A Rationalist Critique of Sufi Philosophy (Personal Reflection)

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There is much within these several readings a paper such as this would like to reflect on, particularly given my interests in post-colonial and feminist liberationist theories of religion. However, this paper selects to discuss Sufi uses of and approaches to reason and philosophy as highlighted within the readings, and will compare these to the contemporary western philosophical tradition, and conclude with a brief critique of treating philosophy as a spiritual discipline.

Sufi Philosophy

One of the benefits of reading through the materials of thinkers within other philosophical and theological traditions is that it broadens one’s knowledge of how others comprehend reality. In Sufism and Sufi history, as Professor William C. Chittick emphasizes, philosophy and rational thinking have played a role, although Sufis have not viewed rationality as ever constituting the entire framework of, or dominant trend within, their spiritual and devotional lives (Chittick 2012, 10). To some extent, reason and rationality have been deemed important, a point made by Shahab Ahmed who noted the presence of philosophical thought within the Ottoman Empire (Ahmed 2017, 16). Chittick further elucidates how philosophy and religious belief were inextricably linked by Sufi thinkers, who viewed it as complementary to Islamic beliefs such as in God, the Divine, and the soul (Chittick 2012, 10). Reason, it was believed, is required to develop the practical and theoretical components of the intellect to attain human perfection, understood as a transformation of the soul. From this perspective, reason and love, for a writer such as the poet Rumi (1207-1273), are not mutually exclusive but instead complementary realities which both play important roles in Sufi belief. For Rumi and Ibn ‘Arabi (1165-1240), not only is a healthy intellect essential to a sound heart, but the intellect can be measured by how it recognizes God’s transcendence (Chittick 2012, 11).

I wish to respond to this treatment of philosophy as a spiritual discipline critically, but I also intend to appreciate its perspective. As a rationalist myself with a great interest in analytic philosophy and the philosophy of religion, I can appreciate how the approach espoused by Rumi and Ibn ‘Arabi differs from the attitudes of scholars within the western analytical tradition. Philosophy in the western academy (i.e. primarily within the United States and the United Kingdom) is secular, and there is little notion of it constituting an essential stepping stone in the pursuit of God or for understanding the relationship between the soul and the Divine. A 2013 study by Chalmers and Bourget discovered that the majority of professional philosophers classify as atheists (72.8%), a group which typically rejects claimed epistemic warrant in favour of the Divine, God, and the soul (Chalmers & Bourget 2013, 15). In fact, the topics of the soul and God are seldom entertained in many areas within contemporary philosophy, and are largely thought non-essential to the branches of ethics, politics, and epistemology, despite some exceptions (i.e. Alvin Plantinga’s Reformed Epistemology which seeks to ground belief in God as ‘properly basic’). God and the soul might pop up in the metaphysics of consciousness but usually, in those cases they do, are in the form of one hypothesis competing with several other conflicting perspectives. And where God and the soul are the primary points of discussion, as in the philosophy of religion, they are presented as concepts and arguments which are then prodded and probed. In the secular institution, God is not assumed as a reality but is yet captured within syllogistic arguments presented and discussed within philosophy of religion classes.

Thus, no doubt the contemporary western philosophical tradition differs greatly to what one finds within historical Sufi philosophical thought, a point well illustrated in Cemalnur Sargut’s explanation of the word edep often used within Islamic poetry (Sargut 2018, 31-33). This term signifies God’s manifestation and oneness in everything. It posits the idea of the human being who transcends from being ordinarily human into a “Perfected Human,” the lover of God. In fact, one cannot be a real human being should a person not possess edep. A person without it is limited to the material plane, but when one’s eyes are opened by the force of edep’s pure light then he or she begins to see the truth. As such, philosophical thought in the role of human reason in dealing with the soul and the Divine can perhaps constitute the pure light which opens the eyes to seeing God in all things. Both Rumi and Ibn ‘Arabi would likely agree. This is the major distinction between contemporary western and Sufi approaches to philosophy: one views God, love, and the soul as the very driving forces and purposes behind the discipline. The other tradition views God and the soul as conceptual categories, not always relevant (to certain branches of philosophy), but relevant where treated as human constructed ideas.

Although this paper has been discussing approaches to reason and philosophy, one must not fail to mention the role that art and poetry have played with Sufism’s history. The imagination functioned to often present God’s presence in the human soul through the sense of beauty (Chittick 2012, 10). Further, Rumi put love at the center of his work believing that humans were created in the image of a loving God, naturally leading Rumi’s work to go to great lengths to get his readers and listeners to love God.

A Critique of Sufi Philosophy


I wish to conclude this paper with a critique of the Sufi approach to philosophy by rendering the subject a spiritually focused discipline.

The ideal for many academic disciplines is objectivity and neutrality when engaging in critical thinking and reasoning, and philosophy is no exception. For example, a concern I have with theology, which I discovered while studying theology and psychology as an undergraduate, is that it often fails to strive for this ideal given that it is biased at the outset in that it operates within rigid and policed boundaries and perimeters: a Christian theologian might consider all the purported evidences and reasons for Buddhism or atheism, but will seldom, despite what critical thinking dictates, accept either as true. Similarly, he could consider polytheism, but he will unlikely conclude that more than one absolute creator God exists. I see the same risk with Sufi blurring of philosophy and theology: if some type of evidence contradicts the notion of the Sufi concept of Unity (God’s being in all things and all things being a manifestation of Divine light) will the Sufi be open to altering his religious worldview? Given that love is central to Sufi epistemology, will the Sufi ever consider love to be reducible to biochemical processes within the brain rather than an ontologically objective feature of being created in God’s image? I think unlikely. This leads me to propose the superiority of metaphysics. In contrast with Christian theology as well as Sufi philosophy, the metaphysician is able to engage the same questions Sufis (and other theologians) do but need not feel repressed, constrained, or limited to act within rigid boundaries set by religious tradition. The ideal of objectivity is thus appreciated, and as such, the metaphysician can be open to the unfettered dictates and force of reason.

It is clear then, in conclusion, that Sufi modes of knowing and seeing reality differ greatly to the contemporary western philosophical tradition. Although I am skeptical of its approach, I find that spiritualizing reason and philosophy introduces a fascinating alternative epistemology to secular philosophy, and I can therefore appreciate it for what it is.

References

Ahmed, Shahab. 2017. What Is Islam?: The Importance of Being Islamic. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Bourget, D. & Chalmers, David. What Do Philosophers Believe?

Chittick, William. 2012. “The Bodily Gestures of the Salat”. In In Search of the Lost Heart: Explorations in Islamic Thought, edited by Mohammed Rustom, Atif Khalil and Kazuyo Murata. 23-27. Albany, N.Y: State University of New York Press

Sargut, Cemalnur. 2018. Beauty and Light: Mystical Discourses by a Contemporary Female Sufi Master. 31-73. Louisville, KY: Fons Vitae

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