Is it Possible to Discover the “Essence” of Sufism or Islam? by Dr Yannis Toussulis Author of Sufism and the Way of Blame

Though  the title of this is about Discovering the essence of Sufism or Islam, I think this applies to any particular tradition. I write a post about mostly sufism here on the blog, but I always try to post  things which can be useful in approach  other sacred traditions in part because I feel it is our responsibility to come together in as many was as we can, and not let mystical traditions be used as a tool of separation.
In the following short essay Dr Toussulis really dives into some important questions which for me gave me pause to think of things. I will list the things that came to me  while I read it 
  1. On what basis does language shape the communication and articulation of mystical, religious and spiritual experience?
  2. Can one share any mystical experience ?
These two questions are the topics countless books have been writing about and while each of us has our own take it is interesting to read Dr Toussulis’ answer to this question. Great topic for discussion.


My brief answer to the question I pose in my title is “no.” Having said that, however, I need to examine more nuanced reasons for giving that no as my answer. In issuing a negative response, I am not implying that one cannot discern practically invariant structures in Sufism and Islam that persist over time.; in fact, much of my work is dedicated to ferreting out those structures in the first place. Despite my references to certain “core structures” persisting in Sufism over time, however, I cannot agree with the premise that Sufism and Islam exist outside of the particular time/space coordinates that define history. On the contrary, Islam and its more mystical expression, Sufism, cannot be discerned — and contrasted and compared with other religious traditions — outside of that history.

It is easy to declare that all religions are “one,” but that is not the way they define themselves over-and-against other religious traditions. Instead, there are important differences in how each religion considers Reality to be “real,” and “God” to be god. In short, the “absolute” cornerstone of one religion will not be found to be the same as another. As only one example, I can contrast the central doctrines of Buddhism and Islam. In the latter case, realization consists of discovering that one can exist in proximity to God, while in n the former case, “enlightenment” consists of realizing that both “God” and “self” do not exist. Similarities may pertain, but differences also abound. Some will say that this only a matter of language, perhaps so, but the latter is extremely important. In fact, it may determine how anything is rendered into an experience, let alone how any experience becomes a doctrine that is accepted by consensus as intrinsic to a religion.

Language shapes our discovery of “reality” to such a degree that it is easy to conclude that there is no way to arrive at a consensus of reality without it. Of course, one could also equally argue that perception (which is prelinguistic) is also a common ground of consensus, but with one caveat: language gives definitive shape to all prelinguistic perceptual events. Therefore, I may “see” something, but in order to make “sense” of it or assign it a meaning, I must reflect (or think) about it, and only in this way can I render an event into a fully formed “experience.” It is important to also consider that an experience can be related to others, but this is not true of a (prelinguistic) event.

In “The Core of the Sufi Mysticism,” (below) I have already discussed how Jordan Paper describes an experience which appears to be identical with many Sufi mystics. Paper also refers to his experience as encompassing an “event.” Later, from other descriptions of similar events, Paper concluded that the event he had encountered in his own life corresponded so closely to other such descriptions that he was certain that it was practically the same as the description of other mystics.

I believe that this discrimination is necessary when examining all forms of “spirituality,” and especially so when it comes to mysticism. The mystic is one who is convinced that he/she has encountered an event in consciousness which has altered his basic understanding of “reality.” A mystic is also one who is convinced that the event that he has encountered is also (ultimately) accessible to others, depending upon certain variables. Such variables include but are not limited to: receptivity, preparedness, psychological predisposition, cultural conditioning, etc. In any case, in order to communicate anything of a mystical nature, the mystic must “point to it” or attempt to describe it using a particular language. Because of the very nature of language, the event thus described will be altered in certain, significant ways. Thus, an “experience” does not equal “an event.”

In view of this problem, mystics often use words to indicate an event that they acknowledge cannot be entirely captured by language. This presents a conundrum. Either the mystic will remain “close-mouthed” or he will attempt to express what he knows about a specialized form of experience, and that experience will, of necessity, be rendered in certain symbolic forms, all of which are contextual. Symbolic forms of expression all arise in a specific cultural context, and all of them are subject to linguistic conventions that render them meaningful. There is no way to escape these determinants.

One can deduce from all of the above, that there is no communicable form of mystical experience without an “event” (e.g an encounter with a transcendent form of reality) being first rendered into an “experience” through linguistically mediated reflection. The latter, of necessity, will be subject to the limitations of history and culture. As a result, the conclusions drawn from the event will be subject to what Paper calls an act of “ethno-hermeuetics.” What he means by the latter term is “a culture-specific mode of interpretation.” Whether founded upon mystical experience or not, all religions arise out of specific forms of “ethno-hermenuetics” and these are all subject to change over time.

When a mystic attempts to determine what is most “essential” in a particular event, he will of course has recourse to his own experience and culture. We have already determined that an “experience” is only so by virtue of being subject to a certain form of linguistic “filtering.” To determine what is the “essence” of something is fraught with difficulty. In English, the latter term conveys three meanings: 1) The intrinsic or indispensable properties that serve to characterize or identify something; 2) The most important ingredient; the crucial element, and; 3) The inherent, unchanging nature of a thing or class of things.

The Problem with Specifying an “Essence”

In applying the term “essence” to one or another mystical experience (let alone a whole religious tradition), one runs across the very limitations that the term “essence” implies. To begin with one must identify “the intrinsic or indispensable properties” that characterize that mysticism and/or religious tradition. Let’s say that Paper and I might agree that he has described those properties accurately. Let’s also assume that he and I agree (with W. C. Stace) that there is an identifiable “core” to all (refined) mystical experiences in general. Would we be able to share that consensus with a majority of religious believers or scholars? Not necessarily. Would what I (and he) find “essential” be agreed upon by a larger consensus? Not necessarily. Nor will there be a broader consensus on what are the most “important” or “crucial” elements of mystical experience as such. Finally, it will not necessarily be true that Paper and I have discovered the “inherent” or “unchanging elements” that comprise all forms of (genuine) mysticism. Proofs of such a discovery are impossible to verify as either 1) inherent, and 2) as unchanging. So, the claim that one has discovered the “essence” of Sufism or Islam would be specious, indeed! Paper and I might remain convinced or our discovery, but it might be arrogant to assert with conviction that we had discovered the “essence” of mysticism. In effect, we would be implying that either or both of us had discovered an Absolute truth.

Instead, of such useless assumptions, why not accept the following. 1) there may, indeed, be certain “core structures” that are discernible in mystical experience, as such, but these discoveries are themselves subject to further scrutiny and revision. No discovery can be ascertained as absolutely true. Does this mean that one is, therefore, subject to a life of relative certainty. Yes, and why not? Does mysticism depend upon a conviction of anything other than what is presented in the moment as True? I doubt it. Is it in the very nature of “truth” that it is forever changing? Probably, yes. Is it also probable that the only “truth” that we can discern exists as partially revealing and partially concealing. I would say yes.

The great sixteenth century commentator on Ibn al-Arabi, Mulla Sadra, insisted that the discovery of any “essence” was dependent upon thought. Even more so, Sadra insisted that “essences” themselves were mental phenomena. Through essentializing thought, however, Sadra believed that we could discover the Ipseity (the “He-ness” or Being-ness) that resided WITHIN and PRIOR to such essences. Such an Ipseity, however, discloses no Essence that we can ever come to know. We can only claim with certainty that we have been grasped by that Being-ness in a particular event, but at the same time we must concede that what became present is essentially indescribable. We can only approximate that occurrence in thought, and any interpretation of that event is subject to limitations.

My conclusion from all of this is as follows: One can never “know” God in his Essence; one cannot, therefore, discover the “essence” of any revelation. One can investigate their least variant or “core” elements, but one can never discern their absolutely INVARIANT characteristics. Because of that, one can never claim to have discovered the “essence” of Sufism or Islam with any great certainty. It is better, then, to investigate the truth claims of both traditions with an open mind, for they are subject to historical (therefore changeable) understandings.

In short, let’s pay attention to what presents itself in the moment, and let’s resist the temptation to render that into a fixed doctrine or “belief” that admits no further scrutiny. Let us also accept that there are many versions of mysticism, Sufism, and Islam — some may be more “important” or “revealing” to us, thus more “essential,” but only in an immediate sense. By doing so, we will spend less time trying to convince others who have not had a similar experience as ourselves. In doing so, we needn’t involve ourselves in any form of “missionary” actions or behaviors. The world as we know it may or may not be in need of salvation, but none of us possess the key to the resurrection. Everything is not “One,” although all of existence may be suffused with a certain type of unicity, but the latter may not be graspable outside of a very special event that discloses it. Those of us who have had a “taste” of that can celebrate and be thankful.

© Copyright 2011 Dr. Yannis Toussulis

Dr. Yannis Toussulis is the author of Sufism and the Way of Blame: Hidden Sources of a Sacred Psychology, and he currently serves director of Itlaq Foundation – AIWP, a non-denominational religious non-profit dedicated to Sufi Studies. Dr. Toussulis formerly served as an adjunct professor in political psychology at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, and he was formerly director of the Consciousness Program, Antioch University/West. He can be reached at .

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