the word, does not play a role. Yet, the value of this experience is real and concrete. It is not psychic or supernatural.
The facts of this experience are just like other facts of human experience. Unfortunately, we do not have a really effective scientific method to analyze the contents of this mode of consciousness. The new mind and body science research may shed light on the value of this vista of experience.
The Sufis emphasize experience rather than theory. To approach its meaning, we have to ask what are the characteristics of this experience. In his book Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, Dr. Muhammad Iqbal (Indian poet and philosopher, 1877 to 1938) has made some general observations on the main characteristics of mystic experience.
1. The mystic experience is immediate. In this respect it is not different from other levels of human experience. It supplies data for knowledge just like any other experience. For example, if someone is angry with you, you can immediately experience the anger. The immediacy of the mystic experience means that we know God just as we know other objects. God is not a mathematical entity or a system of concepts with mutual relations. Its only reference is experience.
2. The mystic experience is an unanalyzable whole. In the mystic experience there is no distinction between subject and object. In our ordinary experience Reality presents in a piecemeal fashion, selecting isolated sets of stimuli. In the mystic state, thought is reduced to a minimum and data invade our consciousness as a whole and piecemeal analysis is not possible.
3. The mystic state is a moment of intimate association with a unique Other Self. We may ask how immediate experience of God, as an Other Self, is at all possible. In this respect, it is not different than our daily social experience. Our knowledge of other minds remains inferential only. Yet we feel that our experience of other minds is immediate and never have any doubt as to the reality of our social experience. The mystic experience has a resemblance to our normal experience and may belong to the same category.
4. Mystic experience cannot be communicated. That is because the quality of mystic experience is directly experienced and it is obvious that it cannot be communicated. Mystic states are more like feeling than thought. The interpretation that the mystic or the prophet puts on such experience can only be conveyed in the form of judgments and propositions. This is evident by the existence of large body of Sufi writings, scriptures, poems and tales.
The non-communicability of the mystic experience is due to the fact that it is essentially a matter of inarticulate feeling, untouched by discursive intellect. But, it has a cognitive element as well. It is because of this cognitive element that this feeling ends up in the form of idea and words. So there is a sense in which the words are also revealed to the Sufi.
5. The mystic experience does not mean a complete break with serial time. Although the mystic’s intimate association with the eternal gives him/her a sense of unreality of serial time it does not mean a complete break with serial time. The mystic remains related to common experience. The mystic state soon fades away but it leaves a sense of deep authority after it has passed away. Both the mystic and the prophet return to normal levels of experience but there is a difference between the two. The Sufi’s return does not mean much for the mankind at large. The prophet’s return is creative. He returns to insert himself into the sweep of time with a view to control the forces of history and change the course of mankind.