Applying Rudolf Otto’s Numinous to Joseph Smith and Muhammad

The notion of the numinous in religious experience goes back to German theologian Rudolf Otto (1869-1937). In this short entry, we briefly see the numinous at play in the lives of Joseph Smith (the founder of Mormonism) and Muhammad (the founder of Islam). 

What is the numinous? Otto referred to the numinous, which he claimed is an intangible and unseen yet compelling reality that inspired both fascination and dread within human beings, and that is always present within religious experience and awareness. To flesh out his category, Otto posited the numinous to consist of two elements that are bound together: the tremendum and mysterium. By tremendum he meant awe, majesty, and urgency. By mysterium he meant something wholly other and distinct from everything else but despite such distinctiveness still attracts and fascinates.  

How do we see this in the lives of Smith and Muhammad? In the case of Joseph Smith, we see this in his First Revelation told in the Pearl of Great Price. We find that Smith, in a state of confusion at the time, was seeking to discover which church of his day he should join. He read James 1:5 (from the Christian New Testament) and decided to retreat to a secluded place in the woods to seek God’s counsel. That is when he had a numinous experience,

“I kneeled down and began to offer up the desires of my heart to God. I had scarcely done so, when immediately I was seized upon by some power which entirely overcame me, and had such an astonishing influence over me as to bind my tongue so that I could not speak. Thick darkness gathered around me, and it seemed to me for a time as if I were doomed to sudden destruction” [1].

This experience caused a great deal of fright for Smith. This unknown power “seized” and “overcame” him. Smith could not speak and a thick darkness encompassed him. As Smith says, it was as if he was doomed to “sudden destruction.” Smith was in a state of great alarm because he felt as if it was an enemy who had seized him in the moment. But we actually learn that this was a revelation from God and Jesus Christ,

“[J]ust at this moment of great alarm, I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me. It no sooner appeared when I found myself delivered from the enemy which held me bound.  When the light rested upon me, I saw two Personages whose brightness and glory defy all description standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name, and said, pointing to the other—“This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!” [2]

We can see the numinous in Smith’s First Revelation. Smith’s encounter was certainly awe-inspiring and majestic (tremendum). It was an encounter with something other and distinct from everything else, namely God and Jesus. Whatever this vision was, it certainly attracted Smith despite his initial state of fright when it overcame him (mysterium). 

We see something similar in the experience of the Prophet Muhammad also at the very beginning of his prophetic career.

In one account narrated in Ibn Ishaq’s biography Sirat Rasul Allah, Muhammad had been visiting a cave outside of Mecca called Mount Hira for several years. During one visit he encountered a supernatural being, believed to be the angel Jabril, during what seems to have been a moment of much distress. Ibn Ishaq says that during this angelic encounter Muhammad passed out and while unconscious the angel throttled him into submission, evidently so hard as to make him feel he was near the point of death. Hadith Sahih al-Bukhari narrates this encounter as follows,

“[S]uddenly the Truth descended upon him while he was in the cave of Hira. The angel came to him and asked him to read. The Prophet replied, “I do not know how to read.” The Prophet added, “The angel caught me (forcefully) and pressed me so hard that I could not bear it any more. He then released me and again asked me to read and I replied, ‘I do not know how to read.’ Thereupon he caught me again and pressed me a second time till I could not bear it any more. He then released me and again asked me to read but again I replied, ‘I do not know how to read (or what shall I read)?’ Thereupon he caught me for the third time and pressed me, and then released me and said, ‘Read in the name of your Lord, who has created (all that exists), created man from a clot. Read! And your Lord is the Most Generous” (1.1.3).

Whatever was happening to Muhammad here had its source in something wholly other and distinct from everything else, in particular a supernatural being in the form of an angel (tremendum). The more we read of Sahih al-Bukhari, the greater we see the impact the tremendum had on the Prophet. Thinking that he was possessed and also afraid of what the Quraysh would say of him in light of such an encounter, Muhammad attempted to throw himself off the top of a mountain. According to another Muslim source, Al-Tabari, Muhammad informed his wife Khadijah of what happened to him. He was so afflicted by his experience with the angel in the cave that he feared for his life and it was ultimately Khadijah who provided him comfort.  

According to Islam, this nouminal experience was God’s first means of providing revelation to Muhammad who would soon become the messenger of Allah. In another encounter, the angel returned to Muhammad instructing him to “arise and preach” (Qur’an 74:2). At this point, Muhammad took on the identity of the Prophet and Messenger of the awe-inspiring and all-attractive God (mysterium). It was his mission to warn people of the Day of Judgment and to repent and submit in obedience to Allah.

References

  1. Deseret News Company. 1888. The Pearl of Great Price: Being a Choice Selection from the Revelations, Translations and Narrations. p. 87
  2. Deseret News Company. 1888. Ibid. p. 87

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