Practical Mysticism in Islam and Christianity

A Comparative Study of Jalal al-Din Rumi and Meister Eckhart

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Saeed Zarrabi-Zadeh
Routledge Sufi Series
  • New York, NY: 
    Routledge
    , February
     2016.
     270 pages.
     $145.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781138100121.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Since the groundbreaking book The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James, published at the turn of the twentieth century, comparative studies on mysticism have gained ground in scholarship on religion. Studies about similarities between various mystical traditions have been published ever since. The idea of these early comparisons was that there is a common essence of all mystical religious encounters regardless of their specific religious heritage: what is today known as the common core thesis or essentialism. This supposition, however, is challenged by scholars, who claim that without a particular religious tradition a mystical experience is not possible at all – an argument and research strategy known as contextualism or culturalism. Zarrabi-Zadehs book fits very well into these on-going discussions about the nature of mystical experience and its interreligious comparisons. It is the first high-level comparison between Rumi and Meister Eckhart, but it also is addresses the unsatisfactory dichotomy between essentialism and contextualism. In addition it offers offers a new broad understanding of what mysticism is, by looking at its basis in the experience of mystical encounters. By his new methodological approach, which combines the advantages of both essentialism and contextualism while avoiding their disadvantages, Zarrabi-Zadeh is able to overcome – at least to some extent – this dichotomy. He offers an understanding of mysticism that encompasses four key elements: practical experience, speculation, dogmatics and ethics. In this way, he shows that mysticism is connected with a multiplicity of human existential dimensions. It is worth mentioning that he demonstrates the difference in the theological context of Meister Eckhart’s and Rumi’s understandings of creation. While Eckhart adheres to the traditional Neo-Platonic exitus-reditus schema, Rumi sees creation completely differently in the context of the Islamic adam speculation that is part of the Asharite theological current. The application of the Neo-Platonic exitus-reditus schema to Eckhart is one of the very few weak parts of this book, however, because Eckhart could not have been familiar with the writings of Plotinus and his acquaintance with other Neo-Platonic sources may not suffice to substantiate this claim.

The strongest part of this book is without doubt the anthropological dimension of mysticism that is still important for us today and that does not belong to out-dated dogmatic frameworks (like the adam-speculation, or the exitus-reditus schema). Zarrabi-Zadeh identifies one common feature concerning the psychological mechanism underlying mystical experience in both Eckhart’s and Rumi’s testimonies without embarking on the tedious discussion of whether or not Eckhart’s texts support the idea of a schema of mystical levels. This is the notion of abegescheidenheit – Middle High German, meaning detachment – which perfectly fits to Rumi’s fana as the psychological prerequisite for a development of a mystical consciousness. Then, however, Zarrabi-Zadeh argues that Eckhart’s and Rumi’s testimonies of mystical development diverge. According to Zarrabi-Zadeh, for Eckhart mystical experience takes place in the intellect, - it is a “mysticism of intellect-based detachment.”  For Rumi, mystical experience takes place in the will. And since will is associated with love, Zarrabi-Zadeh can call Rumi’s mysticism "a mysticism of love-based annihilation.“ This result points to the possibility that the dichotomy between essentialism and contextualism may be too simple to encompass all important features of mystical experience. Zarrabi-Zadeh’s contribution is a landmark for the interdisciplinary and interreligious dialogue on mysticism and it deserves a broad reception.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Wolfgang Achtner is professor of systematic theology at Justus-Liebig University.

Date of Review: 
September 30, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Saeed Zarrabi-Zadeh is assistant professor of Islamic Studies at the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Erfurt, Germany. His research interests cover Islamic and comparative mysticism, Sufism in the modern Western context, mystical ethics, and Persian literature.

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