Mysticism in university education | Pakistan Today

Mysticism in university education

  • The devil is in the details

Prime minister Imran Khan has directed the HEC to add mysticism to university curricula. Khan attributes his famous transformation to spirituality, and there’s no reason to doubt his sincerity. That said; history is a long succession of events demonstrating that sincerity alone is not enough. So, while there’s nothing wrong with the act of updating curricula, if mysticism is presented as a part of Islam (which appears to be case), then there’s a serious problem with the whole exercise.

Khan is not alone in confusing mysticism with Islam; the two are distinct items. Many sincere Muslims believe the same. It’s easy to accept it as a given, considering the great influence the mystic interpretation has had on Muslims for a thousand years and more. It would be interesting to go into that history, but that would be a deviation from today’s topic. For our purposes here, there are two categories of religions: revealed and mystic, depending on whether they are based on revelation (via prophets) or spiritual exercises to know the ultimate knowable realities. Islam happens to be a revealed religion. (Buddhism would be an example of mystic religions.) True, there have been mystic streaks in revealed religions too, mainly as rebellions against the emphasis on legal aspects and ritualization on the part of jurists. But these narratives suffer from the fatal defect of not being founded on the religious texts they are supposed to be founded on.

Whether mystic claims are true or false is a subject for science (not religion) and the jury will remain out until it is settled one way or the other. And that is precisely why those thirsting for it depend on arbitrary instruction from spiritual gurus.

Islam is not based on any mystic exercises: seclusion, spiritual intuition, whirling, mystical insight and the like; and in the Quran there’s no concept of union (or communion) and nirvana; let alone the pantheistic tendencies prevalent in mysticism. The Quran lays a considerable amount of stress on pondering on the universe and everything in it, but none of that refers to anything mysterious. It is drawing conclusions based on observation of things around us, and indeed our own thoughts and psyche; just as we do in worldly matters. Mysticism, thus, differs from Islam in a very basic measure.

Being ‘spiritual’ has always been fashionable. The hippies probably thought they were very spiritual and enlightened. People have reported conversations with ladies at airport bars who complained that the world was too materialistic for their spiritual selves. Like many others, Khan probably takes the word as the opposite of materialism. Part of the problem is that often we use words without knowing exactly what they mean. We do have a vague idea and we seem to think (quite sincerely) that we know what we are talking about; but if somebody demands to know the details (or we try and write it down for ourselves), we are likely to draw a blank. No wonder many discussions on mysticism and spirituality sound awfully like sitcoms where two or more characters are using the same words, but they have very different things in mind. As for shunning materialism, the Quran doesn’t endorse the view that matter is an illusion, or that the world is evil. Sure, there are a lot of harmful things in the world, but a lot of good is there too.

If ‘spirituality’ (or anything else for that matter) is presented as Islam, then as a Muslim, we must settle for nothing less than being shown its basis in the Quran, the final word of God. If that is not provided, then whatever else it may be, it has nothing to do with Islam. The problem then is not with mysticism. The problem arises when it is presented as a part of Islam.

Mystics claim to see and hear things that ordinary mortals can’t. If men are able, by virtue of physical exercises, to develop their muscles to an amazing extent, there’s nothing unreasonable about somebody developing his ‘spiritual’ side too, by psychological exercises. Many sceptics of mysticism choose to deny such prowess on the part of spiritual gurus. But this response to mystic claims tends to move the emphasis away from the most vital point. Which is this: If this sort of experience was crucial for Muslims, the Quran would surely have something to say about it. That it doesn’t even mention mystic experience or spiritual exercises says a lot. If a mystic believes he can see life in trees and can talk to angels, then more power to him. But there’s nothing Islamic about it. Mystics have tried to ‘solve’ this problem by inventing this distinction about religion for the masses (awaam) and religion for elites (khawaas). If it is Islam they are talking about, they must demonstrate this distinction from the Quran.

Spirituality has been a pet theme for Khan who had vowed last year to make spirituality a ‘super-science’. Well, whoever knows what a super-science is, but a science, spirituality certainly isn’t. At least not till the writing of these lines. Whether mystic claims are true or false is a subject for science (not religion) and the jury will remain out until it is settled one way or the other. And that is precisely why those thirsting for it depend on arbitrary instruction from spiritual gurus. When (if) this process becomes transparent and gets documented like other subjects, it will automatically become a part of the psychology curricula and the universities will start teaching it like other subjects. In the meanwhile, the government need not worry about the matter. As for Islam, it is quite complete in the Quran and the Sunnat.

Hasan Aftab Saeed

The author is a connoisseur of music, literature, and food (but not drinks). He can be reached at