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Islamic Mysticism: A Secular Perspective

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Islamic Mysticism: A Secular Perspective

Islamic Mysticism: A Secular Perspective

Islam so often seems like a harsh religion dominated by rigid rules, unpleasant severity and unthinking — even fanatical — beliefs. So why are many Westerners attracted to it? What is appealing about Islam, and are people justified in being drawn to it? Ibn Al-Rawandi takes a closer look at this phenomenon and explains it from his own personal and secular perspective.


Title: Islamic Mysticism: A Secular Perspective
Author: Ibn Al-Rawandi
Publisher: Prometheus Books
ISBN: 1573927678

•  Critiques of Islamic theology and history
•  Easy to read and understand
•  Critiques of Westerners who engage in Islamic apologetics

•  None

•  Covers the mystical and poetic sides of Islam
•  Covers the history of Islam
•  Critiques of Islamic history and theology


Book Review

Why would this book be of interest to skeptics and nonbelievers? There are two main reasons. The first is because of its exploration of the mystical and poetic side to Islam — something which Westerners too rarely see or read about. The second is because Ibn Al-Rawandi approaches both that and Islam in general from a skeptical, critical perspective, which most people also don’t see enough of.

Ibn Al-Rawandi starts out by examining the history of Islam, moves on to describe the mystical beliefs common among Sufis, and concludes with how Islam interacts with the modern world.

In each case, he first presents matters as they are believed by Muslims themselves, drawing from original sources and sympathetic authors. Then, in the very next chapter, he tackles the exact same topic, but this time skeptically and critically. In this way, you get the basic position of both the believer and the skeptic.

The skeptical information about the history of Islam is very useful, and there are few other easily accessible sources for it. One recent book, to which Ibn Al-Rawandi contributed, is The Quest for the Historical Muhammad, edited by Ibn Warraq. That book, although very detailed and rich with information, will be difficult for most casual readers to get into. Islamic Mysticism, however, is much easier and provides a simpler introduction to skeptical investigations of Islamic origins.

For example, how many people are aware of the fact that the existence of the city of Mecca at the time of Muhammad is disputed and, quite likely, isn’t even true? If there was no Mecca, or at least no rich Mecca which served as a trading crossroads, then a fundamental assumption about the beginning of Islam is wrong.

The description about Sufism — the mystical side to Islam — is also interesting, although complicated at times.

Sufism forces adherents to address challenging questions about the nature of self, existence, and religious experience, all of which can be a driving force in attracting Westerners who have become disillusioned with modern philosophy. Ibn Al-Rawandi quotes Fritz Staal as saying:

    “There is a clear parallel between the doctrine of irrationalism, which entitles its advocates to get away without providing arguments, and the doctrine of esotericism, which entitles its advocates to get away without providing evidence. The many different views of mystics on mysticism are not consistent with each other; and most of them result from prior convictions and are mere dogmatic assertions. One may turn out to be the correct; or all may be wrong; but since they differ, they cannot all be right.”

Ibn Al-Rawandi was himself drawn to this, and joined a group of Western converts centered around a Sufi sheikh from Cyprus. Initiated in 1985, he spent the following three years leading a Muslim life as far as possible, including fasts, prayers, and prohibitions. Over time, however, he realized that his skeptical questions were not really being answered — in fact, they weren’t even shared by other members of the group.

Islamic Mysticism: A Secular Perspective

Islamic Mysticism: A Secular Perspective

    “What, after all, is the difference between Sufism and mainstream or fundamentalist Islam? In the end, very little. Sufism is fundamentalist Islam for those with a taste for mysticism. Sufism is fundamentalist because Islam is fundamentalist; an Islam that is not fundamentalist would not be Islam. A religion based on a text regarded as the direct word of God and on that account not to be critically examined in any way, as well as a relgious law regarded as promulgated by God himself through the sayings and doings of his final Prophet, cannot not be fundamentalist.”

Although people raised in Islam are taught to follow it without question, Ibn Al-Rawandi’s conclusion is that it simply isn’t possible for an intelligent, educated Westerner to convert to such a religion without committing “mental suicide.” Can adopting a belief system which specifically rejects critical thinking and skepticism be regarded as anything else?

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